Announcement: Experiencing War at the Library of Congress

For the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Library of Congress published a webpage titled Experiencing War. Researchers and anyone who is interested can access 12 collections with diaries, photos and oral histories of men and women who experienced that event.

The page can be accessed at this link: https://www.loc.gov/vets/stories/ex-war-dday75.html

The materials are part of one of the Library of Congress’ special projects: the Veterans History Project (VHP), part of the American Folklife Center, which collects personal accounts of American war veterans with the aim to preserve the memories of war and conflicts in which the United States took part, from the First World War up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VHP’s materials provide a wealth of sources for researchers who work on experiences of war, and many of those can be accessed remotely through their website: https://www.loc.gov/vets/

Announcement: Shadow Agents of War Workshop

A fascinating event is taking place next week on 4th June at the University of Edinburgh: a one day workshop titled “Shadow Agents of War”, which will focus on the role in war of certain players who are largely overlooked by scholars of war and conflict, such as refugees, convicts, commoners and even animals. The workshop also promises to tackle methodological issues and point to relevant sources. The workshop is co-organised by Stephen Bowd, who is currently working on a project on gender and early modern warfare, Sarah Cockram, who focuses on the early modern period, too, and is interested in historical animal studies, and John Gagné whose current book project is on transcultural war in the early sixteenth century.

The workshop will have three sessions: The Unwilling Agents of War; The Organisers of War; The Suppliers of War.

The full programme can be accessed by following this link: https://research.shca.ed.ac.uk/shadow-agents-of-war/

A fatal encounter in war. A case of impact of PTSD on civilians in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”

by Gianluca Cinelli

Dunkirk (2017) as a war movie seems to direct itself toward a new way of representing war on the screen. No gore, no mangled bodies are to be seen. It seems as though the director meant to say that horror in war does not only depend on the amount of terrifying visions of slaughter, but rather on the psychological perception of fear as an overwhelming emotion that constantly drives the combatant to choose between two basic actions: fighting or fleeing.

Dunkirk tells a story of flight rather than fight. Between the end of May and the early days of June 1940 about 400.000 encircled British and French soldiers were evacuated in a few days from the beaches of Dunkerque, in northern France. Every available ship was employed for the rescue, including a number of private yachts and fishing boats. In the movie the crew of one of these private yachts play a major role, and their story suggests these few lines of reflection about a case of lethal encounter between combatants and civilians.

The small boat rescues a British soldier who has remained stranded at sea for some time, his boat having been sunken. This young soldier is affected by a serious form of PTSD. Fear has taken hold of his mind and he categorically refuses to be taken back to the coast of Dunkirk, insofar as this is the route and task of the small boat. He struggles with the captain and eventually with one of the two young boys who are sailing on the yacht from England to Dunkirk to rescue the stranded troops. In the fight the young boy, a captain’s family friend, falls and is concussed. It is an ugly accident from which he will eventually die.

The British soldier will never grow conscious of the tragic aftermath of his revolt. He acted out of utter fear and his strong desire to escape the madness of being encircled, trapped between the German troops and the sea, bombed and chased like a sitting-duck. He meant no harm, but his action was violent enough to easily overcome the young boy. He does not acknowledge the death of the boy and will eventually leave the boat, after they reach the English shore, without being fully aware of the gruesome effect that war has been having on him.

In fact, in order to save himself he involuntarily kills one of those fellow citizens, to defend whom he had gone to war: a young brave man who put his own life at stake to save him and his comrades from peril and death. How does it come to be? How does war change the mind and even the personality of those who are involved in it? Does war make people more courageous, morally stronger or ethically wiser? Such questions the movie raises that are worth answering.

And finally, how should we judge such a character as this young soldier? Is he vile? Is he a felon? Is he to blame?

In the end, the captain’s son does not reveal to the soldier that his young unlucky friend died. He just says to comfort the traumatised soldier that his friend will be all right, and then he lets the castaway go to join his comrades. It seems a profoundly human action, full of piety and understanding. One could wonder whether some disguised rhetorical claim is embedded here. I do not believe it. Dunkirk is more than just a war movie, rather a work that chooses war to represent the wonder of human ethical response (in its broad variety) to a basically moral quest: what should one do, when the moment demands that everyone be involved into great and dangerous events, which the vast majority is not ready or willing to take part into? Although someone else is supposed to go abroad to fight and die, we could be called up to back those who are over there, because their failure could mean our doom as well. Being brave is not necessarily a matter of exquisite heroism. It could just have to do with taking up one’s own responsibility, to the very end no matter what.

War as Moral Experience in Wittgenstein’s Secret Diary

by Patrizia Piredda

When he stopped his studies of engineering in Manchester, Wittgenstein moved to Cambridge to study logic under the guidance of Bertrand Russell because he believed that by comprehending the fundamentals of language, and therefore the limits of language, he would understand its essence,   as well as that of human beings, in primis, himself. 

For Wittgenstein, knowing oneself was indispensable because only the man who knows himself can improve himself and become morally decent. When World War I broke out, Wittgenstein volunteered in the Austrian Army because he trusted “the fact that the experience of war would permit him to understand, beyond any fiction and illusion, who – which kind of man, so to say, – he really was. Thus, it was clarity and truth about himself that Wittgenstein expected from the war” (Perissinotto 13).

Wittgenstein spoke about the experience of World War I in two different diaries: the first one is a work-notebook in which he wrote his thoughts, questions and the progress of his work on logic (which was eventually published under the name of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), as well as his reflections on ethics, the function of philosophy, and such concepts as the will, the good, evil and suicide. The second one is a personal diary, composed of three notebooks which begin on 9 August 1914 and end on 19 August 1916, written in a secret code so that none of his comrades could read it. During the war years, in contact with other soldiers and immersed in the military life, Wittgenstein went on working on the problems of language, but he slowly changed the focus of his research and broadened his interest beyond logical problems: in a letter of 22 May 1915 to Russell, Wittgenstein wrote that the problems in which he was interested “have become more and more precisely and general”, and that his method “has drastically changed” (Wittgenstein, Lettere 75): now, it was fundamentally oriented toward ethics. 

For Wittgenstein, the encounter with the other in war was an existential experience that allowed him to look within the depths of himself in order to question himself and understand who he was.  This in turn would allow him to correct errors in his thought, to eliminate prejudices, faults and erroneous judgments and, finally, to act well. To reach this state of deep knowledge, Wittgenstein had to understand which role the passions and reason play in making moral decisions, so as to put the former under the control of the latter: in other words, at this time in his life, acting as a decent and moral person meant for Wittgenstein being able to understand and control his own passions which, generally, lead a person to make practical decisions in order to satisfy private and egoistic desires without considering whether the action is good or bad. At first, Wittgenstein believed that the war would make men better; however, early in the conflict the promiscuity that he saw in other soldiers made him start to believe that war cannot change the nature of human beings: if possible, it makes people’s moral tendencies even worse. Wittgenstein changed his mind because, in his opinion, his comrades did not attempt to understand what was happening to them, even though they were going through a new and traumatic experience that demanded understanding; instead, they kept on following irrational passions and base desires. If, as Wittgenstein wrote on 12 August 1916, “a bad life is an unreasonable one”; if living in sin – i.e. living enslaved to passions and desires – means living “in discord” (Wittgenstein, Diario 118); and if a life without knowledge is evil, then his comrades could not logically appear to him as good persons. 

From the first notes of his diary, Wittgenstein wrote that he was horrified by his comrades’ vulgarity: he did not consider them stupid, but he believed that they were limited by the “typical attitude of the majority of men, according to which they mirror themselves in what they have instead than in what they are” (Gargani, 11). Since, in his opinion, his comrades chatted only about “nonsensical” things based on prejudices and superficialities, Wittgenstein felt deep disquiet (Unheimlichkeit), and as a result he depicted them as scoundrels dominated by the most selfish instincts and lust, which led them to a loss of self-control and to immorality. On 21 August 1914 Wittgenstein wrote: “The lieutenant and I have spoken about many different things. He is a very kind person. He can cope with the worst scoundrels and be kind to them. If we hear a Chinese speak, we tend to consider his speech an inarticulate gurgle. The person who understands Chinese will recognise the language. Thus I often cannot recognise humanity in man, etc. […] all concepts of my work have become ‘foreign’ to me. I cannot really SEE anything!!!” (Wittgenstein, Diario 54). 

In contact with the other soldiers, Wittgenstein could no longer see what might be called humanity, nor could he recognise in others his own human essence, i.e. a rational creature who strives to know himself in order to be morally good. Therefore, Wittgenstein was not able to perceive others as friends, because friendship for him could only arise between good men: he had an elitist sense of friendship, founded on respect, dialogue, loyalty, love and a deep sense of ethics which, in his opinion, his comrades seriously lacked. On 15 August 1914 he wrote: “The crew is a gang of scoundrels! No enthusiasm, incredible vulgarity, stupidity and cruelty. Therefore, it is not true that the great common cause necessarily makes man nobler… According to all our external conditions, our duty on the boat should provide us with a wonderful and happy time, but alas! As a result, it will be very difficult to communicate with the others” (Wittgenstein, Diario 52-53).

Moreover, two days before, on August 16 1914, he wrote that “the stupidity, the insolence and the evil of these people have no limits” (Wittgenstein, Diario 53). Beyond these severe and tranchant judgments, Wittgenstein did not believe that he was a better man than his comrades, but that he had a stronger will to become better. In fact, one of the major differences that Wittgenstein perceived between himself and the other soldiers was the awareness that he was not yet a good man. In the letter of 3 March 1914 to Russell he wrote: “we both have our weaknesses, but I do especially, and my life is FULL of the most awful and miserable thoughts and actions (and this is no exaggeration)… Until today my life has been full of filth” (Wittgenstein Lettere 67); on 7 March 1915 he moreover wrote: “I feel like a completely burnt out stove, full of impurities and filth” (Wittgenstein, Diario 101).

Nevertheless, during the war Wittgenstein went on trying to improve himself, to control his body’s weaknesses and get close to the order that derives from reason, which however belonged in its pure form only to God. At that time young Wittgenstein believed that such an order is located in our language: for him, there was a correspondence between good use of language and good action, thus it followed that thinking well is acting well. According to this correspondence, thanks to a constant effort to free himself from linguistic errors (prejudices, common statements, nonsense, false and erroneous reasoning) a person might aspire to live a decent life: on 20 July 1916 Wittgenstein wrote to himself in his diary: “continue to work and you will become a good man” (Wittgenstein, Diario 116).

The will moves man to strive for absolute good, beyond the partiality of a mundane ‘good’ corresponding to private desires. To reach absolute good, one needs a full view (Überblick) of things even if this seems to be a desperate attempt: on 12 November 1914 Wittgenstein wrote: “I have worked quite a lot, but without seeing very clearly (Wittgenstein, Diario 79); on 13 November 1914: “I cannot see clearly” (ibid.) and on 16 November 1914: “no clarity yet. Although I am right in front of the solutions to the deepest questions, so near as to almost crash into them with my nose!!! Now my spirit is simply blind to these things! I feel as if I am RIGHT IN FRONT OF the door to the solution, but I cannot see clearly enough to open it” (Wittgenstein, Diario 81). Moreover, if on 29 July 1916, in a moment of desperation after being shot at, Wittgenstein wrote that he was afraid of dying and losing the pleasure of life, some days before, on 8 July 1916, he had written that such a fear was a misleading feeling because “fear of death is the best sign of a false life, i.e. a bad life” because “he who is happy must not fear.  Not even death” (Wittgenstein, Quaderni 219). Even if it is a desperate attempt, one always should (or better, must) try to go beyond  one’s own limits because only in this way is it possible to fight the irrational fear in which lies the sin that leads  men to believe that a false conception is true.

 Contrary to the common experience of war, wherein a soldier considers his comrades to be his friends and the opponents, the unknown soldiers, the enemy who must be fought, Wittgenstein considered his comrades his principal enemy, from whom he had to defend himself. Wittgenstein’s concept of friendship, however, was embodied in David Pinsent with whom he was in a close contact during the war: they had become friends when both of them were studying in Cambridge.   During the war, since Wittgenstein was fighting in the Austrian Army and Pinsent was fighting in the English Army, they should have considered themselves enemies. Pinsent died on 8 May 1918. Wittgenstein was informed of his death by a letter from Ellen Fanny Pin, David’ mother, sent dated 6 July 1918, to which he replied, writing that Pinsent had been his first and only friend: “I have indeed known many young men of my age and have been on good terms with some, but only in him did I find a real friend; the hours I have spent with him have been the best in my life, he was to me a brother and a friend. Daily I have thought of him and have longed to see him again. God will bless him” (Monk 155).

To him Wittgenstein dedicated his Tractatus logico-philosophicus

For further reading

Gargani, Aldo, Il coraggio di essere, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Diari segreti, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1987, pp. 1-45

Marconi, Diego, Wittgenstein e la filosofia, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, La filosofia, Roma, Donzelli, 2006, pp. vii-xxxvii

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Duty of Genius, New York, The Free Press, 1990

Perissinotto, Luigi, Wittgenstein. Una guida, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2010

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Diari segreti, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1987

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Lettere. 1911-1951, Milano, Adelphi, 2012

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Quaderni 1914-1916, in Tractatus logico-philosophicus – Quaderni 1914-1916, Einaudi, Torino, 2009, pp. 127-299

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.

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.

References

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 “http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/Photos/” http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/Photos/.

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.

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)