The Bland Illusion

THERE IS SOMETHING of J.G. Ballard’s studied love of desolation in Red Land Blue Land, an appreciation for zones created by human thought yet inhospitable to human existence, a place where the twin illusions of technological progress and liberal sentimentality break down, stripping mankind of its conceits and leaving in their place nothing but ruin and savagery.  On first viewing Claudio Hils’s photographs of simulated battlefields, the reader pauses at the vacant bombing ranges and the fake villages populated by manikins, thinking: how chilling, how strange.  Whose bizarre idea was this?

Originally, the Prussian war ministry’s, according to Rolf Schönlau’s introductory essay “From No-Man’s Land to Forbidden Zone,” which chronicles the development of the sandy Senne region from sparse farmland into a closed military training ground.  The war ministry began buying up land around Haustenbecker before the turn of the last century.  During the First World War, one section served as a prison camp, then later as a holiday camp for youngsters.  In the late ’30s, the Tiger tank went through its testing at the Senne, and when the British took control of the area after the war, they continued to use the facilities, staging Cold War exercises in the so-called Russian Village (it contained no real Russians, though 65,000 died in nearby Stalag 326 and were committed to a mass grave).

Since the end of the Cold War, troops headed off to Kosovo, Kuwait and Northern Ireland have learned here first, taking the heathered plains with their armor, then stalking the false streets of Tin-City and the Close Quarters Battle Range, going house to house, clearing the villages, trying–like rookie cops at the academy–not to blow away the pop-up targets and stiffly dressed manikins meant to represent civilians.

Hils breaks Red Land Blue Land into three distinct sections based on landscape, starting–like an invasion–farthest away, out in the countryside.  As at any former battlefield, the ruling contrast is that of the abiding calm of nature against the destructive power of man.  The sand is gouged and crosshatched with tank tracks; a concrete bunker has been blown open, exposing its rusted rebar.  And yet all is calm.  The sun is shining, the grass is high; wildflowers thrive along a barbed-wire fence.  The combatants are nowhere to be seen, as if the war has been over for fifty years.

The village section is different, bringing the war closer to home. Tin-City exists solely to be taken. While its corrugated housefronts and cinderblock buildings could stand in for any European city, the configuration Hils documents here is decidedly Northern Ireland, with O’Connel Street, Murphy’s Garage, a chip shop and a line of PIRA graffiti, even a walled-off dead end recalling Belfast.  A black observation tower dominates the village center; inside, a bank of screens collects closed-circuit video from remote cameras marking the solders’ progress. In a phonebooth a manikin perpetually calls.  The shots are entirely depopulated, waiting, a blank page or stage set.

Finally Hils shows us the occupants of the Close Quarters Battle Range, in a section he ironically titles “People.”  The people are dolls, bewigged and dressed in outdated ’70s and ’80s fashions, standing or sitting in poses meant–one assumes–to recreate the normal life of their habitat.  Like the civilians whom the soldiers have no use for, they are bystanders in the deepest meaning of the word.  They wait blankly in their homes and in the pub and in the chip shop, utterly at the mercy of the invading force.  In several cases, the women have been molested, their blouses undone to show their breasts, their pants unzipped.

The overall effect of the essay is unsettling but also familiar to any reader well-versed in the twentieth century.  The tracks of Patton’s armored division still grace the Arizona desert, and vast stretches of the American west still serve as live-fire testing grounds and graveyards for the planes that fought the Cold War.  The details of the Close Quarters Battle Range are crude compared to the lovingly recreated houses–down to the food on the dinner tables–of the early H-bomb tests in Nevada (lovingly re-used in the bad Brad Pitt-Juliette Lewis road movie “Kalifornia”).  From the ’50s to the present day, sci-fi writers and directors like Rod Serling and Stephen King and George A. Romero have posited emptied post-apocalyptic worlds, simulations of life meant to test not only soldiers and starship captains, but regular civilians.   Hils’s vision here isn’t new or unique, only his opportunity to document a shared dream or nightmare.  What’s strange is how familiar everything is.

Aesthetically, there’s a nostalgia here, the waiting manikins quaint as puppets, and so, even though we know this brand of war isn’t over–that it is far too real–there’s a danger of responding ironically, of saying with a shrug, how odd, how charming.  One street-level look at Sarajevo or Grozny would be enough to cure this reaction, and also to underline how absurd this neatly controlled training is, how unprepared it will leave soldiers going off to the true, overwhelming chaos of war.

But perhaps that is the point of these pictures.  This is where war begins, where supposedly conscientious officers and soldiers accustom themselves to the impossible things they will have to do to others (because they are trying not to kill these civilians, though that may happen).  Even if this is a dumbshow, a funhouse, just a game, it provides men with the forethought necessary to wage war.  If that training is inadequate, it’s not because they haven’t taken their exercises seriously (in a way that we, as readers, can’t) but because of the nature of war.  And that may be what makes Hils’s work in Red Land Blue Land so unsettling, and what makes Ballard’s fiction absolutely terrifying:  the intimation that beneath our intricate, civilized rituals lurks not just the possibility but the inevitability of human atrocity, and that we’ve been preparing for it for years.

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