Sunday, May 11, 2008

War in the Information Age: Cell Phone Redial Brings Battlefield Experience to Family

People, and war, haven't changed much over the millennia: Parents worry about their children who have gone to the battlefield.

Thousands of years ago, the sounds of battle might be heard in the parent's home. As societies changed and grew, soldiers traveled farther, and battlefields became distant realities.

As soldiers traveled farther, new communications technologies were developed to keep them in touch with the rest of the family.
  • Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable (mid-nineteenth century) joined by a telephone cable in 1956 made real-time communication between continents possible
  • V-mail in WWII used optical compression to make room for more letters on cargo planes
  • Communications satellites like Telstar were an incremental improvement on intercontinental telephone service
  • Cell phones, since the 1980s freed telephones from fixed outlets
Cell phones and other Information Age technologies had the potential to bring back the days when families of warriors often heard the sounds of battle.

Last month, that potential became a reality.

A family in Oregon came home in April, 2008, to find that their son, Stephen, had left a voice mail message. He was stationed in Afghanistan, and his Army MP company was under attack from a Taliban unit.

Or, more accurately, his cell phone had called home. The most likely explanation is that the phone got squeezed between their son and his Humvee.

The family heard gunfire, swearing and shouts for more ammunition. And their son's rifle barrel seemed to be overheating.

" 'You could hear him saying stuff like, he needs more ammo, or he needs another barrel,' said John Petee, Phillips' brother. 'At the end, you could hear a guy saying "Incoming! RPG!" And then it cut off.' "

It took the Petee family a while to get in touch in Stephen, but he was okay. Also embarrassed. " 'I finally got a hold of him,' Sandie Petee said. 'He was embarrassed, he said, "Don't let Grandma hear it." ' "

(From "Afghanistan Firefight Heard On Voice Mail"
KPTV; Portland, OR (May 5, 2008))

As I wrote earlier, "People, and war, haven't changed much over the millennia:" but that doesn't mean that technology doesn't make a difference.

The Vietnam conflict was called the first war delivered to America's living room, because of the relatively immediate video coverage on the newly-emerged evening news. Television coverage certainly made the conflict a more immediate reality than the newsreels and newspapers of earlier generations.

The occasional cell phone message from the battlefield is even more immediate than edited footage on the evening news.

And hearing unedited transmissions from a battle may make a difference in the way that people perceive a war.

Welcome to the Information Age

I think that the medium you're reading right now will make a bigger difference. Back in the sixties and seventies, American news was filtered through a few major east coast newspapers.

No conspiracy: the continental U.S. is four time zones wide. Newspaper editors work on tight deadlines - and making decisions takes time. It's understandable that editors would generally accept the judgment of their fellow-professionals on the east coast. That's where the sun rises on America, and where the news of the day first gets evaluated.

So, articles that The New York Times and a few other major east coast papers decided were newsworthy spread across America with the sun. Those that they didn't approve generally didn't go any further.

Broadcast news was even more restricted. If ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS news didn't think a story was worthy of mention, America didn't see it on television news.

Cable news, the Web, and especially blogs, changed all that. News is no longer what a few editorial boards want it to be. News is, I think, becoming what concerned people think is important.

Not that bloggers are necessarily better at evaluating world events than professional editors. The advantage of the blogosphere is that it lets facts and opinions rise or fall in the marketplace of ideas: not in the predispositions of a few editors.
The phone call from Afghanistan:
"Brother's Firefight"
YouTube video 2:58 (April 21, 2008)
(Be advised: this is unedited battlefield sounds, including "graphic language." Stephen didn't want his grandmother to hear it: and I think his request was wise.)

Stephen's brother posted the audio clip, and wrote:
"My brother is an MP over in Afghanistan. He was on post on April 21st. He decided to give us a call, just to let us know how he was doing.
"Nobody was home so he got the answering machine, and hung up. Just then, they started getting shot at. Somehow, his phone re-dialed, and we got this on our answering machine. He is okay."
(JRPetee, YouTube)
There are hundreds of comments, so far, many supportive, as well as quite a few standard-issue remarks like:
"We most certainly DID pick this fight!
"And how in God's name can someone protect me in another country when I'M HERE IN THIS ONE?
"brainwashed, stupid sheeple...pitifull"
"Brother's Firefight"

JRPetee, YouTube (April 21, 2008)
video, 2:58

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.