Monday, May 24, 2010

Through Soldiers' Eyes, 'The First YouTube War'


The New York Times

May 23, 2010

Through Soldiers’ Eyes, ‘The First YouTube War’


WHEN the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks released a classified video taken in 2007 showing an American Apache helicopter crew killing 12 civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists, it rang a bell with Hayden Hewitt.

The familiarity was not just because it was yet another “Apache video,” thousands of which are available on, the video-sharing site Mr. Hewitt helped to found in 2006.

Videos taken from Apache helicopters can indeed be as stylistically consistent as dollar bills: there is the bird’s-eye view of an Iraqi city captured in infrared “negative,” accompanied by the clipped banter of the crew members.

Everything usually ends with “a group of people on a FLIR camera being killed,” Mr. Hewitt said, referring to infrared equipment made by FLIR Systems.

But in this case, Mr. Hewitt meant there was something familiar about that exact WikiLeaks video, which documented 38 minutes of flying above Baghdad punctuated by gun bursts that ended in carnage, including the deaths of the two journalists, whose cameras were mistaken as weapons.

“We were racking our brains — there was some sort of takedown issue,” Mr. Hewitt said in an interview by telephone on Thursday from England, explaining why the video was not currently available on the site.

A number of trusted, longtime visitors to LiveLeak distinctly recalled seeing it about a year earlier, he said.

After a day of searching, Mr. Hewitt reported that he could not find any record of the original tape behind LiveLeak’s firewall, where he expected it would be. Maybe the idea of an earlier leak of the WikiLeaks video is “urban legend,” he conceded.

If you want to see the horror of war, you do not need to look far. There are sites aplenty showing the carnage, and much of the material is filmed, edited and uploaded by soldiers recording their own experiences.

“There are many more types of recording devices, mounted in different ways,” said Jennifer Terry, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, who produced a study of military videos from Iraq and Afghanistan for the multimedia journal Vectors. “The way these videos circulate on the Internet is unprecedented, in all these different leaky ways. That is why I like to say this is the first YouTube war.”

The one commodity that is exceedingly rare, however, is context. The Internet is overrun with footage from the United States military in Iraq and Afghanistan. What can be found on sites like YouTube and LiveLeak reflects the lives of soldiers in a war zone, from boredom to the highest drama.

On the silly side is a YouTube phenomenon, the remake of the Lady Gaga song “Telephone” by burly soldiers in Afghanistan, which has been viewed more than five million times.

And then there are videos of deadly firefights and aerial bombings.

But even the violent material posted by soldiers usually comes in highly packaged form, Mr. Hewitt and Professor Terry said, resembling nothing so much as a music video.

Certain songs have become established scene-setters, particularly the heavy-metal song “Bodies” by Drowning Pool, with its mantra: “Let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor.”

In sum, Professor Terry says in her study, these soldier-generated videos are “radically decontextualized.”

“There is a multivalent quality to this stuff — it can be heroic, the ‘real deal,’ a techno-fetish,” she said. “It doesn’t speak for itself. There are so many different ways of interpreting.”

A Flip camera may have the potential to create a citizen journalist, but why, exactly, would you expect that from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan?

“The bottom line is that people forget how young these guys are,” said Tommy Blacha, a TV writer and former soldier who was stationed in Germany in the 1980s. For viewer and video creator alike, he said, there is “a vibrant feeling you get that this is kind of the wrongest thing I could do.”

While his fellow soldiers in Germany had no ability to create videos, he said, they did their share of goofing around with a Polaroid camera.

Mr. Blacha said he remembered seeing the WikiLeaks video a year ago on LiveLeak, but that it only became special because of the story. “There are graphically worse videos, but this is a journalist who was killed,” he said.

Assuming the 2007 video was indeed available on LiveLeak in 2009, it clearly had none of the impact that the WikiLeaks version has generated. It may have simply delivered a familiar message that the United States had awesome means of dealing with its opponents.

“These videos will have a strong impact, but it is hard to tell what it will be,” Mr. Hewitt said. “Some people watch it and think, ‘That is grotesque, how can we do it?’ Others will say, ‘Hell yeah, go team.’ ”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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