Archive for the ‘Musings On Confusions’ Category

Idea Of India Project Update: Staring At The Many Faces Of Doubt – Some That Cripple And Others That Inspire

In Musings On Confusions, Photography, The Daily Discussion on February 13, 2011 at 8:57 am


If there is one word that can capture how I feel as I return to India to continue work on the The Idea Of India project, then it is the word ‘doubt’. I mean it in both the definitions of the word – as a noun that suggests a lack of conviction, and as a verb that suggests a state of mind that questions known truths.

I have arrived back in India after a near nine month hiatus where I suffered the wait to hear about my grant approval, and then another four-month emotionally difficult time waiting to hear about my research visa approval. Through that period I had to confront the reality (yes, I can be quite a pessimist) that either the grant will not come through, or that the research visas will simply be denied. I have to admit that the latter concern proved harder to confront, knowing that despite having the funds to continue the work, I may still be denied the chance to pursue what has become the longest, most intense photography project I have attempted to date.

But the gap of months has left me fragile. I now doubt my ability to produce what I have committed to producing. I am riddled by a fear that I no longer have the eye and the mind that compelled me to this work in the first place. I can’t even recall the methods I assumed to produced the last two years of work on this project. I look at out into the days ahead and feel that all creativity, all ideas, all possibilities lie over the horizon, and I must swim through an ocean filled with man-eating doubt to get to it. The fears and insecurities of the last few months now cloud my convictions, blur my vision, and as I sit in a cafe in Delhi trying to get past these days, these thoughts keep me from thinking about the work itself.

A few weeks ago I travelled to Rome and took my cameras along. I was hoping that I could use the trip as a way to re-acquaint myself with being a photographer and remind myself of the postures, concentration and effort required to produce this simple thing called a photograph. In Rome it became clear just how rusty I was, how out of practice. My framing was wrong, my timing completely off, and perhaps worst, my sense of perspective and object placement as seen by the camera itself. It was some days before a frame presented itself – one with the least division between that which is seen and that which is captured. It was perhaps the only frame that achieved an acceptable proximity.

Rome 2011 by Asim Rafiqui

Photographers rarely reveal their method, and certainly never the fears that underpin their efforts. Our obsessions with the image, with what sits within the frame, masks the sheer human frailty that fills the moments before and after. The frame never reveals the photographer and the walk she took to get to it. Or perhaps it is only I whose walk is so uncertain, so unclear, and so imprecise. So subservient to that reluctant friend called luck. Perhaps others are as confident, as precise, as sure as their images seem to suggest.

But I also realize that doubt – the verb, underpins and motivates the entire enterprise that is The Idea Of India. It was a confrontation with this sort of doubt that compelled me to begin this journey in the first place. It was doubt that made me question official narratives, nationalist histories, post-colonial historical constructions, sectarian dogmas and just-a-bit-too-well-defined ethnic and cultural categories. It was doubt that made me leave the conventions of photojournalism and practice a different eye. It is doubt that keeps me asking, searching, wondering and growing as an individual and as a photographer. It is doubt that defines the seemingly random, apparently inconsistent trajectory of this project – precisely as I want it to be. Since beginning this work in late 2008, it has been doubt that has taken me into new worlds, and new understandings. It is doubt that has taken me to new photographs. And in the end it is doubt that I want this work to infect others with, to give them nothing more than an equal love of this act which realizes that our worlds are far more beautiful, complex, complicated and varied than we were ever told.

Doubt – a noun and a verb and a desperate attempt to reconcile its two natures. Or at least I would like to – to somehow transform the one that cripples into the other that inspires. I am not sure how to do it. Or even whether I can.

Very soon I will simply run out of time and have to begin my work. Very soon I will have to force this tired body, this cowardly soul, to pick up the camera and thrust itself into the scream of life that is India. Perhaps there is no way around this. No way to overcome these doubts, or become one with them. Perhaps you just carry them, and carry on.

Watching Crowley Crawl Or How Incisive Questions Can Reveal The Hypocrisies Of An Imperial Apparatchik

In Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on January 28, 2011 at 1:48 pm

This was nothing if not embarrassing – the hypocrisy of State Department representative P.J. Crowley, and the administration and imperial system that he so mindlessly represents, may as well be tattooed across this forehead. The news anchor tears through Crowley like a hot knife through butter, leaving him grasping for more lies and even deeper obfuscations. The anchor’s laugh at the end of the interview pretty much says it all, and pretty much reveals what the common man in these ‘allied’ nations with their billion dollar US military aid programs knows and understands. Worth watching.

My favorite part was this snippet – when asked whether the US Government was talking directly to President Mubarak to express its concerns, Crowley returns with this gem:

Crowley: We want to make sure that Egypt does not interfere with the use of social media, that is a fundamental right as clear as walking into a town square. We are making these points clearly to Egypt publically and privately

Anchor: Beyond social media though, rubber coated steel bullets are being fired, hundreds are being detained in notorious prisons, perhaps we should be emphasizing that more than the Twitter or Facebook issue?


There is hope yet!

A Very Happy…Er…What Year Is It Again?

In Background Materials, Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on January 1, 2011 at 11:10 am

Every year at this time of the year my mind turns towards man’s creation of the calendar. Some months ago I came a fascinating discussion about the issue of measuring time in Jack Goody’s wonderful, if dense work, Theft Of History. I share with you here the paragraphs that I looked up last night as the clock struck midnight and signaled that finally 2010, a year that has tested me in ways I had never imagined, has passed and that I can look forward to new possibilities in 2011.

The very calculation of time in the past, and of the present to, as been appropriate by the west. The dates on which history depends are measured before and after the birth of Christ. The recognition of other eras, relating to the Hegira, to the Hebrew or to the Chinese New Year, is relegated to the margins of historical scholarship and of international usage…

…The monopolization of time takes place not only with the all-inclusive era, that defined by the birth of Christ, but also with the everyday reckoning of years, months, and weeks. The year itself is a partly arbitrary division. We use the sidereal cycle, others a sequence of twelve lunar periods. It is a choice of a more or less conventional kind. In both systems the beginning of the year, that is, the New Year, is quite arbitrary. There is, in fact, nothing more ‘logical’ about the sidereal year which Europeans use than about the lunar reckoning of Islamic and Buddhist countries. In is the same with the European division into months. The choice is between arbitrary years or arbitrary months. Our months have little to do with the moon, indeed the lunar months of Islam are definitely more ‘logical’. There is a problem for every calendrical system of integrating star or seasonal years with lunar months. In Islam the year is adjusted to the months; in Christianity the reverse holds. In oral cultural both the seasonable count and the moon count can operate independently, but writing forces a kind of compromise.

The week of seven days is the most arbitrary unit of them all. In Africa one finds the equivalent of a ‘week’ of three, four, five, or six days, with markets to correspond. In China it was ten days. Societies felt the need for some regular division smaller than a month for frequent cyclical activities such as local markets, as distinct from annual fairs. The duration of these units is completely conventional. The notion of a day and a night clearly corresponds to our everyday experience but once again the further subdivisions into hours and minutes exists only on our clicks and in our minds; they are quite arbitrary.

Goody, J (2006) The Theft Of History Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Page 14, 15, & 16

Have a wonderful New Year, where ever you may be, and when ever it may actually arrive in your life.

And for the conventional; A lovely 2011 to you all.

On Nothing, From Nothing

In Musings On Confusions on December 25, 2010 at 4:36 pm

When I was young, I tried very hard. I wept every day in the studio because there was such a distance between what I wanted to do and what came out. Now I’m at peace, because of old age. It flows calmly now. I meditate for a long time. I work against ego. I think ego is an obnoxious bother. To a great extent I have lost all interest in this fiction, Hedda Sterne.

Hedda Sterne from Sarah Boxer’s The Last Irascible in The New York Review of Books

My nightmares and my sorrows stem from this demon which is ruining my peace, my completion, my work and my inspiration. It is ruining my voice. Oh, how i wish to kill this beast, to traverse these divisions and do so before my mind fails, my legs break, and my soul falters. Oh how I wish to produce even just one image that is unfettered and unstained.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, Who Is The Wikiest Of Them All…

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on December 9, 2010 at 8:20 pm

WikiLeaks Mirror Site DIY

A Public Service Message From The Spinning Head: Instructions for mirroring WikiLeaks and fighting crime.


Seeing Europe Everywhere, Even In The Unfolding Of Another People’s Histories

In Book Responses, Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on December 9, 2010 at 5:55 pm

There are some issues where obfuscation and confusion are so prevalent, so pervasive, that we are unable to know what we are talking about any more. A recent example of such a situation is encapsulated and discussed in this new book by Gilbert Achcar called The Arabs & The Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War Of Narratives. There is a wide and popular set of writings that claims and insists that it is an inherent Arab anti-Semitism that informs the Arab resistance to the idea of Israel, and underpins the ongoing conflict there. That this Arab anti-Semitism is determined to destroy Israel and she is defending herself against this stain that aims to bring the holocaust back to the Jewish community.

There is little to argue against the fact that this narrative is largely believed, particularly in Europe and the USA, and strangely in full denial of the actual lived history and heritage of the Jews in the Middle East. Perhaps more egregiously, it is a narrative that takes a many centuries old European heritage of anti-Semitism, a heritage deeply ingrained in her society, literature, arts, and political (anyone remember Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice?) and simply foists its presumptions and history onto a new people where neither evidence nor experience suggests that anything of a similar depth and entrenchment ever occurred. However, challenging this has been difficult and many academics have continued to make this claim, and definitely many Israeli politicians and their supporters in the USA have repeated it ad nauseum – the Arab are anti-Semites and that is what is being fought in the wars in West Bank and Gaza, and that is what confronts Israel in Iran (ignoring the fact that nearly 30,000 Jews continue to live in Iran and are valued and crucial parts of its society and the nation!).

Now comes an essay in Dissent magazine called Anti-Semitism And Ignorance by Fredrik Meiton, a PhD student at NYU, as a review of Achcar’s book. It makes for interesting reading as Meiton challenges Achcar’s arguments and takes issues with specific incidents that Achcar outlines as in fact evidence of anti-Semitism. But throughout the essay this young man erases precisely what every Israeli or other politician, academic and intellectual with a strong pro-Israeli bent has done; the Nakba. Meiton wants to erase the broader political context of why Arabs, and let’s be specific – British Mandate Arabs were so supportive of the Nazis, and why the Nazis’ were so eager to foster collaboration with the British Mandate Arabs; it was calculated politics.

Meiton’s criticisms also represents a strange tendency of many to see all history as merely variations on European history – an Eurocentric pathology that insidiously and with alarming ignorance refuses to allow other people to have their own motivations, reasons, politics, calculations, judgements, designs and ideas. Meiton seems unable to allow for an Arab people to have an Arab-centric idea of resistance, opposition, ideas, politics, understanding of historical imperatives, and protection of cultural and social traditions.

We can’t avoid the fact that towards the end of WWI the Arabs of Palestine were confronted, thanks to the Balfour arrogance, a near absolute dispossession and dispersal. It was the Zionists, claiming to speak for all Jewery, who were going to be responsible for this dispossession. The very Zionists who happily conflated their Zionist political goals with Jewish spiritual and divine beliefs. This latter conflation of Israel with the entire Jewish community over the world was a political and rhetorical trick that Israel continues to use when it serves its purpose, but wants to scream ‘anti-Semitism’ against when criticism is aimed at its policies and practices. That is, on the one hand Israel says that Zionism is an all-Jewish movement, argues that anti-Zionists are anti-Jew and anti-Semitism, but then screams bloody murder if their opponents make the same connections by loudly accusing them of anti-Semitism! It’s a wonderful trick of language and reflects once again the powerful ways in which it can be manipulated to discredit your opponent. By conflating Israel with Jews, they can conflate criticism of and resistant to the Israel project with anti-Semitism. This is old news, but it was disappointing to read Meiton doing precisely this in his review; using this sleight of hand to build all his arguments in the review.

Meiton makes the same mistake; he can’t come around to acknowledge that the ‘heritage of anti-Semitism’ that he is talking about only dates to post- WWI, and has no historical trajectory to explain it. That is, all those who claim that the Arabs are inherently anti-semitic, begin their stories around 1918, unable as they are to find earlier traces, or even any consistent evidence of this in literature, politics, culture, poetry, art, politics, economics etc. They can’t find evidence because there isn’t any of a social pathology. What they find is a resistance and an opposition to the Jewish/Zionist/Israeli (take your pick!) project, and Meiton cannot accept that this resistance can be anything other than a social pathology.

That all the principal perpetrators of the so-called Arab anti-Semitism happen to be Palestinian Arabs, is ignored i.e. why would the Palestinians Arabs of British Mandate Palestine be opposed to the Jews and choose to collaborate with any power that was also opposed to the Jews? Well, because of what they knew was coming to Palestine – the colonization of their lands by tens of thousands, the dispossession and the displacement. It was a life and death moment. But Meiton can’t admit to this – he sees in incidences like a Nazi official being saluted by Arabs as evidence of anti-Semitism, rather than the evidence of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and no more. Meiton also wants to finely slice “Jews” from “Israelis’ from ‘Zionists’, but this is disingenuous for after all Israel’s own leaders and pundits never do this; when it suits them, they assume any one of these costumes to serves their purposes. If Israel is criticised, it is anti-Semitism because Israel is for all Jew etc. Sometimes it feels like the 3-cup trick; guess which one the dice is under!

This review is a classic case of a double-bind most Israeli apologists find themselves in. By erasing history, and the torturous experiences of the lesser other, the Palestinian, they then proceed to try to construct a narrative that gives precedence of Europe and a European history. Unable to acknowledge the stories and equal validity of ‘the other’, they are confused at the persistent resistance and entrenched opposition of this lesser people. Why do they hate us – because of who we are, and never because of what we have done to them. I often wonder if this shuttered view is intentionally constructed, or a means to ease our guilt and avoid the horror of our actions. To now face the fact that we are murderers, rapists, thieves and pillagers, and that our fine civilization is intrinsically tied to this barbarism.

And equally, I would argue, on a different note, that such loose and frivolous attempts to equate European antisemitism with Arab nationalist resistance to the Zionist/Jewish colonial project, denigrates the insidiousness and sheer entrenched scale of Europe’s hatred of the Jew. It takes what is a genuine fact with a centuries old heritage (anyone remember the expulsion of the Jews from Cordoba?) and attempts to foist its burdens onto a small people, in a small part of the world, who in a moment of fear and desperation choose their friends poorly, but were certainly not the only ones to have done so. We must also remember that in India, anti-British nationalists also collaborated with the Nazis, and even with the Japanese – anything to oust the colonialists, anything to protect their lives and their liberties.

Speaking about the Nakba is a punishable crime in Israel. Why? Meiton never mentions the Nakba, nor admits to a genuine grievance of the Palestinian Arabs in pre-Israel times. He never offers a larger political, social and colonial understanding of the period  – not the history of the region, the colonial context of its emergence, and the specific problems and fears that underpinned their allegiance to the Nazis. Their history, their horrors, their sufferings, their worries, their resistance, their determination to hold on to what was going to stolen from them, do not count as relevant facts in this story. Tariq Ali reviewed the same book and began his review of Achcar’s book from the very place that Meiton refuses to:

It was not until after the first world war that relations between the communities began to deteriorate seriously. The reason for this was the Balfour declaration (opposed by Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the British cabinet) that offered a homeland in Palestine to the Zionist Federation, without any consultations whatsoever with the people who lived on the land. Hitler and the judeocide of the second world war further cemented the foundations of the settler-state and led to the nakba for the Palestinian Arabs of the region. Hardly surprising that this led to the “war of narratives”

Where is this in Meiton’s account? As the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist (take your pick!) dispossession and occupation of the Palestinians as continued, as the Israeli/Jewish/Zionists wars in the region have continued unabated (Lebanon, attacks and occupation of Syrian and Syrian lands, attacks on Iraq, attacks on Egypt, attacks on Jordan) and as Israeli/Jewish/Zionist rhetoric of more war and greater war (Iraq, now Iran, who is next) underpins the presence of the state in the region, should it surprise us then that it is not uncommon or unexpected that Arabs will adopt a language of resistance and opposition that also uses the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist labels loosely and carelessly? Can Israel claim that is is the sanctuary of all Jews of the world, that being anti-Israel is being anti-semitic and then should ‘foul’ when in fact the people it confronts can’t tell the difference between what is anti-semitic and what is anti-colonialist or anti-Israeli nationalism?

Meiton is determined to point out Achcar’s flagrant use of ‘ignorance of the Arabs of broader political realities’ to explain what to Meiton’s eyes are clear acts of anti-Semitism, as for example when they allow a Nazi official to leave unhurt after he steps out of his car in the middle of a riot shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ As Meiton argues.

This repeated use of ignorance as an explanatory—and exculpatory—factor is the book’s greatest flaw. Whenever Achcar encounters anti-Semitism alongside contradictory words or deeds, the former is automatically discounted. The presence of such contradictions, he assumes, proves that it is a matter of ignorance, and not of real anti-Semitism.

But why is it not ignorance and real anti-Semitism? Meiton never offers an argument to counter Achcar’s argument i.e. Meiton has no evidence that in fact it was nothing but political convenience rather than an entrench social pathology called anti-Semitism. Meiton does not need to; he relies on our European/American presumptions that this behavior, as echoed in European history, could only be anti-Semitism. If it looks like a goose, walks like a goose, sounds like a goose, it must be a goose!

But the ignorance is on Meiton’s side; by failing to point out or accept that the Arabs of British Mandate Palestine were in a full-scale rebellion against the machinations of the Zionists, and the tens of thousands of immigrants that were arriving, the violence / terrorism that was being conducted by the Irgun for example, he deceives the reader, and also himself.

An entire people’s experience and perspective is absolutely absent; a taboo of such stark proportions that it can’t even be elided to in the review, and the realities of the political and military acts taking place on the ground during the period this so-called Arab anti-Semitism raises it head, erased as explanatory factors.The erasures are too stark. And they are not just Meiton’s, but those of the editors of the magazine and the reviewers who allowed this piece to go through. For after all, none of them noticed what was left unsaid.

(Full disclosure: This is not a review in defense of Gilbery Achcar’s book. I have not read the book so am not in a position to judge its contents or its arguments. What I am responding to here are Meiton’s elisions and erasures as he challenges Achcar. This essay should not be read as an endorsement of Achcar’s work. Until further updates of course)

The European Twist To An American Dance Or European Collaboration In American Crimes

In Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on November 16, 2010 at 1:23 am

So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe? That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind…When I search for Man in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders.

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched Of The Earth Chapter Six

Amnesty International has just released a new report called Open Secret: Mounting Evidence of Europe’s Complicity In Rendition & Secret Detention which clearly identifies the European nations that have collaborated with the Americans on this program. That list, as described in Amnesty International’s page introducing the release of the report;

  • Sweden: charged with failing to investigate fully the renditions at the hands of the CIA in December 2001 of Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zari to Egypt, where the men reported that they were tortured. Despite having awarded the men compensation, the government has also failed to provide the men with full and effective redress.

Since Sweden is my current home, I will point out this fact from the Executive Summary of the report:

..the UN Committee against Torture and UN Human Rights Committee both held that Sweden had violated the prohibition on torture by its involvement in the men’s transfers to Egypt and that Egypt’s diplomatic assurances did not provide a sufficient safeguard against that manifest risk of torture and other illtreatment.

Some other European nation that have actively participated in the rendition and illegal detention program include such luminaries as:

  • Germany: complicit in the secret detention of Muhammad Zammar, interrogated by German agents while held in secret detention in Syria in November 2002. Germans officials acknowledged that torture occurred in Syrian prisons. He has yet to receive justice, despite a German parliamentary inquiry into his and others’ claims of abuse.
  • Macedonia: alleged to have assisted in the unlawful detention and subsequent CIA-led rendition to Afghanistan of German national Khaled el-Masri, who has taken the against Macedonia before the European Court of Human Rights: the first time this court is likely to consider a case involving a Council of Europe member state’s alleged complicity in the CIA programmes. Macedonia continues to deny that its agents acted unlawfully.

Macedonia is also infamous for the real murder of alleged Al-Qaeda operatives that were later revealed to be hapless Pakistani illegal immigrants who had smuggled themselves into the country and found themselves in custody. As Greg Bearup of The Guardian reported back in 2004:

Several senior police officers have been charged with murder. After a lengthy investigation, the Macedonian authorities have admitted that the six Pakistanis and one Indian were simply illegal immigrants, trying to get to Greece to find work on the Olympic sites, or anywhere else. “This was the act of a sick mind,” Mirjana Konteska, a Macedonian official, said. “They lost their lives in a stage murder [so the police and officials] could present themselves as participants in the war against terror.”

European governments have been complicit in acts that are blatant crimes against humanity and in clear violation of international law all under the all-encompassing and all-obfuscating umbrella of the ‘war against terror’. While participating in our (America’s) illegal and unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ostensibly fought to bring ‘democracy’, and ‘civility’ to ‘the other’ – justifications that continue to be used to excuse our continuing occupation of these countries, European governments have been busy contorting the fundamental laws of democracy and civility within their own borders. The silence in the face of the open violation of our own laws is shocking and it is time to open a broader debate on the question.  It becomes imperative to bring this to the forefront of our national debates and perhaps remind ourselves than it is our own leaders, politicians, pundits and intellectuals – hiding behind the cheap tinsel of patriotism and the easy bludgeon of the fear of ‘Islam, who are the greatest dangers to our societies and to any set of ‘values’ we so claim to hold dear.

At this very moment the American’s are getting away with torture and crimes of war, as the Slate Magazine writer Dahlia Lithwick so wonderfully pointed out in a piece called Interrogation Nation:

In an America in which the former president can boast on television that he approved the water-boarding of U.S. prisoners, it can hardly be a shock that following a lengthy investigation, no criminal charges will be filed against those who destroyed the evidence of CIA abuse of prisoners Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.* We keep waiting breathlessly for someone, somewhere, to have a day of reckoning over the prisoners we tortured in the wake of 9/11, without recognizing that there is no bag man to be found and that therefore we are all the bag man.

Our former president is making the rounds of the tv-talk shows promoting his color-by-number memoirs, and openly bragging about having sanctioned the use of torture. By not condemning and prosecuting those throughout the chain of command who have sanctioned these unjust, inhumane and clearly criminal acts, we are leaving the door open to their continued use, and our (citizens) continued participation in these crimes. As Lithwick says:

Doing nothing about torture is, at this point, pretty much the same as voting for it. We are all water-boarders now.

But the likelihood is small, certainly in the USA, where even an appropriate, constitutionally defined right to a free and fair civil trial is being denied to America’s detainees and the citizen ‘accused’, forcing us towards an untenable and unjust social, legal and political order. As Glenn Greenwald points out in a new piece The ‘Pro-Constitution = Pro-Terrorist’ Canard :

How could it ever “cross a line” for a civil liberties lawyer to represent an American citizen in an American court arguing that the Government is transgressing the limits of the U.S. Constitution?  The only thing that crosses a line is to insinuate that there’s something improper about that.

The contortions of our ideals, the mutations of our justice system, the bending of our principles, and the jettisoning of our common-sense imply a weakening of the very idea of our societies. Our paranoia about ‘the other’, and the ease with which we have chosen the expedient over the essential can only damage our own way of life, our own society and our own laws. Sooner or later – in the USA we can argue that it is sooner, these same contortions, these same mutations will be used against the citizens themselves. As the al-Awlaki case already proves.

Can we in Europe do better? Do we believe that these collaborations make any sense? And if we do, what is our calculus?

The Jihad…Reconsidered And Renewed

In Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions on October 30, 2010 at 10:08 am

Thanks to Amitava Kumar

For those who are concerned – the ad has been pulled!

The Transformation Of Pathology Into Pathos Or The Military Does What It Does And It Does It Well

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography on October 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm

But the question remains: how, against the best efforts of so many, did a war once perceived as a nearly genocidal slaughter to perpetuate American neo-colonialism come to be viewed as an American tragedy? And to what extent have cultural and in particular literary representations of the war helped in that transformation? It could be argued that Vietnam War novels and memoirs have contributed significantly to this process, since they reach an important readership – the editors, publishers, writers, pundits, and professors who make up America’s intellectual class. By promoting a literature that favors individual lives over historical contingency, and textual sophistication over social analysis, this class has helped reproduce, not merely in the small audience of serious fiction writers but in the general public as well, a simple and ideologically unthreatening view of the war

Jim Nielson, Warring Fictions: Cultural Politics and The Vietnam War Narrative

From Ammiel Alcalay’s Scrapmetal

Today many novels and memoirs, and I will add, certain photojournalism projects continue this practice i.e. of transforming a near genocidal act of war into stories of individual suffering. I have already stated in an earlier post – Photographing The Unseen Or What Conventional Photojournalism Is Not Telling Us About Ourselves that:

[a]…set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those [American soldiers]  suffering from the violence of combat. Most all of these works act as quiet ‘memorials’ to the sacrifices of ‘our boys and girls’. These reveal the individual soldiers and their post-conflict trauma and take us into the world of those who are physically or emotionally maimed, or whose families are dealing with loss. As important as these works are, what concerns me is the sheer one-sidedness that has now emerged as a result of not a single American or European or other photographer producing similar works about the other victims of our conflicts…They, the ‘other’, are completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept…What I fear is that these projects on post-war scars – as wonderful as so many of them are e.g. Nina Berman‘s work, or Ashly Gilbertson’s or Eugene Richard’s to name just a few, are helping the rest of us forget the real victims, and the real crimes committed in our name. They are distracting us from our willed and ‘democratically’ supported acts of warfare, terror, repression, torture, occupation, control, murder and devastation. They help repaint us a ‘good’ and ‘noble’, as involved in ‘defensive’ actions against ‘evil’, as simply honorable knights that have fallen defending the nation, in innocence and purity.  They claim to be ‘anti-war’ but they in fact do quite the opposite. They create a sense of ‘us’ being wronged, as victims and innocent and fuel our ‘righteous’ belief for the need to continue their wars. They invert the situation in front of us, allowing us to think that we are the ‘objects’ of violence, the focus of ‘evil’ while helping us forget that we are in fact the aggressor, the occupier, and the oppressor. They help us wear the garbs of ‘honor’ and ‘courage’ and ‘dignity’ while we carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice and inhumanity. Rather than provoke a larger discussion – one that has yet to take place, about how we have entangled ourselves in this mess, and how our democratic ideals and the foundations of our republic have been weakened, we are using such projects are in danger of helping us garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims.

The construction of a narrative that turns our attention to our ‘boys and girls’ and their ‘struggle’ and ‘traumas’ in the field is precisely what the US military’s ‘embed’ program was designed to do; transform what is necessarily a violent, bloody and inhumane act of war into a cleansed, carefully managed, ‘precision-guided’, bloodless conflict. To that end, the US military exercised, and continues to exercise, any and all control necessary to help control the narrative of the conflict. A practice first instituted in the Falkland war, where only two correspondents were allowed access to the battlefield, we Americans have since perfected it. And our media has since willfully and gladly accepted it. Those who opposed the practice, those who attempted to go against the strictures of the US military paid a heavy price – were threatened, isolated and some other killed. One only has to look at the experience of Al-Jazeera reporters covering the war from ‘the wrong side’. The ‘unilaterals’ became targets for a military machine bent on controlling how the invasion of Iraq would be spoken about, and they continue to do so.

In his brilliant study of the media and the machinery of war The First Casualty: War Correspondent As Hero And Myth-Maker From The Crimea To Iraq, Phillip Knightley, points out that the first Gulf War:

…marked an important turning point in the history of war correspondents. Not only was it a war in which the military succeeded in changing people’s perceptions of what battle was really like, one in which the ‘surgical’ precision of new high-tech weapons meant few if any civilian casualties, but one in which the way in which the war was communicated was as important as the conduct of the war itself.

Indeed, this was a lesson put to full effect in the invasion of Iraq with the institution of the ‘embed’ program, Knightely revisits the intentions of this program, which I repeat here because it seems that many a veteran photojournalist and journalist seems to have forgotten:

It was [Bryan] Whitman (Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defence) who came up with the idea of ‘embedding’ where correspondents would be placed with the military units in the field from where they could transmit ‘products’ or information compiled at the Pentagon, foreign capitals and ‘in theatre’, with the assistance of mobile press pools, combined information press centers (CIPCs) and sub-CIPCs. Public Affairs Officers (PAOs) from the Pentagon would scan all the media – print, electronic, domestic and international – all the while blending 24-hour news channels nightly news shows and news-magazine formats with entertainment companies. This would provide comprehensive coverage of the war while giving the impression that the news was coming directly from amidst the troops in the field: ‘the best representatives to convey American’s intentions and capabilities’ (Page 532)

The concept of ‘embeds’ was created to help control the narrative of the war. It remains the military’s most effective weapon of propaganda, and ensures that the US citizenry sees the war only from the perspective of the US soldier. In that, it expects the citizenry, much as it does of the reporters and photojournalists who embed with the soldiers, to find empathy and camaraderie with the fighting American soldier, and focus only the individual and ‘ground level’ realities as they are offered to them on-screen, print and internet. To this end, the war had to be, and has been, shown as bloodless, and certainly, horror-less. Any and all rules of this program are geared towards this end, and they are subject to change as the needs of the narrative change. There is, and there should not be, any misunderstanding about this.

So it is with some confusion that I view videos such as this one by reporter/photographer Michael Kamber – an otherwise fine writer and photographer, which has been getting a lot of air- and internet-play recently:

What confuses me is the thought behind the video and comments: Michael Kamber is surprised that a system meticulously designed to censor the likes of him, is…..censoring him.

Isn’t this precisely what this system is designed to do?

Why would anyone express surprise when a military program designed to control the narrative, and censor facets that can turn ‘public opinion’ against it, does what it is designed to do?

We have to remember that The New York Times was one of the newspapers at the forefront of the jingoism towards this illegal and unnecessary war. Their reporters – including the ‘fabulous’ Judith Miller, embedded with the Bush administration and regurgitating its lies to the broader American public. They were amongst the many mainstream journalism outlets that offered no protests were offered when the ‘embed’ program was first introduced. The paper that employs Michael Kamber has never felt it necessary to challenge the military’s ‘embed’ program and in fact understands very well what it can offer and produce. This paper’s particularly close collaboration with US administrations is quite well known, and in fact was inadvertently revealed some months earlier. To say nothing really about the fact that for the last seven years a number of ‘embedded’ reporters and photographers have gone on to win major journalism and photojournalism awards, thereby sanctioning what is basically a military propaganda program as a news reporting method.

While those who dared to work outside the program – the ‘unilaterals’ in the Gulf War, or Al-Jazeera correspondents working the ‘other’ side, were harassed, fired upon and in many instances killed. We remember the attacks on the Al-Jazeera headquarters in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The necessity of ‘embedding’ was created by the promise of violence and threat if one did not. Today all reporters reporting our wars have learned this lesson well. In fact, being embedded has become the only way to report on any way, anywhere in the world, as militaries across the globe has seen the success with which the US military fended off criticism and critical examination of its war effort.

Michael Kamber is a talented reporter and a talented photographer. So my confusion stems from his rather short-sighted criticism of the military doing what it always said it would do. Their latest embed rules – see USF-I NEWS MEDIA GROUND RULES Jan 2010, have been in effect since January of 2010 and if you are signing these documents before you proceed, why complain about them later? More egregiously, if you are signing up to participate in a propaganda program, why pretend that you are working with the ethics and rules of a ‘free press’?

I respect photographers like Ashley Gilbertson and Chris Hondros who never allow you to believe that their sold their intelligence and eye to the program. Their work, despite the restrictions, suggests a resistance to the efforts of the propaganda machine. How well they succeed is hard to tell, but from their images and words you can see that they are trying.

Michael Kamber also points out the importance of creating a ‘full document’ of the war. But wouldn’t such a document, should it ever be produce, require the rigorous and honest documentation of the experiences of the Iraqi’s who resisted and continue to resist the American presence? Can a ‘full document’ of the war even be created by simply ‘embedding’ with one of the protagonists of the conflict?

I would think not.

Wikileaks has just released a large tranch of Iraqr files. The Iraq War Logs make for eye-opening reading, and a corrective one.  The New Yor Times has a full discussion about them as well (You have to admire the paper’s rich resources to put all this together so quickly!) Reading them one is struck by the brutality of military occupation, and the inhumanity that is necessary to maintain it. We already know this from Gaza and the West Bank, but it is obvious that the war that is presented to us on our TV screens and morning newspapers, is not the same war that is being reported from on the ground.  As Al-Jazeera points out, they make for some disturbing reading:

The new material throws light on the day-to-day horrors of the war. The military calls them SIGACTs – significant action reports – ground-level summaries of the events that punctuated the conflict: raids, searches, roadside bombings, arrests, and more. All of them are classified “secret”.

The reports reveal how torture was rampant and how ordinary civilians bore the brunt of the conflict.

The files record horrifying tales: of pregnant women being shot dead at checkpoints, of priests kidnapped and murdered, of Iraqi prison guards using electric drills to force their prisoners to confess.

Equally disturbing is the response of the military to the civilian deaths caused by its troops. Excessive use of force was routinely not investigated and the guilty were rarely brought to book.

This then starts to move us towards a fuller document of the war, but certainly most all of these issues mentioned above are beyond the ‘eye’ of the ‘embed’. All this is what is taking place beyond the ‘embed’ or against it. There will be many who will condemn the ‘leaks’, but these same people will fail to make the connection between the fact that these documents are being leaked, and the carefully stage-managed war in the first place. It is the ‘embed’ program that necessitates the leaks, for even in the US military, there are many who are aghast at the immorality and brutality of war and refuse to be a part of it. The tight controls of ‘embedding’, and the guarantee that such placement of reporters will not reveal anything remotely related to the nature of this war, is what has compelled individuals to take their careers and lives in their hands and ‘leak’ material. It is a reflection of the effectiveness, and efficiency of the ‘embed’ program itself.

Its crucial to see the ‘embed’ posture for what it is, and work with it. You can’t work against it, at least not literarily. You can adopt a cynical/ironic posture within it, as some have done. Perhaps that is our last defense in this matter. But to try to suggest that somehow one is doing journalism while working exclusively with one side of a conflict is naive and misleading. An embedded reporter reports what s/he is allowed and told to report. There is some room for chance and good fortune, as in all human affairs, for the script to be violated and the embedded journalist to see something the military did not want him/her to see. But these are exceptions to the rule, and rare, and getting rarer still.

In the end we made our choices. Even now there is no debate amongst American journalism about the validity of this program or the need to challenge it on the legal front. It has become the way of doing ‘journalism’. There is a larger issue here about the rules and operational posture of American reporters reporting on America’s wars. It’s an issue that has largely been ignored – not the least by so many awards being handed out to the ‘embedded’, and which I feel there is an urgent need to address. I believe, in my own infinite naivety, that we can still turn things around. That American media still has the wherewithall to change this situation, to start to take the control back from the military. Or at least show resistance to the program. Perhaps this is what Michael Kamber is trying to do – to finally start to speak back to the military. I hope so.

During the first Gulf War a group of journalists and smaller media organizations attempted to protest the US military’s ‘pool’ program. They decided to file a legal case against the Pentagon alleging that the pool program was a violation of the First Amendment Right to freedom of expression. No major media organization – print, broadcast of other, joined the action. The war was over by the time the courts could rule on the issue.

Soon thereafter, at a National Press Club forum on March 19th, 1991, Barry Zorthian, chief Pentagon public affairs spokesperson during the Vietnam war, gloated:

The Gulf War is over and the press lost.

Indeed. We are still losing.

UPDATE: Embedded New York Times photojournalist Joao Silva was severly wounded this morning while on patrol with American forces in Afghanistan. See Times Photographer Wounded In Afghanistan. It may produced limited journalism, but it remains dangerous and requires considerable personal risk to accompany any military unit to any front line. Nothing can change that fact. I don’t know Joao personally, but know his work and wish him well and a full recovery. As far as I can tell there are no details about his injuries or condition. Will keep an eye out for that.


The Insomniac Reads Books: Thoughts About Killing With Joy And Torturing With Pleasure

In Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography, The Daily Discussion on October 22, 2010 at 1:26 am

There is talk that many…[war]…films are anti-war, that the message is war is inhumane…but actualy,…war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep…but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton…and Lance Corporal Swofford at 29 Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, ticking his balls with a pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First Fuck. It doesn’t matter how many Mr. and Mrs Johnsons are antiwar – the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not.

From Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead

I would argue that so-called anti-war photography has failed as well. Of course we would not know that from the frequency with which it is celebrated, exhibited, awarded and worshipped. But as Swofford so brilliantly points out, those who celebrate it, or claim to be anti-war, are not doing the constant, endless, seemingly infinite killing. A killing that now consumes trillions of dollars of tax-payer’s money, and that seems to be the only thing in this devastating economic downturn that does not seem to be on the downturn.

But this is not about photography, nor about war. This evening my mind turns to the language, thoughts, arguments and justifications of those who may not be doing the fighting, but provide the intellectual and moral justifications for it. The pundits, intellectuals, academics, politicians, radio hosts, tv-anchors, mainstream journalists and of course the wine-party guests. They are the ones who not only grease the path to war, but then offer the verbal and intellectual balm to cover for its atrocities, brutalities, injustices and venality. The ideas manufactured through their writings, speeches, sound-bites, and polemics are the ideas that allow us to turn our eyes and mind away from the horrors being inflicted ‘in our name’ and for the ‘liberty and security’ of our nation.

Judith Butler’s work has been described as ‘…an assault on common sense, on the atrophy of thinking. It untangles not only how ideas compel us to action, but how unexamined action leaves us with unexamined ideas—and, then, disastrous politics.’ In front of me is a copy of her brilliant Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable a thought provoking analysis of the ability to feel compassion for another, and the terrible logic used to justify their killing.

Frames Of War By Judith Butler

Frames Of War By Judith Butler

Her thoughts take us back to the presumptions and prejudices that inform how we speak of ‘the other’ i.e how the language of war, violence, death and murder works so that we may not notice certain deaths and not grieve certain lives. As she states in an interview with Guernica magazine:

All I really have to say about life is that for it to be regarded as valuable, it has to first be regarded as grievable. A life that is in some sense socially dead or already “lost” cannot be grieved when it is actually destroyed. And I think we can see that entire populations are regarded as negligible life by warring powers, and so when they are destroyed, there is no great sense that a heinous act and egregious loss have taken place. My question is: how do we understand this nefarious distinction that gets set up between grievable and ungrievable lives?

This question has bewildered so many who wonder why their deaths are not grieved while others are obsessed about. On the very day we may remember the loss of the near 3000 killed in the 9/11 attacks, we remain indifferent to the hundreds of thousands we have quietly and without real protest allowed to be killed in our wars since that date. The book makes for poignant and disturbing reading, but it raises a question I think we most don’t want to examine i.e we are not moved by all suffering, nor are we aware or concerned about the killings and murders of civilians in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan. The question remains; why? I think it is a question worth asking ourselves, and Butler has some fascinating answers. Not the least are observations such as this, again from the same interview in Guernica:

I do worry about those instances in which public mourning is explicitly proscribed, and that invariably happens in the context of war. I think there were ways, for instance, of producing icons of those who were killed in the 9/11 attacks in such a way that the desire for revenge and vindication was stoked. So we have to distinguish between modes of mourning that actually extend our ideas about equality, and those that produce differentials, such as “this population is worth protecting” and “this population deserves to die.”

Another book that I happen to have in front of me is a bit more esoteric, but is perhaps one of the better studies of how intellectuals can surrender their morality, sense of justice in the face of patriotism, xenophobia, nationalism and simple jingoism – something that we have seen aplenty of in the aftermath of 9/11. This is by James D. Le Seuer and is called Uncivil War: Intellectuals And Identity Politics During the Decolonization Of Algeria

Uncivil War By James D. Le Sueur

Uncivil War By James D. Le Sueur

What is most fascinating about this book is its discussion about torture, and the various justifications offered for the practice by the likes of Albert Camus. We have our own Camus’ in the USA who have justified the use of torture and repeated offered arguments in support for it. As a nation that is now in clear violation of international law, a nation that indulges in practices that are explicitly and clearly torture and whose top leadership has sanctioned this practice, we would do well to understand the consequences and implications. In particular, as this book explores, how language and law are tortured to justify torture, and how the practice of torture, as Mark Dannar so wonderfully put it:

The use of torture deprives the society whose laws have been so egregiously violated of the possibility of rendering justice. Torture destroys justice.

Too many of our ‘finest’ lost their moral compass within moments of the 9/11 attacks. As Pankaj Mishra pointed out in an essay titled Indians are baffled by the paranoia and prejudice of European liberals that the retreat of our intellectuals into the closet of bigotry and simplistic if not outright untenable ethnic allegiances to justify unjust and immoral practices is shocking:

The scale of political-religious violence in India dwarfs anything suffered by western Europe in the postwar era. Yet India’s unique liberal tradition, which respects minority identity and community belonging, remains central in the country’s intellectual life. Indian economists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, novelists and journalists are deeply divided on many political and economic issues. But, apart from a minuscule few, they remain wedded to India’s founding vision of pluralism.

Not surprisingly, these postcolonial Indians are bewildered to see liberal politicians and intellectuals in Europe embrace a majoritarian nationalism, recoiling from what, by Indian standards, seems a very limited experience of social diversity and political extremism. Acts of terrorism in the post-9/11 period have shocked many Europeans into a new awareness of an alienated minority group in their midst. It is clear that recklessly globalising capital and technology, and the failed modernisation of much of the formerly colonial world – of which religious extremism and migration are consequences – pose daunting challenges to European societies. But instead of facing them squarely, many Europeans have retreated into old insecurities about Islam and Muslims.

And towards a carefully cleaved and circumcised idea of compassion, justice, and humanity.

Time to read some books. Time to develop some new thoughts.