Blogs Chronicle War from Soldiers' Perspectives

Nikki Schwab
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 2, 2007 7:30 PM

When Capt. Danjel Bout lost three comrades in a single day while on an October 2005 mission in Baghdad, he stifled his grief and remained focused on what seemed to be the longest day of his life.

The next day, he let it out.

He went to his computer and wrote a detailed and emotional account of the losses in his blog, " 365 and a Wakeup."

For Bout, blogging was a way to get some emotional relief from the hardships of war; it was an "online therapy session" of sorts. For the more than 750,000 viewers of his blog, it has been a way for them to read a firsthand account of the Iraq war, according to Bout.

"Anytime I think a story gets personalized, I think people can see the emotion behind the cold hard facts," the California Army National Guardsman said.

Today, many of the stories coming from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being written by those fighting them, in the form of thousands of soldiers' military blogs, or "milblogs." Their tales are unfolding as they occur, with limited censorship from the military, and they are attracting a growing readership from inside and outside the military.

Ward Carroll, the editor of military.com, an online military and veteran membership organization, said some of the best milbloggers have the ability to shape opinions on the war.

"If you are going to be informed, especially with something so controversial and polarizing as the Iraq war, you need to read one of these blogs along with The Washington Post and the New York Times," Carroll said.

Some prominent milbloggers started their sites to combat boredom during deployment or ease communication with family and friends at home, not expecting the blogs to become popular.

Bout began his blog in 2005 because he was "too lazy to e-mail everyone individually" and filled it with candid descriptions of patrolling Baghdad's Dora neighborhood. During his 18-month deployment to Iraq, the officer lost 17 comrades. In his blog, he described how fallen soldiers were honored.

Army Spc. Colby Buzzell began one of the first well-liked milblogs "My War: Killing Time in Iraq" in 2004 during month eight of his year-long deployment to Mosul.

Buzzell said he read a Time magazine article titled "Meet Joe Blog" and it encouraged him to start blogging under the pseudonym CBFTW, an acronym standing for his initials and the tattoo on his arm, "[expletive] the world."

While Buzzell and Bout blogged from the frontlines, the military blogosphere is far more expansive.

Pieced together, the milblogging community covers all aspects of modern military life. In addition to active duty soldiers, there are veterans like Matthew Currier Burden who run popular sites updating the community on the latest news from the war. Burden's blog "Blackfive" gets an average 20,000 views a day, though it sometimes spikes to over a million, according to Burden. There also are family members who blog, such as military wife Andi Hurley of the blogs "Andi's World" and "SpouseBUZZ," who discuss issues they face on the homefront.

The exact number of milblogs on the Internet is unknown. The Mudville Gazette hosts a Web ring of about 450 milblogs. Milblogging.com has more than 1,700 registered milblogs and an online subject search via Web clearinghouse Technorati shows more than 2,500 blogs on the military. These numbers continue to grow.

Early in the Iraq war, the military shut down some milblogs over concerns that soldiers were violating operational security or OPSEC.

Buzzell of "My War" wrote from June to September 2004, until he faced censorship and stopped blogging. Buzzell's witty and sarcastic entries on life as a machine gunner in Mosul gained him quick popularity. He believed superiors first became aware of the blog's existence after an entry was quoted in a newspaper account of an ambush.

Commanders told Buzzell what he could write about in his blog because they were concerned that he could endanger the mission.

"I think I understand their concerns, you don't want Private Somebody over there releasing secrets or putting soldiers in jeopardy," Buzzell said.

After he continued posting, Buzzell was told that although he "wasn't being punished," he could not leave his base until "further notice," Buzzell wrote in his book "My War: Killing Time in Iraq."

He told a Wall Street Journal reporter about his predicament. Once the reporter began to investigate, Buzzell said he was allowed to participate in missions again after about a week of being confined to his base.

After this situation, he posted one blog entry that was pre-screened by his first sergeant. Then he decided to quit.

"I knew subconsciously that if the Army found out, I would probably get in trouble," Buzzell said.

His scolding was minor compared to the punishment Jason Christopher Hartley received four months later, Buzzell said.

Hartley authored the blog "Just Another Soldier," filling it with writings and dozens of pictures. Hartley posted graphic photos including one where troops set fire to a dead dog - "a common place roadside bombs are hidden," he wrote. He posted another of Iraqi children giving inappropriate gestures and a photo showing Hartley and a comrade sitting on the commode with their camouflage pants down.

Hartley said his commander didn't appreciate his frank and sarcastic sense of humor.

"In a way I kind of expected it," Hartley said. "I didn't expect the army-if they would find the blog-to have a sense of humor about it."

He said his platoon sergeant asked him to remove the blog as a favor. He did, but continued writing and e-mailed his stories to a list of interested readers. Near the end of his tour he re-published the blog. It was discovered and Hartley, like Buzzell, was confined to his base for a month while an investigation was conducted.

Hartley said he was told he had violated the Geneva Convention for posting pictures of detainees on the Internet. In addition, he was told he violated a direct order when he reneged on the promise to his platoon sergeant and republished the blog. His punishment was a $1,000 fine and a demotion.

Blogging policies take shape

When Buzzell, Hartley and others began blogging from Iraq, there was no blanket Defense Department policy addressing the practice though there were policies prohibiting bloggers from revealing information about certain military activities, and policies that prevented them from blogging on military-owned computers.

Lt. Gen. John Vines issued a blogging policy in April 2005 for coalition forces serving in Iraq. The policy required bloggers to register Web sites with their chain of command, and unit commanders were required to review these sites on a quarterly basis.

In August 2005, the mission of the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell was updated to include personal Web sites and blogs. This group of 10 Virginia Army National Guard members scours official government sites along with blogs by military personnel for OPSEC violations.

Web pages and blogging now make OPSEC violations more serious because of the instantaneous nature of the medium and the global reach, wrote team leader Lt. Col. Stephen Warnock in an e-mail. His cell has examined thousands of blogs, and Warnock said he's seen improvement in the content of milblogs, with fewer items violating security.

The best way for bloggers to adhere to operational security is to use common sense, Warnock wrote.

"If you are posting information that you wouldn't tell someone face to face, why would you post it online?" he wrote.

A recent policy change drew a negative reaction from one blogger.

On April 19 the Army released an updated OPSEC policy, Army Regulation 530-1. This policy requires Army personnel to consult with a supervisor and their OPSEC officer before posting information in a public forum. This includes letters, e-mails, Web site postings and blog postings among others types of information, according to the policy.

Burden, in a post on his blog "Blackfive", called the new policy "the end of military blogging." While Burden said he fears that this policy would impede Army members from blogging from war zones, Army OPSEC Program Manager Maj. Ray Ceralde, who helped author the revision, said bloggers shouldn't be concerned.

According to Ceralde, the new regulation does not require bloggers to have each post approved by officers, but rather instructs bloggers to alert commanders and OPSEC officers when they initially create a blog. This is similar to the policy already put in place in Iraq, he said. "Soldiers have the right to express themselves as long as they don't reveal information that will subject their unit or personnel to harm," Ceralde said.

Dr. Leonard Wong, an associate research professor in the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, said he believed the information on blogs could be used against American forces.

"We have a very open society, and we are starting to realize that the enemy takes advantage of that," Wong said.

While he couldn't cite a specific example of information from a blog being used against troops, he said the incident of Basra insurgents using Google maps to hit British military targets proves that they're capable of using information posted on the Internet in their attacks.

Most milbloggers that washingtonpost.com interviewed said censorship wasn't much of a concern, though the effects of the newest OPSEC policy have yet to be felt throughout the milblogosphere.

Burden of "Blackfive" said milbloggers have had different experiences because how closely the rules are followed depends on each blogger's chain of command. He is working to get policies loosened. He cautioned that stifling bloggers could cause the most pro-military writers to stop posting because they are more likely to follow the rules, leaving only negative voices behind.

"Most of these people who are blogging are proud of what they do, and they volunteer to do this job. By and large they are a positive voice coming out of this war," Burden said. "You don't want to restrict them too much because they are providing a resource assisting what you are trying to do, which is winning the war."

He wants to see milbloggers who are blogging from the war zones given the same rules as embedded journalists. Bloggers from the home front already have started to receive privileges more closely aligned to those of professional journalists.

Roxie Merritt, the director of new media operations at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, said while bloggers aren't being credentialed like media, the military is taking more time to communicate with bloggers to ensure that they post accurate information. She said the U.S. Central Command was the first command unit to reach out to bloggers. A command team was created to refer bloggers to information generally already available on one of the military's Web sites, according to Merritt.

Since January, Merritt's office has hosted "blogger roundtables," which are conference calls for bloggers writing on Defense Department issues. Hurley of "Andi's World" and other milbloggers participate, posing questions to many top officials in the Multi-National Force of Iraq.

Blogger Bill Roggio served in the military and started "The Fourth Rail" in March 2004, using media accounts, milblog posts and Defense Department press releases to craft coverage of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Impressed with his reporting, the U.S. Marine Corps invited Roggio to become an embedded reporter in the Anbar Province of Iraq.

Because he was a blogger and not affiliated with a media company, he had to find organizations to help him acquire credentials. The Weekly Standard sponsored Roggio's first trip to Iraq along with the Canadian talk radio show The World Tonight. He raised $33,000 from more than 700 of his readers for the trip.

Roggio has since joined troops three times in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. He formed his own media company so that he can acquire press credentials. Without any formal journalism training, Roggio--who is vocal about his pro-Iraq war stance--has turned his writing into a career.

"When I go on BBC radio I'm called a journalist and when I'm on The World Tonight he calls me a military analyst, blogger, journalist," Roggio said. "I say whatever they are comfortable in calling me."

Another blogger, Bert Stover, who piloted a helicopter in Al Asad and Al Taqaddam, Iraq, for 12 months, walked an even more complicated media-military line. Stover wrote the blog "Reporting for Duty" for washingtonpost.com.

Stover was manager of commercial and enterprise systems at the online news site before being called to active duty. He pitched the blogging idea to editors and his superiors in the military. Because he was part of the Virginia Army National Guard but was working under the Marines in Iraq, he ended up working his way through three chains of command to get the project approved.

Stover said he was able to write about his deployment for washingtonpost.com because he was forthright with the Marines.

"I was the go-between," Stover said. "I had to have a sense of awareness of what was acceptable and what wasn't and when there was something that was questionable I would tell the Marine Corps that I was writing something questionable and basically that they should be ready to deal with it."

At one point in his deployment, a general e-mailed Stover an order to stop blogging. Confused, Stover asked his chain of command to investigate. They found there was no real order and that someone had spoken for an officer when they did not have the authority to do so. Stover lost about a month of blogging time because of the incident.

Later, in an effort to be more cautious, he deliberately delayed posting details of a helicopter crash where there were no casualties so he would not rattle his chain of command.

"I definitely think this was the right thing to do-to play that role between what is perceived to be the left, media, and the right, military, and meet in the middle of the two groups," Stover said.

When Stover returned to the states in March, he stopped blogging.

For many milbloggers once their mission is completed, their blog is finished too. But this is not true for everyone.

Buzzell and Hartley put portions of their blogs back online and wrote books based on their posts from Iraq.

Burden uses his blogging celebrity to raise money for the wounded. He raised $30,000 overnight for the family of a triple amputee so they could live in Washington while the soldier recovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He also helped raise more than $210,000 in November 2006 to buy voice-activated laptops for soldiers with wounded hands.

He has no plans to stop blogging, though if he did, he said it would be for a good reason.

"There's a lot of times when I think I would have been done a year ago because I thought this war would be over," Burden said. "I think that if I stopped blogging that would mean nobody else would be dying, so that would be a good thing."

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