Screencap: Christopher Looft

The WorldStar of War Porn

Christopher Looft

On YouTube, “war porn” videos fetch millions of views. What are they doing to mental health?

Screencap: Christopher Looft

The GoPro is the most popular camcorder in the United States. Through its videos you can inhabit the eyes and ears of anyone: a skydiver, a cat, or, if you really want to, one person killing another.

Just as the earliest cameras of the mid-19th century were dragged onto the battlefields of the Crimean War, so the GoPro ended up in Iraq and Afghanistan, mounted on the helmets and rifle barrels of soldiers. The GoPro has made the combatant, not the correspondent, the main chronicler of war, giving the average viewer a closer look at the realities of combat than ever before merely by browsing YouTube.

When I tried a line like that on T.M. Gibbons-Neff, a two-time Marine combat veteran and Washington Post staff writer, he said I was dressing up something much simpler. "'War porn' would be the word," he said.

And if you're looking for war porn, the place to find it is Funker530.

***

The so-called "veterans' community" Funker530 is comprised of a website and a YouTube channel loaded with first-person recordings of airstrikes, special operations firefights, and near-miss IED explosions.

A typical Funker530 video is watermarked and features a cheesy digital intro like in the infamous street fight compilations of the video site WorldStarHipHop. Weapons stick out from the bottom of the frame, carried by the unseen cameraman. The GoPro's 170-degree lens creates a mild fisheye effect, also known as "barrel distortion," echoing a family of language merging the camera with the gun: you load a camera with film, it takes shots, and so on.

These videos are wildly popular. One, in which the US Army soldier filming from a hillside in Afghanistan is shot multiple times by insurgents far off in the distance, has been viewed 30 million times.

"From the outside looking in, it probably looks pretty weird," Gibbons-Neff said of the phenomenon. "But from every guy in that kind of business who looks at these videos because they've had similar experiences, like, they could care less."

He added: "I don't know what these things do for mental health."

It's hard to tell what, exactly, Funker530's president Scott Funk thinks about the impact of all this war porn on mental health, because he almost never talks to reporters. Several emails and phone calls went unanswered, and when I finally reached him at a number affiliated with a separate business and identified myself, he said only, "Yes," before hanging up and rejecting all subsequent calls.

However, the popularity of the videos suggests they may have a therapeutic effect for war fighters. Funker530 taps into the narrative of trauma that has coalesced around the modern veteran's experience; trapped in a war ever after leaving the battlefield, feeling out of place outside of it. In an essay headlined "You Are Not Alone," Funker530 blogger "Josh" (no last name) addresses the archetypal devastated veteran:

You did your time and now you're left wondering. How did I get here? How was I capable of so much, yet now I am unable to do anything? Why am I at this dead end? One paycheck bleeds to the next. Your day starts at six, ends at six – wash, rinse, repeat. Nothing seems fulfilling, life's forward progress has halted. Staring into the mirror you look down those woeful thousand yards into your own soul and ask: "What has happened to me? What is wrong with me? Why do I feel like my life is the end of Rambo: First Blood? Why am I lying on the floor remembering every terrible second of my life?"

The easy availability of these videos recalls a leading method for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. In Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy, patients methodically re-create the source of their trauma in a controlled setting, dismantling over time the association between the experience and an unhealthy stress reaction.

Some clinicians now use virtual reality simulations as an aid in PE-based treatments, digitally remodeling combat scenarios for traumatized veterans. Funker530 is also listed as a sponsor of the PTSD awareness site Military Minds. Could the hugely popular videos of Funker530 be making their own ad-hoc contribution to the easing of veterans' trauma?

Two leading PTSD experts take very different views, emphasizing the potential of these videos to stir controversy.

"They're missing 99 percent of what goes into that moment: the ten-klick patrol with 90 pounds on your back, and then, in the last eight minutes you're getting rocked by a complex ambush when you've drank all your water... You just, yeah. You miss everything."

Rachel Yehuda, an Israeli-born Mount Sinai Hospital neuroscientist, said the videos could be helpful, an opportunity for veterans to initiate themselves into PE therapy by sampling it themselves.

"If it did make you feel good," she said, "you might want to know there are a lot of psychological treatments that really use exposure as their basis, and you might be a candidate for those kind of treatments. Especially if you find you're getting a little better, but not fully better."

Yehuda cautioned, though, that these images could just as soon worsen trauma for other patients, and that the guidance of a clinician is always helpful. "I'm an advocate for choice," she said, "and I'm an advocate for the fact that we have to have a lot of choices, with the full recognition that what one PTSD sufferer may respond to, may not work for someone else."

Yehuda's point is that as long as veterans are careful about the media they consume, there could be benefits to watching YouTube videos of people shooting stuff.

The psychologist who invented PE therapy and revolutionized the treatment of PTSD disagrees. Edna Foa, a fellow Israeli and University of Pennsylvania professor who pioneered the approach in the 1970s, said that while Funker530's brand of immersive war videos does resemble PE, the similarities are only superficial; the videos can't offer any clinical benefit, she said, because patients undergoing true PE therapy must relive their own traumatic memories in the company of a mental health professional.

"It's utterly not under our control, how they do it. So they can watch one at a time, getting the upsetting experiences without any way of titrating it, or grounding it," she said, referring to the safety measures that clinical practitioners follow.

I suggested to Foa that combat might not only represent horror and trauma for veterans. Many have some positive memories of combat. As Yehuda put it in an interview with Sebastian Junger for Vanity Fair, "It's the most important thing someone has ever done—especially since these people are so young when they go in—and it's probably the first time they're ever free, completely, of their societal constraints. They're going to miss being entrenched in this very important and defining world."

Foa doesn't see it that way: "You're not talking about shots of the museum in Baghdad, or the beautiful scenery on the river. You're talking about combat shots," she said. "You're talking about horrific, or if not horrific, bad, negative situations. So I, as a psychologist, as a human being, I don't see... it reminds me of the people that were sitting hours and hours near the television and watching the World Trade Center's dismantling. I don't know in what way that is helpful."

Of course, there are plenty of reasons one might watch these videos. Gibbons-Neff said he looked at war porn when he got bored studying Chinese history at Georgetown, for example.

Funk himself talked to the Washington Post once, in 2013, on the condition of anonymity out of what he called concerns for his own safety. It's easy to understand his media shyness. In a comment on Reddit, the user FunkerFiveThreeZero, who writes that he served with the Canadian military in Afghanistan, describes being inundated with media requests after posting his most popular video, the one with 30 million views. Wary of a hit piece, he granted only a single interview, to an ABC News interviewer on the condition that the piece would focus on his PTSD awareness charity. Instead, he was bombarded with "attack questions." The piece never ran.

Paulo Rubio, who ran another site, Funker Tactical Media, alongside Funk, said in an email that they split last year, stemming from a disagreement about "monetizing combat footage and leveraging that popularity to make money from corporations."

The Washington Post's Greg Jaffe cited estimates in 2013 that a YouTube channel with the reach of Funker530 could make some $150,000 a year, consistent with figures from the YouTube advertising analytics tool VidIQ that suggest a video with a million views earned some $1,585. Funker530 has 353 videos uploaded, and has garnered some 278 million views.

Gibbons-Neff said he doesn't have a problem with Funk making a little money off Funker530. "Obviously they deal in images that are pretty disturbing to the average viewer, but I think the guys who watch that stuff for some kind of release, I think it probably does some kind of good," he said.

But for whatever good they do, they're incomplete; most are just a few minutes long, limiting their power to convey much more than the quick emotional punch of combat, when war is comprised of so many other types of experiences. As Gibbons-Neff said, "they're missing 99 percent of what goes into that moment: the ten-klick patrol with 90 pounds on your back, and then, in the last eight minutes you're getting rocked by a complex ambush when you've drank all your water, you know what I mean? You just, yeah. You miss everything."

The fact that such a small part of the wartime experience is presented so vividly drives a basic misunderstanding of warfare, said Alex Horton, an Army veteran and freelance writer on national security issues. "You kind of throw the excess out," he said, "and it reinforces the idea that once you're off the plane, you're under fire, and you don't stop firing your weapon until you get back on the plane. Which is not the case, of course."

The videos do offer a seemingly authoritative vision of war, or at least its most emotionally charged, climactic moments, but for reasons of both economy—chiefly, the economy of the viewers' attention—and politics, they continue to be compromised by various forms of mediation.

The creator of one, titled "U.S. Soldiers Eliminate Three Taliban Fighters During Ambush," wrote to Funker530 in accompaniment with his submission:

*I wanted to share the video with the world because I was sick of hearing all the ignorant things said about what we are doing over there. People need to understand what it's like on the ground for the troops on the front line, and see what we have to deal with on a daily basis without some political spin on the story. This footage has been edited to exclude the close up graphic footage of the enemy KIA. *

The soldier-photographer implies here that the verisimilitude offered by the GoPro format, and the fact that the he himself is the chronicler of his own experience, allows the viewer to transcend the limitations inherent in the news media's retelling of such an incident.

It's plainly apparent, though, that the excision of enemy dead is its own form of mediation, even when this excision only takes place due to the exercise of something like good taste. But Funk himself said in his Reddit post that "It's also a breach of opsec to show details of dead or injured enemy combatants, and I prefer to stay in the Military's good books."

Despite their shared commitment, at least on paper, to mental health, Funk is not in the good books of Edna Foa, the pioneer of prolonged exposure therapy: "It makes me sick. Without doing a study, to validate that they really are helpful? I did not disseminate PE until I did several studies to show that it worked. So, I mean, selling it and saying that it's for the good of…," she said, trailing off for a moment before gathering herself.

"It's sickening."