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Never Again…

“The practice of representing atrocious suffering as something to be deplored, and, if possible, stopped, enters the history of images with a specific subject: the sufferings endured by a civilian population at the hands of a victorious army on the rampage” (Sontag, 2003, p. 38).

Since the dawn of time mankind have found reasons to wage war with each other, and, through song, story and sketch, glorified and romanticised the notion of warfare and every great conflict along the way. This is evident throughout history in pieces such as The Alexander Mosaic (100BC), a Roman floor mosaic depicting the armies of Alexander the Great defeating Darius III, Theodore Gericault’s An Officer of the Imperial Horse Guards Charging (1812), and Carle Vernet’s 10th Regiment of Hussars (1812). I mean, what’s not to love? Honour, love and sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears, heroes fighting for God, country and freedom… They’re basically the cover art for every great action narrative. So really, its no wonder for thousands of years we kept passing down through art the same admiration and idealisation of war.

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Left: Theodore Gericault (1812), Right: Carle Vernet (1812), Bottom: Roman floor mosaic (100BC).

This began to change around the mid-19th century as warfare started to evolve into a mechanised affair. The shift was led by artists and collections such as Francisco de Goya’s The Disasters of War (1810), Eugene Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios (1824), and Elizabeth Thompson’s The remnants of an army, Jellalabad, January 13, 1842 (1879). However, sentiment towards conflict still varied drastically from country to country depending on the degree of their recent exposure.

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Left: Eugene Delacroix (1824), Top Right: Elizabeth Thompson (1879), Bottom Right: Francisco de Goya (1810).

And then there was the Holocaust.

Over 6 million Jewish people, which represented around 70% of Europe’s Jewish population, and included 1 million children, were systematically annihilated between 1941 and 1945 by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany regime in what was one of the deadliest and most organised genocides in human history (Niewyk & Nicosia, 2000, p. 45). A combined network of around 42,500 facilities and 200,000 perpetrators throughout Germany and its occupied territories were used to concentrate the victims for various purposes, including slave labour, mass murder, medical experimentation, and various other heinous abuses of man’s most fundamental human rights (Lichtblau, 2013). It was conducted in several stages, beginning with state sanctioned social exclusion and culminating in what was intended to be the complete extermination of Jewish culture in Europe, an outcome the Nazis termed, “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question” (Niewyk & Nicosia, 2000, p. 46).

If every armed conflict from the Mesopotamian war of 2700BC to World War I wasn’t enough to persuade military art to reconsider its destructive position on this subject, the unprecedented catastrophe that was the Holocaust grabbed it by the throat, held it to the ground and forced it to. Never again could we allow this to happen. Never again could we install into the next generations’ minds a naïve, distorted thirst to rush into the front line. And never again could we allow such needless, rampant death.

And that is why artistic representations of war, painted, photographed and otherwise, are so important in contemporary society. In the words of Scottish war photographer Alexander Gardner, “pictures… convey ‘a useful moral’ by showing ‘the blank horror and reality of war, in opposition to its pageantry… Here are the dreadful details! Let them aid in preventing such another calamity” (Gardner, 1863, cited in Sontag, 2003, p. 47).

Obviously it’s not a perfect solution. Plenty of powerful war photographs have been staged or doctored, and plenty of wars and conflicts have ravaged this world since 1945 whilst anti-war art was exhibited left, right and centre. But this does not mean that artwork has not had an impact.

A tapestry copy of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), arguably the most famous contemporary anti-war artwork, has been displayed within the United Nations building in New York City since 1985, serving as an ever-present reminder of the brutal consequences of war to those who function to preserve global peace (Conrad, 2004), Nick Ut’s photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (1972) accelerated a wave of anti-war sentiment ultimately resulting in the US withdrawing from Vietnam a year later (Asselin, 2002, pp. 155-156), and the photos and videos taken during the Allies’ storming of Germany’s concentration and death camps in 1945 was critical in sentencing the inner party members of the Nazi Party during the Nuremberg military trials, as well as showing the whole world what really happened behind the closed doors of Nazi Germany (Roland, 2012).

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Left: Nick Ut (1972), Right: German death camp (1945), Bottom: Pablo Picasso (1937).

But the ramifications need not be this extreme. All it takes is a single piece stirring within a person a sense of horror, shock or disgust about the devastation of war, and the ripple effect just within that one person’s life may extend outward, having a potentially infinite effect. And that honest power is why military art is so important within our society.

 

References

Asselin, P 2002, A Bitter Peace: Washington, Hanoi, and the Making of the Paris Agreement, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, pp. 155-156.

Conrad, P 2004, ‘A scream we can’t ignore’, The Guardian, 10 March, viewed 20 March 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2004/oct/03/art.

Lichtblau, E 2013, ‘The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking’, The New York Times, 1 March, viewed 19 March 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/sunday-review/the-holocaust-just-got-more-shocking.html?_r=0.

Niewyk, D & Nicosia, F 2000, The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 45-46.

Roland, P 2012, The Nuremberg Trials, Arcturus Publishing Limited, London.

Sontag, S 2003, Regarding the Pain of Others, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, pp. 36-47.

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War Games

If you’ve read Karl Marx’s ‘theory of alienation’ you’d understand his view that from the first moment that mankind placed a piece of machinery between itself and the end product of a task we have become an increasingly disconnected, disillusioned and desensitised species (Marx, 1964). Fast forward a hundred years or so and we can see that the recent explosion of technological advancements has led to some contemporary examples of what this not-so-merry looking Santa doppelganger was talking about –Barack Obama, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and David Cameron pausing to take a somewhat disrespectful selfie during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela (Soal, 2013); a 14 year old Florida school girl boasting online “Yes ik (I know) I bullied REBECCA nd (and) she killed her self but IDGAF (I don’t give a fuck)” after her relentless cyberbullying lead 12 year old Rebecca Sedwick to take her own life (Sherwell, 2013); or scores of young males throwing away their savings with the touch of a screen whilst using online gambling services with faster turnarounds, minimal spending limits, and a layout that blurs the line between reality and gameplay (Redondo, 2015, pp. 584-596).

One of the most recent and harmful developments, however, is Microsoft’s partnerships with the US and British militaries. This unprecedented deal has resulted in modern military personnel using video game technology, namely an Xbox controller, to control various unmanned vehicles and weapons, including a High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, which is essentially a giant laser cannon, UAV reconnaissance and weaponised drones, and various unmanned ground vehicles (Maunders, 2008). Now, obviously this may develop into a highly effective and efficient military program, but at present there are three major issues with this program that are having disastrous effects amongst those piloting these devices.

  1. The initial desensitisation

The chronologically first issue facing combatant pilots within this program is that they often feel somewhat desensitised to the impact of their initial operations because of a combination of the geographic distance between themselves and the war zone, and the likeness of their work to video gaming. This is particularly the case as a result of highly popular military games such as the Call of Duty series (2003-Present) being able to accurately replicate deadly strike missions without any real-life consequences, which can result in the pilots of these unmanned vehicles and weapons to be “massively disassociated from reality” when conducting their earliest missions (Brignull, 2010).

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Left: A pilot’s display taken from an MQ-9 Reaper training mission. Right: A screenshot from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

 

  1. The diffusion of culpability

The next issue is the diffusion of culpability for the deaths caused by drones, paired with the increased safety of those within the “kill chain” (Beauchamp, 2016). The vast majority of the logistical, maintenance and other technical bureaucratic work that allows combatant pilots to pull the trigger is done by civilian contract pilots. These contract pilots will never directly engage in anything more than “reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering”, which they will do from the comfort of an office they commute to each morning, however, they will facilitate the killing of potentially hundreds or thousands of enemy personnel (Beauchamp, 2016).

  1. The psychological trauma

Modern warfare has produced a number of mental illnesses, so it makes sense that this next stage of warfare has produced a variety of new issues for those involved. Firstly, a combination of lower-status and a lack of respect within the military (Marwick, 2013, pp. 83-86), three to six times more logged piloting hours annually than regular Air Force pilots, and a close-up, high definition view of the violent and bloody horrors of war, where, unlike any film or video game, the real-time kills and the devastation are all very real (Chatterjee, 2015; Watson, 2014), has resulted in the outbreak of an unprecedented, long-distance version of post-traumatic stress disorder amongst drone pilots who often see more sides of war than the soldiers on the front line (Chatterjee, 2015). And secondly, because the morality of war and being a soldier is predicated on the reciprocal right for enemies to kill each other – in order for a soldier to kill, they must also place themselves in a situation where they might be killed first (Pfaff, 2003, p. 9) – these Xbox drone pilots have also been found to struggle with a brand new, as yet unlabelled form of psychological strain emerging from a sense of dishonour and cowardice for fighting from behind a screen, thousands of miles from harm’s way (Chatterjee, 2015).

If you listen to anything that the US or British governments have said about drone warfare you’d believe the appeal in this sleek, new, no-casualty form of battle being used in the war on terror. However, after taking a closer look it is quite clear that, just like every new form of war before it, this remote controlled warfare has a whole list of severe problems and repercussions for those involved. The only question remaining, then, is what governments will do in the future to address the psychological issues brought on by technology’s increased involvement in war.

References

Beauchamp, S 2016, ‘Can Drone Pilots Be Heroes?’, The Atlantic, 23 January, viewed 13 March 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/can-drone-pilots-be-heroes/424830/.

Brignull, H 2010, ‘Xbox controllers used in the military – life mimicking art?’, 90 Percent of Everything, 21 January, viewed 13 March 2016, http://www.90percentofeverything.com/2010/01/21/xbox-controllers-used-in-the-millitary-life-mimicking-art/.

Call of Duty 2003-Present, video game, Activision.

Chatterjee, P 2015, ‘Drone Pilots Are Quitting In Record Numbers’, Mother Jones, 5 March, viewed 13 March 2016, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/03/drone-pilots-are-quitting-record-numbers.

Marwick, A 2013, ‘Leaders and Followers: Status in the Tech Scene’, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity , & Branding in the Social Media Age’, Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 83-86.

Marx, K 1964, ‘Notes on James Mill’, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, International Publishers, New York City.

Maunders, P 2008, ‘Army fly UAV Spy Plane with Xbox 360 Controller’, Pyrosoft, 29 April, viewed 12 March 2016, http://www.pyrosoft.co.uk/blog/2007/11/04/army-fly-uav-spy-plane-with-xbox-360-controller/.

Pfaff, W 2003, ‘The soldier is both executioner and victim’, The Register-Guard, 23 March, p. 9.

Redondo, I 2015, ‘Assessing the risks associated with online lottery and casino gambling: A comparative analysis of players’ individual characteristics and types of gambling’, International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, vol. 13, no. 5, pp. 584-596.

Sherwell, P 2013, ‘Teenager who killed herself over cyberbullying sparks soul searching in US’, The Telegraph, 16 October, viewed 11 March 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10383635/Teenager-who-killed-herself-over-cyberbullying-sparks-soul-searching-in-US.html.

Soal, J 2013, ‘Barack Obama and David Cameron pose for selfie with Danish PM’, The Guardian, 11 December, viewed 11 March 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/10/nelson-mandela-world-leaders-selfie.

Watson, J 2014, ‘Military Drone Operators Can Feel Emotional Strains Of War’, Huffington Post, 29 September, viewed 13 March 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/29/military-drone-operators_n_5899478.html.