Theory of the drone 5: Vulnerabilities

This is the fifth in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.  My next post on the book will consider Chamayou’s second section, ‘Ethos and psyche‘, in its entirety, and when I’ve worked my way through the book in separate, detailed posts (three more sections to go after the next one) I’ll provide a critical overview of the project as a whole: I hope that will help (I must be doing something right – or wrong – since these posts have been picked up by the splendid ARmy Rumour SErvice, which – despite its equally splendid acronym – is not quite a digital child of the Wipers Times).

8: Vulnerabilities

Far from being ‘unmanned’, each US Air Force combat air patrol (CAP) capable or providing coverage 24 hours a day 7 days a week involves a suite of four Predators (MQ1) or Reapers (MQ9) supported by a total of 192 personnel (the exact figures vary and are subject to change, but I’ve taken these from a June 2011 presentation by Colonel J.R. Gear, Director of the US Air Force’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Task Force).

As you can see from his presentation slide below, most of these (133) are based outside the combat zone, and 84 of those are devoted to ‘PED’ –processing, exploiting and disseminating the feeds from the airborne sensors, especially the full-motion video (FMV) streams.

That leaves 59 who are forward deployed inside the combat zone: three pilots and three sensor operators to handle take-off and landing (which require a line-of-sight link to the aircraft because the Ku-band satellite link used for in-flight operations imposes a response delay that is too great for near-ground manoeuvres).  One of the four aircraft is held on the ground for maintenance and, given the technical problems that continue to dog what Jordan Crandall calls the wayward drone, no fewer than 53 people are involved in keeping them flying.  [More on drone crashes and glitches here, here and here].

Still, less than half the total complement (44 per cent) is in the combat zone, and all of them work from the relative safety of an airbase.

GEAR Manning Unmanned Aircraft

Hence the tag line repeatedly used by the US Air Force to advertise the core advantage of using drones: ‘projecting power without projecting vulnerability’:

Projecting power without vulerability

I’ve always liked to take metaphors stubbornly literally, and given what is happening to the polar ice we need to ask about the invulnerability of these remote operations.

Chamayou reminds us that in classical mythology and in fable invulnerability has always been a myth; so it is with the drone.  He distinguishes two sets of vulnerabilities, one technical and the other political-strategic.

(A) Technical

Chamayou says virtually nothing about the technical imperfections of the Predator and the Reaper, especially the crashes and other failures that I noticed above, but concentrates on two other issues.

(1) ‘Mastery of the air’: At present, Predators and Reapers can only operate in uncontested airspace; they are slow, noisy and far from agile, which makes them highly vulnerable to attack from ground-to-air missiles or conventional strike aircraft.  This is not a problem in Afghanistan – even during the invasion US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was able to proclaim ‘air superiority’ by 10 October, just three days after launching the first attacks: ‘Afghan skies secure‘ – and according to some reports it never became a serious issue in Iraq either.  During Operation Southern Watch, tasked with enforcing no-fly zones over Iraq between the first Gulf War and the US-led invasion in 2003, Eric Reidel reported that

‘Predators were used as bait to stir up Iraqi fighters and air defenses. Surface-to-air missiles eventually brought down two of the drones and an Iraqi fighter jet shot down a third, but it didn’t come that easy to the enemy.’

But that was a contest against a military machine degraded by a sanctions regime.  What is now called A2/AD (anti-access, area denial) may well become a serious obstacle to future conflicts. In 2011 Colonel Dean Bushey, deputy director of the joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence, told Reidel:

“We’re thinking about the next war, thinking about the next fight, thinking about the next campaign…  We’ve fought in a very permissive environment where there are no enemy attacks against our unmanned aircraft … It would be foolish for us to imagine that we could continue to fly unmanned systems in an environment that is not only friendly but is not GPS-denied, that is not communications-denied.”

With Obama’s ‘pivot to the Pacific’, the Pentagon has redoubled its efforts to harden its drones for combat (several commentators are sufficiently sceptical about the prospects that they see a renewed commitment to conventional strike-stealth aircraft rather than to UAVs).  But perhaps the sharper point is contained in Bushey’s final sentence, and Chamayou spends much more time on this second, vital vulnerability.

(2) ‘Mastery of the waves’: Chamayou documents a series of incidents in which signals were jammed or hacked.

In 2009 the Wall Street Journal reported that insurgents in Iraq had been using commercial off-the-shelf software (costing just $26) to intercept the video feeds from Predators for at least a year, and there was similar evidence from Afghanistan.  The Pentagon had known of the vulnerability since the aircraft were deployed over Bosnia in the 1990s, but had not bothered to encrypt the signals because they ‘assumed local adversaries wouldn’t know how to exploit it.’ You might think the solution – encryption of the Common Data Link feeding images to ROVERS (receivers) used by troops on the ground – would be easy, but four years after the story broke Noah Schachtman and David Axe reported that more than half the US fleet of Predators and Reapers were still broadcasting their video feeds in the clear:

”Standard unencrypted video is basically a broadcast to whoever can figure out the right carrier frequency, so essentially, we are simulcasting to battlefield commanders and the opposing force. If that opposing force knows we can see them and from where, they can take better evasive maneuvers.”

UT Adaptive Flight Hornet MiniIf signals transmitted from the drone can be hacked then, as Bushey noted, so can signals to the drone.  This is known as GPS spoofing, and the basic principle is remarkably simple; for a technical exposition that isn’t, see this research paper ‘On the requirements for successful GPS spoofing attacks’ by four Swiss computer scientists (who also propose counter-measures), but for a more user-friendly discussion see Pierluigi Paganini‘s excellent overview of ‘Hacking drones’ here.  As Chamayou says, the principle was put into practice in June 2012 , when a group of researchers from the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin successfully hijacked a small civilian helicopter-drone at the White Sands Missile Range in Nevada.  It was an experiment carried out for the Department of Homeland Security, the target was a tiny Adaptive Flight Hornet Mini (shown above) not a Predator or a Reaper, and the intercept took place at an altitude of less than 20 metres (60 feet) from a distance of 1 kilometre.  This year they intend to repeat the experiment but from a distance of 10 kilometres.  This is all part of an ongoing project to devise systems to disrupt spoofing, but Chamayou suggests that ‘the air pirates of the future’ will surely try to take control of larger drones from an even greater distance.

(B) Political-strategic

Here Chamayou is not addressing wider political, legal and ethical objections to which remote operations are indeed vulnerable – as I’ll describe in later posts – but rather the possibility of more direct responses to the deployment of drones.

SHAW The new Western way of war(1) Reprisals: Remote operations radicalise what Martin Shaw described in 2005 as The new Western way of war: ‘risk-transfer war‘.  Although Shaw emphasised global surveillance, the minimisation of military casualties and an overwhelming reliance on airpower amongst other things – and his ‘rules of risk-transfer war’ are still essential if depressing reading – it is a sign of how far the world has turned since then that he provided no discussion of remote operations or the incorporation of drones as essential vectors of later modern war.

Perhaps for this reason Chamayou makes no mention of Shaw, but fastens on a short thesis submitted in 2009 by Major Trent Gibson of the US Marine Corps for the Master of Military Studies from Quantico, ‘Hell-bent on Force Protection’.  This was a critique of what Gibson called ‘force protection fetishism’.  He traced it back to the US military’s experience in Vietnam but argued that it was alive and well in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In a key passage quoted by Chamayou, Gibson wrote:

‘Attempts to armorize our force against all potential enemy threats … shifts the ‘burden of risk’ from a casualty-averse military force onto the populace. In doing so, we have lifted that burden from our own shoulders and placed it squarely upon those who do not possess the material resources to bear it – the civilian populace.’

Gibson was reaffirming one of the central tenets of the new counterinsurgency doctrine issued three years earlier, and he doesn’t discuss drones and remote operations either.  But what both FM 3-24 and by extension Gibson objected to was the physical separation of troops from the very people they were supposed to protect.  One of its cardinal – strategic – weaknesses – was sequestering troops inside vast, heavily defended Forward Operating Bases from which they issued out on sporadic armoured patrols.  It was, in part, on overcoming this siege mentality that the so-called “Surge” in Baghdad was predicated (see “The biopolitics of Baghdad”: DOWNLOADS tab).  General David Petraeus‘s ‘Commander’s Guidance‘ could not have been plainer:

‘Live among the people. You can’t commute to this fight. Position Joint Security Stations, Combat Outposts, and Patrol Bases in the neighborhoods we intend to secure. Living among the people is essential to securing them and defeating the insurgents.’

UAV pilot driving to workRemote operations hypostatise that ‘commute to the fight’ (see here).  Here is one UAV pilot talking to Der Spiegel:

‘In the morning you carpool or you take a bus and drive into work, you operate for an eight-hour shift, and then you drive back home… Before you were at war 24/7, and when you’re home you’re home. This is different. I do e-mails in the morning, rush to the airplane, come out, go to the [Base Exchange], get myself a hamburger, do some more e-mail, do it again, drive home.’

I’ll say more about that compartmentalisation in my next post – it’s a central concern in the next section of Théorie du drone – but Chamayou’s central point here is that the safety of ‘home’ is illusory and that the war cannot be contained within external ‘danger zones’.  He’s not talking about insurgent attacks against US air bases or crew (though one recent story, ‘A day job waiting for a kill-shot a world away’, reported that ‘the Air Force, citing what it says are credible threats, forbids pilots to disclose their last names’).  What Chamayou has in mind is the possibility of reprisals within the continental United States more generally: risk transferred back to the American public at large.  He explicitly endorses the conclusion to Mike Davis‘s Buda’s Wagon: a brief history of the car bomb, where Davis writes:

‘… every laser-guided missile falling on an apartment house in southern Beirut or a mud-walled compound in Kandahar is a future suicide truck bomb headed for the center of Tel Aviv or perhaps downtown Los Angeles.’

This is not a wild scenario.  Here is Michael Boyle on the costs and consequences of drone warfare:

On 21 June 2010, Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad told a judge in a Manhattan federal court that he placed a bomb at a busy intersection in Times Square as payback for the US occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and for its worldwide use of drone strikes. When the judge asked how Shahzad could be comfortable killing innocent people, including women and children, he responded: ‘Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It’s a war and in war, they kill people. They’re killing all Muslims.’  In a videotape [below] released after his arrest, Shahzad revealed that among his motives for the attack on New York City was revenge for the death of Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban leader killed in a drone strike in August 2009. While his comments were reported in the American press, the Obama administration never acknowledged that it was revulsion over drone strikes—which Shahzad was rumoured to have seen at first hand when training with militant groups in Pakistan—that prompted his attack.


Although the incident would have strengthened his argument, Chamayou doesn’t mention it.  You can find more here; another video featured Pakistani Taliban leader Qari Hussain Mehsud claiming responsibility for what he described as retaliation against US drone attacks in the FATA (more detail here).

FUKUYAMA End of History(2) Re-purposing: Drones can be adapted for civilian use – they have been used to monitor herds of caribou and to track the progress of wild fires – and there is a rapidly expanding market for small DIY drones amongst geeks and hobbyists.  As Chamayou notes, after reading about the US Army’s small RQ-11 surveillance drone even Francis Fukyama built his own small surveillance drone in his backyard in February 2012.  What he doesn’t report, though, is the string of questions that Fukuyama raised in one of his early accounts of the project (Fukuyama now has three drones; updates including video here and here):

‘What will the world look like when not just the US but many other countries around the world operate fleets of drones; and when powerful, sophisticated drones are owned by lots of private individuals? What would our attitude be if our enemies could pick off visiting dignitaries as they stepped off the aeroplane in a supposedly friendly country, or attack soldiers in their bases in Europe or Asia? Or if Americans became vulnerable in Florida or New York? Drones might become an inexpensive delivery vehicle for terrorists or rogue states that can’t afford to deliver payloads in ballistic missiles. Some of the remotely controlled aeroplanes that hobbyists build are a third to half the size of their full-scale counterparts. As the technology becomes cheaper and more commercially available, moreover, drones may become harder to trace; without knowing their provenance, deterrence breaks down. A world in which people can be routinely and anonymously targeted by unseen enemies is not pleasant to contemplate.’

The last sentence is pretty rich: the world Fukuyama envisages is already a reality for thousands of people in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, and they have to do rather more than ‘contemplate’ it.

Still, these are Chamayou’s questions too.  It is precisely the proliferation, diffusion and and above all the down-sizing and down-marketing of small drones that interest him.  If they can be ‘demilitarised’ for civilian uses, including Fukuyama’s photographic obsessions, then he contends that it’s perfectly possible for them to be ‘re-militarised’ at remarkably low cost to constitute what Eugene Miasnikov was already calling six years ago ‘an army of suicide bombers on steroids’.  This may well be true – and, in a different vein, since October 2012 there have been (conflicting) reports of Israel shooting down two Iranian-made Hezbollah drones, so their adoption by non-state actors seems to be in train already – but it’s still a far cry from the hi-tech world of Predators and Reapers and the globalised killing machine for which they act as spears.

I’ll return to that world in my next summary and commentary on the book.

This completes my extended discussion of the eight chapters that form Part I of Théorie du drone: Techniques and tactics.

Theory of the drone 4: Pennies from Heaven

This is the fourth in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.

7: Counter-insurgency from the air

The focus of the new US Army /US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual FM 3-24 that was issued in 2006 was, naturally enough, on ground operations in which the Army and the Marine Corps would take the lead.  To the anger of many Air Force officers, air operations were relegated to a supporting role outlined in the last appendix, the last five pages of 335, which acknowledged the contribution of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) from ‘air- mounted collection platforms’ and (in certain circumstances) the ‘enormous value’ of ‘precision air attacks’.


And yet in practice, as Chamayou argues, the balance was already being reversed; the incorporation of drones into counterinsurgency (COIN) was soon so advanced that there were calls (from air power advocates) for the promulgation of an official doctrine reflecting the new intrinsically three-dimensional reality.  So – to take the example Chamayou gives – Phillip Meilinger, a retired command pilot and former Dean of the School of Advanced Airpower Studies at the USAF’s Air University at Maxwell AFB, complained that the Field Manual had already been overtaken by events:

The role for airpower in COIN is generally seen as providing airlift, ISR capabilities, and precision strike. This outdated paradigm is too nar- rowly focused and relegates airpower to the support role while ground forces perform the “real” work. Worse, marginalizing airpower keeps it in support of ground-centric strategies that have proved unsuccessful.

He called for the Pentagon to

‘re-examine the paradigm that was so successful in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. That was the use of air and space power, combined with [Special Operations Forces], indigenous ground forces, and overwhelming ISR. Given the outstanding results already demonstrated, an air-centric joint COIN model should be one of the first options for America’s military and political leaders.’

As the image heading his article makes clear, Meilinger – a gifted military historian – was not limiting the role of airpower to drones; far from it.  But his repeated references to the Air Force’s ‘more sophisticated and effective sensor aircraft and satellites’ signalled their indispensable importance in the transformation of counterinsurgency from a ground-centric to an air-centric model.

fm-3-24-counterinsurgency_500A similar salvo was fired at more or less the same time by Charles Dunlap, Deputy Judge Advocate General for the USAF, who castigated FM 3-24 for conceiving air power ‘as aerial artillery’ whose weapons were ‘somehow more inaccurate than other kinds of fires.’

‘In perhaps no other area has the manual been proven more wrong by the events of 2007…. [T]he profound changes in airpower’s capabilities have so increased its utility that it is now often the weapon of first recourse in COIN operations, even in urban environments.’

Dunlap was quick to say that this myopia wasn’t the result of inter-service rivalry (‘parochialism’):

‘Rather, FM 3-24 draws many of its lessons from counterinsurgency operations dating from the 1950s through the 1970s. While this approach is remarkably effective in many respects, it inherently undervalues airpower. The revolutions in airpower capabilities that would prove so effective during 2007 were unavailable to counterinsurgents in earlier eras.’ 

Those ‘revolutions’ – what Dunlap identified as ‘the precision and persistence revolutions’ – placed armed drones at the leading edge of counterinsurgency and, as Chamayou glosses these arguments, consigned previous objections to the dustbin of history.

Recalling my post yesterday about ‘pattern of life’ analysis, Dunlap argued that ‘visual observations have a grammar all their own’, and he cited with approval this paragraph from journalist Mark Benjamin‘s Killing “Bubba” from the skies’:

‘The Air Force recently watched one man in Iraq for more than five weeks, carefully recording his habits—where he lives, works, and worships, and whom he meets . The military may decide to have such a man arrested, or to do nothing at all. Or, at any moment they could decide to blow him to smithereens.’

It’s a revealing essay that accords closely with Chamayou’s central thesis: Benjamin reported that, from the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, ‘they are stalking prey’ and that the US Air Force had turned the art of searching for individuals into a science.

But Dunlap cooly added: ‘The last statement may be more insightful than perhaps even Benjamin realized.’  For it was not only a matter of killing, ‘blowing a man to smithereens’, and what Dunlap had in mind was not only persistent presence but also persistent threat: the ability to ‘dislocate the psychology of the insurgents’ who now never knew where or when they might be attacked.

For this reason Chamayou suggests that the drone effects a sort of détournement on the strategies and weapons of the insurgent-terrorist – the skirmish and the ambush, the IED and the suicide bomb – to become what he calls, through this radical reversal, ‘the weapon of State terrorism’.  Its short-lived engagements happen without warning and target individuals without compunction.

And yet, for all its technological sophistication, Chamayou insists that this is not a new strategy. Military historians ought to look further back, he suggests, to the policies of colonial ‘air control’ developed in the inter-war period (the image below shows a bomb dropped by the RAF on Sulaimaniyah in Iraq on 27 May 1924: more here).  He develops this argument in a later chapter, where he describes the drone as ‘the weapon of an amnesiac post-colonial violence’ (p. 136): a postcolonialism that has forgotten – or suppressed – its own wretched history.

British bomb dropped on Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, 1924

Indeed it has.  The twenty-first century version of counterinsurgency has made much of the iconic, inspirational figure of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.  But as I’ve argued in ‘DisOrdering the Orient’ (DOWNLOADS tab):

‘… long before he resigned his Army commission and re-enlisted in the Royal Air Force as Aircraftsman Ross, [Lawrence] had been drawn to the wide open spaces of the sky as well as those of the desert. Patrick Deer suggests that in Lawrence’s personal mythology ‘air control in the Middle East offered a redemptive postscript to his role in the Arab Revolt of 1916-18’. He imagined the Arab Revolt ‘as a kind of modernist vortex,’ Deer argues, fluid and dynamic, ‘without front or back,’ and in Seven Pillars he recommended ‘not disclosing ourselves till we attack.’ To Lawrence, and to many others at the time, the intimation of a nomadic future war gave air power a special significance. ‘What the Arabs did yesterday,’ he wrote, ‘the Air Forces may do tomorrow – yet more swiftly.’  As Priya Satia has shown, this rested not only on a military Orientalism that distinguished different ways of war but also on a cultural Orientalism that represented bombing as signally appropriate to the people of these lands. This was, minimally, about intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. ‘According to this perverse logic’, Satia explains, ‘the RAF’s successful persecution of a village testified to their intimacy with the people on the ground, without which they would not have been able to strike it accurately.’ More than this, however, ‘the claim to empathy ultimately underwrote the entire air control system with its authoritative reassurances that bombardment was a tactic that would be respected and expected in this unique land.’ From this perspective, Satia continues, Arabs saw bombing as ‘pulling the strings of fate from the sky.’ They understood it ‘not as punishment,’ Lawrence informed his readers, ‘but as misfortune from heaven striking the community.’ And if women and children were killed in the process that was supposedly of little consequence to them: what mattered were the deaths of ‘the really important men.’’

JONGBLOED Lawrence triptych

As far as I know, Lawrence has not been invoked by any of the contemporary advocates of airpower in counterinsurgency – though he has been called ‘Lawrence of Airpower‘ – but many of these formulations and their successors, translated into an ostensibly more scientific vocabulary, reappear in contemporary debates about the deployment of drones in counterinsurgency.

In fact, Meilinger had conceded the relevance of these historical parallels. ‘It would be useful to revisit the “air control” operations employed by the Royal Air Force in the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s,’ he wrote. ‘These operations were not always successful in objective military terms, but they were unusually successful in political terms, in part because they carried a low cost in both financial and casualty terms’ (my emphasis).

That is an extraordinary sentence, although Chamayou doesn’t quote it, because what is missing from the air power advocates’ view (so Chamayou argues) is – precisely – an apprehension of the politics of counterinsurgency in general and air strikes in particular.  Indeed, when the imaginary conjured up by Lawrence and his successors reappears in contemporary debates it is entered on both sides of the ledger: not only as economical and effective but also as cowardly and counter-productive.   Here is Colonel Keen, complaining about the bombing of Pashtun villages on the North West Frontier in 1923:

‘By driving the inhabitants of the bombarded area from their homes in a state of exasperation, dispersing them among neighbouring clans and tribes with hatred in their hearts at what they consider ‘‘unfair’’ methods of warfare … [these attacks] bring about the exact political results which it is so important in our own interests to avoid, viz., the permanent embitterment and alienation of the frontier tribes.’ 

Both Chamayou and I cite this passage, and you can find more about the colonial bombing of Waziristan in a previous post (scroll down).

This sentiment reappeared in different form in the critique of drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas  – the same region described by Keen – published by David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum in the New York Times in 2009, ‘Death from above, Outrage down below‘. Their core argument was that the campaign was making the cardinal mistake of ‘personalizing’ the struggle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban – going after individuals – while causing considerable civilian casualties: ‘every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.’

Estimates of combatant and civilian casualties remain contentious, of course, including those used by Kilcullen and Exum; Chamayou doesn’t discuss this in any detail, but most sources (including the Bureau of Investigate Journalism) suggest that civilian casualties in Pakistan have fallen from their peak in 2009-10.  Others have argued that drone strikes are more effective than their critics claim.  Their confidence typically rests on a combination of assertion and anecdote, but a recent quantitative study by Patrick Johnston and Anoop Sarbahi (from which I’ve borrowed the map below) purports to show that, contrary to Kilcullen and Exum’s original claim, US drone strikes between January 2007 and September 2011 reduced the incidence of militant activity in the FATA.

JOHNSTON and SARBAHI Figure 1 Drone strikes and militant activity in FATA

I mention these qualifications neither to adjudicate them nor to blunt Chamayou’s argument: simply to note that the situation is far from static or settled. Chamayou uses the Kilcullen-Exum critique, in conjunction with Kilcullen’s other, more extended contributions, to leverage two linked claims:

(1) counterinsurgency is a politico-military strategy that depends, for its effectiveness, on a sustained presence amongst a population: a politics of verticality (described in my previous post) cannot substitute for, and usually confounds, a properly population-centric campaign, which can only be won on the ground.

(2) the ‘dronisation’ of US military operations signals a shift away from counterinsurgency and towards counter-terrorism, which is a police-security strategy that prioritises an individual-centric campaign.

Chamayou owes the distinction to Kilcullen [‘Countering global insurgency’, Journal of strategic studies 28 (2005) 597-617]:

‘Under this [counter-terrorism] paradigm … terrorists are seen as unrepresentative aberrant individuals, misfits within society. Partly because they are unrepresentative, partly to discourage emulation, ‘we do not negotiate with terrorists’. Terrorists are criminals, whose methods and objectives are both unacceptable. They use violence partly to shock and influence populations and governments, but also because they are psychologically or morally flawed (‘evil’) individuals. In this paradigm, terrorism is primarily a law enforcement problem, and we therefore adopt a case-based approach where the key objective is to apprehend the perpetrators of terrorist attacks…

‘The insurgency paradigm is different. Under this approach, insurgents are regarded as representative of deeper issues or grievances within society. We seek to defeat insurgents through ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the population, a process that involves compromise and negotiation. We regard insurgents’ methods as unacceptable, but their grievances are often seen as legitimate, provided they are pursued peacefully… We see insurgents as using violence within an integrated politico-military strategy, rather than as psychopaths. In this paradigm, insurgency is a whole-of-government problem rather than a military or law enforce- ment issue. Based on this, we adopt a strategy-based approach to counterinsurgency, where the objective is to defeat the insurgent’s strategy, rather than to ‘apprehend the perpetrators’ of specific acts.’

in Chamayou’s terms, ‘manhunting by drones’ represents the triumph, at once doctrinal and practical, of counter-terrorism over counterinsurgency.  In this optic, a space of representation substitutes for lived space: ‘The body count, the list of hunting trophies, substitutes for the strategic evaluation of the political effects of military violence.  Success is turned into statistics.  Their evaluation is disconnected from effects on the ground.’

It’s an engaging argument, but I think it’s over-stated for several reasons.

First, contemporary counterinsurgency clearly has not ceded the statistical battleground to anyone. Under David Petraeus in particular, cascades of PowerPoint slides sluiced a tidal wave of metrics over military and public audiences, and these too were often disconnected from events on the ground.  As I showed in “Seeing Red” (DOWNLOADS tab), for example, at the height of the violence in Baghdad military briefers preferred the virtual-cartographic to the visceral-physical city, ‘walking’ reporters through maps of the capital because, for all their upbeat assessments, it was far too dangerous to walk them through the real city that lay beyond the Green Zone.  And so far it has proved impossible to obtain any figures of fatalities from drone strikes in the FATA from Obama’s otherwise garrulous ‘off-the-record’ (and, remarkably, never prosecuted) officials.

Second, contemporary counterinsurgency is not only about deploying ‘soft power’ and exploiting the humanitarian-military nexus; this is a one-sided view.  Kilcullen himself conceded that ‘there’s always a lot of killing, one way or another’, in counterinsurgency, but in the wake of the nightmare that was Abu Ghraib the publicity campaign that surrounded the release of FM 3-24 directed attention to ‘hearts and minds’ – to a kinder, gentler, culturally-informed and compassionate military – rather than to bullets and bombs.   But as Petraeus reminded Noah Schachtman in November 2007,  the manual

‘doesn’t say that the best weapons don’t shoot. It says sometimes the best weapons don’t shoot. Sometimes the best weapons do shoot.”

As I showed in “The rush to the intimate” (DOWNLOADS tab), more often than one might think. Chamayou is perfectly correct to say that ‘drones are excellent at crushing bodies from a distance, but they are perfectly  inappropriate for winning “hearts and minds”‘: but counterinsurgency, even in its supposedly radically new form, involves both.

Third, for that very reason counterinsurgency has continued to incorporate air power into its operations, and ground troops and commanders in Afghanistan continue to clamour for Predators and Reapers to provide close air support.  In October 2009 the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued Joint Publication 3-24 on Counterinsurgency Operations, which was far more positive about air power than the Field Manual three years earlier:

‘Video downlink and datalink technology have revolutionized real-time air to ground employment allowing air assets to seamlessly integrate into and support the ground commander’s scheme of maneuver. Armed overwatch missions provide ground forces with the critical situational awareness, flexibility, and immediate fire support necessary to succeed in the dynamic COIN environment.’

Fourth, later modern war is intrinsically hybrid, and military operations under its sign are likely to involve an unstable and often contradictory mix of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism. Writing a year or so into Obama’s first term, Colleen Bell and Brad Evans [in ‘Terrorism to insurgency: Mapping the post-intervention security terrain’, Journal of intervention and statebuilding 4 (4) (2010) 371-390] described a reverse movement from counter-terrorism to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan:

‘Counterterrorist interventionism has, until relatively recently, been principally rooted in an exterminatory logic that demands a sovereign commitment to the violent excision of enemies. The shift towards the problem of insurgency, however, is more expansive. It demonstrates a strategic focus on political opposition as embedded within besieged, illiberal and underdeveloped populations…. [The] focus on insurgency in terms of population represents a break from the preoccupation with terrorism as a form of incalculable danger to the mobilization of a different rationality of risk, that of insurance, which seeks to govern the future on the basis of the collective probabilities emanating from within host societies today.’

kaplan_the-insurgents_cover-finalThey treat this as a transformation of what Chamayou would call the ‘logics’ of intervention: from ‘a conventional struggle to eliminate adversaries’ to a ‘productive reconstitution of the life of a population’ (which requires ‘marking out what qualities the “good” life must possess, whilst in the process positively rendering dangerous all “other” life which does not comply with the productive remit).  In other words (their words), a switch from sovereign power to bio-power.  I have my reservations about the theoretical argument, but in any case the transformation was far from stable or straightforward.  In December 2009 Obama committed thousands of extra ground troops as part of a revitalized counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan; they were supported by a continued increase in drone operations. And Obama had also authorised a dramatic increase in CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan.  But in June 2011 he announced the withdrawal of those additional troops: as Fred Kaplan puts in The insurgents, ‘pulling the plug on COIN.’  All of this va-et-vient was, as Kaplan shows in exquisite detail, more than a philosophico-logical affair: it was also profoundly political, and included considerations of domestic US politics, concerns over the Afghan state in general and the re-election of Hamid Karzai in particular, and no doubt calculations of advantage within the US military.  In short, while Chamayou is surely right to accentuate the politics of military violence this is not confined to the ‘inside’ of counterinsurgency – COIN as ‘applied social work’, as Kilcullen once described it – because politics also provides one of its activating armatures. (I’ve discussed Kaplan’s view of drone strikes and what he sees as an emerging imaginary of ‘the world as free-fire zone’ here).

For all that, Chamayou’s dissection of the ‘reverse logics’ of these particular forms of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism is analytically helpful, and adds another dimension to his argument about the transformation of war from battlefields to hunting grounds and from armies to individuals.   He insists that the commitment to targeted killing (by drone or, I would add, Special Forces) is a commitment to ‘an infinite eradicationism’ in which it becomes impossible to kill leaders (‘High Value Targets’) faster than they can be replaced. In his vivid image, the hydra constantly regenerates itself as a direct response  to the very strikes that seek to decapitate it.

‘Advocates for the drone as the privileged weapon against terrorism promise a war without loss or defeat.  They fail to note that this will also be war without victory’ (p. 108).

Theory of the drone 3: Killing grounds

This is the third in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone, in which I provide a detailed summary of his argument, links to some of his key sources, and reflections drawn from my soon-to-be-completed The everywhere war (and I promise to return to it as soon as I’ve finished this marathon).

5: Pattern of life analysis

Chamayou begins with the so-called ‘Terror Tuesdays‘ when President Obama regularly approves the ‘kill list’ (or disposition matrix) that authorises ‘personality strikes’ against named individuals: ‘the drones take care of the rest’.


But Chamayou immediately acknowledges that most strikes are ‘signature strikes‘ against individuals whose names are unknown but for whom a ‘pattern of life analysis‘ has supposedly detected persistent anomalies in normal rhythms of activity, which are read as signs (‘signatures’) of imminent threat.  I’ve described this as a militarized rhthmanalysis, even a weaponized time-geography, in ‘From a view to a kill’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and Chamayou also notes the conjunction of human geography and social analysis to produce a forensic mapping whose politico-epistemological status is far from secure.

The principal limitation – and the grave danger – lies in mistaking form for substance.  Image-streams are too imprecise and monotonic to allow for  fine-grained interpretation, Chamayou argues, and supplementing them by equally distant measures, like telephone contacts, often compounds the problem.  Hence Gareth Porter‘s objection, which both Chamayou and I fasten upon:

‘The phone numbers and call histories from those phones go into the database which is used to “map the networks.” But the link analysis methodology employed by intelligence analysis is incapable of qualitative distinctions among relationships depicted on their maps of links among “nodes.” It operates exclusively on quantitative data – in this case, the number of phone calls to or visits made to an existing JPEL target or to other numbers in touch with that target. The inevitable result is that more numbers of phones held by civilian noncombatants show up on the charts of insurgent networks. If the phone records show multiple links to numbers already on the “kill/capture” list, the individual is likely to be added to the list.’

This is exactly what happened in the Takhar attack in Afghanistan on 2 September 2010 that I’ve discussed elsewhere, relying on the fine investigative work of Kate Clark, and Chamayou draws attention to it too.   The general assumption, as Kate was told by one officer, seems to be that ‘”If we decide he’s a bad person, the people with him are also bad.”

Takhar For a better future.001

These necro-methodologies raise two questions that Chamayou doesn’t address here.

The first, as Porter notes, is that ‘guilt by association’ is ‘clearly at odds with the criteria used in [international] humanitarian law to distinguish between combatants and civilians.’  You can find a much more detailed assessment of the legality of signature strikes (and what he calls their ‘evidential adequacy’)  in Kevin Jon Heller‘s fine essay, ”One hell of a killing machine”: Signature strikes and international law’ [Journal of international criminal justice 11 (2013) 89-119; I discussed a pre-publication version here].

The geo-legal ramifications of these attacks reach far beyond the killing grounds.  Earlier this month in the High Court in London one man who lost five relatives in the air strike in Takhar (as you can see on the slide above, on an election convoy) challenged the legality of the alleged involvement of Britain’s Serious and Organised Crimes Agency (SOCA) in drawing up the kill-list, the Joint Prioritized Effects List, used by the military to authorise the attack: more herehere and here. (It was the presence of names on the list that triggered the faulty network analysis).

The second is the imaginary conjured up by the very idea of a ‘pattern of life’ analysis.  I’ve written before about the way in which the screen on which the full-motion video feeds from the Predators and Reapers are displayed interpellates those who watch what is happening on the ground from thousands of miles away, and I’ve emphasised that this isn’t a purely optical affair:  that it is an embodied, techno-culturally mediated process that involves a series of structured dispositions to view the other as Other (and often dangerous Other).   But these dispositions also reside in what we might think of as a grammar of execution.  To see what I mean, 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?”’

Hence, of course, ‘Bugsplat’ [according to Rolling Stone, ‘the military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed’], and a host of other predatory terms (see also here) that distinguish between this mere (bare) life and what Judith Butler calls ‘a life that qualifies for recognition’.

state-violence-and-the-execution-of-lawBut the same result is achieved through the nominally neutral, technical-scientific vocabulary deployed in these strikes. Joseph Pugliese captures the grammar of execution with acute insight in another fine essay, ‘Prosthetics of law and the anomic violence of drones’, [Griffith Law Review 20 (4) (2011) 931-961; you can also find it in his excellent new book State violence and the execution of law]:

‘The term ‘heat signature’ works to reduce the targeted human body to an anonymous heat-emitting entity that merely radiates signs of life. This clinical process of reducing human subjects to purely biological categories of radiant life is further elaborated by the US military’s use of the term ‘pattern of life’…

‘The military term ‘pattern of life’ is inscribed with two intertwined systems of scientific conceptuality: algorithmic and biological. The human subject detected by drone’s surveillance cameras is, in the first scientific schema, transmuted algorithmically into a patterned sequence of numerals: the digital code of ones and zeros. Converted into digital data coded as a ‘pattern of life’, the targeted human subject is reduced to an anonymous simulacrum that flickers across the screen and that can effectively be liquidated into a ‘pattern of death’ with the swivel of a joystick. Viewed through the scientific gaze of clinical biology, ‘pattern of life’ connects the drone’s scanning technologies to the discourse of an instrumentalist science, its constitutive gaze of objectifying detachment and its production of exterminatory violence. Patterns of life are what are discovered and analysed in the Petri dish of the laboratory…

‘Analogically, the human subjects targeted as suspect yet anonymous ‘patterns of life’ by the drones become equivalent to forms of pathogenic life. The operators of the drones’ exterminatory attacks must, in effect, be seen to conduct a type of scientific ethnic cleansing of pathogenic ‘life forms’. In the words of one US military officer: “Our major role is to sanitize the battlefield.”’

Later modern war more generally works through relays of biological-medical metaphors – equally obviously in counterinsurgency, as I’ve described in “Seeing Red” and other essays (DOWNLOADS tab), where the collective enemy becomes a ‘cancer’ that can only be removed by a therapeutic ‘killing to make live’ (including ‘surgical strikes’) – and Colleen Bell has provided an illuminating series of reflections in ‘Hybrid warfare and its metaphors’ [in Humanity 3 (2) (2012) 225-247] and ‘War and the allegory of medical intervention’ [International Political Sociology 6 (3) (2012) 325-8].

This immunitary logic is clearly bio-political, and its speech-acts just as plainly performative, and Pugliese draws the vital conclusion:

‘As mere patterns of pathogenic life, these targeted human subjects effectively are reduced to what Giorgio Agamben would term ‘a kind of absolute biopolitical substance’ that can killed with no concern about the possibility of juridical accountability: they are ‘bare life’ that can be killed with absolute impunity. Anonymous ‘patterns of life’ signify in contradistinction to legally named persons; they exemplify the ‘ontological hygiene’ legislated by US government policy in order to secure the reproduction of the ‘principle of scarcity with respect to agency and personhood’.

‘Situated in this Agambenian context of the extermination of human life with absolute impunity, the Predator drones must be seen as instantiating mobile ‘zones of exception’…’

Which artfully brings me to Chamayou’s next chapter…

6: Kill-box

Chamayou notes that the ‘war on terror’ loosed the dogs of war from their traditional boundaries in time and in space: at once ‘permanent war’ and, as he notes, ‘everywhere war’.

But for Chamayou it is more accurate to speak of the world turned into a ‘hunting ground’ rather than a battlefield, and this matters because two different geographies (his term) are involved.  War is defined by combat, he explains, hunting by pursuit.  Combat happens where opposing forces engage, but hunting tracks the prey, so that the place of military violence is no longer defined by a delimited space (‘the battlefield’) but by the presence of the enemy-prey who carries with him, as it were, his own mobile halo of a zone of personal hostilities.

To escape, the quarry must make itself undetectable or inaccessible – and the ability to do so depends not only on physical geography (terrain) but also on political and legal geography.  For this reason, Chamayou argues, the US has rendered contingent the sovereignty of Pakistan because it (for the most part unwillingly) provides sanctuary to those fleeing across the border from Afghanistan.  In such circumstances, what becomes crucial for the hunter is not the military occupation of territory but the ability to control trans-border spaces from a distance through the instantiation of what Eyal Weizman called the politics of verticality that has since captured the attention of Stuart Elden [“Secure the volume: vertical geopolitics and the depth of power”, Political Geography 34 (2013) 35-51], Steve Graham [“Vertical geopolitics: Baghdad and after”, Antipode 36 (1) (2004) 12-23] and others.  For this to work, as Weizman shows in the case of occupied Palestine, air power is indispensable.

Chamayou suggests that the US has refined this capacity – in effect, finely calibrated the time and space of the hunt – through the concept of the kill-box.  I’m not so sure about this; the lineage of the ‘kill-box’ goes back to the USAF’s ‘target boxes’ [target boxes around An Loc in Vietnam in 1972 are shown below] – and two or three specified ‘boxes’ or ‘Restricted Operating Zones‘ were used to define the Predato’s’  ‘hunting grounds’ over North and South Waziristan that were tacitly endorsed by the Pakistan state.

Target boxes around An Loc 1972

The concept of the ‘kill box’ was formalised as a joint operations doctrine in the 1990s as part of the established targeting cycle: what Henry Nash famously described in another context as ‘the bureaucratization of homicide’.  Nash worked for the USAF Air Targets Division in the 1950s and 60s, identifying targets in the USSR for nuclear attack by US Strategic Air Command, but I doubt that Chamayou would dissent from using either the verb or the noun to describe the contemporary, non-nuclear kill-chain.  (In a later post I’ll explain how this technical division of labour feeds in to what Chamayou castigates as a ‘setting aside’, a dispersal of responsibility, which functions to separate an action from its consequences: this is aggravated by the remote-split operations in which drones are embedded, and is central to Chamayou’s critique).  Here is how the relevant military manuals incorporated the development of the kill box into the targeting cycle in 2009 (ATO = Air Tasking Order):

Kill Box Development

You can find more on kill-boxes and their operationalisation here.

Kill Box TTP

Chamayou doesn’t track the development of the concept, but since then the ‘kill-box’ has been supplanted or at least supplemented by the ‘Joint Fires Area’ as a way of continuing to co-ordinate the deployment of lethal force and allowing targets to be engaged without additional communication.  Within the grid of the JFA (shown below, taken from an essay by Major James Mullin on ‘redefining the kill box’) permission to fire in specified cells is established in advance; areas are defined, targeting intervals stipulated, and the time-space cells can be opened and closed as operations proceed.

It is this capacity that Chamayou seizes upon: within the kill box targets can be engaged at will, so that the kill box, he writes, ‘is an autonomous zone of temporary killing’ (cf. the ‘free fire/specified fires zone’ in Vietnam: see my discussion of Fred Kaplan‘s recent essay, ‘The world as a free-fire zone‘).

3-D representation of Joint Fires Area using Global Area Reference System

Chamayou implies that the schema has been further refined in contemporary counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations: the fact that the kill-box and its successor allow for dynamic targeting across a series of scales is crucial, he says, because its improvisational, temporary nature permits targeting to be extended beyond a declared zone of conflict. The scale of the JFA telescopes down from the cell shown on the right of the figure below through the quadrant in the centre to the micro-scale ‘keypad’ (sic) on the right.

Global Area Reference System

This is more than a grid, though; the JFA is, in effect, a performative space that authorises, schedules and triggers lethal action.  Chamayou: ‘Temporary micro-cubes of lethal exception can be opened anywhere in the world, according to the contingencies of the moment, once an individual who qualifies as a legitimate target has been located.’  Thus, even as the target becomes ever more individuated – so precisely specified that air strikes no longer take the form of the area bombing of cities in World War II  or the carpet bombing of the rainforest of Vietnam – the hunting ground becomes, by virtue of the nature of the pursuit and the remote technology that activates the strike, global.

KAPLAN World as Free-Fire Zone

The system I’ve described here is one adopted by the US military, and how far its procedures are used by other agencies outside established conflict zones is unknown to me and doubtless to Chamayou too.  Are these micro-cells used to specify individual compounds or rooms, as Chamayou suggests in a thought-experiment?  For him, however, it’s the imperative logic that matters, and here Kaplan’s tag-line (above) can provide the key explanatory exhibit: ‘to kill a particular person anywhere on the planet.’   The doubled process of time-space calibration and individuation is what allows late modern war to become the everywhere (but, contra Kaplan,  not the anywhere, because specified) war.

On the one side, then, a principle of what Chamayou calls precision or specification:  ‘The zone of armed conflict, fragmented into micro-scale kill boxes, reduces itself in the ideal-typical case to the single body of the enemy-prey: the body as the field of battle.’  Yet on the other side, a principle of globalisation or homogenisation: ‘Because we can target our quarry with precision, the military and the CIA say in effect, we can strike them wherever we see fit, even outside a war zone.’

This paradoxical articulation has sparked fierce debates among legal scholars – Chamayou cites Kenneth Anderson, Michael Lewis, and Mary Ellen O’Connell – over whether the ‘zone of armed conflict’ should be geo-centred (as in the conventional battlefield) or target-centred (‘attached to the body of the enemy-prey’). Jurists are thus in the front line of the battle over the extension of the hunting ground, he writes, and ‘applied ontology’ is the ground on which they fight.  I’ll have more to say about this on my own account in a later post.

Theory of the drone 2: Hunting

This is the second in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.

3: Theoretical principles of man-hunting

Chamayou opens his discussion with a revealing vignette.  In 2005 Texas entrepreneur John Lockwood developed a website,, which promised a ‘real-time on-line hunting and shooting experience’.  The cyber-hunter was after deer and other game kept for the purpose on a 300-acre ranch near San Antonio.


You might think that a more relevant example would be Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension described in his Shoot an Iraqi: art, life and resistance under the gun:

‘For one month, Bilal lived alone in a prison cell-sized room in the line of fire of a remote-controlled paintball gun and a camera that connected him to internet viewers around the world. Visitors to the gallery and a virtual audience that grew by the thousands could shoot at him 24 hours a day.’

Wafaa Bilal, Domestic Tension

There is a wonderful discussion of the project and its wider implications for experimental geopolitics by Alan Ingram [‘Experimental geopolitics: Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension‘] in the Geographical Journal 1788 (2) (2012) 123-133.  He explains that Bilal conceived Domestic Tension as a commentary on ‘remote control warfare’ after his brother had been killed in a strike by a US helicopter gunship called in by commanders watching a video feed from a Predator in the skies over Kufa.

But Lockwood’s venture is even more revealing, particularly when juxtaposed with Domestic Tension, because it involved real-time killing (of captive deer, antelope and other animals) and after a public outcry it was eventually banned.  A full report from the Washington Post is here. Even the National Rifle Association was up in – er – arms: its spokesperson declared,  ‘We believe that hunting should be outdoors and that sitting in front of a computer three states away doesn’t qualify as hunting.’  Chamayou’s translation of one police officer’s condemnation – “It’s not hunting.  It’s killing’ – becomes ‘It’s not hunting.  It’s murder’, which artfully raises the stakes, but you get the point, which is about the hue and cry that attended killing animals on line while ‘man-hunting by remote control’ attracted considerably less public attention: then, anyway.

Live Shot

To be fair, there were critics like Dale Jamieson who saw Live Shot as symptomatic of a wider issue:

“If you look at this as being kind of a continuum or slippery slope,” said Jamieson, “you have people who enjoy the act of killing and destruction in video games, you have people who enjoy killing animals over the Internet…. But of course the next step in this is that people start killing people over the Internet. That’s the worry.”

California state Senator Debra Brown was equally forthright in her condemnation:

“What happens if this technology gets expanded to other uses?” she said. “It’s actually pretty scary. What’s the line between real life and a video game? It has all the video game feel: It’s remote, it’s disconnected from the reality of it, the hunter doesn’t have to deal with any blood or wounding or tracking.”

Chamayou doesn’t track these responses, which surely sharpen his point, but he doesn’t really need to: I haven’t been able to find any critics who drew attention to the remote killings of people that were already taking place under the unblinking eye of US Predators in Pakistan and Yemen. (Incidentally, this chapter is illustrated by an image of a Predator firing a Hellfire missile; the photograph is all over the web – for example here – but, as James Bridle has shown, this now canonical image is in fact a Photo-shopped fake, ‘a computer-generated rendering of a drone … flying over an abstracted landscape’).

For Chamayou those targeted killings are the effects of an apparatus that he describes as militarized man-hunting.  He invokes George W. Bush’s line (in a speech at the FBI in February 2003) about the ‘war on terror’ being a ‘different kind of war’ that ‘requires us to be on an international manhunt’ to argue that that within a decade what seemed to most commentators at the time to be just a folksy Texan cowboy phrase had been converted into a state doctrine of non-conventional violence that combines elements of military and police operations  without fully corresponding to either.

He suggests that US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already playing with the possibilities of what Eyal Weizman has called thanatotactics. Rumsfeld was convinced that ‘Israeli techniques for dealing with Palestinian resistance could be simply scaled up.’  If the IDF had turned Gaza into a laboratory for targeted killing from the air, however, how could this be done by the Pentagon on the global scale?  And – for some Pentagon insiders at least – how could this be done without having a new Phoenix program rise from the flames of what one adviser was already calling ‘preventive manhunting’?

CRAWFORD ManhuntingThis is where those ‘theoretical principles’ start to emerge.  Some of the most difficult issues concern the provision of a legal armature, as I’ll discuss in a later post (and it is these that interest me the most), but what Chamayou has more directly in mind here is the formulation of a military (rather than policing: the difference, as we’ll see, is crucial) doctrine to guide these operations.  He suggests that its most developed form drew upon the work of a private-sector consultant, George Crawford, who published Manhunting: reversing the polarity of warfare in 2008 and a subsequent report for the Joint Special Operations University, Manhunting: counter-network organization for irregular warfare  in 2009.

CRAWFORD Manhunting 2

Crawford’s report included a ‘chronology of American manhunting operations’, and out of that remarkably long history Chamayou fastens on the Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916.  This was a massive (and spectacularly unsuccessful) ground operation across the US/Mexico border, in which thousands of US troops under the command of General Pershing penetrated deep into Mexico in an effort to capture the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa (who had conducted a series of cross-border raids into New Mexico).

Chamayou doesn’t mention it, perhaps because it would complicate the clean lines of his narrative, but the expedition included air support from the eight planes of the 1st Aero Squadron (below) in what was to become ‘the first combat engagement of American Army pilots and airplanes’ (more here and here).  Their principal function, as with the use of military aircraft on the Western Front, was reconnaissance, but if this was a distant forerunner of US aerial surveillance of the southern border it was a dismal failure.  According to Pershing:

“[T]he aeroplanes have been of no material benefit so far, either in scouting or as a means of communication.  They have not at all met my expectations.  The further south Villa goes into the mountains the more difficult will be their tasks, and I have no doubt we shall soon be compelled to abandon them for either scouting the enemy or keeping in touch with the advance columns.”


But the entire expedition was a failure, and the crucial lesson, spelled out by Crawford and repeated by Chamayou, was the imperative to reverse the polarity: instead of deploying large numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ – what Crawford ridiculed as using an elephant gun to swat ‘the terrorist mosquito’ – operations against non-state actors should be conducted by small teams networked into a targeted killing operation.  This changes the terms of war not so much because the conflict is asymmetric, or even because it’s not about territorial gain, but rather because war is transformed from the classical paradigm of a duel into something quite other: ‘a hunter who advances, and a prey who flees or hides’.

The (tactical) rules of the game are quite different; the hunter must engage to win, while the fugitive must evade to win.  Crawford:

Firepower becomes less significant in terms of mass, while the precision and discretion with which firepower is employed takes on tremendous significance, especially during influence operations. Why drop a bomb when effects operations or a knife might do? Maneuver adopts new concept and form. In manhunting, friendly forces seek to engage the enemy. Like a lone insurgent, the enemy seeks to avoid the allied force, biding time until he has an opportunity to strike at vulnerable, unprotected, or noncombat assets.

The first task is thus not to immobilise but to identify and locate the enemy, which implies an apparatus of detection.  ‘Man-hunting’ thus becomes, in Crawford’s eyes at any rate, an intelligence-based operation directed towards identifying pivotal nodes (which is to say key leaders or ‘High Value Targets’) in the virtual and physical spaces of social networks.  Here Chamayou cites John Dodson‘s attempt – one of countless others – to provide a statistical methodology for ‘man-hunting’:

‘Nexus Topography is an extension of the common practice of Social Network Analysis (SNA) used to develop profiles of [High Value Targets]. Currently, SNA examines the links in a social group, whereas, Nexus Topography is a template that can be used to construct a map of relationships in different social environments. Nexus Topography maps social forums or environments, which bind individuals together (this can be extended to include Dark Networks and Small Worlds).

Network analysis, in multiple forms, is a staple of geo-spatial intelligence and contemporary counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism.  But how far Crawford’s specific proposals directly informed US military operations is another question, and one Chamayou doesn’t address.  I suspect their influence was at best indirect.  Even so, pursuing their logic enables Chamayou to conclude that militarized man-hunting is not about responding to specific attacks but instead providing ‘pre-emptive security’ against emergent threats.  On this new terrain ‘war’ becomes a vast campaign of extra-judicial killing, for which (as he says) the ‘Predator’ and the ‘Reaper’ live up to their names.  Hence the next chapter,which traces the next set of principles:

4: Surveillance and annihilation

FOUCAULT Surveillir et punirThe English translation doesn’t capture Chamayou’s substitution, which is a play on the French title of Michel Foucault‘s Discipline and punish: Surveillir et punir.

The reference to Foucault is entirely apposite.  Chamayou’s central point here is that, within the apparatus of militarized man-hunting, ‘detection’ is above all a visual modality (and much of Foucault’s work involved a sustained interrogation of the gaze). Chamayou argues that drones promise something like a ‘God’s eye view’; their protagonists claim that their near real-time, full-motion and increasingly high-definition video feeds have revolutionised the capacity to provide a constant view of the enemy.

This is all familiar ground, to me at any rate, and in this chapter Chamayou draws on my own work (and others’) to tease out six core principles.  I discuss all of them in ‘From a view to a kill’ and ‘Lines of descent’ [DOWNLOADS tab], so here I will simply list them in summary form:

1: Persistent stare or permanent watch – Predators and Reapers have long ‘dwell-times’ and in principle permit protracted surveillance;

2: Totalisation of perspectives or synoptic view – ‘wide-area surveillance’  promises to be able to ‘quilt’ multiple images together;

3: Complete archive – the question of data retrieval and analysis is immensely difficult, which is why the US Air Force has consistently worried about ‘swimming in sensors, drowning in data’, and why specialist image analysts have experimented with TV/video archival and retrieval techniques;

4: Data fusion from multiple sensors;

5: ‘Pattern of life’ analysis;

6: Detection of anomalies and pre-emption.

The classical names given to these new political technologies of vision – like Gorgon Stare and Argus (in Greek mythology the hundred-eyed giant, which in DARPA-speak becomes Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance) – confirm the premium placed on visibility or even hypervisibility.

Gorgon Stare

But Chamayou argues that this political technology is far more ‘economical’ than Bentham’s Panopticon, which Foucault uses so powerfully to figure modern surveillance, because it requires neither spatial partitions nor architectural demarcations. It is what Zygmunt Bauman might call a ‘liquid’ technology, since it needs only airspace to function (though the current interest in A2/AD (‘anti-access/areal denial’) is a sharp reminder that at present – and even for the foreseeable future – Predators and Reapers can only hunt in uncontested air space).

And even more unlike the Panopticon, this political technology is not directed towards enclosure or confinement.  Just as the Gorgon’s stare petrified its enemies to death, turning them into stone, so this too is a deadly gaze. Video feeds trigger missile launches: ‘No longer surveillir et punir but surveiller et anéantir’ (annihilation) (p. 67).

(Incidentally, how far the US will continue to fund some of these systems is unclear: recent reports suggest that the Pentagon is scaling back its funding for the Gorgon Stare, but the Air Force is still promoting the ARGUS-IS as its next-generation sensor technology).

Living Under DronesThe shadows cast by these capacities are far longer than the supposedly ‘precision strikes’ they facilitate: they impose a new landscape of threat and dread. Here Chamayou invokes the Stanford/NYU report Living under drones (2012) to conclude that the presence of Predators and Reapers terrifies whole populations who live under them (see also my commentary here).  Above and beyond the deaths and physical injuries they inflict, and the rubble, the rage and the bereavements they produce, Chamayou concludes that drones also produce ‘a psychic enclosure whose boundaries are no longer defined by bars, barriers or walls but by the invisible circles described overhead by the ceaseless gyrations of these flying sentinels’ (literally, ‘watch-towers’).

As Chamayou’s patient excavation of these various principles proceeds, it becomes clear that the ‘doctrine’ that is coming in to view is much more than doctrine as the military understands the term.  For the Pentagon, doctrine consists of those ‘fundamental principles by which the military forces or elements thereof guide their actions in support of national objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application.’  The appeal to its authoritative status is significant, of course, and speaks directly to (or rather from) from the military chain of command.

CHAMAYOU ManhuntsBut what Chamayou is after in what elsewhere he calls ‘the manhunt doctrine‘ is something that transcends the military (this form of ‘man-hunting’ deliberately blurs the distinctions between conventional military and police operations to produce what Chamayou calls ‘hybrid operations, monstrous offspring [enfants terribles] of the police and the military, of war and peace’) and seeks to expose the political technologies, the discursive systems and the scopic regimes from which it derives its wider authority and through which it exercises its powers.

In doing so it follows directly from his previous work, Les chasses à l’homme (in English, Manhunts), which promises a philosophical history – or, as I said in my previous post, a genealogy.  But Théorie du drone is more than the next chapter, because it has much to say about the transformation of ‘techno-war’ into something radically different, a modality of later modern war that is focused more than ever on the identification, pursuit and elimination of individuals.

To be continued.

Theory of the drone 1: Genealogies

Grégoire ChamayouThis is the first of a series of posts as I work my way through Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone (2013), which has finally arrived on my desk.  I’ve loosely summarised the project and its relation to Chamayou’s previous work before, and in these notes I’ll combine a summary of his argument with some extended readings and excerpts from his sources and some comments of my own.  I hope readers will find these useful; they are an aide-memoire for me, and a way of working out some of my own ideas too, but do let me know if all this is helpful (especially for those with no French).

I’m pleased to say that he draws on several of my essays about drone warfare, including ‘From a view to a kill’, ‘Lines of descent’, and even ‘The everywhere war’ (all available under the DOWNLOADS tab), so I won’t re-trace in any detail our (considerable) common ground.

The first section of Theory of the drone is devoted to Techniques and Tactics and, as I noted previously, it’s good to read a philosopher engaging with the materialities and corporealities of contemporary war in such close detail.  I’ll start with the first two chapters, which read together provide some more lines of flight for today’s remote operations.  I don’t call these ‘genealogies’ lightly: as you’ll see next time, there are definite and deliberate echoes of Foucault in the argument (though Chamayou is no disciple).

1: ‘Methodologies for hostile environments’

It’s become a truism to say that drones are ideally suited for ‘dirty, dangerous or difficult’ tasks, and Chamayou begins with an interesting article written by John W. Clark for the New Scientist in 1964 on ‘Remote control in hostile environments’.

Clark described the development of technologies ‘of manipulation at a distance – what he called ‘telechirics’ (a term that Chamayou appropriates for his own purposes, from the Greek tele meaning ‘distance’ and kheir meaning ‘hand’) – so that people no longer had to expose themselves to danger to earn a living: from the extremes of outer space, exposure to nuclear radiation and deep ocean exploration to more mundane, everyday projects like fire-fighting, tunnelling, or mining. The key advance was the use of ‘a vehicle operating in the hostile environment under remote control by a man in a safe environment’.

Clark emphasised the remoteness – ‘there is no direct connection between the operator and his machine’ – because in his view the system depended on the capacity of the human operator ‘to “identify himself” with his remotely-controlled machine, even though it may be completely non-anthropomorphic in appearance and configuration’. In effect, Clark wrote, ‘his consciousness is transferred to an invulnerable mechanical body’ which implies, in turn, that ‘systems of this type are no substitutes for human judgment’. (For this reason, while Clark believed that a ‘telechiric system’ could be provided with a variety of sensors, vision – ‘by far our most valuable sense’ – was typically provided through a single-channel, closed-circuit television system). Indeed, the capacity for judgment is enhanced by partitioning space, as Chamayou notes, placing the operator in a ‘safe zone’ outside the ‘danger zone’.  The danger zone is a site of surveillance and intervention (‘by a cable or by a radio-link’), Chamayou underlines, but not a site of habitation.

It’s not difficult to see how these propositions can be carried over to the use of  combat drones.  Interestingly, Clark had been employed by the Hughes Aircraft Company where he originally developed his ideas on ‘remote handing’ (what he then called mobotry). He had noted that ‘the electronic techniques which have been developed in recent years, primarily in connection with guided missiles and radar, are finding increasing application in connection with remotely controlled systems for accomplishing physical operations within areas which are uninhabitable due to the presence of a hostile environment’, and in the closing section of the research paper he noted that ‘a remotely-controlled street-sweeper employing television for guiding and steering and a simple frequency coded command system has recently completed successful tests.’

Where? The Air Force Special Weapons Center in Albuquerque, which was dedicated to R& D of atomic and other ‘unconventional’ weapns (which was presumably not especially interested in keeping the streets clean).  And at the end of the 1980s Clark’s old employer, Hughes Aircraft, would buy a fledgling drone manufacturing company, Leading Systems, from Abe Karem (‘the dronefather‘), and then promptly sell it on to General Atomics which, with Karem’s assistance, became the company responsible for the Predator.

These details are not included in Chamayou’s discussion – and I don’t mean this as a criticism: I admire both the brevity and the clarity of his account – and in fact no links to the military appeared in the New Scientist article. But Chamayou has found a subsequent, anonymous and remarkably telling comment on the article. Among the scenarios canvassed by Clark, this contributor wrote, one was conspicuous by its absence:

‘The minds of telechiricists are grappling with the problems of employing remotely-controlled machines to do the peaceful work of man amid the hazards of heat, radiation, space and the ocean floor. Have they got their priorities right? Should not their first efforts towards human safety be aimed at mankind’s most hazardous employment – the industry of war?… Why should twentieth-century men continue to be stormed at by shot and shell when a telechiric Tommy Atkins could take his place? ‘All conventional wars might eventually be conducted telechirically, armies of military robots battling it out be remote control, victory and defeat being calculated and apportioned by neutral computers, while humans sit safely at home watching on TV the lubricating oil staining the sand in sensible simile of their own blood.’

Sand? Chamayou doesn’t mention it [‘sand’ in his French translation becomes ‘dust’], but in fact the anonymous author opened his commentary by noting that the publication of Clark’s original article ‘coincided with the flare-up in the Yemen…’  The ‘flare-up’ was part of a civil war in Yemen, in which royalists (supported by Saudi Arabia) were pitted against republicans (supported by Egypt) and Britain was engaged in a series of irregular, covert operations that were repeatedly denied in Parliament.

And so it’s no accident, I think, that the anonymous contributor goes on to emphasize the importance of telechirics for asymmetric warfare:

‘Far-flung imperial conquests which were ours because we had the Maxim gun and they had the knobkerrie will be recalled by new bloodless triumphs coming our way because we have telechiric yeomanry and they, poor fuzzy-wuzzies, have only napalm and nerve-gas.’

By this means, Chamayou concludes, asymmetric warfare becomes unilateral: people still die, to be sure, but on one side only.  And, as those hideous remarks I’ve just quoted make plain, the divide is profoundly racialized.

2: Genealogy of the Predator

My own inclination would be to make that plural – genealogies – and to identify multiple lines of descent, some of which (I think plausibly) can be traced back to the early twentieth century.

But Chamayou excludes many of them, including ‘target drones’ and – more directly relevant – various ‘aerial torpedoes’, which he sees as forerunners of the cruise missile (which can only be launched once) rather than the combat drone (which can be used many times over). This distinction is useful, but it’s complicated by Project Aphrodite’s experiments with explosive-filled US bombers in the dog days of the Second World War, whose use of remote control and visual links – they’ve sometimes been called ‘video bombers’ – anticipates key elements of today’s remote operations (see also herehere, here and here).

Chamayou does notice the American use of drones for aerial surveillance over North Vietnam – though he makes nothing of other elements, including the development of ‘pattern of life’ analysis and the installation of the sensor-shooter systems of the ‘electronic battlefield’ along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, both of which (as I argued in ‘Lines of descent’) were key elements in the much later development of unmanned aerial systems.

But these developments came to nothing, Chamayou contends, and in the 1970s the development of military drones was virtually abandoned by the US: it was Israel that showed the way to the future.

During the Yom Kippur War of 1973 the Israelis used ‘decoy drones’ to draw the fire of missile batteries and then sent in conventional strike aircraft before the Egyptians could re-load: Chamayou doesn’t note it, but those drones were designed and built in under a month by Abe Karem and his team.  In 1982 the IDF repeated the tactic against Syrian batteries defending Palestinian strongholds in the Bekaa Valley.

NYT Beirut barracks bombing 1983But Israel literally showed the US the way to the future in another, much more remarkable incident in 1983. Here is the original account (by Jim Schechter) on which Chamayou draws from Popular Science in October 1987:

‘Two days after a terrorist bomb destroyed the [US] Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983, Marine Commandant Gen. P. X. Kelley secretly flew to the scene. No word of his arrival was leaked. Hours later in Tel Aviv the Israelis played back the tape for the shocked Marine general. The scene, they explained, was transmitted by a Mastiff RPV circling out of sight above the barracks.’

Peter Hellman in ‘The little airplane that could’ (in Discover, February 1987) fills in some of the details.  Kelley ‘had been photographed during his outdoor movements in Beirut — his head targeted in cross hairs‘ (my emphasis).  He explains:

‘Unobserved by the Marines, a miniaturized Israeli RPV (remotely piloted vehicle) called Mastiff had circled 5,000 feet overhead during Kelley’s visit. Despite its twelve-foot wing span (just a shade longer than a California condor’s), at that altitude the Mastiff couldn’t be seen by the naked eye. And with its fiber-glass body, it was almost impossible to detect by radar. Nor could the putt-putt of its two-cylinder 22-horsepower engine be heard. But a zoom-lensed video camera peering down from a clear plastic bubble in its belly had a splendid view of the touring general. On a signal from controllers more than 50 miles away, the mini-RPV left as furtively as it had come, and flew into a net set up outside its mobile ground station.

As Schechter laconically put it, the Americans got the message, and in the 1980s their interest in developing remotely piloted aircraft for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) dramatically increased.

There are all sorts of other connections between the US and Israel when it comes to both the development of UAVs and their later use for targeted killing.  What Chamayou is most interested in is precisely the development of UAVs as hunter-killers, which (as I’ll explain in my next post in the series) he links to the transformation of warfare into man-hunting.  And, as I’ll try to show, that’s when things start to get extremely interesting…

Predators over the FATA

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London has published a confidential reportDetails of Attacks by NATO Forces/Predators in FATA, whose tabulations cover more than 70 drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas between January 2006 and October 2009.

The tabulations are significant because they are not based on press reports – the standard and highly imperfect source – but on reports prepared for the FATA Secretariat and transmitted to Islamabad by government agents in the field (who rely on their own observations, and reports from the tribal police and other informants).  According to one well-placed observer, ‘There was no benefit in officials “cooking the books” here, since this document was clearly never intended to be seen outside the civilian administration.’

Predator/NATO strikes in FATA

It’s an incomplete list – the Bureau has a more comprehensive tabulation – but of the 746 deaths from these air strikes 147 (20 per cent) are identified as civilians (including 94 children).

Still, the Bureau notes some puzzling (even troubling) omissions.  In particular, reports of civilian deaths virtually disappear from the record after Obama took office: ‘In part this is because officials occasionally note that “details of casualties are yet to be ascertained.” But many credible reports of civilian deaths are simply missing. The Bureau’s own research shows that civilian deaths have been credibly reported in at least 17 of the 53 CIA drone strikes in Obama’s first year in office. Yet FATA officials report civilian deaths in only three incidents in 2009.’

There have been rumours of more comprehensive tabulations, but the Bureau acknowledges that much also depends on information provided by the Pakistani military.  And it would be interesting to see a comparable list of casualties resulting from Pakistan’s own air strikes in the FATA.

A map that blogs

I described a series of maps of the violence in Syria a few weeks ago, and today Al Jazeera provided a new interactive that maps the different groups that compose the Syrian opposition; here’s a screenshot of what is, of evident necessity, a rough-and-ready approximation of a fluid situation:

Mapping Syria's rebellion

And since I recently mentioned Riverbend‘s blog from Baghdad during the US-led occupation, I thought I should list some of the blogs being written out of Syria.  I do this with trepidation, after the odious fiasco of the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, which turned out not only to be written by an American man but also to describe the ‘arrest’ of its ‘author’, ‘Amina Haraf’: several of the bloggers I list below (like Razzan Ghazawi) really have been arrested, interrogated or expelled.  If I’ve overlooked any other insightful blogs from Syria, please let me know.

Free Halab (‘a blog about the Syrian Revolution’) includes reports from Aleppo, Homs and Damascus (including video, and some helpful maps of the situation in different cities by Cedric Labrousse); other posts from Homs are here (and an excellent discussion of them and their author here), and from Northern Syria here.

Maysaloon is here – singled out with good reason in the Guardian – and Razzan Ghazawi‘s (according to the Telegraphiconic‘) blog is here.  It includes this powerful poem, The Revolutionary Cannot Speak (and I suspect the Telegraph could not read it either); it also might explain the otherwise strange title I’ve given this post.

We were taught that the sun does not always shine
We were taught
Thousands mirrors worth a truthful face

We tried to unlearn, those many lines our memory cannot forsake
The revolution, we repeated, the revolution is the solution
A task we may never undertake

Our revolution is pure, and it is not White
It’s grounded and rooted in our sinful eyes

We are the people
We are the words of wisdom
Your books and think-tanks so eloquently did not foresee

The power lies in people
The Black Palestinian painfully teaches us

Why do I feel that I’ll soon be the last Syrian alive
40, 000 corpses can never lie
They lay underneath our sacred soil
They haunt us in protests
Occupy our banners
and online profiles

A burden I cannot bear
So like others, I long for the day I join the Shuhada

I cannot be the last Syrian alive
I cannot be the Syrian who left, and still alive

You think “critically” of our raw revolution, you say
You think and cite our savagery with references of youtube videos
You are as powerful as the states you oppose
States silence us with machine guns
They send us sleepless killers in black suits
States fight among each other
We have learned the drill

But you, like the White, speak on behalf of us
You are the intellectual whose privileged voice silenced our indigenous voices
You’re no friend of mine
The leftist, feminist and the pro Palestinian activist
Are names of spaces you proudly occupy
To me, they’re just another privileged class
You made it possible to become my enemy

Yes, I have said the word “enemy”
And I would say it in the class you teach
Below the many articles you publish
Where you could tell the world how my struggle isn’t consistent with yours

What is your struggle, I wonder
When you’re the diasporic subject and I am the postcolonial
I stand in front of systems, machines and propaganda
In my besieged land

Your battle has become my dream of freedom
Your intellect has become another bullet in my chest
A “friendly fire,” I do not call it

I am being silenced by your pen

The revolutionary cannot speak
She may never speak for years to come
She writes in her mother tongue
Speaks folky words and songs your memory can no longer grasp
The revolutionary speaks to her gender-less comrades
And you
The powerful male intellectual
You are not one.

Saviours and victims

Bhakti Shringarpure has a wide-ranging conversation with Mahmood Mamdani over at Warscarpes.  It covers a lot of ground, but one of the central threads is Mamdani’s insistence on conducting a ‘history of violence’, which is to say a history of the present (Darfur, Ruanda) in ways that disclose the historical context for today’s horrors.

MAMDANI Saviors and survivorsHence Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, in which Mamdani argued that the crisis in Darfur had to be read as a vicious gavotte of insurgency and counterinsurgency rather than genocide (as many commentators in the West insist).  Explaining his insistence on a dispersed, situated agency, Mamdani sets himself against what he calls the ‘new’ narrative of human rights:

‘The conventional approach, the approach used by the contemporary human rights movement, has been to document the atrocities, [to take] testimony, to identify perpetrators, to name and shame. The perpetrator is portrayed as someone with all the agency in the world. The victim is someone with no agency. That’s the narrative….  The old human rights movement, which was born with the French revolution – human rights of man, the citizen – it sought to empower the victim and to focus on issues. This new one seeks to empower saviors to salvage this helpless victim.’

He also talks about the politics of writing (and about the part his Harvard room-mate, Michael Ignatieff, played in the development of his own style), about audiences and public intellectuals, about the book through which I first came to know his work, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the roots of terror, the role Edward Said had in its publication, and his own ‘voyage in’, and he ends with this reflection on teaching at Columbia:

The downside of American students is this thing which runs through – seems to run through – the Western experience, but seems particularly crystallized in the American case, which is this notion that you can save the world. And this determination to save the world. This conviction that they know what’s good for the world, and they know what’s good for you, better than you know. So it’s almost like the medieval Christians who burnt people to save their souls.

They can be like the modern counterpart of the missionaries. They are not particularly interested in the problem: They are there to give you the solution. By the time they leave the university, they are imbued with the sense of what should be the solution. I always tell them that, before you get unleashed upon the world, let me have a chance to talk to you. Get them to realize that the real question is not, “What’s the solution?” – it’s “What’s the problem?” And the elements of any sustainable solution have to be found inside the problem.

But it’s not a peculiarly American conceit.  One of the characteristic gestures of modern colonialism and imperialism has been, precisely, to insist on its mission to bring ‘order’ from the outside to save those souls who would otherwise be condemned to their own chronic ‘disorder’.  This has been on view most recently in Tony Blair’s athletic support for the military intervention in Egypt: ‘Bringing about stability in the Middle East is not somebody else’s job, it’s ours.’  Perhaps it’s time somebody wrote Good Christian, Bad Christian.

Unknown soldiers

Diary of an unknown soldier STILL

Via the Funambulist I’ve stumbled across an early film by the young Peter Watkins, The diary of an unknown soldier.  Made in 1959 when Watkins was just 24, six years before The War Game, it recounts – in what was to become Watkins’ signature documentary style – the last, desperate hours before a young soldier on the Western Front goes into combat for the first time.

This is how Watkins himself tells the story behind the film:

In the mid 1950s, I underwent compulsory military service in Britain. Managing to avoid being sent on a draft to fight the Mau-Mau in Kenya, I landed a clerical post in Canterbury, Kent, where I fortunately met a group of people running an amateur theatre group called ‘Playcraft’. This group regularly staged a series of very clever productions in the small living room of Alan and June Gray – with Alan and Anne Pope, Stan and Phyllis Mercer, and other friends who acted, helped with designs and sets, and invited the local audience to the twenty or so seats tightly crammed into the room. A drama student bitten by the ‘acting bug’ in London before my military service, I acted in several of Playcraft’s productions – including in R.C. Sheriff’s anti-war drama, Journey’s End, set in the trenches during World War I. Immediately following my release from the army, I was bitten by another – amateur filmmaking – ‘bug’, and acquired a Bolex spring-driven 8mm camera…

By 1959, while Watkins was working as an assistant film editor at ‘World Wide Pictures’, alongside a number of documentary filmmakers from the old Crown Film Unit, he wrote the script for ‘The Diary of an Unknown Soldier’.  Here it is (the narrator is Watkins himself):

The film is remarkably effective at conveying the visceral nature of the landscape of fear confronting the anonymous young man – the shattered branches that turn into sharp bayonets – but above at showing the materiality and corporeality of the violence that was to come.  As Léopold Lambert notes, ‘the way the body is filmed and described in the script is remarkable as it heavily insists on the fact that war for soldiers — in opposition to high-rank[ing] officers — is essentially a matter of bodies: their movement, their combination with the bullets and bombs trajectories and their relationship to the ground — in that case, the mud.’

Watkins was hired by the BBC’s documentary department in 1963, and the rest is indeed history…

The connections with “Gabriel’s Map” are very clear (at least to me: there are several sequences in which a young subaltern annotates his map).  But what about the other ‘unknown soldier’ (or, rather, soldiers)?

The origins of this iconic memorial go back to 1916, when a British Army chaplain serving on the Western front, David Railton, saw one of countless graves on the battlefield at Armentières, this one marked by a simple cross bearing the words: “An unknown British soldier.”  He became determined that those un-named soldiers from all over the British Empire who had fallen on the Front should be honoured by a single public memorial in Britain.

Finally, in early November 1920 the body of an un-named soldier was exhumed from each of the four major battlefields – the Aisne, Arras, the Somme and Ypres – and one of them was placed in a coffin and transported to London.  On 11 November, two years after the Armistice, the ‘Unknown Warrior’ was re-buried in Westminster Abbey:

Similar memorials were constructed in other European countries, Australia and the United States.

HANSON The unknown soldierYou can find the full, much richer story in Neil Hanson‘s beautifully written and carefully researched  The Unknown Soldier (2005), which splices the story of the iconic ‘unknown soldier’ with the stories of three others – British, French and German – who were declared missing during the War.

The classic discussion of some of the wider issues remains Jay Winter‘s Sites of memory, sites of mourning: the Great War in European cultural history (1998), while later this year David Crane promises to provide an account of the personalities and the politics involved in the construction of war graves in Empires of the Dead (2013).