MEDIA
03/23/2018 05:45 EDT | Updated 03/23/2018 05:45 EDT

In Iraq, Military Bloggers Gave An Unprecedented View Of War — Then Came The Clampdown

Fifteen years ago, soldiers started to blog their way through Iraq, leading to questions about how to wage war in the internet age — and a few demotions, too.

ISABELLA CARAPELLA/HUFFPOST

Jason Hartley will admit he’d been drinking a bit when he put the blog back online. Bourbon, to be exact — Jim Beam. And if we’re being honest here, he’ll also admit he’s not entirely sure he would go back and do it again if given the choice, what with the ulcer and tics that came from everything afterward.  

“I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking,” he says now. “But also a part of me was like, ‘Fuck this, fuck them, fuck my commander.’”

The blog, Just Another Soldier, had been identified during Hartley’s deployment training as a problem, albeit one that nobody seemed quite sure how to handle. It was 2004, and blogs in general were still a relatively new concept. That service members stationed on the frontlines of the War on Terror were using them to broadcast their own thoughts to the internet was unsettling to more than a few people within the U.S. military apparatus.

I think we easily forget it was 10 years ago that the government was like: ‘Can we not have the internet? Can we just shut it down?’ Because there were too many questions,” says Lindy Kyzer, who used to work in online media relations for the U.S. Army. “The government is used to having very tight control over its messaging, and it likes to have that control.”

Like many others stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hartley started his blog — or “milblog,” as soldiers’ blogs came to be known — for the purpose of keeping in touch with his loved ones back home. “I just thought it was a really convenient way to keep my friends and family abreast of just kind of what I was up to,” he said. “I never imagined people would actually read it.”

Danjel Bout created the blog 365 and a Wakeup for similar reasons. “It was just a quick way of communicating,” he says.

What Hartley and Bout hadn’t considered when they first created their websites was that Afghanistan and Iraq had become the first true American wars of the internet age. “You don’t really realize, or at least I didn’t at the time, how there was a new paradigm, how when you put something out in the world it can kind of live on its own and reach a far larger audience than you intended,” Bout says.

Military blogs like Hartley’s and Bout’s gave Americans at home a raw and intimate view of the wars.

Never before has a war been so immediately documented,” wrote military blogger Chris Missick at the time. “It is amazing, and empowering, and yet the question remains, should I as a lower enlisted soldier have such power to express my opinion and broadcast to the world a singular soldier’s point of view?”

Publicly, the Pentagon would state that the military bloggers should have that power, so long as they obeyed a few ground rules for safety purposes. But in Hartley’s case, the reality felt a bit different. And unlike the war on the ground, this was one battle the the military could win. 

Jason Hartley
Sgt. Jason Hartley poses for a selfie days before he took down his blog. 

The military has never been comfortable with the idea of soldiers speaking freely. During World War I and World War II, the military censored letters sent home to loved ones. At the height of the war in Vietnam, an army broadcaster set off a firestorm when he said on-air that he and others who worked for it were “not free to tell the truth.”

Investigations by the military and a congressman found that not to be the case. But in 1988, The Washington Post reported an investigation by Congress’ General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) found that military commanders were, in fact, inappropriately censoring some divisions of the Defense Department’s Stars & Stripes newspaper ― a complaint that extended into Iraq as well.

The military has often justified censorship by arguing that it is an unfortunate byproduct of operations security, or OPSEC, defined by the Defense Department as “the process by which we protect unclassified information that can be used against us.”

“Wartime censorship is a seldom-mentioned relative of intelligence,” Robert Hanyok, a retired intelligence analyst and historian who used to work with the Department of Defense, wrote in a review that now appears on the CIA’s website. “Operations Security is the primary method of denying a wartime opponent access to official channels of information or intelligence.

“In time of war, controlling public information that an enemy might exploit to undermine the conduct of military operations, strategic policy, or homeland defense, becomes as important as managing official secrets. The current war on terrorism is no different.”

Jason Hartley
Jason Hartley took many photos of Iraqi children during his deployment. 

Even before Hartley arrived in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom II, his commander had asked him to take the blog down under the guise that he’d violated operations security. He’d blogged throughout his deployment training, while he prepared in Fort Drum in New York and Fort Polk in Louisiana. His writing started to receive more attention than he expected. He says influential political blogger Andrew Sullivan mentioned Just Another Soldier. So did Glenn Reynolds of libertarian blog Instapundit.

Raised Mormon in Utah, Hartley had been living in Manhattan and working as a member of the New York Army National Guard on the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks. He wasn’t particularly political back then, and he wasn’t quite sure why his country decided to invade Iraq, either. “I kinda crossed my fingers and hoped that whoever’s decision it was to do this, they know what they’re doing,” he says.

But, boy, was he excited. “Pretty much all the guys that I was with, we were just stoked,” Hartley says. “The war in Iraq was still a fresh and exciting and interesting thing, you know?” In one blog post before he flew to the Middle East, Harley explained the many different reasons he couldn’t wait to get out there:

Mostly I want to expand my human experience and this is an easy way to experience some of the most extreme limits of mortality. I want to contribute to something bigger and more meaningful than myself. I want to give back to my country. I want to physically contribute something positive to solving a problem rather than acting like I can solve all the world’s problems from my couch. I love the guys I work with and I love the comraderie [sic]. I want money for school. I want to kill someone just so people will shut up and stop asking me if I have.  

But Hartley’s writing was not some sort of grandiose idealization of the U.S. Army. It was an irreverent, ironic take on the “foibles of being in the military,” as Hartley put it. “I thought i was writing the Catcher in the Rye of the Iraq War,” he says, a touch of self-deprecation in his voice. He opened up about how boring “soldiering” could be, took photos of himself and his fellow soldiers on the toilet. He wasn’t above the occasional masturbation joke, either.

When Hartley’s commander discovered the blog just a few short weeks before the unit set out for Iraq, he became enraged with the sergeant. But technically, Hartley had every right to blog. A Defense Department spokesperson stated later that year that the Pentagon had ”no specific guidelines on blogging per se” and that soldiers had “every right under the 1st Amendment to say any darn thing they want to say unless they reveal classified information.”

“I don’t think my commander knew what to do,” says Hartley. “He didn’t know what he was allowed to do.”

Certainly, Hartley couldn’t have given away anything too sensitive at that point ― he hadn’t even left U.S. soil yet. But the military leaves what constitutes an operations security violation vague, Hartley says, which means “you can make anything be an OPSEC issue.”

However, he noticed his commander, a lawyer by trade whom he respected and trusted, didn’t command him to take down the blog. He only asked Hartley to do it voluntarily, Hartley says. If you’re asking me, if it’s my choice, Hartley replied, my choice is no.

Only later, when his commander left the room and asked the platoon sergeant and first sergeant to persuade Hartley to take down the blog, did Hartey decide to do so, he says. “As a personal favor,” he adds now.

Without many official rules in place, troops in the early years of the war often turned to “internal policing” like this to regulate internet activity, according to Bout, the author of 365 and a Wakeup. Still today, however, Hartley contends that the root issue was not operations security, which he understood to be a valid concern, but one of tone.

Leadership hated my writing mostly because I wasn’t toeing the line of glorifying how we could do no wrong,” he says.  

Jason Hartley
Jason Hartley explained in his postings that soldiers often had to "dispose of" dead animals in case explosives hid in them. 

Quietly, Hartley continued to post to the blog after his commander confronted him. He simply set it to private and started to disseminate his posts over email. Once in Iraq, he was surprised by how much fun it was to be a soldier. “It was the easiest year of my life,” he says now. “All I had to do was not die. And not fuck up in a majorly bad way.

“Our image of war was Vietnam movies so we were expecting, you know, really horrible shit, and what we got was pretty horrible shit.”

They called it “combat lite.” On his blog, he dedicated time to civilian deaths and burning dogs, Iraqi children and camel spiders, IEDs and the local Starbucks. He photographed rural landscapes, camels, city streets, Iraqi homes and the cheat sheet of Arabic phrases he noticed on a Marine’s weapon. He documented the effects of IED attacks on his unit and paid tribute to dead soldiers. He titled one blog, “All I Ever Needed to Know About Combat I Learned Playing Doom.”

In another, he admitted, “I’m having a hard time being okay with all the dead civilians” and included a photo of the dead and bloodied body of an Iraqi man. (The photo from that post, called I ❤︎ Dead Civilians,” is shown below.) 

WARNING: Graphic image.

JustAnotherSoldiercom
Jason Hartley occasionally showed the more gruesome sides of war on JustAnotherSoldier.com.

But it nagged at Hartley that he wasn’t allowed to publish his thoughts to the internet like other bloggers were, just because he wasn’t the “rah-rah flag-waving” type.

“A lot of these bloggers who got no pushback from nobody ― it’s because they were writing insipid, trite shit,” he says now. “And that’s an insult, because our experiences were anything but insipid and trite. They were profound in a lot of ways ― and interesting and meaningful and they mattered. It’s a disservice to have some flag-waving circle jerk tell our stories.”

Hartley had always had something of a rebellious streak. In high school, he and his girlfriend had been expelled one week before graduation after they created a satirical newspaper, which they slid into lockers throughout the school with the help of some friends. “It was just like silly stuff. Like a horoscope, how to use the word ‘fuck’— it was a bunch of stupid shit,” he says. But even then, it was Hartley’s tone more than his content that didn’t sit well with the authorities — school administrators, in this case. He didn’t care. He hated the school’s attendance policies, how the children were treated like they were “fucking wearing diapers and sucking our thumbs.”

“I don’t know if i necessarily accomplished anything as far as like policy change, but it felt good to kind of give them the finger,” he says now.

Jason Hartley
Jason Hartley posted this photo of soldiers helping a wounded Iraqi to his blog.  

As he neared the end of his deployment in Iraq, Hartley started to get that same itch again. One night, after they had had a bit to drink, Hartley’s friend Matt asked him if he was ever going to put the blog back up. He had planned to do so right at the end of his deployment, or right afterward. But he couldn’t shake the annoying feeling that he had been unfairly silenced. “I wasn’t violating OPSEC and I wasn’t smearing the Army,” he later wrote. “These writings were the things I saw and felt. This was my life, and it was something worth sharing.” He put it back up.

Soon after, he found his most recent blog post printed out and placed on his bed with a note on the back: “I need to talk to you ASAP.”

Hartley was in trouble ― much more trouble than he would’ve guessed. He would never go on another mission. Instead, he’d spend the rest of his time in Iraq on “house arrest” as his commander figured out what to do with him. Day after day with nothing to do, Hartley found the situation started to gnaw at him. “That was fucking hell,” he says. “There are not enough adjectives to describe how unpleasant that was.”

Hartley had been prepared for war, but not this, he says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I didn’t know how much trouble I was going to get in.” He didn’t know when he’d be back home either. His anxiety skyrocketed. He couldn’t concentrate. He developed an ulcer and started gagging and coughing regularly.

Hartley explained to an officer assigned to investigate the blog that he had taken great pains to ensure he didn’t put the people around him in danger ― the stories were weeks or months old by the time he sent them out. He didn’t reveal last names; he didn’t reveal companies or locations, he says. It didn’t matter. The officer determined that Hartley had disobeyed an order “to dismantle the website, which contained numerous OPSEC violations by reestablishing his website in the form of a chain email that was readily available to the public,” as explained in a written report reviewed by HuffPost. Additionally, he found Hartley had “committed violations of the Geneva Conventions when he released a picture of an Iraqi detainee.” The officer also took issue with the photo of Hartley on the toilet.

Jason Hartley
A report details the many problems an investigating officer found with Jason Hartley’s writing.

“The investigation has been completed,” a form signed by his company commander later stated. “The investigating officer has made findings of fact that your web log activities at times violated OPSEC, constituted conduct unbecoming of a non-commissioned officer, and constituted disobedience of a direct order from a commissioned officer.”

His commander considered having him court-martialed, Hartley says, but ultimately decided to go the Article 15 route, which would give the commander more power to make sure Hartley was punished. Hartley considered pushing for the court-martial, where he would stand a better chance of being cleared of wrongdoing, but after a month on house arrest, he felt broken.

“I was basically like a prisoner,” he says. “There was no fight left in me.”

By the time he arrived back in Fort Drum for his Article 15 hearing, Hartley decided to just accept his punishment. He took issue with all of the charges against him, but the one that most bothered him was the charge officials ultimately focused on ― that he had supposedly disobeyed an order by continuing to write. “Which was bullshit,” Hartley says. “I was not given a direct order, but that was what I was punished for.” Nevertheless, wanting it to be over, he had already written a sworn statement saying that he had gone too far.

“I wanted to simply keep my friends and family abreast with my activities on this deployment. The more I wrote the more I learned about myself and the more appreciate people were to gain insight on how it felt to be a soldier going into combat,” he wrote in part. “The mistake I made was in an attempt to express my thoughts and experiences as honestly as possible, I wrote about and photographed things that I now realized may not have been appropriate or legal. For this I am remorseful.”

Jason Hartley
Jason Hartley wrote a sworn statement saying he was “remorseful” for some of the things he wrote.  

He was fined and demoted. It would take him two years to make his way back to sergeant, he says.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the New York Army National Guard said, “It is our policy not to discuss details or provide statements pertaining to alleged adverse actions taken against our soldiers.”

Hartley was not the only military blogger punished during the war. In 2005, Leonard Clark of the Arizona Army National Guard was also demoted and fined for information he posted on his own blog, which had been critical of the war. They are finally going to put a stop to me,″ he wrote before the blog’s deactivation. The charges reportedly included failing to obey an order and reckless endangerment.

They managed to muzzle him,” said one of Clark’s friends at the time, who added that Clark “was always careful about what he said and even stated in some of his e-mails that he had to be careful not to violate any operational security.”

Michael Cohen was a major and doctor who was based in Mosul when he shut down his own blog, 67cshdocs. After a suicide bomber killed 22 people in December 2004, he blogged about how the doctors responded to the crisis. Readers were riveted. He hadn’t used names or given specifics about their operations. But he said at the time that he was told, “There are some people in the chain of command who believe there are things in your blog that violate Army regulations.” His sense was that officials felt that the blog revealed too much about their medical capabilities. He was surprised, but shut it down anyway.

There were, however, many other bloggers officials who felt the military supported their writing. A military blogger who went by “Greyhawk” wrote an email to Fox News in 2005 saying he could point to “a few other blogs that could be called ‘anti-war’ [a misnomer — all soldiers are anti-war] that are still cruising along.”

And over the next few years, the number of military bloggers ballooned. In October 2005, Jean-Paul Borda, who started a blog of his own during his National Guard deployment in Afghanistan, launched MilBlogging.com, which aggregated and organized well over a thousand military blogs. The next year, the military blogging community organized its first-ever conference, and the community soon gained one notable fan ― the commander in chief.

America’s military bloggers are also an important voice for the cause of freedom,” George W. Bush said in a statement that was played at the 2007 MilBlog Conference. “You understand that defeating the terrorists requires us to defeat their ideology of hatred and of death with a more powerful vision, a vision of human liberty.”

But even as military blogs gained notoriety in the public sphere, the military continued to further monitor the practice. Months after Harley was placed on house arrest, the military started to require all bloggers stationed in Iraq to register as such. The army started something called the Army Web Risk Assessment to help monitor the blogs, and commanders were asked to review them as well every quarter. Wired magazine reported that year that the Pentagon also had begun a reviewto better understand the overall implications of blogging and other Internet communications in combat zones.”

We’re fighting a war here, and insurgents read Web pages,” Col. Bill Buckner, a spokesman for the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, said at the time.

In 2006, The Boston Globe reported that the military had created a National Guard unit dedicated to searching out and identifying potential OPSEC violations on the internet. “A mechanism to ensure soldiers are doing their duty makes sense, but overzealous officers will find violations, real or imagined, and punish soldiers,” wrote Jules Crittenden of the Globe. “So much for trusting soldiers to observe OPSEC, much as civilian reporters have been trusted to do under liberal embedding rules.”

In 2007, days before Bush praised the military bloggers, the Army released Regulation 530-1, which updated operations security policies, angering even the more conservative members of the military blogging community.

“No more military bloggers writing about their experiences in the combat zone. This is the best PR the military has ― its most honest voice out of the war zone. And it’s being silenced,” said Matt Burden, a prominent military blogger, at the time. 

The U.S. Army’s website currently states that “Soldiers are held to the standards of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Army Values when using social media, even when off duty.”

“Commenting, posting and linking to material that violates the UCMJ or basic rules of Soldier conduct are prohibited, along with talking negatively about supervisors or releasing sensitive information,” it reads. 

In retrospect, military blogging peaked in 2007, according to Ward Carroll, who used to edit Military.com. Bush not only praised military bloggers, but invited some of them to the White House, too. Even still, when Lindy Kyzer joined the U.S. Army’s media relations team near the end of that year, she noticed there was still some trepidation about the bloggers. “The Pentagon really didn’t know how to interact with these folks as communicators at all,” says Kyzer.

But where the Pentagon saw a potential problem, Kyzer saw an opportunity. “Major news outlets, they’re going to cover it every time somebody screws up. You know, they’re not going to show the great everyday stories ― and bloggers were doing that,” she says. “So, for me, this is great messaging that we don’t have to channel, that we don’t have to pay for the ads for ― these are soldiers communicating on our behalf.”

Over time, military bloggers with Hartley’s irreverent tone became harder to find, and the military embraced the remaining ones. But by the end of the 2000s, concern in the war had also started to wane. “Public interest in the war ended,” says Jonn Lilyea, who still blogs at This Ain’t Hell. “There’s just not the interest that there used to be.” Some military bloggers traded in their blogs for other pursuits. Service members started to opt for Facebook posts over blog posts. In a 2011 interview, Kyzer said, “Milbloggers are among the few that actually seem to realize that we’re still at war.”

Jason Hartley
A photo posted to Jason Hartley's blog dated May 6, 2004.

After Hartley returned to the U.S., he decided he wanted to give it a go as writer. He had received some interest from publishers during his deployment, and signed a deal with HarperCollins once he was back ― complete with a $50,000 advance, he says. “I really had these delusions of grandeur ― how I was going to be, you know, a new big thing,” he says.

In the fall of 2005, Hartley released a book based on his blog. It was called Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq. To promote it, he started speaking with the media ― a lot of radio, some television, but mostly a lot of talking. He found that journalists wanted to know his thoughts on how the war was going, something he realized he felt unequipped to discuss. “The whole time that we were deployed, I was super not aware of anything that was really going on,” he says. “What you, people in America, heard about Iraq ― you consumed media in a way that I didn’t.”

Never particularly political, Hartley for the first time really started to research the war he had just participated in. “I just kind of had this realization, ‘Holy shit, I think I’ve been a bleeding heart liberal my whole life,’” he says. “I became politically connected to things in a way that I’ve never been.”

He came to regret a lot of the things he wrote on his blog and in his book. Asked for specifics, he says, “Dude, everything, everything ― the whole fucking book.” In particular, he is embarrassed that he wrote that women didn’t belong in the infantry, by some of his descriptions of Iraqi children, by the fact that his country ever entered the war at all. “We should have never invaded Iraq,” he says now. “It’s such an enormous travesty. And what have we gotten? A few thousand dead service members and hundreds of thousands of dead civilians.”

The book was far from the runaway success he and his publisher had hoped. “It sold maybe 10,000 copies,” he says. When he received his advance, he had felt beyond rich. When it ran out, he felt like an idiot. “That number in my head was absolutely no different than a billion,” he says. “I’m like, ‘My money’s never going to run out.’ The money fucking ran out.”

With no money and no real job, he was left humiliated, and he entered a dark period. “I was drunk every night for five years straight. I mean, like, legit, unexaggerated ― every single night, five straight years,” he says. He kept his gig in the New York Army National Guard, and one night he noticed he wasn’t even able to fall asleep during a drill in the woods because he was sober. “That’s when it first started hitting me, like, I might be drinking too much,” he says.

Hartley says more of his friends have committed suicide since the war than were killed during it ― something he attributes to the culture of the military and soldiers inability to discuss their mental health. He himself eventually decided to discuss his own by entering therapy. Admitting that still embarrasses him. But it’s helped. “If you asked my therapist, she’d say yes, I have PTSD,” he says. Hartley struggles with what can be debilitating anxiety. It was something he dealt with as a child a bit, he now realizes, but “Iraq exacerbated it in a lot of ways.” When I ask him which part of his deployment he was talking about, he answers without hesitation, “That last month.”

Hartley, now 44, eventually turned things around. He gave up on writing and moved back into computer programming, which had been an interest of his before the war. He also retired from the New York Army National Guard about five years ago. During his final formation, someone asked if he wanted to say anything to his troops before he left.

“So I kind of thought and I thought: ‘What’s the one thing, what’s my parting message to my troops? What’s my one thing that I want them to know or to have drawn from me and my experiences,’” he says. He thought it over for a minute, then delivered his valediction.

“Whatever it is you choose to do in life,” he told them, “if you aren’t pissing somebody off, what you’re doing is not worthwhile.”