Monday, April 4, 2011

War Is Hell (for other people)

He was wet and muddy and hungry and cold, and the day was raw with a high wind that hurt his eyes. But the aliens were trying to infiltrate and every sentry post was vital… And then he saw one of them crawling toward him. He drew a bead and fired. The alien made that strange horrible sound they all make, then lay still.

He shuddered at the sound and sight of the alien lying there. One ought to be able to get used to them after a while, but he’d never been able to. Such repulsive creatures they were, with only two arms and two legs, ghastly white skins and no scales.

(Frederic Brown, ‘Sentry’)

When a force of marauding aliens invades the earth and starts killing everybody, the only sensible response is a military one. You do not negotiate with terror itself. And so every enlisted soldier, every reservist, every citizen with a weapon becomes part of the resistance. The enemy is ruthless, its weaponry deadly, its advance seemingly unstoppable. Frontal confrontation soon proves disastrous, and so the resistance has to adopt guerrilla tactics: ambushes, improvised explosive devices, suicide attacks. Anything to disrupt the invaders.

Jonathan Liebesman’s World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles is set in an irony-free zone, demonstrating not an inkling of how the never-say-die, self-sacrificing ethos of its heroes might resemble the mystique of insurgent warriors elsewhere, and how much the super-armoured aliens dropping out of the sky might in turn reflect how the Western military is perceived in the other world that is Asia, or Africa, or the Middle East. ‘Here come the Americans / Garibaldian martians’ intoned a song by the Italian band Stormy Six on the liberators who fought the Last Just War, and they really must have seemed an alien race: nobler, stronger, futuristically equipped (those shiny chocolate bars!). But six decades later, still we grapple pathetically with that fundamental problem of perspective: how to represent the Western invader as an Other, how to comprehend that its motivations may appear completely hostile and opaque to the invaded – and not just to the extent that they actually are, but supercharged into the truly demonic: a Great Satan, indeed.

Hollywood’s crudest fantasies of aliens coming for our blood (War of the Worlds) or our water (Battle Los Angeles) highlight the extent of this failure, as do the films which purport to assume the point of view of the colonised only to construct a disconcertingly impoverished and self-serving clash-of-cultures narrative (Avatar). In between, the enlightened liberal view of products like Generation Kill, the HBO series by David Simon, Ed Burns and Evan Wright based on Wright’s experience as a reporter embedded with the first Marines reconnaissance battalion‎ during the Second Gulf War. This is a far more nuanced treatment of contemporary colonial warfare, aware of its absurdities and its atrocities, but also of the implications of embeddedness, that is to say, of siding literally with the battalion, as if war was a first person shooter and we – as players, spectators, reporters and citizens – had no choice of which side to take.

But the show’s critique, if you could even call it that, only goes so far, and in the final scene of its final episode, when the Marines assemble to watch the video of the invasion shot by one of the men and choose to leave the room one by one, responding to the manipulation of the spectacle by withdrawing from it, we remain bound to it, and manipulated in turn by the non-incidental use of Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around. Ultimately – and more so than The Wire, which offered the point of view of the gangsters, the project-dwellers and the occasional citizen alongside, albeit secondary to, that of the police – Generation Kill is content with shooting the Iraqis as roadside extras or more frequently victims, while the army, that is to say the film crew, advances onto Baghdad, and us with them: also embedded, also complicit, also forced into a role.

Battle Los Angeles dispenses with any such semblance of self-reflection, even as it appears dimly aware of the possibility that its fantasy might offer a commentary on world events. Thus a talking head on a CNN show in the early hours of the invasion, when it emerges that what the aliens are attempting is an aggressive water privatisation scheme, puts forward the following analysis:
When you invade a place for its natural resources, rule of colonisation states that you wipe out the indigenous population. Right now, we are being colonised.
One could expand on the validating role of branded fake bulletins in these films, but whichever way you look at it, the pronouncement is highly egregious, for this is not in fact how colonisation has worked on this planet for some time. There is no rulebook that says you can wipe out an indigenous population in order to plunder its resources. To suggest that there is implies that the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently Libya are not colonial, nor aimed at securing the supply of oil or exerting strategic influence. Civilian casualties in these conflicts are considered in fact by the citizens of the countries that send their military as acceptable collateral damage, which is certainly scandalous enough – but not as the actual means to the ultimate end.

What makes Battle Los Angeles even more egregious, however, is its blithe existence as an entertainment and consumer product while all those other wars are being fought. On this point I must go to the always excellent Aaron Bady and his recent reflections on simultaneity and indifference. The essay opens with a reminder, or possibly a piece of information: did you know that 40 civilians died in Pakistan as a result of a botched drone attack last month? I confess that I did not. The attack, in that Orwellian non-place that is the region known as AfPak, got very little coverage in our media, and elicited a rather muted outcry. Bady expands on this, and on the difficulties in maintaining a perspective and a sense of the unfolding of simultaneous events, each with their own repercussions in actual communities and societies.

To grasp simultaneous events is a challenge: attention is finite and we can only care about so much. To do so in a media environment that is so often blind to correlations and equivalences, of in fact insists that connections not be made, makes the challenge harder still. But Bady goes a step further, and contends that the elision of perspectives necessary for what Rohit Chopra has called ‘imperial indifference’ is not an act of inadvertent omission, or of reflexive or parochial cultural laziness, but has in fact to be actively produced. Writes Chopra, and Bady quotes:

[I]mperial indifference is the result of an immense intellectual, political, cultural and social labour undertaken in diverse locations of social life and practice – from the content of school and college textbooks to the representation of ethnic minorities on television shows in India or the US, traversing the multiple tracks and channels of soft diplomacy and the realpolitik calculations of hawks, enshrined in the gendered and raced division of global labour and no less in the political economy of global information technology, communication channels and telecommunication networks. Imperial indifference is made possible by the relentless inscription of the lessness of some lives and bodies; when some lives, as Judith Butler suggests, are less grievable than others […]. In various forms of social existence, in the banal stuff of everyday life as in the obviously “imperial” acts of powerful states, imperial difference enables as much as it reflects the normalisation of empire in the present historical moment.

Chalk up Battle Los Angeles to the normalisation of empire, then. File its cliché-laden elegy for the Marine Corps under the rubric of a propaganda that isn’t innocuous, casual of vacuous, but on the contrary is a tool of indifference, a thing that numbs and blinds us. And regard how sophisticated its language is, how adept the filmmakers are at this game. The mise-en-scene, favouring faux-documentary handheld action over more classic mounted camera set ups, puts you right there, on the scene, one of the guys. The balance of ethnicities, genders and temperaments makes of the Marines unit a microcosm and at the same time a composite model society based on sacrifice, solidarity, resilience and deference to the chain of command. As the rest of society is victimised and helpless, the implication is that this microcosm could take its place. And so, as in 2012, the destruction of Los Angeles, of the great city with all its contradictions and its messy complexities, is a cleansing act that prepares us for a new beginning.

But observe also what is less obvious: beginning with how fortunate you should count yourself that these warriors are on your side. These people are an unstoppable force. They never quit – every challenge is answered by the chant ‘Retreat? Hell!’ – there is no wound that will slow them down and they never die except by being blown up to bits. They are meticulously sadistic, although strictly at the service of good: thus when they capture a moribund alien, the character played by Aaron Eckhart proceeds to peel off its flesh and stab its internal organs one by one in search for the most vital. Seen through the alien sentry’s eyes in Frederic Brown’s famous story, they might well look like monsters, or through the eyes of a thirsty colossus from outer space, like cockroaches. But they are our monsters, our cockroaches. They are us.

Which leads right back to the question of point of view. The film, as I noted, is practically a first person shooter. A videogame version has been announced, and it promises to be indistinguishable from it, while another first person shooter – Call of Duty - Black Ops – recently broke all records by reaching $1 billion in sales in 42 days. Now don’t worry, I am not about to claim that videogames are corrupting our youth by desensitising them or making them fond of violence. Merely observing how seamless the entertainment machine has become, how different media – television, cinema, online gaming – bleed into one another, and how together they organise our very selective understanding of real world events, naturalising such concept as pay per view, billable time, permanent war. You play, you learn about stuff, you point and shoot. There is no sinister, conspiratorial intent that binds this semiotic system to transnational capitalism and economic and military imperialism: it’s just that they are cut from the same cloth, or rather, that they operate on the same global informational networks and aspire to the same transparent realism.

And this is possibly the most perverse aspect of Battle Los Angeles: its paradoxical claim to authenticity. The three weeks military-style training undergone by the actors, the explicit reference to the vocabulary of Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan, the involvement of actual military personnel and facilities, are all put at the service of an infantile fantasy at the same time as actual wars are being fought but cannot be apprehended, sometimes not even in the form of headlines, because they are stories that no longer sell, or do not mesh. And so the grotesquely named but nonetheless actual place that is AfPak becomes less than Liebesman’s Los Angeles: less important to learn about, less salient, less real.

Spoiler alert: the turning point in the film is when the hero works out how to disable the enemy’s drones.


Philip said...

On the subject of "imperial indifference", a more cruise-missile-humanistic perspective was put forward some years ago by my colleague, Dr Bradley Ichneumon.

Word Verification: uncebo, the United Nations Commission for Egregious Ballyhoo Online.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Timely, provocative and superbly formatted". You know how to leave your reader simultaneously with a smile on the face and a lump in the throat, my friend.

Douglas Kretzmann said...

South Africa did not have TV until 1976. TV programming remained a government fief for the next few decades. During the 80s, in the darkest days of apartheid, the programmers decided to run the series V. A few people noticed that it provided an education in how to run a resistance movement: which seemed an odd thing to be popularizing on broadcast TV in those days. I never did figure out if the programming was secretly subversive in exactly the way Dr Hertzog had feared, "disseminating communism and immorality", or if it was just a sublime indifference and certainty that it can't happen here.

From the Wikipedia article,
"To make the script more marketable, the American fascists were re-cast as man-eating extraterrestrials".

Living in George W Bush's America felt a great deal like living in apartheid za, only with the Enemy of the Wrong Colour at a much greater remove. I find the nightmare continues: there is so much I wanted to forget. It is a perverse sort of comfort to read you and Aaron; at least I can imagine that what I think I see is not merely a delusion from my own distorted memories. Thank you..

Unknown said...

I saw my son playing Black Ops. I made him watch Full Metal Jacket, then immediately afterward, Thin Red Line.
Yesterday he was playing Black Ops.

wv; asmen, better than asgods.

Dougal said...

It's unsettling too how the repetition of this kind of focalisation has a cumulative effect, and one which works its way under whatever more self-conscious opposition you might have.

I remember, as a teenager, first reading Matheson's "I Am Legend" and being completely shocked by the twist at the end which, when you reflect on it, isn't really a twist at all. It's still disturbing - and this post reminded me - to think how easily I'd accepted the ideological assumptions being played with there, the idea that it was self-evident that the last man needed to slaughter as many of these new folk as possible.

Thanks for the stimulating post; a good reminder of the many thoughtful possibilities narratology opens up!

Philip said...

Roland Topor has a short, sharp story which is tangentially related to the culture-clash theme: A crew of astronauts lands on an alien planet where they discover a race of beings who stare out from inside large individual cages. The explorers break through the bars of the cages to try and free the prisoners, but every time they do so the prisoner dies. Finally, after the last rescue has failed, one of the astronauts realises: "They weren't cages at all. They were skeletons."

Word Verification: prutli, an East European prune dish of unmitigated nastiness, with which the Wallachians were terrorised for generations before the comparatively benign advent of Vlad the Impaler.

Ben Wilson said...

It's interesting how this particular story (War of the Worlds) has turned into an entire genre, becoming worse and worse with every incarnation. At least that book recognized that we have no hope against the aliens whatsoever, and their death at the hands of microbes was just blind luck for humans, and could be short lived, since the aliens could easily strike again, the narrator expressing grave fears that they probably will.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Douglas: Liebesman is South African, isn't he? I wonder what you thought of District 9, that I was going to include in the post but didn't manage. Personally I felt that it had its flaws (the portrayal of the Nigerians was a little shocking, although perhaps it had satirical intent) and it didn't entirely follow through with its premise in the second half, but the first hour is very powerful, and does some of the things that I lament none of the current crop of war films do - including, incidentally, The Thin Red Line - when it comes to reorienting the viewer's perspective.

Unknown said...

Re-orienting can get messy ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear your perspective on Letters from Iwo Jima, Giovanni.

As mainstream Hollywood product there's probably something deeply flawed in its portrayal of the Japanese, but you'd probably be far more articulate in explaining it than me.

Although there are some amazing moments in that film -- as when a couple of US Marines shoot a Japanese prisoner.

This happened routinely in the Pacific war, of course, but the narrative of brutal Japanese treatment of Allied prisoners is so ingrained it's quite shocking to see it turned around like that.

David K Wayne said...

Letters from Iwo Jima? The Night They Drove Dixie Down accroding to the limited perspective and narrative palate of Confederate Clint. As much as I like some of his films, his ideology or style goes no further than the 40s.

But excellet post BTW. Couldn't help but think of the leaked massacre from Wikileaks, or a more recent one of British troops horrifically beating Iraqi children. There's always the knowledge that yes, it probably happens every week. But when it enters the Spectacle, its a stark reminder of: you paid for the weapons, they speak your language etc - ie. you participate in this, no matter how you vote or protest. History will record 'you' as carrying this out.

David K Wayne said...

PS. Which may be related to why our government wanted to outlaw watching British troops die, but not Iraqis, Afghanis etc. A strange way of legislating audience 'identification', in a way.

Douglas Kretzmann said...

I didn't realize Liebesman was South African.. but he was born in 1976, so by the time he came to consciousness apartheid must have been effectively over.

District 9 is a movie I am not fit to judge, as I didn't finish it.. During National Service (conscription) I worked with several men much like the early Wikus, and did police work in the townships. When the white Casspirs rolled into District 9 the flashbacks were so horrible I quit watching. A powerful and surprising movie as far as that went; though like many action movies the cartoonish aspects tend to overwhelm, so we find ourselves watching simulacra rather than responding to the human condition.

There is a good deal of xenophobia in S. Africa regarding Nigerian criminal gangs that moved in post-1994. That is likely the source of the villains in District 9.

The real District 6 was rather different, more like Harlem in its glory years: a sort of island of hope for racial amity, in the early 60s. Unfortunately it was also prime real estate, between Table Mountain and the harbor..

Giovanni Tiso said...

There is a good deal of xenophobia in S. Africa regarding Nigerian criminal gangs that moved in post-1994. That is likely the source of the villains in District 9.

I speculated that the depiction might have played on stereotypes, but if it buys into them it’s an appalling weakness of the film.


My turn to admit I didn’t see Letters from Iwo Jima, I shall remedy that. I do have a soft spot for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, although that’s a Japanese film obviously – but still based on a Westerner’s account.

francois said...

Well argued. Please also read Andries du Toit's in-depth examinations District 9 and Avatar; they'd make excellent companion pieces to this article:

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you for reminding me of those - great posts. I had also been trying for some time to remember who put me onto to Aaron Bady's blog, and it was indeed A Subtle Knife.