The first is called Sleepless in Sudan. I found it while Googling for the phrase "extremely single" (shut up, I was lonely). Its author is a thirtysomething U.N. aid worker in Darfur, who notably writes not only about Big Serious International News Drama Territory but about the everyday tedium of distributing bottled, setting up tents, making small talk with refugees, and the like. Being on the frontlines of one of the most horrible genocides in recent history has done little to quell this author's determination to have some semblance of everyday life; like any metropolitan yuppie blogger she talks about the food she's eaten, the technological toys she gets to play with, and the guys she wants to date. The difference is that the food is pineapple curry (a disgusting concoction scrounged together from dwindling canned food supplies when a shipment didn't come through), the toys are truck-mounted machineguns, and the guys are all other aid workers. It's surreal, reading about this little touch of metropolitan frivolity in one of the biggest crisis hotspits in Africa--and oddly reassuring, in an uncomfortably neocolonialist way. The blog ceased publication in 2006 (ever the superhero, U.N. Lady has since been shipped out of Sudan to feed and clothe refugees elsewhere), but there's still a wealth of material to be perused by the curious reader.
The much less frequently updated Baghdad Babe is a little more tragic. You can tell from the URL alone (iraqifreedomadventure.blogspot.com) that it isn't going to end well. It chronicles U.S. Army Spc. Rebecca Burt's 2003 tour of duty as a military journalist in Iraq. There isn't an awful lot on the site, and Google doesn't turn up a whole lot else, so it's hard to say what Burt's duties in Iraq were, exactly--from what she writes about it seems she was a combination reserve infantryman, webmaster, office intern, domestic propagandist, and overall morale assistant. (Which of these duties were official and which she picked up out of can-do spunk is not clear.) In any case, if she was deployed to keep troop morale high and give the war a positive spin in the American press, it seems that she did a pretty good job--a story about two brothers united during the war got picked up in the New York Times, and she's featured in a DoD article about Christmas in Baghdad. The by-golly, down-home enthusiasm of her early entries is infectious--the Burkha bodyguards, who never smile, smile at her; the Florida National Guard is extra gentlemanly around her; a local pirated videodisc merchant tries to hire her because her presence is so good for business. By her account, once the edge of boot camp and culture shock wears off and the boredom sets in, life at the base is actually kind of fun. She's organizing movie nights, learning to salsa dance from other soldiers, playing cards with the locals and being mobbed by adoring Iraqi schoolchildren while helping set up a school...aside from the grueling combat training, the intense manual labor, and the omnipresent threat of death, it sounds an awful lot like summer camp. She's poised to take home the kind of experience that is every Army recruiter's dream.
And then suddenly, deep in friendly territory, the hotel her unit has been using as a command post is hit by mortar fire.
It's not immediately clear what happens next. Her response at first is rational, measured. She's prepared for this. She was recruited to put a good face on the war but she's been trained to pick up a gun and fight, and the moment the blast hits she is combat ready. Her account of the incident is astonishing in its professionalism and resolve. While others scream and panic around her, she applies emergency first aid, directs the wounded to the medics, helps the civilians out of the building. Her first priority is the safety of nearby civilians and fellow soldiers. She's a whole different person in that first account of the bombing, protective and levelheaded as a lioness. There isn't time to think or react or panic. She saves lives out of sheer momentum. She's a hero--one of many, that day.
And then...she comes back to the blast site, and the gravity of what happened sinks in, and she thanks God and calls her parents, and goes through the usual stages of shock and bewilderment and relief. She's suited up, ready for combat duty as usual, determined to keep the morale of her fellow troops up. She's put up a strong face, a stone wall. She's going to get through this. And then a checkpoint where some of her buddies from the Florida National Guard are patrolling gets hit by a truck bomb.
No one's injured in the blast, thankfully, not even the bastard who set it off, but after that point things get a little strange with her. She writes about what appear to be a lot of other mortarings, reflecting, thinking about the precariousness and fragility of life; it's not until several pages in that it's evident that all of these blog posts are about the same event. Posts come in fewer and farther in between, after then, some of the months apart. Eventually we see a post, almost as a footnote, that her tour has ended and she's coming home.
She's in college, in her last entry, dated 2006--the army made good on its offer of financial aid. It's three years after she has returned from Iraq and she's suffering from PTSD. She freaks out in the middle of the night whenever she hears loud noises from construction nearby, and has to move to another dorm. She seems to be taking it rather well but something inside her is gone. She still sounds like her own sweet self, like the kind of girl who in her old age would make fresh brownies for kids on Halloween and be potluck coordinator for a church in Minnesota, but there's a jitteriness to her tone that wasn't there before. Somewhere out there, forty years from now, will be a sweet old lady who will hear the engine of her son's car sputter in the middle of the night and kick open her front door, trembling, with every knife in the kitchen strapped to her body, sighting down a plastic broomhandle like an M16, screaming obscenities that have not been uttered in half a century.
This is the price we pay for getting involved.
I am aware that, this being the internet, that both of these blogs could actually be written by a bored fiftysomething male postal worker in Weehawken with dreams of literary stardom. Doesn't make the stories any less fascinating.