Ice Cold in Alex

I think most of my research on medical care and casualty evacuation from the Western Front in the First World War is now complete, though there are still some loose ends to tie up and some more interviews/oral histories to listen to on-line courtesy of the wonderful Imperial War Museum.   So I spent much of the summer working on the very different situation in the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War: the material – at the IWM and the Wellcome Institute – is just as rich, though much less worked over.

If the First World War was the first industrialised war yet still  fought, for the most part, at short range, the campaigns in North Africa involved mechanised war fought over vast distances.  I had anticipated some of this in ‘The natures of war‘ (DOWNLOADS tab), particularly since some of my evidence was drawn from vivid accounts by volunteer ambulance drivers from the American Field Service working with the Allies, but now I’m finding that early essay on the entanglement of the desert terrain and the soldier’s body needs to be supplemented – often dramatically so – once the wounded body is brought into the centre of the frame.

The Battle of Egypt, 1942: New Zealand and Indian Infantry Casualties (Art.IWM ART LD 2722) image: Interior of a tent with casualties lying on stretchers, main figure with arm and leg in makeshift
traction Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

For the Western Front I’ve experimented with how to bring together the systems of evacuation that were put in place (with all their delays and dangers, imperfections and improvisations) with the wounded bodies that were moved through them, and – as regular readers will know – I’ve tried to incorporate the imbrications of those bodies with the changing and highly variable technological apparatus that made all this possible.  You can see some of my first attempts in Anatomy of another soldier

At the end of that essay, I worried about two issues: an anthropomorphism and a functionalism (in which everything that is pressed into service works inexorably to carry the soldier through the evacuation chain).

The spur for all this was Harry Parker‘s remarkable Anatomy of a soldier (see here and ‘Object lessons‘: DOWNLOADS tab), about the experience of a young British soldier who suffers traumatic blast injuries from an IED in Afghanistan.

But I’ve now found another, much earlier example that speaks directly to my work on North Africa.  And while the anthropomorphism remains a problem, as you’ll see the functionalism is much less secure – and for that very reason.

I’ve just finished Christopher Landon‘s Ice-Cold in Alex, a novel published in 1957 that provided the basis for J. Lee Thompson‘s celebrated film the following year, starring John Mills, Harry AndrewsSylvia Sims and Anthony Quayle.  (For a reading of the film, see Michael Leyshon and Catherine Brace, ‘Men and the desert: contested masculinities in Ice Cold in Alex’, Gender, place and culture 14 (2) (2007) 163-182).

The story describes a desperate drive in a British military ambulance from Tobruk, where the Afrika Korps is closing in, across the trackless desert to safety in Alexandria (and to a bar where the beer is always ‘ice-cold’).  Landon served with the 51st Field Ambulance and the Royal Army Service Corps in North Africa during the war, and knew what he was writing about.

Before the party sets off, Landon describes the Sergeant-Major lying underneath a lorry:

‘Above him, the bowels of the engine – gleaming crankshaft and loosened connecting rods , tied to the sides of the crank-case with wire – seemed to be grinning.  It was a challenging grin – “what’s wrong with me?”  He started back, up at the glint of metal, framed in the black space where the sump had been removed.  “It’s easier for doctors,” he thought.  “Patients can talk.  But machinery goes on uncomplaining, until it breaks.”‘

Later he has a similar conversation with one of the nurses they have been ordered to escort to Alexandria:

‘”Not so difficult, or different from your job.  They’re like humans, really.  If you give them the right food and drink – a dose occasionally – and don’t overwork them, they obey all the rules.”  He was moving the fan blades to and fro, feeling with the other hand behind it.  “The only trouble – and difference – is they can’t talk.  So that by the time you know they have a pain, it’s usually too late.”

But between these two passages Landon has given the ambulance a voice.

I’m going to be rehearsing these issues at a seminar tomorrow at the Wall – I’ll be interested to see how this year’s Scholars can  help me think this through….  And I’ll be posting more about my work on the Western Desert in the months ahead.

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

The Natures of War

Frank-Hurley-2008-Photographing-the-First-World-War-Hurley-Document-Name-06-copy sm

I have – at last – uploaded what I hope is the final version of ‘The Natures of War’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  It’s the long-form version of the first Neil Smith Lecture I gave at St Andrew’s (Neil’s alma mater) almost exactly a year ago (you can access the online video here).  The basic argument remains the same, but the written version is substantively different (and much longer).  If you do have any comments or suggestions, or you spot any egregious errors, please let me know.  Here’s the introduction:


In his too short life, Neil Smith had much to say about both nature and war: from his seminal discussion of ‘the production of nature’ in his first book, Uneven development, to his dissections of war in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in American Empire – where he identified the end of the First World World and the end of the Second as crucial punctuations in the modern genealogy of globalisation – and its coda, The endgame of globalization, a critique of America’s wars conducted in the shadows of 9/11. And yet, surprisingly, he never linked the two. He was of course aware of their connections. He always insisted that the capitalist production of nature, like that of space, was never – could not be – a purely domestic matter, and he emphasised that the modern projects of colonialism and imperialism depended upon often spectacular displays of military violence. But he did not explore those relations in any systematic or substantive fashion.

He was not alone. The great Marxist critic Raymond Williams once famously identified ‘nature’ as ‘perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language.’ Since he wrote, countless commentators have elaborated on its complexities, but few of them have paused to note that ‘war’ was not one of Williams’s keywords (though ‘violence’ – ‘often now a difficult word’ – was). Williams was radicalised by the rise of European fascism; he joined the British Army in 1941 and served as a tank commander during the Second World War. Yet at its end he found the world had turned, and it was for that very reason that he sought to find the terms for a post-war world in which, seemingly, ‘war’ had no place.

‘In 1945, after the ending of the wars with Germany and Japan, I was released from the Army to return to Cambridge. University term had already begun, and many relationships and groups had been formed. It was in any case strange to travel from an artillery regiment on the Kiel Canal to a Cambridge college. I had been away only four and a half years, but in the movements of war had lost touch with all my university friends. Then, after many strange days, I met a man I had worked with in the first year of the war, when the formations of the 1930s, though under pressure, were still active. He too had just come out of the Army. We talked eagerly, but not about the past. We were too much preoccupied with this new and strange world around us. Then we both said, in effect simultaneously: ‘the fact is, they just don’t speak the same language’.’

I want to track backwards and forwards from Williams’s war-time experience to trace three different co-productions of nature and military violence: the soiled earth of the Western Front during the First World War, the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War (an armoured campaign very different from the European theatre in which Williams served), and the rainforests of Vietnam. My accounts can only be sketches, but they share a way of thinking of ‘nature’ (in all its complexity) as a modality that is intrinsic to the execution of military and paramilitary violence. In much the same way that ‘space’ is not only a terrain over which wars are waged – the fixation on territory that remains at the heart of modern geopolitics – but also a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted, so ‘nature’ is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations: the problematic of resource wars and conflict commodities. The spoils of war include the short-term bludgeoning of landscapes and the long-term toxicity of contamination (what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’), but it is also important to trace the bio-physical formations – the conditions, provided the term is understood in the most active of senses – that are centrally involved in the militarisation of ‘nature’. For nature too is a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted.

I speak of ‘co-productions’ and ‘formations’ in order to signal in advance three issues that will reappear across all three studies. First, each of these wars was in large measure what Paul Saint-Amour calls, in relation to the first of them, an optical war: they depended on geo-spatial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance which in its various forms provided the essential basis for the maps, plans and orders that activated the war machine. And yet the remote orderings of military violence were never autonomous projections onto a pure plane; they also depended on the bodies of soldiers whose apprehension of the battle space was always more than visual. In part, this was a matter of affect, but it was also a matter of knowledge – of a corpography rather than a cartography – whose materialities also inflected imaginative geographies of militarised nature. Second, those diverse stocks of knowledge about the battle space were invested in the co-production of a ‘trickster nature’. It was commonplace to describe the Western Front as a surreally empty landscape in which the capacity for military violence was hidden from view once men withdrew into the troglodyte world of the trenches. But I have in mind a more pervasive sense of uncertainty instilled by a militarised nature: one where the earth and air could kill through an infected wound, a buried mine or a cloud of gas, and whose camouflaged landscapes could wreak havoc with the military gaze to dissemble and distract, lure and entrap. Third, this was a hideously hybrid ‘cyborg nature’ whose terrain and life-forms were saturated with the debris of violent conflict: burned-out vehicles and bombed-out buildings, barbed wire and exploded munitions, discarded weapons and abandoned supplies, toxic residues and body parts. So far so familiar, except that none of these entanglements was inert; they shaped the military operations that took place through them. In all three ways each of these battle spaces was composed of ‘vibrant matter’ that was often also deadly matter.


This version is so long I’ve cut all the illustrations, but I have uploaded the original lecture slides too (DOWNLOADS tab); I’ve already posted early versions of some of the sections – and those were illustrated – here and here.

Scanning the horizon

I’ve been reading poetry from the Second World War, mainly as part of the preparation for my talk on “The natures of war” tonight.  My main focus for the last several weeks has been on the sand and dust of the Western Desert but my eyes kept straying.

I’ve been moved by the work of Keith Douglas, amongst several other ‘desert poets’, but his “How to kill” captures the impersonality-intimacy of the killing space better than almost anything I know and has a relevance far beyond its time and place:

‘Now in my dial of glass appears

the soldier who is going to die.

He smiles, and moves about in ways

his mother knows, habits of his.

The wires touch his face: I cry

NOW.  Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust

of a man of flesh…’

Here is a virtualized reading of the poem (more details of what that means here)

The poems of Keith Douglas edited by Ted Hughs for FaberDouglas’s body of work is remarkable.  He’s often described as one of the finest poets of the war; he served as a tank commander in the Western Desert and was subsequently killed in Normandy in June 1944.  There’s a compelling combination of the theatrical with the documentary (what Douglas called ‘the extrospective’) in his writing: you can see it in his poetry but also in his prose account of the desert war, From Alamein to Zem Zem (newly available in a Kindle edition), and this prompted Owen Sheers to put Douglas on the stage in a one-man play at the Old Vic, Unicorns, Almost, with Joseph Fiennes (‘Who then can live among this gentle/obsolescent breed of heroes and not weep/Unicorns almost’).  Sheers also developed a documentary for BBC4, Battlefield Poet.

There’s an excellent discussion of ‘The vision of Keith Douglas’ in Tim Kendall’s Modern English war poetry (2009; available online if your library has a copy), another by Adam Piette on ‘Keith Douglas and the poetry of the Second World War’ in Cambridge’s Companion to twentieth-centuy English poetry (2007; also available online, same conditions apply) and a very good open access essay by Costas Evangelides, ‘Keith Douglas: Death’s several faces’, here.

I’ve found it hard to leave Douglas’s work alone, along with other ‘desert poets’, but this poem by Barry Conrad Amiel took me away from the sand and dust to my Killing Space project on bombing.  It’s called “Death is a matter of mathematics” (Amiel was an artilleryman but there too death came from above).

Death is a matter of mathematics

It screeches down at you from dirtywhite nothingness
And your life is a question of velocity and altitude,
With allowances for wind and the quick, relentless pull
Of gravity.

Or else it lies concealed
In that fleecy, peaceful puff of cloud ahead,
A streamlined, muttering vulture, waiting
To swoop upon you with a rush of steel.
And then your chances very as the curves
Of your parabolas, your banks, your dives,
The scientific soundness of your choice
Of what you push or pull, and how, and when.

Or perhaps you walk oblivious in a wood,
Or crawl flat-bellied over pockmarked earth,
And Death awaits you in a field-gray tunic.
Sights upright and aligned. Range estimated
And set in. A lightning, subconcious calculation
Of trajectory and deflection. With you the focal pont,
The centere of the problem. The A and B
Or the Smith and Jones of schoolboy textbooks.

Ten out of ten means you are dead.

Belatedly, I discovered that passages from both poets appear in Christopher Coker‘s The future of war: the re-enchantment of war in the twenty-first century.  Coker argues that the poets of World War II ‘have far more to tell us about the future face of conflict than their World War I predecessors’ because they address so directly the ways in which military technology was effacing the human…  This is the right time of year in many universities for me to add just one word: “Discuss”.