You won’t see the heart-stopping shudder of an improvised explosive device (IED) ripping through a Humvee on the nightly news.
And you definitely won’t see it from the perspective of a soldier inside that armored vehicle.
To a generation of soldiers raised on first-person-shooter video games, armed with pocket-sized digital still and video cameras, the Iraq war is coming home in an unprecedented, and sometimes disturbingly graphic, way. A previous generation’s soldiers from Vietnam returned mostly with still shots and memories, and the 1992 Gulf War was notorious for the carefully managed footage of “smart bombs” fed to the news networks.
But the military’s lax rules on the posting of video on the Internet have allowed Iraq war soldiers to post their uncensored video diaries online for all the world to see.
Hundreds of hours of video footage are now on sites like iFilm, YouTube and Ogrish.com, providing a visual document of life during wartime as it’s never been seen before.
MTV News talked to some returning soldiers, who described how shooting and editing these videos helped smooth their return home and allowed them to reflect on their tour of duty. Some also talked about how watching the footage has become an obsession that has disrupted their home lives, even as it provides them with a tenuous link to their fellow soldiers still stationed overseas.
According to Marine Scott Lyon, 24, digital cameras were practically standard-issue gear in Iraq, with some soldiers rigging up special hands-free cams that allowed them shoot footage in the middle of firefights. He remembered a soldier who was on this third tour of duty whose helmet-mounted camera “helped him catch more intense footage, because you don’t have to stop and put the camera down. I just think it captures things people want to see. Ramadi isn’t a place that a lot of journalists go to … and you get a different perspective when you get it from a Marine. It definitely [is] not going to get as much exposure [as] something shown on the nightly news or anything, but the people he shows are going to be getting an uncut perspective.”
See what soldiers have to say about their viral videos — and what Tom Morello, Korn and others have to say about their music being used in them.
Lyon’s digital camera came in handy on patrol as a means of photographing suspicious people for intelligence agents to pore over. But once home, he compiled almost 100 clips from the war, a combination of footage shot by others that he downloaded and his own video, such as a clip of a truck driving over an IED. “You hear about IEDs all the time,’ he said. “Most people don’t what it is like to really hit one.” Lyon also posted shots of an insurgent bomb hitting a U.S. observation post and a slideshow overview of his seven-month tour, set to the music of AFI and (hed) p.e.
Heeding the lessons of Vietnam, where nightly images of dead American soldiers helped turn the tide against the war, the Bush administration has tightly managed the coverage of the Iraq war, not allowing the media to show the returning caskets of U.S. troops.
But that hasn’t stopped war junkies from seeking the coverage out. “I don’t think the majority of people trafficking these sites are soldiers,” said Paul Rieckhoff of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (and author of the Iraq war book “Chasing Ghosts”). “I think the majority of them are people back home who have a curiosity or are maybe into military stuff or guys who play video games. I think some of it is guys who want to live vicariously through soldiers — guys who want to be able to experience it without losing a leg.”
Like a lot of returning vets, Lyon has a kind of morbid fascination with the hundreds of gruesome videos posted by Iraqi insurgents, many of which show the bloody results of attacks on American troops. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s not healthy,” Lyon said. “But it just seems to be interesting to see what other people in different parts of the country are dealing with over there.” Lyon wasn’t eager to show his videos to his mother, but she asked to see them, just so she could get a sense of what he’d been through. But even by viewing the clips online and sharing them with family, Lyon said you can’t get a true understanding of what the war in Iraq is really like unless you are there.
“There’s no really good way for anyone to understand it,” he said. “I think that people are going to think what they want to think … I think it’s the best way to get a troop’s viewpoint of things. I think this is the first time in history. I mean they [didn't have] cameras in Vietnam like we do now. We’re getting a lot more exposure to front-line action and things like that.”
Jan Bender, 22, was a Marine combat correspondent whose job was to film the assault on Fallujah, one of the biggest, bloodiest offensives in the war to date. Going into Iraq, he said his concept of war was mainly based on what he’d seen in the movies. “I probably had the same ideas about it as most any American has when you watch the movies [like] ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ ” he said. But in combat, things were much different for Bender, who would follow troops on raids with his 9mm in one hand and a camera in the other, balancing his job as a soldier and journalist. Months after coming home, watching clips of the footage he shot while in Iraq is still an emotional rollercoaster.
“As many times as I’ve watched it, it still speeds my heart up, you know?” he said. “It gives me chills.”
Now that so much of what he shot has ended up online, Bender is proud but a bit conflicted. “I guess I’m happy,’ he said. “I didn’t shoot it to be like, ‘Hey look at me,’ and I hope it doesn’t come across that way. What I did put it together for was to show, I guess, originally, the families of those guys what they did, the kind of men that they were when they had to be that way. You can’t come home and explain to people. They would never tell the story that’s told on that tape.”
Marines Chad Peterson, 22 and Jason Shaw, 30, were happy to have Bender along to chronicle their battles and add to the history of the Iraq war, even as they shot their own footage for posterity. “I had a pouch on my gear where I could just pull [a digital camera] out real quick and keep my weapon there and be ready to fight,” Peterson explained.
Shaw described how, during the long hours of downtime, it was not unusual to see soldiers pecking away on their laptops using digital-editing software to piece together movies shot in combat. “The rest of us who aren’t video editors would stop by and say, ‘Awww, that is really cool,’ ” he said. “[They'd] have explosions [going off] in time with music and I was really impressed with their ability to edit this digital media right there in country … and then once we got back I started to see some of the finished products, and it was pretty awesome.”
Shaw said he feels these videos provide a kind of indisputable historical document. “If you have ever thought about a historical event that was kind of hard to conceive,” he said. “You are like, ‘Did that actually happen?’ You look at World War II and Vietnam and the Holocaust. It’s hard to image that those events actually look place because it’s just unbelievable. Even now, when I look back on some of the things we experienced, I’m like, ‘Man, did that really happen?’ And when I look back at those videos, occasionally I’m like, ‘That really happened,’ and it’s still hard to believe.”
For others, watching the viral Iraq videos has verged on an obsession, one that has impacted their home lives. Sergeant Adam Lingo, 28, has frequently tried to share some of the video he’s downloaded with his wife, Sasha, who has become concerned about how much time he spends screening the clips. Lingo said he first started seeking out Iraq videos because he missed being in there.
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“There’s a lot of guys that do miss Iraq,” he said. “There’s guys over there and you want to be part of the team. But once you come back you kind of want to share your experience with somebody. In a way I guess [it's] therapeutic. Everyone always thinks you’re going to go to Iraq and come back and you are just going to get on with your life and everything will be normal, and it just doesn’t work out that way. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Iraq.”
Like the other soldiers we talked to, Lingo said part of his reason for collecting the video is an attempt to explain his experience to friends and family.
“Making some of these videos and stuff has been one of the ways I can somehow show them,” he said. “If a picture is worth a thousand words … how much is a video worth, you know?”
Though he was disgusted by them, Lingo also watched a number of the Jihadist videos, to see what the enemy was doing and try to get an upper hand for his battalion, which lost 33 soldiers and was awarded 181 Purple Hearts for combatants wounded in action.
Coming home hasn’t been smooth for Lingo, including the common problems of adjusting back into civilian and home life and taking charge of a family that Sasha had been running while he was away. She said he’s sometimes on the computer eight or 10 hours a day.
“I don’t understand it,” she said. “I can’t understand it. I’ve never scrubbed brains out of my uniform. I’ve never watched somebody die … I’m just ready for it to be over, for the war to be over.”
For his part, Lingo is certain of one thing: He’s not going to show any of the videos to his young son, at least not until he’s older.
Don’t miss “Iraq Uploaded,” airing Friday at 8 p.m. ET on MTV and Overdrive.