Teaching a class about war media to freshman at an expensive liberal arts college can be a tricky business. Students in my class had just arrived in New York City from far-flung places all over the country. Yet they all had two things in common: The first was that they had lived more than half of their young lives in so-called post-9/11 America – a nation embroiled in a shapeshifting war that has drawn on for over a decade. The second was that, aside from cursory knowledge gleaned from news coverage, they had very little connection to the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. These students are the heart of what I have come to think of as the "all-volunteer generation," a cohort of people raised during a time when American militarism commands vast amounts of human, economic, technological, and resources for war, but who can choose the extent to which they expose their bodies and minds to its potentialities.
This gap between first-hand experience of war and the way people come to know war from afar was the starting point from which we began our work together in class. For 15 weeks we gathered at the uncivilized hour of 8:30 A.M. to engage with war media that included critical theory, fiction, memoir, journalism, satire, and film. Like any good anthropologist, I encouraged them to be ethnographic in their investigations, paying attention not only to the content of a specific narrative, but to the form in which it was packaged. We approached war stories not only wanting to know “what happened,” but also what kinds of narrative strategies and evidence were used to bolster a perspective, and what may have been minimized or glossed over in service of coherence. Looking critically at these details helped us to better understand how war stories can help us to interpret the multiple meanings that we - modern American civilians - attribute to organized violence.
In class, it soon became clear that despite their lack of experience, my students, like most Americans, were anything but ignorant about war. In fact, its traces are everywhere, and most people who consume popular media are primed to recognize even its contradictory elements without much effort. War is loud, bloody, exciting, traumatizing, evocative of some of the best and worst in human capacities and responses to threats, both real and perceived. Or, it’s dull, alienating, and systematic, compelled by forces far bigger than the mere individuals who get caught up in its visceral and organizational machinery.
We know what war looks like from images we've seen in movies, on TV, and circulated through the Internet via social media and 24-hour news sites ever hungry for click-worthy content. When we want the facts, however, we turn to different sources. Once a war is over, it's history. The mountains of literature on the First and Second World Wars make clear how many varieties of hay can be made of a rough dozen years' worth of large scale conflict. Yet, with each new rendering, it becomes clear that the facts of “what happened” do not stand for themselves. Places and dates, military strategies, political analysis, and occasional testimony tell some of the story. But clearly, if that were all there was to tell, there would not be such an appetite for the continual rehashing and retelling, the relentless pouring over the details of what happened, and more importantly, why.
The mediascape has recently rippled with a resurgence of questions about how the systematic violence of Nazi Germany should be interpreted, largely connected to the release of a new biopic about philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt is renowned for her analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trial, published serially in the New Yorker in 1963 and which remains one of the most resonant theories about the nature of war in the industrial age. Yet, it has recently been argued, Arendt developed her ideas based on partial evidence, highlighting certain facts about Nazi systematicity while ignoring others.
Arendt condenses the Third Reich mentality into the dispassionate figure of the bureaucrat who orchestrates terror out of a desire for order and deference to authority regardless of the consequences. Not so, say new critics who argue that Eichmann's adherence to Nazi ideology was a matter of passion rather than obedience. While Arendt’s theories emerged from first-hand observations of the war crimes trial, a new paper trail of Eichmann’s activities during the war seem to reveal the makings for a different story. A virulent anti-Semite, Eichmann actually defied party leadership in order to ensure the suffering inflicted by the Final Solution would not cease, even when the tide had turned and it was clear that the crimes would be subject to the judgment of the international community.
The details, in this case, have the capacity to change the tenor of the story and give us a different way to envision the human capacity to neglect what we in the “human rights” era view as a moral and legal obligation to preserve lives that can be defined as innocent. In my class, we looked at the intentional killing of civilians in the Second World War from multiple perspectives, reading Arendt alongside John Hersey’s chilling vignettes of Hiroshima survivors (1989), W.G. Sebald’s musings on the literary silence regarding the destruction of German cities (2001), and Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical, sci-fi memoir about experiencing the fire-bombing of Dresden as a young American prisoner (1991). Using different kinds of evidence, these narratives each grapple in their own way with the problem of how to represent something that seems to elude representation, because of both practical exigencies and the limits of language and human capacities to witness and convey certain forms of experience. Though each of these stories offered the class a lens with which to understand the extent of the suffering caused by the war, the forms that frame them are often fragmented and partial, the facts of “what happened” eclipsed by the immensity of the significance they have for our understanding of ourselves and our cultural legacies.
The question of how to represent contemporary war has become no less complicated by virtue of its simultaneity and the wealth of information technologies offering the allure of instant access to the story on the ground. Just a cursory glance at headlines in this week’s news alerts us to ongoing violence in Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Yemen, Egypt, and Syria, to name only the ones worthy of the most column inches, or their digital equivalent.
Yet two refractions of war’s violence that have circulated outside of the traditional genres of reportage have been etched in my mind in recent weeks, adding new poignancy to the questions my students and I pondered together in class. The first is a raw and incisive commentary by the Italian freelancer Francesca Borri who has been reporting on the ground in Syria for the last 5 months. Her frustrated and alienated voice alerts us to a paradox that exists within the political economy of conflict reporting. War stories often unfold without a coherent narrative arc to guide us through, yet this does not keep our partial conclusions from having lethal consequences.
There are people who are, like Borri, willing to risk their own safety and comfort in the pursuit of vital bits of evidence that can help us understand the shifting borders and alliances that determines how cycles of violence are playing out in places like Syria. Yet, this vital form of labor is seriously dis-insentivized by insultingly low salaries and the privileging of stories that are more easily digested into pre-existing narratives about how state authority, ethnicity, and religion intermingle in regions marked by instability.
Another piece of similarly unconventional war media was not published in any established news forum, but rather, was circulated via Youtube and social media as a piece of “agitprop” performance. For those who wished to become spectators to what many define as torture, the rapper Mos Def offered his own body up to the visibly agonizing discomfort of force feeding, a procedure that is currently being used to nourish hunger striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility - at least until he forced his simulated captors to stop. It was a provocation meant to lend grotesque immediacy to commonly known facts.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission has condemned force-feeding as cruel and the World Medical Association has specifically forbid it. Yet the fact that it is ethically reprehensible and illegal cannot seem to penetrate the juridical safe zone that has been built up to countenance the ever-shifting moral and geographical terrain of preemptive military doctrine. The ambivalent relationship between what we cognitively know to be the truth and the eruption of that truth into sensory consciousness forms what anthropologist Michael Taussig has called “public secrets” – unacceptable realities that hide in plain sight. The condition of a public secret depends less on the state’s obstruction of the facts than on the unspoken rules of a public, whose most important social knowledge consists of “knowing what not to know.” It is this state of knowing/not knowing that I believe was being challenged by Mos Def’s performance. Whether or not such a tactic can successfully provoke more than passing outrage in a media landscape saturated with outrageous images remains to be seen.
Discussions of modern war often reference a figure called the "civilian soldier,” a person who pivots between the role of the "ordinary" citizen and that of a citizen who, during wartime, is enabled to kill and die on behalf of the nation. In the contemporary mediascape, discussions about the responsibilities, burdens, and needs of the citizen soldier are commonplace. These stories are important and must be told. Yet what of the citizen-civilian? What responsibility do we have as producers, curators, and consumers of media to play an active role in the shaping of our contemporary war stories?
My students took their role as citizen civilians seriously. What they lacked in experience, they made up for in curiosity, critical reflection, and a conviction that the conditions of living in a militarized society gives the circulation of war stories a unique significance and a set of responsibilities not shared by other forms of storytelling. I found their example encouraging. As the U.S. public continues to consider whether and how to intervene in regional conflicts like the one in Syria, how to end the disturbing trend of ethical abuses presented by preemptive war doctrine, and weigh the consequences of expanding counterinsurgency operations into Africa and elsewhere, I hope the rest of the citizen-civilian population will follow their lead.
Emily Sogn is a teacher, writer, and Ph.D. Candidate at New School for Social Research.
Hersey, John. 1989. Hiroshima. New York: Vintage.
Sebald. W.G. 2003. On the Natural History of Destruction. Anthea Bell, trans. New York: Modern Library.
Taussig, Michael. 1999. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford; Stanford University Press.
Vonnegut, Kurt. 1991. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Dell.