‘Something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing’


While I was in Cambridge, I managed to start Kate Atkinson‘s extraordinary novel, A god in ruins, and I’ve just finished it. It centres on the life of a bomber pilot during the Second War War, but it starts much earlier and ends around 2012 – and while its focus is on ‘Teddy’s War’ (it’s a companion to her earlier novel Life after Life (2013), with its unforgettable rendering of the Blitz, and it comes with a research bibliography), it’s about much more than that. In fact, a common refrain is ‘Let’s talk about something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing’ – though Atkinson handles those superbly well too. The best – and most affecting – novel I’ve read in an age. It’s not so much the scenes from inside Teddy’s Halifax that haunt me, brilliant though they are, or even the dilemma that lies at the heart of the novel – ‘killing people from twenty thousand feet up in the sky’ or killing a single, solitary soul – as the way in which Atkinson renders Teddy’s own death. She does so in exquisite, vivid, illuminating prose, and manages to leave a mesmerising ambiguity: as the walls close in and crash down one by one, is Teddy remembering – re-living – in the darkening present or dying in the incandescent past, ‘a blaze of light in the dark’?

Bodies at risk

This is far more than a post-script to my last post.  In writing ‘The Natures of War’ I started to develop the concept of a corpography (see also ‘Corpographies’ DOWNLOADS tab) because I became keenly interested in the ways in which the entanglements between military violence and ‘nature’ were registered on and through the body.

I had an appreciative message from Eileen Rositzka, following my Neil Smith Lecture at St Andrews, and I’ve finally caught up with a marvellous, exquisitely illustrated essay she has co-written with Robert Burgoyne: ‘Goya on his Shoulder: Tim Hetherington, Genre Memory, and the Body at Risk.’  It was published in Frames Cinema Journal 7 (2015) and is available open access here.

The figure of the body in narratives of war has long served to crystallize ideas about collective violence and the value or futility of sacrifice, often functioning as a symbol of historical transformation and renewal or, contrastingly, as a sign of utter degeneration and waste. As a number of recent studies have shown, the power of somatic imagery to shape cultural perceptions of war has had a decisive impact on the way wars have been regarded in history, and has sometimes influenced the conduct of war as it unfolds.

Following my good friend Gastón Gordillo‘s exemplary lead, I’ve been thinking about extending my original analysis from the mud of the Western Front in the First World War, the deserts of North Africa in the Second, and the rainforests of Vietnam into Afghanistan (for the book-version of the essay), and ‘Goya on his shoulder’ is full of all sorts of ideas on how to do exactly that.  Gastón has made much of Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington‘s extraordinary film Restrepo – see here and especially here – and Robert and Eileen add all sorts of insights to the mix and, in particular, provide an illuminating visual genealogy of the issues at stake:

With their concentrated focus on the body in war, Restrepo and Infidel also mark an intervention into contemporary debates in the emerging doctrine of “bodiless war” or virtual war – what is known in war policy circles as the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA). In contrast to the decorporealised, bloodless war culture promoted and even celebrated in many contemporary theories of war, Restrepo and Infidel implicitly dramatise the limitations of so called “optical war” in many current conflict zones, emphasising the body of the soldier as a critical site of representation and meaning.

Their journey takes them from photography of the American Civil War through Edward Steichen‘s mesmerising project to capture what they call ‘bodies at risk’ in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War to Afghanistan today.  As it happens, I’ve spent the last several weeks immersed in Steichen’s project for my ‘Reach from the skies’ lectures: Steichen was one of the foremost architects of aerial photography on the Western Front during the First World War, and the photographs taken of US sailors taken under his direction during the Second have much to show us about the entanglements between military violence, masculinism and the body (the slide below is taken from my discussion in ‘Reach from the sky’).

RFTS Masculinism and military violence.001

And so to Restrepo:

‘… the work of Hetherington and Junger marks an intervention in the contemporary cultural imaginary of war, dramatizing the limitations of so called “optical war” or “bodiless war” in the conflict zones of Afghanistan. The concentrated attention to the touchscape of modern war in their work, moreover, provides a fresh perspective on older traditions of visual representation, illuminating the genre codes of war photography and film in a new way. The visual and acoustic design of Restrepo, in particular, captures the haptic geography of combat in a remote mountain outpost in the Korengal Valley. The film highlights the concentrated experience of sound and touch, providing a first-person account of the way the body inhabits contested space, the way the intensities of war confuse and overwrite the sensory codes of vision, and the compensatory drive of somatic mastery, which is projected in vivid displays of masculine athleticism in the relative safety of the enclosure.

What Steichen called “the machinery of war” is all but absent in these images. Like Steichen, Hetherington expresses the brotherhood of the men in directly physical, gestural forms – in close physical contact, in the “bloodying” of new men, and in the tattoos they give each other with a tattoo gun they have brought up to the camp…

Depictions of war in Restrepo and Infidel revolve around touch – the heat, cold, and dirt, the intense exertion, the texture of skin. Although Hetherington’s images of white, muscular soldiers may be compared to the displays of imperial masculinity celebrated by Edison in his War-Graph actualities, and by Roosevelt in his appeal to the brave “game boys” of military adventure, they also relay the heightened sensuality of Steichen’s World War II sailors to a contemporary war setting. Scenes that contain a high quotient of violence – the firefights with insurgents, the roughhousing, the bloodying of new recruits – are here juxtaposed with shots of soldiers sleeping and other scenes of quiet reflection…

Foregrounding the body of the soldier as a medium of sensory experience and as a body at risk, their work recalls the long history of war photography, painting, and film, dramatizing the importance of the figure of the body in narratives of war, and the power of somatic imagery to shape cultural perceptions of conflict. In Restrepo and Infidel, haptic experience and embodied vulnerability unfold as the central fact of war, the heart of warfare. Here too, however, a certain cultural imaginary is invoked, visible in Junger’s discussion of “young men in war” and of the “hard wiring” of young men for the violence of war, a theme that sacrifices any consideration of context, as if war was an existential constant. Nonetheless, in this framing of contemporary western war, centred on the haptic geography of combat, we can see an initial sketch, an introduction, to a critical understanding of the corpography of war in the current period.

My extracts don’t do justice to the range and depth of the essay, and it really does repay close reading.

A long day’s journey…

Anti-landscape of the Western Front.001

A note from Antipode to say that the latest edition is now available online and, unless I’ve mis-read things, is open access (for now, at any rate).  It includes what the editors say ‘might well be Antipode‘s longest ever paper’ – pp. 3-56! – my ‘Natures of war’ essay here.

JARMAN Sand.001

Still reaching from the skies…

Sorry for the long silence – I’ve had my head down since soon after Christmas preparing the Tanner Lectures which I gave this past week in Cambridge [‘Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war’].  The lectures were recorded and the video will be available on the Clare Hall website in a fortnight or so: more when I know more.

In outline – and after a rare panic attack the night before, which had me working until 2.30 in the morning –  I organised the two Lectures like this:


Prelude: The historical geography of bombing

Bombing is back in the headlines but it never really left – and yet those who remain advocates of aerial violence don’t seem to have learned from its dismal history.  They also ignore the geographies that have been intrinsic to its execution, both the division between ‘the bombers and the bombed’ (the diagram below is an imperfect and fragmentary example of what I have in mind) and the pulsating spaces through which bombing is performed.

The bombers and the bombed.001

Good bomb, bad bomb

(with apologies to Mahmood Mamdani….)  In the first part I traced The machinery of bombing from before the First World War through to today’s remote operations.  Even though most early commentators believed that the primary role of military aircraft would be in reconnaissance, it was not long before they were being used to orchestrate artillery fire and to conduct bombing from the air. This sequence parallels the development of the Predator towards the end of the twentieth century.  In fact, almost as soon as the dream of flight had been realised the possibility of ‘unmanned flight’ took to the air.  Perhaps the most significant development, though, because it directs our attention to the wider matrix within which aerial violence takes place, was the development of the electronic battlefield in Laos and Cambodia. I’ve written about this in detail in ‘Lines of Descent‘ (DOWNLOADS tab); the electronic battlefield was important not because of what it did – the interdiction program on the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a spectacular failure (something which too many historians have failed to recognise)  – but because of what it showed: it conjured up an imaginative landscape, an automated killing field, in which sensors and shooters were linked through computer systems and automatic relays.  Contemporaries described the system as a vast ‘pinball machine’ (see the image below: you can have no idea how long it took me to track it down…).

Pinball wizards.001

The analogy allowed me to segue into the parallel but wholly inadequate characterisation of today’s remote operations as reducing military violence to a video game.

That is an avowedly ethical objection, of course, so I then turned to The moral economy of bombing.  Here I dissected four of the main ways in which bombing has been justified.  These have taken different forms at different times, and they intersect and on occasion even collide.  But they have been remarkable persistent, so in each case I tracked the arguments involved and showed how they have been radicalised or compromised by the development of Predators and Reapers.

Moral economy of bombing.001

All of these justifications applied to ‘our bombs’, needless to say, which become ‘good bombs’, not to ‘their bombs’ – the ‘bad bombs’.

Their bombs.001


Killing Space

Phillips' Aerial Torpedo.001

I started the second lecture by discussing The deconstruction of the battlefield; the wonder of Raymond Phillips’s fantasies of ‘aerial torpedoes‘ before the First World War was not so much their promise of ‘bomb-dropping by wireless’ but the targets:

Phillips' bomb-dropping by wireless.001

It was this radical extension of the battle space that counted.  In the event,  it was not British airships that dropped bombs on Berlin but German Zeppelins that bombed London and Paris, but the lesson was clear:


To explore the formations and deformations of the battlespace in more detail, I used the image of The dark heart of bombing to describe a battlespace that alternately expanded and contracted.  So Allied bombing in the Second World war extended its deadly envelope beyond Germany, Italy and Japan into Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway and Romania; later the United States would bomb North Vietnam but reserved most of its ordnance for South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; and US air strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq would eventually spill over into Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere.  In the course of those air wars, the accuracy of targeting improved until it was possible to aim (if not always to hit) point-targets – individual buildings and eventually individual people – but this contraction of the killing space was accompanied by its expansion.  These ‘point-targets’ were selected because they were vital nodes that made possible the degradation or even destruction of an entire network.  Hence, for example, the Israeli attack on the Gaza power station (more in a previous post here):

Gaza Power Strip.001

A similar argument can be made about the US Air Force’s boast that it can now put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and I linked the so-called individuation of warfare to the US determination to target individuals wherever they go – to what Jeremy Scahill and others describe as the production of a newly expanded ‘global battlefield’.  What lies behind this is more than the drone, of course, since these killing fields rely on a global system of surveillance orchestrated by the NSA, and I sketched its contours and showed how they issued in the technical production of an ‘individual’ not as a fleshy, corporeal person but as a digital-statistical-spatial artefact (what Ian Hacking once called ‘making people up’ and what Grégoire Chamayou calls ‘schematic bodies‘).

Next I explored a different dialectical geography of the battlespace: Remote splits: intimacy and detachment.  I started with RAF Bomber Command and traced in detail the contrast between the intimacy between members of bomber crews (a mutual dependence reinforced by the bio-convergence between their bodies and the machinery of the bomber itself) and the distance and detachment through which they viewed their targets.

Bioconvergence and the bomber crew.001

Intimacy in Bomber Command.001

The Good Wife.001

Cockpit dials.001

Distance and blindness.001

There’s much more on this in ‘Doors into nowhere‘ (DOWNLOADS tab), though I think my discussion in the Lectures breaks new ground. All of this is in stark contrast to today’s remote operations, where – as Lucy Suchman reminds us – there remains a remarkable (though different) degree of bioconvergence and yet now a persistent isolation and anomie is felt by many pilots and sensor operators who work in shifts:

Anomie and the drone.001

This is thrown into relief by the closeness remote operators feel to the killing space itself, an immersion made possible through the near real-time full-motion video feeds, the internet relay chatter and the radio communications with troops on the ground (where there are any). In contrast to the bomber crews of the Second World War – or those flying over the rainforests of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – there is a repeated insistence on a virtualized proximity to the target.

Good Kill in high-definition.001

But I used a discussion of Andrew Niccol‘s Good Kill to raise a series of doubts about what drone crews really can see, as a way into the next section, Sweet target, which provided an abbreviated presentation of the US air strike in Uruzgan I discuss in much more (I hope forensic) detail in Angry Eyes (see here and here).  That also allowed me to bring together many of the key themes I had isolated in the course of the two lectures.

As I approached my conclusion, I invoked Thomas Hippler‘s Le gouvernement du ciel: Histoire globale des bombardements aériens, (I’ve just discovered that Verso will publish the English-language version later this year or early next: Governing from the skies: a global history of aerial bombing):

Hippler Neo-douhetism.001

I’m not convinced that the military and paramilitary violence being visited on people today is all ‘low-intensity’ (Gaza? Afghanistan? Iraq? Syria? Yemen?).  But neither do I think it’s ‘de-territorialised’, unless the word is flattened into a conventionally Euclidean frame.  Hence, following Stuart Elden‘s lead, I treated territory as a political-juridical technology whose calibrations and enclosures assert, enable and enforce a claim over bodies-in-spaces.  And it was those ‘bodies-on-spaces’ that brought me, finally, to The loneliest space of all:  the irreducible, truly dreadful loneliness of death and grief:

Counting the dead.001

Behind the body-counts and the odious euphemisms of collateral damage and the rest lies the raw, inconsolable loss so exquisitely, painfully rendered in ‘Sky of Horoshima‘…

In the coming days I’ll post some of the key sections of the Lectures in more detail, which I’ll eventually develop into long-form essays.

I learned a lot from the expert and wonderfully constructive commentaries after the Lectures from Grégoire Chamayou, Jochen von Bernstorff and Chris Woods, and I’ll do my best to incorporate their suggestions into the final version.

In his response Grégoire traced my project on military violence in general and bombing/drones in particular back to a series of arguments I’d developed in Geographical imaginations in 1994 about vision, violence and corporeality; I had overlooked these completely, full of the conceit that my work had never stood still…. I shall go back, re-read and think about that some more, since some of the ideas that Grégoire recovered (and elaborated) may be even more helpful to me now.  Jochen and Chris also gave me much food for thought, so I shall be busy in the coming months, and I’m immensely grateful to all three of them.

Seeing ‘Through Post-Atomic Eyes’

All the videos from Through Post-Atomic Eyes last October are now available on YouTube here, including my “Little Boys and Blue Skies: drones through post-atomic eyes. My slide deck is available under the DOWNLOADS tab.

This is the sawn-off 30-minute version; I’ll be giving an extended version when I’m at Dartmouth later this month – and I’m really looking forward to that.