‘The land of rotting men’

No man's land

Noam Leshem and Alasdair Pinkerton have embarked on a fascinating new project, Re-inhabiting No Man’s Land: from dead zones to living spaces here:

Nearing the centenary of the First World War, this project explores the ongoing relevance of no-man’s lands in the 21st century. Rather than merely empty, divisive spaces, the project considers the material substance of no-man’s lands, their changing social-cultural meaning and their relevance as productive political and geopolitical spaces.

As a figure of speech, No-Man’s Land is applied to anywhere from derelict inner-city districts and buffer-zones to ‘ungovernable’ regions and tax havens. But what is no-man’s land? What are the conditions that produce it? How is it administered? What sort of human activities do no-man’s lands harbour? These are the questions that prompt us to think about the no-man’s lands not as dead zones, but as living spaces.

WWI consulting a map

News of this arrived from Noam just as I finished the long-form version of Gabriel’s Map: cartography and corpography in modern war, which you can now find under the DOWNLOADS tab (scroll down).  Most of the essay is about the First World War on the Western Front (I explain the title at the start of the essay; it comes from William Boyd‘s Ice-Cream War and, in particular, the First World War in East Africa, and the title of this post comes from Edward Lynch‘s Somme Mud: the experiences of an infantryman in France, 1916-1919), but I also end with these reflections on the 21st century:

In this essay I have been concerned with the First World War but, as we approach its centenary, it is worth reflecting on the ways in which modern warfare has changed – and those in which it has not. Through the constant circulation of military imagery and its ghosting in video games, many of us have come to think of contemporary warfare as optical war hypostatised: a war fought on screens and through digital images, in which full motion video feeds from Predators and Reapers allow for an unprecedented degree of remoteness from the killing fields. In consequence, perhaps, many of us are tempted to think of the wars waged by advanced militaries, in contrast to the First World War, as ‘surgical’, even body-less. These are wars without fronts, whose complex geometries have required new investments in cartography and satellite imagery, and there have been major advances in political technologies of vision and in the development of a host of other sensors that have dramatically increased the volume of geo-spatial intelligence on which the administration of later modern military violence relies. All of this has transformed but not replaced the cartographic imaginary.

And yet, for all of their liquid violence, these wars are still shaped and even confounded by the multiple, acutely material environments through which they are fought. In Sebastian Junger’s remarkable despatch from Afghanistan, he notes that for the United States and its allies ‘the war diverged from the textbooks because it was fought in such axle-breaking, helicopter-crashing, spirit-killing, mind-bending terrain that few military plans survive intact for even an hour.’ If that sounds familiar, then so too will Kenneth MacLeish’s cautionary observations about soldiers as both vectors and victims of military violence:

‘The body’s unruly matter is war’s most necessary and most necessarily expendable raw material. While many analyses of US war violence have emphasized the technologically facilitated withdrawal of American bodies from combat zones in favour of air strikes, smart bombs, remotely piloted drones, and privately contracted fighting forces, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not carry on without the physical presence of tens of thousands of such bodies…

In consequence, the troops have had to cultivate an intrinsically practical knowledge that, while its operating environment and technical armature are obviously different, still owes much to the tacit bodily awareness of the Tommy or the Poilu:

‘In the combat zone there is a balance to be struck, a cultivated operational knowledge, that comes in large part from first-hand experience about what can hurt you and what can’t… So 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. When you hear a shot, is it passing close by? Is it accurate or random? Is it of sufficient caliber to penetrate your vest, the window of your Humvee or the side of your tank?’

In the intricate nexus formed by knowledge, space and military power, later modern war still relies on cartographic vision – and its agents still produce their own corpographies.

The notes contain various references to No Man’s Land in the First World War, though I’m increasingly interested in what lies on either side.  One of the reasons so many commentators seem to think that ‘war among the people’ is a recent development is that the imagery of the Western Front draws the eye again and again to No Man’s Land, but behind the front lines on either side were farms, fields, villages and small towns where people continued to live and work amongst the shelling, the gas attacks, and the billeted troops.

As usual, I’d welcome any comments/criticisms/suggestions on the (I hope near final) draft of the essay: an extended version will appear in War material.

Insurgent thoughts

fm3-24When the US Army and Marine Corps issued their revised Field Manual 3-24 on Counterinsurgency in December 2006 there was an extraordinary public fanfare: a round of high-profile media appearances by some of its architects (you can watch John Nagl with Jon Stewart here) and, even though you could download the Manual for free – there were two million downloads in the first two months – the University of Chicago Press rushed out a paperback edition that hit the best-seller lists.  This was all to advertise counterinsurgency as what David Petraeus called ‘the graduate level of war’ and to inaugurate what I called, in ‘The rush to the intimate’ (DOWNLOADS tab), the US military’s ‘cultural turn’.  And as the media campaign made clear, it was also about the production of a public that would rally behind the new strategy to be put to work in Iraq.  The message was that the military had put the horrors of Abu Ghraib behind it – which were in any case artfully blamed on ‘rotten apples’ rather than the political-military manufacturers of the barrel that contained them – and was now marching beneath the banner of a kinder, gentler and above all smarter war (see my summary slide below).

COIN doctrine 2006

The new doctrine, first field-tested in Iraq and then applied to operations in Afghanistan, was not without its critics, both inside and outside the military.  Insiders complained that this was all smoke and mirrors – or more accurately, perhaps, too many mirrors and not enough smoke – because it was a distraction from the ‘real’ (the implication was, I think, ‘manly’) business of war-fighting, while outsiders objected to its weaponisation of culture and to the biopolitical project that it sought to advance.

FM 3-24 2014The debate grumbled on, and many insiders insisted that COIN was dead and buried, interred in the killing fields of Afghanistan.  But a revised version of the doctrine has now been issued.  It was trailed by the Joint Publication 3-24 on Counterinsurgency last December (issued by the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and – interestingly – the Coastguard Service), which you can download here (for an early review, see Robert Lamb and Brooke Shawn‘s ‘Is revised COIN manual backed by political will? here).  But the new Field Manual has been comprehensively re-written and even re-titled: Insurgencies and countering insurgencies, which you can download here.

I’m going to work my way through it in the next week or so – I can hardly complete The everywhere war without doing so – and I’ll post a commentary in due course, but it’s worth setting out its structure now:


1: Understanding the strategic context

2: Understanding an operational environment

3: Culture


4: Insurgency prerequisites and fundamentals

5: Insurgency threat characteristics


6: Mission command and control

7: Planning for counterinsurgencies

8: Intelligence

9: Direct approaches to counter an insurgency

10: Indirect methods for countering insurgencies

11: Working with host-nation forces

12: Assessments

13: Legal considerations

I’m still interested in how the revision treats ‘culture’, of course, but I’m also keenly interested in the discussion of ‘intrastate war’ and insurgency, the direct incorporation of air power (which was relegated to an appendix in the previous edition), the attention paid to intelligence in it multiple guises, the role of biometrics (biopolitics again!) – and in that remarkable last chapter.  One of the central diagnostics of later modern war, in my view at any rate, is its reflexivity.  You can see that in the discussions of assessment and reassessment in the new FM 3-24 (Ch 12 in particular), but attention to metrics and ‘lessons learned’ is hardly novel even if the means of monitoring have changed.  What I have in (closer) mind is a preoccupation with the public reception of military operations and military violence – which involves a distinctive emphasis on its intellectual provenance (‘the graduate level of war’ again),  on media strategies (‘strategic communications’), and on the provision of a legal armature that works to inform and legitimate its operations (hence that last chapter).

I’m sure the new manual will be the subject of intense discussion over at the always provocative and thoroughly indispensable Small Wars Journal (see, for example, Bing West‘s opening salvo here and David Maxwell‘s more measured critique here), and elsewhere too, but I doubt that it will attract the public fanfare FM 3-24 received in 2006-7.  We’ll see.

‘Books constitute capital’

HARVEY Seventeen contradictionsIntroducing his interview with David Harvey at the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this week, Scott Carlson notes that

‘The American stage has recently been set for questioning capitalism, with the U.S. tour of academe’s rock star of the moment, Thomas Piketty. The French economist’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has highlighted capitalism’s drift toward inequality and criticized economists’ focus on pure theory.’

The interview was prompted by the publication of David’s latest book, Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism: see also this interview with Jonathan Derbyshire here.  En route, David has good things to say about Piketty’s project – its empirical detail, its humanistic flourishes (see also Paul Krugman here) – but he is evidently dissatisfied with its analytical and, in consequence, its political reach.

Since he spoke to the Chronicle, David has fleshed out his critique of Piketty here.

The book has often been presented as a twenty-first century substitute for Karl Marx’s nineteenth century work of the same title. Piketty actually denies this was his intention, which is just as well since his is not a book about capital at all. It does not tell us why the crash of 2008 occurred and why it is taking so long for so many people to get out from under the dual burdens of prolonged unemployment and millions of houses lost to foreclosure. It does not help us understand why growth is currently so sluggish in the US as opposed to China and why Europe is locked down in a politics of austerity and an economy of stagnation. What Piketty does show statistically (and we should be indebted to him and his colleagues for this) is that capital has tended throughout its history to produce ever-greater levels of inequality. This is, for many of us, hardly news. It was, moreover, exactly Marx’s theoretical conclusion in Volume One of his version of Capital. Piketty fails to note this, which is not surprising since he has since claimed, in the face of accusations in the right wing press that he is a Marxist in disguise, not to have read Marx’s Capital.

If he had – David’s central point – he would have realised that capital has to be conceived not as a thing but as a process: the insight that has animated so much of his own work ever since he made his celebrated ‘transition’ in Social justice and the city from liberal to socialist formulations.

But we might also note the reference in the passage I’ve highlighted to difference, to the macro-scale differences between the US, Europe and China, and by implication to the production of a variegated and highly uneven capitalist space.  David’s insights here have surely been his crowning achievement – and, significantly, the Chronicle interview is captioned ‘Mapping a new economy’.

SLOTERDIJK World Interior of CapitalHe’s no longer alone, of course, and many critics have also been enthralled by another rock star release, Peter Sloterdijk‘s In the world interior of capital (memorably described by Carl Raschke as a ‘philosophical docudrama’):

‘No point on the Earth’s surface, once money had stopped off there, could escape the fate of becoming a location – and a location is not a blind spot in a field, but rather a place in which one sees that one is seen.’

It’s also, as Harvey shows, rather more than that.  Sloterdijk shows that too, hence his ‘spherology‘ and his emphasis on ‘spatial multiplicities’.  But their analyses – like their philosophies and their politics – take us to radically different destinations.

So back to my title: these three books ‘constitute capital’, in exactly the sense Thomas Jefferson meant, but they also enable us to apprehend capital – in the double sense of comprehending its exactions and, ultimately, indicting its deformations.

Deadly improvisations

There is nothing refined about killing, but the war in Syria has shown that both sides have resorted to improvisational tactics.  I say ‘both sides’ as a short-hand: this is hardly a two-party conflict, since the anti-Assad forces are far from united and a number of external powers – not only Iran and Saudi Arabia – are plainly using the parties as players in a proxy war.

One of the first signs was the Syrian Air Force’s use of so-called ‘barrel bombs’: in effect, these are improvised explosive devices made from oil barrels filled with crude explosive and, on occasion, metal shrapnel and even chemicals like chlorine, which are then dropped from helicopters.  At first, they were dropped from low altitudes – which, according to Richard Lloyd at least, made them accurate enough to strike particular targets – but once the rebels were equipped with rocket-launchers (MANPADs) the helicopters had to fly much higher (near 7,000 feet) with a corresponding diminution in accuracy.  The first attacks took place against the city of Homs in August 2012, but the locus then shifted to rebel-held areas in Aleppo – the map below comes from Human Rights Watch‘s forensic analysis of strikes against that city between October 2013 and April 2014; some of the sites identified may have been struck by other munitions, HRW concedes, including conventional bombs, mortars and artillery shells, but the vast majority reveal the characteristic signature of the indiscriminate deployment of barrel bombs.  The Syrian National Council estimates that 20,000 people have been killed by barrel bombs thus far.

Aleppo Barrel Bombs (Human Rights Watch)

Since the Syrian Air Force has been supplied with conventional bombs by both Russia and Iran, many commentators have concluded that the recourse to crude barrel bombs is not the result of any munitions shortage but is rather a determined attempt to spread indiscriminate terror.  For we need to remember that there’s nothing special about barrel bombs; they are probably less effective – certainly less accurate – than conventional munitions.  In short, they are, as I’ve said, an improvisation – what the indefatigable Eliot Higgins (of Brown Moses fame: an absolutely indispensable source for all this) calls ‘a piece of crap’.  But they are also unequivocal evidence that the regime is ‘interested in no path forward other than by killing.’

The result has been captured in a sobering video from Syrian Zero, showing barrel bomb attacks on Darayya, a neighbourhood in Damascus during the last week of January (below; you can find a brief, helpful exposition and commentary on the video here).

Barrel bombs have also been used by the Sudanese Air Force in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, and most recently by the Iraqi Air Force against Fallujah.

A second tactic used in Syria – this time by opposition forces – hearkens back to the First World War. Earlier this month, and in part as a counter to the crude air war against the rebel-held areas of Aleppo, the Islamic Front detonated a vast underground mine packed with explosives beneath the city’s Carlton Hotel, which was used as a base by the Syrian Army.  Video of the construction of the 75 metre tunnel had previously been uploaded to YouTube:

According to the BBC the explosion, just outside the Citadel, levelled the hotel and seriously damaged many surrounding buildings; there has been no official estimate of casualties, but it seems that dozens were killed or injured.  In the last few days  a much longer (850 metre) tunnel, which reportedly took 7 months to excavate, was used to detonate 60 tonnes of explosive packed under a Syrian Army base at Wadi al-Deif, also in the north of Syria.  The base, outside the town of Maarrat al-Nu’man, occupies a strategic location on the main route linking Damascus and Aleppo, and had been besieged by rebel forces for over a year.  Dozens of soldiers were killed in the attack.

Tunnels, then, can be used not only to break sieges and blockades – as in those that keep the economy of Gaza supplied against the Israeli stranglehold: in effect, lifelines (if you want more on this, try the brilliant documentary Gaza: Tunnels to Nowhere and Nicolas Pelham, ‘Gaza’s tunnel phenomenon’, Journal of Palestine Studies 41 (4) 2012, pp. 6-31).  They can also be deathlines, dug for directly offensive purposes.  The tactic had been used to devastating effect on the Western Front, as I noted in a previous post on 3-D war: the image below is Ernest Brooks‘s famous photograph of the detonation of the British mine underneath the German lines at Hawthorn Ridge on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.  You can find video of the explosion here.

Hawthorn Ridge 1916

Then as now, as Jane Burgess argues in a dispatch from the frontlines of  ‘The Battle for Aleppo’, they are deadly improvisations in a war of attrition.

Both of these developments/reversions – the barrel bombs and the mines – obviously reinforce Stuart Elden‘s discussion of attempts to ‘secure the volume’.  But they also speak directly to a bleak politics of insecurity.

Remote operations

I’ve noted on several occasions the multiple ways in which later modern war invokes medical metaphors to legitimise military violence (notably ‘surgical strikes’ against the ‘cancer’ of insurgency), and my preliminary work on medical-military machines has revealed all sorts of feedbacks between (in particular) trauma care by advanced militaries in war zones and trauma care by civilian agencies at home.


But these two paths have now intersected: in a paper on ‘Automated killing and mediated caringKathrin Friedrich and Moritz Queisner draw on studies of remote platforms and visual technologies – including my own – to discuss the automated killing of tumour cells using the CyberKnife system and what they call the the techno-medical ‘kill-chain’ that mediates between physician and patient.  They write:

Gregory uses the term kill-chain to characterize the setting of military interventions by unmanned aerial systems as “a dispersed and distributed apparatus, a congerie of actors, objects, practices, discourses and affects, that entrains the people who are made part of it and constitutes them as particular kinds of subjects.” Image-guided interventions in medical contexts share similar structural features and are also characterized by tying together a heterogeneity of practices, actors, discourses and expertise in order to achieve a precisely defined goal but without obviously stating their inner relations and micro politics.


Their central question, appropriately re-phrased, can also be asked of today’s remote operations in theatres of war (and beyond):

The fact that medical robots increasingly determine medical therapy and often provide the only form of access to the operation area requires us to conceptualize them as care agents rather than to merely conceive of them as passive tools. But if the physician’s action is based on confidence in and cooperation with the robot, what kind of operative knowledge does this kind of agency require and how does it change the modalities of medical intervention?

They conclude:

… since surgical intervention has become a computer-mediated practice that inscribes the surgeon into a complex setting of medical care agents, it is no longer the patient’s body but the image of the body that is the central reference for the surgeon.

As the operator of robot-guided intervention the physician accordingly needs to address and cope with the specific agency of the machine. In addition the visual interfaces need to communicate and convert their technological complexity to humanly amendable surfaces.

I recommend reading these arguments and transpositions alongside Colleen Bell‘s  ‘War and the allegory of military intervention: why metaphors matter’, International political sociology 6 (3) (2012) 325-28 and ‘Hybrid war and its metaphors’, Humanity 3 (2) (2012) and Lucy Suchman‘s ‘Situational awareness: deadly bioconvergence at the boundaries of bodies and machines’ (forthcoming at Mediatropes)…

There is yet another dimension to all this.  The U.S. Army has been at the forefront of telemedicine for decades – for a recent report on ‘4G telemedicine’ see here – but since at least 2005 the Army has also been experimenting with ‘telesurgery’ or ‘remote surgery’ in which a UAV platform mediates between the surgeon and the site of patient treatment: a different version of remote operations.  You can find early reports here, here and here (‘Doc at a distance’) and a more general account of ‘Extreme Telesurgery’ here.  Still more generally, there’s a wide-ranging review of US Department of Defense research into Robotic Unmanned Systems for Combat Casualty Care here.

If this is all too futuristic – even ‘remote’ – to you, then check out the Teledactyl shown in the image below, which was originally published in 1925.  Although there’s not a drone in sight, the seer was the amazing Hugo Gernsback, who also conjured up the radio-controlled television plane



In the literary trenches


Until now, my knowledge of the French experience on the Western Front has been largely confined to Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire.  I was particularly taken by his striking evocation of the materiality of war – of the ‘slimescape’ – which features in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and ‘The Natures of War’ (both soon to be available in written form):

The earth! It is a vast and water-logged desert that begins to take shape under the long-drawn desolation of daybreak. There are pools and gullies where the bitter breath of earliest morning nips the water and sets it a-shiver; tracks traced by the troops and the convoys of the night in these barren fields, the lines of ruts that glisten in the weak light like steel rails, mud-masses with broken stakes protruding from them, ruined trestles, and bushes of wire in tangled coils. With its slime-beds and puddles, the plain might be an endless gray sheet that floats on the sea and has here and there gone under. Though no rain is falling, all is drenched, oozing, washed out and drowned, and even the wan light seems to flow. Now you can make out a network of long ditches where the lave of the night still lingers. It is the trench. It is carpeted at bottom with a layer of slime that liberates the foot at each step with a sticky sound; and by each dug-out it smells of the night’s excretions. The holes themselves, as you stoop to peer in, are foul of breath. I see shadows coming from these sidelong pits and moving about, huge and misshapen lumps, bear-like, that flounder and growl. They are “us.”

Or again:

We begin to flow again in one direction. No doubt it is a movement planned up there, back yonder, by the chiefs. We trample soft bodies underfoot, some of which are moving and slowly altering their position; rivulets and cries come from them. Like posts and heaps of rubbish, corpses are piled anyhow on the wounded, and press them down, suffocate them, strangle them. So that I can get by, I must push at a slaughtered trunk of which the neck is a spring of gurgling blood.

The ground is so full of dead that the earth-falls uncover places that bristle with feet, with half-clothed skeletons, and with ossuaries of skulls placed side by side on the steep slope like porcelain globe-jars. In the ground here there are several strata of dead and in many places the delving of the shells has brought out the oldest and set them out in display on the top of the new ones. The bottom of the ravine is completely carpeted with debris of weapons, clothing, and implements. One tramples shell fragments, old iron, loaves and even biscuits that have fallen from knapsacks and are not yet dissolved by the rain. Mess-tins, pots of jam, and helmets are pierced and riddled by bullets—the scrapings and scum of a hell-broth; and the dislocated posts that survive are stippled with holes.

It’s a clunky old translation, but the power of Barbusse’s prose still shines through.  Small wonder that he later confided: ‘I once used to think that the worst hell in war was the flame of shells; and then for long I thought it was the suffocation of the caverns which eternally confine us. But it is neither of these. Hell is water.’ (If you want more on these imaginative geographies, incidentally, I recommend Susan Grayzel‘s short essay on Barbusse and, more generally, Claire Keith‘s ‘Pilgrims in a toxic land: Writing the Trenches of the French Great War’ in Jeff Persels‘s collection, The environment in French and Francophone Literature and Film (2013) pp. 69-85).


I’ve spent the last several days reading two other accounts by French authors.  The first, Louis Barthas‘s Poilu, has only recently been made available in English translation (it was first published in France in 1978).  ‘Poilu’ means ‘hairy one’, but probably the closest English-language equivalent is the much more recent ‘grunt’, for Poilu presents  the view of the (not so) common soldier.  It’s a carefully assembled account, as Robert Cowley explains in his helpful introduction:

‘Few documents from the Great War are as remarkable as the war notebooks of Louis Barthas, published in English for the first time in Edward M. Strauss’s fine translation. They are special for a number of reasons. Their author left a record of four years of service at the front, an unusual span of survival. He was not an officer but a common soldier, a corporal, a man approaching middle age who in civilian life had been a barrelmaker from the Languedoc region of France, a wine-growing center…. After he was mustered out in February 1919, Barthas began to assemble a narrativeRead more at describing his time on the Western Front that would eventually run to nineteen notebooks. He would work on it after he finished a long day of barrel-making, fleshing out the original diaries with quotes from letters home, official reports and orders that he had kept, and accounts by fellow soldiers that he had written down at the time, as well as with ephemera such as postcards and newspaper clippings. Those sources he put together in the book you read here, one that is part diary, part memoir.’

It’s been praised to the skies – see, for example, this review in the New York Times and this review at the Daily Beast – and Barthas’s spirited socialism and pacifism make it all the more interesting.  But, for me at least, it doesn’t capture the slimescape with the same intensity as my second book: Gabriel Chevallier‘s Fear.


I confess to being taken aback by its very existence.  In another life – in grammar school – my French teacher, a wonderful man called Robert Bratcher, recommended Chevallier’s Clochemerle as a way, I now suspect, of teaching us what ‘Rabelaisian’ meant without actually having to read Rabelais.  It’s a brilliantly comic novel (or at least it seemed so to this fifteen year-old), shot through with word play, artful phrases and visually, almost viscerally immediate staging in which the body – and the fear of/fascination with  its functions – loomed large.

It turns out that the same sensibilities run through Fear, which is a novelisation grounded in Chavellier’s own experiences. Malcolms Imrie‘s fine translation was made available in the UK in 2012, but the New York Times is now publishing a US edition.  ‘At times,’ Neil Fitzgerald wrote in the TLS (in a review tellingly entitled ‘When the body takes charge’),

reading Fear feels like being led through the damnation panel of Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, the front line “blazing like some infernal factory where monstrous crucibles melted human flesh into a bloody lava”. There are wince-inducing close-ups of mutilated men and corpses. Chevallier’s turn of phrase, brilliantly rendered in Malcolm Imrie’s translation, makes this distant war feel horrifying and close. Dartemont’s ultimate triumph, beside surviving, is in never having allowed himself to become dehumanized.

It turns out that others were also taken aback by its very existence.  Fear was originally published in 1930, as Tobias Grey explains, and the French officer class rose up against Chevallier’s merciless assault (which you can also find in Barthas):

Subsequent criticism of “Fear” meant that it was withdrawn from circulation in France on the eve of World War II and did not reappear until 1951. Chevallier, who had scored a big hit with his satirical novel “Clochemerle” (1934) in the meantime, declined to kick up a fuss. “Once war has come, the time has passed for warning that it is a disastrous venture with unforeseeable consequences,” Chevallier reasoned in the preface of “Fear.” “That is something that must be understood earlier, and acted on accordingly.” When “Fear” was recently re-published in France after many years out of print, one critic still felt it necessary to point out that pages like the ones he had just read “would have had the author shot during the war.”

As I’ve indicated, central to Chevallier’s account is the human body and the hapticity of war: its sensual, physical apprehension and its corporeal inscription.  Grey concludes:

… above all “Fear” is a novel whose most indelible passages describe the sensory degradation of war on the human body. These baroque descriptions are generously translated into English by Malcolm Imrie without a hint of stiltedness [in fact, Imrie won the Scott Moncrieff Prize for his translation]. A face is described as seeming to “acquire a dull, gray coating, as if someone had forgotten to dust it, and the beard, drawing strength from the compost of unhealthy flesh, spread rapidly, seeming to drive out life, like ivy takes light from the front of a house.” It is the kind of powerful prose that helps to make Chevallier’s long-neglected novel one of the most effective indictments of war ever written.

All of this reading is in part preparation for a trip later this month with an old friend to the battlefields of the Western Front (we’re still arguing over which of us is Blackadder and which is Baldrick, but it’s really no contest): watch this space for a report.

The art of Homo Sacer


 James Bridle‘s new installation, Homo Sacer, has opened at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, as part of its Science Fiction: New Death exhibition:

Explore how our relationship with technology has blurred the lines between the real and the virtual; making our everyday lives feel increasingly like science fiction. Artists including James Bridle, Jon Rafman, Mark Leckey, Larissa Sansour and Ryan Trecartin, plus award-winning science fiction author China Miéville present works which explore how technology is creating new ways of living (and dying), of fashioning identities and the growth of cult-like communities.

The exhibition runs until 22 June, and you can (at least virtually) walk through it with Regine here.

There’s not much detail or documentation of Homo Sacer yet  – though see the image above – but James promises a video clip soon.  Meanwhile he explains:

The installation consists of a projected “hologram” in the entranceway to the gallery, of the kind increasingly found in airports, railway stations and government buildings. The hologram speaks lines from UK, EU and UN legislation, as well as quotations from government ministers, regarding the nature of citizenship in the 21st century, and how it can be revoked, which potentially fatal consequences.

BEN YOUNG Homo sacer

Other artists have been inspired by Giorgio Agamben‘s discussion(s) of Homo Sacer too (and, for those who take the Latin stubbornly literally, Femina Sacra), of life knowingly and deliberately exposed to death.  (If you want an artful preview of the final volume in Agamben’s series, The use of bodies, you can read Adam Kotsko‘s ‘What is to be done?  The endgame of the Homo Sacer series’ here.)  But back to art.  There’s Ben Young‘s Homo Sacer (above), for example, philosopher-artist Adolfo Vásquez Rocca‘s Homo Sacer (below), and and Tarek Tuma‘s haunting Homo Sacer series of canvases showing the faces of suffering in Syria (see here and here), which almost viscerally captures the double meaning of ‘sacra’, sacred and accursed.

ROCCA Homo Sacer

In a related vein, as I noted previously, there’s the State of Exception installation which showed what undocumented migrants abandoned as they crossed the US-Mexico border; first staged at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, it’s currently at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art.  (The wall of backpacks conjures up an after-image of the suitcases on display at Auschwitz, and although they gesture in different directions – one where movement comes to a hideous full stop and the other where flight takes off – both are redolent of Agamben’s preoccupations).  For a more wide-ranging view of States of Exception, see Angel Calabres‘s much earlier collaboration here, which trades on Agamben’s work to explore prison subjugation, torture and slaughter houses…

And this in turn brings me (back) to Abdelali Dahrouch‘s installation, Homo Sacer (2009) (below), which is a meditation on the waterboarding of ‘enemy combatants’ by the CIA:


Agamben’s work has inspired not only visual artists.  There’s Christoph Winkler‘s dance-work Homo Sacer, for example, now ten years old,  which tanzjournal described like this:

The choreographer has truly succeeded in formulating a position that is both an aesthetic and ethical one. Life may be a sacred possession – in the face of sanctioned (war) crimes it becomes a disposable commodity. Dance cannot intervene in this state of affairs. But it can champion life, by displaying it in its vulnerability. Homo Sacer is not only in this respect Winkler’s most impressive piece to date.

Sophiensaele Homo Sacer

And Frankfurter Rundschau like this:

One after another, the other seven dancers climb out of the resting niches. All look distraught in the glaringly lit space, whose angularity contrasts with the fragile bodies. Following abrupt impulses, the dancers break out of themselves, only to quickly fall back into the frozen pose. Humans fleeing and hesitating in the same moment, developing an icy atmosphere of vulnerability … But in the following choreographic sequence, in which the dancers seem to be wrestling with themselves as if the truth were strangling them in its grasp, is a brilliant scene in which the ensemble intertwines and connects into complex structures that, only moments later are again severed. Energy shoots up like suddenly occurring memories – symbolizing the sudden convulsion of that very “base existence”…

And there’s even music – although Martin Kücher released only 250 copies of his solo jazz album Homo Sacer…  You can also listen to Vancouver’s own Dubstawk‘s remix Homo Sacer here.

Martin Kuchen homo sacer

All sorts of artworks have been used on the cover of Agamben’s texts, of course, and they can be revealing too: I know it’s often wrong to judge a book by its cover (but not always), and my favourite essay in Geographical imaginations is in fact my reading of the cover of David Harvey‘s The condition of postmodernity.  In any case, it’s interesting to track movements in the other direction and to see how artists engage with texts – particularly if you believe that artwork is part of the research/investigative/analytical process rather than merely one of its products.

The Days of the Roundtable

I’m very pleased (and relieved) to say that I’ve received two new grants for my work.

The first is an Insight Grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council for my project on Medical-military machines and casualties of war 1914-2014.  I’ve provided an illustrated version of the substance of the application under the DOWNLOADS tab.  The plan is to explore the human geographies of evacuation and treatment of casualties, both combatant and civilian, in four major combat zones: the Western Front 1914-1918; the Western Desert, 1942-1943; Vietnam; and Afghanistan.  Since submitting my application, though, I’ve also become interested in the medical geographies (what my good friend Omar Dewachi calls the ‘therapeutic geographies‘) in which people suffering from both war-related injuries and chronic diseases in Syria make their precarious journeys into Lebanon and Jordan for treatment.  All that in four years…

PRT Farah Conducts Medical Evacuation Training with Charlie Co., 2-211th Aviation Regiment at Forward Operating Base Farah

The second is a grant from the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC to support an International Research Roundtable in May 2015 on The contours of later modern war.  This will be an invitation-only event (the grant provides for travel and accommodation for each participant), but here is the pitch.  I wrote this in an hour just before leaving for Glasgow, so forgive the rough edges:


Commentators often insist that in recent years the nature of war has been transformed. Military historians who address this question display a fine-grained sensitivity to the details of armed conflict, but the imaginative (theoretical) framework they deploy usually returns to Clausewitz’s nineteenth-century theses On War. Philosophers and social scientists work with a more refined theoretical apparatus, though too often this seems to be confined to annotations of Foucault’s Paris lectures in the 1970s, and yet – unlike Foucault himself – they typically show little interest in the specifities and materialities of armed conflict. The Roundtable seeks to finesse this impasse by bringing together a group of scholars, each of whom has demonstrated both a theoretical and an empirical sensibility, to consider crucial questions about the transformations of modern war.

CREVELD Changing face of warThe objective is not to identify a single rupture – the Vietnam War, the end of the Cold War, the wars conducted in the wake of 9/11 – but to recognize that multiple temporalities are at work so that there are both continuities and contrasts to be identified and understood. Similarly, later modern war cannot be reduced to arguments about the Revolution in Military Affairs and its successor projects, which have indeed changed advanced military operations in all sorts of ways, or to the ‘new wars’ supposedly waged by non-state actors in the rubble of the Cold War and in the peripheries of empire: these twin modalities need to be thought together to provide a more inclusive understanding of the shifting contours of military and paramilitary violence.

In speaking of ‘later modern war’ the intention is to avoid the now tired discussions of the postmodern (what comes after that?), while indicating that the closing decades of the twentieth century witnessed a series of changes – political and legal, social and cultural, scientific and technical, legal and ethical – that started to distance armed conflict from the forms it had assumed during the First and Second World Wars. The term also suggests connections to the logics of what is sometimes called ‘late capitalism’ and to the evolving impositions of neo-liberal political and economic formations.

STRACHAN Changing character of warAdvanced militaries often claim that their conduct of war has become surgical, sensitive and scrupulous. The first of these relies on technical advances in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (much of which now takes the form of geospatial intelligence and high-resolution, near real-time imagery) and on advances in military networks, targeting and weapons systems. The second involves the incorporation of cultural knowledge into asymmetric warfare and counter-insurgency, but it also involves a new sensitivity to public opinion: thus media operations have become central to military campaigns in an attempt to win support from populations both at home and abroad. There is also an increasing sensitivity to casualties, both combatant and civilian, and many commentators have spoken of the humanitarian armature that attends contemporary military interventions as a new ‘military humanism’. Finally, and following directly from these observations, contemporary military power is supposed to be characterized by a heightened ethical awareness and the unprecedented incorporation of international law (and military lawyers) into its operational decisions.


All of these claims invite critical scrutiny, to recover their developing genealogies (how novel are they?) and to evaluate their practical consequences (what are their material effects?). They assume particular importance as interstate wars have declined, and transnational conflicts have become the dominant modality of armed conflict, as ‘war’ bleeds into terrorism, counter-terrorism and new modes of transnational policing. These changes in turn affect the sites and locations of military violence, and these in turn may be transformed not only by geopolitics and military power but also by global environmental change and the political ecologies of war. In short: is the locus of war shifting in decisive ways?


The Roundtable will address these questions through four intersecting and interlocking themes that allow for theoretical interrogation and empirical scrutiny: each of these is a stark signpost but its simplicity allows multiple questions (and the connections between them) to be addressed under each heading. In capsule form these are:

IMAGE – the role of imagery (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance); the images of war that circulate through media, old and new, and their role in public debate;
AGENT – the agents and vectors of military and paramilitary violence; the changing human/technological assemblages through which war is conducted;
VICTIM – the casualties of war (the dead, the wounded, the captured, the displaced); the political, cultural and legal armatures that regulate military and paramilitary violence;
LOCUS – the changing targets, spaces and ecologies of war

When they accept the invitation, each participant will be asked to provide a one-paragraph summary of their present research for posting on a dedicated website. Four weeks before the Roundtable everyone will provide a short (six page maximum) essay, written in an accessible and reference-free form, illustrated as appropriate, and drawing from their work. These may address the theme of the Roundtable in general or in detail, and will be posted on the website. Formal papers will not be presented: the emphasis will on discussion and debate.

There will be four main sessions addressing each of the four key themes:

Day 1:  Arrival

Day 2:

Morning – Walking Seminar (Stanley Park): participants will walk the Seawall as a group but in pairs, changing every 20-30 minutes, to share their research and ideas with one another.

Afternoon – IMAGE (discussion led by four participants)

Day 3:

Morning – AGENT (discussion led by four participants)

Afternoon – VICTIM (discussion led by four participants)

Evening – Public Performance: Either a staged reading of Owen Sheers’ radio play Pink Mist [about soldiers returning from Afghanistan] or George Brant’s Grounded [about a female drone operator], to be followed by public discussion led by scholars on either the Wounds of War or Drone warfare

Day 4:

Morning – Exchanges: small-group discussions (informal) about the key themes and to plan future collaborations and research projects

Afternoon – LOCUS (discussion led by four participants)

Evening – Roundtable Dinner

Day 5:  Dispersal

I also want to invite one or two visual artists to attend the Roundtable, both to take part – the visual is a vital register for both the conduct and the critique of modern war – but also to use the discussions as a provocation for their subsequent work (to be posted on and/or linked via the website).

I’ll keep you posted – I’m immensely grateful to Janis Sarra, Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, and to my colleagues and friends for their support and encouragement.

I’ll keep you posted.