Can You Hear Me, Ivan?
Bored soldiers often invent ways to pass the time. Out on the wide steppes of Central Asia, the conscript regiments of the old Imperial Russian Army found themselves and their men isolated in hundred-man wooden stockades. Their mission involved border defense, keeping watch for bands of horse brigands who raided by day and for parties of well-armed smugglers who slipped across by night. These furtive foes might appear one day in 300. In the long, dreary, dusty interim, glum Russians practiced marching and marksmanship, cleaned weapons and uniforms and stared out at the endless, flat, grassy horizon.
As soldiers would do, the Russians resorted to alcohol—vodka, which naturally led to other, rougher amusements such as the grim contest known as Russian roulette. Another proved even stranger and, if possible, more dangerous. Soldiers removed all furnishings, blacked out the windows and sealed all of the cracks in a one-room cabin. Two men entered, each with a loaded pistol. Once the door closed, and utter darkness descended, the first would say “Can you hear me, Ivan?” Then his mate would fire at the voice. If no hit occurred, the other man asked the same question, then shot. Each tried to duck and dodge. The game ended when all rounds were expended, or when one soldier took a slug. Vodka often lubricated such face-offs. Fatalities were not common, but wounds were.
Nobody in today’s disciplined volunteer U.S. military would countenance such bizarre gunplay. Yet, in a far more fateful arena than a remote Russian frontier hovel, U.S. forces play out a version of this game every day. Garrulous senior officers meet the news media; technology-savvy junior people finger smartphones; aggressive defense industry sales staffers post Web media. All loudly holler out their locations and intentions around the clock. Across the blackened cabin of our troubled globe, the adversaries with their pistols most definitely are listening and taking aim. And we just cannot—or will not—shut up.
U.S. military operational security is not working. Facebook brims with ship sailing times, air transport schedules and photographs nicely documenting the barrier defenses and communications antennas of our most remote combat outposts in Afghanistan. Do you want to know the ballistic performance of a 155-millimeter Excalibur smart artillery shell? Google it—or pick any other precision munition. You can obtain all the chartology you want. Recent scandals, such as a junior soldier’s dump of classified files to the Wikileaks people or the breathless revelations of a mouthy intelligence agency contractor, earn official scorn. Meanwhile, the flood of extremely useful military information keeps right on pumping. We merrily are doing the work of a million foreign spies—and loving it, to borrow from the fictional Agent 86, Maxwell Smart.
We convince ourselves it is all OK. Strictures regarding disclosure of weapons characteristics, intelligence sources and methods, unit locations, facilities security and operational schedules all seem so old-school. It is hard to say even our top-tier special operations forces are clandestine when we gleefully assist Hollywood in making movies such as Zero Dark Thirty and Lone Survivor. So, no one in authority can talk about the special operations forces unless they are reviewing their films. We want to be “open” and “transparent” in our strategic communications; and, after all, we are the sole superpower, peerless and omnipotent—just ask us. As with Babe Ruth pointing at the fence, we fear our enemies so little that we dare them to throw chin music. We are just so sure we will hit it out of the park.
There is an alternative, well summarized by former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. Following the 2011 raid that killed the al-Qaida chieftain Osama bin Laden, seemingly everybody above the rank of plankton, including purported members of the assault force and those who claimed to be key intelligence operatives, offered their “there-I-was” inside insights on what really went down. Disgusted with the endless blabbing, then-Secretary Gates offered his typically blunt advice regarding the publicity explosion: “Shut the **** up.” We should listen to him.
The U.S. armed forces as a whole have decent rules on operational security. They must enforce them. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people in uniform do what they are told to do. For the other 0.1 percent, there are adequate administrative remedies and, of course, the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. Even in today’s ever-sensitive era, unit 1st sergeants and chief petty officers still can announce the results of courts-martial. Enforcing common-sense operational security can be done. The military has the skills; it just needs the will.
Can you hear me, Ivan? He certainly can. So can his friends in Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang. They are readying their pistols even as we broadcast. It is past time for us to shut up.
Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.), is a former troop commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author of seven books and numerous articles, he currently teaches at North Carolina State University.