Is War Inherently Cinematic?
(*extra credit* Thematic Essay)
“We also have to work through... the dark side… it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective” – Vice President Dick Cheney to Tim Russert on “Meet the Press,” 2001
“We didn't bring this crisis on ourselves, but we'll be the ones to settle it. This is a dirty business and we have to get our hands dirty to clean it up!” – President Wayne Palmer, 24
“War is cinema and cinema is war.” – Paul Virilio, War and Cinema, 1989
Although the leap to Paul Virilio’s understanding that “war is cinema and cinema is war” takes some time to fully comprehend, what is fairly transparent is the long historical relationship between war and cinema. Cinematographic technology flourished during WWI, as the lens of reconnaissance blurred sight for soldier and civilian, but crystallized it for the military strategist. War and cinema share the same technologies (telescopic lenses, freeze frames, virtual reality, point-and-shoot), mutually inspire each other’s narratives (WWII accounts Saving Private Ryan and Triumph of the Will), and, in turn, construct the realities of their audiences. While this essay will not address Virilio’s second declaration that cinema is war, it will explore Virilio’s assertion that “war is cinema” and, in doing so, answer the question – is war inherently cinematic? To do so in a comprehensible way, I will give a brief note on the necessity of speed and, then, examine the centrality of the constructed narrative in war and cinema. Lastly, to round out the understanding of how war is cinematic, this essay will comment on the participation of both war and cinema in the derealization of reality.
Speed, Virilio contends, is the essence of war. According to Virilio, with the advent of new technologies, war takes place in time, not geography. Instead of bringing us closer to experiencing far-away places and people, the goal of new technology is to move us ever farther away from the other, into a re-imagined reality. Just as war does, cinema also takes place in time, as the primary commitment we make to experience it is time-sensitive, not place-sensitive, and as space disappears in the cinema when scenes are flattened onto a screen. After making the time commitment, without moving we are transported quickly in our railway-car styled theater through 1-dimensional celluloid topography. Fittingly, “cinematic” functions occasionally as a form of “kinematic,” and kinematics, or, as it used to be called, cinematics, the name originating from the French cinématique, which is the geometry of motion (“Cinematic”). Cinema simulates the feelings of movement, speed, and immediacy, creating, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it, an imposture of immediacy. Cinema also requires the acceleration of time to condense a story into a digestible segment – Six Days of the Condor becomes just three. Thus, both cinema and war share a sense of the primacy of speed.
The struggle between good and evil is another ever-present part of war. For this reason, Virilio writes: “War can never break free from the magical spectacle because its very purpose it to produce that spectacle: to fell the enemy is not so much to capture as to ‘captivate’ him, to instill the fear of death before he actually dies” (Virilio 5). The war story locates every participant within it, as all become part of and are awed by its immensity. The most obvious case of this creative function of war is the construction of the hero-villain paradigm.
First, let’s take the hero. An excellent example of the relationship between war and cinema and hero construction is the Army Strong US Army Campaign. According to the Army Strong Fact Sheet, which features the clean and bold Arial font, the campaign started in November 2006 in an effort to re-invigorate recruitment. See an example of the Army Strong clip here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=hosiAsy8dhA
As described on the US Army Strategic Communications, Marketing and Outreach website the campaign “captures the unique brand of strength found in the U.S. Army Soldier” and “the voice of the U.S. Army Soldier” (Strategic Outreach Directorate, US Army Accessions). In this way, the individual is presented as the collective and becomes a marketable brand. Even though the linked add favors a crescendo of rousing trumpets and clashing cymbals to the “unique voice” of these individuals, its producers emphasize the truthfulness and authenticity of their representation of reality. As one of the fact sheets explains, actual soldiers were used in the ads since: “No actor could ever authentically convey the power and intensity of an Army Strong Soldier. That’s why every Soldier portrayed in the new Army Strong advertising campaign is an actual U.S. Army Soldier” (Strategic Outreach Directorate, US Army Accessions). This suggests that soldiers are never actors, actors are never truthful, and that only by joining the Army will one be able to create the Army Strong character.
Yet, is anyone represented as his or her “true” self when artfully lit by a setting sun or climbing to a soundtrack of heralding trumpets? While the producers apparently wanted authenticity in regards to the soldiers featured in the ad, that old Hollywood magic was used proudly to sell the Army Strong brand, again reaffirming the relationship between Hollywood and war. The director for the ads was Samuel Bayer, who is well-known for producing numerous award-winning videos for the likes of Green Day, The Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith, and his work on campaigns for Nike, Coke, Pepsi, Lexus, and Mountain Dew (Strategic Outreach Directorate, US Army Accessions). The composer is Mark Isham, a top Hollywood film composer who has produced scores for many notable films, such as Eight Below, Running Scared, Crash, and Men of Honor (Strategic Outreach Directorate, US Army Accessions). Thus, with Bayer and Isham’s help, the army creates the identity of the Army Strong hero-soldier, with just a touch of Hollywood glamour. As noted by John Whiteclay Chambers II and David Culbert in the introduction to a 1994 issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, “Pierre Sorlin reminds us, movies [or in our case commercials] are images, derivative perspectives on the world, that are marketed for profit” (Chambers II 353). The profit to be had here is augmented recruitment numbers and a national identification of soldiers as heroes, crucial to morale during war.
The construction (or is it obstruction?) of the opponent’s identity is another critical element of the war story. For the viewer at home, and for that matter the soldier on the field, the enemy is presented as obscure and unidentifiable, nothing like us, especially in the War on Terror. He/she/it morphs into an evil villain shrouded in a mist of anti-freedom and anti-American sentiment, characterized by the grizzled fonts that shout “TERROR TARGET” on CNN headline news. This distance between the villain and hero, which facilitates their alienation, is upheld “through [war’s] hyper-generation of movement, mixing the accomplishments of the means of destruction and the means of communicating destruction” (Virilio 24). By doing so, “war falsifies appearance by falsifying distance” (Virilio 24). This cancellation of time and space during war, as described by Virilio, is just like Albert Gace’s definition of cinema, which finds it “magical, spell-binding, capable of giving to the audience, in every fraction of a second, that strange sensation of four-dimensional omnipresence canceling time and space” (Gace in Virilio 26). War, like cinema, alienates us from the enemy, and holds us spell-bound in its fear-driven, cinematic, and oh-so-climactic fable of us vs. them. The beginning of a newsreel on Osama bin Laden from CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360˚, featuring thumping ominous music that signals the segment will be another part of the war story, does just that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVoGFPLeCFM. It’s interesting that the networks feel the need to characterize war news with scary music and flashy graphics. Perhaps they think we wouldn’t know whom to hate, otherwise.
The images and sounds of war news create cinematic suspense not just because of their theatrical quality, but also because war is actually highly suspenseful, as a result of the omnipresent shadow of uncertainty that follows it around. At this point, for instance, no one knows what will happen in Iraq or Afghanistan, when troops will leave, or if/when there will be another attack on the United States. While it is becoming clearer what exactly the CIA did during interrogation of suspected terrorists and what the Bush Administration’s role was in sanctioning torture, the haze is just lifting. This story in particular is so rife with the elements of a thriller that it is no surprise that VP Cheney’s “dark side” served as inspiration to President Wayne Palmer’s “dirty hands” on 24, one of the most popular thrillers on television. The uncertainty of wartime thus lends itself well to suspense, which translates seamlessly into cinema.
In addition to having the cinematic elements of a compelling narrative and suspenseful mood, war is also inherently cinematic as it participates in the same kind of derealization of reality as cinema. For soldiers, for example, seeing is done through virtual reality, as it is a mechanical eye that reinterprets the outside world into flickering green dots on a screen. As James Der Derian has noted, the proliferation of simulation in military training has led to the inability of some soldiers to think outside of the simulations, rendering them unable to adapt to “actual” reality when it changes something on the screen. This dependency on simulation has led to some serious mistakes, like the destruction of an Iranian commercial airliner cruising over the Gulf. Virilio describes the effect of refracted sight on the soldier, noting: “As sight lost its direct quality and reeled out of phase, the soldier had the feeling of being not so much destroyed as derealized or dematerialized, any sensory point of reference suddenly vanishing in a surfeit of optical targets” (Virilio 15). Virilio adds: “The soldier’s panic-stricken distancing from static warfare is transferred to the technology of lightning-war, to the telescopic lenses and the stereoscopic glass of military photo-analysis, in a medium which seems aqueous, glass-like, with all its phenomena of refraction and diffraction” (Virilio 74). The technology and methods of war, thus, create a new space in which the soldier’s very existence is called into question, as all sensory input enters the thought through viscous, distorting lenses. Cinema, in a similar way, provides distance from reality, while constituting a new space of existence.
The consequence of this derealization (and this is where we close the loop) is a desire for a rematerialization of images, motion, and story – a cinematic interpretation of reality. So, not only does war lend itself to cinema, it requires the use of cinematic methods to construct its own version of reality in which it can thrive. War must construct this reality through a sustained, identity shaping narrative, in the small confines of the closed cockpit, the war bunker, or the submarine, so that war continues and all of its participants know what they are, or maybe more importantly what they are not. While this has failed at times, as is clear from the various interviews conducted with Iraq War veterans that attest to their feelings of a lack of purpose and their insight into the non-heroic aspects of the soldier’s life, the narrative of war has at least proven sustainable enough that the US is still at war with Iraq.
War requires a narrative if it is to survive – what else would keep soldiers from running away from the bullets and a populace from allowing clear violations of its precious civil liberties than the belief in the war narrative of honor, brotherhood, and good vs. evil? Without the narrative, death is denied its heroic overtures, villains look like ordinary people, and the measured suspense we are fed through news media could give way to panic and paranoia by tainting the war’s sense of purpose. War needs cinematic interpretation, a story, for all those who witness it to attempt to understand its horrors and tragedies. If one is not readily available, as it was during WWII, then one must be constructed.
Virilio remarks that crew from members of the aircraft carrier Nimitz told a journalist from Libération: “Our work is totally unreal. Every now and then, fiction and reality should get together and prove once and for all that we really are here” (Virilio 66). The soldiers want a reintegration of the cinematic elements and reality of war to reaffirm they are there, to reaffirm their existence, and to reaffirm who they are. This is perhaps the essential purpose of the war narrative, as without being convinced one is on the side of good, that one is in his or her own right a hero in the American story, it seems there would be little incentive to continue witnessing the suffering and death endemic to war. War is not beautiful and while the Army Strong soldiers are surely brave and strong, they still cry when they get hurt and they do return in coffins. It is screaming one hears, not the crescendo of trumpets.
Perhaps society is so comfortable with this war narrative because to face “actual” reality, without the ornamentation of an epic struggle or a non-human enemy, would be too difficult. Maybe we need the mood lighting and suspense to refract the reality of war so that we can feel at ease with our national identity that has, for the last few years especially, been suffused with war. Hitler realized the importance of creating these alternative conceptions of self and reality during wartime, noting that people needed to forget about the suffering of war and instead be pacified into a comfortable, unquestioning state of existence, in which their subconscious, influenced by Hitler’s propaganda, drove their identities. Goebbels noted that the regime needed a mechanism to make the German people a mass of common visionaries “obeying a law they did not even know but which they could recite in their dreams” (Goebbels 1931 in Virilio 54). Thus, war needs cinema, and cinema is essentially a stylized and constructed narrative. This narrative influences our collective identity, and that identity allows us to breathe in the sanitized and composed space of refracted reality.
Army Strong. Dir. Samuel Bayer. Perf. US Army Soldiers. 2006. YouTube. 10 Mar. 2008
Chambers II, John Whiteclay and Culbert, David (1994) "Introduction." Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 14:4, 353-356.
Cheney, Dick. Interview with Tim Russert. 2001. 11 Mar. 2008
“Cinematic.” Oxford English Dictionary. 10 Mar. 2008
CNN: LATEST OSAMA BIN LADEN TAPE. Dir. CNN. Perf. Soledad O'Brien, Osama bin Laden, and Paul Cruickshank. 2007. YouTube. 10 Mar. 2008
"Memorable Quotes for 24." IMBD. 2008. 11 Mar. 2008
Strategic Outreach Directorate, US Army Accessions. “United States Army Accessions Command: G7- Strategic Communications, Marketing and Outreach.” US Army. 11 Mar. 2008
Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: the Logistics of Perception. London: Verso, 1989.