This is an important project…
It’s over six years since I wrote ‘The Black Flag’ and ‘Vanishing points’, two linked essays about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the global war prison (see DOWNLOADS tab), and I’m currently updating, revising and integrating them for The everywhere war.
Today there’s news of a new report by Amrit Singh, Senior Legal Officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative’s National Security and Counterterrorism program, Globalizing torture, that lists 136 people who were subjected to CIA secret detention and/or extraordinary rendition. The list – the most comprehensive to date: you can find it on pp. 30-60 – combines secret detention and extraordinary rendition ‘because the two programs had similar modalities, and torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and the abuses were common to both.’
The report also identifies 54 states that were complicit in the programs: ‘hosting CIA prisons [“black sites”] on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting the CIA in the capture and transportation of detainees; permitting the use of their airspace and airports for secret CIA flights transporting detainees; providing intelligence leading to the CIA’s secret detention and extraordinary rendition of individuals; and interrogating individuals who were being secretly held in the custody of other governments. ‘ Only one state has issued an apology (over a single case), and only four have provided financial compensation to victims. You can find this ghastly gazetteer, carefully annotated, on pp. 62-118. (There are some conspicuous omissions; the Guardian has an infog[eog]raphic here).
In case you think this is a purely historical geography, the report notes that:
‘the Obama administration did not end extraordinary rendition, choosing to rely on anti-torture diplomatic assurances from recipient countries and post-transfer monitoring of detainee treatment. As demonstrated in the cases of Maher Arar, who was tortured in Syria, and Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery, who were tortured in Egypt, diplomatic assurances and post-transfer monitoring are not effective safeguards against torture. Soon after taking office in 2009, President Obama did issue an executive order that disavowed torture, ordered the closure of secret CIA detention facilities, and established an interagency task force to review interrogation and transfer policies and issue recommendations on “the practices of transferring individuals to other nations.” But the executive order did not repudiate extraordinary rendition, and was crafted to preserve the CIA’s authority to detain terrorist suspects on a short-term transitory basis prior to rendering them to another country for interrogation or trial.’
And, as the New York Times reports, ‘the Senate Intelligence Committee recently completed a 6,000-page study of the C.I.A. detention and interrogation program, but it remains classified, and it is uncertain whether and when it might be even partially released.’
I’ve already noted the effect that William Boyd‘s An Ice-Cream War (1982) had on me, but there’s another Boyd novel that also deals with the First World War – this time set on the Western Front rather than East Africa – that also offers much food for thought.
In the early sections of The New Confessions (1987), an odyssey conducted in the obvious shadows of Rousseau, the protagonist John James Todd is serving in a Public School service battalion of the British Army just before Ypres. In a chapter revealingly entitled ‘New geometries, new worlds’, Todd recalls the Ypres front in early June 1917 like this:
‘Take an idealized image of the English countryside – I always think of the Cotswolds in this connection… Imagine you are walking along a country road. You come to the crest of a gentle rise and there before you is a modest valley. You know exactly the sort of view it provides. A road, some hedgerowed lanes, a patchwork of fields, a couple of small villages – cottages, a post-office, a pub, a church – there a dovecote, there a farm and an old mill; here an embankment and a railway line; a wood to the left, copses and spinneys scattered randomly about. The eye sweeps over these benign and neutral features unquestioningly.
‘Now place two armies on either side of this valley. Have them dig in and construct a trench system. Everything in between is suddenly invested with new sinister potential: that neat farm, the obliging drainage ditch, the village at the crossroads become key factors in strategy and survival. Imagine running across those intervening fields in an attempt to capture positions on that gentle slope opposite so that you may advance one step into the valley beyond. Which way will you go? What cover will you seek? How swiftly will your legs carry you up that sudden gradient? Will that culvert provide shelter from enfilading fire? Is there an observation post in that barn? Try it next time you are on a country stroll and see how the most tranquil scene can become instinct with violence. It only requires a change in point of view.’
Later Todd is recruited by the War Office Cinema Committee with strict instructions about what and may not be shown, and some ten years after he wrote the novel Boyd directed his own film, The Trench, set on the eve of the Battle of the Somme. But my point (for the moment) isn’t about photography or film but about the work of war artists on the Western Front.
During the spring of 1916 Charles Masterman, the director of the British War Propaganda Bureau, was persuaded to appoint the first Official War Artist, Muirhead Bone. Bone was a sketcher and watercolour artist, who was duly commissioned as an honorary Second Lieutenant and arrived in France during the Battle of the Somme. He returned to England in October, and two hundred of his drawings were published in ten monthly parts, with an accompanying commentary by C.E. Montague.
‘For many people at home,’ Samuel Hynes remarks in A war imagined, ‘they must have been an important source of their notions of what the war looked like.’ But, he continues,
‘Bone and Montague agreed that what it looked like was England; both the drawings and the commentaries imagine the war in familiarizing English terms… They made the war look familiar, and they provided images of it from which both the dead and the suffering living had been entirely excluded.’
When the first two weekly installments appeared, apparently to considerable public acclaim, Wilfred Owen called them ‘the laughing stock of the army’ because they presented such a pastoralized, picturesque and sanitized view of the war: ‘To call it England!’ Many of Bone’s drawings, like the two examples I’ve shown here, rendered the landscape in the idealized terms of Boyd’s ‘country stroll’. (There were exceptions, but even when Bone turned to the desolation of the battlefield many of his sketches were devoid of human form, alive or dead.) To be sure, most commentators noted that in the rear a working countryside persisted, and many of them made much of the shocking transition from a landscape that was indeed familiar, largely untouched by military violence, to something unlike any landscape on earth.
And it’s exactly that anti-landscape Owen wanted to be represented. In The soldiers’ tale Hynes writes that
‘War turns landscape into anti-landscape, and everything in that landscape into grotesque, broken, useless rubbish – including human limbs.’
And there were other artists who were developing Boyd’s ‘change in point of view’, a different visual vocabulary for these brutally new warscapes. One of the most interesting, I think, is C.R.W. Nevinson. Early in the war Nevinson served as an orderly with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and then as an ambulance driver with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was invalided out in January 1916, a result of acute rheumatic fever, but in March 1916 he exhibited a series of Futurist paintings whose stark geometric planes and mechanised violence conveyed a radically different sensibility, one in which soldiers and machines were fused into shockingly new assemblages and where human bodies were caught up in and overwhelmed by the percussive force of the new military machine. One of his most famous paintings, of a French machine-gune post, La Mitrailleuse (below), captures what Michael Walsh calls the ‘machinomorphic image’ of the war.
Walter Sickert claimed that La Mitrailleuse ‘will probably remain the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting’, but other Nevinson paintings of this period capture other dimensions of the automations of the killing machine, as in Column on the march (1915):
They also captured, through what Claude Philips praised as their ‘cold, calculated violence’ and ‘cruel, metallic angularity’, what Henri Lefebvre once called ‘the overwhelming of the human body’, as in The strafing (1915):
In invoking Lefebvre here, I have in mind this passage from The production of space where he describes a modern, abstract, geometric space:
‘… space has no social existence independently of an intensive, aggressive and repressive visualization. It is thus – not symbolically but in fact – a purely visual space. The rise of the visual realm entails a series of substitutions and displacements by means of which it overwhelms the whole body and usurps its role.’
And yet, of course, the production of this extraordinarily violent space was literally shot through with corporeal investments.
I’ve described these artworks as Futurist, but two riders are necessary. The first, and most obvious, is that Marinetti‘s own Manifesto of Futurism expressed a desire ‘to glorify War – the only health giver of the world’, and while Nevinson was fascinated by, even infatuated with Marinetti – he sent Marinetti a postcard (right) of him posing in front of his ambulance, without any discernible sense of irony – this was a claim that Nevinson eventually explicitly repudiated (in a column for the Daily Express called ‘Painter of Smells at the Western Front’). Bone, incidentally, liked Nevinson’s work.
The second is more interesting. Paul Saint-Amour has described aerial photography and interpretation on the Western Front not as an applied realism but as an applied modernism – and with good reason (some interpretation manuals described ‘Cubist’ and ‘Futurist’ landscapes) – and if we extend this insight then we might say that in these artworks Nevinson was recovering and reinscribing a scopic regime that was instrumental in the very violence he sought to subvert.
In March 1917 Nevinson was toying with the idea of putting his talents to work in the new camouflage section of the army, but by July he was back in France as an Official War Artist. He went up in an observation balloon and claimed to be ‘the first man to paint in the air’; in fact he thought his ‘aeroplane pictures the finest work I have done’. But in many of these later paintings he turned his back on Futurism and the machinations of the killing fields and restored the broken body to the art of war. The most notable example is perhaps Paths of glory (1917). Refused permission to exhibit the canvas at the Leicester Galleries in London by the War Office, Nevinson had it displayed with a brown paper sticker across the two dead bodies reading “Censored”…
There is an excellent gallery of Nevinson’s work here, and for more discussion I recommend David Boyd Hancock, A crisis of brilliance: five young British artists and the Great War (2010); Michael Walsh, ‘C.R.W. Nevinson: conflict, contrast and controversy in paintings of war’, War in History 12 (2) (2005) 178-207, and his two books, C.R.W. Nevinson: This cult of violence (2002) and Hanging a rebel: the life of C.R.W. Nevinson (2008).
A fascinating review and preview by Alice Conklin of two books that promise to complicate the formation of ‘colonial science’: Helen Tilley‘s Africa as a living laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950 (Chicago, 2011), and Pierre Singaravélou‘s Professer l’Empire: Les “sciences coloniales” en France sous la IIIe République (Sorbonne, 2011).
Helen Tilley will be known to most readers, I suspect, for her work on the history of ecology and the intersections between science, medicine and tropicality. In Africa as a living laboratory, Conklin concludes,
‘Tilley’s case studies lead her to jettison the term “colonial science” altogether. The history of the African Survey [in the 1930s], she argues, proves that all scientific research circulates both locally and globally in ways that its producers cannot control – even when this research is sponsored by imperial governments seeking solutions to problems of colonial governance. From this perspective, defining any “science” as specifically “colonial” obscures more than it illuminates. Her point is not that “good” science triumphed over “bad” science in Britain’s African colonies, but that the outcome of the appeal to science was never absolutely predetermined by the fact of empire. Professionalizing scientists in the field could and often did maintain their distance from policy-making: their training encouraged them to they look for the very kind of complexity in human societies that overburdened administrators or their superiors did not have time to consider…’
Most geographers will know Singaravélou’s edited collection, L’empire des géographes (which includes a characteristically incisive essay by Dan Clayton). Conklin considers one of the most significant arguments in Professer l’Empire to be the claim that
‘…the world of teaching about the empire [in France] became a stimulating “place of encounters and exchanges between academics and administrators, politicians and advertisers”. Hovering on the fringes of the more orthodox disciplines of history, geography, law and political economy, and psychology, colonial scientists contributed new subjects (the comparative history of empires, legal anthropology, tropical geography) to their “parent” fields that would flourish after World War II; they were also among the first to practice interdisciplinarity, due to their long exiles in the field. As in Britain, their contributions have been lost from view because modern scholars have dismissed the “colonial sciences” as too tainted to be worth revisiting.
Taken together, Conklin concludes,
‘Singaravélou and Tilley make clear that without a complete picture of how all scientists functioned in the past, historians cannot understand – much less counter-act – the ideological and rhetorical power inherent in science itself. Considerable debate persists over the extent to which scientists facilitated colonialism, and colonialism facilitated science. While neither of these two richly contextualized books explores the question of how science translated into policy on the ground, they nevertheless remind us that there can be no foregone conclusion about the content of the scientific expertise promoted under colonialism. Both authors breathe new life into the history of dead white scientists attached to empire in the interwar era without in any way eulogizing or apologizing for them.’
My appreciation of these studies derives from my developing interest in the connections between scientific knowledges and military violence. In my work on the metricisation of space on the Western Front in the First World War, for example, I’ve been impressed by Roy Macleod‘s studies of what he calls ‘the battlefield laboratory’ (in ‘Sight & Sound on the Western Front’, War & Society 18 (1) (2000)). By early 1918, he writes, ‘the combined organisation of Field Survey Companies and “Maps, GHQ” had become almost an institute of advanced studies for cartographers, topographers, geographers and geologists’ and its ‘success in inter-disciplinary cooperation augured well for allied success in the last year of the war.’ It’s interesting to read this alongside Tilley’s opening, scene-setting chapter, ‘An Imperial Laboratory: Scientific Societies, Geopolitics, and Territorial Acquisitions’ – in which, of course, mapping is never far away – and then to think through the arc traced by what Steve Graham calls ‘Foucault’s boomerang’ across the killing fields of colonial Asia and Africa. We know about the practices of counterinsurgency or colonial ‘air control’, to be sure, but we still need to know much more about the knowledges that are embedded within them. And these two studies remind us that, on the field of Mars as elsewhere, the relations between knowledge and practice (or power) are rarely simple and never uni-directional.
I know I’m not alone in my critical reaction to Jared Diamond‘s work, but two recent commentaries are particularly helpful. Earlier this month the Guardian published a long review of The world until yesterday by Wade Davis – though most of the online comments will make you weep – and the latest issue of bookforum has an incisive commentary by Jackson Lears that nails what he calls Diamond’s ‘neo-liberal scientism’. En passant, Lears has a riff on Diamond’s views on war:
Anthropologists have claimed that war is just a game among traditional peoples; in fact, Diamond maintains, it is in deadly earnest. This is a persuasive argument, though it is coupled with Diamond’s less persuasive tendency to minimize European responsibility for the slaughter of indigenous people. Equally unconvincing are his suggestions that modern state-sponsored warfare is easier to manage and contain than traditional war. Surely this is a provincial American perspective, the product of a country that has yet to be laid waste by a distant enemy. And most troubling of all is his claim that modern state authority makes wars easier to stop—especially given the situation in the contemporary United States, where the national security state prosecutes endless wars around the globe, conducted in secret and without congressional authorization.