What they don’t tell you about the battle for Mosul is how boring it is, hour by hour, day by day. From my vantage point near the Iraqi village of Bartella, ISIS positions are visible in the smoke-filled distance, across the crinkled flatness of Nineveh; in front of me, gangs of weary Peshmerga fighters clump about in their fatigues as an endless line of armored cars trundles slowly through their ranks. I hear orders shouted in Kurdish and Arabic, but there’s nobody around to translate for me. Farther off, tanks and artillery pieces are positioned behind banks of sandbags. Their engines idle, whining in the afternoon heat. They do nothing, I see nothing, I’ve learned nothing. The real action isn’t happening here, but just to the right.
All these events are being streamed on YouTube, and the live chat window boils over with instantaneous analysis and petty grudges. One commenter, “croatia? more like catholic srbija,” is repeatedly announcing that “C R O A T I A I S G A Y.” There’s a lively debate over which European country is the most cucked—Sweden, for instance, has a “prolapsed anus.” As usual, a few dedicated idiots are trying to question the historicity of the Holocaust. Other users spam porn titles (“GirlsDoPorn Ep. 29,” “Lilo DAP Anal GapeThatAss COHF”) and transcribe Green Day lyrics (“bolevourd of broken dreams… a walk alone… a walk alone… aaa aaaa a a”). Welcome to the future of eternal war.
The Mosul offensive is streamed on YouTube by the Kurdish media group Rûdaw and Ruptly, Russia Today’s Berlin-based video agency; the feeds are relayed on Facebook Live by al-Jazeera and Channel 4 News. On Facebook, emojis bubble up from the bottom of the screen in time with the rising pillar of dust as another IED detonates: shocked face, angry face, Zuckerberg-blue thumbs-up sign.
This is the first time a war has been turned so directly into an object for public consumption, and the moral questions are obvious. Isn’t this repulsive? People are really dying in and around Mosul; surely it’s grotesque to turn the battle into a piece of entertainment. But the battle for Mosul isn’t at all entertaining. It’s something else.
In Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist, the bereaved protagonist spends hours watching webcam footage of a two-lane highway in Kotka, Finland. “It was interesting to her because it was happening now, as she sat here, and because it happened twenty-four hours a day, facelessly, cars entering and leaving Kotka, or just the empty road in the dead times. The dead times were best.” You can hear something malignant slithering in the undergrowth of all this prose: a metaphor. Empty images are always metaphors in waiting.
Why incur all this risk, unless the live streams aren’t a minor feature of the battle, but somehow the whole point?
But forget about us: what about the battle? The camera crews are deep in the middle of the Iraqi and Kurdish ranks, and their live feeds can be viewed by anyone. In other words, the forces trying to retake Mosul are constantly relaying their movements and positions directly to the enemy. These live feeds aren’t just a layer of representation varnished on top of events. And communications don’t just relay or reproduce facts on the ground; they constitute them. ISIS commanders can discover, in real time, where the Iraqis are advancing; they can watch their mortars landing, and recalibrate them to be more accurate next time. Why incur all this risk, unless the live streams aren’t a minor feature of the battle, but somehow the whole point? Instead of states producing propaganda images to support the war effort, hasn’t the war effort now become something tacked on to the production of images?
This isn’t so new, or shocking, as it might at first seem. Media don’t cover war, they are war. The Crimean war was fought via telegraph, stretched thin along fixed lines from home to the front and back. The First World War was recorded in newsreel, jerky and flammable, always moving either too quickly or too slowly, with the same shattered non-place reproduced up and down along the scars of dying Europe. World War II was radio, flying invisibly and instantaneously behind the crackling shriek of some deranged leader’s voice. Vietnam was a feature film, a turgid morality story complete will all the usual tropes, in which the dying Vietnamese played the manic pixie dream girl through whom America finally came to confront its own inner turmoil. When Libération asked Jean Baudrillard to cover the Gulf War of the early nineties, he agreed—but only on the condition that he would not be sent to the Middle East, but be allowed to cover the war from where it was really taking place: in front of a TV, tuned to CNN. “War,” he wrote, “when it has been turned into information, ceases to be a realistic war and becomes a virtual war, in some way symptomatic.” He hadn’t seen anything yet.
In that old, quaint, deeply conventional war in Iraq twenty-five years ago, the flow of images was tightly controlled by American military command; the whole thing was a sound-stage, neatly enframed with an auteur’s slick invisibility, scripted and programmed down to the finest detail. It was a showcase for propaganda, of the type that’s always existed.
Now, however, something has changed. The battle for Mosul is not a media event, because nothing like mediation is taking place; there’s no need to control the narrative, because there is no narrative to control. It’s fundamentally stupid, a-signifying, trajectory without meaning, utterly fictive but without any need for artifice. You understand nothing from watching the live stream; unless you’re one of the obsessive types who gets private pleasure from listing and cataloguing different kinds of military vehicles, there’s nothing to be understood. Only the mute relay of meaningless events: the dead times. You see soldiers shuffling from one foot to the other, static shots of pylons and water towers rearing up in the mist, tanks grunting squat between low bombed-out brick buildings. It is what it is.
The production of meaning is left to the idiots in the chat box, and they just want to talk about gaping or prolapsed anuses. “Information devours its own content,” Baudrillard writes elsewhere. “It devours communication and the social . . . Rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging communication.” Live streaming doesn’t communicate, all it does is devour; eating up distance, abolishing space, planting you in the plains of northern Iraq without ever needing to tell you why.
This is the war we’re fighting. You’re in Mosul right now; the front line of the war in Iraq cuts invisibly across the floor of your home. After all, ISIS is everywhere, always preceding itself, always arriving after the fact. For all its reaction and barbarity, it’s an enemy that can never be placed on the other side of any clear line of distinction; its violence is the shadow of our violence, its existence is to varying degrees the fault of the Syrian and Iraqi governments, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States itself; it’s an enemy that we create in the act of destroying it.
The force holding Mosul hostage is tiny—some six thousand fighters for a population of over a million, surrounded by a hundred thousand Iraqi and Peshmerga troops—but its members have occult powers. ISIS waits with fangs foaming just behind the surface of any ordinary object. Whenever some teenager in Europe or America, bored and bloodthirsty, furious at women and himself, decides to kill, ISIS spontaneously brings itself into being. ISIS is our name for whatever it is about the world that turns people into nihilistic murderers; and while the war against ISIS might change its name nobody really expects it to ever end. This is not so much a virtual war as a war on and with virtuality itself.
As Paul Virilio noted, war is determined by speed and assault, the velocities of charging bayonet-tipped bodies, the vectors of information; it functions by converting space into time. Forces in the war against ISIS must be deployed everywhere at once; in a war spread evenly across all of time and space, every battle needs to take place across the surface of the entire globe—in other words, its real form is the live broadcast. It willingly offers itself as a metaphor, which is just another way of saying mobilization on every possible semiological front. There will be no moment of victory, even after Mosul is bombed into rubble: the eternal war is already victorious everywhere, its victory is the same thing as its omnipresence. There are no losses or setbacks, only a brief stuttering pause as it buffers, only a spinning circle while the combat gears up from blobby 240p to beautiful high definition. This is what you’ve been drafted into. And as always, don’t forget to like, share, and comment.