Internet Communities and Learning in the Military

From the 2005 Jan 17 New Yorker, a fascinating look at how grassroots communities using Internet tools have successfully created a different kind of learning culture within the US officer corps (note that the article goes on to point out that the military is investing in PhDs for the creators of these sites so that they can teach at West Point): Battle Lessons [pdf]

[…] 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 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,

[…] Beyond the how-to details, the Web sites offer the comfort of connection to a brotherhood of officers who are trying to master the same impossible job. “Their stories prepare you mentally for what it is you’ll be facing when you get here,” Meeks wrote in a long e-mail from Iraq. “What they actually did is of limited value,” Miseli said. “It’s the why, and the thought process.” Companycommand’s membership more than doubled last year, to ten thousand, or more than a third of all captains in the Army; they went to the site sixty-seven thousand times and looked at more than a million pages.

Officer after officer told me that they use CALL when they have the leisure, but it’s Companycommand or Platoonleader they check regularly and find most useful. […]