War Porn, Video Games and Drones: Is Posthuman Fighting the Next Stage of Warfare?

What does it mean – not only for warfare but for humanity in general – when technology allows soldiers to fight at a distance from the battlefield, and when combat imitates a video game?

Eran Shalev
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In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan.
In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan.Credit: AP
Eran Shalev

“Light It Up: The Marine Eye for Battle in the War for Iraq” by John Pettegrew, Johns Hopkins University Press, 215 pages, $34.95

In the wake of the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, Israel Defense Forces division commanders were harshly criticized for managing and leading the operations of their large forces from rear command centers “through the plasmas.” The term “plasmas” refers to the thin, high-resolution screens that were used to watch, plan and direct the ground forces and coordinate the deadly combination of artillery, infantry, armored forces and air power against Hezbollah militants.

It seemed only natural that high-ranking officers would and should make extensive use of the advanced technology at their disposal to overwhelm a technologically inferior adversary. Yet with the indecisive conclusion of the fighting, with Israel not able to prevent Hezbollah from shooting rockets into its population centers, critics both within and without the IDF chastised the high-tech brigadier generals.

Popular opinion turned quickly against the commanders, who with their technologically enabled god’s-eye view of the battlefield seemed able to achieve only disappointing results during the month-long series of skirmishes. In the wake of the war, their conduct seemed inexplicable, only a little short of cowardly. Instead of watching the fighting through sterile flat displays that transformed the real world of blood, steel and mud into blinking representations, the commanders were expected, at least ex post facto, to have enacted the motto of generations of IDF officers: “Follow me!”

John Pettegrew’s excellent and insightful new book, “Light It Up: The Marine Eye for Battle in the War for Iraq,” underscores the fact that the managerial dilemma of Israeli officers is demonstrative of larger issues, and expresses tectonic changes not only in warfare but also, more generally, in the fateful interaction of humans and machines. Pettegrew follows what he calls “the optics of combat” to lead readers through a critical tour de force of the new visual culture of battle, and specifically to the ocular dynamics of modern American war-making.

The author, a history professor at Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, states that a techno-visual revolution at the turn of the 21st century has transformed modern fighting in important ways. First, it brought to the fore powerful technologies of seeing: To put it bluntly, war-makers can see much further and more safely.

The most obvious example would be the imaging systems on predator drones that record and relay events in real time and in any weather. The novelty of an American “pilot” killing a militant in Afghanistan from a command center in the U.S. heartland early enough to be home for dinner has become almost a cliché. Cliché perhaps, but real: If the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 was conducted by American commandos, the most significant operation of the War on Terror since then – the killing of the Taliban’s leader Mullah Mansour just last month – was conducted by a drone attack, reflecting the changing nature of the American projection of power.

Drones have clearly risen to a prominent, if not dominant, role in American war-making. But extensions of the human eye to fighting go far beyond the use of drones, and are already deeply embedded in modern war. From thermal imaging and night-vision goggles to rifle scopes that allow infantry soldiers to shoot the enemy literally from around the corner – “technologies of seeing” continue to tip the equation of the asymmetrical war (the author quotes a military expert who concludes, “Marines are now able to fight completely in the infrared spectrum”). High-tech sensors, trackers and high-powered gun sights dramatically increase Western armies’ superiority in firepower and optics and hence their capacity to inflict damage.

At the same time, the very same technologies have buffered Americans from the mortal dangers of battle. As the author relentlessly reminds us, these overwhelming technological advances breed significant tensions between the millennia-old ideal of the male warrior and its idealization of physical prowess, on the one hand, and the new techniques for wreaking violence located in the eye and expressed through skills and forms of killing from a distance, on the other.

‘War pornography’

The extensions of the biological limits of the human eye are only one facet in the dramatic transformation in the visual culture of battle. Pettegrew explores another crucial aspect of this revolution – namely, cultural constructions of the imaging of battle, what the author calls “war pornography.” The advent of the cellular smartphone and YouTube, or the ubiquitous camera and the means of the distribution of video content the ubiquity of both cameras and the means to distribute, has had acute significance for representations of war, and thus the mental construction and later acting out of lethal combat violence. Referring to “the vast cultural project” of capturing graphic images of violence from the battlefield and aggrandizing its destructiveness and passions, Pettegrew suggests that video has proved to be an especially effective representational form. “Light It Up” deftly explores how “war porn” from Iraq has helped project U.S. military force by enabling its countless (though not literally, as YouTube keeps a diligent count of the billions of hits on its videos) viewers to identify with – and even desire to imitate – the behavior such videos represent.

The author is persuasive when he argues for the actual influence of videos, movies and video games not only on the recruitment of soldiers, but also in informing and constructing their expectations of battle, and thus shaping their behavior there. Indeed, war-making and entertainment were never so close, as evident by the fact that Marines spent hours during their Iraq deployment in video-gaming with their Xbox consoles, Gameboys and laptops, which were loaded with violent first-person shooter games such as Doom and Wolfenstein.

Pettegrew concludes that video games have become so prevalent that the post-September 11 wars have seen American troops playing them “before, during, and after deployment.” On the institutional level, too, the military has been deeply involved for decades with gaming and simulation companies to enhance its soldiers’ training. We are yet to discover the long-term consequences of such practices for rifle-bearing soldiers, for whom a basic frame of perception is ever more immersed in increasingly realistic (and violent) simulation and video games.

Pettegrew overlooks, however, one aspect of the connection between the YouTube effect and the carrying of institutional violence. Only recently has the FBI’s director correlated the rise in murder rates in American cities with the fear of police forces to engage with criminal activity due to the so-called Ferguson effect – namely, the viral character of police brutality captured on video, and police officers’ refraining from engaging due to the fear of having their actions photographed and turned against them. The current wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence has also seen its share of aggressors turned defendants due to the power of the iPhone. Video may act as a two-edged sword, in that it can both induce and inhibit violence.

The author asks whether the Marines (the military branch on which the book focuses) can survive as a corps on the modern, high-tech battlefield. The question is of course much wider, and applies to the fate of a culture in which the masculine code of the warrior is deeply embedded. While Pettegrew focuses on a specific branch of the American military in a specific conflict (and from a stated political standpoint, which is critical of the Iraq war) the questions he raises and his suggestions apply universally.

What then is the place of soldiers trained to follow a hyper-masculine culture that values risk-taking, adventure and heroism, in a world dominated by computers, missiles and unmanned aerial and ground vehicles? Pettegrew argues provocatively that military novelties, such as physical (“exoskeleton”) enhancements to the human body, may bring about a new cognitive and affective paradigm. In other words, we are witnessing the rise of a genderless (and thus potentially less bloody and pugilistic) cybernetic combat, one that is located much more in the targeting eye than in the overpowering body. Will the geographic distancing of the killer from the killed ease the hypermasculinity long associated with war?

To answer such questions, Pettegrew explores developments that seem to edge us toward a brave and extremely perilous new world of “post-human fighting.” While the Warrior’s mind and body, which have been traditionally been trained to glorify blood, sweat and tears, may be from Mars, the genderless cyborg is not from Venus. We are yet to witness the meaning and consequences of this new human-less stage of warfare and of the effect it will have on the entrenched legacy of manliness and eagerness for battle, of sacrifice and heroism. As more and more military tasks are delegated to nonhuman and ever more autonomous entities, thus initiating “posthuman fighting,” we will confront new and demanding moral, psychological and operational questions.

The computerized eye for battle, as Pettegrew puts it, has already exceeded many human abilities and improved some of the shortcomings of biological sensory perception. As the resistance to the plasmas proved only a decade ago, however, boots on the ground are here to stay, at least for the meantime, for good, bad or worse.

Eran Shalev is the chair at the history department of Haifa University.

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