Published: 1 March 2009
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2009
Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War by Kenneth Allard. Naval Institute Press (http://www.usni.org/ navalinstitutepress/index.asp), 291 Wood Road, Annapolis, Maryland 21402-5034, 2006, 256 pages, $26.95 (hardcover).
Retired US Army colonel Kenneth Allard is a familiar face to millions who regularly channel surf to MSNBC as their cable news network (and its companion Internet Web site) of choice for their daily news fix. He served as MSNBC’s principal military analyst for nine of the 11 years MSNBC has been on the air, and he has appeared as a guest analyst on a number of other news broadcasts. He is perhaps best known for his MSNBC on-air commentary about and expert analysis of virtually every US military engagement since 1998, including the air war over Kosovo and our subsequent engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. A soldier-scholar, he holds impressive credentials—a master’s degree from Harvard, a doctorate from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and extensive teaching experience at the US Military Academy at West Point.
I read this book twice. The initial reading left me questioning why I wasn’t quite as impressed with its narrative as was Tom Brokaw, Senator John McCain, and Gen Anthony C. Zinni, USMC, all of whom wrote testimonials heralding Allard’s “provocative look at combat in the age of instant communication” (quotation attributed to Senator McCain, printed on the back of the book’s dust jacket). I initially found the work not much more than Allard’s attempt at self-aggrandizement. The narrative, peppered with personal anecdotes and opinions, tends to ramble off into unpredictable directions that are hard to follow at times. The work just didn’t seem as polished as I would have anticipated from an individual with Colonel Allard’s credentials. But first impressions are often clouded by the reader’s inherent biases; therefore, I believed I owed it to Colonel Allard to give his work a second look. And I’m glad I did. On a second reading, parsing out all of the author’s personal anecdotes and opinions, I recognized that Allard surfaces a number of excellent points. He provides historical context to some significantly prescient comments concerning the present and immediate future that military leaders should examine regarding how America’s military and its current operations are covered by the 24/7 media machines. He brings together what appear to be a number of disparate themes regarding the military, its role in society, society’s role in the military, and ways the media (both traditional and new) attempt to package understanding of large issues into three-minutes segments. Taken as a whole, his arguments, supported by robust research, come together to paint an intriguing, thought-provoking, and, at times, entertaining picture of American society, its military, and the media that attempt to cover both accurately.
The term Warheads was coined to describe those retired senior officers and enlisted personnel who found second careers in broadcast news as “color casters” and “talking heads” for military operations, providing “expert” commentary regarding any number of military-related situations. According to Allard, well before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the cable-TV business saw a need to provide more dynamic context and depth to its reporting of evolving world situations, especially those circumstances that involved military intervention; in that regard, the broadcast business “inadvertently conjured the Warheads into existence” (p. 14).
The necessity of assembling a group of retired military experts that became the Warheads was driven by the needs of broadcast-news organizations (and their burgeoning companion Internet sites) to better explain military operations to audiences that were/are military “illiterates.” In the opening sentence of his prologue, Allard makes a simple but significant point that the majority of Americans very much overlook today: “Despite living in a nation at war, we Americans are as likely to know a resident of North Dakota—by population, our 48th smallest state—as a soldier [sailor, marine, and/or airman for that matter] serving on active duty” (p. 1). What’s more, “as a society, we are increasingly separated by the inequality of sacrifice into an electronic form of the Great Divide, with Citizen-Soldiers on one side and Armchair Warriors on the other” (p. 1).
Essentially Colonel Allard’s book is an indictment of sorts. He uses the convention of Warheads as the basis for highlighting a darker problem—the potentially debilitating circumstances on the horizon of a nation predominantly unfamiliar with the institutions necessary to fight its wars and protect its citizens because of its quickly diminishing experience with those institutions. The evolving circumstances that generated a need for broadcast-news Warheads to “put matters plainly for all the amateurs, those distant relatives who had never served a day in their lives” (p. 27) portend a more serious situation in the future.
Warheads is well written, though the nonchronological approach and use of flag-officer names sans rank may prove a bit uncomfortable for some military readers. Nevertheless, Allard provides an insightful, firsthand account regarding the frenetic world of broadcast news and the military’s engagement in that realm.
Col Robert A. Potter, USAF, Retired
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.