Disappearing War: Cinema and the politics of erasure in the war on terror

Description of the project

This research project was funded by the British Academy, and ran from April 2015 to April 2016.


The ideological and experiential ramifications of industrialised warfare's capacity to destroy at a distance have been the subject of scholarly and public debate since the mid-20th century, but the highly mediated access to war provided by media culture demands ongoing scrutiny (Baudrillard 1981, 1991, Virilio 1989, Der Derian 2001, Kellner 1992, 1995, 2005). At a geographical distance from theatres of war, US and European observers experience modern military action primarily through cultural production: social and news media, cinema and television. At the same time, the expansion of covert military operations and drone strikes, alongside recent WikiLeaks and Snowden revelations, have intensified public anxiety in these regions about the extent of civilian knowledge of government-sanctioned warfare, and the consequences for citizens' ability to judge its purpose and impact. From news commentators' popularisation of the Hobbesian notion of 'perpetual war,' to documentaries interrogating covert military operations (Kill Team 2013; Dirty Wars 2013), to conspiracy-focused fiction (Homeland 2011-, Utopia 2013), and artists' interventions ('Under the Shadow of a Drone,' 2014), to attempts to lay bare the scale of conflict and post-conflict suffering (e.g. the 'Iraq Body Count Project'), the contemporary moment crystallises concerns around three central questions:

  • What is missing from our highly mediated experience of war?
  • What are the intentional and unintentional processes of erasure through which the distortion happens?
  • What are their consequences?



The project used cinema as a case study through which to map those people, images and experiences that are erased from US and European cultural representations of military action connected to the post-9/11 'war on terror', and to reflect on the effects of these erasures on our understanding of war and its consequences.

The project also sought to promote interdisciplinary dialogue, and dialogue between practitioners and academics, in its exploration of this topic, bringing together scholars from various disciplines who work at the nexus of politics and film, and filmmakers working in conflict and post-conflict settings.



The Principle Investigator on the project was Dr Lisa Purse, Associate Professor of Film in the Department of Film, Theatre and Television, University of Reading. The Co-Investigator was , Reader in International Relations and Middle East Studies in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Reading. Both are members of the Centre for Film Aesthetics and Cultures, and the Ways of War Centre at the University of Reading.


Research questions
  • To what extent do practices of erasure shape representations of post-9/11 military interventions carried out in the name of the 'war on terror,' and thus also shape our cultural understanding and experience of war?
  • To what extent does cinema, in the context of other media, such as social media, news media, and television, perpetuate these erasures?
  • Which war experiences remain hidden, and why?


Results of the research

Interdisciplinary research workshop, 'Disappearing War: Cinema and the politics of erasure in the war on terror'

This workshop took place at the Minghella Studios at the University of Reading on Monday 13th April, 2015. It drew together speakers from a range of different disciplines including filmmakers, to explore the processes of erasure readable in media representation of military action linked to the 'war on terror'.

More information, including the call for papers, programme and paper abstracts can be found at the workshop's webpage.


Edited collection

Purse, L. and Hellmich, C. (eds) (2016). Disappearing War: Cinema and The Politics of Erasure in the War on Terror. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Public panel debate, 'The War That We Don't See'

War-We-Dont-See-PosterThis free public event took place on Wednesday 23rd March 2016 at the University of Reading. It brought three award-winning documentary filmmakers together to discuss their experiences of documenting the lived experience of war and its aftermath, and to debate what is missing from mainstream media representations of war and conflict today.

The filmmakers were Sean McAllister, BAFTA nominated director of The Reluctant Revolutionary and A Syrian Love Story, BAFTA nominated producer Elhum Shakerifar, and Janet Harris, BAFTA winning director and producer whose most recent work includes BBC 2's This World 'Iraq: Did my son die in vain?'

The event garnered an interested audience of students, academics and members of the public, included invited representatives of the Reading Refugee Support Group, the British-Yemen Society, and BBC Monitoring Caversham, and was live streamed on Periscope.

For more information about the event, please see the dedicated webpage.


Panel at BRISMES 2016, 'Screening Iraq: country, people, politics'

Lisa Purse, Christina Hellmich, Shohini Chaudhuri (University of Essex) and Janet Harris (Cardiff University) present aspects of the project research at the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies Annual Conference at University of Wales Trinity St David, 13-15 July 2016. The conference theme is 'Networks: Connecting the Middle East through Time, Space and Cyberspace.'

Panel proposal

In this panel we address the network of media representations of Iraq which have shaped the Western cultural imaginary in a period of increasingly fraught and politicised debate in the US and Europe about military interventions, collateral damage, and humanitarian responses in the Middle East. Part of what Derek Gregory and Allan Pred have called the '"image wars" of the twenty-first century', in which the borders 'between news and entertainment… and between different modes and genres of photographic representation' are increasingly blurred (2007: 2), the 'Iraq' constructed by Western audio visual media is an 'imaginative geography' (Edward Said, 1978) that demands analysis precisely because it has structured - and continues to structure - both Gramscian 'common sense' cultural understandings of contemporary conflict zones, and the discourses and decision-making of not just media producers but politicians and government and military institutions in the West. Taking up Judith Butler's encouragement to understand the structuring affordances and erasures of the 'frames' through which Western citizens are permitted to view communities, cultures and conflicts located in the Middle East (2010), this panel examines fiction film and documentary practices in film and broadcast television, to understand the relationship between 'Iraq' as imaginative geography and Iraq as a lived experience for its citizens. The panel emerges from the British Academy-funded interdisciplinary project, 'Disappearing War: Cinema and the Politics of Erasure in the "War on Terror",' and is proposed for the conference's cultural networks subtheme.

Paper 1: Shohini Chaudhuri, 'The Cinematic Staging of (In)Visible War and the (Vanishing) Colonial Present'

Paper 2: Janet Harris, 'Framing Iraq: Broadcast Television Documentary in the Conflict Zone'

Paper 3: Lisa Purse, 'Battlefield "Iraq": spatio-sensory cues in the cinematic construction of the "imaginative geography" of occupied Iraq'

Paper 4: Christina Hellmich, 'Imagining Iraq'

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