The World of Military Blogging
Thursday, May 3, 2007; 11:00 AM
Military bloggers or "milbloggers" are posting from the front lines or the home front and these online journals include some of the most detailed and personal stories on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In "Blogs Chronicle War from Soldiers' Perspectives," Nikki Schwab, a graduate journalism student at American University, chronicles the history of the blogs, as well as the policies that govern them.
Milblogger Sean Dustman has been writing about his family, friends and military life in his blog "Doc in the Box" since January 2004. Dustman was deployed to Iraq three times as a naval medical corpsman attached to a Marine unit. He is a native of Prescott Valley, Ariz., and now lives in San Diego with his wife, Heather. Readers of his blog raised $790 so that he and Heather could travel to Washington, D.C. this weekend to attend the 2007 Milblog Conference.
Dustman joined Schwab online at 11 a.m., Thursday, May 3 to discuss milblogging.
Nikki Schwab: Hello
Sean Dustman: Hello everyone
Clemson, S.C.: Does having internet access make your deployment harder or easier?
Sean Dustman: I'm a tech geek, I would be lost without internet! I can write home daily and get the news stories that aren't covered by CNN.
Alexandria, Va.: Most of the so-called 'MilBlogs' appear to be ardently pro-Iraq war/pro-Bush; they often attack blogs that aren't--even those run by vets.
Is it not true many of the leading 'MilBlogs' are funded or otherwise sponsored by GOP organizations?
Sean Dustman: I do know I'm not, I'm a definite middle of the road guy. Most of the milblogs you are talking about are ran by ex military and do have sponsorships though adds and such. I don't have any adds on my site.
Ligonier, Pa.: Nikki, How did you get interested in doing this story? Any plans for a follow-up?
Nikki Schwab: When I was working as an intern at a paper in Pittsburgh I was asked by an editor to find out some information about a local unit of soldiers. What I stumbled upon was that unit's blog. I really wanted to write a story about milblogs then but was never given the opportunity to do so. A year later, I pitched the idea to my editor at washingtonpost.com and he liked it. I'll be attending the 2007 Milblog Conference this weekend in Arlington, Va., and writing a story about that experience and I hopefully will continue to write stories about the milblogging community, especially with the latest change in OPSEC policy. It should be interesting to see how theses changes play out.
Free DC: I just heard today about new DOD regulations that forbid all blogging or writing anything: emails, articles and including letters home that are not reviewed and approved by military superiors. Is this true? Do you think the military is really afraid of leaks regarding locations and tactics or do you think the DOD is afraid of unvarnished, candid expression? Even logistically I assume monitoring all troop communication is going to severly tax the military at the leadership rank - do we have the extra manpower at a management level to do this? What happens if an uncensored message gets through? Court martials? Dishonorable discharges?
I'd appreciate it if you could clarify these new regulations.
The recent policy revision can be found here: AR 530-1(pdf)
Sean Dustman: Hi Free DC,
It's actually an Army regulation, not DOD wide (yet) and for me it's a bit early to judge but I'm looking at the new policy as a big stick. It would be a hassle to have someone read all of my posts before I published, as far as my unit commander knowing about my blog, that was one of the first pieces of information I passed and forwarded him this article written in 2004
As far as getting in trouble, it would depend on if you were doing damage to the mission.
Wellesley, Ma.: In general, there is not a high degree of confidence that the surge strategy will be successful - most are saying 20% to 30%. In addition, the time required for the strategy to be successful is an additional 5+ years which means troops could face additional 1 to 3 deployments.
What do these realities have on the troops on the ground? Or is everything day-to-day with them, getting their missions done and trying to keep their unit as safe as possible.
What is the impact that the only people bearing the brunt of the war are the troops and their families, and there is no sacrifice by the folks back home? It is like there two different and independent worlds - the world of the US and the world of Iraq.
Sean Dustman: Well, lets say I'm happy with my 7 months there and 14 back in the rear, deploying for a year to 18 months like the Army has got to be tough on your home life. If you're going to do a long war, I think it's important not to burn out your resources. I'm lucky, my wife thinks written correspondence is romantic but I've seen my share of divorces and broken apart relationships due to deployment. This war is strange, it's like the military is off fighting a war but it only affects a small percentage of the population.
State College, Pa.: While many people are touting the importance of blogs and other electronic forums, I caught an article yesterday saying that the military was going to start heavily monitoring these activities becasue they are growing increasingly concerned with Operational Security (OPSEC). The Pentagon is worried that many soldiers are posting details that are giving adversaries around the world important information and insight into U.S. military practices.
What is your reaction or thoughts to what the Department of Defense worries is a growing concern?
Nikki Schwab: I too looked into this change in OPSEC policy. Yesterday I interviewed Army OPSEC Program Manager Maj. Ray Ceralde and he told me this revision of policy wouldn't change much for bloggers. Bloggers who are already blogging from Iraq are required to register their blogs with their chain of command and then have their blogs examined quarterly. According to Ceralde, this new policy will merely require all army bloggers to register their blogs. As to whether the military's worries are reasonable, I don't know. I've heard from some that insurgents could piece together different accounts of a situation and then use that information against our military, but it seems like they would need to have both the technology and the time to accomplish such a feat.
Sean Dustman: Deployed to the front line, you always have to be careful what you say, in person or online, you don't want to endanger yourself or those around you. As a blogger, we need to use a bit of common sense when posting. But I haven't heard of a single incident where a blog has endangered anyone forward or in the rear. That doesn't say that it hasn't happened. I'm a firm believer in transparency, I figure the taxpayers and family back home would like the inside scoop on how we're doing and believe doing that and taking care of OPSEC is very possible.
Harrisonburg,Va.: Hey Sean...looking forward to seeing you and your wife at the Milblog conference this weekend!!
My question is, do you think the new Army directive means we are attending the last conference, as this might be the end of milblogs?
Kathi, Soldiers Angel
Sean Dustman: Nice to see ya Kathi, I think that's going to be a subject that we're going to cover this weekend. It's going to be a thin crowd next year if there's only Navy, Spouses and Marines there.
Clemson, S.C.: Do you think milblogging should be censored? Or should it be up to each soldier to monitor him or herself?
Sean Dustman: I think there should be a lot of self monitoring involved, as bloggers we should put up posts that we wouldn't mind our commander, the enemy and our mother reading. If you're caught posting classified information, then you deserve the trouble you get in.
Western Springs, Ill.: Does the military censor blogs? And do they filter the content on the web, say like in a school or library?
Nikki Schwab: From my understanding, the current policy in Iraq is that milbloggers must register their blogs with their chain of command and they must be reviewed quarterly. If they feel that something is violating operational security (OPSEC) they will ask a blogger to voluntarily take it down. I've been told by several bloggers that they have had to take down a post or two. But most seem to be OK with the policy as it stands. For your second question, I'm not really sure if the military is filtering Web content. I've heard some speculation on this matter, but not being able to access some Web sites could also be due to shoddy Internet service.
Maryland: I just heard a story about censoring outgoing email. How careful are soldiers about operational security info containd in blogs or emails? Are they unintentionally feeding info to the enemy?
Sean Dustman: I'm actually not sure how they are doing emails, it's a mystery that big brother is keeping track of. Most of the blogs I've read, the soldiers are very careful. I usually give the advice about changing names and places, don't give away tactics or troop movements and however pissed off you are at your commander, don't talk bad about him (or her).
Clemson, S.C.: Hey Sean! I was wondering if you had any tips for troops looking to start their own blogs. Ways to make them interesting, avoiding or dealing with controversy, making sure their blog does no damage, etc...
Sean Dustman: Good to see ya here Seth, I just answered most of that question on a prior answer. As far for getting readership, tell a good story, blogging isn't for everyone, actually blogging isn't for most people. Comment on other military blogs and link them, it's all about networking. If they have questions about blogging, email another blogger that has been around for a while, we're nice enough folks, most bloggers are.
Rector, Pa.: How many mibloggers will be attending this year's conference?
Nikki Schwab: It's looks like there is going to be quite a few.
For a whole list, look here
Arlington, Va.: Thank you for your service, Sean. I don't follow any one particular milblog, but have read many over the past two or three years. I have been struck not just by the nature of the content (from the mundane to the dramatic) but by what good writers so many of these troops are, especially since blogging is often their first attempt at writing for a public audience. Sean, could you talk a bit about what motivated you to blog, and what role it played for you during your deployment? Did you encounter any backlash or only support? And, were you a writer before, or was this something new for you?
I look forward to meeting you at the conference this weekend.
(For readers wondering how they can support deployed troops, I suggest www.booksforsoldiers.com and www.anysoldier.com; there are numerous other support organizations as well.)
Sean Dustman: Thank you for your support, I wouldn't follow any one milblog either, most of my posts lately have had to do with hanging out with my wife, son and going to dog beaches. Not much good military fodder. I like to think of myself as a blogger, not a milblogger even though I'm in the military. Back in 2003, being a corpsman (medic), I did a lot of medical coverage's in the Marine helicopter squadron I was attached too. Most of the time standing around waiting for something to happen. So I started taking pictures and everyone wanted a copy for a while I was giving out literally hundreds of pictures a month, they paid for them but it was a pain. So I started up http:/
Washington, D.C.: Do Iraqi soldiers have milblogs that you know of?
Nikki Schwab: Great question. I'm sure there are some, but I'm not sure of the links.
Here is an interesting blog written by a student in Mosul.
Here is another pretty well known blog from Iraq.
They might be good guides to find soldier blogs from Iraq.
Harrisonburg, Va: And sheesh, Nikki, sorry to ignore you! I just wanted to say how refreshing it is to see media like the Post finally looking into milblogs, and the very real look they can give to those of us who have no direct connection to someone serving in the military. Thank you.
Nikki Schwab: Thanks so much Kathi, I appreciate your comment!
Maryland: Does a network TV or major newspaper account of battles or problems usually jibe with what bloggers have to say about the same inceident?
Sean Dustman: Well there was Jessica but I don't know any bloggers who were actually there, Colby Buzzell from My War had a blog post titled Men in Black that covered one incident.
Olney, Md.: Is somebody out there collecting milblog commentary for future historical use?
Sean Dustman: Library of Congress is archiving my blog along with most of the major players.
Washington, D.C.: It amazes me that this has been allowed at all - or seemingly without rules. I've seen military blogs where soldiers are brandishing guns (while still in the U.S.), calling our elected officials "traitors," and saying negative things about the citizens of the country whose uniform they're showing off in their blog profiles. It's one thing to say that censorship is wrong, but no officer should be sporting that uniform, bragging about their rank, and bashing their own government at the same time on their personal blog sites. Makes you wonder about the fitness of those selected to lead, not to mention the sense in allowing them to post thise stuff unchecked - or at least sight unseen by their superiors.
Sean Dustman: Well, you don't see me doing that, I don't think that is a smart thing to publish online, you don't talk bad about the person who could be your boss tomorrow. Rocking the boat will usually get you into trouble.
Washington, D.C.: Do any high ranking active officers blog?
Sean Dustman: I do know of a couple of O-6's in the Army and Navy who blog but their rank doesn't really come out on their blog so I'm not going to post them here.
Clemson, S.C.: Nikki, do you have a blog? And what blogs do you read daily?
What do you see as a few positive contributions that blogs have made? Both civilian blogs and milblogs?
Nikki Schwab: Seth I currently do not have a blog, though I am planning on starting one here in a bit. Other than checking out the milblogs, I'm a big fan of our politics blog here, "The Fix," and also of Andrew Sullivan's "The Daily Dish". Though many days, I just prefer to get lost in the blogosphere, clicking around until I find something of interest.
I think blogs bring a great variety of perspectives to the table and I love that about them. I think they've, in a way, helped to keep us reporters on our toes. I think the milblogs will end up being a great record of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and we can look back on them and see a reality of war that we may not be getting anywhere else.
Washington, D.C.: Just posted about the few milblogs that I've seen calling Congress/UScitizens "traitors" - but I'd be remiss to add that I've seen far more that were responsible, proud, educational for us back at home... There are many blogs out there that can serve as a standard of conduct for any soldier posting about their experiences in uniform, no different than the standards of conduct by which they abide offline. I'd hope that the military allows its men and women to share those experiences - just in a way that's not disrespectful of their leaders, country, and citizens.
Sean Dustman: I am proud to be in the military and have a firm belief on freedom of speech but I don't think there's a limit. We're in a civilized society, there is no excuse for being rude, specially for someone who's in the military who are held up to a higher standard.
Bowie, Md.: Noticed the Milbloggers Conference has a number of active duty participants. Are their views endorsed by their services? Aren't they using their service to tacitly imply military concurrence?
Sean Dustman: This is just a gathering of bloggers who write about the military in their blogs. We aren't endorsed by any one except by our readership
Harrisonburg, Va: By the way,Yours was the very first Milblog I ever came across, Sean.
You made the 'face of the war' immediate and understandable, and I think that is the strength of your writing and why you've had such staying power in the blog world.
Sean Dustman: Kathi, see what I've started? You've done lot's of good in the world and I helped shape that :)
RE: New Blogging Policy: Isn't it ironic that the troops "fighting for freedom" in Iraq are having their own freedoms restricted?
Nikki Schwab: I think many of them would disagree and say that their freedoms aren't necessarily being restricted. I think many of them are OK walking the line between expressing their freedom of speech and not wanting to write anything that could harm their comrades. In a perfect world, I'd too like to see soldiers allowed to say absolutely anything they wanted, but at the same time, this absolute freedom could come with a cost. It's a tough question, and definitely a grey area in my mind.
Differences...: Do you feel that blogging helped you through your tour? A way to decompress what was happening around you, perhaps.
Sean Dustman: I started reading military blogs looking for a story, unedited told by someone who was there. When I started blogging myself, I did the same thing, tried giving the people back home a window on my life. It helped! Instead of the feeling of isolation most troops had, I had a larger connection to the world. I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Arlington, Va.: In a sense, I think that troops at war have blogged since the time there was first a way for them to record and share their thoughts (although of course not as broadly as is possible with the internet). I have over 100 letters that my great-great grandfather wrote while he was a soldier in the Civil War that provide a wonderful and engaging record of his feelings and experiences. If he were a soldier today, I'm sure that he would be a blogger!
Sean Dustman: As bloggers, we're just continuing on another medium, in 10 years, it's probably going to be something different and who knows how we're going to get the message 50 years from now.
washingtonpost.com: Sean, your readers helped raise money so you and your wife could attend the conference. That suggests a strong following. Do you know how you managed to generate such an audience?
Sean Dustman: After writing for a couple of years, reading a certain blog becomes habit. I don't say much to piss off people, I'm not much of a boat rocker and I write fairly regularly. I actually didn't want to ask for money but this spring ended up being tighter then average, moving, my son coming out for spring break and the price of the hotel room. I'm a lowly E-5, far from being made from money, thanks everyone who supported me!
Germantown, Md.: I wish past soldiers/military had the same ability to communicate readily to so many. To understand the personal and historical as being lived by loved ones. Yes, letters were sent by my relatives who served, but it's not the same, and not obtainable for all of us who would like to read them now decades later. Many of these SHOULD be archived. I'm glad you're doing this, and finding an international community of support.
Sean Dustman: if you look at milblogger.com there are links to bloggers from many other nations too. I like doing this too.
Maryland: Are you usually writing for yourself or other people?
Sean Dustman: I write for myself, sometimes put links up but I like telling what the story means from my point of view. If I see a good post, I'll point my readers that way though.
Silver Spring, Md.: Sean: What type of response have you been getting from fellow soldiers?
Sean Dustman: Seeing most of the people I work with are Marines (I'm in the Navy), 95 percent of them aren't blog readers. My commanding officer was though and had read mine before he even knew about me. They think it's funny that I'm somewhat famous (I'm not)
Re: Free DC: The thing that makes me suspicious about the new regulations is that they don't just apply to the guys in Iraq or Afghanistan; CNN says "the Army's new regulation could affect service members who have returned from war zones and started blogs about their combat experiences".
Despite claims that the Army is worried about compromising OpSec, (1) I'm not sure how much OpSec you can compromise once you're out of the zone, and (2) I'm fairly sure that the guys who are out on the front lines -- and, by all indications, will return to the front lines -- are not going to do anything that could hurt the guys who have been left behind. It sounds to me more like the government doesn't want soldiers talking to the general public about what's going on over there. Do you have any suspicions along these lines?
Nikki Schwab: From what I have observed there has been some hesitancy from the military to be OK with milbloggers telling their personal acccounts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the first milbloggers (Colby Buzzell and Jason Christopher Hartley) got in some truoble for their blogs. More recently, though, it seems the military has become more supportive of bloggers with some officers even starting blogs. We'll just have to see how this new OPSEC policy plays out.
Washington, D.C.: Has either or you received any type of negative "backlash" for posting these blogs? And if so, how have you dealt with it?
Sean Dustman: I've had exactly one post censored, I'm fairly careful about what I post. I had this little fairly doll with a wings and a beard, he looked like Santa so I called him Gay Santa (I am not homophobic in the slightest and some of my best friends are gay), the PAO said, nope, you can't say that. Otherwise everybody in the chain has been totally supportive.
Columbus, Ohio: You know. It would be nice if someone had put on their blog the real story about Jessica Lynch. It's clear that the brass doesn't want anyone to know what the Iraqis did to her and have ordered Jessica not to tell the real story either. The inconsistancies in the official reports like the 15-6 investigation, the way that the Army hid Jessica during her medical treatment unlike any other patient and the facts like the lack of RPG and rollover damage on the humvee that she was in should be raising major flags and letting people know that the vast majority of her injuries were post-capture, not MVA related.
Nikki Schwab: Unfortunately, that incident occurred so early in the war that not many people were blogging.
Sean Dustman: Thanks for taking part in this and great questions, hopefully I offered some insight:) Now it's time to go enjoy your city, if you see a pink haired girl around, that's not me, that's my wife.
Nikki Schwab: Thanks so much everyone for chatting with us today. You had a great set of questions!