Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Iraq TV: Watching the YouTube War

apache_1 I remember watching an iridescent string of pearls lace across a deep, velvety night sky. This is war? I thought. War is pretty.

It was 1990, I was 5 years old, and American bombers were pounding Baghdad with smart bombs in the concussive opening of Operation: Desert Storm. The American public watched it all unfold on CNN.

During the Gulf War, nearly all photos and videos came from the national media. When Americans returned to Iraq in 2003, more than a decade of breakneck technological development had passed. Soldiers now rode into battle with digital cameras the size of cigarette packs, each capable of taking high-resolution stills and full-motion videos. Boots-on-the-ground access to the Iraq War can be achieved with a few keystrokes:

I remember watching footage taken from the gun camera of an Apache attack helicopter. The Apache was snooping on what appeared to be a weapon drop: outlines of men, ghostly pale in the white-hot night vision, talk beside two trucks. One takes a long, tube-like object – possibly a rocket-propelled grenade – jogs into an adjacent field, and drops it. The pilot reports their movements in a low monotone. When he sees the tube, he requests permission to engage.

His superior asks if he’s certain it was a weapon. He’s certain.

The clearance comes: “Yep, engage. Smoke ‘em.” The 30 mm gun chatters, and a string of rounds catches one guy as he’s crossing the field. He disappears in a storm of dust and smoke. His friends dive for cover. They’re gunned down, one by one. The trucks are ripped apart like Matchbox cars.

I remember being numb and dumbly amazed. I had just watched four men die to the sterile soundtrack of military jargon. All this on a laptop in Gambier, Ohio, thousands of miles away from the war.

Of the more than 642,000 videos pulled up by searching “Iraq,” many were shot by the soldiers who fought the invasion and subsequent occupation. Many of them are videos of airstrikes, called in by soldiers who crouch behind barricades and nervously hold up their cameras as they wait for the bomb to fall. One such clip opens with a field of purple flowers.

It lasts about 10 seconds. The video is titled “2500 pound JDAM dropped on a Taliban stronghold,” isn’t it? After the fireball flares and the shockwave passes, the soldiers whoop and cheer.

“Fuck yeah!” one shouts. “Shake and bake! Did that not blow your mind?”

“That just happened,” says another. “That. Just. Happened.”

You can hear the awe, the fear, the exhilaration of not having been the target. These kinds of things transcend distance and time; I rewound the video again and again. I, too, was awed.

I was also surprised. I know how tightly the military polices its image, growing and guarding the Official Word with fetishistic care (when I once interviewed a U.S. Navy radiologist for my high school alumni magazine, we were shadowed by a public relations official every step of the way. He never hesitated to offer his “perspective.”). But once soldiers gained internet access, the Official Word was demolished forever. Spokespeople could still deliver their homilies, but if anyone wanted a ground-level view of the war, patrol by patrol, all they had to do was turn to the YouTube or the blogosphere.

In “My War,” Army soldier Colby Buzzell shows the military’s initial ambivalence regarding blogs: they were efficient tools for keeping in touch with friends and family, sure, but they could also lead to insubordination, dissent and a compromise of operational security.

By and large, the armed forces have embraced blogging and social media. How could they not? For some, goofing off on camera became a form of much-needed stress release: see this clip, where two soldiers tackle a porta-john with their friend inside. Or “Lazy Ramadi,” a rap video recorded by two Army Staff Sergeants at the height of the insurgency, when tours were being extended to keep the country from teetering into all-out civil war.

“I hate Ramadi,” the chorus goes, “but there’s no need to moan / ‘cause the US Army won’t let me go home.” The sergeants pine for Muncie, Indiana’s Pizza King, bitch about prices at the postal exchange and rap about Jell-o.

In fact, the dumb-as-shit/goofy subgenre of handshot videos might have experienced a renaissance thanks to the war on terror. See: “Pump It.”

Put these guys behind a CNN camera, commanders watching, and see if you get the same result. You won’t. And you never would. For perhaps the first time, the average American is getting an honest, uncensored glimpse of what it’s like to be a soldier in a war zone. And apparently, it’s a little like this: dry-humping pre-misison briefing circles to the tune of “Peanut Butter and Jelly Time.”

It’s not all middle-school humor. In one video, an Iraqi solder injures himself while trying to fire an anti-tank rocket. His American supervisors burst into laughter. They don’t stop, not even when the soldier limps away with what appears to be a facial injury. Iraqi soldiers rush to his aid.

The American response: “Aww, he’s fucked up.”

Perhaps the most famous piece of footage to emerge from the Iraq war is a 15-minute clip of a 2007 Apache strike gone wrong. It was passed to Wikileaks, an organization devoted to exposing state secrets. In 2010, the organization debuted the clip, called “Collateral Murder.” In the now-familiar tunnel of white-hot night vision, anyone with an internet connection could watch innocent civillians get cut down by 30 mm cannon fire.

Among the dead were two Reuters employees, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen. Noor-Eldeen, the video says, was considered one of the best war photographers in Iraq. But when the Apache gunner saw his long lens peeking out from behind a building, he assumed it was an RPG tube. The seven others with him – all civilians – were marked hostile. Permissions were requested and granted. Once again, the chatter, the plumes of smoke and dust, the scattering of debris. It all seems to happen too fast; where did the people go?

The commentary, uproar and official condemnations that arose after WikiLeaks published the video drowned out the silent shock of people like me, watching the carnage unfold on their LCD screens. For a moment, I imagined I was Noor-Eldeen’s mother, watching her 22-year-old son drag his injured body along the pavement before being erased by a finishing burst.

For another, longer moment, I looked back to 1990, when the war was a dreamlike ballet of tracers floating skyward. There were doubtlessly dead in the streets of Baghdad, Iraqi civilians howling for their brothers, mothers, fathers, and lovers, but we didn’t see them. We weren’t responsible for their pain.

Though major combat operations have ceased in Iraq, much of the war is on YouTube for anyone who wants to see it. It’s disturbing, hilarious and sad, but on some level, we owe it to those who fought to take a peek. To know, if only a little.