Thursday, May 17, 2007
In a recent Saturday morning, Conference Room D outside the Ballston Westin Gateway hotel’s F. Scott Fitzgerald Ballroom was filled with bloggers. So, naturally, there was lots of fulminating about the mainstream media (MSM).
But when a man from the crowd stepped up to put a question to the no-less-inevitable panel of bloggers, it was clear that this was a different sort of blog culture—and a different kind of engagement with the MSM enemy.
“It seems like the only thing the media is interested in reporting accurately is the number of our fallen,” the questioner declared. “Is that number higher than it needs to be because of the bias and incompetence of the media?”
The policy “has a chilling effect for the people who want to do the right things.”
A small gasp rose from the assembly. This was the 2007 Milblog Conference, the second official national gathering of self-described “milbloggers”: active-duty personnel blogging from Iraq; embedded civilians who blog from key battle flashpoints; and a battalion of cyber-diarists on the home front, including disabled vets, spouses and parents of deployed troops, and communications officers from the Pentagon.
The replies were mainly politic.
“As a soldier, I can say we don’t think the media is incompetent,” the active-duty command sergeant major known as Sgt. Hook (and identified here only as Jim), replied. “We swore an oath to the free press.”
There were many such points of tension at this year’s Milblog Conference. On the one hand, the conference’s Saturday session kicked off with a warm videotaped greeting from President George W. Bush.
On the other, much of the buzz concerned a new set of OpSec (operational security) directives that the Army promulgated in April, which seem likely to severely limit active-duty blogging.
Among other things, the new rules instruct field commanders to vet all blog posts before they appear online, to ensure that they don’t compromise troop operations or disclose the identities of casualties in the field. Of course, these restrictions have long been in place, and the milbloggers—as effectively self-policing a body of bloggers as can be imagined—are well aware of them. So, at best, the new directives show a dismaying (though far from unusual) failure on the part of senior policy hands to really comprehend what it is that they’re regulating.
At worst, the ponderous new protocols could effectively lock down on-the-ground accounts of the war’s progress and the quality of military life for the people who have the most at stake—and who are among the strongest backers of the war.
“I talk to active-duty military bloggers who say, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ ” said Bill Roggio, part of a growing contingent of civilian writers on military affairs now being embedded as bloggers with troops in Iraq. “I tell them to talk to their CO, and they say, ‘They don’t know what to do either.’ ”
Mr. Roggio fears a “Cover your ass mentality” will settle in.
“The military officers who are career officers, they’re going to say, ‘I don’t want my soldiers to be brought up on an OpSec violation.’ ”
The military can easily block troop access to software programs such as Blogger and Movable Type, Mr. Roggio points out, but the likelier prospect is that active-duty bloggers will wind up censoring themselves: The policy “has a chilling effect for the people who want to do the right things.”
This milblogging flap comes at an odd time in the debate on the war—when a strong single message on the Iraqi occupation and its prospective aftermath seems impossible to put forward.
A recent ABC poll indicates that a majority of Americans concur with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s view that the war is lost. Congress and the White House are settling into their own Long War over Mr. Bush’s veto of supplemental spending legislation that approves the conditional onset of troop withdrawals from Iraq.
So why should the Pentagon crack down on the milbloggers, of all people, now? The simplest answer seems to be because it can: Bloggers in the military ranks are the one source of information about the war the senior brass still thinks it can control.
As it happens, this year’s winner of the Milblog Conference’s blogger-of-the-year award is Sean Dustman, a Marine helo corpsman who opposed the decision to invade Iraq. Mr. Dustman re-enlisted after his first eight-year tour, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. “We should have taken out Osama right after 9/11,” Mr. Dustman said. “That guy should be dust.”
Mr. Dustman began his site, DocintheBox.blogspot.com, as a photo blog during his first Iraqi tour. Since he’s a Marine, Mr. Dustman isn’t facing CO crackdowns on his site.
“I just sort of point my finger over there and laugh at them,” he said in the spirit of interservice rivalry. The Marines, he added, “give me a pretty free rein. Their attitude is: If you write something we don’t like, we’ll find you.”
Mr. Dustman is heading back to Iraq for his fourth tour next spring—and despite his misgivings about the original invasion, he wants, like nearly every soldier serving in the field, to see the mission through.
“These aren’t just Islamists we’re fighting now,” he said. “They’re real monsters—people beheading civilians on videotape.”
It’s hard not to be struck by how sensible and uncontroversial Mr. Dustman is. Putting aside his military career, he seems, if anything, like a pretty sound reflection of general opinion on the Iraqi invasion—in retrospect, at least.
So what can the Pentagon have to fear from Mr. Dustman?
The Army, meanwhile, seems determined to expand the range of its hypervigilant oversight. In the same new OpSec directives, it casually groups “the media” as an “unconventional threat” to US forces in combat. No further explication was deemed necessary.
CHRIS LEHMANN is a reporter for the New York Observer, where this article first appeared.