witnessing chemical warfare in the digital age (presentation at SCMS)

What value do atrocity photographs carry in the digital age?  The ongoing, intractable war in Syria has generated an immense but largely ineffectual visual archive of suffering, rendering this question urgent but almost unanswerable.  New horrors unfold, new images rocket around the world, audiences insist that this photo, this time, will really make a difference, but nothing changes.

This afternoon, at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, Wendy Kozol and I will be presenting a paper, “Inscrutable Evidence: Witnessing Chemical Warfare in the Digital Age,” that provides an alternative to this strangely optimistic approach to casualty images.

poison hazard

because, really, who wouldn’t want to re-conceptualize cultures of remote warfare?


I am beyond thrilled to report that the Journal of War & Culture Studies has recently published the special issue that I co-edited with David Kieran.  What began as a hallway conversation at ASA a few years ago has finally become a real thing!  Dave and I began from the premise that it’s time for new ways of thinking about remote warfare.  Concerned that the hypervisibility of drones and the seemingly intractable debates that they prompt was foreclosing other kinds of critical conversations about war-at-a-distance, we wanted to facilite a different kind of conversation.

Organized around the theme “Re-conceptualizing Cultures of Remote Warfare,” the articles we included articles showcase the need to re-conceptualize cultures of remote warfare and the potential that innovative approaches, archives, and methodologies hold for doing so.

The special issue begins with David M. Walker’s ‘American Military Culture and the Strategic Seduction of Remote Warfare.’Walker asserts that the current embrace of aerial warfare, as recently emblematized by drones, is not new. Rather, Walker documents myriad ways in which ‘technological determinism’ has been bred into the US military since its origins.

The next article, Fabio Cristiano’s ‘From Simulation to Simulacra of War: Game Scenarios in Cyberwar Exercises,’ reveals how contemporary warfare belies the orderly arrangements that these early architects of US military policy envisioned. Although the practice, as Cristiano notes, of gaming out war is nearly as old as warfare itself, the looming spectre of cyberwar has radically reconfigured the stakes of such experimentations.

Finally, Daniel Grinberg’s ‘Tracing Toxic Legacies: GIS and the Dispersed Violence of Agent Orange’ considers how geographic information systems (GIS) technology can make visible the enduring impact of the United States’ use of herbicides during the Second Indochina War. While the war games that Cristiano considers represent attempts to gain strategic advantage in this new form of remote warfare, the GIS technologies that Grinberg explores allow for a more complete reckoning with what he terms the ‘dispersed violence’ of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Thanks to Dave, our authors, our peer reviewers, the amazing editorial staff at JW&CS, especially Rachel Woodward, for her keen eye, expertise, and superhuman patience.