The world has changed. As privates in the early 1990s, we had to learn or, in some cases, memorize copious amounts of information to obtain a functional understanding of our jobs. As time progressed, we slowly became specialized in our skills, and through multiple years of practice and learning, we became masters of our crafts.
In those early years, we did not have access to computers, the World Wide Web was an abstract idea, and the availability of knowledge was limited to what we could read or what an experienced person told us. This process was difficult, and it took over 20 years to advance from the novice to the master level. However, what we learned stuck.
Today, a novice learner has instantaneous access to unlimited amounts of master-level information through devices we all carry in our pockets. This begs the question: Is the sequential, established learning process we went through still useful? Should anyone go through a 20-year process to acquire information that an 18-year-old can Google in 10 seconds?
We suggest that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.
The U.S. has adversaries that seek to challenge, if not dominate, the U.S. military in every domain—air, land, maritime, space and cyberspace. If one looks at the elements of national power—diplomatic, information, military and economic—it is clear that the U.S. has become diplomatically frustrated.
Russia and Iran challenge American capabilities in the informational domain, and China is challenging the United States’ economic and military superiority. Americans no longer live in an age where they can rest on what scholar John Mearsheimer, in his 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, calls “regional hegemony.”
Service members cannot always assume that smartphones will give them the answers they are looking for. When the internet goes down or phone batteries die with no way to charge them, the armed forces must have service members who are prepared to think and fight in a complex and uncertain world.
Looking into an unpredictable future, the U.S. must understand that when it eventually becomes engaged in a near-peer conflict, from the start it will be outnumbered and potentially will lack technology overmatch. The military will need the smartest and most educated force the world has ever seen to win.
Another key element to consider in a near-peer conflict is the importance leaders place on the acquisition of knowledge. When one is in a position of authority, it is a courageous act to admit that one does not have all the answers and to be receptive to information. This is an interesting concept, because many think that courage is a physical or emotional state of being that involves acting in the face of one’s fears.
In today’s world, where everyone has access to information with a few flicks of the thumb, it takes courage—and effort—to commit information to memory. Therefore, in deciding to invest energy in the acquisition of information, one risks failure, and acting in the face of failure is courageous in and of itself.
Military leaders also must understand that smarter people fight better, especially in ambiguous environments. In a 2001 article in the Journal of Intellectual Capital, Karl-Erik Sveiby, a professor emeritus of knowledge management, suggests that knowledge can reside in organizations and people, and that knowledge can be transferred from one to the other as the environment dictates.
This means that all members of an organization can contribute to its collective knowledge. Therefore, it is important to leverage every ounce of intellectual capital available to gain a cognitive edge over our adversaries.
Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 2-01.3: Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield discusses the information environment, which consists of three interrelated dimensions: physical, informational and cognitive.
The idea of leveraging intellectual capital is supported by ATP 2-01.3, which discusses the importance of the cognitive dimension of the environment in relation to understanding adversaries’ actions and national will.
The key point in this: If it is important to understand the cognitive capabilities of the enemy, then the same effort should be expended in increasing the cognitive abilities of the U.S. military.
Jack Welch, then-chairman and CEO of General Electric Co., is quoted as saying: “When the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”
Welch was referring to businesses, but the military can be seen as a business, a business that focuses on defending the U.S. and protecting the freedom and interests of the American people.
If the business of the armed forces does not remain razor-focused on not just keeping up with change, but also staying ahead of change, then the end of American freedoms could be near.
If the world has changed regarding the acquisition of knowledge, and regional hegemony alone is not enough to avoid a multidomain, near-peer conflict, the key question that arises is what to do about it.
The solution(s) may be challenging in a world that believes in the infallibility of the internet, but it has already been proven that the acquisition of knowledge without the internet and a smartphone is possible.
However, service members must first acknowledge the need to learn, then work to change aspects of the culture that value the access to information.
Many solutions to these problems already reside in Army doctrine. However, many soldiers do not read doctrine. From a warfighting perspective, doctrinal publications and books in general are a great way to increase one’s knowledge and competence, but are grossly underutilized by military leaders and soldiers.
Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wrote in his 2019 memoir with Bing West, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate.” If we do not read to gain greater knowledge and understanding, then we cannot acquire or apply that increased knowledge.
Furthermore, the acquisition of knowledge is not just the responsibility of general officers or senior leaders. This responsibility for learning lies with all service members.
An example of the need for greater individual responsibility is sexual harassment and sexual assault. One of the main reasons the Army is still struggling with these issues is because stopping those behaviors is not seen as an individual responsibility. They are looked at as problems that can only be solved by senior leadership. The Army does not need bystanders who believe that if they are not participating in these corrosive behaviors, then they are doing the “right thing.” Actually, the Army needs every soldier, regardless of rank, to actively try to stop these behaviors.
It is the same with knowledge acquisition. Everyone, regardless of rank, must do their part and demonstrate the courage to learn so the Army remains smarter, more agile, more adaptive and more capable than its adversaries.
The solution to increased knowledge acquisition in a digital age begins with accepting greater individual responsibility and reading as much as you can.
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Sgt. Maj. Robert Nelson is the operations sergeant major at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss, Texas. He has served in a variety of leadership assignments over the past 29 years, ranging from squad leader to command sergeant major. He has made operational deployments to Kuwait, Haiti and Honduras. He holds a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.
Command Sgt. Maj. Gabriel Arnold, U.S. Army retired, is the chair, Department of Army Operations, Sergeants Major Academy. Previous assignments include command sergeant major, U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox, Kentucky, and regimental command sergeant major, U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School. He deployed to operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. He has a master’s degree in adult education and lifelong learning from Pennsylvania State University.