“The following post is a bit more personal than I ever intended for this blog, but many family and friends have asked for a copy of something I recently wrote, and I thought this would be a good way to share it … Relatively few people may ever read it, but still, it’s out there for the world to see.” — “Wordsmith At War,” Jan. 21, 2006
Army 1st Lt. Lee Kelley didn’t plan to get personal on his blog — he just wanted to stay in touch with family and friends. He started his blog, “Wordsmith At War,” in 2005 while training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. His postings were about daily life there, about the guys in his unit and how he missed the mountains — nothing unexpected for a soldier awaiting deployment. But something changed when he got to Iraq.
“I started blogging more and more, and then I crossed the line; my writing got a lot more personal,” says Kelley, 35, an officer with the Utah Army National Guard. He was stationed at Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi, Iraq. “It got to the point that everything I did in Iraq, I was thinking of a way to blog about it.”
He wrote about pastel skies and exploding mortars and pondered his mortality. Already an introspective writer with a creative writing degree and a novel in the works, Kelley became more reflective in his more frequent postings. He wrote late at night in his room, banging out stories about the day’s events on his notebook computer, sometimes writing until dawn. And when he wasn’t near a computer, he wrote in a notebook and posted his entries later.
Soldiers who blog, or milbloggers, do it for many reasons. Some write to let their families know how they’re doing, and others do it to counter what they see as an anti-military bias in the media or to air their political views. Most do it to share their personal stories. They write from training camps and battle zones, in lonely living quarters and in crowded Internet cafes. And whatever their reasons, milbloggers provide an unprecedented, in-the-trenches view of war — a perspective they say is missing from the mainstream media.
“We just don’t get a firsthand opinion on what it’s like to be a soldier,” says Matthew Currier Burden, a Chicago information technology executive who served in the first Gulf War and is the author of The Blog of War: Front-Line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We don’t know what’s happening on the ground and why this soldier is doing what he’s doing,” Burden says. “You hear three guys died, but you don’t hear that they have taken down a hundred terrorists. They just want their fair shake.”
And at a time when the number of embedded journalists has gone from 770 during the early stages of the Iraqi invasion to just a handful today, according to blogger Michael Yon, a 43-year-old Army Special Forces veteran and independent journalist, soldiers who blog offer a much-needed alternative to the media. Yon’s reporting from Iraq has earned him the respect of both mainstream journalists and milbloggers.
If Vietnam was the first televised war, this conflict is the first that is digitized, with soldiers in the field equipped with everything from notebook computers to their own satellite dishes. Unlike during previous conflicts, when loved ones had to wait weeks or sometimes months for letters to arrive, today words and images can be exchanged in an instant, forever changing the way both soldiers and civilians experience war.
“Today you have soldiers with same tools and technology as the media,” says Burden, whose blog, “Blackfive,” is one of the most respected and popular milblogs. “They have digital cameras, cell phones, video — everything they need to post stories. With a push of a button, they can send e-mails to all their family and friends and share their experiences with the world.”
There are more than 1,400 military-related blogs, according to National Guard Spc. J.P. Borda, a 32-year-old software analyst who runs milblogging.com, an aggregator of milblogs from around the world. But not only soldiers are blogging, spouses and parents are too. The milblogging community is large, but like most military communities, it is tight. Word spreads fast when someone is injured or killed, and support for family members is immediate.
“When my son was wounded, I put the story up on the blog and it spread like a wildfire,” says Carla Lois of the blog “Some Soldier’s Mom.” Lois has three sons in the military — all home safe now. “There was a soldier who read it — an Air Force nurse who just got back to Minnesota — and he called a friend — an Air Force nurse in the hospital where my son was. That nurse checked on him and left a comment on my blog: ‘I saw your son, his injuries are not life threatening, and he is doing fine.’”
A couple hours later, the Army called to tell her what she already knew.
While the advantages of communication technology far outweigh any potential down sides, there are some, according to Kelley.
“It’s nice because you don’t feel so distant and separate — you can talk to your wife and kids every day — but it makes it harder when a soldier wakes up in the morning and his kid has a loose tooth or his wife is having a bad day. It takes away the ability to focus, and it makes it easier to get killed.”
Still, he can’t imagine having it any other way and is “thankful for living in this technological era.” Perhaps no one is more thankful than family members back home.
Lois recalls a time when she didn’t even know how to turn on a computer, let alone send an e-mail. Now, she says her computer is on 24 x 7 with her instant messenger up and the volume at full blast. In order to keep track of “her boys,” as she calls her sons and their buddies, she programmed an animal sound for each soldier — a moo for one son, an oink for his friend, and so on.
“One time, there were six boys who were on a mission and as soon as they got back they messaged me. It sounded like a barnyard in my office. My husband and I just said, ‘Oh, the boys are back.’ I didn’t jump up and run to the computer like I did in the beginning. Just knowing they were back was OK with me.”
While technology has changed the way soldiers fight and how they communicate with their families and friends, one aspect of military life remains the same — the tradition of secrecy and censorship. Blogging flies in the face of that.
“Originally, the military opened up Internet access to boost morale, but it soon became a Pandora’s box,” Burden says. “How do you prevent sensitive information from getting out there? They’re trying to address that now.”
Some of the more popular blogs from the early days of the Iraq invasion have disappeared under increasing Pentagon scrutiny. Last year, a new policy was instituted requiring all military bloggers in Iraq to register with their units, and in October, the Army’s Web Risk Assessment Cell assigned 10 members of the Virginia National Guard to review official and unofficial Web sites for potential operational security violations. In January, an Internet watchdog group concerned about military censorship filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense, demanding expedited information on how the Army monitors milblogs.
While most soldiers who stopped blogging did so voluntarily in order to avoid potential security risks, at least two soldiers have been disciplined over their blog postings.
Army Spc. Colby Buzzell has been called the Rosa Parks of milbloggers for shutting down his blog after he was ordered to submit his writings for review. In August 2004, he wrote a detailed account of a battle in Mosul and posted it on his blog, “My War,” which he wrote anonymously as “cbftw.” Among other things, Buzzell described his platoon sergeant being shot in the head, which is how his commanders figured out who he was.
“I felt the military was suppressing what happened that day,” says Buzzell, who was discharged in December 2004 and now lives in Los Angeles. “The press releases said the Iraqi army and police were doing the fighting and we were just there for support. We were doing the fighting, so I wrote about what was really going on.”
He says he complied with their request for a while, but thought it was a “waste of time” and pulled the plug on “My War.” Buzzell went on to publish a book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, and is a contributing writer to Esquire magazine.
As a commander, 1st Sgt. Troy Steward knows the dos and don’ts of milblogging. He has always been careful about posting words and images that might threaten security or worry his mom sick, but he says it’s important that soldiers be allowed to tell the unvarnished truth about life on the front lines. Steward was stationed in Sharana, Afghanistan, where his unit was embedded with the Afghanistan National Army. He calls this conflict “the forgotten war,” because so little news is reported from there, compared with Iraq.
Steward’s Web site — bouhammer.com — features several blogs: one focusing on his daily life, one on general military happenings around the world, a travel blog and his wife’s blog about life on the home front. He also posts an extensive photo gallery and videos of some of his missions.
If soldiers don’t tell these stories, Steward asks, who will? Considering that much of our nation’s military history has been culled from soldiers’ letters home, he says, milblogs are history in real time and need to be read to understand what the war is about.
“Before blogs, all the way back to the wars that shaped our country, it was the letters that relayed the horrors, sorrows and love that the solider experiences,” he says. “But unless those letters were known about and shared, those little pieces of history were only seen by one or two sets of eyes.”