A Plan for Handling the Milblogs

12 09 2004

Since CBFTW’s highly regarded (by me as well as others) blog MY WAR–Fear and Loathing in Iraq was shut down–by himself, it now appears–questions have been raised about how the military is handling milblogs. Are they being too heavy-handed? If OPSEC (Operational Security) is the issue, shouldn’t they just shut all the blogs down rather than take the risk of someone saying something that endangers troops or strategic goals? Eric Magnell, an Army lawyer stationed in Iraq, gives a pretty clear explanation of the difficulties at his blog, Dagger JAG.

[T]he information environment has changed so much and is so different than in any previous war or conflict. Here in Iraq we have access to so much new communications capabilities it really is mind-boggling when you think about it. When my father was in Vietnam he wrote letters and mailed home cassettes or reel to reel tapes to keep in touch with my mom and his family. Even thirteen years ago, during Desert Storm, the soldiers still wrote letters and had very, very few opportunities to call their families in the States. With these new capabilities come some very real concerns over operational security. Back in WWII they popularized the saying “loose lips sink ships” and they censored servicemembers letters back to the states. Now we have those same posters hanging in our internet cafes and above our phones. We know that our enemies are computer “savvy” and may have the ability to intercept emails or other communications over the internet. Every soldier has to be aware and concerned about saying or writing anything that could potentially give our enemies information. Even potentially innocent statements which, by themselves, mean nothing can provide intelligence for our opponents when matched with other innocuous open source information.

But OPSEC isn’t the only consideration. Yes, soldiers do lose some freedoms to say and do what they please when they enter the Army, but not all of them. And there is an irony for them in fighting a war to free the expression of a foreign people while at the same time having their own curtailed for sometimes mysterious reasons. ‘Combat Doc’ at Candle in the Dark sums it up this way:

The higher-ups have found that the unedited embedded reporter known as Joe is the best and the worst thing that has happened to this war. The best because if you’re like me you are all for this fight, others see things differently and voice it. The problem with speaking out is that you will be heard.

Some of the recent events have made me doubt their actions. When you silence a soldier who has done nothing out of reg’s you lend yourself to suspicion. Why are they silencing the voice of the people who can sell this war better than anybody. Again, as long as the soldier has violated no regulation, you’re golden. Has something been done that needs to be silenced, I doubt it. I think the highers feel the political preassure of Abu Gharib and Najaf bearing down so they fear any media coverage. It seems though as they don’t trust their own regulations to cover them.

The silencing of any humans voice, even when I can’t agree, will lead to the silencing of all dissenting opinions. Americans must show their openness to their own flaws and triumphs or else the lesson we are trying to teach and the peoples we are trying to free will, rightfully, tell us ALL to shut up and buy a black car.

(Thanks to CB for both those links.)

Finally, there is the issue I’ve already written about at length–the military’s need to control its image in the outside world.

Part of the problem here is that the whole phenomenon of milblogs is brand new, and the military–not one of the speediest organizations in the world when it comes to reorganizing itself–doesn’t yet seem to have developed a set of criteria for what is or is not acceptable in blogging. They’re apparently taking it on a case-by-case basis for the time being, and working it out as they go. But there is an issue which over-rides the questions of what bloggers will be allowed to say: how are they going to enforce whatever standards and rules they eventually decide on? How much manpower and man hours is policing blogs and email and all the other electronic communications devices available today going to take? There are, after all, thousands of blogs and tens of thousands of email addresses that could conceivably need to be checked regularly. So before we figure out what we’re going to allow, maybe we should figure out how that policing could work.

That’s where Chris Missick comes in.

Sgt Chris Missick is another military blogger. He runs a site called A Line in the Sand from somewhere in Iraq. He writes about what he sees as misperceptions about the war, about his love for the military and his belief that the war in Iraq is more than justified. To his credit, he will give equal time to opposing viewpoints–which is more than Bill O’Reilly will do–and generally tries to find some ground where the sides can meet and if not agree at least discuss their beliefs without punching each other.

But Chris isn’t just a blogger; he happens to be a communications techie, and he has some suggestions for how the tech issue could be handled.

[The] AKO (the army’s e-mail service) [could] set up a blogging platform that soldiers could use. The posts would be reviewed by an MI personnel and then once approved, it would be published. The turn around could be remarkably short if the program was even minimally staffed, and the OPSEC headaches that soldier bloggers face would be alleviated. All soldier blogs would also be located under a single server, so it would be relatively easy for the public to comb through and read a variety of them.

I modeled my idea after the earlier modus operandi of communications after WWII, with a 21st century twist. Indeed, the single server would be unique, and since only soldiers would be able to access it through the AKO, the network of blogs would be certifiably military personnel. They could be assigned a user number, rather than name if they wish to remain anonymous, but could include their e-mail on there. Once enrolled, their commander could then receive an e-mail informing them that their soldiers have been enrolled. This way, accountability is maintained, OPSEC is secured, and the soldier still has a means of expressing his thoughts.

I’m not in the military but it seems to me as an outsider that Chris’ idea has a lot of merit. It sounds like it would clear the first hurdle–‘How’–and set up a simple system for accountability and monitoring. Security software could conceivably be modified to red-flag the kinds of keywords that MI would consider problematic, and the whole thing could be streamlined to cut delays to a minimum.

Milblogs are a valuable tool for the military as well as for the troops, as I’ve said; I don’t think they really want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Chris’ proposal would allow them to maintain reasonable control while also allowing troops to express their thoughts and feelings to the folks back home without endangering OPSEC. It’s an elegant solution, not perfect but better than the shotgun approach they’ve got now.

Postscript: MY WAR Update

By the way, CB is posting again–not his own stuff, but articles he finds of interest and material from other soldiers’ blogs. Most of it is interesting reading–he’s got good taste–and he links to excellent sites loaded with (vetted) information. Check it out.




3 responses

13 09 2004

“Chris’ proposal would allow them to maintain reasonable control while also allowing troops to express their thoughts and feelings to the folks back home without endangering OPSEC.”

Perhaps in the perfect world this might be the case.

All you would get in the blogs would be the ‘close to official’ accounts of events and not the realism that was in CB’s writings. When “the man” smiles and tells you that you may basically say whatever you want as long as you use only “his” official publishing service there will be a significant percentage of people rolling on the ground with laughter. As much as I want to hear the official reports and the ‘officially approved’ reports – a dissenting or alternate voice would be the one least likely to write under Chris’ proposal and I want to hear that voice just as much, if not more, than the others.

Don’t think that part of CB’s problem wasn’t the stark, emotional reality found in Men in Black. It wasn’t just what he said – it was the way in which he wrote it. The war wasn’t sanitized and safe in that post – it was frighteningly real, alarming and conveyed a true sense of danger. The official military saw the ghost of the “out of control reporters” from Vietnam in that post. CB’s post was the equivalent of the photographs and film clips the news media broadcast from Vietnam that alarmed the public and began to turn opinions against that operation. I don’t think that was CB’s intent just as I don’t think it was entirely the intent of the news media to turn opinions against Vietnam. The reporters were reporting exactly what they saw. CB was reporting what he saw, what he felt, what he feared, what he doubted, etc. What made Men in black so powerful was that CB reported it so well.

The military can deal with books, novels and articles a year or so after the fact detailing the actual danger of a mission – it can’t deal with the immediate reporting from insiders about that same danger, and it isn’t going to do so. An official site for the milblogs would quickly become like a high school reading list sanitized by fundamentalists.

13 09 2004

Missick’s solution-and my admittedly thin hopes for it–are predicated on the major objection being the one stated by the military: OPSEC. Assuming that the monitors would be MI rather than PR, a central junction box, so to speak, could work to everyone’s advantage. My hopes–such as they are–are based on CB’s commander’s response, which was, I thought, very sensible and open-minded. I’ve corresponded a bit with CB, as well as read the blog, and my very distinct impression is that he’s the type who would chafe under any restraints and may have closed the blog down even tho oversight was looking to be pretty minimal. Of course, I don’t know what happened afterward that he didn’t write about.

CB is a major exception to almost every rule, a one-in-a-million talent of a particular kind–rope him in and he dies. The total freedom of a blog is what made him, or let him be, the kind of writer he is. He needed that to let the big dog loose–organization, structure, satisfying grammatical formats, all that shit, kills a writer like that in the beginning. As he gains more confidence, it won’t be the issue it is now, but chances are he’ll always be one of the ones who wants to tell it like it is without fear or favor.

But I can ‘t tell you how rare that kind of talent is. For 99% of the other soldier-blogs, the kind of mild censorship that would destroy CB’s integrity isn’t even an issue. I’m going to be doing a piece on another soldier blog by someone who writes almost as well as he does and is even more critical of some aspects of military life, yet that blogger has, to the extent that I can tell so far, anyway–NO problems with her CO or with the Army about anything she’s written, and she’s just as honest in her way as CB is in his.

Believe me, I’m aware of everything you say and maybe I’m being foolishly optimistic, but I think it’s at least possible that Missick’s plan will work for a majority of soldier-blog writers and, if nothing else, remove the excuse of the brass that they’re censoring because of OPSEC when they aren’t.

15 09 2004

I do think you are being optimistic, but I don’t consider that foolish in any way. Three years in the Marine Corps (1968-1970) simply provides me with a different set of filters for examining this situation. That makes my opinion a little different than yours, not any more valuable – just different.

Any system administered by the military will ultimately force what is written into a bland, middle ground. Individuality in expression, while welcomed in theory, is eventually going to fail if it falls outside a range determined by others, and that is the way things should be in the military if it is to succeed in its mission or objectives.

Missick’s system would work, but the question is what it would produce. I just don’t think that it would produce something that is a valuable source of unique information on Iraq that isn’t available elsewhere. I believe My War got the media’s attention because it was radically different than what an ‘official’ system could produce, or tolerate.

I do have to laugh if I think about CB operating under a type of official system with constraints. Not a pretty thought. 🙂

Under Missick’s system you might get some paint by the numbers pictures that are great to look at and took talent to produce. With CB we got a Guernica, and that is art, it is original, and it is a very much gift.

Of course, this is just my opinion and not a reason to discourage an official system. There might be someone starting in that system that grows into a worthwhile voice, and that’s reason enough to encourage the system. And there’s nothing wrong with being optimistic that this is exactly what the system would do. I’ll just remain the pessimist (though I prefer the term realist) and believe it when I see it.

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