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.

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.


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.