Fragments

The flu has restricted me to not so much light reading as lighter-than-air reading, so here are some short contributions and notices that appeared during the Christmas break and which address various aspects of (later) modern war and military violence:

Peter Schwartzstein on ‘The explosive secrets of Egypt’s deserts‘ – the recovery of military maps, aerial photographs, personal journals and sketchbooks from the Second World War to plot the vast minefields that continue to haunt ‘one of the most hotly contested killing fields of the twentieth century’.  You can find more in Aldino Bondesan‘s ‘Between history and geography: The El Alamein Project’, in Jill Edwards (ed) El Alamein and the struggle for North Africa (Oxford, 2012).

I discussed those minefields in ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and that essay intersects in all sorts of ways with my good friend Gastòn Gordillo‘s project on terrain, so here is a short reflection from him entitled Terrain, forthcoming in Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen.

Not the ‘war on drugs’ but the war through drugs: Mike Jay‘s sharp review essay (‘Don’t fight sober’) on Łukasz Kamieński‘s brilliantly titled Shooting Up: a short history of drugs and war and Norman Ohler‘s over-the-top Blitzed: drugs in Nazi Germany (for another, equally critical take on Ohler, see Richard J Evans‘s splenetic review here; more – and more appreciative – from Rachel Cooke‘s interview with Ohler here).

Here’s an extract from Mike’s review:

9780190263478In Shooting Up, a historical survey of drugs in warfare that grew out of his research into future military applications of biotechnology, Łukasz Kamieński lists some of the obstacles to getting the facts straight. State authorities tend to cloak drug use in secrecy, for tactical advantage and because it frequently conflicts with civilian norms and laws. Conversely it can be exaggerated to strike fear into the enemy, or the enemy’s success and morale can be imputed to it. When drugs are illegal, as they often are in modern irregular warfare, trafficking or consumption is routinely denied. The negative consequences of drug use are covered up or explained away as the result of injury or trauma, and longer-term sequels are buried within the complex of post-traumatic disorders. Soldiers aren’t fully informed of the properties and potency of the drugs they’re consuming. Different perceptions of their role circulate even among participants fighting side by side.

Kamieński confines the use of alcohol in war to his prologue and wisely so, or the rest of the book would risk becoming a footnote to it. A historical sweep from the Battle of Hastings to Waterloo or ancient Greece to Vietnam suggests that war has rarely been fought sober. This is unsurprising in view of the many different functions alcohol performs. It has always been an indispensable battlefield medicine and is still pressed into service today as antiseptic, analgesic, anaesthetic and post-trauma stimulant. It has a central role in boosting morale and small-group bonding; it can facilitate the private management of stress and injury; and it makes sleep possible where noise, discomfort or stress would otherwise prevent it. After the fighting is done, it becomes an aid to relaxation and recovery.

All these functions are subsidiary to its combat role and Kamieński’s particular interest, the extent to which drugs can transform soldiers into superhuman fighting machines. ‘Dutch courage’ – originally the genever drunk by British soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War – has many components. With alcohol, soldiers can tolerate higher levels of pain and hardship, conquer fear and perform acts of selfless daring they would never attempt without it. It promotes disinhibition, loosens cultural taboos and makes troops more easily capable of acts that in civilian life would be deemed criminal or insane. The distribution of alcohol and other drugs by medics or superior officers has an important symbolic function, giving soldiers permission to perform such acts and to distance themselves from what they become when they’re intoxicated.

Opium, cannabis and coca all played supporting roles on the premodern battlefield but it was only with the industrialisation of pharmaceutical production that other drugs emerged fully from alcohol’s shadow. Morphine was widely used for the first time in the American Civil War and the 19th-century cocaine boom began with research into its military application. Freud was first alerted to it by the work of the army surgeon Theodor Aschenbrandt, who in 1883 secretly added it to the drinking water of Bavarian recruits and found that it made them better able to endure hunger, strain and fatigue. During the First World War cocaine produced in Java by the neutral Dutch was exported in large quantities to both sides. British forces could get it over the counter in products such as Burroughs Wellcome’s ‘Forced March’ tablets, until alarms about mass addiction among the troops led to a ban on open sales under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707During the 1930s a new class of stimulants emerged from the laboratory, cheap to produce, longer-acting and allegedly less addictive. Amphetamine was first brought to market in the US by Smith, Kline and French in 1934 in the form of a bronchial inhaler, Benzedrine, but its stimulant properties were soon recognised and it was made available in tablet form as a remedy for narcolepsy and a tonic against depression. As with cocaine, one of its first applications was as a performance booster in sport. Its use by American athletes during the Munich Olympic Games in 1936 brought it to the attention of the German Reich and by the end of the following year the Temmler pharmaceutical factory in Berlin had synthesised a more powerful variant, methamphetamine, and trademarked it under the name Pervitin. As Norman Ohler relates in Blitzed, research into its military applications began almost immediately; it was used in combat for the first time in the early stages of the Second World War. Ohler’s hyperkinetic, immersive prose evokes its subjective effects on the German Wehrmacht far more vividly than any previous account, but it also blurs the line between myth and reality.

This too blurs the line between myth and reality, or so you might think.  Geoff Manaugh‘s ever-interesting BldgBlog reports that the US Department of Defense ‘is looking to develop “biodegradable training ammunition loaded with specialized seeds to grow environmentally beneficial plants that eliminate ammunition debris and contaminants”.’  Sustainable shooting.  But notice this is ammunition only for use in proving grounds…

shotgun

At the other end of the sustainable spectrum, John Spencer suggests that ‘The most effective weapon on the modern battlefield is concrete‘.  To put it simply, you bring today’s liquid wars to a juddering halt – on the ground at any rate – by turning liquidity into solidity and confounding the mobility of the enemy:

Ask any Iraq War veteran about Jersey, Alaska, Texas, and Colorado and you will be surprised to get stories not about states, but about concrete barriers. Many soldiers deployed to Iraq became experts in concrete during their combat tours. Concrete is as symbolic to their deployments as the weapons they carried. No other weapon or technology has done more to contribute to achieving strategic goals of providing security, protecting populations, establishing stability, and eliminating terrorist threats. This was most evident in the complex urban terrain of Baghdad, Iraq. Increasing urbanization and its consequent influence on global patterns of conflict mean that the US military is almost certain to be fighting in cities again in our future wars. Military planners would be derelict in their duty if they allowed the hard-won lessons about concrete learned on Baghdad’s streets to be forgotten.

When I deployed to Iraq as an infantry soldier in 2008 I never imagined I would become a pseudo-expert in concrete, but that is what happened—from small concrete barriers used for traffic control points to giant ones to protect against deadly threats like improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and indirect fire from rockets and mortars. Miniature concrete barriers were given out by senior leaders as gifts to represent entire tours. By the end my deployment, I could tell you how much each concrete barrier weighed. How much each barrier cost. What crane was needed to lift different types. How many could be emplaced in a single night. How many could be moved with a military vehicle before its hydraulics failed.
Baghdad was strewn with concrete—barriers, walls, and guard towers. Each type was named for a state, denoting their relative sizes and weights. There were small barriers like the Jersey (three feet tall; two tons), medium ones like the Colorado (six feet tall; 3.5 tons) and Texas (six feet, eight inches tall; six tons), and large ones like the Alaska (12 feet tall; seven tons). And there were T-walls (12 feet tall; six tons), and actual structures such as bunkers (six feet tall; eight tons) and guard towers (15 to 28 feet tall).

concrete-barriers-stored-at-bagram-afb-january-2015

But it’s nor only a matter of freezing movement:

Concrete also gave soldiers freedom to maneuver in urban environments. In the early years of the war, US forces searched for suitable spaces in which to live. Commanders looked for abandoned factories, government buildings, and in some situations, schools. Existing structures surrounded by walled compounds of some type were selected because there was little in the environment to use for protection—such as dirt to fill sandbags, earthworks, or existing obstacles. As their skills in employing concrete advanced, soldiers could occupy any open ground and within weeks have a large walled compound with hardened guard towers.

Now up into the air.  My posts on the US Air Force’s Bombing Encyclopedia (here and here) continue to attract lots of traffic; I now realise that the project – a targeting gazetteer for Strategic Air Command – needs to be understood in relation to a considerable number of other texts.  Elliott Child has alerted me to the prisoner/defector interrogations that provided vital intelligence for the identification of targets – more soon, I hope – while those targets also wound their way into the President’s Daily Brief (this was an era when most Presidents read the briefs and took them seriously, though Nixon evidently shared Trump’s disdain for the CIA: see here.)  James David has now prepared a National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book (No 574) which provides many more details based on redacted releases of Briefs for the period 1961-77.

Two of the most critical intelligence targets throughout the Cold War were Soviet missile and space programs. U.S. intelligence agencies devoted a huge amount of resources to acquiring timely and accurate data on them. Photoreconnaissance satellites located launch complexes and provided data on the number and type of launchers, buildings, ground support equipment, and other key features. They located R&D centers, manufacturing plants, shipyards, naval bases, radars, and other facilities and obtained technical details on them. The satellites also occasionally imaged missiles and rockets on launch pads. There were four successful photoreconnaissance satellite programs during the four administrations in question. CORONA, a broad area search system, operated from August 1960 until May 1972. The first successful high resolution system, GAMBIT-1, flew from 1963-1967. The improved GAMBIT-3 high resolution satellite was launched from 1966-1984. HEXAGON, the broad area search successor to CORONA, operated from 1971-1984. High-resolution ground photography of missiles and rockets displayed at Moscow parades and other events also proved valuable at times.

sigint-targets-ussr

Signals intelligence platforms [above] also contributed greatly to understanding Soviet missile and space programs. Satellites such as GRAB (1960-1962), POPPY (1962-1971), and AFTRACK payloads (1960-1967) located and intercepted air defense, anti-ballistic missile, and other radars and added significantly to U.S. knowledge of Soviet defensive systems and to the development of countermeasures. Other still-classified signals intelligence satellites launched beginning around 1970 reportedly intercepted telemetry and other data downlinked from missiles, rockets, and satellites to Soviet ground stations, and commands uplinked from the stations to these vehicles. Antennas at intercept sites also recorded this downlinked data. During the latter stages of missile and rocket tests to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Pacific, ships and aircraft also intercepted telemetry and acquired optical data of the vehicles. Analysis of the telemetry and other data enabled the intelligence agencies to determine the performance characteristics of missiles, rockets, and satellites and helped establish their specific missions. Radars at ground stations detected launches, helped determine missile trajectories, observed the reentry of vehicles, and assisted in estimating the configuration and dimensions of missiles and satellites. Space Surveillance Network radars and optical sensors detected satellites and established their orbital elements. The optical sensors apparently also photographed satellites.

And for a more recent take on sensors and shooters, coming from Yale in the Spring: Christopher J Fuller‘s See It/Shoot It: The secret history of the CIA’s lethal drone program:

An illuminating study tracing the evolution of drone technology and counterterrorism policy from the Reagan to the Obama administrations.

This eye-opening study uncovers the history of the most important instrument of U.S. counterterrorism today: the armed drone. It reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the CIA’s covert drone program is not a product of 9/11. Rather, it is the result of U.S. counterterrorism practices extending back to an influential group of policy makers in the Reagan administration.

Tracing the evolution of counterterrorism policy and drone technology from the fallout of Iran-Contra and the CIA’s “Eagle Program” prototype in the mid-1980s to the emergence of al-Qaeda, Fuller shows how George W. Bush and Obama built upon or discarded strategies from the Reagan and Clinton eras as they responded to changes in the partisan environment, the perceived level of threat, and technological advances. Examining a range of counterterrorism strategies, he reveals why the CIA’s drones became the United States’ preferred tool for pursuing the decades-old goal of preemptively targeting anti-American terrorists around the world.

You can get a preview of the argument in his ‘The Eagle Comes Home to Roost: The Historical Origins of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program’ in Intelligence & National Security 30 (6) (2015) 769-92; you can access a version of that essay, with some of his early essays on the US as what he now calls a ‘post-territorial empire’, via Academia here.

Finally, also forthcoming from Yale, a reflection on War by A.C. Grayling (whose Among the Dead Cities was one of the inspirations for my own work on bombing):

grayling-warFor residents of the twenty-first century, a vision of a future without warfare is almost inconceivable. Though wars are terrible and destructive, they also seem unavoidable. In this original and deeply considered book, A. C. Grayling examines, tests, and challenges the concept of war. He proposes that a deeper, more accurate understanding of war may enable us to reduce its frequency, mitigate its horrors, and lessen the burden of its consequences.

Grayling explores the long, tragic history of war and how warfare has changed in response to technological advances. He probes much-debated theories concerning the causes of war and considers positive changes that may result from war. How might these results be achieved without violence? In a profoundly wise conclusion, the author envisions “just war theory” in new moral terms, taking into account the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust and laying down ethical principles for going to war and for conduct during war.

Bodies at risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

RFTS Masculinism and military violence.001

And so to Restrepo:

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

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

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

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

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

Wall Exchange: Forensic Architecture

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“When war happens in the city, people die in buildings, the majority in their homes; when the dust settles ruins become evidence with which we could reconstruct controversial events.”
Eyal Weizman

I’m delighted to announce that my good friend Eyal Weizman will deliver the next Wall Exchange on Forensic Architecture at the Vogue Theatre in downtown Vancouver on 15 October 2015:

Can architecture provide new tool of political analysis and intervention? This question is central to the work of Eyal Weizman, Israeli architect and scholar. Since 2010 he has been directing Forensic Architecture, an innovative forensic agency that investigates the sites of contemporary conflicts and monitors the crimes of states. His teams examine buildings, ruins, maps, satellite imagery and increasingly an emergent type of testimony — images and clips taken by citizens and uploaded online. His talk will unpack new modes of exposing the logic behind state violence from the frontier regions of Pakistan, through the forests of south America to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

I’ve noted the work of Forensic Architecture many times – see here and here, for example, and our Acting Director Gastón Gordillo‘s excellent review essay on Forensis [introduction available here; full version appeared in Environment & Planning D: Society and Space 33 (2) (2015) 382 – 388 and is available here] – so if you are (or can be) in Vancouver in the fall, do come along.

Like all Wall Exchanges, the lecture is sponsored by UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies and is free and open to the public – though you do need to book in advance.  Full details and a link to book will be available on the PWIAS website from 8 September onwards.

Security archipelagos

Three short contributions that have caught my eye raise a series of interesting questions about contemporary ‘security archipelagos’ (in multiple sense of the term, hence the plural).

amar-security-archipelagoThe term itself comes from Paul Amar, and Austin Zeiderman has a short but interesting review of his The Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism (Duke, 2013) over at Public Books (Public Culture‘s public site):

‘Amar asserts that we need an analytical framework focused on the rise of human security—a governance regime that “aim[s] to protect, rescue, and secure certain idealized forms of humanity.” This new regime is gradually replacing neoliberalism, Amar contends, “as the hegemonic project of global governance and of state administration.” This shift is evident in how security is now justified and pursued by states. The antagonistic relationship between security and human rights that characterized the “neoliberal market states” of the late 20th century is no longer so evident. The repressive security strategies that underpinned earlier development paradigms have been succeeded by the “promise to reconcile human rights and national security interests” in the interest of economic prosperity. Progressive and conservative security doctrines now agree on the imperative to “humanize” (or “humanitarianize”) both state and parastatal security apparatuses. The result, Amar argues, is what he calls the “human-security state”: a globally emergent governance regime with “consistent character and political profile.” From Latin America to the Middle East, political legitimacy is increasingly based on securing humanity against a range of malicious forces….

If the megacities of the Global South are indeed “laboratories” in which new logics and techniques of global governance are being created, it is up to other researchers to fill out and develop further Amar’s concept of the “security archipelago.” Though his study provides both the theoretical rationale and the analytical tools with which to do so, it may be worth questioning whether the “human” is necessarily central to emerging security regimes. For along with human security apparatuses and the human actors struggling to articulate progressive alternatives, a host of non-humans—drones, border fences, hurricanes—are actively producing the security landscape of the future.’

Secondly, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the work of these ‘laboratories’ often relies on non-state, which is to say corporate, commercial sites (this isn’t news to Paul, of course, even if he wants to challenge our ideas about neoliberalism).  We surely know that the traditional concept of the military-industrial complex now needs wholesale revision, and I’ve noted before the timely and important essay by Jeremy Crampton, Sue Roberts and Ate Poorthuis on ‘The new political economy of geospatial intelligence‘ in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104 (1)  (2014) (to which I plan to return in a later post).  The latest MIT Technology Review has a short but suggestive essay by Antonio Regalado, ‘Spinoffs from Spyland’, which describes some of the pathways through which the National Security Agency commercializes (and thus potentially subcontracts and, in some cases, even subverts) its surveillance technology:

In 2011, the NSA released 200,000 lines of code to the Apache Foundation. When Atlas Venture’s Lynch read about that, he jumped—here was a technology already developed, proven to work on tens of terabytes of data, and with security features sorely needed by heavily regulated health-care and banking customers. When Fuchs’s NSA team got cold feet about leaving, says Lynch, “I said ‘Either you do it, or I’ll find five kids from MIT to do it and they’ll steal your thunder.’”

Eventually, Fuchs and several others left the NSA, and now their company [Sqrrl] is part of a land grab in big data, where several companies, like Splunk, Palantir, and Cloudera, have quickly become worth a billion dollars or more.

Over the summer, when debate broke out over NSA surveillance of Americans and others, Sqrrl tried to keep a low profile. But since then, it has found that its connection to the $10-billion-a-year spy agency is a boost, says Ely Kahn, Sqrrl’s head of business development and a cofounder. “Large companies want enterprise-scale technology. They want the same technology the NSA has,” he says.

SQRRL

And finally, before we rush to radicalise and globalise Foucault’s critique of the Panopticon, it’s worth reading my friend Gaston Gordillo‘s cautionary note – prompted by the search for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 – on ‘The Opaque Planet’:

The fascination with, and fetishization of, technologies of global location and surveillance often makes us forget that, for all their sophistication, we live on a planet riddled with opaque zones that will always erode the power of human-made systems of orientation, for the simple fact that no such system (contrary to what the NSA seems to believe) will ever manage to create an all-seeing God. This opacity is intrinsic to the textured, three-dimensional materiality of the surface of the planet, and is especially marked in the liquid vastness of the ocean.

MH370-military_radar-tracking-peninsula-170314-eng-graphcs-tmi-kamarul

Phil Steinberg has already commented on the geopolitics of the search, but Gaston draws out attention to the gaps in the surveillance capabilities of states, and here too the geopolitical meshes (and sometimes jibes against) the geoeconomic, as described in this report from Reuters:

Analysts say the gaps in Southeast Asia’s air defenses are likely to be mirrored in other parts of the developing world, and may be much greater in areas with considerably lower geopolitical tensions.

“Several nations will be embarrassed by how easy it is to trespass their airspace,” said Air Vice Marshal Michael Harwood, a retired British Royal Air Force pilot and ex-defense attache to Washington DC. “Too many movies and Predator (unmanned military drone) feeds from Afghanistan have suckered people into thinking we know everything and see everything. You get what you pay for. And the world, by and large, does not pay.”

Terror and terrain

Over at Space and Politics my friend and colleague Gaston Gordillo has a long post, ‘Opaque zones of empire’, in which he seeks to examine ‘the panoptic regime of hyper-visibility by focusing not on the prying cameras of drones and satellites but on the rugged topographies they permanently scrutinize; not on what the panoptic regime sees but on what it cannot see, or what it cannot see clearly.’

This is the paper he gave as part of the Space and Violence sessions at the Association of American Geographers conference in L.A. earlier this year, and it’s the draft of a longer article in progress.  It’s also a remarkably ambitious exercise, in which Gaston artfully tracks between Stuart Elden, Eyal Weizman, Henri Lefebvre, Alain Badiou, Allan Feldman and a host of others.

But it’s the conclusion that has given me most pause for thought.  Here Gaston conjures the opacity inherent in the three-dimensionality of terrain (the central concept in the essay) apprehended by military vision and violence:

‘Badiou argues that the figure of the pure multiplicity of being, precisely because its multiplicity cannot be represented, is the void. The void is, indeed, the figure of the terrain. This void should be read not as an abstraction but in its spatial and bodily immanence: through the vertigo that the vast, opaque, three-dimensional, and not fully visible geographies of the planet create in the human body. This is the void graphically represented, for instance, on Tim Hetherington’s documentary Restrepo, where US soldiers stationed in an outpost in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan felt haunted by the terrain they were immersed in. In the film, those soldiers make it clear that those opaque mountains, forests, and valleys were for them a hostile immensity that turned insurgents into a ghostly presence. Those mountains constitute a tangible void within Empire: one of the countless outsides of a world without outside.

Restrepo

I’m particularly taken by this image (which I think is much clearer in the film than in Sebastian Junger‘s War) because it’s helped me think about how my work on ‘the natures of war’ intersects with my work on later modern war in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I only have room for one example.  To US infantry in the rainforest and highlands of Vietnam, terrain was not only (or even primarily) apprehended visually: in contrast to staff officers poring over maps and air photographs and to the crews of combat helicopters and strike aircraft flying over the jungle, terrain was made known – a knowledge that was always precarious, that could always become undone – through the body itself and all its senses, including hearing, touch and smell. Terrain is more than a visual construct, especially in its three-dimensionality, and there is nothing ‘dead, passive, fixed’ about it. Michael Herr captured something of what I have in mind in a passage that loops back to Gaston’s coda:

Diabolical nature

This unheimlich nature, ‘diabolical nature’ in what Gaston calls its ‘hostile immensity’, had a Janus-face.  On the one side it was a cyborg nature, no longer wholly ‘natural’ (even as the rainforest was rendered excessive or fallen through the standard tropes of tropicality) because it had been mined, booby-trapped and honeycombed with tunnels.  In The natures of war I develop this argument in more depth than I can here, in relation not only to the ‘jungle’ but also to the mud of the Western Front in World War I and to the sand and stone of the Western Desert in World War II, which both became cyborg natures or, if you prefer, techno-natures.  Here are two slides from that presentation, which summarise what I mean about the corporeality of knowledge and the techno-nature of the war in Vietnam:

Cyborg nature Vietnam


Certainty and uncertainty Vietnam

Yet on the other side there was also something exculpatory about it all.  Recalling a similar argument developed by Michael Taussig in a different context in Shamanism, colonialism and the wild man, here’s Philip Caputo again:

‘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.We were fighting in the crudest kind of conflict, a people’s war. It was no orderly campaign, as in Europe, but a war for survival waged in a wilderness without rules or laws.’

And again, in a passage that makes the geography of this hostile terrain clear (and also speaks directly to Gaston’s argument about Restrepo – and even to Carl Schmitt):

Ethical wilderness Vietnam

In that last slide I’ve deliberately juxtaposed Caputo’s apologia with Art Greenspon‘s famous photograph of soldiers from the 101st Airborne waiting to be evacuated by helicopter after a five-day patrol near Hue, South Vietnam in April 1968 because – as those upheld arms imply – this confession carries buried within it a promise of redemption too.  Forgive me, for this fallen nature has cast me down.  And help me escape back into The World.  Yet, as Taussig showed, this too was a thoroughly imperialist catechism: primeval nature fouling our civilised, ‘second nature’, seducing and destroying our very humanity, when in so many ways it was our own ‘second nature’ and its technowar that was laying waste to the rainforest.

These are complex arguments, and a post like this inevitably runs the risk of caricature.  But I hope I’ve said enough to suggest some of the other ways in which the ‘opaque zones of empire’ extend beyond the horizon of vision.  And in case I haven’t been clear, I should add that I think Gaston is absolutely right to make terrain central to the analysis, not least because this makes it possible to invest two other master-concepts (sic), ‘space’ and ‘nature’, with corporeal and material depth.

‘The terrain as medium of violence’

News from my friend and colleague Gaston Gordillo about his proposed paper for the Violence and Space sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles next year.  An extract from the abstract (!) for The Terrain as Medium of Violence:

In this paper, I draw from [Eyal] Weizman and also from Paul Virilio’s work on violence and vision and Derek Gregory’s research on aerial bombing and drones to examine a key principle of a theory of the terrain: the decisive importance of verticality in the deployment of state violence as a three-dimensional vector. The history of aerial bombing and the recent rise in the use of drones reveal that the control of the skies and the atmosphere —and the speed and global reach their spatial smoothness allows for— has become fundamental to imperial power.
Yet the politics of verticality pose spatial paradoxes that can only be appreciated through the actual, tangible material-political terrains in which it operates. Contra the image of absolute deterritorialization it tends to evoke, the verticality created by drones is always-already subsumed to a spatial principle as old as warfare: that the ultimate aim of controlling a higher ground through towers, mountaintops, or the sky is to create a view from above to visualize, localize, and inflict violence upon targets located primarily on the ground. In short, drones patrol the skies not to control high altitudes per se but in order to control an opaque terrain below that limits the state field of vision. And despite their capacity for unleashing massive levels of destruction, drones reveal something else about the terrains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen endlessly scanned by their cameras: that imperial ground forces do not control those spaces. This political voiding of imperial space by local insurgencies is made possible by another ancient principle of guerrilla warfare: the fact that the mastery of heavily striated terrain (mountains, forests, urban spaces) by flexible and mobile forces allows them to avoid visual capture by the state and, in the long run, wear down and defeat more powerful militaries. The verticality generated by drones, in short, reveals not only the vast spatial reach of imperial violence but also the profound spatial limits it encounters amid the political and material striations of the global terrain.
More at Gaston’s Space and Politics blog here, with links to his other postings on these ideas and news of his book project, The After-Life of Places: Ruins and the Destruction of Space, forthcoming from Duke.  He promises more to come!
The Violence and Space sessions will evidently be very lively: Stuart Elden has also published his abstract, “Urban Territory: Violent Political Technologies in London and Kano”, on his Progressive Geographies blog here.
Horizontal notes on the vertical: I expect most readers will know of Eyal’s work on the politics of verticality, most obviously through his book Hollow Land: Israel’s architecture of occupation (2007 – paperback out this year), and Stuart has become interested in similar issues: see the video of his Secure the Volume: vertical geopolitics and the depth of power here.  Steve Graham has also called for a ‘vertical turn in urban social science‘: you can listen to it here, and read his essay with Lucy Hewitt, “Getting off the ground: on the politics of urban verticality”, in Progress in human geography (Online First: 25 April 2012) doi:10.1177/0309132512443147.  Enough to make you giddy.