Soldiers' Views of War: Military Bloggers
Today's military bloggers, more commonly known as milbloggers, have explored the potential of digital technology to express their fears, frustrations, interpretations, and observations about war by openly posting their thoughts in blogs on the Internet. Blogs, or web-logs, encompass everything from first-person musings that can resemble diaries to well-researched political arguments about virtually any subject. In the world of milblogs, these postings are relatively free from institutional influence and editorial staff gatekeepers, and as scholar Melissa Wall has suggested, they can now compete, and in some cases supplant traditional media as public sources for news, and function as a form of black market journalism. The result is an expression of politics and war, personal reflection, and insights into the world of the soldier with the urgency of reality, expressed in real-time. Blogs have provided an outlet for soldiers to express the reality of war through personal testimony. As a result, milblogs serve an important function that encompasses issues of freedom of speech, catharsis, action toward mobilization of ideas, and, sometimes, the expression of communal grief.
The blog search engine Technorati groups military bloggers by political position as well as by name, and reflects views of individuals who are not in the military, but wish to make political comments on military actions. Milblog is a collection featuring blogs from over 1,700 individuals in over 30 countries, and has over 3,000 registered members who are currently active in the military, or who have previously served.
Peabody award winner John Hockenberry celebrates milbloggers in his August 2005 Wired article The Blogs of War, in which he underscores and legitimizes milbloggers' “collective voice [that] competes with and occasionally undermines the Defense Department's (DOD's) elaborate message machine and the much loathed mainstream media.” Describing milbloggers as a “refreshing subculture” Hockenberry recalls the milblog, A Line in the Sand, by 24-year old Sgt. Chris Missick, who wrote of Abu Ghraib:
Never before has a war been so immediately documented, never before have sentiments from the front scurried their way to the home front with such ease and precision. Here I sit, in the desert, staring daily at the electric fence, the deep trenches and the concertina wire that separates the border of Iraq and Kuwait, and write home and upload my daily reflections and opinions on the war and my circumstances here, as well as some of the pictures I have taken along the way. It is amazing, and empowering, and yet the question remains, should I as a lower enlisted soldier have such power to express my opinion and broadcast to the world a singular soldier's point of view? To those outside the uniform who have never lived the military life, the question may seem absurd, and yet, as an example of what exists even in the small following of readers I have here, the implications of thought expressed by soldiers daily could be explosive.
Because of the importance of military units as primary social units in which group identification is integral for effective communication, there is a controversy over whether milbloggers should be allowed to criticize members of their units or the decisions of politicians or military leaders. A July 2003 study conducted by members of the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute reminds us that:
U.S. soldiers [in Iraq] much like soldiers in the past, fight for each other. Unit cohesion is alive and well in today's army. Unit cohesion is a major factor that accounts for individuals' willingness to fight, kill, and die. Cohesion, or the emotional bonds between soldiers, appear to be the primary factor in combat motivation. . . . The Iraq War confirms what every combat soldier already knows—cohesion places a shared responsibility for the success of the unit on each individual while giving each soldier the confidence that someone else [their fellow soldiers] is watching over them.
While the study concludes that unit loyalty is the most powerful force that motivates a soldier to fight, it notes that in an all volunteer army, ideological support for the mission also contributes to combat motivation and may also contribute a sense of unit cohesion.
Milbloggers who constantly refer to their unit and who act as de facto cyber spokesmen for that unit should be thought of as acting under the social constraints that occur during military unit bonding. It would be inconsistent if a member of the milblogger group were to express significant opposition to the war and his or her unit's mission. The milblogger, Greyhawk, is one such actor. Iraq war veteran Greyhawk, who founded the Mudville Gazette in 2003 and who is credited with coining the term milblog, features a vigorous defense of the war through attacks on mainstream media, anti-war politicians and, most vigorously, anti-war active duty service members and veterans. Greyhawk's blog has actively vilified a group of active duty military members expressing their support for ending the Iraq War to their Congressmen through signing an Internet petition on the Appeal for Redress. Greyhawk's acerbic comments can be viewed as a form of expulsion from the military family. He laboriously links these G.I. activists with other groups who threaten the cohesiveness of his group such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, and Veterans for Peace. As Congressional debate over a withdrawal deadline dominates the mainstream media, this type of political banter appears more often in a greater number of soldiers' blogs.
Another important service of some milblogs is memorializing fallen comrades. This provides evidence of the family-like bonds that dominate social existence in military units. These eulogies frequently employ phrases such as “warrior prince,” “natural born warrior,” and “to fight the fight for our country.” Frequently, commanding officers and chaplains' tributes are included in the post. This can be followed by posts from relatives and friends of the fallen soldier similar to the online sympathy postings available in online newspaper obituary listings. The need to grieve and the special place provided in cyberspace is a link from country to war zone, and from flesh, to our collective hearts.
The postings listed in this essay form compelling samples of milblogs that provide us with access to the extraordinary experience, reflections, and reactions of Internet savvy American soldiers in combat. While these electronic dispatches allow us to form an empathetic bond with the soldiers and can serve as an important complement to both mainstream reporting and the commentary of political analysts, this information should not be privileged as an unfiltered reflection of reality. Milblogs do function, however, as an historically unique window on war, framed and positioned by the intimate face-to-face association and cooperation that characterizes the social unity of primary groups, and for this, they should be prized as documents and products of those intense dynamics.