After a cable news host irresponsibly attacked the U.S. military for aiding in the “death of the republic” by taking to the streets of the U.S. capital for use against the American people, the coordinated response from the Department of Defense through its public affairs channels was swift and unforgiving.
The headline in the Defense.gov news article said it all: “Press Spokesman Destroys Host for Despicable Suggestion about US Military Use.” This was a response to an MSNBC cable show host using her show to denigrate the contributions of the U.S. military in quelling riots and potential insurrection on the streets and to imply that their actions are contributing to the “death of the republic.”
“Let me be clear,” the spokesman angrily replied. “The U.S. military’s mission is to defend the nation against all threats, foreign and domestic. At the same time, it guarantees the people’s liberties to peacefully protest and to petition the government for redress of their grievances. We would never use them to squash First Amendment-guaranteed liberties. Any suggestion by this cable news host to the contrary is scurrilous and an absolutely outrage.”
Senior uniformed military leaders were quick to join the chorus of condemnation. “I’ll remind everyone that her [Rachel Maddow’s] opinion — which she has a right to — is based off of actually zero days of service in the armed forces,” said the command senior enlisted leader of a U.S. Combatant Command in a video posted to his official military Twitter account.
A service chief said in his 38 years of military service, he had never heard such a despicable calumny about how the U.S. military operates: “To suggest we would ever employ our brave men and women in uniform to suppress peaceful protest is disreputable and an insult to our fighting force.”
After nearly 40 years in and around this career field, I have never seen such an unprecedented display by the Department of Defense to rhetorically firebomb a member of the Fourth Estate for disagreeing with the U.S. military. Through news articles, Twitter feeds, public affairs talking points, and messages to senior military leaders, the department weaponized its public affairs arm to launch an unprecedented PR offensive to denigrate a journalist and perhaps cancel her for her views.
Wait—the Trump Department of Defense never did any of this in response to those actual words of Rachel Maddow linked above: No spokesman denunciation, no coordinated reaction by senior military leaders, no complaint that she should keep her mouth shut because she never served a single day in uniform.
The Trump DoD never did any of this. But Joe Biden’s DoD just did.
— U.S. Space Command, Command Senior Enlisted Leader (@US_SpaceComCSEL) March 11, 2021
Attacking a Pundit for What He Didn’t Say
Last week, Fox cable host Tucker Carlson called out DoD for introducing a flight suit for visibly pregnant women. Flight suits are worn by pilots to wage our nation’s wars. It seemed incongruous that the military would issue flight suits to pregnant women, who most assuredly do not fight our nation’s wars.
When the unit I served with in Iraq learned that two of our female soldiers were pregnant, the U.S. military put them on the highest priority to be evacuated back to the United States. Within 24 hours, they were sent home. They wanted to stay—God bless them!—but the DoD would not hear of having pregnant women in a war zone.
Whether Carlson was right or wrong or presented his views in a strident manner is immaterial. He had an absolute right to say it. The Department of Defense’s leaders disagreed. What should have been a one-line refutation in a run-of-the-mill daily press briefing became an all-hands public affairs campaign to destroy Carlson.
Defense.gov posted an article celebrating how “Press Secretary Smites Host that Dissed Diversity in the U.S. Military.” Carlson did nothing of the kind. He took issue with sending pregnant women to war, which is what is implied by designing flight suits for pregnant women.
Press Spokesman John Kirby, who knows better as a retired public affairs Navy admiral, could have issued a simple correction saying, “No, the U.S. military does not send pregnant women to war. Pilots may wear flight suits in day-to-day duties stateside and this does not imply we send pregnant women to war.” Instead, he chose to excoriate Carlson for what Carlson did not say, which was that women should not be sent to fight our nation’s wars.
From Information to Disinformation
Defense.gov is a DoD tool for commanders to inform the troops and the American public about what is going on in the military, as they have an obligation to do. “The mission of Defense.gov is to support the overall mission of the Department of Defense by providing official, timely and accurate information about defense policies, organizations, functions and operations. Defense.gov is the single, unified starting point for finding military information online” (emphasis added). Or, in this case, for finding military disinformation and misinformation online.
Reporter Jim Garamone’s article noted that Kirby remarked a “Fox cable show host used his show to denigrate the contributions of women in the military and to say the Chinese military is catching up to the U.S. military because it does not allow women to serve in the percentage the United States does.”
Is that what Carlson did and, even if it was, is it the DoD’s responsibility to find fault with him for that opinion? It is not. Remember, Defense.gov is run by the government. Garamone is a federal career civil servant, not a political appointee as Kirby is. The federal government just used its career professionals to target a working journalist for destruction.
Using the Military to Attack Political Viewpoints
It is unseemly, of course, for a DoD spokesman to so venomously misrepresent what an opinion journalist said and then to question why the journalist dared to say it. This is even worse than that. It is an atrocious assault on the operation of a free press to then coordinate a department-wide propaganda campaign to smear a journalist for saying things he didn’t and to dissent from DoD policies with words he did say.
The military's social media attack against Tucker Carlson was coordinated. https://t.co/80RpjHO0dd
— Max (@MaxNordau) March 14, 2021
Kirby runs the DoD public affairs operation. He ordered his staff to issue public affairs guidance in the form of messages and talking points that were disseminated throughout all the services within the Department of Defense. These encouraged senior military leaders to publicly call out Carlson for what he did not say. We call this disinformation, misdirection, and misinformation.
This is a gross violation of DoD’s own Principles of Information against engaging in propaganda. Congress specifically prohibits military public affairs from functioning as a public relations firm for the DoD. That is why it is called public affairs and not public relations. Despite this, the DoD has just abused its public affairs resources to arguably violate statutes and DoD regulations. It unarguably violated longstanding norms of propriety and its own principles of information.
How the Military Is Supposed to Talk to Media
There is a hierarchy of credibility when service members speak to the press. To the news media, the most credible member of the Armed Forces the foot soldier. He speaks his mind. The problem with that comes when he speaks his mind about things that he is not informed about, such as DoD policies.
He can give a reporter his opinion, whether it is uninformed or not. But public affairs’ job is to remind him he should stay in his lane, and to speak honestly and frankly only about things he knows about or for which he is responsible.
The higher up the military chain of command one goes, the more likely reporters are to find military people who don’t speak their mind, but only state what their command, service, or the DoD wants them to say. And that’s OK. They are not being paid to give out personal opinions, but to speak out on behalf of and in support of the institution.
They are often the most informed about the institution, so are highly credible in speaking about its policies. They are not to lie or dissemble, but may explain why they might be constrained in answering a question directly.
When a flag officer (general or admiral) speaks, you can be assured he is not freelancing his views. They have much more important and reputable things to do with their time. If they are speaking out, it is because they are giving the DoD position on an issue.
In this case, they ought to have recognized that their place is not to share their personal views on a spat between an opinion journalist and the Department of Defense. But they have. By echoing and supplementing political views, they’ve let themselves become a tool of the political appointees at DoD.
Damaging Military Effectiveness and Credibility
Let’s not be coy about this, either. Gen. Paul E. Funk III may think he is being clever in his tweet against Carlson below. Instead, he is damaging his own credibility and that of the military service he has dedicated his adult life to. His troops who see this campaign for what it is—a campaign to silence a critic—will have much less respect for him for letting himself be played.
Although it is usually not advisable, civilian political appointees may engage in a war of words with someone who figuratively buys “ink by the barrel.” But Kirby did more than that here. He engineered a propaganda campaign to slam down the full weight of the DoD to silence one opinion journalist for daring to utter his, well, opinion.
This is more than disturbing. It is downright scary.
Carlson is a big enough cable news host that he can survive this onslaught. But what of lesser-established journalists? They have bills to pay and families to feed. They are not going to risk that when they witness this awesome destructive display of organized vitriol by the DoD.
A Shot Across the Bow
In addition, does anyone think this is a one-off? It is a proverbial “shot across the bow” by the Biden DoD: Oppose us and we will destroy you. If not vehemently opposed, it will become precedent-setting.
Plenty of journalists utter views contrary to what Biden’s DoD prefers. Is it prepared to go after all of them? Or will it just target journalists on the right? For all the cries of fascism regarding Donald Trump’s government and his many ill-advised tweets, his DoD, for instance, never attempted to destroy Maddow for speaking her mind, even when she questioned DoD policies or campaigns. That may change now.
Why does it matter? Military folks pride themselves as being the ones who fight our nation’s adversaries to ensure all Americans can speak freely and the news media can publish without fear of government retribution, as in repressive societies.
This week, our military knowingly spoke out to destroy a journalist for exercising his free speech right. If let to stand, it will serve as an existential threat to our republic and to our military.
This Is a Fight to Engage
There must be fallout from this. Reporters of all stripes need to apply maximum outrage and pressure upon the DoD for this, lest it become standard operating practice. Senators must use all the tools at their disposal to demand accountability.
Soon senior military leaders will be testifying on the DoD and individual services budget requests. Senators must put them on the hot seat. “General, what other strident opinions do you think you should comment upon?” Senators can then list a compilation of strident comments from reporters against whom the DoD did not launch a campaign of verbal and written destruction.
“Sounds like they ‘disrespected’ the military there. Shouldn’t you have called them out? How about this one? And this one? Oh, I see, you don’t think so. Would you characterize this as more inflammatory and strident than Carlson’s opinions? If his opinion was less egregious, why did you lead a coordinated effort to destroy him and not these other journalists? Is it because those journalists’ views seem more in line with the present administration? General, you military guys like to say that we enjoy First Amendment speech and a free press because you military folks fight enemies of those hallowed freedoms. Was that what you were doing when you sought to destroy this opinion journalist for uttering opinions? Could you draw me up a list of other ‘enemies of the DoD’ that you would approve destroying?”
Retired Military Should Also Speak Out
I am not a fan of retired military people speaking out on political issues, unless they are running for political office, which they are entitled to do, as any citizen is. When they speak out on military issues, even when they include “retired” next to their name, they are still lending the prestige of their former rank to a given issue.
Yet there are times actions taken by leaders in the military are so disgusting that retired military leaders must speak out. They rightly condemned the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, which was an assault on our government. Now they must speak out again in no uncertain terms to denounce the government’s attack on a free press.
Without carefully weighing the consequences, DoD may have just unleashed a whirlwind against itself this week. This will harm the institution, the public’s support, and our service members’ ability to do the jobs our nation calls them to do.
In a just climate, on Monday Kirby would admit the abuse, apologize, promise DoD public affairs will never do this again, and promptly resign. Falling on his sword would protect the true instigators and enablers at the highest levels of DoD and the White House.
The military’s reputation has suffered a tremendous self-inflicted hit. We must use our voices to ensure those running it understand this is never to be repeated.