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Twittering the War

4:09 PM, Jul 20, 2009 • By AARON MACLEAN
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An AP story which ran Sunday covering the crash of an American jet in Afghanistan, apparently from mechanical causes, contained a significant detail about the way U.S. military spokesmen are doing business:

Col. Greg Julian, a United States military spokesman, said the pilot of a second fighter aircraft flying alongside the first jet saw no evidence of hostile fire. Colonel Julian said on his Twitter site that mechanical problems caused the crash. Afghan authorities described the remote area where the plane went down as peaceful.

"As the Colonel said on his Twitter site" is not something you hear frequently in the armed forces, not yet, anyway. But it constitutes a potentially very positive development: harnessing the power of commonly available and popular communications technologies to speed the delivery and increase the audience of the military's message. Of course, al Qaeda and the Taliban have been doing this for years. Their salvos in the information war -- which, in counterinsurgency, is the most important field of battle -- have consistently been made faster, have been focused more accurately on the target audiences, and have had better effects in establishing their interpretations of events over our own.

Perhaps the best example of this came last summer when a small Army base in Kunar Province was attacked by an estimated 200 Taliban. The real story, and the one which should have been established immediately in the press, was how forty-five American soldiers heroically defended themselves against 4:1 odds and came out standing on the same patch of ground, have sustained tragic but, under the circumstances, realistic losses (nine soldiers were killed). Instead, while the military took days getting the details out, the Taliban had video of the attack and its own account online within hours, and the narrative quickly established was "American base in Afghanistan overrun." The best the military could do in the following few days was argue those headlines back to "American base in Afghanistan almost overrun."

So if our spokesmen are getting the word out faster using available civilian technology, establishing in this instance that the loss of our aircraft was not due to enemy action before the Taliban can claim it as downed in combat--as they surely will--well, that is a very positive development indeed.