Insurgent terrain

Just available from Gastón Gordillo: ‘Terrain as insurgent weapon: An affective geometry of warfare in the mountains of Afghanistan’, Political Geography (2018) [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2018.03.001].

Gastón explains:

My argument…   is that the irreducibility of terrain can be best examined through the bodily experiences, affects, and agency of the human actors engaging it da lens I call an affective geometry. This is not the Euclidian or Cartesian geometry of mathematized grids, coordinates, and straight lines abstracted from bodies and affects. This is the qualitative, non-linear geometry conceptualized by Spinoza (1982), attentive to how bodies affect and are affected by other bodies in a multiplicity of ways, which range from negative ways that may diminish the body’s capacity to act to positive ways that may expand the body’s powers for action.

In analyzing how bodies are affected by and affect terrain, an affective geometry can be seen as a materialist phenomenology that conceives of human bodies in their subjective interiority and dispositions and also as mobile, self-propelling bodies that in sit- uations of combat dand as long as they remain able bodiesd walk, run, climb rocks, duck on the ground, fall in ditches, shoot, feel exhausted hiking a mountain, and feel pain if hit by gunfire.

 

Turning to the Korengal Valley, and drawing on the work of Sebastien Junger and Tim Hetherington (especially Restrepo: see here for a commentary that meshes with this post) Gastón shows how terrain was opaque, threatening, even penetrative to the US military – for all the ‘imperial verticality’ of its air power – and that the mountains (in all their ‘ambient thickness’) ‘confused them, tired them, and disrupted imperial phantasies of spatial mastery’, whereas their enemies, who weaponised the terrain far more effectively, were able to realise an ‘insurgent verticality’ though their knowledge of and, indeed, intimacy with the mountains.

The Dis/Appeared

A note from Ian Alan Paul – I’ve noticed his Guantanamo Bay Museum before, but he’s produced a host of other interesting projects too – brings the welcome news of his experimental video The Dis/Appeared: 25 Notes on Colonial Regimes of Perception:

“The Dis/Appeared” (2018) is an experimental video essay that examines the totalizing imposition of colonial perception in contemporary Palestine. The project theorizes the Israeli state’s establishment of perceptual regimes that confine the colonized to the liminal thresholds of view, never allowing Palestinians to entirely appear or disappear but instead perpetually rendering them dis/appeared. Through narration and a montage of images that are at once ordinary and unsettling, the video essay gives an account of settler-colonial instantiations of power while also proposing a tactical repertoire to be taken up against colonial rule. The project was produced over the course of 2017 while the artist was living and teaching in the West Bank of Palestine, and is the first part of a series of films, installations, and texts that examine the conjuncture of coloniality, governmentality, and memory in global contexts.

You can view it here (33 minutes) and download the script here.

A sample that really doesn’t do justice to the project and its artful exploration of colonial visuality:

Never entirely in or out of view but perpetually detained in the spectral thresholds between the two, Palestinians are made to be both apparent and transparent, signal and noise, conspicuous and concealed, evident and obscure, appeared and disappeared. Because Palestinians cannot decidedly and finally appear within view, Palestine can be perceived as a pristine landscape, a blank slate, an untouched surface, entirely vacant of Palestinians and inviting of ever-expanding Israeli settlements and colonization. Because Palestinians cannot decidedly and finally disappear from view, they remain perpetually available for increasing intensities of Israeli oversight, management, surveillance, policing, and control. If Palestinians manage to escape from the thresholds of Israel’s colonial regime of perception, the subsequent recognizability or clandestinity, transparency or secrecy, are all perceived by Israel as pure hostility.

To escape from view as a Palestinian is to be viewed as a fugitive threat. The proliferous destruction of civilian architecture in Gaza is preemptively and retroactively justified with claims that enemy combatants and weapon caches are being hidden inside of them, every bomb destroying the conditions for life and the conditions of concealment with the blinding exposure of its blast. Inversely, to enter into view as a Palestinian is to be viewed as an invasive enemy. In the West Bank, Palestinian demonstrations filled with cameras, banners, portraits of martyrs, and flags are made to vanish within toxic obfuscating clouds of tear gas. Attempting an escape from the view of Israel is to be marked as a hostis and fugitive in need of surveillance, capture, and elimination, while entering into Israel’s view is to be marked as an invader and as an infiltrator in need of exclusion, eviction, and expulsion.

War and the body

The papers for the special section of Critical Studies on Security addressing ‘Visual representations of war and violence’ and focusing on embodiment, expertly edited by Linda Roland Danil, are now online.

Linda provides an introductory essay, and the papers that follow are:

Derek Gregory, ‘Eyes in the sky – bodies on the ground’

Catherine Baker, ‘A different kind of power’? Identification, stardom and embodiments of the military in Wonder Woman

Helen Berents and Brendan Keogh, ‘Virtuous, virtual but not visceral: (dis)embodied viewing in military-themed video games

Kandida Purnell and Natasha Danilova, ‘Dancing at the frontline: Rosie Kay’s 5SOLDIERS de-realises and re-secures war’

Eyes in the sky – bodies on the ground

Several months ago I was invited to contribute a short essay to Critical Studies on Security, for an ‘Interventions’ section edited by Linda Roland Danil.  Here’s the brief:

Visual representations of war and violence: considering embodiment

The recent release of a number of critically acclaimed films that involve wars of the 20th century – such as Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016), and more recently, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) – both of them World War II films – raise questions anew about the representation of war and violence. However, an insufficiently investigated field is the specific embodied experiences of those represented. What is the embodied or “corpographic” (Gregory, 2015) experience of those represented in the films/artistic works/photographs/documentaries/etc. – and therefore what are the specific embodied dimensions of war (McSorley, 2014) that are represented? How do these representations of the embodied dimensions of war preclude the possibility of conceiving of war in a de-realized, surgical, or “virtuous” (Der Derian, 2000) manner? Such embodied experiences may also include the aftermath of war and conflict, such as through the embodied experiences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). How does an understanding of the embodied experiences of soldiers (as well as the enemy Other) feed into an understanding of the larger geopolitical dynamics at play (Basham, 2013), if at all? This call is seeking Interventions that explore specific visual representations of war and violence in relation to the above and related questions…’

I’ve written about Dunkirk earlier – and I wish I’d said more about the extraordinary, keening sound-track – so in this short essay I returned to the classic US air strike in Afghanistan in February 2010 – see here and here  – and elaborated on the visual rendering of its aftermath by the US military (see here) and in Sonia Kennebeck‘s marvellous National Bird.

You can find the result under the DOWNLOADS tab: the title is ‘Eyes in the sky – bodies on the ground’ but the pdf is simply ‘Bodies on the ground’.

Ice Cold in Alex

I think most of my research on medical care and casualty evacuation from the Western Front in the First World War is now complete, though there are still some loose ends to tie up and some more interviews/oral histories to listen to on-line courtesy of the wonderful Imperial War Museum.   So I spent much of the summer working on the very different situation in the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War: the material – at the IWM and the Wellcome Institute – is just as rich, though much less worked over.

If the First World War was the first industrialised war yet still  fought, for the most part, at short range, the campaigns in North Africa involved mechanised war fought over vast distances.  I had anticipated some of this in ‘The natures of war‘ (DOWNLOADS tab), particularly since some of my evidence was drawn from vivid accounts by volunteer ambulance drivers from the American Field Service working with the Allies, but now I’m finding that early essay on the entanglement of the desert terrain and the soldier’s body needs to be supplemented – often dramatically so – once the wounded body is brought into the centre of the frame.

The Battle of Egypt, 1942: New Zealand and Indian Infantry Casualties (Art.IWM ART LD 2722) image: Interior of a tent with casualties lying on stretchers, main figure with arm and leg in makeshift
traction Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/11555

For the Western Front I’ve experimented with how to bring together the systems of evacuation that were put in place (with all their delays and dangers, imperfections and improvisations) with the wounded bodies that were moved through them, and – as regular readers will know – I’ve tried to incorporate the imbrications of those bodies with the changing and highly variable technological apparatus that made all this possible.  You can see some of my first attempts in Anatomy of another soldier

At the end of that essay, I worried about two issues: an anthropomorphism and a functionalism (in which everything that is pressed into service works inexorably to carry the soldier through the evacuation chain).

The spur for all this was Harry Parker‘s remarkable Anatomy of a soldier (see here and ‘Object lessons‘: DOWNLOADS tab), about the experience of a young British soldier who suffers traumatic blast injuries from an IED in Afghanistan.

But I’ve now found another, much earlier example that speaks directly to my work on North Africa.  And while the anthropomorphism remains a problem, as you’ll see the functionalism is much less secure – and for that very reason.

I’ve just finished Christopher Landon‘s Ice-Cold in Alex, a novel published in 1957 that provided the basis for J. Lee Thompson‘s celebrated film the following year, starring John Mills, Harry AndrewsSylvia Sims and Anthony Quayle.  (For a reading of the film, see Michael Leyshon and Catherine Brace, ‘Men and the desert: contested masculinities in Ice Cold in Alex’, Gender, place and culture 14 (2) (2007) 163-182).

The story describes a desperate drive in a British military ambulance from Tobruk, where the Afrika Korps is closing in, across the trackless desert to safety in Alexandria (and to a bar where the beer is always ‘ice-cold’).  Landon served with the 51st Field Ambulance and the Royal Army Service Corps in North Africa during the war, and knew what he was writing about.

Before the party sets off, Landon describes the Sergeant-Major lying underneath a lorry:

‘Above him, the bowels of the engine – gleaming crankshaft and loosened connecting rods , tied to the sides of the crank-case with wire – seemed to be grinning.  It was a challenging grin – “what’s wrong with me?”  He started back, up at the glint of metal, framed in the black space where the sump had been removed.  “It’s easier for doctors,” he thought.  “Patients can talk.  But machinery goes on uncomplaining, until it breaks.”‘

Later he has a similar conversation with one of the nurses they have been ordered to escort to Alexandria:

‘”Not so difficult, or different from your job.  They’re like humans, really.  If you give them the right food and drink – a dose occasionally – and don’t overwork them, they obey all the rules.”  He was moving the fan blades to and fro, feeling with the other hand behind it.  “The only trouble – and difference – is they can’t talk.  So that by the time you know they have a pain, it’s usually too late.”

But between these two passages Landon has given the ambulance a voice.

I’m going to be rehearsing these issues at a seminar tomorrow at the Wall – I’ll be interested to see how this year’s Scholars can  help me think this through….  And I’ll be posting more about my work on the Western Desert in the months ahead.

The Bomb

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.

Especially now.

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.

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.