The Eye of the Soldier
- Armed with digital cameras, GIs in Iraq shoot battle footage and
edit it into music videos packed with death and destruction.
In the Eye of the Soldier
Los Angeles Times
BAQUBAH, March 13, 2005 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
"Don't need your forgiveness," the song by the band Dope begins as
images unfurl: armed soldiers posing in front of Bradley tanks, 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.
"It's like 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, among
other things, it also finds its way to personal computers and
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'
Commanders on the ground have 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
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
"It doesn't 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
Brandi McCullough, then his fiancee and now his wife, said she
walked in as he was showing the videos to friends who were "whooping
The 18-year-old was shocked by images of "body parts missing, bombs
going off and people getting shot."
"They're terrifying," 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.
"I thought it was odd a home video," she said. "People getting
shot and someone sitting there with a camera."
McCullough said his father, a naval reserve captain, had told
him, " 'You know, this isn't normal.'
"They were pretty shocked," he said. "They didn't realize this is
what we see."
Daniel Nelson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of
Cincinnati School of Medicine, said he understands 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
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."
Thomas Doherty, 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
"There's always 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 it home."
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
"The MTV generation goes to war," he said. "They should enter it at
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
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."
Several websites sell footage from the war.
"Militants fight in the streets of Baghdad, looting, lawlessness,"
is how clips are advertised on efootage.com. Gotfootage.com, a Las
Vegas-based company, 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.
Another website advertises, "GrouchyMedia.com is the place to find
those pump-you-up-to-kill-the-bad-guys videos everyone has been
Spc. Scott Schroder, a gunner with Task Force 2-63, wouldn't show
what he describes 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."
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
"You bring 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 Lafyatte,
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."
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