Saturday, June 09, 2007

Confidence Men

Munitions workers at Antonelli Fireworks, Co., Spencerport, New York, circa 1942. Image: Town of Ogden, New York

A “dapper man in a dark black suit”, Amerigo Antonelli emigrated from Italy to the United States with his sons and daughters in 1910 with the hopes of continuing the family fireworks business. He settled in Spencerport, a sleepy town on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, and eventually founded Antonelli Fireworks, Inc. in 1917. The Antonelli family business grew steadily and withstood the economic downturns of the 1930s. Antonelli Fireworks remained a modest outfit responsible for some of the biggest firework displays in Western New York. It bears mentioning that the Antonellis specialized in the manufacture of display pyrotechnics. As Amerigo learned his history and tradition of his craft as a family apprentice, he was possibly familiar with the works of the French polymath Amédée-François Frézier (1682-1773). In addition to books about strawberries, Frézier gained notoriety for his most well-known text, the Traite es Feux d’artifice pour le Spectacle (1747), a treatise on fireworks that caught the attention of the French Academy of Sciences in 1752. Although Frézier’s work was primarily devoted to decorative pyrotechnics, it is important to note that he also wrote books about architecture, geometry and stone cutting. He also devoted his time to the study of defensive fortifications, eventually becoming a member of the French military intelligence corps as well as the chief military engineer for coastal defenses at Saint-Malo.

It is thus interesting to note that like Frézier, Antonelli also exemplified the movement from decorative pyrotechnics to military explosives. By 1941, a time when American military planners cautiously considered the idea of entering the Second World War, the town of Spencerport held a banquet in honor of Antonelli’s "loyalty to his country and his desire to produce for victory." Antonelli Fireworks was one among many companies in Western New York wholly mobilized for the war effort, companies that manufactured everything from camera lenses to M1 Carbines. That year also marked the year that Antonelli Fireworks entered into a series of contracts with the United States Chemical Warfare Service, worth around $1,005,000, for the manufacture of 3,000,000 incendiary bombs. The United States Chemical Warfare Service made an advance payment of 30% and also provided Antonelli Fireworks with money for new buildings, equipment, and employee salaries. After production of bombs started in February 1942, in July of same year Antonelli Fireworks entered into an additional contract for the manufacture of 1,000,000 M-14 incendiary grenades.

The contracts contained strict specifications of manufacture and outlined provisions for quality control of bombs and grenades. Specifically, the incendiary bombs and grenades were to be loaded with a “Therm-8” burster charge. “Therm-8” is a variant of thermite, a flammable compound used primarily for small explosive ordnance. The contracts further stipulated that specific mixtures of Therm-8 were to be loaded into the grenade or bomb “whether steel-jacket or magnesium, in four approximately equal increments, each increment to be successively consolidated”. Eighty per cent of the bombs were to be ordinary incendiary bombs and twenty per cent were to include burster charges. Antonelli was proud about the business he was generating for the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service. When asked about the "possibility of some of his own bombs being dropped on friends and relatives in his native land," he replied: "We're in this country. We love it. We must defend it. It's too bad about those people over there, but they started all the trouble. We must not let them stand in the way of our lives and liberty."

At 6:30 a.m., on the morning of June 22, 1943, under the authority of a search warrant issued by the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, F.B.I. agents entered Amerigo Antonelli’s home and arrested him for “willfully making defective hand grenades and incendiary bombs for the United States government and with conspiracy to defraud the government in making defective war materials.” The F.B.I. also arrested John and Joseph DeRitis, Dominick Barbollo, Bennie Piteo, Frank Bianchi, and Angelo Constanza – all family or employees of Antonelli Fireworks. A Federal grand jury eventually returned two series of indictments: Amerigo Antonelli, John and Joseph DeRitis, and Dominick Barbollo, were charged with fifteen counts of “defective manufacture of war material.” Bennie Piteo, Frank Bianchi, and Angelo Constanza were all charged with a single count with “conspiracy to defraud the United States in its war effort.” Piteo and Bianchi pleaded guilty. The court consolidated the two indictments; and after a trial that lasted from May 1 to June 10, 1944, and produced a record of nearly 4,000 pages, the jury acquitted the defendants of all charges of the indictment, but found the corporation, Antonelli, the DeRitis brothers, and Barbollo guilty as charged in the second indictment. Costanza was found not guilty. The court imposed fines upon the corporation and upon Antonelli, and sentences of imprisonment for eighteen months upon Barbollo, and for two years upon the other individuals.

M14 incendiary grenade in use, Anzio, Italy, May 1944. Image: Chemical Corps Association

Although local newspapers used the lurid language of sabotage to describe the ensuing trials, the trial court did ask the jury whether Antonelli, et al., indeed had produced defective weapons. At issue was whether the Antonelli’s grenades and bombs contained the requisite combination of Therm-8 and incendiary mixture. In a subsequent appellate opinion, Circuit Judge Clark quoted expert testimony from a Colonel in the United States Chemical Warfare Service, noting that “the employment of separate [Therm-8] increments was necessary to obtain a uniform center of gravity, and that the functioning of the bombs would be seriously impaired by consolidation of a lesser number of increments than called for by the specifications.” Circuit Judge Clark continues, “He [the Colonel] further testified that the purpose of the requirement for burster charges in 20% of the bombs was to discourage fire fighters from approaching the bombs too soon after they had fallen.”

Ensuing witness examinations revealed that Antonelli Fireworks had difficulty meeting production quotas and failed to mitigate deficiencies in the manufacture of incendiary bombs and grenades. For example, a 20-year old woman, the United States Attorney’s chief witness, revealed “how she had been instructed by Antonelli and two of his stepsons to put rejected hand grenades back into the assembly line.” The witness also testified that she was told to deliberately underload the hand grenades with only three scoopfuls of powder "unless (government) inspectors were there, and then we were to put four level scoopfuls in.” As the trial continued, other disturbing testimony emerged in newspaper accounts. Supervisors were seen personally putting rejected explosives back on the assembly line. As a result, more than half of 1,000 incendiary bombs randomly selected from the plant appeared to have been underloaded, clear and overwhelming evidence that a great many defective explosives had been produced.

Antonelli’s attorneys then sought to shift blame elsewhere as part of their strategy. Antonelli contended that the government itself had caused many of the problems by making it hard for the company to obtain supplies and funding and by insisting on stepped-up production methods that led to defects. One defense attorney wondered how such a high percentage of allegedly defective explosives made it past a supposedly "rigid" system of government inspection. If the inspectors were "not on the job," they — not management — "should be tried for criminal negligence." However, even managers took the stand against each other. One foreman, who had already pleaded guilty to fraud, turned state's evidence and claimed that Antonelli and his two stepsons had ordered the underloading. Another foreman also "turned against two of his former associates" on the witness stand. The Antonelli defense team, in turn, produced testimony suggesting the blame lay in the other direction. Even before the trial began, Ray Fowler, one of the defense attorneys, argued that there was no incentive for Antonelli Fireworks to take shortcuts. Any powder saved by underloading remained in government control, he claimed. Moreover, the company did not stand to reap any financial rewards because the profits it could make from any given contract were closely regulated. In the end, however, it was Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Norman Kirchgraber’s words that summarized the general feeling of the trial court. During Antonelli’s arraignment hearing in 1943, Kirchgraber told the District Court, "If our fighting men cannot depend on these very bombs they are using while endangering their own lives, then the very purpose for which these bombs were intended is defeated … If there is a more deliberate form of sabotage than in this case, I don't know where it is."

With the above statement, and in conjunction with the definitive holdings of the Antonelli cases, one can begin to get an idea as to the official mood as to the relation between copies and the war effort. And here, a distinction will be made between three types of copies made for military purposes. First, there are objects whose main purpose is deception. This would include an inordinate number of structures strewn with vegetation, washed in dazzle paint, etc. that are wholly operational, but that exist to confuse enemy forces. This category would also include “bogus levels of communications traffic, fake radio messages, planted information ‘leaks’, and documents that were allowed to ‘fall into enemy hands’”. According to an Air Force historian, the object of such deception was nevertheless “to protect key assets by hiding a force or factory, deceiving an enemy as to what was hidden, or confusing an attacker just long enough to cause some weapons to miss.” It is a type of disinformation, a manipulation of data with the sole purpose of creating cognitive dissonance. This type of confusion not only serves to protect the structure (or people using the structures), but also allows the hidden to buy time, to gain advantage in conflict. As Paul Virilio explains, “There is no war, then, without representation, no sophisticated weaponry without psychological mystification.” This mystification is a direct product of deception, it is intentional and germane to the successful execution of a particular military strategy. As such, these are conditions not necessarily applicable to the fake grenades and bombs in the Antonelli cases. In those cases, the deception was for personal and pecuniary ends – wholly illegal and in contravention to the American war effort, as Mr. Kirchgraber suggests.

The incendiary grenades and bombs produced on the Antonelli assembly lines thus bring attention to a second type of copy – the defective copy. “Copying is ultimately imperfect,” writes Hillel Schwartz, an observation of the relation between an object and its defective copy. Schwartz continues:
The more widespread the act of copying, the greater the likelihood of significant mistranscription. Genetic slip or evolution, scribal mistake or midrash, whatever we call it, miscopying raises hard questions about identity, security, and integrity. The same technical advances that render our skill at copying so impressive also intensify the dilemmas of forgery. We use copies to certify originals, originals to certify copies, then we stand bewildered.
One way to unpack such bewilderment is to note that a defect in a copy may be literally and figuratively marked by an imperfection. The definition, identification, and isolation of an imperfection could bear the weight of institutional, cultural, legal, or even scientific authority. Whatever standards are created for the identification of an imperfection, it perhaps useful to think of them as set by a particular set of codes. In other words, an imperfection can be thought of as an occurrence, event, category, aspect, etc., that falls outside the prescriptive norms that a code can offer. In the Antonelli cases, for example, the defective hand grenades and incendiary bombs were actionable under 50 U.S.C. § 103, which provides for “fine or imprisonment up to 30 years for those who, when the United States is at war and with intent to injure or obstruct it in carrying on the war, willfully make in a defective manner any war material as defined in the statute.” The parties were also sued under 18 U.S.C. § 88, a conspiracy statute that provides for “penalties of fine and imprisonment up to two years for those who conspire 'either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States in any manner or for any purpose.'” Again, the defective grenades were subject to a strict inspection regime. Observers from the War Department as well as from the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service constantly monitored the Antonelli Fireworks’ production line, a procedure that eventually contributed to a finding that Amerigo Antonelli and his employees were in violation of the two statutes listed above. The manufacturing of (literally) millions of incendiary bombs and grenades, the pressures associated with production quotas, the constant scrutiny by Chemical Warfare Service personnel – these all contributed to an environment that indeed “intensified” (to use Schwartz’ terminology) the likelihood that a defective copy would emerge from this process. As Circuit Judge Clark stated in the appellate opinion for the Antonelli case:
That there was defective manufacturing was thoroughly established; that it reached truly appalling amounts seems likewise clear. This was shown by the testimony and report of a disinterested X-ray specialist, who stated that in tests of Antonelli products, made at random and thus fairly representative of the entire output, he found that out of 777 steel-jacket bombs, only 291 contained four increments, and that out of a total of 272 magnesium bombs tested, none contained four increments and only 23 contained three increments. Similarly shocking results were reported as a result of visual testing by the Chief of the Incendiaries Branch, Chemical Warfare Service. Indeed, the defendants did not seriously dispute the fact of extensive misproduction, but rather contended that the deficiencies were entirely accidental and due to the sudden necessity of mass production, or that, if any criminal intent did exist, it was entirely on the part of subordinate employees.
At this point, however, mention again must be made regarding Kirchgraber’s statements at Amerigo Antonelli’s arraignment, for they illustrate a prevailing attitude at the time – that defective war materiel is actionable because it hampers the American war effort. This was a sentiment echoed by the U.S. Government in the closing statements to the first Antonelli trial. In that case, United States Attorney Kirchgraber stated:
I cherish an overwhelming confidence, ladies and gentlemen, in the belief that each one of you, after you have been instructed by the Court, will each render your verdict without malice, but without sympathy, that you will each render a verdict of which you can always be proudly justified in the presence of your fellowmen, those here at home who labor and have labored unceasingly in an honest effort to manufacture munitions of war as well as those of us beyond the seas who look to us for the things they need to sustain them in their hour of extreme sacrifice.
If anything, the above statement not only reiterates the unusual and incredible set of circumstances forming the background against which Amerigo Antonelli was arrested, indicted, and imprisoned. If defective war material is indeed actionable because it compromises the efforts of the American military abroad, then is there a situation where a copy can be considered as aiding such an effort?

At this point, we consider a third variation on the copy – the simulacrum. Although such an analysis may invoke some more obvious sources, debates about restoration and preservation come to mind for the purposes of framing some general issues. Thus an issue arises that asks about the nature of restoring lost buildings. On the one hand, there are those who see it as an endeavor wholly separated from the veneration for the object to be restored. For example, Gilbert George Scott, a self-avowed devotee of Gothic churches and luminary of the mid 19th-century Oxford Movements, observed that a restorer “should forget himself in his veneration for the works of his predecessors.” And then there are other architectural thinkers who see restoration and preservation as misnomers. An instance of this occurs when French architect and theorist Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc reacts strongly against the “reinstating in its entirety and in its minutest details, of a fortress in the middle ages, the reproduction of its interior decoration, even to its furniture; in a word, giving back its form, its colour and – if I may venture to say so – its former life.” If that statement sounds unusually prescient, one must keep in mind that Viollet-le-Duc was indeed combative when it came to issues of restoration. Viollet-le-Duc continues, “The term Restoration and the thing itself are both modern. To restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair, or rebuild it; it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time.”

The creation of a simulacrum, however, requires the complicity of the huckster, the panache of the Melvillian confidence man. French thinker Gilles Deleuze provides some initial guidance on this matter. Deleuze readily distinguishes between copies and simulacra as two types of images. The former are “secondhand possessors, well-grounded claimants, authorized by resemblance,” whereas the latter are “false claimants, built on a dissimilitude, implying a perversion, an essential turning away.” Deleuze readily identifies a simulacrum’s author as a trickster, “the satyr or centaur, the Proteus who intrudes and insinuates himself everywhere.” Yet the creation of a simulacrum should not cause offense to the armchair aesthetician: “The simulacrum is not a degraded copy, rather it contains a positive power which negates both original and copy, both model and representation.” The simulacrum is thus a wholly modernist phenomenon as it “is not simply a false copy” and “calls into question the very notions of the copy … and of the model.” If we then take these observations as just that, and apply them to the instance of Antonelli Fireworks employees, we lack the sense of epistemological urgency that Deleuze attributes to the whole enterprise of identifying copies. As stated earlier, the employees faced insurmountable production quotas, and at some level in the decision-making process, a very bad decision was made. Deleuze’s scheme does not account for such errors.

However, the idea that the author of a simulacrum is a type of huckster is very salient indeed. Nothing demonstrates this more than R. Norman Kirchgraber’s suggestions that the Antonelli’s were immigrant saboteurs hellbent on derailing the American war effort. But, Deleuze sentiments are somewhat justified, for the ensuing legal cases really did call attention to the relationship between the defective and original incendiary bombs and grenades. Likewise, Gilbert George Scott’s and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s statements implying that the restoration or recreation of a structure is really a sui generis architectural gesture also call attention to the relationship between the copy and the original.

The extraordinary climate surrounding the Second World War undoubtedly figures into this equation. Perhaps the fact that these projects were borne out of a climate of total, global war, and that war necessitates its own type of space is helpful. As Paul Virilio explains in an interview with Sylvere Lotringer:
The military space is something people don’t talk about too often. You’ll find it in Clausewitz, but it hasn’t really been taken up since. People speak of the history of war, of battlefields, of deaths in the family, but no one speaks of the military space as the constitution of a space having its own characteristics. My work is located within this concept. I suddenly understood that war was a space in the geometrical sense, and even more than geometrical: crossing Europe from North to South, from the shelters of the German cities to the Siegfried Line, passing by the Maginot Line and the Atlantic Wall, makes you realize the breadth of Total War. By the same token you touch on the mythic dimension of a war spreading not only throughout Europe, but all over the world. The objects, bunkers, blockhouses, anti-aircraft shelters, submarine bases, etc. are kinds of reference points or landmarks to the totalitarian nature of war in space and myth.
What, then, of a space of war that is both a simulacrum as well as its own type of space?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Im sorry to see you have not received any comments about this entry. I thought that you may find it interesting to know that my grandfather was R. Norman Kirchgraber. He was very proud of his efforts on the behalf of the people in this case. He was involved with many other cases during his years with the US District Attny.'s office. Criminals/gansters, Nazi spys, a white slavery ring, and some commical/legendary ponography trial(by modern standards) But that case he spoke the most of probably because it gave him the sense that he made a difference.
How did you an Architure grad student get intrested in this case?

One of Norm's > 30 grandchildren