Soldiers' pictures raise debate on security and reality of war.
By PATRICK HOGE
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
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.
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, 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 avengerredsix.blogspot.com/.
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 away."
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 military.