The recent flaps concerning indiscretions by American troops in Afghanistan (urinating on Taliban corpses, burning copies of the Quran) and Syrian brutality against its own population have one very common and powerful thread: both were acts that were not intended for widespread public attention or scrutiny but have become, in the new vernacular, “viral.” They both illustrate that the impact of electronic mediation has both a liberating and a constraining impact.
The simple fact that arises from the electronic mediation of the world is that potentially there is no such thing as entirely private behavior. The ability of handheld video cameras recording and sending via satellites images of the horrors of war made their first appearance in coverage of the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict, and the images of violence they portrayed helped turn public opinion in this country against the war. What those early electronic “pioneers” could do is peanuts compared to the capacity to transform private acts (or public acts you would just as soon remain unobserved) into full-scale media events. The ability to be stupid or to behave intentionally atrociously now carries a much higher price than it used to have.
The recent uproar over Quran burning and corpse desecration dramatize this impact. People have been righteously indignant over these acts in ways that almost totally miss the point. What was done in both cases was not new or more despicable than has been done in the past; they were not. Past indiscretions in warfare, however, generally occurred when the cameras were not around, so that stupid behavior was only a non-electronic memory of those who witnessed it. Cell phones with the capability to take what are effectively motion pictures means anyone who does virtually anything anywhere has it potentially immortalized electronically; Facebook and similar outlets guarantee whatever is done is an instant global media event. Do something really stupid and the world knows about it. When one of your buddies records the event with the full knowledge of the participants (the urination episode) the stupid add to the problem by acting as willing producers and stars of the production. Afterwards, somebody (normally the government) has to apologize for the indiscretion, an action that is itself subject to criticism.
This phenomenon has spread to purposive acts of thuggery and atrocity. The Arab Spring, after all, is ingrained in global minds as much for the brutal resistance of besieged regimes recorded on shaky mobile phones as it is for anything else. Syria is just the most recent and egregrious example of brutality as a television event. Once again, the point is not that such behavior exists in any unique sense in Syria, or in Egypt and Libya before it. Governments and others (occupying powers, for instance) have been doing this for millennia. Imagine for a moment Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde sweeping across the Eurasian plain slaughtering everybody they encountered as a modern media event. The point is that such behavior was much easier to get away with when it could be denied and no contrary hard evidence like motion pictures could be broght to bear as counter evidence. That is impossible now; if you are a despot who wants to savage your population, you probably still can do so, but you cannot keep it a secret or within the realm of plausible deniability. The cost of thuggery has risen; whether (or when) that cost becomes too great to bear is a question for any potential brutalizer.
This cost extends to domestic public behavior. In the United States, the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles should have been the warning bell. The LAPD is still living down those privately recorded images of police brutality, and everytime a cop uses arguably excessive force, part of the reaction is going to be from the video accounts of those actions. The result is to change how police act and is a conscious part of contemporary police training.
The point is the same in both venues. The bar of acceptable behavior both in international crises and in domestic actions has been raised by the knowledge that just about anything that happens is likely to be subject to outside scrutiny. It does not matter if an indiscretion is committed by a 19-year-0ld soldier in the traumatic aftermath of battle or a 20-year-old college student getting drunk at a fraternity party; whatever you do may well be on global television, and even if it is not, it is still out there somewhere in cyberspace ready to come back and bite you in the posterior at some point in the future.
Institutions try to confront and surmount these problems to minimize them, but such efforts are almost inevitably incomplete. The U.S. Marines, for instance have produced an impressive guide on appropriate behavior by Marines in Afghanistan (“Afghanistan: Operational Culture for Deployed Personnel.” Quantico, VA:: Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, 2009–available on the web) that specifically covers urination and Quaran burning. Obviously, not everyone read or internalized it. The simple fact is that in war particularly, people will do stupid or evevn venal things. In the past, most of these transgressions went unobserved or not noted; today, no stupidity goes unnoticed.
These simple new parameters are a fact of modern warfare (or modern life more generally) that are not going to go away. They cannot be reversed, and the best that can be done is to try to understand and contain them as much as possible (damage limitation). This is a new and, I think, sadly underdeveloped area of inquiry and understanding, with implications that need to be incorporated into future planning. One particularly evident area is that of military occupations, which will be the subject of the next posting.