By Tom Brouns
As highlighted in this blog and others, the use of “new” and “social” media by military and government organizations as a part of their public communication strategy is undergoing a quiet evolution – or in some cases, revolution. Where consensus between allies is not a concern, organizations like US Forces – Afghanistan are taking the bull by the horns: their Facebook page amassed 14,000 fans in six weeks, and their 4500+ followers on Twitter are nothing to sneeze at. In an alliance like NATO, progress has to be a bit more tentative and exploratory. Regardless of the pace, increasing dialogue and transparency between military organizations and their publics should be seen as a positive thing.
One NATO effort, mentioned in this post, stimulated some debate. The initiative asks those those with experience in Afghanistan to send in their videos answering the question “Why Afghanistan Matters.” This got the attention of bloggers. For example, a post on Abu Muqawama states that this means “you” are in charge of the communications efforts in Afghanistan, triggering a comment labeling the effort as “transparent and [anemic] PSYOP.” Spencer Ackerman, in his post on the Washington Independent’s blog, asked whether the video contest means “NATO governments aren’t able to compellingly answer the question themselves;” or alternately, whether the sponsors have simply identified that the best spokespeople are the troops themselves. A third post asks whether this is a democratizing of the military or if the military “don’t know why they’re there.”
As someone involved in the “Afghanistan Matters” contest, I find these commentaries and questions quite interesting. Like the contest itself, as well as the Twitter feed, Facebook page, and the YouTube channel that will host the contest entries, the whole point – as one Washington Independent reader points out – is to foster public discussion on the issue. I would argue – and here I point out that this is my personal opinion and neither represents U.S. Army policy or NATO’s position on the issue – a number of the involved publics concerned have been relatively insulated by their governments on the true nature of the conflict in Afghanistan. While they’ve been told that life can go on as normal, or that their militaries are involved in some sort of humanitarian mission, or that there’s a war going on, media reports about casualties keep rolling in. Some ask what they’ve gotten their troops into. I believe a lack of discussion on the entire issue is most responsible for the steady downward trend in public support in a number of countries. Meanwhile, however, the insurgents have a free voice in telling their side of the story. Frankly, there is a vacuum in the media landscape, and the video contest and other initiatives are a recognition that we don’t need to cede that ground to the insurgents.
But there are bigger issues involved. The contest has led some to wonder whether the military “don’t know why they’re there” or question why NATO’s militaries are just now, after 8 years in country, being asked to justify their presence in Afghanistan. Many seem to have forgotten that the “the military” did not make the decision to go to Afghanistan; they were sent by civilian leaders elected by citizens. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians from 42 countries have heeded that call, left behind friends and families, to undertake their nations’ work.
Though Afghanistan has suddenly become popular in the public press again, for years it has been “the forgotten war” – under-resourced and under-reported. Giving them Fridays off and estimating 12 hours a day, these troops have given a staggering 850 million man-hours of their time for the betterment of Afghanistan. Very few of them have raised the question of why they’re there. Why? What they see on the ground gives them all the answers they need. This is what “Why Afghanistan Matters” is asking them to share with their nations’ publics.
Ultimately, if anyone should be required to explain “Why Afghanistan Matters” it’s not the troops themselves – or even, I’d argue, “NATO.” NATO is a voluntary pooling of resources in which all 28 countries have to agree before anything is done. This means all 28 countries’ leaders have willingly contributed their nations’ treasure – in terms of soldiers and money – along with an additional 14 nations who aren’t even in NATO. Maybe there should be a video contest in which the public – or the politicians – should explain to the military why Afghanistan matters.
But I digress. To those who question NATO’s motives, the value of the transparency that is being delivered by all of NATO’s and the US military’s efforts to engage their publics far outweighs any benefit these organizations may themselves derive. From my personal standpoint, it’s more along the lines of “you asked me to go here and do this job. I’ll do it, but let’s have some discussion on whether this effort is worthwhile – between me and you, between each other, and between you and your civilian leaders. Let’s do it publicly, on a medium that removes the hierarchical barriers to communication, and let’s discuss how we can do this better. And if you think Afghanistan doesn’t matter, you’re free to voice your opinion on that as well.”
The number of military and government organizations using “new” media is growing day by day, and is well past any tipping point. For organizations that have relied as long as anyone can remember on cranking out one-way press releases and hoping the media use them to inform the public, this represents a great step in the right direction. It’s important that those of us who support this kind of transparency and two-way – or multi-way communication, continue to support and encourage these initial efforts the best we can. In the case of Afghanistan, if nothing else, the efforts will add dimension, and help put a human face on a conflict that has in many cases been reduced to casualty figures.
Tom Brouns is a military officer assigned to NATO.
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