Preparing for war

Timely news today that Sweden has distributed a booklet, “If Crisis or War Comes” (Om Krisen Eller Kriget Kommer), to all households.

According to the Guardian’s Jon Henley, the leaflet

explains how people can secure basic needs such as food, water and heat, what warning signals mean, where to find bomb shelters and how to contribute to Sweden’s “total defence”.

The 20-page pamphlet, illustrated with pictures of sirens, warplanes and families fleeing their homes, also prepares the population for dangers such as cyber and terror attacks and climate change, and includes a page on identifying fake news.

You can download the English-language version here.

I say it’s timely not for the reasons you might think.  Its publication coincided with an intriguing e-mail from Christine Agius:

I am currently writing on war preparedness in Sweden’s security policy and in relation to military exercises in the Baltic. With the release today of the war preparedness booklet, I’m also developing an article on war preparedness and how that functions in post-neutral states. However, I’m really struggling to find writings on the subject of war preparedness itself. I thought you might know of some that are worth investigating or who might be working on this topic?

I’m at a loss; I’ve written – really only in passing – about civil defence (‘défense passive‘) in relation to British and French preparations for the Second World War (see, for example, my two lectures under the TEACHING tab), and there is a vast literature on planning and preparing for nuclear attack during the Cold War (especially in the United States) – there I’d start with Peter Galison‘s wonderful work.  If any readers can help Christine she can be contacted at cagius@swin.edu.au.

Re-launch and Rescue

The much-missed Radical Philosophy has just re-launched as an open access journal with downloadable pdfs here.  The site also includes access to the journal’s wonderful archive.

Among the riches on offer, I’ve been particularly engaged by Martina Tazzioli‘s Crimes of solidarity. which picks up on one of the central themes in the last of the ‘old’ RP series.  It addresses what she calls ‘migration and containment through rescue’, the creeping criminalisation of the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean.  In a perceptive section on ‘Geographies of Ungrievability’ Martina writes:

The criminalisation of alliances and initiatives in support of migrants’ transit should not lead us to imagine a stark opposition between ‘good humanitarians’, on the one side, and bad military actors or national authorities, on the other. On the contrary, it is important to keep in mind the many entanglements between military and humanitarian measures, as well as the role played by military actors, such as the Navy, in performing tasks like rescuing migrants at sea that could fall under the category of what Cuttitta terms ‘military-humanitarianism’. Moreover, the Code of Conduct enforced by the Italian government actually strengthens the divide between ‘good’ NGOs and ‘treacherous’ humanitarian actors. Thus, far from building a cohesive front, the obligation to sign the Code of Conduct produced a split among those NGOs involved in search and rescue operations.

In the meantime, the figure of the refugee at sea has arguably faded away: sea rescue operations are in fact currently deployed with the twofold task of not letting migrants drown and of fighting smugglers, which de facto entails undermining the only effective channels of sea passage for migrants across the Mediterranean. From a military-humanitarian approach that, under Mare Nostrum, considered refugees at sea as shipwrecked lives, the unconditionality of rescue is now subjected to the aim of dismantling the migrants’ logistics of crossing. At the same time, the migrant drowning at sea is ultimately not seen any longer as a refugee, i.e. as a subject of rights who is seeking protection, but as a life to be rescued in the technical sense of being fished out of the sea. In other words, the migrant at sea is the subject who eventually needs to be rescued, but not thereby placed into safety by granting them protection and refuge in Europe. What happens ‘after landing’ is something not considered within the framework of a biopolitics of rescuing and of letting drown. Indeed, the latter is not only about saving (or not saving) migrants at sea, but also, in a more proactive way, about aiming at human targets. In manhunting, Gregoire Chamayou explains, ‘the combat zone tends to be reduced to the body of the enemy’. Yet who is the human target of migrant hunts in the Mediterranean? It is not only the migrant in distress at sea, who in fact is rescued and captured at the same time; rather, migrants and smugglers are both considered the ‘prey’ of contemporary military-humanitarianism.

As I’ve explained in a different context, I’m no longer persuaded by Grégoire’s argument about the reduction of the conflict zone (‘battlefield’) to the body, but the reduction of the migrant to a body adds a different dimension to that discussion.

In the case of the eastern Mediterranean, Martina describes an extraordinary (though also all too ordinary) ‘spatial rerouting of military-humanitarianism, in which migrants [fleeing Libya] are paradoxically rescued to Libya’:

Rather than vanishing from the Mediterranean scene, the politics of rescue, conceived in terms of not letting people die, has been reshaped as a technique of capture. At the same time, the geographic orientation of humanitarianism has been inverted: migrants are ‘saved’ and dropped in Libya. Despite the fact that various journalistic investigations and UN reports have shown that after being intercepted, rescued and taken back to Libya, migrants are kept in detention in abysmal conditions and are blackmailed by smugglers, the public discussion remains substantially polarised around the questions of deaths at sea. Should migrants be saved unconditionally? Or, should rescue be secondary to measures against smugglers and balanced against the risk of ‘migrant invasion’? A hierarchy of the spaces of death and confinement is in part determined by the criterion of geographical proximity, which contributes to the sidelining of mechanisms of exploitation and of a politics of letting die that takes place beyond the geopolitical borders of Europe. The biopolitical hold over migrants becomes apparent at sea: practices of solidarity are transformed into a relationship between rescuers and drowned.

There’s much more in this clear, compelling and incisive read.  A good companion is Forensic Architecture‘s stunning analysis of ‘Death by Rescue’ in The Left-to-Die Boat here and here (from which I’ve taken the image that heads this post).

Modern War and Dead Cities

I’ve provided the pdf of the (unedited) slides for another new lecture in my Cities, space and power course under the TEACHING tab: it’s on bombing cities in the First and Second World Wars.

There’s only so much you can cover in a single lecture, so I focus on Britain and Germany; as I’ve been at pains to point out elsewhere, there were many other ‘blitzes’ during the Second World War, and I’ve addressed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my ‘Little Boys and Blue skies’ essay (which will soon be available to download).

This lecture covers:

  1. The First World War: Zeppelins and Gothas over London
  2. Inter-war reflections and admonitions
  3. The London Blitz
  4. Firestorms: Bombing Hamburg and Cologne

Occupied Paris

I try to make sure all of my lectures are up-to-date each year, but this term I’ve added some completely new ones to my course on Cities, space and power.  One of them – which I gave last week – is on Paris under Nazi occupation; elsewhere in the course I discuss Cairo under French occupation (1798-1801) and, later in the nineteenth century, Shahjahanabad (Delhi) under British occupation: but working on Paris during the Second World War swept me away for much of the term (when I was supposed to be doing quite other things…).

You can find the raw slides under the TEACHING tab (‘raw’ because I couldn’t possibly use all of them in a single lecture, though I did my best, so this is the unedited version).

I hope the slides will be self-explanatory, but here’s the lecture outline:

1: Before the Occupation [civil defence or défense passive; the mass exodus from Paris; air raids; the departure of the French government; the declaration of Paris as an Open City].

2: The Fall of Paris [the entry of the Wehrmacht into a seemingly empty Paris; the Armistice and the creation of Vichy France; Hitler’s three-hour tour of Paris]

3: Occupation and the right to the city [Occupied Paris as object-space; German re-signing of the city; the cityscape and the administrative apparatus of Occupation; geographies of  military tourism (the conceit that an anterior, vibrant Paris of leisure and pleasure can still be found beneath the grid of military occupation)]

4: Everyday life in the ‘City without a Face’ [the uncanny city; ‘Food is power’: rationing, the black market, the grey market and the administration of hunger; the Nazi control of time and space]

5: Paris’s Jews and the Nazi Genocide [registrations, regulations and round-ups; the co-operation and collaboration of the French police; Drancy camp; exclusions from public space; the Vélodrome d’Hiver]

6: The Allied Offensive and the Liberation of Paris [Allied bombing; ‘Is Paris Burning?’; post-Liberation violence]

A treasure trove for imagery, incidentally, is Parisien Images here; I’ve long maintained that image research – including a creative use of Google Images – is an absolutely indispensable part of research, since the results often provide insights and take you to places you would never have thought of otherwise.  I also recommend Occupation de Paris, a wonderful, eclectic collection of images and commentary here.

Among the books I mined: Allan Mitchell, Nazi Paris: The History of an Occupation, 1940-1944; David DrakeParis at War: 1939-1944 (brilliant); and Ronald Rosbottom, When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 (suggestive but you’ll need to find the detail elsewhere).  A good place for a quick start is Bernard Toulgoat‘s series on Life in Paris under Nazi Occupation: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4.

Tracking and targeting

News from Lucy Suchman of a special issue of Science, Technology and Human Values [42 (6) (2017)]  on Tracking and targeting: sociotechnologies of (in)security, which she’s co-edited with Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber.

Here’s the line-up:

Lucy Suchman, Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber: Tracking and targeting

This introduction to the special issue of the same title sets out the context for a critical examination of contemporary developments in sociotechnical systems deployed in the name of security. Our focus is on technologies of tracking, with their claims to enable the identification of those who comprise legitimate targets for the use of violent force. Taking these claims as deeply problematic, we join a growing body of scholarship on the technopolitical logics that underpin an increasingly violent landscape of institutions, infrastructures, and actions, promising protection to some but arguably contributing to our collective insecurity. We examine the asymmetric distributions of sociotechnologies of (in)security; their deadly and injurious effects; and the legal, ethical, and moral questions that haunt their operations.

Karolina Follis: Visions and transterritory: the borders of Europe

This essay is about the role of visual surveillance technologies in the policing of the external borders of the European Union (EU). Based on an analysis of documents published by EU institutions and independent organizations, I argue that these technological innovations fundamentally alter the nature of national borders. I discuss how new technologies of vision are deployed to transcend the physical limits of territories. In the last twenty years, EU member states and institutions have increasingly relied on various forms of remote tracking, including the use of drones for the purposes of monitoring frontier zones. In combination with other facets of the EU border management regime (such as transnational databases and biometrics), these technologies coalesce into a system of governance that has enabled intervention into neighboring territories and territorial waters of other states to track and target migrants for interception in the “prefrontier.” For jurisdictional reasons, this practice effectively precludes the enforcement of legal human rights obligations, which European states might otherwise have with regard to these persons. This article argues that this technologically mediated expansion of vision has become a key feature of post–cold war governance of borders in Europe. The concept of transterritory is proposed to capture its effects.

Christiane Wilke: Seeing and unmaking civilians in Afghanistan: visual technologies and contested professional visions

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 frequently 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.

Jon Lindsay: Target practice: Counterterrorism and the amplification of data friction

The nineteenth-century strategist Carl von Clausewitz describes “fog” and “friction” as fundamental features of war. Military leverage of sophisticated information technology in the twenty-first century has improved some tactical operations but has not lifted the fog of war, in part, because the means for reducing uncertainty create new forms of it. Drawing on active duty experience with an American special operations task force in Western Iraq from 2007 to 2008, this article traces the targeting processes used to “find, fix, and finish” alleged insurgents. In this case they did not clarify the political reality of Anbar province but rather reinforced a parochial worldview informed by the Naval Special Warfare community. The unit focused on the performance of “direct action” raids during a period in which “indirect action” engagement with the local population was arguably more appropriate for the strategic circumstances. The concept of “data friction”, therefore, can be understood not simply as a form of resistance within a sociotechnical system but also as a form of traction that enables practitioners to construct representations of the world that amplify their own biases.

M.C. Elish: Remote split: a history of US drone operations and the distributed labour of war

This article analyzes US drone operations through a historical and ethnographic analysis of the remote split paradigm used by the US Air Force. Remote split refers to the globally distributed command and control of drone operations and entails a network of human operators and analysts in the Middle East, Europe, and Southeast Asia as well as in the continental United States. Though often viewed as a teleological progression of “unmanned” warfare, this paper argues that historically specific technopolitical logics establish the conditions of possibility for the work of war to be divisible into discreet and computationally mediated tasks that are viewed as effective in US military engagements. To do so, the article traces how new forms of authorized evidence and expertise have shaped developments in military operations and command and control priorities from the Cold War and the “electronic battlefield” of Vietnam through the Gulf War and the conflict in the Balkans to contemporary deployments of drone operations. The article concludes by suggesting that it is by paying attention to divisions of labor and human–machine configurations that we can begin to understand the everyday and often invisible structures that sustain perpetual war as a military strategy of the United States.

I’ve discussed Christiane’s excellent article in detail before, but the whole issue repays careful reading.

And if you’re curious about the map that heads this post, it’s based on the National Security Agency’s Strategic Mission List (dated 2007 and published in the New York Times on 2 November 2013), and mapped at Electrospaces: full details here.

A modern space of terror

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.

Other Dunkirks

The web is awash with reviews and commentaries on Christopher Nolan‘s latest film, Dunkirk.  ‘A tour de force’, wrote Manhola Dargis in an extended review for the New York Times:

“Dunkirk” is a World War II movie, one told through soldiers, their lived and near-death experiences and their bodies under siege. Names are generally irrelevant here; on the beach — and in the sea and air — what counts are rank, unit, skill and the operation, although more important is survival, making it through another attack and somehow avoiding exploding bombs. Mr. Nolan’s emphasis on the visceral reality of Dunkirk leaves much unsaid; even in some opening explanatory text, the enemy isn’t identified as Nazi Germany. The soldiers, of course, know exactly who they are fighting and perhaps even why, but in the field the enemy is finally the unnamed stranger trying to kill them…

Mr. Nolan’s unyielding emphasis on the soldiers — and on war as it is experienced rather than on how it is strategized — blurs history even as it brings the present and its wars startlingly into view. “Dunkirk” is a tour de force of cinematic craft and technique, but one that is unambiguously in the service of a sober, sincere, profoundly moral story that closes the distance between yesterday’s fights and today’s. Mr. Nolan closes that distance cinematically with visual sweep and emotional intimacy, with images of warfare and huddled, frightened survivors that together with Hans Zimmer’s score reverberate through your body.

In the Guardian Peter Bradshaw also made much of the film’s visceral quality, rendered aurally as much as visually (and we surely know that the sound of war is crucial to its horror):

It also has Hans Zimmer’s best musical score: an eerie, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare, switching finally to quasi-Elgar variations for the deliverance itself. Zimmer creates a continuous pantonal lament, which imitates the dive bomber scream and queasy turning of the tides, and it works in counterpoint to the deafening artillery and machine-gun fire that pretty much took the fillings out of my teeth and sent them in a shrapnel fusillade all over the cinema auditorium.

In the Telegraph, hardly surprisingly, Robbie Collin lauds the ‘Britishness’ of the film and also (significantly) its presentness.  He writes about this as an aesthetic –

there’s also something rivetingly present-tense about it all: the period detail is meticulous but never fawned over, the landscapes as crisp as if you were standing on them, the prestige-cinema glow turned off at the socket

– but, as readers of the Telegraph will surely have realised, this is also a matter of politics.  In one of the most perceptive essays I’ve read on the film, Anthony King describes this sensibility as an ‘arrogant insularity’ (he intends it as a criticism, of course, but Telegraph readers probably differ).  For him, Nolan seeks to ‘revive Dunkirk as a national myth in the 21st century’:

The drama focuses on five sinkings: a hospital ship, two troop ships, a fishing boat, and a Spitfire are all immersed. In each case, British soldiers or airmen have only moments to escape before they are drowned. Each sinking re-enacts the British predicament at Dunkirk: the desperate race of British soldiers to get home before they are inundated.

In this way, home — and the race for it — becomes the central motif of the entire film. The noun, “home,” recurs in the dialogue articulated by all the major actors. Indeed, the irony that soldiers in Dunkirk can practically see home with its White Cliffs and, yet, cannot reach it, is pointedly commented upon on two separate occasions. Home is the only redemption from the alienating emptiness of the French coast. Moreover, in order for British soldiers to escape, home has to come to them. No one else can save them.

(This is precisely why what Anthony calls the ‘radiant harmonies’ of Elgar’s Nimrod dissolve the dissonance noted by Peter Bradshaw to preside over – to celebrate in something like the religious sense – the climax of the film).

What is lost, in consequence, is both context and also composition.  The first is intentional, and Nolan makes a good case for wanting to convey the sense in which soldiers experience war in shards, torn from any larger context.  ‘That’s why we don’t see the Germans in the film,’ he says, ‘and why it’s approached from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival rather than the politics of the event.’  As the historical adviser to the film, Joshua Levine (an historian whose work I’ve long admired) tells it:

[M]aking the threat faceless frees the event from its geopolitical ramifications –it becomes a timeless story of human survival. [Nolan] didn’t want to take a classic war film approach because in so many ways, the story of Dunkirk is not the story of a conventional battle. ‘It was death appearing from the sky,’ he says. ‘U-boats under the Channel that you can’t see. The enemy flying over and rising up through the waves to pick people off, to sink ships.’ The soldiers cannot understand their own predicament, and the audience experiences the same horror. This is why the action never leaves the beach. ‘If you’re continually showing the Germans as Germans and generals in rooms talking about strategy, you are lifting the veil.’ The audience would then be more informed than the soldiers. ‘Standing on a beach, trying to interpret what’s going on, “How do I get out of here? Should I stand in these lines? Should I go into the water?” That’s the experiential reality I want the audience to share.

But the second is, I think, unintentional.  I’ve written elsewhere about the myths of the First World War that continue to stalk the British political imaginary – see ‘All white on the Western Front?’ here – and several commentators have made the same point about Dunkirk.  Here is Sunny Singh in the Guardian:

What a surprise that Nigel Farage has endorsed the new fantasy-disguised-as-historical war film, Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s movie is an inadvertently timely, thinly veiled Brexiteer fantasy in which plucky Britons heroically retreat from the dangerous shores of Europe. Most importantly, it pushes the narrative that it was Britain as it exists today – and not the one with a global empire – that stood alone against the “European peril”.

To do so, it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.

But Nolan’s erasures are not limited to the British. The French army deployed at Dunkirk included soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies, and in substantial numbers. Some non-white faces are visible in one crowd scene, but that’s it. The film forgets the racialised pecking order that determined life and death for both British and French colonial troops at Dunkirk and after it.

And here is Yasmin Khan in the New York Times:

The Indian soldiers at Dunkirk were mainly Muslims from areas of British India that later became Pakistan. They were part of the Royal India Army Service Corps — transport companies that sailed from Bombay to Marseille. The men brought with them hundreds of mules, requested by the Allies in France because of the shortage of other means of transport. They played a significant role, ferrying equipment and supplies.

The Germans captured one Indian company and held the men as prisoners of war. Others were evacuated and made it to Britain….

The focus on Britain “standing alone” sometimes risks diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the globe. The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all, the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.

 Britain was always dependent on the colonies — in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caribbean — for men, materials and support, but never more so than in World War II. Some five million from the empire joined the military services. Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British Empire did…
The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone. It is a political tool in the hands of those who would separate British history from European history and who want to reinforce the myths that underpin Brexit.
Ironically, in Joshua Levine‘s Forgotten voices of Dunkirk those other voices are absent – forgotten – too.
There are several other commentaries that sharpen similar points – see, for example, Yasmin Khan again here [and more generally her The Raj at War: a people’s history of India’s Second World War],  Ishaan Taroor here and Robert Fisk here (for a clumsy attempt to blunt those points, see Franz Stefan-Gady here); also the contributions to We Were There Too – but I’ll end with these observations from John Broich:

In the film, we see at least one French soldier who might be African. In fact, soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere were key to delaying the German attack. Other African soldiers made it to England and helped form the nucleus of the Free French forces that soon took the fight to the Axis.

THE BRITISH ARMY IN FRANCE 1940 (F 2478) Members of a mule transport company of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps on parade, 10 February 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205204868

The latter has been much on my mind because for much of the summer I’ve been in the archives immersed in medical care and casualty evacuation in both those theatres.

But I’ll leave that for another post, because I want to close with a reminder that – given what I’ve been saying about the ‘present-ness’ of Dunkirk – there is at least one other version that should be brought into focus.  And for that you need to read Jacob Albert on ‘The Fire in Dunkirk‘ at Guernica.  Here he is describing young Kurdish refugees – about the same age, I suspect, as many of those soldiers on the beach in 1940 – stranded in a camp outside Dunkirk (it burned down after he left):

Sometimes, they went to English class, offered four times a day in a damp Red Cross tent. I taught there occasionally. Everyone took their shoes off when they entered, but kept their coats. The head teacher was an Englishman with stinking socks who asked his pupils several times each week, since they were always vanishing and new ones always arriving: “Where? Is? The? Statue? Of Liberty?”

Everyone loved that one, even though no one was heading for the United States, because the Statue of Liberty is like Coca-Cola: both universal symbols, one of immigrant striving, the other of friendship and global happiness.

“Amrika! Atlantic! New York! California!” they’d shout. The teacher would smile and ask: “What does the Statue of Liberty rep-re-sent?” And the young men would look at him with glazed eyes, because they truly could never understand this guy, never felt like they were learning any English, and the English teacher would hem and haw: “What does it mean? What does it sym-bo-lize?” until finally, someone who spoke a little English, someone who had a brother in Leeds, would explain to the others, in Kurdish, what the guy meant, and everyone would shout: “Amrika! Freedom! Money! Barack Obama!” and the English teacher with the stinking socks would nod somberly at each and every one of them, and say, “It represents a Warm Welcome. Which I know doesn’t feel like the case. So, to better times, guys. To better times.” And with that, the English teacher would clap his hands, and the bored young men would stream out into the wind or rain…

There was nothing for them to do but think of leaving. That’s how anyone endured anything: boredom, filth, cold, fear. You can endure anything if you’re on your way to somewhere else.

In this case, it was England, which I discovered wondrous new things about. I learned that the Brits had an incredible welfare system, the best in Europe. I learned that minimum wage there was higher than in France. I learned that once you received British asylum, you were given a free house. I was told that the UK was full of good jobs, that it was less racist than any other European nation. That none of this was true didn’t dampen anybody’s incredible enthusiasm for the place. …

There were convincing reasons, too, with some basis in reality, for this fevered dreaming of Britain, which I had a hard time squaring with what these hopeful Kurds were putting themselves through to get there. It is easier to live invisibly in Britain, on the margins of things, than in France. In Britain, you don’t have to carry around photo ID. In Britain, you can easily find work in a kitchen or on a construction crew, if you’re open to being paid a pittance.

But facts are one thing, and narratives, another. The city of Dunkirk itself looms large in British mythology because of this very split. Over the course of one miraculous week in 1940, the British Navy managed to evacuate 340,000 Allied troops trapped on its beaches as the Germans drew close. Yet a few days later, Churchill delivered his rousing speech on the British virtues of endurance and determination (“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds. . .”), and Dunkirk, the site of failure averted, was turned into one of national victory. It was Britain that now occupied such a place in the story of Kurdish exile.

You may think I’m making too much of this.  But when Joshua Levine asked him about ‘modern parallels’, Christopher Nolan explained that he saw his film as ‘a survival story’ and continued:

One of the great misfortunes of our time, one of the horrible, unfortunate things with the migrant crisis in Europe, is that we are dealing once more with the mechanics and the physics of extraordinary numbers of people trying to leave one country on boats and get to another country. It’s a horrible resonance but it’s very easy in our technologically advanced times to forget how much basic physics come into play. Reality is insurmountable. If you have a vast number of people in one place and they need to get someplace else and they can’t fly and they have to get on boats –to overcrowd the boats, with that human desire for survival . . . it’s unthinkably horrible to see it on our front pages in this modern day and age. But it’s there. With that going on in the world today, I don’t think you can in any way dismiss the events of Dunkirk as being from another world or another era.