Logistics and dialectics

Shortly before Pakistan re-opened its borders with Afghanistan to NATO’s military convoys, I described the (political and economic) frictions of distance involved in supplying the war in Afghanistan in an essay for Open Democracy.  I described the two main supply lines, the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication and the Northern Distribution Network, and the intricate system of political concessions and pay-offs each involved.

The border crossings reopened on 5 July, after a break of seven months, but the convoys have been reduced to a trickle by bureaucratic delays and by drivers’ demands for compensation for the long lay-off.

Re-opening the border provoked angry demonstrations in Pakistan.  Standing at the Torkham Gate at the Khyber Pass a local leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, a right-wing Islamist party, declared that ‘NATO supply is haram [forbidden] and against sharia’ and promised to issue a fatwa against it.

But, according to an AP report this morning, it is not only the US military that is relieved at the opening of its supply lines: so too are the Taliban.  Previous reports in The Nation by Aram Roston, together with a scathing Congressional investigation, Warlord Inc., documented the routes through which the Pentagon’s logistics contracts made provision for payments to insurgents not to attack their convoys.  The central mechanism for the privatisation of the supply chain was Host Nation Trucking, which was cancelled in August 2011 (three months before the border closed).

It was replaced by a new National Afghan Trucking contract, but more than half of the 20 contractors involved in the new scheme had been prime or subcontractors under the previous contract, and convoy security was still in the hands of private contractors.  John Tierney, the Democrat chair of the original Congressional investigation, was exasperated: ‘We are right back to the same people that were involved in the problem that instigated the investigation.’  And, as the AP report suggests, this includes the Taliban:

 ‘The insurgents have earned millions of dollars from Afghan security firms that illegally paid them not to attack trucks making the perilous journey from Pakistan to coalition bases throughout Afghanistan… Pakistan’s decision to close its border to NATO supplies in November in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops significantly reduced the flow of cash to militants operating in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the convoys travel up from Pakistan, said Taliban commanders…

 “Stopping these supplies caused us real trouble,” a Taliban commander who leads about 60 insurgents in eastern Ghazni province told The Associated Press in an interview. “Earnings dropped down pretty badly. Therefore the rebellion was not as strong as we had planned.” A second Taliban commander who controls several dozen fighters in southern Kandahar province said the money from security companies was a key source of financing for the insurgency, which uses it to pay fighters and buy weapons, ammunition and other supplies.  “We are able to make money in bundles,” the commander told the AP by telephone. “Therefore, the NATO supply is very important for us.”

[The] commanders said they were determined to get their cut as the flow of trucks resumes from Pakistan…  “We charge these trucks as they pass through every area, and they are forced to pay,” said the commander operating in Ghazni. “If they don’t, the supplies never arrive, or they face the consequence of heavy attacks. … We have had to wait these past seven months for the supply lines to reopen and our income to start again… Now work is back to normal.”‘

Counterinsurgency and the humanitarian present

Laleh Khalili – whose work on the new and old classics of counterinsurgency,  on the gendering of counterinsurgency, and on the location of Palestine in global counterinsurgency – is indispensable, has just alerted me to the fate (Fate?) of one of its principal architects, David Kilcullen.

In The accidental guerilla and other writings, Kilcullen – Petraeus’s Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser in Iraq – repeatedly turned to bio-medical analogies to advance a bio-political vision of counterinsurgency: insurgency as a ‘social pathology’ whose prognosis can be traced through the stages of infection, contagion, intervention and rejection (‘immune response’).  In an interview with Fast Company, Kilcullen now explains that he

“came out of Iraq with a real conviction that we tend to think that a bunch of white guys turning up with a solution fixes all the problems. It doesn’t work like that. You actually have to really build a collaborative relationship with the people on the ground if you want to have any hope of understanding what’s going on.”

Kilcullen’s contract ended when the Obama administration came into office, and he founded Caerus Associates.  The company advertises itself as ‘a strategy and design firm’ that works to ‘help governments, global enterprises, and local communities thrive in complex, frontier environments.’  It claims to ‘bring the system into focus’ by providing ‘strategic design for a world of overlapping forces — urbanization, new market horizons, resource scarcity and conflict — to build resilience and capacity.’   The company explains its ‘strategic design process’ here, and Kilcullen’s vision of systems analysis is sketched here.  This may sound like the rapid-fire buzz-words that corporate start-ups typically shoot at their clients, but Kilcullen provides Fast Company with a sawn-off version (it’s really hard to avoid these metaphors…):

“We’re two-thirds tech, one-thirds social science, with a dash of special operations… We can go out in a community and say, ‘Let’s map who owns what land,’ or ‘Let’s map who owes the local warlord money,’ or ‘Let’s map the areas in the city where you don’t feel safe.'”

This chimes with Kilcullen’s famous description of contemporary counterinsurgency as ‘armed social work’, and in an interview with the International Review of the Red Cross published in September 2011 Kilcullen extended his vision of ‘military humanism’ beyond insurgency thus:

‘The methods and techniques used by illegal armed groups of all kinds are very similar, irrespective of their political objectives. So whether you’re talking about a gang in the drug business in Latin America, or organized crime in the gun-running or human smuggling business, or whether you’re talking about an insurgency or perhaps even a civil war involving tribes, you will see very similar approaches and techniques being used on the part of those illegal armed groups. That’s one of the reasons why I believe counter-insurgency isn’t a very good concept for the work that the international community is trying to do. I think that the idea of complex humanitarian emergencies is actually a lot closer to the reality on the ground. You almost never see just one insurgent group fighting an insurgency against the government anymore. What you typically see is a complex, overlapping series of problems, which includes one or more or dozens of armed groups. And the problem is one of stabilizing the environment and helping communities to generate peace at the grassroots level – a bottom-up peace-building process. And that’s not a concept that really fits very well with traditional counter-insurgency, which is about defeating an insurgent movement and is a top-down, state-based approach. What you have to do is create an environment where existing conflicts can be dealt with in a non-violent way.’

This is a remarkable passage for several reasons: the focus on ‘techniques’ not ‘objectives’, which works to de-politicize and de-contextualize a range of different situations in order to generalize about them, the appeal to a collective “international community” whose only interest is a generic “peace”, and hence the passage to what Eyal Weizman calls ‘the humanitarian present’. I think that’s also a colonial present, not surprisingly: ‘humanitarianism’ was often the velvet glove wrapped around the iron fist of colonialism.  But what Weizman sees as novel about the present is the way in which its ‘economy of violence is calculated and managed’ by a series of moral technologies (the term is Adi Ophir‘s) that work to continue and legitimize its operation.  In other words, there is today an intimate collusion of the ‘technologies of humanitarianism, human rights and humanitarian law with military and political powers’.

Despite  the reference to ‘special operations’ in the Fast Company interview – something which makes me think that Obama would have found Kilcullen’s continued advice invaluable – Kilcullen insists that it’s a collaborative process:

“We specialize in working with communities that are under the threat of violence in frontier environments, and I think to some extent that distinguishes us a little bit from other people. Sure we can give a slick presentation in a hotel room, but what we can also do is walk the street in dangerous places, engage with communities, and figure out what needs to happen. It’s not us figuring it out, it’s them telling us, but often we find that no one’s ever been there and asked them before.”

‘Dangerous places’, ‘frontiers’: this is still the language of adventurism.  It recalls Zygmunt Bauman‘s ‘planetary frontierland’, and even more Mark Duffield on the ‘global borderlands’:

‘The idea of the borderlands … does not reflect an empirical reality.  It is a metaphor for an imagined geographical space where, in the eyes of many metropolitan actors and agencies, the characteristics of brutality, excess and breakdown predominate.  It is a terrain that has been mapped and re-mapped in innumerable aid and academic reports where wars occur through greed and sectarian gain, social fabric is destroyed and developmental gains reversed, non-combatants killed, humanitarian assistance abused and all civility abandoned.’

It’s not surprising, then, that in the IRC interview Kilcullen should make so much of establishing ‘the rule of law’: ‘It’s a set of rules which has predictable consequences and allows the population to feel safe, and helps them know what they need to do in order to be in a safe place.’  He makes it clear that, in many (perhaps most) circumstances ‘bottom-up, community-based law, which can be transitional justice, or customary law, applied by traditional courts or religious courts, is as effective and possibly even more effective in the initial stages than central-state structures.’   But this ignores the multiple ways in which law (including international humanitarian law) is not apart from conflict but is almost always a part of conflict: as Weizman has it, ‘international law develops through its violation.  In modern war, violence legislates.’

One could say much the same about maps.  Mapping is not a neutral, objective exercise; mapping is performative and its material effects depend on the constellation of powers and practices within which it is deployed. Kilcullen’s injunction – “Let’s map” – glosses over who the ‘us’ is, who is included and who is excluded, and the process through which some mappings are accorded legitimacy while others are disavowed.  This is also one of Weizman’s central claims, not least in his exposure of the torturous mappings that issued in the  Hollow Land of occupied Palestine.

Weizman’s particular focus in his discussion of the humanitarian present is Gaza, and this winds me back to Laleh Khalili’s work which brilliantly re-reads counterinsurgency in occupied Palestine contrapuntally with US counterinsurgency practices elsewhere.  Her Essential Reading on Counterinsurgency was published by Jadaliyya, and her forthcoming book, Time in the shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford University Press, October 2012),  engages with a Medusa’s raft of counterinsurgency adviser-survivors, including Kilcullen and Andrew Exum (Abu Muqawama).

And so a final question: how would ‘strategic design’ and a ‘collaborative process’ help the people of Gaza?  Whose ‘rule of law’ is to be established?  And which maps chart a road not only to peace but to justice for the people of Palestine?

Vancouver as the centre of the world

No, I know it isn’t – though many people who live here evidently think otherwise – but on the first full day of the London Olympics it seems appropriate to re-visit Landon Mackenzie’s Vancouver as the centre of the world, a remarkable (and huge) work commissioned by the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad.


This may seem a world away from my current preoccupations, but it isn’t – in all sorts of ways. Robin Laurence described the work ‘as a complex metaphor of power, place and ethnocentricity, the painting throbs with meaning. Throbs with menace, too. Those wine-red splatters look a lot like blood.’

‘On first viewing, Vancouver as the Centre of the World looks abstract—an enormous red oval floating on a ground of blue-green and sandy-ochre stripes. In fact, the work is highly representational, its variously translucent and opaque washes of colour inter-layered with subtle forms and ambiguous lines. Alluding to the formal problems posed by creating a two-dimensional map of our three-dimensional planet, and the weirdly distorting cultural biases of cartographers past and present, the painting folds references to moons, satellites, time zones, Internet cables, shipping lanes and airline traffic into its teeming surface. It also focuses us on the geopolitical forces that shape our vision of the world.

‘“It’s about the creation of a complex fiction,” Mackenzie says, pointing to the midden-like heap of maps that went into the painting’s making. Oceans and landforms shift and merge, national boundaries are erased, and cities like Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and Timbuktu rotate around the place that was once the end of the Earth.’

There’s also an excellent interview here with Didier Bigo, from Cultures et conflits, in which Mackenzie talks about her cartographic obsessions:

I liked the idea of this presentation because in reality all maps are a construction and a kind of fiction. In the late nineteenth century the Olympics became re-organized under nation states and so to erase national boundaries symbolically was a simple way of commenting on this relationship in contrast to most maps or globes which show a colourful spectrum of individualized territories.’

My own cartographic obsessions are rather different, as I’ll explain in another post, but I’m particularly interested in these marchlands between cartography and art.  Alan Ingram’s more general work on art, geography and war – he explains the inclusion of the middle term here – is exemplary.  In my own case, ever since I encountered elin o’Hara slavick’s “Bomb after Bomb” (see ‘Doors into nowhere’ in DOWNLOADS), I’ve been drawn to the work of artists who, like her, work to both reveal and subvert the spatial-visual logics that make possible the targeting that is the dead centre of military violence.  I’m most interested in ‘aerial works’, and I now have a long list that includes Martin Dammann [the Überdeutschland series], Joyce Kozloff [‘Targets’], Raquel Maulwurf, Gerhard Richter, and Nurit Gur-Lavy, and I’ll say more about them shortly.   But if anyone else has others I ought to include, I’d be very pleased to know of their work.

Histories of violence

I should have mentioned this before: Brad Evans, whose Foucauldian riffs have opened up a series of arresting perspectives on contemporary (‘liberal’) war, has a resource-rich website for his Histories of Violence Project.   It includes a series of cultural interventions, including an interview with Tom McCarthy and a reading from his novel “C”, a clutch of talking-head’ lectures on thinkers like Arendt, Bauman, Butler, Fanon and Foucault, and a special series of videos to mark the anniversary of 9/11, ‘Ten years of Terror’, including Zygmunt Bauman, Mick Dillon, Steve Graham, Michael Hardt, Mary Kaldor, Brian Massumi, Cynthia Webber – and Brad himself.

I single out Tom McCarthy’s “C” for many reasons, not least of which are the various ways in which it intersects with my last post about war from the air and war over the airwaves (though it ends in 1922).

Sounds of War

In my post on War and Distance, I referred to a BBC radio broadcast of a Bomber Command raid on Berlin on the night of 3/4 September 1943. There had been previous British broadcasts of bombing raids, notably by Richard Dimbleby who flew on twenty-odd missions with the RAF, but his commentaries were all recorded after the event.  This one was different.  Reporter Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and his sound engineer Reg Pidsley made their recording during a flight in a Lancaster bomber, “F for Freddie”, part of a force of over 300 Lancasters that attacked Berlin that night.  Their live recording was edited for transmission a couple of nights later.  You can listen to an extract here, and there is a lively discussion about whether the recording was fake or not (it evidently wasn’t), together with more details of the recording and the raid, here.

This episode is of interest for reasons that spiral beyond my original post.  Much of the discussion of the histories/geographies bombing – my own included – focuses on the visual, and there are good reasons for this.  During the combined bomber offensive against Germany, as I try to show in ‘Doors into nowhere’ [see DOWNLOADS], what today would be called the kill-chain was choreographed through a sequence of air photographs, maps, charts and visual displays.  In 1941 Harry Watt produced an extraordinary drama-documentary, Target for Tonight, for the Crown Film Unit and the Ministry of Information that tracked this visual sequence in vivid detail.  The film used RAF personnel (not actors); it was shot at RAF Mildenhall and on special sound stages at Elstree and Denham, where Bomber Command’s Operations Room at High Wycombe was recreated (with twice the number of available squadrons listed on the walls); and it followed the fortunes of  a Wellington bomber – also “F for Freddie” – on a strike against a “military-industrial target”, an oil refinery at Freihausen.

The film was a huge success.  Writing in the Spectator Graham Greene marvelled at the way in which ordinary men and women carried out ‘their difficult and dangerous job in daily routine like shop or office workers.. What we see is no more than a technical exercise…’  The New York Times reviewer said much the same; the film ‘shows the manner in which the Bomber Command lays out its operations, how instructions are transmitted to the squadrons which are to participate, how the plan of attack is “briefed” by the men of one particular squadron and then how the crew of one powerful Wellington conducts its appointed task….The true, thrilling quality of it lies in the remarkable human detail which Mr Watt has worked into it — the quiet, efficient way in which each man goes about his job.’   You can watch it here (and marvel at the cut-glass English accents: “Bad luck, Catford!”; how did the language change so much between then and now?)

[There is a much longer discussion in K.R.M. Short’s account of the film in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 17:2 (1997) 181-218 (which includes the script) and, again, I discuss its visual thematics in “Doors into nowhere”].

In the Second World War air raids were often described in cinematic terms, by observers in the air and on the ground.  As Lara Feigel notes, ‘accounts of the Blitz in both Britain and Germany frequently figure the bombs as photographic and cinematic.’  Partly, she says, this is a matter of lighting – and given the growing importance of incendiaries in the bomb mix, and the emphasis on bombing by night, you can see why – but she thinks there is also a deeper reason. ‘In seeing the war as a photograph,’ she suggests, writers were ‘detaching themselves from the world around them.’  The sense of detachment, if she is right, is not only one possible effect of the visual (or of a particular visuality); bombing was abstracted from the horror it brought to bodies through its bureaucratization – Greene’s ‘technical exercise’; the locus classicus for this discussion is still Henry Nash’s ‘The bureaucratization of homicide’ in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 36: 4 (1980), describing his experience in the USAAF’s Air Targets Division in the 1950s and 60s – as well as specific forms of its visualization, and the two often operated together (as in the kill-chain, in fact).

The emphasis on the visual and, in particular, the cinematic recurs again and again – most generally in Paul Virilio‘s War and cinema: the logistics of perception (which was originally published in 1984 and is surely long overdue for critique).  Virilio draws attention to the elective affinity between flying and filming and, in relation to the combined bomber offensive in particular, describes how

‘The Allied air assault on the great European conurbations suddenly became a son-et-lumiere, a series of special effects, an atmospheric projection designed to confuse a frightened, blacked-out population.  In dark rooms that fully accorded with the scale of the drama, victims-to-be witnessed the most terrifying night-time fairy theatre, hellish displays of an invading cinema that reproduced the Nuremberg architecture of light.’

I think the emphasis on the visualities of military violence is extremely important, though I also think we need to disentangle different modes and effects, and James Der Derian’s discussion of the military-industrial-media-entertainment complex (MIME-NET) suggests that, in the decades after the Second World War, the cinematic entered even more fully into the conduct of warfare [for a discussion between Virilio and Der Derian, see here].

But what of other registers?  Specifically, what of the son that accompanied, and on occasion substituted for the lumière?  In the 1940s British cinemas showed endless black-and-white newsreels of RAF (and USAAF) bombing raids, with rousing commentaries and jaunty music; but try this rare colour version, with a contemporary soundtrack provided by Italian musician and historian Vincent Romano, and pay particular attention to the effect of the new score, especially from  2.20 on.

My point here is not about politics or aesthetics, particularly, but, first, to note that – in contrast to that recurrent emphasis on the visual — for many civilians, at least, the experience of an air raid was a matter of sound: the wail of the air-raid sirens, the crump-crump of the anti-aircraft guns, the boom of the explosion, the crash of glass shattering and buildings collapsing, the whistles and bells of the fire and ambulance services.  ‘Especially in darkness, and during bombings,’ Patrick Deer  in argues in his brilliant Culture in camouflage, ‘the sounds of war took on extraordinary power.’

Pete Adey gets this exactly right, I think, when he writes:

‘For geographer Kenneth Hewitt, sound “told of the coming raiders, the nearness of bombs, the plight of loved ones”. The enormous social survey of Mass Observation concluded that “fear seems to be linked above all with noise.” As one report found, “It is the siren or the whistle or the explosion or the drone – these are the things that terrify. Fear seems to come to us most of all through our sense of hearing.” Yet the power of the siren came not only from its capacity to propagate sound and to alert, but the warning held in its voice of ‘keeping silent’. “Prefacing in a dire prolepsis the post-apocalyptic event before the event”, as Bishop and Phillips put it, the stillness of silence was incredibly virtual in its affects, disclosing – in its lack of life – the lives that would be later taken.’

This isn’t a purely historical affair, of course, and in an interesting post on what he calls ‘warsound’ Geoff Manaugh mixes Dexter Filkins’ brilliant account of the visuals of The forever war with an arresting litany of its sounds:

‘The night sky echoed with pops and pings, the invisible sounds of frantic action.  Most were being made by the AC-130 gunships, whose propellers were putting out a reassuring hum. But over the droning came stranger sounds: the plane’s Gatling gun let out long, deep burps at volumes that were symphonic. Its 105mm cannon made a popping sound, the same as you would hear from a machine that served tennis balls. A pop! followed by a boom! Pop-boom. And then there was the insect buzz of the ScanEagle, the pilotless airplane that hovered above us and beamed images back to base. It was as if we were witnessing the violent struggles of an entire ecosystem, a clash of airborne nocturnal beasts we could not see.’

Those who live in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan know of other terrors, by day and night.  Here is Rasul Mana, who lives in Waziristan:

‘When the drone is 5 km away the sound is very different. It sounds like a missile. As they come closer, it turned into a repetitive humming. Bangana is the word we use for drones. It means bee in Pashtu. I first heard that term in 2005, and the killer bees have been all over us ever since. The kids know what the voice of the drone now. Every day we hear the voice of the drones at least six or seven times.  We listen for the voice 24 hours a day. We are afraid at night as we lie in our beds. The drones are going around and around over our heads. There may be four or five at any given time. They are normally very high, but sometimes they come down if there is a dust storm or it is cloudy.  They also tend to come down lower to attack, which is when you get very scared. When the missile is launched it makes a loud noise – zzhhooo – as it drops onto its target…’

Mana talks of the voice of the drones, but there are other voices in war too.  And so, thinking of Vaughan-Thomas and Pidsley, and the audience gathered around their radio each night (not only in Britain), I also want to remind myself how important it is not to gloss over radio as temporary static in the inexorable mobilization of an insistently visual economy – from photographs through film to television and video – since, as Patrick Deer also writes, in the Second World War  ‘radio shaped the sensory landscape of wartime like no other medium’.   And that matters because a soundscape elicits a profoundly imaginative response on the part of its auditors (which is why Romano’s new soundtrack is so immensely powerful)…

These thoughts have been prompted by a series of conversations with one of our graduate students, Max Ritts, who has also pointed me in the direction of Steve Goodman’s Sonic warfare: sound, affect and the ecology of fear (MIT, 2010)


Years after completing their PhDs, my former students – now firm friends – still ask me “Have you read anything interesting recently?”  (I ask them the same).  And my closest colleagues (also firm friends, fortunately) constantly exchange tips about books, articles, and posts that we’ve read.  It’s one of the many ways in which research is necessarily social; this doesn’t emerge in co-authored texts alone, or even in the vitally necessary acknowledgements to those good souls who have endured endless drafts and provided provocative commentaries.  This sort of exchange is also one of the ways in which you can avoid tunnel vision – mixing my metaphors, by  scanning the wider horizon: hence Periscope.  From time to time, under this heading, I’ll list stuff that is catching my attention at the moment – sometimes with a brief annotation, sometimes not; sometimes hot off the press (or, appropriately enough, the Kindle), sometimes something I really should have noticed an age ago….  I doubt that there will be much rhyme or reason to these jottings, since one of the things that attracted me to geography (how I hate its capital!) is the perch it provides for magpie minds. But I hope that others will find them interesting.

Eyal Weizmann, The least of all possible evils: humanitarian violence from Arendt to Gaza (Verso, 2012) – includes his essay on forensic architecture: forensic geography, anyone?

Patricia Owens, ‘Human security and the rise of the social’, Review of International Studies 38 (2012) 547-567 – Patricia knows her Arendt too, probably better than anybody else I’ve read, and amongst other things this is a powerful critical reflection on contemporary notions of biopolitics and, as she puts it, ‘why politics-as-life is fake politics’

Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedmann and Jacob Shapiro, ‘Testing the Surge: why did violence decline in Iraq in 2007’, International Security 37 (2012) 7-40 – a spatial/quantitative analysis exploring the interplay between ethno-sectarian violence, the US  troop surge and the (Anbar) Awakening; compare this with Nils Weidmann and Idean Saleyhan, ‘Violence and ethnic segregation: a computational model applied to Baghdad’ here (forthcoming in International Studies Quarterly)

Colleen Bell, ‘Hybrid warfare and its metaphors’, Humanity: an international journal of human rights, humanitarianism and development 3 (2) (2012) 225-247 – I really like Colleen’s work, and this essay intersects with some of my own essays on the cultural turn, biopolitics and war (see DOWNLOADS)

Maja Zehfuss, ‘Culturally sensitive war? The Human Terrain System and the seduction of ethics’, Security dialogue 43 (2012) 175-190 – ditto!

Janell Watson, ‘Butler’s biopolitics: precarious community’, Theory and event 15 (2) (2012) –  reflection on Judith Butler’s recent writings

David Nally, ‘The biopolitics of food provisioning’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 (2011) 37-53 – a provocative essay by an old friend that moves brilliantly from the colonial to the nominally post-colonial, from a moral economy of hunger to a political economy of food ‘security’: a must-read (and – er – digest)

Rob Nixon, Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor (Harvard, 2011) – includes his stand-out essay on land-mines and much more, ”Ecologies of the aftermath’: don’t miss it.

Harald Welzer, Climate wars (Polity, 2012) – I hope this is for those who were as disappointed by Christian Parenti’s Tropic of chaos: climate change and the new geography of violence as I was….

Andrew Feinstein, The shadow world: inside the global arms trade  (Hamish Hamilton, 2011) – this is, after all, one of the key enablers of Obama’s shadow wars… but oh for some maps!

Frederic Mégrét, ‘War and the vanishing battlefield’, January 2012, via SSRN [an essential open-access resource, incidentally]

Helga Tawil-Souri, ‘Digital occupation: Gaza’s high-tech enclosure’, Journal of Palestine Studies 41 (2) (2012) 27-43 – I’m lost in admiration for this: passionate, probing and full of insights

Lisa Bhungalia, ‘Im/mobilities in a “Hostile Territory”: Managing the Red Line’, Geopolitics 17 (2012) 256-275 – another brilliant analysis of Israel’s ‘disengagement’ from Gaza

David Fedman and Cary Karacas, ‘Fade to black: mapping the destruction of Japan during World War II’, Journal of historical geography 38 (2012) 306-28 – this beautifully complements (and in important respects advances beyond) my preliminary investigation of the combined bomber offensive against Germany in “Doors into nowhere” (see DOWNLOADS); it’s also an elegant reminder – should one be needed – that the Harvard reference system is inimical to good writing (which this is)…

Trevor Barnes and Claudio Minca, ‘Nazi Spatial Theory: the dark geographies of Carl Schmitt and Walter Christaller’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers (March 2012 early view: here)

Kyle Grayson, ‘Six theses on targeted killing’, Politics 32 (2012) 120-128 – if you find this interesting, check out his ‘The ambivalence of assassination: biopolitics, culture and political violence’, Security dialogue 43 (2012) 25-41

David Sanger, Confront and conceal: Obama’s secret wars and surprising use of American power (Crown/Random House, 2012) – I’m not sure what is so ‘surprising’ about it, but Sanger’s account of the US hot pursuit of cyberwarfare through “Olympic Games” – more commonly known as Stuxnet – is essential reading; I’ll be incorporating this into my revised account of ‘The everywhere war’, and you can get a taster of Sanger’s report  here.

Tom Junod, ‘The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama’, Esquire, July 2012 here.

Carolyn Gallaher, ‘Risk and private military work’, Antipode 43 (2012) 783-805 – a crucial intervention in the global political economy of ‘risk transfer’ and commodification, this also raises intriguing geo-legal questions about complicity and liability (as my UBC colleague James Stewart’s challenging work suggests: see, for example, this).

David Axe, From A toB: How logistics fuels American power and prosperity (Potomac, 2012) – military logistics is one of my current preoccupations, thanks in large measure to Deb Cowen, and this is a vivid account from a smart, young freelance war correspondent and a frequent contributor to Danger Room – but it says remarkably little about the sort of obstacles I describe for the war in Afghanistan here

OK, that’s more than enough for now… Diving….going down.

War and distance: Information

I’m still working on revising “Deadly Embrace” (though needless to say I should be working on other things…).  There were originally three main sections to the primary focus on waging war from a distance – information, logistics, weapons – but I need to add a fourth: intelligence.  The discussion of ‘information’ is concerned with what publics know of war at a distance – with news and the mediatisation of war (and thus with censorship and propaganda too) – but I’ve now done sufficient work on targeting to realise that the whole question of intelligence – of what politicians and the military claim to know of the (distant) enemy – needs to be incorporated.

In each case I provide an historical sketch and a contemporary discussion.  The historical sketches each begin at different times; starting-points are inevitably arbitrary, of course, but the sharper point is that historical transformations are usually uneven and jagged so I’ve identified a series of different moments to frame each of the main sections.

My original inspiration was Mary Favret’s War at a distance: Romanticism and the making of modern wartime, and for that reason I begin with ‘world wars’ that are outside the parameters of the supposedly canonical First and Second World War and I end with other ‘world wars’ (‘the everywhere war’) in our own present.  Favret says this:

‘Enumerations of world wars … do not typically begin with the wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century… Despite the fact that they comprehended armed conflict not only in Europe, but in Africa, Asia and the Americas; despite the fact that they worried waters from the Philippine Islands to the Indian Ocean, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean, from the English Channel westward to Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico: nonetheless these wars are thought not to encompass the world.  And yet, unlike the earlier Seven Years’ War, which could boast a comparable geographical reach, these wars from their revolutionary beginning were unequivocally addressed to the world.’

There is another dimension to this – even in this sketch you can glimpse a series of questions about the limits of combat zones that will, eventually, issue in a transition from ‘battlefields’ to diffuse, discontinuous battlespaces – but it’s that idea of wars being addressed to the world – and hence of an audience (a term which seems inadequate for what will become a viewing public) – that prompts my interest in ‘information’.

Favret identifies a dialectic between what she calls ‘eventfulness’ and ‘eventlessness’: in the late eighteenth century the regular arrival of news imparted a structuring rhythm to wartime, an episodic temporality of ‘punctuated eventfulness’, but she notes that thus this ‘created simultaneously a sense of living in the meantime’, waiting for news of events that had already happened but of which the public knew nothing because it took so long for letters and dispatches to arrive.

These are arresting suggestions, not least because Favret insists that this peculiarly modern notion of ‘wartime’ is not a twentieth-century artefact (for another, distinctively American view, with a different chronology, see Mary Dudziak’s War Time: an idea, its history, its consequences (2012)).  Favret has no truck with Virginia Woolf’s identification of a gulf between the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War.  Writing in 1940, she had claimed that ‘wars were then remote, carried on by soldiers and sailors, not private people.  The rumours of battle took a long time to reach England…  Today we hear the gunfire in the Channel.  We turn on the wireless; we hear an airman telling us how this very afternoon he shot down a raider…  Scott never saw sailors drowning at Trafalgar; Jane Austen never heard the cannons roar at Waterloo.’  For that reason, Woolf thought, there was a silence in their writings.  And yet Favret hears something in that silence: ‘Precisely in these registers of the mundane and the unspectacular, registers that have mistakenly been read as signs of immunity – or worse, obliviousness – British romantic writers struggled to apprehend the effects of foreign war.’

As this suggests, Favret’s interests direct her attention to the literary world – especially poetry  – and in doing so she usefully reminds us that the emergence of the public sphere in eighteenth-century Britain involved more than spaces of rational articulation, which is why she constantly appeals to a landscape of affect.  Yet the response to distant violence was increasingly also a matter of report, comment and debate, which allows more formal calibrations of ‘eventfulness’ through the press.  Here, as in much else, I’m indebted to Allan Pred’s luminous work on the circulation of information, but I’m most interested in the emergence of a transnational public sphere that, after Morse’s successful demonstration of the telegraph in 1844, was increasingly an electric sphere: and one that transformed public awareness of ‘war at a distance’.  So my discussion of information begins with the Crimean War (which saw the birth of the war correspondent) and the American Civil War (usually seen as ‘the first telegraph war’).  In the latter, the telegraph played a vital role in communications, intelligence (by virtue of being tapped) and logistics, but I’m particularly interested in the sense of immediacy conveyed through wire reports.  Louis Prang devised this map, sold through news-stands in Northern cities, so that readers could follow the progress of the war in more or less real time:

As Susan Schulten explains,

‘Prang was responding to the public’s desire not just for news, but the immediacy of “telegraphed” news. Unlike other battle maps which were issued after the fact, his was designed to follow the march in real time. He issued colored pencils — blue for Confederate forces, red for Union — to mark the advances, retreats and clashes that would be regularly reported by telegraph in any newspaper throughout the Union home front. Rather than waiting for maps to be issued after the battles, Prang enabled the viewer to track the invasion as it unfolded, with both victories but also terrible defeats and missed opportunities.’

But for many audiences outside America, it was probably the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that was the decisive episode in this new geography of immediacy.  By then the uneven but none the less global geography of the telegraph had transformed the circulation of information; I’ve compiled this map of changing time-lags in the reporting of distant events in London newspapers in 1830, 1850 and 1870.  It’s impressionistic at this resolution level, highly imperfect, and needs much more work, but it still conveys the scale (and selectivity) of time-space compression.

By 1870 public information circulated through multiple networks, and so its reception and interpretation was a hybrid affair: news of the war travelled out from a besieged Paris by balloon, and was transmitted by telegraph and conveyed by steamships carrying detailed newspaper reports to audiences around the world that were in thrall at the dramatic and unexpected turn(s) of events.  In India, Australia and elsewhere editors and their readers were expected to be able to juggle multiple temporalities – the terse news from the telegraph and the fuller reports from the European newspapers that arrived simultaneously.  Here is the Times of India on 3 October 1870:

‘The mass of detailed news of the war brought us by the mail … presents almost illimitable scope for reflection or retrospect, and for comparison with our previous impressions gathered from telegrams.  But as the Indo-European [telegraph] line has come to the rescue with two or three days’ tolerably full news, we are recalled to the topics of the day and must, perforce, dwell on the considerations which are keeping all India, like the rest of the world, in suspense from hour to hour.  The overland papers, in addition to the thrilling stories of the field, supply the more prosaic facts and permanent data by which each of our readers for himself will endeavour to support or modify the terse statements comprised in the telegraphic despatches.’

There was also a geography of truth involved: newspapers in Australia often preferred news that arrived via the ‘all-red line’ through Suez and India rather than via the United States or Panama (which was assumed to be pro-Prussian).   Allowing for all these complexities, though, it’s the immediacy that is reiterated time and time again.   The Sydney Morning Herald of 26 September 1870 declared that:

‘The rapid progress of events … is one of the most striking phases of modern warfare.  The long delays of former times do not now task the patience of the world.  The change of scene still reveals the rapid action of the stage.  Towards the 8th of July the world becomes aware of a quarrel.  By the 16th war is declared.  In sixteen days more an immense slaughter on both sides reveals the dreadful nature of the conflict.  By the 5th of September Napoleon surrenders himself as a prisoner of war, a Republic is proclaimed and every power of the state is centred in a provisional Government.’

And newspapers were now positioned to  convey and capitalize on this immediacy: unlike the ‘freshest advices’ peddled in the eighteenth century, which were often remarkably stale, newspapers could now actualize  the ‘newness’ of the news.  So one week week later the Herald trumpeted: ‘We had never realised more completely the value of the telegraph than since the opening of this disastrous war.’

The relationship between distant publics and military violence was never a simple one, and the process that I’m cartooning here had its reversals.  In the First World War, for example, the first British reporters to arrive on the Western Front were arrested and returned to England, and when just five journalists were eventually allowed access, there were strict limits on what they could report and their copy was heavily censored.  Much that happened was hidden from view – then as now – and the Daily Mail’s William Beach Thomas wrote about his own distance from the horrors of the Somme thus:

‘I spoke with the men who had endured this the day after writing of the battle as it was unveiled to me, and felt that I had committed high treason. So easy is it to make the foul appear fair, to be tricked by the enchantment of distance…

‘All who have written about war … see it as the airman sees it in a large spaciousness where details are hid and only issues count. But let us remember the real war behind.’

You can see what he means – literally so – but perhaps there is also a sense in which immediacy blinds us to what is hidden from view.  In the eighteenth century the ‘meantime’ between one report and another sustained a brooding anxiety about what might have happened, what was not yet known, and invited speculation and commentary, whereas the pell-mell escalation of events, of ‘one damn thing after another’, may work to close those spaces.  I need to think more about this…

The story of reporting war at a distance continues with the addition of sound and moving image to text, sketch and photograph –  including, during the Second World War, the radio broadcasts of bombing raids over Germany, cinema newsreels (in Britain the BBC went off the air from 1939 to 1946), and propaganda films – that all worked to reinforce the immediacy of those early telegraphic dispatches.

Reporter Wynford Vaughan Thomas and sound engineer Reg Pidsley in front of a Lancaster bomber, September 1943; the pair flew on an RAF raid to Berlin on the night of 3 September 1943, and their report was broadcast ‘live’ on BBC Radio two days later.

But this audio-visual immediacy also installed a peculiar intimacy.  In his remarkable autobiography, The world of yesterday, which he started in 1934 and completed just before his suicide in 1942, Stefan Zweig captured what I’m trying to get at:

My father, my grandfather, what did they see? Each of them lived his life in uniformity. A single life from beginning to end, without ascent, without decline, without disturbance or danger, a life of slight anxieties, hardly noticeable transitions. In even rhythm, leisurely and quietly, the wave of time bore them from the cradle to the grave. They lived in the same country, in the same city, and nearly always in the same house. What took place out in the world only occurred in the newspapers and never knocked at their door. In their time some war happened somewhere but, measured by the dimensions of today, it was only a little war. It took place far beyond the border, one did not hear the cannon, and after six months it died down, forgotten, a dry page of history, and the old accustomed life began anew.

But now, he continued:

There was no escape for our generation, no standing aside as in times past. Thanks to our new organization of simultaneity we were constantly drawn into our time. When bombs laid waste the houses of Shanghai, we knew of it in our rooms in Europe before the wounded were carried out of their homes. What occurred thousands of miles over the sea leaped bodily before our eyes in pictures. There was no protection, no security against being constantly made aware of things and being drawn into them.

This too was a partial and partisan process, of course: British reporting of the Blitz was highly selective and subject to censorship, but the prevailing line was that Luftwaffe raids were indiscriminate acts of terrorism whereas Bomber Command’s strikes were precision strikes against military and industrial targets (some things evidently never change).  Even so, this conditional intimacy was, perhaps, the culmination of the process glimpsed by Favret’s Cowper at his Georgian fireside: an unsettling sense of distant wars entering the home.

I say ‘culmination’ because, by the time of Vietnam, ‘the first television war’, even ‘the living-room war’, there are grounds for believing that many publics were becoming weary of the interpellations demanded by the incendiary images of distant death and destruction.  That was, in part, what prompted Martha Rosler‘s brilliant photo-montage, Bringing the war home (1967-1972), that re-staged the Vietnam war in American domestic interiors (a project she reactivated in 2004 for the Iraq war).    But this sense of familiarity, of the domestication of military violence, is also subject to reversal.  Susan Sontag famously claimed that  ‘Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience’, and there has been a lively discussion of what Lilie Chouliaraki calls  ‘the spectatorship of suffering’ and, in particular, of the publics produced through these modes of spectatorship. I still have much to read here – David Campbell’s measured critique of the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis still haunts me –  but I think it facile to say that we have become inured to military violence.  James der Derian is surely right to identify the rise of a military-industrial-media-entertainment complex, but this hasn’t reduced war to entertainment tout court.

Advanced militaries have become increasingly adept at new modes of information warfare, using social media like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to frame their actions and incorporating the flow of information into the very conduct of war, but this hasn’t enabled them to escape public scrutiny.

And so, the question: when we see the raw images of military (and paramilitary) violence around the world on YouTube, uploaded from multiple sources by activists and citizen-journalists, are we overwhelmed by what Favret would call the ‘eventfulness’ of it all?  Or are we, as Zweig suggested, still ‘constantly drawn into our time’ (which is now, perhaps more than ever before, also the space of others)?

Visualizations and digital displays: 10 Rules

My post about using visualizations and presentations as ways into writing has prompted a flurry of e-mails, so here are my ten ‘rules’ for using images in presentations (and storyboards).  I use Mac’s Keynote so, being a fanboy, Rule No. 1 should probably be ‘Don’t use PowerPoint’ – I find Keynote more user-friendly and more cinematic – but these precepts apply to most presentation software.  And to try to forestall a firestorm of comment, I have read Edward Tufte on visual displays, but most of the (Power)points he makes apply to the use of any images:  I’m not convinced that these digital technologies necessarily lead to a dumbing down of argument or a dulling of presentations.  I’ve also worked my way through endless PowerPoint displays from the US military as part of my research – see, for example, ‘Seeing Red’ in the Downloads section – and, for that matter, sat (and slept) through endless seminar and conference presentations, so I do know how bad things can get.

It was my dear friend Allan Pred who taught me to think visually; one of his favourite quotations was Walter Benjamin’s “I have nothing to say.  Only to show.”  I emphasise this because I hope it will be clear that none of this implies that visualization is a transparent medium.  The contemporary interrogation of visual art, of visuality and scopic regimes surely makes that – er – clear.  But being able to provide a critique of particular images doesn’t mean that we can afford not to use them.

1       Do not use standard templates (unless you want your presentation to be indistinguishable from everybody else’s): start with a completely blank screen for each slide.

2       Plain white backgrounds are rarely a good idea – though used highly selectively they can be devastatingly effective.  I usually find a background image (sometimes tiled) and fade its opacity down so that I can layer other images and text-boxes over the top.  But don’t get carried away: there are always times when a single image (no background) is the most dramatic way of making your point.

3       When you layer in other images, it’s usually a good idea to put a frame round them and use shadow to make them stand out.

4       Textboxes:  do not use Times New Roman (which doesn’t mean use goofy typefaces, unless that’s somehow your point): this is supposed to be a contemporary technology.  Do not mix typefaces on the same slide – I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea to change them throughout the presentation either – but do play with different sizes (and makes sure your audience can read them).  Remember you can change text colours – but don’t produce a variation of an Ishihara chart.  Experiment with where best to put the text boxes on the page, and think whether you want them to be ready and waiting when the slide appears or whether you want a series of ‘appearances’ as your argument develops.

5       If your presentation involves a critical reading of quotations then the key ones need to be on the screen – but don’t make them too long, and put the key phrases in bold (the bolding can be made to appear one click at a time as you work through the quotation).  Always include the source – it often helps to add a small image of the author to remind everyone that this isn’t a disembodied text.

      Do not use bullet points.

7       See (6)

      Most programs will allow you to incorporate all sorts of ‘special effects’ but use these sparingly (don’t make your audience’s heads spin with dazzle and display) and – crucially – with purpose.  If your presentation is divided into four sections, for example, then you can mark the transition to each section not only with a title slide – and perhaps a common background colour for the section – but with a characteristic transition that you only use for this purpose.

      Images: use search engines diligently not lazily; the best images – and certainly the least hackneyed – are unlikely to be on the first page.  In fact, used carefully visual searches can take you to places you would never otherwise find and can open you up to ideas and considerations you’ve never thought of.  Size matters, and Google allows you to search for different sizes of the same image.  Remember that images can be cropped (so find out how to do it), and always credit the artist/photographer in small print by the image (this goes for background images too).  That’s not just a courtesy – it will help you locate the source again should you need it.

10      Make sure you run through your presentation using a projector – slides that look wonderful on your laptop or tablet may well not work so well in the wild….  The first time you see your presentation should not be when you deliver it — so rehearse!  And you really shouldn’t have to read from a script; you can add ‘Presenter Notes’ to help you, of course, but I find these more useful when I come to convert the presentation into written form than I do for its live performance.

Deadly Embrace

Later this year I’m giving two, radically revised versions of the British Academy Lecture I gave in London in March: ‘Deadly embrace: war, distance and intimacy’.  The first will be a Keynote Lecture at the International Geographical Congress in Köln in August and the second a lecture at the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in October [part of their theme for 2011-2013, “Taking place: History and Spatial Imaginations”].  Then I’ll convert the gelled presentation into a text.

This is my usual way of working these days.  I begin with a presentation – using Mac’s Keynote software as a storyboard, and trying to think visually about the argument – and then give revised versions to different audiences before trying to set it out in print.  I find it really creative, and it usually solves the problem of getting down to work: before I hit on this, I had no trouble finding all sorts of displacement activities to postpone the hard graft of writing.  This is much more fun, but it still leaves two residual problems.  It’s far from straightforward to convert what becomes an intensely visual argument into vivid prose – and there is always the danger that, once you’ve got the presentation in a more or less final form and incorporated the changes suggested at its different outings, you (I) can’t summon the energy or enthusiasm to convert it into written form.  The trick here is to retain the excitement of live performances – of living arguments – by opening up the writing to further changes.  Once the text becomes a mere transcript of a performance it loses its liveliness.  You can see how it works if you compare the Miliband Lecture I gave at the LSE and the version I gave Erlangen in Germany – ‘War in the borderlands’ – with the version published as “The everywhere war” in the Geographical Journal.

I suspect that, eventually, “Deadly embrace” will morph into a book.  There’s already too much to cram into a single essay.  My basic argument is that it’s become commonplace to claim that contemporary wars are fought from a distance: the iconic version is the drone missions flown over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere from the United States. Yet wars have been waged at a distance throughout history, and we need a surer sense of the historical curve through which military violence has shaped (and been shaped by) the friction of distance. But we also need a sharper calibration of war’s geography, including changes in military logistics, weapons systems, and the emergence of new media to convey the theatre of war to distant audiences. Yet for all these changes the ‘death of distance’ – and the distance of death – in today’s liquid world has been greatly exaggerated, and there remains a stark intimacy to many killing spaces that requires careful reflection.