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Baghdad Burning: The blogosphere, literature and the art of war

Issue 4, Winter 2008

courtesy of The Feminist Press, www.feministpress.org/

courtesy of The Feminist Press, www.feministpress.org/

In an age of embedded reporters and homogenized news reports, how can people dispense with the instant experts of the punditocracy and find out what is really happening?  Quirky, edgy and raw, new media sources such as blogs have a freshness and an immediacy to them that does not come from standard-issue news reports.  This is particularly apparent with bloggers covering the war in Iraq.  In one sense, new media offer us “history from below,” before it hardens into the work of professional historians.  Some serving in the U.S. armed forces are putting out their own blogs, the so-called “milblogs,” while their opponents in the insurgency are doing the same and turning cyberspace into a zone of “information wars.” As one commentator has noted, these activities have “repictured war as drastically as William Howard Russell’s telegraphed dispatches” from the front did in 1855.[1]   It was this new media constellation of “milblogs,” intermilitary email rings, and mobile phones which brought the images of Abu Graib into general circulation.  This military sub-culture, it is maintained, has now “fed into the mainstream of the nation’s reading matter, and its high impact, wham-bam style has become fashionable.[2]  The most successful among these are cleaning up in book launches and moving in on the big literary prizes.[3]

This paper uses two case studies to illustrate this new wave of firsthand war blogging.  The first is of Riverbend, an Iraqi woman who took up blogging in order to chronicle what life in Baghdad was like, on a daily basis, under American occupation.  The second is a “milblog,” written by one of the pioneers of this genre, Colby Buzzell, while serving in the U.S. military in Iraq.  Although they represent opposing sides in this war, they share certain qualities; the most important being an ennui with life, a sense of numbness and boredom that acts as cover, insulating both, and each in his or her own way, from the physical and spiritual carnage around them.  Allied to this is a world-weary cynicism, a sense that each is a pawn in a larger game – a game in which those at the top do not seem to know what they are doing.  The two bloggers also share a total and unequivocal hatred of war, expressed in a way that only those who have direct experience with what war entails can understand.

Amid increased attention for Arab bloggers both at home and abroad, it is misleading to think of the Arab blogosphere as a monolithic whole.  As Marc Lynch points out, it is more appropriate to think of a series of national blogospheres which are located in individual Arab countries and which are linked at key nodes.[4] The Western influence came in a direct form with the first wave of Arab bloggers.   Described as young, writing in English and politically un-engaged[5], this wave of bloggers resembled nothing so much as their “Gen X” counterparts in North America and Europe.  In time, however, a second wave appeared.  This second wave wrote in Arabic and were “more organically embedded in the political realm,” and included well-known journalists, academics and famous dissidents.[6] 

Several types of online activity have emerged from this second wave. Activists began using this new technology to organize fellow-activists in their own country to advocate for political change.  “Bridge bloggers,” by contrast, target a Western audience and consequently receive “disproportionate attention from Western journalists.”[7]  Wars can often spark individuals to become more politically engaged, thus move from the first category to the second.  This is the case with both Riverbend and Colby Buzzell.

The democratic possibilities of the open source movement

Blogging’s effects are part of a wider tectonic shift in how information and knowledge is produced and consumed.  They point toward a phenomenon which Yochai Benkler describes somewhat awkwardly as a “networked information society.”  Benkler argues that a society in which information is freely shared is more efficient than one in which innovations are restricted through the widespread use of patents.  Benkler was writing primarily about the United States, and his chief targets were large corporations who used the political process to protect their own interests by stalling ideas and innovations that might lead to transformative changes.  The Harvard Law professor used Wikipedia, the Creative Commons initiatives, and the “open source movement” to show that society could progress toward a more critical and reflective state of public affairs through something that he called “commons-based peer production.”  In its ideal form, this society could be described as “a system of production, distribution and consumption of information goods characterized by decentralized individual action carried out through widely distributed, nonmarket means that do not depend upon market strategies.”[8]  Simply put, it describes a network of collaborators who are motivated by something other than money.

Although Benkler was writing from a Western perspective, his description is appropriate for the second wave of Arab bloggers.  These bloggers have provided a source of primary information to a hungry readership, who are now able to reflect in a critical and thoughtful manner on how the high-level strategizing behind war has disastrously affected real lives – something which the traditional sources of media have not been able to provide sufficiently. 

How user-generated media can turn hierarchies on their heads

With technologies literally hard-wired to resist top-down control, new media have been at the forefront of change in the Middle East.  This is not just a problem for governments in this region; it is a problem for occupying forces in Iraq, and the U.S. military is not winning what has been called the “info war.”  Consider the case of Colby Buzzell.  He could best be described as California Gen X.  Pre-army, his circumstances, as he described them, were dismal:  “I was living off Top Ramen (a.k.a. pot noodles) in a suburb of San Francisco and my life was going nowhere.”[9] In quiet desperation, he joined the military at age 26 and was sent to Iraq in November of 2003.  He became a machine gunner and was sent to Mosul the next year, where he fought the boredom of the job by listening to Metallica on his iPod while watching his colleagues search for porn on the Internet during their downtime.  After reading about blogging in a Time magazine article, he decided to start his own blog.   He soon developed a style and voice of his own, one which showed the influence of the rapid-fire gonzo journalism associated with one of his literary idols, the late Hunter S. Thompson.[10] 

Buzzell’s portrait of life as it is actually lived, down in the dirt of the Iraq war, became an instant success because it filled a void left empty by print or broadcast media.  His military superiors actively discouraged his online efforts and, in time, Buzzell left the services.  Predictably, publishing offers came along and a book followed, entitled My War:  Killing Time in Iraq.  The book was critically acclaimed, beating over 110 entries from fifteen countries to win the Lulu Blooker prize.  But ironically, this achievement came at precisely that moment when the Pentagon was clamping down on what was termed “milblogs” – the so-called soldier-publishers.  The military put new rules in place which would require blog entries to be submitted to supervising officers before being posted.  On 14 May 2007, authorities announced a “worldwide” block on thirteen communal websites, including YouTube and MySpace, which previously had been accessed by military computers. A team of Virginia National Guard personnel was given authority to monitor all online activities of U.S. service men and women, including video postings.  In explaining the policy, General B.B. Bell said it was to protect against the drain in computer capacity that came from downloading videos.  Immediately, a backlash took place.  Almost no one took the words of U.S. officialdom at face value.  When asked about the change, Buzzell said that without blogging, he would “be washing dishes in a restaurant somewhere, back to eating Top Ramen,”[11] and adding emphatically, that this was “a totally screwed up policy.”  He concluded that the commanders “are really just nervous because they can’t keep control any more.”[12]

From a strategic point of view, the developing trend of having soldiers act as “citizen journalists” was highly unsettling to the American military.  This could lead to the disintegration of the chain of command.  It meant that U.S. soldiers could potentially communicate directly with insurgents, without going through the intermediary steps of the military hierarchy.  From this perspective, it would be like chess pawns talking to each other and then – potentially – going off on their own.  It was not a surprising move, therefore, when the military tried to stifle the blogging activities of their own soldiers.  This was not new.  In 2004, National Public Radio in the United States carried a story on this topic.  Michael O’Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, opined that the crackdown on these activities did not seem to serve a strategic purpose: “I really think [the policy] … has much less to do with operational security and classified secrets and more to do with American politics and how the war is seen by a public that is getting increasingly shaky about the overall venture.”[13] From his perspective, however, Buzzell thought the military interventions were futile and counterproductive.  “They say Vietnam was the first televised war, brought into the homes of Americans,” he said.  “Maybe Iraq is the first war that’s online, shown by the soldiers.”[14]

An up close and personal take on war

At first glance Riverbend, who advertises herself as a “girl blogger from Iraq” might seem worlds away from Buzzell.  They differ in gender, citizenship and combatant status.  But below the surface there are some striking parallels in their reporting on the war:  the same all-pervasive boredom is there, the same gritty and intrusive on-the-ground reality, the same visceral hatred of war, and above all, the same uneasy sense that those in charge of events are at best incompetent and, at worst, totally removed from the consequences of their actions.  Beginning with the observation that “Sometimes there is nothing more gripping than the mundane,” Christian Caryl’s recent essay in the New York Review of Books argues that Riverbend’s personal war narrative “provides us with the most comprehensive view of the war to date.”[15]  To support this claim, Caryl observes:

We have little impression of Iraqis as people trying to live lives that are larger and more complex than the war that engulfs them, and more often than not we end up viewing them as mere appendages of conflict.[16]

As for the cause of this, Caryl knows where to place the blame, writing that  “language of foreign policy abstraction (in tandem with) a misplaced sense of decorum on the part of press and television also conspire to sanitize the fantastically disgusting realities of everyday death.”[17]

Reviewers said that the “girl blog,” as Riverbend calls her postings, made the “war and the occupation real in terms that no professional journalist could hope to achieve.”[18]  In writing the introduction to her books, James Ridgeway announces that:

Riverbend’s news has nothing to do with troop movements, casualty figures, or the latest from the Green Zone – the subjects of mainstream news reports.  For Riverbend, war is something that is lived every day – and every night.  She and her brother, “E,” sit on the roof to watch Baghdad burning and have learned to identify different types of automatic weapons by the sound of their volleys.  Occupation is a way of life.  It means rounding up enough friendly armed men to take the kids to the store to buy crayons.  It means trying to bury an elderly aunt in a city where mosques are all overbooked for funerals and the cemeteries are full.  It means jumping up in the middle of the night, when the electricity briefly comes on, in order to run the washing machine – or work on her blog.  (And it means, finally, that once)… you are into Riverbend, her war becomes your war.[19]

Like a brilliant, but brief and fleeting comet, Riverbend’s blog first appeared in August of 2003 when she simply announced that she was “female, Iraqi and 24.”  Riverbend had guest blogged on a famous site maintained by another blogger Salam Pax, who suggested Riverbend start her own site.  In her initial posting Riverbend said that “I survived the war.  That’s all you need to know.  It’s all that matters these days anyway.“[20]

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[1] Sutherland, J. (2007).  “War of Words.” New Statesman.  (12 November).

[2] Ibid.

[3] In addition to Riverbend’s two published books, David Bellavia’s House to House, promises to deliver the real goods in a predictable house style. Staff Seargent Bellavia was a highly decorated NCO who saw service in the bloody conflict around Fallujah in 2004.  Marching in line, so to speak, are a number of other books, such as Seargent Patrick Tracy’s Iraq:  the Private Journal of a US Marine Warrior, published by the (im)plausibly named Leatherneck Publishers.

[4] Lynch, M. (2007).  “Blogging the New Arab Public:  Arab Blogs’ Political Influence Will Grow.” World Politics Review.  Retrieved 5 July, 2007, from http:// www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=694.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Ibid. 

[8]   Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Nations, How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.  p. 6. 

[9] Pilkington, 2007. 

[10] Buzzell’s  other literary reference point was Kurt Vonnegut. 

[11] Pilkington, E. (2007).  “Iraq veteran wins blog prize as US military cuts web access”.  The Guardian.   Retrieved 12 July, 2007 from http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,2079899,00.html.

[12] (Ibid.).

[13] Interview on National Public Radio, 2004.

[14] Blog, 2007.

[15] Caryl, C. (2007).  “What About the Iraqis?”  New York Review of Books.  Retrieved 4 July, 2007 from http: //www.nybooks.com/articles/19793.

[16] Ibid. 

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ridgeway, J. and Casella, J. (2006). “Introduction”.  In Riverbend, Baghdad Burning 11, More Girl Blog From Iraq.  New York:  Feminist Press of the City University of New York.  p vii. 

[19] Ibid.

[20]  Ibid. p. vii. 

[21] Ibid. 

[22] Ibid: viii. 

[23] Al-Atraqchi, quoted in Ridgeway and Cassela, 2006: viii-ix. 

[24]  Ibid: xi-xiii. 

[25] Ibid.

[26] Al-Atraqchi, op. cit..

[27] Wali, N. (2006?).  “Iraq Stories,” translated from the Arabic by Jennifer Kaplan, Words Without Borders:  The Online Magazine for International Literature:  http://wordswithoutborders.org/article.php?lab=Iraq stories.  Quoted in Ridgeway and Casella, 2006).

[28] Wali, quoted in Ridgeway and Cassela, 2006: x.

[29] Al-Atraqchi, F. (2006). “Iraqi Blogger Documents History,” Al-Jazeera (online) 6 April:  http://english.aljazeera.net/Nr/exeres/4C5B8EE6-F99c-4AB9-84B6-40F7F8F9B656.htm.  Quoted in Ridgeway and Cassela, 2006).

[30] Op.cit. Ridgeway and Cassela, 2006.  xx.

[31] Riverbend, (2006).  Baghdad Burning 11, More Girl Blog From Iraq.  New York:  Feminist Press of the City University of New York. p. 169. 

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid. 

[34]  From Washington, Al-Jazeera, 1 July 2004.  Quoted in Lynch, 2006.  p. 225. 

[35] Riverbend.  Blog. (2007).  “The Great Wall of Segregation”.  Retrieved 14 July, 2007, from http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/.

[36] Ibid. 

[37] Riverbend.  Blog. (2007).  “The Great Wall of Segregation.”  Retrieved 14 July, 2007, from http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/.

[38]  Sutherland: 56