A picture that is worth a million words

Israeli soldier posts disturbing Instagram photo of child in crosshairs of his rifle

Or perhaps four million (roughly the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories).  I’ve posted about the use of Instagram by the IDF and IDF soldiers before, but this vile image – which 20 year-old IDF sniper Mor Ostrovski claims he just “found on the Internet” – serves to bring into focus (sic) both the indiscriminate violence of the occupation, its casual, stomach-churning “because I can” arrogance, and the parallels between targeted killing from remote and near platforms.

More from the electronic intifada here.

Soldier exposures

News from Zoe Wool of a rich and ambitious series of short image-essays she has curated for Public Culture‘s Public Books (‘a curated monthly review devoted to spirited debate about books and the arts’) under the title Soldier exposures and technical publics.  Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

866f8d39-4206-47d9-b55e-33df2d2c026dIn this collaborative visual essay, edited by Zoë H. Wool, we consider an idiosyncratic assemblage of pictures of American soldiers. These are not iconic images that “speak for themselves” but less conventional ones that suggest both the technical expertise involved in producing and managing war’s violence and the vulnerability of soldiers at the heart of war. In considering these images as technical, we highlight the many forms of war’s material and technical expertise, expertise that is often disarticulated from the social, political, and ethical fields on which war equally relies.

The images range from grainy World War I–era photographs, recovered from cluttered archives, to digitally generated contemporary images that depict the results of war’s embrace of high technology. Their material qualities reflect something of their intended publics: the curled edges of a Vietnam War snapshot tucked away inside a shoebox (Jauregui); the high resolution of an advertisement that speaks to contemporary soldiers’ special knowledge of explosive force and special role as savvy gear consumers (MacLeish); the directed gaze of soldiers whose bodies bear the weight of innovations in prosthetics and weapons systems, both of which technologically extend the body (Serlin, Lawrie, Kaplan); and the precise composition of images used to display soldiers’ special prowess to medical or technical experts or else to cultivate such technical readings in a broader public (Linker, Masco, Wool).

In presenting these images, we take seriously Walter Benjamin’s warning that photographs unmoored from the historical arrangements of life that produce them are politically hazardous capitulations to fashion, “arty journalism” that “cannot grasp a single one of the human connexions in which [they] exist.” And so we inscribe each image with a caption, anchoring it in a world of human connections and gendered and racialized bodies. These captions rearticulate the relationship between technical expertise and ethics, reconnecting the matériel and personnel of war with the social and political worlds they entail.

These captions describe a material history of soldiers’ bodies whose themes recur across time. The unromantic vulnerability of the soldier on which war making depends (Jauregui, MacLeish, Masco); the technological and prosthetic interventions to which soldiers are subject and from which soldierly life itself is inseparable (Lawrie, Masco, MacLeish, Serlin, Wool); the forms of display involved in making soldiers into certain kinds of biopolitical subjects (Lawrie, Linker, Serlin, Wool); the way war remaps geographic and affective terrain (Kaplan, Masco); and the intimate relationship between place and feeling that war also exposes, binding homelands and homefronts to death zones while producing spaces of homosocial or national intimacy (Jauregui, Linker, Masco).

As we address these un-iconic soldier images to the politics of displaying vulnerable bodies, or rendering them resilient, we also incur collateral effects. In maintaining our focus on images of American soldiers, for instance, we contribute to the ignorance of other kinds of war-bound bodies and lives, from civilians to foreign belligerents to kinds of American soldiers—notably women—who are not pictured here. By displaying medical images of men whose names and lives we do not know, we contribute to the disabling history of what poet Eli Clare has called “gawking, gaping, and staring.” We are not innocent of these consequences. In pointing them out we show only how inseparable they are from many ongoing conversations about aesthetics, ethics, and the American warscape.

By focusing on some of the nooks and crannies of the American warscape, rarified spaces of technical expertise, we hope to incite new and shared modes of reading and recognizing martial imagery and new approaches to thinking about how pictures of soldiers are made and made meaningful in some ways and not others at specific material, social, and ethical conjunctures.

The portfolio includes these images and brief commentaries:

— David Serlin: How to Be Yourself in Public

— Zoë H. Wool: This Is a Picture of an Injured Soldier

— Joseph Masco: Atomic Soldiers
— Caren Kaplan: Drone Sight
— Kenneth MacLeish: In the Blink of an Eye

There are also many other sparkling contributions on the Public Book site

Hide and Seek – and Show

Ever since I heard Isla Forsyth give one of her marvellous presentations on camouflage I’ve been fascinated by the subject – all the more so since it intersects so artfully (and, as Isla would quite rightly insist, scientifically) with my work on aerial reconnaissance, bombing and modern war.  You can get an early sense of Isla’s work from this presentation, ‘Shadow chasers: exploring the vertical and angular geometries of camouflage‘, which includes a gallery of images.  Isla’s Glasgow PhD thesis, From Dazzle to the Desert: A Cultural-Historical Geography of Camouflage, was completed last year – and I hope will appear in book form.


There’s a great blog on camouflage – Camoupedia – which includes an appreciative notice of Isla’s work and, amongst a feast of deceptive riches, a stunning series of posters by graphic design students to advertise a talk by Claudia Covert (that really is her splendid name) on dazzle ship camouflage in World War I, a post about the newspaper of the American Camouflage Corps in 1917 (above), and a remarkable extract from a letter from Reginald Farrer later published as The Void of War: letters from three fronts (1918):

FARRER Void of WarThe real thing about the human side of the war is the sheer fun of it. In certain aspects the war is nothing but a glorious, gigantic game of hide and seek—camouflage is nothing else. It is not only the art of making things invisible, but also of making them look like something else. Even the art of inconspicuousness is subtle and exciting. What glory it must be to splash your tents and lorries all over with wild waggles of orange and emerald and ochre and umber, in a drunken chaos, until you have produced a perfect futurist masterpiece which one would think would pierce the very vaults of heaven with its yells..

But disguise is an even higher branch of the art: you go on to make everything look like something else. Hermit crabs and caddis worms become our masters. Down from the sky peers the microscopic midget of a Boche plane: he sees a tree—but it may be a gun: he sees a gun—but it may be only a tree. And so the game of hide and seek goes on, in a steady acceleration of ingenuity on both sides, till at last the only logical outcome will be to have no camouflage at all. You will simply put out your big guns fair and square in the open, because nobody will ever believe, by that time,  that anything really is what it looks like. As far as the guns go, the war is developing into a colossal fancy dress ball, with immunity for the prize: wolves in sheep’s clothing are nothing to these gentle shepherdesses of the countryside. The more important they are, the more meekly do they shrink from notice under dominos of boughs or sods, or strawberry-netting tagged over with fluffets of green and brown rags. And sometimes they lurk under some undiscoverable knoll in a coppice, and do their barking through a little hole from which you would only expect rabbits, not shells..

And, of course, this fun sense of his [the individual] has full play in this new warfare. It is all “I spy,” on terms of life and death: the other fellow must not spy, or you hear of it instantly, through your skull. Think how it must sharpen up the civilization-sodden intelligence of a man, to have to depend for dear life on noticing every movement in a bush and every opening in a bank. Now we are getting back with one hand what we had lost by giving up the other to machinery. We are growing to make the best of both worlds, the mechanical and the human, without giving up our mental balance by relying exclusively on either. I only wish I could give you an idea of the devices and ingenuities that these grown-up hide-and-seekers have elaborated. All sorts of ludicrously simple things, the more ludicrously simple the better

Every blank-faced trench rampart of sandbags has its hidden eyes—eyes perfectly wide awake all the time, and winking at you wickedly with a rifle. But for your life you could not spot them, until you had had weeks of training, and learned the real meaning of every tiny unevenness or discoloration or bit of darkness. And even then you have to learn to guess which of these is harmless—so as to blind the others with your own fire. Or there is an innocent, untidy, earthy bank, a dump of old boots and tins and bottles and teapots without spouts. But any one of those forlorn oddments may also be the eyelid of a rifle. Only you do not know which—until you have found out! In the beginning of the war you did not find out. Everything was neat and tidy and civilized and well arranged: so you merely got killed.

I’ve quoted this at length because it seems such a radically different view of the new geometries of the First World War to that taken (as I noted here) by Charles Nevinson in his early paintings of the Western Front – at least in its celebratory temper.  And yet, in its acknowledgement of the entanglements of the machine and the human, it’s also subversively the same.  (Not surprisingly, both Isla and the author of the blog – Roy Behrens, who also wrote the book Camoupedia (2009) – pay close attention to camouflage artists, and there’s also a brief blog post on Camouflage as Futurism that notes Nevinson’s work).

All of this is on my mind today for two reasons.  The first is that Farrer’s letter was published in part under the title ‘Hide and Seek‘, which is also the title of a brilliant book on camouflage I’ve belatedly discovered (perhaps that’s appropriate): Hanna Rose ShellHide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography and the Media of Reconnaissance, published by the ever -inventive Zone Books in March last year.  The more books I buy from Zone, the more I realise that this is a wonderful platform for books that depend on images – not surprising since they are edited by Jonathan Crary,Michel Feher, Hal Foster and Ramona Nadaff.

SHELL Hide and seek

You can get a sense of Hanna’s (early) work from this essay, ‘The crucial moment of deception’, in Cabinet.  There’s also an excellent article on her work in the Paris Review here , another at rhizome here, and a short interview with Hanna here:

The main focus of my book is on the period between the late 19th century and World War II, but I also show how photographic camouflage is present in military research today. What I call an enduring “chameleonic impulse” continues to motivate military R&D of wearable camouflage technologies. There is also an ongoing quest to develop “invisible cloaks” to serve simultaneously as skins and … screens onto which one’s visual environment might be projected.

Many times, people’s first association with camouflage is with the natural world — it’s often the story of the evolution of the “peppered moth” that schoolchildren learn in biology class. But it’s only when humans had to hide from the camera and other optical devices that animal protective concealment began to fascinate people … and then became a model for the development of new human technologies.

Camouflage Project

There’s a second reason.  I’m presently developing a performance work, provisionally called “The social life of bombs“, where I want (among other things) to integrate the performing and visual arts into the research process (as part of my Killing Space project).  My inspiration is in part Gerry Pratt’s Nanay, but more proximately Boca del Lupo‘s Photog, based on the experiences of four combat photographers and using cutting-edge visual technologies to mesmerising effect (I’m going to talk with them next month), and in part Ohio State University’s  The Camouflage Project (above).  The project involved OSU’s Department of Theater and the Mershon Center for International Security Studies:

The camouflage project/2The goal of The Camouflage Project is to create, organize and execute a three-part interdisciplinary endeavor linked to the theme of secret agents, camouflage, deception and disguise in World War II, specifically the F section (France) of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The three parts are as follows:

Performance: To devise a new performance work as a collaboration between Ohio State University Theatre and the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD). This will be a multi-media work combining digital animations and video projections with experimental use of 3D printing, 3D scanning and projection mapping.

Exhibition: To create a visual environment parallel to the performance space, which will have a second life as an installation/exhibition. The installation will feature historical background (interviews and soldier training films) on the science and art of camouflage in both World Wars organized around a visual study of selected SOE (principally female) agents and espionage circuits in France, examples of military equipment, devices, disguises, gadgets and weapons of deception.

Symposium: To organize and host an international symposium on the multiple artistic and instrumental meanings of camouflage, to be held in May 2011. The symposium will feature panels of Ohio State and international experts from military history, political science, and the Imperial War Museum addressing the subject of camouflage and the SOE.

The project offers a fresh meaning to the expression ‘theatre of war.’ On one level it theatricalizes the history of military camouflage, particularly the SOE and the role played by women agents in its espionage activity. On another it reveals the artistic dimensions of these activities: a variety of theatre artists—scenic, costume, make-up designers, and vaudeville magicians—were employed to use their theatrical skills to deceive and fool the enemy. Rather than tales of derring-do and spying, this project seeks to look at different and often hidden aspects of the war: the use and creation of camouflage, both literally and metaphorically, by people who had to work secretly behind enemy lines. The performance storyline will highlight the work of women agents, many of whose accomplishments have been concealed, erased or obscured for a variety of reasons. A narrative strategy will be to include elements of the training process involved in preparing agents for the field and the often-disastrous consequences of strategic decisions made by the SOE leadership.

This all came together in May 2011, though the performance work has subsequently been on tour; the programme for the symposium and performance is here, a review of the 90-minute performance here.  My subject is different, of course, but I’m really taken by the tripartite structure of the project and its collaborative nature.  Perhaps I have nothing to say, only to show…

The Anthropocene Project

hkw_nachtThe dazzling Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (left) has posted a series of videos from its January 2013 series, The Anthropocene Project, here.  The list includes a series of dialogues/conversations (including Michael Taussig) and four keynotes:

Will Steffen, The Anthropocene: where are we going?

As one of the major proponents of the Anthropocene hypothesis, Will Steffen explores in his talk the origins of and scientific basis for the Anthropocene. From humanity’s hunter-gatherer beginnings to the previous century’s post-war global acceleration of populations, technologies, and consumption habits, the main question this lecture addresses is: where is all of this leading? Is the Great Acceleration the “new normal,” or will the earth system force the Anthropocenic era into a different direction? Steffen proposes an evaluation of the planetary future’s possibilities, asking: are we on the road to global sustainability or are we poised for global collapse? 

Dipesh Chakrabarty, History on an expanded canvas: the Anthropocene’s invitation

If climate scientists have become social historians, how can one translate their findings and construct an aggregate, common narrative that is not only legible to both localized sociologies and planetary geophysics, but effectively integrates both these positions? Post-colonial theorist and historian Dipesh Chakrabarty reflects on potentialities of past and future narratives within the Anthropocene. What kinds of empowerment and disempowerment do these collaborative and multifaceted storytellings imply for the Anthropocene? Chakrabarty engages with the proposed necessity of associating the histories of the earth and that of humans in order to effectively open up intellectual pathways towards the dissolution of modernity’s misunderstandings concerning human agency and capitalistic freedom. 

Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: a requiem to late liberalism

Much critical theory has attempted to think life out-sideof the “human,” yet most applications of the Anthropocene have focused on how humanity might find a way to keep its way of life without loosing the “human.” Is the Anthropocene, then, a framework for humanizing or environmentalizing capitalism without losing capitalism? Departing from the premise that Western political theory is rooted in the carbon cycle, where life is seen as a metabolic ring of growth, reproduction, and degeneration, Povinelli tackles the “carbon imaginary” of biopolitics. She considers the diverse local arrangements of “life” in relation to the technological procedures of maintenance and renewal. What forms of being are privileged to lay claim to life or to preserve the earth’s being-processes? 

John Tresch, Cosmograms, or how to do things with worlds

Each culture has had means to conceptualize and address the nature and composition of the universe, frequently creating representations of the order of all that exists, also known as “cosmograms.” The concept of a cosmogram can be expanded to apply to all knowledge about “natural” and “human” worlds, as well as the interactions between them. Departing from the Anthropocene thesis’ conception of nature as a malleable entity, historian John Tresch takes a culturally and historically comparative perspective to consider instances of cosmo-pragmatics, or how cosmograms have been used to foster intervention upon the world. His talk addresses a variety of exemplary phenomena, from 19th century Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution to today’s ecological discourse and the fragility of our cosmic order. 

I hope there’s more to come, since the programme – a detailed pdf with abstracts is here – also included a performance by Taussig, a lecture from Rem Koolhaas,  and contributions from Lorraine Daston, John Law, Paolo Tavares, Eyal Weizman, Cary Wolfe and a host of others.  I very much like the idea of bringing the visual and performing arts into the discussion and transcending the conventional dull boundaries of the humanities and (especially) the ‘natural’ and ‘social’ sciences (to see something of what I mean, go here and scroll down to the image of John Law and Xavier Le Roy…)


Illustration: (c) Benedikt Rugar 2012

“The Anthropocene Project” is an initiative of Haus der Kulturen der Welt in cooperation with the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Deutsches Museum, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam.  It’s a two-year project advertised thus:

Our notion of nature is now out of date. Humanity forms nature. This is the core premise of the Anthropocene thesis, announcing a paradigm shift in the natural sciences as well as providing new models for culture, politics, and everyday life. In a two-year project, HKW will explore the hypothesis’ manifold implications for the sciences and arts.  The “Anthropocene” is the new geological “age of mankind” as proposed by the Earth sciences. Popularized by Nobel Prize winner Paul J. Crutzen around the turn of the millenium, the term now stands for one of the most trailblazing scientific concepts of the present. The transdisciplinary Anthropocene Project explores this concept, using research and presentation methods from the arts and sciences. If the opposition between humanity and nature is now suspended, how do we change our perspectives and perception? Is it still possible to think in concepts like “artificial” and “natural?”  What does it mean for our anthropocentric understanding and our future if nature is man-made? What impact does the notion of global changes has on political decision-making? Which image of humanity appears if nature is shaped by mankind?

Good questions, though – since I’m still in thrall to Nigel Clark‘s Inhuman nature – I’m not so sure about the anthropocentric weight in this paragraph and, perhaps, more generally; it’s Nigel’s work that, in part, drives my interest in ‘nature’ as a medium through which (rather than merely ‘over which’) war is conducted.

Gabriel’s map

Gabriel's map posterThe video of  “Gabriel’s map: cartography and corpography in modern war”, a lecture I gave as part of the University of Kentucky’s Committee on Social Theory 2013 series on “Mapping” in January, is now available here.

The splendid poster (left) mangles the title, but any mangling of the content is down to me!

I’m presently re-working this as an essay, but I’ll eventually post the pdf of the slides: more soon.  In the meantime, I’d welcome any comments, suggestions and criticisms.

UPDATE:  You can now access the slides for this presentation as a pdf under DOWNLOADS, but please remember that this was the first version of the presentation – I expect to be revising it over the coming weeks – and if you use any of them (for teaching purposes only) please credit the source.

3-D War

It’s strange how things sometimes come together….  News of the online publication of Stuart Elden‘s paper, ‘Secure the volume: vertical geopolitics and the depth of power‘, coincides with a short post from Jasper Humphreys at the Marjan Centre, ‘Shape shifting in Flanders‘, which describes the war on the Western Front as the first 3-D war.  What Jasper has in mind is the combination of aerial reconnaissance (and artillery spotting) with the elaborate tunnelling under enemy lines to detonate huge explosions.  But if we extend the terrain beyond the Western Front then the claim becomes a more general and I think an even more powerful one, with the bombing of civilian targets far beyond the front lines by airships and aircraft and the unrestricted use of that ‘ungentlemanly weapon’, the submarine. (Stuart cites Paul Virilio‘s Bunker Archaeology, which identifies the emergence of ‘volumetric’, deep three-dimensional warfare with the Second World War, but the genealogy is clearly older than that).

BARTON et al Beneath Flanders FieldsIt’s the underground war – the tunnellers’ war – that captures Jasper’s attention.  He focuses on the mining of Messines Ridge in June 1917, which (as he notes) appears in Sebastian Faulkes‘s Birdsong, but the tactic was a general one that not only scarred the landscape but also left an indelible impression on everyone who witnessed it, even by proxy: the detonation of the mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge in July 1916 was filmed by Geoffrey Malins for The Battle of the Somme (below).

Mining had started with the onset of trench warfare, and was dominated by the Germans during 1914 and 1915: ‘Although Germany had rejected military mining by 1914,’ Simon Jones notes, ‘it was nevertheless able quickly to revive its capability through the availability of fortress troops which could be attached ot its field army.  There seemed no alternative but to mine on the Western Front as a means of breaking the strong field defences.’  For the British and their allies mining evolved, if that’s the right verb, into three main phases: the Somme in 1916, Arras in April 1917 and – though its efficacy was by then undermined by the German strategy of defence-in-depth – Messines in June 1917.

Hawthorne Ridge mine

Hill 60 on the Messines Ridge had been mined in 1915, but the re-mining in June 1917 – as part of ‘the largest mining attack in the history of warfare’ (Jones) – was hugely spectacular:

‘The artillery preparations which for days had been intense had died down and the night was comparatively quiet…  Suddenly, all hell broke loose.  It was indescribable.  In the pale light it appeared as if the whole enemy line had begun to dance, then, one after another, huge tongues of flame shot hundreds of feet into the air, followed by dense columns of smoke which flattened out at the top like gigantic mushrooms.  From some craters were discharged tremendous showers of sparks, rivalling everything ever conceived in the way of fireworks.’

I’ve taken this from an essay by Roy MacLeod, ‘Phantom soldiers’, which provides an excellent discussion of Australian tunnellers in the underground war and emphasizes that theirs was a profoundly scientific campaign that involved knowledge of geology, engineering and – crucial for counter-mining – acoustics.  If it was science, it was doubly hellish science, both for the conditions endured by the tunnellers and for the consequences on the surface. In Underground warfare Simon Jones includes this report from a British artillery officer:

‘At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began.  The timing of all the batteries in the area was so wonderful and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo.  At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up…  First there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake.  I was nearly flung off my feet.  Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven.  The whole country was lit with a red light like a photographic dark-room… The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming.  It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration…’

Barely two months later photographer Frank Hurley peered down at the huge crater in horror:

‘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. To think that these fragments were once sweethearts, may be, husbands or loved sons, & this was the end. Almost back again to their native element but terrible. Until my dying day I shall never forget this haunting glimpse down into the mine crater on hill 60, – & this is but one tragedy of similar thousands…’

The nightmare scene was also the subject of Paul Nash‘s famous sketch, completed in November:

NASH The Crater

JONES Underground warfareThe BBC has a gallery of images of the underground war, which includes two maps of trenches and tunnels, here, and there’s a fascinating report of contemporary archaeological excavations of the same site here.  There are also helpful discussions and diagrams here. But the most comprehensive discussion is undoubtedly Simon Jones‘s Underground warfare 1914-1918 (2010), which includes compelling first-hand accounts from the tunnellers and countless others.

In the course of his own discussion, Jasper makes two other observations that also intersect with some of my current preoccupations.  The first is about the familiarization of the landscape of war by the first artists despatched to the front, though I’m less interested in the pastoral aesthetic than in subsequent, thoroughly modernist attempts to capture the ‘anti-landscape’ of the war.

The second is about the earthy, material medium through which the war was fought:

‘No war in history has combined such a vast theatre of operations fought in such proximity to the forces of Nature: firstly the elements of wind, rain, storms and snow created the all-pervasive mud and water – sometimes referred to metaphorically as ‘slime’ – along with the horses, mules, dogs and canaries, as well as rats and mice, all sharing the hell of the trenches with humans. Secondly, the geography and topography dominated the fighting: every small hill, river or indentation that would provide even a tiny advantage was a battle-ground.’

I’ve posted about these ‘slimescapes‘ before, and they loom large in my presentation on ‘Gabriel’s map’, but earlier this year I agreed to give a new public presentation this May (at the Vancouver Aquarium – where else?) on ‘The natures of war’ in which I develop the argument in more – er – depth.   I won’t be confining myself to the First World War, though I expect to have much to say about trench and tunnel warfare, and in particular I want to think through ‘nature’ less as the arena over which conflicts are fought (‘conflict commodities’, ‘resource wars’, and the rest) and more about nature as the medium through which conflict is conducted.  I’m assuming we can all agree that ‘nature’ is just as complex as Raymond Williams said it is, and that here it’s just a shorthand that will need very careful unpacking – or perhaps excavating.  More soon…

Naming names

Mexican-poet-Javier-SiciliaIn March 2011 members of a Mexican drug cartel tortured and murdered a young student, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, along with six of his friends in the city of Cuernavaca in Morelos.  His father, Javier Sicilia (right), poet, professor and journalist, later told Time:

‘When I got to Cuernavaca… I was in a lot of emotional pain. But when I arrived at the crematorium I had to deal with the media. I asked the reporters to have some respect; I told them I’d meet them the next day in the city plaza. When I got there I found they’d put a table [for a press conference] out for me, and I realized this was going to be bigger than I’d anticipated.

‘I had never thought of starting a movement or being a spokesman for anything. I’m a poet, and poets are better known for working with more obscure intuitions. But in those moments I was reminded that the life of the soul can be powerful too. My chief intuition then was that we had to give name and form to this tragedy and somehow put that into action with real citizens as a way to tell the government, “We need something new, especially new institutions to fight our lawlessness and corruption and impunity, not just that of the drug cartels but the state.”‘

Sicilia's call

Sicilia’s demand (above) started the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (“Haste la Madre!”), but the call to abjure the aggregations and anonymizations of mass violence – by state and non-state actors – has been taken up in other political arenas too.

It’s in this spirit that I read the Open Society‘s detailed listing of 136 people who were subjected to secret detention or extraordinary rendition by the CIA.

Sth-Wana-letter-Jan-20091And now – to turn to a program that is in many respects the flip side of extraordinary rendition (assuming a dark side can have another dark side) – the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London has announced an ambitious campaign to identify and name all the victims of US-directed air strikes in Pakistan.

The Bureau’s Chris Woods explains:

‘Part of the justification for the US carrying out drone strikes without consent is their reported success. And naming those militants killed is key to that process. Al Qaeda bomber Fahd al-Quso’s death was widely celebrated.  Yet how many newspapers also registered the death of Mohamed Saleh Al-Suna,  a civilian caught up and killed in a US strike in Yemen on March 30? By showing only one side of the coin, we risk presenting a distorted picture of this new form of warfare. There is an obligation to identify all of those killed…’

And, yes, we also need to recover the names of those killed by other actors too.  None of  them are ‘just “collateral damage” or abstractions’.

The principle is developed more generally by the Every Casualty project of the Oxford Research Group.

The purpose of the Every Casualty (EC) programme is to enhance the technical, legal and institutional capacity, as well as the political will, to record details of every single casualty of armed conflict throughout the world, civilian as well as combatant. Civilian deaths are particularly poorly documented, and often not recorded at all. Where death tolls are limited to purely numerical assessments, exaggerated, politicised claims and counter-claims frequently abound. By contrast, where Western nations are engaged in conflicts, they meticulously record their military dead not as numbers but by name.

Such detailed, verifiable and comprehensive recording when extended to all victims provides both a memorial for posterity and public recognition of our common humanity. Careful and respectful records ensure that the human cost of conflict is better understood and can become an immediately applicable resource for conflict prevention and post-conflict recovery and reconciliation.

Every casualty

But I think it’s probably a mistake to privilege names over numbers: numbers matter too, and  – whatever the legal-humanitarian reasons for recovering the names – they also help us to imagine what the raw numbers mean.  There are other ways of achieving the same end, and they don’t necessarily involve abandoning anonymity.  I’ve never forgotten the final scene in Richard Attenborough‘s film of “Oh, what a lovely war!”; the shot begins with a single white cross and then pans back and back and back, seemingly without end, until the screen is filled with a sea of 100, 000 crosses [start at 2:21].

TED talks and Wall works

This week it was announced that the TED talks will be moving from California to Vancouver in March 2014 – Mayor Gregor Robertson supposedly saw this as a sign that ‘we’re breaking through in thought leadership’ (sic) – so this may be a good time to announce something different (particularly for those, like Nathan Jurgenson, who are leery of the TED bandwagon).


The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC plans to host six International Roundtable Discussions next year in Vancouver; the outline call is below, and you can find more details here, and details of our other international programs here.

Big Ideas. Time and space to explore them. The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia will host six International Roundtable Discussions each year for scholars from the international community and Canada to come together in the pursuit of knowledge in an interdisciplinary environment. The objective of the Institute’s International Roundtable Discussions is to engage in fundamental research and idea exchange that can prompt advances in science and society, and have a significant impact on the discovery of solutions to important problems.

  • The International Roundtable program is open to scholars around the world, who can submit proposals for roundtable discussions that will explore creative and innovative ideas that will make significant contributions to knowledge.
  • The international roundtable must offer a unique opportunity for collaboration among scholars. The Institute will not fund meetings that would have otherwise happened, such as annual meetings.
  • The application must describe how the proposed roundtable will create a coherent forum for creative curiosity and the exchange of ideas that can lead to new discoveries.

Applications must be submitted electronically, no later than June 1, 2013 for the May 5 to 10, 2014 Roundtables and October 1, 2013 for the October 20 to 25, 2014 Roundtables to Joanne Forbes, International Program Manager, internationalprograms@pwias.ubc.ca

The metal falcon

As public attention to military violence continues to contract to the use of drones, Rawan Yaghi supplements her previous account of living and dying under Israeli drones in Gaza with another despatch describing Israel’s use of conventional strike aircraft, Life under the F-16s in Gaza:

With F16s, it’s a scary roar like someone is mocking sounds in a water well. It also depends on the altitude of the plane, sometimes a high pitched roar, others a low distant one. F16s are harder to spot than drones or Apaches because they are always ahead of their roar. And since you never know where the plane is going and since buildings in Gaza are crammed into Gaza, you rarely get to see the metal falcon.

F-16 bombing Beit Hanoun, Gaza, January 2009 (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

F-16 bombing Beit Hanoun, Gaza, January 2009 (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

She describes the intimidating ‘mock raids’, the physical and psychological damage, and the scars that will never heal:

‘I was fourteen when the AbuSelmeyyas’ house was attacked by an F16 air strike. My body shivers as I write this. The attack killed the father and mother and seven of their children, Nasrallah 4, Aya 7, Yahya 9, Eman 12, Huda 14 who was my classmate in primary school and who had the most angelic voice I’ve ever heard, Sumayya 16, and Basma 17, leaving Awad, 19 at that time, injured and alone.  Fourteen  others were injured in that attack, since the house was located in a heavily populated neighborhood, not very far from where I live. The attack attempted to assassinate leaders of militant groups. However it failed. In October last year, The Israeli court in Jaffa refused to give any compensations to the relatives of the family and the only member if the family left, saying the house was targeted during a “combat operation”. I wasn’t allowed to see any news about the attack. I only heard some news about it. And I learned about Huda in the morning. I heard from my brother that day that the bomb was directly dropped on the room where the mother and the children were. I also heard about their body parts being found in the buildings next to their house. I was only fourteen. What did I know.

What I do know – what we all surely know – is that there is more to military violence than drones; that our attention ought not to be limited to the ‘rules’ (un)governing their operation; and that the dismal desire to wage wars outside declared war-zones neither started nor ended with George W. Bush.