What do you get when you combine user-generated content, the military and prime time television? The new documentary series "My War Diary," that's what.
"My War Diary," which premiered last May on the Military Channel, is made by and for the men and women serving on the war front. Unlike previous attempts to document wartime experiences, this series incorporates the stories with footage, personal accounts and even rap videos created by those serving on the front lines in Iraq.
The show's executive producer, Eric Schotz, insists that what separates "My War Diary" from the pack is its authenticity.
"Our show is about putting clips in context so you know where they came from, who shot them, and what was on each side of the clip," he said. "It doesn't matter whether you're for the war or against the war, this is from a perspective that you usually don't see. It's shot by the people who are serving in Iraq."
The clips, which are submitted over the Internet as well as through soldiers' families, cover a wide range of topics and emotions -- from the comical to the terrifying to the awe-inspiring. Each episode provides a different perspective on the war in Iraq, adding a new dimension to perceptions of the conflict.
"What makes this show unique is that we're looking at the first war shot in the digital age," said Schotz. "The videos from this war are the equivalent of the letters that were sent home from World War II and Vietnam."
But unlike the letters from previous conflicts, these videos are making their way to the Internet and TV, to be viewed by hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of people, giving civilians a sense of the war from the Americans who live it every day.
"The one thing is, no matter what people feel about this particular war, nobody really has any disdain for the soldiers that are serving. And I think that is the most incredible and powerful part of this -- you see a side to real people in extremely stressful situations [who show] dignity and grace and a sense of humor," said Schotz.
From Dancing to Dust Storms
Despite the show's controversial subject matter, Schotz said that "My War Diary" does not attempt to make a political statement. Schotz goes so far as to dub the series apolitical.
"I completely disagree with the statement that ["My War Diary"] is a sanitized version or a valentine," he said. "The idea that we're tying to say this is a good war or this is a bad war is absolutely ridiculous. I think people watch this show and, on each side of that debate, both sides like the program, because it supports what they say."
Schotz admitted that even the military community is divided in its opinion of the show, calling the show's reception "wildly mixed."
"I think that there's part of the military that likes it, and I think there's part of it that doesn't like it. I think that's old guard and new guard," he said. "You're seeing something that the Department of Defense has not experienced before, where you have a war being fought by people who have grown up surrounded by the Internet culture. They don't know any different. These people were born on MySpace, basically. And I think that you're seeing something that uses the technology that the people have grown up with and you're seeing it used from their point of view."
Despite its critics, Schotz said, "the military has been great at giving [the show] access," and allowing the show to air segments that get at the heart of the Iraq experience for many American servicemen and women.
Featuring such episodes as a hilarious rap video and a dance montage set to a Billy Idol's hit "Dancing With Myself," as well as terrifying firefights and disorienting dust storms, "My War Diary" speaks to the polarized nature of life in a war zone.
One of the most memorable clips the show received was from a soldier who attached a small camera to his shoulder so he could show his wife at home what was going on.
In the midst of a routine walk-through, the soldier's platoon came under fire. The camera captured everything from the ear-splitting sound of the bullets whizzing through the air to his fellow soldiers taking cover from their attacker behind a wall to the eventual capture of the attacker and the discovery of a sizable weapons cache.
Other episodes, such as the remake of the music video "Hey Ya!" by the crew of the USS Lincoln and a rap called "Lazy Ramadi," performed by two soldiers stationed in that volatile city, aim to entertain their families and their fellow soldiers as well as bring their companies and platoons together through laughter.
In the end, Schotz characterized "My War Diary" as a cross between YouTube and the nightly news.
He hopes "My War Diary" will lead the way in creating a new genre of television show.
"I think there's a place for a new kind of news that you see every day," he said. "You have to have the CNNs, the ABCs, the NBCs out covering this war showing things, questioning and doing all those things that they're supposed to do. But I think there's a place for a program like this that can come along and say, 'Hey, here's my point of view.'"