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Dispatches: Soldiers' Blogs, Washington's Blunders

Sunday, September 3, 2006

"It's so hard to let go; you want to make time stand still. You barely breathe and try to feel his heartbeat in your own breast because his heart will always beat in yours." These words, the timeless lament of a father seeing his son off to war, are included in a remarkable collection of e-mails and blogs by soldiers and their families in The Blog of War: Front-line Dispatches From Military Bloggers in Iraq and Afghanistan , by Matthew Currier Burden (Simon & Schuster; paperback, $15). A former Army officer, Burden was inspired to begin a "milblog" of his own -- called Blackfive, "the generic call-sign for the executive officer making things happen behind the scenes" -- in June 2003 after learning of the death in Iraq of a friend, Maj. Mathew E. Schram. Schram was killed when he ordered his Humvee to accelerate into an insurgent position in order to break up an ambush of his convoy, probably saving the life of the reporter embedded with his unit. But "the reporter never wrote a story about my good friend, Mat, the man who saved his life. That wasn't news," Burden explains. "It took a few weeks to figure out what to do with the story that I knew, the news that I felt should be out there."

So he turned to the Web. Blogging the story of Schram and hundreds of other unknown soldier-heroes was a good decision, as was piecing together a collection of military blogs from all over the Iraq theater. Though Burden's politics have a decidedly conservative slant (one of his favorite bloggers, a Marine who re-enlisted as a corporal after watching others go off to Iraq and Afghanistan, calls his site "Red State Rants"), nonpartisan patriotism is the common thread tying together these reflections, love letters and stories of combat. They make for riveting reading.

Everyone, it seems, is vying to be part of the official history of the Iraq debacle these days. That includes James Fallows, the Washington correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, whose new collection of articles, Blind Into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq (Vintage; paperback, $13.95) might be called "Look, I was right!" Indeed, Fallows often was. In a series of articles from 2002 through 2005 -- one of which, "The Fifty-First State?," won a National Magazine Award -- he proved to be among the most prescient American journalists in questioning both the premises of the Iraq war and the preparations for it.

Much of this is for Fallows groupies. Still, Blind Into Baghdad contains many reminders of just how good Fallows was at poking his finger into the administration's most vulnerable spots. In "Bush's Lost Year," published in October 2004, Fallows was among the first to take note of what may still be the single most astonishing fact since 9/11: "There is no evidence that the president and those closest to him ever talked systematically about the 'opportunity costs' and trade-offs in their decision to invade Iraq. No one has pointed to a meeting, a memo, a full set of discussions, about what America would gain and lose." He is, sadly, correct in this. And any historian wanting to understand what went wrong over the past six years should start right there.

-- Michael Hirsh

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