Old Uses for New Bunkers #38: the post Cold War rise (and occasional fall) of underground lairs

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Whilst working on the editorial for In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, materiality and meaning making (Rowman & Littlefield Int, to be published August 2017) I’ve been increasingly thinking about the bunkers’ post-Cold War reverberations. The following is an extract which may or may not end up in the book…

Stuart Elden (2013), has written recently of the need to conceive of the ‘volumetric’ dimensions of political spaces: of the physical “depth of power”. The 20th century increasingly saw military and civil governance moving underground to escape the risk of actual or anticipated aerial attack. During the  Cold War bunkers were a contingency – ready in waiting but rarely used. But the end of the Cold War did not see the end of the Cold War bunker, and indeed the designs perfected in that superpower standoff, came to be the active conflict bolt-hole of client states and once-sponsored insurgents. Thus in the sense of actual use, the Cold War bunker came into its own after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If we look closely at post 1991 conflict zones the bunker is alive and kicking, providing an actual (and/or imagined) locus of sinister political power, fortified hideouts that resist the hegemonic West. In turn, the persistence of these resistant places spurs the US to develop ever more potent ‘bunker-busting’ technologies with which to threaten their eradication. By considering these bunker sites we will see how military and political engagements with such places oscillate between two powerful, persistent bunker imaginaries (Bennett, 2011): the bunker as omnipotent command centre, and its inverse, the bunker as an abject place of final defeat.

The bunker as resistant, oppositional space

The image above is simultaneously an articulation of an atavistic fear of the subterranean and attempt to depict a real bunker complex. It shows how the Tora Bora mountain bunker complex in Afghanistan was described by Western journalists in November 2001 in the run-up to the US attack on Osama bin Laden’s suspected redoubt. In pursuing Al Qaeda and Taliban forces into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom saw the US facing a:

“virtual ant farm of thousands of caves, countless miles of tunnels, deeply dug-in bases and heavily fortified bunkers. They are a product of a confluence of ancient history, climate, geology, Mr bin Laden’s own engineering background – and, 15 years back, a heavy dose of American money from the Central Intelligence Agency.” (Wines, 2001)

The story, as traced by Josh Rothman (2011), of how Tora Bora came to be depicted as a sophisticated Bond villain’s lair is an instructive one – it tells us much of the fact/fiction interplay with our bunker imaginary, for the cave system came to be described in increasingly elaborate terms, and was ultimately said to feature its own hospitals, offices, bedrooms and hydroelectric power supply capable of sustaining 1,500 fighters. The trail starts with a 26 November 2001 New York Times article (Wines 2001) based on an interview with an ex-Russian soldier, Viktor Kusenko who had described his recollection of an elaborate cave complex at Zhawar featuring “iron doors” beyond which lay “a bakery, a hotel with overstuffed furniture, a hospital with an ultrasound machine, a library, a mosque, weapons of every imaginable stripe; a service bay with a World War II-era Soviet tank inside, in perfect running order”. These were his recollections from the Soviet campaign against the Mujahedeen in the 1980s. The article then added “Mr. bin Laden is reported to have upgraded both it and a nearby camp in the 1990’s” (allegedly drawing upon bin Laden’s civil engineering training). It also pointed out the 57 days of aerial bombardment and fierce hand-to-hand fighting effort required to capture the Zhawar fortress in 1986, and that even though the Soviets had eventually blown the place up, it had been restored within a year. It had then been blasted again by multiple US cruise missiles in 1998 after Al Qaeda linked American embassy bombings in Africa. On 27 September 2001 The Independent transposed the description of Zhawar to Tora Bora, portraying it as extant and virtually impenetrable. The Associated Press then syndicated the story around the US, and The Times (of London) produced a cut-away schematic of the Tora Bora lair, and its Ken Adam-like styling on 29 September 2001.

The US Government did little to dampen the elaborate and escalating speculation. In an interview for NBC’s Meet the Press on 2 December 2001 interviewer Tim Russert referred to The Times’ elaborate schematic, and its depiction of a multi-tiered complex replete with ventilation ducts, power plant, ammunition caches and entrances large enough to drive a car through. To which Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2001 – 2006) replied that the Tora Bora redoubt was but one of many such complexes to be faced – and not just in Afghanistan. This was not an off-the-cuff remark: Rumsfeld had announced in a Pentagon briefing on 11 October 2001: “A lot of countries have done a lot of digging underground. It is perfectly possible to dig into the side of a mountain and put a large ballistic missile in there and erect it and fire it out of the mountain from an underground post” (quoted in Wines 2001). The mountain bunker thus became equated with the War on Terror’s campaign against ‘rogue states’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

Therefore, in Autumn 2001 it seemed that the US was facing a villainous foe of cinematic proportions. The inflation of the story – the conjecture about how elaborate Tora Bora would be – started with historical fact, and seemed credible. However, once finally overrun by US Forces, Tora Bora proved to be far less sophisticated, as a US Special Forces Staff Sergeant put it when interviewed by the U.S.’s Public Broadcasting Service in 2002 about the battle for Tora Bora:

“…they weren’t these crazy mazes or labyrinths of caves that they described. Most of them were natural caves. Some were supported with some pieces of wood maybe about the size of a 10-foot by 24-foot room, at the largest. They weren’t real big. I know they made a spectacle out of that, and how are we going to be able to get into them? We worried about that too, because we see all these reports. Then it turns out, when you actually go up there, there’s really just small bunkers, and a lot of different ammo storage is up there.” (PBS 2002).

But the fear of (and corresponding faith in) underground fortresses remains a live issue in post-Cold War geopolitics. The Korean War (of 1950-1954) never officially ended, and North and South Korea remain frozen in a military standoff. When Rumsfeld was talking of underground lairs beyond Afghanistan, North Korea was likely to have been at the top of his list, and since 2001, the ‘rogue state’ status of North Korea has been bolstered (in US eyes) by North Korea’s nuclear programme, and in particular its claim in January 2016 to have successfully carried out an underground H-bomb test.

Writing in 2003, Barbara Demmick (a Los Angeles Times East Asia specialist) portrayed North Korea as the exemplar of Rumsfeld’s of rogue nations digging-in. She explains that the North Koreans started tunnelling after the Korean War – when US bombing destroyed most of their industrial base and infrastructure. In response, in 1963, North Korea founder Kim II Sung declared that “the entire nation must be made a fortress. We must dig ourselves into the ground to protect ourselves” (quoted in Demmick 2003). Demmick reports that, as a consequence of this, everything important in North Korea is now underground: with several hundred underground factories, and thousands of smaller facilities. The mountainous topography lends itself well to this – and makes North Korea the world’s most fortified (or bunkerised) country, its population of 22 million people, supporting the World’s fifth largest army. Demmick reports that 13,000 artillery pieces are secreted in mountain bunkers within the (supposedly) demilitarised zone.

The bunker as abject space of defeat

Jonathan Glancey (2011) declares that “no self-respecting dictator can bear to be without a bunker” – but it seems that the reality often falls short of the dream (or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves). Writing in 2011 in the aftermath of US Navy Seals finally tracked down Osama bin Laden to a nondescript residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan fellow Guardian journalist Steve Rose (2011) asks why “the world’s no.1 villain” ended his days “in a lair with no flair”, concluding that bin Laden’s downfall shows us that “life isn’t like a Bond movie”. It seems the narrative for the vanquished is that the bunker must become “the hole they dig themselves into” (all quotes from Rose 2011). Via this inversion of the hyperbole of the omnipotent modernist bunker, the abject bunker looks back to the era of the cave man. The leader who invests in such places – who feels the need for them – has already lost touch with reality and his people, he (or she) exhibits a reality denying “bunker mentality” (Bennett 2011). Originating in the representation of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker in May 1945, a potent political metaphor now exists, whereby vulnerable political leaders can be caricatured: see for example the dubbing of scenes from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s powerful dramatic account of Hitler’s demise, Downfall [Der Untergang] (2004), to reference contemporary leaders and their failings.

In keeping with this motif, (and additionally channelling the despotic collusion of both Marie Antoinette and Eva Braun) a 2013 profile piece on Asma Al-Assad, wife of the Syrian leader, who is described as “as the country collapses around her…sheltering in a bomb-proof bunker…said to be obsessed with her weight and looks, [and] stocking up on luxury furniture, health products and food” (Bentley, 2013). Whilst this fits the trope wonderfully – it does rather gloss over the sophistication modern bunker building: a 2016 feature in the Times of Israel (Solomon, 2016) reports Syrian rebel sources claiming to have probed ‘Assad’s Neighbourhood’ an underground town beneath Damascus – a combined military and political command – extending seven storeys underground, and featuring a maze of (escape) tunnels extending to nearby mountains – with tunnels said to be big enough for vehicles, huge gates, and secure against chemical attack (recalling here the villain’s lair features ascribed to Tora Bora).  The rebel video even presents an animated 3D fly-though of the complex, some footage of rebel fighters driving and walking around the recently penetrated complex (from 37 mins into the following):

Meanwhile, in Iraq in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein commissioned Yugoslavian contractors to build him a duplicate a vast Cold War Belgrade bunker beneath one of his palaces to protect him against nuclear and chemical attack at a cost of £50 million. Construction took eight years, with the project completed in 1983. The palace above was destroyed by the US’ bunker busting bombs in the air attack of April 2003 – but the 20 metre thick concrete roof of the bunker held firm. After US Rangers cut their way in through the thick steel door, the bunkers’ fate lay in the hands of looters, and to be occupied by squatters. Oliver Poole (2006) presents his journalistic bunker hunting thus (combining the ‘downfall’ trope and a cross-reference to the truth-grounding familiarities of fictional bunkers in doing so):

“When US Rangers burst in as Baghdad fell there were still sheets on Saddam’s bed and the maps lay in the command centre. Saddam had already fled…Walking through the maze of corridors was like entering a post-apocalyptic film. Some of the fluorescent lights were still blinking, water from smashed pipes oozed over the carpet and wires hung from the ceiling. Torches picked out abandoned and torn chemical weapon protection suits amid the debris littering the corridors.”

And in Saddam’s case the abjection trope would prove to be further topped-off, by the fact that Saddam’s last refuge was a bunker-hovel – an adapted cellar, with room for one crouching occupant – as presented in this CBS News report from 2003:

Libyan dictator  Muammar Gaddafi’s cornering also played out the same way – his October 2011 capture after being found hiding in the confines of a storm drain in Sirte, his home town, a short distance from his family compound (and its bunker – which had been the subject of an RAF bunker-busting raid in August 2011 to deny Gaddafi his Sirte fall-back). This endgame – like that of Saddam – contrasts to depictions of his elaborate “underground fortress” (reportedly one of many) built beneath the vast Bab al-Aziziya military compound in Tripoli which was captured by rebels in August 2011. This complex is said to have tunnels extending for over a kilometre beneath the city, and – as Jessica Dacey (2011) reports – was built by Swiss bunker engineers in the 1970s and 1980s, modelled on the designs for Swiss civilian bunkers, and fitted out with Swiss ventilation equipment (manufactured by Luwa).

It’s a hallmark of the media age that reportage fresh from the 21st century battlezone is available near-instantaniously, and notable that one standard trope in the portrayal of the defeat of an enemy is to show laying bare of his bunkers. But there’s something else too that can be witnessed now on social media – a touristic urban exploration, as captured for example in bunker-hunting excursions reported on You Tube, specifically that of ‘SISTIC1’ who appears to have wandered many of the Gaddafi bunkers within a few weeks of their capture by rebel forces. SISTIC1’s 1st person POV video wandering around the undamaged bunker found in the Ben Ashour area of Tripoli feels, like a video game, but it isn’t: its carried out in an active warzone, with the very real possibility of lethal wounding by an encounter with a fighter or a looter around the next corner. But is this bunker hunting political or is it recreational, a timely instance of “dark tourism” (Lennon & Foley, 2000)?

Bunkerology’s origins lie in anti-nuclear protestors – like the ‘Spies for Peace’ activists of the 1960s, who sought to penetrate the secrecy of a state’s nuclear scheme – and to defeat it by gathering and disseminating systematic knowledge of its existence (see Bennett 2013). But the iconography of roaming grey-walled subterranean corridors in SISTIC1’s video is chilling because of how closely it chimes with adventure movies and video games, rather than because it unmasks the raw face of political power. Searching the long grey corridors of newly-discovered secret facilities are a ubiquitous feature of popular culture, a motif in every ‘shoot ‘em up’ video game since 1993’s DOOM. Indeed juxtaposing SISTIC1’s footage with a promotional video trailer for Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s 2016 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III plays, produces an uncanny effect: fact and fiction side by side. The fiction portraying a cast of modern day political leaders wandering, and animating very similarly styled light grey subterranean corridors of power, and the fact of SISTIC1’s video of the Ben Ashour bunker, an evacuated space, stripped of its people and purpose. Inevitably, the animated, populated fictional space feels more ‘real’, and the real space feels the more uncanny.

The fact/fiction interpenetration in popular culture makes it difficult for us to keep noticing the bunker in a critical political sense – cultural saturation tips the attention over into the theatrical, the touristic or the fantastical.

 

 

References

Bennett, Luke (2011). ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management.’ Culture and Organization, 17 (2): 155-173.

Bennett, Luke (2013) ‘Concrete Multivalence – practising representation in bunkerology’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31 (3), 502-521.

Bentley, Rick (2013) ‘Syrian dictator Basar Al-Assad’s wife Asma on luxury spending spree’ Daily Express, 2 September.

Dacey, Jessica (2011) ‘Swiss parts helped build Libyan bunkers’, Swissinfo.ch online feature (The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation), 29 August – at http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss-parts-helped-build-libyan-bunkers/31014136

Demmick, Barbara (2003) ‘North Korea has a deep, dark secret known by all’, Orlando Sentinel, 7 December.

Elden, Stuart (2013) ‘Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power’, Political Geography, 34: 35-51.

Glancey, Jonathan (2011) ‘From Hitler to Gaddafi: dictators and their bunkers’, The Guardian, 27 August.

Hirschbiegel, Oliver (dir.) (2004) Downfall [Der Untergang], Constantin Film Produktion: München.

Lennon, John & Foley, Malcolm (2000) Dark Tourism. Thomson: London.

Poole, Oliver (2006) ‘Inside £50million nuclear bunker that couldn’t save Saddam’, The Telegraph, 12 January.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) (2002) Frontline: Interview: U.S. Special Forces ODA 572, interview transcript at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/campaign/interviews/572.html

Rose, Steve (2011) ‘Why did Osama bin Laden build such a drab HQ?’ The Guardian, 4 May.

Rothman, Josh (2011) ‘Bin Laden’s (Fictional) Mountain Fortress’, The Boston Globe blog, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2011/05/bin_ladens_fict.html

Solomon, Ari (2016) ‘Report: Assad built seven-storey underground war bunker’ 16 February: http://www.timesofisrael.com/report-assad-able-to-wage-war-from-underground-bunker/

Wines, Michael (2001) ‘A nation challenged: caves and tunnels; heavily fortified ‘Ant farms’ deter bin Laden’s pursuers’, The New York Times, 26 November.