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Light Research @ MMU

Light Discipline: Bodies and Power on the Battlefield

I recently presented a paper at the Sensing War conference in London entitled ‘The Meaning of Light: Seeing and Being on the Battlefield’.  Based around a poem I wrote about my time as a soldier during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the paper attempts to articulate the ambiguous power of light which I experienced on my particular part of the battlefield. The poem is called Light Discipline, which is a military term for one of the precautionary procedures deployed and enforced during the hours of darkness to conceal the location of personnel and equipment, and includes a strict ban on all recreational, functional and operational use of light – for example torchlight and cigarette smoking. These tactical blackouts not only made the already arduous but imperative task of staying safe, sane and keeping your body functioning infinitely more difficult, but also served to foreground and confuse other senses, sensibilities, emotions and relationships. Without light, the vast geographies of the desert suddenly shrink, fingertips mean more than maps, or as Derek Gregory might put it, the ‘cartographic’ becomes the ‘corpographic’.

On the other end of the scale, these nightly periods of enforced blindness were ‘relieved’ by the often spectacular artillery barrages to which the city of Basra was subjected during the initial ‘Shock and Awe’ stage of the invasion. As well as high explosives, the artillery unit to which I was attached also fired illumination rounds, known as ‘lumes’, a kind of giant firework on a parachute which hung in the air above the city and usually signalled an imminent attack. Having been caught one night in the beam of an illuminating round myself, I was always struck by their affective power, and how they seemed to make the ensuing high explosive ‘bomblet’ rounds almost unnecessary,  the objective of spatial control and psychological damage having already been achieved with aggressive illumination. Operation Maritime Raider 09

My poem covers the power of light as a potentially biopolitical and affective tactic, and as a disciplinary tool on a far more personal level:





In a blackout we adjust our sights

by touch and cup our smoke against

the desert : waiting for the light.

At long last the barrel scrapes

into place and the night is instantly

exposed. I cover my ears and watch.

In the distance a fitful city crouches,

seared eyes raised to the floating                                                                                                                     

arc above:  waiting for the strike.

              (Light Discipline : 2013)

 The research I have done so far has led to many other fascinating debates, from the authority of vision / knowledge, ‘flesh’ versus ‘eye’ witnessing, to battlefield technologies and the agency of the war poet. Any questions, comments, ideas or contributions would be very welcome. The abstract for the conference paper is available here. By Pip Thornton. (Pip is a PhD student in Geopolitics & Cybersecurity at Royal Holloway. Her research interests are in representations, perceptions and constructions of the figure of the soldier in geopolitical and cyberspaces. A former police officer and reservist soldier, she is also Poetry Editor for The Next Review magazine.  She can be contacted at or @Pip_T )

June 11th, 2014 - 02:07am

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