How War Looks and Sounds in the Digital Age
And Why It Feels More Personal
Some of the links and embedded videos below are graphic. Watch at your discretion.
In 2013, I received a Masters in International Relations and immediately proceeded to ignore all world events for about a decade. But then politics found me, first by invading my parents’ homeland and then, three weeks ago, my own.
Because of my political embargo, the last time I binged war content, T-Pain still had radio hits. But when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, I found myself insatiably scrolling through videos of the war on Reddit and Twitter, reveling at the quality and quantity of videos documenting the war in real time.
Vietnam was the first war to be televised to a mass audience. It was the first time many Americans were exposed to the brutality of war, and its broadcasting played an outsized role in shaping US public opinion and ultimately, foreign policy. And yet the grainy footage delivered on tiny screens from behind the front lines is a far cry from what we have access to today: high-definition, first person footage from the very heart of combat.
Last week I wrote about how, through the years, I’ve normalized war in Israel and suppressed feelings about it. This footage jolted me back to feeling, waking me up to a level of empathy and tragedy I hadn’t allowed myself to access before. The videos made the war personal in a whole new way. They are raw, and the pain is palpable, and the sound, the sound…
Below I look at the new landscape of war videography, and how they make war in the digital age more real than ever.
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Filmed from above, these videos are a new addition to the age old human tradition of capturing how we destroy other humans — a tradition as old as cave paintings and as rich as Picasso. But because drones usually don’t capture sound, these videos are often eerily silent, creating a dissonance of damage and destruction set to a clinical silence, like it’s nighttime at a hospital. The brain isn’t wired for this.
But in some ways it also feels appropriate, as if a nearby grenade explosion had temporarily deafened us, leaving us dumbfounded in its wake. The silence, combined with the aerial vantage point, feels somehow godlike, as if we’re watching mortals run around and get smitten from up in Mount Olympus, too far for the sounds of the bombs to reach.
Because the action feels distant, this one is perhaps the least emotionally poignant, like a live action military map or a visual puzzle, where the viewer tries to figure out what’s going on, and who is running where. These videos are great for propaganda because they are emotionally distant enough for people not to risk feeling empathy for the enemy but detailed enough to prove their side is surely winning.
Another new type of footage, the cameras installed on car dashboards played a pivotal and tragic role in capturing Hamas’ ground invasion on October 7. These types of videos hit me hardest.
There’s one in particular of an Israeli civilian attempting to flee in a vehicle and rolling right up to a Hamas roadblock. The driver slows down on spotting the armed gunmen but it’s too late. The dashcam shows cracks appearing in the windshield, which we quickly realize are bullets. Raised on a Hollywood diet, we are taught that the innocent tend to survive, sometimes miraculously. And for a moment, it looks as though the car is beginning to accelerate. But we soon figure out there’s no one alive to hit the break as the car casually rolls into a Hamas vehicle nearby. The mind races to imagine the horror on the other side of the windshield, and the heart stops to feel the pain.
You can see the terrorists exchange words, but the video is silent. Again, the silence is so incongruent. The angle makes us feel like we’re in the middle of the action, like we are the ones being shot at. I try turn up the sound, but — luckily — it doesn’t work. I am not sure I could bear to hear it.
Now that everyone can create content, I’ve noticed an uptick in video compilations of war. They are usually created as motivational videos, showing one side’s dominance. Modern day grassroots propaganda, I guess. They use rock or rap music to stir excitement. Or sometimes folk music, or something that speaks more to the soul, something that plucks at the heartstrings, its sadness a paperweight holding down the importance of the struggle, lest it be forgotten.
These can be quite potent — as long as they’re on the side you’re rooting for.
In an age where every ice cream cone gets social media coverage, it’s hardly surprising combatants choose to film themselves too. With us strapped to the combatants head, this is probably the most up close and personal most of us will get to being in active combat. We are almost literally walking in their shoes.
And depending on whose shoes you’re in and your political beliefs, the experience can vary. Israeli soldiers freeing a bunker with 250 grateful hostages is pretty exhilarating. Watching Hamas go house by house looking for civilians to kill is physically revolting.
The most personal about these videos, though, is their sound. You hear the person’s labored breathing. You hear their shouts, but also their whispers — sometimes even their self-talk. So you see what they see and you hear what they hear. You might feel their fear, and imagine what they’re thinking too. Without actually being there, is there a way to experience war (and humans) more viscerally?
Not much has changed here, except news networks now use viral content to tell their story. This takes away from the originality of the reporting, perhaps, but also puts fewer people in the line of fire, which I am a fan of. The sound here, too, hasn’t changed much. Fluid sentences in the generalized American accent we’ve all come to expect (or the Queens’ English, every so often). Words that engage at once the heart, with individual stories of survival or hurt, and the mind, with data, details of rockets, and the geopolitical backdrop. Confidence balanced with vulnerability, deep concern with a hint of alarm. A mass communications formula that has captivated us since the early days of the radio.
Despite that, I find watching war on the news somehow too formal, too fabricated. The narrative is too logical, the videos too clearly captioned and meticulously explained. The talking heads in the studio are too clean and properly dressed. Watching the war online gives it a rough sheen that feels more appropriate to the reality of its horrors.
New types of media can be more graphic and traumatic than ever. But they’ve also helped me look past traditional media’s veneer of storytelling, to feel and see the real human and to get a taste, no matter how small, of what it’s like to be there.