Battle Blogs: My Life in Combat
Fed up with the coverage in Iraq, soldiers are penning their own blogs. Hollywood can't be far behind.
By Tara Pepper
Dec. 5, 2005 issue - Colby Buzzell had spent nearly nine months as a U.S. infantry soldier based in Mosul, Iraq, when his battalion was involved in a ferocious gun battle that engulfed the city. Scrolling through news Web sites the next day, Buzzell found just four brief paragraphs about the siege on CNN, highlighting that Mosul would soon return to normal. The report, he said, looked like it had been lifted straight from a press release. Amazed, Buzzell copied the CNN report into the top of a blog entry, then began an 8,000-word essay describing the horror of what had happened that day. "I cannot put into words how scared I was ... My [platoon] was stuck right smack dab in the middle of the ambush ... We shot our way out of it and drove right through the ambush. The street we were driving down to escape, had 3 to 4 story high buildings all along each side, as we were driving away all you could see were 100's and 100's of bullets impacting all over these buildings." Word started to spread after that Aug. 4, 2004, entry, called "Men in Black," and soon Buzzell's two- month-old Web diary was getting 10,000 hits a day. And his wasn't the only one. Over the past year, the number of soldiers writing Internet diaries of their war experiences has mushroomed, with hundreds of eyewitness accounts transforming what we know about the war and undermining the efforts of the Pentagon and White House to manage information about the conflict. Buzzell's new book, "My War: Killing Time in Iraq," based on his blog, is one of nearly a dozen snapped up by publishers and released this fall. More are on the way. Over the past year, the U.S. Endowment for the Arts held writing workshops for returning soldiers and collected stories from 1,700 troops, some of which will be published in an anthology next year.
Since the Iliad, the heightened emotion of war and the compelling battlefield themes of courage, loyalty and comradeship have inspired great reportage. Journalists like Edward R. Murrow built their careers on eyewitness dispatches from the front. But soldiers themselves rarely wrote about their experiences. When they did, their accounts—like Anthony Swofford's best-selling "Jarhead," about the first Gulf War, recently released as a feature film starring Jake Gyllenhaal—were not published until years after the conflict. Now soldiers log accounts with gunshots still ringing in their ears; their stories hit bookstores while the conflict is still in the news. "You're getting an immediate, unedited take, a very raw feed of what's going on," says Mark Glaser, a columnist at the Online Journalism Review. "And you're not getting a journalist's report, you're seeing the personal aspect of it. That can't be overstated. It resonates with people."
Like Buzzell, many bloggers were inspired to provide a fresh perspective on the war because they found mainstream media reports inadequate. Writer Michael Yon went to Iraq in January 2005, after seeing a discrepancy between what he heard from soldier friends, and what he read in the newspapers. Speaking on the phone from Iraq, Yon says that since reporters often dip in and out of the country, they miss slower, more profound changes. "I've stayed long enough to see patterns [of interaction] emerge," says Yon. Nonetheless, Glaser cautions that, as many bloggers air their personal complaints anonymously, news consumers should be wary. "You have to read [the blog] on a regular basis, correspond with the blogger and learn who you can trust."
As the popularity of soldiers' blogs grows, the U.S. Army is keeping a close eye on this new information channel. Buzzell's "Men in Black" entry was later published in Esquire magazine, and became the pitch for his current book. But his blog also won him an official warning for compromising operations security.
Future entries, he was told, would have to be read and cleared by a platoon sergeant. "In this day and age where the enemy can get a great deal of information through open sources, commanders need to do everything they can to safeguard their information because lives and missions are at stake," explained Department of Defense spokesperson Lt. Col. Chris Conway. Despite the dangers, says Glaser, "military bloggers are offering a view that I don't think we've ever had of warbefore." And from these fresh-from-combat narratives, a Homer or a Hemingway might emerge for the Internet age.
Battle Blogs: My Life in Combat