Intelligence and War

Vue d’artiste de l’évolution de l’Homme peinte sur un mur, stencil graffiti on Vali-ye-Asr Avenue in central Tehran. By Paul Keller, 4 November 2007

A new edition of the ever-interesting Mediatropes is now online (it’s open access), this time on Intelligence and War: you can access the individual essays (or download the whole issue) here.  Previous issues are all available here.

The issue opens with an editorial introduction (‘Intelligence and War’ by Stuart J Murray, Jonathan Chau, Twyla Gibson.  And here is Stuart’s summary of the rest of the issue:

Michael Dorland’s “The Black Hole of Memory: French Mnemotechniques in the Erasure of the Holocaust” interrogates the role of memory and memorialization in the constitution of post-World War II France. Dorland hones in on the precarity of a France that grapples with its culpability in the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up, spotlighting the role of the witness and the perpetually problematized function of testimony as key determinants in challenging both the public memory and the historical memory of a nation.

Sara Kendall’s essay, “Unsettling Redemption: The Ethics of Intra-subjectivity in The Act of Killing” navigates the problematic representation of mass atrocity. Employing Joshua Oppenheimer’s investigation of the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966, Kendall unsettles the documentary’s attempts to foreground the practices of healing and redemption, while wilfully sidestepping any acknowledgment of the structural dimensions of violence. To Kendall, the documentary’s focus on the narratives of the perpetrators, who function as proxies for the state, makes visible the aporia of the film, substituting a framework based on affect and empathy in place of critical political analyses of power imbalances.

Kevin Howley is concerned with the spatial ramifications of drone warfare. In “Drone Warfare: Twenty-First Century Empire and Communications,” Howley examines the battlefield deployment of drones through the lens of Harold Innis’s distinction between time-biased and space-biased media. By considering the drone as a space-biased technology that can transmit information across vast distances, yet only remain vital for short periods of time, Howley sees the drone as emblematic of the American impulse to simultaneously and paradoxically collapse geographical distance while expanding cultural differences between America and other nations.

Avital Ronell’s essay, entitled “BIGLY Mistweated: On Civic Grievance,” takes direct aim at the sitting US president, offering a rhetorical analysis of what she calls “Trumpian obscenity.” Ronell exposes the foundations of the current administration, identifying a government bereft of authority, stitched together by audacity, and punctuated by an almost unfathomable degree of absurdity. In her attempt to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical and nihilistic discourse that Trump represents, Ronell walks alongside Paul Celan, Melanie Klein, and especially Jacques Derrida, concluding with a suggestive, elusive, and allusive possibility for negotiating the contemporary, Trumpian moment.

In “The Diseased ‘Terror Tunnels’ in Gaza: Israeli Surveillance and the Autoimmunization of an Illiberal Democracy,” Marouf Hasian, Jr. explains how Israel’s state-sanctioned use of autoimmunizing rhetorics depict the lives of Israelis as precarious and under threat. Here, the author’s preoccupation is with the Israeli strategy of rhetorically reconfiguring smuggling tunnels as “terror tunnels” that present an existential threat to Israeli citizens. In doing so, he shows how the non-combatant status of Gazan civilians is dissolved through the intervening effects of these media tropes.

Derek Gregory’s essay, “The Territory of the Screen,” offers a different perspective on drone warfare. Gregory leverages Owen Sheers’s novel, I Saw a Man, to explore the ways in which modern combat is contested through a series of mediating layers, a series of screens through which the United States, as Gregory argues, dematerializes the corporeality of human targets. For Gregory, drone warfare’s facilitation of remote killings is predicated on technical practices that reduce the extinguishing of life to technological processes that produce, and then execute, “killable bodies.”

But how is the increasingly unsustainable illusion of intelligence as being centralized and definitive maintained? Julie B. Wiest’s “Entertaining Genius: U.S. Media Representations of Exceptional Intelligence” identifies the media trope of exceptionally intelligent characters across mainstream film and television programs as key to producing and reinforcing popular understandings of intelligence. Through her analysis of such fictional savants, Wiest connects these patterns of representation to the larger social structures that reflect and reinforce narrowly defined notions of intelligence, and those who are permitted to possess it.

We end this issue with a poem from Sanita Fejzić, who offers a perspective on the human costs of war that is framed not by technology, but through poetic language.

My own essay is a reworked version of the penultimate section of “Dirty Dancing” (DOWNLOADS tab) which we had to cut because it really did stretch the length limitations for Life in the Age of Drone Warfare; so, as Stuart notes, I re-worked it, adding an extended riff on Owen Sheers‘ luminous I saw a man and looping towards the arguments I since developed in ‘Meatspace?

War Stories

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Thursday 15 September 7 – 9.30 p.m. on the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre – 162 West 1st Avenue, Vancouver:

War stories from Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones told by foreign correspondents, combat veterans and scholars.

Award-winning Iraqi-Canadian photojournalist Farah Nosh and writer/photographer Ann Jones will share images and stories of the impact of war on civilians. Wall Distinguished Professor and geographer Derek Gregory will discuss changes in the evacuation of war casualties from battlefields over the past century. Contact! Unload, a play directed by Wall Scholar George Belliveau, will feature Canadian veterans depicting what it means to transition home after overseas service. The play highlights Marv Westwood’s Veteran’s Transition Program and artist Foster Eastman’s Lest We Forget Canada! mural. Moderated by Emmy Award winning journalist Peter Klein.

Following the presentations the performers will engage with the audience in a discussion about the different perspectives and approaches to sharing war stories, and the value of storytelling’s ability to chronicle, enlighten and heal.

Register here (free).  I’m really excited about this – I admire the work of Farah Nosh and Ann Jones enormously, I’m looking forward to the extracts from Contact! Unload – I’m still thinking about Rosie Kay‘s Bodies on the line and Owen Sheerswonderful work in a similar vein – and Peter Klein will be a wonderful interlocutor.  Do come if you can.

UPDATE:  We’re sold out, but there is a wait list.  And you can find more on WAR STORIES from the wonderful Charlie Smith at the Georgia Straight here.

The Last Dance

Mansour strike photo

I have – at long last – finished the longform version of “Dirty dancing: drones and death in the borderlands“, which analyses drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and situates them within a wider context of military violence in the region.  You can find it under the DOWNLOADS tab, but I’ve pasted the conclusion below; there’s also a video of the last presentation I gave under that title here.

To make sense of the conclusion, I should explain that the essay opens by juxtaposing the killing of two people, Baitullah Mehsud (leader of the Pakistan Taliban) and Mamana Bibi (a village midwife), to pose the question: what kinds of spaces are the FATA made to be for incidents like these – incidents as unlike as these – to be possible?

My answer works with two framing devices.

The first is the space of exception – a space in which people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the political-juridical removal of legal protections and affordances that would otherwise be available to them.  My version of this is different from that proposed by Giorgio Agamben, and far from invoking a suspension of the law I explore three legal geographies that have been used to prepare the ground for aerial violence in the borderlands.

The second is the space of execution; here I riff off Owen Sheers‘ perceptive remark about ‘the territory of the screen’ (as I note, ‘Killing somebody with a Hellfire missile controlled from thousands of miles away depends upon a screen – or more accurately a series of screens – on which the image of a human body will eventually be touched by the cross-hairs of a targeting pod’).  Owen’s phrase is much more than metaphor, so I treat ‘territory’ as a (bio)political technology whose calibrations enable states to assert, enact and enforce a claim over bodies-in-space (you can no doubt hear the echoes of Stuart Elden) and then explore the technicity involved in three of its screen elements that jointly transform the FATA into a space of execution: kill lists, signals intercepts and visual feeds.

***

Mamana Bibi's surviving family

Here, then, is the conclusion:

The production of the borderlands as spaces of exception and spaces of execution are attempts to force those who live there into particular subject-positions as a means of subjugation. These positions are partial and precarious but the project to establish them as legitimate and rational has consequences that are material and affective. They clearly affect those targeted – people like Baitullah Mehsud – whose political agency exceeds in terrifying ways the normative space allowed them by the state of Pakistan and the United States and in so doing brings their actions to the attention of both. But they also impact the rest of the population in the FATA, constricting their mobilities and stoking their fears to such a degree that ‘normal life’ for many of them threatens to become a memory or a fantasy. Their existence is rendered more precarious because the subject-positions to which they are so brutally assigned are racialized. These are ‘tribal peoples’, different from those who inhabit ‘mainland Pakistan’, while the United States writes off their incidental deaths as ‘collateral damage’ whose anonymity confers on them no individuality only a collective ascription. When a CIA-directed drone strike on a compound in the Shawal Valley of South Waziristan on 15 January 2015 was found to have killed not only a deputy leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and a local Taliban commander but also two hostages, an American development contractor and an Italian aid worker, a ‘grim-faced’ and ‘visibly moved’ Obama made a personal and public apology. [i] The rarity of the gesture is revealing. For the value of their lives was acknowledged and their deaths were made grievable in ways that others – which is to say Others – were not. Nobody has ever accepted responsibility or apologised for the death of Mamana Bibi or any of the other innocent victims of aerial violence.

For this reason it is important to resist those versions of the space of exception that are complicit in the denial of agency to those who live within its confines. The state of Pakistan administers the inhabitants of the FATA through Political Agents: but this does not remove (though it does diminish) their own political agency. Pakistan’s armed forces conduct clearing operations that ruthlessly drive people from their homes and into camps for displaced persons: but this does not turn the FATA into one vast ‘camp’. The presence of US drones strips those who live under them of their well-being and dignity: but this does not reduce them to ‘bare life’. Similarly, the emergent subject that is produced within the space of execution, apprehended as a network trace, a sensor signature and a screen image, is a cipher that stands in for – and in the way of – a corporeal actor whose existence is not measured by the calculative alone.

***

This version, or something very much like it, will appear in a collection edited by Caren Kaplan and Lisa Parks, Life in the Age of Drones.  But an (even longer!) version will eventually appear in my own book, with images and maps (you can find many of them scattered through my previous posts: for example here, here and here), so I really would welcome any comments or suggestions if you have time to read the full thing: derek.gregory@ubc.ca.

 

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….’

Afterwar(d)s

I’ve been working my way through the proofs of ‘The natures of war’, in which (among other things) I try to show that soldiers are not only vectors of military violence but also victims of it.  My analysis fastens on the Western Front in the First World War, Northern Africa in the Second World War, and Vietnam – the final draft is under the DOWNLOADS tab and the published version should be up on the Antipode website later this month – but I hope it will be clear to readers that the implications of this claim , and the others in the essay, extend into our own present.  They also intersect with my current research on casualty evacuation from war zones, 1914-2014.

So I’ve been interested in three recent contributions that detail the aftermath of war for those who fight them.

First, Veterans for Peace UK have worked with Darren Cullen to produce a short film, Action Man: Battlefield Casualties [see the clip above] in an attempt, as Charlie Gilmour explains over at Vice,

‘to show the shit beneath the shine of polished army propaganda. Featuring PTSD Action Man (“with thousand-yard stare action”), Paralysed Action Man (“legs really don’t work”) and Dead Action Man (“coffin sold separately”)…’ [see also my post on ‘The prosthetics of military violence‘]

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In keeping with the project’s authors, Charlie insists – I think properly – that many of those who were sent to Afghanistan from the UK were child soldiers (and here I also recommend Owen Sheers‘ brilliant Pink Mist for an unforgettable portrayal of what happens when boys who grow up ‘playing war’ end up fighting it: see also here and here).  As the project’s web site notes:

The UK is one of only nineteen countries worldwide, and the only EU member, that still recruits 16 year olds into its armed forces, (other nations include Iran and North Korea). The vast majority of countries only recruit adults aged 18 and above, but British children, with the consent of their parents, can begin the application process to join the army aged just 15…

It is the poorest regions of Britain that supply large numbers of these child recruits. The army has said that it looks to the youngest recruits to make up shortfalls in the infantry, by far the most dangerous part of the military. The infantry’s fatality rate in Afghanistan has been seven times that of the rest of the armed forces.

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A study by human rights groups ForcesWatch and Child Soldiers International in 2013 found that soldiers who enlisted at 16 and completed training were twice as likely to die in Afghanistan as those who enlisted aged 18 or above, even though younger recruits are, for the most part, not sent to war until they are 18.

You can find another thoughtful reflection on child soldiers by Malcolm Harris over at the indispensable Aeon here. He doesn’t include the British Army in his discussion, but once you do you can see that the implications of this passage extend beyond its ostensible locus (Nigeria):

But can a child truly volunteer to join an army? Even when they enlist by choice, child soldiers do so under a set of constraining circumstances. UNICEF makes the choices sound easy: war or dancing, war or games, war or be a doctor. No rational child would pick the former for themselves, and that’s posed as evidence that their freedom has been taken from them. But when the choice is ‘soldier or victim’, voluntarism takes on a different meaning.

FINKEL Thank you for your service

Second, moving across the Atlantic and providing an extended riff on the ‘thank you for your service’ gesture, the latest issue of New Left Review includes an essay by Joan Wypijewski, ‘Home Alone‘, that describes the journey home faced by many US veterans.  She begins by putting David Finkel‘s compelling book in context:

The term ‘Thank You for Your Service’ developed early on in the long wars. Like ‘Support the Troops’, it was a way for a sheltered people to perform unity. In towns across America yellow ribbons, yellow lawn signs, balloons and car decals sprouted like team colours on game day. War would be a sport, the people spectators, and ‘Thank you for your service’ the high-five to combatants after quick and decisive victory. When that proved a vain hope, team spirit settled into the rhythms of commerce. ‘Support the Troops’ appeared the way ‘Buy American’ once had—a slogan on shop windows, billboards, bumper stickers. War was an enterprise, security its product, the people consumers, the soldiers trained workers and ‘Thank you for your service’ a kind of tip. As the enterprise (though hardly the business) failed, the signs faded, sometimes replaced by an image of folded hands, ‘Pray for Our Troops’. War had become a problem, the soldiers exhausted, the people clueless and ‘Thank you for your service’ a bit of empty etiquette, or a penance. By the time Finkel was writing [his book was published in October 2013], what remained among civilians was a desire to move on, and among soldiers, bitterness. ‘They wouldn’t be fucking thanking me if they knew what I did’, many would say, in almost exactly the same words.

Joan works her way through Finkel’s account, and then turns to Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War, a documentary film – five years in the making, and the second instalment in a trilogy devoted to a ‘genealogy of wrath‘ – of Trauma Group sessions at a treatment centre in the Napa Valley:

‘What we have is embarrassing as shit’, a thick, tight young white man says in the Trauma Group. ‘You feel small—you feel defective.’ And so it goes, and so men trained for toughness talk of being weak and scared and monstrous, or just diligent. Of working in Mortuary Affairs: ‘breaking the rigour down’ to get the corpse of a 19-year-old who killed himself flat enough for a body bag, or untangling the remains of a group of faceless soldiers burned in a truck who are fused ‘like a bunch of rope’. They talk of their dreams, of their frightened wives. Maybe she moved out and got a restraining order before he came home, or maybe she has the divorce papers but is holding back as long as he’s getting help. ‘I have no clue what it’s like to be a woman married to a man twice your size and that’s lethal, in the military, and takes his rage out on you—someone that’s supposed to love you’, a former medic says. He is slim, white, deer-like. You don’t know his war story yet, and you don’t know when you’ll find out, if you’ll find out, but you listen as he and one after another after another deals with a world of pain. And maybe men balk, and maybe they storm out of the room, and maybe Gusman, whom you’ve also never really met but who is always there, has to remind them that ‘being a hostage to the war zone is not a life’. You follow them out of the room, taking smokes, meditating, visiting their wives or parents, calling on locals, trying to be well or pass for well, knowing they’re not. You watch their children doing typical childlike things, running, laughing in a high-pitched scream, and you feel anxious for everyone in the room. You itch to get back to the Trauma Group and, amazingly, don’t feel like a voyeur, because this isn’t war porn; this is the shit, as they say.

It isn’t beautiful or horrible, it just is. And you don’t like all of these people, but that isn’t the point. They are all struggling to be human again, and you have to ask yourself if you know what that means.

Not so much dressing but ‘addressing their wounds is a revolution’, Bécue-Renard insists, and you can see – literally so – what he means.  Joan’s commentary ends with other, perhaps also revolutionary reflections.  In America, she argues,

… there has been no serious debate on, let alone demand for, a universal draft as a democratic check against offensive war. We talk against empire, but are beneficiaries of the imperial state’s professional and technological adjustments to the anti-war movement’s past victories. We talk about the invisible draft but, perhaps encouraged by the bravery of Iraq Veterans Against the War, still hope that soldiers whose food, clothing, shelter, families and identity depend on the job of war-fighting will mutiny en masse. We talk, from time to time, about the culture of abuse in basic training and on military posts, but are silent on the regimens of discipline that are being hyper-enforced in anticipation of downsizing, in other words layoffs. And for the one thing the military, however twistedly, provides—belonging, solidarity, a sense of honour and family-feeling as against loneliness—we have no alternatives at all.

Finally, Duke University Press has announced that Zoe Wool‘s book, After War: the weight of life at Walter Reed, will be out soon:

In After War Zoë H. Wool explores how the American soldiers most severely injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars struggle to build some kind of ordinary life while recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from grievous injuries like lost limbs and traumatic brain injury. Between 2007 and 2008, Wool spent time with many of these mostly male soldiers and their families and loved ones in an effort to understand what it’s like to be blown up and then pulled toward an ideal and ordinary civilian life in a place where the possibilities of such a life are called into question. Contextualizing these soldiers within a broader political and moral framework, Wool considers the soldier body as a historically, politically, and morally laden national icon of normative masculinity. She shows how injury, disability, and the reality of soldiers’ experiences and lives unsettle this icon and disrupt the all-too-common narrative of the heroic wounded veteran as the embodiment of patriotic self-sacrifice. For these soldiers, the uncanny ordinariness of seemingly extraordinary everyday circumstances and practices at Walter Reed create a reality that will never be normal.

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Here are two of the endorsements:

“Hollywood films and literary memoirs tend to transform wounded veterans into tragic heroes or cybernetic supercrips. Zoë H. Wool knows better. In her beautifully written and deeply empathic study of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan at Walter Reed, Wool shows us the long slow burn of convalescence and how the ordinary textures of domestic life unfold in real time. An important and timely intervention.” — David Serlin, author of Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America.

“This brilliant and absorbing ethnography reveals how the violence of war is rendered simultaneously enduring and ephemeral for wounded American soldiers. Zoë H. Wool accounts for the frankness of embodiment and the unstable yet ceaseless processes through which the ordinary work of living is accomplished in the aftermath of serious injury. After War is a work of tremendous clarity and depth opening new sightlines in disability and the critical politics of the human body.” — Julie Livingston, author of Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic.

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.

Playing war

SHEERS Pink MistI’ve just finished reading – but certainly not thinking about – Owen Sheers‘ extraordinary dramatic poem, Pink Mist.

It was originally commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for its More than Words Festival in 2012 but sadly it’s not available on the BBC iPlayer Radio – though you can now get it as a physical book and an e-book.

I’ve spent much of the last several weeks reading poetry from the First and the Second World Wars, but few of those poems have affected me as much as Pink Mist.  I noted Owen Sheers’ work in passing, when I was writing about Keith Douglas’s poems from the Western Desert, but Pink Mist is insistently about the present.

It tells the story of three young men – Arthur, Hads and Taff – who grew up together in Bristol, ‘playing war’ like so many other boys. They decide, a spur of the moment thing, to enlist in the British Army and soon find themselves serving together in Afghanistan:

It’s like my recruiter said today,

it’ll be a chance to do the job

they train you for.

Otherwise it’s like going to the fair,

but staying off the rides.

So yeah, I want to go to war.

But of course it’s not a fairground ride, and nobody is ‘playing war’ any more.

Sheers captures in short bursts the surreal violence of war in Afghanistan.  The accidental killing of a farmer’s wife and two year old grand-daughter:

I can still see his face, even now.

An outdoor man, skin leathered by the sun,

The way he unwrapped the end of his turban

to wipe at his eyes, raw with what we’d done.

An illustrated language card issued to troops to help them communicate in Pashto and Dari, ‘a kid’s cartoon book of modern warfare’:

British Army Language CardWhere is the pain? – Dard cheri day?

Blood – Khoon

Dead – Maray

Go home – Khaana burayn

Shot – Wishtalay

Go home – Korta dzai

One at a time – Pa waar yao

One at a time.

And the three friends do go home, one at a time, wrapped in the shadows of violence that now fall across the lives of a mother, wife and girl-friend.

Hads returns without his legs, the victim of a ‘blue on blue’ air strike that killed two of his mates:

… that’s what you’re fighting for.

The man on your left and the man on your right.

Forget queen and country, the mission or belief.

It’s more about keeping your mates alive.

Or avenging the ones who’ve already died.

Taff is so consumed by by PTSD that he is haunted even by the silent, ‘Sunday-morning dead’ streets of his home town:

But all Taff’s feeling is the threat.

The echo of when a village went like this back there,

when the women and kids melted away.

That’s what he’s trying to keep at bay,

plugging in his headphones, turning the volume right up.

Eventually he becomes homeless, like many other vets, living on the streets:

There’s a spread of regiments under those blankets …  

And a spread of wars too –

Falklands, Gulf, Northern Ireland, Iraq.  

Yeah, you walk this country’ streets

and there’s our history, under your feet.

And Arthur? Read it for yourself.

It’s a profound work, I think, at once an art-work and a documentary.  As in so much of Sheers’ writing, Pink Mist is based on careful research and sensitive interviewing so detailed and so intimate you can almost feel it in the sinews of the words and the cadence of the lines.  Sheers records his debt to ‘the many service personnel and their families whose stories have informed this work, especially Lyndon Chatting-Walters and Daniel Shaw, whose own experiences are, at times, closely echoed in these pages.’

bravo22aThose interviews were, in turn, part of Sheers’s research for The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a play not only about the Army’s wounded and injured from Afghanistan but also, and remarkably, largely performed by them.  Sheers describes the project here (and see the clip above).  In Afghanistan 22 per cent of British service personnel have been injured – a higher proportion than in the Second World War – and to prepare for the play Sheers and his director travelled the UK: ‘We became well-acquainted with the names of certain drugs, types of prosthetics, military jargon. We visited barracks, PRUs (Personnel Recovery Units) and rehabilitation centres.’  And then they worked with the soldiers.  There are plans for the production to tour again this year.

I’m making so much of this for two reasons beyond the power of Sheers’s project.  The first is that Sheers has much to teach us about transcending the limitations of conventional academic genres and incorporating the arts into the research process, not only as objects of contemplation and critique but also as ways of working.  (Think how lifeless so many ethnographies and interviews become on the printed page).  The second is that Pink Mist and The Two Worlds of Charlie F ought to confound the politics of care that assumes a concern with civilian casualities is the exclusive preserve of the left, while a concern for military casualties is the exclusive preserve of the right.

As Arthur says, at the very end of Pink Mist,

So that’s all I hope for.

When the debate’s being had,

the reasons given,

that people will remember

what those three letters mean,

before starting the chant once more –

Who wants to play war?

Who wants to play war?