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Is the Pentagon really out of bandwidth?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 15, 2007
(Issue 2524, eBay and PayPal)

Earlier this year, I interviewed a Marine who was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. It had nothing to do with her job in the Corps as a helicopter support staff, and everything to do with her off-duty pursuit of live music performance. Ethni Jamin was and is a wonderfully gifted songwriter and singer and her performances at the Hot Java Café in San Diego's Carmel Mountain Ranch neighborhood had caught my ear.

Before she shipped out on what she called her "Sandbox Tour" in Iraq, she posted a farewell message on her MySpace page to her local fans.

What was neat was that when she had access to an Internet connection in Iraq, she could post messages or bulletins to her fans back home in San Diego.

At least until May 14, when the Pentagon put MySpace on a list of sites to be blocked in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Ethni last logged in May 8 – and to be honest, hadn't updated her page since February, but presumably has been keeping in contact via the site.)

The Pentagon cited bandwidth concerns, stating in its announcement that the use of sites like YouTube, MySpace and other sites (Metacafe, IFilm, StupidVideos, FileCabi, BlackPlanet, Hi5, Pandora, MTV,, live365 and Photobucket) with streaming media was slowing down the military's telecommunications networks into and out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Which seems a bit of a reach, to be honest.

Why is it that only personnel stationed in actual combat zones are straining telecommunications? Why not personnel aboard Navy or Coast Guard ships? At Diego Garcia, for goodness sake, an isolated island in the Indian Ocean?

It seems more likely that the Pentagon is afraid that our soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen might post something either critical of the war or embarrassing to our efforts there – something else akin to the earlier photographs taken by young soldiers of them and their squad mates humiliating captives at a military prison.

Which I suppose is a risk with young people and unfettered communication.

Still, it shows a dismaying lack of confidence in our young people in uniform.

And is it true?

Besides, is the bandwidth issue legit?

The founders of one of the banned sites, YouTube, held a press conference a few days after the Pentagon announced and enforced its ban, and as YouTube CEO and co-founder Chad Hurley put it, "They said it might be a bandwidth issue, but they created the Internet, so I don't know what the problem is."

Actually, it was civilian researchers on a Department of Defense contract that developed the nascent ARPANET back in the late '60s, but the Pentagon maintained control of the ARPANET/Internet until the early '90s. And, yes, one would think the DoD would have a certain expertise at maintaining a vigorous network capability.

Hurley said his company (now owned by Google) and others on the banned list have reached out to the Pentagon to ask how they might get added back to the allowed list.

While it's true that the Pentagon's networks don't exist to allow service members to post or watch videos on their off-time, it's also true that letting soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen to stay in touch with the folks back home is one of the best ways of keeping morale high – and good morale is one of the best ways to improve the combat readiness and effectiveness of troops.

So an unnecessary denial of access to popular social-networking sites would seem to be self-defeating.

Not that the brass have ever been accused, in any war, of having the faintest clue as to what's really happening on the front lines.

So when admirals and generals assure the reporters that the new ban on MySpace, YouTube, et al, is a popular decision with the rank and file in Iraq, you best take such a statement with a grain of salt. What buck private or even second looie is going to tell someone with stars on their collar what they're really thinking?

I'm not one for micromanaging the military from Capitol Hill, but this seems to be one of those rare cases where a little congressional curiosity might go a long way toward getting the attention of the brass to really look at how the enlisted and junior officers are being served in combat zones.

If we're going to send teenagers and young adults into harm's way in service to their country, it seems to me that as their country, in this case, is the one that invented the Internet, we ought to be able to make sure they have access to the most popular parts of the 'Net.

Including MySpace, YouTube and the other sites that were banned.