Thursday, January 13, 2005

Ingenuity

From the New Yorker:
Majors Nate Allen and Tony Burgess became friends at West Point in the nineteen-eighties, and at the end of the nineties they found themselves commanding companies in separate battalions in the same Hawaii-based brigade. Commanding a company is often described as the best job in the Army; a company is big enough to be powerful and small enough to be intimate. But the daily puzzles a company commander faces, even in peacetime, are dizzying, and both Allen and Burgess felt isolated. “If I had a good idea about how to do something, there was no natural way to share it,” Allen said. “I’d have to pass it up, and it would have to be blessed two levels above me, and then passed down to Tony.” Luckily, they lived next door to each other and spent many evenings sitting on Allen’s front porch comparing notes. “How are things going with your first sergeant?” one would ask. Or “How are you dealing with the wives?” “At some point, we realized this conversation was having a positive impact on our units, and we wanted to pass it along,” Allen told me. They wrote a book about commanding a company, “Taking the Guidon,” which they posted on a Web site. Because of the Internet, what had started as a one-way transfer of information—a book—quickly became a conversation.
...
In March of 2000, with the help of a Web-savvy West Point classmate and their own savings, they 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. Soon after the site went up, a lieutenant colonel phoned one of the Web site’s operators and advised them to get a lawyer, because he didn’t want to see “good officers crash and burn.” A year later, Allen and Burgess started a second Web site, for lieutenants, Platoonleader.org.

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?”
This kind of decentralized information sharing should be emulated by other bureaucracies. I especially hope someone at the FBI reads this New Yorker piece.

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