From the frontlines of the war in Iraq to the political battleground of the 2006 midterm elections, the surge of online video has changed the dynamic. In both campaigns, a piece of tape can be quickly uploaded, and seen by tens of thousands of viewers in a matter of hours.
The war in Iraq "is the YouTube war," said Ana Marie Cox, Washington editor of Time.com. "It's a war where communication is instantaneous."
Soldiers in Iraq aren't just shooting weapons, they are shooting videos. Whether mounted on vehicles or carried to gather intelligence, cameras are rolling, and tape or digital images can easily be edited and uploaded from laptop computers.
On several Web sites, including YouTube, IFilm, Liveleak.com and Military.com, GreenMarines.com, videos shot (and sometimes edited) by soldiers or their friends and family back home are being downloaded over and over. Both the soldiers and the people who monitor the Web sites say that the videos offer a raw, first-hand view of the war.
"It's not a perspective you usually get when you're watching the nightly news," said Marine Cpl. Scott Lyon, who spent seven months in Iraq stationed in Ramadi. He and many members of his platoon carried cameras when they went out on missions.
Much of what was shot shows the routine of daily life. But some of it is much more graphic, like an improvised explosive device detonating on a routine patrol. "It doesn't capture exactly what it feels like to go through that, but it's pretty close," said Lyon, who is now back home in Iowa.
"War is horrendous, and I think that it is important for us to see that," said Jeff Jarvis, of BuzzMachine.com and an associate professor at City University of New York's graduate journalism school. "The danger is that we're going to become addicted to scenes of horror, and I don't think we can bear that, but we also can't hide from it."
Some might question whether soldiers should be shooting and uploading video, but Torie Clarke, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and one of the architects of Pentagon policy embedding reporters on the frontlines, believes it is a positive development. And she says soldiers are just doing what thousands of other people in the country are: using the Internet as a tool of expression.
"I don't think you can put the military in a separate category in that sense of how free people feel about putting themselves into the spotlight," said Clarke. "There is a need, there is a desire to tell people back home, whoever they might be and wherever they might be, 'Here's what's going on, here's what's going on in my life.'"
"It's clearly important to want to have that known what your experience is," said Cox. "It makes you feel connected to the rest of the world; it makes you feel like what you're doing has a purpose."
While many of the videos show graphic scenes of combat, some are much more lighthearted, like "Lazy Ramadi," a take-off on the popular Saturday Night Live rap video, "Lazy Sunday."
"There's a kind of loop effect here," said Cox. "Kids grow up watching MTV. They grow up with video games and violence on television. They go to Iraq. It seems like a natural thing to film it. And they film it in an almost MTV style sometimes. Some of these videos get uploaded complete with music."