The latest issue of Critical Asian Studies [46: 1 (2014)] includes a major section (pp. 145-247) devoted to commentary from scholars and activists; first page pull below.
I’m still in Beirut where I’ve had a wonderful time at the Transnational American Studies conference at AUB. Yesterday morning I chaired a panel on ‘Geographies of War‘, which featured Laleh Khalili (on Kuwait, military logistics and private contractors: abstract here), Lisa Hajjar (on the (il)legal strictures and injustices at Guantanamo; she changed her paper so I can’t link to an abstract), and Jeremy Scahill (‘The world is America’s battlefield’: abstract here).
In the evening Jeremy showed the film of Dirty Wars, co-written with David Riker and directed by Rick Rowley. Bear with me here; I’ll return to those ‘geographies’ in a moment. Seeing the film for a second time (the first was in Toronto in the fall with Jaimie and Jorge) I have to say I found it less satisfactory – I much prefer the book, but it’s not only because the written version is (inevitably) more detailed and more nuanced. I think it has something to do with the film being less an act of investigative journalism than a reconstruction of investigative journalism, a noir docudrama in which the investigator (no less inevitably) becomes the central figure: Sam Spade with a notebook. For that reason, I think Michael O’Sullivan is simply wrong to say that ‘the film is a documentary pure and simple.’
You can see that most obviously in the section that deals with a Special Forces night raid in February 2010 on a compound in Gardez, Afghanistan, where much of the ground-breaking reporting was done by another journalist, Jerome Starkey. But these scenes have incredible dramatic force, none the less, and the incorporation of cellphone footage of the raid and the unmasking of the Special Forces commander are genuinely and profoundly arresting (if only that were literally true).
I’m less convinced by the sections that treat the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, probably because I’m still dismayed that it was the killing of a U.S. citizen that sparked so much public outrage in the United States rather than the killing of all the others. Certainly in the film, far more so than the book, there’s an unwavering focus on the ‘Americanness’ of al-Awlaki, and especially of his transparently innocent teenage son, murdered by a drone strike just two weeks later. Home videos, games, clothes, a whole series of images are put to work to show not that ‘they’ are just like ‘us’ but that in some substantial sense ‘they’ are ‘us’. I was left wondering about those who don’t qualify for these sort of identifications, who can’t provide similarly legible identity papers: how are we to recognise and acknowledge their lives as grievable too? There’s also something unsettling about Jeremy’s epiphany that he’s come to Yemen ‘to apologise’: I’m still trying to figure out how he could, and what position he would have had to occupy for that to mean very much to al-Awlaki’s grandparents and cousins in Sa’ana.
Finally, the extended passage through a war-ravaged town in Somalia, crouching alongside militias and interviewing a warlord who gives very little away, seems to run into the sand. I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that these sequences had been retained primarily for Mohamed Afrah Qanyare‘s assertion (about his paymasters) that ‘America knows war… They are the war masters.’
And yet, of course, America doesn’t know war: Bush and Cheney famously avoided Vietnam, most of the war managers view the results of their military and paramilitary violence on screens and spreadsheets, and most of the public turns the other way. As Kamila Shamsie says in Burnt Shadows, the United States fights ‘more wars than anyone else; because you understand war least of all’ (see also my draft introduction to The everywhere war here; scroll down).
That’s precisely why investigative journalism and documentary films are so urgently necessary – and why we need these different forms – but I’m not sure that rendering Jeremy’s courageous and principled investigations in the black and white tones of a Hollywood thriller is the best way to bring ‘what is hidden in plain sight’ into public view. (For a different take, that pays close attention to the visual codes in the film, see Mike Hill‘s very smart essay over at Feedback here). I do know that films have to be different from books, that they have different grammars if you like, and I also understand that one of the most effective ways of soliciting an audience’s response is through story-telling – academic prose would be considerably less deadly if it had more narrative force – but in the end I’m with Roger Ebert:
‘Scahill is so respected and convincing that he doesn’t need such propping up, so the flashy directing and editing makes it feel as though “Dirty Wars” is trying too hard to sell things that might have sold themselves just fine without the hot box approach.’
Other (non-film) critics have objected to the way in which the history of clandestine/covert war is foreshortened in Dirty Wars, so that the CIA is left in the shadows. But that’s surely because in the wake of 9/11 the CIA was, in some crucial respects, pushed out of the limelight and a vastly aggrandised Joint Special Operations Command took centre stage to play for Cheney and Rumsfeld. And it’s the combination of a para-militarized CIA and JSOC that is instrumental in pushing the boundaries of the everywhere war.
- Red markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2013.
- Blue markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2013.
- Purple markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2012.
- Yellow markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2012.
US Special Operations Deployments, 2012-2013
While I was writing this, a new report from Nick Turse popped on to my screen, charting the extraordinary global geography of JSOC (above) and its entanglements with other militaries and agencies like USAID. JSOC has set up its own shadow system of subcommands mirroring the Pentagon’s division of the globe into unified combatant commands like US Central Command, each assigned to a different geographical region:
US Special Operations Command – Subcommands
I’ve taken the map above from US Special Operations Command’s own ‘Factbook‘, though it’s so reluctant to disclose any information that here too, as you’ll see if you read Nick’s article, part of the story is getting the story. If you read this alongside Steve Niva‘s brilliant essay, ‘Disappearing violence: JSOC and the Pentagon’s new cartography of networked warfare’, Security dialogue 44 (3) (2013) 185-202, and in conjunction with the gritty detail (and vivid prose) of Dirty Wars, you’ll have a desperately disturbing sense of one of the modalities that is producing these new geographies of war. As Scott Horton tells Jeremy in Dirty Wars, ‘suddenly the theatre of war has become the entire globe – it’s become everywhere.’
I’m off to Beirut in early January for CASAR’s conference on Transnational American Studies, where I’ll be talking about CIA-directed drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Even though Judith Butler had to cancel, it’s still an excellent program, including Paul Amar, Lisa Bhungalia, Brian Edwards, Keith Feldman, Waleed Hazbun, Craig Jones, Amy Kaplan, Laleh Khalileh, Vijay Prashad, Jeremy Scahill (and a screening of Dirty Wars), and an evening performance of Robert Myers‘s drone play, Unmanned.
I have about a week to get my own act together, so it’s welcome news that the Tactical Technology Collective has released a series of short films, Exposing the Invisible, the most recent of which – Unseen War – focuses on the FATA.
There are also transcripts of the full interviews that make up the 7 ‘chapters’ of the film: Sadaf Baig from the Centre for International Media Ethics (CIME) at the London School of Economics; Taha Siddiqui, an independent journalist in Islamabad; Safdar Dawar; Alice Ross from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; Noortje Marres from Goldsmiths, University of London; and James Bridle (who needs no introduction for readers of this blog).
Sadaf and Safdar are both very informative about FATA, and James provides an excellent introduction to his stream of work on drones.
Robert Greenwald‘s feature-length documentary film Unmanned: America’s drone wars is being released on 30 October: it will be streaming online for a limited time, but if you sign up here you will be able to watch it thanks to Brave New Foundation free of charge (and no, this isn’t piracy). Thanks to Jorge Amigo and Sara Koopman for the heads-up.
As I noted last summer, Greenwald prepared the video to accompany the Stanford/NYU report Living under Drones, and you can find more about the background to the film in George Zornick‘s article for the Nation here. Like the crew that made Madiha Tahir‘s Wounds of Waziristan, Greenwald travelled to Pakistan, but the twist here is that Greenwald is bringing some of the witnesses to Capitol Hill this week:
“What we’ve been able to do is put a face to policy. Bring over living, breathing, human beings who can look the camera, or the congresspeople, or reporters, in the eye and say, ‘Yes, my grandmother was in the field. She was killed by a drone,’ ” he explained. “ ‘My mother, who I miss every day, was killed by a drone. How could she possibly, under any set of circumstances, be called a terrorist?’”
For more details on the project to bring them to the United States and the horrors that they witnessed, see Ryan Devereux‘s chilling report here about the murder of Mamana Bibi.
‘Zubair, now 13, said the sky was clear the day his grandmother died. He had just returned home from school. Everyone had been in high spirits for the holiday, Zubair said, though above their heads aircraft were circling. Not airplanes or helicopters, Zubair said.
“I know the difference,” Zubair said, explaining the different features and sounds the vehicles make. “I am certain that it was a drone.” Zubair recalled a pair of “fireballs” tearing through the clear blue sky, after he stepped outside. After the explosion there was darkness, he said, and a mix of smoke and debris.
“When it first hit, it was like everyone was just going crazy. They didn’t know what to make of it,” Zubair said. “There was madness.” A piece of shrapnel ripped into the boy’s left leg, just above his kneecap. A scar approximately four inches in length remains. “I felt like I was on fire,” he said. The injury would ultimately require a series of costly operations.
Nabeela, the little girl, was collecting okra when the missiles struck. “My grandma was teaching me how you can tell if the okra is ready to be picked,” she said. “All of the sudden there was a big noise. Like a fire had happened.
“I was scared. I noticed that my hand was hurting, that there was something that had hit my hand and so I just started running. When I was running I noticed that there was blood coming out of my hand.”
Nabeela continued running. The bleeding would not stop. She was eventually scooped up by her neighbors. “I had seen my grandmother right before it had happened but I couldn’t see her after. It was just really dark but I could hear [a] scream when it had hit her.”
This is the same attack detailed in Amnesty’s report, Will I be next? last week. Amnesty’s account of the strike, on Ghundi Kala in North Waziristan on 24 October 2012, included this photograph showing the position of Mamana Bibi‘s family when the drone struck while she was working in the fields:
This is exactly that I meant when I said that all these targeted killings – and this was one which surely went hideously wrong (though I’m not sure what going right would look like) – have effects that reach far beyond the individual victim. The ‘individuation of warfare‘ is never confined to an individual; and in this case, like so many others, it’s not warfare either.
“Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day,” Rehman said, through a translator. “Some media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Others reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All of them reported that three, four, five militants were killed.”
Instead, he said, only one person was killed that day: “Not a militant but my mother.”
“In urdu we have a saying: aik lari main pro kay rakhna. Literally translated, it means the string that holds the pearls together. That is what my mother was. She was the string that held our family together. Since her death, the string has been broken and life has not been the same. We feel alone and we feel lost.”
In the image below, her grand-daughter is holding her drawing of the attack.
Read this alongside Kenneth Anderson and Benjamin Wittes here – with their double-act doublespeak of Amnesty International’s ‘coyness’ and its ‘blithe claims’ (do they know what these words mean??) – and retch.
Just back from a wonderful trip to Toronto and York, where (among other things) I gave a new presentation on “Drones and the everywhere war“. It turned out to have been timely: there’s been a flurry of revelations and reports about the US campaign of targeted killing in Pakistan and Yemen, and I managed to incorporate some of them into the argument.
It’s smart and stunning, and addresses a swath of vital issues about the drone strikes in just 25 minutes: from their colonial antecedents in ‘air policing’ and the special laws imposed on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas by the British state through extraordinary testimony from survivors to the collusion between the US and Pakistan in exposing the population of FATA to military violence.
The testimony should be read alongside the reports from Amnesty International ["WIll I Be Next? Drone strikes in Pakistan"] and Human Rights Watch ["Between a drone and al-Qaeda", on Yemen] issued earlier this week. There’s a short video from AI on their report:
Reading and thinking about these testimonies has helped convince me that the root problem with drones is not that they enable killing from a distance: as I’ve said before, if you object to killing someone 7,500 miles away, over what distance do you think it is acceptable? In fact, although Predators and Reapers are controlled from the continental United States they have to be deployed close to their targets: these are not weapons of global reach. One of the most fundamental issues is that they can only be used in uncontested air space, so that they are limited to haunting the skies over some of the most vulnerable and marginal populations on earth, whose own governments care little about them and where the distinction between a combatant and a civilian is made to count for precious little. One of my next tasks is to revise “Moving targets and violent geographies” (DOWNLOADS tab) to incorporate these reports and to emphasise this conclusion.
In one sequence, repeating a tactic which has been used by other artists in Iraq in particular, “Wounds” projects US drone strikes in Waziristan onto a map of Madiha’s home state, New Jersey:
Madiha also appears on a panel on “Life Under Drones” at the Drones & Aerial Robotics Conference in New York earlier this month, with Wazhmah Osman, Chris Rogers and Tara McKelvey, also now up at YouTube:
I’m sorry for the long silence: the past two weeks have been unusually busy, with a stream of wonderful visitors to the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, including Philippe Descola, Anne-Christine Taylor and Bruno Latour. More on this soon, but during a series of conference presentations – in which, more or less in passing, I mentioned Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The act of killing (2012) (see here and here) – I was told of another, related project that readers will find interesting.
This is Yael Hersonski‘s A Film Unfinished [Shtikat Haarchion] (2010). The centre of the documentary – you can hardly say its ‘heart’ – is an unfinished propaganda film shot by the Nazis in 1942, Das Ghetto, which purported to portray the Warsaw Ghetto. It was found in an archive in East Germany in 1954, but in 1988 two discarded film cans containing 30 minutes of outtakes were discovered – scenes left on the cutting room floor – which radically transformed the interpretation of the film and revealed the elaborate staging of its scenes. You can obtain another overview of the project here, which includes a number of stills from A Film Unfinished.
The parallel with Oppenheimer’s project is drawn by Hersonski’s re-staging of an interview with one of the original cameramen, Willy Wist (he died in 1999 but Hersonski works from a transcript she found by chance in an archive in Ludwigsburg), and by her decision to invite five survivors of the Ghetto to watch the out-takes and to record their reactions.
This is from Jeannette Catsoulis‘s thoughtful review in the New York Times:
“What if I see someone I know?” one woman asks [she does], hardly daring to look. As the flickering atrocities play across the survivors’ faces — one film observing another — Ms. Hersonski silently creates space for memories. More than just valuable reality checks (“When did you ever see a flower? We would have eaten a flower!”), these recollections anchor the past to the present, and the images to human experience, in a way that shifts our perception of the Warsaw film. Whether cringing at the sight of naked men and women being forced at gunpoint into a ritual bath, or contemptuously dismissing the Nazis’ efforts to highlight Jewish privilege (“My mother wore her beautiful coat, and sometimes a hat. So what?”), the survivors seem to speak for those who cannot.
Here is the trailer. The whole film is available on YouTube but I can’t embed it because it has a restricted rating, so you need to confirm you are old enough to watch it: here.
Catsoulis suggests that the film is concerned with the difference between watching and seeing, and in this sense the other obvious parallel is with Giorgio Agamben‘s philosophico-ethical probings of the witness and the camp. Hersonski herself says that her film ‘first emerged out of my theoretical preoccupation with the notion of the “archive”, and the unique nature of the witnessing it bears.’ (She elaborates this in an interview with Max Goldberg here and there is also a really excellent interview with Lalev Melamed, ‘A Film Unraveled’, in the International journal of politics, culture and society 26 (13) 9-19, which includes an interesting comparison between Hersonski and Harun Farocki).
Witnessing is of more than historical significance, of course, and in an extended interview with Clyde Fitch – in which he asks her about complicity and guilt – Hersonski deflects his question from the past to our own present:
I’m asking myself a different question. I’m asking myself: What is my ethical position when I’m sitting very comfortably in my living room and seeing whatever is happening a few kilometers from my city in the occupied territories?…
What can I do? No, it’s not a rhetorical question. I’m seeing this and other events unfold — I’m watching it, I know about it, I know it’s there. I’m not talking about politics right now, by the way, just images of people suffering. And, as the images of people suffering in my own country go, you become a witness. Then what do you do as a witness? It’s a terrible question — it’s a haunting, torturing question. It’s our essential question.
I think that it was also a major reason why I made this film — because the Holocaust not only confronted humanity with an inconceivable horror but it also did mark the very beginning of the systematic implementation on film of that horror. And I think that something changed in our perception — I don’t know even how to define this something — after we saw images from the camps, something that we hadn’t witnessed before. It seems that documentation became more technically advanced, more massive, since then.
Well, as long as this bombardment of images becomes more intense, we will become more and more incapable of really seeing suffering, or war.
Fitch describes the film as ‘an act of anthropology’ – something which our three guests at the Wall would surely recognise too.
I don’t imagine that anyone who has seen it will ever forget the cockpit video of US Apache attack helicopters mowing down two Reuters journalists and ten other civilians in Baghdad in July 2007. It was part of the cache that the principled and courageous Bradley Manning gave to Wikileaks, which released the full, unedited clip as Collateral Murder in 2010, and earlier this month Manning’s lawyers opened their defence with a showing of the same video.
The first is Shuchen Tan‘s Permission to engage, which won the Prix Europa for the best European TV investigation in 2012. Here’s the trailer:
And here is the full (brilliant) film:
The second is James Spione‘s Incident in New Baghdad, which won the prize for the best documentary short at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 and for best picture and best documentary short at the Fargo Film Festival in 2012.
This is how Spione introduces his film:
Psychologists call it “psychic numbing.” Tell someone that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in the Iraq conflict, or that thousands of U.S. veterans of our Mideast wars suffer from crippling PTSD, and their eyes will likely glaze over. Most people simply cannot comprehend the meaning of such vast numbers, nor are they likely to show any particular concern. Conversely, however, the tale of a single tragic incident can create great empathy in the same person–and greater understanding of the wider effects of war.
On April 5th, 2010, the controversial website WikiLeaks released a grainy black-and-white video that stunned the world. Recorded from the gunsight camera of an U.S. Army attack
helicopter during one of the most chaotic and deadly periods of the Iraq War, the footage depicts the violent deaths of two Iraqi journalists, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh,
along with at least eight other mostly unarmed individuals on the streets of Baghdad in July 2007. Minutes later on the video, when the driver of a passing van attempts to come to the aid of the mortally wounded Chmagh, a second helicopter attack occurs that destroys the van and kills several more people, wounding two small children in the process…
My short film INCIDENT IN NEW BAGHDAD examines what happened that day from the first-hand perspective of an American infantryman whose life was profoundly changed by his experiences on the scene. U.S. Army Specialist Ethan McCord bore witness to the devastating carnage, found and rescued the two children caught in the crossfire, and soon turned against the war that he had enthusiastically joined only months before. Denied psychological treatment in Iraq for his PTSD, McCord returned home, struggling for years with anger, confusion, and guilt over the war. When Wikileaks released the video of the incident, McCord was finally spurred into action, and began traveling the country, speaking out for the rights of PTSD sufferers and against the American wars in the Middle East.
However, there is so much more to the story, and I am now developing a more in-depth, feature-length examination of this incident that will include the perspectives of many more people involved in this incident: the infantry on the ground; the families of both Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh; the children, whose father was killed in front of them in the van, as well as their mother; and if possible, the 1-8 Cavalry Airborne gunner who pulled the trigger. My hope is that, by hearing from all of the first-hand participants of this tragic event, we may come to better understand the profoundly damaging consequences that ripple out through the lives of survivors over many years from just one so-called “engagement” in a war. And when we learn from all involved that this incident was not an aberration, but a commonplace occurrence over the course of many years, perhaps then we will start to understand those mind-numbing statistics, and feel the true moral scale of the damage, the wounds, the folly of a war of choice that never needed to happen.
I rehearse all this now for two reasons other than the shadow of sentencing that now hangs over Manning (though that is reason enough) .
First, the video at the dark heart of this incident – and these films – was not captured by a Predator or Reaper thousands of feet in the air and fed back to pilots, screeners and commanders thousands of miles away in the continental United States: this was close-in and immediate, and this raises important questions about scopic regimes and military violence that spiral far beyond the usual (and I think narrowly framed) debate over drones.
Second, Incident in New Baghdad was part-financed by Carol Grayson, who became one of the film’s executive producers. She is clearly a remarkable woman in all sorts of ways, not least because she has spent much (I suspect most) of her time since then working on a new documentary film project, The Approximate Target that charts ‘the human cost of remote control killing, the dangers of covert government policy and unaccountability in modern warfare.’ It’s been a long, difficult and continuing journey with seemingly no end of obstacles and obstructions: you can read more on her blog here.
From what I’ve been able to discover – which is not as much as I’d like – the focus of the The Approximate Target appears to be on CIA-directed strikes in Waziristan. But Carol’s most recent posting (today) includes a letter from a Yemeni civilian to President Obama and Yemen’s President Hamadi on the eve of their meeting at the White House. The letter was released today by Reprieve. In it, Faisal bin Ali Jabera, young engineer who lost two of his relatives in a drone strike on Hadhramout last summer, writes:
Our family are not your enemy. In fact, the people you killed had strongly and publicly opposed al-Qa’ida. Salem was an imam. The Friday before his death, he gave a guest sermon in the Khashamir mosque denouncing al-Qa’ida’s hateful ideology. It was not the first of these sermons, but regrettably, it was his last…
Our town was no battlefield. We had no warning – our local police were never asked to make any arrest. My young cousin Waleed was a policeman, before the strike cut short his life…
Your silence in the face of these injustices only makes matters worse. If the strike was a mistake, the family – like all wrongly bereaved families of this secret air war – deserve a formal apology. To this day I wish no vengeance against the United States or Yemeni governments. But not everyone in Yemen feels the same. Every dead innocent swells the ranks of those you are fighting.
On the day that Bradley Manning has been found guilty, here is John Pilger‘s celebrated film on the mediatization of modern war: a timely reminder of what, without people like Manning, we would never see and never know:
Via the Funambulist I’ve stumbled across an early film by the young Peter Watkins, The diary of an unknown soldier. Made in 1959 when Watkins was just 24, six years before The War Game, it recounts – in what was to become Watkins’ signature documentary style – the last, desperate hours before a young soldier on the Western Front goes into combat for the first time.
This is how Watkins himself tells the story behind the film:
In the mid 1950s, I underwent compulsory military service in Britain. Managing to avoid being sent on a draft to fight the Mau-Mau in Kenya, I landed a clerical post in Canterbury, Kent, where I fortunately met a group of people running an amateur theatre group called ‘Playcraft’. This group regularly staged a series of very clever productions in the small living room of Alan and June Gray – with Alan and Anne Pope, Stan and Phyllis Mercer, and other friends who acted, helped with designs and sets, and invited the local audience to the twenty or so seats tightly crammed into the room. A drama student bitten by the ‘acting bug’ in London before my military service, I acted in several of Playcraft’s productions – including in R.C. Sheriff’s anti-war drama, Journey’s End, set in the trenches during World War I. Immediately following my release from the army, I was bitten by another – amateur filmmaking – ‘bug’, and acquired a Bolex spring-driven 8mm camera…
By 1959, while Watkins was working as an assistant film editor at ‘World Wide Pictures’, alongside a number of documentary filmmakers from the old Crown Film Unit, he wrote the script for ‘The Diary of an Unknown Soldier’. Here it is (the narrator is Watkins himself):
The film is remarkably effective at conveying the visceral nature of the landscape of fear confronting the anonymous young man – the shattered branches that turn into sharp bayonets – but above at showing the materiality and corporeality of the violence that was to come. As Léopold Lambert notes, ‘the way the body is filmed and described in the script is remarkable as it heavily insists on the fact that war for soldiers — in opposition to high-rank[ing] officers — is essentially a matter of bodies: their movement, their combination with the bullets and bombs trajectories and their relationship to the ground — in that case, the mud.’
Watkins was hired by the BBC’s documentary department in 1963, and the rest is indeed history…
The connections with “Gabriel’s Map” are very clear (at least to me: there are several sequences in which a young subaltern annotates his map). But what about the other ‘unknown soldier’ (or, rather, soldiers)?
The origins of this iconic memorial go back to 1916, when a British Army chaplain serving on the Western front, David Railton, saw one of countless graves on the battlefield at Armentières, this one marked by a simple cross bearing the words: “An unknown British soldier.” He became determined that those un-named soldiers from all over the British Empire who had fallen on the Front should be honoured by a single public memorial in Britain.
Finally, in early November 1920 the body of an un-named soldier was exhumed from each of the four major battlefields – the Aisne, Arras, the Somme and Ypres – and one of them was placed in a coffin and transported to London. On 11 November, two years after the Armistice, the ‘Unknown Warrior’ was re-buried in Westminster Abbey:
Similar memorials were constructed in other European countries, Australia and the United States.
You can find the full, much richer story in Neil Hanson‘s beautifully written and carefully researched The Unknown Soldier (2005), which splices the story of the iconic ‘unknown soldier’ with the stories of three others – British, French and German – who were declared missing during the War.
The classic discussion of some of the wider issues remains Jay Winter‘s Sites of memory, sites of mourning: the Great War in European cultural history (1998), while later this year David Crane promises to provide an account of the personalities and the politics involved in the construction of war graves in Empires of the Dead (2013).
I’ve discussed Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing – about paramilitary death-squads in Indonesia in 1965-6 – in an earlier post. Larry Rohter provided a short backgrounder in the New York Times at the end of last week (much more here):
The events initially addressed in “The Act of Killing” are little known in the West: the slaughter of as many as a million people in Indonesia following the military’s seizure of power there in 1965. The victims were labeled Communists but included labor leaders, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, with paramilitary groups carrying out the killings at the behest of the Indonesian Army and with the support of the United States and its allies, who worried that Indonesia, like Vietnam, would fall into Communist hands.
In Indonesia, the killings were “a kind of open secret, kept discreetly hidden so that if you wanted to, you could pretend it wasn’t happening,” said John Roosa, a scholar of Indonesian history at the University of British Columbia and the author of “Pretext for Mass Murder,” the leading book about the 1965 massacres. “So this film has become a provocation, an impetus for Indonesians to go back to the perpetrators and say, ‘Tell us exactly what happened.’ ”
Guernica now has a new interview (by Emma Myers) with Oppenheimer in which he talks at length about the background to the film and the process of filming itself:
‘I was developing experimental performative documentary methods in London and was asked to make a film [what would become The Globalization Tapes] by the International Union of Food Workers in a place where unions had been previously outlawed. I could have been sent to India, Colombia, Malaysia… but I was sent to Indonesia. I knew nothing about the country, but found myself in a plantation community outside of Medan. The biggest obstacle the workers had in organizing a union, I found, was fear: fear that stemmed from the fact that their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles had had a strong union until 1965, but were accused of being leftists and either killed or put in concentration camps for decades as a result. That was the first I had heard about the 1965-1966 genocide and it was clear to me that it had to be in the film. But even talking about it turned out to be scary for them, because the people who committed atrocities against their relatives were living all around them in this village. So I made the film with the plantation workers but realized I had to come back. I felt very close to this community. They were saying, “Please make a film about the genocide and how it has affected us.” I returned six months later to start working with them and found the process to be unsafe for them; the best way around this was to film the killers—who were much more willing to talk—instead of the victims.’
He talks in particular about the performative force of storytelling, the ethics of staging the killers’ fantasies (they were paid a small per diem sanctioned by the Arts & Humanities Research Council), and ends with a wonderfully sharp remark from Werner Herzog (one of his co-producers) about the political possibilities of art.
There’s now also an extended essay by another of the film’s co-producers, Errol Morris, over at Slate, in which he asks: ‘Is this a story about Indonesia or also a story about us?’ His answer takes that little clause in Rohter’s commentary – ‘Indonesia, like Vietnam‘ – and unpacks it to devastating effect. His journey takes him back to his own film, The Fog of War, to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and to the Vietnam War: the coup in Indonesia, he realises, took place in 1965, the same year that President Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam. It’s a brilliant road-trip – a mix of interviews and scholarly research, of geopolitical critique and cultural sensibility.
You can see some clips from the film, and hear Herzog and Morris discuss it in this video from Vice.
Finally, there’s a commentary on the film by Slavoj Zizek at the New Statesman here. His starting-point is a familiar one:
The protective screen that prevented a deeper moral crisis was the cinematic screen: as in their real killings and torture, the men experienced their role play as a re-enactment of cinematic models: they experienced reality itself as a fiction. During their massacres, the men, all admirers of Hollywood (they started their careers as controllers of the black market in cinema tickets), imitated Hollywood gangsters, cowboys and even a musical dancer.
Here the “big other” enters: what kind of society publicly celebrates a monstrous orgy of torture and killing decades after it took place, not by justifying it as an extraordinary, necessary crime for the public good but as an ordinary, acceptable pleasurable activity? The trap to be avoided here is the easy one of putting the blame on either Hollywood or on the “ethical primitiveness” of Indonesia. The starting point should rather be the dislocating effects of capitalist globalisation which, by undermining the “symbolic efficacy” of traditional ethical structures, creates such a moral vacuum.
But he then spirals off into his own (I almost wrote ‘magical mystery’) tour d’horizon that ultimately brings The Act of Killing into the intimacy of our own, deeply personal spaces and their (non-)relation to an increasingly eviscerated and compromised public space.
For all that, I much prefer Morris’s take – and I greatly admire his method. In the end, he asks a series of questions that are not about celebration or banalisation, important though they are, but about amnesia.