Military brass joins wired troops

Admirals and generals hope to connect with soldiers via their own Facebook pages and blogs. But will they tweet?

Wired: Many of the troops in today’s war zones have easy access to the Internet. Pvt. Mike Farra kept in touch with his family from Afghanistan.

Some of the US military’s top flag officers are becoming dedicated bloggers and attempting to change the military and extend their reach, one Facebook “friend” at a time.

They are using the Internet and social media to reach down within their own traditionally top-down organizations – and outside them, too – to do something the military isn’t known for: creating more transparency to empower young military leaders and the public.

Some senior officers say transforming the military means more than buying next-generation vehicles or developing new training. It’s giving more people more access to what they’re doing and thinking. That’s already happening as top officers create their own blog sites and Facebook pages in order to keep pace with the plugged-in, hyperconnected charges they lead.

Gen. William Ward, head of US Africa Command, and his staff use the Internet to explain the new command’s purpose to a wary audience. Adm. James Stavridis uses Facebook and other online portals to promote his ideas about how to use “soft power” to win over other countries. And Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, has a running dialogue online about how he is trying to transform his organization. Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of US Northern Command, in Colorado Springs, Colo., also has a Facebook page. But with 48 friends, he’s just getting started.

“We need to understand that we are not living in the same social environment that we grew up in,” says Admiral Allen, who announced a new information “revolution” – not in a press release or an “all hands memo” but on YouTube, the popular online video site.

Allen is embracing the medium-is-the-message in hopes of connecting with the very people he hopes to influence as he sets a course to engage the rank and file and the public at large on his wide-ranging ideas.
“This is a permanent feature of our environment, and we need to understand how to operate in it, communicate with our people, and put out policies and let them understand what the organizational intent of the Coast Guard is and what we expect of them,” he says.

What’s he talking about? Allen wants to make junior leaders smarter about where he is taking his organization, thus empowering them to interpret his message to act on their own. That means, in part, daily blogging on his site about his travels, his thoughts, and people he meets.

On Monday, for example, Allen blogged about Martin Luther King Day and Inauguration Day, saying the two days were having an “electrifying effect” on Washington.

But it’s more than just a barrage of his thoughts in daily bytes and pieces. Some senior officers like Allen want to see the military harness social media like blogs and Facebook to help shape the public debate about national security policy by providing more information to those with a vested interest in a given topic.

In this way, the military could take a page from Wikipedia, the user-based, online encyclopedia that has redefined the way the public thinks about reference sources. Wikipedia allows anyone to contribute or modify entries on any of its millions of subjects, and those lacking factual grounding are flagged by other users.

Members of the military operating within a closed network or the public operating in a more open online setting could help shape national security policy in much the same way, creating a product that results from a far more transparent process than exists now.

“I think we need ‘wiki’ security,” says Admiral Stavridis, head of US Southern Command, who’s an avid blogger with 249 friends on his Facebook page. Last week, he noted on Facebook that he would be traveling to Washington for a conference on deterrence. That posting alone could lead any one of his Facebook friends to post a thought on national security or provide other feedback that could help influence his thinking as a senior leader. “In so many areas, I think you can be transparent,” he says.

General Ward’s staff hopes to create a Facebook page soon, and they’ve experimented with their own page on YouTube. The US military typically blocks access of its own computer networks to networks such as Facebook, forcing defense officials to use work-arounds on their personal computers.

As social media expands and its value becomes more apparent, those kinds of policies may be reassessed, defense officials say. Meanwhile, sites like Small Wars Journal (SWJ), a respected online forum, offer warrior academics a chance to vet ideas and build consensus.

“It connects the top thinkers on the direction the military should go as it adapts to the wars in the 21st century,” says John Nagl, a former Army officer and author who is a regular part of the debate on SWJ. “It allows instantaneous feedback and ideas to be debated in real time, and it accelerates the debate.”

Mr. Nagl says such discourse throws military conventions on their head and challenges the traditions of chain of command that assume the smartest people able to make the best decisions are at the top. Yet all agree that social networks like Facebook and media such as Small Wars Journal will play a large role in the future.

“Innovative, forward-looking officers are clearly all over it,” says Nagl.

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