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Telling War Stories Project
Pre-OPs/Unit Cohesion

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Stories beg to be told, and those who share them will use any means possible to present them, even if those means aren't proper procedure. Since America's War on Terror first began, deployed soldiers have joined the chorus of their predecessors from previous wars asking, "Why are we fighting?" When a civilian asks this question, it is called criticism, but when soldiers ask this question, their criticisms are often registered as dissension in the minds of those concerned with the welfare of America's fighting men and women. But as the saying goes, "If a soldier isn't complaining, then something's wrong." Soldiers will always complain and will always seek ways for their voices to be heard. What's different about this war is that now technology has enabled a way for their voices to reach every willing ear. The Internet, particularly via blogs, provides an outlet for soldiers to spin their war stories, their political views, their feelings, and even their impassioned diatribes for an audience adept at Googling for what they want to hear. The Army's dilemma is quite obvious: silence the candor of its members, accept and ignore the fallout of soldiers' stories reaching the ears of those eager to dismantle their service, or enable soldiers to tell their stories without fear of repercussion.

In 2005, then Army Chief of Staff, General Peter J. Schoomaker, addressed this order to Army leaders:

The enemy aggressively 'reads' our open source and continues to exploit such information for use against our forces. Some soldiers continue to post sensitive information to internet websites and blogs, e.g., photos depicting weapon system vulnerabilities and tactics, techniques, and procedures. Such OPSEC violations needlessly place lives at risk and degrade the effectiveness of our operations. (qtd. in Burden, 2006, p. 257)

Two years later, an article entitled "Troop blogs show increasing criticism of war" was published by Robert Weller in The Army Times and was subsequently picked up by every branch of the Military Times. In it he reports, "The military is so petrified it will lose information control screensavers were installed on military computers warning blogs could jeopardize security" (n.p.). As of April 2008, the Army announced new rules on blogging that required soldiers to clear blog entries with a superior; it also denied access to MySpace and other popular Web sites.

"It's the first digital war," Weller (2007) stated. "It's the subversive nature of the Internet. Technology has caught up with the soldiers, who have always known what was really going on but didn't have the tools to tell their story." The problem is that tools like blogs are also possible means of leaking information beneficial to America's enemies. But this isn't the intent of those who maintain them. Prior to this censoring, Matthew Currier Burden (2006), a former Army Reserve major and gatekeeper of a blog entitled Blackfive, wrote The Blog of War with the intent to "pay lasting tribute to those men and women who have opened this window into their lives and to convey a better understanding of what it's like to be in the war zone" (p. 5). Burden wrote that there are traditionally three kinds of combat reporting: the embedded media correspondent, the government's press releases, and the soldiers who tell their own stories. Though the last method has historically been the most censored and slowest, and therefore the least supplied, it has also been the most demanded, thereby creating a commodity out of a particular sort of information; stories from soldiers about soldiering. Burden wrote, "One of the most sought-after items in the military blog arena is the story of a battle. People want to know 'What is it like?'" (p. 140).

Blogs are written because people have stories begging to be told, and soldiers use blogs because they have war stories that must be heard. But because of the very nature of modern combat, with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around every corner and insurgents who ambush before melting into the crowd, the sort of war stories comprised of vivid face-to-face engagements that an American readership might desire aren't prevalent. Therefore, mainstream media overlooks blogs like those found in Burden's book, sharing heartwarming narratives of soldiers carrying their buddies to safety, building schools and playgrounds for Iraqi school children, or romancing their spouses from abroad. Instead the headlines focus on "Troop blogs [that] show increasing criticism of war." Though the original intent of the majority of military blogs was likely to provide personal stories from the front like an open journal to the world, they have all too often reverted to "the kind of public relations Madison Avenue would drool over" (Weller, 2007, n.p.) as the soldiers' criticism of the war is sliced from their blogs, leaving behind the less sensational stories of life in the war zone.

Telling War Stories Project Pre-OPs/Unit Cohesion: Problematic Story-Telling –6