To the point: the U.S. military got on Twitter yesterday, from Afghanistan.
“Afghan & coalition forces killed four militants & detained two suspects in a Wardak Province operation targeting an IED-network commander,” said a military’s tweet Monday, coming in just under the 140-character limit for such messages.
A few paragraphs later, the AP story notes the “limitations” of Twitter after 4 U.S. soldiers were killed in two roadside bombings. The U.S. would need to get NATO approval to release the news on its Twitter page.
The Pentagon, the story says, now spends more than $550 million a year on Public Affairs, not including personnel costs. I haven’t done the math, but I’m sure that number is more than the combined Afghanistan and Iraq news budgets for every media outlet covering the wars this year. I’d even wager that if you totalled up the money spent on the last eight years of news coverage of the two wars, the annual Pentagon budget would probably be higher. (Maybe I’m wrong on this–it would be an interesting number to figure out, how much money the media has spent on covering the wars versus how much money the Pentagon has spent shaping the message.)
What I’m getting at are the larger issues that the AP story raises further down.
Navy reservist Lt.j.g. Tommy Groves, 33, of Jacksonville, Fla., is a former CNN producer who helps update Twitter.
“When you’re able to connect with the people directly, out of the mainstream, it can be powerful,” Groves said. Asked if this was a way of bypassing mainstream media, he said: “I don’t think we’re bypassing anything. This is just another avenue to reach another audience.”
U.S. officials here have long fretted that the military is losing the information war to the Taliban, who they say routinely inflate their own successes, and American failures, on Web sites with chat rooms frequented by Taliban sympathizers.
Much of the new plan was hatched by Navy Lt. Adam Clampitt, a 34-year-old reservist from Washington, D.C., who notes that 74 percent of Americans ages 18 to 35 use Facebook.
Is the battle for Afghan hearts and minds really taking place on Twitter and Facebook? Is this just typical U.S. military cluelessness, or a step in the right direction? There’s a lot to untangle and think about in the above passage, but what’s interesting is how Public Affairs, despite the drum beat over the years to focus on the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan, is still primarily aimed at a domestic U.S. audience. Military officials talk about winning the information war as way to get the hearts and minds of the world, the Iraqis, the Afghans, but then seem to spend most of their time trying to win the IO campaign in Kansas and New York and Alabama.
The story notes that U.S. military officials are worried about Taliban sympathizers infiltrating Web sites and chat rooms. But that’s not who the U.S. military really views as the enemy here. The biggest culprit in “inflating” Taliban successes and “inflating” American failures is the mainstream media, in the view of many military folks. So the subtle prejudice against the MSM that Tommy Grove expresses–“connect to people out of the mainstream”–gives us more of a clue of what the Pentagon is actually up to. Trying to maintain support for the wars among Americans. Perhaps this is obvious, but the military likes to whine that they’re not getting a fair shake by the MSM, and it’s certainly not for lack of resources ($55o million…).
All of this goes back to Vietnam, to paraphrase General William Westmoreland, who believed that the war was lost on the editorial page of the New York Times. (Karmically balanced thirty years later when the Iraq War was started on the front page of the New York Times.) So now we have another tax payer funded program to convince us that we should keep our troops in the Middle East and Central Asia, one Tweet at a time…