Following the colours

WWI Mobile carrier pigeon-loft

The Open University has just released online a series of ‘colourised’ photographs from the First World War.  My favourite is shown above: a mobile pigeon-loft so that messages could be carried back to GHQ (more on pigeons and the war effort here and especially here; their military service did not end with the First World War).

These were all originally black and white photographs, but Taschen has recently published a much more extensive collection of original colour (‘autochrome’) photographs – you can view some of the images online here – edited by Peter Walther, The First World War in Colour (384 pp).

Verdun

In an online announcement the publisher explains:

The devastating events of the First World War were captured in myriad photographs on all sides of the front. Since then, thousands of books of black-and-white photographs of the war have been published as all nations endeavour to comprehend the scale and the carnage of the “greatest catastrophe of the 20th century”. Far less familiar are the rare colour images of the First World War, taken at the time by a small group of photographers pioneering recently developed autochrome technology.

first_world_war_in_color_fo_gb_3d_05794_1406031040_id_813622To mark the centenary of the outbreak of war, this groundbreaking volume brings together all of these remarkable, fully hued pictures of the „war to end war“. Assembled from archives in Europe, the United States and Australia, more than 320 colour photos provide unprecedented access to the most important developments of the period – from the mobilization of 1914 to the victory celebrations in Paris, London and New York in 1919. The volume represents the work of each of the major autochrome pioneers of the period, including Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville, Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, Léon Gimpel, Hans Hildenbrand, Frank Hurley, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud and Charles C. Zoller.

Since the autochrome process required a relatively long exposure time, almost all of the photos depict carefully composed scenes, behind the rapid front-line action. We see poignant group portraits, soldiers preparing for battle, cities ravaged by military bombardment – daily human existence and the devastating consequences on the front. A century on, this unprecedented publication brings a startling human reality to one of the most momentous upheavals in history.

A-Terrible-Beauty-246x348And for an altogether different rendering of the First World War – often but not always in colour – I recommend Paul Gough‘s magisterial account of 15 artists (many of whom saw active service,  A terrible beauty: British artists in the First World War.  You can download the first chapter here, sadly without the illustrations: but Paul’s commentary is incisive, and I found his work really helpful in working on ‘Gabriel’s Map’, especially his essays on military sketching which considerably enlarged my sense of the ‘cartographic imaginary’ on the Western Front.  Gerry Corden has a fine account of the book here, and includes many excellent images including the work of my favourite C.W.R. Nevinson.  Finally, Paul’s own website is here: click on Vortex 1 through 5 at the bottom.

Not a pigeon in sight, though.

Handling the news

A follow-up to Virtual Gaza : Gilad Lotan, chief data scientists at beteaworks, has provided a mapping of the intersections between mainstream media news media and social media here, including a discussion of what he calls ‘personalising propaganda’.

Twitter handles responding to UNRWA school shelling 25-30 July

The Israeli liberal newspaper Ha’aretz appears between the broadly ‘pro-Palestinian’ networks on the right and the ‘pro-Israeli’ on the left.  These are his designations not mine (BBC? the New York Times??!!), but the mappings are of Twitter handles responding between 25-30 July to the Israeli shelling of an UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun – a particular event that sparked a particular series of reports – not the war as a whole.  And we should also remember that there is often a significant difference between reporting in the English-language and Hebrew editions of Ha’aretz

Legitimate targets?

I’ve been thinking about the description of Gaza as a space of exception in my last post, and I will elaborate (and qualify) that discussion shortly: in many ways the Israeli offensive against Gaza reinforces Achille Mbembe‘s arguments about necropolitics but, as I’ll try to show, suggests the need for a reworking of Giorgio Agamben‘s claims about the exception.

En route, I’ve been greatly taken by the work of Janina Dill (Politics and International Relations, Oxford) – particularly her discussion of Israel’s development of ‘Lawfare 2.0’ in relation to Gaza – and, as I say, I’ll have much more to say about that shortly.  But I’ve also discovered she has a book due out from Cambridge in the fall which, like her (I imagine summary) chapter in The American Way of Bombing, speaks to my own work on genealogies and geographies of bombing: Legitimate Targets? Social construction, international law and US bombing.

DILL Legitimate targets?Based on an innovative theory of international law, Janina Dill’s book investigates the effectiveness of international humanitarian law (IHL) in regulating the conduct of warfare. Through a comprehensive examination of the IHL defining a legitimate target of attack, Dill reveals a controversy among legal and military professionals about the ‘logic’ according to which belligerents ought to balance humanitarian and military imperatives: the logics of sufficiency or efficiency. Law prescribes the former, but increased recourse to IHL in US air warfare has led to targeting in accordance with the logic of efficiency. The logic of sufficiency is morally less problematic, yet neither logic satisfies contemporary expectations of effective IHL or legitimate warfare. Those expectations demand that hostilities follow a logic of liability, which proves impracticable. This book proposes changes to international law, but concludes that according to widely shared normative beliefs on the twenty-first-century battlefield there are no truly legitimate targets.

Introduction
Part I. A Constructivist Theory of International Law:
1. The challenge
2. The theory
Part II. The Definition of a Legitimate Target of Attack in International Law:
3. Positive law
4. Customary law
Part III. An Empirical Study of International Law in War:
5. The rise of international law in US air warfare
6. The changing logic of US air warfare
7. The behavioural relevance of international law in US air warfare
Part IV. An Evaluation of International Law in War:
8. The lack of normative success of international law in US air warfare
9. The impossibility of normative success for international law in war
Conclusion.

The Death Zone

9780804778336I’ve praised Laleh Khalili‘s Time in the shadows before, and Jadaliyya has now reprinted an excerpt that is of renewed urgency in the face of the Israeli assault on Gaza.  Laleh explains:

I wrote Time in the Shadows in order to puzzle out why the counterinsurgency practices of enormously powerful state militaries—the US and Israel at the time I was writing the book—so often invoked law and humanitarianism, rather than naked force. And why so much of their war-fighting pivoted around the mass confinement not only of combatants but civilians. I was also struck by the similarities in the practices of confinement not only between Israel and the US but with historical accounts of colonial confinement effected by Britain and France.

For me, what was striking, insidious, devastating, was the less flashy, less visible, practices that were foundational to detention of suspected combatants and incarceration—whether in situ or through resettlement—of troublesome civilians. These practices—law, administration, demographic and anthropological mapping, offshoring—all sounded so dry, so rational, and yet they were grist to the mill of liberal counterinsurgents in so many ways. And the other similarity across a century and several continents seemed to be the repetition ad nauseam of the language of “protection” and of “security” to frame or rename or euphemise atrocities.

Among the technologies that best embody this language of protection used to violently pacify a population in counterinsurgencies are the separation wall and the various “protective” zones invented by the Israeli military to fragment the Palestinian territories and ensure panopticon-like surveillance and monitoring capability over these fragmented zones. These technologies have specific histories and are mirrored in so many different contexts. The following excerpt is an attempt at situating the wall and the various zones in both a longer historical continuum with colonial practices, while also reflecting on the settler-colonial specificities of their present form.

Laleh describes seam zones, security zones until, finally, she arrives at death zones:

Brigadier General Zvika Fogel, the former head of Southern Command, explained that after the Second Intifada, the Southern Command unofficially declared death zones in Gaza, where anyone entering could be shot: “We understood that in order to reduce the margin of error, we had to create areas in which anyone who entered was considered a terrorist.”

Asked about the legal basis for this, Fogel said:

“When you want to use something, you have no problem finding the justification, especially when we hit those we wanted to hit when we used them at the start of the events. If at the beginning we could justify it operationally, then even if there were personnel from the Advocate General’s Office or from the prosecution, it was easy to bend them in the face of the results…

Within Range DIAKONIAAccording to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre,  the Israeli military unilaterally implemented an undefined “no-go” zone inside Gaza in 2000.  It started to level lands near the border fence (which had been put in place in 1994), particularly around Rafeh, and ‘by mid-2006 Israel was leveling lands 300 to 500 meters from the fence.’  In 2010 the World Food Programme in collaboration with OCHA produced a report, ‘Between the Fence and a Hard Place‘, documenting the hardships and the horrors and in 2011 Diakonia produced a detailed report on the (il)legal armature of the buffer zone, ‘Within Range‘.  It concluded:

The use of force based on military necessity must be engaged in good faith and consistent with other rules of IHL, in particular the principles of distinction and proportionality and precautions in and during attack. This does not appear to be the case in the “buffer zone” as the violations to IHL are flagrant, frequent and grave. Israel remains the Occupying Power in the Gaza Strip. In this capacity, it must protect the safety and well-being of the Palestinian population and take Palestinian needs into account. In addition, Israel must also protect Israeli civilians and soldiers, but it is not allowed to do so at disproportionate expense to Palestinian civilian lives and property.

While acknowledging Israel’s security concerns regarding attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip, the facts and information available show that the unilateral expansion of the “buffer zone” and its enforcement regime result in violations of international humanitarian law and grave infringement of a number of rights of Palestinians.

In 2012 OCHA estimated that up to 35 per cent of Gaza’s agricultural land had been affected by these restrictions at various times, and the Gazan economy had sustained a loss of around 75,000 MT of agricultural produce each year ($50 million p.a.)

The situation in December 2012 is set out on the map below, which shows what the Israeli military defined as ‘Access Restricted Areas’ (ARA) which, on the landward side, comprised three zones:

(1) A ‘No-Go Zone’, 100 metres wide, which was cleared of all vegetation and all built structures;

(2) A ‘restricted zone’, a further 100-300 metres wide, where access was permitted on foot and for farmers only;

(3) A ‘risk zone’…

GAZA December 2012 OCHA1

You can download a hi-res version here (see also Léopold Lambert‘s maps and commentary here).  In practice, the UN Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights explained, ‘the “no go zone’’ on land was at times enforced a few hundred metres beyond this, with a “high risk zone” extending sometimes up to 1,500 metres.’  In November 2012 these restrictions were supposed to be eased, as part of the agreement ending the Israeli offensive earlier that month.  But as the Commissioner reported, ‘there has been an increased level of uncertainty regarding the access restrictions imposed on land since this date.’  In the spring UN monitoring teams reported that in most cases farmers could not enter lands within 300 metres of the fence and that the Israeli military fired warning shots if they attempted to do so, that in some places the exclusion zone extended beyond 300 metres, and that there was continued concern about the presence of unexploded ordnance in the border areas. The map produced by Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom and Movement for September 2013, ‘Mapping movement and access‘, reflects these realities, and you can find a detailed report from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and the IDMC, Under Fire: Israel’s enforcement of access restricted areas in the Gaza Strip (February 2014) here.

under-fire-cover-small

Unexploded ordnance is a matter of grave concern, but there has also been a history of live-fire incidents (see the graph below).  Since December 2013 and before the current Israeli offensive the number of live-fire casualties near the fence was increasing again. In a ten week period between December 2013 and March 2014 B’Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sabah documented 55 civilians injured near the fence: 43 by live fire; 10 by rubber bullets; and two hit by teargas canisters [I can’t link to the report at the moment because the B’Tselem website is under attack and has been taken off the grid; I can now – it’s here].

Shooting incidents in ARA, Gaza

These live-fire incidents are sometimes carried out from remote-controlled stations; the system is called ‘Spot and Strike‘.  Michael Morpurgo, the creator of “War Horse”, saw its effects when he visited Gaza in November 2010 as a representative of Save the Children:

“I stood in among the ruins watching the kids at work, coming and going with their donkeys and carts. They didn’t seem worried, so I wasn’t worried… I heard the shots, then the screaming, saw the kids running to help their wounded friends. Now I really was outside the comfort zone of fiction. A doctor from Medecins Sans Frontieres told me that the shots were not fired by snipers from the watchtowers on the wall, as I had supposed, but that these scavengers were routinely targeted, electronically from Tel Aviv, which was over 25 kilometres away – ‘Spot and Strike’, the Israelis call it.

“It was like a video game – a virtual shooting, only it wasn’t: there was blood, his trousers were soaked in it, the bullets were real. I saw the boy close to, saw his agony as the cart rushed by me. Many like him, the doctor told me, ended up maimed for life. Here was a child, caged and under siege, being deliberately targeted, his right to survival, the most basic of all children’s rights, being utterly ignored. Unicef says that 26 children were shot like this in 2010. The boy I saw was called Shamekh, I discovered. He lives in a house with 15 family members, and was out there earning what money he could, in the only way he knew how.’

Today, there is a palpable sense in which the whole of Gaza has become a death zone.  First, Israel has declared a three-kilometre ‘buffer zone’ inside Gaza’s borders which now effectively places 44 per cent of the territory off limits (you can download the OCHA map below here; the second map makes the situation clearer, though it inevitably sacrifices detail).  Compare this with the previous map by following the line of the road south-north.

GAZA Access Restrictions JULY 2014

ocha_opt_gaza_access_and_closure_map_december_2012_geopdf_mobile_buffer

Léopold Lambert has provided this close-in triptych which exposes the enormity of the expansion and the knock-on effects of the forced displacement:

Gaza

Mohammed Omer reports:

Anyone within the zone has been warned by the Israeli military to leave or risk being bombed.

This buffer zone has only exacerbated Gaza’s siege. To the east, Palestinians in Gaza are fenced in by Israeli artillery tanks, mortars, cannon shells and snipers. On Gaza’s western side, Israeli warships form a blockade and allow only a three-mile fishing zone. To the north resides more military checkpoints and soldiers. To the south, the Egyptian military has closed off the Rafah border.

The buffer zone has tightened the Israeli chokehold around Gaza’s small strip of land.

Damage in the Gaza stripThis is, as Jesse Rosenfed reports, a ‘No Man’s Land’ in exactly the expanded sense proposed by Noam Leshem and Al Pinkerton:

What that means on the ground is scenes of extraordinary devastation in places like the Al Shajaya district approaching Gaza’s eastern frontier, and Beit Hanoun in the north. These were crowded neighborhoods less than three weeks ago. Now they have been literally depopulated, the residents joining more than 160,000 internally displaced people in refuges and makeshift shelters. Apartment blocks are fields of rubble, and as I move through this hostile landscape the phrase that keeps ringing in my head is “scorched earth.”

It’s not like Israel didn’t plan this. It told tens of thousands of Palestinians to flee so its air force, artillery and tanks could create this uninhabitable no-man’s land of half-standing, burned-out buildings, broken concrete and twisted metal. During a brief humanitarian ceasefire some Gazans were able to come back to get their first glimpse of the destruction this war has brought to their communities, and to sift through their demolished homes to gather clothes or other scattered bits of their past lives. But many were not even able to do that.

Satellite imagery has confirmed the scale of the devastation; the map (right) is based on just three areas within the expanded ‘buffer zone’ and was compiled from imagery taken before the intensification of the onslaught.  You can find details of the UNITAR/UNOSAT programme and image files here.  If you can bear to get closer, there are photographs taken on the ground here and here.

Second, the Israeli military have not confined their operations to the expanded buffer zone, and those who have – somehow – found sanctuary outside its limits (but of necessity still within the closed and shuttered confines of Gaza) have found that they are pursued by aircraft and tanks.  The image below, taken from the same source (and same date) used to compile the map above, shows a wide arc of damage in central Gaza far beyond the ‘zone’ (see also my previous posts herehere and here; you can also find a detailed interactive photo-map of the whole territory from the New York Times here).

Damage Assessment Gaza City 25 July 2014

‘The problem,’as one young resident explained to Anne Barnard, ‘is that when we are fleeing from the shelling, we still find the shelling around us.’  Stories abound of families seeking refuge only to find death waiting for them.  One man told Alexandra Zavis that his brother, four sisters, brother-in-law and five young children escaped from eastern Gaza to what they thought was a safe place in central Gaza City, only to be killed when the top floors of the building collapsed after an Israeli air strike the very next day.  Others tell similar stories – one family moving twice before eventually ten of them were killed.  And then there are all those who have sought refugee in UNRWA camps, many of them schools, or who have been rushed to hospitals for treatment, only to be bombed and shelled there too.

Ha’aretz‘s headline on 31 July says it all: ‘The Gaza battlefield is crowded with the displaced and the homeless.’  So it is.  And still they are bombed and shelled.  As UNRWA’s Chris Gunness put it, ‘Gaza is unique in the annals of modern warfare in being a conflict zone with a fence around it, so civilians have no place to flee.’

In his seminal essay on ‘Necropolitics‘, written more than ten years ago, Achille Mbembe had this to say:

Late-modern colonial occupation differs in many ways from early-modern occupation, particularly in its combining of the disciplinary, the biopolitical, and the necropolitical. The most accomplished form of necropower is the contemporary colonial occupation of Palestine… 

Entire populations are the target of the sovereign. The besieged villages and towns are sealed off and cut off from the world. Daily life is militarized… The besieged population is deprived of their means of income. Invisible killing is added to outright executions…

I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necro-power to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.

Gaza has been systematically turned not only into a prison, then, but also into a camp: and the lives of those within have been have been subjected to a ruthless bio-political programme that, at the limit, has become a calculated exercise in necro-politics.  This confirms Paul Di Stefano‘s claim that that, for the Israeli military, Gaza has been transformed into ‘a state of exception where normal rights do not apply. Within this liminal space, Palestinian bodies are viewed as obstacles to be destroyed or controlled in the maintenance of the colonial order.’

BDS

w640A follow-up to ‘Bombed, Destroyed, Slaughtered‘: Verso has now made available its 2012 anthology, The case for sanctions against Israel, as a free download here:

In July 2011, Israel passed legislation outlawing the public support of boycott activities against the state, corporations, and settlements, adding a crackdown on free speech to its continuing blockade of Gaza and the expansion of illegal settlements. Nonetheless, the campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) continues to grow in strength within Israel and Palestine, as well as in Europe and the US.

This essential intervention considers all sides of the movement—including detailed comparisons with the South African experience—and contains contributions from both sides of the separation wall, along with a stellar list of international commentators. With contributions by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, Merav Amir, Hind Awwad, Mustafa Barghouthi, Omar Barghouti, Dalit Baum, Joel Beinin, John Berger, Angela Davis, Nada Elia, Marc H. Ellis, Noura Erakat, Neve Gordon, Ran Greenstein, Ronald Kasrils, Jamal Khader, Naomi Klein, Paul Laverty, Mark LeVine, David Lloyd, Ken Loach, Haneen Maikey, Rebecca O’Brien, Ilan Pappe, Jonathan Pollak, Laura Pulido, Lisa Taraki, Rebecca Vilkomerson, Michael Warschawski, and Slavoj Žižek.

War, travel, travel writing

What got me in to the work on war that has preoccupied me for the last ten years or more was an interest in travel and travel-writing.  I spent several years on European and American travellers to Egypt in the long nineteenth century between the Napoleonic invasion of 1798 and the First World War.  Inspired by Edward Said‘s Orientalism, I wanted to move the discussion away from the canonical texts that had caught Said’s attention to more mundane diaries, travel writings and guide books, together with sketches, paintings and photographs, made by travellers and tourists as they struggled to find the terms for a culture and a landscape for which most of them had no terms.  I was particularly concerned to move beyond the texts and to think about the bodily encounters,  changing transactions and material landscapes that emerged in the course of a ‘scripting’ of Egypt for modern tourism.

My original intention was to bring all this together in a book to be called Dancing on the Pyramids, and one bright September morning, on the brink of a rare sabbatical leave, I was at last ready to write.  I switched on the TV and watched a plane fly into the World Trade Center.  In the days and weeks that followed, it seemed impossible to seek refuge in past: and yet, as I watched events unfold, I realised that many of the formations that I had identified in the nineteenth century were being reactivated in the shadows of 9/11, in the United States and in Britain, and in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq.  That journey produced The colonial present and, while I’m still determined to return to Dancing one day, I simply haven’t been able to leave war (past and present) alone.

see-world

So I was particularly interested to receive via the war @ media network, hard on the heels of my last post, news of an interdisciplinary conference at the University of East Anglia on 29 November 2014 on War, travel and travel writing:

Some of the oldest Western texts – Homer’s epics or Herodotus’s Histories – combine the experience of war with encountering foreign people and places. For combatants, the protracted nostos, or homecoming, is as much part of war as was the journey to a faraway battlefield. For civilians, deportation, evacuation, expulsion and displacement are often deeply traumatic. For those observing military conflict, travelling through a war zone can be exhausting, exhilarating or exasperating. For those merely travelling around or above it, it can be just as fatal as we have seen in regards to MH017. Conditions of war also produced the kind of document now officially used for identification – the passport.

This interdisciplinary conference broadly examines all manner of issues relating to war and travel, and more specifically issues relating to the representation of war and travel in the fields of museum studies, literature, psychology, theatre, military history and war studies, ethnography, gender, film, media, and others.

Keynote Speakers:

Professor Tim Youngs is the director of the Centre for Travel Writing Studies at Nottingham Trent University and the founding editor of Studies in Travel Writing. He has written or edited nine books, mostly on travel writing, among them Beastly Journeys: Travel and Transformation at the Fin-de-Siècle (2013) and The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing (2013).

Dr Muireann O’Cinneide (National University of Ireland, Galway) is the author of Aristocratic Women and the Literary Nation, 1831-1867 (2008) and has published on narratives of the First Afghan War, on Victorian travellers’ bodies, and on class, authority and the reception of knowledge in women’s travel writing.

Possible Topics/research questions:

• Travel writing about war / war writing about travel.
• Gender, travel and war.
• The role of the war reporter/foreign correspondent.
• International organisations (Médecins Sans Frontières, the UN, the Red Cross, Crescent, Crystal).
• Museums and wars in foreign places.
• Forced travel, trauma and the aftermath of war.
• The encounter with the other: enemy, alien, “native”.
• “Foreign experience” in expansionist imperialist practice, military recruitment and war propaganda.
• The effect of digital media on the representation of war and travel (blogs, Twitter, social media sites, e-journalism, war games).

The conference is organised by Petra Rau (UEA) and Kate McLoughlin (University of Oxford). Please email 300-word abstracts by 20th September 2014 to P.rau@uea.ac.uk, specifying the conference title in the subject line.

header_battlefield1

 

I wonder, too, about contemporary ‘war tourism’, so-called ‘dark tourism‘ (who doesn’t?  see my previous post in relation to Israel/Palestine here), and about journals like Sassoon’s…  Having recently returned from a brief tour of the battlefields of the Western Front around Ypres, I’m reminded that at least one Edwardian traveller down the Nile thought it remarkably strange to spend one’s leisure time visiting tombs and cemeteries…

Siegfried’s Lines

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The BBC reports that Siegfried Sassoon‘s diaries from the First World War have been digitised by Cambridge University Library and are now available online (more illustrated reports here and here).  The journals and two notebooks of poetry include not only Sassoon’s jottings but also sketches like the interior of a military hospital (above).

IM.0942_zpUnlike edited printed transcriptions, the digitisations allow the viewer to form a thorough sense of the nature of the physical documents. Sassoon wrote in a small but neat and legible hand, frequently using the notebooks from both ends. His war journals were used for a wide variety of purposes: in addition to making diary entries Sassoon drafted poetry, made pencil or ink sketches, listed of members of his battalion and their fates, made notes on military briefings and diagrams of trenches, listed locations and dates of times spent at or near the Front, noted quotations, and transcribed letters. The wartime notebooks were small enough to have been carried by Sassoon in the pocket of his Army tunic, and many had enclosures such as letters tucked into the outer cover or inner pouches; some bear tangible evidence of use in the trenches, from the mud on notebook MS Add.9852/1/7 to the candlewax spilled on MS Add.9852/1/9, presumably as Sassoon sat writing in his dug-out by candlelight.

The journals give a fascinating insight into daily life in the trenches. Sassoon records for example the first day of the Somme (‘a sunlit picture of Hell’; MS Add.9852/1/7, folios 10r-12v) and the moment when he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Arras (MS Add.9852/1/10, folios 6v-9r), along with manuscript drafts and fair copies of his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ (MS Add.9852/1/10, folio 45v-46r; MS Add.9852/1/11, folio 21-23). His drawings from France range from studies of towns and churches (MS Add.9852/1/5, folio 36v; MS Add.9852/1/9, folio 8v) to a psychological profile of ‘the soul of an officer’ (MS Add.9852/1/7, folio 3r). The poems include previously unpublished material along with early drafts of some of his best known works, including an early version of ‘The Dug-Out’ with an additional, excised verse: MS Add.9852/6/2, folio 76r).

I read Sassoon’s (fictionalised) Memoirs of an infantry officer several times, for ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and ‘The natures of war’, and again more recently for my new project on the casualties of war,  and didn’t find it a patch on, say, Edmund Blunden‘s Undertones of war.  But I’m looking forward to working my way through the notebooks because it’s already clear to me that there’s an immediacy and rawness to the writing that Memoirs often, understandably, seemed to lack:

‘July 1st 1916…  Since 6.30 there has been hell let loose.  The air vibrates with the incessant din.  The whole earth shakes and rocks and throbs.  It is one continuous roar.  Machine guns tap and rattle, bullets whistling over head – small fry quite outdone by the gangs of hooligan-shells that dash over to [illegible] the German lines with their demolition parties…. One can’t look out as the m[achine] g[un] bullets are skimming.  Inferno – inferno – bang – smash!!’

Lives, damned lives and statistics

The New Statesman is carrying a ‘reply‘ from a Professor Alan Johnson (Edge Hill University: it’s not clear to me if he’s still there) to a post by Jason Cowley on Gaza.  He doesn’t address Cowley’s substantive points about Gaza, but ends like this:

Today, there are forms of anti-Zionism that demonise Israel and fuel hate, from the academic theory of Judith Butler and Gianni Vattimo to the historiography of Shlomo Sand, from the popular street phenomenon of the “quenelle” to the ugly rise of “Holocaust inversion”.

To link Butler, Vattimo and Sand to fascist gestures like the quenelle is a lazy and offensive manoeuvre.  I leave the other scholars he mentions to those who know their work better than me: Johnson presumably has this interview with Vattimo in his sights, which is indeed reprehensible though scarcely representative of his corpus as a whole, but Sand is a distinguished historian whose counter-narrative to Zionism cannot be gratuitously dismissed, even if Johnson and his friends at the British Israel Communications and Research Centre don’t like it.

9781844675449-frontcover-01d22beb799d6fe99f8cd54193ff10f5But to suggest that ‘the academic theory of Judith Butler‘ somehow ‘demonises Israel and fuel[s] hate’ is intellectually vacuous.  What part of her ‘theory’ does Johnson have in mind? Her work on gender and subjectivity?  Her discussions of performativity? Her careful, ethical arguments about what constitutes a ‘grievable life’ in Precarious lives and Frames of war?

Those last two books do bear directly on the asymmetric horror that is being visited on the people of Gaza.  Readers may have seen the video of UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness dissolving into tears as he tries to talk about the Israeli shelling of Jabalia Elementary Girls School early on Wednesday morning, when children were killed as they slept next to their parents.  We should pause here to acknowledge the extraordinarily brave and vital work the men and women of UNWRA perform day after day and night after night under the most exacting conditions (and if we are to talk about ‘demonisation’ we should certainly talk about the abuse hurled at UNWRA by the Israeli right). During the attack on the school, at least 15 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.  The location of the school and its humanitarian re-purposing as shelter for more than 3,000 people forced from their homes by the offensive had been communicated to the Israeli military 17 times before the attack. After the interview, Chris composed himself and had this to say:

“My feelings pale into insignificance compared to the enormity of the tragedy confronting each and every other person in Gaza at this time.

“It’s important to humanise the statistics and to realise that there is a human being with a heart and soul behind each statistic and that the humanity that lies behind these statistics should never be forgotten.”

This is a perfect expression of what Butler has in mind, and urges us to have in mind.  There’s no ‘hate’ there, and there isn’t in Butler’s work either: just a caring expression for grievable lives so cruelly lost.

TOPSHOTS-PALESTINIANS-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-GAZA

What Butler has provided, on several occasions, is a thoughtful, measured critique of political Zionism and of the policies and practices of successive Israeli governments that have diminished, dispossessed and, yes, demonised the Palestinian people (see a previous, brief post here). I suspect Johnson would see this as the work of a ‘self-hating Jew’, an old canard, but what then would her critics accept as a legitimate criticism of Israel?  And if we have to resurrect that line of argument, might not actions like the shelling of a school crowded with refugees be the work of a self-demonising state?

BUTLER Parting waysButler’s reflections have been brought together in her Parting ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism (2012), which is a principled statement of an oppositional – not defamatory – ethics and politics.  As it happens, Society and Space has just published an exceptionally thoughtful review of the book by Lisa Bhungalia which explicitly connects Butler’s vision of ‘co-habitation‘, which Butler sees as not only consistent with but arising from an indelibly Jewish tradition, to the latest Israeli attack on Gaza (where her sharpening of the concept of precarity is also surely crucial: see also ‘Precarious life and the obligations of cohabitation’, a lecture Butler delivered at Stockholm’s Nobel Museum in May 2011: you can download it here).

There are, as Lisa notes, dangers in turning ‘resistance to Zionism into a “Jewish” value’, as Butler herself acknowledges, but in the end

‘Butler puts forth a compelling political vision for Palestine/Israel predicated on an acknowledgment of historical injustice and the instatement of new polity that would presuppose an end to settler colonialism – yet at the same time, this vision is derived, in large part, from a Jewish philosophical tradition. Justice still remains a Jewish value.’

Words understandably failed Chris Gunness this week.  And when a Jewish scholar who works so respectfully with the writings of Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, Primo Levi and Emmanuel Levinas is accused of ‘fuelling hate’ and so egregiously linked to the rise of popular fascism then all possibility of critical engagement seems lost.

And yet. Butler talks about being critical as being ‘willing to examine what we sometimes presuppose in our way of thinking, and that gets in the way of making a more livable world.’  She has done precisely that in Parting ways.  Perhaps Professor Johnson, instead of recycling the hasbara formularies of the Israeli military, might do the same.