Seen through the Loopholes

David Simpson

  • War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime by Mary Favret
    Princeton, 262 pp, £18.95, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 691 14407 8

When and where does modern war begin? With tanks or gas warfare in 1914-18? With the aerial bombardment of civilians in Mesopotamia in 1920? At Guernica in 1937? With the general conscription, guerrilla campaigns and worldwide conflict of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain and their allies between 1793 and 1815? Or with the destruction of civilian lives and ecosystems in the Thirty Years War of 1618-48 that depopulated a good part of Central Europe? Scholars and writers tend to claim transformational status for the war they happen to be writing about, as Paul Fussell did for the Great War – which was also declared exceptional by those who thought of it as the war to end all wars.

War is always modernising. The increasing use of unmanned drones by the Americans in the current campaigns renders it unnecessary for there to be any human risk at all for ‘our’ side in dealing out death and destruction to those who are limited to a low-technology response, and often to no response at all. (Even those who flew at dazzling altitudes over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at least took the risk of getting into planes and flying over hostile territory.) And yet at the same time war is eerily always the same. The siege of Carthage is not worlds away from last winter’s events in Gaza; the condottieri of late medieval Italy have affiliations with the employees of the Blackwater corporation (rebranded in February 2009 as the techno-Grecian Xe). Exhausted infantry soldiers, even those fighting for the technologically dominant superpowers, still dig foxholes and eat bad food.

Or perhaps it only modernises in part, or from time to time, and subsists as a confusing mixture of ancient, modern and futuristic technologies. The details of death in hand-to-hand combat as imagined by Homer before the walls of Troy – a skull cloven in just this way, a limb severed exactly so – have recurred in all wars fought between then and now. Bodies can now be vaporised and made to disappear completely, but there is at the same time a never-ending parade of the dismembered, disfigured and disabled, dead and alive: fewer of ‘us’ than of ‘them’, but still a lot. Every ravaged body or mind generates an expanding circle of grief and suffering, as it probably has done in most times and places.

Mary Favret has chosen to explore a related but different question: when and how did we (in the anglophone West) begin to be preoccupied with war at a distance, war going on elsewhere, war that we cannot see and do not directly feel but which we are always consciously or unconsciously aware of and responsive to? What might be thought to be a modern attitude when held by those at home thinking about family members or fellow citizens risking their lives (and killing others) hundreds or thousands of miles away? What is the balance of anxiety and relief in the minds of those on whose behalf distant wars are ostensibly being fought? How normal are the normal lives these wars are said to be protecting? What feeling, if any, is there for those suffering human beings who are not our friends, relatives or fellow citizens? And how do the media stimulate or repress such feelings?

After the photos of the fire-bombing of retreating Iraqi columns in the first Gulf War, and after Abu Ghraib, such questions became more urgent; but you are more likely to ask questions about what you see than what you don’t. The non-circulation in the Western world of documentary footage of dead Iraqi civilians, and now of those Afghan villagers visited by our drone-launched weapons of indiscriminate (how many before we call it ‘mass’?) destruction, is of a part with the repression of images of the ‘jumpers’ of 9/11 and the bizarre efforts of the Bush administration (now overturned by Obama) to keep journalists away from the coffins coming home to America. Our current wars are highly mediated, made and unmade by the media and the political interests that so often govern them. Evidence of death and destruction may be immediate, flashed across the world in real time by the major networks as on 11 September 2001, or it may take time to be sifted through alternative websites and sources (easier to access in some places than others). Some of what is seen is taken without question as real, even when it looks filmic (as with Manhattan); other items are held up to a compulsively sceptical inquiry about what has or has not been spliced and doctored. Some things remain unseen.

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