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How This Book Came About

I have had the good fortune to provide communication workshops and related services to Marines continuously since 1991, just after the first Gulf War ended. I had published an article that summer in Public Relations Quarterly noting that the U.S. military had embraced the principles of Carl von Clausewitz both in its execution of the Gulf War and in its public affairs operations to support the war. Clausewitz, the 19th-century Prussian general, is the author of On War, one of the most influential books of Western civilization and the basis of most modern military and business strategy. In my article, I noted that any serious student of strategy or communication should be familiar with the principles of Clausewitz. His most famous principle is that war is merely the continuation of policy by other means: The goal of the war is not to fight, but to accomplish a political objective.5 I argued that professional communicators could learn from him. I translated Clausewitz’s principle as follows: Communication is merely the continuation of business by other means. The goal of communication is not to communicate, but to accomplish some tangible business goal.

When the Public Relations Quarterly article came out, I was in my fourth year teaching public relations strategy and related topics at New York University, and Clausewitz was a big part of my course. Unbeknownst to me, one of my students was a Marine, just back from Iraq, and about to switch jobs: from helicopter pilot to public affairs officer. He had taken my course to get a head start. He asked if he could show my article to his commanding officer. At the same time, my friend Jim Lukaszewski had a scheduling conflict and was unable to teach his usual session at the Marines’ annual East Coast Commanders Pubic Affairs Symposium, an annual weeklong introduction to public affairs for all Marines east of the Mississippi who are starting new commands. He recommended me to the commanding officer of the unit that managed the Symposium, who recognized my name from the article. I have taught at that Symposium every year since. For many of those years I taught on a Tuesday and Jim taught on a Thursday. I have also taught at every West Coast Commanders Public Affairs Symposium since 2006. From 2004 to 2009, I taught in the Brigadier General Select Orientation Course in Washington, and for several years I conducted workshops in the Command and Staff College and Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia.

In 2006, I was teaching in Quantico and visited the Marine Corps bookstore. There I found a slim volume called Warfighting: U.S. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication No. 1. It’s required reading for every Marine. It lays out an approach to strategy and leadership that informs what all Marines do. Think of it as the Marine Corps Bible. While it isn’t as famous as Clausewitz, it has several advantages: It is contemporary, it is assigned reading for every Marine, and it is much easier to read.

Flying home on the shuttle, I couldn’t put the book down. Just as I had demonstrated in my article for Public Relations Quarterly that changing several words in Clausewitz’s On War provided a framework for understanding communication, changing just a few words in Warfighting led to a much richer and deeper understanding of effective public communication, both for leaders and for those who advise them.

Then I had an idea. I was about to teach a new course on communication strategy in the MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication program at New York University. I had already decided to assign Clausewitz on Strategy: Inspiration and Insight from a Master Strategist. The authors, from the Strategy Institute of the Boston Consulting Group, extract the essence of On War and apply it to contemporary business strategy.

I decided to supplement that reading with Warfighting, requiring students to read it before the first class. When I sent the syllabus to the department, it raised a few eyebrows. But to his credit, the academic director gave me the green light, and I posted the syllabus online.

In the first class, before discussing the book, I polled the students:

  • How many were confused when they saw that the first book in a communication strategy course was a Marine Corps book called Warfighting? Nearly every hand went up.
  • How many were concerned? Most hands stayed up.
  • How many were angry? About a third of the hands stayed up.
  • How many are still angry after reading the book? All hands came down.

I found the most counterculture-seeming student who had just put her hand down, and asked, “Why were you angry when you saw the syllabus?” She looked me in the eye and said, “I thought you were going to feed us propaganda, try to get us to like the military, to support the war in Iraq.” And now? She smiled, and said, “I love this book. I have given copies to my parents and friends. I want to know why we don’t know more about this book.”

I’ve used Warfighting continuously ever since. And I’ve used it beyond my NYU classroom. I’ve used it in strategy boot camps for the public affairs department of a major insurance company, with the communication staff of a large pharmaceutical company, and even with clergy and not-for-profit executives, sometimes to their initial discomfort. I’ve urged individual CEOs, CFOs, and other corporate leaders to read it to help them both think strategically and communicate effectively.

In all civilian contexts, my students and clients have enthusiastically embraced Warfighting, and the comments have tended to cluster into these three categories:

  1. This is one of the single-most-useful insights into how to be strategic in communication that I’ve ever read.
  2. I never knew the Marines were so thoughtful.
  3. The lessons of Warfighting go well beyond fighting wars or communicating. The book is about how to think strategically. It deserves a broader audience.

I agree. I believe that Warfighting is one of the undiscovered gems in strategic thinking, with significant civilian application. This book attempts to do for Warfighting what Clausewitz on Strategy does for On War: extract the essence of a military manual and apply those essential lessons to the nonmilitary, professional practice of public communication as a leadership discipline.

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