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The American public’s interest in the War in Iraq has waxed and waned over the years, from intense debate to complete disconnection. So too has the media’s interest, as Iraq goes from the front page of the newspaper to someplace buried deep within. But there’s one viewpoint of the war that has never diminished: that of the soldier.

If you’ve been paying attention online and in the blogging world, you’ll know that soldiers have offered some of the most gripping first-hand accounts of the war, keeping daily weblogs, posting photos and even video. So it was no surprise when a friend pointed me to a relatively new site called YouTube, and showed me what looked like videos shot by American soldiers of live combat in Iraq.

YouTube lets people share their home videos with friends or with the world — for free. You set up an account, and can then easily upload your digital video, and then decide whether you want to store it privately or publicly. The site makes money by selling some text advertisements, but so far, they’ve kept the design pretty simple and uncluttered.

What’s striking about the videos of Iraq combat is how well produced they are. There are titles overlaid on the action, as well as soundtracks with gangster rap or heavy metal music. Much of the footage portrays the soldiers as heroes, suiting up to go into combat, and then showing a series of explosions or gunfights. One video titled, “US Marines handling business in Iraq,” even includes credits, with “footage shot and edited by Cpl. Jan M. Bender, combat correspondent, USMC [U.S. Marine Corps].” This video was shot in Fallujah during November 2004, but it’s difficult to determine how old the other videos on YouTube are, or who really shot them.

While many of the videos look authentic, it’s hard to tell for sure, because there is no verification system on YouTube other than the online community’s trust. As with other user-generated content such as blogs and photo-sharing sites, a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary.

While many other sites and video repositories online have video from Iraq soldiers, YouTube makes the process simple for uploading video and finding video by searching. You can also filter your search results by most recently uploaded videos, most watched videos or highest rated videos by viewers. And there’s also a comments section for each video, so people who watch them can give feedback.

Rock music + war?

On one of the more produced combat videos, Battleforce 3/327, a commenter named Nirvana563 makes a good point about putting combat to a rock beat. “The worst part of all is the music, DON’T PLAY ROCK MUSIC WHEN IT COMES TO WAR!!! I [won’t] explain that any more simply, it kills all effects.” Even if the music follows in the tradition of films like “Apocalypse Now,” and various hard-hitting MTV music videos, it’s horribly dehumanizing to turn mortal combat into an entertainment video.

But for soldiers seeing death and destruction for months and perhaps years at a time, the videos could well represent a way to deal with the anguish, to rationalize what’s going on around them. In other cases, the videos reveal the soldiers’ stark view of the enemy as being less than human. In one rap-tinged video, a lyric from the song — “we eat pieces of s—- like you for breakfast” — is overlaid over a bombing in the distance, and audio of soldiers celebrating in the foreground. This video has been viewed on YouTube more than 4,000 times, with a rating of 3 out of a possible 5 stars.

While the comments on the Iraq combat videos often devolve into anti-war and pro-soldier diatribes, the YouTube service itself takes no stand and wants to allow soldiers the chance to share their videos.

“Users of YouTube have been documenting their first-hand accounts of world events ever since we started the service,” CEO Chad Hurley told me via email. “We’ve seen videos of hurricanes and dangerous airplane landings become popular on the service, so it’s no surprise that soldiers in Iraq would actively document their lives and provide their perspective on one of the most important world events today.”

Military brass approve?

I have written about soldiers sharing gory photos from Iraq, and in those cases, the U.S. military said these photos should not be shared with the public because they go against the Army code of conduct. This would likely be a similar case, especially with some of these videos showing the names of soldiers and noting where they were stationed.

U.S. Central Command spokesman Chris Karns told me back then that it’s the soldiers’ First Amendment rights to carry cameras into combat and photograph their experiences — as long as they don’t share photos that give away sensitive security information or defame dead bodies. And outside of the Abu Ghraib scandal, most of the imagery and video that comes from soldiers has a very pro-American, pro-soldier slant. So it follows that the military would have a hands-off policy on these music videos of combat.

I did query the military about YouTube and haven’t heard back from them yet (but will post their reaction). One military blogger, Colby Buzzell, whose My War blog has been turned into a book, told me that he thought these videos on YouTube were authentic, based on his experience in Iraq, and he had seen some of the same videos online at other sites. As for the reaction from the military brass, Colby told me “they probably don’t even know it’s going on — they have other things to worry about.”

YouTube’s Hurley says the online community polices itself for inappropriate videos and copyright violations. The Terms of Use for YouTube requires that people have the permission to use copyrighted footage and music. But almost all the well produced videos on the site use copyrighted music and it’s highly doubtful that anyone got permission from music publishers.

Plus, when you upload a video on YouTube, “you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, fully paid-up, royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, perform and otherwise exploit the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successor’s) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.” All that means that YouTube could make a commercial video with your work without compensating you.

For all the excitement that a concept like YouTube brings — and Hurley says 10 million videos are viewed per day with 20,000 uploads per day — the site engenders a weird cyclical exploitation loop. People upload videos they may not have the copyright to upload, while the site then gets the rights to material it shouldn’t have in the first place.

What do you think about YouTube, and its Iraq combat videos? Does this service have the potential to rival the photo-sharing site, Flickr? Would you use it? What for?

UPDATE: The U.S. military responds to my queries, and believes these videos don’t violate military policy but might just be considered to be in “bad taste.”

UPDATE 2: If you’d like to learn more about the subject of soldier videos posted on the Internet, I’ve since followed this article up with a roundup, Your Guide to Soldier Videos from Iraq. Plus I interviewed Deborah Scranton, the director of the largely soldier-shot documentary, “The War Tapes.”