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

popular
The author

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.

(Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial, Inc./Facebook)

Military veterans from throughout Northeast Florida came together Saturday morning to honor comrades in arms who were prisoners of war or missing in action, and remember their sacrifice.

Read More
The remains of Army Staff Sgt. Ian McLaughlin arrived back to Fort Bragg a week after he was killed Jan. 11 by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. (U.S. Army)

After the plane landed, Pope Army Airfield was silent on Saturday.

A chaplain prayed and a family member sobbed.

Tarah McLaughlin's fingers traced her husband's flag-draped coffin before she pressed two fingers to her lips then pressed her fingers to the coffin.

The remains of Staff Sgt. Ian McLaughlin, 29, of Newport News, Virginia, arrived back to Fort Bragg a week after he was killed Jan. 11 by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

Pfc. Miguel Angel Villalon, 21, of Joliet, Illinois, also was killed in the same incident.

Read More

The Space Force has a name tape now

popular

The U.S. Space Force has a name tape for uniforms now. Get excited people.

In a tweet from its official account, the Space Force said its uniform name tapes have "touched down in the Pentagon," sharing a photo of it on the chest of Gen. John W. Raymond, the newly-minted Chief of Space Operations for the new service branch nested in the Department of the Air Force.

Read More

PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump gave a minute-to-minute account of the U.S. drone strikes that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in remarks to a Republican fund-raising dinner on Friday night, according to audio obtained by CNN.

With his typical dramatic flourish, Trump recounted the scene as he monitored the strikes from the White House Situation Room when Soleimani was killed.

Read More

The U.S. Navy will name its fourth Ford-class aircraft carrier after Doris Miller, an iconic World War II sailor recognized for his heroism during the Pearl Harbor attack, according to reports in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and U.S. Naval Institute News.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly is expected to announce the naming of CVN-81 during a ceremony on Monday in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, according to USNI. Two of Miller's nieces are expected to be there, according to the Star-Advertiser.

Read More