Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 4  /  

Mass Effect: Information, Communication, and Rhetoric in Warfare

Mass Effect: Information, Communication, and Rhetoric in Warfare Mass Effect: Information, Communication, and Rhetoric in Warfare
To cite this article: Friedman, Brett, “Mass Effect: Information, Communication, and Rhetoric in Warfare,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 4, summer 2015, pages 34-38.

© Trentinness | – Afghanistan Special Forces Photo

War is a communicative act. It is the act of debating: a nightmarish negotiation conducted through battles, bombs, bullets and bayonets. It is, “…only a branch of political activity; that it is in no sense autonomous.”[i] The strategist must use the means at his disposal, tactical victories gained on the battlefield by military forces, in appropriate ways to reach the ends set by policy. He must do so in a way that convinces the enemy that it is easier to give in than to resist. He must also convince potential adversaries that they had best refrain from their own struggle or their time will come. The strategist must tell a story, weave a narrative, of his or his nation’s prowess at arms, endless resources, and strategic cunning. The plot is set by the policy, but the strategist must build on the policy foundation with strategic action. While war does not have its own logic, it does have its own grammar and with that general logic and specific grammar comes specialized rhetoric. As the technology of violence has proliferated and advanced, it has allowed even the smallest actor to speak the language of warfare, of decision, of will and coercion. The art of using that language of violence to communicate information and persuade adversaries – war’s rhetoric – has become more important than ever. The information revolution has made this timeless aspect of war more obvious and powerful in modern warfare. Some strategic actors have obviously learned to utilize information in powerful ways. Those that have not must learn that information suffuses every act of warfare and rethink current ideas about information warfare.

The professional canon on how information interacts with strategy, however, is a confusing milieu of haphazard terms, largely divorced from strategic theory. The United States, for example, defines “information operations” as, “the integrated employment, during military operations, of Information-related Activities in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.”[ii] This definition says little and means less. It is also so broad that it infringes upon other areas of warfare, such as counterintelligence and operational security, instead of actually defining information operations in a clear manner. The popular acronym “DIME”- Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economy – mentions information as something separate from diplomacy and military actions when it is inherently part of politics. This is a result of using the term information vice communication. Information is inert, objective, and technical. Communication, however, is dynamic, subject to interpretation, and an inherent aspect of the art of strategy. Information is nothing if it is not used. How it is used and presented, the rhetoric, is what produces strategic effect.

Emile Simpson does a better job. He describes the dynamics of information in warfare as a situation where, “The outcome of an action is usually better gauged by the chat at the bazaar the next day, and its equivalent higher up the political food chain, than body counts.”[iii] He concludes that, “political considerations now drive operations even at the lowest level of command: the military dimension of war is pierced by political considerations at the tactical level.”[iv] Of course, this has always been true: tactics are driven by a strategy intending to achieve a political end state. Further, Simpson writes that, “…war today is again being transformed by the information revolution, which forces liberal powers to reconsider strategic thought in relation to their use of armed force.”[v] Again, this is not a new dynamic. It has always been more difficult to wage an unpopular war and effective polities have always taken steps to ensure wide support. What Simpson has identified, rather, is that the information revolution has made the connection between tactics and their strategic effect more obvious and the transmittal of that effect from the battlefield to political entities far faster – sometimes instantaneous. The “flash to bang” is seconds rather than days or months. The communicative aspect of strategy, its rhetoric, is thus more important, and potent, than ever.

This article will view the role of information and communication in strategy neither as something so broad that it is nonsensical nor as something new and not subject to classical strategic theory. Neither will it confuse the message with the medium: US information operations and doctrine talks about electronic warfare, cyber warfare, psychological warfare, and public affairs, amongst other media. Lost in this focus on the medium is any thought or discussion on the role of communication in strategy. Information is just a commodity. Its use to communicate intent, along with inherently communicative actions, is what produces strategic effect. The concepts of “information operations” and “information warfare” should be replaced by an understanding of war’s rhetoric.

Clausewitz, Gray, and Aristotle

Tactical actions all have strategic effect, however miniscule. Each test of combat between combatants contributes to the overall strategic situation: whether that results in a surplus or a deficit for one side or the other. In the words of Colin S. Gray, “[Strategic effect] is the net result of our largely coercive behavior of any and all kinds upon the behavior of the enemy.”[vi] But how much currency each tactical event casts into the final accounting changes depending on its interpretation. This is where the rhetoric comes into play. The post-event interpretation can be amplified or muted based on how it is presented by various combatants.

The wrestlers in Clausewitz’s zweikampf analogy trade blows and holds in pursuit of enough net strategic effect to defeat the other. In any dialectic, the debaters trade point and counterpoint for the same reason. In debate, however, rhetoric interacts with logic – the underlying structure of an argument – and grammar – the rules and regulations governing the use of language. Aristotle, in The Art of Rhetoric, describes rhetoric as, “the counterpart of dialectic.”[vii] In a debate, the way the logical argument is presented – the rhetoric – greatly influences the conclusion. Clausewitz did not explicitly identify rhetoric as a component of strategy but he implied it: “Is war not just an expression of their [the combatants] thoughts, another form of speech or writing? Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.”[viii] During the Middle Ages logic and grammar were two of three subjects that made up the trivium: subjects taught in advanced education. The third subject was rhetoric. Colonel John Boyd, USAF, echoed Clausewitz when it came to the importance of warfare as communicative. In his recommendations for a counter-guerrilla campaign, he recommended that counterinsurgents, “Undermine guerrilla cause and destroy their cohesion by demonstrating integrity and competence of government to represent and serve needs of people,” and, “Visibly link these efforts with local political/economic/social reform in order to connect central government with hopes and needs of people, thereby gain their support and confirm government legitimacy.”[ix] The fact that these actions must be done “visibly” is key: the tactical actions of the counterinsurgent produce strategic effect by what they communicate to various audiences.

Emile Simpson views the dynamic of war’s rhetoric as non-Clausewitzian, but it actually rests easily in the Prussian’s framework. Policy is the impetus of strategy and the strategist’s task is to weave a narrative composed of means to achieve ends. War is not politics by violent means, but with the addition of violent means. Discourse between strategic actors continues through diplomacy and other forms of communication alongside violent communication and the threat thereof. The real value of Simpson’s War from the Ground Up, then, is its further explication of Clausewitz’s implication of the rhetoric of war.

At a higher level, Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order tells the story of literature’s role in western political history. Major works of literature such as Virgil’s Aeneid can provide an underlying national identity to a state that has a considerable effect on their actions. In Hill’s words, describing the actions of infamous French diplomat and politician Talleyrand, “[A]n idea can shape the fate of nations.”[x] The strategic narrative followed by a state for a particular conflict will generally reflect aspects of its own story as a nation

The rhetoric of war can be used in a variety of ways. In an offensive context, it can be used to deplete enemy moral, discredit enemy intentions, or complicate his decision-making processes. In a defensive context, it can be used to enhance morale or defend the legitimacy of the effort. In both contexts, it can be used to deceive your opponent or, through omission, deny critical information from reaching your opponent. There are others, but these are major effects that can be used to illustrate its uses. Like fire support can be used to destroy, suppress, or neutralize targets, the use of information is best understood by its effects when integrated with military strategy. The strategic narrative is the strategy and tactical actions that are not integrated with it and are wasteful at best and counterproductive at worst.

Those effects cannot be understood or integrated when information is sequestered to a planning cell at the highest levels of command. Every tactical action is as a bit of information, and its occurrence is inherently communicative. By delegating any thought of this aspect of warfare to staffs, tactical commanders make decisions in a vacuum, viewing the enemy as iconography on satellite images vice thinking, reacting combatants and local audiences as nothing but statistics. In this manner, western nations attempt to craft a narrative to explain the actions taken rather than taking actions in order to implement a strategic narrative. The difference is subtle but key: frequent attempts to explain missteps can twist the narrative beyond credibility.

Because the “flash to bang” between tactical action and strategic effect, enabled by the information revolution is now so short, each tactical action must be viewed as part of the contextual strategic plot; both in terms of its physical effect on the battlefield and its moral effect on the enemy and other interested parties. Gone are the days when the tactician could work in isolation from the strategist. Strategy must act as a forcing function, assisting the tactician in his plans by ensuring that the language of combat serves the rhetoric of the strategic narrative.


The rhetoric of war has always been present. In the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians succinctly capture the communicative act of their imminent destruction at Melos:

Athenians: The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us: a rival empire like Lacedaemon, even if Lacedaemon was our real antagonist, is not so terrible to the vanquished as subjects who by themselves attack and overpower their rulers. This, however, is a risk that we are content to take. We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the preservation of your country, as we would fain exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both….

Melians: …So you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side?

Athenians: No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.[xi]

In another example Livy relates the effects of Rome’s failure to protect its ally Saguntum, Hannibal’s siege of which precipitated the Second Punic War. After notifying Carthage that a state of war now existed, Roman envoys crossed to Spain to attempt to woo Hannibal’s Spanish allies to the Roman cause. An elder of the Volcaiani tribe responded thusly, “With what face, Romans, can you ask us to prefer your friendship to the Carthaginian, when those who did so have been more cruelly betrayed by you, their allies, than destroyed by their enemy, the Phoenician? You must seek allies, in my opinion, only where the disaster of Saguntum is unknown. To the Spanish peoples the ruins of Saguntum will constitute a warning, no less emphatic than deplorable, that none should trust the honour or alliances of the Romans.”[xii]

In both cases, the action or inaction of a strategic actor communicates intent, capability, and credibility to a wide range of audiences: belligerents, allies, subordinates, and potential belligerents. In the case of Athens, they understood the need to communicate their will to their subordinate states to forestall as many desertions to the Spartan side as possible. The Romans failed to consider the message their inactivity sent to some of the Spanish tribes. Many of the great captains understood the inherent communication of warfare and how to exploit it. In 1775, American colonists raced to transport their version of events at Lexington and Concord across the Atlantic. That version beat the British military report to London, and British newspapers carried exaggerated reports of British Army atrocities and culpability for weeks.[xiii] The Americans used England’s own newspapers against her. Napoleon wrote accounts of his battles and then had copies made and distributed, sometimes inflating his success such as after the Battle of Eylau in 1807.[xiv] Robert E. Lee, during his invasion of Maryland in 1862, distributed a notice to local civilians – an address “To the People of Maryland” – justifying his offensive and portraying the Confederate Army as one of liberation, apparently without irony.[xv]


Russia’s recent campaign to secure the Crimean Peninsula from neighboring Ukraine is a stark example of the power of information and strategy. Russia’s use of information was integrated with its military strategy every step of the way. Russian Special Forces were almost certainly active in the Crimea and in mainland Ukraine, but repeated denials of their presence and frequent references to “local pro-Russian self-defense activists” clouded the information stream available to Kiev and outside observers.[xvi] The large military exercises executed by Russia along Ukraine’s border with Russia also sent a message: that the threat of a larger military intervention was real.[xvii] Russian state television also executed an information campaign in support of Russia’s threat of violence. Hosts and guests on Russian television shows spread misinformation about Ukraine’s leadership and the United States, maintaining Russian public support for the annexation and most likely increasing pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine.[xviii] Russia even hired PR firms, all in support of its military strategy.[xix] The cumulative effect of this sustained misinformation campaign prevented Ukraine and western allies from getting a firm grip on the actual events on the ground in the Crimea. It infected decision-making processes at the highest levels of Russia’s opponents until the intended target was obtained. While sporadic violence occurred at the strategic level, the mere threat of violence with a tightly integrated information campaign yielded decisive strategic effect. This effect was to keep the conflict limited – at the time of this writing – and thus in Russia’s interest. Russia seems to be repeating this successful strategy in Eastern Ukraine. Seemingly minuscule tactical information operations on the part of Russia – news report in Russia Today, the resurrection of the term Novorossiya to describe parts of Ukraine, and repeated denials of Russian regular army presence in the area – combine into a form of strategic communication that has the mass effect of controlling the parameters of the conflict.

China is another nation that seemingly has mastered war’s rhetoric in the modern operating environment. In recent years, China has laid claim to and expanded its actions in small but increasing increments of the South China Sea.[xx] This “salami-slicing” method accumulates strategic effect in China’s favor but in small enough chunks so as not to alarm the international community. By using rhetoric that avoids the ire of interested adversaries, China shields itself from criticism while exposing potential adversaries to appropriation if they choose to directly confront Chinese expansion. In this way, China pursues its expansionist ends without tripping a violent conflict before it is ready. Again, the nascent conflict in the South China Seas remains limited in China’s interest.

The current masters of using strategy as communication are, arguably, the Taliban. The Taliban are outnumbered, outgunned, and probably out-funded by their opponent: initially the US led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and as of January 1, 2015, Headquarters Resolute Support (HQRS). Annual UN reports on civilian casualties in Afghanistan regularly show that the Taliban are responsible for far more civilian casualties than HQRS, yet Taliban approval ratings constantly rise.[xxi] This is because their strategic narrative is more effective, and they act in accordance with it. The Taliban even takes steps to protect their narrative by assassinating local religious leaders known to be pro-NATO, preventing their influential sermons from convincing civilians to support the Coalition.[xxii] The Taliban’s strategic narrative of defending Afghanistan from external invaders has proven effective, despite their unpopular policies. The strategic narrative of HQRS – that of pursuing a stable, democratic Afghanistan that does not host international terrorist organizations – has proven less compelling and was constantly undercut by the corrupt Karzai administration. Top US commanders protest that Taliban gains are more smoke and mirrors than substance, but perception is of vast importance to local and international audiences.[xxiii] The Taliban have gained the communication high ground and only drastic measures can dislodge them.

Culture and Confusion

Current Western thinking on the role of communication in strategy is stove piped: information is viewed as a separate concern from military strategy rather than a vital component. This disables the ability to view tactical actions in terms of communication. It is a common problem. This “stovepiping” of efforts and capabilities is, according to Emile Simpson, a product of the idea that means combat, information, fire support, etc. have an “intrinsic value.”[xxiv] They do not. Tactical actions only have value as part of a contextual strategy, and one of strategy’s most vital functions must be to integrate varied and widely dispersed tactical actions so that they efficiently accrue into strategic effect. Actors that have mastered the communicative aspects of strategy – the aforementioned Russia, terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and China have had great success. Russia annexed Crimea without any meaningful resistance. The terrorist group formerly known as ISIS seized large swaths of Iraq after the Iraqi Army dissipated based almost solely on ISIS’ reputation. In the South China Seas, China “rebrands” ships as coast guard vessels in order to allow them to operate without triggering resistance and has declared interdiction zones to achieve control without resorting to force.[xxv] Tactical actions coupled with an information campaign can achieve decisive strategic effects. Just as with Napoleon and Lee, those actions can be amplified or spun with rhetorically sound communication efforts.

These actors understand the “Propaganda of the Deed”: actions send a message of their own, and do so louder than pure information. This was well understood by the author’s earliest strategic influence; his mother, who said actions speak louder than words. If the actions taken by a strategic actor clash with the information campaign, the entire effort will lose legitimacy and the strategic narrative will collapse. Take, for instance, the US effort in Afghanistan. The United States, truthfully, presents the strategic narrative that the war effort against the Taliban and global terrorist groups is not a war against Islam. This preserves the credibility of the United States and is intended to encourage non-extremist Muslims to support US efforts vice the efforts of their adversaries. When events occur such as the burning of Korans in Afghanistan, however, irreparable damage is done to the strategy as the actions clash with the narrative. The strategy may still succeed, but the road is now more difficult.


Any act of communication is suffused with rhetoric. So too this article. Its structure is based on the sermon structure developed by priests in Europe during the Middle Ages and used by Chaucer in “The Pardoner’s Tale.” This outline was chosen as an overarching structure to provide context to facts and assertions. Its strategic end state is persuasion. In strategy, tactics are sentences and battles are paragraphs. The structure is the strategic narrative, providing meaning for the underlying actions in the pursuit of persuading the enemy to accept the strategist’s will.

Current Western thinking on the information and communication in warfare has become quite obviously unsustainable. War as communication with an opposing force or forces is part of its nature. What has changed is the speed at which tactical actions are communicated and interpreted and the distance which that information can travel. The technology aspect of the information revolution is not as important as the effects that technology has on the operational environment. Focusing on the technology blinds strategists to the symbiosis between tactics and communication, thus encouraging the segregation of information from action. Segregating communication from tactics and tactics from strategy is a recipe for strategic disarray. Replacing information operations with an understanding of the rhetoric of war and connecting it with an overarching strategic narrative is a necessary task of the strategist. As we have seen, those strategic actors that have done so have been effective while those that do not struggle.


Disclaimer: The views contained in this article do not represent the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or the United States Marines Corps



[i] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. Page 605.
[ii] United States Department of Defense. Joint Publication 1-02: Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Washington, DC. 2010. Page 125.
[iii] Simpson, Emile. War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Kindle edition. Page 6.
[iv] Ibid, 6.
[v] Ibid, 89.
[vi] Gray, Colin S. The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print. Page 171.
[vii] Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric. Trans. H. C. Lawson-Tancred. London: Penguin, 2004. Print. Page 66.
[viii] Clausewitz, 605.
[ix] Boyd, John R. “Patterns of Conflict.” Slide 108.
[x] Hill, Charles. Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Page 293.
[xi] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War. V.91-95.
[xii] Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome, 21.19.
[xiii] Ferling, John. Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free. New York: Bloomsbury Press, Kindle edition. Location 2846.
[xiv] Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier. New York: Scribner, 1973. Page 550. Print.
[xv] McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. Page 535. Kindle edition.
[xvi] Saradzhyan, Simon. “A Victory for Russia’s Special Forces,” Moscow Times. 6 Apr 2014.
[xvii] Norberg, Johan and Fredrik Westerlund. “Russia and Ukraine: Military-strategic options, and possible risks, for Moscow,” International Institute for Strategic Studies Military Balance blog. 7 Apr 2014.
[xviii] Colson, Robert. “I Watched Russian State Television for a Whole Day,” The Atlantic. 7 April 2014.
[xix] Pomerantsev, Peter. “Can Ukraine Win the Information War against Russia?” Defense One. 11 Jun 2014.
[xx] Haddick, Robert. “Salami Slicing in the South China Sea,” Foreign Policy. 3 Aug 2012.
[xxi] “In quotes: Excerpts from NATO report on Taliban,” BBC, 1 February 2012, Web, 16 March 2012.
[xxii] Guizstozzi, Antonio. Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan. New York: Columbia, 2008. Page 46.
[xxiii] Carroll, Chris. “Reports of Taliban Surge are exaggerated, incoming ISAF commander says.” Stars and Stripes. 1 Aug 2014.
[xxiv] Simpson, 154.
[xxv] Hipple, Matthew. “China: Leap-Frogging US Deterrence in the Pacific.” War On The Rocks. 2 July 2014.