A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine
Steven J. Alvarez
Potomac Books, 2016, 341 pages
Book Review published on: March 10, 2017
The role of the media in war cannot be questioned; public information must be considered in all facets of military operations. The effectiveness of the U.S. Army’s interaction with the media and its own public information efforts can and should be questioned. Steven J. Alvarez attempts to do that in his book, Selling War: A Critical Look at the Military’s PR Machine.
Alvarez takes the reader through his deployment experience as a public affairs officer (PAO) in Iraq in 2004. According to Selling War, Alvarez served most of that tour as the PAO on Lt. Gen. Petraeus’s staff; certainly an interesting job at an interesting time. The first 250 pages of the book are filled with his retelling of the experiences he had in being called up as an Army Reservist for this mission and the experience of the early part of the war from the political center of it in Baghdad. Alvarez uses his experiences to punch enormous holes in way that the military—the Army, in particular—uses its public affairs apparatus. Alvarez clearly cares very much about media operations and information dissemination, and he uses his stories from Baghdad to convey that.
The problem is that everyone who was in Iraq during that time has the same stories, and Alvarez does little to connect the stories with his goal, which is to improve the military’s media operations. The first 250 pages of Selling War are entirely self-aggrandizing and self-promoting. Everyone who served in Iraq at that time has stories of poorly planned or executed operations (of whatever type; media, information, combat, logistic, etc.) that resulted in ineffectiveness or worse. Everyone also has stories of operation successes. More often than not, those successes and failures were a collective effort. Not in Selling War. Successes are to Alvarez’s credit and almost all the failures are someone else’s fault.
This presentation is unfortunate, because the point that Alvarez tries to make in this book is good. The Army very much needs to improve the way that it conducts media operations. Alvarez makes that point very clearly. However, he clutters the case he is trying to make with himself. He would make a far stronger case by presenting the facts without editorializing them and without personally attacking everyone not named Petraeus and Jared Zabaldo, the public affairs noncommissioned officer he served with.
There is no doubt that the Army needs books like this as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to evolve and not end. The Army has to have people who are willing to critique what we have done over the last fifteen years. Those books, articles, and commentaries will be invaluable as the Army learns about itself. Those written works, however, will be most effective when they come with a sense of humility and offers meaningful ways to improve along with the critique.
Selling War is more of a memoir about a PAOs experience in the war. In that light, it is a fine work. To attempt to pass it off as a meaningful contribution to the discourse that will improve anything in the Army is inaccurate.
Book Review written by: Maj. Steven L. Miller, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas