Holes are to be found everywhere around us, yet they might be most prominent at the instances when they appear. While we continuously make holes through our mundane activities, their coming into being has a traumatic character when it is associated with the destructive violence of war. Holes seem to be an inherent part of war, one that has been consciously and unconsciously taken up in both its practice and its representations, and one that continues to be taken into account when thinking about conflict today. While bullet holes are still around us and hide (or reveal) stories about everyday violence, bomb craters are perceived to be far away. Yet their physical reality is undeniable, as well as their effects on the lives of many.
The image we have of World War I seems to be built around holes – we have our imagination captured by the fact that one of the largest conflicts in European history was fought in trenches. Soldiers spent weeks in ditches dug in the ground in order to protect themselves, having their lives structured by their hollowed-out shelters. It is difficult for many of us to imagine how it is to live in the ground, covered by mud and water rather than by sheltering and clean walls. The impact that living in such holes has on the senses has been recovered by Dr Santanu Das, of King’s College London, who notes how WWI soldiers became highly aware of their own bodies and their material surroundings, a truly physical experience.While some try to recreate that experience by digging their own trenches in order to explore ‘the myths and realities’ of trench warfare, others dedicate their attention to the way soldiers exteriorised their own sensitivities by creating art. While not always made in the trenches, what has now become known as ‘trench art’ is a further proof of the materiality of WWI life. Soldiers used everything that was available to them, from bullets to tin cans to match boxes, in order to create beauty out of the tools they had to use for destruction.
The war holes in the West are marks of the past today, grim and immense reminders of the destructive power we have spent so much creating. In some places, they have even started to foster life, rather than take it. Yet, in other parts of the world, new holes are created every day, and with them comes destruction which does not yet take creative or joyful forms. In the Middle East, bombing still carries out its destructive purpose, hurting people and their houses. Holes are thus the mark of conflicts, not yet memorialised but treated as any such mark would be when investigated violence: as proof.While World War I is remembered as the war of trenches, World War II and the Cold War brought forward different kinds of holes. More than with trenches, holes became protective shelters. From the fascination with the Führerbunker in which Hitler died to the frenzied bunker-building meant to shelter us against nuclear attacks, the underground became the place towards which people turned when thinking about a war which was focused more on looming threats from the sky, rather than on face-to-face combat. After the times of nuclear threat have passed in a now unbombed West, bunkers became spaces of creation, shelters of art which attract curious tourists rather than scared civilians.
A team of architects and scholars led by Eyal Weizman investigates them in a project called ‘Forensic Architecture’, exploring holes in order to uncover the material aspects of the conflict. Scholars like Weizman look at the way holes are present in people’s everyday lives – how Palestinian houses are rendered uninhabitable by the holes made in them. Bombs makes houses unfit for dwelling, bringing war into the private space of the home. As such holes become recognised and analysed marks of aggression, bombing technologies are made, conversely, to leave fewer and fewer traces. Helen Kazane writes in The Funambulist about the use of aerial bombings in Lebanon and Syria during World War II. She shows how such actions were used by the allied forces as techniques of control in the Middle East, and then ignored by post-war trials and analysis. As the connection between bombing and control becomes tighter, the one between bombs, holes, and impact starts to blur. The US recently dropped the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ (MOAB) in Eastern Afghanistan, a bombing that, however, is not the kind we are used to. ‘MOAB’ actually stands for Massive Ordnance Air Blast Weapon, as the projectile explodes mid-air rather than on impact with the ground. Thus, the crater it produced is much smaller than one would expect, with only 80 feet in diameter. Holes are the marks that reveal the impact even long time after it has taken place, yet MOAB did not leave a massive one. Rather, it was deployed against holes, as the ISIS members it targeted used tunnels as their shelters. New military technology, therefore, challenges our understanding of impact and violence. US strikes in the Middle East already happen from a distance, through drones, and now bombs themselves leave space between their explosion and their targets, as destruction becomes less material than we usually imagine.
From the physical reality of trenches, holes have evolved throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to being almost left out of conflicts. They, however, are still there, and the consequences of war are as catastrophic as ever. Thus, at a time when the West distances itself from the holes it produces in other parts of the world, it is important to keep in mind that such destruction still is part of the daily lives of many people. The Vietnamese poet Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ shows us this in her poem ‘Bomb Crater Sky’ [Khoang Troi Ho Bom]. Set in the Vietnam War, the poem reminds us that bomb craters are never empty, but, for the people whose lives they affect, they are filled with everything and everyone they destroy:
They say that you, a road builder Had such love for our country You rushed out and waved your torch To call the bombs down on yourself And save the road for the troops As my unit passed on that worn road The bomb crater reminded us of your story Your grave is radiant with bright-colored stones Piled high with love for you, a young girl As I looked in the bomb crater where you died The rain water became a patch of sky Our country is kind Water from the sky washes pain away Now you lie down deep in the earth As the sky lay down in that earthen crater At night your soul sheds light Like the dazzling stars Did your soft white skin Become a bank of white clouds? By day I pass under a sun-flooded sky And it is your sky And that anxious, wakeful disc Is it the sun, or is it your heart Lighting my way As I walk down the long road? The name of the road is your name Your death is a young girl’s patch of blue sky My soul is lit by your life And my friends, who never saw you Each has a different image of your face
(Andrei Belibou, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)