By Joe Byerly
We have a problem in the military. Leaders from mid to senior levels continue to wade into the fray, arguing hot button issues on Twitter, a platform designed more for a quick quip than thoughtful dialogue. In addition to leaders running the risk of their snarky comments getting taken out of context (a problem with 280 character tweets), the platform is a landscape that includes bots powered by foreign governments who further inflame users and stoke divisiveness.
Typically, these online engagements end poorly, and they place our military at risk of losing public support and erodes our competitive advantage on the global stage. This isn’t the first time in history government officials have wrestled with the decision to get into a war of words. More than sixty years ago, President Eisenhower dealt with a troll who was a thorn in the side of his administration. Today, military leaders can learn from his example so that we can maneuver the information space with decorum and skill.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower became President in 1953 he wanted the country to take a middle-of-the-road approach to foreign and domestic policy. As the former Supreme Allied Commander, he witnessed the devastating destruction that resulted when nations adopted extremist views, and he didn’t want that for his own country.
While Eisenhower’s outlook was admirable, there were people who didn’t agree with him. They thought he was too soft on communism. One in particular, Senator Joseph McCarthy was the loudest. He spoke out against the President, attacked Eisenhower’s associates, and even criticized the military record of the President’s old pal, George Marshall. The newspapers were eating it up! Senator McCarthy had no problem promoting his falsehoods and attacking people he deemed to be communists; such unproven assertions, after all, garnered headlines. The President, on the other hand, had a problem that we would all recognize today: he had a troll problem.
There are so many things Eisenhower could have done to attack McCarthy. He could have given speeches calling out the senator’s political record. He could have issued press releases that decimated McCarthy’s character along with anyone who supported his witch-hunt. He could have even shamed the large number of Roman Catholics who supported McCarthy in an attempt to separate him from one of his bases.
But he didn’t do any of those things.
As Susan Eisenhower points out in her book, How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions, “Eisenhower understood from World II that a smart strategist must do all he can to deny an adversary the ability to choose the timing, the battlefield, and the weapons of the fight.” So, he avoided a trolling war with McCarthy. As a matter of fact, Eisenhower never even mentioned the Senator’s name in a public setting.
By refusing to publicly engage McCarthy, Eisenhower denied him legitimacy and additional time on the national stage. He discussed this approach in a letter he wrote to his brother, pointing out, “Only a shortsighted and completely inexperienced individual would urge the use of the office of the Presidency to give an opponent the publicity he so avidly desires.”
Instead of calling out the senator and his followers, Susan Eisenhower writes the President, “confronted the issues raised by McCarythism, but did so as a matter of principle…Instead of highlighting the falsehoods, the president used his position to tell the American people about the dangers the current atmosphere posed to our democracy.”
By not engaging McCarthy directly, Eisenhower gave the senator and his followers enough time to thoroughly discredit themselves, as trolls usually do. The public eventually turned on the senator and the Red Scare became an embarrassing footnote in American history.
Today, McCarthy’s red scare comes at us in multiple forms. Over the last several months, I’ve watched military leaders get attacked for promoting diversity and inclusion in the ranks. I’ve seen conspiracy theorists promote absurd storylines about the COVID-19 vaccine. I’ve also witnessed those who promote diversity and inclusion and getting vaccinated using the same tactics as the trolls.
It’s easy to allow our anger to get the best of us when we read outrageous comments online or people attack us personally, however we need to take a page from Eisenhower’s book and “deny an adversary the ability to choose the timing, the battlefield, and the weapons of the fight”.
Instead of giving the trolls a platform, take it away. Ignore them. Instead of attacking them, attack the issues they raise, but do so in a principled way. Even though it’s been over 60 years since Eisenhower led this country, his leadership still has lessons to teach us today.
Joe Byerly is an active duty Army officer and Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute. He’s also the founder of From the Green Notebook. Listen to him on The Podcast, sign-up for his reading list email, or connect with him on LinkedIn.