Visualizations of Conflict

Benjamin J. Muller on why up-close-and-personal films about war don't bring us any closer to the reality of the battlefield.
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April 25, 2013
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Throughout the history of warfare, the relationship between soldiers and “non-combatants” has varied. Marcel Proust’s The Past Recaptured (1932) eloquently depicts the critical distance between civilians and the battlefield, where dinner parties and everyday maladies preoccupied Parisians, as they were both untouched and relatively ignorant of the horrors of war and its proximity to them. As Proust notes, the extent to which this privileged existence was premised on “a blood barrier constantly renewed”, that was barely an hour’s automobile ride from Paris was too immense a reality for most to confront.

The question is, to what extent has the proliferation of media in the early 21st century served to remind us of the nature and proximity of this “bloody barrier constantly renewed”? Has the prevalence of documentaries and war films metaphorically placed us “in the line of fire”, or has it simply become entertainment, as moral, social, and cultural detachment serves to maintain the distance between what Proust referred to as two worlds: one minute, and one too immense? Finally, and perhaps most important but also most complex, is the question of the extent to which the lines between those two worlds - ours and the bloody barrier of the front that serves to maintain our particular form of life – are being blurred and dramatized in still misunderstood ways. Linking these question is the theme of distance and proximity - the extent to which visualization of warfare serves to create distance and/or proximity between the citizens, our day-to-day lives, and that persistently renewed bloody barrier that is deemed so necessary for the maintenance of our lives.

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Drawing on Edward Said’s highly influential book Orientalism, Derek Gregory and others have demonstrated the extent to which the experience of colonialism has paradoxically helped to produce distance through proximity. The intimate experiences of colonization, often through violent conquest, have contributed to the stereotyping and polluting of our conceptions of “other” identities, cultures, and societies. This process of othering, which was fostered by literature, art, and popular culture, enabled an erasure of our proximity and created distance. Whether on the nightly news, nefarious documentaries such as Terrorists Among US: Jihad in America (1994), or various Hollywood productions featuring former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris, ex-colonials, specifically citizens of countries throughout the Middle East and the Islamic world, were portrayed as violent, evil, and lesser than ourselves. In other words, more direct experience in these parts of the world appears to have done little in the way of challenging distance with proximity.

Similarly, the proliferation of visual technologies has had a relatively minor impact on eroding distance and creating proximity. Rather, the strategic use of these visual technologies, when properly harnessed, has been astutely understood by many, who lay claim to controlling and manipulating the narratives of conflict. Whether the oft-criticized and over-emphasized “free news media” in Vietnam, or the stage-managed media of the Gulf War and subsequent conflicts, or even the user-generated content, notably personal smartphone videos by soldiers or insurgents that I have elsewhere referred to as “War Porn”, bringing imagery of conflict to our living rooms has done little to erode distance and enhance proximity. While the visceral imagery of violence portrayed during the Vietnam war most certainly contributed to disdain for the war, it is difficult to know how much of this had to do with ubiquitous images of maimed soldiers and body bags - together with broader conscription policies that began to directly affect the middle to upper middle class - as opposed to the catastrophic images of My Lai.

In more recent conflicts, namely the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the role of visual media and the question of distance/proximity is ever more relevant. Through intensive management of the media by the government and armed forces, the proliferation of so-called “embedded journalists” has spawned a new level of proximity; not to conflict, victims, or non-combatants, nor between conflict and ourselves, but with the various members of the armed forces. Whether in Evan Wright’s entertaining “military travelogue” Generation Kill (2004) (subsequently made into an HBO series of the same name in 2008) about Wright’s time embedded with the Marine first reconnaissance battalion in 2003 Iraq, or Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s acclaimed documentary Restrepo (2010), about a military outpost occupied by the Second Platoon Battle Company in Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan in May 2007, the viewer is exposed to the alleged “realities of war” through skilled storytelling that focuses on debunking some military stereotypes while valorizing others. The attempt to humanize soldiers and create proximity between the middle class insurance saleswoman or local mechanic and the army specialist in Restrepo who discusses his “hippy mother” who refused to allow him to play with guns, or Wright’s sycophantic depiction of the Marine’s esprit de corps in Generation Kill, seems self-serving, in that it visualizes warfare with no greater refinement than the grainy images from a drone strike.

Coinciding with the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the so-called “Web 2.0” revolution, which began the now all too familiar proliferation of user-generated content on the Internet. In the case of visual technologies and warfare, providing a mediated account of war was simply a click away on any soldier’s smartphone. Terabytes of video uploads did little to challenge long-held assumptions of warfare, enemies, esprit de corps, or create proximity between the suffering on the streets of Baghdad or Kabul and the victims of violence in the United States or Canada. Moreover, awkward policy statements and relative reticence among scholars to engage seriously with such developments emphasized the extent to which their impact and the emergence of the so-called “battle in/for the wires” as a new “theatre of war” was barely understood or acknowledged.

The distance between ourselves and what Proust called the “bloody barrier constantly renewed” has not collapsed nor is it specifically challenged by these visualizations of conflict. Instead, our proximity with those “renewing” the barrier – namely the members of the armed forces – is extolled, while simultaneously accentuating our distance from the battlefield and the enemy who inhabits it. Often elusive, if not altogether invisible, the non-combatants and enemies in these distant lands continue to be unnamed. Visual technologies and communications provide new ways to bring them closer, such as the “out of sight, out of mind” project on drone attacks, but the deliberate maintenance of the distance between us and the “bloody barrier” continues.