AS THE WAR enters a phase where most of the fighting is far removed from the networks' cameras, it gets harder and harder to find reliable news on the conflict's many fronts.
Unless you read the milblogs, that is. "Milblogs" is short for "military blogs"--online journals run by active duty military or reservists who have returned to civilian life for the time being. These first person accounts of the world and the nation through the eyes of front-line troops are changing the nature not just of the blogosphere but of American reporting.
Take the recent postings of Sgt. Hook as one example of journalism at its finest. Hook is the First Sergeant of a 130 soldier heavy lift helicopter company that is deploying to Afghanistan. He'll be offline for a while, but when he signs back on, I'll take his word for conditions on the ground in the battle against al Qaeda in central Asia.
There are a number of great milblogs, though the ones I try to read daily are Smash, who has fought in the war and is now returned to civilian life; MudvilleGazette, currently stationed in Europe (and who has the best list of milblogs I can find); Blackfive, a paratrooper with great writing skills; and Chief Wiggles, whose toy drive for the children of Iraq got some much deserved attention last year and who is now heading back to Iraq for some additional duty. There are many, many more, including folks like Joe Carter at EvangelicalOutpost, whose blog tends more towards the cultural, religious, and political than the military but who is still very much a Marine.
Some of the milblogs that generate traffic are run by very anonymous writers about whom some degree of skepticism should attach. Of the six I cite in this piece, five are quite certainly real people with the military backgrounds they detail and make little effort to hide their identities. Hook is the blog for which I have no confirmation of authenticity, and the "April 1, 2004" date on his last posting generated some unease among Hook readers, though it appears as though that's just the date on which he hopes to be operational again. Still, readers will have to use some care in sorting though the milblogs to make sure they aren't absorbing some fantasy of an armchair general.
The ability of the civilian world to access the news and views of the military directly is a sea-change in media. At the conclusion of his wonderful 1998 book, Making the Corps, Washington Post writer Thomas Ricks worried aloud about the increasing distance between the civilian and military worlds, and the divergence in the values of both. Part of that problem was that the world of the warrior was increasingly remote from ordinary Americans who don't have much contact with the military.
MILBLOGS ARE CHANGING THAT CONDITION, and having other far-reaching effects as well. An obvious one: Whose thoughts on the conditions in Baghdad would you trust more: Wiggles or lefty pest Atrios? Or on the momentum of the fight in Afghanistan: the future dispatches of Hook or the ruminations of Joshua Micah Marshall?
More broadly, these milblogs comment on all subjects of interest in American culture. You'll reject a lot of what they have to say, but slowly. Because unlike civilian bloggers (including yours truly) the men and women who have been fighting the war deserve a hearing from the fair-minded.
THE SKYROCKETING POPULARITY of the milblogs guarantees that it won't be long before two things happen.
First, major media will figure out that they want to link to one or more of these folks as a way of adding authenticity to their sites. I hope Pentagon regulations allow these folks to get paid when the professional link people arrive. After all, any site that wants traffic must know that these sites are climbing quickly up the daily traffic rankings.
Second, some mid-level Pentagon type will decide that troops and officers speaking their mind is a threat to the tradition of a military detached from politics. Here's hoping Secretary Rumsfeld squashes that with a pre-emptive snow-flake that notes this development is critical to the public's understanding of the sacrifices and contribution of America's military.
Case in point: Hook's penultimate post: It concerns his 9-year-old son who won't be seeing his dad for a few months while dad is off taking the fight to the terrorists. That post alone does more to convey the crucial message to the civilian world eager to debate the level of prescription drug benefits.
Bookmark a few of the milblogs as a guarantee against complacency. And as an assurance of great commentary and good humor as well.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.