Generals and admirals are powerful people. Their decisions determine the course of thousands of lives, with aftereffects that can affect millions more. Their words are parsed for clues about the future of American warfare. And they absolutely cannot tweet.
Twitter may be nearing 200 million users worldwide. But the military has a love-hate relationship with microblogging: The Marines, for instance, banned it last year, along with other social networking services. But communications officers are coming around to the argument that it's a tweet-or-be-tweeted-about information world. If the military doesn't use tools like Twitter to spread its message, the argument goes, it'll risk losing control of stories and influencing people. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has become a prolific tweeter as @thejointstaff, weighing in on controversies like the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The result: more than 32,000 followers.
Mullen, alas, is an exception. Twitter and flag officers still generally go together like oil and water. It's a new medium, after all, and no one says they've got to go ALL-CAPS EVERYTHING like Kanye or get into tweet-fights with detractors to use the medium well. But for some, the growing pains are apparent, even if we're not seeing any Direct-Message Fails.
(Full disclosure: The Pentagon asked me a few months ago to share some thoughts about social media at a recent forum.)
Just because you can set up a Twitter account doesn't mean you use it well. Here's our guide to some of the lamest military Twitter feeds.
1. Adm. James Stavridis. Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander and former Southern Command leader, is considered by many to be one of the brightest lights in the military, a well-respected strategic thinker and all-but-certain future Joint Chiefs chairman. He's also a technophile - he once assured bloggers that he personally replies to wall posters on his Facebook page - and prolific blogger. Here's Stavridis riffing off of Dr. Strangelove to discuss a recent NATO strategic-planning document, for instance. Natural-born tweeter, right?
If only. Stavridis' Facebook friends get jokey photos of his wife with a giant "fish" they "caught" in the Caribbean. And @stavridisj's followers get the kind of updates you'd expect from a co-worker who's really excited about the deli's new sandwich. Dec. 1: "Just briefed SECDEF and headed home to Belgium!" Last week, he let us know he had a briefing in Stuttgart, because we were curious. As if he's worried about Mullen or Defense Secretary Robert Gates looking over his shoulder, Stavridis keeps us updated on when he meets with, say, the Belgians on Afghanistan. Come on, admiral, you're supposed to be the most social-media-forward officer in the military. More like these updates on NATO's help in combating Israel's recent forest fires in real time; less "Just finished an off-site with a dozen of my key Admirals and Generals - finding efficiencies and interagency integration." You can fit the Strangelove reference into 140 characters.
2. Gen. Carter Ham. 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.
Instead, Ham gave gold stars to everyone who took the survey, without discussing any interesting issues raised. The Coast Guard gave "insightful comments and questions," and you don't get to know what they were. Fort Hood gave a "lively" discussion, making it "easy to see why they call it ‘The Great Place!'" Same with the Naval Academy: "Great insights from staff, faculty and Midshipmen. But, I didn't enjoy taunting about recent football results
" It isn't just Army cadets who need to step their game up.
3. Gen. Martin Dempsey. Another missed opportunity. Dempsey commands the Army's Training and Doctrine Command - basically the ground service's brain. All the Army's long-term thinking about the future of land warfare and how to adapt to it runs through TRADOC, as it's known. Which is why following @Martin_Dempsey ought to be a real-time account of an adaptive Army.
But what do we get? "I encourage you to share your stories and photos of Fort Monroe's rich heritage for a new book. Details at: http://bit.ly/ftmonroe" Or, in March: "Outstanding morning of briefers, ideas, and insight at the TRADOC Senior Leaders Conference here in WIlliamsburg, VA." Maybe you could share with us what you learned? Instead, Dempsey prefers to tweet out speeches or guidance that he gives on modernizing the force. Far be it for a blog to deride the use of Twitter for self-promotion, but here's an opportunity for Dempsey to interact with soldiers and learn what they think is necessary for the Army's future. Indeed, here's @Martin_Dempsey tweeting a speech he gave about getting soldiers to "engage the Army on what it means to be part of a profession," rather than just calling them to do so on Twitter. All told, he asked for soldiers' input a grand total of twice, and didn't retweet a single reply. For TRADOC not to cash in on a transformative technological innovation is just too ironic.
4. Brig. Gen. Steven Spano. 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.
5. Gen. Will Fraser. Spano's boss at Air Combat Command seems to view Twitter as primarily a morale booster. @ACCBoss is a feed filled with you-guys-rule tweets like: "Superb visit to 705 CTS [Combat Training Squadron] at Kirtland AFB – tremendous progress has been made with distributed mission operations." And: "Promoted MajGen Ted Kresge to LtGen – he is off to command 13th Air Force – we wish him all the best and thank him for his continued service." All of which is cool. But this is a revolutionary moment for air combat, with remotely piloted aircraft playing the role that fighter jets once played. Maybe Fraser has some Twitter-friendly perspectives on that he could share? There's more to social networking than sharing a reenlistment ceremony at the Talladega Superspeedway.
Bottom line, sirs: Donald Rumsfeld has a better Twitter feed than you do right now. You going to let that stand?
Image: FAILWhale/Yiying Lu