Disappearing War

Out last month, but I’ve only just caught up with it, a collection of essays edited by Christina Hellmich and  Lisa PurseDisappearing War: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cinema and Erasure in the Post-9/11 World (Edinburgh University Press):

The battles fought in the name of the “war on terror” have re-ignited questions about the changing nature of war, and the experience of war for those geographically distant from its real world consequences. What is missing from our highly mediated experience of war? What are the intentional and unintentional processes of erasure through which the distortion happens? What are their consequences?
Cinema is a key site at which questions about our highly mediated experience of war can be addressed or, more significantly, elided. Looking at a range of films that have provoked debate, from award-winning features like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper, to documentaries like Kill List and Dirty Wars, as well as at the work of visual artists like Harun Farocki and Omer Fast, this book examines the practices of erasure in the cinematic representation of recent military interventions. Drawing on representations of war-related death, dying and bodily damage, this provocative collection addresses ‘what’s missing’ in existing scholarly responses to modern warfare; in film studies, as well as in politics and international relations.

Here’s the Contents list:

1. Introduction: Film and the epistemology of war, Christina Hellmich & Lisa Purse
2. Good Kill? U.S. soldiers and the killing of civilians in American film, Cora Sol Goldstein
3. ‘5000 feet is the best’: drone warfare, targets, and Paul Virilio’s ‘accident’, Agnieszka Piotrowska
4. Post-heroic war / the body at risk, Robert Burgoyne
5. Disappearing bodies: visualising the Maywand District murders, Thomas Gregory
6. The unknowable soldier: the face of Freddie Quell, James Harvey-Davitt
7. Visible dead bodies and the technologies of erasure in the war on terror, Jessica Auchter
8. Ambiguity, ambivalence and absence in Zero Dark Thirty, Lisa Purse
9. Invisible war: broadcast television documentary and Iraq, Janet Harris
10. Nine cinematic devices for staging (in)visible war and the (vanishing) colonial present, Shohini Chaudhuri
11. Afterword: Reflections on knowing war, Christina Hellmich

War in Black-and-White?

Peter Jackson‘s They Shall Not Grow Old receives its premiere tomorrow (16 October) as the Special Presentation at the BFI London Film Festival.  Four years ago the director of Lord of the Rings was approached by the Imperial War Museum in London, which gave him access to hundreds of hours of official footage of the First World War, together with later audio tapes from both the IWM and the BBC.  Working with the visual effects geniuses at Jackson’s WingNut Films in New Zealand to colorise, slow and re-animate the film clips, and calling in lip-readers to decode the silent footage, the result is a radically new, feature-length representation of the conflict.  He explained:

“[The men] saw a war in colour, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white.  I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more – rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in the vintage archive film.”

You can find details of subsequent screenings – in 2D and 3D – here, and the film will also be televised on BBC1.

Jackson is right of course: those who served in the war didn’t see it in black and white (as often as not, in multiple shades of red and brown).  But In its press release the IWM notes:

The First World War proved to be a landmark in cinema history – the first time that the horrors of war could be caught on camera. Many hours of dramatic footage were filmed on the battlefields, capturing the realities of the conflict in remarkable and unprecedented detail. This footage provided the public at home with astonishing access to the frontline: The Battle of the Somme, a documentary film produced with the cooperation of the War Office, was seen by an estimated 20 million Britons in its first six weeks of release.

In other words, the British public did see the war in black and white.

I discussed The Battle of the Somme ten days ago in Leipzig, in order to draw a series of parallels and contrasts between visual representations of the First World War and military violence a hundred years later.  My starting-point was Samuel Hynes‘ observation in A war imagined that was in effect repeated by the IWM in its introduction to They Shall Not Grow Old:

‘[F]or the first time in history non-combatants at home could see the war. The invention of the half-tone block had made it possible to print photographs in newspapers, and so to bring realistic-looking images into every house in England….

‘Even more than the still photographs, though, it was the motion picture that made the war imaginable for the people at home.’

The Battle of the Somme was filmed by Geoffrey Malins – who had already made 26 short newsreel films on the Western Front – and John McDowell on behalf of the British Topical Committee for War Films.  It was no short film shown as a prelude to the main feature – it ran for 77 minutes – and went on general release in August 1916.

Here is Malins filming the preliminary bombardment of the ‘Big Push’ on 1 July 1916 (I’ve taken this from his own account, How I Filmed the War, which you can access from Project Gutenberg here):

(If you want a much more detailed, forensic account of the filming then you need Alastair Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts, Ghosts on the Somme: Filming the battle, June-July 1916 [2009]).

Malins and McDowell completed most of their filming in June and July, but they were restricted in what they could capture.  Luke McKernan explains:

’Their hand-cranked cameras had single 50mm lenses with poor depth of field, they had no telephoto lenses, the orthochromatic film stock was slow, making filming action in the distance or in poor light difficult. But there was also military control and official censorship, each preventing them from filming anything other than officially-sanctioned images.’

Producer Charles Urban decided that the centrepiece of the finished film would be a sequence showing infantry going over the top – but Malins had only filmed the attack from a distance while McDowell’s footage shot from elsewhere on the Front was unusable. So Malins returned to France to re-stage the attack at a British mortar training school near St Pol between 12 and 19 July: just 21 seconds of his footage were incorporated into the final version.

‘In this footage,’ Laura Clouting explained,

‘men go into action unencumbered by the weighty packs that real soldiers had to shoulder. With just a rifle in his hand, one man drops “dead” in front of barbed wire – and proceeds to cross his legs to get more comfortable on the ground. Most telling is the camera position. Had Malins or McDowell really been filming from this angle they would have been in considerable danger from German fire. But the audience had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the footage.’

That last sentence is crucial, and indeed the staged sequence has received disproportionate attention from critics; Nicholas Reeves, in a thoughtful and helpful survey [‘Cinema, spectatorship and propaganda: ‘Battle of the Somme’ (1916) and its contemporary audience’, Historical journal of film, radio and television 17 (1) (1997) 5-28], notes that ‘Like almost every so-called documentary film, Battle of the Somme does include faked or ‘improved’ sequences, but focusing attention on these few sequences at the expense of the authentic footage which constitutes the overwhelming majority of the film seriously misrepresents its character…’

Audiences were certainly captivated by the film:

The film provoked a lively public debate about the propriety of showing the dead and the wounded:

But for Hynes no less important was the very structure of the film and the modernist space within which it portrayed military violence:

Hynes’s conclusion:

‘In this film, war is not a matter of individual voluntary acts, but of masses of men and materials, moving randomly through a dead, ruined world towards no identifiable objective; it is aimless violence and passive suffering, without either a beginning or an end — not a crusade, but a terrible destiny. The Somme film changed the way civilians imagined the war’ (my emphasis).

But – to return to They Shall Not Grow Old – those who had direct experience of the war saw matters differently.  The Manchester Guardian‘s correspondent reported:

‘I accompanied a friend, a lettered man, who was slightly wounded in the “Big Push,” to see the official film of the Somme battle. “Well,” I said as we came out, “that’s like the real thing, isn’t it?” “Yes,” he answered slowly; “about as like as a silhouette is like a real person, or as a dream is like a waking experience. There is so much left out – the stupefying din, the stinks, the excitement, the fighting at close quarters. You see enough to appreciate General Sherman’s remark that war is hell, but the hell depicted is as mild to the real hell out there as Homer’s hell is to Dante’s.’

Or, as the brilliant Max Plowman put it (in a book originally published under a pseudonym):

Note:  I haven’t seen They Shall Not Grow Old yet, so I can’t comment on its representational geography – though, just like the Battle of the Somme, there were limitations on what the military permitted to be filmed and I doubt that all theatres of war or all contingents were represented – but there is of course quite another sense in which the war was not fought in black and white: see my commentary ‘All white on the Western Front?’ here.

Cinematic Corpographies

News from Eileen Rositzka of her new book, Cinematic Corpographies: Re-Mapping the War Film Through the Body.  We’ve been corresponding since she started work on the project at St Andrews (she’s now at the Free University of Berlin), and I’m thrilled to see it in print (and on my screen):

Writing on the relationship between war and cinema has largely been dominated by an emphasis on optics and weaponised vision. However, as this analysis of the Hollywood war film will show, a wider sensory field is powerfully evoked in this genre. Contouring war cinema as representing a somatic experience of space, the study applies a term recently developed by Derek Gregory within the theoretical framework of Critical Geography. What he calls “corpography” implies a constant re-mapping of landscape through the soldier’s body. These assumptions can be used as a connection between already established theories of cartographic film narration and ideas of (neo)phenomenological film experience, as they also entail the involvement of the spectator’s body in sensuously grasping what is staged as a mediated experience of war. While cinematic codes of war have long been oriented almost exclusively to the visual, the notion of corpography can help to reframe the concept of film genre in terms of expressive movement patterns and genre memory, avoiding reverting to the usual taxonomies of generic texts.

Contents include:

Measuring the Trenches: Corpographies of the First World War

From Above and From Within: Aerial Views and Corpographic Transformations in the WWII Combat Film

Dismembering War: Touch and fragmentation in Anthony Mann’s Men in War

Uncharting Territories: The Vietnam War’s Shattering of the Senses

Zero Dark Thirty: Corpographies of the War on Terror

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’.