"The Blog of War" book cover

Front-Line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan

Matthew Currier Burden

Simon & Schuster, 2006

ISBN 0-7432-9418-1

304 pages

$15.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by: Patrick Thomas


Burden notes that the affordances of the Internet and the immediacy of blogging provide a forum for first-hand accounts of combat reporting that has never before been available. In prior wars, soldiers who wrote to loved ones had to subject their letters to military censors. While the Army Operations Security policy currently maintains guidelines for appropriate content on military blogs, the ability for soldiers to voice their own stories of combat points to a change that is evident in the larger media landscape. Personal stories, however they are written, are increasingly important to media consumers. Moreover, in a context such as the military, wherein content regulations have real implications for soldiers, the choice to maintain a blog heightens the relationship between individuals’ stories and collective ideology. For military bloggers, the personal is quite literally political.

The claims Burden makes about blogs are important, but equally important is the fact that Burden is not writing for an academic audience. Admittedly, this affects my reading of his collection, but it is an important point for a few reasons. First, Burden provides no discussion of the process of collecting the posts he chooses for this book. Researchers interested in understanding the nature and function of blogging as a locus for varied representations of war and new forms of military discourse would benefit from reading about Burden’s process of locating bloggers and his selection of texts. A discussion of this process would also point to some interesting issues related to the ethics of online research. Related to this point, the lack of method evident in the book tempers any notions that what Burden provides is a fundamentally multi-dimensional view of soldiers’ experiences of war. In all entries, bloggers celebrate their mission work, and Burden includes only posts that reflect positive positions about the wars. While this collection may reflect the dominant ideology of military personnel, it certainly seems plausible that some soldiers, disaffected by their deployments, might use blogs to disseminate their less-than-patriotic views toward the wars. That any view other than the dominant pro-war ideology is missing in this collection should make readers hesitant to accept that Burden’s purpose is solely to pay tribute to the soldiers whose posts are included in the collection. Readers interested in academic study of milblogs would appreciate some explication of how this collection (and hence, the dominant ideology) is constructed.

For scholars in new media and rhetoric, Burden’s collection provides a starting point for some timely and interesting avenues for research. For one thing, the use of blogs signals a shift in the kinds of communication practices commonly employed by the military. Examining how new media changes communication practices in academic and workplace contexts has been a focus for inquiry in writing studies for quite some time, yet few studies examine the shape of communication vis-à-vis new media within the context of military communications. In this way, looking at whether and how blogging as a practice changes the nature of military communications is one area of research that might help scholars develop more nuanced conceptions of military discourse.

Additionally, understanding how bloggers deal with the affordances and constraints of the unique kinds of rhetorical situations that are brought about by the practice of blogging from a war zone seems to be another opportunity to add to the growing body of research on computer-mediated communication. The entries included here reveal a fairly clear set of exigencies soldiers have for their writing; they write in order to inform a (primarily civilian) audience who might not otherwise gain the kinds of insights into the War on Terror evident on soldiers' blogs, and they write as a way to record, remember, or manage their own personal experiences of deployment. Both of these exigencies reveal the soldiers’ sense of audience, as some write for a kind of “universal” civilian audience, while it is clear through personal references that others have very particular notions of who reads their blogs. What isn’t clear in this collection is how soldiers deal with the spatial and temporal constraints of writing from a war zone, when technological resources like laptop computers or Internet access are in short supply, or how they make choices to include particular types of content on their blogs--from descriptions of the weather and patrol missions and combat stories to eulogies, recreational activities, and poetry. The types of content appearing on soldiers’ blogs seems to be the result of any number of careful choices about audience and purpose, and in this way underscores the notion that soldiers' blogs can have a significant persuasive effect on readers and provide audiences with a representation of wartime efforts not made available by any other means of war reporting. Further research into bloggers’ own knowledge of their rhetorical situations might help to reveal more about soldiers’ motivations for writing, their conceptions of audience, and the ways in which Operations Security regulations implicate soldiers’ conceptions of their rhetorical situations.

Finally, a close examination of the development of security regulations for blog content would provide an interesting case for examining institutional discursive practice as it presents a unique instance in which the Department of Defense must allow for new kinds of literacy practices to emerge while maintaining information security for the sake of successful operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That the military already provides opportunities for soldiers’ literacy development through direct instruction in writing and reading points to the fact that the military recognizes the necessity of literacy for soldiers. But how policies that regulate soldiers’ blogging practices are conceived, develop and change over time, and are implemented as part of standard operating practices provides a relatively unexamined case of institutional discourse affecting social processes of writing and reading. Moreover, recent changes to these policies suggest that the military has already developed the strategic use of new media as a means of disseminating “official” media representations about the war efforts. For example, despite current content regulations for soldiers' blogs, a May 18, 2009, directive from the Army's 93rd Signal Brigade now allows access to social media sites (including Facebook, Delicious, Flickr, Twitter, and Vimeo) from Army.mil sites and on all domestic bases (Shachtman, 2009, n.p.). This “official” use of social media points to the ways in which the Army’s communication practices are changing alongside available communication technologies. Documenting how this change takes place and its effect on institutional practices is a vital area of research for scholars interested in the implications of technology on discursive practices within institutions.

The military blogs Burden samples offer interesting starting points for these kinds of inquiries. As individual entries collected in Burden’s work, they are a reminder that in “traditional” as well as “new” media, partial stories and personal subjectivities are the foundation for constructing a collective reality. It is clear that soldiers' blogs provide a different kind of reporting on and differing representations about the war than those offered by mainstream media or the Department of Defense; however, in gathering these fragments, further attention must be paid to the process of collecting such partialities and how this process favors particular representations of the war to the detriment of others.