Covering the war
While mainstream media outlets struggle to report from Iraq and Afghanistan, military service
members provide unmediated personal accounts of war directly from the frontlines. Is this
U.S. Army specialist Gordon Alanko, creator of acutepolitics.blogspot.com.
Department of Communication
June 6, 2007
Professor James Bettinger, Advisor
On May 18, U.S. Army specialist Gordon Alanko‟s platoon spent the day patrolling the
streets of Karma, a predominantly Sunni community of 75,000 people located nine miles
northeast of Falluja in central Iraq.
Bomb craters nearly blocked the road as his platoon combed the city for hours before
heading back to base camp. Heavy rain pounded their vehicle. To the south, a lightning bolt
struck a power grid prompting faraway lights to flicker and eventually go dark.
Alanko, 23, welcomed the rain. It cleansed the air, thick and polluted with the smell of
ozone. Rain comes with a price in Iraq. Inevitably, Alanko and his fellow soldiers would have to
spend hours drying and cleaning the vehicle‟s ammunition and weapons.
Later that evening, Alanko sat down to write. He recalled the forests of Northern Oregon
and the Washington coast, two places he visits during trips back home.
“The rain also led to the first pang of homesickness that I‟ve felt in a while,” wrote
Alanko on his blog, acutepolitics.blogspot.com. “After we got back, I walked out under the
netting that covers the entryway to my buddy‟s tent. The netting is a fine, sand-colored mesh that
blocks the sun. It also breaks up the rain into a fine mist, with larger droplets that break and fall
occasionally from the net. I stood underneath the netting with my eyes closed, smelling the
suddenly fresh air, and thinking of the rain in the forests on the coast that was so similar to what
I felt tonight thousands of miles away.”
Since the birth of modern American journalism, war correspondents on the frontlines
have provided readers and viewers around the world with news and commentaries from the
battlefronts of Europe, Korean, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.
The military‟s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan in the midst of a new media revolution
presents one of the most striking contradictions of the war.
While traditional media outlets wrestle with unprecedented financial and security
barriers, soldiers like Alanko armed with digital cameras and Internet access bang out
unmediated personal accounts of their war experiences in real-time through emails, social
networking sites and blogs.
This phenomenon of massive content production from non-journalists extends beyond
war coverage. Overall, the advent and growing popularity of social networking and information
sharing sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube coupled with the prevalence of free and
simple blogging portals allows the public at large to become huge providers of content, creating
headaches and sparking debate throughout newsrooms across the country.
Debate over the newsworthiness of blogs, short for web logs, occupies much of that
conversation. Blogs, which typically take form as online journals, vary in degrees of technical
sophistication and subject matter. Most provide commentary or news on a particular subject and
often include several forms of media from videos and photographs to external links. According
to blog search engine Technorati, which tracks 83 million blogs worldwide, 175,000 new blogs
are created daily.
Milblogs, blogs created by military service members, retirees, family members and their
supporters, provide one type of this new citizen-generated content.
Milblogging.com, a private Internet database operated by Monster Worldwide Inc.
indexes at least 1,700 milblogs. That figure doesn‟t include blogs not indexed by the company‟s
“So-called milblogs have sprung up as a method of real-time critique of traditional media
and as a means of story telling,” says Cori Dauber, a communication studies professor at the
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who has extensively studied milblogs. “They are
saying, „Here is my experience of the war, here‟s what I see happening and what‟s going on with
our unit,‟ to the extent that they can do that within the constraints of operation security.”
While milblogs provide the most publicly accessible accounts of the military experience,
emails, discussion forums and instant messages spread news among military communities about
deployments, casualties or the trials of daily life. Photo sharing and social networking sites like
MySpace and FaceBook also create opportunities for service members and their families to
create and share content.
While the forms and intentions may vary, the overall aim among these new technology
users seems united: To communicate unmediated information among friends, family or the
public-at-large while remaining unfettered by the constraints of editors or impartiality.
Given the current challenges facing war correspondents, the question emerges: Are these
accounts journalism? Does Alanko‟s report of a recent scouting trip along a road in Iraq count as
a news story, especially when no other accounts exist? Does an open love letter posted online
from an Army wife to her spouse qualify as impassioned column writing?
Time-honored definitions of the craft tend to deny that level of journalistic credibility to
such accounts on the basis of at least one main criteria. Most journalistic sources fundamentally
agree that impartiality between reporter and subject proves essential in the creation of
In “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and The Public
Should Expect” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel laid out nine guidelines for journalism.
Fundamentally, they concluded that a journalist‟s first goal lies in reporting truth while serving
as an independent monitor of power.
While many milblogs hit some of the authors‟ nine markers, none hit all. In fact, most
fail to meet the most strident of Kovach and Rosentiel‟s guidelines: That its practioners maintain
independence from those they cover.
These principles, which theoretically serve as the bedrock of American newsrooms,
matter little to friends and family members connected to the military who share a long tradition
of distrust and disgust with the traditional media.
Military supporters and family members routinely tune out and/or bash traditional media,
opting instead to draw news directly from sources both abroad or stateside with a vested
interested in telling their story.
“There is a dissatisfaction among service members with traditional media,” says Dauber.
For the first time in the history of American journalism, the Fourth Estate no longer
controls the majority of news flowing from the war zone - good news to many within the military
community, especially family members.
“I do listen to mainstream media accounts...but if I want to find out things that are going
on in Iraq, I turn to blogs,” says Andi Hurley, an Army wife who started blogging in 2005.
For news directly from the battlefront, Hurley turns to milbloggers stationed in Iraq,
Afghanistan or other military bases.
Some of Hurley‟s favorite sites include threatswatch.org, mudvillegazette.com,
acutepolitics.blogspot.com and badgersforward.blogspot.com.
An anonymous military service member stationed in Germany runs Mudvillegazette.com
with the help of his wife, who produces the Dawn Patrol, “our daily roundup of information on
the War on Terror and other topics - from the MilBlogs and other sources around the world.”
For news from Iraq, many milblog enthusiasts turn to U.S. Army Capt. Eric Coulson, the
39-year old author of badgersforward.blogspot.com. In Iraq since September 2006, Coulson
draws a small but loyal audience to his site. As of May 31, 91,409 visitors logged on to his site –
an average of about 464 per day. In contrast, washingtonpost.com garners about 4.8 million hits
Coulson‟s site includes his personal shout-outs to military spouses and critiques of media
reports. He also writes firsthand accounts of his internal struggles over how to discipline (or not
discipline) young troops under his command.
Often he writes about larger issues regarding military spending.
“One of the things that Americans have been concerned with as this war has moved along
was whether or not we are properly equipped to carry out our missions,” wrote Coulson on May
21. “And rightfully so. You have paid your tax dollars, you have supported this effort, and you
have sent your loved ones to fight.
Anyone who has been in the military can give you a litany
of complaints. The saying, „A bitchy Soldier, is a happy Soldier,‟ exists for a reason. But I would
be hard pressed to complain about most of our equipment issues.
The MRAP (Mine Resistant
Ambush Protective) vehicle has been of great debate on the Internet of late. Do they cost too
much? Are they really the best vehicle to replace the Humvee?
Well how much is your life
worth? What vehicle is going to balance all of the needs of the military?
“In truth I can‟t answer those questions for you objectively; to me these vehicles are well
worth the cost because they protect my soldiers,” he wrote. “I received a few new ones the other
day. Here I am with two of them.
So thank you to the folks in the Pentagon that procured
them; thank you to the folks and Force Protection and Ultra Machine and Fabrication for making
them, and thanks to the American Taxpayer for paying for them.
This is the first time I have
received brand new vehicles in the military. They even have the new car smell.”
Coulson also recounts operations undertaken by his platoon. On May 29, a mission to
uncover explosive devices tested the officer‟s patience.
“After more lengthy travel we are on the road we really need to target,” he wrote. “They
are poking at everything and I am working at being patient. They need to learn it themselves and
as long as no one is doing something dangerous (given our task and location) then I am going to
let them feel it out.
Every time we look at something I ask the Platoon Leader what else he
sees. What else indicates the enemy might attack here.
We all want to find that first one, even
though these Soldiers have been part of other patrols that have found them, as a collective they
have not and I keep hoping they locate one sooner rather than later to give them a boost of
confidence. Then the radio crackles.
“1-6, this is 1-1 we have a copper wire running across the road.”
“Roger, I'll move up and check it out.”
“We move up in our big vehicle to take a look. At this point I am a little skeptical having
had wires already called out and led to nothing. We move into the lead. Our lights shining
brightly, there it is sitting in the road. The copper wire is shining and runs into a pothole, with the
barely perceptible outline of the device.
“You just found your first one,” I say. “Good job.”
“We move up and mechanically move it out of the road. Our embedded explosives expert
then mechanically places an explosive charge on the device and one big boom later, there is one
less of these on the roads of Iraq and first platoon has joined the ranks of the experienced bomb
Unfortunately though there is not time to pat themselves on the back because less
than 500 meters later, there is the exact same thing for them to deal with. We go through the
same procedures and render safe our second target of the night.
After the two finds everyone
relaxes, not so that we cannot locate the targets, but because we are now looking for a known as
opposed to the unknown.
We make the long journey back to Camp Ramadi. Everyone is
tired, it has been a long night, but I am also very pleased. First Platoon has proven their mettle,
they have changed missions, attacked one of the most difficult areas we are responsible for,
found targets, and emerged unscathed.
Time to go to bed.”
Everyday, milblogging seeps deeper into mainstream American culture. In September
cartoonist G.B. Trudeau launches a new website called “The Sandbox.” A book featuring the
works of milbloggers, including Coulson and Alanko, has also been planned. All proceeds will
benefit Fisher House Foundation Inc., a nonprofit that provides housing for families of patients
receiving medical care at major military and VA medical centers.
Not all milbloggers report from Iraq or Afghanistan. Some file scathing media critiques
or original commentary and reporting from their suburban homes in Virginia and Arkansas.
Hurley‟s blog, andisworld.typepad.com, draws its audience from service members,
spouses, retirees and other milbloggers.
On April 12, Hurley criticized ABC News‟ coverage of the U.S. government‟s proposed
plans to extend the length of tours for service members from 12 months to 15 months. Extended
deployments create emotional strain for military families. Learning of these developments from
the media instead of firsthand from military sources catches family members off guard, often
leaving them stranded without emotional needed to deal with the news.
“Military families can handle bad news,” she wrote. “In fact, there‟s a part of us,
especially today, that expects it. Not only can we handle bad news, but we handle it with
incredible grace, dignity and class. Well, after the occasional, short-lived pity party, that is. This
life isn‟t always easy (what is), but I wouldn‟t trade it for anything, nor would anyone I know. I
only ask one thing from those in positions of power - treat military families with respect and be
straight with us.
“Yesterday, Secretary Gates rightly excoriated the person in the Pentagon who leaked
information to ABC News about deployment extensions...Much is asked of military families
these days. When bad news comes, we deserve to hear about it through official channels, not
media outlets. I‟m furious with this unnamed person who thought that leaking information which
affects thousands of military families was an appropriate thing to do. Clearly, this person has no
regard whatsoever for the deep sacrifices of military families.
“Want to know how military families feel when they‟re blindsided by media coverage of
announcements which should have been handled in-house? It hurts, and it‟s wrong,” she wrote.
In 2005, Hurley approached Military.com., a for-profit company that earns revenue from
advertising but doesn‟t charge for access to its site. Company executives commissioned Hurley
to spearhead a spouse-specific blog called spouseBUZZ.com featuring contributors with names
like Navy Wife, Air Force Wife, Love My Tanker and Molly Pitcher.
Rachelle Jones contributes to spouseBUZZ.com while also running her own popular
Isolated in suburbia, Jones started blogging in 2005 after her husband returned home
from a 18-month stretch in Iraq as a reservist with the Arkansas National Guard‟s 39th Infantry
Brigade, part of the largest rotation of American troops since World War II.
On May 24, Jones criticized the mainstream media‟s coverage surrounding the death of
Army Pfc. Joseph Anzack, whose body was found floating in the Euphrates river after an
ambush left the soldier and several of his platoon members dead.
“The body of the US service man has been identified, after much speculation yesterday,”
wrote Jones. “I have been unplugged from MSM for weeks now. And when I went to the only
place in town for wireless service, I was not surprised to see CNN on the flat screen. About every
6 minutes, I heard the talking heads speculating on "this body", and speaking of the condition in
which it was found.
“It nauseated me to my core. The idea of someones, Husband, Son, Brother, Friend being
talked about in such a callous way. For the media to think it is ok to talk about the condition of „a
body‟ on National Television, is decadent...
“These are not bodies...these are children, lovers, friends...people we may have touched,
hands that have held children, feet that have walked miles.
Jones maintains an active following among other military service and family members.
Connections prove critical given that military spouses are facing longer overseas tours and the
increased fear of harm to their loved ones than those experience during The Gulf War.
“But we‟ve created an online support network...that is something civilians just don‟t
understand, a place where we can share experiences or information or resources,” says Jones.
Despite reports of an attempt by the U.S. Army to curtail some online communications by
service members, the Bush administration supports the work of milbloggers.
Via teleconference, President George Bush recently opened the second annual
milblogging conference in Arlington, Va., the first blogging event of any genre publicly
supported by president.
“Each day America‟s military bloggers tell stories of courage and sacrifice by our men
and women in uniform,” said Bush.
“You report important developments in the War on Terror,” he said. “You update friends
and families on the health and well-being of loved ones. You rally your fellow citizens to send
letters, ship gifts and offer up prayers for those serving in harms way.
“Your work strengthens our nation and shows that America‟s greatest strength is the
good hearts of our people. America‟s military bloggers are also an important voice in the cause
of freedom. You understand our nation is fighting the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq on
many other fronts. You understand that defeating the terrorists requires us to defeat their
ideology of hatred and of death with a more powerful vision, a vision of human liberty. As we go
forward in these challenging times, I thank you for your support and prayers for our troops. I
thank you for lending your voices and your energy to the cause of freedom. By working together
we can lay the foundations of peace for generations to come. May God bless you all, may God
bless our troops and may God bless America.”
Hurley played a key role in organizing the event.
“Military families are exploiting technology for all it‟s worth,” she says. “I can‟t imagine
being a spouse during World War II or Vietnam waiting weeks or months for just a letter. A lot
of families are using things like webcams and instant messaging to communicate with each
For the most part, the U.S. military takes no official stance against blogging, despite a
directive issued on April 17 by the U.S. Army which warned soldiers and family members
against the dangers of compromising military security through online communications.
Initially after the directive became public, a flurry of nervous activity rippled among the
A fact sheet issued by the Army several days later clarified that, commanders cannot
“order” military family members to adhere the rules but that it “helps to ensure soldiers safety,
technologies and present and future operations will not be compromised.”
Hardcore bloggers like Hurley aren‟t worried.
“I don‟t think there is going to be a big change or a big crack down,” she says.
Uniformed milbloggers share Hurley‟s skepticism of the new directive. By most
accounts, they plan to continue blogging until and the military pulls the plug.
“My sense is that certain prominent individuals within the Army welcome the advent of
blogging and the news opportunities it represents,” writes Alanko via email from Iraq.
“However, I feel that most of the Army has barely begun to recognize blogging as a permanent,
legitimate force... the Army is more concerned with limiting a perceived potential for abuse or
damage than in engaging bloggers in a constructive manner.”
While milblogs provide an outlet for both service members and their families to share
information, most don‟t write or follow blogs. In fact, many still depend largely on email
communications and instant messaging.
The military doesn‟t track the amount of email and instant messages sent by service
members. Access typically varies. Some service members stationed oversees email multiple
times daily, others email sporadically.
Family members who experienced the Gulf War in the early 1990s turned to letters for
communication, not emails.
Throughout the Gulf War, Cordelia Manis corresponded with her husband, a Marine Lt.
Col., primarily through hand-written letters. During his recent tours in Iraq, the couple‟s
communication shifted to daily emails. The convenience came with complications.
“With letters, every piece of information was important…there wasn‟t time to waste on
trivialities,” she says. “This time, we exchanged emails that said nothing. Instead of just
worrying about him being in an unsafe place, I worry about what he‟s eating.”
Like many family members, Manis preferred letters and emails directly from her
husband over news accounts from the mainstream media.
“I completely stopped watching TV during the first Gulf War,” she says.
Corporal Jose Ortega, a 22-year old Marine from Norwalk, Calif. stationed at Camp
Pendleton, encouraged his wife to stop watching television during his tour in Iraq last year.
“She‟s the kind of person that if she‟s informed it will have a bad effect on her,” he says.
Ortega‟s elderly grandmother experienced anxiety attacks after watching the news constantly.
“She was the most affected,” says Ortega who stuck to Google News and MSNBC for
news while in Iraq.
“The media unfortunately portrays all the bad but none of the good stuff,” says Laurie
Gilstrap, whose husband, a Marine sergeant major, served in both the Gulf War and recently in
“When he‟s deployed, we stay away from the TV,” she says. “We get so worked up. No
news is good news. We can‟t live our lives in fear,” she says.
Newspapers like the North County Times and San Diego Union-Tribune in Southern
California fared better with local military families.
Often family members turn to base newspapers or military specific newspapers like the
Marine Corps Times. During her husband‟s recent tour in Iraq, Jessica Cordero scoured copies of
the Marine Corps Times and the Camp Pendleton base paper, The Scout.
Most military bases typically produce their own papers and accompanying websites. For
example, one California-based Marine base in Miramar produces The Flight Jacket, while one in
Barstow publishes The Log.
One source families trust lies within their own military community. For news, many
military family members turn to internal organizations designed to pass information between
commanders and families.
For the U.S. Marine Corps, the Key Volunteer Network serves that function. Originally
an informal network of spouses tasked with providing emotional support for families in their
unit, the Marine Corp. officially sanctioned the organization in 1991.
During a recent training week for top Marine brass and their spouses at Quantico, Va.
Marine public information officers strongly encouraged the news dissemination function of the
Key Volunteer Network and its volunteers.
“It‟s important in a number of ways,” says Col. Dave Lapan, deputy director of public
affairs for the Marine Corp. “Our training makes sure that information is being passed down
“When families hear that someone in theater has experienced a casualty... we don‟t want
that info being passed out by family members before it comes from an official source.”
When a death or serious injury occurs overseas, the organization‟s volunteers pass
information directly from commanders in the field to family members of the fallen Marine‟s unit
– not the family directly affected by the incident. That responsibility falls to the Casualty
Assistance Officer or CACO who notifies families personally when their family member has
When such incidents take place, commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan can opt to shut
down Internet and phone access for soldiers and Marines until the families receive notification
stateside. The blackouts can create panic among civilians, anxious to learn of their family
Blackouts prevent service members from tipping of the media or the family before the
military‟s official notification process can take place. Volunteers in internal support roles step in
on behalf of the military.
Throughout her husband‟s numerous tours overseas, Sara Aumuller stepped in as head of
several internal support organizations. The Marine‟s recent shift in attitude toward bolstering the
program brings satisfaction to the officer‟s wife.
“It‟s good that they were told to be far more proactive,” she says.
Like others military spouses, Aumuller relied on emails for news directly from her
husband, a colonel and former commanding officer at Camp Pendleton, during his overseas
The Army also operates a similar volunteer network tasked with disseminating news
called the Family Readiness Group.
Mary Jo Gibson oversaw a homegrown effort undertaken by her husband, Lt. Col. Chris
Gibson, during his tour in Iraq. Gibson, who commanded the 2nd Battalion 325th Airborne
Infantry Regiment, created the “White Falcon,” a monthly newsletter geared toward families
Each month Gibson emailed a PDF file of the newsletter to his wife who distributed the
news, along with a team of other military spouses, to families.
Gibson began each newsletter with a personal note directed to the families and friends of
“We are also very busy helping the citizens of Tal A‟far rebuild their neighborhoods,”
writes Gibson in a Sept. 30, 2005 edition, one of the last issues produced before he returned to
the U.S. “Every day we see progress cleaning up rubble and trash and restoring electricity and
water. Your paratroopers are actively engaged helping with all of this while passing out large
amounts of humanitarian aid such as water, food and medical supplies.”
The publication includes photographs of soldiers in the unit and smiling Iraqi civilians. It
also features troops holding children or distributing humanitarian aide.
“We wanted to keep them in the loop always,” says Gibson.
Like service members and their families, the U.S. military also takes advantage of new
media technology by producing and disseminating unmediated wartime narratives.
Through publications like the “Eagle and Crescent” Marine combat correspondents
feature stories of soldier bravery and generosity - exactly the type of accounts families say the
mainstream media ignores. Several online websites, including iimefpublic.usmc.mil/forward,
provide military-produced news.
While the military community may be quick to criticize the mainstream media, one
source remains required reading among Marines. The “Early Bird,” an online clipping service
that compiles the day‟s tops news from mainstream news sources like The New York Times and
Washington Post, ranks high on many Marine‟s morning checklist.
Other military sources include mlitaroncesource.com, a clearinghouse for services like
health care and day care run by Ceridian Corp and militaryhomefront.dod.mil, a similar site
operated by the Department of Defense.
Photo sharing also provides the military with additional storytelling tools. The U.S. Army
created a Flickr account online at flickr.com/people/soldiersmediacenter/ featuring shots of
soldiers in a variety of settings. The site bills itself as The Army‟s Soldiers Media Center (SMC),
“the epicenter for collecting, fusing and distributing the products that tell the Army‟s story.
Its stated goal: “By maximizing the distribution of the Army‟s public communications,
messages and products we will better meet our obligations to inform the American public and
our Soldiers about the Army.”
The Multi-services Forces Iraq, the moniker used by the entire U.S. military to brand its
operations in Iraq, created a YouTube site to serve as a hub for military videos.
MySpace presents an entirely different venue for soldiers to communicate news. While
some MySpace pages allow soldiers to connect with friends, others serve as memorials to
soldiers and Marines who‟ve died in the war.
Other lesser known ventures include MotoMail, a service that allows family members to
email messages to soldiers and Marines through a middleman. Family members email MotoMail
employees who operate from sites near bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. MotoMail employees then
print out the email and hand deliver the message to troops.
Since the beginning of the war, discussion forums have provided venues for news sharing
and emotional support.
Four years ago, Tracey Della Vecchia started Marineparents.com, a nonprofit website
hosting message boards and live chat rooms for Marines and their families.
The homegrown effort quickly expanded and today garners upwards of 1,000 posts from
family members on its message board each day. Recently the nonprofit hosted a three-day
seminar in St. Louis, Mo. bringing hundred of Marine parents together.
“I couldn‟t find one place to find all the news I wanted to learn about the Marine Corps,
about the recent deployment to Kuwait and Iraq, about the other Marine Moms and Marine Dads
that had the same emotions I did,” writes Della Vecchia on her website.
In the earlier stages of the war, embedded reporters provided a direct news link for family
members. Despite their shots at the media, several family members acknowledge a close
connection between themselves and those few reporters.
“After the conflict when the embedded reporters left Iraq, Marine families lost the line of
communication about the Marines,” wrote Della Vecchia. “Contributions from parents, wives,
and family members in the form of letters to home and phone calls home is all we had to stay
informed. Developing and researching content for the web site helped me stay focused during the
war, and nurtured my longing to do something, no matter how small, to support our Marines.”
During her husband‟s tour in Iraq, Rachelle Jones religiously followed the work of
journalist Amy Schlesing, a reporter with the Arkansas Democrat Gazette imbedded with the
39th Infantry Division.
“My DH‟s unit was lucky enough to have a journalist embedded with them and I was
treated to her stories every couple of days,” wrote Jones on April 25. “I was also lucky that this
journalist told the real stories coming out of Iraq.”
Despite her respect for Schlesing‟s reporting, like all other journalists, she was an
When Jones first started surfing for news online in 2005 during her husband 18-month
tour in Iraq, she wasn‟t merely searching for facts. She needed to connect with someone who
understood what it felt like when your soul mate, high school sweetheart and children‟s father
could die at any moment.
“I would fear returning home after the park, and was always worried pulling into our
block about seeing the military sedan parked anywhere on the street,” wrote Jones. “I would fear
coming home to a message on the answering machine. You know, the one that would say...
„Baby, it‟s me, I had time to call and the lines were short. I miss you and love you, squeeze the
babies.‟ So to the milbloggers, thank you for reminding me I was not alone, and that it takes
strong men and women to do our fighting for us.”