BAGHDAD – 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 a YouTube channel offering what it calls a boots-on-the-ground perspective. 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 Web sites, the footage is turning up on popular video-sharing sites such as YouTube and LiveLeak.
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 Web sites,” 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 Iraq reporting that focuses 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.”
The YouTube channel is a way to get some other stories told by linking directly to a generation that gets its news from multiple sources, Garver said.
Even on a relatively quiet day, footage of soldiers handing soccer balls to delighted Iraqi children is unlikely to be featured 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.”
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 Web site 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.”
The military says its channel provides an “unfiltered perspective” on the war, but any footage posted is 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 gunbattle in Haifa Street, a notorious insurgent enclave in the middle of Baghdad.
A clip of U.S. soldiers shooting out a window at gunmen hidden in the surrounding buildings already has 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.”
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.
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 troops in the field.