The Acting of War; Sirens and Gas.

“In schools children carried out gas mask drills, as well as rather brutal ‘live gas tests’ in which they were immersed in tear gas to check that the masks were functioning and properly fitted. For these tests mobile gas chambers were assembled in schoolyards and children wearing gas masks were forced to sit in clouds of teargas, breathing hard, so that broken or ill-fitting masks could be detected. Some of the gas chamber operators, in violation of the strict rules, would pull children’s masks off to expose them to the corrosive gas. Their intention was to impress upon the children the importance of carrying their gas masks at all times, and no doubt they were successful, but it seems a rather brutal form of teaching.” (The Archaeology of the Second World War)

I participated in a seminar by the author of the above book about a year or so ago. Was really very good. Something he mentioned sprang to mind when I read a few reports over the past week which mentioned the extensive ‘rocket’ sirens going off around Israel and the common-placeness of bunkers and time spent in them, despite the apparently high efficacy of the Iron Dome defensive technology.

The above author mentioned that the vast majority of the UK never experienced any bombing or direct attacks by the Nazi regime during WW2 – I assume because most of any bombing was concentrated around London and the South-east. However as the quote above demonstrates, amongst other activities the school-gassing and constant badgering by the UK government for people to keep their gas masks on them (despite the unlikelihood of a successful gas attack) subjected much of the population to some first-hand war like trauma. This is not surprising, even without this, the constant media and stories that people share produce a certain ‘affective’ state that becomes associated with certain memories that can then easily re-induce them. Imagine what going on facebook would have felt like during WW2 – stressful, particularly if you were a conscientious objector, or simply felt that not all Germans were evil and not all actions by the ‘Allied forces’ were justified.

A a further conclusion on the “preparedness and paranoia in Britain…” “the compulsory carrying and wearing of gas masks in schools can be seen as the imposition of quasi military discipline on a potentially anarchic element of the population.The brutality of the live gas tests can also be viewed as part of the same process: not to educate or warn British children about the dangers of gas, but to impose and reinforce discipline.” ()

Obviously the two situations I have raised here are very different in many ways, but the thought that struck me here was that any fragile attempts to build a multi-dimensional understanding of the Israel/Palestine situation is reduced to the regular rehearsal of war through sirens, bunkers, graphic images, and the ‘for-against attitude’ etc… I am more keen to understand how different national states participate in the subjection of their own citizens to regular intimidation, not necessarily in an actively manipulative sense but as an emergent property of the paranoia of its enactors. As Moshenka notes,

“Some of this scepticism [about gas masks] may have been based on memories of the First World War, during which a series of partially or wholly ineffectual respirators were produced by private companies and the military. A substantial proportion of the male population, many now serving as ARP wardens [who ran the school gas-chambers], had witnessed or experienced gas attacks or their aftermaths and lived with the consequences. This experience would have provoked understandable concern about the general state of preparedness and the quality of protection available. It is in this context that we should consider the live gas tests that were carried out on the civilian population and particularly in schools.” ()

So while Naomi Klein’s book ‘Shock Doctrine’ may jump to mind, I am less interested here in how the powerful few take advantage of the multitudes when under stress, and more in how peoples live out these stresses, are co-actors in producing them, and make sense of them. Is it a simple case of the war-mind “kill or be killed”?  Where do we factor in the complexity of the scenario in which people are losing their lives and livelihoods, people are being blamed en-masse, polarisation runs riot, people claim ‘us and them’ when who ‘us’ or ‘them’ is, is relatively imaginary?

It seems as if our imagination of a situation is ‘performed’ in conversations and keyboards across the world, which has its own consequences in the ‘affective’ worlds it creates and the resulting choices people then act on. Conversely it seems as if ‘being on the ground’ is no less polarising and performative. What lacks in both is attention to the constructs and perceptions we all bring to a situation that shapes what we understand, whether in first person or not. From an anthropological perspective then – this is why it is crucial to be both reflexive and multi-dimensional in understanding. Simply drawing either on having visited the ‘local’ – does not qualify you to have understood the complexity of a situation, while drawing on an elaborate knowledge of history or global themes also does not qualify you. Both are needed to make good assessment, but more important is recognising how both of them are experienced and understood within the limits of your own prejudices and experiences.

This does not mean normalising a situation, but accepting what we learn about before moving on. I have had to accept that I cannot take responsibility for the actions of a State I am a citizen of (UK in this case), but then on the same note I do not feel that I can promote the democracy of it then either. Just as I do not need to justify the actions of the State of Israel simply because I am Jewish, and no other person so feel oblidged or be oblidged to do so simply because they are Jewish either.

I am not really sure if there is an overall point to this blog post, and I do not think everything written needs to have a take-away moral or bite-size message. I am not really sure, and that is why I am writing this blog post, not to say I know and I understand a particular situation, but more to offer a question of what does it mean to regularly go though the motions of being at War, to regularly engage and be made aware that someone or something you should identify with is regularly under-attack or committing atrocities in your name? I know there are many bigger questions at hand, but that is my one right now.