Gaza in Ruins

An important post from Craig Jones about the capacity of the creative arts to respond to and even dislocate military violence that chimes beautifully with my previous post about War/Photography, and leads me into a notice of a research seminar at King’s College London (K2.29, Strand) at 6 p.m. on 5 February 2013:

‘i have come to everyday armageddon’: Spectacular and Slow Ruin in Gaza
Anna Bernard

WIEDENHOFER Book of destructionThe Israeli military’s 22-day attack on Gaza in the winter of 2008-9 provoked international condemnation to a degree that the region’s daily deprivation since 2007 under Israeli and Egyptian blockade had not. After the assault, images of the ruins of Gaza – its collapsed buildings, its disabled and impoverished residents – circulated widely. Beyond recording the immediate destruction caused by the attacks, however, these representations also sought to convey a different kind of ruin: the ‘slow violence’ (Nixon 2011) of Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. Anna Bernard will explore some of the visual and narrative attempts since 2009 to draw attention to the full scale of Gaza’s devastation, including photography by Kai Wiedenhöfer and poetry by Suheir Hammad. [The title is taken from Suheir Hammad’s poem GAZA, and the video shows Wiedenhöfer’s exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 2010].

Anna Bernard works on literary and cultural representations of Israel/Palestine in international contexts. She is the author of Rhetorics of Belonging: Nation, Narration and Israel/Palestine, forthcoming from Liverpool University Press.

Ruins in Gaza – Reality and Representations
Ahmed Masoud

While the Gaza Strip is often associated with images of ruins and destruction as a result of the continuous Israeli bombardment, the rubble of destroyed buildings has also become closely associated with the national cause. In 2009, a young artist living in Jabalia Camp turned her bombed house into an installation of a tank. Her message was that holding on to living spaces was as powerful as any military machinery.

Go to Gaza drink the seaAhmed Masoud will discuss the representation of ruins in his plays Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea (2009) and Unto the Breach (2012). Working with various set designers, Ahmed chose to represent rubble using different materials. In Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea (left) destruction was represented through a mountain constructed out of thousands of old shoes, while the set of Unto the Breach compiled a collage of ripped clothes, palates, paint pails and other broken and recyclable materials. Both sets represent the hardships, but also the resourcefulness, of ordinary people living under siege. They also reflect the process of making the set and shows with a very limited budget.

Unto the breachAhmed Masoud is a Palestinian academic, writer and director. In 2005, he founded the Al Zaytouna Dance and Theatre Company. With Justin Butcher he co-wrote and directed the successful play Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea (2009), staged in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and the BBC Radio 4 Play Escape from Gaza (January 2011). Ahmed also won the Muslim Writers Awards (sponsored by Penguin Books) in the unpublished novel category for his book Gaza Days. His latest show Unto the Breach (right) [a dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V] was performed at the Artsdepot Theatre in November 2012 and received critical acclaim.


All of this has prompted me to start serious work on a project I’ve had buzzing around my head for months now – a performance-work on bombing, past and present, using video, testimony, music, above all drama (and perhaps even dance).  The spur is partly my continuing frustration at conventional academic forms, partly admiration for my good friend Gerry Pratt‘s stunning drama-work Nanay (which has been performed in Vancouver and Berlin), now reinforced by Photog., and above all a desire to work on a collaborative project designed to engage the widest possible public.  Watch this space…


News of two new discussions of War and Photography.  The first is an exhibition, War/Photography: images of armed conflict and its aftermath, which started out at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston last November and then moves to Los Angeles (in time for the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers), Washington DC and New York:

• The Annenberg Space for Photography | March 23–June 2, 2013

• The Corcoran Gallery of Art | June 29–September 29, 2013

• The Brooklyn Museum | November 8, 2013–February 2, 2014

The exhibition takes a critical look at the relationship between war and photography, exploring what types of photographs are, and are not, made, and by whom and for whom. Rather than a chronological survey of wartime photographs or a survey of “greatest hits,” the exhibition presents types of photographs repeatedly made during the many phases of war—regardless of the size or cause of the conflict, the photographers’ or subjects’ culture or the era in which the pictures were recorded. The images in the exhibition are organized according to the progression of war: from the acts that instigate armed conflict, to “the fight,” to victory and defeat, and images that memorialize a war, its combatants and its victims. Both iconic images and previously unknown images are on view, taken by military photographers, commercial photographers (portrait and photojournalist), amateurs and artists.

War/PhotographyElissa Curtis previewed the exhibition in the New Yorker last year, and included a mesmerising gallery of 28 images from the collection (whose coverage starts in 1846 with the Mexican-American war); there’s also a longer discussion (and a smaller gallery) in Carol Kino‘s New York Times review.

The accompanying book (right) War/Photography by Anne Wilkes Tucker and Will Michels with Natalie Zelt, is available from Yale University Press.

The second is a performance work by Boca del Lupo called Photog., which is here in Vancouver (PuSh) and Burnaby (Shadbolt) this month and next:

Photog.Drawn from the real life accounts of top conflict photographers, Boca del Lupo examines the juxtapositions and internal struggles that many photogs experience between foreign soil and home turf; between privilege and suffering; between disconnect and belonging; between war and peace.With verbatim text from interviews with award-winning war photographers and international journalists, dazzling physicality, computer animation, video, and physical theatre, the end result is a deeper connection between our own lives and the lives of those we see in the news every day.

Click on the image shown here for a gallery.  Some background to the one-man show here and here. Thanks to Jorge Amigo for the info – we’re off to see this tomorrow night.

Of Bombs and Men

WWII Bombardier Calisthenics

When Stanley Kubrick had Major Kong (Slim Pickens) straddle a nuclear bomb in Dr Strangelove (1964) and ride it exuberantly all the way down to its target – surely the most iconic image from the film – he was making an obvious visual point about masculinism, sexuality and military violence that, as the clean-limbed image above shows, takes many other, non-nuclear forms.  Here a group of US Army Air Force bombardiers in the Second World War practices calisthenics with 100 lb bombs.  A different sort of ‘love-charm of bombs‘, you might think.

Indeed, a contemporary account made much of the ‘hard and rigid training of members of a bomber crew’ – which was supposed to be just like a football or basketball team (‘This is really the Big League in the toughest game we have ever been up against, with the pennant the survival and future of the whole nation’) – and emphasised their collective virility and heteronormativity:

‘They will have played football or basketball, have competed in the field or on the track.  Many of them will have been ardent hunters or fishermen.  Because they are healthy young men they will like girls very well indeed.’

Hunting was important; readers were told to be thankful that ‘frightened civil authorities and specific Ladies Clubs have not managed to eradicate from the country the tradition of the possession and use of firearms’, which ensured that a young man would enter the Air Force ‘with the whole background of aerial gunnery in him before he starts.’

The author of all this was, astonishingly, John Steinbeck, and the book Bombs Away: the story of a bomber team, published in 1942.


In May 1942 Steinbeck had been summoned to Washington by General Henry A. “Hap” Arnold who explained what he had in mind – an account of the training of a bomber crew that would serve as a recruiting platform – and although Steinbeck was at first reluctant a meeting with President Roosevelt convinced him to accept the assignment.  He spent the summer on the road (in fact, much of the time in the air), travelling from airbase to airbase in the United States with Hollywood photographer John Swope, who provided 60 illustrations for Bombs Away.  Swope would later be tapped by First World War veteran Edward Steichen for his US Navy photographic unit covering the war in the Pacific, where he produced a remarkable photographic portfolio and the accompanying Letter from Japan in 1945.

Steinbeck was no stranger to working with photographers.  In 1937 Horace Bristol, a freelance photographer who regularly contributed to LIFE magazine,

‘proposed a story about migrant farm workers in Calfornia’s Central Valley—a project that would include accompanying text by novelist John Steinbeck. Though LIFE turned down the story, Bristol and Steinbeck agreed to collaborate on a book-length project, and the two men spent several weekends in labor camps during the winter of 1938. Bristol took hundreds of photographs of the suffering farm workers, only to have Steinbeck withdraw from the partnership to write the story as a novel, which became his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath.’

BRISTOL PBYBlisterGunnerBristol was also later recruited by Steichen, and some of his war photographs would not been out of place in Bombs Away: the image on the right, ‘RESCUE: PBY Blister Gunner’, was shot in a Catalina Flying Boat at Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, in 1944, which presumably explains the flying kit.

If Steinbeck’s collaboration with Swope turned out to be more congenial than that with Bristol, however, it was markedly less fruitful. Ernest Hemingway disliked Bombs Away so much that he famously observed that ‘I would rather cut off three fingers off my throwing hand than to have written it.’

He wasn’t alone.  A review in the New Republic declared that Bombs Away bore ‘about the same relationship to literature that a recruiting poster does to art.’  But of course it was supposed to be a recruiting poster, and it had to be written in double-quick time.

In the book Steinbeck assembles the bomber crew man by man, role by role – the bombardier, the aerial gunner, the navigator, the pilot, the aerial engineer/crew chief and the radio engineer – who together ‘must function like a fine watch’.  They are assigned a ‘ship’ – a B-17E Flying Fortress or a B-24 (‘Liberator’) – which will invariably become personalised and almost always feminized.  (There’s a considerable literature on the ‘nose art‘ of bombers, and Steinbeck will later declare that ‘Some of the best writing of the war has been on the noses of bombers’).  But it is the men that count, that constitute the elaborate clock-mechanism: ‘Men are the true weapons of the Air Force,’ Steinbeck insists, ‘and it is an understanding of this that makes our bomber crews what they are.’ Inevitably, he adds: ‘Living and working together too, they played together too.  On the beach in their free time they played football and swam in the warm water of the Gulf.’

Norden bombsightSteinbeck knows, of course, that this is a deadly serious ‘game’: and one that, as he also labours to explain, is objective, scientific: ‘They knew the mathematics of destruction.’   Within this embodied, techno-cultural constellation the Norden bombsight (left) occupied a central place.

‘This bombsight has become the symbol of responsibility.  It is never left unguarded for a moment.  On the ground it is kept in a safe and under constant guard.  It is taken out of its safe only by a bombardier on mission and he never leaves it.  He is responsible not only for its safety but for its secrecy.’

I’ve noted before how often bombing depends on abstraction: on a technical division of labour within the kill-chain, on a rhetoric of scientificity (and, by extension, precision), and on a calculus that transforms places and people into the co-ordinates of a target.  Bombs Away shows this to perfection, but it shows something else even more clearly. For the ability to carry out these deadly missions also depends on an instilled and instinctive sociality (here, naturally, a homosociality) that is far from abstract.

STEINBECK Bombs Away cover

And yet there is something abstract, or at least detached, about Bombs Away, because it ends just before the crew takes off on its first mission.  In the concluding chapter, ‘Missions’, Steinbeck explains that the men ‘looked so carefully at the newspapers, and what they found in the newspapers reassured them.’

Mary Ruth nose artBut this paper knowledge turned out to be less than satisfactory.  Less than a year later, in June 1943, his request to become an air force intelligence officer refused by the draft board – a US Army intelligence report, mindful of the sympathies of Steinbeck’s pre-war novels, had concluded that there was ‘substantial doubt’ about his ‘loyalty and discretion’ and recommended that he not be offered a commission – Steinbeck was at RAF Bassingbourn (USAAF Station 121) in Cambridgeshire as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune.

An old friend of his, in fact a literary agent before the war, Staff Sergeant Henry (“Maurice”) Crain was stationed there, and Steinbeck wrote nine articles centred on the crew of Crain’s ship, the “Mary Ruth: Memoirs of Mobile“, a Flying Fortress of the 91st Bomb Group of VII Bomber Command.  ‘The closer you get to the action,’ he reports Crain (the ball-turret gunner) saying, ‘the less you read the papers and war news’:

‘I remember before I joined up I used to know everything that was happening… I even had maps with pins and I drew out campaigns with colored pencils. Now I haven’t looked at a paper in two weeks.’

And when the crew did, as often as not they didn’t recognise what they saw.  The waist-gunner had read a newspaper from home:

‘It seems to me that the folks at home are fighting one war and we’re fighting another one. They’ve got theirs nearly won and we’ve just got started on ours. I wish they’d get in the same war we’re in. I wish they’d print the casualties and tell them what it’s like.’

STEINBECK Once there was a warThis is a far cry from the brimming, boastful confidence of Bombs Away, and Steinbeck is clearly concerned not only to change the tone but also to surmount the limitations of his new, temporary profession (some of his despatches were republished in 1958 in Once there was a war).  He does so by invoking the the technical, instrumental armature of the mission: the precision of the briefing (‘The incredible job of getting so many ships to a given point at a given time means almost split-second timing’), the complicated process of kitting up (‘During the process the men have got bigger and bigger as layer on layer of equipment is put on; they walk stiffly, like artificial men’), and the meticulous work of the ground crews who ‘scurry about like rabbits’ as they prepare the aircraft and load the bombs.  But here too it is above all the sociality, the camaraderie that drives and dominates the narrative.

Mary Ruth

And it’s the end of this that brings Steinbeck’s reports to an abrupt end.  He had had in mind a series of 25 articles, but this was cut short when the ‘Mary Ruth’ (shown above) failed to return from a bombing raid on the Ruhr.

But this was not the end of Steinbeck’s interest in (and enthusiasm for) the US military in general and bombing in particular.  He was a vocal supporter of the Vietnam War, and in fact visited the South in December 1966-January 1967.  In private he wrote that ‘I wish the bombing weren’t necessary, but I suspect our people on the ground know more about that than I do’ , and he refused all requests to sign petitions against President Johnson’s Rolling Thunder campaign.  [For more on Steinbeck’s involvement in the two wars, see Thomas Barden, ‘John Steinbeck and the Vietnam War’, Steinbeck Review 5 (1) (2008) 11-24].

Note: Most of the crew of the ‘Mary Ruth’ survived (including Crain) and were taken prisoner of war.  The most detailed account describes the ‘Mary Ruth’ being shot down by a fighter aircraft on 22 June 1943; Steinbeck’s reports for the New York Herald Tribune begin to appear on 26 June. The discrepancy is presumably explained by a combination of the time taken for his despatches to cross the Atlantic and wartime censorship.  Both Bombs Away and Once there was a war are still available as Penguin editions, the latter with an enthusiastic foreword by Mark Bowden.

‘Dirty Wars’ and the everywhere war

'Dirty Wars' - Jeremy Scahill filmDirty wars: the world is a battlefield, a new film by the Nation‘s brilliant investigative reporter  Jeremy Scahill and directed by Rick Rowley (of Big Noise Films) has won this year’s Sundance Film Festival Prize for best cinematography in a US documentary.  The film, which goes on release later this year, focuses on the CIA’s Special Activities Division, Joint Special Operations Command and other covert forces in waging undeclared wars around the globe.  More information and updates here.  Here’s the ‘long synopsis’:

Dirty Wars follows investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, author of the international bestseller Blackwater, into the heart of America’s covert wars, from Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia and beyond. With a strong cinematic style, the film unfolds through Scahill’s investigation and personal journey as he chases down the most important human rights story of our time.

Along the way we meet two parallel casts of characters. The CIA agents, shooters, military generals, and Special Forces operators who populate the dark side of American wars go on camera and on the record—many for the first time. The human victims of this unaccountable violence are also heard. Seeing and hearing directly from survivors of night raids and drone strikes and victims of torture in “black” detention sites shows the human lives caught in these wars.

Tracing the rise of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the most secret and elite fighting force in U.S. history, Dirty Wars reveals covert operations unknown to the public and carried out across the globe by men who do not exist on paper and will never appear before Congress. In military jargon, JSOC teams “find, fix, and finish” their targets: anyone, without due process. No target is off limits for the “kill list,” including U.S. citizens.

Dirty Wars takes viewers to remote corners of the globe to see first-hand wars fought in their name and offers a behind-the-scenes look at a high-stakes investigation. We are left with questions about freedom and war, justice and democracy.

SCAHILL Dirty warsThe accompanying – monumental (512 pp) – book (under the same title) will be published by Nation Books in April.

In an early review for Variety, Rob Nelson praises the film’s power and politics:

Filed from the frontlines of the war on terror, documentarian Richard Rowley’s astonishingly hard-hitting “Dirty Wars” renders the investigative work of journalist Jeremy Scahill in the form of a ’70s-style conspiracy thriller. A reporter for the Nation, Scahill follows a blood-strewn trail from a remote corner of Afghanistan, where covert night raids have claimed the lives of innocents, to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a shadowy outfit empowered by the current White House to assassinate those on an ever-expanding “kill list,” including at least one American. This jaw-dropping, persuasively researched pic has the power to pry open government lockboxes.

Doggedly questioning the logic and morality of waging a war with no accountability and no end in sight, Rowley and Scahill are shrewd enough to recognize that one of the strongest weapons in their own arsenal is entertainment. This isn’t to say that “Dirty Wars” is fun by any stretch, but that it takes pains to make the political personal, forging the viewer’s identification with Scahill by making persistent use of his voiceover narration and keeping him oncamera throughout. Scahill is no Redford or Hoffman, but one follows his train of thought and ultimately fears for his safety.

There’s also an excellent interview (including some riveting, spine-chilling detail) with Amy Goodman, together with some clips from the film, at Democracy Now:

If you’re in a hurry, the transcript is here.  As Amy notes in the Guardian (and as the interview confirms)the film is a much-needed antidote to Zero Dark Thirty, and speaks directly to what I’ve called ‘the everywhere war’:

 ‘Sadly it proves the theater of war is everywhere, or, as its subtitle puts it: “The World is a Battlefield.” As Scahill told me: “You’re going to see a very different reality, and you’re going to see the hellscape that has been built by a decade of covert war.”

‘The largest picture in the world’

I was in Lexington Thursday-Saturday to give the first of this year’s Committee on Social Theory lectures at the University of Kentucky.  The theme this year is “Mapping“, and this was the first outing for “Gabriel’s Map: cartography and corpography in modern war”.  The video will be posted online in a week or so, and there will also be an online interview with the journal disClosure, which is moving to a digital platform.  I was last in Kentucky soon after I moved to UBC, so some time around 1989/90, to give one of the first of these lectures, and this occasion was as enjoyable as the first: many thanks to Jeremy Crampton and his wonderful colleagues and graduate students for such warm hospitality on such a chilly week!  That said, being invited to talk about “Mapping” by Jeremy is like being invited to talk about Marxism by David Harvey, so I was relieved everything went so well; I learned much from the questions, comments and conversations, so no doubt the second outing will see a different presentation.  Then, somewhere down the line, I’ll translate it into written form.

One of the most enjoyable parts of preparing a presentation, for me anyway, is the image research and design, which invariably takes me to sites and sources I’d never otherwise find.  And because it can take an age to find the right image, it slows down the process and gives me time to think more carefully (and I hope creatively) about the argument I’m developing.  This was no exception: again and again, as I raided image banks on the First World War, I encountered the work of Australian photographer and film-maker Frank Hurley (1885-1962).  In fact, it’s one of his photographs that I cut for the banner of this blog (‘Moving Forward/Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track near Hooge, in the Ypres Sector’).

HURLEY Moving forward

McGREGOR Frank HurleyWhen the First World War began Hurley was in Antarctica as the photographer for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Ernest Shackleton‘s legendary attempt to reach the South Pole on foot in 1914-1917, which ended in near disaster when the expedition’s support vessel became trapped and was eventually crushed in the pack ice.  The First Officer on the ill-fated Endurance described Hurley as ‘a warrior with his camera’ who would ‘go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.’

Frank HurleySure enough, soon after he returned to England Hurley was appointed as one of two official photographers to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in July 1917 with the honorary rank of Captain.  (War correspondents were expressly forbidden to take photographs, which is why official photographers were appointed – and subject to regulation and censorship). Hurley left England the following month for what he called ‘the grim duties of France’.  He was constantly haunted by the horror gouged into the landscape of the front line:

‘After, we climbed to the crest of hill 60, where we had an awesome view over the battlefield to the German lines. What an awful scene of desolation! Everything has been swept away: only stumps of trees stick up here & there & the whole field has the appearance of having been recently ploughed. Hill 60 long delayed our infantry advance, owing to its commanding position & the almost impregnable concrete emplacements & shelters constructed by the Bosch. We eventually won it by tunnelling underground, & then exploding three enormous mines, which practically blew the whole hill away & killed all the enemy on it. It’s the most awful & appalling sight I have ever seen. The exaggerated machinations of hell are here typified. Everywhere the ground is littered with bits of guns, bayonets, shells & men. Way down in one of these mine craters was an awful sight. There lay three hideous, almost skeleton decomposed fragments of corpses of German gunners. Oh the frightfulness of it all… Looking across this vast extent of desolation & horror, it appeared as though some mighty cataclysm had swept it off & blighted the vegetation, then peppered it with millions of lightning stabs. It might be the end of the world where two irresistible forces are slowly wearing each other away.’

Or again:

Frank HURLEY  Menin Road, 1917‘The Menin Rd is one of the, if not the, most ghastly approach on the whole front. Accretions of broken limbers, materials & munitions lay in piles on either side, giving the road the appearance of running through a cutting. Any time of the day it may be shelled & it is absolutely impossible owing to the congested traffic for the Boche to avoid getting a coup with each shell. The Menin road is like passing through the Valley of death, for one never knows when a shell will lob in front of him. It is the most gruesome shambles I have ever seen…’

But throughout his diary he is also evidently entranced, even thrilled by the aesthetic effect of such spectacular violence:

‘The battlefield in the night was a wonderful sight of star shells & flashes. The whole sky seemed a crescent of shimmering sheet lightning like illumination. It was all very beautiful yet awesome and terrible.’

Frank HURLEY Ypres 1917At Ypres, he confesses that the shattered town is now ‘aesthetically … far more interesting than the Ypres that was’.  Making his way along the Menin Road at twilight:

‘No sight could be more impressive than walking along this infamous shell swept road, to the chorus of the deep bass booming of the drum fire, & the screaming shriek of thousands of shells. It was great, stupendous & awesome.’


‘The shells shrieked in an ecstasy overhead, & the deep boom of artillery sounded like a triumphant drum roll. Those murderous weapons the machine guns maintained their endless clatter, as if a million hands were encoring & applauding the brilliant victory of our countrymen. It was ineffably grand & terrible…’

Above all, Hurley was tormented by the difficulty of conveying the full extent of what he saw in a single exposure.  In his diary he confided that

‘We have even a worse time than the infantry, for to get pictures one must go into the hottest & even then come out disappointed. To get War pictures of striking interest & sensation is like attempting the impossible.’

He later explained:

‘None but those who have endeavoured can realise the insurmountable difficulties of portraying a modern battle by the camera. To include the event on a single negative, I have tried and tried, but the results are hopeless. Everything is on such a vast scale. Figures are scattered — the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke — shells will not burst where required — yet the whole elements of a picture are there could they but be brought together and condensed.’

Hurley passionately believed that it was only by the superimposition of different negatives to form a single, ‘condensed’ image that he could re-present the violence of war – and, I think, its shocking, thrilling aesthetic.  Towards the end of September 1917 Hurley recorded

‘a great argument with Bean about combination pictures. Am thoroughly convinced that it is impossible to secure effects – without resorting to composite pictures.’

Charles BeanCharles Bean was Australia’s Official War Correspondent (more here, and for the documentary-drama, Charles Bean’s Great War, see here), and he was equally adamant that Hurley’s method was itself so violent that it destroyed the truth: to Bean, Hurley’s montages were ‘little short of fake’ and violated the imperative to view photographs as ‘sacred records’ of the war.  Indeed, Bean insisted that ‘press photography in this war is such a construction of flimsy fake,’ and ‘that is the last thing a historian wants to build on.’  In October Bean presented an ultimatum to which Hurley responded in a characteristically uncompromising fashion:

‘Had a lengthy discussion with Bean re pictures for Exhibition & publicity purposes. Our Authorities here will not permit me to pose any pictures or indulge in any original means to secure them. They will not allow composite printing of any description, even though such be accurately titled nor will they permit clouds to be inserted in a picture. As this absolutely takes all possibilities of producing pictures from me, I have decided to tender my resignation at once. I conscientiously consider it but right to illustrate to the public the things our fellows do & how war is conducted. These can only be got by printing a result from a number of negatives or reenactment. This is out of reason & they prefer to let all these interesting episodes pass. This is unfair to our boys & I conscientiously could not undertake to continue the work.’

The next morning Hurley resigned:

‘I sent in my resignation this morning & await the result of igniting the fuse. It is disheartening, after striving to secure the impossible & running all hazards to meet with little encouragement. I am unwilling & will not make a display of war pictures unless the military people see their way clear to give me a free hand. Canada has made a great advertisement out of their pictures & I must beat them.’

According to Robert Dixon’s engaging essay ‘Travelling Mass-Media Circus: Frank Hurley and Colonial Modernity’, Hurley had Canada in his sights because the Canadian War Records Office had staged a highly successful photographic exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London the previous December, which had included vast enlargements using multiple negatives; the follow-up exhibition in July had as its centrepiece what was advertised as ‘the largest photograph in the world’, ‘Dreadnoughts of the Battlefield’, which occupied an entire wall of the gallery.

Dreadnoughts of the Battlefield

Within days a compromise of sorts had been reached: Hurley was allowed to make six ‘combination enlargements’ for his public exhibition, provided they were clearly labelled as composites, and he withdrew his resignation. (For more on the spat between Hurley and Bean, and the vexed political-epistemological issues at stake, see here).

But it was not until May 1918 – after he had completed a photographic expedition to record Australian troops fighting in Palestine – that Hurley was able to prepare his photographs for the London exhibition (the catalogue for the later show in Sydney is here).  He was particularly excited by two montages.  The first, ‘DEATH THE REAPER” was made up of two negatives: ‘One, the foreground, shows the mud-splashed corpse of a Boche floating in a shell crater.  The second is an extraordinary shell burst: the form of which resembles death.’

HURLEY Death the Reaper

What is striking about Hurley’s gloss – and the composition of the image itself – is the evident striving for a particular aesthetic effect: the compulsion to ‘secure effects’ (above) that were also affects.  Hurley reserved his most extravagant self-praise for a second photo-work which was made from 12 separate negatives:

‘Our largest picture, “THE RAID”, depicting an episode an the Battle of Zonneke [south-west of Passchendaele] measures over 20 ft. x 15’6″ high.  Two waves of infantry are leaving the trenches in the thick of a Boche Barrage of shells and shrapnel.  A flight of Bombing Aeroplanes accompanies them.  An enemy plane is burning in the background.  The whole picture is realistic of battle, the atmospheric effects of battle smoke are particularly fine.’


You can see an animation of the composition process here and a video here, and although Hurley claims this as a ‘realistic’ photo-work, the process of composition is, again, an artfully studied one that was plainly intended to produce a particular aesthetic – and cinematic – effect.

Even more than this, though, Hurley was – as Julian Thomas makes very clear here, a show man: Robert Dixon argues that by the 1920s ‘Hurley had become not only the ring-master but also the main attraction in his own travelling, international, multi- and mass-media circus.’  (Given how much I enjoy devising my own presentations, perhaps that’s also why I find the man so interesting….).

HURLEY The Raid leaning against a wall

And ‘The Raid’, sometimes also called ‘Over the top’ (shown leaning against a wall in London, left) was his bid to produce ‘the largest picture in the world’ (a quest which shows no sign of coming to an end).

You can find online galleries of Hurley’s photographs from the First World War here.  I used several of them in my presentation at Lexington, and so this excursion into Hurley’s war work is not a side-track: I also used passages from several novels (clearly noted as such), partly to trouble the simple distinctions between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ and to draw attention to the constructedness of our histories, but partly too because there are some truths (sic) that can be conveyed most effectively through the imaginative resources of the novel.  In the case of Tom McCarthy’s luminous novel C, which I’ve invoked before, there are complex relationships between the documentary record and the fictional narrative: C is clearly a work of prodigious imagination, but just as clearly saturated in archival research.  I’m left wondering what a latter-day Hurley would have made of it – and whether photographs are still subject to more stringent protocols than texts as a result of a presumptive indexicality.  What now counts as ‘fakery’ once Bean’s ‘sacred records’ have become secularised?

Torture, drones and detention

Hajjar and Khalili
Lisa Bhungalia writes with the welcome news that Jadaliyya has audio of a conversation between Laleh Khalili and Lisa Hajjar on ‘Torture, drones and detention’ at SOAS earlier this month.

The publication of Laleh’s Time in the shadows: confinement in counterinsurgencies (Stanford, 2012) and Lisa’s Torture: a sociology of human rights and violence (Routledge, 2012) is the occasion for a wide-ranging discussion of ‘the vagaries of liberal warfare’, including the intimacies between humanitarianism  (indeed, the very idea of the human) and war.


An update to my post on social media and late modern war (also here): Rebecca Stein writes with the excellent news that she has published an extended version of her MERIP commentary on Israel’s Twitter-war on Gaza: “StateTube: Anthropological reflections on social media and the Israeli state”, in Anthropological Quarterly 85 (3) (2012) 893-916.  The essay complicates what she calls the usual narrative about digital militancy (which is the theme of a special section of the journal): ‘the notion of new technologies that organically liberate from below, and of states invested chiefly in their repression from above.’

That said, some Israelis seem to have an astonishingly obdurate view of the power of social media – Rebecca quotes one member of Likud claiming that “Facebook pages … have as much impact as a tank – and sometimes even more” – and, as she notes, remarkably little sense of the countervailing possibilities.

The social network

All of which makes me wonder about a sequel to David Fincher‘s film about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, The social network (2010): in the light of Rebecca’s ethnographic work, the original poster (reproduced above) suggests an altogether different scenario….

Lost in translation

US Army translation in Afghanistan, 2010

The power of coincidence.  Just after I finished posting about the fog (and friction) of war, I opened an e-mail from Vince Rafael, who was at UBC a year or so ago to present a paper on counterinsurgency on which I’d been asked to comment.  He’s now sent me the published version, ‘Targeting translation: counterinsurgency and the weaponization of languiage’, which appears in the latest issue of Social Text 30 (4) (2012) 55-80.  It’s a characteristically elegant, original and powerful argument:

The chronic failure of counterinsurgency to convert language, whether its own, English, or the other’s, into a weapon, that is, into a standing reserve that could be switched, secured, and deployed, tends to generate catastrophic effects. Targets are missed or misconstrued, accidents abound, death proliferates, while no one is held accountable. As I have been suggesting, the resistance of language to weaponization is not incidental but structurally built into the very discourse and practices of counterinsurgency. That counterinsurgency harbors the very elements of its own undoing can be understood in at least two ways. On the one hand, as military leaders and engineers tend to think of it, the intractability of language could be regarded as a kind of noise that adds to the friction of war: merely a technical problem that can be fixed with greater application of resources, financial and technological, and a strengthening of political will. On the other hand, we could think of the insurgency of language as evidence of the possibility of another kind of translation practice at work. Operating in between the lines of imperial commands, it would be a kind of translation that evades targeting, spurring instead the emergence of forms of life at variance with the biopolitical prescriptions of counterinsurgency.

It’s an argument that not only extends the standard critique of ‘the weaponization of culture’ directly into the domain of language but also explores, in Vince’s brilliant coda ‘Translating otherwise’, the confounding capacities of language to refuse the reduction of the life of the Other to a target.

The fog-horn of war

I suspect most people attribute the metaphoric “fog of war” to Clausewitz’s critical reflections on the Napoleonic wars and then fast-forward to Erroll Morris‘s brilliant 2003 film about Robert Strange (sic) McNamara, The Fog of War, which centres on the Second World War and Vietnam.

Carl von Clausewitz  (1780-1831)Both turn out to be more problematic than they seem. First, although Clausewitz mentioned ‘fog’ several times in his manuscript On War he never used the phrase “fog of war”; this is the sentence that probably comes closest to the contemporary meaning:

‘War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty’ [Der Krieg ist das Gebiet der Ungewißheit; drei Vierteile derjenigen Dinge, worauf das Handeln im Kriege gebaut wird, liegen im Nebel einer mehr oder weniger großen Ungewißheit’].

In a brief commentary, Eugenia Kiesling suggests that Clausewitz made much more of ‘the friction of war’ than ‘fog’ (and was right to do so) and, more originally, that he gave it a peculiar moral force.  In fact, the two are closely connected: Victor Rosello had already noted that following ‘the metaphorical path of Clausewitzian fog-shrouded battlefields which defy attempts at penetration owing to insurmountable uncertainty’ led directly to ‘the ascendancy of the moral domain’:

‘These moral influences are the role of chance; the imponderables of fog and friction and their effects on the reliability of information; the limitation inherent in observation; the inability to penetrate the mind of the adversary; the dominance of preconception over fact; and the limitations of intelligence analysis.

ERROLL MORRIS's film "The Fog of War"And, second, here is McNamara, at the very end of Morris’s film (from the transcript):

We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: “the fog of war.”  What “the fog of war” means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.

This isn’t quite what Clausewitz meant, but in any case even at the age of 85 McNamara had lost none of his ability to manufacture his own fog: as Fred Kaplan asked at the time, ‘What’s true and what’s a lie in The Fog of War?’ In effect, McNamara turns Clausewitz on his head and uses ‘the fog of war’ as an ethical defence (or, more accurately perhaps, distraction).

I’ve been led down these pathways by my continuing preoccupation with the First World War.  I’ve noted before the metricization of the battlefield on the Western Front: the meticulous planning of what Clausewitz would have called ‘paper war’ on the abstract spaces of maps.  No matter how frequently these were updated, revised and annotated, their purchase on the course of combat was ineluctably limited once the infantry went over the top.  On the British side, telephone and telegraph lines snaked back from the front lines to an ascending series of headquarters in the rear (an appropriate location in more ways than one), but as John Keegan wrote in The Face of Battle, these lines of communication, however imperfect, had one further, disabling limitation: they stopped at the end of no man’s land.

On the Somme, he wrote,

Over the top, Western Front‘Once the troops left their trenches, as at 7.30 a.m. on July 1st, they passed beyond the carry of their signals system into the unknown. The army had provided them with some makeshifts to indicate their position: rockets, tin triangles sewn to the backs of their packs as air recognition symbols, lamps and flags, and some one-way signalling expedients, Morse shutters, semaphore flags and carrier pigeons; but none were to prove of real use on July 1st.

‘That a party could disappear so completely, not in the Antarctic wastes but at a point almost within visual range of their own lines, seems incomprehensible today, so attuned are we to thinking of wireless providing instant communication across the battlefield. But the cloud of unknowing which descended on a First World War battlefield at zero hour was accepted as one of its hazards by contemporary generals. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the width of battlefields had been extending so rapidly that no general could hope to be present, as Wellington had made himself, at each successive point of crisis; since the end of the century the range and volume of small-arms fire had been increasing to such an extent that no general could hope to survey, as Wellington had done, the line of battle from the front rank. The main work of the general, it had been accepted, had now to be done in his office, before the battle began.’

As Keegan says, there were various attempts to allow GHQ to monitor the progress of the battle. Here is one of the most fanciful, not included in his list, which involved re-imposing cartographic vision – what Edmund Blunden called in Undertones of war its ‘innocuous arrows’ and ‘matter-of-fact symbols’ – on the obdurately physical, all-too-corporeal battefield.  In Somme success: the Royal Flying Corps and the Battle of the Somme, Peter Hart reproduces this report from 2nd Liuetenant Cecil Lewis, describing a so-called ‘contact patrol’:

Aerial observation, Western Front‘We had all our contact patrol technique perfected and we went right down to 3,000 feet to see what was happening.  We had a klaxon horn on the undercarriage of the Morane – a great big 12 volt klaxon, and I had a button which I used to press out a letter to tell the infantry we wanted to know where they were.  When they heard us hawking them from above, they had little red Bengal flares, they carried them in their pockets, they would put a match to their flares.  All along the line wherever there was a chap there would be a flare, and we would note those flares down on the map and Bob’s your uncle!’

Not difficult to see why A.M. Burrage gloomily wrote in War is war that the infantry were ‘the little flags which the General sticks on the war-map to show the position of the front line’…  But, Lewis continued,

‘It was one thing to practice this but quite another for them to really do it when they were under fire, and particularly when things began to go a bit badly. Then they jolly well wouldn’t light anything and small blame to them because it drew the fire of the enemy on to them at once.’

The sensual history of destruction

I’ve been in Paris this week, first for a presentation to Michel Wieviorka‘s seminar at the École des Hautes Études on Wednesday morning and then for a different presentation to Pauline Guinard‘s seminar at the École Normale Supérieure on Wednesday evening.  I hope this explains my silence!  Lots of good questions at both, and also lively conversations about the French intervention in Mali — which made today a good day to visit the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides.

An astonishing building, but I was disappointed at the exhibitions – too many uniforms and muskets and (especially when compared to the Imperial War Museum in London, even before its current reconstruction) remarkably little on the politics and culture of war (though there were some good three-screen videos).  Given my current preoccupation with the First World War, I expected much more from what turned out to be a lifeless series of galleries; appropriate, you might think, but I left with very few impressions of how so many French soldiers managed to survive the trenches and the barrages.  It was a far cry from the new history, anthropology and archaeology of the battlefield that has done so much to recover its raw physicality, its sensuality and even its intimacy.

FEIGEL Love-charm of bombs (UK edition)So I returned to the hotel to start Lara Feigel‘s The love-charm of bombs: restless lives in the Second World War (Bloomsbury, 2013) which I picked up at Foyle’s on my way through London (and still the best bookshop in the world).  When people ask me to recommend books that convey the experience of being bombed, my selections always include the opening chapter of Randall Hansen‘s The fire and the fury: the Allied bombing of Germany 1942-1945, where he uses eyewitness accounts to conjure up ‘The day Hamburg died’ with extraordinary power and economy – there is now a rich literature on this in German and in English, most notably Keith Lowe‘s brilliant Inferno: the devastation of Hamburg 1943 – and the central chapters of Sarah Waters‘s stunning novel The Night-Watch.  But I think I may have to add Feigel to the list because The love-charm of bombs traffics in that difficult but vital space between the documentary (Hansen) and the imaginative (Waters).

I say ‘may’ only because I’ve just started.  But Part I, ‘One night in the lives of five writers, 26 September 1940’, uses the work and lives of five writers – Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilda Spiel and Henry Yorke (‘Henry Greene’) – to address, in a remarkably fresh and compelling fashion, the relation between aesthetics and violence.  Feigel does this not in a conventional philosophical fashion, but by engaging directly with the ways in which, for these (and presumably other) writers, there was something thrilling, exhilarating and even sublime about the spectacle of military violence transforming the capital during the Blitz.  This was far more visceral than voyeurism, though Feigel is very, very good on the visuals (and would surely have been even better had she included the work of artists and photographers), because these men and women were profoundly, physically involved in the Blitz as air raid wardens, ambulance drivers, and auxiliary firemen.  The title comes from Graham Greene:

‘The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakable engine (“Where are you?  Where are you?  Where are you?”), the bomb-bursts moving nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love-charm.’

FEIGEL The love-charm of bombsFeigel gives the events of that one night a peculiar intensity by beginning with what she calls a ‘newsreel’, a quick and lively summary of the Blitz, and then, as darkness falls, moving in sections from 7 p.m. (Blackout) through 10 p.m. (Fire) and 1 a.m. (Rescue) until 6 a.m., the All Clear, and the blessed arrival (for some, at least) of a new day.  It’s something of a conceit: the five writers were not dutiful scribes each at their separate desks on 26 September , so to bring them into view on this artfully re-imagined night Feigel darts back from their loosely collective present into their pasts, placing them in myriad networks of other writers and friends, inserting them into the narrative arc of the falling bombs, and freely using their writings so that they issue forth as something far more than the usual silhouettes glimpsed against the light of burning buildings.  And their involvements are profoundly sensuous: as the cover of the American edition (right) shows far better than the English edition above, and as the title intimates, even as they were unmoored from their familiar haunts and their old lives, they also sensed (and often seized) new possibilities for love as well as loss.

This is a very different ground to that crunched over by Patrick Deer in the equally brilliant Culture in camouflage: war, empire and modern British literature (still one of my favourite books about this or any other period) or Leo Mellor‘s Reading the ruins: modernism, bomb-sites and British culture (which I found remarkably austere), because its sense of culture is more sensuous, even sensual, because it addresses the erotics of surviving military violence in such an honest way, and – probably another way of saying the same two things – because it’s so close in spirit to Sarah Waters.

It’s also much closer to the way in which the humanities have recovered the Western Front.  In fact, Feigel insist that ‘these writers, firefighting, ambulance-driving, patrolling the streets,were the successors of the soldier poets of the First World War, and their story remains to be told.’  There are of course difficulties in privileging the privileged, and some of the most arresting memorials about life in the trenches were produced not by the gentlemen-officers but by the ordinary soldiers: but as Feigel shows, there are also riches to be recovered by picking their pocket-books.