07 November 2012
Back in 2006, I toyed with heresy by asserting that milblogs were not the best sources for war news. To my surprise, the better sources remained professional journalists, and again to my surprise, many were much better than we give them credit for.
While professionals like Kimberly Dozier, Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall combed the battlefields, most milbloggers never set foot in either Iraq or Afghanistan, though many claimed expertise based on service in the military.
In reality, veterans can attest, many active service members in the wars had little knowledge about what was happening on a day-to-day basis. If they were in Mosul in 2005, they were in battles every day. It was combat. Car bombs. Firefights. Suicide attacks. The troops in those fights would be the last ones to claim that they understood the big picture.
They were in a cage match. When two boxers are slugging it out in Madison Square Garden, they are in no position to tell you what is going on in Manhattan, much less Upstate. And so there was the cage match in Mosul, the one in Ramadi, another in Fallujah, a big one in Baghdad, a nasty one in Baqubah, and another in Basra. I was in all of these places, and a long list of others. There were at least dozens of other serious battle spaces. There were a few soldiers, like Command Sergeant Major Jeff Mellinger, who gained intimate knowledge of the far corners of the war, but he was rare in his deep understanding of the war’s complexity.
When you toured the war, you saw that everyone was in a unique fight, and there was no way to know what was broadly happening by looking only at one battle space. If you grab a cobra’s tail at night, you should not presume to know where his head is.
The fight in one part of Baghdad could change dramatically just by crossing a highway into a different part of town. In the space of a few hundred meters, the weapons, habits, and tactics of the enemy changed, and they also changed month by month.
The fight in April 2005 in Mosul, was remarkably different than the battle in the same town just a couple of months later. Further, if you were in Mosul in 2005, then again in 2006, and in 2007, as I was, you would know that the veterans who fought there in 2005 experienced significantly different wars than those in 2006, or 2007.
A veteran who fought three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan did not fight in two wars. Those four tours were four different wars in two different countries. The vets may not be able to fully explain it, even if they wanted to. There is too much. They could explain it to another veteran, but not to the broader world.
If you want to hear war stories, it is fine to talk with veterans, or with civilians who were there. There is nothing magical about wearing a uniform when bullets start flying. The ten year-old kids who were there are also veterans, but without the medals, the parades, or a holiday.
If you want the most valuable opinions, you must talk with people who have the experience to develop context. The soldier who fought in Mosul and in Kandahar starts to develop valuable opinions that surpass mere catalogued techniques of fighting. Building context all within one brain is crucial and brings transcendent value – seeds of wisdom – where the sum is greater than the parts. Nobody needs to go to war to develop broad life context, but war is so fundamental to life among humans that to not experience it, is to miss a fundamental human experience. Not that I recommend it.
Real combat veterans sometimes remind me of people who have fought a terminal illness. They take time to meditate. Raw truth becomes more important than raw politics.
Even the most skilled writer would never be able to lay it all out on paper. At some point, you just have to say, “This is my opinion about the state of this war.” Ultimately, you will be judged on how often that you were right versus wrong, and you can tell some war stories along the way, but the war stories are only screen shots in a very long movie in which the audience sometimes gets shot.
This is why the most valuable opinions on war will come from veterans with multiple tours, and from astute civilians who spend long periods in multiple conflict zones. Despite what some milbloggers would have us believe, military status alone does not convey a monopoly on insight, or even combat abilities, as the Viet Cong and the Taliban have shown.
Some of my friends are pilots who have flown hundreds of combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet they have never stepped foot in a village in either country. They have courageously done their duty, but their courage and their honor does not mean that they have useful opinions about the mood of the people. The pilots know this, and they do not advertise otherwise.
The fall of the milblogs suggests that many of the bloggers have not taken the opportunity to meditate. They see things through their own eyes, as we all do, and seldom through the eyes of others, as if their keyboard is the center of the universe, and their uniforms in their closets are diplomas of received wisdom. Enemies in war are in the habit of smashing the idea that any man or inspiration is central to the universe, or that any man is closer than any other to grave or to God.
Texas, Afghanistan, and Iraq, all have roughly similar sized populations. Iraq is by far the smallest in area. Texas is a little larger than Afghanistan. All have roughly 25-30 million people.
Have you been to Texas? The place is huge. It is complex. Imagine that a Chinese-led Coalition of 40 nations comes to Texas and wages war in counties all around, trying to force those well-armed and highly motivated Texans that the Chinese way is their way. There are Chinese air strikes night and day, and Chinese helicopters roaring around shooting Texans who are emplacing IEDs. Some Texans join the Chinese-led Army of Texas just to spy on or to shoot Chinese trainers. Mexico is the new Pakistan, with a drug war more serious and brutal than the one in Afghanistan. The Mexicans are making money off of the Chinese, whom they hate, and so the Mexicans do not want the war to end because big bucks are injected into their economy. Mexicans allow Texans to re-arm and train in Mexico, and spend their winters on Mexican beaches, plotting their spring campaigns.
A Syrian Army soldier -- part of the Chinese Coalition -- flies from Damascus into Houston Airport. His only experience is in the Army, and his travel abroad has all been within the Army bubble. He lands in Houston, and he never leaves the airport, because his office is at the airport. He never even goes into the metropolis of Houston. But now that he is downrange, suddenly he is an “expert,” and he actually believes it.
Many of the milbloggers never even go to “Houston,” much less to “Texas,” and when you cry foul, they say, “What! I have the medals and I was in the Super Unit of Ultra Forces! You know nothing! You are only a writer!” And then they resume writing their milblogs from the cozy front lines of a coffee shop.
Meanwhile, journalists like Maya Alleruzzo and Alex Perry, spend years living in more places than anyone can remember, developing rare context that makes their opinions invaluable. Milbloggers flocked to deride Joe Galloway, the author of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, because some believe that he holds heretical opinions. But Joe earned those opinions the hard way. Every journalist mentioned in this article is lucky to be alive.
The Generals and the information warfare folks recognize the value of veteran military bloggers, and they realize that in exchange for warm milk and ego petting, many of them will purr like kittens. In this way, the Generals can do an end-run around writers like Tom Ricks and Yochi Dreazen, who are more experienced, and not so easily bribed.
These milblog shenanigans became apparent to me back in 2006, and I began to call them out, which caused frictions, which did not become broadly apparent until 2010, after I said that two generals should be fired. Both were fired. The fact is, some of these milbloggers will carry gasoline to fires for politicians and sufficiently high-ranking officers.
But don’t take my word for it: This report from the Tampa Tribune is indicative. It provides crucial insight into the information games that we play.