Through the Crosshairs: A Film by Roger Stahl, Produced by the Media Education Foundation (MEF)
Review by Robin Andersen
“Everywhere you look, images of distant wars are seen through the weapons’ camera.”
Though this film seems like a portal into a sci-fi dystopian future, the “weaponized gaze” revealed in Through the Crosshairs is now part of our everyday visual experience. This MEF production with author and filmmaker Roger Stahl, takes us deftly through the history of the weapon’s eye, explaining how we got here watching early newsreels, then Disney films, and on to the bombing of Japan, and the Vietnam War. More recently, we find that the ultra-hyped “smart bombs” of the Nintendo War—the First Gulf War, were not very smart at all. Though precision was the catch word, only 5 percent of the weapons were guided, and as it turns out, journalists were the targets and the public was the pay load.
On TV news, games and movies, stories of war now feature weapons as the technological heroes of the battle, with imagery acquired from an official military PR outfit called DVIDs—Defense Video and Imagery Distribution Service. This is the new frontier of propaganda, currently referred to as perception management and public relations. It’s clear to the military that looking down through the weapons point of view serves the geostrategic goals of NATO and the United States, but when constructing a critical lens in Through the Cross Hairs, what becomes even more clear, is that the weapon’s gaze hides the human costs of war. We all become less compassionate, and a little less human.
Satellite imagery and drone footage have found a permanent home on screens big and small, from movies to games. When we see Harrison Ford playing a Tom Clancy hero, the movie is saturated with CIA supplied satellite imagery, and we are hit with a barrage of surveillance views. Transposed onto first-person shooter games, the totalizing gaze from the ground comes this time, through the helmet cams worn by soldiers, and we are encouraged to affirm, “the soldier in all of us.”
The drone imagery featured in the film is grainy, shaky, blurry and saturated with tiny squares marking coordinates and targets. Drone “pilots” sit in remote locales and news stories speak with glee and little irony, of soldiers leaving “work” to set off for dinner with their families. News fails to inform viewers that when 41 insurgent targets are eliminated, drones kill more than a thousand innocent people. When President Obama escalated drone strikes and talked about his “kill list,” he paved the way for Trump who has called for drone strikes at 5 times the pace of his predecessor.
In films and TV we become the victims of these technologies, not those we kill indiscriminately. Stahl outlines a new guilt-ridden-assassin film genre. Those that kill must sacrifice their sanity because, as the unexamined premise asserts, “somebody has do to it.”
By the time the film discusses Deborah Scranton’s documentary The War Tapes, Stahl has succeeded in helping us recoil from this visual milieu. Images have been re-framed and are now loaded with the burden of awareness. When we see Scranton, she is smiling and joking in front of a big blue screen at her TedTalk. Filming War Tapes, produced with the Defense Department, Scranton calls herself a “virtual embed,” as the invasion of Iraq is told through the use of cameras and footage taken by combat troops she works with. The film opens with soldiers enjoying weapon-cam footage, and it goes on to show horribly mutilated and dismembered bodies, and body parts, of dead foreign fighters. However, as Stahl points out, the power of that gaze is contained within the recognizable, and classic, American dramatic trope, it was either him or me. We hear one soldier say, I’m glad he’s dead, that’s one less guy that’s going to fire an RPG at a HUMVEE. Out here it’s us or them, no questions asked.”
As we struggle over the meaning of such state violence, Stahl introduces us to soldiers, artists, jammers and street activists who work to expose and reverse the gaze. And as Stahl rightly points out, the weapon’s gaze can be shattered. One former soldier turned activist, shares the realization that Iraq wasn’t about defending America, it was about financial gain. The military is on a mission to save, not the nation, but itself.
It was WikiLeaks footage that first offered a significant resistance to the weaponized gaze of 21st century war. Titled Collateral Murder, it was a rare glimpse of what we are accustomed to seeing, but it offered a view with the aperture opened wide, allowing us to see the civilians, including a news photographer clearly holding a camera, brutally killed gleefully by US soldiers. Resistance visions also come from drone pilots themselves, and activists who turn the camera lens onto the strange looking miniature planes, showing them hovering overhead above the landscape.
Reframing this weapon’s gaze, something Stahl calls “inversion,” asks viewers to imagine life under occupation. Jamming drone visions involves the realization that actual people live in the cross hairs all the time under drones, at a terrible psychic cost. They experience fear, trauma, anxiety and mental disorders. In response, artists lay out on the ground a huge portrait of a young girl whose family was killed by a drone attack, and the social media campaigned defiantly announced, I am #notabugsplat.
Referring to a sci-fi production titled “Man Against Fire,” where a computer chip exposes the once dehumanized targets to be real people, Stahl ends with “Sometimes it just takes a code cracker to turn us all into human beings again.” This film is a powerful form of inversion art, reframing the weapon’s gaze, and helping us all find our humanity by inspiring us to reframe our media visions through human eyes.
Robin Andersen is professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, as well as author of numerous books and scholarly articles on issues in media and journalism, including The Routledge Companion to Media and Humanitarian Action and HBO’s Treme and Stories from the Storm: From New Orleans as Disaster Myth to Groundbreaking Television.