Tag Archives: aerial bombardment

Finding Aleppo in a War-Torn World

The deep frustration at being able to map the Syrian civil war around Aleppo–combining the actual inability to map the factions in the conflict, and the actual unmappability of the deeply unsettling destabilization of civil society in the five-year civil war which is waged by outside actors, as much as by the Syrian government–has sapped confidence in the ability to negotiate a cease-fire or indeed to find a civil solution to a conflict that has both created an ongoing flow of refugees and destroyed civil society in the region, as well as an equilibrium of power.  And the more we are frustrated in being unable to map the conflict and its descent into inhumane violence, the more violent it has become and the farther removed from being able to exist again as a country.

 

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Any theater of war is extremely difficult to endow with coherence in a map–one speaks of the “fog of war” to describe the clouded experience in the confusion of military conflicts.  But the difficulty of gaining purchase on the extent of the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo that is particularly troubling–and troublingly matched by the difficulty of mapping or imagining the targeting of the city and Aleppo’s inhabitants and the refugees who have left the city.  The failure to describe, document, or respond to the costs in the sustained aerial bombardment in recent months seems an abdication of ethical responsibility before such escalated destruction that almost fails to acknowledge its scope.  The terror of aerial strikes against civilians have led to the targeted destruction of schools and hospitals in the rebel-occupied regions of the city hard to imagine, as a besieged city is isolated from the world.  While we don’t have access to the maps and plans that were used during the sustained engagement of rebel forces in Aleppo, and have rather watched screen-shots of the diminishing areas of the region “held” by “rebel forces” over months, those very images distance us from the human rights tragedies that is occurring on the ground with the dismantling of public health care and social institutions, as if extending so many false possibilities of the tenuous grasp over territory of opposition groups.  With unclear data on suffering, deaths, refugees or destroyed buildings in the encircled city, we map territory as the clearest index of the balance of war, but ignore the scale or scope of its ongoing bombardment and destruction, as the country has not only “gone dark”–

 

 

–but the city destroyed under unimaginable sustained assault.

 

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News wire sources have tried to “map” the extent of those lines areas held in the heavily bombed city, to be sure, in recent months.  But the absence of clear lines of jurisdiction or control of a battle that is increasingly waged from a move–but shown as if it were a land war–echoes the military divisions of cities in ways that seem incommensurate with the suffering or mischaracterization of the actors of the war, and the lack of limits with which the Assad regime has enlisted foreign help to destroy its former cultural capital and economic hub, as if trying to efface the opposition that it has for so long successfully tarred by their association to ISIS and the Islamic State–and as a media blitz has tried to portray the battle in Aleppo as a fight against ISIS rather than a defining moment in the escalation of military forces against one’s own people by Bashar al-Assad.

Even though the aerial attacks on Aleppo began as early as July 2012, the escalation of attacks by Russian bombers that began to target buildings and humanitarian supplies with intensity from July 2016.  While we were in the midst of the farce of our recent American Presidential election, we have watched maps of the Syrian conflict at an odd remove, depicting the city the city as a multi-colored sectored region, as if a point of stasis in slippy map of sovereignty, as much as a focal point where five different forces seem to lock horns.  The disservice of these opaque colors seem to erase and to be done such a deep disservice with Microsoft Paint.  And as we do so, we can only fail in an attempt to chart the intensification of suffering that is only like to increase in coming months, as the shrinking green lands held by rebel forces have depicted the so-called “situation in Syria” in increasingly disembodied fashion.

 

syria97410fps.gifThomas Van Linge/Newsweek/@arabthomness

 

As we watch the layers of colors, trying to map the levels of conflict from an empyrean remove that has echoed the official policy of not putting “boots on the ground,” we fail to account for the destruction of houses, massive departures of residents, targeting of humanitarian assistance and destroyed infrastructure and human services in the city.  The layers with which we discriminate a war-torn city set to conceal terrifying human costs in the rather terrifying palette of pastels in its curious camouflage, as if to hold out hope for an amicable solution, but to erase the destruction of civilian lives, hospitals, residences, or food and needs supplies that tried to arrive in the light green rebel-held areas of the city that suggest an island around the Citadel of Aleppo.

 

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For the limited information about Aleppo’s continued destruction by aerial attacks as well as bombardments makes the extent of the human costs its destruction increasingly difficult to render with coherence.  This absence of this coherence perhaps leadt some twenty-nine million to be struck by viewing the dazed five-year old Omran Daqneesh and the tragically bloodstained face from which he gazes somewhat stoically and looks at his bloodied hand–as if dazed to be transported from the scenario of violence in which he lived to what seems a setting of sanitized medical care, his blood-stained face contrasting to the clean orange cushions of an emergency ambulance.  The transferal of Omran from the battlefield like context of Aleppo to the emergency health care vehicle show him dazed not only at his change of context, but almost in shock of being in a controlled ambulance in which he sits, if a sign of hope, is also emblematic of the inability or difficulty to bridge the controlled context of medical and clinical care of the Emergency Medical Services and the rubble of the besieged city, almost the negative image of a controlled environment:  the image circulated by Aleppo Media Centre was emblematic of the dissonance between the emergency services and the onslaught of bombs where civilians are targeted daily amidst the rubble of the besieged city, so that the dazed look of poor Omran seems a substitute for our own helpless bewilderment at the war crime of the sustained aerial bombing of Aleppo’s buildings, health care providers, hospitals, and inhabitants.

 

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If the image is manipulative–and difficult to include in yet another post on Aleppo–its power seems to derive from the failure we feel between inability of the child who touches his hand to his head, to take stock of his head injury as he tries to process the loss of his family, after being carried by an emergency worker into the new setting of an ambulance.   The image was so poignant it was shared so widely all over the world on Facebook, as we searched collectively for an emblem of good, of one child rescued from the violence of Aleppo–as nine million Facebook users tried to transcend the broken windows, destroyed buildings, and slim hopes for the survival of Aleppo’s citizens, increasingly targeted in inhumane ways to which we are so unable to respond.

For if there is a lack of any coherent purchase on the city’s destruction on such an unprecedented scale of its bombardment, even for the Syrian Civil War, the saving of one child after his family was lost allowed the survival of a child to exist in the blood-streaked face of the five-year-old Omran Daqneesh that circulated globally on social media seemed finally to locate a “face of the Syrian Civil War” against the city’s dire destruction.  Indeed, the actual improvised settings of health care in eastern Aleppo–

 

624143740-graphic-content-wounded-syrians-are-seen-on-a-table-in_1-jpg-crop-promo-xlarge2Thaer Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images

 

–continued as bombs continued to strike the neighborhoods and where the living and dead lay beside one another in emergency rooms that lacked adequate medical supplies.  The absence of medical assistance or facilities, even as Bashar al Assad rejects the last proposal proposed by the United Nations for a local truce that recognized any claims to separate sovereignty of rebel forces, if it was not armed, arguing that it was a violation of “national sovereignty,” seems to have invited an endgame of increased military raids, as the “area held by rebel forces” has shrunk in recent days to a small region curving around the medieval fortified Citadel, sandwiched between advancing regime forces.

 

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The garishly bloodied face of Omran, the sole survivor of an air strike on his family home in Aleppo’s rebel -held territories, seemed a ghost, but served as a respite from images of the dead, and his transport to an ambulance from the horror of Aleppo seemed a promise of the future.  The image posted by the Aleppo Media Center provided little orientation to the actual struggle, but the apparent shock of the contrast of Omram’s evident transport, his face and T-shirt covered in dirt and blood, to safety offered more than a reprieve from image of dead children:  seated in an ambulance, fingering his bloodied head, his place provided a bizarre juxtaposition of a world of safety and medical supplies who had moved from the bombing of his family’s building in a war-torn city we can barely map.  The arrival of the child into a setting of Western safety almost seemed an image of the precareity of saving a child out of its destruction, and preserved an odd ability of hope even as airstrikes would soon hit four hospitals in east Aleppo, and continue to target civilians.

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Filed under Aleppo, data overlays, human rights, Syrian Civil War, Syrian Free Army

Bombed Out Landscapes over Time

When the Germain army declared, in April of 1942, as accelerating violence of global war brought the arrival of the British bombing of German towns, the wartime Nazi government boasted that they would use native maps in the public domain to destroy valued buildings in England with impunity. In blood-curdling claims that prefigure the American threat to violate international law by targeting of historical sights in Iran, the Teutonic boast that ‘We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide” suggests the slippage between German superiority in objective tourist maps once tied to educational formation to the superiority of airstrikes from the German Luftwaffe’s arial blitzkrieg.

The claim was well-known, but seems to conceal the quite loaded historical sense of superiority of reducing England to a site of ruins, akin to the ruins that Germans once studied so eagerly of the Roman Empire and Greece, prizing as guides to a lost world whose material traces they hoped to detect, and detect as some sort of prefiguration of the imperial destiny that they claimed as their own during the Third Reich. It would be a rehearsal of sorts for the carpet bombing of the Siege of Stalingrad, the late August 1942 air raids that left Vasily Grossman without words to describe it–“Everything burned down. Hot walls of buildings, like the bodies of people who have died in the terrible heat and not yet cooled down . . . miraculously standing–amid thousands of vast stone buildings now burnt down or half destroyed” as being to his yes “like Pompeii, caught by destruction in the fullness of life“–in the notebook he kept on entering the city. And amidst the flames of burning houses, as the bombs are dropped on Stalingrad, “It was no longer a matter of individual explosions; all space was now filled by a single dense, protracted sound” of th howls of bombs, air cloudy with white dust and smoke, the characters of his novel search for images of Pompeii, wondering if any one will remember them, the thunder of explosions and crack of anti-aircraft guns marking time against the howl of a bomb that grew in volume, altering one’s sense of time as “howling seconds, each composed of hundreds of infitintely long or entirely distinct fractions of seconds,” erased desire, memories, or “anything except the echoes of this blind iron howl.”

Whether referencing the obliteration of space by the Baedecker guides was a conceit of historical migration of empires or conflated cartographical superiority of touristic guides with the precision of aerial bombardment suggests the crossing of categories of bombarding civilian populations. The bliteration of clearly demarcated lines haunted Stalingrad’s bombardment included modern incendiary bombs, for Grossman, as tens of thousands of which small canisters that could tumble out of in containers of thirty-six filled the air with a distinct screeching unlike the whistles of high explosives, a screeching that echoed the screeching of the V-2 bombs that Thomas Pynchon employed as the arresting auditory perception of the first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow as “A screeching came across the sky”: the “new sound” that Grossman described in Stalingrad was unlike the whistle of hunters of high-explosive bombs, but “penetrated every living being [from the] hearts of those about to die [to the] hearts of those who survived–all hearts clenched in tight anguish,” so that “there was no one who did not hear it as they plunged into the city, rendering “building after building joined in a single blaze and whole burning streets fused into a single, living, moving wall . . . as if a new city of fire had appeared over Stalingrad,” introduced by the distinct sounds that follow the arrival of “planes coming from north, west, east and south [that] met over Stalingrad,” whose descent on the scientific “seemed to be the sky itself that was descending–sagging, as if under dark, heavy storm clouds, under the vast weight of metal and explosives.”

To register the new city rendered by daily destruction, lest the earlier city by lost, the London City Council undertook in a valiant act of cartographic preservation during the air attacks from September, 1940, just after the Germans had planned to invade Russia, to 1941, and amplified with the attacks of V-2 rockets by 1944, to ensure a level of destruction more sudden and more terrifying than the incendiary bombing of Stalingrad. The ways that the British Army mapped the destruction that V-2 rockets of terrifying precision were able to carve out of the city of London had been long lost, but the recovery of these map provides an eery echo of the historical models and precedents of civilian targeting of historical sites that haunts the contemporary world. For he scars of ethanol-fueled V-2 rockets that speedily struck wartime London seventy years ago are a good place as any to start to map the systematic bombing of civilian spaces.  As if mapping the liquid-fueled fantasies of destruction of Wernher von Braun, the V-1 and then, subsequently, V-2 bombs silently arrived to create a psychologically searing topography of death that transformed the city, immersing civilians to new topographies of fear.

The contemporary graphic tabulations of damages in recently published Bomb Damage Maps  orient one in chilling ways to the progress and degree of bombing wartime London in purples, violets, oranges, and light blue on London’s familiar plan.  The pastels are disarmingly tranquil if not placid in tenor, but seem to conceal within a Benjamin Moore-like in their variety, which seem to reveal a of destruction wonderfully measured concealment  resistance of a British culture of grim-faced exactitude to the horrific episode of wartime destruction, generations away from the bombardment of images of bombed out landscapes in Beirut, Syria, or so much of the Middle East and Libya today.  If these pencilled sketches seem oddly antiquated and removed, the poignant attempt to come to terms with the radically escalation of destruction in the  devastatingly regular tempo of accelerating bombardment that is known as the London Blitz–even if they cannot capture the panic, commotion, terrified screams or chaos, in the muted pastels in an aerial perspective that affirm the organic city that once existed in a still alive past.  

The images of community that they preserve in a time of the compacting of time and space stand in a bizarre psychological counterpoint to the terror of the Blitz, an attempt to maintain level-headedness perhaps in the methodical taking of stock of the sites that were apparently be turned into Baedekers of a future lost world. The bombs that clustered on London in the Blitz are not only preserved, but collated, in a stunning overpowering overlay that suggests a puncturing of space if not obliteration–in a collation of the sites of all German bombs dropped on London in the Blitz, September 1940-June 1941, courtesy “Bombsight“, embracing a massive repository of spatial information aggregating locations of all bombs dropped on the city.

The data is so overwhelming, of course, that the viewer is vertiginously unable to process the extent of detail it aggregates, in what might be better known as a Cartofail. The multiple maps that were made by the Bomb Damage Maps tend in the reverse: they preserve the underlying street network and sites of all buildings in the city, preserving a palimpsest that survives in the face of aerial bombardment that attempted to efface any sign of human habitation; the result is a valiant basis for the recreation of the future of London in a dark period, and a particularly healthy and plucky form of cartographic resistance, of sorts, running against the collapsing of time and space in a time of total war, by trying to retain and train attention on what exists in the city that can be preserved lest it be forgotten. In the face of total war, it is a resistance of exactitude.

The maps recall those colored glossy stars pasted, in the manner of pins, at the sites of explosions in London, which “cover the available spectrum” from silver to green, gold, red, blue, and  a surprising preponderance in certain areas of violets whose locations seem to coincide with bomb strikes, but are so  suspiciously marked with the names of women, the silver ones labelled “Darlene,” others Alice, Delores, Shirley, Sally, amidst  Carolines, Marias, Annes, Susans and Elizabeths.  The disjunction between names and places map the interior experience of Lt. Slothrop against the city that became a canvass of war, but the placid colorings of the map hues suggest a deeper disjunction between mapmaking and violence.

The maps capture an attempt to take measure of the scale of destruction, from black areas bombed out beyond repair to more lightly damaged areas in yellow, as if to process the unprecedented scale of disaster in the precision of the Ordnance Survey Maps. In ways that seemed to try to contain the violence of the bombs that killed over 9,000 by a coloring the sites that were hit by the daily assessment of bomb damages, Bomb Damage Charts drafted by the London City Council tried to process the daily destruction that took the toll of 9,000 in what Germans portrayed as revenge for allied bombers suggest an English tabulation of the ethanol-fueled violence, called as retribution for allied bombing of German cities, that revealed fingerprints of the fantasy of Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist who was driven by truly stratospheric aspirations to reach the moon.

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And they reflect, as such an attempt to map the devastation Thomas Pynchon so famously began Gravity’s Rainbow by suggesting the sudden arrival of an ethanol-fueled V-2 rocket that struck the zero Greenwich meridian around 1967, by describing a volley of ballistic missiles whose targeted strikes and explosions brought to life something like a new world, and a terrible one that is punctuated in a senseless sequence of devastating strikes.  And as Pynchon famously used the Matthausen testimonies to describe the horrors of the bombs’ production during the war by the remain side, the bomb damage maps would have provided powerful means to elaborate the destruction of the city came to map the fictionalized if troubled ever-idiosyncratic psyche of Tyrone Slothrop.  The rooftop observations of the arrival of V-2’s that arrive, arching short of the land and arriving on London, tracked by a group of Yanks, stationed at the Allied Clearing House, Technical Unites, Northern Germany (ACHTUNG), a paper warren filled with black typewriters that pose as grave markers, removed from the war but close to its violence.

As much as orient one to the destruction of bricks and mortar buildings, they suggest a way to complete the terrifying topographies of the wartime city, as familiar cityscapes suddenly vanished, taking human lives in a chaos difficult to psychologically sustain.  If Stephen Spender described how in “destroyed German towns one often feels haunted by the ghost of a tremendous noise” as it “is impossible not to imagine the rocking explosions, the hammering of the sky upon the earth, which must have caused all this,‟ evoking the inability to grasp or orient oneself to the ineffability of the sensory barrage of modern destruction with particular eloquence.  Pynchon was particularly attentive to transpose the complicated topographies of what were otherwise blank space by recourse to the “old Baedecker trick” not limited to that genre of travel books alone, but pillaging from WPA guides and other maps, in ways that make it more than likely that something like the Bomb Damage Maps provided a similar basis to orient his readers to imagining the new topography of war in which his characters sought to navigate as best they could, and the tourist maps of post-war London which rendered the continued effects of bombed out areas light green offered an effective palimpsest as any to recover the  psychological trauma of the destruction of the psychic network of place and society–

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–itself a mirror image to the German Schadenskarten created to document the parallel six years of trauma inflicted on cities in the Nazi state.

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Schadenskarte des Angriffes am 27. November 1944

1280px-Luftbild_Freiburg_1944.jpgStadtarchiv Freiburg, destruction of Freiburg sometime after or during Summer of 1945

Although the scale of destruction was more targeted and more limited in scale, the hundred and ten hand-colored Bomb Damage maps applied a six color palette to the Ordnance Survey maps in order to register the impact of bombs on the city, ranging from yellow noting mild damage a dire black denoting “total destruction,” which, even if they cannot capture the scale of the 29,890 victims killed in the raids and 50,507 suffering serious injuries, although their over-generous 1:2,500 scale allows one quite effectively to explore parts of the city’s neighborhoods and read the present configuration of individual blocks against the damage of older bombs–whose scale is partly captured in surviving photographs of Debris Survey and Disposal Service crews who explored ruined houses and buildings in plaster-dusted uniforms in the hope of seeking survivors.  The images of police constables Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs capture the broader effort of repair, reconstruction, and taking stock of a spate of local destruction as it occurred, and the need of the maps as a means to process the rapid arrival of rocket strikes in the not indiscriminate targeting commercial and residential London by unmanned rockets.

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Repair of evening coming of 1941 of Bank Underground Station

Assessing damage of Bank of England and Royal Exchange after London bombing raid of January 11, 1941, which created a crater of 1,800 sq feet–the largest in London

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Filed under London Blitz, military maps, Vietnam War, war crimes, World War II