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9/27/2005
07:27 AM
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Milblogs: A Very Thin Line Indeed

Military blogs serve many purposes--for both the individual soldier and society at large--and there is a way of balancing operational security and freedom of speech.

There's recently been concern expressed by top military brass about the nature and content of individual soldiers' blogs, or 'milblogs' as they're known in shorthand. The U.S. Army Chief of Staff warned in a memo that certain bloggers are "compromising U.S. operational security."

In his memo, Staff General Peter Schoomaker complained that some soldiers have posted sensitive information including "photos depicting weapon system vulnerabilities and tactics, techniques, and procedures." General Schoomaker was also concerned about protecting the Army's image in other nations and among the public here at home.

By at least one measure, the nation's military establishment is right to be concerned. According to a May, 2005 USA Today story, the number of milblogs has grown to more than 200 and is expected to reach 1,000 by year-end. This is compared to a scant 50 last year.

The central questions, as I see them: what purpose is served by the milblogs, is that purpose balanced against the potential harm they might do, and how to sort it all out?

Many of the blogs are individual soldiers' attempts to connect with the world at large and with family and other loved ones at home, and to communicate some of the emotion behind what they're doing. They're online diaries of a sort, meant to let loved ones know that the soldier is alive and well as can be in a foreign country where life, even on base, is by necessity so very different from what they have left behind.

Conversely, the phenomenon of milblogging also allows some of us at home to connect with the soldiers--even those we don't know personally--to put an individual human face on the tragedy and horror of war. It's a way of supporting our troops, to be a silent witness to what they are going through, no matter what we may feel about the war itself. We can root for them, mourn their losses, and celebrate their triumphs. We can hope that their stash of favorite goodies from home is being replenished, or perhaps even arrange to send them new supplies.

Most civilians can empathize with people like Rusten Currie, a military intelligence officer currently in Baghdad, when he says, "An entire year will be missing from my marriage, and I don't know how to get it back." His most recent blog entry was dated September 24, and it read, in part: "Here in 'this war' we have all peered into the heart of darkness, and all too often we have seen ourselves gazing back."

Who among us isn't moved by that?

We can also read about and honor the the struggle expressed by men like Jason Christopher Hartley, who writes on his blog site: "I can think of nothing more important than compassion. I am not a pacifist nor am I a conscientious objector, but I believe there must be a way to be an infantryman and still be able to preserve a sense of compassion." Further, he says, "Our country needs a military. Somebody has to do this job and it might as well be me. Who else is going to do it? You?"

Things to think about, indeed.

Interestingly, Hartley's was one of the blogs shut down by the Army, and he received an Article 15, a nonjudicial punishment, for his efforts. His old blog entries are offline now, and that's a shame because I imagine the rest of his writings are as powerful and as thought-provoking as the above sample.

And that's the problem. It's beginning to look like the military is being capricious or, worse, underhanded in how it's going after certain bloggers. One of the more well-known soldier-bloggers, Colby Buzzell, is a former Army infantryman whose blogged version of a firefight in Iraq differed from the official Pentagon version. He was subsequently "briefly" confined to base, according to a story in the September/October 2005 Columbia Journalism Review, and is now back home in Brooklyn, NY, getting ready for the October release of a book based on his experiences.

Another milblogger, Arizona National Guardsman Leonard Clark, was also given an Article 15 punishment. The Army Times reported that Clark was found by supervisors to have released classified information regarding unit soldiers and convoys being attacked or hit by an improvised explosive device on various dates, among other things.

And yes, of course, it stands to reason that these blogs must adhere to certain standards and rules to protect national and operational security and the safety of the men and women they work with. Just like television reporters are not allowed to release certain details of, say, the location of the military units with which they're embedded, military bloggers must live by similar rules.

So, how to navigate the fine line? This medium isn't going away anytime soon, and if Pentagon officials are smart they will let it flourish. Here are a couple of suggestions:

- Establish written policies and procedures, and circulate them, so that milbloggers know what's off-limits. Sure, even civilians can figure out some of the more obvious things. But if posting a photo of three guys standing in front of a tank is off-limits because the tank contains some weaponry you don't want the enemy to see, then say so. I'm guessing here, but I'll bet that the overwhelming majority of milbloggers would never knowingly harm the institution they love and/or respect. These are soldiers who have volunteered for duty; let's give them the chance to do the right thing.

- Once those policies are in place, establish a review board. If an individual does get into trouble with a blog entry that perhaps says more than it should, apply the same standards, procedures, and punishments to everyone.

The military has long been about inventing repeatable processes. More recently, it's also been trying to adjust its training to help develop people who can 'think on their feet' and lead. Here's a chance to do both.

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