Powerpoint is the big Army bandwidth hog, not YouTube
Milbloggers pushed aside in favour of PowerPoint and video conferencing
Analysis The US forces' apparent moves to block frontline troops from accessing online media have been strongly criticised, and not just on free-speech grounds.
US military bloggers, or "milbloggers", were at first, apparently, savagely muzzled - you didn't hear that here - and then supposedly freed to write again, as the US Army downplayed an April operational security document which seemed to mean that every blog post had to be run past a superior in advance.
The initial story, broken by Wired, was something of a storm in a teacup. US Army operational security regs don't necessarily affect US Marines, for instance, and certainly not British troops. This was hardly the blanket clampdown that many mainstream media types have made it out to be (there was much tearful speculation among the bow-tie crowd at the recent Blooker Prize ceremonies that Colby Buzzell's 2004 warblog compilation would be the last pukka e-testimony out of the combat zones).
But the fact is that few frontline military bloggers work anonymously, and most would find this extremely difficult if they did attempt it. Thus, they are effectively writing with their superiors' consent anyway.
Moving on, only a small proportion of "milbloggers" are serving military. An even smaller proportion of those are identifiable, genuine boots-on-ground operators with a gritty story to tell and no concern for their superiors' opinion or military necessities. Buzzell was a rare example of just that, and funnily enough he is no longer a soldier but a writer.
It isn't that real combat soldiers can't or don't get online while in theatre, but in common with the rest of us they tend to waste a lot of time surfing porn or downloading music. When they feel like getting their thoughts down in writing, they're rather more likely to get onto a forum than they are to set up a blog. This is inconvenient for news reporters, who have to wade through acres of forum babble from other denizens to get to the good stuff from the front lines, but it's the reality.
Even once a real fighting soldier is online and writing, it's really hard to see how his (maybe her) testimony is any better or more valid than that from an embedded reporter in that unit. There is lots of excellent stuff available, at least as likely to give you the view from the front lines as trawling the milblogs.
Sometimes military people can be excellent whistleblowers, of course, and sometimes the internet can help with this, but the same old problems of confidentiality and conflict of interest are still there. Journalists still have to verify, cross-check, and protect their sources; blogs, forums et al aren't magic.
This is all bad news for editors and publishers hoping to ride the Web 2.0 wave and get great content for nothing. But it really is the case that if you want pukka war stories, you need to send actual reporters to the war zone. It wouldn't cost any more than bribing confused youngsters to sign made-up hostage captivity stories, after all.
Meanwhile, the US Defense Department has taken a lot of flak for its recent decision to cut off access to various bandwidth-hungry sites such as YouTube, Pandora, MySpace, and so on from its unclassified net, the NIPRNET. This has again been seen as military autocracy trying to stifle unfavourable video, pics, and comment from within, and there is probably more than a grain of truth in this viewpoint.
There is a grain of truth, too, in the Defense Department's assertion that it has cut off YouTube in order to save bandwidth for military purposes. It has sought to suggest that these military purposes include legitimate war-winning stuff such as near-real-time video from unmanned weapons and recce platforms, and to a degree this is true.
Even so, the move has provoked a lot of sarcastic comment. One Reg reader, who preferred to remain anonymous, had this to say:
I worked for a number of years for the US Army...during their involvement in resolving the conflict in Bosnia. It may interest you to know that although we were responsible for a command and control system which was being used at the time to plan the movement of supplies and personnel between the various Army facilities in Hungary and Bosnia, that we were only allowed to download updates to our system (which was designed to be a real-time planning system) between 2am and 4am.
The reason for this was that the generals in Bosnia and Hungary had a video conference set up and running between themselves and personnel in the Pentagon during the remaining time period. Not that it was ever in use, mind you. It was on 22 hours a day, showing pictures of empty rooms on both sides of the video conference.
During the two months I actually spent in Bosnia, I believe that the video conference was only actually used for a total of about 3 hours. The rest of the time it was wasted bandwidth. Of course, the military thinks that YouTube et al are bandwidth hogs, and they're right. But the biggest wasters of bandwidth are not the troops, it's the brass.
Wired has some similar testimony:
"In Kosovo, the PowerPoint briefings got to be so big the whole [classified network] system regularly slowed down until it would take eight hours on occasion for an email to get through."
It could well be that grunts on YouTube and MySpace are achieving more for the military and the societies that pay for it than staff moguls and generals ever do with their turgid PowerPoint bilge and endless blame-spreading conferences.
All that said, a soldier with some red-hot footage can still upload it to YouTube on leaving the warzone, or even in some cases while still there. It wouldn't be hard to send discs by mail, either, and there has been no NIPRNET chokeoff to typepad, blogspot etc. And, for god's sake, email still exists and is still accessible.
The upload ban is surely foolish, surely a case of the US military shooting itself in the foot, but it's very hard to characterise it as a gag on free speech. Troops with stories to tell can still get them out, particularly if they know of a journalist they consider trustworthy and likeable.
If most soldiers tend not to like or trust most journalists, and if as a result we never hear the stories that matter, maybe that's the journalists' fault as much as it is the troops'. ®
Lewis Page isn't all that likeable, but he's fairly trustworthy and has an armed-forces background. Servicemen with stories to tell should feel free to email him at the link above the story. El Reg is too tight to offer tabloid style payouts, sadly, and so far has refused to embed Page within his military unit of choice, the US Navy nurse-training school in Hawaii.