Meatspace?

In Lucy Suchman‘s marvellous essay on ‘Situational Awareness’ in remote operations she calls attention to what she calls bioconvergence:

A corollary to the configuration of “their” bodies as targets to be killed is the specific way in which “our” bodies are incorporated into war fighting assemblages as operating agents, at the same time that the locus of agency becomes increasingly ambiguous and diffuse. These are twin forms of contemporary bioconvergence, as all bodies are locked together within a wider apparatus characterized by troubling lacunae and unruly contingencies.

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In the wake of her work, there has been a cascade of essays insisting on the embodiment of air strikes carried out by Predators and Reapers – the bodies of the pilots, sensor operators and the legion of others who carry out these remote operations, and the bodies of their victims – and on what Lauren Wilcox calls the embodied and embodying nature of drone warfare (‘Embodying algorithmic war: Gender, race, and the posthuman in drone warfare’ in Security dialogue, 2016; see also Lorraine Bayard de Volo, ‘Unmanned? Gender recalibrations and the rise of drone warfare’, Politics and gender, 2015).  Lauren distinguishes between visual, algorithmic and affective modes of embodiment, and draws on the transcript of what has become a canonical air strike in Uruzgan province (Afghanistan) on 21 February 2010 to develop her claims (more on this in a moment).

And yet it’s a strange sort of embodying because within the targeting process these three registers also produce an estrangement and ultimately an effacement.  The corporeal is transformed into the calculative: a moving target, a data stream, an imminent threat.  If this is still a body at all, it’s radically different from ‘our’ bodies.  As I write these words, I realise I’m not convinced by the passage in George Brant‘s play Grounded in which the face of a little girl on the screen, the daughter of a ‘High Value Target’, becomes the face of the Predator pilot’s own daughter.  For a digital Orientalism is at work through those modes of embodiment that interpellates those watching as spectators of what Edward Said once called ‘a living tableau of queerness’ that in so many cases will become a dead tableau of bodies which remain irredeemably Other.

There is a history to the embodiment of air strikes, as my image above shows.  Aerial violence in all its different guises has almost invariably involved an asymmetric effacement.  The lives – and the bodies – of those who flew the first bombing missions over the Western Front in the First World War; the young men who sacrificed their lives during the Combined Bomber Offensive in the Second World War; and even the tribulations and traumas encountered by the men and women conducting remote operations over Afghanistan and elsewhere have all been documented in fact and in fiction.

And yet, while others – notably social historians, investigative journalists and artists – have sought to bring into view the lives shattered by aerial violence, its administration has long mobilised an affective distance between bomber and bombed.  As I showed in ‘Doors into nowhere’ and ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), the bodies of those crouching beneath the bombs are transformed into abstract co-ordinates, coloured lights and target boxes.  Here is Charles Lindbergh talking about the air war in the Pacific in May 1944:

You press a button and death flies down.  One second the bomb is hanging harmlessly in your racks, completely under your control.  The next it is hurtling through the air, and nothing in your power can revoke what you have done…  How can there be writhing, mangled bodies?  How can this air around you be filled with unseen projectiles?  It is like listening to a radio account of a battle on the other side of the earth.  It is too far away, too separated to hold reality.

Or Frank Musgrave, a navigator with RAF Bomber Command, writing about missions over Germany that same year:

These German cities were simply coordinates on a map of Europe, the first relatively near, involving around six hours of flying, the second depressingly distant, involving some eight or nine hours of flying. Both sets of coordinates were at the centre of areas shaded deep red on our maps to indicate heavy defences. For me ‘Dortmund’ and ‘Leipzig’ had no further substance or concrete reality.

Harold Nash, another navigator:

It was black, and then suddenly in the distance you saw lights on the floor, the fires burning.  As you drew near, they looked like sparkling diamonds on a black satin background… [T]hey weren’t people to me, just the target.  It’s the distance and the blindness which enabled you to do these things.

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One last example – Peter Johnson, a Group Captain who served with distinction with RAF Bomber Command:

Targets were now marked by the Pathfinder Force … and these instructions, to bomb a marker, introduced a curiously impersonal factor into the act of dropping huge quantities of bombs.  I came to realize that crews were simply bored by a lot of information about the target.  What concerned them were the details of route and navigation, which colour Target Indicator they were to bomb… In the glare of searchlights, with the continual winking of anti-aircraft shells, the occasional thud when one came close and left its vile smell, what we had to do was search for coloured lights dropped by our own people, aim our bombs at them and get away.

The airspace through which the bomber stream flew was a viscerally biophysical realm, in which the crews’ bodies registered the noise of the engines, the shifts in course and elevation, the sound and stink of the flak, the abrupt lift of the aircraft once the bombs were released.  They were also acutely aware of their own bodies: fingers numbed by the freezing cold, faces encased in rubbery oxygen masks, and frantic fumblings over the Elsan.  But the physicality of the space far below them was reduced to the optical play of distant lights and flames, and the crushed, asphyxiated and broken bodies appeared – if they appeared at all – only in their nightmares.

These apprehensions were threaded into what I’ve called a ‘moral economy of bombing’ that sought (in different ways and at different times) to legitimise aerial violence by lionising its agents and marginalising its victims (see here: scroll down).

But remote operations threaten to transform this calculus.  Those who control Predators and Reapers sit at consoles in air-conditioned containers, which denies them the physical sensations of flight.  Yet in one, as it happens acutely optical sense they are much closer to the devastation they cause: eighteen inches away, they usually say, the distance from eye to screen.  And the strikes they execute are typically against individuals or small groups of people (rather than objects or areas), and they rely on full-motion video feeds that show the situation both before and after in detail (however imperfectly).  Faced with this highly conditional intimacy, as Lauren shows, the bodies that appear in the cross-hairs are produced as killable bodies through a process of somatic abstraction – leaving the fleshy body behind – that is abruptly reversed once the missile is released.

Thus in the coda to the original version of ‘Dirty Dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab) – and which I’ve since excised from what was a very long essay; reworked, it will appear in a revised form as ‘The territory of the screen’ – I described how

intelligence agencies produce and reproduce the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] as a data field that is systematically mined to expose seams of information and selectively sown with explosives to be rematerialised as a killing field. The screens on which and through which the strikes are animated are mediations in an extended sequence in which bodies moving into, through and out from the FATA are tracked and turned into targets in a process that Ian Hacking describes more generally as ‘making people up’: except that in this scenario the targets are not so much ‘people’ as digital traces. The scattered actions and interactions of individuals are registered by remote sensors, removed from the fleshiness of human bodies and reassembled as what Grégoire Chamayou calls ‘schematic bodies’. They are given codenames (‘Objective x’) and index numbers, they are tracked on screens and their danse macabre is plotted on time-space grids and followed by drones. But as soon as the Hellfire missiles are released the transformations that have produced the target over the preceding weeks and months cascade back into the human body: in an instant virtuality becomes corporeality and traces turn into remains.

There are two difficulties in operationalising that last sentence.  One is bound up with evidence – and in particular with reading what Oliver Kearns calls the ‘residue’ of covert strikes (see his ‘Secrecy and absence in the residue of covert drone strikes’, Political Geography, 2016) – and the other is one that I want to address here.

To do so, let me turn from the FATA to Yemen.  The Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights in Sa’ana has released a short documentary, Waiting for Justice, that details the effects of a US drone strike on civilians:

If the embedded version doesn’t work, you can find it on YouTube.

At 6 a.m. on 19 April 2014 a group of men – mainly construction workers, plus one young father hitching a ride to catch a bus into Saudi Arabia –  set off from from their villages in al-Sawma’ah to drive to al-Baidha city; 20 to 30 metres behind their Toyota Hilux, it turned out, was a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying suspected members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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That car was being tracked by a drone: it fired a Hellfire missile, striking the car and killing the occupants, and shrapnel hit the Hilux.  Some of the civilians sought refuge in an abandoned water canal, when the drone (or its companion) returned for a second strike.

Four of them were killed – Sanad Hussein Nasser al-Khushum (30), Yasser Abed Rabbo al-Azzani (18), Ahmed Saleh Abu Bakr (65) and Abdullah Nasser Abu Bakr al-Khushu – and five were injured: the driver, Nasser Mohammed Nasser (35), Abdulrahman Hussein al-Khushum (22), Najib Hassan Nayef (35 years), Salem Nasser al-Khushum (40) and Bassam Ahmed Salem Breim (20).

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The film draws on Death by Drone: civilian harm caused by US targeted killing in Yemen, a collaborative investigation carried out by the Open Society Justice Initiative in the United States and Mwatana in Yemen into nine drone strikes: one of them (see pp. 42-48) is the basis of the documentary; the strike is also detailed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as YEM159 here.

That report, together with the interview and reconstruction for the documentary, have much to tell us about witnesses and residues.

In addition the father of one of the victims, describing the strike in the film, says ‘They slaughter them like sheep‘…

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… and, as Joe Pugliese shows in a remarkable new essay, that phrase contains a violent, visceral truth.

Joe describes a number of other US strikes in Yemen – by cruise missiles and by Hellfire missiles fired from drones (on which see here; scroll down) – in which survivors and rescuers confronted a horrific aftermath in which the incinerated flesh of dead animals and the flesh of dead human beings became indistinguishable.  This is a radically different, post-strike bioconvergence that Joe calls a geobiomorphology:

The bodies of humans and animals are here compelled to enflesh the world through the violence of war in a brutally literal manner: the dismembered and melted flesh becomes the ‘tissue of things’ as it geobiomorphologically enfolds the contours of trees and rocks. What we witness in this scene of carnage is the transliteration of metadata algorithms to flesh. The abstracting and decorporealising operations of metadata ‘without content’ are, in these contexts of militarised slaughter of humans and animals, geobiomorphologically realised and grounded in the trammelled lands of the Global South.

Indeed, he’s adamant that it is no longer possible to speak of the corporeal in the presence of such ineffable horror:

One can no longer talk of corporeality here. Post the blast of a drone Hellfire missile, the corpora of animals-humans are rendered into shredded carnality. In other words, operative here is the dehiscence of the body through the violence of an explosive centripetality that disseminates flesh. The moment of lethal violence transmutes flesh into unidentifiable biological substance that is violently compelled geobiomorphologically to assume the topographical contours of the debris field.

By these means, he concludes,

the subjects of the Global South [are rendered] as non-human animals captivated in their lawlessness and inhuman savagery and deficient in everything that defines the human-rights-bearing subject. In contradistinction to the individuating singularity of the Western subject as named person, they embody the anonymous genericity of the animal and the seriality of the undifferentiated and fungible carcass. As subjects incapable of embodying the figure of “the human,” they are animals who, when killed by drone attacks, do not die but only come to an end.

You can read the essay, ‘Death by Metadata: The bioinformationalisation of life and the transliteration of algorithms to flesh’, in Holly Randell-Moon and Ryan Tippet (eds) Security, race, biopower: essays on technology and corporeality (London: Palgrave, 2016) 3-20.

It’s an arresting, truly shocking argument.  You might protest that the incidents described in the essay are about ordnance not platform – that a cruise missile fired from a ship or a Hellfire missile fired from an attack helicopter would produce the same effects.  And so they have.  But Joe’s point is that where Predators and Reapers are used to execute targeted killings they rely on the extraction of metadata and its algorithmic manipulation to transform individualised, embodied life into a stream of data – a process that many of us have sought to recover – but that in the very moment of execution those transformations are not simply, suddenly reversed but displaced into a generic flesh.  (And there is, I think, a clear implication that those displacements are pre-figured in the original de-corporealisation – the somatic abstraction – of the target).

Joe’s discussion is clearly not intended to be limited to those (literal) instances where animals are caught up in a strike; it is, instead, a sort of limit-argument designed to disclose the bio-racialisation of targeted killing in the global South.  It reappears time and time again.  Here is a sensor operator, a woman nicknamed “Sparkle”,  describing the aftermath of a strike in Afghanistan conducted from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada:

Sparkle could see a bunch of hot spots all over the ground, which were likely body parts. The target was dead, but that isn’t always the case. The Hellfire missile only has 12 pounds of explosives, so making sure the target is in the “frag pattern,” hit by shrapnel, is key.

As the other Reaper flew home to refuel and rearm, Spade stayed above the target, watching as villagers ran to the smoldering motorbike. Soon a truck arrived. Spade and Sparkle watched as they picked up the target’s blasted body.

“It’s just a dead body,” Sparkle said. “I grew up elbows deep in dead deer. We do what we needed to do. He’s dead. Now we’re going to watch him get buried.”

The passage I’ve emphasised repeats the imaginary described by the strike survivor in Yemen – but from the other side of the screen.

Seen thus, Joe’s argument speaks directly to the anguished question asked by one of the survivors of the Uruzgan killings in Afghanistan:

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How can you not identify us? (The question – and the still above – are taken from the reconstruction in the documentary National Bird).  We might add: How do you identify us?  These twin questions intersect with a vital argument developed by Christiane Wilke, who is deeply concerned that civilians now ‘have to establish, perform and confirm their civilianhood by establishing and maintaining legible patterns of everyday life, by conforming to gendered and racialized expectations of mobility, and by not ever being out of place, out of time’ (see her chapter, ‘The optics of war’, in Sheryl Hamilton, Diana Majury, Dawn Moore, Neil Sargent and Christiane Wilke, eds., Sensing Law [2017] pp 257-79: 278).  As she wrote to me:

I’m really disturbed by the ways in which the burden of making oneself legible to the eyes in the sky is distributed: we don’t have to do any of that here, but the people to whom we’re bringing the war have to perform civilian-ness without fail.

Asymmetry again.  Actors required to perform their civilian-ness in a play they haven’t devised before an audience they can’t see – and which all too readily misunderstands the plot.  And if they fail they become killable bodies.

But embodying does not end there; its terminus is the apprehension of injured and dead bodies.  So let me add two riders to the arguments developed by Lauren and Joe.  I’ll do so by returning to the Uruzgan strike.

I should say at once that this is a complicated case (see my previous discussions here and here).  In the early morning three vehicles moving down dusty roads and tracks were monitored for several hours by a Predator controlled by a flight crew at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada; to the south a detachment of US Special Forces was conducting a search operation around the village of Khod, supported by Afghan troops and police; and when the Ground Force Commander determined that this was a ‘convoy’ of Taliban that posed a threat to his men he called in an air strike executed by two OH-58 attack helicopters that killed 15 or 16 people and wounded a dozen others.  All of the victims were civilians.  This was not a targeted killing, and there is little sign of the harvesting of metadata or the mobilisation of algorithms – though there was some unsubstantiated  talk of the possible presence of a ‘High-Value Individual’ in one of the vehicles, referred to both by name and by the codename assigned to him on the Joint Prioritised Effects List, and while the evidence for this seems to have been largely derived from chatter on short-wave radios picked up by the Special Forces on the ground it is possible that a forward-deployed NASA team at Bagram was also involved in communications intercepts.  Still, there was no geo-locational fixing, no clear link between these radio communications and the three vehicles, and ultimately it was the visual construction of their movement and behaviour as a ‘hostile’ pattern of life that provoked what was, in effect, a signature strike.  But this was not conventional Close Air Support either: the Ground Force Commander declared first a precautionary ‘Air TIC’ (Troops In Contact) so that strike aircraft could be ready on station to come to his defence – according to the investigation report, this created ‘a false sense of urgency’ –  and then ‘Troops in Contact’.  Yet when the attack helicopters fired their missiles no engagement had taken place and the vehicles were moving away from Khod (indeed, they were further away than when they were first observed).  This was (mis)read as ‘tactical maneuvering’.

My first rider is that the process is not invariably the coldly, calculating sequence conjured by the emphasis on metadata and algorithms – what Dan McQuillan calls ‘algorithmic seeing’ – or the shrug-your-shouders attitude of Sparkle.  This is why the affective is so important, but it is multidimensional.  I doubt that it is only in films like Good Kill (below) or Eye in the Sky that pilots and sensor operators are uncomfortable, even upset at what they do.  Not all sensor operators are Brandon Bryant – but they aren’t all Sparkle either.

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All commentaries on the Uruzgan strike – including my own – draw attention to how the pilot, sensor operator and mission intelligence coordinator watching the three vehicles from thousands of miles away were predisposed to interpret every action as hostile.  The crew was neither dispassionate nor detached; on the contrary, they were eager to move in for the kill.  At least some of those in the skies above Uruzgan had a similar view.  The lead pilot of the two attack helicopters that carried out the strike was clearly invested in treating the occupants of the vehicles as killable bodies.  He had worked with the Special Operations detachment before, knew them very well, and – like the pilot of the Predator – believed they were ‘about to get rolled up and I wanted to go and help them out… [They] were about to get a whole lot of guys in their face.’

Immediately after the strike the Predator crew convinced themselves that the bodies were all men (‘military-aged males’):

08:53 (Safety Observer): Are they wearing burqas?

08:53 (Sensor): That’s what it looks like.

08:53 (Pilot): They were all PIDed as males, though. No females in the group.

08:53 (Sensor): That guy looks like he’s wearing jewelry and stuff like a girl, but he ain’t … if he’s a girl, he’s a big one.

Reassured, the crew relaxed and their conversation became more disparaging:

09:02 (Mission Intelligence Coordinator (MC)): There’s one guy sitting down.

09:02 (Sensor): What you playing with? (Talking to individual on ground.)

09:02 (MC): His bone.

….

09:04 (Sensor): Yeah, see there’s…that guy just sat up.

09:04 (Safety Observer): Yeah.

09:04 (Sensor): So, it looks like those lumps are probably all people.

09:04 (Safety Observer): Yep.

09:04 (MC): I think the most lumps are on the lead vehicle because everybody got… the Hellfire got…

….

09:06 (MC): Is that two? One guy’s tending the other guy?

09:06 (Safety Observer): Looks like it.

09:06 (Sensor): Looks like it, yeah.

09:06 (MC): Self‐Aid Buddy Care to the rescue.

09:06 (Safety Observer): I forget, how do you treat a sucking gut wound?

09:06 (Sensor): Don’t push it back in. Wrap it in a towel. That’ll work.

The corporeality of the victims flickers into view in these exchanges, but in a flippantly anatomical register (‘playing with … his bone’; ‘Don’t push it back in.  Wrap it in a towel..’).

But the helicopter pilots reported the possible presence of women, identified only by their brightly coloured dresses, and soon after (at 09:10) the Mission Intelligence Coordinator said he saw ‘Women and children’, which was confirmed by the screeners.  The earlier certainty, the desire to kill, gave way to uncertainty, disquiet.

These were not the only eyes in the sky and the sequence was not closed around them.   Others watching the video feed – the analysts and screeners at Hurlburt Field in Florida, the staff at the Special Operations Task Force Operations Centre in Kandahar – read the imagery more circumspectly.  Many of them were unconvinced that these were killable bodies – when the shift changed in the Operations Centre the Day Battle Captain called in a military lawyer for advice, and the staff agreed to call in another helicopter team to force the vehicles to stop and determine their status and purpose – and many of them were clearly taken aback by the strike.   Those military observers who were most affected by the strike were the troops on the ground.  The commander who had cleared the attack helicopters to engage was ferried to the scene to conduct a ‘Sensitive Site Exploitation’.  What he found, he testified, was ‘horrific’: ‘I was upset physically and emotionally’.

My second rider is that war provides – and also provokes – multiple apprehensions of the injured or dead body.  They are not limited to the corpo-reality of a human being and its displacement and dismemberment into what Joe calls ‘carcass’.  In the Uruzgan case the process of embodying did not end with the strike and the continued racialization and gendering of its victims by the crew of the Predator described by Lauren.

The Sensitive Site Exploitation – the term was rescinded in June 2010; the US Army now prefers simply  ‘site exploitation‘, referring to the systematic search for and collection of ‘information, material, and persons from a designated location and analyzing them to answer information requirements, facilitate subsequent operations, or support criminal prosecution’ – was first and foremost a forensic exercise.  Even in death, the bodies were suspicious bodies.  A priority was to establish a security perimeter and conduct a search of the site.  The troops were looking for survivors but they were also searching for weapons, for evidence that those killed were insurgents and for any intelligence that could be gleaned from their remains and their possessions.  This mattered: the basis for the attack had been the prior identification of weapons from the Predator’s video feed and a (highly suspect) inference of hostile intent.   But it took three and a half hours for the team to arrive at the engagement site by helicopter, and a naval expert on IEDs and unexploded ordnance who was part of the Special Forces detachment was immediately convinced that the site had been ‘tampered with’.  The bodies had been moved, presumably by people from a nearby village who had come to help:

The bodies had been lined up and had been covered… somebody else was on the scene prior to us … The scene was contaminated [sic] before we got there.

He explained to MG Timothy McHale, who lead the subsequent inquiry, what he meant:

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The Ground Force Commander reported that he ‘wouldn’t take photos of the KIA [Killed in Action] – but of the strike’, yet it proved impossible to maintain a clinical distinction between them (see the right hand panel below; he also reported finding bodies still trapped in and under the vehicles).

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His photographs of the three vehicles were annotated by the investigation team to show points of impact, but the bodies of some of the dead were photographed too.  These still photographs presumably also had evidentiary value – though unlike conventional crime scene imagery they were not, so far I can tell, subject to any rigorous analysis.  In any case: what evidentiary value?  Or,  less obliquely, whose crime?  Was the disposition of the bodies intended to confirm they had been moved, the scene ‘contaminated’ – the investigator’s comments on the photograph note ‘Bodies from Vehicle Two did not match blast pattern’ – so that any traces of insurgent involvement could have been erased?  (There is another story here, because the investigation uncovered evidence that staff in the Operations Centres refused to accept the first reports of civilian casualties, and there is a strong suspicion that initial storyboards were manipulated to conceal that fact).  Or do the shattered corpses driven into metal and rock silently confirm the scale of the incident and the seriousness of any violation of the laws of war and the rules of engagement?

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The Ground Force Commander also had his medics treat the surviving casualties, and called in a 9-line request (‘urgent one priority’) for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC).  Military helicopters took the injured to US and Dutch military hospitals at Tarin Kowt, and en route they became the objects of a biomedical gaze that rendered their bodies as a series of visible wounds and vital signs that were distributed among the boxes of standard MEDEVAC report forms:

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At that stage none of the injured was identified by name (see the first box on the top left); six of the cases – as they had become – were recorded as having been injured by ‘friendly’ forces, but five of them mark ‘wounded by’ as ‘unknown’.  Once in hospital they were identified, and the investigation team later visited them and questioned them about the incident and their injuries (which they photographed).

These photographs and forms are dispassionate abstractions of mutilated and pain-bearing bodies, but it would be wrong to conclude from these framings that those producing them – the troops on the ground, the medics and EMTs – were not affected by what they saw.

And it would also be wrong to conclude that military bodies are immune from these framings.  Most obviously, these are standard forms used for all MEDEVAC casualties, civilian or military, and all patients are routinely reduced to an object-space (even as they also remain so much more than that: there are multiple, co-existing apprehensions of the human body).

k9963Yet I have in mind something more unsettling.  Ken MacLeish reminds us that

for the soldier, there is no neat division between what gore might mean for a perpetrator and what it might mean for a victim, because he is both at once. He is stuck in the middle of this relation, because this relation is the empty, undetermined center of the play of sovereign violence: sometimes the terror is meant for the soldier, sometimes he is merely an incidental witness to it, and sometimes he, or his side, is the one responsible for it.

If there is no neat division there is no neat symmetry either; not only is there a spectacular difference between the vulnerability of pilots and sensor operators in the continental United States and their troops on the ground – a distance which I’ve argued intensifies the desire of some remote crews to strike whenever troops are in danger –  but there can also be a substantial difference between the treatment of fallen friends and foe: occasional differences in the respect accorded to dead bodies and systematic differences in the (long-term) care of injured ones.

But let’s stay with Ken.  He continues:

Soldiers say that a body that has been blown up looks like spaghetti. I heard this again and again – the word conjures texture, sheen, and abject, undifferentiated mass, forms that clump into knots or collapse into loose bits.

He wonders where this comes from:

Does it domesticate the violence and loss? Is it a critique? Gallows humor? Is it a reminder, perhaps, that you are ultimately nothing more than the dumb matter that you eat, made whole and held together only by changeable circumstance? Despite all the armor, the body is open to a hostile world and can collapse into bits in the blink of an eye, at the speed of radio waves, electrons, pressure plate springs, and hot metal. The pasta and red sauce are reminders that nothing is normal and everything has become possible. Some body—one’s own body—has been placed in a position where it is allowed to die. More than this, though, it has been made into a thing…

One soldier described recovering his friend’s body after his tank had been hit by an IED:

… everything above his knees was turned into fucking spaghetti. Whatever was left, it popped the top hatch, where the driver sits, it popped it off and it spewed whatever was left of him all over the front slope. And I don’t know if you know … not too many people get to see a body like that, and it, and it…

We went up there, and I can remember climbing up on the slope, and we were trying to get everybody out, ’cause the tank was on fire and it was smoking. And I kept slipping on – I didn’t know what I was slipping on, ’cause it was all over me, it was real slippery. And we were trying to get the hatch open, to try to get Chris out. My gunner, he reached in, reached in and grabbed, and he pulled hisself back. And he was like, “Holy shit!” I mean, “Holy shit,” that was all he could say. And he had cut his hand. Well, what he cut his hand on was the spinal cord. The spine had poked through his hand and cut his hand on it, ’cause there was pieces of it left in there. And we were trying to get up, and I reached down and pushed my hand down to get up, and I reached up and looked up, and his goddamn eyeball was sitting in my hand. It had splattered all up underneath the turret. It was all over me, it was all over everybody, trying to get him out of there…

I think Ken’s commentary on this passage provides another, compelling perspective on the horror so deeply embedded in Joe’s essay:

There is nothing comic or subversive here; only horror. Even in the middle of the event, it’s insensible, unspeakable: and it, and it …, I didn’t know what I was slipping on. The person is still there, and you have to “get him out of there,” but he’s everywhere and he’s gone at the same time. The whole is gone, and the parts – the eye, the spine, and everything else – aren’t where they should be. A person reduced to a thing: it was slippery, it was all over, that was what we sent home. He wasn’t simply killed; he was literally destroyed. Through a grisly physics, there was somehow less of him than there had been before, transformed from person into dumb and impersonal matter.

‘Gore,’ he concludes, ‘is about the horror of a person being replaced by stuff that just a moment ago was a person.’  Explosive violence ruptures the integrity of the contained body – splattered over rocks or metal surfaces in a catastrophic bioconvergence.

I hope it will be obvious that none of this is intended to substitute any sort of equivalence for the asymmetries that I have emphasised throughout this commentary.  I hope, too, that I’ve provided a provisional supplement to some of the current work on metadata, algorithms and aerial violence – hence my title.  As Linda McDowell remarked an age ago – in Working Bodies (pp. 223-4) – the term ‘meatspace’ is offensive in all sorts of ways (its origins lie in cyberpunk where it connoted the opposite to cyberspace, but I concede the opposition is too raw).  Still, it is surely important to recover the ways in which later modern war and militarised violence (even in its digital incarnations) is indeed obdurately, viscerally offensive – for all of the attempts to efface what Huw Lemmey once called its ‘devastation in meatspace‘.

Bodies at risk

This is far more than a post-script to my last post.  In writing ‘The Natures of War’ I started to develop the concept of a corpography (see also ‘Corpographies’ DOWNLOADS tab) because I became keenly interested in the ways in which the entanglements between military violence and ‘nature’ were registered on and through the body.

I had an appreciative message from Eileen Rositzka, following my Neil Smith Lecture at St Andrews, and I’ve finally caught up with a marvellous, exquisitely illustrated essay she has co-written with Robert Burgoyne: ‘Goya on his Shoulder: Tim Hetherington, Genre Memory, and the Body at Risk.’  It was published in Frames Cinema Journal 7 (2015) and is available open access here.

The figure of the body in narratives of war has long served to crystallize ideas about collective violence and the value or futility of sacrifice, often functioning as a symbol of historical transformation and renewal or, contrastingly, as a sign of utter degeneration and waste. As a number of recent studies have shown, the power of somatic imagery to shape cultural perceptions of war has had a decisive impact on the way wars have been regarded in history, and has sometimes influenced the conduct of war as it unfolds.

Following my good friend Gastón Gordillo‘s exemplary lead, I’ve been thinking about extending my original analysis from the mud of the Western Front in the First World War, the deserts of North Africa in the Second, and the rainforests of Vietnam into Afghanistan (for the book-version of the essay), and ‘Goya on his shoulder’ is full of all sorts of ideas on how to do exactly that.  Gastón has made much of Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington‘s extraordinary film Restrepo – see here and especially here – and Robert and Eileen add all sorts of insights to the mix and, in particular, provide an illuminating visual genealogy of the issues at stake:

With their concentrated focus on the body in war, Restrepo and Infidel also mark an intervention into contemporary debates in the emerging doctrine of “bodiless war” or virtual war – what is known in war policy circles as the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA). In contrast to the decorporealised, bloodless war culture promoted and even celebrated in many contemporary theories of war, Restrepo and Infidel implicitly dramatise the limitations of so called “optical war” in many current conflict zones, emphasising the body of the soldier as a critical site of representation and meaning.

Their journey takes them from photography of the American Civil War through Edward Steichen‘s mesmerising project to capture what they call ‘bodies at risk’ in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War to Afghanistan today.  As it happens, I’ve spent the last several weeks immersed in Steichen’s project for my ‘Reach from the skies’ lectures: Steichen was one of the foremost architects of aerial photography on the Western Front during the First World War, and the photographs taken of US sailors taken under his direction during the Second have much to show us about the entanglements between military violence, masculinism and the body (the slide below is taken from my discussion in ‘Reach from the sky’).

RFTS Masculinism and military violence.001

And so to Restrepo:

‘… the work of Hetherington and Junger marks an intervention in the contemporary cultural imaginary of war, dramatizing the limitations of so called “optical war” or “bodiless war” in the conflict zones of Afghanistan. The concentrated attention to the touchscape of modern war in their work, moreover, provides a fresh perspective on older traditions of visual representation, illuminating the genre codes of war photography and film in a new way. The visual and acoustic design of Restrepo, in particular, captures the haptic geography of combat in a remote mountain outpost in the Korengal Valley. The film highlights the concentrated experience of sound and touch, providing a first-person account of the way the body inhabits contested space, the way the intensities of war confuse and overwrite the sensory codes of vision, and the compensatory drive of somatic mastery, which is projected in vivid displays of masculine athleticism in the relative safety of the enclosure.

What Steichen called “the machinery of war” is all but absent in these images. Like Steichen, Hetherington expresses the brotherhood of the men in directly physical, gestural forms – in close physical contact, in the “bloodying” of new men, and in the tattoos they give each other with a tattoo gun they have brought up to the camp…

Depictions of war in Restrepo and Infidel revolve around touch – the heat, cold, and dirt, the intense exertion, the texture of skin. Although Hetherington’s images of white, muscular soldiers may be compared to the displays of imperial masculinity celebrated by Edison in his War-Graph actualities, and by Roosevelt in his appeal to the brave “game boys” of military adventure, they also relay the heightened sensuality of Steichen’s World War II sailors to a contemporary war setting. Scenes that contain a high quotient of violence – the firefights with insurgents, the roughhousing, the bloodying of new recruits – are here juxtaposed with shots of soldiers sleeping and other scenes of quiet reflection…

Foregrounding the body of the soldier as a medium of sensory experience and as a body at risk, their work recalls the long history of war photography, painting, and film, dramatizing the importance of the figure of the body in narratives of war, and the power of somatic imagery to shape cultural perceptions of conflict. In Restrepo and Infidel, haptic experience and embodied vulnerability unfold as the central fact of war, the heart of warfare. Here too, however, a certain cultural imaginary is invoked, visible in Junger’s discussion of “young men in war” and of the “hard wiring” of young men for the violence of war, a theme that sacrifices any consideration of context, as if war was an existential constant. Nonetheless, in this framing of contemporary western war, centred on the haptic geography of combat, we can see an initial sketch, an introduction, to a critical understanding of the corpography of war in the current period.

My extracts don’t do justice to the range and depth of the essay, and it really does repay close reading.

Bodies of violence

Bodies of violenceNew from Oxford University Press, Lauren Wilcox‘s Bodies of violence: theorizing embodied subjects in International Relations (how I wish books didn’t come with subtitles that serve only to narrow the audience for works that deserves a much wider one).

According to conventional international relations theory, states or groups make war and, in doing so, kill and injure people that other states are charged with protecting. While it sees the perpetrators of violence as rational actors, it views those who are either protected or killed by this violence as mere bodies: ahistorical humans who breathe, suffer and die but have no particular political agency. In its rationalist variants, IR theory only sees bodies as inert objects. Constructivist theory argues that subjects are formed through social relations, but leaves the bodies of subjects outside of politics, as “brute facts.”

According to Wilcox, such limited thinking about bodies and violence is not just wrong, but also limits the capacity of IR to theorize the meaning of political violence. By contrast to rationalist and constructivist theory, feminist theory sees subjectivity and the body as inextricably linked. This book argues that IR needs to rethink its approach to bodies as having particular political meaning in their own right. For example, bodies both direct violent acts (violence in drone warfare, for example) and are constituted by practices that manage violence (for example, scrutiny of persons as bodies through biometric technologies and body scanners). The book also argues that violence is more than a strategic action of rational actors (as in rationalist theories) or a destructive violation of community laws and norms (as in liberal and constructivist theories). Because IR theorizes bodies as outside of politics, it cannot see how violence can be understood as a creative force for shaping the limits of how we understand ourselves as political subjects, as well as forming the boundaries of our political communities.

By engaging with feminist theories of embodiment and violence, Bodies of Violence provides a more nuanced treatment of the nexus of bodies, subjects and violence than currently exists in the field of international relations.

Here’s the Contents list:

Introduction
Chapter 1: Bodies, Subjects, and Violence in International Relations
Chapter 2: Dying is Not Permitted: Guantánamo Bay and the Liberal Subject of IR
Chapter 3: Explosive Bodies: Suicide Bombing as an Embodied Practice and the Politics of Abjection
Chapter 4: Crossing Borders, Securing Bodies: Airport Security Assemblages and Bodies of Information
Chapter 5: Body Counts: The Politics of Embodiment in Precision Warfare
Chapter 6: Vulnerable Bodies and “Responsibility to Protect”

If you don’t know Lauren’s work already, you can catch up with some of it here.

Boots on the ground

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One of the most shop-soiled phrases of the past several weeks and months is “boots on the ground” (or the lack of them).  You can find historical and contemporary discussions from the US military here and here, but the most recent – and recurrent – instance is President Obama’s insistence that, whatever else the United States will do in Iraq and Syria to counter the aggressive advance of the Islamic State, it won’t involve “boots on the ground”.  The reasons are not difficult to discern, and they involve the substitution of “boots on the ground” for “bodies in bags” (on which, see the American Friends Service Committee exhibition, “Eyes Wide Open“: also the Burning Man version here).

But they also involve an extraordinary (but, again, by no means unprecedented) restriction of what constitutes armed combat.  Mark Landler has a very good discussion of this in the New York Times:

American advisers could be sent to the front lines alongside Iraqi and Kurdish troops, and could even call in airstrikes, without directly engaging the enemy. It is a definition rejected by virtually every military expert.

“Calling in airstrikes is just as much combat as firing a rifle at someone,” said John A. Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who served in a tank battalion in Iraq and helped write the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual. “What that guy really is doing is painting a house with a laser designator that results in that house being vaporized.”

The American advisers are armed, and if they are shot at by the enemy, they are authorized to return fire. In a close combat advisory role in a city, experts said, the American troops would tell Iraqi commanders which house to hit, how much ammunition to use in an assault, and how to organize medical evacuation for their troops…

“If you’re trying to deploy a military effect on the ground, you’re in combat,” said Paul D. Eaton, a retired Army general who helped train Iraqi troops and is now an adviser to the National Security Network. “You may not be in direct combat, but it’s a combat mission.”

There are also not very muffled  echoes of Vietnam and the US Military Assistance Command.

This is very much on my mind, because I’ve been busy finishing the long-form version of “The Natures of War”, and in the process radically re-working my discussion of the ground war in Vietnam.  This has given me a new insight into what “boots on the ground” means – with an emphasis on the “ground”, or what my good friend Gastón Gordillo prefers to call terrain – and here is an extract (I’ll post the full draft next week, which will include the references and the footnotes).

***

GI Vietnam LIFE

Then as now the scale of support involved in combat operations meant that many soldiers never left their bases – in Vietnam the ratio of support to combat troops was roughly 10 to 1 [this is the ratio cited by most historians, but the US Army prefers a much lower “Tooth to Tail” ratio: see here] – but those that did had to carry their world on their backs. On a long patrol they might be resupplied by helicopter, but that could never be guaranteed. In addition to a rifle, most men carried at least 60 pounds: multiple quart canteens of water (at least two and sometimes as many as eight: ‘There is never, ever enough water’) and canned C-rations; ammunition and grenades; and a poncho or half-shelter which doubled as a stretcher or a shroud if they were hit. In addition, radio operators carried a PRC-25 field radio, which weighed 23 pounds, and spare batteries, while mortar crews lugged a firing tube and base plate weighing around 40 pounds, and their bearers carried four mortar rounds (which added 32 pounds of dead weight to their load). This mattered because, as one newly arrived lieutenant soon realised, ‘the jungle would exact a toll for every ounce I carried.’ ‘We dumped everything we didn’t absolutely need,’ one GI explained, but still the rucksack frame and webbing rubbed and cut so ‘our waists and shoulders were covered with “saddle sores” that were kept raw by sweat and dirt and cartridge belts and packs.’ Everyone, he said ‘was in a constant world of hurt.’

Combat Infantryman Vietnam

It was just as tough on the legs. Tim O’Brien translates the equipment list – ‘the things they carried’ – into its impact on the lower body:

‘We walked along. Forward with the left leg, plant the foot, lock the knee, arch the ankle. Push the leg into the paddy, stiffen the spine. Let the war rest there atop the left leg: the rucksack, the radio, the hand grenades, the magazines of golden ammo, the rifle, the steel helmet, the jingling dog-tags, the body’s own fat and water and meat, the whole contingent of warring artefacts and flesh. Let it all perch there, rocking on top of the left leg, fastened and tied and anchored by latches and zippers and snaps and nylon cord. Packhorse for the soul.’

Soldier in paddy field An Thi S Vietnam- Jan 1966Skinner

O’Brien was describing a patrol moving through rice paddies, and these imposed their own burdens on soldiers. Out in the open they were vulnerable to attack or sniper fire, and they avoided the dikes which were often mined or booby-trapped.

‘Instead, we struggled through the sucking mud of the paddies. The banks of the streams were especially treacherous. Each step through the soft muck was torture, and every few steps a man would sink in mud up to his crotch. The gnarled roots of the mangroves could twist an ankle or a knee in a second. The putrid stench of rotting vegetation permeated the stifling humid air, and canteens were emptied quickly.’

‘The water in these pestilential miasmas was stagnant, muddy and fetid,’ explained one lieutenant, ‘with all kinds of flotsam, including mosquito larvae and water buffalo faeces applied as fertiliser’. Beneath the murky water lurked the menace of punji stakes made of split bamboo that could pierce a boot and put a soldier out of action; worse, the wound could become infected from the dung-laden water, and air evacuation was often imperative. Then there were the leeches: ‘When we reached the other side of the rice paddies,’ the lieutenant continued, ‘my men dropped their pants and burned the already engorged leeches off their ankles and penises with lit cigarettes; even the non-smokers carried cigarettes for this purpose.’

photo5

In the Central Highlands soldiers had to fight their way through triple-canopied jungle and up thickly forested mountain sides. Like their comrades in the paddy-fields, they learned to avoid the beaten track. They rarely used trails, which were notorious for mines and booby-traps that, as Philip Caputo explained, turned ‘an infantryman’s world upside down’:

‘The foot soldier has a special feeling for the ground. He walks on it, fights on it, sleeps and eats on it; the ground shelters him under fire; he digs his home in it. But mines and booby traps transform that friendly, familiar earth into a thing of menace, a thing to be feared as much as machine guns or mortar shells. The infantryman knows that any moment the ground he is walking on can erupt and kill him; kill him if he’s lucky. If he’s unlucky, he will be turned into a blind, deaf, emasculated, legless shell.’

He might have been talking about the cyborg natures of the Western Front or the Western Desert, but in Vietnam’s guerrilla war there were few fixed minefields beyond the Demilitarized Zone. Base perimeters were systematically mined by the US and its allies, and the North Vietnamese often mined clearings that could be used as helicopter landing zones. But it was the transience of mining by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong – its improvisational, opportunistic nature – that was so threatening. ‘The NVA were so good at moving mines around that they would put the minefield out at dusk along a patrol route and take it in before dawn’ so that ‘you could clear one area and there would be mines there the next night.’ Booby-traps could be anywhere: ‘They hang from trees. They nestle in shrubbery. They lie under the sand.’ Denied the trails, soldiers had to hack a path with their machetes or Ka-Bars or more often, to muffle the sound of their painfully slow progress, they threaded their way between the trees and the choking vines:

‘Up ridges, down ridges, over ridges, wading through rocky streams, hacking at jungle growth, breathing in and hopefully breathing out some of the constant bugs that continuously swarmed around our heads, watching our skin as it quickly deteriorated from the numerous bites, scrapes, cuts, tears, thorns, and other abuses of the environment that attempted to beat our bodies into submission. The clothes and boots forming the inanimate part of our body protection were quickly drenched with sweat, dirt, mashed bugs, and the mixed blood and juices from both the bugs’ bodies and our own.’

In the Highlands they encountered other cyborg natures. Devastating Arc Light strikes by B-52 bombers produced a surreal, cratered moonscape whose blasted terrain was even more difficult to negotiate than pristine rainforest:

‘The jungle had been torn to smithereens by the big bombs. Trees had been ripped from the ground forming an abatis of twisted, interattached splintered branches, vines, and roots that was more impenetrable than the worst the natural jungle had to offer.’

US Soldier Wearing Helmet with Message

The craters would be ‘littered with huge pieces of bomb shrapnel’ and unexploded bombs that had not burrowed into the soft earth: their ‘green shapes that protrude menacingly from the red dirt add yet another facet of terror for us to deal with.’ It was impossible to avoid the deep craters: ‘They are too congested; the muddy holes sap our strength as we slide down into their depths, wade through the stagnant green rainwater and then climb fifteen feet up to the slope to the opposite rim.’ If the bombs had found their target then the patrols faced more than a physical barrier, because the bomb field would also contain decomposed corpses, animal and human, and body parts. Delezen continued:

‘[T]he heavy smell of death is around us and is growing stronger as we move. Soon I discover that the source of the overpowering stench is a shallow bomb crater positioned along our path; the crater was probably gouged into the earth by a five hundred pound bomb. There is a naked leg sticking out of the dark hole; on the foot is a rubber sandal made from a discarded truck tire. It looks as though the crater is moving … the movement is rats. In the dusk it looks like a blackish gray carpet covering the mangled, bloated bodies that the grunts have thrown into the hole. The bottom of the hole is full of large maggots that create the illusion that the crater is shimmering. I determine that there are at least twelve enemy bodies that lay intertwined in the crater. The huge rats are snapping at each other as they feed on the dead soldiers; this has to be the entrance to hell itself. The smell is overwhelming; it is so strong that I can taste it.’

B-52s and long-range artillery were not the only means of ravaging the land. It was also impregnated with the residues of napalm and other chemical toxins, and long after an air strike these could still irritate your eyes, make you gag and burn your skin. They also turned any vertical movement into a dangerous glissade:

‘[T]he mountain that we are now climbing has been attacked by countless sorties of Phantom jets delivering “snake and nape.” The splintered, tortured tree trunks are black and charred from the napalm and the oily gel that did not ignite has mixed with the red mud, turning it into a texture similar to axle grease. My pack and ammo belt are waterlogged and have picked up extra weight from the greasy mud.

‘The mud has clogged the lug soles of our jungle boots and it is difficult not to slip; we know that if we lose our footing we will end up at the bottom of the mountain. I use my weapon to climb, digging the stock into the mud as a brace while I grab the next bomb-blasted tree trunk. The oily napalm has lubricated the entire mountain, it has soaked into the burned trees; we have to grasp each splintered trunk in a hug. The black M-16 no longer resembles a rifle; it is encased within a shapeless red blob of sticky mud. After a while, I have to use my Ka-Bar to climb with. I stab the earth ahead and then pull myself up; the deep, soft mud soon renders this effort useless.’

***

 There’s much, much more, as the full post will show, but I’ve said enough to convey some of the ways in which “boots on the ground” are involved in my developing interest in corpography and war.  This extract also raises two other issues that I can’t develop in any detail in the essay.

red-plateau-memoir-north-vietnamese-soldier-john-edmund-delezen-paperback-cover-artThe first turns on the parallel experience of the National Liberation Front [the ‘Viet Cong”] and the North Vietnamese Army.  The Americans assumed that their enemies were creatures of the jungle (in more ways than one), but many of them were recruited from towns and cities and had little or no experience of the rainforest and no idea of the privations that jungle warfare would impose on them.  This is made clear in Truon Nhu Tang‘s A Viet Cong memoir, which is widely cited, but the best and most directly relevant account that I know is the truly remarkable collaboration between John Edmund Delezen and Nguyen Van Tuan, Red Plateau, which describes a North Vietnamese battalion ‘comprised of boys from towns and farms and most knew very little about the forest-enshrouded mountains’.  I cite Delezen in the extract above – his Eye of the tiger is one of the very best personal accounts I’ve read – but his collaboration with his erstwhile enemy is just as compelling.  Here is Nguyen Van Tuan’s inventory of the things carried by the NVA:

‘As dark nears we once again move onto the path and begin our trek south, I curse my pack; if not for this burden I would move effortlessly. Each pack contains an extra uniform and one pair of pajamas, a rain-sheet, a ground cloth, a shovel, ammunition, grenades, explosives, a small medical kit, B-40 rockets for the RPG crews or boxes of machine gun ammunition for the  crews and toilet articles which are for the most part extremely minimal. In addition to this loaded pack, we each carry our individual weapon with ammunition vest, knife and canteen of water. The heavy weapon crews and mortar teams suffer worse…much worse, the load they carry is unimaginable….

‘When we pause to fill canteens from a stream, we try to rearrange the loads we are burdened with; it is a futile task, there is no relief, each arrangement brings its own torment. The loads we bear begin to increase as the supplies carried by those who fall prey to fever and those who carry the litters must be redistributed; our packs remain things that we continue to curse.’

The second issue is the genealogy of “the things they carried”, and Tom Atkinson (really; not quite “Tommy Atkins” but close enough) has provided an extremely interesting visual reconstruction of what he calls “Soldiers’ Inventories” here (you can also find more here and here).  His 13 images extend from the Battle of Hastings (1066) through the Somme in 1916 and the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 to Helmand in 2014 (shown below), though since this is an inventory of British soldiers there’s no trace of Vietnam.  (Interestingly, though, a common complaint from US soldiers and especially Marines in Vietnam was that much of their equipment was outdated and derived from the Second World War – including, on occasion, their canned rations).

Helmand_2996025b

Here’s the key for a close-support sapper, Royal Engineers, Helmland Province, 2014:

1 Silva compass – used for basic navigation and fire control orders
2 Karabiner – used for securing kit and equipment to the vehicles
3 Osprey body armour shoulder and neck attachments – the armour increases protection but can be very restrictive so these parts are detachable depending on the threat assessment
4 Osprey body armour; can be fitted with pouches to carry everything from ammunition, water, first aid kits and grenade or with plates and protective attachments (as shown)
5 Notebook
6 Warm weather hat
7 Spare clothing including underwear trousers, UBAS (Under body Armour Shirt) and normal shirt
8 Dog tags
9 A desert issued belt
10 Beret – used for repatriation ceremonies, vigils and large parades
11 Shemagh – to soak up sweat and also a dust guard
12 Gloves
13 Sandals – issued kit, as soldiers may need to run for cover even while showering
14 Boots
15 Multi tool
16 Washkit
17 GSR – general service respirator
18 A housewife – a basic sewing kit; a soldier has to repair his own rips and tears on the ground
19 Socks, scarf, wristwatch
20 Camel pack – drinking water pack
21 Cooker and mug and tea making kit
22 Rations – quantity will depend on the task but soldiers normally carry about 24 hours worth
23 First aid kit including the (black) tourniquet and (grey) first field dressing
24 Ballistic protection – used to protect the groin from IED blast
25 Knee pads – offer protection to a soldier whilst “taking a knee” from the heat of the ground or rocky areas
26 Sleeping bag with an inflatable roll mat
27 Camera, cigarettes
28 Radio – BOWMAN Radio system (HF, VHF or even SAT Comms), daysack could also be fitted with ECM (Electronic counter measures)
29 Personal role radio – used for line of sight communications within a small patrol
30 Magazine
31 Envelopes
32 Mine extraction kit fitted with a mine prodder, instruction and mine marking kit
33 Weapon cleaning kit
34 Holster
35 Pistol – used as a second weapon system and in confined spaces or where a “long” weapon is unsuitable. Sig and Glock have mostly replaced the Browning 9mm calibre
36 Bar mine – anti-tank landmine
37 Head torch – can be fitted with coloured lenses for more tactical situations
38 Bayonet and bayonet scabbard
39 SA80 A2 fitted with a desert hand guard, upgraded flash eliminator and bipod, all issued for Afghanistan and a SUSAT sight system. It is 5.56 calibre and is here issued with 6 magazines which can hold 30 rounds each
40 Ballistic eye protection – normally goggles or sunglasses
41 Mk 6 Helmet fitted with Helmet mounted night vision systems
42 iPad – personal effect for down time
43 Poncho

I’ll leave the least word to Karl Marlantes, whose splendid Vietnam novel Matterhorn I’ve recommended before.  This comes from his What it is like to go to war (2011), and in so many ways returns us to where I came in:

I am not saying that the infantry today has it easy. Certainly the communications with home have changed, but the field conditions, such as filth, cold, heat, fatigue, and lack of sleep, have not changed since the infantry was using rocks. However, the trend is clear. Robots are already being deployed for fighting in cities. And soon they will be able to be controlled from Nevada.

Soldier exposures

News from Zoe Wool of a rich and ambitious series of short image-essays she has curated for Public Culture‘s Public Books (‘a curated monthly review devoted to spirited debate about books and the arts’) under the title Soldier exposures and technical publics.  Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

866f8d39-4206-47d9-b55e-33df2d2c026dIn this collaborative visual essay, edited by Zoë H. Wool, we consider an idiosyncratic assemblage of pictures of American soldiers. These are not iconic images that “speak for themselves” but less conventional ones that suggest both the technical expertise involved in producing and managing war’s violence and the vulnerability of soldiers at the heart of war. In considering these images as technical, we highlight the many forms of war’s material and technical expertise, expertise that is often disarticulated from the social, political, and ethical fields on which war equally relies.

The images range from grainy World War I–era photographs, recovered from cluttered archives, to digitally generated contemporary images that depict the results of war’s embrace of high technology. Their material qualities reflect something of their intended publics: the curled edges of a Vietnam War snapshot tucked away inside a shoebox (Jauregui); the high resolution of an advertisement that speaks to contemporary soldiers’ special knowledge of explosive force and special role as savvy gear consumers (MacLeish); the directed gaze of soldiers whose bodies bear the weight of innovations in prosthetics and weapons systems, both of which technologically extend the body (Serlin, Lawrie, Kaplan); and the precise composition of images used to display soldiers’ special prowess to medical or technical experts or else to cultivate such technical readings in a broader public (Linker, Masco, Wool).

In presenting these images, we take seriously Walter Benjamin’s warning that photographs unmoored from the historical arrangements of life that produce them are politically hazardous capitulations to fashion, “arty journalism” that “cannot grasp a single one of the human connexions in which [they] exist.” And so we inscribe each image with a caption, anchoring it in a world of human connections and gendered and racialized bodies. These captions rearticulate the relationship between technical expertise and ethics, reconnecting the matériel and personnel of war with the social and political worlds they entail.

These captions describe a material history of soldiers’ bodies whose themes recur across time. The unromantic vulnerability of the soldier on which war making depends (Jauregui, MacLeish, Masco); the technological and prosthetic interventions to which soldiers are subject and from which soldierly life itself is inseparable (Lawrie, Masco, MacLeish, Serlin, Wool); the forms of display involved in making soldiers into certain kinds of biopolitical subjects (Lawrie, Linker, Serlin, Wool); the way war remaps geographic and affective terrain (Kaplan, Masco); and the intimate relationship between place and feeling that war also exposes, binding homelands and homefronts to death zones while producing spaces of homosocial or national intimacy (Jauregui, Linker, Masco).

As we address these un-iconic soldier images to the politics of displaying vulnerable bodies, or rendering them resilient, we also incur collateral effects. In maintaining our focus on images of American soldiers, for instance, we contribute to the ignorance of other kinds of war-bound bodies and lives, from civilians to foreign belligerents to kinds of American soldiers—notably women—who are not pictured here. By displaying medical images of men whose names and lives we do not know, we contribute to the disabling history of what poet Eli Clare has called “gawking, gaping, and staring.” We are not innocent of these consequences. In pointing them out we show only how inseparable they are from many ongoing conversations about aesthetics, ethics, and the American warscape.

By focusing on some of the nooks and crannies of the American warscape, rarified spaces of technical expertise, we hope to incite new and shared modes of reading and recognizing martial imagery and new approaches to thinking about how pictures of soldiers are made and made meaningful in some ways and not others at specific material, social, and ethical conjunctures.

The portfolio includes these images and brief commentaries:

— David Serlin: How to Be Yourself in Public

— Zoë H. Wool: This Is a Picture of an Injured Soldier

— Joseph Masco: Atomic Soldiers
— Caren Kaplan: Drone Sight
— Kenneth MacLeish: In the Blink of an Eye

There are also many other sparkling contributions on the Public Book site