Saturday, July 14, 2007

Soldier-reporters rewrite the rules

August 11, 2007

In August 2004, one of former U.S. Army Specialist Colby Buzzell's superiors scolded a reporter for "endangering operational security."

In a vivid dispatch from Mosul the correspondent had described the confusion and horror of a fierce Iraq firefight between black-clad insurgents and Buzzell's besieged battalion. To the commander's dismay, he had mentioned that the Americans ran low on water during the fight and detailed the steps soldiers took to find new ammunition.

Now, in his base office, the commander held a printout of the story – heavily marked with red pen – and demanded an explanation from the offending journalist.

U.S. Army Specialist Colby Buzzell.

Embedded reporter? Try combatant-reporter. To national acclaim and his superior's fury, Buzzell had chronicled the battle on his blog, CBFTW.

That is: Colby Buzzell F--- The World.

"I heard and felt the bullets whiz literally inches from my head, hitting all around my hatch making a `Ping' `Ping' `Ping' sound," Buzzell wrote. "All of the (sic) sudden all hell came down around us, all these guys, wearing all black, a couple dozen on each side of the street, on rooftops, alleys, edge of buildings, out of windows, everywhere, and started unloading on us..."

The pen is mightier than the sword. But if you want to frighten the mightiest military in the world, try wielding both at the same time.

Using the Internet-enabled laptops that are now as common on their bases as cigarettes, dozens of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have become war correspondents themselves. Few Canadians have done the same (see sidebar). In the sleepy on-base hours between missions, they share their stories directly with the world, unfiltered by the biases of the "mainstream media" many of them distrust.

In turn, the Pentagon appears to have developed a distrust of its own – subjecting soldier-writers to strict new regulations and unwanted scrutiny that will get worse, some of them complained, after the Army concluded this week that a private writing for The New Republic had invented three stories of soldier misbehaviour.

Buzzell, 30, was one of the first soldier-correspondents to face the military's wrath. In the world of military blogs, he is both typical and atypical.

He joined the Army in 2002, served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, and left the Army in 2005.

Typical: He started his blog, in part, because he was bored when he wasn't out fighting; he started his blog, in part, because he was unhappy with the way professional journalists were covering the war.

Atypical: He thought those journalists were being too friendly to the not-always-honest military.

"I saw that a lot of times they would just cut and paste what the Army press releases would say," he says from his home in San Francisco. "And sometimes the Army press releases aren't accurate – and from what I saw, the media wasn't too interested in finding out whether they were true or not."

Buzzell is a rare military-blogging brid, though.

Only a "really, really, really, really small" percentage of military blogs are anti-war, prominent "Blackfive" blogger Matthew Currier Burden says.

Burden, a veteran of the first Gulf War and the editor of The Blog of War, a book of blog posts from Iraq and Afghanistan, says blogging soldiers don't necessarily support the Bush administration. But the 39-year-old, who left the Army Reserve in 2001, says "they're proud of what they do" – and they're dismayed when they don't see their accomplishments noted in the mainstream press.

"I was in Ramadi in 2005, which was clearly pretty violent, but typically when we went out it was totally not violent at all," says former Sgt. Steve Bogucki, 23, who served in Iraq in 2003, 2004 and 2005 and blogs as "Educated Soldier." "We just went around and talked to the people. And that's really what you didn't see in the media."

"We were in northern Iraq, and you would think from watching the news that the entire war was going on in Baghdad, and it was a complete disaster, there were dead bodies everywhere, that it was a slaughter," says current Army medic Sgt. Ernesto Haibi, 40, who served in Iraq in 2004 and who blogs at "A Candle In the Dark." "But a lot of people didn't realize there were things going on in other places – there were worse things going on in other places, and there were better things going on. Regardless, there were things going on all over the country, and they weren't being reported."

Michael Hedges, a long-time war correspondent who made four trips to Iraq for the Houston Chronicle, says most media outlets have essentially abandoned the country. In recent months, he says, the number of U.S. reporters there has sometimes dwindled "into single digits."

"The consequences of too few voices spread too thin: There's an imposition of too few views on what the American public is seeing," says Hedges, now the managing editor of the Washington, D.C., Examiner. "You've got a few organizations driving the perception of the war. That's never been healthy."

The U.S. military, he says, is itself frustrated that so few reporters are reporting from Iraq. "I've had top commanders say to me, `We want you over here. We want other reporters over here.' I've had them say to me, `There are only 11 American reporters here right now. What's the problem?' I think the Pentagon would be delighted if 100 reporters landed in Baghdad tomorrow."

But the Pentagon hasn't appeared delighted with the appearance of more than 100 soldier-reporters from its own ranks.

New Army "operational security" rules, issued in April, say no blog entry can be posted before it is checked for sensitive information by soldiers' superiors.

One thing on which pro-war Burden and skeptical Buzzell can agree: The rules are ridiculous.

"If I want to say, `Hey Mom, I had a great meatball sandwich today,' my commander's going to read it? That's not going to happen," Burden says.

In comments to the media – after a "big stink" raised by Burden, whose site receives more than 10,000 visits a day, and other military bloggers – Army public affairs officials have since backed away from the new rules. But they continue to be formal policy, and they continue to be mocked by current and former blogging members of the military.

"We write, `We went on a raid last night,'" Haibi says. "That's what we write: `We went on a raid last night.' We don't say who `we' is, we don't say where it is. It's not like we say, `Yesterday we hid in Echo Tango 12345 on the second floor looking for Abdul bin-Hassan, but we didn't find him.' If what we write is op-sec, then we all need to stop breathing."

The Army did not respond to a request for comment on its policy – but its detractors are happy to explain it. Buzzell thinks the Pentagon believes no Iraq news is good Iraq news. If it can stifle military blogs, it can better control the flow of information to the public. Haibi says military commanders fear a negative public reaction to the harsh men-at-war truths that military blogs depict.

Plus, if you don't let soldiers write anything without your approval, you don't let them write about the cruelties they claim to have witnessed or perpetrated. Last month – and continuing into this week – military bloggers raised another big stink when Scott Thomas Beauchamp, an Army private writing as a "Baghdad Diarist" for The New Republic, a liberal magazine, claimed to have seen fellow troops deliberately running over dogs in their fighting vehicles, wearing the skull of a child for laughs, and mocking an Iraqi woman whose face was disfigured by an explosive device

Nonsense, military bloggers responded. Soldiers in Iraq would never laugh at a woman wounded by the same bombs that have wounded so many of them; the child's bones could not have had "rotting flesh" on them; those vehicles aren't manoeuvrable enough to do what Beauchamp said they did.

The Army investigated. While The New Republic still stands by the article, the Army said Wednesday that each of the three stories is false.

And so it was: Active-duty soldiers defended the honour of the military, in writing, while refuting the writings of another active-duty soldier – while they were all violating military rules for writing anything in the first place.

It was a distinctly 21st century internecine battle. But, like many old-style firefights, this episode came at a cost to its (apparent) victors: even more critical scrutiny, from the Pentagon, the public, and from the mainstream media.

"It's that guy, Beauchamp, that makes my life difficult trying to tell truth," says Haibi. "It's that guy, a shameless media whore trying to get himself a $25,000 $30,000 advance on a book deal, telling lies, that makes our lives even harder."

As if that were possible.