‘The cartography of one man’s consciousness’

POWERS The Yellow BirdsKevin Powers has won the Guardian‘s First Book Award for The Yellow Birds, widely praised as one of the finest American novels to have come out of the Iraq War.   Powers enlisted when he was just 17 and served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004-5; the title of this post comes from the novel, but the title of the novel comes from a US Army marching song:

 “A yellow birdWith a yellow bill/

Was perched upon/ my windowsill.

“I lured him in/With a piece of bread/

And then I smashed/His fucking head.”

Writing in Time, Nate Rawlings begins his interview with Powers with an observation that speaks to my own work on war at a distance:

War has always been a strange and distant endeavor, brought home from the battlefields in letters, photographs and stories after the guns fell silent. Then beginning with the war in Vietnam, images of battlefield violence were beamed into our homes; you’d be hard pressed to find an American with a television who hasn’t seen images of troops battling in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after 11 years of war, the challenge is to make people truly understand that experience.

That was Powers’ starting-point too: he wanted to find an answer to the question he was constantly being asked: ‘What was it like over there?’  Yet he soon determined that, even in fictional form, he couldn’t do it: ‘War is only like itself’, he writes.  That terse phrase circles back to an inquiry into war and representation – representations in war and representations of war – that is focal to any understanding of contemporary conflict: an inquiry that will, inevitably, need to confront the labile limits of representation itself.  (And that is not a surreptitious bugle call for non-representational theory to gallop over the horizon to the rescue).

Minimally, The Yellow Birds is about memory and violence, about the landscape of death and the lingering foulness of war.  The protagonist of the novel is Private John Bartle, who promises the mother of Private John Murphy that he will bring him back alive…  There are thoughtful reviews from the Guardian’s John Burnside here, from Elizabeth Samet here – she’s a professor of English at the US Military Academy – and from Benjamin Percy here, and a (better) interview with Powers here.

At Slate, Jacob Silverman locates The Yellow Birds alongside three other novels from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He doesn’t like its lyricism – Powers is a poet, and it shows – but he makes a more telling point about all four novels:

‘These new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he’s introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon.’

US patrol in Tal Afar, September 2005

That’s true of so many novels from other wars too, but the point is all the sharper because Powers’ novel takes place, in part, in Tal Afar: one of the key sites from which the US Army traced the ‘cultural turn’ that was to be enshrined in its new counterinsurgency strategy.  Powers left there in the spring of 2005, by which time Tal Afar was being described as ‘the next Fallujah’.  But – according to George Packer at any rate – the tide was about to turn.   In one of his Letters from Iraq, ‘The Lesson of Tal Afar‘, Packer recorded the words of one US officer who, twelve months on, had been working the fragile contact zone between the US Army and different groups in the local population:

“History teaches you that war, at its heart, is a human endeavor. And if you ignore the human side — yours, the enemy’s, and the civilians’ — you set yourself up for failure. It’s not about weapons. It’s about people.”

War is about apprehending those ‘people’ in distinctive and differentiated ways, to be sure, but it’s also about apprehending the landscape in embodied ways that transcend the maps and jottings of today’s Human Terrain Teams.  Here The Yellow Birds excels, and for a reflection on the sensuous, visceral landscape of an earlier Iraq war, one described in Anthony Swofford‘s Jarhead, you can’t do better than read Geoffrey Wright‘s fine essay, a sort of corpo-cartography of the combat zone, in  ‘The desert of experience: Jarhead and the geography of the Persian Gulf War’, PMLA 124 (2009) 1677-1689.  He addresses the later Iraq War in ‘The geography of the combat narrative: unearthing identity, narrative and agency in the Iraq War’, Genre XLIII (2010) 163-90.

And I do recommend reading The Yellow Birds too…

The new peace

The text of a lecture given by Mary Kaldor, Professor of Global Governance at the LSE,  at Tufts University on October 2012, when she was awarded the Dr Jean Mayer Global Citizens Award, named for Tufts’ former President and Chancellor.  The lecture also coincided with the publication of the third edition of Kaldor’s New and Old Wars: organized violence in a global era.

She emphasises that this lecture is a work in progress, a way-station en route to a book she is writing with Christine Chinkin, Professor of International Law who is also at the LSE.  Building on her discussion of ‘new wars’, and on her collaboration with Shannon Beebe, The ultimate weapon is no weapon: Human security and the new rules of war and peace, Kaldor argues for a ‘new peace’ in these terms:

I am arguing for international law that prohibits the use of force, as in domestic contexts, except in the very limited case of individual self-defence. The only argument for the international use of force is the scaling up of individual self-defence, e.g. genocide or massive violations of human rights. But in this case, the conduct of force is not the same as war-fighting. It is defensive, aimed at protection. Those responsible for the attacks are to be arrested where possible rather than killed. Any international use of force would take place under the authority of a reformed United Nations Security Council. Such an approach would require something like international emergency services rather like in a domestic context, we have police, fire fighters and emergency medical services.

In case this sounds excessively utopian, it is worth noting that something along these lines has been developing in parallel with the War on Terror. All sorts of new techniques have been developed in wars in the Balkans and Africa – safe havens, humanitarian corridors, the establishment of courts to try war crimes. New types of security capabilities are being developed by the European Union and in the thinking about civilian protection in the United Nations. New commitments to humanitarian intervention or Responsibility to Protect have been adopted by the African Union. Many international missions, not all successful of course, have been taking place alongside the War on Terror and have involved a learning experience. We tend to focus on Iraq and Afghanistan because they are so visible but they may well turn out to be exceptions as a consequence of a more traditional war-fighting military intervention.

To put it more simply, in difficult situations like for example Syria, it is important to identify an alternative between old-fashioned military intervention where the aim is to win and where many get killed and there is a risk of escalation, and doing nothing. Or in the case of the War on Terror, it is about taking the problem of terrorism seriously. When terrorists are treated as enemies in a war, they are elevated and legitimised. In the case of the drone attacks, for example, it is not just a problem that mistakes are made and civilians sometimes get killed, more importantly, it escalates the violence. It provides an argument and justification for mobilising more recruits to extremist causes. What I worry about is that the combination of the economic crisis and what is happening the Middle East could portend a spreading protracted new war in large parts of the world.

I think there is a slippage between the first and last paragraphs of this extract: to claim that, in the circumstances Kaldor outlines, ‘the conduct of force is not the same as war-fighting’ is to ring-fence ‘war’ in ways that are increasingly problematic, as that last sentence concedes.  And to assume that a re-calibrated international law can somehow insulate the one from the other is utopian, isn’t it?

Just looking (and shooting)

I had just finished jotting my update to the IDF’s use of social media when Alex Vasudevan drew my attention to this brilliant, searing and deeply disturbing essay by Huw Lemmey at the New Inquiry, ‘Devastation in Meatspace’:

The missile rushing over your head was processed through an Instagram filter just hours previously. As you see it pass out of sight behind the apartment block opposite some young conscript is preparing for video footage of it to be compressed and uploaded to YouTube before the hour is out. By nightfall tonight that explosion which just shook your neighborhood, in one of the most densely populated areas on earth, will have been liked over 8,000 times on Facebook. Welcome to Gaza City.

In a previous post I’d objected to the way in which some commentators advertised social media as a new way to ‘consume’ war, but  – riffing off Eyal Weizmann‘s Hollow Land –  Lemmey focuses not on the Twitter streams but on the visualizations disseminated across these digital platforms: see, for example, the IDF’s Instagram page here (and look at the comments too); more here.  You can also find a selection over at Business Insider where Geoffrey Ingersoll describes them as ‘gorgeous’, and another selection at Moral Low Ground, which reads them rather differently.

Commenting on these images, Britney Fitzgerald at the Huffington Post simply sees them as ‘the world’s newest form of war reporting” – though she does note that the ‘intimacies’ that Israel puts on display through Instagram are radically different from those with the hashtags #gaza and #palestine – but Lemmey (who describes himself as a print maker and studio technician) provides a much more compelling reading.  He shows that the IDF images do indeed resonate with a consumerist ideology – climactic versions of the desiring gaze and the lust of the eye – that has become integral to the way in which late modern war is fought:

‘[T]he [IDF] use of commercially available instagram filters replicates the visual culture favoured by much of its audience, producing images that slip easily into their feeds, naturalising the content. “These are the photos you would take if you served in the IDF,” the aesthetic says, “we are just like you, and these military decisions are the ones you would take, if you were in our situation.” They also step beyond this, including an aspirational aspect of a desirable lifestyle — impossibly handsome young troops, having fun on their downtime. This is a fighting force at play as imagined by Wolfgang Tillmans and BUTT magazine, a million miles from an occupying force…. Liking and sharing IDF visual material becomes no more controversial than sharing your favourite Nike campaign — not a matter of politics, let alone ethics, but just another part of the construction of your online persona….’

‘Like many of the more advanced lifestyle brands, the IDF are shifting the focus of image production from their own staff and creative team toward their consumers: in this case, the troops, reservists, and supporters of the IDF. Content is aggregated from individuals and fed back into the social networks of the target audience. In many ways this is an advanced form of brand-management for a such a large institution; it shows a willingness to trust the audience, allowing them to define the brand, making IDFgram perhaps the first crowdsourced propaganda campaign for a state military but also one whose identity is ever more meshed with that of its troops and supporters, emulating fashion and lifestyle brands’ movement toward consumer-led campaigns. Here the IDF becomes the avatar of a thoroughly Western consumer identity. The distance between our own lives and those of the men and women who fight in the IDF becomes ever shorter and more compressed; in collapsing this distance, the grainy and pixelated images of the Palestinian subject become more distant. This is the IDF campaign for control of the virtual environment, interjecting its brand identity into the slivers of human interaction online and thus attempting to occupy a greater portion of the market share for geopolitical allegiance.’

Lemmey says much, much more than this: please read the whole essay.

BTW: IDF stands for ‘Israel Defense Forces’, so naturally none of this should be confused with IDF Marketing, where ‘IDF stands for Innovative, Digital, Foundations’: it’s an Irish company with no connection with the Israeli military.  In case you’re now thoroughly confused, here is Arwa Mahdawi on the marketing of Israel:

Ever since it officially came into existence in 1948, Israel has gone methodically about the creation of a “Brand Israel”. This originally began with an emphasis of the religious significance of a state for the Jewish people. Then, in 2005, when it was time for a rebrand, the Israeli government consulted with American marketing executives to develop a positioning that would appeal to a new generation: an Israel that was “relevant and modern” rather than a place of “fighting and religion”. So Israel did some pinkwashing, and suddenly became a vocal champion of gay rights. It fought to retain cultural ownership of falafel, hummus, and Kafka. It poured millions of dollars into tourism campaigns that sought to replace imagery of wartorn landscapes with sun-kissed seascapes.

When it comes to winning modern wars, a robust marketing campaign is as important as a military campaign.

Saving Face(book)

An update to my post on the use of social media in Israel’s latest assault on Gaza: at the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) Rebecca Stein provides an important historical perspective on the IDF’s mobilisation of these digital platforms and the resistance from senior commanders to resorting to a ‘digital vernacular’:

Even as the IDF labors to speak in a language that will be intelligible to the general public, largely abandoning traditional forms of military jargon, its Facebook and Twitter practices remain committed to the foremost military mission — that of asserting control over social media’s highly interactive field.

Rebecca also draws attention to the ways in which these military mobilisations complicate the ‘digital democracy’ narrative that emerged in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

I talked about this briefly in my essay on Tahrir Square, where I noted that it was not only the Israeli military that was learning from those events.  As Lt Col Brian Pettit put it, ‘the Arab Spring has profound implications for the US Special Operations mission of unconventional warfare’ that need to be incorporated into ‘theory, doctrine and training’.  He argued that standard ‘red force tracking’ in which the enemy is caught in a net of electronic surveillance should now be complemented by ‘social tracking’ in which social media are monitored and even enlisted.  The standard image of unconventional war, the same officer concludes, is of ‘underground resistance leaders meeting with US advisers, clustered in a dark basement around a crumpled map, secretly organizing and planning their next tactical move.’  But this is now incomplete, and future operations will need to enlist ‘a scattered network of digerati, all texting, tweeting, posting and hacking from thousands of locations.  Publicity is as paramount to the success of the digerati as is secrecy vital to the success of the traditional underground resistance cell.’  As I noted at the time, it’s not difficult to work out ‘which ‘resistance leaders’ were likely to be meeting with US advisers, nor the bodily consequences for those on the other side of the street.

But using social media is only one part of military strategy.  Writing in Joint Forces Quarterly early in 2011, Lt Col Thomas Mayfield had already accepted that ‘aggressive engagement in the social media environment can aid the commander in winning the information fight’  – bizzarely he pointed to the IDF’s ham-fisted use of social media during its previous assault on Gaza in 2008-9 – but his first priority was to monitor the use of social media to enhance ‘situational awareness’.  For a Canadian/NATO perspective on media monitoring, here is Bruce Forrester from Defence R&D Canada at Valcartier on ‘Social Media Exploitation Tools’ after the Arab uprisings.

If this is all too depressing for you, then try Richard Poplak who provides a different take on the IDF’s most recent attempts to use Facebook to save face…

Bomb Sight

Another pre-script…. Last week I noted two projects that aimed to bring drone strikes to your smart phone, but here’s one that promises to do the same for the London Blitz.  Developed by researchers at the University of Portsmouth led by Kate Jones, in conjunction with the National Archives, and working from the official wartime Bomb Census, Bomb Sight uses web and mobile mapping technology to ‘bring to life [sic] the maps that demarcate the location of [31,000] falling bombs during the London Blitz between October 1940 and June 1941.’  It’s a truly remarkable project that intends to link the sites on the map to photographs, eye-witness accounts and memories.

The project is being developed for the Android platform but there is apparently the future possibility of porting to the iPhone – assuming that Apple doesn’t find this as objectionable as it did Josh Begley‘s Drones+ app (I’m betting it won’t).

The blog recording the development of Bomb Sight includes some screen shots – I’ve pasted some below – showing detailed maps and augmented reality views that give more insight into the intended outcome.

Unlike attempts to plot drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere, the Bomb Census Survey maps produced by the Ministry of Home Security make it possible to identify locations with great (though sometimes variable) precision – a capacity that was of course unavailable to those dropping the bombs in the first place – and there is a rich vein of images and testimony to tap into too.

It’s that prospect of multi-media linkage that makes this such a brilliant project.  There have been other attempts to map the Blitz; the Guardian produced this remarkable map of the ‘incidents’ to which the London Fire Brigade responded on the first night of the Blitz, 7 September 1940, for example, and made available an online interactive so that the toll could be followed hour by hideous hour:

You need to ‘grow’ the markers on the map; the Guardian noted that each ‘incident’ typically involved multiple bombs.  But even more telling is the word itself: ‘incident’.  For, as John Strachey noted in his memoir of his time as an Air Raid Warden, it’s a bureaucratic, bloodless term:

In contrast, what Bomb Sight promises to do is not only to disaggregate each ‘incident’ to show every bomb dropped but, still more importantly, to deconstruct the very term itself: to link the bomb scatter to imagery and testimony and so give the lie to these bloodless abstractions.

Perhaps if something similar could be done for other cities around the world more people would be enraged at the continued recourse to bombing from the air as a legitimate political and military practice, and the politics of  ‘banning the bomb’ might be transformed into a more general demand to ban all bombs.

If you want to see more of Bomb Sight, there’s a very good video up at YouTube:

Media blitz

For an interesting post-script (or pre-script) to my discussion of the mediatization of the Israeli war on Gaza, check out the ever-interesting Brett Holman over at Airminded on the ways in which print media were used to report and ridicule propaganda messages from the enemy during the Second World War.

As Brett points out, there are parallels but also significant differences:

For one thing, in 1940 it was effectively impossible for British civilians to communicate with German ones, or vice versa: their debates were national, at best. Now Palestinians and Israelis — and everyone else — can talk directly to (or past) each other on the Gaza war, perhaps with the aid of Google Translate. For another, in 1940 official propaganda did not draw on the unofficial kind. Now @AlqassamBrigade and @IDFSpokesperson share photos of alleged attacks posted on Twitter by ordinary people. For yet another, in 1940 the debates in newspaper columns unfolded over days and weeks. Now the social war moves almost as fast as the real war does. A real war that, it should not be forgotten, claims real lives regardless of what happens online.

Spinning in the rain

Listen 0.24 in:

Here, at the start of his tour of SE Asia, President Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, defended Israel’s attack on Gaza – the always asymmetric ‘right to self-defence’ to which Craig Jones has drawn attention – by declaring that ‘There’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on citizens from outside its borders.’  Really.