Friday, August 10, 2007

Speak no evil ... or anything else for that matter

This is really a subject for my colleague who is described as being obsessive if he writes about anything except the European Union and monomaniacal if he concentrates on the latter and the Constitutional Reform Treaty. This being a family-friendly blog I shall not repeat the abuse that is heaped on me. We must both be doing something right.

Through Tim Worstall’s blog I was led to an article in the Guardian that informed the world of the MoD’s latest wonderful decision: ban servicemen and women from taking part in any discussion of what might perhaps be going wrong in various theatres of war, specifically Iraq and Afghanistan.

I understand from the article and from my colleague, who will write about this in greater detail as soon as he finishes his day jobbing, that ARRSE, the army rumour service, that is exchange of information, is up in arms about this, if I may use such a hackneyed expression.

As the Guardian puts it:
Soldiers, sailors and airforce personnel will not be able to blog, take part in surveys, speak in public, post on bulletin boards, play in multi-player computer games or send text messages or photographs without the permission of a superior if the information they use concerns matters of defence.

They also cannot release video, still images or audio - material which has previously led to investigations into the abuse of Iraqis. Instead, the guidelines state that "all such communication must help to maintain and, where possible, enhance the reputation of defence".
The reason given is the row about the former Iranian hostages being paid for their stories (and seriously pathetic those stories were, too). Furthermore, the question of security is being raised.
I think we can be certain that neither of those reasons is the right one. The episode with HMS Cornwall, Iranian hostage-taking and Mr Bean’s iPod is not really something on which blanket bans can be based. Stories in newspapers would always have to be cleared as, indeed, they were. If memory serves it was the MoD’s press office and senior officers in the Royal Navy who thought concentrating on the human side of the whole mess would detract attention from the fact that it was a mess.

Nor is security a problem. It is easy enough to make sure that no information about forthcoming engagements be released. Nothing of that kind has been alleged at any time. The only problem was with the BBC who at one point asked for photos or films of troop movements in Iraq in their “Were you there?” section. This has now been removed so I cannot link.

It is, of course, criticism of the higher command or MoD decisions that is being banned and my colleague will have plenty to say about that.

I shall make a few very general points. Firstly, this has not always been true about the British military. Books that criticized severely the conduct of the Boer War, for instance, were published by serving officers at the time. Nowadays, they would have had to go through the whole military and PR hierarchy to ensure that nothing but the most anodyne stuff was produced.

Secondly, this plays into the hands of the enemy, who does put out a great deal of information on the internet, including pictures and videos of their attacks. Given the general ignorance in this country of what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and the media’s campaign of disinformation, it is not surprising that all one hears from supposedly well-informed people is that it is all a mess, a failure, the surge is not working etc etc.

Well, I have news for this people. The surge is working. It is very successful and slowly, very slowly, control is being established in Iraq. How do I know this? Ah well, you see there is this thing called the blogosphere, which has been highly successful in the United States in undermining the stranglehold of the drive-by media on information. And among the blogosphere there are the milbloggers, the soldiers and officers who blog from the theatre of war, giving accounts of what had happened and what they had gone through.

Whenever I have mentioned milbloggers to former or present military people in Britain, they have thrown their hands up in horror. Allowing soldiers to voice opinions, to communicate? But that might undermine security. There is no understanding of the fact that we are fighting a war on two fronts – military and propaganda. If we do not win the propaganda war we shall lose the military one as well.

When a little while ago the Pentagon, which is no better than our own MoD, tried to shut down the milbloggers there was uproar on the American blogosphere, which spread to the MSM. The Pentagon backed down almost immediately. We shall see whether our own servicemen and women and their supporters will display the same gutsy attitude. In a way this is a test of the British blogosphere as well.


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