Why Torture When Torture Does Not Work? Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and the Persistence of White Terror

A guest post from Melanie Richter-Montpetit, responding to the disclosure of the Senate Torture Report in December. Melanie is currently lecturer in international security at the University of Sussex, having recently gained her PhD from York University in Toronto. Her work on issues of subjectivity, belonging and political violence has also been published in Security Dialogue and the International Feminist Journal of Politics.


a land on which no slave can breathe.

- Frederick Douglass (1846)[i]

I had to leave; I needed to be in a place where I could breathe and not feel someone’s hand on my throat.

- James Baldwin (1977)[ii]

I can’t breathe.

- Eric Garner (2014)

 America Waterboards

No, bin Laden was not found because of CIA torture.[iii] In fact, the US Senate’s official investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation program concludes that torture yielded not a single documented case of “actionable intelligence.” If anything, the Senate Torture Report[iv] – based on the review of more than six million pages of CIA material, including operational cables, intelligence reports, internal memoranda and emails, briefing materials, interview transcripts, contracts, and other records – shows that the administration of torture has led to blowbacks due to false intelligence and disrupted relationships with prisoners who cooperated. What went “wrong”? How is it possible that despite the enormous efforts and resources invested in the CIA-led global torture regime, including the careful guidance and support by psychologists[v] and medical doctors, that the post-9/11 detention and interrogation program failed to produce a single case of actionable data? Well, contrary to the commonsense understanding of torture as a form of information-gathering, confessions made under the influence of torture produce notoriously unreliable data, and the overwhelming majority of interrogation experts and studies oppose the collection of intelligence via the use of torture. This is because most people are willing to say anything to stop the pain or to avoid getting killed and/or are simply unable to remember accurate information owing to exhaustion and trauma.[vi]

So if torture is known not work, how come, then, that in the wake of 9/11 the U.S. at the highest levels of government ran the risk of setting up a torture regime in violation of international and domestic law? Why alienate international support and exacerbate resentments against “America” with the public display of controversial incarceration practices, as in Guantánamo Bay, instead of simply relying on the existing system of secret renditions? Furthermore, in the words of a former head of interrogations at Guantánamo Bay, most of the tortured and indefinitely detained are “Mickey Mouse” prisoners,[vii] reportedly known not to be involved in or not to have any information on criminal or terrorist activity against the U.S. and its allies. Drawing on previously published work, I will explore this puzzle by addressing two key questions: What is the value of these carceral practices when they do not produce actionable intelligence? And, what are some of the affective and material economies involved in making these absurd and seemingly counterproductive carceral practices possible and desirable as technologies of security in the post-9/11 Counterterrorism efforts?

Against the exceptionalism[viii] of conceiving of these violences as “cruel and unusual,” “abuse” or “human rights violations”[ix] that indicate a return to “medieval” methods of punishment, the post-9/11 US torture regime speaks to the constitutive role of certain racial-sexual violences in the production of the US social formation. Contrary to understandings of 9/11 and the authorization of the torture regime as a watershed moment in U.S. history “destroying the soul of America,”[x] the carceral security or pacification practices documented in the Senate Torture Report and their underpinning racial-sexual grammars of legitimate violence and suffering have played a fundamental role in the making of the US state and nation since the early days of settlement.[xi] The CIA Detention and Interrogation program[xii] targeting Muslimified subjects and populations was not only shaped by the gendered racial-sexual grammars of Orientalism, but – as has been less explored in IR[xiii]is informed also by grammars of anti-Blackness, the capture and enslavement of Africans and the concomitant production of the figure of the Black body as the site of enslaveability and openness to gratuitous violence.[xiv]

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The Global Colonial 1914-18: A Public Roundtable

This is the fourth and final post in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18, which is the video and transcript of the public event which took place at SOAS on September 18th 2014. Links to previous posts and the series as a whole can be found here. Many thanks to our speakers Hakim Adi, Catriona Pennell, Parmjit Singh, Martin Spafford and Charles Tripp for their contributions, as well as the audience for their incisive questions.

Global Colonial 1914 poster


M = Meera Sabaratnam

C = Charles Tripp

H = Dr Hakim Adi

P = Parmjit Singh

CP = Catriona Pennell

MS = Martin Spafford

M:       Okay. Hello, everybody and welcome. Thanks very much for coming. My name is Meera Sabaratnam, I’m a lecturer here at SOAS in international relations. And tonight we’re delighted to host a roundtable on the Global Colonial 1914-18. So obviously this is triggered by a number of contemporary events, not least the centenary of World War One, which you’ll have seen all over the news. But one of the stories I suppose, that gets told less often is the role of the wider world in the way that the war unravelled but also as a theatre of war. And in the place of where the war stood as part of the global context. So what else was going on, multiple revolutions, uprisings. So this is a moment in which the war is an important part of a global order which is undergoing substantial amounts of change. I should say this event is also sponsored…has been organised through the British International Studies Association and their working group on colonial, post-colonial and de-colonial research questions.

And this particular group tries to look at the elements of coloniality and colonialism in how the modern world came to be and what that means for when we understand globalisation and global history. I’m delighted to have a roster of speakers here tonight covering not just all of the sort of main areas, the regions that we’re studying in SOAS, namely Asia, Africa and Middle East. But also researchers and teachers who have been involved in how World War One is remembered in the classroom as a form of public cultural memory. Each of our speakers is going to speak for about 10 minutes. And then after that we’ll open it up for questions. Please do be forthcoming with your questions and we hope to have a good discussion afterwards, okay. I’d first like to welcome Professor Charles Tripp who is professor of Middle East here at SOAS. Thanks.

C:        Thank you very much, Meera. It sounds rather grand, I’m not the professor of Middle East, I’m professor of politics in the Middle East. But why not, grander? I was asked to talk today about the relationship between what was happening in the Middle East and what happened to the Middle East in and around the First World War. And I must admit straight off, I’m not a historian, so I don’t work on the first war particularly but clearly anybody who works in the politics of the Middle East is well aware of the fact that legacies of the First World War and what happened to the region are still very much there and indeed are being revived in the press in one form or another as they talk about Syria and Iraq at the moment. But what I wanted to really try and do is to pick out two themes if I can, in the time allotted. One is the notion that as with many other parts of the world, much was happening before the First World War that the First World War changed the course of, if you like. So in a sense one of the dangers of looking, which of course happens now to some extent in the press and elsewhere, is to see the Middle East purely as the Middle East as a political entity, whatever that is, as a kind of creation of European intervention, the First World War.

But what I’m trying to argue is that actually there were processes long before that that had been going on and that in some ways the European intervention set back in various significant ways that had an effect for the future as well. So the first part is really to think about what had been happening in the 50 years or so before the First World War in the region, we now think of as the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Qajar, Iran, North Africa. And I want to look at two themes which are intertwined but really revolve around the same emerging idea and notion which is the idea of the autonomous citizen, which again was quite a novel, a radical idea with hugely radical implications for the dispensations of power. But the two themes that they were intertwined with was, one, the struggle against despotism and the other, struggle against colonialism, both of these seemed to be deeply repressive of the idea of the autonomous citizen. And in some senses therefore what you’re looking at in the long…well, the period before the First World War in the 40 or 50 years, whether it’s in the Ottoman Empire, the Qajar Empire, Iran, in Egypt, you have a struggle against local despotism for constitutionalism. A precarious constitutionalism which is often of course therefore sabotaged by those who would rather not see it. But nevertheless very powerful in the mobilisation of the politics of these regions. Continue reading

Mozambique and the Invisible Bodies: A Contrapuntal Reading of the Great War (1914-1918)

This is the third in a series of posts on the Global Colonial 1914-18.


The British cemetery in Lumbo, northern Mozambique, where individual headstones are inscribed for the fallen white soldiers of the Empire in the Great War. A few names of non-white enlisted East African, West African and Indian soldiers who died are engraved on memorial stones at the side of cemetery. The dead African porters and civilians are not remembered.

The British cemetery in Lumbo, northern Mozambique, where individual headstones are inscribed for the fallen white soldiers of the Empire in the Great War. A few names of non-white enlisted East African, West African and Indian soldiers who died are engraved on memorial stones at the side of cemetery. The dead African porters and civilians are not remembered.

Whatever one’s views on the causes, significance and consequences of the ‘Great War’, few deny that it was ‘world-historical’ as an ‘event’ or series of events. 1914 is offered by Hobsbawm as the end of the ‘long nineteenth century’; a periodization which is widely accepted as giving birth, finally, to ‘the modern world’. The horrors of the Great War, then, are quintessentially the horrors of modernity. The bodies of the Great War are the product of a particular configuration of nationalism, militarism, technology, class relations, capitalist expansion and an effective state administration, which enables death at this level of efficiency and magnitude. The fog of war does not arise from irrationality, but from the awe-inspiring complex edifice of modern political organisation playing out its tragic fate amongst white European nations. If we are looking for the ‘big picture’, this, it seems, is it.

Yet the ‘big picture’ metaphor is only expressive in a two-dimensional and static framing of history, rather like a painting. Said suggested on the other hand that thinking musically might be a more appropriate way of conceiving the pluralities of historical time. Musical counterpoint, in which independently moving melodies weave in and out of each other, creating resonances, harmonies, dissonances and an altogether more complex sound, was his method for thinking about the historical relationship between colonies and metropoles. Neither is subsumed under the other, and they may have different rhythms and patterns, but they move simultaneously through time. The hope is that reading history contrapuntally enables us to hear multiple melodies, neither cacophonously (although this may be itself productive) nor monotonously, but in a way which discloses both the relatedness and distinctiveness of human experiences.

With this in mind, in what follows I reconstruct some fragments of historical melodies in what is now called Mozambique from the period of the Great War, thinking about what this might disclose for our present histories and remembrances – what David Scott might call our own ‘problem-space’. The East African Campaign – if it is remembered at all in the metropole – is remembered mostly as the site of a brilliant and gutsy guerrilla campaign by the German commander Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and a small hardy detachment of Schutztruppe, who surrendered two weeks after the declaration of the Armistice having cunningly evaded the British throughout the war. Yet, this romanticised history of innovative military tactics in exotic tropical climes heavily obscures almost everything about the historicity of the war in East Africa – indeed it obscures much of the history of the campaign itself. Clearly, part of our contrapuntal reading must be a reading of these missing notes and melodies within the campaign.

Beyond this, however, the reading must open up the historical presence and experience of the peoples in what was at the time called Portuguese East Africa. If the ‘Great War’ began in Africa, it did not necessarily mean the same across the continent as it did elsewhere. Whilst both deadly and destructive, the matrix of war-related destruction was also configured by specific colonial historical relations of violence, prestige and dispossession, as well as by political struggles within the colonised space. These experiences resonate in unexpected, but important, ways with the ‘world-historical’ moment of the war.

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Toward a Racial Genealogy of the Great War

dusan-bjelic-portretA second guest post in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18 from Dušan I. Bjelić. Dušan received both his B.A. (1976) and M.A. (1981) in Sociology from the University of Belgrade and then earned his Ph.D in Sociology from Boston University in 1989, joining the University of Southern Maine Department of Sociology and Criminology in 1990. His area of interest is the colonizing application of psychoanalysis and psychiatry to the Balkans. Professor Bjelić co-edited Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation with Obrad Savić (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002). He has also published two books of his own: Galileo’s Pendulum: Science, Sexuality and the Body-Instrument Link, (SUNY Press, 2003) and Normalizing the Balkans: Geopolitics of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Ashgate, 2011). His published works can be accessed at Academia.edu.


“Just as there is no wedding dinner without meat so there is no war without slaves.”

-Serb soldier on the Balkan Front.[1]

A man was looking for something he had lost under the street lights; another man, the joke goes, approached and asked him what he was looking for. “I am looking for my lost keys,” “Did you lose them here?” “No,” the first man responded, “I lost them on the dark side of the street.” “But, why are you looking here?” “Because this is where the light is.” This joke illustrates well the paradox of the national paradigm in European historiography of the Great War. The assumption that the European sovereign nation is the sole agent of modern history naturally motivates European historiography to frame the Great War within a national paradigm and foreclose its colonial dimension. A related trope to the above joke pertains to race and its relation to the national histories of Europe; the black face of a slave, according to Frantz Fanon, can be seen during the night only under the porch light of the master, but when the slave goes into the dark his face becomes invisible. The deployment of colonial soldiers in the Great War as “warrior races” or, “martial races” to fight on behalf of their masters, and the absence of the Black history of slavery from the history of the Great War is in fact the history written from the master’s porch. While the invisibility of the black face foreclosed Black history from the national paradigm of the Great War, it was nonetheless useful as a racial weapon in the war.

By deploying almost a million non-white troops in the European theater of war—France’s 500,000 Africans and Asians, Britain’s 200,000 Indians and Africans, America 200,000 black soldiers, Germany’s 11,000 Africans (only in East Africa)—race was used as a “weapon of war” to advance an unprecedented slaughter among the white nations. [2] R. J. Vincent socked it to the revisionist historians when he wrote, “not only were the whites laying to rest the notion of their instinctive comity by butchering each other in such unprecedented numbers, but they were also showing their neglect of race in favour of nation in using non-white troops to advance the slaughter.”[3] Those historians committed to the national paradigm acknowledge the contribution of colonial solders in the Great War only as an auxillary force rather than as the point of the return of race as the constitutive violence of European Modernity. Many of the former slaves forcefully recruited and disciplined as racial instruments of forced labour, punishment and extermination became the site of colonial violence and operated as a microcosm for the War. The colonial soldier was the cause and the consequence of the Great War. Continue reading

The Colonial Armed Peace: Was the Great War a Failure of Imperialism?

LukeThis is a guest post from Lucian M. Ashworth, and the first in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18. Lucian is Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His current research focuses on the history of international Relations (IR) theory, and on the disciplinary history of IR. This builds on a number of previous interventions on the politics and history of the inter-war period (including on the absent idealists, the early feminist IR of Helen Swanwick, and Halford MacKinder as League supporter). He is the author most recently of A History of International Thought. From the Origins of the Modern State to Academic International Relations, published by Routledge in 2014.


Entente Cordiale

A common response from many opponents of Michael Gove’s ill-informed presentation of the First World War as a just cause has been to write the war off as one that was caused by the imperialism of the great powers. In this view those who died were victims of an imperial system.[1] By seeing the war as primarily an imperialist conflict it is possible to simultaneously denounce the pre-1914 imperial order and also to oppose the war. It is, therefore, a handy position that avoids any moral dilemmas.

At the same time, it is interesting that amongst all these debates about the causes and nature of the war few scholars have seen fit to examine one form of evidence: the writings of international experts before the war. This gap is even more surprising in International Relations (IR), as these pre-war writers are IR’s forebears. What is interesting about studying these pre-war international writers is that they were well aware of the imperialist nature of their global society (and of the role played by colonial control), but it was not this imperialism that was seen as the source of instability. Rather, a more complex story emerges of a two-tier global system, and the coming of the war is seen as a threat to, not a result of, imperialism.

buy-empire-goods

The first point about the pre-1914 world is that this was a thoroughly recent system, and that for many of those writing on international affairs it was novel because for the first time in history there was a truly global order. Whether it was W. T. Stead writing about the movement away from states to a Europe united by transnational links, Paul Reinsch’s examination of the new ‘public international unions’, or Norman Angell’s wonder at the development of the global economy in trade and finance, the common feature was the recognition that the world from the late nineteenth century was global in a way that was thoroughly unprecedented.[2]

Much of this new politico-economic order was built on one product: coal. Timothy Mitchell has outlined how the growing dependence on coal as a concentrated source of energy radically changed society into an industrial ‘hydrocarbon civilisation’. The combination of coal, steel and steam powered railways allowed for the easy extraction, transportation and use of coal in industry.[3] This rapid industrialisation made the new industrialising societies vulnerable in a way they had never been before. The loss of self-sufficiency in food and the requirements of industry for a growing list of raw materials not often available in north-western Europe or eastern North America meant that these societies were dependent on trade with often distant societies. Yet, trade alone was not sufficient to extract these raw materials, so European powers increasingly turned to direct control and the deliberate imperial restructuring of the non-European economies.[4] This creation of a two-tier fully global economy was well-known to the political economists of the time.[5]

Two very different writers who captured the nature of this new global order were the American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, and the British journalist and political activist Henry Noel Brailsford. Mahan was an advocate of a higher level of armaments and a notorious racist. Brailsford, by contrast advocated stronger representative international organisations. Despite the wide divergence in their political opinions, both came to not incompatible conclusions about the nature of the global order before the First World War, and both understood the two-tier nature of the global political economy. The major difference in approach was that Mahan supported the imperial status-quo, while Brailsford opposed it. Continue reading

The Global Colonial 1914-18: A mini-series

Askaris fighting for Germany listen to the news.

Askaris fighting for Germany listen to the news.

The Disorder of Things hosts a short series of posts connected to the event ‘The Global Colonial 1914-18‘, held at SOAS on 18th September 2014, and co-organised by the Colonial / Postcolonial / De-colonial Working Group of the British International Studies Association.

Our first post is by Lucian M. Ashworth, who discusses the breakdown of the colonial armed peace, as viewed by contemporary observers.

Our second post is by Dušan I. Bjelić, who offers a racial genealogy of the Great War.

Our third post is by Meera Sabaratnam, who suggests a contrapuntal reading of the war based in colonised Mozambique.

Our fourth and final post contains a transcript and video of the public roundtable which took place at the end of the day, featuring Hakim Adi, Catriona Pennell, Parmjit Singh, Martin Spafford and Charles Tripp, in which the colonial dimensions of the war are discussed, as well as their implications for teaching and commemorating the period today.

This post serves as a permanent link for the series.

 

Kobani: What’s In A Name?

Kamran MatinA guest post from Kamran Matin. Kamran is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, where he teaches modern history of the Middle East and international theory. He is the author of Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change (Routledge, 2013), and recently of ‘Redeeming the Universal: Postcolonialism and the Inner-Life of Eurocentrism’ in the European Journal of International Relations (2013). Kamran is also the incoming co-convenor of the BISA Historical Sociology Working Group, and a management committee member at Sussex’s Centre for Advanced International Theory. He is currently working on a paper on the origins of the current crisis in the Middle East, and a larger project on the international history of the Kurdish national liberation movement.


Kobani Fighters

The city of Kobani’s epic resistance against the genocidal assault of the Islamic State (IS) has entered its thirtieth day. So far the response of the western left has been generally one of solidarity. However, the left seems divided on the best way to support Kobani. Invoking anti-imperialist and anti-war principles a considerable part of the left has been shying away from demanding military and logistical support for the main defending force of the city, i.e. People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women Protection Unites (YPJ), the armed wings of Democratic Union Party (PYD), by the US led anti-IS coalition. Moreover, with some exceptions such as David Graeber, many western leftists have neglected the historical significance and transformative political potentials of the success of Kobani’s resistance.

In what follows I argue that pressuring western powers to provide arms and logistical support to YPG/YPJ is legitimate and justifiable, and that in the battle for Kobani the left has a unique opportunity to contribute to an important shift in the regional balance of power in favour of a radical democratic and egalitarian project with transformative ramifications for the entire Middle East.

Kobani, the Kurds, and the West

With regards to the discomfort of the left with the idea of western military support for YPG/YPJ the important preliminary point to be made is that the Kurds have repeatedly claimed that they do not want or need direct military intervention by either coalition forces or Turkey. They’ve repeatedly said that they only need anti-tank weapons, ammunition and the opening of a corridor for fighters, food and medicine to reach Kobani. This request has been echoed by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who warned of a repetition of the fate of Srebrenica in Kobani if such a humanitarian corridor is not established.

In its demand for a limited tactical western military support for YPG/YPJ the left by no means loses sight of the fact that at its root Islamic State is the fascistic faeces of western imperial metabolism, a direct product of the American conquest of Iraq, the deliberate manipulation of sectarian differences, and the destruction of the social fabric of Iraqi society. But surely, none of these should obviate the recognition of the vital significance of protecting an actually existing and functioning radical left experience at the heart of the Middle East from eradication, notwithstanding its unavoidable flaws and limitations.

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