When it comes to ground forces, the American press has a standard template for wartime narratives. Developed in World War II, it has morphed over the years (to the detriment of the perception of our forces) but has remained largely intact. Much of it has reflected the nature of the wars in which the US has become involved.
The Standard Narrative goes something like this: There is a massive deployment of US forces to the far side of the world. This action is more or less just and warranted. The troops charge into battle, sometimes many battles. All the while, there's an understanding everywhere of an end-state - a point at which the war's goals will have been accomplished and then, most importantly, everyone can come home.
Throughout all of this there is a standard typecast character: the American enlisted infantryman. Usually he is portrayed with undercurrents of victimhood (this is one of the innovations in the Standard Narrative since WWII.). We see such images in the recent gaffes of Senator Kerry and Congressman Rangel, in which they respectively questioned the intelligence and alternative employment prospects of military personnel. Running through this undercurrent are a couple of others: a sort of class warfare vibe, in which it is assumed that only the poor do the fighting, and a related guilt vibe, in which it is posited that since the troops are merely pitiable, poor, undereducated, unemployable automatons, the best way to "support" them is to bring them home. This entire panoply of implied images even applies when troops are painted in a semi-heroic light. See Forrest Gump.
There's one more aspect to the Standard Narrative: frequent "horror of war" type memes. These include as many references as possible to PTSD, torture, civilian deaths, and atrocities. These things do happen of course. War is, of course, horrible. But in the standard narrative, they frequently come to dominate, rather than to be portrayed in relationship to their frequency or context.
I say all of this to make this point: the Standard Narrative's days may be numbered. It's not because of some innovative PR method about to be launched by the military. No, it's because the nature of the military reorganization that is taking place today will serve to significantly subvert the sources of material for the Standard Narrative's propagation. A larger number of small deployments, brought about by changes in mission, devolution of decisionmaking authority, and a reorganized force, will work to completely undermine the economy of scale enjoyed by the press in covering large conflicts.
The change in mission springs from a desire to "shape the choices of countries at strategic crossroads." At least that's how the Quadrennial Defense Review put it. This means teaching foreign militaries how to defend their state from within - from terrorists, organized criminals, and social unrest. A former Commandant of the Marine Corps once referred to this as "phase zero," alluding to the operational plan for the invasion of Iraq, and meaning the desire to influence other countries before things get so bad that "phase one," or an invasion, is necessary. The training in mind will be performed by small teams of US military personnel operating for months at a time in remote places all over the world, in relatively benign environments.
At the same time, innovations are in the works to dramatically increase the impact of small groups of military personnel. One of these, being developed by the Marine Corps, is the concept of distributed operations. Essentially seeking to decentralize decisionmaking within an infantry battalion, distributed operations will mean that a battalion commander will have 9-12 platoons or 27-36 squads as maneuver elements, instead of 3 or 4 companies as he does today. This means that for some types of missions, he'll be able to cover more ground with less people.
On a much larger scale, the Army has reorganized itself from having 10 divisions to having 40+ brigades. These are known as "units of action," meaning that an individual brigade could deploy overseas and operate independently. Even though a brigade is still pretty big - something on the order of 2,000 to 5,000 soldiers, the result is the opportunity for more deployments with smaller forces, since this is still smaller than a division, which could be 15,000 to 30,000 soldiers.
What all of this means is that in many cases it will no longer be cost effective for media outlets to cover US military deployments. The troops will be operating in smaller numbers, more frequently, over long periods of time, in often remote locations. Not only will it be expensive to send Western journalists to such places, but there also won't be much dramatic action for them to find. Furthermore, such deployments will fly far under the radar of the attention span of the imputed audience at home.
The press may adjust by relying more upon local stringers for its reporting. This is a tactic used many, many times in Iraq, though presumably for reasons of security, and not economy of scale. The recent controversy involving the Associated Press and a man named "Captain Jamil Hussein," who seems not to have been a captain of anything, may portend some of the problems that the press will encounter in the future in continuing to use the Standard Narrative.
It's far too early to declare the death of the Standard Narrative. Left to its own devices, much of the media reverts to the memes described above. But it's entirely possible that the US military will slowly fade from the headlines as its forces head in small numbers into remote places the world over. What will the new narrative be?
Josh Manchester is a TCSDaily contributing writer. His blog is The Adventures of Chester (www.theadventuresofchester.com).