Web Savvy Soldiers Transform War Diaries
On Wednesday, May 04, 2005, Zachary Scott-Singley offered this post:
Sitting there in that darkness listening to the briefing on how we were to execute the mission, I let my mind wander from the briefing and said a prayer. "Just one more day God, let me live one more day and we will go from there." It was the same prayer I said every day because every day I did the same thing. I left the base. With a small team I would go out each day on different missions. I was their translator.
Scott-Singley, who was an Arabic translator and a Sergeant in the 3rd Infantry Division stationed in Tikrit, is one of hundreds of military bloggers whose postings range from first hand accounts and photographs to political punditry. War in the age of the Internet gives a new slant to a long history of soldier diaries and letters. The immediacy of cyber communication produces captivating personal narratives unlike communications from prior generations of soldiers. In the past, soldier diaries and letters were usually read weeks later by a family member or friend. Today soldier blogs are just a mouse click away to be read by anyone with an Internet connection. Sometimes sprinkled with humor, often peppered with expletives, and always thought-provoking, military blogs--or milblogs--offer depictions of soldiers' experiences from around the world. Most significantly, milblogs provide a vehicle for the voices of soldiers to enter the public conversation, adding a much needed dimension to discourse about the war.
Many milblogs are written by U.S. soldiers in Iraq whose posts document the war with chilling intimacy. On September 28, 2004, Combat Doc, a 39 year old Army medic formerly assigned to Mosul, Iraq described this event:
Today on a counter-mortar mission a kid came up making a motion like he was pulling a grenade pin with his mouth and pointing to the field. We went over and found what looked like a small anti-personnel mine. We weren't sure until we blew it. We did it because if we had waited for the Iraqi EOD we would have been there over an hour and we really only had a 15 minutes on that patrol and chow was closing soon. It blew a lot bigger than the 4 oz of C-4 we placed on it. Mini mushroom cloud. I guess I was right. I gave the kid a teriyaki MRE, he was happy about it.
Certainly, there is value in hearing these first hand accounts. Americans at home are inundated with reports on the war in Iraq from professional communicators, such as political pundits, government officials, and mainstream media. Why not hear from the men and women who are carrying the load of this war? As greyhawk, a milblogger stationed in Germany puts it, soldier blogs are “documenting a war that many feel the traditional media has failed to capture.” Yet, the Internet's ability to provide a vehicle for solders to act as cyber journalists is not what is most significant about soldier blogs. The greatest value of milblogs lies in providing soldiers on the ground with a means to engage in public discourse about the war they are fighting.
Too often, the cacophony of professional communicators has muffled the sound of citizen voices. The consequence of the professionalization of public discourse is that the conversations of everyday citizens have been relegated to the private realm. Discursive public spheres in a democracy belong to the participants—to everyday citizens who, in order to live out the democratic process, must be free to deliberate on public issues with their fellow citizens. Soldier blogs offer the boots on the ground a venue for engaging in vernacular rhetoric.
The Internet has become a useful venue for civic discussion—a virtual public sphere that functions as the cafes and salons of contemporary society. Interactive weblogs and online discussion forums provide an open communication environment for citizens to engage in debate about public issues and to exchange ideas with political leaders and with each other. Certainly, the vernacular venues of cyberspace should be open to those citizens who can arguably offer a unique insight into a significant public issue such as the war in Iraq.
Some have argued that milblogs have the potential to deride the war effort by revealing military secrets. In response to this concern, the military has cracked down on soldier blogs by requiring milbloggers to register with superior officers before publishing and by reviewing the content of milblogs for potential security risks. In some cases, milblogs have been shut down. Admittedly, soldier blogs are uncensored public accounts from the battlefield and, as such, could possibly leak sensitive information to the world instantaneously. The World War II sentiment that loose lips sink ships is certainly a concern that deserves serious consideration. Perhaps the government's apprehension in this regard reveals a lack of confidence in members of the military to act with discretion. Perhaps the concern is justified. In any case, it would seem that the solution lies with military training and not with blanket censorship that denies soldiers access to a principal venue of public communication.
We are all the beneficiaries of milblogging. Soldier blogs offer a personal perspective that supplements news accounts with candor and first hand accuracy. As one millblogger put it, soldier blogs embody “free speech from those who make it possible.” Most importantly, milblogs provide all of us with the insights of the soldiers who are on the ground. As Paul Rieckoff pointed out in his blog on the Huffington Post some time ago, "If people really want to support the Troops, they should start listening to them."