In September, Matthew Currier Burden, a former Army officer and author of the popular military blog, Black Five, released a book, The Blog of War: Front-Line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that captured some of the best blog posts that have been written by active-duty service members in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. He spoke with CJR Daily earlier this week about the book, and about milblogging in general.
Paul McLeary: Talk a bit about how you started writing about the lives of military personnel serving in war zones, and using their own words, culled from their blogs.
Matthew Currier Burden: There were a couple of reasons why I wanted to get the book published. One was that there were just so many good stories that I wanted to capture and preserve. A lot of the material in The Blog of War you can still find online today, but a lot of it you can’t, since some Internet sites sort of fade out after a while. The second reason was that I wanted to give people who didn’t have the same ideas about the Internet or user-generated content an opportunity to read those stories. Third, the military has sort of been cracking down on [military bloggers] in one way or another, and in the epilogue of the book I talk about who’s left.
A lot of the stories in the book are newsworthy stories that haven’t been told in the media, and I thought that the book would be a great outlet for those — you don’t get a lot of first-hand combat experiences and the experiences of people who are involved in the war but aren’t in combat, like the families, the nurses and doctors, that kind of stuff [in the mainstream media].
PM: You mentioned that the military is sort of cracking down on some blogs written by active members of the military. On Sunday, the Boston Herald reported that “the military has assigned a National Guard unit to monitor the Internet for possible violations of operational security.”
MCB: Just to go back a bit — during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the military offered up Internet service as a morale boost for the soldiers and their families, and when you’ve got a job to do, it’s easier to focus on it when there aren’t any problems at home. So imagine being in combat, and you want to know that everything’s taken care of back home and one way to do that is phone, but also now by e-mail, and it opened up the floodgates.
In the book I call it a Pandora’s Box, because once they started doing that, without fully understanding user-generated content, and the Internet generation’s ideas about sharing information — which is completely different than any war in the past — I don’t think the military, which moves on a sea of paperwork and takes decades to change, understood what they were doing. So all of a sudden you had soldiers sending e-mails, posting blogs, sending pictures and things, so that’s where I started blogging. I had a couple hundred friends in Iraq and Afghanistan and they were sending me e-mails and photos that were contradicting things I was reading in the mainstream media, and I started posting those.
But the military then started putting out some operational security guidance. OpSec is kind of hard to define … but the Army began to require that all bloggers register their blogs with the chain of command, and the first colonel in the chain of command was responsible for having the blogs reviewed on a regular basis, which at the time I think was quarterly. So for the most part you had bloggers registering, and their products reviewed. There have been cases where a division general has reviewed a blogger’s content and thought it was great, where the Army has later come down and said, “No, this person violates operational security,” those kinds of things. So even in the Army there are mixed messages.