Last week, when the long-planned assault on the ISIS stronghold of Mosul was finally launched, anybody with a smartphone could have followed the ensuing events on Snapchat’s “Attack on ISIS” live feed or on Facebook, YouTube or Periscope’s livestream of the battle.
I had originally made my Facebook account in seventh grade with the purpose of keeping up with my summer camp friends, and now in my sophomore year of college, I was using the same platform to watch a Kurdish Peshmerga soldier partake in the recapture of a city of over a million terrorized Iraqis. Social media has grown just as we have.
However, while this is an important development in the way we consume images of war, it remains to be seen whether this will further democratize the process by which we construct the narratives that accompany armed conflict.
The United States government was able to maintain an effective regime of censorship over war-related media during WWII and the Korean War. This was consented to by a press that justly recognized the necessity of controlling the flow of information in the war effort against the Nazis, Imperial Japan and later North Korea. During the latter conflict, this consent was more often driven by a fear of retribution from McCarthy and his inflamed followers than by a respect for state interests.
But by the height of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government could no longer rely on ideological conformity to bolster censorship efforts and the now ubiquitous TV set brought fresh images of conflict into the American home day after day for hours on end. Vietnam was dubbed the first “television war,” and editorial guidelines were driven by an all-consuming quest for ratings.
Rarely was there ever any serious commentary. What brought in the money were action shots of burning villages, descending helicopters and firing soldiers. The government did not need to censor efforts to portray the Viet Cong in a more nuanced perspective because the logic of ratings and profit-seeking censored it for them. The images tailored by television production companies aligned with the interests and desires of its consumers. It was only when anti-war sentiment had won over the U.S. population that the media, most famously exemplified by Walter Cronkite, adjusted its commentary accordingly.
Nevertheless, despite the increased independence of broadcast media, it ultimately had to turn to the U.S. government to contextualize the footage filmed for TV. CBS or NBC had countless images of firefights and skirmishes but could not place them in an overall narrative without the intelligence supplied by the U.S. military and the State Department. Therefore, the narrative produced remained on the whole uncritical of the war effort.
This brings to mind Susan Sontag’s statement, later contested by Butler, that “the image can only affect us, not provide us with an understanding of what we see.” The independence of the press by the end of the Vietnam War was only halfway realized; it could capture the images it desired but remained at a massive disadvantage against institutionalized interests in providing the frame of understanding.
The Iraq War gave reason to hope for a more autonomous press in the field of combat. The increased use of embedded reporting, the entry of English-language non-American outlets like Al-Jazeera and most importantly the internet made it far easier to present dissenting perspectives to a large audience.
Those critical of the war, in part or in whole, could construct an alternative discourse on the war by making the images of torture in Abu Ghraib or of murder in the Haditha Massacre central to their framing as opposed to incidental. Not everything in the U.S. government’s narrative was false, Saddam was still a murderous tyrant even though he had no WMDs, but it did unjustly demand that authentic “patriots” swallow it wholesale.
Even if the diffusion of image production and the resultant democratization of the Iraq War narrative did not lead to any substantive change in policy towards Iraq, at the very least it fueled a strain of speculation about the validity of interventionism and the stability of an American-led world order that would have been unthinkable in the heady days of the 1990s. And it was in that critical spirit that I greeted the news that the Battle for Mosul would be livestreamed–only to be rather disappointed.
Every segment picked by the Snapchat team contributed to a very intentional narrative of invincibility. Waving villagers, smiling soldiers and ISIS positions going up in smoke all contributed to a single movie-like portrayal of the battle. I could only imagine the Snapchat curating team at their desks, busily figuring out how to sanitize the realities of war for popular consumption.
I will gladly admit that in this battle there are no shades of gray; ISIS is a threat to everything we stand for and therefore should be driven from the face of the earth, but the act of glorifying the war effort against them instead of simply acknowledging it as a grim necessity is unsettling.
Ideally, social media would have been used to critically engage with the conflict in such a way that the heroism of those fighting against ISIS mingled with an acknowledgment of the horrors of battle itself, an approach that could foster an inclination towards pacifism. However, this was not the case.
Perhaps this whitewashing of Mosul occurred because the companies engaged in sharing the battle had to protect their financial interests. Snapchat’s revenue would take a hit if it traumatized a bunch of teenagers with extended footage of those lying in a field hospital. There is a certain degree of disingenuous dehumanization in these types of betrayal. The best solution to the problem of portraying war honestly and non-hegemonically is the further democratization and diffusion in producing and sourcing images.
When horizontal networks, such as those built around certain hashtags, come to the fore as the principle circulators of imagery rather than a few curators then perhaps we will understand wars as they are as opposed to how we are told to understand them. We need only to not flinch at what we witness.