An Investment in Cruelty?
Phil Carter over at Intel-dump has made some good points about the homemade military videos that are coming out of Iraq. The GWOT is the first truly digital war, and we are just feeling the effects. I read a quote the other day about the internet, blogs, and politics comparing where we are in the digital age and politics to where we were with TV and politics in the 50’s...in other words the show is just about to start. It’s the same with war. Pictures and TV brought the battlefield into our living rooms. The internet and cheap digital technology expands this and takes the battlefield further into our lives, and I fear that we don’t understand the consequences.
Phil makes the point that our soldiers are essentially engaging in amateur information operations (aka propaganda), but that they don’t understand the consequences of their actions. He believes that these videos will end up being used as propaganda against us. I agree.
At CENTCOM during the war, we had an Al Jazeera feed so we could keep tabs on what was going on. I remember watching AJ on night before the invasion kicked off. There was a montage of old war footage with a voice over in Arabic. I don’t speak Arabic, but it was easy to understand the point that was being made by the video. Interspersed with current video from the OIF buildup were images of Gulf War I, brutal Vietnam footage (napalmed babies and village Zippo raids), and Nazi imagery. Actions that soldiers had committed in a previous generation were now being used as anti-American propaganda. We were the Nazis on the march. A picture of a napalmed baby has a long half-life.
Video and pictures bring you only partially into war. Without context or explanation images can obscure the truth in a way that print mediums does not. We are visual beings so if you see a picture, then you believe that you know something about what you are looking at. (this New Yorker article explores the folly of that belief)
War has been in our living rooms since Vietnam. The internet, embedded reporters, and 24hr news had made it a constant presence in our lives. I was in high school during Gulf War I, and remember watching the smart-bomb videos with teenage bloodthirsty glee. But, there was a detachment to it. The grainy video communicated to me that something or someone had just been destroyed, but it was like any other kind of video of destruction. Watching smart bombs dropped in Gulf War I was essentially no different from watching footage of a tornado tearing through a town. Something god-like and powerful was raining down destruction from above, and our airpower was unstoppable like the weather. And like the weather there didn’t seem to be too many real people involved, only the detached narration of fighter pilots and anchormen.
The same can be said for embedded journalists and their war footage. They are taking pictures as war happens. There is neutrality to it. War is happening and the journalist is communicating that to you. Sometimes what you see is brutal and it’s usually confusing. In these videos, war appears to be a force like the weather: brutal and unrelenting, something that is happening to everyone. But, it’s the homemade soldier videos that take us to a new level.
I’ve watched these videos with some degree of fascination. My war was spent in front of a computer screen so I remained detached from the realities of close combat. I watched UAV feeds of air strikes with a similar glee to what I had back in Gulf War I, but I never saw the real effects on the ground. However, there was a difference between the glee then and now.
When I was 17, compiling these videos and setting them to a rock and roll soundtrack would have seemed cool. Now, I realize that real-people have died and that there might have been collateral damage. I was happy that the strikes went in. Bad guys are dead which means less good guys will die. A guy you went to college with might not catch a bullet because of the thunder rained down from above. That’s a reason to be happy, but there is underlying human tragedy to the whole thing.
Most ground units are filled with teenagers and young people in their twenties. It is a macho, testosterone filled culture where aggressive behavior is cultivated and rewarded. This behavior is also supposed to be tempered by more mature senior leadership. Guys like me control when and where that aggression is unleashed.
So when I see these videos, I wonder where in the unit's leadership? Are they not familiar with the idea of the strategic corporal? Have they not read the news and seen exactly what the pictures from Abu Ghraib have done? Are they not aware that the enemy’s propaganda machine is just a proficient and media-savvy as ours?
I wonder what these videos must seem like to the outside world. What does it say about us as a country when our soldiers make sure they take their own video cameras into combat, record the brutality, edit the video, and then pick the oh-so-just-right heavy metal song to be the soundtrack. It must seem like a big investment in cruelty. Imagine if someone in your family were killed by US soldiers (whether or not they deserved it), then those soldiers made a video of it and distributed it on the internet for the world to see…and keep seeing over and over again. How would you feel? What would you do? I’d want to kill someone and keep killing until the score was settled.
I am not passing judgment on my fellow soldiers. They are in a doing a tough job in a dangerous place. I understand the urge for military glory. I have it too. I spent my entire adult life wanting to go to war, wanting a “combat patch” for the right shoulder of my uniform. But what I don’t want is my military glory to reflect badly on my country, my army, or myself. Something to think about the next time you fire up your digital camera.