USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Let Slip the Blogs of War

Geraldo had to go all the way to Afghanistan to get lost in the 'fog of war,' and look how much that little episode cost all of us. If the self-hating self-promoter had really wanted to learn about confusion, at a more reasonable cost, he could have just stayed home and read the war blogs.

For it is in spending time with the war blogs that one comes to know the chaos, the inhumanity, the ultimate futility of war.

You can try to keep all the blog news straight in your head, to render a chronicle fit for posterity, but the fog of war blogging will get you. Where did I read that pithy comment about Arab paranoia 23 minutes ago? Was it by Virginia Postrel or Andrew Sullivan, or was it one of those other guys who's always saying how great Virginia Postrel and Andrew Sullivan are? Or no, wait, maybe it was the blog by the guy who thinks Mickey Kaus and Sullivan are geniuses and always links to their blogs, but thinks Postrel is an idiot - and always links to her blog to prove it?

Am I reading the article in praise of blogs or the one about how bloggers have got the mainstream media on the run? Hey, wait! Both of these articles remind me of that article I saw on somebody's blog about how the bloggers are revolutionizing the very way we think of news. Who did that one? Was it Glenn Reynolds? Nick Denton? Did Ken Layne give a shout-out to something Matt Welch had on his blog, and did Welch give a back-atcha link to Layne's blog? Or was it the other way around?

And shoot, where did I see that awesome takedown of Barbara Kingsolver's latest stupid column? Was that one at Buzzmachine-dot-com? At Bearstrong-dot-net? Blogorama-dot-com? Blogsofwar-dot-blogspot? Littlegreenfoot balls-dot-com? Moonfarmer-dot-org? Warblogger-dot-blog?

A few hours of this kind of action and even the toughest war blogger is ready for a VA nuthouse.

The weblog is not the most useless weapon in the War On Terrorism. That title is still held by the nuclear submarine. But it is precisely their unconventional methods that make the war bloggers enemies to be feared. Like Al-Qaeda, the war bloggers are a loosely structured network, a shadowy underground whose flexibility and compulsive log-rolling make them as cost-effective as they are deadly. Kill Glenn Reynolds and a thousand James Tarantos will rise in his place. Try to apply the Powell Doctrine and the war bloggers will elude our grasp. Ignore them and they'll use our own weapons against us.

Whence came the war blogs? You'd need a new A.J.P. Taylor to answer that one. If there's one thing bloggers enjoy almost as much as fluffing each others' efforts, it's arguing over who created blogging.

The blogging community was recently torn by controversy when Joanne Jacobs failed to show sufficient knowledge of blog history. (Jacobs's experience in the field began in 2001, the great era of celeblogs that allowed professional writers like Sullivan, Kaus and Joshua Micah Marshall to post their writings online, at prices more accurately reflecting their value.)

Old-timey bloggers hit Jacobs with newbie wedgies, and, for people who have never seen Doug Block's Home Page, there was even an appeal to Rebecca Blood's history of blogging.

You might imagine weblogs were never really invented, instead evolving from earlier species dating back to Suck, Justin Hall, NetSurf and beyond; but in our hearts, we'll always find Creationism more appealing than Darwinism.

But the appearance of the war blogs makes for a quantum leap in the history of blogging. As President Eisenhower said, 'This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.'

The War On Terrorism, with all its world-historical moment, has combined with the relentless drive of the bloggers to create an explosion of unfathomed energy, vitality, and pure wind. Everybody's a winner.

Glenn Reynolds -- whose title 'Instapundit' merrily undermines his credibility (or at least foregrounds his lack of credibility) -- doesn't have to be content with zinging Cornel West when he can rail against the treachery of the Saudis. Postrel gets to take on serious issues of rights and security where otherwise she might just be noting how some taxicab eureka she had proves the necessity of privatizing Social Security. Best of the Web editor James Taranto, who in some alternative universe has nothing else to discuss except how the Democrats are shamelessly using Enron as payback for Whitewater, now gets to pre-empt every argument with what appears to be the only weapon in his argumentative arsenal: 'Don't you know there's a war on?.'

More intriguingly, the rise of war blogs has made room for a host of new players.

The Muslim Pundit is '[g]oing after starry pan-Islamic futurists with a rubber glove and a sharp stick.' Dr. Frank gets to lambaste The Times for publishing what he considers a sympathetic portrait of dead Palestinian Raed al-Karmi. (Well, actually, he sort of links to Charles Johnson's blog, which does the lambasting.)

Perhaps the most encouraging is Bj?rn St?rk's Bearstrong.net. St?rk appears to be a young Norwegian, and his command of the English idiom alone is impressive; but he's also staked out a refreshing spot as a European with generally pro-American views, and puts forth some cogent comments. An oddly touching recent post contained an unfavorable close reading of a request to be excused from military service St?rk himelf sent to the Norwegian government four years ago. (In one of those 'He saved my ass during the Tet Offensive' reminiscences common to war bloggers, St?rk also contends that if it weren't for erstwhile fulltime blogger Ken Layne, 'I wouldn't even be blogging...').

To date, St?rk's only lapse has been in failing to blog the gay marriage of Per-Kristian Foss, Norway's Conservative finance minister -- that story had to be picked up by Mark Morford, the San Francisco Chronicle's in-house blogger.

These DIY self-publishers may not be treated to vomit-inducing elegies by the likes of Ron Rosenbaum, but they're now solidly in the weblog loop with Sullivan and the other bigshots.

And there are plenty more where they came from, millions of bloggers ready to do their part for the struggle. Some may see America's bounty in its immeasurable fields of grain, its implacable martial power, or its 20 brands of douches. I prefer to see the triumph of the West in its numberless bloggers.

Surely when he has a chance to check out the Web, bin Laden must get a worrisome hint of Ernie Pyle's survey of the jetsam on Omaha Beach: 'Behind us were such enormous replacements for this wreckage on the beach that you could hardly conceive of the sum total. Men and equipment were flowing from England in such a gigantic stream that it made the waste on the beachead seem like nothing at all, really nothing at all.'

As this may indicate, the war bloggers are a hawkish bunch. Sure, Gabrielle Taylor's Moonfarmer presents a fairly catholic link collection with little commentary. Brian Lamb calls his Blowback a 'link-bearer for alienated left-wing bloggers everywhere,' and he's got the links to The Guardian to prove it.

But for the most part the war bloggers are toughened desktop Guderians committed to the belief that the terrorists will win if our blogs fall silent.

'This, my friends, is what pisses me off about the far left,' fumes Damian Penny. 'By the way, ignore those upcoming explosions in the Bekaa Valley,' soi-disant Christian Christopher Johnson hisses at tiny Lebanon. 'In a matter of months, we have rid one major country, Afghanistan, of its Islamo-fascist tyrants and profoundly shifted another, Pakistan,' great Sullivan gloats. Even the wholly unmartial Jeff Jarvis gets to act like a hardass at his blog.

Of course, all these trigger-happy wits wouldn't make an effective force if they couldn't stick together. This is where mutual appreciation is critical. The tradition of blogrolling goes back a long way, but the war bloggers have made it an art form. Outside Jerry Lewis telethons, I can't remember the last time I've seen so many references to 'my good friend so-and-so,' 'consistently excellent work by X,' and so on. (Sullivan, for whom countless commentators are friends of the 'dear,' 'good,' or 'old' varieties, is a particularly awful example.) A brief list of actual citations from recent war blogs:

'...the consistently correct Moira Breen.'

'Mark Steyn -- this guy is so good!'

'Dan Kennedy has an excellent piece...'

'... Natalija Radic really hit them where it hurts.'

'Another terrific Matt Welch column'

'Leave it to Natalie Solent to come up with something of substance'

'Professor Reynolds, once again, puts it best'

'More great comments on 'post-political correctness' from Jeff Jarvis:'

'JASON SOON has an interesting piece on ...'

'I recommend Henry Porter's thoughtful analysis of how and why Britain's doves got just about everything wrong ...'

'GERALDO IS A LIAR, according to a persuasive post by Joanne Jacobs.'

'It's all great, but here's my favorite passage:'

'I JUST RAN ACROSS THIS COOL COLUMN BY MATT WELCH'

'MOIRA BREEN DEMOLISHES FEMINIST WHINING'

'A very good post from Thomas Nephew on Tom 'Do Nothing' Ridge '

'JOSH MARSHALL has an interesting point about Enron '

'Well what do you know, it looks like my friend Ed Mazza has his crafty own Web page now.'

'So good to see that superposter Glenn Reynolds is human and does have a life'

'My very dear friend Ken Layne weighs in on some sort of competition over who has been doing these weblog thingies the longest.'

'Instapundit is right: Today brings us a particulary good rant/bleat/sermon from James Lileks. He has the guts to say that, yes, Western culture is superior'

'I don't know who 'Dr. Frank' is, beyond seemingly being a yank living in the U.K., but he runs a terrific blog that you should check out. He also says nice things about me, which is pleasant. '

'I've been meaning to thank another weblog, the Little Green Footballs, which sends a bit of traffic to this site' And if all those kind words aren't enough, the war bloggers never leave a man behind. Each blogger's page contains -- along with a forlorn Tipjar pitch -- a comprehensive list of links to other bloggers. (Speaking of which: If I haven't mentioned your blog, I apologize, but I guarantee some link in this article has your blog within one degree of separation.) 'Absolutely everyone has linked to this, and no wonder,' Natalie Solent swoons over a choice bit by some fellow blogger.

The second element of war blogging -- and perhaps the one that makes it distinctive -- is the frequent deployment of straw men. If the bloggers are fighting a world war, Barbara Kingsolver is their enigma code. Without the hapless Poisonwood Bible author, we'd never be quite sure who we're fighting. Layne and Welch have both used her for target practice. Other bloggers remember her like the Maine (and Kingsolver does them all the favor of clearly having no idea what she's talking about).

But make no mistake: Our washrooms are breeding pacifists, and the war bloggers know who they are: Ted Rall. Susan Sontag. Arundhati Roy. Barbara Ehrenreich. Noam Chomski. Ralph Nader. The names of shame, the Quislings and public enemies of the blog lands, they are shown no mercy. When Stephanie Salter -- one of those professional Catholics who tend to write big-city columns -- worked up an ill-considered Jesus piece for the Chronicle, the bloggers let her have it.

Christopher Johnson laid down suppressing fire. James Lileks called in air strikes. The fortunately named Steven DenBeste made a flanking action. The dour Joanne Jacobs got her in the crossfire.

And Glenn Reynolds himself came in for the kill. It was an inevitable outcome: If there's one thing the war bloggers hate more than the newspapers from which they cop all their stories, it's the OpEd writers who work for those papers.

Which brings us to the third leg of war blogging: agitation. The bloggers boldly declare that they are in favor of our war on terrorism -- a courageous stand when only 107 percent of the population supports the war effort, but one that's hard to keep up when all the bloggers are in agreement. This can lead to some pretty thin outrages and crabbed arguments. When Taranto seethes that the Spanish have no right to quibble about our death penalty because, well, because Spain was a fascist dictatorship as recently as 1975, you know you've reached some kind of low point in the art of forensic rhetoric.

Worse, this situation makes the entire blog universe resemble nothing so much as a giant listserv populated exclusively by dittoheads. How many different ways are there to be scandalized by the WTC monument hubbub? So the trick is not just to signal your agreement with some fellow blogger, but to really exclaim your agreement, possibly with repetitions and even multiple exclamation points. Search a while and you'll find many examples like Charles Murtaugh's rave for 'Jonah Goldberg's great, and I mean damn great column about the relationship between technology and liberty.'

Do the war bloggers have an Achilles Heel? They do.

For all the bitching they log about the mainstream media, none of the bloggers are actually cruising the streets of Peshawar or Aden or Mogadishu. Thus, they're wholly dependent upon that very same mainstream media. You can cut on Salon all you like, Mr. Blogger, but they have a man in Afghanistan. Do you?

There's a pretty severe disconnect here, between some of the most bouyant down-with-the-media-elite skylarking we've seen since 1995-era Jon Katz, and the fact that those same media elites are providing virtually all of the news the war bloggers congratulate themselves on serving up. And serving it up none too quickly. Australian blogger Tim Blair has a distinct advantage in that Australians use some futuristic time anomaly to see 18 hours into the future.

But for consistently being first to find links to growing stories, Matt Drudge (whose relationship to mainstream reporting is infinitely more complex than the bloggers') is still far ahead of the pack, and the result is that after taking in the Drudge Report, you frequently spend the next 36 hours being alerted to the existence of some breaking story that you've already read.

These are real structural challenges for the war bloggers. Will they pull it through, and live up to the hype? After all their tough-guy posturing, will they be hard enough to crush their enemies? At war's end, will they return, like veterans of so many wars, bitter and disillusioned and jobless?

I say nay! For the battle-hardened war bloggers, the future is almost as bright as the present. I can almost picture the happy few knocking back drinks at the blogger officers' club:

'Man, if I didn't have this blog to do I'd be over there in Tora Bora right now!'

'Yeah, what can you do? War's a young man's game. They also serve who stand and wait. I think the American people have realized how important the war blogs are to our security.'

'Well it ain't easy. I had some tough blogging today. Blogspot intelligence told me not to expect the punditry to be heavy, but we ran into a battalion-strength pacifist column with Sontag support, and we were low on rants. For a while I didn't think I was gonna make it, but around 1800 hours I laid down a barrage of trenchant observations and we finally broke through.'

'Hell, those pampered OpEd columnists will never know what it's like at the front. Out here you either blog your way out or you get dead!'

'Wow, that's a keen observation. Let me go link to that in my blog.'

Shine on, you crazy bloggers! Someday the rest of us will hold our manhoods cheap that we did not blog with you this day. But as long as courage lives and liberty endures, every American will be proud to have you out there, blogging for an audience of none.