Kill Boxes: Facing the Legacy of US-Sponsored Torture, Indefinite Detention, and Drone Warfare (Punctum Books, 2017)
Reviewed by Anders Engberg-Pedersen
Anders Engberg-Pedersen’s work also appears in Issue 44(4) of boundary 2, “The Militarization of Knowledge.”
On March 11, 2005, The Washington Post reported on a newly minted secret military category: “ghost detainees.” In an agreement with the CIA, intelligence officials at the Abu Ghraib prison in Guantánamo had decided to hide a number of prisoners without registering them. It was suggested that they be fingerprinted and processed under an assumed name, but the intelligence officer in charge, Thomas M. Pappas, decided against it. Locked in isolation cells on Tier 1A in the facility without an internment number and without a paper trail, the detainees’ existence was officially denied. Not prisoners of war, nor simply a specimen of the contentious category “unlawful enemy combatants,” these prisoners, hovering between biological being and symbolic non-being, had been transformed into ghosts of war. The process was named with a novel linguistic creation in the English language: the verb “ghosting” – i.e. making someone disappear at a black site often with the intent of torturing them. In 2005, according to the Department of Defense, prisons in Iraq contained in the vicinity of 100 ghosts (White 2005).
Ghosting is merely one example of the spectral nature of 21st century warfare. The development of high tech weaponry, the intermingling of warfare and digital culture, and the continued interest in obscuring the actual nature and consequences of war have given rise to various forms of invisibility that pervade modern warfare. To see without being seen, to attack without being attacked, and to wage war without waging war have been guiding principles of the US military efforts summed up in the ‘war on terror.’ Drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan planned and carried out on military sites in Nevada and Florida have created such distance between enemies that traditional notions of what constitutes a soldier, an enemy, and war itself, have been put to the test. If, some two hundred years ago, military thinker Carl von Clausewitz sought to expand our understanding of war by theorizing elements such as friction, emotions, and uncertainty, his basic model of battle was an event clearly limited in time and space: During the Napoleonic wars a battle lasted a given number of days and was fought out in a confined geographical space. On these post-Westphalian warscapes, large armies would stage grand battles whose theatrical aspect did not elude Clausewitz. The theaters of war were just that, grand spectacles to be viewed as much as won.
Contemporary warfare is very different. Tracking targets from thousands of miles away for days, weeks, or months and completely removed from the zone of danger, drone operators stretch the Clausewitzian model of battle beyond its breaking point, just as they transform what it means to be a soldier and an enemy. While the enemy is rendered hypervisible, blind, and permanently vulnerable, the drone operator has become invisible, all-seeing, and beyond reach. With drone warfare the differences in the balance of military advantage have become nearly absolute.
As the practice of ghosting reveals, the invisibilities of contemporary warfare also include a recalibration of our common language. “Black sites,” “stealth torture,” “enhanced interrogration techniques” – all appelations reveal the elaborate linguistic camouflage meant to deflect the attention of civil society from the realities they obscure. If the ‘war on terror’ puts war on display in a strategic, but peculiar and self-contradictory use of the concept, a number of inventive and at times perverse circumlocutions are at work to ensure that contemporary warfare remains out of sight and out of mind.
This is where Elisabeth Weber’s new book intervenes. In an effort to jolt the public out of its carefully induced slumber, she has gathered five previously published essays and one new one that from different angles examine the subtle processes by which war is made invisible, in particular through distortions of language. Focusing on torture, detention, and drones, she proceeds from the premise that language itself constitutes a primary battleground and that language forms a central tool for the production of a series of strategic blind spots in the general public. Weber revisits a number of canonical literary authors and makes use of their reflections on torture and war to highlight the linguistic distortions that accompany 21st century warfare. Twisting the mistreated words back into shape she tries to bring the brutalities they designate clearly into view.
Of course, such an endeavor isn’t entirely new. In 1947 Victor Klemperer documenting the language practices of the National Socialists during the Third Reich in LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii, recording the euphemisms, circumlocutions and procedures of resignification that came to shape the language of an era. In more recent times Derrida in particular wrote important essays on torture and global warfare in response to the ‘war on terror’ before his death 2004. And in a series of books W. J. T. Mitchell has complemented the examination of the language of war with illuminating analyses of the images of war and their cunning détournements by various artistic projects. Weber quotes liberally from Derrida and Mitchell throughout the book, but she also extends their insights to new material.
Two of her essays examine literary censorship at the Guantánamo Bay Prison Camp. During their incarceration, some of the prisoners have written hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of poems. In 2007 a small selection of twenty-two poems was declassified and published in translation as Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak. The vast majority of the poems, however, remains under lock in a military facility in Virginia. The reason was reported in a Wall Street Journal front-page article shortly before the publication of the collection, viz. that “poetry presents a special risk, and DOD standards are not to approve the release of any poetry in its original form or language” (Dreazen 2007). Wary of secret messages hidden in the imagery, alliterations, personifications – the entire poetic dimension of language – the military refused to declassify the remaining body of literature. And because of their perceived threat to national security, the poems were translated by linguists with security clearances rather than by professional translators of poetry. Whether silenced or deformed, the Guantánamo poems make visible the degree to which fear of language and the attempt control language continue to be central elements of the war effort. As Weber rightly points out, “The silencing of legal justice goes hand in hand here with the silencing of literary justice.”
Weber’s close readings raise the larger question of method and purpose. For what is the task of the scholar and in particular the scholar with a background in literary and cultural studies living in a time of seemingly endless war? One approach would be to deploy the critical and hermeneutic apparatus of the humanities to contemporary representations of war in order to unearth the latent hypocrisies inherent to state-sponsored torture and indefinite detention. Another would be to historicize in the belief that history remains a magistra vitae and that the contemporary farce is the repetition of an instructive tragedy that can offer perspective and illumination. Weber does both, but she also combines the two approaches by way of a method of indirection. The first chapter juxtaposes the Austrian writer and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry with the recent history of US-sponsored torture, while the last chapter views drone warfare through the prism of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Many readers will probably find the connection between the scene in which Gregor Samsa is bombarded by his apple-throwing father and the victims of drone operators colloquially referred to as “bug splat” more than a tad imaginative.
The method of indirection does show its merit in the opening chapter, however.
As Weber explains, Améry’s testimony from 1966, translated as At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities not only claimed that torture was the essence of National Socialism. It also prefigured the practice of “ghosting” with its account of how human beings are transformed when they are subjected to torture. For Améry, who survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen, torture reduces it victims to pure flesh, rendering them into nothing but a thing writhing in pain. As he puts it, “flesh becomes a total reality in self-negation” (Weber 2017: 59). This complete transformation of the subject’s will, memories, desires, and emotions into a body in pain is, for Améry, the experience of death while still alive. Even after the torture ends, its victims inhabit an indeterminate zone between the living and the dead.
To give testimony to this experience, Améry has to reinvent the German language. Victims are “fleshifized,” and it is no longer they that scream, rather “it screams” – the grammar as distorted in German as in its English translation. To bear witness means twisting a grammar whose conventional order is incapable of depicting the experience of torture. In what is perhaps the book’s best chapter, Weber’s careful attention to the poetics of a testimony from 1966 serves as a useful counterpoint to the linguistic camouflage that pervades the official discourse on torture. As the old French term for torture “la question” reminds us, torture has long been intimately tied up with language, and it remains so today.
As so often with books compiled from individual essays, Kill Boxes suffers somewhat from both repetitions and gaps. It does, however, effectively summarize and add its own voice to recent critiques of US militarism. The guiding thread, as Weber frames it in the introduction, is the pursuit of “shocks of recognition” – be they in the images from Abu Ghraib or in the mute poetry from Guantánamo. Recognition, that is, of the torture performed by the “other” in the torture performed by oneself, as well as of common suffering and the shared vulnerability of the flesh. In her analyses of such shocks of recognition in the images and language of contemporary warfare, however, Weber’s descriptions often take the form not of a description of actual emotional responses but of an injunction: let us be shocked. As if the public has become inured to the uncomfortable truths that have flooded our news screens. In her often perceptive close readings of contemporary warfare, Weber knows that she is addressing an anaesthesized public whose sensorium has been blunted to such an extent that it no longer seems capable of experiencing the emotional state of shock. Weber must tell her readers that horrific images and testimonies are indeed horrifying. The condition that Walter Benjamin diagnosed about a hundred years ago after the First World War seems to have shifted. As he famously wrote: “Was it not evident that the people who returned from the field had fallen silent? that they were not richer in communicable experience, but poorer” (Benjamin 1977, 2:439). Today, paradoxically, it is less the soldiers who have lost the ability to narrate, than the public that has lost its ability to listen. Seventeen years into the ‘war on terror,’ the shock of war has gradually lost its force to engage let alone change the minds of a war weary nation. And with the world’s attention continuously hijacked by the histrionics of a tweeting US President, who has made shock into his preferred tactics of distraction, the public store of affect required for the experience of shock has been depleted. Weber’s exhortation to be shocked therefore reveals at once the limits of the affective strategies of persuasion she invokes, but also the importance of scholarly work like hers that make us cognizant of this state of public affairs and seeks new ways of interpretation and interpellation to make both visible and relevant the specters of war that ought to haunt society in the 21st century.
Benjamin, Walter. 1977. Gesammelte Schriften II, 2. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Dreazen, Yochi J. 2007. “The Prison Poets of Guantanamo Find a Publisher.” Wall Street Journal, June 20. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB118217520339739055
Weber, Elisabeth. 2017. Kill Boxes: Facing the Legacy of US-Sponsored Torture, Indefinite Detention, and Drone Warfare. Goleta, CA: Punctum Books.
White, Josh. 2005. “Army, CIA Agreed on ‘Ghost’ Prisoners.” Washington Post, March 11.