:: Article

in the trap

By Hunter Dukes.

There is something rather pleasing about booby traps in movies. I’m talking camouflaged snake pits. Rope snares fixed to taut tree branches. Poison darts triggered by spring-loaded stones. These were the scenes I would rewind again and again as a child, drunk on the cruel pleasures of dramatic irony. It is a genre that gains intensity through repetition. To watch James Bond circumvent another pitfall, to see Harry & Marv once again succumb to the homemade deathtraps of Home Alone, is to accrue another layer of mica-like satisfaction. So when my local cinema screened Raiders of the Lost Ark this spring—the crown jewel of the genre—I had to see Indiana Jones on the big screen.

Of questionable origin, the word ‘booby’ is thought to have descended from the Spanish bobo, used to describe fools and a type of slow-witted bird. In his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, for example, Samuel Johnson defined a lubber as ‘a sturdy drone; an idle, fat bulky losel; a booby.’ The ‘booby trap’ may have originally been an ersatz cage constructed to capture the creatures on long sailing voyages, or 19th century schoolyard slang for a practical joke. The pleasure of these traps is their touchstone quality. If the villain takes the bait, he is the booby you thought him to be. When the hero successfully evades, she proves herself a worthy recipient of your emotional investment. Schadenfreude mingles with compulsive repetition as traps become the traumatic scenes to which we return repeatedly.

The film opens with Indy in the Andes, searching for a golden idol in the Temple of the Chachapoyan Warriors. The first trap is a cinch: when handfuls of tarantulas fall onto his back, he brushes them off without a second thought. Next there is a suspicious cone of sunlight, shining through a crack in the cave wall. Harrison Ford’s studied nonchalance prevails again, as he waves a cautious hand across the beam. Wooden spears shoot out from the rock, revealing the corpse of Forrestal—Indy’s late academic competitor. ‘He was good. He was very, very good’, sighs the professor. To be an archaeologist in the 1930s! Jones finally arrives at the idol, mounted on a pressure-sensitive pedestal. He replaces the golden statue with a scaled bag of sand, but it is too light. The pillar depresses, triggering a primitive security system: poison darts fly, granite blocks crumble, igneous slabs descend to bar thresholds. As Indiana flees the self-destructing temple, a giant boulder pursues—a lithic minotaur at the centre of George Lucas’s labyrinth.

This form of petric technology is steampunk for the Stone Age. What was most apparent during this viewing was the inanimate agency of it all. There is no villainous trap setter. All we see is matter against man. These death engines of sticks and stone might follow the laws of physics, but they seem to knowingly have it out for Indy. This is not the same animism of Rube Goldberg machines or the kinetic sculptures of George Rhoads. Once configured, those devices seem to run on their own, creating the illusion that vitality has been gifted to the inorganic. They draw upon the fantasy of perpetual motion. A belief that the life’s fleeting rhythms can be captured in Newton’s cradle. No, the boulder chasing Jones is something else entirely. A sphere of malicious, vibrant matter.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is set in 1936, right before the phrase ‘booby trap’ became a common piece of World War II jargon. During this time, Allied forces distributed numerous manuals detailing reconnaissance techniques for spotting and diffusing the dangerous devices. One such manual is simply entitled Booby Traps. Authored by the Bureau of Naval Personnel in 1944, it details how equivalent technology had been used since the Trojan War, but that the first booby traps—‘in the strictly modern sense’—appear towards the end of World War I. Since then, the Germans (whom the guide refers to as ‘international gangsters’) perfected the method.

Our international gangsters have added more refinements, the Germans describing their intentions thus: ‘It should not be safe for him (meaning you and me) when in an occupied community to press a door latch, to move a wagon, to close a window, to clear away debris, to disturb a wire, to cross a street—without causing the explosion of a mine.’

Military booby traps leave a complex psychology in their wake. They weaponise the landscape, recruiting inhuman actors as combatants. As such, nothing is safe. A piece of iron pipe, a wooden box with its lid ajar, 40-gallon drums, a bottle of wine: these are all objects that might try to kill you, according to the guide. In classical conceptions of warfare (even the more Guerrilla varieties), humans battle over geographic space. Enemies are usually present in some capacity when a soldier is killed. In booby trap warfare, the trap-setter could be a hundred miles away, deceased, or the civilian of a now resolved conflict. Traps anticipate the problem of proxy that makes drone warfare so disturbing.

While Booby Traps feigns just war and condemns Axis deception, the Allies had a few dirty tricks of their own. The formally restricted FM 5-31, or, Land Mines and Booby Traps (distributed by the War Department in November of 1943), details techniques for arming every-day objects. Like something out of Q’s laboratory in the James Bond films, the manual contains instructions for building the ‘British Water-Barrel Booby Trap’, the ‘Double-Drawer’ desk booby trap, and the American ‘Seat Cushion Pressure Fuze’. Perhaps the most psychologically complex booby trap rumoured used in World War II was known as the German anti-officer crooked picture bomb. Designed to target those higher up in the military hierarchy (because who, if not officers, would care whether or not a picture is level), the crooked picture frame was placed in abandoned military headquarters and rigged to explode when straightened.

Less than a year after the distribution of FM 5-31, the animation wing of Warner Brothers Studios produced a short film about booby traps. Part of ‘Private SNAFU’, a series of cartoon shorts for soldiers’ eyes only, this particular episode was directed by Bob Clampett, one of the animators behind Porky the Pig and Bugs Bunny. Created by Dr. Seuss’s Theodor Geisel, the series circulated from 1943-1946 and enfolded didacticism within bawdy humour to instruct soldiers on topics like ‘The Infantry Blues’, ‘Spies’, and ‘Payday’. SNAFU, of course, stands for Situation Normal All Fucked Up. The basic arc of each episode can be easily summarized: do as Private Snafu does not.

In ‘Private SNAFU: Booby Traps’, the soldier skips through an abandoned desert. Like the Indiana Jones scenes set in Cairo and Tibet, the North African landscape quickly becomes a space of Oriental fantasy. The soldier first happens upon a camel idling next to a palm. Beside it, there is a stool and a sign, which reads: ‘Cool Fresh Camel’s Milk Free’. As the private sits down to milk a sip, he finds the udders swapped with studded pressure bombs. Next he encounters a brothel in the desert, complete with Shanasheel windows and decorative urns. With a hubba-hubba grin and trail of dust, he sprints inside like a sexually-deprived Road Runner. The soundtrack plays ‘The Streets of Cairo (The Poor Little Country Maid)’, better known as The Snakecharmer Song. But in the pleasure-house something is amiss. With a creepy twist of tableaux-vivant dehumanization, the women are only wax dolls, poised mannequins of frozen desire. Snafu narrowly avoids a trip-wired piano (he cannot remember the final note of a melody) and a hookah stuffed with TNT.

As he gropes an inanimate sex worker, the private makes a frightening discovery—the woman is booby-trapped in the basest sense of the pun. Her buttocks have been replaced with bombs, and her breasts are nothing more than short-fused mortars. Like Indiana Jones fleeing the temple, the soldier hurtles towards the exit, dodging giant mousetraps, trapdoor floors, and spear-rigged walls. Catching his breath besides the building, Private Snafu triggers a cuckoo-clock mechanism. A small hatch opens next to his ear and out comes a model of Adolf Hitler holding a percussive triangle. Hitler proceeds to play the correct version of the melody that Snafu could not complete. The private, unaware of this intervention, points a finger of remembrance in the air, runs back into the brothel, triggers the piano bomb, and blows himself to bits.

While the creators of ‘Private SNAFU: Booby Traps’ probably intended to raise awareness about the sophistication of sabotage, they accomplished a more malevolent deed. By weaponising the bodies of North African women, the cartoon performs a sophisticated kind of geographical warfare. Not only are the enemies soldiers in a particular landscape dangerous, but the camels, buildings, and civilians are also to be treated as mechanized threats. This type of ideological interference is what Edward Said has called Orientalism’s doctrine of ‘radical realism’. At stake in these representations is the way in which we refer to and designate our baseline impressions of how the world is actually composed. It may seem a farfetched conclusion (surely soldiers didn’t actually think these women had bombs for breasts), but sex-positive women would soon become a type of biological weapon in the propaganda imaginary.

While the various departments of war were releasing guides to booby traps throughout the 1940s, the U.S. government was disseminating a series of posters addressing sexually transmitted infections. Many of the posters equate foreign prostitutes, ‘loose women’, and ‘pick ups’ to a class of booby-trap. The most explicit poster of the series shows two soldiers in uniform, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, chatting to an attractive woman in a low-cut dress. Imposed in bold lettering over the image are five words: ‘BOOBY TRAP Syphilis and Gonorrhoea’. In the same vein, another poster shows an elderly man in military dress alongside the words: ‘Surgeon Sage Says—Only a poor boob pays his money, loses his watch, gets the syph, and brags that he’s had a good time.’ Besides the explicit references to boobs and booby traps, other posters depict STI-positive women as Axis agents. Perhaps the most potent is an image of three winking women dressed in red, white and blue. Above their heads is a Remington pistol with its hammer cocked and a one-word question: Loaded? Beneath it reads, ‘Don’t take chances with pickups! VD IS NOT VICTORY. Loose Women may also be Loaded with Disease.’

A haunting image from the lot shows no women at all. Instead we find caricatures of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo goose-stepping in formation. They are heavily adorned with medals and Nazi paraphernalia, as well as sores, blisters, and pustules. Their sashes read GONORRHEA, CHANCROID, and SYPHILIS. Hitler and Tojo hold oversized, disease-filled syringes, while Mussolini (the Italian sensualist) carries a syringe disguised as a woman. She wears purple stockings and garters, embossed with the skull and crossbones. The visual message is simple. Women’s bodies have become booby traps of biological warfare. There is no need for the text, which reads: ‘Fool the Axis—USE PROPHYLAXIS’.


I wish our story ended with the Second World War. Doctrines of radical realism are so effective, however, because they accommodate the seamless substitution of subjects. As the presence of U.S. troops in Vietnam exploded during the 1960s, a familiar motif emerged. Not only were Viet Cong soldiers out to kill Americans, the entire landscape had been trained in the art of assassination. With well-documented descriptions of poison punji sticks and Củ Chi tunnel traps, it is nearly impossible to disentangle the figure and the ground. Take, for example, a trap described in the U.S. military pamphlet Viet Cong Mine Warfare, which reads like the paraphrase of an Indiana Jones plot.

An infantryman was walking into a cave in the central highlands feeling his way, wary of the variety of dirt traps the Viet Cong plant. Suddenly, something from above lashed at his cheek. Something else at his shoulder. A third something at his neck. He had walked into a curtain of snakes tied, like sinister stalactites from the caves ceiling. Hungry, angry, frustrated, they bit the soldier furiously. Bamboo kraits, they call them. Deadly poisonous.

My intention is not to cast doubt on accounts of the incomprehensible death traps to which both sides were victim. I merely want to observe the way in which Vietnam becomes a totalized topography in these accounts. How snakes conspire with stalactites to kill American soldiers. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), there is a nightmarish scene where the character Crazy Earl suffers a Snafu-like end. Walking on patrol through a hallucinogenic landscape of rubble, burning buildings, and drooping palms, the soldier happens upon a stuffed toy rabbit. In one of the quietest scenes of the film, he calmly bends down to pick it up, overcome with curiosity. A trip-wire mine explodes and he collapses: dead. There is something sinister about the choice of the rabbit. It is as if even children’s toys (even, possibly, children themselves) have joined in the fight to take lives. Michele Janette, a scholar of Vietnamese American literature, describes how this convention of mapping threat onto place is a mainstay of Vietnam War novels.

[…] in contrast to the surrealistically alien Americans, the Vietnamese are so integrated into the landscape as to become a literal part of it. The ubiquitous references to the ‘VC melting into the landscape’ after an attack not only dehumanize the Vietnamese but also more specifically topographies them, making them simply part of the land. (At its most extreme, this becomes a Möbius strip of personification and topographication, in the trope ‘the jungle itself was shooting at us’).

After reading accounts like these, one cannot help but see the infamous Operation Ranch Hand campaigns—in which the U.S. military used toxic herbicides such as Agent Orange to deforest thousands of Vietnamese acres—as a form of eco-retaliation. When every rock, animal, and human is quietly conspiring against you, don’t take any chances: decimate the geosphere and biosphere entirely.

One speculative etymology of the word ‘terror’ (and, by association, ‘terrorism’) connects it to words like terrain and territory. If to be a victim of terror is to tremble with fear, as the earth trembles with seismic activity, then perhaps the projection of enmity onto landscape is not a uniquely twentieth-century phenomenon. Maybe it is a form of psychological atavism, a vestige from the days we wandered amongst sabre-toothed cats, inexplicable earthquakes, and ambush-prone wolves. Dark forests have always had a special place in our mythologies—sites of unspeakable acts, black magic, and dread. If, at certain points in history, humans have been prone to pantheism, perhaps the twentieth century (and its unprecedented horror) marks the beginning of an engrained panophobia: the fear of a complete and unified enemy—animal, vegetable, and mineral.

Hunter Dukes is a writer based in Cambridge, England. His other works can be found here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 25th, 2016.