“Right now, terrorists are trying to kill me.
My wife and family are faraway,
and the people I work with are idiots.
My name is SFC John H.
I am a US Soldier.
This has been the longest year of my life.”
—from the blog John of Arabia
Never have soldiers in a war been equipped with so much personal technology. It’s not just backpack missiles. “You literally can’t go 30 seconds without hearing a Kylie Minogue tune or Beethoven’s Symphony in C Minor emanating from someone’s pocket,” grumbled journalist Kevin Sites in his blog. Sites would later videotape a U.S. Marine killing an unarmed man in a mosque, provoking international controversy, but that day in Kuwait, still waiting to cross the border, the image that stayed with him was the glow of laptops, temporarily left alone by their users: “One by one, the ghostly images of wives, children, girlfriends, husbands, pets, slowly appear[ed] from the depths of cyberspace—as screensavers.”
The torture photos at Abu Ghraib were used as screensavers, too, according to some witnesses. But we record the world around us. Soldiers are snapping photos, writing suicide bomber haikus, and recording original country songs with portable microphones. And they’re blogging by the hundreds from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some call themselves ‘milbloggers’. Here’s a short introduction to three of them.
“There are no windows to look through. Open air outside and no windows in the tents,” muses Medicine Soldier. “In fact, the only window I have to look through is on my laptop.”
Medicine Soldier is an Army officer, as well as a “Scottish/Native American microbiologist poet” pursuing a master’s degree in public health. But most of his blog concerns itself with the daily grind of camp life, including dime-sized flies in the mess hall, camel spiders in the shower, and the 140-degree heat:
In case you are wondering what it is like over here, try this at home. First, get a cupful of fine dirt or sand. Find a nice cotton long-sleeve shirt and pants and throw them in the clothes dryer on high heat. Then run into the bathroom and put the cup of sand on the sink. Jump in the shower with the water as hot as you can barely stand. Then without drying off, run to the dryer and put the clothes on right out of the dryer (yes, over your wet body). Run back to the bathroom and turn the hair dryer on full hot blast and hold it a half inch from your nose. Throw the sand in the hot air. Repeat this several times and you’re in Iraq.
On political questions Medicine Soldier gets more careful, and more vague. The closest he gets to punditry is in a summer entry called “Difficult Negotiations,” where he describes a stressful day spent trying to give Iraqi children soccer balls as bribes to get them to brush their teeth, then broods over the Saddam-in-his-undies photo that was just then gracing tabloids. “I am sure the intent of the photos is to contrast Saddam as a dictator to his life now. Unfortunately, many Muslims see this as Americans humiliating Muslims. We spend hours trying to gain trust and support of the local people … all to be outdone by some media spin.”
Media spin, perhaps. Though for what it’s worth, Medicine Soldier fails to mention that it was a soldier who took that Saddam photo.
Sergeant Daniel Goetz has no trouble expressing his opinion, which is usually sarcastic, cynical, and desperate. A stop-lossed soldier serving his second tour in Iraq as an Arabic translator, Goetz translates for soldiers out on patrol and thus can explain subtle military vocabulary like “Hooah”:
“Hooah?” Without context, it can literally mean anything from “Do you hear me?” to “I am insecure with my new surroundings in this desert internment camp and am unfamiliar with what you are doing with the barbed pitchfork; may I please speak with an American consular representative?”
1) “hooah”—I recognize what you say and want to get on with my life.
2) “HOOAH!!!”—I have just matriculated from basic training and consider myself a mindless conscript and agree with everything you say -OR- I think you’re an idiot, and I choose to pander to your foolishness with my own-mocking-version of what you call “soldiering.”
3) “hooah”—please accept this word I usher to you with no passion as one that I would rather spit at you, because it is my fair warning to you that I hate you, The Army, your uniform, everyone in charge of both of us, and I hope the whole thing falls apart around us all so I can laugh at the stupid folly we have surrendered our lives to -OR- I have been stop-lossed, and this is my second time in Iraq.
But for all his hatred of the war, Goetz has surprisingly little patience for Cindi Sheehan, the mother who set up camp outside Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas to protest her son’s death in Iraq. In an entry called “Cindy Crawford,” he shudders at the thought of his own mother doing the same:
I am sure Mrs. Sheehan wouldn’t be protesting if she knew her son was a supporter of our President, but that—in my opinion—does not give her license to martyr him. My insult was piqued when I saw that a man had set up his own camp—in support of The President and his policies—named for his son, another fallen servicemember. The message is disturbing: that you can’t weigh in on the subject unless you have a son or daughter who was killed in combat. What gives them the right to speak on their behalf? Can you imagine the insult if someone were to champion your death as a cause you never believed in, or didn’t care about?
The tone here is out of tune; Goetz is usually a funny and sarcastic writer. (Though perhaps this has something to do with Goetz’s proximity to death, writing from a war zone.) Still, in trying to criticize Cindi Sheehan and the media horde around her, Goetz unwittingly provides her best defense, in what could be an anthem for milbloggers everywhere:
It surprises me not in the least that people are emotionally detached from the war in Iraq and the situation in Afghanistan. Only those with a vested emotional interest understand the reality. I admit to apathy myself when in The United States; even to the point that I felt no connection to my friends and coworkers here when I read the news during my two-week vacation.
If what you’re wanting from milbloggers is a front-row seat on the front lines, few deliver on this promise better than Lieutenant Neil Prakash. The child of two upstate New York dentists with a neuroscience degree from Johns Hopkins, Prakash was awarded a Silver Star for saving his entire tank force during an assault in the Sunni Triangle. Though his own description of warfare is more self-mocking, as when he describes accidentally driving his tank into a minefield, only to be fired on by a sniper, then to run back to the other side of the tank (where the mines still were):
“OH SHIT! THE MINES!!! Everyone get to the other side of the tank!” We all made a mad dash for the left side of the tank and crouched down.
“OH SHIT, the sniper!”
Ooohhh right. The sniper. We scrunched up our faces in revelation and slapped our foreheads. It was exactly out of that scene in The Simpsons Season 5 episode “Cape Feare.” Bart is being chased by Sideshow Bob so he runs to one end of the houseboat and peers over the edge and there are alligators in the water. So he runs to the other end and there are electric eels. So he sprints to the front again and peers over and sees the alligators and says, “Oh yeah.”
We were vulnerable to sniper fire and enemy indirect fire being out here in the open desert with no terrain to hide behind. And that’s when the Air Force showed up.
The Air Force arrives in their F-16s. “I cannot and will not ever come close to putting these sounds into words. But I will try,” Prakash writes. “The machine guns on the jets sounded like a panther in a blender, followed by a jackhammer, and then a nuclear bomb.” Or, as reader civilwarrior chimes in on the site, rather like a T-rex with hemorrhoids trying to take a shit in the woods. Bugz writes in with the science of the thing: “You first have the deep chain saw kind of sound from the cannon fire itself. You then get a kind of booming, tearing noise as each round goes supersonic and creates its own little sonic boom.” Prakash thanks them for their input, then concludes his story:
But it was the funniest, yet fiercest machine gun coming out of the sky. It was fast, violent, and relentless. And it didn’t stop with the machine guns. One jet flew straight across and dropped a JDAM. I never actually saw a bomb get dropped live like this before. From where we were, it looked like the jet pooped out a little hamster shit. It went straight for a second and curved and went straight down. The ground shook and the air was reverberating. My guys and I just started laughing at the shellacking that the city was getting. Ahhh, eat shit you fucks.
I’m still not sure I know what that F-16 machine gun really sounded like. But I can hear Prakash’s laughter with his buddies loud and clear. In the end, blogs may provide only a foggy window on warfare. But they’re the closest many of us get to the kids doing the fighting.