Casually, if cautiously, a throng of men encircles the scarred metal of an American fighter jet, the US F-15. A few, more daring men climb the torched cockpit, and children observe with rapt interest. This first American lapse in the ongoing Libyan crisis saw a malfunctioning jet crashed and mangled in a field of sheep, and now frequented by a group of inquiring Libyans. The pilot escaped, unscathed, but the wreckage remains as an unlikely playground for curious Libyans. The image, provided by Reuters, and the accompanying “raw footage,” courtesy of the New York Times, were not notable for the carnage they depicted. Certainly I have my pick of more shocking images: injured soldiers, bombed buildings, weeping mothers. Rather, it’s the response to the carnage, an implicit recognition of the absurdity of the scenario, that’s notable. The young man at the center of the image, jumping or perhaps slipping from the wrecked engine—seems to get it.
The image captures a component of war that too often neglected. The inspection of the wreckage reads like a reflection on the conflict itself—I see Libyans not as aggressive actors, or cowering victims, but spectators to their own uprising. The image reveals war to be more than the brutal exchange of violence, but the peculiar repercussions of the violence for curious Libyans, and for Americans like us. But what’s at stake in my reading of this image? Have I simply stumbled upon a nugget of unique, insightful documentation; have I provided an unremarkable image with superficial depth? Of course, my judgment of the image cannot be divorced from context. Their proximity to, and relationship with the theatre of war betrays my distance from it. Conflict leaves tangible effects on their land; conflict for us is always alien. And the sheer trauma of violence makes for interesting forms of perception. Both belligerents and bystanders are invited to participate in the exploration of war—in this ruined field, violence becomes simultaneously destructive and constructive, treacherous and accessible.
There is no American equivalent. Yes, there are colonial reenactments, romanticized circuses, where actors perform, and overperform, our cherished creation myth. But the ritual is so jovial that the role of suffering in the American Revolution seems minor at best. And there are publically assessable war relics, like the mammoth Intrepid aircraft carrier, a familiar part of my childhood. In many developing minds within New York’s metropolitan area, this gargantuan, titanium day camp, something between a museum and a mall, enshrines an appreciation for nation. The sheer size of the vessel asserts our national grit, and patriotic industry. The museum is populated with relics of war—guns, planes, tanks—accompanied by moderately informative, exceedingly inspiring videos. But it’s a sterile type of militarism, one relegated to the past. World War II planes hovering serenely from the tremendous roof. All-terrain vehicles wrapped in velvet rope. Bronze badges, polished but dull, resting behind shields of glass. The museum’s collection is hardly a catalog of war, but a repository of memories, which, like these restored relics, have been thoroughly synthesized. Each component of the museum is relatively old, collected from actual combat, but suspiciously clean—after an hour on the Intrepid, I’m inclined to wonder whether war entails any wreckage at all, whether soldiers even bleed.
But when a rocket rips through the clouds, falls from the sky and lands in your backyard, it’s more than a memory. A prop straight from the theatre of war lies readily accessible—the act of reception is quite different. With a mix of sincere interest and personal anxiety, you explore the debris. And with a sense of pride, or trepidation, maybe excitement, you climb unto the dismembered machinery. I’m not Libyan, and I can only speculate as to the experience of revolution. But this image depicts an unexpected juxtaposition between the numbing speed of war, and the genuine curiosity of spectatorship, which speaks to the more subtle effects of hostility. Violence is often traumatic, always serious, but sometimes peculiar. There is, in fact, no shortage of striking documentary photos of uprising in the Middle East, and its tremendous effect on society is being recorded feverishly. But this image, by contrast, seems somewhat more self-reflective, as if the energy of revolution were as sincerely novel to those living through it as for those watching from afar.
Of course, I have no idea what thoughts have emerged for Libyans during this ongoing revolt, and with only clips of context, I’m woefully unprepared to make any sort of credible judgment about the situation. I’m speculating, nothing more. But the Libyan perspective, unknowable to me, continues to intrigue me. Why? Perhaps because of my own precarious status as a spectator. As the war accelerates, images and opinions multiply, and my proximity to the event both increases and diminishes. The cacophony of commentary, and the flood of developments make a succinct summary of the event desirable but dangerous. A handful of news organizations—the New York Times, NPR, the BBC—provide me with an endless deluge of images while I skim through articles replete with a confusing mix of abbreviated details. The profundity of this event, both shockingly real and helplessly remote, incites anxiety I find difficult to articulate.
Am I desensitized? I’m not ready to accept this familiar paradigm, this narrative which suggests that, as a victim of the age of information, I experience horror like a brisk fall breeze. On the contrary, I find world affairs startling, almost hopelessly so—if anything, I’m often too overwhelmed to formulate a coherent idea about a conflict. And yet, the steady supply of staggering events creates the perception of homogeneity, and repetition. When I scan a series of images in a major newspaper, or view raw footage from some distant shore, I simply can’t look away. But once I do, I can hardly remember what I’ve seen. These images and accounts shock me, certainly, but never for too long; frustrated by my inability to care about everything, I often resign to care about nothing at all.
Perhaps I can no longer distinguish between reality and fiction; images of war look like stills from a major Hollywood production. And war remains so distant that it assumes a legendary status. Are fiction and fact merging in my mind? Sure, somewhat. There is something cinematic about the collision of political forces, and some of the images have a crisp, exciting aesthetic achieved by varying depths-of-field and arresting perspectives. But as I navigate my news sources, it’s quite clear to me, this is not entertainment. Instead, these rich descriptions and provocative images inspire a considerable amount of unease. No, there’s something else at work.
My reception of war is marked by tense images and terse descriptions. It’s action without the choreographed grace of film, violence void of elegance and empathy. War, it seems, corrodes contemplation; the population transforms into a warriors and victims, predators and prey, defined by their actions. But this moment by the plane seems to pause the frenetic flow of events, and perhaps reorient how we conceive of participants in war. Their pensive circulation around the plane reads like a brief recognition of war as an anomaly, the way I’ve always understood it. And just like that, my perception of war becomes personal again—as I comment on the Libyan psyche, I inadvertently comment on myself. My attempts at telepathy reveal more about my own tangential relationship with war than it does the Libyan experience.
Let us reconsider the narrative of media inundation. According to these luddites, my generation interprets violence abroad as another fictitious, cinematic action sequence: coverage of the Libyan Revolution read like scenes from Hurt Locker. Maybe it’s true, maybe I understand Libyans only as actors, i.e. those who act. If so, then this brief respite on the plane is a glimpse behind the scenes. While images of suffering and grief inspire sympathy, this image inspires empathy. Why? Their actions betray, or from them I extrapolate, a vein of disquiet running parallel to aggression and fear. I’m viewing Libyans viewing war as the improbable spectacle I perceive from my computer—I observe, or perhaps implant, a sense of anxious fascination that I, myself, have felt. It’s self-reception: I see a group of young men taking a break from acting; for the ¬moment, they aren’t performing war, but experiencing change, much the same way I might if a new epoch in my country’s history had fallen, abruptly and unexpectedly, into my lawn.