Filling the gaps

Michael Moss and David Thomas


The main themes emerging from this book are that silences are often the result of the exercise of political power, particularly under dictatorial regimes. As would be expected, some silences are the result of war, fire flood and simply poor records management. However, other silences occur because archivists and librarians see some subject areas as beyond the pale, or as too vague or inchoate. Clearly, silences do lead to the suppression of voices and there are particular issues with the digital.

Protecting archives against fire and flood, and improving records management are the subject of a huge literature and will not be discussed here. In this chapter we will be examining ways in which the issues of a failure to collect or to release material can be addressed. We will demonstrate that new technologies for news gathering and new and more radical approaches to archiving will provide more and better sources to help fill in the gaps in the official narrative. In addition, there are some approaches that can help overcome the silences - the use of alternative resources and the application of a critical reading approach to archives to enable every piece of available information to be extracted. We will argue that archivists should take a bolder and more unruly approach to their work. However, although there are positive signs and new techniques can be tried, there are limits to what can be discovered and we will finish by looking at Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault’s conclusions about the limits of archival research. We will begin with tyranny.

The paradox of tyranny

As several chapters in this book have demonstrated, silences and absences in the archives are frequently due to the exercise of political power, particularly under dictatorial regimes. As lyra Buenrostro, Renato Venancio and Adalson Nascimento have demonstrated, particular difficulties can arise when regimes change, but new democracies fail to preserve, or provide access to the archives of the previous regime. However, there are some reasons to be hopeful, partly because it seems to be a general rule that the worse the regime, the better the record keeping.

Controlling subjects requires careful tabs to be kept on their activities. We can see this in the case of the former East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi) archive, which comprises 111 ,000 m of records of the Stasi and precursor organisation as well as about 15,500 bags, boxes and cartons of torn up or shredded documents, some of which are being painstakingly restored.1 In a number of cases, regime change has led to the release of previously closed records. The release of the Stasi archive after the fall of the East German government and the opening up of the Mexican intelligence records after regime change in 2000 are cases in point.2 Sadly, in some cases records have been destroyed before a change in regime. Wisser and Blanco-Rivera have a melancholy litany of records of oppression that were destroyed - part of the Stasi archive, police archives in Chile, surveillance records in Bulgaria while the records of pre-World War II police surveillance of perceived subversive groups (communist, democratic, socialist) in Japan no longer survive.3

While tyrannies can shred or burn their files and even less extreme governments can destroy records, deny access or even tell lies about what exists, it is possible to explore other resources, to go beyond the archive to radically subvert officially imposed silences.

Exploring other resources

The clearest example of what is possible is the United States of America’s attempts to achieve ‘full spectrum dominance’ in warfare. From the 1990s, the US armed forces sought not just to dominate the battlefield by force of arms, but also to impose silences by dominating the broadcasting spectrum and news media to prevent any production and distribution of information not sanctioned by or supportive of the US military. When the news organisation Al-Jazeera broadcast images of civilian casualties from US airstrikes on two villages on 23 October 2001, Donald Rumsfeld accused them of creating false news and the US destroyed their Kabul office in a missile attack on 13 November.

The US control over the media in Afghanistan had a chilling effect. According to Philip Knightley,‘In the history of war reporting, Afghanistan will, I believe, be regarded as a turning point, the moment marking the military’s final triumph over the media’.4 Silence had descended.

When the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003, their policy towards the media changed somewhat.There were daily briefings to journalists in Qatar by a US general - these were tightly controlled PR exercises. More important, however, was the decision to embed journalists with the military, thus reversing the policy in Afghanistan. This proved to be an extension of the system of media control because journalists became part of the military, making friends with the soldiers and identifying with their lives and missions. Any independent journalists were regarded as unpredictable and dangerous and were fired on by both sides. Seventeen were killed or died in the six-week invasion. Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad television station was bombed by the Americans and, on the same day, two journalists were killed and four wounded when an American tank fired on the Palestine Hotel, the base for independent journalists in Baghdad.

The consequence was that the reality of war was not present on our televisions,‘viewers saw live firefights but no casualties, no injuries and no dead bodies’. Effectively, by the time of the Iraq invasion, independent reporting on warfare had been silenced, like many of the archives we have been discussing.

However, remarkable new means of obtaining information about the progress of war sprang up in the period after the invasion of Iraq, giving researchers access to information that had previously been tightly controlled. It is the growth of these new means that gives some hope that silences in the official archive can be subverted.

The main developments in accessing information about warfare have centred round the development of social media and digital photography. Now virtually every member of the military has the capacity to take photographs of the battlefield or elsewhere and to make them widely available. The most notorious example of this concerns the photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and their broadcast on CBS in April 2004. The photographs had been taken by American military police, copied onto CDs and shared with colleagues.5 Since then, developments in internet technology (Web 2.0) have made it easier to share photographs online with a consequent increase in revelations. In 2014, President Putin denied that Russian armed forces had been deployed in eastern Ukraine. His statement was rapidly undermined when western journalists found photographs geotagged in eastern Ukraine that had been posted by Russian soldiers on Instagram and the Russian social media site Vkontakte.6

Reports from soldiers on the battlefields could also be supplemented by leaks of official records. Probably the most significant were the Afghan War Diary and Iraq War Logs released by Chelsea Manning to Wikileaks. These did much to reveal excessive use of force against civilians. Wikileaks has continued to release large quantities of documents, although mostly about politicians, rather than military, including the well-known leaks of material concerning Hillary Clinton and President Macron.7

Surprisingly, perhaps, in a major judgement in 2018, the UK Supreme Court ruled that a cable from the US embassy in London to the State Department that had been released by Wikileaks was admissible as evidence in court.The case concerned a challenge by the Chagos Refugees Group to the British government’s decision to establish a marine protected area around the Chagos islands, preventing the islanders from continuing their fishing businesses in the region. A lower court had said that the cable was not admissible because it formed part of the archive of the US embassy and was therefore protected by the 1961 Vienna Convention.The Supreme Court ruled that the cable was not part of the mission archive since it had been obtained (albeit illegally) from the State Department and its subsequent publication by Wikileaks and by newspapers had put it into the public domain.8What the court was not doing was commenting on the evidential value of the leaked document. It was saying that such a document could be used as evidence, but, by implication, like all evidence, it would have to be tested in court.

In addition to battlefield reports and leaks, recent years have seen the growth of citizen journalists and those of us in the UK became familiar with ones who reported the depredations of Islamic State. The most famous was Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) a nonpartisan, independent news organisation set up in response to the Islamic State take-over of Raqqa. By October 2017, its Facebook page had over 668,000 followers and its Twitter account had more than 80,000.9

William Merrin has argued that within a few years we have moved from the US concept of full spectrum dominance to the new reality of full spectrum access.10 However, while these new sources provide an alternative to the official narrative, there is still a need to read them critically. Merrin has raised concerns about some images generated on the battlefield, claiming that the YouTube video showing a US soldier, Ted Daniels, being shot in Afghanistan in 2012 with its helmet-cam origins and edited highlights was a selected and framed version of war, which places the viewer on the side of the US military and inadvertently echoed contemporary video-game first person shooter point-of-view aesthetics.11 Daniels survived and, at the time of writing, his YouTube video had received 44 million hits.

The development of these new sources of information and the move from full spectrum dominance to full spectrum access has revealed much information that was previously tightly controlled by governments. In the next section we will describe how existing research methods, notably a critical reading of records, can be used to maximise the amount of information which can be obtained from limited resources.

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