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Archive for the ‘war’ Category

late hegemonic fantasy: the pacific

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Just watched the first two episodes of The Pacific on Sky Movies. Stirring and scary yes, but also can’t help but feel that what I’m watching is a some sort of desperate projection of American nostalgic fantasy about the last time that we were outgunned, undermanned, underfed, often injured and generally in dire straits but we won. (It’s no wonder that the Battle of Khe Sahn during the Vietnam War plays a similarly iconic role in the American [filmic] subconscious). The colonel in charge of the unit we’re following even at one point, in the face of throwing what’s barely left of his Marine division against the entire Japanese army, reiterates an order from above: if this goes badly, you’ll retreat to the jungle and fight as guerrillas. To which all involved respond, fuck no, sir. We’re almost guerrillas, we might well have become guerrillas, but we’re never in the end guerrillas. And we watch as the desperate Marines manning the machine guns, constantly low on ammo, mow down hundreds upon hundreds of Japanese infantrymen. (At one point, in an act of medal-winning bravery, someone has to go clear a pile of bodies from the breach in the barbed wire fence in order to create a free-fire zone…) Sometimes, after the battles, the more thoughtful of the Americans go and look at the family pictures that the Japs carry in their bags. Once, one of them even finds a child’s doll in the satchel of the dead. But in another case, when these undermanned Americans send a medic out to help a terminally injured Jap, the latter pulls the pin on a grenade to blow the aiding hands and bodies to pieces. Bastards.

So why is this necessary right now? Well, there’s this sort of thing, which I really recommend you watch, and which I found via Chained to the Cinematheque:

I keep wondering (see below) whether videos like this one, which seem to represent in their depiction of the distractedly distanced killing perpetrated by US troops (which of course continues – or in fact intensifies into the primary US tactic for dealing with international insurgencies) some sort of semi-omnipotent Playstation-style control of the battlefield, actually augur something else, a sort of existential or mass-psychological or even material over-reach. That, if I could guess, is exactly the anxiety that constitutes the political unconscious of the Tom Hanks’s HBO production that I watched tonight. But this may or may not be wishful thinking. Understandable, I suppose, for me to construct fantasies about the failure of national projects that involve severely injuring children in the back of a van that their father’s driven to pick up a dying Reuters employee and deliver him to a hospital and then denying said children proper medical treatment.

Anyway, in case you’re new to the blog, here’s a previous (and more interesting) post on a parallel topic. And actually another one here, originally written for n+1’s website but they couldn’t sort out the coding issues with the embedded videos. I’m actually currently attempting to finish a small bit of fiction on this subject that I’ve been working on forever… We’ll see – maybe the awful video above has given me the spur that I need.

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April 6, 2010 at 12:42 am

Posted in distraction, Television, war

the hurt locker and the “fog of war”

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Just watched The Hurt Locker on pay-per-view, and sure it’s wonderfully exciting and slick. But the other thing it is, or rather does, is the same pernicious thing that “higher quality” American war films, films thematically-centered on the “ambiguities of war” have been doing for decades. That is, it repeatedly puts the viewer through the most baffling aspect of counter-insurgent combat – the serial inability to discern enemy combatant from native non-combatant, the guy peddling counterfeit DVDs from the guy strapped with plastique, the “good guy” family man from the terrorist plotter, the corner-working prostitute from the would-be assassin. In focusing on these moments of indiscernability, it trains its audience not in the art of making split-section distinctions (because films are wired to surprise – thus your best guess will always be a wrong guess) but in the fact that such distinctions can’t in fact be made.

I have no doubt, in other words, that The Hurt Locker captures (albeit, I’m sure, in a cinematically intensified form) something of what it feels like to be an American soldier in Iraq. I only worry that the visceral training that it provides means something different to the GI in the field and the citizen at home seated in the court of public opinion.

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March 14, 2010 at 9:23 am

Posted in movies, war

gi cbt; or, why isn’t she picking up the phone?

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What we love in Woolf, for instance, is the infolding out of the parts of the social map that aren’t supposed to touch so that they do. Remember when Peter Walsh walks past Septimus and Rezia losing their shit in Regent’s Park (he’s talking to a dead man; she’s married to a guy who talks to dead men) and gets the whole thing so very wrong and so very right at the same time?

And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them. To be having an awful scene—the poor girl looked absolutely desperate—in the middle of the morning. But what was it about, he wondered, what had the young man in the overcoat been saying to her to make her look like that; what awful fix had they got themselves into, both to look so desperate as that on a fine summer morning? The amusing thing about coming back to England, after five years, was the way it made, anyhow the first days, things stand out as if one had never seen them before; lovers squabbling under a tree; the domestic family life of the parks. Never had he seen London look so enchanting—the softness of the distances; the richness; the greenness; the civilisation, after India, he thought, strolling across the grass.

[…]

Those five years—1918 to 1923—had been, he suspected, somehow very important. People looked different. Newspapers seemed different. Now for instance there was a man writing quite openly in one of the respectable weeklies about water-closets. That you couldn’t have done ten years ago—written quite openly about water-closets in a respectable weekly. And then this taking out a stick of rouge, or a powder-puff and making up in public. On board ship coming home there were lots of young men and girls—Betty and Bertie he remembered in particular—carrying on quite openly; the old mother sitting and watching them with her knitting, cool as a cucumber. The girl would stand still and powder her nose in front of every one. And they weren’t engaged; just having a good time; no feelings hurt on either side. As hard as nails she was—Betty What’shername—; but a thorough good sort. She would make a very good wife at thirty—she would marry when it suited her to marry; marry some rich man and live in a large house near Manchester.

That sort of thing – the violent intersection, the missed opportunity to see what is hiding in plain sight there on the park bench all while he actually does see it. The bringing together of things already together but also not – things that should be brought together but from another perspective shouldn’t ever be brought together, not in a million years. Hard not to think of that sort of thing, anyway, when you read something like this in the NYT today:

The Army plans to require that all 1.1 million of its soldiers take intensive training in emotional resiliency, military officials say.

The training, the first of its kind in the military, is meant to improve performance in combat and head off the mental health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, that plague about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Active-duty soldiers, reservists and members of the National Guard will receive the training, which will also be available to their family members and to civilian employees.

The new program is to be introduced at two bases in October and phased in gradually throughout the service, starting in basic training. It is modeled on techniques that have been tested mainly in middle schools.

Usually taught in weekly 90-minute classes, the methods seek to defuse or expose common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs that can lead to anger and frustration — for example, the tendency to assume the worst. (“My wife didn’t answer the phone; she must be with someone else.”)

What a juxtaposition! Training these poor fuckers to handle, say, exposure to (or even perpetration of) the mass severing of limbs, the reduction of human beings to mist, the serial death of friends and children, intersections of metal and glass and human flesh so baroquely gruesome that Ballard would have been strained to imagine them, all via the confrontation of the most banal of domestic paranoid fantasies, the very stuff of soapy quotidianity: she isn’t picking up the phone because she’s busy being fucked by another man.

Perhaps it will work, who knows. We are strange, strange creatures and we do even stranger things to one another. At any rate, I’ve just added the Times bit into my book, the opening pages of it…

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August 18, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Posted in therapy, war, woolf

pwnd!

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Maybe, maybe not, you’d be surprised to learn that when I was a little kid I was absolutely obsessed with war and the military. OCD-type obsessed. “Playing war” in suburban backyards, military simulators on the computer (I think the last Xmas when I can remember what I actually got was the one when I received this, and they played it for something like twenty-four straight hours….), reading Jane’s Guides and the like. Best of all, was this – which I never actually played with another human being, but whose modules and rule books I read and reread and tried to play by myself but you can’t, really.

Anyway, memoirs of a lonely, semi-Aspergersy childhood in late cold war America I guess. All this is prologue introducing a childhood epiphany, one of those little tiny moments of philosophical insight that you have when you’re a child but which stick with you. Maybe you, if you were like me, thought miniscule thoughts about causality (I remember discussing, basically, Zeno’s arrow problem with my mom long before I’d heard of Zeno’s arrow – she was, erm, unhelpful. I can’t even imagine, actually, what she thought but I remember the day like it was yesterday…) or had the thing that everyone has when they set vanity mirror parallel to the bathroom mirror and, boom, infinite regress.

But the one that I’m thinking about tonight is a little less abstract. I remember realising, all at once, that one of the presumptions that I had about soldiering was – had to be, mathematically – all wrong. The presumption was this: that if you served in the armed forces during a war, likely you would kill several members of the opposing side during the course of that war. That is, that say the average veteran of, say, WWII would have killed several people during his tour or tours of duty.

Simple math shows that this simply cannot be the case. Imagine a war in which there are 100,000 front-line troops on each side. If on side A, the average soldier killed even 1.5 enemy combattants, well, that would be 150,000 dead, just from the start. Of course, some on side A would die before they had killed, and then there are injuries to account for and the like. But I think you see the point: I realized that it must be relatively rare for one solider to kill another soldier during a war. That is, it would be a fairly hotshit thing to have killed even one of the enemy. (In WW2, about 3 million of 17 million German soldiers died – a fairly high percentage, but only 17 percent… So it’s very unlikely that whatever grandpa told grandma to get her in the sack and / or justify his drinking was true…)

Huh. This came as a great shock to me, and it’s really no wonder that it did. Movies make killing seem common, depending on the realism of the picture in question. Video games, of course, arc the issue into absurdity. Remember all those scrolling Nintendo games, where you fight your way through level after level of the enemy, killing thousands and thousands of bad guys before you’re done?

Then again…. We know tonight that semi-final tally of the current war on Gaza comes to 1200+ / 13, a set of numbers that seems preordained to force newswriters into the absurd position of putting an almost before the phrase a hundred to one ratio… if they were brave and honest enough to write the phrase into their work to begin with. These are movie ratios, if not numbers more appropriate to a video game. The fact that they include both military and civilian casualties only makes the point horrifically worse.

Perhaps, then, what was unrealistic about the films and game when I was a kid, and which led to the misunderstanding that gave way to mathematical revision, has actually now been reversed. It’s not the cold war any more, which had a tendency to turn asymmetrical battles symmetrical through direct or indirect support of the “other side.” But the counterweighting effect has long since passed….

But it’s interesting that the newest war videogames both enact and critique at the same time this turn toward hundred-to-one ratios in war. Call of Duty 4, from which the images in this post are drawn, has two modes of play like most “first-person shooters” today. There’s a conventional game, where you follow a storyline from training to, well, something to do with seizing a post-soviet missile silo, and in which you fight against all of those computer directed badguys that we’re all long familiar with from videogames. On this side of the game, since you play as a single named character (OK – two named characters, one from the British SAS and the other from the US Marines), the presumption is that, yes, in the course of the game “you” kill hundred and hundreds of Middle Easterners and Russians without dying yourself. This was once unrealistic, but since your solidiers go into battle in this game with the ability to summon Air Force bombing runs and helicopter gunships, UAV flyovers and the like, well, maybe not as unrealistic as it once was…

The other mode of play, however, offers what we might call a utopian revision of the game played in the first part – if a vision of war can ever rightly be called utopian. This is the multiplayer mode, where you sign on and can join a game set in one scenario or another against other human beings who have logged on to play against you. In each case, you pick a side to join – the Americans, or in the case of most of the scenarios, some sort of Middle Eastern army or resistance movement, a hybrid I suppose of the Iraqi national army and Hamas. But, in order to make the game fair and attractive to players, whichever side you select you choose from the same sets of weapons, and have the same ability to call in airstrikes or UAV reconaissance missions. Asymmetrical war has been rendered symmetrical for the sake of fun and sportsmanship – it is an odd sight to see, F16s flying over a photorealistic Falluja dropping clusterbombs on American Marines, but one that you accept for the sake of the game. Suspension of disbelief, a fair fight, a kill-to-die ratio of approximately 1-1 in the case of all but the best and worst players, whichever side they prefer to fight on.

And it all leads me to wonder what it would be like to write a videogame in which one dies a hundred times over before one successfully kills a single antagonist. The boredom of waiting to fight the enemy would be punctuated, in all but the rarest of cases, by sudden death from the air. After hours of waiting, the screen would simply go blank, over and over and over, without the player ever getting to fire a shot. The sole variety, perhaps, would come from death by other means – a sniper’s shot to the head or a round from a tank. But no matter how, the screen goes blank just the same way – you probably shouldn’t even get to appreciate the difference in the way that you just died again.

And it further leads me to wonder whether the ability to countenance the deaths of others on our fields of battle arrives via the fact that, when confronted by numbers like 1200 or 600,000, we have no more sense that each of those individuals had a backstory, independent subjectivity, a fully human life than we are able to believe that the programmers of games give each of the computer-contolled enemy figures independent initiative, fuzzily human logic, and the rest of the markings of existence equivalent to those that play the game and, eventually, win the game. The bad guys circle their programmed rounds, follow the strings and orders of the code, fire more slowly and less accurately that we do as we kill them. They are robots, bots, spam, studio-manufactured figments. And they all look the same with their swarthy skin and balaclavas and with the AK-47s that they grip and sometimes fire.

Their corpses, as in the games, fizzle and melt back into the earth a few seconds after they die. If they didn’t, their mouldering bodies would litter the field, the screen, and make it impossible to see the next one for the piles of previous victims.

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January 18, 2009 at 2:55 am

Posted in distraction, videogames, war

what’s on teevee

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From the IHT yesterday:

For example, Nanabhay said that Al Jazeera planned to announce this week that all its video material of the war in Gaza would become available under a lenient Creative Commons license, which effectively means it can be used by anyone – rival broadcaster, documentary maker, individual blogger – as long as Al Jazeera is credited.

Smart, that. Al Jazeera is only available, according to the article, in the following US cities: Burlington, VT; Washington, DC; Toledo, OH. (Toledo, OH?) It’s replaced CNN International as our nightly dinnertime TV fare. (Yes, we eat in the living room! Yes there’s a tv in our living room! Yes it’s a big tv!) And while I’m sure we’re all well practiced in US/UK entre les lignes work with US/UK TV news (oh, that falling bomb likely caused death on the ground, even if we’re not going to see it), I must say it’s rather startling to watch the coverage on AJ.

(By the way. If you happen not to have a TV and live in the UK or selected countries in Europe, you might want to download this. You can only watch Al Jazeera in Arabic as of now… Which isn’t all that helpful for most of us. But you can, you know, watch a lot of other things slickly and without trouble… It’s a pretty amazing service….)

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January 13, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Posted in teevee, war

Ulysses and the past disaster

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Read this post as an extended footnote to my previous one. It’s very easy to forget, I suppose because it’s set in 1904, that Joyce wrote Ulysses during and after the First World War. For instance, Badiou does in The Century:

The twentieth century kicks off in an exceptional fashion. Let us take the two great decades between 1890 and 1914 as the century’s prologue. In every field of thought these years represent a period of exceptional invention, marked by a polymorphous creativity that can only be compared to the Florentine Renaissance or the century of Pericles. It is a prodigious period of excitement and rupture. Consider just a few of its milestones. […] This period also sees the publication of the vast novels of James and Conrad, the writing of the bulk of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and the maturation of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Badiou is making a point here about the relationship between culture before and after the First World War, so it does matter that he’s a few years off with the dating of the development of Ulysses. And it mattered to Joyce, apparently, that we take heed of the dates of the texts “maturation.” Remember what happens at the very end?

watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921

The dates and places mark the text as itself marked by the particularly brutal time and place it was written. They are arguably – traditionally – considered to be a part of the text itself, rather than “supplementary” materials added on like an author’s note on the last page of the text.

What do we miss when we read Ulysses without attending to what Joyce clearly wanted us to know (if only retroactively, retrospectively) about his novel? One way to put it is that this novel about 1904 wants to announce itself as a sort of dialectical image, if a strange sort of one. Here are the requisite quotes from Benjamin, the first from the Arcades Project, the second two from the Theses. You’ve probably read them before…

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. ‘The truth will not run away from us’: in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)

The historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time takes a stand [einsteht] and has come to a standstill. For this notion defines the very present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism offers the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers – enough to blast upon the continuity of history.

I’d argue that the dates at the end of Ulysses, particularly if they’re taken (as I take them) to be part of the text proper, force us to take the novel as something in line with Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image rather than, say, simply a “historical novel.” 1904 is summoned / presents itself because it was 1914-1921 in Trieste-Zurich-Paris, rather than the alternative.

But it’s a strange sort of dialectical image or collection of dialectical images. First of all – but I suppose this is true of all images of the sort – it’s not clear what exactly we’re supposed to take from what Joyce has collected. Franco Moretti in Signs Taken for Wonders brilliantly claims that Ulysses is a sort of retrograde dystopia, one that predicts the worst of all possible bad futures, the bad future that has already come to pass:

Ulysses is indeed static, and in its world nothing – absolutely nothing – is great. But this is not due to any technical or ideal shortcoming on Joyce’s part, but rather his subjection to English society: for Joyce, it is certainly the only society imaginable, although he just as certainly condemns it, through a hyperbolic presentation of its worst features, to a future of paralysed mediocrity (a future that Joyce, with a stroke of genius, places in the past, as if to underline his consummate scepticism: one can always hope never to reach the negative utopias of science fiction, but if a negative utopia came into being twenty years ago, and no one realized it, then the die is truly cast…)

But there’s something else that’s strange and complicating about all this. June 16, 1904 is also (we know, we know) the date when Joyce first went out with his future wife Nora Barnacle and when, according to semi-official legend, she gave him a handjob. * This fact somewhat over or underdetermines all that I’ve written above, hard to say which, but nevertheless does lead on to the next of my thetically arranged series of posts, in which I attack Benjamin for always fantasizing about explosions where none were to be found…. Coming soon….

* I’ve always been a bit curious about this whole handjob thing, as the letters indicate that it really did mean quite a lot to JJ, but also JJ clearly had been with women – prostitutes – before Nora and assuredly in a more than manual sort of way. Somehow the handjob from a non-prostitute was more, well, epiphanic than anything else that had happened with prostitutes. Which makes sense…. And doesn’t. No it does actually. But for a good time, read this exchange. Just found it.

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January 11, 2009 at 11:50 pm

Posted in badiou, benjamin, joyce, war

too weak to stand up

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From an op-ed by Rashid Khalidi Wednesday in the NYT:

This war on the people of Gaza isn’t really about rockets. Nor is it about “restoring Israel’s deterrence,” as the Israeli press might have you believe. Far more revealing are the words of Moshe Yaalon, then the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, in 2002: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”

From the WSJ today:

Aid workers used a second, three-hour humanitarian cease-fire Thursday to reach neighborhoods that have seen some of the heaviest fighting. Health officials in Gaza said 50 bodies were recovered Thursday from rubble.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said it found four small children, too weak to stand up, lying next to their dead mother and 11 other corpses in a house that had come under heavy Israeli shelling.

Should go to the demonstration tomorrow. Went to basically all of them in NYC before my daughter was born, as uncomfortable as they make me, but I haven’t been since. When we were in Memphis we took her to the Lorraine Motel, and now she’s obsessed with MLK, the marches, his time in prison, and his death. (MLK might well be her introduction to the very concept of death…. There was at first a lot of “and then what did he do” after the point in the story when he dies…) And people with “black skin” and what this means and has meant in a place like Memphis… Or really anywhere we’ve ever been. Classical liberal parenting, whatever whatever. Maybe if my parents had taken me to this sort of thing (just the thought!) I’d be a bit better person in some ways than I am today. Or maybe not. Who knows, who knows….

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January 9, 2009 at 11:51 am

Posted in war

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