Channel Offers Unusual Takes On War, Courtesy Of Soldiers On The Front Lines

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Washington Post
March 22, 2007
Pg. B1

Soldiers submit video clips from their service in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Military Channel, part of the Discovery Channel. The clips represent a wide range of life on the front line -- soldiers in battle, goofing around in their off time, taking target practice.
By Jackie Spinner, Washington Post Staff Writer
The footage is raw, jerky and crude. In one clip, two American soldiers wrestle, one so skinny he barely has a chance. He is easily flipped to the floor, to the laughter of his buddies. In another, a mortar goes off near a guard tower, and the camera is suddenly still as soldiers abandon filming to defend their position against the repeated shuddering blasts.
The video clips -- edited only for length and screened for operational security -- have been running every hour for about a month on the Military Channel, an outlet of Discovery Communications Inc. available through digital and satellite television. Called "Voices from the Front," the segments, about 45 to 50 seconds each, are culled from video recorded by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The clips offer viewers a look at how troops equipped with digital cameras and Internet access are recording their own tales of life at war, without the storytelling conventions imposed by journalists or historians. The troops want to show the American public that they are not just getting blown up, maimed and killed. More than their predecessors in past wars, these troops have the technology and the know-how to give a direct account of what their lives are like.
Viewers have seen troops boxing, blowing up explosives, dodging gunfire, driving through a sandstorm and hanging out at a swimming pool. These are striking and unusual glimpses of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which are in their fifth and sixth years, respectively.
In one video segment, an unidentified soldier talked about fear.
"To be honest with you, I never thought I'd be doing something like this," he said. "You go out and you train and it never hits you. It doesn't even hit you when you get on the plane to come over here. It hits you when you get in your first fight -- reality."
Sgt. Robert Waples of the Maryland Army National Guard's 115th Infantry Regiment, who is a Charles County sheriff's deputy, has sent in three video clips he recorded during a tour of duty in Iraq with a camera his wife gave him. One was a video will for his family; he positioned himself in front of an American flag and told his wife and three daughters that if they were watching, he had been killed. Another showed him getting dressed in battle gear.
In the third clip, the only one that has run on the channel, Waples recorded schoolchildren lined up in a dirt courtyard. Other soldiers from his unit were shown stringing barbed wire around the school, which was a polling place in Iraqi elections. At the end, Waples asked: "Hey, do you think we're making a difference for what you see over on the other side of the wall?" A fellow soldier answered, "I believe we are."
Waples, 32, was in Iraq from May 2005 to March 2006. He received a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in a roadside bombing. He goes to Walter Reed Army Medical Center three times a week for treatment for nerve damage to the right side of his head and for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Waples, who is writing a book about his experience, said he took the video footage to document his time in Iraq "just in case something happened to me." He called "Voices from the Front" truthful, gritty and uplifting. "It's important for soldiers to tell their story without the mainstream media having a hand in it," he said.
Waples said he is careful about what he submits. "I don't think people want to see a lot of blood and guts," he said. "That's the ugly side of war. The ugly part is part of the war. But I wouldn't stop to take a picture of something when the only thing I should be doing is raising my rifle and protecting my buddy's back."
The channel's main audience is men, military buffs, and service members and their friends and families. It reaches about 45 million households nationwide through satellite and digital TV but is generally not available through basic cable.
David Zaslav, chief executive officer of Silver Spring-based Discovery, predicted that the audience for the video clips will grow. "A lot of it is silly, but it gives you a sense of what life is like," he said.
Jason Morgan, 33, a former Army specialist from West Virginia, submitted a video of soldiers buying goods in a market. It was one of the first segments to air on the channel.
"I just feel with mainstream media, they are only showing the bombs, the negative stuff," said Morgan, who was in Iraq from February 2004 to February 2005. "But all the kids were so grateful to see us. Everybody was really polite."
Since the debut of the segments Feb. 15, the Military Channel has received hundreds of submissions from troops who served or are still serving in the war zones. About five clips arrive every day, and the channel airs eight original segments every 24 hours. Troops can upload their videos -- most taken from digital or cellphone cameras -- directly through the Military Channel Web site. They must provide their names and ages, which TV producers verify. All submissions are sent to the military for clearance.
Master Sgt. Lisa Beth Snyder, in charge of an Army public affairs unit in Los Angeles, reviews clips that soldiers submit. Of 100 she has seen, Snyder said, she has rejected about 10 -- "just to make sure security is maintained."
Bill Smee, vice president of current affairs programming for Discovery, said the videos give a full picture of the daily military experience.
"It's a window into the lives of these troops," he said. "We want it to be a blend. The idea behind this is to make them unfiltered and raw, not to be heavy-handed."
Smee said the segments offer an alternative to other war coverage. "You are struck that there's a human dimension that's lost in the normal coverage of the war," he said. "Some of it is blowing off steam. To me, that's what is surprising. It's not just adrenaline and exhaustion."
Deborah Scranton, director of "The War Tapes," an award-winning documentary that uses video generated from troops in Iraq, said the U.S. public generally has no idea what their daily life is like. Her film will run April 19 on the Military Channel.
"In a way, everyone is sort of numbed out to the war," she said. "This kind of storytelling is effective in helping bridge the gap. The soldiers are trying to get people to understand. It's a human desire. We want someone to know how we live."