The Kraken wakes

Self promo: My article on Internet war coverage

Newsday, the paper where I used to write a weekly technology column, called me last week and asked me to write an op-ed analysis of how the Internet is affecting our experience of war.

They printed it today, and a copy is online here at their site. Since they take articles off their site after a week, I’ve permanently archived the complete piece here:

Internet Is Democratizing the War
By Clive Thompson

Lately, I’ve been getting messages from a reserve officer deployed in Iraq. He has a remarkably dry wit, and jokes about the terrible food of the army (“Man cannot live on MREs alone. Well, actually he can, but it gets tedious.”) He even finds black humor in the dangers of combat: “Saddam fired a couple of those Scuds that he doesn’t have at me this afternoon,” he grimly noted.

Normally, if a civilian wanted close access to a soldier, you’d have to wait weeks or months for a personal letter. But this anonymous reservist — who calls himself “Lt. Smash” — isn’t sending letters home to his folks.

He’s writing about his experiences on his “blog” — a web site he updates almost every day (available at Over 6,000 people read it daily, giving them a suddenly intimate glimpse into news they see on television. Heard about those infamous Iraqi sandstorms? Lt. Smash is living with them. “Fortunately, the sand is very fine, and therefore does not sting,” he notes. “Unfortunately, the sand is very fine, and is probably doing nasty things to our lungs.”

Such is the new face of combat. The last Gulf conflict was known as the “video game war” — where the only images we saw were impersonal blips on TV. But this time around, the Internet is radically changing our experience of the battle. Intimate, first-person accounts are showing us the personal side of conflict.

Is it going to affect how we think of war?

Undoubtedly. We try to be rational about the case for war, but personal contact is an incredibly important part of how we make up our minds. Do you know a soldier? Do you work alongside an immigrant from an Arab country? These are catalytic experiences. As military enrolment has declined — and draft has vanished — everyday Americans have had fewer and fewer friends and neighbors going to war. The Internet changes this. Whether you’re for war or against it, your decisions are far more informed.

These days, there’s a blog in every foxhole — blogs written by soldiers, written by the wives of soldiers, and even one written by an Iraqi man living in Baghdad, “Salam Pax” ( In posting after posting, Salam Pax makes it clear that loathes life under Saddam Hussein — yet resents the West for having propped up the dictator as often as they’ve attacked him. (“How could ‘support democracy in Iraq’ become to mean ‘bomb the hell out of Iraq’?” he wonders, as he describes his favorite buildings vanishing in puffs of smoke).

Even news organizations like the BBC have begun to run blogs — where correspondents file bite-sized, first-person news all day long. And one journalist I know — Chris Allbritton, of — has used the Net to do a complete end-run around traditional media: He collected over $10,000 in donations from supporters to pay for a independent war-reporting trip.

Mind you, this unfiltered access clearly hasn’t had an impact as huge as, say, television in Vietnam. Back then, TV images decisively turned Americans against the war.

The Net’s effect is more subtle. In his 1964 book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan claimed communications tools were “tactile” — giving us a physical sense of each other. The Net doesn’t affect us like a searing image on the television, galvanizing a nation. It’s more like neighborhood gossip, with citizens constantly murmuring amongst themselves to figure things out.

This culture was born on 9/11 — when phone lines went down, and Americans rushed online to share email and digital photos of the catastrophe. Bloggers in Washington D.C. and New York even helped debunk some of the confused, inaccurate media reports on that day.

Today, our grassroots Internet coverage makes it harder for those in power — Iraqi or American — to dissemble. U.S. officials no longer use the antiseptic language of “surgical strikes” and “collateral damage”, those creepy euphemisms from 1991. They probably suspect that today’s connected Americans won’t fall it. And anyone who peruses Salam Pax’s blog will never quite believe the official black-and-white view of this conflict — or believe it’ll be over soon.

On the other hand, this intimate contact with war can stiffen your resolve. If Americans decide to support war in the future, they’ll do so with more sober sense of what combat means.

Either way, this high-tech effect is only just beginning. In a few years, citizens worldwide will be carrying mobile phones that can record and broadcast video, turning the world into a mass of instant CNN reporters. If an Iraqi citizen with a blog is able to subvert Saddam’s tight-fisted control, imagine what it’ll be like he can broadcast covert video of the dictator’s actrocities. The same thing will happen here: Any sloppy work by the administration — such as its reliance on forged documents purporting to prove Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program — will be uncovered much more quickly.

War won’t end — but it’ll get noisier and, ideally, more democratic.

As Gil Scott-Heron said, the revolution will not be televised. But it might be blogged.

Clive Thompson, former Internet columnist for Newsday’s Currents section, is a science journalism fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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