6 Oct 2015

Watch: ‘Bombing Isis: on board a US floating fortress’

Artists Richard Mosse, Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost spend time on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sending warplanes to bomb ISIS around the clock.

We are a crew of three artists – a sculptor, a composer and a photographer – who occasionally get together to make documentary films concerned with current affairs events.

Channel 4 News accredited us as part of their news team, giving us the extraordinary opportunity to embed with the US Navy on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier which is currently stationed in the Persian Gulf, flying bombing missions over Syria and Iraq to destroy Islamic State forces.

Activities aboard an active, forward deployed aircraft carrier are, of course, absolutely newsworthy. But, as artists, we were also very impressed by the sublime physical forces that were active on deck: the tremendous deafening metal machine noise, the very dangerous heat (up to 65 Celsius), the somatic, body-shaking vibration, the violent crashing and furious catapulting of multi-million dollar aircraft loaded with deadly ordinance.

Yet the crew working in this ferocious environment remain perfectly calm, signalling to each other with coded gestures like actors in an absurdist theatre play.

The ship’s crew were thoroughly genial and kind towards us, which seemed oddly incongruous with their task of fixing deadly payloads to enormous killing machines. There was even a sense of tenderness with which they serviced this vicious apparatus, cleaning salty residue from every exposed surface, carefully wheeling missiles, thoroughly inspecting the deck for loose debris, hauling chains.

This is the triumph of modern warfare, casting a veil over individual ethical culpability, concealing bloody hands with lily-white gloves.

The logistics involved are intricately coordinated with total accuracy. As the flight commander pointed out to us, there is no margin for error. And the scale of those logistics is mind-boggling. The ship is home to 5000 crew, flying 77 aircraft, which consume 900,000 gallons of gasoline every week – and which have already dropped 725,000 pounds of ordnance on targets in Syria and Iraq.

All of this intense activity is carried out adjacent to Iranian territory. The Commanding Officer joked with us that the Iranians “get to watch the greatest show on earth.” We watched as Iranian military vessels approached, and listened to their chatter coming over the radio.

Indeed, the whole thing resembled an elaborate theatrical show of force. In February 2015, the Iranians even went as far as building a simulacrum aircraft carrier, a full scale replica of USS Nimitz, and sank it in a recorded combat exercise, playing into the very same logic.

Where all this mighty showmanship will end up now that Putin has joined the fray is anyone’s guess. Everyone’s favourite enemy, the so-called Islamic State, are also expert manipulators of the media.

Above all, this war is one of representation.

Cinematographer & VT Editor: Trevor Tweeten

Composer: Ben Frost

Directed and Produced by Richard Mosse