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YouTube circulates ‘unfiltered’ war views

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The hardest thing in the world is to leave someone behind for six months, Senior Aircraftman Paul Goodfellow tells a hand-held camera as he crouches in what looks like a bathroom.

"It's not just saying bye for six months," the young member of Britain's Royal Air Force Regiment says on his way to Afghanistan in April 2007. "There's always the thought that maybe I might not come back and maybe we might not see each other again."

Mr. Goodfellow bade farewell to his girlfriend on a beach in South Shields, England, but was keeping in touch with loved ones - and the rest of the world - through a series of daily video diaries on YouTube during his deployment with the No. 51 Squadron in Kandahar province.

The clips gave viewers candid glimpses into the daily life of an RAF gunner. He spoke about his feelings and captured the everyday details of being in the military, such as weapons drills or going on patrol. He shared insights into the people and landscapes around him.

"It ended up being a personal account of one lad's life out in Afghanistan," said Mr. Goodfellow, 23, who now resides in Suffolk, England, where he recruits for the RAF. "I think that was important because people don't know what's going on. In the U.S., the troops get welcomed home like heroes, whereas here in the U.K., it's nothing like that; nobody knows what we're doing."

Scores of videos like Mr. Goodfellow's offer direct access to all aspects of military service - especially those ignored or cast aside by mainstream media. Troops playing soccer with Iraqi children, hostage rescue missions, shootouts with insurgents and montages put together by wives are just some of the uncensored clips on YouTube.

"If you look nightly on the news, particularly in the last few years, there are so many stories that are negative or that are questioning the military in one way or another, or raising doubts about it," YouTube spokesman Chris Dale said.

"This really gives you an unfiltered look. They're not slickly produced; it's just a very honest and straightforward interpretation of some of the conditions on the ground."

One video posted on the YouTube channel for the Multi-National Force in Iraq shows a night raid by members of the Iraqi Security Force in Kirkuk. The group was responding to citizens' tips about the location of an 11-year-old boy being held hostage by a kidnapping cell that was demanding a $100,000 ransom from his father, who works as a mechanic.

The language spoken in the video is Arabic, but the sequence of events is not difficult to understand. The Iraqi soldiers rub the boy's head after rescuing him from his captors and give him a cell phone to call his parents. The clip ends with women crying for joy as they run to him in the night.

Comments on the video, which has been viewed in full more than 8,000 times, are emotive.

"The military is the greatest group of people on the planet, plain and simple," wrote one viewer. Another added: "but this won't make the news."

It's not realistic to expect the mainstream media to devote time to human-interest stories when "the majority [of war] is about violence," said Barbie Zelizer, a journalism professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.

"I think it's media's responsibility to reflect the bulk, kind of the core of what's going on," she said of the mainstream media's coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It's not that the media are biased; it's the public isn't particularly supportive of this war so why should the media go and find the one or two videos on YouTube and give them coverage because they give a human aspect?"

YouTube's official military channels have managed to spark interest among recruits. Mr. Goodfellow, who returned in October to much media attention, said his numerous volunteers told him they were inspired by his videos.

"The amount of lads signing up after watching the YouTube diaries is amazing, really," he said.

Not all of the clips are positive. A viral video of a U.S. Marine throwing a puppy off a cliff sparked widespread outrage in March when it was uploaded on YouTube. The uproar led the Marine Corps to expel one Marine and discipline another.

One Internet TV documentary series hosted on YouTube, called "In Their Boots," focuses on military families and veterans readjusting to life after they come home. Producer Amanda Spain of the Brave New Foundation, which funds the project, said the episodes are all about "going through a life struggle."

"It's a different era where they can really, instead of just having the news tell their stories in two-minute sound bites, they get to tell the full thing so people get to see how dynamic they are," she said.

"Less than 1 percent of our population serves in the military, and 99 percent of the people don't really know their stories. And I do think that if the American public really got to know them as people, not just political props for either side, that they would really care about what's going on with them," Miss Spain said.

In Mr. Goodfellow's final video diary, he and other RAF members returning home from Afghanistan are greeted by the sound of bagpipes. He appears happy, tired and bittersweet.

"I'm obviously ecstatic to be back in one piece and to be home," he tells the camera. "One thing I will mention, on a sad note, basically the squadron didn't bring everybody back. ...

"A lot of people say that the real heroes don't return home."