PETER O. ZIERLEIN
Matthew Reece, a 24-year-old Army specialist, was killed when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle in Iraq in December. Within days, one of Reece’s fellow soldiers blogged about the attack, recounting what he saw on the scene:
The words struck deep in to us as we were told “They’ve been hit by an IED! They have casualties!”; We were in such a mode that got things happening FAST, despite the chaos, confusion and worries…. From the sight of the vehicle and the way things looked inside, I can only imagine the chaos that had fallen upon the guys in that convoy…. We learned not too long after we had the vehicle back that SPC Reece had been killed. There was utter disbelief…. It seemed things had been going well lately, and with the end of our deployment nearing, a lot of us had felt that we would ride the rest of the deployment out without incident. But just like that everything changed…
Uploaded live from the front lines, the blog Eighty Deuce on the Loose in Iraq is written by Edward Watson, a 26-year-old sergeant in the 82nd Airborne. The popular site drew 72,000 views in its first year. The post about Reece, a heartfelt mix of reporting, mourning and warrior pride, soon swelled with reaction from friends back home. One person posted a comment about Reece’s funeral, “held in the school gym where he had played basketball so many times,” and relayed a few remarks made by Reece’s widow, while noting that she was pregnant with their third child. The comment signed off, “May the rest of you all return home safe. Our prayers are with you all.”
Enlisted soldiers’ blogs provide an organic support network for military communities, coveted news from the battlefield, unfiltered assessments of the bleak prospects in Iraq and, sometimes, amplification of the Pentagon’s official message. Watson emphasized, for example, that Reece was “trying to bring peace and freedom to a nation that has not seen such a thing,” while his killers were part of “a faceless, cowardly enemy who will do anything to prevent such a bright future for their country.” The language could have been drafted in Arlington. Yet the crackdown on soldiers’ web activities is coming from the Pentagon.
The Defense Department has drastically restricted blogging and prevented many enlisted soldiers from visiting social networking sites. Last year, a policy banned thirteen popular websites, including YouTube, MySpace and BlackPlanet, from military computers. The restrictions would pre-empt bloggers like Watson, who started writing through a personal profile on MySpace. And this year the Air Force banned access to a military social networking site, TogetherWeServed.com. Pentagon officials say these measures are designed not only to save bandwidth but to save lives.
By enabling soldiers to share “information with friends and family members,” an Army memo states, social networking poses a “significant operational security challenge.” Operations Security (OPSEC) is the military’s program to prevent soldiers from disclosing benign actions that might still provide useful intelligence to adversaries. The idea is that innocent bits of information, such as how many twilight pizzas are delivered to the Pentagon, could reveal classified material, like the imminence of a new operation.