Rendering the (in)visible

Holland Cotter has a good essay at the New York Times on art and the First World War: a commentary on World War I and American Art currently on show at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia.

You might think it’s difficult to say something new about that (and it is), but this is an interesting – and in places even arresting – reflection:

With World War I, invisibility became a deadly weapon. Submarines turned oceans into minefields. Airplanes, used in regular combat for the first time, killed through stealth and distance. Silent death emerged: poisonous gases enveloped victims, blinding them, eating their flesh, leaving them to drown in their own fluids. Add to these grisly innovations the high-power guns that, dronelike, pulverize bodies outside the range of vision, and you can see how warfare became depersonalized. It felt like a scientific experiment, not a human engagement.

So how, he asks, did artists make this new form of war visible?

No simple answer, of course, but Cotter’s commentary on John Singer Sargent‘s iconic Gassed sharpens a point that confronts all artistic attempts to render war and its effects, the aestheticisation of violence:

The tableau is often compared to ancient Classical friezes. And like such images, based on themes of history and myth, it elevates and softens tragedy through formal beauty. That beauty is the big weakness of Sargent’s magisterially painted image. It glamorizes profound human damage. It glosses over the criminal meanness and fraudulence of a media-fed war that was “trivial, for all its vastness,” as Bertrand Russell, who lived through it, wrote.


Others have seen Gassed differently, to be sure.  Here is Michael Glover:

When it was done and displayed – it was nominated picture of the year by the Royal Academy – not everyone liked it. E M Forster thought it too heroic by half. Forster has missed the point, surely. It is indeed on a heroic scale, and its gigantism – including the fact that it is so much wider than it is high –adds a kind of plangent cinematic forcefulness to the scene, but its theme, all the same, is the brokenness, the helplessness of humanity in the face of barbarous devices. Terrible things are often slightly serio-comic too, and so it is here. This is a kind of strange perversion of blind’s man’s bluff, isn’t it? And yet these bandages are for real. These men may never see again. They may not even survive at all.

They are being led, with their eyes swathed in lint, towards a treatment tent – see those guy ropes. There is more than one line of men. They are converging from several directions. And, meanwhile, other things are going on too. In the far distance, a game of football is being played. Back left, we can see tents. There is a hanging moon. The light is a strangely grainy mustardy yellow – with just a tint of rose – that suffuses everything. We can almost smell the air.

Heroism? That jumble of broken and helpless men that occupies the entire foreground of the painting, and continues behind the stepping men, makes that claim even less credible. All this is human flotsam and jetsam, done down by the nastiness of war.

I also like Cotter’s summary of John Steuart Curry‘s Parade to War, Allegory, completed in 1938:

It shows troops [American doughboys from the First World War] marching in tight formation down a city street. Excited schoolboys run along beside them. A young woman, a sister or sweetheart, embraces a soldier as she keeps pace with him. In the foreground, a spectator cheers, but a policeman seems to be holding back another one, a distressed older woman. Maybe she sees what no one else does: All the soldiers have skulls for faces.


War Material

SARGENT Two soldiers at Arras

I’m thrilled to say that the (very!) long-form version of The Natures of War, the 1st Neil Smith Lecture which I gave at the University of St Andrews in November 2013, is now online (‘Early View’) at Antipode, all 54 pages of it.

Here is the abstract:

“Nature” is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations; it is also a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted. The militarisation of nature is part of a dialectic in which earthy, vibrant matter shapes the contours of conflict and leaves its marks on the bodies of soldiers who are both vectors and victims of military violence. Three case studies identify some of the central bio-physical formations that became entangled with armed conflict in the twentieth century: the mud of the Western Front in the First World War, the deserts of North Africa in the Second World War, and the rainforests of Vietnam. Taken together, these reveal vital connections between the materiality and corporeality of modern war and their continued relevance to its contemporary transformations.

You can still find the original, non-Harvard style version under the DOWNLOADS tab – and I’m truly grateful to Andy Kent for relieving me of the task of converting my original MS into the Harvard system.

The image above, incidentally, is John Singer Sargent‘s Two soldiers at Arras (1917), and is a perfect illustration of this passsage from the essay:

In the face of these horrors, some soldiers came to regard themselves as having become as “un-natural” as the militarised, industrialised natures in which they were embedded. The Tommy “will soon be like nothing on earth”, wrote one officer on the Somme in January 1916. “If only we could be clothed in rubber all over and fed through a tube I think some real progress in our equipment might have been made”. He was only half-joking. The next phase in the emergence of this cyborg warrior can be seen in the tank battles that raged across the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War. But, as I must now show, even in the midst of this more fully mechanised warfare, bio-physical entanglements remained immensely powerful—and the human body intensely vulnerable.

I then do the same for Vietnam.

My plan is to rework this version: to incorporate as many of the images I used in the Vietnam extracts I posted online here and here (together with others from the Western Front and the Western Desert), to add a fourth case study of Afghanistan, and to include the revised version in a new book of essays that I’m calling War material.

The plan looks like this (in each case the original essays, apart from the intro, are available under the DOWNLOADS tab too; I’m re-working those versions, planing away any overlaps, and adding more images):

Chapter 1: War material

Chapter 2: Gabriel’s map

Chapter 3: The Natures of War

Chapter 4: Doors into Nowhere

Chapter 5: Lines of Descent

These are all more or less ready to go, apart from the introduction, but I’m debating whether to add a sixth chapter, called ‘Wounds of war’, which would parallel ‘The Natures of War’ in many ways and chart the changing geographies of casualty evacuation from war zones, 1914-2014.

Each of the essays in the book, even in their present form, has something to say about the way in which the conduct of modern war has – and has not – changed over the last hundred years, but the title also tilts at those who seem to think that everything we need to know about modern military violence was uncannily anticipated by Michel Foucault in his (I too think brilliant) Paris lectures in the 1970s so that this absolves them of the need for any research or even reading into the materialities of war (a strangely non-Foucauldian assumption, given his own frequent immersion in the archive and his densely empirical way of working).

I’d be grateful for any comments or suggestions.

There’s something in the air…

Gas attack Somme

In ‘The Natures of War’ I include a brief discussion of the ways in which chemical gas attacks on the Western Front militarised the atmosphere:

Gas warfare turned the very air the soldier breathed into a potential enemy and, to Peter Sloterdijk, inaugurated a ‘new “ecologized” war’, a battle ‘conducted in the atmospheric environment [that] was about conquering the respiratory “potentials” of hostile parties’.  Here the French and the Germans led the way. The French were the first to use toxic gas shells on a large scale but these discharged tear gas which in most cases was not lethal, and when the Germans used similar shells against the British in October 1914 at Neuve Chapelle they too proved largely ineffective.  These were ‘Lilliputian efforts’, according to Peter Bull, and experiments by both sides with other systems were aimed at a greater harvest.

They yielded their first (poisoned) fruit on 22 April when the Germans launched the first lethal gas attack at Ypres. Unlike those earlier attempts this did not involve artillery – which is how the High Command persuaded themselves they were not violating the 1899 Hague agreement that prohibited the ‘use of projectiles the sole use of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or noxious gases’  – and instead released chlorine gas from specially adapted industrial storage containers hidden in the German trenches and then relied on the wind to disperse the gas cloud. On that first, fateful evening more than 5,000 cylinders discharged 150 tons of chlorine gas. It billowed into a yellow-green cloud nearly six kilometres wide and 600-900 meters deep, which was then carried on a north-easterly wind towards two French divisions at 2-3 meters a second. The gas attacked the bronchial tubes and victims suffocated by drowning in their own fluids. German infantry advanced behind the gas cloud which had breached the French lines, and while they did not press home their advantage all sides concluded that gas was the way ‘to break the “riddle of the trenches”’ by flushing troops from cover and ending ‘the stalemate that had confounded all.’  But the reliance on wind as a dispersal vector was risky, not least because the prevailing wind on the Front was from the west – the initial attack had been postponed time and time again until conditions were favourable – and on 25 September the British launched their own gas cloud attack at Loos. This too went awry as a result of changing wind direction, and soon both sides had reverted to artillery delivery systems. They also developed deadlier agents (all derived from chlorine), and from 1916 gas of more than 60 types was in every engagement by artillery on all sides for both offensive and defensive purposes.

These gases affected more than the surface environment because they were all heavier than air. Chlorine and the far more deadly phosgene seeped into craters and shell holes, ‘corrupting the very areas of relative safety where men took refuge’. Mustard gas lingered even longer. It was designed to disable not kill – a blistering agent, it burned the skin and caused (usually temporary) blindness [see John Singer Sargent‘s famous Gassed, below] – and repeated intermittent exposure deadened the sense of smell so a man could no longer detect it. Since mustard gas remained dormant for days, it ‘consigned the soldier to a state of permanent unease’ in which ‘every puddle [became] an imagined trap’; in the winter of 1917-1918 there were reports of soldiers tracking frozen mud contaminated with mustard gas into their dugouts where it melted and gassed their companions.  Here too, the psychological effects of this militarised nature were as significant as their physiological ones. Gas turned out not to be the decisive weapon of the war; it accounted for around 1 per cent of British deaths but caused disproportionately more casualties. One of its main purposes, Tim Cook concludes, became disruption: spreading surprise, uncertainty, and fear on the battlefield. By 1918 gas made up 20-40 per cent of all shells within the artillery dumps on both sides and ‘all soldiers on the Western Front lived in an environment where gas was a daily fact of life…’

John Singer Sergeant, Gassed (1919)

The bibliographic references are in the draft text under the DOWNLOADS tab, but I rehearse all this because Sarah Everts has a richly illustrated and informative new essay on ‘When chemicals became weapons of war’ here – it’s an excellent survey.