Management / The American View: The Forever Chore

The American View: The Forever Chore

A lot has changed in the tech world since the 9/11 attacks . Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger projects from experience how the use of commercial consumer technology will continue to change the military’s prosecution of America’s longest military conflict.

Today is the seventeenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. An American child born on 11th September 2001 is now legally allowed to join the US military [1]. He or she can’t deploy into combat immediately, but that’s fine … it takes a while to convert a young civilian into a qualified soldier. By the time he or she is mission-ready, the ongoing conflagrations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen will almost certainly still be up-and-running (and will likely have branched out into yet-another franchise location). A child that has only ever known global war with the (al-Qaeda/ISIL/Daesh/apocalyptic death cult) crowd will have a fighting chance to contribute directly to the so-called ‘Forever War.’ That’s … exhaustingly depressing.

Rather than go on a long rant about geopolitics, war, and/or horror, I want to take a moment to explore how our theoretical Army enlistee differs from those of us who were already in uniform in 2001, and how the insane pace of technological change has affected the military – and every other endeavour – over the course of the Forever War.

Speaking of, that relationship is one of the reasons why squaddies have ignored the ridiculously-named ‘Global War on Terrorism’ (GWOT) and started calling it the ‘Forever War.’ In Joe Halderman’s 1974 award-winning anti-war novel of the same name, Earth gets into an interstellar war with an alien species. Soldiers that venture off-world to fight are subject to relativistic effects. Decades pass between the time they leave earth and return; the war itself takes a millennium from start to finish, and all of society changes so much that the returning soldiers can’t readjust. More importantly, it’s revealed at the end of the story that the humans responsible for starting the war always knew that it was unjustified; they were using war mobilization for personal profit (at the expense of the grunts who were sent into the void to die for nothing).

If you think 5th generation fighter jets are expensive, imagine the profit margin potential on building and maintaining interstellar military spaceships. 

Without touching on the obvious contemporary GWOT conspiracy theories at all, recall that Halderman’s sci-fi epic was a thinly-veiled story about his experiences in America’s iteration of the Vietnam War [2]. The glaringly obvious parallels between Halderman’s writing and the GWOT are glaringly obvious to many uniformed members who have been caught up in this endless slog. Hence, the war’s unofficial nickname. [3]

The reason that I bring this up is because the notional 16-year-old having a birthday today has grown up in a period of staggering technological, social, and business change. When he/she was born, networked computers were only just starting to go mainstream and were still very crude. The 1,500-person unit I was assigned to on 9/11 had about 200 Windows NT machines chugging along slowly on a Banyan Vines network where Internet connectivity was restricted to only a few senior officers. Battlefield command and control depended on radios. Today, our war-fighters have always-on access to massive cloud-computing clusters that support everything from real-time Augmented Reality to high-speed C3ISR feeds from hundreds of drones, warplanes, and satellites.

In a similar vein, today’s notional 16-year-old can stroll into a shop and purchase a 4G iPhone X that has more connectivity and computing power than my entire department had on 9/11. I was showing a colleague a copy of the old print magazine that I used to publish for my military unit during that period. The cover on it was taken from a scan of a printed 35mm photo; that scan took my wheezing top-of-the-line Pentium Pro 29.5 hours to complete. Today, I could have captured that same cover-worthy colour photo with my consumer grade iPhone and gone straight to pre-press in under five minutes.

We could go on; suffice it to say that nearly everything about how we work, what we work with, and how long we expect things to take has changed dramatically over the last sixteen years. A grunt who deployed to Kabul right after 9/11 and returned to the USA today (Halderman-style) would still recognize mainstream culture but would be overwhelmed by the seismic changes in new technologies and how we leverage them.

We can pay for purchases with a ‘smart watch’ today. Assume that a grunt will use that exact same tech to approve an airstrike request in the middle of a firefight tomorrow.

Fortunately, our squaddies don’t have to worry much about relativistic effects. First, because it’s only a multi-day jump in and out of the war zone. Second, because all of the new tech that’s blossomed in civilian life has made it to the battlefield in near real-time. That’s … useful. It’s also horrible from a security and management perspective. When new tech and new techniques flow into a combat zone before they’ve had a change to be understood and integrated with doctrine, bad things happen. Well-meaning troopers who are motivated to ‘make the mission happen’ experiment with the tools they have at the far corners of what’s allowed by law and regulation. The results can be stunning and awful in equal measure. Examples from my own experience include:

  • When we deployed our first squadron of grunts in preparation for the US invasion of Afghanistan, we had to craft entirely new classes for the deployers’ friends and families about the dangers of sharing sensitive military information. Note that this preceded contemporary social media.
  • During the first phase of the Iraq Invasion, we had to develop all-new processes for ‘morale call’ routing after some of our fliers shared the ‘restricted’ call-forwarding number on our unit telephone switch with everyone on their airbase. This unauthorized share cost our unit thousands of dollars in unauthorized long-distance commercial phone service charges as everyone on the base used our switch to phone their friends and family back home ‘for free.’
  • When our unit started ‘rolling rotations’ of aircrew and planes into Bagram Airfield, it was forbidden by regulation for anyone other than official military photographers to capture images in the war zone … While the Bagram BX sold digital cameras and satellite dishes that let troopers get commercial broadband in their tent cities so they could send ‘happy snaps’ home … and post to Facebook.

To say nothing of the herculean efforts invested in rooting out and sterilizing caches of pirated movies, music, and … er … ‘inappropriate’ digital content.

In the uniformed world, as in the civilian world, the unrelenting arrival of new technology meant that laws, regulations, processes, and precedent simply couldn’t keep up with all of the new ways that tech helped clever people exploit blind-spots and loopholes in standard business practices. On the one hand, it was a great time for business IT to innovate and break new ground. On the other hand, it made military IT absolutely miserable … for the exact same reason.

The military has historically depended on industry to bring it new tools in order to support new doctrine, from rifled muskets to airplanes to satellite comms. This new era of lightning change, though … this seems different. Our notional 16-year-old enlistee isn’t just going to be transitioning into a military with different rules, tools, and practices from civilian society; our enlistee is going to be expected to help create the military’s rules for employing the new tools that leak in from civilian life, and thereby radically change the Army’s practices in response to rapidly-evolving conditions.

You may not have noticed that the MoD published a new doctrinal publication on 1st September titled ‘Using Social Media in the British Army.’ I’ll bet a hundred quid that a new recruit who signs up today will be sent a link to it as part of his or her on-boarding process. They’ll doubtless get taught rules and expectations as part of basic training. They’ll see their mates screw things up and get punished for violating one or more critical rules that it teaches. This is normal.

What isn’t normal (compared to previous wars’ pace of change) is that this publication will almost certainly have to be updated before our notional recruit graduates from basic training. Will Twitter will still exist in six months or will its stance on supporting far-right voices tank its business model? Will Facebook’s data slurping habits go too far and make it off-limits to active service personnel? Will some new social media platform come out of nowhere and present an entirely unexpected new way to commit unintentional career suicide? No matter what, tech companies will keep innovating, businesses will keep coming up with new services, soldiers will keep exploring the fringe uses of new products and services, and the military brass will be forever scrambling to catch up.

In past conflicts, the age difference between the senior leaders and the line grunts wasn’t terribly significant; everyone shared a common level of familiarity with the technologies of the day. In this war, we have 50 and 60 year old generals commanding teenagers. The cultural, sociopolitical, and technological proficiency gaps between the two ends of the rank spectrum are … daunting. 

As for our notional new recruit, he or she may very well be the newest doctrine writer or legal clerk or security analyst thrown into the fray to help the brass make sense of all the changes. In fact, it’s likely that ‘rapidly-evolving tech policy writer’ is going to become a military occupational specialty in its own right. We’ve already added ‘computer operator’ and ‘drone maintainer’ to the jobs list; it stands to reason that every new critical function will become a career path in its own right. Someone has to keep their finger on the pulse of technological change and adapt the organisation’s rules in time with the changing use-cases.

This is heartening, in that it’s a welcome improvement over the standard GWOT practice of letting well-meaning squaddies make career-ending mistakes and then coming up with new rules after it’s too late. The thing is, the pace of change isn’t slowing down and the Forever War doesn’t seem like it’s going to wrap up in less than a century, so we could well have soldiers devoting twenty-year careers exclusively to analysing new technology use and misuse … one after another … without end.


[1] A UK citizen, by way of comparison, could have enlisted this time last year, although he or she couldn’t be sent into combat until they turned 18.

[2] We could spend hours arguing over whether or not the French, American, and Chinese wars in Vietnam ‘counted’ as one war with three phases or three different wars or something else. Let’s not. This subject is depressing enough.

[3] And yes, that redundancy in phrasing was intentionally redundent.

 

Title Allusions: Joe Halderman, The Forever War (1974 book, forthcoming movie)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.