Virtual Violence

The blurring of lines between the digital realm and reality, especially in a time of war, has very real psychological effects.

By Shaun RandolMarch 22, 2012

    Virtual Violence

    Images of War (at a Distance) by Harun Farocki. 0Predator: The Remote-Control Air War Over Iraq and Afghanistan by Charles W. Sasser and Matt J. Martin. 320 pages.Serious Games by Antje Ehmann and Ralf Beil. 208 pages.

    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 based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans.” Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution has written extensively on how the increase in military research into robots, be it nanotechnology or outsized pilotless aircraft that can — theoretically — stay adrift indefinitely, indicates the direction of the U.S.’s fighting strategy.

    No technology is more representative of war from a distance than the drone, of which the Predator is the most infamous. The Predator now operates out of bases in locations as varied as Ethiopia, the Seychelles, and Djibouti.

    These deployments, while minimizing American troop casualty rates and, to varying degrees, inhibiting terrorists and other nefarious networks, have caused very real trauma in the communities in which the drones engage. In Pakistan alone, where anger at the United States’ use of drones to execute terrorists is at its most fevered, up to 3,000 people have been killed by drones since 2004, of which 17 to 27 percent were non-militants, women and children included. (The exact number of both militants and civilians injured or killed in drone attacks varies depending on the source. As of February 5, 2012, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports between 2,383 and 3,019 people killed in drone attacks, of which 464 to 815 were civilians. The New America Foundation’s “Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative” reports that in Pakistan alone between 1,717 and 2,680 individuals have been killed by drones since 2004, of which 1,424 to 2,209 were militants.) Civilian casualties, at the hands of these unseen Grim Reapers, sadly, are not limited to Pakistan. The U.S. government has employed drones in lethal attacks in at least six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

    Undeterred by anger in Pakistan and elsewhere over their use, the U.S. military is not only increasing the use of drones in warfare (President Obama’s use of drones is dramatically greater than that of his predecessor), since 2009 the Air Force has been training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots. The consequences of increased robotic warfare are yet to be fully realized, but the signs are ominous.


    Harun Farocki’s recent four-part video installation at the Museum of Modern Art directly confronts the digital-real divide underpinning American war training and fighting. “Images of War (at a Distance)” presents a series of four “Serious Games,” in each of which two videos play simultaneously. The videos on display are a mixture of real training and debriefing sessions and digital renderings of wartime environs. In two of the series (“Watson is Down – I” and “Three Dead – II”), one side of the screen depicts original footage of American soldiers in training sessions, contra-posed against real-time, digital imagery of their virtual training (a mix of video games and real life).

    In “Immersion – III,” the same visual bifurcation is at play, but rather than watching soldiers train for war, we are privy to their actual debriefing sessions with psychologists who are treating them for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): one side depicts a coaxing doctor while the other side alternates between a disturbed soldier wearing a virtual reality mask and a digital re-enactment of the traumatic scenario.

    The final installation, “A Sun with No Shadow – IV,” compares the technological differences between the pre- and post-deployment digital realms by placing side-by-side the digital videos used to train soldiers preparing for war, and those used to treat soldiers returning from war suffering from PTSD. The latter are decidedly inferior in quality, as suggested by the title. In the training video for “Watson is Down – I,” no detail is too small, down to the tiny dust clouds kicked up by vehicle tires. In PTSD treatment videos, however, the bright sun does not even so much as produce a shadow, for anything, making the virtual reality worlds feel flat, cartoonish.

    That so many resources are poured into training videos but not into treatment technology is telling. In an essay accompanying the show, Farocki explains the use of gaming technology by the U.S. military: Technology, he says, “is not only employed on the battlefield, but is also used for recruiting, training, and therapy for battle-scarred soldiers. It is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the violence of war. Never has war been so transparent, so tangible, so efficient or so virtual."

    In “Watson is Down – I,” the right side of the screen shows a handful of clean-cut American soldiers in their battle-dress uniforms sitting in an air-conditioned room, hovering over individual laptops. There is very little chatter; the mood is serious. Simultaneously, on the left side of the screen, a video game plays. A military vehicle scurries across the landscape in search of enemy soldiers. The simulated landscape resembles the real Afghanistan. In an explanation accompanying the piece, Farocki sets the scene:

    A street in the computer landscape runs exactly as it would in the real Afghanistan; the same holds for every tree, the vegetation on the ground or the mountain ranges … When the tank drives over the fallow, it kicks up a dust trail. The more vegetation there is, the less dust. On the asphalt street, no dust. Even with all this attention to detail, death in the computer game is still something different than the real one.

    An instructor appears on the left screen. We see him clicking through a variety of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the bane of the American soldier’s experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, placing them strategically in the landscape. The instructor then cycles through a series of insurgent-looking men, choosing between characteristics: long beard or short; suicide-bomb vest or AK-47. Meanwhile, on the opposing screen, a soldier marked “Watson” is suddenly — virtually — shot, taken out, killed. In the classroom the soldier-student looks slightly peeved before he relaxes into his chair; he watches from a digital ghostly position as his colleagues finish the mission. Training is completed without a single bullet actually being fired, and with nobody getting hurt. The enemy remains a pixilated figurehead.


     Watching this virtual militaristic action (be it for training or actual fighting) within the sleek confines of MoMA further removes the viewer — the virtual war tourist — from the horrors of war. In addition, the Pentagon has put the kibosh on showing pictures of dead American soldiers on television, in print, and online, and since network and cable news outlets refuse to air the carnage that other global outlets, namely Al Jazeera, are willing to show, the choices of the average American are few. “If the machinery of the armed forces, politics, the economy, and the media simultaneously downplay wars and make them less human,” says Ralf Beil in Serious Games, “if war is increasingly glossed over and idealized by the media, the paradox arises that the aesthetic space of the museum becomes the site of enlightenment for the whole of society.” Farocki’s didactic work also forces us to consider the phenomenon of war together with the digital-real construct slowly engulfing what was once a much more obviously physical, mortal, and ghastly existence.

    Interestingly, Farocki’s art appears to contradict at least one of his philosophical positions on the relationship between an image and its viewer. In a short essay included in Serious Games: War / Media / Art, Farocki muses on the idea of immersion and the question “What happens to me when I see an image?” The artist declares that immersion in an image — when “the viewer regards the pictorial object not as pictorial object but as something real,” where “one is mistaken for the other” — is impossible. This impossibility, however, does not appear to extend to the virtual image: Farocki’s third series in the MoMA exhibition, “Immersion – III,” in which traumatized soldiers use virtual reality (moving, digitized, three-dimensional realms) to help treat PTSD, visibly shows how such digital-real immersions can seem authentic. The video shows soldiers wearing virtual-reality visors; the audience is privy to the generic renderings of Iraqi streets and people displayed in the soldiers’ headsets. Despite the pitiable technology, the soldiers appear fully immersed in their digital arenas, looking up, down, and around, knuckles turning whiter with each passing moment. The soundscape is augmented by whizzing bullets, the whumps of mortar shells landing nearby, helicopters buzzing overhead; visual clues, like friendlies, checkpoints, and sunsets, paint the battlefield. Farocki believes the still image cannot fully immerse the viewer in an alternate experience, but “Immersion – III” shows that an experience with images that skirt the digital-real divide (like virtual reality) can complete the trick.


    The same kind of immersive experience occurs through digital depictions of actual events taking place in real time in another space — an experience so immersive, in fact, that Predator pilots like Matt J. Martin, fighting war from a remote, digital-real divide (for now, drones still require human pilots) can suffer from PTSD, despite having fought from a great distance. Judging by Martin’s recollections, drone pilots experience the same adrenaline rush that a traditional fighter pilot or infantryman may experience in situ, which certainly has the same potential to psychologically affect the pilot. Despite the great distance (both real and virtual) from the actual war, drone pilots are never completely removed from the trauma (and drama) of warfare. Describing the end of a firefight in Iraq, for example, in which Martin piloted his drone from Nevada, he writes:

    I also felt electrified, adrenalized. My team had won. We had shot the technical college full of holes, destroying large portions of it and killing only God knew how many people. It would take some time for the reality of what happened so far away to sink in, for “real” to become real.

    Admittedly, not all, or even most, of Martin’s reported experiences piloting drones seem that intense, that real. While expressing sympathy for fellow troops injured on the ground, or remorse for the killing of innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire, Martin is just as likely to comment on the surreal experience of participating in a battle occurring on the other side of the globe. In getting into the “pilot seat,” he enters an alternate world and embodies an alternate persona; by splitting his time between the humdrum of daily American life and of piloting one of humankind’s deadliest inventions, he lives simultaneously in parallel universes.

    Yet, despite his assertion that his job was more than a Nintendo game, Martin more than once compares his daily drone activities to playing the computer game Civilization, “in which you direct units and armies in battle. Except with real consequences.” Using drones in warfare, he adds, has “all the potential gains of war without the costs. It could even be mildly entertaining. Could it not also become too easy, too tempting, too much like simulated combat, like the computer game Civilization?”

    The oscillations between flippant references to video gaming and worries about such comparisons are puzzling, but they also reflect the schizophrenic nature of not only conducting war from a distance, but also of being trained by the same video game technology from which soldiers attempt to instill a measure of distance. When death and destruction are viewed on a screen and settled with the flick of a joystick, the pictorial and the real become indistinguishable. The repercussions of an inability to make distinctions between the two realms, though as of yet not fully known, are certainly worrisome.

    Martin, for one, is not averse to claiming a divine mantle. On firing drone missiles, he says, “Sometimes I felt like God hurling thunderbolts from afar,” and of safely (digitally) watching battles unfold from thousands of feet in the air, he was like an “omnipotent god.” Fighting war in this way, he says, quoting a colleague, took on “the pleasures of a spectacle with the added thrill that it is real for someone, but not the spectator.” It’s as if Martin were one of the gods watching from above as men tore each other apart outside the gates of Troy (my analogy, not his).

    Such godlike comparisons extract the compassionate and reasoning human out of a mortal calculus (which, in a way, is exactly what the Predator and its ilk intend to accomplish).


    The advances in wartime technology and the concomitant birth of the digital-real divide are not so new as to avoid some sort of judgment. One would hope for some moral insight or, at least, words of caution from Martin about waging war from the digital-real nexus; he is an experienced remote-control pilot who served death to militants (and, sadly, some civilians) from thousands of miles away. About the killing of innocents, Martin warns early in Predator, “I had yet to realize the horror,” and later:

    By the time this war was over, I later reflected during dark moments, I was apt to have more innocent blood on my hands. Innocent blood on my hands, rubble and wreckage in my wake, and Iraqi mothers and wives cursing me — or the idea of me — and praying for my damnation.

    The reader, unfortunately, is not privy to Martin’s “dark moments.”

    “Strictly from a moral perspective,” Martin says, “killing people with a bomb or a remote-controlled missile was no different from doing it with your bare hands.” It’s a wild claim. But then, as if he is unsure of this assertion, Martin asks, “Is it immoral to wage war on humans with automated machines?” In Predator, this is pretty much the extent of any discussion approaching a philosophical horizon.

    In the end, Martin fully endorses the use of drones, despite the fact that, at the last minute, innocent children may ride their bicycles into a shot (as Martin saw) and be blown to smithereens for no other reason than for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.


     Martin’s pronouncement that killing people with one’s bare hands or with remote-controlled drones is morally equivalent should give us pause. Distance — real and virtual — makes killing easier because it dehumanizes the consequences: violence becomes less visible, less tangible, more remote. After all, as Martin suggests (in contradiction to his moral equivalency claim):

    The increasing use of robots offered [military leaders] a scenario of pain-free military action — at least for those nations with the supporting technology. More and more, armed forces seemed to want to dehumanize military operations and hand over the responsibility of killing to conscienceless machines, thus making death more abstract and less reprehensible [my emphasis].

    At least the gods of ancient Greece had the nerve to watch their subjects slaughter each other. Perched high atop Mount Olympus they cried over the massive and useless killings at the walls of Troy. The deities were moved by the blood-curdling screams of soldiers dying at the hands of their fellows. Drone pilots, on the other hand, are afforded the luxury of launching a missile from thousands of miles away. Victims of such attacks are buried under rubble or blown into unrecognizable pieces. The dead are the unseen dead. Killing becomes abstract and war is made easier.

     Ironically, the Pentagon’s increasing funding in gaming technology and drone warfare does not only mean that war could occur more often: war may become even more uncivilized.

    LARB Contributor

    Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle. He is also an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Books Critics Circle.


    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!