Posts tagged ‘milblogging’

The Human Face of War

Last spring, my sister, Erin, was completing a five-month clinical at an optometry office in Wilmington, NC as part of her third year of optometry school. I will always remember one of our phone conversations from that time period. She told me about a patient she had recently observed – a young soldier in his mid-twenties who had returned to the U.S. after serving in Iraq. During combat, shrapnel lodged in the soldier’s brain, causing severe head trauma. Surgery to remove the shrapnel led to bleeding in his brain, which greatly decreased his visual field. This soldier was left with little peripheral vision, which affected his sense of space and prevented him from doing things most of us take for granted – like driving a car.

But the hard, cold “facts” of the soldier’s medical condition weren’t what left the greatest impression on me. Erin described how this young man was physically ruined and intensely depressed. She said his body and spirit were broken. He was like an ailing 90-year-old man, but he was only in his 20s. Erin said it was if he expected to come back to the U.S. and continue with the life he had led before he left for Iraq, but, instead, was facing the horrible realization that his life would never be the same.

Erin said the doctor who was testing his vision silently began to cry while the soldier’s eyes were looking through the binocular-like lenses of the phoropter and at the eye chart on the opposite wall.

I was reminded of Erin’s story when I read soldiers’ blogs (warblogs/milblogs) for class this weekend. Somehow these blogs capture the human face of war in a way that the mainstream media often fails to do. Sure, we hear about heroic acts, fallen heroes, and wartime controversies. But most of mainstream media’s coverage of Iraq seems to focus on the politics of war. And its coverage is always one-step removed – even an embedded journalist can’t provide the perspective of a real-life soldier. Warren Zinn, a former war photographer who took a famous photo of Joseph Dwyer, a medic carrying a wounded Iraqi boy to safety, puts it this way:

In January 2004, I was slated to return to Iraq for a third stint. But after two rotations in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, I decided that it was time to hang up my cameras. The war had taken its toll on my family, my friends and me. I couldn’t find it in me to go back to Iraq and risk my life again. That’s the difference between me and soldiers like Joseph Dwyer: I had the privilege of calling it quits whenever I wanted to. The men and women of the Armed Forces don’t have that luxury.

Blogs are one way to get the Iraq story straight from the main players – soldiers and Iraqi citizens. I’m not saying that soldier or citizen blogs do a better job of war reporting than traditional media. We can’t do without big-picture analysis. But I think the combination of mainstream media coverage with firsthand soldier and citizen accounts paints a more complete picture than we’d get from just turning on the nightly news. Would CNN ever profile a soldier in a small coastal NC town who had lost his peripheral vision? Or would NBC relay a detailed account of American soldiers detonating an IED in Baqubah?

But milblogs pose potential problems for the military. How can you be sure soldiers aren’t blogging about confidential information that could compromise everyone’s safety? In spring 2007 the army ordered that all blog postings be cleared by a superior officer before being made public. Since then, there have been reports about the shut down of various milblogs.

Despite these issues, I hope blogs from soldiers and Iraqis continue to proliferate. My understanding of this complex war is more intimate and nuanced because of them. For me, the numbers of casualities, wounded, and refugees are now accompanied by the distinct voices of Alex, Riverbend, Tommie, and Zeyad.

July 20, 2008 at 7:56 pm Leave a comment


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