John Moore/Getty Images
Reclining on a cot, a U.S. soldier uses his laptop at Korengal Outpost in the Kunar province of eastern Afghanistan.
Reclining on a cot, a U.S. soldier uses his laptop at Korengal Outpost in the Kunar province of eastern Afghanistan. John Moore/Getty Images
When a U.S. Marine reservist decided to blog from his combat zone in eastern Afghanistan, he didn't even think to ask permission from his commanders.
Instead, the author of "Embedded in Afghanistan" offered up blog posts describing his efforts to help train and support the fledgling Afghan National Army.
One account, titled "The Bad News Bears," about a 2 1/2-hour firefight, veers between pride at the bravery of his Afghan counterparts and bewilderment, as a few soldiers duck into a local shop and sip tea as bullets are whizzing past. Some even began eating lunch from their firing positions.
"The eating wasn't even the funny part," he wrote. "The funny part was how much they were enjoying the food and the camaraderie under the circumstances."
This might not be exactly the image of U.S. training efforts that the Pentagon is looking to cultivate, but the blogger's candor lends credibility to the sections where he notes that none of the Afghans were afraid to fight and how they "have made me proud on a number of occasions."
But posting blogs from the front could be an endangered pastime. Military officials are working to complete a review that could end up restricting or even banning the use of social networking sites from military computers.
The Marine blogger, who returned in early September after nine months in Afghanistan, told NPR that he wanted to depict the full range of his experiences.
"I've been critical, but you have to be honest with yourself — if you have people on the frontlines who are critical of what we're doing, you really need to understand why they're being critical," says the author of "Embedded," who asked to remain anonymous because he expects to depart on another assignment soon. "People who care enough to blog about it care enough to want to make it better."
Mulling Over Restrictions On Social Networking
Not everyone at the Pentagon is convinced the online world should be wide open to soldiers in combat areas.
In fact, the Defense Department has taken something of a schizophrenic approach to the evolving world of online social media, from blogging to sites like Facebook and Twitter. Even as commanders publicly embrace these tools — Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posts on his Twitter page almost daily — the policy review is underway to determine whether restrictions should be applied and how.
The review is due to be completed in a matter of weeks. "It's my guess that it will give us a well-balanced approach," says Price Floyd, the principal deputy secretary of defense for public affairs. "We need to be out there, but we also need to understand the risks."
Gen. William Caldwell, who runs the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has been at the vanguard of promoting online tools and has incorporated many of them into officer training curricula.
"I'm optimistic that as these reviews go on, people will start to recognize that this is the future," Caldwell says. "We can either embrace it and figure out how to operate in it, or we can continue to sit behind the black wall and hope it will go away. But it's not going to. It's a way of life."
Currently, there is a patchwork of restrictions on Internet use by different organizations and bases throughout the U.S. military. "The Department of Defense grants commanders in the field the option of blocking access from government computers to those sites that they deem inappropriate or as necessary to protect their systems and IT resources," says a spokesman for U.S. Strategic Command.
In August, the Marine Corps banned personnel from accessing Facebook, Twitter and MySpace on the military's network. Yet there is an official Facebook page for U.S. forces in Afghanistan that has more than 28,000 fans.
The restrictions on access can be difficult for some troops in combat areas. "The troops have adopted these new technological mediums as an additional way to communicate with their family and loved ones," Senior Master Sgt. Rex Temple, who blogs and tweets from his base in Afghanistan, said in an e-mail. "Some installations have erected firewalls and the troops are no longer able to access these social media sites."
Blogging 101 For Some Officers
At Fort Leavenworth, even though Army regulations technically still ban blogs that are launched without official approval, Caldwell requires officers going through training programs to write blog postings or participate in online forums, and, in some cases, to launch Facebook pages.
"Our thought was that there's an opportunity to communicate here and to share with the American public what we really are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan," Caldwell says. "We didn't want to make a chain-of-command-approved blog, but rather to teach our young men and women how to blog responsibly as professionals."
He issued a list of seven rules that Army bloggers should follow, including that all postings should be done under soldiers' real names. "You have to be fully accountable for what you do on the blogosphere," he adds.
Many Pentagon officials still have a number of concerns, however, including potential leaks of operation details that could jeopardize combat missions and possible security vulnerabilities on these sites. At bases in remote combat areas, there is also the problem of having enough bandwidth for operational use.
"Being in a combat zone, it's already frustrating to wait long periods of time to access official sites and to conduct official business," Temple says. "It's even more frustrating when I find out the bandwidth is being depleted by troops accessing social media sites."
Military Faces Same Challenges As Corporate World
Andy Sernovitz, an author and lecturer at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, says the military's cautious reaction to social media is very similar to those of many large corporations.
"First, there's surprise, which results in an immediate try-to-control-it response; then there's a pause when people realize that nothing bad has happened," he says. "Then you get to the next stage, which is to figure out where you need to do training and where you need to create policies."
"What every company seems to discover when they get to this point is that there are very few new problems created by social media," he adds. "If someone's going to leak a secret, they can do it by e-mail."
In addition, the technology is changing so fast, with Internet access becoming cheaper and easier from almost anywhere in the world, that any restrictions could become very difficult to enforce.
"People have a way of getting around these types of rules," says the blogger behind Embedded in Afghanistan. "We had our own Internet over there that we paid for ourselves and wasn't controlled by anyone, so we could do anything on it. We had half the base on that network with us."
All these tools are also allowing soldiers to reach out in ways that were largely impossible only a few years ago. Temple is using his blog and Twitter feed to solicit donations of school supplies for Afghan children, a project he has also discussed with WUSF, an NPR affiliate in Tampa, Fla.
Maj. Bryan Carroll launched a blog while he was studying at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, which is under Caldwell's command. Carroll wanted to use his blog, A Major's Perspective, to draw attention to the kinds of positive stories out of Afghanistan and Iraq that he felt the media were largely ignoring. "People want to hear from the soldier on the ground," he says. "When people see the scripted message and the talking points, they can get that elsewhere."
He says that blogs and other online tools can be used to get more positive messages out about the numerous daily missions that don't get media coverage because they don't result in deadly firefights.
"My personal opinion is there isn't that much difference between e-mail and social media," Carroll says. "If I'm sending an e-mail back home to the family or posting something on Facebook that I allow my family to see, I don't see much difference between the two, outside of the whole technical, hacker sort of thing."
Aside from the threat of hackers on social media sites, Carroll and other bloggers say they haven't seen any evidence of security problems from blogs giving out sensitive operational details.
Soldiers all undergo training on what they can and cannot tell their friends and family back home, whether in phone calls, e-mail, or any other forms of contact.
There's a natural self-preservation aspect as well. "I'm out there too," says one blogger. "I'm not going to post the best way to attack my base."