The War Before Our Eyes: Global Conflict in the Digital Age
Wars have been a periodic, yet seemingly inevitable fact of life for humans as long as we have lived on this planet. In the modern era we have seen staggering military powers develop to fight devastating wars, fracturing millions of lives around the globe. We, who live in relatively safe, developed countries, have rarely had to reckon with the reality of warfare in any serious or prolonged way. In fact, we are usually the ones waging the wars. Generally, the closest thing we come to seeing the gritty realities of combat are daily news reports, which are often sanitised in order to preserve the sensitivities of coddled first world audiences. We have never had the ability to watch wars unfold hour by hour, to see what the individuals, who constitute the cogs of conflict, get up to. Until now, that is.
The development of social media platforms has, as you all well know, allowed for the transfer of information to occur incredibly quickly. Events happening on the other side of the world take barely 10 minutes to reach our Reddit or Twitter feeds, and this now includes the new swathe of combat footage that have made its way onto these platforms. There are now entire subreddits, twitter accounts, and 4chan threads dedicated to the publishing of actual combat videos making their way out of places like Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and now notably, Ukraine.
Recently I’ve spent more and more time watching these videos, fascinated by the intensity and harsh realities that they convey. Videos of Russian soldiers doing strafing runs in helicopters, Ukrainian soldiers shelling Russian positions, ISIS militants in combat with Taliban soldiers, French foreign legionnaires in Syria, a Palestinian gunman killed by an Israeli sniper, and more; the stream is seemingly endless. None of them are censored, and some are fairly violent. It feels taboo to even come into contact with these videos, as if they should instead be consigned to the realm of dark web content and sordid thumb drives traded between military officials. But no, it’s all right there, ready to be seen by any curious browser in their bedroom.
The footage can sometimes feel incredibly amateurish or chaotic, so far removed from the pictures that war movies have fed to us of highly calculated encounters. It could just be a man standing behind a wall, firing his AK-47indiscriminately towards some faceless opponent. It could be a soldier scrambling into a ditch to escape the shrapnel of a grenade lobbed towards them, or drone footage of an IED being dropped on a cluster of unsuspecting combatants. Perhaps you can spot one of them crawling away from the blast, legs shattered. It’s dark, and yet it also feels so unreal, so inconceivable to somebody in my position of privilege and comfort.
While watching these videos for the shock value and the morbid curiosity is what initially drew me in, I’ve now been forced to consider the real ramifications of this footage, what it means for the future of our digital age as we emerge into an era that portends further global warfare. What does it mean for our society that such violence is now so readily viewable?
I think the reality is that we already live in an anaesthetised environment, within which we are so bombarded with information that it’s hard to even feel strongly about important issues anymore. Add to this mix more images of organised violence and warfare, and we may find that this too becomes just another thing that happens in our world, unquestioned because it is so pervasive as to seem almost normal. If social media is made to reflect the types of lives that we live, to shed light on the vast array of human activities, it only seems natural that warfare sits within that mix. When we get the unfiltered picture, it’s clear that war isn’t as glorious as it's made out to be in our popular culture, and perhaps that new perspective isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
It’s hard to know what this means for young people on social media, some of whom will inevitably stumble across this type of content. I find some of the footage incredibly interesting, and the rest of it fairly harrowing. In terms of what it might do to younger people, I think the effects may be multifaceted. Already young kids are exposed to fairly violent sentiment through television and movies, whose objective as pieces of media is to convince them that it is real so that they will be compelled to watch further. Swapping out the fake for the real might just be the next evolution of this content cycle. Then again, this combat footage has no plot except its geo-political context, no human intrigue except the innate empathy one feels while watching a fellow human being struggle in a trench. It all contributes to this slightly worrying, matter-of-fact type of viewing, where the violence is taken for granted, and the dead bodies are just nameless units.
Paradoxically, I think the footage makes these wars feel much more real in one way, but much more one-dimensional in another. While we’re seeing the consequences of war that we normally do not, it makes clear how normal we can find such extreme violence, and almost espouses it by cementing it in the consciousness as the ‘done thing,’ which of course it is, whether it should be or not.
It may grant young people more perspective than the insultingly simplified news reports they are used to, but they will need the ability to critically analyse what they see in order to make any informed judgement about how to interpret it. If that skill doesn’t exist, then the terrain of combat footage is ripe for those with wartime or nationalistic agendas to enter the scene and communicate any narrative that they please. It could devolve into a semi-Orwellian scenario, where conflict is explained as a necessity to keep people in constant fear, and then the footage will be there to simultaneously vilify any foreign ‘aggressors’ and to venerate our ‘heroes.’ For young people navigating this landscape in the online realm, it will certainly be confusing and difficult terrain to assess. This leads us into the next question of propaganda.
This combat footage is often presented quite neutrally, (at least on the r/combatfootage subreddit I browse), but it has the staggering potential to be manipulated and to then manipulate others. It might sound funny, but ISIS has a very effective PR strategy designed to convey their narrative, and it includes a type of image warfare propagated through visual media. ISIS has managed to recruit over30,000 people from 85 different countries, no doubt in part as a result of their relentless media campaign which includes combat footage displaying their victory over other groups like the Taliban. Through these videos they can project their religious arguments while emphasising their power and violence, all in a slickly edited montage of jihadists gunning each other down to the sound of haunting Arabic chanting and music. It’s certainly unsettling, but it’s also easy to forget that these things are happening continents away while we sleep soundly.
The realm of combat footage is by no means reassuring, but it is certainly revealing. I think that we can learn a lot about the modern zeitgeist and the climate that social media has created by understanding that this footage exists. There is no shortage of interest in warfare
and violence online, and while it may give us new perspectives, it is also a tool of propaganda that is extremely powerful.
In a world where this is all readily available to us, it begs the question of whether to watch or not. Is it better to keep our eyes and ears shut to the gunfire that rings out across countless communities, or shall we look to see what we can learn about the true state of humanity and the online realm? Either way, I think that this combat footage is likely to grow in relevance and continue to play a large role in the way our perceptions of global conflict are shaped, how we assess the actions of nations and armies as we see more now than we have ever had the chance to before.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, LENNY:
I'm eighteen, and I just finished my HSC at Cape Byron Steiner School in Byron Bay. I joined the Safe on Social Youth Advisory because I am deeply committed to learning about topics that interest me and spreading that knowledge with as many people as possible. By telling stories that often go untold, especially from the perspective of a young man, I hope to bring a diversity of voice that is incredibly important, especially in the online space. These new technologies affect us all, and young people are on the forefront of these changes and the challenges they present.