In an early phase of my work on later modern war I explored the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in US counterinsurgency and its invasive mapping of ‘human terrain’, and as part of the attempt to impel (and interpellate) US soldiers into what I called this ‘rush to the intimate’ I considered the role-playing simulations acted out in mock Iraqi villages and towns fabricated for pre-deployment training in the continental United States (see ‘The rush to the Intimate’: DOWNLOADS tab).

In the interim many more detailed studies have appeared, but one of the most imaginative and insightful can be found in Cultural Anthropology (32/1) (February 2017): Nomi Stone‘s Living the laughscream: human technology and effective maneuvers in the Iraq war (open access).

It focuses not on the US soldiers and their reactions but on the Iraqi role-players, many of whom served as US interpreters in Iraq, described by one US officer as ‘the apparatus’ or what Nomi reconceptualizes as ‘human technology’.  Their performances are carefully scripted, and yet:

Amid this artifice, role-players have been hired to enact Middle Eastern villagers authentically—not by their own measures, but rather within prescribed military terms. Role-players are asked to be exemplars of their cultures and those cultures must be synchronic, pruned of their excesses and any relationship to the outside: Iraqis, as it were, in a box. However … the Iraqis who worked for the American military first as interpreters and contractors in the 2003 Iraq War and subsequently as role-players are a somewhat unique subset of the population; indeed, they are often quite far removed from the U.S. military’s imagined characteristics of a prototypical Iraqi. Not only are many of them educated, they are also particularly versed in American culture and critical of Iraqi politics. They typically bear an ambivalent relationship to both countries as they negotiate past accusations, allegiances, and the prospect of assimilation. Many show little trust for outsiders and even less for each other, and because of their dangerous affiliations in wartime, they have learned to chameleon in most circumstances. As they are turned into stereotypes inside an archetypal village, and as they act out wartime precarity so often that their homes and their losses turn into even more estranging archetypes, they laugh.

The machine thus turns out to be made of flesh. Role-players inject new ways of being, in part through laughter, into their performances. Those interjections indicate the limits of a military fantasy that believes human beings can be wholly resourced and turned into technologies.

This is on my mind because this past term, in a series of lectures on performance and performativity – the differences between them and the dots that can join them – I returned to these role-playing exercises to flesh out (literally so) the ideas involved; above all, to emphasise how every performance is different even when the script is nominally the same, and so the contingency of the performative.

And ‘the laughscream’?

The [Iraqi role-player] knows or feels more than the military narrative of their experience can accommodate, exceeding the constricted functions prescribed for a hired cultural tool. Additionally, the laughscream acts as a refusal to be lived by the role and the role-players’ fraught wartime pasts. For those accused of betrayal and marginalized by their compatriots, pursued by Iraqi militias and not always trusted by the U.S. soldiers whom they worked for, that past is painful. As one role-player explained, reflecting on the harshness many Iraqis had endured: “We are turned inside out. At the same time, we can laugh and cry.” Indeed, for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military, it is presently prohibitively dangerous to return to their former home, particularly amid the ascendance of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, due to their wartime choices, many now negotiate ongoing ambivalence and feel stranded between nations: although they were frequently ejected to the peripheries of their countries for working with the Americans, many strongly identify with Iraq and are ill at ease with full assimilation in America. As they continue to work for the U.S. military, some conceal that work from their families in Iraq, grappling with how they might be perceived. Amid these tensions, the laughscream functions in part as an actor, an agentive vector out.

Laughter rises to confirm that, for the role-players at least, the Iraq of the simulation is not the Iraq of their homeland. As fake guns sound, role-players repeat themselves, becoming increasingly estranged from the original object. Yet, through laughter, the archetypal and mechanical face of country and person give way to Iraqis who live impossibly hybrid and ambivalent lives in the United States to which they have aligned at such great cost. In the parodic redeployment of power as Judith Butler has conceived it, the mechanical performance of death becomes a complexly subversive act that momentarily insinuates life into the playing of a role.

But there is another reason for reading Nomi’s essay: it is so beautifully written.  If, like me, you often feel assailed by the sheer grimness of so much academic prose, provoked into your own laughscream, this is a wonderful demonstration that intellectual agility and analytical depth need not involve the death of style.

Not surprisingly, Nomi is an accomplished poet too: more at her website here.  You can also find an excellent interview about her movements in the borderlands between anthropology and artistic practice here:

My academic work and my poetry are inextricable and cross-pollinating. I was a poet first. My first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008) was based on my time in Djerba. I was deeply moved by Carolyn Forché’s call to comprehend the impress of the social on the poetic imagination; this led me to begin conducting ethnographic fieldwork and then to become an anthropologist.

By now, my anthropological engagement is essential to my poetry. As I explained in a poet’s statement some years ago, my philosophy of seeing is “deeply inflected by the anthropologist’s mandate to estrange the familiar and de-estrange the hitherto unknown.” Additionally, my work as an anthropologist sends me both toward moments of conceptual clarity and toward continuous re-complication: as the tidy military diagrams of culture remind us, the world is instead messy and tangled and contingent, as we each engage in the daily work of living and loving and getting by. I want my poems to demand that same complexity, and I only learned how to think it through the wonderful, arduous, and singular training that becoming an anthropologist demanded. What an astonishment to spend seven years shuttling back and forth between reading social theory about war, Empire, technology, migration, and laughter or political histories of America and Iraq and then witnessing the stagings of Empire itself, in its scatterings across the Middle East and the United States, as well as interviewing those whose lives had been demarcated and unmade by those very terms. These forms of seeing and knowing are to me humbling, and both my in-progress ethnographic manuscript and my forthcoming collection of poems, Kill Class, are the beneficiaries of that long academic journey.

Kill Class is due from Tupelo Press later this year; the collection is based on her ethnographic fieldwork across those US military training camps.  You can find her poem War Game, America’ here.

“What to do when the concepts and methods most essential to a field of scholarship are taken and deployed as instruments of war? American anthropology has struggled with this question since the Cold War era, when many fieldworkers were drawn into counterinsurgency campaigns around the globe. In this courageous and compassionate book, Kill Class, Nomi Stone offers a new way of grappling with this most difficult problem. Her stark and unflinching poems give a harrowing sense of cultural understanding made into a vehicle of state violence. At the same time, with tremendous delicacy and grace, they enter into the minds and lives of American soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts, revealing bewilderment where you would have thought to find certitudes, vulnerability where you would expect only hardness, small moments of wonder in the face of horror. The result is a truly arresting ethnography of American military culture, one that allows readers to circle at length through the cloverleaf interchanges where warfare nestles into the most mundane corners of everyday life, only to arrive at an exit where you would have expected least to find it: in an ethics of radical and transformative encounter, a way of coming undone in the company of others through the practice of sympathetic imagination.”  Anand Pandian, Johns Hopkins University

There’s also an earlier interview with her about her fieldwork (and her ideas about later modern war) over at the Wenner-Gren blog here: also well worth reading and savouring.

All this is much on my mind because over Christmas I read Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Sparsholt Affair and luxuriated in its mesmerising prose; as with other authors I admire this isn’t a purely formal (ahem) affair, though he is undoubtedly a master stylist.  Rather, you can roll the words around in your mouth, taste them and so find yourself ineluctably drawn into – rather than distracted from – the pulsing arc of the narrative: in an inversion of the metaphor with which I began, consumed by it.  So too The Swimming-Pool Library and Line of Beauty.  I get the same immersive pleasure from authors like Tom McCarthy (C is still one of my all-time favourite novels), Pat Barker (try Noonday) and Sarah Waters (oh, The Night Watch!).   This isn’t a matter of genre either; Peter May‘s Lewis trilogy is one of the finest works of crime fiction I know, along with almost anything by the ought-to-be legendary John Harvey (also a poet).

I’ve never forgotten a prescient admonition by Pierce Lewis in ‘Beyond description‘ (which appeared in the Annals of what was then the Association of American Geographers in 1985) – a lovely, lovely essay about passion and prose – in which he forestalled a possible objection: ‘we are not trained to be painters or poets, and while that is true, I do not think we should boast about it.’

For the record, I’ve written my share of God-awful prose, especially in the early stages of my career; the fault wasn’t only the dismal Harvard reference system (though it doesn’t help at all: too many names and dates crammed into brackets you have to hurdle over in a madcap race to retain the meaning of the sentence).  The colonial present was a cathartic release, in a way, because – after completing that awful opening chapter – I started to lose my academic voice.  I’m not desperate to get it back, and the two books I’m working on now will, I hope, show how far I’ve come.

But who, I wonder, are your favourite stylists?

Postscript: For my rant about the Harvard reference system, see ‘Gregory, D.’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  And there’s more on the corporeality and contextuality of (my) writing here.

Digital Militarisms


News from Lucy Suchman of a special issue of Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, and Technoscience on Digital Militarisms.  Here is a list of the articles plus abstracts; all are available for download here (open access).

Configuring the Other: Sensing War through Immersive Simulation – Lucy Suchman

This paper draws on archival materials to read two demonstrations of FlatWorld, an immersive military training simulation developed between 2001 and 2007 at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. The first demonstration is a video recording of a guided tour of the system, staged by its designers in 2005. The second is a documentary created by the US Public Broadcasting Service as part of their “embedded” media coverage of the system while it was installed at California’s Camp Pendleton in 2007. I critically attend to the imaginaries that are realized in the simulation’s figurations of places and (raced, gendered) bodies, as well as its storylines. This is part of a wider project of understanding how distinctions between the real and the virtual are effectively elided in technoscientific military discourses, in the interest of recognizing real/virtual entanglements while also reclaiming the differences that matter.


Military Utopias of Mind and Machine – Emily Cohen Ibañez

The central locus of my study is southern California, at the nexus of the Hollywood entertainment industry, the rapidly growing game design world, and military training medical R&D. My research focuses on the rise of military utopic visions of mind that involve the creation of virtual worlds and hyper-real simulations in military psychiatry. In this paper, I employ ethnography to examine a broader turn to the senses within military psychology and psychiatry that involve changes in the ways some are coming to understand war trauma, PTSD, and what is now being called “psychological resilience.” In the article, I critique assumptions that are made when what is being called “a sense of presence” and “immersion” are given privileged attention in military therapeutic contexts, diminishing the subjectivity of soldiers and reducing meaning to biometric readings on the surface of the body. I argue that the military’s recent preoccupation with that which can be described as “immersive” and possessing a sense of presence signals a concentrated effort aimed at what might be described as a colonization of the senses – a digital Manifest Destiny that envisions the mind as capital, a condition I am calling military utopias of mind and machine. Military utopias of mind and machine aspire to have all the warfare without the trauma by instrumentalizing the senses within a closed system. In the paper, I argue that such utopias of control and containment are fragile and volatile fantasies that suffer from the potential repudiation of their very aims. I turn to storytelling, listening, and conversations as avenues towards healing, allowing people to ascribe meaning to difficult life experiences, affirm social relationships, and escape containment within a closed language system.

Simulated War: Remediating Trauma Narratives in Military Psychotherapy – Marisa Renee Brandt

How have the politics of therapy been reconfigured during the so-called Global War on Terror? What role have the new virtual reality therapies that so resemble other forms of military simulation played in this reconfiguration? In this article, I draw upon feminist science and technology’s (STS) theorization of human-machine interaction into order to interrogate how contemporary therapies for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reconfigure agency in the practice of healing. Analyzing trauma therapy as a site of reconfiguration, I show how new exposure-based therapies for PTSD—both with and without virtual reality—configure aspects of human subjectivity, such as memory, affect, and behavior, as objects for technological intervention. Through comparative analysis of different modalities of PTSD treatment, I show that the politics of therapy is especially enacted through the therapeutic remediation of trauma narratives: the mediational practices through which a traumatic memory is made available for therapeutic reworking. Therapeutic remediation practices configure therapists, patients, and nonhuman actants as subjects and objects with different forms of agency.

Weaponizing Affect: A Film Phenomenology of 3D Military Training Simulations during the Iraq War – D. Andy Rice

This article critically considers the relation between simulation design and human experience through the analysis of three-dimensional military training simulation scenarios developed between 2003 and 2012 at the Fort Irwin National Training Center in the Mojave Desert of California. Following news reports of torture at Abu Ghraib, the US military began to implement “cultural awareness” training for all troops set to deploy to the Middle East. The military contracted with Hollywood special-effects studios to develop a series of counterinsurgency warfare immersive-training simulations, including hiring Iraqi-American and Afghan-American citizens to play villagers, mayors, and insurgents in scenarios. My primary question centers on the military technoscience of treating human bodies as variables in a reiterative simulation scenario. I analyze interviews with soldiers and actors, my own experiences videotaping training simulations at the fort, and the accounts of many other visiting journalists and filmmakers across time. From this, I contend that the stories participants tell about simulation experiences constitute one key outcome of the simulation itself, blunting dissent and aiding the fort’s long-term efforts to retain clout and funding in the face of wars whose intensity fluctuates. I treat the ongoing cinematic performances on the fort as a kind of “simulation body” unbounded by skin, a theoretical framework drawn from Vivian Sobchack’s (1992) film phenomenological concept of the “film body” and affect theory grounded in the work of Kara Keeling (2007), as well as Eve Sedgwick (2003), Sedgwick and Adam Frank (1995), and Lisa Cartwright (2008), by way of American behavioral psychoanalyst Silvan Tomkins (2008).


Tactical Tactility: Warfare, Gender, and Cultural Intelligence – Isra Ali

The participation of women in the landscape of warfare is increasingly visible; nowhere is this more evident than in the US military’s global endeavors. The US military’s reliance on cultural intelligence in its conceptualization of engagement strategies has resulted in the articulation of specific gendered roles in warfare. Women are thought to be particularly well suited to non-violent tactile engagements with civilians in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan because of gender segregation in public and private spaces. Women in the military have consequently been able to argue for recognition of their combat service by framing this work in the war zone as work only women can do. Women reporters have been able to develop profiles as media producers, commentators, and experts on foreign policy, women, and the military by producing intimate stories about the lives of civilians only they can access. The work soldiers and reporters do is located in the warzone, but in the realms of the domestic and social, in the periods between bursts of violent engagement. These women are deployed as mediators between civilian populations in Afghanistan and Iraq and occupying forces for different but related purposes. Soldiers do the auxiliary work of combat in these encounters, reporters produce knowledge that undergirds the military project. Their work in combat zones emphasizes the interpersonal and relational as forms of tactile engagement. In these roles, they are also often mediating between the “temporary” infrastructure of the war zone and occupation, and the “permanent” infrastructure of nation state, local government, and community. The work women do as soldiers and reporters operates effectively with the narrative of militarism as a means for liberating women, reinforcing the perception of the military as an institution that is increasingly progressive in its attitudes towards membership, and in its military strategies. When US military strategy focuses on cultural practice in Arab and Muslim societies, commanders operationalize women soldiers in the tactics of militarism, the liberation of Muslim women becomes central in news and governmental discourses alike, and the notion of “feminism” is drawn into the project of US militarism in Afghanistan and Iraq in complex ways that elucidate how gender, equality, and difference, can be deployed in service of warfare.

A Drone Manifesto: Re-forming the Partial Politics of Targeted KillingKatherine Fehr Chandler

Debates about today’s unmanned systems explain their operation using binary distinctions to delimit “us” and “them,” “here” and “there,” and “human” and “machine.” Yet the networked actions of drone aircraft persistently undo these oppositions. I show that unmanned systems are dissociative, not dualistic. I turn to Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) to reflect on how drones rework limits ranging from the scale of bodies to geopolitical territories, as well as the political challenges they entail. The analysis has two parts. The first considers how Cold War drones fit into cybernetic discourse. I examine the Firebee, a pilotless target built in the aftermath of World War II, and explore how the system acts as if it were guided by machine responses even though human control remains integral to its operation. The second part considers how contemporary discussions of drone aircraft, both for and against the systems, rely on this dissociative logic. Rather than critiquing unmanned aircraft as dehumanizing, I argue that responses to drones must address the interconnections they produce and call for a politics that puts together the dissociations on which unmanned systems rely.

Introduction to Attachments to War: Violence and the Production of Biomedical Knowledge in Twenty-first Century America – Jennifer Terry

This is an excerpt from Jennifer Terry’s book, Attachments to War: Violence and the Production of Biomedical Knowledge in Twenty-first Century America, forthcoming 2017.

Sim Cities and theatres of war

When I wrote “Rush to the intimate” (DOWNLOADS tab), a discussion of the ‘cultural turn’ in US counterinsurgency, I was fascinated by a rich and rapidly expanding literature on pre-deployment training and Mission Rehearsal Exercises in simulated “Afghanistans” and “Iraqs” across the United States and beyond in what Steve Graham later called, in Cities under siege, a ‘theme-park archipelago’:

fort-polk‘US troops prepare for deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq by rotating through major Combat Training Centers.  The arc of these ‘theatres of war’ runs from the United States through Europe to Jordan and Kuwait, but the main Mission Rehearsal Exercises are conducted at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fork Polk, Louisiana; the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California; and the US Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center at Twentynine Palms, California.  Each includes prefabricated villages and small towns to train troops in urban operations.  … There is little attempt at morphological similitude.  In fact, the same physical structures serve for Afghanistan and Iraq, as though the two are indistinguishable and interchangeable, and the buildings are rudimentary approximations.  One journalist described the crude architecture of ‘Wadi al Sahara’ at Twentynine Palms as being ‘like an impressionist painting’.  From the surrounding hills it could be mistaken for part of Basra or Fallujah, but ‘a walk through its dusty streets shows it to be only a vast collection of shipping containers.’ This too is not without its performative consequences.  Shipping containers are an improvement on poker chips and Lego bricks, but reducing living spaces to metal boxes and studio flats conveys a silent message about the sort of people who live in them.

Realistic Urban Training‘The focus at all the training centres is on interactive realism, and the cultural turn has transformed the terms of engagement.  In the early stages of the ‘war on terror’, the emphasis was on kinetic operations and on state-of-the-art special effects that drew on the visual and pyrotechnic skills of Hollywood and theme-park designers.  When one reporter visited Fort Polk in January 2003, she described troops calling in air strikes, securing roads and bridges on the perimeter of a town, and dealing with ambushes staged by insurgents played by soldiers from the base. Her story repeated the physical imagery of the Handbook for Joint Urban Operations issued the previous fall with precision: ‘From sewers to rooftops, cities are multi-layered, like three-dimensional chess boards.’  Civilians appeared only as casualties, and then only in the very last paragraph, where one soldier admitted that he had ‘no clear answer’: ‘“What can you do?”’ The cultural turn is supposed to provide the answer to that question, and from 2006 a flurry of media reports described a new emphasis on military-civilian interaction.  Exercises still include kinetic operations, though these are now more likely to focus on combating IEDs and suicide bombings, but the main objective is no longer scoring kills but ‘gaining the trust of the locals.’  The deployment of Civilian (sometimes called Cultural) Role Players has expanded dramatically.  More than 1,000 are on call at Fort Polk alone, including 250 Arabic speakers, many of them recruited from the Iraqi diaspora in Atlanta, Houston, Memphis and as far away as Michigan.  Their very presence has changed the imaginative geography.  One corporal noted that his previous training had never incorporated civilians ‘wondering what’s going on, and looking around, and doing everyday things.  So when we got there and there were other people besides the enemy, it kind of threw us on our heels.  You know, all we trained for was that the enemy are the only ones on the streets.’  But these Civilian Role Players are not extras, figures to be bypassed, and their roles are carefully scripted.  They play community leaders, police chiefs, clerics, shopkeepers, aid workers, and journalists, and new scenarios require troops to understand the meaning of cultural transactions and to conduct negotiations with local people.  Careful tallies are kept of promises made by US commanders, and the immediate consequences of civilian casualties are dramatized in depth.  Mock newscasts by teams representing CNN and al Jazeera remind troops that local actions can have far-reaching consequences.  Even the special effects have become more intimate; in one Gothic gesture, amputees are used to simulate the effects of suicide bombs (though not, I suspect, US air strikes).  ‘It is no longer close in and destroy the enemy,’ one Marine officer explained: ‘We have to build relationships with Iraqis in the street.’

At the time the richest reports were these (and the quotations above were taken from them): Dexter Filkins and John Burns, ‘Mock Iraqi villages in Mojave prepare troops for battle’, New York Times, 1 May 2006; Wells Tower, ‘Letter from Talatha: Under the God Gun’, Harper’s Magazine, January 2006; Vince Beiser, ‘Baghdad, USA’, Wired Magazine 14.06 (June 2006); Tony Perry, ‘“Mojave Viper” sessions reflect situations in Iraq’, Los Angeles Times, 24 July 2006; Guy Rez, ‘Simulated city preps Marines for reality of Iraq’, National Public Radio, 13 April 2007.

I now need to re-visit all of this for The everywhere war.  My good friend, the ever-enterprising Oliver Belcher, visited Muscatatuk Urban Training Center in Indiana in September 2010 as part of his PhD research, so I had some idea of what had changed in the interim (and what had not).

NTC Fort Irwin exercise

Now Geoff Manaugh (of BldgBlog fame) has provided a sumptuously illustrated account (also on his blog here and at Venue here) of his recent visit to the simulated Afghan town of Ertebat Shar at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert (above); when US troops were training for Iraq it was Medina Wasl, and the basic geometry was imported from satellite photographs of Baghdad.
‘… at the most basic level, soldiers will use Fort Irwin’s facsimile villages to practice clearing structures and navigating unmapped, roofed alleyways through cities without clear satellite communications links. However, at least in the training activities accessible to public visitors, the architecture is primarily a stage set for the theater of human relations: a backdrop for meeting and befriending locals (again, paid actors), controlling crowds (actors), rescuing casualties (Fort Irwin’s roster of eight amputees are its most highly paid actors, we learned, in recompense for being literally dragged around during simulated combat operations), and, ultimately, locating and eliminating the bad guys (the Blackhorse regiment [a 120-strong insurgent force drawn from the 11th Armored]).’

Other recent images and video-essays can be found here and here.

Two things in particular stand out for me from Geoff’s immensely interesting essay.

First, the site and at least some of its training exercises are now regularly open to the public – NTC ‘Box Tours’ run twice a month and can be booked no more than 30 days in advance: see here for details – so special dispensations are no longer needed.  As this implies, the sense of public scrutiny has evidently been dramatically heightened since 2007, though even then national media seemed to be all over the place, and this now extends to the incorporation of the visitors themselves.  Geoff reports:

‘In the series of set-piece training exercises that take place within the village, the action is coordinated from above by a ring of walkie-talkie connected scenographers, including an extensive internal media presence, who film all of the simulations for later replay in combat analysis. The sense of being on an elaborate, extremely detailed film set is here made explicit. In fact, visitors are openly encouraged to participate in this mediation of the events: We were repeatedly urged to take as many photographs as possible and to share the resulting images on Facebook, Twitter, and more.’

NTC Fort Irwin media

As I’ve argued before, this sense of reflexivity – attention to the conduct of conduct – is focal to later modern war (though it extends far beyond multiple media platforms and includes, crucially, the lawyering-up of the kill-chain).

Second, the wounds of war have become ever more elaborately scripted.  Wells Tower‘s brilliant ‘Letter from Talatha’ (cited above) was very good on this, but now Geoff reproduces
‘an extraordinary collection of injury cards handed out to fallen soldiers and civilians. These detail the specific rules given for role-playing a suite of symptoms and behavior — a kind of design fiction of military injury.’

US ArmyTactical Combat Casualty CareScanning these cards raises a series of questions about other, more visceral geographies that lie behind the fiction: the (selective) geographies of care that extend from a war-zone back to hospitals in the United States. The US military has developed an elaborate system of recording and removing its own casualties (as part of what it usually calls ‘tactical combat casualty care‘).

Tactical telemedicineThe geography of this process is acutely physical. The delays imposed by time and space can kill, which is why the US military is currently exploring what it calls ‘tactical telemedicine’ (see the simulation report here; image on right).

The military casualty system is the product of a long historical geography: there’s a useful review of the US experience up to World War II by Bernard Rostker here, and I’m starting to wonder – with another good friend, Craig Jones – and as part of our joint interest in ‘geographies of the kill-chain’ how to explore the changing political and cultural geographies of injury and trauma that radiate from military violence.  There are vital comparative aspects to this, involving not only the (differential) treatment of combatants and civilians by different actors but also the different capacities of military and civilian medicine in war-zones and beyond.  All other dimensions of the theatre of war.

The Situation(ist) Room

Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho playing Le jeu de la guerre

Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho playing Le jeu de la guerre

DEBORD Game of warA footnote to my previous discussion of war and simulation. In the 1950s French Situationist Guy Debord devised his own version of Kriegspiel, Le jeu de la guerre, supposedly inspired by Clausewitz. It took decades for a version to become widely available; the English edition, Game of war (Atlas, 2007), was translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, who also translated Lefebvre’s La production de l’espace.  Debord claimed that ‘“With reservations, we may say that this game accurately portrays all the factors at work in real war.”  Not a mistake Clausewitz would have made…

Downloadable version here.  More from Nathan Heller at the wonderful bookforum here and from Alexander Galloway at cabinet here or culture machine here.

Debord’s project was, of course, about more than war in the conventional, limited sense, as the film below makes clear (‘the board is a psycho-geographic space’; ‘the rules of the game are a lecture in class warfare’): there is an interesting contrapuntal reading to be made with Foucault’s Society must be defended

War and simulation

Antoine Bousquet has an interesting post on War and simulation over at The Disorder of Things, based on a conference “Simulation, Exercise, Operations” at Oxford last summer. Antoine’s narrative locates the origins of military simulation in the Prussian Kriegspiel of the early nineteenth century but then argues that ‘it really comes of age with the Second World War, the early calculating machines that would become the all-purpose computer,  and the efforts to rationalise the conduct of military operations, notably in the areas of aerial bombing, military convoys, radar arrays, and so on – and which quite demonstrably yielded improved performances of those systems.’

von HILGERS War GamesThis is interesting stuff, and Patrick Crogan‘s Gameplay mode: war, simulation and technoculture (Minnesota, 2011) helps bring the story up to date; if you want to start it earlier, then Philipp von HilgersWar games: a history of war on paper (MIT, 2012; the original German title was Kriegsspiele) is the (brilliant) place to start.  But since I’m still floundering around in the trenches of the First World War, I want to draw attention to the gap in Antoine’s narrative (which reappears in von Hilgers too).

During the First World War the metricisation of the battlefield – the (in)calculability of the space of war – that I spoke about earlier also allowed for simulations of imminent operations (and there are dimensions of that metricisation, including sound ranging, that speak directly to the early attempts at what would later be called operations research too: Roy MacLeod writes of a ‘batttlefield laboratory’ on the Western Front).

So, for example, in Over the top, published in 1917, Arthur Empey describes how

‘Three weeks before the Big Push of July 1st [1916] — as the Battle of the Somme has been called — started, exact duplicates of the German trenches were dug about thirty kilo[metre]s behind our lines. The layout of the trenches were taken from aeroplane photographs submitted by the Royal Flying Corps. The trenches were correct to the foot; they showed dugouts, saps, barbed wire defences, and danger spots. Battalions that were to go over in the first waves were sent back for three days to study these trenches, engage in practice attacks, and have night maneuvers. Each man was required to make a map of the trenches and familiarise himself with the names and location of the parts his battalion was to attack…

‘These imitation trenches, or trench models, were well guarded from observation by numerous allied planes which constantly circled above them. No German aeroplane could approach within observing distance. A restricted area was maintained and no civilian was allowed within three miles, so we felt sure that we had a great surprise in store for Fritz.’

Note here the cascade from aerial photographs and maps to physical models and back to maps again – and remember, as Dick Chorley and Peter Haggett taught some us an age ago in Models in Geography, these are all models…

In Empey’s case, there was a sting in the tail:

 ‘When we took over the front line we received an awful shock. The Germans displayed signboards over the top of their trench showing the names that we had called their trenches. The signs read “Fair,” “Fact,” “Fate,” and “Fancy” and so on, according to the code names on our map. Then to rub it in, they hoisted some more signs which read, “When are you coming over?” or “Come on, we are ready, stupid English.”

Trench model

This isn’t quite what Antoine has in mind, I realise, but what today would be called ‘mission rehearsal exercises’ are surely simulations.  And in many cases, on the Western Front at least, they took the form of elaborate clay models (see above).  In Undertones of war (1928), Edmund Blunden described – with a rather different sting in the tail – how

‘… an enormous model of the German systems now considered due to Britain was open for inspection, whether from the ground or from step-ladders raised beside, and this was popular, though whether from its charm as a model or value as a military aid is uncertain.’

Here’s A.M. Burrage in War is War:

‘Our brilliant Staff has got every move in the game worked out twenty-four hours ahead. Our jumping-off place is already assigned to us, and we are to advance about five hundred yards, crossing a stream called the Paddebeeke. We are shown a clay model of the landscape, including the roads which are no longer there. We practise the method of attack every morning…’