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The Multi-Domain Debate and the Five Functions of Military Writing
Inform, connect, respond, inspire, improve
Below, I describe the revised five functions and show how discourse on multi-domain operations demonstrates each point.
The revised five functions
Professional military writing allows ideas to flow in all directions. Through publications, leaders can speak to their soldiers, soldiers to their leaders, and both to their peers. Crucially, by writing long-form pieces, publications ensure this dialogue is a disciplined one. That disciplined dialogue between servicemembers about their craft is the hallmark of a profession. To strengthen that dialogue is to strengthen the profession.
Though their benefits compound when taken together, it is helpful to think about each of these functions individually. The first function of professional writing is for senior leaders to inform the Army or their community. Second, writing allows lateral communication, sharing lessons or building communities of interest. Lateral communication can otherwise be tricky, as biweekly situation reports flow up and orders flow down, but few functions force adjacent (or widely dispersed) units to communicate. And third, writing can provide a response mechanism for ideas to circulate that might not rise through successive layers of military leadership–but that have an important point of view for the Army or a sub-community as a whole.
But professional publications are more than a simple venue for soldiers and leaders to speak to each other. They also, at their best, inspire. As military leaders, we frequently get caught up in the moment and perhaps think we are trying to solve a problem for the first time. This is rarely the case. Instead, archives of professional writings from the past can inspire us to adapt old solutions to new problems, or just to reimagine our contemporary challenges with helpful content from the past.
The final function is to improve servicemembers’ communications proficiency. Military professionals must communicate effectively in both speech and writing to lead and ensure common understanding of orders. Effective professional writing requires clear, logical thought. Working with editors helps authors hone their ideas into an effective piece. Iteratively writing about their profession will improve servicemembers’ ability to not only say what they want, on paper or in person, but also their ability to think clearly.
Multi-domain battle to multi-domain operations: the five functions at work
The evolution of multi-domain battle to multi-domain operations (MDO) demonstrates each of the functions of professional military writing in a contemporary case. In August 2017, General David Perkins informed the Army of an emerging operating concept by publishing “Multi-Domain Battle: Driving Change to Win in the Future” in Military Review. Other senior leaders subsequently described how multi-domain battle would work in the Indo-Pacific region, or re-defined multi-domain battle as multi-domain operations. Senior leaders continue to inform the force on the Army’s operating concept.
But we also see lateral communication within communities of interest. Given MDO’s emphasis on higher level commands, a community of interest has developed around what MDO means for tactical units. Authors like Jesse Skates discuss what MDO means for the division, while Rebecca Segal points out what MDO means for tactical units.
Likewise, professional writing provides an outlet for ideas to bubble up. As examples, writers like Bryan Quinn point out MDO’s sustainment shortfalls, while Rob Rose points out the importance of mission command in the generally centralizing MDO concept. These first three functions are important: they allow the best ideas to interact with each other and develop the Army’s ideas.
The Army’s rich archives of professional writing also provide inspiration for adoption of multi-domain operations today. Quinn’s aforementioned article on sustainment takes a historical approach and cites a variety of historical sources, including “Historical Military Cycles” from an issue of Armor in 1983. Likewise, Eric Michael Burke’s article on the lessons from the Yom Kippur War (with the implicit parallel to lessons from Ukraine today), draws on both historical issues of Military Review and the papers of Donald Starry, a prolific former commander of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command.
Finally, by taking the time to write, each of these authors improve their writing. As a small example, Rose followed his 2022 article on MDO mission command with the second-place article in the Dupuy Writing Competition on mobilizing populations. While there might not be a straight line from an article on MDO to an award-winning article on popular mobilization, writing, engaging with talented editors, and thinking certainly improves each author’s ability to communicate.
The revised five functions
Military professional writing helps the hierarchical Army accomplish five important tasks. First, it provides a mechanism for senior leaders to inform the Army or sub-communities. Second, it connects units and individuals laterally, allowing them to share lessons to develop communities of interest. Third, it provides a response mechanism or outlet for ideas to circulate that might not rise through traditional channels. Fourth, historical archives can inspire by allowing us to apply historical approaches to contemporary problems, or to better understand the context. And finally, writing helps improve communications skills, both writing and speech.
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