A core group of mid-grade officers are changing the way professional discussions, doctrinal analysis, and institutional innovations take place in the Army. Like the famous interwar dialogue between Patton and Eisenhower that later found battlefield application during WWII, this group is attempting to foster a smarter, more relevant Army. Unlike those dialogues, they are using the internet and military blogging to drive change and new ideas, aligning with the culture of innovation that defense leaders hope will ensure advantage over potential future adversaries. Initially born of tactical-level information sharing on junior-officer message boards during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this movement is comprised of officers now working at the field-grade officer level—Major through Colonel—having traded tactical discussions for institutional ones.
‘Bridge’ to Somewhere
One fundamental aspect of this movement is its self-directed nature, with officers taking it upon themselves to foster robust discussion on Army initiatives, publications, and formal doctrine as they are released. For example, a blog run by Nate Finney, Rich Ganske, and Mikhail Grinberg, The Bridge, takes on junior to mid-grade leaders’ (and even civilian defense professionals’) perspectives on everything from the elements of national power to recent military service concepts.
The first series run by The Bridge asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application and started a conversation on its application in our current national security space. The discussions were collected into a compendium and have been used in professional military education courses for multiple military services. The second focused on the recently-published Army Operating Concept and invited comments from military professionals and members of the public on the merits and failures of one of the Army’s most important institutional document for developing the future force.
Discussions created by this series led to yet another series on a subsequently published document, the Human Dimension White Paper. Discussion and critiques range from the value of the “human dimension,” to the way education and talent management should be handled, and to just how the Army should be structured in the future to focus on human capital. The provision of professional forums for the airing of ideas and concepts by junior, mid-grade, and senior leaders in the national security space can only improve our military and its personnel and creates discussions between professionals once only found in personal correspondence and in-person events.
The provision of professional forums for the airing of ideas and concepts by junior, mid-grade, and senior leaders in the national security space can only improve our military and its personnel.
Whereas before only a few perspectives on the art of leadership were heard, and often solely from one’s unit colleagues, now these discussions can take place on a worldwide scale, with NCOs, senior leaders, retirees, and even business leaders sharing, commenting, and contributing to the topics presented. Giving a new dimension to the Army’s perennial focus on the elements of leadership, forums such as From the Green Notebook represent a wide expansion of the officer professional development sessions typically conducted at the unit level. The site is a fertile ground for the sharing and shaping of ideas, enabling discussions to branch off into new and interesting directions.
Another forum, The War Council, takes on a broad variety of topics in an interdisciplinary spirit, from classic strategic thought to the implications of drones in warfare. Launched as a way to augment lessons from the strategic studies courses at West Point, the forum has since expanded to a host of bright and insightful people representing a broad variety of disciplines. The success of the West Point War Council prompted its creator, Matt Cavanaugh, to move its products and discussions online.
These were unique events for West Point. They gathered five panelists from separate academic departments to provide disciplinary perspectives. There were two rules, derived from the original traditions of military councils of war. First, War Council is multi-disciplinary and multi-perspective, given that war is too big to fit into one discipline. The second is that it is both an academic and professional exercise: Contributions must be non-partisan, idea-focused, and directly relevant to the study of the use of force.
The War Council website serves as an asynchronous companion and amplification for the physical events, enabling a wider audience. It posts essays from writers like Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, journalist and author Tom Ricks, Professor Robert Farley of Kentucky’s Patterson School, and Colonel (Ret.) Rick Swain, former Professor at the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. Additionally pertinent to students, the “Self Study” section includes 21 tabs with over 300 free videos, audio lectures, and articles and maps.Ten years ago, forums like these were not available to officer cadets and junior officers to read and contribute to, meaning today’s junior leaders are now able to begin their strategic education at an earlier stage, far earlier than any formal education the Army might provide.
The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, begun with its inaugural annual event in Chicago in October 2013, was launched outside of Department of Defense channels out of the desire to exchange ideas and foster innovation. DEF is the answer to the large and bloated forums such as the AUSA conference, which have come to favor canned speeches and networking with defense contractors over raw organizational innovation and the power of novel solutions to real-world problems.
Despite its existence outside of the establishment, DEF still has the power to foster change, such as in supporting humanitarian assistance operations as seen in the USNI Sponsored DEF Innovation Competition winner from this year, the Syrian Airlift Project. This idea, developed by Air Force Major Mark Jacobsen after his visit to the border of Turkey and Syria last year, is designed to support “those trapped in their own country [Syria], [where] supplies are increasingly hard to come by as both President Bashar al-Assad’s military and groups such as al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State restrict access to basic amenities in attempts to erode the morale of their enemies.” There are dozens of projects like the Syrian Airlift Project currently being developed by creative individuals in the military services.
A common philosophy among these forums is that they recognize it is time to struggle. It is time to take off the blinders and no longer be happy to simply follow, but instead dig deep into pertinent national security issues and develop a greater competition or marketplace of ideas. One way to do this is to harness the power and potential of these forums by creating a military blogging equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize—and actually make it something that matters. It should be a real award, supported by one or all of the military-services and affiliated support organizations (i.e. the Association of the United States Army). People respond to incentives and channeling that into building knowledge within the Profession of Arms could be hugely empowering and productive.
Though it remains to be seen if “big Army” and its sister services will elect to officially encourage the avenues of thought, innovation, and reflection popping up across the landscape, one thing is certain: The compartmentalization of professional discussion is over. No longer will good ideas and fresh perspectives be restricted to a unit, post, or email chain. Today, chiefly due to the congruence of technology and the desire among a group of young field grades to have their voices heard, the institutional monologue has developed into a dialogue, with a variety of fresh, unique voices emerging above the fray. By consciously devoting themselves anew to the key tenets of reading, writing, and reflection, these officers and the Army are better for it.
[Photo: Flickr CC: Georgia National Guard]
Major Matt Cavanaugh is an Army Strategist in the U.S. Army currently assigned to teach military strategy in the Defense & Strategic Studies Program at West Point. Major Cavanaugh is currently at work on a PhD dissertation on generalship under Professor Colin S. Gray at the University of Reading (UK). He blogs regularly at WarCouncil.org.
MAJ Nathan K. Finney is an Army Strategist in the U.S. Army, founder and managing editor of The Bridge, a founding board member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, founder and Managing Director of the Military Fellowship at the Project on International Peace & Security, and a member of the Infinity Journals Editorial Advisory Board. You can find him on twitter at @bareftstratgist.
MAJ John McRae is a full-time Army National Guard officer and student at the Naval War College’s College of Naval Command and Staff.
The views expressed in this piece are their own and do not reflect DoD policy.