London last week, Warsaw at the weekend and now Ostrava this week… More on the last two soon, but while I was in London I gave a new version of “Gabriel’s Map” to Geography and War Studies at King’s College London. A large and lively crowd, and I learned much from it all: many thanks to Nick Clifford and Richard Schofield for the invitation and the excellent hospitality.
Amongst other things, I had the opportunity to explain the continuities I see between the argument I’ve developed around the First World War and my research on the war in Afghanistan. Many protagonists have come to represent contemporary war (‘later modern war’) as the hypostatisation of the ‘optical war’ I described on the Western Front, involving a reliance on visual imagery at every level (from the full-motion video feeds provided by remote platforms to the digital displays in command centres down to hand-held devices) and the virtual (sic) erasure of the body: you can see this in arguments as diverse as those proposed by Christopher Coker and James Der Derian. Der Derian is rightly suspicious of all this, of course, and I tried to show in “Gabriel’s Map” that on the Western Front there co-existed a radically different apprehension of the battlefield – a haptic geography that relied on a bodily habitus and on sound and touch. This is no less true of ground troops in Afghanistan today; it takes different forms, to be sure, but it’s clear from military blogs and memoirs that for most of those beyond the Forward Operating Bases war is as intimate, as corporeal and as visceral as it ever was. I’m working my way through a series of memoirs and other materials now and, for all its problems (on which Nick Turse is exactly right), Sebastian Junger‘s War/Restrepo duo (the latter produced with Tim Hetherington) speaks directly to this question.
This has the liveliest of political and ethical implications, but I’ve had other reasons not to leave the trenches behind… Jasper Humphreys at KCL’s Marjan Centre has proposed an extremely interesting project as part of next year’s commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War, drawing on the riches of KCL’s Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives. The working title is the same – “Gabriel’s Map” – and the aim is to provide a different narrative of the war that develops the themes I sketched in the presentation, using video and social media to capture the attention of young people (and, I hope, the not-so-young…!). This is exciting stuff, and I’ll keep you posted.
The centenary is itself an interesting project. According to the Guardian, the British government anticipates “unprecedented public interest” and, for once, they may have got something right (as opposed to Right); Andrew Murrison, the minister responsible for the commemorations, has both acknowledged the lively debates that continue to swirl around the conflict and expressed the hope that a central motif will be how the war played out at the ‘intimate level’.