Is it possible to conceive of the character and the threat of 21st-century war outside of the digital media that have so transformed it? Has the contemporary way of seeing war distorted most measurements of the nature and the imminence of threats from military violence? These questions inform a new project that challenges claims regarding recent shifts in the degree of threats from war by interrogating a new history – the mid-20th century – of war beyond media.
In recent years, wars seem connected, continuous, close.
Modern societies’ perceptions have shifted from the occasional and distant occurrence of defining conflicts that appear to segment the twentieth century, to a sense of a stream of concurrent wars demanding continuous attention (Martin Shaw, 1996: 2). Liam Kennedy describes this as ‘the age of perpetual war’ (2015: 163). There is also a history of theories of ‘new wars’ in which Mary Kaldor’s work is influential. In summary, she states: ‘It is the logic of persistence and spread that I have come to understand as the key difference with old wars’ (2013).
In the field of war and media, recent changes in the character of war are associated closely with transformations of digital media. For instance, the ‘connective turn’ (Hoskins 2011, 2017; Hoskins and Tulloch 2016) – the massively increased pervasiveness and accessibility of digital technologies, devices and media – shape a new knowledge base, an ‘information infrastructure’ (Bowker and Star 2000), through which war is imagined, planned, fought, understood, (de)legitimised, remembered and forgotten.
Moreover, the concept of ‘participative war’ (Merrin forthcoming) highlights how new ‘architectures of participation’ (O’Reilly 2004) offered by web 2.0 platforms as well as connected and mobile media devices enable a wide range of actors to have their say and participate in warfare in an immediate and ongoing fashion.
Media have made war seem increasingly granular, enabling (albeit unevenly) an array of actors (militaries, states, soldiers, citizens, journalists) to continually upload, post, edit, forward, delete, show and hide a multitude of perceptions around the unfolding of the mundane and the spectacular.
But the accounting for 21st-century war is inevitably made from within the same digital media ecologies and is thus subject to its ‘ways of seeing’ (Berger 1972). The synchronicity of war and media, in this overcrowded and hyperconnected battlefield, which feels intense, threatening and chaotic, is not quite what it appears. If we take Paul Virilio’s words literally in that ‘the history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception’ (1989, 7), today we might also turn this around to state that ‘the history of battle is lost through the history of radically changing fields of perception’.
In other words, we have forgotten what war was actually like in relatively recent post-WW2 times – in terms of the threat posed by its ’persistence and spread’ (to repeat from Kaldor, above), or rather that we (in the west) have never really experienced war in this period in the same way.
Reimagining the 1950s
This is because: firstly, the media of the day – of the mid-20th century – did not afford a synchronicity with the multiple wars raging around the globe (given the absence of connectivity, taken for granted today, that affords a continuous consciousness of war); secondly, many wars were fought beyond media – outside of the media gaze much of the time; and, thirdly, we tend to look back at events unfolding chronologically, rather than remembering them as occurring at the same time, and in the context of, many others.
Whereas the simultaneity of the events of war today tends to fill up an intensely connected present, the simultaneity of war in pre-satellite and pre-digital media (when TV was only in its infancy) tended to block out events; the bandwidth of the media ecology of the day was inhibitive rather than expansive.
And yet, in the 1950s, war was flourishing as part of the new geopolitical reality, characterised by the decline of empire, the threat of Chinese communism, cold war diplomatic hostilities playing out across Europe’s new boundaries the early years of the United Nations and European Economic Community, and the independence struggles of new, former-colonial nations like Burma outside the British Empire or Commonwealth. Even when national newspapers had reporters at some of the wars of that time, they tended to be there as participants rather than as journalists.
In this project we interrogate a remarkable record of the simultaneity of war (in a post-World War context) in the form of the British War Office Military Intelligence Reviews throughout the 1950s. This was a secret monthly, then quarterly, digest issued to all officers of the British armed forces,which summarized current military developments and threats across the globe, while providing historical, political and economic context.
To show the 1950s as a decade of obfuscated threats, of disconnected wars and the perception of war, we map the Military Intelligence Reviews record against some of the newspaper reporting of the day. We then offer this work as a lens to show comparatively the current era of participative war as one of connectivity and inflated threats, namely one that has forgotten war beyond media.
Berger, John (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books Ltd.
Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Susan Leigh Star (2000) Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge: MA: MIT Press.
Hoskins, Andrew (2011) ‘Media, Memory, Metaphor: Remembering and the connective turn’, Parallax, 17(4): 19-31.
Hoskins, Andrew (Ed.) (2017) Digital Memory Studies: Media Pasts in Transition. New York: Routledge.
Hoskins, Andrew and John Tulloch (2016) Risk and Hyperconnectivity: Media and Memories of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kaldor, Mary (2013) ‘In Defence of New Wars’. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. 2(1), p.Art. 4. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/sta.at
Kennedy, Liam (2015) ‘Photojournalism and Warfare in a Postphotographic Age’, Photography and Culture, 8:2, 159-171, DOI: 10.1080/17514517.2015.1076242
Merrin, William (forthcoming) Digital War. London: Routledge.
O’Reilly, Tim (2004) ‘The Architecture of Participation’. http://archive.oreilly.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/articles/architecture_of_participation.html
Shaw, Martin (1992) Civil Society and Media in Global Crises: Representing Distant Violence. London: Frances Pinter Publishers Ltd
Virilio, Paul (1989) War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London, Verso.