Lessons Learned From More Than 10 Years Of Reading Tom Ricks' Blogging

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By 'Hunter'

Tom allowed me to comment on his contributions to the 'interwebs' on the condition that it be anything but 'fawning;' more of a lessons learned. Sorry this is long, but some (interpreted) history is warranted.


Circa 2002, I was working on a master's thesis about Army officer retention. I stumbled into a webgroup of smart, young officers all seeking to improve themselves and their units and solve the world's problems. We argued, much like here. We also learned a lot, but solved little. Years of banter later, we weren't so junior and many weren't officers anymore so the group needed to change.

A new, larger, community formed. Among the new members was Tom Ricks (at the Washington Post), and other erudite journalists (e.g. Army Times and Wired). We were joined by Congressional staffers, Beltway bandits, and a panoply of wise veterans. The expanded scope was 'national security' writ large. Again, battles ensued, but the august group leader maintained civility with a 'code of conduct' of sorts. Most important was that the debate remain 'non-attribution.' Unless one received expressed permission, what happened in the forum stayed in the forum.

Again, brain cells burned, arguments sharpened, and learning happened – even if unapplied. At one point, as I readied my battalion for OIF, I was furious with the ineffective mobilization station. The journos, Tom included, heard my plight. They were prepared to publish the details; if I decided I really wanted to 'burn' the whole place down. Saner minds, including an astute major, talked me out of the tree. But I appreciated that the press, sharing our corner of cyberspace, kept the story to themselves. The non-attribution bonds held. And this was a key lesson, for a military often – improperly – educated that the press is, somehow, the enemy.

This second community survived many years, before fading away. Fortunately, Tom's The Best Defense (TBD) arrived at ForeignPolicy.com in 2009. TBD quickly gained a following and earned awards, including "2010 National Magazine Award as the best blog of the year." As noted by Mike Jones, TBD posts "range[d] from a detailed analysis of Middle Eastern politics one day to a historical account of the U.S. civil war the next. [TBD] also published a series of great guest posts, [a] favorite being Rebecca Frankel's weekly discussion of war dogs."

Guest posts were a study in accommodation. No topic was too small and if a post was marginally well written and argued a point – even, or especially, if it contrasted with Tom's worldview – he usually accepted it. I suspect this was in part to pad the blog, and some visitors were mightily abused over half-baked ideas or poor, overblown writing. But the blog was a sum of its parts, and, as Jones noted, guest posts were a big part of its success.

Tom kept a light hand on the reins at TBD. He viewed it as a tavern, where regulars like Cheers' Norm and Cliffie had favorite barstools but guests were always welcome. Tom dispensed conversation fodder from his tap for the amusement and argument of his thirsty patrons. Trolls periodically invaded, trashed the place, and then departed. The regulars cleaned up the mess and policed when possible. Tom's ban hammer went all but unused. Only nasty, personal attacks were sternly counseled. Verbal fisticuffs sometimes raged for days or weeks. Guilty as charged.

But the most prominent foe was the Livefyre (LF) posting system, which earned the ire of everyone. LF started terrible and grew worse. But comments don't make websites money and we masochistically posted anyway. Once LF egregiously exposed posters' email addresses; providing lessons in the virtues of anonymity and sock puppet accounts.

Nevertheless, TBD was irresistible, daily reading. Comment tangents were often as fulfilling as they were frustrating. (Guilty as charged.) Flame wars exploded, dwindled, and then raged again. Certain topics reappeared like weeds. Chief among them were: conscription's merits/demerits, TBD's ground warfare emphasis, the Second Amendment, women in combat, failed generalship, and Tom's liberal 'lean.' Patrons disliked Tom's summer/holiday breaks when reruns prevailed.

In January 2018, Tom joined Task & Purpose under The Long March (TLM) banner with the same format. The comment system was better than LF; until comments began disappearing, a continuing problem. But TBD was a convent compared to the unruly crowd at TLM. I left in October for this reason. Perhaps the lack of civility also played a part in Tom's decision to end his blogging.

Friends and enemies were made and I've enjoyed meeting Tom and other TBD/TLM regulars. I regret not knowing some better and resolve to befriend others before the venue closes.

So here's an After Action Review for blogs that hope to duplicate, or improve on, Tom's superb efforts.

Sustain (in order)

  1. Recognize that the commenters are the heart of the blog. Tom did.
  2. Cultivate guest posters. They liven the mix and help the host keep up on 'inventory.'
  3. Maintain a light hand on the comment section, but act quickly and sternly when warranted.

Improve (in order)

  1. People must maintain standards. Huge blogs can't preserve the cozy sense of non-attribution applied in small webgroups, so anonymity is all but required. Personal attacks/threats are puerile and unacceptable. Sure, profanity/casual insults are going to be there [guilty as charged] but some lines can't be crossed. An onsite code of conduct, should set those lines. Violations deserve a swift, irrevocable ban.
  2. Comment systems must work. TBDs' Livefyre was a nightmare. TLMs' system is better but disappearing posts undermine commenters' efforts.
  3. Reruns are a terrible, but necessary, evil. Minimize the impact with a reserve of guest posts.

'Hunter' is a plankholder of TBD and TLM. He will miss the conversations and fights. Thanks to Tom for keeping the lights on and the 'beer' cold for nine years; that's a long time and a lot of posts.

Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher will retire as a chief petty officer now that President Donald Trump has restored his rank.

"Before the prosecution of Special Warfare Operator First Class Edward Gallagher, he had been selected for promotion to Senior Chief, awarded a Bronze Star with a "V" for valor, and assigned to an important position in the Navy as an instructor," a White House statement said.

"Though ultimately acquitted on all of the most serious charges, he was stripped of these honors as he awaited his trial and its outcome. Given his service to our Nation, a promotion back to the rank and pay grade of Chief Petty Officer is justified."

The announcement that Gallagher is once again an E-7 effectively nullifies the Navy's entire effort to prosecute Gallagher for allegedly committing war crimes. It is also the culmination of Trump's support for the SEAL throughout the legal process.

On July 2, military jurors found Gallagher not guilty of premeditated murder and attempted murder for allegedly stabbing a wounded ISIS fighter to death and opening fire at an old man and a young girl on separate occasions during his 2017 deployment to Iraq.

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Maj. Matthew Golsteyn in Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Philip Stackhouse.)

President Donald Trump has ended the decade-long saga of Maj. Matthew Golsteyn by ordering a murder charge against the former Green Beret dismissed with a full pardon.

The Army charged Golsteyn with murder in December 2018 after he repeatedly acknowledged that he killed an unarmed Afghan man in 2010. Golsteyn's charge sheet identifies the man as "Rasoul."

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(Screenshot from 'Leavenworth')

President Donald Trump has signed a full pardon for former 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who had been convicted of murder for ordering his soldiers to open fire on three unarmed Afghan men, two of whom were killed.

Lorance will now be released from the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he had been serving a 19-year sentence.

"He has served more than six years of a 19-year sentence he received. Many Americans have sought executive clemency for Lorance, including 124,000 people who have signed a petition to the White House, as well as several members of Congress," said a White House statement released Friday.

"The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the law is enforced and when appropriate, that mercy is granted. For more than two hundred years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country. These actions are in keeping with this long history. As the President has stated, 'when our soldiers have to fight for our country, I want to give them the confidence to fight.'"

Additionally, Trump pardoned Maj. Matthew Golsteyn, who was to go on trial for murder charges next year, and restored the rank of Navy SEAL Chief Edward Gallagher, who was found not guilty of murdering a wounded ISIS prisoner but convicted of taking an unauthorized photo with the corpse.

Fox News contributor Pete Hegseth first announced on Nov. 4 that the president was expected to intervene in the Lorance case was well as exonerate Army Maj. Matthew Golsteyn, who has been charged with murder after he admitted to killing an unarmed Afghan man whom he believed was a Taliban bomb maker, and restore Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher's rank to E-7.

For the past week, members of Lorance's family and his legal team have been holding a constant vigil in Kansas anticipating his release, said Lorance's attorney Don Brown.

Now that he has been exonerated of committing a war crime, Lorance wants to return to active duty, Brown told Task & Purpose on Wednesday.

"He loves the Army," Brown said prior to the president's announcement. "He doesn't have any animosity. He's hoping that his case – and even his time at Leavenworth – can be used for good to deal with some issues regarding rules of engagement on a permanent basis so that our warfighters are better protected, so that we have stronger presumptions favoring warfighters and they aren't treated like criminals on the South Side of Chicago."

In the Starz documentary "Leavenworth," Lorance's platoon members discuss the series of events that took place on July 2, 2012, when the two Afghan men were killed during a patrol in Kandahar province.They claim that Lorance ordered one of his soldiers to fire at three Afghan men riding a motorcycle. The three men got off their motorcycle and started walking toward Afghan troops, who ordered them to return to their motorcycle.

At that point, Lorance ordered the turret gunner on a nearby Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle to shoot the three men, according to the documentary. That order was initially ignored, but the turret gunner eventually opened fire with his M-240, killing two of the men.

But Lorance told the documentary makers that his former soldiers' account of what happened was "ill-informed."

"From my experience of what actually went down, when my guy fired at it, and it kept coming, that signified hostile intent, because he didn't stop immediately," Lorance said in the documentary's second episode.

Brown argues that not only is Lorance innocent of murder, he should never have been prosecuted in the first case.

"He made a call and when you look at the evidence itself, the call was made within a matter of seconds," Brown said "He would make that call again."

The new Call of Duty Modern Warfare takes gaming to a new level. In fact, it's the best damn video game of 2019 (in my humble opinion).

You can watch video of the awesome gameplay for CoD above, and make sure to follow the Task & Purpose team on Twitch here.

This post was sponsored by GoatGuns.Com. Use the code TP15 for 15% off your next order.

A new trailer just dropped for the upcoming World War I action flick The Great War.

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