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Spectacles of death

Afghanistan, April 2017

What most struck me about the first American wedding in which I participated in 2004 was the proliferation of acronyms. There was a MOH and DH and MOB, and I could not for the life of me figure out why one would abbreviate their life partner to sound like an express postal service or their mother to sound like an all-caps mafia. Thirteen years of US-based weddings later, I have learned that wedding acronyms are the shorthand of an insider: a signal to others that you are fluent in the esoteric language of performative partnership.

When the news alerts started flashing that the US had dropped the MOAB in Afghanistan, images of satin-clad Maids of Honor parachuting out of fighter jets urgently clutching bouquets flooded my imagination. Warfare shorthand is not unlike wedding-industrial complex shorthand: it signals insiderness. A MOAB is the mother of all bombs, and within hours, the acronym rolls off tongues, like we grew up saying it. News agencies struggle to decide whether to put ‘mother of all bombs’ between quotes, as though without the punctuation, anyone could be misled to believe in a matriarchy of ammunition.

What does the appropriation of the language of motherhood do to acts of violence? How does cloaking violence in the veneer of maternity obscure its ends and sanitize its means?

I did not yet speak English when feminist scholar Carol Cohn wrote “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” I did not yet know that Cohn’s analysis of the use of gendered language towards ‘technostrategic’ militarized ends would influence my views on feminism, militarism, and notions of critical citizenship. Cohn notes:

What hit me first was the elaborate use of abstraction and euphemism, of words so bland that they never forced the speaker or enabled the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust that lay behind the words.

What realities of dropping the Mother of All Bombs into Afghanistan does the language of motherhood and its catchy militarized acronym hide? And how does the insistence on a language of specialization and the preservation of an insider/outsider culture–“oh, you don’t understand, this is just the term, this is how we speak, nothing to it”–preserve our distancing from violence?

Cohn continues her analysis of defense intellectuals by pointing out the sexualized imagery of warfare. She writes, “both the military itself and the arms manufacturers are constantly exploiting the phallic imagery and promise of sexual domination that their weapons so conveniently suggest.” In support of this claim, she scans magazine advertisements for weapons and discourses on weapons systems. In support of this claim, I look around with discomfort to discover that even those who criticize the decision-making process behind the use of the Mother of all Bombs remain a little in awe that it exists and that it, too, is American. I recognize a sense of pride that the biggest missile is ‘ours’, that we have won the locker room contest in a world that is seemingly full of locker room talk, even if this locker room becomes our undoing.

When I articulate my own discomfort at the euphemisms that render violence less legible, I am reassured that it is ‘just’ an expression. Alas, I have learned to pay attention to the ‘just’ that justifies all transgressions. ‘Just’ words, ‘just’ an expression, I was ‘just’ saying: Ever the minimizer of harm. To me, feminism means paying attention to words, to discourse — and to how discourse not only reflects meaning, but also makes it.

Feminism also means paying attention to essentializing discourses of a peaceful femininity. In the same way that I am skeptical about ‘just,’ feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe has taught me to be skeptical about ‘naturally.’ Mothers are not naturally peaceful. They are not naturally nurturing. They are not naturally antithetical to bombs. Arguing that the framing of MOAB is unjust because femininity is naturally peaceable and world harmony emanates from our wombs walks us back to that same essentialist dead end from which we seek to escape.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us paying close attention to who uses the discourse and imagery of motherhood (and its seductive-but-not-linear-or-natural association with innocence and peace) and to what ends. It leaves us resisting the acronym. It leaves us looking at the belly of a plane birthing a militarized phallus and remembering to ask what happens at the other end — what happens when our jingoistic pride at size has subsided and when the camera has stopped rolling.

*

Syria, April 2017

The camera did not stop rolling in Syria for a while. Grief sears itself into memory: whether its yours, or that of others. Whether it is Aylan washed up on a Turkish shore in 2016 or the father holding his two dying children during the chemical attack in Syria in April 2017, recalling those images tastes like death and outrage and paralysis and indignation. Our indignation–like our compassion–is stratified. As Miriam Ticktin writes:

“Appearances matter in whether we feel sympathy or not. […] Innocence is about purity, vulnerability and naivety; it carries the desire to protect and take responsibility for those who–in their want of knowledge–cannot take care of themselves. Innocence establishes a hierarchical relationship between those who care and those who are cared for.”

I watched the videos too. The image of the father clutching his dying children has escorted me through my day. In watching them,I have wondered about consent and death. When, in the scale of mass atrocity, did the death of those children start to belong to us? When did we become entitled to witnessing this man’s grief? What is it that allows–or even compels–us to stare at a child as she takes her last breath? At some point in the arc of this war and its narration, childhood stopped being private and intimate, and so did death. It became viewable and, through its viewing, iconic.

We can argue that violence itself is public and performative and ruptures social bonds — and its documentation merely captures the rupture, rather than causing or reinforcing it. We can argue that documentation is a duty and an act of resistance. As James Dawes writes in Evil Men:

The argument that we must bear witness to atrocity, that we must tell the story, is the core of the catechism of the human rights movement. We gather testimony, we investigate and detail war crimes, because we are morally bound to do so.

Or we can, following Timothy Pachirat, interrogate the politics of sight to argue that there is a more “nuanced relation between sight and sequestration than simple binaries between visible/invisible, plain/hidden, and open/confined can accommodate. Even when intended as a tactic of social and political transformation, the act of making the hidden visible may be equally likely to generate other, more effective ways of confining it.” Pachirat goes on to quote Susan Sontag:

“The gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards, unable to look. Those with the stomach to look are playing a role authorized by many glorious depictions of suffering. Torment, a canonical subject in art, is often represented in painting as a spectacle, something being watched or ignored by other people. The implication is: no, it cannot be stopped — and the mingling of inattentive with attentive onlookers underscores this.”

How confident are we that we will be on the right side of these politics of sight? Are we confident enough to blur the lines of consent and to capture the last breaths of fellow humans? What is that precise moment at which those bodies slipped over to history, transcending the private lives from which they emerged to become public spectacle? What hopes did they carry with them during this transformation? And did those of us who viewed the video have that same confidence and sense of duty to carry those hopes?

*

Greece, April 2017

After two days of violent hallucinations, my brother was lucid for a few moments.

Language matters, for bombs and brothers alike.

I have struggled to describe him. My father was married three times and had a child from each marriage. Technically, we are half-siblings to each other. In actuality, until recently, the three of us have led peacefully divergent lives–a distance bred by geography, a remarkable age difference, and the different family circumstances into which we each landed as our respective mothers navigated life. When I heard that my eldest brother was acutely ill and entering his final days, I did what I do in the face of transatlantic death: I got on a plane.

When I informed colleagues and friends, I found myself reassuring them. Yes, my brother is dying, but he is not that kind of brother, we did not grow up together, we were not close, and no, don’t worry, I am fine. All of Greece trades in Easter metaphors this time of spring, and my statements felt like the denial of Peter, like a callous act of minimization of familial bonds and pain alike. I found myself managing expectations in the way those who are fluent in grief often do, with an added complexity: The appearance of a layer of family that some of my loved ones had not heard much about overrepresented a kinship I had not ever fully experienced. It did not necessarily allay my solitude or make me feel like less of an orphan. It merely expanded the pool of grief into which I could swim.

I was hubristic about my own fluency in grief. I knew that, in the languages of loss, I already spoke sudden death, and wartime death, and protracted loss, and illness (and the less physical, but nonetheless grievable losses: displacement, divorce, immigration). I expected them to prepare me for sitting by a hospital bed and saying goodbye.

To some extent, they did. I know how to speak to nurses and doctors and navigate morbid bureaucracy. I know what to ask, in which tone, what to argue about, what to release. I know how to speak to someone who cannot quite hear over the machinery breathing air into him.

I did not know how to sit next to someone who is dying and knows it — who does not slip out of this world suddenly, in a few breaths, or even protractedly but without consciousness.

I read three books in the hospital and do not remember a single word out of any of them. I picked an argument with a doctor about the patriarchy. I ate a lot of Kinder Buenos that tasted like the griefs of a younger self. But mostly, I stared.

I stared at the alternating pressure mattress, meant to prevent bedsores. I stared at the bag of food and the tubes linking it to my brother. I stared at his bones, counting each bone in his foot, each tiny component of every toe. “He gets 2,600 calories a day,” the doctor reassured me. “But the cancer eats everything, you see.” I stared at the herpes outbreak all over his head, a function of protracted hospitalization and a weak immune system. It was at once his most harmless and visible injury.

When he opens his eyes, the nurses say “all three of you — what is it with these eyes! Was it your dad? Is that where they came from?” As the days pass and liquid builds up in his lungs, he coughs more and more. I blink at him and reassure him back to sleep. I continue to stare with an almost ethnographic fascination, guilty at my own voyeurism in the face of the process of dying.

On the third day of my being there, the day my brother was lucid, the physical therapist paid us a visit. He speaks to patients with formality, with none of the casual familiarity I have seen in my life in the US. “Mr. Krystallis! Mr. Krystallis, can you hear me?” I have not heard anyone calling for Mr. Krystallis since our father was alive. “Mr. Krystallis, I am going to call for two nurses and get you to stand for a minute. It will be good for you.”

The tubes get unhooked, the portable oxygen unit appears, as do two of the tallest men I have seen in Greece. “Yes, basketball player,” one of them tells me, without my asking. They lift my brother from the bed. His clothes drape, he seems disoriented at gravity, at his feet touching the floor, at touch itself. “Take a picture, take a picture, we are standing!,” one of the men tells me. “Take a picture for your other brother to show him!,” our private nurse prompts me.

I am staring at every bone. Both my brother and I are acutely aware that we are participating in the spectacle of dying: he, the reluctant performer; I, the reluctant audience. I raise my phone to take a photo, but do not have the heart to capture his face. The resulting image depicts the lined hospital floor, the white uniform of the basketball-player-turned-nurse, and all the visible bones in my brother’s lower legs.

When everyone asks to see it after my brother is back in bed, I apologize. “It is blurry, it seems.” “Blurry?!,” the nurse reacts in disappointment. “It is okay, we will take one tomorrow,” she reassures me. Both she and I know that will not happen.

The photo, in all its clarity, still sits in my phone, sandwiched between images of every jacaranda tree on the verge of blossoming in Athens that week.

 

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