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or the first time in ten years, I recently visited my extended family and noticed two new tattoos on the forearm of a cousin. They’re fairly abstract: one is a dotted arrangement of tiny black squares; above it, a squished arrow. Like all family gatherings, with some people it’s hard to know what to talk about after so much time has passed. Attempting small talk, I ask, “What are the tattoos?” “This one is a QR code,” he tells me. A QR (or Quick Response) code is an arrangement of black-and-white squares which, like a barcode, encodes unique information that can be read by a smartphone. “It’s my full name, blood type, sex, religion, service number, the name of my old battalion. All the stuff from my dog tag when I served. The arrow is the Broad Arrow, the Commonwealth military mark. It basically means ‘property of the British Army.’” He was discharged over twenty years ago and yet the military is here, ever-present, on his body. This presence is at-once highly visible and inconspicuous, submerged in code.
A few days later, I stumbled across a new billboard at the bus stop I wait at every day. At first glance, the poster seems simple: a young man is sitting on the grass, listening to music and studying. Look again, however, and overlaid onto his body is the overbearing hull of a green-grey naval ship, replete with heavy weaponry and communications equipment. Passing through his chest is a long line of sailors, dressed in all white, standing at attention. The text reads, “IF YOU’RE EAGER TO GROW, THE NAVY CAN TAKE YOU FURTHER” and, “NAVY. THE TEAM WORKS.” Like my cousin’s forearm, the poster is accompanied by a QR code, which I use my phone to scan. It opens to the multimedia messaging application Snapchat – to a lens sponsored by the Australian Navy.
The Australian Navy’s Snapchat lens uses augmented reality technology, which enables computer graphics and digitally generated objects to be added to users’ vision of their physical surrounds (the most famous example of which is the smartphone application Pokémon GO). Since 2017, the Australian Defence Force has deployed these emergent technologies as a new method of military recruitment. Here, the seemingly inane gestures and aesthetics of social media (the selfie, facial masks, augmented reality technologies) are mobilized to foster cultures of militarism in the broader populace, and recruit young people into the formal military apparatus. As I argue, this specific Australian Navy Snapchat lens offers an insight into understanding the multiple scales at which militarism and militarization interact. As Rech (2014) underscores, there is an imperative to recognize “militarism as a global phenomenon manifest as the blurring of civilian and military spheres,” as well as to analyze localized “distinct, situated practices (like recruitment) whereby certain militarised dispositions, and a ‘becoming military,’ is fostered and taught.” (p. 258)
At its core, the Australian Navy’s use of augmented reality promises bodily transformation through the act of recruitment and “becoming military.” (Rech, 2014: 258) The front camera – the selfie view – is a facial mask, which places users’ bodies in an Australian Navy uniform and, in doing so, subtly alters their facial features. Once I don the military uniform, my skin is less blemished, my eyebrows unfurrow and are more luscious, my jawline is softened, my cheeks are rosy and my irises are widened and lightened, so as to enhance a “glimmer” in my eyes. Insofar as it widens the eyes and applies a smoothing effect to the skin, the Australian Navy’s facial mask involves a subtle whitewashing and “making youthful” of subjects’ faces. In doing so, the facial mask reproduces widely held racist and ableist assumptions that “good health” and “vitality” are synonymous with physical attributes such as rosy cheeks or lightened, widened eyes. White youthfulness, here, is projected as both the desired object and transformational outcome of enlistment.
If, as Rech (2016: 48) proposes, military recruitment is fundamentally about bodies and “their acquisition, training, use, destruction and loss,” then interrogating which or whose bodies are engaged in the anticipatory logics of recruitment is key. With the “young militaristic body” understood to be “emblematic of the nation’s future” (Rech, 2016: 47), fostering the development of, and strategically engaging, young people and children is thus key in military recruitment. Crucially, this method of recruitment targets a digital space that is predominantly inhabited by young people. Every day, 4.5 million people in Australia access Snapchat. Of this mass of daily users, 54% are under 24 years old, over one million of which are under 18 years old (Defence Connect, 2017). Indeed, although the Australian Defence Forces acknowledges that one must be legally 16 years and 6 months old to formally enlist in the military, their website includes avenues and instructions for children as young as ten years old to register their details.
This recruitment tool exploits the ubiquity of “selfie militarism,” but marks a pre-emptive and anticipatory instance of this networked phenomenon. Selfie militarism – a genre of online photography that emerges from the pre-existing tradition of “military souvenir photography” – has emerged as a dominant trend across many social media networks (Kuntsman and Stein, 2015: 77). As Kuntsman and Stein (2015: 77) write, “smartphone self-portraits of smiling Israeli recruits, with or without weapons, on or off the battlefield, are flooding Israeli and global social networks.” In the Australian Navy’s Snapchat lens, rather than circulating images captured in an explicitly defined battlefield, the user is interpellated into the imagined body of the soldier or sailor; subjects are “made military” in places as banal as their local bus stop. The technology gives you a glimpse of the selfies you could take, in the body you could have, if you just enlist.
The alternative function of the filter, on the smartphone’s back camera, projects naval portholes into your immediate surrounds. When using the lens, my environment becomes visibly and immediately militarized. A naval porthole appears floating on a towel in my bathroom, at the library, overlaid onto a friend’s face, on the sheets of my bed, at a local park. These portholes possess magnetism, quietly imploring you to reach out and tap them.
When touched, the door flings open and, like a portal, you are instantly transported into the innards of a control room, presumably in the depths of a submarine or naval ship. Accompanied by a soundtrack of motivational action music, the techno-utopian world of the control room is made to feel adventure-filled and alluring, and uncannily familiar. The placement of gaming-style chairs lined-up in front of screens, the lack of windows, the consoles, and the panels of instruments, buttons and dials means that the beating, operational heart of a military vessel feels akin to a gaming arcade or casino. As Joseph Pugliese’s (2016) research into drone control stations in suburban Nevada illustrates, the infrastructures and iconographies of contemporary gaming and militarism intersect and mirror one another in a process of “civil militarization.” “Civil militarization,” writes Pugliese (2016: 500), “articulates the colonizing of civilian sites” and “the conversion of such civilian technologies as video games and mobile phones into technologies of war.” Unlike a traditional battlefield, in the naval control room there is no sense of an imminent threat, nor of an identified enemy. The experience feels entirely abstracted and detached from the material violence and consequences of war.
These embodied and environmental transformations deployed in the Snapchat lens signify a broader attempt to reframe the popular imaginary of the military, war, and the body of the soldier to reflect the technological realities of contemporary warfare. As one advertising contractor for Defence Force Recruiting writes, “historically, the [Australian Defence Force] has employed a strong cohort of physically fit, muscle-bound personnel.” (Ball et al., 2018: 4) However, in contemporary recruitment campaigns there exists the imperative to “humanize the ADF,” (Ball et al., 2018: 5) attract “brains over brawn,” (p. 4) and reflect the operational reality that “many military tasks are much more aligned to problem solvers, as opposed to muscle men.” (p. 9) Rather than “beefing up” the subject, the facial-softening effects and gamified aesthetics represent an intentional desire to extricate the military from the idea that being a soldier or sailor corresponds to physical combat. The false implication, then, is that the Australian military is now a softer, more-humane, innocent force – less engaged in so-called “real” violence. War is rendered as easily consumable as a cute selfie.
Yet, recruitment is about more than reframing imaginaries, or producing generalized cultures of militarism. Recruitment is a process through which “people are persuaded to act upon such imaginaries” – a fact that separates “virtual” enlistment from “actual” enlistment (Rech, 2014: 251, emphasis added). Due to the contemporaneity of the Australian Navy’s Snapchat lens, there is no public data pointing to its efficacy (or lack thereof). However, in 2017, the Australian Defence Force partnered with the Australian Football League (AFL) on a media package, to deliver a suite of targeted Snapchat lenses (Department of Defence, 2017). Australian Army geo-filters targeted specific locations – the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the Adelaide Oval – during the sports finals series. As young sports fans flocked to games, military lenses became unlocked on their phones. Unlike the gamified lifestyle peddled in the Navy’s control room, these filters capitalized on the ableist assumption that sports-goers would be more aligned with the Army, in terms of living an unwounded “active lifestyle” (Matejic 2017, cited in Defence Connect, 2017). On the day of the Grand Final, a lens was also launched nationwide, featuring the official insignia of the Australian Army (the Rising Sun badge), night vision goggles, and the personalized call to arms: “Discover your Army.”
Over the course of the marketing campaign during these sporting finals, Defence Force Recruiting reported a nineteen percent increase in applications. The efficacy of this campaign points to the masterful cunning of coupling the digital infrastructure of Snapchat with augmented reality technology for recruiting purposes. Aside from it being a digital space heavily populated by young people, Snapchat is a form of “temporary photography” (Jurgenson, 2013) that capitalizes and fosters visual urgency. I only have access to the Navy filter for 1 hour at a time; geo-filters are available for limited time frames in highly specified locations; images sent to contacts disappear in 10 seconds once opened by the recipient. The ephemerality encoded into this technological infrastructure, according to Jurgenson (2013), “sharpens viewers’ focus: Once received, a Snapchat count-down is a kind of time-bomb that demands an urgency of vision.” It’s not just that the Navy needs you – it’s that you need the Navy, and the Navy needs you now.
As opposed to more immersive technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality overlays digital objects onto your surrounds, enabling familiar environments to be experienced as slightly transformed. In the flick of a button, users of these lenses can slip in and out of the naval control room and the military uniform with ease, in the same way you might play a video game after work. As Pugliese (2016: 503) writes, “the manner in which drone operators can exterminate human targets during their assigned combat sessions, via their ensemble of tele-mediating technologies and military hardware, and then go home to take the kids to soccer, works to normalize war as something that is effectively part of the civilian continuum of everyday practices.” Taken together, these digital particularities produce an atmosphere that inspires action and adventure, in the same breath as it promises familiarity and normalcy.
So, as tools of recruitment and militarization, these Snapchat lenses are intended to present the military as a transformative reality, just out there, waiting to be unlocked. However, “the social media of recruitment,” writes Rech (2016: 51), “is only an indication of a broader geopolitics of everyday militarism working in various spaces at intimate scales.” Our collective attachments to war are embedded across institutional and industrial, intimate and corporeal forms (Terry, 2017), even as the ubiquity of these militarized logics are often naturalized to the point of invisibility. What if, then, the digital imposition of military iconography and aesthetics, through these augmented reality technologies, end up making visible the reality that the military is always already here?
Take, for example, the immaterial and ethereal “cloud” often colloquially invoked when referring to the Internet or online data. In reality, when we access online networks, we are materially drawing upon masses of metal, glass and plastic pipes, submerged under the ocean; the maps of these highways of fibre-optic cables mirror the networks of colonial telegraph cables and the oceanic routes of empires (Bridle, 2018: 247). The interlocking violences of coloniality and militarism live in the palm of our hands, as the foundational fabric of the networked technologies we access every day. From micro ready-to-eat meals, skin grafts (Terry, 2017), video game aesthetics (Pugliese, 2016) and the circulation of selfies (Stein and Kuntsman, 2014), to macro digital infrastructures (Bridle, 2018) and the ongoing occupation and desecration of Indigenous lands for rare minerals (Lea, forthcoming): the logics, residue and contemporary violence of militaries past and present are everywhere. As well as an insidious recruitment technique, the digital overlay of a naval porthole onto my bed sheets, or a militarized facial mask on my skin, is a minor re-orientation towards this contextual and pervasive reality of everyday militarisms. Militarisms are here, all around us, in our workplaces and bedrooms, in the technology in our palms, in the atmospheres we inhale, and in places thought to be as private as our skin and guts.
Other essays from this forum include:
Editors' Letter. Everyday Militarisms: Hidden in Plain Sight/Site, Caren Kaplan, Gabi Kirk, and Tess Lea.
The Explosivity of Kelp, Javier Arbona
Residue and Restoration: Hiking through Militarized Landscapes, Toby Beauchamp
The Militarized Campus Arboretum, Gabi Kirk and Robert Moeller
On Landmines and Suspicion: How (not) to Walk Explosive Fields, Diana Pardo Pedraza
Ball A, Johnston P and Taylor O (2018) How transforming the Defence Force’s approach to recruitment delivered record returns. Available at: https://effies.com.au/attachments/24-dfr-long-term-effectiveness-effie-final-060.pdf (accessed 12 August 2019).
Bridle J (2018) New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. New York: Verso.
Department of Defence (2017) Question on notice no. 37.. Canberra: Parliament of Australia, 24 October, pp.99-100.
Jurgenson N (2013) Pics and It Didn't Happen. The New Inquiry, 7 February. Available at: https://thenewinquiry.com/pics-and-it-didnt-happen/ (accessed 7 August 2019).
Kuntsman A and Stein R (2015) Digital Militarism: Israel's Occupation in the Social Media Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Lea T (forthcoming) Indigenous social policy, settler colonial dependencies and toxic lingerings: Living through mining and militarism in the Anthropocene. In: Dundon A and Vokes R (eds) Shifting States: New Perspectives on Security, Infrastructure and Political Affect. London: Bloomsbury.
Pugliese J (2016) Drone casino mimesis: Telewarfare and civil militarization. Journal of Sociology 52(3): 500-521.
Rech MF (2014) Recruitment, counter-recruitment and critical military studies. Global Discourse 4(2-3): 244-262.
Rech MF (2016) Children, young people and the everyday geopolitics of British military recruitment. In: Benwell M and Hopkins P (eds) Children, Young People and Critical Geopolitics. London: Routledge, pp.45-60.
Stein R and Kuntsman A (2014) Selfie Militarism. In: London Review of Books Blog. Available at: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2014/may/selfie-militarism (accessed 14 August 2019).
Terry J (2017) Attachments to War: Biomedical Logics and Violence in Twenty-First-Century America. Durham: Duke University Press.
Stella Maynard is currently completing their Honors thesis at the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. They were the recipient of the 2017 UNSW Bachelor of Arts Prize, and have published writing with the Saturday Paper, Sydney Environment Institute, GaussPDF, The Lifted Brow, Overland, and Running Dog, among others.