Theatres of War

In the past, representations of war were a useful tool in shaping social, cultural or political ideology. Today, they serve as a powerful heuristic in preparing soldiers for the ‘realities’ of modern warfare. In other words, before soldiers go to war, they must first stop off in Hollywood. The company, Strategic Operations, is both the presage of modern day simulation as well as a formative middle ground for understanding and preparing for the complexities of asymmetrical war. Merging the movie making techniques of Hollywood with battlefield training, this unique company immerses soldiers in what they call ‘hyperrealism’. By combining immigrant Middle Eastern role players with battlefield pyrotechnics and special-effects make-up, Strategic Operations collapses the boundary between the imaginary world of conflict and actual war.

This spotlight was shot, produced, and edited by Professor Peter Mantello.

7 thoughts on “Theatres of War

  1. POLS3512 Critical Review Blog
    Ellen Wengert: s42665379

    ‘Theatres of War’ is a micro-documentary created by Professor Peter Mantello, published on TheVisionMachine along with a short textual synopsis of the video. The spotlight looks at the recent convergence of Hollywood movie-making techniques and military training, wherein props, pyrotechnics, special-effects makeup, and Middle Eastern actors are used to prepare soldiers for the battlefield. Mantello says that this utilisation of Hollywood processes in military training ‘collapses the boundary between the imaginary world of conflict and actual war’. Strategic Operations, a company based in San Diego, offers what it calls ‘hyper-realistic training’ for soldiers.

    The video opens with the company’s Executive Vice President, Kit Lavell, saying ‘we believe that we’re saving lives by taking the movie-making techniques and making all live military training extremely realistic – we call it “hyper-realistic”’. This assertion is immediately followed by a short clip of a car bomb exploding and then – what appears to be – some intense battlefield footage. In only a few seconds of the ensuing video, there is a tank, machine guns, wounded soldiers and civilians (some of which are missing limbs), with background sounds of sirens, etc. The footage is incredibly convincing.

    These violent clips are juxtaposed throughout the micro-documentary with quiet, calm – almost mundane – interview excerpts. As well as Kit Lavell, Mantello talks to Brayden Hawk, Strategic Operations’ Battlefield FX Manager, Stephanie Morford, Special Effects Make-up Artist, and Donavan Wistos, Director of Prop Fabrication. Stephanie Morford in particular talks quite casually and matter-of-factly about how easily her department is able to ‘burn’ the hands, feet and even full bodies of their prosthetic babies. This stark contrast really stood out to me and did give me the impression that the video was constructed in such a way to emphasize the inherent disparity between Hollywood movie-making techniques and real life warfare.

    Mantello’s micro-documentary does not make a clear argument as such; I think its objective was more to present information and bring this topic to the forefront of contemporary debate in an interesting and engaging way. In this sense, ‘Theatres of War’ was absolutely successful, however I am interested in knowing exactly what Mantello thinks about the issue and whether or not he believes the blurring of the line between ‘the imaginary world of conflict and actual war’ is on the whole a positive or a negative thing. The subjects interviewed within the video make several claims about the application of movie-making techniques to military training; namely that it saves (American) lives through preparing soldiers for war by providing them with as realistic a training environment as possible, both in terms of practice and strategy, and also culturally.

    The use of ‘amputee actors’ and other medical special effects techniques would be very useful within a training context; other video game style simulation training methods could not come even close to capturing the severity of battlefield wounds. And as an objective of Strategic Operations’ hyper-realist training, cultural assimilation does seem useful. Donavan Wistos makes an interesting point about many U.S. soldiers having never been to more than the one local church, let alone more than one city or country. The focus on cultural sensitivity – for example through rehearsing the ‘changeover’ process within the fictitious village, with paid actors playing local leaders and stakeholders – is a notable advantage of this hyper-realist mode of training.

    While I can recognise the validity of these arguments, I personally think it is quite concerning that the line between make-believe war movies and real combat is being blurred in such a way. A growing body of academic research has examined the emergence of what is called the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (MIME-net) or complex. The term is used to describe the reciprocal relationship between film producers and video game developers, and the defence force – wherein the military helps Hollywood to create accurate, convincing narratives, and Hollywood in exchange maintains the defence force’s public image and helps recruit new soldiers. Mantello’s spotlight on hyper-realist military training fits snugly within the MIME-net, because it deals with the intersection between movies and set production, and preparation for real war. A lot of literature and discussion about the complex focuses on Hollywood’s role as a recruitment tool, with less attention paid to military training. If movies and other forms of entertainment media are being used to maintain the defence force’s positive public image, and recruit soldiers as well as then train them, then MIME-net is clearly progressing, or rather the complex between the military, industry, media, and entertainment is deepening.

    Kit Donavan says that with the accuracy of the ‘sights, the sounds, the smells’ of Strategic Operations’ training environments, the soldiers no longer ‘game’ the training and instead become fully immersed in it. So on the one hand, it could be argued that this type of training at least takes warfare seriously and does its best to present an accurate portrayal of the confronting, bloody and violent realities of conflict, and in a more significant way than video game style simulation training does, for example. The hyper-realist heuristic, at least, does not trivialise real warfare as much as certain other elements of the MIME-net do, for example video games that blatantly and wholly turn war into a game. The very notion of Hollywood – which is absolutely synonymous with fiction – having anything to do with hyper-realism, however, is in itself quite odd. A soldier surely wouldn’t be encouraged to watch a war movie in order to learn about ‘real’ war, and so to have soldiers prepare for combat in what is essentially a movie set makes it difficult to accept that the participants really do become so immersed as to no longer believe they are in training.

    While the Strategic Operations employees interviewed claim that participating soldiers become completely immersed in the simulation, I think it would actually be very difficult for them not to ‘game’ the training. There may be some instances in which soldiers believe that an accidental discharge in training has caused real damage – such is the visual persuasion of the pretend environment they are in – but for most soldiers most of the time, I believe it would be quite clear they were in the midst of a fabricated battlefield. I’ve no doubt the soldiers experience a huge adrenalin rush from the training and get quite caught up in it, but they are surely aware most of the time that the injuries sustained by the actors around them – no matter how realistic looking – are not real. Obviously these training exercises are not conducted for fun, or as entertainment. In other words, one does not casually partake in training with Strategic Operations to be entertained, as they would go to the movies on a Saturday afternoon to see the latest war movie. But despite this significant distinction, the former ‘collapses the boundary between the imaginary world of conflict and actual war’ – as Mantello puts it – in much the same way that the latter does. Overall I think that Mantello’s spotlight, while absolutely fascinating, would have benefited from a clearer central argument and from further exploration of hyper-realist training’s place within the broader context of military, industry, media, and entertainment. It’s such a striking disparity – ‘stop off in Hollywood’ on the way to war, as the textual synopsis says, to prepare oneself for ‘reality’ – that I think Mantello could have really drilled down further into this fascinating topic.

  2. POLS3512 Written Critical Blog Review
    Millie Gluis 43561450

    Professor Peter Mantello argues that before soldiers are deployed, ‘they must first stop off in Hollywood’ (Mantello, 2013). With the wave of military-inspired reality television shows and movies currently saturating entertainment platforms, Mantello’s assertion seems obvious. Depictions of war in television, movies and even games have led to public perceptions of life in conflict and allowed for media organisations and politicians to shape their perceptions as they wish. However, Mantello takes a different approach to the mediatisation of war in this blog entry.

    Mantello’s short video Theatres of War, which was created for academic website TheVisionMachine, documents the work of Strategic Operations. Strategic Operations creates live military training, simulating the conditions and traumas US soldiers will be exposed to upon deployment in the Middle East. Along with distressing experiences such as car bombs and injured soldiers, the soldiers are also taught how to navigate civilian life, engaging with local officials and speaking through translators. Employing hyper-realistic locations, sets, props and actors the company ensure they are duplicating the realities which await soldiers as closely as possible. This film documents the work of Strategic Operations by using short interviews with various employees, intersected with dramatic scenes of explosions, civilian crowds and decapitated soldiers.

    Theatres of War has no overt argument it attempts to make. Mantello never physically inserts himself into the video; we are never exposed to his perspectives. Without critically engaging with the video it would be justifiable to assume that Mantello is simply documenting the work of Strategic Operations without his own agenda. However just because Mantello never states his opinion does not mean he is without one. Fulfilling his role as (citizen) journalist, Mantello is not simply opening a ‘window to the world’ with this video, but choosing what to show through that window. I argue that Mantello’s piece is following in the current media trend of separating the soldier from the war; demonstrating conflict and the experiences of soldiers without engaging with the wider political or circumstantial information.

    Scholars and politicians alike have widely engaged with the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. This refers to the PR failure of the United States during the Vietnam War; many argue that the poor mediatisation of the war was responsible for the US’ loss (Stahl, 2009: 21). As such, media creators have attempted to separate the soldier from the war, by providing a discourse of anti-war yet pro-soldier (Stahl, 2009: 80). In doing so, individual’s civic responsibility they felt towards conflict and soldiers has been replaced with personal sympathy for soldiers (Stahl, 2009: 43).

    This new discourse has opened a realm of films and reality television shows which centre around the realities and experiences of soldiers in conflict. Just like video games within the same field, these forms of entertainment attempt to provide no insight into the true lives of soldiers. Instead, they seek to create personal connections with sympathy, as well as excitement and adrenalin, to entice viewers to continue watching.

    Theatres of War is separated from most media portrayals of conflict by avoiding to show a ‘clean war’. ‘Clean War’ is the media choice not to show death or injury, thus alienating the viewer from the real-life consequences of war (Stahl, 2009: 25). The audience is therefore inclined to watch further inclining the viewer (Stahl, 2009: 25). Mantello’s video disregards this trade tool, attempting to show as much death, injury and destruction as is necessary. It should be noted that this video is not intended for wide public consumption. If it were, the video may have been made ‘cleaner’. However, because Mantello is creating content for TheVisionMachine he is aware of the platform’s audience. By showing the traumatic stress the soldiers must undergo, and the unsavoury conditions they must experience, Montello is connecting his audience with the plight of soldiers in a slightly different way. Rather than demonstrate war as entertainment, and somehow exciting, Montello takes a serious approach. He still employs the sympathy of the audience, doing so by providing such uncensored images.

    This film and the work of Strategic Operations takes a new perspective on this discourse. The simulations created by the company aren’t being broadcasted for public viewing, unlike other forms of military-based videos, which have been created solely for the purpose of providing entertainment to average citizens. Mantello’s film differentiates this work from war as depicted by reality television, by demonstrating that these are no civilians playing soldier. These are trained militants in a simulator deemed necessary for their job, just like many other professions would use.

    However, by employing this pro-military discourse, Montello’s argument provides a complete disregard of the wider socio-political context. Arguments of US involvement in the Middle East are ignored. In combating the Vietnam Syndrome and attempting to connect viewers with the individual soldier, rather than the wider conflict, questions of involvement are left by the wayside. Stahl accurately argues that the use of this narrative ‘takes war out of the realm of public debate by justifying it with the soldier-in-crisis, whose rescue is not up for debate’ (Stahl, 2009: 80). By embedding the military within entertainment media, the war has become ‘up-close and personal’, with none of the relevant politics or justification (Stahl, 2009: 43). Theatres of War may not be outright propaganda, but its failure to engage with the wider politics of the US military and its Middle Eastern involvement render it another contributor to the mediatisation of war.

    Montello’s work demonstrates the US military are taking steps to improve how they are perceived at home. It reveals that the US army are making an effort to engage with the civilians in the countries they work within; no longer are they just creating ‘trigger-happy’ soldiers, now they are actually requiring communication and sociology skills, and recognising the emotional intelligence necessary to work within these traumatic zones. Yet while showing what soldiers will have to undergo during the deployment, Theatres of War completely disregards the fates endured by civilians in the Middle East under US troops (Carruthers, 2011: 248). Strategic Operation claim to train soldiers to positively and respectfully engage with citizens of these states. However, reports of abuse by US soldiers overseas are hardly uncommon. Civilians lives are held cheap, according to Carruthers, with Islamic women being searched by US men at checkpoints, Middle Eastern individuals being held indefinitely, and mosques and Qur’ans being desecrated (Carruthers, 2011: 248).

    The creation of films such as Theatres of War is aiding in the erasure of the Vietnam Syndrome for US media. Currently, bloggers and other forms of citizen journalists are currently the best PR the US military has, with their ability to come from a level of authenticity and ability to easier connect with everyday citizens (Carruthers, 2011: 245). They demonstrate the good work of the US military, whilst offering an identity to sympathise with soldiers, and simultaneously providing an adrenalin kick (Stahl, 2009: 43). However, by employing this mediatisation of war, Mantello has chosen to omit the politics and justifications from his argument. On the surface, Mantello has created an interesting film which documents the talented work of the employees within Strategic Operations. However, when one critically engages with the piece it can be hard to ignore Mantello’s subliminal argument. By choosing not to engage with the external factors of the US military’s involvement in the Middle East, Theatres of War exists simply as another piece of PR creating an identity with which civilians can identify with, without considering the wider consequences.

    References

    Carruthers, S. (2011). The Media at War. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.209-252.

    Mantello, P. (2013). Theatres of War. [Blog] TheVisionMachine. Available at: http://thevisionmachine.com/2013/08/theatres-of-war/#comments [Accessed 12 Oct. 2016].

    Stahl, R. (2009). Militainment, Inc.: War, Media and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.

  3. POLS3512 Critical Blog Review
    Samantha Moreno Jimenez 44004776

    In Theatres of War, Peter Mantello examines Strategic Operations Inc. (STOPs), a company that combines Hollywood techniques and the knowledge of asymmetrical war. STOPs is an independent TV and movies studios, which creates unique Hyper-Realistic training simulations and the cultural awareness that help the US military shape war-like situations. Mantello’s central message to the audience is to digest the role of STOPs in ‘collapsing the boundary between the imaginary world of conflict and real war’ (Mantello, 2013). But, more than backing an argument, this audio-visual piece simply shows what the company does and how it does it. This oversimplified view, has left me a main concern, which is that Peter Mantello missed a fantastic opportunity to open up dialogue about the ethics and the purpose of war that was not taken up due to the lack of commentary.

    In Theatres of War, the discourse we see is always from the US side, but never from the side of the insurgency, or the ‘other’, who are immigrant Middle Eastern role players. Therefore, although providing a platform of hyperrealist training for US soldiers, STOPs can become a scene of repetitive traumatic war scenes that those immigrant actors had faced in the past. As Brayden Hawk said, “we have people from the Middle East saying that our training was incredibly similar to what they went through… who unfortunately were in a firefight” (Mantello, 2013). STOPs’ hyperrealism is rooted in the stress inoculation training (SIT), which teaches the military how to manage small levels of stress to inoculate themselves with future higher stress levels (Lipshy, 2013). A study by Kathleen Giblin (2012) found that by doing so, SIT contributes to the decrease of Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that veterans of war face. However, SIT does not account for when stress levels become too high, especially for Middle Eastern role players. As a result, Mantello, leaves us with the question of what do immigrant role players think and how do they see their work, which can be intimately related to their own experiences. Are stress levels too high for those actors who unlike soldiers have to ‘suffer’ the atrocities of war daily? If so, this would mean that in the future SIT will work as a double-edged sword for war veterans and for retired actors that took part in the STOPs training model.

    Although STOPs claim that they are undertaking this project with cultural awareness, this cultural awareness extends only to the level of the discourse and does not look beyond important related issues. For instance, Donavan Wistos says that most of the US young soldiers have never had a multicultural experience before (Mantello, 2009). The necessity of understanding the enemy was adopted as a post-Vietnam lesson. And in this vein, Kit Lavell would say that STOPs was first to notice this need before the military themselves did by introducing the teaching of culture and Arabic to marines and soldiers. However, although these counter-terrorism modern techniques are being used, it is likely that abuses from the US military overseas will continue happening such as sexual abuse, torture, and murder of Middle Eastern prisoners. These abuses are inevitably part of culture and as such, should be treated as highly important training components. A famous case of the mentioned abusive behaviour is the Abu Ghraib Iraqi prison case, where human rights violations occurred and the perpetrators were US soldiers.

    Theatres of war is quite confronting in its bluntness, but it needs commentary eventually in order to educate and expose a balanced story to its audience. Mantello’s own opinion is not present in Theatres of War, he allows us to regard war in terms of the ‘spectacle’ through the PR-isation of STOPs, which disengages us from the realities of war. War as a spectacle is about dazzling the audience into a politically disconnected subject. This allows us to grow from a citizen-spectator to an engaged citizen-soldier, where the line between war and entertainment blurs, and allows for the abandoning of moral dilemmas (Stahl, 2009: 21). For instance, Kit Lavell claims that once soldiers are immersed in the environment created by STOPs, ‘they don’t game it’ (Mantello, 2013). In the same way that we, as viewers do not ‘game’ feelings of disgust, anxiety or pain, when we hear that doll babies are burnt even though we know it is not real. The question that arises here is, why does STOPs need a fully-burnt baby, what does that specificity in detail has to do with the overall warfare training? But most importantly what is that trying to achieve, if not press coverage. The answers to these questions could have been found in Mantello’s own opinion around the theme not necessarily included audio-visually, but as part of the written section. In this vein, Theatres of War consciously or not, becomes a press release of STOPs, a recruitment piece that somehow attempts to overlook the real lives of those soldiers, and look at the overall meaning of war fought from home. By doing so, the video encourages the sympathies of US and even overseas audiences, who can ‘feel’ the thrill of conflict and often identify themselves with the ‘good guys’ on their duty of fighting terrorism. The video has got the language of ‘buy me’ in the notion of war that is horrific but noble, exciting and adventurous, which sets it up in movie terms as a spectacle, and also as a recruitment tool.

    War before Vietnam was described as ‘clean war’ in that the death and the dying are not exposed by the media, however, Theatres of war does the opposite in this regard by highly emphasising this element. The concept of clean war, came into light as a US government counter-strategy after the media representation of the Vietnam War, which would show on televisions uncensored violence (Stahl, 2009:26). Contrary to clean war, Theatres of war as a journalistic piece makes us realize how death and suffering shape warfare every time there is an ‘attack’ from either the military or the insurgency. To make it even more realistic, Stephanie Morford narrates her work with amputee actors in a straight-forward way saying ‘we have had people who have knees dislocated due to this training, so we have tried to come up with a better idea to help protect their stumps’ (Mantello, 2013). Interestingly enough, both Theatres of war and clean war, share the common appeal to what scholar Slavoj Žižek calls ‘war without war’ (Stahl, 2009:27). The two sides depict a confectioned scenario where war is manipulated to appear as stakeholders or government want it to appear in the eyes of the consumer. Žižek suggests, this phenomenon joins a long list of placebo things like ‘coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, sex without sex (pornography)’ and so on (2009:27). In the end, Theatres of war by providing instead of a clean, a dirty war contributes to the understanding for soldiers and for audiences of the bloody landscape that war entails. However, it does not show the bleak picture of the psychological repercussions of death itself, simply because death does not sell for a company like STOPs.

    In conclusion, Theatres of war is a narrow frame, which portrays STOPs’ hyperrealism techniques by omitting the personal impact on the lives of US soldiers and Middle Eastern actors. Moreover, in Theatres of war Peter Mantello’s opinion is non-existent, which neglects warfare justifications and politics from the role of STOPs, making it a questionable organization. This leaves its more critical viewers with a feeling of having seen a military propaganda or PR piece, where the US soldier is virtually sold to generate empathy. The result is war as spectacle, which feeds us with the heroic idea of saving the US from all bad things, summed up in a word: terrorism. Whether it is through inoculation training, or teachings of the Arabic language, the ugly truth in my opinion is that STOPs deep down recreates the power imbalance where the burden of security rests on the ‘white man’. This is to say that, it is about STOPs lending them power an authority that the military later may abuse, because of the belief of power superiority over the culturally different. Theatres of war serves as an appetizer to the discourse on counter-terrorism techniques post 9/11, and it represents the authentic professional work put into delivering a cutting-edge setting away from war itself. However, the missing pieces or what is left out of the video frame could shed light into a broader justification of what STOPs means in a political, cultural and social context, which might turn Theatres of war into an interesting investigative journalism piece.

    BIBLIOGRAPHY

    Goblin Ray, K. 2012. Protecting newly deployed troops from PTSD: the role of preparedness (Ph.D. candidate). The State University of New Jersey.

    Lipshy, K., & LaPorta, A. 2017. Operating room crisis management leadership training: Guidance for surgical team education | The Bulletin. The Bulletin. Retrieved 11 May 2017, from http://bulletin.facs.org/2013/10/or-crisis-management/

    Mantello, P. 2013. Theatres of War. [Blog] TheVisionMachine. Available at: http://thevisionmachine.com/2013/08/theatres-of-war/#comments Accessed 10 May 2017.

    Stahl, R. 2009. Militainment, Inc.: War, Media and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.

    Strategic Operations. 2014. Hyper-Realistic Battlefield Special Effects and Training Support Services – Army Technology. Army-technology.com. Retrieved 22 May 2017, from http://www.army-technology.com/contractors/training/strategicoperations/

  4. The Future of Military Training: Hollywood IRL

    When we picture a merge between Hollywood and warfare, perhaps the first images that appear are the uncanny precision and unsettling brutalities of war epics or the unavoidable prevalence of the Department of Defence post-zombie apocalypse. The flip side to this coin, however, are the simulations presented by Strategic Operations (SO). Their ‘In Real Life’ approach to military training is the next leap in modern-day conflict preparation.

    The above spotlight, shot, produced and edited by Peter Mantello, attempts to shed light on the experiences provided by SO. These experiences simulate live battlefield operations inclusive of wounded civilians, Middle-Eastern village settings and local leader handovers. Whilst Mantello does not directly appear in this mini-documentary, he cleverly introduces us to the experts behind the production, the first of which appears in the opening seconds of the video.

    Kit Lavell, Executive Vice President, is depicted passionately discussing the objectives of SO, cleverly juxtaposed, amongst intense clips of the aforementioned ‘sims’. He claims that they are saving lives by “collapsing the boundary” between training and actual warfare. Utilising movie techniques, foreign actors and advanced special effects, the company has sought to create realistic, live military training. The term used to describe this form of simulation is ‘hyperrealist’.

    The ‘hyper-realistic’ world created by SO is supplemented by professional special effects makeup and prop fabrication. Mantello interviews Stephanie Morford and Donovan Wistos who are respectively in charge of these areas. Morford matter-of-factly describes her ability to maim babies and provide amputee actors with ‘safe’ critical wounds. Lavell concurs that the realistic injuries often trick soldiers into believing real harm has been caused and that the results have ‘freaked out medics’. Wistos, on the other hand, introduces us to ‘hero’ props which are essentially props that are weight-representative and so detailed in their creation that participants cannot tell them apart from the real thing. Such attention to detail creates a form of ‘expansion pack’ within the simulation and allows those training to fully immerse themselves. In order to understand this new technique, it is crucial to appreciate the history of the warfare-Hollywood relationship and the resulting training efforts.

    In decades gone by, the movie scene alone, depicted the relationship between Hollywood and war. The collaboration between Hollywood and the Department of Defence (DoD), in particular, was and still is demonstrated through action blockbusters. Mirrlees argues that the relationship is “mutually beneficial” (2017: 407). Quite convincingly too, as the movie gains realistic scenes whilst the DoD benefits from positive representation which may result in recruitment.

    Mantello, in an article from the same period, refers to the link between gaming media and the pentagon (2013: 639). In this case, however, video games are utilised as recruitment and training tools. By presenting young gamers with the potential to participate in real warfare within cyberspace, the pentagon was able to track their progress and understanding of battle tactics. In essence, they provide opportunities for gamers to see and feel warfare (Mantello 2013: 638). Through this heuristic, the idea of hyperrealist immersions as a means of blurring the boundaries between reality and media representation is confirmed.

    Video games or screen-simulated training operations were considered key to military training. The idea of immersive simulation, however, is not a new concept. In a 2013 article, Taylor explains the use of The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer. This apparatus was utilised in World War Two by Britain and the United States (2013: 17). Essentially, it was comprised of multiple television screens organised around the vision of the participant. These screens then simulated anti-aircraft gunning combat (Taylor 2013: 18). This was the first transformation of the cinema from pure observation towards interaction. Consequently, and similarly to what I could imagine would be the case for SO simulations, the technique was overwhelming at first but over time it developed the muscle memory and emotional response required for real warfare.

    In a further step towards the current SO technique, many military trainees in recent years have encountered a different form of simulation, whereby the participant wears computer headgear that projects scenarios onto their surroundings. Lawlor introduced The Future Immersive Training Environment (FITE) in her 2010 article. At the time the technique was still in its infancy and marine soldiers were testing the idea. Lawlor claimed that the military was trying to keep up with the next generation of soldiers; those who were raised with and around technology (2010: 45). Such a step seems logical given the relationship and dependency between Hollywood and warfare argued by Mantello.

    In light of the literature surrounding military immersive training, it appears that the technique is, and has been for some time, valid and beneficial. Whilst Mantello avoided directly making an argument throughout the video, he convincingly displayed the efforts of Strategic Operations and their seemingly effective means of training future military service men and women.
    As the next frontier from video gaming and headset simulation, Strategic Operations presents a unique experience in warfare preparation. Not only can soldiers see and hear the battle (Lawlor 2010: 46), but they can feel the warmth of the blood from a civilian they are trying to save or experience the bone-rattling tremor that accompanies an improvised explosive. SO has created a real-life first person shooter scenario where the player wears their own skin and not that of an avatar.

    Perhaps the most convincing aspect of the operation though is that of cultural awareness and understanding. Not only do SO provide physical scenarios that resemble real-life, they have taken the initiative to include culturally and religiously accurate situations. The example Mantello presents is a town handover between units. In this scenario, foreign actors are hired and translators utilised to deepen the experience and prepare soldiers for a similar situation. Lavell expresses the importance of these insights as the one chance soldiers will get to experience another culture before it is forced upon them.

    As a means of improving this short spotlight, I would propose that Mantello include the viewpoints of specific soldiers who have experienced the simulations. Whilst Lavell relays that he has received emails from soldiers on the ground who have acknowledged his companies work and even thanked him for preparing them, it is not quite as convincing as speaking to those soldiers themselves.

    Further, in the opening scene, Lavell claims that the company is ‘saving lives’ by bridging the gap between perception and reality, however, it would be interesting to perhaps compare the real-life performance of soldiers who have undergone SO training and those who have not. It is believed that exposure pre-combat may reduce the levels of post-traumatic stress (Lawlor 2010: 48). However, again, this factor has not been considered in Mantello’s spotlight and leaves questions about the validity of Strategic Operations practice.

    Overall, Mantello has presented an interesting insight into modern-day warfare training and demonstrated, without overwhelming bias the work being achieved by Strategic Operations. Whilst the simulations themselves ramp up the sights, sounds and smells of combat training, the outcome of the immersive technique is omitted and I believe this is key to understanding its validity in practice. Despite this, however, Strategic Operations have reached a new check-point in the military training mission and it will be interesting to follow as this technique evolves and potentially becomes more widely adopted.

    Word Count: 1214

    Reference List
    Lawlor, Maryann 2010 ‘Infusing FITE Into Simulations’, Signal 64(9): 45 – 49
    Mantello, Peter 2013 ‘Legitimacy and the Virtual Battlefield: putting the firs-person shooter on the witness stand’, Australian Journal of International Affairs 67(5): 638 – 658
    Mantello, Peter 2013 ‘Theatres of War’ [Blog] TheVisionMachine. Available at: http://thevisionmachine.com/2013/08/theatres-of-war/#comments [Accessed 24th May 2017]
    Mirrlees, Tanner 2017 ‘Transforming Transformers into Militainment: Interrogating the DoD-Hollywood Complex’, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 76(2): 406 – 434
    Taylor, Giles 2013 ‘A Military Use for Widescreen Cinema: Training the Body through Immersive Media’, The Velvet Light Trap 72: 17 – 32

  5. Theatres of War: Is getting the job done good enough?

    “Theatre of War” is a military term that refers to the area or region where an important conflict will take place, a “theatre of operations” is a sub theatre within that location where specific operations are taking place (Bear, 2015). This spotlight Theatres of War focuses on a micro-documentary, directed by Peter Mantello, about the creation of a project by the company Strategic Operations. Their job revolves around the idea that to truly train and prepare young soldiers for war, they must put potential soldiers right in the firing line, if you will. They work with movie sets, props, costumes and fake explosives to recreate a ‘Middle Eastern’ conflict scene, complete with citizens and day-to-day scenes of fruit sellers and children in the market. Soldiers are deployed into the scene and the conflict with insurgents begins. The philosophy stands that the soldiers must learn not only about all of the possible things that could occur under live fire, but also learn how to take charge, bring their comrades and the injured to safety and identify insurgents. This exercise is directly out Hollywood, as Mantello said (2013). However, Kit Lavell, the executive director of the program believes it really does help soldiers to prepare whilst also exposing young soldiers to a culture they will experience once they are deployed.

    While the project does seem to stem from benevolent intentions and there are arguments for how an idea like this could revolutionise the mental health of soldiers serving overseas, it begs the question; are they transforming war into a spectacle, as mused on by Stahl. Are they simply being flippant, glamorising conflict and perhaps even planting biases in the soldiers head before they experience the Middle East first hand? This critical blog post seeks to question whether this tactic is legitimate, whether it is effective and most importantly, could it be done better.
    The works of Der Derian and Stahl suggest that (particularly in the United States), the image of war has seen a transition from the Hollywood depictions which, as Mantello mentioned, to then visceral news coverage. From there it experienced a slide down into the spectacle shown by not only video games but then this project. This exercise goes beyond illusory politics (Der Derian, 2001) and demonstrates a shift of focus from the battlefield to the home front (Stahl, 2010). As Lavell mentioned, many of the young soldiers would not be familiar with the foreign environment however probably did grow up during the end years of the Iraq war where the CNN effect was in full swing. Coming with even a vague understanding of what American conflict looked like at that time, and then being presented with the scenes could lead to an installation of unconscious and conscious racial profiling. This creation of spectacle seems to undermine the legitimacy of the projects intentions.
    Lavell mentioned that he introduced several techniques to attempt to familiarise the new soldiers with the culture of the places they would be deployed to as well as the language. However, the snippet shown in the video pictured translator dominated interaction which focused on military communications. It would be unreasonable to not see military interactions with the locals, however this further alienation from the enemy as people refers back to Stahl’ s criticism of war discourse as distraction.

    Professor Nick Robinson suggests that despite video games, war simulations and training techniques all being openly lauded as practice for the real thing, the impression left upon potential soldiers is still significant (Robinson, 2012). The emergence of soldiers in an environment that extends beyond but still resembles a video game or army training leads to a further embedding of the idea of war as a game (Robinson, 2017). This smacks of traditional military propaganda techniques where the enemy was dehumanised in order to make them easier to kill. The setting of a unified American army against faceless insurgents also contributes to this image. Phrases such as ‘rally around the flag’ spring to mind as an ‘us’ verse ‘them’ rhetoric begins to surface. The establishment of the Middle East as purely a conflict zone will certainly create biases in young impressionable soldiers.

    However, despite the issues that have arisen from this exercise, it does in some ways, measure up well against other popular training techniques such as virtual reality or video gaming. Virtual reality and video gaming create a relationship between the player and their target that is underlined by distance, alienation and invincibility (Robinson, 2017; Stone, 2016). Despite the obvious fallacy of re-spawning, the more subtle lack of real interaction with people is more concerning. As Stone writes,

    “….becomes clear that human elements have been ignored in favour of staging visually appealing demonstrations that do little more than show off the latest “must-have” hardware and software” (2016).

    As for army training techniques, Lavell states that many soldiers only view it as a training device and don’t feel compelled to demonstrate their skills or training; for there is little motivation.
    So what could be improved upon in this training exercise? Well, the studies on how virtual reality can be used to assist soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder are compelling- it allows soldiers to asses and deal with their feelings in their own time while still interacting with the environment (Stone, 2016). It would be interesting to see a combination of the two used in conjunction with one another in a post and pre setting. Most importantly, the exercise performed by Strategic Operations needs to include far more elements of legitimacy within their program. If the soldiers were taught Arabic in a situation that went beyond military capacities, if they were exposed to more Middle Eastern personas than insurgents, background actors or interviewees; they could begin to read the landscape within which they were living.

    There are many questions to be raised as to what could be improved. The use of children as burn victims- is there proper post-exercise programs to talk about how a soldier would deal with this mentally in the real war for example. As for the education the soldiers receive before they begin the exercise- are they informed about the landscape or just the military landscape?
    It’s an interesting exercise that does have merit. Given Vietnam and the coverage of that conflict was such a thorn in America’s side, it interesting that this program still doesn’t seem to do justice to informing troops of the country they will be fighting in. Much of the rhetoric surrounding Vietnam alluded to the US military trying to force the environment into something they could understand (Stahl, 2010) and it was eventually- their downfall. Whilst this program really does attempt to recreate reality, the ties to Hollywood still seem to run too deep and it misses the mark.

    The use of incredibly real props and makeup is a double edged sword. For an outsider, it seems like a garish mock-up of Hollywood exploitation; for the soldiers who are in the action, they can’t take time to read the semiotics of the scene- they are there to use their training. The soldiers are afterwall, the ones who will matter most on the ground. Perhaps in the end attempting to moralise war at all is an arbitrary exercise and the closest once can get to improving the experience is to achieve and emphasise the legitimacy.

    Reference

    Beard, R. 2015. Warspeak: Liguistic Collateral Damage, viewed 13th May 2017, http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/drgw008.html

    Der Derian, James 2001 Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network Colorado: Westview Press

    Mantello, P. 2013. The Vision Machine: Media War Peace, viewed 1st June 2017, http://thevisionmachine.com/2013/08/theatres-of-war/

    Robinson, N 2012 ‘Videogames, Persuasion and the War on Terror: Escaping or Embedding the Military—Entertainment Complex?’ Journal of Political Studies Association 60(3): 504-522.

    Stahl R, 2010, Militainment Inc. Taylor & Francis Ltd., London

    Stone, R. 2016. The Conversation: Military needs a more realistic approach to virtual reality, viewed 1st June, 2017


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