The black-shrouded Web site opens with a soldier's silhouette and the pounding rhythm of Nine Inch Nails: "Into the fire you can send us," the words go. "From the fire we return."
This is the Unlikely Soldier's blog, where a young infantryman known as The Usual Suspect rants and shares his experiences in what soldiers call The Sandbox.
"One year ago," when his unit first arrived in Iraq, "we were nervous and excited and apprehensive. Ready to do this. Green as snot. I was all sorts of optimistic, thinking we were going to do great things and kick lots of ass, GI Joe hero type (expletive). That we could be cool with the people, and bring the hammer down on the baddies."
Then, every soldier's nightmare: "A low rumble shakes my Stryker (armored vehicle), and two of our guys are killed by an IED while they were dismounted.
"People emerged from their houses and cheered."
This is the war in 2008 — coming to a computer near you.
Wars have often been defined by the new technologies that shaped them. The Civil War was the first photographed conflict in U.S. history, news of World War II was delivered by movie news reels, television made Vietnam the living room war and Desert Storm was the first war broadcast live by satellite.
War made interactive
Historians will likely remember Operation Iraqi Freedom as iWar v1.0. The Web has done more than quicken reporting from the battlefield; it has made war interactive.
Al-Qaida militants, conservative bloggers, peace activists, Iraqi civilians and the U.S. military all use the Internet to distribute their versions of the truth. They often engage in e-mail debates, but more often sink to slurs and threats when challenging an opposing point of view.
U.S. soldiers return from battle to their rooms or tents, boot up their laptops and log on to let their friends and family know they've made it through another day. If their base is large enough, the Internet service provider offers broadband, and they can make a video call home, watch news reports on the war or post their own versions of life in Iraq to their blogs.
"I blog for the same reasons soldiers wrote letters and diaries during previous wars: to communicate with family and friends, (and) to maintain an honest record of our daily existence," wrote 1st Lt. Matt Gallagher, in response to an e-mail about his blog http://kaboomwarjournal.blogspot.com. "Blogging is simply a 21st century tool for a new generation of soldiers to utilize."
Gritty details in blogs
Gallagher's account of his life as a cavalry scout shares not only the gritty details of fighting in Iraq, but also the universal experiences of every soldier who has fought with any army, anywhere.
"Let's just say that if LT G were Lord Protectorate G of the Desert Cavalry of Pure Raw Awesomeness, things would be a little different," he wrote in one entry entitled "In My Army ..."
"Staff officers would have a little comprehension of history, and realize that `winning over hearts and minds' is more than just a poor choice of words when discussing the local populations temperament towards American military forces," he wrote.
And the "warrant officer who barked at my soldiers at the chow hall ... for not having haircuts, needing showers, and wearing their Army-issued fleeces over their uniform after we rolled back after 15 straight days of patrolling would still be eating mud, three days later after it happened."
There are hundreds of so-called soldier blogs, some amazing, others incomprehensible. They include Air Force computer technicians writing about hardware problems, an Army lawyer who describes jogging in the Green Zone and a military nurse sorting through her thoughts while tending to the wounded.
Some blog without permission
While Gallagher follows Pentagon guidelines on blogging and is registered with his command, some soldier's blog without permission, like The Usual Suspect at http://theunlikelysoldier.blogspot.com/ He finds that his uninhibited blog helps him process his combat experiences.
"As things became worse out here, I finally just let go and wrote what I wanted to — for the most part — and it really helped vent a lot of the frustrations," he said, asking that he not be identified so that he can continue his blog. "I haven't had any nightmares since. It's sort of become a release valve."
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the top military spokesman in Iraq, insists that blogging soldiers need not worry, as long as they follow the same rules as embedded journalists and do not reveal information that could endanger operations or lives.
Military delivers its own message on Internet
The military itself, he said, has found the Internet to be an extremely effective way to deliver its message on Iraq and has its own sophisticated Web site, http://www.mnf-iraq.com/.
"The Internet allows me to reach a much broader audience," Smith said. "A tremendous amount of Americans go to Web sites, our Web site included ... Iraqis now have access to the Internet and they are looking at other news sources than just the local newspapers."
The Iraq portrayed on the official Web site is very different from what the infantrymen describe — but that's the point. No single source can explain what is happening in Iraq. Now that journalists no longer hold a monopoly on news from the front, a smorgasbord of variations of the truth is spread across the Web.
"The enemy uses (the Internet) to their advantage because it reaches a worldwide audience, very economically and very efficiently," Smith said. "Here in Iraq we have been very successful in taking down the media networks that provide much of the material ... I'd say we have degraded al-Qaida in Iraq's media network by some 80 percent."
Islamic Army encourages recruits on Web site
The Islamic Army of Iraq, however, maintains an English Web site http://iaisite-eng.org/ where it assesses daily attacks on U.S. forces and encourages recruits for a regional Holy War that stretches across the Middle East.
"Today the nation is bleeding from Baghdad, from Gaza and from all the areas in these two countries, so it is a duty on us that we send a message to our brothers in religion and in jihad, (which) says: `Our arrows are aimed toward the necks of the enemies of Allah,'" one entry said.
But that's not the worst of it.
The site also offers videos of attacks on U.S. troops. The camera focuses on a U.S. soldier standing up in a turret, sometimes eating a meal or otherwise letting his guard down. Then a puff of dust — and the soldier's body slumps.
When these videos appear on mainstream outlets — and dozens do, on sites like YouTube — American bloggers contact service providers and demand that they be removed. Or they may seek help from sites like http://stop-internet-terrorists.blogspot.com/ which points to the videos and encourages people to flag them for removal.
Hackers attacked Estonian serviers
There are fears that warfare is coming to the Internet literally; last year, Estonia was the target of denial of service attacks that some authorities blamed on Russia.
By directing a flood of computers to connect with Estonian sites, the attackers overwhelmed computer servers and shut down Web sites belonging to the president, parliament, ministries, political parties, major news outlets and the country's two dominant banks.
Though the U.S. Department of Defense, has some of the strongest Internet defenses available, Smith said, the Pentagon is preparing for iWar v2.0.
This month the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security will conduct a multimillion dollar war game called Cyber Storm 2. The first time this war game was conducted, over five days in February 2006, the results were bleak. It showed how hackers and bloggers could use the Internet to take control of public services and the media to dominate the battlefield.
The military hopes to do better this time around.
"It's a fact of life now in warfare that the enemy will use the Internet," Smith said. "The question is making sure that he does not get exclusive use of it, he does not deny our access to it and that we have as much freedom to maneuver in that world as they do.