Virtual Weaponry: The Militarized Internet in Hollywood War Films

Virtual Weaponry: The Militarized Internet in Hollywood War Films is a forthcoming 2017 collection of scholarly essays to be published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

 

Brief Description

 This project catalogues and analyzes representations of a militarized Internet in popular cinema in order to argue that such illustrations of Internet-enabled technology encourages a 2016 movie audience to view the civilian internet and its usage as potential weaponry. This encouragement promotes an unhealthy transhumanism that simplifies the relationships between the biological and technological aspects of that audience, while also hierarchically placing the “human” components at the top; such filmmaking and movie-watching should be replaced with a critical posthumanism that challenges the relationships between the audience and their technologies, as well as critiques problematic notions of modern warfare. The book interweaves a history of the Internet, specifically focused on its military use, with real world examples alongside analysis of contemporary cinema in order to track how the introduction of the Internet into the war film has changed the genre and how the movies often function as one part of the larger Military Entertainment Complex and Total War.

 Expanded Description

The genre of the war film has long been a staple of American film making and movie watching, functioning as documentary witnessing, popular propaganda, and/or resistance or critique of specific conflicts, all the while reflecting audiences’ attitudes while simultaneously constructing arguments about current and future combat and warfare. Within this genre, I am specifically interested in how, in the past 35 years specifically, the contemporary technology of the Internet and virtual networking technologies have been represented in modern war films as both pseudo-fantastical predictive technologies and as powerful and largely silent weaponry in “realistic” warfare. I will examine a wide variety of films, including Ender’s Game (2013), WarGames (1983), Brainstorm (1983), Elysium (2013), Edge of Tomorrow (2013), The Fifth Estate (2013), Transcendence (2014), Blackhat (2015), Goodkill (2014), Body of Lies (2008), Stealth (2005) among others, all the while tracking the military history of the Internet alongside the films to best understand the zeitgeist specific films were created within, as well as the arguments they were making within the time period of their release. While this means that there will be a larger historical cataloging of the intersects between Internet-technologies and combat in film (and the war film as a whole genre), the larger argument will point towards the increasingly negative effects that an unaware, citizen machinic audience makes themselves prone to via exposure to filmic representations of virtualized, simulated combat and war. As such, my focus on the Internet and its military use is especially important, and perhaps even urgent, as films are core cultural documents that reach a massive and Popular audience that utilizes the Internet in increasingly dense and flexible ways in a daily, if not constant, way. Placing movies within the framework of a Military Entertainment Complex, it is very apparent that films are not neutral documents; audiences, too, are not neutral forces. Heroic representations of the use of militarized Internet-enabled technologies, if ingested without self-reflective analysis, generate an unhealthy rhetoric based in transhumanism that encourages the citizen movie-watcher to think of his/her Internet technologies not as a healthy critical posthuman co-species, but rather as weapons and/or tools that are to be wielded in both virtual and physical violence. This project aims to generate that self awareness by giving historical context and analytical tools to a movie-going audience.

This awareness is especially relevant when considering how deeply interwoven Internet-enabled technologies have becomes within modern “Network Centric Warfare” (NCW) via both physical combat (battlefield communications, exosuits, drone strikes) and virtual and simulated cyber-conflicts (national cyber-armies, war games, non-national hackers, whistleblowers). From this, it is important to analyze films that include “realistic” combat alongside considering military weapons and tactics within science fiction and fantasy films because such analysis allows for a more complete understanding of how the Internet is viewed as potential weaponry. It is cinematic reflections of these Internet-enabled technologies that allows a citizen machinic audience to understand their own roles within modern warfare and military conflicts; too, such films provide rhetorical spaces to argue for or against the use of such technologies while concurrently imagining (or willing into existence) future technologies and their applications. Therefore, it is key to get such an Internet-enabled audience to think analytically, through the lens of a critical posthumanism, about the technologies they use and how those technologies are reinforced/created/undermined in the films they watch so they can be critically active consumers of film (and all media), both now and in the future.

 

Chapter Abstracts

 

Introduction: Virtual Weaponry

 

The introduction gives a very brief history of the military Internet, starting with the Macy Conferences immediately post-WWII, before focusing on the periods which overlap with my films of interest (1980-present). From this history, the introduction contextualizes the project within the genre of the war film, focusing on Internet-enabled technologies’ roles within the genre as a whole, using scholars such as Steve Neale, Robert Eberwein, Jeanine Basinger, and Rick Altman, before then beginning to sketch out how the specific digitally networked automatisms represented in the films fit within the history of the genre. The introduction also establishs key terms from Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Donna Haraway, Paul Virilio, Slavoj Žižek, Susan Jeffords, Manuel De Landa among others, all culminating in the call for a contemporary machinic audience to watch the discussed films as critical posthumans and recognize their own role, enhanced/created by Internet-enabled technologies, within the Total War Machine around them.

 

Chapter 1: The Hard Technological Body in the Exoskeletal Soldier (The Matrix Revolutions, Avatar, Edge of Tomorrow, Elysium)

 

Susan Jefford’s work on Reagan-era action movies established the “hard body” as the over-muscled biological spectacle that functioned as a unifying force for both “a type of national character” and “the nation itself.” The “mastery” that the hard body represents is echoed the equally spectacular hard technological bodies of the exoskeleton-enhanced protagonists of Elysium and Edge of Tomorrow. The hard technological body arises in reaction to the increased globalization of the world and terrorist attacks that has made international borders and conflicts far murkier. Simultaneously, such a body also reflects the extreme interpenetration that computerized technology has had in both global-national militaries as well as the average posthuman Western moviegoer’s life. Different than the all-encasing machine “suits” of Pacific Rim and the Iron Man films, the exoskeletal combat weapon is one that deliberately melds the human and the machine so that both biological and technological are visible simultaneously. While the chapter briefly traces the representations of the exoskeleton through Aliens, The Matrix Revolutions and Avatar, its focus is the recent use of exoskeleton combat in Elysium and Edge of Tomorrow. Both movies show that biological muscle combined with and augmented by a technological apparatus generates a spectacle reminiscent of the 80s hard body. In this, the hard technological body has shifted its mastery from international and physical conflicts to virtual and borderless ones. Such a transition encourages the contemporary machinic movie audience to view themselves not as the healthy symbiotic posthuman N. Katherine Hayles promotes; instead, the hard technological body, in an attempt to heroically reassert human exceptionalism and a human-centric transhumanism, treats his/her computerized technology, specifically the Internet, as, first, a tool to be conquered and then a weapon to conquer with.

 

Chapter 2: The Soldier Interfaces on the Digitally Augmented Battlefield (the Iron Man films, Pacific Rim, Transcendence)

 

Previous fears, documented by Manuel De Landa and N. Katherine Hayles, of cutting humans “out-of-the-loop” in military operations have almost completely dissipated within moves and have instead been replaced by a new model of soldier that is exemplified by the near-literal man-in-the-middle suits of the Iron Man films and the duo-wielded cyber-connected Jaeger pilots in  Pacific Rim. Different than the hard technological body, the suits present an entirely different interface and symbiosis with its human user(s) in that the human is shrouded entirely within the Internet-enabled technology itself. Beginning with D.N. Rodowick’s theorizing on digital filmmaking, the suits present the user with an objective and “framed” vision of the world that is then further filtered through the lens of military organization and combat. When the machinic audience looks “through the eyes of these suits” there is a doubling of Judith Butler’s understanding of the war photograph’s frame so that anything within that view is distanced and completely dehumanized from the cinema audience. These immediately mediated perceptions of the characters’ worlds, presented as supra-human tools completely under user control, encourages a dangerous re-militarization of the Internet, in an outdated model that promotes an overly simplistic nationalism and too-basic post-human evolution. The chapter ends by exploring what happens, as harbingered by contemporary real-world advances in Internet technologies, when Internet and technological interfaces dissolve into the biological body, using Transcendence as a core example. Transcendence proposes a military entity that is completely unable to separate its biological from its mechanical components, instead generating a completely symbiotic assemblage.

 

Chapter 3: War Films, Combat Simulators and The Absent Virtual Soldier (Gamer, Brainstorm, The Lawnmower Man, Ghost Machine)

 

If, as Chapter 2 argues, civilian and military technological use are converging to the point of that they are indistinct, then Chapter 3 will take up combat that is represented as completely virtual through cinematic representations (or lack thereof) of combat simulators. The American military has long been invested in single soldier and networked simulation technology, like SIMNET and The Battle of 73 Easting (to say nothing of flight and tank simulators), as a means to train its soldiers in an attempt to expose them to the speed and visceral nature of warfare. Yet, these simulators are almost completely absent from the war film genre. Interesting then, the cinematic representations of the technology, when they do show up in movies like Brainstorm, The Lawnmower Man, Gamer, they appear under the guise of civilian military-styled video games and virtual reality. Using these films and focusing on the civilian use of the technology, the chapter explores these films’ critiques of how popular combat simulators functions within a culture of Total War, while also raising concerns around the virtualizing of the modern military War Machine as both dehumanizing and over-corporatized applications of military brainwashing. The movies present conflicts that further enhancing the theme of enemy-ally disintegration by turning civilians against other civilians in the role of soldier in militarized combat, generating a space, via the games themselves and the cinematic representations of these virtual spaces, wherein the dense networking capabilities of the Internet becomes a normalized facilitator of military violence. The end of the chapter will then further explore the reasons why, despite its normalized placement within many contemporary State War Machines, combat and warfare simulators do not show up in war films. While first touching on the obvious differences in the mediums of film and video games, the chapter then looks at the intertextual nature of movies like Jarhead, wherein soldiers watch other war movies within the film, to argue that cinema itself functions as a form of “virtual reality” training that potentially indoctrinates soldiers in much the same way a combat simulator does.

 

Ch. 4: Ender’s War Games: Drones, Data and the Simulation of War as Weapon and Tactic (Ender’s Game, Stealth, WarGames, Eye in The Sky Goodkill)

 

The rising acceptance of game theory, in combination with increasingly complex and sophisticated computer simulators, has drastically changed the modern war machine. While such a shift was Popularly reflected in WarGames and the publication of Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game simulated war was kept largely from the public eye. Yet, as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio have theorized, beginning with the first Gulf War, warfare has pushed the depiction of real-life war into the realm of unreal model and constantly mediated simulation, transforming the landscape and its combatants into distanced sets of data points. Stealth, Eye in the Sky and  Goodkill echo much of Ender’s Game critique of a “data-driven” simulated war via their representations of distanced drone strikes. Unlike the previous three chapters, this chapter explores what it means to have filmic representations of military use that are completely abstracted from solider-to-soldier combat; instead the conflicts are rendered as computer modeled battles wherein the “soldiers” are in fact continents away from their weapon’s actions and consequences. Acknowledging Manuel De Landa’s work alongside the shifting genre of the war movie and the simulated roots of cinema itself, such a dangerous shift is reflected most clearly in the movie version of Ender’s Game wherein the simulation itself becomes the war which then reveals the traumas caused, on both civilians and soldiers alike, by a distanced military over dependant on technologies, specifically the Internet.

 

Ch. 5: The Civilian Soldiers of Cyberwarfare (Blackhat, The Fifth Estate, Snowden, Sneakers, The Core, Swordfish)

 

Extending in the other direction from Chapter 4, Chapter 5 examines films that question what happens when the densely generated networks that the military has used to completely abstract war into distanced data points begin to be repurposed by civilian users and turned back upon the American State War Machine as a means to combat and expose that very military machinery. Recent films, such as Blackhat, Snowden and The Fifth Estate, present civilian protagonists that effectively highjack the secret and dense military networks and expose that normally Top-Secret information to the public in heroic fashion. With this shift, the contemporary war film begins to blend with the political thriller and the biopic, wherein there is little “traditional combat” and the focus of the film is on conspiracy and the exposure of Gilles Deleuze’s notion of Societies of Control. These films then address one of the key components of an Internet-enabled State War Machine that is shifted towards an increasingly globalized enemy (terrorists, other hackers etc): information and data, and the protection/privatization therefore, are just as important to military infrastructure and effectiveness as solider-to-soldier combat. The civilian protagonists within the discussed films are the necessarily aware and active machinic users of the Internet that present a healthier alternative to the docile and unaware civilian Internet user.

 

Conclusion: What Might a War Film Look like Going Forward?

 

As the nature of conflict has changed post-9/11 towards counter-insurgency tactics against an amorphous enemy of terrorists (Al-Queda, ISIS, Boko Haram) etc, the Internet has been one of the main tools that national and non-national enemies have used to hack into American infrastructure, recruit new soldiers and promote their ideologies. In similar ways that early depictions of the Internet in film were automatically labelled science fiction, much of the discussion of Internet-enabled technologies prior have been framed within a similar framework of future potentiality. This needs to be considered alongside the eventual evolution and commercial release of “virtual reality” hardware and software as well as wearable computing, and the overall expansion of the Internet’s population and connective capabilities. However, the machinic audience, in line with the densely networked worlds they use and depend upon, will want to see their own technologies and complex, symbiotic understandings of themselves as mediated by those technologies, reflected back in the films they consume. Whether these are heroic soldiers or resistant hackers, it is key that the machinic audience engage a critical posthumanism and be active analysts of their cultural documents, in particular militarized versions, so that they can understand their own role within an expanding Total War Machine that has burrowed its way into the devices, software and networks of daily use.

 

SAMPLE WORK

The following are presentations given at conferences that will be reworked into larger chapters and/or journal papers.

vlcsnap-00001The Hard Technological Bodies of Elysium and Edge of Tomorrow (Paper given at 2015 SCMS Conference)

Susan Jefford’s work on Reagan-era action movies established the “hard body” as the over-muscled biological spectacle that functioned as a unifying force for both “a type of national character” and “the nation itself” (25). The “mastery” that the hard body represents is echoed the equally spectacular hard technological bodies of the exoskeleton-enhanced protagonists of Elysium and Edge of Tomorrow. While Jeffords argues that the 80s hard body was deeply suspicious of “technological innovation” as a possible polluter of the hard body’s “individualism” (40), the 2014 hard technological body arises in reaction to the increased globalization of the world and terrorist attacks that has made international borders and conflicts far murkier. Simultaneously, such a body also reflects the extreme interpenetration that computerized technology has had in both global-national militaries as well as the average Western moviegoer’s life.

Different than the all-encasing machine “suits” of the Iron Man and Robocop films or Pacific Rim, the exoskeleton, specifically as combat weapon, is one that deliberately melds the human and the machine so that both biological and technological are visible simultaneously. The literal “man-in-the-middle” soldier created by such an assemblage has roots in Norbert Weiner’s and Claude Shannon’s work at the Macy conferences post-WWII and is currently being developed for both military (formerly as the Future Combat System now as the Army Brigade Combat Team Modernization) and commercial uses. While I will briefly trace the representations of the exoskeleton through Aliens, The Matrix Revolutions and Avatar, a focus on the recent use of exoskeleton combat in Elysium and Edge of Tomorrow shows that biological muscle combined with and augmented by a technological apparatus generates a spectacle reminiscent of the 80s hard body. In this, the hard technological body has morphed its focus of mastery from international and physical conflicts to virtual and borderless ones. Such a transition encourages the contemporary machinic movie audience to view themselves not as the healthy symbiotic posthuman N. Katherine Hayles promotes; instead, the hard technological body, in an attempt to heroically reassert human exceptionalism, treats his/her computerized technology, specifically the Internet, as, first, a tool to be conquered and then a weapon to conquer with.

vlcsnap-00018Ender’s War Games: The Simulation of War as Weapon and Tactic (Paper given at the 2015 PCA/ACA Conference)

The rising acceptance of game theory in combination with increasingly complex and sophisticated computer simulators has drastically changed the modern war machine. While such a shift was Popularly reflected in War Games (1983) and the publication of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), simulated war, with the possible exception of the war movie, was kept largely from the public eye. Yet, as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio have theorized, beginning with the Gulf War, recent warfare has pushed the depiction of real-life war into the realm of unreal model and constantly mediated simulation. Acknowledging Manuel De Landa’s work alongside the shifting genre of the war movie and the simulated roots of cinema itself, such a dangerous shift is reflected in the film version of Ender’s Game (2013) wherein the simulation itself becomes the war which then reveals the traumas caused, on both civilians and soldiers alike, by a distanced military over dependant on technologies, specifically the Internet.

The Absent Virtual Soldier: Combat Simulators in Film (Paper given at 2016 SCMS Conference)

The American military has long been invested in single soldier and networked simulation technology, such as early examples like SIMNET and The Battle of 73 Easting (to say nothing of flight and tank simulators), as a means to train its soldiers in an attempt to expose them to the speed and visceral nature of warfare. Yet, these simulators are almost completely absent from movies within the war film genre. Interesting then, the cinematic representations of the technology, when they do show up, come under the guise of civilian military-styled video games and virtual reality in movies like Brainstorm, eXistenZ and Gamer. Using these films and focusing on the civilian use of the technology, the chapter explores these films’ critiques about the use of popular combat simulators’ functions within a culture of Total War as well as raising concerns around the virtualizing of the modern military war machine as both dehumanizing and over-corporatized applications of military brainwashing. The movie present conflicts that further enhancing the theme of enemy-ally disintegration by turning civilians against other civilians in the role of soldier in militarized combat, generating a space, via the games themselves and the cinematic representations of these virtual spaces, wherein the dense networking capabilities of the Internet becomes a normalized facilitator of military violence. The end of the chapter will then further explore the reasons why, despite its normalized placement within a contemporary war machine, combat and warfare simulators do not show up in war films. While first touching on the obvious differences in the mediums of film and video games, the chapter then looks at the intertextual nature of movies like Jarhead, wherein soldiers watch other war movies within the film, to argue that cinema itself functions as a form of “virtual reality” training that potentially indoctrinates soldiers in much the same way a combat simulator does.