Civilian Objects

Civilian Objects

Architecture lets us speak of the spoken indirectly.


Was the bombing of Gaza earlier this year a crime? Bombing cities kills civilians and destroys, in the language of the 1977 Geneva Protocols, “civilian objects” such as hospitals, mosques, schools and museums. The treaty seeks not simply to protect civilians and their objects but to criminalize such attacks, should they be excessive. This is but the latest codification of the debate over jus in bello, the “just” conduct of war, one still considered under the terms proposed by Augustine, Aquinas and Grotius, and that argues for categories of innocence—women and children, prisoners, the wounded, the elderly and their benign architectures—that qualify as civilian. These arguments presume that wars, however just, involve doing evil things; the immemorial question is over how much bad is ethical, the threshold of too much violence? This raises the all-important issue of proportionality, with its supporting cast of lesser evils, legal norms, fair play and “collateral damage,” including the deaths of civilians and the demolition of their objects. The 1977 protocols were intended to settle the question of competing strategies for bombing that arose during World War II, to adjudicate and refine the categorical difference between area and precision (or surgical) attacks. The former, with advocates like Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris and Curtis LeMay (and later Edward Teller and the whole ghoulish Cold War klavern of mutually assured destruction), is committed to indiscriminate slaughter, to breaking enemy morale via mass annihilation, while the latter claims to attack only military targets, including industrial or transportation facilities that support warfare.

But the categories are fuzzy, and proportionality is a fluid concept that can only be grasped with a dismal science that converts the value of an eye into the currency of teeth. In The Least of All Possible Evils, Eyal Weizman—the most indispensable contemporary analyst of the forensics of collateral damage (and an editor of the newly published Forensis, a landmark in this expanding field)—writes that “the principle of proportionality provides no scale, no formulas and no numerical thresholds.” Given this incalculability, the boundaries tend to be discussed in terms of specific events, most emblematically Dresden and Hiroshima, the victors’ targets in a war almost universally thought just. Was the firebombing of Dresden criminal? For those to whom this remains a question, the answer hinges on the “legitimacy” of the target and the extent and value of the collateral damage: the 25,000 incinerated civilians. Was it worth it if their deaths shortened the war by a week? Even a day?

The ethics of the Dresden deliberation lie somewhere between the idea of collective guilt (women gave birth to Hitlerjugend, all Germans were “willing executioners”) and the notion that the military objective was sufficiently important to sanction the sacrifice of a certain number of innocents who worked in or lived near military assets. The same arguments were rolled out to justify the A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both allegedly military and industrial sites whose destruction would spare Americans a bloody invasion (not to mention spook the Soviets). The question of Dresden, in particular, has been unpacked by “revisionist” historians like Frederick Taylor, who have disproved the claims of economic innocence by demonstrating that the city’s factories, large and small, had been converted from camera, porcelain and cigarette manufacturing to producing bullets, fuses, torpedo parts and bombsights; that the city had a particularly virulent pro-Nazi history; that the rail yards were critical to the Nazi war effort; and that there weren’t that many refugees. Of course, all such claims ratchet up the permissible disproportion to accord with some idea of retributive justice. The A-bomb—with its capacity to kill entire populations—is proportionality’s reductio ad absurdum.

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Architecture is consequential because it lets us speak of the unspeakable indirectly, with mangled buildings standing in for mangled bodies. And the aesthetic side of judgment—the natural home of familiar architectural discourse—has plenty of ready-made uses. During World War II, as “Bomber” Harris grew more and more deeply obsessed with area bombing and setting off the perfect firestorm, he realized that the picturesque medieval centers of Germany’s cities—warrens of half-timbered houses—were precisely the tinder needed to trigger a conflagration. History became the best source of ignition and was reimagined as kindling for the technology of fire, not as the home of a civilian population or an artistic treasure. This was seasoned with the idea that the Boche were universally criminal—that there were, in effect, no civilians at all.

This reinvention of an “authentic” criminal Dresden, laced with nefarious manufacture and bad people, has an eerie resemblance to the exculpatory descriptions of Gaza as packed with rocket-making workshops and launchpads so densely woven into the fabric of everyday life that the entire environment was cross-contaminated by Hamas values. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his gross, disingenuous, blame-shifting arguments, reckons every death as the simple consequence of malfeasance on the part of Hamas. And so we proceed directly to the numbers game: the claim that hundreds of civilians were killed because someone else placed weapons or holed up nearby in schools, hospitals, apartment houses, shops or on the beach is simply self-exoneration for murder. We regret every civilian casualty. We called to warn them. But it’s their fault.

Weizman describes an extraordinary 2002 meeting in Israel at which Daniel Reisner, then the head of the International Law Division of the Israel Defense Forces, and a group of colleagues worked out a mathematica moralia to determine precisely how many civilians, in one particular scenario, might legitimately be killed to excise a single “militant.” The number arrived at was 3.14—pi!—a constant of innocent sacrifice. The United Nations cites 2,104 Palestinians killed in Operation Protective Edge last summer, 1,462 of them civilians. By this calculation, the slaughter in Gaza produced a ratio of 2.28, almost a point under that legitimating margin of noncriminality but small comfort to women and children killed. The IDF, of course, claims an even higher proportion of terrorists, seeking to bank less collateral. This is madness.

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Architecture figures into forensic analysis as a witness for both the prosecution and the defense. In the case of Dresden, whether or not the city was a genuine military target, there’s a supplementary charge in the prosecution’s case: that the city was remarkable architecturally. Jörg Friedrich’s seminal The Fire, an account of the bombing campaign first published in Germany in 2002, is in large part an inventory of architectural and civic treasures lost as well as an argument that area bombing was a culturecide aimed at wiping out the memories embodied in these civilian objects, whether books or buildings. Firebombed buildings act both as accessible surrogates for dead innocents—perhaps even more innocent than people for their uncompromised beauty, the pan-European belovedness of Dresden as “Florence on the Elbe”—and to suggest that neither the Gothic nor the Baroque ever supported Hitler. And there’s an implicit backstory with many plot lines here: the “Baedeker” bombing campaigns—Canterbury for Cologne—touted by both sides as a cultural tit for tat; the Morgenthau Plan to reduce Germany to a state of rural impotence (used by Goebbels to whip up fear of an Allied final solution to the German question); and the US decision to spare Kyoto from nuclear annihilation precisely because of its artistic importance.

Thus, architecture is used to establish the cultural credentials of various sides in the struggle. Aesthetic outrage is expressed when ISIS destroys some historic tomb, mosque or statuary, or when Iraqis—in the aftermath of the US invasion—looted their own national museum. I felt guilt at my own shock over the destruction of Syria’s Citadel of Aleppo, at grieving for a piece of beloved material culture, ravaged even as babies were dying: Where was my sense of proportionality? Here, the blame is shared because President Bashar al-Assad’s troops barricaded themselves in the citadel and were attacked by rebel fighters. But this lack of clear-cut guilt for the atrocity (against civilization, something Arabs possessed in the past but of which, some say, they are failed custodians today) allows a diffusion of responsibility that confirms the narratives of confusion purveyed by the media (and stoked by the Obama administration’s current efforts to sort out the good and bad insurgents), suggesting that barbarism is a general cultural feature in the region and thus sanctions our mission civilisatrice, our crusade.

Ironically, the problem for Gaza—or the advantage, from the bomber’s perspective—is that it is almost exclusively described as a place of no cultural value. This is a complicated claim. For those in sympathy with the terrible plight of the strip’s residents, the argument from squalor and imprisonment only exacerbates the horror of the assault from the air: How can things get worse? For those manning the drones, tanks and F-16s, the homogeneity of disadvantage both equalizes the value of the territory—universalizing the target set—and supports the corollary argument that Hamas invariably hides behind civilians precisely because of the absence of a well-defined infrastructure or public space that would bring it into the open.

A particular wrinkle in the coverage of the assault has been the attention given to the destruction of three “high-rise” buildings by Israeli bombs. The media have been fascinated by this but unsure how to optimize it for use in their ambivalent discourse. At one level, a high-rise denotes a “high-value” target and effectively acculturates Gazans as social climbers (in much the same way that calorie-counting Israeli propagandists attempted to ridicule claims of starvation by distributing a menu from a fancy restaurant frequented by the NGO/journalist set in Gaza City). On the other, the demolition of tall buildings by aircraft cannot but evoke New York City’s own high-rise losses to “Islamic” terrorists and the insistent conflation of Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and Boko Haram into a malign force, continuous with Muslims in general, dedicated to the destruction of Western civilization and its landmarks. The demolition was of an inappropriate cultural aspiration—a display of power, tat for tower—or else just a particularly photogenic catastrophe.

The aura of artistic outrage is thus used to canonize the victims killed in places like Dresden or Paderborn and suggest that their personhood was made more ample by the creativity of their culture. For Germans, the recurrent question is how such a “civilized” people could go so bad. But the converse is equally true: the destruction of the shrines and urban textures of Japan somehow doesn’t rise to the level of Dresden because the Japanese were demonized throughout the war as lesser humans. In his thorough account of the ethics of area bombing, Among the Dead Cities, A.C. Grayling proposes four elements of the racist attitude toward the Japanese that enabled our virtually indiscriminate destruction of their cities: the “perfidy” of Pearl Harbor, their cruelty to POWs, their ferocity as fighters, and the “weird oriental fanaticism” of kamikaze attacks. This almost precisely parallels our construction of the generalized Islamic other, with 9/11 substituting for Pearl Harbor, the ISIS beheadings and slaughter of captives standing in for the Bataan death march, the insane battles in Syria (not to mention the Iranian use of child soldiers to charge across mine fields in the Iran-Iraq War) burnishing a reputation for fanatical assault and contempt for life, and daily suicide bombings matching the self-annihilating death cult of the emperor-worshiping Japanese pilots. What solution for such people but to degrade them and then destroy them? Bring on the burning hooches and free-fire zones of Vietnam. Back to Iraq.

Gaza is a bare city, a culturally degraded substitute for Tokyo or Hamburg. Because Hamas is fertilized by the anger of a population under siege, all are assumed to be complicit in the rockets, the Hamas Charter, the executions, and the rest of the tactics in the encyclopedia of hatred and terror. The place itself is miserable, without an identifiable piece of architecture deserving conservation. It is, as a piece of built environment, valueless, providing mere shelter and a minimal set of provisions for everyday life but lacking any supplement of art. The bomber’s calculus meets the preservationist’s: there was no building on the strip that was indispensable, worth protecting on its own merits, not a piece of architecture in sight. The inference is carried over to the people who lived in these mediocre places, people lacking the capacity of aspiration. Incapable of building a civilized environment, they were marked for disposability.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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