Bringing the war home

The horrors of combat are increasingly being made available by American soldiers armed to the teeth with today's digital technology.

Topics: War Room, Iraq, Middle East,

And it’s plenty ugly. You wouldn’t really know it, of course, from watching the TV news, and the Rumsfeld Pentagon may try to hide it under cover of darkness — but the horrors of war are increasingly being made available on the Internet by American soldiers themselves, armed to the teeth with today’s ubiquitous digital technology. The L.A. Times’ Louise Roug reports from the Army’s Camp Warhorse near Baqubah, Iraq:

“Today, video cameras are lightweight and digital technology has cut out the need for processing. Having captured a firefight on video, a soldier can create a movie and distribute it via e-mail, uncensored by the military. With editing software such as Avid and access to Internet connections on military bases here, U.S. soldiers are creating fast-paced, MTV-style music videos using images from actual firefights and killings.

“Troops often carry personal cameras and video equipment in battle. On occasion, official military camera crews, known as ‘Combat Camera’ units, follow the troops on raids and patrol. Although the military uses that footage for training and public affairs, it also finds its way to personal computers and commercial websites. The result: an abundance of photographs and video footage depicting mutilation, death and destruction that soldiers collect and trade like baseball cards.

“In [one] video, made by members of the Florida National Guard, soldiers are shown kicking a wounded prisoner in the face and making the arm of a corpse appear to wave. The DVD, which is called ‘Ramadi Madness,’ includes sections with titles such as ‘Those Crafty Little Bastards’ and ‘Another Day, Another Mission, Another Scumbag,’ came to light in early March after the American Civil Liberties Union obtained Army documents using the Freedom of Information Act.”

To many, such footage is plain reprehensible, and when hearing of it (let alone seeing it), it’s easiest to make snap judgments through one’s own political or moral lens on the war. But Roug’s report looks into the deep ambivalence shaping the soldiers’ experiences, including their differing views on exposing the carnage on camera.

“This isn’t some jolly freakin’ peacekeeping mission,” one soldier says of the videos, whose charred, decapitated and bloody corpses, he says, “get the point across.”

A professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine, Daniel Nelson, explains that “what seems disrespectful or a trivialization is also a way for soldiers to distance themselves from the trauma,” to see it as something other than real.

Other soldiers draw a line in terms of audience: “Spc. Scott Schroder, a gunner with Task Force 2-63, wouldn’t show what he described as the ‘evil, nasty kill-videos,’ to his family. ‘That’s cool with the guys,’ he said. ‘I don’t think my mom would care to see any of these videos.’”

And some soldiers themselves are appalled: “Another specialist, who wouldn’t give his name, said the bloody videos disgusted him. ‘I wouldn’t watch them, and the people I work with wouldn’t watch them,’ said the specialist, stationed at a base near Mosul in northern Iraq. ‘I don’t think it’s proper.’ He compared the violent videos to those made by insurgents showing beheadings. ‘You bring yourself down to their level. Why would you do that?’”

Whatever their point of view, Americans back home can no longer plead ignorance about what the war carried out in their name looks like, for better or for worse.

Right now they’ll still have to look at it outside the mainstream media, but maybe not for long.

“30-year-old Sgt. Benjamin Bronkema from Lafayette, Ind., said he was surprised no one had tried to sell the movies yet. ‘If I had a copy of it, and MTV called, I’d sell it,’ he said. The videos are no different than what’s on screen at the cinema, showing glorified violence, he added. ‘It’s no more graphic than “Saving Private Ryan.” To us, it’s no different than watching a movie.’”

Or, for that matter, starring in one.

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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