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.

What does “proximity” mean for local interpreters working in zones of conflict?

By María Manuela Fernández Sánchez

What does ‘proximity’ mean for local interpreters working in zones of conflict?

Few professions have such discriminatory stereotypes as translators and interpreters. Very sadly, the Italian cliché traduttore, traditore is still thought to be true by many people. Nevertheless, both translators and interpreters have also contributed to the persistence of these stereotypes. To make matters worse, the concept of the unfaithful interpreters has been fuelled by sensationalist media as well as by military and political leaders. The following example is from The New York Times:

“Would you mind speaking without an interpreter?” Vladimir V. Putin asked, and his visitor, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s new foreign minister, responded that he could not imagine doing business any other way. The two then chatted in Russian, as if their meeting this month were a homecoming for a local boy who made good (13 June, 2009, “Mideast in Flux. An Israeli Cozies Up To Moscow”, by Clifford Levy).

With regard to local interpreters who work in zones of conflict, positive reports of good work and lasting friendship are counterbalanced by more negative reports that accuse interpreters of being “lazy, inept, or unpunctual” (Freeman 2012). Unsung heroes and unsung villains in equal proportion, according to Colin Freeman, foreign correspondent of The Telegraph. They are the indispensable guides of camera crews, war reporters, and photojournalists. However, local interpreters and fixers are not the only ones accused of unprofessional behaviour. Also harshly criticized are messengers, special agents, mediators and subalterns in general. Because they find themselves in a vulnerable situation between opposing parties, they often feel trapped by their precarious and asymmetrical status and difficult working conditions.

In some cases, the reasons for such criticism are less transparent and the result is more dramatic. On 12 April, 2004, the photographer and journalist Gervasio Sánchez wrote an article titled ¿Un traductor traidor? [A translator traitor?] in the Spanish newspaper El País. In it he stated that most people harbored serious doubts that the interpreter, Al Mayali, had murdered seven Spanish special agents (“Muchos dudan de la culpabilidad del intérprete Al Mayali en el asesinato de siete espías españoles.”).

Gervasio Sánchez is a photojournalist with over thirty years of experience. He has covered countless international conflicts and has received many prestigious international awards, which have highlighted his commitment to both journalism and photography, as well as to the victims of the wars that he has covered. As part of his work, he has taken many iconic images of the siege in Sarajevo and the devastating effects of land mines in civilians. He is one of those photographers who spend weeks, months, and even years in a country to tell the stories of people’s lives in the midst of war. His idea of an extended family includes people whom he had the opportunity to meet as a war reporter. In fact, he often returns to the places where he has worked and visits old friends in order to see what life is like years after the conflict, and to discover how people are coping with the aftermath of war.

The backdrop of Gervasio Sánchez’s article is post-Saddam Iraq. The article was written in Bagdad, a city where he had worked for many years. Flayed Al Mayali was his interpreter at the time and still is each time he returns to Iraq. In the article, Sánchez describes his astonishment at the unexpected news of Al Mayali’s arrest as an accessory in an attack on the Spanish military. This astonishment was also shared by the rest of the Spanish colony in Iraq. On both a professional and personal level, Al Mayali was highly valued. Before beginning to work as a close assistant of Major Alberto Martínez, the head of the Spanish Intelligence Services (CNI) in Iraq, Al Mayali taught Spanish at the University of Bagdad. The attack that killed seven Spanish special agents, including Major Alberto Martínez, occurred on 29 November 2003 during an ambush. 

Flayed Al Mayali was arrested on 22 March 2004 and questioned in relation to his possible participation in the attack. He was interrogated for five days and finally declared an accesory to the crime. He was subsequently taken to the Coalition Holding Facility, a detention center in Bagdad, and was handed over to the US military authorities. Al Mayali was then imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. After eleven months of confinement in the Abu Ghraib prison and Camp Bucca, he was released without charges in February 2005 by a commission composed of American and Iraqi military authorities and lawyers.

The Spanish government did not inform the public or even acknowledge his arrestor detention. During his months in prison, Flayed Al Mayali was abandoned by the same government that he had served so faithfully for four years. Although Gervasio Sánchez repeatedly denounced to authorities that Al Mayali had been unjustly arrested and imprisoned without any proof and requested an investigation that would clear his name, the Spanish Secret Service silenced all news related to the ambush.

In an interview with Gervasio Sánchez on 29 November 2013 for the Spanish newspaper El Heraldo de Aragón (link to article), Flayed Al Mayali remembers the tragic events which took place ten years ago. He explains his deep sorrow when he learned of the killing of his close friend and employer, Major Alberto Martínez. He also recalls the beatings, insults, and threats received during his interrogation by Spanish military personnel as well as the total neglect and feeling of abandonment that he experienced in the American prisons.

Interestingly, he mentions the circumstances of his proximity and familiarity with  Spanish special agents as one of the reasons for being singled out as scapegoat. In his opinion, since they did not have the means to investigate the ambush, it was easier to accuse the person who was closest to the victims, and that happened to be him (“Yo creo que como eran incapaces de investigar el tema bien, la víctima más cerca de ellos fue yo (sic)”).

The case of Al Mayali came up recently in a conversation that I had with Gervasio Sánchez on 21 June 2015 (The context of the conversation was the summer course “What matters is dignity” given by the journalist on 20 and 21 June 2015 in Laredo (Santander, Spain). I am very grateful to him for having taken the time to answer my many questions), when I asked him to tell me about his experience with local interpreters. I was curious about the interpreter profile that he required, given that the nature of his work demands an immersion in the local culture. He told me that he preferred to hire a local interpreter who was able to interpret into Spanish rather than English since that way communication was more fluid. He also said that, ideally, the interpreter should be a versatile person, able to drive and with a network of local contacts. As part of his war coverage, one of his priorities was always to obtain personal stories from the people living in the zones of conflict. He thus asked the interpreter to give him a faithful and complete rendition of what the person was saying, and if necessary, he would even give the interpreter specific instructions about the kind of work that he needed. 

The rest of our conversation dealt with photography and interpreters. Photography is an act of selection (Fink 2014: 115). Why are there so few photographs of local interpreters? Is their presence not a reminder of the linguistic and communicative involvement present in the coverage of wars and in the resolution of conflicts? Is the presence of local interpreters linked to the failed linguistic policies of governments as well as those of military and international organisms?  

Gervasio Sánchez has occassionally taken photographs of some of the local interpreters that have worked for him, but they are mostly private photographs, in other words,  photographs taken for affective reasons. In fact, in a post published by Sánchez nine years after the detention of Al Mayali El honor perdido de Flayeh al Mayali (The lost honor of Flayeh Al Mayali link to article), the photojournalist also included various photographs of Al Mayali. Two of them possibly show Al Mayali working with military authorities, whereas the other two depict the interpreter respectively with his family and with a group of students in Bagdad. 

In fact, there is nothing surprising in having a close relationship with someone who is your partner in very dangerous situations. Friendship and a sense of hospitality often come later if the collaboration persists in time. Other journalists such as John McCarthy (2012), author of the book You can’t Hide the Sun. A Journey through Israel and Palestine, describes the important job performed by Suha Arraf, her interpreter in Arabic and Hebrew. He also includes a personal photograph of her in which she resembles a tourist engaged in sightseeing. The caption reads: “Suha Arraf, my friend and guide, in trademark sunglasses”. 

In conclusion, every image is a construction in which absence is as meaningful as presence. We also know that the value of images is defined by their use, whether  private or public. If, as translation historians, we find it interesting to study interpreters as photographic subjects in zones of conflict, this is because such photographs provide us with a window through which we can view interpreters in their physical characteristics and in their professional roles. Such photographs also provide us with a unique opportunity to understand the complexity of the often covert wars and conflicts in which they participate as linguistic mediators and in which their proximity cannot be taken for granted.

References

Fink, Larry. 2014. On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture.

Freeman, Colin. 2012. “Fixers-the unsung heroes (and villains) of foreign reporting”, The Telegraph, 28 November.

McCarthy, John. 2012. You can’t hide the sun. A journey through Israel and Palestine. London: Random House.

Interrogation in WW2: any lessons learned?

By Simona Tobia

Terrorists kidnapping relief workers and journalists, terrorists publishing videos of horrible executions by decapitation and even burning, terrorists wiping out principles such as the freedom of the press and satire in the heart of the West in Paris, while stories of westerners joining the fight on the IS side are profusely present in the news. The ‘war on terror’, far from over, is raging, and it continues to be depicted by Western media and political authorities as a ‘just war’ fought against a heinous enemy.

After seeing the US Senate report on the CIA published at the end of 2014, I was wondering to what extent can human beings go to fight what they perceive to be atrocity and evil. I would like to share some ideas gathered during my research on WWII, another conflict which took the shape of a ‘just war’ against an overwhelmingly evil foe, to see if there are some lessons we can learn from that past.

Interrogation and questioning of POWs is one of those settings in which lines are often allowed to blur and mistreatment and breaches of the Geneva Conventions take place, frequently in the name of so-called ‘ticking-bomb scenarios’. This is the official argument in defence of the use of harsh methods (let’s call things with their own name: torture), portraying a very artificial situation in which a bomb is ticking its way towards a devastating attack and only by torturing the terrorists who placed it will the intelligence officers be able to save hundreds of lives. However, so far I have not yet come across any historical case in which this actually happened.

Ill-treatment, psychological abuse and torture committed by representatives of liberal states such as Britain and the US are an astonishing reality, not only in war on terror, but also in and after WWII. Given the shared memory of WWII, with narratives of a war (‘just war’?) fought against a brutal enemy, it appears hard to believe, but the stories of at least a couple of British interrogation centres where lines were actually allowed to blur are worth telling.

The (in)famous London District Cage was headed by Lt. Col. Alexander Scotland. Its prisoners included war crimes suspects from the SS and the Gestapo, ‘the worst of the worst’, and the many reports of ill-treatment and torture included one by Fritz Knoechlein, who wrote a long letter complaining of the treatment he received at the Cage, where he was deprived of sleep, starved, beaten and humiliated constantly. Knoechlein was a high ranking officer in the SS, and he had been responsible of the Le Paradis massacre of May 1940, when 99 British POWs who had surrendered to his unit were machine-gunned en masse; the order was given by Knoechlein, who was later tried for war crimes and executed in Hamburg in 1949. Lt. Col. Scotland wrote a memoir in which he talks at length about the London Cage, admitting to have breached the Geneva Conventions. The book had to be submitted to censorship and was only published in 1957, after having caused a lot of distress in the Foreign Office and the MI5. More recently this story hit the headlines in the Guardian where an article appeared in November 2005 denounced it as a ‘torture centre’.

After the end of the hostilities a CSDIC centre was established in Bad Nenndorf, in the British Zone of occupation of Germany and Lt. Col. Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens became its commandant. The camp and those who ran it were the protagonists of a huge scandal with allegations of abuse and ill-treatment of prisoners, followed by investigation carried out by inspector Tom Hayward. Following his reports, the centre was closed in July 1947 and some of the camp’s officers were brought to court martial in 1948. Among them, there were Lt. Col. Stephens, who was acquitted in July 1948, the Medical Officer Capt. J.S. Smith who was sentenced to be dismissed the service, and a German born interrogator, a former refugee who had joined the British war effort, Oliver Langham. In fact ‘Tin Eye’ struggled to run the camp because of funding reductions and insufficient resources. Prisoners often ended up in nearby hospitals severely harmed and malnourished, and in January 1947 two of them died shortly after admission. Inspector Hayward found in his investigation that interrogators and the camp’s guards were not likely to be totally impartial, either because they were ex German or Austrian refugees or because they were young soldiers who had experienced harsh combat in various war theatres, and arriving in Germany some of them had to face even more war horrors liberating Bergen-Belsen. The investigation proved that that conditions in the CSDIC centre were very harsh: prisoners were kept in cells with no heating and no mattresses, were denied a proper rest, and some of them were found wearing dirty clothes because they could not dry them. Prisoners could be punished with ‘solitary confinement’ sometimes even for longer than 40 days. Solitary confinement was used as a form of ‘mental pressure’ for prisoners considered to be with-holding the truth. Threats to execute, arrest, torture the prisoners’ relatives, such as wives or husbands and children, were also part of the ‘mental pressure’ and they were allowed because they were never carried out. It should be stressed that the commander was against violence and Gestapo-like measures only because he thought that those were counterproductive, and not certainly for humanitarian concerns. He was convinced that physical violence produced poor intelligence.

The London Cage and CSDIC’s stories challenge the myth of British wartime interrogation systems, traditionally thought to be “legal, well-tried and highly successful”. The British system of interrogation was of course successful in wartime, but it was despite and not because of techniques such as those employed by CSDIC. An extremely complex system of intelligence networks, well trained professional intelligence officers, including various centres, eavesdropping facilities, a cross-check technique, and the legendary British double-cross system, made the collection of human intelligence successful in WWII. Violence was most likely employed by the least experienced and more resentful interrogators and it was never fruitful, as Hayward’s report shows very clearly.

This was by no means an attempt of writing an exhaustive history of interrogation in WWII in a blog post (I believe it deserves an entire book, which is the object of my current research), but I think there are a few lessons that we can learn today. It is easy to conclude that harsh methods seem to become acceptable even in a conflict narrated as a ‘just war’ if the enemy is heinous enough, but it is also interesting to note what actually works in the collection of human intelligence, and to work how the reasons why violence sometimes happens (in the – naïve, I know – hope to be able to reduce it in the future).

Further reading:

Andrew, Christopher and Tobia, Simona, Interrogation in war and conflict. A comparative and interdisciplinary analysis (London, Routledge, 2014)

Cobain, Ian, Cruel Britannia. A secret history of torture (London, Portobello Books, 2012)

Hoare, Oliver, Camp 020. MI5 and the Nazi spies (Richmond, Public Record Office, 2000)

Jackson, Sophie, British interrogation techniques in the Second World War (Stroud, The History Press, 2012)