The Situation(ist) Room

Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho playing Le jeu de la guerre

Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho playing Le jeu de la guerre

DEBORD Game of warA footnote to my previous discussion of war and simulation. In the 1950s French Situationist Guy Debord devised his own version of Kriegspiel, Le jeu de la guerre, supposedly inspired by Clausewitz. It took decades for a version to become widely available; the English edition, Game of war (Atlas, 2007), was translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, who also translated Lefebvre’s La production de l’espace.  Debord claimed that ‘“With reservations, we may say that this game accurately portrays all the factors at work in real war.”  Not a mistake Clausewitz would have made…

Downloadable version here.  More from Nathan Heller at the wonderful bookforum here and from Alexander Galloway at cabinet here or culture machine here.

Debord’s project was, of course, about more than war in the conventional, limited sense, as the film below makes clear (‘the board is a psycho-geographic space’; ‘the rules of the game are a lecture in class warfare’): there is an interesting contrapuntal reading to be made with Foucault’s Society must be defended

War and simulation

Antoine Bousquet has an interesting post on War and simulation over at The Disorder of Things, based on a conference “Simulation, Exercise, Operations” at Oxford last summer. Antoine’s narrative locates the origins of military simulation in the Prussian Kriegspiel of the early nineteenth century but then argues that ‘it really comes of age with the Second World War, the early calculating machines that would become the all-purpose computer,  and the efforts to rationalise the conduct of military operations, notably in the areas of aerial bombing, military convoys, radar arrays, and so on – and which quite demonstrably yielded improved performances of those systems.’

von HILGERS War GamesThis is interesting stuff, and Patrick Crogan‘s Gameplay mode: war, simulation and technoculture (Minnesota, 2011) helps bring the story up to date; if you want to start it earlier, then Philipp von HilgersWar games: a history of war on paper (MIT, 2012; the original German title was Kriegsspiele) is the (brilliant) place to start.  But since I’m still floundering around in the trenches of the First World War, I want to draw attention to the gap in Antoine’s narrative (which reappears in von Hilgers too).

During the First World War the metricisation of the battlefield – the (in)calculability of the space of war – that I spoke about earlier also allowed for simulations of imminent operations (and there are dimensions of that metricisation, including sound ranging, that speak directly to the early attempts at what would later be called operations research too: Roy MacLeod writes of a ‘batttlefield laboratory’ on the Western Front).

So, for example, in Over the top, published in 1917, Arthur Empey describes how

‘Three weeks before the Big Push of July 1st [1916] — as the Battle of the Somme has been called — started, exact duplicates of the German trenches were dug about thirty kilo[metre]s behind our lines. The layout of the trenches were taken from aeroplane photographs submitted by the Royal Flying Corps. The trenches were correct to the foot; they showed dugouts, saps, barbed wire defences, and danger spots. Battalions that were to go over in the first waves were sent back for three days to study these trenches, engage in practice attacks, and have night maneuvers. Each man was required to make a map of the trenches and familiarise himself with the names and location of the parts his battalion was to attack…

‘These imitation trenches, or trench models, were well guarded from observation by numerous allied planes which constantly circled above them. No German aeroplane could approach within observing distance. A restricted area was maintained and no civilian was allowed within three miles, so we felt sure that we had a great surprise in store for Fritz.’

Note here the cascade from aerial photographs and maps to physical models and back to maps again – and remember, as Dick Chorley and Peter Haggett taught some us an age ago in Models in Geography, these are all models…

In Empey’s case, there was a sting in the tail:

 ‘When we took over the front line we received an awful shock. The Germans displayed signboards over the top of their trench showing the names that we had called their trenches. The signs read “Fair,” “Fact,” “Fate,” and “Fancy” and so on, according to the code names on our map. Then to rub it in, they hoisted some more signs which read, “When are you coming over?” or “Come on, we are ready, stupid English.”

Trench model

This isn’t quite what Antoine has in mind, I realise, but what today would be called ‘mission rehearsal exercises’ are surely simulations.  And in many cases, on the Western Front at least, they took the form of elaborate clay models (see above).  In Undertones of war (1928), Edmund Blunden described – with a rather different sting in the tail – how

‘… an enormous model of the German systems now considered due to Britain was open for inspection, whether from the ground or from step-ladders raised beside, and this was popular, though whether from its charm as a model or value as a military aid is uncertain.’

Here’s A.M. Burrage in War is War:

‘Our brilliant Staff has got every move in the game worked out twenty-four hours ahead. Our jumping-off place is already assigned to us, and we are to advance about five hundred yards, crossing a stream called the Paddebeeke. We are shown a clay model of the landscape, including the roads which are no longer there. We practise the method of attack every morning…’

‘Stop, hey, what’s that sound?’

I’ve used this Buffalo Springfield song before

there’s something happenin’ here
what it is ain’t exactly clear
there’s a man with a gun over there…

stop, hey, what’s that sound?

– and I’ve posted about the sound of war before too, here and here.  This post is connected to both of them, but it also follows directly from my more recent post on bodies

McCARTHY CAn age ago Trevor Barnes recommended Tom McCarthy‘s novel C to me, and I’ve been re-reading it these last few days. There’s an extraordinary passage where McCarthy’s protagonist Serge, an observer with the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, is being driven to Nieppe when his truck  detours ‘to drop off some piano wire’ to a special unit in the woods north of Vitriers.

Inside the main [hut], he finds a huge square harp whose six strings are extended out beyond their wooden frame by finer wires that run through the hut’s air before breaching its boundary as well, cutting through little mouse-holes in the east-facing wall. In front of the harp, like an interrogation lamp, a powerful bulb shines straight onto it; behind it, lined up with each string, a row of prisms capture and deflect the light at right angles, through yet another hole cut in the hut’s wall, into an unlit room adjoining this one. There’s a noise coming from the adjoining room: sounds like a small propeller on a stalled plane turning from the wind’s pressure alone. “What is this place?” Serge asks. “You’re an observer, right?” the slender-fingered man says. Serge nods. “Well, you know how, when you’re doing Battery Location flights, you send down K.K. calls each time you see an enemy gun flash?” “Oh yes,” Serge answers. “I’ve always wondered why we have to do that …” “Wonder no more,” the man says with an elfin smile. “The receiving operator presses a relay button each time he gets one of those; this starts the camera in the next room rolling; and the camera captures the sound of the battery whose flash you’ve just K.K.’d to us. You with me?” “No,” Serge answers. “How can it do that?” “Each gun-boom, when it’s picked up by a mike, sends a current down the wires you just pissed on,” the man continues, “and the current makes the piano wire inside this room heat up and give a little kick, which gets diffracted through the prisms into the next room, and straight into the camera.” “So you’re filming sound?” Serge asks. “You could say that, I suppose,” the man concurs.

Sound ranging traces

Still puzzled, he follows the man into another hut:

The interior’s suffused with red light. At a trough propped up against the far wall, a man with rolled-up sleeves is dunking yards of film into developing liquid, then feeding it on from there into a fixing tank. As the film’s end emerges from this tank in turn, he holds it up, inspects it and tears off sections, clipping these with clothes pegs to a short stretch of washing line, from where they drip onto the discarded strips on the room’s floor below them. “Yuk,” Serge whispers beneath his breath. “What?” the slender-fingered man asks. “Nothing,” he replies. “Look here,” Serge’s guide says, unclipping a strip of the developed film and pointing at dark lines that run, lengthways and continuous, along its surface. The lines—six of them—are for the most part flat; occasionally, though, they erupt suddenly, and rise and fall in jagged waves, like some strange Persian script, for half an inch, before settling down and running flat again. On the film’s bottom edge, beside the punch-holes, a time-code is marked, one inch or so for every second. The jagged eruptions appear at different points along each line: staggered, each wave the same shape as the one on the line below it, but occurring a quarter of an inch (or three-tenths of a second) later. “So,” Serge’s elfin guide continues, “these kicks are made by the sound hitting each mike; and they get laid out on the film at intervals that correspond to each mike’s distance from the sound. You see them?” “Yes,” Serge answers. “But I still don’t—” “These ones ready to take through?” the guide asks the developer. The other man nods; with his piano-player’s fingers, the guide unclips the other drip-dried strips, then leads Serge out to yet another hut. This one’s wall has a large-scale map taped to it; stuck in the map in a neat semi-circle are six pins. Two men are going through a pile of torn-off, line-streaked film-strips, measuring the gaps between the kicks with lengths of string; then, moving the string over to the map slowly, careful to preserve the intervals, they transfer the latter onto its surface by fixing one end of the string to the pin and holding a pencil to the other, swinging it from side to side to mark a broad arc on the map. “Each pin’s a microphone,” the slender-fingered man explains. “Where the arcs intersect, the gun site must be.” “So the strings are time, or space?” Serge asks. “You could say either,” the man answers with a smile. “The film-strip knows no difference. The mathematical answer to your question, though, is that the strings represent the asymptote of the hyperbola on which the gun lies.”

Serge has stumbled into what Peter Liddle called ‘the Manhattan Project of the 1914-18 war’: sound ranging.  It was a technique first developed by the French and German militaries  – a German sound ranging analysis section is shown below – taken up (warily) by the British (Berton claims their  old-school gunners at first thought it radical nonsense) and refined by the Canadians. As McCarthy’s brilliant reconstruction shows, it involved using sound to locate enemy artillery batteries.

The usual configuration was to have six ‘Tucker’ microphone stations at carefully surveyed intervals along an arc 4000 yards behind the front line with two observation posts in front of them, all linked to a recording station in the rear by 40 miles of wire.  When the observers saw a gun flash or heard its boom they sent a signal that activated the oscillograph and film recorder.  In the course of 1916 the British established eight of these sound-ranging sections, each plotting battery positions on base maps supplied by ‘Maps GHQ’.  In ideal conditions (which were rare) the operation could be completed for a single battery within three minutes (using graphical rather than computational methods) and with an accuracy of 25-100 yards (for more, see J.S. Finan and W.J. Hurley, ‘McNaughton and Canadian Operational Research at Vimy’, Jnl. of the Operational Research Society 48 (1) (1997) 10-14).

Analysis section of German sound ranging troop 1917

The single best source on this – though the title sounds like Flash Gordon – is John Innes‘s Flash spotters and sound rangers: how they lived, worked and fought in the Great War (1935), but Pierre Berton‘s Vimy (1986) has some useful summary pages on the Canadian role in its development. There is also a truly excellent survey that places sound-ranging in the wider context of the ‘battlefield laboratory’ in Roy MacLeod, ‘Sight and sound on the Western Front: surveyors, scientists and the “battlefield laboratory”, 1915-1918’, War & Society 18 (1) (2000) 23-46.  For more technical discussions, Peter Chasseaud‘s Artillery’s astrologers: a history of British survey and mapping on the Wester Front 1914-1918 (1999) is a key source, but there is also an exemplary (short) explanation here, from which I’ve borrowed the simplified summary diagram below.

Sound ranging

The Germans were evidently impressed by the efficacy of the Allied system, as this directive issued by General Ludendorff shows:

According to a captured English document the English have a well- developed system of sound-ranging which in theory corresponds to our own. Precautions are accordingly to be taken to camouflage the sound: e.g. registration when the wind is contrary, and when there is considerable artillery activity, many batteries firing at the same time, simultaneous firing from false positions, etc. The English have an objective method (self-recording apparatus). It is important to capture such an apparatus. The same holds good on the French front.

Since most of the killing and destruction was the work of the artillery, these counter-battery operations were a crucial part of the ground war.  Multiple sources were used, including aerial reconnaissance, balloon observation and flash spotting as well as sound ranging, and when combined these could eventually locate enemy guns to within 5-25 yards.  This map of German artillery intelligence for Vimy in March 1917 shows something of the power and complexity of this ‘acoustic cartography’:

German artiller intelligence map Enemy batteries known with certainty to be firing and spotted 15 to 22 March 1917 Vimy

Maps showing the location of enemy batteries (‘Positions maps’ like the British one below) were issued on a regular and eventually even a daily basis.

Positions map. December 1917-January 1918

This was all part of a more general metricisation of the battlefield – hideously appropriate for the killing machine that was industrialized warfare – which you can also see in the ‘barrage maps’ that choreographed the moving curtain of artillery fire behind which troops were supposed to advance on the enemy lines.  John Keegan is very good on what he called ‘the mathematics of the barrage’ in his The Face of Battle, and from his aircraft high above No Man’s Land, Billy Bishop described it as ‘clockwork warfare’:

The waves of attacking infantry as they came out of their trenches and trudged forward behind the curtain of shells laid down by the artillery, were an amazing sight. The men seemed to wander across No Man’s Land, and into the enemy trenches, as if the battle was a great bore to them. From the air it looked as though they did not realise that they were at war and were taking it all entirely too quietly. That is the way with clock-work warfare. These troops had been drilled to move forward at a given pace. They had been timed over and over again in marching a certain distance, and from this timing the “creeping,” or rolling barrage which moved in front of them had been mathematically worked out.

BARRAGE MAP bataille-ypres-passchendaele-carte-secret

Here’s part of the barrage map for Vimy, which shows the calibration even more clearly:

Vimy barrage map 1917 (extract)

McCarthy captures this ‘clockwork’ movement perfectly when Serge looks down from his aircraft while spotting for artillery:

As the second-hand needle moves across the final quarter-segment of his watch’s face, Serge feels an almost sacred tingling, as though he himself had become godlike, elevated by machinery and signal code to a higher post within the overall structure of things, a vantage point from which the vectors and control lines linking earth and heaven, the hermetic language of the invocations, its very lettering and script, have become visible, tangible even, all concentrated at a spot just underneath the index finger of his right hand which is tapping out, right now, the sequence C3E MX12 G … Almost immediately, a white rip appears amidst the wood’s green cover on the English side. A small jet of smoke spills up into the air from this like cushion stuffing; out of it, a shell rises. It arcs above the trench-meshes and track-marked open ground, then dips and falls into the copse beneath Serge, blossoming there in vibrant red and yellow flame. A second follows it, then a third. The same is happening in the two-mile strip between Battery I and its target, and Battery M and its one, right on down the line: whole swathes of space becoming animated by the plumed trajectories of plans and orders metamorphosed into steel and cordite, speed and noise. Everything seems connected: disparate locations twitch and burst into activity like limbs reacting to impulses sent from elsewhere in the body, booms and jibs obeying levers at the far end of a complex set of ropes and cogs and relays. The salvos pause; Serge plots the points of impact on his clock-code chart, then sends adjustments back to Battery E, which fires new salvos that land slightly to the north of the first ones. 

There’s a lot more to say about this, which I plan to do in the full presentation, but what interests me at least as much is the way in which this precision (Gabriel’s ‘order and reasonableness’) – so clear and crystalline when plotted on maps or seen from the air – was confounded on the ground, not least by the shattered landscape of craters, trenches and barbed wire and by the vile agency of what Siegfried Sassoon called the ‘plastering slime’ that clawed and dragged at the soldiers’ bodies and which was erased from what Edmund Blunden called the ‘innocuous arrows’ and ‘matter-of-fact symbols’ of the maps and aerial photographs.

More particularly, I’m interested (here) in the production of an altogether more sensuous soundscape, part of the corpography that danced such a deadly gavotte with cartography that I sketched out in my previous post.  In Touch and intimacy Santanu Das argues that

‘The mechanised nature of the First World War severed the link between sight, space and danger, a connection that had traditionally been used to structure perception in wartime.  This disjunction resulted in an exaggerated investment in sound.’

The memoirs, letters and diaries from the Western Front confirm that the hideous noise of battle worked its way inside the very body of the soldier.  I’ve got pages of examples, but here is just one, Edward Lynch in Somme Mud (and, for that matter, in Somme mud):

‘The shells are missing us by a matter of yards.  Noise is everywhere.  We lie on the shuddering ground, rocking to the vibrations, under a shower of solid noise we feel we could reach out and touch.  The shells come, burst and are gone, but that invisible noise keeps on – now near, now far, now near, now far again.  Flat, unceasing noise.’

I’ve emphasised the passage that simply resonates with what I described previously as a haptic geography.  And so, not surprisingly, the same sources also show that, just as the landscape was inhabited, so too was knowledge of it; that knowing those deadly sounds – ‘knowing the score’, I suppose – was a vital part of staying alive.  Here is an extended passage from A.M. Burrage‘s War is war:

We are becoming acclimatised to trench warfare. We know by the singing of a shell when it is going to drop near us, when it is politic to duck and when one may treat the sound with contempt. We are becoming soldiers. We know the calibres of the shells which are sent over in search of us. The brute that explodes with a crash like that of much crockery being broken, and afterwards makes a “cheering” noise like the distant echoes of a football match, is a five-point-nine. The very sudden brute that you don’t hear until it has passed you, and rushes with the hiss of escaping steam, is a whizz-bang. For a perfect imitation of a whizz-bang, sit by the open window of a railway compartment and wait until an express train passes you at sixty miles an hour. The funny little chap who goes tonk-phew-bong is a little high-velocity shell which doesn’t do much harm. “Minnies” and “flying pigs” which are visible by day and night come sailing over like fat aunts turning slow somersaults in mid-air. Wherever one may be, and wherever they may be going to drop, they always look as if they are going to fall straight on top of one. They are visible at night because they have luminous tails, like comets. The thing which, without warning, suddenly utters a hissing sneeze behind us is one of our own trench-mortars. The dull bump which follows, and comes from the middle distance out in front, tells us that the ammunition is “dud.” The German shell which arrives with the sound of a woman with a hare-lip trying to whistle, and makes very little sound when it bursts, almost certainly contains gas.

 We know when to ignore machine-gun and rifle bullets and when to take an interest in them. A steady phew-phew-phew means that they are not dangerously near. When on the other hand we get a sensation of whips being slashed in our ears we know that it is time to seek the embrace of Mother Earth.

The end of the war was apprehended in both registers, and this frontispiece from Benedict Crowell’s Demobilization (1920) shows how an American sound-ranging station captured the moment the guns fell silent:

The end of the war: 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918

‘Stop, hey, what’s that sound?’

Torture, violence and human rights

LISA HAJJAR TortureJadaliyya has an interview with Lisa Hajjar about her new book, Torture: a sociology of violence and human rights, plus an extract from the book.  As she says herself,

Torture is my great and terrible obsession. I think, read, write, and talk about torture all the time, as anyone who knows me can attest. I was inspired to write this book in order to share my knowledge, my passion, and—to be blunt—my anger about torture with college students, although hopefully people who are not students also will find it interesting. This book, like others in the Routledge series, Framing Twenty-First Century Social Issues, is geared primarily to college classroom teaching; it costs less than ten dollars, is about sixty pages long, has discussion questions at the end of each chapter, and a glossary of key terms and concepts at the back.

Of course everyone who writes books hopes lots of people will read them. But my inspiration for writing this book is partly instrumental: I hope that many students will be assigned Torture in a class, and that reading it will inspire them to contribute to changing the national conversation about torture. The national conversation in the US continues to be dominated by those who propagate falsehoods, like the ludicrous assertion that torture produces “good intelligence,” or that waterboarding is not “torture” if Americans do it, or that some people have no right not to be tortured. I wrote this book in order to arm students with information and analysis so that they might be intellectually empowered to be boldly, aggressively, and unapologetically anti-torture. This book is a cri de couer to the next generation of leaders and voters.

You can also access one of Lisa’s early essays here.

Posted in law

‘Imagination bodies forth…’

Following from my previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies recently, and for two reasons.

DUDZIAK War-timeThe first is the workshop on War & Medicine I attended in Paris just before Christmas.  It became very clear early on how difficult it is to determine when military violence comes to an end; Mary Dudziak has recently written about this in her War time: an idea, its history, its consequences (Oxford, 2012), largely from a legal point of view (and not without criticism), but it’s worth emphasising that the effects of violence continue long after any formal end to combat.  This ought to be obvious, but it’s astonishing how often it’s ignored or glossed over.

Think, for example, of the continuing toll of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, recovered in detail by Catherine Lutz (who was part of the workshop) and her colleagues at the Costs of War project, which shows how ‘the human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades’.

NIXON Slow violenceOr think of  the toxic environments produced by ecological warfare, by the use of depleted uranium in munitions, and by the continued deployment of land mines and cluster bombs – what Rob Nixon brilliantly calls the ‘slow violence’ produced by ‘ecologies of the aftermath’ (more on this in a later post):

 ‘In our age of depleted-uranium warfare, we have an ethical obligation to challenge the military body counts that consistently underestimate (in advance and in retrospect) the true toll of waging high-tech wars.  Who is counting the staggered deaths that civilians and soldiers suffer from depleted uranium ingested or blown across the desert?  Who is counting the belated fatalities from unexploded cluster bombs that lie in wait for months of years, metastasizing into landmines?  Who is counting deaths from chemical residues left behind by so-called pinpoint bombing, residues that turn into foreign insurgents, infiltrating native rivers and poisoning the food chains?  Who is counting the victims of genetic deterioration – the stillborn, malformed infants conceived by parents whose DNA has been scrambled by war’s toxins?’

(If you think we are winning the war on land-mines, especially in you are in Canada, read this).

These two contributions – and the conversations we had in Paris – rapidly displaced the lazy assumption of a politics of care in which the left mourns civilian casualties and the right military casualties. That there is a politics of care is clear enough, but there’s also a political geography: that’s written in to the biopolitical projects that are contained within so many late modern wars, and in Paris Omar Dewachi and Ghassan Abu-Sitta described how ‘care’ has become a means of controlling populations in wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria – a rather different sense of ‘surgical warfare’ from the one we’re used to – with states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar also funding the transfer of thousands of injured people from the war zones for treatment in hospitals in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

And two brilliant medical anthropologists, Ken Macleish and Zoe Wool, brought with them vivid, carefully wrought ethnographies of injured soldiers’ bodies.  The American soldier may appear a figure of unprecedented invulnerabilty and astonishing violence – what Ken calls a figure of ‘technological magic’ produced by a ‘phantasmagoric technological empowerment of the body’ – but, as he and Zoe reminded us, soldiers are not only ‘the agents and instruments of sovereign violence’ but also its objects.  Their studies took me to places I’ve never been and rarely thought about, but I’ve been thinking about two other dimensions of their work that combined to produce my second reason for thinking about bodies.

One is the historicity that is embedded in this process.  Ken paraphrased Walter Benjamin‘s observation in the wake of the First World War – ‘the technological progress evident in modern warfare does not ensure the protection of the human body so much as it subjects it to previously unimaginable forms of harm and exposure’ – and linked it to John Keegan‘s claim in The face of battle that the military history of the twentieth-century was distinguished by the rise of ‘”thing-killing’ as opposed to man-killing weapons’ (the example he had in mind was heavy artillery).  The other is the corporeality of the combat zone.  Ken again:  ‘You need not only knowledge of what the weapons and armor can do for you and to you but a kind of bodily habitus as well – an ability to take in the sensory indications of danger and act on them without having to think too hard about it first.’  In an essay ‘On movement’ forthcoming in Ethnos, Zoe develops this insight through an artful distinction between carnality and corporeality (which may require me to revise my vocabulary):

‘The analytics of movement is a turning toward emergent carnality, flesh, and the way it is seen and felt; proprioception and those other senses of sight, sound, touch, and taste through which a body and a space enact a meaningful, sensible articulation; visceral experiences forged and diagnosed through the trauma of war which also exceed its limits.’ 

an-ice-cream-warAnd so to my second reason for thinking about bodies. Later this month I’m giving a lecture in the University of Kentucky’s annual Social Theory series.  The theme this year is Mapping, and my title is ‘Gabriel’s Map‘.  This is a riff on a phase from William Boyd‘s novel, An Ice-Cream War, that has haunted me ever since I first read it:

‘Gabriel thought maps should be banned.  They gave the world an order and reasonableness it didn’t possess.’

The occasion for the remark is a spectacularly unsuccessful British attempt to defeat a much smaller German force in November 1914 at Tanga in German East Africa; the young subaltern, Gabriel, rapidly discovers that there is a world of difference between what Clausewitz once called ‘paper war’ – a plan of attack plotted on the neat, stable lines of a map – and ‘real war’.   What I plan (sic) to do is arc back from this exceptionally brutal campaign – which lasted two weeks longer than the war in Europe – to the western front.  The two were strikingly different: the war in Africa was a war of movement and manoeuvre fought with the most meagre of military intelligence, whereas the central years of the war in Europe were distinguished by stasis and attrition and involved an extraordinary effort to maintain near real-time mapping of the disposition of forces.

The point here is to explore a dialectic between cartography and what I think I’m going to call corpography.

FINNEGAN Shooting The FrontThe first of these has involved working out the intimate relationship between mapping and aerial reconnaissance (what the Royal Flying Corps called ‘shooting the front’).  There is a marvellously rich story to be told here which, among other things, shows that the stasis of trench warfare was Janus-faced: it was produced by a myriad of micro-movements – advances and withdrawals, raids and repulses – whose effectiveness depended not on the fixity of the map at all but on its more or less constant updating (which in turn means that this capacity isn’t the unique preserve of twenty-first century ‘digital navigation’).  So here I’ll show how a casaced of millions of trench maps and aerial photographs was produced, distributed and then incorporated into the field of action through copies, re-drawings, sketches and annotations by front-line soldiers.  I have wonderful, telling examples, like this one (look carefully at the annotations):

Trench map annotated

Santanu DAS: Touch an dintimacy in First World War literatureBut I also want to show (as the map above implies: all those “full of dead” annotations) how, for these men, the battlefield was also literally a field: a vile, violent medium to be known not only (or even primarily) through sight but through touch, smell and sound: what Santanu Das memorably calls a ‘slimescape’ which was also a soundscape.  This was a close-in terrain that was known through the physicality of the body as a sensuous, haptic geography:

‘Amidst the dark, muddy, subterranean world of the trenches, the soldiers navigated space … not through the safe distance of the gaze but rather through the clumsy immediacy of their bodies: “crawl” is a recurring verb in trench narratives, showing the shift from the visual to the tactile.’

This was a ‘mapping’ of sorts – as Becca Weir suggests in  ‘“Degrees in nothingness”: battlefield topography in the First World War’, Critical Quarterly 49 (4) (2007) 40-55 – and there is a dialectic between cartography and corpography.

I’ve been working my way through a series of diaries, memoirs and letters to flesh out its performance in detail, but the most vivid illustration of the entanglements of cartography and corpography that I’ve found – and that I suspect I shall ever find – is this extract from a ‘body density map’ for part of the Somme.  This shows the standard trench map above a contemporary satellite photograph; each carefully ruled square is overprinted with the number of dead soldiers found buried in the first sweep after the war (between March and April 1919)…

Body Density Map, High Wood, Somme image by shipscompass on flickr

I won’t say more at present because I need to keep my powder dry for Kentucky, but I hope it will be clear by the end that, even though I’ll be  talking about the First World War, I will also have been talking about the wars conducted in the shadows of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Butler and Bodies on the Street

Judith Butler‘s Wall Exchange ‘Bodies on the street’, delivered at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver last year, has now been posted on YouTube:

And a Q&A the following day with UBC faculty at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies is here:

You can access the text of an early version of the lecture here and here.

The Lincoln Brigade

FRED KAPLAN The insurgentsIn a previous post on what I called ‘the martial Arts‘ I commented on the teaching of humanities at the US Military Academy at West Point.  Now NBC has posted an extract from Slate columnist Fred Kaplan‘s new book, The insurgents: David Petraeus and the plot to change the American way of war (Simon & Schuster, 2013) that speaks directly to the role of the Department of Social Sciences (“Sosh”) in the reformulation of US counterinsurgency doctrine.

I’ve grown weary – and sceptical – of the constant placing of David Petraeus front and centre in these discussions, since I think that much of the effort was de-centred, emerging through pragmatic experiments by different commanders on the ground at different places in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq, but Kaplan provides an interesting gloss on the history of the social sciences at West Point – and in particular the attempt to produce ‘a sense of separate space for critical inquiry’ – and the reach of its interpersonal network of alumni who called themselves ‘the Lincoln Brigade’.

SOSHThe social sciences program at West Point owed its power to General George ‘Abe’ Lincoln – who, astonishingly, insisted on a demotion to Colonel in order to take up a position at West Point – who, in the wake of the Second World War, envisaged a new kind of staff officer, one ‘with three heads’: one military, one political and one economic.  (The current course catalog is here: it emphasises American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations and Economics).

Over the years, a network of Lincoln’s acolytes—and the acolytes of those acolytes—emerged and expanded. They called themselves the “Lincoln Brigade” (an inside joke on their left-wing stereotype, referring to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the group of American leftists who, in the 1930s, had gone off to fight against fascists in the Spanish Civil War). Over the years, when these alumni-officers were appointed to high-level positions, they’d usually phone Colonel Lincoln—or, later on, his successors as department chairmen—and ask for the new crop of top Sosh cadets, or the most promising junior faculty members, to come work as their assistants.

I can imagine that Petraeus on the cover – or between the covers – is a strong selling-point (the revelation of Petraeus’s affair pushed up the book’s publication from February), but Kaplan has used e-mails, documents and interviews to bring into sharper focus the role of men like John Nagl, H.R. McMaster and Peter Chiarelli in reformulating ‘the American way of war’.

Janet Maslin‘s New York Times review here, and Eliot Spitzer’s interview with Kaplan here (where he emphasises Petraeus’s skill at building a myth about himself….).

Danger on the shore

Project Seal DNIAmong other things, I’m still collecting materials about the militarisation of nature (I’m not going to put it in scare-quotes, though it scares me — but we all know that Raymond Williams considered ‘nature’ to be perhaps the most complex word in the English language).  So I was interested to read about a secret US-New Zealand programme to develop a ‘tsunami bomb’ to be used against Japan during the Second World War (the official report talks of ‘an investigation into the potentialities of offensive inundation by waves generated by means of explosives’).

Under the codename Project Seal, the New Zealand Army, working in close cooperation with the Air Force, Navy and the US Navy, set off a series of underwater explosions that triggered tidal waves along the coast of New Caledonia and then the Whangaparaoa Peninsula near Auckland in New Zealand between June 1944 and January 1945.  Some 3,700 bombs (mainly TNT) were detonated during the experiments, and preliminary experimental results suggested that  a cascade of 10 large blasts (two thousand tons in total, 5 miles from the shore) would be sufficient to generate a 30–40 foot tsunami capable of inundating a small coastal city.

Project Seal experiments

Project SealThe project was directed by Professor Thomas Leech, Dean of Engineering at Auckland University, who was seconded to the military for the purpose of developing the bomb.  The final report was released in 1950, and the New Zealand Herald reported that its author’s work was considered sufficiently important for plans to be made for Leech to be sent to observe the US nuclear tests off Bikini Atoll in 1946 and to make direct comparisons between the two (the project was seen by some as a potential rival to the atomic bomb).

The report was declassified in 1999 and reported in New Zealand, but it was picked up by conspiracy theorists in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and the Japanese tsunami following the earthquake in 2011 (‘It is unprecedented in recorded history for two major tidal waves to occur less than seven years apart’; more here) and by news media in Britain and the US at the beginning of this year.  More here.

UPDATE: The United States continued to experiment with the possibilities of ‘explosion-generated waves’ in the 1960s, and the Office of Naval Research – which was busily sponsoring all sorts of research projects in spatial science at the same time – cooperated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which initiated the compilation of this handbook-review and its presentation of a ‘procedure for wave predictions based upon the state-of-the-art in the field of explosion-generated waves’.  The review included experimental reports from high-explosive blasts at Mono Lake, field observations in Hawaii and elaborate mathematical modelling.

Interestingly, though, the language of the report – on those occasions when it turns to ‘operational considerations’ – is ostensibly defensive not offensive:

… any prediction method must consider each critical area of the coastline independently, and calculate enough different situations so as to be sure to bracket all critical conditions, before general statements can be made about susceptibility to wave attack from large explosions. Aside from the direct effects of run-up on the shore, large explosions can, under appropriate circumstances, produce very large waves in deep water, which may break upon the continental shelf many miles from shore. Since the wave spectrum for large explosions is peaked at wave periods substantially longer than the longest prevailing swell or surf, the net result is the creation of a breaker zone covering a very large area, and which can persist for several hours. Such waves could pose unusual and potentially severe problems to coastal navigation, not only through direct dynamic effects, but also because of cumulative effects such as inducement of resonant harbor oscillations and the scouring or deposition of sediment in regions ordinarily immune to normal storm conditions.’

Of course, the scenario can be reversed: if the US coast were potentially vulnerable to these effects (the threat of nuclear attack is the ever-present horizon of the report), so too were enemy coasts.  Unlike the earlier experiments, however, the danger now was less that of widespread coastal inundation and more of disruption to naval operations in the vicinity of the blast:

‘The first problem systematically attacked was that of coastal damage due to large explosion-generated waves, since, by analogy with the well-known phenomena of tsunami waves generated by earthquakes, it was initially hypothesized that the explosion of large atomic weapons at sea could result in considerable coastal damage by wave run-up and/or flooding. Later, as theoretical and experimental studies revealed the relatively inefficient wave making potential of large explosions, and that in many cases most wave energy is dissipated by breaking on the continental shelf before reaching shore, concern over run-up per se was replaced by the realization that other more serious wave problems exist. Accordingly, recent emphasis has been directed towards assessing the nature of the breaking wave regime offshore and its implications on the vulnerability of ships and undersea structures to breaking waves in relatively deep water (100 feet). These studies, in turn, have indicated more refined secondary problems. These include harbor oscillations induced by cumulative wave action offshore, and anomalous wave-induced clogging or erosion of harbor entrance channels by sediment transport.’

I suppose this may account for the interest in Hawaii, in which case Japan re-enters the scenario in spectral form, through the prospect of another Pearl Harbor…

The Freestone Drone

Visual and media artists continue to dazzle with their interventions on the drone wars.  Pierre d’Alancaisez of waterside contemporary in London has written with news of a forthcoming video installation by George Barber, a pioneer of the Scratch Video movement of the 1980s, called The Freestone Drone, which will be at the gallery from 2 February through 23 March 2013.

Freestone Drone - main image hires

In an installation conceived specially for the gallery and consisting of three video projections, an array of domestic objects and numerous washing lines, George Barber’s The Freestone Drone follows a mission from the point of view of the machine. The drone’s camera surveys cityscapes, encounters individuals, reports, and in flight becomes aware of its own utility and destiny. Drone operators routinely study the washing to learn about their targets – it is foretold that the Freestone Drone is to die entangled in a clothes line.

The video combines found and made footage to produce an uneasy, seductive montage, anchored on the drone’s private thoughts. Barber brings together war, love, life, death, and sends the drone over not only Waziristan, but also to New York and a London suburb. The drone then travels through time, projecting images of the past and possible futures. 

While narrative unravelled on screen resists easy categorisation, the artist draws the viewer to empathise with the antagonist. Engendered with human consciousness and independence, the drone is a poet who disobeys orders and does his own thing, a child within a machine.

In the legacy of Godard and Marker, The Freestone Drone proposes the meeting place of poetry and philosophy as a site to consider contemporary ethical and political concerns. Ultimately, Barber’s work underlines the fact that technologies, and in particular modes of warfare, are symptomatic of the way we understand ourselves at our moment in history. Much now done in our name is at odds with democratic tradition: hidden, inhuman and robotic.

The child-like anthropomorphism of the drone is chillingly effective, and made me think again about the conceit I used to introduce a brief post at the end of last year, ‘Stalking in the air….’

Here is a preview:

The waterside gallery is at 2 Clunbury Street, London N1; it makes a point of working with – not simply showing – contemporary artists, and it’s also worked with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler whose work I noted last year.

A geography of geographical imaginations

As I finally crawl out from my festive bunker, WordPress has provided a summary of activity on the blog for 2012.  This is where you came from:

Geography of 2012

The top posts in 2012 were these:

1  Visualizations and digital displays: 10 Rules

2 Geography strikes back!

Gaza stripped: the deconstruction of the battlefield?

Episodes in the history of bombing

The politics of seeing and the New Aestheti5

6 The politics of drone wars

Is Paris Burning?

Cologne and the geometry of destruction

Predatory eyes

10 The Code breakers

11 Remote witnessing

12 Popeye the weatherman

13 Targeted killings and signature strikes

14 Administrative geographies and killing fields

15 Bomb Sight

Thanks for your visits and comments.  There’s a lot more to come for 2013.