Art and atrocity

Since I read it yesterday I’ve been mesmerized by Maymanah Farwat‘s fine short essay at Jadaliyya on Baghdad-born artist Dia al-Azzawi‘s (pictured left) Sabra and Shatila Massacre currently on view at Tate Modern in London.

The artwork itself is copyright, and the Tate online pages describe but don’t display it, but if you click on the link to Jadaliyya above you can see it; it’s also – vividly – here, and there’s also a detail here and more here. The vast four-panelled work is a response to the massacre of Palestinians in two refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982 by Phalangist militias under the eyes of the Israeli Defense Force commanded by Ariel Sharon.

Within a labyrinth of death and the mundane (the remnants of domestic structures), the artist is relentless in his indictment, what he refers to as “a manifesto of dismay and anger.” Areas of white, where the eye would normally rest in a monochromatic composition, ignite horror, become corpses. Instances of Cubism are employed not to convey the dynamic movement of form but as a system of measure through which to count out cyclical disaster.

The artist started work on the project the day after the killings:

‘I had at that time a roll of paper and, without any preparatory sketches, the idea for the work came to me. I tried to visualize my previous experience of walking through this camp, with its small rooms separated by a narrow road, in the early 1970s.

But this vast composition is more than a memory work: Dia al-Azzawi was also inspired by Jean Genet‘s Quatre heures à Chatila (‘Four Hours in Shatila’) (available in the Journal of Palestine Studies 12 (3) (1983) 3-22).  As Ahdaf Soueif tells the story:

‘[Genet] was, it seems, one of the first foreigners to enter the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila after the Christian Lebanese Phalange, with the compliance of the Israeli command, tortured and murdered hundreds of its inhabitants. There, pushing open doors wedged shut by dead bodies, Genet memorised the features, the position, the clothing, the wounds of each corpse till three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove him at gun point to their officer: “‘Have you just been there?’ [the officer] pointed to Shatila. ‘Yes.’ – ‘And did you see?’ — ‘Yes.’ — ‘Are you going to write about it?’ — ‘Yes.'”

Sabra and Shatila Massacre retains that extraordinary, forensic attention to detail – to the wretched remnants of the ordinary – and it’s often compared to another, equally epic rendering of horror, Picasso‘s giant Guernica. (You can also see the parallels, I think, in the same artist’s Elegy to my trapped city (2011) below).

There’s more on the to-and-fro between the textual and the visual in relation to Sabra and Shatila in  Zahra A. Hussein Ali, ‘Aesthetics of memorialization’, Criticism 51 (2010) 589-621.  And Vimeo has an English-language version of Carlos Lapeña‘s film (2005) Four hours in Chatila inspired by Genet’s testimonial:

But if memory-work haunts these visualizations, then a film to watch in conjunction with and counterpoint to Lapeña’s is Ari Folman‘s ‘animated documentary’ Waltz with Bashir (2008) – described by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian as ‘a military sortie into the past’ – in which the director tries to come to terms with his non-memory of being a young Israeli soldier in Lebanon in 1982 and, in so doing, converts Sabra and Shatila into lieux de mémoire.

Among the many thoughtful critical responses to the film, Natasha Mansfield‘s open-access essay on ‘Loss and mourning’ at Wide Screen 2 (1) (2010) deals with the differential distance between camera and animation (Ohad Landesman and Roy Bendor develop this in more detail in animation 6 (3) (2011) 353-70), Katrina Schlunke in ‘Animated documentary and the scene of death’ in South Atlantic Quarterly 110 (2011) 949-62 treats the final cut from animation to documented images of the massacre, while  in ‘War Fantasies’, Modern Jewish Studies 9 (2010) 311-26 Raz Yosef – who also discusses these themes – objects to Folman’s focus on the Israeli ‘victim’ and its equation with the otherwise marginalised Palestinian victim.

The last is particularly troubling – see also Naira Antoun at electronic intifada and Ursula Lindsey at MERIP (‘Shooting film and crying’). For reflections on the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre, I recommend Seth Anziska in the New York Times (who documents US involvement), Zeina Azzam at Jadaliyya, and Habib Battah at al Jazeera.  There’s also a moving briefing paper from Medical Aid for Palestinians here whose cover is based on Dia al-Azzawi’s artwork.

And although it doesn’t address the visual – it’s an artful ‘misreading’ of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish‘s memoir of Beirut via the Goldstone report on the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2009 – Barbara Harlow‘s ‘The geography and the event’, Interventions 14 (2012) 13-23 amplifies those contemporary resonances in ways that are worth attending to:

New ‘events’ – whether Operation Peace for Galilee (Beirut, 1982) or Operation Cast Lead (Gaza, 2009) – perhaps call, after all, for new ‘geographies’, such as universal jurisdiction, a principle in international law according to which states are allowed to claim criminal jurisdiction for actions – deemed heinous and to be crimes against humanity – committed outside their boundaries.

A shower of balls

Patrick Cockburn has an interesting historical take on targeted killing by drones at the Independent:

‘In 1812, the governor of Moscow, Count Rostopchin [right], devised a plan to get a hot-air balloon to hover over the French lines at Borodino and drop an explosive device on Napoleon. The source for this is the memoirs of the French writer, traveller and politician Chateaubriand and I have not read it anywhere else, but the story illustrates how, from the first moment man took to the air, he has seen it as a means of assassination.

‘President Barack Obama thinks much the same way as Rostopchin did 200 years ago. The enhanced and secret use of unmanned drones is one of the most striking features of his foreign policy.’

What Chateaubriand actually wrote was this:

[Rostopchin’s] vengeance promised to drop from heaven: a huge balloon, constructed at great expense, was to float above the French army, pick out the Emperor among his thousands, and fall on his head in a shower of fire and steel. In trial, the wings of the airship broke; forcing him to renounce his bombshell from the clouds…

Quite how the balloon was to ‘pick out the Emperor among his thousands’ was not disclosed – it’s still a problem for today’s remote operators – but Chateaubriand may have taken the account from Count Philippe de Ségur‘s History of the expedition to Russia, first published in two volumes in 1824 and translated into many European languages:

At the same time a prodigious balloon was constructed, by command of [Emperor] Alexander, not far from Moscow, under the direction of a German artificer. The destination of this winged machine was to hover over the French army, to single out its chief, and destroy him by a shower of balls and fire.

Ségur accompanied the expedition so this was an eyewitness account, of sorts, composed years after the event: Mark Danner has a beautiful essay on Ségur’s memoir – and some of its other modern echoes – here.

There’s also a modern and more detailed version of the story from Lee Croft, first as a blog comment:

Tsar Alexander’s secret project to construct a hydrogen-filled, rotor-wing-powered, aerostat (balloon) from which to drop timed-fuse explosives on Napoleon and his army … [was] entrusted to the administration of Moscow Governor-General Fyodor Rostopchin, and through Rostopchin to German physician George Anton Schaeffer, was designed by a mysterious German-speaking “balloon master” named Franz Leppich (1776-1818), who had actually tried previously, in 18ll, to sell the project to Napoleon. The killer balloon, which was shaped to resemble a shark, failed to ascend on the day of the Battle of Borodino (August 26 on the Russian Calendar, September 7 on the French, 1812) and was evacuated to Nizhnii Novgorod to the east on the Volga using over 130 confiscated Moscow city fire carts and horse teams, thus severely handicapping attempts subsequently to manage the destructive Moscow fire.

You can find a more detailed version in Croft’s self-published book earlier this year, George Anton Schaeffer: Killing Napoleon from the air (Lulu, 2012) (I’m no marketing expert, but I suspect switching title and subtitle could only boost sales).

Napoleon was no stranger to balloons in his military adventures –  he used balloons for observation during the Italian campaign in 1796 and had the balloon corps accompany him to Egypt in 1798 but their equipment was destroyed by the British at Aboukir; later  the French launched a hot air balloon in occupied Cairo, but the Egyptians were conspicuously unimpressed and dismissed it a child’s toy.

All that said, I don’t think the lines of descent are quite as direct as Cockburn makes out, but it’s an arresting start to an essay that otherwise treads familiar ground. Balloons have a long history of military applications, but after the first attempts at bombing from aircraft in the Italian-Turkish war of 1911-12 most of the early military uses for the new flying machines focused on reconnaissance and surveillance (and spotting for artillery): more on this soon!

Droning on

Here’s a selection of recent reports on drone strikes from around the web plus commentary:

Craig Whitlock completes the Washington Post‘s three-part series on ‘Permanent War’ – started by Greg Miller‘s report on the US ‘disposition matrix‘ for targeted killing – with a remarkable account of what he calls ‘the US military’s first permanent drone war base’ at Camp Lemonnier, just (barely) outside Djibouti City.  It’s ‘the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone’, from which Predators are launched around the clock, sixteen times a day, to conduct missions in Somalia and Yemen.  Nominally overseen by US Africa Command (AFRICOM) – ‘the primary base of operations for US Africa Command in the Horn of Africa‘ – Whitlock mades it clear that it’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that calls the shots.  What is remarkable about Whitlock’s report is his artful piecing together of a jigsaw of information from construction solicitations, contracts and plans, submissions to Congress, planning memoranda, Air Force journals, and Predator accident investigation reports, some in the public domain and countless others obtained through FOI requests.  More on drone wars in East Africa from Somalia Report (which also provided the image of Camp Lemonnier below) and on what David Axe calls ‘America’s secret drone war in Africa’ from Wired‘s Danger Room.

Alex Kane at Mondoweiss reprises the Columbia report on Counting Drone Strike Deaths issued earlier this month – which is sharply critical of the estimates of civilian casualties in Pakistan reported by both the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal and endorses those provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – and then follows up with an interview with Naureen Shah, Acting Director of the Human Rights Clinic and the Associate Director of the Counter-terrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia:

… all of these estimates, including our estimate, are just based on news reports, news reports filed in that region where journalists have very limited access to the scene of the crime, if you will.

It’s not like journalists, for the most part, are going to where the drone strike happened and talking to witnesses, doing a bit of, almost a forensic analysis, being able to see what happened with their own eyes. This [Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas] is a region where few journalists, even Pakistani journalists, can really get there. We’re talking about media reports that are often based on the word of anonymous, Pakistani government officials who have an interest in telling a story of, “drone strikes kill only militants.” We’re not going to see anonymous government officials admitting that many of the people killed are civilians. So it’s a stacked deck.’

All true.  But there is a striking geographical absence from the kerfuffle over civilian casualties caused by drone strikes: Afghanistan.  The situation there is no less fraught: as the map below shows, journalists in Afghanistan also work in highly dangerous circumstances. (More on the map here and more from the Committee to Protect Journalists here).

The politico-technical matrix is also more complicated: in Afghanistan Predators and Reapers are part of an extended network in which aircraft are linked to ground forces and through which remote operators carry out persistent surveillance while, on occasion, leaving attacks to conventional strike aircraft (though they certainly also launch them from their own platforms too).  This makes it more difficult to disentangle drones from the wider apparatus of military violence – but why on earth should they be?  Afghanistan is part of a recognised ‘war zone’ – but does that make civilian casualties there any less grievable than those that take place across the border?

In the Mondoweiss interview Shah draws attention to the perpetual fear induced by the persistent presence of the drones:

We’re talking about planes hovering over head for hours every single day, and really the casualty of that, the human casualty, is peace of mind for the people who live there. We see reports that parents don’t want to send their kids out to school, that people don’t know what’s going to get them killed by a drone strike. Imagine living in that kind of fear, and we’re talking about communities that are already ravaged by war.

For more on this, turn to UK-based Medact’s report on Drones: the physical and psychological implications of a global theatre of war, also issued earlier this month.  Free download here.

Women are disproportionately affected by drones. What little control they have over their lives is further eroded by a weapon they know could strike at any time. Their lives and those of the children they try to protect are under constant threat. While men can sublimate their grief and anger to some degree by becoming fighters – one of the terrible consequences of drone warfare – women have no such outlet. And if their menfolk are killed in a drone strike, they may have to endure the continuing presence of the drone just overhead.

The report is a survey of surveys, short and to the point, but it adds a British dimension to the debate – important at a time when the RAF is doubling its Reaper fleet and moving control from Creech AFB in Nevada to RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire – and too briefly brings Israel’s use of drones in Gaza into the general discussion.  That last point desperately needs to be sharpened, given the global prominence of the Israeli drone industry and the filiations between US and Israeli practices of targeted killing.  Another depressing blank on the drone debate map.

(I hadn’t heard of Medact before, but it claims to speak out ‘for countless people across the globe whose health, wellbeing and access to proper health care are severely compromised by the effects of war, poverty and environmental damage’, and it’s associated with the journal Medicine, conflict and survival – a source which deserves close attention).

Haymarket Books has just published (pb and e-book versions) a collection of Nick Turse‘s columns on drones and Obama’s other signature modes of warfare, The changing face of empire: see here for an adapted version of the conclusion (extract below) and here for the book.

Several times this year, [General Martin Dempsey], the other joint chiefs, and regional war-fighting commanders have assembled at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico to conduct a futuristic war-game-meets-academic-seminar about the needs of the military in 2017. There, a giant map of the world, larger than a basketball court, was laid out so the Pentagon’s top brass could shuffle around the planet — provided they wore those scuff-preventing shoe covers — as they thought about “potential U.S. national military vulnerabilities in future conflicts” (so one participant told the New York Times). The sight of those generals with the world underfoot was a fitting image for Washington’s military ambitions, its penchant for foreign interventions, and its contempt for (non-U.S.) borders and national sovereignty.

And lastly, on an almost lighter note, Teo Ballvé at Territorial Masquerades has an artful post on ‘Writing like a drone’.  Following up on the ‘New Aesthetic‘, he describes a robotic graffiti writer that can write text massages ‘on such high risk/high profile targets as the U.S. Capitol Building’ and ‘can be deployed in any highly controlled space or public event from a remote location.’  It’s the remoteness that presumably prompts Teo to call this a ‘graffiti drone’, but there are two other (remote) connections to the real thing.

The project comes from the Institute for Applied Autonomy, which also hosts Trevor Paglen‘s captivating (sic) Terminal Air, a satirical version of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition flights –  the ‘capture’ side of the kill/capture regime that uses drones for the ‘kill’.

Former US Ambassador Kurt Volker adds a gloss to this in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post following up the ‘Permanent War’ reports:

More people have been killed in U.S. drone attacks than were ever incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. Can we be certain there were no cases of mistaken identity or innocent deaths? Those detained at Guantanamo at least had a chance to establish their identities, to be reviewed by an oversight panel and, in most cases, to be released. Those who remain at Guantanamo have been vetted and will ultimately face some form of legal proceeding. Those killed in drone strikes, whoever they were, are gone. Period.

What he doesn’t quite say is that most of those incarcerated at Guantanamo were, on the US government’s own admission, never al Qaeda fighters.  More on the implications of these intelligence failures for the US targeted killing programme from the Stanford/NYU report on Living under drones here (scroll down).

Finally, back to Theo’s ‘graffiti drone’:  one of several synonyms for graffiti writing – particularly at night – is bombing…

I don’t like Tuesdays….

More on history…  In a commentary on Greg Miller‘s Washington Post article on the ‘disposition matrix‘ now used by the Obama administration to further its targeted killing programme, Ian Shaw suggests that this reveals ‘the changing face of state violence: the decentralization of targeted killings across the globe and the simultaneous centralization of state power in the executive branch of government.’

Even before the process was streamlined by the introduction of the matrix, Jo Becker and Scott Shane reporting for the New York Times described the President’s ‘immersion’ in the process, which they too thought ‘unprecedented’:

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.

This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.

The video conferences are run by the Pentagon… [and] a parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan.

The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total.

John Whitehead also saw this as a dramatic – and ominous – departure: ‘Should we fail to recognize and rectify the danger in allowing a single individual to declare himself the exception to the rule of law and assume the role of judge, jury, and executioner, we will have no one else to blame when we plunge once and for all into the abyss that is tyranny.’

Claims like these not only resonate with Giorgio Agamben‘s mapping of the space of exception; they also intersect with the debate over the ‘unitary executive’ that was renewed (and radicalised) during the Bush administration.

But if we narrow the focus there is in fact an historical precedent for what Becker and Shane called the ‘Terror Tuesday’ meetings and the close control exerted by the executive over air strikes  – and this also took place on a Tuesday.

During the Vietnam War President Lyndon Johnson personally decided targets for the ‘Rolling Thunder’ campaign of air strikes againt North Vietnam, famously boasting that ‘they can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval.’

Targets were first proposed by the Air Force and submitted to the Commander-in-Chief Pacific Command (CINPAC), whose office reviewed and forwarded a target list to the Joint Chiefs of Staff who in turn reviewed and forwarded their revised list to the Pentagon.  There officials analysed the targets in relation to the probable impact of a strike and the likelihood of civilian casualties, and the Secretary of Defense coordinated the modified list with the Secretary of State. By this stage the folder for each numbered target had been reduced to a sheet of paper with just four columns: military advantage; risk to US aircraft and crew; estimated civilian casualties; and danger to third-country nationals (Russian and Chinese advisers).

The final target list was decided during the President’s Tuesday luncheon at the White House.  This was not a casual affair; it followed a meeting of the National Security Council, and those attending the luncheon – the Secretaries of State and Defense, the President’s special assistant for national security affairs, and (significantly) the President’s press secretary – were briefed before grading each target. Their grades were combined and averaged and then reviewed by the President who made the final selection.  His decision was delivered to the NSC in the evening and transmitted to CINCPAC through the Joint Chiefs for immediate execution. The instructions included not only the number of sorties to be conducted against each target but also in the early stages of the campaign the timing of the attacks and the ordnance to be used.

Remarkably, no military officers were invited to the Tuesday luncheon until October 1967, and in at least in the first phase of Rolling Thunder the political consistently trumped the military.  As targets worked their way up the command hierarchy to Washington, their priority order was reversed; the bomb line slowly advanced northward as strikes worked their way up from the bottom of the strategic list. In addition to selecting targets, Johnson stipulated strict Rules of Engagement – so stringent that one airman described them as ‘rules of defeat’ – that prohibited air strikes within 30 miles of the Chinese border, 30 miles from the centre of Hanoi and 10 miles from the centre of Haiphong, and imposed a complex, constantly changing web of regulation whose details had to be incorporated into every day’s operational order.

The paragraphs above are culled from my ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab) and they describe an ideal-typical sequence of decision-making, but the most detailed published account is David Humphreys, ‘On the Tuesday Lunch at the Johnson White House: a preliminary assessment’, Diplomatic History 8 (1984) 81-101; see also David Barrett, ‘Doing “Tuesday Lunch” at Lyndon Johnson’s White House: new archival evidence on decision-making’, PS: Political science and politics 24 (4) (1991) pp. 676-9, Kevin Mulcahy, ‘Rethinking Groupthink: Walt Rostow and the National Security advisory processin the Johnson administration’, Presidential Studies Quarterly 25 (1995) 237-50,  and Johanna Kephart, ‘Presidential decision-making and war: testing the evolution model’, MA thesis, Georgetown University (2010) here (especially pp. 8-27).

Pakistan is not Vietnam, of course, and there are obvious differences between the two campaigns – as well as remarkable ‘lines of descent’ – but the role of the sovereign in asserting ‘the right to take life or let live’ is a grim constant.

I don’t like Tuesdays: Some of you will remember the Boomtown Rats song ‘I don’t like Mondays’ written by Bob Geldorf after a shooting at a school playground in San Diego; the shooter, a 16-year old girl, explained: “I don’t like Mondays.  This livens them up.”

Genealogies of law and violence

A day or two ago I tried to show why I think it important to recover the history of bombing in order to stage an effective critique of its contemporary use.  But Dan Clayton has written to provide a compelling and more general reason to recover the historical arc of contemporary military violence, with this quotation from Michel Foucault‘s (1971) essay on ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’:

“Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination.”

This essay can now be read in conjunction with Foucault’s recently published lectures on La volonté de savoir.  As Stuart Elden explains:

‘Despite Foucault’s oft-cited interest in Nietzsche, only a couple of pieces on him were ever published. The most sustained is the ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ piece published in 1971. Here [in the Lectures] Foucault develops different themes, especially concerning the history of truth, though there are moments where related issues emerge. Foucault uses Nietzsche to trace the invention of knowledge, and the later invention of truth, suggesting that for Nietzsche truth relates to the will “under the form of constraint and domination… not liberty but violence” (p. 206). He suggests that, following Nietzsche, and “against the warm softness of a phenomenon, we must develop the murderous tenacity of knowledge” (p. 198). His reading is influenced by works across Nietzsche’s career, especially early manuscripts on truth and The Birth of Tragedy, rather than just On the Genealogy of Morality.’

There’s a really helpful long review essay on the lectures by Michael Berhrent in Foucault Studies 13 (2012) 157-178 here (scroll down).

Administrative geographies and killing fields

Daniel Klaidman‘s chilling account of the Obama administration’s ‘Kill or Capture’ counterterrorism programme, published in June this year, has been updated.  Klaidman added a new dimension to the frequent jibe that the use of Predators and Reapers has turned war into a videogame when he described how target lists were drawn up in Washington:

‘As many as seventy-five officials from across the counterterrorism bureaucracy and the White House took part in the SVTS, government-speak for a secure video teleconference. It was killing by committee.’

According to Klaidman, the process deeply disturbed Harold Koh, the Legal Adviser to the State Department (this was before he addressed the American Society of International Law on the legality of targeted killing in March 2010):

‘Koh took in the videoconference with morbid fascination… There was also an inexorable quality to the meeting, a machinelike pace that left him feeling more like an observer than a participant. He was unsettled by the bloodless euphemisms the military used to talk about violent death. A targeted killing became a “direct action” or a “kinetic strike.” Code names for the hunted militants were bland and impersonal, drawn from the names of provincial American cities. At the time, JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] was working its way through Ohio. Koh understood the need to “objectify” the enemy.  The “operators” had to separate themselves from the brutality of their actions. But as a human rights lawyer, he was trained to do the opposite. “I kept slipping back and forth between the view of the predator and the view of the prey,” he later told a friend.’

But the videoconferences have been discontinued, and in today’s Washington Post Greg Miller provides the  first of three reports on the creation of a so-called ‘disposition matrix’ to ‘streamline’ targeted killing and boost the role of the National Counter-Terrorism Center and its Director, John Brennan.

At least three geographies are embedded in the process.  First, Miller shows that the close co-operation between the Pentagon (particularly through JSOC) and the CIA continues to gather momentum, not least because the Arab uprisings have changed the calculus of co-operation with other agencies:

The Arab spring has upended U.S. counterterrorism partnerships in countries including Egypt where U.S. officials fear al-Qaeda could establish new roots. The network’s affiliate in North Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has seized territory in northern Mali and acquired weapons that were smuggled out of Libya. “Egypt worries me to no end,” a high-ranking administration official said. “Look at Libya, Algeria and Mali and then across the Sahel. You’re talking about such wide expanses of territory, with open borders and military, security and intelligence capabilities that are basically nonexistent.”

Other relationships have been strengthened, of course, not least with regimes regrettably undisturbed by the uprisings – notably Saudi Arabia:

“If he’s in Saudi Arabia, pick up with the Saudis,” the former official said. “If traveling overseas to al-Shabaab [in Somalia] we can pick him up by ship. If in Yemen, kill or have the Yemenis pick him up.”

The disposition matrix is supposed ‘to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.’  But as the menu of geopolitical options narrows, so the range of drone strikes is destined to increase – with no end in sight.

Miller’s focus, like that of most reporters, is on the routinisation of the process – what one intelligence analyst described, for a different kill-chain an age ago, as ‘the bureaucratization of homicide‘: Ian Shaw‘s ‘bureaucratic present‘ has a long history – and, not altogether surprisingly, Robert Chesney over at Lawfare doesn’t think there’s much of a story here at all:

It certainly is a good thing to create an information management tool that makes certain that officials across agencies and departments can have real-time, comprehensive understanding of the options available (practically, legally, diplomatically, etc.) in the event specific persons turn up in specific places.

But the administration of lethal violence using these ‘management tools’ involves more than mapping the geopolitical portfolio I sketched above.  There is a second, doubled geography at work.

Those who carry out drone missions – either calling in conventional strike aircraft or combat helicopters or carrying out the strikes from their own platforms – frequently insist that they are only ‘eighteen inches from the battlefield’ (the distance from eye to screen) so that there is, for them, a new and chilling intimacy to these ‘remote’ operations.  It is, to be sure, a qualified intimacy, as I’ve shown in several essays: those involved in these missions are immersed in the evolving situation – in this sense theirs is a ‘videogame war’ since videogames are profoundly immersive, something most critics seem to lose sight of – but even when they are required to remain on station to carry out a post-strike inventory of body parts – which is common – the visual field remains one in which the landscape of the enemy Other (and the identity between the two is rarely questioned) is profoundly alien.

But to those who order these strikes – and perhaps to a wider political circle – the administrative process renders the ‘remoteness’ of such operations absolute. Here is Micah Zenko:

‘Recently, I spoke to a military official with extensive and wide-ranging experience in the special operations world, and who has had direct exposure to the targeted killing program. To emphasize how easy targeted killings by special operations forces or drones has become, this official flicked his hand back over and over, stating: “It really is like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?”’

And finally, the comment-storm created by Miller’s report (and remarks likes these) continues to focus public attention on the theatre of secrecy in Washington rather than the killing-fields where the executions are carried out.

ASAP and experimental geopolitics

My last post trafficked, amongst other things, in a geography of time-space compression, so it’s time (and space) to introduce ASAP: a title chosen by Tina di Carlo, former curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and a graduate of Eyal Weizman‘s Research Architecture programme at Goldsmith’s, to echo the English ‘as soon as possible’ – ‘to evoke a sense of urgency and speed where space collapses in time’ – and, more precisely, to signal the Archive of Spatial Aesthetics and Praxis.  Established in 2010, this is a virtual Aladdin’s cave of projects and practices, texts and objects.

You can fossick for your own favourites – everything is accessible from the starting grid – but here are two of mine.  The first is Teddy Cruzs Political Equator project.  This uses the US/Mexico border – specifically  Tijuana/San Diego – as a platform to describe an arc through other global borderlands all located between 30 and 36 degrees North:

Along this imaginary border encircling the globe lie some of the world’s most contested thresholds: the US–Mexico border at Tijuana/San Diego, the most intensified portal for immigration from Latin America to the United States; the Strait of Gibraltar, where waves of migration flow from North African flow into Europe; the Israeli-Palestinian border that divides the Middle East, along with the embattled frontiers of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and Jordan; the Line of Control between the Indian state of Kashmir and Azad or free Kashmir on the Pakistani side; the Taiwan Strait where relations between China and Taiwan are increasingly strained as the Pearl River Delta has rapidly ascended to the role of China’s economic gateway for the flow of foreign capital, supported by the traditional centers of Hong Kong and Shanghai and the paradigmatic transformations of the Chinese metropolis also characterized by urbanities of labor and surveillance.

You can find full details of the associated meetings (‘conversations’), videos and more at the project website here.

Second is Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s Museum of Non-Participation.   This is a travelling project that started in Islamabad in 2007.  The two artists watched the demonstrations by the Lawyers’ Movement against the dismissal of the Chief Justice by the Musharaf regime and the violent response by the military/police from a window in the National Art Gallery – more about the protests here and here – and went on to develop a multi-sited, multi-voiced project that has been staged in Karachi, in London’s Bethnal Green and elsewhere.  One of its central aims is to contest the dominant narrative (and geographical imagination) of Pakistan as a ‘rogue state’ and to find (in part, I think, through a contrapuntal rendering of London and Karachi) ‘other languages and other voices’ to convey everyday life under the sign of the postcolonial.

ASAP explains:

The Museum of Non Participation began as a critique and ultimately exploration of the political agency of the Museum through what the artists call the space of the NON… which is at once a radical critique of the Museum which often and has historically stood by as a mute witness [and [a redefinition] of [its] traditional architectural typology, transforming it from a shelter that houses objects to a literal sign that travels around.

You can download a detailed (30pp) feature from Kaleidoscope here.

The Museum was in Vancouver this month, where it included a screening of Deep State (2012) , a film developed in collaboration with China Miéville (and my thanks to Jorge Amigo for the notice). Here is a preview:

The film takes its title from the Turkish term ‘Derin Devlet’, meaning ‘state within the state’. Although its existence is impossible to verify, this shadowy nexus of special interests and covert relationships is the place where real power is said to reside, and where fundamental decisions are made – decisions that often run counter to the outward impression of democracy.

Amorphous and unseen, the influence of this deep state is glimpsed at regular points throughout the film – most clearly surfacing in its reflexive responses to popular protest, and in legislated acts of violence and containment, but also rumbling and reverberating, deeper down, in an eternally recurring call-and-response between rhetorical positions and counter-languages, in which a raised fist, a thrown rock, a crowd surge, an occupation provoke a corresponding reaction in the form of a police charge, a baton attack, a pepper spray, assassinations.
There’s an interview with Mirza and Butler about the film here, where Mirza explains that when she read Miéville’s The city in the city she was struck by the ‘condition of unseeing in the midst of seeing’ which is at the heart of the book. Miéville’s extraordinary combination of a radical reading of international law  – in his Between equal rights: a Marxist theory of international law (2006) and also, for example, here –and what he calls his ‘weird fiction’ was not only a ‘compelling combination’ but also a creative platform from which to develop a script and then the screenplay. Michael Turner provides both a sympathetic account of the Museum project and a spirited critique of the Vancouver screening here (there’s also a constructive response: scroll down).
You can, I hope, see why these two projects – from borderlands to international law – interest me.  They are also vivid examples of the connections Alan Ingram is so deftly pursuing between contemporary art and what he calls ‘experimental geopolitics’ (a term I find much more appealing than critical geopoltiics….)

The intoxications of geography

Adam Gopnik writing in the New Yorker discusses the revival of what he calls ‘geographical history’.  He starts with the prospect of a ‘history of spaces’ moving us beyond the intimacies of the sort of ‘place history’ displayed in Le Roy Ladurie‘s mesmerizing Montaillou, but then shoots over the cliff and into the waiting arms of Robert Kaplan.  Is there no escape from the man? And yet it turns out that Gopnik’s not as enthralled as he first appears:

Important as geography might be, the idea of geography’s importance seems still more important. Though geography is offered as a sobering up after the intoxications of end-of-history ideology, it soon reveals itself as another brandy bottle, with intoxications of its own. See, the Chinese are making a pincer move there, and—look!—the Indians are once again seeking to dominate the Gurdaspur-Kathiawar salient. Kaplan luxuriates in phrases of this kind: “Some years back I was in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, from whose vantage point Tehran and Mashad over the border in Iranian Khorasan have always loomed.” It’s the same language that you find in John Buchan novels of the Great War era; the Chinese are on their way here, Russia is probing the hinterland, the Germans conspire with the Balts. “I have reports from agents everywhere—peddlers in Samarkand and bullion dealers in Cologne” is the way Buchan might put it.

And then we’re off, following a ‘cartographic turn’ into a ‘space history’ – not exactly the spatial history lovingly demonstrated in Paul Carter‘s wonderful Road to Botany Bay, but still – before hurtling into Timothy Snyder‘s chronicle of the calculated murder of 14 million people in the borderlands between Berlin and Moscow from 1944 to 1945, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

And yet, ultimately Gopnik votes for intimacy over distance – in a smooth rebuke to Kaplan, he insists that ‘conversation shapes us more than mountains and monsoons can’: you can almost hear the third, this time affirmative “M”, Montaillou, suspended in the silence – and so returns his ‘history of space’ to the history of place:

‘[T]he argument for the primacy of geography is always an argument about trains. It’s always about technology, and the question of whether new machines make modern times different from all other times. Modern productivity is technology applied, and technology is, among other things, a repudiation of geography: it’s a way of insisting that the limits of the planet are not the limits of our lives. A train, or a telegraph, or a jet or a rocket ship, not to mention the Internet, collapses space and terrain. Flying machines get us over very high mountains. Borders disappear to bombers…’

It’s a wonderfully vivid image, but technology doesn’t ‘collapse’ space, still less ‘repudiate’ geography: these processes of time-space compression have their own geographies and produce their own frictions of distance. As I’ve noted before, contrary to Thomas Friedman‘s nostrums, the world isn’t flat – even for the US military.  What interests me most, though, is precisely the historical curve of the entanglement of distance with intimacy, particularly in times of war and especially in the bloodlands/borderlands – the leitmotif of my ‘Deadly embrace’ project…

Over the top

I’ve had several inquiries about my recent posts on bombing in the First World War (here and here), all of which want to know why I’ve gone back so far.  Isn’t it all so remote? they ask.   I’d hoped I’d started to answer that in my previous posts, but Tami Davis Biddle – the author of Rhetoric and reality in air warfare (Princeton University Press, 2004) – provides a succinct answer in her ‘Learning in real time: the development and implementation of air power in the First World War’ (in Sebstian Cox and Peter Gray, eds., Air power history: turning points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo):

‘Virtually every important manifestation of twentieth-century air power was envisioned and worked out in at least rudimentary form between 1914 and 1918.’

She has in mind many of the practices I’ve described in my previous posts – and there’s more to come – but I’ve just stumbled upon one that neither of us anticipated.  And, yes, it is ‘remote’…

Gary Warne has a remarkable post, ‘The Predator’s ancestors: UAVs in the Great War’, in which he describes Captain Archibald Low’s Aerial Target project.  The codename was a deliberate distraction, Warne explains, because the plan was to develop a pilotless aircraft as a flying bomb, guided  by wireless from an accompanying manned aircraft to attack Zeppelins and ground targets. The fullest discussion of Low’s work that I’ve been able to find is by Paul Hare here; some of the back-story is provided by Hugh Driver in The birth of military aviation 1903-1914 (Boydell and Brewer, 1997) and there’s a wider historical discussion in Chapter 2 of Denis Larm‘s thesis here.

When the war started ‘Professor’ Low, as he styled himself, was already at work on artillery range-finding and, newly commissioned, was soon at the forefront of the Royal Flying Corps’s Experimental Works (below; Low is in the centre of the front row), supervising a team of 30, including jewellers, carpenters and engineers first at a Chiswick garage and later at Brooklands.

The noise of the aircraft engine interfered with the wireless transmissions, and the first demonstration flight of the Aerial Target was a disaster.  According to Steven Shaker and Alan Wise in War without Men: robots on the future battlefield (Pergamon-Brassey, 1988), ‘during a test flight for a gathering of important Allied dignitaries, the AT went astray and dove upon the guests, who scattered in every direction.’  All together six prototypes were constructed in 1917, but none of them saw combat.

That last verb is spot on, however, because in March 1914 Low had successfully demonstrated what he called TeleVista, an early version of television, and the Times reported that ‘if all goes well with this invention, we shall soon be able, it seems, to see people at a distance’ – a capability that, over 50 years later, would be integral to the USAF’s experiments with reconnaissance drones over North Vietnam (see ‘Lines of descent’, DOWNLOADS tab) and, of course, to today’s Predators and Reapers.  As the Times continued, it was an open question ‘whether Dr Low will be regarded as a benefactor, or the opposite.’

Low never linked his two projects, but in fact the prospect of seeing a distant target had been mooted before the war.  In 1910 Raymond Phillips used a twenty-foot model Zeppelin to demonstrate his wireless-controlled ‘aerial torpedo’ before an entranced crowd at the London Hippodrome. According to the New York Times (22 May 1910):

‘He claims to be able, sitting at a transmitter in London, to send a dirigible balloon through the air at any height and almost any distance.  He can load his balloon with dynamite bombs, he claims, and without leaving his office can send it over a city and wipe the city out.’

He told his audience:

I don’t want to brag, but I feel sure that if England purchases my aerial torpedo she will make short work of the enemy’s fleets and cities in any future war.  Why, I can sit in an armchair in London and drop bombs in Manchester or Paris or Berlin.’

Given the first city on his list it’s scarcely surprising that there should have been questions about navigation.  Asked how he would know that his airship was over ‘the town you purpose to destroy’, Phillips replied that he might work with a large-scale map or a ‘telephotographic lens’.  ‘I think it will do away altogether with existing methods of warfare,’ he predicted.  Much more here (scroll down).

But one of his rivals in the audience had spotted a weakness in the system.  ‘I believe that it would be possible for another operator to interfere with Mr Raymond Phillips’ control,’ speculated Harry Grindell Matthews, using what one newspaper called ‘hostile electric currents’, and he predicted that he could, ‘by manipulating an instrument of my own, compel it [the airship] to turn round and return to the place from which it was sent.’  The two men agreed to a duel between their devices, but I’ve been unable to find any record of the outcome – though the spectre that Matthews raised remains a concern for today’s remotely piloted operations.  Incidentally, Matthews would later claim to have invented a ‘death ray’…. More on him here and here.

The theatricalization of these early projects, with Phillips’s airship nosing its way around the Hippodrome – which was originally designed as a circus and had only been remodelled the previous year – and releasing its load of paper birds forty feet above the stalls, is all of a piece with the ‘bombing competitions‘ and the air displays of the pre-war years.

Here is Flight magazine on 7 May 1910:

‘There is no accounting for popular taste in the matter of public entertainment, but we must confess one could scarcely expect to witness the spectacle of a fairly big model dirigible sailing about the auditorium of the London Hippodrome, where at the moment it constitutes one of the star turns….

‘As an indication of a phase of aeronautics that is quite likely, indeed, we might as well say quite certain, to figure in the future, this display at the Hippodrome is a thoroughly interesting and instructive turn, and brings before many hundreds of people a visual demonstration of a scientific subject that in the ordinary course of events they would only be likely to read about at the best.’

Yet another instance of the theatre of war.

Phillips persisted with his dream, and in September 1913 the Illustrated London News devoted a whole page to ‘torpedoes of the air’ – what it called ‘bomb-droppers directed by wireless’ – and Robinson’s drawing was based on ‘materials provided by Mr Raymond Phillips.’

PHILLIPS Aerial Torpedo in ILN September 1913

Jadaliyya and the Arab Uprisings

Commentaries on the Arab uprisings are thick on the ground, but throughout the period Jadaliyya has been (and remains) an indispensable source.  Pluto have just published their first collection, which includes first-hand accounts with an unsurpassed geographical range and sharp analysis from an unrivalled list of contributors.  In London the book will be launched at SOAS next Monday (29 October) at 7 p.m. (G50, College Buildings).

As contemporary reflections, these writings capture the unfolding of revolutionary events as they happened and convey the uncertainties, hopes and disappointments of collective worlds being remade. As the work of scholars and activists with a rich knowledge of the region’s histories and political aspirations, the essays offer lasting insights into the forces shaping a new moment in world history.

— Timothy Mitchell, Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University

During the Arab uprisings, my first port of call every day was Jadaliyya to understand and interpret the events. The articles collected here are a very rare combination – scholarly but also accessible for a broad public. This book will be a much-treasured volume for undergraduate students, and its sophistication will also benefit postgraduates and academics. More importantly, an intelligent lay reader will also find the book immediately useful.

— Laleh Khalili, Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics, SOAS, University of London


Jadaliyya: Archiving the Revolution – Roger Owen

Introduction – The Arab Uprisings: Unmaking of an Old Order?

Section I: Opening Articles

Impromptu: a word – Sinan Antoon

Preliminary historical observations on the Arab Revolutions of 2011- Rashid Khalidi

Awakening, cataclysm, or just a series of events?  Michael Hudson

Paradoxes of Arab Refo-lutions – Asef Bayat

The year of the citizen – Mouin Rabbani

Three powerfully wrong – and wrongly powerful – American Narratives About the Arab Spring – Jillian Schwedler, Joshua Stacher and Stacey Philbrick Yadav

Section II: Tunisia

The Tunisian Revolution:Initial Reflections – Mohammed Bamyeh

Tunisia’s Glorious Revolution – Noureddine Jebnoun

Let’s not forget about Tunisia – Nouri Gana

The Battle for Tunisia – Nouri Gana

Section III: Egypt

The Poetry of Revolt – Elliott Colla

Why Mubarak is out – Paul Amar

Egypt’s Revolution 2.0: The Facebook Factor – Linda Herrera

Egypt’s Three Revolutions – Omnia El Shakry

The architects of the Egyptian uprising – Saba Mahmood

The revolution against neoliberalism – Walter Armbrust

Egypt’s orderly transition: International Aid and the rush to structural adjustment – Adam Hanieh

Section IV: Libya

The Arabs in Africa – Callie Maidhof

Tribes of Libya as the third front  – Jamila Benkato

Solidarity and intervention in Libya – Asli Ü Bali and Ziad Abu-Rish

Section V: Bahrain

Let’s Talk About Sect – Tahiyya Lulu

Distortions of dialogue – Tahiyya Lulu

When petro-dictators unite – Rosie Bsheer and Ziad Abu-Rish

Section VI: Yemen

Yemen’s turn – an overview – Lara Aryani

How it Started in Yemen: From Tahrir to Taghyir – Nir Rosen

Saleh Defiant – Ziad Abu-Rish

Section VII: Syria

Why Syria Is Not Next . . . So Far – Bassam Haddad

Fear of arrest – Hani Sayed

Syrian Hope: A Journal – Amal Hanano

Section VIII: Regional Reverberations of the Arab Uprisings

The political status quo and protests in Jordan – Ziad Abu-Rish

Dissent and its discontents: protesting the Saudi state – Rosie Bsheer

The never-ending story: protests and constitutions in Morocco – Emanuela Dalmasso and Francesco Cavatorta

Emergencies and economics: Algeria and the politics of memory – Muriam Haleh Davis

Iraq and Its Tahrir Square – Zainab Saleh

Tahrir’s other sky – Noura Erikat and Sherene Seikaly

What is [the] Left? – Maya Mikdashi

Epilogue: Parting Thoughts Madawi Al- Rasheed