Caren Kaplan: Everything is Connected: Aerial Perspectives, the Revolution in Military Affairs, and Digital Culture

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Since the middle of the 20th century, the environment above the earths atmosphere has been, increasingly, militarized. Although space has been perceived as devoid of national or even worldly interests, throughout the Cold War and its aftermath, U.S. proponents of the military purposes of space argued convincingly for the development and expansion of communications and intelligence satellite programs (Stares 1985). With the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of the century, the space race slowed, leaving the U.S. the predominant nationalized military presence in space (although China and the European Union have ambitious satellite programs). Weaponization and militarization of space are not exactly the same thing and in my comments today I will not be discussing the debate on weapons programs that rely upon space platforms or the various anti-satellite programs. I will be focusing my comments on the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and the ways in which contemporary, popular, post 9-11 representations of satellite surveillance-linked warfare are produced, distributed, and consumed. The RMA proposes a network centric military, drawing on information technologies and concepts such as the system of systems. While digital culture is fairly new, there have been a number of so-called revolutions in military technologies and strategies over the last several hundred years (Hirst 2001). In the longer project of which this paper is a part, I am exploring the visual culture of militarization in the 20th and early 21st centuries, in particular views from above; that is, the emergence of photography, cinema, and war as linked technologies constituting new ways of seeing. The advent of aviation followed by the exploration of space and satellite programs has brought new powers of observation to the mechanical capturing or recording and reproduction of images (Virilio 1989). The rise of intelligence or reconnaissance photographyfirst from airplanes and then from satellite platformshas its own detailed history in the study of air and space power that I can only gesture towards today.

The aspect of this project that I am exploring here concerns the popular culture of reconnaissance warfare as a prosthetic practice of air and space power, especially in the post-9-11 context of a crisis in military strategy. In some related, recently published work, I have engaged the argument that the military, business, and the entertainment industries are closely linked, even networked, in terms of their politics and culture as well as their economics (Kaplan 2006). As a cultural critic, I am interested in the culture end of this problematicthat is, how do you produce critique when various entities that appear to be distinct are, in fact, quite closely related? In this regard, for today, I want to focus on three examples of discrete but related representational practices that produce globalized subjects of US nationalism, all drawing on the discourses of networked societies that are heralded in the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).

Just a few short years ago, the RMA, as touted by its most visible proponent, Donald Rumsfeld, symbolized the network centric evolution of technology at the turn of the new century. The war in Iraq was to be the best example of this linked network approach where everything is connected, air power and space power would blast the nations enemies to smithereens without jeopardizing ground forces unduly, and information technologies would solve many of the problems that have plagued militaries for centuriesaccurate, real-time communications, precision delivery of armaments to targets, and moving people and supplies around in a timely manner. In short, as Mike Davis has put it, the Pentagon aspired to work like Wal-Mart (Davis 2003). We all know what happened to the RMA (and to Donald Rumsfeld!)the RMA survives the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan but in a completely different contextas the vertical geopolitics of the current conflict reflects, this war requires ground troops and urban house to house fighting rather than air power in a de-populated desert. Nevertheless, the representations of RMA-type networked systems of vision and weaponry persist and even flourish in popular culture.

My first example is 30-second tv spot produced by aviation giant, Boeing Corporation, in 2003 as part of the Boeing branding effort that accompanied restructuring, executive reshuffling, and the relocation of corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago. The mega advertising agency, Foote, Cone, and Belding devised the slogan Forever New Frontiers to promote the company at the turn of the new century. This ad in the series is entitled Bigger Picture. I have transcribed the text for the ad; it runs as follows:

Today a soldier sees a snapshot of the terrain

A pilot an image of the air space

The commander a view of the mission

But theyre all part of a bigger picture

Thats why Boeing is helping create a remarkable network

To gather and analyze data from every source

Then deliver the right information instantly

So the bigger picture is a safer world.

In this very artfully executed advertisement the world that is evoked is clearly post 9-11 and viewers are being hailed as subjects of the United States. Other ads in the series, some from before 2001, are more overtly multi-culti and cosmopolitan, featuring clips from diverse nations and cultures that are all presumably brought together by the kind of world that Boeing aircraft and time-space compression make possible. In this ad, the scope of the matter is very much the war that has been launched in 2003, the same year that the ad appeared. The bigger picture of the ads title can be seen as an animation of points of view based on scale. As the commercial begins we hear the wind blow in a desolate, desert-like landscape, and a soldier sees a snapshot of the terrain. This leads to the next scale, that of the pilot, who sees space and the commander, who sees the whole mission. We move from the soldiers vantage point on the ground, to the aerial perspective of the fighter pilot, to the panoptic mastery of the commander, all in the service of the bigger picturea more secure world (read nation) via the linked media of surveillance, interpretation, communications, and targetingthat returns us back to the point of view of the individual soldier. The ad ends with a close-range view of the soldier gazing directly out at us, the viewers.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Boeing Corp. 2003. The Bigger Picture

My attention was caught by this ad in particular for two reasons: the representation of aerial perspectives as well as the discourses of a seamless network that dovetails so closely with the aims of the reformers in the military who have been agitating for the dominance of high-tech platforms. In the Bigger Picture tv spot, like so many of its ads, Boeing positions itself as a provider of a dream systeminstantly, and seamlessly, multiple points of view and innumerable sources of information are integrated to slip back and forth between joint command centers and individuals and units in the air and on the ground. Everything is connected. Its a perfect illustration of the first two key points that Paul Hirst identified as the foundational claims of the RMA:

  • new information technologies will all but eliminate the so-called fog of war
  • RMA new technologies will lead to two opposed but complementary tendencies: the elimination of hierarchy, and the ability of senior commanders to enjoy total control of the whole battle space

Many commentators have pointed out that such visions of technological derring do are highly overstated. A quick scan of the military enlistee blogs as well as the debates in such venues as Air and Space Power Journal reveal that not much is ideal. Human error combined with weather conditions and the state of the technologies themselves lead to many complications and challenges. Or, as Hirst put it, information-centric systems create their own forms of fog (Hirst 2005). But the fantasy that you can push a button in one place, say Washington, D.C., on any given moment, and that the satellite will be in just the right place and not a cloud will be in the sky, and that you can effect the old bombadiers dream of dropping the pickle right down into the pickle barrel of a target from 10,000 feet is dearly held by both conservatives and their critics. Here is my second example for our discussion, a clip from the film Syrianathe George Clooney/Matt Damon vehicle, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, released by Warner Bros. Pictures in 2005 (Gaghan 2005).

Just a few words for those of you who may not have seen itthe film is based on the memoir of a former CIA operative in the Middle East and the main character travels from a solid foundation, a binary world view, to an understanding of the impossibility of fixing good and evil to national or even individual identities. As in all good spy narratives since the Cold War, the hero is torn, his world becomes ambiguous to the point of horror, and his existential dilemma becomes expanded to those of all good liberals viewing the film. In the scene I am going to show you from the very end of the movie, Clooneys character is racing to try to save the life of the Arab prince who symbolizes any last hope for democracy and humanist values in the region. For convoluted plot reasons, involving a very evil transnational oil company and corrupt politicians and intelligence officers back in the US, the decision has been made to assassinate the prince by long-range missile.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Publicity Poster. Syriana. Warner Bros. 2005.

Syrianas advertising campaign is the slogan everything is connected. In the clip we just saw, that phrase resonates on several levels. Certainly, in the paranoid world of the political thriller, everything IS usually connected. For the pleasure of plot junkies everywhere, often, as the heros life flits before him at the climax of the storyhe suddenly puts it all togetherit all falls into terrifying place. In this instance, we see the prince get it just before he gets itjust before he and his family are blasted to smithereens by a precision guided missile.

There is a lot to say about this clip and I can only point to a couple of things for now. One structural element I notice throughout the film that is extremely evident in the scenes we have just watched is the privileging of the direct gaze from the naked eye, apparently unassisted by technology, as the hope for human communications and democracy. Thus, we see Clooneys character, spying the caravan of cars from a distance by eyesight. In this film, as in many others, the point of view from the ground, at the scale of the human gaze or touch is presented as the pov of democracy and humanism. This point is choreographed most powerfully in the editing of the look of recognition between the prince and Clooneys characters as the long-range missile closes in on them. At arms length, almost touching, recognition and connection appear to be possible yet doomed, by the dehumanized gaze of surveillance from on high.

I am also struck by the representation of the seamless network of information and weaponry in this film and these representations bear a striking similarity to the Boeing ad. In the current zeitgeist, we are supersaturated with such images and scenes. The image I am showing you here is a composite put together by The New York Times showing aerial reconnaissance images of the precision missile strike that assassinated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last June in Iraq. I dont have time to show you the clip of that strike but it is readily available on the internet, often set to stirring patriotic music or thundering rock and roll by pro-war YouTube enthusiasts.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Syriana. Warner Bros. 2005

These kinds of highly publicized incidents reinforce the belief that satellite surveillance is a constant and that a missile can be correctly navigated in an instant and the target will be precisely and completely destroyed. In Syriana the shot of the guys thumb just above the joystick trigger as the commander in what seems to be the CIA says take the target out refers directly to the fantasy of a total system: you see as far and as high as need be with a satellite, you aim remotely, and you shoot your weapon with extreme speed and accuracythe implication is that you can see anything, anywhere, and act or not act as you choose vis--vis anywhere in the world at any time, all from the comforts of your Aeron chair at Langeley. Its interesting to see this kind of advertisement for the Revolution in Military Affairs from a film that has been vilified as anti-Bush and anti-American. But this kind of representation of warfare is visually compelling and extremely popular in the post-9-11 crisis in security. Thus, my last example is a clip that has been making the rounds of popular culture video downloads. I found it on YouTube but you can find it just about anywhere online, usually along with a very interesting set of comments. The YouTube title of this clip is F-16 strike on insurgents in Fallujah Iraq.

Figure 4

Figure 4. F-16 strike on insurgents in Fallujah Iraq. n.d.

The final line we just heard, oh, dude, is another title for this clip as it makes its way around the world wide web (or aw, dude is another way it is heard). The narrative of this clip echoes the pseudo-realism of the Hollywood product, Syriana. In that film, the guy in charge says take the target out. We hear someone say Roger. And then, the target is destroyed. In the clip of the F-16 strike, we hear this:

I got numerous individuals on the road, do you want me to take those out?

Take em out.

Ten seconds.

Roger.

Impact.

Oh, dude.

The emotion implied by the comment oh, dude is echoed in remarks left on at least 3 posts on YouTube that display one version or another of this clip. While many comments run along the lines of great video dude! or dont fuck with USA or England! there are quite a few that ask how do we know those people were insurgents? Quite a lot of invective is heaped on those quiet queries but the question is a good one even as the debate rages over whether this clip really comes from the first Gulf War rather than the 2nd or whether it is a bunch of sheep in the road or a group of village elders, etc., etc. I am not interested in this instance in whether the clip is authentic or not because I think it is clearly connected to a repertoire of representations that propose the view from the sky as completely effective for weaponry. That is, once youve been seen from above, youre toast.

But as Ive argued recently on other occasions, its a little too easy to pose the orbital view as more lethal and less humane than the grounded or located scale of the naked gaze (Kaplan 2006). As a scan of numerous videos made by U.S. military personnel involved in the current warfare that get posted on sites like YouTube or other Hollywood products like Jarhead easily shows, the Marine sniper is a highly idealized trope in the Gulf wars (rather than the pilot) and the scale of conflict that is most often depicted, with accompanying thundering rock scores, is almost always hand-to-hand combat, or a view from a vehicle on the ground. The numerous shots of Iraqi or insurgent bodies with heads blown off at close range are as popular as the many homemade versions of videos that use the aerial views of the assassination of Zarqawi. Theyre all pretty violent and they all celebrate or propose the triumph of U.S. military prowess on all kinds of levels: hardware, software, muscle, eyesight, mobile phone snapshots you name it. Oh, dude with its aerial perspective, its powerful dismissal of ambiguityare they a herd of sheep, a bunch of civilians, a unit of terrorists? Who cares, take em out! Were at war! is as popular as a video of guys in heavy armor breathing heavily running up a flight of stairs using night vision goggles to bust in the door and hold guns to the heads of the sleepy occupants. All of these images are circulating in popular culture. My point is that they can be differentiated according to specific genealogies and particular forms of discipline, governmentality, and other kinds of power.

Satellite surveillance still offers a special kind of power and meaning and we should be alert to its representational histories and effects. Those who seek investors and clients for aerospace technologies will draw on this fund of images and discourses for commercial gain. The military is, perhaps, much more complicatedfull of debate and passionate differences of opinion, the US armed forces are struggling to unify their doctrines, strategies, and practices in the face of a very long war. The government is just as complex and shape shiftingjust when you think it is never going to change, something happens, things come together or fall apart, and we find new configurations of power and profit at work. It is, maybe, the entertainment industry with its allied marketing and media practices that demonstrates the links in the system of systems. Connecting these powerful entities to examine their representational practices is not to argue that they are hegemonically in lock-step as if in some kind of conspiracy. Rather, looking at the popular culture of militarization brings into sharp relief the bigger picture of advanced capitalism, the worlds it has made and unmade, and the views that produce the subjects of US empire.

Works Cited

Davis, Mike. 2003. War-Mart: Revolution in Warfare Slouches Toward Baghdad. San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, March 9, D 1.

Gaghan, Stephen. 2005. Syriana. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Hirst, Paul. 2001. War and Power in the 21st Century. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

. 2005. Space and Power: Politics, War and Architecture. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Kaplan, Caren. 2006. Mobility and War: The Cosmic View of U.S. Air Power. Environment and Planning A 38 (2):395-407.

. 2006. Precision Targets: GPS and the Militarization of U.S. Consumer Identity. American Quarterly 58 (3):693-714.

Stares, Paul B. 1985. The Militarization of Space: U.S. Policy, 1945-1984. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Virilio, Paul. 1989. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. Translated by P. Camiller. London: Verso.