Category Archives: Blog

Painting Invisible Threats with Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox

In one of our recent Visualising War podcast episodes, Alice interviewed award-winning artist Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox. Kathryn started painting as a child, selling her first piece of art at just 14 years old, winning her first major art competition at 16, and holding her first exhibition at 17. She has since exhibited not just in her native Australia but in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, South Korea, Norway London and New York. Her art takes inspiration from nature and the cosmos, and in recent years she has focused particularly on the existential threats posed to us and our world by emerging technologies. This has led her to look at military technologies – something which she is exploring academically as well as artistically through a PhD. 

Kathryn uses the powerful analogue medium of painting to ask huge questions about new media, especially those that use the electromagnetic spectrum: a natural phenomenon which we can’t see with the naked eye but which many different organisations are using for scientific, commercial or military purposes. Fundamentally, her art is a powerful exercise in visualisation, inviting us to look deep into the past as well as into the future, and to pay attention to phenomena that threaten our landscape and human existence. In particular, she focuses attention on the ‘everywhere war’: the increasing blurring of military and civilian technologies and activities, a development which challenges our long-established habits of visualising (and separating) ‘war’ and ‘peace’.

Theatre of War-Spectrum Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2021

In the podcast, Kathryn described her approach as ‘imaginational metaveillance’ – a term she has come up with to capture the critical, analytical observations that her art performs by taking us to places we can only go in our imaginations and getting us to look critically at things we cannot physically see. In her paintings, she invites us to fly, so that we can look down from above earth’s atmosphere like a scoping drone – or a bird, a speck of star dust, a pilot in an aircraft, a drone, a moon beam, a solar ray, Voyager 1 or 2, an intergalactic space traveller, or even a multiple of these! – seeing natural clouds but also online/digital ‘clouds’ that swirl everywhere, and the invisible grids that criss-cross earth and sky, measuring our every move and harvesting our data.

Kathryn also explained why she uses age-old symbols like the Tree of Life to help viewers connect with the whole span of human history as they visualise future threats and possibilities, both military and civilian – or a combination of the two. We discussed her artistic style, which draws readers in with lots of colour and beautiful aesthetics, and also the responses which viewers often have to her art: most are enthusiastic, until they look closely and grasp its worrying ‘revelations’ about the threats that lurk in our present and future.

That got us talking about the impact which Kathryn wants to have with her art. Among other places, Kathryn has exhibited at the Australian Defence College, and she has enjoyed the many reflective conversations it has opened up with lots of different visitors. She believes that the critical and imaginative visions of past, present and future which art can prompt us to engage with have much to contribute to policy-making, strategy-making and futures thinking, and she describes her own work as a form of quiet activism, opening up dialogue and inviting people to engage with big questions. 

Below are some of the artworks we talked about in the podcast. You can find more – and more of Kathryn’s analysis of them – on her blog



 Follow Me, Says The Tree Oil on canvas 60 x 76 cm 2017 https://kathrynbrimblecombeart.blogspot.com/2018/01/follow-me-says-tree.html  

Kathryn discusses this painting on her blog here:

Follow Me, Says the Tree combines my interpretation of a tree-of-life with a few of my other interests. These include thinking about how landscape is mediated in the 21st century – the age of cyber and digital technologies, drones, perpetual war and the ‘everywhere war’. The tree-of-life is a symbol of life – for the existence of life. But, how is human existence affected by accelerating developments in technology, particularly surveillance technologies and weaponised [or weaponisable] technologies? In other words, those technologies that deploy scoping capabilities to monitor, surveil and target.  SCOPING: I attempt to reveal invisible scoping signals, transmitted and received by airborne drones. I do this to demonstrate that landscape is insidiously mediated by new but unseen signal topographies. These new topographies not only mediate landscape, they also influence, to a greater or lesser extent, how humans operate and live in the landscape and environment. For example, in some places in the world – war and conflict zones – loitering airborne [often weaponised] drones create a persistent fear of the sky. This fear is fueled by a drone’s ability to quickly turn from monitoring and surveillance to scoping to target – for a kill. FALSE EYE – FALSE CLOUD: In Follow Me, Says the Tree I have depicted an eye painted in the sky. Its pupil in a shade of night vision green. It is an unblinking false eye, with ‘lashes’ that appear to be more like components from a computer circuit board. The signals that radiate from the eye penetrate through a surveillance net which is scaffolded by a night vision green CLOUD* – a false cloud. The eye is clearly not an eye, with all the connotations of human sight, insight, imagination, vision, dreaming, tears and laughter. The eye is a subterfuge – it is not an eye-in-the sky – it is a SCOPE-IN-THE-SKY. It targets its prey with a precision that is aided and abetted by persistent surveillance. TREE-OF-LIFE: However, what of the tree? It also penetrates the net of surveillance and the CLOUD, by reaching upwards towards the stars. It re-establishes perspective – the kind that can take humanity’s endeavours into interstellar space. The tree’s branching appearance contrasts with the clean lines of surveillance and targeting signals. Randomness, or seeming randomness, is presented as a complex decoy – but isn’t that just LIFE! The tree not only erupts through the surveillance net, it also send roots underground. Where there’s life there’s hope it seems to say. Follow me, and life and existence will be ok.”



 Anomaly Detection Gouache and watercolour on paper 56 x 76 cm 2017 https://kathrynbrimblecombeart.blogspot.com/2017/03/anomaly-detection.html 

Here’s what Kathryn has written about another of the paintings we discussed, Anomaly Detection: “The term anomaly detection is a technical one. It is an automatic system for detecting unusual behaviour, patterns or occurrences in, for example, live or stored data, such as film footage. Anomaly detection can allow preemptive actions. Regarding military drones the identification of anomalous behaviour, for example multiple vehicles moving at speed from different directions towards one destination, can trigger an alert for increased surveillance and readiness for potential attack. A drone’s wide area surveillance capabilities mean expansive areas can be surveilled, and sophisticated detection and recognition algorithms are employed as another layer of surveillance monitoring. In civilian arenas anomaly detection systems are useful for a variety of monitoring requirements that range from security to environmental protections and more.

In Anomaly Detection I have turned drone surveillance on its head. Here, I have painted the drones as if pixelated, as if a detection and recognition algorithm has detected the anomalous behaviour of three armed drones converging on the tree-of-life hovering at the center of the image. The viewer of the painting could be monitoring the drones from the ground, looking up – or – from the sky/space looking down. In this way the viewer becomes aware of the power of perspective, even in imagination. 

COSMIC PERSPECTIVE: Cosmic perspectives implore us to seek distance, both close and far, as a way to examine ourselves and the planet. From vast distances it becomes obvious that planet Earth, despite discoveries of possible habitable exo-planets, is our only home for the foreseeable [and beyond] future. We need to look after the planet and ourselves. By exploring perspective and engaging with multiple perspectives maybe we’ll discover more anomalies that highlight risk in ways that trigger precautionary, preemptive, restorative and pro-actionary activities?”

Drone Show oil on linen 122 x 152 cm 2020 
https://kathrynbrimblecombeart.blogspot.com/2020/05/drone-show.html 

As Kathryn says on her blog, “Drone technology – civilian and militarised – needs our attention!” In her painting Drone Show, weaponise-able drones are seen in a formation, as if performing. As she explains, “There are three types of drones – Reapers, Predators and X47Cs. It’s like a parade of drones! I choose the word parade deliberately, its connection with military parades acting as a provocation.

Perspective and Imaginational Metaveillance: As with many of my paintings, the viewer could be below the drones looking up at a wild cosmic sky, or the viewer could be above the drones, looking down upon a turbulent but beautiful landscape. Once this play with perspective is realised, the viewer can ‘fly’, in imagination, soaring above, below and around the drones. I love to play with perspective by inviting viewers to ‘fly’. It turns a unique human kind of surveillance back onto the drones. I call this an act of ‘imaginational metaveillance’. It is uniquely human because it involves imagination – something machine learning and artificial intelligence are not capable of – yet. I argue that imagination, or a simulation of imagination, are capabilities no-one should aspire to enable an AI or an AGI with. If this is an aspiration then its more about creating an artificial human rather than an artificial intelligence.

Light Shows: I also called the painting Drone Show to reference displays of civilian drones programmed to perform mesmerising light shows. These kinds of performances are, for example, great substitutes for fireworks. Although the drones in these performances are pre-programmed they represent a basic form of drone swarming technology. A sophisticated drone swarm will have more autonomous functions – geo-locating, orienting, target identification and so on. While militarised drone swarming technology is still being developed in a number of countries, a drone swarm could, among other things, be armed, be used as a swarm of weapons, act as a surveillance net or scaffold signal transmission to other assets. Suddenly the idea of a ‘light show’ becomes more ominous.

Aesthetic Seduction: I have painted each of the drones in Drone Show withdifferent colours. I have painted the drones in a pattern, a diamond pattern. This pattern, the colours and the wild beauty of the landscape/skyscape draw the viewer closer. Once close, the drones becomes more apparent. Why are they there? I am using aesthetic seduction to create a shock, to garner attention and to stimulate questions about drone technology. A militarised drone’s function stands in sharp contrast to the beauty which is evident in the painting. This is a deliberate means of arresting the viewer’s attention. I know many people are critically interested in drone technology, but I have noticed that many others are either in awe or indifferent to it. Both awe and indifference are potentially dangerous. Awe and indifference are risks.”

Theatre of War Gouache and watercolour on paper 56 x 76 cm 2020 https://kathrynbrimblecombeart.blogspot.com/2020/09/theatre-of-war.html 

The final painting we discussed on the podcast is one of a large series of paintings entitled Theatre of War. Kathryn explains the concept here: “Theatre of War was inspired by thinking about Derek Gregory’s idea of ‘everywhere war’. If war is everywhere, then the whole world is a ‘theatre of war’. Everywhere means just that – geographical landscape, cyber and digital worlds, space and everything in-between. It can also mean time. This is possible if you think of everwhere as being about space/place as well as time/history. 

Readers of General Carl von Clauswitz’s famous book On War will be aware that he writes consistently about the ‘theatre of war’. Written during the early nineteenth century and published posthumously by his wife in 1832, it is clear von Clauswitz’s theatre of war differs from twenty-first century ideas of war operation. For von Clauwitz the theatre of war was a defined geographical situation or place. Depending on offensive or defensive actions, landscape and topography played important roles in strategising, preparation and battle.

In the twenty-first century war has morphed beyond earthly geography and topography into discrete spaces of the cyber world, algorithms and light speed signal transmission. It has also extended into space, where orbiting satellites are now drawn into war’s network. The network helps to blur the lines between military, policing and security activities. As civilian activities collapse into militarised zones, war insidiously infiltrates everywhere. The signalic character of contemporary war operation allows for escalation or de-escalation, a war of degrees, not of a duration between declaration and end.  

In Theatre of War I have set up a global stage with a sky/space backdrop. The lines painted over the landscape ‘speak’ to computer geolocating graphics. The real and virtual become one stage. In the distance an array of different types of drones act as both audience and actors. This kind of dual witnessing draws everything onto the everywhere war stage. It is a place where networked systems direct everything and everyone in tragic complicity. With war’s duration consumed by the everywhere, a curtain is no longer needed. Do not be fooled by what might seem beautiful.”   

If you want to find out more, please do listen to the podcast. We hope that our discussion gets you visualising war, human history, the cosmos and its/our future in fresh and thought-provoking ways. As Kathryn urges, we should all practice a bit of imaginational metaveillance when we can!

Conflict Textiles

As part of a mini-series of podcasts looking at artistic representations of and responses to conflict, we recently interviewed Roberta Bacic, a Chilean collector, curator and Human Rights advocate, about the ‘Conflict Textiles‘ collection which she helped to build and now oversees.

¿Dónde están los desaparecidos? / Where are the “disappeared”? Chilean arpillera, Irma Müller, 1980s. Photo Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles

In 2008, Roberta was involved as guest curator at an exhibition called ‘The Art of Survival’, commissioned by the the Tower Museum and hosted in Derry-Londonderry. The exhibition was focused on different women’s experiences of survival, and it was inspired in part by a Peruvian arpillera (a form of tapestry) which Roberta had brought to a meeting, to illustrate how women on both sides of the long-running conflict in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s represented their experiences and used the stories they had sewn as testimony at the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

From there, the idea of curating a physical and digital collection of Conflict Textiles grew – and today the collection comprises arpilleras, quilts and wall hangings from many different parts of the world, including Chile, Argentina, Northern Ireland, Croatia, Colombia, Germany, Catalonia, India, Zimbabwe and Syria. A digital version of the collection is based at Ulster University. These works of art not only depict conflict and its consequences. In many cases, they embody the resilience of the people who created them, and they can be read as acts of resistance too: fabric forms of storytelling that advocate for justice and promote alternatives to conflict.

In the podcast, we discussed what these Conflict Textiles can teach us about habits of representing and visualising the consequences of war; and we also reflected on how different art forms, including sewing and making, can help promote, envision and engender peace. Roberta explained the history of the arpillera tradition and its often communal dynamics, with women coming together in real life as well as on canvas to protest against armed violence and human rights abuses. The process of making is often as important as the finished product, helping those involved to build community, raise their (often marginalised) voices, process trauma and find some resolution or healing. Some Conflict Textiles have been crafted by first-hand victims of war; others have been crafted by others in solidarity, to remember, to stand alongside victims, and to encourage others to take a stand too.

Over the course of the podcast we talked about a number of specific textiles, including the one pictures above, ¿Dónde están los desaparecidos? (‘Where are the “disappeared”?). Created in the 1980s by Irma Müller, it depicts what many people experienced under Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile, after he seized power in a coup d’etat in 1973: the forced disappearance of their loved ones. It is made from pieces of colourful material sewn into a picture on a hessian (burlap) backing. A group of women in colourful dresses are protesting in front of the Courts of Justice. They hold a banner reading: ‘Where are the detained and disappeared?’ On the right-hand are silhouettes of two armed police, identified by their green clothes and their car, but the women ignore them and continue with their protest. The sun is in the sky (as often in arpilleras), but two large clouds sit in the centre, perhaps symbolic of the troubles below, and the women’s colourful clothing is set against the slate grey of the court buildings. There is menace as well as resilience in this picture, which embodies the power of victims and marginalised groups to raise their voice and demand justice.

This arpillera below is called La Cueca Sola (‘They Dance Alone’). La Cueca is a traditional Chilean Dance, normally danced in pairs with women wearing colourful skirts. In the textile, however, the women wear black, and instead of a flower in their shirt pockets there is the silhouette of a loved one who was ‘disappeared’ by Pinochet’s regime following the military coup in 1973. Groups of women took to performing La Cueca Sola in front of Pinochet’s headquarters as a form of protest, and this inspired a number of conflict textiles on the theme – as well as the song by Sting, ‘They Dance Alone’.

La Cueca Sola / They Dance Alone Chilean arpillera, Anonymous, 1980s. Photo Colin Peck, © Conflict Textiles 

This arpillera is also from Chile, and it depicts one manifestation of the violent aftermath of the military coup in 1973: executions in the national stadium. It was made by Maria Mendoza some years after the events it depicts. A note tucked in the back explains: ‘The biggest of all concentrations that I think the dictatorship had was the National Stadium. There, many friends and companeros died. That’s why I don’t want pardon or forgetfulness.’

Executions in the National Stadium Chilean arpillera, Maria Mendoza, 1990. Photo Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles

Violar es un crimen (‘Rape is a crime’) was made in 2008 by a woman who lived through the civil war in Peru from 1980-2000: “In October 1985 many people were killed in Ayacucho and women were raped, but nobody protested. Two groups of us decided to demonstrate in front of Comando Conjunto (Joint Military Command) in Lima since the people … living in Ayacucho felt too vulnerable to do so …. We displayed a banner … ‘Rape is a crime’. .. Five of us decided to make an arpillera of our action to show we do not condone such brutality.”

Violar es un crimen / Rape is a crime. Peruvian arpillera, MH, Mujeres Creativas workshop, 2008. Photo Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles

This Quilt of Remembrance is the work of a cross-community group of WAVE trauma centre participants. Spanning four decades it depicts life before The Troubles in 1969 and key events during The Troubles; it closes with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 which, suggestively, is hanging by a thread from the bottom of the piece. As Roberta explains on the podcast, it blends local quilting techniques with the aesthetics of the arpillera tradition, mixing the two textiles ‘languages’. Participants involved in making it talked of the role it played in their ‘journey of healing’.

Quilt of Remembrance Northern Ireland quilt, WAVE trauma centre participants, 2013. Photo WAVE archive, © WAVE archive

The House we had to leavewas stitched by a group of women refugees from Croatia in 1995. As the text on the Conflict Textiles website explains, Ariadna is a women’s project where, since July 1993, women from Rijeka in Croatia, together with refugee women from Bosnia, have created a centre of mutual help and self-help for women in need. Having abandoned home and hearth in utter haste, these women’s only asset in the alien land of their refuge is their skill to manufacture traditional handicraftsthe women decided to create a piece with a house of their own, made out of cloth so that grenades and bombs could not destroy it. As the house began to take shape, the work awakened memories of old customs, songs, and traditions… The women even designed a garden, their own private sanctuary. The piece provided each woman with a sense of home and belonging, though she was miles away in a strange new land. 

The House We Had to Leave Croatian quilt Women refugees, Ariadna project, 1995. Photo Colin Peck, © Conflict Textiles 

Un corazón como el de todos (‘A heart like everyone else’) was stitched in 2019 by a young ex-combatant of the demobilised guerrilla group FARC. He took part in a project called ‘(Un-)Stitching Gazes’ – an idea which resonates with what the Visualising War project is interested in, because it speaks to the idea that looking differently at things can help reconfigure the world around us. This project gave ex-combatants the chance to reflect on the transformation process they were undergoing, and he wrote about his work: ‘When I’m embroidering, I concentrate. There’s even a moment when I don’t think about anything. I focus on the stitches, that I do them well… And it’s like a good feeling. As in one way or another, with each stitch, it’s like letting go of those burdens that one carries, so to speak.’ He also commented: ‘I always hear that guerrillas are not human beings, that we are demons, they portray us as monsters. I chose a heart because it is a synonym for life, it is the most important organ.’ With this piece, ‘Edwin’ is processing his own experiences and also asking others to visualise him in new ways.

Un corazón como el de todos / A heart like everyone else. Colombian embroidery on fabric. Jhonatan/Edwin, 2019. Photo Laura Coral Velasquez, © (Des)tejiendo miradas. 

Mi Guernica (‘My Gernika’) was stitched in 2017 by a women whose family suffered when the German air force bombed Gernika in 1937. It uses an old family pillowcase (a family heirloom) as backing, and depicts a reworking of Picasso’s Guernica. It reminds us that prior representations of conflict always hover in the background of our own attempts to narrate it, but also that individual makers can personalise influential, canonical representations to tell their own story.

Mi Guernica / My Gernika. Basque Country arpillera Edurne Mestraitua, 2017. Photo Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles

One very new arpillera in the Conflict Textiles collection is The word caused the outbreak of war – ‘Freedom’. It was made in 2020 by Sabah Obido, in response to an online exhibition she saw took part in during lockdown. Sabah is a refugee from Syria, and this arpillera was a chance for her to explore and process her experiences of conflict and displacement, and also to raise a really important question. The piece depicts scenes of peaceful demonstration which Sabah herself witnessed in 2011 and which ultimately triggered the long-running civil war in Syria. She uses a bright, cheerful image (the sun has a smile!) that shows women waving banners in English and Arabic, calling for freedom, to ask how those peaceful protests resulted in so much conflict and displacement. This arpillera captures the powerful work that Conflict Textiles can do, not only in giving makers an opportunity to process and articulate their own experiences but also in empowering them to ask difficult questions.

The word caused the outbreak of war – “Freedom“. Syrian arpillera, Sabah Obido, 2020. Photo Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles 

Some items in the collection have been made by protesters who are not direct victims of conflict, such as this banner by Thalia and Ian Campbell. “It’s No ******* Computer Game is our ‘drone for peace”, state Ian and Thalia. Made of light materials, it can be sent off and used worldwide.

It’s No ******* Computer Game!! Welsh banner, Thalia and Ian Campbell, 2012. Photo Lydia Cole, © Conflict Textiles 

We hope you enjoy the podcast, and urge you to browse the Conflict Textiles website further to find out more about the moving and powerful collection.

In 2019, colleagues at the University of St Andrews co-hosted a Conflict Textiles Exhibition called Threads, War and Conflict, inspired by some previous ‘Stitched Voices‘ exhibitions. You can find out more – and about the Visualising War project’s involvement – here. Some new creative work and publications are emerging out of this collaboration, so watch this space!

A collaboration between the Conflict Textiles project and the University of St Andrews, co-ordinated by Dr Lydia Cole, with Dr Faye Donnelly, Dr Laura Mills and Dr Natasha Saunders.

Drawing as War Reportage

'The Paul Nash of our era. No one has captured in art the destruction and suffering of modern warfare as powerfully. With his pen and brush he tells the stories of the suffering of the refugee and the migrant wherever the wars are in this turbulent world. There is terrible beauty in his drawings. He means what he paints, opens our eyes and hearts to the suffering, tells the tale of our fractured humanity, helps us to know more clearly the lives of others caught up in conflict, so that we can begin to mend shattered lives, to give shelter and homes and hope where there is so little.'

Michael Morpurgo, writing about award-winning artist George Butler.

As part of a mini-series on the representation of war in visual media, we recently interviewed artist George Butler for the Visualising War podcast. George draws in pen, ink and watercolour. His art covers a huge range of topics; but he specialises in current affairs and his visual reportage from conflict zones like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria has won plaudits from the likes of Jeremy Bowen. As George has said himself, his work often takes him to places which other people are trying to leave. In August 2012, for example, he walked from Turkey across the border into Syria where, as a guest of the Free Syrian Army, he set about drawing the impacts of the civil war on people and towns. Over the last decade he has been to refugee camps in Bekaa Valley (Lebanon), oil fields in Azerbaijan, to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Mosul, and to Gaza with Oxfam, among many other places. His drawings have been published by the Times, the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC, CNN, Der Speigel, and a host of other media outlets; and they have also been exhibited at the Imperial War Museum North and the V&A museum, among other places. George has also recently published a book, Drawn Across Borders: True Stories of Migration, which tackles one of the many ripple effects of conflict and shines a spotlight on some of the humans behind the headlines.

In the podcast, we talked about drawing as a dynamic process: one in which the artist invests time – and during which, the people being drawn might come and go, shift position or mood, fade into the background or come into focus. George’s drawings capture the rhythm of a place over several hours, enabling him to convey a context and set of experiences that are less easily observed through the fast shutter speed of a camera lens. Another aspect of drawing that George relishes is how approachable and unthreatening an artist often seems. While a cameraman’s equipment might act as a barrier, a simple pad and pencil often gets people coming closer to look and ask questions, sparking conversations. Drawing on location involves listening to many different people and what they want to share; and what George hears then finds its way into the drawings as they develop. 

George reflected on the combination of aesthetics and storytelling in his reportage. While he strives to make his art beautiful, he sees little point in an attractive image which is not telling an interesting story – one that uncovers less visible, ignored or forgotten aspects of a conflict. One thing that motivates his work is the desire to balance and round out our habits of visualising contemporary wars. We discussed the push and pull of media organisations and NGOs, who sometimes want an artist to focus on particular aspects of a conflict – and also the challenges that artists and photographers often face in deciding what is or is not appropriate to depict in any given context. Like another of our podcast guests, the photographer Peter van Agtmael, George clearly sees his drawings as fulfilling a documentary role, setting down a record for the future; but he is also interested in myth-busting, in particular when it comes to documenting different people’s experiences of different kinds of migration, as in his book Drawn Across Borders: True Stories of Migration. As reviews of this book have underlined, it is ‘a work of art, compassion and activism, with journalist and illustrator Butler using his craft to bear witness to and build awareness of the effects of war on civilians whose lives are treated as mere collateral for those in power.’

Featured below are some of the images which we discussed in the podcast, not just from Drawn Across Borders but from George’s wider portfolio of work. 

'I sat to draw Yusef Fateh, whose home had once sat at the bottom of the mosque minaret. Yusef told me, "In April 2015 I was accused by Daesh of smuggling people out of West Mosul, which I admitted. I was blindfolded and spent eighteen days in a Daesh prison. I was thrashed 300 times." He showed me a tattered copy of his Daesh court paper. "They released me at 11 am on a Friday. They threw me onto the street and said "If you look round we will kill you directly." At 12pm I packed and left for Syria without my family." Yusef returned in October 2017 to find his home destroyed by Daesh, along with the al-Nuri mosque. He told me he cannot find work because of the wounds on his back, but like many others sees this place as his home.' Drawn Across Borders, p. 47.
'...in the town square I drew children playing on a burnt-out government tank as two old men examined the total destruction of their town in bewilderment. Their homes would continue to be the target of government air strikes for years to come.' Drawn Across Borders, p. 8. 

The image below (drawn in Azaz, Syria, 2012) perfectly captures George Butler’s style: a rhythmic drawing that keeps pace with the changing scene as people come and go; some features fleshed out in detail and colour; but also plenty of blank space that poses questions, reminds us of the incompleteness of any image, and gives our eye and mind time to wander and reflect.

'I wandered through the town with Muhammed and saw the bakery. I had to draw quickly because of the pounding Syrian sun. People queued in the heat for up to three hours and, as Muhammed explained, each person was only allowed three flatbreads a day'. Drawn Across Borders, p. 10.

In the image below (Azaz, Syria, 2012), some individuals are depicted in detail, others as silouettes – bringing the individual and universal together in one picture. The red tractor is a reminder of the distance some have travelled to join the queue; the man in the foreground evokes the weariness of many.

Bakery queue, Azaz, Syria 2012. Credit: George Butler https://www.georgebutler.org/portfolio/syria
'That evening a member of the Free Syrian Army called Firas took me to visit one of their prisons in Azaz. One man behind the bars looked at me intimidatingly. I assumed he was cross that I was drawing him. He held my gaze, unflinching, as I drew. Then after fifteen minutes or so he asked if he could move. All along he had been posing for the strange illustrator.' Drawn Across Borders, p. 11.

This image below got us talking on the podcast about the relationships which an artist can strike up with the people he/she is drawing, and how what you think you are seeing may be rather different in reality.

Prison in Azaz, Syria 2012. Credit: George Butler https://www.georgebutler.org/portfolio/syria
'Bassam's father sat at the foot of his bed, in black, occasionally putting a reassuring hand on his son's foot as he struggled through the painkillers. "Art cannot change anything," he said to me, and in this moment I believed him. My instinct was to leave without finishing the drawing. But another man in the corner said passionately "These are the sorts of scenes that the world should see. They are important to show the people what is going on here." Perhaps it was these contradicting opinions that led to the unfinished nature of this picture.' Drawn Across Borders, p. 36.

This image below (Syria, 2013) got us talking on the podcast about the power and limitations of art, and how artists like George manage the often very difficult decisions about what of war and other people’s sufferings to capture (or not) on the page.

'...I spoke to fifteen-year-old Ahmed, who described his journey here: "Life in Iraq was fine until armed groups came. We left our homes - what else was there to do? We fled to the mountains. I stayed for eight days without food or water - nothing was there. Children died of hunger - nothing was there. We crossed into Turkey on foot. It took us one to two days' walking. Yes, we were scared. We walked at night - and it was scary on the boat too. It was difficult - the sea waves were a metre or two high. We had children on the dinghy... 150 people on the boat." Drawn Across Borders, pp. 20-21.

These drawings below reflect on the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, which became very visible in Europe in summer 2015. One of George’s aims is to address some of the pernicious myths that exist around refugees, to get us thinking differently about what they are queuing for, and to humanise their experiences.

'These families showed us the belongings they had carried with them from their homes. They were the belongings of people who had not planned to leave Syria. They were the items they picked up in a rush, or as the lights went out, the items that were left in the rubble of their homes or that they had in their cars when they abandoned them at the border. These were people who thought they would be going home very soon.' Drawn Across Borders, p. 48. 
‘Leaving everything behind’: possessions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 2011. Image credit: George Butler, Drawn Across Borders

Yemen, one of the less visible conflicts in the world at present, but one of the most destructive:

You can listen to the podcast here. More images are available on George’s website and you can buy a copy of his book here. Following his experiences in Syria, George and a group of friends set up the Hands Up Foundation, which funds health and education programmes for victims of conflict. 

‘Sorry for the War’: Peter Van Agtmael photographs America at War

USA. New York. 2010. A sign outside Arbor Ridge Catering and Banquet Hall advertising a 1970s-style Disco Night. An ad for the event promised: “Dress your retro best and boogie on down!” Break out your bell-bottoms and polish your platforms!” There will be prizes for Best Dressed and Best Dancer.
"Nearly twenty years after September 11, America’s recent wars are all but forgotten, though their consequences continue to reverberate. For the past fifteen of those years, I’ve documented the dissonance between the United States “at war” and the wars as they really are." Peter Van Agtmael, Disco Night Sept. 11.

The Visualising War podcast recently interviewed award-winning photographer Peter van Agtmael. Over a career spanning 20 years, Peter has focused on representing different manifestations of the US at war. His first book, ‘Disco Night Sept. 11’, brought together images of America at war in the post-9/11 era, from 2006-2013.[i] His second, ‘Buzzing at the Sill’, focused on the US in the shadow of recent wars; it does not capture images of armed conflict, but examines aspects of American society that have been shaped by and helped to shape the wars that America has fought. His third book, ‘Sorry for the War’ explores the vast dissonance between how the US has visualised itself at war and how people on the ground (soldiers and civilians) have experienced those wars, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.[ii] Peter has won multiple prizes for these books, as well as being highly sought after by media organisations such as the New York Times and the New Yorker. For the last ten years he has also been working on capturing images of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

In the podcast, Peter talks about what motivated him to go to war as a photographer in the first place, and how his understanding of war and his approach to conflict photography have evolved over time. Aware that a single photograph can only capture one person’s perspective and a tiny slice of time, Peter underlines the importance of a multiplicity of images which together can build a sense of context, change over time and diversity of experience. He tries to document wars as holistically as possible, while still going deep and getting personal. He is particularly interested in unpicking the gap between our habits of imagining, viewing and understanding conflict and how it impacts people for real. There is a strong sense in his books that he is myth-busting, as he invites us to look critically at our own habits of visualising war and really stretches our understanding of war’s dynamics, impacts and aftermath. You can hear his reflections in more detail in the podcast itself. This blog shares some of the images that Peter talks about from ‘Disco Nights Sept. 11’ and ‘Sorry for the War’, along with some of the text that accompanies them in his books. 

The following images are from ‘Disco Night Sept. 11’, about which Peter writes:

"Despite all the death and confusion and isolation and impotence these pictures represent, I know they can only be a slender document. There are so many simultaneous existences and we can only be present in one. For every story that is recorded there are nearly infinite ones we’ll never know. The real weight of destruction is still happening constantly in anonymity across Iraq and Afghanistan and America, in endless repetition of all that has come before. If I found any truth in war, I found that in the end everyone has their own truth."

FORT IRWIN, CALIFORNIA. USA. 2011

“A mock courtroom for soldiers deploying to Iraq. This training exercise simulated an Iraqi criminal trial. An American Army lawyer set forth evidence to prosecute an “insurgent” for ties to resistance groups. After hearing arguments from both sides and reviewing evidence, the Iraqi “judge” dismissed the case. During the war, American lawyers were rarely obliged to engage with the Iraqi criminal justice system. Many detainees were held for long stretches without trials. No American soldiers were prosecuted by Iraqi courts. In October 2011, President Obama announced that all U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year. Although the American and Iraqi governments hoped to keep five thousand American soldiers to assist in training the fledgling Iraqi security forces, negotiations broke down after the Pentagon insisted that American soldiers retain full immunity under Iraqi law. The Iraqi government refused, the deal collapsed, and the last American soldiers left Iraq in December 2011.”

As we discuss on the podcast, this image captures the gap between how the US visualised their likely activities in Iraq prior to engagement and how differently events turned out. An empty set where men rehearsed for a performance they never ended up delivering.

MIAN POSHTEH, HELMAND. AFGHANISTAN. 2009

“A Marine with a village elder from Mian Poshteh, a rural village in southern Helmand Province. The Marines were trying to build the Afghan Army. There were 240 Americans in the outpost, but only a few dozen Afghan soldiers. The local language was Pashto, but only a few of the Afghan soldiers spoke it; they were from other parts of the country. Relations with the local elders were tense. The Afghan soldiers were often accused of stealing when doing house searches in the village. Although Mian Poshteh was only one kilometer from the base, the Marines and Afghan Army were often attacked nearby. The Marines asked the elders if they would vote in the upcoming elections. “The Taliban will chop off our fingers,” was the reply (the index finger is stained purple after voting to make sure there are no repeats). The Marines asked why they wouldn’t reveal the location of the Taliban. The elders replied, “You go back to your base at night, while the Taliban are all around us. If we cooperate, they will kill us.” They went on to say that there was no fighting before the Marines came, and that they should just go away.”

This image perfectly captures the weariness both sides experienced at trying to keep some kind of dialogue going and build temporary bridges against all the odds.

WAIGUL VALLEY, NURISTAN. AFGHANISTAN. 2007

“A U.S. Blackhawk helicopter lands at the Ranch House, a small American outpost deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. There were no decent roads and all medevacs, re-supply and transport were done by helicopter. 

Blackhawks were in short supply, forcing the U.S. military to turn to outside contractors. They rented ex-Soviet helicopters, rickety and ancient and known as “Jingle Air.” They came with pilots, some of whom had served in the Russian Army during the previous war in Afghanistan. They were storied figures, legendary for their bravery under fire and rumored to be heavy vodka drinkers in flight.”

As Peter explains on the podcast, this image captures some of the things we romanticise about war: life on the edge, moments of adventure, the seductive ‘beauty’ of an iconic war image.

BAGHDAD. IRAQ. 2006

“A child wounded in the abdomen by shrapnel from a car bomb. After surgery, several of the smitten medics posed for pictures with the semi-conscious girl.”

As we discuss on the podcast, without Peter’s text this image might strike the viewer simply as a tender moment between soldier and injured child; with the text, a much more complex and disturbing story emerges. The girl becomes a double victim, injured and then mauled about for the camera by soldiers who care deeply but also exploit her in their efforts to get in touch with their own feelings.

In ‘Sorry for the War’, Peter’s collection of images is even more diverse, capturing everything from a burnt-out classroom in Mosul, to a shrapnel injury that has begun to heal, to the in-between existence of children in a city that hangs somewhere between war and peace.

Qaraqosh, Iraq 2017

“The first Easter in Qaraqosh, Iraq, after it was liberated from ISIS. A few miles away, fighting continued in Mosul. Though the area around Qaraqosh was relatively quiet, the town lay in ruins. ISIS graffiti was scrawled on the walls of the church, ranging from the mundane (“Ahmad was here,” “Take off your shoes”) to the sinister (the ratio of ingredients for making car bombs). Shattered Christian religious artifacts used by ISIS for target practice had been swept into a corner, and a decapitated full-size statue of Santa Claus was sprawled in the courtyard. Most of those attending the church service were Iraqi soldiers and journalists, but a handful of local residents came, too, including a small girl in bright-colored robes who was a particular darling of the Iraqi soldiers. They cooed at her outfit and swept herup in their arms to cover her in kisses.”

At the end of ‘Sorry for the War’, Peter writes:

"There’s a feeling of fulfilment but also of emptiness when the complexity of my experiences inadequately collapses into the two dimensions of a photograph. When I began this work, my confused and naive desires mingled uncomfortably with a sense of duty to journalism and history. Somehow, the unexpected grace of these experiences has left me lighter, despite the horrors. Yet I am left with the understanding that the work is far from over."

You can find out more about Peter’s work on his website and instagram page. His reflections on the podcast shed fascinating light on the challenges and opportunities of conflict photography to challenge how we all visualise war.

Alice König, 29.11.21

[i] Readers can find two excellent reviews here: https://www.1854.photography/2014/05/peter-van-agtmaels-disco-night-sept-11/ and here: https://aperture.org/editorial/peter-van-agtmael-disco-night-sept-11/.

[ii] Reviews here https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/sorry-for-the-war-peter-van-agtmael/ and here https://time.com/5948899/peter-van-agtmael-sorry-for-the-war/.

Visualising ‘Western War’?

by Katarina Birkedal

Originating as it did from the study of Greco-Roman antiquity, the Visualising War project has always been conscious of the risk that it might end up being too narrowly focused on Western traditions of thinking about and doing war. There are a number of reasons why this is a serious concern, first of which is that such a narrow scope of enquiry, undefined, reiterates pro-Western biases and prejudices both in academia and outside of it. In equating a general, global phenomenon to a specific local iteration – especially when this is unspoken – we risk excluding and othering of all other narratives except those that fit a specific mould, and moreover the naturalisation of those few that do. 

A lack of academic interest paid to diverse experiences only furthers the international Western hegemony that already undermines non-Western voices.[i] Many disciplines – Classics and International Relations (IR) among them – show increasing awareness of their Western tilt, with scholars engaging in efforts to decolonise the fields. Nevertheless, there remains a bias, conscious and unconscious, in much of academia. For a project like Visualising War, which is explicitly concerned with understanding and unpicking our habits of narrating war in order to prompt critical reflection on our habits of understanding and doing war, such a narrow focus would be actively counter-productive as well as harmful. 

The ‘West’?

There is a lot of received wisdom surrounding the idea of the ‘West,’ so most people know broadly what the term refers to even if they would perhaps struggle with defining it. The concept is held together more by repeated use than any inherent sense, whether geographical, historical, or cultural. Nevertheless, its frequent use lends the notion of a ‘West’ an air of inevitability; it is important to be aware of where the term comes from, and what assumptions it carries. 

Kwame Anthony Appiah demonstrates that the idea of the ‘West’ makes no historical sense until the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was the work of philosophers and academics, who saw the best of European thought as coming from the philosophy and statecraft of the ancient Greeks and Romans. A clear and direct line of descent was established, wherein modern Europe became the sole inheritors of these important and prescient ancient civilisations. This heritage had become muddled in the superstitious Dark Ages, but now the light of rationalism once again shone bright. 

The term ‘the West’ itself came about during the age of imperialism, when it was deemed the burden of the ‘enlightened’ ‘West’ to bring this light to the rest of the world. The idea here becomes entangled with the colonial projects that lasted from the late 18th century to well into the 20th. It was Rudyard Kipling who coined the term ‘white man’s burden’ in a poem of the same name; that moral obligation to bring ‘enlightened civilisation’ to ‘savage’ lands [sic]. 

The putatively bipolar world order of the Cold War further pitted west against east, and ascribed contradictory and inherent ideologies to these. In the the euphoria of the Cold War’s aftermath, the contours of the ‘West’ as bound up with the triumph of reason, liberalism, and democracy becomes clearer. Picking up on Kant’s hope that history moves towards progress,[ii] Francis Fukuyama famously wrote The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, arguing that the ascendancy of ‘Western liberal democracies’ at end of the Cold War was the apotheosis of a process that would see that form of government as the final and ultimate form.[iii] With this achieved, the world might be without war.

The ‘Western way of war’?

This links into the first of three characteristics typically ascribed to ‘Western’ warfare: a just cause, technological superiority, and pitched battles following declared hostilities. I will address all of these in turn below, as briefly and concisely as I dare. 

The narrative of ‘Western’ wars as especially justified is bound up with centuries of othering of threatening or thwarted enemies; they had to ‘defend Christendom against the incursions of heathen Moslems [sic] … who were … fanatically determined to convert or extirpate the infidel wherever their swords could reach’,[iv] and so on.  Such victors’ tales are then combined with concepts like the idea of just wars to cement this narrative.  

The just war tradition is most often traced back to the writings of Thomas Aquinas, who sought to find the conditions under which war could be justified in Christian thought. Drawing on Aristotle, what he concluded was that war ‘is not only a sin; it is also a way of combating sin and, more generally, of preserving the common good’,[v] provided three conditions were met. These were that, first, the war must be waged on the authority of the ruler (however defined); second, the war must be waged for a just cause (that the enemy must be guilty of some evil to be deserving of attack); and, third, that those who wage it must have rightful intentions (i.e. they must intend to do good).[vi] These principles are usefully elaborated into jus ad bellum and jus in bello, which refer respectively to the legitimation of war and the conduct of war.  

While scholars like Dr Rory Cox are proving otherwise (identify just war traditions well beyond Greco-Roman antiquity), the just war tradition is primarily regarded as a ‘Western’ tradition, one moreover especially bound up Christianity. Furthermore, in a system of sovereign states, the just war tradition underscored the idea that only the state had legitimate use of force, that only the state could declare war. Likewise, only those soldiers registered in the state’s military could legitimately act and be acted upon in battle.[vii]

For modern ‘Western’ liberal democracies, wars are fought for the purposes of liberation; those who ‘know better’ intervene to remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and free the foreign civilians of the terrors of the illiberal, absolutist state. Installing more ‘Western’-style democracies is good, as – per the Democratic Peace Theory – liberal democracies do not go to war with each other. Andrew Williams writes that ‘what distinguishes liberal states from their illiberal counterparts is that they believe quite sincerely in the creation of a better world and that they are exemplars of what that world should look like.’[viii]

Although different words are used, the legacy of the ‘white man’s burden’ is clear to see here.[ix] Moreover, the foundations of this argument are shaky indeed: the Democratic Peace Theory is largely discredited,[x] and the perception that the just war tradition is a purely Christian, ‘Western’ idea is patently false.[xi] As the ‘new wars’ debate in IR has shown,[xii] it is difficult to base any attempt at categorisation on intent, as this is not only entirely subjective, but also subject to historical rewriting. That the intent was to liberate hardly seems relevant to the victims of a bombing round or a drone strike. As John Gray puts it, ‘[liberal] democracies are not only willing to commit acts that when perpetrated by despotic regimes are condemned as signs of barbarism – they are ready to praise these acts as heroic.’[xiii]

The linking of the development of a ‘Western’ way of war with that of the sovereign state is also tenuous. Few clear instances can be cited (such as, famously, Louis XIV), and the theory requires us to to ignore the great impact of private enterprise, hired mercenaries, and the general back-and-forth of state v. non-state controlled militaries.[xiv] Contrary to this typical narrative, it is perhaps the presence of private contractors and companies that characterises the military history of – in particular – Europe; especially in the case of colonial conquest (which, in some cases,[xv] is curiously left out of the story completely).[xvi]

The second posited characteristic of the ‘Western’ way of war is technological superiority. This narrative is entangled with that of the development first of the sovereign state, and then of citizen participation in state affairs through industrialisation and capitalism.[xvii]  The story here goes that the consolidation of legitimate force under a single, state-controlled citizen army led to greater technological innovation due to the mobilisation of the state’s considerable human and financial resources.[xviii] War changed with the developments of industrialisation, so that the soldiers manning the machine gun became workers, and the military was broken into systems of organisation and information.[xix] By the time of the First World War, conflict had developed to the point of a total war – beyond attrition to annihilation – where the goal was to drain the enemy state of resources into a total collapse, before they could do the same to you.[xx]

The development of firearm technology combined with the state’s enlistment of soldiers led to a greater need for uniformity in appearance and behaviour within the army.[xxi] Military drills combined with parade ceremony, rote learning, and science applicable to gunnery was taught to produce disciplined, rational, and ‘improved’ soldiers for the state.[xxii] Firing the musket was broken down into mechanical drill exercises, communicated through instruction manuals.[xxiii]

Later technological developments furthered the need for the soldier to be optimised for the performance of the weapon. The arrival of the machine gun meant that it was ‘imperative not only to wield the machine, but to embody it as well.’ The centrality of technological superiority to ‘Western’ warfare can perhaps best be summed up by Hilaire Belloc’s famous words: ‘Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim gun, and they have not.’[xxiv]

The influence of Enlightenment thinking is visible here; the creation of ‘improved’ soldiers through state discipline and rote learning makes sense in the context of a culture obsessed with rational and objective scientific thinking. This connection between the civic spirit and the disciplined soldier, some argue, is inherited from the Romans.[xxv] From the Scientific Revolution came the idea that science was a ‘Western’ virtue, and another heritage from the ancient Greek and Romans;[xxvi] the rational ‘Western’ man would use science to understand and control nature,[xxvii] including all who were not white men. 

Furthermore, the attachment of the soldier and the mechanisation and technology of the machine gun makes sense in the context of the introduction of the gender binary as something supposedly biologically inherent, which placed white men at the top of a constructed hierarchy, with white women between them and everyone else. [xxviii] It was thus the white, male body that was the deciding  factor in warfare; and in the case of the machine gun, the eventual fusing of the weapon with the masculine.[xxix]

This fusing of the mechanical and the masculine was later picked up on by the Futurists, who glorified the speed made possible by technology, and who further linked technological advancements with militarism.[xxx] The importance of speed is another recurring feature of technologically driven warfare, wherein time ‘has become a new medium for delivering injury.’[xxxi] Whether through practice for the inevitable air strike,[xxxii] or through the suddenness of ‘instantaneous nuclear annihilation’, time and violence become intermixed so that ‘violence blurs into terror, is fixed at the speed of light’.[xxxiii] Speed remains one of the proposed defining features of ‘Western’ warfare.[xxxiv]

Given the speed at which destruction could arrive, and the range from which it could be delivered, the need for oversight grew, until sight and surveillance, too, became weapons.[xxxv] The idea of the Panopticon is useful, here: a prison built on system of surveillance that allows one person to observe many, who cannot observe each other.[xxxvi] For the purposes of warfare, it translates to a need to observe not only the battlefield, but all elements of society that might feed into a battlefield, such as – post 9/11 – ‘flight schools, airports, and … practically every nook, cranny, and cave of Afghanistan.’[xxxvii]

When violence can happen at such speed, any risk is deemed unacceptable, leading to the need to ‘foresee and control the future consequences of human action’.[xxxviii] Yee-Kuang Heng argues that ‘the idea of linear progress, certainty, controllability and security of early modernity has collapsed, replaced by reflexive fear of undesirable risks.’[xxxix] As Antoine Bousquet demonstrates, methods of warfare mimic the current scientific paradigm; from clockwork mechanisation that prioritised linear deployment and rigid drills, to current ‘chaoplexic’ warfare that prioritises non-linear, self-organising networks of information to best combat a chaotic, many-headed threat.[xl]

Rather than bringing stability to the ‘West,’ the end of the Cold War brought the terror of the ‘unspecified enemy’;[xli]this, and later the shock of 9/11, prompted the latest shift in the ‘Western’ way of war, wherein ‘the immediacy of the catastrophe, the immediacy of disaster, could not happen again – because it would always already have been premediated.’[xlii] Here we arrive at the intersection between the first and second proposed characteristic of ‘Western’ warfare: that of just cause and technological superiority. James Der Derian calls this ‘virtuous war:’ ‘the technical capacity and ethical imperative to threaten and, if necessary, actualise violence from a distance – with no or minimal casualties.’[xliii] Here, the desire to technologically master chaos through future (visualised)  prediction subordinates ‘history, experience, intuition, and other human traits … to scripted strategies and technological artifice, in which worst-case scenarios produce the future they claim only to anticipate, in which the tail wags the dog.’[xliv]

Like the first narrative of ‘Western’ warfare, the one of military superiority through technological superiority also collapses under scrutiny. Firstly, there is nothing particularly ‘Western’ about technological innovation in warfare; the two have been interwoven from the start,[xlv] and some of history’s most decisive new technologies – such as the stirrup[xlvi]and the chariot – were not ‘Western’. Indeed, for most of history, it was not the ‘West’ that demonstrated its military superiority, but Central Asia.[xlvii]

Moreover, the association of technological development with ‘Western’ military culture – especially when adding the element of drill and discipline – ignores the great diversity of cultures within the ‘West.’[xlviii] Further, as history repeatedly demonstrates, the presence of new technology does not guarantee victory and military superiority.[xlix]Arguably, if there is anything particularly ‘Western’ about the use of technology in war, it is the over-reliance on it.[l]

The third typical narrative posits pitched, open, decisive battles following official declarations of hostility as characteristic of ‘Western’ warfare. According to Victor Davis Hanson, this is a feature that can be traced directly back to the ancient Greeks, who fought with heavy hoplite infantry in tight, linear formations.[li]  If our sources are to be relied on (and we ought to take their idealisation with a pinch of salt, as Owen Rees and Roel Konijnendijk explain on one of our podcasts), these battles were brief, intense, and pitched, declared and consented to, and enacted in such a way as to spare noncombatants and property;[lii] as such, they also marked a sharp difference from sneaky, tricksy, and deceitful warfare.[liii] Moreover, they were fought by citizens for civic purposes.[liv]

Indeed, the Greek fought according to agreed-upon conventions that respected truces and cultural events like the Olympics, declared that noncombatants should not be the primary targets, limited the use of missile weaponry, dictated the conduct of victors towards prisoners and the defeated, and dictated that war should be declared and battle begun by official ceremony.[lv] Or so later, selective and romanticising analyses of our ancient sources suggest.

For Hanson – whose arguments are both influential and controversial – this manner of fighting, face to face on foot and with great and deliberate lethality in a delineated setting, endured to become the emblematic ‘Western’ way of war.[lvi]These characteristics – wars declared and waged according to rules, battles fought with excessive violence, for expedience and political purpose, by soldiers – do resonate with many qualities ascribed to modern ‘Western’ warfare, as well as definitions of war more broadly.

In her elaboration of the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ wars, Mary Kaldor references many characteristics of ‘Western’ wars in her description of ‘old’ ones (including some mentioned above); of these, the view of war as a means of enforcing state interest, the development of ‘rational’ rules for the conduct of war, and the willingness to use overwhelming force in delineated, decisive battles (otherwise to be avoided)[lvii] most clearly mirror those characteristics of Greek warfare Hanson emphasises. She makes frequent use of Clausewitz, for whom war is the ‘instrument of political change’,[lviii] with ‘no logical limit’[lix] on the violence needed to achieve this. And indeed, for those of Clausewitz’s time, battle was ‘butchery,’ perpetrated by lines and upon lines of soldiers in formation, meeting each other upon the battlefield.[lx]

However, whilst the Renaissance did see a conscious effort to imitate classical warfare,[lxi] that is the limit of the direct line of decent of ‘Western’ warfare from the ancient Greek model. As Lynn points out, already with imperial Rome the line begins to waver.[lxii] Moreover, as Everett Wheeler notes, although Hanson is skilled at bringing to life the gruesome details of hoplite warfare, he cherry picks aspects to suit his theory, whilst ignoring those that contradict it.[lxiii] In so doing, Hanson skips over the effect of the efforts of the later Panhellenists to enshrine the warfare of their ancestors in notions of chivalry and honour, as well as the degree to which these sorts of pitched battles are not at all a special Greek form of warfare.[lxiv] As Roel Konijnendijk argues, the ancient Greeks were very aware of the high risk of such battles, and the role chance played in them, and were not at all opposed to more tricksy means of warring.[lxv]

Nevertheless, these assumptions are reflected in many definitions of war, which require a declaration, the participants to be states (with rational state interests), and/or a certain number of fatalities to qualify as such.[lxvi] These strict criteria – along with sharp delineation between domestic, sub-state, and international conflicts – have contributed to a ‘compartmentalisation’ of research that limits our understanding of conflict.[lxvii]

Some of the enduring nature of this traditional definition of warfare can perhaps be linked to the Victorian decision to continue to depict battles as such, even when these depictions no longer corresponded to the reality of battle. Ramey Mize argues that before the linking of masculinity with machines, there was a prevalent concern that such means of waging war lacked glory and undermined the idea of the soldier-hero.[lxviii] As a consequence, the Victorian public was presented with images of victorious, white British heroes, instead of the clusters of soldiers gathered around the machine gun: the true ‘hero’ of colonial conquest.

Whilst accounts of ‘Western’ warfare often overlook these wars of colonial conquest,[lxix] colonial conquest could arguably be the closest to a distinctly ‘Western’ way of war: a messy mix of private and state forces and interests, identity-based political justifications, excessive violence and the use of concentration camps and genocide in population subjugation and control, and tactics aimed at establishing asymmetry in battles, frequently through the use of technology that facilitates distance on the part of the ‘Western’ soldier. Perhaps, if the very idea of the ‘West’ is a construct of imperial ideology, then the brute force of imperialism is the closest we can get to a ‘Western way of war.’ 

Likewise, where modern ‘Western’ warfare involves drone strikes, covert operations and infiltrations, and night-time ambushes of settlements, it is arguably closer to that tricksy and deceitful form of warfare that Hanson is so keen to separate from.

I should note, however, that can we run into problems here so long as wars need an element of reciprocity in order to be wars; otherwise we might enter the territory of massacres, genocides, and occupations.[lxx] As established in previous thought pieces, it is important not to paint such forms of violence with the brushstrokes of war, lest we – wittingly or unwittingly – legitimise the re-writing and forgetting of atrocities and traumas. 

The point I want to make is that most of the criteria associated with a ‘Western’ sort of warfare are too general to be any sort of criteria at all. This is not to say that there is no such thing as a ‘Western’ way of war, but rather that most attempts at defining it come from an inside perspective that relies on what the ‘West’ values about itself; such perspectives are rarely accurate and always biased. 

As Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers put it, ‘[categorisation] rides roughshod over difference’;[lxxi] in positing a particular ‘Western’ way of doing war, a lot of nuance and complexity becomes lost, a lot of unknowns are glossed over in the name of continuity, and a lot of (often problematic) ideals are perpetuated. Even where we know the shape and numbers of a conflict, we cannot be sure of their accuracy, as only some lives tend to be considered worth grieving in a society, so that the total loss is uncertain.[lxxii] Furthermore, whose experiences of war do we listen to? What do we do with narratives of war when they don’t fit with our thinking on it? And are these experience-based narratives ever unmediated by pre-existing ways of talking about war?[lxxiii] As Christine Sylvester puts it, war is a ‘transhistorical and transcultural social institution’,[lxxiv] one that we are all part of in different and particular ways; further, it is ‘a chameleon […] able to adapt with apparent effortless ease to altered circumstances.’[lxxv] There is, perhaps, too much of chaos in war to posit any particular way of war, ‘Western’ or not.

I am not seeking to make a facile argument that the ‘West’ and the ‘Western way of war’ do not exist, and thus the concepts are obsolete and should not be engaged with. Rather, I want to suggest that these concepts only make sense when viewed in the contexts of colonialism and whiteness. As such, it is important to tackle the stories we tell of ‘Western’ wars, to unpack how such narratives further a particular set of values. The Visualising War project’s interest in ‘Western’ ways of war revolves around this deconstructive focus: in putting narratives and habits of visualising war under the microscope, we aim to raise awareness of their impacts on how future wars might be conceived, understood, fought, or prevented.

The Visualising War project is an ambitious one that seeks to understand and pick apart ways of imagining, telling, and thinking about war from across history, across the world. Associated with the project are researchers like Laura Mills, who investigates martial politics in the everyday through veteran art and the Invictus Games; Leshu Torchin, who has written on the witnessing of the Armenian Genocide in film; and Rory Cox, who has expanded on the history of the just war tradition before Thomas Aquinas, including the ethics of war in ancient Egypt. Through our podcast so far we have spoken to, inter aliosIraqi artist Rana Ibrahim about women’s use of art to communicate their experience of war and displacement; theatre group NMT Automatics about the use of theatre in (re)communicating war stories; Omar Mohammed (aka Mosul Eye) about the power of blogs to visualise conflict as it unfolds; journalists based in Afghanistan about the intersection between journalism, conflict and peace reporting; and Lady Lucy French of the Never Such Innocence project about the voices of children in conflict. For the future, the intention is to work towards greater diversity in focus and participants, across all aspects of the project.

Postdoctoral Researcher Katarina Birkedal obtained her PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2019. She works on gendered experiences of conflict, manifestations of militarism in popular culture, and the aesthetics of depicted violence. She is using her experience of working across different disciplines and art forms to bring together members of the Visualising War research group who work in very different fields to enhance the project’s interdisciplinarity.


[i] On academic complicity and exclusionary practice, see e.g. Alison Howell, ‘Forget “Militarization”: Race, Disability and the “martial Politics” of the Police and of the University’, International Feminist Journal of Politics 20, no. 2 (2018): 117–36; Marysia Zalewski, Feminist International Relations: Exquisite Corpse, Interventions (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013).

[ii] Fred Halliday, ‘The Potentials of Enlightenment’, Review of International Studies 25, no. Special Issue: The Interregnum: Controversies in World Politics 1989-1999 (1999): 105–25.

[iii] See also Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest 16 (1989): 3–18.

[iv] Michael Howard, War in European History, Updated edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5.

[v] Chris Brown, Terry Nardin, and Nicholas Rengger, eds., International Relations in Political Thought: Texts from the Ancient Greeks to the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 183.

[vi] Brown, Nardin, and Rengger, 184–85.

[vii] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 2nd Edition (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), 19–20.

[viii] Andrew Williams, Liberalism and War: The Victors and the Vanquished (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), 5.

[ix] Williams, 35.

[x] Colin Gray, ‘Clausewitz Rules, OK?’, Review of International Studies 25, no. Special Issue: The Interregnum: Controversies in World Politics 1989-1999 (1999): 161–82.

[xi] Rory Cox, ‘Expanding the History of the Just War: The Ethics of War in Ancient Egypt’, International Studies Quarterly 61, no. 2 (2017): 371–84.

[xii] Mats Berdal, ‘The “New Wars” Thesis Revisited’, in The Changing Character of War, ed. Sibylle Scheipers and Hew Strachan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 109–33; Christine Sylvester, War as Experience: Contributions from International Relations and Feminist Analysis (London: Routledge, 2013), 24.

[xiii] John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 270.

[xiv] Parrott, ‘Had a Distinct Template for a “Western Way of War” Been Established before 1800?’, 56–59.

[xv] e.g. Keegan, A History of Warfare; Howard, War in European History.

[xvi] Parrott, ‘Had a Distinct Template for a “Western Way of War” Been Established before 1800?’, 59.

[xvii] Christopher Coker, Barbarous Philosophers: Reflections on the Nature of War from Heraclitus to Heisenberg (London: Hurst and Company, 2010), 56–57.

[xviii] David Parrott, ‘Had a Distinct Template for a “Western Way of War” Been Established before 1800?’, in The Changing Character of War, ed. Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 49–50.

[xix] Christopher Coker, The Future of War: The Re-Enchantment of War in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 17,34.

[xx] Howard, War in European History, 114.

[xxi] Keegan, A History of Warfare, 342–44.

[xxii] Keegan, 14-15,342-344.

[xxiii] Christopher Coker, Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology Is Changing the Way We Fight and Think About War (London: Hurst and Company, 2013), 80.

[xxiv] From his 1898 poem ‘The Modern Traveller.’ CW: explicit period-typical racism. 

[xxv] John A Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (New York: Basic, 2008), 14.

[xxvi] Lynn, 14.

[xxvii] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (London: Hurst and Company, 2009), 13–21.

[xxviii] See e.g. Alice Domurat Dreger, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic, 2000); Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993).

[xxix] Ramey Mize, ‘“Whatever Happens, We Have Got, the Maxim, and They Have Not”: The Conspicuous Absence of Machine Guns in British Imperialist Imagery’, The Rutgers Art Review: The Journal of Graduate Research in Art History 33/34 (2018): 43–65.

[xxx] Zeev Sternhell, Mario Sznajder, and Maia Asheri, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution, trans. David Maisel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 28–29.

[xxxi] Paul K. Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 7.

[xxxii] Saint-Amour, 7.

[xxxiii] James Der Derian, ‘Spy versus Spy: The Intertextual Power of International Intrigue’, in International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics (Toronto: Lexington Books, 1989), 163–87.

[xxxiv] RUSI, Western Way of War, n.d., https://rusi.org/podcast-series/western-way-war-podcasts.

[xxxv] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989), 3,70; Derek Gregory, ‘From a View to a Kill: Drones and Late Modern War’, Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 7–8 (2011): 188–215.

[xxxvi] Jenny Edkins, Poststructuralism and International Relations: Bringing the Political Back In (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999), 50; See Michel Foucault, Les Mots et Les Choses: Une Archéologie Des Sciences Humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).

[xxxvii] James Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, 2nd edition (Oxford: Westview Press, 2009), 232.

[xxxviii] Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1999), 3–4.

[xxxix] Yee-Kuang Heng, War as Risk Management: Strategy and Conflict in an Age of Globalised Risks (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), 32.

[xl] Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, 30–35.

[xli] Qua Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schitzophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 491.

[xlii] Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 12.

[xliii] Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, xxxi.

[xliv] Der Derian, 218.

[xlv] Antoine Bousquet, ‘Chaoplexic Warfare or the Future of Military Organization’, International Affairs 84, no. 5 (2008): 915–29.

[xlvi] Also: Albert E Dien, ‘The Stirrup and Its Effect on Chinese Military History’, Ars Orientalis 16 (1986): 33–56.

[xlvii] Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, 22.

[xlviii] Parrott, 54–55.

[xlix] Parrott, ‘Had a Distinct Template for a “Western Way of War” Been Established before 1800?’, 53.

[l] RUSI.

[li] Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, 3. One of our recent podcasts discusses the later idealisation of Greek pitched battles, which overemphasised their military and historical significance: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1717787/9519585.

[lii] Everett L Wheeler, ‘Reviewed Work(s): The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 21, no. 1 (1990): 122–25.

[liii] Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, 4.

[liv] Lynn, 10–12.

[lv] Lynn, 4–5.

[lvi] Hanson (2001), cited in Lynn, 13–14.

[lvii] Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 17,19,25-27.

[lviii] Christopher Coker, War and the 20th Century: A Study of War and Modern Consciousness (London: Brassey’s, 1994), 4.

[lix] Clausewitz ([1832] 1976), cited in Laura Sjoberg, Gendering Global Conflict: Towards a Feminist Theory of War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 16.

[lx] Keegan, A History of Warfare, 9.

[lxi] Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, 18.

[lxii] Lynn, 15.

[lxiii] Wheeler, ‘Reviewed Work(s): The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson’. Interestingly, he instead puts forward two Homeric ways of Greek warfare: that of Achilles –‘the advocacy of chivalry, face-to-face confrontation, open battle, and use of force’ – and that of Odysseus – ‘a belief in the superiority of trickery, deceit, indirect means, and the avoidance of battle, although not the denial of the use of force or battle if advantageous.’

[lxiv] Wheeler.

[lxv] Roel Konijnendijk, ‘Risk, Chance and Danger in Classical Greek Writing on Battle’, Journal of Ancient History 8, no. 2 (2020): 175–86.

[lxvi] Laura Sjoberg, Gender, War, and Conflict (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014), 9.

[lxvii] Roger Mac Ginty and Andrew Williams, Conflict and Development (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 16.

[lxviii] Mize, ‘“Whatever Happens, We Have Got, the Maxim, and They Have Not”: The Conspicuous Absence of Machine Guns in British Imperialist Imagery’.

[lxix] Berdal, ‘The “New Wars” Thesis Revisited’, 113–16.

[lxx] Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers, ‘Introduction: The Changing Character of War’, in The Changing Character of War, ed. Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 7.

[lxxi] Strachan and Scheipers, 5.

[lxxii] See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2006).

[lxxiii] See e.g. Sylvester, War as Experience: Contributions from International Relations and Feminist Analysis, 45–49.

[lxxiv] Sylvester, 5.

[lxxv] Gray, ‘Clausewitz Rules, OK?’

The Poetics of the Punic Wars, by Thomas Biggs

Dr Thomas Biggs is an expert on Roman Republican literature and author of Poetics of the First Punic War (Michigan, 2020). We interviewed him on the Visualising War podcast recently to find out more about Roman representations of war, and we learnt what a profound impact the Punic Wars had on Roman (and later) visualisations of conflict, conquest and empire. As Tom explained, these conflicts not only shaped Roman politics and identity; they also inspired new forms and trends in literary representation – and these new literary forms and trends in turn helped cement recurring habits of describing, imagining and understanding war. In the blog below, Tom shares with us some excerpts of the Latin texts he refers to in the podcast.

Few verses survive of the Latin poems from the Roman Republic which we discussed in our recent podcast. Studying them means admitting that there are so many things we will never know. The snapshot each fragment provides requires a sceptical stance. Perhaps it only survives because a later author quoted it for a wildly different purpose; or the relevant scrap of a manuscript has by complete chance survived long enough to be copied down again in the modern era. 

Nonetheless, from the epic poems of the Roman Republic, we can still see traces of how war was depicted in this era. I include below a few examples from the earliest Latin poems to depict Roman history: the Punic War of Gnaeus Naevius (composed ca. 220-200 BCE), and the Annals of Quintus Ennius (composed ca. 180-168 BCE). Before these works, Livius Andronicus creatively translated the Homeric Odyssey into Latin and several dramas performed on stage will have engaged with the experience of conflict; but it is in the lines reproduced below that we truly glimpse the earliest literary representations of Rome at war.

Text and translation (sometimes adapted) are quoted from the Loeb Classical Library.

Naevius The Punic War

The poem begins with some type of opening declaration of intent and call for inspiration from the Muses. Naevius also tells readers he fought in the war he is about to narrate: his poem is a veteran’s tale. Aulus Gellius, a later author, preserves the information (17.21.45): ‘Naevius, according to a statement of Marcus Varro. . . served as a soldier in the first Punic War and asserts that very fact himself in the Song which he wrote on that war.’

The war with Carthage (the First Punic War, 264-241 BCE) that forms the main subject of the epic drives the plot from the outset. From the campaigns of 263 BCE, fought in Sicily against the King of Syracuse and the Carthaginians, a surviving fragment touches on one moment of action: ‘Manius Valerius the consul leads a part of his army on an expedition.’ The style is rather declarative and uncomplicated, a choice that creates the feeling of objectivity. We see a more developed use of style to describe the unstoppable Roman advance on Malta in another fragment:

‘The Roman crosses over to Malta, an island unimpaired; he lays it waste by fire and slaughter, and finishes the affairs of the enemy.’

Violent acts compound in a catalogue of Roman success. Roman victory, however, was not always the outcome, and the creation of drama and tension for a reader is attested: ‘that victory rolls to and fro by turns.’

But we have gotten a bit ahead of ourselves. Before Romans could cross to Malta, the poem does something rather curious. It moves from Sicily, the main theatre of the war, back in time to the fall of Troy, that famous topic of Homeric song. The epic may pivot to the past by describing a temple in Sicily. Some lines of the poem record the following: ‘On it there were modelled images showing how the Titans and double-bodied Giants and mighty Atlases, and Runcus too and Purpureus, sons of Earth . . .’ This is a depiction of the war between Giants and Olympian gods, a story used by Greeks and Romans to represent the strife between order and chaos. So, a good myth for making a war seem like it is good vs. evil. A temple in Sicily that famously had these images on it also featured the Trojan war. Some scholars think that this is how we flashback to the account of the sack of Troy and the escape of Aeneas with the refugees of his city. The Trojan story is integrated into Naevius’ poem in detail and informs how any reader understands the more recent conflict with Carthage. That is one of the major innovative moves this poem makes, with earlier myth and literature framing the narrative of a historical war:

The wives of both were passing out from Troy by night; their heads were veiled, and both were weeping many tears, as they went away.

and

‘Their path many mortals follow. Many other dashing heroes from Troy. . .’

The Trojans are then tossed about on the seas before reaching Italy and setting Rome’s history in motion. The gods play a role, and Jupiter even offers a prophecy of the Roman future, which of course leads directly into the story unfolding in the rest of the poem.

A few other moments of conflict can be found in the extant verses that are worth sharing with you here: ‘Haughtily and scornfully he wears out the legions.’ Perhaps this verse records the treatment of Roman soldiers by an overbearing commander, one likely about to suffer reversal and defeat. The relationship between those in charge and those on the front lines seems to have received some consideration, a fact we might consider unsurprising given Naevius’ veteran status.

The narrator appears to construe the Carthaginians as the enemy while focusing on the physical experience of starvation during the siege of a city: ‘Sharp hunger grows great for the enemy.’ The psychological impact of war also shows up: ‘The tumult of a great fear is master of their breasts.’ Alongside fear, we encounter the desire of combatants to live up to expectations, to feel shame at the thought of dishonour:

and they would rather that they perish then and there than return with disgrace to their fellow-countrymen.’ 

‘But if they should forsake those men, the bravest of the brave, great would be the disgrace to the people through all the world.’

The treaty that closes the war makes note of the taking of captives, the mass enslavement that accompanied many acts of ancient warfare that strikes contemporary readers as utterly unthinkable. After the violence and suffering of war, the effects of conflict persist: 

‘This also the Carthaginians swear, that their obligations shall be such as may meet the demands of Lutatius [general and consul at the final victory]; he on his side demands that the Sicilians must give up very many hostages.’

Ennius Annals

Quintus Ennius wrote his epic Annals in the first half of the second century BCE (ca. 180s-170s). It takes a different approach to Rome’s past, telling the story of everything from Troy to the present. Naevius told of one war in light of the deep past; Ennius goes for something even bigger. His epic is also the first to use all the stylistic features of Homeric poetry. There are far too many surviving lines for us to survey the fragments of the poem, so I include here a few choice examples.

The people and the city transform into marital mode in some striking lines:

‘the proletariat at public cost with shields and savage sword was armed. The walls and city and forum they protect by standing guard.’

Rome’s enemies, in this case the Hellenistic Greek king Pyrrhus who invaded Italy, speak words that surprisingly align with Roman ideologies of war and virtue. Ennius may have had a nuanced way of characterising his combatants.

‘I do not ask for gold for myself, nor should you give me a ransom: not hawking war but waging war, with iron, not with gold let both sides resolve the vital question. Whether you or me Dame Fortune wants to rule, or whatever she brings, let us put to the test by valor. And understand this saying, too: Those whose valor the fortune of war has spared, their liberty it is certain that I spare. I offer them—take them—I give them up, as is the great gods’ will.’

The relationships between a Roman commander and his personal aide, a friend who helps him with the burden of leadership, is told in such a memorable fashion that many ancient readers thought the friend must reflect Ennius himself, and the commander one of his Roman patrons.

‘Having said these things, he summons the man with whom very often
he cared to share his table and conversation and his thoughts
on private matters when exhausted from having spent the greater part
of the day managing the highest affairs of state,
giving advice in the forum and the sacred Senate.
To him he would speak with confidence of matters great and small,
of jests and of matters bad and good alike to say
he would unburden, if he wished, and keep them in safety,
with whom much pleasure
joys privately and openly;
whose character no frivolous or evil thought induces
to do an evil deed; a learned, loyal,
accommodating man, delightful, content with what he has, happy,
discerning, with the right word at the right time, obliging, of few
words, retaining much ancient lore, which time has
buried, and retaining customs old and new,
the laws of many ancient gods and men,
a prudent man, able to speak or keep still on matters spoken.
This man amid the fight Servilius addresses thus:’

When war breaks out between Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War (the one fought with the famous Hannibal), the poem uses high-style language to show Discord herself throwing the world into confusion and conflict. Elsewhere, the less supernatural impact of coming war is explored as public opinion shifts in the face of foreign threat:

‘after loathsome Discord
broke open the ironbound posts and portals of War,’good sense is driven from view, by force are affairs managed,
the honest advocate is spurned, the uncouth soldier loved,
not striving with learned speech nor with insulting speech
do they contend among themselves, stirring up hatred;
not to lay claim by law, but rather by the sword—
they press claims and seek mastery—they rush on with force unchecked’

Finally, two examples of the Ennian battlefield itself. One, the clash of troops made visual through a Homeric simile; the other, the depiction of a Roman soldier in language that subtly evokes the Homeric hero Ajax in the Iliad. Both examples show us how many layers went into depicting war in Roman poetry, yet the second underscores the intensity of ancient warfare and the way poetry can convey the sensory experience of it:

‘they clash like the winds, when the South Wind’s gust,
bringing rain, and the North Wind with its own counterblast
compete to raise swells on the mighty main’
‘From all sides the missiles converge like a rainstorm on the tribune:
they pierce his small shield, the boss rings from the shafts,
with the helmet’s bronze echoing, but neither can anyone
though pressing from all sides tear his body with a blade.
All the while he breaks and brandishes the showering shafts.
Sweat possesses his entire body, and he strains greatly,
nor is there a chance to catch a breath. With winged steel
the Istrians harry him as they hurl their spears.’

That is just a flavour of some of the earliest surviving Roman poetry to depict war: the Punic Wars specifically, but – as we have seen – also some mythical and literary precursors of those historical conflicts. Just in these few fragments, we can see something of the complex interplay between literature and history, as old and new literary forms come together to recount real past events and encourage audiences to visualise them through an epic lens. 

You can find out more in Tom’s excellent book – and as Tom mentions above, the texts he cites can be accessed via the Loeb Classical Library.

Letter from a listener

One of our regular podcast listeners – John Weeks – shared these reflections with us recently, inspired particularly by the episode we recorded with Prof. Anders Engberg-Pedersen on the impact of the Napoleonic wars:

‘Your podcasts have sent me back to Tolstoy. His short story of 1912, Hadji Murat, contains examples of ways in which war is visualised.

The context of the story is the fighting in Chechnya in 1851.To use Phillips O`Brien`s distinction, the grand policy of the Tsar was to stabilise the southern border of the Russian Empire, while the strategy chosen by his Generals was to kill Chechen Warlords and to sack and destroy the villages where they recruited their bands of fighters. The story’s eponymous hero, Hadji Murat, was one of the Chechen warlords.

The story is presented as a narration by a Russian, who makes the following claims : I was reminded of a story from long ago in the Caucasus, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from eyewitnesses, and part of which I imagined to myself.

The first visualisation is of warfare as a series of exciting, hand to hand engagements, fought at close quarters with sabres and bayonets. The narrator suggests that that visualisation, a product perhaps of contemporary journalism and popular fiction, had an influence upon the officers commanding a Russian company. The officers knew well enough that it was false, but it nevertheless served to animate them with a certain bravado and swagger. The narrator relates:

Although they all, especially the officers who had seen action, knew and were in a position to know that neither in the war in the Caucasus at that time, nor indeed anywhere at any time, was there any of that hand to hand hacking with sabres which is always imagined and described (and even if there is such hand to hand fighting with sabres and bayonets, then it is always and only those who are fleeing that are hacked and stabbed), this fiction of hand to hand fighting was acknowledged by the officers and lent them that calm pride and cheerfulness with which they sat on the drums, some in dashing, others, by contrast in the most modest poses, smoked , drank and joked, not worrying about the death which might at any time strike down each of them…

The officers described by the narrator are lounging about when they hear a single shot: …in the middle of their conversation, there rang out to the left of the road the invigorating, attractive sound of a rifle-shot’s sharp crack, and the bullet, whistling cheerfully, flew by somewhere in the misty air and cracked into a tree. Several loud and heavy shots from soldiers` rifles replied to the enemy shot. Several Chechen horsemen, drawn up over two hundred metres away, had fired in the direction of the Russian company.

The narrator has here introduced a fresh visualisation. His words – “invigorating”, “attractive” and ”cheerfully” – present a visualisation of this momentary exchange as a bit of fun. Earlier he had indicated that the company had set out from its base not in pursuit of its enemy, but to cut down some trees for timber. He describes the sun coming out and the officers sitting around campfires, eating and drinking.

The narrator goes on to clarify that for the Chechen horsemen their random shot, fired from a safe distance, had been a desultory gesture, made just to show that they were still around: on the opposite side of the gully..several horsemen could be seen. One of them had shot at the line Several soldiers in the line had replied to him. The Chechens had moved away again and the shooting had ceased. The Chechens apparently lost interest and withdrew.

The officer in charge of the Russian company, however, was dissatisfied. He seemed to want more fun, so he ordered his men to open fire again:

no sooner had the command been given, than along the whole length of the line there could be heard the incessant, cheerful, invigorating crackling of rifles, accompanied by attractively diffusing puffs of smoke. The soldiers, pleased with the diversion, hurried their loading and fired round after round. The Chechens evidently sensed the enthusiasm and galloping forward, one after another they fired several shots at the soldiers.

Both sides having enjoyed this fleeting diversion, the Chechens rode off.

Another, and contrasting, visualisation is then introduced, of war as a force which, in the midst of its chaos, selects its victims at random. The Chechen horsemen were not snipers, deliberately focusing upon a target. They fired without aim, simply loosing off shots in the direction of the Russians. It was sheer chance that one Russian happened to get hit by a stray bullet: One of their shots wounded a soldier.

The soldier, Pyotr Avdeyev, is taken to the camp hospital, where he is placed in a ward alongside a man with typhus. Avdeyev endures, without anaesthetic, a prolonged and painful probing of his wound by a doctor, attempting in vain to find and remove the bullet. Avdeyev dies, more it seems from the inadequacy of his medical care than from the severity of his wound.

A new visualisation is then presented in the form of the communiqué about the engagement sent back by the officer in command of the company:

On the 23rd. Of November two companies of the Kurinsky Regiment marched out of the fortress to fell trees. In the middle of the day a significant gathering of mountaineers suddenly attacked the woodcutters. The line began to withdraw, and at this point the Second Company attacked with bayonets and overran the mountaineers. Two privates were slightly wounded in the action and one was killed, while the mountaineers lost about one hundred men, dead and wounded.

That visualisation is evidently shaped by the dynamic of power within the military hierarchy. The officer knows what sort of report will enhance his standing within that hierarchy and what his superiors want to hear about the progress of their strategy. He knows too that, well back from the action, they are in no position to evaluate the accuracy of his report. That report is a work of fiction. The “significant gathering” was just a couple of horsemen. Their “sudden attack” was no more than a pointless gesture of defiance. The Chechens suffered no casualties.

Yet another visualisation comes in the formulaic consolation of the State. A military clerk drafts a standard letter to Avdeyev`s parents, informing them that their son has been killed “defending the Tsar, his homeland and the Orthodox faith”—a grandiose fiction aimed at comforting a family for the loss of a son who was a random casualty in a silly and pointless exchange of fire.

A final visualisation is presented back in Pyotr Avdeyev`s home village. The narrator relates that Avdeyev`s widow, Aksinya, formally laments his death, but he continues:

But in the depths of her soul Aksinya was pleased at Pyotr’s death. She was pregnant again by the shop assistant she lived with, and now nobody could abuse her any more, and the shop assistant could marry her, as he told her he would when he was persuading her to make love.

Aksinya, it seems, visualises war as an accidental, but welcome resolver of relationship tangles. Shocking though it might appear, war, as a terminator of ties, may well have been visualised not so much as a tragedy as an opportunity by some women who had grown apart from their partners.

In just a few pages in a short story, Tolstoy presents a variety of visualisations of war: war as a swashbuckling affair of sabres and spears, war as an entertaining diversion from the monotony of camp life and discipline, war as a random killer that picks hapless victims by chance, war as an arena in which the dynamics of hierarchical power are played out, war as the setting of patriotic self sacrifice in the cause of Empire, and war as a liberator from relationships gone stale. He shows too how those visualisations interact with one another and how they serve particular interests. His fiction highlights the reality that many wars consist not so much of big, planned battles, but of fleeting and inconsequential exchanges of fire.

The story of Hadji Murat acquires additional meanings for modern readers who know that Tolstoy served as an officer in the Russian army in the Caucasus and that the Russians were still fighting Chechen warlords in the first decade of the 21st. Century. 

Re-presenting well-known conflicts: the Imperial War Museum’s new WWII Galleries

The Visualising War podcast has recently been exploring the representation of war in museum spaces. In particular, we have been talking to curators at the Imperial War Museums about their recent redesign of their WWI and WWII Galleries. You can listen to two podcast episodes discussing each set of galleries here and here. In this blog, we feature a selection of objects chosen by curators Vikki Hawkins and Kate Clements to illustrate their approach to narrating WWII.

Total War Theme:

Chinese Air Raid Shelter Admission Ticket from Chongqing, 1942
Facsimile loan from The Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing, China

Case studies and objects are used in the new WWII Galleries to highlight several recurring themes, including Total War (the way the war affected all areas of life) and Global War (its repercussions around the globe). 

IWM holds a large amount of material culture recording experiences of the Blitz and these recognisable objects have the capacity to invoke memory and encourage intergenerational discussions between visitors. IWM has capitalised on the relative familiarity of these Blitz objects to explore more transnational experiences of war, including the experience of aerial attacks in other parts of the globe. 

The display of a Chinese air raid shelter admission ticket and images of people and places affected by bombing in Chongqing helps to bring a marginalised aspect of the Second World War into a prominent public space, deliberately establishing parallels with the better known British experience. The new Galleries also display a German civilian fireman’s jacket, and an ARP medical case and blackout propaganda from other parts of the world. In a section looking at the bombing of Japan, a flag indicating the site of the closest water supply has been used to reflect air raid precautions there. 

Personal Story Approach

Micrometer belonging to Louie White

The new WWII Galleries feature approximately 100 unique stories from individuals across the globe. In many cases, these stories are accompanied by a contemporaneous photograph of the individual and an object associated with their experiences during the conflict. Through this personal story approach, visitors can appreciate the diversity of the people involved and the variety of emotional and physical responses they had to the war, be that pain, suffering, loss, resistance, strength, love, separation, freedom and political awakening. The people featured in the galleries help provide visitors with connections to the past and encourage reflection on their own choices or responses to the challenges individuals faced. 

Louie White’s story speaks to the mobilisation of women for the war effort in Britain from 1941. Louie trained at the Leeds Mechanical Institute as a milling machine operator and in 1942 went to work at the Blackburn Aircraft Factory. Her boss George was impressed with her ability to check the dimensions of aircraft parts using precision measurement tools like this micrometer. Louie was promoted to inspector and bought her own micrometer. George engraved her name on it, and she proudly carried it in her pocket at work for the next three and a half years. Louie’s collection of personal papers (including her workbooks from Leeds Mechanical Institute and her diaries) were donated to the Imperial War Museum in 1982. Her story helps to bring alive the transformative impact of the war on women, and it reflects the museum’s determination that women’s experiences are embedded in the wider narrative of the war.

Global War and people-centric gallery themes:

Helmet liner worn by US soldier on D-Day
External loan, courtesy of the West Point Museum Collection, U.S. Army Museum Enterprise; Photograph from Harry’s son, Curtis

Harry D Evans was a combat medic in the US 4th Infantry Division. He wore this helmet liner when he landed with the third wave of troops to go ashore at Utah Beach on D-Day. Before the invasion, Harry took part in a rehearsal off the Devon coast. Poor communication and an accidental encounter with German fast attack boats resulted in 749 US servicemen being killed. Harry was awarded the Bronze Star with ‘V’ for valour for helping wounded men during this disaster.

D-Day is among the best-known events of the Second World War, particularly in the US and Britain. However, the Imperial War Museums’ collections have very few objects linked to the international nature of Operation Overlord, particularly the US and Canada’s role in the landings. 

The D-Day story is told in the new galleries within a single showcase, placed in front of a large AV screen showing footage of the landings. It deliberately highlights the international aspect of D-Day, and tells the story via five people, one for each of the D-Day beaches. This allows a complex story to come alive in accessible ways.

The IWM’s existing collections provided two strong people-focused stories and related objects for the two British beaches, Gold and Sword. However, for the other three beaches, new material was needed. A collection of uniform, documents and other items belonging to a US Navy officer from Omaha Beach came up for auction and IWM was able to purchase it; other items relating to Juno and Utah beaches were borrowed from museums and archives in Canada and the US, with family members supplying additional testimony and photographs. Each of the men whose stories represent the five beaches had a different role on D-Day; there is a US Army medic, a beachmaster, an British Army chaplain, a war artist and an infantry soldier. This range of stories helps visitors to understand that there was no single D-Day experience, and that it was a vast operation that involved many different people in different roles.

Post-war ripples:

Raminder Parkash Singh

When Raminder Parkash Singh married Indian war hero Parkash in April 1947, they both wore this bright palla (headscarf). Just four months later, they fled their home when India was partitioned. As Sikhs, they left the newly created Islamic country of Pakistan in order to avoid the religious violence that accompanied the partition. Raminder and Parkash barely escaped with their lives. They witnessed the bloodshed as millions of people of different religions crossed the new border. They migrated eastwards to a new farm, arriving with a tawa (cooking pan) but few other possessions.

The palla (headscarf) worn at Raminder and Parkash’s wedding in April 1947

The role of the British Empire in the war is explained throughout the new WWII galleries, including the contribution of India to Britain’s war effort and the growing Indian independence movement. In the final, post-war gallery, the culmination of this story is told, with a focus on the decline of British imperial power and the independence and subsequent Partition of India. 

As in other areas, IWM’s existing collections did not support much of the narrative in this post-war gallery, and Raminder’s objects and story are just a few of many new items that were carefully sourced and collected in order to represent as many global themes and events as possible.

Raminder’s tawa (cooking pan)

Raminder’s tawa is perhaps an unlikely item for display in a war museum, but it now sits alongside her palla, telling the story of the perilous journey which the newly married couple had to make to their new home in northern India. The Victoria Cross which Raminder’s husband won during WWII is on display elsewhere in the IWM. This combination of military and domestic objects (generously shared by Raminder and Parkash’s family) tells a powerful story that many IWM visitors will be unfamiliar with, capturing the ripple effects of a conflict which sparked more conflict, as well as the global nature of the war.

The IWM’s new WWII Galleries opened on 20th October 2021. Together with colleague Paul Cornish, curators Vikki Hawkins and Kate Clements have edited a new book to coincide with the opening: Total War: A People’s History of World War II (Thames&Hudson). We strongly recommend it!

How is ancient warfare taught in schools? Part 1: Scotland, by Jana Mauri Marlborough

Jana Mauri Marlborough is a third-year student in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews. She recently worked as an Undergraduate Research Assistant on the Visualising War project, to support a new strand of research into how ancient warfare is taught and assessed in schools. This research is still in its very early stages, but in the following blog Jana outlines some of her initial findings, based on her analysis of Scottish school curricula, some interviews with school teachers, and a survey which you can find (and fill in!) here

Key findings:

  • The teaching of historical wars in Scotland is often quite insular and Britain/Scotland-centered.
  • War takes a back seat in Scottish curricula relative to other aspects of history, and even at Advanced Higher it is studied less for its own sake and more as part of wider social/political history topics.
  • The curriculum and assessments encourage a considerably more empathic approach to the study of fictional wars than to the study of historical wars.
  • Teachers themselves often go above and beyond the prescribed curricula/their duties to add a more human/humanising element to the study of historical wars; they need more support in this.

‘Ancient warfare has always been one of my favourite subjects within Ancient History. When the opportunity to apply for an undergraduate research position within the Visualising War project came along, I felt that it was the perfect opportunity to sharpen my research skills and help Dr König in her fascinating project. I was delighted to be selected along with my colleague Anna Coopey and eager to get to work.

My role in this project consisted of two distinct tasks; analysing the Classical Studies and Modern History curricula for Scottish secondary schools and comparing them to understand how warfare is being taught in Scottish schools. Scotland has only one education board, the SQA, and their website is the sole source I used for this part of my research. The other half of the project focused on distributing a survey for education professionals and scheduling interviews with secondary school teachers – which proved rather difficult, since we were working around the start of term dates in Scotland and teachers were super busy!

At the very start of my long journey of looking at curriculum specifications, I bumped into something that caught my attention. Bearing in mind that I was not educated in Britain myself, I was somewhat surprised to see how British-focused the curricula were. To learn that World War I is taught as part of the Scottish History curriculum and not World History left me almost speechless. This insularity is reflected within Classical Studies as well, where one of the recurring themes is Roman Britain, with the Boudican Revolt featuring as one of the two wars included in the curriculum up to Higher level.

Generally speaking, the Scottish Classical Studies curriculum is not, at least on paper, particularly focused on teaching war. It offers a combination of socio-political and religious themes, from Athenian democracy to life in Pompeii, and addresses those subjects rather broadly in its initial three years (N3, N4, and N5). The curriculum becomes considerably more robust in year 6, with the Advanced Higher course. It is in year 6 that pupils make a considerable knowledge jump and are introduced to some material that is also reviewed in sub-honours university courses. 

Even so, while war gets a lot more airtime in Advanced Higher compared with at other levels, it is never given centre stage. Instead, it appears to be relegated to a supporting role in the teaching of contemporary historiography and ancient literature.

In Advanced Higher, students become closely acquainted with the likes of Herodotus and Livy and look at multiple accounts of the Trojan War, including Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad. It was through looking at the Advanced Higher curriculum that I observed something disconcerting: when working with historiography depicting real wars, the main goal of the course seemed to be the analysis of contemporary sources and its setbacks from a historian’s point of view, while the study of fictional wars came with a considerably more empathetic approach. Past papers suggest that when fictional wars were being studied, the impacts of warfare were more broadly considered, going beyond the wellbeing and struggles faced by soldiers to shed light on how their absence and the uncertainty of their fate were felt by the loved ones that they left behind and their communities. This emphasis (and the equivalent gap in the study of historical wars) chimed with my colleague Anna Coopey’s findings for the English curricula.

Despite curriculum limitations, I was pleased to find out that teachers are very much committed to an empathetic approach when teaching pupils about war and often promote classroom activities that help pupils understand the impacts of war in their communities. One of our interviewees, a Modern History teacher from Falkirk, mentioned that practices such as bringing veterans into the classroom, organising class trips to battle sites and war cemeteries, and using class time to discuss ethical issues surrounding warfare are some of the tactics he uses in his classroom to separate real war from Call of Duty idealisations that pupils might have, allowing for a more realistic view of war and its lasting impact on families and communities. 

Teachers also mentioned that, however helpful, those activities are, they are not part of the SQA curriculum, and it is ultimately up to the teachers’ availability and generosity to organise such events. In fact, teachers often must resort to using class time within other social disciplines, such as Religious and Moral Studies, to have these conversations surrounding the morality of war, as well as spending their own free time organising and conducting field trips and other activities, since (according to them) the curricula can be somewhat restrictive, especially in upper years, where the main goal of the course is to prepare pupils for exams. 

Having a vested interest in both ancient warfare and education, I started my research with certain biases and preconceptions, perhaps expecting to find a lot more glorification of raw masculinity and militarism than I actually did. Instead, I encountered something completely different but perhaps as alarming. The rigidity of the curriculum and its emphasis on examinations and technical knowledge seem to have replaced a comprehensive approach to the teaching of History, ancient or modern. Along with that, the insularity of the curriculum, and the apparent absence of empathy shown in the SQA specifications when addressing real wars, are the most concerning points I encountered in my research. 

On to the more positive side: teachers are fully aware of the need to connect pupils with the humane side of History and provide them with experiences that encourage empathy, despite being limited by the curricula on what they can and cannot do. For children to understand the impacts of war, whether today or in ancient times, the curricula must have space for shared experiences that foster empathy and not just mechanically focus on analysing ancient text and writing exams.’

Together with Anna’s findings, Jana’s analysis of school curricula and interviews with school teachers will inform the Visualising War project’s wider research into how war/wars are taught in schools at all levels and in different parts of the world. This research is an important strand of our work looking at the habits of visualising war which children and young people form as they grow up. In time, we hope to speak to many more teachers, curriculum designers, qualifications authorities and pupils, and to co-produce some materials in consultation with them which will support their work. 

Our survey for school teachers remains open: if you have experience of teaching any kind of war or conflict in schools, please do fill it in. Thank you!

How is ancient warfare taught in schools? Part 2: England, by Anna Coopey

Anna Coopey is a third-year student in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews. She recently worked as an Undergraduate Research Assistant on the Visualising War project (alongside Jana Mauri Marlborough), to support a new strand of research looking at how ancient warfare is taught and assessed in schools. This research is still in its very early stages, but in the following blog Anna outlines some of her initial findings, based on her analysis of school curricula, some interviews with school teachers, and a survey which you can find (and fill in!) here

Key findings:

  • While some curricula include a ‘human costs’ aspect in the study of ancient warfare and encourage pupils to look at it from civilian and not just military perspectives, assessments tend to focus on armies/tactics/military prowess.
  • More crossover between how fictional and historical wars are taught/assessed would be valuable.
  • Teachers often try to make connections between ancient wars and modern conflicts, and one particular benefit of this is to humanise ancient victims of war. 

‘This month, I’ve been working with The Visualising War Project to investigate the ways in which modern and ancient wars are taught in schools. It was quite a daunting project to undertake, full of interviews with loaded questions and plenty of debate on the nature of war and its importance in our society – but, after hours of poring over curricula and specifications, sending out survey links and having some lovely chats with some very insightful people over Zoom, I feel myself somewhat qualified to talk a little bit about what I’ve found.

My side of the project was focused on the English curriculum and specifications from the ages of 11 to 18, particularly in the subject areas of Classical Civilisation, Ancient History, and Modern History GCSE and A-Level, as well as KS3 study. As many Classicists will be aware, the dwindling nature of our subject in secondary schools has meant that only one exam board – OCR – offers the first two of these subjects, so I spent a lot of time on their website and found some rather interesting things!

Perhaps the most notable thing I discovered was in the GCSE specification, in which there is an optional module called War & Warfare. On page 26 of their specification, OCR writes the following:

‘War is one of the most significant aspects of human behaviour, and war and warfare in the classical world holds an endless and compelling fascination. This component highlights different aspects of warfare in the ancient world, including the purposes, conduct and effects of war, as well as how the military interacted with, and impacted upon, wider society.’

Of course, when I read this, I was ecstatic – and the more I read of the specification, the better it seemed to get. The main exam board of Classical Civilisation in England was encouraging engagement with the negative effects of war, not only on soldiers, but also on other impacted groups, such as women, children, and civilians. 

Then, I got to the exam papers.

While OCR seems to encourage critical engagement with the effects of war from the outset, and to advocate a new approach to teaching ancient warfare that echoes the approach in Modern History (with a focus on what the wars did to people rather than which weapons were used), when it came to the assessments a different picture emerged. Because GCSE exams tend to focus on assessing knowledge rather than analysis and evaluation (which are more of a feature at A Level), this kind of question remain common in the War and Warfare Sample Question Paper: ‘Compare and contrast the Spartan army with either that of Athens or of Rome. Which do you think was better?’ Rather than encouraging empathy with the suffering that these wars would have put people through – these actual, historical wars – the exams seem to encourage us to evaluate their tactics and military success, which seems, to me, a little tone-deaf. (This chimed with what my colleague Jana Mauri Marlborough found during her analysis of equivalent Scottish curricula.)

Of course, there are exceptions, and there are some questions which invite empathy and sympathy from the students taking them. For example, in the War and Warfare paper from June 2019, this question was asked: ‘Give two ways that Virgil creates sympathy for the victims of war’. But there is one notable difference here: the wars depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid are fictional, whereas the wars that the Spartan, Athenian, and Roman armies fought in were not. There is an encouragement to sympathise with fictional warriors that is entirely missing from questions surrounding actual, historical war, and it is this absence of empathy with real-life people that troubles me. The approximately 4000 dead Greeks and 20,000 dead Persians after the Battle of Thermopylae are just as much humans and deserving of sympathy as the fictional Patroclus and Hector, and Andromache and Hecuba, too. 

I have spoken to many of my interviewees about this problem – about the disjunct in sympathy / empathy between our engagement with actual, historical ancient war and the fictional wars shown in Homer and Virgil – and many have suggested that this lack of empathy may be because of the lack of source material that gives sympathetic insights. Of course, this is true. As one interviewee remarked, ancient historians like Thucydides were not writing purely to entertain, so we should not expect pathos and sympathetic renderings to dominate ahead of facts. But perhaps the limitations of our sources simply call for more imagination in the ways that we teach war. Perhaps, in the absence of strong evidence, we should still make the effort to conjecture what could have been going on and how people might have experienced it. ‘Subjunctive history’, as Dakin calls it in Alan Bennett’s History Boys.

Another aspect of school-level war studies which caught my attention was the way in which teachers make lots of links to the modern day from their source material. One interviewee argued that if you are a Classics teacher and you don’t make references to the modern day in your teaching, something’s wrong. I would tend to agree! Teachers gave examples of how they tried to link up with contemporary events in their teaching, referencing for example the Troy exhibition at the British Museum in 2020, where performances were shown of Euripides’ Trojan Women by Syrian refugee women. Many mentioned what is currently going on in Afghanistan, and how they would link this to their teaching of the Iliad and Aeneid, and some linked Roman Republican politics to the political situation in the West from 2016 to January 2021. 

Perhaps this is the way in which we can encourage more empathy in our students when studying ancient warfare. Perhaps, by cross-referencing ancient and modern situations where we have a variety of viewpoints and evidence, we can encourage budding Classicists to view the dead of the ancient battlefields just as emotionally as the dead of recent years – as people, not numbers, and as human beings, not statistics. This has benefits for understanding modern warfare as well as for ancient studies.

There is still some way to go in the way we teach ancient war, but I think empathy absolutely crucial: students need to see Pericles and Leonidas as just as much people as Churchill and Stalin to understand their wartime leadership, and they need to understand the horror of war outside of the prism of literature. They need to understand that war is just was devastating to the ancient man too. I would like to see more empathy encouraged in the teaching of ancient warfare in schools.’ 

Together with Jana’s findings, Anna’s analysis of school curricula and interviews with school teachers will inform the Visualising War project’s wider research into how war/wars – and conflict resolution and peacebuilding – are taught in schools at all levels and in different parts of the world. This research is an important strand of our work looking at the habits of visualising war which children and young people are encouraged to form as they grow up. In time, we hope to speak to many more teachers, curriculum designers, qualifications authorities and pupils, and to co-produce some materials in consultation with them which will enhance the ways in which pupils are taught to visualise both war and peace. 

Our survey for school teachers remains open: if you have experience of teaching any kind of war or conflict in schools, please do fill it in. Thank you!