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7 June 2010

The reality of war? Politics written on the body

War has become increasingly sanitised, mundane and abstract.

By Kevin McSorley

Only One of Them Uses Colgate – Gerald Laing

The bodies of combatants and civilians are largely absent from the ways in which we think and talk about war. In the media and the wider culture, in our rituals and in our politics, war has become sanitised, disembodied.

The toll of war casualties has become a numerical ticker, individual bodies and lives eclipsed by the significance of places such as RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett as symbols of repatriation and national remembrance. The deaths and suffering of ordinary Afghan civilians no longer even attain the earlier ignominy of being “collateral damage”, such is their abstraction from the mythic narratives of Operation Enduring Freedom.

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Dear Mum – Steve Pratt

For decades, military strategists, seduced by the hi-tech promises of smart weaponry, global surveillance and unmanned Predator drones, have fetishised the technological over the human. The same abstract aesthetic organises contemporary “militainment”.

The video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 — available with no equipment shortages, no PTSD, and unlimited virtual lives — was the most financially successful cultural product ever on its launch last year. YouTube and online trophy-rooms such as abound with display-screen footage of shadowy, disembodied figures eliminated from afar.

Actor 5, Fake Iraq – Nicholas Grider

And yet, war cannot exist without physical bodies. The mobilisation, militarisation and disciplining of bodies is needed to carry out war. Civilian and combatant bodies are traumatised, mutilated and destroyed through war. The reality of war is not just politics by any other means, but politics written on the body.

This central fact underpins the War and the Body exhibition at the Blackall Studios in London. The 11 artists exhibiting, from the renowned pop artist Gerald Laing to ex-SAS soldier Steve Pratt, attempt to bring the body back into our thinking about war. Their work highlights how, above all else, it is bodies that are affected by, and fundamental to, war.

War and the Body runs from 8-13 June at Blackall Studios, London EC1.

Dr Kevin McSorley is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Portsmouth.