Bloggers, soldiers recount Iraq’s front lines

Monday, October 22, 2007

Nearly 40 journalists, soldiers, Marines, activists, authors, bloggers, filmmakers, professors and dedicated students gathered on campus this weekend to discuss coverage of the war in Iraq and the importance of first-hand accounts of war as keys to the public’s understanding of the war.

“Front Lines, First Person: Iraq War Stories,” a two-day conference sponsored by the Watson Institute for International Studies, brought together some of the world’s most celebrated chroniclers of war and packed them into the Joukowsky Forum for hours of discussion and debate, hoping to create “bridges for conversation” across the fault lines between soldiers and civilians.

“Progress doesn’t take place in the university, in the military or in political circles through blind consent,” said Professor of International Studies James Der Derian, one of the conference’s organizers. “It only happens through contestation – dissent with a willingness to listen to the other.”

Six two-hour sessions Friday and Saturday allowed attendees to hear a wide range of perspectives from 20 panelists, including award-winning blogger and Iraq war veteran Colby Buzzell, military blogger Matthew Burden – aka “Blackfive” – and Deborah Scranton ’84, whose recent film “The War Tapes” won the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Best Documentary” honors and was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination.

In a Saturday morning session on “Reporters and Rapport,” Charles Monroe-Kane, a producer for National Public Radio, praised public media outlets such as NPR over commercially owned media outlets for capturing more personal, in-depth war stories without being “beholden to a Pepsi commercial.”

Members of the Senate, when they approved the use of force in Iraq and, especially, in Afghanistan, had little information about what they were voting on, former Sen. Lincoln Chafee ’75, now a fellow at the Watson Institute, said during a Friday panel called “The Ground Truth from Iraq to the Beltway and Back.” He said he went to Iraq twice after the invasion to get a first-hand view of the country, instead of the watered-down version shown to politicians. But the second time, he said, the situation was so dangerous that it was difficult to gather good information.

Sgt. 1st Class Toby Nunn, a Canadian citizen currently serving with the U.S. Army, spoke in a live videocast from his base in Iraq about his desire to earn U.S. citizenship through military service, during a Friday session on “What Stories Do and Don’t Get Told and Why.”

Brian Palmer ’86, an independent journalist and filmmaker, showed clips of his first film “Full Disclosure: A Reporter’s Journey Toward Truth” and spoke about the importance of context in war reporting during the Saturday morning session.

Eric Rodriguez ’08, who served with the Army in Iraq during 2003 and 2004, recalled his brigade’s humanitarian missions and the comfort and security that serving in the army gave him at the conference’s first session, “The Ground Truth.”

But most conference attendees interviewed by The Herald said the true value of the conference wasn’t in the speeches but in the long question-and-answer periods that followed each session and in unstructured conversations held during breaks.

The second session on Friday – “What Stories Do and Don’t Get Told and Why” – ended in a heated discussion about why the personal stories of soldiers often aren’t told to the public.

Col. David Lapan, a representative of U.S. Marine Corps Public Affairs, pointed to “a desperate lack of ground-level narratives” in media coverage of the war. But most journalists in the audience didn’t seem to believe him.

“Do you guys really want us to interview these people?” Monroe-Kane asked Lapan. “(The military) doesn’t really want me to ask an African-American woman who is the first combat helicopter pilot in Afghanistan what it’s really like – they want the hero story. … They don’t really want to debate about women in combat, they don’t really want to debate about sexism.”

“We don’t want to debate about women in combat because that’s law,” Lapan shot back.

But before Monroe-Kane could respond, author Erin Solaro jumped in to contest what she said are inconsistent and sexist rules governing female participation in military operations, and a shouting match ensued.

“Female soldiers run missions you won’t let female Marines run,” Solaro said. “You’ll borrow them from the Army and stick them in the same damn infantry battalion.” Lapan denied the charge as the heated debate continued.

The dust settled briefly as Monroe-Kane expanded on his earlier point about a lack of media access to soldiers.

“If the only way I can get to you is to be an embed – and now I’m relying on you to save my life – that’s not journalism,” he said.

“I beg to disagree,” Palmer, the independent journalist who has been embedded with military units, said. The shouting resumed.

Though the Joukowsky Forum was filled with journalists and soldiers eager to have their voices heard, Brown students in attendance made contributions to the discussion. Students from INTL 1800E: “The Good Fight: Documentary Work and Social Change” – co-taught by Scranton and fellow event organizer and Associate Professor of International Studies Keith Brown – were required to sit in on the conference for an assignment.

During Nunn’s videocast from Iraq, Jing Xu ’10 drew nods of approval from the audience with her question to the soldier.

“I don’t think any of us doubt that you earned your citizenship,” she said. “But how do you feel about the fact that the profession that you chose separates you from what most people in the society – what other citizens – can relate to?”

“I never really thought about feeling like I’ve been separated from this society because I became a soldier,” Nunn responded. “I don’t think being Sgt. 1st Class Toby Nunn is the extent of my identity.”

In a later Saturday event, on antiwar activism, International Relations concentrator Lena Buell ’08 capped off the session with a question about verifying content from blogs.

“If we can no longer trust the mainstream media, who are held accountable for everything they publish,” Buell asked, “how do we deal with the question of accountability in this sphere of new media?”

“The common criticism of blogs is that they don’t have editors,” said Der Derian, who has conducted extensive research on new media. “But in some ways, because of the proliferation of blogs, you have 10,000 editors – blogs, checking blogs, checking blogs.”

Burden agreed that readers hold blogs accountable. “I can’t tell you how many times I get asked to fact-check a story,” he said. “I probably have some e-mail right now about it.”

The conference also produced several head-turning moments, ranging from controversial questions to odd comments from panelists.

Jason Hartley, a member of the Army National Guard who published a blog and book about his experiences in Iraq, graphically described the first time he encountered bullet wounds during the war at the Friday session.

“This guy has a wound in his leg and it’s bleeding badly,” Hartley said. “I see the wound, and the first thing that comes to my mind is ‘vagina’ and ‘sushi.’ “

Confused faces and stifled laughter filled the room.

“Grossly inappropriate, right?” Hartley said.

A more tense moment arose on Saturday during the first part of a two-part session on “Amplifying Voices and Activism.” Associate Professor of Anthropology Matthew Gutmann and Professor of Anthropology Catherine Lutz, collaborators on an oral history of Iraq war veterans who oppose the war, were fielding questions about their book when Scranton raised her hand from the back of the room.

After telling the story of an interviewee of hers who turned out to be making fraudulent claims about his time at war, Scranton posed a question to Gutmann: “Non-confrontationally, how do you verify those voices of dissent to know that they’ve actually been there and done these things, and that they’re not just making it up?”

“You do it the same way you would with any oral history,” Gutmann replied. “How do I know that any stories are actually true?”

But Scranton pressed Gutmann further, pointing out that he had not done the interviews himself and seeming to imply that the left-leaning academic community might give “a more open reception to dissenting voices.”

“You’re questioning the veracity of these voices and no other voices we’ve heard in the last two days,” Lutz said. “It’s very interesting to me. You’re framing it as this is a left-liberal audience, the students are going to be willing to believe this but not other things, but why didn’t those students or anybody else question those other soldiers’ words?”

Scranton told The Herald after the exchange that she didn’t intend to question the integrity of Gutmann or Lutz, but she also pointed out that their book was the only work presented at the conference that didn’t make use of first-hand accounts.

“Their project was the only work based on interviews someone else had done,” Scranton said. “For me, with ‘The War Tapes,’ I did it.” Gutmann, who said he felt the conference was skewed toward pro-war and ambivalent viewpoints, told The Herald that it was the circumstances of the question and not the question itself that disappointed him.

“The question in and of itself was fine, but why was it asked in that way just towards me?” he said. “I don’t think it’s an accident.”

Almost every exchange during the two-day conference involved disagreement of some kind, but Saturday’s early session, titled “Reporters and Rapport,” featured a question-and-answer session during which nearly everyone agreed on the importance of context in reporting.

Palmer showed an eight-minute clip of fighting he shot during his time in Iraq that ended with a soldier shooting a downed Iraqi twice in the head. Palmer said the mainstream media would likely only show the last seconds of the clip to make soldiers out to be cruel warmongers. But, as the entire clip showed, the Iraqi had posed a dangerous threat to the soldiers.

Monroe-Kane agreed.

“That clip has to be eight minutes,” he said. “But, by God, the commercial media only picks up the last 40 seconds.”

As Saturday evening arrived and panelists began to depart, most said the conference had been a positive experience.

“A lot of the kids in the class were talking about how it’s the best thing we’ve done at Brown,” Buell, the student who asked about blogs’ credibility, said. “It was enlightening to have all sorts of opinions in a room together, with each side forced to listen to the other side.”

Der Derian agreed.

“There’s been a lot of ideas but also a lot of emotions shared that you don’t normally see in an academic setting,” he said. “Some toes might have been stepped on, but people are going away saying it is the best opportunity they’ve had to learn about these issues. Some have even said it’s the best event, period, they’ve attended on the war.”

Buzzell on blogging the war

Colby Buzzell is a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who maintained a blog while at war in 2003 and 2004. His entries and some of his other thoughts were compiled into a book called “My War: Killing Time in Iraq,” which won the 2007 Lulu Blooker Prize.

Buzzell, a panelist at the weekend’s “Front Lines, First Person: Iraq War Stories” conference held by the Watson Institute for International Studies, sat down with The Herald to talk about war, blogs and the future.

Herald: How did you get started blogging about the war?

Buzzell: I was in Iraq as an infantry soldier when I found out about blogs from an article in Time Magazine. I really decided to start the blog out of boredom.

The tone of your blog is very much like that of a diary. How does it feel to have your personal thoughts printed and read by thousands of readers?

It’s like somebody writing a diary and having it published, and having everyone criticize it, analyze it and dissect it. But I wanted to write honestly. I kept a journal when I was in Iraq and then stopped writing, so when I started to blog it was the same style of writing. You think to yourself, ‘No one’s going to read this,’ but now they are.

Did you encounter any opposition from the U.S. Army for your candidness?

Yeah. This is the first war where soldiers have been online, and they were nervous about this soldier who was writing about the war from the front lines. In a way, I became an embedded journalist without knowing or trying, so they were kind of nervous about that because they had no control about what I saw or said.

How did it feel to go from “killing time in Iraq,” part of your book’s title, to killing in Iraq, the object of its pun?

There’s not one truth, there’s not one answer, there’s dual meanings to everything – triple meanings to everything. It was the most boring experience I’ve ever experienced, but at the same time it was the most exciting experience.

Now that you’ve returned, you write periodically for Esquire magazine. Is journalism your new profession?

No, I’m not a journalist, I’m a writer. An aspiring writer. You have to go to school to be a journalist. I just write stories, man. I don’t know what I do. I just write about what I see and what I experience.

The late great novelist Kurt Vonnegut personally endorsed “My War: Killing Time in Iraq,” saying it “is nothing less than the soul of an extremely interesting human being at war on our behalf in Iraq.” How does it feel to have one of the greatest authors of our time show such respect for your work?

I’m speechless. I don’t know what to say. When I got the quote I was completely floored – that’s possibly one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me.

– Chaz Firestone

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