Combat Obscura

A new documentary on the war in Afghanistan, Combat Obscura, is available on iTunes.  From The Daily Beast:

The new Afghanistan war documentary Combat Obscura doesn’t introduce itself, explain itself, or end in a satisfying way.

It’s weird, funny, disturbing, brutal, and heartbreaking—and one of the best documentaries in years.

Combat Obscura is directed by Miles Lagoze, a former U.S. Marine Corps cameraman who spent much of 2011 in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan with a battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment based in North Carolina.

After getting out of the Marine Corps and spending a little time processing his experiences, Lagoze, now 29, enrolled in film school at Columbia University.

He just graduated. Combat Obscura is his first movie.

Lagoze came home from Afghanistan with all the footage the Marine Corps doesn’t want the public to see.

 

That last sentence needs elaboration.  Writing in the New York Times, Ben Keningsberg explains:

As a United States Marine in Afghanistan, Miles Lagoze, the director, worked as a videographer, documenting scenes of war for official release. (We see a clip of such material on CNN midway through the film.) Somehow, Lagoze kept his hands on unreleased footage he and others shot in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012, and made it the basis for this film.

The Beast describes Eric Schuman, the film’s editor, as the production’s ‘secret weapon’:

“I would watch through the footage Miles had shot and pull from it what I found most interesting and compelling and then organize that material by subject…  I would then try to arrange that material together into sequences that, when placed all together, told a thematic story about a deployment in Afghanistan. By the end, Miles and I came upon a structure that I hope conveys a loss of innocence and growing nihilism and apathy as the film goes on.”

I’ll leave the last word to J.D. Simkins in the Military Times (who praises the film’s accuracy and honesty):

The film’s true brilliance lies in its situational hysteria, a scene-by-scene unpredictability that serves as a microcosm of a war with no end — and no definitive outcome — in sight.

Like the forever war, a lack of closure looms ominously over the film, a sentiment echoed by many of the war’s actors. Lagoze is no different.

Borderization and bombs

Just as I started to think about the Annual Lecture I have to give at the Kent Interdisciplinary Centre for Spatial Studies (KISS) next month, on the spaces of modern war, I stumbled across a splendidly angry and wonderfully perceptive new essay from Achille Mbembe on ‘Deglobalization‘ at Esprit (via Eurozine), 18 February 2019:

The spare abstract doesn’t begin to do it justice:

Digital computation is engendering a new common world and new configurations of reality and power. But this ubiquitous, instantaneous world is confronted by the old world of bodies and distances. Technology is mobilized in order to create an omnipresent border that sequesters those with rights from those without them.

The essay opens with some characteristically perceptive insights into digital computation (which Achille understands in three distinct but related ways) and its world-creating and world-dividing capacities, but given my KISS Lecture, I was much taken with this passage describing what Achille calls ‘borderization‘:

What is borderization if not the process by which world powers permanently transform certain spaces into places that are impassable to certain classes of people? What is borderization if not the deliberate multiplication of spaces of loss and grief, where so many people, deemed undesirable, see their lives shatter into pieces?

What is it, if not a way to wage war against enemies whose living environments and chances of survival have already been devastated? The use of uranium armour-piercing ammunition and prohibited weapons like white phosphorus; the high-altitude bombardment of basic infrastructure; the cocktail of carcinogenic and radioactive chemical products deposited in the soil and filling the air; the toxic dust raised by the ruins of obliterated towns; the pollution emitted by hydrocarbon fires?

And what about the bombs? Is there any type of bomb that has not been dropped on civilian populations since the last quarter of the twentieth century? Classic dumb bombs repurposed with tail-mounted inertial measurement units; cruise missiles with infrared seekers; microwave bombs designed to paralyze the enemy’s electronic nerve centres; other microwave bombs that do not kill but burn skin; bombs that detonate in cities releasing energy beams like bolts of lightning; thermobaric bombs that unleash walls of fire, suck the oxygen out of more or less confined spaces, send out deadly shockwaves and suffocate anything that breathes; cluster bombs that explode above the ground and scatter small shells, designed to detonate on contact, indiscriminately over a wide area, with devastating consequences for civilian populations; all sorts of bomb, a reductio ad absurdum demonstration of unprecedented destructive power – in short, ecocide.

Under these circumstances, how can we be surprised when those who can, those who have survived living hell, try to escape and seek refuge in any and every corner of Earth where they might be able to live safely?

This form of calculated, programmed war, this war of stupefaction with its new methods, is a war against the very ideas of mobility, circulation and speed, despite the fact that we live in an age of velocity, acceleration and ever more abstraction, ever more algorithms.

Its targets, moreover, are not singular bodies; they are entire human masses who are dismissed as contemptible and superfluous, but whose organs must each suffer their own specific form of incapacitation, with consequences that last for generations – eyes, nose, mouth, ears, tongue, skin, bones, lungs, gut, blood, hands, legs, all the cripples, paralytics, survivors, all the pulmonary diseases like pneumoconiosis, all the traces of uranium found in hair, the thousands of cancers, miscarriages, birth defects, congenital deformities, wrecked thoraxes, nervous system disorders – utter devastation.

All these things, it bears repeating, are connected to contemporary practices of borderization being carried out remotely, far away from us, in the name of our freedom and security. This conflict against specific bodies of abjection, mounds of human flesh, unfolds on a planetary scale. It is poised to become the defining conflict of our time.

Achille then connects this to Grégoire Chamayou‘s arguments about ‘manhunts’ (see my discussion of ‘the individuation of warfare’ here – though, like Achille, I’d now insist that ‘individuation’ is only one modality of later modern war and that, as I’ve suggested here, aerial violence and siege warfare both continue to target ‘the social’, those ‘entire human masses’):

This conflict often precedes, accompanies or supplements the other conflict being waged in our midst or at our doors: the hunt for bodies that have been foolish enough to move (movement being the essential property of the human body); bodies judged to have forced their way into places and spaces where they have no business being, places they clog up by simply existing, and from which they must be expelled.

As the philosopher Elsa Dorlin remarks, this form of violence is directed towards prey. It resembles the great hunts of the past – tracking and pursuing, laying traps and beating, and finally surrounding, capturing or slaughtering the quarry with the help of pack hounds and bloodhounds. It fits into a long history of manhunts. Grégoire Chamayou studies their various manifestations in Manhunts: A Philosophical History. They always involve the same sort of quarry – slaves, aborigines, dark skins, Jews, the stateless, the poor and, closer to home, the undocumented. They target animate, moving bodies that, marked out and ostracized, are seen as entirely different from our own bodies despite being endowed with attractive force, intensity, the capacity to move and flee. These hunts are taking place at a time when technologies of acceleration are proliferating endlessly and creating a segmented, multi-speed planet.

And finally this:

What is the deadliest destination for migrants in an increasingly balkanized and isolated world? Europe. Where lie the most skeletons at sea, where is the biggest marine graveyard at the beginning of this century? Europe. Where are the largest number of territorial and international waters, sounds, islands, straits, enclaves, canals, rivers, ports and airports transformed into technological iron curtains? Europe. And to crown it all, in this era of permanent escalation, the camps. The return of camps. A Europe of camps. Samos, Chios, Lesbos, Idomeni, Lampedusa, Ventimiglia, Sicily, Subotica – a garland of camps…. [I’ve taken the map below from ‘Camps in Europe’ here].

It bears repeating that this war (which takes the form of hunting, capturing, rounding up, sorting, separating and deporting) has one aim. It is not about cutting Europe off from the world or turning it into an impenetrable fortress. It is about arrogating to Europeans alone the rights of possession of and free movement around a planet that rightfully belongs to all of us.

I’m not sure about all of this, not least because that precious right of ‘free movement’ within Europe is precisely what is being called into question by the resurgent right across Europe.  But there is much to think about here, and I urge you to read the whole, brilliant essay.

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.

The War Yet To Come

I fell in love with Beirut (its people and its food!) on my first visit, and I’ve returned many times since.  The first was in 2005, when I gave  a plenary lecture to a conference on ‘“America in the Middle East/The Middle East in America” at AUB.  I was back in 2006, shortly after the Israeli bombing of Beirut’s southern suburbs during the summer, and my plenary lecture to the Arab World Geography conference referred directly to those attacks (and marked the start of my work on aerial violence): see ‘In another time zone, the bombs fall unsafely’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

I took my title from a poem by Blake Morrison, ‘Stop’ (above), which was reprinted in an anthology to aid children’s charities in Lebanon compiled by Anna Wilson after the Israeli attacks.

Most of what I know about Beirut, both at first hand and from reading, comes from the brilliant work of Mona Fawaz and her students – I vividly remember Mona taking me around the rapid-fire construction taking place in the southern suburbs amidst the rubble from the air strikes – so I’m really pleased to see Emma Shaw Crane‘s appreciation of Hiba Bou Akar‘s For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers over at Public Books.

Emma explains:

Halfway through Bou Akar’s fieldwork, the “ghost of the civil war returned,” with the events of May 7, 2008, the worst sectarian fighting in Beirut since the civil war. When a Sunni Future Movement–led national government declared Hezbollah’s telecommunications infrastructure illegal, street battles broke out across the southern suburbs between Hezbollah, allied with Haraket Amal, and the Future Movement and the allied Druze PSP. The southern peripheries were once again battlegrounds. This time, the fight was for infrastructure.

Urbicide is the targeted destruction of cities as a tactic of war. The violence chronicled here is not aerial annihilation—hospitals and homes reduced to rubble—but the “gradual construction of buildings and infrastructure” in ways that collapse boundaries between war and peace, militarizing everyday life. A window in an apartment building is at once a source of light and a future sniper location; a ruin may be uninhabitable, but the land beneath it marks the edge of a territory. This doubleness saturates life on the on the peripheries of Beirut, where “every built space is a potential future battle space.”

For the War Yet to Come is a feminist and postcolonial critique of a masculinized geography of urban militarism that favors the spectacular and the sublime. This vision of the city at war is blindingly technological and curiously devoid of people, as if seen from above (perhaps from a fighter jet). Bou Akar’s Beirut is peopled, swirling with rumor. It is the site not of anonymized destruction but of calculated and complex construction.

Succinct and to the point, though I think it’s important to use the one to undercut the other: to reveal the masculinism that inheres in aerial violence (see below: the text is from John Steinbeck‘s appreciation [sic] of USAAF bomber crews in the Second World War, Bombs Away!; I used it in my Tanner Lectures) ––

–– but also to show that those who live in cities under siege are neither voiceless nor without creative, collective  agency (something I’ve tried to achieve in my work on Syria: see the GUIDE tab).

You can access the opening section of For the War Yet to Come here, and here is a syposis of the book:

Beirut is a city divided. Following the Green Line of the civil war, dividing the Christian east and the Muslim west, today hundreds of such lines dissect the city. For the residents of Beirut, urban planning could hold promise: a new spatial order could bring a peaceful future. But with unclear state structures and outsourced public processes, urban planning has instead become a contest between religious-political organizations and profit-seeking developers. Neighborhoods reproduce poverty, displacement, and urban violence.

For the War Yet to Come examines urban planning in three neighborhoods of Beirut’s southeastern peripheries, revealing how these areas have been developed into frontiers of a continuing sectarian order. Hiba Bou Akar argues these neighborhoods are arranged, not in the expectation of a bright future, but according to the logic of “the war yet to come”: urban planning plays on fears and differences, rumors of war, and paramilitary strategies to organize everyday life. As she shows, war in times of peace is not fought with tanks, artillery, and rifles, but involves a more mundane territorial contest for land and apartment sales, zoning and planning regulations, and infrastructure projects.

Here is the list of Contents, but if you go here you can find a detailed abstract for each chapter:

Prologue: War in Times of Peace
Chapter 1: Constructing Sectarian Geographi
Chapter 2: The Doubleness of Ruins
Chapter 3: The Lacework of Zoning
Chapter 4: A Ballooning Frontier
Chapter 5: Planning without Development
Epilogue: Contested Futures

Gender, war and technology

Christiane Wilke writes with news of a fascinating special issue of the Australian Feminist Law Journal (441, 1) on Gender, War, and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.

Gender, War, and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the Twenty-First Century:  Emily Jones, Sara Kendall & Yoriko Otomo

Targeting, Gender, and International Posthumanitarian Law and Practice: Framing The Question of the Human in International Humanitarian Law: Matilda Arvidsson

How International Law Learned to Love the Bomb: Civilians and the Regulation of Aerial Warfare in the 1920s: Christiane Wilke

Technology, Dead Male Bodies, and Feminist Recognition: Gendering ICT Harm Theo:  Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

War’s Perpetuity: Disabled Bodies of War and the Exoskeleton of Equality: Gina Heathcote

A Posthuman-Xenofeminist Analysis of the Discourse on Autonomous Weapons Systems and Other Killing Machines: Emily Jones

The Architecture of Slow, Structural, and Spectacular Violence and the Poetic Testimony of War: Helene Kazan

The editors explain in their Introduction:

As the following articles illustrate, triangulating gender, war, and technology as a field of inquiry produces a wide domain of analysis, with topics ranging from human enhancement technologies to autonomous weapons systems, surveillance and aerial bombardment, artificial intelligence, and big data. The three terms themselves invite interpretation and debate.

The first term, ‘gender’, has been used in the context of international humanitarian law to signify vulnerability; women are treated as a group that may require further protection, where gender operates as a qualified identity that supplements the category of civilian (or indeed, comes to define the category of civilian). Yet some of the articles considered here adopt a more reflexive approach informed by feminist scholarship, considering issues of agency, difference, and intersectionality, and contesting gendered constructions that presuppose femininity, ethnicity, and passivity. The gendered subjects of law and war are at the same time subjects embedded within political economies of race, class, ability, age, and other factors. While gender serves as the primary focus of many articles within this special issue, gender theory’s commitment to intersectionality can be seen throughout, with articles considering issues of race, colonialism, ability, masculi- nity, and capitalism (and thus, implicitly, class). Beyond this special issue, the field would benefit from analysis of the broader range of intersectional concerns that emerge from recent technological developments in warfare.

The second term, ‘war’, is understood through drawing on existing feminist and gender critiques of war and armed conflict. Our point of departure is Cockburn’s well-known ‘continuum of violence’, whereby war and peace are noted to be part of a shared continuum as opposed to distinct (legal) categories. Such an outlook dis- rupts legal categorisations of conflicts by acknowledging that when a conflict ends as a matter of law, it has not necessarily ended for people living through it.  Not only do the place and time of ‘armed’ conflict then become questions, but presumptions about who produces, participates in, and is affected by conflict are also revisited and critiqued.

The final term, ‘technology’, has been defined within the context of conflict in the twenty-first century, following the post-war ideological movement described above. We are aware of the vast amount of literature which seeks to define technology broadly, with Heidegger defining technology to include things such as art and law, roughly defining technology as a tool and theorising how it is technology which helps humans become human. This special issue focuses on technology specifically within the context of twenty-first-century armed conflict, such as military technologies and/or algorithmic decision-making and data collection. In light of the multiple ways in which technology is changing conflict, we argue that the focus on these technologies reflects the ways in which technology is impacting on and changing the global order and conflict. This special issue seeks to draw attention to the urgent need for gendered perspectives on the interrelationships between war and technology.

Preparing for war

Timely news today that Sweden has distributed a booklet, “If Crisis or War Comes” (Om Krisen Eller Kriget Kommer), to all households.

According to the Guardian’s Jon Henley, the leaflet

explains how people can secure basic needs such as food, water and heat, what warning signals mean, where to find bomb shelters and how to contribute to Sweden’s “total defence”.

The 20-page pamphlet, illustrated with pictures of sirens, warplanes and families fleeing their homes, also prepares the population for dangers such as cyber and terror attacks and climate change, and includes a page on identifying fake news.

You can download the English-language version here.

I say it’s timely not for the reasons you might think.  Its publication coincided with an intriguing e-mail from Christine Agius:

I am currently writing on war preparedness in Sweden’s security policy and in relation to military exercises in the Baltic. With the release today of the war preparedness booklet, I’m also developing an article on war preparedness and how that functions in post-neutral states. However, I’m really struggling to find writings on the subject of war preparedness itself. I thought you might know of some that are worth investigating or who might be working on this topic?

I’m at a loss; I’ve written – really only in passing – about civil defence (‘défense passive‘) in relation to British and French preparations for the Second World War (see, for example, my two lectures under the TEACHING tab), and there is a vast literature on planning and preparing for nuclear attack during the Cold War (especially in the United States) – there I’d start with Peter Galison‘s wonderful work.  If any readers can help Christine she can be contacted at cagius@swin.edu.au.

‘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….