January 4, 2011

Two tales of military intelligence


147-year-old Confederate Army message offers no help whatsoever.

Over in Wired’s Danger Room they recently published a humorous piece on the increasing number of US Generals that are using Twitter. There are two common reactions to this concept. One is the acceptance that the position of General is a prestigious one and not without its own political jockeying, thus the need for social media and public relations. The other is the mental image of a bespangled uniform awkwardly hammering a keyboard, tongue firmly tucked into cheek.

According to Wired’s Spencer Ackerman you can decidedly go with the latter.

Is it really necessary to tweet “Thanks!!!” to everyone who fills out a survey? Ham, the next commander of all U.S. troops in Africa, had the unenviable task this year of studying troops’ attitudes to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. By all accounts, he did a thorough and professional job. But if @GenCarterHam was supposed to supplement Ham’s effort, it didn’t exactly take advantage of Twitter. Not only did Ham tweet a mere 42 times between March and September, only 12 of those tweets asked troops to fill out online surveys about the repeal — and only half of those actually gave his tweeps the URL to do so. None used the popular #DADT hashtag to attract nonfollowers’ attention.

Okay, so the above critique of Gen. Carter Ham clearly demonstrates someone who is new to the nuanced realm of Twitter. Certainly there are worse offenses that a military leader can commit. It does bring to mind the question of why even bother to have a Twitter account?  As Ackerman outlines throughout his piece these suddenly sociable Generals seem merely to be going through the motions of having a Twitter account. It’s as though they’re being forced to do it and awkwardly avoid revealing too much about themselves or their jobs. Well, most of them at any rate. Brigadier General Steven Spano has confidently wandered into the social network to share his special brand of organizational jargon. Emphasis on special.

The previous tweeters are stingy with their big-think. But Spano, the communications chief for the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, has no shortage of way-out-there-in-the-blue tweets. His feed is actually one of my favorites, because rarely am I sure what @accsix is actually tweeting about. “Best practices in theory often result in best intentions in reality,” begins Spano’s Dec. 22 gem, “unique variables must drive unique practices in similar business lines.” Come again? “If the value of information at rest greatly diminishes over time, shouldn’t our security model be more flexible and adaptive?” If only, general! Run with that! Lead the way! I promise it’ll get you more followers.

This Rumsfeldian poetry brings me to the second recently published story about failures in military communication. The AP recently reported a story about the opening and decoding of a sealed Civil War message. The sealed glass vial contained the response of the Confederate Commander in Vicksburg to Lt. General John C. Pemberton‘s request for reinforcements. The undelivered communication offered no solace to the beleaguered Pemberton: “Reinforcements are not on their way.”

Useful information, no doubt, but obviously meaningless when left undelivered. So why did the messenger, who was not slain, fail to deliver his important message? Museum of the Confederacy collections manager Catherine M. Wright speculated for that since the message is dated the same day that Pemberton lost out to the Union that:

The Confederate messenger probably arrived to the river’s edge and saw a U.S. flag flying over the city.

“He figured out what was going on and said, ‘Well, this is pointless,’ and turned back,” Wright said.

I feel like there is a moral somewhere in this.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.