The Just War

The Cine-Files, issue 11 (fall 2016)

Vicki Callahan

Associate Professor, School of Cinematic Arts, USC


How to respond to this “emergency”[1] in which we find ourselves?  It is the weekend before a deadlocked trial resumes in Charleston on Monday to determine if a decision can be reached in the Michael Slager trial, a policeman charged with shooting an unarmed Walter Scott in the back, after a traffic stop for a broken taillight. It is also the weekend before the opening statement in the Dylann Roof death penalty trial for the mass murder of nine churchgoers at the Emanuel AME church in the same city. And it is four days after the shooting of an unarmed Joe McKnight following a New Orleans traffic incident by a white motorist, who was placed in custody and then discharged. And two weeks since the last hospital remaining in East Aleppo was destroyed and three months since the photo and video of a five year old Syrian Omar Daqneesh’s shell-shocked face went viral.

The relentless violence connected to longstanding structures of injustice is relayed to us in a stream of images, whose ubiquity sit next to barely veiled institutional support from local, national, and global forces. The media onslaught induces typically a “compassion fatigue” that leads us to believe this moment of crisis is unending, unstoppable.  Indeed the latest solution, if our national election is to be a guide, is more violence, more anger, and more firepower sent into the fray.

The video essay can be utilized as a form of media intervention, which Gregory Ulmer calls the “MEmorial,” whereby we move from the passive consumption model of media to a personally engaged critical interrogation of the media spectacle of violence that pervades our screens with no path to resolution.  The MEmorial works not through the reproduction of the “objective” flow of information overlaid with didactic insight but rather as Ulmer notes: “The MEmorial process begins as a collection of scenes (fragments) that return our gaze, that resonate for us due to some glint of recognition. It is easy to find public relays for these personal, idiosyncratic connections.” [2]  The MEmorial draws us into events and history personally with a “blow of recognition (I could be her).” [3]  In this context, the video essay becomes a “testimonial” of sorts, one in which the “witness” may well be outside the events but has made a connection to the material through a metonymic slide that has made selections that resonate with past personal experiences.

The insight guiding this sequence is that the news story that stings me does so because of its aura. The story is somehow not new but a reminder of some­thing I already know or should know. It is fundamentally uncanny. The arts include many works that explore a connection between incidents reported in the news and personal experience. [4]

In my video essay, The Just War, the exploration of the senseless escalation and repetition of violence is traced from the West’s “good war” of WWII to today’s drone warfare but extends to the forces whether locally or internationally that continues to imagine a “just” or “reasonable” cause for the deaths in London, Hiroshima, and Pakistan bombings to the aerial shootings by US forces of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh in Baghdad (seen in Wikileaks footage) to Omar Daqneesh, and indeed, Walter Scott and the Emanuel AME churchgoers.

For me, the “uncanny moment” of connection is Edward Murrow’s 1940 radio broadcast of “The London Blitz.”  It is only a voice of the event that I began with and yet this audio file immediately returned me to memories of my mother recounting her experience as a teenager during the London bombings in WWII.  My memory of her stories forms audio equivalents of the still and video images of Omar Daqneesh – filled with both terror and detachment — a relay of a trauma that cannot be forgotten or easily forgiven and with far reaching personal and cultural impact for generations. As horrific as the Blitz was, the response by the Allied forces with the atomic bombings of Japan was to increase the destruction and horror. The cycle of endless violence through “justified” military and police actions continues today with seemingly no end in sight. As Aung San Suu Kyi asks: “are we not educated enough, are we not intelligent enough….to find solutions which are not violent?”  She answers her question by pointing to the need for education and in this way, the video essay, and the MEmorial can be seen as pedagogical tools that connect the personal and the political in a public place.  Here they should serve as a site for debate but also for place of dialogue, that is, other MEmorials, that move from the spectacle of violence to a memory of our humanity.


[1] Gregory Ulmer. Electronic Monuments. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), vii-xxxv.

[2] Ibid., 64.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Ibid., 65.



Aung San Suu Kyi Q&A.  “Democracy & Non-Violence.”

YouTube video, 9: 48.  Posted by U-Vision HKU, Jul. 2011.

BBC News. ”Many Dead in Nairobi Shopping Mall Shooting.”  Sept. 2013. YouTube video, 2:30.   Posted by Newstore, Sept. 2013.

Bravenewfoundation. “Living Under Drones.” 2011. YouTube video, 6:59. Sept. 2012.

British Pathé. “Hiroshima Victims + Nuclear Holocaust Test Footage at Bikini.”  1946. YouTube video, 4:51.  Aug. 2011.

CAPTION, “Infographic: The CIA’s Drone War in Pakistan 2004-2015,” YouTube video, 3:43. Jul 2016.

“Collateral Murder – Wikileaks – Iraq.”  April 2010. YouTube video, 17:46.  Posted by Sunshine Press, April 2010.

Democracy Now! “As U.S. Drone Strikes Escalate in Pakistan, ‘Kill List’ Stirs Fears of High Civilian Toll.” YouTube video, 12:59. Jun 2012.

GB government film. “London Can Take It.”  October 1940.

YouTube video, 8:53. Posted by National Archives UK, May 2008.

Khan, Imran, interviewed by Yvonne Ridley, “Face to Face.”

YouTube video, 6:45. Posted by PressTV, Dec. 2009.

Murrow, Edward. “The London Blitz.” Aug 1940.  YouTube video, Posted by Easyplex, Mar. 2008.

Ulmer, Gregory.  Electronic Monuments. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Webber, Julian Lloyd.  “Faure ’S Elegy. [nd] YouTube video, 7:00.

Posted by Gindobray 2007.

Zinn, Howard, interviewed by Mark Gordon, “Just War.” May 2006. YouTube video, 6:00.  Posted by Looking East, Jan. 2010.


The Cine-Files, issue 11 (fall 2016)