Spc. Colby Buzzell’s squad was on a mission in a poor neighborhood in Mosul when two Iraqi boys ran up carrying old artillery shells. “Give me dollar!” they said.
Another came carrying bullets and demanding money.
“Then, all of a sudden, this really skinny Iraqi kid comes running up to us with a f---- HAND GRENADE in his hand,” Buzzell wrote on his war blog. “ ’Drop the f---- hand grenade! Drop it now!’ We all started yelling. The little kid, still with this proud smile on his face that said, ’Look what I just found’ just dropped the grenade on the ground, and walked over to my squad leader and said, ’Give me money!”’
The grenade didn’t go off.
The squad leader explained to his men that an Army division that had been in the area earlier had paid children for weapons or unexploded ordnance.
For Buzzell, it was grist for his online war diary, http://cbftw.blogspot.com, whose fans range from soccer moms and truck drivers to punk band leader Jello Biafra. Before the counter dropped off the site, says Buzzell, he was getting 5,000 hits a day.
Iraq war blogs are as varied as the soldiers who write them. Some sites feature practical news, pictures and advice. Some are overtly political, with more slanting to the right than the left. Some question the war, some cheer it.
Buzzell and a handful of others write unvarnished war reporting. A few of these blogs have been shut down, and Buzzell, an infantryman in an Army Stryker brigade, says he was banned from missions for five days because of the blog and has stopped adding new narrative entries.
Details of war
For the folks back home, soldier blogs offer details of war that don’t make it into most news dispatches: The smell of rotten milk lingering in a poor neighborhood. The shepherd boys standing at the foot of a guard tower yelling requests for toothbrushes and sweets. The giant camel spiders. The tedium of long walks to get anything from a shower to a meal. A burning oil refinery a hundred miles away blocking the sun. A terrifying night raid surprised by armed enemies dressed in black.
On the blogs, soldiers complain, commiserate and celebrate their victories and ingenuity.
What do you do if the electricity goes out while you’re sitting in the latrine, leaving you in complete darkness with a dead flashlight? Blog answer: Reach into your cargo pocket and crack open a Chemlight.
The blogs offer more than war stories, they offer images from Iraq not seen elsewhere, like a sign in an office with no air conditioning: “We’re in the desert. The desert is hot. Now quit your whining.” and a sign on a truck, presumably driven by National Guardsmen: “Two weekends a month, my a--!”
Sean Dustman, a 32-year-old Navy corpsman from Prescott, Ariz., started writing his blog, http://docinthebox.blogspot.com, after reading other war blogs.
“I was entranced with their stories,” said Dustman, who recently returned from six months in Iraq. “This was where the real news that mattered to me was coming from, unlike what you saw through the regular media. Reading them (the blogs) helped me and my Marines prepare for the trip.”
Dustman started a photo blog, where he’d post pictures of his unit. Relatives visited religiously — and let him know with instant feedback when he wasn’t getting new pictures up fast enough. One comment: “Where is my Cody??!!”
Other bloggers encouraged him to write more than photo captions, so he did.
In April, Dustman wrote about flying over Baghdad. “At night there’s hardly a flight that there’s not someone shooting at you. They can’t see the aircraft (hopefully), but as soon as they hear one coming, they come out and shoot into the air. Mainly they’re hoping to get a lucky shot in. A tracer flies by a window and we’re banking and rolling, which is kinda like gambling, they can’t see us, we can’t see them either, a great game of Battleship in the sky.”
Leaving Iraq, he gave a litany of advice for soldiers heading there.
“The biggest way to save money on a trip to Iraq is to have a quality battery charger,” he began. Later, he wrote, “Be nice to everyone. Remember, everyone is armed ....”
Flashes of absurdity
A recurring theme is the flashes of military absurdity, such as the hurried martial arts training some Marines undergo before they leave Iraq.
One blogger said his platoon is trying “to qualify everyone in the company for the next belt level in, like, fifteen days with only one instructor (the other having gone slightly nuts and been shipped off for everyone’s safety.)” The blogger asked that his name and screen name not be used because he feared disciplinary action.
While some military bloggers (or milbloggers) say their commanders have encouraged their online literary ventures, a few say their commanders have shut them down.
Jason Hartley called his blog “Just Another Soldier” and wrote unflinchingly about everything from his buddies’ families to the conditions on base.
“I think I’ve been duped,” he wrote from a base in October 2003, while his unit was preparing to go to Iraq. “I’m not actually at a modern US military installation, but Sing Sing, circa 1940.”
“My commander had a meltdown when he discovered it,” Hartley, a sergeant in the New York National Guard, said of his blog in an instant message. “He demanded I take it down.”
The Pentagon has “no specific guidelines on blogging per se,” said Cheryl Irwin, a Defense Department spokeswoman. “Generally, they can do it if they are writing their blogs not on government time and not on a government computer. They have every right under the First Amendment to say any darn thing they want to say unless they reveal classified information, and then it becomes an issue as a security violation.”
Military bloggers say they’re careful not to reveal any information that would be useful to enemies. “Nowhere does either blog say where I was or give out full names of anybody but myself,” Dustman said.
One military blogger speculated on his site that the Army would eventually develop a liberal policy on blogging and other instant communication.
“The Internet is such a wonderful tool to keep soldiers connected with their friends and family and has a huge morale impact that prohibiting access would create a huge outcry,” wrote Eric Magnell, a lawyer whose blog, http://www.daggerjag.blogspot.com, chronicles his work with the Army as it tries to build a legal system in Iraq. “The Army isn’t a sinister organization looking to trample individual freedoms, but, as any large bureaucracy, it can be slow to react to new situations and changes in the environment.”
Said Dustman, “Most people do have their minds made up about the war, but bloggers let them know that we’re human too, just like them. We’re the best way for the public to take a pulse on how we’re handing the situation.”
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