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.
For the past several years, Roggio, working largely as a one-man bureau, has been at the forefront of reporting on these groups and how they’re being confronted militarily. His process, as he explains it, is to scour English-language media that he has learned to trust in these countries, and vet, amplify, and contextualize what he finds there with his own sources in the U.S. intelligence community, Israel, Iraq, and elsewhere. To this he adds his own expertise. “Bill has what a lot of journalists reporting on the conflict lack: a background in military science and history,” says B. A. Patty, a reporter whom PMI helped send to the Philippines last year. “It’s not just that ‘x happened’—a bomb went off, a sniper rifle was found, etc. It’s what that means at a strategic or operational level; and in the local situation, to understand what it means tactically.”
It is in Iraq and Afghanistan, not surprisingly, that Roggio has done his most ambitious work. How many Americans—even those paying close attention to the wars—can tell you what Operation Anaconda is? Or Operation Arrowhead Ripper? Both were major offensive operations by the U.S. military against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, respectively, involving thousands of American troops and significant casualties. The mainstream press did cover these operations as they happened, but there was little follow-up and, more important, few attempts to situate each in a broader strategic and tactical context. Roggio, meanwhile, provided daily updates on Arrowhead Ripper last summer, including the kind of historical and tactical context that doesn’t typically appear in mainstream coverage:
Back in May, we noted that Diyala has become the main hub of al Qaeda’s operations. Al Qaeda in Iraq made Baqubah the capital of its rump Islamic State of Iraq last year. Since the inception of the Baghdad Security Plan in mid-February, the security situation, which was deteriorating after U.S. forces pulled back last fall, has markedly worsened. Al Qaeda has prepared fighting positions, supply bases, IED traps, bomb-rigged buildings, and training camps in the province An American intelligence official and a U.S. military officer informed us that al Qaeda is operating along the lines of Hezbollah’s military structure in Lebanon. Al Qaeda attacks in the region proved this, as a series of assaults along the Iranian border and elsewhere in the province bore the hallmark of a well-led, well-trained fighting unit.
It’s unrealistic, of course, to expect a general-interest news operation to go into that kind of detail about every military operation—and the better ones have military specialists who add such context on occasion. Roggio’s greatest service, then, may be the way he picks up where the mainstream press leaves off, giving readers a simultaneously more specific and holistic understanding of the battlefield.
Last September, Roggio wrote about Operation Lightning Hammer II in Iraq, in which the U.S. military flushed out pockets of Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq’s northern provinces. Putting the fight in context, he wrote:
Baqubah itself was cleared of al Qaeda during Operation Arrowhead Ripper, which was launched in June. The Baghdad Security Plan and Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike operations—which focused on al Qaeda and the Shia extremist cells in the Baghdad Belts—have pushed al Qaeda operations into regions in Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salahadin, and Diyala provinces. This rolling series of operations is designed to keep al Qaeda off balance, prevent the terrorists from reorganizing safe havens in new regions, and expanding the security perimeter beyond Baghdad.
It’s fair to ask whether the average American needs, let alone wants, this kind of detail about military strategy. Probably not—The Long War Journal averages about six thousand visits a day, according to its Site Meter numbers. But the war in Iraq is changing, as General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency effort matures in the countryside. Earlier this year, I spent a few weeks embedded with the Army’s Second Stryker Brigade Combat Team in the Agur Quf region northwest of Baghdad. In many ways, what the combat team is doing there is a microcosm of the larger fight for Iraq—classic counterinsurgency, a slow, methodical fight waged within a complex web of relationships and power centers. The American forces spend much of their time trying to build trust among the Sunni and Shia sheiks, the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi police, and the Sons of Iraq (groups of Iraqi civilians organized by local sheiks and “reformed” insurgent leaders to assist in keeping the peace), any of whom might be—and often are—working at cross-purposes.
Such low-level political maneuvering is not the stuff of a splashy, front-page feature, but it is the nature of the war America is now fighting, and it is going almost completely uncovered by the mainstream media. This is Roggio’s beat.
In 2004, Roggio started blogging about the war in Iraq, using his military knowledge to put things in context for family and friends. He spent hours in the evening and during his lunch breaks scouring open-source material buried in government and military Web sites, clattering away at the keyboard after his wife Jennie (a nurse) and three kids went to bed. It was during the second battle for Fallujah in November 2004, however, that he began to focus his effort. He had been posting detailed battle maps of Iraq’s Anbar province on his site, showing where Marine and Army units were meeting the stiffest resistance from insurgent groups who harassed them with roadside bombs and the occasional ambush.
In the spring of 2005, a new group of readers began logging on to Roggio’s site. The Marines in Anbar province were embroiled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, and looking for any tactical advantage they could find. Officers with the Regimental Combat Team 2 discovered Roggio’s site and began using it as an information source, calling his site the “Command Chronology of Western Iraq.” It seems that logging on to his site was faster and easier than going through their own intelligence channels, and Roggio managed to provide much of the same information that Marine analysts were reporting—without the red tape. The Marines eventually invited Roggio to come spend some time with them on the front line in Iraq. Recalling those early days, Roggio says, “I was just working from home, putting things in context, explaining it, and they invited me to come and embed.” After talking it over with his wife, he started raising money for his trip through his Web site, took an unpaid leave of absence from his job as a software engineer, and in November 2005 left for a one-month embed.
Since that original trip, Roggio’s life has changed dramatically. He has traveled to Iraq three more times and Afghanistan once, left his job, and writes about “small wars” full time, funded entirely by reader contributions. He also serves as an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank dedicated to “fighting the ideologies that drive terrorism,” among other things.
Roggio, who is thirty-eight, met thirty-seven-year-old Paul Hanusz in the spring of 2006, after Hanusz responded to one of his fundraising drives for an upcoming embed. The two live a couple of towns apart in the undifferentiated suburban sprawl of southern New Jersey, and Hanusz, who was working in IT at a bank at the time, was a devoted reader of milblogs, even though he had never served in the military. He told me that when he learned of what Roggio was doing, he decided that, rather than simply stew about what he considers the inadequate coverage of the wars by the mainstream press, he would be part of a solution. The two met for lunch, “and I knew it was something I wanted to continue with,” Hanusz says. “The question was where to go with it.”
In researching how to set up and fund a nonprofit media operation, Hanusz came across the work of Charles Lewis—the founder of the Center for Public Integrity—on nonprofit journalism, and saw a model he thought PMI could emulate. “CPI isn’t a monstrous organization,” Hanusz says, “but it’s a solid organization, and it’s got enough of a staff to put out good pieces, and substantial pieces.” Hanusz left his job in June 2007, and has been working full time on the business end of PMI. For now, PMI still relies on donations from readers, which Roggio and Hanusz liken to PBS membership drives, and they want to borrow further from the model of PBS and NPR, which includes corporate sponsorships and foundation grants, as well as content-distribution deals.
Neither Roggio nor Hanusz would give details about PMI’s present financial situation, but beyond the fact that both have managed to make a go of this full time, they have also hired seven staff members, on the tech and editorial sides, and helped send sixteen reporters so far to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines to cover the “Long War.”
For B.A. Patty, the reporter who went to the Philippines, PMI covered his plane ticket, two nights in a Manila hotel, combat life insurance—which can run over a hundred dollars a day—and furnished him with media credentials, something that is difficult for unaffiliated bloggers and other “citizen journalists” to get. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, another independent reporter who traveled to Iraq in May 2007 with PMI’s help, got insurance and credentials, and Roggio lent him body armor and a helmet. Beyond that, Gartenstein-Ross says Roggio drew on his considerable network of sources, contacts, and expertise to serve as a mentor, something he apparently does with all the bloggers he gets involved with. “He was always there to talk things through, to be a fact-checker, and give me his perspective,” Gartenstein-Ross told me.
As the U.S. press continues to scale back coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, Hanusz and Roggio see an opportunity to grow. They say that they have been contacted by a number of journalists, including some from established organizations, about assistance getting to Iraq or Afghanistan. “So there are folks that are interested, that have credentials, that don’t have any way to get in at the moment,” says Hanusz. “What we’d like to do, eventually, is offer a turnkey solution where we’ve got body armor and Toughbooks and communication equipment.”
The Long War Journal doesn’t have the field entirely to itself. The Internet has its share of sites and blogs writing about the issues confronting the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sites like the Small Wars Journal and the Counterterrorism Blog, for example, are group efforts that deal more in snap analysis. What sets LWJ apart, Roggio insists, is his focus on reporting. “Not a lot of people really do that,” he says. He has been ahead of the coverage curve on the occasional significant story—he predicted, for instance, the truce between the Pakistani government and the Taliban in North Waziristan nine months before it happened, and he identified Al Qaeda camps in North and South Waziristan long before the mainstream press started paying much attention to the fighting between the Pakistani government and the Taliban.
His story from December 2007 on the “ratlines” many American military officials say Iran was using to move supplies and weapons into Iraq is an interesting illustration of both the kind of journalistic work The Long War Journal can produce and its limited ability to influence the broader news agenda. As a work of investigative reporting, it had all the elements an editor at a mainstream publication would want: an important, undercovered story, a confident point of view, and sources the reporter trusts. It was accompanied by a multimedia presentation detailing the routes from Iran to Iraq, including purported “distribution hubs” inside Iraq. I can’t help but think that if the story had appeared under, say, Seymour Hersh’s byline, it would have received major play. It had U.S. military officials providing intelligence—albeit anonymously—that pointed to what they said was a major smuggling ring from Iran to Iraq. As it was, the piece got virtually zero pick-up in the mainstream press.
A story like this has real political implications, and Roggio says that he’s confident in his sources, and that he worked hard to check their assertions (the story was never challenged, either). “Military people obviously came to me,” he told me, “because they wanted the story to be out there. People who deal with this stuff on a day-in-and-day-out basis—captains, majors. That’s my job as a reporter.”
Roggio takes that job seriously. What you won’t find on The Long War Journal, at least not overtly, is politics. That’s by design. “I’m trying to create an environment where readers can get away from the political pointing that I think we see in a lot of news reporting,” Roggio says. “I just want to explain what is happening in the theater, without the politics.” Toward that end, he deletes any reader comments posted to The Long War Journal that he sees as venturing into politics, and, while he says he doesn’t consider ideology when selecting the bloggers he supports, he does carefully vet the information in the stories they produce, only publishing on the LWJ those few that meet his standards for accuracy and impartiality. “The entire war has been over-politicized by both sides,” he says. “Obviously, there is a political angle, and I’m not saying I ignore it, but we want to be able to tell you where the new Al Qaeda safe haven is, or why the Pakistani military is losing battles to the Taliban in the Northwest Frontier province—that’s what I’m interested in telling people.”
Having read The Long War Journal for several years, I can comfortably say that while Roggio is pro-soldier—he wants the U.S. military to succeed at its job in Iraq and Afghanistan—he does, in fact, work hard at playing it straight politically; he tries to describe and explain the tactics of the mission, whether they are working or not. Yet there have been times when Roggio has done himself a disservice by aligning with bloggers who are more about pushing a conservative agenda. In early 2005, for instance, he took part in the campaign that toppled CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan after Jordan suggested, during an off-the-record discussion in Davos, Switzerland, that the U.S. military had targeted journalists in war zones. Roggio created a site called “Easongate” with Matthew Currier Burden from Blackfive, whose goal was to pressure CNN to take some kind of disciplinary action against Jordan. Once the site was live, Roggio and Currier Burden were joined by a group of partisan conservatives: Brian Scott from The Blue State Conservatives blog, Josh Manchester of The Adventures of Chester, Mike Krempasky of RedState.org, and the writer LaShawn Barber. No matter Roggio’s original motivation, it effectively became a partisan operation.
Still, Andrew Cochran, the founder of the nonpartisan Counterterrorism Blog, says simply that “Bill wants to win. I don’t know if he’s necessarily pro-Bush. He wrote often last year about the failures in the Iraq strategy.”
In Agur Quf, Captain Glen Helberg and his troops in Charlie Company, part of the Second Stryker Brigade Combat Team, are preparing for an upcoming push by the Iraqi Army’s Muthana brigade into the region from its base near the Baghdad airport. By all measures, the brigade is one of the most professional in the fledgling Iraqi Army. A Sunni, General Nasser, heads the unit, but it’s comprised mostly of Shia foot soldiers, and the Sunnis in the area claim to be terrified of them. Earlier in the war, Muthana had operated in the area, and reportedly treated the local population brutally, so much so that in several meetings with American commanders, local Sunni sheiks said that they would move if the unit comes back. How successful Helberg and his soldiers are at not just keeping the peace between this Iraqi brigade and the locals, but building trust on both sides, is just one example of the kind of thing that will help determine whether there is hope for fixing what’s broken in Iraq—or at least for the U.S. to play a constructive role there.
Iraq and Afghanistan are being squeezed off the front page, so to speak, of our mainstream media. Bill Roggio and PMI—indeed, all milbloggers together—will never replace the mainstream press as a full-service source of conflict coverage. But they don’t have to. Because they will cover the story of Captain Helberg and Charlie Company when the mainstream won’t; and they will cover it in a way—with the kind of empathy born of shared experience—that the mainstream press can’t. As long as U.S. troops are engaged around the world—and to the extent that a struggle against terrorism remains central to our foreign policy in the years to come, this will be the case—there will be people who want reliable information about what they are up to, how they’re fighting, how they’re being led. Bill Roggio has found his niche.