Overlooking Auschwitz

To mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, there has been widespread interest in a haunting video shot for the BBC using a commercial drone:

For once, the emptiness of the scene – just buildings, fences and railway tracks – is desperately affecting.   It’s surely impossible to watch this without thinking of the millions of people whose lives were so brutally effaced by the murderous regime of the Third Reich.  The only sign of a human presence in the video is a glimpse over the wall of trucks racing by: a reminder that Auschwitz was (and disconcertingly remains) at the centre of a small town (see also my post on Auschwitz here).

There are at least two other films that ought to be seen too.

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The first is a documentary commissioned in 1945 by the Psychological Warfare Film Section of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force to document the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.  The producer was Sidney Bernstein, for Britain’s Ministry of Information; Alfred Hitchcock was drafted in as a ‘treatment adviser’.  The working title was German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey; it was never shown in its entirety (though Billy Wilder turned the footage into a short, Death Mills), and the Imperial War Museum notes:

From the start of the project, there were a number of problems including the practical difficulties of international co-operation and the realities of post-war shortages. These issues delayed the film long enough to be overtaken by other events including the completion of two other presentations of concentration camp footage to the German people and the evolution of occupation policy, where the authorities no longer considered a one-hour compilation of atrocity material appropriate. The last official action on the film was a screening of an incomplete rough-cut on 29 September 1945, after which the film was shelved, unfinished.

The footage has now been incorporated into a stunning HBO documentary, Night Will Fall, directed by André Singer, who was an Executive Producer for Act of Killing (see my posts here, here and here).

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There are all sorts of stories about why the full version was never shown – see the Guardian‘s report here – but the fullest discussions are Kay Gladstone‘s ‘Separate intentions’ in Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman (eds) Holocaust and the moving image (2005) (see also Haggith’s ‘Filming the liberation of Bergen-Belsen here) and her ‘Memory of the Camps: the rescue of an abandoned film’, in Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman (eds) Concentrationary cinema (2011).

The second film returns to the aerial view and to Auschwitz: Harun Farocki’s Images of the world and the Inscription of War.  Shockingly and sadly, Farocki died last summer at the age of 70, and Images is widely regarded as his masterpiece (see Thomas Voltzenlogel‘s wide-ranging and appreciative discussion of ‘Dialectics in images’ here).  The central motif is an image taken from a series of aerial photographs of Auschwitz shot by the Allies between April 1944 and January 1945 (see also here and here).

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This image was taken on 4 April 1944 by Lt Charles Barry flying a Mosquito from 60 Photo Reconnaissance Squadron of the South African Air Force.  From the film’s commentary [available in Discourse 5(3) (1993) 78-92]:

American aircraft had taken off in Foggia, Italy, and flown towards targets in Silesia – factories for synthetic petrol and rubber – known as Buna.

On the flightover the IG Farben company factory still under construction, a pilot clicked his camera shutter and took photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

First picture of Auschwitz taken at 7,000 meters altitude.

The pictures taken in April 1944 in Silesia arrived for evaluation in Medmenham, England [the RAF’s Central Intelligence Unit concerned with air photograph interpretation].

The analysts discovered a power station, a carbide factory, a factory under construction for Buna and another for petrol hydrogenation.

They were not under orders to look for the Auschwitz camp, and thus they did not find it.

How close the one is to the other: the industry – the camp.

It was not until 1977 that two employees of the CIA [Dino Brugioni and Robert Poirer: see their detailed report here] went through the archives to find and evaluate the photographs of Auschwitz. It was not until thirty-three years later that the following words were inscribed:

Tower and Commandant’s house and

Registration Building and Headquarters and Administration and

Fence and execution wall and Block 11 and the word “Gas chamber” was inscribed.

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Kaja Silverman adds this gloss [‘What is a camera?’ Discourse 5 (30 (1993) 3-56]:

Not only does the camera here manifestly “apprehend” what the human eye cannot, but the latter seems strikingly handicapped by its historical and institutional placement, as if to suggest that military control attempts to extend beyond behavior, speech, dress,and bodily posture to the very sensory organs themselves. This sequence indicates, in other words,that military discipline and the logic of warfare function to hyperbolize the distance separating look from gaze and to subordinate the former completely to the latter.

These are similar issues that haunt my own discussions of the video feeds from Predators and Reapers over Afghanistan and Iraq.  In another commentary, Christa Blümingler writes:

The vanishing point of Images of The World is the conceptual image of the ‘blind spot’ of the evaluators of aerial footage of the IG Farben industrial plant taken by the Americans in 1944. Commentaries and notes on the photographs show that it was only decades later that the CIA noticed what the Allies hadn’t wanted to see [my emphasis]: that the Auschwitz concentration camp is depicted next to the industrial bombing target.

Bombing of AuschwitzThe claim that the ‘Allies didn’t want to see’ spirals through an important debate about whether the Allies could or should have bombed Auschwitz (see, in addition to the symposium on the right, here and here).  In fact, as Christa observes later,

In … 1944, the allies bombed not Auschwitz, but the IG Farben factory nearby the death camp. Drawing on analyses of these events, how and why the allies didn’t act on their knowledge of the mass destruction of the Jews, Farocki … decodes a host of military images, focusing on two visual dispositives: American pilots in 1944 and CIA agents in 1977 offering two different [readings] of the aerial photographs of Auschwitz.

In this instance, Farocki developed an epistemological field of technological history — measurement and surveillance in a period of rapid automatization. At the end of the film, a blind spot in the photographic act, referring back to the reality of the concentration camp, becomes visible.

The final shots further emphasize details of the American pilots’ aerial photos, which are picked up in the sweep of the film several times, framed and arranged in different ways. At the end of the film, through a permutative movement of cuts, the extreme enlargement of the photographs reminds us once again of their materiality. Farocki shows these images in precisely the spaces where visual thought takes place, and in connection to specific techniques of reproduction and distribution (in albums, archives, institutions). Whenever he used marginal and hard-to-access image materials from specialized archives, he sought to consider these conditions of visibility in his analysis.

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What particularly interests me, and the reason I juxtapose these two films, is an interview with Chris Darke in 2003 in which Farocki artfully tracks between the eye-witness and the aerial shot:

Chris Darke: In Images of the World and the Inscription of War there is this repeated phrase: “Beside the real world there is a second world, a world of pure military fiction”. I was very strongly reminded of Colin Powell at the UN Security Council presenting degraded military surveillance images as proof and justification for military action.

HF: Yes, it reminded me so much of the Auschwitz sequences in Images of the World, the way they involved aerial reconnaissance images that you had to be a specialist to read. Who knows what they are telling you? Who knows what happened there? What is so interesting is that the personal witness of two people who had escaped from the camps was so important. It was the way that traditional history was always written. You need an eye-witness, a narrative, otherwise you’ll never believe in it. And it turns out that our imaginative minds are still very old-fashioned. We don’t understand modernist strategies such as those used by the Americans in the first Gulf War. You really want to see these terrible, dirty images of burning streets and wounded people in the same way that psychoanalysis knows that you need dirty thoughts for the imagination, just as for love you need dirty images. The audience is not prepared for this automatically recorded history that more or less happens already, where everything is recorded; so there has to be an old-fashioned drama made out of it.

There are at least two other detailed commentaries on the film that address the question of visuality in depth: Thomas Keenan‘s ‘Light weapons’, in Documents 1/2 (1992) 147-58 and Nora Alter‘s ‘The political im/perceptible in the essay film:  Farocki’s Images of the world and the inscription of war‘, in New German Critique 68 (1996). More generally, I also recommend the special issue of e-flux on Farocki’s work here, including a commentary by Trevor Paglen on Farocki’s ‘operative images’, and David Cox‘s brief commentary here.

Note:  Belinda Gomez writes (in relation to the commentary for Images of the World):

“Fence and execution wall and Block 11 and the word “Gas chamber” was inscribed….” But that’s not quite accurate. Brugioni and Poirier didn’t write that in 1977. The gas chamber didn’t have a sign. That they were able to locate the gas chamber and crematoria was due to their superior technology and they knew what they were looking for. The pilot/photographers in 1944 took photos of the factory and what was taken as a workers camp. To say that they didn’t see Auschwitz because they weren’t told to look for it is more of a hind-sight interpretation.

Unlawful combatants

Unlawful combatantsI know several friends are interested (critically) in Carl Schmitt‘s Theory of the Partisan (see also Jan-Werner Müller‘s commentary here), but Sibylle Scheipers has now provided an indispensable genealogy of these often shadowy figures and their late modern incarnations: Unlawful Combatants: a genealogy of the irregular fighter (Oxford, 2015).

Unlawful Combatants brings the study of irregular warfare back into the centre of war studies. The experience of recent and current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria showed that the status and the treatment of irregular fighters is one of the most central and intricate practical problems of contemporary warfare. Yet, the current literature in strategic studies and international relations more broadly does not problematize the dichotomy between the regular and the irregular. Rather, it tends to take it for granted and even reproduces it by depicting irregular warfare as a deviation from the norm of conventional, inter-state warfare. In this context, irregular warfare is often referred to as the ‘new wars’ and is associated with the erosion of statehood and sovereignty more generally. This obscures the fact that irregulars such as rebels, guerrillas, insurgents and terrorist groups have a far more ambiguous relationship to the state than the dichotomy between the state and ‘non-state’ actors implies. They often originate from states, are supported by states and/or aspire to statehood themselves.

The ambiguous relationship between irregular fighters and the state is the focus of the book. It explores how the category of the irregular fighter evolved as the conceptual opposite of the regular armed forces, and how this emergence was tied to the evolution of the nation state and its conscripted mass armies at the end of the eighteenth century. It traces the development of the dichotomy of the irregular and the regular, which found its foremost expression in the modern law of armed conflict, into the twenty-first century and provides a critique of the concept of the ‘unlawful combatant’ as it emerged in the framework of the ‘war on terror’.

Here is the Contents list:

1: Introduction
2: The Making of the Irregular Fighter, 1740-1815
3: The Nineteenth Century: Rebels, Rifles, and the Laws of War
4: The Second World War: Anti-Partisan Warfare, Genocide, and the Rebirth of the Auxiliary Fighter
5: Wars in the Colonies: Orientalism and the Social Production of Colonial Subjects
6: Irregular Fighters in the Twenty-first Century: Between ‘Unlawful Combatants’ and ‘Rebel’ Auxiliaries
7: Conclusion

The book is a product of the Changing Character of War programme at the University of Oxford, where Sibylle was Director of Studies until she moved to St Andrews in 2011.

The trauma hero

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Following up my earlier post on novels, memoirs and narratives of war, there’s a thoughtful discussion by Roy Scranton at the LA Review of Books on what he calls ‘the myth of the trauma hero’.

A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.

After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.

The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.

This is probably the place to say that Roy served in the US Army in Iraq 2002-2006, studied at the New School for Social Research, and in 2010 embarked on a doctorate in English at Princeton – although, as you will soon see, this runs the very real risk of claiming that ‘he knows what he writes’ by virtue of these experiences.

Roy traces the myth of the trauma hero to eighteenth-century European Romanticism, and argues that it achieved its mature form in the twentieth century.  Accordingly he follows its development through Wilfred Owen in the First World War, Ernest Hemingway in the Second and Tim O’Brien in Vietnam until he reaches its contemporary form in Afghanistan and Iraq – and, in our own immediate present, in a film like Eastwood’s American Sniper.

It’s a beautifully composed contribution, and it’s made me re-think the basis for my ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and ‘Natures of War’ essays (DOWNLOADS tab) because Roy’s central thesis turns on a critique of the sacralization of trauma in ways that, at first sight, collide with my own attempts to develop what I’ve called a corpography (also DOWNLOADS tab) that can make us attentive to the corporeality and materiality of modern war:

‘Most Americans seem to believe that war can only be known through direct, physical, sensory experience on the battlefield, such as the moment of vision Owen describes in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Ernest Hemingway, who in contrast to Owen’s long front-line service lasted only a few weeks as a noncombatant before being wounded and returning to the US, stands in American letters as the high priest of combat gnosticism. In Hemingway’s work, the emphasis on physicality, embodiment, and materiality we see in Owen’s representations of the soldier’s truth opens into a metaphysical bias against representation itself.’

d34387b998ba1136a34e9cc9e03515eeIn effect, Roy suggests, ‘being there’ becomes a privileged position from which truth cannot be communicated – only felt, and so only shared between those who were there.  The assertion of ethnographic privilege run through multiple fields from anthropology to journalism, of course, and it bedevils any attempt at historical reconstruction, but here it is heightened by the appeal to the supposedly inexpressible experience of trauma.  This could be developed still further through the reflections of, say, Elaine Scarry or Giorgio Agamben.  I take this very seriously, and yet if you work your way through the letters, diaries and memoirs of those who returned from the wars there is, I think, a sustained (and diverse) attempt to convey the corporeal – viscerally traumatising – experience of military violence.

But Roy’s point, I take it, is that this dilemma can function – can even be invoked – to exclude commentary and criticism.  And he concludes by emphasising the work that the ‘trauma hero’ continues to perform hors de combat:

‘[The most troubling consequence of our faith in the revelatory truth of combat experience and our sanctification of the trauma hero [is] that by focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for… Understanding the problem of American political violence demands recognizing soldiers as agents of national power, and understanding what kind of work the trauma hero is doing when he comes bearing witness in his bloody fatigues.’

I understand this concern too; there are – as I’ve argued in ‘The Natures of War’ – moments in many memoirs, novel and poems that reach towards the redemptive, even the exculpatory.  But I’ve also been deeply affected by those that disclose a more complex sense of the soldier as victim and vector of military violence: one of the recurrent motifs of the texts from the Western Front that I’ve worked with, for example, is the description of the fighting as ‘murder’.

So, much to think about – not least for the ways in which Roy’s ideas about the contemporary trauma hero complicate theses about a supposed transition to ‘post-heroic war’.  Those claims have a special resonance in the drone debates where, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Grégoire Chamayou has suggested that the trauma reportedly suffered by drone operators is ‘being mobilised to restore to war the ethico-heroic temper [critics] insisted it had lost through trauma’.

Evil Hours Cover Final

If you want to know more about the genealogy of post-traumatic stress, I recommend David J. Morris, The evil hours: a biography of post-traumatic stress disorder (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).   You can read an extract over at Salon here.  The book is particularly relevant to this discussion because it suggests that where trauma was once mediated through philosophy and literature it is now constituted through psychology and psychiatry.  David is very good on the arguments that raged over ‘shell-shock’ during the First World War, but if you want a ‘biography’ of that then you should turn to Michèle Barratt‘s Casualty figures: how five men survived the First World War (Verso, 2007).

Finally, Roy’s Learning to die in the Anthropocene is due from City Lights in the fall; you can get a taste of it from his essay in the New York Times with the same title here; this was the final installment of a five-part series on War and the city in which Roy retraced his footsteps from civilian to soldier to civilian.

Bodies of violence

Bodies of violenceNew from Oxford University Press, Lauren Wilcox‘s Bodies of violence: theorizing embodied subjects in International Relations (how I wish books didn’t come with subtitles that serve only to narrow the audience for works that deserves a much wider one).

According to conventional international relations theory, states or groups make war and, in doing so, kill and injure people that other states are charged with protecting. While it sees the perpetrators of violence as rational actors, it views those who are either protected or killed by this violence as mere bodies: ahistorical humans who breathe, suffer and die but have no particular political agency. In its rationalist variants, IR theory only sees bodies as inert objects. Constructivist theory argues that subjects are formed through social relations, but leaves the bodies of subjects outside of politics, as “brute facts.”

According to Wilcox, such limited thinking about bodies and violence is not just wrong, but also limits the capacity of IR to theorize the meaning of political violence. By contrast to rationalist and constructivist theory, feminist theory sees subjectivity and the body as inextricably linked. This book argues that IR needs to rethink its approach to bodies as having particular political meaning in their own right. For example, bodies both direct violent acts (violence in drone warfare, for example) and are constituted by practices that manage violence (for example, scrutiny of persons as bodies through biometric technologies and body scanners). The book also argues that violence is more than a strategic action of rational actors (as in rationalist theories) or a destructive violation of community laws and norms (as in liberal and constructivist theories). Because IR theorizes bodies as outside of politics, it cannot see how violence can be understood as a creative force for shaping the limits of how we understand ourselves as political subjects, as well as forming the boundaries of our political communities.

By engaging with feminist theories of embodiment and violence, Bodies of Violence provides a more nuanced treatment of the nexus of bodies, subjects and violence than currently exists in the field of international relations.

Here’s the Contents list:

Introduction
Chapter 1: Bodies, Subjects, and Violence in International Relations
Chapter 2: Dying is Not Permitted: Guantánamo Bay and the Liberal Subject of IR
Chapter 3: Explosive Bodies: Suicide Bombing as an Embodied Practice and the Politics of Abjection
Chapter 4: Crossing Borders, Securing Bodies: Airport Security Assemblages and Bodies of Information
Chapter 5: Body Counts: The Politics of Embodiment in Precision Warfare
Chapter 6: Vulnerable Bodies and “Responsibility to Protect”

If you don’t know Lauren’s work already, you can catch up with some of it here.