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Ray
08 May 08,, 16:35
Internet Connects Future Army Leaders with Virtual 'Front Porch'
David Axe | Bio | 06 May 2008
World Politics Review Exclusive

WEST POINT, New York -- It was a decades-old Army tradition that junior officers would eat lunch together every day in Army-run dining halls. There they would trade ideas they'd picked up in their training. But in the last decade, to save money, contractors such as Kellogg, Brown and Root have replaced the old dining halls with civilian-style cafeterias, some boasting big-screen TVs. The officers stopped gathering . . . and stopped talking. That had the effect of isolating young leaders, preventing them from getting answers to life-and-death questions -- and from sharing their own answers they might have learned the hard way.

Lt. Cols. Tony Burgess and Nate Allen were captains in the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division in the mid-1990s when they started noticing the absence of this traditional "informal knowledge-sharing." Besides the demise of old-school chow halls, a growing wave of political correctness had killed off the tradition of leaders drinking together at the Officer's Club after work. So Burgess and Allen instead had taken to hanging out on each other's front porches at night, talking shop. But they wanted some way to bring more people into the conversation. They turned to what was, for the mainstream Army, a fairly new technology: the Internet.

Ten years later, Burgess and Lt. Col. Pete Kilner oversee a family of password-protected, Army-sanctioned, Web-based forums that connect officers all over the world -- including many in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their so-called "Center for Company-Level Leaders," nestled in an airy office at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, has become the high-tech chow hall/o-club/front porch for a generation of wartime leaders.

Getting from those front porches in Hawaii to the Army's intellectual fortress at West Point was a long, hard journey. The forums braved skeptical generals, meddlesome reporters and the perennial scourge of the modern Internet: malicious commenters called "flamers." But the results speak for themselves. From humble beginnings -- maybe 50 legitimate participants per day -- the forums now engage thousands of officers on a daily basis. And the ideas they've discussed have helped shape the Army at a critical juncture in its history: locked in a low-intensity, global war against a clever, elusive, Internet-savvy enemy.

The Army's Internet Trailblazers

In the 1990s, many intellectually isolated officers didn't even realize that they were missing out on a key aspect of their development. It even surprised Burgess when he and his friends' porch conversations started "changing the effectiveness of our units."

"It's ridiculously simple, this idea," Burgess said on a sunny day in late April at West Point. Elsewhere on campus, cadets attended classes, studied for exams and participated in training such as a "cyber defense exercise," where they had to defend a computer network against hackers. The Internet touches almost all aspects of Army training these days. But when Burgess and his partners pioneered their forums, that wasn't at all the case. Burgess said many Army officers didn't even use email in the late 1990s.

Regardless, he and Allen decided to launch their Web site, Companycommand.com, in 2000. It was "pure HTML," "informal and unofficial" and "updated monthly," Burgess said. Modeled on a then-popular (but now defunct) sportsman's forum, Companycommand.com was little more than several separate forums under a single home page, each devoted to an aspect of military command. On one extreme, posters addressed mundane (but important) subjects such as taking inventories; on the other, they tackled the weightiest subjects possible: from how to handle the death of a soldier to the Army's purpose after the end of the Cold War.

The forums compressed a junior officer's learning curve. Before, it would take a typical officer more than a year to "figure it out," Kilner said -- and by then the officer was in the final months of his command. "By the time I got good [at command], I was almost done," Kilner recalled.

The Web site "made the whole force better," said Maj. Tyson Voelkel, a West Point instructor who uses the forums to help connect cadets to serving officers deployed to war zones.

Companycommand.com exploded, nearly doubling its readership every couple months. When Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks mentioned the forums in a column, thousands more readers flocked in. Burgess and Allen, managing the site in their free time, usually late at night, struggled to keep up. In 2002, they "gifted" the site to the Army and changed the URL. Nevertheless, people still called the forums "Companycommand."

Closing Ranks

In 2003, spending money they raised by publishing a book on leadership development, the Companycommand team transitioned to a dedicated forum-management software. Traffic continued to grow. Then, in 2004, reporter Ricks, who earlier had helped the site so much by mentioning it in the Washington Post, published a story that "cherrypicked" some controversial testimonies from some officers' forum posts. "It was salacious," Kilner said.

Prior to this, the forum had benefited from a low profile: There were, after all, some gray-haired old generals who worried that grass-roots-style officer education might weaken rigid military hierarchies that had been developed over centuries. Until these men retired, it was wise for Companycommand to avoid the spotlight. With Ricks' story, however, the site and its anarchic character stood front and center. Burgess and Allen reacted by installing a registration function. Before, anyone with an Internet connection could log onto Companycommmand. Now, participants had to register with an official "Army.mil" email address.

In an instant, the site lost 60 percent of its readers -- the percentage that they realized were mere "voyeurs."

"We didn't know what was going to happen when we went to closed forums," Burgess said. "But my experience is that the quality has gone up." In the case of Platoonleader.org, a separate forum modeled on Companycommander, non-military participants had actually been a serious problem before its own registration wall went up: Kilner said 20 percent of all posts were flames. As a result, many serious, professionally minded platoon leaders had avoided the site.

Following the lock-down and the loss of voyeur visitors, traffic at Companycommand eventually recovered and acceptance spread. Burgess moved to West Point, where he was joined by Kilner. The two plan to close out their careers as shepherds not only of Companycommand, but also of Platoonleader. To that group Burgess and Kilner added a Web site for the leaders of Army Family Readiness Groups, unit-level organizations of soldiers and their families. A new name was in the offing: Center for Company-Level Leaders.

Army in the Lead Online

Although they would never agree with the term, today Burgess and Kilner function as insurgents in the heart of the Army's intellectual citadel. To supplement a meager budget, they raise their own money by publishing books. Instead of just publishing forums, they have quietly taken on new projects, including interactive, video-based ethics training for cadets. Though their methods are unconventional, they stress that their values are strictly in line with the larger Army's. "If our values weren't in line with the institution's, we'd have been crushed -- and rightly so," Kilner said.

That the Army hasn't crushed the forums speaks to the service's comparative progressiveness when it comes to the Internet. The Air Force, a lead agency for "cyberwarfare," has taken a defensive stance, even blocking access on its official networks to many popular websites. One Coast Guard admiral in March blamed the Internet for unfairly spreading bad news about that service's shipbuilding programs. The Navy, too, has struggled with the democratic nature of sites authored by sailors. A blog published aboard the U.S.S. Russell destroyer several times has run afoul of the Navy public affairs apparatus.

West Point cadets, who grew up with computers as constant companions, stress that forums really aren't as new and strange as some in the military seem to believe. "Everybody tells stories. Everybody learns from stories," said Cole Moses, a senior who this year will enter the Army as an infantry officer. "This just makes it easier."

You can check out the forums' public portal at http://companycommand.army.mil/aboutccl/.

David Axe is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., and a frequent World Politics Review contributor.

Photo: Army cadets at a network-defense exercise at West Point in April 2008 (Army photo)

World Politics Review | Internet Connects Future Army Leaders with Virtual 'Front Porch' (http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=2068)



There is no doubt that there is no substitute for practical knowledge.

The internet is a good way to ensure interaction and exchange of such knowledge.

However, one wonders in today's world of sophistication, how secure it can be.

Yet, it is better than nothing!!

Shek
08 May 08,, 16:45
There is no doubt that there is no substitute for practical knowledge.

The internet is a good way to ensure interaction and exchange of such knowledge.

However, one wonders in today's world of sophistication, how secure it can be.

Yet, it is better than nothing!!

Sir,

It is secure in that the site now sits behind the Army's firewalls.

The officers who founded this site are phenomenal, and not just because one of them is a neighbor! The interactive ethics training that is mentioned in the article is some of the best that the cadets have received because unlike many scenarios in standard training, it puts cadets in the middle of a gray situation instead of a black or white situation where the answer is obvious. It forces them to think through their reaction and ponder the second and third order effects.

Ray
08 May 08,, 17:50
Shek,

Why can't you post some of the important issues after getting clearance?

I am sure there are subjects that are not classified!

Or get them to have a inter army internet of friendly countries so that one could exchange ideas?

Ray
08 May 08,, 17:52
Shek,

I am still awaiting how I can subscribe to the Counter Terrorist portal of West Point that you introduced us to.

Shek
08 May 08,, 18:24
Shek,

I am still awaiting how I can subscribe to the Counter Terrorist portal of West Point that you introduced us to.

Sir,

Here's the link to the CTC. To download some of the materials, you'll need to create an account. I can't find a specific signup, so I think it appears when you try to access particular files.

Welcome to the Combating Terrorism Center (http://ctc.usma.edu/default.asp)

Ray
08 May 08,, 18:43
Shek,

Tell your org that we are on the same side.

Don't give full access, but give some!

My own Colonel Adm is a big dad in the CI scene and I want him to understand the situation.

He recently went to the US, invited by the US govt and the military,on a lecture tour!

Shek
08 May 08,, 18:49
Shek,

Tell your org that we are on the same side.

Don't give full access, but give some!

My own Colonel Adm is a big dad in the CI scene and I want him to understand the situation.

He recently went to the US, invited by the US govt and the military,on a lecture tour!

Sir,

I had to request a login/password as well! My guess is that the CTC wants to keep track of whose using their research.

Officer of Engineers
08 May 08,, 18:50
Major,

Is there a firewall issue where participants from outside of North America and Europe cannot access?

Shek
08 May 08,, 20:57
Major,

Is there a firewall issue where participants from outside of North America and Europe cannot access?

Sir,

I'm not aware of one. Mr. Zawahiri was able to find it:

Zawahiri Citing Stealing AQ's Playbook (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1172754576785196282&q=zawahiri+combating+terrorism+center&ei=ClsjSOHwG4mUrwLVx5jTAg)

S2
08 May 08,, 22:21
The Harmony data-base alone is stunning with it's cross-indexed topics that link to CTC studies and profiles of these irhabist theorists. Very cool and easy to use.

I see General (Ret.) Abizaid's moving into the neighborhood.