More-than-human casualties

Apologies for the long silence – I’ve made several trips to the UK to deliver lectures, but I’ve also been (almost literally) in the trenches.  My supposed-to-be 8,000 word essay on ‘Woundscapes of the Western Front’ has morphed into a monster: 35,000 words and I’m still not done….  More on that eventually (I so hope…).  But en route, and in part as a response to a question I was asked after one of my presentations, I want to elaborate on a footnote.

My essay is about the evacuation of wounded soldiers, but human bodies were not the only ones requiring medical attention on the Western Front. By August 1917 the British Army had 368,000 horses and 82,000 mules in Belgium and France.  At the outbreak of the war the cavalry were expected to play their traditional role –

[Image: National Library of Scotland]

– but by the end of the war most horses were pulling gun limbers, ammunition trains, supply waggons and ambulances [more here].

Horse-drawn ambulances were never made obsolete by motor ambulance convoys.  Their capacity was limited and they were very slow – ‘hopelessly immobile’, according to one senior RAMC officer – but they remained the only option in some places. On the Somme in July 1916 the ground was so pitted with shell-holes that motor ambulances could not be used close to the line and horse ambulances worked for 24 hours or more at a stretch, ferrying casualties to motor ambulance convoys waiting further back:

Not surprisingly, horses (and mules) were highly vulnerable to shelling and shrapnel, to gas attacks and, wherever environmental conditions deteriorated, to injuries from traversing near-impossible terrain:

There is a haunting scene in Erich Maria Remarque‘s  All quiet on the Western Front:

‘The cries continued. It is not men, they could not cry so terribly.
“Wounded horses,” says Kat.
It’s unendurable. It is the moaning of the world, it is the martyred creation, wild with anguish, filled with terror, and groaning….

They’ve got to get the wounded men out first,’ says Kat. We stand up and try to see where they are. If we can actually see the animals, it will be easier to cope with. Meyer has some field glasses with him. We can make some bigger things, black mounds that are moving. Those are the wounded horses. But not all of them. Some gallop off a little way, collapse, and then run on again. The belly of one of the horses has been ripped open and its guts are trailing out. It gets its feet caught up in them and falls, but it gets to its feet again. Detering raises his ri e and takes aim. Kat knocks the barrel upwards. ‘Are you crazy?’ Detering shudders and throws his gun on the ground. We sit down and press our hands over our ears. But the terrible crying and groaning and howling still gets through, it penetrates everything. We can all stand a lot, but this brings us out in a cold sweat. You want to get up and run away, anywhere just so as not to hear that screaming any more. And it isn’t men, just horses.

Yet far more equine losses were attributed to disease than enemy action, in contrast to troop losses (the First World War was the first in which deaths from wounds exceeded deaths from disease by a ratio of 2:1). One driver had a simple explanation. ‘Owing to the importance of the horses, whose lives were of greater value than those of the men, the horse-lines were usually in places free, or practically free from “strafing”’: Charles Bassett, Horses were more valuable than men (London: PublishNation, 2014) p. 65.

The horse-lines were indeed in the rear (see the remarkably pastoral image below: Glisy, on the Somme), but the nature of their work ensured that horses and mules had to be taken right up to the fire zone; between 1914 and 1916 battle losses accounted for 25 per cent of equine deaths, and they soared thereafter.

Last year Philip Hoare described these animals as ‘the truly forgotten dead.’ He continued: ‘Sixteen million animals “served” in the first world war – and the RSPCA estimates that 484,143 horses, mules, camels and bullocks were killed in British service between 1914 and 1918.

Yet, just as with human bodies, the toll of the equine dead overlooks that of the wounded.  In response to the military importance of horses and mules, the (Royal) Army Veterinary Corps [the ‘Royal’ prefix was granted immediately after the war] established a system of veterinary medicine parallel to the casualty evacuation system of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The equivalent of the Field Ambulance was the Mobile Veterinary Section; animals needing more extensive emergency care were transferred to Veterinary Evacuation Stations (the equivalent of the Casualty Clearing Station) located at railheads.  They were moved either by horse-drawn ambulance –

– or by special motor ambulances designed to carry two horses each (there were 26 of them, donated by the RSPCA and subscribed from public donations):

Like wounded soldiers, horses needing further medical or surgical attention were transported by barge (mainly in Flanders: each barge could carry 32 animals)  –

– or by rail to Veterinary Hospitals at the base on the French coast.

In the first months of the war cattle trucks on supply trains returning empty to the base were used (here too the parallels with the evacuation of wounded soldiers are exact!) but once the Veterinary Evacuating Stations had been established special horse trains were introduced.  These had to be more or less self-sufficient: supplies of water were especially vital.  Major-General  Sir John Moore emphasised: ‘In transporting sick and enfeebled animals, particularly by train, which during hot seasons of the year is very exhausting, the greatest care must be exercised in watering and feeding en route.’  The need was compounded by the slow and often circuitous journeys made by trains that – like the ambulance trains carrying wounded soldiers – always had to yield to troop trains and supply trains rushing up to the front.

Between 18 August 1914 and 23 January 1919 over half a million sick and wounded animals passed through the British Army’s Mobile Veterinary Sections and Veterinary Evacuating Stations in Flanders and France.  On average a special train carrying 100 sick or injured horses would arrive twice a day at each Veterinary Hospital; between 2,500 and 3,500 horses were admitted to hospital each week, and at their peak more than 4,500 were being cared for at any one time.

The capacity of these hospitals was originally set at 1,000 animals, but this was subsequently doubled.  It was not uncommon, Moore explained, ‘to see three animals in the operating theatre under chloroform at the same time.’

Very few animals were allowed to stay more than three months at the base, where the hospitals operated in conjunction with Convalescent Horse Depots.

According to Moore, the core principle of the Army Veterinary Corps was ‘to get down from the front as many animals as it was possible to save; in other words to give every animal a chance.’  But what lay behind this was the same instrumentalism that guided the RAMC’s casualty evacuation model and its system of triage: the need identify the casualties most likely to survive in short order and to treat them expeditiously so that they could be returned to the front and the fight.

***

You can find more from these sources:

  • Simon Butler, The war horses (Halsgrove, 2011);
  • Stephen Corvi, ‘Men of Mercy: the evolution of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the soldier-horse bond during the Great War,’ Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 76 (308) (1998) 272-84;
  • M-G Sir John Moore, Army Veterinary Service in War (London: Brown, 1921) [available here]
  • Rachael Passmore, ‘The care, development and importance of the British horse on the Western Front in World War I,’ MA thesis, Department of History, University of Leeds, 2009 [accessible here];
  • John Singleton, ‘Britain’s military use of horses 1914-1918’, Past & Present 139 (1993) 178-203.

Like my original essay, this post is confined to the British Army; for a remarkably detailed and beautifully illustrated account of the veterinary medical system of the US Army on the Western Front see here.

Unless otherwise credited, ALL IMAGES are Copyright Imperial War Museum, London

Paper trails

For an update and succinct review of attacks on hospitals and medical facilities in Syria – see also my ‘Your turn, doctor’ here – I recommend the latest fact-sheet from Physicians for Human Rights:

Attacks on health care, in gross violation of humanitarian norms and the Geneva Conventions, have been a distinctive feature of the conflict in Syria since its inception. PHR has documented and mapped 553 attacks on at least 348 separate facilities from March 2011 through December 2018. The reduction in the number of attacks over the past year is a clear reflection of the diminishing intensity of the conflict, which came as a direct result of the Syrian government’s takeover of most opposition-held areas. The systematic targeting of health facilities has been a crucial component of a wider strategy of war employed by the Syrian government and its allies – who are responsible for over 90 percent of attacks – to punish civilians residing in opposition- held territories, destroy their ability to survive, and draw them into government-held areas or drive them out of the country. This strategy of unbridled violence – which in addition to attacks on healthcare has included chemical strikes, sieges, and indiscriminate bombing of predominantly civilian areas – has devastated the civilian population, weakened opposition groups, and translated into direct military gains for the Syrian government.

Of the total number of documented attacks on health facilities, nearly 73 percent were carried out from the air. Nearly 98 percent of attacks on health facilities perpetrated from the air are attributable to the Syrian government and its ally Russian, which entered the conflict in 2015.

The share of attacks on health facilities from the air has grown from 38 percent of the total in 2012 to 90 percent in 2018. The Syrian government became steadily more reliant on airpower as the conflict evolved. Through their air forces, the Syrian government and Russia extended their strategy of collective punishment deep into opposition-held territory and far beyond hardened front lines. The Syrian government and its allies disabled or destroyed hundreds of facilities through aerial bombardment, leaving countless civilians without access to vital medical services.

The latest 20-page report from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic to the UN’s Human Rights Council is here.  I’ve drawn on many of these reports for my continuing work on siege warfare in Syria (see for example here, here and here), and this report – based on investigations carried out from 11 July 2018 to 10 January 2019 – makes for grim reading.  Here is the summary (but you really need to consult the full report):

Extensive military gains made by pro-government forces throughout the first half of 2018, coupled with an agreement between Turkey and the Russian Federation to establish a demilitarized zone in the north-west, led to a significant decrease in armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic in the period from mid July 2018 to mid January 2019. Hostilities elsewhere, however, remain ongoing. Attacks by pro-government forces in Idlib and western Aleppo Governorates, and those carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the international coalition in Dayr al-Zawr Governorate, continue to cause scores of civilian casualties.

In the aftermath of bombardments, civilians countrywide suffered the effects of a general absence of the rule of law. Numerous civilians were detained arbitrarily or abducted by members of armed groups and criminal gangs and held hostage for ransom in their strongholds in Idlib and northern Aleppo. Similarly, with the conclusion of Operation Olive Branch by Turkey in March 2018, arbitrary arrests and detentions became pervasive throughout Afrin District (Aleppo).

In areas recently retaken by pro-government forces, including eastern Ghouta (Rif Dimashq) and Dar’a Governorate, cases of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance were perpetrated with impunity. After years of living under siege, many civilians in areas recaptured by pro-government forces also faced numerous administrative and legal obstacles to access key services.

The foregoing violations and general absence of the rule of law paint a stark reality for civilians countrywide, including for 6.2 million internally displaced persons and 5.6 million refugees seeking to return. For these reasons, any plans for the return of those displaced both within and outside of the Syrian Arab Republic must incorporate a rights- based approach. In order to address effectively the complex issue of returns, the Commission makes a series of pragmatic recommendations for the sustainable return of all displaced Syrian women, men and children.

A report from Elizabeth Tsurkov in Ha’aretz confirms many of these findings.  Describing Assad’s Syria as a police state with rampant poverty’ and a ‘playground for superpowers’, she writes:

Eight years into the crisis, Syria’s economy is in tatters, half of its population displaced, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead, many of Syria’s cities and towns lie in ruins. Yet on top of this pile of ashes Assad sits comfortably, quite secure in his grip on power.
In areas reconquered by the regime — or as the regime euphemistically describes it, areas that “reconciled” and whose residents “returned to the bosom of the nation” — the Syrian police state is back, more aggressive than ever…

In 2011, Syrians took pride in “breaking the barrier of fear.” But fear now prevails, as the various branches of the regime’s secret police launch raids and arrest suspected disloyal elements. Many of those arrested are former activists, rebels, health and rescue workers, and civil society leaders. Syrians who wish to prove their loyalty to the regime, obtain power through it or simply settle personal scores inform on others to the regime. Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian analyst based in Istanbul, told Haaretz that Syrians are informing on each other “because they have been doing it for years or because they need money or favors from the regime.” In areas recently recaptured by the regime, “some locals were always pro-regime and stayed there to work as informants or just could not leave. Now they have the chance to take revenge on the majority of civilians who apparently held a more favorable view of the opposition,” Ghazi explained.

Most of Syria’s population now lives below the poverty line. Across all parts of Syria unemployment rates are high, as the normal economy has been disrupted by years of war and the mass flight of businesspeople and capital out of the country. Syria’s middle class has largely disappeared — many of them fled to neighboring countries or Europe, while others are now living in abject poverty, along with most Syrians.
A small group of war profiteers linked to the various armed groups have been able to enrich themselves by trading in oil, weapons, antiquities, stealing aid, and smuggling people and goods in and out of the country and into besieged areas, while most Syrians struggle to survive. Nearly two-thirds of Syrians are dependent on aid for their subsistence. Basic services like electricity, cooking gas, clean water and health services are lacking in many parts of the country.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a resident of Latakia — an area where many of the regime’s leadership and their relatives reside — told Haaretz: “You have corruption everywhere. Bribing was common before the war, but now it is endemic.”
He described the ostentatious displays of ill-gotten wealth: “High-ranking officials, they and their families, have more rights. They roam the city in fancy cars and do whatever they want. Half of the country is dying from hunger, while the sons of officials are arrogantly showing off their wealth. With money you can do everything. This is not new, but it has become more obvious because of the lawlessness prevailing in Syria.”

At the sub-regional scale Enab Baladi filed a revealing report last month on conditions in the Ghouta (which it describes as ‘military-ruled ruins’):

Today, Ghouta is living in a state of siege similar to that it witnessed between 2013 and 2018 at the service, relief and security levels, but the difference is that food is available.

With dozens of announcements about the restoration of electricity to areas east of the capital, as well as the restoration of water and communication services, the needs of civilians are still not covered by those services repeatedly announced by the regime.

Enab Baladi spoke to five people from the eastern Ghouta who returned to it, all of whom refused to be identified for fear of the regime prosecution. They described the service situation as “miserable”, especially with regard to the water and electricity services.

According to the five sources, the electricity is continuously cut for five hours, operates for only one hour, and then it is cut again, while water reaches homes one hour a day, and people rely on submersibles and artesian wells which they dug during siege in the previous years to get water.

Some areas of Ghouta also lacked many of the services that were the top priorities of organizations before the regime forces controlled the region, while food today enters without manipulated prices, unlike in the past….

The report describes Eastern Ghouta as riven by checkpoints; an emphasis on demolition rather than reconstruction; and continuing arrests and detentions.

In early August [2018], al-Assad forces launched a campaign of arrests, which has been considered as one of the largest security operations since the regime took over Ghouta, for it has targeted the regime dissidents and activists in the Syrian revolution. The campaign was carried out in the cities and towns of Saqba, Hamuriyah, Duma, Mesraba, and Ein Tarma.

The regime also subjected local activists, civil society workers, and former media professionals, as well as members of local councils and relief agencies, to investigations into the aids they received when the area was held by the opposition.

Security branches launched arrest campaigns targeting members of the former “local council” and other members of Rif-Dimashq Provincial Council in the city of Kafr Batna in central Ghouta, according to Enab Baladi referring to local sources.

Sources affiliated to the council told Enab Baladi that Syrian security forces raided the houses and workplaces of the detainees before taking them to an unknown destination. Other local council members, who preferred to stay in Ghouta rather than go to northern Syria, are detained for the same reasons.

In the face of all that, it’s not easy to find grounds for optimism, but there is a glimmer of hope in a report from Maryam Saleh at The Intercept:

Syrian activists and lawyers are testing the bounds of international law, making two new attempts to bring the government of Bashar al-Assad before the International Criminal Court.

Syrian refugees in Jordan, through London-based lawyers, sent communications to the office of the ICC prosecutor, asking her to exercise jurisdiction over Syria based on a precedent set last year in a case involving Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims. The communications are the latest push by Syrian civilians to hold accountable the government whose brutality upended their lives. In recent years, Syrian lawyers and human rights activists have experimented with rarely utilized aspects of international law, succeeding in getting European and American courts to weigh in on atrocities committed in Syria.

“Because of how politicized the war in Syria became, lawyers and those fighting for accountability really had to be creative,” said Mai El-Sadany, the legal and judicial director at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The most recent ICC Article 15 submissions” — a reference to communications with the ICC on information about alleged international crimes — “are evidence of this, that there is space for creativity in the accountability space.”

She continues:

Even when the evidence of potential crimes exists, investigations into crimes committed in states that have not ratified the Rome Statute are near impossible because of jurisdictional issues, and U.N. Security Council members are quick to use their veto power to block investigations into crimes potentially committed by their allies.

That’s what makes the various avenues Syrians are pursuing so significant. As of last March, more than two dozen cases had been filed in European courts regarding atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, rebel fighters, and the Islamic State and other fundamentalist militant groups. The family of Marie Colvin, an American journalist killed in 2012 while reporting from the city of Homs, sued the Syrian government in a U.S. district court; in January, the court found Syria responsible for killing Colvin.

Many of the cases in Europe were brought under a legal doctrine known as universal jurisdiction; application of the doctrine varies from country to country, but it essentially allows for courts to prosecute cases regardless of where the crime was committed or whether the accused party has any links to the prosecuting state.

The biggest success so far has been in Germany, where authorities last month arrested a former high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer and two others who are accused of crimes against humanity for torturing detainees in Syrian prisons. Other cases remain pending in France, Sweden, and Spain….

These attempts are possible in part due to an unprecedented level of documentation of crimes in Syria. The victims in some of the cases were identified from a trove of 28,000 photos of people killed in Syrian detention centers, smuggled out of the country by a military defector codenamed Caesar. The U.N. General Assembly, in December 2016, took the step of creating the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism to investigate crimes in Syria since 2011. The IIIM, as the body is known, does not have independent prosecutorial authority, but it exists to collect information that could later be provided to courts or tribunals with jurisdiction over the crimes. Last year, 28 Syrian nongovernmental organizations committed to collaborating with the IIIM on its work.

This is heartening in its way, but whenever I’ve been asked about attempts to enforce accountability in relation to the systematic attacks on hospitals, I’ve had to say that the hideous intimacy between torturer and tortured allows for an identification and assignment of culpability that is much more difficult in the case of the extended ‘kill-chain’ involved in bombing.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible: we know, from the courageous work of activists cited in Maryam’s report, that Assad’s security apparatus fetishized record-keeping, and that many of those records have been smuggled out of Syria so that they can now serve as testimony and evidence  (For other testimonies, see the work of Forensic Architecture on Saydnaya Prison that I described here: scroll down).  To sharpen the point, hare some of the slides from a presentation I once gave around precisely these questions:

If my work on bombing in other theatres of war is anything to go by, there will also be extensive trails (paper or digital) that animated the air strikes: though how they can ever be exposed is another question.

The Fight for Yemen

The latest issue of the wonderful Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)’s Middle East Report on ‘The Fight for Yemen‘ is now available online:

The ongoing war in Yemen that began in 2015 has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. The scope of destruction and human suffering is catastrophic: hundreds of thousands are dead from bombing, war-related disease and malnutrition and millions remain on the brink of famine without access to drinking water or medicine. While critical awareness of the magnitude of the crisis is growing, the political and economic roots of the crisis and the complex realities of Yemeni political life are often obscured by misunderstandings. Contributors to The Fight for Yemen disentangle the social, political and economic factors that are behind the war, the cataclysmic impact of the war on Yemeni society, particularly its women, and introduce readers to the complex realities within Yemen in order to create a just peace. Middle East Report 289 is partially available on-line with full access to all the articles available to our subscribers.

Contents:

Toward a Just Peace in Yemen – Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Jillian Schwedler
The Saudi Coalition’s Food War on Yemen – Jeannie Sowers
Yemen’s Women Confront War’s Marginalization – Afrah Nasser
Yemen and the Imperial Investments in War – Priya Satia
Ambitions of a Global Gulf – Adam Hanieh
The Saudis Bring War to Yemen’s East – Susanne Dahlgren
American Interventionism and the Geopolitical Roots of Yemen’s Catastrophe – Waleed Hazbun
Roundtable: Three Women Activists Advancing Peace in Yemen – Stacey Philbrick Yadav
Progressive Surge Propels Turning Point in US Policy on Yemen – Danny Postel

Combat Obscura

A new documentary on the war in Afghanistan, Combat Obscura, is available on iTunes.  From The Daily Beast:

The new Afghanistan war documentary Combat Obscura doesn’t introduce itself, explain itself, or end in a satisfying way.

It’s weird, funny, disturbing, brutal, and heartbreaking—and one of the best documentaries in years.

Combat Obscura is directed by Miles Lagoze, a former U.S. Marine Corps cameraman who spent much of 2011 in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan with a battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment based in North Carolina.

After getting out of the Marine Corps and spending a little time processing his experiences, Lagoze, now 29, enrolled in film school at Columbia University.

He just graduated. Combat Obscura is his first movie.

Lagoze came home from Afghanistan with all the footage the Marine Corps doesn’t want the public to see.

 

That last sentence needs elaboration.  Writing in the New York Times, Ben Keningsberg explains:

As a United States Marine in Afghanistan, Miles Lagoze, the director, worked as a videographer, documenting scenes of war for official release. (We see a clip of such material on CNN midway through the film.) Somehow, Lagoze kept his hands on unreleased footage he and others shot in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012, and made it the basis for this film.

The Beast describes Eric Schuman, the film’s editor, as the production’s ‘secret weapon’:

“I would watch through the footage Miles had shot and pull from it what I found most interesting and compelling and then organize that material by subject…  I would then try to arrange that material together into sequences that, when placed all together, told a thematic story about a deployment in Afghanistan. By the end, Miles and I came upon a structure that I hope conveys a loss of innocence and growing nihilism and apathy as the film goes on.”

I’ll leave the last word to J.D. Simkins in the Military Times (who praises the film’s accuracy and honesty):

The film’s true brilliance lies in its situational hysteria, a scene-by-scene unpredictability that serves as a microcosm of a war with no end — and no definitive outcome — in sight.

Like the forever war, a lack of closure looms ominously over the film, a sentiment echoed by many of the war’s actors. Lagoze is no different.

Killing for Show

News from Verso of a forthcoming book (originally announced for Aprl, but now not due until next year) by the multi-talented Julian Stallabrass,  Killing for Show:

A history of war photography – from Vietnam to Iraq and the War of Terror – and how photography has changed war.

Today we watch wars from afar, swayed by the images that fill our newsfeeds, social media and screens. Since the Vietnam War the way we see conflict through film, photographs, and pixels, has had a powerful impact on the political fortunes of the campaign, and the way that war has been conducted. In this fully-illustrated and passionately argued account of war imagery, Julian Stallabrass tells the story of post-war conflict, how it was recorded, and remembered through its iconic photography.

The relationship between war and photograph is constantly in transition, forming new perspectives, provoking new challenges: what is allowed to be seen? How are photographs remembered? Does an image has the power to change political opinion? What influence market economics has upon the way we consume visual media, especially images of war. How new forms of distribution change the image’s potency. Stallabrass shows how photographs have become a vital weapon in the modern war: as propaganda – from close quarter fighting to the drone’s electronic vision – as well as a witness to the barbarity of events such as the My Lai massacre, the violent suppression of insurgent Fallujah or the atrocities in Abu Ghraib. Changes in technology – from shutter speed, use of colour stock, and methods of digital distribution – have also transformed the way photography is used in depicting and even waging accelerated warfare.

Through these accounts Stallabrass maps a comprehensive theoretical re-evaluation of the relationship between war, politics and visual culture. Killing for Show is an essential volume in the history of photography.

A mammoth 688 pages, packed with images – and, since it’s Verso, astonishingly reasonable priced.

 

War Doctor

I’m still converting my ‘Trauma Geographies‘ lecture into an essay – which has involved writing a prequel of sorts, ‘Woundscapes of the Western Front‘ – so, with my head buzzing with first-person accounts of trauma surgery on the front-lines, I was thrilled to see that David Nott has just published an account of his marvellous work in Syria (and many other conflict zones), War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line (Pan Macmillan):

For more than twenty-five years, David Nott has taken unpaid leave from his job as a general and vascular surgeon with the NHS to volunteer in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones. From Sarajevo under siege in 1993, to clandestine hospitals in rebel-held eastern Aleppo, he has carried out life-saving operations and field surgery in the most challenging conditions, and with none of the resources of a major London teaching hospital.

The conflicts he has worked in form a chronology of twenty-first-century combat: Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Darfur, Congo, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Gaza and Syria. But he has also volunteered in areas blighted by natural disasters, such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal.

Driven both by compassion and passion, the desire to help others and the thrill of extreme personal danger, he is now widely acknowledged to be the most experienced trauma surgeon in the world. But as time went on, David Nott began to realize that flying into a catastrophe – whether war or natural disaster – was not enough. Doctors on the ground needed to learn how to treat the appalling injuries that war inflicts upon its victims. Since 2015, the foundation he set up with his wife, Elly, has disseminated the knowledge he has gained, training other doctors in the art of saving lives threatened by bombs and bullets.

War Doctor is his extraordinary story.

There’s a good review in The Guardian here,

If you’re unfamiliar with David’s extraordinary efforts in Syria, I touch on them – all too briefly – in ‘Death of the Clinic’ here.  And the David Nott Foundation Facebook page is here.

Towards dissipating the fog of war

Following on from my previous post – and my work on the gas attacks on Douma in April 2018 (see here) – I’ve been reading a detailed analysis by James Harkin over at the Intercept, ‘What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War.’

James emphasises the multiple versions of the Douma attack that were produced (and remain in circulation) and the wider implications of this studied polyvocality:

At least one chemical attack did take place in Douma on April 7 [2018], and people died as a result. There could have been no other culprit but a Syrian army helicopter. But the way it happened bears little resemblance to what was broadcast to the world. From the start, the evidence presented by rebel media activists was fraught and confusing. That’s hardly surprising, because some of those behind it — including some who produced immediate and detailed reports — weren’t actually there. Into the gaps of that initial propaganda barrage seeped skepticism, which morphed into confusion and outright conspiracy-theorizing. State actors, Russian propagandists, and international observers joined the fray, cherry-picking details to illustrate the story they wanted told. Added to the fog of war, in other words, was a fractious new layer of electronic propaganda that turned every tweet or screengrab into a potential weapon in the hands of one of the belligerents.

Beyond the war in Syria, the cloud of misinformation that enveloped the attack in Douma stands as a cautionary tale. In the era of “fake news,” it is a case study in the choreography of our new propaganda wars. With the mainstream media in wholesale retreat — and, in the case of Syria, credibly threatened with death from many sides — new information actors have stepped into the breach. Reading the runes of their imagery is an exciting reporting tool. But their photos, video, and social media posts also offers a vanishingly narrow, excoriatingly subjective view of how conflicts unfold. As a result, such artifacts have become light weapons in an information war that easily becomes an end in itself.

He then provides an intricate choreography of his own visit to Douma on 9 July 2018, three days after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published its interim report on the attack (see also here).

James was accompanied by officials from the Syrian Information Ministry – and he’s clearly aware of the limitations this imposed on what he saw and what he heard from those who remained in Douma after the forced evacuations – and interlaces his observations and interviews with the digital evidence examined by Forensic Architecture and bellingcat that I discussed in my original essay.

It’s an unsettling analysis, though I think it makes remarkably little (much too little) of two issues.  First, the pre-existing pattern of chemical attacks in Syria in general and East Ghouta in particular (see, for example, here):

And second, the deliberate disinformation campaigns launched by Russia and Syria, revolving around multiple and demonstrably false narratives of ‘staging’ (again, the details are in my original essay here) and their circulation by witting or unwitting commentator-journalists.  This matters because (as is the case with other, ongoing investigations that have exposed systematic falsehoods on the grand, one might say presidential scale) the core question is surely: why lie if you have nothing to hide?

For all that, James’s investigation adds significant layers to our understanding of what happened on that awful April night.

First, like several analysts, James is puzzled by the location of the gas canisters shown on videos after the attack, and his interview with a former official with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is highly suggestive:

[S]uspicions that the canisters had been moved didn’t lead the former OPCW official to conclude that there hadn’t been a chemical attack by Syrian military aircraft. In fact, given the dozens dead, which didn’t fit with the usual toll of injuries from breathing difficulties and vomiting that result from a Syrian chlorine bomb, and that the victims had apparently dropped unconscious on the spot, he thought it possible that the Syrian air force had used another more murderous poison, one that hadn’t been captured in the OPCW report. But for camerapeople desperate to show they had the goods and get the world on their side, he guessed, those videos of gas canisters and outsized gas masks made “compelling images.” The temptation, he said, is to “bring your own munition in.”

He’d seen such staging himself, the former OPCW official confided. In an infamous attack on an aid convoy on the outskirts of Aleppo in September 2016, which killed 14 civilians, he concluded that pieces of alleged photographic evidence had very likely been introduced or faked. In addition, he maintained, “some opposition witnesses had clearly been coached.” Ultimately, it didn’t matter, the official said; six months later the United Nations had rightly declared the Syrian government responsible. It was just “media ops,” he said; the activists had simply been concerned to get their narrative out as quickly and forcefully as they could.

Second, James contacts Theodore Postol – who, as I noted in my own essay, had cast doubt on reports of earlier chemical attacks on East Ghouta – who provides a plausible counter-narrative to claims that the attack was somehow staged:

When I showed videos of the canisters to Theodore Postol in Boston, he was immediately certain that both had been launched from the sky by the Syrian military and that any “brouhaha” from the Russians to the contrary could be safely ignored…

[He] concurred with the analysis of internet investigators like Eliot Higgins [at bellingcat], with whom he often ferociously disagrees. The canister, he reckoned, would have weighed around 250 pounds and carried about 120 kilos of chorine. But it landed in an entirely unexpected way. Since the concrete-and-steel-mesh roof wasn’t very strong, the bomb punched a hole in the ceiling. The effect was as if the nose of the canister had been deliberately rammed into the external wall, so as to point gas directly into the room below, creating a gas chamber. That room would have filled with chlorine in one or two minutes. Drawing on Forensic Architecture’s modeling of the building onto which it fell, Postol estimated that the chlorine gas would have poured out into the upper floor at a magnitude several hundred times higher than a lethal dose, its density much greater because the release occurred in an enclosed space. As it made its way down into the two floors below, its density would have decreased, but still would have been much more than enough for a lethal dose.

When it filled the building, the chlorine would have spilled out via open windows and doors and then drifted along the street, like a thick fog, at much lower concentrations. As it sank through the building, the residents hunkered down in the basement would have smelled it too. Many likely ran headfirst onto the street, only to be confronted by a chlorine gas cloud forming all around them. Instinct and training likely kicked in; since chlorine is thicker than air, the instructions they’d been given would have been to head for the roof. Under most circumstances, this would have been excellent advice, like the injunction to workers at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to stay put at their desks, but in this case, it failed the residents of Douma. As they ran back upward through the building, they’d have been rendered unconscious very quickly and dead within minutes. Delivered at that kind of dosage — thousands of milligrams per cubic meter — chlorine could easily have caused the frothing at the mouth, skin burns, and damaged corneas observed by medical workers, as well as the horrible smell and breathing difficulties of which residents complained. It also makes sense of what the motorbike rider had told me: that the whole street had been affected by the foul odor. To panic and terrorize the population was, after all, what this was for.

The murderous result, concluded Postol, was “a very peculiar set of circumstances” and a terrible twist of fate. If the building had had been larger with a firmer roof, the balcony canister would probably not have fallen through; even if it had broken open and begun dispersing its payload, the chlorine would have wafted off into the open air and likely not injured anyone. If the roof had been even weaker and the canister had fallen right through onto the third floor, its valve might not have opened at all, like the one on the bed. But because of the way the canister punctured the concrete, its valve snapped so as to spew the contents directly into the enclosed space below. A lot of stars would have had to align for something like this to happen, just as the former OPCW inspector had said. But in this case, they did.

And James ends with a sobering counter-factual.  Throughout my analysis of siege warfare in Syria, I have criticised the selectivity of public concern (where there has been any at all), and in particular the outrage over chemical weapons compared with the insouciant disregard for other, no less murderous forms of military and paramilitary violence.  (I admit this has become an obsession: hence my dismay at the political and critical energy directed against drone strikes in the world’s borderlands to the exclusion of other forms of aerial violence that have killed and maimed many, many more people).

If a 500-pound bomb had collided with the roof of that apartment block near al-Shuhada Square instead of a chlorine canister, it would have punched clean through and landed slap on one of the higher floors. There would have been a tiny delay, only a fraction of a second, while the fuse sensed that it had reached its destination, after which the building would have blown apart and its entire weight fallen downward onto the basement. Everyone hiding there would likely have been buried alive.

Whose voices would have been raised against that?