Videos recorded by Colombian soldiers in the frontlines have been increasingly published in YouTube since 2009. These videos can be found easily by searching for “Guerra en Colombia,” “Conflicto armado Colombiano,” “Combates en Colombia” or similar phrases (in both English or Spanish) that have the keywords of the country and the war. The YouTube search engine retrieves thousands of results after running these queries and the user can check out lists that expand through several pages. Since in the YouTube archive the categorization of the videos has been made by the users at the moment of uploading their audiovisual records, the results included in the lists are very diverse and they include professional, semi-professional, and non-professional videos uploaded and produced not only by ordinary users but also by governmental institutions, the military, the guerrillas (both FARC and ELN), independent journalists, mainstream media companies, ONGs, and, of course, soldiers. Such plurality of audiovisual records of the Colombian war reveals, on the one hand, that the networking media environment, and YouTube in particular, are supporting a more democratic construction of collective memory and expanding the communication capacity of an increasing number of people, especially the ones with digital skills and access to technology. On the other, it also reveals the limitations of YouTube as a disorganized archive where audiovisual records are decontextualized and lack a systematic classification.
Soldiers’ non-professional war have acquired more value in the global networked communication environment due to their unique capacity to “bear witness” real world events from a closer, subjective, and immediate perspective. These videos reveal aspects of war that have been taboo for the military and the media industries, and provide audiovisual evidence of extremely violent and gruesome first-hand experiences that otherwise would be hidden from public visibility. (Anden-Papadopoulos) The evidential and affective quality of non-professional videos of war is one of the reasons why these personal memories have become meaningful to networked publics and have been used to shape collective memories. As Kari Anden-Papadopoulos and Mervi Panti have pointed out, “journalists -as well as audiences- value amateur visuals for their perceived immediacy, authenticity and proximity (…) they constitute first-hand recordings by individuals who witnessed or experienced an event as it was actually happening.”(12) Online amateur videos mediate eye witnessing because they are perceived both by creators and viewers as first-hand testimonies and realistic depictions of unfolding events. However, because soldiers’ “media-witnessing” of war and its public circulation bypasses military, governmental, and mainstream media controls, it generates ethical challenges for digital war reporting. (Alper; Anden-Papadopoulos and Panti) The high emotional value of these videos sometimes obscures issues of truthfulness, accuracy, and fairness in favor of a personal point of view, untamed graphic content, and proximity to the violent action. Hence, some of these memories can disrupt official narratives of war and shock publics with their audiovisual records (e.g. USA soldiers photographs of Abu Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse).
In order to understand the multiple meanings of the YouTube videos of war recorded by Colombian soldiers it is necessary to contextualize them as part of a very unique, extended, and complex war process. Colombian soldiers’ amateur war videos are records of a conflict that is neither new nor emerged during the digital age, but that has extended for more than 50 years across several regions of a geographically fragmented territory. For decades, the Colombian armed conflict has been the central theme for the construction of a social memory of violence and the main resource for imagining the identity of the Colombian nation as violent. (Vélez Rendón; Franco, Nieto and Rincón; Sanchez) During most of this period of time, the Colombian mass media, from radio to newspapers to television, have been building a collective memory of the war biased towards the government and military forces’ perspective, privileging certain characters and stories such as the armed actors and their battles, and hiding others such as the civilian victims and the displacement of millions of people. As German Rey has pointed out, in the biased social memory of war that Colombian mass media have been constructing, causes, backgrounds, and consequences of the events have been usually ignored, and the victims have been doubly disappeared (both in the representations and physically). It is precisely within this particular context of a biased social and collective memory of war and a narrative that centers on violence and militarism, where the non-professional videos made by Colombian soldiers also need to be understood.