Tuesday, September 06, 2005

'My War' -- a soldier's wild ride

by C.W. Nevius
San Francisco Chronicle

To say that Colby Buzzell was at loose ends when he left high school is an affront to the concept of loose ends.

At 26, he sat down and wrote out a list of the jobs he'd held: "flower delivery guy, valet guy, cash register at Orchard Supply guy, car washer guy, gift shop sales guy, telemarketing guy, 7-Eleven guy, record store guy, towel guy at the gym guy, and I worked seasonally at Toys 'R' Us."

"And that's not even a complete list," he said in a phone interview last week.

So it will be a bit of a surprise to his high school buddies to learn that he has a book -- "My War: Killing Time in Iraq" -- coming out Oct. 20. Even bigger if you add that he's working with a major publisher (Putnam) and that literary lion Kurt Vonnegut calls the book "... nothing less than the soul of an extremely interesting human being at war ..."

Good luck trying to figure it all out. Buzzell is still trying to decide if he is thrilled or mystified.

"I don't know what to make out of all of it," Buzzell says. "It just sort of happened. I'm just going to jump on the ride for a while."

The simple explanation is that one day Buzzell was sitting on a bar stool and the next he was behind an M240 Bravo machine gun in Iraq. Somewhere along the way he went over to the Internet café at his Army base camp in Mosul and posted his experiences on a blog.

And then all hell broke loose.

Buzzell's blog was discovered, and word spread. His blog began to get as many as 10,000 hits a day. His Army commanding officers began to take an interest, unable to decide if he was telling it like it was or undermining the American effort.
But by then, he was a sensation, and controlling his blog was proving to be very difficult. Interview requests began to come in from PBS and the Wall Street Journal. Pretty impressive for someone who wasn't clear on exactly where his words went when he shipped them out on the World Wide Web.

"I had never even heard the word, blog, before," he says now. "I didn't tell my parents about it because I was swearing and cussing and stuff and I didn't want them to trip out."

Buzzell's entries, which form the basis for his book, have moments that are too surreal to be anything but true. When his platoon drives up to a mosque in Mosul and they start to take fire, everyone opens up with automatic weapons -- except for the guys who pull out their new digital cameras for some authentic photos of combat. With the mosque covered in a cloud of dust kicked up from hundreds of rounds of fire, Buzzell looks over to see a machine-gunner "hysterically throwing up the heavy-metal devil horn hand signal like it was an Ozzy Osbourne concert."

But the centerpiece, called "Men in Black," is vivid enough to make you smell the gunpowder -- and the fear. Buzzell starts with a copy of the three paragraph wire service account of a "clash" between American troops and Iraqi insurgents. Then he says, "Now here's what really happened."

The account of the firefight that follows has become an Internet cult classic, linked and passed from reader to reader. It was eventually published in Esquire magazine and turned out to be the perfect pitch for a book deal. Not that he had anything like that in mind when he came back from the patrol, still amped.
"I didn't even think what I was doing," Buzzell says. "I remember I sat down and I closed my eyes for a second and then I thought, 'just go from the beginning.' The words just poured out. I couldn't type fast enough. I finished, posted up the blog, walked out, lit up a cigarette and had no idea what I had done."

Again the Army had conflicted feelings. Some of his commanding officers thought he'd captured the events to perfection and was providing a service. Some, even higher up, were uneasy.

His battalion commander, Lt. Col. Buck James, wrote in an e-mail that is quoted in the book that there was an inquiry "to determine if there was a breach of operational security anywhere in his blog."

Buzzell, no fool, got the message and eventually took down the blog and the "Men in Black" entry on his own.

"It was getting really crazy," he says now. "I was getting hammered with hundreds and hundreds of e-mails. It was a little overwhelming. I didn't join the Army to cause problems."

"My War" has bits like "Men in Black," but it isn't a print version of TV's "Over There." (Buzzell, by the way, watched one episode of the FX channel's show and hated it.) Beneath the layer of bravado and dust is the story of a young guy who was lost and looking for something to change his life.

"They say war is the great adventure," Buzzell says. "I just wanted to go on the great adventure. I thought I'll join the Army and if nothing else I can say I did something."

You have to wonder how many Colby Buzzell's there are, a lost generation of kids who don't buy into the route to college and no longer see the honor in a blue-collar job. Buzzell was a lost soul, waiting for a thunderbolt to blast him out of his dead-end existence. To his astonishment, it happened.

Today, he is well aware of how many writers struggle to get their work published and are unable to find an outlet. And here he is thinking about a book tour and a national release of his first effort.

"I guess," he shrugs, "the trick is not to try."