Inside an armored truck are two soldiers. Soldier One is reading a missive against the steering wheel and yells, “What?!”
“What’s wrong?” asks Soldier Two, smiling because he can’t help it.
“Gays, man! Gays in the military. It’s all right to be gay in the military?”
And then a club song kicks in. A soldier unzips his uniform. A shirtless boy dances in the distance atop a military vehicle. The music-video subtitle: “If the Army Goes Gay.” A Codey Wilson Production.
A few months ago, when the U.S. military was in the midst of discussions about repealing its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, 22-year-old specialist Wilson took his JVC camera and filmed some of the guys in his company—a troop of National Guardsmen from Virginia on a city-size base in Iraq—dancing to Ke$ha’s “Blah Blah Blah” in modified uniform. The director himself appears in his full Army vest, a camouflage loincloth hanging between his naked thighs.
The video is a spoof of what would happen if soldiers were allowed to identify as openly homosexual. There is a shower scene and a night scene with glow sticks and a scene with a kid in a gas mask dry-humping another soldier. There are serious-looking Army guys in T-shirts that are knotted up at the waist to expose their bellybuttons.
Wilson posted the video around 5 p.m. on May 10, and at 2 a.m. the other guys were banging on his door and they came in shouting about how many people had seen it. Holy crap, there were 54,000 views. “We felt like heroes,” he says. “It was the coolest feeling.” Wilson heard a rumor that the Pentagon had to brief President Obama on the video, and while the president was watching it, he is said to have laughed “his ass off.”
But Wilson’s more immediate higher-ups weren’t laughing. They told him to take it down, son. He had to draft a letter explaining himself. He was investigated and put on garbage duty.
By the time Wilson removed the video on the evening of the second day, it had received almost 200,000 views. The Huffington Post and Perez Hilton and NBC and others had posted the link on their sites. The commentary was wide-ranging: Some people thought it was funny, some thought it was sexy. Then there were the people who thought it was nearly blasphemous. What the hell are these boys doing, wasting our tax dollars making silly videos? They are supposed to be fighting a war. And what was it supposed to mean? Was it for or against a change in policy? There was no way of knowing. Politics wasn’t the point.
This was a different sort of reality television. The boy in Wilson’s video at 37 seconds in, the boy at 48 seconds in. They are deployed in Iraq; at this very moment, they are driving tanks up and down the hell roads that lead to Baghdad, where, more often than is advertised, a kid is killed by a roadside bomb. The boy at 37 seconds in could be dead tomorrow, and the video would take on that cobweb lens, the dreamy freeze-frame of what once was.
Wilson’s video did not appear in isolation. A few weeks before he uploaded “Blah Blah Blah,” a troop of soldiers in Afghanistan spoofed Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” and it became a viral sensation. In July, a group of Israeli soldiers in Hebron filmed themselves dancing to Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” on the very street they were just then patrolling, their rifles flopping as their hips swiveled. And the USO in Korea is holding a music-video-parody competition for all soldiers, which, Wilson says, is using his video as an example. American Soldier Idol.
These videos are revealing a new breed of soldier: rebellious, witty, rabid consumers of pop culture, thousands of miles from home but able to Skype daily with family and friends. They are as plugged in as lab rats. When they are not on patrol, they live on the web. They are there and here at once. In Iraq, there are long, stretching days and lonely nights when the guys don’t come out of their rooms unless the Internet is down or an alarm sounds and the base is in trouble. They get gray inside waiting for time to pass, downloading songs and doing pull-ups and growing larger, their arms, chests, jaws. But the making of the video was a reason to come outside, to wield glow sticks, to show off their gym bodies, to have fun. “They don’t pay us,” Wilson says, “to be miserable out here.”
Specialist Wilson wants to be a director. Like Michael Bay, he wants to film big movies with explosions. He is smallish but built, and he’s got the sort of waggish face that the girls in high school went crazy for. He has spiky boy-band hair and white teeth and he has never smoked a cigarette. He curses like a kid, but when he steps into his grandmother’s house, it’s shoot instead of shit and the sunglasses come off in deference.