The recent flap over six retired American generals publicly calling for the Secretary of Defense to resign, also brought out opinions, via the Internet, from lower ranking troops (active duty, reservists and retired.) The mass media ran with the six generals, but got shot down by the troops and their blogs, message board postings and emails. It wasn't just a matter of the "troop media" being more powerful. No, what the troops had going for them was a more convincing reality. Unlike the six generals, many of the Internet troops were in Iraq, or had recently been there. Their opinions were not as eloquent as those of the generals, but they were also more convincing. Added to that was the complaint from many of the troops that, according to the American constitution, it's the civilians (in the person of the Secretary of Defense) that can dismiss soldiers from service, not the other way around. While the six generals were only expressing their opinions (which only active duty troops are restricted from doing, because of the different military legal system they operate under), it rubbed a lot of people (military and civilian) the wrong way because of the constitutional angle.
Naturally, the details of this media battle didn't get a lot of coverage in the mass media. Makes sense. Who wants to discuss a defeat, by a bunch of amateurs no less. But the mass media has been missing an even larger story about the military and the Internet.
The military has become a lot more responsive to "what the troops want" in the last decade, since the Internet became widely available. What happened was simple. The troops got on line, found each other and have been sharing opinions and experiences, getting to know each other, and doing it all very quickly. The most striking example of this is how it has changed the speed with which new weapons and equipment get into service. Troops have always bought superior commercial equipment, usually from camping and hunting suppliers. And a lot more of that gear has been available in the last decade. Because the word now gets around so quickly via the net, useful new gear is quickly purchased by thousands of troops. After September 11, 2001, with a war on, having the best gear was seen by more troops as a matter of life and death. This quickly got back to politicians, journalists and the military bureaucrats responsible for buying gear for the troops. The quality of the "official issue" gear skyrocketed like never before because of the Internet pressure.
But the troops also exchanged information on tactics and techniques, as well as anything else they knew that could help keep them alive in combat. This alarmed the Department of Defense, which put some restrictions on active duty bloggers. The troops did not fight back, as, once reminded, they understood that, in public forums, anyone could read what they were saying, including the enemy. So a lot of this information continued to be exchanged email and private message boards. The military got into the act by establishing official message boards, for military personnel only, where useful information could be discussed and exchanged. All this rapid information sharing has had an enormous impact on the effectiveness of the troops, something that has largely gone unnoticed by the mass media.
The brass have not tried to discourage all this communication, because the officers use it as well, for the same reasons as the troops. Most junior officers grew up with the Internet, and many of the older ones were using the Internet before it became popularized in the 1990s. Even the generals of today, have experience with PCs when they were young, so have no trouble getting into this new form of communication. The military is eagerly building a "battlefield Internet" for use during combat, and parts of this are up and running and heavily used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is all uncharted territory. There's never been an army before where all the troops were so well connected with each other. So far, the benefits have outweighed any liabilities. But no one is sure where it will go next, and the public is largely unaware of the impact, because the mass media has not grasped nature and extent of the changes.