Remote action and reaction: Images and war in the 2.0 era

Information is disseminated in extreme volumes through the media. Through the radio, for example, it is a common event to passively listen to voices emotively speak of war through rhetoric that conveys a representative truth buried in sensationalism. Computer screens, televisions screens – and even the tiny faces of mobile phone screens – stream footage, present still images, and offer ‘experience’ of the front line through the gaze of cameramen and news correspondents. In these contexts, the ‘experience’ of war can be idle and passive as the information filters alongside entertainment, advertisements, music and even the multitasking of the audience. Twenty-four hour news stations, repeating headlines on a loop, highlight the modern fixation on updates and news exposure, often to excess. Often when there is nothing new to say at all. The viewer is both informed yet over saturated with content to the extent in which to ‘be informed’ is to be overwhelmed. Such a scenario can lead to inadvertent boredom, at worst, apathy, towards the reported content.

Not only should we question how we can comprehend war through media and the ways in which excess doesn’t necessarily equate to comprehension, we should also question the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the media system and the circulation of images. We should question the ‘remote’ experience we get through the media. We should question and challenge how war images can themselves be ‘in conflict’ and part of conflict. What does it mean to remotely report on war and receive war content? What does it mean to be faced with ‘truth’ of war through images? How have images become part of conflict itself?

[Image: A cameraman films U.S. Navy SEALs]

Remote Representation

Although images occupy a crucial space of representation, they are also monuments of remote experience. Remote suggests distance – the distance between one situation/place/event and another. Remote also suggests distance in connections and relationships. How can it be claimed that war images, which intrinsically act to bring an audience closer to the ‘truth’ of conflict, act as distancing tools? It is suggested in Jean Baudrillard’s essays on the Gulf War that through representing the war virtually, and through the remoteness of combat and the remoteness of reporting, the human's conditioned ‘casual’ attitude may develop into the ability for the human to imagine increasingly more dangerous war acts.

However, the concept of ‘remote’ reporting converges with wider problems surrounding remote warfare itself. The psychological ramifications of remote killing have been widely and historically reported by thinkers such as Joseph Tenenbaum (1955), Lewis Mumford (1971), and most recently Robert J. Lifton. Specifically, Mumford notes that distance weapons, like the atom bomb, enable psychological protection: ‘its human servitors are emotionally protected by their remoteness from the human target they incinerate or obliterate’.[1] The ground based, hand-to-hand combat that dominated warfare for centuries is being phased out to be replaced by remote warfare that can be, theoretically, fought and won from remote locations. Although distant weapons are not necessarily contemporary developments (canons and glide bombs for example), with nuclear weapons we have the potential to annihilate hundreds of thousands people with one bomb from miles away. For many thinkers, it is technology that facilitates the extremity of remoteness: ‘New technology could also have the effect of alienating soldiers from their comrades and from their own actions on the battlefield’.[2]

[Image: F-4E Phantom II]

However, beyond the use of weaponry, a new media technology develops; this is what Baudrillard confesses concern over – the ability to report live from conflict zones through the aid of journalistic technology. This marks the next step in presenting war and human war acts as 'remote.' Further, as Baudrillard claims in 'Is the Gulf War Really Talking Place', it is hard to ascertain the truth of war when the media offer a simulated reality of war; the human is not only becoming removed for war, but any residue of human interaction is potentially manipulated by the reporting country due to various political and social factors.

The ramification of using images to present remote warfare may be desensitization due to over exposure to conflicts in which differentiation is difficult (for example general footage of gunfire and explosions can make it difficult, at a glance, to identify the warzone). Further, there is also the potential escalation of aggression through the perpetuation of violent imagery which dominates some public perceptions of entire countries, groups, and ideologies.

War representation 2.0

Baudrillard argues that reality has been destroyed in the digital age through a media created representation devoid of genuine experience. For Baudrillard the perfect crime is the murder of reality for it can leave ‘no trace.’[3] Hyperreality has achieved the ‘real without origin’.[4] Baudrillard speaks in dystopic terms utilizing words such as ‘murder’ and ‘threat’ to describe disappearance of the real and claims: ‘the characteristic hysteria of our times: that of the production and reproduction of the real.’[5] The distortion of the media, through the inability to convey the reality of war, begs the question, can we experience anything without a direct encounter? Can we know anything about war and the human within war without actually experiencing the event live and in reality? On this matter Baudrillard claims, ‘the day there is a real war you will not even be able to tell the difference.’[6] Moreover, can we have what is termed 'a human war' when there is no human hand-to-hand combat and the experience is only offered to the public through selective media representations? It is difficult to answer such questions. Instead, we need to consider that there has been a shift in how war is fought, considered and reported and this shift can be partly explained through the increasing remoteness of action and reaction: war action, media action and viewer reaction.

Nathan Roger comments on a ‘the significant shift’ provoked by technological innovation in communications and the distribution of war images in postmodern war.[7] In the past, war photography by photojournalists projected ‘iconic’ images of the conflict to mass audiences. Images such as the 1945 Hiroshima nuclear attack documented by Yoshito Matsushige, and the famous 1972 Vietnam napalm attack shot by Nick Ut have, for many, acted to define and convey the events – certainly within popular culture. But, with the development of technology, the viewing and sharing of image content has changed; as Roger points out: ‘the Internet, blogs, camera/video phones and more, have fundamentally altered the ways in which governments, militaries, terrorists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and citizens engage with images’.[8]

Although print technologies have been presenting war photography for years, the Internet has enabled the sharing of content that is difficult to police, trace, and authenticate. Such images can be shared by governments, military, journalists, terrorists, and civilians across the globe. The impact and reach of the Internet has been documented clearly through movements such as the Egyptian Revolution (2010) where a Facebook account by Wael Ghonim shared information and images which fuelled and organized a revolution. Generally speaking, we live in a media rich world of twenty-four hour streaming, which, as Baudrillard would argue, has launched the human race into a new type of war – an information war.[9] Often, through the wealth and potential non-traceability of shared images, the viewer is left to question – not only the image content – but how, why, and by whom are images being circulated. Pressure is mounting to try to govern the dissemination of images.

Weaponization of Images

It is idealistic at best (and naive at worst), to take the view that media images of war are so problematic that they are devoid of any semblance of truth and distort – to the extreme – perspectives of war. Although the audience should analyse and challenge the distribution of war images, the media does play a vital role in how the world (especially the Western world) participates in war discourse. It is critical to appreciate that, with the evolving nature of war reporting and the evolving nature of warfare itself, conflict images have become part of the conflict practice and process. This is something Roger, in Image Warfare in the War on Terror, introduces.

In this ground-breaking work, Roger uses case studies to fully explore a new realm of thought on how images are actively used in warfare as weapons. Roger fleshes out ideas of what an ‘image’ can mean today and examines the visual symbols of terrorist strategies such as hijackings, hostages, executions and suicides. We are no longer talking about live-feeds and still images of weapon-fire and explosions; weaponized images can be representative of terrorism itself. Roger introduces three terms ‘image munitions’, counter-image munitions’, and remediation battles’ and explores the paradigm shift from the ‘mobilization of images’ to the ‘weaponization of images’ as war has shifted to become image warfare, which he describes as a ‘new theatre of war’.[10] The image is now part of war practice rather than a representation of conflict. Not only are images being used by terrorist groups as weapons, but battles are waged through political communications between nations and organizations through ‘counter-image munitions’.[11]

In a world so saturated with image technology, there is no stopping the mobilization or weaponization of images. Roger notes that governments in America and Britain still believe that images can be controlled and that image warfare itself is manageable, when in reality image warfare by groups such as al-Qaeda is only gaining momentum. What needs to be addressed is how image procurement and dissemination is understood and policed. As such, Roger calls for International Relations to address the changing climate of conflict as represented by the shift from techno to image warfare. This may be a difficult transition due to the reigning ‘traditional’ perspective on what warfare means and how it is conducted.

Long and short of it

On one hand, conflict images offered by new media propagate the remoteness of war action and the remoteness of domestic reaction. At the same time, image warfare is another type of remote action in which an attack is long ranged (from a fixed location to the global community of, say, YouTube). However, paradoxically, it could be argued that image-warfare is also an attempt to bridge remoteness by causing the viral dissemination of footage which has been concealed – such as uncensored images of beheaded hostages by Islamic State. Such images surface online and in some cases become viral through their inherent shockability and purported reality.

Yet, even in cases in which images are used as weapons to attack over large distances, truth becomes eroded in transit due to the unreliable ability of an image to cause total comprehension. If a viewer was to stumble across a leaked image from extremists, does one image convey complex information regarding context? It depends, perhaps, on the viewer, and thus, images (including image-warfare) will always encounter comprehension barriers and therefore are always limited in regards to how much impact they will carry.

An alarming result of this ‘comprehension barrier’ is the related ability for images to be manipulated – not only physically through software programs – but through how contextual information is linked to these images. Consider Twitter, can 140 characters convey the complex situation surrounding war images?

Consequently, the issues Baudrillard raised in regards to the validity and truth of war images are further problematized through the ability to detach images from contextual information, to remove source information, or to manipulate or distort the meaning of the image through a ‘Chinese whisper’ chain of user messages. Roger, in his concluding thoughts, calls for American and British governments to adjust their perspectives on war and image culture in order to ‘respond effectively’ to how image warfare is being waged by terrorist organizations.[13] I suggest there also needs to be an adjustment by the general public regarding how ‘truth’ is disseminated through war images and to what extent images need to be challenged and comprehended before simply clicking ‘next’ or changing channel.

Notes

[1] Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (London: Secker and Warburg, 1971), 267.

[2] Geoffrey Jenson, ‘Introduction. The Meaning of War in the Technological Age’, in War in the Age of Technology, ed. Geoffrey Jenson and Andrew Wiest (London: New York University Press, 2001), p. 2.

[3] Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1996), p. 9.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 1.

[5] Ibid., p. 23.

[6] Baudrillard, ‘The Gulf War did not take place’, in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton (Sydney: Power Publications, 2009), 58-59.

[7] Roger comments that Baudrillard rethought his stance on ‘real-time’ content after the September 11 attacks in America (Chapter 2). However, for the purposes of this debate, ideas of remote war and remote images remain relevant.

[8] Nathan Roger, Image Warfare in the War on Terror (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 1.

[9] Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, 138.

[10] Roger, p. 1-3.

[11] Ibid., p. 76.

[12] Ibid., p. 1.

[13] Ibid., p. 170.

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