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.

War and the Humanities: an introduction to Close Encounters in War

By Simona Tobia and Gianluca Cinelli

War and the Humanities: an introduction to Close Encounters in War

Ancient Romans used to say “si vis pacem, para bellum”, which one could rephrase as “if you want peace, prepare for war”. War has always been much more than mere fighting. It affects society as a whole even in peacetime, for example in terms of training, preparation and strategy. Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war is the “continuation of politics by other means”, meaning that war implies some transformation of mentality and the awareness that sometimes dialogue and compromise are not enough to compose litigation between two countries o two communities. However, war is no necessity. The Latin motto cited above must be read ironically, especially because it sounds very useful for any imperialistic ideology aiming to preserve its power and privileges by threatening other countries by stockpiling weapons and training big armies. War is not desirable, and as the French WWI veteran Jean Giono said, war does not uphold peace. All the opposite: war produces war, while peace is just another path. But one could say that it takes a long way to understand this, or better, it takes experience.

War is a brutal affair, but it has been and continues to be a key aspect of human history and social change. The Humanities and the Social Sciences can help us make sense of that, because they talk about who we are and they help us define our experience. They can also help us make sense of the disturbing aspects of the human character which become so evident in war. The violent nature of wars and conflicts and their effects on societies around the world and throughout history raise complex moral and ethical questions the answer to which is generally very controversial. For example is war always wrong? How can we explain our behaviour in war? Why do we wage war?

We believe that the best way to address these complex questions (again, ambitious project!) is to look at the cultural aspects of war and conflict, really focusing on the human experience of those who were (or are) there. We want to talk about ‘what it is like’ to be there, and for us the best way to do it is with the help of the Humanities. ‘Cultural aspects’ means that any kind of narrative about war and conflict is interesting for us, as well as any kind of representation, from literary, journalistic and artistic portrayals to exhibits and museums.

Combatants are not the only witnesses of war. Civilians, journalists, NGOs-operators, and other groups can equally tell stories about war insofar as they have seen it. The strength of such stories rests on their ability to convince others that war is, or is not, a worthwhile experience. They have come across war and gone through it, for better or worse. All those who have seen war have experienced violence and its corruption. Story-telling, together with other things (such as monuments, museums, celebrations, and others) embodies atonement, purification and return to civil society. Witnesses can share their opinions about war, can use words as a new and not lethal weapons to support the cause of fighting or that of peace. Story-telling is a particular encounter with war for those who have no clear idea of what war is. A narrated conflict is a cultural object. It is made of images and words; its very fabric is the rhetoric of story-telling, and later on of history. From facts to stories, war transforms itself into an experience of suffering and violence which can be made without the risk of getting overwhelmed and harmed.

All representation is interpretation. It has its own reality but it also contributes to create new reality. Representation-interpretation transfigures war into an indirect experience, an intellectual one. One could say that a discourse on war is true because it has been produced by an eye-witness or by an objectively detached and well-informed historian. But how can one tell the difference? Where is the limit between war as reality and war as a vision? The Humanities and the Social Sciences set the tools, critical and intellectual, to face this methodological and epistemological questions. What’s more, they also help understand those questions ethically.

War as an encounter with the unknown, the unexpected, the undesirable implies an understanding of what encountering ‘the enemy’, ‘the other’, or merely ‘the different’ means. Disciplines such as history, philosophy, literature, sociology, anthropology, psychology and others can help us discern and comprehend. So let us begin our discussion with two articles on the very actual issue of violence in captivity.

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)

Freedom, coercion or torture? The political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps, 1941-1956

By Gianluca Cinelli

In all ages of human history, torture has represented a fear and a reality for prisoners of war. Soldiers captured in war can be the victims of the victor’s retaliation immediately after battle as well as far behind the front line, through interrogations for intelligence, forced-labour, brain-washing. In fact, torture is not only physical. George Orwell describes the perversion of psychological torture in his novel 1984 (1948) by means of the symbol of Room 101. Primo Levi, the well-known Auschwitz-witness, once wrote that “useless violence” in Nazi Lagers consisted in inflicting apparently aimless physical and psychological suffering in order to demolish the human dignity and resilience of captives.

A mass-scale case of ideological torture was the political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps during WWII. In 1941 Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973, he was President of the Democratic Republic of Germany from 1960 up to his death), in exile in Moscow, thought that German POWs could represent a useful instrument of propaganda, if they could be won to the cause of Communism. Ulbricht believed that the Red Army would eventually win the war, and he therefore saw the necessity to create a group of German Soviet agents who would trigger a socialist revolution in Germany after the end of the war. Ulbricht submitted his project to the Soviets, who recognized the potential of the proposal and decided to install the first School of Antifascism in the concentration camp of Jelabuga, where the German Captain Ernst Hadermann began to cooperate with Ulbricht and the Soviets to win the German POWs to the cause of antifascism. The breakthrough came in winter 1943, after the German debacle in Stalingrad, where the entire 6th Army was destroyed. Although only 90.000 Germans were taken prisoners, among them Feldmarschall Freidrich Paulus and his staff were also captured. For the first time hundreds of thousands of POWs were in the hands of the Red Army (over 100.000 Germans, about 74.000 Italians, and many thousands of Rumanians and Hungarians).

On 13th July 1943 in the Lager of Krasnogorsk the National Committee “Free Germany” was founded with the purpose to create the first group of military resistance against Hitler’s regime. Soon after, in September 1943, a number of officers who had refused to join “Free Germany” because it seemed too compromised with Communism, founded the Union of German Officers, which was apparently independent but actually under the thumb of Communist political activists. By the end of 1944 some tens of officers and a few hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers had joined the antifascist movement, small figures in comparison with the 3.500.000 German POWs in Soviet hands at the end of the war.

In November 1945 “Free Germany” and the Union of German Officers were disbanded. The former members were sent back to the Soviet Zone of Occupation in Germany between 1946 and 1948 in order to build the new socialist German fatherland. Nonetheless, although political re-education of POWs was no longer in agenda, POWs remained exposed to arbitrary Soviet policies concerning intelligence and forced-labour. In 1949 a wave of political trials stormed over the thousands of concentration camps in the USSR: thousands of German POWs were accused with war crimes and sentenced to death, life imprisonment or 25 years of forced-labour. POWs were to be used to rebuild the Russian cities and infrastructures destroyed by war as well as hostages to put pressure on West Germany, which in 1950 was to be re-armed within the NATO. Political trials against POWs took place in an atmosphere of terror and menace, which can be acknowledged from the literary memoirs of witnesses.

One must distinguish between memoirs written in the Democratic Republic of Germany and those published in West Germany because they reflect different political perspectives: in fact, all Eastern authors (e.g. Paulus, Adam, Müller, Steidle and Rühle) occupied relevant roles in politics, culture and education and their memoirs depict the political re-education in Soviet concentration camps as a rejuvenating experience of self-affirmation. Political re-education, or Antifascism, certainly was not for them torture or suffering. They consider themselves as patriots who embraced the cause of a free and democratic Germany shaped on the Marxist view of history and society. They interpret Germany’s catastrophe as the necessary outcome of imperialism and militarism, to which they oppose socialism and its vocation to internationalism and peace.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, things were different. A small group of witnesses came from the ranks of former antifascists, such as Heinrich Einsiedel (vice-president of the National Committee “Free Germany”), novelist Heinrich Gerlach, and theologian Helmut Gollwitzer. These authors had first joined Communist antifascism because they had believed in the historical necessity to take a stand against Hitler and his war. They had later gown critical toward Communism and they had been persecuted and punished for that, in concentration camps before and once they had come back to Germany after 1948. They represent the political re-education as a two-fold experience: on the one hand it was a noble and heroic assumption of responsibility that they faced as officers and human beings; on the other that experience was also a dangerous compromise with power and corruption insofar as being antifascists in Soviet concentration camps meant claiming privilege and prominence over other fellow POWs. These authors remember in their memoirs how they had to act as spies for the Communist authorities, how they had to lie and deceive in order to keep their privileges, and how they had to go through a never-ending psychological war against other prisoners in order to conquer power. These authors recall the motto of Soviet antifascism: “whoever is not with us is against us”, or “whoever does not work does not eat”, which did not sound much different than under the Nazi yoke.

The political re-education in the memoirs of lower officers and ranks, who depict it as sheer torture, appears even worse, as a school of double-thought and as a struggle for surviving, because the periodical interrogations carried out by Communist activists made the difference between being admitted to the school of antifascism (which meant more food, warm bedrooms and no hard-labour) and being sent out to Siberia for hard-labour in the woods, in mines or on cotton fields. Interrogations were subtle and dangerous, aimed at forcing prisoners into self-contradiction. When this happened, the prisoner had to choose between becoming a spy and collaborating, and ending up in punishment camps. These witnesses recall the wave of political trials of 1949 as the most fearful experience after starvation and typhus epidemics of 1943-1944: threatened to be held for years in hard-labour camps, many a prisoner chose to denounce even close friends as war-criminals, in order to be sent back to Germany, and many even mutilated themselves in order to be spared from work and sent home.

In West Germany some authors, such as former pilot and POW Assi Hahn, caught the occasion to raise a vehement polemic against Communism, which in many cases turned out to be a shameful apology of the old Nazi regime, militarism and imperialism. What is striking is that the Soviet project of conquering a huge mass of POWs, marked as a “bunch of fascists”, to the political cause of Communism eventually ended up into a large-scale failure. In fact, the strategy of attracting POWs to antifascism in exchange of privilege and power over fellow comrades in concentration camps did not produce the model of a virtuous democratic society, but rather a “grey zone” where compromise, deceit and egoism prevailed over social virtues such as solidarity, friendship and justice.

In this sense, Soviet concentration camps of POWs also represented a sort of laboratory for social experimentation. The separateness of POWs from their homeland permitted to create the condition for an artificial acceptance of the new political and social doctrine in abstract, not as a real means to manage the life of a community. Better said, there was a community, but a fragile and weak one, of starving and frightened POWs under the thumb of a powerful and intricate structure capable of inflicting suffering and death or to grant favour and privilege. Such political re-education can be seen as torture, especially if one considers that many German POWs remained in Soviet camps up to 1956.

Torture is an evil and useless instrument. Its secrecy and separateness testify to its unlawfulness as well as to the bad will of those who use it. In the past, criminals were tormented and executed in public, as Foucault pointed out, in the course of violent ceremonies aimed at restoring the authority of the State challenged by serious offences. But torture is different. It is a closed-door activity, because it is brutal and illegal, because it is aimed at overwhelming the victim’s will, in order to force out a confession beyond evidence of crime and guilt. Torture can make up evidence as magic: in order to stop suffering and fear the victim is ready to confess what the torturer wants to hear. The case of political re-education shows that torture can also be a means to force ideologies into the mind of people. Nonetheless, experience teaches that such achievements almost always remain unattained, or that they are reached at the cost of moral degradation, illegality and inhumanity.

For further reading

Bungert, Heike, Das Nationalkomitee und der Westen. Die Reaktion der Westalliierten auf das NKFD und die Freien Deutschen Bewegungen 1943-1948, Stuttgart, Steiner, 1997

Scheurig, Bodo, Freies Deutschland. Das Nationalkomitee und der Bund Deutscher Offiziere in der Sowjetunion 1943-1945, München, Nymphenburger, 1960

Schoenhals, Kai, The Free Germany Movement. A Case of Patriotism or Treason?, New York, Greenwood Press, 1989

Smith, Arthur, The War for the German Mind. Re-Educating Hitler’s Soldiers, Oxford, Berghan, 1996