How to Write for a Military Audience
As the missions of militaries become more complex—witness the recent American evacuation efforts in Afghanistan—armed forces in most countries in the world need input from different parts of the civilian world. But how should civilians write for a military audience?
Military audiences reside in the policy world where debate is won by someone who can make the most compelling jargon free argument. Some of the most influential articles of the last three decades—Jihad vs. McWorld and the Clash of Civilizations—have appeared in journals and magazines that are not academic but engage in an intelligent discourse for popular audiences. What matters is not where you write your articles but how many people read them and the kind of influence they have on contemporary affairs.
Military officers, like other government officials, are busy people facing competing demands on their time so lengthy reports that get into minutiae are not particularly helpful. Very often it is a short article, or even a newspaper op-ed that can help shape a policy decision or be used to catch the attention of military personnel. Again, this requires a style of writing that is a mix between journalism and academic to convey complex ideas in a clear and succinct manner.
A good factual analysis may have an impact regardless of the predisposition of the audience. Military personnel around the world tend to be conservative but they do not disregard evidence and facts. Marshalling evidence and presenting it objectively can carry a lot of weight in military circles. But the most important thing to keep in mind may be to be counterintuitive.
In the 20 years since 9/11, western militaries have usually been told from academics what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to hear on the use of force and the role of the military in the contemporary world. If there had been more counterintuitive thinking on Afghanistan, or Iran, or China we may have seen better crafted policy on dealing with these issues. There was, for instance, little discussion on the need for staying on in Afghanistan after the targeted assassination of bin Laden in 2011. Instead, the war continued as an ultimately futile policy of nation building until both the Trump and Biden Administrations sought to put an end to the policy.
While conventional wisdom is that the military wants to hear that which reaffirms its preexisting views, it values counterintuitive thinking. Retired USAF Colonel, Lisa Hansen, points out that this was the reason that David Petraeus was so highly regarded by the military and politicians. He sought solutions that were not the typical product that emerge from the military’s limited menu of operational choices. Petraeus’s professional demise has left a void in the realm of military thinking that has yet to be filled by another scholar who has both the analytical skills and the practical credentials to impress skeptical audiences.
Counterintuitive means going against the grain on conventional thinking in the west on the role of military power and the continuing growth of defense budgets to meet the need for increasingly advanced weaponry. Covid-19 will likely reshape the way western governments and publics view the role of military power as conventional thinking will have to be replaced with an increasing number of cost cutting measures. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is taking the first hard step in this direction by raising taxes to fund social welfare and healthcare programs but such an approach will require a serious debate in the United States. Persuasive writing that makes a case for it at present has little traction in the US.
In sum, academics used to be known for writing analyses that were relevant to the public good. In the past three decades, however, academic writing has moved away from policy relevance and led practitioners to question the value of such analyses. It is time to reverse this trend by writing clearly, concisely, and counterintuitively for the policy world.
Amit Gupta is an Associate Professor at the USAF Air War College. The views in this piece are his and do not necessarily reflect those of the USAF or the Department of Defense.