‘Life is a rock but the radio rolled me…’


The war in Vietnam was often heralded as ‘a new kind of war’, one that reached its awful climax in what James Gibson brilliantly criticised as ‘technowar’.  It had many dimensions, including the reintroduction of chemical warfare (Agent Orange and all the other herbicides) and the development of the ‘electronic battlefield’.

But at the time the US Army made the most of its commitment to what it called ‘air mobility’.

As you can see from this contemporary Army video, the concept was claimed as revolutionary (and, in its way of course, counter-revolutionary).  ‘An entirely new concept of warfare known as heli-borne or air mobile operations has been developed by the United States Army,’ claims the commentator, ‘and has been successfully employed to meet the problems posed by South East Asia’s hostile wilderness and bye enemy who hides there.’

In fact, it wasn’t invented in Vietnam, but it was a dominant mode of army operations there: you can download the US Army’s historical report on Air mobility 1961-1971 here, for example, the Vietnam Center and Archive has a helpful page on ‘The helicopter war’ here, and you can read an extract from Walter Boyne‘s How the helicopter changed modern warfare here.  There is also a considerable literature on ‘dust-off‘ that I’m working through for my new research project on casualty evacuation in war zones.

Airmobility 1961-1971

And don’t forget its role in popular culture.  The helicopter loomed large in the iconography of Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now (1979):


More recently Pete Adey provided a summary of a more general concept of ‘aeromobilities’ [Geography Compass 2/5 (2008) 1318-1336] though his emphasis, perhaps not surprisingly, is on vision.

What interests me here, though, is another capacity, and one without which the potential of air mobility would have remained unrealised.

I’m talking about the voice on the radio.  I’ve written about the role of the forward air controller before, and the parallels between the air strikes they directed in Vietnam and today’s remote operations in Afghanistan (see ‘Lines of descent’, DOWNLOADS tab).

GREGORY From a view to a kill Shock and Awe Extract.001

This destructive power was captured with extraordinary economy by Phil Caputo in A Rumor of War:

Simply by speaking a few words into a two-way radio, I had performed magical feats of destruction. Summoned by my voice, jet fighters appeared in the sky to loose their lethal droppings on villages and men. High-explosive bombs blasted houses to fragments, napalm sucked air from lungs and turned human flesh to ashes. All this just by saying a few words into a radio transmitter. Like magic.

But the radio was part of a much wider network of military violence and military logistics in Vietnam.  Here is Frederick Downs in The killing zone:

With the radio, we grunts could make use of modern weapons. Without it, everything stayed put. We used the radio to call in artillery, naval gun support if it was close enough, air strikes, gunships, dustoffs, Puff the Magic Dragon [the AC-47 gunship], mortars, tanks, APCs and other rifle platoons. The radio kept us supplied. One day our order went in; the next day the chopper flew out with a delivery. We found each other by using grid coordinates and radioing them back and forth. A pilot knew he had the right location when we popped smoke and he identified it over the radio. By this method, we received C rations, ammo, new weapons, grenades, parts for our equipment, shoes, new clothes, underwear, socks, medicine, personnel replacements, beer, iodine tablets for use in the water, mail, and once in a while even a chaplain. To complete the cycle, the radio was used to extract us from trouble. Saving a life was often a matter of seconds. The radio was also a comfort at night. The periodic radio checks assured us that friends and help were always near.

Here too, incidentally, there are lessons for contemporary analysis: satellite imagery is clearly of vital significance for today’s advanced militaries, but so too are satellite communications.  I’ll discuss this is another post, but without those communication links there would be no full-motion video-feeds from all those Predators and Reapers – and their operating range would be dramatically constricted.  Ground operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere would also be virtually impossible without their radio links.


From 1965 the main field radio in Vietnam was the PRC-25 (‘Prick 25’).  You can find a detailed technical specification here, but here are the key passages:

‘The PRC-25 was about the size and weight of a case of soda. With its battery “can” included, call it a case of soda sitting on top of a six-pack. (It actually weighed slightly more than that, 23.5 pounds) There was a handle on each side at the top to carry it. The radio consisted of two parts, both in metal boxes, called “cans.” The upper can held the radio itself, the lower can held its battery pack. Metal buckles held the two together. The radio was tough and would easily survive a 50 foot fall from a helicopter onto a metal-planked runway. You could throw the whole thing in the water for an hour, completely submerged, then pull it out and expect it to work…

‘The radio antenna was exactly like a metal tape measure, but the bottom foot or so was a round flexible tube that screwed into the radio. There were actually two antennas, a regular one and a long-range antenna, carried in a canvas bag strapped to the side of the radio The radio had a transmission range, with the short antenna, of about 3-4 miles, but various terrain factors could influence this, of course. It helped to be higher up. The long range antenna was supposed to be good for up to 18 miles.

The rule of thumb was that the battery was good for about a day of casual operation, listening mostly, some occasional transmissions. In a period of intense use, transmitting/receiving all the time, it was good for perhaps 2-3 hours. The way the LRRPs [Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols] and SF [Special Forces] used it, shutting it off and only coming up at scheduled times to briefly transmit or listen, it was good for perhaps four days. Spare batteries were usually kept in a spare .30 caliber ammo can. When expended, the battery pack had to be physically destroyed. Inside were flashlight-type batteries which the Viet Cong could use in booby traps or to ignite bombardment rockets.’

Hoffman Humping HeavyNotice first the extraordinary weight of the thing.  I’ve detailed the loads humped by soldiers and Marines in Vietnam before, but you can see from this that the radio operator (RTO) was even more heavily burdened.  He also had to contend with a difficult load distribution: according to Rodger Jacobs ‘radiomen had to wear their radios on their chests because if worn on their backs the thickness of the jungle and the vines would constantly catch on the controls and change the frequencies.’  The best account of the trials and tribulations of an RTO that I know is Phillip Hoffman‘s appropriately titled Humping Heavy (right).


Then notice the size of the aerial (above); RTOs carried a ten-feet rigid mast in sections but much of the time used a three-feet whip antenna.  This made the RTO extremely vulnerable: not only was he a marked target, but he was always close to the platoon or patrol commander and so both were hi-vis priorities in an enemy attack or ambush.   For that reason the most prized possession of many RTOs was a North Vietnamese Army rucksack: ‘They’re better than anything the Corps has,’ Jeff Kelly was told.  ‘It’ll hang lower on your back and won’t catch on branches. But the big thing is you won’t be giving off that radioman silhouette.’  Most RTOs taped the antenna down, but Hoffman made the mistake of questioning the wisdom:

Right away he demanded I stuff the flexible, three-foot whip antenna down my shirt to limit me (and by extension him) as a target. He knew a priority of the enemy was to knock out communication, and our commo was located on my back. I complied with his directive but made the mistake of telling him our signal strength would suffer. In no uncertain words he told me never to question him again.

Even with a network of relay stations and airborne retransmissions, communications were uneven and intermittent: the terrain could block signals, especially in the Central Highlands, and rain (especially during the monsoon) could play havoc with reception.  At night even a whisper was dangerous; here is John Edmund Delezen:

Hourly situation reports are sent to the radio relay atop of Hill 950 some three kilometers north of the Khe Sanh airstrip. The “sit-reps” are not sent in the form of words-we dare not speak in the black void; when the relay asks us to acknowledge his call, there are just the two distinct pauses in the constant squelch as the handset is keyed twice. The two small audible clicks are all that connects us with the world, and all that assures the relay that we have not disappeared into the liquid black night.

Artillery fire direction center Vietnam

It could be strangely remote for those receiving the transmissions too (above, an artillery fire support center).  Kenneth Sympson, an artillery officer, explained:

‘Our only contact with the men of the patrols was from radio transmissions—the infrequent call-in at a checkpoint or request for fire on some pretargeted location on their route. They were a noise on the radio and a trace on a map of the region. When you fired an artillery round in support, it was almost as if you were simply throwing it into the night and it just disappeared. It would later strike a place on the map, but there was no life there; there was only some representation for crossing trails or the contour lines indicative of the slope of a hill or a pin hole named Registration Point 3.’

Downs says much the same, describing gun crews anticipating ‘the release of their impersonal death into a grid square.’

But for those beyond the wire those staccato messages were far from abstract or impersonal.  ‘The radio was our link with literally everything outside our platoon,’ said Downs, ‘from supplies to survival’.  And without it, as he also said, ‘everything stayed put.’

Hence my title: and for those too young (or too old) to remember it, listen to this (YouTube).

Sounds of War

In my post on War and Distance, I referred to a BBC radio broadcast of a Bomber Command raid on Berlin on the night of 3/4 September 1943. There had been previous British broadcasts of bombing raids, notably by Richard Dimbleby who flew on twenty-odd missions with the RAF, but his commentaries were all recorded after the event.  This one was different.  Reporter Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and his sound engineer Reg Pidsley made their recording during a flight in a Lancaster bomber, “F for Freddie”, part of a force of over 300 Lancasters that attacked Berlin that night.  Their live recording was edited for transmission a couple of nights later.  You can listen to an extract here, and there is a lively discussion about whether the recording was fake or not (it evidently wasn’t), together with more details of the recording and the raid, here.

This episode is of interest for reasons that spiral beyond my original post.  Much of the discussion of the histories/geographies bombing – my own included – focuses on the visual, and there are good reasons for this.  During the combined bomber offensive against Germany, as I try to show in ‘Doors into nowhere’ [see DOWNLOADS], what today would be called the kill-chain was choreographed through a sequence of air photographs, maps, charts and visual displays.  In 1941 Harry Watt produced an extraordinary drama-documentary, Target for Tonight, for the Crown Film Unit and the Ministry of Information that tracked this visual sequence in vivid detail.  The film used RAF personnel (not actors); it was shot at RAF Mildenhall and on special sound stages at Elstree and Denham, where Bomber Command’s Operations Room at High Wycombe was recreated (with twice the number of available squadrons listed on the walls); and it followed the fortunes of  a Wellington bomber – also “F for Freddie” – on a strike against a “military-industrial target”, an oil refinery at Freihausen.

The film was a huge success.  Writing in the Spectator Graham Greene marvelled at the way in which ordinary men and women carried out ‘their difficult and dangerous job in daily routine like shop or office workers.. What we see is no more than a technical exercise…’  The New York Times reviewer said much the same; the film ‘shows the manner in which the Bomber Command lays out its operations, how instructions are transmitted to the squadrons which are to participate, how the plan of attack is “briefed” by the men of one particular squadron and then how the crew of one powerful Wellington conducts its appointed task….The true, thrilling quality of it lies in the remarkable human detail which Mr Watt has worked into it — the quiet, efficient way in which each man goes about his job.’   You can watch it here (and marvel at the cut-glass English accents: “Bad luck, Catford!”; how did the language change so much between then and now?)

[There is a much longer discussion in K.R.M. Short’s account of the film in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 17:2 (1997) 181-218 (which includes the script) and, again, I discuss its visual thematics in “Doors into nowhere”].

In the Second World War air raids were often described in cinematic terms, by observers in the air and on the ground.  As Lara Feigel notes, ‘accounts of the Blitz in both Britain and Germany frequently figure the bombs as photographic and cinematic.’  Partly, she says, this is a matter of lighting – and given the growing importance of incendiaries in the bomb mix, and the emphasis on bombing by night, you can see why – but she thinks there is also a deeper reason. ‘In seeing the war as a photograph,’ she suggests, writers were ‘detaching themselves from the world around them.’  The sense of detachment, if she is right, is not only one possible effect of the visual (or of a particular visuality); bombing was abstracted from the horror it brought to bodies through its bureaucratization – Greene’s ‘technical exercise’; the locus classicus for this discussion is still Henry Nash’s ‘The bureaucratization of homicide’ in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 36: 4 (1980), describing his experience in the USAAF’s Air Targets Division in the 1950s and 60s – as well as specific forms of its visualization, and the two often operated together (as in the kill-chain, in fact).

The emphasis on the visual and, in particular, the cinematic recurs again and again – most generally in Paul Virilio‘s War and cinema: the logistics of perception (which was originally published in 1984 and is surely long overdue for critique).  Virilio draws attention to the elective affinity between flying and filming and, in relation to the combined bomber offensive in particular, describes how

‘The Allied air assault on the great European conurbations suddenly became a son-et-lumiere, a series of special effects, an atmospheric projection designed to confuse a frightened, blacked-out population.  In dark rooms that fully accorded with the scale of the drama, victims-to-be witnessed the most terrifying night-time fairy theatre, hellish displays of an invading cinema that reproduced the Nuremberg architecture of light.’

I think the emphasis on the visualities of military violence is extremely important, though I also think we need to disentangle different modes and effects, and James Der Derian’s discussion of the military-industrial-media-entertainment complex (MIME-NET) suggests that, in the decades after the Second World War, the cinematic entered even more fully into the conduct of warfare [for a discussion between Virilio and Der Derian, see here].

But what of other registers?  Specifically, what of the son that accompanied, and on occasion substituted for the lumière?  In the 1940s British cinemas showed endless black-and-white newsreels of RAF (and USAAF) bombing raids, with rousing commentaries and jaunty music; but try this rare colour version, with a contemporary soundtrack provided by Italian musician and historian Vincent Romano, and pay particular attention to the effect of the new score, especially from  2.20 on.

My point here is not about politics or aesthetics, particularly, but, first, to note that – in contrast to that recurrent emphasis on the visual — for many civilians, at least, the experience of an air raid was a matter of sound: the wail of the air-raid sirens, the crump-crump of the anti-aircraft guns, the boom of the explosion, the crash of glass shattering and buildings collapsing, the whistles and bells of the fire and ambulance services.  ‘Especially in darkness, and during bombings,’ Patrick Deer  in argues in his brilliant Culture in camouflage, ‘the sounds of war took on extraordinary power.’

Pete Adey gets this exactly right, I think, when he writes:

‘For geographer Kenneth Hewitt, sound “told of the coming raiders, the nearness of bombs, the plight of loved ones”. The enormous social survey of Mass Observation concluded that “fear seems to be linked above all with noise.” As one report found, “It is the siren or the whistle or the explosion or the drone – these are the things that terrify. Fear seems to come to us most of all through our sense of hearing.” Yet the power of the siren came not only from its capacity to propagate sound and to alert, but the warning held in its voice of ‘keeping silent’. “Prefacing in a dire prolepsis the post-apocalyptic event before the event”, as Bishop and Phillips put it, the stillness of silence was incredibly virtual in its affects, disclosing – in its lack of life – the lives that would be later taken.’

This isn’t a purely historical affair, of course, and in an interesting post on what he calls ‘warsound’ Geoff Manaugh mixes Dexter Filkins’ brilliant account of the visuals of The forever war with an arresting litany of its sounds:

‘The night sky echoed with pops and pings, the invisible sounds of frantic action.  Most were being made by the AC-130 gunships, whose propellers were putting out a reassuring hum. But over the droning came stranger sounds: the plane’s Gatling gun let out long, deep burps at volumes that were symphonic. Its 105mm cannon made a popping sound, the same as you would hear from a machine that served tennis balls. A pop! followed by a boom! Pop-boom. And then there was the insect buzz of the ScanEagle, the pilotless airplane that hovered above us and beamed images back to base. It was as if we were witnessing the violent struggles of an entire ecosystem, a clash of airborne nocturnal beasts we could not see.’

Those who live in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan know of other terrors, by day and night.  Here is Rasul Mana, who lives in Waziristan:

‘When the drone is 5 km away the sound is very different. It sounds like a missile. As they come closer, it turned into a repetitive humming. Bangana is the word we use for drones. It means bee in Pashtu. I first heard that term in 2005, and the killer bees have been all over us ever since. The kids know what the voice of the drone now. Every day we hear the voice of the drones at least six or seven times.  We listen for the voice 24 hours a day. We are afraid at night as we lie in our beds. The drones are going around and around over our heads. There may be four or five at any given time. They are normally very high, but sometimes they come down if there is a dust storm or it is cloudy.  They also tend to come down lower to attack, which is when you get very scared. When the missile is launched it makes a loud noise – zzhhooo – as it drops onto its target…’

Mana talks of the voice of the drones, but there are other voices in war too.  And so, thinking of Vaughan-Thomas and Pidsley, and the audience gathered around their radio each night (not only in Britain), I also want to remind myself how important it is not to gloss over radio as temporary static in the inexorable mobilization of an insistently visual economy – from photographs through film to television and video – since, as Patrick Deer also writes, in the Second World War  ‘radio shaped the sensory landscape of wartime like no other medium’.   And that matters because a soundscape elicits a profoundly imaginative response on the part of its auditors (which is why Romano’s new soundtrack is so immensely powerful)…

These thoughts have been prompted by a series of conversations with one of our graduate students, Max Ritts, who has also pointed me in the direction of Steve Goodman’s Sonic warfare: sound, affect and the ecology of fear (MIT, 2010)

War and distance: Information

I’m still working on revising “Deadly Embrace” (though needless to say I should be working on other things…).  There were originally three main sections to the primary focus on waging war from a distance – information, logistics, weapons – but I need to add a fourth: intelligence.  The discussion of ‘information’ is concerned with what publics know of war at a distance – with news and the mediatisation of war (and thus with censorship and propaganda too) – but I’ve now done sufficient work on targeting to realise that the whole question of intelligence – of what politicians and the military claim to know of the (distant) enemy – needs to be incorporated.

In each case I provide an historical sketch and a contemporary discussion.  The historical sketches each begin at different times; starting-points are inevitably arbitrary, of course, but the sharper point is that historical transformations are usually uneven and jagged so I’ve identified a series of different moments to frame each of the main sections.

My original inspiration was Mary Favret’s War at a distance: Romanticism and the making of modern wartime, and for that reason I begin with ‘world wars’ that are outside the parameters of the supposedly canonical First and Second World War and I end with other ‘world wars’ (‘the everywhere war’) in our own present.  Favret says this:

‘Enumerations of world wars … do not typically begin with the wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century… Despite the fact that they comprehended armed conflict not only in Europe, but in Africa, Asia and the Americas; despite the fact that they worried waters from the Philippine Islands to the Indian Ocean, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean, from the English Channel westward to Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico: nonetheless these wars are thought not to encompass the world.  And yet, unlike the earlier Seven Years’ War, which could boast a comparable geographical reach, these wars from their revolutionary beginning were unequivocally addressed to the world.’

There is another dimension to this – even in this sketch you can glimpse a series of questions about the limits of combat zones that will, eventually, issue in a transition from ‘battlefields’ to diffuse, discontinuous battlespaces – but it’s that idea of wars being addressed to the world – and hence of an audience (a term which seems inadequate for what will become a viewing public) – that prompts my interest in ‘information’.

Favret identifies a dialectic between what she calls ‘eventfulness’ and ‘eventlessness’: in the late eighteenth century the regular arrival of news imparted a structuring rhythm to wartime, an episodic temporality of ‘punctuated eventfulness’, but she notes that thus this ‘created simultaneously a sense of living in the meantime’, waiting for news of events that had already happened but of which the public knew nothing because it took so long for letters and dispatches to arrive.

These are arresting suggestions, not least because Favret insists that this peculiarly modern notion of ‘wartime’ is not a twentieth-century artefact (for another, distinctively American view, with a different chronology, see Mary Dudziak’s War Time: an idea, its history, its consequences (2012)).  Favret has no truck with Virginia Woolf’s identification of a gulf between the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War.  Writing in 1940, she had claimed that ‘wars were then remote, carried on by soldiers and sailors, not private people.  The rumours of battle took a long time to reach England…  Today we hear the gunfire in the Channel.  We turn on the wireless; we hear an airman telling us how this very afternoon he shot down a raider…  Scott never saw sailors drowning at Trafalgar; Jane Austen never heard the cannons roar at Waterloo.’  For that reason, Woolf thought, there was a silence in their writings.  And yet Favret hears something in that silence: ‘Precisely in these registers of the mundane and the unspectacular, registers that have mistakenly been read as signs of immunity – or worse, obliviousness – British romantic writers struggled to apprehend the effects of foreign war.’

As this suggests, Favret’s interests direct her attention to the literary world – especially poetry  – and in doing so she usefully reminds us that the emergence of the public sphere in eighteenth-century Britain involved more than spaces of rational articulation, which is why she constantly appeals to a landscape of affect.  Yet the response to distant violence was increasingly also a matter of report, comment and debate, which allows more formal calibrations of ‘eventfulness’ through the press.  Here, as in much else, I’m indebted to Allan Pred’s luminous work on the circulation of information, but I’m most interested in the emergence of a transnational public sphere that, after Morse’s successful demonstration of the telegraph in 1844, was increasingly an electric sphere: and one that transformed public awareness of ‘war at a distance’.  So my discussion of information begins with the Crimean War (which saw the birth of the war correspondent) and the American Civil War (usually seen as ‘the first telegraph war’).  In the latter, the telegraph played a vital role in communications, intelligence (by virtue of being tapped) and logistics, but I’m particularly interested in the sense of immediacy conveyed through wire reports.  Louis Prang devised this map, sold through news-stands in Northern cities, so that readers could follow the progress of the war in more or less real time:

As Susan Schulten explains,

‘Prang was responding to the public’s desire not just for news, but the immediacy of “telegraphed” news. Unlike other battle maps which were issued after the fact, his was designed to follow the march in real time. He issued colored pencils — blue for Confederate forces, red for Union — to mark the advances, retreats and clashes that would be regularly reported by telegraph in any newspaper throughout the Union home front. Rather than waiting for maps to be issued after the battles, Prang enabled the viewer to track the invasion as it unfolded, with both victories but also terrible defeats and missed opportunities.’

But for many audiences outside America, it was probably the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that was the decisive episode in this new geography of immediacy.  By then the uneven but none the less global geography of the telegraph had transformed the circulation of information; I’ve compiled this map of changing time-lags in the reporting of distant events in London newspapers in 1830, 1850 and 1870.  It’s impressionistic at this resolution level, highly imperfect, and needs much more work, but it still conveys the scale (and selectivity) of time-space compression.

By 1870 public information circulated through multiple networks, and so its reception and interpretation was a hybrid affair: news of the war travelled out from a besieged Paris by balloon, and was transmitted by telegraph and conveyed by steamships carrying detailed newspaper reports to audiences around the world that were in thrall at the dramatic and unexpected turn(s) of events.  In India, Australia and elsewhere editors and their readers were expected to be able to juggle multiple temporalities – the terse news from the telegraph and the fuller reports from the European newspapers that arrived simultaneously.  Here is the Times of India on 3 October 1870:

‘The mass of detailed news of the war brought us by the mail … presents almost illimitable scope for reflection or retrospect, and for comparison with our previous impressions gathered from telegrams.  But as the Indo-European [telegraph] line has come to the rescue with two or three days’ tolerably full news, we are recalled to the topics of the day and must, perforce, dwell on the considerations which are keeping all India, like the rest of the world, in suspense from hour to hour.  The overland papers, in addition to the thrilling stories of the field, supply the more prosaic facts and permanent data by which each of our readers for himself will endeavour to support or modify the terse statements comprised in the telegraphic despatches.’

There was also a geography of truth involved: newspapers in Australia often preferred news that arrived via the ‘all-red line’ through Suez and India rather than via the United States or Panama (which was assumed to be pro-Prussian).   Allowing for all these complexities, though, it’s the immediacy that is reiterated time and time again.   The Sydney Morning Herald of 26 September 1870 declared that:

‘The rapid progress of events … is one of the most striking phases of modern warfare.  The long delays of former times do not now task the patience of the world.  The change of scene still reveals the rapid action of the stage.  Towards the 8th of July the world becomes aware of a quarrel.  By the 16th war is declared.  In sixteen days more an immense slaughter on both sides reveals the dreadful nature of the conflict.  By the 5th of September Napoleon surrenders himself as a prisoner of war, a Republic is proclaimed and every power of the state is centred in a provisional Government.’

And newspapers were now positioned to  convey and capitalize on this immediacy: unlike the ‘freshest advices’ peddled in the eighteenth century, which were often remarkably stale, newspapers could now actualize  the ‘newness’ of the news.  So one week week later the Herald trumpeted: ‘We had never realised more completely the value of the telegraph than since the opening of this disastrous war.’

The relationship between distant publics and military violence was never a simple one, and the process that I’m cartooning here had its reversals.  In the First World War, for example, the first British reporters to arrive on the Western Front were arrested and returned to England, and when just five journalists were eventually allowed access, there were strict limits on what they could report and their copy was heavily censored.  Much that happened was hidden from view – then as now – and the Daily Mail’s William Beach Thomas wrote about his own distance from the horrors of the Somme thus:

‘I spoke with the men who had endured this the day after writing of the battle as it was unveiled to me, and felt that I had committed high treason. So easy is it to make the foul appear fair, to be tricked by the enchantment of distance…

‘All who have written about war … see it as the airman sees it in a large spaciousness where details are hid and only issues count. But let us remember the real war behind.’

You can see what he means – literally so – but perhaps there is also a sense in which immediacy blinds us to what is hidden from view.  In the eighteenth century the ‘meantime’ between one report and another sustained a brooding anxiety about what might have happened, what was not yet known, and invited speculation and commentary, whereas the pell-mell escalation of events, of ‘one damn thing after another’, may work to close those spaces.  I need to think more about this…

The story of reporting war at a distance continues with the addition of sound and moving image to text, sketch and photograph –  including, during the Second World War, the radio broadcasts of bombing raids over Germany, cinema newsreels (in Britain the BBC went off the air from 1939 to 1946), and propaganda films – that all worked to reinforce the immediacy of those early telegraphic dispatches.

Reporter Wynford Vaughan Thomas and sound engineer Reg Pidsley in front of a Lancaster bomber, September 1943; the pair flew on an RAF raid to Berlin on the night of 3 September 1943, and their report was broadcast ‘live’ on BBC Radio two days later.

But this audio-visual immediacy also installed a peculiar intimacy.  In his remarkable autobiography, The world of yesterday, which he started in 1934 and completed just before his suicide in 1942, Stefan Zweig captured what I’m trying to get at:

My father, my grandfather, what did they see? Each of them lived his life in uniformity. A single life from beginning to end, without ascent, without decline, without disturbance or danger, a life of slight anxieties, hardly noticeable transitions. In even rhythm, leisurely and quietly, the wave of time bore them from the cradle to the grave. They lived in the same country, in the same city, and nearly always in the same house. What took place out in the world only occurred in the newspapers and never knocked at their door. In their time some war happened somewhere but, measured by the dimensions of today, it was only a little war. It took place far beyond the border, one did not hear the cannon, and after six months it died down, forgotten, a dry page of history, and the old accustomed life began anew.

But now, he continued:

There was no escape for our generation, no standing aside as in times past. Thanks to our new organization of simultaneity we were constantly drawn into our time. When bombs laid waste the houses of Shanghai, we knew of it in our rooms in Europe before the wounded were carried out of their homes. What occurred thousands of miles over the sea leaped bodily before our eyes in pictures. There was no protection, no security against being constantly made aware of things and being drawn into them.

This too was a partial and partisan process, of course: British reporting of the Blitz was highly selective and subject to censorship, but the prevailing line was that Luftwaffe raids were indiscriminate acts of terrorism whereas Bomber Command’s strikes were precision strikes against military and industrial targets (some things evidently never change).  Even so, this conditional intimacy was, perhaps, the culmination of the process glimpsed by Favret’s Cowper at his Georgian fireside: an unsettling sense of distant wars entering the home.

I say ‘culmination’ because, by the time of Vietnam, ‘the first television war’, even ‘the living-room war’, there are grounds for believing that many publics were becoming weary of the interpellations demanded by the incendiary images of distant death and destruction.  That was, in part, what prompted Martha Rosler‘s brilliant photo-montage, Bringing the war home (1967-1972), that re-staged the Vietnam war in American domestic interiors (a project she reactivated in 2004 for the Iraq war).    But this sense of familiarity, of the domestication of military violence, is also subject to reversal.  Susan Sontag famously claimed that  ‘Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience’, and there has been a lively discussion of what Lilie Chouliaraki calls  ‘the spectatorship of suffering’ and, in particular, of the publics produced through these modes of spectatorship. I still have much to read here – David Campbell’s measured critique of the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis still haunts me –  but I think it facile to say that we have become inured to military violence.  James der Derian is surely right to identify the rise of a military-industrial-media-entertainment complex, but this hasn’t reduced war to entertainment tout court.

Advanced militaries have become increasingly adept at new modes of information warfare, using social media like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to frame their actions and incorporating the flow of information into the very conduct of war, but this hasn’t enabled them to escape public scrutiny.

And so, the question: when we see the raw images of military (and paramilitary) violence around the world on YouTube, uploaded from multiple sources by activists and citizen-journalists, are we overwhelmed by what Favret would call the ‘eventfulness’ of it all?  Or are we, as Zweig suggested, still ‘constantly drawn into our time’ (which is now, perhaps more than ever before, also the space of others)?