Silent Witnesses

I’m still working on the mass murder in slow motion that is Ghouta; there’s so much to see, say and do that my promised post has been delayed.  Most readers will know of the stark declaration issued by UNICEF last month:

It was accompanied by this explanatory footnote:

We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.  Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?

 

One of Allan Pred‘s favourite quotations from Walter Benjamin was this: ‘I have nothing to say.  Only to show.’  And perhaps the broken, mangled shards of montage are the most appropriate way to convey the collision of medieval and later modern violence that is sowing Syria’s killing fields with so many injured, dying and dead bodies.

You might think it’s always been so: in 1924 Ernst Friedrich introduced his collection of war photographs by insisting that ‘in the present and in the future, all the treasure of words is not enough to paint correctly the infamous carnage.’

These are suggestive claims, but two riders are necessary.  First,  images have such an extraordinary, if often insidious, subliminal power – even in our own, image-saturated culture – that they demand careful, critical interrogation and deployment.  They don’t speak for themselves.  And second, Benjamin described his method as ‘literary montage’: as Allan knew very well, words do not beat a silent retreat in the face of the image, and it’s in concert that the two produce some of their most exacting effects.

 In the course of my work on war in Syria and elsewhere I’ve encountered (and drawn upon) the work of many outstanding photographers; in some cases their images seem out-of-time, almost transcendent testimony to the enduring realities of war, while others disclose new horrors erupting in the midst of the all-too-bloody-familiar.  I think, for example, of the work of Narciso Contreras (see above and below, and also here and his collection, Syria’s War: a journal of pain, War Photo, 2014) – and I do know about the controversy over editing/cropping – or Nish Nalbandian (see also here and here and his book, A whole world blind: war and life in northern Syria, Daylight Books, 2016).

 

In my research on other conflicts I’ve also learned a lot from war artists, and in the case of Syria from graphic journalism: see, for example, the discussion by Nathalie Rosa Bucher here and the example of Molly Crabapple here. (Her work was based on cell-phone videos sent to her by a source inside IS-controlled Raqqa: another digital breach of siege warfare in Syria).

 

The point of all of this is to emphasise my debt to multiple (in this case, visual) sources that enable me – sometimes force me –  to see things differently: to turn those broken shards around, to have them catch the light and illuminate the situation anew.  And to see things I’d often rather not see.

 

It’s not a new experience. When I was completing The colonial present I was given access to a major image library, and in the course of three exhilarating days I learned more about Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq than I had learned in three months of reading. The image bank included not only published but also unpublished images, which revealed aspects, dimensions, whole stories that had been left unremarked and unrecorded in the public record produced through editorial selection.

For my present work the Syrian Archive is invaluable:

The Syrian Archive is a Syrian-led and initiated collective of human rights activists dedicated to curating visual documentation relating to human rights violations and other crimes committed by all sides during the conflict in Syria with the goal of creating an evidence-based tool for reporting, advocacy and accountability purposes.

 

Its emphasis on visual documentation and analysis needs to be seen alongside the investigations of Forensic Architecture and bellingcat.

 

The Syrian Archive aims to support human rights investigators, advocates, media reporters, and journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria and worldwide through developing new open source tools as well as providing a transparent and replicable methodology for collecting, preserving, verifying and investigating visual documentation in conflict areas.

We believe that visual documentation of human rights violations that is transparent, detailed, and reliable are critical towards providing accountability and can positively contribute to post-conflict reconstruction and stability. Such documentation can humanise victims, reduce the space for dispute over numbers killed, help societies understand the true human costs of war, and support truth and reconciliation efforts.

Visual documentation is also valuable during conflict as it can feed into:

  • Humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contribute to the protection of civilians;
  • Mechanisms that support increased legal compliance by conflict parties and reductions in civilian harm;
  • Strengthening advocacy campaigns and legal accountability through building verified sets of materials documenting human rights violations in the Syrian conflict.

User-generated content is valuable during times of conflict. Verified visual documentation can feed into humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contributing to the protection of civilians.

Furthermore, visual documentation allows the Syrian Archive to tell untold stories through amplifying the voices of witnesses, victims and others who risked their lives to capture and document human rights violations in Syria. Not every incident in the Syrian conflict has been reported by journalists. The very challenging conditions have made it extremely difficult for local and especially international media to work in Syria, meaning the many incidents have been missed or under-reported.

Visual documentation aims to strengthen political campaigns of human rights advocates by providing content that supports their campaign. This could include content on the violation of children’s rights; sexual and gender based violence; violations against specifically protected persons and objects, or the use of illegal weapons.

Additionally, visual documentation aims to help human rights activists and Syrian citizens in setting up a memorialisation process and to create dialogues around issues related to peace and justice, to recognise and substantiate the suffering of citizens and provide multiple perspectives on the conflict that acts to prevent revisionist or simplified narratives while raising awareness of the situation in the country and highlighting the futility of violence to next generations. Video and images often compliments official narratives and press accounts of an event or situation, adding both detail and nuance. At other times, they directly rebut certain factual claims and contradict pervasive narratives.

 

Many of the videos on which this visual analysis relies (me too) were uploaded to YouTube.  Armin Rosen reports:

 

Google, which is YouTube’s parent company, knows how significant its platform has been during the war. “The Syrian civil war is in many ways the first YouTube conflict in the same way that Vietnam was the first television conflict,” Justin Kosslyn, the product manager for Jigsaw, formerly called Google Ideas, said during an interview on the sidelines of September’s Oslo Freedom Forum in New York, where Kosslyn had just spoken. “You have more hours of footage of the Syrian civil war on YouTube then there actually are hours of the war in real life.” In 2016, Jigsaw developed Montage, a Google Docs-like application that allows for collaborative analysis of online videos. Kosslyn said the project was undertaken with human rights-related investigations in mind.

The value of YouTube’s Syria videos is indisputable, especially since the regime and other armed actors have closed off much of the country to journalists and human rights observers. [Eliot] Higgins and his colleagues [at Bellingcat] proved beyond all doubt that Assad’s forces gassed a suburb of Damascus in August 2013, and a U.N. organization is now in the early stages of assessing YouTube’s Syria footage for its future use in war crimes trials. In December 2016, the U.N. General Assembly voted to establish the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in war crimes prosecutions related to Syria. In connection with the IIIM, Hiatt and his team at Benetech are developing software that can search and organize the estimated 4 million videos related to the conflict. The IIIM will facilitate the use of the videos in court if alleged human rights abusers ever face trial.

Last summer YouTube started deleting videos that violated its Terms of Service; the platform used algorithms to flag the offending materials and within days some 900 Syria-related channels were removed.

Alarm bells rang; here’s Chris Woods of Airwars talking to the New York Times:

“When the conflict in Syria started, independent media broke down and Syrians themselves have taken to YouTube to post news of the conflict…  What’s disappearing in front of our eyes is the history of this terrible war.”

And Eliot Higgins (on YouTube!):

After the concerted protests many of the videos were restored, but the cull continued and by the end of the year more than 200 channels providing over 400,000 videos had been removed.  Again, some of those were subsequently restored, but the Syrian Archive estimates that more than 200,000 videos are still offline.

 

 

The intervention was the product of an understandable desire to remove ‘propaganda’ videos – part of the fight back against ‘fake news’ – but here’s the rub:

Videos from the conflict could prove critical in cases where they might violate the site’s ToS—even ISIS propaganda videos help identify members of the organization and explain its internal hierarchies. “The difficulty in this type of work is that the information put out there on social media by the perpetrators of the violence can also be used to hold those perpetrators accountable,” Shabnam Mojtahedi [a legal analyst with the Syria Justice and Accountability Center: see also here for its statement on this issue] notes.

And it’s not just YouTube.  In an extended report for The Intercept Avi Asher Schapiro detected

a pattern that’s causing a quiet panic among human rights groups and war crimes investigators. Social media companies can, and do, remove content with little regard for its evidentiary value. First-hand accounts of extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing, and the targeting of civilians by armies can disappear with little warning, sometimes before investigators notice. When groups do realize potential evidence has been erased, recovering it can be a kafkaesque ordeal. Facing a variety of pressures — to safeguard user privacy, neuter extremist propaganda, curb harassment and, most recently, combat the spread of so-called fake news — social media companies have over and over again chosen to ignore, and, at times, disrupt the work of human rights groups scrambling to build cases against war criminals.

“It’s something that keeps me awake at night,” says Julian Nicholls, a senior trial lawyer at the International Criminal Court,  where he’s responsible for prosecuting cases against war criminals, “the idea that there’s a video or photo out there that I could use, but before we identify it or preserve it, it disappears.”

As Christoph Koettl, a senior analyst with Amnesty International and a founder of Citizen Evidence Lab put it, these social media platforms are ‘essentially privately-owned evidence lockers’.  And that should worry all of us.

The weaponisation of social media

Following on from my last post, Foreign Policy has a thoughtful review from Sasha Polokow-Suransky of David PatrikarikosWar in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Basic Books):

A leading foreign correspondent looks at how social media has transformed the modern battlefield, and how wars are fought.
Modern warfare is a war of narratives, where bullets are fired both physically and virtually. Whether you are a president or a terrorist, if you don’t understand how to deploy the power of social media effectively you may win the odd battle but you will lose a twenty-first century war. Here, journalist David Patrikarakos draws on unprecedented access to key players to provide a new narrative for modern warfare. He travels thousands of miles across continents to meet a de-radicalized female member of ISIS recruited via Skype, a liberal Russian in Siberia who takes a job manufacturing “Ukrainian” news, and many others to explore the way social media has transformed the way we fight, win, and consume wars-and what this means for the world going forward.

 

You can read the introduction here (scroll down) and find an interview with the author here.

Sasha writes:

It’s popular these days to proclaim that Clausewitz is passé and war is now waged via smartphones and Facebook feeds. Few writers have actually explored what this means in practice. The journalist David Patrikarakos’s new book, War in 140 Characters, chronicles in granular detail how social media has transformed the way that modern wars are fought. From the battlefields of eastern Ukraine to the bot factories of St. Petersburg, Patrikarakos takes us into the lives of ordinary citizens with no military training who have changed the course of conflicts with nothing more than a laptop or iPhone.

At the core of Patrikarakos’s book is the idea that narrative war has become far more important than physical war due to new technologies that shape public perceptions of conflicts in real time, regardless of what is actually happening on the battlefield. The spread of social media, he argues, has brought about a situation of “virtual mass enlistment” that gives civilians as much power as state propaganda machines — and sometimes more. Although some techno-utopians have celebrated the breakdown of centralized state control of information and the empowerment of the individual to challenge authoritarian regimes, he is not starry-eyed about the leveling of the playing field. “[B]ecause these new social media forums are structurally more egalitarian,” he writes, “many delight in holding up the Internet as the ultimate tool against tyrants.” It is not. As Patrikarakos notes, “the state will always fight back” — and it has.

And she adds, tellingly:

The greatest strength of War in 140 Characters is the author’s preference for in-depth reporting over soundbite-ready platitudes. This is not a book of Lexuses and olive trees.

A caution that should be applied more widely….

War Stories

New books on the radar:

Gary Fields, Enclosure: Palestinian landscapes in a historical mirror (California, September 2017):

Enclosure marshals bold new arguments about the nature of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. Gary Fields examines the dispossession of Palestinians from their land—and Israel’s rationale for seizing control of Palestinian land—in the contexts of a broad historical analysis of power and space and of an enduring discourse about land improvement. Focusing on the English enclosures (which eradicated access to common land across the English countryside), Amerindian dispossession in colonial America, and Palestinian land loss, Fields shows how exclusionary landscapes have emerged across time and geography. Evidence that the same moral, legal, and cartographic arguments were used by enclosers of land in very different historical environments challenges Israel’s current claim that it is uniquely beleaguered. This comparative framework also helps readers in the United States and the United Kingdom understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the context of their own histories.

There is an excellent review essay by the inimitable Raja Shehadeh over at the New York Review of Books for 18 January; you can read the opening chapter (‘The contours of enclosure’) here; and there’s a brief, illustrated blog post by Gary on ‘the will to resist’ here.

Caren Kaplan, Aerial aftermaths: wartime from above (Duke, January 2018):

From the first vistas provided by flight in balloons in the eighteenth century to the most recent sensing operations performed by military drones, the history of aerial imagery has marked the transformation of how people perceived their world, better understood their past, and imagined their future. In Aerial Aftermaths Caren Kaplan traces this cultural history, showing how aerial views operate as a form of world-making tied to the times and places of war. Kaplan’s investigation of the aerial arts of war—painting, photography, and digital imaging—range from England’s surveys of Scotland following the defeat of the 1746 Jacobite rebellion and early twentieth-century photographic mapping of Iraq to images taken in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Throughout, Kaplan foregrounds aerial imagery’s importance to modern visual culture and its ability to enforce colonial power, demonstrating both the destructive force and the potential for political connection that come with viewing from above.

Contents:

Introduction. Aerial Aftermaths
1. Surveying Wartime Aftermaths: The First Military Survey of Scotland
2. Balloon Geography: The Emotion of Motion in Aerostatic Wartime
3. La Nature à Coup d’Oeil: “Seeing All” in Early Panoramas
4. Mapping “Mesopotamia”: Aerial Photography in Early Twentieth-Century Iraq
5. The Politics of the Sensible: Aerial Photography’s Wartme Aftermaths
Afterword. Sensing Distance

Anna Feigenbaum, Tear Gas: from the battlefields of World War I to the streets of today (Verso, November 2017):

One hundred years ago, French troops fired tear gas grenades into German trenches. Designed to force people out from behind barricades and trenches, tear gas causes burning of the eyes and skin, tearing, and gagging. Chemical weapons are now banned from war zones. But today, tear gas has become the most commonly used form of “less-lethal” police force. In 2011, the year that protests exploded from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, tear gas sales tripled. Most tear gas is produced in the United States, and many images of protestors in Tahrir Square showed tear gas canisters with “Made in USA” printed on them, while Britain continues to sell tear gas to countries on its own human rights blacklist.

An engrossing century-spanning narrative, Tear Gas is the first history of this weapon, and takes us from military labs and chemical weapons expos to union assemblies and protest camps, drawing on declassified reports and witness testimonies to show how policing with poison came to be.

I’ve trailed this before, but now it’s out; there’s an engaging and detailed review by Peter Mitchell at Review 31 here.

Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars: how the first global conflict was fought and won (Basic Books, October 2017):

World War II was the most lethal conflict in human history. Never before had a war been fought on so many diverse landscapes and in so many different ways, from rocket attacks in London to jungle fighting in Burma to armor strikes in Libya.

The Second World Wars examines how combat unfolded in the air, at sea, and on land to show how distinct conflicts among disparate combatants coalesced into one interconnected global war. Drawing on 3,000 years of military history, Victor Davis Hanson argues that despite its novel industrial barbarity, neither the war’s origins nor its geography were unusual. Nor was its ultimate outcome surprising. The Axis powers were well prepared to win limited border conflicts, but once they blundered into global war, they had no hope of victory.

An authoritative new history of astonishing breadth, The Second World Wars offers a stunning reinterpretation of history’s deadliest conflict.

I was alerted to this by Joshua Rothman‘s thoughtful review in the New Yorker just before Christmas.

Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell, The Military-Entertainment Complex (Harvard, February 2018)

With the rise of drones and computer-controlled weapons, the line between war and video games continues to blur. In this book, the authors trace how the realities of war are deeply inflected by their representation in popular entertainment. War games and other media, in turn, feature an increasing number of weapons, tactics, and threat scenarios from the War on Terror.

While past analyses have emphasized top-down circulation of pro-military ideologies through government public relations efforts and a cooperative media industry, The Military-Entertainment Complex argues for a nonlinear relationship, defined largely by market and institutional pressures. Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell explore the history of the early days of the video game industry, when personnel and expertise flowed from military contractors to game companies; to a middle period when the military drew on the booming game industry to train troops; to a present in which media corporations and the military influence one another cyclically to predict the future of warfare.

In addition to obvious military-entertainment titles like America’s Army, Lenoir and Caldwell investigate the rise of best-selling franchise games such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, and Ghost Recon. The narratives and aesthetics of these video games permeate other media, including films and television programs. This commodification and marketing of the future of combat has shaped the public’s imagination of war in the post-9/11 era and naturalized the U.S. Pentagon’s vision of a new way of war.

Contents:

Induction: The Military–Entertainment Complex and the Contemporary War Imaginary

1. From Battlezone to America’s Army: The Defense Department and the Game Industry

2. Creating Repeat Consumers: Epic Realism and the Birth of the Wargame FranchiseWindows

2.1. The Ludic Affordances of Special Forces

2.2. Franchise Game Business Models

2.3. The RMA in Contemporary Wargaming

3. Coming to a Screen Near You: The RMA and Affective Entertainment

4. Press X to Hack: Cyberwar and VideogamesWindows

4.1. The Narrative Affordances of Hackers and Cyberwarfare

Discharge: Counter-Wargaming in Spec Ops: The Line

This is part of what James Der Derian famously called the Military-Industry-Media-Entertainment complex (MIME), and what I’ve called the Military-Academic-Industrial-Media complex (MAIM). Here is Colin Milburn on the book:

Locked and loaded, this astonishing account of the ‘military-entertainment complex’ exposes the links between military technologies and popular media, the alignments and affinities among defense agencies, video game companies, and Hollywood studios. With tactical precision, Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell show how the militarization of contemporary society is driven less by political interests than by economic interests, revealing the ways in which the entertainment industry and its commercial practices shape the imagination of postmodern warfare. This is a provocative, high-octane book about the war games of everyday life and the future of digital culture. Epic pwn.

Maja Zehfuss, War and the politics of ethics (Oxford, March 2018):

Contemporary Western war is represented as enacting the West’s ability and responsibility to help make the world a better place for others, in particular to protect them from oppression and serious human rights abuses. That is, war has become permissible again, indeed even required, as ethical war. At the same time, however, Western war kills and destroys. This creates a paradox: Western war risks killing those it proposes to protect.

This book examines how we have responded to this dilemma and challenges the vision of ethical war itself, exploring how the commitment to ethics shapes the practice of war and indeed how practices come, in turn, to shape what is considered ethical in war. The book closely examines particular practices of warfare, such as targeting, the use of cultural knowledge, and ethics training for soldiers. What emerges is that instead of constraining violence, the commitment to ethics enables and enhances it. The book argues that the production of ethical war relies on an impossible but obscured separation between ethics and politics, that is, the problematic politics of ethics, and reflects on the need to make decisions at the limit of ethics.

Contents:

1: Introduction
2: The Paradox of Ethical War and the Politics of Ethics
3: Targeting: Precision Bombing and the Production of Ethics
4: Culture: Knowledge of the People as Technology of Ethics
5: Ethics Education: Ethics as Ethos and the Impossibly Good Soldier
6: The Politics of War at the Limits of Ethics

Laura Auslander and Tara Zahra (eds), Objects of War: the material culture of conflict and displacement (Cornell, May 2018)

Historians have become increasingly interested in material culture as both a category of analysis and as a teaching tool. And yet the profession tends to be suspicious of things; words are its stock-in-trade. What new insights can historians gain about the past by thinking about things? A central object (and consequence) of modern warfare is the radical destruction and transformation of the material world. And yet we know little about the role of material culture in the history of war and forced displacement: objects carried in flight; objects stolen on battlefields; objects expropriated, reappropriated, and remembered.

Objects of War illuminates the ways in which people have used things to grapple with the social, cultural, and psychological upheavals wrought by war and forced displacement. Chapters consider theft and pillaging as strategies of conquest; soldiers’ relationships with their weapons; and the use of clothing and domestic goods by prisoners of war, extermination camp inmates, freed people and refugees to make claims and to create a kind of normalcy.

While studies of migration and material culture have proliferated in recent years, as have histories of the Napoleonic, colonial, World Wars, and postcolonial wars, few have focused on the movement of people and things in times of war across two centuries. This focus, in combination with a broad temporal canvas, serves historians and others well as they seek to push beyond the written word.

Eli Berman,‎ Joseph H. Felter andJacob N. ShapiroSmall Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict (Princeton, June 2018):

The way wars are fought has changed starkly over the past sixty years. International military campaigns used to play out between large armies at central fronts. Today’s conflicts find major powers facing rebel insurgencies that deploy elusive methods, from improvised explosives to terrorist attacks. Small Wars, Big Data presents a transformative understanding of these contemporary confrontations and how they should be fought. The authors show that a revolution in the study of conflict–enabled by vast data, rich qualitative evidence, and modern methods―yields new insights into terrorism, civil wars, and foreign interventions. Modern warfare is not about struggles over territory but over people; civilians―and the information they might choose to provide―can turn the tide at critical junctures.

The authors draw practical lessons from the past two decades of conflict in locations ranging from Latin America and the Middle East to Central and Southeast Asia. Building an information-centric understanding of insurgencies, the authors examine the relationships between rebels, the government, and civilians. This approach serves as a springboard for exploring other aspects of modern conflict, including the suppression of rebel activity, the role of mobile communications networks, the links between aid and violence, and why conventional military methods might provide short-term success but undermine lasting peace. Ultimately the authors show how the stronger side can almost always win the villages, but why that does not guarantee winning the war.

Small Wars, Big Data provides groundbreaking perspectives for how small wars can be better strategized and favorably won to the benefit of the local population.

 

War, law and visibilities

Two more forthcoming books on war.

Coming in May from Cambridge University Press, a book Richard Falk hails 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:
1. Introduction
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?

Coming in June from Rutgers University Press, In/Visible War: the culture of war in twenty-first century Americaedited by John Louis Lucaites and Jon Simons:

In/Visible War addresses 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

The hospital raids

This is the first in a new series of posts on military violence against hospitals and medical personnel in conflict zones.  I’ve discussed these issues on multiple occasions in the past – in relation to Afghanistan, Gaza and Syria – but I’m now working towards a presentation – and ultimately an extended essay – that brings this all together (including a detailed analysis of the US air strike on the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz).  It will have its first outing (“Surgical Strikes and Modern War”) at NUI Galway next month.

It was a clear, moonlit night and the hospitals – many of them provided by humanitarian organisations – were brightly lit as the nurses moved about the wards caring for their patients; elsewhere the hard-pressed surgeons were still operating on the maimed bodies of the wounded.  At 10 p.m. they heard the sound of approaching aircraft: first the clatter of gunfire and then, after the hospitals were plunged into precautionary darkness, the whistle of bombs falling.  The hospitals were hit repeatedly, and two hours later – when the flames had burned themselves out and the smoke cleared – several nurses had been killed and hundreds of patients had been killed or injured; multiple wards had been severely damaged.  Ten days later the aircraft returned; one hospital was totally destroyed and elsewhere operating rooms and wards were destroyed or damaged.

The scene is all too familiar: but this is not Gaza in 2014, Afghanistan in 2015 or Syria in 2016.  This is Étaples on the coast of France, 25 km south of Boulogne, in May 1918.

etaples-bombing-2-lowe_field_hospital_bombed_lac_pa_003747_a003747_v8-jpg_pv4a5fab25f240997c

On the Western Front it was common for stretcher-bearers to come under fire as they retrieved the wounded from No Man’s Land or carried them through the trenches and down the roads to aid posts and dressing stations; those places were often shelled since they were close to the front lines.  On 13 September 1914 Travis Hampson – a Medical Officer with a Field Ambulance – noted:

As one of our buses drove out onto the road to pick up some wounded gunners from the battery opposite, one landed on the road in front of it, and one behind, but not near enough to do any damage. With their glasses they must have been able to distinguish the white tilt and red cross, but we can’t grumble about being shelled if we are put amongst ammunition columns and batteries.

So too with the Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) which had moved close to the front lines to speed up the treatment of what were often catastrophic wounds and to minimise the risk of infection.  Here is Kate Luard writing in her diary at Brandhoek on 18 August 1917:

He [the enemy] played about all night till daylight. There were several of him. He went to C.C.S.’s behind us. At one he wounded three Sisters and blew their cook-boy to pieces. The Sisters went to the Base by Ambulance Train this morning. At the other he wounded six Medical Officers among other casualties. A dirty trick, because he has maps and knows which are hospitals back there. Here we are in a continuous line of camps, batteries, dumps, etc., and he may not know.

In fact, her CCS was judged to be too close for comfort  and was ordered to evacuate a few days later.

Luard’s last sentence reinforces Hampson’s; in general (so she suggests) the Red Cross was respected.  The following year she wrote about German air raids on the CCS:

Jerry comes every night again and drops below the barrage, seeking whom he may devour: I think he gets low enough to see our huge Red Cross, as even when some of our lads butt in and engage him with their machine-guns, he hasn’t dropped anything on us.

For the most part, then, it seems that attacks on medical sites and personnel were the result of the inaccuracy of shellfire and bombing (especially at night) compounded by the close proximity of aid posts, dressing stations, CCS and ambulance trains to the fighting.

Yet the hospital raids in the last year of the war seemed to be something else.  Étaples was distant from the fighting, the site of a vast collection of ‘base hospitals’ – ‘the Land of Hospitals’, Sister Elsie Tranter called it, ‘a stretch of six kilometres of hospitals’ – to which wounded soldiers were sent from casualty clearing stations near the rapidly moving front: some to be treated and returned to active service, others to be evacuated across the Channel on hospital ships.

etaples-map

As soon as the news broke, the British press were up in arms at what the Times lost no time in calling ‘German savagery at its worst’:

‘During the recent fine weather our airmen have … made every use of the still air and the good visibility to attack and harass the enemy by bombing his camps, billets, rail-heads, batteries, dumps, roads and all points of military importance in the battle area and immediately behind.  At the same time, the German airmen have also been making use of the favourable conditions by having recourse to their old trick of bombing hospitals.

‘There is one place in France, faraway from the battle area, where we have a large group of hospitals.  The hospital tents there cover a great area of ground.  The Germans are perfectly aware of the character of the place, and they selected it as the object of a bombing raid last year.  They have again been attacking it, and the size of the tract of ground covered with hospital outfits and the entire absence of any concealment make it a mark which no airman could possibly miss.  An airman blind and drunk could let bombs fall from any height in any wind and weather, and they must land somewhere amongst the attendants’ quarters or on the tents where the nursing sisters move among the rows of cots with their helpless occupants.

‘On Sunday night the Germans attacked the place with all the ferocity of which they are capable… The scenes inside the tents were of the most piteous description, and the total casualties to patients, sisters, medical officers and attendants must have far exceeded those of any London air raid.  The redeeming feature of the whole horrible affair was the magnificent behaviour of the hospital staff…’ [Times, 24 May 1918]

This too is a familiar narrative, and one that would be repeated in countless wars to come: ‘we’ attack military targets with precision, ‘they’ attack civilian targets with abandon; their aircrew are cowards, our victims are heroes.

The press provided photographic evidence of the aftermath of the raids:

sjab-ward-destroyed-by-air-raids-etaples-may-1918

One of the German pilots was shot down – ‘and is now being cared for in the hospital he bombed’, thundered the Times – and his protestations were summarily dismissed:

‘He tried at first to excuse himself by saying that he saw no Red Cross.  When challenged with the fact that he knew that he was attacking hospitals he endeavoured to plead that hospitals should not be placed near railways, or if they are, they must take the consequences.  Apart from the fact that hospitals must be near railways for the transport of their patients, in this case, as in the others, the raiders were not attacking the railway but came deliberately to bomb the hospital.’

Punch dismissed German remorse as crocodile tears:

punch-26-june-1918

There were repeated angry calls for reprisals. Arthur Conan Doyle urged that the captured pilot be shot ‘with a notice that such will be the fate of all airmen who are captured in such attempts’ and recommended that German prisoners of war ‘at once be picketed among the tents’ to deter future raids [Times, 27 May 1918].  Sir James Bell went further.  Although his son had been killed in one of the raids, reprisals were not about revenge, he said, but were a strictly ‘military matter’.  He recommended ‘bombing German hospitals and killing their wounded’ to stop the outrages [Times, 5 June 1918].

Finally, the press trumped arguments about the presence of Red Crosses on the hospitals.  The Hague Convention required belligerents to take ‘all the necessary measures … to spare, as far as possible, … hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, on the understanding that they are not being used at the same time for military purposes’ and required them to mark such places with ‘distinctive and visible signs’.

But far from respecting these protocols there was photographic evidence that the Germans were abusing the Red Cross to protect their own military installations:

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The aerial photograph was taken on 15 May 1918, and the caption described this as an active aerodrome at Thionville; the large building displaying the Red Cross ‘might house one or two sick’ but the Mirror insisted it ‘could not possibly be a hospital in any sense that would enable it to claim Red Cross immunity.’

And so, in her diary entry for 24 June 1918, Sister Edith Appleton wondered

‘if there is any truth in what they say about the bombing of hospitals – that in German territory the flying men have seen what are without doubt aeroplane hangers and ammunition dumps marked with huge red crosses. They are not near a railway and are so placed that they simply cannot be hospitals. I suppose they think we do the same and they bomb us on the chance of it. Of course we bomb their hangers and dumps – we should be fools if we didn’t! I am quite sure though that they do know what is a real hospital. They can see the wounded men walking about and some lying out in beds.’

Yet the press reports were studiedly disingenuous.  Étaples was indeed physically removed from the fighting – ‘far away from the battle’, as the Times‘s correspondent noted – but it was functionally and logistically absolutely central to the Allied military machine because it was the site of multiple Infantry Base Depots.  It was a vital transit and training camp – all those ‘TCs’ scattered across the map (above).

‘The Base!’ Edmund Blunden exclaimed in Undertones of War: ‘dismal tents, huge wooden warehouses, glum roadways, prisoning wire.’  He associated it, ‘as millions do, with “The Bull-Ring”, that thirsty, savage, interminable training-ground’ among the dunes where new recruits and newly discharged patients were put through their paces and ‘toughened up’ by unrelenting instructors.  When American military surgeon Harvey Cushing drove past its camps in 1917 they were ‘full of men rushing about like so many ants and all the color of the soil; drilling in the sand, practicing with machine guns, throwing bombs [grenades], having bayonet exercise, digging trenches and I know not what all.’  [For a thoughtful account of the oppressive conditions endured by troops during their two-week stints at the base and their contribution to the mutiny of 1917, see Douglas Gill and Gloden Dallas, ‘Mutiny at Étaples base 1917’, Past and Present 69 (1975) 88-112: ‘A corporal encountered several men returning to the front with wounds which were far from being healed. “When I asked why they had returned in that condition they invariably replied: ‘To get away from the Bull Ring’.”‘]

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In a letter to his mother Wilfred Owen described the base as ‘a vast, dreadful encampment’:

It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles [slaughter] … Chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all the faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England …; nor can it be seen in any battle.  But only in Étaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.

The training camps were a sea of bell tents (below) – like many of the hospitals – and the captured airmen insisted that this had been their objective: ‘the number of bell tents convinced them this was not [a hospital] as patients would not be in bell tents.’

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Étaples had been targeted before.  Vera Brittain, who was a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment at No 24 General Hospital, described the ‘ceaseless and deafening roar [that] filled the air’ during the German  offensive in the spring: ‘Motor lorries and ammunition waggons crashed endlessly along the road; trains with reinforcements thundered all day up the line, or lumbered down more slowly with their heavy freight of wounded…’

olive-mudie-cooke-unloading-ambulance-train-at-etaples-by-night

Images like this painting (above) by Olive Mudie-Cooke – a VAD convoy unloading an ambulance train at Étaples – are immensely powerful, but they ought not to blind us to the movement of men and matériel in the other direction.  As Vera Brittain knew only too well, there were in consequence frequent air raids on the lines of communication:

Certainly no Angels of Mons were watching over Etaples, or they would not have allowed mutilated men and exhausted women to be further oppressed by the series of nocturnal air-raids which for over a month supplied the camps beside the railway with periodic intimations of the less pleasing characteristics of a front-line trench.  The offensive seemed to have lasted since the beginning of creation, but must have actually been on for less than a fortnight, when the lights suddenly went out one evening…  Instead of the usual interval of silence followed by the return of the lights, an almost immediate series of crashes showed this alarm to be real…

Gradually, after another brief burst of firing, the camp became quiet, though the lights were not turned on again that night.  Next day we were told that most of the bombs had fallen on the village; the bridge over the Canche, it was reported, had been smashed, and the train service had to be suspended while the engineers performed the exciting feat of mending it in less than twelve hours.

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The bridge was of overwhelming strategic importance: by the time of the spring offensive a hundred military trains were passing over it every day.  Here is H.A. Jones in the official history of The war in the air (citing Colonel M.G. Taylor):

The enemy advance against the British on the Somme and on the Lys in March and April had endangered the railway system. ‘The culmination was reached in May 1918, when the great lateral line from St. Just, via Amiens, to Hazebrouck had to be abandoned as a railway route owing to enemy shell fire. Our armies were then penned into a narrow strip of country, possessing only one lateral railway communication, through Abbeville and Boulogne. Most of the forward engine depots had been lost, and several of the important engine depots remaining were so close to the enemy as to be practically useless, and our one lateral, along which all reserves and reinforcements drawn from one part of the front to be thrown in at another had to be moved, was threatened daily and nightly by persistent air attacks on the bridge over the Canche river at Etaples.

The Germans knew the importance of destroying, and the British of protecting, this line of communications.

bridge-over-river-canche-at-etaples-damage-from-enemy-bombing-at-south-end-1918

Vera Brittain had returned to London when the Times published its report on the air raids in May. ‘It was clear from the guarded communiqué that this time the bombs had dropped on the hospitals themselves,’ she wrote, ‘causing many casualties and far more damage than the breaking of the bridge over the Canche in the first big raid.’  Cushing also recorded the enormity of the raid:

Étaples has had a bad hit – much worse than we had supposed… For two hours the raiders kept it up, returning again and again like moths around a flame.

But he knew Étaples of old and reckoned the objective was the same as before: not even the camps but the railway. ‘They were doubtless after the railroad and perhaps the bridge half a mile below.’

The official British history was similarly unequivocal:

During the night of the 19th/20th of May, at the time when the last of the German aeroplane raids was being made on London, fifteen bombers attacked the Etaples bridge. Only one bomb fell close and this did no damage: most of them exploded in neighbouring hospitals and camps with terrible effect… One of the German bombers was shot down, and the captured crew insisted that they did not know that hospitals were situated near the railway. They also expressed surprise, not without reason, that large hospitals should be placed close to air targets of first-rate military importance.

Certainly, the casualties were not confined to the hospital area:

casualties-from-etaples-bombing-1920-may-1918

Two Infantry Base Depots suffered direct hits; 53 per cent of military casualties were outside the hospital area.

In fact, behind the scenes the British military and the intelligence service accepted that the hospitals were probably not the intended targets of the raid on 19-20 May or the second raid on 31 May/1 June. Here is the aftermath of that second raid on one Canadian hospital:

no-9-canadian-stationary-hospital-etaples-31-may-1918-iwm

major-general_john_maitland_salmondAlthough Sir Douglas Haig firmly believed the hospitals were deliberately targeted in the second raid – he complained that ‘special measures’ had been taken after the air raid on the night of 19-20 May, with ‘Red Crosses repainted so that there could be no possible doubt as to the hospital area’ [see the image below] – Major-General John Salmond [right], who commanded the newly designated Royal Air Force in France, ‘considered it extremely improbable that Red or White Crosses would be distinctly visible at the height from which hostile pilots drop their bombs, usually 5,000 feet or over.’

etaples-hospital-after-bombing-may-1918-iwm

The same (classified) report dated 29 June 1918 conceded that no definitive conclusion could be reached, but its author, the Director of Military Operations at the War Office Sir Percy Radcliffe, was none the less adamant that

We have no right to have hospitals mixed up with reinforcement camps, and close to railways and important bombing objectives, and until we remove the hospitals from vicinity of these objectives and place them in a region where there are no important objectives. I do not think we can reasonably accuse the Germans.

Indeed, Vera Brittain had prefaced her account of the May raids with a revealing rider.  ‘The persistent German raiders,’ she wrote, ‘had at last succeeded in their intention of smashing up the Étaples hospitals’ which ‘had so satisfactorily protected the railway line for three years without further trouble or expense to the military authorities‘ (my emphasis).  Now she was scarcely a spokeswoman for the British military, but her remark gestures towards the possibility of a remarkably cynical extension of the medical exemption to cover military objectives.

A hundred years later these same arguments about intentionality, accuracy, co-location and the protection (or otherwise) of a Red Cross would reappear in different guises.  But they would also be joined by others that revealed an aggressive refusal to accept the principle of medical neutrality at all.

To be continued

The nuclear wastelands and cyberwar

I’m in Toronto, enjoying ‘Through Post-Atomic Eyes‘ enormously: wide-ranging yet focused, creative and critical, and above all wonderfully welcoming.  I’m also relieved – I’ve only been wandering in the nuclear wastelands for a matter of months, and being surrounded by scholars and artists who know so much more about these vexed issues has been truly invigorating.  I’ll post the slides from my presentation shortly – in the meantime, see here and here – but while I was searching for images I re-discovered this cover from The Economist:

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Since my own presentation tried to sort out the entangled geographies of nuclear weapons and drones, I would be the very last person to object to the continuity conjured up by The Economist‘s apocalyptic vision: in fact yesterday both Joseph Masco and James Bridle in two sparkling presentations emphasised the intimacy of  the connections between computing, nuclear testing and the security state.

So it seems appropriate that my  e-flânerie should also have led me to a special issue of CyberOrient, edited by Helga Tawil-Souri, is appropriately online now (and open access), devoted to cyberwarfare:

This special issue of CyberOrient engages with the relationships between “cyber” and “real” battlespaces, the mediatization of war, the need to expand our definition of warzones, and the importance of asking who participates in wars, to what ends, using what kinds of technologies, and for what purposes. Taken together, the five essays demonstrate the expansion and blurring of the spaces of war. As importantly, they highlight that even warfare that is “only” fought in the virtual realm is laced with violent intents and real-life repercussions. Not only can we not separate the cyber from the real so neatly, but we must not overlook that no matter how we wish to classify “new” or cyber wars, it is citizens, along with their ways of life and their cultural records, that continue to be by far the largest losers.

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Contents:

Helga Tawil-Souri, Problematizing Cyberwarfare

Donatella Della Ratta, Violence and visibility in contemporary Syria: an ethnography of the “expanded places

Ruth Tsuria, Islamophobia in online Arab media

Emily Fekete, The shifting nature of cyberwarfare in Middle Eastern states

Attila Kovacs, Visual representation, propaganda and cyberspace: the case of the Palestinian Islamist movements

Christoph Günter, Presenting the glossy look of warfare in cyberspace – the Islamic State’s magazine Dabiq