I’m just finishing up a new essay on drones and later modern war – “Moving targets and violent geographies” – and I’ll post the draft as soon as I’m done (this weekend, I hope).
Next up is the essay version of my various posts and presentations on air strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, past and present, by the US and by the Pakistan Air Force [see here and here], so I was heartened by news from Madiha Tahir [see my post here] of progress with her short documentary film, Wounds of Waziristan (they are down to the final edits):
More about the project and crowd-sourcing here, and you can find more information at the film’s website, which includes an image gallery and opens with some of the most hauntingly beautiful music composed by André Barros (shades of Arvo Part‘s Spiegel im Spiegel):
Haunting indeed. In a report for Delhi’s Sunday Guardian, Tanishree Bhasin writes:
When Barack Obama finally admitted to the needless loss of life in Pakistan’s Waziristan area due to American drone attacks, he spoke about how the death of innocents would haunt him forever. Interrogating this notion of ‘haunting’ and what it means for those affected by these attacks is Pakistani filmmaker Madiha Tahir in her film Wounds of Waziristan….
With Wounds of Waziristan, Tahir tries to foreground the people who materially experience loss and absence — not as abstract body counts, but as the absence of a brother or a niece or a wife. “Haunting is the insistence by the dead that they be acknowledged, that the social conditions that brought about their demise be made known and rectified. So, haunting is about unfinished business. And, it’s thoroughly social and political. This film focuses on the people who live in Waziristan and who live among loss. Material conditions, whether it’s the rubble after a drone attack or the grave of one’s kin, persist in reminding the living of what they have lost,” she explains.
On her blog, Madiha wryly notes that her interest in the question of haunting may show ‘my academic side coming out’ – as well as an independent journalist she’s also a graduate from NYU and Columbia, where she’s currently working on her PhD – and human geographers will probably be no strangers to the idea, from research by Steve Pile and Karen Till and most recently Alison Mountz‘s analysis of detention centres and Akin Akinwumi‘s work on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.
Much of this has been indebted to Avery Gordon‘s by now classic study, Ghostly matters:
‘Haunting is one way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life, especially when they are supposedly over and done with or when their oppressive nature is denied… Haunting is not the same as being exploited, traumatized, or oppressed, although it usually involves these experiences or is produced by them. I used the term haunting to describe those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view.’
It’s not difficult to see how this applies to air strikes in Waziristan – the sense of familiarity unmoored by the devastations of state violence – but Madiha’s starting point is a two-page note Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno appended to Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘On the theory of ghosts’, that also figured briefly in Gordon’s book (where she described it as an ‘unfilled promissory note’):
Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead: unity with them because we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and the same disappointed hope.
It’s that first clause that animates Madiha’s work:
Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead.
She notes that so much (too much) of the contemporary debate about drones is framed by the language of international law and its grammar of execution that is deeply embedded in military violence: as operational law has become a central discourse in the animation and legitimation of the kill-chain, so it turns targeted killing into a quasi-juridical process. In consequence, as she says with a nod to Eyal Weizman, ‘international law is caught up in constructing the proper order of violence.’
And as a journalist she is dismayed at the complicity of journalists in popularizing law
‘as the only frame through which we can talk about drone attacks and moral standards. Journalists regularly fail to look beyond the usual “experts” in policy and legal circles to other fields that may have an alternative to offer. We are becoming vulgar empiricists who seem to think that a truth not attached to a number (say, the number of “militants” vs. “civilians” killed), or a legal rule (for example: whether an action does/does not violate international law) is no truth at all.’
So Madiha proposes haunting as an alternative frame ‘through which one can re-direct the conversation from issues of legal standards to the lives lived and lives lost under the drones in Waziristan and elsewhere’:
‘The questions then turn on the material conditions and the loss suffered – not as evidence for legal arguments but as queries about what it does to a person to live in such conditions. The question is not, ‘Do I stick him in the “militant” or “civilian” column?’ but instead, who survives him? How do they deal with that loss? What is it like to live among the rubble?
It isn’t through legal standards but though trying to understand the horror of the destruction that we create the correct relationship — with the dead, yes — but with the living, too.’
This matters so much – and reappears in a different form in ‘Moving targets’ – because the contemporary individuation of ‘war’ (if it is war) works to sanitize the battlefield: to confine attention to the individual-as-target (which is itself a technical artefact separated from the exploded fleshiness that flickers briefly on the Predator’s video screens) and to foreclose the way in which every death ripples across a family, a community, a district and beyond [see my brief discussion with Ian Shaw here].
And, as Madiha explained to the Sunday Guardian, these effects ripple across time as well as space, tearing the very fabric of history:
Speaking about her experiences while making this film, she explained that it’s not just a question of life being lost, but also the obliteration of history. “When drone attacks destroy homes — as they often do — they erase entire family histories. Homes in this area are built over time as families grow. There may be as many as 50 members of a family living in one house. When you destroy structures like that, you not only destroy people, you also destroy their history. The rubble that’s left in the wake of an attack is a living memory of what happened there. It embodies loss. The people in Waziristan have to live around this loss, near it, in it. They have to live among ghosts,” says Tahir.