San Francisco Chronicle
Soldiers download war onto Web sites
Postings range from family communication to graphic battle images
Patrick Hoge, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005
During the November assault on Fallujah, tank platoon leader 1st Lt.
Neil Prakash watched in awe as heavy U.S. artillery blew Iraqi fighters
into the air.
"Each explosion sent three, four or five terrorists up into the sky.
K-k- r-r-BOOM. K-k-r-r-BOOM. K-k-r-r-BOOM,'' Prakash wrote in his
multimedia online diary, titled "Armor Geddon.'' "You never expect to
see bodies do that. So when you see it, it feels surreal.''
Prakash's unvarnished account on the Blogger Web site, which includes
photographs of tanks and flares lighting up a night battle, highlights
the sophisticated torrent of digital data that U.S. soldiers in Iraq
are sending home via e-mail or posting on Internet hosting sites,
including at least two in the Bay Area.
The visual displays have aroused debate over whether some of the images
should be displayed publicly. The photographs range from
travelogue-style shots showing soldiers posing in front of military
equipment to graphic videos of mortal combat that have not been
broadcast on mainstream television or printed in newspapers.
About 100,000 photos taken in Iraq have been posted in the past two
years at Smugmug.com, based in Mountain View, said Chris MacAskill,
founder of the free photo file-sharing site. Many of the images have
been downloaded from the front lines while others have been brought to
the states and uploaded here, he said.
It has never been easier for soldiers to communicate with friends,
family and the public in such an unmediated fashion. They can buy
digital cameras at base stores, use free Internet service that the
military provides them or sign on at cyber cafes in Iraq.
Prakash, 24, of Syracuse, N.Y., said in an e-mail from Iraq that his
posts on Blogger, which is owned by Google of Mountain View, are a
personal journal but also depict the reality of war to those who "have
no idea what this stuff is like." His site is
Smugmug user Christi Norman, who lives in Washington state, marveled at
the instantaneous communication she has carried on with her fiance, who
is stationed in Iraq.
"One of the pictures he took while we were talking via IM (instant
messaging) and I was able to see it immediately,'' she said via e-mail.
"It's just a nice way to remember and feel close to a loved one far
Some soldiers use the photographs to show the troops in a positive
light, posing with Iraqi children.
"I felt the need to show some of the good things and the day-to-day
activities we were accomplishing as soldiers in Iraq,'' said Sgt. Billy
Sutherland, who uses Smugmug. "In the press they wrote daily on death,
destruction and mayhem, but seldom about good things.''
But the profusion of unfiltered information, particularly photographs,
has also produced some uncomfortable situations for the U.S. military,
notably the Abu Ghraib scandal that erupted after photographs of
prisoner abuses were leaked to news reporters.
Last month, photos that were uploaded to Smugmug by the wife of a Navy
SEAL produced a new firestorm after they were discovered by an
Associated Press reporter, whose coverage suggested they could depict
another example of prisoner abuse.
"Here's a case of someone who clearly didn't intend for her photos to
be discovered and used as they were,'' MacAskill said.
The Navy has said it is investigating the circumstances around the
taking of the photos, which the wife had thought were protected from
public view. Six Navy SEALs have sued the AP for reproducing the images
without obscuring their faces.
A Pentagon spokesman said information about "military matters, national
security issues or subjects of significant concern to the Department of
Defense shall be reviewed for clearance by appropriate security review
and public affairs offices prior to release.'' But a Defense Department
spokeswoman said the military does not conduct prior review of
information that soldiers send out of Iraq via the Internet.
"You can't control information now. It's just out there, directly from
troops,'' said Chris Michel, chief executive officer of Military.com, a
free Web site aimed at providing information and news about the
Michel's company receives many unsolicited e-mails, photographs and
videos from the front lines, such as an ambush on a convoy or a
troop's-eye view of the combat in Fallujah, with profanity-laced
dialogue between soldiers and lots of shooting.
A video posted Dec. 9 shows an Iraqi man firing an automatic weapon and
being blown up by a tank round. It was provided by a soldier who did
not give details about the incident.
"This stuff is really getting around,'' said Ho Lin, site editor of
Military.com, who has declined to publish images such as video of a
helicopter shooting a wounded Iraqi, or heads "split open like melons''
One high-ranking general asked Michel to remove photographs of the
capture of Saddam Hussein that a soldier secretly sent to a
Military.com columnist. The company refused, and Michel said that was
the last he heard of it.
The military has cracked down at times, as it apparently did late last
month in the case of a military doctor who had chronicled the bloody
aftermath of the suicide bombing of a mess tent. Maj. Michael Cohen, a
doctor with the 67th Combat Support Hospital unit, wrote that he'd been
ordered by "levels above me'' to shut down his Web site. Military
officials declined to comment.
"I certainly disagree with this,'' Cohen wrote. "However, I have made a
decision to turn off the site pending further investigation as to
whether or not I have violated these Army Regulations.''
E-mail Patrick Hoge at [log in to unmask]
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