CB Takes the Prize


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CB in Iraq (Reuters)

Back in July of ’04, I was writing a blog about literary blogs – blogs that used the form for fiction or poetry or photography, or that featured exceptional writing – and in surfing for them I stumbled across one called My War: Fear and Loathing in Iraq by an anonymous Iraqi soldier stationed near Mosul who called himself “CBFTW”. The writing was raw, honest, and vibrant. CBFTW reminded me of a cross between Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson (even without the clue in the title, it would have been impossible not to recognize CB as a Thompson fan from the style of his writing). I was very impressed and said so when I reviewed it.

This is, as far as I know, one of a kind. Not only is it a blog written by a soldier now serving in Iraq, it’s written by a soldier who can write. His grammar isn’t great, his spelling is OK, his punctuation is horrible. All of that is beside the point….[H]e can communicate a sense of time and place so clearly that it’s almost physical–you can hear it, you can see it, you can almost reach out and touch it.

***

He…seems to write at least one post a day, sometimes two, and they all slice directly into the heart of what the troops are up against and, to a degree, how they’re coping. He doesn’t make judgments and he doesn’t talk poilitics; if he has opinions he mostly keeps them to himself. What you will read is raw, frontline reporting, practically in real-time. In other words, everything we don’t get–or only rarely–from our Bush-addled media.

This is one of the best combat soldier’s diaries I’ve ever read. It has the immediacy and authenticity of an eye-witness account under extreme stress, and the power of a Hemingway novel to punch you in the gut when you’re not expecting it. Consider it a Must-Read and check it every day. If he can live it, we can read it.

Somebody told him about the review and not long after I got an email from CBFTW, thanking me for the attention and the nice things I said. He wrote that it was encouraging to get that kind of praise because he was just a low-income kid from a suburb of San Francisco with no education to speak of who had never written anything before and often felt lost, like he wasn’t sure he was doing it right. He told me his name – Colby Buzzell – and that the “FTW” stood for “Fuck This War”.

Well, I was hooked, of course. A working-class kid – like me – who wanted to write and actually had talent? I couldn’t resist. We exchanged emails every now and again until he left the Army. He never wrote about Iraq – all that stuff went into his blog for as long as it lasted. We talked about writing and the business of publishing – he wanted to turn his blog into a real book. I offered him sage writing advice which he wisely ignored, and urged him to get a manuscript together and send it off to agents and/or publishers, explaining as much of the process as I could.

He never did get around to sending out an MS. He didn’t have to. The Wall Street Journal did a write-up on My War, PBS interviewed him, and the next thing he knew, agents and publishers were coming to him – a dozen of them. The last email I had from him told me he had made a deal. He was going to write a book.

And he did.

My War: Killing Time in Iraq got a lot of attention and a lot of press. Did it sell? I have no idea, but Putnam put some ad money behind it and Esquire Magazine published a piece by CB in their March ’05 issue when the book came out, so I suspect it did fine.

Now, via Mark Gisleson at Norwegianity, I find out that CB is in London.

The timing of the award is almost as striking as the writing which it honours. A former American machine gunner’s memoir of a year’s tour of duty in Iraq based on his blog has just won a major accolade at precisely the moment when the US military high command is clamping down on blogs among the rank and file.

Colby Buzzell was awarded the £5,000 Lulu Blooker prize for My War: Killing Time in Iraq, which was voted the best book of the year based on a blog. It triumphed over 110 entries from 15 countries.

The memoir was drawn from a blog he kept while in Mosul, in northern Iraq, in 2004, in which he portrayed the texture of daily life there, from listening to Metallica on his iPod to watching his fellow “grunts” surf the web for pornography.

There’s also irony in the fact that it was CB’s blog they practiced on: barely a month after I wrote my review, CB had to shut down My War. Ron Bryneart reported the story on his then-blog, Why Are We in Iraq? in all its excruciating, maddening detail. The end result was that even though CB was – for a while – allowed to keep posting, he had to submit each one to his commanding officer for approval, which, he told me at the time, drove him nuts. CB had more than affection for Hunter, he had Hunter’s insufferable dedication to unvarnished truth, and he suspected he was going to be shut down for telling it.

Now, after a couple of years of being terrified that the milblogs were going to print things that gave the Army a black eye, they’ve decided to control the situation by ordering every soldier with a blog to do what CB had to do – show each post to his/her CO before he published it and get approval.

The new rules require all would-be “milbloggers”, as soldier-publishers are called, to submit blog entries to supervising officers before posting them. That turns on its head the existing rules which allowed soldiers to post freely, with the onus on them to register their blogs and to alert officers to any material that might compromise security.

Yesterday the defence department went further and announced it was blocking access “worldwide” to 13 communal websites, including YouTube and MySpace from military computers and networks. General BB Bell said the move was to protect operations from the drain on computer capacity caused by soldiers downloading videos on these sites.

But prominent military bloggers said this was another move by commanders to try and regain control over ue of the internet. Matthew Burden, a former major in the US army who runs the most popular milblog, Blackfive, with 3 million unique users a year, said he had been contacted by several serving soldiers who said they were going to stop posting. “They are all putting their hands in the air and saying, ‘That’s it, I’ve had enough.'”

Which is presumably just the response the military was hoping for. CB thinks the order is counter-productive.

Buzzell said the new restrictions would hurt combat soldiers and their families. “It’s hard for them out there, and this will make it harder. It will lower soldier morale for troops who are on their second or even third tour.” He also regrets the tightening grip over blogging on a personal level because without it, he said, he would now be “washing dishes in a restaurant somewhere, back to eating Top Ramen”.

As it is, his book has been translated into seven languages, and he has embarked on a freelance writing career for Esquire magazine, among others. “This is a totally screwed up policy,” he said. “The commanders are just really nervous because they can’t keep control any more.”

Their fears may be legitimate but is this the way to handle them? Probably not, since there has never been a case where a milblogger has posted sensitive information. That’s not what they’re worried about, and the bandwidth thing sounds bogus. I think that what’s really irking them is the licking the Army has been taking over everything from the phony command center they let political spinmeister and Rove operative Jim Wilkenson set up at the beginning of the war to Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, and the incident at Haditha.

The bandwidth? Giving away troop positions? Nah. Their knickers are in a knot because they’re having nightmares that something a blogger writes might spark yet another PR disaster.

But CB is beyond all that now. The skateboarder from Frisco is doing OK.

Congratulations, CB! You fockin’ did it.

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