I am at Brown University's Watson Institute today and tomorrow, attending a fantastic conference, "Front Line, First Person: Iraq War Stories," on soldiers blogging from the battlefield.
The first day's talks are just ending now. Here are a few of my notes from a very emotional and relevant discussion (I am paraphrasing what some of the panelists say below):
Colby Buzzell (blogger, author My War: Killing Time in Iraq) tells his story of how he was deployed in Iraq in 2004. With his blog he was able to tell what really happened despite news stories with contrary information. His blog was turned into his book as well as animated stories for PBS. Relating to our project, blogs certainly strengthens the truths. He wishes more books and more accounts were written about the war because “it becomes more real.”
Senator Lincoln Chafee retells the story of voting to go to war to Afghanistan days after 9/11. He said things were happening so fast Congressmen were unclear whether they were voting on funding for NYC or war in Afghanistan. After Afghanistan “all of a sudden the drums are beating for Iraq.” People weren’t even deliberating on what a WMD was. Carl Levin asked for the debate to slow down but that failed by the same vote level that authorized the war shortly later. “If the administration wanted to remake the Middle East, let’s have that debate. It didn’t happen.” When visiting Iraq right after the war, Chafee saw people put their hands on their hearts as a sign of respect. A year later, Chafee couldn’t get past the airport road.
Matthew Burden (veteran, blogger, Blackfive; author “The Blog of War: Frontline Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan”) – I tried to stay connected to my some 200 friends stationed in Iraq to get to the truth. I started Blackfive to tell the stories that weren’t getting told by the media. The first colonel was supposed to review a soldier’s blog but that was pretty lenient. But there are more violations of operational security on the DOD website than on solders’ blogs. The problem we have now is the speed of the information—that scares some. I would like to have military bloggers have the same restrictions as embedded reporters. Many of the people in my book stopped blogging because of the restrictions put on them. You don’t hear enough of the acts of kindness. Blogs help give a sense of balance to reporting.
Eric Rodriguez (veteran, Brown student) – How do we understand something as horrible as war? My family started the second largest gang in California. I wanted something different. I was born in LA but I wasn’t seen as American as others were. After being homeless, I wanted to join the Army so that people wouldn’t be able to look at my family and wonder if we were American. I believe in service to country, and nothing can change that. My transition to the military was easy because I didn’t have to worry about meals, I got a roof over my head, and I was getting paid. After Iraq happened, I decided to go—I ended up in a Chinook getting shot at. Going to Iraq made me a better person in terms of building character. My dream was to go to college. When I was in a minefield facing death, what was important to me became clear—service to country, getting home and going to college. I wrote a 15-page essay called “Straight Out of My Car” to make sure I didn’t fall victim to my abandonment, my sister’s pregnancy, and other pieces of my past. A few colleges got ahold of it and invited me. I brought my friends and mom to college. I hope from my story you see a humanistic side of the Iraq war. There are a lot of good people over there. It’s not black and white. It is a big, gray, scary area. This morning, I taught a high school sex education class, rewrote my economics paper, and prepared for a quiz. Now I am here talking to you.
SFC Toby Nunn (author, Northern Disclosure, soldier currently serving in Iraq) - I have an ethical obligation to tell the story of my buddies. The result is to try to instill a betterment, a better faith of humanity. There is more to armed conflict than the actual violence. It’s not just the action you see, it is the impact you make—delivering school supplies, developing infrastructure, etc. I am from Canada and am trying to become an American citizen because I want to be part of something great and earn my place in society.
Deborah Scranton showed a clip from her film "The War Tapes," showing how U.S. soldiers tried to save Iraqis after a suicide bomb went off, contrasting with the media reports, which did not show these acts of heroism.