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Collateral Damage: Visible and Invisible Violence

Collateral Damage:

Visible and Invisible Violence

By Thomas Gregory

The Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon tells the story of an eccentric Iraqi bookseller called Wadood Abdulkarim who is trying to catalogue everything that was destroyed in the first minute of the war. His goal is not only to document the people who died during the first 60 seconds of conflict but to document every single object that was damaged or destroyed – from family photo albums, clay ovens and tattered stamp collections to an elderly ziziphus tree, an orphaned bird and the stones from an old sandy-coloured wall. As Wadood explain, ‘this is project of a lifetime, an archive of the losses from war and destruction… the losses that are never mentioned or seen’.

At first glance, this seems like a slightly strange and an almost impossible endeavour. It recalls the short story by Jorge Luis Borges, entitled On Exactitude in Science, where cartographers had attained such perfection that they had ‘struck a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire, and which coincided point for point with it’. A catalogue index of everything that was destroyed during this first minute – not just every human but every butterfly that was dismembered, every book that was torn asunder, every brick that was cracked or charred – would surely run forever. Even a simple index that merely listed these items would fill an entire library, assuming that it is possible to identify every victim and count every casualty. As we know from experience, even counting civilian casualties can be a complex and contentious task. Nevertheless, his project raises some interesting questions about how we conceptualise the temporalities of war, the kinds of violence that are made visible and invisible within these conceptualisations and the kinds of losses that register as losses.

As the organisers of this symposium point out, conventional accounts of war suggest often proceeded on the assumption that it is bracketed by a clear beginning and end, the notion that wartime is analytically distinction from peacetime despite the fact that people’s experiences of violence and insecurity often cut across these neat and tidy delineations. When it comes to thinking about the ethics of war, moral philosophers introduce their own temporal imaginaries by neatly dividing the violence into distinct moments that can judged to be necessary or unnecessary, proportionate or disproportionate, legitimate or illegitimate. In this respect, Wadood’s attempt to catalogue everything that was destroyed in the first minute of war makes a mockery of this temporal imaginary, drawing attention to the steady accumulation of dead and injured bodies – both human and nonhuman – that is excluded from this framework. Compartmentalising the violence of war into discrete moments of time enables us to assess individual incidents as just or unjust but it also causes us to lose sight of the death and destruction that is amassed overall. If an archive of everything destroyed in a single minute has already become a lifetime’s work, then another lifetime would be needed to catalogue everything destroyed in the second minute of war, and the third… We have already used up three lifetimes and we have barely scratched the surface of the violence inflicted in just one day of a conflict that continues rumble away.

The Book of Collateral Damage also asks us to consider what is counted as collateral damage and what is excluded from these counts, what kinds of violence are made visible within the prevailing frames of war and what remains invisible. Reflecting on this point in her book Frames of War, the feminist philosopher Judith Butler suggests that,

One way of posing the question of who “we” are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable. We might think of war as dividing populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.

Butler has in mind the racialized violence that rendered certain populations – including the population of Iraq – profoundly killable from the 11 September, 2001, attacks as the United States sought to shore-up its own sense of security. But even her more critical reflections leave aside a whole heap of death and destruction that is normally mourned or grieved within our anthropocentric frames. After all, if the victims of war are counted – and this is by no means guaranteed – it is normally the human victims that are counted, not the harm inflicted upon buildings, beasts and books. As Wadood puts it, ‘humans say goodbye only to those they know and those they love, whereas things say goodbye to each other and to humans too. But we rarely hear their voices, their whispers, because we don’t try’.

Although there are rules designed to protect culturally significant buildings, such as temples, monuments and libraries, our accounts of war often proceed on the basis that the only thing worth counting are the human costs of war. The environmental damage that is done is rarely included in our assessments of whether particular incidents or attacks are considered proportionate when compared against the anticipated military gains and the houses that are flattened by bombs or left riddled with bullets are not mourned in the same way or to the same extent as human losses. Yet these buildings and environments – not to mention the animals and objects that inhabit them – are essential to our existence and a fundamental to our political communities, even if we don’t always recognise it. As Martin Coward notes in his work on urban destruction, ‘we cannot have a full understanding of the violence done to human existence without understanding the role played by buildings in constituting that existence’. Wadood’s attempts to document every object that was damaged or destroyed in a single minute of violence might seem absurd but how much more difficult would it be to wage war if we have to account for every item was killed, every single life that was lost?

Hear more from Thomas Gregory on gender, insecurity, and temporalities of violence from his interview at the SSHARC Global Symposium in Sydney, 2019.