Turning and turning in the widening gyre | The falcon cannot hear the falconer | Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold | Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world | The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere | The ceremony of innocence is drowned | The best lack all conviction, while the worst | Are full of passionate intensity. — W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming
Big Chief, Big Daddy, Big Babysitter to the World
If “winning hearts and minds” is at the top of your global campaign agenda for strategic communication, then you need to insert yourself into some of the most intimate, domestic, and familial places of restive, hungry, and increasingly angry populations. Getting all domestic is what the US military has been doing in its social media and “visual operations” for the past few years, as seen in a wide array of photographs uploaded to the US Department of Defense’s Flickr “photostream,” which I have been studying since early 2014 (see part 1 in this series of photo essays). The trick is to achieve superiority by being at once both engaged and removed. Being engaged shows you actively involved in the uplift and upkeep of other peoples’ lives, thus coming down the mountain to these peoples’ very low station in life. However, you need to stay removed–by never showing yourself being in need of others. Show photographs therefore of us feeding them, but avoid showing any photographs of us eating. Show us giving them water, but show us seemingly persisting in tough, arid climates, without ever so much as stopping to take a sip. Gods do not eat, drink, or bleed. Bleeding, thirsty, and hungry mortals, on the other hand, are expected to call upon the gods. The key message we are being trained to remember, recite, and act on reflex, is a chain of four interlocked components:
1. It is natural for them to rely on, and call on us;
2. They are needy;
3. We must do something: only we can, or only we can do something best; and, 4. Ourmilitary is the best means by which we can respond globally.
So what the US military does is to generate a large and growing body of photographic records of such military-humanitarianism in motion. Images abound of soldiers reading from story books to children, of female soldiers cradling babies, or playing “patty cake” with little girls, of male troops playing basketball with teenage boys, of soldiers singing to school children, holding hands, skipping rope. One would be forgiven for thinking that US military training involved extensive immersion in babysitting techniques, game playing, and home economics courses. The US military is not just your friendly neighbour next door, always ready with a peach pie, an invitation to a backyard BBQ party, or a helping hand when you need to whitewash your picket fence; it is much, much more than that.
The US military is your new big chief, in a world of US-backed regime changes that leave many “tribes” without their chiefs. In a world of absentee fathers, lost to wars, the US military is your new stepfather, or at the very least, your generous new foster parent. Given your increased inability to govern yourselves, your need to be saved from yourselves and to be tutored in the arts of civilization, the US military is there to show you how to raise your children, how to hold them, how to read or sing to them, how to play with them. In a world of distressed single mother refugees, the US military is there to heal your sick children, it is the nurse to the world. Given the degree of interest in kinship to Anglo-American anthropologists, it’s striking that they should miss the world’s dominant military inserting itself into, and redefining, kin relations.
You therefore need to produce the “documentary evidence” of the beneficence of US global dictatorship leadership. You also need to hope that nobody reads how your drone operators, back in the real world, refer to children as “fun-size terrorists” and liken killing them to “cutting the grass before it grows too long”. You need to avoid thinking about how Obama orders drone strikes that have massacred children indiscriminately, and avoid thinking about how he knows that is what he has done. Talk about “Assad” instead.
What is also striking is the incongruous presence of the military uniforms, in scenes of cradling or playing with small children. It appears to be either hasty staging, where babies are picked up as momentary props, and/or an attempt to convey warfare and militarization as normal features of everyday life. What are you doing in gathering little children around your assault rifle? Is it a prospective commercial for the NRA or a weapons manufacturer? Whose baby are you cradling? The uniform is an attempt to pervert images of madonna-like motherhood into a hawkish swooping up of unsuspecting infants.
What also stands out is that US propaganda still seems to be stuck in WWII mode, with credibility-straining glossy images of smiling soldiers and “liberated” locals. In addition, what is presented in these images is that the main US interface with the world is the military. This can both shine a light on the degree of the latent coercion of “globalization,” that manifests itself by way of agents in uniform, but it can also obscure the fact that US imperialism goes far beyond militarism and militarization. Elements of the liberal/Democrat/State Department left, and the libertarian right, would like to narrow analysis of empire to militarization alone, thus ignoring the broader, more mundane, multifaceted economic, political, and cultural levers of US imperial power and the interests it protects, and the degree to which they themselves are complicit in that imperial system.
The US military’s attempt at a global colonization of consciousness involves settling social network sites through specific colonialists (US military media operatives and their public supporters), and by rearranging the narrative landscape. Get people talking about the goodness of the US military, and pretty soon you will have even Western anarchists calling on the military to support their favourite exotic causes, as if the military were an inert tool, a creature comfort, a bombing app ready to download.
I will leave my commentary to the lines above alone. What follows is a sample of a large mass of recurring image types, reproduced with their original captions. Clicking on an image will bring up a larger version of a given photograph.