Bringing the War Home: IVAW’s Operation First Casualty

Curator's Note

How do you stop a war? Specifically how do you stop a war that is simultaneously spectacular, with “shock and awe” attacks and Top Gun landings by the Commander-in-Chief, and invisible: the realities of death and terror safely sequestered thousands of miles away from the US public? One – print era -- approach goes like this: with more access to information, and exposed to oppositional viewpoints, the public can be educated to the realties of war. Another response, and one that may have more traction in our more visual times, is to fight spectacle with counter-spectacle, dramatizing reality so that it not so much known as it is seen and felt. Cindy Sheehan’s evocative vigil for her dead soldier son outside President Bush’s Texas ranch was one such performance, another is “Operation First Casualty” a performance staged by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) members for the first time on Memorial Day of 2007 on the streets of New York City.


The performance is simple, and powerful. A platoon of soldiers in battle fatigues carry out missions in a US city that might happen on any day in Iraq: patrolling a street, coming under fire, arresting suspected “bad guys,” and breaking up a street demonstration. The soldiers don’t carry guns; using their hands instead they let the viewer imagine what would be there. Counter to more traditional protest models, these activists don’t tell the spectators what to think with placards or convince with broadsides; they draw people into an experience and try to make it “real” for them.


As Aaron Hughes, IVAW member and one of the action’s architects, explains in the clip: “When I was over there it was a real space, nothing was mediated. And when I came back here everything was mediated, and the war wasn’t here.”  Ironically it’s also through such a mediated action that the reality of war might be best communicated to a distant public. Whereas much political performance -- Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” landing on an aircraft carrier, for example -- is fantasy that cloaks reality, Operation First Casualty is a fantasy which reveals it. It’s a particularly brilliant example of “ethical spectacle.” 


For more on the IVAW go to

Filmmakers: Laura Hanna and Astra Taylor



This is a very powerful performance of war. Stephen Duncombe's title reminds us of Martha Rosler's iconic anti-Vietnam War series of prints "Bringing the War Home" that showed GIs involved in military action in domestic settings, such as living rooms.


IVAW take that concept into the streets. For many veterans, such reenactments are enough to cause intense memories or even flashbacks. The military is using a version of the video game Full Spectrum Warrior to treat veterans with PTSD. The idea is to gradually get them to work through the traumatic situation by means of the game. This is a helmet game, so there is a high degree of immersion but it is far from HD. Clearly, as we can see with the performers here, the intensity of the learnt responses is enough to trigger a 'return' to Iraq.


Even though there has been an election and change of administration, this 'return' to Iraq and increasingly Afghanistan is going to be a feature of the geo-imaginary for decades. When I participated in Jeremy Deller's performative event at the New Museum, "It is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq," several people said "I read the New York Times: what more do I need?"


A lot.

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