Soldier blogs bring the front line to the folks at home
The sergeant stationed just west of Baghdad was once again recounting the dangers of being on the front line - sometimes with dark humor. He referred to how the "muj" (mujahideen or insurgents) were the gang that couldn't shoot straight, but still represented a considerable threat.
"They're horrible shots," he wrote in an e-mail to his family, "but every once in awhile they get lucky. We lost another Marine the other day."
This is the first war in which American GIs and military families can communicate freely and in real time via e-mail and cellphone, while gathering endless amounts of information about the situation in Iraq via the Internet - some of it trustworthy, much of it unreliable.
Countless soldiers - some recently returned from the war, others still there - have set up their own Web logs or "blogs" and chat rooms, communicating their day-to-day war experience, complaining about the brass (as all soldiers do), and looking for support. All of which raises a question about war in the Age of the Internet: Is all this electronic chatter good or bad for morale and discipline?
Soldiers are able to have direct and frequent e-mail exchanges with friends and families at home as well as check out websites providing a view of how things are going in Iraq that may differ from official accounts. One well-visited blog is written by a 25 year-old Iraqi woman in Baghdad reporting on civilian life.
Personal e-mails and blog entries from Iraq detail what it's like to live in a world of regular mortar attacks or, as one described recently, the weirdness of coming upon a rosebush in full bloom in the midst of the rubble, and smelling the flowers' fragrance bursting through the diesel smoke of battle tanks.
In some dispatches from the front, one hears echoes of the classic GI humor of Bill Mauldin's cartoon characters Willie and Joe back in World War II. For instance, the sergeant west of Baghdad noted with wry humor the timing of insurgent attacks.
"It seems to happen whenever I'm trying to make my way out to the head," he quipped, referring to what sailors and marines call the toilet. "I'm beginning to take it personally."
But his tone quickly sobers when trying to explain dealing with the stress of losing troops. "It's very strange how people react," wrote the sergeant. "We are all shaken, but at the same time, we just keep going. We still laugh and joke about what we were doing at the time of impact, things like that. I imagine outsiders would think us callous. I guess it's just how we cope. At first it was exciting. Now it's just annoying."
Personal diaries and letters have chronicled war since before the American Revolution. What's changed is the immediacy, the easy access to high-speed Internet connections and phone service in Iraq. As recently as the 1990s - the Gulf War and the conflict in Somalia - this wasn't the case.
"The Internet and digital communications devices have democratized the global flow of information for friend and foe alike," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "Whether you think that's good or bad, there's no question that it is a revolution with profound implications."
The impact on morale has in fact had both positive and negative impacts on the "good order and discipline" that the military demands in its regulations and traditions. Morten Ender, a sociologist at the US Military Academy at West Point calls it a "double-edged sword."
It emboldens and gives more voice to a range of soldiers, leads to closer scrutiny of the battlefield, and provides better communication with families and society, says Dr. Ender, who studies how military personnel communicate with their families and with each other. But, says Ender, "It also creates new leadership challenges, an explosion of information fostering multiple truths, information overload, and the potential for operational security issues."
This democratization of communication has led junior officers - lieutenants leading platoons and captains commanding companies of soldiers - to set up their own limited-access blogs. They exchange directly the things they're learning in Iraq that could save someone's life tomorrow without waiting for formal Pentagon analysis. This can range from the mundane to the strategic, everything from dealing with sullen subordinates to the best ways to avoid roadside bombs to grief counseling.
On the public page of CompanyCommand.com, the founders of the website state simply: "We want real-world, practical, ready-to-apply stuff."
While the Army and the other services have come to see the usefulness of such online activities, they don't necessarily control them. "The Internet definitely has allowed ordinary troops to by-pass the brass and the public affairs flaks," says retired Army Col. Dan Smith, a military analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington.
But not in all cases.
Earlier this year, the Army ordered Maj. Michael Cohen, a doctor with a combat support hospital unit near Mosul, to pull the plug on his blog. Major Cohen had been the chief emergency room physician when a suicide bomber struck a US military mess hall four days before Christmas, killing 22 people and injuring many more.
It was one of the deadliest attacks on American troops since the war began, and on his website Dr. Cohen wrote a straight-forward, 1,900-word report of that day. Although he praised his colleagues' team work and overall job performance as "second to none," he did not spare the details.
Not long after that, he wrote his last blog post: "Levels above me have ordered, yes ORDERED, me to shut down this website," he wrote. "They cite that the information contained in these pages violates several Army Regulations. I certainly disagree with this. However, I have made a decision to turn off the site."
The military had its own rationale in closing the site. News reports at the time quoted coalition spokesman Lt. Col. Steven Boylan as saying, "Sometimes a blog might contain subtle nuances from which you can put together a complete picture of our operations, which insurgents can use to attack us."
Another potential is the impact of bad news from home, ranging from a plumbing emergency to a sick child to a "Dear John" letter. This has always been true in wartime. But while letters can be more carefully written and slept on before being sent, e-mail often tends to be fired off immediately, when emotions are high.
"The danger is that the soldier becomes distracted worrying about something back home and makes a mistake that puts his life or the lives of his companions at additional risk," says Colonel Smith.
That concern can work in the other direction as well, especially with the many websites in cyberspace that can paint a dire picture in Iraq - whether true or not.
(For example, this reporter received an e-mail from the young wife of a marine in Iraq. She'd come across a website reporting the recent capture and execution of 15 American troops. "Maybe you can let me know if you have heard anything like this," she said in an e-mail. "I just wish I didn't stumble across the website, because it makes me all nervous and paranoid. I really need to stop reading this stuff!")
Not all GI blogs are posted by men. "Grey Eagle," the writer of "afemalesoldier.com" describes herself as a 35-year-old wife, the mother of two teenage sons, and a combat medic with the 101st Airborne Division and about to deploy to Iraq. "Sgt. Lizzie's" blog, called "Life in this Girl's Army," looks for the humor in everything - even having to work at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Many soldiers also find blogging a useful way to help deal with reorientation to civilian life in the United States - what Vietnam vets called being "back in the world."
Chris Missick, an Army Reserve sergeant, recently finished a year's tour of duty in Iraq, during which time he kept up his website "A Line in the Sand."
"After I returned home, everything I did felt like a dream," he wrote the other day. "I would visit my favorite Mexican food restaurant here in Southern California and swear I was in a dream. Sitting in the car with my family felt like something I would soon wake up from as well. When the moments did feel like I was actually experiencing them, there was this nearly oppressive sensation that it would all be over soon ... and I would once again be boarding a plane in my DCU's [Desert Camouflage Uniform]."
At other times, he wrote, "In some ways, the process of reintegration into the life you left behind is more difficult than getting used to being in theater," wrote Sergeant Missick. "I can say without hesitation though that I am enjoying every minute of this life in ways I had never imagined."
"Be sure to check back," he concluded. "I have been asked to speak with a classroom of 2nd Graders in the Los Angeles area and plan on sharing the details."