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The Logistics of Perception: Cinema, US Intelligence, and the Second World War

Wednesday 20 February 2019
Diplomacy and Global Affairs Research Seminar Series 2019
Turfmarkt 99
2511 DP The Hague


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About the lecture

The Vietnam War is often described as the first ‘television war’. But the first ‘motion picture war’ was the Second World War. This is not to claim that combat footage was invented in the Second World War—that milestone was reached during the Spanish-American War at the end of the previous century— but it was the first war in which motion pictures became the preeminent means by which both members of the public, and military strategists, perceived the conflict. This new ‘logistics of perception’, as Paul Virilio termed the process through which war is perceived, had a profound impact. It changed how politicians, intelligence officers, and military strategists understood and therefore planned the war. It shaped the general public’s conception of the conflict, and ultimately, at the Nuremberg Trials, it played a significant role in condemning many of the Nazi defendants to the gallows, and in the process helped set the standards for international criminal law and human rights legislation today.

This paper will tell this story through a history of the US Office of Strategic Service’s (OSS) Field Photographic Unit, a group of over 300 Hollywood filmmakers who placed their services at the disposal of America’s wartime military and intelligence staff.  They filmed in every theatre of operation, producing training, reconnaissance and propaganda films.  They co-ordinated the Allies’ filming of the D-Day landings, they won an Academy Award for the dramatic combat colour footage they shot at the Battle of Midway, and they went ashore in North Africa during Operation Torch.  They helped produce America’s first truly global visual reconnaissance archive, and they worked directly with the prosecutorial staff at Nuremberg to demonstrate Nazi crimes against humanity. Ultimately, through this history, this paper seeks to explore the interrelationship between warfare and the means by which we perceive it.

About the speaker

Simon Willmetts is Assistant Professor of Intelligence Studies at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs. He is a cultural historian interested in the history of secrecy, intelligence, surveillance, and digital privacy. His research focuses on the wider social and cultural impact of secret intelligence services and their activities. His first book, In Secrecy’s Shadow: The OSS and CIA in Hollywood Cinema (2016), examines the collapse of public trust in government in the aftermath of the Second World War through the lens of post-war spy cinema. More recently, he has become interested in the way in which contemporary dystopian fiction has interpreted and shaped debates about digital privacy.

About the seminars

The Diplomacy and Global Affairs (DGA) Research Seminar is a series launched by the Research Group on Diplomacy and Global Affairs at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs. The seminars of internationally acknowledged guest researchers and faculty members deal with current research topics in diplomacy, international relations, global affairs, and political economy broadly conceived and target a broad audience through their interdisciplinary focus.


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