An Unvarnished View of War, Perched on a Helmet

Hands bloodied from clawing dirt and rock, a band of United States servicemen battle rubble and time to free their friends trapped under a collapsed mud-wall building on the Afghan frontier. In the flying dust a digger waves and utters a noise that catches above the rattle of radios and helicopter engines. We converge on his spot and dig on our knees, fumbling against double fistfuls of dried mud infused with hay and sheet plastic. Someone yells, “He’s the last one, hurry up!”

More shouts, and more hands pull against the wreckage, and soon an olive-drab cocoon — a sleeping bag — appears in the debris. A soldier wrist-flicks open his knife, subdued and serrated, and slices the Gore-Tex skin, the utility blade suddenly a scalpel. The incision reveals a soldier, clean and curled, in the fetal position. He looks asleep, but he’s not. He’s gone, sheltered in a womb of smashed bricks and beams, born into death. I realize he may not have awakened when his world closed in after the car bomb exploded and brought down the sun-dried blocks. The soldiers uncurl the teenager, still barefoot, and gently pull him from his sleeping bag, carry him to the row of his dead friends, and lay him down. The lone survivor sits next to the row, lights a cigarette and pats the dead boy’s cheek.

The rescue and recovery happened in front of me. I saw the soldiers crawling over the ruins, unearthing their brothers, with my own eyes. I felt the strain, sweat and grief. I saw the futility.

But I wasn’t on the ground in that lonely village. The footage came from a helmet camera one of the rescuers wore, and the real-time tragedy is just one example of many such videos that most Americans will probably never see.

A friend shared the clip with me just days after some other high-visibility and high-risk point-of-view videos swept the Internet: Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump and footage taken by Pfc. Ted Daniels of the Army of a firefight in Kunar Province.

Private Daniels’s clip appeared on a YouTube stream that claims to feature “the most amazing combat footage on YouTube” with more than 200 point-of-view videos purely from the coalition’s perspective. No mundane videos of forward-operating-base life reside here. The site explains that its goal “is to allow the public to see what it’s like on the ground from the soldier or Marine’s point of view” with a caveat: “This footage is to be taken as a documentary on the events of the war in Afghanistan and should be viewed as educational. This footage is not meant to glorify war or violence.”

This disclaimer acknowledges the fact that on certain levels these clips glorify war and violence. While some may argue that the material is merely a curse of the first-person-shooter video game generation, “war porn” that should be destroyed, others may see these videos as helping to close the gap in understanding between the 99 percent of Americans who have not served in the military during these wars and the 1 percent who have, and the even smaller percentage who have been involved in combat.

The intimacy of point-of-view footage renders fragments of war accessible. The video plunges viewers into alien situations, yet there is something familiar about how the camera moves…

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