Anatomy of another soldier

I’ve drawn attention to Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a soldier before: see here and here (and especially ‘Object lessons’: DOWNLOADS tab).  Most of the reviews of the novel were highly favourable, applauding Parker’s experimental attempt to tell the story of a soldier seriously wounded by an IED in Afghanistan through the objects with which he becomess entangled.

But writing in The Spectator Louis Amis saw it as an object lesson in ‘How not to tell a soldier’s story‘.  He complained that Parker’s device produced a narrative

‘as if the war were composed only of its inanimate processes, either accidental or inevitable. It’s a different planet to the bloody, profane, outlaw Iraq of [Phil] Klay’s Redeployment, radiating shame, PTSD and suicide, and the unbearable awkwardness of transmitting such truths to an alienated civilian world.

Parker’s device gestures aptly towards a spreading out of consciousness, a transmutation, the scattering of the individual along some plane at the threshold of death; the sensations of depersonalisation and hyper-perceptivity associated with traumatic experience; and the soothing quiddity of simple objects, as opposed to abstract thought, for a recovering victim. But it is also a method of averting the gaze from a war’s futility and waste, and worse — and probably, therefore, too, from the true nature of any saving grace.’

I do think Parker’s narrative accomplishes more than Amis allows. It succeeds in making the war in Afghanistan at once strange and familiar; and its strangeness comes not from the people of Afghanistan, that ‘exotic tableau of queerness’ exhibited in so many conventional accounts, but through the activation of objects saturated with the soldier’s sweat, blood and flesh.  It’s also instructive to read the novel alongside Jane Bennett‘s Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things or Robert Esposito‘s Persons and things, as I’ve done elsewhere, and to think through the corpo-materialities of modern war and its production of the battle space as an object-space: but neither of these has much to say about how their suggestive ideas might be turned to substantive account.

Still, Amis’s point remains a sharp one; Scottt Beauchamp says something very similar:

Harry Parker goes further than [Tim] O’Brien [in The things they carried] in giving equal narrative play to nonhuman things. Not only do they make the plot of Parker’s novel possible, they also bear semiconscious witness to our shared reality, corroborating it. Their inability to pass moral judgment comes off as a silent accusation. If this ontological shift toward objects is the most honest way we have of talking about war, it’s still limiting: it turned its weakness—its inability to fully articulate the moral significance of war—into a defining characteristic.

But I haven’t been able to let Parker’s experiment go.  So, for one of my presentations in Durham last month – on the parallels and differences between combat medical care and casualty evacuation on the Western Front in the First World War and Afghanistan a century later – I sketched out an Anatomy of another soldier.  It’s based on my ongoing archival work; earlier in the presentation I had used diaries, letters, memoirs, sketches and photographs to describe what Emily Mayhew calls the ‘precarious journey’ of British and colonial troops through the evacuation chain – you can see a preliminary version in ‘Divisions of life’ here – so this experiment was a supplement not a substitute.  But I wanted to see where it would take me.

So here are the slides; they ought to be self-explanatory – or at any rate, sufficiently clear – but I’ve added some additional notes.  I should probably also explain that in each case the object in question appeared on the slide at the end of its associated narrative.


I discuss aerial photography and trench mapping on the Western Front – and the difficulty of navigating the shattered landscapes of trench warfare – in ‘Gabriel’s map: cartography and corpography in modern war’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

You can find a short account of the synchronisation of officers’ watches on the Western Front in ‘Homogeneous (war) time’ here.

A shortage of cotton (combined with its relatively high cost) together with the extraordinary demand for wound dressings prompted the War Office to use sphagnum moss – the British were years behind the Germans and the French in appreciating its antiseptic and absorbent qualities, which also required dressings to be changed less often.  You can get the full story from Peter Ayres, ‘Wound dressing in World War I: the kindly sphagnum moss’, Field Bryology 110 (2013) 27-34 here.

But one RAMC veteran [in ‘Field Ambulance Sketches’, published in 1919] insisted on the restorative power of the white bandage, administered not by regimental stretcher bearers but by the experts of the Royal Army Medical Corps’s Field Ambulance:

The brown first field dressing, admirable as it is from a scientific point of view, always looks a desperate measure; and if it slips, as it generally does on a leg wound, it becomes for the patient merely a depressing reminder of his plight. A clean white dressing, though it may not be nearly so satisfactory in the surgeon’s eyes, seems to reassure a wounded man strangely. It makes him feel that he is being taken care of, gives him a kind of status, and stimulates his sense of personal responsibility. With a white bandage wound in a neat spiral round his leg, he will walk a distance which five minutes earlier, under the dismal suggestion of a first field dressing, he has declared to be utterly beyond his powers.

I borrowed the white maggots (and some of the other details of the wounds) from John Stafford‘s extraordinary, detailed recollection of being wounded on the Somme in August 1916 available here.

Carrying a stretcher across a mud-splattered, shell-blasted landscape was immensely tiring and it was all too easy to lose one’s bearings.  From ‘A stretcher-Bearer’s Diary’, 17 September 1916:

‘The shell fire, and the mud, are simply beyond description, and it is a miracle that any escape being hit. We have to carry the wounded shoulder high, the only way it can be done, because of the mud. Our shoulders are made raw by the chafing of the stretcher handles, although we wear folded sandbags under our shoulder straps. Sweat runs into our eyes, until we can hardly see. When a barrage comes we must keep on and take no notice, as even if we could find cover, there is none for the man on the stretcher….

‘…The rain has made the ground a sea of mud, and we have to carry the wounded three miles to the Dressing Stations, as the wheeled stretchers cannot be used at all. Two men using stretcher slings could not carry a man thirty yards, and I have seen four bearers up to their knees in mud, unable to move without further assistance.

By the time of the 3rd Battle of Ypres, it could take eight men to carry a stretcher half a mile to an aid post – and it could take them two hours to do it.

Even in ideal circumstances, manoeuvering a stretcher down a narrow, crowded trench was extremely difficult, ‘like trying to move a piano down an avenue of turnstiles.’  During major offensives a one-way system was in operation, and stretcher bearers were supposed to use only the ‘down’ trenches.  From the Aid Posts the RAMC stretcher-bearers of the Field Ambulance would take over from the regimental stretcher-bearers.  Here is one young novice, Private A.F. Young with the 2n3/4th London Field Ambulance:

Step by step we picked our way over the duckboards. It is useless to try and maintain the regulation broken step to avoid swaying the stretcher. Slowly we wind our way along the trenches, our only guide our feet, forcing ourselves through the black wall of night and helped occasionally by the flash of the torch in front. Soon our arms begin to grow tired and the whole weight is thrown on to the slings, which begin to bite into our shoulders; our shoulders sag forward, the sling finds its way on to the back of our necks; we feel half-suffocated. A twelve-stone man, rolled up in several blankets on a stretcher, is no mean load to carry, and on that very first trip we found that the job had little to do with the disciplined stretcher-bearing we had spent so many weary hours practising. We are automatons wound up and propelled by one fixed idea, the necessity of struggling forward. The form on the stretcher makes not a sound; the jolts, the shakings seem to have no effect on him. An injection of morphine has drawn the veil. Lucky for him.  

Stretcher-bearers changed – they worked in relays close to the front – but the stretcher remained the same.  Ideally the wounded soldier would remain on his stretcher only as far as the Casualty Clearing Station, from where used stretchers would be returned to dressing stations and aid posts by now empty ambulances.  

Twelve stretchers were supposed to be kept at every Regimental Aid Post, but supplies could easily run out.  When Major Sidney Greenfield was wounded, he remembered:

… the call ‘stretcher-bearers’, ‘stretcher-bearers’, the reply ‘No stretchers’. ‘Find one, it’s an officer.’

And it was not uncommon for those evacuated ‘in a rush’ to remain on their stretcher until the base hospital; and since ambulance trains heading to the coast were less urgent than troop trains and supply trains heading in the opposite direction the journey was usually a slow one.  If the nearest hospital turned out to be full, a not uncommon occurrence, the train would be sent on to the next available one, thus prolonging the journey still more.    

H.G. Hartnett recalled the sheer pleasure of finally being put to bed at the base hospital at Wimereux:

After being washed and changed into clean pyjamas I was lifted off the stretcher on which I had lain for five days and nights into a soft bed—between sheets.

The contrast, of course, was not only with the canvas stretcher but with sleeping in the trenches wrapped in a groundsheet.

Before the widespread introduction of the Thomas splint (above), ordinary or even improvised splints were used.  Here is Sister Kate Luard on board an ambulance train in October 1914:

The compound-fractured femurs were put up with rifles and pick-handles for splints, padded with bits of kilts and straw; nearly all the men had more than one wound – some had ten; one man with a huge compound fracture above the elbow had tied on a bit of string with a bullet in it as a tourniquet above the wound himself.

A fractured femur would turn out to be one of the most common injuries, described by Robert Jones as ‘the tragedy of the war’: if fractures were not properly splinted the soldier would arrive at the Casualty Clearing Station in a state of shock caused by excessive blood loss and pain:

‘These men required radical surgery to save their limbs and lives… Entry and exit wounds would have to be extended widely, removing all dead skin and fat… The bone ends of the femur at the fracture site would then have to be pulled out of the wound and be inspected directly [for loose fragments of bone, clothing and debris]… Wounded soldiers arriving at casualty clearing stations with a weak pulse and low blood pressure secondary to excess blood loss due to inadequately splinted fractures would be unlikely to survive the major procedure’ – let alone the amputations that were often administered.

Mortality rates in such circumstances were around 50 per cent. The Thomas splint was specifically designed to immobilise a fractured femur, and by April/May 1917 its use during the battle of Arras had reduced the mortality rate to 15 per cent, and far fewer men lost their legs: see Thomas Scotland, ‘Developments in orthopaedic surgery’, in Thomas Scotland and Stephen Heys (eds) War surgery 1914-1918.

Stretcher bearers were trained to apply the splint in the field, as in this case, but one senior officer made it clear that in any event it had to be applied no later than the Regimental Aid Post:

The Thomas thigh splint should be applied with the boot and trousers on, the latter being cut at the seam to enable the wound to be dressed. The method of obtaining extension by means of a triangular bandage has been sketched and circulated to all MOs in the Divn. After the splint is adjusted it should be suspended both at the foot and at the ring by two tapes at either end tied to the iron supports one of which is fitted to the stretcher opposite the foot and one opposite the hip.

More information on this truly vital innovation: P.M. Robinson and M. J. O’Meara, ‘The Thomas splint: its origins and use in trauma’, Journal of bone and joint surgery 91 (2009) 540-3: never in my wildest dreams did I imagine reading or referencing such a journal – but it is an excellent and thoroughly accessible account.  See for yourself here.

It was vital not to leave a tourniquet on for long.  Here is one RAMC officer, Captain Maberly Esler, recalling his service on the Somme in June 1915:

If a limb had been virtually shot off and they were bleeding profusely you could stop the whole thing by putting a tourniquet on, but you couldn’t keep it on longer than an hour without them losing the leg altogether. So it was necessary to get the field ambulance as soon as possible so they could ligature the vessels, and the quicker that was done the better.

Lt Col Henderson‘s pencilled notes on the treatment of the wounded (1916-16) urged stretcher bearers to make every effort to stop bleeding with a compress or bandage: ‘ A tourniquet should only be applied if this response fails and where a tourniquet is applied the [Regimental Medical Officer] should be at once informed on the arrival of the case at the [Regimental Aid Post].’  By May 1916 Medical Officers were being warned ‘against too frequent use of the tourniquet, on the grounds that the dreaded gas bacillus (perfringens) is most likely to thrive in closed tissues.’

A tourniquet could aggravate damaged tissues and did indeed increase the risk of gangrene; 80 per cent of those whose limbs had a tourniquet applied for more than three hours required amputation.

This was a major responsibility; sometimes the card was filled in at a Dressing Station, sometimes at the Casualty Clearing Station.  George Carter‘s diary entry for 31 August 1915 explains its importance:

‘My work consists of nailing every patient and getting his number, rank, name, initial, service, service in France, age, religion, battalion and company. That is usually fairly plain sailing, I find, but entails a certain amount of searching [extracting paybook or diary, for example] when a patient is too ill to be bothered with questions. Then I have to find out what is the matter with him, what treatment he has had, and what is going to be done with him… The reason for taking these particulars and making out forms is to prevent any man being lost sight of, whatever happens to him. If he finishes in England after taking a week on the journey, he has got all his partics on him, everywhere he has stopped, the RAMC have been able to see at a glance all about him and can turn up all about him if called on.’

But things could easily go awry.  Here is one young soldier, Henry Ogle:

I think it must have been here [at the CCS] that orderlies tied Casualty Labels on our top tunic buttons, and got mine wrong, though it may have been at Louvencourt or even Hébuterne. Wherever it had happened, it was here that I first noticed it and called the attention of an orderly to it. I had been wounded in the right calf by part of a rifle bullet which penetrated deeply and remained in but I had been labelled for superficial something or other, while Frank Wallsgrove was GSW for gunshot wound. I said, ‘Mine’s wrong, for we two were hit by the same bullet.’ ‘Can’t alter your label, chum. Anyhow it doesn’t matter. It’ll get proper attention.’ We were already being packed into a train so nothing could be done and I didn’t worry about it.

At the base hospital he tried again:

An orderly came along (it was then dark night) and threw a nightgown and a towel at me. ‘Bathroom. Down that passage. On the right. Any of them.’ ‘Don’t think I can get there. Can’t walk.’ ‘Let’s see your label.’ ‘Label’s wrong.’ ‘What do you know about that? Go on.’ ‘I know a bloody sight more about it than you do, chum, but I’ll see what I can do.’ It was not easy as the leg was quite out of action and my orderly friend had no time to watch…  On crawling back I found Frank tucked into bed. Our case-sheets were clipped to boards which hung on the wall behind our beds and, so far, the items from our tunic labels had been copied out on the case-sheets. The next morning the customary round of visits was made by the Medical Officer on duty with Matron and Sister of Ward and an orderly or two. I tried to explain that my label was wrong and Frank backed me up but we were simply ignored. My wound was dressed as a surface wound.

It was only after the swelling of his leg alarmed Matron that Henry was shipped off for an X-ray that revealed the need for an operation to remove the bullet.

‘T’ for anti-tetanus serum.  In the first weeks of the war tetanus threatened to become a serious problem: on 19 October 1915 Sister Kate Luard recorded ‘a great many deaths from tetanus’ in her diary, but two months later she was able to note ‘The anti-tetanus serum injection that every wounded man gets with his first dressing has done a great deal to keep the tetanus under.’  In A Surgeon in Khaki, published in 1915, Arthur Andersen Martin confirmed that ‘every man wounded in France or Flanders today gets an injection of this serum within twenty-four hours of the receipt of the wound’ – at least, if he had been recovered in that time – and ‘no deaths from tetanus have occurred since these measures were adopted.’

More information: Peter Cornelis Wever and Leo van Bergen, ‘Prevention of tetanus during the First World War’, Medical Humanities 38 (2012) 78-82.

Morphine was administered for pain relief, but it still awaits its medical-military historian (unless I’ve missed something).

This was Boyle’s anaesthetic apparatus, but before the widespread availability of these machines a variety of systems was in use and, in the heat of the moment, the administration of anaesthesia was often far removed from the clinical, calibrated procedures the machine made possible. Here is a chaplain who served at No 44 Casualty Clearing Station:

I spent most of my time giving anaesthetics. I had no right to be doing this, of course, but we were simply so rushed. We couldn’t get the wounded into the hospital quickly enough, and the journey from the battlefield was terrible for these poor lads. It was a question of operating as quickly as possible. If they had had to wait their turn in the normal way, until the surgeon was able to perform an operation with another doctor giving the anaesthetic, it would have been too late for many of them. As it was, many died.

The most fortunate patients were those who had little or no recollection of the procedure.  Here is H.G. Hartnett on his experience at No 15 Casualty Clearing Station (the second occasion he was wounded):

 I was destined for surgery and lay in agony on my stretcher until near 9.00 pm, when orderlies carried me into a brilliantly lit operating theatre. I was placed on the centre one of three operating tables where I lay watching doctors and nurses completing an operation on another patient only a few feet from where I lay. When my turn came my wound was uncovered and a doctor placed a mask over my face. Then he asked me the name of the colonel of my battalion as he administered the anaesthetic. I remember no more about the operation or the theatre. When I returned to brief consciousness about 4.00 am the next morning I was lying on a stretcher on the ground in a large canvas marquee, in the third position on my side of it. Others had been carried in during the night, all from the operating theatre. The fumes of the anaesthetic from their clothes and blankets continued to put us off to sleep again. The day was well advanced when I finally returned to full consciousness.  

In the early years of the war anaesthesia was not a recognised speciality – and chloroform was the most widely used agent – but as the tide of wounded surged, operative care became more demanding and Casualty Clearing Stations assumed an increasing operative load so it became necessary to refine both its application and the skills of those who administered it.   In the British Army advances in anaesthesia were pioneered by Captain Geoffrey Marshall at No 17 Casualty Clearing Station at Remy Siding near Ypres from 1915.  By then nitrous oxide and oxygen were commonly used for short operations (which did not mean they were minor: they included guillotine amputations) but longer procedures typically relied on chloroform and ether.  A crucial disadvantage of chloroform was that it lowered blood pressure in patients who had often already lost a lot of blood.  ‘If chloroform be used,’ Marshall warned, ‘the patient’s condition will deteriorate during the administration, and he will not rally afterwards.’  And while ether would often produce an improvement during the operation, this was typically temporary: ‘the after-collapse [would be] more profound and more often fatal.’   His achievement was to show that a combination of nitrous oxide, oxygen and ether significantly improved survival rates for complex procedures – from 10 per cent to 75 per cent for leg amputations – and to have a machine made to regulate the combination of the three agents.  His design was copied and modified by Captain Henry Boyle, whose name became attached to the device.  

More information: Geoffrey Marshall, ‘The administration of anaesthetics at the front’, in British medicine in the war, 1914-1917N.H. Metcalfe, ‘The effect of the First World War (1914-1918) on the development of British anaesthesia’, European Journal of Anaesthesiology 24 (2007) 649-57; E. Ann Robertson, ‘Anaesthesia, shock and resuscitation’, in Thomas Scotland and Steven Heys (eds) War surgery, 1914-1918.

Bovril was advertised in all these ways; the company used a sketch of the Gallipoli campaign to claim that Bovril would ‘give strength to win’ and that it was a ‘bodybuilder of astonishing power’.  In 1916 the company even published an extract from a letter purported to come from the Western Front, accompanied by an image of an RAMC Field Ambulance tending a wounded soldier: 

But for a plentiful supply of Bovril I don’t know what we should have done.  During Neuve Chapelle and other engagements we had big cauldrons going over log fires, and as we collected and brought in the wounded we gave each man a good drink of hot Bovril and I cannot tell you how grateful they were.

Oxo seems to have been less popular, and least for any supposed medicinal or restorative properties, but it was often sent to soldiers by their families at home.  One advertising campaign enjoined them to ‘be sure to send Oxo’, and in one ad a Tommy writes home to say that when he returned to his billet to find the parcel, ‘the first thing I did was to make a cup of OXO and I and my chums declared on the spot this cup of OXO was the best drink we had ever tasted.’  

The image shows a surgeon using a fluoroscope to locate the fragments of the bullet:

An early Crookes x-ray tube visible under the table emits a beam of x-rays vertically through the patient’s body. The surgeon wears a large fluoroscope on his face, a screen coated with a fluorescent chemical such as calcium tungstate which glows when x-rays strike it. The x-ray image of the patient’s body appears on the screen, with the bullet fragments appearing dark.

The ‘partner’ referred to was the Hirtz compass (visible on the left of the image).  According to one standard military-medical history:

The essential feature of the H[i]rtz compass is the possibility of adjustment of the movable legs that support the instrument, so that when resting on fixed marks on the body of the patient the foreign body will be at the center of asphere, a meridian arc of which is carried by the compass. This arc is capable of adjustment in any position about a central axis. An indicating rod passes through a slider attached to the movable arc in such a way as to coincide in all positions with a radius of the sphere, and whether it actually reaches the center or not it is always directed toward that point. If its movement to the center of the sphere is obstructed by the body of the patient, the amount it lacks of reaching the center will be the depth of the projectile in the direction indicated by the pointer.

The value of the compass lies in its wide possibility as a surgical guide, in that it does not confine the attention of  the surgeon to a single point marked on the skin, with a possible uncertainty as to the direction in which he should proceed in order to reach the projectile, but gives him a wide latitude of approach and explicit information as to depth in a direction of his own selection.

The compass built on Gaston Contremoulins‘ attempts at ‘radiographic stereotaxis’; it could usually locate foreign objects to within 1-2 mm: much more than you could possibly want here.

The reassuring scientificity of all this is tempered by a cautionary observation from a wounded officer, Major Sidney Greenfield, who was X-rayed at a Casualty Clearing Station: 

My next recollection was the x-ray machine and two young fellows who were operating it. Apparently the operator had been killed the previous night by a bomb on the site and these two were standing in with little or no experience of an x-ray machine. Their conversation was far from encouraging and was roughly like this: ‘Now we have got to find where it is … is it this knob?’ ‘No.’ ‘Try that one.’ ‘Try turning that one.’ ‘No, that doesn’t seem to be right.’ ‘Ah, There it is.’ ‘Where’s the pencil. We must mark where it is. Now we have to find out how deep it is.’ After some time they seemed to be satisfied. In my condition and knowing little about electrical machines such as x-ray I wondered whether I should be electrocuted and was more relaxed when I was taken back to bed.

Incidentally, X-rays were called Roentgen rays (after the scientist Wilhelm Roentgen who discovered them in 1895) but the British antipathy towards all things German saw them re-named ‘X-rays’ from 1915: Alexander MacDonald, ‘X-Rays during the Great War’, in Thomas Scotland and Steven Heys (eds) War surgery, 1914-1918.

In addition to these terse communications, nurses and chaplains usually wrote to relatives on behalf of their patients. It was seen as a sacred duty, but it often seemed to be a never-ending task.  On 1 August 1917 Sister Kate Luard confided in her diary: ‘I don’t see how the “break-the-news” letters are going to be written, because the moment for sitting down literally never comes from 7 a.m. to midnight.’  In the case shown here, Sister Kathleen Mary Latham had written to Lt Hopkins’s wife on 12 November 1917 from a Casualty Clearing Station to say that

‘your husband has been brought to this hospital with wounds of the legs, arms, hand and face.  He has had an operation and is going on well. Unfortunately it was found necessary to remove the left eye as it was badly damaged, but he can see with the other though the lid is swollen and he cannot use it yet.  No bones are broken.  It will not be advisable for you to write to this address as he will probably be going on to the base in a day or two.’

The telegram from the War Office is dated three days later, by which time Hopkins had reached the base hospital at Le Touquet.  Sister Latham’s earlier account of her work at Casualty Clearing Station No. 3 at Poperinghe in 1915 is here.


In Durham, Louise Amoore pressed me on the anthropomorphism that seems inescapable in a narrative like this; it worries me too (I’ve always been leery of Bruno Latour‘s Aramis for that very reason).  I tried removing the ‘I’ and substituting an ‘it’ but I found doing so destroyed both the operative agency of the objects and, perhaps more important, the transient, enforced intimacy between them and the soldier’s body.  That intimacy was more than physical, I think.  I’ve already cited the reassurance provided by the prick of a needle, the whiteness of a new bandage; but the mundanity of objects could also be disorientating, intensifying an already intense sur-reality.  Here, for example, is Gabriel Chevallier recalling the moment when he and his comrades went over the top:

The feeling of being suddenly naked, the feeling that there is nothing to protect you. A rumbling vastness, a dark ocean with waves of earth and fire, chemical clouds that suffocate. Through it can be seen ordinary, everyday objects, a rifle, a mess tin, ammunition belts, a fence post, inexplicable presences in this zone of unreality.

Aramis also alerted me to another, and perhaps even more debilitating dilemma: a latent functionalism in which everything that is pressed into service works to carry the soldier through the evacuation chain.  That seems unavoidable in a narrative whose telos is precisely the base hospital and Blighty beyond.  Yet we know that, for all the Taylorist efficiency that was supposed to orchestrate the evacuation system in this profoundly industrial war, in many cases the chain was broken, another life was lost or permanently, devastatingly transformed.  As you can see, I’ve tried to do something about that with some of the objects I’ve selected.

I’ll probably add more objects: this is very much a work in progress, and I’m not sure where it will go – so as always, I’d welcome any constructive comments or suggestions.  Any written version would involve longer descriptions, I think, and would probably dispense with most of the scaffolding of notes I’ve erected here (though some of it could and probably should be incorporated into the descriptions).

‘Empire of the Globe’

Klementinum Library, Prague

A quick heads-up: the latest issue of Millennium [44 (3) (2016) 305-20] includes Bruno Latour‘s, ‘Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty’, a keynote address that – amongst many other targets – goes after the globe and geopolitics….  To give you a taste:

To put it more dramatically, the concept of the Globe allows geopolitics to unfold in just the same absolute space that was used by physicists before Einstein. Geopolitics remains stubbornly Newtonian. All loci might be different, but they are all visualised and pointed to on the same grid. They all differ from one another, but in the same predictable way: by their longitude and latitude.

What is amazing if you look at geopolitical textbooks, is that, apparently, the Globe remains a universal, unproblematic, and uncoded category that is supposed to mean the same thing for everybody. But for me, this is just the position that marks, without any doubt, the imperial dominion of the European tradition that is now shared, or so it seems, by everyone else.

I want to argue that the problem raised by the link between Europe and the Globe is that of understanding, as Peter Sloterdijk suggests, why it is that the onus orbis terrarum has been spread so efficiently that it has become the only space for geopolitics to unfold. Why is it that the res extensa, to use a Latin term that pertains to the history of art as well as of science and of philosophy, has been extended so much?

Instead of asking what vision of the Globe Europe should develop, it seems to me that the question should be: is Europe allowed to think grandly and radically enough to get rid of ‘the Globe’ as the unquestioned space for geopolitics? If it is the result of European invention and European dominion, this does not mean that it should remain undisputed. If there is one thing to provincialise, in addition to Europe, it is the idea of a natural Globe itself. We should find a way to provincialise the Globe, that is, to localise the localising system of coordinates that is used to pinpoint and situate, relative to one another, all the entities allowed to partake in geopolitical power grabs. This is the only way, it seems to me, to detach the figure of the emerging Earth from that of the Globe.

Geopolitics limited to absolute space?  The Globe as the ‘unquestioned space’ for geopolitics (and a geopolitics that is indifferent to, even silent about ‘the Earth’)?  Really?

MINCA and ROWAN Schmitt and SpaceIn an interview with Mark Salter and William Walters, which appears as a coda to the issue, there is also a lot about Carl Schmitt and the Nomos of the Earth (and a pointed rejection of the interpretation offered by Claudio Minca and Rory Rowan), and this passage on drones that loops back to the discussion of sovereignty:

The point, I think, is that ‘sovereign’ has one very precise meaning, which is: a referee. So, is there a referee or not? In my understanding of Schmitt, in the two great ideas of his – the ones on politics and the ones in Nomos – there is no referee, precisely. And so, you have to do politics, which means you have to have enemies and friends. Not because of any sort of war-like attitude (even though there is some talk of that in Schmitt as well). But because, precisely, if you have no referee, then you have to doubt; you have to risk that the others might be right, and that you might be wrong. You don’t know your value; you are not in a police operation. OK, so that defines the state now, because the state goes, all the way down, to a police operation. If there is a police operation and not war, then there is a State, in some ordinary sense. That is how we can understand the first hegemon of the United States, entering the First World War as a police operation, no question. The drone, now, flowing over [and] … moving on top of the space of the land, is a police operation because the one who sent it has no doubt that he or she acts as referee. So, the first thing is to draw the extent of that hegemon. How we would do that, I don’t know. Certainly, there would have been a book by Schmitt a few days after the first drone, about this new definition of the State, extending above air its police operation everywhere.

Good knock-about stuff, but I’m not convinced about any of this either (and exasperated by the current preoccupation with the hypostatisation of ‘policing’)…

War and peace in an age of ecological conflict

Bruno LATOURAdvance notice (hence the image on the left):  after a show-stopping performance by my friend and colleague Brett Finlay at last night’s Wall Exchange at the Vogue Theatre  in Vancouver – not only a wry and pointed lecture on Bugs R Us but some excellent jazz to warm us (and our bugs) up – the next Wall Exchange will be on Monday 23 September when Bruno Latour, professor at Sciences Po in Paris and winner of this year’s Holberg International Prize, will give a public lecture on ‘War and peace in an age of ecological conflict’.  Full details will eventually be posted here.

This will be Bruno’s second visit to UBC, and we are looking forward to his return; the first was organised by the Department of Geography several years ago, when he announced that, rather like Molière’s M. Jourdain, he now realised he had always been a geographer without realising it.

You can get a foretaste of the argument from his penultimate Gifford Lecture delivered at the University of Edinburgh earlier this year: an extended version of the text of the lectures, Facing Gaia, is here.  They were dedicated to Peter Sloterdijk, the darling of at least some of today’s geographers, but they begin with an homage to Elisée Reclus.

UPDATE:  Booking is now open online here.

Forensic architecture

Both Stuart Elden and I have drawn attention to Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture project – sketched in outline in his The least of all possible evils and the subject of his Society & Space lecture – but for those who want more…

Eyal Weizman (L) and Steve Graham (R) in the occupied West Bank [Derek Gregory]

Michael Schapira and Carla Hung interview Eyal in “Thinking the Present” at  Full Stop. Here’s an extract where Eyal summarises his project:

‘Forensic Architecture is grounded in both field-work and forum-work; fields are the sites of investigation and analysis and forums the political spaces in which analysis is presented and contested. Each of theses sites presents a host of architectural and political problems.

In fields, lets say starting with Territories, I attempted to engage a kind of “archeology” of present conditions as they could be read, or misread, in architecture. This archeology is not always undertaken by direct contact with the materiality under analysis, but with images of it. The spaces that we debate, analyze, or make claims on behalf of, are very often media products. Similarly, drawing a map includes synthesizing satellite and aerial images as well as images from the ground. Some images are created by optics and some by different sensors that register spectrums beyond the visible. One needs sensors to read sensors.

So this is a kind of archaeology of spaces as they are captured in these different forms of capture and registration. You read details, speckles, pixels and patterns, connect them to larger forces, or at least you understand the impossibility of doing so, often noting paradoxes and misrepresentations. We have done this very close reading of aerial images of colonies in the West Bank, we have read almost all elements from architectural through infrastructural archaeological to horticultural ones visible in these images as a set of tools in a battlefield.

Then there is the forum: a site of interpretation, verification, argumentation and decision. International courtrooms, tribunals, and human rights councils are of course the most obvious sites of contemporary forensics. But there are other political and professional forums.

Each forum is different. The third component of forensics, beyond the architectural and aesthetic, is what you need in order to stand between that “thing” and the forum: an “interpreter.” In ancient Rome it would be the orator; in our days it is perhaps the scientist, or the architect, or the geographer — the “expert witness” that translates from the language of space to the language of the forum. This definition of forensics might help expand the meaning of the term from the legal context to all sorts of others. Politics, as it is undertaken, around the problems of space and its interpretations, is a “forensic politics” as far I understand it.

Each of the multiple political and legal forums in use today — professional, scientific, parliamentary or legal — operates by a different set of protocols of representation and debate. They each have another frame of analysis. Each embodies dominant political forces and ideologies — that is to say that each instrumentalizes forensics as a part of a different ideological structure. In the turbulence of a changing world, there are also informal, subversive and ad-hoc and crisis forms of gathering: pop-up assemblies of protest and revolt in which the debate of financial, architectural (the housing or mortgage crisis), and geopolitical issues are often articulated.

Forensic architecture should thus be understood not only as dealing with the interpretation of past events as they register in spatial products, but about the construction of new forums. It is both an act of claim-making on the bases of spatial research and potentially an act of forum-building.’

Eyal edited a special section of Cabinet magazine (#43) on “Forensics”, and there’s an early lecture (May 2010) on ‘Forensic Architecture’ here and an image-rich conversation with Open Democracy’s wonderful Rosemary Belcher on ‘Forensic Architecture and the speech of things’ here.

There is also a truly excellent website for the project, which is hosted by the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths University of London within the Department of Visual Cultures.

Highlights for me include:

under Investigations, Forensic Oceanography (probing the deaths of more than 1500 people fleeing Libya across the Mediterranean in 2011, including a downloadable report), a report on the effects of airborne White Phosphorus munitions in densely populated urban areas like Gaza, and a challenging (I imagine preliminary) commentary on ways of recording and investigating deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas:

‘The near complete prohibition upon carrying recording equipment into this region of Pakistan, coupled with the non-existence of local maps has made the task of locating and representing the sites and consequences of drone attacks extremely difficult. This inability to produce corroborating evidence has, in turn, severely hampered the pursuit of legal claims. Forensic Architecture is working with human rights and legal justice organisations in both Pakistan and the UK to develop an alternate mapping system that can meet the unique challenges posed by the dilemma of creating accurate maps without relying upon technologies of exact recording, but only upon haptic techniques of observation and recall, or what has been called “transparency cameras”. This system needs to be matched, in turn, with a post-production methodology of transcription and interpretation of recollection data. Survivors and witnesses of drone strikes are typically brought to safe zones outside of Northwest Pakistan in cities such as Islamabad, where they are interviewed by legal staff and their stories cross-referenced and collated.’

under Explorations, a sketch of what the project calls ‘Video-to-space analysis’ derived from the recognition that ‘remote controlled vision machines (satellites and drones) and the handheld devices of citizen journalists working independently of news-desks marks a shift in the ways in which human rights violations will increasingly be charted and mapped and the ways in which the spaces of conflict themselves will increasingly become known or offer up information.’ 

under Presentations, a record of a seminar in March 2012 with Bruno Latour  who comments on a series of investigations (Paulo Tavares, “The Earth-Political”; Nabil Ahmed, “Radical Meteorology'”; John Palmesino, “North – The architecture of a territory open on all sides”): ‘Forensics is the production of public proof’ (with some interesting asides about ‘geopolitics’ and what he calls ‘politics of the earth’), and a tantalising glimpse of a conference presentation by Susan Schuppli under the title ‘War Dialling: Image Transmissions from Saigon’, which discussed the modalities through which, on June 8 1972, ‘a portable picture transmitter, took 14 minutes to relay a series of audio signals from Saigon to Tokyo and then onwards to the US where they were reassembled into a B&W image to reveal a young Vietnamese girl [Kim Phúc] running out of the inferno of an erroneous napalm attack.’

These reflect my own preoccupations, but there’s lots more – it’s a treasure trove of imagination and insight.  Oh – and a reading list.

The death merchants

The opening sequence of Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War (2005), starring Nicholas Cage, provides one of the starkest visualizations of the arms trade as it follows the ‘life of a bullet’ – thousands and thousands of them and one in particular – from the point of view of the bullet itself.   You can watch it (and listen to the wonderful Buffalo Springfield) below:

Here is the script:


– Gunpowder is poured into a metal casing, lead slug mounted on top.

A BULLET is born.  A perfect 39mm.

– The BULLET travels along a conveyor belt with thousands of identical siblings in a Ukrainian factory so grey it’s monochrome.

– The BULLET, picked up by a ham-fisted UKRAINIAN FACTORY WORKER, is tossed into a crate.

– The BULLET, lying in its open crate, rolls down a chute where it’s inspected by a UKRAINIAN MILITARY OFFICER holding a manifest.  He seems to stare directly at our BULLET.

UKRAINIAN OFFICER (to his SUBORDINATE carrying a manifest, in Ukrainian) Call it “agricultural machinery”.

– The BULLET’s crate rattles around in an open-bed truck along an industrial road, passes a decapitated statue of LENIN. – The crate containing our BULLET is placed on a ship in the cold grey Odessa harbor.  A container door closes, plunging the bullet into darkness.

– The door re-opens.  The BULLET, still in its crate, now basks in bright, tropical sunshine, surrounded by an azure sea.

– The crate is removed by a pair of slim, dark hands, revealing a glimpse of the bustling, weathered port of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.  The crate is one of dozens unloaded from the ship.

– BULLET’s POV from another open-air truck, now slogging through a mud-clogged road in lush rainforest.

– The BULLET is unloaded from the truck in Freetown, Sierra Leone – immediately grabbed by the young HAND of a RUF soldier.

– The BULLET is loaded into a 30-round magazine which is inserted into an AK-47 machine gun

– The BULLET waits – in the gloomy chamber.  Suddenly, from outside,the sound of raised voices and gunfire.

– The BULLET and its neighbors start to rise quickly up the magazine towards the chamber as the Kalashnikov is fired.

– Our hero BULLET is next.  Will it see action?

– Smack.  The gun’s bolt strikes the explosive cap, gunpowder ignited, the BULLET driven out of the barrel.

– Shed of its casing – now only a slug – the BULLET emerges into bright sunshine.  It is flying down the main street in Freetown.

– The BULLET gives us a perfect point-of-view of the bullet ahead of it.  They are both flying towards their intended target – a wild-eyed CHILD SOLDIER, a boy no more than twelve, firing an AK-47 almost as tall as he is.

– The leading bullet narrowly misses, whistles past the boy’s ear, striking the whitewashed wall behind – one more pock-mark in a building riddled with pock-marks.

– Our BULLET, following close behind, finds its mark, slamming into the boy’s forehead just above his left eye – his expression, oddly relieved.

– The BULLET carves through the lobes of the boy’s brain where it is enveloped in blood, finally plunged into darkness – the bullet’s final resting place.


I can imagine – I think – all sorts of ways in which today’s object-oriented philosopher-geographers might be interested in this sequence, but there’s also a much more obvious geography embedded in it.  Yet it turns out that it’s not so obvious after all.  One of the liveliest (sic) analyses of the global arms trade is Andrew Feinstein‘s The shadow world: inside the global arms trade (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011); there are also trenchant analyses in Rachel Stohl and Suzette Grillot, The international arms trade (Cambridge: Polity, 2009).  But if you want to track those shadow geographies and their entanglements with the shifting geographies of military and paramilitary violence, then you have to look elsewhere.  And once you start looking you begin to realise why neither of these books includes any maps.

The Stockholm Institute for Peace Research has been tracking global military spending and the arms trade since 1967, and Ian Taylor has converted their recent tabulations into several maps, like the one below that plots military spending in 2011 as a proportion of GDP.

Armsflow has an animated sequence of global arms transfers from 1950 through to 2006, based on the SIPRI database.  And Worldmapper has some maps showing arms exports and arms imports, but these use data from 2003 only and exclude small arms and ammunition.  In fact most investigations of the global arms trade, until at least the end of the Cold War, were directed at major weapons systems – calibrating the ‘arms race’ – but since the 1990s there has been considerable interest in tracking small arms and light weapons (SALW); le monde diplomatique provided a map of small arms for 2002, but this was confined to the legal trade (though it did show the zones where illegal trafficking was most dense), and there is a visualization of the global distribution of small arms here.  In addition, the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT) has a series of maps ranking exporting and importing states.

But these maps are static and don’t show the flows involved. But now a new project between the Igarapé Institute in Brazil and Google’s Creative Lab team uses data from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (one of NISAT’s three partners) to produce an interactive that charts the ‘government-authorised’ global trade in small arms from 1992 to 2010.  I’ve posted a screenshot below but this is an interactive and you really need to move through the image flow. The project claims that 60 per cent of violent deaths in the world are inflicted through the use of small arms and light weapons.  Note: You need Google Chrome to view the interactive.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey identifies the major exporters (excluding ammunition) thus:

Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and the United States routinely report annual exports of small arms, light weapons, their parts, accessories, and ammunition worth USD 100 million or more. The Small Arms Survey estimates that China and the Russian Federation also routinely achieve this level of activity although Beijing and Moscow do not report doing so. In 2007, customs data alone indicated that these eight countries, along with Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, exceeded USD 100 million in exports.’

And the importers:

‘An analysis of customs data suggests that for the period 2001 to 2007 five countries—Canada, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—routinely imported small arms, light weapons, their parts, accessories, and ammunition worth USD 100 million or more per year. Customs data also suggests that eight additional countries imported at least USD 100 million or more in at least one year during this seven-year period: Australia, Cyprus, Egypt, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, and the United Kingdom. A review of customs data shows that Italy routinely imported more than USD 50 million per year from 2001 to 2007.  The United States is by far the biggest documented importer of small arms.

All this matters because, as C.J. Chivers – the author of a remarkable history of the AK-47, The Gun, notes in Foreign Affairs 90 (2011) 110-121 – small arms and ammunition play a central role in ‘fueling the forever war’.  And, as these fragmentary notes suggest, their cascading geographies also explain how they propel what I call ‘the everywhere war’ too. There are two vectors that need to be emphasized.  First – and Chivers is very good on this – there is a layered historical geography to the diffusion of small arms.  As state militaries spasmodically upgrade their stocks so their discarded models typically enter the arms bazaar in what Chivers calls ‘arms cascades’ – which explains how US Marines in Marja seized stocks of both Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles and World War II ammunition and automatic Kalashnikovs.  What this example shows, too, is that there is no clear line dividing ‘white’  from ‘black’ (illicit) trade, what Mike Bourne – whose work I’ve just stumbled upon – calls an ‘upperworld’ and an ‘underworld’.   There may not be fifty shades of grey, but Bourne insists that there is ‘an important distinction between the greyness that occurs because of unclear or weakly enforced procedures or corrupt individuals and that which arises through covert arms supply by states’ [‘Controlling the shadow trade’, Contemporary security policy 32 (2011) 215-240].

Second, the geographies of small arms transfer are much more heterogeneous than the visualizations shown above imply: purely private black-market transfers are often intensely regionalized rather than globalized (again, Bourne’s Arming conflict: the proliferation of small arms (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007) is very helpful here, and there is a clutch of revealing regional studies, notably of arms trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa.  I said something about this – all too briefly – in my ‘War and peace’ (see DOWNLOADS tab) but I need to think much more carefully about it.  My discussion of small arms trafficking in that essay was linked to the ‘new wars’ thesis, and Thomas Jackson has provided a much more incisive critique of the claim that the ‘globalization’ of arms supply feeds into intra-state conflicts, and of the importance of ‘domestic procurement’, in ‘From under their noses: rebel groups’ arms acquisition and the importance of leakages from state stockpiles’, International Studies Perspectives 11 (201) 131-147.  It’s a clunky title but an interesting argument: in Jackson’s view, only well organized non-state actors ‘have the organizational strength and external support to access the global arms market’.

But it’s Bourne’s contemplation of ‘an inglorious mess of hybrids and ever evolving assemblages’, and his continuing riffs on heterogeneity, that open up the most interesting theoretical and political possibilities, for me at any rate.  I recommend his reflections on ‘geopolitical imaginations’ (yes) and ‘netwar geopolitics’ [British journal of Politics and International Relations 13 (2011) 490-513] and (especially) ‘Guns don’t kill people, cyborgs do: a Latourian provocation for transformatory arms control and disarmament’ [Global change, peace and security 24 (2012) 141-163].  That last essay loops back to ways of re-envisaging the opening sequence of Lord of War with which I began…