Safe bombs and refusing pilots

lebanon_map_jul12-Aug06My first attempt to think through the histories and geographies of bombing from the air was, appropriately enough, a plenary address to the Arab World Geographer conference in Beirut in 2006 – a meeting which had had to be postponed until December as a result of Israel’s summer-long attack on Lebanon.  Registrations fell away, especially from the United States and the U.K., but we had a wonderfully lively meeting.

I eventually turned my presentation – which, under the title “The death of the civilian”, developed the twin genealogies of the target and the civilian to address Israel’s bombing of southern Lebanon and Beirut – into an essay for the journal: “In another time zone, the bombs fall unsafely: Targets, civilians and late modern war” (published in 2007: see DOWNLOADS tab).

I began like this:

My title comes from a poem by Blake Morrison, ‘Stop’, which was reprinted in an anthology to aid children’s charities in Lebanon compiled by Anna Wilson after the Israeli assault on that country during the summer of 2006.  The poem speaks directly to the ideology of late modern war – to what Christopher Coker praises as the ‘re-enchantment’ of war through its rhetorical erasure of death– and to its dissonance from ‘another’ time and space where bombs continue to ‘fall unsafely’.  It begins like this:

 ‘As of today, the peace process will be intensified

through war.  These are safe bombs, and any fatalities

will be minors.  The targets are strictly military

or civilian.  Anomalies may occur, but none

out of the ordinary.  This release has been prepared by

official Stop.’

 Morrison perfectly captures the hypocrisy of war – the malevolent twisting of words to mean the opposite of what they say, the cosmetic face of public war put on to conceal the harrowing face of private death – and also the intimacy of the furtive, fugitive relationship between ‘targets’ and ‘civilians’ in late modern war. In what follows, I will try to lay that relationship bare by reconstructing its historical geography.  In doing so, I will also show how our meeting in Beirut to discuss ‘the European-Arab encounter’, less than six months after Israel’s war on Lebanon, must confront the connections between the political and military strategies mobilized during the summer of 2006 and a series of colonial encounters between Europe and the Arab world in the years surrounding the First World War. 

That remains one of the primary motivations for my Killing Space project.

But 2006 was not the first time that Israel had sent its fighter-bombers into the skies over Lebanon.  What I did not know when I prepared my presentation was that during the bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982 a number of Israeli Air Force pilots had refused to bomb ‘non-military targets’.  Now there is still fierce debate over the distinction between ‘military’ and ‘non-military’ targets, and over the civilian casualties that may nevertheless result from bombing ostensibly ‘military’ targets, both in principle and in practice, and it’s an argument which is conducted on legal and ethical terrains (though we hear much more of the former than the latter).  But here I’m particularly interested in the act of refusal itself: less in the application of abstract, formal principles – important though these are – and more in the personal, rational and affective moment of abjuration.

Hagai TamirIn 2002 Ha’aretz published interviews by Avihai Becker with three IAF officers who had formally refused; the testimonies of two of them were already known, but it’s the third that I want to describe here. Hagai Tamir, a major in the IAF, grew up as one of what he calls ‘the lyric pilots’, consummating a love of flight itself:

“I wanted to feel like a bird. The whole idea of the plane as a war machine was much less appealing to me. The concept of a plane as a platform for weapons was foreign to me so I enjoyed the aerobatics much more than I did dropping ordnance. Even during my compulsory service as a young pilot, I didn’t derive any pleasure from it.”

After his compulsory military service and his move to the reserves, Tamir trained as an architect and this enhanced his sense of unease, even disengagement.

“Who knows better than me, an architect, how hard it is to build a city? So at least, don’t rejoice when you destroy houses. It takes a lot longer to build a city than it does to strike a target.”

In June 1982, one week into the invasion of Lebanon, Tamir was flying over the port city of Saida (Sidon), near the Ain El Helweh refugee camp:

“We flew in tandem above the place. The liaison officer who was with the ground forces informed me of the target, a large building on top of a hill. I looked at it and to the best of my judgment, the structure could have only been one of two things – a hospital or a school. I questioned the officer and asked why I was being given that target. His reply was that they were shooting from there. There were a thousand reasons why I didn’t think I should bomb the building. I asked him if he knew what the building was. He said he didn’t. I insisted that he find out. He got back to me with some vague answers.”

Tamir was not satisfied by the response, reported a ‘malfunction’, cut off radio contact and did not release his bombs (on some accounts, he dropped them into the sea).

The episode is significant for several reasons.  The first is that this was an intensely personal decision: Tamir did not publicise it (though the IAF did investigate the incident), and it made no material difference to the outcome since the accompanying aircraft went ahead and levelled the building (which was indeed a secondary school for boys).  Even so, Tamir was not alone; others refused similar orders, and although it’s difficult to gauge how far the ripples caused by these refusals travelled into 2006 and beyond – see Asher Kaufman‘s thoughtful discussion in Shadows of war: a social history of silence in the twentieth century here – twenty years later Tamir did join 24 other active, reserve and retired Air Force officers in signing a public letter refusing to carry out air strikes in occupied Palestine (and who were roundly abused for doing so: see here and more on the Courage to Refuse movement here).

The second is that, even though Tamir confided what happened over Saida only to his family and close friends, the story spread through the town, embellished in the telling and re-telling: so how did the people know, and what significance did they see in it?

The third is that the story has become the subject of a remarkable multimedia installation by Beiruti artist Akram Zaatari, Letter to a refusing pilot, which is the only artwork representing Lebanon at the 55th Venice Biennale this year.  Zaatari describes himself as

‘an architect, a documentary filmmaker, and an ethnographer working in the art world, so I use the tools and approaches that I have learned from those three disciplines. I have no particular method to apply, otherwise it would make my work too simple. I enjoy reflecting on complex social and political issues particularly related to geographies.’

You can find images and a commentary on the Biennale installation here and here, but Zaatari explains his project like this:

“The importance of the story is that it gives the pilot a human face. It gives what he is about to bomb, which is considered terrorist ground, it also gives that a human face. I think it’s important to remember in times of war that everyone is a human being. Taking it to this level humanizes it completely, and we’re not used to this at all.”

Zaatari was born in Saida – in fact his father founded the school that was the target of the IAF attack – and the film that is the heart of the art-work is, like Tamir’s decision, an intensely personal one whose resonances reach far and wide.  Zaatari met with Tamir, and the film affirms the Israeli pilot’s original impulse to fly: hands draw paper aeroplanes and, at the end of the film, two boys climb up to the roof of the school and launch them into the air.  The film is cut with family photographs and Zaatari’s own diary entries from the invasion too: you can find copies of the film on You Tube starting here.

ZAATARI Letter to a refusing pilot

On the opposite wall, separated and joined by a single red cinema seat, another (shorter) film silently projects the hillside overlooking Said being systematically bombed.  The sequence derives from a series of photographs Zaatari took in 1982.

ZAATARI Saida 6 June 1982

From that seat, the viewer is invited to watch only that film, facing away from the more personal, vividly human story being told by the first film.  Negar Azimi provides a fuller discussion of the installation here, and she concludes that ‘by placing each one of us, alone, within the generous frame of the work, it seems to remind us that, not unlike the pilot, we are sometimes caught up in vexed circumstances beyond our control.’ Certainly the title of the work directly addresses the pilot and so, by extension, perhaps the pilot-observer that late modern war has invited those of us who watch wars from a safe distance to become.


Perhaps.  But this is a multi-layered work, and there are other readings.  Near the beginning of the personal memory-film, and before the title appears on the screen, gloved hands turn the pages of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince, which Negar describes as a ‘much-adored 1943 tale of youthful existentialism’.  The point here, I take it, is to reinforce or reinscribe the acknowledged affinities between Zaatari’s work and Albert Camus‘s Letters to a German friend (“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”)

But, as she also, notes Saint-Exupéry was ‘a famous war-time aviator’, and in that role he had a decidedly different view of things that speaks directly to (or rather from) the object record-film of the bombing:


Much of Zaatari’s work, as he confirms in this exceptionally rich conversation with Chad Elias for the Tate in 2011, asks us to ‘rethink what it means to witness, survive, or even document a war’. With that in mind, in gazing at the image stream of bombs, with our backs to the lifeworld that was also for many a deathworld, is it not possible that we are also being invited from that single red chair to adopt the position of Walter Benjamin‘s Angel of History?

3 thoughts on “Safe bombs and refusing pilots

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  3. Reblogged this on everydaygeopolitics and commented:
    In his blog, Derek Gregory reflects on his experience of Beirut in 2006, bombing from the air, acts of refusal to bomb, and the connections of one particular refusal with the artwork of Akram Zaatari.

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