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The Huge Underground Audience for War Porn From Afghanistan and Iraq

In the viral video realm, amateur Iraq war footage ranks just behind pornography, celebrities’ drunken exploits, and shark attacks. What does this say about our society?

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From two hundred yards, a handheld digital camera tracks a Humvee down a desolate road. Voices, in Arabic: “Keep the camera on it!” “ Allahu akbar .” Most of the audience at last year’s MoMA screening of Mauro Andrizzi’s documentary Iraqi Short Films was probably thinking what I was. It was hardly surprising that many of them got up to leave before the conclusion of the film. I am going to watch these American soldiers die . The Humvee and the soldiers trundle along, perfectly in the center of the crosshairs of the camera. Then, unceremoniously, the Humvee explodes into a ball of flame. There is an audible gasp from the person sitting behind me. A few seconds later—and here is where many in the audience got up to leave—a second vehicle inches its way, in excruciating real time, to the crash site before also bursting into flame.

Those who stayed until the end of the film witnessed a collage of sorts, a barrage of short clips of increasingly and astonishingly bloody footage. Soldiers and insurgents filming themselves firing machine guns at each other, tanks crushing cars and reducing buildings to rubble, graphic close-ups of dead and dying civilians, snipers on both sides recording their hits (“I got him, I got him” translates remarkably well from Arabic, as does “Shoot the motherfucker!”), KBR trucks ambushed, helicopters shot down, bombs dropping from the sky freeze-framed the moment before impact (“See you in fucking hell, dude,” one U.S. soldier offers in voiceover), masked insurgents and American soldiers alike mugging before the camera, British soldiers making amateur dance videos, alleged spies executed on the street by handgun, dead children, and many, many car bombs, IEDs, and people bursting into flame. Above all, it was war as obscene spectacle, slowed down and mesmerizingly, shamefully violent. Interspersed throughout the film are interludes of ironic commentary—quotes from T.E. Lawrence, Dick Cheney (“I think for us to get American military personnel involved in a civil war inside Iraq would literally be a quagmire”), C. Wright Mills, and Mark Twain—that highlight the absurdity, cynicism, and hopelessness of armed conflict. Like comedy in a horror film, these interludes allowed the audience to catch its breath only to dread what would come next. That’s about it. Ninety minutes of carnage and irony. Yet if the violence of Andrizzi’s footage seemed shocking and incomprehensible, and the urge to look away in anger, shame, or sadness strong, I also had the uncanny sense of having seen these images already. In many cases, I actually had.

Ostensibly an impassioned critique of mainstream media coverage of the war, Andrizzi’s film contained no original footage—Andrizzi, a twenty-nine-year-old filmmaker from Argentina, has never been to Afghanistan or Iraq or, as far as I can tell from his biography, any other warzone. The film instead appropriates and consolidates images that have found a second life on the Internet as short and seemingly unfiltered acts of violence. Such footage—YouTube slideshows, passionate pro- and anti-war pleas, insurgent recruitment videos, crudely satirical musical mash-ups, amateur documentaries by soldiers themselves—has become an increasingly popular sub-genre in the viral video phenomenon, ranking somewhere behind pornography, the drunken exploits of celebrities, police videos, and shark attacks in online popularity. Images both mundane (soldiers goofing off) and obscene (dead children) have found a second life within a digital landscape that has spawned no shortage of academic theorization, much of which is devoted to the idea that digital media has rendered the world unknowable. Digital atrocity footage, it seems, has created a new blindness toward the war through which aesthetic shock has replaced critical understanding.