Creating War in California
Written by Anders Engberg-Pedersen, Associate Professor at Department for the Study of Culture
During the past fifteen years, war has increasingly been waged with fictional means in invented microworlds far from the actual scene of battle. Since the first years of the new millennium, cinematic stagings and immersive virtual reality war games have been used to train, prepare, and process military engagements. No longer at the forefront of technological development, however, U.S. military institutions such as DARPA and PEOSTRI have begun collaborating both with Hollywood and the video game industry as well as with academic institutions such as the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California in order to catch up with the possibilities of digital technology.
This collaboration with filmmakers, designers, software programmers, and game developers marks a new development in the history of war. Using carefully crafted virtual worlds to interpellate its users, the military has co-opted a field that one does not usually associate with war – the field of aesthetics. In the process, a host of concepts that traditionally belong to the theory of art have gained a new urgency as they have migrated into the military realm. Today, questions of fictionality, affective response, experience, suspension of disbelief, etc., are decisive for how war is waged in the 21stcentury. At the same time the military has retooled these concepts and thereby forged a whole new set of aesthetic categories such as ‘augmented reality’ or ‘enhanced realism.’ For example, Strategic Operations, Inc., a Californian company founded by the former film producer Stu Segall, has “introduced ‘the magic of Hollywood’ to live military training by employing all the techniques of film and TV production integrated with military tactics, techniques, and procedures.” The result is a series of “Hyper-realistic training environments” that simulate combat in order to generate war experience with fictional means. So far, about 700.000 military personnel have gone through this kind of training.
Strategic Operations, Inc. Creates so-called "Hyper-realistic training environments" by employing techniques of film and TV production and integrate it with military tactics, techniques, and procedures. Photo: Strategic Operations Inc.
The co-option of aesthetics by the military raises a number of questions. What is the make-up of virtual microworlds of war, how do they organize perception and memory and transform them into action? What kind of war experience is produced by virtual means, what kind of affective management do they orchestrate, and to what extent does the new-fangled digital aesthetics differ from previous military technologies? The complex answers to these questions still need to be worked out, but one thing, at least, is clear. Contemporary warfare is, to an unprecedented degree, pervaded by fictions and to understand their impact we need to consider war not merely as a phenomenon or concatenation of events in the world, but also as a specific way of creating and organizing a world with fictional means and using this invented world to format the brains and bodies of its temporary inhabitants. Pursuing the consequences of such an approach we might gain some new insights both into the transformation of war by the purveyors of culture and into the transformation aesthetics by the military.