War and the Web
Last week, to mark the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the filmmaker Robert Greenwald and his Brave New Foundation launched an online memorial to the more than 3,200 U.S. service members who have died since the war began in March 2003.
The Iraq Veterans Memorial, at iraqmemorial.org, is a montage of one-minute video tributes to the fallen, delivered by family, friends and comrades-in-arms.
The memorial is perhaps the most poignant example of the extent to which the war has played out on the Internet, particularly via online video. If Vietnam was the first “television war,” in which nightly newscasts flooded American living rooms with images of combat, Iraq is the first Web war, with bloggers, “citizen journalists” and often the troops themselves uploading raw feed from the battlefield.
In the past four years, the rise of video-sharing sites like iFilm and YouTube, along with the proliferation of devices for capturing amateur video, have provided a new medium for transmitting images of the war and its effects. IFilm's War Zone channel, with categories like “Explosions” and “Soldier Uploads,” is a clearinghouse for clips of IED attacks and battlefield diaries that don't make it to television.
Web video has also become a powerful tool for radical Islamists, who disseminate clips of sniper attacks and beheadings as international jihadist propaganda.
That's not to say the war has been absent from TV screens. According to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the news-monitoring service The Tyndall Report and a Broadcasting & Cable contributing editor, Iraq coverage was the top story on the broadcast networks' nightly newscasts in 2006. And the networks have recognized last week's milestone with exceptional reporting, like ABC World News' “Where Things Stand” series and NBC News correspondent Richard Engel's War Zone Diaries on MSNBC.
Television news has reported on the human cost of the war as well. But it has struggled to walk the line between human interest and editorializing. Too often, news organizations are hesitant to report discouraging stories about Iraq for fear of being perceived as biased against the war. Even a simple roll call of the fallen aired by Nightline nearly three years ago was criticized by supporters of the war and preempted by several ABC affiliates.
Greenwald is an outspoken critic of the war. But the reminiscences collected in his memorial are utterly free of rants and sloganeering. “He was a hero long before he was killed in the war,” one mother says of her son.
“If the primary media were doing this kind of thing on a daily basis, there would be no need for this kind of memorial,” says Greenwald. Web video offers “a unique form,” he says. “There's an intimacy you can have, where people who are not trained professionals can contribute and have a chance to talk about their loved ones.”
But mainstream television is a unique form, too, because it has immediate national impact. Television news organizations should be inspired by the Iraq Veterans Memorial to tell more stories of those who gave their lives in this war—and those who have been left behind.