Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Columbia News Service

Soldiers' online journals come under increased scrutiny
by Mike Spector 2006/05/02

The Department of Defense is clamping down on military blogs, causing growing resentment among soldiers in Iraq who use them to communicate with loved ones.

Army Spc. Colby Buzzell returned from a firefight in Mosul, Iraq, on Aug. 4, 2004, and collapsed on his bed, drained from the most intense combat of his tour.

The next day, Buzzell headed to his base’s Internet cafe and posted the latest entry on his personal Web log:

“Bullets were pinging off our armor, all over our vehicle, and you could hear multiple RPGS being fired, soaring through the air every which way,” Buzzell wrote. “All sorts of crazy insane Hollywood explosions were going off. I’ve never felt fear like this. I was like, this is it, I’m going to die. I cannot put into words how scared I was.”

Buzzell had posted entries anonymously up until the Mosul battle. But The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., published an article about the skirmish and quoted extensively from Buzzell’s Web log. That drew attention from the Pentagon’s internal clip service. Eventually, the article made its way to Buzzell’s commanders.

Buzzell’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Buck James, lectured him on the inappropriateness of revealing operational details--how he loaded weapons, what kind of weapons his Stryker brigade used and specific combat locations. From now on, Buzzell’s platoon sergeant would read his entries before they were posted. After another troublesome post, a different commander confined Buzzell to the base and for a time he was forbidden to go on missions.

Buzzell, who is now 29 and lives in Los Angeles, is known among military bloggers as the “Blogfather,” one of the first soldiers to write a candid, regularly updated Web log from a combat zone. Such online journals, or blogs, began as unfiltered portals into the day-to-day travails of American troops, a 21st-century version of a soldier’s letter home.

But as the visibility and popularity of the blogs have increased, so, too, has the watchful eye of military officials. The Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force have all recently issued directives related to blogs, reminding soldiers and their commanders what information is unsuitable for posting.

In the last year, for example, the Army released specific blogging guidelines, requiring soldiers to register their online journals with commanders and establishing units to monitor Web sites for information that might violate Army policy.

The Pentagon itself has no official blogging policies, leaving the determination of what’s suitable and what’s not to commanders in the field. That increased scrutiny has troubled some soldiers, who have accused superiors of using operational security violations as a blanket excuse to mask disagreement with a blog’s politics or sense of humor. In any case, the new atmosphere has caused soldiers to think twice before they post.

“Now, as you look at the blogs ... they’re much more self-conscious,” said Jon Peede, director of Operation Homecoming, a National Endowment for the Arts program that will soon release an anthology of soldiers’ blogs, letters and e-mail messages. “That wasn’t the case a couple of years ago.”

The opinions on military blogs range from the patriotic to the anti-war. And many soldiers post anonymously to avoid trouble.

One blogger, identified as “Outlaw 13,” complained about the recent controversy over retired generals calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The blogger wrote that the debate “will accomplish nothing other than give the politicians something else to scrap about and maybe give [the enemy] hope that we are about to fall apart and quit.”

Blogging represents a quantum leap forward in wartime communications, according to Peede, the Operation Homecoming director.

He compared current military blogs to the famous Matthew Brady photos taken during the Civil War, which changed the way people viewed armed conflicts.

“The most powerful blogs, they are doing the same thing,” Peede said. They move beyond the mainstream media to provide “authentic, raw stories of death.”

That creates two natural tensions, Peede said. First, bloggers can accidentally reveal operational methods--how a gun is loaded, for example--that can tip off the enemy and endanger troops. Second, a blog discussing casualties can inadvertently unnerve families back home who read the posting and wonder about the fate of a loved one.

Policies regulating such potential hazards are nothing new. Although the Pentagon leaves policing blogs to individual commanders, longstanding Defense Department rules govern what a soldier can and cannot share.

“There are limitations to the kind of information that can be posted on a military blog,” said Cmdr. Gregory Hicks, a Pentagon spokesman. Information that soldiers gather during the course of their Iraq deployment is “sensitive” by definition, according to Pentagon policy, and may not be publicly disclosed without proper clearance.

The “sensitive” umbrella covers all military information that isn’t publicly available, including operation details, unit morale and equipment status.

“You don’t tell people the location of your unit, details of the kind of equipment you’re using,” said J.P. Borda, 31, who runs milblogging.com, a Web site that links to more than 1,300 military blogs worldwide. “It’s nothing new to anybody. It’s pretty commonsense stuff.”

Borda, a veteran who blogged from Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005, said his commanders supported his online postings and that he made a point of showing them entries to make sure he wasn’t breaking any rules.

“Go to the chain of command and ask them,” Borda said. “It’s that simple.”

Jason Hartley, a national guardsman from New Paltz, N.Y., caught the wrath of his command when he described his flight route to Iraq on his blog, justanothersoldier.com. He also posted a photo of a prisoner and wrote biting, satiric comments in which he said he loved dead civilians and wished he could shoot children.

He said the comments were purposefully over the top in an effort to address what he viewed as the military’s blase attitude toward civilian casualties. “So many civilians get killed every day. We must love ’em, because we sure as hell don’t stop doing it,” he said.

His commander wasn’t amused. He lectured Hartley about undermining the Army’s mission and hinted that the prisoner photo might violate the Geneva Convention. That charge was later dropped, but Hartley was punished for disobeying a direct order and conduct unbecoming a soldier. He was docked $1,000 in pay and demoted from sergeant to specialist.

“It’s hogwash,” said Hartley, who still serves in the National Guard once a month in New York City. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction to not knowing how to react to a person who had a sardonic blog.”

The ordeal left Hartley with the impression that commanders don’t scrutinize noncritical, patriotic blogs.

But Borda, the milblogging.com founder, disputed that claim. “It’s not like every military blogger is telling the military’s story,” he said, adding that he had come across several critical blogs, “and they’re not getting shut down.”

If Buzzell felt stymied overseas, the return home offered a quick remedy. His blog postings caught the eye of editors at Esquire magazine. He started writing firsthand accounts of his time in Mosul in March 2005. By November, he had completed the last installment of a three-part series titled, “The Making of the Twenty-First-Century Soldier.”

And during those assignments, Buzzell finished his first book, “My War: Killing Time in Iraq,” which drew on his Esquire articles and blog postings. While Buzzell’s Web site no longer houses the posts that drew the Army’s ire, his book reprints several of the posts he wrote to clear his mind in the Middle East.

Eager to distance himself from his controversial Iraq tour, Buzzell continues to take on new assignments for Esquire. He’s also working on another book, but is mum on the details.

“It’s going to be way different than the last book I wrote,” he said as he sat in traffic on the Los Angeles freeway. “I just want to be a civilian for awhile.”