The return of the American spectacle of war

How Trump embraces the military-entertainment complex.

On April 13 the United States dropped the largest conventional bomb it has ever used in combat on an Islamic State stronghold in Afghanistan. The next day a Fox and Friends segment opened with footage from the military strike accompanied by Toby Kieth’s pro-US military anthem ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue’. After the missile hits the ground in the grainy black and white footage, the camera pans to the studio and Keith’s song acts as a voiceover:

‘It feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you

Brought to you courtesy of the red white and blue’.

The host reinforces this unabashed assertion of American military might as she tells the viewer: ‘the video is black and white but that’s what freedom looks like, that’s the red white and blue’. State violence is here made into a spectacle to be watched with a sense of exultation: this bomb is freedom in action.

Reigniting the spectacle of American military violence

Trump and his following of adorning news channels keen to facilitate his message have together reignited the spectacle of American military violence. The footage of the MOAB is not notably different to that of the drone or any other mode of late-modern aerial lethality.

Yet as WJT Mitchell reminds us: one must ‘study the intricate braiding and besting of the visual with the other senses’. What the visual tells us and how it can speak to us is formed from an assemblage of language and discourse. It is through the accompanying rhetorical tropes and nomenclature that this visual display is distinguished as the depiction of the new pinnacle of military machismo.

This is to be watched and enjoyed as a show of military superiority crushing the technologically inferior enemy in order to make America great again. But it must be watched with this masculine frame in mind, since, as the Fox News presenter even acknowledges: ‘the video is black and white’ but this is ‘the red white and blue’. The footage supposedly becomes aesthetically enjoyable precisely because it offers a display of American military dominance.

This logic of state force, in which violence and entertainment fold in on themselves in a move which eschews questions of policy or human considerations of consequences, has been able to flourish under a Trump administration who espouse the same degree of morally knocked-out fascination.

The joke of media coverage

Indeed, Trump’s own promulgation of the bombing of a Syrian government controlled airfield last month followed the tone of the media coverage surrounding the event; both of which epitomised the formulaic production of state violence as a spectacle.

MSNBC’s Brian Williams’ gave a valorising take on the use of force by describing the video displaying the missiles being fired from US Navy vessels by quoting “the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’” He continues: “They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them what is a brief flight over to this airfield,” before asking his guest: “What did they hit?” Williams plays up the juxtaposition of the light of the missiles against the dark of the nighttime setting to draw focus to what we see in this footage before fleetingly considering the consequences.

‘The beauty of our weapons’

This notion that technologically superior weaponry produces an aesthetically superior mode of entertainment is carried forward by Trump in an interview given shortly after the US strikes in Syria. The Fox News presenter, Maria Bartiromo, is excited by the prospect of Trump revealing how he informed the President of China, Xi Jinping, of the strike.

She sets in motion the masculine rhetoric of military dominance by suggesting that the strike was, for the Chinese president, “a reminder: here is who the superpower of the world is”. Trump appears most comfortable in this reality-television gossip exchange, far removed from the complexities of policy; speaking of the bombing as a form of after-dinner entertainment to accompany “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you have ever seen”.

As footage from the strike is shown on a split screen, Trump reiterates the rhetoric of US dominance gestured to by Bartiromo: “our technology, our equipment is better than anybody by a factor of five”. Trump’s obsession with appearing ‘the best’ whether in the context of cake or weapons capabilities combines with the aestheticisation of violence to be shared, seen, and enjoyed by President, commentators, and public alike in order to promote this masculinised discourse of winning.

Fox News excerpt -Twitter pic

Trump completes the anecdote by relaying how he informed Jinping that: “we have just launched 59 missiles heading to Iraq,” corrected by the interviewer that they were in fact fired at Syria. Just as Williams, only after beautifying the sight of the missiles, has to ask what exactly they hit, Trump similarly appears unsure of the destination or outcome. Ultimately, the target and the consequences are shown for what they are: peripheral and unimportant. This is state violence conducted and embellished as a display of American force, irrespective of where the missile eventually lands.

Crucially, this violence is capable of being adorned with such language precisely because it is against a non-western target far removed from American territory and western quotidian life. It is unimaginable in this current political climate that violence against America could be described in the same way irrespective of any aesthetic crossovers between the corresponding visualities.

Indeed, the likes of Damien Hirst and Jean Bauldrillard would attest to such a distinction following their commentaries on the visual dynamics of the 9/11 attacks on American territory. Hirst received vehement backlash and subsequently released a public apology for his comments that: “The thing about 9/11 is that it’s basically an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually.” What was uneasy to comprehend for many was the idea of 9/11 as an ‘artwork’. Yet Hirst acutely identifies both the perpetrators intentions to make 9/11 a spectacle of terror, and the realisation of this aim since the moment of impact rapidly became central to the global spectacle of 9/11; repeatedly played out via our television screens over the coming days, months, and years.

Violence on demand

Taking from both Al Qaeda’s and Islamic State’s playbook of attempting to make its violence visually striking for a global audience, Trump and Trump supporting commentators alike are trying to cultivate a display of violence being executed by America rather than felt by the American body politic. This is intimately bound up in their explicit reassertion of American military might on the world stage.

Commentary on and even enjoyment of the visual aesthetic conditions of this non-western target, unlike that which deliberates the visual rather than physical and material consequences of the American target, is no longer simply deemed offensive and insensitive but is central to the promulgation of an unabashed masculine American psyche.

Edward Alexander

Edward is a researcher and teacher at Kent Law School interested in the nexus of law, politics and contemporary war. Edward completed his Master in Law at the University of Kent, in which his thesis compared Obama’s and Bush’s strategies and rhetorical frames used in the war on terror. His research has also addressed the contradictions of the Obama’s administrations supposed humanitarian principles and the failures of its targeting killing programme to adhere to international humanitarian law. He has continued researching in this area for his PhD, focusing in particular on how the US government attempt to legitimize its targeted killing programme.
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