War in Afghanistan

Know your enemy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2008, 12:00am

Information is golden. In the cutthroat business world, its efficient use can mean the difference between red and black ink on a balance sheet. On the battlefield, it can be a matter of life and death.

'Wrong information in a combat zone can get you killed,' infantry officer with the US Marine Corps Anthony Guess Johnson said. Fresh from the battle zone in Iraq, Captain Johnson was in Hong Kong this month to deliver a talk on knowledge management in the US military at Polytechnic University.

Sporting a crew cut, the bespectacled, strapping marine is studying for a master of science in knowledge management with the university's HKCyberU. The online courses on how to harness knowledge in different fields have proved to be invaluable in his treacherous job on the battlefield.

'My job involves managing a lot of information and making sure people get that information at the time they need it,' he said.

'There's much information in the combat zone - where the good and bad guys are, what they are doing - there's so much going on that you can't address and analyse all of it [on the spot]. What you can do is set up a system ahead of time, and do the right taxonomy and categorisation beforehand to make sure the information can be easily retrieved.'

Joining the marines after completing his degree in criminal justice at California State University in 1998, his decade-long military career has taken him to many places during times of war and peace, including Indonesia, Thailand, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The harsh military regimen and stressful existence in the world's trouble spots did not deter him from pursuing higher education.

'Nothing always goes the way you plan. There's no time line. When time makes itself available, you take it. After coming back from a mission you are often exhausted, dirty, or something bad has just happened. I have to take care of all the priorities, file all the reports before I can make time available to my study whenever I can. Some days I get two minutes, some days I get nothing.'

Captain Johnson said quick responses and efficient time management were the key to fulfilling the demands of coursework in the rough-and-tumble war zones.

'I remember when I was in Afghanistan and I was doing an assignment when all the booms and bangs from rocket attacks rang out nearby. I had to cut and paste and save the Word document and only came back to the file six hours later.'

The need to conduct conference calls with his professors in Hong Kong and discuss projects online with his group mates also tests his problem-solving skills.

'No matter where you are in the world, you have to give presentations online and get feedback from professors. I converse with my group mates, who are from Hong Kong and Australia, through Skype or MSN ... How you manage knowledge and collaborate with people with all the differences in time and distance is exactly what the course is about.'

With modules on the creation, collection, classification and dissemination of institutional knowledge, the course gives new perspectives to Captain Johnson who joined the online master's programme two years ago.

'Interacting with students from diverse backgrounds and cultures enhances my mental agility. Their techniques and approaches to dealing with information and managing knowledge are different from mine.

'In fact, I just discovered that my approaches couldn't work in the business world. One of the project members explained to me two weeks ago what consulting was like in the business world, and my problem-solving approach in the military is 100 per cent different from in the civilian sector.

'Our approach is like grabbing the bull by the horns. There's a guy on the bull, which is kicking all over the place. If you don't control the bull right away you will be thrown off the beast and kicked in the ring. Our way is to grab the horns, take control of the animal as fast and efficiently as possible.

'That's how you keep yourself alive in combat. The whole military organisation is geared towards that mentality. That's why I always address the bigger picture and find the best solutions to all the problems in the combat zone.

'In the civilian sector, where you have to earn the confidence of clients before they take you on, you have to take a step-by-step approach, providing reassurance to clients and reaffirming their conditions before you go into recommending solutions.'

Despite being mostly coy about his combat duties and assignments, because of military confidentiality rules, Captain Johnson gave rare glimpses into how knowledge was managed in the US Marine Corps in his talk.

In a presentation brimming with military-style, razor-sharp clarity and precision, Captain Johnson spelled out how post-deployment reports were done to make sure knowledge gleaned from war zones was shared throughout the force.

'After-action reviews and after-action reports are done after each mission. While the former is like verbal debriefing, the latter is a precise and comprehensive document not more than two pages. They cover information about a war zone, like weather, intelligence, past attacks, terrain, vegetation and what uniform to bring.

'As the reports and reviews are passed on from predecessors and vital knowledge is shared, we can make sure that the same mistakes won't be made again.'

Interweaving his talk with video clips showing how military chiefs discuss combat strategies in a command centre using information passed down from predecessors, Captain Johnson explained how soldiers could benefit from legendary battles of yore.

'The military system, with all these reviews, reports and pre-mission briefs, has been used over 160 years,' he said.

'Although it happened 41 years ago, the Operation Breakthrough of the Vietnam war in 1967 provided a wealth of information - how to operate in jungles, conduct helicopter operations, fire support and everything about taking a city are still relevant to this day.

'The key is to internalise and use the information when the environment needs it.'

In an anti-terrorism operation near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2006, Captain Johnson experienced first-hand how the proper transmission of knowledge could be the linchpin in the successful ousting of the Taleban.

A few passages from The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost, chronicling how the Russians did battle with the mujahedeen, proved critical to his battalion's unravelling of the mysterious tactics of hardened Taleban militants.

'In the Soviet-Afghan war, the Afghan resistance fighters always disappeared into thin air after they fired rockets from the ground at the Soviet helicopters. It turned out they took cover inside underground tunnels after the rocket launches. I read the book a year before my deployment to Afghanistan in 2005.

'A similar scene happened to us on a mission in the hills near the Afghan-Pakistani border in 2006. There were many rocket launches fired from below at our base but when we went to the site we couldn't find anything but rocket shells.

'When we discovered a hole in the ground, my mind clicked and I knew I had seen it before in the book ... we destroyed the tunnel entrance and for two weeks the area was silent and you could hear even a pin drop at night.'