Wednesday, May 16, 2007

U.S. soldier's blog offers firsthand look at war in Iraq from the

BYLINE: John Jerney, Special to The Daily Yomiuri, Yomiuri
The Daily Yomiuri(Tokyo)

On Aug. 4, 2004, downtown Mosul, Iraq, exploded with violence. U.S. Army Specialist Colby Buzzell, an M240 Bravo machine gunner in the Stryker Brigade, was among the men called to respond.

Buzzell and his fellow soldiers were aware of the risks as they rolled out of Forward Operating Base Marez. By mid-2004, the Iraqi insurgency was already well under way.

Sniper and mortar attacks were commonplace and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had transformed one-time routine patrols into life-and-death missions.

But with the entire battalion called to roll out, Buzzell sensed that something was up.

For the next several hours, Buzzell found himself in the crosshairs of a massive, all-day firefight combating masked men-in-black equipped with a plethora of weapons ranging from AK-47s and mortars, to IEDs and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Recounting the event later, Buzzell would write that he had never experienced fear as he did that day. The next morning, searching for news about the event on the Web, Buzzell found a scant few paragraphs on the CNN Web site under the heading "Mosul Clashes Leave 12 Dead."

Buzzell instinctively logged into his blog, cut-and-paste the CNN article, and began recounting his own version of the events of that day, starting with the sentence "Now here's what really happened?"

In posting to his blog, Buzzell was just doing something that millions of others had already been engaged in for years: telling his personal story to the online world.

But Buzzell's blog, one of the first and most popular run by a soldier in active combat, raised at least three significant issues. First, who should report the news during a war when the reporters have all gone home? Second, how are we to judge the veracity and accuracy of news reports prepared by individuals not formally bound to a code of ethics?

And third, what free speech rights are guaranteed to nonprofessional journalists, especially those that may have a conflict of interest in the subject about which they are reporting?

Buzzell is a good-natured person, conscientious and quick to laugh. Sitting across the table from me as we chatted over lunch at a Thai restaurant in San Francisco's Tenderloin district not far from his apartment, Buzzell simultaneously projected shyness and incredible intensity, even through his dark sunglasses.

Talking to Buzzell, you learn several things quickly. He's extremely bright and uncommonly well read--quotes and literal references are within easy reach for him. But when it comes to talking about the war, his feelings
sometimes overrun his thoughts. His best form of expression is undoubtedly the written word.

Which is why his 2004 blog from the front lines in Iraq drew so much attention. Written without an overt political point of view, Buzzell started the blog, entitled simply enough My War, during his eighth month of deployment in Iraq to share his experiences and get his story recorded.

Buzzell recounted, "When I first got to Iraq, I kept a journal and I would write about what I was seeing and experiencing. Then, I saw a brief article in Time magazine about blogs. At that time, I had never heard the word blog before. And I was like, what the heck is this? So I read the article and it described how everyday people with no real journalism experience were
writing about their experiences on the Internet."

Buzzell continued, "There was also a brief mention in the article about soldiers in Iraq doing these things. I said, whoa, no way, that can't be possible. There's no way that the military would allow soldiers to write about what's going on and to post these entries on the World Wide Web for anybody to read."

Buzzell rushed to the Internet cafe on base, and searched for blogs by soldiers. He found that some did exist, as the Time article had mentioned, but as Buzzell explained, "I didn't see any blogs that were written by soldiers in combat arms, soldiers that went out actively on combat missions on a daily basis."

Buzzell noticed that most of the blogs seemed to be written by soldiers who stayed on base all day. "That's fine," noted Buzzell, "but a person that leaves the base might have a different perspective on what's going on out there. So I don't know why, I just said the hell with it, I'm going to do it."

Buzzell set about to write down exactly what he saw, to capture the kind of experiences that used to be recorded during previous wars, such as Vietnam, when reporters stayed with the troops throughout their deployment and

"At the beginning of the war," Buzzell explained, "there were embedded reporters. But I was there during the second year of the war and all these embeds and reporters were gone, they were back home."

Buzzell continued, "So I just decided to write about what I was seeing. And then, I don't know, it just sort of took on a life of its own."

At first, only a few emails arrived each day. That quickly turned into a dozen, then two and three dozen, and then hundreds of emails per day.

"And the comments just kept coming," recalled Buzzell. "It felt good because honestly I never once got anything negative in an email. Most of it was thanks, none of us really know what's going on over there and you're telling
your story. Thank you."

Posting under the anonymous name CBFTW, Buzzell kept writing his reports in between missions, giving his growing number of readers a behind-the-scenes look at the war in a way that many weren't used to seeing.

Buzzell soon attracted the attention of Esquire, and subsequently turned some of his experiences into articles for the magazine. More importantly, Buzzell used his blog entries as the foundation for perhaps the most highly
acclaimed book about the Iraq war written by a soldier, "My War: Killing Time in Iraq," winner of the 2007 Lulu Blooker Prize.

In the next edition of my column, I'll describe the military's reaction to Buzzell's blog, and comment on the relevance of soldiers' blogs and the role that non-journalists can play in disseminating information otherwise bypassed by conventional sources.