Mentioned on Medill Reports

Mar 4, 2008

Military Blogs Evolve in Unexpected Ways

by Joyce Chang
Mar 04, 2008
Medill Reports – Northwestern University

WASHINGTON – Online military blogs — or “milblogs” — began to appear in force in 2001 after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as a way for troops to share their experiences with those back home.

An important factor in the popularity of the blogs is that “milbloggers go where no other man is going,” said David D. Perlmutter, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas who has written about political blogs.

And the majority of those going to those places tend to be enlisted troops, leading to a perception that most of the milbloggers are younger. But the demographic profile of milbloggers and types of blogs gaining popularity now are the result not only of age: Rank, the progress of the war and the length of the conflict also play roles.

“You don’t see many blogs from colonels because who wants to hear about adventures behind a desk?” wrote 22-year-old Alex Horton, who served in Iraq as
a specialist in the 3rd Stryker Brigade and authors the “Army of Dude” blog.

Spc. Neil Gussman, a 54-year-old who enlisted in the Army National Guard last year after previously serving from 1972 to 1984, wrote that age and rank both factor in to who’s blogging because older service members are usually in senior leadership positions and did not grow up “putting their stories out in public” so they are less likely to be blogging. But age is not necessarily a deal breaker.

“I am the oldest guy in my unit and the only regular blogger,” Gussman wrote, referring to his “Back in the Army Now (at 54)” blog. “Certainly age has a lot to do with it, but people who are comfortable with the technology will use it at whatever age.”

Older service members tend to be more experienced and “subscribe to the values of the military, the unspoken ‘omerta’ that the military doctrine is to be followed at all times,” Horton wrote. “That means supporting your commander-in-chief and believing the administration totally.”

One value – operational security – was the focus of an updated Army regulation that says milbloggers should not only tell their supervisors that they plan to post potentially sensitive information online – which was a previous requirement – but also that all blog postings and anything else published online should be reviewed and approved before publication.

For example, Army spokesman Paul Boyce said, the Army asks members not to publish pictures of bomb damage from explosions, which might tip off enemies to the effectiveness of their bombs, and information about convoy routes, times and locations.

Ward Carroll, editor of the online community, said the announcement has turned out to be “much ado about nothing” because the Army isn’t able to monitor every blog post.

Boyce agreed: “This is very much the honor system. You need to be your own best censor. This is not like World War II when you had censors opening up people’s letters and blacking out parts like ‘We’re about to hit Sicily.’ We’re not able to do that anymore. The world has moved on so much beyond the ability to censor a battlefield letter.”

Added Horton: “Many bloggers are anonymous for fear of reprisal, but the fact is, the military doesn’t know how to control them.”

Whether or not operational security regulations had an impact, some experts say milblogging’s popularity probably peaked nearly two years ago and that the war’s course may be affecting the nature and number of blogs.

After an initial saturation of blogs, especially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there may be an overall dropoff now in the creation of new milblogs, Carroll said.

Meanwhile, some of the established, more prominent bloggers have become more popular and gained readership.

“Blogging as this unique box of tricks has sort of waned,” Carroll said.

As the outlook on the Iraq war has improved, the blogging narrative is also changing to concentrate less on the war and more on veterans’ issues and the aftermath, according to Carroll.

The genre has expanded to include “political milblogging,” such as blogs by veterans acting as military pundits or discussing how military experiences have shaped their political views. One example is “Vet Voice,” for which Horton now writes.

Another trend is “milspouse blogs” that provide online support groups for military spouses. Carroll said these types of blogs are growing in popularity and cited one example, “Spouse Buzz,” which launched in late 2006.

As another example, Jennifer Fairbank said she started her blog to give new military wives information about topics such as military discounts and moving tips. She said online military message boards for spouses are sometimes intimidating.

“Many wives get very full of themselves and imagine that there is rank structure amongst the wives or that they carry some authority over the others simply because of their husband’s rank,” Fairbank said.

Milspouse blogs may have more staying power than traditional military blogs. “Their dedication isn’t going to wane in the face of a war that’s winding down,” Carroll said.

Even as milblogs evolve, Carroll suggested, their impact should not be quickly discounted or forgotten.

“What milblogging has done over the long haul is established a narrative that was distinct vis-à-vis traditional media,” Carroll said. “What it allowed the consumer to do is hear another voice in the mix that struck a balance.”

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