Soldier blogs bring the front line to the folks at home
The sergeant stationed just west of Baghdad was once again recounting the dangers of being on the front line - sometimes with dark humor. He referred to how the "muj" (mujahideen or insurgents) were the gang that couldn't shoot straight, but still represented a considerable threat.Skip to next paragraph
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"They're horrible shots," he wrote in an e-mail to his family, "but every once in awhile they get lucky. We lost another Marine the other day."
This is the first war in which American GIs and military families can communicate freely and in real time via e-mail and cellphone, while gathering endless amounts of information about the situation in Iraq via the Internet - some of it trustworthy, much of it unreliable.
Countless soldiers - some recently returned from the war, others still there - have set up their own Web logs or "blogs" and chat rooms, communicating their day-to-day war experience, complaining about the brass (as all soldiers do), and looking for support. All of which raises a question about war in the Age of the Internet: Is all this electronic chatter good or bad for morale and discipline?
Soldiers are able to have direct and frequent e-mail exchanges with friends and families at home as well as check out websites providing a view of how things are going in Iraq that may differ from official accounts. One well-visited blog is written by a 25 year-old Iraqi woman in Baghdad reporting on civilian life.
Personal e-mails and blog entries from Iraq detail what it's like to live in a world of regular mortar attacks or, as one described recently, the weirdness of coming upon a rosebush in full bloom in the midst of the rubble, and smelling the flowers' fragrance bursting through the diesel smoke of battle tanks.
In some dispatches from the front, one hears echoes of the classic GI humor of Bill Mauldin's cartoon characters Willie and Joe back in World War II. For instance, the sergeant west of Baghdad noted with wry humor the timing of insurgent attacks.
"It seems to happen whenever I'm trying to make my way out to the head," he quipped, referring to what sailors and marines call the toilet. "I'm beginning to take it personally."
But his tone quickly sobers when trying to explain dealing with the stress of losing troops. "It's very strange how people react," wrote the sergeant. "We are all shaken, but at the same time, we just keep going. We still laugh and joke about what we were doing at the time of impact, things like that. I imagine outsiders would think us callous. I guess it's just how we cope. At first it was exciting. Now it's just annoying."
Personal diaries and letters have chronicled war since before the American Revolution. What's changed is the immediacy, the easy access to high-speed Internet connections and phone service in Iraq. As recently as the 1990s - the Gulf War and the conflict in Somalia - this wasn't the case.
"The Internet and digital communications devices have democratized the global flow of information for friend and foe alike," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "Whether you think that's good or bad, there's no question that it is a revolution with profound implications."
The impact on morale has in fact had both positive and negative impacts on the "good order and discipline" that the military demands in its regulations and traditions. Morten Ender, a sociologist at the US Military Academy at West Point calls it a "double-edged sword."
It emboldens and gives more voice to a range of soldiers, leads to closer scrutiny of the battlefield, and provides better communication with families and society, says Dr. Ender, who studies how military personnel communicate with their families and with each other. But, says Ender, "It also creates new leadership challenges, an explosion of information fostering multiple truths, information overload, and the potential for operational security issues."
This democratization of communication has led junior officers - lieutenants leading platoons and captains commanding companies of soldiers - to set up their own limited-access blogs. They exchange directly the things they're learning in Iraq that could save someone's life tomorrow without waiting for formal Pentagon analysis. This can range from the mundane to the strategic, everything from dealing with sullen subordinates to the best ways to avoid roadside bombs to grief counseling.
On the public page of CompanyCommand.com, the founders of the website state simply: "We want real-world, practical, ready-to-apply stuff."