Networks of Knowledge: Three Steps to a Better Military Blogosphere

Image courtesy of the Petaluma Research Center. Image courtesy of the Petaluma Research Center.

I recently co-wrote an essay over at Cicero Magazine – “The Long Gray Online: Driving Military Leadership and Innovation Online.”  The combined essay was a look into the voluntary, part-time military blogging efforts of a few mid-career officers (Major Nate Finney at The Bridge, Major Joe Byerly at From the Green Notebook, Major John McRae, and myself here at WarCouncil).  It was nice, but, if I were being (self)critical, I would say the essay is somewhat self-congratulatory and a bit over the top:

“…a core group of mid-grade officers are changing the way professional discussions, doctrinal analysis, and institutional innovations take place in the Army. Like the famous interwar dialogue between Patton and Eisenhower that later found battlefield application during WWII, this group is attempting to foster a smarter, more relevant Army. Unlike those dialogues, they are using the internet and military blogging to drive change and new ideas.”

Snarky response: Can I be Marshall? (Actually, I’d be lucky if the other guys didn’t just call me “Mr. Pink” and tell me to sit quietly in the corner.)

On the one hand, this credit is entirely merited.  This is hard work.  Unpaid.  Taken from personal time.  I like to say that WarCouncil was born at 4 A.M. – a reference to the literal time each day that I write online content.  No kidding, I’m actually pedaling my newborn baby’s crib device with my left foot as I type these sentences (she’s not sleeping the full night yet, and I have the early shift so my wife can get some sleep).  So I do think recognition is in order (I prefer cash, but I’ll take plastic).

But still, count me as a skeptical member of this Cicero-led praise-singing choir. I have doubts. I think there is some value in these efforts, but it’s too soon to quantify.  If WarCouncil was born at 4, then the military blogging clock currently reads 4:03 A.M. These efforts have just gotten going; they’re still rough and scattered across the internet’s vast content expanse.  Moreover, how impactful, really, are these websites?  On actual self-study, on real policy – have they shaped opinion for the better?  I’d like to think so, I really would, but the academic part of me screams to withhold judgment.

My mushy middle position, then, is that we’ve gotten some important conversations going and stimulated a bit of discussion. However, there is still a long way to go and much to do to make these efforts more meaningful and more impactful.  For starters, and this is something that I’ve kicked around: how do I integrate WarCouncil into this emergent network of knowledge? How do I support and augment the The Bridge and From the Green Notebook? These are parallel efforts, and, whereas most of the internet seeks zero-sum dominance – the editors at these other sites have the job security of the Profession of Arms.  In short, we’re not in this for the money.  Keeping that in mind, where do we go from here, and how do we make the sum of these web-writing activities greater than their individual parts?

What follows is a short concept sketch for taking these networks of knowledge forward, three steps that would bring us a better military blogosphere – it’s time to schedule, synchronize, and struggle.

Before we go anywhere, we must fill our intellectual tank with fuel.  And here, that fuel is time.  The Profession of Arms must make time for personal initiatives that clearly support broader self-study.  Here’s where we go wrong: consider that the US Army requires professional education (i.e. Intermediate Level Education for majors) but does not resource the time to complete it for roughly half the student population. This forces officers to study online while working full-time in serious national security roles.  Yet we wonder why cynicism about education abounds. This should, and could, not be the case – if this Intermediate Level Education is actually important, then why not allocate dedicated time to actually undertake it?  Similarly, if an officer has developed a clearly-beneficial online side project (i.e. The Bridge), then why not allow that officer one day per week to develop that effort (echoing Google’s famous “20% time” for personal projects).  This would not be hard to “vet” for the big Army – the digital proof would be in the public pudding. If the person granted 20% time is not making demonstrable progress on the project, then they lose the privilege. The recent major wars are on the downslope, but will not be for long. Why not dedicate some period of time, every day or week, for individual study initiatives like WarCouncil.org and the rest that were mentioned in the Cicero article?

With the time resource firmly in place, we can move on to synchronizing these efforts. It is time for tighter cross-website integration, particularly across the traditional military services (i.e. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines). Nate Finney at The Bridge has admirably led this effort so far – he’s actively sought out cross-service dialogue (or, with four services, is that quad-ilogue?) and expanded these linkages.  Finney’s work on the compilation of essays with the Navy (and other services!) folks at the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) can be broken down into a simple equation: successful joint essay campaigns = successful joint military campaigns.  When I started working out the new WarBooks site, I sent a note over to Finney asking for help growing the list of contributors.  He quickly responded and started getting the word out.  I don’t just write that for commentary on his personal generosity (which I’m sure is as vast as the ocean); it’s more that I see this help as the sort of micro-interaction that these networks are made of.  More cooperation is in order. I’m not entirely sure what that looks like, or how much time it would tack on to an already 26-hour workday, but I’d be game to figure out efficient, low-cost, elegant ways of collaborating more effectively with the other efforts out there.

Lastly: time to get the knives out.  Let’s compete.  Let’s struggle. Why not create a military blogging Pulitzer Prize? Something that matters, a real award, supported by one of the military-service affiliated support organizations (i.e. the Association of the United States Army? The United States Military Strategists Association? Think tank?). It wouldn’t have to cost much (if anything), entrants could self-register; “voting” could balance elite “thought leader” opinion (quality) with the wishes of the masses (quantity).  I believe this has existed before in some fashion, but I am not aware of any current efforts. In short, people respond to incentives and we can harness that for the good of the Profession of Arms.

So who wants in?

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Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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