restricted access Watching War by Jan Mieszkowski (review)
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Reviewed by
Jan Mieszkowski. Watching War. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 244 pp. US$24.95 (Paperback). ISBN 978-0-80478-240-1.

Jan Mieszkowski’s Watching War makes a compelling case for understanding questions about war spectatorship in a broader historical context, one that extends back to a historical period that predates the era of technological reproduction. In his analysis, Mieszkowski addresses a number of issues, both moral and philosophical, as they relate to the portrayal and experience of modern warfare, and argues that contemporary presuppositions that lead to our affective ambivalence when watching war – the notion of war as part of the everyday, and the inherently mediated nature of the battlefield – are products of an earlier relationship to war spectatorship.

One of Mieszkowski’s central arguments is that the ostensible shift brought about by modern reproductive technology – the making virtual of the battlefield – was not a shift at all; he demonstrates, very persuasively, that war as spectacle, and the impossibility of conveying the totality of war except through the imagination, has long been part of discourses about, and attempts to represent, war. Mieszkowski’s work is a corrective to theoretical approaches to mediated images of war (such as that of Jean Baudrillard) that posit different pre- and post-technological relationships to what constitutes an authentic account of war and battle. In reality, Mieszkowski argues, the notion of an authentic or accurate perception of war (as well as the determination of whether a participant or an observer was better positioned to provide this perception) has always been in question and has been intimately linked to the larger questions of what war is and how it should be waged.

The monograph’s interdisciplinarity is one of its strengths. While theoretical, it is not overly so – it makes judicious use of a number of philosophers and theorists to underscore the continuity of the discussions about representability that have marked war depictions over the last 150 years. The author is able to shift deftly between fictional and philosophical texts and analyses literature and visual images with the same level of rigorous attention. It is these close readings that are instrumental in making his argument. Of particular interest here are his analyses of two iconic war photographs – Robert Capa’s The Falling Soldier (1936) and Eddie Adams’s Saigon Execution (1968). The emergence of battlefield photography, specifically images of dead soldiers, during the American Civil War promised a more intimate encounter with human suffering while also increasing the distance of the spectator to such suffering. While those twentieth-century images are often characterized in terms of how they capture the essence of war by arresting a moment in time, Mieszkowski’s reading notes that it is precisely their evocative power that has led the images to be subjected to accusations of fakery or staging, such that the photographers have offered elaborate explanations of the circumstances that led to their creation, explanations that involve renouncing nearly any agency while also affirming the immediacy of the image. [End Page 136]

Another important point that the author makes here is that even though technology allows visual media to assert themselves as providing an unmediated view of the battlefield (by letting images “speak for themselves”), verbal media continue to be as central to war spectatorship as visual media. This, of course, can be attributed to a number of factors (i.e. the need for media to shape war narratives to suit commercial or ideological aims), but the point is well taken; while the earlier need for newspaper accounts could be taken as a reflection of the lack of physical proximity to the battlefield and a lack of means to portray battles in real time, the fact that verbal accounts retain their significance underscores the importance of mediating and shaping perceptions when waging war.

The author’s forceful arguments for continuity in terms of philosophical discussions about the nature of war and the possibility, or rather impossibility, of conveying that nature come at a price. As well taken as the central point of this work is, to downplay or even ignore the fact that technology in general has affected modes of perception of world events...