Bodies and bombs

Paul Rogers draws some parallels between what he calls ‘drone bombing’ and suicide bombing at Open Democracy.

Suicide-bombing allows explosives to be placed at or very close to a target, with the deliverer having considerable real-time initiative and scope for concealment. He or she can adapt to circumstances in matters of timing as well as any movement of and even the precise location of the target. Countermeasures such as blast-walls and surveillance systems can be circumvented or fooled…. 

The similarity with armed-drones is striking. Drones such as the Reaper have multiple air-to-surface missiles, can loiter for hours and are “flown” in real time by operators thousands of miles away. There is no risk to these people, no suicide factor. Drones may not have quite the precision potential of a suicide-bomber, and in the very final seconds before impact the missiles that are fired cannot be diverted or halted.’

But in essence, Paul argues, there is no difference between them: ‘drone bombing’ is ‘suicide bombing without the suicide’.

And life (or in this case death) imitates art: this week Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room reported that the US Army is soliciting bids to develop ‘a tiny suicidal drone to kill from six miles away’.  It’s a good tag line, but the story is really about the fusion of miniaturised drone and missile in a ‘Lethal Miniature Aerial Munitions System’.

I suspect that one of the imaginative devices that enables publics in the global North to accept their own militaries bombing from the air – apart from a profound lack of imagination – turns on the body itself.   In one direction, they congratulate themselves that suicide bombing is foreign to their traditions of war in part, I think, because it allows no escape from the corporeality of bombing: the body of the bomber carries the bomb.  In the other direction, they congratulate themselves on their restraint: after Hiroshima and Nagasaki they have not resorted to nuclear bombs that, at the limit, vaporize bodies (though they also leave countless other bodies broken and disfigured from the blast or sick from radiation). (In his meditation On Suicide bombing Talal Asad is very instructive on the horror generated by ‘the dissolution of the human body’ (see pp. 76-92)).

The space in between the two is occupied by conventional bombing from the air, and the production/performance of this space involves what Asad calls ‘a redefinition’ – even a re-calibration – ‘of the space of violence’.  Here – precisely because of the imaginative distance between the bomber and the bombed, which in some respects was even greater for Bomber Command aircrew over Hamburg and USAAF aircrew over Vietnam than it is for remote pilots in Nevada – it becomes possible to conceive of an air strike in purely abstract terms (which is why calibration assumes such significance): a ‘surgical’ attack on a nominated  ‘target’.  There are remarkable continuities between conventional bombing and the use of remotely-piloted aircraft, as I’ve tried to show in detail in Lines of descent (see DOWNLOADS tab), and part of my Killing Space project focuses on the ways in which mainstream British and American media coverage of the combined bomber offensive against Germany in WWII, the US air wars over Indochina, and the current drone wars over Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere consistently removes the bodies of the bombed from public view.

And yet this may also reinforce Paul’s particular parallel.  If the corporeality of suicide bombing is inescapable for those who carry it out, so too (in a different sense) for those remote pilots in the continental United States.  They routinely insist that they are not thousands of miles away from their ‘target’ but eighteen inches: the distance from eye to screen.  And they are required to remain on station after a strike and, through their surveillance cameras, carry out what in previous wars would also have been called ‘bomb damage assessment’ but which, in the case of a targeted killing, involves a hideous inventory of body parts.