February 1, 2007  

Theater of war

Online videos show the troops’ view of Iraq

At some risk to my position at AFJ, I must observe that reading milblogs sometimes feels hopelessly out of date — the online scene nowadays is all about video. Recent bounds in data storage and transmission technology, as well as video editing capabilities, mean that anyone with a video camera, a computer and free time can post their movies to the Web (as indicated by Time magazine’s selection of “you” as the 2006 person of the year). Fortunately, many troops have all of those.

Videos from Iraq have been on the Web since early in the war, and, much like milblogs, have been of inconsistent quality. Combat is inherently confusing, and no less so when compressed into a 30-second video clip. One of the surprising elements in these postings is that the insurgents are almost always invisible — videos of U.S. troops in action rarely show their enemies, even when they are filmed in minutes-long firefights. This is a point likewise made in the videos filmed by the insurgents, where an American soldier will be felled by a sniper’s bullet or a convoy struck by an IED, with only the cameraman’s intonations of “Allahu Akbar” to indicate the hidden enemy’s presence.

A characteristic and terrifying example of the invisible menace posed by insurgents is a YouTube video in which a camera lying on a barracks floor during an intense mortar attack captures troops praying and screaming as rounds land ever closer to their position. Although many of these videos convey a triumphant anti-American tone that has been the focus of reportage on the topic, a wide array of formats and themes is available for online viewing.

The most common format for the online videos are barely that — they are photo montages either compiled by returning U.S. troops to commemorate their experiences in the war, by American citizens to express their gratitude to the soldiers fighting there, or reflecting a collective effort on the part of whole units. Usually set to sentimental, patriotic music (with genuinely moving effect, given the pictures they display), these montages have been available since the beginning of the war. One characteristic example is “Iraq Freedom 2006 ‘The Kids,’” with photos that Army reservist Rene Phan took of his unit interacting with Iraqi children in the course of their mission to train Iraqi police.

A step above the photo montages is video montages. These are usually more effectively organized, and a pair on the April and November 2004 Marine Corps battles for Fallujah bring out the contrasting themes that most of these videos aim for, as well as the role of music in driving their point home. The video “Iraq Marine Battle Fallujah” is set to the somber “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits, which captures perfectly the tragic futility of the April offensive that ended in a unilateral cease-fire after 27 Marine deaths. In contrast, the video “3/1 Marines Siege Fallujah” covers the fight of a single company through the streets of that city in November during Operation Phantom Fury, set to the opulently hostile heavy metal anthem “Out of My Way” by Seether.

More ambitiously, the popular blogger “Buck Sergeant” at American Citizen Soldier is working to edit his footage from Iraq into a serviceable full-length feature, “Give War a Chance.” The trailers he has posted on YouTube show some of the stunning images he has captured, as well as the inspiration for his title choice — a plea for public support on the home front that will let the troops continue to fight for hearts and minds in Iraq.

Humor, thankfully, also composes a large section of online postings from the war. Although the best war-inspired amateur music video has long been “Kosovo,” a parody of the Beach Boys song “Kokomo” performed by Norwegian peacekeepers, Americans have finally contributed a strong contender. Marine Staff Sgts. Matt Wright and Josh Dobbs filmed the hilarious “Lazy Ramadi,” a Beastie Boys-style rap spoof of the Saturday Night Live skit “Lazy Sunday” that includes such winning lines as: “West of Fallujah, step on it sucka. What you wanna do now? Iraq attack, motherf—–!”

The political debates surrounding the war have, of course, followed online, as the (usually poorly written) comment sections for almost any video from the war show. One topic that has received extensive online treatment is the role of contractors on the battlefield, the subject of a Robert Greenwald documentary, “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers,” that has been promoted heavily on YouTube and other online forums. As with many critiques of contractors on the battlefield, Greenwald lambastes the extravagant fees paid to contractors in Iraq and the apparent disregard for their lives shown by the companies that send them over.

A more subtle view of the role of private military firms is shown in one of the most heavily viewed videos from the war, in which Blackwater USA contractors join the fight to defend the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters in Najaf during the April 2004 Shiite uprising. The video shows a Blackwater sniper firing countless rounds at insurgents, part of an operation that included the use of Blackwater helicopters to deliver supplies, ammunition and close-air support and that is credited with saving the CPA compound from being overrun when U.S. Army helicopters were held back because of heavy enemy ground fire.

The Blackwater sniper video was filmed a week after the mutilation of four Blackwater contractors that forced the Marine Corps into the battle of Fallujah, a strategic debacle that upended months of Marine commanders’ planning to gradually build trust with the local population and root out the insurgents with minimal collateral damage or U.S. casualties. It is not apparent that Blackwater’s heroism in Najaf did more good than the Fallujah mutilations did harm, but this single video posits the evidence for our consideration.

Put simply: Happy viewing. Although navigating the world of online war videos is at best a haphazard venture, there is enough material to provide as clear a view into the lives of combat, boredom and pointless amusement of the soldiers in Iraq as one will find anywhere.

How to find the videos mentioned in this article:YouTube


Search for the following phrases:

“American Soldier Crying

for Their Life in America War Irak”

“Iraqi Freedom 2006 ‘The Kids’”

“Iraq Marine Battle Fallujah”

“Give War a Chance Trailer II”

“Kosovo Parody Song”

“Lazy Ramadi”

“Iraq for Sale”

“Blackwater in Najaf 1&2”

Google Video


Search for “3/1 Marine Siege Fallujah”

Christopher Griffin is a research associate in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.