Ed Pilkington in New York
Tuesday May 15, 2007
· Literary award for former soldier's online dispatches
· Critics brand Pentagon's new rules 'self-defeating'
The timing of the award is almost as striking as the writing which it honours. A former American machine gunner's memoir of a year's tour of duty in Iraq based on his blog has just won a major accolade at precisely the moment when the US military high command is clamping down on blogs among the rank and file.
Colby Buzzell was awarded the £5,000 Lulu Blooker prize for My War: Killing Time in Iraq, which was voted the best book of the year based on a blog. It triumphed over 110 entries from 15 countries.
The memoir was drawn from a blog he kept while in Mosul, in northern Iraq, in 2004, in which he portrayed the texture of daily life there, from listening to Metallica on his iPod to watching his fellow "grunts" surf the web for pornography.
The paradox of Buzzell's victory is that it quickly follows the revelation that the Pentagon has introduced new rules restricting blogs among soldiers, fuelling speculation that live and unadorned combat writing from the field such as Buzzell's may be the last of its kind.
The new rules require all would-be "milbloggers", as soldier-publishers are called, to submit blog entries to supervising officers before posting them. That turns on its head the existing rules which allowed soldiers to post freely, with the onus on them to register their blogs and to alert officers to any material that might compromise security.
Yesterday the defence department went further and announced it was blocking access "worldwide" to 13 communal websites, including YouTube and MySpace from military computers and networks. General BB Bell said the move was to protect operations from the drain on computer capacity caused by soldiers downloading videos on these sites.
But prominent military bloggers said this was another move by commanders to try and regain control over ue of the internet. Matthew Burden, a former major in the US army who runs the most popular milblog, Blackfive, with 3 million unique users a year, said he had been contacted by several serving soldiers who said they were going to stop posting. "They are all putting their hands in the air and saying, 'That's it, I've had enough.'"
He said the rules were self-defeating and would deter blogs such as firstname.lastname@example.org, which is written by a specialist who defuses roadside bombs. "Take that down and you are removing one of the most positive messages for what the army is doing in Iraq," Mr Burden said.
Mr Buzzell, now 30, was sent to Iraq in November 2003. He had joined the army at a time, he said, when "I was living off Top Ramen [pot noodles] in a suburb of San Francisco and my life was going nowhere". He discovered blogging by reading a Time article while in Iraq, and started posting eight months into his tour.
He rapidly built up a huge following and was profiled in the media. After six weeks an order came down that his blog should be stopped, without any explanation; but by then he already had 10 different publishers clamouring after him.
Buzzell said the new restrictions would hurt combat soldiers and their families. "It's hard for them out there, and this will make it harder. It will lower soldier morale for troops who are on their second or even third tour." He also regrets the tightening grip over blogging on a personal level because without it, he said, he would now be "washing dishes in a restaurant somewhere, back to eating Top Ramen".
As it is, his book has been translated into seven languages, and he has embarked on a freelance writing career for Esquire magazine, among others. "This is a totally screwed up policy," he said. "The commanders are just really nervous because they can't keep control any more."
· Biography: Colby Buzzell
From: now lives in San Francisco
Hobbies: skateboarding and hard rock
Job: machine gunner turned author
Started blogging because: 'It sounded like a good way for me to kill some time out here in Iraq, post a little diary stuff, maybe some rants, links to some cool shit, thoughts, experiences, garbage, crap, whatever.'
Literary idols: Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S Thompson
Favourite sounds before a mission: the Cure, the Smiths "and a little bit of the old school U2"
Ed Pilkington in New York