As many of you will know, from September 12th-15th the DSEI [Defence and Security Equipment International] arms fair will take place at the ExCeL Centre in East London. DSEI is one of the largest arms fairs in the world, with over 1500 companies and representatives from more than 100 states. As you can imagine, it also generates a lot of opposition. The Stop the Arms Fair coalition have called for a week of action before the arms fair begins, and as part of this we’re organising an academic conference, on Friday 8th September, that will take place in front of the ExCeL Centre. The conference will cover a series of issues related to militarism, with a series of talks, workshops and performances co-organised by activists and academics. Topics for workshops include:
– Militarism and (gendered) embodiment
– Recognising and resisting border militarism within universities
– Militarism and contemporary colonialism
– The purpose of radical theory
The team behind the workshop did this two years ago when the arms fair last happened, and the event was a huge success, providing participants with the opportunity to meet new people, have some wonderful conversations about the nature of militarism and the purpose of academic practice, and put academic ideas into action in an exciting and unusual manner. You can read a write-up of that event by Chris Rossdale in Critical Military Studies. There is a website for this year’s event here and Facebook event. Updates and logistics information will be available on both of those, but you can also get in touch with Chris Rossdale at C.Rossdale@lse.ac.uk if you want more details.
If you can’t make the conference (and even if you can), we are also currently circulating an open letter for academics to sign, signalling opposition to the arms fair. This will be published in a media outlet around a week before the action. We would be very grateful if you could sign it and circulate it to people and networks you think might be interested. You can find the letter here.
You can find more details (wherein the devil lurks) at DSEI’s website here, including this gem:
‘DSEI Strategic Conferences take place on 11 September (Day Zero) … 2017 brings Brexit and a change of US government, this combined with a competitive global defence & security market means DSEI can promise a conference and seminar programme that will challenge day to day thinking. Both events will tap into the ideas and theories of the people who drive the defence and security sector forward in pursuit of innovation and long-term economic prosperity…’
In case you’re wondering, admission is now £1,150 for ‘Industry/Academia’ but a snip at £150 for students….
News from the brilliant Nisha Shah that her paper, ‘Gunning for war: infantry rifles and the calibration of lethal force’, is just out in a themed issue of Critical Studies on Security [(5 ( 2017] on ‘Becoming Weapon’:
Infantry rifles are responsible for the majority of war-related deaths. This paper describes how and why they became ‘standard-issue’ military equipment. Examining testing reports, field surgery observations and bullet specifications, I develop a theory of instrumentality through which a specific way of killing in war- fare becomes legitimate and manifest in infantry rifles. Rather than pre-given objects that are made acceptable through an evaluation of their uses and consequences, I show that weapons become possible through an ontology that calibrates how killing in war occurs, technologically and ethically. More generally, this paper expands the study of weaponry and war by uncovering the material and moral specifications that not only design but also crucially define what counts as a weapon. Clearly stated are when and against whom the line between life and death can be drawn. This paper, by contrast, uncovers the conditions that generate how and with what that line can be legitimately crossed.
In their helpful introduction, the guest editors – Antoine Bousquet, Jairus Grove and Nisha Shah – explain:
No human artefact is intrinsically a weapon, be it a sword, an explosive or a chemical agent. Conversely, a passenger airplane, a shard of broken glass or a trained dog can perfectly well serve as a vector of bodily harm or lethality. An arrangement of things becomes a weapon through relational changes in intensity and context such that its motive force, density, potential energy or mechanical capability comes to make events of death and dismemberment. And beyond the immediate occasion of a weapon’s terrible work lies a wider network of relations that condition its emergence and support its operation. Systematically pursued, the tracing of such a network will draw out dependencies that extend far beyond the immediate requirements of its material production or the political economy of its acquisition and circulation, revealing the long tail of weaponisation that runs through our contemporary societies…
By placing particular emphasis on the making or becoming of weapons, we can begin to displace the fascination with the technical performance of destruction and instead query how weapons come to destroy in the first place. In so doing, we hope to break the deadlock between techno-fetishism and normative-polemical rejections of weapons, which together function as obstacles to a greater understanding of the significance of weapons in the making of worlds of violence and war.
It’s an excellent issue, including a paper from the equally wonderful Kate Hall (Kindervater). Here are those other contributions:
In Attachments to WarJennifer Terry traces how biomedical logics entangle Americans in a perpetual state of war. Focusing on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars between 2002 and 2014, Terry identifies the presence of a biomedicine-war nexus in which new forms of wounding provoke the continual development of complex treatment, rehabilitation, and prosthetic technologies. At the same time, the U.S. military rationalizes violence and military occupation as necessary conditions for advancing medical knowledge and saving lives. Terry examines the treatment of war-generated polytrauma, postinjury bionic prosthetics design, and the development of defenses against infectious pathogens, showing how the interdependence between war and biomedicine is interwoven with neoliberal ideals of freedom, democracy, and prosperity. She also outlines the ways in which military-sponsored biomedicine relies on racialized logics that devalue the lives of Afghan and Iraqi citizens and U.S. veterans of color. Uncovering the mechanisms that attach all Americans to war and highlighting their embeddedness and institutionalization in everyday life via the government, media, biotechnology, finance, and higher education, Terry helps lay the foundation for a more meaningful opposition to war.
1. The Biomedicine-War Nexus
2. Promises of Polytrauma: On Regenerative Medicine
3. We Can Enhance You: On Bionic Prosthetics
4. Pathogenic Threats: On Pharmaceutical War Profiteering
And here is the (equally brilliant) Laleh Khalili:
This brilliant book is a thoughtful and profoundly original study of how war becomes an object of attachment and support in the United States. Jennifer Terry’s discussion of wounding, injury, trauma, and prosthetics is one of the most fascinating, moving, and intensely generative studies I have read about how war is normalized, made everyday, and embedded in practices and beliefs and affect(ion)s of ordinary folks.
You can read the Introduction over at Catalyst: feminism, theory, technosciencehere, and watch presentations on ‘Militarization, medicalization, responsibility’ (from 2015) by Jennifer and Nadia Abu el-Haj on You Tube here.
In The Right to Maim Jasbir K. Puar brings her pathbreaking work on the liberal state, sexuality, and biopolitics to bear on our understanding of disability. Drawing on a stunning array of theoretical and methodological frameworks, Puar uses the concept of “debility”—bodily injury and social exclusion brought on by economic and political factors—to disrupt the category of disability. She shows how debility, disability, and capacity together constitute an assemblage that states use to control populations. Puar’s analysis culminates in an interrogation of Israel’s policies toward Palestine, in which she outlines how Israel brings Palestinians into biopolitical being by designating them available for injury. Supplementing its right to kill with what Puar calls the right to maim, the Israeli state relies on liberal frameworks of disability to obscure and enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies. Tracing disability’s interaction with debility and capacity, Puar offers a brilliant rethinking of Foucauldian biopolitics while showing how disability functions at the intersection of imperialism and racialized capital.
Introduction: The Cost of Getting Better
1. Bodies with New Organs: Becoming Trans, Becoming Disabled
2. Crip Nationalism: From Narrative Prosthesis to Disaster Capitalism
3. Disabled Diaspora, Rehabilitating State: The Queer Politics of Reproduction in Palestine/Israel
4. “Will Not Let Die”: Debilitation and Inhuman Biopolitics in Palestine 1
Postscript: Treatment without Checkpoints
Here are three pre-publication reviews, first from Elizabeth Povinelli:
In signature style, Jasbir K. Puar takes readers across multiple social and textual terrains in order to demonstrate the paradoxical embrace of the politics of disability in liberal biopolitics. Puar argues that even as liberalism expands its care for the disabled, it increasingly debilitates workers, subalterns, and others who find themselves at the wrong end of neoliberalism. Rather than simply celebrating the progressive politics of disability, trans identity, and gay youth health movements, The Right to Maim shows how each is a complex interchange of the volatile politics of precarity in contemporary biopower.
Jasbir K. Puar’s must-read book The Right to Maim revolutionizes the study of twenty-first-century war and biomedicine, offering a searingly impressive reconceptualization of disability, trans, and queer politics. Bringing together Middle East Studies and American Studies, global political economy and gendered conflict studies, this book’s exciting power is its revelation of the incipient hegemony of maiming regimes. Puar’s shattering conclusions draw upon rigorous and systematic empirical analysis, ultimately offering an enthralling vision for how to disarticulate disability politics from this maiming regime’s dark power.
And Judith Butler:
Jasbir K. Puar’s latest book offers us a new vocabulary for understanding disability, debility, and capacity, three terms that anchor a sharp and provocative analysis of biopolitics of neoliberalism, police power, and militarization. Gaining recognition for disability within terms that instrumentalize and efface its meanings carries a great risk. So too does opting out of discourse altogether. Puar references a wide range of scholarly and activist resources to show how maiming becomes a deliberate goal in the continuing war on Palestine, and how the powers of whiteness deflect from the demographics of disability and ability. Lastly, her deft understanding of how the attribution of ‘capacity’ can work for and against people in precarious positions will prove crucial for a wiser and more radical struggle for justice.
If you can’t wait until November, you can get a taste of Jasbir’s arguments in her essay for borderlands 14 (1) (2015) ‘The ‘Right’ to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine‘ available as an open access pdf here. I’ve been attending closely to Jasbir’s vital arguments as I re-think the sketches I made in Meatspace? and The prosthetics of Military Violence: more soon.
In another lifetime, or so it seems, I wrote a short essay on ‘The death of the civilian’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and I seem to have spent much of the intervening years developing those early ideas. So I’m thrilled to see an important new paper from NicolaPerugini and Neve Gordon, ‘Distinction and the Ethics of Violence: on the legal construction of liminal subjects and spaces’, available online now at Antipode:
This paper interrogates the relationship among visibility, distinction, international humanitarian law and ethics in contemporary theatres of violence. After introducing the notions of “civilianization of armed conflict” and “battlespaces”, we briefly discuss the evisceration of one of international humanitarian law’s axiomatic figures: the civilian. We show how liberal militaries have created an apparatus of distinction that expands that which is perceptible by subjecting big data to algorithmic analysis, combining the traditional humanist lens with a post-humanist one. The apparatus functions before, during, and after the fray not only as an operational technology that directs the fighting or as a discursive mechanism responsible for producing the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a force that produces liminal subjects. Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—we show how the apparatus helps justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war.
Their two case studies focus on US drone attacks in Pakistan and the use of human shields in Gaza (the image below, taken from the article, shows the Israeli Defence Force’s ‘Laboratory of Discrimination’ (sic)).
You can watch a video where Nicola and Neve discuss their ideas on the Antipode website here, which also provides a less formal gloss:
[Their paper] examines how militaries actually make distinctions in the battlefield, given that today most fighting takes place in urban settings where distinguishing between combatant and civilian is becoming increasingly difficult.
Their paper shows how liberal militaries are utilizing new technologies that aim to expand that which is perceptible within the fray. Combining the more traditional forms of making distinctions such as binoculars and cameras with cutting edge hi-tech, militaries subject big data to algorithmic analysis aimed at identifying certain behavioral patterns. The technologies of distinction function before, during, and after the fray not only in order to direct the fighting and to help produce the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a mechanism that identifies and at times creates new legal figures.
Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—Nicola and Neve show how technologies of distinction help justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war. Ultimately, they maintain that distinction, which is meant to guarantee the protection of civilians in the midst of armed conflict, actually helps hollow the notion of civilian through the production of new liminal legal figures that can be legitimately killed.
For more on the intersections between international law, military protocols and the (in)visibility of the civilian, I also recommend the insightful work of Christiane Wilke (see ‘Seeing Civilians (or not)’ here).
Several years ago, while my work on the geographies and genealogies of aerial violence was in its early stages, I was in Madrid: one of my main objectives was to see Pablo Picasso‘s Guernica.
I’d written (briefly) about it in a short essay – ”In another time-zone, the bombs fall unsafely….’: Targets, civilians and late modern war’ (DOWNLOADS tab):
In 1937 Europe’s world was turned upside down. The theme of the Exposition Universelle that was due to open in Paris later that year was the celebration of modern technology, ‘Art et technique dans la vie moderne’, and Pablo Picasso had been invited to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion. By the spring, he was still casting around for a subject.
27 April was market day in Guernica (Gernika), and the Basque city was crowded with refugees from the Civil War and people from out of town attending the market. Towards the end of the afternoon, the town was attacked from the air: first by a single German aircraft, then by three Italian aircraft, then by three waves of German and Italian aircraft. Later, in the early evening, the attack was resumed with astonishing ferocity by squadrons from the German Condor Legion whose high explosive and incendiary bombs set off a firestorm that destroyed three quarters of the town and left as many as 1, 600 people dead and over 800 injured. The next day a passionate eyewitness account of the devastation by journalist George Steer was published in The Times [see here for a reading of his report by his biographer Nicholas Rankin and for more contemporary imagery]. His report was syndicated around the world and set off a firestorm of its own. Franco’s immediate response was to deny that an air raid had taken place, and to blame the destruction on Republican and Anarchist forces defending the town. The commander of the Condor Legion, Wolfram von Richthofen, claimed that the raid had been directed against a military target, the bridge over the Rio Mundaca, and that its purpose was to cut off the Republican line of retreat; but his own standing orders required military targets to be attacked ‘without regard for the civilian population’, and in a secret report to Berlin he described ‘the concentrated attack on Guernica’ as ‘the greatest success’ in extinguishing resistance to the Nationalist-Fascist forces.
Picasso now had his subject:
‘It was an enormous canvas, so large that Picasso needed a ladder and brushes strapped to sticks in order to paint its heights… Working from the ladder when he needed to, and sometimes on his knees, the artist began to paint on May 11, 1937, and he did so with a hot and focused intensity that was unusually keen even for him. He was determined to transform the vacant canvas into a monumental mural that would disturb and shock its viewers, reminding them … that people similarly suffered unimaginable terror in every place and time.’
‘Guernica’ as both place and painting became a symbol of a technological sublime terrifyingly different from that anticipated by the organizers of the Exposition Universelle. It was a sort of imaginative counter-geography that wrenchingly displaced the complacent Euro-American fiction that aerial warfare was always waged in ‘their’ space and that its horrors could remain unregistered.
But, as you can see, I said remarkably little about the canvas itself. And I confess that when I finally stood in front of it in Madrid I continued to struggle with the composition.
In a wonderful essay on ‘Picasso and Tragedy’ in this month’s London Review of BooksT.J. Clark has come to my aid – not least because he flips my uncertainty about the composition into a careful consideration of its spatiality. First, this:
What marks Guernica off from most other murals of its giant size is the fact that it registers so powerfully as a single scene. Certainly it is patched together out of fragments, episodes, spotlit silhouettes. Part of its agony is disconnectedness – the isolation that terror is meant to enforce. But this disconnectedness is drawn together into a unity: Guernica does not unwind like a scroll or fold out like a strip cartoon (for all its nods to both idioms); it is not a procession of separate icons; it is a picture – a distinct shape of space – whose coherence is felt immediately by the viewer for all its strangeness.
‘Space’ is shorthand, I recognise. In the case of Guernica, what seems to matter most is the question of where the viewer is standing in the bombed city. Are we inside some kind of room? There are certainly walls, doors, windows, a table in the half-dark, even the dim lines of a ceiling. But doesn’t the horse opposite us look to be screaming in a street or courtyard, with a woman holding a lamp pushing her head through a window – a filmy curtain billowing over her forearm – to see what the noise is outside? Can we talk of an ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ at all in Guernica? Are the two kinds of space distinct? We seem to be looking up at a room’s high corners top left and right, but also, above the woman with the lamp, at the tiles on a roof. There is a door flapping on its hinges at the picture’s extreme right edge, but does it lead the way into safety or out to the void? How near to us are the animals and women? If they are close by, as appears likely, looming over us – so many giants – does that proximity ‘put us in touch’ with them? Does proximity mean intimacy? How does the picture’s black, white and grey monochrome affect our looking? Does it put back distance – detachment – into the scene, however near and enormous individual bodies may seem? Where is the ground in Guernica? Do we have a leg (or a tiled floor) to stand on? Literally we do – the grid of tiles is one of the last things Picasso put in as the picture came to a finish. But do any of the actors in the scene look to be supported by it? Does it offer viewers a foothold in the criss-cross of limbs?
The reader will have understood that the best answer to almost all of these questions is: ‘I’m not sure.’ And spatial uncertainty is one key to the picture’s power. It is Picasso’s way of responding to the new form of war, the new shape of suffering.
And then this:
Guernica is a tragic scene – a downfall, a plunge into darkness – but distinctively a 20th-century one. Its subject is death from the air. ‘That death could fall from heaven on so many,’ Picasso told an interviewer later, ‘right in the middle of rushed life, has always had a great meaning for me.’ A great meaning, and a special kind of horror. The historian Marc Bloch had this to say in 1940:
The fact is that this dropping of bombs from the sky has a unique power of spreading terror … A man is always afraid of dying, but particularly so when to death is added the threat of complete physical disintegration. No doubt this is a peculiarly illogical manifestation of the instinct of self-preservation, but its roots are very deep in human nature.
Bombing of the kind experimented with in April 1937 – ‘carpet bombing’, ‘strategic bombing’ ‘total war’ – is terrifying. Because the people on the ground, cowering in their shelters, may imagine themselves suddenly gone from the world – ripped apart and scattered, vanished without trace. Because what will put an end to them so completely comes out of the blue – Picasso’s ‘from heaven’ – and has no imaginable form. Because death from now on is potentially (‘strategically’) all-engulfing: no longer a matter of individual extinctions recorded on a war memorial, but of whole cities – whole ‘worlds’, whole forms of life – snuffed out in an hour or so.
And finally this:
We could say that the nowhere-ness and isolation in Guernica are what terror – terror with von Richthofen’s technology at its disposal [he called it ‘absolutely fabulous’] – most wants to produce. It is the desired state of mind lurking behind the war-room euphemisms: ‘undermining civilian morale’, ‘destroying social cohesion’, ‘strategic bombing’, ‘putting an end to war-willingness’. But surely Guernica would not have played the role it has for the past eighty years if all it showed was absolute negativity. It is a scene, after all, not a meaningless shambles. It presents us, at the degree zero of experience, with an image of horror shared – death as a condition (a promised end, a mystery) that opens a last space for the human…
It is difficult, maybe impossible, to describe what is happening here without one’s language tipping into the falsely redemptive. Nothing that takes place in Guernica, to make my own feeling clear, strikes me as redeemed or even transfigured by the picture’s black-and-white reassembly of its parts. Fear, pain, sudden death, disorientation, screaming immediacy, disbelief, the suffering of animals – none of these realities ‘falls into place’. Judith Butler in a recent essay, looking for a basis on which a future politics might be built, asks her readers to consider the idea of a collectivity founded on weakness. ‘Vulnerability, affiliation and collective resistance’: these, she argues, are such a commonality’s building blocks. I believe that Guernica’s usefulness – its continuing life in so many different contexts – may derive from the fact that it pictures politics in much the same way.
My extended extracts don’t do justice to the richness and the subtlety – nor the passion – of the original, which is easily the best essay I’ve read all summer – and long before.
So, two resolutions: I want to go back to Madrid; and I want to say much more about Picasso’s unsettling composition and its continuing resonance in my next book, Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war.
(The image is taken from one of the reports, ‘Ground Truth’, a project that ‘aims to provide historical and juridical evidence on behalf of communities in the illegalised Palestinian Bedouin villages in the northern threshold of the Negev/Naqab desert, Israel’; the newsletter provides details of this and several other current investigations around the world).
I first encountered Eric Schlosser’s brilliant Command and Control while I was working on the multiple intersections between drones and atomic bombs – ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies‘; the long form version will be finished soon – and Netflix has now added The Bombto its listings; it’s also available on iTunes.
The Bomb is an experimental documentary Eric made with Kevin Ford and Smriti Keshari. Here’s the trailer from YouTube:
This is how Claire Spellbergdescribes the project:
The 56 minutes prior are made up entirely of carefully collected footage of Cold War information, bomb testings, nuclear explosions, and modern news clips from around the world. There’s no narration to explain what we’re seeing; instead, the filmmakers rely on loud electro-rock music from The Acid. The combined effect is jarring; the beat pulsates steadily as one bomb explodes after another, destroying homes, people, and ecosystems.
Ford, Keshari, and Schlosser first premiered The Bomb at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival as a complete multimedia experience. The filmmakers set up multiple 30-foot-high screens and The Acid accompanied the film with live music, creating what was sure to be an incredibly jarring effect. If you weren’t previously concerned about the very real threat posed by nuclear weapons, being surrounded by screens showing a nuclear bomb decimate a rural town as deafening music plays probably changed your mind.
Even without all the bells and whistles, the version of The Bomb on Netflix is sure to resonate with viewers.
There has been an explosion (sic) of commentary on Trump’s light-sabre rattling over North Korea – the more sober-sided are downplaying the possibility of a nuclear strike, though the death and destruction wrought by a conventional strike would surely be catastrophic – but a detailed analysis that speaks directly to the issues raised by ‘Command and Control’ is Garrett Graff on ‘The Madman and the Bomb‘ over at Politico.
In these bleak times, this should bring an appropriately savage smile to your face: River Clegg at the New Yorker imagines Trump as a soldier…. here.
I’m glad I’m not serving with any trans people, otherwise I would forget how to do soldier stuff. Like fighting! Fighting is the main thing I do as a soldier, O.K.? I carry a machine gun for fighting, and it’s the best machine gun. But I would forget how to shoot it if I were near a trans person.
But I’m very pro-trans, believe me. Maybe the most pro-trans person in history. Not only that, I’m pro all the other letters in “L.G.B.T.Q.” I’m pro-lesbian, I’m pro-gluten, I’m probiotic. I’m pro everything except trans people being treated like regular, non-trans people. That’s where I draw the line.
If you want more commentary on Trump’s odious proposed ban, and the viper’s nest of prejudice that surrounded it, try here and here and here.
The web is awash with reviews and commentaries on Christopher Nolan‘s latest film, Dunkirk. ‘A tour de force’, wroteManhola Dargis in an extended review for the New York Times:
“Dunkirk” is a World War II movie, one told through soldiers, their lived and near-death experiences and their bodies under siege. Names are generally irrelevant here; on the beach — and in the sea and air — what counts are rank, unit, skill and the operation, although more important is survival, making it through another attack and somehow avoiding exploding bombs. Mr. Nolan’s emphasis on the visceral reality of Dunkirk leaves much unsaid; even in some opening explanatory text, the enemy isn’t identified as Nazi Germany. The soldiers, of course, know exactly who they are fighting and perhaps even why, but in the field the enemy is finally the unnamed stranger trying to kill them…
Mr. Nolan’s unyielding emphasis on the soldiers — and on war as it is experienced rather than on how it is strategized — blurs history even as it brings the present and its wars startlingly into view. “Dunkirk” is a tour de force of cinematic craft and technique, but one that is unambiguously in the service of a sober, sincere, profoundly moral story that closes the distance between yesterday’s fights and today’s. Mr. Nolan closes that distance cinematically with visual sweep and emotional intimacy, with images of warfare and huddled, frightened survivors that together with Hans Zimmer’s score reverberate through your body.
It also has Hans Zimmer’s best musical score: an eerie, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare, switching finally to quasi-Elgar variations for the deliverance itself. Zimmer creates a continuous pantonal lament, which imitates the dive bomber scream and queasy turning of the tides, and it works in counterpoint to the deafening artillery and machine-gun fire that pretty much took the fillings out of my teeth and sent them in a shrapnel fusillade all over the cinema auditorium.
In the Telegraph, hardly surprisingly, Robbie Collinlauds the ‘Britishness’ of the film and also (significantly) its presentness. He writes about this as an aesthetic –
there’s also something rivetingly present-tense about it all: the period detail is meticulous but never fawned over, the landscapes as crisp as if you were standing on them, the prestige-cinema glow turned off at the socket
– but, as readers of the Telegraph will surely have realised, this is also a matter of politics. In one of the most perceptive essays I’ve read on the film, Anthony Kingdescribes this sensibility as an ‘arrogant insularity’ (he intends it as a criticism, of course, but Telegraph readers probably differ). For him, Nolan seeks to ‘revive Dunkirk as a national myth in the 21st century’:
The drama focuses on five sinkings: a hospital ship, two troop ships, a fishing boat, and a Spitfire are all immersed. In each case, British soldiers or airmen have only moments to escape before they are drowned. Each sinking re-enacts the British predicament at Dunkirk: the desperate race of British soldiers to get home before they are inundated.
In this way, home — and the race for it — becomes the central motif of the entire film. The noun, “home,” recurs in the dialogue articulated by all the major actors. Indeed, the irony that soldiers in Dunkirk can practically see home with its White Cliffs and, yet, cannot reach it, is pointedly commented upon on two separate occasions. Home is the only redemption from the alienating emptiness of the French coast. Moreover, in order for British soldiers to escape, home has to come to them. No one else can save them.
(This is precisely why what Anthony calls the ‘radiant harmonies’ of Elgar’s Nimrod dissolve the dissonance noted by Peter Bradshaw to preside over – to celebrate in something like the religious sense – the climax of the film).
What is lost, in consequence, is both context and also composition. The first is intentional, and Nolan makes a good case for wanting to convey the sense in which soldiers experience war in shards, torn from any larger context. ‘That’s why we don’t see the Germans in the film,’ he says, ‘and why it’s approached from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival rather than the politics of the event.’ As the historical adviser to the film, Joshua Levine (an historian whose work I’ve long admired) tells it:
[M]aking the threat faceless frees the event from its geopolitical ramifications –it becomes a timeless story of human survival. [Nolan] didn’t want to take a classic war film approach because in so many ways, the story of Dunkirk is not the story of a conventional battle. ‘It was death appearing from the sky,’ he says. ‘U-boats under the Channel that you can’t see. The enemy flying over and rising up through the waves to pick people off, to sink ships.’ The soldiers cannot understand their own predicament, and the audience experiences the same horror. This is why the action never leaves the beach. ‘If you’re continually showing the Germans as Germans and generals in rooms talking about strategy, you are lifting the veil.’ The audience would then be more informed than the soldiers. ‘Standing on a beach, trying to interpret what’s going on, “How do I get out of here? Should I stand in these lines? Should I go into the water?” That’s the experiential reality I want the audience to share.
But the second is, I think, unintentional. I’ve written elsewhere about the myths of the First World War that continue to stalk the British political imaginary – see ‘All white on the Western Front?’ here – and several commentators have made the same point about Dunkirk. Here is Sunny Singh in the Guardian:
What a surprise that Nigel Farage has endorsed the new fantasy-disguised-as-historical war film, Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s movie is an inadvertently timely, thinly veiled Brexiteer fantasy in which plucky Britons heroically retreat from the dangerous shores of Europe. Most importantly, it pushes the narrative that it was Britain as it exists today – and not the one with a global empire – that stood alone against the “European peril”.
To do so, it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.
But Nolan’s erasures are not limited to the British. The French army deployed at Dunkirk included soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies, and in substantial numbers. Some non-white faces are visible in one crowd scene, but that’s it. The film forgets the racialised pecking order that determined life and death for both British and French colonial troops at Dunkirk and after it.
The Indian soldiers at Dunkirk were mainly Muslims from areas of British India that later became Pakistan. They were part of the Royal India Army Service Corps — transport companies that sailed from Bombay to Marseille. The men brought with them hundreds of mules, requested by the Allies in France because of the shortage of other means of transport. They played a significant role, ferrying equipment and supplies.
The Germans captured one Indian company and held the men as prisoners of war. Others were evacuated and made it to Britain….
The focus on Britain “standing alone” sometimes risks diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the globe. The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all, the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.
Britain was always dependent on the colonies — in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caribbean — for men, materials and support, but never more so than in World War II. Some five million from the empire joined the military services. Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British Empire did…
The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone. It is a political tool in the hands of those who would separate British history from European history and who want to reinforce the myths that underpin Brexit.
Ironically, in Joshua Levine‘s Forgotten voices of Dunkirk those other voices are absent – forgotten – too.
There are several other commentaries that sharpen similar points – see, for example, Yasmin Khan again here [and more generally her The Raj at War: a people’s history of India’s Second World War], Ishaan Taroor here and Robert Fisk here (for a clumsy attempt to blunt those points, see Franz Stefan-Gadyhere); also the contributions to We Were There Too – but I’ll end with these observations from John Broich:
In the film, we see at least one French soldier who might be African. In fact, soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere were key to delaying the German attack. Other African soldiers made it to England and helped form the nucleus of the Free French forces that soon took the fight to the Axis.
The latter has been much on my mind because for much of the summer I’ve been in the archives immersed in medical care and casualty evacuation in both those theatres.
But I’ll leave that for another post, because I want to close with a reminder that – given what I’ve been saying about the ‘present-ness’ of Dunkirk – there is at least one other version that should be brought into focus. And for that you need to read Jacob Albert on ‘The Fire in Dunkirk‘ at Guernica. Here he is describing young Kurdish refugees – about the same age, I suspect, as many of those soldiers on the beach in 1940 – stranded in a camp outside Dunkirk (it burned down after he left):
Sometimes, they went to English class, offered four times a day in a damp Red Cross tent. I taught there occasionally. Everyone took their shoes off when they entered, but kept their coats. The head teacher was an Englishman with stinking socks who asked his pupils several times each week, since they were always vanishing and new ones always arriving: “Where? Is? The? Statue? Of Liberty?”
Everyone loved that one, even though no one was heading for the United States, because the Statue of Liberty is like Coca-Cola: both universal symbols, one of immigrant striving, the other of friendship and global happiness.
“Amrika! Atlantic! New York! California!” they’d shout. The teacher would smile and ask: “What does the Statue of Liberty rep-re-sent?” And the young men would look at him with glazed eyes, because they truly could never understand this guy, never felt like they were learning any English, and the English teacher would hem and haw: “What does it mean? What does it sym-bo-lize?” until finally, someone who spoke a little English, someone who had a brother in Leeds, would explain to the others, in Kurdish, what the guy meant, and everyone would shout: “Amrika! Freedom! Money! Barack Obama!” and the English teacher with the stinking socks would nod somberly at each and every one of them, and say, “It represents a Warm Welcome. Which I know doesn’t feel like the case. So, to better times, guys. To better times.” And with that, the English teacher would clap his hands, and the bored young men would stream out into the wind or rain…
There was nothing for them to do but think of leaving. That’s how anyone endured anything: boredom, filth, cold, fear. You can endure anything if you’re on your way to somewhere else.
In this case, it was England, which I discovered wondrous new things about. I learned that the Brits had an incredible welfare system, the best in Europe. I learned that minimum wage there was higher than in France. I learned that once you received British asylum, you were given a free house. I was told that the UK was full of good jobs, that it was less racist than any other European nation. That none of this was true didn’t dampen anybody’s incredible enthusiasm for the place. …
There were convincing reasons, too, with some basis in reality, for this fevered dreaming of Britain, which I had a hard time squaring with what these hopeful Kurds were putting themselves through to get there. It is easier to live invisibly in Britain, on the margins of things, than in France. In Britain, you don’t have to carry around photo ID. In Britain, you can easily find work in a kitchen or on a construction crew, if you’re open to being paid a pittance.
But facts are one thing, and narratives, another. The city of Dunkirk itself looms large in British mythology because of this very split. Over the course of one miraculous week in 1940, the British Navy managed to evacuate 340,000 Allied troops trapped on its beaches as the Germans drew close. Yet a few days later, Churchill delivered his rousing speech on the British virtues of endurance and determination (“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds. . .”), and Dunkirk, the site of failure averted, was turned into one of national victory. It was Britain that now occupied such a place in the story of Kurdish exile.
You may think I’m making too much of this. But when Joshua Levine asked him about ‘modern parallels’, Christopher Nolan explained that he saw his film as ‘a survival story’ and continued:
One of the great misfortunes of our time, one of the horrible, unfortunate things with the migrant crisis in Europe, is that we are dealing once more with the mechanics and the physics of extraordinary numbers of people trying to leave one country on boats and get to another country. It’s a horrible resonance but it’s very easy in our technologically advanced times to forget how much basic physics come into play. Reality is insurmountable. If you have a vast number of people in one place and they need to get someplace else and they can’t fly and they have to get on boats –to overcrowd the boats, with that human desire for survival . . . it’s unthinkably horrible to see it on our front pages in this modern day and age. But it’s there. With that going on in the world today, I don’t think you can in any way dismiss the events of Dunkirk as being from another world or another era.