Blogging war

Robert Bluey
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Posted: Apr 13, 2007 12:00 AM
Blogging war

After four years in Iraq, the U.S. military has redefined how it communicates in a war zone. From action-packed videos on YouTube to blogger conference calls with key commanders, the military is providing more access to what’s going on in Iraq than during any other war before it.

While the military gave traditional journalists access to the battlefield from the start of the war in March 2003, only recently has the same courtesy been extended to ordinary bloggers.

In fact, it wasn’t until last November that the first Pentagon-credentialed blogger, Mark Finkelstein of NewsBusters, traveled to Iraq. While others who have gone may have done blogging, Finkelstein actually listed his profession as “blogger,” causing some in the military’s credentialing office to do a double-take.

In the months that followed, popular conservative blogger Michelle Malkin embedded with Army troops at Forward Operating Base Justice in Baghdad. Upon her return, Malkin wrote, “I came to Iraq a darkening pessimist about the war…. I left Iraq with unexpected hope and resolve.”

It’s that type of experience that has prompted other bloggers to forsake the comfort of America for the uncertainty in Iraq. In the coming days, bloggers Victoria Coates and Jeff Emanuel of RedState will make the trip to Baghdad. The pair raised $10,000 from readers to pay for their expenses. “The last thing we want to do is to ‘spin’ events to meet our perceptions, hopes, or expectations; what we want is, like many others, to know and to convey the truth as it really is -- not as we want it to be,” they wrote last month for Human Events.

Some bloggers can’t seem to stay away. One of them is Michael Yon, a Special Forces veteran who went to Iraq in December 2004 as a writer who knew little about blogging. Yon embedded with a British unit after being shunned by the Pentagon. At first, he avoided the blogger label. But as blogging became more accepted, so too did his work.

Then there’s Michael Totten. He edged out Yon as The Week’s Blogger of the Year. Totten won the honors for his reporting in Iraq and the Middle East, giving “Boots on the Ground” blogging an even higher profile.

Some of these bloggers will be on hand for next month’s MilBlog Conference in Arlington, Va., including Bill Roggio, Doc in the Box, Sgt. Hook and Bill Ardolino, who will talk about their experiences in Iraq.

The military’s embrace of bloggers extends far beyond putting them on the ground in Iraq. Roxie Merritt, who handles blogger outreach for the Department of Defense, told me she was able to convince top brass at the Pentagon to reach out to bloggers after bloggers broke stories ignored by the mainstream media, such as Iran’s meddling in Iraq and the infamous doctored Reuters photo in Lebanon.

These days, the Pentagon hosts a weekly conference call for bloggers that has recently featured Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey J. Mellinger and Ambassador Daniel Speckhard. All of the calls are recorded and posted online -- making the military’s interaction with bloggers completely transparent and accessible to anyone who wants to listen.

But it’s the use of video that has really transformed the military’s outreach to the blogosphere. A wide range of videos -- from interviews with Secretary Robert Gates to clips from press conferences -- are posted at DODvClips.mil.

Meanwhile, the Multi-National Force in Iraq has gone one step further, setting up its own YouTube channel. Though up and running for only a little over a month, its videos of combat action already have made it one of the most popular channels on YouTube. A video of a battle on Haifa Street in Baghdad has 175,000 views, rivaling the daytime audience of cable news stations.

The success of the Multi-National Force’s videos prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Gulf Region Division to set up its own YouTube channel. While it’s not nearly as popular in terms of views, it does have twice as many videos. The focus is also entirely different. It’s here where you can learn about the new clinic in Dahuk, a refurbished sewage station in Karkh and construction of school in Batel.

All of these initiatives add up to the military’s new communications approach to the war. And the Department of Defense isn’t acting alone. Both the White House and State Department have beefed up interaction with bloggers, bypassing the mainstream media and giving the American people direct access to an unprecedented amount of information.