Industrialised war

Bombs falling on Montmedy and marshalling yards

As I work on the text of “Reach from the Sky”, I’ve been revisiting the role of Edward Steichen in the development (in fact, the industrialisation) of air photography on the Western Front.  As I noted, all too briefly, in ‘Gabriel’s map’ (DOWNLOADS tab), Steichen commanded the photographic division of the American Expeditionary Forces. He organised the 55 officers and 1,111 men under his command into what Paul Virilio described as ‘a factory-style output of war information’ that ‘fitted perfectly with the statistical tendencies of this first great military-industrial conflict’.

Steichen 5th Photographic section at work on Western Front

The classic source on Steichen’s assembly-line methods of reproduction (and much more) is Allen Sekula‘s essay, ‘The instrumental image: Steichen at war’, in Artforum 14 (1975) 26-35 [see also the image above]:

The establishment of this method of production grew out of demands for resolution, volume, and immediacy. No method of reproduction but direct printing from the original negative would hold the detail necessary for reconnaissance purposes. Large numbers of prints from a single negative had to be made for distribution throughout the hierarchy of command. In addition, the information in prints dated very rapidly. Under these circumstances, efficiency depended on a thorough-going division of labor and a virtually continuous speedup of the work process. Printers worked in unventilated, makeshift darkrooms; 20 workers might produce as many as 1,500 prints in an hour, working 16-hour shifts.

Analytically the essay has never been surpassed, but now there is a new book that fills in the biographical details of Steichen’s service during the First World War: Von Hardesty‘s Camera Aloft: Edward Steichen in the Great War (Cambridge, 2016):

Von Hardesty Camera AloftEdward Steichen (1879–1973) played a key role in the development of photography in the twentieth century. He is well known for his varied career as an artist, a celebrated photographer, and museum curator. However, Steichen is less known for his pivotal role in shaping America’s first experiments in aerial photography as a tool for intelligence gathering in what may be called his “lost years.” In Camera Aloft, Von Hardesty tells how Steichen volunteered in 1917 to serve in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). He rose rapidly in the ranks of the Air Service, emerging as Chief of Air Photography during the dramatic final offensives of the war. His photo sections were responsible for the rapid processing of aerial images gained through the daily and hazardous sorties over the front and in the enemy rear areas. What emerged in the eighteen months of his active service was a new template for modern aerial reconnaissance. The aerial camera, as with new weapons such as the machine gun, the tank, and the airplane, profoundly transformed modern warfare.

Here is the table of contents:

Foreword: taking the camera aloft
1. War and exile
2. A new life in the military
3. Over there
4. The world of air observation
5. Taking charge
6. Over the front
7. War and photography
Appendix: life at the cutting edge: the photo sections.

The book includes stunning reproductions of photographs (from which I’ve borrowed the annotated image of the Photographic Section above): you can see a selection from the book here.  Other Steichen aerial imagery from the period is here and here.

As you’ll be able to see when I’m finished, I’m no less interested in Steichen’s work during the Second World War, and in particular the various photographic projects he directed in the Pacific that captured – and celebrated – the masculinism and homosociality of modern war (here the work of Horace Bristol is especially revealing).

But right now it’s the industrialisation of aerial imagery that is capturing my attention.  It’s a commonplace that the First World War was industrial warfare on the grand scale, of course, but often our attention is distracted by the killing machines and mechanisms themselves – the gas, the tanks, the aircraft – and we lose sight of the assembly-line logic that animated the slaughter not only during but also before and after.

LOBLEY Reception of wounded at 1st CCS, Le Chateau October 1918

You can see it in Steichen’s production line, but there are countless other examples.  Last summer I was working in the Friends’ Library in London, recovering the role of the Quakers in providing medical care on the Western Front as part of my research on casualty evacuation, when I encountered this extraordinary passage that speaks directly to the relentless motion of the killing machine (see also my ‘Divisions of Life’ here).  It’s a medical orderly’s account of loading an ambulance train, written some time in 1915:

Down in a hedged field at the end of the straggling mining village lies the casualty clearing station, some two-score large tents… Since midday the [casualty] clearing station has been full to overflowing, but still an endless line of motor ambulances moves down along the crowded road from the fighting line, through the village and into the muddy field. It is night now, starless and dark as pitch, and a lashing rain is driven hard in your face before a bitter and rising wind; but still the cars are discharging their pitiful loads in dreary succession when the train is brought into the siding which serves this desolate little camp.

day2day-amb2

From the train itself you can scarcely see anything of the clearing station tonight; only the headlights of the cars as they turn in through the gate, and a few hurricane lamps flickering here and there. Near one end of the train, at the wooden footbridge which crosses the stream separating the camp from the railway track, there stands a powerful acetylene flare, casting a circle of vivid light on the deep mud of the path. Save for three or four feeble oil-lamps on the ground beside the long darkened train, this is the only light at the loading place. A few moments of uncertain waiting, and the first stretcher comes down, its weary bearers slithering and stumbling in the watery mire. As you watch the flare you see them emerge suddenly from the utter blackness beyond into the fierce glare of the light; they halt for a moment, while a cloaked officer standing on the bridge raises the waterproof sheet which protects the wounded man’s face from the beating rain; a name is given and noted; the covering is dropped over the head, and the bearers move on again, seeing to vanish as if by magic as they pass with their burden out of the light into the enveloping blackness. A pause, another stretcher enters the circle of light; the same words pass, the same motions, and it too move son, blotted out as suddenly as it appeared. Watching this time after time, you feel as if a picture were being cast on a screen and flashed off, over and over again: for there is something cruelly mechanical about it all.

(c) Rosenstiel's; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Overlooking Auschwitz

To mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, there has been widespread interest in a haunting video shot for the BBC using a commercial drone:

For once, the emptiness of the scene – just buildings, fences and railway tracks – is desperately affecting.   It’s surely impossible to watch this without thinking of the millions of people whose lives were so brutally effaced by the murderous regime of the Third Reich.  The only sign of a human presence in the video is a glimpse over the wall of trucks racing by: a reminder that Auschwitz was (and disconcertingly remains) at the centre of a small town (see also my post on Auschwitz here).

There are at least two other films that ought to be seen too.

Night Will Fall 2

The first is a documentary commissioned in 1945 by the Psychological Warfare Film Section of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force to document the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.  The producer was Sidney Bernstein, for Britain’s Ministry of Information; Alfred Hitchcock was drafted in as a ‘treatment adviser’.  The working title was German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey; it was never shown in its entirety (though Billy Wilder turned the footage into a short, Death Mills), and the Imperial War Museum notes:

From the start of the project, there were a number of problems including the practical difficulties of international co-operation and the realities of post-war shortages. These issues delayed the film long enough to be overtaken by other events including the completion of two other presentations of concentration camp footage to the German people and the evolution of occupation policy, where the authorities no longer considered a one-hour compilation of atrocity material appropriate. The last official action on the film was a screening of an incomplete rough-cut on 29 September 1945, after which the film was shelved, unfinished.

The footage has now been incorporated into a stunning HBO documentary, Night Will Fall, directed by André Singer, who was an Executive Producer for Act of Killing (see my posts here, here and here).

NIGHT-WILL-FALL-POSTER-2

There are all sorts of stories about why the full version was never shown – see the Guardian‘s report here – but the fullest discussions are Kay Gladstone‘s ‘Separate intentions’ in Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman (eds) Holocaust and the moving image (2005) (see also Haggith’s ‘Filming the liberation of Bergen-Belsen here) and her ‘Memory of the Camps: the rescue of an abandoned film’, in Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman (eds) Concentrationary cinema (2011).

The second film returns to the aerial view and to Auschwitz: Harun Farocki’s Images of the world and the Inscription of War.  Shockingly and sadly, Farocki died last summer at the age of 70, and Images is widely regarded as his masterpiece (see Thomas Voltzenlogel‘s wide-ranging and appreciative discussion of ‘Dialectics in images’ here).  The central motif is an image taken from a series of aerial photographs of Auschwitz shot by the Allies between April 1944 and January 1945 (see also here and here).

1389.3 Holocaust E

This image was taken on 4 April 1944 by Lt Charles Barry flying a Mosquito from 60 Photo Reconnaissance Squadron of the South African Air Force.  From the film’s commentary [available in Discourse 5(3) (1993) 78-92]:

American aircraft had taken off in Foggia, Italy, and flown towards targets in Silesia – factories for synthetic petrol and rubber – known as Buna.

On the flightover the IG Farben company factory still under construction, a pilot clicked his camera shutter and took photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

First picture of Auschwitz taken at 7,000 meters altitude.

The pictures taken in April 1944 in Silesia arrived for evaluation in Medmenham, England [the RAF’s Central Intelligence Unit concerned with air photograph interpretation].

The analysts discovered a power station, a carbide factory, a factory under construction for Buna and another for petrol hydrogenation.

They were not under orders to look for the Auschwitz camp, and thus they did not find it.

How close the one is to the other: the industry – the camp.

It was not until 1977 that two employees of the CIA [Dino Brugioni and Robert Poirer: see their detailed report here] went through the archives to find and evaluate the photographs of Auschwitz. It was not until thirty-three years later that the following words were inscribed:

Tower and Commandant’s house and

Registration Building and Headquarters and Administration and

Fence and execution wall and Block 11 and the word “Gas chamber” was inscribed.

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Kaja Silverman adds this gloss [‘What is a camera?’ Discourse 5 (30 (1993) 3-56]:

Not only does the camera here manifestly “apprehend” what the human eye cannot, but the latter seems strikingly handicapped by its historical and institutional placement, as if to suggest that military control attempts to extend beyond behavior, speech, dress,and bodily posture to the very sensory organs themselves. This sequence indicates, in other words,that military discipline and the logic of warfare function to hyperbolize the distance separating look from gaze and to subordinate the former completely to the latter.

These are similar issues that haunt my own discussions of the video feeds from Predators and Reapers over Afghanistan and Iraq.  In another commentary, Christa Blümingler writes:

The vanishing point of Images of The World is the conceptual image of the ‘blind spot’ of the evaluators of aerial footage of the IG Farben industrial plant taken by the Americans in 1944. Commentaries and notes on the photographs show that it was only decades later that the CIA noticed what the Allies hadn’t wanted to see [my emphasis]: that the Auschwitz concentration camp is depicted next to the industrial bombing target.

Bombing of AuschwitzThe claim that the ‘Allies didn’t want to see’ spirals through an important debate about whether the Allies could or should have bombed Auschwitz (see, in addition to the symposium on the right, here and here).  In fact, as Christa observes later,

In … 1944, the allies bombed not Auschwitz, but the IG Farben factory nearby the death camp. Drawing on analyses of these events, how and why the allies didn’t act on their knowledge of the mass destruction of the Jews, Farocki … decodes a host of military images, focusing on two visual dispositives: American pilots in 1944 and CIA agents in 1977 offering two different [readings] of the aerial photographs of Auschwitz.

In this instance, Farocki developed an epistemological field of technological history — measurement and surveillance in a period of rapid automatization. At the end of the film, a blind spot in the photographic act, referring back to the reality of the concentration camp, becomes visible.

The final shots further emphasize details of the American pilots’ aerial photos, which are picked up in the sweep of the film several times, framed and arranged in different ways. At the end of the film, through a permutative movement of cuts, the extreme enlargement of the photographs reminds us once again of their materiality. Farocki shows these images in precisely the spaces where visual thought takes place, and in connection to specific techniques of reproduction and distribution (in albums, archives, institutions). Whenever he used marginal and hard-to-access image materials from specialized archives, he sought to consider these conditions of visibility in his analysis.

Farocki2

What particularly interests me, and the reason I juxtapose these two films, is an interview with Chris Darke in 2003 in which Farocki artfully tracks between the eye-witness and the aerial shot:

Chris Darke: In Images of the World and the Inscription of War there is this repeated phrase: “Beside the real world there is a second world, a world of pure military fiction”. I was very strongly reminded of Colin Powell at the UN Security Council presenting degraded military surveillance images as proof and justification for military action.

HF: Yes, it reminded me so much of the Auschwitz sequences in Images of the World, the way they involved aerial reconnaissance images that you had to be a specialist to read. Who knows what they are telling you? Who knows what happened there? What is so interesting is that the personal witness of two people who had escaped from the camps was so important. It was the way that traditional history was always written. You need an eye-witness, a narrative, otherwise you’ll never believe in it. And it turns out that our imaginative minds are still very old-fashioned. We don’t understand modernist strategies such as those used by the Americans in the first Gulf War. You really want to see these terrible, dirty images of burning streets and wounded people in the same way that psychoanalysis knows that you need dirty thoughts for the imagination, just as for love you need dirty images. The audience is not prepared for this automatically recorded history that more or less happens already, where everything is recorded; so there has to be an old-fashioned drama made out of it.

There are at least two other detailed commentaries on the film that address the question of visuality in depth: Thomas Keenan‘s ‘Light weapons’, in Documents 1/2 (1992) 147-58 and Nora Alter‘s ‘The political im/perceptible in the essay film:  Farocki’s Images of the world and the inscription of war‘, in New German Critique 68 (1996). More generally, I also recommend the special issue of e-flux on Farocki’s work here, including a commentary by Trevor Paglen on Farocki’s ‘operative images’, and David Cox‘s brief commentary here.

Note:  Belinda Gomez writes (in relation to the commentary for Images of the World):

“Fence and execution wall and Block 11 and the word “Gas chamber” was inscribed….” But that’s not quite accurate. Brugioni and Poirier didn’t write that in 1977. The gas chamber didn’t have a sign. That they were able to locate the gas chamber and crematoria was due to their superior technology and they knew what they were looking for. The pilot/photographers in 1944 took photos of the factory and what was taken as a workers camp. To say that they didn’t see Auschwitz because they weren’t told to look for it is more of a hind-sight interpretation.

Eyes in the sky, boots on the ground

When I was working on my ‘War and peace’ essay (Trans Inst Br Geogr 35 (2010) 154–186; DOWNLOADS TAB) – which will appear, in radically revised and extended form, in The everywhere war – I included this map of US military bases outside the continental United States, based on David Vine‘s Island of shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (2009), which was in turn derived from the Pentagon’s 2007 Base Structure Report:

US military bases

Various other versions are available around the web, but now – inspired in part by Trevor Paglen‘s Blank Spots on the Map – a new project by Josh Begley (of Dronestream fame) has worked from the 2013 Base Structure Report to produce a new base map supplemented by aerial/satellite imagery of more than 640 US military bases around the world.

It’s still a minimalist accounting, but the lacunae are produced not only by the secret installations that are systematically excluded from the Pentagon’s public accounting of what it calls its ‘real property’  – if only there could be a listing of its surreal property too (which is where Trevor comes in) – but also by the database’s predisposition towards permanence (of sorts).  You’ll see what I mean if you zoom in on Afghanistan: the main Forward Operating Bases are there but none of the firebases and combat outposts scattered across the landscape.  Still, even in this appropriately skeletal form, it’s a vivid reminder of the boots firmly planted on other people’s ground.

BEGLEY How do you measure a military footprint?

Josh includes a sharp-eyed commentary on the differences between images of the same site on different commercial platforms, and concludes his opening essay, ‘How do you measure a military footprint?’ like this:

Taken as a whole, I’d like to think this collection can begin to approximate the archipelago of militarized space often understood as empire. But I’m hesitant to say that. It seems to me that empire involves more than pushpins on a map. It is made up of human activity — a network of situated practices that preclude constellational thinking and sculpt geographies in their own image.

I’m not sure aerial photography can get at that complexity. But perhaps an outline of this footprint– of runways and bases and banal-looking buildings — might begin to chip away at the bumper-sticker simplicity much political discourse about the military-industrial complex gets reduced to.

A friend recently sent me this passage from Ananya Roy [‘Praxis in the time of Empire’, Planning Theory 5 (1) (2006) 7-29] that I’ve come to like quite a bit:

“The time of empire is war and destruction, but it is also creation, beauty, and renewal. The apparatus of empire is the military, but it is also architecture, planning, and humanitarian aid. The mandate of empire is to annihilate, but it is also to preserve, rebuild, and protect. Empire rules through coercion and violence, but it also rules through consent and culture.”

HAFFNER The view from aboveTwo quick comments.  First, if you want more on what aerial photography can get at – and in particular its historical formation as an indispensable vector of modern war – try Terrence Finnegan‘s Shooting the Front: Allied aerial reconnaissance in the First World War (2011), which has already established itself as a classic, or if you prefer a more theoretically informed survey, Jeanne Heffner‘s  The view from above: the science of social space (2013), especially Chapter 3, ‘The opportunity of war’.  War doesn’t loom as large as you’d think in Denis Cosgrove and William Fox‘s Photography and flight (2010), but you’ll also find interesting ideas in Paul Virilio‘s perceptive War and cinema.  On satellite imagery, the most relevant essay for the background to this project is probably Chris Perkins and Martin Dodge, ‘Satellite imagery and the spectacle of secret spaces‘, Geoforum 40 (4) (2009) 546-60.  The different platforms that Josh discusses (Google Earth and Bing) derive much of their imagery from DigitalGlobe: for an update on its new super-high res WorldView-3 (and its restriction to the US military and security apparatus), see Neal Ungerleider, ‘Google Earth, foreign wars and the future of satellite imagery’ here.  Among her many important essays, Lisa Parks‘ ‘Zeroing in: overhead imagery, infrastructure ruins and datalands in Iraq and Afghanistan’ is an indispensable kick-start for thinking about satellite imagery and military violence, and you can find it in Jeremy Packer and Stephen Crofts Wiley (ed) Communication matters (2013) and in Nicholas Mirzoeff‘s Visual culture reader (3rd edition, 2013).  One of my favourite essays – and the one that got me started on the intimate connections between political technologies of vision and military violence an age ago – is Chad Harris‘s ‘The omniscient eye: satellite imagery, “battlespace awareness” and the structures of the imperial gaze’, open access at Surveillance and society 4 (1/2) (2006) here.

Second, it is indeed important to think through all the ways in which the US military/security presence reaches beyond these pinpricks on the map.  These are bases for more extensive military operations, obviously, but there is also the roving US presence in outer space, air and ocean – and cyberspace – that is necessarily absent from these static arrays.  In addition – and there must be many other add-ons –  the US is hardening its borders in a transnational space, confirming the argument made explicit in the 9/11 Commission report: ‘the American homeland is the planet’.  Deb Cowen‘s seminal essay on ‘A geography of logistics’ is indispensable here, and Todd Miller provides a recent vignette on what he calls Border Patrol International here.

Oh – one more thing.  Josh’s new project has been widely advertised – from Gizmodo through the Huffington Post to the Daily Mail (really) – but if you want to see whether you’re in step with other posters and the trolls, look at the comments sections.  Sobering.  Gizmodo is particularly revealing/depressing.