Saturday, April 22, 2006

Thoughts from Milblogger conference

There is nothing like hanging out with a bunch of mega-bloggers all day to gain inspiration to restart one’s long-ignored blog. I went to the milbloggers conference today. Notable milbloggers in attendance were Austin Bay, Matt from Blackfive, Smash from Indepundit, Bill Roggio, and Powerline contributor Major E. LaShawn Barber, one the biggest political bloggers around, moderated the on-line forum.

Ironically, for the number of times that panel members paid tribute to the blogfather, Instapundit’s Glen Reynolds, and his book, An Army of Davids, it seems he was not reminded about it until just this past Monday, when a very little-known blogger sent him an e-mail about it. (Yes, I have the e-mail to prove it!) Indeed, Austin Bay read a passage from Davids in his closing remarks.

The most interesting of the three panels (see the agenda here), was the last one, moderated by that crusty old tv “military analyst” (read “talking head”), Col. David Hunt. (Is it just me, or does anyone else think he comes across on the small screen as sort of short-but-stocky, in a Chesty Puller kind of way? In reality, he’s at least 6 foot.)

Apart from some of the mandatory, rather solipsistic* and self-congratulatory MSM-bashing, the panel did have a lot of interesting things to say. (Don’t get me wrong, mind you, I’m no fan of the so-called MSM**, but let’s be honest, the conversation at times got a little, well, self-congratulatory.) For a few minutes, the discussion started to range into the political, in response to an Iraqi attendee’s comments about the U.S. presence in Iraq, but Col. Hunt stepped-up in his role as moderator to pull the discussion back to blogging and, more generally, media presentation of war efforts in Iraq.

The most interesting, intellectually challenging and robust discussion centered on how to get print & network TV news sources (hereinafter the “legacy media”**) to put out a message other than, for example, the daily body count from the latest roadside bomb. One attendee felt that the military service’s public affairs officers were nearly complicit in the problem, in that the Pentagon’s own press releases focused on reporting friendly casualties, while providing little context in terms of mission accomplishment or enemy casualties.

In response, one panel member who had served as a Public Affairs soldier in the Army and other attendees who are serving or had served in a Public Affairs capacity, championed their own efforts. These responses were well taken, but both panel members and attendees seemed stymied (and this is no criticism, as I have no immediate and sharp ideas on the topic) to suggest a method to get Pentagon higher-ups to embrace information operations (yes, even the dreaded “P” word--propaganda) towards winning popular support for the Iraq war on the home front.

I think it’s possible to write entire dissertations on the topic, but here’s a few thoughts swimming ‘round this Newhouse grad & former tanker’s craw on the whole topic of media and military:

- The military lost the support of the media during the Vietnam war. This point is practically conventional wisdom. I think a robust defense of this proposition could be in order, but at this point, I’m taking it as a premise. Most conference attendees took it as a premise as well, contrasting modern coverage of military operations with that of Ernie Pyle’s work in WWII.

- A substantial cause (note, that is different than saying “the sole cause” or even “the proximate cause”) of the military’s losing the confidence of the press during Vietnam was the clumsy way in which the military itself handled its information operations. To be blunt, much of the military’s Vietnam-era propaganda was demonstrably, patently and obviously false. Much of it was not, but much of it was. I know I’ll get objections on this point, so I want to be clear. I am not saying that Kerry-esque “winter soldier” testimony was in anyway accurate; nor am I suggesting that the underlying motives of the U.S. and particularly its service-members were anything less than noble during Vietnam. What I am saying is that when objective people can tell that what military spokespeople are telling them is obviously false, the military as a whole loses credibility.

- In the absence of the press’ confidence in the military, anti-military forces filled the void. This includes Kerry-esque, disenchanted (and/or opportunistic) winter soldiers, as well as our enemies. Members of the press, either intentionally or accidentally, then began to presume that whatever non-military sources told them was objective, while treating with suspicion anything military spokesmen told them.

- Further, in the wake of the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal, the legacy media became increasingly, and even predominately, left-leaning and Democratic. I’m sure that this point is not disputed by this audience, but some elaboration seems necessary. The legacy media enjoyed a huge surge in goodwill from the American people (particularly those that leaned Democratic), by “speaking truth to power” during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The claim was not without merit, because, as noted in part above, both the military and the Nixon administration suffered, to one extent or another, from their own credibility problems during this time. The immediate beneficiaries of this “speaking truth to power” phenomenon were, of course, Democrats. This, in turn, created incentives for young Democrats to seek positions within the legacy media. After all, if the media is an institution holding much political goodwill of Americans, particular that of Democratic-leaning Americans, and one is a Democratic- and politically-oriented person, one would naturally tend to seek positions in the media. Further, old Democrats had obvious incentives to reinforce their younger brethren’s interests in this regard. Thus, a generation later, some 80-90% of personnel at the newsrooms of WaPo, the NYT and network TV self-identify as liberals and/or Democrats.

- Members of the military, particularly the senior leadership, rightly see their duty as primarily to defeat enemies on the battlefield, wherever that may be. They, quite honorably, voluntarily take on the role as “instruments of policy,” not “makers of policy.” (This very point was made today by the proprietor of “From My Position.”) While this is mostly a desirable quality in a society that recognizes civilian command of the military, it has a significant drawback. Specifically, it means that military commanders see little need to strive to win domestic political support for military operations. Indeed, military commanders may feel ethically barred (and, to some degree, actually are legally and ethically barred) from expressing political opinions domestically. (The notable exception, of course, is the current case of retired Generals allying with the interests of the Legacy media against a Republican administration.)

- The upshot of all this is that we are experiencing a legacy media that is all but openly antagonistic towards military operations that its editors don’t like, while senior military commanders feel ethically barred from offering any resistance to such antagonism or political defense of an operation.

- In turn, our enemies take advantage of this strategic weakness to achieve their operational goals, viz., withdrawal of American troops from the theater of operations based on lack of popular support on the home front in order to achieve military objectives in the theater, as was demonstrated to succeed in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia.

The above, I submit, is an identification of the problem. I think milblogs are a part of the solution (for reasons to be explained). How we exploit this asset (and shift strategic thinking within the Pentagon) is another topic, for another day.

* “Solipsistic”, of course, is just a fancy and therefore polite way of saying “self-centered.” So, my apologies to all the amazing, dedicated people I met today, but I guess I had to call that one as I saw it.

** I protest the term “MSM,” because as one attendee, an advertising exec, observed, what is termed the MSM is suffering huge losses in audience, while the audience of everything from blogs to on-line magazines to radio talk shows are enjoying a large upswing in their audiences. Thus, the institutions lumped into the “mainstream media” are not necessary “mainstream” anymore in terms of audience share. Since they have, however, enjoyed a near monopoly of audience share for at least a generation, the term “legacy media” seems more apt. I think I have to attribute the term “legacy media,” however, to the famous (notorious?) Rush Limbaugh.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Milblogger conference in D.C. - Saturday, April 22

Here are the details. I already registered, and will post a full report.

Col. Austin Bay is supposed to be the M.C.