War of words

John Sutherland on the military blogs reshaping our view of the battlefield

The Iraq War has dragged on longer than the Second World War. Soldiers' reportage never caught up with that conflict. Letters were censored; mail deliveries were slow. Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead describes the pain of receiving letters weeks after the dreaded telegram had rendered them the cruelest of war's ironies.

Operation Iraqi Freedom is something else. American warplanes and helicopters rule the skies - American servicemen rule the ether. Milblogging and combat blogging have repictured war as drastically as did William Howard Russell's telegraphed despatches from the Crimean front did in 1855.

It was milblogs, intermilitary email rings, and mobile phones - not war journalism - that leaked the Abu Ghraib pictures into general circulation. And the enemy also have their blogs, gleefully circulating images of IED carnage.

But the official censorship body, Operations Security, last April issued directives aimed at stamping out combat blogging. Judging by the gateway website, Milblogging.com, the stamp-down hasn't been entirely successful. Milblogging is a complicated subculture, much of it incomprehensible to the home front. But it has fed into the mainstream of the nation's reading matter, and its high-impact, wham-bam style has become fashionable.

David Bellavia's House to House is typical of this new idiom. The book has been much applauded. Staff Sergeant Bellavia is a highly decorated NCO. The book centres on his infantry regiment ("the Ramrods") and their bloody engagement in Fallujah in 2004.

House to House is written with an "it's happening now, for fuck's sake" immediacy that draws its juice and its authenticity from the rapid-fire combat blog: "Boom! An RPG. Boom! Boom! Two more strike nearby. More IEDs explode. Mines, more explosions, dirt, smoke, and flames all around us."

"This is a nonfiction," declares the author's preface. But it reads like fiction. House to House deserves the respectful raves it's getting: even from "liberal" commentators who might otherwise object to the author's proudly asserted "warrior" code.

But hyper-authentic as it reads, Bellavia had a professional co-writer, the war-historian, John R Bruning Jr and, behind the scenes, one imagines, a platoon of civilian editors. The kind of pen-pushers in smart casual Banana Republic gear that, Bellavia declares, "nauseate" him. What do they know of the "smell of death"?

It will be interesting to see how a new imprint by Leatherneck Publishing makes out in this new climate. Founded by a Vietnam veteran, Leatherneck's self-declared mission is "to provide a venue to every military person, marine, army, air force and navy who has a story to tell". It's latest offering is Street Fight in Iraq: the Private Journal of a US Marine Warrior, by Company Sergeant Patrick Tracy (possibly a pseudonym). "What it's really like over there!"

Hemingway would have approved. lFiction

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet