Watching war—watching death happen broadcasted “live”—has an old pedigree. The mechanism is as ancient as war itself—or rather as old as the oldest existent war narrative: in book 3 of the Iliad, the Trojan princes gather around Helen at the top of the city walls (the Scaean Gates) to watch the single duel between Paris and Menelaus. “And who’s that Achaean there, so stark and grand?” asks Priam. Helen identifies Agamemnon for him, and then the rest of Priam’s major enemies: Odysseus, Ajax, Idomeneus.
The whole passage, which in the classical studies tradition is called the Τειχοσκοπία (or Teichoscopia, “The Viewing from the Walls”), is absurd, some Iliadic commentators have pointed out since antiquity. For how could Priam not know his mortal adversaries personally, ten years into that devastating war? “It is generally considered that the episode, in an altered form, originally belonged to an early stage of the war and has been transposed to its present place for the purposes of the monumental Iliad,” G.S. Kirk, a leading Homeric scholar of the 20th century, explains.
What counts for the poet, of course, is the dramatic effect: a man and king, Priam, is plausibly going to watch the death of his son from the top of the walls. The same effect takes places again in Book 22, and this time carries on greater tragic overtones. From the very same spot Priam, and his wife Hecuba, and his daughter in law Andromache, will watch as in the giant screen of a movie theater how “the most violent of men” (Achilles) kills Priam’s son and sole protector of Troy, Hector. To top the feelings of grief, the characters watching from the wall know well that Hector’s death means in reality the soon-to-come destruction of Troy.
The passage in the 2004 Hollywood production “Troy” replicates the “Viewing from the Walls.” The film captures in essence all the tragic overtones of the poem, but adds some melodramatic effects, and touches of mushy sentimentalism, in the way of typical Hollywood dramas. It also eliminates fragments of the original Greek narrative, especially those that show Hector’s fear or inner deliberation: the producers wanted to accommodate the tragic figure of Hector to the spotless image of the modern male warrior, who is supposed to be “glorious” and brave at all times, even in the face of certain death.
I watched recently Ridley Scott’s 2007 Kingdom of Heaven. About mid-way through the film, another Teichoscopia: at the Battle of Kerak, from the walls of the citadel, Sybilla watches the charge of Balian’s cavalry in his way to certain death—or so the spectators from Kerak think. Another modern, Hollywood take on an ancient war narrative, recreating again the old mechanism: the spectator watches the character watching a death or life situation, or the fracas of battle, toying with the destiny of a beloved one.
A passage in Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, depicting a real-life, contemporary situation he witnessed in Taliban Afghanistan, struck me as terribly close to these Teichoscopiae. Wilkins’ narrative of the Taliban execution of a man called Atiqullah in the middle of the fully-packed Kabul soccer stadium, in September 1998 (“Only This,” chapter 1, p. 14-17), brings to mind the disturbing idea that sacrifice, revenge, and killing make spectacle, entertainment for others to watch—including the family of the victims—and admire. “In America, you have television and movies—the cinema,” one of the Afghan witnesses leaving the stadium tells Filkins, “here, there is only this.”
Fast-forward to today: It is true that the agents of radical jihad have brought the meaning of war as a spectacle to new, disturbing levels. What the Taliban were doing is at the roots of what terror groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been doing for the past ten years. But contemporary commentators have pointed out the fascination of radical jihadists with images of extreme violence and war, and the subversive effect (social) media plays in broadcasting such scenes. We are here, of course, morally thousands of miles away from the noble sacrifice of prince Hector—and IT IS NOT my intention to make a direct parallelism between the Iliad’s scenes commented above and the jihadist broadcasting of executions, decapitations, bombings, terrorist attacks, and battles. It is necessary to point out, though, that all are different manifestations of the treatment of war and violence as a spectacle.
To finish, I’ll go back to the silver screen, and I’ll point out a scene on Kathlyn Bigelow’s 2008 The Hurt Locker. It encapsulates well the essence and complexity of the theme treated here. An Iraqi civilian is filming from the top of an opposite building Jeremy Renner’s character deactivating a bomb. The civilian, we assume, is trying to document, and broadcast later almost in real time, the death of an American soldier. Bigelow’s scene speaks to us about the power of modern mass media broadcasting war, playing with the raw emotions of life and death situations, and making a spectacle out of it—whether with the intentions of serving as jihadist propaganda, at one end of the spectrum, or to feed the machine of Hollywood entertainment, at the other.