Propaganda, Peace and Combat Footage

In 2010 I was 16. I had a pretty basic understanding of the world, though I considered myself pretty patched in. SBS World News Australia as well as a healthy spattering of other post-school news programs set my agenda and filled me with the fun facts that I’d spurt at school the next day. My friends and I would discuss trade relations, far off conflicts we really knew nothing about and how to secure a beer or two to look cool at that upcoming party. It was all sort of a game, another play in the pseudo-intellectual arms race that was my high school experience.

I knew it was real, I just was never truly attached to it. The facts, figures and footage I saw didn’t establish itself as a reality. It never truly occurred to me that the atrocities and tragedies I would hear about on a nightly basis occurred in the same world as me. To a certain extent I’m still not entirely sure that I’ve accepted the full reality and, indeed, the proximity of the violence we’re informed about near constantly. I’m not sure I’d want to, honestly.

Moving on. Got a bit sad there, hey? It’s only going to get worse. Here’s a link to a fox kit to make it less lame and sad.

My approach to news media, especially news media about violent topics, changed in 2010 with the publishing by WikiLeaks of the now infamous Collateral Murder video and analysis. The video features the ‘gun camera’ (video feed of an advanced targeting system) recording taken from an US AH-64 gunship helicopter flying over Baghdad in 2007. After identifying a group of people on the ground as enemy combatants, 2 gunships opened fire, killing or wounding everyone in the group. The video then goes on to show the arrival of bystanders in a van, attempting to collect the wounded for treatment. The gunship then opens fire on the van. A convoy of US forces arrives on scene to asses the situation, finding not only unarmed people and journalists among the carnage, but also severely wounded children (Mortensen, 2014, p. 24).

Reuters, the employer of the Iraqi journalists killed in the strike, applied without success to have the footage taken by the two helicopters declassified in the immediate wake of attack. The events of the day would remain hidden from the public until the 2010 leaking of the gun camera video by the now imprisoned Bradley Manning and its publishing by WikiLeaks (Mortenson, 2014, p. 24). This isn’t a post about the legitimacy or legality of the actions taken in the video, or the innocence of those fired upon for that matter, so I’m deliberately not covering that. Instead, I want to talk about the effect this video had, at least in my mind, on any sort of broadcast combat footage.

I looked up the Collateral Murder video after seeing the exerts in my nightly SBS news, driven by an almost morbid curiosity, and was obviously horrified by the violence. Being exposed to that was an awakening of sorts, allowing me to fully come to terms with the violence that statistics, news presenters and journalists had been informing me about for years. Though, of course, not equitable with exposure to real world violence, the video revealed to me the brutality of conflict.Though it may seem incredibly obvious, since that video I am constantly reminded of the horrifying violence beneath even the most sanitised conflict reporting.

This piece is all about the questions that this knowledge raises. If we are to assume, and I think that it’s a pretty safe assumption, conflict journalism should seek to impart the true horror of conflict, what role does and should conflict footage play? At what point does the disturbing footage beaming straight from battlefields go from informing to desensitising audiences or, god forbid, glorifying violence?

As you would expect of a topic as important, there is a wide range of debate, both for and against. One thing common throughout the academic response to this, though, is the rising tendency of military provided aerial combat footage, specifically air strikes and bombings, to be included in broadcast news reports (Deer, 2016, 51). This is justified as an exposure of a western public to a conflict, and a reassurance of government action in politically popular conflicts. The argument against, that aerial footage distributed to the media by the military is sanitized, designed to normalise the execution of extreme violence in foreign conflicts (Bushy, 2015, p. 76).

If we are to assume there is the possibility of just war, the use of combat footage, especially airstrike footage, could be justified to provide reassurance and fervor for a conflict, swelling a public to collective action on a matter judged to be of great moral importance (Deer, 2016, p. 59). Of course, even in using this justification, there are the provisos of justification (something hard to come by in modern conflicts) and even worse, an argument that justifies an apparent militarism. By justifying the the use of combat footage in this regard, we are endorsing the a culture of military might and violence; something that I think we all agree is the exact opposite path that we wish to see society take.

The argument against is, obviously, damning. The use of and dependence on sanitized, military-produced footage by supposedly independent media organisations allows these organisation to became propagators of a militarist drive. Aerial combat footage, by it’s declourised, disconnected and distant nature, amplifies the casualisation, even mediocrity of these incomprehensibly violent actions (Bushy, 2015, p. 75). Fatal explosions become little more than the movement of pixels as a silent, detached observer, the aircraft and the audience, fly above. Most disturbingly, it is even not a great leap to see that art has begun to mirror life, with video game simulations of aerial attacks almost indistinguishable from their real life counterparts (Bushy, 2015, p. 29). In the case of drone strikes, this point is especially disturbing – not only does the gun camera look identical, the inputs used to control life and death are themselves very similar to a video game input, rather than the manipulation of a weapon.

Call of Duty Video Game Screen Shot. Source

Combat footage, of course, exists outside the aerial. With the advance of communication technologies and the miniturisation of cameras, it has become far more practical to capture combat and conflict on the ground. This opportunity has been embraced by journalists, film makers and even combatants themselves the world over.

For the later part of the 20th century, it has been common for journalists and photojournalists to embed, to live and travel with a military force, reporting on and from their actions, with combat units the world over (Smith, 2016, p. 90). The rise of the combatants themselves as photo-journalists though is new. Combatants, be they Danish Infantrymen, Australian Commandos, Iraqi insurgents or any other armed actor, have begun to film their combat actions for various reasons and audiences (Smith, 2016, p. 91).

Footage Taken from an Australian Commandos Helmet Cam, used the documentary Afghanistan:Inside Australias War. Source

During the second Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan, many soldiers deployed with personal cameras, either to document their experiences for their own sake or, as in many cases, to act as videographers in a larger film. The War Tapes (2006) Combat Diary (2006), Afghanistan: Inside Australias War (2015) and numerous other films all heavily featured footage shot by soldiers in combat situations. As time passes and recording technology miniaturises further, it is becoming more and more common for soldiers to have recording devices attached to their persons for a variety of reasons, and the use of this footage in media will undoubtedly become more and more common in the future (Smith, 2016, p. 99).

As well, as access to technology and social media has grown, combat footage taken by combatants on the ground has become an important propaganda tool. States and non-states alike have embraced the possibilities of combat footage, highlighted especially by the current civil war in Syria which has become declared the most socially mediated conflict in history (O’Callaghan et al. 2014, p. 1). As well as being one of the hottest zones in the world for mean tweets, multiple factions in the Syrian conflict have taken to recording their actions and publishing them all over the internet as a means of motivating their forces or, alternatively, demoralising their enemies (Andén-Papadopoulos, 2013, p.350).

Footage from the ground is completely different to that taken from the air. Aerial footage, as I mentioned, is incredibly detached, almost completely disconnected from the conflict it is recording. Footage from the ground comes from the combatants themselves, and is incredibly subject to the pressures and conditions that these soldiers suffer. Both forms can be militarised or used for a nefarious purpose, specifically the promotion of conflict through militarist propaganda, ground footage has the potential to impart the severity and devastation of a conflict on a personal level. While there is still the very real threat of glorifying conflict, when used in the proper way, footage taken by soldiers can be used to impart a very critical message.

This is exemplified in Deborah Scrantons The War Tapes (2006), where the soldiers/videographers use the camera they are assigned to not only capture the visuals of the conflict they participate in, but to also express their own trauma as it is developing – imparting the audience with a very real, very emotionally impacting war documentary.

On the other hand,  a simple GoPro has become a powerful propaganda tool after a commander in the Syrian Army attached it to a tank and published the results as pro-Assad propaganda (Smith, 2016, p. 98), designed undoubtedly to push the narrative of government control and intimidate rebel forces.

Unfortunately, my original questions remain, and I am divided on how combat footage affects an audience. In the right context, in the right presentation, I am sure it can desenstitise, even normalise, extreme violence. As I’ve mentioned, with academic backing of course, air strike footage has become an important aspect in the propagation of modern, western militarism. Once it is stripped of the sterilisation with which it is normally presented to media, though, it becomes rather an anti-conflict statement. The brutality and horror of the Collateral Murder videos being, ultimately, another damning example of the injustice of the Iraq war.

Again, there is a duality for footage taken by people on the ground in conflict. On the one hand, it is undeniable that footage taken by a combatant can be used to glorify and intimidate, to become simple propaganda. Conversely, a camera in the right hands can become a means of expression. Combat footage can become a first hand document of the incredibly personal impact that war can have on a human being, as demonstrated by the incredible documentary The War Tapes.

Ultimately, is combat footage a force for good or evil? The answer is a resounding “maybe”. It depends entirely on the manner in which it is captured and presented. Combat footage could be a great force for good, encouraging peace through an exposure to the pressures and carnage of conflict, or it can be militarist propaganda. As producers, consumers and monitors of media, it is our obligation to ensure that combat footage is always used as tool not of conflict perpetuation. Indeed, it is our obligation to ensure that the technologies that allow us a glimpse into terrifying conflicts be used as a tool against it, as a tool of education and, ultimately, peace.

References

Andén-Papadopoulos, K 2013, ‘Media witnessing and the ‘crowd-sourced video revolution’’, Visual Communication, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 341-357

Bushy, H 2015, “Drones Sanitizing the War on Terror in Yemen”, Masters, University of Leiden, Netherlands.

Deer, P 2016, ‘Mapping Contemporary American War Culture’, College Literature, 1, pp. 48 – 90

Mortensen, M 2014, ‘Who is Surveilling Whom? Negotiations of surveillance and sousveillance in relation to WikiLeaks’ release of the gun camera tape Collateral Murder’, Photographies, 7, 1, pp. 23-37

O’Callaghan, D, Prucha, N, Greene, D, Conway, M, Carthy, J, & Cunningham, P 2014, ‘Online Social Media in the Syria Conflict: Encompassing the Extremes and the In-Betweens’, pp. 1 -8

Smith, CM 2016, ‘Gaze in the military: authorial agency and cinematic spectatorship in ‘drone documentaries’ from Iraq’, Continuum: Journal Of Media & Cultural Studies, 30, 1, pp. 89 – 99

Taj, F 2010, ‘The year of the drone misinformation’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 21, 3, pp. 529-535