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WAR! What’s It Good For? Multomodality!!

February 13, 2009

This week in the 21st Century Literacy seminar we started discussing a tremendous book, Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing:


We’re reading it because of the way Lindqvist presents his history — the book is written in 399 short passages arranged chronologically. He groups the sections into 22 different “chapter-like” facets of the history of bombing, but each of these 22 stories moves forward and backward in time. This requires the reader to jump forward and backward in the book, making the transitions in time also feel spatial. You really feel the movement forward and backward. It’s quite cool. And, it’s also very, very intense. Lindqvist doesn’t pull any punches as he sets out bombing from its invention in the 8th century to the present day, focusing on the mechanics, effects, and implications of bombing. This is some scary stuff.

And not to be irreverent, but Lindqvist’s book has had me thinking about form and content, about what we use war for. And this is what keeps coming to mind:


If you’re not fluent in New Wave German, here are the lyrics to the English version of the song, but don’t peek at them right away. In the seminar we watched the video in German and discussed what it sounded like Nena must be talking about. The grad students (except for one), bless their young hearts, couldn’t retell the story. My New Wave heart was sad. But we discussed the context of the song — 1980s Cold War reality, as well as the musical styles of the time. Then we read the lyrics together and discussed them, too. I like the lyrics site I linked to above — I’ve never read the German and English side-by-side before. What do you think? Given the problem with “loose nukes” we have with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the proliferation of nuclear countries, is this more or less likely to happen now?

Here’s a song that didn’t seem to get as much radio play in the US as it was getting in the UK when we were there last summer: The Last Shadow Puppets’ “The Age of the Understatement”:


What I find fascinating about this video, of course, is the way the video director uses the Russian military and Cold War imagery. If you just listen to the song, it feels more like a Western film, much like Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia”.

I’m also reminded of this classic song from Kate Bush, “Experiment 4”:


This song isn’t about the visuals at all, but rather the story retold by the lyrics. One of the grad students identified House‘s Hugh Laurie in video, and I noticed that the female scientist is Dawn French. Star-studded (if you’re interested in British comedy shows)! Also, while this may have been sci-fi for Kate Bush when she recorded the song, but, of course, we have these sorts of sonic weapons now. And we use them on Americans (And this is really scary.)

And lastly, a song by The Skids covered by U2 and Greenday that uses the military (especially the air capabilities of the military) in a different, but still heart-wrenching way. “The Saints Are Coming”:


The lyrics for this one are here, though the visuals are far more arresting, I think.

Note: I think this version of the video is a little more powerful, but embedding is disabled.

Also note, I was surprised after we watched this video the first time that not everyone knew that the central idea in this video — the military recalled from Iraq to aid in the recovery efforts in New Orleans — never happened. As I discussed with the grads, and as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, this video messes me up. As I tried to explain, the confluence of affective devices (the propulsive music, the shots of the physical and human devastation, the awesomeness of the military presence, the amount of help it was possible the military could have given, the thought that our massive military could use its might for unqualified good, and of course the devastating crash back to reality because this was “As Not Seen On TV” because it never happened) provoke an almost overwhelming response from me.

So, in this new era of “Hope” or “Change” or something, what do you think of the ways we use the military and military imagery in our culture? And what have I missed?

Categories: Media, Visuality
  1. Coeurlion
    February 14, 2009 at 7:27 pm | #1

    Three examples of what I consider powerfully affecting military images in pop culture are, first of all, the finale of the film Hair. When I first saw the troop transport scene in college, I found it quite moving, partly due to the pathos evoked by the tragic identity swap, partly due to the broader symbolic tragedy this implied, and partly due to the groovy soundtrack, which leads magically to a peace rally on the National Mall.


    Next up, for me, was the spectacular climax at the end of Act One of Miss Saigon, in which a marine helicopter lands on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Not just the image of helicopter blades whirling (sadly missing from summer stock productions), but the visceral thumping of the engine and blade noise pounding against your body, impelling thrill and awe.


    Lastly, I was dumbstruck by the Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan. At the five-minute mark of this clip, numbness not only strikes at the soldier, but crushes the audience’s ability to hear. Very effective and highly affective.


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