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Tomorrow’s Wars Will Be Livestreamed

They will be boring, and we will be dissatisfied.
Screengrab: Kurdistan24 News

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world watched the start of the invasion of Mosul, a city held by ISIS in Iraq, live on Facebook and YouTube this morning.

The most popular stream—there were several, some of which are still live—was shared by Kurdish outlet Rudaw and re-posted by outlets like the Washington Post and Channel 4 in the UK. While some viewers commented on the merits of the offensive, for others, the livestream itself was the most startling thing. As angry cartoon faces and "Wow!" emoticons floated over top of live images of war, viewers noted that it all seemed like a bit too much like a sci-fi fever dream about a war-obsessed culture.

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For most English-language viewers watching these streams, there was no explanation, no given context, no subtitles or translation—merely images of a mostly-barren foreign landscape peppered with men and trucks, idling and standing around, sparsely punctuated by violence. And in this void, commenters cried, "WHY THERE IS NO SHOOTING, EXPLOSION. I WANT TO WATCH A WAR," cue the smiley face.

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But which war? Perhaps the many fictionalized encounters in movies, videogames, and television, in places with names real and imagined, not that it really matters if the latest Call of Duty takes place in Afghanistan or outer space?

"War is 99 percent boredom and one percent sheer excitement and/or terror," David Axe, war correspondent and editor of news site War Is Boring, wrote me in an email. "You hurry up and wait, move slowly, advance, hold ground, resupply, update your plan and intel, rest, eat, refuel, advance again, etc., etc. It can be tedious. Until the fighting starts. And then it's not tedious at all. But in reality, war is in the inverse of action movies."

The effect of watching the livestream of the Mosul offensive without any context or explanation is similar to what I felt when I watched Werner Herzog's 1992 film Lessons of Darkness. In it, Herzog shows the viewer slow-tracking footage of burning Kuwaiti oil fields after the Gulf War, the outcome of the army retreat's "scorched earth" policy.

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But Herzog doesn't give us any political or historical context; he doesn't say it's in Kuwait, or even on Earth. "The film has not a single frame that can be recognized as our planet, and yet we know it must have been shot here," he said of the film. His intention was to present conflict in metaphysical terms, and to probe deeper than newscasts do despite a nightly deluge of facts and minutiae. From the semantic void of images that could be from any war emerges a deeper understanding about the nature of war itself.

But in 2016, decades after Lessons of Darkness was completed and on social media instead of in a darkened arthouse theatre, the void spits out something other than deep, metaphysical understanding about human nature. Instead, in the comments, people ask for money. They talk about porn. They quote Green Day lyrics. They call people "cucks."

To be fair, however, not everyone reacted this way. But a lot of people did.

"There's journalistic value in the livestream," Axe wrote, and noted that it's generally good practice to ignore the comments anywhere on the web.

But as the 2016 election cycle has shown us, a messy comments section come to terrifying life isn't a bad descriptor of the current US body politic.

In the end, livestreaming a war—if one judges by the live comments—looks a lot like livestreaming a concert or any other event. Does the low overhead of sharing someone else's stream on your outlet's page coupled with the high viewer payoff almost ensure that we're going to see it again? "Absolutely yes," Axe wrote.

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