In a recent discussion about war on film and television (I probably steer discussions in this direction more often than my friends and family would like), a friend made the point that ‘war is war’. I have been thinking about this phrase a lot recently. As researcher on the Arts and Humanities Research Council project ‘Technologies of memory and archival regimes: war diaries after the connective turn’, I am examining the British Army’s Operational Reports, sometimes referred to as ‘war diaries’. From the handwritten descriptions of the Christmas Truce in 1914 (‘Not a shot fired. Germans bury their dead, our men go and help. Baccy and Cigars exchanged . . .’) and the first mention of flamethrowers in 1915 (‘Enemy attacked Hooge on our left flank at 2:15 with liquid fire and by daylight had secured the ridge . . .’) to the typed description of the confusion and chaos in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces from Dunkirk in 1940 (‘the road . . . can only be likened to a crowd struggling for the entrance to the Railway Stations after the Cup Final at Wembley’) and concern regarding an over-reliance on mobile phones by British forces in Kabul voiced in a leaked Post Operational Report from Afghanistan, the operational reports document changes in armed combat, and also illustrate the shifts in the ways in which the British Army records its actions in times of war. One of the most profound changes to the way that war is documented has come about because of the development of affordable, lightweight, digital cameras. Equipped with camera phones and helmet cams, soldiers themselves are capturing images and films of combat as it happens and circulating it on sites such as YouTube. In this blog, I want to talk about the arrangement of some of this footage in the BBC 3 series Our War, and to consider what it reveals about the idea that ‘war is war’, and whether that statement holds true in the face of the radical changes to technologies of armed conflict and of the media used to report and represent it.
The series promises to deliver ‘the story of ten years of conflict in Afghanistan, from the soldiers’ perspective’. Its first three episodes aired in 2011 to mark the 10th anniversary of the war, followed by another three episodes in 2012 and, just before BBC 3 itself came to an end the final feature-length episode, Goodbye Afghanistan, was broadcast in 2014.
Following long and careful negotiations with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to secure access to the footage and the soldiers who filmed it, production started in June 2009. For the MoD, Our War was ‘an opportunity’ to provide a ‘context’ for the War in Afghanistan ‘for a generation potentially unsure of why we are there.’ For the producers, it was a chance to represent the war in Afghanistan in ‘a way that was raw, unmediated and visceral’ or, as the BBC describes it in the same article, to produce ‘war films for the Facebook generation.’ Executive producer Colin Barr and director/producer Stuart Bernard both describe the painstaking process of combing through thousands of hours of footage taken from camera phones, digital video recorders, and D5 digital video, none of which was ever intended for public consumption, but which was filmed for the soldiers themselves or for their friends and families. To organize this material into a coherent narrative, the producers selected and followed a few groups, often filmed by one soldier over the duration of a tour, and integrated the footage with interviews with the soldiers and their families. According to executive producer Colin Barr, the result is a series that ‘makes you see war in a way you haven’t seen before.’
Soldiers from 1st Battalion Royal Anglian
However, the idea of using footage shot by the soldiers themselves is certainly not new. Deborah Scranton’s documentary, The War Tapes (2006) is based on a similar principle, although the soldiers in Scranton’s film were knowingly filming for the purpose of contributing to a documentary film, which gives the footage a different tone. Similarly, footage shot by soldiers has featured in press and newsreel coverage of the conflict. In 2008, for example, in what The Sunday Telegraph hailed as a ‘ground-breaking departure for newspapers’, soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Scotland produced video dispatches from their tour of Afghanistan. Low resolution, sometimes dramatically unstable footage shot from the first person perspective of the soldier of firefights, patrols, explosions, as well as the more mundane aspects of military life has become an aesthetic marker of current warfare. Which raises the question, does Our War really present us with ‘war as we’ve never seen it before’?
Coldstream Guards in Helmand Province
While the footage is, in parts, undeniably ‘raw and visceral’, it is not ‘unmediated’, as the producers suggest. It is arranged into a coherent narrative and organized into a neat and familiar documentary format, with voice-overs, interviews and music to direct emotion at certain moments. As one reviewer puts it, Our War is so skillfully constructed that it is ‘on a par with anything made by Scorsese’ (a rather peculiar comparison, as Scorsese is not particularly known for war films), while one of the soldiers themselves compares some of the footage in the first episode, Our War: Ambushed (2011), to the Normandy D-Day landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998). In other words, rather than adapt the material into an innovative format that might appeal to the ‘Facebook’ generation, Our War contains the chaos of this footage of warfare in a package that is recognizable and therefore arguably more palatable. Furthermore, the contents of the Our War package will be familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with representations of warfare across media:
- The ‘lads’ as they are often referred to, form a brotherhood in their shared experiences of training, military life, and especially, of combat.
- War is a testing ground for masculinity, transforming ‘young lads’ into men.
- There is bravery and panic on the battlefield, and trauma in the recollection.
- Soldiers also admit to fierce exhilaration and joy in killing. While this may be shocking to a contemporary audience, the idea of war as ‘fun’ is endemic amongst soldiers of both genders across all conflicts.
- Women are largely associated with the homefront, where they mourn the loss of fathers, husbands and sons.
I am not in any way suggesting that the actual experiences of the soldiers and their families in Our War, many of which are heartrending to watch and must have been life-changing to go through, are reducible to the set of tropes outlined above. What I am interested in is how such experiences coalesce into a set of repeating and recognizable patterns through mediated strategies of representation from war to war. They seem to suggest that war is, after all, war.
Except it’s not.
The proliferation of terms, and associated debates as to which is most apposite, to describe recent and current conflicts – ‘small wars’, ‘new wars’, ‘hybrid war’, ‘network wars’, ‘everywhere war’ – provide some indication of the changes to warfare in the last few decades. Our War reflects some of these changes, showing how the British Army responds to conditions in Afghanistan, for example, by adjusting its tactics and introducing small, highly mobile special squads to follow up intelligence and conduct raids rather than relying on patrols bound to Forward Operating Basis. However, the real change in the representation of war that Our War demonstrates is perhaps not one that the producers intended. Instead of the embedded journalist, or even the citizen journalist, we now have the ‘soldier journalist’, who captures his own experience of warfare. In doing so, whatever distance, however small it might have been, that once existed between war and those observing, filming and photographing it, is eradicated in the first person perspective of the footage captured by the helmet cams and video phones carried by soldiers in the midst of battle. And in the collapsing of that distance, the possibility of establishing a critical perspective becomes difficult, if not impossible, in the face of an inevitable visceral reaction to the pain and suffering, both physical and mental, of the soldiers and their families – which goes some way to explaining why the MoD exercised no editorial control over the final cuts (Whitehall reserved the right to view each final cut to check for potential issues relating to operational security).
The idea of soldiers doing their own reporting on warfare has even greater resonance in the wake of a review of communications and the military’s relationship with the media across all branches of the armed forces. Described by author Christian Hill as ‘the biggest shake-up to military reporting in a generation’, the newly minted Directorate of Defence Communications, led by Stephen Jolly, is devoted to ensuring that the armed forces adopt ‘direct-to-audience’ communications. In other words, just as the soldier journalist bypasses the need for the war correspondent, the MoD intends to bypass media outlets and use not only Combat Camera Teams, but also ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen, to produce and disseminate its own reports of events, largely via social media.
The British Army on Facebook
What the relationship between the media and the military will be in the next war (for, as one of the soldiers in Our War: Goodbye Afghanistan reminds us, ‘there’s always a war to fight, isn’t there, somewhere?’) remains to be seen. Our War may be one of the last documentaries in which archival footage shot by soldiers is made available to non-military media producers. The series provides an example of representations of war in transition. It remediates older ideas of warfare in which ‘war is war’, and it is therefore possible to separate the soldier from the conflict and have sympathy for the former without supporting the latter, but by adopting the footage of digital helmet cams and camera phones, it also premediates what future representations might look like. The first person perspective, directed by the military, might well become the only version of war available – packaged and disseminated in ways the digital generation will appreciate.
 Despite the BBC’s stated intention of appealing to a younger demographic, the series has very little presence on social media. It does have a Facebook page and Twitter stream, but there appears to have been no activity on them since 2012 and 2011.
 I explore this in more detail in ‘Brutal Games: The First Person Shooter and Cultural Story of World War II.’ Cinema Journal, 54:2, February 2015, 94-113. See also Joanna Bourke An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare. New York: Basic Books, 1999 for an in-depth discussion of this topic.
Debra Ramsay is an Associate Researcher with Glasgow University on the AHRC project ‘Technologies of Memory and Archival Regimes: war diaries after the connective turn’ (ref AH/Loo4232/1). She is author of American Media and the Memory of World War II (Routledge, 2015). She has published articles on the impact of DVD and Blu-Ray technologies on the relationship between history, film and television, and on the First Person Shooter and the memory of World War II.