Literary Battle Fatigue

The Army can regulate soldiers’ blogs and letters—but it shouldn’t.

An Iraqi soldier on duty in central Baghdad

In the name of “operations security,”* the Army established new regulations last month that sharply restrict the content of letters, e-mails, blogs, and articles written by military personnel, and require a security review before they can be published. (Ironically, the regulations were themselves restricted for security reasons; Wired got a copy and published them online.) To defend the new rules, the military cited reports that al-Qaida and other terror groups have been trolling the Internet for useful information about how American units fight on the battlefield. After a brief flurry of criticism, including some from Congress, the Army backed down somewhat, saying it would not enforce the new regulations strictly by reading every letter and e-mail home from soldiers in the field.

As a legal matter, the Army’s case for its new regulations is bulletproof (sorry). The military has near-total authority to make regulations in this area, because federal law exempts the military from the procedures other agencies must follow to make rules, and because courts almost always defer to military expertise in these cases. Given past precedent, it’s virtually certain that no court would overturn these rules in favor of a soldier’s First Amendment rights. But the easy legal analysis here masks a much harder policy question: How much speech should the Army tolerate from its troops?  In answering, we must consider the extent to which military blogs, articles, and e-mails have helped to bridge the country’s growing civil-military divide—and in fact actually helped the war effort.

Veterans make up a shrinking part of American society. As the generations that fought World War II, Korea, and Vietnam fade away, there is no cohort of twenty- and thirtysomething draftees to take their place. About 2.5 million Americans serve today in uniform—just 0.84 percent of the total population and 2.83 percent of people of draft age. The 1980 U.S. Census counted 28.4 million veterans in American society; the VA counts just 24.5 million today. And as their numbers shrink, these military folk are concentrating themselves in geographically insular parts of the country, going to live near the largest military bases in the South and Midwest. These demographic shifts have a profound effect: Most Americans have little or no personal contact with the military.

Soldiers’ blogs, e-mails, and articles from the front thus help expose Americans to perspectives they would otherwise not hear. Citizens who care about the war can learn a great deal through insightful news coverage  (subscription required) or they can read about it in one of the excellent books published about the war. But these third-person reports simply cannot convey the visceral immediacy of a soldier’s letter home or blog, nor offer the same unfiltered voice. Consider this blog posting from a paratrooper in Iraq describing the news that one of his buddies had been killed (typos are in the original):

After a few minutes our First Sergeant came in and shut the door. He wore a terrible expression on his face. We all knew what was coming, just wondering who. And sure enough the words came from his mouth.”I just wanted to put out to you guys before the rumors got started. Today SGT Tollett was out with the CO and was shot in the head. He didn’t make it.”The room became a dungeon of fear, anger, sorrow and pain. I couldnt believe what I had just heard. I had just seen him right before he had left and had talked with him briefly. How, why could this of happened? What happened? So many questions, but the same end result. One of our fellow soldiers, a brother in arms, and a friend, lost his life. We wern’t particularly close, but I had come to be friends with him durring this deployment. I know people have nothing but good things about people after they’re death, but this man truely was a great man. He was loved by everone in the company, and probably the worst guy to have ever died from our company here. And I truely mean that from the depths of my soul.This really put things in to persepective. There wasn’t much that could have been done in the situation to of prevented this. It was a lucky stary round that had found had hit in a lethal spot. It could have been anyone else. Thats the sad thing about war. Theres never knowing who or when or what or how. It simply comes down to if its your time or not. And even though we all come over here knowing that this is war, and this is a real possibility here, it still caught everyone off guard. Until that day, noone from our unit had been killed. Im sure others, as well as I held on to that slight hope that all of us would somehow make it home from this place. Maybe I was naive to believe this, but I, as well as everyone else now know the true cost and its not something that can be measured in dollars, or planes or time.All I know now is that there is a score to be settled. This now became more personal that it ever was, and I feel sorry for the future SOBs that cross our path.

It’s especially important to encounter these voices given the general disconnection from the war effort. Our democratic processes for making and managing war break down when so few Americans have a personal stake in the outcome—especially among the elites.

Soldiers’ voices may also help our military machine function better, as well. To be sure, militaries require discipline, and they work most efficiently as ordered societies in which individuals work together as a team to accomplish a mission with minimal griping. But the squashing of dissent can go too far. In Iraq, where I served last year in the volatile Diyala province, I saw military hierarchy and culture conspire to spin or block negative or pessimistic reports from traveling up the chain of command, or to silence dissenting views before they could reach the generals in Baghdad. Headquarters did this because it saw its job as distilling and filtering information from the battlefield so senior officers could see “the big picture.” Yet Iraq is a land that confounds national strategies and generalization; the devil is truly in the details. When organizational filters insulate top military leaders from these facts, their decisions suffer, as does the mission.

It’s by circumventing organizational filters that blogs and soldiers’ writings allow unconventional and controversial views to percolate up to senior leaders and the public. An important article in the Armed Forces Journal by Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling illustrates the point. For years, the Army’s general officer corps congratulated itself for its stewardship of the Army during America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yingling, who is one of the Army’s “jedi knights” trained at its elite School of Advanced Military Studies, wrote that today’s generals in Iraq failed to commit sufficient resources, failed to understand the dynamic situation on the ground after April 2003, failed to adapt to these changed circumstances, and then failed to tell their civilian political leaders about the risks of these choices. The article should have provoked self-examination among the Army’s generals. (Though friends in the Pentagon tell me it has been met by deafening silence.)

The new Army regulations would likely squelch dissents like Yingling’s, along with the many other journal articles and professional exchanges about the war that have contributed much to public knowledge. Such discussions and Web sites are now increasingly restricted to Army personnel only. This policy constricts the Army’s marketplace of ideas by preventing civilians from participating in professional discussions about strategy and tactics. Such rules are particularly myopic for an interagency effort like counterinsurgency, where the best ideas may come from academics, contractors, or State Department employees.

The war against al-Qaida and Islamic fundamentalism is as much a war of ideas  as a war to be fought by our military. Right now, even Donald Rumsfeld agrees that fight is being won by al-Qaida. One cannot run a Google search for Iraq without calling up dozens of jihadi videos and blogs (in Arabic and English) that portray the war from the other side’s perspective. By imposing these Draconian regulations on its own troops, the Army has taken its best soldiers out of the fight and ceded this ground to the enemy.

Correction, May 10, 2007: The original sentence quoted the Army’s rationale for the regulations as “operational security.” The correct quote is “operations security.” (Return  to the corrected sentence.)