Dead streaming

Readers who have followed Josh Begley‘s Dronestream project – which I commented on here  – will be interested in this video of his graduate thesis presentation at NYU:

It’s a tour de force in under 15 minutes.  Josh begins with a rapid-fire overview of over 480 more or less covert US drone strikes in 10 years killing more than 4,700 people.  ‘What can our relationship be with this story?’ he asks.

His first attempt at finding an answer was the Drones+ app that was intended to send a notification to your iPhone every time news broke of a drone strike in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia.  Like James Bridle‘s Dronestagram (which enabled satellite images of the sites of remote strikes to be viewed on an iPhone), it was a way of projecting the remoteness of the strikes into the intimacy of our own life-worlds.  But  Drones+ was more demanding precisely because its episodic notifications made those strikes more insistent, more interruptive.  Hence Josh’s key question:

‘Do we really want to be as connected to our foreign policy as we are to our smart phones?  … which are these increasingly intimate devices, the places where we share pictures of or loved ones and communicate with our friends, the things that we pull out of our pockets when we’re lost and which auto-magically put us at the center of the map……  Do we really want these things to be the site of how we experience remote war?’

Apple’s answer was no, as he ruefully acknowledges, though I suspect that would also be the answer of many others too: that, after all, is the appeal of remote wars to those who orchestrate them.  Out of sight, out of mind: which is precisely why there is also something ‘auto-magical’ about Josh’s determination to ‘détourne‘ these remote technologies like this.

Josh’s next step was to use a Twitter account to start to tweet every recorded drone strike, which eventually morphed (via the aggregations of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) into Dronestream: or, more accurately,

This is a publicly accessible API (Application Programming Interface) that enables the data set to be interrogated and visualized in multiple ways (and if you want a simple account of working with the API, check out Felix Haas here):


Josh credits Trevor Paglen‘s ‘spatial analysis’ and his ongoing attempts to outline the Blank Spots on the Map as a particular inspiration for his work.  What he has sought to do, by extension, is to map ‘the blank spots in the data’: to recover what he calls ‘the negative space that these drone strikes take up’, and so enable complex stories and ordinary voices to emerge out of the swirl of Big Data.  In doing so, he argues that it becomes possible to ‘speak back’ to the drones and to the masters of dirty wars that control them, in effect artfully turning this latest version of techno-war against itself.

The trick now is to fill out these ‘blank spots on the map’, to recover the insistently human geographies that are devastated by these air strikes and the threat of more to come, so that we can overturn both the ‘face-less’ and the ‘place-less’ narrative of the covert war machine.  It thrives on being both out of sight and out of site, and Josh’s research is invaluable in reminding us that the virtual technologies that make its depredations possible are also acutely material in their form and in their effects.

Terror and terrain

Over at Space and Politics my friend and colleague Gaston Gordillo has a long post, ‘Opaque zones of empire’, in which he seeks to examine ‘the panoptic regime of hyper-visibility by focusing not on the prying cameras of drones and satellites but on the rugged topographies they permanently scrutinize; not on what the panoptic regime sees but on what it cannot see, or what it cannot see clearly.’

This is the paper he gave as part of the Space and Violence sessions at the Association of American Geographers conference in L.A. earlier this year, and it’s the draft of a longer article in progress.  It’s also a remarkably ambitious exercise, in which Gaston artfully tracks between Stuart Elden, Eyal Weizman, Henri Lefebvre, Alain Badiou, Allan Feldman and a host of others.

But it’s the conclusion that has given me most pause for thought.  Here Gaston conjures the opacity inherent in the three-dimensionality of terrain (the central concept in the essay) apprehended by military vision and violence:

‘Badiou argues that the figure of the pure multiplicity of being, precisely because its multiplicity cannot be represented, is the void. The void is, indeed, the figure of the terrain. This void should be read not as an abstraction but in its spatial and bodily immanence: through the vertigo that the vast, opaque, three-dimensional, and not fully visible geographies of the planet create in the human body. This is the void graphically represented, for instance, on Tim Hetherington’s documentary Restrepo, where US soldiers stationed in an outpost in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan felt haunted by the terrain they were immersed in. In the film, those soldiers make it clear that those opaque mountains, forests, and valleys were for them a hostile immensity that turned insurgents into a ghostly presence. Those mountains constitute a tangible void within Empire: one of the countless outsides of a world without outside.


I’m particularly taken by this image (which I think is much clearer in the film than in Sebastian Junger‘s War) because it’s helped me think about how my work on ‘the natures of war’ intersects with my work on later modern war in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I only have room for one example.  To US infantry in the rainforest and highlands of Vietnam, terrain was not only (or even primarily) apprehended visually: in contrast to staff officers poring over maps and air photographs and to the crews of combat helicopters and strike aircraft flying over the jungle, terrain was made known – a knowledge that was always precarious, that could always become undone – through the body itself and all its senses, including hearing, touch and smell. Terrain is more than a visual construct, especially in its three-dimensionality, and there is nothing ‘dead, passive, fixed’ about it. Michael Herr captured something of what I have in mind in a passage that loops back to Gaston’s coda:

Diabolical nature

This unheimlich nature, ‘diabolical nature’ in what Gaston calls its ‘hostile immensity’, had a Janus-face.  On the one side it was a cyborg nature, no longer wholly ‘natural’ (even as the rainforest was rendered excessive or fallen through the standard tropes of tropicality) because it had been mined, booby-trapped and honeycombed with tunnels.  In The natures of war I develop this argument in more depth than I can here, in relation not only to the ‘jungle’ but also to the mud of the Western Front in World War I and to the sand and stone of the Western Desert in World War II, which both became cyborg natures or, if you prefer, techno-natures.  Here are two slides from that presentation, which summarise what I mean about the corporeality of knowledge and the techno-nature of the war in Vietnam:

Cyborg nature Vietnam

Certainty and uncertainty Vietnam

Yet on the other side there was also something exculpatory about it all.  Recalling a similar argument developed by Michael Taussig in a different context in Shamanism, colonialism and the wild man, here’s Philip Caputo again:

‘Scorched by the sun, wracked by the wind and rain of the monsoon, fighting in alien swamps and jungles, our humanity rubbed off of us as the protective bluing rubbed off the barrels of our rifles.We were fighting in the crudest kind of conflict, a people’s war. It was no orderly campaign, as in Europe, but a war for survival waged in a wilderness without rules or laws.’

And again, in a passage that makes the geography of this hostile terrain clear (and also speaks directly to Gaston’s argument about Restrepo – and even to Carl Schmitt):

Ethical wilderness Vietnam

In that last slide I’ve deliberately juxtaposed Caputo’s apologia with Art Greenspon‘s famous photograph of soldiers from the 101st Airborne waiting to be evacuated by helicopter after a five-day patrol near Hue, South Vietnam in April 1968 because – as those upheld arms imply – this confession carries buried within it a promise of redemption too.  Forgive me, for this fallen nature has cast me down.  And help me escape back into The World.  Yet, as Taussig showed, this too was a thoroughly imperialist catechism: primeval nature fouling our civilised, ‘second nature’, seducing and destroying our very humanity, when in so many ways it was our own ‘second nature’ and its technowar that was laying waste to the rainforest.

These are complex arguments, and a post like this inevitably runs the risk of caricature.  But I hope I’ve said enough to suggest some of the other ways in which the ‘opaque zones of empire’ extend beyond the horizon of vision.  And in case I haven’t been clear, I should add that I think Gaston is absolutely right to make terrain central to the analysis, not least because this makes it possible to invest two other master-concepts (sic), ‘space’ and ‘nature’, with corporeal and material depth.

Black spots and blank spots

Over at Guernica, Trevor Paglen has a short essay on the rise of what he calls ‘the terror state’ that connects the dots between several recent posts:

For more than a decade, we’ve seen the rise of what we might call a “Terror State,” of which the NSA’s surveillance capabilities represent just one part. Its rise occurs at a historical moment when state agencies and programs designed to enable social mobility, provide economic security and enhance civic life have been targeted for significant cuts. The last three decades, in fact, have seen serious and consistent attacks on social security, food assistance programs, unemployment benefits and education and health programs. As the social safety net has shrunk, the prison system has grown. The United States now imprisons its own citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world.

While civic parts of the state have been in retreat, institutions of the Terror State have grown dramatically. In the name of an amorphous and never-ending “war on terror,” the Department of Homeland Security was created, while institutions such as the CIA, FBI and NSA, and darker parts of the military like the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have expanded considerably in size and political influence. The world has become a battlefield—a stage for extralegal renditions, indefinite detentions without trial, drone assassination programs and cyberwarfare. We have entered an era of secret laws, classified interpretations of laws and the retroactive “legalization” of classified programs that were clearly illegal when they began. Funding for the secret parts of the state comes from a “black budget” hidden from Congress—not to mention the people—that now tops $100 billion annually. Finally, to ensure that only government-approved “leaks” appear in the media, the Terror State has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, leakers and journalists. All of these state programs and capacities would have been considered aberrant only a short time ago. Now, they are the norm.

This ought to be depressingly familiar stuff, though it is important to connect those dots.  I highlight Trevor’s argument here (which radiates far beyond the paragraphs I’ve extracted above) for two reasons.

PAGLEN BLank Spots on the MapFirst, the practices that Trevor disentangles work through distinctively different geographies, at once material and virtual. Trevor’s own work addresses different dimensions of what he’s also called the Blank Spots on the Map – here definitely be dragons! though there’s a delicious irony in the US finding Edward Snowden’s whereabouts (at least this morning) to be one of them. There’s some small comfort to be had in the raging impotence of the state apparatus, which is evidently neither all-seeing nor all-knowing.  As part of his project, Trevor has done much to bring into (sometimes long-distance) focus the prying eyes of the ‘terror state’ – see for example here – but I’m particularly interested in the differential modalities of ‘watching’ and ‘acting’.  The US Air Force has become preoccupied with the predicament of ‘swimming in sensors, drowning in data‘, for example, which makes it exceptionally difficult to convert its enhanced capacity for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance into focused strikes and, as I noted earlier, this is only one version of a wider divergence outlined by Peter Scheer:

The logic of warfare and intelligence have flipped, each becoming the mirror image of the other. Warfare has shifted from the scaling of military operations to the selective targeting of individual enemies. Intelligence gathering has shifted from the selective targeting of known threats to wholesale data mining for the purpose of finding hidden threats.

The resulting paradigms, in turn, go a long way to account for our collective discomfort with the government’s activities in these areas. Americans are understandably distressed over the targeted killing of suspected terrorists because the very individualized nature of the drone attacks converts acts of war into de facto executions — and that in turn gives rise to demands for high standards of proof and adjudicative due process.

Similarly, intelligence activities that gather data widely, without fact-based suspicions about specific individuals to whom the data pertain, are seen as intrusive and subject to abuse.

TREVOR PAGLEN Keyhole 12-3 Optical reconnaissance satelliteThis is an interesting suggestion, a simple schematic to think with, and at present I’m working through its implications (and complications) for other dimensions of later modern war – specifically the geographies of cyberwarfare that I briefly outlined in my early essay on ‘The everywhere war’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  So for the book I’m splicing  cyberwarfare into the now explosive debate over surveillance in cyberspace, and the transformation of James Gibson‘s Fordist version of ‘Technowar’ into its post-Fordist incarnation.  In a report for Vanity Fair Michael Joseph Gross calls cyberwarfare ‘silent war’ and ‘war you cannot see’, and yet it too (as Trevor’s work implies) is material as well as virtual, not only in its consequences but also in its very architecture: see, for example, here and here (and the wonderful graphic that accompanies the report).  So, with patience, skill and effort, it can indeed be seen.  And, contrary to Thomas Rid‘s Cyber war will not take place (2013), there is a crucial sense – one which my dear friend Allan Pred constantly emphasised – in which these capacities and activities do indeed take place… More soon.

There’s a second reason for noting Trevor’s essay (he was, not incidentally, a student of Allan’s): it originates from Creative Time Reports edited by Marisa Mazria Katz:

Creative Time Reports strives to be a global leader in publishing the unflinching and provocative perspectives of artists on the most challenging issues of our times. We distribute this content to the public and media free of charge.

Asserting that culture and the free exchange of ideas are at the core of a vibrant democracy, Creative Time Reports aims to publish dispatches that speak truth to power and upend traditional takes on current issues. We believe that artists play a crucial role as thought leaders in society, and are uniquely capable of inspiring and encouraging a more engaged and informed public, whether they are addressing elections or climate change, censorship or immigration, protest movements or politically motivated violence.

In an era of unprecedented interconnectedness, Creative Time Reports provides artists with a space to voice analysis and commentary on issues too often overlooked by mainstream media. We believe in the importance of highlighting cultural producers’ distinctive viewpoints on world events and urgent issues of social justice to ensure a livelier, more nuanced and more imaginative public debate.

Given everything I’ve said about the importance of the arts to creative critical research the relevance of this will, I hope, be obvious: art not simply as a means to represent the results of research but rather as a medium through which to conduct research.  Good to think with, as Lévi-Strauss might have said, but also good to act with.  (More on Creative Time here; they are holding a ‘summit’ on Art, Place and Dislocation in the 21st Century City in New York, 25-26 October 2013).

Drones and ‘the world as free-fire zone’

Fred Kaplan has an interesting essay on the history and use of armed drones by the United States at MIT Technology Review: ‘The world as free-fire zone‘ (June 2013).  Kaplan provides a telling critique of Obama’s May statement about the conduct of targeted killings (though that doesn’t of course exhaust what the military uses UAVs for), but his discussion is muddied by what he says about Vietnam – and what he doesn’t.

GREINER War without frontsThe title of the essay invokes a notorious tactic deployed by the United States in South Vietnam: the creation of free-fire, free-strike or what the Air Force called free-bomb zones (the name was changed in 1967  to ‘specified fire zones’ for PR purposes, though what was specified was the zone not the fire).  This is how historian Bernd Greiner summarises the policy in War without fronts: the USA in Vietnam (2007, trans. 2009):

‘License to destroy and annihilate on a large-scale applied unrestrictedly in the so-called “Free Fire Zones”.  Set by the South Vietnamese authorities – either the civil administration or the commanders of an Army corps or division – the US forces operated within them as though outside the law: “Prior to entrance into the area we as soldiers were told all that was left in the area after civilian evacuation were Viet Cong and thus fair game.” Virtually all recollections of the war contain such a statement or something similar, simultaneously referring to the fact that anyone who did not want to be evacuated had forfeited the right to protection, since in the Free Fire Zones the distinction between combatant and non-combatant was a prior lifted.’

Matters were not quite so simple, at least in principle, since (as Nick Turse notes in Kill anything that moves: the real American war in Vietnam (2013)), ‘the “free-fire” label was not quite an unlimited license to kill, since the laws of war still applied in these areas.’  And yet, as both Greiner and Turse show in considerable detail (and I’ll have more to say about this in another post), in practice those laws and the rules of engagement were serially violated.  Whatever the situation in Vietnam, however, it’s surely difficult to extend this – as Kaplan wants to do – to US policy on targeted killings.  Invoking the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress on 14 September 2001 (as Obama does himself), Kaplan writes:

‘This language is strikingly broad. Nothing is mentioned about geography. The premise is that al-Qaeda and its affiliates threaten U.S. security; so the president can attack its members, regardless of where they happen to be. Taken literally, the resolution turns the world into a free-fire zone‘ (my emphasis).

A couple of years ago Tom Engelhardt also wrote about Obama hardening George W. Bush’s resolve to create a ‘global free-fire zone’.  Kaplan’s criticism of the conditions that the Obama administration now claims restrict counter-terrorism strikes is, I think, fair – though much of what he says derives directly from a draft Department of Justice memorandum dated 8 November 2011 on ‘the use of lethal force in a foreign country outside the area of active hostilities against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force’ rather than Obama’s wider speech on counter-terrorism on 23 May 2013 or the ‘fact sheet on policy standards and procedures’ that accompanied it.  But they are closely connected, and Kaplan’s objections have real substance.

First, the Obama administration insists that the threat posed to the United States must be ‘imminent’, yet since the threat is also deemed to be continuing ‘a broader concept of imminence’ is required that effectively neuters the term.

Second, apprehension of the suspect must be unfeasible, yet the constant nature of the threat means that the ‘window of opportunity’ can always be made so narrow that ‘kill’ trumps ‘capture’.

But what of Obama’s third condition: that ‘before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’?  Kaplan accepts that this is a ‘real restriction’.  Critics of the programme differ on how successful it has been in practice, and supporters like Amitai Etzioni have turned ‘civilian’ into a weasel word that means whatever they want it to mean (which is not very much).  Still, the most authoritative record of casualties – which I take to be the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London – clearly shows that civilian deaths in Pakistan (at least) have fallen considerably from their dismal peak in 2009-10.  Whatever one makes of all this, however, it hardly turns the world into a ‘free-fire zone’.  The war machine will continue to be unleashed outside declared war zones (or what Obama also called ‘areas of active hostilities’, which may or may not mean the same thing), and Obama and his generals will continue to conjure a battlespace that is global in extent.  But if we take the President at his word – and I understand the weight that conditional has to bear – military violence may occur everywhere but not anywhere: ‘We must define our effort not as a boundless “global war on terror” – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.’

The question is whether we can take the President at his word.  As Glenn Greenwald points out, ‘Obama’s speeches have very little to do with Obama’s actions’.  Tom Junod says much the same about what he continues to call the Lethal Presidency: ‘When a man is as successful in fusing morality and rhetoric as Barack Obama, there’s always a tendency to think that the real man exists in his words, and all he has to do is find a way to live up to them.’  Performativity is not only conditional, as it always is, but in this case also discretionary.

GIBSON The perfect warKaplan also refers to a notorious metric from the Vietnam war: the body-count.  As James Gibson patiently explains in his brilliant critique of The perfect war: technowar in Vietnam (1986), this was one of the central mechanisms in US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s attempt to wage an appropriately Fordist war (he went to the Pentagon from being President of the Ford Motor Company).  The body-count can be traced back to the Korean War, but it came into its own in Vietnam where it was supposed to be the key metric of success – bizarrely, even of productivity – in a ‘war without fronts’ where progress could not be measured by territory gained.  Here too Turse is illuminating on the appalling culture that grew up around it, including the inflation (and even invention) of numbers, the body-count competitions, and the scores and rewards for what today would no doubt be called ‘excellence in killing’.

But what Kaplan has in mind is not quite this, but the central, absurdist assumption that there is a direct relationship between combatants killed and military success:

‘It is worth recalling the many times a drone has reportedly killed a “number 3 leader of al-Qaeda.” There was always some number 4 leader of al-Qaeda standing by to take his place. It’s become a high-tech reprise of the body-count syndrome from the Vietnam War — the illusion that there’s a relationship between the number of enemy killed and the proximity to victory.’

How else can we interpret John Nagl‘s tangled celebration (on Frontline’s ‘Kill/Capture’) of the importance of targeted killing for counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism?

‘We’re getting so good at various electronic means of identifying, tracking, locating members of the insurgency that we’re able to employ this almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine that has been able to pick out and take off the battlefield not just the top level al Qaeda-level insurgents, but also increasingly is being used to target mid-level insurgents.’

Peter Scheer draws a distinction between the two moments in Nagl’s statement that helps clarify what he presumably intended (though Scheer is writing more generally):

‘The logic of warfare and intelligence have flipped, each becoming the mirror image of the other. Warfare has shifted from the scaling of military operations to the selective targeting of individual enemies. Intelligence gathering has shifted from the selective targeting of known threats to wholesale data mining for the purpose of finding hidden threats.’

In other words, the scale of intelligence has become industrial (or more accurately perhaps, post-industrial: see here), far exceeding the scale of intelligence available in Vietnam [though see here for a discussion of the connections between McNamara’s data-driven war and today’s obsession with Big Data, and here and here for an outline of the ‘security-industrial complex’], whereas the scale of killing has clearly contracted from what most certainly was industrial-scale killing in Vietnam.   Yet the networked connections between the two reveal the instantiation of the same driving logic of technowar in a radically new ‘war without fronts’.

For all these intimation of Vietnam, however, the genealogy of the drone with which Kaplan begins his essay is resolutely post-Vietnam (or at any rate outside it).  And this, I think, is a mistake.

Technological history is shot through with multiple sources of inspiration and no end of false starts, and usually has little difficulty in assembling a cast of pioneers, precursors and parallels, so I’m not trying to locate a primary origin.  Ian Shaw‘s account of the rise of the Predator (more from J.P. Santiago here) homes in on the work of Israeli engineer Abraham Karem, who built his first light-weight, radio-controlled ‘Albatross’ (sic) in his garage in Los Angeles in 1981.

Karem's Albatross (Chad Slattery)

He may have built the thing in his garage, but Karem was no hobbyist; he was a former engineering officer in the Israeli Air Force who had worked for Israel Aircraft Industries, and by 1971 he had set up his own company to design UAVs.  Neither the Israeli government nor the Israeli Air Force was interested, so Karem emigrated to the United States.  The Albatross was swiftly followed by the Amber, which was also radio-controlled, and by 1988 with DARPA seed-funding Karem’s prototype was capable of remaining aloft at several thousand feet for 40 hours or more. But fitting hi-tech sensor systems into such a small, light aircraft proved difficult and both the US Navy and the Army balked at the project.  Karem set about developing a bigger, heavier and in many ways less advanced version for a putative export market: the GNAT-750.


This was a desperate commercial strategy that didn’t save Karem’s company, Leading Systems Inc., from bankruptcy.  But it was a sound technical strategy.  In 1990 General Atomics bought the company and the development team, and when the CIA was tasked with monitoring the rapidly changing situation in the Balkans it purchased two GNAT-750s (above) for the job.  They were modified to allow for remote control via a satellite link (the first reconnaissance missions over Bosnia in 1995 were managed by the Air Force and controlled from Albania): the new aircraft was re-named the Predator.

It’s a good story – and you can find a much more detailed account by Richard Whittle in ‘The man who invented the Predator’ at Air & Space Magazine (April 2013) here – but in this form it leaves out much of the political in-fighting.  The second part of Ian’s narrative turns to the role of the Predator in the development of the CIA’s counter-terrorism campaign, and while he notes the enlistment of the US Air Force – ‘ultimately, the CIA arranged for Air Force teams trained by the Eleventh Reconnaissance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base [Indian Springs, now Creech AFB] to operate the agency’s clandestine drones’ – he doesn’t dwell on the ‘arranging’ or the attitude of the USAF to aircraft without pilots on board.

Kaplan does, and his story starts earlier and elsewhere:

‘The drone as we know it today was the brainchild of John Stuart Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist, former head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (then called the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory), and — in 1971, when the idea occurred to him — the director of defense research and engineering, the top scientific post in the Pentagon.’

Foster was a hobbyist – he loved making model aircraft – and thought it ought to be possible to capitalise on his passion: ‘take an unmanned, remote-controlled airplane, strap a camera to its belly, and fly it over enemy targets to snap pictures or shoot film; if possible, load it with a bomb and destroy the targets, too.’  Two years later DARPA had overseen the production of two prototypes, Praeire [from the Latin, meaning both precede and dictate] and Caler [I have no idea], which were capable of staying aloft for 2 hours carrying a 28 lb payload.  At more or less the same time, the Pentagon commissioned a study from Albert Wohlstetter, a former RAND strategist, to identify new technologies that would enable the US to respond to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe without pressing the nuclear button. ‘Wohlstetter proposed putting the munitions on Foster’s pilotless planes and using them to hit targets deep behind enemy lines, Kaplan explains, ‘Soviet tank echelons, air bases, ports.’  By the end of the decade the Pentagon was testing ‘Assault Breaker’ and according to Kaplan ‘something close to Foster’s vision finally materialized in the mid-1990s, during NATO’s air war over the Balkans, with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called the Predator.’

But the use of the mid-altitude, long-endurance (‘MALE’ – really) drones remained largely the preserve of the CIA because the senior officer corps of the Air Force was hostile to their incorporation:

‘All this changed in 2006, when Bush named Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Gates came into the Pentagon with one goal: to clean up the mess in Iraq… He was particularly appalled by the Air Force generals’ hostility toward drones. Gates boosted production; the generals slowed down delivery. He accelerated delivery; they held up deployment. He fired the Air Force chief of staff, General T. Michael Moseley (ostensibly for some other act of malfeasance but really because of his resistance to UAVs), and appointed in his place General Norton Schwartz, who had risen as a gunship and cargo-transport pilot in special operations forces… and over the next few years, he turned the drone-joystick pilots into an elite cadre of the Air Force.’

These are both important narratives, which help to delineate multiple lines of descent, but my own inclination is to push the story back and to move it outside the North Atlantic.  It’s not difficult to find precedents for UAVs around the time of the First World War – I’ve discussed some of them here – and towards the end of the Second World War America attempted to develop remote-controlled bombers to use against Germany (see ‘Project Aphrodite’ here and here).  But if we focus less on the object – the aircraft – and more on its dispositions and the practices mobilised through the network in which it is embedded (as Kaplan’s references to ‘free-fire zones’ and ‘body counts’ imply) then I think here Vietnam is the place to look.  For as I’ve argued in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), not only did the Air Force experiment with surveillance drones over North Vietnam, as Ian briefly notes in his own account, but the US military developed a version of ‘pattern of life analysis’ and a sensor-shooter system that would prove to be indispensable to today’s remote operations.  Seen like this, they confirm that we are witnessing a new phase of technowar in exactly the sense that Gibson used the term: except that now it has been transformed into post-Fordist war and, to paraphrase David Harvey, ‘flexible annihilation’.

Charlie Foxtrot

I’ve noted on multiple occasions the existence of several databases that try to track US drone strikes.  The three most widely used are the Bureau of Investigate Journalism,  the Long War Journal (Pakistan here and Yemen here) and the New America Foundation, while Forensic Architecture is working on its own online platform (which will break new and vital ground by including Afghanistan and occupied Palestine – long overdue) which it calls UAV: Unmanned Aerial Violence.

I’ve just encountered a new one that compiles data on US drone strikes and targeted killings in Pakistan.  It comes from the University of Massachusetts, and is the creation of Matthew Fricker, Avery Plaw and Brian Glyn Williams, who have published several articles on the subject: see, for example, Plaw and Fricker’s ‘Tracking the Predators: Evaluating the US drone campaign in Pakistan’ [International Studies Perspectives 13 (4) (2012) 344-65] and Williams’s ‘The CIA’s covert predator drone war in Pakistan 2004–2010: the history of an assassination campaign’ [Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 33 (10) (2010)].  Williams also has a book out next month, Predators: the CIA’s drone war on Al Qaeda (Potomac Books).

They call their database UMass DRONEUniversity of Massachusetts Dartmouth Research on Operational Neutralization Events.

That’s right: ‘operational neutralization events’.

It’s no secret that the language used to describe the instruments of military violence is never innocent; some terms trumpet what is being done (‘Predator’, ‘Reaper’) while others seek to muffle the drums of war (‘executive action’, ‘collateral damage’).  Acronyms play their part in this desperate game of Camo-Scrabble too, and most of them have been created by the military; in order to do my work on later modern war I’ve had to learn to speak their language, which includes an alphabet soup of shorthand.

But the spectacular insensitivity of this one truly takes my breath away.  The killing of people thousands of miles away reduced to an ‘operational neutralization event’ for the sake of a clever-clever acronym.

The site, incidentally, includes a page devoted to profiles and even photographs of ‘HVTs [High Value Targets] killed’, which I assume is intended to provide a silent justification for the strikes.  Unlike the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s recent project, the rest remain nameless: ‘collateral damage’?

And my title?  Look it up.

The Jungle Books

Gilles CARON Vietnam 1967In his classic memoir, A rumor of war, Philip Caputo recalled reading a series of US Army manuals about what was in store before he deployed to Vietnam.  Once there, flying over the rainforest,

‘Looking at the green immensity below, I could only conclude that those manuals had been written by men whose idea of a jungle was the Everglades National Park. There was nothing friendly about the Vietnamese bush; it was one of the last of the dark regions on earth…’

I’ve been reading those Field Manuals on Jungle Warfare too, but in the illuminating light of Dan Clayton‘s wonderfully suggestive essay on ‘Militant tropicality’ [Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38 (2013) 180-192], and three thematics have emerged so far.

First, the manuals worked to displace pre-existing imaginative geographies: in effect, they reassured the young soldier, ‘it’s all in the mind’.  The strategy was already in place in the dog-days of the Second World War.  FM 72-20 on Jungle Warfare, issued in October 1944, had this to say:

‘As in any area where physical hardship is the rule, there are accompanying psychological reactions to the jungle. These reactions take the form of magnifying the physical hardships and the inherent dangers of warfare. Limited visibility increases the feeling of insecurity, strange noises assume an increased importance, and men tend to be­come jumpy and panicky. The dull, shaded light and, in many areas at certain periods of the day, the gloomy, drifting mists of jungle areas have a morose and eerie effect which further adds to the feeling of insecurity.’

By 1965 the new FM 31-30 on Jungle training and operations, was still warning against ‘prevalent misconceptions’ (over-imaginative geographies, I suppose):

‘The soldier who is not familiar with the jungle will suffer from conditioned fears and apprehensions when faced with the prospect of living and fighting in a jungle environment. Popular representation of the jungle as being a veritable green hell of large trees and dense underbrush growing over vast expanses of flat, swampy ground and inhabited by thousands of animals, snakes, and insects which are hostile to man, cause this fear. Before such individuals even set foot in the jungle they are appalled at the prospect of doing so. Certainly the foreboding appearance of the jungle, the oppressive humidity and heat, the unfamiliar noises, and the abject feeling of loneliness that one feels when entering the jungle intensify the already existing fear of the unknown. It cannot be denied that the jungle presents some most unpleasant aspects. But the individual must, through systematic and thorough training and acclimation, learn to know the jungle for what it actually is and not for what it is supposed to be or what it might be. Once this knowledge is acquired, the soldier will respect the jungle, not fear it.’

Second, the manuals encouraged soldiers – as Caputo noted – to see that ‘the jungle can be your friend’.  Again, the terrain had been prepared by FM 72-20:

‘In jungle warfare, the soldier often fights two enemies: man and nature. The elimination of nature as an enemy and the use of the jungle itself as an ally are training objectives fully as important as the elimination of the human enemy. The soldier must be trained not to fight the jungle; he must be capable of living successfully in it and making it work for him against the human enemy.’

By 1965, the manual exuded a breezy self-confidence.  While it conceded that ‘the jungle itself is an obstacle’ to visibility (so the soldier must ‘develop his senses of smell, hearing and touch to a high degree’) and to movement (‘vines that entangle and trip even 
the most careful person, steep stream banks with
slippery soils, shrubs and trees with thorns that 
penetrate and tear clothes, grasses with knife-like
and saw-toothed edges that cut the skin’), it also affirmed that ‘no obstacle is insurmountable or impenetrable.’  If this sounds uncomfortably close to Monty Python’s cheerful enjoinder to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life‘, the manual did indeed go to considerable pains to minimise the snares and dangers of the rainforest:

‘Most animals in the jungle will not attack man unless they are frightened… The widespread terror of “the snake-
infested jungle” prevalent in the minds of most 
peoples is an imaginary mental image. It is true that the number and variety of snakes are high in 
the wet tropics; however, the incidence of poisonous 
snakes is no higher than in some of the swamp areas 
of the Temperate Zone.

Presumably including Caputo’s Everglades.

This all went hand-in-hand with an enthusiastic maximisation of the super-abundance of tropical nature, one of the key motifs of tropicality more generally.  Dozens of pages were devoted to living off and finding shelter in the jungle, with instructions and diagrams that would not have been out of place in the Boy Scouts of America:

31-30 Coconuts as expedient flotation devices

The fruits of tropical nature.001

There were also endless photographs of pineapples tangerines, mangoes, limes, bananas, papayas and avocados (see above).

cluster-bombs full load

P1010303In fact, however, the US military sowed different and deadly tropical fruit.  The BLU-3 bomblet, a container filled with 250 steel pellets, was known as a ‘pineapple’ (left); a B-52 bomber could drop 1,000 of them across a 400-yard area, and as they burst open, Nick Turse reports, ‘250,000 lethal ball bearings would tear through everything in their path.’  Another cluster bomb, the CBU-24, was called a ‘guava’, loaded with more than 600 separate bomblets and capable of sending ‘200,000 steel fragments shooting in all directions.’  From 1964 to 1971, Turse reports, the US military ordered at least 37 million pineapples and from 1964 to 1971 at least 285 million guavas. (His key source is Eric Prokosch, The technology of killing: a military and political history of anti-personnel weapons; for one attempt to clear these munitions [from Laos], see Project Pineapple here).

Jungle Operations FM 1969This brings me to the third strategy: disciplining nature through the imposition of military Reason.  By 1969 the – edible – ‘fruits of the jungle’ had disappeared from the manuals.  After a review of different types of jungle, including ‘Oriental jungles’,  the discussion immediately turned to weapons, armour and artillery, air support and chemical and biological warfare, so that ‘nature’ was militarised and subjected to military (re)ordering much earlier in the revised manual.  The emphasis was on ‘modification’ of Standard Operating Procedures, which had also been a key element four years earlier, and a continued move away from the tangle of the jungle – what Tim O’Brien would later call in Going after Cacciato ‘a botanist’s madhouse’ – to the superimposition of ordered combat geometries like those I’ve extracted below.

Combat geometries in jungle warfare.001

In effect, the military sought to plane away ‘Nature’ and reduce it to an abstract ‘Space’. Of course, the imposition of military Reason on what was now (de)constructed as a militantly ‘un-natural Nature’ was more than a paper affair, and it was invariably violent.  In his Matterhorn: a novel of the Vietnam War, Karl Marlantes describes the construction of a fire support base on a mountain top so that an artillery unit, helicoptered in, could range its fires over the rainforest below:

‘The defensive lines grew more distinguishable. No longer were they made up of holes that blended in with the earth and the mass of torn limbs and brush. The holes had been transformed into naked, angular structures, stark against the denuded hillside, looking like sturdy little boxes poking out from the slope.’

There was an elaborate, constantly changing network of these bases, but here is what this could look like; this is Fire Support Base 29, Dak To, in the Central Highlands in June 1968:

Fire Support Base 29, Dak To, central highlands, 3 June1968jpg

To be sure, ecological destruction took many forms beyond the Rome plow (there’s a video of its deployment in land-clearing operations here) and violent explosions from artillery and aircraft.  The widespread spraying of herbicides like Agent Orange is well known; remember that the slogan of Operation Ranch Hand was ‘We prevent forests’…

And yet, if Vietnam was McNamara’s prized ‘techno-war’, it emphatically did not see the triumph of American science and technology, still less that of their transmutation into an operative military Reason, over an alien ‘Nature’.  As Dan Clayton says, ‘an omniscient American war machine was [not] bearing down on a transparent, knowable or compliant battlefield.’  There’s a passage in Frederic Downs‘s The killing zone that captures and counterposes the geometric violence of the war and the resilience of the rainforest to great effect:

DOWNS Killing zoneThe coordinates for that location and the time for firing would be relayed to the gun crews.  At the specified time, the gun crews would be awakened. Perhaps it would be just after midnight. As the minutes ticked closer to a time set by an unknown intelligence the men would load the artillery pieces, anticipating the release of their impersonal death into a grid square. The gun commander would give the order to fire and the night would explode with man’s lightning and thunder.  After the prescribed rounds, the guns would cease, the cleanup would begin, and the men would go back to their bunks.  Thinking what? Within the range of those guns, within a specified area, the Central Highlands had for a brief moment changed from the jungle it had been for thousands of years into the particular insanity of man.  As the gun crews wandered back to their bunkers to settle down for the night, the jungle would also begin settling down for the night to begin healing the new wounds.

I’ll have more to say about this in later posts, but for now here’s a passage from Stephen Wright’s novel, Meditations in Green, that sets the scene for the argument I’m developing in ‘The natures of war’:

Brostowits Come a little closer  1997(Vietnam)“Of course, it’s not as if bushes were innocent … Sit on top of a bunker, stare at the tree line for a while. You have to concentrate because if you blink or look away for even a moment you might miss it, they aren’t dumb despite what you may think, they’re clever enough to take only an inch or two at a time. The movement is slow but inexorable, irresistible, maybe finally unstoppable. A serious matter.”

“What movement, what are you are you talking about?”

“The trees, of course, the fucking shrubs. And one day we’ll look up and there they’ll be, branches reaching in, jamming our M-60s, curling around our waists.”

“Like Birnam Wood, huh?”

“Actually, I was thinking more of triffids.”

These other jungle books have a lot to tell us about war too.

Dirty wars and private eyes

Dirty Wars/Sundance Festival

There’s a wonderful line (well, hundreds of wonderful lines) in Simon Gray‘s play Butley, where the eponymous university lecturer waspishly declares “You know how it exhausts me to teach books I haven’t read…”

So it’s with some trepidation that I return to the Rick Rowley/Jeremy Scahill/David Riker film of Scahill’s book “Dirty Wars: the world is a battlefield“, since although I’ve read the book I haven’t seen the film (it opens Friday 14 June in Vancouver [Cineplex Odeon International Village]).

But Gerard Toal has, and has posted an interesting reflection at Critical Geopolitics:

‘Scahill’s world is that of the investigative reporter. He’s focused on the facts, details and lines of connection that reveal abuse of power and extra-constitutional excess. Don’t expect to have Agamben cited. That is the power and value of his work. It gets under the skin of the conventional wisdom and general consensus on the war on terror. It disturbs. With the journalistic revelations of the last week (and there’s a lot more coming from what Scahill indicated; he also mentioned how journalists are now changing their digital behavior in big ways), the whole everywhere endless terror security surveillance state is cracking open before our eyes.’

David Harvey dedicated Social Justice and the City ‘to all good committed investigative journalists everywhere’, but the figure of Scahill in the film has attracted less generous commentary.  Mike Hogan notes, like many other critics, that the film is structured like a noir crime story in which Scahill becomes the gumshoe we follow

‘from the lawless hinterlands of Afghanistan, where he interviews the surviving members of the family of a U.S.-trained police chief decimated in a secret night raid; to Yemen, where he inspects the wreckage of a drone strike and meets the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, one of four American citizens to be assassinated abroad by the U.S. (al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was another); to Somalia, where he tags along with Somali war lords on the U.S. payroll, who brag of committing war crimes as they rampage through the rubble of Mogadishu.’

In Hogan’s interview Scahill talks about his initial reluctance to have the film revolve around him since ‘I don’t write articles in the first person and I don’t tend to talk about myself when I’m reporting.’

‘Rick [Rowley], the director of the film, was driving me insane by constantly filming me when I wasn’t supposed to be the character — and I think somewhere he knew that he wanted to do this. We had cut a version of the film where I was not me, I was just sort of like a tour guide through the archipelago of these covert war sites. And then when we started to change the way we were going to tell the story, we went back to the cutting room, and all the s**t that I told Rick not to film became the stuff that made the film possible…. I can see myself in the movie where I’m in a car, and it might look like I’m really tense about something, but it’s just that I’ve just yelled at Rick and told him to get the f**king camera out of my face. I’m like, “I’m trying to file my story, man, leave me alone.” I still have trouble watching it, to be honest.’

VALENTINE The Phoenix ProgramSo, it seems, did Douglas Valentine.  He castigates the film for its lack of historical context: its failure to acknowledge the long history of ‘dirty wars’ waged by the CIA (Valentine himself is the author of a brilliant book on The Phoenix Program in Vietnam).  It’s a serious criticism, and it applies to the book too (though to be fair it already comes in at more than 650 pages).

I do think it’s important to trace what is new and what isn’t about today’s wars fought in the shadows of 9/11,  which is in part why I constructed The colonial present as I did and why my analysis of today’s ‘drone wars’ is situated within the wider arc of the histories and geographies of bombing from the air. That said, I also think that Scahill’s stream of stories has done more than most other journalists reporting from the war zones to illuminate the contemporary reach of military and paramilitary violence.  As he says, ‘the world is a battlefield’.

But Valentine doesn’t care for the way Scahill bestrides that battlefield – look at the posters I’ve reproduced here – and he reserves his most withering fire for the starring role played in the film by Scahill himself:

Dirty Wars is a post-modern film by Jeremy Scahill, about himself, starring himself in many poses.The film owes more to Sergio Leone and Kathryn Bigelow than Constantinos Gavras…. 

The endless close-ups artfully convey the feeling that our hero is utterly alone, on some mythic journey of self-discovery, without a film crew or interpreters. There is no evidence that anyone went to Gardez to make sure everyone was waiting and not toiling in the fields or tending the flocks, or whatever they do. And we’ll never find out what the victims do.  The stage isn’t big enough for JS and anyone else.

This is a major theme throughout the story – JS is doing all this alone and the isolation preys on him…. 

Initially, there is no mention that journalist Jerome Starkey reported what happened in Gardez.  JS is too busy establishing himself as the courageous super-sleuth.  As we drive along the road, he reminds us how much danger he is in…. In my drinking days, we referred to this type of behavior as grandiosity.’ 

Dirty-Wars1Valentine dismisses this as ‘the cinema of self-indulgence’, and readers may remember other critical commentaries on academic appropriations of the stylistics of film noir and the figure of the detective: I’m thinking of Rosalyn Deutsche‘s scathing review of ‘Watching the Detectives’ (aka the Critical Theory Gang) in the late twentieth-century American city: ‘Chinatown Part Four? What Jake forgets about Downtown’, assemblage (1993) available here; Matt Farish subsequently provided a more extensive discussion here and Kristin Ross a still more recent take here.

Now one of my private pleasures is serious crime fiction, but taken together these commentaries raise a series of questions about the debt most academics working in and around war and military violence owe to the work of  investigative journalists and about the masculinist privileges both may assume in exposing ‘dirty wars’.  And what happens, stylistically and analytically, when the story moves from the ‘mean streets’ of the city, from chasing down criminal gangs, urban warfare and the entanglements between the two, and out into killing fields that extend far beyond the concrete jungle?  There’s something else too: perhaps it’s not surprising that investigative journalists should adopt the persona of the private detective when they are tracking down state-sponsored operations that move so seamlessly between the legal and the illegal?

Scahill Dirty Wars

Coda: If you want an excellent academic commentary on the rise of Joint Special Operations Command – which, as Valentine implies, is the focus of Scahill’s investigations (it certainly is in the book) – then I thoroughly recommend Steve Niva, ‘Disappearing violence: JSOC and the Pentagon’s new cartography of networked warfare’, Security Dialogue 44 (3) (2013) 185-202: it’s a clear, cogent and remarkably insightful analysis, completed before – and so far as I can see without any reference to – Scahill’s work.  Here’s the abstract:

Joint Special Operations Command In the twilight of the USA’s ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been an expanding shadow war of targeted killings and drone strikes outside conventional war zones, where violence is largely disappeared from media coverage and political accountability.While many attribute the growth in these shadowy operations to the use of new technologies and platforms such as drones, this article argues that the central transformation enabling these operations is the increasing emergence of network forms of organization within and across the US military and related agencies after 2001. Drawing upon evidence from unclassified reports, academic studies, and the work of investigative journalists, this article will show that elements within the US military and related agencies developed in the decade after 2001 a form of shadow warfare in which hybrid blends of hierarchies and networks combine through common information and self-synchronization to mount strike operations across transnational battle spaces. But, rather than a top-down transformation towards networks, this article will show how it was the evolution of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from an elite strike force into a largely autonomous networked command that has been central to this process.Although drone strikes have received the bulk of critical attention in relation to this expanding shadow war of targeted killing, this often-lethal networked warfare increasingly resembles a global and possibly permanent policing operation in which targeted operations are used to manage populations and threats in lieu of addressing the social and political problems that produce the threats in the first place.

No Agamben here either, incidentally.

I don’t mean any of this to disparage Scahill’s book – as I say, I haven’t seen the film so must reserve judgement – and if you want a detailed summary of the book then head over to Understanding Empire where Ian Shaw has started to share his reading notes.

Peter Wall International Distinguished Fellow Prize

PWIAS new logoThe Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC Vancouver has just announced three Prize Fellowships (each worth $65,000 CDN) designed to bring international and/or national scholars to the Institute and the university for extended periods.

The criteria:

The Peter Wall International Distinguished Fellow is expected to exhibit scholarly excellence, outstanding contributions to their field of research, and an exceptional international standing.

These highly competitive awards will be selected based on merit and the calibre of both the proposed scholar and the research to be conducted during the tenure of the prize, including research collaboration with one or more UBC scholars.

The Distinguished Fellow must undertake original innovative research in a highly interdisciplinary environment, and is expected to serve as a catalyst for long-term formative research with UBC, national and international researchers and/or community partners.


The competition is open to senior scholars from all countries; the award may be applied to a single residency at the Institute (including a sabbatical) – see the view from our offices above – or to  multiple visits over the three years, but the Distinguished Fellow must be in residence for a total of six months and each visit must be a minimum of one month.

Full details are here.  For Fellowships starting 1 March 2014 the closing date for applications/nominations is 15 October 2013; for 1 January 2015 the closing date is 1 May 2014.  I’m happy to respond to any informal queries.


The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College has just posted video of a performance work “Drones.” developed by undergraduates at the College in March this year.  The Center was established in 2012 by Arthur Holland Michel, Daniel Gettinger, and a group of faculty members including Thomas Keenan, Gregory Moynahan, Roger Berkowitz, Maria Cecire, Peter Rosenblum, and Keith O’Hara:

The Center for the Study of the Drone is an interdisciplinary research and art community working to understand unmanned and autonomous vehicles. By bringing together research from diverse academic and artistic perspectives which have, up until now, remained fairly silent on the issue, we aim to encourage new creative thinking and, ultimately, inform the public debate. We want to encourage dialogue between the tech world and the non-tech world, and explore new vocabularies. This is an online space for people to follow the latest news, encounter disparate views, access good writing and art, find resources for research, and engage a diverse community of thinkers and practitioners with the shared goal of understanding the drone.

“Drones.” was created by Rose Falvey, Riley Destefano DeLuise, Julia Wallace, Christina Miliou-Theocharaki, Eamon Goodman, Megan Snyder, and Catalin Moise.  Here’s the video (the music is Massive Attack’s Paradise Circus [Zeds Dead Remix]):

The Center’s website explains:

‘What the video captures best of all is the enormous influence that drones play on our imagination. Except for the name, the video makes no overt references to drones. And yet, the name alone frames the video so that every image, every movement, is connected in the viewer’s mind to UAVs, targeted killing, aerial bombing. Because of the context, the video becomes parody, dialogue, debate, and protest. The piece exercises a kind of restraint and subtlety that is absent from much of the public discourse; and yet,  ”Drones.” forcefully demonstrates the impact of the idea of the drone on aesthetic vocabularies.’

See what you think.

Neil Smith Lecture and Lifework

I’ve been asked to give the first Neil Smith Lecture at St Andrews (where Neil was a cherished alumnus, graduating with first class honours in 1977: he always spoke with immense affection of Joe Doherty), and I’m moved and delighted in equal measure.  Dan Clayton wrote to say that ‘we see this Lecture both as a fitting tribute to Neil’s considerable achievements, and as an opportunity to treat the great range and reach of his work and interests as a living critical legacy.’   That sets the bar about as high as it can go.  The lecture will be in the week beginning 11 November 2013, and I’m aiming for a much more developed version of “The natures of war”, riffing off Neil’s comments on the production of nature (amongst other things).  I promise to post some of my notes en route as the weeks go (or rather fly) by.

Lifework of Neil Smith

Coincidentally, this morning’s e-delivery brought news from John Morrissey, another of Neil’s good friends, of  the 45th Conference of Irish Geographers at Galway last month, which included a panel on The Lifework of Neil Smith (above).  It’s on vimeo but I can’t embed it here – a terse online rebuke, no doubt routed via the National Security Agency and GCHQ, tells me it’a ‘vimeo plus feature’ – but you can also can access it via Geography at NUI Galway here (which will also open up access to David Harvey‘s Keynote Lecture on – in part – what it means to be an anti-capitalist and why it is still so important: here too Neil’s indomitable spirit is ever-present).