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Fifty Shades of Contemporary War

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The photographic record of the ruins of contemporary war are everywhere to be seen. Buildings once cast as monuments to modernization destroyed in the blink of an eye, homes completely devastated as if hit by a tornado, dead bodies strewn amongst the debris of what was once thought to be civilization, and much, much more. We have written about it previously under the sign of “rubble world” (here in 2008 and here in 2012).” And truth to tell, even now in 2015 it doesn’t seem like it is getting much better.

The photograph above is from Debaltseve in the Ukraine. According to the caption “an elderly woman collects water from a puddle” and then goes on to detail the “particularly intense” fighting that is going on in and around the city. Of course the fighting is not immediately present in the photograph, but what we see might be more demoralizing for that very fact as what we are witnessing is not the death of individuals (which is tragic enough and in its own right) or the demolition of buildings (which can and in all likelihood will be rebuilt by whatever regime takes over), but the utter destruction of civil society. The surrounding buildings mark a modern society, as does the road on which the woman stands; but for all of that she apparently has no water running in her home and so she is reduced to scooping what she can from the ice melting on the street. The garbage strewn around her makes it clear that this is not without its risks, but the will to survive is strong and one cannot live without water; so she does what she can. And when winter gives way to spring and summer and the ice is gone, who knows what she will do.

War’s horrors and tragedy comes in many shades, but as this photograph testifies its effects ripple throughout a society at the most fundamental levels, their most devastating effects implicated by the day-to-day demands on subsistence that stand as a constant challenge to the human spirit and make it hard to imagine the reconstruction of a vibrant and colorful society. The color cast of the scene in this photograph is grey and dreary, and it seems to offer little hope for the future—indeed, multiple shades of grey give little respite, but then this isn’t a movie in a fictional world.  That said, what the photograph may well be showing us is the future—or at least one possible future—that could well test the limits of human resilience.

Photo Credit: Sergey Polezhaka/Reuters

 

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Masking the Solitude of Self

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The “signature injury” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). According to the DOD, and by the very most conservative of estimates, nearly a quarter million U.S. military personnel have been diagnosed with TBI since 2001. Typically caused by close proximity to a “blast event” generated by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), there are “no known” ways to “prevent it”—there is no body armor that can protect the brain from the successive waves of the blast—and there are no known cures for its array of effects, including “headaches, seizures, motor disorders, sleep disorders, dizziness, visual disturbances, ringing in the ears, mood changes, and cognitive memory and speech difficulties.” And, of course, it is no stretch to imagine that it is connected in some measure with the near epidemic of suicides among soldiers and veterans in recent times.

What makes the injury especially tragic is that unlike war injuries that visually maim the body, TBI is an altogether invisible wound. A victim of TBI can look as ordinary and able as the average person you are likely to meet on any given day, the pain and disorientation that they experience a wholly internal private affair. And as with the horror of combat more generally, the injury exacerbates the effects of a kind of psychic aphasia that makes it impossible to express their feelings. At the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, victims of TBI are encouraged to create masks that put a face on their injuries and thus to give some voice to what they are experiencing.

The photograph above is of Marine Cpl. Chris McNair (Ret.), injured in Afghanistan in 2012. His mask is modeled after the “muzzle” that he came across in a photograph of Hannibal Lecter that he found on the internet. “That’s who I was,” he notes. “I had this muzzle on with all these wounds and I couldn’t tell anybody about them. I couldn’t express myself.” The analogy to Lecter is telling in two different senses. On the one hand, Lecter is a fictional character who displays refined culture and civility, and yet is capable of somewhat unpredictable outbursts of extreme violence making him incredibly dangerous … much like many of the victims of TBI. On the other hand, Lecter has been muzzled so as to protect us from his anti-social transgressions … much as we have created a public discourse that “muzzles” the wounded warrior as a pitiable survivor—”there but for the grace of God go I”—whose pain and injury we view from a distance but which we really don’t want to get too close to.

The photograph above is especially revealing in this last regard, for it underscores how isolated the wounded warrior is as a singular individual, marking his pain and his struggle as altogether alienated and private. Clothed impeccably in his dress blue uniform, his campaign medals on display, his brass buckle sparkling, he is the heroic warrior, but he sits alone on a swing on his front porch. He remains the soldier who sacrificed for his nation, but he must confront his pain and suffering by himself and in the most domestic of settings, wholly segregated from the public who sent him to war in the first place. While the mask purports to give voice to his inner pain, it also makes it possible for us to observe him (from a distance) without actually seeing him.

And therein lies the problem, for however well intentioned art therapy projects of this sort are—and I have no doubt that they are well intentioned—they also underscore the public stigma that we attach to the victims of such injuries, as well as the implicit assumption that the “cure” to their injuries is private and individual — more their personal burden to bear than a shared public trauma. Until we can find ways to overcome both the stigma and that assumption it will be nearly impossible for such victims—or for us as a nation—to every truly be healed.  And that may well be the biggest tragedy of the trauma of war.

Photo Credit: Lynn Johnson

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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Imag(in)ing the World Now and Then

 

D-Day Now

The scene could be a community beach front almost anywhere in the world. Cabanas set up for those who can afford them. Tents and umbrellas for others. White sand, small dunes, and blue sea for everyone—swimmers, sailors, and those who just want to sit and catch the breeze coming in off of water. Sun bathers intermixed with children, families coming and going. Soon, one can imagine, the sun will be down, the tide will be up, and only a very few will remain on the beach. A quiet, restful place, with only the rhythmic sound of the waves beating on the surf, lights perhaps shining from the windows in the buildings lining the beach as a reminder of a living community.

But for all of that, it is not just anywhere. It is Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, France. Seventy years ago this past week it was known as Juno Beach, one of the primary landing zones in the D-Day invasion. Taking this beach head was necessary to provide flanking support to the operations at Gold and Omaha beaches and to give the Allied forces a direct route to a German airfield near Caen. The beach was heavily fortified by two German battalions armed with over 500 machine guns plus numerous mortars, a defensive position enhanced by weather patterns that made it necessary for landing crafts to come as close to the fortifications as possible before releasing troops and equipment. The responsibility to take the beach head fell to the 3rd Canadian Infantry division, which suffered over 1,000 casualties by day’s end—the highest ratio of Allied casualties for anyone other than those landing at the more famous and costly Omaha and Utah beaches.

Photographs, of course, only mark a sliver of time—typically only a fraction of a second that frames the here and the now in stark and radical terms. One cannot know what happened moments (or months or years) before this photograph was snapped, let alone what might happen even seconds after the shutter has opened and closed. Temporal continuities with the past, let alone alternate future possibilities can only be surmised. Such limitations don’t mitigate the value of images, but instead only emphasize the need for us to be imaginative in how we understand the reality that they put on display. And too, it requires us to recognize the ways in which the historicity of an image operates in tension with what it was then (or it what it might be later). It is, in short, part of an archive that has to be curated and engaged.

And so here we have Juno Beach shortly after the D-Day invasion. A crashed fighter plane where families today luxuriate. The detritus of battle washed up against fortifications that protected Axis forces from the landing Allies. The appearance of a solitary ghost town cast in somber grey tones where today colorful commerce flourishes, marked by the flags of multiple nations.

-Day Then

This too, of course, was only a stark sliver in time. A scene of courage and fortitude, of death and destruction that can only remind us that what was before the lens when it clicked was there and then, even as it only framed a reality that could survive only in imagined memories.

Credit: Chris Helgren/Reuters; National Archieves of Canada (for other “before” and “after” pictures of the D-Day invasion click here.)

 

 

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Seeing and Being Seen Through the Eyes of Anja Niedringhaus: In Memorium

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I was saddened—and more, really, thoroughly distressed—to learn of the tragic death of photojournalist Anja Niedringhuas in Afghanistan’s Khost Province, murdered by a rogue Afghan police officer as she was preparing to photograph the upcoming elections in that country.  Her photography was a testament to what photojournalism at its best enables, which is not simply an objective view of the world, but a complex realism that acknowledges its reliance on a  capacious sense of imagination.  “Imagination” is not mere fancy—the mind at play with things it already knows—but rather a way of extraordinary seeing that allows us to project our sight beyond the horizon of ordinary observation or conventional belief.  Put differently, the photograph is always an indexical imitation of some part of  reality, but also a way of seeing that reality more extensively, whether as through the lens of a microscope or a telescope.

The photograph above is in many ways emblematic of Anja Niedringhaus’s considerable archive of photographs (e.g., see here, here, and here) from Afghanistan.  What makes it interesting for me is precisely how it puts seeing and being seen in tension with one another.  On the one hand we have a child playing as if she were an adult (no different in this regard than a young girl in the US trying to walk in her mother’s high heeled shoes), and thus being seen, and at the same time underscoring what it might mean to see from that perspective, one’s sight obscured by the screen that alters what can be seen. And indeed, the photograph shows the young girl adapting to the change in perspective as her hands frame what the screen in the burqa already limits and obscures.   The photograph below, shot at a separate moment in time, provides the reverse shot, focusing more on seeing than being seen.

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One could make much from these two photographs about how women are seen and what they are able or allowed to see in Islamic cultures, but there is a different point I want to emphasize here as these two photographs double for how the photograph as an optical medium itself works, always and already positioning us as those who see and those who are seen. And as the two photographs above demonstrate, seeing and being seen are not altogether innocent activities (think again of the young girl walking around in her mothers shoes), but are traversed by vectors of power and colonized by societies and their institutions.  And it is when the photograph accesses its capacity to energize the imagination in this capacity that it removes us from the world of simple questions of who, what, where, when, and why—all important questions, to be sure—and helps us to see questions of relevance, resonance, and engagement.  In short, they can help to pull us out of our ordinary indifference, and perhaps to challenge—or at least acknowledge—conventional wisdom or denial.  It shows us as “seeing” and “seen” subjects.

Anja Niedringhaus was a master at employing her art—and let there be no mistake, photojournalism is a public art— to display a more nuanced realism that prodded us to see the world in extraordinary ways and thus to imagine what it might mean to associate with others—to see and to be seen—in a more humane fashion.

RIP

Photo Credit: Anya Niedringhaus/AP Photo

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A Return to Normalcy (?)

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A sailor kissing a woman in public is not exactly news. But this photograph of a Russian sailor kissing a woman in St. Petersburg bears enough similarity to what is perhaps one of the most famous pictures in the American family photo album that it warrants just a little bit of consideration on our part.

Alfred Eisenstadt’s “Times Square Kiss”— often dubbed “Return to Normalcy”—marked VJ Day and the effective end of World War II.  Every ending is a beginning, of course, and so one might also imagine it as the beginning of the post war era which soon became known as the “Cold War” and extended until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The “War on Terror” has redefined our understanding of the East-West split in the intervening years and the Russian threat to the West has generally been muted by  its relatively weak economic condition and its willingness to cooperate on a number of small scale international initiatives. Muted, that is, until the Putin administration, which has demonstrated its willingness to resist entreaties from  the G8, NATO, and the United States on a range of issues beginning, not least, with the civil war in Syria.  And now with the Russian “occupation” of the Crimean peninsula and President Obama’s warning that this this will be seen as a serious threat to the US and the West, it is fair to say that we may be moving in a new and different direction in our mutual co-exsitence—and it is not entirely clear that we have an effective or useful vocabulary to describe the mentality that will govern this new relationship.  But back to the picture of the sailor and the woman kissing.

The photograph appeared in an on-line slide show on the Russian military that was posted two days before the Russian Parliament authorized a military takeover of the Crimea.  Most of the photographs in the slide show focus on members of the Russian military in training and, truth-to-tell, in many instances it would be difficult to distinguish what we see from training sequences in almost any modern military organization across the globe, including the US military. But there are also a number of photographs that mark the scene as distinctively Russian, and more, link Russia with the image of its authoritarian, anti-Western, Soviet past, including near iconic images of soldiers and tanks making their way through Moscow’s Red Square in a show of strength.  And then, near the middle of the slide show we find the picture of the kiss.  And one can only wonder what it is doing in a photo essay otherwise dedicated to posing the question: does the Russian military pose a threat to the West?  It could be an ironic gesture that serves to damper what else appears to be the projection of a hostile and belligerent nation state.  See, they are just like us, humans caught up in the worldly tensions between Eros and Thanatos, and we need to identify with them as such with all of their foibles intact.  Or, it could be a more cynical gesture to a “Return to Normalcy” where the war was “cold” and we could identify who our enemies were–after all, that’s not exactly Times Square in the background and the kissers are not exactly front and center.  Comedy or tragedy, its really a matter of what we choose to see.

Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted on the Sunday morning talk shows as indicating that the current situation “is not Rocky IV.”  We can only hope so, for it would be all too easy to “cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.”  We have had too much of that in recent years.  And so, to return to where we began, no, a sailor kissing in a woman in public is not exactly news.  But then again, perhaps that’s exactly the point.

Photo Credit: Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.

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The Shrouds of Kiev

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The Battle for Kiev is over, at least for now.  The President has been duly ousted by the Parliament, Independence Square is slowly being cleared of the barricades, and shrines to the dead are beginning to appear.  How many dead is hard to know, but numbers range from 70 to more than 100, with at least 500+ serious injuries on top of that number—and that is just among the protestors of the Yanukovich administration, there were deaths and injuries amongst government police as well.

Photographs of blood stained streets and shrouded dead bodies are prominent, made all the more distressing by virtue of the fact that much of the violence was perpetrated by the police against the citizens of a democratic society who, presumably, it was their job to protect.  Before we get too sanctimonious, however, we should recall that this is not the first time that democratic governments have turned their power and force tyrannically against their own citizenry, and with disastrous results.  One need only recall the use of guard dogs and water cannon in attacks against nonviolent civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama or the deaths of four students at the Kent State Massacre when student anti-war protestors were fired upon by the Ohio National Guard.

In many ways, the photograph above recalls the famous photograph of a young woman wailing in anger, pain, and grief in the in the midst of the Kent State killings.  But, of course, there are important differences.  In the Kent State photograph the woman is not only younger, but she is prominently situated at the middle of a public scene that recalls much of the action going on around her, and her expression is cast outward to others, as much a plea for help—or an expression of public outrage—as anything.  Here the photograph is closely cropped so that the woman fills the frame and her grief seems more inward, more personal than public.  Indeed, pain and grief seem to be the conspicuous emotions being invoked, not anger or outrage.  And more, she doesn’t seem to be calling out to anyone so much as absorbing and containing the pain within herself.  Notice how she covers her face in this regard, blocking out the scene that she cannot bring herself to witness.  And there is another difference as well.  The dead bodies that lie on the ground behind her are covered, barely recognizable as such; indeed, without being alerted by the caption one might fail to see  them altogether.   Contrast the veiling of bodies and emotions with the photograph of the Kent State Massacre where the young woman kneels next to the prostate body that lies prominent in front of her—and in front of us, always and forever an image of the costs and effects of a democracy turned tyrannous.

As one works their way through the many photographs of the dead in Kiev it is hard not to notice that almost all of the photographs of the dead are shrouded, with only small parts of their bodies exposed to view, a stomach here, a knee there.  In many ways this is as it should

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be as it indicates respect for the deceased and saves their families and friends from having to live forever with horrific images of their loved ones.   And yet, there is a cost here too, as it reifies the dead body, transforming it into an anonymous, collective entity that inadvertently denies all sense of personal identity and individual loss.  The image above is especially telling in this regard as the flag that drapes the bodies combines with the  helmet and flower to ritualize the deaths that are both signified and memorialized, revealing them as part of a national cause fought in the name of democracy—as they were—but at the same time veiling or erasing (or at the very least mitigating) the outrage that led to their individual sacrifice by covering the bodies.

There is perhaps no truly good way to represent such a situation, but that does not mean that we should ignore the implications of the choices of representation that we take, however conventional they might be.  The protestors who died in Independence Square were heroes, to be sure, but they were also individual citizens shot down and butchered by the very forces that should have been protecting them.  And that is not something that should ever get lost in the telling of—or seeing—the Battle of Kiev.

Credit:  Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters; Darko Bandic/AP

 

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And Life Goes On

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The Civil War in Syria rages on.  More than 100,000 have died by so-called “conventional means,” plus however many thousands more by chemical means.  Horrific images abound of bombs exploding, burned out buildings and vehicles aflame, child warriors, tortured and dead bodies, random limbs strewn about and more.  In some ways, however, the most disturbing images are not those that put the conflict on display in all of its goriest details, but rather those photographs that slip through to show a society that seems to have accommodated itself to the war as if it were a normal and ordinary event.

The photograph above is from the north of Syria near the Turkish border in the city of  Ras al-Ain.  According to the caption his living room has been “damaged” by an attack perpetrated by Kurdish militia and we see him rehanging a painting of Jesus Christ on his wall.  It would be easy to make a good deal out of the iconography of Jesus as we view this conflict from the Christian West, but there is a different and more subtle point to be made.  Buildings are “damaged” by storms and floods and earthquakes and fires; although there are exceptions, these are typically natural phenomenon over which humans have little if any control. Often they cannot be anticipated or predicted with any precision, and their main effects are primarily material and economic.  War, of course, is different.  No less physically disastrous than natural phenomena, its effects are as much psychic—if indeed not more so—as they are corporeal. Such psychic trauma is often difficult to see, marked usually in images of demonstrable grief or the now famous “thousand yard stare.” Or as in the image above, it can be altogether invisible, made to appear as part of the natural, ordinary business of cleaning up as if after a storm or an earthquake.  Yeah, sure, there was a mortar attack.  But now we just fix the windows, pick up the furniture, put the painting back on the wall and go about our day.

The point is driven home by the photograph below of a father and daughter making their way through the city of Aleppo on a cart. The caption says that they are in the process of

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migrating from the war torn city. The physical effects of the war are present everywhere, from the rubble that covers the alleyway to the burned out bus stacked on top of another vehicle in the background.  But what makes the photograph so potentially disturbing—horrifying even—is that no one seems to notice.  The father and daughter make their way through the city without any sense of distress or particular attention to the ruins that surround them.  Others go about their business as well, apparently unimpeded by the physical destruction.  It is just another day in Aleppo.  Indeed, the young girl seems more interested in the person taking the photograph than anything else in her environment, a sign no doubt that she has fully incorporated the apocalyptic state of war into her consciousness as an ordinary and everyday event barely worth paying attention to.  The caption underscores the point, noting that she is “blow[ing] a bubble” as if to signal that she really doesn’t have a care in the world.

The real horror of war may well be the way in which those in its midst are forced to assimilate to its damage and destruction as a function of the sheer everydayness of ordinary life.  The real horror of war, in other words, may well lie in the ways in which its effects are invisible to the naked eye.  And that is what photographs can often put on display.

Photo Credits: Ras al-Ain/Reuters; Karam al-Masric/AFP/Getty Images

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Museum Photography: Syria’s Lost Civilization

There is an art to taking photographs of artifacts or artworks in a museum.  Think of all the images you’ve seen in photography books or magazines or newspapers–and how you didn’t even think of the fact that they were photographs–or of how those snaps you took with your camera didn’t turn out so well.  It takes skill to put art into circulation.  Even so, there is little reason not to take it for granted, and in any case photography’s most important museum is found outside the gallery walls.

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a house in Deir al-Zor

But not necessarily outside.  This dark interior contains no light of its own, as if it were a cave.  The weak shaft of light seems to have to bend to get there, as if refracted along canyon walls before entering this animal’s den.  The animal seems to be human, although his shadow looks like a rat, and that feral insinuation might be closer to the truth of his circumstances.

The caption says, “A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position inside a house in Deir al-Zor.”  One could almost say, “what had been a house.”  The place seems to be returning to darkness, to an inchoate void that soon will absorb everything there.  Imagine how much has been lost already.  Walls that will have been decorated and echoed with conversation and laughter now are pockmarked from destructiveness.  What had been a table or chair now is the soldier’s stepladder.  What appears to be clothing and other domestic goods are piled on the floor, thrown perhaps because they couldn’t be taken to a refugee camp, or so they wouldn’t be in the way of the fighting.  Whatever the story, it’s one of lives being undone.

And so we get to the washing machine and the window.  Each is remarkably salient, each has a presence as if it were something uncanny, each is both where it is supposed to be and yet dramatically out of place.  In other words, each now has the properties of a work of art.  The machine stands there like a surrealist found object, a machine of domesticity framed as a thing in itself, or perhaps as a historical curio–say, a Soviet capsule intended to send a monkey into space.  Such options are far-fetched, but compare them with the impossibility of the washer simply being what it was: a banal part of ordinary life.

And that window!  Was it ever banal?  Perhaps there are many like it, and on close inspection it looks like a machined knockoff of merely decorative designs.  But still, it is at once beautiful and so vulnerable.  You can’t believe that any soldier on any side in this street fight is going to hesitate to shoot through it the second they see a target.  And such a shame, as the stained glass and abstract pattern resonate across art history, sacred and secular, from Gothic cathedrals to Islamic calligraphy to modern art.  Of course, it was just a nice window in someone’s house, admired occasionally and ignored much of the time, but that’s how a good society works.  When ordinary life is well above the level of living in a cave, it’s because ordinary things are continuous with so many fundamental achievements in art, science, government, and the other arts of civilization.

If a tank fires, the entire room will be obliterated.  At that point, all that will remain of these remarkable works of art will be the photograph.  I’ve said recently that photography can provide an archaeology of the present: the images that would remind us of how close we can be to becoming ruins.  We could also say that photography is creating a virtual museum: a vast, continuously unfolding gallery of those things that are already becoming part of the past.  Ordinary things that are becoming precious, useful things that are becoming junk, sentimental things that now can only be the set up for irony.

This is the best kind of museum photography, precisely because it is there to document lost civilizations that still have a chance of survival.  In Syria’s case, much already has been lost to the darkness.  There is still time, perhaps, to find a way peace and the restoration of something like a normal life for the millions currently suffering from the civil war.  What seems to be lacking is a sense of urgency.  Perhaps it might help to take a walk through photography’s museum.  Take another look, and ask yourself if any part of the present is as secure as it might seem.

Photograph by Khalil Ashawi/Reuters.

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Conventional Warfare

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Much happened while NCN was on hiatus for the past three weeks, but no story seemed to dominate the news more than the debate over what President Obama meant when he drew a “red line in the sand” concerning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, whether Congress would endorse a limited military strike against Syria in the wake of its alleged usage of chemical warfare against its own people in Damascus, and what role if any would Russia play in taking control of chemical weapons in Syria.  There can be no question that chemical weapons are a dastardly technology of mass destruction; that chemical warfare violates not only international law, but every standard of humane behavior; and that the very existence of chemical arsenals dedicated to warfare, let alone their usage, demands vigilant attention and appropriate response from all nations.  This much is true, I believe, but for all of that the recent and almost exclusive emphasis on illegal, non-conventional chemical warfare in Syria has diverted our attention from a different and equally profound problem.

The photograph above was taken on September 8, 2013, right in the midst of debates about what if any response the U.S. should have the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  It is of the Salah al-Din neighborhood in Aleppo.  The caption describes the buildings as “heavily damaged,” but that seems to be almost euphemistic, as they are virtually destroyed, the road between the buildings all but impassable, the sheets and bus in the center of the image described as providing “limited cover from sniper fire for those wishing to cross the street.”  And the key point, of course, is that none of this was caused by chemical weapons.  These buildings—this city, really, since this is only one of numerous such photographs—have been torn apart by one or another version of explosive ordnance or what we might call the weapons of conventional warfare. And not just these buildings or the physical infrastructure of this city, for as the caption underscores and the photograph illustrates, the very social fabric of the city as a site of commerce and social or civic interaction—simply walking across the street—has been equally torn asunder.

We should not—we must not—ignore the usage of chemical weapons.  But we also need to be careful that our sanctimony here does not inadvertently lead us to forget that the state of exception that somehow legitimizes conventional warfare is ultimately no less damaging, destructive, or demoralizing.  And whether that occurs as a result of civil strife, as in Syria, or as a result of occupation or invasion as elsewhere in the world, the effect is no less devastating; indeed, perhaps in the end it is truly no less humane.

Photo Credit:  Abo/Mhio/AFP/Getty Images

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