If the first Gulf War put cable news and CNN on the map, the second Gulf War in Iraq has put video shot by soldiers in the spotlight. I first wrote about these videos in January, focusing on the ones that proliferated at the video-sharing site YouTube. But now, the phenomenon has exploded into the mainstream, with an MTV documentary, Iraq Uploaded and a full-length film, The War Tapes (“the first war movie filmed by soldiers themselves”).
Because the U.S. military allows soldiers to take cameras into combat, and gives them Internet access at their bases, the soldiers can easily shoot, edit and upload videos from the war zone. And the technology itself has also become cheaper and easier to use, from the cameras to the editing software. So if you search for iraq soldier on YouTube, you’ll get 800-plus results. Many of the videos are edited together like music videos, while others include pranks played by soldiers, such as this one where they push over a port-o-potty with a soldier inside.
Much of the footage you’ll find online is not for the faint of heart, offering an unedited feed from the war from the soldier’s viewpoint. You’ll see explosions, people gunned down, gory battle scenes and aftermaths, along with gallows humor and plenty of obscenities. But you also get raw emotion and an honesty often lacking in scrubbed reports in the mainstream media.
As with all video you find online at viral video sites, it’s often difficult to ascertain what’s going on in each video, when it was shot and who shot it. Some video editors and uploaders are glorifying the violence of war, while others are making an anti-war statement by showing the chaos and brutality of war. Thanks to some of the more recent media reports on the soldier video phenomenon (listed below), you can get a bit more information on some of the videos and the soldiers behind the lens.
There has even been a Rodney King moment with soldier video. British soldiers were caught on tape beating up Iraqi youths, with the cameraman urging them on. The BBC reported that the British Ministry of Defense would investigate the incident, which took place in 2004.
The Military View
The U.S. military has had a relatively hands-off policy when it comes to soldiers taking photos or shooting video while in the field of combat. When I first queried the military on this issue in January, they told me that CENTCOM (the U.S. Central Command) prohibited photographing or filming detainees or human casualties, but that the videos they saw on YouTube didn’t appear to violate policy — they were simply in bad taste.
But that bad taste crossed a line when Corporal Joshua Belile recently recorded a song called Hadji Girl on video. The song is about a soldier who falls in love with an Iraqi girl, but then is ambushed by the family when he goes to meet them. He then uses her sister as a human shield:
So I grabbed her little sister and pulled her in front of me.
As the bullets began to fly
The blood sprayed from between her eyes
And then I laughed maniacally
Belile was forced to issue an apology after complaints were lodged by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) about the song’s content, but the military noted that the song did not breach the Marines’ policy about giving away security positions or demeaning casualties in the field.
Belile later made this statement through conservative blogger Michelle Malkin’s site:
Although I was reprimanded for performing such a song while in uniform, my rights as an American, to include the First Amendment, have not been compromised, and as long as I am not performing as a U.S. military representative… to put it bluntly, I can sing whatever I want. I told the Jacksonville Daily News that I was sorry for any feelings hurt in the Muslim community, and that fact remains true…My intentions were never to hurt or offend anyone, but as an entertainer, and songwriter…I now know that I am perfectly within my legal rights to compose and perform my thoughts as long as I am not doing so in a fashion that would represent the thoughts or opinions of the U.S. military, or our government.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the Pentagon was asking soldiers in Iraq to stop posting combat videos online, and the BBC said the U.S. military was keeping “a close eye” on what troops were posting online. So I asked Lt. Col Todd Vician, press officer at the Pentagon, if the overall policy had changed on cameras in the field since the “Hadji Girl” brouhaha and the increased mainstream media coverage of soldier videos online.
“I’m unaware of anything recently that goes beyond the Central Command commander’s order to not take/post improper images,” Vician told me via email. “Of course, we have directives that require DoD personnel, even while acting in a private capacity, to release information that is obtained through their official duties or if they use DoD facilities/equipment. Service members can take cameras with them; it becomes problematic if they take and post improper images.”
As for what constitutes “improper images,” Vician confirms that they are images that give away troop positioning or other security details, as well as those that demean the enemy or glorify violence. While that might be true in theory, hundreds of combat videos online do glorify violence, at the least. So far, no soldier has been publicly forced to take down videos, and with open video-sharing online, how could a soldier take video back after posting it?
Mainstream Media Takes Notice
Time magazine’s Ana Marie Cox said the homemade soldiers’ videos had turned this into The YouTube War. “The videos they make are an attempt to salvage a war whose coherence crumbled soon after Saddam’s statue fell,” Cox writes. “However, while they offer the credibility of an unvarnished image, they lack any meaningful context of what came before and after the clip, or what’s happening outside the frame.”
Rolling Stone also jumped in with capsule reviews of some of the more popular videos, including the spoof song Lazy Ramadi (playing off of the “Lazy Sunday” clip from Saturday Night Live) as well as footage from an insurgent group showing explosives going off to a heavy metal music beat.
With all the MTV-style videos making the rounds, it’s not surprising that MTV itself finally covered the phenomenon, with a recent half-hour documentary called Iraq Uploaded. The documentary did a nice job of showing how some soldiers had become obsessed with the videos of war even after combat duty — and covered the topic in a relatively even-handed way. My only nitpick was that the special disproportionately hyped iFilm video clips over YouTube, probably because iFilm and MTV are both owned by Viacom.
MTV.com also included a special feature on what the bands thought about their music being used in soldier videos without their permission. Even though most of the bands were anti-war, they didn’t object to soldiers using their music. MTV News vice president Ocean MacAdams told me the band Staind had been so impressed with a soldier’s video that they were planning to hire him to help out on a future music video.
“We got tremendous feedback from our audience [on the documentary],” MacAdams said. “A lot of people were talking about it online. The traffic on iFilm spiked tremendously after each airing on TV. The clips we put on iFilm were the second most watched clips of the week…People who watched felt that we were relatively dispassionate about the issues and weren’t making any value judgments, and that we explored it pretty thoroughly.”
Now there’s a full-length documentary film, The War Tapes taken from 800 hours of footage shot by the New Hampshire National Guard in Iraq. The 90-minute movie was pulled together by the makers of “Hoop Dreams” and has won the Best Documentary Feature award at the Tribeca Film Festival. It has opened in a few major cities and the filmmakers are hoping for wide release by fall.
“[The movie was] directed through near perpetual instant messaging and email,” director Deborah Scranton writes on the Indie Features blog. “The soldiers would send Quicktime clips to me from ambushes and self interviews, and we would talk about how best to tell the story, THEIR story. Tapes would take approximately two weeks to get from Iraq to me. Pretty amazing process. Five soldiers filmed their entire year’s deployment with several one-chip high end Sony video cameras. They mounted tripods on gun turrets, inside dashboards and with the POV mounts on their kevlar. They filmed all of the footage in Iraq, over 800 hours of tape. They became cameramen and journalists. We did it together.”
There are hundreds of video sites and blogs online that host or link to soldier videos from Iraq. However, if you want some good places to start on your journey into this netherworld, here are a few good video hubs that will help.
The leading online video site has the most variety of clips, but you can’t always find the best videos by depending on user ratings and most-viewed statistics. However, the technology rarely fails, and recommendations for similar clips are helpful. This is probably the best place for recent raw footage.
iFim War Zone: Soldier Uploads
iFilm has organized the genre of soldier videos better than any site online. You can get an RSS feed of soldier videos that are uploaded, and there’s a section dedicated to videos profiled on the MTV special. There’s even a section called “In the Sight Line” for videos showing just that. iFilm has also done the most commercialization on its site, which sometimes feels strange next to these horrors of war.
Military.com Shock and Awe
This video section is tailored to soldiers viewing the video as well as shooting it. There are also tattoo photos from soldiers, and photos of art created by soldiers on military equipment. The site says it won’t include videos of dead bodies or video that would give away security positions. Still, it’s a stretch to categorize this site under “Military.com Entertainment.”
Google has tried to make its site more viral-friendly lately and hasn’t pushed the pay-to-play video angle as much. However, the soldier videos were still mixed in with documentaries and news footage, making it harder to find amateur clips.
This site doesn’t break out war videos from any other gruesome images it collects, from fatal truck crashes to a woman swallowing a cell phone. Ogrish is known for its anything-goes attitude to showing photos and video. There are plenty of Iraq videos, but probably an equal number of those shot by American soldiers as by the insurgents. The point here is to see gore, and it’s not as much about music videos or emotional statements.
If you’d like to read more about the issues surrounding soldiers shooting combat video and posting it online, the following articles will give you plenty of food for thought.
Soldier Rap, the Pulse of War [Newsweek]
MTV Overdrive’s Iraq Uploaded
[MTV; requires Internet Explorer and Windows]
Ramadi Madness: Scene by scene [Palm Beach Post]
Real-time snuff movies from Iraq [The Telegraph]
Marines reluctant to accept ‘Hadji Girl’ song proceeds [Stars & Stripes]
Review of MTV’s Iraq Uploaded [TPMCafe]
[Photo at top taken from “The War Tapes” poster, credited to SenArt Films.]
What do you think about these videos from soldiers? Are these much needed uncensored views of war, or just propaganda coming from a different source? Also, let me know if there are other video repositories online for soldiers’ video that I failed to mention, or other resources I might have missed. I’ll update the story with your information.
UPDATE: I have asked MediaShift readers for their opinions on this question: How should the military respond to citizen journalism in the field of combat? If you have thoughts you’d like to share on this subject, please add your comments to this post.