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Innerview: Chris Hables Gray

The Vision Machine had a valuable chance to visit Chris Hables Gray at his residence in Santa Cruz, California.  Gray is author of Postmodern War (1997), Cyborg Citizen (2002), and Peace, War, and Computers (2004).  Here, he puts the Arab Spring into context of new media going back to the Zapatistas, discusses the meaning of “war” in the digital age, and reframes the debate about the ethics of autonomous and remotely operated weapons.  To find out more about Gray\’s work, visit his page or contact him here at The Vision Machine.

Innerview by Seb Kaempf and Roger Stahl, edited by Roger Stahl.

 

Kony & Kardashian 2012: Viral, Vital, Virile?

The Kony2012 campaign pledged that the scourge of Joseph Kony would be eradicated by the moment we’d all be celebrating New Year’s 2013. Despite the massive media frenzy prompted by the “viral video” that launched the campaign ten months earlier, this very deadline passed nearly unnoticed. But as the year ended, another human rights issue was viral. Reality television mega-star Kim Kardashian’s celebrity prowess drew the world’s gaze to a glittering shopping mall in—and with activists’ encouragement, to the restive streets of—the repressive Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain.

Let’s call this Kardashian2012.

“If Only They Know… They Will Do Something”

As surely as day follows night, the bright light of awareness will expunge evil’s darkness. Were it ever so… and were it ever so simple. The Kony2012 campaign, launched by the group “Invisible Children” with what is described as the most viral advocacy video in history, was apparently premised on the deeply flawed assumption that awareness leads automatically to action. It is an immensely naïve, profoundly attractive, and potentially distracting and dangerous proposition.

Kony2012 emphatically disabuses us of any such notion. Awareness is a crucial first step in promoting change. A lesson I began to learn as a journalist covering terrible human rights abuses in Uganda in 1981 was that witnessing and reporting is essential, but very rarely sufficient to bring change. [Please see If Only They Knew, They Would Do Something…FAIL!”, below] The most significant result Kony2012 produced was many many many MANY people saying “J.Kony is bad”. An early and cogent critique of Kony2012 came from Human Rights Watch researcher Ida Sawyer, who appears in the video, and very quickly urged the sort of practical actions that experienced human rights advocates employ in efforts to affect policy. A viral video, even history’s most viral, and concerning an issue as grave as pervasive abuse of children and others in conflict, may leave behind little than the clamor of its own echo chamber. Disconnected from viable solutions and actions to realize them, awareness of abuses may prove little more than voyeurism gilded in the clothes of concern.

Kony2012Children Sell

Kony2012 was nothing less than a virtual Children’s Crusade. It reminds us that in advocacy [as in most marketing], children are a good “sell”—and can also be easily mobilized. Youth “fads” long preceded the Internet but their virtual vectors of contagion are today far swifter and broader. The emphasis on child victims and survivors of Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army offered the most innocent and “worthy” subjects for our attention and concern—as do many appeals from long-established and highly reputable rights and aid groups. And some organizations, like War Child, are aimed directly at ameliorating the impact of conflict on children.

The video’s use of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell’s young son furthers the narrative arc of innocence, connecting online first-worlders to the suffering of children in Africa through an affluent—and super-cute—blond California kid. The 29-minute film, stupendously long for an Internet advocacy pitch, is indeed well constructed. It opens with views of earth from space, inspiring new age music, and jump-cuts of social media featuring children, their rather out-of–touch elders, and a baby’s birth. Pop culture icons get screen time. The video’s Ugandan “star”, Jacob Acaye, puts a human face to human rights abuse. The suffering of children depicted is heart-rending. Heartfelt pledges are sworn. Virtual bonds are sealed. Yet Kony2012’s simplicity seems most attractive to naïve audiences, and appears to have resonated most successfully with younger teenagers—in part because of the simplistic depiction of a problem [J.Kony] and its solution [kill him], and because the action demanded of viewers to write their favorite pop stars in earnest hopes of enlisting them to STOP EVIL was to youngsters an enormously exciting and ennobling proposition.

The video’s massive appeal evoked a commensurate tsunami of commentariat reflection on the merits of its videography, numerous factual errors, its creators’ assumptions, the demand for a military solution in an evangelical Christian context [please see “Messianic Foes?”, below], the roles of social media, the roots of “badavocacy”, and most usefully, reporting on the actual situation on the ground in northern Uganda and neighboring countries. Even China’s state-run Xinhua News agency joined the fray. On 05 March 2013, exactly a year after it was launched, Kony2012 had garnered 96,687,788 hits on YouTube, and 18.4 million more on Vimeo. A Google search for “Kony2012”, also on 05 March 2012, returned “about 6,230,000 results”.

But Kony today remains free to kill, and LRA depredations continue. As a small and nimble [and well-funded] NGO, Invisible Children appears to have done some good work on the ground in Uganda and Congo, including previously setting up early warning radio relays in areas then threatened by the LRA. It now co-sponsors an interesting LRA abuse-tracking website. But the hunt for Joseph Kony and the scattered LRA bands he nominally leads did not intensify because of the Kony2012 video or the massive attention it generated. It was earlier lobbying by a constellation of groups (including Invisible Children) that encouraged the 2009 deployment of a small force of US advisors tasked with helping local militaries pursue Kony.

After issuing Kony2012, Invisible Children was lauded with rafts of supportive statements by politicians and officials. Yet by the moment the video went viral, the Lord’s Resistance Army had been reduced to little more than ill-organized bands of thugs roaming remote forests in Central Africa. It posed no strategic threat to the United States, or indeed to any African country. There would be no massive multinational offensive to eliminate these brigands. On the ground, nothing really changed.

Kardashian2012—Celebrity Sells

Reality TV fixture Kim Kardashian’s visit to the Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain to promote a milkshake franchise evoked fan hysteria. This was certainly a publicity stunt; whatever Kardashian offers the public is calculated to promote her personal brand. Perhaps of the “any publicity is good publicity” school, she seemed supremely indifferent if not utterly oblivious to the Bahraini regime’s ongoing human rights abuses.  “I just got to Bahrain!” she tweeted on arrival, “OMG can I move here please? Prettiest place on earth!” If Kardashian’s celebrity would sell milkshakes, it could also be courted to create controversy. Democracy activists and human rights groups seized the moment to swing the media spotlight to abuses in Bahrain.

Leading Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Alkhawaja’s warning to Kardashian that her celebrity status was being used to whitewash the repression in the oil-rich autocracy was picked up by various YouTube pundits. Her visit was met by what Western media described as “Islamist” opposition demonstrations, as well as mocking re-tweets. The blogosphere was abuzz… perhaps especially after recent revelations of top stars raking in despots’ dollars more ready to disparage celebrities consorting with dictators.

And of course, media love controversy, especially celebrity controversy. Even New York’s Daily News and the New York Post, tabloids that typically offer scant international coverage unless Americans are killed far from home or Israel is affected, gave the story play, albeit with little context of the Kingdom’s ongoing human rights violations.

Arguably, human rights groups and activists who seized upon Kim Kardashian’s Bahrain junket to highlight abuses and US support for its ruling family were more effective in raising genuine awareness of a human rights issue than the makers of Kony2012. Similar efforts have focused on the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix [no worries, says its boss] and the football school run by the world’s most popular sports franchise, top English side Manchester United; teenager Ahmad Shams was reportedly wearing a Man U jersey when he was shot dead by police during March 2011 protests in Bahrain\’s capital, Manama.

But even compared to fast cars and football champions, Kim Kardashian is a tabloid titan. Unlike her, however, Bahrain’s ruling family understands that not all attention is positive. Reputational risks [e.g., killing unarmed demonstrators and torturing detainees, including journalists] might undermine its standing with European and American publics, and so has sought help from richly-paid PR touts to polish its global image. [J.Kony, we can guess, would not grasp this—or simply rely on divine guidance.]

Kardashian2012 might have been a net minus to Bahrain’s international reputation. A Google search for “Kardashian Bahrain” on 05 March 2012 returned “about 3,800,000 results,” few of them only about milkshakes. Yet on the ground, nothing really changed. [And a wtf aside: Kardashian also found time—a paid endorsement?—to tweet glowingly about some dentists in Kuwait.]

Disregarding the Pain of Others: Strategic Dis/Interest

The NY Daily News’s short article on Kardashian in Bahrain closing sentence plainly soft-pedaled the regime’s abuses: “Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, is trying to overcome nearly two years of unrest among its majority Shi\’ite Muslims demanding political reforms and equality with the Sunni Muslims who rule the kingdom.” Writing that Bahrain is “trying to overcome…unrest” rather that “brutally seeking to suppress…dissent” is a typically passive and euphemistic formula America’s mainstream media often apply to repression by America’s more reliable allies—or, for that matter, to torture committed by the U.S. Government.

And these few words in the Daily News: “… where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based….” capture why persuading US leaders to pressure their Bahraini counterparts to respect human rights is so very difficult. United States strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and its continuing confrontation with Iran plainly trump any putative American commitment to protect rights and promote democracy in Bahrain, or in Saudi Arabia, etc.

These twin eruptions of mass issue awareness instruct us that “viral” may be neither “vital” to public debate, nor “virile” in moving matters from the public record onto the policy agenda. Mass awareness absent effective policy advocacy typically achieves little. And strong national security interests—in the Persian Gulf per Kardashian2012—or strategic disinterest in Central Africa regarding Kony2012—can each in their own way raise formidable barriers to convincing governments to act against human rights abusers.

YET… Witnessing Remains Powerful

The promise of Kony2012 was that by raising our voices we together could force the powers-that-be to hunt down Joseph Kony and end the terror visited over a quarter century on hundreds of thousands of innocent Africans—including many children— by the Lord’s Resistance Army. That estimable goal has not been achieved, and the campaigners seem never to have grasped the policy dynamics of US interests in that part of Africa.

In March 2013, Invisible Children released a new video marking the first anniversary of Kony2012. Its tone is akin to earlier productions, with a fair dose of self-congratulation and righteous self-promotion. It is more on target in praising the engagement of many young people than extolling its alleged accomplishments in helping contain [not kill or capture] Kony.

Yet witnessing is powerful and important in its own right. The first and imperfect awareness of a human rights issue that Kony2012 brought to many millions of young people might be formative to a sustained and more sophisticated appreciation of the wider world. And the social media tools many deployed in learning about and networking around Kony2012 may morph into future human rights campaigns.

Both Kony2012 and activism around Kardashian2012 mean that millions of people around the world can never again claim “they didn’t know” about these terrible abuses. But imagining that clicking ‘like’ or ‘share’ or sending a small donation is real action risks relegating our concern to what writer Lilie Chouliaraki describes as the solidarity of the “Ironic Spectator”. And being constantly urged “to care” can realize Marshall McLuhan\’s warning that, “the price of eternal vigilance is indifference”—unless genuine action that aims toward real goals is part of an empowering advocacy package.

The most viral video cannot be more than the initial rung on the advocacy ladder, placing events or issues on the public record and perhaps altering public perceptions. Viral communications can be hugely valuable to this first step. But to prove vital to the public debate, practical solutions must be offered. And to be “virile”, advocacy communications must offer meaningful participation in actions that can sustain commitment to address human rights abuses and social injustice challenges.

*****

MESSIANIC FOES?  

The Lord’s Resistance Army evolved from the messianic Holy Spirit Movement, which rose among Acholi people in northern Uganda in 1986. Its formation was similar to that of other millennial movements, such as those of the Xhosa in South Africa in the 1850s, New Zealand’s Maoris a decade later, or Native American Sioux at the end of 19th Century. The society in which it took root was under enormous stress, and some members perceived an existential crisis of alien domination and loss of both land and culture.

In Uganda, an Acholi-dominated military junta was in February 1986 defeated by rebel forces led by and mostly comprised of Ugandans from the south and west of their country. The diminution of Acholi power and privilege engendered some lingering armed opposition orchestrated by defeated politicians. But far more important to the creation of a new insurgency were abuses against Acholi civilians by some of the soldiers sent north to impose the new regime’s writ. This fed already existing fears of persecution and sparked a “legitimized resistance”—the surest base for a sustained guerilla conflict, as I have written of in the context of America’s war in Iraq.

The Holy Spirit Movement [HSM] was a new and initially small group led by a woman, Alice Auma, who took the name Lakwenya, whom she described as her spirit guide. Alice revealed that Lakwenya was demanding Acholi people purify themselves through a set of quasi-Christian prescriptions and prohibitions to be empowered to retake control of Uganda. The HSM advance toward Kampala was defeated in mid-1987, and Alice Lakwenya fled to Kenya. HSM fighters regrouped under the leadership of Lakwenya’s younger relative, Joseph Kony. Reporting from northern Uganda in 1988, I met Acholi guerilla fighters from the politically led Uganda People’s Democratic Army [please see PHOTO] surrendering to government troops. They said they could not face fighters of the rebranded United Holy Salvation Army [later rechristened the Lord’s Resistance Army], who were relentlessly attacking anyone who would not be “purified” and join their forces. Kony’s fighters were irrationally fearless, surrendering guerillas and government soldiers told me. They would sometimes charge enemies carrying sticks and stones they believed would turn into rifles and hand grenades. Many fell unarmed on the battlefield.

The late Alice Lakwenya’s missives from her spirit guide have evolved into LRA formal doctrine, enforced with great brutality. It is noteworthy that the LRA’s greatest nemesis, Invisible Children, has grown from a Christian-based group whose leaders’ religious fervor is perhaps no less deeply felt than Kony’s, and who loudly demand a demonstrably un-Christian militarized solution to a conflict that has long defied one. Invisible Children ignores Acholi cultural and religious leaders\’ arguments that traditional rites of healing and forgiveness are a better route to reconciliation. A compelling video that gives voice to this Acholi perspective has received less than 7,000 views….

*****

IF ONLY THEY KNEW, THEY WOULD DO SOMETHING … FAIL! 

One late afternoon while I was reporting from Uganda in 1981, a man knocked on my office door in central Kampala. Simply dressed, he was middle-aged, and rather gaunt. He spoke English carefully and politely, if imperfectly. A few evenings earlier, he told me, he’d heard about my story on the BBC radio’s daily Focus on Africa program of a smuggled letter said to be from detainees in an army camp. The letter described torture and other abuses by the much-feared red-bereted military police; its writers pleaded to be saved. I had mentioned that the letter included a list of 32 people reportedly held at the camp.

With a great courtesy bordering on deference I later saw was more likely desperation, the man asked if he could see the list. We sat. His brother was missing, he explained, seized by plain-clothes security men two months earlier. I handed him a copy of the hand-written letter, the names in question appended in smaller script. He peered down and ran his finger along the list once, twice, then again as tears began to leak from his eyes. “Did you find his name?” I asked, as very gently as I could. Rising, wiping his eyes, he barely sighed “No”, and head still down started toward the door.

I said I was very sorry and reached to shake his hand. He turned and took my hand in both of his. They were  large, and rough. “Thank you for your work,” he said softly, looking me squarely in the eyes, then added in stronger voice: “Make sure the world knows. In [previous dictator] Amin’s time,” he nodded slowly, “people said they didn’t know. This time” —he now shook his head with angry conviction— “please do not let them say they didn’t know.

In the moment, I believed that my reporting would surely make the world know… and that this knowledge would make a difference. The UK, US, and global institutions that supported the murderous regime would change their policies! But in the policy and media world of the 1980s, few powerful people evinced much concern. Uganda’s civil conflict was no Cold War proxy struggle. Beyond coffee, the country offered scant easily exploitable export resources. In Britain, Uganda’s past master and colonial creator, there was sporadic interest, at least some the afterglow of media attention lavished on the past dictator-cum-buffoon Idi Amin Dada. But American media attention was minimal, even while as many as 250,000 people, most of them civilians, were butchered in a savage conflict from 1981-86. The Vanderbilt Television Archives show that the main US networks reported on Uganda only a handful of times during that period. “Anti-communist” wars—raging in Central America, in Angola, in Afghanistan—were many orders of magnitude higher on the policy and thus the media agenda.

So if events in Uganda were on the public record, if my witness helped “let the world know”, such awareness did little to push the conflict onto the policy agenda. My information helped Amnesty International and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights [now Human Rights First] to issue damning reports. But absent oil or ideology as compelling cause for intervention, Uganda’s civil war carried on largely unremarked by the wider world. If the strategic interests of a state in a conflict are either very small or very large, promoting policy action is exceedingly difficult.

Witnessing and reporting offered awareness; it did not move policy. To believe that I did my job as witness well [please see The Guardian clip: “Sad times, bad times, in Uganda’s capital of suffering” in the sidebar] is a cold and hollow comfort as I recall the bloody broken bodies, the piled corpses—the shattered lives—of everyday people suffering under a cruel dictatorship. But there is still genuine importance, and potential power, in witnessing by professional journalists, by citizen reporters, by human rights activists. It is the absolutely necessary first step, but first step only, on a path of awareness and advocacy and, perhaps, change.

And like the man who visited my office that day in 1981, I am glad at least that world leaders and others who did nothing to try to stem the mass killing in Uganda in the 1980s would never be able to clothe themselves in the hypocrisy of claiming they “didn’t know”.

 

Comments are welcome at trlansner@gmail.com

 

Near Gulu, Uganda, April 1988 Uganda People’s Democratic Army guerillas receive a chicken upon surrendering to government forces after being attacked repeatedly by fighters of the United Holy Salvation Army [later renamed the Lord's Resistance Army], led by Joseph Kony.  photo©TR Lansner

Near Gulu, Uganda, April 1988
Uganda People’s Democratic Army guerillas receive a chicken upon surrendering to government forces after being attacked repeatedly by fighters of the United Holy Salvation Army [later renamed the Lord’s Resistance Army], led by Joseph Kony. photo©TR Lansner

 

Social Media = Revolution?

It has become fashionable for many Western journalists and academics to enthusiastically endorse the idea that digital media and the internet are facilitating a praiseworthy grassroots-driven activism across the globe. Mobile phones, social media and You Tube are deemed to be tools making possible the spontaneous upwelling of pro-democratic agitation. Within this logic, digital media inherently becomes an agent of positive social change. More importantly, within this logic, digital media become associated with spontaneous grassroots activism – wherein ordinary people are now empowered to change their world for the better. One example of such a boosterist endorsement of digital media was the narrative constructed by Western journalists to eulogize the Arab Spring.

The question is – should we not be more circumspect in our thinking? Should we not be asking some critical questions about who is using social media, mobile phones and other forms of digital media as political tools? Just because interactive digital media looks like it produces bottom-up grassroots communication does not mean this communication is actually as innocent as it looks.

With this in mind, I invite readers to view the list of YouTube videos posted here. These videos reveal that the so-called spontaneous use of digital media by grassroots activists during the Arab Spring may actually encode agendas that are not at first apparent. In particular, there is a need to recognize that as with all media platforms, interactive digital media forms are also susceptible to being used as weapons by large political actors who mobilize surrogate warfare as tools of their foreign policy.

Surrogate warfare Obama-style

The videos show that Obama’s State Department is displaying considerable creativity in developing and deploying a new variety of surrogate warfare – one that has incorporated the use of digital media, mobile phone technology, and social media as new weapons of warfare.

As with earlier (Cold War) US-surrogate actions, the Obama-administration still seeks out political players who can be adopted as allies and partners. These partners are then turned into political actors of value to US foreign policy goals by providing them with training and resources that makes them more politically effective.

A key moment in the development of Obama-era USA-surrogacy came in November 2008 when the US State Department announced at a Press Conference that it was launching a new partnership called the Alliance of Youth Movements. The State Department partnered with Google, Facebook, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, CNN, NBC, MTV and the Columbia Law School to ‘bring together global youth groups and tech experts to find the best ways to use digital media to promote freedom and justice, [and] counter violence, extremism and oppression’ (US Department of State, 2008). The resultant Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) brought leaders from 17 organizations based in 15 countries to New York in December 2008 where they were exposed to US technology experts, media players and Obama consultants who showed them how to use media as political tools.

Within this emergent Alliance the role of Howcast was especially important in generating the new wave of surrogacy driven from Washington because Howcast is an online company that makes and hosts “how to videos” (Bratich, 2011: 626). What AYM has been teaching America’s new youthful partners is how to use social media to build political organizations, mobilize crowds, and build insurgent movements. One of the outcomes of the 2008 summit was an online ‘How-to’ Hub which hosted a series of videos on How to create Grassroots Movement Using Social Networking Sites; How to Smart Mob; and How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy (Bratich, 2011: 627). Importantly, AYM also teaches its youthful activists how to make videos geared to stirring Western publics into a state of indignation (see examples below) – in effect to produce video material that global news media like CNN and BBC can use to help build a mood for action against those the USA deems to be tyrants. Such videos have become an important feature of the Syrian conflict.

Videos and social media as weapons in Syria

One example of an NGO that has learned to use videos, You Tube, Facebook and Twitter as weapons is the Syrian Free Press. The Syrian Free Press has clearly learned that if you make videos that Western journalists find newsworthy, and post them to the Web, your material is likely to get picked and used by news media around the world. Some of these videos have clearly been made using mobile phones. Effectively the Syrian Free Press have learned the art of Public Relations (PR) and spin doctoring, and have successfully deployed this understanding of PR to distribute anti-regime messages via You Tube, Facebook and Twitter. The way in which the Syrian Free Press has successfully used a range of digital media to distribute its media releases is instructive of how easy it has become for political activists with an understanding of both digital media and PR techniques to get their messages out to global news media.

And what we have witnessed during the Arab Spring in general and the Syrian conflict in particular is that many mainstream media organizations have been all too willing to use the material posted to the Web by political activists, NGOs and citizen journalists often without verifying its contents. Without doubt the easy availability of such material on the Web has impacted on how journalists now report conflicts. But it is changing more than the nature of global news, it is also changing how struggles can be conceptualized by both political activists and the large global powers who are seeking ways to overthrow regimes of which they disapprove.

Sources

Bratich, J. (2011) User-Generated Discontent, Cultural Studies, 25 (4-5)

US Department. of State (2008) Press Release on Alliance of Youth Movements Summit, December 3-5.

An introduction to the AYM’s vision of online activism

Hillary Clinton’s message to the youth alliance built by the US State Department

 

Mali’s War, Unseen

 

Menacingly shrouded Al-Qaeda fighters… Paratroops descending on the ‘fabled desert city of Timbuktu’…  Jubilant throngs of kids, grinning… People waving or even wearing the French ‘tricolore’… Women again adorned in brightly-colored traditional dress feting French soldiers… The French president joyfully mobbed…  Staring from our screens, grim-faced amputee survivors of Islamist [in]justice…  Mali “in flames”…  And, yes, a few dead people….

These “snapshots” of Mali’s war—embodied in their representative images—define what most the world has learned of the ongoing conflict in the West African state. Most of the photos available, as the French daily newspaper Liberation observes, “have the feeling of having been produced by the school of fine arts of war….” [“avec le sentiment donné d’avoir été produites par l’école des beaux-arts de la guerre….”]

Serval-ing the dominant narrative

These images very comfortably fit and exceedingly well serve the dominant narrative of the origins and expected outcome of France’s military intervention in its former colony: that “Operation Serval” was launched on 11 January 2013 to repel aggression by “terrorist” forces, and will quickly conclude with victory over brutal fundamentalists, aided by warmly welcomed and enlightened foreigners.

This narrative seems at least in part quite plausible, and reflects an elite and mainstream media consensus. It is an easy sell to audiences accustomed to conflict reporting that offers dramatic and simplified [and sometimes simplistic] military-oriented coverage about places and issues about which they know little. Especially in France, whose people are being to asked to expend treasure and risk lives, the plain morality tale of demonized [here hard-line Islamist] enemies and grateful allies is useful in retaining public support for the mission. Yet the dominant narrative far from fully paints a situation that is far more complex, and challenges that might prove more costly, than early official assurances.

This is not new in conflict coverage. Governments and militaries [and non-state actors] always, and most urgently during conflicts, seek to control information and shape public perceptions to their advantage. What is striking is that France is deploying precisely the opposite of recent U.S. and U.K. military/media relations strategy. Rather than embedding many reporters with front-line units to build journalists’ rapport with soldiers [and, conveniently, monitor their access], France has banned nearly all media from the combat zones.

Despite many correspondents’ repeated and sometimes risky efforts to reach the front lines, there are virtually no first-hand journalistic accounts of the fighting in Mali. Video of fierce firefights with all their attendant noise and smoke and confusion appeared in late February only after recently expelled Islamist guerillas re-infiltrated the city of Gao, which was then thought to be far behind the front lines. Even casual media consumers are now accustomed to and expect such images. More than a decade of compelling combat footage provided by embedded correspondents in Afghanistan and Iraq—and more recently from embattled Syria, although from there most often by citizen reporters or militia fighters—have convinced viewers that we can access on demand the latest horrific moments of faraway conflicts.

French media organizations have publicized the restrictions on their reporting [as well as sometimes criticizing their colleagues’ offerings], complaining vigorously, as have press freedom groups. “The French authorities, supported by their Malian counterparts, have achieved their ‘zero image of the war front’ media objective for Operation Serval by strictly controlling access to information,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders stated in mid-February.

“Bewildering”—Mali in no context

While the depiction of French troops being welcomed by most Malians to drive out Islamists appears accurate, the much larger story of why war has come to Mali, and how its conflicts might be addressed, is absent. One can find more serious and sometimes contentious analysis, for example hereherehere and here. But the dominant narrative offers little understanding of how war enveloped a nation long held [and arguably misrepresented] as a peaceful democratic beacon amidst many countries torn by conflict and ruled by despots. The lack of context in most reports is unsurprising, especially in television news clips and other short-form journalism. Unfettered access to the front lines might even cut context and skew perceptions by trumpeting the latest most frenetic “bang-bang” video. For those who remain confused by events, The Atlantic Online offered a visual aid headlined: “A Map of the Bewildering Mali Conflict.” As a map it is pretty, but leaves neophyte Mali-watchers no more apprised of the causes or consequences of the conflict. And still bewildered, indeed, as the map’s caption itself closes by asking, “Just what are the French getting themselves into?”

Many even brief articles mention that France is Mali’s former colonial master. But the fact that Mali is a country of multiple ethnicities that has for decades seen rebellion simmer and flare among the marginalized nomadic desert Touareg peoples is rarely described. Nor is the fact that modern Mali is a colonial creation; its frontiers were declared by 19th Century imperial mapmakers, and it borders seven similarly-conjured countries, all now experiencing various degrees of political and ethnic unrest, and to which the fear of Islamist “contagion” is very real.

The notion that France’s intervention might be motivated by reasons beyond the desire to protect Malians and the wider world from violent Islamist extremism is rarely voiced. It is mostly left to small leftist groups to offer an alternative view and point out [and this, at least, quite accurately] that France has enduring powerful economic interests in West and Central Africa. The uranium deposits crucial to France’s nuclear industry found in Mali’s eastern neighbor Niger certainly merit mention, especially since that country has also experienced ethnic-based Touareg rebellions.  Another dissenting voice is Iran’s official PressTV, which headlined: “France war in Mali: Neo-imperialist grab dressed up in “war on terror” rhetoric”. Even if many of its reports predictably unveil vast Western Capitalist/Neo-Imperialist/Crusader Conspiracies behind every sand dune, they do offer interesting contrast to headlines like this from the BBC: “In pictures: Why Malians now love France”.

Don’t show us the flames of war

As  mentioned earlier, the vast preponderance of images offered recently from Mali are actually “post-conflict” or  from outside the conflict zones. When video of people reportedly executed by the Malian Army as suspected rebels or possible sympathizers was aired on French television, France’s official Supreme Audiovisual Council warned against showing such images “to ensure complicance with the principle of human dignity.” [veiller au respect du principe de dignité humaine.”] French media seem prepared to defy the broadcast watchdog; a senior news director asked, “I would like to know exactly if this is a new doctrine that we say ‘attention, don’t show the victims.’” [”Je veux savoir exactement si c’est une nouvelle doctrine qui nous dit ‘attention ne montrez pas les victims.’”]. An interesting question is whether the politically very sensitive [and counter official narrative] nature of alleged revenge killings by Malian Government forces prompted the French broadcasting council to object. The “offending” images are discussed at minute 13 of this Al-Jazeera program.

A few other images have caused controversy, including this of a French soldier in a bandana with a skull design over his face. This photo alone should evoke a panoply of commentary. The mask the solider donned against dust raised by a helicopter is based on “Ghost”, a popular character in the top-selling video wargame series, Call of Duty. How we — and young men especially — are conditioned to consider conflict by pervasive wargaming is increasingly debated. And the cross-cultural context is also rich: as part of the Call of Duty character’s complicated backstory, Ghost’s death mask seems to reference Mexico’s zestfully macabre “Dia de Los Muertos” festival.

The photo was jarring and profoundly “counter-narrative”; a French colonel scrambled to proclaim French forces “are not messengers of death” in Mali. And photo-evidence of  alleged revenge by Malian troops made grimmer viewing, even absent much context. But as Liberation observed, most of the proffered images are achingly beautiful, as this compilation attests. After touring with Malians at toil and at play (“mostly in the  south,” the introduction explains, “where photographers are able to work.”), we reach the conflict in only the last dozen or so shots of the 41-photo set. And nearly all the photos with soldiers are fairly static, and might as well show training exercises. Only the closing shot — after proceeding through a click-through warning of its “graphic content” — brings any real inkling of the terrible costs of war. This is a powerful image of death, made vividly and mundanely human by what appears to be the victim’s sandals, lying undisturbed by his feet.

Notable in this set are two images that present people framed by smoke and fire. Neither, as the captions frankly admit, have anything to do with the conflict; a marketplace accident [photo 21] and the annual burning off of sugar cane fields [photo 14]. The BBC also used the fiery sugar cane fields in a story, but with the caption, “It will be some time before life in northern Mali returns to normal”. This is surely true. But the photo depicts an unremarkable scene (including an archetypical donkey, and not even in the north), exotic to most viewers, but unconnected to the conflict.

No matter. Photo editors everywhere —and their audiences!—are drawn as moths to flames. And if fighters keep correspondents from the actual fires of war, some other blaze will serve and sell. The French Army would shrug, contentedly enough. To paraphrase words ascribed to the turn-of-the 20th-Century American press baron William Randolph Hearst, “Give me the [flaming] pictures, I’ll call it the war.”

MediaWatch analyzes the French media’s characterization of Operation Serval.

Al Jazeera’s “The Listening Post” explores the French government’s efforts to restrict certain images.

The only independent combat video from the Mali conflict came from what was thought to be behind the front lines in Gao, when recently-evicted Islamist fighters re-infiltrated the city.

 

Returning Fire

War-themed video games that restage the multiple conflicts of the War on Terror have posted record-breaking sales. In real dollars, the November 8, 2011 appearance of Modern Warfare 3, which recapitulates the drama of fighting a global terror network, was the largest entertainment release of any kind to date. The phenomenon is even more notable considering that US wars have fallen off nearly every other screen. With the brief exception of Libya in 2011, the now myriad US interventions and occupations around the planet have achieved a remarkable invisibility on the news and in Hollywood, where the war film has been declared “a toxic genre.” This has by default left the video game as the signature medium for the public understanding of war. Of course, many have argued that the consumption of the video game war poses problems for civic deliberation on these important matters. One might go so far as to say that the war-as-game mode may represent a new mode of social control: a grid of emerging practices and narratives that discipline the citizen and divert critical questions. War game culture has its own set of paradoxes and contradictions, however. While the name of the game is fidelity to ongoing conflicts and the faithful reproduction of weapons, there is a noted absence of the ugliness of conflict – the shattered families, starvation, and overflowing hospitals. There is the sense of alienation in ruthlessly separating the “conflict zone” from the “comfort zone.” At the heart of the war game is the experience of driving an avatar through the paradoxical thrills of “safe danger,” an analogue to the post-industrial West’s uneasy relationship with long-distance drone warfare. And while war games generally align themselves to a nationalistic narrative, there is little reference to the larger policy choices that precipitated the conflict, leaving the player in the curious position of fighting for “freedom” while adhering to the totalitarian and unquestionable dictates of the state. Returning Fire: Interventions in War Game Culture is an attempt to understand these internal contradictions. The film itself does not present a critique, but rather surveys the ways that artists and activists have engaged the politics of the war-themed game. The film follows Iraqi expatriate Wafaa Bilal and his project, Domestic Tension, which invited visitors to his website to shoot him, via mouse click, with an actual paintball gun in actual physical space – a recapitulation of the logics of seduction and long-distance weaponry that animate the experience of contemporary warfare. Anne-Marie Schleiner’s project, Velvet Strike, is a study in how political space, physical space, and virtual space mesh in war games and how the virtual street corner should be reconsidered as a valid space for activism.  The clip included here features the story of Joseph Delappe, who created a media stir by going into the official Army recruiting game, America’s Army, and listing the US war dead in a painstaking virtual memorial.  These three vignettes provide glimpses into the instabilities of war game culture and offer strategies for opening the narrative to more critical questions.

 

The Military-Industrial- Media-Entertainment Network

Technology in the service of virtue has given rise to a global form of virtual violence: Virtuous War. In the 21st century, the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network (aka The MIME-NET) has become the ‘fifth-dimension’ of U.S. hegemony. Fought in the same manner they are represented through real-time global surveillance, media dissimulation, and network-centric warfare, virtuous war deters, disciplines and destroys the “enemy” at a distance. An all-too-real matrix, MIME-NET, seamlessly merges the production, representation, and execution of war. We learn how to kill but not take responsibility for it; we encounter ‘death’ but not its tragic consequences; we now face not just the confusion but the pixelation of war and game on the same screen.

Professor James Der Derian, of the University of Sydney, takes the viewer on a journey through deserts real and virtual to find the ghosts in the 21st century war-machine.

 

 

Innerview: General Eugene Habiger

The Vision Machine’s Roger Stahl sat down with Gen. Habiger for an extended discussion in late 2011 to talk contemporary security, nuclear proliferation, and the challenges of the so-called War on Terror.  Gen. Habiger was Commander in Chief if U.S. Strategic Command during the Clinton administration and played a lead role in the transition to a post-Cold War defense establishment.  From there, he worked as Security Czar for the Department of Energy, where he ran cybersecurity operations and also oversaw the security of fissile material.  At the time of the interview, General Habiger was visiting the University of Georgia as a Distinguished Fellow and Policy Adviser for the Center for International Trade and Security, a non-proliferation group.

For this interview, we were interested in getting General Habiger’s candid take on issues of security threats and solutions, the nuclear threat in particular, cyberwar, the boom in remotely piloted vehicles (drones), and the new condition of asymmetry that animates the unipolar world scene.

 

The Wall

This video documents the artwork that dominates certain sections of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Approximately 90% of this barrier is made of a system of fences and barbed wire, while the remaining sections are constructed of 8m high concrete slabs replete with guard towers and security cameras.

These concrete sections have become what is essentially one giant protest banner. On the Palestinian side, almost every section of the wall has been tagged with graffiti. This graffiti ranges from small hand-written messages and children’s drawings to giant murals of intricate design and quality by international artists. The artwork has become one of the major forms of protest against the continued existence of the wall and represents an artistic stream-of-consciousness, representative of all who live under its shadow.

Surprisingly, much of the graffiti and protest slogans are in English. For what is a very local struggle, the canvas seems to be turned toward the international community. Moreover, the cover of anonymity that this form of protest bestows allows people to be far more open in their political views surrounding the conflict.

(Shot and contributed by Ali Rae and Ben Walker)

 

Zoriah the Embed

The Vision Machine was fortunate enough to conduct a candid conversation with photojournalist Zoriah Miller at a Manhattan cafe in September of 2012.  The following is a recording of that encounter, which focuses on Zoriah’s time in Iraq as an embedded reporter, the fight for institutional control of the image, and the series of events that led up to Zoriah’s disembedding.  Innerview by Seb Kaempf.

 

Innerview: Susan Carruthers

Professor Susan Carruthers (Rutgers University), author of the book Media at War, talks to The Vision Machine about the historical and contemporary dimensions of the media in US warfare. This Innerview with Susan was recorded by Seb Kaempf and Peter Mantello in 2010.  More information on Susan Carruthers.