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Cordite Camera
War-Porn Country

Both sides do it

They’re all over the place, those “home”-made videos showing Humvees and people blowing up in Iraq and Afghanistan—from both sides. There’s a site devoted largely to cataloguing them, among other things other sites won't touch or will censor. American troops seem to find it hilarious to get blown up, at least when they survive unscathed (I can understand the psychological reaction: you’re scared out of your wits. Laughter and cussing is the quickest remedy). Iraqis find it merely fanatically satisfying to blow up Americans. Either way, the act of watching them can be viscerally revolting. The act of filming them as trophy shots is revolting. But what about the act of differentiating between “valid” and “illegal” videos, between “coalition” and “terrorist” footage, between the supposedly defensible and indefensible kind? There are no such distinctions. To make them is to be complicit in a legitimacy that applies to neither kind.

There’s a lot of holier-than-thou noise on this side of the Atlantic about those “terrorist” videos featuring the blowing up of Humvees and the shooting down of American troops. (Terrorist? Not quite: the blowing up of military targets isn’t a terrorist act.) But how different are those videos from History Channel and Discovery Channel footage of cool, collected pilots looking through their little computer screens at a moving target, a target where you can sometimes see human beings as distinctly as if they were your neighbors, then letting loose their missiles and watching the scene turn into an inferno? Instead of some Arab fanatic chanting God is Great in the background (as you hear in so many of those Arab blow-up videos), it’s the voice of the pilot or the base going “roger” this and “roger” that, as if they’d were just chatting up a deer kill on walkie-talkies in the Blue Ridge mountains.

So the morbidity factor is equally shared between American and Arab proclivity for documenting the barbaric. It’s difficult to say whose production style is worse. Today I watched this particular video of a Humvee being blown up in Iraq (see below). It’s on YouTube, put up there, apparently, by a group that calls itself Jaish el-Rashedeed (which means, if my beyond-rusty Arabic has it right, “the army of the righteous”). Odd that so many of Jaish’s videos are circulating unmolested. This one begins with the shot of an urban road from an alley, not far from the road itself. So whoever is shooting the video seems unconcerned about the proximity. An Arabic song that must be the Iraqi equivalent of Southern white gospel is playing in the background. A couple of lines in Arabic, on red and white background, set the scene. (I don’t understand what the top line says; the bottom line says “ Province of Dyala.”) There’s a slight wind: you can see it from the swaying of the anarchic electric cables hung about. It’s an unintentional literary touch that adds a dramatic feel and intensifies the morbidity of the anticipation the producers want to instill.

One Humvee passes, slowly, and disappeared unscathed. Then the next appears, a small dark waving from its hood like a funereal pennant and—boom. A burst of black, the sound of the explosion, the concussion shaking up the cables and the camera, then the sound of something heavy and metallic landing back on the ground—an axle? The barrel of the 50-caliber gun? A chunk of the Humvee? Whatever: it’s pitched like a muffled bell, tolling once. Then the scene again, in slow motion, while that infernal music plays in the background. The smoke clears. The Humvee is on its side, its underside facing the photographer, who hasn’t moved: I doubt he was there. The device was remote controlled. So is the video. Time obviously passes long enough for an editing cut: the light has changed, it’s somewhat darker. Other Americans appear, although at this point I’m beginning to wonder if those really were Americans in the convoy: would they have let their injured or dead troops linger on the ground that long? The moving figures in the picture also look much slighter than American soldiers, whose gear usually beefs them up to cyborg size, and whose manner in the field is brusque, guarded, commanding and commandeering of the environment around them—once they’re past the sucker punch. In this case the soldiers are strangely casual and unconcerned, although the written scroll mentions “amerikyya,” the Americans. Two soldiers have picked up a body and walked him back to another vegicle, out of sight,. Another soldier is picking up detritus around the destroyed humvee, a scene, from far off, not dissimilar from watching someone pick up rubbish after a picnic. It’s unsettling, it’s banal, it’s insanity’s routine: at least one life has been wasted, probably more, and what ends it is picking up the trash. The soldier who picks it up doesn’t even run back to the other vehicle. And when he gets there (you can see the hood) he actually stops and seems to be rustling in whatever bag he’s picked up, as if to check that he has all he wants. Even the absurdity of it is revolting.

Finally, the music, the video, the propaganda ends. But not really. Those things are like roaches all over the Internet. Blowups. Beheadings. Executions. I’m not so sure the recent footage of American troops searching for those three soldiers al-Qaeda claims to have captured is any different: That pornographic shot of the 50-caliber gun, for instance, the camera’s lust for insignias and dark-shaded close-ups, those fingers on triggers: they’re not content waiting for the actual rescue to concoct another Jessica Lynch legend, another freak of fiction the American public can latch on to; they’re doing it now: the search is the thing, whether the soldiers are found or not. It’s a remarkable turn-around in the narrative of this war when the mere idea of a rescue supplants its objective. It’s the porn of war, indescribably more vile than anything Silicone Valley ever produced.

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