As dawn approaches, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake readies a dispatch on the war in Iraq. From his home in southern England, Mandrake awaits word on British troop movements, casualty estimates and the reaction from Arab news agencies. "[T]his is the last great strategic gamble by the Iraqi military," he writes, positing that the "breakout" in Basra may be a "diversionary tactic." Mandrake--the online alias for 42-year-old Steve Bail, borrowed from Stanley Kubrick's film "Doctor Strangelove"--is a war blogger. A seven-year veteran of the Royal Air Force, Bail now spends his spare time running a Web log, a diarylike personal Web page, devoted to chronicling and discussing the war in Iraq (lionelmandrake.blogspot.com).
He's not alone: in the past few years, hundreds of thousands of bloggers have staked out hypertext positions along the Internet's newest frontier. These guerrilla pundits, denizens of the so-called blogosphere, come in all shapes and sizes: artists, music buffs, politicos and the occasional journalist. But with the onset of hostilities in Iraq, the news-related sites have moved to the forefront. In fact, not since the days after September 11--the birth, many say, of the war blog--has online traffic been so heavy. "Blogs may come of age in this war," says Bail, noting that since the Tomahawks started flying, he's seen a huge spike in readership.
Bloggers say they offer perspectives outside those of conventional news organizations. They aim to foster debate by punctuating their thoughts with links to news reports, op-eds and contrarian Web logs. Some sites offer rare, firsthand accounts. Salam Pax, the pseudonym for a blogger who claims to live in Baghdad (dear_raed.blogspot.com), recently described the columns of smoke rising from the capital's burning, oil-filled trenches. A Kuwaiti blogger (qhate.com) has posted pictures of a nasty sandstorm that he took with his digital camera while driving.
One of the main advantages of blogs is that you don't need a degree in Web design or journalism to get your message across. "Blogs are making writing for the Web easier and easier," says Dave Winer, the developer of one of the most popular blogging technologies, Radio UserLand. Blogs are simple to update, and linking one item to another is a matter of cutting and pasting.
So, how to get in on the action? First, recommends Shelley Powers, coauthor of "Essential Blogging," check out what's out there to get a feel for the blogging scene. See what features appeal to you. Then decide if you'd like to blog alone or with friends. (Bail, for instance, also takes part in a team effort called Sgt. Stryker's Daily Briefing [sgtstryker.com] run by a handful of active and retired military personnel.) Then, choose a "tool." For beginners, Blogger (blogger.com) might be best--all you need to do is get a username and password and voila: you have your very own blog that's kept on the Blogger server.
For the more technically adept, two other popular choices are Radio UserLand and Movabletype. Movabletype is free, and the company that developed it, Six Apart, will install your blog on the server of your choice for a one-time fee of $40. Radio UserLand has a helpful option that automatically scans other blogs and Web sites for the newest posts, then links them to your site. Be forewarned: with this much news happening, it's all too easy to get blogged down.