In our hyper-visual culture, where the hidden lenses of reality television shape the domestic lansdscape, where even cruise missiles have cameras attached to them, what significance can we afford to a written record of wartime combat? Traditionally, there has always been a strong relation between war and literature. Nineteenth-century wars of nationalism and/or liberation formed the key setting for writers such as Tolstoy and Stendahl, while the major wars of the twentieth-century provided new creative possibilities for writers as diverse as Hemmingway, Jünger, Celine, Joseph Heller and Claude Simon, to name only a few. Arguably there is a strong affinity between the experience of combat and the aesthetic project of modernism — both concerned themselves with situations where the coherency of the individual subject broke down. Under combat conditions, normal sensory patterns of orientation foundered and, when not directly using military metaphors, modern writers and artists aimed for an analogous derangement of the senses. Modern combat and modern culture expressed a similar yearning for the sublime, where irrespective of the decline of traditional forms of authority there seemed to remain a desire for the individual subject to be overwhelmed by experiences which could not be contained within modern forms of reason.
The radical states enabled through modern combat and envisaged in modern aesthetics have to some extent been normalised within contemporary culture. Being immersed within an ever-shifting culture of images and consumption means that there is less of an integrated self to be undermined through radical experience. At both a personal and a collective level, our sense of who we are and what we identify with is more malleable. The dominance of an image culture also means that militarised violence is no longer an altogether strange experience, we see it continually in films, video games, on the internet and so on. Indeed the craving for ‘extreme’ experiences has led to the insertion of a ‘risk’ culture into our leisure activity — the rise of extreme sports serves as the most obvious example. While violent combat remains a situation more extreme than anything encountered in civilian life, it does seem as if the latter increasingly comes to resemble the former.
To even relate the experience of soldiers in the current Iraq venture is something of a radical gesture within the contemporary context. The public image of war promises a war without casualties, while government bans on displaying photos of flag-draped coffins contribute to a culture of denial by suppressing the realities of combat. The countries of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ seem intent on waging a war without responsibility for the violence and destruction that accompanies it. Only the occasional shocking images of tortured bodies or executed hostages on the internet seems capable of piercing this veneer.
In this context, it is worth examining the first book to come out on the current Iraq war that details the actual conditions of combat. Generation Kill follows Evan Wright, an ‘embedded’ reporter for Rolling Stone, as he travels with marines in the first weeks of the Iraq invasion. The marine battalion’s mission largely consists of rushing into towns across Iraq ahead of the main troop forces and drawing out enemy fire. Despite the fact that these marines are involved in a more dangerous than usual mission (they are nicknamed ‘first suicide battalion’), the asymmetry of forces is immediately apparent. The Humvees they travel in may only be lightly armoured, but the marines — backed by air-strikes, dressed in Kevlar vests and helmets, and with the superiority of night and laser vision — are virtually indestructible. Any potential source of enemy fire is simply destroyed — by airpower, or through the devastating firepower of the fifty calibre machine guns that can collapse a whole building. By and large, the marines have no doubts about killing; generally they move too fast to see the consequences of their actions. When they do see civilian casualties — a mother with an injured child after a mistaken shooting — many are remorseful. However, within hours they are caught up in the frenzy of killing again, fuelled with a constant supply of instant coffee granules.
If high-tech weapons allow for the fantasy of a war without casualties, the fact that many of the actual troops in Iraq come from poor or dysfunctional backgrounds means that those bodies put on the line are in some way already ‘invisible’. Wright’s marine battalion ‘represent what is more or less America’s first generation of disposable children’. More than half come from broken, absentee or single-parent homes, while many spent their pre-war adolescence associating with criminal gangs. For Wright, they ‘are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and internet porn than they are with their own parents’. This disposable generation has no illusions about the Iraq mission — they have no innocence to lose — ‘[t]his is after all the generation who first learned of the significance of the Presidency through a national obsession with semen stains connected to the White House … [for them] the big lie is as central to government as taxation’. Unmotivated by a sense of patriotism or grand purpose, many soldiers seem reconciled to the idea that they are there simply to ensure that the US has sufficient control of the world’s oil resources. It is the craving for extreme experience that motivates many of them.
Such soldiers are already culturally disposed towards violence. The comments of one marine reveals how the adolescent world of virtual violence translates to and reconstructs the battlefield; ‘I was just thinking when I drove into that ambush … Grand Theft Auto: Vice City [a popular video game] … I felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of the windows, the blown up car in the street. Guys crawling around shooting at us, it was fucking cool’. When war becomes a video game — where games such as Doom form part of official combat training and Hollywood producers are invited to the Pentagon to project possible terror scenarios — it is clear that some kind of cultural shift is taking place in the sense of how we come to understand and experience the world.
Indeed, this blurring of the distinction between military and civilian perception draws attention to the moral ambivalence of Wright’s book — a limitation of the ‘embedded’ genre. Wright simply observes without judgement — cataloguing the experiences and observations of the marines as he travels with them. On the one hand, this adds up to a general indictment of the Iraq invasion. The inevitability of civilian deaths is revealed when troops are unable to distinguish unarmed civilians from armed resisters. We learn that Iraqis have a disturbing habit of speeding up at roadblocks, especially as a response to warning shots, and are often shot by mistake. When these marines finally get to Iraq, the chaos and lack of planning for a society post-Saddam is palpable, forcing many troops to question the purpose of the invasion and even the extent to which they believed in the idea of ‘liberation’ at all.
On the other hand, the somewhat muted quality of Wright’s observations leads to an account not altogether different from the perception of war we already have — via rocket cams and the superficial reportage of other ‘embedded’ reporters. Wright’s attempt at detached observation means we are not granted an outside perspective. Wright cannot help falling back into the use of ‘we’ — ‘we drove for several hours in darkness … we came under heavy fire’, etc. Given the way in which our sensory world is already quasi-militarised, one cannot help but wonder if such language ties our perception to the military act in the same way that our visual perception is tied to the rocket camera — the reader/viewer is a privileged insider but their experience comes to be framed in a way that reduces the capacity for reflection or questioning. If modern accounts of war presented a combat experience that stood outside of normal sensory experience, contemporary accounts like Generation Kill reveal the extent to which our sensory worlds have become ‘embedded’ within a military framework.
Contemporary society possesses a contradictory relationship to violence. Violence is omnipresent within popular culture; it is present in the attitude of our leaders who emphasise the need for toughness in the war on terror. Yet, the consequences of actual war have never been further removed from the popular imagination, in spite of (if not because of) the capacity of technology to record the combat experience. While civilian populations share an increasingly vicarious experience of militarised violence, it is significant that our knowledge of soldierly experience only tends to arise after soldiers return from combat and achieve notoriety as Oklahoma bombers, Washington snipers and the like. The gap between civilians and soldiers in this sense is widening; the reality of war hidden at the same time as civilians are able to participate in its aesthetic simulation. If modern aesthetics and modern combat envisaged a radical form of experience that would disrupt the subject from their normal habits of perception, we are now confronted with a situation where fragmented and extreme sensory experiences are successfully incorporated into neo-liberal modes of production and consumption. Opposition to such modes would question how our contemporary modes of perception are increasingly channelled along violent and militarised lines, rather than striving for merely repeating these modes in the quest for a more authentic experience.
Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.