By Louise Roug
15 March, 2005
Baqubah , Iraq
When Pfc. Chase McCollough went home on leave in November,
he brought a movie made by fellow soldiers in Iraq. On his first night
back at his parents' house in Texas, he showed the video to his fiancee,
family and friends.
This is what they
saw: a handful of American soldiers filmed through the green haze of
night-vision goggles. Radio communication between two soldiers crackles
in the background before it's drowned out by a heavy-metal soundtrack.
your forgiveness," the song by the band Dope begins as images unfurl:
armed soldiers posing in front of Bradley fighting vehicles, two women
covered in black abayas walking along a dusty road, a blue-domed mosque,
a poster of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr. Then, to the fast, hard beat
of the music "Die, don't need your resistance. Die, don't
need your prayers" charred, decapitated and bloody corpses
fill the screen.
a trophy, something to keep," McCullough, 20, said back at his
cramped living quarters at Camp Warhorse near Baqubah. "I was there.
I did this."
Film cameras arrived
at the front during World War II, but soldiers didn't really document
their own combat experience until the Vietnam War. (The technology didn't
lend itself to amateur moviemaking until the arrival of the smaller
Super 8 cameras.)
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.
"I have a lot
of pictures of dead Iraqis everybody does," said Spc. Jack
Benson, 22, also stationed near Baqubah. He has collected five videos
by other soldiers and is working on his own.
By adding music,
soldiers create their own cinema verite of the conflict. Although many
are humorous or patriotic, others are gory, like McCollough's favorite.
"It gets the
point across," he said. "This isn't some jolly freakin' peacekeeping
discretion to establish regulations concerning photography on base,
but common-sense rules apply, an Army spokesman said. Images that threaten
operational security such as pictures of military installations
or equipment are not allowed.
Before being deployed
to Iraq, some Marines were told they could not take pictures of detainees,
dead or wounded Iraqis or American casualties. But photographs and videos
of dead and maimed Iraqis proliferate.
bother you so much taking pictures of the guy who was just shooting
at you," McCullough said. He added that he hadn't seen any pictures
of dead U.S. soldiers. "It's just a little too morbid, a little
too close to home."
On the bases where
Benson and McCullough live, the Army regularly searches soldiers' quarters
for drugs, alcohol and pornography as part of what it calls health and
safety inspections. But searching personal laptops would infringe on
soldiers' privacy, said Capt. Douglas Moore, a judge advocate general
officer with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Warhorse. Besides, if this
brand of filmmaking breaks rules, they're of a different kind.
"It's in poor
taste," Moore said, "kind of sick."
McCullough was surprised that his favorite video was disturbing to his
loved ones back in Texas.
"You find out
just how weird it is when you take it home," said McCullough, whose
screensaver is far more benign, showing him on his wedding day.
then his fiancee and now his wife, said she had walked in as he was
showing the videos to friends who were "whooping and hollering."
was shocked by images of "body parts missing, bombs going off and
people getting shot."
she said by phone from Texas. "Chase never talked about anything
over there, and I watch the news, but not all the time. I didn't realize
there was that much" violence.
She also wondered
why anyone would record it.
it was odd a home video," she said. "People getting
shot and someone sitting there with a camera."
his father, a naval reserve captain, had told him, " 'You know,
this isn't normal.'
pretty shocked," he said. "They didn't realize this is what
Daniel Nelson, a
professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine,
said he understood the disconnect.
"I'm not surprised
about this it's a new consciousness that we're beginning to see,"
he said, comparing the videos to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photographs.
"What happens in this situation, the culture is endorsing something
that would be prohibited in another context stateside."
What seems disrespectful
or a trivialization is also a way for soldiers to distance themselves
from the trauma, he said, which says: "I don't want to see what
I've done or experienced as real."
The creation of
videos resembles what Nelson has seen in his work with traumatized children
and Vietnam veterans, he said.
"How do we
create the story about our lives?" he asked. "Part of the
healing process is for them to create a narrative, to organize an emotional
story that allows them to get a handle on it."
chairman of the film studies program at Brandeis University and author
of "Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture and World War
II," called the videos an authentic diary of the war.
the disconnect between the front-line soldier and the sheltered home
front," he said. "It's a World War II ethos: You don't bring
After watching the
video, Doherty said, "Of course you're struck by the gruesomeness
of the carnage, but it's a wide range of images."
He went on to praise
"the contra-punctual editing the beat of the tune and the
flash of the images," calling it "a very slick piece of work."
"The MTV generation
goes to war," he said. "They should enter it at Sundance."
In another 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.
James Ross, senior
legal advisor for Human Rights Watch, called it "disturbing that
soldiers are making videos like that." But he added, "It doesn't
mean that it's necessarily a violation of the Geneva Convention."
The Geneva Convention
instructs that remains of deceased shall be respected and not "exposed
to public curiosity," Ross said. "It's not putting heads on
spikes and things like that. To argue you can't photograph [a body]
would be a bit of a stretch."
sell footage from the war.
fight in the streets of Baghdad, looting, lawlessness," is how
clips are advertised on efootage.com. A Las Vegas-based company, Gotfootage.com,
offers $50 and $100 clips that include older footage of Saddam Hussein,
Jessica Lynch, aerial bombardment and "sooooo many bombs."
The site also advertises video showing an Iraqi fuel truck being destroyed
by U.S. bombs during the invasion in March 2003.
advertises, "GrouchyMedia.com is the place to find those pump-you-up-to-kill-the-bad-guys
videos everyone has been talking about."
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.
with the guys," he said. "I don't think my mom would care
to see any of these videos."
who wouldn't give his name, said the bloody videos disgusted him.
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.
yourself down to their level," he said. "Why would you do
A poster for the video game "Grand Theft Auto" is pinned to
the door of McCullough's room at Camp Warhorse.
Watching the home
videos gives him a different perspective on combat, he said. Details
are missed in the heat of battle, and the military "could use it
as a tool, kind of like how they do it with high school football."
His roommate, 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,' " he said. "To us, it's
no different than watching a movie."
Copyright 2005 Los