First Lieutenant Brian Slaughter wanted his comrades to learn from the insurgent attack that could have killed him on May 21, 2004. Before dawn, the 30-year-old had been leading 12 men in three armored Humvees along a canal in Baghdad’s al-Dora district when a massive blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) lifted his vehicle off the ground. Concealed attackers followed with a volley of rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire. But the IED had been buried too deep to kill, a second IED detonated too early to hit the patrol, and a third failed to explode. When the brief battle ended, two insurgents were dead, and ten were prisoners. On the American side, one man had been injured, with a bullet to the leg.
Slaughter knew that information about the encounter could help his fellow soldiers–especially green replacements arriving from Fort Stewart, GA–avoid getting killed or maimed. It might help them capture insurgents, too. So when dawn broke, he explored the blast site with a digital camera. He took pictures of the mound of brown earth concealing the still-unexploded second IED, and of a red-and-white detonator cord that led to the device. He took pictures of a berm and a copse of palm trees that had concealed the enemy. He took pictures of the improvised weapon: a 155-millimeter artillery shell that had been drilled out and fitted with a fuse.
But his attempts to share the information ran into a technological roadblock. Back at Camp Falcon, a facility on the southern outskirts of Baghdad that’s one of a handful of so-called forward operating bases around the city, he typed up a document in Microsoft Word and appended his photos. The report went to a battalion intelligence officer swamped by two or three dozen such reports daily. The intelligence officer’s summaries went into a database called ASAS-L. A product of Cold War thinking, the database allows top commanders to monitor and coördinate troop movements–but it’s not easily accessible to patrol leaders like Slaughter.
So for practical purposes, his report didn’t exist. Even the version that stayed on his computer at Camp Falcon eventually vanished. “It went home with my unit. There was no server. No continuity. Nothing,” he says. The pictures survive–on his laptop in Nashville, TN. He showed them to me, along with lots of other pictures that might have had some value to his fellow soldiers, including one of the smiling principal of a girls’ school in Baghdad and one of an Iraqi translator–later killed, Slaughter says–interviewing someone who Slaughter says was believed to be an imam with ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
But the days of patrol leaders operating half-blind on the deadly streets of Iraq are drawing to a close. After a two-year rush program by the Pentagon’s research arm, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, troops are now getting what might be described as Google Maps for the Iraq counterinsurgency. There is nothing cutting-edge about the underlying technology: software that runs on PCs and taps multiple distributed databases. But the trove of information the system delivers is of central importance in the daily lives of soldiers.
The new technology–called the Tactical Ground Reporting System, or TIGR–is a map-centric application that junior officers (the young sergeants and lieutenants who command patrols) can study before going on patrol and add to upon returning. By clicking on icons and lists, they can see the locations of key buildings, like mosques, schools, and hospitals, and retrieve information such as location data on past attacks, geotagged photos of houses and other buildings (taken with cameras equipped with Global Positioning System technology), and photos of suspected insurgents and neighborhood leaders. They can even listen to civilian interviews and watch videos of past maneuvers. It is just the kind of information that soldiers need to learn about Iraq and its perils.