War and Art

“If I had to sum up current thinking on precision missiles and saturation weaponry in a single sentence, I’d put it like this: once you can see the target, you can expect to destroy it.”

— William J. Perry,
Former U.S. Defense Secretary

Cinema, or rather most “mainstream” narrative cinema, has two distinct though nonexclusive faces. On the one hand, movies organize images into orders that, in their unfolding over time, give some meaning to those images and their interrelations. Usually these orders coalesce into stories of some kind, as the suspenseful play of giving and concealing information about the characters gradually produces a whole and satisfying tale. Movies can also offer arguments and explanations (think of the “safety procedure” videos on airplanes), which similarly bring certain visual/aural “facts” to the fore, arrange them and render them significant. The other side involves all those moments when narrative or explanation are temporarily arrested in order to offer us a more direct sensory charge (or “buzz,” or “thrill”): dance scenes, sex scenes, special effects fireworks of all kinds. Of course, the two “sides” can blur into one another and always thoroughly interact, as when (for example) an exciting shootout becomes the pretext for some further narrative: usually, a narrative of revenge.

Wars are not movies, despite the fact that most of us receive all our knowledge about wars in cinematic or televised form, and pace the “generalissimo” pretensions of the most hubristic directors. Still, comparisons of war with cinema may not be entirely gratuitous, keeping in mind their shared dependence on narrative and the visual. Not only do armies need to make a whole range of largely visual distinctions — most fundamentally between friends and enemies, with “uniforms” used to simplify this separation — but wars, to legitimate themselves, require both narrative justification (“why” we’re doing this) and the promise of satisfying closure (the “happy end”). On the ground, soldiers depend on the narrative play of visibility/invisibility as well; a good strategy, like a good storyteller, keeps the interlocutor guessing. Most importantly, combatants (as Paul Virilio notes in “War and Cinema)” require a clear, meaningful purview of the “theater of war,” even while they generate the very chaos (destroying landmarks, wrecking infrastructure) that undoes any steady perspective; successful closure of this dynamic (by one side or the other) is one of the meanings of “victory.”

War films, too, oscillate between accounts of the “progress of the war” (often focusing, as in historical novels, on the interaction of the lives of the rank-and-file with the larger “theater”) and representations of violent conflict whose impact can be quite literally “visceral” (see “Saving Private Ryan”). In our day, the form of visual culture most immediately bound to the unfolding of war is not cinema but television; yet clearly enough, the media “coverage” of the war contains both narrative/expository and “spectacular” elements. In the first category, we have not only “stories from the field” but endless maps, charts, computer simulations, satellite cartography and so on. On the other side, think of the images of “strikes,” those big, loud, exciting explosions, sometimes accompanied by audible moans of appreciation from the TV “pundits” themselves. Plainly, this media exhilaration equally extends to their own power to broadcast “information” from any point and (aided by “night vision”) at all times — a news technology best regarded as an appendage of the military’s own surveillance apparatus. Perhaps the perfect fusion of meaning and spectacle is provided by the now-familiar black-and-white images of “precision” targeting: a placidly rational grid, punctured at the bull’s eye by a captivating puff of devastation that (apparently) leaves no bloody residues.

There are, of course, other images less susceptible to such fusions, and censorship spares us some of them: the sight of bodies burned and shattered by bombardment, ruined cities and towns, polluted land, air, and water, and (less visibly) devastated social networks. Yet the “bad stuff” can’t be ignored, and the larger goal of war-as-cinema (i.e., on the ideological level, and setting aside strategies of simple denial) is to absorb both the “unwatchable” pictures and any untoward elation about our spectacular technological prowess into a narrative that both justifies and satisfies. At the moment, the dominant trope is perhaps the damsel-in-distress story, familiar in cinema at least since D.W. Griffith and formally characterized by continual crosscutting between the hapless damsel (classically tied to the railroad tracks) and the inexorably advancing hero. In the present conflict, “coalition forces” are cast as the heroic rescuers, with the “Iraqi people” (terrorized by a suitably dark, mustachioed villain) in the damsel’s role. To be sure, other, competing narratives exist; they tend, however, under the dominant discourse, to get lumped together under the rubric of “conspiracy theories.”

The arguments used to justify the present war centered on issues of visibility and concealment. And proving the Iraqi regime’s “guilt,” at least to the public, will depend rather heavily upon visual “documentary evidence” to fill in the footage missing from the legitimizing narrative. A sort of virtual scripting of the war’s proposed aftermath has been happening, involving both comic and tragic trajectories. One half of the movie will be comic and filled with sunlight and air; its protagonists are crowds of cheering Iraqis, offering warm handshakes and baskets of domestic produce to their rescuers. The other part of the scenario is of tragic or perhaps gothic tonality, with its locations placed decidedly under ground: the projected revelations of vast caches of WMDs, and grim (perhaps even “unwatchable”) images from Saddam’s scream-proof cellars. Indeed, the fascination with “night vision,” along with the weird silence registered most of the time by the cameras mindlessly recording what they “see” from hotel rooftops in Baghdad, suggests a hidden yearning for some new penetration of the camera into opaque and subterranean worlds. As we come to feel that the real action in the city is happening below the surface, a truly underground cinema is required to get “the whole story”: to expose the illicit stashes of weaponry, nestled in the earth alongside the torture chambers, secret bunkers, still-undiscovered Mesopotamian antiquities, and Iraqi oil. (Anyone interested in developing such a cinema might glean some stylistic clues from “Dark Days,” Marc Singer’s harrowing documentary about homeless people living in NYC subway tunnels.)

In the mind, many of us have even “screened” our own fragmentary versions of these scenarios. One might well imagine some intrepid producer already commissioning scripts and perhaps even shooting scenes along comparable narrative lines, prior to the war’s “conclusion” — much as the “coalition” itself has wasted no time in pre-emptive apportioning of Iraqi land and resources to various global-corporate beneficiaries — constructing the sets, as it were, for staging a whole array of projected post-bellum narratives.

In both fantasies — comic above ground, tragic or gothic below — what is really at stake are versions of Iraqis and of us. Because they are stories of global consequence, we can be certain that visual “documents” will be carefully selected, ordered and disseminated to cohere with and authenticate the anticipated denouement. Yet neither “we” nor “the Iraqis” can be scripted at all, of course, as recent and deadly visual confusions at checkpoints and elsewhere have demonstrated; nor can we clearly discern what sort of welcome the liberated damsel will offer her rescuer. It’s in those moments of frustrated narrative expectation — moments that just don’t make sense — that our (bad) Hollywood framework for apprehending the war gets displaced by a more authentically documentary mode, wherein we realize that the “characters” are not actors but acting, trying to write their “script” for themselves and in ways we might not grasp.

JOHN MACKAY is an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Yale University. He teaches courses in Russian film and film theory.

This column originally appeared in Yale Daily News.


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