The Truth Hides Behind A Mask: About The Public Interpretation Of War Realities

Essay, 2013

6 Pages, Grade: 1,0


A Virtual solider coming to Life

At one point there might be no more distinction between the war and the game - neither for the viewer, nor for the subject or the witness. This theoretical prediction turned into reality in January 2013. The stumbling block was a photography of a French soldier in Mali (Image 1) taken by the war photographer Issouf Sanogo.

It is a calm scene: A tank stands in the middle of the woods, sun rays shine brightly through the leaves, some soldiers are standing around; in the foreground we see a soldier with his hands in the pockets of his vest. Beautiful, almost serene, one could say. If the soldier wouldn’t wear a skull mask that strikingly resembles a character in the famous war game Call of Duty (Gdin Iyu, 2013).

As soon as the picture was published in the French newspaper LeParisien, the “ trinity of diffused war ” (Hoskins & O'Loughlin, 2010) reacted. First, the military was outraged and quickly promised consequences for the soldier (Gordts, 2013), what forced the French government to rethink its PR on the war. Only then, it seems, the public reacted. This is remarkable, because it underlines the importance the ‘non’-public (=the people actively involved in the war) attributes to images and symbols (Hoskins & O'Loughlin, 2010, p. 5).

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Image 1: Soldier with skull mask in Mali (Issouf Sanogo)

Though, it cannot clearly be said if the military and supposedly the public were so shocked in the first place because the soldier was wearing a skull mask per se or a mask that resembled a character in a game that glorifies war (Gagnon, 2010). And even more unclear is the reason why the soldier was wearing it.

It could well be that he got inspired by the game. Call of

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Image 2: The character ‚Ghost‘ in Call of Duty1

Duty is a first-person-shooter that claims to offersan authentic experience of “ full-scale real-world battles ”

(Power, 2007, p. 277) from WWII until modern times (Gagnon, 2010). The player takes the role of a soldier, seeing the world of war through his eyes - which makes it supposedly an “ ultra-violent game ” (Gdin Iyu, 2013) - focused on the barrel of his rifle, the enemy and his comrades. One of them is Simon ‘ Ghost ’ Riley, a quite tough character who is easily identifiable since he is always wearing a skull mask (Image 2).

It is clear that war games have an influence on the player - something many scholars have written about (e.g. (Power, 2007)) - but the interesting question here is how far the ever closer intertwining of war games with the reality of soldiers has actually come. Like soldiers in Vietnam had to shake off the pictures they had in their memory from WWII movies (Sturken, 1997, p. 95), the video game generation seems to have now been pulled into the virtuality of real war. According to their own accounts and the behavior of young soldiers on uploaded youtube-videos, being in war often feels like a video game to them - something Power calls the “ war-as-game ” -motif (Power, 2007, p. 272). Some even say that the cruelty which the civil population is now able to witness over the internet has reached a state of violence not known before which is due to the fact that the soldiers disconnect with real life and get “ charged ” as if they were part of a game (Seal 2003 (Power, 2007) )

Virtuality takes over Reality

But not only in the soldier’s personal memory, reality and virtuality are morphing. The “ political realities of war ” (Stahl, 2006, p. 118) are also converging with games. Since the beginning of console war games, the gaming industry and the military have been entangled (e.g. Atari - (Power, 2007, p. 276)) and the war game America ’ s Army is based on real soldiers’ experiences (Power, 2007, p. 280). But this has now reached an almost hyperreal state where the industry actually provides the military with input for potential terrorist plots and ideas for future weapons (Stahl, 2006, p. 117).

This new source of inspiration may be seen as a bizarre and alien situation - even for the militaries involved. But so does perhaps as well the simultaneous development of social media. The military was well aware - and therefore probably afraid - of the interpretative space, both war and social media occupy (Hoskins & O'Loughlin, 2010, p. 21). That could be one of the reasons why military officials have been so quick in declaring the photographed soldier as an exception and condemning his behavior as “ unacceptable ” (Boroff, 2013)2

It seems to be a well-known fact throughout the army community that wearing those masks has been “ an established “ fashion ” amongst soldiers worldwide ” (Gdin Iyu, 2013) since decades, long before the release of the first Call of Duty game. However, ever since media has been involved with war, not only the glory of warriors but also the ruthlessness of soldiers has been a famous theme (Sontag, 2003, p. 39) and the military probably wanted to immediately prevent the public to get a bad impression. The French intervention in Mali came out of the blue for most Europeans whose mainstream media weren’t paying any attention to the events in that part of Africa. In addition soldiers acquired a rather dishonorable image since the gruesome atrocities in recent wars (e.g. Abu Graibh) have been revealed. The military must be very well aware of the possible ‘danger’ resulting from the un-commented distribution of war images through the long tail of war (Hoskins & O'Loughlin, 2010, p. 31) such as user- generated content posted by soldiers on platforms like youtube . Therefore, the military’s reputation was seen once more at stake and officials probably wanted to prevent any more bad news - an act, large parts of the public regarded as exaggerated overreaction:

“ please, pretty please, could someone in a-stan get a hold of a few Hello Kitty patches and take pictures of them wearing them, that would be even more hilarious (and probably scare the locals far more) ” (TxAg94 on, 2013)

Reality loses its Force against Media

It cannot always be assumed that the soldier necessarily had a motif or even a message to convey. In this picture it is very clear that the soldier felt probably unwatched, as the photographer assures in a later statement he made as an answer to the public discussion and in order to put the picture into perspective:

“ ( … ) A helicopter was coming in to land and churning up tremendous dust clouds. Instinctively, all the soldiers grabbed their scarfs to avoid getting a mouthful of sand. It was evening, and rays of sunlight were pushing through the trees and into the dust clouds. It was a lovely light. I spotted this soldier wearing a strange scarf and took the photo. At the time, nothing about the scene seemed especially unusual or shocking. The soldier wasn ’ t posing and there was nothing staged about the image. He was just standing there, protecting his face from the dust, waiting for the chopper to land. ( … ) ”



2 “ Il s ’ agissait d'un cas inacceptable mais isol é , expliquait ainsi plus t ô t dans la journée du 22 janvier Thierry Burkhard, le porte-parole de l ’é tat-major fran ç ais. ” (SlateAfrique, 2013)

Excerpt out of 6 pages


The Truth Hides Behind A Mask: About The Public Interpretation Of War Realities
Stockholm University  (JMK)
Media and War
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
429 KB
war, photography, mali, war games, call of duty
Quote paper
Michaela Strobel (Author), 2013, The Truth Hides Behind A Mask: About The Public Interpretation Of War Realities, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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