Friday’s CNN article, “Army hopes interactive videos make smarter soldiers,” could be more aptly titled, “Army using interactive games to teach problem solving to new recruits.” These were the sentences which caught my attention in the article, and suggested the US Army is proactively addressing social networking challenges:

…In the 21st century, the Army was sending younger soldiers into an arena they had little cultural experience in, and at the same time, new social networking sites were poised to broadcast their mistakes to the world…. Today, a third of the men and women the Army has deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are between the ages of 20 and 24, and Custer believes the military has now entered the age of the “strategic private” — a young soldier reared on video games. And because of social networking, that private is now armed with the ability to severely cripple a mission and spark the kinds of reactions that the world saw after the Quran shooting.

Unfortunately, despite these accurate observations, this article does not explain how the Army is addressing the social networking challenges posed by soldiers’ access to blogs and social networking sites. It basically explains that highly-realistic video game simulations are used to help soldiers learn problem solving skills applicable to a Middle-Eastern combat zone. No mention is made, however, of Army policies or training specific to social web tools. I thought it was interesting as well as disappointing that this CNN author (Suzanne Simons) raised the important issue of the Army addressing social networking dangers and propriety issues, but did not explain how its leaders are addressing them.

My impression is that mil-blogging, or blogging by military members, has been significantly curtailed in the past few years by military authorities, especially from members serving in combat zones. Two years ago, in April/May of 2007, the US Army published new directives which required soldiers to get their commander’s approval before they posted ANYTHING to a blog. See my March 2007 podcast, “Powerful and Meaningful Connections from Blogging International Students, MilBloggers, and Others (An interview with Angie Fryer)” for more background on mil-blogging. I’m not entirely sure how the military’s policy (or policies) on blogging have changed since 2007, but I’d like to know.

The May 9, 2009, article for Stars and Stripes, “Operation Serve and Tell: Servicemembers encouraged to blog,” suggests that mil-blogging is now being encouraged. Author Mark Abramson writes:

He [Troy Seward, a first sergeant in the New York Army National Guard] describes one blog he runs with other Afghanistan veterans as a way to give troops headed there a resource to learn about what the country and culture is like and other valuable tidbits to help them adjust.

Seward pointed out that several higher-ups, including generals, have started blogs, which junior officers and enlisted troops have noticed and view as a sign that it is OK for them to blog what’s on their minds.

“We are a society of freedom of speech, and soldiers have an opinion. I think [blogging] gives soldiers a chance to express their opinion,” Seward said.

Noah Shachtman’s May 13, 2009, post for Wired, “Ex-Air Force Chief: Recruit Bloggers to Wage Afghan Info War” explains Michael Wynne’s opinion that military members SHOULD be encouraged to blog.

Mil-Blogger

Shachtman writes:

Former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne thinks the best solution may be to let the troops themselves document the story. “We need to make sure we capture the news cycle by providing our troops with something like a combat blogger,” Wynne tells Danger Room.

But that means changing the Defense Department’s often-schizophrenic approach to bloggers in uniform. Within the armed services, there’s a growing recognition that average soldiers are the most trusted voices the military has. But leaders are squeamish about letting their troops publish online. The result: Army secrecy regulations, read literally, make it next-to-impossible for average soldiers to blog — while leading generals, deployed to war zones, are keeping online journals of their own.

I think Michael Wynne is right to advocate for a proactive approach to mil-blogging. While operational security must be maintained, the power and impact of the social web on military affairs and international perceptions of not only the U.S. military but the United States more generally around the world is undeniable. The WikiPedia article for “Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse” provides plenty of evidence, if you’re in doubt about this. Those actions by U.S. military members were, in my view, as damaging to the national security, international image, and foreign political efficacy of the United States as the acts of convicted traitors like Aldrich Ames and Jonathan Pollard. Of course it is not simply horrific that the criminal, illegal, and immoral acts perpetrated by military members at Abu Ghraib and other facilities were photographed– the fact that they took place at all, and were permitted to take place, is a travesty. One positive thing I can note on this subject is that the US military has acted to bring those responsible to justice, and is keeping prisons/detention facilities in Iraq open for scrutiny by outside organizations. The same cannot be said for Iraqi detention facilities, unfortunately. (I searched to try and find a link to the article I read on this last week, but unfortunately I’m not finding it.)

Directly related to that subject, last week President Obama decided to NOT release additional photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse at the hands of U.S. captors:

President Barack Obama has reversed a decision to release photos showing abuse of “war on terror” detainees, saying he feared it would cause a backlash against US troops abroad… Obama said issuing the photos, which were used as evidence in criminal investigations of US soldiers accused of abusing detainees during George W. Bush’s administration, would “inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops in greater danger” without shedding any new light on past abuses. “The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefits to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” he told reporters.

In this climate, where social web tools have been and will continue to be used to shape and influence public opinion about a wide range of topics, I think Michael Wynne’s view of supporting proactive military use of blogs and other social media tools is on target. He’s essentially making a case for military storychasers. Will such a proactive view take hold in the military and in our current U.S. administration? I’m not sure. Whether it does or not, however, I commend Wynne for making the suggestion.

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  • http://mguhlin.org Miguel Guhlin

    I can’t help but think Obama SHOULD publish the photos. The truth is out there already…the people who can be most angry about it already KNOW the U.S. took inappropriate action in abuse of its power. If we don’t want to expose service men and women to retaliation, then 1) Get them out of the field or 2) Stop committing acts of torture that bring down a hailstorm of recrimination. In today’s world, I don’t see #1 as an option

    What do I know? Not much. Keeping it quiet, burying it in the sand is probably the right thing to do. It doesn’t feel like the right thing and makes me question (again) in a very short time if President Obama is about expediency rather than commitment to what makes America great.

    In the meantime, check out this article on Jeff Jarvis:
    http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/may2009/ca2009058_754247.htm

    “How can you be authentic when you’re the Government?” Sheesh, how can you not be?

    Pulling out an umbrella for the hailstorm on this comment,
    Miguel

  • http://mguhlin.org Miguel Guhlin

    Consider that these photos are released but not the ones of torture. Oh my gosh, what message are we sending out to the world from the Land of the Free, where Church and State are set apart for very good reason?
    http://men.style.com/gq/features/topsecret

    These photos say to the world, “Look, we’re just like you. We can’t keep matters of religion (a.k.a. “storied pomp”) and State apart from each other…your jihad is justified because we’re engaging in the same.” Why weren’t we modelling better behavior?

    “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….
    Source: Wikipedia, The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus – http://www.libertystatepark.com/emma.htm

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