Combat Obscura

A new documentary on the war in Afghanistan, Combat Obscura, is available on iTunes.  From The Daily Beast:

The new Afghanistan war documentary Combat Obscura doesn’t introduce itself, explain itself, or end in a satisfying way.

It’s weird, funny, disturbing, brutal, and heartbreaking—and one of the best documentaries in years.

Combat Obscura is directed by Miles Lagoze, a former U.S. Marine Corps cameraman who spent much of 2011 in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan with a battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment based in North Carolina.

After getting out of the Marine Corps and spending a little time processing his experiences, Lagoze, now 29, enrolled in film school at Columbia University.

He just graduated. Combat Obscura is his first movie.

Lagoze came home from Afghanistan with all the footage the Marine Corps doesn’t want the public to see.

 

That last sentence needs elaboration.  Writing in the New York Times, Ben Keningsberg explains:

As a United States Marine in Afghanistan, Miles Lagoze, the director, worked as a videographer, documenting scenes of war for official release. (We see a clip of such material on CNN midway through the film.) Somehow, Lagoze kept his hands on unreleased footage he and others shot in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012, and made it the basis for this film.

The Beast describes Eric Schuman, the film’s editor, as the production’s ‘secret weapon’:

“I would watch through the footage Miles had shot and pull from it what I found most interesting and compelling and then organize that material by subject…  I would then try to arrange that material together into sequences that, when placed all together, told a thematic story about a deployment in Afghanistan. By the end, Miles and I came upon a structure that I hope conveys a loss of innocence and growing nihilism and apathy as the film goes on.”

I’ll leave the last word to J.D. Simkins in the Military Times (who praises the film’s accuracy and honesty):

The film’s true brilliance lies in its situational hysteria, a scene-by-scene unpredictability that serves as a microcosm of a war with no end — and no definitive outcome — in sight.

Like the forever war, a lack of closure looms ominously over the film, a sentiment echoed by many of the war’s actors. Lagoze is no different.

Project(ion)s

Happy New Year!  With this, as with so much else, I’m late – but the greeting is none the less sincere, and I’m grateful for your continued interest and engagement with my work.

I’ve resolved to return to my usual pace of blogging in 2019; it slowed over the last several months, not least because I’ve been deep in the digital archives (apart from my merciless incarceration in Marking Hell and my release for Christmas).

My plan is to finish two major essays in the next couple of months, one on “Woundscapes of the Western Front” and the other the long-form version of my Antipode Lecture on “Trauma Geographies” (see also here). Both have involved close readings of multiple personal accounts of the journeys made (or not made) by the wounded, and the first essay informs the second, as you can see here.

I also want to bring together my research on attacks on hospitals, casualty clearing stations and aid posts during the First World War in a third essay – I’ve been talking with the ICRC about this one.  Paige Patchin managed to track down a series of files on the Etaples bombings in the National Archives for me, including an astonishing map plotting the paths of the enemy aircraft and the locations of the bombs: I’ll share that once I’ve managed to stitch together the multiple sheets.  But I’ve widened the analysis beyond the attacks on base hospitals on the coast, to include other attacks – notably the bombing of the hospital at Vadelaincourt near Verdun – and a more general discussion of the protections afforded by the Red Cross flag and the Hague Conventions.

This will in turn thread its way into a fourth essay providing a more comprehensive view on violations of what I’ve called ‘the exception to the exception’: the disregard for the provisions of International Humanitarian Law evident in the attacks on hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan, Gaza, Syria and elsewhere, in short “The Death of the Clinic“.

That project interlocks with my developing critique of Giorgio Agamben‘s treatment of the “space of exception”.  In brief:

  • I think it’s a mistake to treat the space of the camp as closed (there is a profoundly important dispersal to the space of exception, evident in the case of Auschwitz that forms the heart of Agamben’s discussions – I’m thinking of the insidious restrictions on the movement of Jews in occupied Europe, the round-ups in Paris and other cities (see my lecture on Occupied Paris under the TEACHING tab), and the wretched train journeys across Europe to Poland – and this matters because if we don’t recognise the signs of exception at the peripheries they will inexorably be condensed inside the enclosure of the camp).
  • It’s also unduly limiting to restrict the space of exception to the camp, because the war zone is also one in which people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the removal of legal protocols that would otherwise have offered them protection (and here too what Frédéric Mégret calls ‘the deconstruction of the battlefield‘ emphasises the complex topology of the exception).  I’ve written about this in relation to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (see “Dirty Dancing” under the DOWNLOADS tab) and the conduct of siege warfare in Syria (multiple posts, listed under the GUIDE tab), but it’s a general argument that I need to develop further).

  • In neither case – camp or war zone – is there an absence of law; on the contrary, these spaces typically entail complex legal geographies, at once national and – never discussed by Agamben – international (though part of my argument addresses the highly selective enforcement of international humanitarian law and the comprehensive contemporary assault on its provisions by Russia and Syria and by the United States, Israel and the UK, amongst others).

  • In both cases, too, the space of exception is profoundly racialised (I’ve written about that in relation to the bombing of Japan in World War II and the contemporary degradations inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo  – you can find the relevant essays under the DOWNLOADS tab – but I’ve found Alexander WeheliyeHabeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human immensely helpful in deepening and generalising the argument).

I’ll be developing these arguments in my KISS Lecture at Canterbury in March, which ought to form the basis for a fifth essay (and it’s also high time I revisited what I said in “The everywhere war”!).

More on those projects soon, all of which will feed in to two new books (once I’ve decided on a publisher – and a publisher has decided on me), but in the interim I’ll be sharing some of the drafts and jottings I’ve prepared en route to the finished essays.

So lots to keep my busy, and I hope you’ll continue to watch this space – and, as always, I welcome comments and suggestions.

Trauma Geographies online

My Antipode Lecture on Trauma Geographies is now available online via YouTube.

(If you wonder why I’m hunched over my laptop, the microphone was fixed to the podium….).  Since I’m now turning this into an essay, I’d welcome any questions, comments or suggestions.

You can find more details  including open access to a series of related articles – at the Antipode Foundation website here.

Trauma geographies, woundscapes and the clinic

I returned from the RGS/IBG Conference in Cardiff to the start of term (which explains and I hope excuses my silence: I’ve updated my two course outlines for this term, and you can find them under the TEACHING Tab if you are interested; if you have any comments or suggestions I’d be happy to have them).

My next order of business is to turn my Antipode Lecture on “Trauma Geographies” into a text (the video will be online soon, I hope); I’ve already started on the translation, helped by questions and feedback from the presentation, and I’ll post the draft when it’s ready.

The argument moves from medical care and casualty evacuation in Belgium and France, 1914-1918 through Afghanistan 2001-2018 to Syria 2011-2018, and in each case I address both combatants and civilians.  Much of this trades on (and develops) posts that will be familiar to regular readers – and if you’re not the GUIDE tab ought to help direct you to the most relevant ones – but I’ve also returned to my ideas about corpography and used them to flesh out (sic) the concept of a ‘woundscape‘.  I decided to that because one of the themes of the conference was landscape, and the idea of a woundscape seemed to take that debate in a fruitful new direction.  I first encountered it in Jennifer Terry‘s brilliant Attachments to War, and she in turn found it in the work of Gregory Whitehead (particularly Display Wounds).

I’m drawn to the way in which both authors/performers try to coax wounds to speak, to read their violent ruptures of the body, and to transcend the typically narrowly bio-medical discourse that frames them.  At the same time, I don’t want to ignore that scientific framing, not least because it is profoundly performative and has such vital consequences (both physical and affective), so in my rendering a ‘woundscape’ is constituted through the explosive intersection of the military gaze (‘the target’) and the medical gaze (the injured body) but immediately spirals beyond those visual registers – and indeed beyond visuality – to include a range of other senses and sensibilities. A woundscape thus includes the bio-physical, cognitive and affective landscapes in which casualties are created, moved and treated.  The affective envelope that surrounds and invades the injured body is a constant concern; this extends beyond the casualty to a host of other actors – as Omar Dewachi shrewdly observes, when wounds travel they ‘enter new social worlds and multiple histories of violence’ – but I I focus on physical injury (rather than PTSD) because so many accounts of later modern war have represented it as what James Der Derian dubbed ‘virtuous’ war whose seeming remoteness is rendered as at once increasingly virtual, fought on and through screens and algorithms, and at the limit radically, absurdly disembodied. Against this, I’m trying to respond to John Keegan’s dismayed observation that the wounded – he included the dead too – ‘apparently dematerialize as soon as they are struck down…’

So here are the slides from my presentation that summarise my interim propositions about woundscapes, drawn from the three case studies; I’ll be revising and elaborating them as I proceed, but I hope this might start a conversation:

Finally, Omar’s wonderful essay that I cited earlier appeared in MATMedicine, Anthropology, Theory – and I would be remiss not to draw attention to its most recent issue.  The editorial on ‘Clinic and Crisis‘ by Eileen Moyer and Vinh-Kim Nguyen sends me back to the other essay I’m currently trying to finish, on “The Death of the Clinic“, which plainly intersects with ‘Trauma Geographies’:

A common thread runs through the articles of this issue of MAT: the conjoining of clinic and crisis. Here we refer, in the manner of Foucault (1963) to the clinic as both an epistemology (a way of knowing) as well as a material space where the ill seek care. Crises are moments of rupture, where the surface of everyday life splinters to reveal what lies underneath and new dangers can appear; they are also turning points where futures can be grasped and foretold. Moments of social crisis manifest in bodies, and therefore in the clinic. Das’s notion of ‘critical events’, as discussed in Affliction: Health, Disease, and Poverty and also taken up in MAT’s September 2017 issue, furnishes perhaps the most thorough consideration of crisis. As she and others have pointed out, crisis is an everyday reality for many who live in conditions of precarity and existential instability. More generally, the current geopolitical climate and the growing urgency of climate change contribute to the sense of crisis. The clinic is symptomatic of crisis, a place where a state of emergency becomes finally visible.

More soon – and I haven’t forgotten that I need to return to my series of posts on Ghouta and, in particular, to address the issue of medical care and casualty evacuation (or lack of it) there too.

The Military Present

I’m later to this than I should be, but over at the American Anthropologist there is a very interesting series of four podcasts conducted by Emily Sogn.and Vasiliki Touhouliotis on what they call ‘the military present’:

In the first episode, we spoke to Joe Masco (here) about the historical formation of an affective politics that creates an ethos of continuous, yet increasingly incoherent militarization justifying itself as a response to a monopoly of perceived threats. Next, we spoke to Madiha Tahir (here) about the ways in which new weapons technologies, particularly drones, have reshaped social landscapes in places like the Waziristan region of Pakistan where threats both in the air and on the ground have become an ever present fact of everyday life….

In our [third] episode we spoke with was Wazhmah Osman (here) about the embodied effects of nearly four decades of continuous war in Afghanistan. we talked about how the deployment of new military strategies and the use of new supposedly more precise weapons obscures the deep yet everyday cumulative damage that is caused by ongoing war. [The interview focuses on the US deployment of the  the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) in Afghanistan in April of 2017].

And in the final episode – which is how I stumbled upon the series, as I’m in the final stages of prepping my Antipode lecture on “Trauma Geographies” – they talk with my good friend Omar Dewachi (here)

about war as a form of governance asking how war orders and creates the terms by which different forms of injury caused by war can be recognized and acted upon. We were prompted to frame a conversation around this topic as a response to what we see as a troubling absence of public discussion of the deaths and illnesses that are caused by war, but which get obscured as such by the language of by products, secondary effects, or collateral damage.

Unless I’ve missed something, the conversation with Omar is the only one of the series to have a transcript, but you can listen to all of them online.

‘Sweet target, sweet child’

My keynote (‘Sweet target, sweet child: Aerial violence and the imaginaries of remote warfare’) at the conference on Drone Imaginaries and Society at the University of Southern Denmark in June is now available online here.

In February 2010 a US air strike on three vehicles in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan in support of US and allied ground forces caused multiple civilian casualties. The attack was the direct result of surveillancecarried out by a Predator drone, and a US Army investigation into the incident criticised the flightcrew for persistently misinterpreting the full-motion video feeds from the remotely operated aircraft.This has become the signature strike for critics of remote warfare, yet they have all relied solely on a transcript of communications between US Special Forces in the vicinity, the drone crew at Creech AirForce Base in Nevada, and the helicopter pilots who executed the strike. But an examination of the interviews carried out by the investigation team reveals a more complicated – and in some respects even more disturbing – picture. This presentation uses those transcripts to brings other actors into the frame, pursues the narrative beyond the strike itself, and raises a series of questions about civilian casualties. During the post-strike examination of the site the casualties were rendered as (still) suspicious bodies and, as they were evacuated to military hospitals, as inventories of injuries. Drawing on Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary film ”National Bird” I also track the dead as they are returned to their villages and the survivors as they struggle with rehabilitation: both provide vivid illustrations of the embodied nature of nominally remote warfare and of the violent bioconvergence that lies on the otherside of the screen.

Drones and Shadow Wars

I ended my lecture at the Drone Imaginaries conference in Odense this week by arguing that the image of the drone’s all-seeing ‘eye in the sky’ had eclipsed multiple other modalities of later modern war:

Simply put, drones are about more than targeted killing (that’s important, of course, but remember that in Afghanistan and elsewhere ‘night raids’ by US Special Forces on the ground have been immensely important in executing supposedly ‘kill or capture’ missions); and at crucial moments in the war in Afghanistan 90 per cent of air strikes have been carried out by conventional aircraft (though intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from remote platforms often mediated those strikes).

To sharpen the point I showed this image from a drone over Afghanistan on 15 April 2017:

This showed the detonation of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB or ‘Mother Of All Bombs’):

This is a far cry from the individuation of later modern war, the US Air Force’s boast that it could put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and that often repeated line from Grégoire Chamayou about ‘the body becoming the battlefield’.

And, as I’ve been trying to show in my series of posts on siege warfare in Syria, there are still other, shockingly violent and intrinsically collective modalities of later modern war.  Drones have been used there too, but in the case of the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces targeting has more often than not avoided precision weapons in favour of saturation bombing and artillery strikes (see here).

All this means that I was pleased to receive a note from the brilliant Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the widening of its work on drones (which will continue, to be sure):

Under President Donald Trump the US counterterrorism campaign is shifting into another phase, and the Bureau is today launching a new project to investigate it – Shadow Wars.  The new phase is in some ways a continuation and evolution of trends seen under Obama. The same reluctance to deploy American troops applies, as does the impetus to respond militarily to radical groups around the world. But as extremist groups spread and metastasise, the US’s military engagements are becoming ever more widespread, and complicated. Peter Singer, a senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, who is a leading expert on security, says: “Shadow wars have been going on for a long time, but what’s clearly happened is that they’ve been accelerated, and the mechanisms for oversight and public notification have been peeled back. The trend lines were there before, but the Trump team are just putting them on steroids.”

A new US drone base has been built in Niger, but its ultimate purpose is unclear. In Afghanistan, the US is trying to prevail over the Taliban, without committing to a substantial increase in troop numbers, by waging an increasingly secretive air war. In Yemen, the US is leaning on the United Arab Emirates as its on the ground counterterrorism partner, a country with a troubled human rights record. Meanwhile, proxy confrontations with Iran are threading themselves into the mix.

Our Shadow Wars project will widen the focus of the Bureau’s drone warfare work. Over the next year, we will bring new and important aspects of US military strategy to light, of which drones are just one troubling aspect.

We aim to explore issues such as America’s increasing reliance on regional allies, the globalisation of the private military industry, the blurring of lines between combat and support missions and the way corruption fuels a state of permanent conflict. As with our work on drones, our primary concern in this new project is to publicise the effects these evolving practices of war have on the civilians on the ground.