The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle — you know who you’re killing.
— John Paul Vann, in Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie
WAR, SEEN BY THE LAY VIEWER through the lens of television news, seems distant; the people and the lands in the images are Other — other people, other cultures, other lands, other tragedies. War is not something that happens to me. War happens to others, elsewhere.
The footage attached to armaments, showing muffled explosions and mute dismembered bodies, may be grainy, compared to TV, but must seem a bit more real to those behind the controls. After all, with the simple pull of a trigger (rather than a click to a news channel) the result is sure doom for the targeted fighters and any unlucky civilians nearby. Still, violent action undertaken in this digital-real mesh remains distanced from the on-the-ground reality — the horror — of war.
The blurring of lines between the digital realm (be it film, television, the internet, or video games) and reality, especially in a time of war, has very real moral and psychological effects. This is especially true for the soldiers who train and fight on the digital-real divide. Such is the sentiment that both Harun Farocki, a filmmaker and digital media artist, and Matt J. Martin, a former Predator drone pilot, convey in their art and reporting.
Martin piloted Predator drone attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan while he remained based in Nevada. This physical and psychological distance from the battlefield makes war easier to conduct. With blood and treasure spared on the ground, war becomes a more attractive means of foreign policy.
As Paul Virilio has noted, with the filming of the 1990-91 Gulf War, most notably by CNN, the American public was encouraged to see war as a technological process and a media event. The ubiquitous green and grainy images of anti-aircraft fire over Baghdad, or black-and-white videos of missiles slamming into boxy structures from projectile-mounted cameras were so bereft of the realities of warfare — blood, guts, screams, and mangled bodies — that they were shown in prime-time news broadcasts. Much of the public enthusiastically embraced this antiseptic projection of war. Now, many soldiers and their civilian leaders see war through the same technological lens.
American military training and planning increasingly uses video games and virtual reality (for pre-deployment and decompressing) and autonomous robots (for actual fighting). Peter Finn surmises that “the successful exercise in autonomous robotics could presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify and kill the enemy ...read more