Disclaimer

The views expressed within this journal are my own, and in no way represent the views or policies of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or any other official agency.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A little bit of my own buzz...

A senior journalism major at the University of Houston, Tony Hernandez, had e-mailed me for my input in an article he was writing on military blogging. I'll add some of the correspondence, what I wrote to him, his response and article below.

Email Correspondence from Tony Hernandez:

"I just wanted to say thank you again for taking the time to reply for my story. I emailed it early to my professor about an hour ago, and he replied with this:

'Tony [Hernandez], This is the best thing a student has written in the two years I've been teaching this class.

Congratulations.
And thank you.

Michael.'

Thanks for your help. Thanks again for your service to our country and please be safe out there.

Warm regards,
Tony Hernandez"

What I wrote to Mr. Hernandez about myself:

"About Me.

I grew up in the mean streets of suburbia; the West side of Cincinnati, OH. I went to a private, all male, Catholic high school for three years before receiving a scholarship to Cincinnati Public Schools. Kanye West recorded an album about my higher education stint at the University of Cincinnati. I was definitely not the scholarly type.

I joined the United States Army in April of 2004, and I’m nearly at my four year mark. I’ve vacationed in Afghanistan and Iraq while fighting the War on Terrorism. I’m an Infantryman that likes to believe that being a grunt doesn’t limit the possibility of having a decent IQ.

Why am I blogging?

I will say that blogging to me is almost a chronicle of my semi-local important life. I know my family and friends enjoy what I have to say for the most part, and I believe that others can really connect to the way I write. Whether it is for the colloquial style, or the side dish of realism, I believe that anyone can take something evocative away from reading my blogs.

I have a very original and personable mix of topics I cover in these blogs. I see that other bloggers concentrate on individual facets of their lives. I however find some inner peace in writing about every single instance that I find significant in my life. Should it be events in the Army, divorce, family issues or whatever the topic, I aim to write about issues in a way that nearly all can relate.

I keep imagining to myself that one of these days life is going to present itself an opportunity for the taking. In that respect, I hope that writing will open prospects for me to do bigger and better things should the Army cease to interest me any longer. Though my formal training is wide-ranging, having nearly failed English in high school every year and a short spell at the University of Cincinnati, my ocean of options has evaporated into dry spit on a sidewalk. Therefore, I write on the world wide web.

Politics.

Obviously, politics can be a tricky beast to handle for anyone. There’s no feasible way for someone like myself to completely comprehend political science at all levels. However, serving in the Army has put me on the forefront of major political issues. I won’t dare to claim omniscience pertaining to every angle on the war, but after having deployed to
Afghanistan and presently serving in Iraq, I know my personal angles. Even while the news continually force feeds the public information via the comforting Gerber spoon- airplane method, I’m a conspiracy-theorist-style skeptic. Why? Because I am the direct result of these major political resolutions. As an infantry squad leader these decisions directly shape the
outcome of my soldiers’ morale, welfare, and most significantly, lifespan.


Although I glare with a heavily scrutinizing eye, I must be fair. I do my best to walk in both sets of shoes. My desert boots have a regrettably superior amount of miles than my Capitol Hill dress shoes, but I accomplish what I can to observe logically from both perspectives. After all, I did sign a modest contract that states that I will lay down my life to defend, support, and preserve the constitution.

News.

Whether I’m a fan of the “Communist News Network”-CNN or the “Faux News”-Fox News matters little in the big picture. I tend to side with Fox News personally as they are more inclined to tell the soldier’s side. With that said, it doesn’t matter on which station the television is set. Each corporation has their own political agendas while fronting coercively that they are entirely objective while reporting.

While deployed we are supplied with the Armed Forces Network satellite television free of cost. Conversely, the place I usually receive my news from is not from the television. The Army Knowledge Online website has a newsfeed link (The Earlybird News) that I usually check while I’m sorting through my email.

Anthony Vaccariello."

The finished product:

"American military personnel in Iraq share reasons behind weblogs despite evolution in blogging environments.

By Tony Hernandez

Army Sgt. Anthony Vaccariello loves to write. His current infantry post in eastern Baghdad gives him much to write about. But since late-March, his writing has taken a backseat to fighting. Still instead of keeping a personal journal, the Cincinnati native chooses to let the world read his writings through his military blog: Tragically Famous.

For over a week, Vaccariello has witnessed first hand the clashes between the Jaish Al-Mahdi militia, led by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Iraqi Security Force backed by the U.S. military. His last blog entry was dated just before noon on March 21. With the initial clash the night before between the ISF and al-Sadr’s militia in nearby Kut, he wrote about what key Iraqi figure, he thought, had really benefited from the year-long negotiated cease-fire then on the verge of collapsing.

Vaccariello loves to write so much that he chose to answer questions mabout his blog during break rotations from the front lines three days later. His motivation? The simplicity in that others will be reading his “colloquial” style of writing.

“I guess it is humorous in a way that Sadr called for ‘civil disobedience’ and the Iraqi Security Forces seem to be falling apart at the seams,” he wrote. “Henry David Thoreau has already rolled over in his grave several times over … It's really nasty out here, and I'm surprised that our internet satellite hasn't been shot down or blown up yet. I'll keep up the correspondence as I come in from the line for rest cycles.”

Two days later, Vaccariello said he feels inner peace when writing about everything affecting his life – not only about life as a soldier in Iraq but whatever issue may affect him. Despite little academic exposure to the craft of writing, he hopes future employers will notice his natural talent.

“In that respect, I hope that writing will open prospects for me to do bigger and better things should the Army cease to interest me any longer,” he said.

“Though my formal training is wide-ranging, having nearly failed English in high school every year and a short spell at the University of Cincinnati, my ocean of options has evaporated into dry spit on a sidewalk. Therefore, I write on the world wide web.”

Vaccariello is among thousands of U.S. military personnel stationed world wide that choose to actively blog, but among the many, a relative few today blog from the front lines of a war zone. The popularity in military blogging, or milblogs, reached its peak around two years ago with lots of it done from the battle field prompting the army to define specific procedures a soldier must follow before posting any army-related story on the web to prevent the release of military positions and vulnerabilities. Top army brass saw unsupervised milblogs as a threat to operational security, or OPSEC. As it turned out, the Army had to worry more about its own websites violating OPSEC policies.

Of eleven emails sent to military bloggers stationed in Iraq, five responded detailing similar motivations through various wording behind their blogs. Their reasons for blogging ranged from connecting the gap between the American public and the U.S. military to clearing up false perceptions given by mainstream media. All feel the American media pushes its own agenda and did not either focus or care about the realities of a modern day war zone. One Army officer blogs to tell the story of the soldiers he commands.

The Road Leading to the Army’s Current milblog policy

For today’s army, supervising thousands of soldier communications – either through blogs, forums, personal websites, email, etc – proves to be a much more difficult task than what the army faced 60 years ago.

“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,’” Army spokesman Paul Boyce said to Medill Reports in early this month. “We’re not able to do that anymore. The world has moved on so much beyond the ability to censor a battlefield letter.”

According to a Washington Post article published in early May 2007, the first move towards a blogging policy came from Lt. Gen. John Vines. While commanding in Iraq, Vines required soldiers to register their blogs and ordered unit commanders to review the blogs quarterly. Up until August 2005, the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell (AWRAC), a unit of 10 soldiers from
the Virginia Army National Guard, solely reviewed official Army websites for OPSEC violations – a manageable task. But by the end of the month, their sphere of oversight expanded to thousands of personal websites. By September, the release of Army Regulation 530-1 detailed its modern OPSEC policy among it written rules that required consultation from an OPSEC officer to a soldier before initially posting information on a personal website.

The same Washington Post story reported that milblogging.com, a website claiming to be the largest index of military blogs, had 1,700 milblogs by the start of the year. The article said that such a large number of sites forced the army to again rethink its OPSEC policy. By mid-April of that same year, an updated Army Regulation 530-1 was released to the public creating a dim outlook for some within the milblogging community and generated some negative press like The Washington Post story. Many thought permission from an immediate supervisor was required by army personnel prior to publicly posting any information.

In an effort to dispel inaccurate interpretations regarding soldier blogging policies, the Army’s Public Affairs office released in early May a fact sheet for soldiers and the public stating that the wording and policies on blogging was unchanged.

“In no way will every blog post/update a Soldier makes on his or her blog need to be monitored or first approved by an immediate supervisor and Operations Security (OPSEC) officer. After receiving guidance and awareness training from the appointed OPSEC officer, that Soldier blogger is entrusted to practice OPSEC when posting in a public forum.”

Meanwhile, an internal army investigation conducted by AWRAC was made public in mid-June after a successful Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Deportment of Defense by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The released documents showed that official Army websites were more of an OPSEC threat than soldier blogs. Between the months of January 2006 through January 2007, AWRAC audited 878 Army websites finding 1,813 OPSEC violations while 594 military blogs revealed 28. Wired Magazine broke the story first in mid-August that included correspondence between un-named Army officers. One officer admitted that AWRAC was not capable of overseeing .mil and .com websites.

Some experts say that frontline soldier blogs will dwindle in numbers. Today, Milblogging.com has 1,942 blogs of which 427 were written in Iraq. Upon further investigation, most of the military personnel that blogged from Iraq were already back home. Still soldiers like Vaccariello continue to blog and have shown no signs against the OPSEC policy. They blog for their own separate reasons and follow the simple rules.

“I know my family and friends enjoy what I have to say for the most part, and I believe that others can really connect to the way I write,” Vaccariello wrote.

“I believe that anyone can take something evocative away from reading my blogs.”

Blogs vs. Mainstream Media

“If you are going to be informed, especially with something as controversial and polarizing as the Iraq war, you need to read one of these blogs along with The Washington Post and the New York Times,” Ward Carroll said to The Washington Post.

But Army Captain Eric Coulson views American media in a much different way. Since July of 2006, he’s authored his milblog Badgers Forward. The Southern California native said he originally blogged to counter reporting that he felt was very inaccurate.

In the evening of February 8, 2006, Coulson said his perception of the United States and the U.S. media changed forever. Earlier that day, three of his soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb just after 9 a.m. As one of his worst days winded down, he grabbed some dinner from the Fallujah dinning facility.

After watching news coverage, he felt highly disillusioned. Someone else died that day that would dominate all news air waves: Anna Nicole Smith.

“Without getting into Ms. Smith’s merits as a person, that (coverage) stood in stark contrast to my life at the time,” Coulson replied in his email. “No mention of U.S. soldiers at all. Having an understanding of business I had trouble faulting the news media though; if the American people cared more about their Soldiers they would have been airing things about the War in Iraq, not about the death of Ms. Smith. That changed my view of the (United States) and the U.S. media drastically; after that I made a conscious effort to put the deaths of U.S. soldiers and the sacrifice of my men in a context.”

However, from December 2006 through September 2007, his blog’s direction changed to the telling of the stories of the soldiers that he commands after seeing high interest from web surfers in reading personal stories from the war.

Another email respondent, who only identified himself as the Usual Suspect, might agree with Coulson’s view of the American public’s priorities in media coverage.

“I don't care what they have to say about Iraq because I'm living it, and I don't care what anyone has to say about Britney Spears,” said Suspect, author of The Unlikely Soldier.

“Because people pay attention to her and others like her and cater to the circus they create and live, idiots like her are rich enough to forever bend their perception of reality. There just isn't anything for me to gain by paying attention to the news.”

Looking back after three years in the army, Suspect said that he started blogging the day he enlisted. At the time, he really didn’t see any soldier blogs. In addition to admitting memory issues, he felt blogging would not only be a chronology of his time, but a venue for a few friends to read. As time passed, Suspect’s blog – like Vaccariello – evolved into a form of release.

Another blogger keeping a low profile is LT Nixon of LT Nixon Rants. The six year naval officer served in a submarine for three years before stationed in Iraq nine months ago. For Nixon, a key theme to his milblog is media coverage. His blog’s effort is to close the distance between the American public and the military.

“I take a look at all media,” he wrote. “Iraqi media is pretty interesting, but usually it is loyal to a political party or sectarian bias. American media does some good embeds, and it usually isn't too negative. It's the editorial boards that decide to make the war look bad, not the embedded journalists who spend time out here, in my humble opinion. Yes media coverage is important to this blog. I try to highlight the important stories and leave out the Paris Hilton gossip stuff.”

Tomorrow’s evolved military blog

Now nearly a year after the updated release of Army Regulation 530-1, Carroll told Medill Reports that the Army’s weblog policy became “much ado about nothing.” He went on to say that bloggers are now moving to focus less on the war and more on post-tour issues at home like veterans affairs.

Military spouses are creating “milspouse“ blogs and some veterans are getting into “political milblogging.” The second U.S. invasion of Iraq spurred a peak in milblogs and Carroll predicts a drop in number of new milblogs. But the value of a military blog is appreciated even with the U.S. Commander in Chief.

“America’s military bloggers are also an important voice for the cause of freedom,” President George W. Bush said in a pre-recorded message during the 2007 MilBlog Conference in Northern Virginia and reported by The Washington Post. “You understand that defeating the terrorists requires us to defeat their ideology of hatred and of death with a more powerful vision, a vision of human liberty.”

But for those military personnel with boots on the ground like Army Spc. Michael Barin, aka Toy Soldier 24, global political agendas are not what False Motivation is all about. The 23 year-old Tennessee native, like many of his fellow GI’s, write on a more individual level giving first hand experience.

“When I went home on R&R after having spent 7 months here, I ran into so many people who think that Iraq is like the wild-wild-west, where soldiers run freely shooting wildly,” Barin said.

“I like to think that people read my blog and get, at the very least, a minor insight into the day to day life here.”

1 comment:

Mezzo SF said...

...been following your blog for a while, glad to read you are doing okay. and this is a great article on milblogging! awesome!