Is Paris Burning?

The original question was Adolf Hitler’s to General Alfred Jodl in August 1944, but the French had long had good reason to fear the answer.  In a previous post I quoted Gustaf Janson’s pre-World War I fantasy of a future air raid on Paris:

‘Unexpectedly, without any warning dynamite begins to rain down on the city.  Each explosion follows on the heels of the last.  Hospitals, theatres, schools, museums, public buildings, private houses – all are demolished.  Roofs collapse, floors fall into cellars, the streets are blocked with the ruins of houses.  The sewers break and pour their foul contents over everything.  The water pipes burst, flooding begins.  The gas mains rupture, gas streams out, explodes, starts fires.  The electric light goes out… Above it all can be heard the detonations exploding with mathematical precision….  Men, women, children, insane with terror, wander among the ruins…. When the last flying machine has dones its work and turned northwards again, the bombardment is finished.  In Paris a stillness reigns such as never reigned before.’

While the First World War did not see such a devastating attack on the city, there were repeated bombardments.  Paris was, after all, closer to the front than any of the other belligerent capitals. Historian Susan Grayzel provides a careful chronology of air raids on Paris in ‘The souls of soldiers”: civilians under fire in First World War France’ (Journal of modern history 78 (2006) 588-622), and it’s clear that the major bursts of activity were at the beginning and the end of the war: August-October 1914 and a crescendo between January-September 1918.  All told, Grayzel’s tabulations (from Jules Poirier’s Bombardements de Paris) show that attacks from German aircraft killed 275 people and injured 610 in the city and in the banlieu.

On 30 August 1914 a two-seater German Taube (‘Dove’) aircraft circled in the sky over Paris, and at 12.45 p.m. began to drop the first of four 5lb. bombs.  The final ‘bomb’ was a sack of sand with a message attached: ‘The German Army is at your gates.  You can do nothing but surrender.’  This was the first propaganda drop in aviation history and, like most subsequent leafleting raids, had little effect.

But the Germans continued to send Tarben over the city at regular intervals – and in fact at the same time each day.  The regularity turned the flights into a routine for Parisians too: see the images here. Emmanuelle Cronier (in Capital cities at war, vol. 2, eds. Jay Winter and Jean-Louis Robert, Cambridge University Press, 2007) provides a sketch of their impact (or lack of it):

‘At “Taube time”, around 5.00 p.m., a new urban ritual developed, replacing the pre-war Parisian’s characteristic stroll with gatherings on balconies in squares, on bridges or promontories. Those with binoculars scanned the sky: “There’s one!” shouted a man.    Next the Taube is insulted, French aircraft are launched in pursuit, applauded… To some eyes this Parisian defiance of the Tauben constituted the true expression of the Paris crowd… Because these light German bombs claimed few victims, perception of the danger was deferred.  It was not until the arrival of the Zeppelins in March 1915 that the people of Paris understood the reality of the threat.’

In September 1914 the German advance towards Paris was accompanied by night raids by Tauben.  After the battle of the Marne, when the advance was finally rebuffed,  the capital returned to something approaching its pre-war life.  So much so, indeed, that many French soldiers on leave must have identified with the complaint voiced in Henri Barbusse‘s Le feu (1916), cited in Alistair Horne’s Seven ages of Paris (Knopf, 2002):

‘We are divided into two foreign countries.  The front, over there, where there is too much misery, and the rear, here, where there is too much contentment.

Air war undoes those separations, of course, and soon commentators were drawing attention to the fact.  Grayzel cites Le Petit Parisien in March 1915:

‘It’s not a trait of bravery to go dropping bombs in sleeping civilians, to profit from darkness, like a vulgar bandit … in order to assassinate women and children in their [homes].’

By then Zeppelins had made their far more sinister appearance in the night skies, and a black-out was imposed on the ‘City of Light’.  Here is one eyewitness report of the first raid on 21 March 1915 from a woman living near the Eiffel Tower:

“I was awakened by firemen’s bugles, and as we had all been warned I had no doubt what the noise meant. I dressed and hesitated whether to leave my flat on the top story, but decided to stay and see what was going to happen. I watched the police trying to extinguish a gas jet in the road below, which gave them a great deal of trouble. Then for a long time nothing happened. The night was so clear and peaceful, it seemed impossible that there could be any danger.

“Suddenly there came reports from distant guns, and then a series of vivid flashes from behind houses at no great distance, followed by a violent cannonade which made the windows rattle.

“Searchlights were playing in all directions, but at first nothing was visible except the ghostly outline of the Eiffel Tower. Then I noticed that several stars were obscured by what seemed to be a long grey cloud moving at a tremendous rate. It seemed more like a shadow than anything solid. What struck me most about it was its enormous length and extraordinary speed. When a searchlight fell on it, it was only a fraction of a second before it passed out of its field. I knew at once it was a Zeppelin. As we had been forbidden to show any light, I lit a match in a corner of the room, and looked at my watch. It was ten minutes to two.

“When I went back to the window the firing had increased in intensity, and the airship, which was far away behind the Eiffel Tower at what seemed a very great altitude, appeared to be replying to the guns. From below the long grey shadow came a series of flashes, so that I think it must have been firing machine guns at the guns firing at it. Then, suddenly, the airship disappeared like a cloud, as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come. The firing ceased and all was still for ten minutes, when everything began over again, the guns again opening fire on what was, I suppose, a second Zeppelin. This airship, however, disappeared quicker than the first.”

As Grayzel shows, contemporary reports were part of an elaborate construction of Paris as an ‘innocent, heroic, feminized city’, and the phallic Zeppelin was turned into a faux, puffed-up masculinity that was contrasted with the ‘real’ masculinity (and by extension the ‘real’ war) of ‘hand-to-hand combat with bayonets’.

There were immediate calls for reprisals.  Le Figaro offered its readers a stark choice: ‘Either we resign ourselves to accepting more and more frequently the insults these Zeppelins show us, or we decide to carry to the other side of the Rhine all the horrors of the air war.’  But, as Andrew Barros shows in ‘Strategic bombing and restraint in “Total War”, 1915-1918’ (Historical Journal 52 (2009) 413-31), French strategic bombing was remarkably restrained throughout the war, and ‘reprisal raids’ were carefully calibrated – partly for reasons of geography (the quotations below are also from Pétain):

‘German bombers had to travel short distances to strike French cities, often just 30 kilometres.  French targets in Germany were located well past the zone of occupation, often 150 to 200 kilometres behind the lines.  Bombing a city like Frankfurt was “incomparably more difficult for the Allies” than it was for the Germans to attack Paris, especially because to have any substantive effect, raids needed to be conducted in a massive way and frequently repeated.’

The restrictions on bombing were also prompted by fears of escalation: ‘Requests from flying officers for permission to conduct reprisal raids against Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne and even Constantinople were repeatedly turned down by the army command.’

It was not until 1918 – and particularly during Ludendorff’s renewed ground offensive against the city – that, as Grayzel has it, ‘full-scale war came to Paris.’  According to Lee Kennett (The First Air War, 1914-1918) the German high command described the attacks carried out by Gotha bombers as Vergeltungsmassnahmen – reprisals for Allied attacks on cities ‘outside the region of operations’ like Mannheim and Freiburg – but they were clearly part of the calculated offensive: probes of Paris’s air defences were made in January, and the main attacks started in March.  Kennett notes that ‘the French met them with searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, night fighters and a cordon of barrage balloons that forced the bombers to come in over 3,000 meters – a height that ruled out any bombing accuracy.’  The resources commanded by Paris’s Défense Contre Avions (DCA) were much greater in 1918 than 1914 ,and the response was more carefully co-ordinated –

– but the threat was also much greater.  The Gothas were much faster and more manoeuvrable than the airships, cruising at around 80 m.p.h.  They had a much smaller bomb load – it took six aircraft to deliver the same load as one Zeppelin – but if they could fly at lower altitudes at night they could almost double their standard daylight bomb load of around 660 lbs.  The raids were also on a much larger scale and were carried out with far greater intensity than previous attacks, though targeting was still very haphazard. One French expert told the New York Times (for its 19 March edition) that

‘it was practically impossible to strike any particular objective when a plane was travelling at a rate of thirty-eight to forty yards a second.  A bomb must be dropped more or less at random, which is the reason why such form of warfare is simply criminal.  It is impossible to tell where the bomb will fall.’

The blackout was reintroduced, but it was only partially effective. The Associated Press reported on 22 March that 1500 prosecutions for violations of the new restrictions had been launched in just two days in an attempt to produce a ‘darker Paris’.  But the offenders were not confined to a careless public.

‘On the Ile de la Cité more than thirty windows were illuminated in the Palais de Justice, where all appeals from convictions in the lighting cases will be heard.  Light was also shining brilliantly from a dozen windows of the Prefecture of Police, from which was issued the order for darkening the city.’

Firemen’s bugles were no longer adequate to warn the public and new air raid sirens were installed – a sufficient novelty to spark a feature in the Illustrated London News (below): since July 1917 Britain had relied on a system of marine distress maroons to warn of approaching enemy aircraft, supplemented by Boy Scouts with bugles and policemen with placards and whistles – and Parisians now regularly took shelter in cellars or in public shelters (there were 5,000 of them).

The attacks caused widespread damage – there is a sheaf of photographs here from Parisienne de Photographie (scroll down) – and yet the first reports were often once again remarkably nonchalant.  Here is Charles Grasty reporting from Paris on 23 March 1918 for the New York Times:

‘Paris was out en fête to receive the Gothas this morning… Last night there was considerable excitement following the alarm, but this morning there was more of a picnic spirit.  As I write, at 10.30 at the Matin office, there is an explosion as of a bomb around the corner.  Through the open window I see people on the roofs across the boulevard scanning the cloudless Springlike skies.  At the Ritz and other hotels many guests assembled downstairs but there was not the slightest panic.

I walked through the Rue de la Paix with Ridgely Carter and found the Place de l’Opéra crowded, everybody looking up as if watching some astronomical phenomenon.  Many taxis were standing in rank in the Boulevard des Italiens but the chauffeurs had all left them to join the gazer sin the square.

Paris is puzzled as the air raid proceeds.  The occasional explosion of a bomb makes the town aware of the continued presence of the Gothas, but the affair is quite casual and lacking in violence.’

The date was auspicious.  The explosion that morning in the Place de la République seemed (im)perfectly ordinary, and the DCA assumed that the city had suffered another air raid.

 But by the end of the day, as explosions continued at regular intervals and 16 people lay dead, it became clear that Paris was under artillery fire.  The DCA plotted the trajectory of fire from the locations of the first explosions, and sent aircraft to find the source. The battery was hidden in the forest of Courcy, an unimaginable 120 kilometres away, and Krupp’s long-range siege gun continued to shell the city until August, scattering some 20 shells across Paris each day.  This new ‘fire on Paris’ killed 250 people and caused widespread damage, but had little effect on everyday life in the city.

Marie Harrison reported from Paris on 25 April 1918:

I was in Paris during the first days of the bombardment, and I know something about the morale of the city under circumstances of acute unpleasantness. Air raids are horrible enough but they have their time limit. There is no “all clear” in an attack by the mystery gun. I remember that on Good Friday it began early in the morning, and the explosions continued throughout the day, occurring precisely at every quarter of an hour. That is a form of irritation which the Huns thought would empty Paris in a week. Some people left the city as some people have left London to escape the raid. But the greater number of Parisians went quietly about their work and did not even leave the business at hand to seek shelter from the approach of the next expected attack. Paris is so close to the war and has lived for so long beneath its shadow that it would take more than a long range-gun to disturb the normal course of its way of living.

Ironically, at the start of the war the French high command – like the other belligerents – had believed that the primary role of its own air force would be reconnaissance, and aircraft were soon soon providing crucial intelligence to range field  guns on the battlefield.  Even when the French turned to tactical and strategic bombing, air power remained, as General Pétain insisted, ‘the direct extension of artillery’, so that all efforts had to ‘converge on the essential act: the battle’.

Still, the fear of escalation was real enough, and with the example of the dramatic increase in air raids on London before their eyes, in March 1918 the DCA started construction of a dispersed faux Paris on a great loop of the Seine north of the city (more here).  Three separate sites were selected to draw German night-bombers away from the capital.  Wooden buildings with canvas roofs were to be used to mimic glass-roofed factories, and the plans included a dummy Gare de l’Est and Champs-Elysées; the designers experimented with ‘all sorts of variations and colours of lights’ to convince German pilots that they were bombing Paris.  The plans, largely unrealised, were revealed in a photo-essay in the Illustrated London News on 6 November 1920, which reported that this was ‘a “city” created to be bombarded.’

These sketches were drawn for the ILN but here are original maps from October 1918 of ‘objectif A’ and ‘objectif B’:

The danger was more imminent and more substantial than the DCA could have known.  On the night of 23 September 1918 the last of 20,000 new, deadly incendiary bombs – ‘Elektrons’ – were being loaded on to 45 heavy Giant bombers for a devastating raid on Paris.  The plan, according to Neil Hanson in First Blitz (Doubleday, 2008), pp. 330-333, was to create an immense firestorm. Some of the pilots had already completed their final checks before starting their engines. Suddenly a staff car raced across the airfield with orders from Ludendorff abruptly cancelling the mission. Whether this was the result of a fear of the reprisal raids that such a spectacular attack would provoke (a simultaneous raid was to be launched against London – the focus of Hanson’s book) or whether the high command had already realised they would have to sue for peace is unclear. What is certain is that Paris was saved at an eleventh hour 18 days before the final eleventh hour of the Armistice.

Postscript: Faux Paris remained largely a paper city, but in the not too distant future quite other ‘towns to be bombed’ would be built.

After the bombing of Coventry in 1940 Britain created a number of bombing decoys – known as Starfish sites (from SF: ‘Special Fires’) – to lure the Luftwaffe away from towns and other strategic locations.  The first was on Black Down in Somerset’s Mendip Hills, where Shepperton Film Studios created a fake Bristol (of sorts), including ‘glow boxes’ designed to simulate the streets and marshalling yards and creosote and water ‘fires’ to simulate incendiary bombs.  It was part of a dispersed system of sites standing for other parts of the city – for example, the docks and marshalling yards at Canon’s Marsh were reproduced at Burrington close by.  For an RAF photograph of the Black Down site at night see here. By the end of the war there were over 200 sites protecting 80-odd locations, including London and Manchester.  More here, and much more information in Colin Dobinson, Fields of deception: Britain’s bombing decoys of World War II (Methuen, 2000; a new edition is advertised for 2013).

All of this intersects with a rich literature on camouflage – and in geography (and anywhere else, for that matter) I’m thinking of Isla Forsyth‘s marvellous work – but we should remember that other fake towns were built during the Second World War for entirely the reverse purpose: for experimenting with fire-bombing and, ultimately, for testing the atomic bomb.

Bodies on the wire

Last week I had a wonderful time at the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and came away with a host of new ideas and fresh lines of inquiry.

One of these concerns the role of the telegraph in modern war.  When I was doing my first researches I discovered several writers emphasised its importance in reporting the Crimean War (1853-1856), a campaign that saw the first appearance of the war correspondent in the person of W.H. Russell, whose despatches for the Times won him a central place in both political and media history.

In The Ultimate Spectacle: a visual history of the Crimean War (Routledge, 2001) Ulrich Keller argued that:

‘Throughout the campaign the domestic front continuously inscribed itself on the military front, and vice versa; nothing could happen in one sphere without immediate repercussions in the other. It was of course the steamship, the telegraph and the news-press with its swift coverage of events, which created the interdependence of the two arenas.

‘Without the dramatic improvement of communication technologies during the first half of the nineteenth century, the Crimean events, evolving at a distance of 3000 miles from London, could never have become an object of constant, close and emotional public scrutiny at home…’

Russell’s reports were of tremendous significance, and the telegraph was important for the conduct of the war.  Indeed, Orlando Figes in Crimea: the last Crusade (Allen Lane, 2010) treats the Crimean War as

‘the first example of a truly modern war – with new industrial technologies, modern rifles, steamships and railways, novel forms of logistics and communication like the telegraph .. and war reporters and photographers directly on the scene.’

But it is important not to confuse the two.  The British Army had a field telegraph whose 24 mile network connected Lord Raglan’s headquarters with eight stations in the field.  The illustration below comes from Steven Roberts‘s Distant Writing which is a tremendous source of information on British telegraph companies from 1838 to 1868:

Electric Telegraph Company’s War Wagon in the Crimea, 1854

In addition, Army dispatches were sent 300 miles across the Black Sea to Varna and then overland to Bucharest (a journey of 60 hours) where they were telegraphed to London; by April 1855 a temporary submarine cable from Balaklava to Varna had reduced the overall transmission time to London to 5 hours, and the press used the same line for sending short despatches to London.  One periodical was so excited at the new proximity of war that it held out the fantasy

‘that it would not now be difficult, by some little farther novelty of invention, to cause the reverberation of the very cannons themselves, as it were, to be transmitted, in the shape of electric vibration, through the 3000 miles of intervening wire, and heard, in still continuous vibrations, finally communicated to some acoustic apparatus in the British Houses of Parliament…. There is no physical reason why the public should not know every morning, noon and night, what is at these very times going on in the seat of war.’

But Russell’s detailed despatches went by sea via Constantinople and took 20 days to reach London: his famous report of the Charge of the Light Brigade on 25 October 1854 was not published in the Times until 13 November, though an initial notice had appeared on 2 November.  And so it was not Russell that the Earl of Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary [right], had in his sights when he wrote to the British Ambassador in Constantinople on 23 September 1854, a month before that epic encounter (and in fact before any of Russell’s reports had been published), to complain about the press:

‘Our “own correspondents” have certainly contrived to keep our enemy informed of all he must want to know – his only disadvantage is 8 hours delay which is the time for transmitting to St P[etersburg] all that the newspapers contain and they generally publish as much as the Government knows for in one way or another some correspondent at Hd Qrs generally discovers and transmits every secret order or intended movement as well as every disaster and disharmony and the patriotic editors never think of keeping back anything injurious to the public service but on the contrary hasten to publish it all in proof of their superior means of intelligence.  The press and the telegraph are enemies we had not taken into account but as they are invincible there is no use complaining about them.’

What he had in mind were the brief telegraphic despatches that were mined by all the leading newspapers in Britain. The Times was no exception, but it prided itself on its exclusive reports from Russell [left], as it explained on 21 October 1854:

The letters of our special correspondent from the scene of war, although naturally a few days in arrear of those leading communications which reach us through the agency of the telegraph, are always replete with interest, and are calculated indeed to serve far more important purposes than those of momentary amusement.  In those circumstantial descriptions of an eye-witness – in those details of actual experience and personal observation – we obtain an inexhaustible source of information…  We not only learn step by step what the army really did, and where it went, but we follow it in its march, and collect the opinions, the hopes and the feelings current among the soldiery from hour to hour.’

It may be true to say, as Andrew Lambert wrote for the BBC,  that ‘the electric telegraph enabled news to travel across the continent in hours, not weeks’ so that during the Crimea ‘war became much more immediate – a massive leap forward on the way to our age of instant global coverage by satellite.’  But beyond Europe reporting was still agonisingly slow.  In Australia, as Peter Putnis and Sarah Ailwood have shown,  ‘just when news from Europe was most eagerly wanted’, steamship services from Britain were diverted to supply troop ships for the war,  and the replacement sailing packets were so much slower and less reliable that colonial insecurities were heightened.  And even within Europe Lambert’s ‘immediacy’ was produced by terse and not always reliable telegraphic despatches that editors combined with long-form reports from their correspondents and others in the field.  The most vivid images of the war were produced by Russell’s despatches and by Roger Fenton‘s striking photographs.

For this reason, until now I had thought of the American Civil War (1861-1865) as ‘the first telegraph war‘, since the telegraph was demonstrably important both for the conduct of the war (which included military communications and, since cables were intercepted, military intelligence) and for its more detailed reporting.

But at Ann Arbor I met the redoubtable Jonathan Marwil who directed my attention to the Second Italian War of Independence (sometimes called the Franco-Austrian War) of 1859.  His Visiting modern war in Risorgimento Italy (Palgrave, 2010), which I’ve devoured on my Kindle, is a superb account of the mediatization of modern war.  By 1859, he writes,

‘armies could not expect to wage wars without journalists in attendance.  Their stories, composed from what they saw, what they were told, and what they imagined, would be read soon after they were written, given the proximity of the seat of war to the major capitals and the presence of the telegraph wire.  Those watching a war from afar were now kept abreast of events almost while they were happening. News of the first Napoleon’s victories in Italy had taken days to reach Paris; reports of his nephew’s expected triumphs would arrive in hours.  A day after a major battle in early June, a French lieutenant would write his uncle assuming that he already knew more about the battle than did the nephew who had fought in it.’

[That last remark, incidentally, recalls one of the core arguments of Jan Mieszkowski‘s Watching War (Stanford University Press, 2012): that one of the crucial dilemmas of modern war is the disconnect between the participant’s sensory disorientation (‘To be under fire is to experience the loss of control of one’s own signifying practices’) and the abstraction (or ‘perspective’) of distant observers.]

The Italian War was a war of truly awful proportions: you can find a stark description of ‘combat photography’ during the war, together with some examples, at Bill Johnson‘s Hold History in Your Hand here.  At the battle of Solferino some 40,000 were killed or injured in 15 hours, and the sight of the unrelieved suffering prompted a Swiss observer, Henry Dunant, to memorialise the scene in A memory of Solferino.  Within months of its publication in 1862 a committee started work on Dunant’s vision of an impartial relief society that would provide aid to those wounded in time of war: this would eventually become the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Cemetery at Melegnano, June 1859

The Times was horrified at what it called ‘the wanton and prodigal waste of life’ too, but in an editorial on 2 June 1859 it also reflected on the intimate conjuncture of killing and technological advance:

‘… revolting as war always is, it never presented itself in a form more repulsive than that which it now wears in the Italian Peninsula…   War also seems to have become more hideous from its closer contact with the greatest triumphs of our modern civilization.  The butchery of Casteggio was fed by a succession of railway trains, which disgorged their cargoes close to the human shambles, just as they carry the cattle, the sheep, and the calves which feed the daily hunger of London.

‘Science is degraded into an instrument for .. destruction…  While rival hosts are encountering each other with a ferocity which the Huns and the Vandals might envy, news of every particular of the butchery is carried by the delicate and beautiful machinery of the electric telegraph, and the pulse with which all nature throbs communicates, with a fidelity and despatch unknown to the Scourge of Mankind in former ages, every circumstance and detail of destruction.


The Code breakers

Lincoln signing General Order No. 100 (Mort Künstler)

In 1863, under the authority of Abraham Lincoln, the United States published Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field, General Order 100.  It was drawn up by a law professor at Columbia, Francis Lieber, and approved by a committee of Union officers, and sought to codify the practices of customary international law.  It was signed by Lincoln on 24 April 1863, and the full text is here.

The Lieber Code, as it became known (Lieber himself called it ‘Old Hundred’), continues to casts its spell over international law and its historians.  Its most recent incantation is John Fabian Witt‘s artfully titled Lincoln’s Code: the laws of war in American History (Free Press, 2012). It’s a superb historical monograph, beautifully written and richly illustrated, that travels from the American Revolution via the fulcrum of the Civil War to the eve of the First World War – Witt is both a professor of Law at Yale and a member of the History department – but, not surprisingly, it’s the book’s contemporary echoes that have resonated with many readers.  (Witt once hailed Lincoln as ‘probably our most important law-of-war president, having crafted the very rules that George W. Bush and his Justice Department tried to destroy’).

In an interview in today’s New York Times, however, Witt insists that the Bush administration – in its assault on the Geneva Conventions, its establishment of GITMO, and its elaborate parsing of what does and does not legally constitute torture – did not mark a departure from historical precedent:

“It’s not an aberration that American lawyers closely tied to the administration went to work on transforming the laws of war to suit the felt strategic imperatives of the moment,” he said. “That is the kind of thing we see going all the way back.”

The Lieber Code, he argues, was not a neutral instrument: it was ‘developed by a side for the purpose of helping it win a war.’  And so while Witt documents its role as what he calls a ‘humanitarian shield’ defending ‘civilized war’ – the Code enshrined a distinction between combatants and civilians (or ‘private citizens’), and proscribed assassination, torture and poisons – he argues that it was also designed to function offensively as ‘an instrument of justice.’  The Code itself proclaimed that ‘the more vigorously wars are pursued the better it is for for humanity.  Sharp wars are brief.’ (This was before the age of air power – though balloons were used during the Civil War – but it was exactly this belief in ‘sharpening’ war that underwrote the later faith in bombing as an alternative to the protracted carnage of the trenches).

Now ‘justice’ is a weasel-word,  especially in the mouths of weasels in the White House – it’s no surprise that Max Boot is such a fan of Witt’s cheerleading for ‘the United States’s long history of leadership in creating the laws of war’.  It turns out that among the practices that escaped the Lieber Code’s censure were the starvation of civilians and the bombardment of towns without warning (‘Surprise may be a necessity’), and most of its other provisions and protections could be set aside on grounds of ‘military necessity’.  Eric Posner provides an incisive dissection of those implications in relation to Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia and South Carolina and much more besides in Slate here.

The climax of the book is certainly not its epilogue but Witt’s discussion of the exemplary violence displayed by the United States during the Philippine War (1899-1902).  Here ‘Old Hundred’ was cited to justify extraordinarily brutal measures.  General James Bell made clear his preference for ‘a short and severe war’ over ‘a benevolent war infinitely prolonged’, and some – perhaps many – officers treated this as a declaration of open season on their prisoners of war.  The most shocking method of interrogation was the ‘water cure’ (shown below) – the contemporary resonances don’t need any amplification from me – and yet torture was expressly outlawed under the Lieber Code.  A number of commanders were successfully prosecuted for the offence, including Major Edwin Glenn, who openly prided himself on leading a mobile team of ‘water cure’ experts.

So does this mean that the Code’s ‘defensive shield’ tempered its aggressive sword? In 1914 Glenn was selected by the War Department to be the lead author to update its field manual on the laws of war, and it was that version of the Rules of Land Warfare that guided military operations in World War I and World War II and was cited time and time again at Nuremberg.  ‘No one noted that they had been crafted by a convicted torturer,’ Witt observes, ‘a man whom we would today … call a war criminal.’

Yet Witt is quick to strike down the low-hanging fruit, the easy conclusion that the laws of war are thus ‘shot through with hypocrisy’:

‘For the most striking thing about Glenn’s Rules of Land Warfare is not the identity of its author but the restraint of its terms.  The manual bore few traces of its author’s terrible past….

‘Glenn adopted Lieber’s term “war crime”s for the first time in an official American document.  And as for torture, Glenn faithfully reproduced precisely the section of the 1863 Code that Judge Advocate General Davis had cited when he recommended that the president uphold Glenn’s own conviction and sentence. “Military necessity”, the Rules of Land Warfare stated, “does not admit of … torture to extort confessions.” Following Lieber’s Old Hundred, the Rules banned coercive means to obtain information from prisoners of war.

A draft 2011 statement on ‘Lincoln’s Code’ prepared by Witt for a Harvard workshop is here, and you can access 70 images from his book (from which I took the image above) together with its bibliography here.  His February 2011 Inaugural Lecture as the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale – Lincoln’s Code: the puzzling history of the laws of war – is available on vimeo here.

The whites of our eyes

I’ve been re-reading Keith Feldman‘s essay on ‘Empire’s verticality’ (Comparative American Studies 9 [4] 2011 325-41), which raises a series of incisive questions about what he calls ‘racialization from above’ in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.  Keith was working on this while I was working on ‘From a view to a kill’ (see DOWNLOADS tab), and we exchanged ideas en route, but Keith’s essay provides a different and invaluable perspective.  He begins with the famous Situation Room photograph by Pete Scott in which Obama and his senior advisors gaze at a live-feed from Abbotabad on 1 May 2011: since ‘the target of imperial retribution remains just outside the visual field’ – we see no images of the raid – Keith notes that ‘we are drawn to witness the witnessing of Bin Laden’s assassination.’  He focuses on the visual identification of a Muslim Other that is supposed to be precise and yet always remains blurred.

The scopic regime of late modern war is placed under even greater pressure when ‘signature strikes’ are conducted – when the target is not a named individual but a ‘person of interest’ whose ‘pattern of life’ has roused the suspicions of the distant watchers – and this has even more serious implications for civilian casualties.

There’s a short post from Kevin Jon Heller at Opinio Juris that addresses the issue by juxtaposing two quotations.  The first is from a report in the New York Times on 29 May 2012 by Jo Becker and Scott Shane on ‘Obama’s Secret “Kill List”…’ and the CIA-controlled Predator strikes in Pakistan:

“… Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in.  It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.  Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”

The second comes from Richard Falk‘s ‘Law and responsibility in warfare: the Vietnam experience’, where he quotes the man who ordered the My Lai massacre, Lt William Caley:

“If those people weren’t all VC [Viet Cong] then prove it to me. Show me that someone helped us and fought the VC. Show me that someone wanted us: one example only! I didn’t see any… Our task force commander’s staff said it’s a VC area and everyone there was a VC or a VC sympathizer. And that’s because he just isn’t young enough or old enough to do anything but sympathize.”

Heller doesn’t use the phrase, for obvious reasons, but this is another Catch-22…

But there’s another Vietnam parallel that I think is even more striking.  In Lines of descent (DOWNLOADS tab) I described the creation of ‘free bomb zones’ or ‘free fire zones’ in South Vietnam.

 In August 1965 [General] Westmoreland was authorized to order strikes in five free bomb zones that were ‘configured to exclude populated areas except those in accepted VC [Viet Cong] bases’.  Within these zones the designation of target boxes dispensed with precise co-ordinates and detailed intelligence altogether, so that they became black boxes in every sense of the phrase, and approval was given in advance ‘for execution when appropriate’. Westmoreland was perfectly clear that ‘anybody who remained had to be considered an enemy combatant’ and so strikes could proceed ‘without fear of civilian casualties’.

With this in mind, here is a section that never made it in to the final version of ‘Lines of descent’, concerning the principle of distinction (the legal requirement to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants).  My Lai makes an appearance here too, as a crucial moment after which the Pentagon agreed to provide military operations with a legal armature.  And yet, as I tried to show in both my essays, incorporating lawyers into the kill-chain provides less protection for civilians than may at first appear: the balance between concrete military advantage and ‘collateral damage’ is still calibrated on the military’s own scales.  I’m not saying that nothing has changed since Vietnam – the lines of descent are complex and tangled – but, as the final paragraph below shows, there are none the less disturbing parallels.  ‘Blind bombing’ may well belong to the past, superseded by near real-time, high-resolution full-motion video feeds from Predators and Reapers, and yet – to return to Feldman – in scanning these images we continue to privilege the whites of our own eyes.

Distinction and the air war in Vietnam

The difficulty of distinguishing between ground troops, enemy forces and non-combatants was exacerbated by the use of air power in a non-linear battlespace, the ‘war without fronts’, because ‘the absence of clearly discernible bomb lines created a fluid environment in which it was not always possible to distinguish friendly from enemy forces.’  From the air, Schlight continued, ‘all soldiers looked alike and guerrillas were indistinguishable from non-combatants.’ [1]  He insists that there was an acute sensitivity to ‘accidental loss of life’.  In Westmoreland’s (public) view, ‘one mishap, one innocent civilian killed, one civilian wounded or one dwelling needlessly destroyed, is one too many’, and this supposedly translated into ‘stringent’ rules of engagement.  In particular, strikes on hamlets and villages required political clearance from Vietnamese authorities at least at a provincial level, they had to be directed by a Forward Air Controller or radar to minimize civilian casualties, and warnings had to be issued if the attacks were not in conjunction with ground forces; if this were impossible, the ground commander could designate the target, and in ‘specified strike zones’ (whose designation was held to ‘constitute prior political clearance’) pilots ‘could use their own judgement in hitting targets.’ [2]  In this, more or less official view, air strikes still killed civilians but every effort was made to minimize the loss of innocent lives.

Others see it differently.  For some, it was a technical matter.  When van Creveld writes of ‘the American airmen’s near-complete inability to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants’, he is simply echoing McNamara’s own post-war admission that it ‘proved difficult to distinguish combatants from noncombatants’ and that Westmoreland’s heavy reliance on bombing ‘produced more and more civilian casualties’: for both men this was an inherent limitation of air power in counterinsurgency. [3]  It was inevitably compounded by the electronic battlefield, as Senator McGovern noted: ‘If ground troops sometimes will not, and usually cannot, distinguish between enemy and innocent in a guerrilla war, we know that aerial bombardment never can.  The sensor which detects body heat, the aircraft thousands of feet in the air, the computer complex many miles distant, are completely neutral and indiscriminate.’  [4]  For others, as McGovern’s first clause implies, the lack of discrimination was too often a considered decision.  The rules of engagement were elastic (in practice Vietnamese political clearance was readily obtained) and riddled with exceptions (there were many cases where clearance could be dispensed with altogether, including military necessity and specified strike zones).  Clodfelter points out that this was in marked contrast to the bombing of North Vietnam where ‘detailed restrictions [were] placed on bombing targets’ because there the American political calculus included civilian casualties.  This was not only true of the Johnson administration’s micro-management of Rolling Thunder; when President Nixon resumed the bombing of North Vietnam in 1972 he loosened the previous restrictions and returned operational control of these Linebacker campaigns to the military, but even his terror bombing of targets around the capital was circumscribed. ‘I want the people of Hanoi to hear the bombs,’ he instructed Strategic Air Command, ‘but minimize damage to the civilian population.’ In South Vietnam, however, where there were few restrictions or political restraints, Clodfelter concludes that ‘indiscriminate bombing contributed significantly to an estimated 1.16 million South Vietnamese civilian casualties during the war.’ [5]  The vital point is that many, perhaps even most of these injuries and deaths were not accidental, often not even incidental  ­– the ‘collateral damage’ that international law accepts may result from attacking military targets – but the victims of deliberate and indiscriminate attack.

Discrimination has two meanings, one strategic and the other legal.  For Kalyvas, violence against civilians is a central feature of insurgency and counterinsurgency, where historically both sides often targeted civilians to force them to comply, but it can be discriminate – directed against specific targets – or indiscriminate, based on collective attributes like place of residence. [6]  Kocher, Pepinsky and Kalyvas argue that bombing in South Vietnam was indiscriminate because it was typically directed at areas, boxes or zones: ‘it could not target individual VC supporters while sparing government supporters or the uncommitted, even when intelligence was good’.  They concede that this was, in part, a technical matter – target identification was often hit-or-miss and until Paveway laser-guided bombs were used in the Linebacker campaigns the delivery of ordnance was ‘inherently inaccurate’ – but in many cases they suggest that exposing civilian populations to aerial violence was a tactical choice.  One leaflet drop warned people that ‘when the plane returns to sow death, you will have no more time to choose’, and many commanders welcomed the bombing of civilians: when he was asked if he was worried by the civilian casualties caused by bombing and shelling, Westmoreland himself airily replied, ‘Yes, but it does deprives the enemy of population, doesn’t it?’ [7]  This is perhaps unsurprising; bombing had been an established method of colonial ‘air control’ much earlier in the century. It turned out to be as counterproductive in Vietnam as it had been in Mesopotamia and the North West Frontier. Targeting collectives means that individuals ‘cannot avoid being victimized simply by refusing to participate in the insurgency’, and bombing the South clearly increased Viet Cong control in the affected areas. [8]

Discrimination also carries a legal charge, but it has a complicated history.  After the Second World War there was an attempt to incorporate ‘protection of civilian persons in times of war’ into the Geneva Conventions, but these largely failed to address the vulnerability of civilian populations to military violence in general and to air strikes in particular. [9]  In 1956 the International Committee of the Red Cross produced a series of Draft Rules that prohibited direct attacks on the civilian population and, in particular, attacks ‘without distinction’ on areas where military targets were close to the civilian population.  This was an express attempt to outlaw area bombing, and it met with forceful opposition. In 1965 the ICRC reaffirmed the prohibition on direct attacks against the civilian population, and insisted on discrimination between those taking part in hostilities and civilians who should ‘be spared as much as possible’, and in December 1968 these basic principles were endorsed in UN Resolution 2444 on Respect for Human Rights in Armed Conflicts.  In 1972 the Pentagon confirmed that it regarded these principles as declaratory of customary international law but added two riders. The United States insisted that it was permissible to attack military targets even if there were a risk of collateral damage, and in such cases the responsibility for distinguishing military objectives from civilian devolved upon ‘the party controlling the population.’ [10] These were expedient qualifications in the (arc) light of South Vietnam, where insurgents swam in the sea of the population.  In fact MACV’s legal advisor blamed the suffering of Vietnamese civilians on the law itself, which he claimed was ‘inadequate to protect victims in wars of insurgency and counterinsurgency’ because it drew on ‘examples from World War II which simply did not fit in Vietnam’ where ‘the hazy line between civilian and combatant became even vaguer’. [11]  Another judge advocate said much the same: In Vietnam ‘the battlefield was anywhere and everywhere, with no identifiable front lines and no safe area. This meant that innocent civilians could not easily avoid the war or its suffering.’  He was silent about the responsibility of those conducting the war to avoid innocent civilians – justice, like much of the bombing, was blind – and limited his discussion to compensation payments where ‘loss or damage was caused by reckless or wanton conduct by U.S. forces.’ [12]  Not surprisingly, what is now called operational law remained strikingly undeveloped.  Judge advocates at MACV were not consulted about air operations; one judge advocate attended meetings at Seventh Air Force headquarters, but these reviewed the previous week’s operations and ‘no one consulted him about future operations, the lawfulness of striking selected targets, or compliance with the rules of engagement’; tactical air control centers had no place for judge advocates who ‘had almost no contact with the people who planned or executed air operations’, and provided neither briefings nor advice on the laws of war or the rules of engagement.  The single exception was a judge advocate based at the US Embassy in Thailand who scrutinized some target lists in North Vietnam. [13]

In fact, it was only after the publicity surrounding the My Lai massacre, in November 1974, that the Pentagon directed the armed services to implement a program to prevent violations of the Law of War; only then did the US military begin to incorporate legal oversight into its operations. [14]  Most legal scrutiny of the air war in Vietnam was after the event – hence the essays by Hays Parks on Rolling Thunder and Linebacker that conclude that both were fully consistent with (in the case of Rolling Thunder even unduly sensitive to) international law – and, no less significantly, did not address the conduct of the air war in the South. [15]  The crucial issue there is the distinction between civilians and combatants, and here Richard Falk, while granting that the law of armed conflict was inadequate and needed revision, none the less insisted that, in its promulgation of ‘free bomb zones’, in B-52 ‘pattern raids’, and much else, the US violated customary international law routinely and serially: ‘the overall American conduct of the war involve[d] a refusal to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants and between military and nonmilitary targets.’ [16]

[1] John Schlight, The war in South Vietnam: The years of the offensive, 1965-1968 (Office of Air Force History, 1969) War, p. 258.  A bombline is ‘an imaginary line arranged, if possible, to follow well-defined geographical features, prescribed by the troop commander and coordinated with the Air Force commander, forward of which air forces are free to attack targets without danger or reference to the ground forces; behind this line all attacks must be coordinated with the appropriate troop commander’: John Pearse, ‘Air power in the kill-box: Fire support co-ordination and airspace deconfliction in the future non-linear battlespace’, Thesis, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell Air Force Base, 2003: p. 22.

[2] Schlight, War, pp. 258-9.

[3] Martin van Creveld, The age of airpower (New York: Public Affairs, 2011) p. 199; Robert McNamara, In retrospect: the tragedy and lessons of Vietnam (New York: Vintage, 1995) p. 243.

[4] McGovern’s speech was delivered on 14 December 1971 and is excerpted in ‘Automated warfare’ (January 1972) p.2, Folder 01, Box 02, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 03 – Technology, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.

[5] Mark Clodfelter, ‘A strategy based on faith: the enduring appeal of progressive American airpower’, Joint Forces Quarterly 49 (2008) 24-31, 150-160: 31.  Clodfelter’s figure includes those wounded and killed 1965-1974, and is derived from estimates presented in Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 446.  These estimates are probably conservative, and Lewy is much more reluctant to attribute these totals to ‘allied bombing’, but he does accept that the ‘lavish use of [US] firepower’ caused ‘a large number of civilian casualties’ in the South (p. 230).  Despite the restrictions US bombing also caused casualties in the North: Lewy estimates around 65,000 civilians were killed, and other estimates run into the hundreds of thousands.

[6] Stathis Kalyvas, The logic of violence in civil wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p. 142 and passim.

[7] Matthew Kocher, Thomas Pepinsky and Stathis Kalyvas, ‘Aerial bombing and counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War’, American Journal of Political Science 55 (2011) 201-18: 205; Westmoreland’s remark was made in summer 1966 and is cited in David Halberstam, The best and the brightest (New York: Ballantine, 1969) p. 550, who adds: ‘The American command was aware of it was doing, and sanctioned it… MACV knew about it, it didn’t want to know too much, it would look the other way if possible, but it knew it was all going on out there.’

[8] Kocher, Pepinsky and Kalyvas, ‘Aerial bombing’, 203, 215.  A 1968 RAND survey found that bombing increased support for the Viet Cong, but it was never released: Robert Smith, ‘Report compiled in 68 says excessive Allied bombing in South Vietnam stirred hostility to regime’, New York Times, 22 January 1970.

[9] ‘The most conspicuous sufferers from bombing, Germany and Japan, were unable to put their case, while the bombing specialists, the USA and the UK, had every reason for preventing the case being out’: Geoffrey Best, War and law since 1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) p. 115.

[10] Hays Parks, ‘Air war’, 65-71.

[11] MG George Prugh, Law at war, Vietnam 1964-1973 (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 1975) p. 89.  He also conceded that there was no effective mechanism to enforce compliance.

[12] Frederic Borch, Judge Advocates in Vietnam: Army Lawyers in Southeast Asia, 1959-1975 (Combat Studies Institute, 2003) p. 92.

[13] LTC Terrie Gent, ‘The role of Judge Advocates in a Joint Air Operations Center’, Air Power Journal, Spring 1999

[14] My Lai was the scene of a massacre of hundreds of civilians by US troops on 16 March 1968; it was not widely reported until November 1969, and the subsequent courts-martial were not completed until March 1971. The problem was much wider and more pervasive than this focus suggests, however, and Greiner, War without fronts, p. 18, writes of an ‘endemic contempt’ for international law on the part of the US.  Dunlap identifies a ‘revolution in military legal affairs’, after Vietnam, beginning in 1989 with the involvement of judge advocates in planning US military operations in Panama and becoming much more visible during the first Gulf War: Charles Dunlap. ‘The revolution in military legal affairs: Air Force legal professionals in 21st century conflicts’, Air Force Law Review 51 (2001) 293-309.  Consistent with his later preoccupation with ‘lawfare’, he places particular emphasis not on advances in military technology, however, but on changes in communications technology that worked to enable media organizations to bring ‘the raw images of war’ to publics around the world ‘before leaders can censor or shape it’ (p. 294).

[15] W. Hays Parks, ‘Rolling Thunder and the law of war’, Air University Review, January-February 1982 at; ‘Linebacker and the law of war’, Air University Review January-February 1983 at

[16] Richard Falk, ‘Son My: war crimes and individual responsibility’, University of Toledo Law Review 21 (1971) 21-41:23.

Scholars, spies and strategic knowledges

I’ve been reading anthropologist/historian Nicholas Dirks on ‘Scholars, spies and global studies’ here.  He’s acutely aware of the origins of ‘area studies’ in the Second World War – and Trevor Barnes‘s brilliant work with Matt Farish has done much to deepen our knowledge of geography’s enlistments too: see here and scroll down to 2006 for their already classic paper – and notes that

“The first great center of area studies in the United States was not located in any university, but in Washington,” McGeorge Bundy, onetime dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University and then president of the Ford Foundation, observed in 1964. The [Office of Strategic Services], he said, was “a remarkable institution, half cops-and-robbers and half faculty meeting.”

Invoking the spirit of another stellar anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, Dirks makes it clear that he doesn’t want to go back there:

‘The point now is to recognize the essential distinctiveness — of ourselves and others. That distinctiveness can only be appreciated in global frames and with insistent humanist attention…  I mean here to insist on a radically new way of identifying the core values and aims of humanist education that puts traditional questions on a global stage, along with the studies of social and policy scientists.’

For a fuller treatment of the issues and ideas sketched in this brief essay, see his University Lecture, ‘Scholars and Spies: Worldly knowledge and the predicament of the university’, delivered at Columbia in February 2012 here [fast forward to 7:23]:

But, as I asked in a previous post on our martial Arts, what if that humanist tradition is already, constitutively compromised through its entanglement with military (and now we obviously need to add paramilitary) violence?  Too often, I think, we approach that relationship either in instrumental terms – in the case of my own field, a series of indictments of the ways in which, in Yves Lacoste‘s resonant phrase, la géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre; you can see a similar approach in opposition to the enlistment of anthropologists and others in US counterinsurgency operations and Human Terrain teams – or in philosophical terms (‘epistemological violence’, f,  example).

Both are important, to be sure, but for them to work in concert we also need a political genealogy of the conceptual armatures deployed in (and beyond) the humanities and social sciences, mapping the ways in which the construction of our key concepts circulates in and out of other concrete practices. That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in Stuart Elden‘s retro-midwifery at ‘The Birth of Territory‘, though I’m drawn more to its adult (and no less bloody) adventures. Those entailments are not purely discretionary, a matter of preferring this concept over that, and without wanting to return to or even supplement Jürgen Habermas‘s delineation of ‘knowledge-constitutive interests’ I’m left wondering how the production of concepts is implicated in the operations of power, including military power, and how their performative potential (practical and rhetorical) is realized.  I’ve never seen the university as an Ivory Tower – and I’m not suggesting it’s a Missile Silo either – but, as I argued in Incendiary knowledges, we need to ‘world’ our ‘worldly knowledges’ and think carefully about the hyphen in power-knowledge.

Bruno Latour once playfully identified four deficiencies in actor-network theory – the three words actor, network and theory, plus the hyphen – which prompts Ilana Gershon to describe the hyphen as a ‘trickster placeholder’.   It’s an artful conceit, but I think we should take the ‘place’ in ‘placeholder’ seriously and think some more about the spaces in which and through which knowledge and military power are entangled.  David Livingstone provides some clues in Putting science in its place: geographies of scientific knowledge (Chicago, 2003), but military power remains in the wings of his account, while Gerard Toal‘s discussion of the battlefield as one of geography’s ‘venues’ in the SAGE Handbook of Geographical Knowledge, edited by Livingstone with John Agnew (Sage, 2011) is substantively closer to what I have in mind, but it’s more concerned with instrumental modalities than the apparatus through which, for example, the historical battlefield morphed into the contemporary battlespace.  That apparatus is at once conceptual and practical, and it is also – crucially – multi-sited, with circulations between (for example) districts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon, and a host of military installations, defence industries and research institutions inside and outside the academy.  In other words, the installation of battlespace – a diffuse, non-linear and unbounded space of military and paramilitary operations – at once exemplifies and engenders the contemporary ‘global’ to which Dirks directs our attention.

It was of course Michel Foucault who reminded us of the circulation ‘between geographical and strategic discourses’ – only natural, he said, because ‘geography grew up in the shadow of the military’ – and in that same interview with the editors of Hérodote (including Lacoste) he suggested that:

‘Once knowledge can be analyzed in terms of region, domain, implantation, displacement, transposition, one is able to capture the processes by which knowledge functions as a form of power and disseminates the effects of power.  There is an administration of knowledge, a politics of knowledge, relations of power which pass via knowledge and which, if one tries to transcribe them, lead one to consider forms of domination designated by such notions as field, region or territory.’

Those notions are far more than ‘metaphors’, as he called them in the interview, or at any rate metaphors are rarely purely linguistic plays.  In the case of many of our spatial concepts, these are not only – as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson might say – ‘metaphors we live by’ – but also metaphors through which others are made to (or let) die.  The ‘human’ in human geography has come under increasing pressure in recent years, from both post-structuralism and post-humanism, and my own work on war is indebted to both of them; but my particular concern is the way in which the production and performance of particular spaces is an intrinsic and intimate part of a military violence that is all too human.

Emergency cinema

The Arab uprisings heightened interest in the politics of new social media, and much attention was directed at platforms like Twitter (which is emphatically not to say that any of this can be reduced to a ‘Twitter revolution‘).  Swirling around these discussions, breaking the 140-character limit of a tweet, was an insistently visual thematic, though this too was often limited to cellphone videos uploaded to YouTube and other sites (and then retransmitted by mainstream news media).  But there are other ways in which film/video can function as witness.

The use of film as witness is usually traced back to the International Military Tribunals in Nuremberg after the Second World War: see in particular Lawrence Douglas‘s classic The Memory of Judgment: Making law and history in the trials of the Holocaust (Yale University Press, 2001) – you can also read an early version of the key essay, ‘Film as Witness: Screening “Nazi Concentration Camps” before the Nuremberg Tribunal,’ in The Yale Law Journal,  105 (2) (1995) or access the book version (so far as I can see, without the accompanying images) online from Yale here.

Douglas’s thoughtful essay is, in a sense, framed by a remark that appears mid-way through it.  When reporter Ed Murrow described Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 he ended his broadcast by saying: ‘I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald.  I have reported what I saw and heard, and only part of it.  For most of it, I have not words.’  When the prosecutors at Nuremberg elected to show a film compiled by former Hollywood director Lt Col George C. Stevens from black-and-white footage shot by Allied troops when they liberated the camps – Nazi Concentration Camps – they claimed , as one of them put it, that the film ‘represents in a brief and unforgettable form an explanation of what the words “concentration camp” imply.’  A horror, then, that transcended words – or, as Walter Benjamin confessed in a different context, ‘I have nothing to say, only to show’.

‘This use of film in a juridical setting was unprecedented’, Douglas notes, but it also raises a crucial question – ‘What exactly did the tribunal see when the prosecutors screened Nazi Concentration Camps?’ – that cannot be answered from the trial transcripts. These simply record:

[The film was then shown]

COL. STOREY: That concludes the presentation.

[The Tribunal adjourned until 30 November at 1000 hours]

The question is vital because it invites another: if images took the place of words that could not be found, then how was the tribunal ‘to submit unprecedented horror to principled legal judgments’ that necessarily returned to the verbal and textual?  Douglas’s pursuit of the question is what gives his essay such a compelling narrative force.  He shows in detail how even the visual faltered in the face of such horror: how the camera was confused, confounded, embarrassed – in a word, unsteadied.   He describes, too, how the film incorporates witnesses viewing the atrocities as a moment in its own witnessing: ordinary Germans being forced to view the exhumation of corpses, GIs and generals filing past dead bodies and emaciated survivors.  What these scenes do not  – cannot – do, Douglas concludes, is adjudicate responsibility:

‘Though the film provides a picture of a crime scene so extreme that its horrors have unsteadied the camera’s idiom of representation, it does not translate its images into a conventional vocabulary of wrongdoing.  Instead, the very extremity of the atrocity captured on film challenge sone to locate terms capable of naming and condemning these crimes.  How, then, was the prosecution able to assimilate evidence of unprecedented atrocity into a legal category of criminality?’

This is film as retrospective, but the questions about witnessing are no less difficult to answer when we turn to film shot ‘in the moment’ (and sometimes as a hideously staged moment of the horror). Helen Lennon carries the story forward from the Second World War tribunals to the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda in ‘A witness to atrocity: film as evidence in International War Crimes Tribunals’ in Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman (eds), The Holocaust and the moving image: representations in film and television since 1933 (Wallflower Press, 2005).   She discusses the need to interrogate, even ‘cross-examine’ the visual testimony, but she concludes with two questions that loop back to Nuremberg:

‘It is necessary to confront the question of what is not shown at these trials, asking: In what ways are these moving images directing our attention toward certain violations, and away from others? What is the law refusing to see when ‘[the film was then shown]’ and ‘[the videotape played]’?

These are still sharp questions, but it is possible to use documentary film in ways that are not evidentiary (in the legal sense) and which deliberately avoid showing ‘the horror’ – and yet still offer a powerful, critical perspective.  I’ve been watching the work of a remarkable group of Syrian film-makers – Abou Naddara (very roughly: “Man with glasses” or, since this is also slang, something like “Goggles”) – who use film both to document and to mobilize events in Syria through what they call ‘emergency cinema‘.   The group publishes a short film on the web every Friday here (also on Vimeo) and they are, of course, also on Facebook here.  These aren’t conventional documentaries, and they certainly aren’t the YouTube uploads that I imagine most of us have become (too?) familiar with: fuzzy, jerky, grainy shots of the fighting or the shelling.

Cécile Boëx interviews the group over at Books & Ideas here.  They explain that they were already  ‘lying in wait’ for the revolution:

‘… we took up the position of a sniper, lying in ambush behind apparently harmless short films distributed anonymously on the Internet in 2010. We were hoping to reach our public right under the censors’ nose. And our hopes seemed to be coming true, because a few months after our website went live, we had already found the means to produce two series of short documentary films that also had to be made more or less clandestinely. In short, we were already lying in wait when the revolution erupted in March 2011. We were even preparing another skirmish, strengthened by the public support we were beginning to receive. The question was not, therefore, whether or not we should get involved in the revolution, but rather how to do so, and what was the best approach to take. After a month of trial and error, we made what was to be our first very short weekly film, entitled The Infiltrators, a disparaging expression used by Bachar al-Assad to refer to the anti-regime demonstrators. The film portrayed an elderly Damascan artisan letting loose against the Assad regime in a monologue that showed the personal, deep-rooted resilience of the Syrian revolt.’

As these remarks imply, their primary audience is inside Syria, and their involvement in the revolution is directed, in large measure, at reaching those who support the Assad regime.

Despite the sniper imagery, their presentations do not treat violence as spectacle – usually they avoid its direct representation altogether.  In the interview they connect this to the conditions under which they are forced to work, but they also insist that these burdens produce a paradoxical freedom:

‘Our project is basically part of the tradition of original documentary cinema, as shown by most of our very short films offering sequences from people’s lives or extracts from interviews, which we choose to film with closeness and empathy. However, we are working in a state of emergency and are subject to constraints that may or may not be justified, including access to film sites, safety of those filmed, social developments or the state of the Internet connection. We can also say that we take pleasure in working in an emergency situation because we feel an unprecedented sense of freedom. And that feeling of freedom carries us from one register to another by happily blurring the boundaries, including the one that separates documentaries and fiction. Besides, that confusion is a general characteristic of our films (Everything Is Under Control Mr. PresidentMy name is MayThe Mufti Wants to…End of Broadcast). We make aesthetic and political choices that portray the way in which our reference points have been turned upside down by the revolution. It also conveys our pledge to represent our people’s enthusiasm by ensuring they are not reduced to stereotyped characters, places or formats.’

So this isn’t ‘film as witness’ in the sense discussed by Douglas and Lennon, and it’s profoundly critical of the way in which the mainstream media now demand ever more scenes of violence that violate the Syrian people all over again.  Here is a pointed example (the screen isn’t blank, and the video takes only two minutes – do watch it).

‘When there’s talk of a ceasefire, for example, they tell us “send us images of shots being fired.”‘

When I watch these short films – some of them so short that they may be visual tweets, I suppose, but they are all carefully composed – I don’t see a parade of heroes or victims, or any of the usual cartoon characters, but a studied indictment of the ways in which the visual and the violent can otherwise lock together: an insight that will be no surprise to readers of Paul Virilio‘s War and cinema (1984; Verso trans. 1989) or to followers of David Campbell who, among many other important contributions, underscores the close relationship between the gun and the camera. (What else did you think ‘shooting’ meant?)

For more on the films (and the tradition from which they derive) see Nehme Jameli here, and for brief reports that situated the project within the wider cultural politics of resistance in Syria see Donatella Della Ratta at al Jazeera here and Amélie Rives at Near East Quarterly here.

Cultural (twists and) turns

Special issue of Theory, culture and society 29 (2012) on Topologies of Culture:

Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, Introduction: The Becoming Topological of Culture

Peter Sloterdijk, Nearness and Da-sein: The Spatiality of Being and Time

Rob Shields, Cultural Topology: The Seven Bridges of Königsburg, 1736

Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Between Inclusion and Exclusion: On the Topology of Global Space and Borders

Penelope Harvey, The Topological Quality of Infrastructural Relation: An Ethnographic Approach

Mike Michael and Marsha Rosengarten, HIV, Globalization and Topology: Of Prepositions and Propositions

Evelyn Ruppert, The Governmental Topologies of Database Devic

Steven D. Brown, Memory and Mathesis: For a Topological Approach to Psychology

Luciana Parisi, Digital Design and Topological Control

Richard Rogers, Mapping and the Politics of Web Space

Xin Wei Sha, Topology and Morphogenesis

Brian Rotman, Topology, Algebra, Diagrams

Scott Lash, Deforming the Figure: Topology and the Social Imaginary

Noortje Marres, On Some Uses and Abuses of Topology in the Social Analysis of Technology (Or the Problem with Smart Meters)

Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey, Digital Infrastructures and the Machinery of Topological Abstraction

Martial arts

If you’re tired of all the war-talk – I mean ‘war on the humanities’ talk – then try Anthony Galluzzo on teaching the humanities at the US Military Academy at West Point (yes): Sarah Lawrence, with guns, over at Jacobin.

“I agreed with a lot of what you said today, Professor Galluzzo,” he said. “But don’t you think there’s a difference between imaginary others and actual people you meet on the ground, in a place like Afghanistan? Can’t fantasies also reinforce stereotypes?” He articulated my own misgivings. I suggested he read Edward Said.

Although Greg didn’t know the book, his questions reminded me that Orientalism – a text and term often invoked by many of my West Point colleagues at the time as what “we” weren’t doing over there – is very much about the ideological misuse of imaginative literature in the service of nineteenth-century imperialism.

More (and older) thoughts from another instructor at a military academy, Lucretia Flammanghere: ‘We would not have a literature of modern war if warriors had not written it.’

And while we’re on the subject: last year US News and World Report named the US Military Academy at West Point and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis as the best public liberal arts colleges in the United States…

I’m as sceptical of the rankings game as you are, but I’m left wondering about the rhetorical effect of reports like this on an American public.

And all this certainly reminds us that the history of the humanities has been intimately entwined with the history of war in ways that transcend any simple (and usually noble) vision of the humanities representing and reflecting on human conflict (see, for example, Harvard’s Drew Faust here).  We know from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and others some of the ways in which violence has been written in to the very constitution of the humanities, but it’s surely time to return to those questions and think, more concretely, about these martial Arts of ours…

If you think so too, then (to start the conversation) see Homi Bhabha speaking on The Humanities and the Anxiety of Violence earlier this year here.

Storming the castle

More on the politics of the New Aesthetic – though he doesn’t put it like that – and on the materialities of the virtual (and what he does call ‘a new way of seeing’) in an exquisite essay from Andy Merrifield on Kafka, Occupy and the ‘Enigma of Revolt’.  

Andy’s point of departure is Franz Kafka‘s The Castle. This celebrated novel is itself an enigma: Kafka started work on the text in January 1922, it’s unclear whether he intended to finish it, and it famously ends in mid-sentence.  After Kafka’s death in 1924 his friend Max Brod edited and reworked it for publication.

Andy’s essay artfully draws out the spatial politics of K.’s attempt to breach the castle (remember that K. is described as a surveyor):

Where K. goes astray, and where his quest borders on the hopeless, is that he’s intent on struggling to access the castle’s occupants; he wants to penetrate the castle’s bureaucratic formalities and the “flawlessness” of its inner circle. K. struggles for a way in rather than a way out. Using all the Cartesian tools of a land surveyor, he confronts the castle on the castle’s own terms, on its own ostensible “rational” frame of reference. K.’s demands, consequently, are too restrictive and too unimportant, too conventional and too self-conscious. He wants to render the world of the castle intelligible as opposed to rendering it unacceptable.

Andy juxtaposes this with a radically different spatiality by moving from the occupants to Occupy, where

… if protagonists occupy space somewhere, these spaces of occupation are curiously new phenomena, too, neither rooted in place nor circulating in space, but rather an inseparable combination of the two, an insuperable unity that is redefining what a 21st-century public space might be, could be. Squares like Tahrir in Cairo or Zuccotti Park in Manhattan are urban public spaces not for reason of their pure concrete physicality, but because they are meeting places between virtual and physical worlds, between online and offline conversations, between online and offline encounters. That is why they are public: because they enable public discourses, public conversations to talk to each other, to meet each other, quite literally. They are public not because they are simply there, in the open, in a city center, but because these spaces are made public by people encountering one another there. The efficacy of these spaces for any global movement is defined by what is going on both inside and outside these spaces, by the here and the there, by what is taking place in them and how this taking place is greeted outside them, by the rest of the world, how it inspires the rest of the world, how it communicates with the rest of the world, how it becomes the rest of the world.

Episodes in the history of bombing

I spoke at the Shock and Awe conference in London last November, held to mark – commemorate is hardly the word – the centenary of the first bombs dropped from an aircraft (much more from openDemocracy here).  But I’m now realising that the episode and its reverberations were more complicated that I had thought.

Less than two years after the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight, Orville Wright was already convinced that the most immediate use for their new flying machine would be war.  In January 1905 the Wright Brothers approached both the British military and the US War Department about a contract – ‘flying has been brought to a point where it can be made of great practical use in various ways, one of which is that of scouting and carrying messages in time of war’ – but they were rebuffed.  Undeterred, the brothers continued to search for military customers – including France and Germany – and eventually won two contracts, one with the US Army and the other with the French, which they successfully fulfilled in 1908.  By 1910 France had 36 flying machines, Germany had 5, Britain had 4, Russia had 3, and Austria, Belgium, Italy, Japan and the United States had just one each.

But the Italian-Turkish war (1911-12) – the ‘Libyan’ or ‘Tripolitanian’ war – heightened the military interest in aviation.  After the Congress of Berlin in 1878, with the Ottoman Empire visibly crumbling, Cyprus had been occupied by Britain and Tunisia by France.  There had been shadow discussions about Italy’s possible interest in Tripolitania, but this remained empty talk until 1911 when, after a series of failed negotiations, Italy declared war and its troops landed in Tripoli in October 1911.  In addition to seapower and ground forces, Italy deployed nine aircraft; the assumption, evidently, was that they would be used much as Orville Wright had imagined. Accordingly, among the firsts achieved by the Italian pilots, according to Martin van Creveld‘s The age of airpower (Perseus Books, 2011), were ‘the first recorded flight by a military aircrat over enemy territory (October 22), the first use of aircraft to lay naval gunfire (October 28), the first wartime use of wireless for air-to-ground and ground-to-air communication [Marconi himself arrived to help] … [and] the first wartime use of aerial photography (November 23)’.

But what captured the public imagination was another first: on 1 November, when Lt. Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades from his Taube monoplane on a Turkish-Arab encampment at Ain Zara east of Tripoli, this was the first bombing from an aircraft.  “AVIATOR LT. GAVOTTI THROWS BOMB ON ENEMY CAMP. TERRORIZED TURKS SCATTER UPON UNEXPECTED CELESTIAL ASSAULT.”

It was not a spontaneous attack. ‘Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane,’ Gavotti wrote to his father. ‘It is the first time that we will try this and if I succeed, I will be really pleased to be the first person to do it.’

Neither was it a purely personal decision:

“Today two boxes full of bombs arrived.  We are expected to throw them from our planes.  It is very strange that none of us have been told about this, and that we haven’t received any instruction from our superiors. So we are taking the bombs on board with the greatest precaution. It will be very interesting to try them on the Turks.’

This is how he described his mission:

 ‘As soon as the weather is clear, I head to the camp to take my plane out.  Near the seat, I have fixed a little leather case with padding inside. I have laid the bombs in it very carefully. These are small round bombs – weighing about a kilo-and-a-half each. I put three in the case and another one in the front pocket of my jacket…

‘After a while, I notice the dark shape of the oasis [Ain Zara]. With one hand, I hold the steering wheel, with the other I take out one of the bombs and put it on my lap. I am ready. The oasis is about one kilometre away. I can see the Arab tents very well. I take the bomb with my right hand, pull off the security tag and throw the bomb out, avoiding the wing. I can see it falling through the sky for couple of seconds and then it disappears. And after a little while, I can see a small dark cloud in the middle of the encampment. “I have hit the target!  I then send two other bombs with less success. I still have one left which I decide to launch later on an oasis close to Tripoli [Tagiura].

‘I come back really pleased with the result. I go straight to report to General Caneva. Everybody is satisfied.’

But the headlines were exaggerated and the satisfaction was short-lived.  A Times reporter with the Italian army wrote that ‘Bomb-dropping, whether from airship or aeroplane, does not appear to have been attended by any great measure of success, and it is not unlikely that that the possibilities of early development in this direction have been overrated.’  Creveld notes that most of the Cipelli grenades used as bombs missed their targets, ‘and the longer the war [went on], the more the Italians themselves tended to replace them with leaflets that called upon the enemy to surrender.’

Where aircraft did excel, he concludes, was indeed in reconnaissance: identifying enemy positions and mapping the terrain.  ‘Our only certain knowledge,’ wrote General Caneva, ‘derives from what our aviators have seen with their own eyes.’  There is a selection of aerial photographs taken during the campaign here (together with extracts from more letters from Gavotti to his father) from which I’ve taken this image:

Even so, others were more impressed by the possibilities of using airpower as a directly offensive force.  In 1911, in the new Revue Générale de l’Aéronautique Militaire, a Lieutenant Poutrin conjured up the spectre of a mass German air attack on Paris:

‘The aerial squadron will not be limited to observing and reporting. It is possible and even probable that it will be an aggressive force. As research progresses on this new branch of gunnery, aerial ballistics, it might enable such a force to attack military establishments and troops on the move along roads or by rail. Even now, 500 aeroplanes, each carrying 300 kg of explosives, can leave Metz, two hours after a declaration of war, to reach and fly over Paris.’

The phrasing is instructive: ‘fly over’. Poutrin was evidently under no illusions about the likely accuracy or extent of bombing in any ‘war of the future.’  But, he continued, invoking an affective response that would loom large in the next decades, ‘the effect on morale would be immense, and certain public monuments, the Élysée, the War Ministry, could be bombarded so that the normal functioning of the principal national services might become impossible.’  André Michelin was so taken by the prospect that in August 1911 (several months before Gavotti’s attack) he and his brother – their company already sponsored an Aviation Cup – wrote to the Aéro-Club de France offering to sponsor a bombing competition: ‘There is much discussion of the question of knowing whether the military aeroplane is a simple reconaissance device or whether it can become a terrible weapon of war.  Let us try to demonstrate, by facts, the power of the aeroplane.’   The Michelin Aéro-Cible or ‘Air Target’ competition was inaugurated one year later at Villacoublay near Paris.

The American press reported that the first contest was won by Lt Riley Scott of the US Army Coast Artillery Corps, who beat six French aviator-bombardiess to the 50,000 franc prize by using a bombsight and mechanism (left) that he had designed himself to drop 12 out of 15 bombs within a 20-metre diameter concrete circle from an altitude of 200 metres. Not surprisingly the French press fêted Scott’s pilot, Louis Gaubert, who shared the prize with him:

These national rivalries were diagnostic; one of Michelin’s aims in sponsoring the competition had been to secure France’s ‘supremacy in the air’, and that same month – August 1912 – Germany held its own bombing competition as part of the Aeroplan-Turnier in Gotha.

One Boston newspaper spoke for many when it reported that ‘the ever increasingly rapid development of military and naval aviation gives bomb-dropping competitions ever greater importance’, and the victorious Scott had no doubt about its significance.  According to Lee Kennett in The First Air War 1914-18 (Simon & Schuster, 1991), he thought that even a limited air attack on New York would be devastating (though he didn’t say where it could possibly come from): ‘No great accuracy would be needed in the congested areas, and the loss of life from fire, high-explosive bombs, and panic would be appalling.’  Those first two clauses would cast an even longer shadow over the decades ahead.

Already by the fall of 1912 a more elaborate fantasy of a German attack on Paris than Poutrin could ever have imagined was included in Gustaf Janson‘s account of the Italian-Turkish war, Pride of war.  In this vision of the future, 300 German aircraft – ironically ‘all constructed and bought in France’ – could ‘throw down ten thousand kilos of dynamite on the metropolis of the world in less than half an hour’ and Paris would be reduced ‘to a heap of ruins.’

‘Unexpectedly, without any warning dynamite begins to rain down on the city.  Each explosion follows on the heels of the last.  Hospitals, theatres, schools, museums, public buildings, private houses – all are demolished.  Roofs collapse, floors fall into cellars, the streets are blocked with the ruins of houses.  The sewers break and pour their foul contents over everything.  The water pipes burst, flooding begins.  The gas mains rupture, gas streams out, explodes, starts fires.  The electric light goes out… Above it all can be heard the detonations exploding with mathematical precision….  Men, women, children, insane with terror, wander among the ruins…. When the last flying machine has dones its work and turned northwards again, the bombardment is finished.  In Paris a stillness reigns such as never reigned before.’

By the eve of the First World War the numbers of military aircraft had soared and France had already lost its advantage.  In August 1914 Germany had 232 and Austro-Hungary 48 military aircraft, while Russia had 263, France 165, Britain 63 and Belgium 16.  Although Scott had won the Michelin prize using a Wright aircraft (right), the Wright Brothers remained sceptical of its role in bombing.  Orville Wright acknowledged the importance of striking targets like the Krupp works at Essen, as I noted in an earlier post, but he still believed the primary role for military aircraft was reconnaissance (‘scouting’).  ‘I have never considered bomb-dropping as the most important function of the airplane,’ he told the New York Times in July 1917, ‘and I have no reason to change this opinion now that we have entered the war.’

I’ll examine Wright’s claim in detail in a later post, but for now two observations are important.  First – then as now – aerial reconnaissance was increasingly and intimately involved in the fighting on the ground: aircraft (and balloons) were used to direct and co-ordinate the massive artillery barrages that shook the Western Front, missions that the fliers called ‘shoots’, and from 1916 aircraft were also routinely used in low-flying ‘contact patrols’ to monitor the advance of the infantry.  Here is Wright again (though he was, of course, hardly a disinterested observer):

‘It is the accuracy of aim now possible to both sides that results in such widespread destruction.  Gunners on both sides now hit the mark because of airplanes to direct the fire…  The war is being run absolutely from above.’

Second, although bombing missions were flown in the war zone and immediately behind the lines, and columns of troops, gun batteries, railheads and supply depots were all attacked, the most pregnant raids – though they had little strategic effect at the time – were those launched against towns and cities.  Paris did indeed come under repeated attack, and 250 people were killed in 24 air raids and three Zeppelin attacks.  But the main target for German airships and from 1917 giant Gotha bombers was ‘Fortress London’.  It wasn’t the apocalypse imagined by Janson, but it was a foretaste of the future.  Giulio Douhet, an Italian general who had been impressed by the lessons of the Tripolitania campaign, wrote in The command of the air in 1921 that

‘By virtue of this new weapon, the repercussions of war are no longer limited by the farthest artillery range of guns, but can be felt directly for hundreds and hundreds of miles… The battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians.’