Killing for Show

News from Verso of a forthcoming book (originally announced for Aprl, but now not due until next year) by the multi-talented Julian Stallabrass,  Killing for Show:

A history of war photography – from Vietnam to Iraq and the War of Terror – and how photography has changed war.

Today we watch wars from afar, swayed by the images that fill our newsfeeds, social media and screens. Since the Vietnam War the way we see conflict through film, photographs, and pixels, has had a powerful impact on the political fortunes of the campaign, and the way that war has been conducted. In this fully-illustrated and passionately argued account of war imagery, Julian Stallabrass tells the story of post-war conflict, how it was recorded, and remembered through its iconic photography.

The relationship between war and photograph is constantly in transition, forming new perspectives, provoking new challenges: what is allowed to be seen? How are photographs remembered? Does an image has the power to change political opinion? What influence market economics has upon the way we consume visual media, especially images of war. How new forms of distribution change the image’s potency. Stallabrass shows how photographs have become a vital weapon in the modern war: as propaganda – from close quarter fighting to the drone’s electronic vision – as well as a witness to the barbarity of events such as the My Lai massacre, the violent suppression of insurgent Fallujah or the atrocities in Abu Ghraib. Changes in technology – from shutter speed, use of colour stock, and methods of digital distribution – have also transformed the way photography is used in depicting and even waging accelerated warfare.

Through these accounts Stallabrass maps a comprehensive theoretical re-evaluation of the relationship between war, politics and visual culture. Killing for Show is an essential volume in the history of photography.

A mammoth 688 pages, packed with images – and, since it’s Verso, astonishingly reasonable priced.

 

Those who claim to see everything from the sky

A new issue of Radical Philosophy (2.03) is online here.  Among the highlights is an extended interview with Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘Forgetting Vietnam‘.  It spirals around her film of the same name (2015 but premiered at Tate Modern in December 2017, when the interview by Lucie Kim-Chi Mercier took place).

It’s wide ranging, as you’d expect, and includes these reflections on her decision to avoid the by now hegemonic images of the American war in Vietnam:

In the making of Forgetting Vietnam one of the commitments I kept in relation to war images was the following: most of the films made on the war in Vietnam show you the horrors of war mainly through what constitutes the sensational in cinema. So: explosions, bombings, killings, bodies, buildings and environment being burned, mutilated and blasted; violent, bloody scenes with wounds oozing open (blood as depicted in mainstream films is cheap), and then suffering that is strident – noisy, and loud. Such a depiction of war amply exploited on screen for spectacular effect is something that I do not want at all to have in my films. Showing brutality has its journalistic function, but violence for violence’s sake is how the media continue to desensitise human suffering and distress, as well as how the entertainment industry claims to serve a consumer society steeped in violent media.

And then you have the other kinds of films evolving from this war, of which you really have to ask: Whose interest does it serve? For most of the time what’s covertly at stake are American interests. Whether their politics is liberal or conservative, mainstream films made in the name of the war in Vietnam speak to one side of the war and contribute to sustaining American hegemony. So, sometimes during one of these films’ screenings, I would be sitting in the audience with other Vietnamese people, and they would look at me and say: Do you think it has anything to do with us? [Laughter]

With Forgetting Vietnam, viewers often wonder why there are no images of the war, but the war is all over, whether visible or otherwise. Its traces are everywhere, present in the environment, in people’s memory, in their speech and daily rituals.

This segues into a perceptive and provocative discussion of the meaning of ‘victory’:

In Forgetting Vietnam and especially in my last book Lovecidal, it is the victory mindset that I see regulating war, paradoxically bringing together the two warring sides. It is a mindset that divides the world into winners and losers. When you think about it, it is absurd to always want to be the winner and to always consider the other to be the loser. Heroism righteously trotted out to disavow suffering and distress partakes in such inanity. In today’s ‘new wars’ it might be more appropriate to say that the line between winning and losing has been so muddled that there is no longer a loser. Every war champion claims victory at all cost, and hence, battles are only fought between victor and victor.

For example, one of the most striking and puzzling moments for me during the 1991 Gulf War was when the Americans were declaring victory over Iraq. As television screens were filled with talk about the war coming to an end, thanks to the glorious results of Operation Desert Storm and the swift victory by American-led coalition forces, we, earnest spectators, were briefly shown images of Iraqi’s celebrating their own ‘victory’. This is what in Lovecidal I call the ‘Twin Victories’. Of course, for Western media reporters, it was mind-boggling to see such a celebration when Iraq had lost the war. Everyone said at the time that Saddam Hussein was deceiving his people. For me, it’s not the same concept of victory. Same word, similar striving, but not the same thing. The West is always probing and measuring the other in their terms, but it would be more relevant to ask seriously why Iraq claimed victory where the Western world only saw defeat. As with the Algerian or the Vietnam wars, the West may obtain military victory temporarily via a power from the sky, but nations of lesser means ultimately gain political victory via a power from the underground. These persist through elaborate subterranean structures built to fight those who claim to see everything from the sky.

That last sentence is haunting and, in the fullest sense of the word, profound.

Footprints of War

 

When I was working on my essay on ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), I was surprised at how few sustained discussions of ‘nature’ as a medium through which military violence is conducted – though there were of course countless, vital discussions of ‘nature’ as a commodity bank that triggers so-called resource wars – so when it came to the section on Vietnam I learned much from David Biggs‘ brilliant account Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (2011).  It deservedly won the George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history.

(You can find an illustrated version of the section of ‘Natures’ on Vietnam here and here, and some of my other work on the militarization of nature in Vietnam here and here).

David now has a new book, Footprints of War: militarized landscapes in Vietnam, due from the University of Washington Press at the end of this year,

When American forces arrived in Vietnam, they found themselves embedded in historic village and frontier spaces already shaped by many past conflicts. American bases and bombing targets followed spatial and political logics influenced by the footprints of past wars in central Vietnam. The militarized landscapes here, like many in the world?s historic conflict zones, continue to shape post-war land-use politics.

Footprints of War traces the long history of conflict-produced spaces in Vietnam, beginning with early modern wars and the French colonial invasion in 1885 and continuing through the collapse of the Saigon government in 1975. The result is a richly textured history of militarized landscapes that reveals the spatial logic of key battles such as the Tet Offensive.

Drawing on extensive archival work and years of interviews and fieldwork in the hills and villages around the city of Hue to illuminate war’s footprints, David Biggs also integrates historical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data, using aerial, high-altitude, and satellite imagery to render otherwise placeless sites into living, multidimensional spaces. This personal and multilayered approach yields an innovative history of the lasting traces of war in Vietnam and a model for understanding other militarized landscapes.

The pre-publication reviews confirm the importance of Footprints:

“David Biggs’s second major book on the social and environmental history of modern Vietnam. His nuanced use of Vietnamese-language publications and his extensive interviews with local people are outstanding. He tells a compelling story in fluent, vivid, and even lyrical prose, expressing compassionate insight into both society and ecosystem.”
-Richard P. Tucker, University of Michigan

“In this rich and innovative new book, David Biggs considers the spatial dimension of the war in Vietnam, through an examination of the densely layered militarized landscapes around Hu . The result is a gem, a fluid, authoritative, compelling work that shows just how deep, complex, and long-lasting were ‘The Footprints of War.'”
-Fredrik Logevall, author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam

Data.mil

Four years ago I described Project THOR (Theatre History of Operations Reports), Lt Col Jenns Robertson‘s remarkable attempt to transcribe, standardise and integrate the available records of US Air Force strike missions – see here (scroll down) and (especially) here.

His databases have now been incorporated into Defense Digital Service‘s  data.mil, described as ‘an attempt in open defence data’: it’s also an experiment, which invites not only use but interaction and comment.  You can now access the THOR databases – and find the backstory – here.

In 2006, Lt Col Jenns Robertson and his team in the Pentagon faced a daunting task. Every week, the Air Force’s Chief of Staff and other senior military officers would ask for the latest on the air war in Iraq and Afghanistan – how many aircraft had flown that week, which ground units they supported, and what munitions they had dropped.

Working in the Air Force’s Operations Directorate, Robertson had access to a wide array of classified data sources, yet the weekly report was tedious to produce.  Data was not easily searched and often contained only half the picture, forcing Robertson’s team to assemble the report manually every week over the course of several days. He knew there was an easier way.

In his spare time, Robertson began creating the Theater History of Operations Reports (THOR), initially a simple Excel spreadsheet that eventually matured into the largest compilation of releasable U.S. air operations data in existence. Robertson tested his database with his team, asking them to generate the Chief’s weekly report twice — once manually, and again using THOR. The result was impressive: THOR cut the report work from three days to just under an hour.

After receiving Department of Defense approvals, Robertson was able to post THOR files online so interested public citizens could search the data for their own purposes. Robertson understands the vast potential benefits of opening such a large compilation of previously inaccessible data to the public. “I can’t envision all the ways this can be used”.

One of the first (once forbidden) fruits of releasing this data to the public is a remarkable map by Cooper Thomas plotting 3.1 million US bombing and ground attack missions (including Close Air Support and aerial interdiction) in North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1966 and 1974:

vietnamwarbombing-01

Cooper promises further explorations of this and other THOR databases; if you know of any others, please let me know [see UPDATE below].

Data.mil is promising to release a new ‘data story’ each month – next month should see the release of a military casualty database.  The site went live in December 2016, and  Mary Lazzeri and Major Aaron Capizzi explain the background:

Mary:  Major Aaron Capizzi, USAF had the idea to use open data principles to solve Department of Defense (DoD) problems after attending a panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School sponsored by former Deputy CTO, Nick Sinai. In addition, I had been looking to seed an open data effort at DoD. Aaron’s idea, coupled with the opportunity to present the Theater History of Operations (THOR) bombing data in a new and interesting way, provided a perfect opportunity to put energy behind the effort.

We’re looking to use this pilot to jumpstart a larger open data effort at DoD. The beta site is a working proof-of-concept. The next step is to show the larger DoD community that open data merits investment.

Aaron: Our approach is unique in two ways. First, Data.mil will test various ways of sharing defense-related information, gauging public interest and potential value, while protecting security and privacy. We will quickly iterate and improve the data offerings on data.mil, using public feedback and internal department discussions to best unlock the value of defense data. Our goal is to provide all data with enough context that users, both the public and defense employees, can understand the potential value and get started using data quickly.

Second, Data.mil will prioritize opening data using a demand-driven model, focusing on quality rather than standard quantity metrics. The Department of Defense regularly reports on the significant challenges we face in defending the nation, which range from attracting talented recruits to developing game-changing technology within constrained budgets. Most of these aspects of defense business generate large amounts of unclassified data which, if released, can encourage collaboration and innovation with public and private sector partners.

Mary: The site is built using an open data storytelling platform, LiveStories. Rather than simply posting a list of datasets, the goal of Data.mil is to tell stories with data. The site provides narratives to complement the data so users can more quickly understand and begin using it. LiveStories was selected for its visualization and data analysis features allowing us to present an engaging site for its users. In addition, it’s easy to use. Non-technical staff can use the platform to share their data and tell their stories.

We want to compel collaboration from military components, industry partners and the public. The partnership with data.world enables that collaboration providing the social media tools to support exploration and a community discussion of the data.

Conversely, it’s also worth thinking about how digital platforms are now used to plan and execute air strikes.  As the origins of Project THOR show, there are crucial links between retrospective reporting and prospective mission planning.

UPDATE:  I’ve since discovered this map of Allied bombing raids over Europe in the Second World War by Dimitri Lozeve, also drawn from Data.mil’s THOR database (click on the link for an enlarged version):

Allied bombing in Europe, 1939-1945

You can zoom in; here are two close-ups:

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screen-shot-2017-01-18-at-12-38-26-pm

The map comes without a key; all I know is that the original tabulations include ‘U.S. and Royal Air Force data, as well as some Australian, New Zealand and South African air force mission’ 1939-1945 and refer to tonnages dropped: more discussion here.

On the global scale, Data Is Beautiful has a GIF showing ‘every bomb dropped by Allied forces in World War II); you can view it as a video here, from which I’ve grabbed these screenshots that capture the shift from the European to the Pacific theatre:

allied-bombing-october-1940

allied-bombing-june-1943

allied-bombing-june-1944

allied-bombing-november-1944

allied-bombing-june-1945

Data World‘s Ian Greenleigh has kindly alerted me to a similar treatment of the THOR database for Vietnam by his colleague Mark DiMarco here:

Our point-of-view is from high above the South China Sea, where much of the US Navy fleet was stationed.
By giving the user a bird’s eye view, we can clearly see up and down the Vietnamese peninsula, and the neighboring countries of Laos & Cambodia, and precisely see where these missions took place.
Each frame of the visualization is a single day’s worth of missions. Some days had as many as 1,500 missions, while the records for some days are completely missing.
The colors of each of the circles dictates what type of mission took place.

The GIF is here; screenshot from the interactive:

Vietnam bombing GIF

‘Nothing ever dies’

Nothing ever dies

I’m just starting Viet Thanh Nguyen‘s Nothing ever dies: Vietnam and the memory of war (just out from Harvard):

All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. From the author of the bestselling novel The Sympathizer comes a searching exploration of the conflict Americans call the Vietnam War and Vietnamese call the American War – a conflict that lives on in the collective memory of both nations.

From a kaleidoscope of cultural forms – novels, memoirs, cemeteries, monuments, films, photography, museum exhibits, video games, souvenirs, and more – Nothing Ever Dies brings a comprehensive vision of the war into sharp focus. At stake are ethical questions about how the war should be remembered by participants that include not only Americans and Vietnamese but also Laotians, Cambodians, South Koreans, and Southeast Asian Americans. Too often, memorials valorize the experience of one’s own people above all else, honoring their sacrifices while demonizing the “enemy” – or, most often, ignoring combatants and civilians on the other side altogether. Visiting sites across the United States, Southeast Asia, and Korea, Viet Thanh Nguyen provides penetrating interpretations of the way memories of the war help to enable future wars or struggle to prevent them.

Drawing from this war, Nguyen offers a lesson for all wars by calling on us to recognize not only our shared humanity but our ever-present inhumanity. This is the only path to reconciliation with our foes, and with ourselves. Without reconciliation, war’s truth will be impossible to remember, and war’s trauma impossible to forget.

Here is the table of contents:

Prologue
Just Memory
Ethics
1. On Remembering One’s Own
2. On Remembering Others
3. On the Inhumanities
Industries
4. On War Machines
5. On Becoming Human
6. On Asymmetry
Aesthetics
7. On Victims and Voices
8. On True War Stories
9. On Powerful Memory
Just Forgetting
Epilogue

You can find an interview with the author at the LA Review of Books here: among other things, it addresses his doubled (and doubly admirable) interest in fiction and non-fiction.  There’s another with Tavis Smiley on PBS here and, since he’s just won a Pulitzer for his novel The Sympathizer – which also deals with Vietnam and the US – I’m sure there’ll be lots more….

A long day’s journey…

Anti-landscape of the Western Front.001

A note from Antipode to say that the latest edition is now available online and, unless I’ve mis-read things, is open access (for now, at any rate).  It includes what the editors say ‘might well be Antipode‘s longest ever paper’ – pp. 3-56! – my ‘Natures of war’ essay here.

JARMAN Sand.001

Vietnam, Vietnam

Travis_Radio

The New York Times has a fascinating clip from a longer documentary by Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara called In Country, about a group in Oregon that re-enacts scenes from the Vietnam War:

IN COUNTRY is a feature documentary that follows 2/5 1st Cav (Reenacted), a “platoon” of hardcore Vietnam War re-enactors. Weaving together verité footage of the reenactments with flashbacks to the characters’ real lives and archival footage from the Vietnam War, IN COUNTRY blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, past and present to tell a story about men trying to access the past.

The question at the center of IN COUNTRY is why? Why would these men – many of them combat veterans of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan haunted by their own experiences on the frontline – try to recreate a war that so many have tried to forget?

The film-makers give part of their answer in the NYT:

Unlike most war re-enactments, the pretend battles they stage are private, free of spectators and created for the experience of the participants alone. Outfitted in authentic period military gear, the men hike through the woods for days at a time, sleep on the ground, eat canned rations and carry actual Vietnam-era weapons (loaded with blanks). They do not stage battles but rather attempt to find and “kill” a group of Vietcong re-enactors waiting to ambush them.

Most remarkable perhaps is how this unusual hobby brings combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan together with civilians and veterans of Vietnam. They work collectively to create a fascinating space where real emotions and memories mix with history and fantasy. Their reasons for participating vary: Some seek the camaraderie they experienced in their deployment, while others want to relive a vital time in their life. And for all of the veterans involved, it is an event at which their service is acknowledged and respected.

They elaborate in an interview with PBS here, and in a You Tube clip from IFF Boston here.

For my part, there have been many comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam, but from the clips I’ve seen (and the clean uniforms) I don’t think the literal meaning of quagmire is re-staged in the Oregon woods very often…