YouTube sensations don't usually stick with you. Sometimes they stick around (cf: Bieber, Justin), but even the most successful viral videos rarely offer more than passing amusement. So why is it that, almost four months after first entering cyberspace, a video of members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division rocking out to Lady Gaga's "Telephone" while based in western Afghanistan is, for lack of a better word, haunting me?
On the surface, there's nothing particularly haunting about the video. It has all the hallmarks of a viral phenomenon: low budget, high enthusiasm, catchy soundtrack. There are hot young dudes, simple but delightful choreography and costumes that would likely win even the Haus of Gaga seal of approval.
But repeated viewings reveal something almost heartbreaking about the footage. The majority of it is shot in a plywood room with poured cement floors and trash bag curtains. With all the 21st century technology at our disposal, and news reports about "advanced" warfare techniques like drone strikes, it can be easy to forget that the humans actually fighting these wars are, for the most part, living in extremely basic conditions. Being all you can be is far from glamorous.
And, no matter how many times I watch this video, the youth of the soldiers never fails to surprise me. Most are younger than the extremely youthful pop star (Gaga is 24) they're emulating—and their futures are far more precarious. Perhaps my reaction only proves my naïveté regarding the current state of war, but given that the main news Americans receive about our wars abroad is that we don't like to read news about these wars, I'm likely in good company.
Oddly enough, military music videos are apparently the one medium in which Americans don't mind encountering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The "Telephone" video has over 5 million views, and YouTube is home to dozens of other examples of this meme. You can watch Marines rocking out to more Gaga (this time it's "Just Dance"), soldiers in Iraq paying homage to classic Vanilla Ice, and cadets in the more comfortable surroundings of the Air Force Academy taking on Ke$ha's "Tik Tok," among many others.
These videos may not be as "real" as the shaky camera footage of embedded reporters (most recently on view in Restrepo), but they somehow feel more immediate. Yes, movies like Restrepo and The Hurt Locker make a concerted effort to depict soldiers in their down time, goofing off—but there's the inevitable Heisenberg effect. Being acknowledged observers, we change the dynamic. But watching these videos, we get to be in on the joke. It's the closest many of us get to being allowed into the soldiers' world. And so watching a group of camo-clad soldiers pop, clown-car style, out of a Porta-Potty and lip sync to "Ice Ice Baby," while waving around AK-47s and dancing against the bleached, barren backdrop of their concrete-enclosed compound becomes unexpectedly compelling.
The descriptions accompanying many of these videos amplify both their charm and their pathos: "just because we are a group of military police doesnt mean we dont know how to have fun;" "the[y] were very bored so they wanted to entertain themselves;" "Marines trying to have some fun while in a War Zone." And that's the part that really hits home: these are kids in a war zone and, just like kids in far more carefree circumstances, all they want to do is have some fun. They're not creating these movies to make a statement or to explore what it means to be a soldier, but in their artless pursuit of fun, they tell us a lot about who they are and how they manage to keep going even in the face of unpopular wars and their own uncertain futures.
As is inevitable when anything hits the Internet and people are given free range to state their "opinions," there is plenty of comments-section noise about the homoeroticism of these videos "Don't ask, don't telephone" wrote one commenter on a Slate article about the "Telephone" sensation. What interests me about this is not whether the soldiers are in fact gay, (from high school locker rooms to army barracks, there's going to be an inevitable blurring of gender boundaries in single-sex environments) but that the forum for this debate exists in the first place. YouTube has created a novel space for self-expression and for the consumption of that self-expression. People everywhere can watch and discuss these videos and the topics surrounding them in a way we could never have previously. The number one comment on a Gawker post about the recent spate of soldier dance videos is in some ways the most telling: "Love these. Makes me wish there was youtube during WWII - my Granfathers had some great stories, and they could both DANCE, and now i think I know why."
Afghanistan and Iraq are, for many reasons, most definitely not our grandfathers' war. Unlike during World War II, we don't get our news from a handful of sources providing upbeat reports from the front. We get bombarded with a 24-hour news cycle that, like some perverse artificially intelligent organism, tells us what is and is not important. After the McChrystal Rolling Stone debacle, Secretary of Defense Gates issued a memo stating that the military has become "too lax, disorganized and in some cases flat-out sloppy in the way we engage with the press." While he wasn't talking about members of the Armed Forces becoming YouTube stars, it's evident that the military is anxious about the increasingly tricky job of maintaining a certain image in the Internet age. Being a soldier in this era of extraordinary connectedness has both its benefits and its drawbacks. Unlike the IDF soldiers who decided to commit their own Ke$ha interpretation to (digital) celluloid while on patrol in the West Bank, our soldiers aren't getting slapped on the wrists for their musical demonstrations. But it's unclear how much longer their freedom of expression will last.
The military has more important battles to attempt to win without taking on the extraordinarily pervasive popularity of social networks. But just in case they do, I recommend you get your fill of soldier music videos while you can. You might laugh, you might cry. And perhaps you'll even think about some of the other things those young men and women in uniform are facing over there.