Counterinsurgency and the counterrevolution

Another interesting interview tied to a book, this time between Jeremy Scahill and Bernard Harcourt, over at The Intercept.  A central argument of Bernard’s book, The Counterrevolution: how our government went to war against its own citizens,is that contemporary politics is based on – in fact, realizes – a counterinsurgency warfare model.  He explains it like this:

… all of the [ways] in which we govern abroad and at home is now funneled through a particular way of thinking about the world. It’s a mentality. It’s a way of thinking about society that triggers particular kinds of strategies and politics that result from that. And the way of thinking about society is this counterinsurgency paradigm of warfare.

So, counterinsurgency started in the 1950s – well, it started long before then, but it kind of crystallized with Western powers in the 1950s and 60s in Algeria, and Indochina before then, and in Vietnam for the Americans. And it was a particular way of thinking about society, the way society is structured into three groups. With, on the one hand, a small active minority who are the insurgents, and a large passive majority who can be swayed one way or the other, and then a small minority of counterinsurgents.

And that way of thinking has become internalized, second hand. Most, I would say, many in America, but certainly our political leaders are looking at the world through that lens when they look at other countries when they look domestically at their own population, and as a result of that it triggers particular kinds of counterinsurgency practices, really. And three practices particularly that I think when you look at what we’re doing both abroad and at home, you see resonances of them everywhere. The first is the idea of getting total information awareness. That’s always been the key linchpin of counterinsurgency theory, is to get total information on the total population.

And that’s what distinguishes it from just getting good intelligence. It’s that you have to get total intelligence on the total population, not just targeted to people who you suspect, but on the total population. So that you can make a distinction between or you can identify that small group of active insurgents. And you need the information on everyone so that you can make that separation, those fine distinctions between someone who is in that active minority or someone who’s just [in the] you know, passive masses. So that’s the first strategy. The second strategy is then that you have to rid of the active minority that you identified, just that small group of individuals, the insurgents, and you do that through any means possible. And then the third strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the masses, basically.

And I think that starting after 9/11. We saw that way of thinking become the dominant way of governing abroad particularly with the war in Iraq, but then more generally with the use of drones outside of war zones et cetera, use of total information through the NSA in the way in which everything was captured about everyone to the most minor detail. And then also trying to pacify the masses in Iraq through kind of some provision of services or just distribution of cash. But then eventually, when this way of thinking comes back to the United States through different forms of pacification of the masses. Particularly right now, I would say through forms of distraction, really.

The interview loops through a number of arguments that will be familiar to regular readers – about Guantanamo Bay, the carceral archipelago and torture; about the ‘cultural turn’ and counterinsurgency; about drones and targeting killing; and about international humanitarian law, international human rights law and the ‘individuation’ modality of later modern war – but repatriates them from the global borderlands to the United States.

The Violence of Populism and Precarity

The LA Review of Books has an interesting interview (conducted by Brad Evans) with Mark Duffield here.  I’m not sure the posted title (‘The Death of Humanitarianism’) captures the range and force of Mark’s critique – it’s a long way from Didier Fassin, for example, whose work I also admire – but see for yourself:

Late liberalism’s turn to catastrophism is a response to global recalcitrance. A quarter-century ago, an emergent liberal interventionism boasted that the age of absolute sovereignty was over. As a result of pushback, however, such exceptionalism has evaporated. Coupled with the downturn, liberalism seems but one among many competing powers and truths. Greeted with alarm in the West and dismissed as so much backward or populist reaction, we have to be more open to the run of the present.

If the computational turn has allowed a post-humanist vision of a world that is smaller than the sum of its parts to consolidate, then late liberalism has authored a realist ontopolitics of accepting this world as it is — rather than worrying how it ought to be. It is a connected world of disruptive logistics, mobility differentials, data asymmetries, vast inequalities, and remote violence: a world of precarity.

Populism is seemingly an inevitable response to an unwanted future through the reassertion of autonomy. As a political model, it is instructive. Resistance requires the active recreation of autonomy. During the 1960s, large areas of social, economic, and cultural life still lay outside capitalism. The university campus, the shop floor, and the “Third World” as it was termed, already existed as areas of effective autonomy. For the New Left, this made them potential sites for liberation and revolution. In a connected world, such nurturing autonomy no longer exists.

Political pushback involves the recreation of autonomy via the repoliticization of ground and place through their imbrications with history, culture, and the life that should be lived. It is a resistance that seeks to renegotiate its position and reconnect with the world anew. And so the question we confront is: Can we reassert a progressive autonomy, or at least a humanitarian autonomy based on a resistance to the dystopia of permanent emergency?

When post-humanism holds that design has supplanted revolution, perhaps it’s time to imbue a new humanitarian ethic based on resisting design. A resistance that privileges more the sentiments of spontaneity, circulation, and necessary difference. We cannot imagine the yet to be. We can, however, encourage its arrival by resisting the negative loss and abjection of precarity through a politics of humanitarian critique.

The interview coincides with the publication of Mark’s new book, Post-humanitarianism: governing precarity in the digital world (Polity, December 2018):

The world has entered an unprecedented period of uncertainty and political instability. Faced with the challenge of knowing and acting within such a world, the spread of computers and connectivity, and the arrival of new digital sense-making tools, are widely celebrated as helpful. But is this really the case, or have we lost more than gained in the digital revolution?

In Post-Humanitarianism, renowned scholar of development, security and global governance Mark Duffield offers an alternative interpretation. He contends that connectivity embodies new forms of behavioural incorporation, cognitive subordination and automated management that are themselves inseparable from the emergence of precarity as a global phenomenon. Rather than protect against disasters, we are encouraged to accept them as necessary for strengthening resilience. At a time of permanent emergency, humanitarian disasters function as sites for trialling and anticipating the modes of social automation and remote management necessary to govern the precarity that increasingly embraces us all.

Post-Humanitarianism critically explores how increasing connectivity is inseparable from growing societal polarization, anger and political push-back. It will be essential reading for students of international and social critique, together with anyone concerned about our deepening alienation from the world.

Here is the list of contents:

Chapter One: Introduction – Questioning Connectivity
Chapter Two: Against Hierarchy
Chapter Three: Entropic Barbarism
Chapter Four: Being There
Chapter Five: Fantastic Invasion
Chapter Six: Livelihood Regime
Chapter Seven: Instilling Remoteness
Chapter Eight: Edge of Catastrophe
Chapter Nine: Connecting Precarity
Chapter Ten: Post-Humanitarianism
Chapter Eleven: Living Wild
Chapter Twelve: Conclusion – Automating Precarity

Violence, space and the archive

I’ve been busy transforming ‘Trauma Geographies‘ from a lecture into a long-form essay, and in the process the original discussion of casualty evacuation from France and Belgium in the First World War has morphed into a separate essay on ‘Woundscapes on the Western Front’.

More on both soon, but I’ve become so immersed in the archives again (Imperial War Museum and the Wellcome) that news of this upcoming conference from the ever-enterprising NUI Galway (23-24 May 2019) arrived at just the right moment:

We invite paper submissions from across the disciplinary spectrum for a conference on ‘Violence, Space and the Archives’ to examine the challenges and possibilities presented by archival work that interrogates the imbrications of violence and space. Many research projects concerned with the spatial, contextual, and/or historical specificities of violence involve the assembling of an empirical corpus, however defined, in order to (re)construct moments of struggle and contestation. Archives are often constituted by, and reflect, the concerns of power. The archive is a site of silence as much as a site of statement. Still, archival collections often allow the voices of the dispossessed, the marginal, and those most subject to regimes of power, to speak, albeit often through a narrowed aperture. Along with the strategic concerns of officialdom, the archives may also give voice to alternative political desires and ambitions, revealed through moments of contestation and resistance. As a political technology, archives render the state’s claimed spaces visible and orderable through cataloguing, but may also underline the contingency of dominant configurations of power by revealing sites of refusal. Of course, ’the archive’ is not limited to institutional and official repositories, but also to a shared fidelity to unofficial and counter-hegemonic memories that refuse to be forgotten.

We invite 20 minute papers that explore some of the following non-exhaustive list of themes: • The silence of the archive • Political desires/spatial imaginaries • Making contested space/ rebel space/ oppositional space visible • Contentious episodes and the archive • Histories/genealogies of thought as archive • Collective memory and resistance • Humanitarian archives and histories of violence • Archiving in times of conflict • Conflict and digital archives

Send abstracts of 250-300 words, along with name and affiliation and a short bio (100 words) to violenceandspace@gmail.com by 21 January 2019.

The conference takes place in NUI Galway and is organised by the Whitaker Institute’s Research Cluster on Conflict, Humanitarianism and Security in association with the Moore Institute, the School of Political Science & Sociology and the Peace and Conflict Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association of Ireland. It builds on the success of the 2018 Conference on Violence, Space, and the Political.

Organisers: Gary Hussey and Niall Ó Dochartaigh, School of Political Science and Sociology, NUI Galway.  More here.

Disappearing War

Out last month, but I’ve only just caught up with it, a collection of essays edited by Christina Hellmich and  Lisa PurseDisappearing War: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cinema and Erasure in the Post-9/11 World (Edinburgh University Press):

The battles fought in the name of the “war on terror” have re-ignited questions about the changing nature of war, and the experience of war for those geographically distant from its real world consequences. What is missing from our highly mediated experience of war? What are the intentional and unintentional processes of erasure through which the distortion happens? What are their consequences?
Cinema is a key site at which questions about our highly mediated experience of war can be addressed or, more significantly, elided. Looking at a range of films that have provoked debate, from award-winning features like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper, to documentaries like Kill List and Dirty Wars, as well as at the work of visual artists like Harun Farocki and Omer Fast, this book examines the practices of erasure in the cinematic representation of recent military interventions. Drawing on representations of war-related death, dying and bodily damage, this provocative collection addresses ‘what’s missing’ in existing scholarly responses to modern warfare; in film studies, as well as in politics and international relations.

Here’s the Contents list:

1. Introduction: Film and the epistemology of war, Christina Hellmich & Lisa Purse
2. Good Kill? U.S. soldiers and the killing of civilians in American film, Cora Sol Goldstein
3. ‘5000 feet is the best’: drone warfare, targets, and Paul Virilio’s ‘accident’, Agnieszka Piotrowska
4. Post-heroic war / the body at risk, Robert Burgoyne
5. Disappearing bodies: visualising the Maywand District murders, Thomas Gregory
6. The unknowable soldier: the face of Freddie Quell, James Harvey-Davitt
7. Visible dead bodies and the technologies of erasure in the war on terror, Jessica Auchter
8. Ambiguity, ambivalence and absence in Zero Dark Thirty, Lisa Purse
9. Invisible war: broadcast television documentary and Iraq, Janet Harris
10. Nine cinematic devices for staging (in)visible war and the (vanishing) colonial present, Shohini Chaudhuri
11. Afterword: Reflections on knowing war, Christina Hellmich

1418 strikes and you’re still in…

The Syrian Archive has announced the release of a database of Russian-led airstrikes on civilian targets in Syria between September 2015 and September 2018.

Several years of monitoring alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria reveals a pattern of indiscriminate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. In an analysis of 3303 videos documenting alleged Russian airstrikes from 116 sources between 30 September 2015 and 9 September 2018, Syrian Archive has identified 1418 incidents in which Russian forces allegedly targeted civilians or civilian infrastructure of little to no military value. Content included in this database can be viewed, analysed and downloaded.

While data presented in this collection does not include all incidents of alleged Russian airstrikes on civilians between 2015 and 2018 [my emphasis], it presents all incidents for which visual content was available and verifiable as of the date of publication. Syrian Archive hopes this will support reporting, advocacy, research, and accountability efforts…

This open source database is fully searchable and queryable by date, location, keyword, relevance, and confidence score..

The database includes more than 3,000 videos of 1,400 incidents (some taken by citizens and activists, some by human rights organisations, and some by the Russian Ministry of Defence); its compilation involved a series of negotiations with YouTube over the removal of some of the video evidence (see here and my extended discussion of visual evidence here).

Airwars continues to do stellar work documenting civilian casualties from the US-led coalition’s military operations in Syria and elsewhere, but the Syrian Archive’s contribution is particularly valuable since, as Airwars notes:

Airwars maintains an extensive database of all known allegations in which civilians have been reported killed by Russian forces in Syrian casualty events since September 30th 2015. Our published month by month records include a case report on each known alleged event; photographs, videos, names of the dead where known; archived links to all known sources; and our provisional assessment as to whether Russian forces were likely responsible.

Due to the scale of the Russian campaign and the number of reported civilian casualty allegations, our team rolls out monthly assessments as we are able to complete them. Much of our deep assessment work had to be suspended in early 2017 given the high number of alleggations against the US-led Coalition.

The Grim Reaper

Peter Lee‘s Reaper Force has just been published in the UK – later in North America.  I’ve argued before that it’s a mistake to abstract drones from other forms of aerial violence (and its history) and to treat it as the only modality of later modern war, but there is no doubt that Reaper Force is an important contribution to the critical analysis of  today’s remote warfare.  Peter won a remarkable degree of co-operation from both the Ministry of Defence and the RAF for his interviews with the crew of Britain’s Reapers – largely a result of the security clearance obtained when he was an RAF Chaplain – and the result is a series of rich and compelling stories:

This unique insight into RAF Reaper operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is based on unprecedented research access to the Reaper squadrons and personnel at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, USA. The author has observed lethal missile strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq alongside the crews involved. He has also conducted extensive interviews with Reaper pilots, sensor operators, mission intelligence coordinators, and spouses and partners. The result is an intimate portrait of the human aspect of remote air warfare in the twenty-first century.

Chris Cole trails the book over at Drone Wars UK with a lively interview with Peter – focusing, in part, on the question of civilian casualties – and there’s also an extended review by Joe Chapa (a major in the USAF) over at War on the Rocks:

The force of Lee’s contribution is not primarily in the raising of familiar issues about distance and psychology. Instead, by focusing on individual crewmembers and preserving personal narrative, Reaper Force brings to the fore a set of questions that have not yet been adequately addressed.

For example, no other work of which I am aware properly depicts the Reaper crew in the appropriate set of command relationships within the broader warfighting organizational structure. Many arguments about Reaper crews’ level of involvement in mission-critical decisions tend either to assume that the crew is so autonomous that they can carry out atrocities without accountability or that the command chain hierarchy is so suffocating that they have no choices to make and are in need of no moral courage from which to make them. The reality that comes through Lee’s narrative is more complicated. Often, the Reaper crew — indeed the whole coalition air component — acts as a supporting command, while the ground force remains the supported command. The result is the often-misunderstood close air support relationship. Though the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) on the ground provides clearance for the aircrew to release the weapon, this clearance does not constitute an order. In the end, like two keys in a nuclear silo, the JTAC must provide clearance, and the Reaper pilot must “consent to release.” The result is a symbiotic relationship between air forces and ground forces, in which both the ground force commander and the pilot in command share the burden of responsibility for weapons release.

In practice, this means that “one of the many responsibilities faced by Reaper crews has been deciding when not to fire a missile or not to drop a bomb.” What happens when the JTAC calls for a weapon and all the legal requirements have been met but something feels wrong to members of the Reaper crew? Josh, one of Lee’s interview participants, describes it this way.

“Taking an objective ‘tick-box’ view we had an adult male emerge from a compound, armed, as friendly forces approached. The compound was in an area occupied by Taliban that had been engaging friendly forces, successfully, over the preceding few days. It met the criteria needed for a strike, we had all the approvals and authorization required. But the tiny details weren’t right.”

In this case, in contrast with the vertical hierarchy that is often assumed, the command relationships — and the authority of the Reaper pilot — seemed like an impediment for the ground force. Some RAF pilot half a world away thinks he knows what is best when it is the ground force that takes all the risk. The social and institutional pressures are palatable. “Brothers are going to die because of you,” the JTAC scolded the Reaper pilot over the radio. In this case, the Reaper pilot insisted that the armed man under the crosshairs was a farmer in the wrong place at the wrong time and not an enemy fighter in search of a fight. If this is not moral courage, then I do not know what is. Josh goes on to say, “trying to reassure the ground troops is not so easy, especially when you had just withheld a seemingly valid request for a shot. From the perspective of those on the ground waiting for a Taliban fighter to open fire at them was not a good tactic — but this was not a Taliban fighter.”

Sometimes the roles — those who want to shoot and those who want to withhold the shot — are reversed. In one instance, the Reaper crew watched an enemy sniper team target friendly forces through a “murder hole” in a stone wall. With some consistency, the team would depart a nearby building, fire upon friendlies through the murder hole, then return to the building. According to the restrictive rules of engagement under which the U.K. Reapers were operating, the crew was required to obtain positive identification of the enemy fighters by observing hostile activity prior to obtaining weapons release clearance. But each time the enemy team went back into the building, it invalidated the positive identification. Thus, time and again, the Reaper crew was unable to obtain positive identification and release a weapon before the enemy fighters returned to the building. The Reaper crew practically begged the ground force commander for a clearance to release the weapon, but the ground force commander insisted on submitting to the relevant restrictions. By the time the incident was over, a British soldier had been shot and was medically evacuated by helicopter. “It’s the closest I have been in my professional life,” the pilot said, “to pulling a trigger without a clearance.”

Footprints of War

 

When I was working on my essay on ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), I was surprised at how few sustained discussions of ‘nature’ as a medium through which military violence is conducted – though there were of course countless, vital discussions of ‘nature’ as a commodity bank that triggers so-called resource wars – so when it came to the section on Vietnam I learned much from David Biggs‘ brilliant account Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (2011).  It deservedly won the George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history.

(You can find an illustrated version of the section of ‘Natures’ on Vietnam here and here, and some of my other work on the militarization of nature in Vietnam here and here).

David now has a new book, Footprints of War: militarized landscapes in Vietnam, due from the University of Washington Press at the end of this year,

When American forces arrived in Vietnam, they found themselves embedded in historic village and frontier spaces already shaped by many past conflicts. American bases and bombing targets followed spatial and political logics influenced by the footprints of past wars in central Vietnam. The militarized landscapes here, like many in the world?s historic conflict zones, continue to shape post-war land-use politics.

Footprints of War traces the long history of conflict-produced spaces in Vietnam, beginning with early modern wars and the French colonial invasion in 1885 and continuing through the collapse of the Saigon government in 1975. The result is a richly textured history of militarized landscapes that reveals the spatial logic of key battles such as the Tet Offensive.

Drawing on extensive archival work and years of interviews and fieldwork in the hills and villages around the city of Hue to illuminate war’s footprints, David Biggs also integrates historical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data, using aerial, high-altitude, and satellite imagery to render otherwise placeless sites into living, multidimensional spaces. This personal and multilayered approach yields an innovative history of the lasting traces of war in Vietnam and a model for understanding other militarized landscapes.

The pre-publication reviews confirm the importance of Footprints:

“David Biggs’s second major book on the social and environmental history of modern Vietnam. His nuanced use of Vietnamese-language publications and his extensive interviews with local people are outstanding. He tells a compelling story in fluent, vivid, and even lyrical prose, expressing compassionate insight into both society and ecosystem.”
-Richard P. Tucker, University of Michigan

“In this rich and innovative new book, David Biggs considers the spatial dimension of the war in Vietnam, through an examination of the densely layered militarized landscapes around Hu . The result is a gem, a fluid, authoritative, compelling work that shows just how deep, complex, and long-lasting were ‘The Footprints of War.'”
-Fredrik Logevall, author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam