Sound(ing)s

DAUGHTRY Listening to warMy interest in the militarisation of vision is longstanding, but it’s important not to exaggerate the salience of an increasingly ‘optical war’.  Through ‘The natures of war’ project (see DOWNLOADS tab) I’ve also been drawn to the importance of sound in conducting, surviving and even accounting for military violence (see, for example, herehere, and here).  And, as Martin Daughtry‘s remarkable Listening to war (2015) shows, sound continues to be significant in later modern war too.

Even its absence is significant, sometimes performative: think of all those video feeds from Predators and Reapers that, as Nasser Hussain so brilliantly reminded us, are silent movies – apart from the remote commentary from pilots and sensor operators:

‘The lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.

The contemporary militarisation (or weaponisation) of sound is double-edged, and I mean that in several sense.

First, Mary Roach has a revealing chapter in Grunt: the curious science of humans at war (2016) on what she calls ‘Fighting by ear: the conundrum of noise’.  It turns out that 50 – 60 per cent of situational awareness comes from hearing – and yet the sound of war can be literally deafening.  The damage is often permanent, but in the heat of battle hearing loss makes it difficult to parse the torrent of noise – to distinguish offensive and defensive fires, to detect direction and range, and to send and receive vital communications.  Mary explains:

ROACH GruntFor decades, earplugs and other passive hearing protection have been the main ammunition of military hearing conservation programs. There are those who would like this to change, who believe that the cost can be a great deal higher. That an earplug can be as lethal as a bullet. Most earplugs reduce noise by 30-some decibels. This is helpful with a steady, grinding background din — a Bradley Fighting Vehicle clattering over asphalt (130 decibels), or the thrum of a Black Hawk helicopter (106 decibels). Thirty decibels is more significant than it sounds. Every 3-decibel increase in a loud noise cuts in half the amount of time one can be exposed without risking hearing damage. An unprotected human ear can spend eight hours a day exposed to 85 decibels (freeway noise, crowded restaurant) without incurring a hearing loss. At 115 decibels (chainsaw, mosh pit), safe exposure time falls to half a minute. The 187-decibel boom of an AT4 anti-tank weapon lasts a second, but even that ultrabrief exposure would, to an unprotected ear, mean a permanent downtick in hearing. Earplugs are less helpful when the sounds they’re dampening include a human voice yelling to get down, say, or the charging handle of an opponent’s rifle. A soldier with an average hearing loss of 30 decibels may need a waiver to go back out and do his job; depending on what that job is, he may be a danger to himself and his unit. “What are we doing when we give them a pair of foam earplugs?” says Eric Fallon, who runs a training simulation for military audiologists a few times a year at Camp Pendleton. “We’re degrading their hearing to the point where, if this were a natural hearing loss, we’d be questioning whether they’re still deployable. If that’s not insanity, I don’t know what is.”

TCAP

For that reason the US military has been experimenting with what it calls ‘Tactical Communication and Protective Systems‘ (‘Tee-caps’, shown above): ear protectors that incorporate radio communications.  They are a response both to the cacophony and the geometry of war:

No one, in the heat of a firefight, is going to pause to take off her helmet, pull back her ear, insert the plug, and repeat the whole process on the other side, and then restrap the helmet. There’s time for this on a firing range, and there might have been time on a Civil War battlefield, where soldiers got into formation before the call to charge…  You knew when the mayhem was about to start, and you had time to prepare, whether that meant affixing bayonets or messing with foamies. There’s no linear battlefield any more. The front line is everywhere. IEDs go off and things go kinetic with no warning. To protect your hearing using earplugs, you’d have to leave them in for entire thirteen-hour patrols where, 95 percent of the time, nothing loud is happening. No one does that.

Saydnaya 1 JPEG

Second, sounds can intimidate – sometimes deliberately so – but they can also be reverse-engineered to reveal the geometry of violence.  One obvious example is the use of sound-ranging to locate artillery batteries on the Western Front in the First World War; but less obvious, and of critical importance, soundscaping can form an important part of a forensic investigation into crimes of war. This brings me to yet another mesmerising project from Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture agency. Eyal explains:

In 2016 Forensic Architecture was commissioned by Amnesty International to help reconstruct the architecture of Saydnaya – a secret Syrian detention center – from the memory of several of its survivors, now refugees in Turkey.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians, including protestors, students, bloggers, university professors, lawyers, doctors, journalists and others suspected of opposing the regime, have disappeared into a secret network of prisons and detention centers run by the Assad government. Saydnaya, located some 25 kilometers north of Damascus in an East German-designed building dating from the 1970s, is one of the most notoriously brutal of these places.

Torture has become routinised there – and not as a weapon in the grotesque arsenal of ‘enhanced interrogation’ (which, for any Trump fans who have stumbled into this site in error, has been demonstrated countless times not to work anyway).  Amnesty could not be clearer:

There are no interrogations at Saydnaya. Torture isn’t used to obtain information, but seemingly as a way to degrade, punish and humiliate. Prisoners are targeted relentlessly, unable to “confess” to save themselves from further beatings. Survivors say they dreaded family visits as they were always followed by extensive beatings.

Eyal continues:

As there are no recent photographs of its interior spaces, the memories of Saydnaya survivors are the only resource with which to recreate the spaces, conditions of incarceration and incidents that take place inside.

In April 2016, a team of Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture researchers travelled to Turkey to meet a group of survivors who have come forward because they wanted to let the world know about Saydnaya.

To understand the role of sound in the investigation, what Eyal calls ‘ear-witnessing’, here is Oliver Wainwright writing about the project in the Guardian:

“Architecture is a conduit to memory,” says Weizman, describing how an Arabic-speaking architect [Hania Jamal] built a digital model on screen as detainees described specific memories and events. “As they experienced the virtual environment of their cells at eye level, the witnesses had some flashes of recollection of events otherwise obscured by violence and trauma.”

One drop of water

Inmates were constantly blindfolded or forced to kneel and cover their eyes when guards entered their cells, so sound became the key sense by which they navigated and measured their environment – and therefore one of the chief tools with which the Forensic team could reconstruct the prison layout. Using a technique of “echo profiling”, sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan was able to determine the size of cells, stairwells and corridors by playing different reverberations and asking witnesses to match them with sounds they remembered hearing in the prison.

“Like a form of sonar, the sounds of the beatings illuminated the spaces around them,” says Abu Hamdan. “The prison is really an echo chamber: one person being tortured is like everyone being tortured, because the sound circulates throughout the space, through air vents and water pipes. You cannot escape it.”

Oliver continues:

Saydnaya detainees developed an acute aural sensitivity, able to identify the different sounds of belts, electrical cables or broomsticks on flesh, and the difference between bodies being punched, kicked or beaten against the wall.
“You try to build an image based on the sounds you hear,” says Salam Othman, a former Saydnaya detainee, in a video interview. “You know the person by the sound of his footsteps. You can tell the food times by the sound of the bowl. If you hear screaming, you know newcomers have arrived. When there is no screaming, we know they are accustomed to Saydnaya.”

Architecture of sound

You can find full details of the project, of its architectural and auditory modelling, and its findings here, and there is also an excellent video on YouTube:

Documenting what is happening provides an essential platform for political and eventually legal action against those responsible.  You can joint Amnesty’s campaign here (scroll down).  Please do.

More tortured geographies

Route Map 2

There have been several attempts to reconstruct the geography of the CIA’s program of extraordinary rendition. I’ve long admired the work of my good friend Trevor Paglen, described in his book with A.C. ThompsonTorture Taxi: on the trail of the CIA’s rendition flights, available in interactive map form through Trevor’s collaboration with the Institute for Applied Autonomy as Terminal Air. (I’ve commented on the project before, here and especially here).

terminal-air

And you can only applaud Trevor’s chutzpah is displaying the results of his work on a public billboard:

paglenemerson-cia-flights-2001-6

The project, which involved the painstaking analysis of countless flight records and endless exchanges with the geeks who track aircraft as a hobby, triggered an installation in which the CIA was reconfigured as a ‘travel agency‘:

Terminal Air travel agency

At the time (2007), Rhizome – which co-sponsored the project – explained:

Terminal Air is an installation that examines the mechanics of extraordinary rendition, a current practice of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in which suspected terrorists detained in Western countries are transported to so-called “black sites” for interrogation and torture. Based on extensive research, the installation imagines the CIA office through which the program is administered as a sort of travel agency coordinating complex networks of private contractors, leased equipment, and shell companies. Wall-mounted displays track the movements of aircraft involved in extraordinary rendition, while promotional posters identify the private contractors that supply equipment and personnel. Booking agents’ desks feature computers offering interactive animations that enable visitors to monitor air traffic and airport data from around the world, while office telephones provide real-time updates as new flight plans are registered with international aviation authorities. Seemingly-discarded receipts, notes attached to computer monitors, and other ephemera provide additional detail including names of detainees and suspected CIA agents, dates of known renditions, and images of rendition aircraft. Terminal Air was inspired through conversations with researcher and author Trevor Paglen (Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights – Melville House Publishing). Data on the movements of the planes was compiled by Paglen, author Stephen Grey (Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program – St. Martin’s Press) and an anonymous army of plane-spotting enthusiasts.

There’s a short video documenting the project on Vimeo here and embedded below (though strangely Trevor isn’t mentioned and doesn’t appear in it):

Although Trevor subsequently explained why he tried to ‘stay away from cartography and “mapping” as much as possible’ in his work, preferring instead the ‘view from the ground’, the cartography of all of this matters in so many ways – from the covert complicity of many governments around the world in a global geopolitics of torture through to the toll exerted on the bodies and minds of prisoners as they were endlessly shuffled in hoods and chains over long distances from one black site to another.

And now, thanks to the equally admirable work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it’s possible to take the analysis even further.  Here is Crofton Black and Sam Raphael introducing their project, ‘The boom and bust of the CIA’s secret torture sites‘:

In spring 2003 an unnamed official at CIA headquarters in Langley sat down to compose a memo. It was 18 months after George W Bush had declared war on terror. “We cannot have enough blacksite hosts,” the official wrote. The reference was to one of the most closely guarded secrets of that war – the countries that had agreed to host the CIA’s covert prison sites.

Between 2002 and 2008, at least 119 people disappeared into a worldwide detention network run by the CIA and facilitated by its foreign partners.

Lawyers, journalists and human rights organisations spent the next decade trying to figure out whom the CIA had snatched and where it had put them. A mammoth investigation by the US Senate’s intelligence committee finally named 119 of the prisoners in December 2014. It also offered new insights into how the black site network functioned – and gruesome, graphic accounts of abuses perpetrated within it.

Many of those 119 had never been named before.

The report’s 500-page summary, which contained the CIA official’s 2003 remarks, was only published after months of argument between the Senate committee, the CIA and the White House. It was heavily censored, while the full 6,000-page study it was based on remains secret. All names of countries collaborating with the CIA in its detention and interrogation operations were removed, along with key dates, numbers, names and much other material.

In nine months of research, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Rendition Project have unpicked these redactions to piece together the hidden history of the CIA’s secret sites. This account unveils many of the censored passages in the report summary, drawing on public data sources such as flight records, aviation contracts, court cases, prisoner testimonies, declassified government documents and media and NGO reporting.

Although many published accounts of individual journeys through the black site network exist, this is the first comprehensive portrayal of the system’s inner dynamics from beginning to end.

CIA black sites (BOIJ:REndition Project)

At present the mapping is rudimentary (see the screenshot above), but the database matching prisoners to black sites means that it ought to be possible to construct a more fine-grained representation of the cascade of individual movements.  The Rendition Project has already identified more than 40 rendition circuits involving more than 60 renditions of CIA prisoners: see here and the interactive maps here.

Joining the dots…

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Rendition Project have just published their first quarterly report on 119 people secretly detained and tortured by the CIA as part of the ‘war on/of terror’.

You can download the brief report as a pdf here, but the infographic below summarises the key findings (and don’t let its stark simplicity fool anyone about the detailed research that went into its production: this is difficult work).

what-we-know

Many commentators have noted that the Obama administration’s determination to end the CIA’s rendition program coincided with a decision to ramp up its covert program of targeted killing.  The preference for ‘kill’ over ‘capture’ is complicated by the living death suffered by many of those who were imprisoned in the carceral archipelago of black sites and prisons – and we should surely welcome the determination to widen the focus beyond Guantanamo to include, notably, Bagram.

But the apparent distinction between the two programs becomes even more blurred once you realise that many of the officials in charge of the one were switched to the other.  According to Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo writing in the New York Times:

‘Perhaps no single C.I.A. officer has been more central to the effort than Michael D’Andrea, a gaunt, chain-smoking convert to Islam who was chief of operations during the birth of the agency’s detention and interrogation program and then, as head of the C.I.A. Counterterrorism Center, became an architect of the targeted killing program. Until last month, when Mr. D’Andrea was quietly shifted to another job, he presided over the growth of C.I.A. drone operations and hundreds of strikes in Pakistan and Yemen during nine years in the position…

‘Mr. D’Andrea was a senior official in the Counterterrorism Center when the agency opened the Salt Pit, a notorious facility in Afghanistan where prisoners were tortured. His counterterrorism officers oversaw the interrogation and waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. His actions are described in the withering Senate Intelligence Committee report about torture that was released late last year, although he was not identified publicly.’

(On the Times‘ decision to name names, see Jack Goldsmith‘s interview with Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the Times).

But the real sting in the tail comes when Mazetti and Apuzzo also note:

‘The confidence [Senator Dianne] Feinstein and other Democrats express about the drone program, which by most accounts has been effective in killing hundreds of Qaeda operatives and members of other militant groups over the years, stands in sharp contrast to the criticism among lawmakers of the now defunct C.I.A. program to capture and interrogate Qaeda suspects in secret prisons.

‘When Ms. Feinstein was asked in a meeting with reporters in 2013 why she was so sure she was getting the truth about the drone program while she accused the C.I.A. of lying to her about torture, she seemed surprised.

‘“That’s a good question, actually,” she said.’

Torture and raison d’état

statue-of-liberty-waterboardingMelanie Richter-Montpetit has an essay at The disorder of things, ‘Why Torture When Torture Does Not Work? Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and the Persistence of White Terror‘, which repays careful reading.

[L]ocating the findings of the Senate Torture Report within the racial-sexual grammars of chattel slavery and its afterlife opens up our analyses beyond explanatory and moral frameworks such as failed intelligence-gathering, “state of exception” or “human rights abuses” towards a more comprehensive understanding of seemingly illiberal security practices in the War on Terror. This genealogy indicates the fundamental role and value of force for the consolidation of the sovereign authority of the U.S. settler imperial formation ‘at home’ and abroad, and suggests the stubborn persistence of certain racial-sexual grammars of legitimate violence and suffering in this age of “post-racial triumph.” For “[w]ithout the capacity to inspire terror, whiteness no longer signifies the right to dominate.”

The immediate provocation for her essay, which is rooted in her recent York PhD thesis Beyond the Erotics of Orientalism: Homeland Security, Liberal War and the Pacification of the Global Frontier, was the Senate Torture Report (see my earlier post on ‘Tortured geographies’ here).

GTMO Statue of LibertyAt Just Security Jameel Jaffer has a brief, important post about the release of these documents – and, crucially, the Obama administration’s attempt to prevent the publication of photographs documenting the abuse of detainees at US military facilities – that loops back to the debate over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.  He argues that it is at the very least ironic that some of the same voices calling for the freedom to publish cartoons whatever their consequences are now demanding the suppression of other images ‘because of the possibility that their release will provoke violence’…

And speaking of violence and torture in the global war prison, Mohamedou Ould Slahi‘s Guantanamo Diary, which is being serialised in the Guardian and was published in book form earlier this week, provides more evidence of its routinised, banalised practice.

Slahi Unclassified Manuscript scan

Slahi is still incarcerated at Guantanamo even though he was approved for release in 2010.  Spencer Ackerman reports:

Slahi’s manuscript was subjected to more than 2,500 redactions before declassification, ostensibly to protect classified information, but with the effect of preventing readers from learning the full story of his ordeal. The book is being published with all the censor’s marks in place, and the publishers – Canongate in the UK and Little, Brown in the US – hope they will be able to publish an uncensored edition when Slahi is eventually released.

The full manuscript is available here.  You can find Tim Stanley‘s review at the Telegraph here (‘a necessary book’ that ‘reminds us that the evil we’re fighting can be found in ourselves as well as in our enemies’), Mark Danner‘s extended review at the New York Times here (‘Slahi’s memoirs are filled with numbingly absurd exchanges that could have been lifted whole cloth from “The Trial”’), and Deborah Perlstein‘s review at the Washington Post here (‘Slahi’s descriptions of … torture are the book’s most compelling, and difficult, passages [and] … are closely consistent with descriptions in official investigations of the treatment of other U.S.-held detainees’.)

In the face of these horrors, it’s necessary to consider this blunt reminder from Peter Beinart:

Torture, declared President Obama … in response to the newly released Senate report on CIA interrogation, is “contrary to who we are.” Maine Senator Angus King added that, “This is not America. This is not who we are.” According to Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, “We are better than this.”

No, actually, we’re not. There’s something bizarre about responding to a 600-page document detailing systematic U.S. government torture by declaring that the real America—the one with good values—does not torture. It’s exoneration masquerading as outrage. Imagine someone beating you up and then, when confronted with the evidence, declaring that “I’m not really like that” or “that wasn’t the real me.” Your response is likely to be some variant of: “It sure as hell seemed like you when your fist was slamming into my nose.” A country, like a person, is what it does.

And in the face of evasion and denial – and redaction and suppression – here is Chase Madar from February’s Bookforum:

Though the [Senate] report has blacked out the names of the torturers, refusing even to use pseudonyms, torture watchers have been able to identify one of the agents, a model for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. Her record of malfeasance, misrepresentation, incompetence, and gratuitous participation in waterboarding was blisteringly detailed by NBC News and [Jane Mayer at] the New Yorker, though neither outlet would name her. But far from being sanctioned or even demoted, she has risen to the civilian-rank equivalent of general inside the CIA. She has, unbelievably, served as the recent head of the agency’s “global jihad unit.”

It’s tempting to compare this to Latin American–style police impunity, but that would be unfair to the societies that have punished at least some of the abuses of their past dictatorships. In the same week that the SSCI released its report, Brazil published its own investigation into state torture of political dissidents under its long dictatorship. Indeed, one of that torture regime’s victims, Dilma Rousseff, is now the head of state. Latin American nations have been chipping away at, or simply ignoring, the amnesty deals made with the authoritarian rulers of the ’70s and ’80s and have brought many of their torturers to justice.

The United States would face a very different reckoning with its record of torture, should it elect to take a genuine, closer look at it. In our case, the impact of torture has largely been muffled by the military adventurism that has underwritten it…

Scarry thoughts

SCARRY Thermonuclear monarchyI imagine most readers will know Elaine Scarry‘s vital account of The Body in Pain.  She has produced several important books since then, of course, but Scarry explains that her latest book, Thermonuclear monarchy: choosing between democracy and doom, published last month by Norton, emerged directly from her first:

It directly emerged from “The Body in Pain,” which has a first chapter on torture and a second on war. I was trying to address the question why when people prohibit torture they make it an absolute prohibition, but when they make a prohibition on war, they always make exceptions.

I realized that nuclear weapons much more approximate the condition of torture than of war. Torture involves zero consent on the part of the injured, whereas conventional war allows many levels of consent. With nuclear weapons, there’s zero consent.

There is an excellent, wide-ranging conversation between Scarry and Sarah Gerard at The American Reader here that goes back as far as Hobbes (who turns out to be crucial for Scarry’s argument) and spools forward to today’s drone wars.  If you read just one thing this week, read that.

Global geographies of torture

Globalizing torture (2013)It’s over six years since I wrote ‘The Black Flag’ and ‘Vanishing points’, two linked essays about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the global war prison (see DOWNLOADS tab), and I’m currently updating, revising and integrating them for The everywhere war.

Today there’s news of a new report by Amrit Singh, Senior Legal Officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative’s National Security and Counterterrorism program, Globalizing torture, that lists 136 people who were subjected to CIA secret detention and/or extraordinary rendition.  The list – the most comprehensive to date: you can find it on pp. 30-60 – combines secret detention and extraordinary rendition ‘because the two programs had similar modalities, and torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and the abuses were common to both.’

The report also identifies 54 states that were complicit in the programs: ‘hosting CIA prisons [“black sites”] on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting the CIA in the capture and transportation of detainees; permitting the use of their airspace and airports for secret CIA flights transporting detainees; providing intelligence leading to the CIA’s secret detention and extraordinary rendition of individuals; and interrogating individuals who were being secretly held in the custody of other governments. ‘  Only one state has issued an apology (over a single case), and only four have provided financial compensation to victims.  You can find this ghastly gazetteer, carefully annotated, on pp. 62-118. (There are some conspicuous omissions; the Guardian has an infog[eog]raphic here).

In case you think this is a purely historical geography, the report notes that:

‘the Obama administration did not end extraordinary rendition, choosing to rely on anti-torture diplomatic assurances from recipient countries and post-transfer monitoring of detainee treatment. As demonstrated in the cases of Maher Arar, who was tortured in Syria, and Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery, who were tortured in Egypt, diplomatic assurances and post-transfer monitoring are not effective safeguards against torture. Soon after taking office in 2009, President Obama did issue an executive order that disavowed torture, ordered the closure of secret CIA detention facilities, and established an interagency task force to review interrogation and transfer policies and issue recommendations on “the practices of transferring individuals to other nations.” But the executive order did not repudiate extraordinary rendition, and was crafted to preserve the CIA’s authority to detain terrorist suspects on a short-term transitory basis prior to rendering them to another country for interrogation or trial.’

And, as the New York Times reports, ‘the Senate Intelligence Committee recently completed a 6,000-page study of the C.I.A. detention and interrogation program, but it remains classified, and it is uncertain whether and when it might be even partially released.’

The Code breakers

Lincoln signing General Order No. 100 (Mort Künstler)

In 1863, under the authority of Abraham Lincoln, the United States published Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field, General Order 100.  It was drawn up by a law professor at Columbia, Francis Lieber, and approved by a committee of Union officers, and sought to codify the practices of customary international law.  It was signed by Lincoln on 24 April 1863, and the full text is here.

The Lieber Code, as it became known (Lieber himself called it ‘Old Hundred’), continues to casts its spell over international law and its historians.  Its most recent incantation is John Fabian Witt‘s artfully titled Lincoln’s Code: the laws of war in American History (Free Press, 2012). It’s a superb historical monograph, beautifully written and richly illustrated, that travels from the American Revolution via the fulcrum of the Civil War to the eve of the First World War – Witt is both a professor of Law at Yale and a member of the History department – but, not surprisingly, it’s the book’s contemporary echoes that have resonated with many readers.  (Witt once hailed Lincoln as ‘probably our most important law-of-war president, having crafted the very rules that George W. Bush and his Justice Department tried to destroy’).

In an interview in today’s New York Times, however, Witt insists that the Bush administration – in its assault on the Geneva Conventions, its establishment of GITMO, and its elaborate parsing of what does and does not legally constitute torture – did not mark a departure from historical precedent:

“It’s not an aberration that American lawyers closely tied to the administration went to work on transforming the laws of war to suit the felt strategic imperatives of the moment,” he said. “That is the kind of thing we see going all the way back.”

The Lieber Code, he argues, was not a neutral instrument: it was ‘developed by a side for the purpose of helping it win a war.’  And so while Witt documents its role as what he calls a ‘humanitarian shield’ defending ‘civilized war’ – the Code enshrined a distinction between combatants and civilians (or ‘private citizens’), and proscribed assassination, torture and poisons – he argues that it was also designed to function offensively as ‘an instrument of justice.’  The Code itself proclaimed that ‘the more vigorously wars are pursued the better it is for for humanity.  Sharp wars are brief.’ (This was before the age of air power – though balloons were used during the Civil War – but it was exactly this belief in ‘sharpening’ war that underwrote the later faith in bombing as an alternative to the protracted carnage of the trenches).

Now ‘justice’ is a weasel-word,  especially in the mouths of weasels in the White House – it’s no surprise that Max Boot is such a fan of Witt’s cheerleading for ‘the United States’s long history of leadership in creating the laws of war’.  It turns out that among the practices that escaped the Lieber Code’s censure were the starvation of civilians and the bombardment of towns without warning (‘Surprise may be a necessity’), and most of its other provisions and protections could be set aside on grounds of ‘military necessity’.  Eric Posner provides an incisive dissection of those implications in relation to Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia and South Carolina and much more besides in Slate here.

The climax of the book is certainly not its epilogue but Witt’s discussion of the exemplary violence displayed by the United States during the Philippine War (1899-1902).  Here ‘Old Hundred’ was cited to justify extraordinarily brutal measures.  General James Bell made clear his preference for ‘a short and severe war’ over ‘a benevolent war infinitely prolonged’, and some – perhaps many – officers treated this as a declaration of open season on their prisoners of war.  The most shocking method of interrogation was the ‘water cure’ (shown below) – the contemporary resonances don’t need any amplification from me – and yet torture was expressly outlawed under the Lieber Code.  A number of commanders were successfully prosecuted for the offence, including Major Edwin Glenn, who openly prided himself on leading a mobile team of ‘water cure’ experts.

So does this mean that the Code’s ‘defensive shield’ tempered its aggressive sword? In 1914 Glenn was selected by the War Department to be the lead author to update its field manual on the laws of war, and it was that version of the Rules of Land Warfare that guided military operations in World War I and World War II and was cited time and time again at Nuremberg.  ‘No one noted that they had been crafted by a convicted torturer,’ Witt observes, ‘a man whom we would today … call a war criminal.’

Yet Witt is quick to strike down the low-hanging fruit, the easy conclusion that the laws of war are thus ‘shot through with hypocrisy’:

‘For the most striking thing about Glenn’s Rules of Land Warfare is not the identity of its author but the restraint of its terms.  The manual bore few traces of its author’s terrible past….

‘Glenn adopted Lieber’s term “war crime”s for the first time in an official American document.  And as for torture, Glenn faithfully reproduced precisely the section of the 1863 Code that Judge Advocate General Davis had cited when he recommended that the president uphold Glenn’s own conviction and sentence. “Military necessity”, the Rules of Land Warfare stated, “does not admit of … torture to extort confessions.” Following Lieber’s Old Hundred, the Rules banned coercive means to obtain information from prisoners of war.

A draft 2011 statement on ‘Lincoln’s Code’ prepared by Witt for a Harvard workshop is here, and you can access 70 images from his book (from which I took the image above) together with its bibliography here.  His February 2011 Inaugural Lecture as the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale – Lincoln’s Code: the puzzling history of the laws of war – is available on vimeo here.