‘Life is a rock but the radio rolled me…’

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The war in Vietnam was often heralded as ‘a new kind of war’, one that reached its awful climax in what James Gibson brilliantly criticised as ‘technowar’.  It had many dimensions, including the reintroduction of chemical warfare (Agent Orange and all the other herbicides) and the development of the ‘electronic battlefield’.

But at the time the US Army made the most of its commitment to what it called ‘air mobility’.

As you can see from this contemporary Army video, the concept was claimed as revolutionary (and, in its way of course, counter-revolutionary).  ‘An entirely new concept of warfare known as heli-borne or air mobile operations has been developed by the United States Army,’ claims the commentator, ‘and has been successfully employed to meet the problems posed by South East Asia’s hostile wilderness and bye enemy who hides there.’

In fact, it wasn’t invented in Vietnam, but it was a dominant mode of army operations there: you can download the US Army’s historical report on Air mobility 1961-1971 here, for example, the Vietnam Center and Archive has a helpful page on ‘The helicopter war’ here, and you can read an extract from Walter Boyne‘s How the helicopter changed modern warfare here.  There is also a considerable literature on ‘dust-off‘ that I’m working through for my new research project on casualty evacuation in war zones.

Airmobility 1961-1971

And don’t forget its role in popular culture.  The helicopter loomed large in the iconography of Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now (1979):

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More recently Pete Adey provided a summary of a more general concept of ‘aeromobilities’ [Geography Compass 2/5 (2008) 1318-1336] though his emphasis, perhaps not surprisingly, is on vision.

What interests me here, though, is another capacity, and one without which the potential of air mobility would have remained unrealised.

I’m talking about the voice on the radio.  I’ve written about the role of the forward air controller before, and the parallels between the air strikes they directed in Vietnam and today’s remote operations in Afghanistan (see ‘Lines of descent’, DOWNLOADS tab).

GREGORY From a view to a kill Shock and Awe Extract.001

This destructive power was captured with extraordinary economy by Phil Caputo in A Rumor of War:

Simply by speaking a few words into a two-way radio, I had performed magical feats of destruction. Summoned by my voice, jet fighters appeared in the sky to loose their lethal droppings on villages and men. High-explosive bombs blasted houses to fragments, napalm sucked air from lungs and turned human flesh to ashes. All this just by saying a few words into a radio transmitter. Like magic.

But the radio was part of a much wider network of military violence and military logistics in Vietnam.  Here is Frederick Downs in The killing zone:

With the radio, we grunts could make use of modern weapons. Without it, everything stayed put. We used the radio to call in artillery, naval gun support if it was close enough, air strikes, gunships, dustoffs, Puff the Magic Dragon [the AC-47 gunship], mortars, tanks, APCs and other rifle platoons. The radio kept us supplied. One day our order went in; the next day the chopper flew out with a delivery. We found each other by using grid coordinates and radioing them back and forth. A pilot knew he had the right location when we popped smoke and he identified it over the radio. By this method, we received C rations, ammo, new weapons, grenades, parts for our equipment, shoes, new clothes, underwear, socks, medicine, personnel replacements, beer, iodine tablets for use in the water, mail, and once in a while even a chaplain. To complete the cycle, the radio was used to extract us from trouble. Saving a life was often a matter of seconds. The radio was also a comfort at night. The periodic radio checks assured us that friends and help were always near.

Here too, incidentally, there are lessons for contemporary analysis: satellite imagery is clearly of vital significance for today’s advanced militaries, but so too are satellite communications.  I’ll discuss this is another post, but without those communication links there would be no full-motion video-feeds from all those Predators and Reapers – and their operating range would be dramatically constricted.  Ground operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere would also be virtually impossible without their radio links.

The-new-RTO

From 1965 the main field radio in Vietnam was the PRC-25 (‘Prick 25’).  You can find a detailed technical specification here, but here are the key passages:

‘The PRC-25 was about the size and weight of a case of soda. With its battery “can” included, call it a case of soda sitting on top of a six-pack. (It actually weighed slightly more than that, 23.5 pounds) There was a handle on each side at the top to carry it. The radio consisted of two parts, both in metal boxes, called “cans.” The upper can held the radio itself, the lower can held its battery pack. Metal buckles held the two together. The radio was tough and would easily survive a 50 foot fall from a helicopter onto a metal-planked runway. You could throw the whole thing in the water for an hour, completely submerged, then pull it out and expect it to work…

‘The radio antenna was exactly like a metal tape measure, but the bottom foot or so was a round flexible tube that screwed into the radio. There were actually two antennas, a regular one and a long-range antenna, carried in a canvas bag strapped to the side of the radio The radio had a transmission range, with the short antenna, of about 3-4 miles, but various terrain factors could influence this, of course. It helped to be higher up. The long range antenna was supposed to be good for up to 18 miles.

The rule of thumb was that the battery was good for about a day of casual operation, listening mostly, some occasional transmissions. In a period of intense use, transmitting/receiving all the time, it was good for perhaps 2-3 hours. The way the LRRPs [Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols] and SF [Special Forces] used it, shutting it off and only coming up at scheduled times to briefly transmit or listen, it was good for perhaps four days. Spare batteries were usually kept in a spare .30 caliber ammo can. When expended, the battery pack had to be physically destroyed. Inside were flashlight-type batteries which the Viet Cong could use in booby traps or to ignite bombardment rockets.’

Hoffman Humping HeavyNotice first the extraordinary weight of the thing.  I’ve detailed the loads humped by soldiers and Marines in Vietnam before, but you can see from this that the radio operator (RTO) was even more heavily burdened.  He also had to contend with a difficult load distribution: according to Rodger Jacobs ‘radiomen had to wear their radios on their chests because if worn on their backs the thickness of the jungle and the vines would constantly catch on the controls and change the frequencies.’  The best account of the trials and tribulations of an RTO that I know is Phillip Hoffman‘s appropriately titled Humping Heavy (right).

RTO2

Then notice the size of the aerial (above); RTOs carried a ten-feet rigid mast in sections but much of the time used a three-feet whip antenna.  This made the RTO extremely vulnerable: not only was he a marked target, but he was always close to the platoon or patrol commander and so both were hi-vis priorities in an enemy attack or ambush.   For that reason the most prized possession of many RTOs was a North Vietnamese Army rucksack: ‘They’re better than anything the Corps has,’ Jeff Kelly was told.  ‘It’ll hang lower on your back and won’t catch on branches. But the big thing is you won’t be giving off that radioman silhouette.’  Most RTOs taped the antenna down, but Hoffman made the mistake of questioning the wisdom:

Right away he demanded I stuff the flexible, three-foot whip antenna down my shirt to limit me (and by extension him) as a target. He knew a priority of the enemy was to knock out communication, and our commo was located on my back. I complied with his directive but made the mistake of telling him our signal strength would suffer. In no uncertain words he told me never to question him again.

Even with a network of relay stations and airborne retransmissions, communications were uneven and intermittent: the terrain could block signals, especially in the Central Highlands, and rain (especially during the monsoon) could play havoc with reception.  At night even a whisper was dangerous; here is John Edmund Delezen:

Hourly situation reports are sent to the radio relay atop of Hill 950 some three kilometers north of the Khe Sanh airstrip. The “sit-reps” are not sent in the form of words-we dare not speak in the black void; when the relay asks us to acknowledge his call, there are just the two distinct pauses in the constant squelch as the handset is keyed twice. The two small audible clicks are all that connects us with the world, and all that assures the relay that we have not disappeared into the liquid black night.

Artillery fire direction center Vietnam

It could be strangely remote for those receiving the transmissions too (above, an artillery fire support center).  Kenneth Sympson, an artillery officer, explained:

‘Our only contact with the men of the patrols was from radio transmissions—the infrequent call-in at a checkpoint or request for fire on some pretargeted location on their route. They were a noise on the radio and a trace on a map of the region. When you fired an artillery round in support, it was almost as if you were simply throwing it into the night and it just disappeared. It would later strike a place on the map, but there was no life there; there was only some representation for crossing trails or the contour lines indicative of the slope of a hill or a pin hole named Registration Point 3.’

Downs says much the same, describing gun crews anticipating ‘the release of their impersonal death into a grid square.’

But for those beyond the wire those staccato messages were far from abstract or impersonal.  ‘The radio was our link with literally everything outside our platoon,’ said Downs, ‘from supplies to survival’.  And without it, as he also said, ‘everything stayed put.’

Hence my title: and for those too young (or too old) to remember it, listen to this (YouTube).

Quagmire

I’ve received several e-mails asking for “Boots on the Ground” to be continued.  So here is the rest of my discussion of militarised nature in Vietnam, extracted from the long-form version of “The natures of war“.  It follows on directly from that earlier post, but please bear in mind that this is still only a draft – in particular, I need to add a discussion of malaria, somehow, somewhere – and that I’ve excised the footnotes and references from this version.

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Even the weather seemed out to get them. The tropical heat and humidity were so enervating that they appeared to possess their own monstrous agency. ‘There were moments when I could not think of it as heat,’ Caputo confessed, ‘rather it seemed to be a thing malevolent and alive.’ Dehydration and heatstroke were constant concerns, and the monsoon only compounded their misery. ‘It rained like it had been waiting ten thousand years to rain,’ one lieutenant said when the monsoon broke, and John Ketwig described rain drops ‘as large as marbles and driven with enough force to sting when they hit you.’ The ground was turned into a sea of mud, and even the ‘rear-echelon motherfuckers’ on the permanent bases had to contend with their bunkers and foxholes filling with water, and roads becoming ‘ribbons of churned slop’. Ketwig again:

‘There were areas of shallow mud and areas of deep mud, but there were no areas without mud. Most of our world was under water, and you had to know where to step. The huge trucks we worked with would often sink up to the frame. The driver would try four-wheel-drive, spin the cleated duals at the rear, and dig himself in deeper. The rule was, the driver who “lost” a truck had to swim down and attach the tow chains. Swim is an accurate term for the depth of the mud, but hardly describes the frenzied mucking about in zero-visibility goo.’

One Marine newly arrived at a base near the DMZ in the middle of the monsoon was advised that the best way to navigate the ‘boot sucking slurry’ was to ‘walk in the tank tracks’: ‘The mud is only an inch deep there … Plus if we take incoming [fire], you can lay down in the track and you’re five inches lower.’ Vietnam was often more than a metaphorical quagmire.

The irony was that the billowing storm clouds limited air reconnaissance and so made ground patrols all the more important. They also constrained the logistical and medical support that could be provided to them:

‘There were many days when aircraft could not fly in such all-consuming cloudy conditions. Hence we were not always assured that we would be re-supplied, or that we could get choppers in to take out our wounded or dead, and on one occasion we were compelled to sleep with our dead, and then awake in the morning and carry our dead along with us, while waiting for an opportunity to clear an LZ (landing zone) so that choppers could come in and lift our comrades out of the jungle for their final journey home.’

For those out beyond the wire the monsoon wreaked havoc. Jack Estes describes one tropical storm ‘ripping, ravaging and slapping through the jungle’ and ‘howling like a monstrous beast.’ Soldiers were drenched to the skin, their uniforms chafed, their packs became heavier as they absorbed the water, and thick, cloying mud clung to their boots and weighed down their every step. ‘The mud was ground into my letters’, wrote one Marine.

‘The mud was ground into everything. The mud was in our ears and mouths. Our c-rats [C-rations] tasted like the mud we lived in… We were brown men. Even the black men were brown men.’

Mud in Vietnam

It was all desperately invasive, and Lawrence said he felt ‘persistently violated by the soaking wetness’. There was no let-up when darkness fell and they dug in for the night. ‘Sleep was measured in minutes at a time on the rainy nights’ and ‘muscles were constantly drawn tight against the cold.’ One Marine admitted that one night it was so miserable that ‘after a while we were hugging like young lovers’ just to stay warm. But usually the combination of cold and wet was utterly debilitating.

‘The rain comes in sheets all through the night and when I am relieved I remain standing with the Marine that has relieved me. Soon we realize that nearly the entire team is standing to escape the flooded ground. As the rain intensifies, I surrender to the cold deluge; wrapping myself into the wet, muddy plastic, I try to sleep. Before daylight, I wake shivering and half submerged in a deep puddle of cold rainwater, the edges of my poncho floating beside me. I pray that I am dreaming. Leeches cover my legs, their bodies filled to the point of bursting, gorged with type “O” Positive. The crotch of my jungle trousers is caked with blood; a leech has fed on my groin. My wrinkled fingers struggle with the bottle of insect repellant and as I squirt it on their membrane-like skin, I vent my rage on them with frantic curses that are filled with disgust. As I watch them fall off in agony, I scratch at the wounds to maintain the flow of rich, clean blood that will hopefully prevent infection; the repellent burns deep into each wound.’

Aching muscles, pus-filled skin sores and scabs (‘jungle rot’) and even leeches were the least of their worries. The infantry still marched on its feet as well as its stomach – for the grunts at least, ‘the war was fought with the feet and legs’ – and constant immersion invited the return of an old adversary. When Delezen hauled off one of his soaking boots he was taken aback:

Vietnam feet‘[T]he foot is a wrinkled mass of putrid milk-white flesh and is badly cracked and bleeding. With the ragged boot in one hand and my weapon in the other, I crawl through the matted bamboo to the Corpsman [Marine medical specialist]; after a quick glance he tells me that there is nothing that he can do, his feet are in the same condition. It is immersion foot; trench foot was what our grandfathers called it in France. One by one each of my teammates removes one boot at a time and stares in repulsion at the condition of their feet… I try to dry the foot but I have nothing that is not waterlogged. Finally, in desperation, I place the wet socks under the shoulder holster; perhaps my body heat will dry them. There is nothing more that I can do so I pull the muddy jungle boot back on, lace it up, and try to forget about my ravaged feet.’

These physical sensations of exhaustion and pain were registered in a sensorium in which the usual hierarchy of senses was scrambled. As on the Western Front and in the Western Desert, sight was compromised in the rainforest. Visibility was limited by the dense vegetation and the filtered light. With a patrol strung out in single file five metres apart, it was all too easy to lose sight of the man in front – O’Brien said they each followed him ‘like a blind man after his dog’ – and at night ‘it was like walking inside a black velvet bag.’ Everyone’s eyes ached ‘from the constant strain of searching through the layers of jungle.’ In the middle of this ‘war of plant life’, wrote Caputo, ’it was difficult to see much of anything through the vines and trees, tangled together in a silent, savage struggle for light and air’. And yet, for that very reason, they had an almost palpable ‘sense of being surrounded by something we could not see.’ ‘It was the inability to see that vexed us most,’ he continued. ‘In that lies the jungle’s power to cause fear: it blinds.’ Not surprisingly, he concluded that ‘in Vietnam the best soldiers were unimaginative men.’ Once again, O’Brien spells out the consequences: ‘What we could not see, we imagined.’

TOM VAN SANT Night_Patrol_Vietnam_68.jpg.w560h404

As sight lost its primacy the other senses were heightened, particularly hearing. Noise was literally a dead giveaway – ‘sound was death in the jungle’ – and the jingle of equipment had to be minimised. Before setting out, Delezen explained, ‘each of us, donning our heavy equipment, jumps up and down listening attentively for the slightest sound; there can be no exception. What may be considered an insignificant rattle will become amplified in the silent bush.’ Sounds also seemed to travel farther at night. ‘Shortly after sunset the jungle became as black as tar, and our sense of hearing came to predominate over our sense of sight.’ Other noises filled the canopy – ‘the croaking of tree frogs, the clicking of gecko lizards like sticks of bamboo banging together, the drone of myriad insects, and the occasional screech of a monkey’ – and these played cruel tricks with the imagination. In isolation they could sound a false alarm, and it was common for rookies to wake their companions because they had heard something, only to be reassured ‘there was nothing out there.’ But together, as a sort of green noise, they could ‘lull you into somnambulance … [and] numb your sense of hearing and smell and sight until you start seeing things in the night.’

All of these burdens, physiological and psychological, convinced many soldiers that their greatest danger was from Nature itself. What exercised them most about the jungle was not the prospect of an encounter with a wild animal; their accounts mention bamboo vipers, whose bite was horribly painful but not deadly, and even the occasional tiger, but they repeatedly tell themselves that ‘all the bombing and artillery have driven the wildlife up into Cambodia.’ Neither was it the thought of being killed or wounded in an ambush: ‘Contact with the enemy was very sporadic’, John Nesser explained, and instead ‘it was the day-to-day miseries in the bush that got to us.’ It would be wrong to minimise the dangers of being killed or wounded, which surely preyed on soldiers’ minds. But what they clearly came to loathe with a passion was their intimate, intensely corporeal violation by the jungle itself. ‘There it is you motherfuckers,’ crows Corporal Jancowitz in Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn: ‘Another inch of the green dildo.’ The image is part of a long tradition of ‘porno-tropicality’ that is hardly peculiar to the US military, but during the Vietnam war it has a particular resonance for what it implies about violence, masculinity and the ‘un-manning’ of American soldiers.

Its power turns on the militarisation of nature in an altogether different register: one in which the jungle becomes terrifyingly alive, and its militant agency is made to account for the degradation of soldiers caught in its poisonous embrace and to justify its own destruction. There is a scene in Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green in which a photo-interpreter on a large US airbase is advised to sit on top of a bunker and stare at the jungle.

WRIGHT Meditations in Green‘“You have to concentrate because if you blink or look away for even a moment you might miss it, they aren’t dumb despite what you may think, they’re clever enough to take only an inch or two at a time. The movement is slow but inexorable, irresistible, maybe finally unstoppable. A serious matter.”

“What movement, what are you are you talking about?”

“The trees, of course, the fucking shrubs. And one day we’ll look up and there they’ll be, branches reaching in, jamming our M-60s, curling around our waists.”

“Like Birnam Wood, huh?”

“Actually, I was thinking more of triffids.”’

The scene is fiction but not entirely fanciful – one platoon leader called it ‘the magic hour when men begin to look like bushes, and bushes begin to move’ – and many came to see the jungle as capricious and even wilfully obstructive. Caputo complained that ‘cord-like “wait-a-minute” vines coiled around our arms, rifles and canteen tops with a tenacity that seemed almost human.’ A radio operator humped the set on his chest not his back because otherwise ‘the vines constantly change the frequency by spinning the knobs of the radio top.’ ‘Perhaps it is the bush that is the enemy’, wondered Delezen:

‘[T]he jungle is a “cat’s cradle” of twisted vines that seem alive, as if reaching for me. Sometimes, even when not moving, I find myself held in their grasp, it as if they silently attack when I am not looking, as though they are thinking organisms. When moving, the only way to pass through the vines is to become a vine; it is impossible to push through the jungle, forcing, fighting, and struggling. The bush must be negotiated with and each vine must be silently dealt with as an individual. Stealth and quiet is all that prevents our destruction from the ever-present enemy. We have learned that we must become a part of the bush, always searching for the passage that lies hidden through the entanglement…’

In this passage the young Marine moves from being attacked by the vines – ‘held in their grasp’ – to becoming one, ‘a part of the bush’, and the precarious relation between the two had to be constantly renegotiated if the men were to survive. ‘At times I am certain that it is possible for our team to be consumed by the enveloping walls of foliage,’ Delezen continues, ‘without a trace we could easily disappear forever, absorbed into the tangled mass.’ This was more than the spectral fear of getting lost, though that was ever present; more too than losing your grip in what O’Brien called ‘a botanist’s madhouse’. For many soldiers it was also an existential threat that emanated from a diabolical Nature. ‘The Puritan belief that Satan dwelt in Nature could have been born here,’ Herr wrote in an extraordinary passage:

‘Even on the coldest, freshest mountaintops you could smell jungle and that tension between rot and genesis that all jungles give off. It is ghost-story country… Oh, that terrain! The bloody, maddening uncanniness of it!’

Downs too was taken aback by the pervasive sensation of rot. ‘Covering everything was the smell of slimy, rotting vegetation’, he recalled. ‘Our clothes and our bodies were beginning the rotting process of the jungle.’ He recognised this as a physical danger – ‘every scratch was a breeding spot for bacteria which could result in the rapid growth of jungle rot’ – and one that involved constant physical degradation: as one Marine officer put it, ‘it is a different way to live, and it is not a state of grace.’ Downs also saw this as a profoundly moral danger. ‘Every day we spent in the jungle eroded a little more of our humanity away.’ For him and for countless others the rot set in as the deeply sedimented Enlightenment distinctions between nature and culture dissolved in the jungle. ‘Everything rotted and corroded quickly over there,’ Caputo agreed, ‘bodies, boot leather, canvas, morals’:

‘Scorched by the sun, wracked by the wind and rain of the monsoon, fighting in alien swamps and jungles, our humanity rubbed off of us as the protective bluing rubbed off the barrels of our rifles.’

To him, it was ‘an ethical as well as a geographical wilderness. Out there, lacking restraints, sanctioned to kill, confronted by a hostile country and a relentless enemy, we sank into a brutish state.’

Admissions like these reappear throughout the letters, diaries and memoirs that I have read, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly (the cleansing shower when a patrol returns from the field can sometimes be more than a matter of physical hygiene). They invite questions about how far the imprecations of nature – its assault not only on the human body but also on the humanity of the soldier – functioned for some of them as a more or less unconscious alibi for atrocity, so that those who committed acts of indiscriminate or unnecessary violence believed they had somehow been reduced to a ‘state of nature’ by nature. Its plausibility must have been heightened by the common dehumanisation of the Vietnamese (‘gooks’) and the reduction of the enemy and the civilian population to creatures of nature. Bernd Greiner says as much in his detailed analysis of atrocities in the far north and south of Vietnam: ‘Nature, the elements, literally everything took on the form of the enemy.’

The same imaginary also licensed a war on nature. The B-52 strikes, the napalm and the artillery bombardments all shattered the landscape (and the lives of many of those within it) but, as Wright’s Griffin is told in Meditations in Green, ‘it’s not as if [the] bushes were innocent.’ Griffin’s job was to assess the effects of the spraying of Agent Orange on the rainforest, the mangroves and the paddy fields by examining time series of air photographs:

‘It was all special effects out there. Crops aged overnight, roots shrivelled, stalks collapsed where they stood into the common unmarked grave of poisoned earth. Trees turned in their uniforms, their weapons, and were mustered out, skeletal limbs too weak to assume the position of attention… Griffin sat on his stool and watched the land die around him.’

Effects of Agent Orange on the ground

Wright was not alone in imaginatively enlisting the trees in the enemy’s battalions. This was the logic behind Operation Hades – a differently diabolical militarisation of nature – that was soon re-named Operation Ranch Hand. Its objective was to spray the forests with herbicides and deny their cover to the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. In so far as the intention was, as David Zierler reports, to create ‘a no man’s land across which the guerrillas cannot move’ then at least some American officials were perturbed at the spectre of the Western Front being let loose once again: ‘Defoliation is just too reminiscent of gas warfare.’ Their objections were dismissed, however, and the US Air Force expressed considerable satisfaction at the results: ‘herbicide operations in the Republic of Vietnam have proved to be very useful as a tactical weapon.’ Those on the ground had a different view. ‘We didn’t know anything about Agent Orange beyond the fact that it was a failure,’ declared Nathaniel Tripp. The brute fact was that removing the forest cover made movement more difficult for American troops too. Agent Orange turned the surviving vegetation into a slimescape and, worse, allowed the hated vines to multiply:

‘During the year or two that had elapsed since [Agent Orange] had been sprayed on the woods, the “wait-a-minute” vines seemed to have developed a liking for the stuff and taken over like a kudzu horror movie. The long, prickly vines hung in festoons from the stark skeletons of poisoned trees and covered the ground with a shoulder-high thicket. Sometimes it would take an hour to move forward a kilometer, hacking through the vines while the sun beat down unmercifully. Extra water was frequently dropped by helicopter between stream crossings, but men kept collapsing from heat exhaustion nonetheless, and we all had to stop and wait again while they were medevaced out’.

03_Plowinthecutpackmule

And clearing the rainforest exposed American patrols to more than the sun’s harsh rays. Later Tripp and his platoon were part of a division tasked with securing a route used to supply a detachment of forty Rome Plows – giant armoured bulldozers – that were busy ‘flattening mile after mile of woods’. ‘It was something to see from the air,’ he recalled, ‘like battalions of tornadoes had just passed through leaving nothing but a shattered tangle of mud and tree trunks and root masses.’ But again, the ground provided a different perspective:

‘Digging in was all but impossible, but we did the best we could in the pouring rain. The ground was covered everywhere with a mat of logs and branches, all interwoven and compacted, three to five feet thick and mixed with gummy gray clay. Surely, America had triumphed over the woods at last, and created a place that was impossible for anyone to hide in. Now, we were trying to hide in it, while the Viet Cong watched from the dark woods just meters away on both sides of the swath.’

And yet, even in this ‘landscape of hopelessness’, as Tripp called it, there were precious moments of relief and even of redemption. Jacobs knew that ‘war destroys everything it touches’, but sometimes he found himself marvelling at ‘the natural beauty that surrounded us.’ Just when Delezen was in despair – ‘There is no beauty here, only destruction’ – he found a wild flower near an abandoned, half-filled fighting hole. ‘Like a rare jewel, it seems misplaced; there is no place for beauty here.’ But then:

‘I remove the sweat soaked leather bush glove from my hand and drop to one knee to touch the delicate petals. My hand is caked with slippery mud, a mixture of red dust from Route 9 and sweat; the hand seems filthy and crude against the soft purple and white flower. I decide not to touch it; I do not want to spoil this last bit of beauty and purity that has somehow escaped the Devil’s grasp.

‘I look toward the team that continues to move on without me; I am reluctant to leave the petite blossom unprotected. Quickly, I gather a small pile of rusty ration cans and place them around the frail green stem. Perhaps the cans will offer protection; the team is looking back at me, I have to rejoin them. I want to take the flower with me but it will only wither and die in the heat. I have done all that I can to protect it from the madness. For a brief moment, I have escaped the hell of war and entered a peaceful sanctuary where care and compassion still exist…. As I move away from the little pile of rusty cans, occasionally I look back; with each glance the soft colors of the flower fade until they blend into the dry-green of the tortured vegetation.’

It’s an affecting passage in which Delezen joins his forebears on the Western Front in affirming the stubborn persistence of a pastoral nature, even in a tropical rainforest, but the most elegiac moment I know comes towards the end of Matterhorn. Marlantes’ young lieutenant thinks of the jungle ‘already regrowing around him to cover the scars they had created’:

‘Mellas felt a slight breeze from the mountains rustling across the grass valley below him to the north. He was acutely aware of the natural world. He imagined the jungle, pulsing with life, quickly enveloping Matterhorn, Eiger, and all the other shorn hilltops, covering everything. All around him the mountains and the jungle whispered and moved, as if they were aware of his presence but indifferent to it.’

Firebase 6 Dak To Vietnam 1971

In speaking so directly to the recuperative, regenerative capacity of even a militarised nature, I suspect Marlantes is also expressing a desperate hope that those who have brutalised so many of its life-forms might find redemption too.

DEU 1968 Jahrestag

 

Flash photography

d Press Photo-H-Bomb Can Destroy City, New York, March 31 1954

News from John O’Brian of an important exhibition and book.  The exhibition is After the Flash: photography from the atomic archive, which runs from 10 October through 20 December 2014 at WORK gallery, 10A Acton Street in London.

Photography plays a crucial role in shaping public perceptions of the atomic age and its legacy of anxiety. Cameras not only record nuclear events, but also assist in their production—whether as agents of scientific measurement, propaganda or protest. They witness the unseeable on our behalf, giving form to the invisible forces and forbidden sites that haunt popular conceptions of the nuclear world.

After The Flash: Photography from the Atomic Archive explores the intertwined histories of photography and nuclear technologies, and the camera’s role in constructing the public image of atomic energy and ‘the bomb’. The exhibition contrasts the ‘technological sublime’ that dominates much nuclear-themed photography—from mushroom clouds to cooling towers—with representations of personal encounters and experiences, tracing the hazy lines between spectacle and humanitarian documentation. Photographic fragments offer insight into broader nuclear narratives and reveal recurring tensions between invisibility and visibility, and obliteration and transformation.

The exhibition comprises three sections. Cameras and Clouds reflects on the mutual development of photography and nuclear technologies, and the camera’s role in producing abstracted spectacle, social documentary and scientific record. The second section, At Work in the Fields of the Bomb, identifies the physical and ideological structures relating to nuclear applications, demonstrating the seepage of atomic landscapes and themes into existing social, economic and political narratives; this section draws its title from Robert Del Tredici’s landmark 1987 photographic study of the US nuclear weapons industry. Thirdly, The Culture of Contamination explores individual and social engagement with nuclear imagery and issues, ranging from anti-war protest to homemade fallout shelters and pop cultural appropriations. Anxiety finds an outlet in kitsch as the mythologies of nuclear power permeate culture on both official and vernacular levels..

Drawing on the extensive personal ‘atomic archive’ of art historian and curator John O’Brian, After The Flash focuses on North American visual culture in the early decades of the Cold War from the 1940s to the 1960s, coinciding with the emerging ‘golden age’ of photojournalism.

book_coverThe exhibition in turn marks the publication of John’s edited book Camera Atomica, out later this month.  It includes contributions from Julia Bryan-Wilson, Iain Boal and Gene Ray, Douglas Coupland, Blake Fitzpatrick, Susan Schuppli [of Forensic Architecture fame!] and Hiromitsu Toyosaki.

Camera Atomica is co-published by Black Dog Publishing and the Art Gallery of Ontario, and precedes a photographic exhibition at the AGO in 2015.

‘Just looking’? Remote violence and surveillant witnessing

herscher_bookI’m sure many readers will know Andrew Herscher‘s Violence taking place: the architecture of the Kosovo conflict (Stanford, 2010) – not least for its compelling discussion of what Andrew called ‘warchitecture’ [for a summary see his ‘Warchitectural theory‘, Journal of architectural education (2008) 35-43] and his supplement on ‘the architecture of humanitarian war’.

It’s a book which seems to me to become ever more relevant, and also connects in all sorts of ways with Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture project.

If you don’t know it, there’s a helpful interview with Andrew at Rorotoko here:

What if the destruction of architecture was understood to be just as complicated, just as culturally resonant, and just as open to interpretation as architecture itself—or, indeed, as any other cultural form? This is the question that Violence Taking Place considers.

The salience of the question emerges from dominant perspectives on destruction, in public culture and the social sciences alike, which often insist on it as either a simple rational act, reducible to the intentions of its author, or an irrational act, completely escaping interpretation at all. What these perspectives each block, in equal but opposites ways, is consideration of the cultural labor that destruction performs—as a social performance, a spatial practice, an object of narrative and a figure of collective imagination.

Of particular relevance to my own work, is this passage:

Much of Violence Taking Place appears to be dedicated to violence “over there,” apparently far away—politically if not geographically—from most readers in the Global North.

But in one section of the book, a supplement on NATO’s 1999 air war against Serbia, I suggest that architecture functioned in that war in just the same way as it functioned on the ground in Kosovo—as a way to make manifest otherwise inchoate or invisible presences. For NATO, those presences were the Serbian “war machine,” “command-and-control system,” “military network,” and “infrastructure”—the explicit targets of NATO’s violence. Yet those targets were made available to NATO and subject to destruction by representing them architecturally, as the different sorts of buildings which came to be included in NATO’s every-expanding “target set.”

At the same time, the representation of targets as architecture and not as human beings allowed NATO to leave the human targets of its bombing campaign—both members of Serbian armed forces and civilians alike—unrepresented. NATO represented its war by images like videos shot by cameras mounted on precision-guided weapons or by surveillance photographs that showed buildings before and after they were attacked.

But these images displaced other images and even knowledge of other destruction, inflicted on human beings whose injury or death was only noted as “collateral damage.” Human bodies were often violated in the course of violating buildings; in these cases, then, the videos shot by precision-guided weaponry were snuff films screened as architectural studies.

Think about that last clause… and compare it with the unruffled commentary on US satellite imagery (1960-1999) from the National Security Archive here, which focuses on the ‘burdens’ imposed on image interpreters and the degradation of the images when released to the public (see below).

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I rehearse all this because Andrew has returned to these and related issues around militarised vision in a spell-binding essay in Public Culture 26: 3 (2014) 46-500: ‘Surveillant witnessing: satellite imagery and the visual politics of human rights’.

I’ve written about ‘remote witnessing’ before – see here and here – and argued that it ‘requires difficult, painstaking work in multiple registers because the imagery does not speak for itself’ and that it must become ‘a multi-modal, highly mediated structure of testimony, inference and evidence: always situated, inescapably precarious, and absolutely vital.’  Without that, there is the ever-present danger that, in Andrew’s words, the act of remote witnessing becomes ‘action without acting’.

Satellite Sentinel Project

I based these claims, in part, on the Satellite Sentinel Project, which is also one of Andrew’s foci, but he places it in a carefully constructed genealogy that opens up the complicities between the surveillance state and human rights geo-witnessing.

One of Andrew’s most provocative arguments concerns what he calls the ‘imaginative geography’ performed and sanctioned through satellite imaging:

Human rights satellite imaging takes place within a geography of closed territories and open skies—the geography of a world in which repressive regimes can prevent reporting of any human rights abuse and surveillance satellites can report freely on every such abuse….

The binary opposition that underlies such accounts— closed territory / open sky — speaks to what Edward Said (1978) called an imaginative geography. In human rights advocacy, this is a geography in which the satellite gaze makes a place for itself by negating the gaze of on-the-ground witnesses—the same geography, of course, that underlay satellite surveillance from the Cold War through the Iraq War. On one side, this geography ignores the local and sometimes transnational or international human rights organizations whose reports provide the basis for satellite examination in the first place. These reports evince the human rights issues that satellite imagery is recruited to corroborate. Satellite images themselves, then, do not reveal or expose secret spaces: they revisualize a prior revelation. The secrecy that the satellite image dispels is therefore only partial or fragmented—it’s a secrecy that exists for certain publics and not for others.

On the other side, this geography ignores the status of satellite imagery as at once corporate property and the subject of a dense constellation of national laws and policies. In the United States, the government has attempted to maintain control of commercial satellite imagery by reserving a right to “shutter control,” or to restrict imagery, in order to protect “national security” or “foreign policy interests”; by instituting various time restrictions determining the release of imagery; by denying commercial licenses for certain sorts of high-resolution imagery; and by maintaining the right to “censorship by contract,” or the purchase of all output from a satellite for a specified period of time (Campbell 2008: 23). A geography of closed territories and open skies thus denies both the openings to repressive states made by on-the-ground human rights advocates and the closures of the sky structured by corporate practice and national law and policy. Both denials serve to stage the surveillance witnessing conducted by satellite imaging systems as a privileged view on human rights abuses, providing a monopoly on the discursive construction of the human rights abuse to those human rights organizations with access to satellite imagery.

Here Andrew’s analysis intersects with another excellent essay: Jeremy Crampton, Susan Roberts and Ate Poorthuis, ‘The new political economy of geographical intelligence’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104 (1) (2014) 196-214.

But I wonder if it really is the case that the satellite gaze necessarily ‘negates the gaze of on-the-ground witnesses’?  It may well, of course, and Andrew is right to draw our attention to the way in which the framing of these images works to interpellate the viewer.  In particular, he suggests that the seeming objectivity of satellite imagery – or at any rate its politico-technical erasure of ‘subjectivity’ – is part of its extraordinary panoptical power that can simultaneously produce an apolitical viewing subject.

But this is conditional – see, for example, my discussion of Human Rights Watch‘s report on chemical weapons attacks in Damascus; equally, Forensic Architecture‘s brilliant work with satellite imagery surely shows that there is nothing necessary about these reductions (though constant vigilance is clearly the order of the day).

That said, Andrew’s root concern is that ‘in the current global order, violence inflicted in the name of human rights can look similar or identical to violence whose infliction is categorized as a human rights abuse.’  And that is perhaps the most important sentence in an extremely important essay.