Milblogs: Yesterday and Today
On January 29, 7:30pm the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas will host a panel on “Military Blogging and America’s Wars.” The guests will include John Donovan, one of America’s leading milbloggers (who was invited to meet President Bush in the White House); Ward Carroll, a retired Navy Commander who flew F-14s and editor of www.Military.com; and Charles J. “Jack” Holt, chief of New Media Operations for the Department of Defense. David D. Perlmutter, a professor in the KU School of Journalism & Mass Communications , and author of Blogwars, will moderate the session.
In Blogwars Perlmutter examines the rapidly burgeoning phenomenon of blogs and questions the degree to which blog influence–or fail to influence–American political life. In the post below Perlmutter introduces us to Military Blogs.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is supposed to have said that “war is the father of all things.” It is absolutely true that where we live, the language we speak, the flags we fly, the beliefs we hold, the land we live on, and even our genetic heritage have been affected by who won and lost wars. Likewise, much of our technology was created for or improved toward making war. The commercial and public Internet is a case in point: It began in the 1960s as ARPANET, a project of the American military to create a decentralized “command and control network” that would survive nuclear war. Now the Internet is a crucial “front” in the war on terrorism. And, of great interest to people concerned about the future of war, from historians to generals, the warriors themselves are embracing the social interactive media, like blogs, that the Internet has spawned.
I do take a historical view about the “military blog” (any weblog by military personnel, on duty or retired) or the “warblogs” (weblogs specifically by soldiers, sailors, air force personnel, and Marines deployed in war zones). About a decade ago I wrote a book called Visions of War: Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyberage. At that time, after the first Gulf War and the Bosnia war, we were already witnessing journalists doing on-air reports of war “live from ground zero.” I closed the book by a speculation that new tech would also allow us to see future wars through the eyes of the combatants:
“Will it be especially disheartening or enraging for television or Web viewers to look through the helmet camera of one of its ‘boys’ as a Fifth World gunman, grinning into the lens like an antagonist from some video game, fires his low technology rifle into the soldier’s face? As the $20,000 camera and the priceless life of one American are extinguished and the screen turns to static, what will be our response?….Will this method of visualizing war accomplish something that no vision of war has truly done before: will we, the distant spectator, die a little with the warrior?”
I was not predicting the rise of the milblog, per se, but the milblog does seem to be a huge step forward in connecting military men and women to the homefront. And we do feel a strong connection when a milblogger is killed in action and we find ourselves reading their last post as in the case recently of Major Andrew J. Olmstead who blogged as G’Kar (a reference to a character from the BABYLON 5 television series) and was killed in Iraq on January 3rd.
As a historian, then, let me set up contrasting examples that I have talked about before on the Dole blogsite and elsewhere:
In ancient times, people could send messages about war in many ways, from light signals to horse riders. But if you wanted to broadcast your message to large audiences, well, there were coins (by about 600 BCE) but they were pretty limited in space. So instead of “mass communication” you could—if you were a really powerful person—engage in massive communication. For example, in about 1274 B.C.E., the Pharaoh Ramses II and his army fought a battle against an enemy Hittite army at Kadesh, in what is now Syria. The battle was a draw; in fact, the Egyptians ended up retreating. But Ramses’ memorial temple shows on its 100-foot walls pictures and hieroglyphics of the great ruler as victorious. As originally painted, Ramses is bronze skinned, broad shouldered, long armed, resolute of face, wearing the twin crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, and many times larger than the Hittites and his own men—a superman in the anthropological as well as comic book sense.
In the written records accompanying the images, Ramses boasts that he personally routed “every warrior of the Hittite enemy, together with the many foreign countries which were with them.” In contrast, the Pharaoh blames his own men for early problems in the battle: “You have done a cowardly deed, altogether. Not one man among you had stood up to assist me when I was fighting . . . not one among you shall talk about his service, after returning to the land of Egypt.”
I wonder whether some spearman veteran of Kadesh, walking by the tableaus, did not squint up, shake his head, and growl to his wife, “The lying bastard; it was his bad leadership that screwed up everything; we weren’t cowards.” Of course, we do not know; foot soldiers in Pharaoh’s army did not record their campaign memoirs for anyone, including posterity. They may not have even been able to read hieroglyphics, although they would not have failed to observe their own portrayal in the picture writing as the tiny supporting cast for the monarch’s vainglory.
Today, however, their contemporary counterparts blog. Take a 2005 post from CaptB, a Marine blogger in Iraq writing for his blog “one marine’s view” (now promoted in stateside duty as blogger “Major Pain“). On the left is a picture of the good officer on his modern steed of war.
I quote the passage in full to render a flavor of the authenticity and intensity that the milblogger (or rather warblogger) at the front, in a war without fronts, can offer us at home trying make sense of it all:
SMOKE EM IF YA GOTEM! Another fine day here in Iraq. Thanksgiving has come and gone and we are that much closer to getting outa here. The holiday was nice although it was the same as every other day here as we maintained vigilance and on guard for attacks and concluded operations. The chow was hot . . . It resembled turkey, really it did . . . kinda . . . oh well I digest. It was hot chow and I am thankful for that. As I remember back in Afghani living months on MRE’s, yes it was hot chow and Im damn glad to have it. On our Thanksgiving some of my guys were wrapping up a convoy as they would on the typical day here when they were ambushed and hit with an IED. Probably an 81mm mortar size. Because there were many civilians in the area they weren’t able to fire into the crowed where the known triggerman was hiding within. No Marines were injured due to their training, gear and armor hummers. Its was the fourth IED for us. Not a lot compared to others but about four too many, trust me one was plenty and I have the T-shirt Im good to go. Now we race down what we call the White Knuckle Express? It’s a road to our destination similar to others with names like ambush alley, dead mans curve and the gauntlet. I really hate this road and respect it a lot because of how dangerous it is. The second time we were scheduled to travel this route I rewrote some items in a last letter? to my family the night before . . . just in case the worse happened because this is where it would happen. I did this because the first time really got my attention if you know what I mean. We maneuver down the bare street (never a good sign) and have to jump the curb to go around an M1 Tank that is protecting our flank. M1′s are great to have around as they bring a lot of fire power to the fight. Watch the bag on the right with wires? says truck one, as we continue our movement through the dirty trash covered streets. What doesn’t look like an IED at this point??? Everything you see looks like it could hide an artillery shell underneath it. A pack of 5 dogs begins to chase truck 2 in the street as the other trucks continue their paths. We aren’t moving or stopping for anything. In this area its survival of the meanest as these same dogs are probably some that have been seen feeding on dead enemy, a real pleasant sight. I could explain every detail to you about it but you wouldn’t feel the sneaky eyes peeking around corners with cell phones calling trigger men ahead waiting to try to blow you up or you wouldn’t feel the weight on your chest as you swerve to miss the crater holes and the radio chatter is calling out the probable IEDs spotted. Its very surreal because while this is going on small kids are waving hello at you on the sidewalks. I guess that’s better than them mashing their thumbs down imitating the act of detonating an IED like they sometimes do. This place is crazy. As we drive Ive now counted at least twenty IED crater holes in the road and have lost count there are so many. However, this fear keeps you razor sharp and alert with adrenalin pumping in your veins to where it takes an hour or so to chill the hell out. Smoke em if ya gotem! Just as we enter the friendly lines a large IED goes off behind us. It was triggered too late to hit us and no one was injured, well that was number five says one of the Marine, 6 if you count the one we discovered and detonated ourselves. As we pull in to our destination, prayer begins and the familiar Arabic chant is broadcasted throughout the area. You remind your Marines of where not to position themselves because of past sniper shots claiming warriors. The Marines are fired up and have lightening reflexes ready for anything. It’s a good thing because I think if Bambi? the deer ran across them now the little thing would be vapor. We conduct our mission on scene and adjust to do the run again. Its another fine day here in Iraq. Semper Fi, time for a cigar!
How far such communication has come from the days of Ramses! An anonymous commenter aptly noted to CaptB, “Felt like I was there with you Capt, through your riveting account. How did you ever learn to write like that? It is an amazing gift! We can never thank you and your Marines enough for the outstanding service and sacrifice you are providing America every day. You are all in our hearts and prayers.”
Indeed. And so soldiers, sailors, air force personnel, and Marines now tell their stories, in their own words, even with their own pictures, from ground zero. By doing so they are changing the world of media and politics—maybe even of war.
Whatever your opinion about this war, we can all agree that new communications technology is changing its face and its voice.