(C)overt killing

Hard on the heels of my post about Living under drones, the joint report from the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU, comes another joint report, The civilian impact of drones, this one from the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School and the Center for Civilians in Conflict.  Download it here.

It’s particularly valuable for its careful parsing of ‘personality’ strikes (against named individuals) and ‘signature’ strikes (based on ‘pattern of life’ analysis) and, most of all, for its detailed discussion of the blurring of CIA operations and military operations carried out by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

I drew attention to this in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), using many of the same sources, but while I applaud the report for its principled reflections on the ethical and legal implications of these (c)overt operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, it does not accord USAF operations in Afghanistan the same level of scrutiny.  For reasons I also set out in both ‘Lines of descent’ and ‘From a view to a kill’ I think this is a mistake: military protocols are indeed more public, even transparent, as the authors note, but the space between principle and practice is still wide enough to inflict an unacceptably heavy burden on the civilian population.

And, as I’ve argued before, these issues cannot be resolved by co-ordinated Congressional scrutiny or by demands for ‘transparency’ alone.

Incendiary knowledges

Yesterday in my course on Cities, space and power (see TEACHING) I was talking about Alexandria and urbanism in the post-Alexandrian world.  Part of the discussion centred on the Museum and Library (the Museion) as both a community of scholars that was at once religious and academic (Museion means “Home of the Muses”) and a material constellation of power-knowledge. The marvellous Andrew Erskine, in his essay on ‘Culture and power in early Ptolemaic Egypt‘, captures the political purpose behind the imperial project:

‘A Graeco-Macedonian surface was imposed on Egypt, but this surface lacked a unifying tradition – except for a common Greekness. Setting up the Museum and the Library is the setting up of a centre of Greek cultural and intellectual life in the city. It helps to fill the cultural vacuum that exists within the city. Adopting the practices of Aristotle’s school [which was also centred on a Museum], studying the texts of Homer, acquiring the official texts of the Greek tragedies all help to establish some sense of continuity with a Greek past.’ 

But more than this, like other versions of what Ernest Gellner once called an agro-literate polity, this was about exclusion as much as inclusion:

‘The more Greeks can indulge in their own culture, the more they can exclude non-Greeks, in other words Egyptians, the subjects whose land has been taken over. The assertion of Greek culture serves to enforce Egyptian subjection. So the presence in Alexandria of two institutions devoted to the preservation and study of Greek culture acts as a powerful symbol of Egyptian exclusion and subjection. Texts from other cultures could be kept in the library, but only once they had been translated, that is to say, Hellenized.’ 

And this was about more than Greek culture and identity, and the orbit of exclusion extended far beyond Ptolemaic Egypt.  When the Ptolemies sought to bring the knowledge of the known world under their own control they had a particular interest in strategic knowledges like engineering, medicine – and, of course, geography.  Their collecting was aggressive: they confiscated scrolls from travellers, seized others from ships in the Great Harbour, and failed to return scrolls borrowed from other repositories for transcription.  And when the king of Pergamon [modern: Bergama] proposed to build his own collection [left], they forbade the export of papyrus to forestall their rival (which, according to some historians, prompted a series of experiments that issued in the discovery of parchment (‘pergamena‘) as an alternative recording medium).

Fast-forwarding, this is still on my mind for two reasons.  The first is a marvellous essay on ‘Shadow Libraries by Lawrence Liang: if, like me, you still relish the physical space and sensibility of the conventional library, this is a must-read (even if you have to do it online).

What was special about the Library of Alexandria was the fact that until then the libraries of the ancient world were either private collections of an individual or government storehouses where legal and literary documents were kept for official reference. By imagining a space where the public could have access to all the knowledge of the world, the library also expressed a new idea of the human itself. While the library of Alexandria is rightfully celebrated, what is often forgotten in the mourning of its demise is another library—one that existed in the shadows of the grand library but whose whereabouts ensured that it survived Caesar’s papyrus destroying flames.

According to the Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, Alexandria boasted a second library, the so-called daughter library, intended for the use of scholars not affiliated with the Museion. It was situated in the south-western neighborhood of Alexandria, close to the temple of Serapis, and was stocked with duplicate copies of the Museion library’s holdings. This shadow library survived the fire that destroyed the primary library of Alexandria but has since been eclipsed by the latter’s myth.

That ‘public’, as Erskine would surely insist, was in fact a carefully delineated and privileged public.  And if this was library as utopia then, like so many utopias, access was restricted.  Liang closes with some thoughts on the library, instead, as a heterotopia (like Stuart Elden, I continue to be astonished at the attention Michel Foucault’s ‘published unpublished’ essay continues to attract, though unlike him not in a good way):

If the utopian ideal of the library was to bring together everything that we know of the world then the length of its bookshelves was coterminous with the breadth of the world. But like its predecessors in Alexandria and Babel the project is destined to be incomplete haunted by what it necessarily leaves out and misses. The library as heterotopia reveals itself only through the interstices and lays bare the fiction of any possibility of a coherent ground on which a knowledge project can be built.

Again, this surely isn’t a purely epistemological dilemma: there is a politics of what is to count as knowledge, after all, and this – my second reason for thinking about these issues – has often intersected with political and military violence.  That ‘ground’ is vulnerable to more than philosophical reflection.  As Matthew Battles reminds us in his Library: an unquiet history (W.W. Norton, 2003),  ‘Libraries are as much about losing the truth as preseving it– satisfying the inner barbarians of princes, presidents and pretenders – as about discovering it.’

Much closer to us than the serial burnings of the Library at Alexandria is the ritualised burning of books organised by the National Socialist German Student’s Association in May and June 1933. From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum:

On April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” to climax in a literary purge or “cleansing” (Säuberung) by fire. Local chapters were to supply the press with releases and commissioned articles, offer blacklists of “un-German” authors, sponsor well-known Nazi figures to speak at public gatherings, and negotiate for radio broadcast time. On April 8 the students’ association also drafted its twelve “theses”—a deliberate evocation of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: declarations which described the fundamentals of a “pure” national language and culture. Placards publicized the theses, which attacked “Jewish intellectualism,” asserted the need to “purify” the German language and literature, and demanded that universities be centers of German nationalism….

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and “unwanted” books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called “fire oaths.”

Among the thousands of titles consigned to the flames was Erich Maria Remarque‘s All Quiet on the Western Front, ‘a betrayal of soldiers of the Great War’, and Ernest Hemingway‘s Farewell to Arms.  And, as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum notes,

Also among those works burned were the writings of beloved nineteenth-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1820-1821 play Almansor the famous admonition, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen“: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”

I realise that most of this will be well-known to readers (sic), but my point here is not about the vulnerability of libraries, though both Rebecca Knuth‘s Libricide (Praeger, 2003) and Lucien Polastron‘s Books on Fire (Thames and Hudson, 2010) provide a depressingly rich catalogue of historical examples of their calculated destruction.  One of the most famous images of the Blitz in 1940 is surely this photograph taken after the London Library was hit in 1940 – given the inaccuracy of the bombing, it was surely not deliberately targeted – but it testifies as much to the durability of reading as to its fragility:

What I am starting to think about is the way in which the military is inserted/insinuated in the hyphen between ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’.  In Discipline and punish Foucault artfully reverse engineers this, and provides a seminal discussion of the army in the eighteenth century as an exemplary formation of disciplinary power.  But this isn’t quite what I mean, not least because of the co-presence of sovereign and disciplinary power in military formations, and Nina Taunton, also inspired by Foucault, provides a compelling discussion of the early modern military camp (which, in its later version, also makes a fleeting appearance in Discipline and punish) and Shakespeare’s Henry V here that sets the stage – literally so – for what I have in mind.

She focuses on what she calls an ‘epistemology of command’ and ‘a whole culture of watchfulness’ and in doing so, not incidentally, also enlarges our understanding of the ‘theatre of war‘ as a visual metaphoric.  (See also her ‘Unlawful presences: the politics of military space and the problem of women in Tamburlaine‘ in Andrew Gordon and Bernhard Klein (eds), Literature, mapping and the politics of space in early modern Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2001 and her own book, 1590s drama and militarism, Ashgate, 2001).

Clearly the epistemological principles underlying the set-out of the camp make for the ‘new knowledge’ of surveillance as a one-way process, adapted to the exigencies of observation of the enemy on the one hand and the anxiety on the other to impede the enemy’s observation of you. Exposure to enemy strength can be forestalled by reinforcing the power that resides in ocular knowledge. This is achieved by spatially organising the way it is constituted in the camp so that it functions in equal balance with the power inherent in another kind of knowledge – that to do with strategies of secrecy, of keeping the enemy in the dark about your manoeuvres whilst being fully apprised of his. This is exemplified in the organisation of the watch through spying and reconnaissance – major strategies of surveillance.

Taunton writes about the dangers of both ‘the enemy within’ and ‘the enemy without’ – no stranger to ISAF in Afghanistan – but we should be wary of superficial parallels, especially as our histories enter a digital though no less material world.  (For exactly this reason I’m leery of those who think that Foucault’s lectures in 1975-6 uncannily prefigured war thirty years later – as though the concrete particulars are somehow incidental, when Foucault’s own way of working was so densely empirical).

What haunts me at present is the modern constitution of ‘the enemy’ as a mobile object of military knowledge, at once watched and watching. The questions multiply far beyond the delineation of political technologies of vision and scopic regimes that have informed much of my work to date. What are the relays through which (particularly local) knowledges have been militarised?  What are the vulnerabilities – what Taunton describes as the ‘doubleness of discourses that articulate and represent powerlessness through the models of [power/knowledge] in surveillance that they describe’ – that have been written in to the prospect of military violence?  How have militaries responded to being watched by the enemy and by the media (assuming they distinguish between them)?  What are the relations between surveillance, spatiality and secrecy within modern military ‘cultures of watchfulness’?  And how have those cultures responded to the demands of military occupation?  More – I hope – later.

Military/Policing and the US/Mexico border

The US/Mexico borderlands was one of the sites I discussed in ‘The everywhere war’ (see DOWNLOADS tab), along with the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands and cyberspace.  It’s also another zone where the blurring of policing and military operations is highly visible.

For the book I plan to separate these three into three chapters, which I’m hoping will produce a more nuanced, certainly less cartoonish discussion – inevitable, I suppose, in such a short essay (and written – for me – in an unusually short time, though editor Klaus Dodds may not have seen it quite like that…).  So I’ve been gathering materials, and en route found a short, sharp documentary from Real Television News [‘No advertising, no corporate funding’ – and really excellent] that debunks claims of  ‘spillover violence’, at least from Mexico into the US.  It asks ‘Is the Arizona/Mexico border a war zone?’

The Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO ‘promoting human rights, democracy and social justice’ founded in response to the military coup in Chile in 1973, has a fact-checking blog on the securitization of the border, and this year published Beyond the Border Buildup: Security and migrants along the US Mexico border.

The study finds a dramatic buildup of U.S. security forces along the southern border – a fivefold increase of the Border Patrol in the last decade, an unusual new role for U.S. soldiers on U.S. soil, drones and other high-tech surveillance, plus hundreds of miles of completed fencing – without a clear impact on security. For instance, the study finds that despite the security buildup, more drugs are crossing than ever before.
Furthermore, the study reveals that security policies that were designed to combat terrorism and drug trafficking are causing a humanitarian crisis and putting migrants in increasing danger. Migrants are often subject to abuse and mistreatment while in U.S. custody, and face higher risks of death in the desert than in previous years. Also, certain deportation practices put migrants at risk. For example, migrants can be deported at night and/or to cities hundreds of miles from where they were detained. These same cities are also some of the border region’s most dangerous, where migrants may fall prey to – or be recruited by – criminal groups. In Mexico, approximately 20,000 migrants are kidnapped a year; many others face other abuses.
WOLA found that any further increase in the security buildup will yield diminishing returns. Contrary to common opinion, the report documents a sharp drop in migrant crossings. Since 2005, the number of migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol has plummeted by 61 percent, to levels not seen since Richard Nixon was president. Today, twenty migrants are apprehended per border patrol agent per year, down from 300 per agent per year in 1992.
Finally, the study finds that violence in Mexico is not spilling over to the U.S. side of the border. U.S. border cities experience fewer violent crimes than the national average, or even the averages of the border states. WOLA recommends that before making further investments in border security, the U.S. government should stop and take stock of what is and isn’t working in order to create a comprehensive strategy that takes addresses the real threats while respecting the human rights of migrants.

Then I turn to the pages of the latest Military Review, where Christopher Martinez elaborates on Mexico’s transnational criminal organisations – the drug cartels – as constituting a commercial insurgency: ‘They seek to influence the four primary elements of national power — the economy, politics, the military, and the information media — to form an environment that enables an illicit trafficking industry to thrive and operate with impunity.’  Martinez is not the first, and he certainly won’t be the last, to describe Mexico’s militarized ‘war on drugs’ in terms of insurgency and counterinsurgency and, as I showed in ‘The everywhere war’, this rhetoric slides easily into the armature of a ‘border war’ in which the United States is fully invested as part of its boundless ‘war on terror’.

But what is most interesting about the MR essay is its author: Major Martinez is described as ‘the senior military intelligence planner for the U.S. Southwest Regional Support team at Joint Task Force North, Fort Bliss, TX’ who ‘serves as an advisor and partner to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in Arizona and California.’

JTF-North, part of US Northern Command, provides military support to federal law enforcement agencies.  Described as a ‘force multiplier’ by one Border Patrol officer, the function of its ground troops – like the unarmed Predators deployed by the Border Patrol – is limited to surveillance and under the Posse Comitatus Act the US military is not allowed to ‘execute the laws’ without express Congressional approval.  As one Army officer explained, therefore, in a recent exercise troops ‘used their state-of-the-art surveillance equipment to identify and report the suspected illegal activities they observed and vectored border patrol agents in to make the arrests and drug seizures.’  But the practices, co-ordinated from a tactical operations center like the one shown on the left, are portable and even interchangeable:

While providing the much needed support to the nation’s law enforcement agencies, the JTF North support operations provide the volunteer units with real-world training opportunities that are directly related to their go-to-war missions.

“This type of experience is impossible to replicate in a five- or 10-day field exercise back home,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Jacobi, squadron commander. “Where else can we operate over an extended period of time, in an extended operating environment, against a thinking foe who is actively trying to counter us by actively trying to hide, in order to make us work hard to find him?” asked Jacobi.

Not surprisingly, there have been elaborate circulations between the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands and the US/Mexico border: Predators, personnel and procedures.  All of which provides another disquieting answer to the question posed in the RTN video…

Does this also return us to the world mapped by Mark Neocleous from my previous post?  He concludes:

‘From a critical perspective, the war-police distinction is irrelevant, pandering as it does to a key liberal myth. Holding on to the idea of war as a form of conflict in which enemies face each other in clearly defined militarized ways, and the idea of police as dealing neatly with crime, distracts us from the fact that it is far more the case that the war power has long been a rationale for the imposition of international order and the police power has long been a wide-ranging exercise in pacification.’


There is growing interest in thinking through the contemporary blurring of policing and military violence.  When, I wonder, did we start referring to “security forces“?  The earliest entry in the OED is from 1973 and refers to Britain’s military/police operations in Northern Ireland, but the practice is evidently much older than that. Those who grew up in Britain with Biggles (or perhaps in spite of Biggles) will surely remember Captain W.E. Johns‘s creation of the Special Air Police after the Second World War – and, as my illustration (left) from Biggles Flies East implies, these operations were about the violent production of particular spatialities –  but ‘air control’ was developed as an important police/military modality of British colonial power immediately after the First World War, when its prized sphere of operations was the Middle East and India’s North West Frontier (notably Waziristan).

In the 1950s Britain applied similar (il)logics to the the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, as Clive Barnett notes here (with another, rather more serious nod to Biggles), and to the Malayan Emergency.  Bombing was a routine tactic in all these pre- and post-war campaigns – the image on the right is of an RAF briefing in Kenya in 1954 – and Britain’s ‘aerial supremacy’ was, of course, uncontested in these colonial theatres of war.  Other colonial powers used it too.  No doubt the interest shown by the US Border Patrol and US police forces in (at present, unarmed) drones can be situated within this techno-political history of air policing, though I’m aware that the lines of descent are more complicated than my cartoons can suggest.

Mark Neocleous has outlined a careful (and still longer) genealogy of the very idea of ‘policing’ that speaks directly to these issues in ‘The Police of Civilization: The War on Terror as Civilizing Offensive’, International Political Sociology 5 (2011) 144-159:

The monopoly over the means of violence that is fundamental to the fabrication of social order is the core of the police power. Although such a formal monopoly over the means of violence does not exist in the international realm—which is the very reason why so many people have found it difficult to develop the concept of ‘‘international police’’—the violence through which this realm has been structured is obvious. It has traditionally been cast under the label ‘‘war.’’… 

To say that police and war conjointly form the key activity of the project of civilization is to say nothing other than violence has remained intrinsic to the process in question. Thus, central to the idea of civilization is military-police terror (albeit, as ‘‘civilization,’’ a terror draped in law and delivered with good manners)…

The attempt to hold on to categorical distinctions between ‘‘police’’ or ‘‘military’’ for analytical, legal, and operational reasons runs the risk of losing what is at stake in the fabrication of international order: the way war imbricates itself into the fabric of social relations as a form of ordering the world, diffracting into a series of micro-operations and regulatory practices to ensure that nebulous target ‘‘security,’’ in such a way that makes war and police resemble one another. 

If, as I’ve suggested, these formulations have a direct bearing on counterinsurgency – and not only British practices: see Neocleous on Vietnam here – and on the modalities of modern colonial power more generally, they are also revealed with remarkable clarity in the contemporary city: what Steve Graham calls ‘Foucault’s boomerang’, as colonial tactics are repatriated to the metropolis.

As Steve shows in exemplary detail in Cities under siege: the new military urbanism (Verso, 2010; paperback out now), a vital zone of convergence between police and military violence – what Neocleous calls their ‘violent fabrication of the world’, their ordering of it in every sense of the verb – is the city:

‘As security politics centre on anticipation and profiling as means of separating risky from risk-free people and circulations inside and outside the territorial limits of nations, a complementary process is underway.  Policing, civil law enforcement and security services are melding into a loosely, and internationally, organized set of (para)militarized security forces.  A “policization of the military” proceeds in parallel with the “militarization of the police”.’

So here is welcome news of a Live Web Seminar from Harvard’s Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, Dangerous Cities: Urban violence and the militarization of law enforcement, 2 October 2012 0930-1100 (Eastern).

More than half of the world’s population is concentrated in urban areas. According to UNFPA, this number is expected to rise to 5 billions by 2030, reaching 2/3 of the world population, with the largest cities emerging in Africa and Asia. Regrettably, along with this mass urbanization has come an unprecedented level of violence and crime in densely populated slums and shantytowns. Cities like Baghdad, Kingston, Rio de Janeiro, Guatemala, Ciudad Juarez and Mogadishu have become the battlegrounds of contemporary conflicts.
In many countries, particularly in Latin America, this emerging form of violence is considered one of the greatest threats to national security. Indeed, urban violence can be as deadly and costly as traditional armed conflicts. In a 2007 report, the UNODC pointed out that the levels of violence in El Salvador in 1995 were higher than during the civil war of the 1980s.
To curb the violence, states have responded by deploying specially trained military units when traditional law enforcement has failed to restore security. These instances of ongoing urban violence engaging organized criminal networks, coupled with the use of military force, increasingly resemble to situations of armed conflicts.
While the militarization of law enforcement may be unavoidable when traditional law enforcement institutions lack the resources and expertise to contain urban violence, the legal and policy framework for the conduct of such operations needs yet to be developed. The regulation of the use of military force represents a major challenge in urban environments, even more so when humanitarian law is formally inapplicable and the enforcement of international human rights is weak. Such environment may require adaptation of military doctrine, training, and equipment in order to minimize abuses against civilians, detainees and those no longer engaged in violent acts.
Furthermore, the humanitarian sector faces formidable difficulties in the context of urban violence. First, humanitarian actors must assess whether involvement in these complex situations is appropriate under their respective mandates. Second, humanitarians must develop objective criteria to determine whether the level of violence and human suffering warrants intervention in view of the specific security and policy risks. And third, humanitarian actors must adapt to these situations and identify priority areas of humanitarian action on a case-by-case basis.
In light of these considerations, this Live Web Seminar will shed light on the tensions and challenges arising out of the application of humanitarian principles in urban violence. Expert panelists and participants will explore the following questions:
–       Whether instances of urban violence can be characterized as armed conflicts? If so, what are the advantages and disadvantages of applying International Humanitarian Law (IHL) to these situations?
–       To what extent is it necessary to develop a legal framework that incorporates both humanitarian and human rights considerations tailored to situations of urban violence?
–       What strategies and policy tools can be put in place in order to minimize human suffering and, at the same time, address the security concern of states in urban conflicts?
What is the proper role of humanitarian actors in urban conflicts? 

Registration is required: go here.

As should be obvious from the pre-seminar summary, this isn’t quite the agenda that Neocleous has in mind – but it’s also clear that his suggestions should also animate continuing discussions of our so-called ‘humanitarian present‘…

Living (and dying) under drones

Earlier this month I commented on the theatre of secrecy within which US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan is staged: a discreditable rhetorical device that works to divert the public gaze from Waziristan to Washington.  I drew on a brilliant essay by Madiha Tahir, in which she objects to the way the Obama administration’s ‘theatrical performance of faux secrecy’ over its drone war in the FATA (and elsewhere) – a repugnantly teasing dance in which the veil of secrecy is let slip once, twice, three times – functions to draw its audience’s entranced eye towards the American body politic and away from the Pakistani bodies on the ground.

Tonight our eyes are drawn back to Pakistan with the publication of a field report called Living Under Drones from the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU.  At the time of writing the report has not been released for public distribution, but early versions were made available to media outlets under embargo. The most detailed coverage that I have found so far is from firedoglake (a three part report) but there are also good reports from the Los Angeles Times and in the UK the Guardian and the Independent – with, I hope, more to follow.  There is also a YouTube video summarising the report:

Robert Greenwald and Brave New Foundation prepared the video to accompany the report. Sarah Knuckey of New York University and James Cavallero of Stanford University describe how they compiled the report and explain they were able to gain access to people in an “area cordoned off and into which virtually no one can enter.”

From the media summaries and the video it’s clear that Living under drones directly challenges the dominant narrative of ‘precision strikes’ with few civilian casualties.  Its most original contribution derives from personal testimony by those directly affected.  Working in concert with both Reprieve , a London-based law and human rights organisation, and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a human rights organisation in Pakistan, the American researchers interviewed 139 people over a nine-month period, including 69 survivors or relatives of victims. The report provides first-hand accounts of three specific drone strikes and details the ‘considerable and under-accounted for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.’ It also documents the hideous practice of ‘double tap‘ – follow-up strikers on rescuers – that, in a radically different context, was vigorously condemned by the United States just days ago when the attack on its diplomatic mission in Benghazi was followed by an attack on the survivors and rescuers.

Hayatullah stopped, got out of his own car, and slowly approached the wreckage, debating whether he should help the injured and risk being the victim of a follow-up strike. He stated that when he got close enough to see an arm moving inside the wrecked vehicle, someone inside yelled that he should leave immediately because another missile would likely strike. He started to return to his car and a second missile hit the damaged car and killed whomever was still left inside. He told us that nearby villagers waited another twenty minutes before removing the bodies, which he said included the body of a teacher from Hayatullah’s village.

Not surprisingly, this fear has a catastrophic effect on daily life in the region: on everything from going to school to mourning at a funeral.  Sarah Knuckey, one of the lead authors of the report, explained that people “have a constant fear that they’ll be hit, even though they know they’re civilians.”

When I’ve lectured about the supposedly covert campaign, there’s almost always been someone in the audience to tell me that there is a vast difference between targeting individuals in Pakistan and levelling whole areas of a city like Cologne.  So there is.  But there are also significant differences.

First, the combined bomber offensive against Germany – whatever one thinks about it, and I’ve made my own criticisms of it clear in “Doors into nowhere” (see DOWNLOADS tab) – was carried out during a declared state of war: the United States is not at war with Pakistan (even though one of the preoccupations of the previous US administration, and presumably the present one, was, precisely, how to conduct ‘war in countries we’re not at war with‘).

Second, when most people imagine (or remember) air raids in the Second World War I suspect most of them conjure up the sound of air raid sirens, the crump-crump of the anti-aircraft batteries, and the clatter down to the air-raid shelter.  In the FATA there are no sirens, no air defences and no shelters.

Noor Behram, Orphans of a drone strike, Waziristan, August 2010

Living under drones is particularly important because there are serious state restrictions on reporting from (or even in) the region; foreign journalists require military permission to enter, and all journalists operate under constant threat: see, for example, here and here.  The last detailed field survey in the region was carried out by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) – now the Center for Civilians in Conflict– which interviewed over 160 civilians in 2009-2010 who had experienced direct losses in either FATA or the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK, formerly Northwest Frontier Province).  The results were published as Civilian Harm and Conflict in North West Pakistan (2010) though it should be emphasized that the report makes it clear that the CIA is not the only perpetrator, and that the researchers also detailed losses from both Taliban violence and counterinsurgency operations by the Pakistani military, including strikes by the Pakistan Air Force).  Since then, the Obama administration has stepped up its campaign to minimise or even deny civilian casualties from its covert war, and in stark counterpoint Appendix B of Living under drones provides a weekly accounting of strikes and casualties since 2010.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has also done vital, brilliant work in documenting the casualties, amplifying the voices of the survivors, and exposing the horrors that would otherwise pass unnoticed by those who have had their eyes fixed on Washington rather than Waziristan (see, for example, here).

Today the findings of these individuals and organisations have been confirmed by another courageous group of researchers.  And the answer, as Madiha Tahir made perfectly clear, is not to be found in ‘transparency’.  That may be a start – but it must not be the end.

Note:  You should be able to download the report Living under Drones: Death, injury and trauma to civilians from US drone practices in Pakistan here but if not then try here (and many thanks to Nicholas Dahmann for the mirror).  More when I’ve worked through the report, but in the meantime here is the incomparable Glen Greenwald.

Project Thor and the history of bombing

In a previous post I wrote about the US Bombing Encyclopedia of the World, designed as a global database of potential targets, but for more on a different but related project that I also previewed, a database of US bombs dropped from the closing stages of the First World War to the present, see this video from the US Air Force on its Project Thor [Theater History of Operations Reports]:

For the background to the project, look here.  And for a preview of its possibilities – the intention is apparently for the database to be open access in the near-ish future – here are two extracts from the World War I (1918) database:

Although my own work focuses on the combined bomber offensive in World War II, the air wars over Indochina and the ‘drone wars’ over Afghanista, Pakistan and beyond, it’s not limited to these air wars, and I’ve been examining other periods and other theatres.  I’ll say more about my interest in World War I (and hence the reason for the extracts above) in a later post, but it was prompted by Orville Wright‘s arguments about the future of air war.  ‘I have never considered bomb-dropping as the most important function of the airplane,’ he told the New York Times in July 1917, ‘and I have no reason to change this opinion now that we have entered the war.’  For him – though he did not altogether discount the importance of striking particular targets, like the Krupp works at Essen – the key role of the aeroplane was reconnaissance (‘scouting’) for ground forces, including artillery:  ‘About all that has been accomplished by either side from bomb dropping has been to kill a few non-combatants, and that will have no bearing on the result of the war.’  (The use of the term ‘bomb-dropping’ rather than bombing was accurate – unlike the practice it described – and while there were air raids on towns and cities, carried out from aircraft and from Zeppelins, most air strikes during the War were tactical).

As we’ll see, aircraft were much more valuable for reconnaissance missions – here I’ve been learning much from Terrence Finnegan‘s Shooting the Front: Allied aerial reconnaissance and photographic interpretation (The History Press, 2011; first edition 2007) (reviewed for the CIA [really] here) –but Wright seemed in two minds about it insofar (in his view) it had prolonged the war:

“Did you ever stop to think that there is a very definite reason why the present war in Europe has dragged along nearly three years with neither side gaining much advantage over the other?  The reason, as I figure it out, is the airplanes.  In consequence of the scouting work done by the flying machines, each side knows exactly what the opposing forces are doing.

“There is little chance for one army to take another by surprise.  Napoleon won his wars by massing his troops at unexpected places.  The airplane has made that impossible.  It has equalized information.  Each side has such complete knowledge of the other’s movements that both sides are obliged to crawl into trenches and fight by means of slow, tedious routine rather than by quick, spectacular dashes.”

Ironically, it was precisely the subsequent rise of strategic bombing (what Mark Clodfelter calls ‘beneficial bombing’) that was hailed by its advocates as a way of bringing war to a speedy end and avoiding the carnage of the trenches.  Here is Clodfelter’s quick summary of a complex and convoluted argument (from Beneficial Bombing: the Progressive foundations of American air power, 1917-1945, University of Nebraska Press, 2010; see also his essay in Joint Forces Quarterly 49 (2008) 24-31 here):

‘The devastation and ugly realism of World War I ended the progressive era for most Americans…  Yet for Army Air Service officers like Edgar Gorrell and William “Billy” Mitchell, the carnage and waste that they witnessed on the Western Front sparked the beginning of a progressive effort that was unique – an attempt to reform war by relying on its own destructive technology as the instrument of change.  They were convinced that the airplane – used as a bombing platform – offered the means to make wars much less lethal than conflicts waged by armies or navies….

‘Aircraft would destroy the vital centers [of the enemy] by precision bombing – sophisticated technology would guarantee that bombs hit only the intended targets, and few lives would be lost in the process.  The finite destruction would end wars quickly … and thus bombing would actually serve as a beneficial instrument of war.’

My own project is, in part, designed to give the lie to these arguments and their successors.  And perhaps it will even be possible to enlist Project Thor to silence these dread thunderbolts (and Hellfire missiles).

Taking stock

I started this blog on 10 July with a promise to see how it went: I said I’d been told that blogging wasn’t a distraction but a helpful way of sorting out ideas and opening up conversations.  So what have I learned from the experience?  For me, I’ve found that blogging does several things.

First, it means that I read more attentively.  This doesn’t mean that I’m constantly thinking of the next post, simply that when something catches my attention I’m more inclined to follow it up and see where it goes rather than transfer it to the “to be pursued later” (and forgotten sooner) box.  I suspect that many of us have our favourite displacement activities, particularly online: sites we visit (or stumble upon), flitting from one link to the next and telling ourselves that this is all part of the research process.  It often is, but it can also become an intellectual black hole into which we disappear every morning or evening.  I realise there is an irony here, that the act of blogging contributes to the merry-go-round, but I’m finding that the very possibility of working up a post is helping me read more purposefully.

Second, blogging is turning out to be a digital aide-mémoire.  I read Stuart Elden‘s post on this sort of thing, and I understand how that works in principle, but I’m simply not that organised.  I’ve tried to make sure that all my files are digital, and most of them are, though I still end up with piles of books on my desk and heaps of paper all over the floor.  I suspect I couldn’t write at all if my desk were empty and the floor clear of clutter…  Even so, many of these posts are notes to myself, even if I also pop them in an electronic bottle and let the current carry them away, and so I hit the “Print” button, save them as a pdf and disperse them among my e-files (and pray that I’ll find them when I need them).

Third, blogging is also working as a sort of warm-up exercise; once I’ve finished a post, I’m ready to turn to ‘proper’ writing (though I’m less and less persuaded of the difference, which is why those scare-quotes are there).  Like many (I assume most) people, I’ve always found writing difficult. Part of the answer has been to learn to trust myself – not to try to write on those days when I just know it’s not going to happen, when there’s no point in sitting at my desk/screen and simply putting in the hours, but equally to let it flow on those days when the words seem to be leaking out of my fingertips (where they come from in the first place is another question).  And any novelist will tell you that the most effective way to improve your writing is to read (see my first point: crucial) and to write.  Not to think about writing, not to plan and prepare to write, but to do it.  I’ve found blogging a remarkably effective way of moving beyond the frozen moment when you stare at the blank screen and the cursor blinks back at you, breaking the ice by making the black letters dance onto the white space.  I think it probably also helps to keep your writing fluid rather than congealing into the usual academic prose; while I was writing The colonial present (once you get beyond the first chapter: how I wish I had re-written that) I started to lose my “academic” voice, and I’m in no hurry to get it back.  I don’t think that means dumbing-down at all – any reader of E.P. Thompson knows that you can write wonderfully well, reach audiences far beyond the academy, and still have important things to say.

Fourth, blogging has opened up conversations because it is inherently (at least potentially) interactive.  I don’t mean only the comments that appear onscreen, though there have been some of those (and an awful lot more that you never see: in the short time I’ve been doing this, the amount of generic spam that washes in on the electronic tide each day only to be caught in wordpress’s wonderful net exceeds the number of times I’ve inherited millions from my Nigerian uncles, been made a partner in numerous diamond mines, laundered CIA money and scooped the European lottery), but all sorts of people have offered suggestions and comments that have been immensely helpful and encouraging.  Writing is a lonely business, and while I’m fortunate to have good friends here and elsewhere in e-contact, it’s refreshing, even exhilarating to encounter so many people I’ve never met who are prepared to contribute to the wider conversation.  In doing so, blogging not only throws open the gates of the disciplinary ghetto (the ‘geographical imaginations’ I have in mind have a stubbornly little g) but it also (again, potentially) begins to produce and develop publics beyond the academy.  That’s also why I write for openDemocracy, incidentally, but it’s also why I’m so taken by Eileen Joy‘s description of  blogs as the digital equivalent of eighteenth-century coffee shops (without all the blokes, presumably: but make sure you don’t spill your coffee on the keyboard): ‘They’re also Warhol’s Factory, Gertrude Stein’s apartment on the Rue de Fleurus, Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters in their cross-country bus….’  In my dreams too.  I also like Alex Reid‘s insistence on the deterritorializing function of the medium too. That publicness is extremely important; blogging is less lonely than other forms of writing but it’s also less private.  If I were simply writing entries in a journal I’m sure I wouldn’t be bothered.  I had thought of trying a collective blog, worried by the ‘vanity-project’ tag, and there are now increasing numbers of such projects (see the interesting discussion here) and many online open-access magazines – which I love  too – both crossing the academic front-lines into more public territory (and back again).  I’m keenly  interested in the blurring and mixing between the two that is well under way, and intrigued (and hopeful) about the implications for conventional – and increasingly dull – conventional journal formats.  Both Antipode and Society & Space have started to experiment with those possibilities but their online presence still seems (to me, anyway) to be constrained by the earth-bound weight of their parents so that they have yet to take flight.  Still, the thought of initiating a collective blog only to discover that the medium didn’t work for me meant that I decided that, at least for the start-up, blogging would be an individual but not as it turns out entirely non-collaborative venture.

Thanks for travelling with me.

Note:  Since writing this, I’ve discovered a world of posts and commentaries on academic blogging: I had no idea that the medium and practice (it’s both, isn’t it?) could excite so many passions, both for and against.  One interesting overview – apart from convincing me that prezi is not the way I want to go for my own presentations – is this one by Rohan Maitzen which she follows up here. And, as I noted in an earlier post, I’m also intrigued by Scalar as an alternative platform.  Finally, I want to note that throughout my trial-and-lots-of-errors process, Stuart Elden, Jeremy Crampton and the lively bunch at Geopolitics and security have all been wonderfully (and characteristically) generous in their support and encouragement – I’m really grateful to all of them.

The two security-state solution

So Mitt Romney insists that ‘the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace‘…. Given the scale of illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank (see the meticulous reports from the Foundation for Middle East Peace), the brutality of the Israeli occupation, and the chokehold Israel maintains on Gaza, Palestinians have no interest in peace??

The contours of the Israeli security state’s impress on the Palestinian people ought to be well known – though evidently they aren’t – but hard on the tawdry heels of Romney’s offensive assertion comes a brilliant essay at Jadailiyya from Lisa Bhungalia that details the operation of the American security state in Palestine.

Invoking Laleh Khalili‘s work on occupied Palestine’s position within global counterinsurgency – I’ve drawn attention to this before – Lisa examines ‘the ways in which practices of colonial subjugation and management are being mobilized through the less sensational, seemingly mundane spaces and practices of aid governance’: to be precise, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  She shows how its elaborate certification of NGOs and private agencies works not just to channel financial assistance but also to channel information back to the US and Israeli governments. Like collateral damage estimation in military targeting, this civilian regime works through an extended chain of calculation-calibration-certification. This is Eyal Weizman‘s ‘humanitarian present’ with a vengeance: ‘If a decision to accept USAID funds is undertaken, one must fundamentally operate within a framework that affords little flexibility in terms of negotiating the security priorities set out by Washington and Tel Aviv.’

It is also part of the tightening development-security nexus:

‘What we are seeing, in effect, is a proliferation of sites and diversity of means through which US political and economic power is being articulated. Alongside its military and diplomatic interventions, the US is simultaneously extending its reach through a host of “development experts,” humanitarian agents and “democracy promoters” charged with filtering, sorting and policing the Palestinian civilian population. While taking a new and perhaps more sophisticated form, these contemporary practices and strategies must not be dissociated from a longer history of counterinsurgency in Palestine…. The aid regime that has taken form in recent decades is part and parcel of the refinement and evolution of techniques that Khalili speaks of.’

The poster above is the work of Hafez Omar here and here, and Lisa’s essay derives from her doctoral research whose working title is ‘Negotiating a Colonial Present: Aid and its fragmentary states in Palestine’ .


Another extremely interesting Call for Papers for the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles, 9-13 April 2013:


Organizers: Michael Smith (University of British Columbia) and Craig Jones (University of British Columbia)

War may have always entailed rhetorics of justification and regimes of authorization, but perhaps more than ever, late modern war requires a legal armature to secure its legitimacy and organize its conduct.  In the ‘age of lawfare’ (Weizman 2010), for example, law has become a vital weapon in asymmetric warfare, used by states and non-state actors alike. But there are many different kinds of war – including undeclared wars, metaphorical wars, even “military operations other than war” – just as there are multiple forms, systems and scales of law. War’s “nomospheres” – to borrow from Delaney (2010) – mobilizes a host of subjects, discourse, practices and institutions which in turn reconfigure the spaces of war-law, moving us toward what Derek Gregory (2011) has called an “everywhere war”. The question, then, of the interplay of war and law – how they underpin, disrupt, enable, elide, or efface one another – remains a critical site for scholarship, one that warrants more attention from geographers (c.f. Gregory 2006; Reid-Henry 2006). What is the relationship between law and (organized state) violence? How does law feature in the putative transition from the battlefield to the hyper-networked battlespace?  If war is potentially everywhere, where – so to speak – is law?

This session invites both theoretical and empirical research that engages with the intersections between war, law and space from a diverse range of approaches and perspectives. It asks contributors to consider how law makes war and vice versa, but it also asks how these productions might be interrupted and resisted. It seeks to understand the spaces of war-law through the institutions, agents and practices that authorize, enact and resist them. We welcome contributions from geographers, lawyers and other scholars on themes that may include (but are not limited to):

  • Legal violence and the law as a weapon of war: ‘lawfare’ & the ‘legal war on terror’
  • Targeted killing/assassination, detention and cyber warfare
  • International humanitarian law (IHL), human rights law (HRL) and the laws of armed conflict (LOAC)
  • Genealogies of law in armed conflict
  • The links between law and legitimacy
  • The representational regimes of law/war: new media, propaganda & the “citizen journalist”
  • How law facilitates the political economy of war: its role in the logistics, organization, privatization and marketization of war
  • War inside/outside the border: International, transnational and domestic variations of lawfare
  • Witnessing war – Legal subjectivities, narrations and testimony from those who inhabit the warscape (e.g. lawyers, soldiers, civilians)

Please submit abstracts of 250-300 words to Craig Jones (venga@interchange.ubc.ca) and Michael Smith (mdsgeog@gmail.com) before 15 October 2012.