26 April, 2006

MilBlog Conference: Panel One

Official conference bloggers and others have given excellent blow-by-blow coverage. I'll not try to match it, but simply add my observations.

The first panel, Milblgging: Past, Present and Future was especially interesting to me because it gave me insights into the bloggers that had first introduced me to the milblog world. For example, I was very surprised to hear that Smash had been investigated for blogging but came through it without a mark.

As I listened to him speak, I couldn't help but remember when I first read Smash's description of his return from Iraq as I sat front of my computer with tears running down my cheeks over someone I'd never met. It was amazing to flash from that memory to sitting there in the hall with so many people I'd gotten to know from reading milblogs and who have had such an impact on my perspective and ways of thinking, to remember that reading Smash was the start of a long journey for me.

Andi did a superb job assembling that panel: it was a great mix of experience (new and old bloggers) with a variety of perspectives (current/recent/distant military service) and interesting personalities. I hadn't read Op-For and Threats Watch very much, but came away a definite fan of both.

John of Op-For was memorable for his humility and passion, remarking that he didn't think he was anything special and that "I just want to win." He says that as he blogs, what sticks with him as he considers what he posts is the desire to do "Anything I can to win [the war] at home." That desire to make a difference, to contribute, was manifest in all the panelists.

Blackfive echoed John's humility by saying that his blog was really the contribution of everybody fighting the war, "I just posted it." Steve of Threats Watch was also humble about the attention, saying he was grateful and somewhat intimidated to be on stage with the other panelists.

Another theme from the first session seemed to be frustration and outright anger over the "mainstream" media. Several panelists cited that as their motivation for blogging. They were almost equal in their condemnation of Army Public Affairs, saying that PAOs are reactionary and not proactive enough, and need to help educate the media about military matters--from technical terms such as "air assault" to things like the UCMJ and military culture.

One thing that was a bit unexpected was the way Vietnam hung over the panel's discussions. As the Iraq war vets cited specific examples of the media either ignoring a story or misreporting it, or spinning it negatively, they spoke passionately about the pride they felt in their Iraq service and the anger they felt about what they saw as the media smearing them as a whole over things like Abu Graib that were limited to one chain of command. Smash spoke with great passion on that subject, directly addressing the media in the room and telling them how ashamed American soldiers were over what they saw at Abu Graib and how strongly they condemned it, while chastizing the media for treating that scandal as emblematic of the behavior of typical American military personnel. Steve spoke more quietly but still with great intensity about how he had learned as an adult that the media had reported the Vietnam Tet Offensive as a loss when it was actually a huge victory, comparing it to the media today saying we are losing in Iraq when so much unreported evidence seems to say otherwise.

I tried not to be overly dramatic, but I felt an uncomfortable tickle on the back of my neck as I listened to this type of conversation. I realized that the emotions expressed and phrases being used were terribly reminiscent of what I'd heard Vietnam veterans say about reclaiming pride in their service after the onslaught of the Vietnam anti-war movement and the media who were complicit in the smearing of an entire generation, and the terrible aftermath of our withdrawal of aid and support from Vietnam.

But the panelists also pointed out that there is a difference between the "playing field" today and during the Vietnam war. Today there are milbloggers, and unlike the late 1960s, they will be working to bridge the gap between civilian and soldier, and playing the role of watchdog for the major media on military issues, enhancing America's understanding of military issues and wars and supporting the country in the conflicts in which we're currently involved. Examples cited were the issue of President Bush's faked national guard records (CBS), and the clarification of the media's recent misinterpretation of "Air Assault" with its subsequent over-hyping of operations in Iraq that they then tried to spin (incorrectly) as a "wag the dog" scenario. It was said openly that, like Vietnam, the Iraq war would be won or lost on the homefront, but this time the bloggers were a powerful force on the side of winning the homefront war.

We milbloggers (though I hestitate to include myself) are a small force, so the odds are against us. But one thing that stuck out about the entire conference was the caliber and connections of people involved. From those who had personal knowledge of famous military leaders still on the public stage, to special operations types who continue to train government operators, to those who have distinguished themselves in the areas of military intelligence, Public Affairs, and business, I was stunned at the depth and caliber of people I met at the conference. We're a small "band of brothers," but we have a deep "bench" of knowledge/experience and a great leadership who know the right people (including in the major media), who know how to get things done, and who have the eloquence and skill to get out the word. I think the milblogs can serve a transformational role in this country as sources of information and knowledge, and as watchdogs for the media.

By the end of the first panel, I was convinced that someday we will look back at this conference as "the beginning," and those who were there will be jealously seen by others as having "been there when it all started..."