Friday, August 27, 2004

Army Blogger's Tales Attract Censors' Eyes

September 9, 2004; Page B1

Army specialist Colby Buzzell figured he'd cap his yearlong deployment to Iraq by mustering out of the service this winter and easing into a new career. "I was thinking about maybe driving a cab," he says.
But that was before he launched My War, an Internet-based chronicle of his life as an infantry soldier in Mosul, where he mans a gun in a Stryker brigade. Written under the nom de guerre of CBFTW (Colby Buzzell F -- This War), the blog is a mixture of gripping accounts of caffeine-driven battle maneuvers and amusing vignettes from the dusty grind of life in Iraq's third-largest city.
CBFTW's writings are a hit in the blogosphere, with his Web page logging 10,000 hits on a recent day.
But Spc. Buzzell's writing aspirations may prove his undoing as a professional soldier. Recently, shortly after his commanders discovered My War on the Web, Spc. Buzzell found himself banned from patrols and confined to base. His commanders say Spc. Buzzell may have breached operational security with his writings. "My War" went idle as he pondered the consequences of pursuing his craft while slogging through five nights of radio guard duty, a listless detail for an infantryman. More recently, the pages again went blank, as he chafed under a prepublication vetting regime imposed by his command.
Army Spc. Colby Buzzell, a.k.a. CBFTW on his Web log, flew under military radar -- until recently.
Such prepublication censorship is rare in the modern military: Soldiers' missives haven't been routinely expurgated since World War II and the days of "Loose Lips Sink Ships." The Pentagon doesn't prescreen soldiers' communications, whether print or electronic, assigning the job of policing soldier-journalists to commanders in the field. There are restrictions against divulging references to specific troop locations, patrol schedules or anything that might help the enemy predict how U.S. troops might react to an attack. But commanders in Iraq rely on the honor system and soldiers' common sense to enforce restrictions. Infractions are in the eye of the beholder, difficult to define but easy to recognize in practice.
Censorship that does occur usually comes after the fact. Earlier this year, Army investigators were forced to go stateside to track down reams of snapshots of Iraqi prisoner abuse that Abu Ghraib guards disseminated by e-mail or sent home on computer disk. In July, an Army captain was reassigned and stripped of his leave home after writing an opinion piece published in the Washington Post.
Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman, says blogs, like other forms of communication, are tolerated so long as they don't violate operational or informational security. "We treat them the same way we would if they were writing a letter or speaking to a reporter: It's just information," he says. "If a guy is giving up secrets, it doesn't make much difference whether he's posting it on a blog or shouting it from the rooftop of a building."
Still, many bloggers, some operating in obscure corners of Iraq where traditional reporters are scarce, appear to be flying under the Pentagon's radar. There's "American Soldier," a diary compiled by an Army reservist currently preparing for his second call-up, who describes himself in an e-mail as "p -- ed, frustrated, happy and sad at the same time." A site called "Boots on the Ground" is heavy on detail about U.S. armaments. "Just Another Soldier," a National Guardsman's account, is available only by e-mail request, the author says, after his command, citing security concerns, asked him to dismantle the site.
In the age of Web cams, instant messaging and Internet telephone service, widespread censorship simply isn't possible, military officials say. "I don't see how you could censor with the instantaneous flow of information we have now," says one Army officer, "unless you're standing over someone's shoulder while they're typing. And who's got time to do that when the bullets are flying?"
Security violations are rare, says Spc. Buzzell's top commander, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham. "The commander does have a responsibility to ensure no inappropriate information is released," Gen. Ham says in an e-mail, noting that among the 8,000 men under him, only Spc. Buzzell has come under scrutiny. "While [operational security] is a very real everyday concern for us, I do not see potential violations as widespread," he says.
Spc. Buzzell's blog, riddled with misspellings and larded with obscenities, conveys the kind of raw honesty that prompts military mothers to write weepy e-mails by the score. Soldiers have told Spc. Buzzell they sometimes strip out the curse words and send his writings home as their own.
He credits as his inspiration the author Hunter S. Thompson, whose first-person articles and books about politics and drug use were popular in the 1970s. But My War probably is more reminiscent of Michael Herr's "Dispatches," a bleak, first-person account of the Vietnam War widely regarded as one of the best examples of military journalism. Mr. Herr's book took years to arrive on the mass market, but Spc. Buzzell's accounts offer near-instantaneous immediacy. And as his case demonstrates, a casual detail -- that his unit had run low on water during a maneuver, for instance -- can easily get a soldier into trouble.
The blog entry at the root of Spc. Buzzell's difficulties was an Aug. 4 piece called "Men in Black." Opening with a bland, four-paragraph squib about a Mosul firefight that he snatched from CNN's Web site, Spc. Buzzell spins a riveting account of a nasty, hours-long firefight with scores of black-clad snipers. It begins with an enemy mortar attack and a testosterone-driven scramble to arms. "People were hooting and hollering, yelling their war cries and doing the Indian yell thing as they drove off and locked and loaded their weapons," he writes. He describes a harrowing ambush. "Bullets were pinging off our armor all over our vehicle, and you could hear multiple RPG's [rocket-propelled grenades] being fired and flying through the air and impacting all around us," he writes. "I've never felt fear like this. I was like, this is it, I'm going to die."
Spc. Buzzell's account caught the attention of the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., the newspaper that covers Spc. Buzzell's home base of Fort Lewis. Noting that the attack got scant coverage by bigger media, the local paper drew heavily from Spc. Buzzell's anonymous account. The Pentagon's internal clip service picked up the News Tribune story and it landed in the hands of commanders in Iraq.
Within hours, Lt. Col. Buck James, the battalion commander, ordered Spc. Buzzell to his office. Spc. Buzzell quickly shaved and grabbed fresh fatigues to see the colonel he had never met. As he later recounted on his blog, he arrived to find Col. James leafing through a massive printout of his Web writings, which someone had marked up with a yellow pen. The colonel, whom Spc. Buzzell described as a cross between George Patton and Vince Lombardi, opened with a question: " 'Youre [sic] a big Hunter S Thompson Fan, arnt [sic] you?'"
Spc. Buzzell says he was called to account for two details: the observation that his unit ran low on water during the hours-long standoff and a description of the steps he took to get more ammunition as the firefight waxed on. Both were excised from his online archives.
In an e-mail exchange, Col. James says the Army was concerned about a possible security breach on Spc. Buzzell's blog, but had no desire to muzzle him. "I counseled SPC Buzzell along with his Platoon Sergeant on these points and ensured that he understood that anything he was unsure about should be reviewed by his chain of command," Col. James says. Spc. Buzzell has "performed gallantly" as a soldier, he says.
But Spc. Buzzell's trouble with the command continued. A few days later, after leaving a mocking message on his blog to the military intelligence officers he now assumed were reading along, Spc. Buzzell was ordered confined to camp. He was returned to regular duty and posted a few more times, but he recently removed all of his archives from the site, and new postings are now sporadic. He says it just isn't as fun to write, now that he has to submit everything to his platoon sergeant prior to publication. "I was never edited before," he says. "Now I am."
Spc. Buzzell said he hasn't decided whether to permanently stop posting. He says he received scores of e-mails when "My War" went silent and even got some subtle nudges from his command to continue. Indeed, Col. James seems nostalgic for Internet accounts of his men. "To be candid, I believe the widespread popularity of his writing came as a bit of a shock to him and he was uncomfortable with the attention," Col. James said in an e-mail. "Personally, I think he is a talented writer and a gifted storyteller and should pursue his talent."