The second section presents reactions to such postmodern theorizing. Although these reactions come from a variety of places, they share a number of assumptions. For one, they tend to be rooted in an empiricist tradition, and argue their position from that standpoint. While the dominance of images over reality in the mediational field of the Gulf War is in no way denied, writers adopting this quasi-empiricist framework are not willing to grant that the image has come to supplant the real, and suggest instead that we simply did not have access to the right kinds of information. Thus, the project, from this perspective, is to reestablish what the postmodernists tend to see as hopelessly lost--empirically grounded knowledge about real events that transpired in the real world.
The third section offers my critique of both positions in order to assert that in certain ways each is making problematic assumptions about the nature of what figures as the real. The rest of the chapter sections move through a more detailed discussion of how various technologies used to wage war throughout history have been held responsible for creating a continual distancing from the experience of war on both the battlefront (where the actual killing takes place) as well as the homefront (where the reported killing takes place). I conclude by critiquing the notion that these mediating technologies have, in any generalizable sense, led to what is often considered a progressive estrangement from war, and argue instead that in certain cases (particularly on the homefront) quite the reverse is true.
Contemporary arguments asserting that the preparation, execution, and experience of warfare had undergone a fundamental shift were frequently predicated upon epistemological sensibilities reflective of the postmodern turn in science, art and literature. Jean Baudrillard is without doubt one of the preeminent spokespersons charting this terrain. Baudrillard's central thesis is that dramatic changes in technologies of reproduction have led to the implosion of representation and reality where simulacra come to replace the reality they once only signified: "Today the scene and the mirror have given way to a screen and a network. There is no longer any transcendence or depth, but only the immanent surface of operations unfolding..." (1987:12). He goes on: "It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself... " (1988:167).
As war broke out, Baudrillard was quick to provide an illustrative example of this thesis. In his ironically entitled article "The Reality Gulf," he asserts that the strategic site of the Persian Gulf War was not the desert sands of Arabia, but the screens of the world's TV sets (1991a:25). War had been reconfigured as electronic artifice and stripped of its traditional trappings, it remained ungraspable, undefinable, technologically mystified (1991c). From his perspective, it was a war enabled by revolutionary advances in information technologies and constituted in its mass media coverage:
We must now be satisfied with virtual reality... In our fear of the real, of anything that is too real, we have created a gigantic simulator. We prefer the virtual to the catastrophe of the real, of which television is the universal mirror. Indeed, it is more than a mirror: today television and the news have become the ground itself... Even soldiers have not been able to retain for themselves the privilege of real war (1991a:25).
The lamented outcome of this (Frankfurt School inspired) postmodern mass culture critique is that: "We no longer invest our objects with the same emotions, the same dreams of possession, loss, mourning, jealousy; the psychological dimension has been blurred..." (1987:12). Following suit, English journalist Benjamin Woolley writes, "missile targets were not real locations but map coordinates displayed on a VDU, troop movements were formations of pixels in computer-enhanced, false-colour satellite images. From a postmodern perspective, the entire war, at least on the level at which anyone could make sense of it, was just patterns on a screen" (1992:190-91).
One didn't have to look too deeply into popular culture to see that the dominant discursive field of this war quickly became a technologized, and technofetishized, one--Time's early reporting of how "Vast superiority in aircraft, tanks, training and logistics should help the U.S. score a quick knockout in a battle with Iraq" (January 21, 1991:34-35), Newsweek's cover story on "High-Tech Hardware" that included a pullout poster spotlighting "The New Science of War" (February 18, 1991), Topps' Desert Storm Trading Cards, Gulf War retrospectives produced for network and cable TV, video footage of bunker blow-ups taken from the nose-cones of smart bombs and simulated battle strategies, graphics, and logos generated on computer desktop publishing systems, all helped to make this point perfectly clear. Surprising? Unprecedented? Hardly. Extending human destructive potential through technological device, and then marketing that potential to the public at large, has been the story of war from the very beginning. What transpired in the Persian Gulf simply represented a variation on the theme.
Temporal and spatial barriers had collapsed; new information technologies allowed us to get closer to war faster than ever before. Paradoxically, from the postmodern perspective, it was through the use of those same technologies that we were kept and/or chose to remain strangely distant, a distance reflected in the war's massively mediated representation: "It looks like a fourth of July display at the Washington Monument," shouted CNN's John Holliman in the network's infamous live broadcast of the Allied bombing of Baghdad. "I feel like a young athlete after his first football match," said one U.S. pilot during a post-bombing run interview. "Baghdad was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was tremendous!" "It was exactly like the movies," said others. "This is the war--brought live straight into your living room. The biggest computer game of all time fought out right under your nose," wrote Sue Masterson in the Observer (Woolley 1992:193-97). And so the story went.
That the perceptual encoding of the war in the Gulf would take place more within a field of pleasure and entertainment than horror and docudrama paid fitting homage to a growing body of academic literature concerned with articulating the experiential and phenomenological reception of electronic media. The basic assumption of such accounts is that different representational technologies offer radically different ways of being-in-the world, and hence, as film theorist Vivian Sobchack puts it, alter our subjective experience by exciting different "sensual pleasures, aesthetic responses, and ethical responsibilities" which serves to selectively and uniquely "shape our 'presence' to the world and our representation in it" (1993:1).
Take for example the photographic. According to Sobchack, the photographic was dominant in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and is characterized by its ability to reproduce a moment frozen in time, previously only able to be captured so faithfully by the human eye. The image of the photograph is isolated and abstracted from the temporal flow. It is fixed in place and can be controlled, contained, circulated, and possessed:
The photograph "freezes" and preserves the homogeneous and irreversible momentum of this temporal stream into the abstracted, atomized, and secured space of a moment. But at a cost. A moment cannot be inhabited. It cannot entertain in the abstraction of its visible space, its single and static point of view, the presence of a lived-body--and so it does not really invite the spectator into the scene... (Sobchack 1993:8).
The primary difference between the transcendental moment of the photograph and the existential moment of the cinema is precisely this difference between a photographic scene which can only be contemplated, and a cinematic scene which can actually be lived. (Sobchack 1993:8). But even more important, in terms of theorizing the phenomenological distance believed to be inherent in the technologically mediated experience of the Gulf War, was the character of the electronic, a character perceived to turn the analogic quality of the photographic and the cinematic into discrete bits of abstract, digital information that are transmitted discontiguously and insubstantially across a network:
[While] the cinematic exists as a visible performance of the perceptive and expressive structure of lived-body experience ... [n]ot so the electronic, whose materiality and various forms and contents engage its spectators and "users" in a phenomenological structure of sensual and psychic experience that seems to belong to no-body... Thus, the "presence" of electronic representation is perceived at one remove from previous representational connections between signification and referentiality. Digital and schematic, abstracted from reproducing the empirical objectivity of realist Nature that informs the photographic and from presenting a representation of individual subjectivity and the modernist Unconscious that informs the cinematic, the electronic constructs a post-modernist meta-world where ethical investment and value are located in representation in-itself (Sobchack 1993:17-20).
It isn't too hard to see that although Baudrillard's and Sobchack's paths are slightly different their destination is very much the same: "Without the temporal emphases of historical consciousness and personal history, space becomes abstract, ungrounded, and flat--a site for play and display rather than an invested situation in which action '"counts" rather than computes. Such a superficial space can no longer hold the spectator/user's interest, but has to constantly stimulate it like a video game. Its flatness--a function of the lack of temporal thickness and bodily investment--has to attract spectator interest at the surface" (Sobchack 1993:22). Presumably, what this all leads to in the end, as Baudrillard argues, is the "progressive divestment" of politics from the scenes of history, and the everyday (1987:12).
Because electronic space is all surface it cannot be inhabited. Because it disembodies, instead of embodies, electronic representation presumably "liberates" one from any "deep structure of feeling" and creates a free-floating and impersonal presence that is "dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria" (Sobchack 1993:24). Thus, "we no longer partake of the drama of alienation," but instead float around rather aimlessly "in the ecstasy of communication" (Baudrillard 1987:22). If one is persuaded by this logic, a logic that I go to some length to disagree with (see "navigating THE cyberspaces of VIRtuAL WAR"), it becomes much easier to explain the celebratory nature of so much of the Gulf War experience. From a postmodern perspective, a war so dominated by electronic imagery, as was the U.S. led assault in the Persian Gulf, would "naturally" be experienced as a playful yet shallow abstraction of its former photographic and cinematic splendor. But the phenomenological shift this logic asserts was, for many wartime observers and armchair participants, exceedingly difficult to digest.
It was the surreal sense of celebration, playfulness, and the perceived lack of any deep and meaningful engagement that unleashed a barrage of trenchant commentary attempting to recapture and foreground what was seen as the more rightful horror and reality of war. In a book entitled Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War, American literary theorist Christopher Norris begins his first chapter by rhetorically asking: "How far wrong can a thinker go and still lay claim to serious attention?" He quickly answers: "One useful test case is Jean Baudrillard, a cult figure on the current postmodernist scene, and purveyor of some of the silliest ideas yet to gain a hearing among disciples of French intellectual fashion" (1991:11).
Norris rejects Baudrillard's position for being the outcome of adopting a far too fashionable and politically irresponsible, "postmodernist position" which believes "reality just is whatever we make of it according to this or that predominant language game, discourse, or mode of signifying practice" (1991:24). According to Norris one need simply reject this mystifying premise and the "real-world" war in which "countless thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed daily" will become more visible and, once visible, generate a morally appropriate outrage from viewers that would ideally lead to "real-world" political action. Indeed, as Elaine Scarry put it in her article "Watching and Authorizing the Gulf War," what this critically necessary rejection entails is a concerted effort to work out of our "infantilized position" in order to "regain the actual powers of military and civil deliberation that were the population's to begin with," (1993:69, emphasis mine) powers that disappeared with the spectacular immobilization of the American public, and now take purely mimetic form.
According to Norris, our collective migration into the realm of purely fictive or illusory appearances stems from the misguided belief that truth has gone the way of empiricist reason forcing an epistemological move to a point where there is no last ground of appeal to self-deluding enlightenment values that once possessed authority: "... the Gulf War figures as one more example in [his] extensive and varied catalogue of postmodern 'hyperreality.' It is a conflict waged--for all that we can know--entirely at the level of strategic simulation, a mode of vicarious spectator-involvement that extends all the way from fictive war-games to saturation coverage of the 'real-world' event, and which thus leaves us perfectly incapable of distinguishing one from the other" (1991:13-15).
The inability to distinguish fact from fiction was adopted by more than a few writers attempting to respond to the dangers they saw as endemic of uncritically accepting this transition to the "hyperreality" of war. Triumph of the Image: The Media's War in the Persian Gulf is a prime example, as the title clearly reflects, of the effort to document this move to the hyperreal, but only in order to muckrake it over a series of thirty essays and empirical studies by thirty-four authors from eighteen different countries. As the editors of the volume state in the Preface: "The triumph of image over reality and reason is the theme of this book" (1992:xi). The title of another recent work by Mark Crispin Miller: Spectacle: Operation Desert Storm and the Triumph of Illusion, can be read in a similar vein. American philosopher Douglas Kellner perhaps best epitomizes the resentful social critic struggling to see through the smokescreen of images created by the mass media before, during, and after the fighting. In a nearly five hundred page tome entitled The Persian Gulf TV War, he makes his agenda clear from the beginning: "In this book, I concentrate on how the mainstream media in the United States presented the Gulf War, though I am also interested in 'what really happened' and thus draw on a variety of sources to put in question the mainstream account of the war [and to] debunk the version ... presented on television... " (1992:7). The job, for these critics, then becomes how to set the record straight.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THESE PICTURES
The war in the Gulf dissolved spatial and temporal boundaries, creating a locational destabilization that allowed, on the one hand, postmodern theorists like Baudrillard and Woolley to struggle to understand how war has become a fragmented, decentered, staged event, a perfect copy that has no original, a playful parody of its former horror. On the other hand, it simultaneously allowed enlightenment theorists like Norris and Kellner to find such understanding politically problematic because of the perception that it caused one to live in a state of "terminal indifference with regard to truth and falsehood" (Norris 1992:22). So here we have a range of thinkers who (seemingly) have serious philosophical and epistemological differences but who nevertheless remain uniformly critical of what they see as a shifting mediascape, where there is an increasing "separation of the sign from what it signifies, culture from nature, truth from reality," and where all we are left with is "a panic-stricken production of the real and the referential" (Woolley, 1992:198-99). The enlightenment scholars simply hold out more hope that lost territory can be reclaimed. Postmodernist or enlightenment, both positions are obsessed with, or at the very least their rhetorical force relies upon, counterposing "reality" against "unreality," whether in order to assert that reality has become a simulation and we better just get used to it (a la Baudrillard, Woolley, and other similarly situated postmodern theorists) or to reject the simulation reality has become (a la Norris, Kellner, Scarry, and so many others).
But it is senseless to speak of a technologically induced shift from some prior historical moment that granted access to the "real" to the present moment of "unreality" characterized by nothing but an endless multiplicity of free-floating signifiers. To make such an argument presupposes that in a different time and place it was possible to directly experience an unmediated reality, that a one-to-one correlation between the experience of some thing and the interpretation of that thing existed, and that the type of information we now produce, disseminate, and consume is somehow less authentic, either because it is an ephemeral presentation, or a failed one. If it is perceived that we are losing touch with the real, that everything is now questionable simply because it is capable of being digitally (instead of simply analogically) encoded, rearranged and represented, it mistakenly implies that reality is not, and has not always been, socially mediated and made to mean. To retheorize the psychosocial impact of electronically mediated representations of war it is far more productive to reject the belief that technologically generated spaces are inherently unreal, divorced from human subjectivity, and serve only to take us ever further away from the reality of death and destruction. Instead we should shift the focus in order to look more closely at what the reality of death and destruction have become, and how the development, use and control of technology places us within contemporary fields of war.
If to mediate is to come between, to intercede or intervene, to remove or be distanced from a more direct experience of some thing, then clearly there are different kinds of mediation. For example, one could think of the act of touching, the perception generated through that act, and the sense made of that perception as one kind of mediated activity, one based on "direct" sensorial sensation. While touching is a direct physical experience of some thing in the world, the sense made of that thing still requires an interpretive act, mediated through physical perception as well as active cognition. Not so similarly, death perceived through its imag(in)ed representation on a radar, computer, or television screen can be thought of as a slightly different species of mediation due to the fact that the experience of the phenomenon being perceived is no longer dependent upon immediate physical proximity and sensory stimulation. Indeed this is the mode of thinking that provided space for postmodern as well as empiricist theorizing about how the historic development of technologies of war have led to a progressive estrangement from prior perceptions of war as relatively unmediated, to current perceptions of war as hypermediated.
But again it is important to note that just because one is distanced from a more direct sensorial experience of an event (the actual sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch of death) does not mean that one has no experience of that event (the represented sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch of that death), one's experiential reality is simply mediated along different dimensions. If I see dead flesh on the battlefield, its impact on my body and mind is largely dependent upon certain neurons in my brain firing off because they have been stimulated optically. Thus, my body is always acting as a mediating interface between my mind and my experience. Visual images presented through televisions and computers work in the same way, my neurons are optically stimulated, leading to a physiologic response, my mind interprets my bodily sensation. What is different is the associational connections dependent upon context that might lead me to interpret meaning differently in each situation. There was an unfortunate tendency to assume that the greater the physical distance between one organic body and another, the less real and more mediated (and increasingly estranged) the interaction between the two became. In the interest of complicating these ideas a bit further, let's look more closely at the role technology has played in facilitating this perception of "progressive estrangement," first for soldiers waging war on the battlefront, and then, for those vicariously experiencing its effects on the homefront.
Numerous authors have explored the myriad of ways technology mediates war. Many of them (see McLuhan 1968; Virilio 1983, 1989; De Landa 1991 for example) share the common assumption that as technologies of war being used on the battlefront become increasingly sophisticated, the consequences of their use recede further from view. Much of what follows draws upon that tradition, though not in order to advance an argument about war being less "real," but to begin mapping out the movement toward the alternate reality war has become.
One of the most significant developments in the art of organized killing occurred when the killer no longer had to physically penetrate the body of the victim. This was made possible with the invention of weapons like the throwing spear, the longbow, and the crossbow. These new weapons forced important changes in battlefield tactics and strategy. Different perceptual skills were required to be effective with the bow and arrow, the importance of finesse, sight and aim superseded the importance of brute force and the ability to physically overpower the enemy. Direct physical contact was no longer a necessity. The ability to shoot and kill from a distance had tremendous military and psychological advantage. In terms of lowering the risk of personal physical injury, shooting from afar was far preferable to stabbing, clubbing, or spearing from anear. The risk of direct bodily harm to the soldier from the enemy was considerably decreased, making it much safer to kill.
Weapons that could travel great distances also required new resistances to impede their performance, hence, the development of new fortifications like the wall (De Landa 1990:49). A good wall was often the best defense against your enemy's offense, and was one of the more prominent early mediators to be placed between warring parties. Considerable time and energy was expended in determining the most appropriate architectural layout and materials for constructing the wall, given the anticipated weaponry to be used against it. Arrows, though they might be able to clear the tops of walls could hardly pierce through them. The catapult solved that difficulty. The catapult was developed, as was the cannon, specifically to penetrate walled defenses.
As offensive weapons were designed to overcome the physical barriers placed before them, defensive weapons were continually fortified, walls became taller, fatter, and stronger. With the advent of the tank however, tall wall or fat wall, it didn't much matter, soldiers were lodged in thick metal containers capable of piercing practically anything placed in their way. Initially the tank was seen as a land-based analogue to heavily armored ships. The tank's mobility relied upon tracks that enabled it to move rapidly over rough and uneven terrain. Inside the tank the soldier was removed from direct bodily contact with the enemy and was typically encased within the most impervious materials available, with powerful cannons and rapid-firing machine guns ready to discharge at will. The development and use of semi- and automatic-weaponry, like those found on the tank, was another extremely significant technology that, analogous to the bow and arrow, forced new military tactics and strategy (see De Landa 1990:35-57). According to Virilio, it was the appearance of "saturation weapons" that now determined who would be victorious on the battlefield, instead of strategic troop disposition and movement (Virilio 1989:69-70).
While the tank provided a protective metal cocoon for the soldier on the ground, the airplane provided that cocoon in the air. Enemy targets and terrain could now be seen from a radically different point of view. What used to remain invisible and unknown to an army due to geographical barriers was now, thanks to aerial reconnaissance and mapping abilities enabled by flight, rendered much more visible and knowable. Simultaneously, the killing of the enemy continued to be pushed further from technically unaided sight. With the bombing and rapid fire capabilities added to the mapping ones, the nature of warfare was once again fundamentally altered. New methods of protection and surveillance had to be developed. Walls of earth and stone no longer served the same military purpose and were replaced with electronic walls, or curtains, of radar (De Landa 1990:55-56). Rather abruptly, the mediation of the battlefield by the organic eye was extraordinarily extended by the opto-electronic mediation of machines. Although the soldier was removed and relatively isolated from the battlefront, within the cockpits of the early tanks and planes the image of war continued to be mediated through the soldier's unaided sight of an object or target. But with the electronic curtain of radar, an ethereal blip on a screen came to represent the soldier's visual and experiential awareness of the enemy.
As the perceptual field of war continued to simultaneously expand and collapse both spatially and temporally--a greater degree of space and time could be known, accounted for, and controlled while, simultaneously, distance itself became less of an obstacle as the pace of war accelerated--the need to make sense of a rapidly accumulating amount of data became increasingly important. Activities that had been relatively simple before, like calculating the trajectory of an arrow, a cannonball, or a rifle, had become considerably more complex. Enter the computer, whose initial purpose was to automate the creation of artillery range tables previously done by ballisticians (De Landa 1990:42). However, things progressed rapidly from simple I/O (input/output) functions--where manipulation and interpretation of data by the computer was only possible with the direct assistance of a human operator--to increasingly complex decision-making tasks being entirely left up to the computer in the absence of any human interference.
This process of placing humans on the periphery, if not entirely outside, of decision-making loops through the use of computerized command and control systems is probably more responsible than any other technological development for creating a physical distance between the soldier and the battlefield, as well as for creating a psychological distance between the soldier's actions and the phenomenological experience of the outcome and effect of those actions. This distancing is precisely what gave rise to the perception that soldiers were being dislocated from any authentic affective engagement with either the body of the enemy, or their increasingly disembodied selves.
Clearly, being lodged miles away in a tankpit, tens of thousands of feet above the ground in a cockpit, or even hundreds of miles away in a command control center while pushing a button to fire a weapon that automatically locks onto a target, which itself appears as nothing more than an incandescent blip on a viewing screen, provides a mediated experience of the act of killing that is very different than running someone through with a sword. And it was precisely these sorts of experiential shifts taking place on the battlefield that provided the fodder for cultural critics wanting to claim that we had somehow lost touch with the real consequences of wartime activities. But equally as striking were experiential shifts occurring along another dimension, a dimension that shifts the focus from technologies used to aid the fighting and display of war to participants on the battlefront, to technologies used to aid the fighting and display of war to participants on ...
Synonymous with the popular perception that participants on the battlefront were becoming progressively estranged and/or distanced from the "real" experience of war, thanks to the technologies used to wage it, was the impression that the mass public was being similarly estranged and/or distanced from the real representation of war (Baudrillard 1991a, 1991b, 1991c; Crispin-Miller 1988, 1994; Cumings 1992; Der Derian 1992; Kellner 1992; MacArthur 1992; Mellencamp 1992; Mowlana et al. 1992; Ronell 1992, to name but a few). But this is a complicated and somewhat ironic story because in many ways the outgrowth of the development and use of modern technologies did just the opposite; it brought a certain kind of war closer to home than ever before.
For as long as there has been war there have been ways of disseminating information about it. Egyptians were recording accounts of war around 4000 B.C., although these were still mainly chiseled or painted on the face of stone, hardly a portable media or one capable of being disseminated to a mass audience. With the discovery of papyrus some 2000 years later, the first communication technology based on an easily transportable medium was developed, a medium that was militarily significant largely because it allowed the "control and direction of armies at a distance from a central bureaucracy" (McLuhan 1968:25-26). But in many parts of the world information about distant conflicts was transmitted using far simpler means. At the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., news of the Greek victory over the Persians during the Persian war was delivered to the people of Athens by word of mouth from a Greek messenger named Phidippides who had to run over 25 miles to give it (whereupon he promptly died, or so legend has it; legend also has it that he ran to Sparta and back before the battle--some 200 miles--to ask for help which was not forthcoming).
It was the invention of movable type and Gutenberg's printing press in the fifteenth century that took the production and dissemination of information out of the hands of an elite class of scholars and scribes and put it into the hands of the general population, and media for the masses was born. In 1909 American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley outlined four compelling points in order to explain how the new mass media--newspapers, magazines, and books--were fundamentally changing people's psychosocial interaction, and were far more effective than communication technologies of the past: 1) they were far more expressive in that a broader range of ideas, feeling, and political perspectives could be produced and consumed; 2) there was an overcoming of time because there was now a permanence of record; 3) there was an overcoming of space because of the swiftness of transmission; and 4) there was a centralized diffusion of information to all classes of people (De Fleur and Ball-Rokeach 1982: 8-9).
This notion of an increasingly centralized diffusion of information with the advent of a mass press is a crucial one. While stories from newspapers can be successively filtered in their retelling, they don't necessarily have to be. The same story appears no matter what part of the world in which it is consumed. Of course individual reception of that story will vary dependent upon a wide range of factors like age, sex, class, race, ethnicity, religion, mood, and so on. But the point remains, with the development of mass media more people could be similarly situated within a dramatically expanding mass audience, signaling a progressive incorporation and potential homogenization of the public's perception of war due to the technologies used to depict it. Thus as we moved from the diffusion of information via word of mouth to the diffusion of information via mass media there was less possibility, or, need for progressive modification in successive retellings.
During WWI and WWII, radio, along with the press, played a key role in disseminating news about war to a mass audience. In the 1930s and 1940s, at a time when almost every other industry was suffering severely from the Great Depression, sales of radio receivers were hitting new heights. The main advantage of radio technology was its ability to transmit electronic signals in real-time. This meant that war could now be broadly cast or broadcast instantaneously. One outcome of this, as Virilio puts it, was that: "With the compression of space-time, danger was lived simultaneously by millions of attentive listeners" (1989:78). No longer was it necessary to be in the field or on the front to get the latest breaking battle updates. All one had to do was tune in to the right station. In this somewhat paradoxical sense, the "real time" of radio is simultaneously more mediated--there are evermore intervening variables as sound stands in for physical presence--and less mediated--it allows instant access to distant times and places, breaking down temporal and spatial barriers.
While the printed press and radio provided the best source for the latest breaking news from the battlezone, it was the photographic and cinematic representation of war that was equally, if not more, captivating to a popular audience. While the Civil War was the first war in which still photographs were brought back from the battlefield, it was just over thirty years later in 1897 during the Greco-Turkish war that action from the front was first captured using motion picture film. Around 1910, newsreels, a popular method of dissemination during the two World Wars, began being used to capture and display war footage. In fact, in 1914 Mexican General Pancho Villa signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation giving them rights to all battle coverage, and promising, when possible, to fight during the day so that the action could be properly filmed (Bianculli 1992:209-11).
Beginning in earnest with WWII, coverage shifted from relatively brief news-style documentary accounts to full-length factualized and fictionalized narratives of war. It didn't take much to convince the U.S. Federal Government that film was a powerful medium for influencing public opinion, and the long-arm of the nation-state was quick to capitalize on movies' persuasive power, exerting considerable influence over the content of wartime Hollywood movies:
During the war the government ... carried out an intensive, unprecedented effort to mold the content of Hollywood feature films. Officials of the Office of War Information, the government's propaganda agency, issued a constantly updated manual instructing the studios in how to assist the war effort, sat in on story conferences with Hollywood's top brass, reviewed the screenplays of every major studio (except the recalcitrant Paramount), pressured the movie makers to change scripts and even scrap pictures when they found objectionable material, and sometimes wrote dialogue for key speeches (Koppes and Black 1990:vii-viii).
Film's tremendous power to influence public perception was, similar to the photograph and radio, largely due to the belief, ironically enough, that it provided a more truthful representation of wartime events. Photographs and films were seen as having the ability to faithfully reproduce reality, providing a one to one correspondence between an event in the world and that event's photographic or filmic depiction. The stylized representation of war in Hollywood film underwent another striking shift from the types of stories being told in the 1940s and 50s during and after WWII compared to the types of stories being told in the 1960s and 70s during and after Vietnam:
The film footage of World War II and Korea, however vivid or powerful, nonetheless carried with it an aura of Hollywood classicism, a distance that resulted--with some exceptions--from an attempt, under difficult conditions, to present "well-made" footage. Film images of the forties and fifties have the look and feel of the already done, the lost moment. The footage from Vietnam ... was produced by a generation of filmmakers imbued with the style and technique of cinema verite and direct cinema. One day relay of film and other forms of rapid dissemination gave much of what Americans watched on the evening news an immediacy and intensity that was new and forever shaped America's experience of warfare (Anderegg 1991:1-2).
The sense of immediacy and intensity created by employing this new filmic style played a significant role in creating the impression that war, as least as it was being re-played in the U.S. context, was now somehow being more accurately or realistically captured. Techniques like live-action interviews, documentary style filming and on-the-scene footage from the field, all added to the perception that what you were seeing and hearing was what was actually happening, a perception television news exploited to the fullest extent possible.
In many people's minds Vietnam was the first television war (see McLuhan 1968:134). This is something of a misperception, however, since television was used as early as 1944 at the end of WWII with NBC's debut of The War as It Happens, as well as during the Korean War when a weekly documentary series called See It Now was produced and aired in 1951 (Bianculli 1992:214-15). But television in the Vietnam era was different, primarily because of recent technological developments. Because newscasts were now broadcast in thirty minute formats, reporters in the field could film using videotape instead of celluloid (making time- and money-intensive developing obsolete); faster transport and communication systems reduced the time it took to get stories from the field broadcast back to the screens of America's televisions; and best yet, it could all be seen in Technicolor (Bianculli 1992: 217-19).
While film provided the viewer the vicarious experience of being present in an absent time and place within the context of a public theater, television gave viewers the luxury of this experience within the context of the home. But although television gave us lots of pictures and sounds of the battle in Vietnam, it still lacked the immediacy that the radio afforded. Film crews had to be transported to the front to shoot live-action battle footage, they then had to pack the film reel up in a canister and send it back to the states to be edited together and broadcast at some hopefully not-too-distant point in the future.
It was the development and deployment of satellite technologies that marked a big turning point in the portrayal of war on television during the Persian Gulf. With satellite technologies, the ability to provide a visual and auditory sense of "being-there" live on the battlefield suddenly became a possibility. While we can make reference to the radio as a medium capable of disseminating real-time information about war, it wasn't until Operation Desert Storm that real-time reporting was allowed to flourish. But for media critics, real-time reporting didn't seem to bring the war any closer to home, even though home was precisely where it was being replayed.
Virtually all of the writing in the aftermath of the battle presupposed that the various communications technologies used to represent war to the mass public, while seeming to break down barriers by allowing people to vicariously experience the sights and sounds of war in distant times and places, were actually taking us further away from knowing it. There has been an interesting sort of non-linear progression in the way that the mass public's knowledge of war has gone from being framed as extremely mediated (as in early human history when information was disseminated via word of mouth, epic poems, and oral histories--all far removed from actual battle sites/sights), to less mediated (as in recent human history where information was relayed through the photographic and cinematic apparati--apparati that seemingly allowed a faithful reproduction of distant events), to, once again, extremely mediated, indeed hypermediated (as in present history where information is dispersed through electronic channels of various sorts--channels that serve only to fragment data as it is reflected and refracted through a proliferation of screens). It was this sort of screening of war, believed to be so characteristic of Operation Desert Storm, that gave rise to reports about the simulated nature of postmodern warfare. As the targets of aggression--the bodies of the Iraqi infantry--receded further from view, and as the bodies of the infantry Allied on the battlefront were placed at ever greater distances from the actions they were directly and indirectly engaging in, the waging of war began to seem rather surreal.
But an important point to stress is the need--never adequately fulfilled--to look more closely at how mediation differs relative to where the person on the receiving end resides. Yes, the mediated reality of the battlefront for the fighting soldiers was in many ways quite extreme. The scope of vision had become increasingly narrowly focused, internalized and specialized. There were far more screens between human bodies at war. Comprehensive understandings of strategy and tactics were often not only discouraged, but impossible (see "Battle Scenes"). Thus, the notion of progressive estrangement had some merit--the physical bodies of Allied forces waging the war were able to remain further away from the death and destruction they were causing than at any other point in the history of armed conflict.
On the other hand, the extension of human subjectivity through technological device allowed for a perceptual closeness never before possible, no matter where the flesh of the Allied bodies resided. Particularly on the Western homefront, where physical bodies have almost always been at great distance from war, mediated realities had the potential to be far more broadly focused, externalized, and generalized. The scope of vision for the average viewer whose attention did not require micromanagement, as the soldier's fighting the war often did, had been radically expanded. In many ways, from the perspective of the home viewer, the sights and sounds of war were closer than ever before. The biggest problem for thinking about the Persian Gulf War was not simply that there had been a technologically instigated shift from what could be encoded as a "less" mediated experience of war to an "extremely" mediated one, but the shape and form that mediated experience took.
1. The included hypertext version of Norris' article actually comes from an essay that appeared in 1992 in Southern Humanities Review. Vol. 26, No. 1:43-66, not the book being referenced; the two pieces are, however, essentially the same.