Cities under siege (II)

In this second post on Cities under siege I provide a back-story to the re-intensification of military and paramilitary violence against civilians in Syria I described here.  But it’s also a back-story to the stunning image above, ‘Deluge’ by Imranovi: people were evacuated to what eventually became nominally ‘de-escalation zones’ from besieged cities like Aleppo, but many more continued to flee Syria altogether – like Imranovi himself (more on Imranovi here and here).  It’s worth pausing over his artwork: every time we see video of those perilous boats crammed with desperate refugees we ought to reflect on the oceans of bloody rubble strewn across their land and the millions of other displaced people in their wake.

There is a close connection between internal displacement and cities under siege.  Here is the UN’s estimate of the displaced population in December 2016:

They are concentrated in towns and cities.  Many people have managed to escape areas under siege, risking their lives to do so, but many others have sought refuge in towns and cities that have themselves come under siege.  Here, for example, is Siege Watch‘s description of Eastern Ghouta in mid-2016:

The capture of besieged towns on the south and eastern sides of Eastern Ghouta had a negative impact on conditions throughout the entire besieged region. IDPs from the frontline areas fled into host communities that have also been subjected to the same long-term siege and lack the infrastructure and resources to support the newly displaced families. There is now a higher concentration of people living in temporary shelters or sleeping on the streets.

The UN defines a besieged area as ‘an area surrounded by armed actors with the sustained effect that humanitarian assistance cannot regularly enter, and civilians, the sick and wounded cannot regularly exit the area.’  

But the definition  and its application turn out to be as problematic as perhaps you would expect.  Here is Annie Sparrow:

Estimates of the number of Syrians currently living under siege vary widely, according to who is doing the reporting. For example, last December [2015], the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Damascus communicated back to the UN secretary-general’s office that 393,700 civilians were besieged. For the same period, Siege Watch estimated that the real figure was more than one million…

From its base at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, OCHA decided that an area is merely “hard to reach” rather than besieged if it has received an aid convoy in the last three months, regardless of whether the supplies are sufficient for one month, let alone three.

One doesn’t need to travel far from Damascus to see how little a distinction there often is between a “hard to reach” and a “besieged” area.

I’ll return to that last, vital point, but here are two of those OCHA maps.  The first shows the situation in January 2016 and the second in April 2017:

Even those attenuated maps are alarming enough, but the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) also believes that the OCHA reports systematically under-report the magnitude of the crisis, and in Slow Death: Life and Dearth in Syrian communities under siege (March 2015) they provided a more sensitive three-tier classification.

These are, of course, heterogeneous communities – none of the reports I have cited (nor those I will draw on later) conceals the presence of armed groups of various stripes within them, often jostling for control – but siege warfare renders them as homogeneous.  The presence of civilians, for the most part desperately struggling to survive in the midst of chaos and conflict, is erased; this begins as a discursive strategy but rapidly becomes a visceral reality.  In short, siege warfare becomes a version of enemy-centric counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, the Syrian government less invested in ‘performing the state’ through the provision of services than in denying services to the entire population in these areas.  By these means the Assad regime has pursued a strategy that mimics the Islamic State’s determination to ‘extinguish the grey zone‘:

Like Annie, I have been impressed by the work of Siege Watch and so I’ll start with their regular reports that have provided a series of powerful insights into the effects of sieges on everyday life.  In their first report they identified characteristics shared by all communities besieged by the Syrian government.  When that report was compiled almost 50 communities were besieged; only two of them were under siege by forces other than the Syrian government and a third was besieged on one side by the Syrian government and on the other by Islamic State.

There are three characteristics that I want to emphasise:

Deprivation:

  • ‘Civilians in the besieged areas struggle to survive. Electricity and running water are usually cut off, and there is limited (if any) access to food, fuel, and medical care. In many of these areas, civilians have died from malnutrition due to the severity with which the blockades are enforced. In all of these areas, civilians with diseases, chronic conditions, and injuries have died as a result of the lack of access to medical care. Other recorded causes of siege-related deaths include hypothermia due to the lack of heating oil in the winter, and poisoning after eating something toxic while scavenging for food. Poor sanitation conditions in the besieged areas have resulted in frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases.’

Extortion and economic development:

  • ‘The pre-war economies in all of the government-besieged areas have collapsed. They have been replaced with siege economies that depend on smuggling, bribery, and local production; and because they are nearly-closed economic systems they experience extreme price volatility. Unemployment levels in besieged areas are high, reaching 100% in some of the worst Tier 1 communities such as Jobar. The Syrian government profits off of the sieges by allowing a few pro-government traders to sell goods – sometimes expired – through the checkpoints at tremendously inflated prices and taking a cut of the profits. Sometimes civilians can pay extremely high bribes to government forces or smugglers to escape the besieged areas, although both methods entail tremendous personal risk. These extortive practices have drained the areas under long-term siege of their financial resources.’

An improvised fuel stand in besieged Eastern Ghouta, February 2017

Violence:

  • ‘Most of these besieged areas are targeted with violent attacks by the Syrian armed forces and its allies. In addition to sniping and the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, there have also been confirmed uses of internationally banned weapons such as landmines, cluster munitions, and chemical weapons….  Most of the communities also contain AOGs [Armed Opposition Groups] which defend the the areas against incursion by pro-government forces, launch offensive attacks against the Syrian military and its allies, and coordinate with the Local Councils to varying degrees. Many Siege Watch survey respondents noted that AOGs were present only around the periphery of their communities, and a few respondents from towns in the interior of the Eastern Ghouta said that AOGs were not active in their areas at all.… [In addition] both Syrian government forces and extremists compete to recruit recruit men and boys from besieged communities using threats, blackmail, fear, propaganda, and indoctrination.’  

Siege Watch notes how, in consequence, ordinary people have ‘adjusted’ to these new, bleak realities: ‘Creative survival tactics such as rooftop gardening [below: eastern Aleppo], burning plastic to extract oil derivatives, and the local production of some basic medical supplies have become more common over time, and people have begun to acclimatise to a more primitive lifestyle’ [see also here].

That sentence gestures towards a sharper point made by José Ciro Martinez and Brent Eng (‘Struggling to perform the state: the politics of bread in the Syrian civil war’, International political sociology 11 (2) (2017) 130-47):

‘Most accounts [of the war in Syria] choose to privilege bellicose affairs over the humdrum concerns of daily life, which are deemed humanitarian issues separate from the violent battles and geopolitical struggles said to comprise the “actual” politics of war. This portrayal of conflict is illusory: it disregards the majority of interactions that shape both life and politics in contemporary war zones, where “most people most of the time are interacting in non-violent ways” (Tilly 2003, 12). One result of prevalent depictions of civil war is that civilians are frequently rendered powerless. If they do appear, it is as pawns in a conflict fought by armed groups autonomous from the societies they struggle to control.’

That’s an important qualification, but it plainly doesn’t erase the struggles of civilians either – which makes ‘acclimatisation’ a remarkably weak term to describe the multiple, extraordinary ways in which civilians have been forced to adjust to a new, terrifyingly abnormal ‘normal’ in order to survive.  Here, for example, is a doctor in Homs describing ‘Siege Medicine’ [more here]:The Center for Civilians in Conflict has also provided a report on civilian survival strategies that lists a series of other extraordinary, collective measures (and the title, Waiting for No One, says it all).  These strategies include the provision of makeshift early warning systems against incoming air attacks (spotter networks, radios and sirens); the provision and protection of medical infrastructure (in part through improvised field hospitals and the construction of underground hospitals); and the development of local aid and rescue teams (including the Syrian Civil Defence or White Helmets); protection from unexploded ordnance (‘the armed groups typically harvest them for their own makeshift weapons’ but the White Helmets and other groups have sought to render them harmless).

But Siege Watch – and José and Brent – have in mind something more: something in addition to strategies that are necessarily but none the less intimately related to direct, explosive and often catastrophic violence.  They also want to emphasise the ways in which otherwise ordinary, everyday activities have been compromised and ultimately transformed by siege warfare.

Here I focus on food (in)security.  Here is Annia Ciezadlo reporting from Yarmouk in Damascus:

In a dark kitchen, by the flickering light of a single safety candle, two men bundled in hats and jackets against the cold put on an impromptu video satire: live from Yarmouk, at the southernmost edge of Damascus, a cooking show for people under siege.

“This is the new dish in the camp of Yarmouk. It hasn’t even hit the market yet,” said the man on the right, 40-year-old Firas Naji, the blunt and humorous host.

He picked up a foot-long paddle of sobara, Arabic for prickly pear cactus. Holding it carefully by one end to avoid thorns, he displayed first one side and then the other for the camera.

“In the U.S., they get Kentucky [Fried Chicken], hot dogs. In Italy, spaghetti and pizza,” he said, his raspy voice caressing the names of unattainable foods. “Here in Yarmouk, we get sobara.

“It’s not enough we have checkpoints in the streets and shelling,” he added, laying the cactus back on the counter with a sad laugh. “Even our cooking has thorns.”

 

Yarmouk was established in 1957 as a refugee camp for Palestinians but gradually it had absorbed more and more Syrians displaced by drought, famine and eventually fighting.  As the war intensified, so the siege tightened:

The government checkpoints in and out of Yarmouk would close for four days, then five, then six. Soldiers would confiscate any amount of food over a kilo…. On July 21, 2013, the regime closed the main checkpoint into Yarmouk for good. The siege was total: Nobody could leave, and nothing could enter except what the soldiers permitted.

Over the next six months, the price of everything went up. A single radish reached $1.50 at one point; a kilo of rice was $100.

And so the inhabitants turned to gardening:

Between buildings, in abandoned lots and on rooftops, the siege gardeners of Yarmouk have been cultivating everything from eggplants to mulukhiyeh, a jute plant whose glossy leaves make a rich green stew. Come harvest time, they bag the produce into 1-kilo portions, hang the bags on the handlebars of beat-up bicycles and pedal around the camp distributing the food to their neighbors. They focus on those most in danger of starving: children, poor people and the elderly.

But the situation was much bleaker than the picture conjured up by that paragraph; the siege waxed and waned, and UNRWA was occasionally granted permission to deliver emergency relief, but the image below – of residents queuing for food supplies – shows how desperate the situation became.

Here is a woman in September 2014 describing the horrors of the siege to Jonathan Steele:

There was no anger or hysteria in her voice, just a calm recollection of facts. “You couldn’t buy bread. At the worst point a kilo of rice cost 12,000 Syrian pounds (£41), now it is 800 pounds (£2.75) compared to 100 Syrian pounds (34p) in central Damascus. It was 900 pounds (£3.10) for a kilo of tomatoes, compared to 100 here,” Reem recalled. “We had some stocks but when they gave out we used to eat wild plants. We picked and cooked them. In every family there was hepatitis because of a lack of sugar. The water was dirty. People had fevers. Your joints and bones felt stiff. My middle daughter had brucellosis and there was no medication,” she said. In October 2013, in a sign of how bad things had become, the imam of Yarmouk’s largest mosque issued a fatwa that permitted people to eat cats, dogs and donkeys.

Control of Yarmouk see-sawed between the Syrian Arab Army, Al-Nusrah and Islamic State, with thousands of civilians trapped behind the siege lines so that time and time again the community was thrown back on its own, desperately strained resources to survive.

Here is how Mamoon Yalabasi described a second satirical video from Yarmouk, made shortly after IS over-ran the camp, in April 2015:

“We are in the Yarmouk camp, the camp of plentifulness…  Take a look at the floor,” said the man as the camera shows water in the street. “This is not water. This is an excess of cooking [flooding the streets].”

The youth then moved on to mockingly give his viewers advice on how to lose weight.

“Would you like to lose weight? Green tea won’t work, nor will ginger … just come to Yarmouk camp for five months, in each month you’ll lose 9kg,” he said, adding the Arabic proverb: “Ask someone with experience instead of asking a doctor.”  …  “We ask the troublesome channels that claim Yarmouk camp is under siege to stop reporting that. It is ‘absolutely’ [said in English] not true,” one said.  “It’s true that my grandmother died of hunger but not because the camp was under siege but because my grandfather was so stingy – he never allowed her near the fridge,” he added.

Perhaps you think all this extreme, even exceptional, comforted by those images of rooftop gardens, and believe that those who bravely tended them could somehow perform their own green revolution.  So here are Zeinat Akhras and her brother describing how they survived during the siege of Homs:

The examples can be multiplied many times over, but in a way this last testimony is exceptional – amongst those on which I’m drawing, at any rate – because it only became available once the siege had been lifted.  Those videos from Yarmouk point towards something different: the possibility of breaching siege lines through digital media.

So let me turn to Madaya, a town in the Qalamoun Mountains 45 km north-west of Damascus and once famous for its fruits and vegetables.  It came under siege from the Syrian Arab Army and Hezbollah militias in July 2015: the town was encircled by 65 sniper-controlled checkpoints (below) and its surrounding countryside sown with thousands of landmines.

In January 2016 the UN still classified Madaya as a ‘hard-to-reach area’, so listen to one local resident describing conditions to Amnesty International that same month:

Every day I wake up and start searching for food. I lost a lot of weight, I look like a skeleton covered only in skin. Every day, I feel that I will faint and not wake up again… I have a wife and three children. We eat once every two days to make sure that whatever we buy doesn’t run out. On other days, we have water and salt and sometimes the leaves from trees. Sometimes organizations distribute food they have bought from suppliers, but they cannot cover the needs of all the people.

In Madaya, you see walking skeletons. The children are always crying. We have many people with chronic diseases. Some told me that they go every day to the checkpoints, asking to leave, but the government won’t allow them out. We have only one field hospital, just one room, but they don’t have any medical equipment or supplies.

I’ve described that field hospital before, but Mohammad‘s testimony reminds us that war produces not only catastrophic injuries; it also produces and intensifies chronic illnesses that a protracted siege eventually renders untreatable.  (The Syrian American Medical Society issued a report, Madaya: Starvation under Siege, which you can read here).

Two days later there were reports of a different digital satire: one that denied the existence of a siege in Madaya and mocked its victims.

A hashtag has swept Facebook and Twitter,  #متضامن_مع_حصار_مضايا , which translates to “in solidarity with the siege on Madaya”, where individuals have posted pictures of food or skeletons, mocking those in Madaya. While many believe that the siege is a myth, some appear to be genuinely mocking the suffering of innocent people…’

The posts were subsequently removed, but here is one I captured:

Fortunately a different digital economy was already at work.  Rym Momtaz, a producer with ABC News, had started a text exchange with a young mother of five children in Madaya:

We communicate through secure messaging apps over the phones, over the internet really. So the way we went about finding her was to go through a wide network of sources that we’ve cultivated over the years of covering the war in Syria. We had to work for a few weeks, I have to say, to identify the right person and then to get in touch with her and to gain her trust in order for her to feel comfortable enough to engage in this conversation with us because she felt and her family felt that it might put her in danger.

‘‘She would text me from the moment she woke up, which was very, very, early, like 5 a.m.,’ Rym explained, ‘and then she would text me truly throughout the day.’  And that same month – January 2016 – ABC started publishing those precious despatches from Madaya.  ‘They can’t get out of Madaya – and we can’t get in,’ ABC News’ Foreign Editor emphasised, but ‘they can tell their story to the world.’

Working with Marvel Comics, ABC transformed her story into a free digital comic: Madaya Mom.

For Dalibor Talajic, the Marvel Comics illustrator who worked on the project,

The most striking parts is for me the most intimate ones as she – for instance, she decides to even though they are – they’re all starving, she decides to stop eating herself because this little amounts of supplies and food that she has, she distributes it to her children and of course husband. And she herself just stopped eating. And it’s not like a dramatic decision. It’s, like, a logical thing to do. These are the moments that stick with me most.

And it is through the assault on the intimacies of everyday life – on something as vital as feeding one’s family – that siege warfare is at its most vicious.

In case you are wondering how the family managed to charge their phones, not at all incidentally, here is the answer:

After protracted negotiations aid convoys were allowed in from time to time, but the situation remained grave.  An aid worker who accompanied a UNICEF convoy into Madaya in September 2016 described the stories told by patients who flocked to a makeshift medical clinic:

Parents whose children had stopped eating because their bodies could no longer tolerate only rice and beans. Children who could no longer walk straight because of the lack of Vitamin D and micronutrients that had riddled their bones with rickets, or who had stopped growing entirely, stunted from lack of essential vitamins. One mother showed us her baby’s bottle filled with rice water – the teat so worn it had to be sewn back to together. “Look at what I am feeding my child” she said.

Almost everyone we spoke to asked for protein – meat, eggs, milk, vegetables – something more to sustain themselves than the dry goods that were available. One mother explained that every time her child now smells boiled burgal, she starts to cry.

The doctor reported an increase in miscarriages, 10 cases in the last 6 months, because of the nutritional status of mothers. Over the last year alone, he has had to perform over 60 caesarian sections. This number was unheard of before the crisis, she told us  But women no longer have the strength for childbirth, and many pregnancies go over term, again because of the poor health of pregnant women.

Six months later life in Madaya remained precarious in the extreme:

Throughout the siege there were accusations of profiteering, but these ran in both directions (it is partly through them that Hezbollah elected to acknowledge the suffering of the city – only to point the fingers of blame at the rebels inside).  According to Avi Asher-Schapiro for VICE News, who spoke to the local leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Abdulrahman, via Skype in January 2016:

Hezbollah media outlets are accusing Abudlrahman and his men of confiscating food in Madaya, holding the population hostage, and profiteering during the crisis. In early January, a video surfaced of a woman from Madaya condemning rebels for hoarding food among themselves. The rebels are “only traders in people’s blood,” she told a scrum of reporters who gathered at the barricades outside Madaya. “They only care about securing food supplies for their families.”

That video [above] was aired around the world by Reuters and Al Jazeera. The accusations enraged Abdulrahman. “When Madaya goes hungry, we go hungry,” he says. “These are vicious lies.” VICE News spoke with another woman who claimed to be at the barricades that day. Although it was impossible to verify her claims, she said that Hezbollah fighters — who can be seen in the video frame — told women to condemn the rebels and praise Assad in exchange for food and safe passage from the town.

In a press release from early January, Hezbollah also accused Abdulrahman of profiteering. “Armed groups in Madaya control food supplies within the town and sell to whoever can afford it,” the statement read, “Thus, starvation is widespread among poor civilians.” VICE News spoke to a Hezbollah commander stationed outside Madaya who repeated these claims, and said that Hezbollah has been sending food inside the town. The rebels, he said, are keeping it for themselves. He also strongly denied that Hezbollah was trading food for propaganda.

VICE News also spoke with aid workers at the Doctors Without Borders-affiliated field hospital in Madaya, who reported no interference from Abdulrahman’s men in the dispensation of aid.

For further, still more shocking twists on the story, see here and a response here.  It’s difficult to adjudicate these competing claims in the face of skilfully organised propaganda campaigns (in which the alt.left is often as grotesque as the alt.right), but wherever the truth lies, it is clear that food has been consistently transformed into a weapon of war (‘surrender or starve‘) – a crime expressly forbidden by international humanitarian law (see also here) – and that 40,000 civilians inside Madaya were trapped in the midst of the battle.

In my previous post on this subject, I described all this as the back-story to the carnage now taking place in Idlib, in eastern Ghouta and elsewhere, but it is of course only one back-story: there are many more.  Still, on 14 April 2017 under the ‘Four Towns Agreement’ a fleet of sixty buses transported several thousand people, rebels and civilians, from Madaya – to Idlib.

Only 2,200 out of 40,000 people signed up to go, and ‘Madaya Mom’ expressed the catch-22 facing the besieged population perfectly:

If we leave, we’re labeled terrorists and we go to Idlib where the chemical attack happened last week; and if we stay we don’t know how the government will treat us.

At first, those who left were relieved and even heartened.  Deutsche Welle spoke with one young evacuee from Madaya soon after he arrived in Idlib:

I was surprised. I saw markets [below, June 2017], people walking in the streets; there is electricity, internet, ice cream and food – things we did not have in Madaya. Madaya and Zabadani are destroyed. In Idlib, the destruction is not too bad. There are a lot of cars and I was really surprised to see cars. I felt like the little children that came from Madaya to Idlib: they were surprised when they saw a banana, a cherry, biscuits or chocolate. They have never seen that before. It sounds stupid, but I felt a little bit the same when I saw cars again.

I can eat everything. The first thing I ate was fried chicken and it was great. And I have had a lot of chocolate, too.

But as the interview progressed, his elation was punctured by a growing realisation of the  bleak future ahead:

But in general, Idlib is a poor city… I started to search for jobs, but there are almost no jobs here. Idlib is like a big prison. It’s like Gaza. It’s like Madaya, but a big Madaya. So we are imprisoned here.

We know what horrors lay in wait, and we know something of what is happening in Idlib now.  But what of Madaya?  Here are extracts from a report (‘community profile’) for September 2017 (you can find more from SIRF/REACH here):

  • Movement was unrestricted within Madaya. For movement in and out of the area, two access points have been used since the implementation of the Four Towns Agreement. In September, 26-50% of the population were reportedly able to use formal access points providing they showed identi cation. However, men reportedly did not feel safe using the access points, fearing conscription and detention when crossing, while both men and women reported verbal harassment.
  • Since May 2017, commercial vehicle access has been permitted to the area. However, access restrictions on vehicle entry continued to be reported in September and included documentation requirements, confiscation of loads, required fees and limited entry depending on the day or time.
  • Humanitarian vehicle entry has reportedly not been permitted for the past six months.
  • The cost of a standard food basket in Madaya has remained stable since May 2017, with the average cost around 12% more expensive than nearby communities not classi ed as besieged or hard-to-reach.
  • Water continued to be insufficient and some residents reportedly reallocated money intended for other things to purchase water. Meanwhile, access to generators remained stable at 4-8 hours a day in all areas of the community.

I’m conscious of how much I haven’t been able to address in this post.  In particular, I’ve chosen to focus on the ‘silent violence’ of hunger and malnutrition rather than the explosive violence of mortars, missiles and bombs.  The two coincide in all sorts of ways – think, for example, of the air strikes on bakeries, what Anna Ciezadlo called ‘the war on bread‘, and on hospitals and clinics – but the contrast is really my point.  As one resident of Aleppo told Amnesty,

You need months before you die of starvation. The air strike attacks were a different story. You could die from a piece of shrapnel in a fraction of a second. Nobody was protected from the air strikes and shelling. Civilians, rebels, buildings, cars, bridges, trees, gardens etc. were all a target.

And so one final digital satire.  In April 2016 the Syrian government held elections and claimed that even opposition-held areas were enthusiastically participating.  Responding to what they called ‘the theatrics of the Assad regime’, teenagers in Madaya posted a video of their own mock hustings:The rival candidates were “Deadly Starvation”, “Deadly Illness”, and “Airstrikes”.

Re-launch and Rescue

The much-missed Radical Philosophy has just re-launched as an open access journal with downloadable pdfs here.  The site also includes access to the journal’s wonderful archive.

Among the riches on offer, I’ve been particularly engaged by Martina Tazzioli‘s Crimes of solidarity. which picks up on one of the central themes in the last of the ‘old’ RP series.  It addresses what she calls ‘migration and containment through rescue’, the creeping criminalisation of the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean.  In a perceptive section on ‘Geographies of Ungrievability’ Martina writes:

The criminalisation of alliances and initiatives in support of migrants’ transit should not lead us to imagine a stark opposition between ‘good humanitarians’, on the one side, and bad military actors or national authorities, on the other. On the contrary, it is important to keep in mind the many entanglements between military and humanitarian measures, as well as the role played by military actors, such as the Navy, in performing tasks like rescuing migrants at sea that could fall under the category of what Cuttitta terms ‘military-humanitarianism’. Moreover, the Code of Conduct enforced by the Italian government actually strengthens the divide between ‘good’ NGOs and ‘treacherous’ humanitarian actors. Thus, far from building a cohesive front, the obligation to sign the Code of Conduct produced a split among those NGOs involved in search and rescue operations.

In the meantime, the figure of the refugee at sea has arguably faded away: sea rescue operations are in fact currently deployed with the twofold task of not letting migrants drown and of fighting smugglers, which de facto entails undermining the only effective channels of sea passage for migrants across the Mediterranean. From a military-humanitarian approach that, under Mare Nostrum, considered refugees at sea as shipwrecked lives, the unconditionality of rescue is now subjected to the aim of dismantling the migrants’ logistics of crossing. At the same time, the migrant drowning at sea is ultimately not seen any longer as a refugee, i.e. as a subject of rights who is seeking protection, but as a life to be rescued in the technical sense of being fished out of the sea. In other words, the migrant at sea is the subject who eventually needs to be rescued, but not thereby placed into safety by granting them protection and refuge in Europe. What happens ‘after landing’ is something not considered within the framework of a biopolitics of rescuing and of letting drown. Indeed, the latter is not only about saving (or not saving) migrants at sea, but also, in a more proactive way, about aiming at human targets. In manhunting, Gregoire Chamayou explains, ‘the combat zone tends to be reduced to the body of the enemy’. Yet who is the human target of migrant hunts in the Mediterranean? It is not only the migrant in distress at sea, who in fact is rescued and captured at the same time; rather, migrants and smugglers are both considered the ‘prey’ of contemporary military-humanitarianism.

As I’ve explained in a different context, I’m no longer persuaded by Grégoire’s argument about the reduction of the conflict zone (‘battlefield’) to the body, but the reduction of the migrant to a body adds a different dimension to that discussion.

In the case of the eastern Mediterranean, Martina describes an extraordinary (though also all too ordinary) ‘spatial rerouting of military-humanitarianism, in which migrants [fleeing Libya] are paradoxically rescued to Libya’:

Rather than vanishing from the Mediterranean scene, the politics of rescue, conceived in terms of not letting people die, has been reshaped as a technique of capture. At the same time, the geographic orientation of humanitarianism has been inverted: migrants are ‘saved’ and dropped in Libya. Despite the fact that various journalistic investigations and UN reports have shown that after being intercepted, rescued and taken back to Libya, migrants are kept in detention in abysmal conditions and are blackmailed by smugglers, the public discussion remains substantially polarised around the questions of deaths at sea. Should migrants be saved unconditionally? Or, should rescue be secondary to measures against smugglers and balanced against the risk of ‘migrant invasion’? A hierarchy of the spaces of death and confinement is in part determined by the criterion of geographical proximity, which contributes to the sidelining of mechanisms of exploitation and of a politics of letting die that takes place beyond the geopolitical borders of Europe. The biopolitical hold over migrants becomes apparent at sea: practices of solidarity are transformed into a relationship between rescuers and drowned.

There’s much more in this clear, compelling and incisive read.  A good companion is Forensic Architecture‘s stunning analysis of ‘Death by Rescue’ in The Left-to-Die Boat here and here (from which I’ve taken the image that heads this post).

A refugee state

I’ve been working on the (very) long-form version of “Death of the Clinic”, so apologies for the silence: it’s been – and continues to be – utterly absorbing.  But I have managed to get my head sufficiently far above the water to notice this vital new book: Dawn Chatty‘s Syria: the making and unmaking of a refugee state (from Hurst in the UK and Oxford University Press elsewhere), out next month:

The dispossession and forced migration of nearly 50 per cent of Syria’s population has produced the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. This new book places the current displacement within the context of the widespread migrations that have indelibly marked the region throughout the last 150 years. Syria itself has harbored millions from its neighboring lands, and Syrian society has been shaped by these diasporas. Dawn Chatty explores how modern Syria came to be a refuge state, focusing first on the major forced migrations into Syria of Circassians, Armenians, Kurds, Palestinians, and Iraqis. Drawing heavily on individual narratives and stories of integration, adaptation, and compromise, she shows that a local cosmopolitanism came to be seen as intrinsic to Syrian society. She examines the current outflow of people from Syria to neighboring states as individuals and families seek survival with dignity, arguing that though the future remains uncertain, the resilience and strength of Syrian society both displaced internally within Syria and externally across borders bodes well for successful return and reintegration. If there is any hope to be found in the Syrian civil war, it is in this history.

Contents:

Chapter One: Greater Syria at the end of the Ottoman Empire
Chapter Two: The Circassians and other Caucasian forced migrants reimagining a homeland
Chapter Three: The Armenians and other Christians seek protection and refuge
Chapter Four: The Kurds seeking freedom of religious expression
Chapter Five: Palestinians return to their ‘motherland’
Chapter Six: Sha’laan: a modern cosmopolitan quarter in Damascus
Chapter Seven: Iraqis and second wave Assyrians as temporary guests
Chapter Eight: The unmaking of a State, as Syrians flee the country

Here is Raymond Hinnebusch on the book:

Passionate and erudite, combining the intimacy of the anthropological eye with a broad historical sweep, Dawn Chatty tells the two-century story of Syria as a place of refuge. Beginning with Sultan Abdul Hamid’s creation of the muhajireen quarter of Damascus as a refuge for Muslims from Crete, Chatty further exposes the often-forgotten forced migrations of Muslims from the Balkans, Crimea, and the Caucasus; the story continues with the Armenians, Kurds, then the Palestinians and Iraqis. The last chapter recounts the tragedy of how Syrians have now become refugees from their own country.

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.

 

Periscope

Articles that have recently caught my eye through their intersections with various projects I’m working on (so forgive what may otherwise seem an idiosyncratic selection!):

Bogdan Costea and Kostas Amiridis, ‘Ernst Jünger, total mobilization and the work of war’, Organization 24 (4) (2017) 475-490 – I keep encountering Jünger’s work, first when I was writing ‘The natures of war‘ (he served on the Western Front in the First World War: see his remarkable Storm of Steel, still available as a Penguin Classic in a greatly improved translation) and much more recently while preparing a new lecture on occupied Paris in the Second World War (he was stationed there for four years and confided a series of revealing and often critical observations to his diaries).  But his reflections on the ‘destruction line’ of modern war are no less interesting.  For parallel reflections, see:

Leo McCann, ‘Killing is our business and business is good”: The evolution of war managerialism from body counts to counterinsurgency’, Organization 24 (4) (2017) 491-515 – I’ve written about what Freeman Dyson called ‘the bureaucratization of homicide‘ before, in relation to aerial violence, but this essay provides a wider angle.

Laura Pitkanen, Matt Farish, ‘Nuclear landscapes’, Progress in human geography [Online First: 31 August 2017] (‘Places such as New Mexico’s Trinity Site have become iconic, at least in the United States, and a study of nuclear landscapes must consider the cultural force of spectacular weapons tests and related origin stories. But critical scholars have also looked beyond and below the distractions of mushroom clouds, to additional and alternative landscapes that are obscured by secrecy and relative banality’).

I’m still haunted by the reading I did for ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies‘, much of it inspired by Matt’s work (see especially here on ‘Atomic soldiers and the nuclear battlefield’); this essay should be read in conjunction with:

Becky Alexis-Martin and Thom Davis, ‘Towards nuclear geography: zones, bodies and communities’, Geography Compass [Online early: 5 September 2017] (‘We explore the diverse modes of interaction that occur between bodies and nuclear technology and point towards the scope for further research on nuclear geographies. We bring together different strands of this nascent discipline and, by doing so, highlight how nuclear technology interacts across a spectrum of geographic scales, communities, and bodies. Although nuclear geographies can be sensational and exceptionalising, such as the experiences of nuclear accident survivors and the creation of “exclusion zones,” they can also be mundane, everyday and largely unrecognised, such as the production of nuclear energy and the life-giving nature of radioactive medicine.’)

Simon Philpott, ‘Performing Mass Murder: constructing the perpetrator in documentary film’, International Political Sociology 11 (3) (2017) 257–272 – an insightful critique of Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing (see my posts here and here).

José Ciro Martinez and Brett Eng, ‘Struggling to perform the state: the politics of bread in the Syrian civil war’, International Political Sociology 11 (20 (2017) 130-147 – a wonderfully suggestive analysis that has the liveliest of implications for my own work on attacks on hospitals and health-care workers in Syria (notably: ‘The provision of bread to regime-controlled areas has gone hand in hand with targeted efforts to deprive rebel groups of the essential foodstuff and, by extension, their ability to perform the state. Since 2012, the regime has bombed nascent opposition-administered attempts to provide vital public services and subsistence goods, thereby presenting itself as the only viable source of such necessities.’)  But it also has far wider implications for debates about ‘performing the state’ and much else.  And in a similar vein:

Jeannie Sowers, Erika Weinthal and Neda Zawahiri, ‘Targeting environmental infrastructures, international law and civilians in the new Middle Eastern wars’, Security Dialogue 2017 [Online early] (”We focus on better understanding the conflict destruction of water, sanitation, waste, and energy infrastructures, which we term environmental infrastructures, by drawing on an author-compiled database of the post-2011 wars in the Middle East and North Africa… Comparatively analyzing the conflict zones of Libya, Syria, and Yemen, we show that targeting environmental infrastructure is an increasingly prevalent form of war-making in the MENA, with long-term implications for rebuilding states, sustaining livelihoods, and resolving conflicts.’)

Will Todman, ‘Isolating Dissent, Punishing the Masses: Siege Warfare as Counter-Insurgency,’ Syria Studies 9 (1) (2017) 1-32 – Syria Studies is an open-acess journal from the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews.

Sarah El-Kazaz and Kevin Mazur, ‘The unexceptional Middle Eastern City’, City & Society 29 (1) (2017) 148-161 – a really useful introduction to a themed section, much on my mind as this term I’ll be doing my best to jolt my students out of lazy caricatures of ‘the Islamic city’ (‘The study of Middle Eastern cities has been constrained in its analytical and methodological focus by a genealogy shaped by a triad of regional exceptions–Islam, oil, and authoritarianism–and … this special section move[s] beyond those constraints in important ways. Focusing on geographical places and time periods that have remained peripheral to the study of Middle Eastern cities, the three articles ethnographically historicize the planned and unplanned processes through which cities in the region transform to transcend a genealogy of exceptionalism and the constraints it has created. They highlight the global and local connections that shape these processes to offer new perspectives on the study of scale, verticality and sensoriums in the shaping of urban transformation around the globe.’)

Rasul Baksh Rais, ‘Geopolitics on the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderland’, Geopolitics [online early: 11 August 2017] – a helpful historical review particularly for anyone interested in the exceptional construction of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas by both Washington and Islamabad.

Katharine Hall Kindervater, ‘Drone strikes, ephemeral sovereignty and changing conceptions of territory’, Territory, politics, governance (2017) 207-21 – Kate engages with her characteristic breadth of vision with some of the problems that preoccupied me in ‘Dirty dancing’ and urges a topological engagement with territory (DOWNLOADS tab) (‘This article examines the US legal frameworks for drone-targeting operations, and in particular the conceptions of territory they draw upon, to argue that contemporary strikes reflect less a disappearance of the importance of territory and sovereignty to justifications of the use of force than a reconfiguration of their meanings. Grounded in an understanding of territory that is more networked and dynamic, drone strikes reflect the emergence of a new landscape of mobile and ephemeral sovereignty.’)

Georgina Ramsay, ‘Incommensurable futures and displaced lives: sovereignty as control over time’, Public culture 29 (3) (2017) 515-38 (‘The recent mass displacement of refugees has been described internationally as a “crisis.” But crisis implies eventfulness: a distinct problem that can be solved. The urgency of solving this problem of displacement has seen the use of expansive techniques of sovereignty across Europe, the epicenter of the crisis. Focusing exclusively on the formation of sovereignty through the analytical locus of crisis continues, however, to reproduce the trope of the “refugee” as a category of exception. This essay considers the experiences of people who were resettled as refugees in Australia and whose displacement has ostensibly been resolved. Drawing attention to their continuing experiences of violence, it considers how the temporal framing of displacement is itself a way to conceal formations of sovereignty embedded in the very processes designed to resolve displacement. Doing so opens up new ways to think about control over time as a technique of sovereignty.’)

For an equally trenchant and invigorating critique of crisis-talk, see Joseph Masco‘s brilliant ‘The Crisis in Crisis’, Current Anthropology 58 Supplement 17 (2017) S65-S76, available on open access here. (‘In this essay I consider the current logics of crisis in American media cultures and politics. I argue that “crisis” has become a counterrevolutionary idiom in the twenty-first century, a means of stabilizing an existing condition rather than minimizing forms of violence across militarism, economy, and the environment. Assessing nuclear danger and climate danger, I critique and theorize the current standing of existential crisis as a mode of political mobilization and posit the contemporary terms for generating non-utopian but positive futurities.’)

Dima Saber and Paul Long, ‘”I will not leave, my freedom is more precious than my blood”: From affect to precarity – crowd-sourced citizen archives as memories of the Syrian war’, Archives and Records 38 (1) (2017) (‘Based on the authors’ mapping of citizen-generated footage from Daraa, the city where the Syria uprising started in March 2011, this article looks at the relation between crowd-sourced archives and processes of history making in times of war. It describes the ‘migrant journey’ of the Daraa archive, from its origins as an eyewitness documentation of the early days of the uprising, to its current status as a digital archive of the Syrian war. It also assesses the effects of digital technologies for rethinking the ways in which our societies bear witness and remember. By so doing, this article attempts to address the pitfalls attending the representation and narrativisation of an ongoing conflict, especially in the light of rising concerns on the precariousness and disappearance of the digital archives. Finally, by engaging with scholarship from archival studies, this article attempts to address the intellectual rift between humanities and archival studies scholars, and is conceived as a call for more collaboration between the two disciplines for a more constructive research on archival representations of conflict.’)

Other Dunkirks

The web is awash with reviews and commentaries on Christopher Nolan‘s latest film, Dunkirk.  ‘A tour de force’, wrote Manhola Dargis in an extended review for the New York Times:

“Dunkirk” is a World War II movie, one told through soldiers, their lived and near-death experiences and their bodies under siege. Names are generally irrelevant here; on the beach — and in the sea and air — what counts are rank, unit, skill and the operation, although more important is survival, making it through another attack and somehow avoiding exploding bombs. Mr. Nolan’s emphasis on the visceral reality of Dunkirk leaves much unsaid; even in some opening explanatory text, the enemy isn’t identified as Nazi Germany. The soldiers, of course, know exactly who they are fighting and perhaps even why, but in the field the enemy is finally the unnamed stranger trying to kill them…

Mr. Nolan’s unyielding emphasis on the soldiers — and on war as it is experienced rather than on how it is strategized — blurs history even as it brings the present and its wars startlingly into view. “Dunkirk” is a tour de force of cinematic craft and technique, but one that is unambiguously in the service of a sober, sincere, profoundly moral story that closes the distance between yesterday’s fights and today’s. Mr. Nolan closes that distance cinematically with visual sweep and emotional intimacy, with images of warfare and huddled, frightened survivors that together with Hans Zimmer’s score reverberate through your body.

In the Guardian Peter Bradshaw also made much of the film’s visceral quality, rendered aurally as much as visually (and we surely know that the sound of war is crucial to its horror):

It also has Hans Zimmer’s best musical score: an eerie, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare, switching finally to quasi-Elgar variations for the deliverance itself. Zimmer creates a continuous pantonal lament, which imitates the dive bomber scream and queasy turning of the tides, and it works in counterpoint to the deafening artillery and machine-gun fire that pretty much took the fillings out of my teeth and sent them in a shrapnel fusillade all over the cinema auditorium.

In the Telegraph, hardly surprisingly, Robbie Collin lauds the ‘Britishness’ of the film and also (significantly) its presentness.  He writes about this as an aesthetic –

there’s also something rivetingly present-tense about it all: the period detail is meticulous but never fawned over, the landscapes as crisp as if you were standing on them, the prestige-cinema glow turned off at the socket

– but, as readers of the Telegraph will surely have realised, this is also a matter of politics.  In one of the most perceptive essays I’ve read on the film, Anthony King describes this sensibility as an ‘arrogant insularity’ (he intends it as a criticism, of course, but Telegraph readers probably differ).  For him, Nolan seeks to ‘revive Dunkirk as a national myth in the 21st century’:

The drama focuses on five sinkings: a hospital ship, two troop ships, a fishing boat, and a Spitfire are all immersed. In each case, British soldiers or airmen have only moments to escape before they are drowned. Each sinking re-enacts the British predicament at Dunkirk: the desperate race of British soldiers to get home before they are inundated.

In this way, home — and the race for it — becomes the central motif of the entire film. The noun, “home,” recurs in the dialogue articulated by all the major actors. Indeed, the irony that soldiers in Dunkirk can practically see home with its White Cliffs and, yet, cannot reach it, is pointedly commented upon on two separate occasions. Home is the only redemption from the alienating emptiness of the French coast. Moreover, in order for British soldiers to escape, home has to come to them. No one else can save them.

(This is precisely why what Anthony calls the ‘radiant harmonies’ of Elgar’s Nimrod dissolve the dissonance noted by Peter Bradshaw to preside over – to celebrate in something like the religious sense – the climax of the film).

What is lost, in consequence, is both context and also composition.  The first is intentional, and Nolan makes a good case for wanting to convey the sense in which soldiers experience war in shards, torn from any larger context.  ‘That’s why we don’t see the Germans in the film,’ he says, ‘and why it’s approached from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival rather than the politics of the event.’  As the historical adviser to the film, Joshua Levine (an historian whose work I’ve long admired) tells it:

[M]aking the threat faceless frees the event from its geopolitical ramifications –it becomes a timeless story of human survival. [Nolan] didn’t want to take a classic war film approach because in so many ways, the story of Dunkirk is not the story of a conventional battle. ‘It was death appearing from the sky,’ he says. ‘U-boats under the Channel that you can’t see. The enemy flying over and rising up through the waves to pick people off, to sink ships.’ The soldiers cannot understand their own predicament, and the audience experiences the same horror. This is why the action never leaves the beach. ‘If you’re continually showing the Germans as Germans and generals in rooms talking about strategy, you are lifting the veil.’ The audience would then be more informed than the soldiers. ‘Standing on a beach, trying to interpret what’s going on, “How do I get out of here? Should I stand in these lines? Should I go into the water?” That’s the experiential reality I want the audience to share.

But the second is, I think, unintentional.  I’ve written elsewhere about the myths of the First World War that continue to stalk the British political imaginary – see ‘All white on the Western Front?’ here – and several commentators have made the same point about Dunkirk.  Here is Sunny Singh in the Guardian:

What a surprise that Nigel Farage has endorsed the new fantasy-disguised-as-historical war film, Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s movie is an inadvertently timely, thinly veiled Brexiteer fantasy in which plucky Britons heroically retreat from the dangerous shores of Europe. Most importantly, it pushes the narrative that it was Britain as it exists today – and not the one with a global empire – that stood alone against the “European peril”.

To do so, it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.

But Nolan’s erasures are not limited to the British. The French army deployed at Dunkirk included soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies, and in substantial numbers. Some non-white faces are visible in one crowd scene, but that’s it. The film forgets the racialised pecking order that determined life and death for both British and French colonial troops at Dunkirk and after it.

And here is Yasmin Khan in the New York Times:

The Indian soldiers at Dunkirk were mainly Muslims from areas of British India that later became Pakistan. They were part of the Royal India Army Service Corps — transport companies that sailed from Bombay to Marseille. The men brought with them hundreds of mules, requested by the Allies in France because of the shortage of other means of transport. They played a significant role, ferrying equipment and supplies.

The Germans captured one Indian company and held the men as prisoners of war. Others were evacuated and made it to Britain….

The focus on Britain “standing alone” sometimes risks diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the globe. The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all, the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.

 Britain was always dependent on the colonies — in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caribbean — for men, materials and support, but never more so than in World War II. Some five million from the empire joined the military services. Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British Empire did…
The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone. It is a political tool in the hands of those who would separate British history from European history and who want to reinforce the myths that underpin Brexit.
Ironically, in Joshua Levine‘s Forgotten voices of Dunkirk those other voices are absent – forgotten – too.
There are several other commentaries that sharpen similar points – see, for example, Yasmin Khan again here [and more generally her The Raj at War: a people’s history of India’s Second World War],  Ishaan Taroor here and Robert Fisk here (for a clumsy attempt to blunt those points, see Franz Stefan-Gady here); also the contributions to We Were There Too – but I’ll end with these observations from John Broich:

In the film, we see at least one French soldier who might be African. In fact, soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere were key to delaying the German attack. Other African soldiers made it to England and helped form the nucleus of the Free French forces that soon took the fight to the Axis.

THE BRITISH ARMY IN FRANCE 1940 (F 2478) Members of a mule transport company of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps on parade, 10 February 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205204868

The latter has been much on my mind because for much of the summer I’ve been in the archives immersed in medical care and casualty evacuation in both those theatres.

But I’ll leave that for another post, because I want to close with a reminder that – given what I’ve been saying about the ‘present-ness’ of Dunkirk – there is at least one other version that should be brought into focus.  And for that you need to read Jacob Albert on ‘The Fire in Dunkirk‘ at Guernica.  Here he is describing young Kurdish refugees – about the same age, I suspect, as many of those soldiers on the beach in 1940 – stranded in a camp outside Dunkirk (it burned down after he left):

Sometimes, they went to English class, offered four times a day in a damp Red Cross tent. I taught there occasionally. Everyone took their shoes off when they entered, but kept their coats. The head teacher was an Englishman with stinking socks who asked his pupils several times each week, since they were always vanishing and new ones always arriving: “Where? Is? The? Statue? Of Liberty?”

Everyone loved that one, even though no one was heading for the United States, because the Statue of Liberty is like Coca-Cola: both universal symbols, one of immigrant striving, the other of friendship and global happiness.

“Amrika! Atlantic! New York! California!” they’d shout. The teacher would smile and ask: “What does the Statue of Liberty rep-re-sent?” And the young men would look at him with glazed eyes, because they truly could never understand this guy, never felt like they were learning any English, and the English teacher would hem and haw: “What does it mean? What does it sym-bo-lize?” until finally, someone who spoke a little English, someone who had a brother in Leeds, would explain to the others, in Kurdish, what the guy meant, and everyone would shout: “Amrika! Freedom! Money! Barack Obama!” and the English teacher with the stinking socks would nod somberly at each and every one of them, and say, “It represents a Warm Welcome. Which I know doesn’t feel like the case. So, to better times, guys. To better times.” And with that, the English teacher would clap his hands, and the bored young men would stream out into the wind or rain…

There was nothing for them to do but think of leaving. That’s how anyone endured anything: boredom, filth, cold, fear. You can endure anything if you’re on your way to somewhere else.

In this case, it was England, which I discovered wondrous new things about. I learned that the Brits had an incredible welfare system, the best in Europe. I learned that minimum wage there was higher than in France. I learned that once you received British asylum, you were given a free house. I was told that the UK was full of good jobs, that it was less racist than any other European nation. That none of this was true didn’t dampen anybody’s incredible enthusiasm for the place. …

There were convincing reasons, too, with some basis in reality, for this fevered dreaming of Britain, which I had a hard time squaring with what these hopeful Kurds were putting themselves through to get there. It is easier to live invisibly in Britain, on the margins of things, than in France. In Britain, you don’t have to carry around photo ID. In Britain, you can easily find work in a kitchen or on a construction crew, if you’re open to being paid a pittance.

But facts are one thing, and narratives, another. The city of Dunkirk itself looms large in British mythology because of this very split. Over the course of one miraculous week in 1940, the British Navy managed to evacuate 340,000 Allied troops trapped on its beaches as the Germans drew close. Yet a few days later, Churchill delivered his rousing speech on the British virtues of endurance and determination (“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds. . .”), and Dunkirk, the site of failure averted, was turned into one of national victory. It was Britain that now occupied such a place in the story of Kurdish exile.

You may think I’m making too much of this.  But when Joshua Levine asked him about ‘modern parallels’, Christopher Nolan explained that he saw his film as ‘a survival story’ and continued:

One of the great misfortunes of our time, one of the horrible, unfortunate things with the migrant crisis in Europe, is that we are dealing once more with the mechanics and the physics of extraordinary numbers of people trying to leave one country on boats and get to another country. It’s a horrible resonance but it’s very easy in our technologically advanced times to forget how much basic physics come into play. Reality is insurmountable. If you have a vast number of people in one place and they need to get someplace else and they can’t fly and they have to get on boats –to overcrowd the boats, with that human desire for survival . . . it’s unthinkably horrible to see it on our front pages in this modern day and age. But it’s there. With that going on in the world today, I don’t think you can in any way dismiss the events of Dunkirk as being from another world or another era.

Buses and tanks on the street

At a wonderful conference earlier this year in Roskilde I heard a stunning presentation about cross-cultural encounters and everyday racism on board Bus 5A in Copenhagen:

‘With more than 65,000 passengers a day, bus 5A is the busiest route in Copenhagen and the Nordic countries. Day and night, the bus cuts through the streets and connects different parts of the city. Bus 5A is iconic and loved, but also hated among bus drivers who have named it ‘the suicidal’ route and in everyday language refer to it as ‘Slamsugeren’ (suction vehicle) because it transports all kinds of people and connects many different places in the city. The bus starts in the suburb (Husum) and connects the multicultural part of Copenhagen (Nørrebro) with the more gentri ed inner city and the outskirts of Copenhagen, ending at the airport.’

The paper, by Lasse Koefoed, Mathilde Dissing Christensen and Kirsten Simonsen – which has been published in Mobilities (and from where I’ve borrowed these quotations) – describes a series of tactics pursued by passengers (and drivers) on the bus; for example:

‘… the dominant picture of the bus more often involves what we could call ‘the little racism’. A Pakistani immigrant describes this to us with a strong use of body language. He looks askance and moves a bit away from an imagined person next to him, wrinkles up his nose and says,‘Ashh’, in this way performing distanciation. Another respondent confirms this impression by telling: ‘You can feel it on the Danes, in particular when it is crowded’. She has difficulties finding words but talks about discomfort and anger. She is aware that she cannot rule herself out from the feeling:

I can see that I actually do it a bit myself. When a group of young immigrants enters the bus, then I strengthen my hold on my backpack or my bag. (Charlotte, passenger)

She recognises that it must be an unpleasant experience for the young men and feels a bit guilty, but she ‘tries to do it a little discreet[ly]’. What is at stake here is a sensing of an affective space, the more passive side of emotional experience, where emotions such as fear, discomfort, anger and disgust are circulating in the intense atmosphere of the crowded bus. This affective space is also at work as a background when young boys, asked about visions for the future, develop a utopia of a bus without racism.’

It’s a stimulating and provocative read, and it’s been on my mind for months since.  But it’s given a startling immediacy today by the new that Amnesty International has plastered a tank on the side of a Copenhagen bus.  Adweek reports:

The wrap makes a city bus look like a tank prowling the streets. “This is everyday life in Aleppo,” says the headline on the side, referring to the Syrian city devastated by the country’s civil war….

The idea is to remind people that while the Islamic State has left Aleppo [that’s a sentence that requires a good deal of qualification: to attribute the horrors of the siege of Aleppo to IS is not so much shorthand as sleight of hand], the Syrian war continues. The ad is also designed to raise awareness of refugees’ right to security from war and persecution.

“Everyone has the right to safety—also refugees,” says Claus Juul, legal consultant for Amnesty International. “It can be difficult to imagine what it is like to be human in a city, where one daily fears for one’s own and loved ones lives. Therefore, we have brought the everyday life of Aleppo to Copenhagen’s summer cityscape, so we, Danes, have the opportunity to face Syria’s brutal conflict.”

You need to see the short animation here or here to get the effect.

Fortunately the route is the 26 not the 5A…