By Daniel Schulman
Ernie Pyle, the legendary correspondent, understood soldiers. He knew how they marched, how they mourned, how they endured. With few exceptions, the coverage coming out of Iraq today doesn’t portray the grunts in the same deeply personal light. It is a different era, and most journalists have never served in the military and have only a passing acquaintance with the worlds that most soldiers come from. But for readers who want a taste of the soldier’s life, a modern-day Ernie Pyle is no longer necessary; soldiers themselves are blogging their experiences from the front lines.
Since combat began in Iraq in March 2003, “milblogs,” as they’re called, have been cropping up in increasing numbers. Some are sophomoric and laced with obscenities, while others offer frank and poignant accounts of what it’s like to fight this war. Their popularity has drawn the interest of book publishers, along with the scrutiny of military higher-ups concerned that milblogs could breach operational security. For the Pentagon there is also something else at play here: how to manage the flow of information from the field — especially when the military’s official version of events is contradicted by blogging soldiers.
In August 2004, a twenty-eight-year-old Army infantryman named Colby Buzzell, writing anonymously under the handle CBFTW (the last three letters stand for, alternately, “fuck the war” or “fuck the world”), posted his account of a vicious firefight with insurgents on his blog, My War. “We were driving there on that main street when all of a sudden all hell came down all around on us. I was like, this is it, I’m going to die. I cannot put into words how scared I was.” The battle received scant media attention, and the Pentagon played down the extent to which Buzzell’s brigade had even been involved in the fighting — crediting Iraqi security forces with the victory. Days later, though, a report in the Tacoma, Washington, News Tribune, which covers Buzzell’s Fort Lewis-based detachment, noted the discrepancy between Buzzell’s version and the Pentagon’s. This drew attention to Buzzell’s blog, and soon his officers learned his identity. Buzzell was later briefly confined to base, an experience he details in his forthcoming book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, due out in October.
Since then, the military has paid closer attention to milblogs. Some have been censored, others ordered to shut down. The crackdown, though, may have unintended consequences for the military. The best of these blogs offer Americans back home a chance to connect with soldiers in ways that today’s media coverage does not.
The bloggers themselves seem to be well aware that their sites are being watched. “Hey pencil pusher reading this, ready to censor/censure me, go on patrol, you Fobbit!” wrote Rusten Currie, a military intelligence officer in Baghdad, in a recent post to his blog, Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum (Latin for, “If you wish for peace, prepare for war”). (“Fobbit” is military-speak for soldiers who spend most of their time on base.) Currie continues to post heartfelt ruminations about his time in Iraq and the prospect of returning to his wife of nearly two years. “An entire year will be missing from my marriage, and I don’t know how to get that back,” he wrote in July.
Some of the most powerful accounts come from bloggers who have recently returned from Iraq, such as those posted by the Army reporter/photographer Fred Minnick (one of his photos is above), who was stationed in Mosul and blogs under the name Sminklemeyer (In Iraq for 365). He writes about his struggle with recurring nightmares. “I also had the dream again last night,” he wrote soon after his return. “This time, I called one of those 1-800 help lines the army provides. When I made the call, I realized my hands were trembling . . . I know I need help.”
Sometimes it is the absence of a post that puts the war into perspective for readers left to speculate on the blogger’s fate. Since January, the blogs of at least two soldiers have gone dark after their authors were killed in action.
By Daniel Schulman