The individuation of warfare?

chamayou-manhuntsBefore I resume my reading of Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone, I want to approach his thesis from a different direction. As I’ve noted, much of his argument turns on the reduction of later modern war to ‘man-hunting’: the profoundly asymmetric pursuit of individuals by activating the hunter-killer capacities of the Predator or the Reaper in a new form of networked (para)military violence. He describes this as a ‘state doctrine of non-conventional violence’ that combines elements of military and police operations without fully corresponding to either: ‘hybrid operations, monstrous offspring [enfants terribles] of the police and the military, of war and peace’.

These new modalities increase the asymmetry of war – to the point where it no longer looks like or perhaps even qualifies as war – because they preclude what Joseph Pugliese describes as ‘“a general system of exchange” [the reference is to Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics] between the hunter-killer apparatus ‘and its anonymous and unsuspecting victims, who have neither a right of reply nor recourse to judicial procedure.’

Pugliese insists that drones materialise what he calls a ‘prosthetics of law’, and the work of jurists and other legal scholars provides a revealing window into the constitution of later modern war and what, following Michael Smith, I want to call its geo-legal armature. To date, much of this discussion has concerned the reach of international law – the jurisdiction of international law within (Afghanistan) and beyond (Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) formal zones of conflict – and the legal manoeuvres deployed by the United States to sanction its use of deadly force in ‘self-defence’ that violates the sovereignty of other states (which includes both international law and domestic protocols like the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and various executive orders issued after 9/11) . These matters are immensely consequential, and bear directly on what Frédéric Mégret callsthe deconstruction of the battlefield’.

HIPPLER Bombing the PeopleIt’s important to understand that the ‘battlefield’ is more than a physical space; it’s also a normative space – the site of ‘exceptional norms’ within whose boundaries it is permissible to kill other human beings (subject to particular codes, rules and laws). Its deconstruction is not a new process. Modern military violence has rarely been confined to a champ de mars insulated from the supposedly safe spaces of civilian life. Long-range strategic bombing radically re-wrote the geography of war. This was already clear by the end of the First World War, and in 1921 Giulio Douhet could already confidently declare that

‘By virtue of this new weapon, the repercussions of war are no longer limited by the farthest artillery range of guns, but can be felt directly for hundreds and hundreds of miles… The battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians.’

The laboratory for these experimental geographies before the Second World War was Europe’s colonial (dis)possessions – so-called ‘air control’ in North Africa, the Middle East and along the North-West Frontier – but colonial wars had long involved ground campaigns fought with little or no distinction between combatants and civilians.

What does seem to be novel about more recent deconstructions, so Mégret argues, is ‘a deliberate attempt to manipulate what constitutes the battlefield and to transcend it in ways that liberate rather than constrain violence.’

9781844676477 Least of All Possible EvilsThis should not surprise us. Law is not a deus ex machina that presides over war as impartial tribune. Law, Michel Foucault reminds us, ‘is born of real battles, victories, massacres and conquests’; law ‘is born in burning towns and ravaged fields.’ Today so-called ‘operational law’ has incorporated military lawyers into the kill-chain, moving them closer to the tip of the spear, but law also moves in the rear of military violence: in Eyal Weizman’s phrase, ‘violence legislates.’ In the case that most concerns him, that of the Israel Defense Force, military lawyers work in the grey zone between ‘the black’ (forbidden) and ‘the white’ (permitted) and actively seek to turn the grey into the white: to use military violence to extend the permissive envelope of the law.

The liber(alis)ation of violence that Mégret identifies transforms the very meaning of war. In conventional wars combatants are authorised to kill on the basis of what Paul Kahn calls their corporate identity:

‘…the combatant has about him something of the quality of the sacred. His acts are not entirely his own….

‘The combatant is not individually responsible for his actions because those acts are no more his than ours…. [W]arfare is a conflict between corporate subjects, inaccessible to ordinary ideas of individual responsibility, whether of soldier or commander. The moral accounting for war [is] the suffering of the nation itself – not a subsequent legal response to individual actors.’

The exception, Kahn continues, which also marks the boundary of corporate agency, is a war crime, which is ‘not attributable to the sovereign body, but only to the individual.’ Within that boundary, however, the enemy can be killed no matter what s/he is doing (apart from surrendering). There is no legal difference between killing a general and killing his driver, between firing a missile at a battery that is locking on to your aircraft and dropping a bomb on a barracks at night. ‘The enemy is always faceless,’ Kahn explains, ‘because we do not care about his personal history any more than we care about his hopes for the future.’ Combatants are vulnerable to violence not only because they are its vectors but also because they are enrolled in the apparatus that authorizes it: they are killed not as individuals but as the corporate bearers of a contingent (because temporary) enmity.

It is precisely this model that contemporary military violence now challenges through the prosthetics of law embodied and embedded in drone warfare – and this, Kahn insists, has transformed the political imaginary of warfare (You can find his full argument here: ‘Imagining warfare’, European journal of international law 24 (1) (2013) 199-216).

Warheads on foreheads

In a parallel argument, Samuel Issacharoff and Richard Pildes describe this development as the individuation of military force, driven in part by the affordances and dispositions of drone warfare which makes it possible to put ‘warheads on foreheads.’  Targets are no longer whole areas of cities – like Cologne or Hamburg in the Second World War – or extensive target boxes like those ravaged by B-52 ‘Arc Light’ strikes over the rainforest of Vietnam.  The targets are individuals and, since the United States claims the right to target them wherever they are found, this partly explains the dispersed geography of what I’ve called ‘the everywhere war’.   What interests Issacharoff and Pildes, like Kahn, is not so much the technology that makes this possible as the apparatus that makes it permissible.

Their presentation wavers uncertainly between counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism, and they also write more generally of ‘the new face of warfare’ and the use of ‘military force’, so that (as now happens in practice) the distinctions between the US military and the CIA become blurred.  But their core argument is that military force is now directed against specific individuals on the basis of determinate acts that they have committed or, by pre-emptive extension, are likely to commit.  In Kahn’s terms, this inaugurates a radically different (though in his eyes, highly unstable) political subjectivity through which the enemy is transformed into the criminal.  ‘The criminal is always an individual,’ Kahn explains; ‘the enemy is not.’

For Issacharoff and Pildes this new state of affairs requires an ‘adjudicative apparatus’ to positively identify, detect and prosecute the individual-as-target, which drives the military system ever closer to the judicial system:

 ‘As the fundamental transformation in the practice of the uses of military force moves, even implicitly, toward an individuated model of responsibility, military force inevitably begins to look justified in similar terms to the uses of punishment in the criminal justice system. That is, to the extent that someone can be targeted for the use of military force (capture, detention, killing) only because of the precise, specific acts in which he or she as an individual participated, military force now begins to look more and more like an implicit “adjudication” of individual responsibility.’

They suggest that this makes it inevitable that the boundaries between the military system and the judicial system ‘will become more permeable’ – a confirmation of the active constitution of the war/police assemblage (on which see Colleen Bell, Jan Bachmann and Caroline Holmqvist’s forthcoming collection, The New Interventionism: perspectives on war-police assemblages).

Kahn is, I think, much more troubled by this than Issacharoff and Pildes.  He concludes (like Chamayou):

‘Political violence is no longer between states with roughly symmetrical capacities to injure each other; violence no longer occurs on a battlefield between masses of uniformed combatants; and those involved no longer seem morally innocent. The drone is both a symbol and a part of the dynamic destruction of what had been a stable imaginative structure. It captures all of these changes: the engagement occurs in a normalized time and space, the enemy is not a state, the target is not innocent, and there is no reciprocity of risk. We can call this situation ‘war’, but it is no longer clear exactly what that means.

‘The use of drones signals a zone of exception to law that cannot claim the sovereign warrant. It represents statecraft as the administration of death. Neither warfare nor law enforcement, this new form of violence is best thought of as the high-tech form of a regime of disappearance. States have always had reasons to eliminate those who pose a threat. In some cases, the victims doubtlessly got what they deserved. There has always been a fascination with these secret acts of state, but they do not figure in the publicly celebrated narrative of the state. Neither Clausewitz nor Kant, but Machiavelli is our guide in this new war on terror.’

He is thoroughly alarmed at the resuscitation of what he calls ‘the history of administrative death’, whereas Issacharoff and Pildes – ironically, given what I take to be their geopolitical sympathies –treat the institution and development of an ‘adjudicative apparatus’ within the US programme of targeted killings as a vindication of their execution (sic).

I want to set aside other contributions to the emerging discussion over the ‘individuation’ of warfare – like Gabriella Blum‘s depiction of an ‘individual-centred regime’ of military conduct, which pays close attention to its unstable movement between nationalism and cosmopolitanism – in order to raise some questions about the selectivity of ‘individuation’ as a techno-legal process.  I intend that term to connote three things.

Target phase

(1) First, and most obviously, Issacharoff and Pildes fasten on the technical procedures that have been developed to administer targeted killings – which include both the ‘disposition matrix’ [see here] and its derivatives and the more directly instrumental targeting cycle [the diagram above shows the ‘Target’ phase of the Find-Fix-Track-Target-Engage-Assess cycle] , both of which admit legal opinions and formularies – that convert targeted killing into what Adi Ophir calls a quasi-juridical process.  This encoding works to contract the ethical horizon to the legal-juridical (see here for a critical commentary) while simultaneously diverting attention from the substantive practice – which, as I showed in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), is shot through with all sorts of limitations that confound the abstract calculations of the targeting cycle (see, for example, Gregory McNeal here, who turns ‘accountability’ into accountancy).

(2) Second, ‘individuation’ refers to the production of the individual as a technical artefact of targeting.  S/he is someone who is apprehended as a screen image and a network trace;  s/he may be named in the case of a ‘personality strike’ but this serves only as an identifier in a target file, and the victims of ‘signature strikes‘ are not accorded even this limited status.  Others who are killed in the course of the strike almost always remain unidentified by those responsible for their deaths – ‘collateral damage’ whose anonymity confirms on them no individuality but only a collective ascription.  (For more, see Thomas Gregory, ‘Potential lives, impossible deaths: Afghanistan, civilian casualties and the politics of intelligibility’, International Feminist Journal of Politics 14 (3) (2012) 327-47; and ‘Naming names’ here).

(3) Third, the adjudication of ‘individual responsibility’ bears directly on the production of the target but not, so it seems, on the producers of the target.  Lucy Suchmann captures this other side – ‘our’ side – in a forthcoming essay in Mediatropes (‘Situational awareness: deadly bioconvergence at the boundaries of bodies and machines’):

‘A corollary to the configuration of “their” bodies as targets to be killed is the specific way in which “our” bodies are incorporated into war fighting assemblages as operating agents, at the same time that the locus of agency becomes increasingly ambiguous and diffuse. These are twin forms of contemporary bioconvergence, as all bodies are locked together within a wider apparatus characterized by troubling lacunae and unruly contingencies.’

Caroline Holmqvist, sharpens the same point in ‘Undoing war: war ontologies and the materiality of drone warfare’, Millennium (1 May 2013) d.o.i. 10.1177/0305829813483350); so too, and more directly relevant to the operations of a techno-legal process,  does Joseph Pugliese‘s figure of drone crews as ’embodied prostheses of the law of war grafted on to their respective technologies’.

These various contributions identify a dispersion of responsibility across the network in which the drone crews are embedded and through which they are constituted.  The technical division of labour is also a social division of labour – so that no individual bears the burden of killing another individual – but the social division of labour is also a technical division of labour through which ‘agency’ is conferred upon what Pugliese calls its prostheses:

‘Articulated in this blurring of lines of accountability is a complex network of prostheticised and tele-techno mediated relations and relays that can no longer be clearly demarcated along lines of categorical divisibility: such is precisely the logic of the prosthetic. As the military now attempts to grapple with this prostheticised landscape of war, it inevitably turns to technocratic solutions to questions of accountability concerning lethal drone strikes that kill the wrong targets.’

If the mandated technical procedures (1 above) fail to execute a sanctioned target (2 above) and if this triggers an investigation, the typical military response is to assign responsibility to the improper performance of particular individuals (which protects the integrity of the process) and/or to technical malfunctions or inefficiencies in the network and its instruments (which prompts technical improvements).  What this does not do – is deliberately designed not to do – is to probe the structure of this ‘techno-legal economy of war at a distance’ (Pugliese’s phrase) that turns, as I’ve tried to suggest, on a highly particular sense of individuation.  Still less do these inquiries disclose the ways in which, to paraphrase Weizman, ‘drones legislate’ by admitting or enrolling into this techno-legal economy particular subjectivities and forcefully excluding others .

More to come.


Note: Here are the citations for Issacharoff and Pildes’ full argument(s); the first is excerpted from the second, which deals with ‘capture’ (detention) as well as killing:

Samuel Issacharoff and Richard Pildes, ‘Drones and the dilemma of modern warfare’, in Peter Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg (eds) Drone wars: the transformation of armed conflict and the promise of law (Cambridge University Press, 2013); available here as NYU School of Law, Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series Working Paper No. 13-34, June 2013

Samuel Ischaroff and Richard Pildes, ‘Targeted warfare: individuating enemy responsibility’, NYU School of Law, Public Law & Legal Theory Working Papers 343 (April 2013); available here.

Precarious journeys

Much of last week was taken up with working out a new project for the next round of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council’s Insight Grant programme.  A ‘Notification of Intent’ to apply is required (I’m deliberately not saying ‘needed’) before you can actually apply in October – but since the NOI requires a plain-language summary and a figure for the total budget most of the planning has to be done months before the application.  I could fill a whole blog – and other non-digital receptacles – about the sense in all that; suffice to say I hit the button ten seconds (sic) before the electronic shutters came down.

The application is for a project called Medical-Military Machines and the Casualties of War: Genealogies and Geographies of Care.


One of the central claims made by protagonists of later modern war is that its conduct is accurate and proportionate, legal and ethical, thereby raising the bar for ‘just’ or, as James Der Derian has it, ‘virtuous’ war (and as most readers will know, he would insist on those scare-quotes).  It has done so, its advocates argue, by limiting casualties through new modes of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, new weapons systems, and new modes of accountability.  I explore these issues in my ongoing SSHRC project, Killing Space (DOWNLOADS tab)not least through my continuing study of drones (much more to come!) and this project maps its other, vitally important dimension – a sort of ‘Caring Space’ – in order to provide an indispensable substantive test for these claims.

The project concerns the provision of medical care for those wounded by military and paramilitary violence, casualties who are often overlooked in vexed but vital debates over ‘body counts’ and what constitutes (following Judith Butler) a grievable life.  I’m not going to ignore those matters, far from it, but my main concern will be on the survivors of military violence.  As I’ll explain in a moment, I want to analyse both combatant and civilian casualties, and so confound the simplistic politics in which the right is supposed to care about the one and the left about the other.

The project will involve both genealogy and geography.  I’m using ‘genealogy’ in something like the Foucauldian sense, but all I’ll say here is that historical depth is plainly essential to specify what is (and is not) novel about the ways in which advanced militaries wage war.  So the project will involve four case studies focusing on the United States and its allies.  The first three are the Western Front in World War I, North Africa in World War II, and South Vietnam (1963-1975) .  In this traverse from ‘total war’ to James Gibson’s ‘techno-war’ I’m planning to leverage my work on ‘The natures of war’.  While researching that presentation and long-form essay – which will eventually appear in War Material – I found  a treasure-trove of sources that I want to explore in much more depth and detail for this new project.  The fourth case study will involve the cluster of wars in the Greater Middle East post 9/11, and while much of this has been familiar ground for me ever since I started writing The colonial present, there are many new issues to address – including the deliberate targeting of hospitals and medical doctors by some factions and what Omar Dewachti calls the ‘therapeutic geographies’ involved in the transnational movement of war casualties from (say) Iraq, Libya and Syria to hospitals in Lebanon, Jordan and India.

The project has three components that address different geographies of casualty care.


MAYHEW Wounded(1) Modern military medicine has sought to provide immediate care for troops injured in combat as close to the site of the injury as possible by deploying medical personnel and equipment in forward positions, and establishing evacuation routes for more seriously injured patients to higher-order medical facilities in the rear.  These systems have been transformed by technical advances designed to increase the time-space compression of treatment: the more widespread use of motorized ambulances in the Western Desert, for example, and helicopters for medical evacuation (‘dust-off’) in Vietnam and later conflicts. I plan to reconstruct these networks and their transnational extensions and to calibrate the changing transit times, and then to turn these skeletal geometries into human geographies through diaries, letters and, as we near the present, interviews, that I hope will bring into view the multiple people involved in these precarious, fleshy, and profoundly intimate journeys.  My inspiration for this is a series of thought-provoking essays in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps (really), which provide a way in to the geometries and networks, and (very different) Emily Mayhew‘s Wounded: from Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918, due out next month, which uses the idea of a ‘journey’ in what could develop into a sort of phenomenology of care; I’ll say some more about some of this in a later post.

AEF Evacuation system WWI

The other two components follow from a remark made by Michel Foucault in ‘The Eye of Power’.  There he suggested that ‘doctors, along with the military, were the first managers of collective space’, but he assigned them to different spaces (‘campaigns’ versus ‘habitations’). Instead I want to explore what happens when military and medicine are called upon to imagine and manage the same space and install what, following the example of Mark Harrison, I’m calling a ‘medical-military machine’ in a war-zone.  So I’ll be following two tracks that are usually kept separate – civilian and combatant casualties (and here I want to extend the ongoing debates over their distinction from an abstract legal to a substantive therapeutic terrain) – and tracing the junctions where they intersect, in order to establish two other, complementary and sometimes countervailing geographies of care.


(2) There is an important sense in which modern war has always been ‘war amongst the people’: this is not a late twentieth-century preoccupation.  Images of ‘No Man’s Land’ on the Western Front distract attention from the injuries suffered by civilian populations who continued to inhabit houses and work farms behind the front lines, for example, while ground and air offensives in South Vietnam produced hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.  So a second question is this: in what ways and in what places have militaries assumed medical responsibility for civilian casualties before and beyond the parameters of the Medical Civic Action Programs of contemporary counterinsurgency?

Secours Quaker

REDFIELD Life in Crisis MSF(3) Conversely, the military has not been the only agency making medical interventions in war-zones, and this is not a late twentieth century development either.  Civilian hospitals are increasingly important in today’s urban wars (where they often become targets too), but I want to pay particular attention to the work of international agencies.  I plan to analyse two voluntary organisations, the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and the American Field Service in the two world wars, and (I hope) two contemporary NGOs, the most obvious candidates being the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières.  I’m not assuming any direct filiations, and I’ll no doubt find all sorts of differences between them (particularly between the earlier and the later ones), but I’m particularly interested in the tensions between what at the moment I see as a common, more or less cosmopolitan engagement and the imperative to provide place-specific casualty care (and the logistics of doing so).   So a third question revolves around the rise of a ‘militarized humanism’ and the emergence of what Didier Fassin calls  ‘humanitarian reason’ as, perhaps, a form of governmentality.

This really is just a bare-bones summary, and since I have another two months to flesh it out I’d really welcome any advice, suggestions or criticisms.  As I’ve described the project here you can see, I hope, that my case-studies and the questions I think they’ll enable me to address arise at the intersections of medical and military geography but also involve political, cultural and legal geographies.  And, as ever, those geographies all have a stubbornly little g: this really isn’t a disciplinary project.


Some recent open access work on drones that intersects with my ongoing reading of Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.

Theorie du droneFirst, Philippe Theophanidis, a PhD student at the Université de Montréal, writes with the welcome news that he’s developed an online bibliography of English and French language materials, Grégoire Chamayou: bodies, manhunts and drones, available here.

Philippe’s own research concerns the theory of community in Jean-Luc Nancy and Roberto Esposito.  He adds:

‘I’m especially preoccupied by the fact that our contemporary mode of being-together paradoxically takes the form of destructive interactions. For that reason, I’m interested about war and space in general, and more precisely about “global civil war” (Schmitt) or war in the time of globalization. That’s why Chamayou’s new book caught my attention when it came out.’

Second, another contribution to the ramifying genealogy of drones that I’ve addressed in several previous posts (for example here and here): at OSU’s Origins: current events in historical perspective, Kenneth Hough provides an extended essay on what he calls ‘the long cultural history of drones’.  He adds some interesting material, most of it about the ways in which drones have been registered in American popular culture:

Since their emergence in the late nineteenth century, Americans have regarded unmanned aerial systems as four basic cultural phenomena: heralds of human accomplishment and hope for the future, signs of inhuman depravity portending society’s doom, mechanical misfires that are both ineffective and humorous, and transcendent machines that spark existential questions about war and society, tapping into what David Nye calls our “fundamental hopes and fears.”

But his long cultural history turns out to be a remarkably narrow cultural geography in which – apart from an excursus on V-1 rockets in the Second World War – experimental laboratories outside the United States (notably Britain and Israel) disappear from view.  For all that, I’m surprised that James Cameron‘s Avatar isn’t on his cultural hit list (though I know Cameron’s Canadian): to see what I mean, and for a more general cultural critique, check out Patrick Lichty‘s interesting essay, Drone: camera, weapon, toy on ‘the aestheticization of dark technology’.

The Atlantic September 2013 Drone warriorWhich brings me to my last sighting: Mark Bowden‘s cover essay in the latest (September) issue of Atlantic on ‘The Killing Machines: how to think about drones‘.  Despite the subtitle, much of Bowden’s extended essay asks how we should feel about drones.

Anyone familiar with his previous work (from Black Hawk Down on) probably won’t be surprised by his ultimate take on matters, and the early online comments show that he’s set off a firestorm of protest by what several writers call his ‘apologia’.

As a matter of fact, I think the essay is more complicated than that, and Bowden does address one of the central issues that Chamayou returns to again and again, the ways in which remote (split) operations transform the very nature of ‘combat’:

Drone strikes are a far cry from the atomic vaporizing of whole cities, but the horror of war doesn’t seem to diminish when it is reduced in scale. If anything, the act of willfully pinpointing a human being and summarily executing him from afar distills war to a single ghastly act.

One day this past January, a small patrol of marines in southern Afghanistan was working its way at dusk down a dirt road not far from Kandahar, staying to either side to avoid planted bombs, when it unexpectedly came under fire. The men scattered for cover. A battered pickup truck was closing in on them and popping off rounds from what sounded like a big gun.

Continents away, in a different time zone, a slender 19-year-old American soldier sat at a desk before a large color monitor, watching this action unfold in startlingly high definition. He had never been near a battlefield. He had graduated from basic training straight out of high school, and was one of a select few invited to fly Predators. This was his first time at the controls, essentially a joystick and the monitor. The drone he was flying was roughly 15,000 feet above the besieged patrol, each member marked clearly in monochrome on his monitor by an infrared uniform patch. He had been instructed to watch over the patrol, and to “stay frosty,” meaning: Whatever happens, don’t panic. No one had expected anything to happen. Now something was happening.

The young pilot zoomed in tight on the approaching truck. He saw in its bed a .50-caliber machine gun, a weapon that could do more damage to an army than a platoon of Goliaths.

A colonel, watching over his shoulder, said, “They’re pinned down pretty good. They’re gonna be screwed if you don’t do something.”

The colonel told the pilot to fix on the truck. A button on the joystick pulled up a computer-generated reticle, a grid displaying exact ground coordinates, distance, direction, range, etc. Once the computer locked on the pickup, it stayed zeroed in on the moving target.

“Are you ready to help?” the colonel asked.

An overlay on the grid showed the anticipated blast radius of an AGM-114 Hellfire missile—the drone carried two. Communicating via a digital audio link, the colonel instructed the men on the ground to back away, then gave them a few seconds to do so.

The pilot scrutinized the vehicle. Those who have seen unclassified clips of aerial attacks have only a dim appreciation of the optics available to the military and the CIA.

“I could see exactly what kind of gun it was in back,” the pilot told me later. “I could see two men in the front; their faces were covered. One was in the passenger seat and one was in the driver’s seat, and then one was on the gun, and I think there was another sitting in the bed of the truck, but he was kind of obscured from my angle.”

On the radio, they could hear the marines on the ground shouting for help.

“Fire one,” said the colonel.

The Hellfire is a 100-pound antitank missile, designed to destroy an armored vehicle. When the blast of smoke cleared, there was only a smoking crater on the dirt road.

“I was kind of freaked out,” the pilot said. “My whole body was shaking. It was something that was completely different. The first time doing it, it feels bad almost. It’s not easy to take another person’s life. It’s tough to think about. A lot of guys were congratulating me, telling me, ‘You protected them; you did your job. That’s what you are trained to do, supposed to do,’ so that was good reinforcement. But it’s still tough.”

One of the things that nagged at him, and that was still bugging him months later, was that he had delivered this deathblow without having been in any danger himself. The men he killed, and the marines on the ground, were at war. They were risking their hides. Whereas he was working his scheduled shift in a comfortable office building, on a sprawling base, in a peaceful country. It seemed unfair. He had been inspired to enlist by his grandfather’s manly stories of battle in the Korean War. He had wanted to prove something to himself and to his family, to make them as proud of him as they had been of his Pop-Pop.

“But this was a weird feeling,” he said. “You feel bad. You don’t feel worthy. I’m sitting there safe and sound, and those guys down there are in the thick of it, and I can have more impact than they can. It’s almost like I don’t feel like I deserve to be safe.”

I’ve described this identification with troops on the ground before, what one of Bowden’s correspondents calls ‘a very visceral connection to operations on the ground’.  And Bowden is stacking the deck by starting with what the US military calls ‘Troops in Contact‘ in Afghanistan rather than CIA-directed targeted killing in Pakistan: only later will he turn to the legal and quasi-legal landscape through which those strikes pass (more on this in a later post) .  But he then adds this:

If the soldier who pulls the trigger in safety feels this, consider the emotions of those on the receiving end, left to pick up the body parts of their husbands, fathers, brothers, friends. Where do they direct their anger? When the wrong person is targeted, or an innocent bystander is killed, imagine the sense of impotence and rage. How do those who remain strike back? No army is arrayed against them, no airfield is nearby to be attacked. If they manage to shoot down a drone, what have they done but disable a small machine? No matter how justified a strike seems to us, no matter how carefully weighed and skillfully applied, to those on the receiving end it is profoundly arrogant, the act of an enemy so distant and superior that he is untouchable.

As I say, more to come…

Theory of the drone 9: Psychopathologies of the drone

This is the ninth in a series of extended posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone and covers the fourth chapter in Part II, Ethos and psyche.

4 Psychopathologies of the drone

One of the most common media tropes in discussing ‘a day in the life’ of drone operators is their vulnerability to stress and, in particular, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Chamayou traces this to an Associated Press report by Scott Lindlaw in August 2008, which claimed that the crews who ‘operate Predator drones over Iraq via remote control, launching deadly missile attacks from the safety of Southern California 7,000 miles away, are suffering some of the same psychological stresses as their comrades on the battlefield.’  Similar stories have circulated in other media reports.  The root claim is that, unlike pilots of conventional strike aircraft, drone crews see the results of their actions in close-up detail through their Full-Motion Video feeds and that they are required to remain on station to carry out a Battle Damage Assessment that often involves an inventory of body parts.

One recent study, ‘Killing in High Definition‘ by Scott Fitzsimmons and Karina Singha, presented at the International Studies Association in San Francisco earlier this year, makes the truly eye-popping suggestion that:

‘To reduce RPA operators’ exposure to the stress-inducing traumatic imagery associated with conducting airstrikes against human targets, the USAF should integrate graphical overlays into the visual sensor displays in the operators’ virtual cockpits. These overlays would, in real-time, mask the on-screen human victims of RPA airstrikes from the operators who carry them out with sprites or other simple graphics designed to dehumanize the victims’ appearance and, therefore, prevent the operators from seeing and developing haunting visual memories of the effects of their weapons.’

But in his original report Lindlaw admitted that ‘in interviews with five of the dozens of pilots and sensor operators at the various bases, none said they had been particularly troubled by their mission’, and Chamayou contends that the same discursive strategy – a bold claim discretely followed by denials – is common to most media reports of the stresses supposedly suffered by drone crews.  More: he juxtaposes the crews’ own denial of anything out of the ordinary with the scorn displayed towards their remote missions by pilots of conventional strike aircraft who, in online chatrooms and message boards, regard the very idea as an insult to those who daily risk their lives in combat.

The argument Chamayou develops closely follows William Saletan‘s commentary in Slate:

[The AP story] shows that operating a real hunter, killer, or spy aircraft from the faraway safety of a game-style console affects some operators in a way that video games don’t. But it doesn’t show that firing a missile from a console feels like being there — or that it haunts the triggerman the same way. Indeed, the paucity of evidence — despite the brutal work shifts, the superior video quality, and the additional burden of watching the target take the hit — suggests that it feels quite different.

Chamayou’s reading is more aggressive.  In his eyes, the repeated claim of vulnerability to stress emerged as a concerted response to criticisms of the supposed ‘Playstation mentality’ that attends remote killing and its reduction of war to a videogame.  He insists that it’s little more than an attempt to apply ‘a veneer of humanity to an instrument of mechanical murder’ – ‘crying crocodile tears’ before devouring the prey – and that it rests on absolutely no empirical foundation. This raises the stakes, of course, and it’s only fair to note that Lindlaw’s interviews with drone crews did not talk up combat-related stress and in fact a USAF white paper dismissed as ‘sensational’ the claim that PTSD rates among RPA crews were higher than those suffered by their forward-deployed counterparts.

Indeed, Chamayou himself relies on a public lecture given by Colonel Hernando Ortega, a senior medical officer attached to the USAF Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency in February 2012.  Ortega reported USAF research that showed – conclusively – that drone crews are subject to often extraordinary stress.  But this is primarily a matter of their conditions of work – the demands of paying close attention to a screen hour after hour – and the rapid shift alternations between work and home (‘telecommuting to the war zone’) that allow little or no time or space for decompression.  Ortega explained that the symptoms rarely rise to the level of PTSD and are primarily the product of ‘operational stress’ rather than the result of combat-induced exposure to violence.

‘They don’t say [they are stressed] because we had to blow up a building. They don’t say because we saw people get blown up. That’s not what causes their stress — at least subjectively to them. It’s all the other quality of life things that everybody else would complain about too.’

Ortega could think of only one sensor operator who had been diagnosed with PTSD – a study by Wayne Chapelle, Amber Salinas and Lt Col Kent McDonald from the Department of Neurosurgery at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine reported that 4 per cent of active duty RPA pilots and sensor operators were at ‘high risk for PTSD’ – but Ortega’s research questionnaires often revealed a sort of self-doubt over whether drone crews had made the right call when coming to the aid of troops in conflict rather than a direct response to a ‘physical threat event’:

‘Now it’s not to say that they don’t really feel about the physical threat to their brothers who are on the ground up there.  The band of brothers … is not just in the unit. I believe it’s on the network, and I believe the communication tools that are out there has extended the band of brothers mentality to these crews who are in contact with guys on the ground. They know each other from the chat rooms. They know each other from the whatever, however they communicate. They do it every day, same thing all the time…. So that piece of the stress, I think, when something bad happens, that really is out there…’

This sounds to me like the situation I described in ‘From a view to a kill’ (DOWNLOADS tab): the networked nature of remote operations draws operators into the conflict (which is why they so often insist that they are only 18″ from the battlefield, the distance from eye to screen) but on highly unequal, techno-culturally mediated terms that predispose them to identify with troops on the ground rather than with any others (or Others) in the immediate vicinity.  What Chamayou takes from all this is Ortega’s conclusion:

‘The major findings of the work so far has been that the popularized idea of watching the combat was really not what was producing the most just day to day stress for these guys. Now there are individual cases — like I said, particularly with, for instance, when something goes wrong — a friendly fire incident or other things like that. Those things produce a lot of stress and … more of an existential kind of guilt… could I have done better? Did I make the right choices? What could I have done more?’

DSM -5In fact for Chamayou the very idea of drone crews experiencing PTSD is an absurdity.  According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM -5, 2013; revised from the previous version cited by Chamayou, this incorporates major changes from DSM-IV, but these do not materially alter his main point), PTSD is a trauma and stressor-related disorder brought about by exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.   The American Psychiatric Association explains:

The exposure must result from one or more of the following scenarios, in which the individual:

• directly experiences the traumatic event;

• witnesses the traumatic event in person;

• learns that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend (with the actual or threatened death being either violent or accidental); or

• experiences first-hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (not through media, pictures, television or movies unless work-related).

Drone crews do not ‘directly experience’ any traumatic event, Chamayou insists, and far from being ‘witnesses’  they are the perpetrators of trauma.  Those last three words in the extract I’ve just quoted do open up a third scenario – which would leave open the possibility of being affected by high-definition exposure through the FMV feeds and the Battle Damage Assessments performed by drone crews – but Chamayou hones the role of the perpetrator to explore a different though not unrelated scenario.

He takes his cue from Karl Abraham‘s discussion of neuroses in the First World War:

‘It is not only demanded of these men in the field that they must tolerate dangerous situations — a purely “passive performance — but there is a second demand which has been much too little considered, I allude to the aggressive acts for which the soldier must be hourly prepared, for besides the readiness to die, the readiness to kill is demanded of him…. [In our patients the anxiety as regards killing is of a similar significance to that of dying.’

51nCFmy0gdLChamayou is most interested in the development of this line of thought by psychologist/sociologist Rachel MacNair, who widens the field of PTSD to incorporate what she calls Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS): you can find a quick summary here.  (McNair is a long-time peace activist and in accordance with the ‘consistent life ethic’ she has used her work on PITS to intervene in what she calls ‘the abortion wars’; she is also associated with the Center for Global Nonkilling: see here).

Her book was written too early to address the use of drones for remote killing, but Chamayou suggests that this would be an appropriate means of putting their ‘psychopathologies’ to the test.  He thinks that individual operators lie somewhere between two poles: either they are indifferent to killing at a distance (the screen as barrier) or they feel culpable for the violence they have inflicted (the screen forcing them to confront the consequences of their actions).  It is, he concludes, an open question: though his next chapter on ‘Killing at a distance’ proposes a series of answers.

In fact, the USAF recognises the distinct possibility of PITS affecting drone crews, as this slide from a presentation by Chappelle and McDonald shows:


This year MacNair became President of Division 48 (Peace Psychology) of the American Psychological Association and instituted three Presidential Task Forces, the first of which specifically addresses drones.  She writes:

‘Task Force 1 is examining “The Psychological Issues of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Weaponized drones).” This will focus on the flying robots that kill, not the ones doing surveillance, nor the consumer drones that loom on the horizon. this is a very new field, with very little literature. We’ll look at what the psychological impact is on operators of the systems, the bureaucracy, surviving victims, and special therapeutic needs. The task force email for any feed-back or good literature citations or to request the full list of questions is dronetF@’

The newsletter also includes a short statement from the next President of the Division, Brad Olson, setting out ‘Some thoughts for the Drone Task Force’ and an article by Marc Pilisuk on ‘The new face of war’.

Peace Psychology

Let me add three other comments.

(1) To limit the discussion to PTSD is to set the bar very high indeed, and the evidence of lower-level combat-induced stress on drone crews is less straightforward than Chamayou makes out.  In March 2013 Jean Otto and Bryant Webber reported the results of a study of ‘mental health outcomes’ covering the period 1 October 2003 to 31 December 2011 for 709 drone (RPA) pilots and 5, 526 pilots of manned aircraft (MA); they found that the crude incidence of adjustment, anxiety, depressive and other disorders among RPA pilots was considerably higher than for MA pilots, but once the samples were adjusted for age, number of deployments and other factors the ‘incidence rates among the cohorts did not significantly differ’ (my emphasis).

MH outcomes USAF

The study was experimental in all sorts of ways and it does not – could not – provide a fine-grained analysis of the nature of the pilots’ exposure to violence.  We should bear in mind, too, that the study was inevitably limited by inhibitions, both formal and informal, on admitting to any form of stress within the military.  But the report does suggest that it is a mistake to separate drone crews from the wider matrix of military violence and its effects in which they are embedded.

brandon-bryant-e1369021667128(2) If Chamayou is right in his suspicion that all this talk of drone crews being affected by what they see on their screens was a concerted strategy designed to disarm claims that remote operations reduce war to a videogame – in which case, not everybody in the Air Force was singing the same tune – the fact that most of them turn out to conduct their missions with equanimity does not prove the critics right: it does not follow that they take their responsibilities less seriously or more casually than the pilots of conventional strike aircraft.  Pilots and sensor operators undoubtedly have recourse to gallows humour (Chamayou would no doubt say that this befits their role as ‘executioners’), and there are too many reported instances of language that I too find repugnant, though I see no reason not to expect the same amongst military personnel of all stripes.  But there is also anecdotal evidence of situations in which pilots and their crews have been deeply affected by what they saw (and, yes, did).  The testimony of at least one former operator, Brandon Bryant (above, left), who has been diagnosed with PTSD, suggests that those involved probably move between these extremes – between the two poles proposed by Chamayou – dis/connecting as their actions and reactions entangle with events on the screen/ground.

(3) The most careful review I know of what is a complicated and contentious field is Peter Asaro, ‘The labor of surveillance and bureaucratized killing: new subjectivities of military drone operators, Social semiotics 23 (2) (2013) 196-22.  This combines medico-military studies, media reports and an artful reading of Omer Fast‘s film, 5,000 Feet is the Best.  as Peter says, there are many jobs that involve surveillance and many jobs that involve killing, but

‘What makes drone operators particularly interesting as subjects is not only that their work combines surveillance and killing, but also that it sits at an intersection of multiple networks of power and technology and visibility and invisibility, and their work is a focal point for debates about the ethics of killing, the effectiveness of military strategies for achieving political goals, the cultural and political significance of lethal robotics, and public concerns over the further automation of surveillance and killing.’

It’s a tour de force that navigates a careful passage between the ‘heroic’ and ‘anti-heroic’ myth of drones.  Here is what I take to be the key passage from his conclusion:

‘On the one hand, drone operators do not treat their job in the cavalier manner of a video game, but they do recognize the strong resemblance between the two. Many drone operators are often also videogame players in their free time, and readily acknowledge certain similarities in the technological interfaces of each. Yet the drone operators are very much aware of the reality of their actions, and the consequences it has on the lives and deaths of the people they watch via video streams from half a world away, as they bear witness to the violence of their own lethal decisions. What they are less aware of … is that their work involves the active construction of interpretations. The bodies and actions in the video streams are not simply ‘‘given’’ as soldiers, civilians, and possible insurgents – they are actively constructed as such. And in the process of this construction the technology plays both an enabling and mediating role. I use the term ‘‘mediating’’ here to indicate that it is a role of translation, not of truth or falsity directly, but of transformation and filtering. On the one hand there is the thermal imaging that provides a view into a mysterious and hidden world of relative temperatures. And thus these drone technologies offer a vision that contains more than the human alone could ever see. On the other hand we can see that the lived world of human experience, material practices, social interactions, and cultural meanings that they are observing are difficult to properly interpret and fully understand, and that even the highest resolution camera cannot resolve the uncertainties and misinterpretations. There is a limit to the fidelity that mediation itself can provide, insofar as it cannot provide genuine social participation and direct engagement. This applies not only to both surveillance and visuality, which is necessarily incomplete, but also to the limited forms of action and engagement that mediating technologies permit. While a soldier on the ground can use his or her hands to administer medical aid, or push a stalled car, as easily as they can hold a weapon, the drone operator can only observe and choose to kill or not to kill. Within this limited range of action, meaningful social interaction is fundamentally reduced to sorting the world into friends, enemies, and potential enemies, as no other categories can be meaningfully acted upon.’

There’s a discussion of these various issues, including many of the people mentioned in this post, at HuffPost Live here.

Lightning strikes


I’ve posted about this remarkable project before.  The Air Force Research Institute has now made available online its historical database of air strikes.  Although a USAF project, the Theater History of Operations Reports is not confined to US airstrikes but includes allied strikes; the main focus is on World War I (from June 1916), World War II and Vietnam (from 1965-1969, though I haven’t yet checked whether this includes Laos and Cambodia).

The original description of the Project included the Korean War, Desert Storm (1991), Allied Force (1999), Afghanistan (2001 on) and Iraq (2003-11), but these are still classified and not yet available online.  Here is the architect of the project, Lt Col Jenns Roberston, explaining the background:

That was a year ago.  There’s now a Quick Start Guide here, and you can download the full, unclassified database and also ‘Grab and Go’ files for Google Earth.  Latest background information here.

Here’s a grab of Allied bombing in Europe and the Mediterranean during World War II, though the key here is obviously to disaggregate and refine the data – which is precisely what the database allows.  The red squares on the map are B-17 strikes but these overlay (for example) the orange squares of Wellington bombers so the impression at this scale is not particularly helpful.

THOR screenshot USAAF and RAF bombing in Europe WWII

And while we’re on the subject of World War II, don’t forget the Bomb Sight project, which maps the London Blitz in extraordinary detail: more here.

It’s important to look beyond Europe, of course.  Roberston, who started work on the database in 2006, told the Air Force Times that he was surprised at the level of Allied bombing in the Pacific theater:

“We were blown away – no pun intended – by the level of bombing that was taking place, not only in the South Pacific  but also in Burma, which is something that nobody looks at; Formosa, currently known as Taiwan; and the Philippines – how heavily those regions were bombed in the lead-up to bombing Japan proper.”

On bombing ‘Japan proper’ in World War II, as I’ve noted previously, the very best source is Japan Air

If anyone else is working through the disaggregated database too, do let me know how you get on.

Theory of the drone 8: From invisibility to vulnerability

This is the eighth in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone and covers the third chapter in Part II, Ethos and psyche.

3: Crisis in military ethos

The track that Chamayou beats in this chapter is (perhaps appropriately) a tortured one: it twists from the invulnerability of the hunter through his defencelessness to his vulnerability to psychic harm.  And, as you’ll see, those gendered pronouns are a critical part of his argument.

Gyges (left) from Der König Kandaules

He begins with the story of Gyges.  In classical mythology Gyges was a shepherd who discovered a magical ring that could make him invisible.  Armed with his new power, Gyges eventually killed the king, married the queen and seized the throne.  ‘Invisibility’, Chamayou notes, ‘conferred upon him a kind of invulnerability.’  In Plato’s Republic the story is used to ask searching questions about virtue and justice: what happens to morality, to virtue, if it becomes possible to evade responsibility for one’s actions?

The dilemma is no longer confined to the realm of story-telling or philosophical speculation, Chamayou argues, because the thought-experiment has been realised through the political technology of the drone.  The modern answer to Plato’s question is now all too clear: invisibility produces not only invulnerability but also impunity.  In fact, in an Op-Ed last year on ‘The moral hazard of drones’ two American academics, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, suggested that the myth of Gyges does indeed find its most telling contemporary application in the use of drones for remote killing:

One might argue that the myth of Gyges is a suitable allegory to describe the combatants who have attacked and killed American civilians and troops in the last 10 years. A shepherd from the Middle East discovers that he has the power of invisibility, the power to strike a fatal blow against a more powerful adversary, the power to do so without getting caught, the power to benefit from his deception. These, after all, are the tactics of terrorism.

But the myth of Gyges is really a story about modern counterterrorism, not terrorism.

We believe a stronger comparison can be made between the myth and the moral dangers of employing precision guided munitions and drone technologies to target suspected terrorists. What is distinctive about the tale of Gyges is the ease with which he can commit murder and get away scot-free. The technological advantage provided by the ring ends up serving as the justification of its use.

Terrorists, whatever the moral value of their deeds, may be found and punished; as humans they are subject to retribution, whether it be corporal or legal. They may lose or sacrifice their lives. They may, in fact, be killed in the middle of the night by a drone. Because remote controlled machines cannot suffer these consequences, and the humans who operate them do so at a great distance, the myth of Gyges is more a parable of modern counterterrorism than it is about terrorism.

[You can find a different version of their critique of drone warfare, which mercifully leans on materiality rather than mythology, in ‘The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in contemporary conflict: a legal and ethical analysis’, Polity  44 (2012) 260-85, available on open access here; as I’ll show in a later post, that essay intersects more directly and substantially with Chamayou’s own critique].

Chamayou accepts the force of Plato’s original question, and evidently applauds the way in which Kaag and Kreps bring it to bear on the present,  but he thinks there is another way of putting it.  Not ‘can the invisible person be virtuous?’ but ‘what sort of “virtue” is invoked by the modern Gyges?’

He develops his answer through a thumb-nail sketch of what he sees as both a crisis in and a transformation of military ethos.  Traditional military ethos privileged courage, sacrifice and heroism, qualities that worked to make killing (Chamayou actually says ‘butchery’) acceptable, even glorious.  These virtues gave war what Clausewitz saw as its presumptive moral force, which depended on a fundamental reciprocity (sometimes called the combatant’s privilege): in order to kill with honour, the soldier must be prepared to die.  War then becomes the supreme ethical experience: ‘To wage war is to learn to die.’

But what happens, Chamayou wants to know, when all of this (apart from the killing) becomes unnecessary? When it becomes possible to kill without the risk of dying?  If the combatant’s privilege is annulled, doesn’t killing become the height of cowardice and dishonour? In the contemporary age of what Edward Luttwak called ‘post-heroic war’ – what former Air Chief Marshall Brian Burridge famously and more bluntly described as ‘virtue-less war’ – those traditional military virtues are threatened.  In short, it’s not only those living under drones who see these new weapons as cowardly, and Chamayou believes that the contradiction between the new technical means of waging war and the traditional ideology that is supposed to inform its prosecution has provoked a profound crisis in the military ethos.

In fact, he says, some of the fiercest critics of remote killing are pilots of conventional strike aircraft. Chamayou cites this song written by two F-16 pilots, Chris Kurek and Rob Raymond, who perform as Dos Gringos (more here – really):

They shot down a Predator, that’s one less slot for me
They shot down a Predator and it filled my heart with glee
I had a smile when I logged on to AFPC
They shot down a Predator, that’s one less slot for me

They shot down a Predator and I say let’s send some more
Let’s fly ‘em over Baghdad and then see what’s in store
‘Cause I heard that the Air Force wants another 24
They shot down a Predator and I say let’s send some more

They shot down a Predator and I wonder how that feels
For that operator who lost his set of wheels
It must feel so defenseless; it’s like clubbing baby seals
They shot down a Predator and I wonder how that feels

As this clip makes clear, the hostility is about more than military values: the USAF now trains more crews for remote operations than for flying conventional aircraft.  But the values in question are given a particular inflection.  It would be a mistake to read ‘clubbing baby seals’ in the last verse as a reference to striking a target that can’t strike back.  After all, the song is about a Predator being shot down, and so it homes in on their inability to fight back: on their inability to engage in combat.

What is at stake here, Chamayou suggests, is a series of ‘manly’ and masculinist virtues and even virilities.  The complaint is that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are literally ‘un-manned’ – their ‘pilots’ are not real pilots and not even real men. (You can find much more on this martial emasculation in Mary Manjikian, ‘Becoming Unmanned’ [International Feminist Journal of Politics (2013) doi: 10.1080/14616742.2012.746429]).

Even so, Chamayou is sceptical about the history being (re)written through these and similar objections.  Before announcing the end of the era of ‘manly’, heroic warfare, he suggests (in an obvious echo of Bruno Latour), we ought to ask whether ‘we’ moderns have ever fought heroic wars.  He draws attention to Walter Benjamin‘s scathing critique of a collection of essays edited by Ernst Jünger under the title War and Warrior in 1930:

‘These authors nowhere observe that the new warfare of technology and material [Materialschlacht] which appears to some of them as the highest revelation of existence,dispenses with all the wretched emblems of heroism that here and there have survived the [First] WorldWar.’

UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft SystemsFaced with this storm of criticism, Chamayou suggests, military ethicists have found it necessary to erect an altogether different version of virtuous war.  If the drone is to be considered ‘virtuous’, several writers have argued, it is first and foremost because it rules out the possibility of casualties on ‘our’ side. Chamayou will have more to say about this in a later chapter on combatant immunity, but for now he finds confirmation in a Ministry of Defence report on The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems in 2011 that, even as it acknowledged the ethical issues involved in abandoning the combatant’s privilege, nevertheless concluded that ‘use of unmanned aircraft prevents the potential loss of aircrew lives and is thus in itself morally justified.’

Statements like this bring into view an ongoing transformation from an ethic of sacrifice and courage to an ethic of auto-preservation (and, Chamayou adds, of cowardice): a sort of Revolution in Moral-Military Affairs.  The scale of traditional values is reversed, and in an Orwellian inversion words come to mean their opposite.  What used to be called cowardice is now called bravery, assassination becomes combat, and the spirit of sacrifice is turned into an object of opprobrium.  In Chamayou’s view we are witnessing not so much ‘virtue-less war’ as a vast operation to re-define the ‘virtues’ of war.


Chamayou fastens on the the Pentagon proposal late last year to award combat medals to drone operators.  Finally announcing the Distinguished Warfare Medal in February 2013, the Pentagon issued this statement:

Modern technology enables service members with special training and capabilities to more directly and precisely impact military operations at times far from the battlefield.  The Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded in the name of the secretary of defense to service members whose extraordinary achievements, regardless of their distance to the traditional combat theater, deserve distinct department-wide recognition.  

 “I have seen first-hand how modern tools like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems have changed the way wars can be fought,” said Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta.  “We should also have the ability to honor extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight.”

The proposal set off a firestorm of protest in Congress and within the Air Force and online military forums.   It was withdrawn for review in less than a month and rescinded by Panetta’s successor in April.

The saga doesn’t quite do the work Chamayou wants it to do.  He uses it to reflect on the meaning of ‘bravery in combat’ – after all, he asks, what can bravery mean in circumstances ‘physically removed from the fight’? – but the Pentagon statement made it clear that the medal was to be awarded ‘for actions in any domain but not involving acts of valor.’

Still, this does not diminish the force of Chamayou’s main line of inquiry.  From the testimony of drone operators, he concludes that bravery consists not in them putting their lives on the line but in seeing the consequences of their actions online.  Drone crews are supposed to be so deeply affected by the high-resolution full-motion video feeds from their Predators and Reapers, which show in intimate detail the corporeal results of the strikes for which they are responsible, that they become highly vulnerable to Post-Traumatic Sress Disorder.  Traditionally bravery involved putting your physical body in danger; Chamayou says that it now it seems to involve putting your psychic being at risk.

This amounts to the elevation of what he calls a ‘purely psychic heroism’.  In previous wars the soldier was both the vector of violence and its potential victim, because the reciprocity of combat called on warriors to be at once executioner and potential victim.  Today the remote warrior is still required to be the executioner, but he can also become the psychological victim of his duty as executioner.

Jane Addams and delegates to the Hague conference in 1915

Chamayou is troubled by this for two reasons.

First, the idea of psychic vulnerability – of the damage inflicted on soldiers by the trauma of killing – was given form and substance in the First World War. In 1915  Jane Addams (above) – who will, I suspect, be known to most human geographers for her other achievements, particularly her work at Hull House in Chicago – returned from the International Congress of Women at the Hague to deliver a stunning address at Carnegie Hall on “The Revolt against War”.  In it, Chamayou tells us, she spoke of nurses treating ‘delirious soldiers [who] are again and again possessed by the same hallucination – that they are in the act of pulling their bayonets out of the bodies of men they have killed’, and of five young soldiers who committed suicide ‘not because they were afraid of being killed but because they were afraid they might be put into a position where they would have to kill someone else.’  To overcome these inhibitions, she noted, soldiers were routinely given a shot of rum before they went over the top.  Addams used these testimonies to develop a courageous and principled critique of military violence, and in 1931 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  (Read her Peace and Bread in time of war here). To Chamayou’s evident disgust, the trauma of war that Addams and others exposed is now being recycled into a legitimation of targeted killing.  Like a snake eating its tail, trauma is being mobilised to restore to war the ethico-heroic temper Addams insisted it had lost through trauma.

But, second, as I’ll show in the next post in this series, Chamayou is deeply sceptical of what he calls ‘the psychopathologies of the drone’.

One last comment before I go.  I don’t think the deployment of armed drones is provoking a wholesale transformation of military ethics, because that would be to absolutise their use.  The Air Force still flies conventional strike aircraft, troops are still deployed on the ground (including Special Forces) and – as the controversy over the medal confirms – the Pentagon still insists on a difference between distinguished service and bravery.  I don’t mean that drones do not raise serious ethical questions; of course they do, and I am dismayed at how often these are trumped by arguments about the legality of military violence.  But military violence takes many different forms, and it’s important not to lose sight of the larger killing fields in which drones are embedded.

Theory of the drone 7: Historical precedent and postcolonial amnesia

This is the seventh in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone; this one covers the second chapter of Part II, Ethos and psyche.

2. ‘That others may die’

Raoul CASTEXChamayou opens with a quotation from a French naval officer, Raoul Castex, on early submarine warfare.  Castex was a naval strategist of the first water (he rose to the rank of Admiral, though he was a captain when he wrote the essay Chamayou cites).  His views were canvassed as widely as those of Alfred Thayer Mahan, and they were set out in detail in his five-volume Théories strategiques published by the Société d’Editions Géographiques, Maritimes et Coloniales between 1929 and 1935.  This was hailed as recently as 1995 in a report prepared for US Navy Doctrine Command by James Tritten as ‘perhaps the most complete theoretical survey of maritime strategy to ever appear.’

Castex was not fêted so enthusiastically in the 1920s, however, when his ‘synthesis on submarine warfare’ was seen as a defence of unrestricted German submarine attacks during the First World War.  The first attacks had been against warships, but by early 1915 – and in large measure as a response to Britain’s naval blockade – the focus switched to merchant shipping.  In the course of the war Britain lost over 12 million tons of merchant shipping to U-boats.  In Castex’s view, the success of these attacks showed that the submarine was the instrument that would overturn Britain’s naval supremacy.

Tramp steamer sinking after U-boat attack

Britain bridled at the suggestion, and Castex’s supposedly exculpatory views were quoted in (mis)translation by Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty at the Committee on Limitation of Armaments in Washington in December 1921; they were repudiated by the senior French naval delegate and provoked a fierce political and public controversy in Britain.  The British delegation had gone to the Washington conference to demand the total abolition of submarine warfare: submarines were virtually impossible to detect, and there was little defence against them (depth charges became available in early 1916, but these had minimal effect).  Before the War, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson had denounced submarines as “unfair, underhand, and damned un-British”, and during the war there were repeated condemnations of the sinking of merchantmen (and arguments over their ‘noncombatant’ status).   By 1921 the focus of debate had switched back to military targets, and the Admiralty was gravely concerned that the ‘battlefleets of the world” – crucially, of course, those of the Royal Navy – “would be at the mercy of  flotillas of submarines of improved design.”  Britain’s position was opposed by France, Italy and Japan, and the attempt at abolition failed.  Chamayou doesn’t bother with any of this detail – it’s all back-story and you can find much more here – but its relevance for drone warfare and campaigns against it should be obvious.

In his synthesis Castex noted that the practitioners of submarine warfare believed that it had finally realised the dream of risk-less warfare. Here is the passage that Chamayou cites (and its prefiguration of Chamayou’s hunting thematic could not be plainer):

‘They were invulnerable.  War should be a game for them, a sport, a kind of hunting, where, having delivered and spread murder, all that would be left for them to do would be to revel in the sight of their victims’ agony.  Meanwhile they would be safe from retaliation and, once back in port, they would busy themselves with stories of their hunting prowess.’

In Chamayou’s view, drones have reincarnated this myth – and these sentiments – in even stronger terms.  They have transformed the meaning of ‘going to war’; the traditional model of combat is now being displaced by an altogether different ‘state of violence’ that degenerates into slaughter or hunting.  One no longer fights the enemy, Chamayou contends, the enemy is simply eliminated as though one were shooting rabbits.

In the sixteenth century Chamayou says that the iconography of Death often portrayed a soldier fighting a skeleton – most famously in Holbein’s Dance of Death – in a struggle that was always pointless because Death mocked his adversary and always triumphed in the end.   The imagery has now been appropriated in this unofficial patch produced for Reaper crews, where the soldier now assumes the position of Death itself (and becomes synonymous with the MQ-9 Reaper); the slogan – which is in fact a parody of “That others may live”, used as a patch by the USAF’s Pararescue teams  – gives Chamayou the title for his chapter.

That others might die

In a sense, then, both the submarine and the drone trumpet asymmetry as virtue.  And as that parallel implies, the pursuit of asymmetry is by no means novel.  Here is Sebastian Junger:

JUNGER WarA man with a machine gun can conceivably hold off a whole battalion, at least for a while, which changes the whole equation of what it means to be brave in battle…. Machine guns forced infantry to disperse, to camouflage themselves, and to fight in small and independent units. All that promoted stealth over honor and squad loyalty over blind obedience….

As a result much of modern military tactics is geared toward maneuvering the enemy into a position where they can essentially be massacred from safety. It sounds dishonorable only if you imagine that modern war is about honor: it’s not. It’s about winning, which means killing the enemy on the most unequal terms possible. Anything less simply results in the loss of more of your own men.

Historical precedent cannot issue an ethical warrant, however, and Junger admits as much.  Yet Chamayou notes that this is exactly the strategy used time and time again to justify drone warfare and to silence its critics.  His example is an essay by David Bell directed at what he called ‘the increasingly vocal critics who doubt the morality, effectiveness, and political implications of “remote control warfare.”‘

‘[C]ritics tend to present this new frontier of warfare as something largely novel — a sinister science fiction fantasy come to life, and one that has the power to radically change the political dynamics of warfare. But if our current technology is new, the desire to take out one’s enemies from a safe distance is anything but. There is nothing new about military leaders exploiting technology for this purpose. And, for that matter, there is nothing new about criticizing such technology as potentially immoral or dishonorable.  In fact, both remote control warfare, and the queasy feelings it arouses in many observers, are best seen as parts of a classic, and very old history.’

This is perfectly true, as far as it goes, and in my own work I have traced the historical curve of ‘killing at a distance’.  I accept, too, that it is reasonable to ask those who object to killing from (say) 7,500 miles away to stipulate the distance from which they do consider it acceptable to kill (though I’m not sure how Chamayou would respond to such a question).  As Bell wryly remarks, ‘None of today’s critics, as far as I know, have expressed any nostalgia for the pike, or other hand-to-hand weapons.’

BELL First Total WarBell is a professor of history at Princeton, and I greatly admire his revisionist account of The first total war which troubles the usual identification of ‘total war’ with the bloody twentieth century and insists, instead, on Napoleon as the midwife of ‘warfare as we know it’.  In fact, I’ve drawn on Bell’s work for my exploration of the French occupation of Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century.

But that’s the irony: Chamayou argues that it was precisely Europe’s colonial wars that epitomised the desire to kill others from a safe distance, whereas these are conspicuously absent from Bell’s defence of drone warfare.  They don’t loom large in The first total war either, where Bell anticipates Chamayou’s challenge.  He accepts that The first total war deals ‘only rarely with the world beyond Europe’ – the principal exception is indeed Egypt – and he acknowledges that ‘colleagues often suggested to me that the origins of modern total war are surely to be found on the early modern impperial frontier’:

‘Surely it was here, long before the French Revolution, that Europeans first dispensed with notions of chivalric restraint and waged brutal wars of extermination against supposed “savages”.  Did not Europeans learn their worst behavior from imperial encounters in Asia, Africa, and the Americas?’

His answer, in fact, is no:

‘The horrendous slaughters of the Reformation-era wars of religion began well before most European empires had developed much beyond trading posts, and the worst examples occurred in the German states, which had no colonies.  The development of the French and British overseas empires coincided with the introduction of relative moderation and restraint into European warfare, not with their disappearance.’

Bell attributes this state of affairs to the ‘dependence’ of Europeans on indigenous populations. When later imperial armies embarked on Kipling’s ‘savage wars of peace’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he argues, ‘the colonial setting mostly offered Europeans a laboratory for testing their own preexisting ideas about war’:  ideas that had been honed, so he insists, by the Napoleonic wars that are the focus of his book.

These are convenient and far from uncontroversial claims, but three riders are necessary that, taken together, reinstate the importance of colonial and imperial modalities of power.

First, Bell’s book glosses over the extraordinary violence of the French occupation of Egypt between 1798 and 1801, including the terrible victory at the Battle of the Pyramids and the French army’s savage and exemplary response to two insurrections in Cairo (he’s not alone: remarkably, Edward Said does much the same in Orientalism).  The violence included close-quarter butchery but also stand-off artillery bombardments that rained shells down onto the city from the Citadel above.  Here is an eye-witness account of the first insurrection:

‘The situation worsened by the time of the afternoon prayer.  Violence and the atmosphere of siege increased.  At that point (the French) fired their guns and bombarded the houses and the quarters, aiming especially at al-Azhar.  They trained cannons and mortars on it, as well as on the positions of the fighters close to it, such as Ghawriya Market and al-Fahhamin.  When this bombardment fell on the people, it was something which they had never witnessed in their whole life… ’ 

Second, whatever the origins of those ‘ideas about war’ – and they were, I think, clearly multiple – they were put into often spectacular effect during the colonial wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  And it is those wars that show the most direct continuity with the places and the peoples who are now condemned to live and die under the shadow of the drone.

Third, as Chamayou shows in his discussion of ‘Counterinsurgency from the Air’, so-called ‘air control’ in the early twentieth century was an intrinsically colonial doctrine.  The first experiments in bombing from aircraft took place over Libya before the First World War, and while bombing of civilian targets in Britain, France and Germany took place in the last years of the war, the use of airpower against peoples who had no capacity to strike back was a cornerstone of British policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and on the North-West Frontier of British India.

Chamayou argues that defenders of drone warfare who invoke the ‘nothing new under the sun’ argument do so in an attempt to relativise, even sedate contemporary violence.  They invoke historical precedent – in effect: ‘This has happened time and time again before, so why all the fuss now?’ – but then fail to describe the bloody continuity that yokes past to present.  Hence, as Chamayou concludes: ‘The drone is the weapon of an amnesiac post-colonial violence.’

My own inclination is to press this further.  In The Colonial Present I suggested that what Chamayou describes here as a version of postcoloniality – I still think that term sadly premature – is haunted by Terry Eagleton‘s  ‘terrible twins’: amnesia and nostalgia.  Or, as Eagleton put it, ‘the inability to remember and the incapacity to do anything else.’   Drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere not only suppress the wretched consequences of previous ‘air control’ regimes but also yearn for the swagger and seemingly effortless domination that they imposed.

Theory of the drone 6: Sacrifice, suicide and drones

This is the sixth in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.  I had planned to cover Part II, Ethos and psyche, in a single post, but I’ve received several requests not to speed up, so I’m continuing chapter by chapter, with supplementary readings and comments as I go.

1.  Drones and kamikazes

Soon after Oliver Belcher started his research programme with me – and I’m delighted to say his thesis on ‘The afterlives of counterinsurgency’ has now been submitted – we had one of many rich conversations about what he called ‘the art of war in an age of digital reproduction’.  The reference, of course, was to Walter Benjamin‘s famous essay, usually translated as ‘The work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction.’  This seems to be widely regarded as the standard, even canonical version since its inclusion in the volume of Benjamin’s essays edited by Hannah Arendt and published as Illuminations.

But it has a more complicated history.  Here is Eric Larsen:

‘After fleeing the Nazi government in 1933, Benjamin moved to Paris, from where he published the first edition of “Work of Art” in 1936. This publication appeared in French translation under the direction of Raymond Aron in volume 5, no. 1 of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Benjamin subsequently rewrote the essay and after editorial work by Theodore and Margarethe Adorno it was posthumously published in its commonly recognized form in his Schriften of 1955.’

Benjamin Work of ArtIn fact there were four versions of the essay, and several critics regard the second version as the most daring of all (you can find the third version here).  In the third volume of Harvard’s Selected Writings this is translated as ‘The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility’ (1936) – it’s also available separately in the little book shown on the left – and includes this remarkable passage in an expanded Section VI:

Compared to that of the machine age, of course, this [pre-historic] technology was undeveloped. But from a dialectical stand-point, the disparity is unimportant. What matters is the way the orientation and aims of that technology differ from those of ours. Whereas the former made the maximum possible use of human beings, the latter reduces their use to the minimum. The achievements of the first technology might be said to culminate in human sacrifice; those of the second, in the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew. The results of the first technology are valid once and for all (it deals with irreparable lapse or sacrificial death, which holds good for eternity). The results of the second are wholly provisional (it operates by means of experiments and endlessly varied test procedures). The origin of the second technology lies at the point where, by an unconscious ruse, human beings first began to distance themselves from nature.  It lies, in other words, in play.

It’s extraordinary to read these words 75 or so years after Benjamin wrote them, and their intimations of armed drones and even the supposed ‘Playstation mentality’ that misguides those who operate them (though I think that argument misunderstands the extraordinary immersive capacity of videogames, but that’s another story that I’ve told elsewhere).

Chamayou starts his exploration of ‘Ethos and psyche’ by invoking yet another version of Benjamin’s iconic essay, but his basic point shines through the version I’ve quoted above.  His purpose is to juxtapose one technology or at least its limit-case, sacrifice, which engages the human in the most direct and intimate way possible, once and for all, to another, from which (so he says) the human is disengaged in a mechanical act that is, in principle, endlessly repeatable.

Yet it turns out that this isn’t an historical succession in any simple sense at all: what Chamayou sees instead are two different genealogies – the kamikaze pilot and suicide-bomber on one side and the drone on the other – entwined in a truly deadly embrace.

The linchpin of his argument is provided by a Russian emigré engineer working for RAC, Vladimir Zworykin. Apparently alarmed by press reports in 1934 that the Japanese were considering the formation of a ‘Suicide Corps to control surface and aerial torpedoes’, Zworkyin proposed to use technology to counter the threat.  Previous experiments with radio-controlled aerial torpedoes were all very well, but these were ‘blind weapons’ that inevitably lacked precision.  The Japanese proposed to solve the  problem by using human pilots to guide the explosive platform on to its target – Zworykin’s contrary solution was to guide the aerial torpedo through an ‘electric eye’ (a sort of proto-television).

Zworykin aerial torpedo

The torpedo would be a glider,

‘carried on an airplane to the proximity of where it is to be used, and released.  After it has been released the torpedo can be guided to its target with shortwave radio control, the operator being able to see the target through the “eye” [or Iconoscope] of the torpedo as it approaches.’

In 1935 Zworykin submitted a memorandum to the War and Navy Departments describing a television-controlled missile that could be guided beyond the line of sight, and five years later the US approved ‘Project Block‘ for RCA to develop TV-guided ‘assault drones’ in concert with the US Navy.  When the first Japanese kamikaze units were formed they were indeed deployed against naval targets – but this wasn’t until 1944, so I’m not sure about the source of those much earlier reports that fired Zworykin’s imagination.

I described some earlier experiments with aerial torpedoes here, and you can find much more about Zworykin here and in Alexander Magoun‘s Television: the life story of a technology, pp. 78-84.  He notes that the US Army Air Force was a latecomer to these experiments, and didn’t demonstrate a TV-controlled drone until October 1943, largely because its major investment was in heavy bombers capable of inflicting major destruction on cities and military-industrial targets.  Project Aphrodite did experiment with the use of television to guide war-weary Flying Fortresses filled with explosives and napalm on to targets in Germany, but the attempts were largely unsuccessful and singularly irrelevant to the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II.

Nevertheless, Chamayou argues that to some degree Zworykin had identified the core principle that would later be used to develop the smart bomb and the drone.  His sharper point is that the forerunner of the drone was an anti-kamikaze; sharper because this conceptual origin places the drone within a distinctive ethico-technical economy of life and death.

This ethico-technical economy can be read as an ethic of heroic sacrifice on one side and an ethic of auto-preservation on the other, each a mirror image of its other, ‘two visions of horror’.    Chamayou joins several other commentators to connect the kamikaze attacks of the Second World war to suicide-bombers today, and so argues that in the global North today the cardinal opposition is usually expressed as ‘defiance of death’ versus ‘love of life’: the frequently repeated claim, as at once an explanation and a condemnation of suicide-bombing, that ‘they’ don’t value life as much as ‘we’ do.  Yet, as Chamayou insists, it’s not ‘life in general’ that we value at all: it’s our lives that we cherish.

To develop this argument (which he will later elaborate in other dimensions), Chamayou cites Richard Cohen‘s editorial in the Washington Post on 6 October 2009:

As for the Taliban fighters, they not only don’t cherish life, they expend it freely in suicide bombings. It’s difficult to imagine an American suicide bomber.

He then uses anthropologist Hugh Gusterson‘s response to sharpen his point still further.  Gusterson wonders, with Jacqueline Rose,  why ‘dropping cluster bombs from the air is not only less repugnant [than suicide bombing]: it is somehow deemed, by Western leaders at least, to be morally superior.’  He then reverses the terms of the argument (and in going so prefigures Chamayou’s own argument about the substitution of hunting for combat in many areas of later modern warfare and about the colonial antecedents of drone strikes):

ASAD On suicide bombing[M]any people in the Middle East feel about U.S. drone attacks the way Richard Cohen feels toward suicide bombers. The drone attacks are widely perceived in the Middle East as cowardly, because the drone pilot is killing people on the ground from the safety of an air-conditioned pod in Nevada, where there is no chance that he can be killed by those he is attacking. He has turned combat into hunting. In this regard, the drone is the culmination of a long tradition of colonial war-fighting technologies — going back at least to the machine guns with which British and French colonial soldiers mowed down spear-carrying Africans –that ensure that the “natives” die, in an unfair fight, in considerably larger numbers than the colonial soldiers.

The drone operator is also a mirror image of the suicide bomber in that he too deviates, albeit in the opposite direction, from our paradigmatic image of combat as an encounter between warriors who meet as equals risking the wounding or killing of their own bodies while trying to wound or kill the others’ bodies. The honorable drama of combat lies in the symmetrical willingness of warriors to wager their bodies against each other for a cause. But now, in the words of the anthropologist Talal Asad, in his book On Suicide Bombing, U.S. “soldiers need no longer go to war expecting to die, but only to kill. In itself, this destabilizes the conventional understanding of war as an activity in which human dying and killing are exchanged.”

But there are two other twists to this story that Chamayou doesn’t pursue.

First, in his essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Gusterson confounds Cohen’s difficulty in imagining ‘an American suicide bomber’ like this:

‘For decades loyal U.S. soldiers in nuclear missile silos have trained to launch their weapons in the expectation that they would be killed almost immediately afterwards in the ensuing nuclear war. I once interviewed a former special-forces officer who was trained to hike behind enemy lines with a tactical nuclear weapon on his back and place it near an important target. Although the weapon had a timer, he expected to die at ground zero.

If such men were the elite nuclear suicide bombers whose mission was prepared but never carried out, the Cold War turned the whole country into a suicide bomber rehearsing obsessively for the moment when we would “push the button” and take down millions of our enemies with us. Seen in this light, Americans trained for the biggest suicide bombing mission of all.’

Second, there have been ‘successful’ American suicide bombers.  To some historians the first candidate is Andrew Kehoe, who set off an explosion at a schoolhouse in Bath, Michigan in May 1927, killing 44 people, before setting off dynamite in his truck and killing himself and several other people.  Whether you count this as a suicide bombing in the modern sense of the term depends on the criteria you think appropriate.  Many commentators exclude Kehoe and identify three other, more recent American suicide bombers: Shirwa Ahmed, who drove a car bomb into a government compound in Puntland in October 2008, killing as many as 30 people; Farah Mohamed Beledi, who killed himself and three soldiers at a military checkpoint in Mogadishu in June 2011; and Abdisalan Hussein Ali, who attacked African Union troops in Mogadishu six months later.  All three were Somali-Americans who had lived in Minnesota and were recruited by al-Shabaab.

But to exclude Kehoe and claim that these three were not ‘really American’ is to immediately trigger one of Chamayou’s key arguments about the ways in which killing and dying in the age of the drone are racialized.  More soon.


As I finished up this post,  I discovered a young American performance artist, Ethan Fishbane, whose show American Suicide Bomber Association has been staged in New York and previously in Indonesia and South Africa.

Apparently he threw one of his stage ‘bombs’ into the garbage last week and unwittingly set off a bomb scare in Manhattan.

“I felt the response [by the police] was wholly appropriate,” he said. “Even if it’s just a prop for a theater piece, they were on top of it.”

Militarized vision

Before I started my odyssey through Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone (which will continue next week), I had discussed multiple ways of thinking about the relations between visualities, political technologies of vision and drones.  Much of the work that I pointed to takes place in the borderlands between investigative journalism and visual art: hence my interest in (for example) James Bridle, Omer Fast, and Trevor Paglen (for a quick review and further links, see here).

Two additional essays have crossed my screen, appropriately enough, which contribute to these discussions.

The first is Matt Delmont‘s ‘Drone encounters: Noor Behram, Omer Fast and visual critiques of drone warfare’ [American Quarterly 65 (1) (2013) 193-202]:

‘Drones draw their deadly power from …  twin claims to visual superiority: the ability to see and to resist being seen.  At the same time, however, artists, scholars, and human rights activists have used the visual to contest the expansion of the drone program.’

The first of these, as Tim Mitchell showed in his classical expositions of what, following Heidegger, he called ‘the-world-as-exhibition’ (which has continued to haunt much of my work since Geographical Imaginations), is a profoundly – and appropriately – colonial/imperial impulse.  You can find a suggestive discussion of Heidegger’s original exposition of ‘the conquest of the world as picture’ directed specifically at today’s drone wars in Joseph Pugliese‘s ‘Prosthetics of law and the anomic violence of drones’ [Griffith Law Review 20 (2011) 931-61] and, eventually (!), an extended account in The everywhere war.

What interests Matt is the critical ability to reverse the impulse – to make the unseen seen/scene – and turn the visual back on itself, and that’s exactly the point sharpened in exquisite detail in Henrik Gustafsson‘s ‘Foresight, hindsight and state secrecy in the American West: the geopolitical aesthetics of Trevor Paglen’ [Journal of visual culture 12 (2013) 148-164]:

‘Combining geographic research and artistic practice, self-professed ‘experimental photographer’ Trevor Paglen implements such a dialectical method in his ongoing project to map and photograph the sprawling black sites of the US military and intelligence community. Paglen’s images rarely show human agents, other than the blurry figures boarding an unmarked aircraft, or the blackened-out faces on fake passports. It is concerned, instead, with the agency of space. Moving between imaginative geographies and what Paglen refers to as ‘facts on the ground’, it investigates how the former produces the latter, how imaginative geographies materialize.’

It’s a beautifully realised reading that pays particular attention to what geographer Don Mitchell famously called ‘the lie of the land‘.  In Don’s terms, this was the extraordinary capacity of the landscape – as at once material fabrication and enframed visuality – to conceal through its very physicality the work involved and embodied in its production.  In much the same way, Henrik suggests, Trevor’s work offers a series of strategic reversals, détournements, of the ‘dark geography’ of the national security state inscribed in and on the landscape (and the skyscape).

Paglen Untitled (Reaper Drone)

As my last post showed, I hope, my interest in the aesthetic-imaginative has not diminished my commitment to the archival-documentary (or my admiration for projects like these or Oppenheimer’s The Art of Killing that so artfully bleed the one into the other).

In that vein, I’ve returned to the incident I discussed last time – the US combat helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in New Baghdad in July 2007 – and started to compare what happened there with the even deadlier attack on three vehicles carrying civilians down a dusty mountain road in Uruzgan, Afghanistan in February 2010 which I discussed in “From a view to a kill” (DOWNLOADS tab) (that strike was also carried out by US attack helicopters, but the vital ‘visual responsibility’ was the work of a surveillant Predator crew.)

Collateral Murder2

My intention is to work towards an extended essay on ‘Militarized vision‘ that will, I hope, take critiques of the politics of vision beyond the full motion video feeds from drones. I’m working my way through transcripts of both incidents, the video clip of the Baghdad attack released by Wikileaks, and the military’s own investigations of both incidents.  The interrogations and conclusions from the investigations are crucial, I think, not only for providing additional information and even insight, but also for adding an understanding of the juridical layer involved in the scopic regimes at work.  The reports have much to tell us about what flight crews and ground troops saw (and didn’t see) on the days in question (above) and about what is possible for the military to see (and not see) after the event (below).  I’d already worked my way through the Uruzgan investigation in detail for The everywhere war, but re-reading it alongside what Wikileaks called “Collateral Murder” is proving to be an illuminating exercise.

New Baghdad %22MAM%22

More later, though my next posts on Chamayou (and what will be a separate post on the juridical individuation of later modern war) will provide some of the necessary context.


I don’t imagine that anyone who has seen it will ever forget the cockpit video of US Apache attack helicopters mowing down two Reuters journalists and ten other civilians in Baghdad in July 2007.  It was part of the cache that the principled and courageous Bradley Manning gave to Wikileaks, which released the full, unedited clip as Collateral Murder in 2010, and earlier this month Manning’s lawyers opened their defence with a showing of the same video.

The transcript of the video is here, and a redacted copy of the US Army’s investigation report (with annotated video stills) is here.

The incident has been the subject of two short documentary films, linked by a common figure, Ethan McCord, a US soldier who arrived at the scene minutes after the shooting began (more here).

The first is Shuchen Tan‘s Permission to engage, which won the Prix Europa for the best European TV investigation in 2012.  Here’s the trailer:

And here is the full (brilliant) film:

The second is James Spione‘s  Incident in New Baghdad, which won the prize for the best documentary short at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 and for best picture and best documentary short at the Fargo Film Festival in 2012.

Incident in New Baghdad

This is how Spione introduces his film:

Psychologists call it “psychic numbing.” Tell someone that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in the Iraq conflict, or that thousands of U.S. veterans of our Mideast wars suffer from crippling PTSD, and their eyes will likely glaze over. Most people simply cannot comprehend the meaning of such vast numbers, nor are they likely to show any particular concern. Conversely, however, the tale of a single tragic incident can create great empathy in the same person–and greater understanding of the wider effects of war.

On April 5th, 2010, the controversial website WikiLeaks released a grainy black-and-white video that stunned the world. Recorded from the gunsight camera of an U.S. Army attack
helicopter during one of the most chaotic and deadly periods of the Iraq War, the footage depicts the violent deaths of two Iraqi journalists, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh,
along with at least eight other mostly unarmed individuals on the streets of Baghdad in July 2007. Minutes later on the video, when the driver of a passing van attempts to come to the aid of the mortally wounded Chmagh, a second helicopter attack occurs that destroys the van and kills several more people, wounding two small children in the process…

My short film INCIDENT IN NEW BAGHDAD examines what happened that day from the first-hand perspective of an American infantryman whose life was profoundly changed by his experiences on the scene. U.S. Army Specialist Ethan McCord bore witness to the devastating carnage, found and rescued the two children caught in the crossfire, and soon turned against the war that he had enthusiastically joined only months before. Denied psychological treatment in Iraq for his PTSD, McCord returned home, struggling for years with anger, confusion, and guilt over the war. When Wikileaks released the video of the incident, McCord was finally spurred into action, and began traveling the country, speaking out for the rights of PTSD sufferers and against the American wars in the Middle East.

However, there is so much more to the story, and I am now developing a more in-depth, feature-length examination of this incident that will include the perspectives of many more people involved in this incident: the infantry on the ground; the families of both Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh; the children, whose father was killed in front of them in the van, as well as their mother; and if possible, the 1-8 Cavalry Airborne gunner who pulled the trigger. My hope is that, by hearing from all of the first-hand participants of this tragic event, we may come to better understand the profoundly damaging consequences that ripple out through the lives of survivors over many years from just one so-called “engagement” in a war. And when we learn from all involved that this incident was not an aberration, but a commonplace occurrence over the course of many years, perhaps then we will start to understand those mind-numbing statistics, and feel the true moral scale of the damage, the wounds, the folly of a war of choice that never needed to happen.

I rehearse all this now for two reasons other than the shadow of sentencing that now hangs over Manning (though that is reason enough) .

First, the video at the dark heart of this incident – and these films – was not captured by a Predator or Reaper thousands of feet in the air and fed back to pilots, screeners and commanders thousands of miles away in the continental United States: this was close-in and immediate, and this raises important questions about scopic regimes and military violence that spiral far beyond the usual (and I think narrowly framed) debate over drones.

Approximate Target

Second, Incident in New Baghdad was part-financed by Carol Grayson, who became one of the film’s executive producers.  She is clearly a remarkable woman in all sorts of ways, not least because she has spent much (I suspect most) of her time since then working on a new documentary film project, The Approximate Target that charts ‘the human cost of remote control killing, the dangers of covert government policy and unaccountability in modern warfare.’  It’s been a long, difficult and continuing journey with seemingly no end of obstacles and obstructions: you can read more on her blog here.

BJCiq-vCMAAgpWe-1From what I’ve been able to discover – which is not as much as I’d like – the focus of the The Approximate Target appears to be on CIA-directed strikes in Waziristan.  But Carol’s most recent posting (today) includes a letter from a Yemeni civilian to President Obama and Yemen’s President Hamadi on the eve of their meeting at the White House.  The letter was released today by Reprieve.  In it, Faisal bin Ali Jabera,  young engineer who lost two of his relatives in a drone strike on Hadhramout last summer, writes:

Our family are not your enemy. In fact, the people you killed had strongly and publicly opposed al-Qa’ida. Salem was an imam. The Friday before his death, he gave a guest sermon in the Khashamir mosque denouncing al-Qa’ida’s hateful ideology. It was not the first of these sermons, but regrettably, it was his last…

Our town was no battlefield. We had no warning – our local police were never asked to make any arrest. My young cousin Waleed was a policeman, before the strike cut short his life…

Your silence in the face of these injustices only makes matters worse. If the strike was a mistake, the family – like all wrongly bereaved families of this secret air war – deserve a formal apology. To this day I wish no vengeance against the United States or Yemeni governments. But not everyone in Yemen feels the same. Every dead innocent swells the ranks of those you are fighting.