Archive For: Memory

Blood & Treasure Afghanistan: OUT, OUT, Damn Appendix!

— A Mostly Melodic Guide to Unanswered Afghanistan Questions —

Let’s All Sing: “We Don’t Need to Know What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, No, No, No, No!”

Our Musical Response to Those Irksome Burning SIGAR Questions

It is the job of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction[SIGAR] to report on how the USA has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in that long-suffering land.

And mispent a bloody enormous chunk of US taxpayer change, we’ve learned.

This, remarkably, because the energetic Congressionally-appointed SIGAR commissar John Sopko and his staff have proved a genuine pain in the ass to the normally utterly unaccountable US Department of Defense, American military, various corrupt private contractors, ineffective UN Agencies… and their political masters.

Missing guns, missing millions; more, much more, SIGAR reveals in its quarterly reports and other investigations. The US military is suffering terrible embarrassments report after report after report. How to address such problems? The new answer is clear as mud: stonewalling. The American commander in Afghanistan has suddenly classified all sorts of information [see the first page of Appendix E above], claiming that operational security is at risk. Example: we can’t be told the number of Afghan Government troops because … ah, the Taliban might decide to start a war?

Even the NY Times thinks this ridiculous… and if the “Gray Lady” moans, we know it must be well and truly off-the-scale WTF egregious!

Ridicule is what this stupidity and denial of our right to know of our government’s actions deserves: here is one wonderful response in a series of GIFs from Hayes Brown at Buzzfeed.

Taking off from that, we can also craft a musical response. A bit of online cabaret, if you will… so please scroll down for musical selections that lyrically address SIGAR questions that the US military warns are above our need-to-know paygrade as mere citizens. Have a glass of wine. Or a beer. Sing along if you like!

We ponder: will SIGAR be kept schtum? Tossed into the ashtray of history? Leaks will come, one expects. But with Obama’s war on whistleblowers still in full cry, expect that every device and every platform of anyone even remotely associated with SIGAR are now being monitored. You know who you are. So do they.


Any other tuneful suggestions? Please offer some of your own in the comments….

SIGAR Question:  “Please provide … information on Afghan National Army (ANA) strength as of December 29, 2014”

                      Musical response:  Darkness Stirs and Wakes Imagination 

“Music of the Night”

— Phantom of the Opera

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details on DOD-funded ANA infrastructure projects, including the cumulative number of projects completed to date and their total cost.”

Musical response: Build it up with sticks and stones, sticks and stones… 

“London Bridge Is Falling Down”

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details on U.S. efforts to equip the ANA using U.S. funds as of December 29, 2014″

Musical response:  Go on take the money and run

“Take the Money and Run”

— Steve Miller Band

SIGAR Question: “Please identify each type of aircraft in the [Afghan Air Force] inventory, the number of each; and of that number, the number not usable. Are there any aircraft purchased but not yet fielded?”

Musical response: You’ll never Never NEVER reach the sky…  

“Sky Pilot”

— Eric Burdon and the Animals

SIGAR Question:  “Please provide the status of the [Afghan National Security Forces’] medical/health care system as of December 29, 2014”

Musical response:  Tell me what you see, I hear their cries, Just say if it’s too late for me… 

Doctor My Eyes”

— Jackson Browne

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details on U.S. efforts to equip the [Afghan National Police] using U.S. funds, as of December 29, 2014, including total number and cost of weapons and weapons-related equipment procured and fielded to date”

Musical response:  She’s not a girl who misses much I need a fix cause I’m going down..

“Happiness is a Warm Gun”

— Beatles

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details of DOD/NATO-funded contracts to provide literacy training to the ANSF, including the cost of the contract(s) and estimated cost(s) to complete”

Musical response:  Don’t know much about history…  

“What a Wonderful World It Would Be”

— Sam Cook

Any Musical Conclusions? Well…. YES!!! 

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right….  

“Stuck in the Middle with You”

— Stealers Wheel

SIGAR questions answered? No, and the burgeoning American Security Apparat is committed 24/7 to keep it that way.

Every single day, every word you say, I’ll be watching you…

“Every Breath You Take”

— The Police

The likelihood that this repressive foolishness will bring change?

Says WHO ???… Won’t what???  


And lest we forget… dedicated to the leaders who were asleep on their watch as we were attacked, failed to finish one war so they could launch a pointless other, and are unrepentant for condemning generations to conflict….

You’re a Lying, Cheating Bully, and your friends are lowlife too; You wake up every morning, just wondering who to screw…

“Lying Cheating Bully” *

— Rene Meijer and Friends

* Transparency Moment:

A note from the musical selection jury: the final number, “Lying, Cheating, Bully”, was written by me with my down-home dirty Dutch country-music brother Rene Meijer, and is featured on our award-winning album, Dashboard Jesus. The lyric at first read “and your friends are assholes, too”. We changed that to “lowlife” so the song could be on radio. But the original still plays in my mind.

Folks have more than a few times asked if the song was written about Dick & Dubya. No. It was inspired by a very real but much lesser local reprobate.

But as my from-somewhere-faraway great-grandpappy might have said, had I ever met him:

“If the boot fits, stick it in!”


Memorialization & Narrative: “Conflict-Time-Photography” at the Tate Modern

                        Memorialization & Narrative:                             “ConflictŸ-TimeŸ-Photography” at the Tate Modern, London

“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Robert Capa’s oft-quoted maxim on conflict photography still shines as the diamond standard for most people shooting such images. Capa was certainly speaking to being physically very up close. His few surviving D-Day images, and his most famous [and contested] “Falling Soldier” photo of a Spanish Loyalist at the instant a bullet apparently felled him, testify to this.

So does most conflict photography that reaches wide audiences. It is typically of the “decisive moment”, often “viscerally visual”, intended to hit you in the guts and sometimes showing the same.

ConflictŸ-Time-ŸPhotography”, now on at the Tate Modern in London, offers a quite different approach. It is much more about how photographers can record memories of conflict—and craft narratives to embody them—than moments of violence themselves.

“From the seconds after a bomb is detonated to a former scene of battle years after a war has ended, this moving exhibition focuses on the passing of time,” the curators explain, its images “ordered according to how long after the event they were created from moments, days and weeks to decades later.”

Post the Decisive Moment

Nearly every image displayed distances us not only in time from acts of violence, but from its gory impact on living bodies. The first large photo is by Luc Delahaye: a broad and empty Afghan plain, smoke pluming at center just over a horizon of rising mountains. It is a powerful image. We know something has happened. Extreme violence has been visited on… an empty landscape, perhaps? Only in our imaginations may we conjure what such explosions would have done to people… were any there….

This separation from representation of the physical effects of violence on its victims and survivors runs through the exhibition. Even a copy of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 stunning and deeply discomfiting collection, WAR against WAR! [discussed here, with attendant horrific photos] is opened to one of the volume’s more innocuous images.

There are a few exceptions. Another Delahaye photo shows skeletal remains of people executed during the Spanish Civil War. Yet even these are literally bare bones, the cleanest of the long dead. There are no references to uses elsewhere of such bones; impressively formal ossuaries memorialize war and genocides from France to Cambodia to Rwanda. In other post-conflict areas, informal local memorials have been raised, as in Uganda in 1987 [see photo].

Something Happened Here

The preponderance of this exhibition’s images—and there are more than just photos—are thus recollections of conflict and its impact. A set of photos and models by Indre Serpytyte of houses in Lithuania once used as KGB interrogation centers depicts buildings whose “resolutely ordinary” appearance, she says, challenge us to recall them as “containers of memory” of the evils performed within. Here, as with some striking photos of Hiroshima, photography seems a therapeutic tool to help address individual and collective trauma of horrors past.

But some photos fail to convey clear connection to conflict. Landscapes and cityscapes [such as Berlin], utterly absent human form, seem to indicate little more than “conflict once happened here”. Jo Ratcliffe’s images in Angola’s capital Luanda signify nothing related to that country’s long, brutal—and now in memory for many receding—liberation struggle and ensuing civil war. They are interesting photos, but to Angola’s past conflicts essentially irrelevant—streets and markets and a rubbish tip like many in any number of developing countries where once there was war. Guatemala City, Kampala, Manila, I have seen, offer comparable scenes. Similarly, Stephen Shore’s closely observed lives of holocaust survivors in Ukraine tell us little save that [quite happily] these particular people are still alive. Their existence as witnessed in these photos is likely very much like their neighbors, who might also have suffered terribly the vicissitudes of World War II and the Soviet era.

Sophie Ritselhueber’s roomful of grand color prints offer varied perspectives of the scars and detritus of war in the Kuwaiti desert and better evidence of the impact of conflict. Also evocative are large and recent black and white prints of immense German fortifications in Normandy now tipped by time and tide onto beaches they were meant to defend; concrete memories that are quite literally disappearing, melting into the sea. And even more compelling are the exhibition’s closing photos, a set of images of places in France where during World War I soldiers were executed for desertion or perceived cowardice. From a series “Shot at Dawn” by Chloe Dewe Mathews, these moodily—dare we admit hauntingly?—capture the same time of day when those men were killed.

Iconic Faces of Fighters

Only a few fighters are on view. Very early on, one human face is prominent: Don McCullin’s rightly lauded 1968 iteration of the “two-thousand-yard stare”. It was made during a lull in intense urban combat in Hue, Vietnam.

The exhibition’s accompanying caption says such images are not possible today because of the system of “embedding” correspondents in military units. But they certainly are, for example this or this by the late Tim Hetherington while he and Sebastian Junger were embedded with US forces in Afghanistan. This sort of image embodies embedding’s intent to encourage emotional identification. It creates conditions for highly sympathetic portrayals of forces with which reporters are embedded; see Hetherington’s and Junger’s very human depiction of American fighters in the book War and their documentary Restrepo. Embedding’s core problem is that it limits correspondents’ intimate interaction to fighters on only one side of the conflict. But embedded reporters, unless censored, can also produce far less flattering images of the forces they travel with, as the late Chris Hondros did in Iraq.

Another of the exhibition’s rare combatants is found in Susan Meiselas’s 1979 photo of a Sandinista fighter launching a firebomb. It demonstrates how an image can be appropriated to support a particular memory and narrative of a conflict: this used as emblematic of heroic resistance, appearing In Nicaragua as graffiti, on t-shirts, as posters supporting Sandinista politicos—and sometimes elsewhere as an iconic and now decontextualized image much like the omnipresent “Che-chic”.

Meiselas’s photos certainly were close, in time and space, to the fight. It is the sort of reportage needed for news, supplying information that people require to reckon the conduct, costs, and consequences of current conflicts. Offering the public at least the opportunity to witness the impact of conflict is an immensely important public service, especially to citizens of democracies in whose name blood is spilt and treasure spent—even if some commentators despair of even terribly graphic images’ efficacy in averting future conflicts.

Look Back in Trauma

Robert Capa, and later Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, produced remarkable images of people engaged in or affected by violent conflict. Each died while getting [sorrowfully, too] close to intense but ephemeral moments of combat. But again, it is not the intent of “ConflictŸ-Time-ŸPhotography” curators Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian to show us this. The exhibition’s starting point is as the bang-bang of conflict photojournalism fades to echo. It opens with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, who said of the 23 years it took him to produce Slaughterhouse-Five, his novel about the 1945 firebombing of Dresden that he survived as a prisoner-of-war: “People are not supposed to look back.”

Yet we of course do. As Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim found, looking back on conflict can be deeply traumatizing—and this for journalists as much as anyone. And as an American Iraq combat veteran wrote in a new book on post-traumatic stress, “The war happened in collections of seconds, but the memories of it echoed forever.” The exhibition depicts this “forever”, processes through which a myriad of post-conflict photographers have sought to interpret past violence, reconstructing and recording memories, crafting new visual narratives and proximities of remembrance that shape our understanding of what, perhaps, happened. ###

Further reading:

A very useful slideshow and commentary from the Guardian.

Reviews from the Guardian, the FT, and Daily Telegraph.

Susan Sontag’s masterful 2002 essay “Looking At War”.


Addendum, 21 January 2015

The Archive of Modern Conflict

A side room to the exhibit reveals a quite separate and utterly different display by the privately-owned, London-based Archive of Modern Conflict [AMC]. One is greeted by series of 15-foot high photos of “warriors”, ranging from a very sepia 1920 Gold Coast [now Ghana] Horseman to a 1950 female member of the US Navy in fluoride bright dress whites. Inside is an ambitious—or perhaps just amiably ambiguous—mélange of photos and objects related to sundry conflicts. AMC says its exhibit “explores the psyche of conflict”. And like a psyche in conflict, it is all over the place. Eclectic is an understatement. Even eccentric, perhaps—and certainly, wonderfully, fascinating.

There is more than just a scent of the well-ordered anarchy of Oxford’s magnificent Pitt-Rivers Museum here. On the AMC books website, a few pages offered from the stand-alone catalogue of the AMC exhibition, A Guide for the Protection of the Public in Peacetimegive just a taste of its vast appetites. There are ephemera: a World War II flyer on how to use your “fat ration”; newspaper clippings; posters. There are interesting objects: a cabinet filled with 70-odd examples of horseshoes from the days of caissons and cavalry; a colorful New Guinea shield; a German stick hand grenade [presumably rendered  harmless, but guarded still by a sign imploring ‘Do Not Touch’!]. There are many photographs: early aerial reconnaissance photos of World War I trenches; a picture of Miss Naval Aviation 1957, Maureen O’Hara; an almost hidden Robert Capa showing US paratroops preparing to drop on Germany; facing each other across the room—perhaps suitably—portraits of Native American Lakota leaders Running Antelope and the less poetically-named Low Dog. Hugely, one wall is covered with a comic book poster of the Cuban Revolution. There is much, much more….

AMC proclaims it is presenting “the landscapes of war as viewed by those co-opted, blighted, disrupted, demented, excited, uplifted, corrupted, dumbfounded and unbalanced by its process.”

And overwhelmed, surely. I bet that would be about all of us. ###


Wall of Light

Since 11 September 2001, as a German, I have always felt irritated by the date ‘9/11’. Growing up in Germany, 9/11 signifies something different from the attacks on the New York skyline. Of course, and this is a no brainer, ‘9/11’ for us Europeans means 9 November, not 11 September. So, for me, ‘9/11’ denotes something completely different. Especially since 9 November has been such a fateful date in German history, connected to at least five important events: the execution of Robert Blum in 1848 (a leftist-liberal democratic leader whose death foreshadowed the failure of the German March Revolution); the end of the Prussian Monarchy in 1918 (and the all-too-bizarre, nearly simultaneous, declaration of both the Weimar Republic and the Free Socialist Republic in Berlin); the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich which saw the early emergence (and temporary downfall) of the early Nazi Party; the 1938 Reichskristallnacht (which saw the burning of Jewish property and synagogues); and the 1989 opening of the Berlin Wall.

Needless to say, I was only (and thankfully – in most of these cases) alive to experience one of these historic events. But maybe ‘experience’ is the wrong term here. I was thirteen in 1989, and growing up in Bad Krozingen in southwestern Germany, my family – unlike many others – had no relatives or friends in the GDR. There was no personal connection through which as a child I could have understood what was meant by ‘two Germanies’, ‘the Cold War’, the ‘Red Army’, let alone the images of cheerful citizens of the GDR crossing the border across the bridge at Bornholmer Strasse in Berlin on that fateful 9th November 1989. What I remember vividly though was that I was watching the news live on TV with my parents and sister and I recall seeing my parents cry. I remember that I did not understand why they were crying – and how strange it felt seeing them cry out of happiness. But I clearly sensed that something important was happening at the time.

25 years later, the Wall has disappeared for good. In fact, so keen on tearing down the Wall in its entirety (which – as I learned yesterday – was once over 155 kilometres long), any visitor to today’s Berlin will be hard pressed to still encounter the Wall anywhere. In fact, there are only two places left where the Wall still stands. But everywhere else, it is hard to spot, let alone imagine, where the Wall used to be. Some people say this is a good thing, but as times goes by, there are others who believe that it is a shame that this previous division has disappeared out of sight (and out of mind) altogether. I always belonged to that second group, though that’s perhaps an easy position to hold for someone who never had to live with or in proximity to the Wall.

Currently I am spending half a year at the Humboldt University in Berlin and I am renting a small apartment in the former Eastern part of the city, some three streets away from that famous bridge border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse. It was here where on 9 November 1989 the first border crossing opened and some 20,000 people poured into West Berlin within the first hour alone (including, amongst those first ones, a certain Angela Merkel). It was the beginning of the end of the GDR, it lead to German reunification, the end of Communism and the Cold War. It marked a local event which had global implications. And it is one that came about by non-violent means (something unique in German history). That is the reason, by the way, why 9 November 1989 was considered as the official public holiday; but because of the legacy of the Nazi Putsch and the Reichskristallnacht it was considered as inappropriate and therefore 3 October (marking the big peaceful ‘Monday Demonstration’ in Leipzig in 1989) became the official holiday of German unification.

25 years after the Wall came down, the city has become divided again – temporarily, from 7-9 November 2014: From Bornholmer Strasse to Mauerpark and the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse, past the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie to the East Side Gallery, a light installation featuring 8,000 luminous white balloons commemorated the division of Berlin.

The re-imagining of the Wall through this Wall of Lights (developed from an idea by Christopher Bauder and Marc Bauder) was accompanied by numerous exhibitions, events, and guided tours. And at 7pm on 9 November, thousands of patrons – schoolchildren, choir singers, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, witnesses – took their places beside their balloons along the 15-km-long stretch of the light installation, and affixed their personal message to the helium-filled balloon. As the climax of the event, they released the balloons into the air along the entire length of the installation – at the Brandenburg Gate, the Mauerpark, the East Side Gallery, and other locations. At the same time, the ‘Staatskapelle Berlin’, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, played the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the ‘Ode an die Freude’ (Ode of Joy) at the Brandenburg Gate.

Alongside hundreds of thousands, I spent significant time walking and cycling along this Wall of Light, at night and during the day. My aims were manyfold: Yes, I wanted to get a sense of where exactly the Wall had been. But I also wanted to see what visual and emotional reactions this would provoke in me – and in the people around me. And I wanted to try and capture this event visually, through film and photography. What struck me was the installation’s visual power to evoke the dimensions and brutality of the Wall. Built on 13 August 1961, the Wall went through the entire city, but not in a straight line. It literally meandered through Berlin with lots of twists and turns, alongside streets, through parks, between houses, over rivers, across railtracks and bridges. The course seemed erratic and chaotic and oftentimes cemented the division of the city, of Germany, of the global political system in ways that made me wonder. Why did the course of the Wall proceed along these exact lines? Why this one street and not the next? Why did it turn left here and not right? Why did it not go around this park instead of cutting across it? I don’t know the answers to this.

Alongside the Wall of Light, little info boxes told stories about eyewitnesses, about escape tunnels, about people being shot while trying to flee. They bring to life what normally cannot be seen and what has been grown or built over. But then there are other parts where you can clearly see that the Wall impacted on where entire rows of houses were built in the past, and where others had been torn down to make way for the Wall – here the invisible (and temporarily illuminated border) explains some of the city’s past and current geography.

But while visually evoking the brutality of the Wall, the 8,000 lights with their helium-filled balloons are stunningly beautiful. I marvelled in the aesthetics of them floating in one endless line of balloons, especially at night. They illuminate dark parks, go under and across bridges, up and down, left and right, and they generate a strange warm feeling inside me during these cold November nights. Oftentimes, they seem to criss-cross each other – and they make me walk or cycle along parts of the city I had never seen before. What must it have felt like living in one of these apartments looking from say (former Eastern suburb) Prenzlauerberg cross the Wall into (former Western suburb) Wedding with the Wall just two meters away from your balcony? And what must it have felt like living inside West Berlin – caged inside the Wall and playing football on one of those pitches right next to the Wall? And what must it have felt like to – as out of nothing – see this division disappear overnight?

I overhear a lot of conversations, older couples talking about their experiences; I hear a tour guide explaining to an English group of tourists what it was like back then. But most of all, I hear nothing. There is a wonderful quietness to this experience with people just walking at night and trying to take in the experience whilst having the occasional desire to try and articulate what they feel. It’s a nice thing to observe – and I guess it speaks to the power of this artistic project that it inspires in ways I find hard to describe.

For me, I have to also think beyond the immediate aesthetics and history of the Wall. How Berlin was one of many (but perhaps the most important) physical manifestations of the old Cold War world. It was here that the Soviet blockade of the city for several months in 1948/1949 lead to the American airlift; where the Cold War nearly turned hot when American and Soviet tanks faced each other at Checkpoint Charlie; where the Wall was built by a regime afraid of its own people leaving. Maybe it is because I was brought up with the knowledge that walls are brutal and therefore need to be brought down that I feel so irritated by seeing other countries building walls themselves – after 1989. And yes, I am thinking of the Israeli government, but I am also thinking of Cyprus, North Korea and the European Union. Along the Berlin Wall, those who helped citizens of the GDR escape are today celebrated as heroes whilst at the same time we look at those involved in helping refugees enter the EU as criminals. Can we compare these or are these entirely different issues?

But what ultimately hit me was the sense of wonder and amazement: that the fact that I can walk here and allow myself to be puzzles about all of this, to be inspired by these thousands of illuminated balloons, was brought about peacefully. It’s such a remarkable thing to accomplish and it drives home the power of non-violence – something that so often seems counter-intuitive to us humans. But it can work, and this illuminated Wall is proof of it. It shows, as Gene Sharp (one of the key contemporary thinkers on non-violence) has said: ‘The dictators are never as strong as they tell you they are. They have their weaknesses. And the people are never as weak as they think they are… they have great power because all governments are based on the cooperation and subordination of the citizens they rule.’ Governments are in power because people consent to their power. In the course of 1989, the citizens of the GDR withdrew their consent peacefully and the result was the collapse of the regime and of the bipolar division of the world. The real 11/9 stands for this message – and it’s a nice and important message for us humans at a time when the world seems to have taken an ever more violent turn.

Video edited by Sebastian Kaempf
Footage taken from


Wartorn Britain

In partnership with filmmaker Michael Bluett, The Vision Machine is excited to feature Wartorn Britain, a new short documentary film. Wartorn Britain examines present day British military culture through a series of careful and sincere vignettes that read the nation’s present self-understanding as a series of familiar echoes. Below is Bluett’s narrative of how the film came to be.


Why I Made this Film – by Michael Bluett
(Reprinted from Open Democracy)

Violence has always been my bread and butter from, when I was working with young homeless people in Blackpool facing violence from family, police, or each other, to working with human rights activists and survivors of war in military occupied territories like Papua in Indonesia. Violence was the reason I was there. What is it, this behaviour, this activity and why do we humans engage in it in so many different forms, and what’s more – why was I always attracted to it?

I found myself most fascinated by the military who are trained and legally sanctioned to do violence on our behalf. Naively, I had believed soldiers would uphold the views of the politicians who sent them there and I had assumed their feelings and empathy for local civilians would be numbed by military service.

I was surprised to find how critically they reflected on their role. I feel their mixed emotions were due to the face-to-face human situations they were in, where politically constructed discourses meet everyday human reality.

There is so much noise about the military and war; books, movies, TV news and public commemorations. In contrast, the responses of people, both civilians and soldiers who have been caught up in armed violence is often silence. War seems to be the most talked about of activities, and yet the least known.

I’ve been making films for the last 6 years on and off and I was interested in trying to capture the British military experience. I never really considered going to Afghanistan or Iraq, where the embedding process leaves little freedom to work, and visually filmmakers seem overwhelmed by the terrible thrill of war and violence.

But I saw my opportunity when I returned home to Britain. I had left the UK to work overseas in 2003 just after the invasion of Iraq, and it still loomed large in my memory of what Britain was. I decided to search out British soldiers who had been part of the Iraq war, to see what they said and didn’t say about that war, and whether that violence still played a part in their everyday lives 10 years on, and if so how.

I began my research and my film where I grew up, in Blackpool – that icon of the British national imagination. I knew young Blackpool men and women commonly joined the military, but I didn’t realise that the connection between this tourist town and military commemoration went so much deeper; with military reunions from across the north west and Scotland regularly held here and many public events for both commemoration and entertainment.

In particular, the government’s new Armed Forces Day has been wholeheartedly embraced in ‘don’t do it by halves’ Blackpool, and renamed Armed Forces Week. It regularly sees over 50,000 visitors.

During the first Armed Forces Day, an empty town centre shop was turned into a visitor information point, and quickly became inundated with requests for help from veterans. It has now become a permanent veterans museum cum gift shop cum welfare centre.

As my research with the veterans progressed, I realised that it was futile to focus on one ‘war’ such as Iraq. I was coming across veterans who had served in all of Britain’s post-imperial spaces, from Borneo to Belfast to Baghdad, and all of them were being personally remembered right here in Blackpool. The veterans I met embody Britain’s unending military actions and our propensity for opting for military intervention, an option we are discussing again this week as conflict mounts in Iraq. To try and reflect this continuity of war and violence, the film I made in the end tinkers with notions of time and place. Archive footage of civilians watching the British Indian Army enter Baghdad in 1917 merges with British Army patrols in 2004 at street checkpoints frisking Iraqi drivers and passengers.

Gradually my film became a portrait of one veteran of the Iraq war, Darren, juxtaposed with past and current public memorials. Now home in Blackpool for over 7 years, we see how he locates his experiences of violence and follow him through intimate settings with family and friends, as well as public settings, where veterans and the military are honoured and celebrated.

These scenes show the tension between personal and collective remembering, forgetting and the denial of state violence. An individual may identify with a dominant collective narrative of war and violence, particularly constructions of the enemy, the violent ‘other’. At the same time, that individual has their own personal experiences which both support and contradict this.

Human interrelationships formed and deformed by violence are reimagined with fear, remorse, hate or love on a human level. To capture this in the film I tried to leave all judgments and assumptions behind to build a relationship with this and other veterans. In doing this, I found that what developed was friendship, which came as the biggest surprise to me and Darren, who said this when I asked him for a quote for this article;

“Working on this film made me open up in ways I didn’t realise. The finished result was very humbling to watch and made me realise just how far I have come with my rehabilitation. One bonus about this film is a friendship that has been formed by two people from totally different ends of the spectrum. I now consider Mike a true friend in every sense of the word..Thanks mate…”

Judgments and assumptions are an essential ingredient in the creation of fear and hatred, and when we leave them behind there are opportunities for friendship and love.

Throughout the making of the film I came to see how we are all busy creating monsters, spreading fear and hate to turn someone or something into a monster. On any given day this may be Saddam Hussein, the Germans, Muslims or the Irish. For some, including sometimes myself, British soldiers were the ones to fear and hate and turn into our monsters.

I found this quote by Nietzsche which succintly describes where hate and fear lead: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” When we allow fear and hate to shape our opinions and our lives, that is what happens, which is why, as Les Back, the sociologist, says, “We need to find ways to repair the harm that hate and fear inflict on our ability to see, hear and understand.”

What I have realised is that we are usually none of us as tough as we think we are. We think we can be warriors, saviours, and end violence, but violence and the fear which produces it and the hate which fuels it are incredibly powerful. I hope love and understanding can be my guide, even when I am facing violence and hate.

Here are some lines from Homecoming, a poem written by my great uncle when he was a soldier in Mesopotamia in 1919, when the British Army occupied Mesopotamia and the borders of modern day Iraq were drawn up by European hands. I only found out about this and a relatively uncommemorated bit of history, speaking to my own family during the filming of Wartorn Britain:

“I saw arid plains where once great cities grew
like Nineveh and Ur
and thought I knew
my world
and my emotions too”


If you would like to organise your own screening of Wartorn Britain, please get in touch with Michael at


Reimagining Communities: Opening up History to the Memory of Others

By Jean-Louis Durand and Sebastian Kaempf; filmed & edited by Julia Schmitz

Modern nation-states cherish their history. It is a constitutive element of the national collective self-concept that has been used to educate successive generations about the frontiers of the national community, its worth, its values, its place vis-à-vis others, and the trauma and glories that the country had to traverse and that together make it a unique and proud place. Few, if any, instruments shape a nation’s psyche and consciousness more powerfully than the material used in schools. As a consequence, the practice and teaching of history is a foundation stone of national identity and one of the poles of nationalism. As teaching materials, history textbooks are deeply anchored in national traditions that are ultimately used to legitimise the rationale of the nation-state. Their pedagogical vocation makes them constitutive of the national and cultural identity of new generations, and as such they constitute ‘sources of collective memory’ and can thus be read as ‘autobiographies of nation-states’.

What this means is that the writing of history is a highly political process and in order to understand the writing of a particular history properly, it is necessary to engage in political reflection. At least since the early 19th century, history textbooks have been found at the centre of political conflicts about ‘memory’, both internally in national debates and internationally when two countries dispute mutually opposed versions of history. Often, school textbooks present a version of history in total contradiction of a neighbour’s version, for example Japan and South Korea or China, India and Pakistan, West Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the United States (US) and the Soviet Union, or Israel and Palestine. As such, selecting what to include in history textbooks remains an important political stake. It is here where images of the Other are formed, communicated, and oftentimes cemented. This certainly has been the case in France and Germany, the two historical ‘hereditary enemies’ who between 1871 and 1945 fought tree major and catastrophic wars.

And yet, there comes a time when transmitting the history of a national past fails the context of the political present. France and Germany have shared tortuous historical experiences, yet the two are at the forefront of an unprecedented pedagogical development: for the first time ever, two nation-states have created a common history textbook (called Histoire/Geschichte) that is used in their senior secondary schools. As such, each country, to borrow Ernst Gellner’s formula, has abandoned – qua this textbook – its monopoly of legitimate education. Histoire/Geschichte detaches history from its exclusive national past and introduces the learners to a post-national present. It speaks in a tone that is demanded by a different time and by the new conditions of peoples who are living in a common political space. And most importantly, it is designed to transform the image of the Other.

This article, written by Dr Jean-Louis Durand and Dr Sebastian Kaempf from The University of Queensland, reflects on the meaning and reach of this precedent by first analysing the explicit political and pedagogical explanations inherent to the book. It then identifies and investigates some of the less evident effects of the textbook relating to rethinking war and history, rethinking the monopoly of education, rethinking national identity, and to offering another path to rapprochement. The two authors, based as colleagues and friends at the University of Queensland in Australia, grew up about one hundred kilometers from one another across the French-German border (one in Alsace-Lorraine, the other in Baden-Wuerttemberg). They themselves have thereby experienced, at different times, the historic legacy as well as the change in Franco-German relations. From the first steps of rapprochement in the 1950s and 60s to the end of border controls across the River Rhine, both have participated in youth exchanges and the learning of each others’ language and perspective. In the process, they themselves were forced to re-evaluate their emotional and cultural predispositions. A choice had to be made: either to take refuge in the ‘comfort’ and ‘certainties’ of the original position and refuse to contemplate the validity of the alternative, or to venture into the unknown and there dare to see the new reality as it is contemplated through the eyes of the Other. In that sense, the authors today are the outgrowth of the dramatic and remarkable transformation of the shared history between France and Germany – which explains their shared academic interest in exploring the meaning and pedagogy when they found out about this next history textbook. The idea arose immediately to research and write about this book as it lies close to the heart of both authors.

To read the article:

Dr Jean-Louis Durand:

Dr Sebastian Kaempf:


Through Hyper-Tinted Spectacles

The Australian War Memorial is both shrine and museum, commemorating Australians who died in war. Its collection, used by a range of researchers from broadcast industry to non-profit bodies, includes over 5000 films, such as newsreels, government productions, and amateur films.  Film curators acquire contemporary and 20th century material, thus keeping one foot in the past, another in the present, and an eye to the future. The use of film collections in contemporary contexts is of increasing interest to the film curator.

In Their Footsteps (ITF) was a ten part series broadcast on Australian commercial television in 2011.  Although presented as a documentary, its format resembled that of a reality television program. In the words of its executive producer, it intended to “shine a new light on Australia’s war time history… make the past come alive”, by engaging viewers with the war experience utilising adapted footage. Colourised both literally and figuratively, it reinforced the emotional impact of the content and the story.  Colour of War : The ANZACS  (CoW), was a three part documentary series broadcast on Australian commercial television in 2004. It’s name was its aim.  Using entirely original to the period colour film to depict Australian WW2  history, it promised a “very personal connection to the war experience”.  The Memorial provided film and advice to both productions.

When ITF first went to air, curatorial sensibilities were shaken by the featuring of, to archival eyes, garishly coloured newsreel footage.

Perhaps we should have been grateful that film was made accessible to thousands of viewers, whatever its colour.  However colourisation, good or bad, raises questions. ITF was produced at a time when the “memory boom”  – “a widespread fascination with activity about the past … connected to war” (Todman) was at its height.  One reviewer went so far to say that ITF was “an acknowledgement of national grief … paying tribute to those who underwent  devastating personal trauma”.  To what extent did the mediation of original footage contribute, and, does it matter?   As New Zealand documentary maker Gaylene Preston says: “I don’t think an audience cares how a story is told, so long as it is meaningful and truthful”.

Truthfulness is troublesome. Many think a documentary referencing home movies comes closest to delivering an objective, “truthful” text, while others wish to relax the perceived demarcation   between “objective” archive, and, the aesthetic work of the film maker, which demonstrates the film maker’s  subjective interpretation. However Bruzzi observes that even simple manipulations can distort the objective interpretation of seemingly “uncontaminated” amateur film, leading to contradictory interpretations. These two productions, sharing the aim of bringing history “to life”,  may be interrogated as to ways in which archival, particularly amateur footage, was adapted or contextualised for television. Was the inherent authenticity of the original material compromised?

Each ITF episode featured a normal (non-celebrity) person embarking on a “voyage of discovery”. Information about their war veteran relative is gradually revealed by relatives and historians they meet along the way, in archives and battlefields. This format offers the participant and viewers at home a “mystery” to be solved, and its tempo of sequenced multiple destinations, characteristic of reality shows, sustains viewers’ attention.

Participants rendezvous with informants and emote their responses; their reward is an emotionally cathartic end to the journey, resolving what has hitherto been a grievous familial memory.

In keeping with conventional documentary style, there is “a formal interpreter, whose confident narration suggests that the facts are knowable and their meaning understandable..” (Toplin, 1216).   The narrator is veteran actor Bryan Brown. His accent, familiar to Australian audiences, affirms a sense of national identity as he guides viewers on their parallel journey. Musical accompaniment is contemporary, such as the electronic music with strong percussive beat which accompanies official footage of armed forces on the march. This underscores the “now-ness” of the series, neutralising the anxiety that a prime time audience will be bored by historical documentary; as film maker Chris Marker said, “the word ‘documentary’ leaves a trail of sanctimonious boredom behind it” (Bruzzi).  ITF ‘s colourful handling of archival footage signals the blazing of a hyper-coloured trail.

Similarly, a variety of effects were applied to archival footage. Besides the “hyper” colouring, a vertiginous fish-eye lens was used on scenes from Kokoda! Front line – the original version won Australia its first Academy Award.  Other archival, often amateur footage, is presaged by a simulated film projector; “Picture Start” frames flash by, with the whirring sound of running film. Evoking the pre-digital age of home movie viewing, the viewer is alerted that the following visuals include period film; travelling back in time means making allowance for whatever technical failings it might have.

ITF aligned itself with the Memorial, official keepers of war history, to claim a foundation of trustworthiness from which its stated aim, “bring history to life”, can spring.  The on-camera presence of its curators lends credibility to the program, while the opening sequence features the Roll of Honour – bronze plaques listing Australia’s war dead, which reside in the Memorial.

Revealing personal history offers, as reviewer Graeme Blundell says, “a move from a sense of injustice and disorder to a kind of affirmation of some sort of benevolent moral order in the universe” – in other words, if not a happy ending, a satisfying one. After stories and tears, the family mystery –what did happen to Uncle Billy? – was solved.  On discovering that her uncle was executed by Japanese forces, Tracey, a participant in the series, speaks of her “burden and responsibility to keep going to get to the truth”. Following a tearful visit to his grave, she reports feeling “a sense of history .. its not a mystery any more, it’s a good history”.  In telling the tale of one WW2 casualty, ITF invites the viewer to feel their own family’s story could be told, perhaps establishing Preston’s “meaningful” story as a historical narrative, at a microcosmic level.

Colour of War was a “national interest” program , as described in a promotional blurb , ( for government sponsored body Film Australia, and jointly produced by commercial and government bodies. It was billed as utilising all original colour footage to “paint a vividly detailed picture “ of ANZAC forces from WW2 to the end of the Vietnam conflict.  Many previously unseen colour films, mostly of the WW2 period, accompany diary and letter extracts, allowing viewers “a very personal connection with war experience, both on the battlefield and on the home front”. CoW’s promotional assurance was that “In colour, shared history becomes even more intimate and involving.. powerful and moving”. It was screened at the 2005 International Documentary conference.   Its three 45 minute episodes were themed as : the commencement of WW2; war at home and abroad, and,  Korea and Vietnam.

Success of the series was staked in its complete dependence on original, authentically coloured film.  The footage was handled lightly; manipulations consisted mainly of close ups, slow-downs and colour grading. Lack of colourisation was its biggest selling point.  The voiceover opening the series intones: “The earliest known colour film of ANZAC Day….A  glimpse of a time, usually only seen in black and white.. The film has not been colourised. The colour is real”.

Like ITF the series was narrated by another steadfastly Australian actor, Russell Crowe, but as it was scored with period songs and incidental music, its sound scape invokes sombre reflectiveness and furthers the overall aim of connecting with the past.

Colour‘s power to signify authenticity was noted by one reviewer, who said “It takes a while to adjust to the colour footage, which seems so much associated with the era after World War II. But that is the strength of this series, that the soldiers, prisoners.. look so much like people who could be alive today” (Pryor).   Colour is integral to engendering trust in the content and a sense of “alive-ness”, which attracts viewers’ attention.  The ensuing engagement or investment by viewers is not dissimilar to that observed by curators of objects : “Appropriation [of authenticity] depends on the ability of people to establish relationships with objects and the networks of people and places they embody.. ” (Jones, 189).  However,  “there is always the question of whether the way [objects] are ..presented might undermine their very authenticity …”.  Might adaptions of film in-authenticate them, render them less trustworthy ?  In ITF’s case, the footage is used illustratively, as a “complement to other elements” (Bruzzi, 21). Therefore, authenticity is less important than visual spectacle; if the original footage was never bright turquoise, it doesn’t really matter.

Blundell’s response to episode one, “Its an acknowledgement of national grief..” (etc) would not be surprising if applied to a site or ceremony, but its application to a made- for- tv program  suggests that commemoration need not be a physically sited practice, it can be experienced virtually.  Scates observes that “the urge to commemorate is often deeply ahistorical”. The strong desire to connect with one’s origin drives genealogical research, and finds an ideal vehicle in ITF’s on-screen drama. It allows viewers to fantasise resolutions, and imagine their own potential part in national history.

This deeply personalised approach contrasts with Colour of War which, while inviting emotional engagement, does not portray individuals in microcosm. The voiceovers are directly related to archival footage or, if illustrative, do not focus on contemporary protagonists.  An example of achievement of audience engagement is in the Dunbar family’s home movie sequence. An actor reads a letter written from the Front by son Lindsay Dunbar, addressing each family member as they appear on screen. To see them thus addressed, particularly as the narrator intones that the author didn’t return, is emotionally provocative for the viewer. We don’t need to see footage of the young man dying; “banal images privilege the narration, pushing the viewer to fantasise the story being told” (Odin, 260).

This is a “ slippage common in historical documentaries” (Bruzzi, 33), whereby the literal scene depicting (for example) death is missing, but an emotional state relative to loss is evoked in the viewer by the strategic combination of visuals and narration. “…The viewer knows something that the filmmaker at the time did not know : what happens next. This hindsight – aspect of watching home [movies] changes its meaning. The viewer knows more than the image in itself can ever contain”. (Buckingham, 102)] In this case, as you watch their smiling faces, you know they are already dead.

Arising from non-official sources, home movies contain a “latent authority” with which “even the best…feature film or newsreel cannot compete” (Forgacs, 51).  Banal yet intimate, they draw the viewer into a past reality. “A home movie image possesses ..psychic force” (Odin, 261).  When viewing amateur footage,  “..viewers are inspired to reflect on past scenes from their own autobiographies..” (Moran, 140). ITF invited this reflection by personalising its format; archival footage and photographs visualise the “lost” relative, and, by featuring an ordinary person in each episode, ITF spotlights the Everyman. The home viewer assimilates the voyager’s story as their own, which is in keeping with ITF\’s goal of “keeping things real”. ITF uses less home movie footage than CoW but the shared aim, to invoke emotional engagement, is achieved in ITF by the personalisation of each episode and home movie effects, such as the simulated film projector, the seating of a participant before a film projection screen, all recreating the home movie mode.

ITF and CoW had a common aim: to produce a popular war documentary for television.  CoW promised a “personal connection” ,  and ITF promised to “shine a new light”  ITF self – consciously  coloured and affected footage to enhance its visual appeal, while for CoW, the “naturally” occurring colour of war-era home movies, was an advantage. The appeal of amateur footage, a non-biased, psychically forceful text, provided a meaningful viewing experience, coming almost directly from the archive to the viewer.  ITF incorporated a third party, the “voyager”, who invites the viewer to empathise and interpolate their own nostalgia or desires.  ITF rarely presented archival footage without special effects, while CoW not only respected but pointed out the original format. Whilst both programs sought emotional engagement, ITF invests in yearning, perceiving a need, in society at large, to connect with one’s military past and further, to resolve grievances of the past in a satisfying way. In such a scenario the authenticity of archive takes second place to the seemingly greater concern of psychological recognition and the subjective “truth” of feeling.

In any case, it’s comforting as a viewer to think that a satisfying conclusion, bringing contentment to all, is just around the next ad break.

Works Cited

Anderson, Steve.  History TV and Popular Memory.  In Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age, eds. Gary R Edgerton and Peter C. Rollins.  University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Bell, Martin. The Death of News. Media, War & Conflict, 1.2, 2008: 221-231.

Blundell, Graeme. First Watch: History Hits Home. The Australian. April 30, 2011.

Bruzzi, Stella. New Documentary: A Critical Introduction.  New York: Routledge Press, 2000.

Buckingham, David; Willett, Rebekah; Pini, Maria.  Home Truths?: Video Production and Domestic Life.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Elliot, Tim. Walking with the Brave. Sydney Morning Herald. May 5, 2011.

Ellsworth, Elizabeth. Media and the Un-Representable: The Brief Time of Audience as Witness to 9/11 – MIT3.  Television in Transition International Conference, Cambridge May, 2003.

Jones, Sian. Negotiating Authentic Objects and Authentic Selves, Beyond the Deconstruction of Authenticity. Journal of Material Culture, Vol. 15 (2) : 181-203.

Moran, James. There’s No Place Like Home Video.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

National Film and Sound Archive.  Colour of War promotional blurb.

Odin, Roger.  The Family Home Movie as Document. In Mining the Home Movie ed. Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia Zimmermann. University of California Press, 2008.

Preston, Gaylene. New Stories from Old Stuff. Lecture, National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, Australia, June 15, 2012.

Pryor, Lisa. The Colour of War – The Anzacs. Sydney Morning Herald. November 26, 2004.–The-Anzacs/2004/11/25/1101219668726.html?from=moreStories.

Scates, Bruce C.  Manufacturing Memory at Gallipoli. In War Memory & Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remembrance and Commemoration. Eds. Michael Keren and Holer H. Herwig.  McFarland and Co, 2009.

Stephens, John. Memory, Commemoration and the Meaning of a Suburban War Memorial.  Journal of Material Culture, 12, 2007: 241-260.

Todman, Dan.  The Ninetieth Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.  In War Memory & Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remembrance and Commemoration. Eds. Michael Keren and Holer H. Herwig.  McFarland and Co, 2009.

Toplin, Robert Brent. The Filmmaker as Historian.  American History Review, 93.5, 1988: 1210-1227.

West, Amy.  Making Television History: The Past made Present in Reality Television\’s Pioneer House. Screening the Past, 24, 2009.