The Face of War, continued: The Phantasm of War

Posted: July 26, 2013 in Uncategorized, war
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

It’s been a long time passing since I’ve posted on the poor blog. It’s been a busy spring and summer, the busiest that I can recall anyway. However, having gotten 80 hits the other day with a single post on my other blog, Quod Sumus, it occurs to me that I should start posting here again.

So, I’d like to start with a continuation of a theme I’ve touched on occasionally in this blog, what I’m calling, for now, the “Phantasm of War.” I’ve been trying to come up with an appropriate name for a while, I guess, making due in the mean time with phrases that don’t accurately reflect the nature of enterprise.  On reflection, “Face of War” doesn’t adequately address what I’m interested in. Besides, coining one’s own terminology is hip, and ensures at least a limited notoriety, right?   All joking aside, the etymology and different meanings of the word “phantasm” in the Oxford English Dictionary makes this choice of word a sensible one, I believe. What exactly do I mean by it? Well, to start I don’t use it in the sense that you find the phrase used in some 18th- and more 19th-century works, that is the spectral corporealization of abstract “war.” Nor in the sense some modern philosophers and cultural theorists use it, as a pseudonym for a mentally/ morally unbalancing total ideological paradigm, almost psychosis (Cristaudo’s Power, Love, and Evil specifically comes to mind). [I’ll be doing a post on this at some point]

Rather, I like the term because of its many shades of historical meaning that encompass appearance, illusion, the imagined form of the abstract, and the created likeness of that which is not present. All that, and the way the word therefore corresponds to one of my fascinations with warfare, and that is the juxtaposition of the physical reality of conflict (always the foundation of any study of war, I believe) with the way war is represented in and to society at large. Phantasm in this sense is not exactly paradigm, rather it is actualized imagination–the translation of our imaginings of war into image, word, and sound that mask the real by creating an image that we find comfortable. Even when the “real” occasionally penetrates this barrier, in all its horror, the eruption is contained somehow and becomes part of the comforting illusion of what war is. Most commercially successful war films, I would submit, fit this description to some degree or other. We eat our popcorn, absorbing the carnage because we’re not engaging with war as it is, but as we imagine it to be.  This all connects well with recent theories of how war is perceived, marketed, and used in political discourse, such as James Der Derian’s 2000 article “Virtuous war/virtual theory,”  Delmont’s “Visual Culture and the War on Terror” (2013), and especially Der Derian’s “The Desert of the Real and the Simulacrum of War” (2008). On second thought, “simulacrum” is an even better word than “phantasm” for cultural representations of war. The OED’s 2a definition is “Something having merely the form or appearance of a certain thing, without possessing its substance or proper qualities.” Which precisely describes many depictions of war, and is good besides for suggesting that there IS a “there” somewhere, just not present at this moment.

So, whether using “phantasm” or “simulacrum,” I believe that, among many other functions of the military historian is the duty to dissipate this phantasm, to show the substance of war that is hidden under layers of simulacra. To remind people, whether policy figures, military commanders, the soldier, or the civilian world at large, that war is indeed Hell, as Sherman said. I believe it is essential for a healthy society to possess historians that carry out this function.

All of this being a LONG way of getting to the simple posting of a few links that deal with this phenomenon. I’ve already discussed Lalage Snow’s photo exhibit of the effects of war on the physiognomy of soldiers.  Today I was struck by an article tweeted by the Imperial War Museum on their new exhibit on contemporary artistic representations of war, and the utterly appropriate grotesque perverseness of the opening picture in the article. Linked to that is “What the Drone Saw” which is apparently the opening part of the exhibit. And then apparently there is a video making the rounds, which I have not yet seen, of a Syrian rebel commander eating the heart or lung of one of his enemies; Jonathan Jones’ column in The Guardian on war as horror, and invoking Goya’s art (which we just discussed today in our seminar on Napoleonic warfare) is well worth reading. There many links in this article, among them one to an article in The Telegraph about Leonardo da Vinci’s lost almost-masterpiece, “The Battle of Anghiari,” which is worth reading too.

Whether war can be necessary, justified, or excusable, makes no difference to Sherman’s simple proposition: war is hell. And dispelling the phantasm of war is one of the historian’s public duties.

  1. andrewforney says:

    ‘Simulation and simulacrum’ of course comes to mind. In some ways, your post reminds me of the current debate about teaching Howard Zinn in school. What is the role of the historian? I know what I think it is for me – but I think that may be more influenced by Joe Strummer than someone ‘more academic’….nice post!

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