About Derek Gregory

I'm Peter Wall Distinguished Professor and Professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Disappearing War

Out last month, but I’ve only just caught up with it, a collection of essays edited by Christina Hellmich and  Lisa PurseDisappearing War: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cinema and Erasure in the Post-9/11 World (Edinburgh University Press):

The battles fought in the name of the “war on terror” have re-ignited questions about the changing nature of war, and the experience of war for those geographically distant from its real world consequences. What is missing from our highly mediated experience of war? What are the intentional and unintentional processes of erasure through which the distortion happens? What are their consequences?
Cinema is a key site at which questions about our highly mediated experience of war can be addressed or, more significantly, elided. Looking at a range of films that have provoked debate, from award-winning features like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper, to documentaries like Kill List and Dirty Wars, as well as at the work of visual artists like Harun Farocki and Omer Fast, this book examines the practices of erasure in the cinematic representation of recent military interventions. Drawing on representations of war-related death, dying and bodily damage, this provocative collection addresses ‘what’s missing’ in existing scholarly responses to modern warfare; in film studies, as well as in politics and international relations.

Here’s the Contents list:

1. Introduction: Film and the epistemology of war, Christina Hellmich & Lisa Purse
2. Good Kill? U.S. soldiers and the killing of civilians in American film, Cora Sol Goldstein
3. ‘5000 feet is the best’: drone warfare, targets, and Paul Virilio’s ‘accident’, Agnieszka Piotrowska
4. Post-heroic war / the body at risk, Robert Burgoyne
5. Disappearing bodies: visualising the Maywand District murders, Thomas Gregory
6. The unknowable soldier: the face of Freddie Quell, James Harvey-Davitt
7. Visible dead bodies and the technologies of erasure in the war on terror, Jessica Auchter
8. Ambiguity, ambivalence and absence in Zero Dark Thirty, Lisa Purse
9. Invisible war: broadcast television documentary and Iraq, Janet Harris
10. Nine cinematic devices for staging (in)visible war and the (vanishing) colonial present, Shohini Chaudhuri
11. Afterword: Reflections on knowing war, Christina Hellmich

1418 strikes and you’re still in…

The Syrian Archive has announced the release of a database of Russian-led airstrikes on civilian targets in Syria between September 2015 and September 2018.

Several years of monitoring alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria reveals a pattern of indiscriminate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. In an analysis of 3303 videos documenting alleged Russian airstrikes from 116 sources between 30 September 2015 and 9 September 2018, Syrian Archive has identified 1418 incidents in which Russian forces allegedly targeted civilians or civilian infrastructure of little to no military value. Content included in this database can be viewed, analysed and downloaded.

While data presented in this collection does not include all incidents of alleged Russian airstrikes on civilians between 2015 and 2018 [my emphasis], it presents all incidents for which visual content was available and verifiable as of the date of publication. Syrian Archive hopes this will support reporting, advocacy, research, and accountability efforts…

This open source database is fully searchable and queryable by date, location, keyword, relevance, and confidence score..

The database includes more than 3,000 videos of 1,400 incidents (some taken by citizens and activists, some by human rights organisations, and some by the Russian Ministry of Defence); its compilation involved a series of negotiations with YouTube over the removal of some of the video evidence (see here and my extended discussion of visual evidence here).

Airwars continues to do stellar work documenting civilian casualties from the US-led coalition’s military operations in Syria and elsewhere, but the Syrian Archive’s contribution is particularly valuable since, as Airwars notes:

Airwars maintains an extensive database of all known allegations in which civilians have been reported killed by Russian forces in Syrian casualty events since September 30th 2015. Our published month by month records include a case report on each known alleged event; photographs, videos, names of the dead where known; archived links to all known sources; and our provisional assessment as to whether Russian forces were likely responsible.

Due to the scale of the Russian campaign and the number of reported civilian casualty allegations, our team rolls out monthly assessments as we are able to complete them. Much of our deep assessment work had to be suspended in early 2017 given the high number of alleggations against the US-led Coalition.

The Grim Reaper

Peter Lee‘s Reaper Force has just been published in the UK – later in North America.  I’ve argued before that it’s a mistake to abstract drones from other forms of aerial violence (and its history) and to treat it as the only modality of later modern war, but there is no doubt that Reaper Force is an important contribution to the critical analysis of  today’s remote warfare.  Peter won a remarkable degree of co-operation from both the Ministry of Defence and the RAF for his interviews with the crew of Britain’s Reapers – largely a result of the security clearance obtained when he was an RAF Chaplain – and the result is a series of rich and compelling stories:

This unique insight into RAF Reaper operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is based on unprecedented research access to the Reaper squadrons and personnel at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, USA. The author has observed lethal missile strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq alongside the crews involved. He has also conducted extensive interviews with Reaper pilots, sensor operators, mission intelligence coordinators, and spouses and partners. The result is an intimate portrait of the human aspect of remote air warfare in the twenty-first century.

Chris Cole trails the book over at Drone Wars UK with a lively interview with Peter – focusing, in part, on the question of civilian casualties – and there’s also an extended review by Joe Chapa (a major in the USAF) over at War on the Rocks:

The force of Lee’s contribution is not primarily in the raising of familiar issues about distance and psychology. Instead, by focusing on individual crewmembers and preserving personal narrative, Reaper Force brings to the fore a set of questions that have not yet been adequately addressed.

For example, no other work of which I am aware properly depicts the Reaper crew in the appropriate set of command relationships within the broader warfighting organizational structure. Many arguments about Reaper crews’ level of involvement in mission-critical decisions tend either to assume that the crew is so autonomous that they can carry out atrocities without accountability or that the command chain hierarchy is so suffocating that they have no choices to make and are in need of no moral courage from which to make them. The reality that comes through Lee’s narrative is more complicated. Often, the Reaper crew — indeed the whole coalition air component — acts as a supporting command, while the ground force remains the supported command. The result is the often-misunderstood close air support relationship. Though the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) on the ground provides clearance for the aircrew to release the weapon, this clearance does not constitute an order. In the end, like two keys in a nuclear silo, the JTAC must provide clearance, and the Reaper pilot must “consent to release.” The result is a symbiotic relationship between air forces and ground forces, in which both the ground force commander and the pilot in command share the burden of responsibility for weapons release.

In practice, this means that “one of the many responsibilities faced by Reaper crews has been deciding when not to fire a missile or not to drop a bomb.” What happens when the JTAC calls for a weapon and all the legal requirements have been met but something feels wrong to members of the Reaper crew? Josh, one of Lee’s interview participants, describes it this way.

“Taking an objective ‘tick-box’ view we had an adult male emerge from a compound, armed, as friendly forces approached. The compound was in an area occupied by Taliban that had been engaging friendly forces, successfully, over the preceding few days. It met the criteria needed for a strike, we had all the approvals and authorization required. But the tiny details weren’t right.”

In this case, in contrast with the vertical hierarchy that is often assumed, the command relationships — and the authority of the Reaper pilot — seemed like an impediment for the ground force. Some RAF pilot half a world away thinks he knows what is best when it is the ground force that takes all the risk. The social and institutional pressures are palatable. “Brothers are going to die because of you,” the JTAC scolded the Reaper pilot over the radio. In this case, the Reaper pilot insisted that the armed man under the crosshairs was a farmer in the wrong place at the wrong time and not an enemy fighter in search of a fight. If this is not moral courage, then I do not know what is. Josh goes on to say, “trying to reassure the ground troops is not so easy, especially when you had just withheld a seemingly valid request for a shot. From the perspective of those on the ground waiting for a Taliban fighter to open fire at them was not a good tactic — but this was not a Taliban fighter.”

Sometimes the roles — those who want to shoot and those who want to withhold the shot — are reversed. In one instance, the Reaper crew watched an enemy sniper team target friendly forces through a “murder hole” in a stone wall. With some consistency, the team would depart a nearby building, fire upon friendlies through the murder hole, then return to the building. According to the restrictive rules of engagement under which the U.K. Reapers were operating, the crew was required to obtain positive identification of the enemy fighters by observing hostile activity prior to obtaining weapons release clearance. But each time the enemy team went back into the building, it invalidated the positive identification. Thus, time and again, the Reaper crew was unable to obtain positive identification and release a weapon before the enemy fighters returned to the building. The Reaper crew practically begged the ground force commander for a clearance to release the weapon, but the ground force commander insisted on submitting to the relevant restrictions. By the time the incident was over, a British soldier had been shot and was medically evacuated by helicopter. “It’s the closest I have been in my professional life,” the pilot said, “to pulling a trigger without a clearance.”

Footprints of War

 

When I was working on my essay on ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), I was surprised at how few sustained discussions of ‘nature’ as a medium through which military violence is conducted – though there were of course countless, vital discussions of ‘nature’ as a commodity bank that triggers so-called resource wars – so when it came to the section on Vietnam I learned much from David Biggs‘ brilliant account Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (2011).  It deservedly won the George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history.

(You can find an illustrated version of the section of ‘Natures’ on Vietnam here and here, and some of my other work on the militarization of nature in Vietnam here and here).

David now has a new book, Footprints of War: militarized landscapes in Vietnam, due from the University of Washington Press at the end of this year,

When American forces arrived in Vietnam, they found themselves embedded in historic village and frontier spaces already shaped by many past conflicts. American bases and bombing targets followed spatial and political logics influenced by the footprints of past wars in central Vietnam. The militarized landscapes here, like many in the world?s historic conflict zones, continue to shape post-war land-use politics.

Footprints of War traces the long history of conflict-produced spaces in Vietnam, beginning with early modern wars and the French colonial invasion in 1885 and continuing through the collapse of the Saigon government in 1975. The result is a richly textured history of militarized landscapes that reveals the spatial logic of key battles such as the Tet Offensive.

Drawing on extensive archival work and years of interviews and fieldwork in the hills and villages around the city of Hue to illuminate war’s footprints, David Biggs also integrates historical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data, using aerial, high-altitude, and satellite imagery to render otherwise placeless sites into living, multidimensional spaces. This personal and multilayered approach yields an innovative history of the lasting traces of war in Vietnam and a model for understanding other militarized landscapes.

The pre-publication reviews confirm the importance of Footprints:

“David Biggs’s second major book on the social and environmental history of modern Vietnam. His nuanced use of Vietnamese-language publications and his extensive interviews with local people are outstanding. He tells a compelling story in fluent, vivid, and even lyrical prose, expressing compassionate insight into both society and ecosystem.”
-Richard P. Tucker, University of Michigan

“In this rich and innovative new book, David Biggs considers the spatial dimension of the war in Vietnam, through an examination of the densely layered militarized landscapes around Hu . The result is a gem, a fluid, authoritative, compelling work that shows just how deep, complex, and long-lasting were ‘The Footprints of War.'”
-Fredrik Logevall, author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam

War in Black-and-White?

Peter Jackson‘s They Shall Not Grow Old receives its premiere tomorrow (16 October) as the Special Presentation at the BFI London Film Festival.  Four years ago the director of Lord of the Rings was approached by the Imperial War Museum in London, which gave him access to hundreds of hours of official footage of the First World War, together with later audio tapes from both the IWM and the BBC.  Working with the visual effects geniuses at Jackson’s WingNut Films in New Zealand to colorise, slow and re-animate the film clips, and calling in lip-readers to decode the silent footage, the result is a radically new, feature-length representation of the conflict.  He explained:

“[The men] saw a war in colour, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white.  I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more – rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in the vintage archive film.”

You can find details of subsequent screenings – in 2D and 3D – here, and the film will also be televised on BBC1.

Jackson is right of course: those who served in the war didn’t see it in black and white (as often as not, in multiple shades of red and brown).  But In its press release the IWM notes:

The First World War proved to be a landmark in cinema history – the first time that the horrors of war could be caught on camera. Many hours of dramatic footage were filmed on the battlefields, capturing the realities of the conflict in remarkable and unprecedented detail. This footage provided the public at home with astonishing access to the frontline: The Battle of the Somme, a documentary film produced with the cooperation of the War Office, was seen by an estimated 20 million Britons in its first six weeks of release.

In other words, the British public did see the war in black and white.

I discussed The Battle of the Somme ten days ago in Leipzig, in order to draw a series of parallels and contrasts between visual representations of the First World War and military violence a hundred years later.  My starting-point was Samuel Hynes‘ observation in A war imagined that was in effect repeated by the IWM in its introduction to They Shall Not Grow Old:

‘[F]or the first time in history non-combatants at home could see the war. The invention of the half-tone block had made it possible to print photographs in newspapers, and so to bring realistic-looking images into every house in England….

‘Even more than the still photographs, though, it was the motion picture that made the war imaginable for the people at home.’

The Battle of the Somme was filmed by Geoffrey Malins – who had already made 26 short newsreel films on the Western Front – and John McDowell on behalf of the British Topical Committee for War Films.  It was no short film shown as a prelude to the main feature – it ran for 77 minutes – and went on general release in August 1916.

Here is Malins filming the preliminary bombardment of the ‘Big Push’ on 1 July 1916 (I’ve taken this from his own account, How I Filmed the War, which you can access from Project Gutenberg here):

(If you want a much more detailed, forensic account of the filming then you need Alastair Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts, Ghosts on the Somme: Filming the battle, June-July 1916 [2009]).

Malins and McDowell completed most of their filming in June and July, but they were restricted in what they could capture.  Luke McKernan explains:

’Their hand-cranked cameras had single 50mm lenses with poor depth of field, they had no telephoto lenses, the orthochromatic film stock was slow, making filming action in the distance or in poor light difficult. But there was also military control and official censorship, each preventing them from filming anything other than officially-sanctioned images.’

Producer Charles Urban decided that the centrepiece of the finished film would be a sequence showing infantry going over the top – but Malins had only filmed the attack from a distance while McDowell’s footage shot from elsewhere on the Front was unusable. So Malins returned to France to re-stage the attack at a British mortar training school near St Pol between 12 and 19 July: just 21 seconds of his footage were incorporated into the final version.

‘In this footage,’ Laura Clouting explained,

‘men go into action unencumbered by the weighty packs that real soldiers had to shoulder. With just a rifle in his hand, one man drops “dead” in front of barbed wire – and proceeds to cross his legs to get more comfortable on the ground. Most telling is the camera position. Had Malins or McDowell really been filming from this angle they would have been in considerable danger from German fire. But the audience had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the footage.’

That last sentence is crucial, and indeed the staged sequence has received disproportionate attention from critics; Nicholas Reeves, in a thoughtful and helpful survey [‘Cinema, spectatorship and propaganda: ‘Battle of the Somme’ (1916) and its contemporary audience’, Historical journal of film, radio and television 17 (1) (1997) 5-28], notes that ‘Like almost every so-called documentary film, Battle of the Somme does include faked or ‘improved’ sequences, but focusing attention on these few sequences at the expense of the authentic footage which constitutes the overwhelming majority of the film seriously misrepresents its character…’

Audiences were certainly captivated by the film:

The film provoked a lively public debate about the propriety of showing the dead and the wounded:

But for Hynes no less important was the very structure of the film and the modernist space within which it portrayed military violence:

Hynes’s conclusion:

‘In this film, war is not a matter of individual voluntary acts, but of masses of men and materials, moving randomly through a dead, ruined world towards no identifiable objective; it is aimless violence and passive suffering, without either a beginning or an end — not a crusade, but a terrible destiny. The Somme film changed the way civilians imagined the war’ (my emphasis).

But – to return to They Shall Not Grow Old – those who had direct experience of the war saw matters differently.  The Manchester Guardian‘s correspondent reported:

‘I accompanied a friend, a lettered man, who was slightly wounded in the “Big Push,” to see the official film of the Somme battle. “Well,” I said as we came out, “that’s like the real thing, isn’t it?” “Yes,” he answered slowly; “about as like as a silhouette is like a real person, or as a dream is like a waking experience. There is so much left out – the stupefying din, the stinks, the excitement, the fighting at close quarters. You see enough to appreciate General Sherman’s remark that war is hell, but the hell depicted is as mild to the real hell out there as Homer’s hell is to Dante’s.’

Or, as the brilliant Max Plowman put it (in a book originally published under a pseudonym):

Note:  I haven’t seen They Shall Not Grow Old yet, so I can’t comment on its representational geography – though, just like the Battle of the Somme, there were limitations on what the military permitted to be filmed and I doubt that all theatres of war or all contingents were represented – but there is of course quite another sense in which the war was not fought in black and white: see my commentary ‘All white on the Western Front?’ here.

Chemical weapons in Syria

A new, detailed report from the BBC investigates the Assad regime’s strategic deployment of chemical weapons.  The joint investigation by the Panorama team and BBC Arabic determined ‘there is enough evidence to be confident that at least 106 chemical attacks have taken place in Syria since September 2013, when [President Assad] signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and agreed to destroy the country’s chemical weapons stockpile‘ (my emphasis).

The BBC team considered 164 reports of chemical attacks from September 2013 onwards. The reports were from a variety of sources considered broadly impartial and not involved in the fighting. They included international bodies, human rights groups, medical organisations and think tanks.

In line with investigations carried out by the UN and the OPCW, BBC researchers, with the help of several independent analysts, reviewed the open source data available for each of the reported attacks, including victim and witness testimonies, photographs and videos.
The BBC team had their methodology checked by specialist researchers and experts.
The BBC researchers discounted all incidents where there was only one source, or where they concluded there was not sufficient evidence. In all, they determined there was enough credible evidence to be confident a chemical weapon was used in 106 incidents.

Almost half the documented attacks were in Idlib and Hama; most casualties were recorded in Kafr Zita (in Hama) and Douma (in East Ghouta).  Aircraft were used in almost half the attacks, and the experts consulted by the BBC concluded that in the majority of cases it was overwhelmingly likely that the Syrian Arab Air Force was responsible.  In this connection, it is telling that:

Many of the reported attacks occurred in clusters in and around the same areas and at around the same times. These clusters coincided with government offensives – in Hama and Idlib in 2014, in Idlib in 2015, in Aleppo city at the end of 2016, and in the Eastern Ghouta in early 2018.

The report pays particular attention to the use of chemical weapons during the offensive against East Ghouta earlier this year – see my detailed analysis here; see also here – and provides a detailed map:

Panorama: Syria’s Chemical War will be broadcast in the UK on Monday 15 October on BBC One at 20:30. It will be available afterwards on the BBC iPlayer. It will also be broadcast on BBC Arabic on Tuesday 23 October at 19:05 GMT.

Googling military occupation

A new report from the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, Mapping Segregation: Google Maps and the Human Rights of Palestinians, adds another dimension to contemporary discussions about the weaponisation of social media (and, not incidentally, about Google’s claims of social responsibility).

The report outlines the restrictions imposed by the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank on Palestinians, and compares three cartographic apps: Google Maps, Maps.me and Waze.  The focus is on what is missing from their digital maps – the misrepresentation or erasure of Palestinian villages (though illegal Israeli colonies are clearly marked) – and the cartographic attenuation of the all-too-real restrictions on the movement of Palestinians.  For example:

On routes within the West Bank, Google Maps prioritizes directing users through Israel rather than through the West Bank, even if this adds considerable distance to the journey. The drive from Ramallah to Nablus through the West Bank usually takes 45 minutes, however when using Google Maps, the journey takes a long route through Israel and takes 4.5 hours. In contrast, the shortest route from Ramallah to Bethlehem takes the driver through Jerusalem, which is inaccessible for Palestinian West Bank ID holders. Whenever a route passes through the West Bank, Google Maps shows two warnings on the route description: “This route has restricted usage or private roads” and “This route may cross country borders” and fails to highlight Israeli settlements or checkpoints. Google Maps is unable to calculate routes within Palestinian rural communities, or to and from Gaza, displaying the message “Sorry, we could not calculate driving/walking directions from x to y”. The app offers the option to “add a missing place” and edit information, but this “might take some time to show up on the map” as they must be reviewed first.

More from +972 magazine here.

If you haven’t done this before, try putting “Palestine” into the search box on Google Maps: the report discusses that too.