If the war in Iraq has brought one good thing to the often muddled media landscape, it has been the growing prominence of on-the-scene bloggers, whether they're U.S. Army soldiers on the ground or Iraqi citizens caught in a war zone.
It started with Salam Pax, the "Baghdad Blogger," making a name for his pseudonym by writing eyewitness reports no one else had in the first stages of the war. Now Pax has had a column in The Guardian and a book collecting his blog posts, while the number of Iraqi citizen bloggers has mushroomed to 78, according to the special "Iraq Blog Count" group blog.
More recently, American soldiers in Iraq, a.k.a. "milibloggers," have found a voice via blogging, telling what they can about combat experiences and the sorrow of leaving family behind and adding their own take on the news they read online.
One military blogger, known only as "American Soldier," recently riffed on a CNN.com headline about the U.S. being poised for a major battle in Iraq: "Well I have one thing to say about that. NO SHIT! We've been poised for a major battle since we kicked our way into Iraq. So CNN pumps us up then informs us that our American Soldiers are going to be facing ruthless, aggressive, Jihad fighters in the streets today!"
There's a good reason why American Soldier and other milibloggers keep pseudonyms: to stay out of trouble with military brass. Another pseudonymous military blogger, known as CBFTW, was unmasked as Army specialist Colby Buzzell after his superiors found his blog and said it was potentially undermining "operational security," a.k.a. OPSEC.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Buzzell was confined to base and banned from patrols. Worst of all, he had to get blog postings checked by superiors before putting them online. His blog does live on, though it's mainly links and excerpts of news accounts of the war and of his blog's growing popularity. Many fellow milibloggers have come to his defense, while literary agents have come knocking because of Buzzell's GenX cred, punk rock allusions and skateboarding past.
While military bloggers complain that the story of war in Iraq has either been downplayed or played too negatively in the press, the Iraqi bloggers are often upset that the casualties and hostage-taking of their own citizens have been largely ignored by the media. When bloggers in Iraq aren't describing first-hand accounts of what's happening literally in their backyard, they can also give an impassioned spin on the mainstream media's coverage of the war.
Probably the most surprising aspect of blogs in the war zone has been the outpouring of support from readers for both military and Iraqi bloggers in giving an independent version of events during the "fog of war." The comments sections of these blogs include heartfelt messages of hope that the blogger will survive the war -- often from total strangers.
We decided to convene a special virtual roundtable, including military bloggers as well as Iraqi citizen bloggers. While three military bloggers -- including Buzzell and American Soldier -- agreed to participate, only two Iraqi bloggers -- who are brothers -- joined in. While the more anti-war Iraqi bloggers such as Salam Pax and Riverbend declined to participate, they were CCed on all the e-mails so they could have a chance to respond.
Instead of focusing on ideological political issues, we tried to stick with issues related to blogs and media, life in a war zone, and the possibility of fair elections in Iraq.
Unlike past roundtables, we e-mailed the entire group of bloggers one question at a time, with everyone seeing nearly everyone else's answers as we went along. The participants themselves suggested questions as well. The following is an edited transcript of the lively e-mail discussion that ensued.
Army Specialist Colby Buzzell comes from San Francisco and has gained notoriety by posting detailed accounts of firefights mixed with colorful descriptions of the characters in his platoon based in Mosul, Iraq. Buzzell is currently in New York City on a mid-tour leave of duty. His blog is called "My War."
Army medic Ernesto "Combat Doc" Haibi, 37, comes from Miami, and has spent five years in the Air Force and 10 in the National Guard as an infrantryman. He currently is a medic stationed in Mosul, Iraq, with the Stryker Brigade. He is married and has two children and describes himself on his blog, "A Candle in the Dark," as a "conservative atheist."
The blogger known only as "American Soldier" guards his identity fiercely but does give general details of his life on his blog. He's a voice engineer, has spent a third of his life in the military, has been to Iraq on one tour of duty, and is awaiting his second tour. Judging by the pictures on his blog, he's also a big fan of surrealist painter M.C. Escher. His blog includes this inscription: "I sacrifice so others may never have to face war or adversity that plagues this nation that we live in."
Omar & Ali are two of the three Iraqi brothers -- Mohammed is the third brother -- who write the "Iraq the Model" Weblog. Omar, 24, is a dentist who graduated from Baghdad University in 2002. He says he was "saved from the military service only by God and the coalition," and is working in Basra. Ali, 34, is a doctor, is married, and graduated from Baghdad University in 1995. He is working in Baghdad as a senior resident and studying to become a pediatrician.
OJR: Why did you start blogging, and what's been the hardest part about doing it? Most satisfying?
Colby Buzzell: [quoting Charles Bukowski] "These words I write to keep me from total madness."
I was at the point in my deployment where the letters from friends and family were getting fewer and far between, and I needed something to combat the extra time and loneliness that being on deployment hits you with when you've been here in Iraq for awhile. So I thought doing a blog might be a fun thing to do, help kill some time. And it worked, time started flying by once I started this thing.
I had no idea how to write or form a sentence (I still don't) but I figured what the hell, just do it. The Sex Pistols didn't know how to play their instruments when they started jamming, they just played, and that was the mindset I had when I started this blog thing, was to just go ahead and jump in the fire and do it and see what happens.
The hardest part of doing a blog from a combat zone is figuring out a way to write without violating any OPSEC and/or offending anybody in the Army and to not pollute your writings with any political slant. The trick is to just write what you see, and nothing else. The most satisfying thing about the blog, for me personally, has been the response I have received from people and also reading the comments people have left on the comment boards. And I also enjoy writing.
Ernesto Haibi: I started blogging because of the gap in mainstream reporting on many subjects that concern the average person. I felt I had an informed opinion that could help some people decide on either side even if it wasn't in agreement with me. I find the most difficult part is writing an opinion that can inform on a new viewpoint yet not be so conciliatory that I sound like the town crier spouting the "opinion of the King."
The most sastisfying part must be when I have others of an informed opinion give me compliments on my writing and views. My writing on Iraq is limited because I only want to include political or social commentary on the situation here. [Buzzell] and I started our blogs together and he wanted to make a narrative of the war, where I was concerned about the opinion the mainstream media was missing.
American Soldier: I was mobilized last year and was gone before I could even catch my breath. Phone calls and e-mails were always so spread apart. I didn't even know what a blog was then. This time around I was online searching for some soldier-related items when I came across my first military blogger. I was completely fascinated to read about other soldiers' accounts of war and what they were going through.
The hardest part about blogging is finding the time to sit down and write it. I am the type of person who doesn't need to proofread or worry about using words with a certain structure. I just say what's on the mind. The greatest thing about my blog is the people. The support is beyond words. I will sit back some days and just be in awe by what people will say. These people just don't say "hey good luck!" They quote authors, recite sayings from the Bible or share their own experiences. I am humbled by the people who visit.
Ali: I used to watch the news about Iraq and get frustrated with the amount of lies and deception in the majority of reports. What was worse is that everyone was speaking on behalf of us, and that's something we had to deal with in bitter silence at Saddam's time. But now no one can keep us from saying what we believe is the truth.
I found this as a great opportunity to speak to people everywhere in the world; to tell the untold part of the truth, to let out all the repressed feelings and thoughts I had to hold inside me before the liberation. In addition to that, blogging was an open window to know more about the culture of other nations and to explain ours to them in a direct and simple manner -- a better understanding of the other's culture is, in my mind, crucial for global peace.
The most difficult thing I faced was the accusation that we don't care about our people, because some people think since we don't sound as negative as everyone else then we must be careless regarding the terrible losses of lives in Iraq. The fact is that it hurts us just as it hurts all Iraqis but we see these as necessary sacrifices to earn our freedom.
OJR: What do you think is the most common misperception of American soldiers by Iraqis? How about common misperceptions of life in Iraq by soldiers? In other words, what surprised you (the military folk) about the Iraqi people?
American Soldier: I think that most Iraqis do appreciate the Americans being in Iraq. I think Iraqis may think we are all 7 feet tall and blond but we aren't. We're short, tall, dark, light. We all come from diverse backgrounds. In the U.S., things can be different because that is what makes us free. To have the ability to be anything we want.
I always thought Iraqis were much wealthier since their country has so much money from the oil fields. However poverty is pretty spread out considering the country is as big as California. I am surprised that everyone isn't living in nice houses. Maybe with the new government, everyone will be able to get a piece of the pie in Iraq. Did you know if you were a resident of Alaska that you get a check every year? This is because of the lucrative oil there. Hell, why not do this for the people of Iraq!
Haibi: I have seen that many anti-American Iraqis are seeing the Americans as an occupying force and not a temporary stabilization. To counter that though the overwhelming majority of the people are glad we're here. Then again most Americans against this war have the same feelings. I consider myself a little more open about things so I didn't come with any major prejudices but I find that many soldiers are surprised that all Iraqis are not anti-American or fundamentalist Muslims.
The diversity in the population was more of a shock than anything. Between Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Chaldeans this country has so many more ethnicity-related problems than the U.S. This country still has a hatred, by many, of the Kurds. I was shocked to find that they weren't allowed to travel south to the Baghdad province. If they were found there they were pressed into military service. I personally found the people to be very friendly, offering tea and smiles at nearly every neighborhood we stop at regularly. Most soldiers in this country will never meet an Iraqi on the street since they never leave the wire to go on missions so the anger that most have is unfounded.
Ali: Most Iraqis were surprised by the dedication of the American soldiers to do their job in circumstances that are very tough, meaning the extreme hot whether and a totally different society in which they can't tell friend from enemy. I recall how more than one of my friends said to me with surprise and admiration in their look, "These men don't seem to be afraid at all when they patrol the streets despite that the chance of them being targeted is very high!"
Still, some Iraqis don't like the way American soldiers carry their guns in the streets, pointed towards people sometimes and don't like the way pilots fly their helicopters at a very low altitude, and they believe it's intentional -- and not for security reasons. Others still believe that American soldiers don't care about civilians' lives when they attack terrorists or reply to attacks.
OJR: How do you feel about the media coverage for the events in Iraq? Do you read any American soldier blogs and what have you learned by reading them?
Omar: We do read some soldiers' blogs from time to time, and we enjoy them and we have placed links to several soldiers' blogs [on our blog] to introduce them to our readers. I found that the blogs do provide a better insight into the soldiers' personalities and have proven that those soldiers believe firmly in the job they're doing in Iraq and all the soldiers I met on the Internet confirmed that they're willing to finish their mission.
Haibi: The responses I've received from soldiers has been overwhelmingly positive. Soldiers understand that we really don't care about the politics of this war. We are working to insure the safe return of those serving with us and doing our jobs honorably. I have had many rah-rah comments but those tend to be from people who haven't been to combat so they really don't understand the attitude here. This is a job, and the way to make it home sane is to avoid getting wrapped up in the political aspect of this deployment. Once you get home and are out of the service you can complain; until then you are a volunteer.
As far as the media goes they miss many aspects of the real war and focus on their political agenda. The thought that the media is unbiased is ridiculous. The slant found in reporting is usually negative toward whatever action the U.S. undertakes. Many stories of humanitarian aid are going unnoticed along with stories from around the country.
OJR: How can people trust blogs that are written under pseudonyms? Is there a way for a third party to vouch for their identity?
Haibi: The issue of third-party vouching is really unnecessary. These are basically personal diaries or opinions that have little to no journalistic merit. The writers are not journalists and will always skew the story their way for a response.
American Soldier: People don't have to trust. They just have to listen. If they want to believe, then they will. If a person wants to have a pseudonym then that should be respected. Most soldiers who have started blogs did it to keep in contact with friends and family. It just so happens that some blogs attract the attention of a lot of people. So when a reader keeps coming back, I think that they are coming back to listen to what that soldier is saying.
In my mind there is no need to lie about your status. If you do lie and you're anonymous then you're really gaining nothing. You have to look at yourself in the Humvee mirror and face that reality. If you are mysterious and lie, you are nothing, so you gain nothing!
Omar: I think that readers can trust blogs written under pseudonyms. As a matter of fact, most of the people who visit our blog trust us and that's mainly because they see that the materials we publish are obviously the kind that only observers on the ground can find.
We use some material that can be used as proof, like photos and first-hand reports that we post even before the major media does. For example we mentioned the large anti-terror demonstration in Baghdad on the 10th of December last year and Mr. Bremer's farewell speech, both of which we reported long before the media did.
OJR: What's the most difficult thing about being in Iraq right now?
Buzzell: Fighting the boredom, and remaining combat focused 24-7, no matter how dull and repetitive the mission is. People think it's all blood and guts every day and a huge firefight every time you leave the wire, but my experience so far has been the opposite of that. It's not a movie.
American Soldier: The most difficult thing is time. Too much of it!
Haibi: Probably the most difficult thing about being in Iraq is the fact that the press can't seem to get the story right. As I mentioned before many aspects of the war are being missed and the wrong thing is being portrayed in that everyone thinks that it is a disaster over here.
OJR: Do you believe the U.S. should reinstate the draft? Why or why not?
Buzzell: They did, it's called "stop loss" [an order that prevented people from leaving the Army, National Guard or reserves].
Haibi: The draft is the worst possible idea that could happen to this army today. We now have a professional army of volunteers who do their job because they want to. Also there are enough people who joined who want to get out; imagine an army full of conscripts. This is not WWII. That era created a culture of service and national responsibility where you served as your duty to America. Today we have a more "Me"-oriented society that sees the world for what it can give them and not how they can better it.
American Soldier: I don't think the U.S. needs to reinstate the draft. I think if we follow through with repositioning our soldiers globally from a Cold War perspective down to a more focused stance, then I think we will be fine. Currently we have over 15,000 soldiers in South Korea. I served there and we really don't need to be there. I mean are we really going to stop 7 million North Koreans if hell froze over and they decided to come down?
The bottom line is the U.S. government needs to focus on the rearrangement of soldiers around the world and just get it done.
OJR: In a recent post, Iraqi blogger Riverbend said that it will be very difficult to hold elections in January, because of security problems. Plus, she mentions that many Iraqis have also been taken hostage -- a story that's rarely mentioned in the Western media. What do you think about these points?
Haibi: Until the election approaches, we can't even contemplate what could happen. I remember the disaster that was going to happen with the changeover of power that never happened. Also you can't compare an American election to this country. The concept of free elections and someone other than your man winning is unheard of, so whatever plan comes about will have to work itself out in time. Safe zone elections may work on a local level for regional offices but the idea of a national referendum based on limited voting areas sounds ridiculous.
The hostage issue is something that needs to be hashed out locally. Someone out there knows who's doing it and may not speak up until someone close to them is beheaded.
American Soldier: I agree that having the elections in "safe" areas is a joke. I am sure the media will say that the Iraqi interim government will decide on those elections but this will be heavily influenced by U.S. intelligence. I think the elections in Iraq are not valid. I will even go as far and say that the elections should be considered invalid. If the entire country can't vote then it will not be a 100% supported government. Will we blame the Iraqi government if Iraq erupts into a civil war because half the country didn't get a chance to vote? It's ugly and very very politically motivated!
Ali: The elections should be held at the decided time throughout the entire country, and every effort should be made to clean areas like Fallujah and Ramadi from terrorists and Ba'athists. It won't be easy at all but I believe it can be done. I believe that talks about elections in safe areas are not what Iraqi and American administrations were thinking of. It's rather an attempt to put pressure on tribes in hot Sunni areas to put down guns or stop supporting "resistance," help the central government in its war against terrorists and join elections before the Shi'ites take it all.