In the viral video realm, amateur Iraq war footage ranks just behind pornography, celebrities’ drunken exploits, and shark attacks. Do these videos represent what Sontag called our “right to view,” or are they a porn medium made from leftovers of a world filming its self-destruction?
From two hundred yards, a handheld digital camera tracks a Humvee down a desolate road. Voices, in Arabic: “Keep the camera on it!” “Allahu akbar.” Most of the audience at last year’s MoMA screening of Mauro Andrizzi’s documentary Iraqi Short Films was probably thinking what I was. It was hardly surprising that many of them got up to leave before the conclusion of the film. I am going to watch these American soldiers die. The Humvee and the soldiers trundle along, perfectly in the center of the crosshairs of the camera. Then, unceremoniously, the Humvee explodes into a ball of flame. There is an audible gasp from the person sitting behind me. A few seconds later—and here is where many in the audience got up to leave—a second vehicle inches its way, in excruciating real time, to the crash site before also bursting into flame.
Those who stayed until the end of the film witnessed a collage of sorts, a barrage of short clips of increasingly and astonishingly bloody footage. Soldiers and insurgents filming themselves firing machine guns at each other, tanks crushing cars and reducing buildings to rubble, graphic close-ups of dead and dying civilians, snipers on both sides recording their hits (“I got him, I got him” translates remarkably well from Arabic, as does “Shoot the motherfucker!”), KBR trucks ambushed, helicopters shot down, bombs dropping from the sky freeze-framed the moment before impact (“See you in fucking hell, dude,” one U.S. soldier offers in voiceover), masked insurgents and American soldiers alike mugging before the camera, British soldiers making amateur dance videos, alleged spies executed on the street by handgun, dead children, and many, many car bombs, IEDs, and people bursting into flame. Above all, it was war as obscene spectacle, slowed down and mesmerizingly, shamefully violent. Interspersed throughout the film are interludes of ironic commentary—quotes from T.E. Lawrence, Dick Cheney (“I think for us to get American military personnel involved in a civil war inside Iraq would literally be a quagmire”), C. Wright Mills, and Mark Twain—that highlight the absurdity, cynicism, and hopelessness of armed conflict. Like comedy in a horror film, these interludes allowed the audience to catch its breath only to dread what would come next. That’s about it. Ninety minutes of carnage and irony. Yet if the violence of Andrizzi’s footage seemed shocking and incomprehensible, and the urge to look away in anger, shame, or sadness strong, I also had the uncanny sense of having seen these images already. In many cases, I actually had.
Ostensibly an impassioned critique of mainstream media coverage of the war, Andrizzi’s film contained no original footage—Andrizzi, a twenty-nine-year-old filmmaker from Argentina, has never been to Afghanistan or Iraq or, as far as I can tell from his biography, any other warzone. The film instead appropriates and consolidates images that have found a second life on the Internet as short and seemingly unfiltered acts of violence. Such footage—YouTube slideshows, passionate pro- and anti-war pleas, insurgent recruitment videos, crudely satirical musical mash-ups, amateur documentaries by soldiers themselves—has become an increasingly popular sub-genre in the viral video phenomenon, ranking somewhere behind pornography, the drunken exploits of celebrities, police videos, and shark attacks in online popularity. Images both mundane (soldiers goofing off) and obscene (dead children) have found a second life within a digital landscape that has spawned no shortage of academic theorization, much of which is devoted to the idea that digital media has rendered the world unknowable. Digital atrocity footage, it seems, has created a new blindness toward the war through which aesthetic shock has replaced critical understanding.
The footage that rankled the audience at MoMA has been seen by thousands, and the best known videos—of beheadings, particularly gruesome deaths, spectacular explosions—by hundreds of thousands, even millions. The self-censoring moral logic of Internet pornography can be traced in the number of views each video receives. Compare the 41,081 views for “Little Iraqi Girl Hit By Car Tossed Like Rag Doll” to the 91,308 views of “Apache Helicopter Stalks and Obliterates Suicide Bomber.” On Youtube, where both users and administrators exercise some control over horrific content (generally meaning that the site’s archive of sniper-cam footage is confined unequally to the stalking and obliterating of Iraqis), over ten million people have witnessed Yagsiecapsym’s (read it backwards) “US MARINES in Iraq Real Footage Warning Graphic,” which appropriates many of Andrizzi’s safer images to the tune of 009 Sound System’s “With a Spirit.”
Digital Internet footage has overtaken the photograph as the modern form that most closely approaches the intolerable; there exists on every screen the possibility to see what no one should see.
Such images are double acts of representation. While its perspective necessarily extends beyond the field of vision of an individual soldier, the photographer, or the victim, the technological process of capturing the image on film and screening it for a passive audience creates a further distance between the traditionally “real” and what is seen on the screen. Iraqi Short Films merely couples such “unreal” images with a vague and not entirely persuasive anti-war message—war is crazy, war is unknowable, war is spectacle. Yet even if its hollow ironies fail, the film’s fractured obscenities, made lovingly strange on the big screen, remain unsettling and nearly unwatchable.
In short, the proliferation of atrocity footage on the Internet has complicated the ethical and aesthetic landscape of how and why we watch the suffering of others. If technology grants every war a dominant representational medium (consider the role of television during the Vietnam War), the digital aesthetic associated with Internet video perhaps most closely inhabits our contemporary anxiety about the wars fought in our name—our ability to see and not see, and our desire both to know and not know. The Internet passively collects the visual dregs of a world where anything and everything can be captured on film. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag argued that to be a spectator of calamity has become quintessential to modern experience, with photographs of atrocity haunting modern consciousness. Visual understanding, though, is also an ever-changing experience, and it may be that digital Internet footage has in many ways overtaken the photograph as the modern form of technological representation that most closely approaches the intolerable; there exists on every screen the possibility to see what no one should see. This is no longer the case with photography. Digital footage is not framed in somber gallery exhibitions, mounted on museum walls, or filtered through any editorial process. Such images now belong to the public domain, for better or worse. They have lost almost all sense of origin, and function as a kind of traumatic global currency. The same images are recycled countless times for wildly divergent aesthetic and ideological purposes. For Sontag, there is always a moral need to question our right to witness atrocity: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it… or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”
The problem with voyeurism and the Internet, though, is that the idea of “the right to look” may have become obsolete. Atrocity footage has been taken out of the hands of those who would previously have held such moral responsibility—governments, journalists, censors, teachers, etc. The images are simply there for anyone who wishes to look. We imagine their existence, haunted by glimpses of what we have actually seen, and often choose not to look further.
At their core, such images remain visible traces of what has happened, even if they seem incomprehensible. In their democratic lack of artifice and ornamentation, they suggest the closest approximation we have to reality; this makes them intolerable. In this, such video has played a role in the upheaval of traditional journalism. How can a reporter with even total access compete with a soldier attaching a camera to his helmet during a firefight? This immediacy fuels journalism’s increased obsolescence; despite the American media’s remarkably successful attempts to shield its viewers from gruesome images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ease with which digital photos and videos can be recorded and disseminated has largely antiquated traditional military censorship. While mainstream networks were still fretting over whether to show flag-draped coffins on the nightly news, wrestling internally over the complicated ethics of embedded journalism, and creating ever more extravagant banners and catchphrases, camera phones quietly and permanently altered the journalistic landscape.
In their anguished and provocative memoirs, it is telling that both Richard Engel and Dexter Filkins confess to the sickening helplessness they felt upon first seeing images of atrocity emerging from a city too dangerous even to enter. In his War Journal, Engel, already numbed by his role in packaging “aftermath pix” for a largely uncaring public, describes the spring and summer of 2005 as a “blur of murders, bombings, shootings, and kidnappings”—unknown and unknowable. It is not surprising that Engel should resort to a visual metaphor of unseeing. Engel is trapped in his hotel as images of Nicholas Berg’s beheading spread nearly instantaneously across the globe.
Amateur atrocity footage appropriates the queasy aesthetics of first person shooter video games, the camera fusing with the gun-barrel—snuff films for the joystick and Jackass era.
Filkins’s much-lauded The Forever War follows a similar path, casting the miasma of the war in the language of impassioned, gonzo-inflected journalese—the writer as witness, participant, and victim. And yet despite the power of their angry memoirs, what is striking is just how much the war seems to overwhelm their ability to make sense of it in traditional narrative. Like Sontag, their despair privileges experience—those who know, those who have the right to know—over our voyeurism, but I’m not sure that our contemporary war culture respects such a distinction.
There is something in the accidental and arbitrary nature of amateur digital footage that seems deeply real. This accounts for its continuing power to shock. There is no room for making sense of what you are seeing, no aesthetic consideration of framing or composition—you can only look. Although the Abu Ghraib photos are paradigmatic to our conversation, it is the largely anonymous quality of amateur digital video that marks the footage. Its amateurishness heightens its authenticity and erodes the boundaries between spectator and participant. From afar, you are there, without context and commentary getting in the way. At their worst, such images appropriate the queasy aesthetics of first-person shooter video games, the camera fusing with the gun-barrel—snuff films for the joystick and Jackass era. Yet it would be foolish to dismiss such rambunctious images as simply pornographic. The power of these images lies in our perception that they best convey the chaotic reality of postmodern warfare to an audience that takes the fractured, the obscene, and the unknowable for granted. Who is killed, where, and why are no longer relevant questions. We entertain the notion that we are too sophisticated even to ask. We are looking at the war, and we are looking at ourselves looking.
All that remains is what Sontag calls “the pleasure of flinching.” Whether or not we choose to look at these images (and for the most part we choose not to look at them), these images are the closest things we have to a war that has become increasingly, and perhaps comfortingly, unreal. It is this comfortable unreality that drives Sontag’s insistence that spectators of atrocity think past their sympathy, grief, and shock, the sheer sense of amazement that such horror exists, to think critically—to reach what she calls “moral or psychological adulthood.” This is for Sontag the only imperative contained within images of horror: “To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”
What is at stake here is precisely the ethics of shock and incomprehension, which in popular Internet footage have become aesthetically entangled. The more the footage revels in the insanity—the sheer mindlessness and bloodlust of combat—the more viewers respond, feeling closer to the real, ultimately fetishizing the spark and ignoring the flame.
One result of this has been a surge of fictional films that appropriate the aesthetics of Internet atrocity for often dubious storytelling purposes. Think of the near-beheadings that punctuate such Hollywood tripe as The Kingdom or Body of Lies, soft-core snuff, so to speak, that titillates through the haunted digital memory of Nicholas Berg. Or Brian De Palma’s vicious, brilliant, and unwatchable film Redacted, which repeatedly implicates its audience’s capacity to rationalize atrocity. Recasting the plot of his own Casualties of War as a series of short Internet clips, the film’s increasingly ludicrous framing devices highlight the changing visual landscape of digital technology. The film ends with a brash intertitle that reads “Collateral Damage.” What follows are horrific (and real) photos of dead children, their eyes “redacted” by black marker to protect their identities. As a last fuck-you to his audience, though, the final, heartbreaking photo is of the corpse of a young girl we assume is the real-life victim that inspired the story. The photo is actually a fake (I had to look it up), and in blurring the line between fact and fiction, the film ultimately risks emptying its outrage, focusing its gaze on the profession of filmmaking rather than the profession of war-making.
Even Paul Haggis’s unusually sober In The Valley of Elah, which traces the aftermath of war in miniature, engages in the hazy moral calculus that Redacted so savagely tries to bury. Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a grieving father trying to decipher a corrupted bit of digital video in order to explain his son’s murder upon returning to America from Iraq. The plot structure is that of the classic detective story. He discovers that his son had committed a war crime, the torture of a wounded prisoner, but In the Valley of Elah makes the crime itself a moment of allegorical incomprehension; what is even worse, it elevates this incomprehension to the level of tragedy. Movingly, it casts the torture of prisoners as a symptom of post-traumatic stress rather than a symptom of war; Jones’s son hurts a nameless other because he himself is hurting. His victim is incidental to the mechanics of the plot, a fictional counterpart to Redacted’s young victim. Deerfield’s son’s death is metaphorical; like wounded soldiers returning from the occupation, he is destroyed—cast aside, dismembered, and incinerated like trash on the side of the road. The film’s deep empathy for returning soldiers abandoned by their government is no doubt sincere, but the film’s conflation of aggression and victimhood dubiously replaces difficult questions about complicity and torture with emotional drama, shielding its viewers from critical awareness by elevating its narrative into a tragedy that engulfs all of America; but it is ultimately a tragedy that only America is given the right to own.
In On Photography, Susan Sontag despaired that the proliferation of atrocity photos risked taking away from their power to shock us into outrage and political action. Instead of changing the world, she argued, photography invites us, passively, to collect it. This is the reaction, she feared, to a world that had become unknowable except in its photographic aftermath. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag further insisted that the right to look be earned in the service of political change; anything else is voyeurism.
It may be then that the Internet, with its ability to make such atrocity images available everywhere in an instant, has created a global collection for which no one can take responsibility. Iraqi Short Films brought these images to MoMA, but to what end? What did I gain by staying as others walked out? Such images unsettle our visual understanding of the world just enough to stimulate us with the pornography of their violence. If the spectacle, though, simply becomes a vehicle for incomprehension and disgust, it can only further fuel political complacency. By tickling our desire for the real—or for the hardcore, to be more precise—these images quietly invite us to say, Yes, yes I know while looking away, turning off the computer, walking out of the theater, or flipping the channel.
Videos discussed in this essay (warning: extremely graphic):
“US MARINES in Iraq Real Footage Warning Graphic”
An example of “helmet cam” footage after an IED attack
What looks like an insurgent video
Nicholas Sautin is a doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center and currently teaches English and Composition at Brooklyn College.