Cities and War

This week the Guardian launched a new series on Cities and War:

War is urbanising. No longer fought on beaches or battlefields, conflict has come to the doors of millions living in densely populated areas, killing thousands of civilians, destroying historic centres and devastating infrastructure for generations to come.

Last year, the world watched the Middle East as Mosul, Raqqa, Sana’a and Aleppo were razed to the ground. Across Europe, brutal attacks stunned urban populations in Paris, London and Berlin, while gang warfare tore apart the fabric of cities in central and south America.

In 2018, Guardian Cities will explore the reality of war in cities today – not merely how it is fought, but how citizens struggle to adapt, and to rebuild stronger than ever.

The series opened on Monday with a photographic gallery illustrating ‘a century of cities at war’; some of the images will be familiar, but many will not.  When I was working on ‘Modern War and Dead Cities‘ (which you can download under the TEACHING tab), for example, I thought I had seen most of the dramatic images of the Blitz, but I had missed this one:

It’s an arresting portfolio, and inevitably selective: there is a good discussion below the line on what other cities should have made the cut.

The first written contribution is an extended essay from Jason Burke, ‘Cities and terror: an indivisible and brutal relationship‘, which adds a welcome historical depth and geographical range to a discussion that all too readily contracts around recent attacks on cities in Europe and North America, and suggests an intimate link between cities and terrorism:

[I]t was around the time of the Paddington station attack [by Fenians in 1883]  that the strategy of using violence to sway public opinion though fear became widespread among actors such as the anarchists, leftists and nationalists looking to bring about dramatic social and political change.

This strategy depended on two developments which mark the modern age: democracy and communications. Without the media, developing apace through the 19th century as literacy rates soared and cheap news publications began to achieve mass circulations, impact would be small. Without democracy, there was no point in trying to frighten a population and thus influence policymakers. Absolutist rulers, like subsequent dictators, could simply ignore the pressure from the terrified masses. Of course, a third great development of this period was conditions in the modern city itself.

Could the terrorism which is so terribly familiar to us today have evolved without the development of the metropolis as we now know it? This seems almost impossible to imagine. Even the terror of the French revolution – Le Terreur – which gives us the modern term terrorism, was most obvious in the centre of Paris where the guillotine sliced heads from a relatively small number of aristocrats in order to strike fear into a much larger number of people.

The history of terrorism is thus the history of our cities. The history of our cities, at least over the last 150 years or so, is in part the history of terrorism. This is a deadly, inextricable link that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon.

Today Saskia Sassen issued her ‘Welcome to a new kind of war: the rise of endless urban conflict‘.  She begins with an observation that is scarcely novel:

The traditional security paradigm in our western-style democracies fails to accommodate a key feature of today’s wars: when our major powers go to war, the enemies they now encounter are irregular combatants. Not troops, organised into armies; but “freedom” fighters, guerrillas, terrorists. Some are as easily grouped by common purpose as they are disbanded. Others engage in wars with no end in sight.

What such irregular combatants tend to share is that they urbanise war. Cities are the space where they have a fighting chance, and where they can leave a mark likely to be picked up by the global media. This is to the disadvantage of cities – but also to the typical military apparatus of today’s major powers.

The main difference between today’s conflicts and the first and second world wars is the sharp misalignment between the war space of traditional militaries compared to that of irregular combatants.

Irregular combatants are at their most effective in cities. They cannot easily shoot down planes, nor fight tanks in open fields. Instead, they draw the enemy into cities, and undermine the key advantage of today’s major powers, whose mechanised weapons are of little use in dense and narrow urban spaces.

Advanced militaries know this very well, of course, and urban warfare is now a central medium in military training.  Saskia continues:

We have gone from wars commanded by hegemonic powers that sought control over sea, air, and land, to wars fought in cities – either inside the war zone, or enacted in cities far away. The space for action can involve “the war”, or simply specific local issues; each attack has its own grievances and aims, seeking global projection or not. Localised actions by local armed groups, mostly acting independently from other such groups, let alone from actors in the war zone – this fragmented isolation has become a new kind of multi-sited war.

This is, in part, what I tried to capture in my early essay on ‘The everywhere war’, and I’m now busily re-thinking it for my new book.  More on this in due course, but it’s worth noting that the Trump maladministration’s National Defense Strategy, while recognising the continuing importance of counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency, has returned the Pentagon’s sights to wars between major powers – notably China and Russia (see also here)– though it concedes that these may well be fought (indeed, are being fought) in part through unconventional means in digital domains.  In short, I think later modern war is much more complex than Saskia acknowledges; it has many modalities (which is why I become endlessly frustrated at the critical preoccupation with drones to the exclusion of other vectors of military and paramilitary violence), and these co-exist with – or give a new inflection to – older modalities of violence (I’m thinking of the siege warfare waged by Israel against Gaza or Syria against its own people).

The two contributions I’ve singled out are both broad-brush essays, but Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has contributed a two-part essay on Mosul under Islamic State that is truly brilliant: Part I describes how IS ran the city (‘The Bureaucracy of Evil‘) and Part II how the people of Mosul resisted the reign of terror (‘The Fall‘).

Mosul fell to IS in July 2014, and here is part of Ghaith’s report, where he tells the story of Wassan, a newly graduated doctor:

Like many other diwans (ministries) that Isis established in Mosul, as part of their broader effort to turn an insurgency into a fully functioning administrative state, the Diwan al-Siha (ministry of health) operated a two-tier system.There was one set of rules for “brothers” – those who gave allegiance to Isis – and another for the awam, or commoners.

“We had two systems in the hospitals,” Wassan said. “IS members and their families were given the best treatment and complete access to medicine, while the normal people, the awam, were forced to buy their own medicine from the black market.

“We started hating our work. As a doctor, I am supposed to treat all people equally, but they would force us to treat their own patients only. I felt disgusted with myself.”

(Those who openly resisted faced death, but as IS came under increasing military pressure at least one doctor was spared by a judge when he refused to treat a jihadist before a civilian: “They had so few doctors, they couldn’t afford to punish me. They needed me in the hospital.”)

Wassan’s radical solution was to develop her own, secret hospital:

“Before the start of military operations, medicines begun to run out,” she said. “So I started collecting whatever I could get my hands on at home. I built a network with pharmacists I could trust. I started collecting equipment from doctors and medics, until I had a full surgery kit at home. I could even perform operations with full anaesthesia.”

Word of mouth spread about her secret hospital.

“Some people started coming from the other side of Mosul, and whatever medicine I had was running out,” she said. “I knew there was plenty of medicine in our hospital, but the storage rooms were controlled by Isis.

“Eventually, I began to use the pretext of treating one of their patients to siphon medicine from their own storage. If their patient needed one dose, I would take five. After a while they must have realised, because they stopped allowing doctors to go into the storage.”

The punishment for theft is losing a hand. Running a free hospital from her home would have been sedition, punishable by death…

When Wassan’s hospital was appropriated by Isis fighters [this was a common IS tactic – see the image below and the Human Rights Watch report here; the hospital was later virtually destroyed by US air strikes] her secret house-hospital proved essential. More than a dozen births were performed on her dining table; she kicked both brothers out of their rooms to convert them into operating theatres; her mother, an elderly nurse, became her assistant.

As the siege of Mosul by the Iraqi Army ground on, some of the sick and injured managed to run (or stumble) the gauntlet to find medical aid in rudimentary field hospitals beyond the faltering grip of IS, while others managed to make it to major trauma centres like West Irbil.

But for many in Mosul Wassan’s secret hospital was a lifeline (for a parallel story about another woman doctor running a secret clinic under the noses of IS, see here).

Yet there is a vicious sting in the tail:

For Wassan, the ending of Isis rule in Mosul is bittersweet. After many attempts to reach Baghdad to write her board exams for medical school, she was told her work in the hospital for the past three years did not count as “active service”, and she was disqualified.

“The ministry said they won’t give me security clearance because I had worked under Isis administration,” she said.

This, too, is one of the modalities of later modern war – the weaponisation of health care, through selectively withdrawing it from some sections of the population while privileging the access and quality for others.  ‘Health care,’ writes Omar Dewachi, ‘has become not only a target but also a tactic of war.’  (If you want to know more about the faltering provision of healthcare and the fractured social fabric of life in post-IS Mosul, I recommend an interactive report from Michael Bachelard and Kate Geraghty under the bleak but accurate title ‘The war has just started‘). 

The weaponisation of health care has happened before, of course, and it takes many forms. In 2006, at the height of sectarian violence in occupied Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shi’a militia controlled the Health Ministry and manipulated the delivery of healthcare in order to marginalise and even exclude the Sunni population.  As Amit Paley reported:

 ‘In a city with few real refuges from sectarian violence – not government offices, not military bases, not even mosques – one place always emerged as a safe haven: hospitals…

‘In Baghdad these days, not even the hospitals are safe. In growing numbers, sick and wounded Sunnis have been abducted from public hospitals operated by Iraq’s Shiite-run Health Ministry and later killed, according to patients, families of victims, doctors and government officials.

‘As a result, more and more Iraqis are avoiding hospitals, making it even harder to preserve life in a city where death is seemingly everywhere. Gunshot victims are now being treated by nurses in makeshift emergency rooms set up in homes. Women giving birth are smuggled out of Baghdad and into clinics in safer provinces.’

He described hospitals as ‘Iraq’s new killing fields’, but in Syria the weaponisation of health care has been radicalised and explicitly authorized by the state.

You may think I’ve strayed too far from where I started this post; but I’ve barely moved.  For towards the end of her essay Saskia wonders why military and paramilitary violence in cities in so shocking – why it attracts so much more public attention than the millions murdered in the killing fields of the Congo.  And she suggests that the answer may lie in its visceral defilement of one of humanity’s greatest potential achievements:

Is it because the city is something we’ve made together, a collective construction across time and space? Is it because at the heart of the city are commerce and the civic, not war?

Lewis Mumford had some interesting things to say about that.  I commented on this in ACME several years ago, and while I’d want to flesh out those skeletal remarks considerably now, they do intersect with Saskia’s poignant question about the war on the civic:

In The Culture of Cities, published just one year before the Second World War broke out, Mumford included ‘A brief outline of hell’ in which he turned the Angelus towards the future to confront the terrible prospect of total war. Raging against what he called the ‘war-ceremonies’ staged in the ‘imperial metropolis’ (‘from Washington to Tokyo, from Berlin to Rome’: where was London, I wonder? Moscow?), Mumford fastened on the anticipatory dread of air war. The city was no longer the place where (so he claimed) security triumphed over predation, and he saw in advance of war not peace but another version of war. Thus the rehearsals for defence (the gas-masks, the shelters, the drills) were ‘the materialization of a skillfully evoked nightmare’ in which fear consumed the ideal of a civilized, cultivated life before the first bombs fell. The ‘war-metropolis’, he concluded, was a ‘non-city’.

After the war, Mumford revisited the necropolis, what he described as ‘the ruins and graveyards’ of the urban, and concluded that his original sketch could not be incorporated into his revised account, The City in History, simply ‘because all its anticipations were abundantly verified.’ He gazed out over the charnel-house of war from the air — Warsaw and Rotterdam, London and Tokyo, Hamburg and Hiroshima — and noted that ‘[b]esides the millions of people — six million Jews alone — killed by the Germans in their suburban extermination camps, by starvation and cremation, whole cities were turned into extermination camps by the demoralized strategists of democracy.’

I’m not saying that we can accept Mumford without qualification, still less extrapolate his claims into our own present, but I do think his principled arc, at once historical and geographical, is immensely important. In now confronting what Stephen Graham calls ‘the new military urbanism’ we need to recover its genealogy — to interrogate the claims to novelty registered by both its proponents and its critics — as a way of illuminating the historical geography of our own present.

It’s about more than aerial violence – though that is one of the signature modalities of modern war – and we surely need to register the heterogeneity and hybridity of contemporary conflicts.  But we also need to recognise that they are often not only wars in cities but also wars on cities.

War | Space

Regular readers will remember Craig Jones wonderful old blog, War, law, space; it’s now re-launched, re-imagined and refurbished and you can find it here.


WAR | SPACE brings attention to the enduring but not inevitable nature of war and imagines a world without (para)military violence. It offers critical perspectives that eschew narratives of geopolitical grand strategy in favour of a people-centric view of war. By ‘people’ we mean not only the political and military architects of (para)military violence, but crucially also those civilians, soldiers, and fighters who are caught in the mighty cross-hairs of war.

In a famous 1985 essay, the American essayist and professor of English and American Literature and Language Elaine Scarry wrote: “the main purpose and outcome of war is injuring”. She points out that this fact is so obvious that it is often forgotten altogether. She continues:

“one can read many pages of an historic or strategic account of a particular military campaign, or listen to many installments in a newscast narrative of events in a contemporary war, without encountering the acknowledgment that the purpose of the event described is to alter (to burn, to blast, to shell, to cut) human tissue, as well as to alter the surface, shape, and deep entirety of the objects that human beings recognize as extensions of themselves.”

Scarry’s words ring truer than ever 30 years on. The genres to which she refers are still replete with pages and reels devoted to what might best be described as Clean War. Clean War is full of euphemism and offers a bloodless, glossy account of war in which ‘we’ defeat the barbarians with law, ethics and an overflowing vocabulary of legitimisation on our side. In Clean War only the bad guys die; actually, they are simply taken out, liquidated, targeted, replaced or disposed. They are not mourned, for there is no life that has been lost; nobody – and no body – to mourn, to speak with Judith Butler.  In his famous essay Politics and the English LanguageGeorge Orwell described a version of Clean War as “the defence of the indefensible”. He wrote:

“[P]olitical language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”

And so it is with precise, clean, surgical, just, legal, necessary, and proportional war today. So much so that we must constantly remind ourselves, pace Scarry, that first and foremost, war is injury.

WAR | SPACE pays special attention to those who injure, those who are injured, and those who care for the fractured, fragile and injured bodies and souls who remain. It also pays special attention to the ideas, institutions and processes that cause, constrain, and remedy war’s many painful injuries.

Craig adds that he’s also looking for ‘collaborators and authors to expand this project to include cutting edge critical thinking about war, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

If you are interested in joining this project or would like to contribute in any way please email: craig . jones at ncl. ac . uk.

Victims of (para)military violence, academics, journalists, activists and interested citizens are encouraged to get in touch.

The slow violence of bombing

When I spoke at the symposium on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ in Utrecht before Christmas, one of my central arguments was about the slow violence of bombing.  The term is, of course, Rob Nixon‘s, but I borrowed it to emphasise that the violence of sudden death from the air – whether in the air raids of the First and Second World Wars or the drone strikes of the early twenty-first century – neither begins nor ends with the explosion of bombs and missiles.

Paul Saint-Amour speaks of ‘traumatic earliness’: that dreadful sense of deadly anticipation.  The sense of not only preparation – communal and individual – but also of an involuntary tensing.  I described this for the First and Second World Wars in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’, which you can download from the TEACHING tab, but here is A.L. Kennedy who captures it as well as anyone:

Add to that the blackouts, the new landscape of civil defence with its sandbags and shelters, the new choreography of movement through the war-time city, the air-raid sirens and the probing arcs of the searchlights.

Perhaps this seems remote, but it shouldn’t.  Modern technology can radically heighten that sense of foreboding: calibrate it, give it even sharper definition.  Here is Salam Pax, counting down the hours to US air strikes on Baghdad:

Fast forward to drone strikes.  The sense of dread visited on innocents by multiple US drone programmes is readily overlooked in the emphasis on ‘targeted killing’, on what the US Air Force once called its ability to put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and on the individuation of this modality of later modern war.  ‘The body is the battlefield’, as Grégoire Chamayou argues.

I’ve written about all those things, but there is a powerful sense in which the battle space still exceeds the body: for in order to target the individual these programmes also target the social, as this set of slides from my Utrecht presentation tries to show:

Here too, surely, is traumatic earliness.  (I’ve discussed this in more detail in ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies’ [DOWNLOADS tab], and I’m indebted to Neal Curtis, ‘The explication of the social’, Journal of sociology 52 (3) (2016) 522-36) for helping me to think this through).

And then, after the explosion – the shocking bio-convergence that in an instant produces the horror of meatspace – the violence endures: stored in the broken buildings and in the broken bodies.  In the Second World War (again as I show in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’) the landscape was made strange every morning: buildings newly demolished, people driven from their homes and their workplaces, roads blocked by hoses and ambulances, by craters and unexploded bombs, rescue workers still toiling in the rubble to remove the dead and the injured, hospitals still treating and caring for the casualties.

And the violence of a drone strike lingers too: not on the same scale, but still the destroyed houses, the burned-out cars, the graves of the dead and above all the traumatized survivors (and their rescuers), some of them forced into newly prosthetic lives (see here and here).  The explosion is instantaneous, a bolt from the blue, but the pain, the grief and the scars on the land and the body endure.

These effects have a horizon that is not contained by any carefully calculated blast radius.  The grief spirals out through extended families and communities; and – depending on the target – so too do the casualties.  As I’ve said before, power stations in Gaza or Iraq have been targeted not for any localised destructon but because without power water cannot be pumped, sewage cannot be treated, food (and medicines) stored in refrigerators deteriorates.  And hospitals have been systematically targeted in Syria to deny treatment to hundreds and thousands of sick and injured:

The work of enumerating and plotting air strikes, in the past or in the present, is immensely important.  But those columns on graphs and circles on maps should not be read as signs of an episodic or punctiform violence.

‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’

Today’s Guardian has a report from Roy Wenzl called ‘The kill-chain: inside the unit that tracks targets in America’s drone wars’.  There’s not much there that won’t be familiar to regular readers, but the focus is not on the pilots and sensor operators but on the screeners – the analysts who scrutinise the full-motion video feeds from the drones to provide ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance).

The report describes the work of the 184th Intelligence Wing of the National Air Guard at McConnell AFB in Kansas:

‘They video-stalk enemy combatants, and tell warfighters what they see… The group does this work in the middle of America, at an air base surrounded by flat cow pastures and soybean fields….

The work is top secret.They say that they see things in those drone images that no one wants to see. Sometimes, it’s terrorists beheading civilians. Sometimes it’s civilians dying accidentally in missions that the Kansans help coordinate.

They agonize over those deaths. The most frequently heard phrase in drone combat, one airman says, is: “Don’t push the button.”

“You see [enemy combatants] kiss their kids goodbye, and kiss their wives goodbye, and then they walk down the street,” said a squadron chief master sergeant. “As soon as they get over that hill, the missile is released.”

The Americans wait to fire, he says, “because we don’t want the family to see it”.

One of those involved marvels at the technology involved: ‘The technology we use is just insane, it’s so good.’  As the report notes, critics of the programme have a more literal meaning of insanity in their minds….

The report also confirms the intensity (and, as part of that intensity, the tedium) of the shift-work involved:

Back in Kansas, in the SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facility), members of Col Brad Hilbert’s group watch dozens of screens. One eight-hour shift will watch multiple targets, then hand off surveillance to the next shift. Multiple missions run simultaneously.

While enemy combatants walk around carrying weapons, the group studies their movements. They can watch one person, or one building, or one small neighborhood. The drones loiter high and unseen, giving clear, hi-tech visuals….

Most of what they watch is tedious. “They will sometimes watch one pile of sand every day for a month,” their chaplain says.

But sometimes, they see that an enemy is about to attack US troops. The commanders decide to “neutralize” him. When commanders order attacks, the Kansans become one link in a kill chain, which can include armed Reaper and Predator drone operators, fighter pilots, ground artillery commanders – and commanders with authority to approve or deny strikes.

A refugee state

I’ve been working on the (very) long-form version of “Death of the Clinic”, so apologies for the silence: it’s been – and continues to be – utterly absorbing.  But I have managed to get my head sufficiently far above the water to notice this vital new book: Dawn Chatty‘s Syria: the making and unmaking of a refugee state (from Hurst in the UK and Oxford University Press elsewhere), out next month:

The dispossession and forced migration of nearly 50 per cent of Syria’s population has produced the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. This new book places the current displacement within the context of the widespread migrations that have indelibly marked the region throughout the last 150 years. Syria itself has harbored millions from its neighboring lands, and Syrian society has been shaped by these diasporas. Dawn Chatty explores how modern Syria came to be a refuge state, focusing first on the major forced migrations into Syria of Circassians, Armenians, Kurds, Palestinians, and Iraqis. Drawing heavily on individual narratives and stories of integration, adaptation, and compromise, she shows that a local cosmopolitanism came to be seen as intrinsic to Syrian society. She examines the current outflow of people from Syria to neighboring states as individuals and families seek survival with dignity, arguing that though the future remains uncertain, the resilience and strength of Syrian society both displaced internally within Syria and externally across borders bodes well for successful return and reintegration. If there is any hope to be found in the Syrian civil war, it is in this history.


Chapter One: Greater Syria at the end of the Ottoman Empire
Chapter Two: The Circassians and other Caucasian forced migrants reimagining a homeland
Chapter Three: The Armenians and other Christians seek protection and refuge
Chapter Four: The Kurds seeking freedom of religious expression
Chapter Five: Palestinians return to their ‘motherland’
Chapter Six: Sha’laan: a modern cosmopolitan quarter in Damascus
Chapter Seven: Iraqis and second wave Assyrians as temporary guests
Chapter Eight: The unmaking of a State, as Syrians flee the country

Here is Raymond Hinnebusch on the book:

Passionate and erudite, combining the intimacy of the anthropological eye with a broad historical sweep, Dawn Chatty tells the two-century story of Syria as a place of refuge. Beginning with Sultan Abdul Hamid’s creation of the muhajireen quarter of Damascus as a refuge for Muslims from Crete, Chatty further exposes the often-forgotten forced migrations of Muslims from the Balkans, Crimea, and the Caucasus; the story continues with the Armenians, Kurds, then the Palestinians and Iraqis. The last chapter recounts the tragedy of how Syrians have now become refugees from their own country.

Taking it to the limit

A postscript to my posts here, here and here on civilian deaths from air strikes in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere: Vice has an extended interview with Chris Woods of Airwars here.

The biggest issue we saw in 2017—particularly if we look at the US-led coalition—was that the war moved very heavily into cities. That, more than any other single factor, resulted in the deaths of many more civilians and casualty events. We saw a similar pattern at the back end of 2016, when Russia and the Assad regime heavily bombed east Aleppo. There’s a very strong correlation between attacks on cities and large numbers of civilian casualties. And frankly, it doesn’t matter who’s carrying out those attacks. The outcome for civilians is always dire…

Things didn’t get any better under Trump for civilians—in fact, they got a lot worse. One of the reasons for that was the intensity of the bombardment. We saw an absolutely ferocious bombing campaign by the US and its allies in both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. Between those two cities, the coalition alone dropped 50,000 munitions. One bomb or missile was dropped on Raqqa every 12 minutes, on average, for the duration of the four-month battle…

When Russia and the Assad regime were bombing Aleppo in late 2016, we had assumed that a key reason for the large number of civilian casualties was down to the fact they were primarily using dumb-bombs. We have actually changed our modeling since then, based on what we have seen with the coalition in places like Raqqa and Mosul. The reason is that even when you use precision bombs on cities, really, the outcome for civilians is the same as a dumb bomb. You can’t control what the bombs do when they land.

We saw very little difference between Russian and coalition strikes when it came to bombing cities. This is the big problem we have with a shift to urban warfare —it’s really taking us to the limits of any benefits we might have in terms of protecting civilians by using precision munitions.

Chris also has some characteristically smart (and sharp) things to say about transparency and accountability too…


In an early phase of my work on later modern war I explored the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in US counterinsurgency and its invasive mapping of ‘human terrain’, and as part of the attempt to impel (and interpellate) US soldiers into what I called this ‘rush to the intimate’ I considered the role-playing simulations acted out in mock Iraqi villages and towns fabricated for pre-deployment training in the continental United States (see ‘The rush to the Intimate’: DOWNLOADS tab).

In the interim many more detailed studies have appeared, but one of the most imaginative and insightful can be found in Cultural Anthropology (32/1) (February 2017): Nomi Stone‘s Living the laughscream: human technology and effective maneuvers in the Iraq war (open access).

It focuses not on the US soldiers and their reactions but on the Iraqi role-players, many of whom served as US interpreters in Iraq, described by one US officer as ‘the apparatus’ or what Nomi reconceptualizes as ‘human technology’.  Their performances are carefully scripted, and yet:

Amid this artifice, role-players have been hired to enact Middle Eastern villagers authentically—not by their own measures, but rather within prescribed military terms. Role-players are asked to be exemplars of their cultures and those cultures must be synchronic, pruned of their excesses and any relationship to the outside: Iraqis, as it were, in a box. However … the Iraqis who worked for the American military first as interpreters and contractors in the 2003 Iraq War and subsequently as role-players are a somewhat unique subset of the population; indeed, they are often quite far removed from the U.S. military’s imagined characteristics of a prototypical Iraqi. Not only are many of them educated, they are also particularly versed in American culture and critical of Iraqi politics. They typically bear an ambivalent relationship to both countries as they negotiate past accusations, allegiances, and the prospect of assimilation. Many show little trust for outsiders and even less for each other, and because of their dangerous affiliations in wartime, they have learned to chameleon in most circumstances. As they are turned into stereotypes inside an archetypal village, and as they act out wartime precarity so often that their homes and their losses turn into even more estranging archetypes, they laugh.

The machine thus turns out to be made of flesh. Role-players inject new ways of being, in part through laughter, into their performances. Those interjections indicate the limits of a military fantasy that believes human beings can be wholly resourced and turned into technologies.

This is on my mind because this past term, in a series of lectures on performance and performativity – the differences between them and the dots that can join them – I returned to these role-playing exercises to flesh out (literally so) the ideas involved; above all, to emphasise how every performance is different even when the script is nominally the same, and so the contingency of the performative.

And ‘the laughscream’?

The [Iraqi role-player] knows or feels more than the military narrative of their experience can accommodate, exceeding the constricted functions prescribed for a hired cultural tool. Additionally, the laughscream acts as a refusal to be lived by the role and the role-players’ fraught wartime pasts. For those accused of betrayal and marginalized by their compatriots, pursued by Iraqi militias and not always trusted by the U.S. soldiers whom they worked for, that past is painful. As one role-player explained, reflecting on the harshness many Iraqis had endured: “We are turned inside out. At the same time, we can laugh and cry.” Indeed, for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military, it is presently prohibitively dangerous to return to their former home, particularly amid the ascendance of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, due to their wartime choices, many now negotiate ongoing ambivalence and feel stranded between nations: although they were frequently ejected to the peripheries of their countries for working with the Americans, many strongly identify with Iraq and are ill at ease with full assimilation in America. As they continue to work for the U.S. military, some conceal that work from their families in Iraq, grappling with how they might be perceived. Amid these tensions, the laughscream functions in part as an actor, an agentive vector out.

Laughter rises to confirm that, for the role-players at least, the Iraq of the simulation is not the Iraq of their homeland. As fake guns sound, role-players repeat themselves, becoming increasingly estranged from the original object. Yet, through laughter, the archetypal and mechanical face of country and person give way to Iraqis who live impossibly hybrid and ambivalent lives in the United States to which they have aligned at such great cost. In the parodic redeployment of power as Judith Butler has conceived it, the mechanical performance of death becomes a complexly subversive act that momentarily insinuates life into the playing of a role.

But there is another reason for reading Nomi’s essay: it is so beautifully written.  If, like me, you often feel assailed by the sheer grimness of so much academic prose, provoked into your own laughscream, this is a wonderful demonstration that intellectual agility and analytical depth need not involve the death of style.

Not surprisingly, Nomi is an accomplished poet too: more at her website here.  You can also find an excellent interview about her movements in the borderlands between anthropology and artistic practice here:

My academic work and my poetry are inextricable and cross-pollinating. I was a poet first. My first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008) was based on my time in Djerba. I was deeply moved by Carolyn Forché’s call to comprehend the impress of the social on the poetic imagination; this led me to begin conducting ethnographic fieldwork and then to become an anthropologist.

By now, my anthropological engagement is essential to my poetry. As I explained in a poet’s statement some years ago, my philosophy of seeing is “deeply inflected by the anthropologist’s mandate to estrange the familiar and de-estrange the hitherto unknown.” Additionally, my work as an anthropologist sends me both toward moments of conceptual clarity and toward continuous re-complication: as the tidy military diagrams of culture remind us, the world is instead messy and tangled and contingent, as we each engage in the daily work of living and loving and getting by. I want my poems to demand that same complexity, and I only learned how to think it through the wonderful, arduous, and singular training that becoming an anthropologist demanded. What an astonishment to spend seven years shuttling back and forth between reading social theory about war, Empire, technology, migration, and laughter or political histories of America and Iraq and then witnessing the stagings of Empire itself, in its scatterings across the Middle East and the United States, as well as interviewing those whose lives had been demarcated and unmade by those very terms. These forms of seeing and knowing are to me humbling, and both my in-progress ethnographic manuscript and my forthcoming collection of poems, Kill Class, are the beneficiaries of that long academic journey.

Kill Class is due from Tupelo Press later this year; the collection is based on her ethnographic fieldwork across those US military training camps.  You can find her poem War Game, America’ here.

“What to do when the concepts and methods most essential to a field of scholarship are taken and deployed as instruments of war? American anthropology has struggled with this question since the Cold War era, when many fieldworkers were drawn into counterinsurgency campaigns around the globe. In this courageous and compassionate book, Kill Class, Nomi Stone offers a new way of grappling with this most difficult problem. Her stark and unflinching poems give a harrowing sense of cultural understanding made into a vehicle of state violence. At the same time, with tremendous delicacy and grace, they enter into the minds and lives of American soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts, revealing bewilderment where you would have thought to find certitudes, vulnerability where you would expect only hardness, small moments of wonder in the face of horror. The result is a truly arresting ethnography of American military culture, one that allows readers to circle at length through the cloverleaf interchanges where warfare nestles into the most mundane corners of everyday life, only to arrive at an exit where you would have expected least to find it: in an ethics of radical and transformative encounter, a way of coming undone in the company of others through the practice of sympathetic imagination.”  Anand Pandian, Johns Hopkins University

There’s also an earlier interview with her about her fieldwork (and her ideas about later modern war) over at the Wenner-Gren blog here: also well worth reading and savouring.

All this is much on my mind because over Christmas I read Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Sparsholt Affair and luxuriated in its mesmerising prose; as with other authors I admire this isn’t a purely formal (ahem) affair, though he is undoubtedly a master stylist.  Rather, you can roll the words around in your mouth, taste them and so find yourself ineluctably drawn into – rather than distracted from – the pulsing arc of the narrative: in an inversion of the metaphor with which I began, consumed by it.  So too The Swimming-Pool Library and Line of Beauty.  I get the same immersive pleasure from authors like Tom McCarthy (C is still one of my all-time favourite novels), Pat Barker (try Noonday) and Sarah Waters (oh, The Night Watch!).   This isn’t a matter of genre either; Peter May‘s Lewis trilogy is one of the finest works of crime fiction I know, along with almost anything by the ought-to-be legendary John Harvey (also a poet).

I’ve never forgotten a prescient admonition by Pierce Lewis in ‘Beyond description‘ (which appeared in the Annals of what was then the Association of American Geographers in 1985) – a lovely, lovely essay about passion and prose – in which he forestalled a possible objection: ‘we are not trained to be painters or poets, and while that is true, I do not think we should boast about it.’

For the record, I’ve written my share of God-awful prose, especially in the early stages of my career; the fault wasn’t only the dismal Harvard reference system (though it doesn’t help at all: too many names and dates crammed into brackets you have to hurdle over in a madcap race to retain the meaning of the sentence).  The colonial present was a cathartic release, in a way, because – after completing that awful opening chapter – I started to lose my academic voice.  I’m not desperate to get it back, and the two books I’m working on now will, I hope, show how far I’ve come.

But who, I wonder, are your favourite stylists?

Postscript: For my rant about the Harvard reference system, see ‘Gregory, D.’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  And there’s more on the corporeality and contextuality of (my) writing here.