New Media and Modern War

by Joshua Foust on 3/1/2009 · 10 comments

The Small Wars Journal sent out a thought-piece (I just can’t stomach calling it an “RFI”) to a bunch of important people to seek their thoughts on “new media”—that is, teh interwebz and related technologies—and how they’ve changed the nature of both warfare and how we fight it. This is a topic I’ve obsessed over at this blog for several years now, to much complaint from the old Uzbek crowd, and I think it might be neat to offer my thoughts on the matter as well.

Particularly over the last year or so, as I transitioned into a new job I got almost entirely due to blogging, the power of this medium I think has been misunderestimated. Things clarified for me a bit last summer, as I explored the problems and challenges faced by “Citizen Propagandists during the Russo-Georgian War for the Columbia Journalism Review: in real-time, as the fighting continued, policy and public opinion was being shaped by what bloggers had to say. All the problems evident in other organizations were evident, like group think, and outright shaping operations by foreign governments through blogger-journalists seemed like new phenomena few are used to seeing. In that case, the blogger advantage prevailed: Georgia had more bloggers, and more importantly more English-language bloggers, on its side, and successfully tipped the balance of opinion toward it being a victim of Russian aggression.

But there are other examples of how new media has fundamentally altered warfare. Last summer, when 9 U.S. soldiers died during a large coordinated assault on a Vehicle Patrol Base in southern Nuristan, I saw first hand how blogs were able to quickly correct many pieces of incorrect information being pushed through the media by military spokesmen: the town where the attack took place was not “Wanat,” but Want (though many insist on the technically incorrect spelling, I defer to Richard Strand’s judgment, as he’s the ethno-linguistic expert on Nuristan); it was not in Dara-i Pech district of Kunar but the District Center of Waygal District in Nuristan; and so on. Within days, I had found another blogger, David Tate, and noticed his use of interviews with residents of the nearby village; within months, I had acquired the full investigative report and discussed what lessons is might have offered the military (I’m really sorry I can’t link to all this, but my satellite ISP is incredibly slow, and Registan.net is very slow to load). Not to brag, but this was months before Tom Ricks replicated much of both mine and Tate’s work in his much-vaunted series on the event.

Looking much more globally, my involvement, since truncated for professional reasons, with Global Voices has highlighted another major way in which warfare has been fundamentally altered by new media. I’ve taken to running complex searches in Twitter to get heads up on what’s going on in un-covered areas of Afghanistan; my friend Ayesha provided unique coverage of the Gaza War by re-posting and translating her friends’ Twitter feeds and text messages; services like Ushahidi, originally designed to track events during the election riots in Kenya, have become generalized to provide a breadth and clarity of detail about ongoing battles and events that would paralyze any U.S. intelligence agency as they drowned in an ocean of data. And who can forget the TV news reporting on events in Mumbai by talking Twitter?

But what’s really been driven home to me by being here in Afghanistan these past four weeks is just how well new media can prepare you for a theater. If I hadn’t spent countless hours digging through soldier blogs, flickr streams, Panoramino tags, and even Intelink-U, I would have been caught blind by much of what I’ve seen here. Instead, I’m finding I know exactly where to go to get decent BBQ at Bagram; I’ve met people who are willing to show me around Kunar and Nuristan; I can intelligently discuss operations with the French when I’ve never been briefed on what they do or what their mission is. And so on. And I hadn’t even tried very hard. It’s just crap I do for fun.

I also know I am not alone. Registan.net is blocked by Websense thanks to the web gurus at CJTF-101; I can access it right now because I’m paying through the nose for a really terrible quality satellite connection. Small Wars Journal, however, is unblocked, and there are a few other mil-centric blogs that are not just readable but very popular among Brigade and Divison staffs (Abu Muqawama, sadly, is blocked, though maybe he won’t be after the move to CNAS). I can still talk to my other IC friends on Yammer, and get good tips about things to know and places to see. So in that sense, these new media and social networking type tools have proven themselves invaluable to how I prepared for and am carrying out my job and my trip through this amazing country. Frankly, I don’t know how I could have done so without them—they are that important, and that seamless, in how I learn things (I still chafe at just how much I cannot access from my office here).

More darkly, New Media has made the military’s job tougher. The Shindand bombing incident in Herat was a PR disaster, primarily because the military just did not know how to counter an enemy IO campaign executed with cellphones and YouTube. It did not help itself by concealing its own actions, then trying to shame skeptics into silence… but that, too, was exposed by these new sorts of media.

On a more meta-level, I’ve noticed that New Media has also hurt the discourse in a lot of ways. During the Russo-Georgian War, the vast majority of blogs quickly polarized into a very specific stance on what had happened: even the venerable Small Wars Journal, which normally is game for posting both sides of an issue, did not include pro-Russian sources in its daily media roundups. New Media has also helped coalesce COIN discourse very quickly into a small, tightly packed, homogenous group of thinkers. I don’t mean in terms of dissenters like COL Gentile, but in terms of actual critical analysis of foundational documents. No rigorous academic field has unassailable texts… except counterinsurgency (just try questioning the wisdom of Galula or Nagl or Kilcullen or Petraeus, and see what comes down on your head). At least on the Internet, where this discussion is taking place anyway, such a phenomenon is far worse than even “normal” academia, which is itself prone to entrenched orthodoxy. So in that sense, I think New Media has also slowed down the evolution of COIN thought because it helped calcify a priesthood so early on in its lifespan (a lot of people still don’t realize that the social sciences in general are new fields, and COIN is one of the newest of those). As one example: why do all these COIN theorists taking over the Obama Pentagon and filling up CNAS and clogging the COIN blogs think the only counterinsurgencies to study took place in British Malaya, Algeria, and Vietnam? I’m simplifying somewhat to make a point, but there are an enormous number of other insurgencies (most notably in South America but also Africa and South Asia) that are very conspicuously absent from such literature because the foundational texts focus on Algeria, Vietnam, and British Malaya.

That paragraph risks becoming a rant, so it will remain curtailed and somewhat incomplete. The point is, new media has both expanded and calcified the ways in which we can view and analyze war. But I’m certain I’m missing a lot here. So let’s put this new fangled internets to use! What do you think?


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 10 comments }

TCHe March 1, 2009 at 5:20 pm

You are so preaching to the choir. Obviously I’m a big fan of all this internetz stuff, Think Tank 2.0, and so on. (I’ve been even playing with the thought of starting a new blog for a while now, I think it’s time to do so). I downloaded the piece from SWJ but haven’t looked at it in detail so far.

I learned a lot of details about AFG, for example, by reading various blogs, including Registan. The problem’s rather that there’s too much information (one reason why I’ce been slow to put Twitter to much use so far).
Of course, one has to try to stay out of the echo chambers as good as possible and deliberately include the stuff one disagrees with (at times that’s harder than one thinks).

But I seriously wouldn’t want to miss it anymore. Done right you’ll so much more than by reading any number of newspapers.

OK, not really deep thoughts here but I’m tired 😉

Dan March 1, 2009 at 8:20 pm

I am equally frustrated by how the slow pace of academic writing helps lead it to irrelevance most of the time.

stephen / globalpundit.org March 2, 2009 at 1:30 am

thanks. enjoyed this piece very much. after years of dwelling in the frustrating cesspool of corporate mainstream newsmedia – and knowing full well the job we were doing was garbage (not to mention the constant censuring and censoring I experienced when bring unreported and important stories to the table), it took a layoff – in the decimated North American media market – to make me realize so much is still a work in progress.

you bring up some excellent points and topics to explore. I am glad I found your site.

here’s hoping i land on my feet somehow – without having to resort to staying in North America and taking a PR job or something equally as execrable.

UNRR March 3, 2009 at 7:29 am

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 3/3/2009, at The Unreligious Right

zenpundit March 3, 2009 at 2:16 pm

“why do all these COIN theorists taking over the Obama Pentagon and filling up CNAS and clogging the COIN blogs think the only counterinsurgencies to study took place in British Malaya, Algeria, and Vietnam?”

Great question. In my view the reasons for that are:

1. Largesse of primary sources, secondary literature in English and living eyewitnesses who can communicate in the same. Secondarily in French, a commonly taught FL in American public education.

2. Those examples are of foreign armies executing COIN abroad or assisting locals to do so. Yes, the French considered Algeria to be la patrie but a sizable number of Algerians said “Non”.

3. Some old school counterinsurgency tactics executed by Latin American colonels or French or Belgian commandants in the 20’s and 30’s or German junkers in Africa prior to WWI are not going to fly, morally speaking, in modern 21st century democracies.

Joshua Foust March 3, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Mark, that’s a great list. But you are basically accusing the COIN community of being lazy. We don’t have to go back to the 20’s or 30’s. Why not study the ongoing saga in Columbia or Mexico? The many Marxist insurgencies in Central America? I seem to recall (without knowing much about them) that we created the School of the Americas specifically to help other countries DO counterinsurgency.

Then there is Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and even — yes — Pakistan. To say nothing of China’s continuing inability to successfully conquer Tibet.

That last one is stretching the COIN thing a lot, but the point is there is a huge variety of insurgencies, and their relative success and failures, to study. But we still default back to Galula talking about Algeria.

zenpundit March 3, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Hi Josh,

Yes, and Bernard Fall too. Classic texts. Not laziness so much as looking for one’s car keys under the streetlamp because the light is better there. 🙂

However, I think there is an important difference between COIN in one’s own country and attempting it in somebody else’s. The former is literally a survival strategy because you have no place else to go and the second is an exit strategy.

That said, your point that there are things to learn about the successes and mistakes made in COIN in other places is valid. The history experiences have not been exhaustively mined and disseminated yet. How many western COIN experts study the Basmachi Revolt? Not many, unless they were previously Soviet or Turkic specialists.

The School of the Americas taught COIN after the fashion of those times but the overriding purpose of that institution, I would argue, was the cultivation of career-long mil to mil ties between Latin American officer corps and the U.S. Army.

Che March 4, 2009 at 5:32 pm

what, now mention of me? Che G?

Che March 4, 2009 at 5:32 pm

what, no mention of me? Che G?

JensonSDaniel May 29, 2009 at 3:19 pm

I thought El Salvador was held up as the example for COIN success and lessons learned.

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