It’s been there in plain sight, hardly worth mentioning: the Libyan rebel fighters include a lot of guys in street clothes.
Nothing new about that, of course. Guerrilla fighters have been everywhere: Gaza, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, Sri Lanka, Peru, Chechnya–the list goes round the world. Just like high-powered weapons, mercenary soldiers, and the CIA, one might add. The media seem drawn to the informal look, however, even when the supposedly asymmetrical warfare is backed by round-the-clock NATO air support.
What really gets me are the shoes of the guy on the left. Is that a fashion statement, or what? The guy on the right is wearing unlaced combat boots and camouflage pants–perhaps he defected from the Libyan army–but that now looks so last year. This year it’s high tops, baby, and you better be ready.
The photo above also could have come from any of a 1000 TV dramas or Hollywood movies. At some point, it no longer matters whether art is imitating life or the reverse. The common aesthetic is both masking and exposing something fundamental about the nature of modern war. Thus, we can see the breakdown of the nation-state’s monopoly on violence, the mass distribution of weapons of personal destruction, the rise of militias and corresponding decline in military professionalism, the increasingly thin line between civil society and civil war, and more as well. And since it all looks so cool and like something that anyone could do, it becomes all too easy to neither see nor think about who is funding the war and likely to lock up the economy and lock down democracy afterwards.
You can bet that this guy is ready to be one of the winners. The caption at The Big Picture said, “A Libyan rebel fighter sits at a check point in Tripoli.” Yeah, and you also can say that a Libyan rebel fighter sits in an office chair at a check point in Tripoli.” Putting the chair in the street will be one small example of how any war can disrupt ordinary life, not least as troops adapt creatively to make do amidst the mayhem. But somehow the symbol of business combined with the sharp blue jeans, gun, and attitude suggest casual Friday in some neoliberal, post-apocalyptic start-up.
The photograph provides another example of how war itself is changing. On the one hand, major state conflict is being scaled down from conventional warfare under the threat of mutually assured destruction. You wouldn’t know it from the US defense budget, but developed countries can’t afford to fight one another and there is no reason to anyway. On the other hand, imperial occupations, border wars, genocide, and anarchy are consuming entire regions of the globe and civil violence is expanding insidiously everywhere. One possible outcome is near total destruction of civil society, with the remains controlled by economic and military warlords. Warlords who would be happy to hire this guy, who would be more than willing to work for them.
By looking at seemingly trivial things such as street fighter fashion, we might see just how close we are to living in the wrong movie.
Photographs by Zohra Bensemra/Reuters and Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.