Fog of War

You enter. The room is dark except for a spotlight illuminating a woman’s figure – that of the artist Mona Hatoum – lying on a table, covered in blood and entrails, and wrapped in clear plastic. A circle of empty chairs are placed around the table. The scene is juxtaposed with a soundtrack of the news reports and western leaders’ speeches from the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon (the country where Hatoum, as a Palestinian refugee, was born and grew up). While this piece of performance art – called ‘Negotiating table’ – was a direct response to a specific conflict, it speaks to injustices in war that have been repeated throughout history – and that are being played out today in the ravaged towns and villages of Syria, Yemen, South Sudan. Hatoum exposes the chasm that exists between  the war rooms where politicians and generals congregate to make their decisions and the raw violence and chaos of the battlefield.

Negotiating table was exhibited, through pictures and descriptions of the performance, at the recent acclaimed exhibition of Hatoum’s work in the Tate Modern. Throughout her career, Hatoum’s work has often been explicitly political, yet at the same time intensely personal – shedding new light on the experience of conflict, displacement, torture and imprisonment. Hatoum herself says that she wants that visceral experience of her work to ‘activate an emotional and psychological response’. Negotiating table achieves this brilliantly. It physically elevates the victim of war, lying on top of the table begging for our attention and subverting the normal order and routine of the negotiating room. The empty chairs show the negotiators shy away from the gruesome consequences of war, present only as disembodied voices, compared with the actual mutilated body on display. Through these contrasts and incongruities this piece powerfully illuminates the gap between the reality of war and its representation in political decision making.

For Wilfred Owen during World War 1 it was this same gap which he believed led to the treatment of human lives as ‘cheap as beasts’. In his poem Dulce et Decorum Est, Owen argues that those in command are only able to make the decisions they do because they are insulated from the realities of the front lines.  -He tells them ‘if you too could watch… could hear… my friend, you would not tell with such high zest… the old Lie; Dulce et decorum est’. Both Owen’s military commanders and Hatoum’s negotiators make callous decisions with human lives,  because they are abstracted from the situation on the battlefield.

The contrasts and incongruities powerfully illuminate the gap between the reality of war and its representation in political decision making.

The findings of the Chilcot report published this summer show that not much has changed. A hundred years since the first world war, an advanced western democracy embedded within a system of global governance has not learned the lessons Owen and Hatoum sought to show us. Chilcot’s report was a stinging criticism of the process for deciding to go to war, a process that was far removed from the realities of the situation. Blair was given incorrect intelligence, ignored evidence, advice and contrary arguments – as well as millions of people in who marched in opposition to the war – and deliberately exaggerated in order to execute his foreign policy goals. Chilcot’s description of the murky events and meetings leading up to the invasion suggests that those in power were constructing their own fantasy.

While Hatoum and Owen eloquently illustrate the injustices of this kind of process, historical evidence shows that the decisions it produces are simply bad. Leaders in wartime suffer a failure of imagination, and take a cavalier attitude to human lives. The critiques of Owen and Hatoum suggest that we need to peel away some of the layers of insulation of these negotiation rooms, so that the reality of human suffering is not lost on those who have the power to stop it.

Amit Majmudar’s poem Ode to a drone is a warning that things are only likely to get worse. As warfare becomes more impersonal, war leaders become another degree removed from the battlefield. Majmudar describes a drone that flies over Peshawar as a ‘proxy executioner’s / proxy ax / pinged by a proxy server’, and a modern soldier ‘sucking your benumbed / trigger-finger / gamer’s thumb’. Not only are the leaders and commanders removed from the battlefield, increasingly, so are the soldiers themselves. As actors at every level of abstraction become benumbed, lives inevitably become cheap. The future threat of robots in war represents a further removal. How might this process of abstraction be altered?   The emotional and psychological response Hatoum seeks to evoke is as relevant for wartime leaders as for art viewers.

Image: Employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States