I don’t fully know why Special Warfare seems to have died. Published out of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Special Warfare has been the branch magazine of the United States Army’s Special Forces—a formerly thriving place for discourse, disagreement, and discussion of the issues on the minds of the Army’s special operations professionals. The fact that it is no longer such a place is a loss for both Army special operations forces and the entire special operations community.
However, just as Special Warfare seemed to be nearing its end, the Irregular Warfare Initiative launched, bringing together practitioners and academics to discuss irregular warfare. The overlap between these audiences is not a perfect circle, but it is close. How could Special Warfare die and the Irregular Warfare Initiative thrive? Special Warfare benefitted from institutional support, a professional editing team, and a print shop. But Special Warfare’s most recent publication was a 7,168-word issue in March 2022. Three military officers found free time during their graduate studies to build the Irregular Warfare Initiative into an outlet that published 21,775 words last month alone. Dispassionate analysis would have favored Special Warfare, but the dedication of those professionals built the Irregular Warfare Initiative into a modern, multiplatform outlet.
The tale of these two outlets is reflected across the Army’s professional publishing landscape today. Like Special Warfare, other branch magazines are in decline, publishing fewer pages, less often, and to smaller audiences. But it doesn’t have to be this way. By either reforming the Army’s professional journals into modern multiplatform outlets powered by constantly renewing volunteers, or merging with an existing modern platform, branch magazines can again engage their specialist audiences, drive debate about emerging concepts and doctrine, and ready the Army for the next war.
Decline in Branch Magazines
If the Army is a learning organization, the Army’s branch magazines should create space for professional discourse. As Samuel Huntington described, military knowledge is “capable of preservation in writing . . . [and] essential to professional competence.” Effective branch magazines support a military culture that both learns and furthers the profession through writing and organic professional development. They share lessons, welcome innovative ideas, and foster communities of interest.
These magazines have existed alongside non-branch-specific publications in a robust ecosystem emblematic of a military that is not just an armed force, but a profession. For example, the Army’s strategy-focused journal is Parameters, the journal of the Army War College, while Military Review, the journal of the Army’s Command and General Staff College and a publication of the Army University Press “provides an established and well-regarded Army forum to stimulate original thought and debate on topics related to the art and science of land warfare.” Both of these have taken steps to modernize and reach their audiences on a publishing landscape vastly different, and much more digital, than when they began publishing—although more could be done. The Army War College augments Parameters with a robust podcast production, but the journal itself still publishes complete issues and individual articles only as PDF files, which are not mobile friendly. Military Review has better optimized its content for mobile, desktop, and printed forms, though the podcasts that complement it are limited.
Still, even with these and other publications adapted to modern publishing, there is a need for discussion spaces that are specific to particular functional areas and forums for explaining, digesting, or debating Army doctrine, policy, or other definitive information. This is where branch magazines, or some cases, professional bulletins, published by branch centers of excellence enter the picture. Branch magazines serve a crucial role in promoting lateral communication and sharing lessons across different units, but unfortunately, these are the publications that have modernized the least and have effectively lost their way.
This becomes clear by looking at Infantry, Armor, Field Artillery (published before 2020 as Fires), and Engineer—four magazines with strong relationships to core functions of the Army. From 1982 to 2020, these four branch magazines published fewer issues and fewer pages, more erratically, each year. Over the last four decades, the average number of issues dropped from 5.25 per branch per year to 3.5. The decline is also associated with the number of pages published, down from 1,114 pages in 1982 (278.5 per branch) to just 442 pages in 2020 (110.5 per branch).
The irregular publication schedule is also a concern. Although these magazines appear to aim for quarterly publication, their schedules vary. Armor published four issues in 2020, three in 2019, and three in 2018. Infantry published four in 2020, two in 2019, and four in 2018. Field Artillery published four, six, and seven, and although it seems to have had the goal of publishing four issues per year since it was rebranded from Fires in 2020, it fell short in 2022. Erratic publication schedules may make it more difficult for authors to commit to an outlet when other outlets promise timely publication.
Even for branch magazines with semiregular publication schedules, the decline in readership and engagement with audiences should concern Army leaders. Most Army branch magazines appear to have transitioned to the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) but without successfully engaging their community. Infantry transitioned to online-only in 2022. Engineer is online-only, now publishing only one issue a year.
While the precise meaning of the “hits” and “download” metrics displayed by DVIDS for each publication are unclear, these three magazines appear to have weak engagement. Infantry averaged 720 hits over six issues in 2022 and 2023. Engineer averaged 2,260 hits over two total issues in 2022 and 2023. Both averaged single-digit downloads for each issue. Similarly, no issue of Field Artillery published since 2020 has been downloaded more than six times. The remarkably low numbers of downloads of entire magazines suggest extremely small readership—especially because one of the downloads for each issue came when I coded the data. For purposes of comparison, an article I coauthored for the Modern War Institute garnered 38,627 pageviews on just the first day that it was published.
Social media is another aspect of professional engagement with these outlets worth considering. Modern and online-first military and defense outlets have significant followings. The Modern War Institute counts over sixty-eight thousand Twitter followers, while the Army University Press has just over seven thousand, and the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College, which publishes Parameters, has a little over five thousand. None of the four branch magazines under consideration have social media presences, and accounts associated with the branches do not widely promote magazine content. For example, the Twitter account for Fort Benning, the home of Army infantry, has over sixty-one thousand followers—an impressive reach that could drive attention to professional discussions relevant to the infantry. But I could only find five references to Infantry magazine among Fort Benning’s tweets, and three of those tweets described a poem published by the magazine—in 1956. Given the importance of social media in modern media consumption, the low follower counts for Army professional outlets suggest concerningly weak engagement.
Outdated and Ignored
The decline of military branch magazines can be attributed to two main reasons. First, their formats have not changed with the times. They continue to be published as entire issues, with long spaces of time between them, and entirely in PDF format. Meanwhile, new outlets like the Modern War Institute and War on the Rocks have proliferated. They feature modern, mobile-first formats and publish constantly, engaging with their readers on a daily basis. They also offer military writers fast publication and access to large audiences. Still, they cannot fully replace branch-specific professional publications. Because of their larger readership, they necessarily seek to publish on topics of interest to wide, diverse audiences, and are less likely to focus on the arcane topics that are of interest to military branch specialists.
Second, branch magazines lack a strong connection with the force. This is perhaps even true of Army journals like Parameters and Military Review. Since hiring the first civilian in about 1955, the portion of military personnel on the staff of Military Review, for example, has fluctuated from a low point of 23 percent in 1985 to a high point of 60 percent in 1990, but is now at 33 percent. Over the same period, the mean grade of Military Review staff has steadily increased from a junior major to a mid-grade lieutenant colonel. This shift in staffing has reduced connections with the operational and tactical levels of the force. It is reasonable to expect that similar patterns at the branch magazines—the staffs of which are composed of civilian editors—would also create a certain detachment from the force. This is not to denigrate the work of these editors, of course, but rather to suggest that adopting a model that also incorporated uniformed personnel would create a more organic connection between the publications and the communities of professional interest they serve.
What to Do
This article assesses that the Army’s branch magazines are sick—producing less content for a smaller audience and disconnected from their readers. To improve, they must modernize into multiplatform outlets, built around a core of contributing officers, that further professional debate. This begins with engaged editorial staffs and may require a shift in “ownership” of the publications back onto the professionals they serve.
Below, I present two options to address these problems. First, centers of excellence could share editorial control with select student editors as they come through schools and then as volunteer editors in the force as the Irregular Warfare Initiative does. Second, branch magazines could merge with another outlet, like the Modern War Institute, to publish their articles on dedicated channels on an existing platform. Of course, there is a third option—the Army could also do nothing—but this would effectively let these outlets continue to wither.
Sharing editorial control of a modernized, multiplatform magazine with a volunteer board of students in professional military education could take a form similar to the way law schools structure their legal journals. Law review editorial teams are typically structured across multiple years, with newer members starting by assisting and gradually taking on more responsibilities. The Army could do something similar, training military students as junior editors and then encouraging them to continue as volunteer editors when they return to the force. All outlets should establish editorial boards to remain synchronized with command priorities. Beyond the board, civilian public affairs professionals should continue to lay out articles, provide high-quality graphics, and provide other professional support. In any situation, some military and civilian staff will be crucial continuity that balances against the effects of cycling through new volunteer editors.
For branch magazines, the best place to pilot this style of editorial team is at the branch centers of excellence. Students in captains career courses who test well either in the writing portion of the GRE, the graduate school entrance exam that all students in these courses take, or during the courses’ writing modules could move into a writing elective or volunteer program that equips them to edit articles for their branch magazines. The overlap of many captains career courses would allow for a continually renewing cohort of officers to make connections, share in the experience of editing, and remain connected to the community after returning to the force as volunteer editors. Lieutenants should also be familiarized with their branch magazines, meet with student and professional editors, and be encouraged to submit articles.
Student participation is the strength of this option, building a core of stakeholders in the branch magazines’ success, increasing career-long engagement, and building officers’ communication skills, while ensuring content remains relevant to the active force. This option’s weakest point is in the required leadership engagement. Reviving branch magazines will require both attention and financial resources to modernize, select and train volunteers, and direct them to ensure it becomes a productive forum.
As a second option, branches could partner with an outlet like West Point’s Modern War Institute, as the Irregular Warfare Initiative did when it launched. Reduced costs and a wider audience are the strengths of this option. With the editorial and hosting burdens managed by an outside entity, branches would have the discretion to determine whether to invest in it as a platform. Potential investments might include essay competitions, conferences, or fellowships. As these investments would reach beyond a purely parochial audience, they could magnify impact and breadth of discussion.
Unfortunately, though, merging would decrease each command’s ability to message through a forum it controls to a specialist audience. For this reason, and because of the positive downstream effects of building a team that leverages military students as editors and encourages them to continue when they return to the operational force, I argue in favor of the first option. Still, both would improve the relevance and influence of branch magazines, making either of them better alternatives than the status quo.
One final element is worth noting: fixing article indexing. A key strength of professional journals is that their articles are preserved for future research. The institutional memory embodied by, for example, the Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library and other online indices make professional journals an important historical record. Regardless of which approach the Army adopts for its branch magazines, and even if it does nothing else, the articles should also be indexed. Indexing and adding modern metadata tags compliant with research tools like Zotero will make sure students in professional military education, doctrine writers, and others have easy access to these articles.
Branch magazines are not doomed to decline. The Pineland Underground podcast launched by the Special Warfare Center and School in July 2022 demonstrates that interest persists within the command to engage professionally. Professional, branch-specific publications improve professional expertise, help the Army develop lateral connections, surface ideas, build communities around shared problems, and improve writing skills. Healing the Army’s branch magazines is a worthwhile goal that requires sustained engagement.
To galvanize change, the Army should take the following steps. First, the incoming chief of staff should add the Army’s publications to his list of transition team priorities, study the Army’s publication infrastructure, survey soldiers who write and those who do not, and decide whether it is fit for purpose. Second, the Army should convene a publication summit to develop best practices for branch magazines. Finally, it should consider revising Army Pamphlet 25-40 to facilitate the transition to more modern formats.
At the branch level, leaders should reorganize their magazines into multiplatform outlets with a volunteer editorial team. Establishing the external editorial board and recruiting and training volunteers would likely take six to nine months. The first step should be to build a planning team. Inaugural board meetings could determine the parameters for the volunteer team, before launching the recruiting effort. With the external board established and volunteers recruited, the volunteers must then be trained and articles solicited.
Once reestablished, turnover in volunteer editors should create a virtuous cycle. Volunteers will develop a stake in the outlet, recruit the next cohort, continue to support the magazine when they return to the field, and then recommend their talented junior officers to volunteer in the future. After training, the volunteers would solicit, select, edit, and publish articles with support from the branch’s public affairs professionals. Volunteers could also manage the outlet’s social media presence and ensure it continues to reach its intended audience.
Deceased military journals litter history. The Military Service Institution of the United States sponsored a journal with support from the Army chiefs between 1879 and World War I. Armed Forces Journal ran from 1863 until 2014. While this article focused on the Army, all services should take a hard look at their professional publications. Building a military community invested in furthering the profession is tough. But reviving branch magazines will build a cohort of writers and thinkers that the Army will need to guide it through the next war.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.