Extreme Cinema Verite
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.
“Don’t need 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.
“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, 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 mission.”
Commanders 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 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.
“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 wedding day.
Brandi McCullough, 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.”
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 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.”
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 the war.
“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 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.”
Several websites sell footage from the war.
“Militants 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.
Another website 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.
“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 beheadings.
“You bring yourself down to their level,” he said. “Why would you do that?”
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.”