"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

The post-9/11 decision to initiate combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has been one of the most widely debated defense strategies in American history. In many ways, the United States’ decision to occupy these countries, and the subsequent military operations these occupations have ushered in, have single-handedly shaped the character of US foreign policy in this century. At the same time, the increasing popularity of Internet-based communication technologies have made possible a variety of methods for extending policy debates and have created new ways in which war reporting, mediated by digital technologies, can immerse international audiences in the day-to-day operations of soldiers, whose experiences on the front lines of combat are chronicled and circulated online at a dizzying pace. This new kind of front-line war reporting provides both policymakers and war critics alike an immense amount of evidence for their arguments regarding the success or failure of current combat operations, and adds new dimensions to ongoing changes in how civilians make sense of media reports concerning the War on Terror. For scholars interested in the intersections of rhetoric and technology, the online presence of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan through the practice of blogging also provides a starting point for multiple avenues of inquiry concerning the role of these first-hand accounts in the shaping of our collective knowledge about military operations, the ways in which military communication practices and policies are complicated by digital technologies, and the public practices of deliberation about the War on Terror that are mediated by Internet-based communication.

Since 1998, the United States Department of Defense has required that all military-related websites maintain strict guidelines for publishing content that has the potential to compromise the security of military operations. For many years, the standard procedure for publishing military-related content on the Web has been fairly straightforward: only information that was unclassified and cleared for public release is considered acceptable for publication online. The regulation of content for military websites prior to 2003 was primarily an issue of Public Affairs; the Department of Defense’s 2002 revision of their Web Site Administration Policies and Procedures suggests that regulating content on military websites was foremost an issue of public relations--the primary motivation for regulating website content was to maintain a uniform message to the public about military operations.

While the Department of Defense’s content regulation policies were sufficient for military-related websites, soldiers deployed during the United States’ 2001 and 2003 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq became increasingly interested in using available communication technologies to maintain contact with family members and friends at home. Consequently, the popularity of “milblogs,” weblogs authored by soldiers and veterans about the War on Terror, flourished, and soldiers found new ways to write about their experiences during deployment. Because milblogs were hosted on non-military sites (including Blogger, Wordpress, and OpenSalon), soldiers were able to blog about their deployments and provide images, videos, and first-hand accounts of combat zones, patrol missions, and base descriptions on publicly accessible blog sites, signaling a new kind of reporting or “soldier journalism” not available in any previous war. Not surprisingly, milblogs also posed a new problem for the Department of Defense; namely, how can the military maintain information security in light of the transparency and immediacy and expansiveness of information about the war that soldier blogging affords? Would banning the practice of blogging infringe on soldiers' first amendment rights or, perhaps more importantly during wartime, violate the Freedom of Information Act?

In a 2003 memo to all military commanders, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted that forces in Afghanistan uncovered an Al-Qaeda training manual that stated, “Using public sources only and without resorting to illegal means, it is possible to gather at least 80% of information about the enemy.” Rumsfeld continued, “At more than 700 Gigabytes, the DOD Web-based data makes a vast, readily available source of information on DOD plans, programs, and activities. One must conclude our enemies access DOD web sites on a regular basis.” The public accessibility of blogs posed the same threat to military information security, and various branches of the military responded in different ways to this threat. For example, in 2005, the Army instituted its regulation 530-1, Operations Security (OPSEC), which required all soldiers to register their blogs with the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell, provided regulations for acceptable content on blogs, set criteria for monitoring and evaluating soldiers’ blog posts, and established penalties in rank and pay for soldiers’ violations of OPSEC policies. Similarly, in August 2009, the United States Marine Corps ordered a one-year ban on the use of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube.

The bevy of media coverage, policy revisions, soldier responses, and public debate on and about milblogs highlights the ways in which blogging as a literate practice holds very real, human, and material consequences for those who engage in it and for military information security as a whole. It also highlights the kairotic nature of the publication of Matthew Currier Burden’s book, The Blog of War: Front-Line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Burden’s book, a collection of blog posts from soldiers and their family members, is unique in that it contains posts published between 2003 and 2005, the years in which soldier blogging was relatively unregulated and policies regarding personal blog content were still under construction. As such, Burden’s collection provides what is perhaps the most illustrative account of soldiers’ experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan: an unedited compilation of soldiers’ lives written from their positions as combat soldiers, medics, officers, and from the family members and friends they leave behind. In total, Burden collects 65 blog posts from 53 different bloggers, most of whom write directly from combat zones. His compilation is organized chronologically, beginning with soldiers’ narratives about receiving orders for deployment, and continuing through the lengths of their deployments to their final trips home. The “uncensored, unmediated, intimate, and immediate” nature of soldiers’ accounts offers readers what Burden calls “the good, the bad, the ugly, and the humor of military life” in “an experiment in putting lives that are on the line online” (p. 4-5). For writing researchers, Burden’s collection affords a tangible example of the relationship between rhetoric, ideology, and lived reality.