February 7, 2012

Where Have the MilBlogs Gone?

Do you wonder where all the blogs went that were being written by the soldiers on the frontlines? I do, I’ve been tracking these blogs for close to a decade now and for information on what is happening on the front lines you are pretty much now resigned to the major media outlets or the Department of Defense official reports, and the few blogs that are out there are primarily being written by civilians or contractors.

So what happened to the wide spread use of social media by the troops? The best I can tell is that they either went dark or completely private, meaning the blog owner has to approve you to view their posts, because Big Army has put the hammer down on anything that doesn’t reflect highly on the mission or the commanders.

CJ Grisham, a Master Sergeant currently serving in Afghanistan writes a blog called A Soldier’s Perspective. He is an outspoken blogger who doesn’t hold back when he sees someone doing the wrong thing, and has been in very public debates with local school districts as well as correspondents, but since late 2011 he hasn’t posted anything.

Major Zigenfuss, founder of Project ValOUR IT, and owner of the blog, From My Position…On the way!, who started blogging about his deployment to Iraq and then continued to blog after he was seriously wounded by an IED, is now deployed to Afghanistan, but his once vociferous blogging has also gone silent.

Milblogging.com, a site founded by JP Borda after his return from Afghanistan in 2004 catalogs Milblogs of every persuasion. He currently list over 3000 MilBlogs but a scant handful of them are being published from the frontlines, and on the list of recently updated blogs, none are being updated by soldiers on active duty, let alone deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

A few short years ago we had thousands of frontline bloggers telling us what was going on, telling their story both good and bad. Matthew Currier Burden founder and owner of the blog Blackfive even published a book called The Blog of War, highlighting their efforts. The Blog of War presented selections from some of the best of the military blogs, the purest account of the many voices of this war and offered a glimpse into the full range of military experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, from the decision to enlist right through to homecoming. That book could not be written now.

Blogs such as this blog and the Mudville Gazette used to run daily updates and roundups of blog posts from the frontline but the Web Reconnaissance and From the Front series from The Thunder Run and The Dawn Patrol from the Mudville Gazette have done dark.

At the 2008 and 2009 MilBlog Conferences, Army staff participated and whole-heartedly supported the advent of blogging by soldier on the frontlines. Social media roundups spearheaded by Lindsay Kyzer for the DoD gave higher level commanders a depth of understanding of what was being said about the military by giving them an actual roundup of what was being said on blogs and broader-audience social media outlets. If the January 25, 2012 edition of the Social Media Review (SMR)[Click on the thumbnails to open each slide] is any indication, what was once a look at what is being said is now a 10-slide presentation on all the ways that blogging can be a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Are the days of service-members giving their open, honest, and usually gritty opinion gone? Based upon the dearth of active and open blogs on the internet right now, I’d have to say yes it is.

During my off the record interviews for this post I was told that soldiers are told that any time they talk to a reporter, they are free to give their opinion on anything, but that they should stay in their lane. Which basically means, don’t talk about something you don’t know anything about! Soldiers are regularly told that they can say whatever they want, as long as they make it clear it is their opinion, so if that is true, why can’t they write anything they want as long as it is their opinion?

Under the current rules highlighted in the SMR if a soldier posts on their Facebook page that they are not happy with the President’s policy on X they can be prosecuted under Article 88 of the UCMJ. Have a disagreement on Facebook or Twitter with a Senior NCO on policy and you can be counseled for violating the Social Media guidelines set forth in DTM 09-026. Get counseled one too many times and you can be separated from the Army under Article 600-235.

The Effect

So what is the effect of the lack of blogs by soldiers deployed on the frontlines? For some of us there is no effect, the lack of a third voice insulates us against the war because let’s face it no one really wants to know that after a decade of mentoring by the US, French, British, Germans and dozens of other militaries, the Afghan Army still can’t handle the most basic of logistical issues, and their soldiers still have no concept on the use toilet paper. No one really wants to know what our troopers go through on a daily basis, the hours of shear boredom they endure, or the days of extreme stress and fatigue they sustain on long patrols through the countryside, or the horrible conditions under which they have to live.

But we need their voices to be heard, they have a level of experience and expertise that is needed to temper the erroneous and sometime blatant falsehoods being spread by the enemy and the press. Right now a disembedded correspondent is on a mission to have the Red Crosses on the MEDEVAC Helicopters (Medical Evacuation) of the U.S. Army removed, so that they can be converted to armed CASEVAC helicopters (Casualty Evacuation). His belief is that because the MEDEVAC helicopters are not armed and fly with armed escorts that if we simply remove the Red Crosses we could arm them with weapons and they could fly on their own without escorts, thus shortening the time it takes them to get to those who urgently need them.

Right now he is the only person out there asking for this to happen, he has written to Congressmen and gotten Washington involved. His dispatches appear on dozens of high profile web sites around the world, and there is not one voice out there countering him and some of his absurd assumptions because the Army’s rules on Social Media use have blacked them out.

Why do we need their voices, because no one cares what Big Army says about the topic, no one has even seen Big Army’s response to his claims and how removing the Red Crosses and adding weapons effectively destroys their MEDEVAC capabilities. Frontline bloggers could effectively rebuke his short sighted beliefs, but instead every day he releases another letter “supporting his position”. What does this mean for you - nothing if you don’t have a dog in the fight, but what if you have a son or daughter deployed to Afghanistan, who heaven forbid gets hit by an IED and needs a MEDEVAC flight, a flight that arrives with ALL of the medical support equipment (defibrillator, IV pumps, O2, Monitoring Devices etc.) needed to keep them, and their buddy, alive until they can reach a forward hospital, but instead receives one of this correspondent’s new CASEVAC flights, that got there with a medic and his aid bag of bandages and an IV?

Then it becomes important, unfortunately it may be too late.

The Future

One of the questions I asked during my interviews was “why the change and what do you see as the future for Social Media use by soldiers?” The results aren’t promising. The current rules on the use of Social Media by soldiers are a complete reversal of the rules from just a few years ago.

Gone are the days when soldiers were encouraged to blog, good or bad and after reviewing the material, and the pattern exhibited by the Army, I can only guess that it is because as the war winds down and budgets are getting cut, commanders are looking once again at their own careers and not their soldiers.

What does this mean for soldiers, it means that they once again have to go underground and that if they want to blog, use twitter, or facebook they are going to do so under aliases, if they want to write anything at all.


LL said...

One of the first blogs that came out, Colby Buzzell's "My War," was very important in revealing the chaos, humanity, and brotherhood of men in war, from the perspective of one grunt. I remember how riveting each post was, how it sucked you in to what these guys endured on a daily basis. You are right, Americans are even more insulated from that reality because of this dearth of REAL voices, unfiltered, speaking to the truth of combat. The thing is, everyday people read his blog avidly. All walks of life wanted to know how he and his buddies were doing, what they faced, how they coped. It is sad that milblogs have mostly been silenced.

Anonymous said...

I was turned onto milblogs by the Wired magazine article and I was addicted to 365 and a Wake-up. I was happy when Mr. Bout returned, but I almost cried when the blog went dark. So sad to see these go away.

Anonymous said...

The death of blogs isn't limited to the military sphere. Blogs everywhere (Wordpress, Blogger, etc.) have been largely replaced by Facebook and other social media.

El Capitan said...

I was an active member of the MilBlog community between 2004 and 2010. There were some great blogs out there, and a few are still around, but I have a feeling most of us stopped posting for a common reason: We got busy.

After being away on 4 deployments and dealing with Uncle Sam for so long, blogging about life in the military took a backseat to maintaining the career and being there for the family. I still get the urge to share my thoughts and experiences of active duty life online, but by the time I get home my focus changes to my family life.

I'd bet that in a few years, when a lot of us old MilBloggers retire from Active Duty, you will see a resurgence in posting. Will it be relevant? Not sure. But at least we'll be able to speak our minds more freely.

To the MilBloggers still out there taking chances and making a difference, we can't thank you enough. You continue to lead the way for all of us.

NavyOne said...

As active-duty, I find there are a lot of other topics to post about. General tom-foolery, for example.

Joshua Salmons said...

Great article! I very much agree with the fact that we need military voices, but I was going to echo what the Anonymous comment above said about Facebook and other social media sites. Part of the decline of milblogging may be to a lack of further guidance from DOD and the old fear of reprisals...

...but most of it (in my opinion) comes from the fact that it's easier to Tweet and post to Facebook than it is to run a blog.

I'm one of the authors in "The Blog of War" and as an Army staff sergeant stationed at Fort Meade from 2007-2010, I contribued to DTM 09-026.

Jason said...

Your portrayal of Micheal Yon's position regarding Army MEDEVAC helos is a little unfair. Have people died in British or USAF helicopters because medical equipment was removed to make room for guns? The whole point of medical evacuation is to get the soldier to higher echelons of care quickly. If taking out some medical equipment to add weaponry expedites the helo launch, pickup, and recovery, it's probably worth it.

Cargosquid said...

Major Zigenfuss is still posting.


Anonymous said...

The thing that comes to mind to me is ELECTION YEAR.