Trauma Geographies

I’ve been invited to give the Antipode lecture at the RGS/IBG conference on 29 August.  Here’s the abstract:

Trauma Geographies: broken bodies and lethal landscapes  

Elaine Scarry reminds us that even though ‘the main purpose and outcome of war is injuring’ this ‘massive fact can nevertheless ‘disappear from view along many separate paths.’ This presentation traces some of those paths, exploring the treatment and evacuation of the injured and sick in three war zones: the Western Front in the First World War, Afghanistan 2001-2018, and Syria 2012-2018. The movement of casualties from the Western Front inaugurated the modern military-medical machine; it was overwhelmingly concerned with the treatment of combatants, for whom the journey – by stretcher, ambulance, train and boat – was always precarious and painful. Its parts constituted a ‘machine’ in all sorts of ways, but its operation was far from smooth. The contrast with the aerial evacuation and en route treatment of US/UK casualties in Afghanistan is instructive, and at first sight these liquid geographies confirm Stephen Pinker’s progressivist theses about ‘the better angels of our nature’ [see also here]. But this impression has to be radically revised once Afghan casualties are taken into account – both combatant and civilian – and it is dispelled altogether by the fate of the sick and wounded in rebel-controlled areas of Syria. For most of them treatment was dangerous, almost always improvised and ever more precarious as hospitals and clinics were routinely targeted and medical supplies disrupted, and evacuation impossible as multiple sieges brutally and aggressively tightened. Later modern war has many modalities, and the broken bodies that are moved – or immobilised – in its lethal landscapes reveal that the ‘therapeutic geographies’ mapped so carefully by Omar Dewachi and others [see here and here] continue to be haunted by the ghosts of cruelty and suffering that stalked the battlefield of the American Civil War in the years following Lincoln’s original appeal to those ‘better angels’.

The presentation will tie together several strands I’ve laid out in posts on Geographical Imaginations; the next installment of my analysis of siege warfare and geographies of precarity in Syria will appear shortly.

Bodies at risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

RFTS Masculinism and military violence.001

And so to Restrepo:

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

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

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

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

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

Smelling blood

Writing about the sensory armature of modern war seems to have two dimensions (and as usual it’s the relationship between them that matters).  One involves the political technologies used by advanced militaries to detect the physical presence of their enemies: the infrared sensors that form part of the multispectral targeting systems fitted to Predators and Reapers that can detect heat signatures of bodies, other sensors that can detect ‘chemical signatures’ associated with IED factories, and sophisticated signals monitoring equipment.  These are all prosthetic devices that extend the range of the human sensorium – though they also depend upon it – so that the other dimension, which remains stubbornly important even in later modern war, is constituted by the human body and its own sensory capabilities.  This was the central concern of the conference on Sensing War held over the summer, and you can find the abstracts from the meeting here (I particularly like the remark made by a Bundeswehr officer reported by Marion Naeser-Lather: ‘To understand Afghanistan, you have to see, hear, smell and taste it’).  It’s also a central theme of my lecture/essay on ‘The natures of war’.

British_55th_Division_gas_casualties_10_April_1918

While I was in Zurich I had a lively and productive discussion about the penultimate draft of that essay with Benedikt Korf, Timothy Raeymaekers, Rory Rowan and their students, and as a result of that, together with an e-conversation with Steve Legg, I’ve been re-thinking my previous ideas about corpography.  Steve drew my attention to the ways in which I describe senses being ‘out of place’ on the Western Front: tasting rather than feeling mud, for example, or feeling rather than hearing shell-fire.  You can find further examples in the extracts from the essay I’ve posted about the war in Vietnam here and here.  This scrambling of the senses seems to be different from the intersensoriality discussed by Concordia’s innovative Centre for Sensory Studies.

In response to a similar observation in Zurich, I suggested that the Enlightenment project involved a disciplining of the senses – establishing what it was permissible to see, to hear, to touch, to taste or to smell – and allocating epistemologies to each: what it was possible to know from seeing, hearing, and the rest.  And that perhaps these regulated divisions were undone and their epistemologies radically challenged by the intensity of experience on the battlefield.

Since then I’ve stumbled upon the wonderful work of Matt Leonard; see, for example, his exquisitely titled essay on the First World War, ‘A senseless war‘, in which he argues that

‘The Western Front was a world that could not be negotiated by temporarily reordering the operation of our senses, for the ‘temporary’ became a relative term in the hell of the trenches. Rather, the relationship with the environment had to be completely restructured.’

See also his splendid essay on ‘Mud in World War I’ from Military history here.

I’ve also discovered a literature on the history of the senses that I should really have known about, including Diana Ackerman‘s A natural history of the senses (1990) – a book Richard Fetzer suggests we ‘read, taste, fondle’so I suspect it says rather more about the joys of corporeality than its trials – and Robert Jütte‘s A history of the senses: from Antiquity to cyberspace (2004).

More recently, there’s Constance Classen‘s The deepest sense: a cultural history of touch (2012) which cries out to be read alongside Santanu Das‘s brilliant Touch and intimacy in First World War literature (2008).  Bloomsbsury’s series on  A Cultural History of the Senses (2014) includes volumes on A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Empire, 1800-1920 (edited by Constance Classen) and A Cultural History of the Senses in the Modern Age, 1920-2000 (edited by David Howes); the detailed contents list is here, though I don’t know how much space they devote to war.

There’s also a sensory archaeology.  For intimations of a sensory geography, see Mark Paterson, ‘Haptic geographies: ethnography, haptic knowledges and sensuous dispositions’, in Progress in human geography 33 (6) (2009) 766-88 (also available here), the collection Mark edited with Martin Dodge, Touching space, placing touch (2012) and Caleb Johnson and Hayden Lorimer, ‘Sensing the city’, Cultural geographies 21 (4) (2014) 673-80.  There’s also developing work on sonic geographies.  But substantively this is all a far cry from what I’ve been thinking about here.

SMITH The smell of battlePerhaps closest to what I have in mind is Mark Smith‘s re-narration of the American Civil war in The smell of battle, the taste of siege (2014):

Historical accounts of major events have almost always relied upon what those who were there witnessed. Nowhere is this truer than in the nerve-shattering chaos of warfare, where sight seems to confer objective truth and acts as the basis of reconstruction. In The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege, historian Mark M. Smith considers how all five senses, including sight, shaped the experience of the Civil War and thus its memory, exploring its full sensory impact on everyone from the soldiers on the field to the civilians waiting at home.

From the eardrum-shattering barrage of shells announcing the outbreak of war at Fort Sumter; to the stench produced by the corpses lying in the mid-summer sun at Gettysburg; to the siege of Vicksburg, once a center of Southern culinary aesthetics and starved into submission, Smith recreates how Civil War was felt and lived. Relying on first-hand accounts, Smith focuses on specific senses, one for each event, offering a wholly new perspective. At Bull Run, the similarities between the colors of the Union and Confederate uniforms created concern over what later would be called “friendly fire” and helped decide the outcome of the first major battle, simply because no one was quite sure they could believe their eyes. He evokes what it might have felt like to be in the HL Hunley submarine, in which eight men worked cheek by jowl in near-total darkness in a space 48 inches high, 42 inches wide. Often argued to be the first “total war,” the Civil War overwhelmed the senses because of its unprecedented nature and scope, rendering sight less reliable and, Smith shows, forcefully engaging the nonvisual senses. Sherman’s March was little less than a full-blown assault on Southern sense and sensibility, leaving nothing untouched and no one unaffected.

One last thought: the identification (and limitation) of just five senses is a conventional, European construction, and so I’m left wondering about Steve’s final suggestion: that perhaps the intensity of experience in the deserts of North Africa and the Central Highlands of Vietnam reveals the dependence of the Cartesian model on particular ‘natures’ and, above all, on the ethnocentric privileges accorded to ‘temperate nature’ as ‘normal nature’.  These radically intemperate natures – the Western Front too – thus took their toll on more than the bodies of the soldiers who fought through them.

The Code breakers

Lincoln signing General Order No. 100 (Mort Künstler)

In 1863, under the authority of Abraham Lincoln, the United States published Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field, General Order 100.  It was drawn up by a law professor at Columbia, Francis Lieber, and approved by a committee of Union officers, and sought to codify the practices of customary international law.  It was signed by Lincoln on 24 April 1863, and the full text is here.

The Lieber Code, as it became known (Lieber himself called it ‘Old Hundred’), continues to casts its spell over international law and its historians.  Its most recent incantation is John Fabian Witt‘s artfully titled Lincoln’s Code: the laws of war in American History (Free Press, 2012). It’s a superb historical monograph, beautifully written and richly illustrated, that travels from the American Revolution via the fulcrum of the Civil War to the eve of the First World War – Witt is both a professor of Law at Yale and a member of the History department – but, not surprisingly, it’s the book’s contemporary echoes that have resonated with many readers.  (Witt once hailed Lincoln as ‘probably our most important law-of-war president, having crafted the very rules that George W. Bush and his Justice Department tried to destroy’).

In an interview in today’s New York Times, however, Witt insists that the Bush administration – in its assault on the Geneva Conventions, its establishment of GITMO, and its elaborate parsing of what does and does not legally constitute torture – did not mark a departure from historical precedent:

“It’s not an aberration that American lawyers closely tied to the administration went to work on transforming the laws of war to suit the felt strategic imperatives of the moment,” he said. “That is the kind of thing we see going all the way back.”

The Lieber Code, he argues, was not a neutral instrument: it was ‘developed by a side for the purpose of helping it win a war.’  And so while Witt documents its role as what he calls a ‘humanitarian shield’ defending ‘civilized war’ – the Code enshrined a distinction between combatants and civilians (or ‘private citizens’), and proscribed assassination, torture and poisons – he argues that it was also designed to function offensively as ‘an instrument of justice.’  The Code itself proclaimed that ‘the more vigorously wars are pursued the better it is for for humanity.  Sharp wars are brief.’ (This was before the age of air power – though balloons were used during the Civil War – but it was exactly this belief in ‘sharpening’ war that underwrote the later faith in bombing as an alternative to the protracted carnage of the trenches).

Now ‘justice’ is a weasel-word,  especially in the mouths of weasels in the White House – it’s no surprise that Max Boot is such a fan of Witt’s cheerleading for ‘the United States’s long history of leadership in creating the laws of war’.  It turns out that among the practices that escaped the Lieber Code’s censure were the starvation of civilians and the bombardment of towns without warning (‘Surprise may be a necessity’), and most of its other provisions and protections could be set aside on grounds of ‘military necessity’.  Eric Posner provides an incisive dissection of those implications in relation to Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia and South Carolina and much more besides in Slate here.

The climax of the book is certainly not its epilogue but Witt’s discussion of the exemplary violence displayed by the United States during the Philippine War (1899-1902).  Here ‘Old Hundred’ was cited to justify extraordinarily brutal measures.  General James Bell made clear his preference for ‘a short and severe war’ over ‘a benevolent war infinitely prolonged’, and some – perhaps many – officers treated this as a declaration of open season on their prisoners of war.  The most shocking method of interrogation was the ‘water cure’ (shown below) – the contemporary resonances don’t need any amplification from me – and yet torture was expressly outlawed under the Lieber Code.  A number of commanders were successfully prosecuted for the offence, including Major Edwin Glenn, who openly prided himself on leading a mobile team of ‘water cure’ experts.

So does this mean that the Code’s ‘defensive shield’ tempered its aggressive sword? In 1914 Glenn was selected by the War Department to be the lead author to update its field manual on the laws of war, and it was that version of the Rules of Land Warfare that guided military operations in World War I and World War II and was cited time and time again at Nuremberg.  ‘No one noted that they had been crafted by a convicted torturer,’ Witt observes, ‘a man whom we would today … call a war criminal.’

Yet Witt is quick to strike down the low-hanging fruit, the easy conclusion that the laws of war are thus ‘shot through with hypocrisy’:

‘For the most striking thing about Glenn’s Rules of Land Warfare is not the identity of its author but the restraint of its terms.  The manual bore few traces of its author’s terrible past….

‘Glenn adopted Lieber’s term “war crime”s for the first time in an official American document.  And as for torture, Glenn faithfully reproduced precisely the section of the 1863 Code that Judge Advocate General Davis had cited when he recommended that the president uphold Glenn’s own conviction and sentence. “Military necessity”, the Rules of Land Warfare stated, “does not admit of … torture to extort confessions.” Following Lieber’s Old Hundred, the Rules banned coercive means to obtain information from prisoners of war.

A draft 2011 statement on ‘Lincoln’s Code’ prepared by Witt for a Harvard workshop is here, and you can access 70 images from his book (from which I took the image above) together with its bibliography here.  His February 2011 Inaugural Lecture as the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale – Lincoln’s Code: the puzzling history of the laws of war – is available on vimeo here.