The optics of urban ruination

Ishikawa Kōyō

News from David Fedman of a new article co-authored with Cary Karacas, ‘The optics of urban ruination‘, which complements their previous, vital work on the cartographic imaginary of bombing.  It’s published in the Journal of Urban History but you can access it here.

World War II yielded many photographs of bombed-out cities. In this paper we telescope between two sets and scales of images that represent the principal frames through which the American and Japanese publics have memorialized the incendiary bombings that laid waste to urban Japan: aerial photographs taken by the US Army Air Forces during its wartime planning, prosecution, and assessment of the raids; and the ground-level images captured by Ishikawa Kōyō, a photographer working on behalf of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. By means of a detailed examination of the production, circulation, and consumption of these photographs— what some scholars have called an “archaeological approach” to images of ruination—we explore not only the visual rhetoric and reality of the destruction of Japan’s cities, but also how that destruction is situated in history, memory, and visual culture.

As always with their work, it’s exquisitely written, intellectually savvy and a very powerful argument.  They juxtapose the photographic ‘view from above’ that was instrumental in the planning and execution of the American air raids with Ishikawa Kōyō’s ground-level perspective.  His work is virtual unknown outside Japan and yet, as they say, has become ‘the principal visual testimony in Japan for public memory of the incendiary air raids as they were experienced on the ground’:

What followed were, according to Ishikawa, scenes from hell. His detailed account of that evening indeed repeatedly invokes infernal metaphors to describe Tokyo’s destruction. The “demon’s wings”(akuma no tsubasa) rained fire that carbonized corpses which “flowed through the streets like rapids.”  The elements also conspired against the city to whip up the red winds (akakaze) that fanned the firestorms: “immense incandescent vortices,” he wrote, “rose in a number of places, swirling, flattening, sucking whole blocks of houses into a maelstrom of fire.”

Widespread chaos, intense heat, and the realization of the need to save his own life pre-vented Ishikawa from taking any photographs. His Chevrolet destroyed by flames, he slowly made his way on foot back to the Metropolitan Police Headquarters. After resting his fatigued body, at around 2 P.M. on March 10 Ishikawa set out to document the aftermath. He saw bodies “piled like mountains” (shitai no yama o kizuiteita) and corpses burnt to the point that “you could no longer discern the sex of the body” (danjyo no kubetsu mo tsukanai shitai).

Ishikawa first told himself not to photograph such upsetting images, but then, recalling his responsibilities to capture the “reality of the scenes,” he began to snap the shutter.That day Ishikawa took thirty-three photographs of the aftermath of what came to be called the Great Tokyo Air Raid.

You can find more at Japan Air Raids, a brilliant bilingual archive, and a (harrowing) selection of Ishikawa’s images here.  If you do click on that link, heed their warning:

While photographs such as [these] provide an intimate sense of the bodily pain that was inflicted by the firebombing, they also require much of the viewer. It is one thing to look at such photographs; it is another thing altogether to comprehend or attach meaning to the actual suffering it exposes.

And – do I have to say this? – it’s worth thinking about other scenes of urban ruination.

When war comes home

After the US invasion of Iraq there were all sorts of artistic interventions that sought to bring home to Americans what was happening in Baghdad.  I described some of them in ‘War and peace’ (DOWNLOADS tab), noting that many of them seemed to take their cue from Martha Rosler‘s double photomontage of ‘Bringing the war home’, in which she re-staged first Vietnam and then the Iraq war in American domestic interiors:

Captives are paraded around gleaming kitchens on leashes, combat troops stalk in living rooms, while beyond the drapes fires flicker, a grieving woman slumps on the deck, and an Army patrol files by. Domestic critics have frequently noted the interchange between security regimes inside and outside the United States; they insist that the ‘war on terror’ ruptures the divide between inside and outside, and draw attention to its impact not only ‘there’ but also ‘here’. But Rosler’s sharper point is to goad her audience beyond what sometimes trembles on the edge of a critical narcissism (‘we are vulnerable too’) to recognise how often ‘our’ wars violate ‘their’ space: her work compels us to see that what she makes seem so shocking in ‘our’ space is all too terrifyingly normal in ‘theirs’.

Several projects made cartographic transpositions or mash-ups: superimposing the bombing of Baghdad on San Francisco (Paula Levine‘s Shadows from another place) or Boston (Alyssa Wright‘s Cherry Blossoms), for example, or choreographing a situationist tour of Baghdad in Brooklyn.  I’ve been more hesitant about these interventions; I know that these three projects were linked to – and in the last case depended on – ground performances, and I know too that it’s possible to undo the abstractness of conventional cartography, to turn it against itself (here I’m thinking of elin o’Hara slavick‘s brilliant Bomb after bomb).

WRIGHT Cherry Blossoms

I’ve now seen a different cartographic transposition that dramatizes the firebombing of Japan during the Second World War by juxtaposing a map of the United States with a map of Japan.  Almost as soon as the war was over there were several visualizations of a nuclear attack on US cities.  The image below comes from Collier’s Magazine in 1950, for a cover story called ‘Hiroshima, USA’; you can access the original here and read more here.  But projects like these still deflect the critical gaze from the horror of what happened there to the horror of what might happen here.  Indeed, that was precisely the point, as Joseph Masco shows in his brilliant essay, ‘”Survival is Your Business”: Engineering ruins and affect in nuclear America’, Cultural Anthropology 23:2 (2008) 361-98; reprinted in Ann Laura Stoler (ed), Imperial debris: on ruins and ruination (Duke, 2013).


The problem is redoubled in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because those two hideous mushroom clouds have so often blocked our view of the firebombing of Japanese cities that preceded the two nuclear attacks.  Here the work of David Fedman and Cary Karacas on bombing Japan is indispensable, not least for its illuminating discussion of the central role of cartography (see Cary’s bilingual historical archive here).

In fact in 1945 the United States Air Force produced a map in which the earlier bombing campaign was projected on to a map of the United States:


And this was the starting-point for Alex Wellerstein‘s remarkable intervention, whose critical force comes precisely from its juxtaposition (rather than simple superimposition) of the two maps: what happened in Japan is visibly there, magnified rather than marginalized through the map of the continental United States.  In fact, when you click on the interactive a line appears linking an American city to its equivalent target-city in Japan:



Lightning strikes


I’ve posted about this remarkable project before.  The Air Force Research Institute has now made available online its historical database of air strikes.  Although a USAF project, the Theater History of Operations Reports is not confined to US airstrikes but includes allied strikes; the main focus is on World War I (from June 1916), World War II and Vietnam (from 1965-1969, though I haven’t yet checked whether this includes Laos and Cambodia).

The original description of the Project included the Korean War, Desert Storm (1991), Allied Force (1999), Afghanistan (2001 on) and Iraq (2003-11), but these are still classified and not yet available online.  Here is the architect of the project, Lt Col Jenns Roberston, explaining the background:

That was a year ago.  There’s now a Quick Start Guide here, and you can download the full, unclassified database and also ‘Grab and Go’ files for Google Earth.  Latest background information here.

Here’s a grab of Allied bombing in Europe and the Mediterranean during World War II, though the key here is obviously to disaggregate and refine the data – which is precisely what the database allows.  The red squares on the map are B-17 strikes but these overlay (for example) the orange squares of Wellington bombers so the impression at this scale is not particularly helpful.

THOR screenshot USAAF and RAF bombing in Europe WWII

And while we’re on the subject of World War II, don’t forget the Bomb Sight project, which maps the London Blitz in extraordinary detail: more here.

It’s important to look beyond Europe, of course.  Roberston, who started work on the database in 2006, told the Air Force Times that he was surprised at the level of Allied bombing in the Pacific theater:

“We were blown away – no pun intended – by the level of bombing that was taking place, not only in the South Pacific  but also in Burma, which is something that nobody looks at; Formosa, currently known as Taiwan; and the Philippines – how heavily those regions were bombed in the lead-up to bombing Japan proper.”

On bombing ‘Japan proper’ in World War II, as I’ve noted previously, the very best source is Japan Air

If anyone else is working through the disaggregated database too, do let me know how you get on.

Bombing Japan

I’ve drawn attention to the remarkable work of Cary Karacas before, notably the mesmerising essay he co-authored with David Fedman, ‘A cartographic fade to black: mapping the destruction of urban Japan in World War II’ [Jnl. historical geography 38 (2012) 306-28], which quite rightly won the prize for the paper published in the journal that made ‘the greatest contribution to the advancement of scholarship in historical geography’ in 2012; it’s available here.  Bombing depends upon a whole series of cartographic visions, and there is something exquisite about using maps to expose rather than plan violence from the air like this.


You can also get a sense of their work from this beautifully illustrated essay by Eric Jaffe for the Atlantic last year, ‘Mapping urbicide in World War II’, and from this special (open-access) issue of Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus Cary edited with Bret Fisk on ‘The fire-bombing of Tokyo: views from the ground’.

Working with Bret and translator Eri Tsuji, Cary also launched a new website, Japan Air, which is a bilingual (hooray!) digital archive providing an extraordinary range of primary and secondary materials on the US bombing of Japan in the Second World War.

In Japan it took over twenty years following the end of the World War II before people began to make a concerted effort to remember the incendiary raids that destroyed a significant percentage of most of Japan’s cities, wiped out a quarter of all housing in the country, made nine million people homeless, killed at least 187,000 civilians, and injured 214,000 more (source). Thanks to the many Japanese citizens who over the last forty years have labored to write down survivor accounts, locate and preserve various records, and analyze the destruction of urban Japan (and the concurrent suffering and social upheaval that occurred), the history of the air raids has taken root in Japan in a variety of ways. Numerous books and articles have been published, resource centers and peace museums have been built, and both individuals and associations continue to carry out important research.

Outside of Japan, the lag time to look closely at the impacts of the air raids is even more pronounced. In 1977, historian Gordon Daniels lamented the fact that academics had largely ignored the air raids on Japan – and the so-called Great Tokyo Air Raid in particular – as a subject of inquiry. Little has changed since this observation. While a handful of important English-language books and articles have appeared since then, most deal with the topic strictly from the standpoint of examining, and on occasion criticizing, U.S. strategic bombing doctrines and campaigns. Analyses about what the air raids entailed for the Japanese civilians on the ground and the cities in which they lived have yet to be written. Consequently, interested citizens and intellectuals who cannot read Japanese have minimal access to materials that shed light on the devastating effects of the incendiary bombing campaign on Japanese communities, cities and society. Additionally, while considerable English-language primary and secondary source documents related to the air raids exist, to date they have been beyond the reach of most people save for a handful of individuals who possess the inclination, time and resources required to visit the physical archives holding them.

By taking advantage of technological developments that allow for digitization, storage, and global retrieval of documents, we hope that this digital archive will play an important role in encouraging people to learn about and further research this area, and in fostering collaboration among a variety of individuals and groups. Additionally, by democratizing archival access to materials related the Japan air raids, we hope to open this field to the general public, scholars, professional and lay researchers, university students, and even middle/secondary school educators and their pupils.

Japan Air screenshot

The project is ongoing, but it’s already clear that this is a stunning achievement – visually, intellectually and politically – and a truly generous and absolutely indispensable resource.

After Hiroshima

slavick After HiroshimaFollowing my post on artists and bombing, and in particular the work of elin o’Hara slavick, elin has written with news of her new book, After Hiroshima, due in March from Daylight, with what she calls a ‘ridiculously brilliant essay’ from James Elkins.

If you’re interested in two different but none the less intimately related works, I recommend Paul Ham‘s Hiroshima Nagasaki (Doubleday, 2012), which is extraordinarily good at placing those terrible attacks in the context of a strategic air war waged primarily against civilians (according to the Air Force Weekly Intelligence Review at the time, ‘There are no civilians in Japan’: sound familiar?) – and this needs to be read in conjunction with David Fedman and Cary Karacas, ‘A cartographic fade to black: mapping the destruction of urban Japan in World War II’, Journal of historical geography 38 (2012) 303-26 (you can get a quick visual version here) – and Rosalyn Deutsche’s Hiroshima after Iraq: three studies in art and war (Columbia, 2010), based on her Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory given in 2009.

You can get a preview of elin’s ‘After Hiroshima’ project here. Scrolling down that page, my eye was caught by the image ‘Woman with burns through kimono’, taken in 1945, which transported me to another ridiculously brilliant work, Kamila Shamsie‘s dazzling novel Burnt Shadows.  I’ve been haunted by it ever since I read it, and in the draft of the first chapter of The everywhere war I start with this passage from the novel:

Burnt Shadows

And this is how I go on (and please remember this is a draft):

A man is being prepared for transfer to the American war prison at Guantanamo Bay: unshackled, he strips naked and waits on a cold steel bench for an orange jumpsuit.  ‘How did it come to this?’ he wonders.  This is the stark prologue to Kamila Shamsie’s luminous novel Burnt Shadows.  She finds her answer to his question in a journey from Nagasaki in August 1945 as the second atomic bomb explodes, through Delhi in 1947 on the brink of partition, to Pakistan in 1982-3 as trucks stacked with arms grind their way from the coast to the border training-camps, and so finally to New York, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in 2001-2.   These are all, in their different ways, conflict zones and the turning-points of empires, tracing an arc from the cataclysmic end of the Second World War through the Cold War to the wars fought in the shadows of 9/11.   In this book, I follow in her wake; I find myself returning to her writing again and again.  Although this is in part the product of her lyrical sensibility and imaginative range, there are three other reasons that go to the heart of my own project and which provide the framework for this chapter.

The first flows from the historical arc of the novel.   Shamsie is adamant that Burnt Shadows is not her ‘9/11 novel’.  She explains that it is not about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 but about the cost and consequences of state actions before and after.  Her long view reveals that the connections between Ground Zero in 1945 and Ground Zero in 2001 are more than metaphorical.  These are connections not equivalences – and far from simple – but like Shamsie I believe that many of the political and military responses to 9/11 can be traced back to the Cold War and its faltering end and, crucially, that the de-stabilization of the distinction between war and peace was not the febrile innovation of the ‘war on terror’.  I start by mapping that space of indistinction, and it will soon become clear that the dismal architects of the ‘war on terror’ (the scare-quotes are unavoidable) not only permanently deferred any prospect of peace but claimed to be fighting a radically new kind of war that required new allegiances, new modalities and new laws. Here too there are continuities with previous claims about new wars fought by the advanced militaries of the global North, conducted under the sign of a rolling Revolution in Military Affairs and its successor projects, and quite other ‘new wars’ fought by rag-tag militias in the global South: all of them preceding 9/11.

I turn to those new wars next, and this brings me to the second reason why Shamsie’s work is relevant to my own discussion.  While she was writing Burnt Shadows she used Google Earth to disclose the textures of New York City, and marvelled at how obediently they swam into view: ‘3D models of buildings, amazingly high-resolution images, links to photographs and video streams of Manhattan.’ When she turned to Afghanistan, however, all the details dissolved into ‘an indistinct blur, and the only clues to topography came from colours within the blur: blue for rivers, brown for desert, green for fertile land.’  But that was then (2006).  Three years later, a different Afghanistan was brought into view.  ‘As I click through all the YouTube links tattooed across the skin of Afghanistan,’ she wrote, ‘I encounter video clips of American solders firing on the Taliban, Canadian politicians visiting troops, Dutch forces engaged in battle, an IED blast narrowly missing a convoy of US soldiers, a video game in which a chopper hails down missiles and bullets on a virtual city which looks more like Baghdad than Kabul.’  Shamsie uses these distinctions to remind us that ‘we’re still using maps to inscribe our stories on the world.’  So we are; and throughout this book I also turn to these violent cartographies, as Michael Shapiro calls them: maps, satellite images and other forms of visual imagery. These inscriptions and the narratives that they impose have a material form, and they shape both the ways in which we conduct ‘our’ wars and also the rhetoric through which we assert moral superiority over ‘their’ wars.  Yet even as I sketch out these contrasting imaginative geographies, another indistinction – a blurring, if you like – seeps in.  For one of the most telling features of contemporary warscapes is the commingling of these rival ‘new wars’ in the global borderlands, the ‘somewhere else’ that Abdullah reminds Kim is always the staging ground of America’s wars.

And this brings me to the final reason for travelling with Burnt Shadows: Abdullah’s insistence that war is like a disease.  This is an ironic reversal of the usual liberal prescription that justifies war – which is to say ‘our’ war – as a necessity: ‘killing to make life live’, as Michael Dillon and Julian Reid put it.  They argue that war in the name of liberalism is a profoundly bio-political strategy in which particular kinds of lives can only be secured and saved by sacrificing those of others.   You might say that war has always been thus, but what is distinctive about the contemporary conjunction of neo-liberalism and late modern war is its normative generalization of particular populations as at once the bearers and the guardians of the productive potential of ‘species-life’.  Here too there are terrible echoes of previous wars, and these brutal privileges depend, as they often did in the past, on discourses of science and economics (and on the couplings between them).  But contemporary bio-politics also draws its succour from new forms of the life sciences that treat life as ‘continuously emergent being’.  This is to conjure a world of continuous transformation in which emergence constantly threatens to become emergency: in which there is the ever-present possibility of life becoming dangerous to itself.  For this reason the social body must be constantly scanned and its pathologies tracked: security must deal not with a grid of fixed objects but a force-field of events, and war made not a periodic but a permanent process of anticipation and vigilance, containment and elimination.  Mark Duffield calls this ‘the biopolitics of unending war’ – war that extends far beyond the killing fields –in which the global borderlands become sites of special concern. Its prosecution involves the production of new geographies – new modes of division and distinction, tracing and tracking, measuring and marking – that provide new ways of continuing the liberal project of universalizing war in the pursuit of ‘peace’.  In the face of all this, Abdullah had a point.