Milblogging Under a Cloud

The Pentagon has put a national Guard unit in charge of supervising military bloggers and, from what I read so far, requires that milbloggers get prior approval for their posts. I hope the Guard unit has some understanding of why milbloggers have been the Pentagons’s best friend in the information war with a media savvy enemy and a largely hostile press.

As a student of the media, the problem I see here is the lack of theoretical understanding in the military or even the media itself of how changes in the Media Environment - like the rise of blogs – change the way war is reported and disrupt who controls public perception of the war. The challenge for the US Military is to keep the information warfare advantages of milblogging while not compromising operational security. The key information warfare value of millblogs is their authenticity. The troops bring a highly credible perspective directly to the public in an era when the press is highly skeptical of anything said by the government or the military. In fact milbloggs have made many in the public, including myself, skeptical of what the media is telling us about the war. Donald Rumsfeld famously said the US is losing the information war, but millblogs have been one of the few bright spots for the Pentagon. Media theory tells us that new media don’t just add another channel to the media environment, they bring a whole new way of doing things that impact the way events are understood and interpreted. Theory also tells us that there is a time lag between the introduction of a new medium and when its potential and how to use it effectively are understood.

An example from history. One of the earliest war photographers was Roger Fenton who who was dispatched to the Crimean war in 1855, not by a newspaper but by a print dealer who hoped to sell Fenton’s photographs as high quality prints. Interestingly he was the first war photographer to arrange scenes or fake them to make them more appealing. Here is an example of his work:

fentoncrimea.png

Compare this artist’s illustration from October 1914:

cavalrycharge.png

The authenticity of the first image is self evident. The second image was done 50 years later when a market still existed for romantic illustrations of war as well as many other subjects. It is obvious to us now that the photograph has qualities of authenticity that the illustration does not. The latter is a work of imagination and is designed to evoke certain ideas about warfare which – to say the least – are not as popular today as they were in 1914.

Here are two pieces – one from the press and one from a milblog – that describe unspectacular, everyday reality on the battlefield. First from Millblogging.com is this piece by Sergeant Pete Puebla who blogs as Just Another Thunderhorse Roughneck:

Right now we’re in the tent, planning our bank robbery when we get home. Our plan is to rob a bank using our weapons and Humvees on a drill weekend. Were just dreaming, thinking, and planning but were not going to do it. Were just using our imagination and dreaming like little boys. But were coming out with a nice plan. And now, the tent is quiet because all the guys are thinking about it. The other funny thing is these guys actually think they could do it. Theyve got it all planned out. Its what happens when you get a bunch of bored guys together. Heck, I might just get in trouble for mentioning it. Were not supposed to talk about our locations, activities, or other such things that may endanger our lives but they never said anything about planning a heist. These guys have been watching too many crime movies.

And the opening and closing paragraph from a Time Magazine article from last March:

Four Black Hawk helicopters landed in a wheat field and dropped off a television crew, three photographers, three print reporters and three Iraqi government officials right into the middle of Operation Swarmer. Iraqi soldiers in newly painted humvees, green and red Iraqi flags stenciled on the tailgates, had just finished searching the farm populated by a half-dozen skinny cows and a woman kneading freshly risen dough and slapping it to the walls of a mud oven.

Before loading up into the helicopters for a return trip to Baghdad, Iraqi and American soldiers and some reporters helped themselves to the womans freshly baked bread, tearing bits off and chewing it as they wandered among the cows. For most of them, it was the only thing worthwhile they’d found all day.

Both are well written but the Time authors are obviously putting an ideological frame on a non event. Sergeant Pete is much less concerned with ideology than he is with letting people know what it is like to be a soldier in Iraq. If I had a son in Iraq the second would imply that his work and risks he was taking were a waste of time, the first would tell me something of what my son was experiencing. One piece smells of ideology, the other of authenticity.

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Next are a pair of examples of higher level reporting. Here are the opening paragraphs from an article billed as military analysis in todays’s NY Times”

BAGHDAD, Oct. 22 After three years of trying to thwart a potent insurgency and tamp down the deadly violence in Iraq, the American military is playing its last hand: the Baghdad security plan.

The plan will be tweaked, adjusted and modified in the weeks ahead, as American commanders try to reverse the dismaying increase in murders, drive-by shootings and bombings.

But military commanders here see no plausible alternative to their bedrock strategy to clear violence-ridden neighborhoods of militias, insurgents and arms caches, hold them with Iraqi and American security forces, and then try to win over the population with reconstruction projects, underwritten mainly by the Iraqi government. There is no fall-back plan that the generals are holding in their hip pocket. This is it.

Now here is an article by Bill Roggio who is regarded as a millblogger in the sense that he is ex military and an independent Blogger (not an active duty soldier) blogging at the Fourth Rail :

The situation in Iraq today resembles that of the fall of 2004, when Sadr conducted his second uprising in Najaf just as al-Qaeda in Iraq was in control of Fallujah. It is believed an informal alliance existed between Sadr and al-Qaeda as each struck at American and the nascent Iraqi government forces. Now, Sadr’s forces are probing Iraqi police and Army units in the southern Shiite regions, as al-Qaeda in Iraq is vying for control of Ramadi and Baghdad is the focal point of sectarian violence.

Roggio concludes:

Sadr and al-Qaeda are tuned into the U.S. political cycles, and are well aware of the results of dramatic announcements of Islamic States, increases in sectarian violence, suicide campaigns and attacks on Iraqi police and Army units have on the American electorate and the political elite. The questions are: will the Coalition and Iraqi government take on Sadr, secure Baghdad and clear Ramadi, just as was done in Fallujah after the 2004 Presidential election? Does the U.S. and Iraqi governments have the political will and resources to get the job done?

Speaking of framing a story! I very much doubt that the US Military is down to their last chance in Iraq. The NY Times is not providing Military analysis so much as they are simply floating an unsupported claim that the US Military is out of options. To be fair the article becomes a bit more balanced further along. On the other hand, I don’t know if Roggio is right and there is a degree of cooperation between al Qaeda and the Mhadi Army, but there certainly is a possibility of strategic coordination and Roggio is correct to call attention to it. Such cooperation is common in these situations where bitter enemies unite against a common enemy – like royalists and Communists in Yugoslavia in WW2 for example. I think the Times piece is a lot like the cavalry charge illustration – an imaginative construction while the Roggio piece is attempt to see beneath the surface of events to the underlying strategy being employed – in this case – by the enemy.

In the established media, editors control what is news and how it is framed. Blogs have broken that monopoly and milblogs tell stores that would never appear in the press and with an entirely different framing. Media theory also tells us there is a lag in appreciating the potential of a new medium and developing the ability to productively deploy and control it. At first a new medium is treated as if it obeyed the rules that govern its predecessors. I would expect that the current attempt at censoring milblogs may well fail for this reason. Top down media like TV, radio, and newspapers have to recruit for talent – on the Internet the best bloggers just show up and their audience finds them. Again media theory tells us why this has happened. In a networked medium like the blogsphere the issues and those with the most talent to address them find each other because the interconnectivity of the network. No one needs to assign the story to the best reporter or edit it afterward or print it. It all takes care of itself. That’s already happened with milbloggers and the sharp contrast between what the press reports and what the soldiers report has been revealed. The five o’clock follies no longer take place at US Headquarters, but on the evening news.


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