October 4, 2014

The Aesthetics of War: How Social Media Changed Everything.


Every war has its own aesthetic quality.

Vietnam brought us grainy images of hot jungles, protesting hippies and conflict at home.

Iraq seemed somehow cleaner, with its bright sun, desert sands, and highly equipped soldiers. Even in protesting Iraq, there was a sense that it was over there in the abstract, measured in numbers and not the real human lives that were being broken.

Then there was Gaza—white hot, bloody, emotional, intense, anxious, brutal and personal. If you were protesting the attack on Gaza, the deaths were no longer measured in numbers, but in names and faces. And there is a good chance that a friend of a friend knew people there being killed, a good chance that by the time of the final ceasefire you had even made Facebook friends with people living through the bombing.

It sometimes felt as if you could taste the plumes of obliterated concrete, it was all so close. Perhaps every war is like this for those more closely involved, but Facebook and Twitter and YouTube gave more people this experience with Gaza, and the global nature of the Internet blurred the lines of battle.

When activists called Gaza genocide, it was not rhetoric. But the numbers never seemed to add up. Ubiquitous cameras and recording devices meant the world could see for perhaps the first time in history the collective hatred that goes into war making.

Israelis were caught cheering on the bombings, dancing to the death of children, laughing as buildings were destroyed, and prank phone calling residents of Gaza, telling them their houses were about to be blown up. Whatever it was, Gaza looked like a genocide.

Not only could we now see the war up close through social media, the same platforms allowed others to drag us into it. The battle lines of Gaza were all too often drawn on our Facebook newsfeeds. Meanwhile, the supporters of Israel fought dirty. They called protesters anti-Semites, threatened disinheritance and used public shaming. It sometimes seemed there was a war in each Jewish family and it was all on public display.

Each war has its own pace. Some are lightning fast, some build slowly like machines, some just simmer for decades. Because violence is so mesmerizing, people on the outside are pulled into it. Whether they take place in mountains or jungles or cities will thus alter the mood with which they are experienced.

The mediums through which they are reported will also change their emotional tenor. Marshall McLuhan spoke of hot and cool mediums. Television is cool because viewers are passive, and it takes lots of activity to grab attention. But Facebook and blogs are hot, because the engagement tends to be active and participatory.

In this sense, Gaza was a hot war, waged in dense urban settings, where the damage was up close and personal, and anyone who cared to could join the fight. And it was a global war, much in the same way the Iraq War was global. But the fact that it was fought in the Holy Land, with all of its Biblical allusions, made us feel more than ever like we were part of a global village. But it was a village that was in the process of being burned out.

There is a hallucinogenic quality to severe trauma. We can be sucked in by it like a whirlpool into which we gaze transfixed. This sense of swimming in terror pervaded the discourse on Gaza and it seemed to draw more of us in than other wars. There was little room for reflection, little space to contemplate the next steps. And everywhere it seemed the horrors of the Holocaust were being used and abused by both sides. The idea that the victim had become the perpetrator now finally broke into mainstream discourse.

The fact that the Islamic State was sweeping through Iraq only added to the intensity. The Islamic State evoked images of outright evil. Something seemed to have cracked in humanities’ collective consciousness. The terror of the 20th century was vastly more destructive, and yet the Islamic State seemed somehow different. And this seemed to affect the norms with which war was being waged by Israel.

Everything seemed, all of a sudden, to become more brutal. And yet, from Gaza to Iraq to the Central African Republic, where many also claimed genocide, the numbers killed were unusually small for the level of brutality. There were eyes everywhere and not only did this affect the tone of these wars but the outcomes as well.

The Islamic State took the aesthetics of war to new levels. Now we could imagine a few guys sitting around trying to find the right music to play over systematic mass murder. A great friend of mine, Duff McDuffee, brilliantly pointed out that someone had to decide which footage to keep and which to reject, how to splice in the look of horror on a young man’s face, and how to pace the harmony of destruction. All of it was, in turn, crafted to match their specific brand of evil.

But everyone seemed to lose editorial control of their brands this summer. The Israeli Defense Forces came to appear in the eyes of much of the world as the new Nazis. And while Hamas became more popular at home, they came to appear even more unreasonable to an international media aligned against them. And the Islamic State overshot the mark; while their videos were meant to strike fear into their victims, they were so scary that it sometimes seemed the whole world was ready to band together to stop them.

And so we find ourselves in a new era in which spectator and participant are merging in war. Image matters more and affects us more deeply than ever before. The battle lines have shifted to new media. And the questions that now haunt me involve how we are to pace ourselves in response to the violence, how we can slow it down, reverse its course, and make it vivid without traumatizing a public increasingly exposed to violent imagery.

Perhaps you remained on the outside this summer and all of this will be news to you—you would be lucky. Social media might brutalize us all by taking us too close to the action, but this growing set of participatory tools are the closest thing we have found in some time to the social technologies we need to tear down the house of war.


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Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wiki Commons

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