The video of my lecture at Radboud University earlier this month on ‘War at a Distance: Aerial violence and the death of the battlefield‘ has now been posted online via YouTube:
The video of my lecture at Radboud University earlier this month on ‘War at a Distance: Aerial violence and the death of the battlefield‘ has now been posted online via YouTube:
UBC’s term started last week, but I was in Nijmegen so I’ve started this week. I’ve posted the revised outlines and bibliographies for my two courses this term under the TEACHING tab.
I was primarily in Nijmegen to give a ‘Radboud Reflects’/Humboldt Lecture. As usual, I had a wonderful time; I’ve pasted the abstract below – though this was written before I had put the presentation together, so it doesn’t incorporate the closing section at all (“Geographies of the Remote”). It draws, in part, on my Tanner Lectures, “Reach from the sky“, but it also incorporates new material [see, for example, my reflections on the Blackout here].
You can download the slides as a pdf here: GREGORY War at a distance Aerial violence and the death of the battlefield [this version includes several slides that I subsequently cut to bring the thing within bounds], and the video version will be available online shortly.
War at a distance: aerial violence and the death of the battlefield
Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk” is remarkable for many reasons, but prominent among them is the fact that, as the director himself notes, ‘we don’t see the Germans in the film… it’s approached from the mechanics of survival rather than the politics of the event.’ This raises a series of important questions, but central to any understanding of aerial violence is precisely what can be seen and what cannot be seen: what can those crouching under the bombs see of the perpetrators, and what can those carrying out the strikes see of their targets? You might think this becomes even more important when war is conducted at a distance, but the history of military violence shows that ‘distance’ is a complicated thing…
The first large-scale use of aircraft for offensive purposes (rather than surveillance) was on the Western Front during the First World War, when aircraft were used to ‘spot’ targets for artillery and eventually to conduct bombing operations on the battlefield. But more consequential was the use of aircraft and airships to conduct bombing raids far beyond the battlefield, on cities like London and Paris, because this brought civilians directly into the line of fire and in doing so started to dissolve the idea of the battlefield [what Frédéric Mégret calls ‘the deconstruction of the battlefield‘] and to assault the very concept of a civilian. The bombing offensives of the Second World War, especially in Europe and Japan, accelerated this dismal process, but they also reveal a deadly dialectic between intimacy and domesticity (the effects on everyday life on the ‘home’ front) and abstraction (the way in which targets were produced and made visible to bomber crews).e
That same dialectic reappears in today’s drone operations over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. But these new technologies of ‘war at a distance’ have their own history that overlaps and intersects with the story of manned flight. Indeed, the dream of ‘unmanned’ flight soared in lockstep with the dream of those extraordinary flying machines. This too goes back to the First World War, when inventors proposed ingenious aerial vehicles whose ‘bomb-dropping’ would be controlled by radio. These proved impractical until after the Second World War, when drones were used by the US to photograph and collect samples from atomic clouds in the Marshall Islands and Nevada [see here and here]. The over-arching principle was to protect American lives by keeping operators at a safe distance from their targets, and this is one of the logics animating contemporary drone strikes (‘projecting power without vulnerability’). But for this to work new technologies of target recognition as well as mission control were required; these were first developed during the Vietnam War, when the US Air Force tried to ‘wire’ the Ho Chi Minh Trail and connect its sensor systems to computers that would direct aircraft onto their targets (or, rather, target boxes).
The Pentagon looked forward to the installation of an ‘automated battlefield’ on a global scale [see my ‘Lines of Descent’, DOWNLOADS tab]. Although its plans were premature, the subsequent development of targeted killing using Predators and Reapers has since completed the dissolution of a distinctive battlefield: the United States Air Force boasts that it can put ‘warheads on foreheads’ and the US has claimed the right to pursue its targets wherever they go, so that (in Grégoire Chamayou’s words) ‘the body becomes the battlefield.’ These targeted bodies are at once abstract – reduced to digital traces, the products of a global system of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – and yet at the same time, by virtue of the high-resolution full-motion video feeds used to track them, peculiarly intimate to those that kill them. Drone pilots operate their aircraft from thousands of miles away, yet they are much ‘closer’ to their targets than pilots of conventional strike aircraft: previously, the only aerial vehicles to approach this level of intimacy, and then but fleetingly, were the Zeppelins of the First World War. But this intimacy is conditional and even illusory, and case studies [see here, here and here] show that as the battlefield transforms into the multi-dimensional battlespace the very idea of the civilian [see here and here] is put at increased risk.
All of this will appear, in extended and elaborated form, in my new book, also called “Reach from the sky”.
I vividly remember reading Joachim Schlör‘s Nights in the Big City when it was first published almost twenty years ago – an extraordinary reflection on the impact of illumination and the perception of night in Berlin, Paris and London between 1840 and 1930. It joined Wolfgang Schivelbusch‘s elegant Disenchanted Night on my bookshelves, a text whose subtitle – ‘the industrialization of light in the nineteenth century‘ – concealed as much as it revealed the richness of Schivelbusch’s narrative.
But even then I thought there was another, later story to tell: what happens when people who have become used to the (more or less) brightly lit city are precipitously plunged back into darkness?
I was thinking of the blackout during the Second World War. This week I’m back at Radboud University in Nijmegen, preparing for a public presentation on aerial violence, and my thoughts have returned to my old question. I think it’s an important one because we know so much about bombing – about crouching under the bombs, seeking cover in shelters, recovering the bodies of the dead and the injured, and then ‘carrying on’ – but we often forget that its horror is not confined to the experience of an air raid, to what Pat Barker memorably describes in Noonday as ‘a stick of bombs … tumbling down the beam of a searchlight onto a building fifty yards ahead, an extraordinary sight, like a worm’s eye view of somebody shitting.’ Others turned to the shattered language of the sublime to capture the aw(e)ful sensation of a city – their city – in flames.
But my point is that these surreal scenes of sound and light and fury were dramatic punctuations in a pervasive atmosphere of anticipation and a larger landscape of terror that together constituted what we might think of as the slow violence of bombing. Sarah Waters captures this (and much more besides) brilliantly in her novel The Night Watch:
‘It was always disconcerting, in a black-out, leaving the places you knew best. A particular feeling started to creep over you, a mixture of panic and dread: as if you were walking through a rifle-range with a target on your back.’
Like Noonday, The Night Watch is the product of careful research as well as a luminous literary imagination; yet historians themselves have made remarkably little of the black-out, content to leave it in the shadows and direct attention to the pyrotechnic displays of the bomber’s art. So what follows are merely notes, and even then confined to Britain, waiting a larger project. (In fairness, there is an important PhD thesis by Marc Wiggam, The Blackout in Britain and Germany during the Second World War (Exeter University, 2011), but his main concerns are policy and policing, and the discussion of cultural formations is largely confined to contemporary literary and film representations and says little about everyday life).
Britain had introduced a limited blackout in 1915, when its cities were menaced by Zeppelins and Gotha bombers. In 1937, keenly aware of Stanley Baldwin‘s bleak injunction in his speech ‘A Fear for the Future’ that ‘the bomber will always get through’, the British government was already making plans for air raid precautions.
A blackout was introduced in London on 11 August 1939, and a universal blackout imposed on the whole country by a ‘lighting order’ issued under Defence Regulation No 24 on 1 September 1939:
‘… every night from sunset to sunrise all lights inside the buildings must be obscured and lights outside buildings must be extinguished, subject to certain exceptions in the case of external lighting where it is essential for the conduct of work of vital national importance. Such lights must be adequately shaded.’
Felicity Goodall describes how journalist Mea Allan witnessed the introduction of the blackout:
‘I stood on the footway of Hungerford bridge across the Thames watching the lights of London go out. The whole great town was lit up like a fairyland, in a dazzle that reached into the sky, and then one by one, as a switch was pulled, each area went dark, the dazzle becoming a patchwork of lights being snuffed out here and there until a last one remained, and it too went out. What was left us was more than just wartime blackout, it was a fearful portent of what war was to be. We had not thought that we would have to fight in darkness, or that light would be our enemy.’
It was, as Geoff Manaugh notes, ‘a different form of camouflage, one that hid the city against the surrounding landscape by plunging its streets and buildings into darkness.’
Households were required to make special blackout curtains; they could not be washed, because this would let the light through, so housewives (sic) were enjoined to ‘hoover, shake, brush then iron them.’ The windows had to be closed to secure the blackout too, so rooms soon became airless. Chris Hill has the reaction of a teenage girl living in Romford, recorded in her diary for Mass Observation:
Friday 1st September – “…our makeshift blackout arrangements involve the use of a light so small that it strains the eyes. It’s only ten but I’m going to bed.”
Sunday 3rd September – “I decided we could not stop indoors; the blackout curtains made the rooms stuffy, and the light bad. We went into the town ‘to see what was going on’… Evidently, others had come out for similar reasons, so every street corner was ornamented with little groups of people…”
In short order a new city of ‘dreadful night’ was conjured into being. John Lehmann later recalled that
‘London had become two cities. The one, the daytime city where we went about our business much as before, worked in our offices and discussed what plans we could make for the future… The other London was the new, symbolic city of the blackout, where one floundered about in the unaccustomed darkness of the streets, bumping into patrolling wardens or huddled strangers…’ [cited in Amy Helen Bell, London was ours: Diaries and memoirs of the London Blitz].
The sensibility Lehmann describes – the floundering and bumping about and the attendant disorientation and disorder – may explain, in part, why war artists made so few attempts to capture the blackout. This was not, as you might think, simply or even primarily the product of a collective reluctance to produce a near-black canvas. In his War Paint, Brian Foss remarks that, ‘despite its status as the most universally experienced aspect of home front life,’ the blackout
‘is the subject of a mere handful of war pictures. Of these, only one, purchased from Joan Connew [above], a hitherto virtually unknown painter from Kent, exploits both the rich tonal potential and the incipient visual confusion of a blanket use of brown and blacks.’
He argues that the absence from the War Artists Advisory Committee of blackout paintings was the product of a sort of counter-blackout that expressed ‘the psychological need for orientation points and beacons.’
So as the blackout was carefully calculated and disseminated (above), I think it important to register the attempts to impose an order upon and within its envelopment of the city.
Street lights were switched off, and drivers of vehicles had to mask their headlamps using thick cardboard discs, obscure all other lights to the side and rear, and mark their bumpers and mudguards with white paint. Sarah Waters imagines roads even in the capital becoming almost empty – she’s writing about Holborn – ‘with ‘only the occasional cab or lorry – like creeping black insects they seemed in the darkness, with gleaming, brittle-looking bodies and louvred, infernal eyes.’ That wasn’t a pure flight of the novelist’s imagination. Pedestrians had to mask their torches too, and Mrs Peg Cotton confessed that, as she walked home one night,
‘The tissue came off my torch and since the light is prohibited thus, I hid it under my coat. The light shining out from below my skirts thus made me look like a crawling lightening-bug’ [in Felicity Goodall, Voices from the Home Front]
The blacked-out city was an unfamiliar one but also a dangerous one. ‘The density of the blackout these cloudy moonless nights is beyond belief’, recorded Phyllis Warner:
‘No one in New York or Los Angeles can successfully imagine what it’s like. For the first minute going out of doors one is completely bewildered, then it is a matter of groping forward with nerves as well as hands outstretched’ [Goodall, Voices]
When leaving the dimmed but illuminated interior of a house, a railway or a tube station, travellers were advised to close their eyes and count to fifteen to prepare for the abrupt plunge into darkness.
Here is Sarah Waters:
As she opened the door she said, ‘I hate this bit. Let’s close our eyes and count, as we’re supposed to’—and so they stood on the step with their faces screwed up, saying, ‘One, two, three …’ ‘When do we stop?’ asked Helen. ‘… twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—now!’ They opened their eyes, and blinked. ‘Has that made a difference?’ ‘I don’t think so. It’s still dark as hell.’
As that vignette suggests, the very choreography of the city was altered and even regulated. So, for example, pedestrians were advised to wear white at night (gloves, hats, armbands, buttons: Selfridge’s did a roaring trade in selling ‘blackout accessories’) –
– and they were instructed to walk on the left to avoid colliding with one another:
It was even more difficult for drivers, especially those rushing to provide emergency help at the scene of an air raid. Again, Sarah Waters is brilliant at conjuring the experience of her volunteer ambulance drivers during the Blitz. Often, the flames cut through the darkness to provide hideous illumination. ‘You didn’t need any lights or maps to find the way,’ one City of London fireman observed, ‘you just headed for the glow in the sky’ (below).
But it wasn’t always so simple. Here’s another firefighter:
‘It’s no joke finding your way about in a vehicle during the blackout through back streets in a district you and your driver have never been in before! As we were now some distance away from the fires, and Jerry being overhead, we were proceeding without lights – except side lights which are so dimmed as to be useless for illuminating the road. The pump in front of us had turned round a corner. We followed and suddenly the tender bumped, lurched and went along with two wheels on the pavement. We had only just missed dropping into a crater about twenty feet across by ten to fifteen feet deep. The first pump had swerved the other way from us and was stuck with its nose in a heap of debris’ [Goodall, Voices]
By the beginning of 1940 more people had been killed in road accidents than by enemy action. Ironically one of the first was a council employee hit by a vehicle as he painted a white line on a curb near Marble Arch – these lines, marking curbs and steps, were intended to help people navigate the darkened city.
In addition, as Geoff Manaugh demonstrates, both the flow and the fabric of the city were reconfigured: a 20 m.p.h. speed limit was imposed, blue lights marked public air raid shelters, and new white markings appeared on roads to guide the traffic:
The imposition of the blackout was remarkable successful – though once the flares and the bombs sailed down, the bombers quickly found their mark (if rarely the precise target they were aiming for). So let me leave you with this exquisite exchange that captures the interplay between the blackout and the bombs; it comes from John Strachey‘s account of his days as an ARP warden, Digging for Mrs Miller:
‘As he put his head out, a man said “Warden,” out of the dark. “Warden”, went on the voice irritably, “Come and see these dreadful lights. Don’t you think you ought to put them out at once?” Ford went down the street a few yards and found a man in a trilby hat pointing towards the trees in Bedford Court. There were the lights all right, two of them behind the trees, and as they watched three more came slowly drifting and dropping through the higher sky, red, white and orange. “I’m afraid I can’t put those lights out,” Ford said. “You see, those are flares dropped from German aeroplanes.”
Several years ago, while my work on the geographies and genealogies of aerial violence was in its early stages, I was in Madrid: one of my main objectives was to see Pablo Picasso‘s Guernica.
I’d written (briefly) about it in a short essay – ”In another time-zone, the bombs fall unsafely….’: Targets, civilians and late modern war’ (DOWNLOADS tab):
In 1937 Europe’s world was turned upside down. The theme of the Exposition Universelle that was due to open in Paris later that year was the celebration of modern technology, ‘Art et technique dans la vie moderne’, and Pablo Picasso had been invited to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion. By the spring, he was still casting around for a subject.
27 April was market day in Guernica (Gernika), and the Basque city was crowded with refugees from the Civil War and people from out of town attending the market. Towards the end of the afternoon, the town was attacked from the air: first by a single German aircraft, then by three Italian aircraft, then by three waves of German and Italian aircraft. Later, in the early evening, the attack was resumed with astonishing ferocity by squadrons from the German Condor Legion whose high explosive and incendiary bombs set off a firestorm that destroyed three quarters of the town and left as many as 1, 600 people dead and over 800 injured. The next day a passionate eyewitness account of the devastation by journalist George Steer was published in The Times [see here for a reading of his report by his biographer Nicholas Rankin and for more contemporary imagery]. His report was syndicated around the world and set off a firestorm of its own. Franco’s immediate response was to deny that an air raid had taken place, and to blame the destruction on Republican and Anarchist forces defending the town. The commander of the Condor Legion, Wolfram von Richthofen, claimed that the raid had been directed against a military target, the bridge over the Rio Mundaca, and that its purpose was to cut off the Republican line of retreat; but his own standing orders required military targets to be attacked ‘without regard for the civilian population’, and in a secret report to Berlin he described ‘the concentrated attack on Guernica’ as ‘the greatest success’ in extinguishing resistance to the Nationalist-Fascist forces.
Picasso now had his subject:
‘It was an enormous canvas, so large that Picasso needed a ladder and brushes strapped to sticks in order to paint its heights… Working from the ladder when he needed to, and sometimes on his knees, the artist began to paint on May 11, 1937, and he did so with a hot and focused intensity that was unusually keen even for him. He was determined to transform the vacant canvas into a monumental mural that would disturb and shock its viewers, reminding them … that people similarly suffered unimaginable terror in every place and time.’
‘Guernica’ as both place and painting became a symbol of a technological sublime terrifyingly different from that anticipated by the organizers of the Exposition Universelle. It was a sort of imaginative counter-geography that wrenchingly displaced the complacent Euro-American fiction that aerial warfare was always waged in ‘their’ space and that its horrors could remain unregistered.
But, as you can see, I said remarkably little about the canvas itself. And I confess that when I finally stood in front of it in Madrid I continued to struggle with the composition.
In a wonderful essay on ‘Picasso and Tragedy’ in this month’s London Review of Books T.J. Clark has come to my aid – not least because he flips my uncertainty about the composition into a careful consideration of its spatiality. First, this:
What marks Guernica off from most other murals of its giant size is the fact that it registers so powerfully as a single scene. Certainly it is patched together out of fragments, episodes, spotlit silhouettes. Part of its agony is disconnectedness – the isolation that terror is meant to enforce. But this disconnectedness is drawn together into a unity: Guernica does not unwind like a scroll or fold out like a strip cartoon (for all its nods to both idioms); it is not a procession of separate icons; it is a picture – a distinct shape of space – whose coherence is felt immediately by the viewer for all its strangeness.
‘Space’ is shorthand, I recognise. In the case of Guernica, what seems to matter most is the question of where the viewer is standing in the bombed city. Are we inside some kind of room? There are certainly walls, doors, windows, a table in the half-dark, even the dim lines of a ceiling. But doesn’t the horse opposite us look to be screaming in a street or courtyard, with a woman holding a lamp pushing her head through a window – a filmy curtain billowing over her forearm – to see what the noise is outside? Can we talk of an ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ at all in Guernica? Are the two kinds of space distinct? We seem to be looking up at a room’s high corners top left and right, but also, above the woman with the lamp, at the tiles on a roof. There is a door flapping on its hinges at the picture’s extreme right edge, but does it lead the way into safety or out to the void? How near to us are the animals and women? If they are close by, as appears likely, looming over us – so many giants – does that proximity ‘put us in touch’ with them? Does proximity mean intimacy? How does the picture’s black, white and grey monochrome affect our looking? Does it put back distance – detachment – into the scene, however near and enormous individual bodies may seem? Where is the ground in Guernica? Do we have a leg (or a tiled floor) to stand on? Literally we do – the grid of tiles is one of the last things Picasso put in as the picture came to a finish. But do any of the actors in the scene look to be supported by it? Does it offer viewers a foothold in the criss-cross of limbs?
The reader will have understood that the best answer to almost all of these questions is: ‘I’m not sure.’ And spatial uncertainty is one key to the picture’s power. It is Picasso’s way of responding to the new form of war, the new shape of suffering.
And then this:
Guernica is a tragic scene – a downfall, a plunge into darkness – but distinctively a 20th-century one. Its subject is death from the air. ‘That death could fall from heaven on so many,’ Picasso told an interviewer later, ‘right in the middle of rushed life, has always had a great meaning for me.’ A great meaning, and a special kind of horror. The historian Marc Bloch had this to say in 1940:
The fact is that this dropping of bombs from the sky has a unique power of spreading terror … A man is always afraid of dying, but particularly so when to death is added the threat of complete physical disintegration. No doubt this is a peculiarly illogical manifestation of the instinct of self-preservation, but its roots are very deep in human nature.
Bombing of the kind experimented with in April 1937 – ‘carpet bombing’, ‘strategic bombing’ ‘total war’ – is terrifying. Because the people on the ground, cowering in their shelters, may imagine themselves suddenly gone from the world – ripped apart and scattered, vanished without trace. Because what will put an end to them so completely comes out of the blue – Picasso’s ‘from heaven’ – and has no imaginable form. Because death from now on is potentially (‘strategically’) all-engulfing: no longer a matter of individual extinctions recorded on a war memorial, but of whole cities – whole ‘worlds’, whole forms of life – snuffed out in an hour or so.
And finally this:
We could say that the nowhere-ness and isolation in Guernica are what terror – terror with von Richthofen’s technology at its disposal [he called it ‘absolutely fabulous’] – most wants to produce. It is the desired state of mind lurking behind the war-room euphemisms: ‘undermining civilian morale’, ‘destroying social cohesion’, ‘strategic bombing’, ‘putting an end to war-willingness’. But surely Guernica would not have played the role it has for the past eighty years if all it showed was absolute negativity. It is a scene, after all, not a meaningless shambles. It presents us, at the degree zero of experience, with an image of horror shared – death as a condition (a promised end, a mystery) that opens a last space for the human…
It is difficult, maybe impossible, to describe what is happening here without one’s language tipping into the falsely redemptive. Nothing that takes place in Guernica, to make my own feeling clear, strikes me as redeemed or even transfigured by the picture’s black-and-white reassembly of its parts. Fear, pain, sudden death, disorientation, screaming immediacy, disbelief, the suffering of animals – none of these realities ‘falls into place’. Judith Butler in a recent essay, looking for a basis on which a future politics might be built, asks her readers to consider the idea of a collectivity founded on weakness. ‘Vulnerability, affiliation and collective resistance’: these, she argues, are such a commonality’s building blocks. I believe that Guernica’s usefulness – its continuing life in so many different contexts – may derive from the fact that it pictures politics in much the same way.
My extended extracts don’t do justice to the richness and the subtlety – nor the passion – of the original, which is easily the best essay I’ve read all summer – and long before.
So, two resolutions: I want to go back to Madrid; and I want to say much more about Picasso’s unsettling composition and its continuing resonance in my next book, Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war.
I first encountered Eric Schlosser’s brilliant Command and Control while I was working on the multiple intersections between drones and atomic bombs – ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies‘; the long form version will be finished soon – and Netflix has now added The Bomb to its listings; it’s also available on iTunes.
The Bomb is an experimental documentary Eric made with Kevin Ford and Smriti Keshari. Here’s the trailer from YouTube:
This is how Claire Spellberg describes the project:
The 56 minutes prior are made up entirely of carefully collected footage of Cold War information, bomb testings, nuclear explosions, and modern news clips from around the world. There’s no narration to explain what we’re seeing; instead, the filmmakers rely on loud electro-rock music from The Acid. The combined effect is jarring; the beat pulsates steadily as one bomb explodes after another, destroying homes, people, and ecosystems.
Ford, Keshari, and Schlosser first premiered The Bomb at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival as a complete multimedia experience. The filmmakers set up multiple 30-foot-high screens and The Acid accompanied the film with live music, creating what was sure to be an incredibly jarring effect. If you weren’t previously concerned about the very real threat posed by nuclear weapons, being surrounded by screens showing a nuclear bomb decimate a rural town as deafening music plays probably changed your mind.
Even without all the bells and whistles, the version of The Bomb on Netflix is sure to resonate with viewers.
There has been an explosion (sic) of commentary on Trump’s light-sabre rattling over North Korea – the more sober-sided are downplaying the possibility of a nuclear strike, though the death and destruction wrought by a conventional strike would surely be catastrophic – but a detailed analysis that speaks directly to the issues raised by ‘Command and Control’ is Garrett Graff on ‘The Madman and the Bomb‘ over at Politico.
Here is the first of a series of updates on Syria, this one identifying recent work on attacks on hospitals and health care which I’ve been reading while I turn my previous posts into a long-form essay (see ‘Your turn, doctor‘ and ‘The Death of the Clinic‘).
First, some context. Human Rights Watch has joined a chorus of NGOs documenting attacks on hospitals and health care around the world. On 24 May HRW issued this bleak statement:
Deadly attacks on hospitals and medical workers in conflicts around the world remain uninvestigated and unpunished a year after the United Nations Security Council called for greater action, Human Rights Watch said today.
On May 25, 2017, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is scheduled to brief the Security Council on the implementation of Resolution 2286, which condemned wartime attacks on health facilities and urged governments to act against those responsible. Guterres should commit to alerting the Security Council of all future attacks on healthcare facilities on an ongoing rather than annual basis.
“Attacks on hospitals challenge the very foundation of the laws of war, and are unlikely to stop as long as those responsible for the attacks can get away with them,” said Bruno Stagno-Ugarte, deputy executive director for advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “Attacks on hospitals are especially insidious, because when you destroy a hospital and kill its health workers, you’re also risking the lives of those who will need their care in the future.”
The statement continues:
International humanitarian law, also known as the laws of war, prohibits attacks on health facilities and medical workers. To assess accountability measures undertaken for such attacks, Human Rights Watch reviewed 25 major attacks on health facilities between 2013 and 2016 in 10 countries [see map above]. For 20 of the incidents, no publicly available information indicates that investigations took place. In many cases, authorities did not respond to requests for information about the status of investigations. Investigations into the remaining five were seriously flawed…
No one appears to have faced criminal charges for their role in any of these attacks, at least 16 of which may have constituted war crimes. The attacks involved military forces or armed groups from Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and the United States.
The World Health Organisation reached similar conclusions in its report of 17 May 2017:
Alexandra Sifferlin‘s commentary for Time drew attention to the importance of attacks on medical facilities in Syria:
In a 48-hour period in November, warplanes bombed five hospitals in Syria, leaving Aleppo’s rebel-controlled section without a functioning hospital. The loss of the Aleppo facilities — which had been handling more than 1,500 major surgeries each month — was just one hit in a series of escalating attacks on health care workers in 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Friday.
Violent attacks on hospitals and health workers “continue with alarming frequency,” the WHO said in its new report. In 2016, there were 302 violent attacks, which is about an 18% increase from the prior year, according to new data. The violence — 74% was in the form of bombings — occurred in 20 countries, but it was driven by relentless strikes on health facilities in Syria, which the WHO has previously condemned. Across the globe, the 302 attacks last year resulted in 372 deaths and 491 injuries…
After the spate of attacks on Syrian hospitals last November, the WHO reported that three of the bombed hospitals in Aleppo had been providing over 10,000 consultations every month. Two other bombed hospitals in the city of Idleb were providing similar levels of care, including 600 infant deliveries. One of the two hospitals in Idleb was a primary referral hospital for emergency childbirth care.
“The attack…is an outrage that puts many more lives in danger in Syria and deprives the most vulnerable – including children and pregnant women – of their right to health services, just at the time when they need them most,” the WHO said.
The WHO has also provided a series of reports on attacks on hospitals and health care in Syria; here is its summary for last month:
But the WHO’s role in the conflict in Syria has been sharply criticised by Annie Sparrow, who has accused it of becoming a de facto apologist for the Assad regime. Writing in Middle East Eye earlier this year, she said:
For years now, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been fiddling while Syria burns, bleeds and starves. Despite WHO Syria having spent hundreds of millions of dollars since the conflict began in March 2011, public health in Syria has gone from troubling in 2011 to catastrophic now…
Yet WHO Syria has been anything but an impartial agency serving the needy. As can be seen by a speech made by Elizabeth Hoff, WHO’s representative to Syria, to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 19 November 2016, WHO has prioritised warm relations with the Syrian government over meeting the most acute needs of the Syrian people.
Annie singles out three particularly problematic issues.
You can read WHO’s (I think highly selective) response here.
Earlier this month 13 Syrian medical organisations combined with the Syria Campaign to document how attacks on hospitals have driven hospitals and health facilities underground (I described this process – and the attacks on the Cave Hospital and the underground M10 hospital in Aleppo – in ‘Your turn, doctor‘). In Saving Lives Underground, they write:
There have been over 454 attacks on hospitals in the last six years, with 91% of the attacks perpetrated by the Assad government and Russia. During the last six months of 2016, the rate of attacks on healthcare increased dramatically. Most recently, in April 2017 alone, there were 25 attacks on medical facilities, or one attack every 29 hours.
While the international community fails to protect Syrian medics from systematic aerial attacks on their hospitals, Syrians have developed an entire underground system to help protect patients and medical colleagues as best they can. The fortification of medical facilities is now considered a standard practice in Syria. Field hospitals have been driven underground, into basements, fortified with sandbags and cement walls, and into caves. These facilities have saved the lives of countless health workers and patients, preserved critical donor-funded equipment, and helped prevent displacement by providing communities with emergency care.
But all this comes at a cost:
Donors often see the reinforcement and building of underground medical facilities exclusively as long-term aid, or development work. However, as the Syria crisis is classified as a protracted emergency conflict, medical organizations do not currently have access to such long-term funds.
Budget lines for the emergency funding they receive can include “protection” work, but infrastructure building, even for protective purposes, often falls outside of their mandate. The divide between emergency humanitarian and development funding is creating a gap for projects that bridge the two, like protective measures for hospitals in Syria.
For this reason, as Emma Beals reported in the Guardian, many projects have resorted to crowdfunding:
The latest underground medical project seeking crowdfunding to complete building works is the Avicenna women and children’s hospital in Idlib City, championed by Khaled al-Milaji, head of the Sustainable International Medical Relief Organisation.
Al-Milaji is working to raise money with colleagues from Brown University in the US, where he studied until extreme security vetting – the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” – prevented him re-entering the country after a holiday in Turkey.
He has instead turned his attention to building reinforced underground levels of the hospital, sourcing private donations to meet the shortfall between donor funding and actual costs…
Crowdfunding was an essential part of building the children’s Hope hospital, near Jarabulus in northern Syria. The project is run by doctors from eastern Aleppo, who were evacuated from the city in December after it was besieged for nearly six months amid a heavy military campaign. Doctors worked with the People’s Convoy, which transported vital medical supplies from London to southern Turkey as well as raising funds to build the hospital, which opened in April. More than 4,800 single donations raised the building costs, with enough left over to run the hospital for six months.
Saving Lives Underground distinguishes basement hospitals (the most common response to aerial attack by aircraft or shelling: 66 per cent of fortified hospitals fall into this category; the average cost is usually around $80–175,000, though more elaborate rehabilitation and repurposing can run up to $1 million); cave hospitals (‘the more effective protection model’ – though there are no guarantees – which accounts for around 4 per cent of fortified hospitals and which typically cost around $200–800,000) and purpose-built underground hospitals (two per cent of the total; these can cost from $800,000 to $1,500,000).
It’s chilling to think that hospitals have to be fortified and concealed in these ways: but even more disturbing, the report finds that 47 per cent of hospitals in these vulnerable areas have no fortification at all.
Seriously ill or wounded patients trapped inside besieged areas have few choices: medical facilities are degraded and often makeshift; access to vital medical supplies continues to be capriciously controlled and often denied; and attempts to evacuate them depend on short-lived ceasefires and deals (or bribes). In Aleppo control of the Castello Road determined whether ambulances could successfully run the gauntlet from eastern Aleppo either west to hospitals in Reyhanli in Turkey or out to the Bab-al Salama Hospital in northern Aleppo and then across the border to state-run hospitals in Kilis: but in the absence of a formal agreement this was often a journey of last resort.
In October 2016 there were repeated attempts to broker medical evacuations from eastern Aleppo; eventually an agreement was reached, but the planned evacuations were stalled and then abandoned. In December a new ‘humanitarian pause’ agreed with Russia and the Syrian government allowed more than 100 ambulances to be deployed by the Red Cross and the Red Crescent from Turkey; 200 critical patients were ferried from eastern Aleppo to hospitals in rural Aleppo, Idlib or Turkey – but the mission was abruptly terminated 24 hours after it had started.
The sick and injured have continued to make precarious journeys to hospitals in Turkey (Bab al-Hawa, Kilis, Reyhanli and other towns along the border: see here, here and here), and also Jordan (in Ramtha and Amman, and in the Zaatari refugee camp: see here and here), Lebanon (in Beirut, Tripoli and clinics in the Bekaa Valley), and even Israel (trekking across the Golan Heights into Northern Israel: see here, here, here and especially here).
But there are no guarantees; travelling within Syria is dangerous and debilitating for patients, and access to hospitals outside Syria is frequently disrupted by border closures (which in turn can thrust the desperate into the hands of smugglers). In March 2016, for example, Amnesty International reported:
Since 2012 Jordan has imposed increasing restrictions on access for Syrians attempting to enter the country through formal and informal border crossings. It has made an exception for Syrians with war-related injuries. However, Amnesty International has gathered information from humanitarian workers and family members of Syrian refugees with critical injuries being denied entry to Jordan for medical care, suggesting the exceptional criteria for entry on emergency medical grounds is inconsistently applied. This has led to refugees with critical injuries being returned to field hospitals in Syria, which are under attack on a regular basis, and to some people dying at the border.
In June Jordan closed the border, after an IS car bomb killed seven of its soldiers, and by December MSF had been forced to close its clinic at the Zaatari camp, which had provided post-operative care for casualties brought in from Dara’a.
Tens of thousands of refugees are now trapped in a vast, informal encampment (see image above) between two desert berms in a sort of ‘no man’s land‘ between Syria and Jordan. From there Jordanian troops transport selected patients to a UN clinic, located across the border in a sealed military zone – ‘and then take them back again to the checkpoint after they are treated.’
(For the image above, and a commentary by MSF’s Jason Cone, see here).
For patients who do manage to make it across any of these borders, it’s far from easy for doctors to recover their medical history – as the note below, pinned to an unconscious patient who was admitted to the Ziv Medical Center in Safed implies – and in the case of Syria (as in Iraq) everything is further complicated by a fraught politics of the wound.
Here, for example, is Professor Ghassan Abu-Sitta, head of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the medical centre in Beirut, talking earlier this month with Robert Fisk:
In Iraq, patients wounded in Saddam’s wars were initially treated as heroes – they had fought for their country against non-Arab Iran. But after the US invasion of 2003, they became an embarrassment. “The value of their wounds’ ‘capital’ changes from hero to zero,” Abu-Sitta says. “And this means that their ability to access medical care also changes. We are now reading the history of the region through the wounds. War’s wounds carry with them the narrative of the wounding which becomes political capital.”
In the bleak wars that have scarred Syria, and which continue to open up divisions and divides there too, the same considerations come into play with equal force.
Very welcome news from Christiane Wilke that her essay, ‘Seeing and Unmaking Civilians in Afghanistan: Visual Technologies and Contested Professional Visions‘, has just been published in Science, Technology and Human Values.
It’s an original, compelling and immensely important analysis of a US air strike on two tankers hijacked by the Taliban and beached on a river crossing near Kunduz (Afghanistan) in September 2009. The strike was called in by a Bundeswehr officer who claimed – falsely – that he was facing what the military call ‘troops in contact’ which required immediate action; the two American pilots of the F-15s repeatedly questioned his decision but to no avail, and when the smoke cleared somewhere between 26 and 147 civilians who had been siphoning petrol from the stranded tankers had been killed.
I published a preliminary analysis of the attack, ‘Seeing like a military‘, and subsequently heard Christiane give an early version of her own argument at a conference in Lancaster in May 2014; we’ve had a lively dialogue about the strike since then. Here is the abstract:
While the distinction between civilians and combatants is fundamental to international law, it is contested and complicated in practice. How do North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers see civilians in Afghanistan? Focusing on 2009 air strike in Kunduz, this article argues that the professional vision of NATO officers relies not only on recent military technologies that allow for aerial surveillance, thermal imaging, and precise targeting but also on the assumptions, vocabularies, modes of attention, and hierarchies of knowledges that the officers bring to the interpretation of aerial surveillance images. Professional vision is socially situated and fre- quently contested with communities of practice. In the case of the Kunduz air strike, the aerial vantage point and the military visual technologies cannot fully determine what would be seen. Instead, the officers’ assumptions about Afghanistan, threats, and the gender of the civilian inform the vocabulary they use for coding people and places as civilian or noncivilian. Civilians are not simply “found,” they are produced through specific forms of professional vision.
And here is her key conclusion which clearly resonates far beyond Kunduz (see, for example, here and here; I’ve radically reworked the presentation from which those two posts derive, and you can get some sense of where I’m heading here):
In Afghanistan and in situations of armed conflict more generally, the distinction between civilians and noncivilians is a crucial dimension of seeing, intervening in, and responding to violence. The protection of civi- lians is an almost universally proclaimed goal; it is the centerpiece of the ISAF 2009 Tactical Directive. Yet without a reliable understanding of who counts as a civilian and how they can be recognized, the promise of civilian protection rings hollow. The category of the civilian, derived from specific Eurocentric understandings of armed conflict, had been grafted onto Afgha- nistan and Afghans who had to negotiate their security amidst conflict. Yet it is not clear what Afghans should do or avoid in order to be recognized as civilians. Those who shared the aerial viewpoint could not agree on the civilian status of the people near the trucks and neither could those who had extensive personal knowledge of the local social structures. Thus, a shift in perspective did not solve the problem that civilians are not clearly recogniz- able to those who have a mission to spare and protect them. At a deeper level, the lack of consensus about visually identifying civilians indicates a lack of agreement about who counts as a civilian. NATO officers consistently try to stabilize and shrink the category of civilian by juxtaposing it with a capacious category of noncivilians: insurgents, militants, supporters, and Taliban…
Yet civilians don’t simply exist. They are enacted and produced by, among other sites, socially situated interpretation of images produced with the aid of visual technologies. Sociocultural prisms of visibility not only produce counts of legitimate civilians but also legitimize the category of civilian as a workable and meaningful foundation of international law. The people who would like to be regarded as civilians bear the burden of distinguishing themselves from putative noncivilians according to criteria that they can never fully grasp because they don’t know which background knowledges and epistemes will be mobilized by those in charge of distinguishing civilians from combatants.
And – please note – this is not about drone strikes; not only have the vast majority of strikes in Afghanistan been carried out by conventional strike aircraft (why do so many of those who campaign against drones ignore other forms of aerial violence?) but no drones were involved in this particular attack either; the sharp point that Christiane makes applies to all airstrikes – and indeed, to militarised vision more generally.