- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

If 1991’s Gulf War was the first CNN war, then the one currently being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan is the first YouTube.com war. The San Mateo, Calif.-based Web site, founded last year, has quickly become a repository for all manner of amateur video productions, including those of U.S. soldiers and Marines on the ground in the war against terrorism. The clips also can be found at Web sites such as MySpace.com, Military.com and Ifilm.com.

They are often violent, occasionally inspirational and humorous, and sometimes unspeakably graphic. And, always, completely uncensored. Corpses, explosions and salty language are the coin of the realm. Ana Marie Cox, the former Wonkette.com blogger, exaggerated only slightly when, writing in Time, she called the videos “semi-pro snuff films.”

One montage, a herky-jerky sequence of firefights captured on cameras mounted on troops’ helmets, is set to the soundtrack of heavy metal band Korn’s song “Dead Bodies Everywhere,” which includes these rather disheartened lyrics: “You really want me to be a good son? Why? You make me feel like no one.”

Another, found on Ogrish.com, offers a close-up of, the video submitter claims, an Iraqi insurgent who, carelessly and fatally, tried to plant an improvised explosive device (IED) on a low-hanging power line. The man’s face is a charred black rump, his chest a hollow, oozing concavity.

The proliferation of these amateur combat videos, and the relative indifference with which the Pentagon initially greeted them, adds a new dimension to the fast-changing world of technology-driven new media: If, as BuzzMachine.com blogger Jeff Jarvis has it, every citizen is a potential journalist, then so is every soldier.

Think of it: Every grunt his own personal mass media conduit — and sometimes, indeed, a movie star.

Director Deborah Scranton assembled footage taken by National Guardsmen serving in Iraq for the documentary “The War Tapes,” which saw theatrical release earlier this year. And, last month, MTV News presented “Iraq Uploaded,” a half-hour look at the military’s ubiquitous new videographers.

Does the very rawness of such material render it a more trustworthy source of news than that submitted by embedded professional journalists? Or is it too impressionistic to add up to anything objective?

(Let’s set aside the fact that the unauthorized use of copyrighted music is, well, unauthorized.)

More than anything else, the videos may simply be good for troop morale. These are (mostly) men who must juggle the possibility of violent death with the quotidian realities of heat and homesickness.

In fact, many of the videos posted by troops don’t look into the heart of darkness, so to speak, but, rather, the heart of boredom. They are tokens of time-killing, not people-killing. One particularly amusing clip I came across (it was set to the delightfully cheesy Styx song “Renegade”) saw a soldier attempting an Evel Knievel-style stunt with a bicycle, only to crash continually into a hump of desert.

“You’ve gotta let them do it. You’ve gotta let them blow off steam,” said an Army officer I talked to recently while he was on leave from Iraq.

Yet the Pentagon, according to a report last week in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, is considering restricting the uploads, thanks in large part to a Council on American-Islamic Relations-stoked uproar over the YouTube video “Hadji Girl,” which featured Marine Cpl. Joshua Belile boastfully fantasizing about killing an Iraqi girl and her family after being ambushed by them. “Defense officials believe they could be interpreted as portraying the military as unsympathetic to Arabs and obsessed with barbarism,” the article claimed.

Taking fully into account the Bush administration’s desire to win Arab hearts and minds the world over, last June’s “Hadji Girl” episode was telling: No one had objected to troop-filmed combat videos until one crossed the boundaries of political correctness.

Indeed, before “Hadji Girl” emerged, the mainstream media extolled combat videos for providing an unfiltered look at the horrific conditions in Iraq. In her write-up for Time, Miss Cox made much hay of the fact that, in “The War Tapes,” soldiers are heard voicing skepticism about the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war. Expanding freedom and democracy? Draining the swamp of the Middle East? “After that happens,” says one, “maybe we can buy everybody in the world a puppy.”

That kind of thing is catnip for mainstream media types.

But a production like “Hadji Girl,” which, despite its gruesome brand of humor, confronts the enemy’s equally vile guerrilla tactics? Well, that’s just despicable.

If anything, media liberals should probably be cheering on the production of these videos: Ever since the Vietnam war entered America’s living rooms, Americans have had less and less stomach for warmaking. Just imagine, years hence, how they’ll feel after a steady diet of frontline cinema verite.

For now, YouTube.com and its ilk may be good for troops’ morale. But it may ultimately be bad for the country’s.

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