I saw a man

SHEERS I saw a man N Am ednLast week I was in Bloomington for the drones conference – more on that later – but while I was there I managed to finish Owen Sheers‘ new novel, I saw a man.  All of the reviews I’ve seen so far (and they have been very, very good: see here, here and here, for example) praise the way in which Owen so beautifully recovers the circles of grief that spiral from a drone strike on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that accidentally killed a party of foreign journalists, including Caroline, the wife of the book’s narrator.  ‘Despite its “fire and forget” name tag,’ we are assured, ‘once a Hellfire had been released there would always be someone who never would.’

In fact, Owen and I had corresponded about the details of drone strikes and casualty investigations while he was working on the book, and he certainly treats mourning and memory with extraordinary skill and empathy.  Restricting the victims to those outside the region, apart from a local driver and interpreter, may make the task easier – much of the story plays out in Hampstead – but it’s still formidably difficult.

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Yet the book is also, equally centrally, about distancing.  Michael is an author with a reputation for effacing himself from his narratives.  Towards the end, in a phrase that powers the book’s meta-fictional twist (and which in some editions is captured on a cover from which Sheers’ own name is absent), Michael is told:

 “Isn’t that what you’re always saying? You need distance to see anything clearly? To become your own editor.”

Even when he tries to lose himself in his fencing lessons, his instructor insists:

“DISTANCE! DISTANCE MICHAEL! It’s your best defence!”

And it is of course distance that is focal to the fateful drone strike.  Those most directly involved in the kill-chain are soon effaced from the official narrative:

“A U.S. drone strike.” That was all the press release said. No mention of Creech, screeners, Intel coordinator, an operator, a pilot. It was as if the Predator had been genuinely unmanned. As if there had been no hand behind its flight, no eye behind its cameras.

And those who were killed are artfully turned into the authors of their own destruction (a tactic that is routinely used on Afghan and Pakistani victims too), even sacrificed for a greater good (international humanitarian law’s vengeful doctrine of ‘necessity’):

[T]he Pentagon statement also made mention of the journalists “working undercover,” of “entering a high-risk area.” They had known, it was implied, the dangers of their actions. And, the same statement reminded the world, an influential terrorist had been successfully targeted. The weight of blame, Michael knew, from the moment it happened, was being dissipated, thinned.

But distance is not a moral absolute (one of the most egregious mistakes of critics of drone warfare: if you think it wrong to kill someone from 7,000 miles away, over what distance do you think it is acceptable?).  In a narrative arc that will be familiar to many readers, the pilot of the drone (Daniel) is haunted by what happened, and by the dismal intimacy of death.

Charleston Mountains NV

Each morning, as he sets off from his home outside Las Vegas to drive to Creech Air Force Base, Daniel reflects on the similarity of the distant Charleston mountains to those over which he would soon be flying his Predator or Reaper.  It’s a common trope, actually: George Brant makes much of it in his play Grounded.  ‘Despite their proximity,’ though, Daniel hadn’t been into them and didn’t really know them.

They were his daily view but not yet his landscape, a feature of his geography but not yet his territory. Unlike those other mountains, 8,000 miles away. Those mountains Daniel knew intimately. He’d never climbed in them, either, but he was still familiar with the villages silted into their folds, the shadows their peaks threw at evening and the habits of the shepherds marshalling their flocks along their lower slopes. Recently he’d even been able to anticipate, given the right weather conditions, at what time the clouds would come misting down the higher peaks into the ravines of the valleys. Over the last few months he’d begun to feel an ownership over them. Were they not as much his workplace as that of those shepherds? For the troops operating in the area they were simply elevation, exhaustion, fear. They were hostile territory. But for Daniel they were his hunting ground, and as such it was his job not just to know them but to learn them, too. To love them, even, so that from the darkness of his control station in Creech, he might be able to move through their altitudes as naturally as the eagles who’d ridden their thermals for centuries.

It’s a brilliant paragraph, reflective and revealing, that captures the ways in which the pilot’s optical knowledge is transmuted into ‘ownership’, knowledge pinned to power, and distanced from the corpographies of troops on the ground for whom the mountains meant only ‘elevation, exhaustion, fear’ [see also here].  Daniel was freed from all that, soaring high above them, precisely because his territory appeared elsewhere.  If, as Stuart Elden suggests, territory can be conceived as a political technology that asserts a claim over bodies-in-spaces, then one of the most perceptive passages in I saw a man is the description of Daniel scanning ‘the territory of his screen (my emphasis)’…

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Distance, intimacy, experience: all mediated by political technology and in consequence highly conditional and always partial.  That is how the pilot is made free to pursue what Grégoire Chamayou calls his ‘man-hunting‘: because what appears on the screen is a target – not a man or a woman.

Or, as the book’s epigraph says: ‘I saw a man who wasn’t there….’

Bodies on the line

The more I think about corpography (see also ‘Corpographies under the DOWNLOADS tab) – especially as part of my project on casualty evacuation from war zones – the more I wonder about Grégoire Chamayou‘s otherwise artful claim that with the advent of armed drones the ‘body becomes the battlefield’.  He means something very particular by this, of course, as I’ve explained before (see also here).

But let me describe the journey I’ve been taking in the last week or so that has prompted this post. Later this month I’m speaking on ‘Wounds of war, 1914-2014‘, where I plan to sketch a series of comparisons between casualty evacuation on the Western Front (1914-18) and casualty evacuation from Afghanistan.  I’ve already put in a lot of work on the first of these, which will appear on these pages in the weeks and months ahead, but it was time to find out more about the second.

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En route I belatedly discovered the truly brilliant work of David Cotterrell who is, among many other things, an installation artist and Professor of Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University.  He became interested in documenting the British military casualty evacuation chain from Afghanistan, and in 2007 secured access to the Joint Medical Forces’ operations at Camp Bastion in Helmand.  He underwent basic training, a course in even more basic battlefield first-aid, and then found himself on an RAF transport plane to Bastion.  The Role 3 Hospital was, as he notes, a staging-ground. ‘Field hospitals are islands between contrasting environments,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘between the danger and dirt of the Forward Operating Bases and the order and convention of civilian healthcare.’  You can read a long, illustrated extract from the diary (3 – 26 November 2007) here, follow the photo-essay as a slideshow here, and explore David’s many other projects on his own website here.

THEY-WERE-SOLDIERS_by-Ann-Jones_72The diary is immensely interesting and informative in its own right, not least about the exceptional personal and professional difficulties involved in documenting the evacuation process.  Here there’s a helpful comparison to be made with journalist Ann Jones‘s no less brilliant They were soldiers: how the wounded return from America’s wars (more on this in a later post), which starts at the US military’s own Level III Trauma Center, the Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram, and moves via Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the largest US hospital outside the United States, to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC.

David’s visual record is even more compelling, as you would expect from a visual artist, not only in its documentary dimension but also in the installations that have been derived from it.  In Serial Loop, for example, we are confronted with a looped film showing the endless arrival of casualties at Bastion: ‘The sound of a continuously arriving and departing Chinook helicopter accompanies images of a bleak and wasted landscape; the banality of the film’s fixed perspective masks the dramas that unfold within the ambulances as they travel to triage.’

9-liner explores what David calls ‘the abstraction of experience within conflict’:

9-Liner explores the dislocation between the parallel experiences of casualties within theatre. It is a quiet study of a dramatic event: the attempt to bring an injured soldier to the tented entrance of the desert field hospital. The screens show apparently unrelated information. JCHAT – a silent scrolling codified message – runs on a central screen. Our interpretation of it is enabled through its relationship between one of two radically different but equally accurate views of the same event. To the left we see the Watchkeeper – a soldier manning phones and reading computer screens in a crowded office. On the right we view the MERT flight – the journey of the Medical Emergency Response Team in a Chinook helicopter.

SHU’s REF submission includes this summary of David’s work (one of the very few useful things to come out of that otherwise absurdist exercise):

The research made clear that soldiers recovering from life-changing injuries had limited means of reconstructing the narrative of their transformative experiences. From the time of wounding through to secondary operations in the UK, many soldiers remained sedated or unconscious for a period of up to five days. The radical physical transformation that had occurred during this period was not adequately reconciled through medical notes, and the embargo on photographic documentation of incident and subsequent medical procedures served further to obscure this period of lost memory.

A culture of secrecy meant that medical professionals were unable to access documentation of the expanded care pathway with which they, and their colleagues, were engaged. This fragmentation of experience and understanding within the process of evacuation, treatment and rehabilitation meant that the assessment of the contradictions and disorientation experienced by casualties and medical practitioners was denied to front-line staff.

Family members, colleagues and members of the public outside the immediate environment of the military were unable to visualise or understand the transformative effects of conflict on directly affected civilians and soldiers. Partly as a result, the scope for public debate to engage meaningfully with the longer term societal cost of contemporary conflict was limited.

The submission goes on to list an impressive series of debriefings, presentations to military and medical professionals, major exhibitions, and follow-through research in Birmingham.

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And it’s one of those follow-throughs that prompted me to think some more about corpographies.  I’d noted the connection between corpography and choreography in my original post, but David’s extraordinary collaboration with choreographer Rosie Kay and her dance company gives that a much sharper edge.  Again, there’s a comparison to be drawn – this time with Owen Sheers‘s impressively researched and executed body of work, not only the astonishing Pink Mist but also The Two Worlds of Charlie F (2012)which was a stage play based on the experiences of wounded soldiers who also made up the majority of the cast (see my discussion of these two projects here).

5 Soldiers started life as a stage presentation in 2010 (watch some extracts here):

A dance theatre work with 5 dancers, it looks at how the human body is essential to, and used in, warfare. 5 SOLDIERS explores the physical training that prepares you for war, as well as the possible effects on the body, and the injury caused by warfare.

Featuring Kay’s trademark intense physicality and athleticism, 5 SOLDIERS weaves a journey of physical transformation, helping us understand how soldiers are made and how war affects them.

5 SOLDIERS is a unique collaboration between award-winning choreographer Rosie Kay, visual artist David Cotterrell and theatre director Walter Meierjohann. It follows an intense period of research, where Rosie learnt battle training with The 4th Battalion The Rifles and David spent time in Helmand Province with the Joint Forces Medical Group.

Rosie explained her commitment to the project (and her training with The Rifles) like this:

“I wanted to look at how the physicality of a soldier’s job defines them –like a dancer, the soldier is drilled, trained, their responses becoming automatic, but can anything prepare you for the realities of war? It is young soldiers and their bodies that are the ultimate weapon in war – their strength and weaknesses may win or lose a battle, their ability to harm or injure others is key to victory. While war is surrounded with weaponry, uniforms, history and ceremony, the real business is human, dirty, messy, painful and happening right now.”

(She is, not coincidentally, an affiliate of the School of Anthropology at Oxford).

5 Soldiers installation PNG

And now there’s a film version that works as a multi-screen installation (screen shot above).

Instead of just creating a short film, the team wanted the web user to get a truly interactive way to watch dance, and actually feel that they can go inside the minds and the body of the work. The 80-minute work was cut to just 10 minutes long, and the company spent one week filming in a huge aircraft hangar at Coventry Airport…

Using a variety of cutting edge filming techniques, the collaborative team have created a 13 angle edit that takes you into the heart of the work, follows each of the dancers, and zooms out so that the performers appear to be like ants in a huge empty landscape.

You can see the interactive, multi-perspectival version here.  This relied on helmetcams, and there’s a fine, more general commentary on this in Kevin McSorley‘s ‘Helmetcams, militarized sensation and “somatic war”‘ here.  But here’s the short, ‘director’s cut’ version:

And look at the tag-line: ‘The body is the frontline’.  It’s not only drones that make it so.

Making sense of war

The irresistible Léopold Lambert managed to prompt me to re-work my thoughts on corpography (click on the Categories column on the right for more) for the second series of The Funambulist Papers: you can read the result here, and the printed vesion is en route.  I’m immensely grateful to Léopold for the invitation to take part, for his encouragement – and not least for his patience (all the more remarkable given his legendary capacity to answer any e-mail sent at any time within a single, terrifying minute….).

Regular readers will know that this short essay grows out of both Gabriel’s map: cartography and corpography in modern war and The natures of war, both of which are available under the DOWNLOADS tab.

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My previous conversation with Léopold for his other (podcast) platform, Archipelago, is here.

Staging the landscapes of war – with noises off

NEVINSON The harvest of battle

I’ve been tracing commentaries on Kurt Lewin‘s classic essay on what we might call the topological phenomenology of the battlefield, published in 1917 as ‘Kriegslandschaft‘ (‘landscape of war’ or, loosely, ‘warscape’), which was based on his experience on the Western Front in the First World War. I’ve been particularly interested in his account of the way in which an ordinary landscape is transformed by war.

William Boyd captured what I have in mind in The new confessions:

‘Take an idealized image of the English countryside – I always think of the Cotswolds in this connection… You know exactly the sort of view it provides. A road, some hedgerowed lanes, a patchwork of fields, a couple of small villages… The eye sweeps over these benign and neutral features unquestioningly.

‘Now, place two armies on either side of this valley. Have them dig in and construct a trench system. Everything in between is suddenly invested with new sinister potential: that neat farm, the obliging drainage ditch, the village at the crossroads become key factor sin strategy and survival. Imagine running across those intervening fields in an attempt to capture positions on that gentle slope opposite… Which way will you go? What cover will you seek? … Try it the next time you are on a country stroll and see how the most tranquil scene can become instinct with violence. It only requires a change in point of view.’

lewin_kurtI’ve discussed this passage before, but what interested Lewin was the way in which the landscape changed for the soldier as he approached the front, moving from a ‘landscape of peace’ to a ‘landscape of war’ – what he described as the production of a ‘directive landscape’.  You can find an English translation here, but it’s behind a paywall I can’t scale: Art In Translation, 1 (2)( 2009) 199-209.  (If anybody has a ladder, please let me know).

En route, I stumbled on a fascinating PhD thesis by Greer Crawley, Strategic Scenography: staging the landscape of war (University of Vienna, 2011). I’ve discussed various conceptions of the ‘theatre of war’ several times before (see for example here, here and here), but Greer provides a much fuller and richer account.  Here is the abstract:

This dissertation is concerned with the construction of ‘theatres of war’ in the target landscapes of 20th century military conflict in Europe and America. In this study of the scenography of war, I examine the notion of the staged landscape and the adoption of theatrical language and methodologies by the military. This is a multi-disciplinary perspective informed by a wide range of literature concerning perception, the aerial view, camouflage and the terrain model. It draws on much original material including declassified military documents and archival photographs. The emphasis is on the visualisation of landscape and the scenographic strategies used to create, visualise and rehearse narratives of disguise and exposure. Landscape representation was constructed through the study of aerial photographs and imaginative projection. The perceptual shifts in scale and stereoscopic effects created new optical and spatial ‘truths’. Central to this analysis is the place of the model as strategic spectacle, as stage for rehearsal and re-enactment through performance and play. This research forms the context for an exploration of the extension and translation of similar scenographic strategies in contemporary visual art practice. Five case studies demonstrate how the artist as scenographer is representing the political and cultural landscape.

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And the Contents (the summaries are Greer’s own):

Chapter 1: Scenographic strategies

Theatre of War/Strategic Fantasy/Staging the Landscape

This chapter identifies the scenographic strategies that produce the performance landscape for the rehearsal and re-enactment of the Theatre of War. The aim is to define what is meant by strategic scenography and to establish the basic theoretical foundations upon which to build my argument.

Chapter 2: The Aerial Perspective

Aerial Theatre/The Stereoscopic View

This chapter focuses on the aerial view and the methodology of the stereoscope. This analysis of the relationship between scenography and topography from an aerial perspective expands on theories of aerial perception and stereoscopy. Drawing on the experiences of the reconnaissance pilots and photo interpreters during wartime, it attempts to understand the scopic conditions under which they visualised the landscape.

Chapter 3: Strategies of Perception

Camouflage Strategies/Fake Nature/The Scenic Effects

This is a key chapter which looks at the work of Kurt Lewin’s important contribution to an understanding of the perception of landscape. The second section deals specifically with the camouflage strategies adopted by the camoufleurs when staging their illusions in the First and Second World Wars. It provides a historical overview of the main camouflage strategies and then focus on particular scenic elements, e.g. scenery, lighting, props, sound, costume.

Chapter 4: The Territory of the Model

Maps, Models and Games/ The Model as Spectacle/The Terrain Model

This chapter begins with an examination of the methodologies of the map, model and games; the role of mimesis and performativity and the representation of the terrain. What follows is a consideration of the model as a strategic spectacle and its use to represent political ideologies, commercial and military interests and utopian visions. Within an historical context, it examines how the application of new technologies and scopic regimes has expanded the scenographic possibilities of the terrain model.

Chapter 5: Artists’ Manoeuvres

Wafa Hourani and Michael Ashkin − Nomos/Gerry Judah − The Crusader/Mariele Neudecker – Seduction Chaff/Katrin Sigurdardottir – Mappings/Hans Op de Beeck – St Nazaire

This chapter is an exploration of the deployment of scenographic strategies in contemporary artistic practice. Through five case studies it examines how the artist as scenographer has adopted theatrical practices and the methodologies of the model, camera and film as means of representing the political and cultural landscape.

Greer is currently a lecturer in Scenography at Royal Holloway, University of London and in BA and MA Spatial Design at Buckinghamshire New University.  You can download her thesis here – it’s a feast of delights, with marvellous illustrations and a perceptive text.

MoratSoundsAs you can see, Greer’s work focuses on the visual, and I’m equally interested in the role of the other senses in apprehending and navigating the battlefield – hence my continuing interest in corpography (see here and here).  So I was also pleased to find a newly translated discussion of the soundscape of the Western Front: Axel Volmar,  ‘”In storms of steel”: the soundscape of World War I’, in Daniel Marat (ed), Sounds of modern history: auditory cultures in 19th and 20th century Europe (Oxford: Berghahn, 2014) pp. 227-255; a surprising amount of the text can be accessed via Google Books, but you can also download the draft version via academia.edu.  More on Axel’s work (and other downloads, in both German and English) here.

And this too takes us back to Lewin:

‘…new arrivals to the front had not only had to leave behind their home and daily life, but also the practices of perception and orientation to which they were accustomed. With entry into the danger zone of battle, the auditory perception of peacetime yields to a, in many respects, radicalized psychological experience—a shift that the Gestalt psychologist, Kurt Lewin, attempted to articulate with the term “warscape”: for the psychological subject, objects lost most of their peacetime characteristics during wartime because they were henceforth evaluated from a perspective of extreme pragmatism and exclusively in terms of their fitness for war….

‘In place of day-to-day auditory perception, which tended to be passive and unconscious, active listening techniques came to the fore: practices of sound analysis, which might be described as an “auscultation” of the acoustic warscape—the method physicians use to listen to their patients by the help of a stethoscope. In these processes, the question was no longer how the noises as such were structured (i.e. what they sounded like), but rather what they meant, and what consequences they would bring with them for the listeners in the trenches. The training of the ear was based on radically increased attentiveness.

The subject thrust to the front thus comprised the focal point of an auditory space in which locating and diagnostic listening practices became vital to survival.’

For more on sound analysis, see my discussion of sound-ranging on the Western Front here, and the discussion in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

Smelling blood

Writing about the sensory armature of modern war seems to have two dimensions (and as usual it’s the relationship between them that matters).  One involves the political technologies used by advanced militaries to detect the physical presence of their enemies: the infrared sensors that form part of the multispectral targeting systems fitted to Predators and Reapers that can detect heat signatures of bodies, other sensors that can detect ‘chemical signatures’ associated with IED factories, and sophisticated signals monitoring equipment.  These are all prosthetic devices that extend the range of the human sensorium – though they also depend upon it – so that the other dimension, which remains stubbornly important even in later modern war, is constituted by the human body and its own sensory capabilities.  This was the central concern of the conference on Sensing War held over the summer, and you can find the abstracts from the meeting here (I particularly like the remark made by a Bundeswehr officer reported by Marion Naeser-Lather: ‘To understand Afghanistan, you have to see, hear, smell and taste it’).  It’s also a central theme of my lecture/essay on ‘The natures of war’.

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While I was in Zurich I had a lively and productive discussion about the penultimate draft of that essay with Benedikt Korf, Timothy Raeymaekers, Rory Rowan and their students, and as a result of that, together with an e-conversation with Steve Legg, I’ve been re-thinking my previous ideas about corpography.  Steve drew my attention to the ways in which I describe senses being ‘out of place’ on the Western Front: tasting rather than feeling mud, for example, or feeling rather than hearing shell-fire.  You can find further examples in the extracts from the essay I’ve posted about the war in Vietnam here and here.  This scrambling of the senses seems to be different from the intersensoriality discussed by Concordia’s innovative Centre for Sensory Studies.

In response to a similar observation in Zurich, I suggested that the Enlightenment project involved a disciplining of the senses – establishing what it was permissible to see, to hear, to touch, to taste or to smell – and allocating epistemologies to each: what it was possible to know from seeing, hearing, and the rest.  And that perhaps these regulated divisions were undone and their epistemologies radically challenged by the intensity of experience on the battlefield.

Since then I’ve stumbled upon the wonderful work of Matt Leonard; see, for example, his exquisitely titled essay on the First World War, ‘A senseless war‘, in which he argues that

‘The Western Front was a world that could not be negotiated by temporarily reordering the operation of our senses, for the ‘temporary’ became a relative term in the hell of the trenches. Rather, the relationship with the environment had to be completely restructured.’

See also his splendid essay on ‘Mud in World War I’ from Military history here.

I’ve also discovered a literature on the history of the senses that I should really have known about, including Diana Ackerman‘s A natural history of the senses (1990) – a book Richard Fetzer suggests we ‘read, taste, fondle’so I suspect it says rather more about the joys of corporeality than its trials – and Robert Jütte‘s A history of the senses: from Antiquity to cyberspace (2004).

More recently, there’s Constance Classen‘s The deepest sense: a cultural history of touch (2012) which cries out to be read alongside Santanu Das‘s brilliant Touch and intimacy in First World War literature (2008).  Bloomsbsury’s series on  A Cultural History of the Senses (2014) includes volumes on A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Empire, 1800-1920 (edited by Constance Classen) and A Cultural History of the Senses in the Modern Age, 1920-2000 (edited by David Howes); the detailed contents list is here, though I don’t know how much space they devote to war.

There’s also a sensory archaeology.  For intimations of a sensory geography, see Mark Paterson, ‘Haptic geographies: ethnography, haptic knowledges and sensuous dispositions’, in Progress in human geography 33 (6) (2009) 766-88 (also available here), the collection Mark edited with Martin Dodge, Touching space, placing touch (2012) and Caleb Johnson and Hayden Lorimer, ‘Sensing the city’, Cultural geographies 21 (4) (2014) 673-80.  There’s also developing work on sonic geographies.  But substantively this is all a far cry from what I’ve been thinking about here.

SMITH The smell of battlePerhaps closest to what I have in mind is Mark Smith‘s re-narration of the American Civil war in The smell of battle, the taste of siege (2014):

Historical accounts of major events have almost always relied upon what those who were there witnessed. Nowhere is this truer than in the nerve-shattering chaos of warfare, where sight seems to confer objective truth and acts as the basis of reconstruction. In The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege, historian Mark M. Smith considers how all five senses, including sight, shaped the experience of the Civil War and thus its memory, exploring its full sensory impact on everyone from the soldiers on the field to the civilians waiting at home.

From the eardrum-shattering barrage of shells announcing the outbreak of war at Fort Sumter; to the stench produced by the corpses lying in the mid-summer sun at Gettysburg; to the siege of Vicksburg, once a center of Southern culinary aesthetics and starved into submission, Smith recreates how Civil War was felt and lived. Relying on first-hand accounts, Smith focuses on specific senses, one for each event, offering a wholly new perspective. At Bull Run, the similarities between the colors of the Union and Confederate uniforms created concern over what later would be called “friendly fire” and helped decide the outcome of the first major battle, simply because no one was quite sure they could believe their eyes. He evokes what it might have felt like to be in the HL Hunley submarine, in which eight men worked cheek by jowl in near-total darkness in a space 48 inches high, 42 inches wide. Often argued to be the first “total war,” the Civil War overwhelmed the senses because of its unprecedented nature and scope, rendering sight less reliable and, Smith shows, forcefully engaging the nonvisual senses. Sherman’s March was little less than a full-blown assault on Southern sense and sensibility, leaving nothing untouched and no one unaffected.

One last thought: the identification (and limitation) of just five senses is a conventional, European construction, and so I’m left wondering about Steve’s final suggestion: that perhaps the intensity of experience in the deserts of North Africa and the Central Highlands of Vietnam reveals the dependence of the Cartesian model on particular ‘natures’ and, above all, on the ethnocentric privileges accorded to ‘temperate nature’ as ‘normal nature’.  These radically intemperate natures – the Western Front too – thus took their toll on more than the bodies of the soldiers who fought through them.

Quagmire

I’ve received several e-mails asking for “Boots on the Ground” to be continued.  So here is the rest of my discussion of militarised nature in Vietnam, extracted from the long-form version of “The natures of war“.  It follows on directly from that earlier post, but please bear in mind that this is still only a draft – in particular, I need to add a discussion of malaria, somehow, somewhere – and that I’ve excised the footnotes and references from this version.

***

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Even the weather seemed out to get them. The tropical heat and humidity were so enervating that they appeared to possess their own monstrous agency. ‘There were moments when I could not think of it as heat,’ Caputo confessed, ‘rather it seemed to be a thing malevolent and alive.’ Dehydration and heatstroke were constant concerns, and the monsoon only compounded their misery. ‘It rained like it had been waiting ten thousand years to rain,’ one lieutenant said when the monsoon broke, and John Ketwig described rain drops ‘as large as marbles and driven with enough force to sting when they hit you.’ The ground was turned into a sea of mud, and even the ‘rear-echelon motherfuckers’ on the permanent bases had to contend with their bunkers and foxholes filling with water, and roads becoming ‘ribbons of churned slop’. Ketwig again:

‘There were areas of shallow mud and areas of deep mud, but there were no areas without mud. Most of our world was under water, and you had to know where to step. The huge trucks we worked with would often sink up to the frame. The driver would try four-wheel-drive, spin the cleated duals at the rear, and dig himself in deeper. The rule was, the driver who “lost” a truck had to swim down and attach the tow chains. Swim is an accurate term for the depth of the mud, but hardly describes the frenzied mucking about in zero-visibility goo.’

One Marine newly arrived at a base near the DMZ in the middle of the monsoon was advised that the best way to navigate the ‘boot sucking slurry’ was to ‘walk in the tank tracks’: ‘The mud is only an inch deep there … Plus if we take incoming [fire], you can lay down in the track and you’re five inches lower.’ Vietnam was often more than a metaphorical quagmire.

The irony was that the billowing storm clouds limited air reconnaissance and so made ground patrols all the more important. They also constrained the logistical and medical support that could be provided to them:

‘There were many days when aircraft could not fly in such all-consuming cloudy conditions. Hence we were not always assured that we would be re-supplied, or that we could get choppers in to take out our wounded or dead, and on one occasion we were compelled to sleep with our dead, and then awake in the morning and carry our dead along with us, while waiting for an opportunity to clear an LZ (landing zone) so that choppers could come in and lift our comrades out of the jungle for their final journey home.’

For those out beyond the wire the monsoon wreaked havoc. Jack Estes describes one tropical storm ‘ripping, ravaging and slapping through the jungle’ and ‘howling like a monstrous beast.’ Soldiers were drenched to the skin, their uniforms chafed, their packs became heavier as they absorbed the water, and thick, cloying mud clung to their boots and weighed down their every step. ‘The mud was ground into my letters’, wrote one Marine.

‘The mud was ground into everything. The mud was in our ears and mouths. Our c-rats [C-rations] tasted like the mud we lived in… We were brown men. Even the black men were brown men.’

Mud in Vietnam

It was all desperately invasive, and Lawrence said he felt ‘persistently violated by the soaking wetness’. There was no let-up when darkness fell and they dug in for the night. ‘Sleep was measured in minutes at a time on the rainy nights’ and ‘muscles were constantly drawn tight against the cold.’ One Marine admitted that one night it was so miserable that ‘after a while we were hugging like young lovers’ just to stay warm. But usually the combination of cold and wet was utterly debilitating.

‘The rain comes in sheets all through the night and when I am relieved I remain standing with the Marine that has relieved me. Soon we realize that nearly the entire team is standing to escape the flooded ground. As the rain intensifies, I surrender to the cold deluge; wrapping myself into the wet, muddy plastic, I try to sleep. Before daylight, I wake shivering and half submerged in a deep puddle of cold rainwater, the edges of my poncho floating beside me. I pray that I am dreaming. Leeches cover my legs, their bodies filled to the point of bursting, gorged with type “O” Positive. The crotch of my jungle trousers is caked with blood; a leech has fed on my groin. My wrinkled fingers struggle with the bottle of insect repellant and as I squirt it on their membrane-like skin, I vent my rage on them with frantic curses that are filled with disgust. As I watch them fall off in agony, I scratch at the wounds to maintain the flow of rich, clean blood that will hopefully prevent infection; the repellent burns deep into each wound.’

Aching muscles, pus-filled skin sores and scabs (‘jungle rot’) and even leeches were the least of their worries. The infantry still marched on its feet as well as its stomach – for the grunts at least, ‘the war was fought with the feet and legs’ – and constant immersion invited the return of an old adversary. When Delezen hauled off one of his soaking boots he was taken aback:

Vietnam feet‘[T]he foot is a wrinkled mass of putrid milk-white flesh and is badly cracked and bleeding. With the ragged boot in one hand and my weapon in the other, I crawl through the matted bamboo to the Corpsman [Marine medical specialist]; after a quick glance he tells me that there is nothing that he can do, his feet are in the same condition. It is immersion foot; trench foot was what our grandfathers called it in France. One by one each of my teammates removes one boot at a time and stares in repulsion at the condition of their feet… I try to dry the foot but I have nothing that is not waterlogged. Finally, in desperation, I place the wet socks under the shoulder holster; perhaps my body heat will dry them. There is nothing more that I can do so I pull the muddy jungle boot back on, lace it up, and try to forget about my ravaged feet.’

These physical sensations of exhaustion and pain were registered in a sensorium in which the usual hierarchy of senses was scrambled. As on the Western Front and in the Western Desert, sight was compromised in the rainforest. Visibility was limited by the dense vegetation and the filtered light. With a patrol strung out in single file five metres apart, it was all too easy to lose sight of the man in front – O’Brien said they each followed him ‘like a blind man after his dog’ – and at night ‘it was like walking inside a black velvet bag.’ Everyone’s eyes ached ‘from the constant strain of searching through the layers of jungle.’ In the middle of this ‘war of plant life’, wrote Caputo, ’it was difficult to see much of anything through the vines and trees, tangled together in a silent, savage struggle for light and air’. And yet, for that very reason, they had an almost palpable ‘sense of being surrounded by something we could not see.’ ‘It was the inability to see that vexed us most,’ he continued. ‘In that lies the jungle’s power to cause fear: it blinds.’ Not surprisingly, he concluded that ‘in Vietnam the best soldiers were unimaginative men.’ Once again, O’Brien spells out the consequences: ‘What we could not see, we imagined.’

TOM VAN SANT Night_Patrol_Vietnam_68.jpg.w560h404

As sight lost its primacy the other senses were heightened, particularly hearing. Noise was literally a dead giveaway – ‘sound was death in the jungle’ – and the jingle of equipment had to be minimised. Before setting out, Delezen explained, ‘each of us, donning our heavy equipment, jumps up and down listening attentively for the slightest sound; there can be no exception. What may be considered an insignificant rattle will become amplified in the silent bush.’ Sounds also seemed to travel farther at night. ‘Shortly after sunset the jungle became as black as tar, and our sense of hearing came to predominate over our sense of sight.’ Other noises filled the canopy – ‘the croaking of tree frogs, the clicking of gecko lizards like sticks of bamboo banging together, the drone of myriad insects, and the occasional screech of a monkey’ – and these played cruel tricks with the imagination. In isolation they could sound a false alarm, and it was common for rookies to wake their companions because they had heard something, only to be reassured ‘there was nothing out there.’ But together, as a sort of green noise, they could ‘lull you into somnambulance … [and] numb your sense of hearing and smell and sight until you start seeing things in the night.’

All of these burdens, physiological and psychological, convinced many soldiers that their greatest danger was from Nature itself. What exercised them most about the jungle was not the prospect of an encounter with a wild animal; their accounts mention bamboo vipers, whose bite was horribly painful but not deadly, and even the occasional tiger, but they repeatedly tell themselves that ‘all the bombing and artillery have driven the wildlife up into Cambodia.’ Neither was it the thought of being killed or wounded in an ambush: ‘Contact with the enemy was very sporadic’, John Nesser explained, and instead ‘it was the day-to-day miseries in the bush that got to us.’ It would be wrong to minimise the dangers of being killed or wounded, which surely preyed on soldiers’ minds. But what they clearly came to loathe with a passion was their intimate, intensely corporeal violation by the jungle itself. ‘There it is you motherfuckers,’ crows Corporal Jancowitz in Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn: ‘Another inch of the green dildo.’ The image is part of a long tradition of ‘porno-tropicality’ that is hardly peculiar to the US military, but during the Vietnam war it has a particular resonance for what it implies about violence, masculinity and the ‘un-manning’ of American soldiers.

Its power turns on the militarisation of nature in an altogether different register: one in which the jungle becomes terrifyingly alive, and its militant agency is made to account for the degradation of soldiers caught in its poisonous embrace and to justify its own destruction. There is a scene in Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green in which a photo-interpreter on a large US airbase is advised to sit on top of a bunker and stare at the jungle.

WRIGHT Meditations in Green‘“You have to concentrate because if you blink or look away for even a moment you might miss it, they aren’t dumb despite what you may think, they’re clever enough to take only an inch or two at a time. The movement is slow but inexorable, irresistible, maybe finally unstoppable. A serious matter.”

“What movement, what are you are you talking about?”

“The trees, of course, the fucking shrubs. And one day we’ll look up and there they’ll be, branches reaching in, jamming our M-60s, curling around our waists.”

“Like Birnam Wood, huh?”

“Actually, I was thinking more of triffids.”’

The scene is fiction but not entirely fanciful – one platoon leader called it ‘the magic hour when men begin to look like bushes, and bushes begin to move’ – and many came to see the jungle as capricious and even wilfully obstructive. Caputo complained that ‘cord-like “wait-a-minute” vines coiled around our arms, rifles and canteen tops with a tenacity that seemed almost human.’ A radio operator humped the set on his chest not his back because otherwise ‘the vines constantly change the frequency by spinning the knobs of the radio top.’ ‘Perhaps it is the bush that is the enemy’, wondered Delezen:

‘[T]he jungle is a “cat’s cradle” of twisted vines that seem alive, as if reaching for me. Sometimes, even when not moving, I find myself held in their grasp, it as if they silently attack when I am not looking, as though they are thinking organisms. When moving, the only way to pass through the vines is to become a vine; it is impossible to push through the jungle, forcing, fighting, and struggling. The bush must be negotiated with and each vine must be silently dealt with as an individual. Stealth and quiet is all that prevents our destruction from the ever-present enemy. We have learned that we must become a part of the bush, always searching for the passage that lies hidden through the entanglement…’

In this passage the young Marine moves from being attacked by the vines – ‘held in their grasp’ – to becoming one, ‘a part of the bush’, and the precarious relation between the two had to be constantly renegotiated if the men were to survive. ‘At times I am certain that it is possible for our team to be consumed by the enveloping walls of foliage,’ Delezen continues, ‘without a trace we could easily disappear forever, absorbed into the tangled mass.’ This was more than the spectral fear of getting lost, though that was ever present; more too than losing your grip in what O’Brien called ‘a botanist’s madhouse’. For many soldiers it was also an existential threat that emanated from a diabolical Nature. ‘The Puritan belief that Satan dwelt in Nature could have been born here,’ Herr wrote in an extraordinary passage:

‘Even on the coldest, freshest mountaintops you could smell jungle and that tension between rot and genesis that all jungles give off. It is ghost-story country… Oh, that terrain! The bloody, maddening uncanniness of it!’

Downs too was taken aback by the pervasive sensation of rot. ‘Covering everything was the smell of slimy, rotting vegetation’, he recalled. ‘Our clothes and our bodies were beginning the rotting process of the jungle.’ He recognised this as a physical danger – ‘every scratch was a breeding spot for bacteria which could result in the rapid growth of jungle rot’ – and one that involved constant physical degradation: as one Marine officer put it, ‘it is a different way to live, and it is not a state of grace.’ Downs also saw this as a profoundly moral danger. ‘Every day we spent in the jungle eroded a little more of our humanity away.’ For him and for countless others the rot set in as the deeply sedimented Enlightenment distinctions between nature and culture dissolved in the jungle. ‘Everything rotted and corroded quickly over there,’ Caputo agreed, ‘bodies, boot leather, canvas, morals’:

‘Scorched by the sun, wracked by the wind and rain of the monsoon, fighting in alien swamps and jungles, our humanity rubbed off of us as the protective bluing rubbed off the barrels of our rifles.’

To him, it was ‘an ethical as well as a geographical wilderness. Out there, lacking restraints, sanctioned to kill, confronted by a hostile country and a relentless enemy, we sank into a brutish state.’

Admissions like these reappear throughout the letters, diaries and memoirs that I have read, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly (the cleansing shower when a patrol returns from the field can sometimes be more than a matter of physical hygiene). They invite questions about how far the imprecations of nature – its assault not only on the human body but also on the humanity of the soldier – functioned for some of them as a more or less unconscious alibi for atrocity, so that those who committed acts of indiscriminate or unnecessary violence believed they had somehow been reduced to a ‘state of nature’ by nature. Its plausibility must have been heightened by the common dehumanisation of the Vietnamese (‘gooks’) and the reduction of the enemy and the civilian population to creatures of nature. Bernd Greiner says as much in his detailed analysis of atrocities in the far north and south of Vietnam: ‘Nature, the elements, literally everything took on the form of the enemy.’

The same imaginary also licensed a war on nature. The B-52 strikes, the napalm and the artillery bombardments all shattered the landscape (and the lives of many of those within it) but, as Wright’s Griffin is told in Meditations in Green, ‘it’s not as if [the] bushes were innocent.’ Griffin’s job was to assess the effects of the spraying of Agent Orange on the rainforest, the mangroves and the paddy fields by examining time series of air photographs:

‘It was all special effects out there. Crops aged overnight, roots shrivelled, stalks collapsed where they stood into the common unmarked grave of poisoned earth. Trees turned in their uniforms, their weapons, and were mustered out, skeletal limbs too weak to assume the position of attention… Griffin sat on his stool and watched the land die around him.’

Effects of Agent Orange on the ground

Wright was not alone in imaginatively enlisting the trees in the enemy’s battalions. This was the logic behind Operation Hades – a differently diabolical militarisation of nature – that was soon re-named Operation Ranch Hand. Its objective was to spray the forests with herbicides and deny their cover to the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. In so far as the intention was, as David Zierler reports, to create ‘a no man’s land across which the guerrillas cannot move’ then at least some American officials were perturbed at the spectre of the Western Front being let loose once again: ‘Defoliation is just too reminiscent of gas warfare.’ Their objections were dismissed, however, and the US Air Force expressed considerable satisfaction at the results: ‘herbicide operations in the Republic of Vietnam have proved to be very useful as a tactical weapon.’ Those on the ground had a different view. ‘We didn’t know anything about Agent Orange beyond the fact that it was a failure,’ declared Nathaniel Tripp. The brute fact was that removing the forest cover made movement more difficult for American troops too. Agent Orange turned the surviving vegetation into a slimescape and, worse, allowed the hated vines to multiply:

‘During the year or two that had elapsed since [Agent Orange] had been sprayed on the woods, the “wait-a-minute” vines seemed to have developed a liking for the stuff and taken over like a kudzu horror movie. The long, prickly vines hung in festoons from the stark skeletons of poisoned trees and covered the ground with a shoulder-high thicket. Sometimes it would take an hour to move forward a kilometer, hacking through the vines while the sun beat down unmercifully. Extra water was frequently dropped by helicopter between stream crossings, but men kept collapsing from heat exhaustion nonetheless, and we all had to stop and wait again while they were medevaced out’.

03_Plowinthecutpackmule

And clearing the rainforest exposed American patrols to more than the sun’s harsh rays. Later Tripp and his platoon were part of a division tasked with securing a route used to supply a detachment of forty Rome Plows – giant armoured bulldozers – that were busy ‘flattening mile after mile of woods’. ‘It was something to see from the air,’ he recalled, ‘like battalions of tornadoes had just passed through leaving nothing but a shattered tangle of mud and tree trunks and root masses.’ But again, the ground provided a different perspective:

‘Digging in was all but impossible, but we did the best we could in the pouring rain. The ground was covered everywhere with a mat of logs and branches, all interwoven and compacted, three to five feet thick and mixed with gummy gray clay. Surely, America had triumphed over the woods at last, and created a place that was impossible for anyone to hide in. Now, we were trying to hide in it, while the Viet Cong watched from the dark woods just meters away on both sides of the swath.’

And yet, even in this ‘landscape of hopelessness’, as Tripp called it, there were precious moments of relief and even of redemption. Jacobs knew that ‘war destroys everything it touches’, but sometimes he found himself marvelling at ‘the natural beauty that surrounded us.’ Just when Delezen was in despair – ‘There is no beauty here, only destruction’ – he found a wild flower near an abandoned, half-filled fighting hole. ‘Like a rare jewel, it seems misplaced; there is no place for beauty here.’ But then:

‘I remove the sweat soaked leather bush glove from my hand and drop to one knee to touch the delicate petals. My hand is caked with slippery mud, a mixture of red dust from Route 9 and sweat; the hand seems filthy and crude against the soft purple and white flower. I decide not to touch it; I do not want to spoil this last bit of beauty and purity that has somehow escaped the Devil’s grasp.

‘I look toward the team that continues to move on without me; I am reluctant to leave the petite blossom unprotected. Quickly, I gather a small pile of rusty ration cans and place them around the frail green stem. Perhaps the cans will offer protection; the team is looking back at me, I have to rejoin them. I want to take the flower with me but it will only wither and die in the heat. I have done all that I can to protect it from the madness. For a brief moment, I have escaped the hell of war and entered a peaceful sanctuary where care and compassion still exist…. As I move away from the little pile of rusty cans, occasionally I look back; with each glance the soft colors of the flower fade until they blend into the dry-green of the tortured vegetation.’

It’s an affecting passage in which Delezen joins his forebears on the Western Front in affirming the stubborn persistence of a pastoral nature, even in a tropical rainforest, but the most elegiac moment I know comes towards the end of Matterhorn. Marlantes’ young lieutenant thinks of the jungle ‘already regrowing around him to cover the scars they had created’:

‘Mellas felt a slight breeze from the mountains rustling across the grass valley below him to the north. He was acutely aware of the natural world. He imagined the jungle, pulsing with life, quickly enveloping Matterhorn, Eiger, and all the other shorn hilltops, covering everything. All around him the mountains and the jungle whispered and moved, as if they were aware of his presence but indifferent to it.’

Firebase 6 Dak To Vietnam 1971

In speaking so directly to the recuperative, regenerative capacity of even a militarised nature, I suspect Marlantes is also expressing a desperate hope that those who have brutalised so many of its life-forms might find redemption too.

DEU 1968 Jahrestag

 

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.