WASHINGTON, DISTRICT of COLUMBIA — Although it’s right to call Small Wars Journal a niche publication, doing so misrepresents the site’s true influence. “Small wars,” as the site uses it, is a kind of catch-all term for counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and other pervasive features of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although SWJ may have the narrow readership of a trade or academic journal, its online presence has allowed it to be a major voice on topics paramount to public interest.
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To be clear, the site is not strictly or even primarily journalistic. But as an information hub and blogging platform for some of the most influential people in defense and national security, the site at the very least counts as the raw materials of journalism. It features vetted, precise information, and the opinions of experts in a position to shape current and future events. When CJR interviewed national security reporter Spencer Ackerman in August of 2009, he said of the site, “I don’t think you can call yourself a national security reporter unless you’re obsessively refreshing Small Wars Journal. What I love about Small Wars Journal is that I basically get what sources of mine are thinking in real time…”
Founded in 2004 by Dave Dilegge and Bill Nagle, sometime defense consultants with backgrounds in the Marine Corps, SWJ consists of three interconnected platforms: the Journal itself, which contains longer, more scholarly works available as PDFs; the often-lengthy SWJ Blog, which hosts an impressive who’s who of defense commentators; and Small Wars Council, a discussion forum. For an opinion forum stocked with military brass, SWJ steers surprisingly wide of both talking points and advocacy. The site is home to an insular bunch, no doubt, but its chief gift to the broader public (at least those familiar with the jargon being thrown around) is that it is willing to have its family squabbles in the open air.
SWJ is transparent about its many complicated relationships with the military and defense industry and tries its best to transcend them. (It’s helpful to read the site’s thoughtful, quirkily digressive about page to get the beginnings of their stance on this issue, and to get a sense of the site’s mission and personality.) Always ready with a combat metaphor, Dilegge says “We try to stay neutral because once the perceptions out there that we have one opinion or another, its hard to maintain the neutral piece of land that we like to occupy.” The site’s discussion forum is heavily moderated, and SWJ’s devotion to fairness has no doubt paved the way for its many incursions into the mainstream. Robert Haddick, the site’s managing editor, writes a weekly column for Foreign Policy magazine, and, in 2009, SWJ was picked by Rolling Stone, of all places, for the magazine’s hot list, of all things. Lady Gaga shot down the warfare digest’s chances at making the cover, but they got a nice write-up nonetheless, which quoted Dilegge as saying, “We must be doing something right because we get people calling us Attila the Hun warmongers one day and counterinsurgency-loving tree-huggers the next.”
Amazingly, SWJ has done all of this on nearly 100 percent volunteer time. Dilegge works forty to fifty hours a week as the site’s editor-in-chief while holding down a day job at a defense consulting company. Though he and publisher Bill Nagle have managed to give themselves “coffee money” occasionally, they’re both deep in the red over the life of the site. Editor Mike Few and managing editor Haddick work for free, and still others volunteer to help moderate the discussion forums. Lastly, of course, submissions are unpaid. “We had a five phase plan,’ Dilegge says. “We got kind of stuck between three and four or maybe even two and three, but I think we’re overcoming that hump. We’d like to do a redesign and be a lot more user friendly. We would like to go print. And really our big goal is that we’d like to do more to publicize our online presence. We’d like to have a phyisical presence. Right now we’re all working off of laptops in our homes. We have a whole list of things we’d like to improve on.”
Small Wars Journal Data
Name: Small Wars Journal
City: No physical office, principal staff in D.C. metro area