March 01, 2009

Counterinsurgency and the New Media

So a few weeks ago, when I posted my controversial "winners and losers" from the new Tom Ricks book, I asked why Tom had ignored the impact of the new media on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Ricks cited a discussion on Small Wars Journal once and also cited some things on but never considered the way in which the new media has revolutionized the lessons learned process in the U.S. military. (Forget Abu Muqawama, though, because this lowly blog started around the same time as the surge.) Instead of just feeding information to the Center for Army Lessons Learned and waiting for lessons to be disseminated, junior officers are now debating what works and what doesn't on closed internet fora -- such as PlatoonLeader and CompanyCommand -- and open fora, such as the discussion threads on Small Wars Journal. The effect of the new media on the junior officers fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was left curiously unexplored by Ricks, now a famous blogger himself.

That got our friend (and more responsible blogging cousin) Dave Dilegge thinking, and so Dave asked a bunch of bloggers and counter-insurgency theorists to ponder the question of how the new media has affected operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and institutional learning. Folks interviewed included Spencer Ackerman, Tom Barnett, Janine Davidson, Grim from Blackfive, Judah Grunstein, Dave Kilcullen, Raymond Pritchett, Mark Safranski, Herschel Smith, Starbuck, Michael Tanji, and Michael Yon. I particularly liked something Janine had to say:

Military learning -- from the western frontier to now -- has always been enabled by what Keith Bickel calls "informal doctrine.” These sources become critical when formal doctrine is off base or lags behind new techniques and threats. During the Banana Wars, the USMC devoured the Marine Corps Gazette, where that era's thought leaders and vets were publishing their experience and insight from their tours in the Caribbean. These articles eventually framed the Small Wars Manual.

Today this dialogue and debate is taking place in print and "new" media. For our community Small Wars Journal and Abu Muquama provide the key fora. These are not just places to pontificate (though we do that too) but rather sites where serious thought leadership and learning is taking place. And yes, the hosts of these sites are making an enormous difference.

I realize this post could fall under "navel-gazing" and of course appreciate people like Janine telling us how important we are, but as someone who studies the way military organizations learn, I am particularly fascinated by the way in which tactical leaders have used Web 2.0 to innovate on the battlefield. Many thanks, Dave, for submitting this RFI. I would now like to hear from tactical operators in the field. If you are a veteran of either Iraq or Afghanistan, write in and say whether or not sites like Abu Muqawama or Small Wars Journal or PlatoonLeader have affected the way you think or the way in which your unit did business on the ground. Because I could just have an over-inflated sense of my own importance. (Which would surprise exactly no one.)

Read the rest of Dave's collection here (.pdf).