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<nettime> some thoughts
t byfield on Sun, 18 Apr 1999 00:33:41 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> some thoughts

i just spent the weekend making boring technical translation
changes to the english version of a 'catalog' for an exhibition
organized by the Hamburger Insitut fuer Sozialforschung,
_Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht, 1941 bis 1944_
(trans. _The German Army and Genocide: Crimes Against War
Prisoners, Jews, and Other Civilians 1941-1944_). for the most
part, this book consists of hundreds of minimally and meticulously
annotated pictures of, basically, corpses--actual corpses or
soon-to-be corpses. the corpses are doing what corpses do: hang,
sometimes alone, sometimes in lines of a dozen or more, often with
nice signs explaining who they are and what they did; if the
photographer was quick enough, they're swinging--their legs splay
apart, since tying them together made it too awkward to maneuver
them onto a truck or bench to be hanged; they sprawl in heaps that
are impossible to visually untangle--sometimes there are a few,
sometimes a hundred; they lie, often in a strangely confined
rigidity, in rows, sometimes a dozen, sometimes a hundred; they're
piled up, in wagons, in trucks, in freight cars, in yards, in
field, in forests, in trenches, in sandpits. and the soon-to-be
corpses are doing what soon-to-be corpses do under the
circumstances: waiting alone, waiting in line, waiting in masses,
kneeling, sitting, walking, standing in dozens or hundreds by
fences, patiently waiting to be shot or waiting while soldiers
loop a noose around their neck. of course, throughout these
pictures there are huge numbers of soldiers, as well, doing what
they did: guarding, counting, organizing, pushing, prodding,
looting, talking, looking, aiming, shooting, hanging.  what comes
through very clearly in these pictures is how much of this
particular war was curiously boring for everyone involved. in
between the no doubt exciting battles, most of this was a very
procedural affair; even the people who are about to die look
somehow bored, as though they have no way to make sense of what is
happening. how could they? how exactly do you make sense of the
fact that you're not exactly waiting, really, but lining up to

i've worked on a lot of books about this kind of warfare--the
histories, the theory, the practice. most of them have involved
the US military, which of course made very detailed studies of the
'antipartisan' warfare that erupted during world war two in the
'east'--and went on to refine and propagate it to other regimes
under various new names ('antiguerrilla,' 'unconventional,'
'counterinsurgency,' 'low-intensity conflict,' etc.) throughout
southeas asia, latin america, the middle east, vast swaths of
africa, oceania. there's an art to exterminating a village, it's a
very technical thing, you have to be really organized: there's a
body of knowledge involved in doing so, and over the past decades
growing numbers of people have mastered it. there are colleges and
camps where it's taught; there are curricula--manuals, textbooks,
films, and, now, i assume, multimedia materials that show what to
do and what not to do if one's goal is to exterminate people
actively and passively involved in and and around an armed
resistance movement. in the course of working on books about this
business, i ended up doing a fair amount of research, which was
always a very strange contrast: doing what one does in the dusty
neatness of archives and libraries, but reading about these
techniques, good and bad examples, and so on. at a certain point,
it got to be too much to deal with, though, and i decided i needed
a change. i came quite close to doing graduate work in forensic
anthropology, specifically, the meticulously boring job of
exhuming mass graves; it seemed like it'd be a pretty decent line
of work, as they go--not the happiest, certainly, but a
constructive thing, 'undisappearing' or 'reappearing' people,
figuring out who had killed them, returning their remains to their
families, laying the technical basis for trials or, more often,
better-informed amnesties. but for various reasons--the most
trivial among them that i have a weak stomach--i decided against
it. the prospect of, for example, figuring out that a mass of
skeletons were missing their legs because soldiers had herded
people into a building and grenaded or shot or burned them, then
returned later to cover it up only to find that the bodies were so
decomposed that the legs came right off--this isn't a happy
business. and that's just one kind of the amazing universe of
brutality that takes place in these situations; to do that kind of
work, one has to be aware of many, many more possibilities. it was
a good decision not to go into that racket, i think. and it's good
that other people are willing to do it.

it's been a while since i've dealt with the kind of material in
this catalog, and it'll be a while before i work on it
again--maybe never again.  it's really horrible stuff, just
numbing; and that much more so to be sharpening red pencils and
checking the translated captions for hundreds and hundreds of
these pictures. normally, editing is an interesting business with
a dreary side; but it's not so often that i find myself stopping
and crying over what i'm reading. but how else can one make sense
of these pictures? sure, there are the historiographical issues,
the wways in which theories emanating from the highest levels of
the german government were predicated on logistical assumptions
that fell apart on the eastern front, and how the exigencies of
supporting these armies radicalized the situation and turned these
speeches and documents into the daily techniques of thinning out
the number of mouths to be fed; and how these techniques filtered
back up through the bureaucracies of death, forcing them to
respond with diktats that would maintain a semblance of
organizational continuity across these networks. and it's
interesting as well to consider the ways in which the productivist
regimes that followed the war were, in a way, a continuation of
certain aspects of the war: the organization and distribution of
masses, the demarcation and development of resources sectors, the
rationalization of social and physical landscapes within various
frameworks of political and economic expansion and maximization.
there are lots of interesting things to think about in this
material. but 'interesting' isn't the first or last feeling these
pictures inspire. and, in fact, for all its fanatical detail, the
book is strangely silent: very eloquent, but from a certain point
of view there's not much elaboration to be done.

i started to write this with a particular thought in mind, which i
wrote a bit about before: whether it's appropriate to use the
language of world war two--'genocide,' 'concentration camps,' and
so on--in the context of the wars in serbia and kosova. i had said
that debating this point was silly, a form of classicism or
scholasticism, and i got some pretty strong (and some pretty weak)
responses, mostly offlist--and mostly from germany, btw. these
messages talked for the most part about the ways in which this
very heavy language serves to 'justify' NATO's actions, to
mobilize public opinion in favor of intervention, as a form of
pseudo-historical propaganda, and so on. 

from the relatively comfortable perspective of a city that wasn't
annihilated by world war two, and a population that 'won' the war,
these questions seem pretty asbtract: a sort of internal monologue
more concerned with meta-issues about contextualizing this war in
historical trends--or, alternatively, refusing to allow it to be
contextualized in specific ways that are a little too 'useful.'
certainly, one hears 'genocide' and 'concentration camp' tossed
around; but, frankly, i don't see it serving to motivate
widespread righteous support for the war effort. if anything, it
seems quite halfhearted, exhausted, irrelevant. it's inevitable
that, over time, this language would lose its force; through
fetishization and exactitude, or through overuse and sloppiness, it
doesn't matter, these words will lose old qualities and take on
new ones. like anything else, this process will be uneven: the
words will carry different meanings in new york, berlin, belgrade,
warsaw, saint petersburg--or maybe develop new, 'globalized' ones
in the media that span these terrains. but the notion that any one
perespctive among these is a 'first among equals' and transcends
the others in importance--well, it's very interesting to think
about the history of that kind of claim within these historical
frameworks, isn't it?

in any case, that too is a pretty academic debate, and the notion
that efforts to intervene on the level of rhetoric are relevant
is, i still think, pretty silly. a few days ago, several major US
news organizations sent a ltter of protest to the pentagon,
complaining that they were given more accurate information about
NATO's actions by the milosvic regime than by the pentagon. of
course, this problem itself can't be reported as 'news' in the
US--but the letter can. it's another circular debate,
circumscribed by the assumptions of a national culture: in this
case, that the US must be more 'free' than a media controlled by
the milosevic regime, and therefore that the pentagon must live up
to these national ideals. in deeply asymmetrical situations like
this, notions like 'propganda' and 'censorship' are very clunky,
because they cannot account for the meaning that a 'fact' will
have in one environment or another. that the milosevic rehgime is
broadcasting patriotic movies and omitting to mention its decade
of murder is relevant insofar as it has utterly misled the vast
mahjority of serbs into believing that their current sufferings
are related to nothing, or to lies--this is icing on the cake.
there's no necessary connection between NATO's attack on serbia
and serbia's attack on kosova--it may be predictable, butb there's
nothing mechanical about it. except, possibly, within the
mythological world that the milosevic regime has beaten into
serbian heads for a decade--just as most inhabitants of NATO
countries cannot see any clear connections (or lack thereof)
between the current war and the kurdish situations in turkey and
iraq, or the events in afghanistan, in rwanda, the list goes on
and on. one can parallel, compare, contrast, equate the current
events with others past and present, argue whether they're
fundamentally new or fundamentally old, sudden eruptions or
continuities; and it's good to do so. but, really, what's going on
is legitimately vile without these referential structures.  these
commentaries read a bit like the placards draped around the necks
of hanged corpses 'explaining' who they are and why they died.
they may be true, they may be false, they may be propaganda, they
may or may not further the destruction by fitting it neatly into a
mythologized worldview. but they don't change the fact of what
they're hanging on. so consider for a moment standing in an empty
field on the outskirts of a village whose inhabitants are now
suspended a few feet off the ground, swinging quietly in a chilly
spring breeze, some of them within arm's reach: and, if you will,
take a mental walk around this scene, look at their swollen ankles
and scuffed-up shoes. more than a few probable have stains on
their knees and maybe a bit of blood dripping from here and there.
to some people it matters very much who exactly each of these
people are and who exactly killed them and why. but there's a way
in which these details really shouldn't matter to most of us in
the face of the general fact of what was and is happening. and if
you don't belive me, try describing their faces. but please excuse
me for not wanting to hear your descriptions--i've seen enough
this weekend to last me for quite a while.


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