Cyber Soldier

From his home in suburban Chicago, former army paratrooper Matthew Currier Burden took his fight to a new battlefield: the blogosphere. In the process, he has reshaped war coverage by giving soldiers a forum for their frontline dispatches

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Burden: “I believe only a soldier can tell you what it is like to be a soldier in Iraq.”

 

When an American soldier named Mathew Schram was killed in Iraq in 2003, a friend of his, a Gulf War veteran from Chicago named Matthew Currier Burden, agonized that the death seemed to have passed relatively unnoticed, even by the reporter who was embedded with Schram’s unit when his convoy was ambushed by insurgents. So Burden started a blog, Blackfive.net—writing about the people fighting the war and those who don’t come back. “It is just as much Mat Schram’s blog as it is mine,” he says. (Burden says “Blackfive” is “an old military call sign for the executive officer who makes things happen behind the scenes.")

There were only a few military bloggers back then. Now there are hundreds. Early on, Burden got only about 300 hits a day; now it’s up to four million unique visits and about ten million views (meaning some people go there more than once a day) per year, making Blackfive arguably the most prominent military blog, or milblog, as they’re called, in the blogosphere. Though he claims that Blackfive is neither pro- nor antiwar and is nonpartisan, Burden has a decidedly conservative slant, and he (and his regular contributors to the blog) tend to defend the Iraq war against criticism by politicians and the media.

Whatever their views of the war, milblogs have given voice to the soldiers on the 21st-century battlefront. They have also attracted the attention of military officials, who have cracked down on military blogs, citing the “possibility” of “accidentally” giving troop movement or casualty information to the enemy. Since April 2005, soldier bloggers in Iraq and Afghanistan have had to register their Web sites, and any blogs or sites they contribute to, with their commanders, who may monitor their blogs to see that they aren’t inadvertently releasing classified security information. Citing security concerns, the Pentagon has also blocked soldiers’ access to 13 popular networking, music, and photo-sharing sites, including YouTube and MySpace, on Department of Defense computers.

Even with new restrictions, Blackfive has become a main source of information for today’s young soldiers to communicate between the battlefront and the home front. It is read by servicemen and -women, their families, the brass at the Pentagon, journalists, and even the White House. This form of war reporting, possibly even more than that of embedded journalists, is likely to be the real wave of the future.

Burden, 39, grew up in the Ravenswood neighborhood, where his father was an Episcopal priest. He is a diehard Cubs fan, a deep-dish pizza aficionado, and graduate of UIC and the University of Chicago, where he got a master’s in computer science (he is currently in an MBA program at the University of Illinois). Today, he is an information technology executive, married, and the father of two children. His book The Blog of War was published in 2006 by Simon & Schuster. In it, he collected many of Blackfive’s blog entries as a way to share the hopes, fears, concerns, and deep patriotism of these young servicemen and -women who post, as well as the views of their families.

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