Survival of the Best Informed

I attended LandWarNet last week, the annual gathering of the Army’s commo’s. It was a good show with plenty of interesting stuff on the show floor, reasonably in-depth technical sessions (could have been deeper IMO), and some really compelling keynotes. I don’t really attend these things for the keynotes, I attend for the hallway conversations, but a good keynote is hard to dismiss. (So is a cuddly battlefield comm vehicle):


General Mattis is a warrior. He was there representing Joint Forces Command, but he is first and foremost a Marine of the kind that gives you confidence to be in his presence. This man is a high priest of warfighting and he doesn’t make the mistake of an over-contemporized point of view. He brings a rich vocabulary of historical reference to his discussion of today’s warfighting issues. While he appreciates the value and benefits of a NetCentric force, he sees it through the perspective of history. He was quick to make the point that moments after an EMF pulse the NetCentric force is the one that was operating before the pulse without electronics – the post-apocalyptic resilience of the Amish manifested on the battlefield.

His key point was not to forget the lessons of history. Are we building Nelson’s Navy or Jellico’s? While Nelson’s officers interacted with him formally and informally to the point that they understood his thinking the way a good doubles partner can anticipate every move on the court, by Jellico’s day the emphasis was on the strict and efficient conformance to centralized orders. The result at Jutland was paralysis and failure. The British Navy had fallen hard and long from the halcyon days of Trafalgar.

The maneuverist understands that the value of NetCentricity is to distribute decision making by distributing the information necessary to take local initiative. But the darker side of networks is the tendency for them to enable (and coupled with the wrong incentives, encourage) Jellico’s style of centralization and control. Instead of self-synchronization, we end up with an over-dependence on over-staffed headquarters.

In Mattis’ mind, improvisation is the heart of the issue, and networks should be designed to support distributed innovation, not to centralize decision making or to emphasize adherence to an already obsolete plan. He reminds us that war is ultimately a moral exercise and that regardless of the completeness of our plans, a war is over when our enemy says it’s over, and not before.

I think I’ll write about this more later, but I don’t think the difference between Nelson and Jellico is quite captured in the idea of improvisation, though it makes a reasonable short hand for it. I think what is really at play is a fundamental difference in world view; it’s the difference between a reductionist approach to war and one that relies on emergence. Call it attrition vs. maneuver, planned vs. improvised, or something else, but on one hand is the reductionist idea that through the efficient application of force victory is guaranteed and on the other, the idea that war is a human undertaking and fundamentally chaotic.

General Ham, who actually spoke first, used the Berlin Wall as an exemplar to put forward the idea that closed societies fail while open ones thrive. He was specifically using this to drive home the idea that we need to better share information with our coalition partners, however, I think his point could be much more broadly interpreted.

As you might imagine at a U.S. Army commo conference, there was quite a bit of discussion of the issues with “web 2.0” and “social networking” tools. More often than not the views of the participants were completely at odds with the views of senior leaders like Lt. General Sorenson and the spirit of the remarks by General Ham. “Lock it down, this is crazy, this network belongs to the Army, if they want to check their Facebook they need to do it on an MWR network.”

While on many levels I’m sympathetic to the frustrations of the typical commo who’s network is getting pwnd every day, at a broader level this kind of thinking will create the kind of intellectually isolated organization that will eventually die.

The Neo-Darwinist say that it’s not so much the survival of the fittest, but the survival of the best informed. From the perspective of thermodynamics, living creatures that thrive are open systems that consume energy and matter at a rate greater than their competitors and who use it to reduce entropy (gain order) in their non-equilibrium states. In the information realm, the same thing seems to apply, a closed network dies, but the network with permeable boundaries, that can consume and disseminate information (and disinformation), and can operate in a state of disequilibrium, thrives.

So, while it may be a stretch to suggest that access to Facebook and Youtube is the mechanism by which the U.S. Army stays relevant as a living intellectual organization, I don’t believe isolation is the answer. An up-or-out organization such as the Army already suffers from institutional isolation based on its growth from within model, further isolating it is counter to its need to be a learning organization. Furthermore, the kinds of wars it will be fighting in the foreseeable future make it even more critical that on an institutional level it understands the world around it and that it can quickly reorient itself to changing enemies.

By the way, I thought it was great that both Ham and Mattis seemed to be channeling the ghost of Boyd. It is simply amazing the degree to which Boyd’s ideas have permeated the minds of our warfighting arms.

Were you there? What did you think?


  1. Jeff Carr - August 24, 2009 @ 9:25 am

    I wasn’t there, although I wish I had attended. Thanks for capturing the spirit of it with such a thought-provoking post, Jim.

    Going to go pass it around Twitter now. 🙂

  2. Perry - August 25, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

    I think a better analogy than the military is commercialism – if you don’t give your customers what they want/need, they are going to go elsewhere or fight you all the way and figure out away around your restrictions.

    Case in point: The article below talks about Marine problems with insurgents being able to effectively place IEDs even as the Marines traveled off-road “randomly.” The current system, Blue Force Tracker, did not allow recording of GPS coordinates, so they got civilian gear which could. The data showed that, although the trips were random, there were essentially locations where the vast majority of the convoys traveled, which was where the Taliban were placing their IEDs.

    There are many stories like this is the war where the troops had to find a way around the official solution. A huge waste of time and resources.

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