Today The Numbing Sameness of War Footage News

Estimated read time 8 min read

Modern war footage is a strange mélange of the personal and the clinical, where the only consistency comes from the dizzying rate of production. The opening days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine produced an array of footage that ultimately all looked the same—bombed-out buildings, the clouds of dust that kick up when a shell hits a home, the contorted bodies of the dead. As has been true with most conflicts in the past decade, the majority of these videos were recorded on cell phones, which both create an intimacy and a sense of peril.

The war in Gaza and Israel has produced yet another torrent of personalized yet somehow uniform footage. There is a repetition to the cell-phone footage that has, in some ways, diluted the efficacy of the singular image to shock people into opposing war—a premise that Virginia Woolf famously proposed in the late nineteen-thirties, and which Susan Sontag took to task in her essay “Looking at War,” published a year after 9/11. But the videos accumulate in a way that photographs could not. We encounter them every time we pick up our phones, whether we are opening Twitter to look for reactions to a touchdown or scrolling through Instagram to see our friends’ children. The cell-phone videos may all look the same, but they now find us.

Advances in photographic technology have brought other novel forms of cheaply produced and therefore increasingly prevalent catastrophic images. Surveillance cameras are now positioned on every city block, and provide clips of the building across the street exploding into flames. Drones, which are now easily available, provide high-quality landscape shots of disasters. Aerial shots were once the provenance of the Goodyear blimp that flew over sporting events, but now anyone with a thousand dollars and about forty hours of practice time can produce something that can get stuffed into almost any hole in a documentary. (Too many talking heads in a row? Break it up with a drone shot. Did the field producer on your true-crime series forget to tell your cameraman to shoot storefronts and civic signage to establish the town? Go back and fly a drone over City Hall.)

These flyover shots, seemingly objective in their distance, provide a sharp contrast to the intimacy of cell phones and the fixed frame of surveillance cameras. They move with the omniscient perspective most often found in feature films, where the viewer gets to feel like God. “I Am Legend,” the 2007 post-apocalyptic blockbuster starring Will Smith, shows New York City from above as a labyrinth of empty streets with stranded cars. And then we hear an engine roar and see Will Smith behind the wheel of a Shelby. The aerial view connotes an objectivity wherein we are not people on the ground who are trying to overhear conversations or seek out companionship but, rather, observers who are taking notes on much less personal disasters. In these moments, things are supposed to lock into some proper perspective, much like when you are flying back to your home and see it all laid out in tiny, intricate detail and you marvel at how small it all seems. This is why it is a particularly effective way of displaying an apocalypse, because the expectation that you will see thousands of lives—the red tail-lights lining the freeways, the stadiums filled with fans—has been inverted. All we see is stillness.

The drone footage of the aftermath of the attack on the Tribe of Nova trance-music festival, where some two-hundred and fifty civilians were killed by Palestinian militants, is faithful to the cinematic tropes of apocalypse films. There is the perfunctory ascending shot, the frame perfectly bisected by a road filled with destroyed cars. The images are dusty, quiet, and undisturbed. And we see the pink-blue-and-white mosaic festival tent, and are left to imagine the carnage that must have taken place there. What we do not see are any bodies, or, excepting a few cars that lumber slowly amid the destroyed vehicles, any signs of life.

Can the drone shot be benevolent, or, at the very least, objective? On Sunday, TOLOnews, an outlet in Afghanistan, released footage of the village of Nayeb Rafi, which reportedly lost almost eighty per cent of its residents to this week’s earthquake that has claimed more than a thousand lives. TOLOnews’ story begins with a drone shot of a desert landscape. As is true with the Tribe of Nova footage, the image quickly pans out in a revelatory fashion. We sense that we are about to see the full extent of the destruction. But, in this case, what’s supposed to be noted is the absence of something. There are no discernible buildings, just faint geometric outlines of what was once there. And we do see people—hundreds of people—seemingly milling about without any sense of direction and growing smaller and smaller as the drone ascends into the sky.

The report then shifts to the ground, where we meet some of the villagers, and, in some shots, we can see people walking around in the background amid piles of rubble. This is the meat of the report. From a filmmaking perspective, then, the drone shot establishes the setting and the stakes. It performs these functions in an efficient manner and provides a bit of visual texture to what would otherwise be a non-stop reel of faces.

This, in most ways, is just good filmmaking. But the drone image is not innocent, nor can the word “drone” or any image taken from an unmanned aircraft be fully extricated from its history as a weapon of war. This week, I watched footage of the destruction in Gaza, as well as military jeeps and soldiers being targeted by bombs dropped by drones. These images also repeat and are mostly silent—unlike cell-phone videos, where the percussions of the blasts shake and distort the frame, the shots are so smooth, so perfectly composed, that they feel dead.

In “Looking at War,” Sontag writes, “The photographic image, even to the extent that it is a trace (not a construction made out of disparate photographic traces), cannot be simply a transparency of something that happened.” She argues that photographs could not serve as objective witnesses, in themselves, nor should they be positioned as unblinking testimonials to something that really happened. “It is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.” The military drone, flown by a remote pilot, is not up in the sky only to film, nor does its camera function only to capture majestic landscapes. The object of its focus—the tank that’s about to be demolished or the wedding that’s about to be vaporized—is in the center of the frame because that’s where the bombs are meant to fall. Anticipation builds. When we see people walk through the desert through the lens of a drone, we’ve been primed to expect to see them die in the next frame.

“Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock,” Sontag writes later in the essay. “But they don’t help us much to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” The landscape of war images has changed, as Sontag acknowledges. “Many critics,” she writes, “have suggested that the agonies of war—thanks to television—have devolved into a nightly banality. Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react.”

In the twenty-one years that have passed since the publication of “Looking at War,” that flood of images has grown exponentially. There is now an endless supply of them, and also great variety in the way they are produced. The shock they generate comes out of an accumulation of traumas. Ask yourself, what is the iconic horrors-of-war image from Ukraine? From Syria? From Iraq? When talking to friends about what we have seen this week, I have found myself not really knowing if I have seen the video that finally broke them down, or if I saw a different one that could be described with the same words.

Throughout the coming weeks, the images of war will find us in the place we spend the most time: our phones. We will see dead children covered in rubble and black dust; we will see silent drone footage of a building or a car and learn to brace ourselves in that quiet moment before it explodes. The proliferation of images via cell phones may have taken away the war photographer’s ability to create a single, arresting, and iconic image, but their accumulation will haunt us. But neither the cell phone video nor the drone will explain what has really happened. They are better processed as phenomena of social media, which never really tells us anything new but, rather, provides an endless stream of confirmations of what we think we already know. ♦

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