Wired: “Men Against Fire” and the Revolution in Military Affairs

by Kenn Watt

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

Abstract: [page 42] The “Men Against Fire” episode of Black Mirror depicts an advanced military device, an implant called MASS, which enhances a soldier’s capacity for surveillance and ferocity and blocks ethical reasoning. This article examines how MASS is merely the next stage in a revision of U.S. military strategy in place for decades, and is, in fact, already in various stages of development. This logical extension of the dehumanization of both the enemy and our own combatants makes killing easier because the Otherness of the opponent is drawn out to monstrous extremes. By examining the strained psychological effects of MASS, this article critiques the military vision of current tactical priorities as well as the loss of moral compass demanded of participants in contemporary conflicts around the globe.

Keywords: Black Mirror, combat, military technology, modern warfare, soldiers, war

In On Killing, his study of the psychology of combat training, veteran David Grossman writes of the difficulty of convincing soldiers to shoot at the enemy in war. Grossman asserts that deliberate misses—firing above or to the side—is a time-honored practice characterizing most significant wars throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Soldiers actually mask their reluctance to kill by surreptitiously errant shooting. Even during a “good” war, such as WWII, he notes, only 15-20% of U.S. soldiers actually fired their weapons at German soldiers in battle. Most trained soldiers, Grossman explains, are unable to shed their innate repulsion to killing and this is true across most time periods and examples of military conflict. In fact, Grossman reports, an historical survey of fighting, from battlefields to urban gangland streets, typically evinces more martial posturing than lethal destruction (Grossman 7-8). The result is more akin to dance or performance than true battle, something that he claims is even true among animal species.

The incidence of actually targeted fire, he notes, did in fact [page 43] increase in each subsequent U.S. conflict, a change tied to the increased sophistication of commercially available war-simulation games available to the general public. It’s not a far stretch to conclude from this that in order to accomplish military effectiveness, the question to be resolved is how to use technology to override the stubbornly innate human propensity not to take life, even to conceive of life as a fundamentally cooperative operation. Effective military training requires a counter-intuition. In order to get soldiers to kill, the troubling element of empathy must be neutralized. The soldier must be returned to the core mission of divorcing the act of aiming a weapon at another human from the distraction of identification with the humanity of the designated enemy. Fighting instincts to the contrary, the enemy must be conceived as different enough in significant ways from the soldier’s humanness to allow a dis-identification to occur. The horrific perfection of a technique to accomplish just that is the troubling subject of “Men Against Fire,” episode five from season three of the Netflix series Black Mirror.

In “Men Under Fire,” we witness the new “perfect soldier,” bio-engineered with MASS, a sophisticated “wetware” implant that accomplishes that override. The MASS-enhanced soldier’s altered perceptual field dulls the senses, reducing distraction; plugs in the combatant as one node in a vast network of lethality, surveillant control and 3-D battlefield imaging; and, critically, destroys the human resemblance of the enemy, eliminating ethical conflict and freeing the soldier to become the perfect fighting cyborg.

MASS represents a hardened chain of implemented biopower, in the Foucaldian sense of state control internalized by a given population. In “Men Under Fire,” a regime of biopower extends from governmental discipline of soldiers through their control of a state enemy of purported terrorists. The extension of the kind of control shown in the episode, however, is not Foucault’s typical “soft power” of bureaucratic and institutional management of bodies. MASS is an advanced behavioral modification tool that entirely reconditions its hosts visually, psychologically, and sensually into obedient tools of statist ideology. Internalization of the desired behavior is forced upon the subject, albeit with consent, however uninformed that consent is. The horrific nature of the totalizing effects of MASS finally manifest at the end of the episode when Army psychologist Arquette (Michael Kelly) reveals to lead [page 44] soldier Stripe (Malachi Kirby) the thorough measure of MASS. As a young recruit with seemingly narrow opportunity for economic security, Stripe willingly agrees to his MASS implant with little notion that he is signing away his autonomy and ethical agency. Later, when a glitch in his programming reveals to him the violent ethnic cleansing which he’s been party to, his attempts to challenge the program and Arquette, his operator handler, only result in his discovery that every recruit in fact does acquiesce to the procedure upon joining, during an initiation meeting that MASS programs him not to recall. In this critical unmaking of his ethical individuality, Stripe is forced by Arquette to watch a video that Arquette provides, witnessing the unmasked reality of what he and his squad mates have done to the citizens of a village, as well as proof of his prior consent to the procedure. There are echoes here, of course, of well-documented slaughters from earlier, actual wars: Lt. William Calley in the My Lai village in North Vietnam, the humiliating denigration of Iraqis in the leaked photographs of the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and too many others to name. Stripe’s epistemological alteration is not without precedent; MASS simply represents the literalizing of biopower as an internalized docility.

The deployment scenario follows Stripe as part of a small squadron in a village in what could be Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen. (It was actually shot in Denmark.) The soldiers embody a contemporary army; their equipment includes holographic projections that can be manipulated to depict simulated terrain, buildings, fighting positions, and detailed potential scenarios. Numerous female soldiers are featured in leading roles—Stripe’s commander and fellow infantry scout are among the deployed. The technique for altering consciousness that will aid fighting efficiency is not gendered, at least not on the battlefield itself. All the warriors track, fight, and kill an enemy whom they refer to as “roaches,” humanoid beings with monstrous heads and hands, shark-like jaws shrieking with fear, aggression, and defensive rage. The roaches scuttle through close-quarter spaces as a hidden malevolence, but, despite their appearance, they are rarely the aggressors. We see them as the hunted, always representing highly-prized kills as part of an extermination campaign. It is textbook ethnic cleansing. As designated targets, they do anything they can to hide, scatter, and escape from the army’s feverish hunt. [page 45]

Early in the deployment, squad leader Medina (Sarah Snook) shows the search-and-destroy team a 3-D representation of the terrain that it is about to enter and occupy. Like faint green holographs, the image appears and rotates, floating before the soldiers’ eyes, enabling a shared briefing on tactical maneuvers. This capability of accessing a detailed, immersive image represents the 21st century Army’s actual goals and real-life technological capabilities. Within the area of military studies, the development of communication, gaming, and simulation technologies underlying the episode can be traced to the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). Begun during Bill Clinton’s presidency, the RMA has represented an enormous expenditure on streamlined and integrated command-and-control structures to align the military with twenty-first-century technological potential. The goal has been “full-spectrum dominance” through computerized weaponry (often developed in tandem with entertainment corporations). This mediated battlefield surveillance allows remote fighting, such as drone warfare, lessening the soldier’s reliance on proximity to the enemy, and to her tendency to see, empathize, and thus jeopardize the mission.

For the 21st century military, this greatly augmented command capabilities to achieve asymmetrical superiority. The theatre of war in which Stripe patrols is a sealed one; every element of reality is mediated, rendered as a simplified controlled environment. Most importantly, Stripe and company are assured ultimate victory, the hegemonic ideology of the American state insured, along with, presumably, the resulting neoliberal economic restructuring of a new vassal state.

Military strategists and scholars have variously defined the RMA. For those describing the complex perspectives that determined (and were determined by) U.S. responses to the end of the Cold War, the revolution involved the breakup of the Soviet Union, the new challenges and opportunities presented by information networks and precision munitions, the virtualization of the battlefield through computers and satellite imagery, and the changing methods of waging war.

Strategy for Chaos author Colin Gray locates the origin of the RMA in the demise of the Soviet Union as a global superpower and Soviet attempts to counter perceived U.S. advantages through its own strategic moves in the 1980s. He notes that Andrew [page 46] Marshall, the head of the Office of Net Assessment in the Pentagon, was the first to suggest “that a fundamental change was occurring in how wars would be fought in the future” (Gray 135). Gray takes a broadly sociological approach to the RMA, aligning it with historical progenitors from military revolutions in earlier centuries and noting that technological changes are meaningless without corresponding strategic and personnel alterations. His use of terms like nonlinearity, chaos, and strategic effectiveness grounds his project in a postmodern vein, stressing the networking, geographic, and ethical complexity of the military’s new approach to the C4ISR ideal: “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (272). Gray locates the high-water mark for the evolving RMA in the U.S. air campaign against Iraqi defenses in January-February 1991 and again a decade later, beginning with the war that Jean Baudrillard famously declared “did not take place” (3) as a result of the virtual quality of the video images that most Americans saw of precision-guided munitions and animated battlefields, reported by a press corps embedded with the troops. These foreign wars represent the historical moment for what James Der Derian terms the “military-industrial-entertainment complex” (passim) projected itself onto a U.S. citizen-subject readied by immersion in images of war as vicarious entertainment. Stripe, for whom even the techno-wizardry of his enlistment is “dope,” represents any of us distracted from war’s fundamental violence by avatars in place of other humans, digitized topo maps for villages and homes. The looping of technological military advancement is inseparable from video war-gaming, which is itself tied to recruitment, public advertising, advanced research, and the conditioning of the American subject to the fascination of war as virtual immersion. Stripe’s squad is so gung-ho and uncritical because the implant of MASS reflects the circularity and seamlessness of the alluring technology inducing enlistment and mission acceptance. MASS, in the end, is simply the reification of the goals of basic training.

Why and how these changes happened—and what difference they will make in the future of warfare and society—are still open to speculative questions about the rapid progress of actual military. These major changes in the nature of warfare brought about by the innovative application of technologies change the nature of war. The look and feel of information superiority within a digitized [page 47] battlefield and a drone pilot working out of a Las Vegas bunker reduce the fog of war. Information dominance is the ultimate objective of increased technological control, and these changes suggest an evolutionary process that has gone on for some time, rather than a sudden transformation. The Army’s Joint Vision 2020 document develops the technological and conceptual aspects necessary to achieve this in clear terms.

The networking emphasis of the RMA approach to information technology and control is key to the strategic changes that the military has undergone in recent years. Likewise, these concepts extend to the entertainment products of the military-industrial-entertainment complex, the use of which serve to immerse the general public in pro-military ideological acquiescence. In particular, the user interfaces of video applications, whether games or training simulators, share most features as a result of the collaboration among Hollywood, gaming producers, and military developers. These features share a virtual, interactive information network in everything from the way that users log in to game sites to the ability to mobilize mass numbers of users. The visual imagery and material feel associated with this form of communication is mirrored in the touch screens, control devices, and interactive features of first-person shooter games like America’s Army, a game developed by the U.S. Army specifically as a recruitment tool.1 America’s Army has been in development since 2002, with the most recent iteration released in 2013; the series has been downloaded by millions of individual users. It has also been a vital part of the Army’s traveling publicity and recruiting centers, the Virtual Army Experience, and the Army Experience Center, which was shut down by protesters after two years in the Franklin Mills Mall in Philadelphia (“America’s Army”).

Where MASS extends the immersive tools of entertainment and the masking of militarist ideology lies in the supplemental aspects of conditioning for the soldier, away from the battlefield. As Stripe begins to experience a disruption of his MASS interface, the result of exposure to a tool that the enemy has developed, his frame of reference about combat, as well as his senses of smell, vision, and touch, is altered. He appears dizzy, disoriented, and uncomprehending, and the assuredness of the reasons for his deployment is suddenly uncertain. This crucial difference for Stripe—the vast gulf between vicarious participation in gaming and [page 48] simulation and actual war—is caused accidentally; the device he finds is a tool reverse-engineered by the enemy specifically to disrupt the way they are seen by the U.S. Army soldiers. Stripe himself unmakes his frame of reference for the war he fights.

One particular feature of MASS is personally-tailored full romantic/erotic fantasy, seamlessly inserted into his conscious perception, which repeats every night while he sleeps. Prior to the accidental flash in the village house, Stripe “saw” and interacted with a beautiful, ever-smiling woman waving from the porch of a small house that they presumably shared, sending him off to war in the time-honored image of the faithful partner left behind, promising welcome on his safe return. Later, in the dorm room alongside other soldiers, he experiences a nearly pornographic coupling with her, with the camera forcing the first person perspective of her body in front of and around him. It is an almost unbearably intimate imagining of sexual connection. The camera then reveals his sleeping body, fingers twitching in response to the fantasy. It then pulls back, and the bodies of the other soldiers are revealed, all lost in their own erotic reveries, sleeping fingers caressing a personally-designed virtual partner intended, presumably, to help the soldier withstand the stresses of war. Later, post-flash, as his neural-implant connection disintegrates, the recurring dreamscape is horribly transformed, the (nameless) woman doubling, tripling, and multiplying into an overloaded assault on his senses, which is destructive to his fragile psyche.

This wraparound approach to conditioning and combat preparation, depicted in “Men Under Fire” as science fiction, is simply an extension of the issues that the Army has faced in recent years: poor enlistment numbers, unpopular wars, poor depictions of military life, and the inability to appeal to younger generations coming of age. The RMA contributed to the army’s recruitment strategies and operations. The army was eager to make increased use of information technology from the 1990s onward, a time in which the armed services were falling short of recruitment goals. Colonel Casey Wardynski was responsible for addressing these problems. Among his solutions was the development of the America’s Army video game, as well as the traveling Virtual Army Experience and Army Experience Center, the information recruitment center in Philadelphia (Huntemann 178-188). Wardynski notes that the army was attempting to take marketing [page 49] advantage of the same technological trends. In order to insert the army’s brand into pop culture, Wardynski realized, it needed an innovation: “to deal with the cognitive biases, heuristics and other information problems likely to afflict Army recruiting, we needed to substitute virtual for vicarious experiences with a focus on what it’s like in basic training, home station and deployment” (180). America’s Army is not the first video game to feature the army, but it was able to capitalize on the fact that 60 percent of the games commercially available are military themed (80). The game focuses on Army values like loyalty and teamwork, according to Wardynski, and, along with the full-scale Humvee and Black Hawk helicopter simulators that were available at the WAE and AEC, it represented a sophisticated repurposing of the research and development undertaken at university and commercial partners over the past twenty years.

While the blood and gore go missing, the experience of breaking into a room of the “enemy” can appear very much present, experiential, and live for the “joystick soldier.” The context of gaming demands decision-making and responsiveness that test the same instincts developed in actual basic training. This bloodless war platform is what allows Stripe and teammate Hunter (Madeline Brewer) to exterminate roaches with such abandon, firing automatic weapons at such a rate and ferocity that dozens could have been wiped out, rather than the two or three who were actually their targets. None of the squad is connected to the slaughter, until, that is, Stripe is accidentally exposed to the device which they find in a makeshift workshop in the targeted village house. Later, Arquette will use the device as evidence that the “roaches” are cannier, and thus even more dangerous, than anticipated. Similarly, their appearance is identical to the Americans’, which Stripe discovers via the automatic taping of his actions that MASS performs; Arquette again co-opts logic to pronounce that “That’s why they’re so dangerous.” Stripe, realizing the self-taping was a form of blackmail, trapping the enlistee should some accident like his occur, and thoroughly outmatched by Arquette’s perverse logic, collapses in horror.

Ultimately, the most important result of the Revolution in Military Affairs of the past three decades is the transformation of the idea of the civilian-soldier into a virtual one, as media theorist Roger Stahl describes in Militainment, Inc.: War, Media, and Popular [page 50] Culture. For Stahl, the tradition of the citizen-soldier that dates back to the origins of cultures has become an armchair version of that ideal. This has been accomplished not only through gaming and military experience centers, but in a myriad of ways, including tourism: to drive tanks and shoot leftover rockets for exorbitant prices, trips to visit the killing fields of Cambodia, and the like. In addition to their functioning as persuasive stratagems to promote military adventurism to the public, such experiential activities make enlistment appear removed from war’s consequence. Combined with a marketing effort like that at Franklin Mills Mall, a setting near an impoverished area of Philadelphia, it helps explain how today’s military is largely made up of recruits from poorer areas and soldiers from precarious economic backgrounds, much like those in “Men Under Fire.” Together, the entertainment and research industries have aimed directly at the public desire to experience vicariously, through various media, going to war. Marketing affect in the form of the physical and emotional sensations associated with warfare, an enormous joint industry, has determined the U.S. citizen to be the subject and consumer of military feelings and sensibilities.

As early as 1995, researchers like James Kievit and Steven Metz, from the Strategic Studies Institute, tied the RMA to an American ethos of progress that sheds light on how readily the promise of the new approach to war was eagerly embraced by politicians keen to increase U.S. influence abroad while limiting exposure to fallout from U.S. battlefield casualties. This ties American military prowess to a larger neoliberal project. They write:

The American ethos holds that progress—defined, in part, as efficiency augmented by technology—is inevitable and irrepressible. Technology is respected, almost deified. There are sound historical reasons for this. During its formative period, the nation suffered from chronic shortages of skilled labor, thus forcing reliance on laborsaving technology. Eli Whitney, Robert Fulton, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and thousands of other entrepreneurs and inventors harnessed technology in the name of efficiency. Reflecting this legacy, the U.S. military has often evinced an unreflective trust in the ultimate benefit of technology. (340) [page 51]

This connection of the RMA obsession with technology to the mythic American ethos of progress and innovation is characteristic of the deep ties between U.S. military superiority and global neoliberal development. As many have noted, military prowess functions today as the final arbiter of challenges to the hegemony of free-market economic policies: hence, the threat posed by the roaches, who are variously described as vermin, terrorists, evil, and degenerate. An RMA that allows for the asymmetrical superiority of the U.S. military further ensures neoliberal domination. If that RMA involves forms of technology uniting military and consumer applications that, as Stahl notes, encourage civilian engagement instead of resistance, then the same civilian acquiescence might also apply to the neoliberal vision. Accepting free, unregulated markets and American dominance as naturalized, unquestioned states are the ultimate goal of such experiments in advanced war technology and organization.

Within MASS, the emphasis is on direct involvement and vicarious military role-play as an exemplary cultural incarnation of what some have called military neoliberalism.2 The idea behind the ideological marketing of combat as consumer experience combines and reinforces two concepts underlying both Iraq wars and much of U.S. foreign policy of the past sixty years. Stripe’s squad is fighting a “virtuous” war: against the roaches who have no vehicles, inferior, outmoded weapons, shabby clothing, little food, communal living quarters, etc. The military-industrial-entertainment complex sells the Army as a force for maintaining radical market privatization and global markets kept open, by force if needed, by U.S. and European military powers. Militarized enforcement of the global order protects a system of international investments, the free circulation of capital, restrictions on labor power, and economic stratification.

The RMA way of thinking about the modern army has helped remold the virtual citizen-soldier into a recruit for the preservation of the global economic order as well as of techno-fetishism and consensual co-optation. The techniques and ideology are critiqued in “Men Against Fire” without ever quite escaping the frisson or the fascination. The citizen-spectator role that Stahl notes functions as an invitation “to consume war” (14). The experiences of Stripe and Hunter, preparing for the raid, are a remediation of video technology, born in Hollywood and re-purposed by military [page 52] research teams like those at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military’s essential think tank. War games advertise the military as their experiential fulfillment; the military generates narratives and visual tools for new products.

The imposition of unquestioned acceptance of MASS hypnosis is evident throughout the deployment. Under leader Medina’s command, the team displays remarkable unity of purpose and singular focus that is normalized by its resemblance to the genre. Stripe and Hunter board a troop transport together while evincing a teasing, mocking bravado, resembling countless other similar patterns in dozens of war films and television programs. This bond sets up a shocking reversal later, again post-flash, when Stripe comprehends the nature of the mission. Watching Hunter’s unaffected brutality, Stripe intervenes, creating the episode’s crisis, their conflict, and Stripe’s going AWOL. Earlier, Stripe experiences a moment’s hesitation when a village woman, carrying a child, grasps his wrist and fixes him with a pleading incantation that feels desperate and foretelling. She speaks, conjuring him in her native dialect and pins him with fierce eyes, trying to extract some kind of promise from him, of which he has no comprehension. The full immersion in the RMA worldview doesn’t allow her piercing glance to be but a moment’s interruption.

It should be noted that the ongoing progress, since the Iraqi conflicts, of this march toward network-centric warfare, with simultaneous communication among many platforms and participants, is well documented on the website Defense One, published by military hardware specialist Northrop Grumman. Even a cursory glance at one daily edition of Defense One illustrates that MASS is less science fiction set in some distant future and more the near-current state of combat that is approaching incrementally but undeniably. Recent headlines include: “The Pursuit of AI is more than an Arms Race” (Kania), “The Pentagon is Building an AI Product Factory” (Tucker), “US Figures Out How to Do Facial Recognition in the Dark” (Tucker), and “Pentagon Releases Second Draft RFP for Multibillion Dollar Jedi Cloud” (Konkel). And DARPA has recently added a Biological Technologies Office to its dozens of other research divisions. These types of technology, all aimed at asymmetrical superiority, reflect the thinking behind MASS and its application to the totalizing ideology and self-positioned worldview of the modern [page 53] soldier. This result is best described as an enframing, imposed from outside, then internalized, such as that described by Judith Butler in Frames of War.

For Butler, the concept of “enframing” describes our physically embodied affective responses to war and media. Claiming that public assent to war-making must be cultivated, she writes that we must put attention to “the ways in which visual and discursive fields are part of war recruitment and war waging” (ix). She draws strong connections between emotional and physical affect and the visual field, and examines how together they determine our apprehension and bodily response to images of war and the politics that they convey. The strategy of determining the nature of a soldier’s enframing will include those “enactive” aspects of commitment and involvement that implicate the body. This becomes clear for Stripe’s body, for example, as the primary ground of his determined, involuntary response to the villagers. His frame is imposed, seamlessly and seemingly without the potential to fail. In the accidental flash of the device, his framing is unmade, and re-made, restored to an original setting. Nothing that he sees, however, or smells, or thinks is quite as it was before the virtual mediation of MASS. His framing of conflict, the world, his social and sexual identity is returned to him, as himself, as pre-MASS Stripe, but the return is trauma, a broken repetition of before. It is partial, fragmented, and there is residue from his recently altered perspective. This is the classic definition of PTSD: the momentary traumatic incident too powerful to sustain in memory, leaving a breakage of consciousness in its place.

Butler’s images of war’s discursive and visual fields are essential to the understanding of war. In fact, they are intrinsic to waging war itself. The technologies of both war-making and representation and their effect on the senses are composites of our understanding of war and, in particular, how we are, in her words, “conscripted” by war’s wagers: “We have to understand how the senses are part of any recruitment effort. Specifically there is a question of the epistemological position to which we are recruited when we watch or listen to war reports … the frame does not simply exhibit reality, but actively participates in a strategy of containment” (35). The bodily effects when we are presented with images are indissociable from our mental perceptions and emotional responses. These responses are controlled versions of what we anticipate as reality, [page 54] particularly regarding the precariousness of life in a regime of violence, Butler’s primary concern. This is precisely what the enframing of the enemy as roaches is designed to achieve, unquestioning acceptance, removal of any intimation of war’s precariousness, and of the regime of violence that provides its fundamental ground.

How, she asks, can we maintain an ethical and intelligible focus on the value of all human life when confronted by imagery that has already selected out some lives for valuing and others for devaluation? The MASS-induced frames of war—training, deployment, and reintegration, even his fantasy of return and homecoming with his fictional partner, a kind of sexual homecoming—function as critical tests of the recruit’s ability to assimilate military imagery. MASS conveys superhuman powers based on a radical devaluation of human life. It replicates war in its own likeness, and situates us imaginatively, affectively, and sensuously in frames of war’s chaos that we may experience in its full intensity, interpellating Stripe, Hunter and their team as ideological and political aggressors.

The loss of the mask frame also delivers perhaps the most fully terrifying realization of the episode: that the entire mission has been an exercise in eugenic destruction of a supposedly inferior species. Not merely signaling “enemy,” the roach appearance as tactic is finally explained by Arquette. In the final act of the episode, Stripe re-enters the military world in a prison cell and is brought to interrogation by Arquette, who has shed his role of psychiatrist and is now seen as the ideologue he is. Played by Michael Kelly, an actor well known for a soft-spoken menace (on House of Cards, for example), he discloses the terms of Stripe’s recruitment and his new predicament. It is here that “Men Against Fire” moves from futuristic war drama to a retrospective review of 20th-century war criminality. It is Arquette who presents the research of David Grossman and others, mentioned earlier, about the difficulty of convincing soldiers to fire directly at an enemy human, and he presents it as both a moral clarity and as a detriment to survival when “your life depends on it.”

Arquette’s challenge in this climactic scene is to unmake Stripe’s enframing, revealing the man who has emerged from beneath MASS’s concealment. He must convince Stripe that the truth of what he has seen is only a partial truth that is really a lie. [page 55] Allowing that the roaches resemble “us” entirely, the doctor-officer must convince the patient-recruit that this resemblance “is what makes them so dangerous.” In this Orwellian turn, Arqette summons over a century’s worth of eugenic thought and systematic attempts at elimination of genetic attributes considered diseased, unfit, weak, or perverse. This well-documented history’s most egregious irony is, of course, that the litany of Nazi horrors, from the scientific “experiments” on captive inmates to the death camps themselves, were an attempt to build on a false science—the celebration of “fitter families” and the elimination of social “disease”—that first took root in the U.K. and the U.S. In “Men Against Fire,” the history continues with the same assumption that physical ailments, mental capacity, and social maladies like criminality are all traceable to identifiable workings of genes. As Arquette shows Stripe the raw footage of his murder of the roaches, the pitiable Stripe is confronted with his own unwitting complicity in a eugenic sterilization campaign.

The loss of his mask confronts Stripe with not only the loss of the certainty of his mission but also his sense of masculine desire and reward. The systemic gratification of the warrior’s need to rest, unwind, and rejuvenate is embodied in the nameless woman, non-speaking, communicative only through gesture, simulated touch, overt sexual connection. She exists, unlike the female warriors, outside of any context but a projected need directly from Stripe’s battered post-violence psyche. The proliferation of her post-flash image continues, distributed around the bedroom that becomes the entire field of his virtual vision. The video image glitches, appearing as distorted tracking lines that reveal the flaw in his implant during the aborted act of intercourse gone horribly wrong. His reference of her as reward for his heroism, as a crucial part of himself, and of sex as an extension of his individual embodied reality is ripped away brutally. Previously, he saw her as a woman, beautiful, light brown hair in curls and flowing, her white summer dress in a perpetual state of windswept perfection. She is always already awaiting him, always available, signaling desire and beckoning to him for sex, and performing it with and for him. She is a personalized fantasy implant tailored to him with his own narrative: man goes to war, wife in an ethereal cloudland awaits, and finally his return is celebrated. When it is destroyed, the full illusion of his detachment from the reality of war is complete. [page 56]

It is at this point that the arc of the simulation at the center of the narrative comes full circle. Beginning with the holographic projections and culminating with the unmaking of his erotic dreamscape, we together with Stripe reach a completion of the tour of what Baudrillard famously called war that does not “take place.” Rather, it is fundamentally, ideologically, and in the minds of the citizenry, phantasmal, an electronic substitution for all we know of war. He writes, apropos of the first Gulf War:

Electronic war no longer has any political objective strictly speaking: it functions as a preventative electroshock against any future conflict, just as in modern communications there is no longer any enemy, there is only a refractory element which must be neutralized and consensualized. This is what the Americans seek to do, these missionary people bearing electro-shocks that will shepherd everybody towards democracy. (85)

In losing his military-issued filter, as he watches his own video, Stripe sees humans, terrified flesh and blood humans, and is suddenly mystified that they are being pursued and hunted and seems to have no idea why they are targeted. Earlier, in his last deployment, after squad leader Medina is killed by a sniper, Stripe and Hunter enter the apartment block from where the fire originated. Stripe’s malfunction becomes ever more severe: he has headaches, sees video distortion, and now can smell grass and hear bird and insect sounds, and the surrounding landscape is brighter and more colorful. He comes upon a terrified woman hiding in a room and tries to offer her an escape; however, she is shot by Hunter. As Hunter begins to spray automatic fire around the apartment, Stripe watches her in terror. The film speed slows, and her gunfire is fetishized by the camera, shown in drawn-out smoke and fire and hushed explosions. Unlike the well-worn film trope’s usual heroic contextualization, however, here it is forced through Stripe’s point of view. Hunter is offered to us as an unhinged combatant, a firing machine. When Stripe sees another village woman and child, hiding behind some furniture, her eyes searching him, he strikes at Hunter’s weapon, fighting off her attack. Finally, as he knocks Hunter unconscious, her rifle discharges a round into Stripe’s stomach, dropping him to the floor.

As we see Stripe escape with the rescued pair in a stolen Humvee—Hunter, now awake, watching—it is clear that he is now [page 57] fully awakened from MASS. Operating on adrenaline-fueled instinct, bleeding dangerously from his stomach, he drives them all to some imagined safe place. For the first time in the episode, we have exited the seamless interior of the poisonous ideology of MASS. There is an outside to the world, and what had seemed to be the photographic representation of reality has begun to be undone.

When Stripe finally collapses while driving them through a forest, the village woman, Katarina, pulls him from the vehicle and takes him to an underground safe house to heal. The scenes of his removal from military vehicle to her domain are marked as a threshold of deliverance. With sharp focus on his face and blurred edges, the frame represents Stripe as moving to a different site of understanding; shaking off the residual numbness of MASS, Stripe literally enters a hole in the earth. This is the place where he will finally meet a “roach” face to face in a courageous reawakening of his humanity. His heroism, a momentary impulse, inheres in his reclaiming a lost self. As Stripe trains his weapon on Katarina, she explains, “Ten years ago it began. Post-war. First the screening program. Then DNA checks, then the registry. The emergency measures. Soon everyone calls us creatures. Filthy creatures.” By the time that Hunter finds them, kills Katarina and her son, and renders Stripe unconscious, he has already heard the unfiltered voice of a villager, experienced her humanity and kindness, and comprehended the full effect of MASS. After this, he wakes up on the floor of Arquette’s cell.

As he resists, Arquette reminds him that he chose MASS—no one can be recruited into it without consent—but when he is shown the taped interview where he enlists, we see a detached, bored teen uninterested in what he is presented with, except for the glossy technology. This is the personal touching-down point of the Revolution in Military Affairs: the immersive entertainment become assent. It is also the perfected instrumentalization of the military-industrial-entertainment complex. Like Brecht’s Galy Gay in Mann ist Mann, Stripe has become more fighting machine than man, literally unable to see the villagers as anything other than “Other.” Beyond Brecht’s vision of transformation in Mann ist Mann, however, Stripe has signed a contract bearing stark terms that Arquette explains: “Option one, you agree to have your MASS restored; option two, incarceration.” Stripe, now forcibly blinded in [page 58] the interrogation room in which he is helpless, “sees” finally the fine print of the contract. He will be jailed and subjected to a ghastly loop of the rest of the raw footage from his raid. His refusal to serve will deliver him to what he has been deceived to become, a butcher stripped of his senses, lost in a dream of glory and erotic reward, convinced that he is saving the bloodline.

“Men Against Fire” delivers what the entire Black Mirror series features as stock-in-trade: a provocative twist of the sharp nexus of social dystopia aligned with already-available technology. In this episode, the full fusion of technology and biopower is brought to bear on an individual marked by economic precarity and negligent social capital. He is society’s cast-off, tricked into thinking that he has found an opportunity to fit in, even to make a difference. As is true of most of today’s armed forces, it is the economically marginal who do the fighting in the service of keeping a system of economic disparity intact at a global level. The deceit is occluded by ideology, patriotism, and the obsolete notion of the true citizen-solder from early eras. Throughout the wars promulgated in the Balkans, the Middle East, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has pursued, according to Samir Amin, an imperialist agenda that required the creation and dissemination in the public sphere of a reinforcing moral agenda. It takes little effort to connect the ideology of the expansive geo-political campaign to the need to reinforce genetic superiority. The outlines of this method for achieving control are clear:

First, choose an enemy in the coveted geostrategic area; next, exploit the enemy’s often odious behavior (the kind happily tolerated in others) … then suddenly “declare war” on that enemy through massive aerial bombardment from a safe height (“nil casualties warfare” for the United States); and finally, establish a lasting American presence in the region, on the grounds that the enemy is still there. (Amin 74)

When will MASS appear to ease the struggle to fully implement this strategy? Rather, how much of it is already operating already, tactically, incrementally? [page 59]


1. For a supporting analysis of the physical, material, and cultural crossovers from war gaming, with a focus on the barrel of the gun as a cultural signifier, see Lukas.

2. The term is from the Bay Area collective publishing under the name Retort (Iain Boel, T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts), and employed in Afflicted Powers: Spectacle and Capital in a New Age of War. See also Harvey 42–43, Giroux, and Dean.

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MLA citation (print):

Watt, Kenn. "Wired: 'Men Against Fire' and the Revolution in Military Affairs." Supernatural Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 42-60.