For much of the twentieth century, Americans co-existed with the country’s armed forces in a way we don’t anymore. In the 1940s and ’50s, millions of Americans served in the fight against imperial Japan and Hitler’s Germany, as well as Kim Il Sung’s North Korea and its Chinese allies; in the sixties, millions of boomers wore the uniform in the jungles of Vietnam or on large bases in Europe, Asia, and in the States. Service, or the possibility of service, was a way of life.
After the draft was abolished in the 1970s, the military increasingly became an institution apart from society at large, a process that was hastened by the “peace dividend” that followed the end of the cold war, which allowed for a significant downsizing of the armed forces. While those who served continued to pass along the tradition to subsequent generations, those who didn’t hardly gave the armed services a second thought. It was an arrangement that seemed to work well for both groups as long as peace prevailed.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, among the seven-hundred-odd journalists who embedded with combat units were few who were familiar with the military in any intimate way. To many critics, especially those with military experience, this revealed itself in the press’s coverage of the war, which they felt often missed the mark when it came to explaining the hows and the whys of the fight, as well as the mundane realities of military life and culture. It wasn’t long before a rash of blogs—dubbed “milblogs” and written by soldiers in the field and civilians back home, many of whom were veterans—emerged to describe life in a military at war and complain about the press’s failings, real or imagined. Anyone familiar with the way milbloggers set upon and picked apart a series of controversial dispatches by Private Scott Beauchamp, an active-duty soldier serving in Iraq, published last summer in The New Republic, has a good sense of the kind of in-the-weeds analysis this community is capable of.
As with any other niche in the blogosphere, some heavy hitters soon began to separate themselves from the milblog pack. Sites like Blackfive, The Mudville Gazette, MichaelYon.com, and BillRoggio.com became favorites for war geeks and anyone else looking for insiderish news and critiques from a decidedly pro-military perspective. Each fills a certain role—Blackfive is the irreverent, often partisan, group blog; Yon is the roving, embedded reporter; and Mudville is more an aggregation of other milblogs. Bill Roggio, though, a former Army signalman and infantryman who runs The Long War Journal (which replaced BillRoggio.com) and writes most of its posts, has his sights on something grander. In September 2007, Roggio, along with his business partner, Paul Hanusz, created a nonprofit company—Public Multimedia Inc. (PMI). Their goal is to develop a first-of-its-kind media entity made up of independent reporters, at home and abroad, dedicated solely to reporting on terrorism, so-called small wars, and counterterrorism efforts around the world, to do it in the kind of fine-grained detail that the mainstream press never will, and, as much as possible, without an overt partisan bent. If they succeed, PMI could join a small but promising group of Web-based reporting and analysis operations that focus on a single beat—Talking Points Memo and The Politico on U.S. politics, ProPublica on investigations, and now, maybe, The Long War Journal on conflict reporting.
There is certainly plenty for Roggio’s operation to cover. Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, small, armed groups have succeeded in recent years in disrupting civilian life and giving governments fits in places as diverse as Algeria, Nigeria, Thailand, Peru, and the Philippines. The temptation, particularly in the U.S., has been to lump any such group with Islamist leanings in with Al Qaeda, but many are fueled by country-specific mixes of economic issues, tribal histories, and local politics. There are many reasons why the mainstream press has paid little attention to these groups, the primary one being that most don’t pose an immediate—or at least immediately obvious—threat to core U.S. interests: the government isn’t talking publicly about them, so neither is the press. But digital technology makes it possible for anyone, including terrorist groups, to speak to a global audience. As-Sahab, Al Qaeda’s media wing, for instance, releases videos all over the Web, and sites such as the Kavkaz Center, based in Chechnya, report on and encourage global jihad. With a little money and know-how, a disenfranchised group can broadcast—and raise funds—worldwide. Coupled with the demonstrated ability of Al Qaeda to franchise, and the current dissatisfaction around the world with many of the U.S.’s post-9/11 policies, it becomes clear that these seemingly disparate groups are a critical part of a larger military- and foreign-policy tableau confronting the U.S. in the twenty-first century.