This is a typical release from the Defense Department: "Sgt. Andrew J. Derrick, 25, of Columbia, S.C., died on Sept. 23 near Baghdad, Iraq, when..."

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“My War: Killing Time in Iraq”
by Colby Buzzell
Putnam, 358 pp., $25.95

This is a typical release from the Defense Department:

“Sgt. Andrew J. Derrick, 25, of Columbia, S.C., died on Sept. 23 near Baghdad, Iraq, when his dismounted team came under attack by enemy forces using small arms fire.”

There was surely a story connected to Sgt. Derrick’s death, but the Pentagon didn’t provide it. Official news from the Iraq war is often frustratingly vague, and embedded reporters rarely stay long enough with a single unit to become the eyes and ears of grunts on the ground.

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There is, to say the least, a void in our understanding of a conflict which has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the media industry. Books about the war are coming fast and furious, and movie deals are certain to follow. One account of the battle of Fallujah already boasts that actor Harrison Ford is slated to star in the Tinsel Town version.

Into this milieu comes Pfc. Colby Buzzell, a Los Angeles resident and former Fort Lewis-based soldier who began his literary career by posting his combat diary on the Internet.

His Web log, or “blog,” earned mention in The Wall Street Journal and other publications, and by the time Buzzell left Iraq last fall, his comrades were offering him names of Hollywood stars to play them in the movie version of the book he would inevitably write.

“My War: Killing Time in Iraq,” is a collection of those blog entries, with a narrative that begins with Buzzell aimlessly drifting in his hometown, San Francisco.

After a string of dead-end jobs, he joins the Army and hopes to go to Iraq. But Buzzell is more adventurer than patriot. “Killing Time” is a neat play on words. Buzzell experienced plenty of firefights in the northern city of Mosul, but there were countless patrols and other duties that required terrific strength just to stay awake. Those and other details about military life are the perhaps the most interesting part of the book, as well as Buzzell’s description of the seediness familiar to any soldier: the prevalence of pornography, the foul language, the gallows humor.

The book also depicts the Army’s almost total control over an enlisted man’s life.

Buzzell’s platoon leader told his men to write “death letters” to their loved ones in case they were killed in action. They were told how to answer media questions about the war (“We are here to help Iraq restore its independence”) and what to say about their eight-wheeled Stryker combat vehicle (“Smooth ride!”).

For military buffs, the worthiness of the Stryker is its own subplot. Buzzell’s unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, was the first to be equipped with the rubber-tired troop and gun carriers.

Before its deployment, observers doubted the Stryker’s ability to withstand enemy fire. But Buzzell is a dedicated fan, writing that the Stryker can survive rocket and bomb blasts better than armored Humvees.

Recent polls suggest dwindling support for the war Buzzell and his comrades fought, though he largely avoids “why-are-we-here” questions. Buzzell shares the soldiers’ distrust of politicians, but his detailed conversations with Iraqi interpreters provide a stark rationale for the invasion.

And the book’s most compelling writing comes not from Buzzell, but his battalion commander, who wrote Buzzell an e-mail after the blog became internationally famous.

“This enemy has no concept of mercy nor does it recognize combatants,” the commander wrote. “To defeat this cancer requires the one thing that civilized people all over the world possess in absolute abundance — the will.”

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or