31 July 2009

Lt. Gen. Caldwell on The New Media

Note: This might be disjointed, but I'm tired, so deal with it.

Small Wars Journal linked to a great article written by Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the former 82nd Airborne Division Commander, regarding the impact of the New Media in the military.

Lt. Gen. Caldwell's embracing of these new social networking technologies represents the bridging of a significant generational gap that had existed in the Army between Gen-Y Soldiers and older senior leaders. I would say that the resistance and outrage I witnessed from senior leaders and instructors over the use of Facebook, Myspace and Youtube by senior leaders rivaled the outrage my parents probably heard from my grandparents over the Beatles.

What about blogs outraged the military's senior leadership? Mostly it was concern over potential security violations which might be posted on the Internet (coupled with a healthy dose of fear which often stemmed from the unknown). Granted, while there have been a few instances of security incidents on blogs and social networking sites, the security threat from blogs is not as great as one might initially think. An audit of various blogs revealed some 28 security violations on over 500 blogs, as opposed to over 1800 security violations on 800 official military websites. What accounts for this phenomenon? The writers at Wired.com suggest that it's because most milbloggers know that they have an audience—that's why they're milbloggers. (Ever notice how I use a lot of terms like "the other day", "somewhere or other", and very little talk about aircraft maneuvers, armament and defensive systems? That's because I know that the Virginia National Guard is watching).

Gen Y has had this beaten into their heads throughout most of their lives, with most of us having learned this lesson in high school or college as a result of something inevitably revolving around sex, alcohol, or minor vandalism.

When the ban on blogs went into effect in 2006, many outright ignored it. As Greyhawk at The Mudville Gazette is keen to point out, when milblogs are outlawed, only the outlaws will have milblogs. When the ban went into effect, I was a junior captain at Soto Cano Airbase in Honduras who was organizing wild toga parties and other debaucherous activities with the Air Force nurses at the Lizard Lounge, largely with the aid of Facebook and Myspace. Yes, in 2006, I was organizing libations with Air Force nurses--in 2009, Iranians organized protests against Ahmedinejad and his regime. How the world has changed...

Since I started blogging in 2003 on Livejournal (and serving as a moderator on my college's message board some years before that), I always had an overarching fear of being called into someone's office one day and being asked "Are you [whatever handle I'm using at that time]"? In many ways, it's encouraged a sense of restraint and civility which governed many of my posts which, strangely enough, I'm grateful for. Nevertheless, blogging as a hobby was definitely a bizarre, fringe activity that no one admitted to. (To a certain extent, it still is.)

Lt. Gen. Caldwell reports at Defenselink:

“I came into a culture that said, ‘Avoid the media at all cost. Absolutely nothing good comes out of a media engagement,’” he said.

He’s made a 180-degree turn in his thinking, he said, recognizing the military’s responsibility to keep the American public informed, and the importance of that understanding to ensure support for the mission. Now, as commander of the Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Caldwell is working to impress those concepts on future military leaders.

One of the first things he noticed after arriving at his post was that nobody was taking advantage of the social media tools that had proven so successful in Iraq. “Nobody was blogging. Nobody was going on YouTube,” he said.

As when he arrived at Multinational Force Iraq, Caldwell found these venues had been blocked, and military members weren’t allowed to use them. He set out to lift those prohibitions.

“For the first four or five months there, I kept working through the system to get permissions to allow us to blog, go on YouTube, play with Facebook,” he said. “I wanted to engage in these social media forums, and you just couldn’t get access to them on your military computers.”

But Caldwell met with red tape everywhere he turned -- until he mentioned his frustration to Casey, now Army chief of staff, during one of Casey’s monthly visits to the Combined Arms Center.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Just do it,’” Caldwell said. “And when I asked him if this meant he was giving his permission to do this, he said, ‘Absolutely.’ He said, ‘We have got to change the culture of the Army, and you can help make this happen.’”

Then-Army Secretary Pete Geren turned into another big advocate of giving soldiers access to social media.

Caldwell got the ball rolling at the Combined Arms Center by starting to blog on the center’s Web site. “I’m not a prolific blogger, but I recognize that if I don’t get on there periodically and do it, nobody else will,” he said. “I saw it as a venue to stimulate discussion. It was a great mechanism to reach out and touch a large portion of the United States Army about an issue we might want to talk about or dialog on.”

He recognized many soldiers’ resistance to blogging, especially after a Defense Department message had outright prohibited the practice in late 2006. Those willing to give it a try still felt hampered by longstanding approval chains that stilted opinion-sharing and individual expression.

So Caldwell began requiring his students to blog as part of their curriculum at the center. His goal, he said, is to help create a new generation of leaders who recognize the power of social media and help the Army change its cultural mindset so it’s able to embrace it.

“The idea is, once you have done it and have seen the power of social networking that can be done through the blogosphere, we are hoping that it becomes a routine habit they have through the rest of the academic year,” he said. “That way, by the time they graduate, they are comfortable doing it and recognize it as something they can use … as a great connectivity tool.”

I can't exactly place my finger on the turning point in the acceptance of blogs, nor can I really gauge how mainstream they have become. I would say that the growing popularity of sites like Small Wars Journal has certainly contributed to the acceptance of blogs. Nevertheless, I should also caveat that my perception of the sudden acceptance of milblogging might be due to the fact that I've kind of found a lot of (virtual) kindred spirits in the COINdinista milblogging community.

Focus: How prevalent and accepted is military blogging in the military? Do you have any anecdotes from your unit?

1 comment:

Boss Mongo said...

Bro: as one of the "old guys," I can tell you that, while I'm good with blogging/bloggers (obviously), I do view the truly individualized, more intimate MySpace/Facebook-type of virtual networking with some amount of trepidation.
This stems not so much from OPSEC concerns as it does from the facts that:
-Gen-Y and younger are, in this old codger's view, more than a little too casual about their privacy. Anecdotal evidence from my kids' friends is rife with incidents of exploitation because "kids these days" just put too much of themselves on the net. Which leads to--
-I think the flip side of OPSEC is targeting. If someone wants to establish a targeting baseline on a service member (either for something SAEDA-like or for more nefarious--read terrorist or criminal--- purposes), who is the more lucrative target, the relatively anonymous blogger posting about esoteric doctrinal topics (okay, and some good judo fighting and/or breakdancing stormtroopers) or the Gen-Y'er who has all his/her 5Ws, friends, hobbies, habits, likes and dislikes laid out like TA-50?