Monday, October 13, 2008

Combat zone shopping:
One of the unexpected military impacts of the Internet is the stress Internet shopping has placed on the military mail system. It works like this. Americans can cheaply send things to a soldier overseas, because the troops use a special military address in United States. The military then pays for shipping letters (less frequently) and packages (much more frequently) to wherever the military recipient is on the planet. Because of the ease of shopping online, and the near-universal access to the Internet by troops overseas, more stuff is being bought online and shipped overseas largely at government expense. In 2006, the Department of Defense shipped 112,000 tons overseas. In 2007, that was up to 139,000 tons. This year, it's headed for a total of 180,000 tons. It costs the Department of Defense over half a billion dollars a year to move this stuff, most of it moving by air.

Internet shopping became important both because it improves morale, and also saves lives. Little luxuries mean a lot, and just about anything is available via the Internet. This includes things like Netflix (the low cost two discs a month deal works well with troops overseas). But troops also buy military equipment (and some weapons, like knives) as well. Special clothing and equipment (tools, flashlights, goggles, etc.) are the most common items ordered. When one trooper finds a new item that works real well, the word gets around very quickly. The troops have a network of message boards, social sites (MyPage, FaceBook) and email lists (listservs) that keep everyone informed. Some companies have found themselves quickly sold out of an item, days after a soldier or marine found that, "hey, this works." A lot of those popular gadgets are lifesavers, all because the Internet and the military postal system gets the stuff to the troops quickly and cheaply.