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Should You Watch People Die
What we mean by "bearing witness."
Are you supposed to watch videos of people getting killed? A couple days ago, Unherd writer Aris Roussinos made a strong argument for the no camp, and I think I agree. Which is a little funny, because if you’d looked at his and my work five years ago, you might have thought we both wanted you to see more videos of dying people.
I’m being slightly too flippant, so let me back up: Roussinos is a former foreign correspondent for Vice TV, from back before Vice focused on Bushwick marginalia. He produced lots of excellent warzone reporting (and continues to write great essays). I spent a summer working for Airwars, a London organization tracking civilian casualties from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria during the fight against ISIS. The following year I wrote a thesis on the gap between our casualty numbers and the official numbers produced by the Department of Defense: it was Airwars’ contention that the DoD was fudging its numbers on purpose, and I agreed. I thought it was profoundly important that we “bear witness” to what was happening in Syria and Iraq, by counting and naming dead civilians. And we did this by looking at photo and video evidence that those civilians were dead.
As I saw it years ago, there were people like me and my colleagues, who looked, and the American populace, which didn’t look. Now Americans follow the war in Ukraine closely, and a small but real contingent of people watch individual people get killed in high definition, and clip compilations of those videos for YouTube. If they’d watched the equivalent videos for the war in Syria, would that have been better? When I was frustrated that friends back home didn’t know what was happening in Idlib, what was I actually frustrated about?
Here’s Roussinos, explaining the battlefield content machine in Ukraine:
...By one grim milestone, the conflict surely surpasses any war in history: it must hold the record for the greatest number of individual human deaths captured on camera. Through the ubiquity on both sides of cheap consumer drones, used for battlefield reconnaissance and target acquisition, the trenches of eastern Ukraine are surveilled to a hitherto unimaginable extent. And by rigging the drones to drop grenades with pinpoint accuracy — a tactic initially pioneered by ISIS in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq — both sides can hunt down, chase and kill individual soldiers with the ease of a video game, sharing the HD video footage for their rival supporters.
That HD video creation gets supercharged by social media:
...To follow the Ukraine war on a platform like Twitter means your feed is interspersed with the lovingly zoomed-in deaths, shared with crass jokes by Western enthusiasts, of human beings, perhaps unwilling conscripts. Niche online communities like Reddit’s DronedOrc share videos with names such as “Drone drops grenades on orc without pants,” or, “Grenade dropped on orc makes its helmet pop,” for the enjoyment of its subscribers. Scrolling Twitter brings up posts such as “18+ The drone operator drove the orc to suicide,” in which a lone Russian soldier, cornered by a drone, shoots himself. “Last seconds of an orc’s life after catching a grenade from the drone in his rat hole,” gloats another. To fully erode the distinction between themselves and the drone, distant internet consumers of the Ukraine war can even donate 3D-printed fins for their grenades via Twitter, inscribed with their own message, like “Hope this hurts XO.”
Roussinos goes on to articulate all the ways our existing relationship with social media makes the snuff video pipeline impossible to stop. Social media primes us to look for enemies (and creates them for us). It doesn’t distinguish between the things you love and the things you love to hate-watch. And by feeding us more of what we ate in the last meal, it retrains our desires toward more viral, more common-denominator material: things which satisfy the most base impulses. When we consume war as content, it often makes us worse.
But it’s striking that Roussinos used to be in the business of showing an American audience the brutal realities of war. In another essay, he explained a key motivation for Vice’s war correspondents:
As is the nature of the trade, it was always a source of pride, and of glittering awards, to obtain better combat footage than anyone else: always getting closer to the action, dancing at the edge of death like a gladiator in the amphitheatre for the audience’s thrill and delectation. The highest word of praise from an exec was “gnarly.”
To be clear, war correspondents are good and necessary. Roussinos covered stories that needed to be covered, and I’m a consumer of all kinds of grainy Twitter footage of African coups, pitched Indo-Chinese brawls in the Himalayas, and the Ukraine war (though not the snuff videos). I like following this stuff immensely.
And it seems like there’s an obvious distinction to make between witnessing war, which sometimes includes confronting death directly, and searching out those deaths for personal satisfaction. The former comes from a fundamental, human, visual curiosity; the latter is closer to titillation. A Marine friend refers to it as “Predator porn,” after the drone. Like the Aztec festival of the flayed man, the videos are a kind of ritual sacrifice, a “carnival of violence.” It doesn’t help that the Ukraine war has clearer good and bad guys for American viewers. The consumer can take in professionally produced slaughter content, safe in his own home, and feel justified doing it.
All the same, my time at Airwars wasn’t entirely motivated by pure curiosity, or sober witness. At times I felt the emotional, NGO-world cousin of this consumer enjoyment. It was a source of pride to watch all the gory footage of civilian casualties in my effort to bear witness. It felt like an unheralded sacrifice, or a service done in the dark.
It may be that this feeling wasn’t wrong, but that the line between it and enjoying the snuff videos is thin. Maybe I was wrong to think we’d prosecute the war against ISIS better if more Americans were paying visual attention. Maybe any mass consumption of this stuff would always tend toward the lowest common denominator, the most pornographic and desensitizing version.
Roussinos points out you can see the Syrian war as a macabre dress rehearsal for the Ukraine war: most of the same players, all the new toys (like drones that micro-target individual fighters). But whereas the Ukraine war is eagerly observed by Americans, journalists and NGO types covering Syria largely felt they were bearing witness to something that the world didn’t want to see. Reporters resigned themselves to opinion polls showing Americans don’t care about foreign policy and aren’t interested in the fate of Manbij (home to the best yogurt in the world, my Syrian coworker said) or Deir ez-Zor.
Baudrillard said in the 90s that the Gulf War was made for watching on TV. When ISIS sawed off James Foley’s head in 2014, it signaled a new moment: they were going to try and force us Westerners to watch war on TV, their way. Maybe it was a natural response from the West to look away. Despite my comfort watching civilian casualty footage, I couldn’t watch Foley’s death, or those of the Coptic martyrs, and still haven’t.
At Airwars, we debated whether to watch those videos, and wondered if our own kind of bearing witness mattered. We talked a lot at the lunch table about what it meant, exactly. We had some success convincing the UK (and to a much lesser extent the US) to be more transparent about their civilian casualty counts (or “civcas”), and how they arrived at them. But most of the time it felt that no one important was paying attention, and that normal people weren’t either. I came to feel that the acts of looking at the posts and photos and videos, of assessing and logging civilian casualties, were valuable in themselves, even if no one looked at our website or changed their bombing routes in response.
The practice of logging civcas became meditative and mechanical. I’d get into a flow in this massive Google doc, sorting my little headings by day and month. I spent my summer at Airwars sifting through footage from just two September weeks, almost exclusively Russian strikes on the same neighborhoods in Idlib. The Russians were brazen: one military official claimed they never struck a civilian target in Syria. I read these quotes in the mornings and then went to scroll through carpet bombings of residential neighborhoods.
Under each day I had incident reports. My summer role was to assess links – to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, to Twitter, to Facebook posts – and determine the likely number of casualties for that strike, identify names of the dead where possible, and assign a credibility level to the casualty report.
The posts were typically just text: Three dead, two injured in a strike in northeast Idlib at 3 in the afternoon. These members of a family killed, these members injured. This person said the planes were the same Russian ones as yesterday. For half of them you’d get photographs. And sometimes you’d get video. There’s a limb on the ground, here’s a mom crying, here’s some men searching in a pile of rubble in front of a larger heap of rubble. Here’s a body the color of a bruise wrapped up in an old carpet to be carried. Worst were the pictures from the back of the makeshift ambulances.
The organization was earnest about protecting us from trauma by proxy. We were urged to take breaks whenever we needed them, to stand up and walk around, to eat lunch together. But aside from a numbing feeling and an urge to make black comedic jokes, the bearing witness seemed to have little effect on us. And in a way it felt good to be the ones doing the looking.
It’s funny, though, that while civilians like me looked, many American war fighters took pains not to look. A 2021 New York Times expose documented the many techniques the DoD took to avoid noticing civilian casualties. I’d written about bureaucratic techniques, in particular the harsh standards for judging a casualty report “credible.” The DoD would rule witness accounts of American airstrikes “noncredible” if they reported a GPS coordinate a few yards away from their internal location record. But it turns out that there were other techniques to avoid accountability, techniques like: an analyst who realizes the strike location was a mistake tells his superiors to turn the plane and drone cameras away, and then the DoD says “can’t confirm casualties at that location” when Airwars makes a stink. Men whose job it was to look at war clearly covered their digital eyes.
The phrase “bearing witness” has a majesty, a presence, a humility to it. Jesus says to his disciples, “And you also bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” They were looking at something important, something that most other people weren’t looking at. I don’t think that watching the snuff videos can properly be called bearing witness. But don’t the watchers get a similar sense of satisfaction to the one I felt logging civilian casualties? The feeling of being in the know, a true observer, peeking behind the curtain of normal life?
I’m still glad I spent that summer sifting through documentary evidence. But as I look back on it I’m less convinced that there is a general moral imperative toward observing, or awareness-building, or “paying attention.” We do pay attention now, and in the snuff videos of Ukraine you can see what that paying attention looks like.