The First Smartphone War

Not that the grunt wasn’t doing his own private staging and propagandizing. In one of the more disturbing and regrettably funny passages in Herr’s Dispatches, he describes the albums of snapshots of Vietnamese corpses and body parts that Americans carried around. The pictures were always the same, the GIs having always arrived at the same sick anatomical jokes, as though out of some primal violent-creative urge, rearranging heads and limbs like Assyrian kings.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq saw the advent of digital photography. Journalists carried SLRs and lightweight camcorders, and so did the troops, who were required to visually document not just every combat death, but also every dead body they came upon. The line between documentation and “trophy shot” soon blurred. At the same time, particularly in Iraq, insurgents began recording their ambushes. In Basra and Fallujah and Ramadi, it became a war of handheld footage, with each platoon and insurgent cell building up its own stock of recorded roadside explosions and air strikes and snipings. The videos circulated mostly among comrades, and sometimes found their way online, where video-sharing websites were slowly growing.

When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheaded Nicholas Berg on camera, in 2004, and uploaded the video, jihad officially went online. A new form had emerged, a new, unencumbered view onto the id of war. No longer did you have to have special access to see the most ghastly moments. No longer could censors or editors block your view of reality. All you needed now was an internet connection.

By the time the Islamic State’s columns rolled into Iraq in 2014, this new form had become the group’s métier and its public upholstery. The jihadis turned a whole stratum of the web into a kind of self-perpetuating digital Assyrian frieze, a hellscape of torture and death. A teenage refugee from Mosul I got to know told me the jihadis referred to it as the “art” of beheading. “They were being creative,” she said. The group had its own media arm, called al-Hayat, which put out, in addition to the snuff films, endless propaganda videos of a less violent sort, as well as a print newspaper and a glossy online magazine, Dabiq, whose images were so good they were cadged by news organizations.

I wonder if it was these images, as much as the Islamic State’s seizure of territory and its destabilization of the region, that ensured the group’s destruction, driving a coalition of otherwise inimical powers—America, the Europeans, Turkey, Iran, Jordan—to join the fight against it. In Mosul, at night, listening to the gunfire and explosions, my thoughts tended to drift backward and go over the baleful historical montage that had brought us to this point. “The mind leapt to the images that had led to this war,” I write in the book, “the art of this surpassingly artistic enemy, its own scenes of torture so minutely and stylishly documented and instantaneously broadcast to the world, videos much worse than viral, of firing squads and beheadings and dismemberments and forced drownings and burnings-alive, of sex slaves, of triumphant city-taking columns, black banners fluttering across the landscape, images that outraged the world almost as much as they titillated and petrified it.”

One morning the headline on the homepage of the Kurdish news network Rudaw read, “Iraqis wake up daily to selfies of soldiers on the battlefield.” Not to be outdone by the jihadis, the Iraqi soldiers countered with their own universe of imagery. They shot and shared selfies and group pictures—soldiers with prisoners, soldiers with rubble, soldiers with body parts, soldiers with corpses, soldiers with Americans, soldiers with their mothers. Anything would do. One infantryman showed me a picture of him standing in front of his Humvee before a flattened city holding a giant blue teddy bear; another a picture of his 3-year-old son handling a pistol. They shot videos of engagements, uploaded and shared instantaneously on WhatsApp and Signal and Telegram, so that fighters on one front could get their lolz or shed their tears watching fighters on another. Brave commanders became YouTube stars. Every time there was a lull in the fighting—and war is mostly lulls—the cigarettes and the phones came out.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired