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U.S. military offers up its side of the Iraq war on YouTube

Times Staff Writer

In one video, a U.S. soldier blasts insurgent gunmen with a heavy sniper rifle as the room fills with smoke. In another, members of an Iraqi family throw their arms around soldiers, weeping and rejoicing, after learning that their kidnapped relative has been freed.

The U.S. military has opened a new front in the Iraq war: cyberspace.

Moving into a realm long dominated by Islamic militants, the military has launched its own YouTube channel offering what it calls a boots-on-the-ground perspective of the conflict. The move recognizes that the Internet is becoming a key battleground for public opinion at a time when domestic support for the war is dwindling.

Islamic militants use the Internet to promote themselves and recruit followers with videos of tearful hostages, exploding military vehicles and U.S. soldiers cut down by sniper fire. No longer confined to a few obscure websites, the footage is turning up on popular video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

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Now the U.S. military is offering up its side of the war. Available for download are blistering firefights across rooftops, nighttime raids filmed through the green glow of night-vision devices and a “precision strike” that wiped out an insurgent antiaircraft gun in a huge ball of fire.

“This effort was not designed to combat what ends up on extremist websites,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq. “But we understand that it is a battle space in which we have not been active, and this is a media we can use to get our story told.”

Military commanders have long complained about the “negative” slant of Iraq reporting, with its focus on the violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since U.S.-led forces invaded in March 2003.

“There are moments when there is no violence going on in Iraq,” Garver said. “Even Baghdad is a neighborhood-by-neighborhood story.... Unfortunately, news being news, you tend to get the car bomb of the day.”

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‘The soccer ball story’

The YouTube channel is a way to get other stories told by linking directly to a generation that gets its news from multiple sources, Garver said.

Even on a quiet day, footage of soldiers handing out soccer balls to Iraqi children is unlikely to feature on most newscasts. But, Garver said, “the soccer ball story is part of what is happening in Iraq ... and that needs to be recorded somewhere.”

Some YouTube viewers didn’t seem to realize how common a sight it is here.

“Maybe they should do this more often,” suggested one viewer, who logged on as lilspys456.

“How about everyday ... which is what they do,” snapped back NJRocks281.

The channel was the brainchild of the U.S. military’s “Web masters": Brent Walker and Erick Barnes, two former Marines contracted to maintain the Multi-National Force-Iraq website from a small office in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

“I think these clips humanize the war for a lot of people who only see statistics,” Walker said. “You see troops talking to each other. You hear the foot crunches. You see they are ordinary, everyday Americans.”

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The military says its channel provides an “unfiltered perspective” on the war, but any footage posted is carefully vetted to ensure it does not compromise the security of its troops and operations, violate laws or include excessively gory, disturbing or offensive material. Swearing is out, as is material that mocks U.S. and Iraqi troops and civilians.

In its first month, the channel was viewed more than 120,000 times and collected more than 1,900 subscribers.

The most popular video is of a gun battle in Haifa Street, an insurgent enclave in Baghdad.

A clip of U.S. soldiers shooting out a window at gunmen hidden in the surrounding buildings has already been featured on CNN and Fox News. But on YouTube, you can see the rest of the footage: Iraqi soldiers firing out the same window, underscoring a favorite U.S. message, that its forces stand side by side with their Iraqi counterparts.

The footage generated lively comments on YouTube. Many fixated on the size of the sniper rifle used by one U.S. soldier.

“Sweet! That .50 cal is not for the silent sniper,” enthused TrunkFunk.

Others wondered whether U.S. soldiers were now using AK-47s, prompting Walker to interject several times: “NOTE TO EVERYONE (because this has become a recurring misunderstanding): The troops using AK-47s in this clip are Iraqi Army Soldiers, not Americans. This was a joint operation.”

Debating the war

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But the clip also generated serious discussion between the war’s supporters and critics.

“Pretty disturbing to see that kid enjoying killing people, whatever they might be up to, or that comment about aiming a little higher next time -- makes you wonder what ‘collateral damage’ he may have caused to some grandmother when his aim was off,” said swede42.

To which superpimp8000 responded, “Look into the eyes of the Iraqi soldiers at the end. That is a man experiencing success at defending his country. We should finish this thing the right way and not leave people like that man hanging. Literally.”

If the comments are too rude or extreme, the military will take them off the site. But it is pleased that the footage is generating debate.

“That conversation is important,” Barnes said. “That’s why we use this media.”

This is not the first time the military has delved into the world of online video sharing. The U.S. Navy launched a YouTube channel in November, and the Army followed in February. But they served mostly as recruiting tools, and have drawn a fraction of the viewers of the Multi-National Force-Iraq channel, with its raw footage from the battlefront.

So far, the videos posted on the MNF-I channel have been shot by the military’s professional combat cameramen, as well as public affairs and Armed Forces Network teams. However, contributions have been solicited from the troops in the field.

Back in the U.S., many are posting their own video montages -- sometimes to the chagrin of the military command.

Last year, a video of a Marine singing his song, “Hadji Girl,” sparked outrage. The word Hadji refers to a Muslim who has made a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, but it is often used by U.S. troops as a pejorative term for Iraqis.

The song was about a U.S. soldier who falls in love with an Iraqi woman and is ambushed by her family when he is taken to meet them. The Marine, Cpl. Joshua Belile, was required to apologize.

“About every other month, we will get a call about some video on YouTube that shows questionable behavior by the troops,” Garver said. His section investigates each call.

“It has been frustrating,” he said. “There are 150,000 troops out here doing great work every day, but what you see is the one knucklehead who shot the three-legged dog and put it up on YouTube.... Well, here is our chance to show there are troops doing the right thing.”

zavis@latimes.com

On the Web: https://www.youtube. com/profile?user=MNFIRAQ


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