Slogging and Blogging Through Iraq

By David Ignatius
Friday, December 23, 2005

A Marine blogger who calls himself Captain B is describing the scruffy four-foot Christmas tree at his base in Anbar province, west of Baghdad: "Lacking ornaments for the most part, we used bullets, cigars, Marlboro packs and other things we like and hung them on the tree. It looks like a freaking train wreck but it's our train wreck."

An Army officer who signs on as Lieutenant K is blogging from another base in Anbar province. He has a Christmas tree, too, with what he calls a nice dark touch. "There is a belt of .50-caliber ammunition placed carefully in a ring around the bottom, reflecting the multicolored lights off its brass casings. It's actually quite beautiful." A 22-year-old hip-hop loving Marine who calls himself sup3rman83 writes: "We had a sandstorm last night!! I figure since I can't have a white Christmas, I'll settle for a sandy one."

When politicians talk about soldiers in Iraq, they will often say with great solemnity, "Thank you for your service." America does owe its troops a huge debt, but that phrase rankles, somehow. It sounds so pious, as if the troops are off serving in a monastery. But these are mostly young American kids -- joking, cursing, blowing out their eardrums with rock music, asking anyone who will listen why they got stuck in this hellhole, and then doing their jobs.

The military blogs coming out of Iraq are some of the most interesting reading I've found this holiday season. Soldiers have sent letters home in every war, but this is the first time civilians back home have been able to read over their shoulders. The best collection I've found is at a Web site called Milblogging.com. It has compiled more than 1,000 military blogs in 22 countries, including 258 coming out of Iraq.

As in every war, these soldiers have their own language. They travel with Arabic interpreters they call "terps"; when they go outside, they put on the "business suit" (body armor). And they have every shade of political opinion you would find in the United States. Some are jingoistic superpatriots ("Pull the troops out?" thunders Captain B. "Did these people eat a bowl of frosted dumbass for breakfast?") Others are skeptical that the war is making much progress. ("Most of us seem to be here to justify our own presence," says the author of a blog called "Sisyphus Today.")

I don't know how many Rupert Brookes this war will produce, but the blogs carry some vivid imagery. An example is "365 and a Wakeup," written by a company commander in southern Baghdad. Walking the perimeter of his base, he sees an Iraqi moon that "glittered in the winter sky like a silver lantern." At dawn, sunrise breaks over the eastern sky "like dye spreading in a still water." He knows it's mealtime when he hears the rumble of tanks arriving with containers of hot food. "The troops held out their plates like Buddhist monks seeking alms, until the plastic dishes looked like the steep-sided slopes of a steaming volcano."

There are some haunting images of the Iraqi people. A blogger named Michael, who spends his days dodging roadside bombs in Ramadi, sees an Iraqi man driving a tractor and wearing a New York Yankees cap. "I wondered if he hated the Red Sox," he writes. The author of "Sisyphus Today" describes moving with a speeding convoy when he sees a little Iraqi boy "crying at the top of his lungs" beside the road and realizes that the boy is alone and afraid. "I wanted to stop, in my mind the risk was minimal, but I couldn't stop the convoy. Where would I have taken the boy anyway? I can only say 'stop' and 'hello' in Arabic. So we drove on past."

The bloggers dream about being home for Christmas. IraqiDirtChick has been trying desperately to make it back to Missouri, but she keeps missing flights out of Baghdad. To distract herself, she thinks of shopping: "Shampoo, body washes (SO DAMN YUMMY . . . stuff that makes you smell so damn good) gold necklaces, a ring, a bracelet."

And when the soldiers finally make it home, there is joy -- and also introspection, like that voiced by a blogger who calls himself Where's Your Baghdaddy? and who left Iraq a few weeks ago: "I once read somewhere that, 'going into a combat zone is a one-way door since the person that leaves is not the same person that returns.' This new person returning is committed to being a better husband, father and friend. I have felt the pain of leaving all that I hold dear, and I will not take it for granted again."

davidignatius@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company