Plunging into Lent Term teaching and I am taking up lecturing duties on the Political Geographies of Postcolonialism Part II (third year undergraduate) paper, convened by Prof. Sarah Radcliffe. As an appropriate forerunner, Prof. Derek Gregory (UBC, Vancouver) was in Cambridge delivering the prestigious Tanner Lectures, sponsored by Clare Hall (though delivered next door at Robinson College).
The lectures were a delight: intricate explorations of the technologies, logics and, crucially, spatiality of aerial war over the past century. Gregory’s method comprised a careful construction of the historical geography of bombing from the air, an approach that drew attention to the (often spurious) claims of precision and specificity, while pointing to the wider array of materials, bodies and institutions that are assembled into the service of aerial violence. As with all of Gregory’s talks they were also visually arresting, where a staggering array of archival, literary and biographical materials told a story that moved back and forth across time periods and geographical locations, weaving links and illuminating connections. One example was the exploration of the changing expectations of air power, from reconnaissance, to targeting and finally to the dropping of bombs; a narrative arc that was as true in World War I as it is for the use of Predator drones in the present.
The talk put me in mind of a piece that Colin McFarlane and I once discussed writing on the legacies of aerial bombing in the Iraqi city of Fallujah following the US-led Operation Phantom Fury in November 2004. In recent years doctors in Fallujah have been reporting an increase in birth defects and other medical conditions relating to the leaking of heavy metals into the water supply, a consequence of remnants of bombs and their shells corroding in the urban landscape. These stories pointed to the wider consequences of dropping bombs, as their material remains polluted the hydrological, ecological and metabolic systems of the city. These material and corporeal legacies challenge the imagined precision that encircles discussions of aerial war and illustrate the need for careful reconstructions of both the discursive justification for the use of bombs and the often unseen consequences of such actions. It is this complex terrain on which Gregory shone a light, in doing so reflecting the original purpose of the Tanner Lectures: to advance and reflect upon scholarly learning directed towards the advancement of human values.
Alex Jeffrey, January 2016