August 1, 2006  

Driven to print

Milbloggers find refuge — and preservation — in books

One of the most striking features of military blogs is their short life spans. As many of the best milbloggers return from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, they stop posting and leave their own homecomings as the coda to their digital masterpieces. This is fine for them, but it raises an essential problem with preserving often invaluable sources of military history that can easily disappear on the Internet. Fortunately, a growing number of milblogs are being converted to books, creating new opportunities to record (and improve) on the original milblogs.

Colby Buzzell’s “My War: Killing Time in Iraq” is the first milblog-to-memoir conversion, written by an accidental blogger. Buzzell was halfway through his deployment and had given up on his journals when a Time magazine article inspired him to start a blog.

Buzzell is a consummate slacker: He joins the Army in order to end a string of dead-end jobs and marries his out-of-state girlfriend in a shameless bid to qualify for the basic allowance for housing. But when Buzzell enters his military specialty as an M240 machine gunner, he discovers his true calling. He pores over training and field manuals for his weapon, conducts extra physical training off hours and is promoted from ammunition bearer to gunner by the time he is deployed.

Buzzell saw a remarkable amount of combat, and his blog initially gained widespread attention when he described a pitched battle in August 2004. Beginning with a terse CNN report that “[c]lashes between police and insurgents in the northern city of Mosul left 12 Iraqis dead and 26 wounded,” Buzzell provides a compelling account of the fight of his life, beginning with a 20-minute mortar attack against his forward operating base.

In addition to being a detailed record of his combat experience (and an often hilarious, always profane dairy of life in the Army), Buzzell’s book is a perfect example of the benefits that a milblog can gain from being reformatted into a book with added background and generous editing. The original My War blog simply does not compare to the book for providing a detailed portrait of the machine gunner as a young man.

In contrast, Jason Hartley’s “Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq” (Harper Collins, 2006) follows the flow of his blog much more closely, as Hartley began writing as soon as he was called up, creating a direct transition from blog to book that is surprisingly natural.

The title of Hartley’s excellent book is somewhat disingenuous — he is anything but just another soldier. He obsesses on morality and mortality, uses the term “defenestration” accurately in a sentence, and spent the month of September 2001 pulling security at the grounds of the destroyed World Trade Center.

The tie that binds Buzzell and Hartley’s accounts of their experiences in Iraq is that each was at the cutting edge of evolving doctrine as the Army attempted to catch up with the insurgency it did not intend to fight. Buzzell was a gunner on the controversial Stryker armored vehicle and Hartley a member of a National Guard unit that was outfitted with up-armored Humvees in an effort to develop motorized infantry tactics for the urban, IED-laden slog in Iraq.

Matthew Currier Burden, meanwhile, has produced “The Blog of War: Frontline Dispatches from Military Bloggers in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Simon & Schuster, 2006), an edited volume where he organizes excerpts from more than 50 milblogs into chapters on such themes as “The Healers,” “The Warriors,” “The Fallen” and “Homecoming.” Burden is better known in the blogosphere as “Blackfive,” the webmaster at http://www.blackfive.net and the winner of “best milblog” awards in 2004 and 2005. Because “The Blog of War” covers so many topics, it provides insight into many aspects of the war, including where Hartley’s description of motorized infantry tactics does not.

One point on which all three books agree is that milblogging from the theater is a threatened, if not dying, art. Just as Buzzell eventually chose to stop blogging rather than submit all postings to his platoon sergeant for editing (a practice that no senior non-commissioned officer has time for) and Hartley was forced to end his blog altogether, Burden reports that several of the bloggers he cites have closed shop in response to command pressure.

The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board is holding a summer study to assess the impact of milblogging that will hopefully reintroduce the value milblogging holds for force effectiveness despite its necessary risks for operations security. And, as these enjoyable and educational books indicate, it would simply be a tragedy for American journalism and literature if milblogging is allowed to become a casualty of the war on terrorism.

CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN is a researcher in the Asian studies department of the American Enterprise Institute.