Networks of Innovation

The New Yorker had an long (but I thought very interesting) article – Battle Lessons – some months ago on how soliders have developed novel learning networks/online communities to exchange knowledge about how to cope with constantly shifting guerrila war in Iraq.

From the article:


the Iraq that Wong found is precisely the kind of unpredictable environment in which a cohort of hidebound and inflexible officers would prove disastrous.

Yet he found the opposite. Platoon and company commanders were exercising their initiative to the point of occasional genius. Whatever else the Iraq war is doing to American power and prestige, it is producing the creative and flexible junior officers that the Army’s training could not.

The younger officers have another advantage over their superiors: they grew up with the Internet, and have created for themselves, in their spare time, a means of sharing with one another, online, information that the Army does not control. The “slackers” in the junior-officer corps are turning out to be just what the Army needs in the chaos of Iraq. Instead of looking up to the Army for instructions, they are teaching themselves how to fight the war. The Army, to its credit, stays out of their way.

In March of 2000, with the help of a Web-savvy West Point classmate and their own savings, [Majors Nate Allen and Tony Burgess] put up a site on the civilian Internet called Companycommand.com. It didn’t occur to them to ask the Army for permission or support. Companycommand was an affront to protocol. The Army way was to monitor and vet every posting to prevent secrets from being revealed, but Allen and Burgess figured that captains were smart enough to police themselves and not compromise security.

The sites, which are accessible to captains and lieutenants with a password, are windows onto the job of commanding soldiers and onto the unfathomable complexities of fighting urban guerrillas. Companycommand is divided into twelve areas, including Training, Warfighting, and Soldiers and Families, each of which is broken into discussion threads on everything from mortar attacks to grief counselling and dishonest sergeants. Some discussions are quite raw. Captains post comments on coping with fear, on motivating soldiers to break the taboo against killing, and on counselling suicidal soldiers. They advise each other on how to kick in doors and how to handle pregnant subordinates. Most captains now have access to the Internet at even the most remote bases in Iraq, and many say they’ll find at least ten or fifteen minutes every day to check the site. They post tricks they’ve learned or ask questions like this, which set off months of responses: “What has anyone tried to do to alleviate the mortar attacks on their forward operating bases?”

Little by little, the Army is absorbing Companycommand.com and Platoonleader.org. In 2002, West Point put Platoonleader on its server, and a year later added Companycommand; both sites now have military addresses. The Army also began paying the Web site’s expenses. It sent all four of its founders to graduate school to earn Ph.D.s, so that they can become professors at West Point, where they will run the sites as part of their jobs. And the Army is starting to pay the Web sites the sincerest form of flattery: in April, the commanding general of the First Cavalry Division, Major General Peter Chiarelli, ordered up a conversation site for his officers. Cavnet, as it’s known, exists only on siprnet, and is vetted, as an official Army site. “We had a guy put up something that wasn’t within the rules of engagement,” Major Patrick Michaelis, who created the site, told me, “and within half an hour the staff judge-advocate guys put a response up.” But, of all the Web-based means of sharing combat information, Cavnet is the most immediate. While call is used mostly in training units in the U.S., and both Companycommand and Platoonleader are intended to build leadership skills and share general tips and tricks about fighting in Iraq, Cavnet is oriented, Michaelis said, to “the next patrol, six to nine hours out.” Lieutenant Keith Wilson, for example, read a “be on the look out” posting about insurgents who were wiring grenades behind posters of Moqtada al-Sadr, counting on Americans to detonate the explosives when they ripped the posters down. He spread the word among his men, and a few days later a soldier whom he’d sent to peel a poster off a wall peeked behind it first. Sure enough, a grenade was waiting.

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