11 Oct 2015

So near, so far: Waging high tech war

3:10 pm on 11 October 2015

In his new book - Light It Up: The Marine Eye for Battle in the War for Iraq - John Pettegrew says technology that brings war closer to us - through television coverage and new immersive, ultra-real war games and videos - also desensitises us to its consequences and perpetuates it.

He said that although there was a rich history of literature portraying war's horrors, the glorification of war had always prevailed and that was all the more so today.

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Technology is making war distant and sanitised, a US writer says. Photo: AFP/FILE

Our attraction to watching war as entertainment was akin to pornography, he said.

"We are attracted to war's strategies and tactics, and the pleasure derived from it has an almost erotic quality."

He said that compounded a situation where each generation had to learn anew about the consequences of war, as our collective memories tended to erase the blood and death, but retain the glory and valour of battle.

Because of that a pattern of young men and women wanting to go to war continues, and the suicide rate among US veterans, which he said was at epidemic proportions, stemmed from that.

"It's a kind of natural result of that dissonance between the myth of war and the reality of it."

The glorification of war is nothing new, said Mr Pettegrew - it went as far back as cave paintings - but what was new was a co-operative culture between the providers of news and entertainment, and the military and government.

"I think the US has a problem, the American empire has a problem, how does it get a large number of men (and now) women to cross an ocean, to leave home, land on foreign soil and whilst standing in the line of fire choose to try and take the life of another person? Basically a perfect stranger."

Mr Pettegrew believed such behaviour was not inherent in people.

A sanitised war coverage

Mr Pettegrew said mainstream media coverage of war had become increasingly sanitised since 2003.

"The flipside horror of war is really tamped down by mainstream media in the US, quite deliberately in the case of the Pentagon really ordering the mainstream media to omit the results of war."

The "results" of war were the dead which the US public no longer saw. Unlike the Vietnam war, when mainstream coverage brought its horrors to the American living room and support for that war consequently faded.

The "Dover Ban" meant that by law America's war dead were no longer seen on television. Dover Airforce base in Delaware is where dead military personnel are flown to.

"There is an increased effect and attention to the adventure, to the light show of 'shock and awe' over Baghdad beginning the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. CNN and others featured it as if it was some kind of sport event, they had all kinds of captions, previews that will highlight what will happen and there's an excitement to sitting down on your couch and watching this historical event begin," he says.

He said that the dead civilians from that bombing were "nowhere to be found in the mainstream media."

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War's realities are seldom reflected in modern mainstream media coverage, says John Pettegrew. Photo: AFP / FILE

Technology now allows us to fight from afar, he said, whether by the use of predatory drones or high altitude bombing. He calls this remote fighting; where the killer and the killed never met.

The Pentagon spends millions on developing such automated combat systems, Mr Pettegrew said, and war this century would be increasingly fought this way.

"There's no real political will among the US people and leadership to suffer a large number of casualties, and to cross the line into war there needs to be a measured consideration of what casualties that would involve.

"Now the United States is able to make war without any risk to its own people and that is an untenable situation."

John Pettegrew

John Pettegrew Photo: Supplied

In his book, Mr Pettegrew describes two patterns of seeing in combat - one remote and one close up.

"The first is to separate the killer from killed using high tech to kill from ever more remote distances," he said.

"The second strategy is in a sense just the opposite, to bring killing and fighting up close in visual representation, to eroticise it, to make it look gratifying and almost pleasurable."

And he said what happens in battle fed back into videos and games, making them ever more real.

"I've likened it to a loop, what happens on the battlefield connected to what is seen in video games and You Tube videos; they are almost one and the same."

He said the US marines have produced, with a private contractor, a video game intended to both train its new recruits and recruit others.

"The marines using their own troops, fresh from battle, to describe to the producers of that game the sights, sounds, the feel of battle so there's this effort to really break down any line between the reality of war and its cultural representation in these games and in these videos," he says.

A further consequence of this filtered experience of war is an erosion of the human empathy that makes war less likely, he said.