30 March 2003
The Spanish-American War of the 1890s has been called the "newspaper war." In part that's because New York newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst told his artist who was sketching the conflict in Cuba, "You furnish the pictures; I'll furnish the war." Because of the work of Edward R. Murrow and other correspondents, World War II was a "radio war." And Vietnam was legendary as a "television war," in which battle scenes were beamed into people's homes. Now some say the war in Iraq has become the first "Internet War" because of a phenomenon called "blogging."
"Blog" is shorthand for "web log." It's a snappy, high-tech variation of the old written diary, like those made famous by 17th-century English bureaucrat Samuel Pepys and U.S. Civil War diarist Mary Chestnut. Blogging began in the 1980s in California's Silicon Valley, as computer wizards shared technical treatises over the early Internet. Today thousands, possibly millions, of people are revealing their thoughts on a host of subjects on the Web. Blogs by famous reporters, humorists and average citizens alike are posted online, often updated several times a day, and read enthusiastically by a worldwide community of other bloggers and Web surfers.
Some of the most popular web logs are emerging from the heart of the fighting in Iraq. Several journalists "embedded" with coalition forces are writing web logs as well as traditional news stories. But the blogs drawing the most attention are written by military men and women, and by Iraqis.
One of the most popular is authored by a U.S. naval reservist who has been posted in the Persian Gulf region since December. He uses the Internet name "LT Smash."
"We've had several missile alerts in the past 24 hours. Eight or nine, I think. Even so, I managed to get an almost reasonable amount of sleep last night. It's not hard to sleep when you're exhausted," he wrote. "I'm nowhere near the front lines, but I can hear the occasional 'boom.' No, 'hear' isn't the right word. I feel them. Wouldn't want to be on the other side right now."
Like most other bloggers, "LT Smash" mixes observations and opinions.
"It's quieter now. I can hear distant jet engines, high up in the night sky," he wrote. "But there are no navigation lights. Goodnight, Saddam."
Sometimes LT Smash reminds his readers of the monotony of war. He writes, "Man cannot live on MREs alone."
MREs are "meals ready to eat." They're pre-packaged military food.
"Fortunately, we don't have that problem. We're still getting one or two hot meals every day, and the care packages are pouring in. Today we were blessed with homemade cookies, fudge, and endless supplies of snack mix and other junk food. We even had Girl Scout cookies. Thanks, Patrick!" LT Smash wrote.
Another blogger who is drawing a lot of worldwide attention describes himself as a 29-year-old Iraqi, living in Baghdad's suburbs. He uses the online nickname "Salam Pax," which means "peace" in Arabic and Latin.
"Salam Pax" appears to be no fan of Saddam Hussein, but neither is he thrilled about living anywhere near the targets of Coalition bombs.
"The radio plays war songs from the '80s nonstop. We know them all by heart. Songs saying things like 'We will be with you till the day we die, Saddam.' No one gave that line too much thought, but somehow these days, it sounds sinister," Salam Pax wrote.
Media-watchers and bloggers around the world are buzzing about Salam Pax. Is he is a real person, an elaborate hoax, or a sneaky tool of Iraqi disinformation - the Internet equivalent of the Nazi propagandist "Axis Sally" and Japan's "Tokyo Rose" in World War II.
"Please stop sending e-mails asking if I were for real. If you don't believe it, then don't read it. I am not anybody's propaganda ploy. Well, except my own," Salam Pax wrote.
Such dialogue is bringing unprecedented media attention to web logging. So vigilant are bloggers that they caught The New York Times in two embarrassing errors. Once, the newspaper greatly overstated the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and later it exaggerated the extent of a long-term temperature rise in the Arctic. Bloggers' research prompted the Times to run corrections. And bloggers are also credited with much of the digging into U.S. Senator Trent Lott's controversial remarks about race relations that forced him to resign from his powerful post as Senate majority leader.
Glenn Reynolds, who teaches Internet law at the University of Tennessee, maintains two blogs - one that's free, and the other for which the Internet provider MSN pays him. He points out that bloggers have no editors. That speeds up the unfettered flow of information, but it can undermine bloggers' credibility.
"I've had editors who made my stuff better, and I've had editors who've made my stuff worse, so the absence of editors is a 'mixed bag.' Blogs are all about taking your own thoughts and bouncing them off other people, and bouncing other people's thoughts off you."
When asked if he thought the effort of putting one's thoughts in public view on the Internet is a little vain, Professor Reynolds responded by saying, "I suppose there's a sense where anybody who does things in the public sphere is doing so out of vanity. But I think if you compare your average web-logger to, say, Peter Jennings or Dan Rather, it's pretty clear where most of the vanity is to be found," Professor Reynolds said.
Peter Jennings and Dan Rather are well-known American television news anchors.
Professor Reynolds adds entries to his web logs several times a day.
"A couple of days ago I took some pictures and posted them of signs in front of area businesses, supporting the troops. And then today I walked in and noticed the headline in my local paper, which says, 'Paratroops open new front in North.' And I just remarked in a post that it seemed like the kind of post I associated with old newspapers I would have found in my grandparents' closet, dating back to World War II. Now it's part of our everyday life, and that's kind of an odd sensation sometimes," he said.
Mickey Kaus writes a political blog for Slate.com, an Internet magazine.
"Most people thought that blogs would exacerbate the tendency of political discourse to evolve into partisans yelling partisan slogans at each other. I don't think that's happened. Bloggers link to each other. They talk to each other in something that at least approximates a conversation. They bring people together and also bring the truth out fairly quickly. The next generation is supposed to be video blogging, where people put together little mini-documentaries," he said.
Mickey Kaus notes that people who would like to start a web log can go to one of many free sites like Blogger.com and learn how to reveal their innermost thoughts to the world on the Internet.