Reporters on war’s frontlines often produce great investigative journalism (this was truer in the days before embedded reporters.) They also, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not, produce “war porn,” writing that vividly, graphically, sometimes almost joyfully, details the carnage of war and weaponry, of organized violence, and the men who live and die by its rules. The newspaper correspondent, his prose awestruck by the power and glory of the mechanized apparatus of war, and sometimes by the uniformed men who operate it, is almost a cliche now. But even the presumably more sober long-form journalist, committed to writing more ruminative essays for longer-term consumption, can produce descriptions of war that succumb to the temptation to produce war porn.
The appeal of such writing, we are told, is that the writer takes us into places we are reluctant to visit; through his eyes we bear witness to that which we might find unbearable. And our praise for the writer is as much an acknowledgement of his epistolary skills as it is his of his courage in exposing himself to the gore and guts that he enables us to vicariously experience. But part of the writing’s appeal is precisely in catering to a particular kind of fantasy, entertained by a sensibility that finds in war moments of exultation and fierce joy. And nothing better stokes such passions than descriptions of the machinery of war. Such writing must revel in technical detail, all the while making clear the relevance of that detail to the damage inflicted on human beings.
Here is a classic example, taken from Sebastian Junger’s 1999 essay, The Forensics of War, (originally published in Vanity Fair, and reprinted in the collection, Fire, published by WW Norton in 2011), which discusses the war crimes investigations and trials that followed the Serbian massacres in Kosovo. Writing of mass killings by shooting, Junger informs us of the damage caused by an AK-47 bullet:
[A] round from an AK-47 assault rifle leaves the muzzle of the gun at twenty-three hundred feet per second, twice the speed of sound. When it hits a person, the density of the tissue forces the round to yaw to one side until it is traveling sideways or even backward. Shock waves ripple through the tissue and create a cavity that can be as much as eleven times the size of the bullet. The cavity lasts only a few thousandths of a second, but the shock waves that created it can shred organs that the bullet never even touches. In head wounds the temporary cavity is particularly devastating because the skull–being rigid–can respond to the sudden deformation only by bursting. If the gun barrel is actually touching the victim, rapidly expanding gases inside the barrel get trapped in the wound and blow blood and tissue back out. It is safe to assume that some of the killers in Studenica walked away covered in the people they killed.
I do not mean, by providing this excerpt from Junger’s writing, to suggest that he was consciously trying to titillate. Rather, I’m suggesting that the temptation to do so is always present when writing about war and weaponry, because, I think, the writer knows a thing or two about his readers, about his subject, and about the perennial fascination it exerts on our imagination.