As images from the most dangerous place on earth unroll across our screens daily, we recognise that the target is not the place’s humanity alone, but the land itself – which has to be rendered unliveable through acts that merge desecration with destruction
Published Date – 11:59 PM, Sat – 11 November 23
By Pramod K Nayar
Why bomb hospitals, refugee camps, schools, roads and other structures? What is gained by the destruction of these evidently non-militarised zones? The images in newsfeeds coming from the most terrifying place on earth right now are not only of horrific human losses but point to a war on landscape. Threats are issued that the ‘strip of land’ will be wiped off the face of the earth — and there is some truth in this threat, given what we see on a daily basis. Evidently, at stake is land and landscape — which to a certain group of people, is ‘home’.
Nations do not, the dramatist Antonin Artaud said, quarrel over land: they quarrel over meaning. And much of this contest over meaning and its consequences comes to us through war landscapes in poetry and art. But before getting to the art of war landscapes, let’s explore the contested terrain.
As cultural identity
During wars, the landscape becomes the point of contention, of advances and retreats, of territory lost and gained, and marked on maps with little sticks and pins. But for residents, it is more than a moving frontier.
The physical surroundings, geographical and geological entities, symbolic phenomena (where events/structures in the landscape are read as signs of divine presence, intervention, role, etc) and mental projections (of human hope, despair, fear) are the meanings of landscapes in cultures, as the critic Svend Erik Larsen has argued. This frame enables us to see what it is that makes landscape so central to humans (and we are not even beginning to speak of whatever is happening to livestock, animals and crops with continuous bombings).
The strip of land being fought over today is not just land. It is a domos, the cultural home of a people that have lived there for centuries, well before the making of a new state in the mid-20th century. The identity of this under-siege people emerges from their landscape. In other words, cultural identity is the result of the landscape and its expression in language, whether this is the language of poetry in Mahmoud Darwish or, as studies argue, concepts such as muqawama and sumud (resistance and steadfastness).
During war, or genocide, the landscape comes to be defined as something the Other has occupied and, therefore, needs to be reclaimed, by any and every means
Svend Erik Larsen also speaks of ‘guerilla landscapes’ where ‘indigenous people are of course oppressed, imprisoned in camps, reservations, homelands, or unspecified territories. But they possess an intimate knowledge of the place, which gives them a freedom of movement in spite of the oppression’. During wartime, the ‘landscape more than the war itself is the ultimate test of the boundaries and the solidity of identity’, he argues. In war propaganda, the territory being fought over is always that of the ‘barbarian’, the ‘alien’, the ‘terrorist’ — in short, it is that of the Other. The landscape itself begins to be defined as something the Other has occupied and which must be reclaimed, reconquered.
This is precisely what we see daily now: the attempt to sever the links of the residents from the landscape which, over a few decades, they had managed to render habitable. Images of partial buildings with iron girders sticking out of the earth like grotesque reminders of life that had once been lived in those buildings present a landscape that is unliveable-in. The landscape must be destroyed, fragmented beyond repair so that it will no longer host life – defined, of course, as aliens, intruders, terrorists and disposable people – ever again. This is the contested terrain, fought over, whose residents are labelled as ‘alien’ or ‘outsiders’. The purpose of war and genocide is to inscribe this land with new meanings.
Mahmoud Darwish captures this new meaning in his ‘Identity Card’, where after calling upon his captors to write down, ‘I am an Arab’, he asks them to record:
I have been robbed of my ancestral vines
And the piece of land I used to farm with all my children
Nothing remained for us and for my grandchildren
Except these rocks.
War, notionally at least, was conducted on a battlefield, for the purpose of gaining territory elsewhere. But, as Darwish indicates, the territory is the battlefield now because all landscape is the landscape of war. Every bit of land, agricultural, residential and commons, has been bombed, mutilated and its meaning erased. Nothing is left except for ruins, and any meaning the struggling survivors need to find must be within what was, not what is — ‘the rocks’ of Darwish’s poem.
War is the landscape, is life.
In the words of the anthropologist Munira Khayyat in A Landscape of War: Ecologies of Resistance and Survival in South Lebanon,
it is impossible to parse war and life; they are copresent, they coexist. In South Lebanon, war’s subjects, infrastructures, economies, technologies, geographies, and temporalities coalesce into ecologies of living in an agricultural borderland that is also a battlefield.
Khayyat notes that even among such people, we see evolving ‘the agency and life-making strategies innovated by all of those who have no choice but to continue to live in blasted and deadly worlds’. In line with this thought, what strikes us about the besieged people on our screens, as denizens ferry bodies (living, injured, dead), precious drinking water, scarce food into make-shift shelters away from bombing targets, is life in/on a terrain that is no longer home.
It does seem terrible, in the face of what we see unfolding on screen today, to speak of the aesthetics of war. But art’s response to the horrors of war has served a deeply pedagogic, even moral purpose of questioning, resisting and bringing to awareness, the work of bigots, war-mongers, terrorists and colonials.
It is sometimes the dead that define a particular landscape, as soldier-poets of the First World War evocatively captured. Most famous of such death-defined landscapes is Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’, which speaks of soldiers dead on some foreign soil:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
Sara Teasdale asks about the grass in a war landscape:
How can it have the heart to sway
Over the graves,
Isaac Rosenberg writes in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ of the ‘torn fields of France’ where ‘shrieking iron and flame/Hurled through still heavens’ bring death to young men (‘haughty athletes’). The soldier-poet sees the terrain as a battlefield where young men die, and which young men try to defend or capture. Siegfried Sassoon, therefore, speaks of the ‘fortunate who fight/for gleaming landscapes’ in ‘France’. WH Auden describes the soldiers crowding the landscape slightly differently in The Shield of Achilles:
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.
Of a fellow soldier’s choking death from the poison gas — today, we ask: how many choked inside bombed and burning buildings? — the soldier-poet Wilfred Owen, continuing to use the war landscape as a setting, writes:
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
Historically, the works of Francisco Goya (The Disasters of War, 1810-1820) are seen as the most iconic representations of war’s terrors. Goya’s focus was the human body/face of suffering, with visceral representations of mutilation, injury, agony and death. Goya’s work, critics have argued, blurred the French and the Spanish, men and women, priests and kings, supporters and resisters, and, of course, undifferentiated body parts, showing how war levels everyone. The excremental jostles with the incorporated in Goya, all calculated to shock but also pointing to the sheer totality of war’s destruction. This is why the novelist Aldous Huxley in his Foreword to The Complete Etchings of Goya (1943) described him as ‘incomparable’. Huxley writes:
His [Goya’s] concern is exclusively with war as it affects the civilian population, with armies disintegrated into individual thieves and ravishers, tormentors and executioners—and occasionally, when the guerilleros have won a skirmish, into individual victims tortured in their turn and savagely done to death by the avengers of their own earlier atrocities. All he shows us is war’s disasters and squalors, without any of the glory or even picturesqueness.
Art depicting the horrors of war has served a pedagogic function and moral purpose of questioning and bringing to awareness the consequences of electing warmongers
Nowhere is this emphasis on disasters and squalors clearer than in Goya’s ‘What a feat! With dead men!’ (plate 39 of the series). Three castrated men hang from a tree. One body is decapitated, and one set of hands hang adjacent to his body. What strikes us is not only the absolute horror of mutilated bodies — which no one before or since Goya has captured so powerfully — but the tree itself. The tree is lush, leafy and clearly flourishing. Goya’s genius is to contrast the life in the landscape with the death that humanity has inflicted on itself. War defiles the landscape, suggests Goya. (In the 1990s, Dinos and Jake Chapman would replicate Goya’s work, including ‘What a feat! With dead men!’, in the form of miniature dioramas and engravings.)
Goya set the tone and in the 20th century a ‘war-terrain aesthetics’, as it may be termed emerges, with a strong focus on the landscape of war.
Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is arguably one of the most famous paintings of violence. An apocryphal story says that a famous army officer came to view Guernica and after a moment or two of gazing at the nightmarish scene, turned to Picasso and asked, ‘you did this?’ And Picasso is said to have responded: ‘no, you did this’. Politicians and military men determine what can happen to landscapes, and the people in them, implies Picasso: the artist can only mourn through art.
Alongside fascinating and experimental work such as Joe Sacco in The Great War (2013), an accordion-book about the Battle of the Somme in World War I, other 20th century artists have tried, even in the face of overwhelming sights of suffering, death and destruction, to signal war’s worst effects.
A painting attributed to Harry Dix, ‘War Landscape’ (1940-1949), could very well be from the present war (although ‘war’ by definition requires two sides, not one side systematically massacring a weak other). There are no people in the war-torn Dix image, but plenty of indexes of people who once were: broken bridges, buildings, homes, etc.
The painter-soldier Paul Nash captured Europe’s destroyed landscapes after the two World Wars. Ruined Country — Old Battlefield, Vimy, near La Folie Wood (1918), View across a devastated Western Front landscape towards Lake Zillebeke in Belgium (1917), Battle of Germany (1944) and others, besides capturing marches and trench life, presented a nightmarish landscape that showed war as life, but a life that was unsustainable. Nash showed terrains in transformation, ways of life and their symbols — buildings, homes — in ruins in a war aesthetic calculated to frighten and sadden. As a critic said of Nash, perhaps he could only see Europe paintable as being in a state of total war.
As the images worsen in terms of what they capture, they also perform the necessary task of producing shock, outrage and anger against the ongoing massacres. We cannot be sure what Nash or Dix hoped to achieve by presenting us views of a devastated landscape and an unliveable terrain. But, if the distinguished art historian-critic WJT Mitchell is to be believed, the photographs of Peter Arnett, the journalist who was not embedded in state operations in the first Gulf War, countered the ‘the [official] coverage [that] was all framed in the discourse of the defence department and it was an effort to portray the war as a very surgical strike’. Art offers the counternarrative to propaganda.
The strip of land being fought over today is not just land. It is a domos, the cultural home of a people that have lived there for centuries, well before the making of a new state in the mid-20th century
‘If only that so many dead lie round’, wrote the poet Philip Larkin about a different landscape, but which still resonates powerfully today on our screens. And that is the purpose and effect of war-terrain aesthetics. WH Auden’s ‘Embassy’ undertakes such an aesthetics:
Far off, no matter what good they intended
The armies waited for a verbal error
With all the instruments for causing pain
And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste, its towns in terror
And all its young men slain.