Close encounters

By Gillian Terzis | 15 Dec 14
In today’s networked world, we’re simultaneously better connected and further away from each than ever before. War and its aftermath are no exception. Gillian Terzis looks at how modern technology mediates our perception of war and asks, what’s the difference between bearing witness to an atrocity and being a voyeur?

During the height of the Gulf War, only two newspapers in Europe ran photographer Kenneth Jarecke’s photo of a dead Iraqi soldier who tried to escape death by incineration. Today, the photo is easily found on Google Images. The Atlantic reprinted it this year and billed it as a “must-see”: the image that would go on to challenge preconceptions of a technologically-driven and clean war. It shows an Iraqi soldier with his arms slumped over his truck’s dashboard in a likely attempt to flee the burning vehicle. But his attempts were in vain. His face, incinerated and ashen, shows his mouth agape in a terrified grimace. I couldn’t help but stare at his eye sockets.

War’s aftermath has long been a reliable muse for collective horror, both physical and psychological. In the same tradition, the widely publicized beheadings of ISIS hostages have become a source of revulsion for the West – and perhaps a catalyst  to act. In September 2014, President Obama announced in a prime-time televised speech that the US would be launching an open-ended military campaign that would involve and extend the use of airstrikes into Iraq and Syria. It was, Obama said, a “comprehensive and sustained” effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS”, which had already beheaded two American journalists, three aid workers from the UK and the US, at least 10 Kurds and 75 Syrian soldiers in 2014.  No one mentioned a war. In sending off Australian troops to Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Abbott stressed it was a “humanitarian mission with military elements”.

But even before Australia committed troops, it felt as though we were already under siege. The national mood, judging by the newspapers, was seemingly reaching a fever pitch. ISIS’ beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers saturated the media and, in light of public requests made by the grieving families, debate ensued about the ethics of watching the videos. Western media outlets often republished less-graphic stills of the men awaiting execution, but the full footage could be viewed in the darker corners of the web. British tabloid, the Daily Mail, showed a video of a mass shooting conducted by ISIS, where the victims’ faces and bodies were blurred during the act.

Susan Sontag, in her essay collection On Photography, wrote that photography is first and foremost a rhetorical device; an act of disclosure by the photographer.  Images, particularly those of warfare, “reiterate”, she wrote. “They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.” Whenever I recalled the screenshots of ISIS’ hostages – kneeling in some nondescript desert in an orange jumpsuit, held by the scruff of the neck – I would turn back to these words. Technology had made it easier to witness acts of brutality, but I could not be sure it left me any closer to comprehending them.


On September 18, reports had surfaced of an alleged plot to commit random public beheadings in Sydney, which sparked large-scale synchronised counterterrorism raids by more than 800 police on houses and vehicles in Sydney and Brisbane.  Newspaper reports carried pictures of a large sword in an evidence bag. It wasn’t until a fortnight later that the sword was revealed to be a plastic one, a common ornament in Shiite Muslim households. Five days later, an 18-year-old named Abdul Numan Haider was shot dead by police after stabbing two officers outside a police station in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The media went into a frenzy. Three Fairfax papers led with front page headlines like “Teenage Terrorist”, “Teen Jihad” and “Teen takes terror to the suburbs”, with a Facebook photo of an innocent man who was wrongly identified as Abdul Numan Haider.

Committing to war is a thorny propostion, especially when the state lacks a conventional enemy. Still, the US and its allies have opted for a conventional response. It’s hardly the first time the US has pitted its technological prowess against a loose band of insurgents, and it’s unlikely to be the last.

Battling a methodology – especially one that has asserted itself so well on social media – has proved difficult. Accounts affiliated with the organisation crop up despite the best attempts of Facebook and Twitter to suspend them. Audio reports of battles were previously uploaded to audio site Soundcloud. Wannabe muhajideens have asked about living conditions and other things  (e.g. “I want to wage jihad but I don’t have a thing to wear”) on, an anonymous Q&A site. Cats cuddle guns and grenades on popular Instagram feed #catsofjihad. A slickly produced recruitment video from the organisation’s media unit, Alhayat, entitled “There is no life without jihad” makes the sales pitch for ISIS using accents from the West. A man identified as Brother Abu Yahya addresses the camera in a broad Australian accent. “My brothers from Australia,” he says. “This is the message I want to send to youse … from a Muslim brother’s heart to another brother’s heart”. He implores the viewer to think about the women in Fallujah who are “giving birth to deformed babies” as a result of US military intervention.


Since the Gulf War, precision technologies like pilotless drones, surgical strikes, smart bombs and targeted assassinations were trumpeted as a way to engage in a hygienic and comparatively bloodless conflict. In particular, the development of the Predator drone has been instrumental in cementing the US’ technological superiority and shaping the character of contemporary warfare. It gives commanders an unparalleled panorama of 60 miles, and is weaponised with Hellfire and MQ-11 missiles. It emits a frenzied and persistent buzzing noise, much like its insect counterpart. Unbeknownst to targets, it can linger over them for weeks on end, a drone operator told GQ in November 2013. And it can see everything. One drone operator told the magazine that you could watch “targets drink tea with friends, play with their children, have sex with their wives on rooftops”. The drone is both omniscient and aesthetically “eyeless”.

According to a 2013 Pew survey, 61 per cent of Americans support drone warfare, but their use remains deeply unpopular elsewhere. In the survey, 31 out of the 39 countries expressed significant opposition to the use of drone strikes. For instance, 44 per cent of Australians approved of drone strikes, while two-thirds of the countries surveyed garnered less than 40 per cent of public approval. The only countries aside from the US to record majority support for drones were Kenya and Israel.

Is there something more reassuring, more decorous, about ensuring a human ultimately pulls the trigger?

Maybe drones are popular in the US because, unlike armed combat, they are able to project state power without endangering American lives. And, because many drone campaigns are conducted covertly and opaquely, it’s hard for the public or the media to know the truth about the fatalities or the misidentified targets. The sort of mounting public discontent that forced the withdrawal of US troops from the Vietnam War, or heightened the political fallout as a result of the Iraq War, is subsequently neutered. Disfigured bodies and death remind us of armed combat’s intimate expressions of violence. But drones operate out of human sight and out of mind. A voting public is unlikely to support a government that wages perpetual war, but an increasing reliance on drones makes it possible to do so with little scrutiny, by lowering the barrier to entry without increasing the likelihood of a resolution.

What’s clear is that a drone-driven doctrine is not only a consequence of modern-day conflict but a foundation for it. So it’s hardly surprising that the impetus to find technocratic solutions to the dilemmas of combat is gathering momentum. In the Defense Innovation Initiative announced by outgoing US defence secretary Chuck Hagel at this year’s Reagan National Defence Forum in November, technology was seen as the cornerstone in sustaining America’s military preeminence. Funding would be directed towards developing what the Department of Defense called “new operational concepts, including new approaches to warfighting” in areas such as robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, autonomous systems and big data.

Exactly what these “new operational concepts” and “approaches to warfighting” might be is unclear, but a study published by the Department of Defense’s National Defense University Center for Technology and National Security Policy hints at potential outcomes. It’s conceivable, the authors write, that the world in 2030 will be “networked and potentially available for control via the internet”, especially as more people rely on “smart devices” in their daily lives.  But the surveillance state could prove the least of our worries. The prospect of “whole armies of Kill Bots that could autonomously wage war” is deemed a “realistic possibility” because unmanned drone systems are relatively cheap to manufacture, and much of their production is occurring outside of the US and in the private sector. Given the potential backlash from the broader community, it is recommended that the Department of Defence ensures that “it is not perceived as creating weapons systems without a ‘human in the loop’”.

This recommendation suggests we are not yet desensitised to war, nor are we quite ready to remove all human involvement from conflict.  Drones are still fairly new technology, and we’re still grappling with what the moral and ethical consequences might be. Is there something more reassuring, more decorous, about ensuring a human ultimately pulls the trigger? Can you surrender to a drone? The anxieties we have about drones and killer bots may reflect a broader unease about the role of technology in modern society: that it disconnects us from reality, distances us from face-to-face interaction, that the products themselves are ubiquitous and indispensable.

You could watch the combat for days and never encounter a dead body.

Drones can’t be held to account for civilian deaths. Their method of killing, although targeted, can be indiscriminate: “all military-age males in a strike zone” are considered militants by the US government. But it is humans who devise these strategies and enact legislation. Australia plays its role: joint intelligence facility Pine Gap tracks the whereabouts of key insurgency leaders and passes on geolocation data to the US for its air assaults in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One official told Sydney Morning Herald reporter Philip Dorling that the facility’s success was “outstanding”; another went as far to claim that “the US will never fight another war in the eastern hemisphere without the direct involvement of Pine Gap”.

Our complicity is clear. Some 2,500 Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants have been killed in more than 370 drone attacks since 2004.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, estimates of the civilian death toll range from 416 to 951, including 168-200 children.


Clinical language and intelligent weaponry sanitise conflict, but technology’s habit of making the nitty gritty easier to seek out can sometimes be anaesthetising. One memory I have of the Gulf War is of becoming addicted to the CNN’s rolling coverage. You could watch the combat for days and never encounter a dead body. Night vision lent the footage a dramatic tint, as well as a stagy authenticity. It felt unreal because in some ways it was. Like a video game, it skewed our perceptions of the stakes.

The connection between war imagery and pornography is undeniable, and not just because Paris Hilton’s sex tape was also filmed in night vision. These curated snapshots of violence are often pornographic in the word’s truest sense. ISIS’ videos have been likened to snuff films. Both are designed to elicit a reaction: to titillate or shock, sometimes to humiliate. And yet bearing witness to these acts can induce feelings of shame and guilt, as we negotiate the line between viewer and voyeur.

People are a lot more comfortable with a Predator strike that kills many than with a throat-slitting that kills one.

In 2006, writing in response to the September 11 attacks and the graphic photographs of human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib, the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard detailed the futility of the US’ fight against terrorism. He wrote that it had turned into a “power … without aim, without purpose, without a plausible enemy, and in total impunity”. The abuses, he argued, highlighted “the excessiveness of a power designated itself as abject and pornographic”. In modern warfare, it can be difficult to discern the victor from the vanquished.

It is just as hard, as a viewer of such images, to determine where our innocence ends and impotence begins. Seeing Jarecke’s photo in the context of the Gulf War’s clinical narrative (albeit after the fact) raises questions about the human cost of foreign intervention and the casualties of a clean war. Its goriness arouses our horror but hopefully our compassion, too. Yet I’ve found it harder to look at the images of beheadings circulated by ISIS and then by the Western media. I believed this was because the images sought not to elicit understanding, but to activate emptier impulses, like moral righteousness, fear, and a desire for more clicks. ISIS want the West to be terrified by its propaganda, and the media obliged. But my discomfort may also be because, as former CIA lawyer Vicky Divoll told The New Yorker in 2009, “people are a lot more comfortable with a Predator strike that kills many than with a throat-slitting that kills one”.

If we are willing to start wars, should we also be prepared to witness their horrific aftermath?

Perhaps what makes ISIS’ images so unsettling is the forceful way they implicate the viewer into the conflict. There’s no way to avoid the recriminations and accusations of foreign policy mistakes when they’re directly addressed to you. They don’t justify atrocities nor do they illuminate their cause, but they do reveal, if nothing else, that barbarism is humanity’s shared burden.