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The Blog of War: Front-Line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, by Matthew Currier Burden (Simon and Schuster, 2006)
Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq, by Jason Christopher Hartley (Harper Paperbacks, 2006)
My War: Killing Time in Iraq, by Colby Buzzell (Berkley Trade, 2006)
Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo: Dispatches from Taliban Country, by Benjamin Tupper (NAL Hardcover, 2010)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, by Matt Gallagher (DaCapo, 2010)
Due to changes in technology, communication, culture, as well as a steep decline in the traditional publishing industry, a new style of memoir has come of age in the last decade. Unnamed and unassigned to any genre or subgenre, it can loosely be called the “blog-to-book” format based on the common framework used to develop these first-person accounts. In essence, this has meant that some variation of the following has happened: an unknown writer in an interesting situation or with an interesting writing style develops a substantial fan base by publishing hourly, daily, or weekly blog posts, only to be eventually noticed by a major publishing house eager to capitalize on such built-in momentum. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have consumed the national attention for nearly a decade now, and blogs from the front have remained national curiosities. It is only natural, then, that these blogs fuel a boon in the publication of military memoirs over the last half-decade of wartime. At once, these new books amount to an impressive number of new first-person perspectives on combat being published, and a significant change in the traditional style of the military memoir. Additionally, these books reflect both the impact of technology on established practices and industries as well as the difficulties for our military in the information age.
Although there are regular claims that the publishing industry has cynically pounced on this model to sell books no matter their quality, in reality there have been a relatively small number of these books published and they span a traditional spectrum in terms of quality. In the best examples of the military blog-to-book memoirs, the authors, editors, and publishers clearly collaborate to develop the published work into a surprisingly coherent volume based on the blog posts. These are complete with the necessary context to understand the significance of the work and they are devoid of the tricks and shortcuts that often result as errors common in the world of blogging. They are, in other words, stand alone works that take from the finest aspects offered by the blogging phenomenon and introduce them into the long-established tradition of the memoir. At their worst, the books in this style appear as un-updated blog posts, lacking any coherence beyond what you might expect to find in a daily logbook written for public consumption. In other words, they are merely edited printouts of the blog posts from the service member’s deployment with no context or depth beyond the day-to-day. The five books reviewed in this essay—The Blog of War: Front-Line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo: Dispatches from Taliban Country, and Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War—are representative of the publishing trend, as well as the qualitative spectrum suggested above.
At first blush it may seem that Matthew Currier Burden’s book, The Blog of War: Front-Line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan (Simon and Schuster, 2006), might be a contrived effort by a publisher to capitalize on the nation’s interest in the soldier’s experience at war. However, whether that is true or not is irrelevant, the reader learns almost immediately upon further inspection of the value of this engaging and interesting work. True to form for the blog-to-book style, it is actually a collection of blog posts collected from front-line participants in both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, and Burden himself would probably acknowledge that the main reason for the book’s strengths are not his own, as he merely provides context and editing to the blog posts of the service members that he tracks online.
The book covers a wide range of bloggers and experiences, breaking out the episodes into logical categories. A chapter called “Life in a War Zone,” not surprisingly, collects actual depictions of what life on the Forward Operating Base is like for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines while deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Pulling from a dozen writers, the details are intimate and personal. Meanwhile, a chapter called “The Healers” captures stories from the unique perspectives of combat medics, a unique and often powerful battlefield personality, a fact Burden’s collection gathers. At its strongest moments, as with chapters like “Leaders, Warriors, and Diplomats” and “The Warriors,” The Blog of War is a repository of the immediate and personal journal entries collected by warriors sometimes mere hours after combat operations. Additionally, there are sections on going to war, coming home, those family members who were left behind on the home front, and those comrades who were left behind in combat.
If this book has a weakness, it is likely its one-sidedness. It has been criticized for not expressing the generational cynicism that is so easily found on military blogs. Traditionally, it is taken as an undeniable fact that soldiers are inherently cynical, their leaders are not always leaders, and the warrior class is not always the picture of moral rectitude. If these basic truths about the nature of combat and those who participate in it persist with this current generation, then Burden does not seem to dig deeply to find such examples. His warriors seem to represent an all-American arch-type, one that likes apple pie, baseball, and fighting America’s enemies, and not the sly, weary, and ironic troops that most will encounter within the first few minutes shared with combat troops during a deployment.
But for these weaknesses, it still presents a great strength in that it captures in print form a relatively diverse collection of voices. Unlike the majority of print media coming from the war, which seems to consist of books by a relatively similar group of writers—trending towards white, male, and in the Army—Burden’s book selects from a very wide variety of participants. Of the dozens of bloggers that he tracks for his work, some are guardsmen and some regulars, some are deployed service members, and some are their coping spouses. His writers represent the various branches of the military, the officer and enlisted ranks, and they come from all over the United States. There is still room to criticize certain aspects of Burden’s work, beginning with the obvious market appeal of his work and ending with the ideological bias presented above, but there are more than a few reasons to appreciate it too.
If Blog of War lacks in irony and anti-establishment commentary, there are two books released around the same time that more than make up for it: Jason Christopher Hartley’s Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq (Harper Paperbacks, 2006) and Colby Buzzell’s My War: Killing Time in Iraq (Berkley Trade, 2006). Where Burden’s book spans a broad variety of entries yet seems to support a similar ideology, these two books are intensely personal, wide-ranging in approach, and so obviously without real political agenda that they stand apart as a few of the truly authentic memoirs of the early phases of the conflict in Iraq.
This is especially true of Hartley’s Just Another Soldier, which comes across as more authentic for a number of reasons. Hartley’s strength as a writer sets him apart from many of his peers. His irreverence is thoughtful, and more important, thought through. He sees a bigger picture, rebels against the limits as much as possible (and sometimes more), and weaves in his own personal story explaining his contrary nature while he is at it. Of course, like most things that make up his literary and literal constitution, his being contrary is ironic: he is, after all, a voluntary infantry soldier deployed with his unit to Iraq.
After being raised in a strict home in rural Utah, Hartley moves to New York and prepares to deploy with his New York National Guard unit. The reader is treated to Hartley’s detailed, often witty, and very personal take on various issues. From personality conflicts within the unit, to the bonds that tie soldiers together indefinitely, he speaks uncommon truths about small unit structures, and indeed, organizations in general. The comments are uncommon because notions of voluntary racial segregation, senior-subordinate frustrations, and the individuals collecting in groups can be prickly enough in civilian culture, and only exacerbated within a military framework.
Hartley, it seems, thrives on the conflicts that these situations generate. The conflict within his military unit drives him towards Willy, seemingly the closest friend he could have in and out of the military; the conflict within himself rages and is embodied by the struggle between his fierce individuality and the seriousness with which he takes being a soldier (which is considerable); in fact, the only time that he does not seem to be involved in conflict within himself, within the chafing reality of military rank structures, or anywhere else, is when he is focused on an external conflict, that of life and death that faces him on his daily missions outside of the gates of his operating base.
The aspect of Hartley’s book that truly sets it apart as one of the great representatives of the blog-to-book format, though, is the thought that went into synthesizing his material. Like blog posts, his chapters are mostly short and self-contained, tied together by his voice, his themes, and his focus, but they are much more than that, too. His story is deeply and broadly reflective, much more than most blog posts, and presented in a way that clearly indicates a thoughtfulness equally uncommon to blog writing. To put it more plainly, Hartley’s Just Another Solider is much more than merely a printed out collection of his blog posts with personal and contextual details thrown in to maximize its readability. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Buzzell’s My War, which is by far they most acclaimed volume in this sub-genre of military memoirs.
It should first be stated that Buzzell’s book offers many, many positive contributions to the memoirs of his generation. At times it is funny, irreverent, cynical, and deeply representative of his peers on the battlefield. His personal story is fairly fascinating in its own right: working dead end jobs in California’s Bay Area, living a rock and roll (and at time, rockabilly) lifestyle, and otherwise not finding any fulfillment in life, he decided to enlist in the Army. This, as the title would suggest, was while the nation was at war, which means that he will be trained in the military, fight for his country, and go through the unavoidable changes that come with such experiences.
However, if the title of his work also indicates some internal struggle or struggles while in training or deployed, his book is actually nearly devoid of such examinations, almost profoundly so. If Hartley’s book is, in its essence, about defining conflicts, developing them, and eventually mastering them, then Buzzell’s book falls short by merely describing the conflicts he sees, not seeking to understand them, or even recognizing the conflicts he creates in telling his own story. It is hardly thoughtful or deeply reflective, although it is quite open and honest. He appears to have almost no discernable understanding of the bigger picture, of the complexity of combat and leadership, and yet this does not temper his proclamations on the subject in the slightest.
There are reasons why these issues plague his book, of course. As a junior enlisted soldier it was not always his place to ask or even know the reasons why certain decisions are made. As a true pioneer of this type of book, he could not have known, or even be expected to know, how the format would develop and what the expectations for such works might be. And even if some reviewers find his work lacking in these areas, it should be noted that his book has been astoundingly successful, called a representative of his generation of soldiers, blurbed by some of the most interesting people to ever blurb a military memoir (including Henry Rollins, Kurt Vonnegut), and compared to some of the great subversive writings and writers in American literary culture. Clearly its strengths allow for it to resonate with more than just a few readers.
These two books, published in 2006, represent a starting point of sorts in the blog-to-book subgenre, and provide a snapshot for where the publishing industry, the nation, and the military were at that time. Similarly, two books, Benjamin Tupper’s Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo: Dispatches from Taliban Country (NAL Hardcover, 2010) and Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (DaCapo, 2010), effectively update the same snapshots.
Tupper’s Greetings From Afghanistan is a very straightforward representation of the blog-to-book format, especially when it comes to the amount of synthesis and context added to the final product. More than any other book reviewed here, his book merely appears to be a printout of his online journal during his deployment to Afghanistan. This is not entirely bad, though. His experiences as an Embedded Training Team leader are an interesting and important perspective for future generations who study the current counterinsurgency model. The format also provides another, more tangible opportunity to read his musings as well.
Tupper begins his work with a brief introduction stating why he is in Afghanistan to begin with, where he is, who he is there with, and what he and his team are expected to accomplish. What follows is his contemplation of a wide variety of topics. His style reflects someone who is impressed with the dangers of combat, even if he does not go very far in detailing the personal combat experiences that that lead to his focus on the subject. Or, as one reviewer has put it, no matter what the title might suggest, this book “offers a scattershot view of the minutia of being deployed in Afghanistan rather than the munitions.” He does not shy away from his opinion in these short essays, sometimes offerings ideas that others might find controversial or ill-advised, such as his assertion that bringing Brazilian and Italian women into Afghanistan could somehow enlighten the sexually repressed insurgency and eventually solve all of the region’s problems.
More than the others, Tupper’s work focuses on the personal traumas of war as well, which is a subject clearly significant to the public and to the nationwide veteran community. Many who have had similar experiences will sympathize with the toll the war, and probably especially his “Alive Day,” took on his family, and also the need to continue to support one-another after soldiers return from deployments and separate from the military. As with most of the other stories collected in this book, though, his personal offerings on the aftermath of the war tend to come through a little lean.
Conversely, Gallagher’s Kaboom, simply stated, will likely be remembered as the quintessential memoir of his generation’s combat experiences, particularly in Iraq. Not only does it successfully combine the finest authorial innovations of blogging with finest aspects of traditional memoir writing, but it easily and slyly avoids the traps of each as well. It is unabashedly self-centered and self-aware, but manages to sound anything but self-absorbed. It is full of pop culture references, clever writing, and the cynicism that accompanies his generation without sounding for a second like it is contrived or flimsy. In a word, his work is authentic, a rendering of wartime experiences that has been experienced by nearly his entire generation of warriors but has not been matched by his generation of writers.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of his book is his ability to recognize inconsistencies and incongruities in his surroundings, especially when these incongruities can be defined by who has skin in the game. He admits up front that he is the son of two lawyers, raised in a fairly middle-class upbringing, and that he is not anyone’s victim. However, he also points out that as a soldier he represents only a fraction of a percent of the country that is waging his nation’s war, and by virtue of that, he is of a small group able to pronounce upon it with any real nuance or conviction. He recognizes that the senior tactical-level leaders, the majors and colonels with whom he works, make the calls, but it is the captains, lieutenants, sergeants and soldiers who have the real experience in countering an insurgency. In the man’s world that is the Cavalry, where ego is constantly on the line, this disconnect causes more frustration and pain than often seems necessary.
Even if his experiences are not particularly rare for the thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who have deployed to the region, his telling certainly is. He is unabashed in offering his opinions on the proper prosecution of a counterinsurgency. After all, as a Stryker platoon leader in Iraq during the Surge, he had plenty of opportunities to learn the ground truth, and to hone their lessons. Mostly, though, this is just a beautifully written book that speaks for many who share Gallagher’s experiences. He writes convincingly of his passion to accomplish the leaders balance—completing his mission and taking care of his troops—and he writes powerfully about the structural difficulties of doing both.
To focus on the individual strengths and weaknesses of these books does not tell the full story of their significance, though. Their real impact resides in what they mean collectively. These books, especially when seen as a variant on the wartime memoir, represent enormous changes in the standard form. Even in book form, a delivery method that had been said to be dying for years now, they fit their generation’s style and manner of communication with more innovation and confidence than perhaps would have been expected a decade or more ago. Not all credit can go to these writers and others like them, though, as much of their collective innovation has been inspired by the supply of new media opportunities and technology, and the demand for the use of the same for more information, faster.
With unprecedented access for news media outlets on the battlefield through the widespread use of embedded reporters, the global public has wanted or needed a steadier flow of information from the “front,” a military concept that is just as outdated as the tangible Victory Mail letters sent home from troops in World War II. Blogs by service members have not only filled this void, but they have changed it too. Not only have they changed the way that information is presented from the battlefield by turning our service members into a sort of “Journalist-Soldier,” but it has also changed the way that information has been presented by virtue of the fact that the information is now presented, unedited and immediately, for public consumption.
This change is the delivery of information can be seen as a major, generational paradigm shift. Although not a one-for-one replacement, these “Journalist-Soldiers” exhibit a relevant change to the way media is delivered, received, and perceived. In a way, they have replaced New Journalism with its logical extension, New Media. New Journalism, the style made famous by journalists in the 1960s and 1970s, especially Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, was and is a style of journalism that focused on the subjectivity of truth. As a stylistic approach, New Journalism allowed for more access to the author’s opinion, their senses, and a novelistic approach to writing. It was revolutionary when it started, and still has impact today. New Media, alternatively, deals less with the description of the principals of the journalistic ethos, and more with the way the information is delivered. The development of the concept and consequences of New Media is still unfolding, but to date a few key characteristics seem clear: it is an almost completely democratized form of media, allowing for anyone with access to basic computer hardware and software a voice; it mixes media, most often digital methods like blogs, social media, video and pictures, any many other interactive approaches; and unlike New Journalism and its subjective approach to the truth, New Media is far more interested in the delivery of information and emotion than vetting information for accuracy.
In practice, this means that these blogs have a powerful emotional and informational impact. In their original blog form, these accounts are first person, they can be posted immediately after the day’s action, they are available to anyone with an internet connection, and they are often complemented with authentic photography and fresh video from the cameras taped to their machine guns, the roofs of their vehicles, or strapped to their extensive body armor systems. As blogs, these authors and many others like them, update the combat experience for the information age. As their work has transitioned into book form, they have offered a new twist on the old standard genre of the wartime memoir as well as the wartime correspondent made famous by the likes of Joe Galloway and Ernie Pyle.
With this new capacity of the service member to write about his or her experiences comes an obvious new set of tensions within the military command structure. A military unit, especially one that is deployed to a combat zone, traditionally focuses on discipline, which can be made manifest through extinguishing criticism of the chain of command and through control of information through Operations Security measures, both of which fly in the face of the new liberty provided by the internet, blogs, and other media. Aside from the changes to the way the military memoir is presented, the development of this tension between the good of the collective and the rights of the individual provides for the most fascinating aspects of three best of the books reviewed here: Kaboom, Just Another Soldier, and My War, in that order. Tupper’s Greetings from Afghanistan does not address the subject, and Burden’s Blog of War only suggests that this tension could be a problem in the future as the military learns to deal with this new informational phenomenon.
Matt Gallagher can probably at least partially ascribe his fierce sense of individuality with the fact that he is the son of two attorneys. Depending on how one sees it, this fact either buoys him or sinks him when it comes to his interaction with his combat leadership, which he refers to as “Lieutenant Colonel Larry,” “Major Moe,” and “Sergeant Major Curley,” for greatest impact. Although he had long observed the military’s published policy on blogging mandating that the soldier’s commander clear any posts for publication, he simply could not bring himself to care anymore after “Lieutenant Colonel Larry” directly threatened his career and his professional development because he, Gallagher, was considering leaving the military after his initial commitment. In what he describes as a mixture of rage and exhaustion, Gallagher posted a lengthy post to his blog directly questioning his command’s competence, their ability to reason, and their concern for things that matter.
Reproduced on the pages of his book, the post is jaw dropping. Anyone who has served during wartime under questionable commanders has wished, at one point or another, that they had the gumption to post such an honest assessment. And any commander who read such a scathing review of his or her own command climate would be forced to do what “Lieutenant Colonel Larry” did, by ordering Gallagher to shut down the site while searching to find ways to punish him legitimately. Ultimately, Gallagher was shuffled to another unit as quickly as possible. Agree or disagree with his commander’s actions, it is hard to imagine a different course of events occurring, which even Gallagher seems to admit in his acceptance of the new reality he created for himself. He simply forced his commander to address the new tensions of discipline and freedom in the military. Gallagher was advised by attorneys, his father spoke out against his command’s first amendment abuses in the media, and eventually, he became quite infamous in military circles for his writing, all of which led to his eventual and deserved fame as one of the great chroniclers of his war.
Perhaps it was the lack of familial legal support that was the difference for Jason Christopher Hartley when he chose to challenge the same tensions that Gallagher did. Perhaps it was the fact that Gallagher was a lieutenant and Hartley a noncommissioned officer. Or maybe it was just a matter of the command’s focus on seeing the punishment through. Whatever the case, for Hartley, the consequences could scarcely have been worse. Through his various blog posts and contextual additions that make up the boo Just Another Soldier, Hartley makes a few things very clear: although he chafes under the authority granted his leaders, he genuinely loves and appreciates the military; he intends to be the best soldier and leader he can during his deployment; and, his blog is to communicate with those he loves and those who love him. These three simple facts lead him to his great and ultimate heartbreak.
The story of his downfall really begins during a pre-deployment exercise for his New York National Guard unit in Fort Polk, Louisiana. Hartley and some friends decide to break curfew, drink too much in the local establishments, and eventually get into what appears to be a minor scuffle. All of this results in a loss of privileges for Hartley and his peers, and a major wakeup call for the young soldier about to deploy. In response he decides that his public blog could lead to even more trouble, putting him under the spotlight unnecessarily, a bad idea after his pre-deployment actions had led to significant unwanted attention. The choice seems a mature one, and the blog post announcing its discontinuation seems appropriate and fitting for someone in his position.
However, in that same post he reveals the weakness that eventually takes him down: he states that he is going to keep the blog alive, just not post the contents publically as he had been doing. Almost a year after he had stopped blogging publically, and closer to the end of an impressive tenure in Iraq, Hartley threw away his chances for remaining heroically disciplined. After a night of illicit drinking in his room on the Forward Operating Base in Iraq, he decided to take his blog live again, complete with all of the entries that he had not published to date, and then almost immediately going on leave. Upon his return to Iraq, his world had fallen apart, and he was now at the mercy of his command. In the end he was shuffled through what he describes as a dubious disciplinary process, was threatened and demeaned by his superiors, and eventually he lost his beloved rank. Like Gallagher, though, infamy and great writing did amount to a book contract, though.
Buzzell’s story of tension with his command exhibited in My War shines a less sympathetic light on the author. It seems that he was given a great deal of leeway with respect to his writing, that his commander was a great and understanding leader, and even appreciative of Buzzell’s prose. When the commander found out about Buzzell’s blog, he invited him into his office, talked about the glories of Hunter S. Thompson with him, complimented his writing style, and eventually discussed operational security versus Buzzell’s own freedom of speech. With respect to the commanders in Kaboom and Just Another Soldier, Buzzell’s commander handled the situation like an absolute gentlemen. Even Buzzell writes that his commander was right, and agrees to scrub information that the enemy might find useful off of the page.
Astonishingly, a few weeks later he is called into his Sergeant Major’s office, and he is given a similar speech as the one he had received from his commander. The Army was not interested in infringing upon his freedom of speech, they were monitoring his writing for operational security violations and had not found any, but, because his blog was starting to get more international attention, he would no longer be allowed to go on missions off of the operating base. The punishment seems draconian and was eventually reversed under media pressure, only to be replaced by an approval process by his chain of command for each of his future entries. In the end it was hardly as harsh as the retribution delivered in the cases of Gallagher and Hartley’s blogs, but Buzzell still bristled too much under the new restrictions and eventually decided to discontinue his blog.
Given the complexity of the matter, it seems as though the command and Buzzell were handling the tension between discipline and personal freedom during wartime much better than could have been expected. The command ensured his opportunity to express himself while protecting itself from potentially harming others, and Buzzell agreed to keep his musings within their guidelines. But somehow the fame he was receiving due to his blog and its temporary silence seemed to have poisoned Buzzell’s perspective on what was ultimately very fair treatment. While on leave from Iraq, he reached out to Jello Biafra, a famous punk rock musician who was famously against the war in Iraq, and asked him to write a message to post on his blog. He had not cleared it with his command when he posted it, and it would not have passed muster with his chain of command anyway. But at this point, he no longer cared about how fairly he was treated or what his platform had become. It appears that he really only cared about what all of this could do for him and his image. As these things work out, the one soldier who was treated the most fairly turned against his commander’s most thoroughly, pretty much ensuring that no one would be given the chances he was given to express himself maturely again.
Beyond a study of the nuances of freedom of speech on the battlefield, these books collectively offer one final strength. In a time when such a small portion of the American population is actively engaged in the nation’s wars, these books, and the blogs that preceded them, are excellent windows to the soldier’s experiences. They are the musings, frustrations, rants, and even mundane monologues about what the real experience is like as presented in the first person. This is particularly important to understand as many of these service members redeploy and reintegrate into their civilian communities.
One of the most significant elements that these books cover is the similarity in experience of the active duty service member and the activated member of the national guard and reserves. Traditionally there has been a significant gap in mission between these military entities, but the current wars, as these books show, have rapidly erased that difference. This means that the transition to civilian life has and will continue to become a major issue for an even larger population of service members and veterans than expected in the early days of the war. It will mean a larger burden on the military and local communities to ensure that this transition is properly achieved, or the cost to society will likely be even greater.
With only minor exceptions, these books even cover what that transition to civilian life is like. Tupper writes about the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on his life, and on the life of one of the soldiers that he became close with during his deployment. Buzzell briefly concludes his book with a few pages about what the transition means to him in almost real time as he redeploys from Iraq back to the United States through Germany. In an equally brief conclusion entitled “The Alamo, The Gap, and Hooters,” Hartley concludes his memoir in a similar way. Matt Gallagher has transitioned from his days as the author of Kaboom to civilian life and author of “Kerplunk: One Soldier’s Journey from Baghdad to Brooklyn,” a blog that actively updates his many fans on his perspective on the transition, veterans issues, defense policy, and the ongoing war.