Issue n. 1 of the Close Encounters in War Journal is online

Issue n. 1: “Close Encounters in Irregular and Asymmetric War” (2018)

We are delighted to announce that the first issue of the Close Encounters in War Journal has been published online. This issue marks the real start of our project and is devoted to a topic that seemed relevant to us both for its historical meaning and its topicality. In fact, the issue hosts five contributions by authors who consider the theme of close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war from a great variety of angles and in different disciplines.

The Issue and individual articles can be downloaded at:

Issue n. 1 (2018): Close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war

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What today is referred to as “irregular warfare” is one of the most ancient types of conflict, as opposed to “conventional warfare”, which is a relatively more recent development. The combat strategies and tactics used by tribal warriors, modern guerrillas, resistance fighters and terrorists have been attracting the attention of military historians, strategists and intelligence experts, focusing on resistance, insurgency, counter-insurgency and more recently terrorism. Beside its practical efficacy on the battlefield, irregular war has always stirred popular imagination. But how do human beings experience this particular type of warfare? Does it seem more threatening and scary because it can involve civilians more deeply? Does it blur the traditional idea of war as open confrontation with a recognisable enemy?

The multidisciplinary collection of articles presented in this issue invites a reflection on irregular and asymmetric warfare that goes beyond military strategy and tactical effectiveness, and aims to examine this subject through the lens of “close encounters” in order to explore its impact on human experience. In this perspective, a few recurring elements emerge in all the seven articles: irregular warfare involves an unequal fight between unequal enemies. There is no balance of power and this asymmetry between adversaries means that lines get blurred, for example between combatants and non combatants, or between regular and irregular forces. Irregular and asymmetric warfare blurs the lines and rules of conflict, but it also resurfaces the agency of those who are invisible in war.

The first three articles in the collection are more factual and they explore the blurred identities and often divided loyalties of those involved in irregular conflicts. According to their authors, those who fight “from below”, often the less powerful, find agency.

Brad St. Croix explores asymmetric warfare within the context of a wide conflict, focusing on the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. In Hong Kong, the British had to fight an irregular force as they faced a Japanese-inspired fifth column. The author sees this as having a deeply destabilizing power for the British, even if blurring the lines between regular and irregular forces was a tactic often used by the Japanese. However, the interesting point that emerges from this analysis is that blurred lines and changing loyalties in this context were due to the multiethnic makeup of the colony. In the Battle of Hong Kong invisibility was key for the fifth columnists, who used hiding and disguise as well as tactics such as sniping to conceal their identities and destabilize the enemy. Their invisibility still represents a challenge for historians who want determine their numbers and identity.

María Gómez-Amich offers a study based on interviews with five former conflict zone interpreters who were locally recruited by the Spanish troops deployed in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2014 as part of the NATO ISAF mission. By looking at the narratives of these interviewees in the effort to analyse their agency, his study emphasizes many lines getting blurred, such as the line between east and west, foreign and local, military and civilian, but also those, perhaps less obvious, between trust and mistrust, loyalty and neutrality, which are the key ones for professional interpreters. In this context, locally recruited interpreters are given the role of gatekeepers thanks to their cultural capital and they experience blurred loyalties because they are often seen as traitors by their own group and as outsiders by their employers. Another important point in this analysis is that irregular warfare blurs the fundamental ethical principles of interpreting, as it accentuates the tension between neutrality and agency.

In his article Gian Marco Longoni looks at another contemporary example of irregular warfare: the Houthi insurgency begun in 2004 that ousted the Yemeni government in 2015. In his effort to examine the three reasons for the outcome of this insurgency, Longoni emphasizes once again the asymmetry of the conflict and the agency of the insurgents. They find agency through the use of violence and capitalize on the weakness of the Yemeni regime. But there are also other, more cultural reasons that can explain the outcome of the revolt: the Zaydi insurgents experienced a shared identity and shared narratives which can be dubbed as their cultural identity, which were keys in the context of this conflict. It seems that when cultural identity is not conflictual in itself, but clearly defined as in this instance, loyalty does not represent an issue. Asymmetry has a double impact here because while it is true that the fight is between unequal enemies, it is the insurgents who find strength in their cultural identity, whereas the regular forces are weak, dysfunctional and incapable of adequate counterinsurgency despite being the representatives of the institutions.

The second set of articles is more focused on meaning and representation. The concept of irregular and asymmetric warfare is interpreted in different ways, but both articles agree on one point: asymmetric conflict has the power to transform the individual, affecting the spheres of imagination, self-perception, and cultural reception. What these articles suggest is that asymmetric war almost always implies disequilibrium of forces and a polarisation of conflict as a struggle between “stronger” and “weaker” opponents, in particular women and children. By no accident, in fact, these articles explore the issue of close encounters in asymmetric war from the standpoint of its cultural interpretation and representation.

In her analysis of the rape scene in Elsa Morante’s novel La storia, Stefania Porcelli talks about a literary encounter with war. The author interprets the concept of asymmetry as lack of balance between the adversaries, who are fragile actors who never win against stronger enemies. In this analysis the lines between victim and oppressor, innocence and evil, become blurred, as the author stresses how Morante insists on the concept of power, and of how the powerful (represented by Gunther, stronger but doomed to succumb to history), become themselves victims. Fear, sometimes terror, is at the core of this particular asymmetric conflict, in which the victim is stripped of agency because rape “is an act of violence against a woman wholly bereft of agency” (Porcelli, p. 89). But here it also represents the loss of innocence that bears a transformative power.

Benjamin Nickl sees asymmetric conflict through the eyes of child warriors in popular fiction. In his analysis of the representation of children in arms Nickl wonders whether they are a way to represent and give meaning to the trauma of war. Child characters invite a shift in the point of view on war, which can lead to a more genuine approach, as “audiences seem willing to suspend their disbelief readily” (Nickl, p. 104) when the narrator is a child. Nickl interprets the concept of irregular and asymmetric warfare very widely, including fictional conflicts against terrible monsters or evil warlords, but what these all have in common is that they all involve a shift in the point of view and the transformational loss of innocence as consequences of the trauma caused by war.

The selected articles range over a number of wars, different from one another in time, space, scale, and context; and their authors consider the topic of “close encounters in irregular and asymmetric war” from the standpoints of different disciplines and methodological approaches, among which, for example, cultural and military history, literary studies, gender studies, oral history, translation studies, and postcolonial studies. This variety reflects the multidisciplinary project of Close Encounters in War journal and will hopefully fuel further interest in the cultural and collateral aspects of war as a fundamental aspect of human evolution and cultural specificity. Irregular and asymmetric warfare blurs the lines and rules of conflict, but it also resurfaces the agency of those who are invisible in war.

Reading War Photographs: Who is the photographer?

By María Manuela Fernández Sánchez

Reading War Photographs: Who is the photographer?

In an interview published in the newspaper El País (April 17, 2015), José Palazón, president of the nongovernmental organization “Prodein”, and winner of the XVIII Luis Valtueña Humanitarian Photography Award, remembers a conversation that he had with a prosecutor, twenty years ago, when he was denouncing the abuses against immigrants in Melilla, the Spanish enclave on the North African coast. Palazón complained that his efforts to gain visibility were not getting anywhere, to which the prosecutor replied: “Look for evidences. Take photographs”. Since then, it seems that Palazón has learned his lesson and the photograph “Desolate landscapes”, which he submitted to the Luis Valtueña photography competition has travelled around the world.

“Desolate landscapes” is an unusual reflection of the invisibility of undocumented immigrants, and the indifference to their suffering in developed countries. The contrast between the vulnerable location of a group of immigrants, precariously perched on the high border fence dividing Spain and Morocco, and the view of the luxurious golf course where two golfers are blithely immersed in their game is doubtlessly the ironical reflection of the evident failure of Spanish government as well as of European immigration policies to face and successfully deal with the immigration crisis from Africa.

In documentary photography, the question about who is taking the photograph is one of great significance. James Curtis explains: “If we are to determine the meaning of a documentary photograph we must begin by establishing the historical context for both the image and its creator. A documentary photographer is an historical actor bent upon communicating a message to an audience. Documentary photographs are more than expressions of artistic skill; they are conscious acts of persuasion”. 

The use of photographs to tell stories has accompanied photography since its invention in the first half of the nineteenth century and has paralleled the evolution of independent journalism. Documentary photography has mirrored the desires of their audience as well as their prejudices (Curtis, ibidem). In a similar way, press photographs and propaganda images in war time ‘speak directly to the cultural concerns of the society at which they are directed, both in the subject chosen for representation and in the way those subjects are portrayed’ (Brothers 1997: 2).

In wartime, governments place great importance on graphical testimony. The control and use of the images, depending on the evolution of the conflict and the public support of the war effort are a key element in any propaganda campaign. In this sense, a high percentage of war photographs show carefully prepared scenes in which the participants posed for propaganda purposes. If the field of military history is one of the most productive in terms of primary sources for the study of wars, this is basically because military activity generates a lot of documentary work.

The analysis of war photographs must thus include the consideration of many signifying elements, not the least of which is the broader process of the production and distribution of images. David Simpson (2010: 13) observes that our current wars are highly mediated. He continues by saying that sometimes a portion of what is seen is taken without question as real, other times, some items “are held up to a compulsively sceptical inquiry about what has or has not been spliced and doctored. Some things remain unseen”. 

The debate about the authenticity of war photographs has been recently in the news, though this time, in regards to allegations of criminal abuse by Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad. On January 20, 2014, CNN and The Guardian reported that a team of internationally renowned war crimes experts had found direct evidence of systematic torture and killing in Syrian prisons. The report, based on thousands of photographs of dead bodies, is the testimony of a Syrian government defector codenamed “Caesar”, who during his secret work with a Syrian opposition group, smuggled out the photographs and fled the country. The defector worked as a photographer in the military police. When the war broke out, his work consisted of taking photographs of allegedly murdered detainees. 

In conversation with the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Tepperman (Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2015. Vol.94. No.2, 58-65), Bashar al-Assad called into question the irrefutable evidence of such images of terrible torture and abuse. He stated: “None of these allegations that you mentioned are concrete; all of them are allegations. You can bring photos from anyone and say this is torture. Who took the pictures? Who is he? Nobody knows. There is no verification of any of this evidence, so it’s all allegations without evidence”. 

When Jonathan Tepperman mentioned that Caesar’s photos had been looked at by independent investigators, the Syrian President replied: “No, no. It’s funded by Qatar, and they say it’s an anonymous source. So nothing is clear or proven. The pictures are not clear which person they show. They’re just pictures of a head, for example, with some skulls. Who said this is done by the government, not by the rebels? Who said this is a Syrian victim, not someone else?”   

In his political interest, it makes perfect sense for the Syrian President to repeatedly deny any responsibility for these deaths. What is more striking, however, is the way his words evoke timeless issues which are never out of the limelight, such as the usefulness of photography as primary historical evidence and the ambiguity of photographic meaning.

The argument that the source is anonymous, and consequently the images might come from anywhere else the world is not conclusive. The point is that the author of the photographs is a witness. It can be a singular individual or a group of people. The photographs were “shot for the record” (Curtis, ibidem). They show an undeniable reality, which is currently the object of inquiry by independent experts. The images are disturbing because they record something that actually happened. In fact, they show one of the harshest realities of wars, and their authority is derived from that harshness. In this respect, they can be regarded as a special kind of raw material. Consequently, the photographer had no need to adopt an aesthetic agenda. This descriptive function of photography represents the main use of the medium when it is at the service of scientific and historical investigation.

However, it would be misleading to think that images that provide evidence are easy to understand. Their content is dependent on a network of technical information and cultural knowledge. Furthermore, even the most realistic photograph can be manipulated “according to a variety of contextualizing factors, such as caption and layout, which may be outside the photographer’s control” (Ritchin 1999: 89). In this sense, the demand for verification on the part of the Syrian President is logical though extremely awkward.

The question about how an image is to be understood is also crucial in the area of our research interest, namely, the contemporary history of interpreting. When wartime interpreters are studied as photographic subjects (Fernández Sánchez, 2014), one should always bear in mind that most of the photographs were taken on commission for the government or for press agencies. In these cases, captions, dates, and information concerning the publication are vital in order to be able to correctly read the photographs. Through the photographic image, interpreters and interpreting experiences have become visible. These language intermediaries were present in historical events and in different settings, which contributes to document an important dimension of armed conflicts that often goes unnoticed. 

Today, the increasing ubiquity of images from civil wars, ethnic conflicts, and terrorism  also focus on local translators and interpreters, or “fixers”, as witnesses and victims of war. Their role, their proximity to the local population and their low occupational status in many cases deserve a closer look.


Brothers, Caroline.1997. War and Photography. A Cultural History. London and New York: Routledge.

Curtis, James. 2003. “Making Sense of Documentary Photography”, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web,  HYPERLINK “”

Fernández Sánchez, María Manuela. 2014. “Interpreters in the Field: Friends or Foes?”. In Framing the Interpreter. Towards a visual perspective, edited by Anxo Fernández-Ocampo and Michaela Wolf. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 172-180.

Ritchin, Fred. 1999. In Our Own Image. The Coming Revolution in Photography. Aperture: New York.

Simpson, David. 2010. “Seen through the Loopholes”, London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No 5, p. 13-14.