War: As Seen on Screen
The Ukrainian war has reinforced this surreal juxtaposition where we saw streets, cafes and offices so similar to our own become derelict or makeshift shelters for civilians. These visuals of war will shape our understanding of what is going on - underlining the threat of deep fakes and manipulated imagery being deployed to divert the narrative.
Imagery has historically bridged the gap between civilian and military stakeholders. First, via propaganda poster, then by photographic still, and most recently in televisual coverage and the murky world of misinformation. The image is a literal snapshot into the world of warfare for civilians that often attempt to court the public and convince them of its ‘virtuous’ ends. The image becomes one of the central means via which war is both understood and legitimized.
War films combine the horrors of conflict with the high production value of epic fighting scenes and gleaming new military technology (in the US, the pentagon actually lends its equipment to film studios for film use). There is clearly an understanding that the optics of war fascinate audiences and have a part to play in the formation of rhetoric around these conflicts.
Fashion and war are inextricably linked. Military fatigues are an instantly recognisable symbol of conflict and situate the wearer in a social hierarchy, as well as designating their national allegiance and decorating them with honours. During the Second World War, rationing measures affected the fashion industry from the top-down and influenced the design process and what materials were used. In the wake of this austere turn, Dior provoked the establishment by returning to the opulence and femininity of pre-war time silhouettes and fabrics embodied in the New Look.
When Vogue Italia published a Steven Meisel fashion editorial titled ‘Make Love Not War’ featuring half-naked female models and muscly men in varying states of army fatigue undress in September 2007 it prompted disgust from the press and cultural commentators. The Guardian described it as ‘nauseatingly tasteless.’ Was this not just another visual interpretation of what war means for some?
Apparently, Meisel and Vogue’s crime was that they had broached a subject that tends to be reserved for journalists and ‘serious’ fine artists only. The reaction implied that fashion should stick to what it knows: the frivolous, the fantastical, and flamboyant. Addressing more severe issues or political concerns wouldn’t prompt constructive discussions, but instead drag these subjects down to the clothing industry's lowly, superficial and surface pleasures.
Detractors cried that using this theme in a fashion editorial was commercialising it! Making it sexy! But what is the nature of modern warfare if not almost entirely commercial? And what is the evening news trying to do if not seduce and titillate us with phallic missiles and the merits of firepower?
What Meisel was attempting to do in Vogue was to reframe the War on Terror by using the motifs we all recognised of cramped Army bases and young recruits in their downtime and subverting them to challenge a glorious and noble vision of war in the Middle East. The War on Terror was a war on an ‘idea’ that never held up to scrutiny and the military-industrial media complex worked overtime to convince populations otherwise.
It’s true that the shoot itself was unsettlingly sexualised and the female models are decked out in high fashion gear. The shoot depicts a sweaty frenzy of bodies, that a conflict journalist friend described to me as ‘more real than it has the right to be,’ reminding me that most recruits are young and hormonal, in spite of their rigorous training and discipline. In the shoot, the soldiers gamble, play drinking games, film each other being suggestive, play sports and snog. This staging exposes the hypocrisy of the coalition forces positioned as the ultimate force for moral good sent over to ‘civilise’ populations.
Meisel reveals that war can be hypocritical by showing us ‘behind the scenes’ of the acceptable party line. It is clear that no matter how decked out these recruits are in the trappings of military technology - the armour, the firepower, the night vision goggles - they remain fallible and ultimately human. In this case, the camera and creative vision itself are the weapons.
The political handshakes, the high glass ceilings of convention centres hosting arms trade fairs and the patriotic glory of army recruitment leaflets all betray a system that perpetuates ruthless, detached violence on a systemic level. These visuals are either dramatic and awe-inspiring or corporate, sanitised and mundane - so much so that they barely register as being remarkable at all. Ultimately, the parallel mainstreaming of entertainment-style aesthetics and mediated violence represents the inevitable convergence of media forms jostling with one another to create emotive responses – be it fear, seduction or morbid fascination – in an audience that is increasingly ambivalent to visuals whether they are violent or not.
The result is a glaring disconnect: we see war everywhere but think about it less and less. The Army’s version of events is bolstered by all the instruments of power required to guide public opinion: capital investment, media exposure, and institutional trust. It, therefore, becomes the de facto dominant narrative force.
Jonathan Gilbert, who runs production company Frontier World Media, explained that camera operators and photographers often self-censor as they shoot in order to capture footage that is ‘acceptable’ for the news - however, some broadcasters have shown a ‘notable less squeamish attitude to gore’ recently. He has noticed the increased sharing of violent footage from the Ukrainian frontlines doing the rounds on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, stating that ‘the moral question of what is or isn’t acceptable to transmit, currently wrestled over by editors and reporters, may eventually become redundant entirely.’
It’s often said that democracy dies in darkness, and debate falters where dissent becomes unacceptable or decried simply for exposing alternative viewpoints. We must concede that pushing the limits of good taste as Meisel did in Vogue many years ago is an inevitable consequence of this. The sanitised imagery okayed by Downing Street or White House Officials will always be granted immunity because it does not veer into the visceral physical realities of war, even if the violence it exposes is in many ways more insidious, more widespread and perhaps even more ruthless as it is contained within multimillion-pound weapons deals and strategic statecraft.
If we feel deeply disturbed by the juxtaposition of war and popular commercial culture, we should apply the same level of scrutiny to news coverage and government communications. Their version of events may not be embellished with sequins like they are in Vogue or spectacular special FX like in the blockbusters, but that doesn’t mean it is any more truthful or sound.
Text: Louisa Gertrude