Saturday, April 14, 2007

San Francisco Chronicle

Punk. Soldier. Blogger. And now author. A young veteran shares his war stories.
Saturday, May 19, 2007

Colby Buzzell had little time to hunt for an apartment in San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon, what with appearances scheduled for both NPR's "Talk of the Nation" and CNN's "Paula Zahn Now."

It was a surreal week for the 28-year-old soldier-turned-author. On Sunday he learned he was the second recipient of the $10,000 LuLu Blooker Prize for his "blook" (book based on a blog), "My War: Killing Time in Iraq," and on Monday, the Defense Department announced that it would cut off access to file-sharing sites such as YouTube and MySpace on 5 million Pentagon-issued computers -- an apparent reaction to bloggers reporting from the front lines. (Soldiers still have access to the sites on their personal computers and can log on to them at privately owned Internet cafes on their bases.)

Buzzell, who still posts at, has been out of the Army for two years, and his book was published more than a year ago, but suddenly -- and despite his current dread of talking about war and blogs -- he's fielding dozens of interview requests for his thoughts on both. Still, he's glad to take the ride.

"Every time I think my 15 minutes is up," Buzzell said, "someone else calls me."

Before his NPR appointment, Buzzell sat outside a Starbucks cafe, chain-smoking and working on his third cup of coffee. With his mesh cap, tattooed arms and loose wallet chain, he looked more like a Mission District hipster than a war veteran.
"I don't know what people expect me to be," he said. "Because I ride skateboards and wear Vans, I'm not supposed to join the Army? Maybe I'm supposed to be from Alabama, because people seem to think you have to be from the South to sign up."
Buzzell grew up in San Ramon, the son of a housewife and a Silicon Valley software engineer. As a teenager he took BART to Berkeley to catch punk shows at 924 Gilman; on his iPod in Iraq he kept an East Bay playlist that included local acts such as Rancid, Swinging Utters, Screw 32 and A.F.I.

"Whenever I'd want to really make myself feel homesick and slit my wrists," Buzzell recalled, "I'd listen to that playlist."

In his book, Buzzell describes a familiar tale of war: soldiers bored to tears, upset with commanders' hypocrisies and terrified to death when in battle.

But in this war, unlike all those that came before, the Army specialist also observes that his fellow soldiers are strangely tech savvy, constantly noodling on their laptops, making personal "war videos" for kicks ("I saw guys shooting their rifle with one hand and clicking their digital camera with the other") and surfing the Web for a window to the outside world.

Buzzell often bristles at the notion that American troops are nothing more than country hicks; when his radio interviewer joked that Buzzell must have been the only soldier carrying a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" in his back pocket, Buzzell responded tersely: "There's a lot of literate people in the Army."

Buzzell joined after a string of temp jobs left him feeling unfulfilled. "I figured I'd join, see if I could make something of myself."

He started his blog in 2003 after he read about the trend in Time magazine, as a measure to fight boredom. Since he was a pioneer in the soldier-blog genre, he was also one of the first to run afoul of superiors wary of his online comments. After Buzzell e-mailed Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra, the singer posted a message on the blog that called out "the unelected gangsters and scam artists who started this war." Buzzell was confined to the base and forced to submit his entries to a platoon sergeant for review. His blog lasted only 10 weeks during the 2004 summer while stationed in Mosul. The writing and the ensuing fallout caught the eye of the Wall Street Journal and Esquire magazine. Buzzell, while still serving in Iraq, began entertaining offers from New York publishers for a book.

"They say Vietnam was the first televised war, brought into the homes of Americans," Buzzell said. "Maybe Iraq is the first war that's online, shown by the soldiers.

"It'd be a shame if guys stopped using it," he added, referring to the Defense Department's recent restrictions on Web use. "One of the few escapes of the war is the Internet cafes. They gave you a sense of normalcy, what's going on away from it. ... If you take that away, morale can only go lower."

After he completed his NPR interview, Buzzell returned to the details of his civilian life. His four-year marriage had recently ended. He'd moved out of his Los Angeles home and back in with his parents in San Ramon. Earlier that morning, his father had driven him to the BART station so he could get to San Francisco. "It's kind of come full circle," he noted.
He still needed to find an apartment, but the LuLu prize money would make it easier to make the security deposit. He needed to find an Internet cafe so he could log on and check out Craigslist.

"I'm just going to walk toward the Mission," he said.