Wed
Aug 21 2013 2:00pm

Collateral Damage: Blockbusters and the Changing Narrative of War

Star Trek into Darkness

Earlier this summer I saw both Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel in the theaters and I was struck by some similarities between the two films. For one, both films took inspiration from films that were popular when I was a kid. Nostalgia seemed a key element to their appeal.

What was disturbing, though, were the ways in which these movies differed from the movies of my childhood and the ways in which they seemed all too similar to some very real death and destruction occurring right now.

Don’t worry—this is not a post about how things were better when I was a kid, or how Superman has changed. But this is a post about how our narrative has changed, about conflict and about war.

The most disturbing thing to me about both Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel was the collateral damage in both films and the rather blasé treatment that it received. Let’s take Star Trek first. Much of the activity takes place in space which is, thankfully, largely uninhabited. But then we get to the point where the Enterprise and Khan’s ship are falling into the atmosphere of Earth. We get a tense scene with Kirk ultimately sacrificing himself to bring the Enterprise’s power back and the ship rights itself. There’s a moment of pause, of relief, of everyone feeling good. Then Khan’s ship goes plunging down right next to them, crashing into London San Francisco and causing plenty of property damage and, we must assume, off-screen death. Pay attention to the off-screen part. We don’t see the people dying in those buildings. But this being San Francisco, we must assume that some people died.

Unfortunately, there’s no attempt by the Enterprise crew to divert or prevent the crash from happening. Surely they must have known that the ship was falling. The Enterprise was damaged, yes, but there’s no attempt to use tractor beams, or ram it out into the ocean, or reverse a tachyon stream or whatever. The issue isn’t even raised. You could make the case that all of their systems were fried and they just barely managed to stay in the air, but even a failed attempt would be better than nothing, don’t you think?

Compare that to Man of Steel which has already received criticism for the gratuitous scenes of destruction in Metropolis. Once again, there’s no real attempt to prevent this or to move the battle between Superman and Zod elsewhere. Once again, we must assume that people died in these battles, and yet we don’t see any of these deaths.

Man of Steel Perry White

There’s a kind of movie shorthand at work here. We’re given a few, easily recognizable characters to stand in for all of humanity. In the case of Man of Steel that’s Perry White and the other people from The Daily Planet. If they are saved, then we can breathe a sigh of relief despite all the other nameless and faceless victims in Metropolis. And if Zod (or Khan) is defeated, then all of this damage and destruction was worth it because of the threat he poses. Because he’s so dangerous that killing him is necessary, and all of the casualties along the way are the price of doing business.

What does all this have to do with warfare? In my opinion quite a bit. We are living in a world where drone strikes are carried out with alarming frequency. Ostensibly these drones are tasked to go after high profile targets, but all too often they kill civilians. It’s rare that anyone in the government speaks about these civilians—how many of them, who they are. They are nameless and faceless. They don’t matter to the narrative that’s being told. We’re not reminded often enough that thousands have died in drone strikes in Pakistan over the past 9 years. It’s not stressed that over a hundred of those deaths were children. They are not important to the narrative.

That narrative tells us that these things happen, that sometimes mistakes are made. That in order to protect our security and get the bad guys, sometimes innocent lives are lost. They’re unfortunate accidents. Incidental. It’s the cost of our freedom. In the end, though, we should feel safer. And when those strikes deliver a high-profile kill (a named leader in Al-Qaeda, for example) it’s that name that’s broadcast loudly and clearly in our news reports.

That this happens in real life is disturbing enough. That our movies—our fantasies—reinforce this narrative somehow makes things worse because they are slyly helping to cement those elements in our expectations. When people we have come to regard as heroes (fictional though they may be) act in this manner, it cheapens what it means to be a hero.

Look, I’m not saying that there’s any collusion here between movie makers and the architects of war, but I do think the similarities are disturbing, and maybe we should be questioning these assumptions rather than just swallowing them. Some might say that that is just the reality we live in and our films reflect that. I feel that even in action-packed, special effects filled blockbusters, our fictional heroes should be better than that. They should at the very least aspire to something better, and we should expect them to do so.

I’d like to end by contrasting those movies with Pacific Rim, a movie that’s built on the bones of kaiju films, a genre that delights in the destruction of cities. While Pacific Rim has its share of property destruction the difference is in the value of human life. It is mentioned again and again in the movie that the purpose of the Jaegers is to protect humans, to prevent deaths. Indeed the first scene of the movie shows a Jaeger team risking their lives to save the crew of a ship off the coast of Alaska. It’s not just about pummeling the monsters, it’s about saving humanity. All of them. Every NPC that’s seen or not seen. When the kaiju threaten Hong Kong, the population of the city is stressed, and the Jaeger pilots risk their lives (some sacrificing themselves) to hold the line and protect the people on land. Say what you will about the movie, but that’s the kind of hero I want.

Maybe instead of our films reflecting back the propaganda of the present, our films, especially our fantasy films, should inspire something better. And if they do reflect our present, surely they could delve into the consequences?

I’m sure some people will think I’m reading too much into this, that this is just mindless entertainment. I look forward to your comments below. But I’ll just say one last thing—topics like this shouldn’t be mindless. And can’t we have mindful entertainment instead?


Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer and narrator whose reviews and columns appear on LitReactor. You can follow him on his website, and he tweets @rajanyk.

49 comments
NinjaMeTimbers
1. NinjaMeTimbers
I think it's simply bad writing. Action for the sake of action. Superman and Zod punched each other up to a satellite, and when they go down to earth, where do they go? Right back to where they were so we can watch them smash through some more buildings.
Christopher Morgan
2. cmorgan
I'm leaning towards what Ninja says. While I do think there is a general narrative of War, it typically follows an ARC. My advisor in Grad School did a great thing with Vietnam and how it was portrayed in film, comparing films like Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and Born on the Fourth of July. She also had a similar study of World War I, the Civil War, and World War II that looked at literature, but I digress.

I feel that this is more of a "dark =mature" trend that Dark Knight started. The idea that a film can't be light, feel good, colorful, and have a happy ending and be taken seriously. Despite the success of Wheadon's Avengers, Iron Man, and the international success of Pacific Rim proving the contrary.
NinjaMeTimbers
3. olethros
"Look, I’m not saying that there’s any collusion here between movie makers and the architects of war"

There most certainly is collusion between the two. Perhaps not for the specific films referenced in the article, but look at the CIA's involvement in ZD30, or the Pentagon's requirement for script review/edit to provide advisers and equipment for Hollywood. Even if these particular films didn't participate in those programs, you can bet your ass that the filmmakers are aware of the sorts of themes and ideas that the powers that be approve.

I'd provide links, but the spambot detector will just shit on them.
NinjaMeTimbers
4. Lsana
I understand being bothered by this, but I don't quite understand the "changing narrative" part of this post. This phenomena is just about as old as it gets. I first noticed it in Power Rangers battles back in the early 90s, but I suspect it's even older than that. In your big, FX-laden battle, a bunch of buildings and other landmarks get toasted. The audience is not supposed to care or even notice that there were probably people in those buildings who are now seriously injured or dead. The big battles that actually do acknowledge the collateral damage are the exception, not the rule, and as far as I can tell, have always been so.
NinjaMeTimbers
5. PhoenixFalls
This disturbed me in both ST:ITD and Man of Steel, and I agree, Pacific Rim was notable this summer in the way it didn't ignore collateral damage. Even the decision to build walls around the cities, while obviously stupid and ineffective, came from a place of protecting innocence first, and we were given glimpses of all the other ways the world had struggled to prevent loss of life (evacuating, the shelters, etc.). It's a slightly different scenario because by the time we're watching the attacks have been going on for years (whereas in ST:ITD and MoS the attacks come out of nowhere and are positioned as one-time threats) but there does seem to be a fundamental difference in the attitude of the filmmakers.
NinjaMeTimbers
6. DaveMB
Minor quibble to a well argued article -- the crash in ST:ID devastated San Francisco (site of Starfleet Command) rather than London (site of the smaller Starfleet facility attacked by Cumberbatch early in the film).
Beth Mitcham
7. bethmitcham
I finally saw Man of Steel, and so I went back to read reviews that I avoided. I was astonished to find that the scene were Zod dies was controversial because Superman kills him. Apparently that was supposed to be traumatic because Superman "doesn't kill." But he had just killed uncounted people in the battle, starting with the fight in his hometown, and he was clearly aware of this because he tries to shoo people away. And then scads of people must had died in all the collapsing buildings and squashing cars in the cities.

So the idea that suddenly Superman is shocked at a death at his hands? Like the direct killing to prevent a murder is somehow worse than the collateral damage to prevent world destruction? Odd.

The unseen body count is one of the biggest issues for me with the Star Trek films. I was actually relieved at the small death rate in Into Darkness; it was probably only in the tens of thousands. As opposed to the casual genocide of Vulcans, which had my son deeply upset (I'm comforted him during the movie by assuring him that Star Trek knew dozens of ways to reverse time and save them. But, uh, no.).
Matt Spencer
8. Iarvin
Drone strikes and the like certainly have ethical problems, and civilian casualties are one of them, but the amount of civilian deaths caused by more conventional warfare is orders of magnitude greater – so I don’t think the premise of the article that film makers are reflecting the attitudes of our military holds particular well.

World War II is estimated to have cost between 40 and 60 million civilian lives.
Estimates in the 1960’s for civilian deaths in the case of a nuclear strike topped 120 million in the United States alone, and reducing that to a mere 20 million was deemed “acceptable” in some circles.
Much more recently, estimates of the civilian death count in the Iraq war ranges from 50 thousand to 200 thousand

Precision drone strikes are attractive precisely because of the allure of “low collateral damage”, and there is some truth in such claims. Is it acceptably low? To me that depends on the justification of the strikes, which I don’t know enough about to comment on, but I do believe that the civilian collateral rate is signicantly lower than the collateral rate in any conventional war – and so I strongly suspect that the difference between the Superman and Star Trek of today and the Superman and Star Trek of yesterday are not a reflection of any new indifference to civilian casualties.

Indeed, personally I would posit the opposite reason for film maker's casual attitude– that in dark times, very bright and shining heroes are needed, but in times where the threat of death is less obvious, it can be much easier to be casual in our artistic depictions of it. When it will “never” happen to us, it’s much easier to make it happen in a story because after all, “That only happens in stories and in history”.
Dave Thompson
9. DKT
FWIW, I think STID tried to grapple some with drone strikes. But yes, the lack of showing the collateral damage is an issue. Good article, Rajan.

(Haven't seen MoS yet - Rajan and others have scared me off of it!)
Brian Carlson
10. images8dream
I don't think that it is just about living with drone strikes and collateral damage, although that may be part of it. As Iarvin commented, collateral damage is much lower than it was during most of the world's wars.

It didn't bother me that most of the Vulcans were wiped out, or that San Francisco was destroyed, or that New York was obliterated. It was the casualness with which this happened. Even the Avengers, which commented on it a little bit, did not do enough to express the tragedy inherent in the victory. I really wished both those films had taken the time to sit with the price of victory for several scenes.

I do think some of this is psychological falloutf from 9/11. Before that, the idea that our cities could be devestated so easily seemed far off. Consider Independance Day, where everyone spends most of the movie shocked that their country is being destroyed. Today, there is a subconscious acceptance of how fragile our way of life is. After all, if a man with some planes can destroy Manhatten, shouldn't Kahn or Zod do so much more? Whether or not this is the correct way to make films, it seems to me that this is what underpins the big blockbusters. We already destroy our own cities with simple means; supervillains have to out do that in order to remain super.
Ursula L
11. Ursula
I think this also ties to the way that the US, in particular, has, for the past century, been able to almost entirely externalize the human costs of war. Our cities have not been bombed and burned, our homeland has not been occupied by a foreign and hostile army, we have not starved, or suffered widespread rape as part of war and occupation, or any of the countless other horrors that war creates.

For people in the US, war is US soldiers going somewhere else to fight. In the last few decades, even the loss of US soldiers has become incredibly rare compared to the way war has worked historically.

The US reaction to 9/11 is an excellent example of this. Yes, 9/11 was bad. And yes, 9/11 reminded my older German relatives, who remembered their childhood in Germany through the war, of those experiences. But the reaction of my older German relaitives to the reactions of people in the US quickly turned to exasperation. 9/11 was bad, but it wasn't that bad.

9/11 was one corner of two cities, for one day. They remembered seeing their entire city burn around them. And then another city the next week, and another after that, and again and again and again. And this was done to them by Americans, the same ones now imagining that 9/11 was somehow a uniquely horrible extreme of destruction. By the standards of their childhoods, 9/11 would have been a good day.

American movies don't explore the aftermath of the destruction of a city because Americans don't see the aftermath of the destruction of a city. Americans can look at a drone bomb, and see it as somehow fundamentally different from a bomb dropped by a plane or thrown by a soldier, because Americans are not on the receiving end of any of these bombs.

(A brief reading list, to get an idea of what war fully is: Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943 and Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, both by Keith Lowe. Not a comprehensive coverage of the issue, but a close look at the destrution of one city, and a broader look at the cumulative effects of war on an entire continent.)
Noneo Yourbusiness
12. Longtimefan
There is no such thing as mindless entertainment. All information is education. What kind of education is debatable but the human intellect is amazing in its capacity to collect, store and utilize information both conciously and subconciously.

The article makes a very good point. I enjoyed reading it.
NinjaMeTimbers
13. PhoenixFalls
@8
Obviously not the OP so I'm only speaking for myself, but I think the reason I see a correlation between warfare moving to things like drone strikes and the way MoS and STID handled collateral damage is the narrative distance from the widespread deaths. Yes, drone strikes potentially have much less collateral damage than conventional warfare, but the people committing them do all that damage from well out of range of any retaliation, unlike in conventional warfare, and there was something in the way San Francisco and Metropolis were destroyed that felt like that. Part of it is because Khan and Superman and Zod are practically invulnerable, but more of it is, I think, that the cities seem almost empty of life. My memories of action movies from the 80s and 90s are filled with people running out of the way of the casual destruction of the heroes -- obviously lots of people *must* die in those scenes, but we see so many nameless faceless people living through them as well that we as the audience can put ourselves in their shoes and imagine our cities being destroyed that way. In STID I don't remember seeing *anybody* on the ground living through Khan's crash, and in MoS all we see are named characters living, and so we as the audience are invited by the filmmakers to see the nameless faceless background characters as expendable, not people we want to identify with at all, and that is what seems reminiscent of the way drone attacks are carried out and then subsequently covered in the media. The civilian casualties of drone strikes aren't part of the narrative at all, the way the civilian casualties of STID and MoS aren't part of the narrative at all, whereas in conventional warfare and in movies like Pacific Rim (with the boat) or the Avengers (with Beth the waitress and the people in the bank) the narrative very much includes at least an acknowledgement of them.
NinjaMeTimbers
14. DavidEsmale
I don't think you're reading too much into it at all. Or if you are, then I am too. There's a lot of things that bothered me about Into Darkness (I have a list), but what you mentioned is right at the top of the list. For a story that was touted as 'Kirk having to grow up and learn to accept the consequences for his actions', you'd think that at least dealing with the fallout from all the destruction and loss of life at the end of the film would at least be touched on.

Instead, I'm forced to continue to live in my fantasy world where JJ Abrahms never made any Star Trek movies at all, because it would have just been better that way.
Steven Lyle Jordan
15. Steven Lyle Jordan
Personally, it doesn't matter much to me if the movie's producers treat individual deaths so casually. For them it's easy, as major property damage always looks great on a big screen, and at that scale, individuals mean no more than ants under a boot.

But what does matter is if the main characters, especially the heroes, treat those deaths casually. Remembering back to Star Trek TOS, when mass genocide happened, at least Kirk took a moment to reel/rave at the "deaths of 400 men and women," "populations of millions," etc. You clearly had the feeling he was fighting for those people, and to make sure no more died on his watch.

And superhero comics regularly included moments when the heroes knowingly and intentionally took a battle out of a populated area. They were clearly on the job to protect the people.

Today's heroes more often than not reflect their concern for their own personal space. The conflicts in the Star Trek reboot were all about this, and it severely lessens the nature of the morals of Star Fleet to the extent that they become the Star Wars Empire as nominal good guys.

The clear lessons: Life is cheap, don't get attached to it; when your end comes, you'll be lucky if it's even noticed. Especially by the people who were on the job to save you.

@PhoenixFalls: Your mention of Beth the waitress in The Avengers was good... a shame that material like that was largely cut from the final film, making Beth and the other civilians that much less significant in the audience's eyes.
Robert H. Bedford
16. RobB
I haven't seen Star Trek, but the enormous violence in Man of Steel was a somewhat troubling though not too surprising. Superman's battles have been known to destroy other stories (JLU when he fights Darkseid, often enough in comics including the Death of Superman storyline), but it was still bothersome in its treatment of the high casualty factor and how little Kal-El seemed to care about it.

The only wiggle room I can give Man of Steel is that this was Kal-El's coming out party - he is inexperienced in using his powers. At least the way the timeline came across to me, he never really flexed his muscles and used his powers before tangling with Zod and his crew. I'd like to see the sequel focus on his regret (at least a bit) for having allowed Zod to keep the fight where so many lives of the planet Jesus...er rather Superman chose over Krypton. Him Killing Zod...he's done it in the comics and it was a fairly major element in the mythos for a while - a moment of regret and the only time he took the life.

But essentially, your point that that Pacific Rim is more hopeful and proactive about saving lives compared to two of the more hopeful and protective fictional properties is well taken.
Brian R
17. Mayhem
@Ursula
Great post. I also felt a very similar effect in the UK from those who lived and worked through the IRA bombings who were initially extremely sympathetic, but rapidly lost most of the sympathy when the US reacted more like a spoiled child than a reasoning adult. And lost the rest when the UK followed them down the rabbit hole.

@13
Well put.
I almost feel the whole idea of a great deal of modern action films is to remove the civilian population from even being in the picture. No civilians, no collateral damage except to insurance companies. And we can blow up anything at all. Look at the Transformers films, which are almost the Top Gun recruitment films of today with big war machines showing off and only empty desert being damaged. Look at say The Expendables 2, which invented an empty Soviet replica of an american town to have their battle in.
Compare with say the Avengers and The Dark Knight or Dark Knight Rises, where the effects of terror on the civilian population is initially highlighted and focussed upon (the bank staff/the ferries and bombs/the stadium) if then swiftly cast aside for more boom boom effects (Get these people off the streets / everyone stay indoors ) etc.

Contrast with others of Sly Stallones like Rambo III, or the recent John Rambo where in both the affected civilian population in turn becomes The Cavalry to save the heroes at the end of the film. Even if those films do have a very different tone to them, they at least try and show the effects of war and conflict on those that fight it and those that survive in it. I really liked the french Special Forces film for much the same reasons.
NinjaMeTimbers
18. Total
As others have pointed out, drone warfare is actually much *less* likely to inflict civilian casualties than just about any other kind of war. Civilian fatalities from strategic bombing in World War II numbered in the tens of thousands *per raid* with the biggest ones (Dresden, Tokyo) going over 100,000 dead. This was distant from Americans in the same way that drone war is now and treated with much the same disregard.

And I've watched lots of war movies from the 1940s and 50s and I don't remember seeing a lot of civilians getting threatened by them (except perhaps in the obligatory "family in the cellar of the ruined house"). This is especially true of war movies about the Pacific (quick! How many civilians died in the Battle of Okinawa?)
Aeria Lynn
19. aeria_lynn
First, STID had the crash in San Francisco. The bomb went off in London.

Second, I think you don't know how much media has influenced the issue in the 30 or so years since Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, media used to show both dead and dying in the United States. Showing the dying upset the U.S. population highly, so much so that it is now illegal to show someone dying on the news. This rule is a United States only rule. If you watched 9/11 coverage, you would know that no US stations showed people jumping out of the buildings. These images and video were shown on Spanish speaking stations, on European stations, and on other foreign stations.

Third, the deaths of these victims are not the focus of the story.in ID4, the mass deaths were important to the story, so got billing time. A story choice not necessarily to your liking, understandably.

Fourth, I think the lack of reaction on the Enterprise's part is completely natural for reasons you are deliberately ignoring. The B-Team was on the bridge. Too many things had flooded their adrenaline system. Khan's ship had been toast. The ship went by too fast to react. No one had had time to see what they could or did have working. And the tech was known to be buggy. I thought the lack of action and the focus on reaction was natural.

I'm not saying your concerns aren't justified, but that the issue is significantly more nuanced than I think you realized.
Ursula L
20. Ursula
Total @18 wrote:
As others have pointed out, drone warfare is actually much *less* likely to inflict civilian casualties than just about any other kind of war.
Is it? It is certainly in the US's interest to claim that drone strikes are less likely to harm civilians.

But I have not seen any release of general data for third party analysis. No information on the number of drone strikes, the number of casualties, the breakdown of casualities by age, sex, religion, military status, etc.

Nothing also on how military status is determined - for example a casuality who is "male, over the age of 14" does not equate with "military."

This is important.

In the context of WWII, the casualty rates estimated at the time were very inaccurate. The people doing the bombing had an interest in making the bombings seem as destructive and effective as possible. The nations on the receiving end had an interest in downplaying the casualty rate, and downplaying the way in which the bombings affected their industrial infrastructure, while playing up the damages to innocent civilians.

It was only after the war that objective understanding of the effects of the bombings could even begin. And even now, over half a century later, the numbers are still being revised, as Eastern Bloc documentation becomes available, and as time and distance helps make the situation easier to understand in an abstract and objective way.

Even with drones, the size of a target is "a house" or "a section of a house including several rooms."

That is not accurate enough to ensure that the victims are specific individuals and not innocent people whom happen to be in the target area at the time.

This distinction is very, very important.

Because if your spouse and/or children are killed by a bomb, it does not matter to you if the bomb was delivered by a plane, or by a soldier throwing a grenade, or by a drone. Dead babies are dead babies.

At the very least, there needs to be a presumption that any analysis of effectiveness and collateral damage done by the party that threw the bombs is inherently suspect due to a powerful conflict of interest.
NinjaMeTimbers
21. Erehwonnz
I'll certainly agree with the issue of facelessness, although that might very well be dealt with in the next film if Into Darkness was any indication (neither Kirk's too-quick promotion nor the destruction of Vulcan were really tackled until the next film).

I'm not sure I can agree with the idea that the movie argues that lives are the price of freedom, however. Wasn't the major point of Into Darkness that we have majorly strayed from our lofty, humanistic ideals and our exploratory urges? That every bad thing in this film is an example of what happens when we fail as a society? I don't see a narrative that suggests that lives are the price we pay for safety; rather, the wrongheadedness of the governing entities in that film brought about the eventual loss of life. If anything, the end of Into Darkness speaks to the Roddenberry idealism that has been missing in Abram's Trek, I think.
NinjaMeTimbers
22. Nico_F
Most of the destruction on Metropolis is caused by the terraforming machine Superman was trying to deactivate in the other side of the world, Zod vs Superman did little more than crashing through some walls like cannonballs. So blaming it all in Superman is quite unfair. He can´t take the fight away either, Zod wants to cause as much damage as possible, so he´s always targetting the city.

Star Trek, on the other side... while activating the torpedoes was the only solution available at that moment, letting Khan believe his whole family had died wasn´t Spock´s best idea.
NinjaMeTimbers
23. trjm
@8 - Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing is worth sticking on the reading list, too.

@21 - I thought Into Darkness (or Stid! as Adam Roberts is calling it) was an almost complete mess, but the subtext you mention here is one of the handful of things I liked about it. The missiles Marcus wants to point at Khan, and the clandestine manner of the assassination, seem to be saying that this is not the Starfleet we know - it is one not averse to drone strikes and extra-judicial killing. It's interesting that it pulls in some of the post-Roddenberry ST stuff along with this: Marcus's affiliation with Section 31. The film seems to be saying that it's only when all this is consigned to history that we will be able to enter the future Roddenberry imagined - so the film moves from drone strikes through Section 31 through to the beginning of the five year mission.

At the same time, though, it's very much having its cake and eating it - there's an insoluble tension between this subtext and the disaster porn on display. The audience is invited to attend to the message, and at the same time enjoy the widespread destruction.
NinjaMeTimbers
24. PhoenixFalls
@22: But Superman and Zod 'crashing through walls like cannonballs' caused entire skyscrapers to collapse multiple times -- the imagery was actually so similar to the collapse of the twin towers that my partner and I left the movie feeling uncomfortable, and convinced that Snyder wouldn't have been allowed to film it that way (or at least, not without controversy!) if he was destroying New York instead of Metropolis.
NinjaMeTimbers
25. Nico_F
I´m no architect, but I´d guess a skyscraper shouldn´t go down by just that. Odd enough, it´s nothing new either. The last episode of Justice League Unlimited had Kal punching Darkseid through buildings.

I´m quite surprised by how soon films "recovered" from 11-S. I didn´t expect to see New York demolished in decades at least, but it took almost no time. The worst is they make a show out of it. Pacific Rim at least had people going into shelters, other films look like buildings are empty. There quite a contrast between these blockbusters and let´s say Akira, where you can see how devastating such an event would be.
NinjaMeTimbers
26. Total
Is it?

Yes, it is.

The casualty estimates for most of the drone strikes come from the nations hit (ie Pakistan and Yemen) not the US. Thus, your first point is wrong. The casualty estimates from World War II have been worked on by historians for decades, using British, American, and the targeted nations records (Germany was particularly good at keeping those records). They may not be precise, but they are not off by the thousands.

Are you really making the argument that the drone strikes are killing thousands of people? Because that's what it would take to bring it even into the realm of what strategic bombing was doing 1941-45.

Let's remember that the total number of civilian dead in World War II (not soldiers, but civilians) was somewhere between 20-30 million.
NinjaMeTimbers
27. Total
The "Is it" above should have been italicized.
Ursula L
28. Ursula
The only way to figure out whether the civilian death rate from drone strikes is morally acceptable is to have a thorough third-party analysis of the data. The US government's data is suspect - the US government has an interest in making it look like the US isn't harming civilians. The data from the governments of places like Yemen and Pakistan is suspect - they have an interest in making it look like they can protect their population from US aggression.

It is mind-boggling that the government of Pakestan can be considered an ally of the US in the "war on terror" even as the US is dropping bombs in Pakistan. Concepts of ally and enemy become meaningless in such a situation.

Who is out there looking at things purely in the intrest of the people at the other end of the drone strikes? No one.

Before we can draw any conclusions about the morality and effectiveness of drone strikes, we need the raw data on the strikes from the US and from every nation targeted in the strikes. All of this needs to be cross-referenced, to look for consistancy and disparity between different accounts of what is happening.

Then we need neutral third-party researchers on the ground in every place where these strikes have happened, determinging exactly what happened from a local point of view. What was damaged? Who was injured or killed? Did local authorities maintain accurate records? Did national authorities accept and invistigate all reports of harm done?

Until we have an objective analysis of what happened, we can't judge that these strikes are moral. And objective means not only not relying on US data, but also recognizing when a government, the US or any other, has an interest in either exagerating or downplaying data.

Such as in order to make it look like they aren't standing by and letting another nation bomb their citizens with impunity.

The movies in question in the original blog post on this thread are very much about ignoring the information on the ground, in favor of focusing on a heroic official story.

Which is pretty much what is happening with the drone strikes. The US government has a heroic story to tell. The goverernments of the people targeted by these strikes have their own heroic stories, and those stories don't include these governments being powerless against US agression and having no way to stop a foreign power from bombing their population.

Let organizations such as the International Red Cross, Amnisty International, and other groups focused on international peace and justice at the raw data, and free access to do research in the target areas. Once they've done their work, we can start to speculate on the possibility of drone strikes being moral.

Until then, a bomb is a bomb, and someone killed by a bomb is equally dead whether it is dropped from a plane, or thrown by a soldier, or aimed by a drone. And bombs from drones get no ethical pass just because they come from a drone rather than any of the many other ways bombs can be dropped.

In the meantime, the US is being morally idiotic, imagining that someone who has had a loved one killed by a US bomb will judge the morality of that killing as being any different if the bomb was from a drone rather than any other means of delivery.

It is as heartless as the Enterprise crew celebrating their last-minute safety, while ignoring the people dying below them, because the people dying below them are only dying because they managed to get their enemy's spaceship to crash, neutralizing that enemy.
NinjaMeTimbers
29. Total
@Ursula You've posted a lot of words, but haven't answered my question: do you think that drone strikes are killing thousands of people (the only thing that would bring them even close to strategic bombing raids during World War II)?

The rest of it is handwaving: yes, Pakistan's figures are unreliable, but they would be more likely to exaggerate the number of dead rather than minimize. This analysis was convincing enough for you to use it in your first response to me, so why are you backing off it now?
NinjaMeTimbers
30. Total
And just as a followup, the independent Bureau of Investigative Journalism (not connected to the US government) has attempted a running count of total drone casualties, here:

http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/drone-data/

Total reported fatalities: 2500-3500

That doesn't even come close to *one* strategic bombing raid during World War II.
Marc Gioglio
31. Fuzzix
I think it has more to do with working class citizens and the hope we feel. In an earlier era, the working class was lifted up by large companies offering decent wages, medical benefits and a real chance at improvement. Now, there's Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, BOA, outsourcing, offshoring, downsizing, rightsizing, etc. There is nothing like Superman who is helping to elevate or even respect the working class. We are just fodder in a war of titans, and our lack of screentime indicates the now negligible value of working class citizens, alive or dead.
Ursula L
32. Ursula
The total reported fatalities, as you've cited, is in the thousands.

So yes, by your numbers, US drone strikes are killing thousands of people.

And unless and until the US releases the raw data on drone strikes, and the various governments of the target nations release the raw data on drone strikes, and investigators can move freely through both the US and the target nations investigating the strikes, questioning both the people on the ground and the soldiers involved in the strikes, then those numbers can only count as an initial minimum estimate, not a final number.

But my main point is that bombs are bombs, and the way in which the US is trying to treat drone strikes as something other than bombing is immorral and conter-factual.

And it is immoral and counter-factual in the same way that the Enterprise crew celebrating their narrow escape is immoral and counter-factual when a city burns below them, killed because their enemy's spaceship crashed into it, as a result of the conflict between the Enterprise and the other spaceship.
NinjaMeTimbers
33. Total
"The total reported fatalities, as you've cited, is in the thousands"

So, now, you're accepting the numbers?

The total numbers over a decade+ of drone warfare is (at max) about 3500.

The total number of fatalities for stratetic bombing raids over 4 years + was well over a million.

Those are not remotely comparable.

You may find them so, but the nearly million people who survived drone strikes who *didn't* survive strategic bombing raids would (I bet) disagree.

You exaggerate the drone strikes and grossly diminish the strategic bombing by finding them comparable and that's immoral all by itself.
Ursula L
34. Ursula
I'm not accepting your numbers as accurate.

I'm accepting your numbers as a minimum death rate that even you are willing to accept as happening and true. Without accepting these numbers as any limit on the possible maximum death rate.

And I'm saying that a death toll in the thousands, as you concede, is wrong.

If you are doing things that kill thousands of people, (as you have cited) the burden of proof is not on proving that what you are doing is wrong, but rather on proving that what you are doing is right.

And not just right in a "we could kill more people if we wanted to, but we didn't" sense.

The burden of proof is "killing these thousands of people is a net good in the world that could not be achieved in any other way but by killing these thousands of people, and every individual killed has been considered for their culpability in any wrong in the world, and the death toll reflects effective action in stopping wrongdoers, not the murder of innocents."
NinjaMeTimbers
35. Total
"I'm accepting your numbers as a minimum death rate that even you are willing to accept as happening and true. Without accepting these numbers as any limit on the possible maximum death rate."

And the maximum is up in the millions? The drone strikes have killed millions of Pakistanis and Yemenis and Somalis? Because that would have to be the case to be equivalent to strategic bombing.

"If you are doing things that kill thousands of people, (as you have cited) the burden of proof is not on proving that what you are doing is wrong, but rather on proving that what you are doing is right."

I'm not arguing that the drone strikes are right, I'm pointing out that strategic bombing in WWII was much much (MUCH!) worse.

But let me ask a question: if the drone strikes had only killed about 3500 people do you think that they would be morally equivalent to strategic bombing campaigns that had killed a million + ?
Junsok Yang
36. yanjuna
I think it's always been a tradition in SF TV and movies. Every dozen shows or so, Star Trek (Original Series) used to kill off whole solar systems (Immunity Syndrome comes to mind) with just a mention or two - I think Spock once mentioned casualties in the millions, which was then forgotten. Then there's Alderaan in Star Wars - at least a few dozen millions to billions of casualties?
And the worst case is probably GI Joe: Retaliation (Don't ask why I saw it). They destroyed a substantial chunk of London, and not only was it *boring*, but not even the UK representative seemed to care.
Heather Jones
37. JourneywomanJones
I remember having this problem with The Avengers... as long as our heros came out alright on the other side, it didn't matter what (or who) was destroyed in the process.
Birgit
38. birgit
I'm not arguing that the drone strikes are right, I'm pointing out that strategic bombing in WWII was much much (MUCH!) worse.

It doesn't make sense to compare the two, that is why it is irrelevant that the absolute numbers in WWII might have been higher. Drones murder people in foreign countries and justify it as "they were terrorists." And American propaganda calls this fighting for democracy. How is murdering people without a court process democracy? And if civilians die nobody really cares because it's all happening far away. How many people became terrorists because they see it as the only way to fight back against this American "justice"? It's hardly surprising if the same attitude appears in American movies.
Gerd K
39. Kah-thurak
I dont really know how this thread ended up comparing the "collataral damage" of assassinations via drones (i.e. the "accepted" side effect of killing civilians that are close the target of the assassination) to the intended mass killing of civilians via strategic bombing in WWII. This really does not make any sense. For one, as stated above, the aim of the strategic bombing of german/japanese cities in WWII was to kill as many civilians as possible to "break the will" of the people to wage war. This was not a war crime at that time, because the corresponding laws had not been updated to the possibillties the then new technologies allowed for (and because winning a war means that you get to define which acts commited in it were "criminal" and which were not to a large part). Today these acts would naturally have been war crimes, and proabably most governments would be unable to survive having ordered such things for a very long time. The drone thing tries to circumvent this by keeping the scale down and the events lagerly out of sight. Legally and morally they are again in a grey area, while the connection to Blockbuster movies remains dubious to me.
NinjaMeTimbers
40. Total
It doesn't make sense to compare the two, that is why it is irrelevant that the absolute numbers in WWII might have been higher. Drones murder people in foreign countries and justify it as "they were terrorists." And American propaganda calls this fighting for democracy. How is murdering people without a court process democracy? And if civilians die nobody really cares because it's all happening far away. How many people became terrorists because they see it as the only way to fight back against this American "justice"? It's hardly surprising if the same attitude appears in American movies.

It certainly does make sense to compare the two. All the things you specify about drone warfare were true about strategic bombing: it murdered civilians in foreign countries and justified it because they were enemies, the US did it in the name of democracy, and the home front didn't really care because it was happening so far away. If you look at some of the rhetoric, you could replace "Pearl Harbor" with "9/11" and it would look distinctly modern.

They are absolutely comparable and I haven't even mentioned the atomic bombings of Japan yet.

This was not a war crime at that time, because the corresponding laws had not been updated to the possibillties the then new technologies allowed for

It's not actually that clear cut. The 1923 Hague Act on Aerial Bombardment was never put into force, but there was a general law about targeting civilians that spoke of "military necessity" as the guiding principle. So it depends on whether the Allied bombing met that standard.

and because winning a war means that you get to define which acts commited in it were "criminal" and which were not to a large part

Well, yes and no. The Allies may have used strategic bombing and won, but they then promptly outlawed it in 1949.
Gerd K
41. Kah-thurak
@Total
Obviously more can be said on the lawfulness of strategic bombing. Though the bottomline is pretty much what I have written.

The main point remains: compairing an act that is supposed to kill as many civilians as possible with one that is supposed to kill one specific person by compairing the number of civilians killed in both is not really sensible. The result is pretty obvious.
NinjaMeTimbers
42. Total
Though the bottomline is pretty much what I have written.

I think we disagree on that.

The main point remains: compairing an act that is supposed to kill as many civilians as possible with one that is supposed to kill one specific person by compairing the number of civilians killed in both is not really sensible. The result is pretty obvious.

The point of the blog post was to talk about how much worse things have gotten in terms of American indifference to civilian fatalities. Given that, pointing out that American indifference to strategic bombing in World War II was an indifference to millions of deaths seems completely appropriate.
Katharine Duckett
43. Katharine
Thanks for keeping the discussion civil thus far, everyone, but I've noticed this thread getting a little heated, so I just want to remind everyone of our moderation policy. Thank you!
Shelly wb
44. shellywb
Is there a way to ignore comment threads?

Anyway, the original post is an interesting one, and after some thought I think it's less a question of change over time and more one of Bugs Bunny cartoon vs a more serious cartoon mentality (Grave of the Fireflies, anyone?). There will always be those who like making "blow 'em up real good" movies and frankly, I enjoy those sometimes too, so long as they're kept in perspective. But too there will always be those who know the human connection and recognition of price of war are what makes a battle movie emotional and something to think about. The good ones have always done that, even while making a spectacle of the destruction.

I think if anything has changed over time, maybe it's our general level of discussion about how in the background behind all the cool explosions, unless explained otherwise, people are being hurt. And that's a positive.
Caryn Cameron
45. galeni
Yes.

And in the Star Trek: Reboot we see thousands of cadets going out in starships to meet the threat, and by the time the Enterprises reaches that space they are all blown up. And yet no mention of those deaths or any mourning or any acknowledgement at all is ever made.

I watched the Disney flick, Wreck-It Ralph, where torture and abandonment and tasering sentient beings are used for laughs.

This links in the discussions on privilege -- the viewer feels safe so it's okay to ignore the feelings of those not the viewer, whether it be flood victims in China or the Phillipines or Syrian refuges or women victimized by college athletes or merely that one is safely in a movie theatre watching the action. They just aren't seen as people, being Not Us.

It is horribly wrong.
NinjaMeTimbers
46. Mattyoung
Maybe instead of our films reflecting back the propaganda of the present, our films, especially our fantasy films, should inspire something better. And if they do reflect our present, surely they could delve into the consequences?

This is a very good point. I know that after a few rounds of previews, this summer could be subtitled "Blockbusters 2013: America FINALLY Starts Working Through Some Stuff!" In our war on terror (and on other bad feelings) we've had government administrations that censor any images that would stain their narrative of our military actions with loss or pain or death. We also see them crow about the lack of casualties on our end while ignoring the (to me) much more horrifying reality of maimed and mutilated soldiers kept alive (we're much better at keeping people from dying these days) but far from whole.

The sterility of our government's official narrative, the curious absense of collateral damage in blockbusters (which perhaps isn't as different from previous films, but feels different because we can no longer ignore it because we can't as @Ursala said "externalize the human costs of war" any longer. US citizens have been lucky to be so insulated for so long from the effects of international violence, and it seems sometimes that our government is desperately trying to keep us insulated and keep the genie back in the bottle so we're not bothered and don't bother them.

What frustrates me is how these movies mirror the people that made them: hugely traumatic events happen, and in response (i.e. in the epilogue of the films) everyone goes back to normal, burying their heads in the sand and, (SPOILER) in Star Trek: The Fast & The Furious's case, breathtakingly ignoring the corruption of Starfleet and going off to to la-tee-dah in deep space.

I appreciate @Total's reminder that, if I'm understanding you right, that the violence of things like the war on terror (and on other icky feelings) and drone strikes spare many more lives than would have been taken in similar assaults in past generations, but @Ursala's point that, regardless of how many people we're killing, killing is itself wrong and our technology isn't sophisticated enough to prevent additional innocent deaths. We don't have the special scope from Iron Man where Tony can look at a crowd of people, target just the bad guys, and then shoot them with shoulder rockets. A drone would take everyone out and falable politicians would report twice as many "enemy combatants" because no one wants to be the bad guy. And we have to be very careful that we don't drift further into become bad guys.

Roddenberry's original vision was a hopeful one, and from what I see of Star Trek Into Darkness, that vision was so foreign to JJ Abrams that he spent an entire movie making the opposite and then tacked a prologue to the original series onto it and hoped no one will notice.
NinjaMeTimbers
47. Raul Colon
The first time I saw this phenomenon in REAL life was during the first War in Iraq. We saw video of hundreds of Iraqi military vehicles completely destroyed for miles and miles, but there was not even one body to be seen. Obviously someone had taken the time to remove thousands of casualties out before any pictures were taken. Everything cleaned up for our visual consumption. Nothing like footage from VietNam or WWII where you could see the true carnage of war. Somebody doesn't want us to see it, obviously.
Alan Brown
48. AlanBrown
The massive strategic bombing of civilian population centers was wrong when we did it in WWII--we got sucked into a total war mentality and crossed lines we never should have crossed, regardless of provocation. Regardless of specific legalities, the targeting of civilian populations has NEVER fit into anything resembling a theory of Just War. The reason no one ever paid for crossing those lines is largely the fact that we won, and victors rarely put themselves on trial.
The drone issue is troubling and morally ambiguous at best. Success in warfare consists of finding and neutralizing your enemy's center of gravity. But in our war against terrorists, this gets messy real quick--we are in conflict with a network of individuals, and the centers of gravity in this case are individual leaders, and their means of communication. Targeting the means of communication have drawn us into activities like those of the NSA that are currently under scrutiny. And drones have become the primary means of going after those leaders. But drones are not a terror weapon--the innocent lives are not a deliberate target of those drones (as they are in a terrorist bombing attack). When innocents are killed by a drone strike, it is either due to an error in targeting, or the proximity of those innocents to the people we intended to kill.
Another center of gravity in the struggle against the terrorists is the war of ideas, and winning of hearts and minds, and unfortunately, drones tend to be working against the US in that area, especially in the Middle East.
In any event, the US is now taking steps to curb the drone program, and transfer it from the spy agencies to the military, which are positive steps.
Regarding the movies--fiction always mirrors the times it was written in, regardless of the era portrayed. Western movies of recent decades are a whole different genre than the westerns I watched in black and white when I was a kid. I think that 9/11 woke people in the US up to the fact that the world is a brutal place--the huge impact that event had was because we had largely felt ourselves apart from warfare--it was something that happened overseas, not at home. As to the lack of portrayal of death amongst all the ruined buildings--I think it is similar to the cowboys who simply clutched their chests and fell to the ground in those westerns from my youth--we like violence in our entertainment, but get squeamish about seeing the actual consequences of violence.
A very interesting article, and I appreciate everyone who has been contributing to this thoughtful discussion in a meaningful way.
NinjaMeTimbers
49. diles1
While Pacific Rim has its share of property destruction the difference is in the value of human life. It is mentioned again and again in the movie that the purpose of the Jaegers is to protect humans, to prevent deaths. Indeed the first scene of the movie shows a Jaeger team risking their lives to save the crew of a ship off the coast of Alaska. It’s not just about pummeling the monsters, it’s about saving humanity.

Consider how Man of Steel treats this. It is in fact mentioned in the film that Superman can "save all of them." In roughly half a dozen scenes (bus, rig, soldier from helicopter, Colonel Hardy, Lois Lane multiple times) Superman saves people from immediate physical harm (he also tells people in Smalville to go inside and lock their doors, clearly nevous himself). In Pacific Rim, do we know if the people in the boat survive? It was an extremely violent fight and they were very close. Presumably they do, but do we know? Moreover, that encounter between Jaeger and kaiju actually suggests they DO NOT feel they are threatend. It is their cocky behavior that gets the main character's partner killed and the Jaeger half-destroyed.

When Jor-El tells Kal-El that Kal can "save all of them," he is referring to all of humanity. Literally, in the next few (presumably) days, humanity will be physically annihilated without action from Superman. It's not just about saving a city or people in skyscrapers. If Superman does not destroy the World Engine and the main ship, then mankind is doomed. Notice how Pacific Rim treats this. People are evacuated, yes, but the death toll in Pacific Rim HAS to be magnitudes greater than that of Man of Steel. The entire premise of the movie rests on the necessity to "fight" these monsters, despite the fact that the conflict need not even extend beyond the ocean floor (we have weapons that can deal with kaiju the moment they arrive). Superman's fight with Zod is clearly a case of a stronger but inexperienced being fighting a weaker but well-trained being who is hell-bent on murdering as many people as he can. Zod controls the location of the fight far more than Superman. If Superman "goes to a wheat field or a rock quarry," Zod will simply stay in Metropolis and start laser-blasting the first floors of every skyscraper he can get his eyes on. In the actual fight between the two, only two buildings collapse: a skyscraper on the rim of the gravity field and a parking garage (notice that Superman is surprised when the truck explodes behind him and the garage starts falling, but immediately Zod starts swinging). In Pacific Rim, it is "disaster porn" like nothing since 2012.

I enjoy these posts and discussions, but they tend to be, for my understanding, simply too short-sighted. As many commentors have noted, the argument that drone strikes herald a new era of faceless victims is factually suspect.

Ostensibly these drones are tasked to go after high profile targets, but all too often they kill civilians. It’s rare that anyone in the government speaks about these civilians—how many of them, who they are. They are nameless and faceless. They don’t matter to the narrative that’s being told. We’re not reminded often enough that thousands have died in drone strikes in Pakistan over the past 9 years. It’s not stressed that over a hundred of those deaths were children.

It is actually harder to put faces on the millions of people killed in strategic bombing campaigns, as so many WWII movies also failed to do. This, of course, during the age of television and the Internet. Imagine attempts to truly convey the devastation wrought by, say, American forces in the Philippines in first years of the 20th century (quarter of a million to a million civilians dead). Some commentors here note this may herald NOT an era of faceless victims (it clearly does not), but an era in which we are more conscious and informed of the process by which governments frame war. This may or may not be true, but the idea that Man of Steel (not tlaking abot Star Trek in this comment) is part of some new trend has face value only if that trend is the capacity of filmmakers to portray convincing destruction through CGI.

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