War and Moving Pictures

It is hard to watch videos taken by real-life soldiers using “helmet cams,” small cameras strapped to the side of Kevlar helmets.  The landscape lurches up and down in the camera’s frame, inducing a kind of sea-sickness.  Violence erupts in the periphery—a land mine explodes, a soldier screams—and the camera lens swooshes to the side, until the evidence of that violence appears in the center of the screen.

But it is hard not to watch the helmet cams, either, because they promise the eye-level perspective of war that we non-soldiers could never see.  As a voting citizen, I feel that I should know something of what our soldiers see and do when they’re fighting the wars that my elected officials authorize.  The newspaper reports on some of the consequences of war:  new political systems, topped regimes, shifting territorial borders.  The helmet cam reports on other consequences:  a wounded soldier, felled by a land mine, in pain.

The New York Times sometimes posts helmet cam videos on their “At War” Blog and elsewhere in the paper.  One soldier’s video account is given the headline: “Combat in the First Person.”  The phrase “first person” signals the way that helmet cams both distance its viewers from war and, at the same time, bring them closer to the action in something like visual empathy.  Helmet-cam videos are the closest we non-combatants will get to a first-person perspective on war.  The “first-person shooter” is also a type of video game, and the difference between fictional video-game war on our computer screens and the actual war on our computer screens can be disturbingly fine.

(And if you choose to watch the video, heed the disclaimer at the beginning of the video:  you will see violent images and hear graphic language.)

I think about helmet cams sometimes when I’m trying to imagine moving pictures of war in other periods.  The 19th-century moving panoramas I will discuss this weekend at the conference seem so controlled and carefully-contrived alongside helmet cam videos–but moving panoramas offered precious information on war to 19th-century audiences.  Moving panoramas do not, however, give us first-person perspective on war.  I’d argue that panoramas offer an assertive second-person perspective.  They rigorously guide the viewer’s eye through a prescribed path, over a prescribed landscape, with the protagonist of the story firmly in sight.

One of the best places to see a nineteenth-century moving panorama is online at the Brown University Center for Digital Initiatives.  A team at Brown photographed and animated a panorama depicting the life of Giuseppe Garibaldi, a 19th-century Italian military and political hero.  The images of the panorama tumble by, inducing something of that familiar visual sea-sickness—or, as Stephen Oettermann rightly termed it in his spectacular work on panoramas, see-sickness.

2 Responses to “War and Moving Pictures”
  1. Clarissa Ceglio says:

    The notion of the first-hand account as a form of witness discourse is important to my work, too. More specifically, I’m interested in the ways in which museums use objects to serve as surrogates for human witness. It has been useful to me to expand the defining terms of witness discourse (as established by such scholars as Ana Douglass and Thomas A. Vogler) to include the notion of witness-objects: inanimate things that participate in a generative process that is event-based, testimony-driven, entwined with memory, and capable of bestowing special obligation upon its recipients. Think, for example, of how the objects featured in the original and follow-up Smithsonian exhibitions called “September 11: Bearing Witness to History” function: http://americanhistory.si.edu/september11/ [See Ana Douglass and Thomas A Vogler, “Introduction” in Witness and Memory: The Discourse of Trauma, ed. Ana Douglass and Thomas A Vogler (New York: Routledge, 2003), 1-53.]

  2. Sharon Norton says:

    I wonder though about the long term traumatic affects on parents and families of soldiers injured or killed in war…viewing and likely repeatedly viewing the cam media. Also how the graphic helmet cams affect relationships between soldiers and families. Another factor contributing to PTSD of wartime.

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