Australia’s new online strategy-sphere

This post by Danielle Cave made me notice similarities between an emerging online community in Australia and one that had developed earlier in the United States.

When America had tens of thousands of troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, in wars that were clearly not going well, an online community developed that intensively discussed military strategy. This took place within what was then called the blogosphere, which was relatively new, and included junior officers as well as civilians with a strong intellectual interest in strategy. In this community the discussions were not primarily about whether the initial decisions to invade were good or bad. Instead their key focus was on limiting the damage, and particularly on the merits or weaknesses of “population-centric counterinsurgency”.

This occurred in grassroots (personal or group) blogs such as Abu Muqawama, Gunpowder and Lead, Fear, Honour and Interest, Inkspots, Slouching Towards Columbia, Rethinking Security, Registan, Zenpundit, Attackerman, Ghosts of Alexander, and the influential hub that was Small Wars Journal.  That’s only the sites I was familiar with at the time, this post by Tanner Greer lists many others.

This happened in the context of a “future of war” debate within the US military establishment, the media, and academia. In the most simplified version, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl (Ret) argued for population-centric counterinsurgency which Colonel Gian Gentile opposed. Each side had passionate supporters, and the debate spread through military journals such as Joint Forces Quarterly, the media, and the Internet. General David Petraeus’s appointment to command in Iraq, and the massive reduction in both Iraqi and American deaths following the “surge”, seemingly vindicated the population-centric counterinsurgency approach, but then the worsening situation in Afghanistan (and Iraq’s later unravelling) seemingly discredited it.

The online strategy-sphere was part of this dynamic. The Internet allowed those who weren’t writing books, giving interviews to the media, or holding influential military or political positions, to join and influence the debate. Junior officers serving in the field, and civilians who obsessively read strategic literature and closely followed events, now had a space. This 2009 compilation on the impact of “new media” on the military gives a good sense of how new this all was. There was also a lot of overlap between the insider and outsider participants; David Kilcullen wrote in Small Wars Journal while working for the Pentagon.

By the early 2010s this online strategy-sphere slowly dissipated, or at least changed. Many of the group and personal blogs became inactive, for several reasons, some discussed in Tanner Greer’s post and others Storified by Kelsey Atherton. The scene evolved and centred on new outlets like War on the Rocks, whose writers included some of the bloggers from the strategy-sphere’s early years.

However, at the time the American online strategy-sphere was at its height, there was very little like that occurring in Australia.

There’s no reason an American online development should automatically be mirrored in Australia, but it’s strange that there was barely any equivalent at all. Australia was involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these wars were followed by our media and featured repeatedly in domestic political debate, but there was no sizeable strategy-focused blogging community, certainly not involving junior officers.

This partly reflects something that Sam Roggeveen has pointed out, that Australia has largely lacked grassroots blogs focused on international policy issues. He notes some exceptions, such as this blog, as well as “Leah Farrell’s All  Things  Counter-Terrorism, the defence-focused group blog Pnyx, Andrew Carr’s Chasing the Norm and Security Scholar by Natalie Sambhi and Nic Jenzen-Jones.” There have been some others, but otherwise international policy blogging in Australia has centred on institutional blogs, such as the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, ASPI’s Strategist, Curtin University’s Strategic Flashlight, and ANU’s New Mandala, East Asia Forum, and South Asia Masala. The majority of these blogs (whether grass-roots or institutional) did not focus on military strategy, did not exist at the height of the US online strategy-sphere (mid- to late-2000s), and rarely involved serving members of the military.

One reason for this could be that Australia’s military did not have a “future of war” debate like the US did. Albert Palazzo has argued that cultural, bureaucratic, and operational impediments prevented members of the Australian military from openly engaging in such debate. Other reasons could include those outlined in Roggeveen’s essay, even though they are intended to apply to international policy blogging generally rather just the subset focused on military strategy. These reasons include Australia’s smaller role in the world, the more closed nature of our defence and foreign policy establishments, and that Australia never had a political blogosphere as large or influential as America experienced.

However, this has recently been changing. In the past couple of years, an online strategy-sphere has started to develop in Australia. For example:

  • The Australian Army has started its own blog, the Land Power Forum, with contributions from many active members. As Danielle Cave points out, despite it being a government blog the posts are not simply puff pieces. There are of course firm boundaries set though, with the about page stating “Land Power Forum is not designed to re-litigate issues that have already been discussed and decided upon.”
  • Army Major Clare O’Neill has a website called “Grounded Curiousity”, including a blog and a podcast, which “aims to start a conversation with junior commanders about our future in warfare.”
  • Army Major Mick Cook has started a podcast called The Dead Prussian (referring to Clausewitz), which “aims to explore War and Warfare through discussion and analysis of military theory, historical events, contemporary conflicts, and expert interviews.”
  • Army Brigadier Mick Ryan has a Twitter account, has been writing in The Bridge (an online journal which is part of the Military Writer’s Guild) about the importance of social media for the military, and appeared on Clare O’Neill’s podcast.
  • Several Army officers recently spoke at a conference on Social Media and the Spectrum of Modern Conflict. You can watch videos of their talks here.
  • Navy Captain Justin Jones, who was director of the Sea Power Centre, has been blogging on the Lowy Interpreter and tweeting for a while (I would guess that there are other examples from the Navy, and maybe the Air Force, but most of what I have found is Army).
  • With the creation of ASPI’s Strategist in 2012, and the Land Power Forum in 2014, Australia’s institutional blogs now feature much more discussion of military strategy than before (though strategy has always been part of the discussion on the Lowy Interpreter since 2007), with both civilian and military contributions.

This all shows that Australia has started to develop its own online strategy-sphere.

It has not been centred on personal and group blogs, making it quite different to the US experience, which reflects shifts in the online landscape in both countries. As media outlets and think-tanks adopted blogging-style publishing approaches, grassroots blogs are no longer as new or influential as they once were, so the term blogosphere doesn’t really make sense any more. Grassroots blogs have been superseded by institutional blogs, social media and podcasts. Unsurprisingly, Australia’s newly developing strategy-sphere reflects this, and some of the people employed by Australia’s institutional blogs had begun as individual bloggers.

Why this has begun to develop is unclear. One likely reason is that one arm of the Australian Defence Force, the Army, appears to have become more open to it. Another reason could be an increased public appetite for military discussions that involve a degree of inside knowledge and don’t neatly fit left-right divides. For example, former Army officer James Brown regularly writes for the The Saturday Paper and published a well-received book, Anzac’s Long Shadow. David Kilcullen’s Quarterly Essay Blood Year proved extremely popular and won a Walkley Award.

Whatever the reasons, an Australian online strategy-sphere has started to develop, and I hope it continues to.