Over the course of 10 months in eastern Afghanistan, an Army specialist nicknamed Mud Puppy maintained a blog irreverently chronicling life at the front, from the terror of roadside bombs to the tyrannies of master sergeants.
Often funny and always profane, the blog, Embrace the Suck (military slang for making the best of a bad situation), flies under the Army’s radar. Not officially approved, it is hidden behind a password-protected wall because the reservist does not want his superiors censoring it.
“Some officer would be reviewing all my writing,” the 31-year-old soldier, who insisted that his name not be used, said in an e-mail message. “And sooner or later he would find something to nail me with.”
There are two sides to the military’s foray into the freewheeling world of the interactive Web. At the highest echelons of the Pentagon, civilian officials and four-star generals are newly hailing the power of social networking to make members of the American military more empathetic, entice recruits and shape public opinion on the war.
Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of American forces in Iraq, is on Facebook. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has a YouTube channel and posts Twitter updates almost daily.
The Army is encouraging personnel of all ranks to go online and collaboratively rewrite seven of its field manuals. And on Aug. 17, the Department of Defense unveiled a Web site promoting links to its blogs and its Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube sites.
The Web, however, is a big place. And the many thousands of troops who use blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to communicate with the outside world are not always in tune with the Pentagon’s official voice. Policing their daily flood of posts, videos and photographs is virtually impossible — but that has not stopped some in the military from trying.
The Department of Defense, citing growing concerns about cybersecurity, plans to issue a new policy in the coming weeks that is widely expected to set departmentwide restrictions on access to social networking sites from military computers. People involved with the department’s review say the new policy may limit access to social media sites to those who can demonstrate a clear work need, like public information officers or family counselors.
If that is the case, many officials say, it will significantly set back efforts to expand and modernize the military’s use of the Web just as those efforts are gaining momentum. And while the new policy would not apply to troops who use private Internet providers, a large number of military personnel on bases and ships across the world depend on their work computers to gain access to the Internet.
To many analysts and officers, the debate reflects a broader clash of cultures: between the anarchic, unfiltered, bottom-up nature of the Web and the hierarchical, tightly controlled, top-down tradition of the military.
“We as an institution still haven’t come to grips with how we want to use blogging” and other social media, said Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the commander of the Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
One of the Army’s leading advocates for more open access to the Web, General Caldwell argues that social networking allows interaction among enlisted soldiers, junior officers and generals in a way that was unthinkable a decade ago.
He requires students at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth to blog, and the college now sponsors 40 publicly available blogs, including his own, where policies are freely debated.
But getting approval for those blogs, as well as for YouTube and Facebook access at the college, was a struggle. “At every corner, someone cited a regulation,” General Caldwell said. In recent months, however, “the Army has made quantum leaps” in embracing the Web, he added.
Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired.com’s national security blog, Danger Room, which has reported extensively on the new policy review, said he recently asked students at West Point whether they would allow soldiers to blog. Almost every cadet said no.
“Then I asked, ‘How many of you think you can stop the flow of information from your soldiers?’ ” Mr. Shachtman recalled. “Everybody agreed there is no way to stop this information from going out anyway. So there is this sort of dual-headedness.”
Skeptics of the Pentagon review say it is motivated partly by a desire among certain officials to exert control over the voices of troops on the Web.
Since the advent of military blogging during the Iraq war, some commanders have remained uncomfortable with the art form, citing concerns about both security and decorum.