Telling the Brigade Story: A Case Study of U.S. Army Public Affairs as an Engine of Operational Effects, Organizational History, and Strategic Narrative

A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article

Telling the Brigade Story: A Case Study of U.S. Army Public Affairs as an Engine of Operational Effects, Organizational History, and Strategic Narrative

Randy Brown

At the height of the “Afghan Surge” in 2010-2011, more than 100,000 U.S. and coalition troops were committed to a counterinsurgency (COIN) mission of “clear, hold, and build” on behalf of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA): Clear the countryside of insurgent fighters. Hold the terrain, alongside Afghan security forces. Build infrastructure, commerce, and rule-of-law.

As part of this wave, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division (2-34th BCT) deployed more than 3,000 citizen-soldiers to Eastern Afghanistan. It was the largest call-up of Iowa troops since World War II—and one of the only times a U.S. National Guard brigade was designated as a “battlespace owner” during Operation Enduring Freedom. Others include Vermont’s 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, “Task Force Wolverine,” 2009-2010; and Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, “Task Force Thunderbird,” 2010-2011.

As it was fielded during this time period, an Army brigade combat team was the smallest combined arms unit capable of conducting and sustaining independent operations. Tasked with a full-spectrum mission, one involving clear, hold, and build lines of effort within a multi-provincial area of responsibility, a brigade combat team engages within the operational threshold—the level at which the tactical rubber meets the strategic road. As such, it presents an ideal scale at which to collect and consider concrete lessons regarding counterinsurgency efforts.

The consideration of public affairs as a counterinsurgency factor—as both a tool and as a metric—is supported by a number of by David Kilcullen’s celebrated “twenty-eight articles” of counterinsurgency efforts. First published in 2006, Kilcullen’s list informally illuminates maxims for company-grade leaders who are engaged in such fights. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the 28 items are implicitly applicable to the conduct and application of public affairs. Items that are explicitly relevant to public affairs include, but are not limited to:

  • “Remember the global audience. [...]” (External/internal perception of combat and non-combat events in one’s area of operation can influence future events.)
  • “Exploit single narrative. [...]” (Develop and promote narratives that run counter to the messages/themes from one’s adversaries.)
  • “Take stock regularly. [...] “ Regarding the latter, Kilcullen continues: “It may seem like common sense, but after continuous operations for prolonged periods, it’s tougher to do than you’d think. Determining the metrics of progress can change from week to week. But it lets us know where we are and where we need to go.”

How Public Affairs Relates to Strategic Narrative

In 2009, I was assigned during pre-deployment as the Battle Command Knowledge Officer (BCKO) for Iowa’s 2-34th BCT. As such, I was the sole member of the unit’s Knowledge Management (KM) section, charged with identifying and enabling improvements involving both human factors and technology. As dictated by the unit’s Modified Table of Organization and Equipment (MTOE), the duty position called for a Functional Area 57 officer. The slot answered directly to the brigade executive officer, rather than either the S-3 (Operations), or S-6 (Communications). This organizational design diplomatically ensured the knowledge manager visibility, influence, and balance on both sides of the human/computer equation. As defined by doctrine and my raters, my missions included:

  • To assist the battle staff on the integration, optimization, and training of Army Battle Command Systems (ABCS).
  • To act as an internal lessons-learned integrator. (In U.S. Army jargon, a “lesson” is knowledge from experience. A “lesson-learned” is knowledge based on experience that results in individual or organizational behavior. A lesson is not “integrated,” however, until it is shared with others.)
  • To serve as organizational archivist, librarian, and historian.

Given my civilian career in print journalism, as well as the commander’s pre-deployment concerns regarding both official and off-duty uses of on-line communications platforms, I often worked with members of the 2-34th BCT public affairs section.

Public affairs content was included in conversations regarding the design and implementation of brigade command policies, staff processes, and the use of Information Technology/Information Management resources. Years later, when civilian historians noted the disappearance of public affairs conent published to the Internet, those frameworks, foundations, and relationships proved useful. Websites maintained by Combined Joint Task Force-101 (CJTF-101.com), and by the 2-34th BCT (IowaRedBulls.com) had existed only for the length of their respective deployments. With a few months or years, a great deal of previously accessible historical content seemed to be at risk of being lost.

A team of former “Task Force Red Bulls” public affairs members, along with the author of this paper, used electronic and print archives of previously released materials, as well as open-source, copyright-free content still available via the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS), in order to reassemble a 9-month brigade deployment’s worth of public affairs text and photo content. For the first time, the coverage was also collated into chronological order and context, and again made available to the public.

Given concerns regarding again losing information to digital decay, the collection was made available in print. Published with the title “Reporting for Duty: U.S. Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011,” the 668-page trade paperback comprises more than 280 news reports and 320 photos, generated by trained Army journalists who were themselves “in the fight.” Not only does the book present a much-needed historical archive of a discrete time and place during Operation Enduring Freedom–Afghanistan, it potentially provides a number of opportunities for conversations within and among policy, strategy, history, and journalism communities of practice, as well as the American public.

One of those conversations, obviously, regards the role of public affairs as both engine and evidence of the application of strategic narrative.

The brigade combat team comprises an organic public affairs section, a few soldiers trained in 46-series Military Occupational Specialties (MOS), led an officer that serves on the brigade commander’s special staff. The Public Affairs (PA) section works as part of the brigade’s Information Operations (IO) working group. The section can fulfill missions such as:

  • Communicate to external and internal audiences through print and video truthful messages about brigade activities.
  • Facilitate news coverage of brigade missions, events, and activities by U.S., coalition, and other civilian media.
  • Analyze local and regional media to provide the commander qualitative insights into brigade mission effectiveness.

In the case of 2-34th BCT’s “Task Force Red Bulls,” the public affairs team consisted of approximately six members, including:

  • Public Affairs Officer (PAO)
  • Public Affairs NCO (PANCO)
  • Three public affairs (print) specialists (46Q)
  • One public affairs broadcast specialist (46R)
  • One Combat Documentation/Production Specialist (25V). The latter was attached to the section whenever the soldier’s primary tasking from the brigade intelligence section allowed.

“In planning our coverage each week [in Afghanistan], we sought to link our story ideas to the brigade commander’s Lines of Effort, which were nested within the division’s campaign plan,” says U.S. Army Maj. Mike Wunn, then the public affairs officer for the task force. “That meant for nearly every article, photo, or video we produced–from outside the wire, at least—we had some tie-in to Afghan governance, security, or civil infrastructure.”

“As public affairs professionals, our focus was on telling the Army story,” Wunn says. “That meant, in the context of our mission in Afghanistan, ‘clear, hold, and build’ was a matter of telling stories of ‘governance, security, and development.’”

Unity of Effort at a Battalion-and-Above

While the term “battlespace owner” is much abused and no longer reflected in U.S. Army doctrine, the term was used colloquially during the 2010-2011 deployment. Commanders of battalions were regarded as firsts among equals, ultimately responsible for coordinating the activities of other teams within their respective, provincial-scale areas of operation toward shared objectives. Provincial-level task forces often included Embedded Training (ETT) or Security Force Assistance (SFA) teams, tasked with training and mentoring Afghan police and military forces; as well as Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) and Agribusiness Development Teams (ADT), tasked with resourcing rule-of-law and commerce projects.

Reconfigured as “Task Force Red Bulls,” the 2-34th BCT consisted of two maneuver units—an infantry and cavalry battalion—each assigned a provincial-scale area of operation. Iowa’s 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133rd Inf.) was responsible for Laghman and a small portion of Nuristan province. Iowa’s 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment (1-113th Cav.) was responsible for Parwan Province, including the security zone around Bagram Airfield (BAF), a Soviet-legacy installation that had, in 2010, grown to house more than 30,000 U.S. and coalition personnel. (A third maneuver battalion was detached for the duration of the Iowa Red Bull deployment. Iowa’s 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment was assigned to under the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, and was responsible for Paktya Province.)

Task Force Red Bulls, along with its higher headquarters, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division’s Combined Joint Task Force-101, was located on the Bagram installation. Much of the brigade’s support units, 334th Brigade Support Battalion (334th BSB) and 2-34th Brigade Special Troops Battalion (2-34th BSTB), were combined into Task Force Archer. This unit was responsible for mayoral and administrative duties on BAF, as well as traditional sustainment missions.

Personnel from Iowa brigade’s organic fires unit, 1st Battalion, 194th Field Artillery (1-194th FA) were assigned throughout Task Force Red Bulls. The task force was additionally provided personnel for Embedded Training Team (ETT) and Operations Coordination Center-Provincial (OCC-P) missions in Panjshir, Parwan, and Laghman provinces.

In total, Area of Operations Red Bulls consisted of more than four provinces and approximately 5,185 square miles of Afghan terrain—the rough equivalent of nine central Iowa counties back home. Exceeding 30,000 denizens, Bagram Airfield (BAF) was comparable in population to the Mississippi River city of Bettendorf, Iowa, and complete with a busy international airport, and a security checkpoint and border-crossing operation for indigenous day workers.

The simple act of collecting and collating all Task Force Red Bulls coverage now provides a context that, at the time, would have been invisible to consumers of the daily news. A professor of English or journalism might call the product a “narrative arc.” Certainly, as with any unit or individual deployment, it now presents itself as a story—one with an organic beginning, middle, and end. A student of war and diplomacy, however, might also consider the book as an artifact of strategic narrative. Indeed, one need not read very deeply to detect the interwoven threads of “clear, hold, and build,” those lines of effort that served as the foundation for U.S. and coalition actions in Afghanistan.

The conduct of battalion-sized air-assault mission in March-April 2011, for example, serves to illustrate this point. Labeled “Operation Bull Whip,” the movement involved approximately 2,200 U.S., French, and Afghan soldiers in the establishment of a new district in Laghman Province. It was notably the largest air-assault conducted by 101st Airborne Division during its 2010-2011 rotation as CJTF-101.

The operation called for a nighttime helicopter movement of U.S., French, and Afghan troops to ridgelines above two valleys, while a third U.S./Afghan force blocked the exit at the valleys’ convergence. At daybreak, these coalition forces descended into their respective valleys, visiting each village encountered, talking with people, and in searching for insurgents and weapons. At the end of three days, the area was declared secured, and the provincial governor hosted a regional “shura”—a meeting of community elders and representatives. The governor subsequently established a new district, and a new district center of government was built to service the area. Perhaps because the governor had insisted upon issuing prior public notice of the pending operation, there were no shots fired during the large-scale movement of troops.

Now collected as a short series of news reports, weeks-long effort concretely offers its own narrative arc of “clear, hold, and build.” The valleys were cleared. Afghan security forces, assisted by U.S. and French troops, held the ground. A government center was built. In telling and re-telling the story of Operation Bull Whip’s success, we also hear echoes of Kilcullen’s maxims: Remember the global audience. Exploit single narrative. Take stock regularly.

Lessons for Knowledge Management and Public Affairs Soldiers

Deployed soldiers often speak of a “Groundhog Day” existence downrange—a reference to a 1993 Harold Ramis fantasy-comedy film starring Bill Murray, in which a single day’s actions are repeated as a loop, without apparent effect. In covering military deployments, however, journalism often suffers from “Groundhog Years.” When covering the National Guard, the war comes to town only every so often, on the pages of hometown newspapers and on local TV-news casts. Then, it moves on to the next state. Vermont’s war becomes Iowa’s. Iowa’s war becomes Oklahoma’s. War is a moveable feast.

Active-duty deployments, of course, occur at an even more-frequent schedule, and based from home terrain that is potentially even more dispersed.

The “Reporting for Duty” collection serves as evidence against the myth and misperception—one all-too-common among members of the public and active-duty military—that the U.S. National Guard exists primarily to respond to natural disasters and domestic emergencies. Furthermore, it documents the capacity of the National Guard to engage a full-spectrum mission, at a brigade level, integrating with and fighting alongside a premier active-duty unit, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

More importantly, the collection provides a concrete documentation of the objectives, resources, and strategies used in U.S. and coalition involvement in Afghanistan, in the years leading up to and during the Afghan Surge. It does so at a workable scale, one that is large enough to be measured and collectively assessed, and small enough to be understood by both military and civilian audiences. Again, this is because it describes and depicts the operational threshold, between the tactical and the strategic.

The collection serves not only as an historical product or strategic artifact, then, but as an examplar for knowledge management and public affairs soldiers in future brigade deployments. In short, this technique can be duplicated, and used to the advantage of successive commanders and troops. Lessons include:

  • Collect, collate, index, and archive public affairs content as an historical documentation of a strategic narrative put into action.
  • Archive such collections with division and/or (in the case of National Guard) state headquarters; as well as divisional, regimental, and/or regional military museums and libraries.
  • Share the information in forms likely to be accessed and digested by follow-on units and enablers. Use collected narratives—assembled in chunks of months or years, rather than as individual news articles—to help incoming commanders and soldiers see a “bigger picture,” in both time and space. Public affairs content is released information, produced for public consumption, which makes it a narrative accessible to all soldiers and civilians, regardless of rank or nationality. Prior to conducting Relief In Place/Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA), for example, imagine being able to send one’s incoming replacement a collected and chronological narrative of one’s efforts in a given area of operations.
  • Indexing is a key component to the potential utility of such a tool. Index by project, mission, village, and individual and organizational names.
  • Assign highly motivated and curious soldiers at battalion and company levels the additional duty of Unit Public Affairs Representative (UPAR). Train and resource these soldiers to act as “stringers” or correspondents, who feel photos and articles to brigade public affairs section. Ideally, seek out those who have demonstrated an affinity for photography or writing in hobbies or civilian vocations.
  • Assign brigade public affairs personnel to battalion-level “beats,” in order to promote development of mission fluency and mutual rapport among echelons. Battalions and companies should be able to trust “their” attached public affairs soldier is physically, mentally, and tactically ready—in addition to being journalistically responsible and competent.

Additional Lessons for Journalists

Finally, the “Reporting for Duty” project illustrates the wide range of stories that can be generated by an attentive, creative, community-oriented team of journalists. If nothing else, it serves as an idea book for assignment editors—both military and civilian—covering future wars. There are stories of battles fought and weapons captured, lives saved and conditions improved. There are also human-interest stories, which carry with them the message that people in uniform are very much like the people whom they fight to protect, both overseas and at home. Most of all, however, these are stories that put a human face on discussions of national strategy, including understandable costs and tangible objectives.

To say, for example, that the Afghan Surge involved sending more than 100,000 U.S. and coalition troops to Afghanistan is a staggering abstraction—the numbers and scale are difficult to imagine, let alone invite the question as to whether such a commitment of resources was wise, affordable, or effective. To say, for example, that the Afghan Surge involved sending more than 100,000 U.S. and coalition troops to Afghanistan is a staggering abstraction—the numbers and scale are difficult to imagine, let alone invite the question as to whether such a commitment of resources was wise, affordable, or effective. It is something different, however, to say that the mobilization of the 2-34th BCT involved sending more than 3,000 U.S. citizen-soldiers—a population of neighbors equivalent to the entire town of Huxley, Iowa, and also nearly one-third of the total headcount of the Iowa National Guard—halfway around the world to Afghanistan, in pursuit of U.S. objectives there. Using a 2009 White House estimated cost of $1 million per deployed soldier, U.S. taxpayers may have spent $3 billion on the 2-34th BCT deployment alone. It does nothing to diminish our usual celebrations of individual service and sacrifice, to include such calculations in future discussions regarding use of U.S. military force.

To help correct for those Groundhog Day cycles, journalists should provide more context in their coverage of deployed units: more “why” and “how,” in addition to the “who,” “what,” and “where.” Journalists covering larger-scale beats should also provide more “why” and “how” context in their stories, and seek opportunities to focus on smaller-scale examples: Provinces. Towns. Units.

Stories about individual soldiers or actions miss the forest for the trees, after all, while talking-head stories about deforestation of the Amazon are too large and abstract for useful public conversation. Aim, then, for something in the middle. Don’t settle for writing “it’s fighting season again.” Tell readers what’s going to make this year at war different than last year.

If you don’t know, ask someone who should.

And, if they don’t know, keep asking.

Because, otherwise, the stories won’t change.

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