As an introduction to this article, I would like to say that I have been hesitant to write the latter as many of the thirty eight photographs posted by The Atlantic on February 20th 2013 (thank you Guilhem) carry enough visual power to bring to them the noxious pictorial fetishism that Western society (at peace mostly) have contributed to develop and exacerbated. Seeing a fighter of the Free Syrian Army piloting an automated machine gun with a playstation controller triggers in us (probably the male part in all of us) a disturbing confusion between game and reality, heroism and survival. That is why an image of this importance should never be shown without a reflective framework to avoid its epidemic (online) reproduction leading inexorably to the domain of the “cool”, this ill-defined realms of things that give us the contentment of an aesthetics without its intellectual “burden”.
Another thing that needs to be said as a preamble is that journalism tends to be more interested in the domain of the spectacular in opposition to the familiar and therefore, we need to see most of this images for what they are: exceptions, accidents, unique manifestations of something larger. In other words, most Syrians, right now, whether they are fully part of the rebellion or simply subjected to the continuous bombing and persecutions of Bashar al-Assad’s government’s army, probably do not have access to weapons having a certain degree of sophistication, if not weapons at all. Reading these photographs in another way would mislead us and draw inaccurate conclusions on the future of warfare and immanent resistance.
What we can say however, is that such a local and punctual organization of civil war from people who were majorly not professional soldiers before the war, is able to tell us much about the collision of traditional means of armed resistance with a more modern, if not frankly contemporaneous, participation to such a struggle. Again, let us not fetichize an imagined future in which revolutions will be done in a mix of facebook and 3d printed weapons (see my article about it); nevertheless, we should not ignore either the potential contribution of electronic devices and software programming to the realms of war. Drones’ frequencies have been hacked in the past (see previous article), and here we see Syrian rebels using their smart phones’ GPS to adjust their rocket strike and programming a playstation to command a machine-gun doubled with a camera. There are some things we can see that were not merely possible ten years ago, and this observation allow us to have a hint at the evolution of the asymmetric warfare (of course, many regular armies take advantage, if not invent, the most advanced technological equipment).
Most of these photographs however, do not show us this “high/low tech” aspect of the resistance. On the contrary, it depicts aged (one might say “antic”) techniques of weaponized ballistic and of ammunition fabrication. Of course, such methods are relatively more accessible in terms of craft, skills and resources than the ones depicted above. Just like what we can read about another cruelly asymmetric conflict of our era, the war in Bosnia and more specifically, the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) (see previous article), the fact that war is ubiquitous as it takes place in a domestic more or less urban environment, everything in the domesticity has to be considered for its potential contribution to resistance. A same domestic environment cannot be seen the way it was before the war, all objects (architecture included) are considered for their weaponized characteristics. That is how a fridge can be used as weight to stabilize a catapult, a pan and a teapot can actively participate to the fabrication of rockets and grenades, and that a car can become a veritable homemade tank.
As I wrote in a recent article, although the designers of these fridge, pan, teapot and car could not possible imagine that the product of their reflection would, one day, be used in such a weaponized manner, we, as designers, have a responsibility to think thoroughly of every aspects of our designs in the impossibility of their neutrality. One of the principles of war is that it precisely reveals this impossibility as it engages the entirety of the bodies and artifacts in its violence. It seems impossible to think that clear understanding of such a fact would not influence the way we design.
Aleppo, February 18, 2013 (Reuters/Hamid Khatib)