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.
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 Andrews, Sylvia 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.
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 Bombto 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 Spellbergdescribes 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.
The web is awash with reviews and commentaries on Christopher Nolan‘s latest film, Dunkirk. ‘A tour de force’, wroteManhola 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.
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 Collinlauds 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 Kingdescribes 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.
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-Gadyhere); 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 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.
I’m in Copenhagen – and still bleary-eyed – for a symposium organised by my good friends Kirsten Simonsen and Lasse Koefoed at Roskilde on their current project ‘Paradoxical spaces: Encountering the other in public space‘. I’ll be talking about the war in Syria, drawing on my previous work on attacks on hospitals, healthcare workers and patients (see ‘Your turn, doctor‘) – which I’ve now considerably extended as I work on turning all this into a longform essay: I’ll post some updates as soon as I can – but now adding a detailed discussion of siege warfare in Syria. More on that in my next post; but for now I wanted to share some remarkable work on Aleppo by Laura Kurgan and her students at the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia:
Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo is a project in two stages.
First, we have built an open-source, interactive, layered map of Aleppo, at the neighborhood scale. Users can navigate the city, with the aid of high resolution satellite imagery from before and during the current civil war, and explore geo-located data about cultural sites, neighborhoods, and urban damage.
Second, the map is a platform for storytelling with data. We are inviting collaborators and students to bring new perspectives and analyses into the map to broaden our understanding of what’s happening in Aleppo. Case studies will document and narrate urban damage — at the infrastructural, neighborhood, building, social, and cultural scales — and will be added to the website over time.
We invite ideas and propositions, and hope to build on the data we have compiled here to create an active archive of the memory of destruction in Aleppo through investigation and interpretation, up close and from a distance.
Students worked collaboratively to develop a series of case studies using a map developed by the Center for Spatial Research, specifically designed to research urban damage in Aleppo during the ongoing civil war. Their work incorporates a range of disciplines, methods and results. Each student was asked to create case studies and add layers to the existing map. The results — spatializing youtube video, interior borders between fighting factions, imagining urban survival during wartime, imaging escape routes, audio memory maps, roads, water, hospitals, informal neighborhoods, religion, communications infrastructure, and refugee camps at the borders — are [available online here].
Here is how Laura and her students – in this case, Nadine Fattaleh, Michael James Storm and Violet Whitneydescribe their contribution:
The civil war in Syria has shown how profoundly the rise of cellphones with video-cameras, as well as online video-hosting and emergent citizen journalism, has changed the landscape of war documentation. YouTube has become one of the largest sources (and archives) of information about events on the ground in Syria: since January 2012 over a million videos of the conflict there have been uploaded, with hundreds of millions of views to date. Major news agencies have come to rely on YouTube as a primary source for their reporting, and human rights organizations often cite videos as part of their advocacy and documentation efforts. This independently reported footage has created a new powerful archive, but opens up crucial questions of credibility, verification, and bias. As with all data, every video comes to us bearing the traces of the situation and intentions that motivated its production. This does not disqualify it – quite to the contrary – but it does demand that we approach everything critically and carefully.
We set out to investigate YouTube as archive of the Syrian uprising and to develop a method for organizing that archive spatially. We used the frameworks that we had developed for the Conflict Urbanism Aleppo interactive map, together with a naming convention used by Syrian civic media organizations, in order to sort and geolocate YouTube videos from multiple sources. We then produced a searchable interactive interface for three of the most highly cited YouTube channels, the Halab News Network, the Aleppo Media Center, and the Syrian Civil Defense. We encourage journalists, researchers, and others to use this specifically spatial tool in sorting and searching through the YouTube dataset.
The Halab News Network [above] shows a wide distribution of videos across the city, including the city center and government-held Western side of the city. The Eastern half of the city — in particular the Northeastern neighborhoods of ash-Sha’ar (الشعار), Hanano (هنانو), and Ayn at-Tal (عين التينة) – is the best-documented.
The videos published by the Aleppo Media Center [above] roughly follow the formerly rebel-held Eastern side of the city, with a small number of videos from the central and Western areas. The highest number of videos is in the neighborhood of ash-Sha’ar (الشعار). Particular spots include ash-Sha’ar (الشعار), coverage of which is shared with the Syrian Civil Defense. Another notable concentration are two neighborhoods in the Southwest, Bustan al-Qaser (بستان القصر) and al-Fardos (الفردوس).
They also analyse the video geography produced by the White Helmets [below]: ‘The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, have uploaded videos primarily in the formerly rebel-held Eastern and Southern areas of Aleppo. Only the Western area of ash-Shuhada’ (الشهداء) falls outside of this trend.’
This, like the other collaborative projects under the ‘Conflict Urbanism’ umbrella, is brilliant, essential work, and we are all in their debt.
You can read more about the project in a short essay by Laura, ‘Conflict Urbanism, Aleppo: Mapping Urban Damage’, in Architectural Design 87 (1) (2017) 72-77, and in another essay she has written with Jose Francisco Salarriaga and Dare Brawley, ‘Visualizing conflict: possibilities for urban research’, open access download via Urban Planning 2 (1) (2017) here [this includes notice of a parallel project in Colombia].
Coming in May from Cambridge University Press, a book Richard Falkhails as ‘the most significant book on international law published in the last decade’, International law and New Wars by Christine Chinkin and Mary Kaldor:
International Law and New Wars examines how international law fails to address the contemporary experience of what are known as ‘new wars’ – instances of armed conflict and violence in places such as Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. International law, largely constructed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, rests to a great extent on the outmoded concept of war drawn from European experience – inter-state clashes involving battles between regular and identifiable armed forces. The book shows how different approaches are associated with different interpretations of international law, and, in some cases, this has dangerously weakened the legal restraints on war established after 1945. It puts forward a practical case for what it defines as second generation human security and the implications this carries for international law.
At 595 pages it’s clearly a blockbuster. Here is the detailed Contents list:
Part I. Conceptual Framework:
2. Sovereignty and the authority to use force
3. The relevance of international law Part II. Jus ad Bellum:
4. Self-defence as a justification for war: the geopolitical and war on terror models
5. The humanitarian model for recourse to use force Part III. Jus in Bello:
6. How force is used
7. Weapons Part IV. Jus Post-Bellum:
8. ‘Post-conflict’ and governance
9. The liberal peace: peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding
10. Justice and accountability Part V. The Way Forward:
11. Second generation human security
12. What does human security require of international law?
In/Visible Waraddresses a paradox of twenty-first century American warfare. The contemporary visual American experience of war is ubiquitous, and yet war is simultaneously invisible or absent; we lack a lived sense that “America” is at war. This paradox of in/visibility concerns the gap between the experiences of war zones and the visual, mediated experience of war in public, popular culture, which absents and renders invisible the former. Large portions of the domestic public experience war only at a distance. For these citizens, war seems abstract, or may even seem to have disappeared altogether due to a relative absence of visual images of casualties. Perhaps even more significantly, wars can be fought without sacrifice by the vast majority of Americans.
Yet, the normalization of twenty-first century war also renders it highly visible. War is made visible through popular, commercial, mediated culture. The spectacle of war occupies the contemporary public sphere in the forms of celebrations at athletic events and in films, video games, and other media, coming together as MIME, the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network.
Here’s the main Contents List:
Part I: Seeing War
Chapter 1: How Photojournalism Has Framed the War in Afghanistan – David Campbell Chapter 2: Returning Soldiers and the In/visibility of Combat Trauma – Christopher J. Gilbert and John Louis Lucaites Chapter 3: (Re)fashioning PTSD’s Warrior Project – Jeremy G. Gordon Chapter 4: Unremarkable Suffering: Banality, Spectatorship, and War’s In/visibilities – Rebecca A. Adelman and Wendy Kozol “War Is Fun,” a Photo-Essay – Nina Berman Chapter 5: Laying bin Laden to Rest: A Case Study of Terrorism and the Politics of Visibility – Jody Madeira
Part II: Not Seeing War
Chapter 6: Digital War and the Public Mind: Call of Duty Reloaded, Decoded – Roger Stahl Chapter 7: A Cinema of Consolation: Post-9/11 Super Invasion Fantasy – De Witt Douglas Kilgore Chapter 8: Differential Configurations: In/visibility through the Lens of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) – Claudia Breger Chapter 9: Canine Rescue, Civilian Casualties, and the Long Gulf War – Purnima BosePart III:
Theorizing the In/visibility of War
Chapter 10: The In/visibility of Liberal Peace: Perpetual Peace and Enduring Freedom – Jon Simons Chapter 11: Why War? Baudrillard, Derrida, and the Absolute Televisual Image – Diane Rubenstein Chapter 12: War in the Twenty-first Century: Visible, Invisible, or Superpositional? – James Der Derian
Richard Mosse‘s Incoming opensat the Barbican Art Centre in London on 17 February and runs until 23 April. In collaboration with composer Ben Frostand cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, Richard has created an immersive multi-channel video installation (shown across three 26-foot wide screens) that turns military technology against itself – using a camera ‘that sees as a missile sees’ – to show the journeys of refugees (hence the artful title). He explains :
I am European. I am complicit. I wanted to foreground this perspective in a way, to try to see refugees and illegal immigrants as our governments see them. I wanted to enter into that logic in order to create an image that reveals it. So I chose to represent these stories, really a journey or series of journeys, using an ambivalent and perhaps sinister new European weapons camera technology. The camera is intrusive of individual privacy, yet the imagery that this technology produces is so dehumanized – the person literally glows – that the medium anonymizes the subject in ways that are both insidious and humane. Working against the camera’s intended purpose, my collaborators and I listened carefully to the camera, to understand what it wanted to do — and then tried to reconcile that with these harsh, disparate, unpredictable and frequently tragic narratives of migration and displacement.
If you can’t get to it, there is a book version from Mack:
The major humanitarian and political issue of our time is migration and with his latest video work, Irish artist Richard Mosse has created a searing, haunting and unique artwork. Projected across three 8 meter wide screens, the film is accompanied by a loud dissonant soundtrack to create an overwhelming, immersive experience. Moving from footage of a live battle inside Syria, in which a US aircraft strafes Daesh positions on the ground, to a scene showing pathologists extracting DNA from the bones of unidentified corpses of refugees drowned off the Aegean island of Leros, the film opens a testimonial space of historical document – bearing witness to significant chapters in recent events – mediated through an advanced weapons-grade camera technology. Narratives of the journeys made by refugees and migrants across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, are captured using an extremely powerful thermal camera not generally available to the public. This super-telephoto military camera can perceive the human body beyond 50km day or night, reading the biological trace of human life. The camera translates the world into a heat signature of apparent temperature difference, producing a dazzling monochrome halo-image which alludes literally and metaphorically to hypothermia, climate change, weapons targeting, border surveillance, xenophobia, and the ‘bare life’ of stateless people.
The book version recreates the immersive nature of the film, combining still images from the entire sequence over nearly 600 pages to represent the harsh and compelling narrative in a full bleed layout.
A related exhibition of Richard’s photographs from the same body of work – entitled Heat Maps – has opened at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. At the New YorkerMax Campbelldescribes the exhibition like this:
[U]sing a new “weapon of war,” as he describes it, Mosse captured encampment structures, servicemen, border police, boats at full capacity, and migrants of all ages. Mosse would spend time in the refugee camps before photographing, and some of the migrants sheltered there helped him to arrange his shots. But in the images his subjects are always seen at a distance, photographed from an above-eye-level perspective. Each “Heat Map” was constructed from hundreds of frames shot using a telephoto lens; a robotic system was used to scan the landscapes and interiors and meticulously capture every corner…
By adopting a tool of surveillance, Mosse’s photographs consciously play into narratives that count families as statistics and stigmatize refugees as potential threats. He recognizes that operating the infrared camera entails brushing up against the violent intentions with which the device has been put to use. “We weren’t attempting to rescue this apparatus from its sinister purpose,” he said. Instead, his project acts as a challenge. The people in his images appear as inverted silhouettes, sometimes disjointed, torn by the time passing between individual frames. The thermal readouts rub features out of faces and render flesh in washy, anonymous tones. Someone lays back on a cot, looking at a cell phone. Someone else hangs laundry. We can imagine what these people might look like in person, guess at the expressions on their faces or the color of their skin. Yet seeing them in Mosse’s shadowy renderings erases the lines that have been drawn between refugees, immigrants, natives, citizens, and the rest. His camera makes little distinction between the heat that each body emits.
Heat Maps was shown in Berlin last year, where the links with the work of Michel Foucaultand Giorgio Agamben were made explicit:
Heat Maps attempts to foreground the biopolitical aspects of the refugee and migration situation that is facing Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The project charts refugee camps and other staging sites using an extreme telephoto military grade thermographic camera that was designed to detect and identify subjects from as far away as fifty kilometers, day or night.
The camera itself is export controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations — it is regarded as a component in advanced weapons systems and embargoed as such — and was designed for border surveillance and regulation. It can be seen as a technology of governance, a key tool in what Foucault and Agamben have described as biopower. It is an apparatus of the military-humanitarian complex.
The camera translates the world into a heat signature of relative temperature difference, literally reading the biological trace of human life – imperceptive of skin colour – as well as proximity to death through exposure or hypothermia, even from a great distance. The living subject literally glows, and heat radiation creates dazzling optical flare.
Instead of individuals, the camera sees the mass — in Foucault’s words: massifying, that is directed not as man-as-body, but as man-as-species. It elicits an alienating and invasive form of imagery, but also occasionally tender and intimate, tending to both dehumanize and then rehumanize the bare life (Agamben) of the human figure of the stateless refugee and illegal economic migrant, which the camera was specifically designed to detect, monitor, and police.
The camera is used against itself to map landscapes of global displacement and more powerfully represent ambivalent and charged narratives of migration. Reading heat as both metaphor and index, these images attempt to reveal the harsh struggle for human survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, seen but overlooked by our governments, and ignored by many.
You can find out more from a helpful interview with Iona Goulder which puts these twin projects in the context of Richard’s previous work in the Congo (see here and here). En route, Richard says this:
Reading heat as both metaphor and index, I wanted to reveal the harsh struggle for survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, while investigating one of the sinister technologies that our governments are using against them.
By attaching this camera to a robotic motion-control tripod, I scanned refugee camps across Europe from a high eye-level, to create detailed panoramic thermal images. Each artwork has been painstakingly constructed from a grid of almost a thousand smaller frames, each with its own vanishing point.
Seamlessly blended into a single expansive thermal panorama, I was surprised to find that some of the resulting images seem to evoke the spatial description, minute detail, and human narratives of certain kinds of classical painting, such as Breughel or Bosch. Yet they are also documents disclosing the fence architecture, security gates, loudspeakers, food queues, tents and temporary shelters of camp architecture. Very large in scale, these Heat Maps disclose intimate details of fragile human life in squalid, nearly unliveable conditions in the margins and gutters of first world economies.
If we can eliminate enemy threats without placing boots on a battlefield, then why not do so? That’s one of the unspoken questions raised, and largely unanswered, by “National Bird,” Sonia Kennebeck’s elegantly unsettling documentary about the United States’ reliance on aerial combat drones.
The weapons themselves, though, demand less of her attention than their psychological impact on three former operators and current whistle-blowers. Identified only by first names (though one full name is visible in a shot of a 2013 exposé in The Guardian), all three were involved in some form of top-secret data analysis and the tracking of targets. Justifiably nervous, they wear haunted, closed expressions as they relate stories of guilt, PTSD and persecution…’
The documentary includes a re-enactment (see still above) of what has become a signature drone strike to critics of remote warfare – the attack on a ‘convoy’ of three vehicles in Uruzgan in 2010 that I analysed in Angry Eyes (here and here); the strike was orchestrated by the crew of a Predator but carried out by two attack helicopters. Kennebeck based her reconstruction on the report from the same US military investigation I used, though I think her reading of it is limited by its focus on the Predator crew in Nevada and its neglect of what was happening (or more accurately not happening) at operations centres on the ground in Afghanistan. She’s not alone in that – follow the link to the second part of Angry Eyes above to see why – but what she adds is a series of vital interviews with the survivors:
I found the survivors of the airstrike and was the first person to interview them and get their first-person accounts… Their stories give a much larger dimension to the incident and reveal that parts of the military investigation had been sugarcoated.
Winston Cook-Wilsonagrees that the cross-cutting between the strike and its victims is immensely affecting:
The most powerful section of Kennebeck’s film, by far, are the interviews with family members and witnesses of a mistaken drone attack which killed 22 men, women and children in Afghanistan. Before meeting the Afghani mother who lost her children, the man who lost his leg in the explosion, and others, Kennebeck shows the attack in re-enactment that utilizes frighteningly blurry drone vision. Slightly overdone, static-ridden voiceovers from a radio transcript are included. The emotional footage in Afghanistan here is undeniably powerful; Kennebeck then unexpectedly cuts in grainy footage, filmed by one of the families of the victims, poring over their maimed remains.
This section of the film induces nausea, grief, and confusion all at the same time.
‘Frighteningly blurry drone vision’ is exactly right, as I’ve argued elsewhere (you can find a discussion of this in the second of my ‘Reach from the Skies’ lectures and in the penultimate section of ‘Dirty Dancing’, DOWNLOADS tab). Here is Naomi Pitcairn who sharpens the same point:
We can see, clearly, how little they can actually see: tiny dots, like ants walking slowly, in single file. This is the all seeing but lacking feeling, understanding and cultural context, vision of a drone video feed and the drone operators callousness in the transcript seems to reflect that. Their bloodlust combined with the minimalism of the feed is intense in its very … primitivism.
Jeanette Catsoulis also thinks the cross-cutting between the strike and the survivors is highly effective (see also Susan Carruthers, ‘Detached Retina: The new cinema of drone warfare’, in Cineaste, who regards those sequences as providing ‘a more profound, affecting, and sustained reckoning with what drones do than anything else to date’), but she doesn’t think it sufficient:
If “National Bird” wants to persuade us that the emotional and collateral damage of this technology is greater than that caused by conventional weapons, it needs to widen its lens. Interviews with military specialists able to elucidate the complex calculus of risk and reward would have been invaluable in balancing the narrative and perhaps clarifying the ethical fuzziness.
Even so, there’s a sense that some unwritten human compact has been broken. As an ominously beautiful drone’s-eye camera glides above peaceful American streets, we’re uncomfortably reminded that an invisible death could one day hover over us all.
So it could – perhaps especially now. As a reminder of that dread possibility, one of the phrases that recurs in the transcript from the Uruzgan strike is ‘military-aged males’ (with all that implies), so here is an image from Tomas van Houtryve‘s photographic series Blue Sky Days. It’s also called ‘Military-Aged Males‘:
It shows civilian cadets assembling in formation at the Citadel Military College in Charleston, South Carolina.