‘Collateral damage’ and accountability

CRAWFORD Accountability for killingToo much of the discussion around killing in times of war focuses on accountancy not accountability; the numbers are important (and so too are the names), but Neta Crawford‘s new book, Accountability for Killing: moral responsibility for collateral damage in America’s post 9/11 wars – just published by Oxford University Press  (at least in digital form) – is indispensable reading.

Here’s the blurb:

In May 2009, American B-1B bombers dropped 2,000-pound and 500-pound bombs in the village of Garani, Afghanistan following a Taliban attack. The dead included anywhere from twenty five to over one hundred civilians. The U.S. military went into damage control mode, making numerous apologies to the Afghan government and the townspeople. Afterward, the military announced that it would modify its aerial support tactics. This episode was hardly an anomaly. As anyone who has followed the Afghanistan war knows, these types of incidents occur with depressing regularity. Indeed, as Neta Crawford shows in Accountability for Killing, they are intrinsic to the American way of warfare today. While the military has prioritized reducing civilian casualties, it has not come close to eliminating them despite significant progress in recent years, for a very simple reason: American reliance on airpower and, increasingly, drone technology, which is intended to reduce American casualties. Yet the long distance from targets, the power of the explosives, and the frequency of attacks necessarily produces civilian casualties over the course of a long war. 

Working from these basic facts, Crawford offers a sophisticated and intellectually powerful analysis of culpability and moral responsibility in war. The dominant paradigm of legal and moral responsibility in war today stresses both intention and individual accountability. Deliberate killing of civilians is outlawed and international law blames individual soldiers and commanders for such killing. But also under international law, civilian killing may be forgiven if it was unintended and incidental to a militarily necessary operation. Given the nature of contemporary war, though, Crawford contends that this argument is no longer satisfactory. As she demonstrates, ‘unintended’ deaths of civilians are too often dismissed as unavoidable, inevitable, and accidental. Yet essentially, the very law that protects noncombatants from deliberate killing allows unintended killing. An individual soldier may be sentenced life in prison or death for deliberately killing even a small number of civilians, but the large scale killing of dozens or even hundreds of civilians may be forgiven if it was unintentional-‘incidental’ to a military operation. She focuses on the causes of these many episodes of foreseeable collateral damage and the moral responsibility for them. Why was there so much unintended killing of civilians in the U.S. wars zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan? Is ‘collateral damage’ simply an unavoidable consequence of all wars? Why, when the U.S. military tries so hard to limit collateral damage, does so much of it seem to occur? Trenchant, original, and ranging across security studies, international law, ethics, and international relations, Accountability for Killing will reshape our understanding of the ethics of contemporary war.

And here is the Contents list:



1. Moral Grammar and Military Vocabulary

2. How They Die: US doctrine and trends in civilian deaths

3. Norms in Tension: Military necessity, proportionality and double effect


4. When Soldiers Snap: Bad applies, mad apples and individual moral responsibility

5. Command Responsibility, due care and moral courage

6. Organizational Responsibility: military institutions as moral agents


7. Public conscience and responsibility for war

8. Public Responsibility

9.  Collateral damage and frameworks of moral responsibility

Neta estimates that 22,000 ‘collateral damage deaths’ occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and late 2012, and if Pakistan and Yemen are included then the total rises to 38,000.  Her book unpacks that awful term, ‘collateral damage’; she is co-director of the Costs of War study which, as you’ll see, is also about much more than accountancy:


Incidentally, if you are looking for historical context on the legal distinction between combatants and civilians, I recommend Helen Kinsella‘s The image before the weapon: a critical history of the distinction between combatant and civilian (Cornell University Press, 2011), and on the history of civilian casualties in America’s wars more generally,  John Tirman‘s The deaths of others: the fate of civilians in America’s wars (also OUP; 2011), which starts on the American Frontier and works though the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam down to Afghanistan and Iraq.

More unfinished business: haunting Waziristan

I’m just finishing up a new essay on drones and later modern war – “Moving targets and violent geographies” – and I’ll post the draft as soon as I’m done (this weekend, I hope).

Next up is the essay version of my various posts and presentations on air strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, past and present, by the US and by the Pakistan Air Force [see here and here], so I was heartened by news from Madiha Tahir [see my post here] of progress with her short documentary film, Wounds of Waziristan (they are down to the final edits):

More about the project and crowd-sourcing here, and you can find more information at the film’s website, which includes an image gallery and opens with some of the most hauntingly beautiful music composed by André Barros (shades of Arvo Part‘s Spiegel im Spiegel):

Haunting indeed.  In a report for Delhi’s Sunday Guardian, Tanishree Bhasin writes:

When Barack Obama finally admitted to the needless loss of life in Pakistan’s Waziristan area due to American drone attacks, he spoke about how the death of innocents would haunt him forever. Interrogating this notion of ‘haunting’ and what it means for those affected by these attacks is Pakistani filmmaker Madiha Tahir in her film Wounds of Waziristan….

With Wounds of Waziristan, Tahir tries to foreground the people who materially experience loss and absence — not as abstract body counts, but as the absence of a brother or a niece or a wife. “Haunting is the insistence by the dead that they be acknowledged, that the social conditions that brought about their demise be made known and rectified. So, haunting is about unfinished business. And, it’s thoroughly social and political. This film focuses on the people who live in Waziristan and who live among loss. Material conditions, whether it’s the rubble after a drone attack or the grave of one’s kin, persist in reminding the living of what they have lost,” she explains.

GORDON Ghostly matters

On her blog, Madiha wryly notes that her interest in the question of haunting may show ‘my academic side coming out’ – as well as an independent journalist she’s also a graduate  from NYU and Columbia, where she’s currently working on her PhD – and human geographers will probably be no strangers to the idea, from research by Steve Pile and Karen Till and most recently Alison Mountz‘s analysis of detention centres and Akin Akinwumi‘s work on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.

Much of this has been indebted to Avery Gordon‘s by now classic study, Ghostly matters:

‘Haunting is one way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life, especially when they are supposedly over and done with or when their oppressive nature is denied… Haunting is not the same as being exploited, traumatized, or oppressed, although it usually involves these experiences or is produced by them. I used the term haunting to describe those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view.’

It’s not difficult to see how this applies to air strikes in Waziristan – the sense of familiarity unmoored by the devastations of state violence – but Madiha’s starting point is a two-page note Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno appended to Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘On the theory of ghosts’, that also figured briefly in Gordon’s book (where she described it as an ‘unfilled promissory note’):

Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead: unity with them because we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and the same disappointed hope.

It’s that first clause that animates Madiha’s work:

Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead.

Legitimate TargetShe notes that so much (too much) of the contemporary debate about drones is framed by the language of international law and its grammar of execution that is deeply embedded in military violence: as operational law has become a central discourse in the animation and legitimation of the kill-chain, so it turns targeted killing into a quasi-juridical process.  In consequence, as she says with a nod to Eyal Weizman, ‘international law is caught up in constructing the proper order of violence.’

And as a journalist she is dismayed at the complicity of journalists in popularizing law

‘as the only frame through which we can talk about drone attacks and moral standards. Journalists regularly fail to look beyond the usual “experts” in policy and legal circles to other fields that may have an alternative to offer. We are becoming vulgar empiricists who seem to think that a truth not attached to a number (say, the number of “militants” vs. “civilians” killed), or a legal rule (for example: whether an action does/does not violate international law) is no truth at all.’

So Madiha proposes haunting as an alternative frame ‘through which one can re-direct the conversation from issues of legal standards to the lives lived and lives lost under the drones in Waziristan and elsewhere’:

‘The questions then turn on the material conditions and the loss suffered – not as evidence for legal arguments but as queries about what it does to a person to live in such conditions. The question is not, ‘Do I stick him in the “militant” or “civilian” column?’ but instead, who survives him? How do they deal with that loss? What is it like to live among the rubble?

It isn’t through legal standards but though trying to understand the horror of the destruction that we create the correct relationship — with the dead, yes — but with the living, too.’

This matters so much – and reappears in a different form in ‘Moving targets’ – because the contemporary individuation of ‘war’ (if it is war) works to sanitize the battlefield: to confine attention to the individual-as-target (which is itself a technical artefact separated from the exploded fleshiness that flickers briefly on the Predator’s video screens) and to foreclose the way in which every death ripples across a family, a community, a district and beyond [see my brief discussion with Ian Shaw here].

Fahim Qureshi Attack date 23 January 2009

And, as Madiha explained to the Sunday Guardian, these effects ripple across time as well as space, tearing the very fabric of history:

Speaking about her experiences while making this film, she explained that it’s not just a question of life being lost, but also the obliteration of history. “When drone attacks destroy homes — as they often do — they erase entire family histories. Homes in this area are built over time as families grow. There may be as many as 50 members of a family living in one house. When you destroy structures like that, you not only destroy people, you also destroy their history. The rubble that’s left in the wake of an attack is a living memory of what happened there. It embodies loss. The people in Waziristan have to live around this loss, near it, in it. They have to live among ghosts,” says Tahir.

Unfinished business

I’m sorry for the long silence: the past two weeks have been unusually busy, with a stream of wonderful visitors to the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, including Philippe Descola, Anne-Christine Taylor and Bruno Latour.  More on this soon, but during a series of conference presentations – in which, more or less in passing, I mentioned Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The act of killing (2012) (see here and here) – I was told of another, related project that readers will find interesting.

This is Yael Hersonski‘s A Film Unfinished [Shtikat Haarchion] (2010).  The centre of the documentary – you can hardly say its ‘heart’ – is an unfinished propaganda film shot by the Nazis in 1942, Das Ghetto, which purported to portray the Warsaw Ghetto.  It was found in an archive in East Germany in 1954, but in 1988 two discarded film cans containing 30 minutes of outtakes were discovered – scenes left on the cutting room floor – which radically transformed the interpretation of the film and revealed the elaborate staging of its scenes.  You can obtain another overview of the project here, which includes a number of stills from A Film Unfinished.

A film unfinished

The parallel with Oppenheimer’s project is drawn by Hersonski’s re-staging of an interview with one of the original cameramen, Willy Wist (he died in 1999 but Hersonski works from a transcript she found by chance in an archive in Ludwigsburg), and by her decision to invite five survivors of the Ghetto to watch the out-takes and to record their reactions.

This is from Jeannette Catsoulis‘s thoughtful review in the New York Times:

What if I see someone I know?jpg“What if I see someone I know?” one woman asks [she does], hardly daring to look. As the flickering atrocities play across the survivors’ faces — one film observing another — Ms. Hersonski silently creates space for memories. More than just valuable reality checks (“When did you ever see a flower? We would have eaten a flower!”), these recollections anchor the past to the present, and the images to human experience, in a way that shifts our perception of the Warsaw film. Whether cringing at the sight of naked men and women being forced at gunpoint into a ritual bath, or contemptuously dismissing the Nazis’ efforts to highlight Jewish privilege (“My mother wore her beautiful coat, and sometimes a hat. So what?”), the survivors seem to speak for those who cannot.

Here is the trailer.  The whole film is available on YouTube but I can’t embed it because it has a restricted rating, so you need to confirm you are old enough to watch it: here.

Catsoulis suggests that the film is concerned with the difference between watching and seeing, and in this sense the other obvious parallel is with Giorgio Agamben‘s philosophico-ethical probings of the witness and the camp.  Hersonski herself says that her film ‘first emerged out of my theoretical preoccupation with the notion of the “archive”, and the unique nature of the witnessing it bears.’ (She elaborates this in an interview with Max Goldberg here and there is also a really excellent interview with Lalev Melamed, ‘A Film Unraveled’, in the International journal of politics, culture and society 26 (13) 9-19, which includes an interesting comparison between Hersonski and Harun Farocki).

Witnessing is of more than historical significance, of course, and in an extended interview with Clyde Fitch – in which he asks her about complicity and guilt – Hersonski deflects his question from the past to our own present:

I’m asking myself a different question. I’m asking myself: What is my ethical position when I’m sitting very comfortably in my living room and seeing whatever is happening a few kilometers from my city in the occupied territories?…

What can I do? No, it’s not a rhetorical question. I’m seeing this and other events unfold — I’m watching it, I know about it, I know it’s there. I’m not talking about politics right now, by the way, just images of people suffering. And, as the images of people suffering in my own country go, you become a witness. Then what do you do as a witness? It’s a terrible question — it’s a haunting, torturing question. It’s our essential question.

I think that it was also a major reason why I made this film — because the Holocaust not only confronted humanity with an inconceivable horror but it also did mark the very beginning of the systematic implementation on film of that horror. And I think that something changed in our perception — I don’t know even how to define this something — after we saw images from the camps, something that we hadn’t witnessed before. It seems that documentation became more technically advanced, more massive, since then.

Well, as long as this bombardment of images becomes more intense, we will become more and more incapable of really seeing suffering, or war.

Fitch describes the film as ‘an act of anthropology’ – something which our three guests at the Wall would surely recognise too.

Theory of the drone 10: Killing at a distance

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

Gulf_war_target_camChamayou begins with a lecture given by German artist and film-maker Harun Farocki in Karlsruhe in 2003 called  ‘Phantom Images‘.  A ‘phantom image’, Farocki explained, is a view that is otherwise inaccessible to a human being – like the ‘bomb’s-eye view’ that became so familiar during the Gulf War (‘a suicidal camera’).  Like so many other ‘technical representations which maintain that they only represent the operative principle of a process’ these are, of course, techno-cultural performances.  They are techno-cultural because they produce a constructed and constrained space – in the Gulf War images that Farocki used to frame his argument, the battle space appears empty of people, a landscape without figures, an odyssey of destruction based on an object-ontology – and they are performances because they are what Farocki called ‘operative images’ that ‘do not represent an object but are part of an operation‘ (my emphasis).

You can find more on Farocki’s fascination with the virtual/real and Immersion here and on Images of War (at a distance) here.  Both ideas – immersion and distance – are central to Chamayou’s argument, but his starting-point is the idea of an operative image.  He wants to think of militarized vision as a ‘sighting’ that works not only to represent an object but also to act upon it and, in the case that most concerns both of us, this is the mainspring of the production of the target.

This has a long (techno-cultural) history, but drones use a video image to fix and execute the target: ‘You can click, and when you click, you kill.’  There’s something almost magical about it, Chamayou says: a hi-tech form of voodoo violence, like sticking pins into a wax doll, in which bringing someone into view – ‘pinning’ the target in the viewfinder – transports them into the killing space.

GROSSMAN On KillingBut what sort of space is it?  Chamayou considers a simple diagram from Dave Grossman‘s On Killing. For readers unfamiliar with his work, here is how Grossman describes himself on the website of his Killology Research Group:

Col. Grossman is a former West Point psychology professor, Professor of Military Science, and an Army Ranger who has combined his experiences to become the founder of a new field of scientific endeavor, which has been termed “killology.” In this new field Col. Grossman has made revolutionary new contributions to our understanding of killing in war, the psychological costs of war, the root causes of the current “virus” of violent crime that is raging around the world, and the process of healing the victims of violence, in war and peace. 

And here is the diagram, which summarises Grossman’s views on the relationship between ‘resistance to killing’ and distance from the target:

Resistance to killing as a function of distance

Grossman’s basic argument is that distance increases indifference and, as the annotations imply, there appears to be an historical sequence to all this.  Grossman’s book was published before the advent of the drone, but – given these two axes – the Predator and the Reaper presumably ought to appear on the extreme right of the diagram, representing the radicalisation of killing at a distance.

In fact, Grossman provides a discussion of videogames in which he says that the screen acts as a barrier between the player and the violence s/he unleashes in the game, making it easier to ‘kill’: exactly the argument advanced by those who claim that drones induce a ‘Playstation mentality’ to killing.

And yet, as I’ve explained in ‘From a view to a kill’ (DOWNLOADS tab), modern videogames are profoundly immersive, and the high-resolution full motion video feeds from the drones induce such an extraordinary sense of proximity, even intimacy – remember that crews frequently claim to be 18 inches from the combat zone, the distance from eye to screen – that drones are surely also pulled towards towards the extreme left of Grossman’s diagram.

Chamayou doesn’t quote him, but Diderot’s Letter on the blind set out the original terms of the debate perfectly:


But Chamayou is quick to show that ‘distance’ is a weasel-word, and in an extended footnote he elaborates his concept of pragmatic co-presence.  Co-presence denotes the possibility of A affecting B in some way, which means (in the absence of sorcery) that B must be within the sphere of action of A; more formally, co-presence involves the inclusion of one within the ‘range’ or ‘reach’ of another.  This is multi-dimensional – without technical mediation you can see someone much further away than you can hear them – but in many situations technical mediations are involved and so transform the relation.  This matters for two reasons.

First, there is nothing necessarily reciprocal about co-presence: what Chamayou calls ‘the structure of of co-presence’ determines what it is possible for you to do to the other, and is itself the product of struggle: each party to a conflict manouevres to produce a favourable asymmetry so that it becomes much easier for you to strike than to be hit.  In this sense, all war strives to be asymmetric – it’s not confined to wars between states and non-state actors – and it’s this that in part underwrites the history of war at a distance; as William Saletan put it, effectively re-describing Grossman’s diagram,

‘Technically, this is marvelous. Look at the history of weapons development: catapult, crossbow, cannon, rifle, revolver, machine gun, tank, bazooka, bomber, helicopter, submarine, cruise missile. Every step forward consists of a physical step backward: the ability to kill your enemy with better aim at a greater distance or from a safer location. You can hit him, but he can’t hit you.’

But – Chamayou’s second rider – ‘teletechnologies’ radically transform this sequence by severing co-presence from co-localisation.   What is distinctive about teletechnologies is not their capacity to act ‘at a distance’ but their indifference to and their interdigit(is)ation of ‘near’ and ‘far’.

This has far-reaching (sic) consequences because it produces a double disassociation.  Where, exactly, does the action take place?  Here (at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada) or there (Kandahar in Afghanistan)?  There is no single answer, of course, which is precisely Chamayou’s point.  This split – or series of splits, if you think of the wider networks involved – in turn engenders radically new forms of experience, of being-in-the-world, that can no longer be contained within the physico-corporeal confines of the conventional human subject.

Chamayou wants to show that this double disassociation is anything but ‘marvellous’.   He accepts that the targets that are produced through the full-motion video feeds from the Predators and Reapers are much less abstract: the crews see their targets – often people, not physical objects like the buildings or missile batteries that constituted Farocki’s ’empty’ battlespace – and they see the corporeal consequences of each strike.  ‘This novel combination of physical distance and visual proximity gives the lie to the old [Clausewitz-Hegelian] law of distance,’ Chamayou writes, since ‘increased distance no longer makes violence more abstract or more impersonal but, on the contrary, more graphic and more personal.’

But he insists that this proximity, even intimacy is counterbalanced by two factors which are also inscribed within the political technology of vision:

(1) ‘Proximity’ is contracted to the optical – and even this is degraded because the resolution of the video feeds reduces people to ‘avatars without faces’.  I think this is less straightforward than Chamayou implies.  He cites Salatan – ‘There’s no flesh on your monitor; just co-ordinates’ – which is a sharp remark, but the journalist was referring to the launch of long-range missiles (‘… tap a button on one continent and send a missile to another’) whereas the screens at Creech and elsewhere show human figures as well as co-ordinates.  More significant, I think, is that when drone operators provide close air support they are also in radio and online contact with troops on the ground, and this produces a pragmatic co-presence which is considerably more ‘fleshed out’ than their otherwise purely optical encounters with others in their field of view.

(2) Drone operators can see without being seen, and Chamayou argues that ‘the fact that the killer and his victim are not inscribed in “reciprocal perceptual fields” facilitates the administration of violence’ because it ruptures what psychologist Stanley Milgram in his notorious experiments on Obedience to authority [below] called ‘the phenomenological unity of the act’.  Milgram actually wrote “experienced”, not “phenomenological”, but you get the point; Milgram was discussing how much easier it is to hurt someone ‘if there is a physical separation of the act and its consequences’, which is radicalised in what the US Air Force calls the ‘remote split’ operations carried out by its Predators and Reapers.

MILGRAM Experiments

Milgram’s thesis was a general one, but to nail the sense of disassociation to the drone Chamayou quotes Major Matt Martin, a Predator operator:

‘The suddenness of action played out at long distance on computer screens left me feeling a bit stunned…  It would take some time for the reality of what happened so far away, for “real” to become real.’

Again, I think it’s more complicated than that.  Martin was clearly recalling an early experience, low on the learning curve, and interviews with other drone pilots suggest that within 6 months or so most had little difficulty in apprehending the reality, even the physicality of pragmatic co-presence. The sensor operator interviewed by Omer Fast for 5,000 Feet is the Best had this to say, for example:

‘… you get more into it the longer you’re working on the Predator.  Like my first fire mission.  You know, we fired a Hellfire missile at the target.  It didn’t quite strike [sic] me as, “Hey! I just killed someone!”  My first time.  It was within my first year there.  It didn’t quite impact.  It was like, “Yeah! I got somebody!”  You know?  And it was later on through a couple of more missions that I started to… The impact really dawned on me.  I just ended someone’s life!  That was me that did that!”‘

obedience-to-authority-milgramIt’s important to remember, too, that Milgram’s work was about structures of authority, and this has a palpable effect in the case of the military chain of command which has been transformed by the networked incorporation of video feeds from the drones and the deployment of military lawyers (JAGs) on the operations floor of the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (what I called ‘oversight’ in “From a view to a kill”),  which provides for a dispersion of responsibility across the network.

Equally important, I suspect, is that fact that drone crews are not only ‘following orders’, as the familiar jibe has it: they are also following procedures that transform military violence into a process that is at once techno-scientific and quasi-juridical and thus seen as conducted under the sign of an unimpeachable (military) Reason.

Joseph Pugliese makes a parallel argument about the incorporation of military-legal discourse into the techno-logic of the targeting process:

‘I argue that the parenthetical relation of law to technology is premised on a topical hiatus that disassociates the executioner who manipulates the killing technology of the drone from the facticity of the resultant execution. In this scenario, law is conceived of in the most radically instrumental of understandings: it enables and legitimates the execution while simultaneously suspending the connection between the doer and the deed.’

state-violence-and-the-execution-of-lawAnd yet at the same time, Pugliese explains, there is a ‘prosthetic’ relation between law and technology, in which ‘the human agent is always already inscribed by the technics of law.’ From the very beginning, he insists, the body is always already ‘instrumentalised by a series of technologies’ and also inscribed, from the very beginning, by a series of laws.  In short, ‘law is always already inscribed on the body, precisely as techné from the very first. This process of prosthetic inscription operates to constitute the very conditions of possibility for the conceptual marking of the body as”‘human’”‘: ‘The prosthesis,’ notes Bernard Stiegler, ‘is not a mere extension of the human body; it is the constitution of this body qua “human”’.’

Still, Chamayou suggests that (1) and (2) work together to sustain what Mary Cummings calls ‘moral buffering’.  In other words, and in counterpoint to optical proximity, the dispositif also provides a powerful means of distanciation.  Here is Fast’s interviewee again:

‘There’s always more of a personal touch when you’re watching something live.  And it’s even more personal when you’re the one that did it… Well, I mean you get more – I guess – emotionally distant.  As time goes on.  But I mean… I guess in my case, and some of the cases of the guys that I knew, as more time went by you put yourself more and more in the position that this is more and more real life and that you are actually there… And after a while you become emotionally distant.  But still you put yourself more and more as if you’re standing right there…’

MARTIN PredatorThis is compounded, so Chamayou argues, by a different dimension of ‘remote split’ operations. Because Predators and Reapers can stay aloft for 18 hours or more (the ‘persistent presence’ that makes them so much in demand), their crews work shifts and commute each day (or night) between home and work or, more accurately, between peace and war.  One drone operator saw this as a peculiarly strung-out existence: ‘We were just permanently between war and peace’  (my emphasis).  Matt Martin said much the same.  US-based crews ‘commute to work in rush-hour traffic, slip into a seat in front of a bank of computers, fly a warplane to shoot missiles at an enemy thousands of miles away, and then pick up the kids from school or a gallon of milk at the grocery store on [their] way home for dinner.’  He described it as living ‘a schizophrenic existence between two worlds’; the sign at the entrance to Creech Air Force Base read ‘You are now entering CENTCOM AOR [Area of Operations]’, but ‘it could just as easily have read “You are now entering C.S. Lewis’s Narnia” for all that my two worlds intersected.’

The way crews survive, Chamayou suggests, is by partitioning, ‘setting aside’, but this is extremely difficult for commuter-warriors as they regularly and rapidly move between a domestic sphere in which killing is taboo and a military sphere where (so he says) it is ‘a virtue’.   The superimposition of these two worlds – their contradictory clash – means that crews are in a sense ‘both in the rear and at the front, living in two very different moral universes between which their lives are torn.’

This is precisely the situation dramatised in George Brant‘s play Grounded, which I noted in an earlier post, and Chamayou cites a former USAF sensor operator Brandon Bryant (whose testimony I discussed here) to the same effect.  In both cases, crew members plainly are affected, even distressed by what they see on the screen; in fact Bryant has bee diagnosed with PTSD.

But Chamayou insists that this sort of testimony is rare and that most of them do manage to compartmentalise.  Fast’s sensor operator:

‘A lot of us learn real fast to leave all of our problems at the door.  You know, when we’re leaving the squadron and heading home.  Just kind of putting it on a rack and pushing it out of your mind.’

And this, Chamayou concludes, nails the real psychopathology of the drone.  He calls French philosopher Simone Weil’s Gravity and grace to his aid:

‘The faculty of setting things aside opens the door to every sort of crime…  The ring of Gyges who has become invisible – this is precisely the act of setting aside: setting oneself aside from the crime one commits; not establishing the connection between the two.’

Chamayou has used the myth of Gyges earlier in his critique, but here he invokes Weil to claim that the psychopathology of the drone is not the trauma some say that drone crews experience ‘but on the contrary the industrial production of compartmentalised psyches, protected from all possibility of reflection on the violence they have committed, just as their bodies are already protected against every possibility of exposure to the enemy.’

rwg05074-1I’m really not sure about this.  ‘Protected from all possibility of reflection’?  Much of the evidence that Chamayou cites here – like Milgram’s experiments – could be applied to most forms of military violence.  Here, for example, is Arnold Bennett describing artillery at work in Over there: war scenes on the Western Front (1915):

‘The affair is not like shooting at anything.  A polished missile is shoved into the gun.  A horrid bang – the missile has disappeared, has simply gone.  Where it has gone, what it has done, nobody in the hut seems to care.  There is a telephone close by, but only numbers and formulae – and perhaps an occasional rebuke – come out of the telephone, in response to which the  perspiring men make minute adjustments in the gun or in the next missile.

 ‘Of the target I am absolutely ignorant, and so are the perspiring men.’

I’ve found the same sentiments expressed by bomber crews during the Second World War.  The difference, clearly, is that drone strikes involve far more than ‘numbers and formulae’ – co-ordinates on the screen – and that the visual  production and so-called ‘prosecution’ of the target takes place in near real time, in vivid detail and under the eye of military lawyers.  But it is not surprising (nor, I think, especially pathological) that those who carry out these strikes conduct themselves with a certain seriousness, a ‘professionalism’ if you like, that precludes emotional investment. This is from David Wood‘s interview with a highly experienced USAF drone pilot:

Q: You must develop an emotional tie with the people on the ground that makes it hard if there is going to be a strike or a raid, people are going to be killed.

A: I would couch it not in terms of an emotional connection, but a … seriousness. I have watched this individual, and regardless of how many children he has, no matter how close his wife is, no matter what they do, that individual fired at Americans or coalition forces, or planted an IED — did something that met the rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict, and I am tasked to strike that individual.

‘Professionalism’ shouldn’t be used as a mask to hide from critique, to be sure.  These crews are trained to perform with a calculative reason, dispassionately, through a techno-cultural and techno-legal armature, so that, as one USAF major told Nicola Abé, when she was preparing for a strike ‘there was no time for feelings’.  Or again, from another pilot operating a Predator over Afghanistan:

‘We understand that the lives we see in the screens are as real as our own…  I would not compare what I do as a job comparable to Call of Duty/any other video game, in any sense. It is very real and the seriousness of the lives on the ground is very real and instilled in all of our training. It is never something that we joke about. Very serious business.’

As I’ve noted before, there are (too) many instances in which crews do joke about their missions, the sort of ‘gallows humour’ that is no doubt a common reaction to  hunter-killer missions: but isn’t this also likely to be common amongst all military professionals who are trained to kill?  One pilot explicitly rejected the suggestion that drone crews become disassociated from what they do:

‘I wonder why people think this. We understand what we are doing is real world operations. We know our actions have consequences. I don’t understand the idea of being desensitized due to some operators not being in an actual firefight/combat zone.’

Later in the online exchange, the same pilot insists: ‘It’s very real.  Some of the stuff I’ve seen is burned into my brain’ – and then Brandon Bryant joins the conversation to ‘agree with what you guys have said.’  He’s on record as writing in his personal combat diary ‘I wish my eyes would rot.’

I realise that these passages can’t settle matters, but they surely cast doubt on the implication that drone crews are as machinic as the aircraft they fly.  Pugliese insists that the drone ‘cannot be reduced to a mindless machine of purely robotic acts’; neither, by virtue of what Pugliese calls their prosthetic relation to the drone, can the crew who fly them.   I still think that one of the most salient differences introduced by drones is the differential distanciation they allow when they provide close air support: an unprecedentedly close relation with troops on the ground and a calculative detachment from others in their field of view.

I realise, too, that this can’t apply to targeted killings, and so I leave you with this statement by Lt General Michael DeLong, who as deputy commander of US Central Command had to sign off on the first CIA-directed targeted killing, in Yemen in November 2002.  Then CIA Director George Tenet called DeLong to ask him to give the order, since the Predator was flown by a USAF crew:

delongp‘Tenet calls and said, “We got the target.” … I called General Franks [commander of CENTCOM]. Franks said, “Hey, if Tenet said it’s good, it’s good.” I said, “Okay … I’m going down to the UAV room.” … We had our lawyer there. Everything was done right. I mean, there was no hot dog. … The rules of war, the rules of combat that we had already set up, the rules of engagement ahead of time. Went by them. Okay, it’s a good target. …

I’m sitting back … looking at the wall, and I’m talking to George Tenet. And he goes, “You got to make the call?” These Predators had been lent to him, but the weapons on board were ours. So I said, “Okay, we’ll make the call. Shoot them.” 

Everything may have been ‘done right’, the procedures followed, but  when DeLong was asked ‘What does it feel like when you know you’re going down there to kill somebody?’ He replied:

‘It’s just war. It’s no different than going to the store to buy some eggs; it’s just something you got to do.’

And, as Chamayou would surely insist, it wasn’t war.  It was, as Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker on 23 December 2002, a manhunt.

HERSH Manhunt

To be continued.

Hard rain

Human Rights WatchSome more forensic geography from Human Rights Watch (I’ve long though that some of the very best human geography is produced by organisations like HRW).

Attacks on Ghoutta (22 pp) analyses the chemical weapons attacks on the suburbs of Ghoutta on 21 August 2013.  Here is the Executive Summary:

This report details two alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria on the opposition-controlled Damascus suburbs of Eastern and Western Ghouta, located 16 kilometers apart, on the morning of August 21, 2013. The attacks killed hundreds of civilians, including large numbers of children. Human Rights Watch analyzed witness accounts of the rocket attacks, information on the likely source of the attacks, the physical remnants of the weapon systems used, and the medical symptoms exhibited by the victims of the attack as documented by medical staff.

zamalaka_mapOur investigation finds that the August 21 attacks were likely chemical weapons attacks using a surface-to-surface rocket system of approximately 330mm in diameter—likely  Syrian-produced—and a Soviet-era 140mm surface-to-surface rocket system to deliver a nerve agent. Evidence suggests the agent was most likely Sarin or a similar weapons-grade nerve agent. Three local doctors told Human Rights Watch that victims of the attacks showed symptoms which are consistent with exposure to nerve gas, including suffocation; constricted, irregular, and infrequent breathing; involuntary muscle spasms; nausea; frothing at the mouth; fluid coming out of noses and eyes; convulsing; dizziness; blurred vision; and red and irritated eyes, and pin-point pupils.

The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces. Human Rights Watch and arms experts monitoring the use of weaponry in Syria have not documented Syrian opposition forces to be in the possession of the 140mm and 330mm rockets used in the attack, or their associated launchers.

The Syrian government has denied its responsibility for the attack, and has blamed opposition groups, but has presented no evidence to back up its claims. Based on the available evidence, Human Rights Watch finds that Syrian government forces were almost certainly responsible for the August 21 attacks, and that a weapons-grade nerve agent was delivered during the attack using specially designed rocket delivery systems. The scale and coordinated nature of the two attacks; against opposition-held areas; the presence of government-controlled potential launching sites within range of the targets; the pattern of other recent alleged chemical weapon attacks against opposition-held areas using the same 330mm rocket delivery system; and the documented possession of the 140mm and 330mm rocket systems able to deliver chemical weapons in the government arsenal—all point towards Syrian government responsibility for the attacks.

Human Rights Watch has investigated alternative claims that opposition forces themselves were responsible for the August 21 attacks, and has found such claims lacking in credibility and inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene. Claims that the August 21 deaths were caused by an accidental explosion by opposition forces mishandling chemical weapons in their possession are inconsistent with large numbers of deaths at two locations 16 kilometers apart, and documentation of rocket attacks on the sites that morning, as evidenced by witness accounts, the damage visible on the rockets themselves, and their impact craters.

Chemical weapon impact zones, Ghoutta (HRW)

Three quick observations.

HRW Rain of FireHRW used a range of sources to conduct its analysis-from-a-distance, including Skype interviews, video and photographic footage, and satellite imagery, and consulted with scientific experts on chemical warfare, key analysts from its own Arms Division and independent arms experts. I rehearse all this because when HRW carried out its searching analysis of the unlawful use of white phosphorus by the Israel Defense Force in Gaza, Rain of Fire, a forensic analysis that was cited multiple times in the Goldstone report, the defenders of the IDF (there’s a phrase) unleashed a desperate campaign to discredit HRW’s expert Marc Garlasco.  You can find a discussion in Eyal Weizman‘s The least of all possible evils (see also here). This time round, of course, the government of Israel has joined the (I think convincing) chorus identifying the Syrian Army as the culprits: but it will be interesting to see whether it has also been magically converted to the propriety of HRW’s forensic analysis.

I link the two reports for a second reason, which is the disgracefully selective and self-serving nature of the ‘humanitarian’ condemnation of chemical weapons.  Here is President Obama speaking yesterday:

‘…the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons, and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits — a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war.’

He conceded that this wasn’t always the case:

‘In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust. Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant, the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them. And in 1997, the United States Senate overwhelmingly approved an international agreement prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, now joined by 189 governments that represent 98 percent of humanity.

On August 21st, these basic rules were violated, along with our sense of common humanity.’

But what a selective mobilisation of history, in which the US rises from victim to saviour.  Now I agree that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is vile – but so too was  Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza ( in the same speech Obama reaffirmed the US’s “unshakable support” for Israel), the US-led coalition’s use of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq (which goes back to 1991; see also Omar Dewachi on ‘the toxicity of everyday life’ here), Iraq’s use of nerve gas against Iran in 1988 (in which we now have proof that the US was complicit), the US deployment of chemical herbicides in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia… the list goes on and on.

And this brings me to my third (no less obvious) observation: showing who used chemical weapons is a far cry from knowing what to do about it – especially when the network of responsibility and complicity is so hideously extensive.


Update: I’ve been so busy trying to finish two desperately overdue essays and to prepare for the start of a new term (I’ve posted the new outlines for my undergraduate and graduate courses under the TEACHING tab) that I haven’t had a chance to return to my reading of Théorie du drone, but I’m determined to do so very soon.


MITCHELL Cloning terror

Henrik Gustafsson writes with an interesting supplement to my previous post on Image Wars. Last year Nomadikon, the Bergen Center for Visual Culture, convened an online discussion around ‘Image Wars’, centring on W.J.T. Mitchell’s argument in Cloning Terror: the war of images, 9/11 to the present (there’s a short extract from the opening chapter over at Berfrois here).

There are extended contributions from:

Toby MillerImperial Wars

Mikkel Bolt RasmussenThe Spectacle of State Terror and Fear

Jill CasidThe Imperative Mood

Chris Hables GrayImage War in the Age of Digital (Re)Production

Max LiljeforsNotes on ‘Image Wars’

Joanna ZylinskaLife in the battlefield of vision

And excellent untitled contributions from Marita Sturken, Jill Bennett, Iain Chambers and Kari Andén-Papadopoulos.  

There’s also a rich response (‘Image War’) from Mitchell himself:

W.J.T. Mitchell… this might be the place to make clear my own sense of limits, by insisting that the notion of image war, of a war of images, is itself an image, a metaphor, and perhaps a metapicture—that is, a second-order picture of the way that pictures operate.   A war of images is not literally a war.  Images do not go into battle and kill each other; human beings do. Images do not plan invasions, massacre populations, and shatter bodies.  That requires people.  Images are more like animals than humans, in this respect.  Animals fight and kill each other, but the mass mobilization of violence known as war seems a uniquely human institution, unless we anthropomorphize the natural behavior of certain species such as warrior ants, or the learned behavior of the war horse, image of the heroic cavalry of pre-modern warfare.  Images are “agents” of war in the sense that a “secret agent” works for a foreign power, or an “agency” is an instrument of a state.  Images are thus like machines, extensions and agents of human powers.  Which is to say that they can go out of control, go “rogue,” and be turned against their creators.   If images are agents, then, perhaps they should be thought of as double agents, capable of switching sides, capable of being “flipped” by acts of clever detournement, appropriation, and seizure for purposes quite antithetical to the intentions of their creators.   (Think here of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” photo op; or the trophy photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison).    My attribution of agency and affect and desire to images, as Max Liljefors notes, “runs the risk” of “mystifying pictures,” but I don’t think we can track the volatile lives of images without running this risk.   We cannot, in my view, utterly destroy the mystification of images, their tendency to take on the status of totems, fetishes, and idols.  In fact, the fantasy of a sovereign iconoclastic power, one that would annihilate falsely mystified images once and for all simply winds up mimicking the idolatry that it seeks to displace.

You can read the whole thing here.

Image wars

STALLABRASS Memory of FireI’m still putting together the programme for my graduate course this term (I’ll post the full outline under the TEACHING tab as soon as it’s ready), and I plan to spend some time on what I’m calling Militarized vision and imag(in)ing modern war.

Images have become increasingly important to the conduct of war; in Precarious Life Judith Butler argues that ‘there is no way to separate, under present historical conditions, the material reality of war from those representational regimes through which it operates and which rationalize its own operation.’  This requires us to think carefully about two, closely related issues – media representations of military violence and its effects, and the ways in which militaries have incorporated political technologies of vision into their operations.

I’m thinking of beginning with these two readings:

Bernd Hüppauf, ‘Experiences of modern warfare and the crisis of representation’, New German Critique 59 (1993) 41-76.

Lilie Chouliaraki, ‘The humanity of war: iconic photojournalism of the battlefield, 1914-2012’, Visual communication 12 (3) (2013) 315-340

Then I want to turn to the scopic regimes of advanced militaries, via Virilio and transcripts of several US military investigations into air strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, to open up a discussion of targeting and political technologies of vision.  (This is probably also the place to say that, since I started to think through the relation between technoculture, targeted killing and the individuation of warfare I’ve also been thinking about the work of Bernard Stiegler; more later, but in the meantime you’ll find a truly excellent bibliography by cultural geographer Sam Kinsley here).

All of this opens up wide fields for debate, of course, but as I was putting together a list of supplementary materials I stumbled upon a new collection edited by Julian Stallabrass, Memory of fire: Images of war and the war of images (Photoworks, 2013):

This richly illustrated book is a visual, theoretical and historical resource about the photography of war, and how images are used as instruments of war. It comprises essays and interviews by prominent theorists, artists and photographers and covers the urgent issues of the depiction of war, the use of images of war by the media, various forms of censorship, the military as a PR and image-producing machine, the circulation of unofficial images and the impact of the digital mediascape.

Full details here , a four-pager in which Stallabrass discusses ‘Rearranging corpses, curatorially’ here, and a video in which he explains the project here:

There’s no shortage of work on these issues, I know, but there’s a particularly detailed engagement with Memory of Fire by Susie Linfield  author of The cruel radiance: photography and political violence (University of Chicago Press, 2010) – here and a sharp response from Stallabrass (scroll down).  There’s also a shorter but still informative review by Ashitha Nagesh at the always stimulating bookforum here.

Finally, you can find Stallabrass’s (2006) reaction to Retort’s Afflicted Powers and its engagement with ‘image wars’, ‘Spectacle and Terror’, on open access at the New Left Review here.

Drones and drama

I’ve noted several performance works that address drone wars before, and I’ve now encountered two more.

BRANT GroundedGeorge Brant‘s new play, Grounded, has been acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic.  It’s a solo drama (‘monologue’ really doesn’t do it justice) about a US Air Force pilot who has been obliged to switch from flying F-16s to Reapers (and so to the ‘Chair Force’) after her maternity leave.

The focus is on a domestic geography of remote operations that is beginning to attract more critical attention and which resonates with what Grégoire Chamayou calls the ‘psychopathologies of the drone‘: the difficulty of switching every day, every shift, from being in the war zone, at least virtually – what she calls being “downrange” – to being at home with a young family.

‘We’ll be working in shifts. Tapping each other out and taking the controls. A never-ending mission. Home will be training too. Getting used to the routine. Driving to war like it’s shift work. Like I’m punching the clock. Used to transition home once a year. Now it’ll be once a day. Different. Definitely different.’

The pilot finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the separation – to decompress – and gradually and ever more insistently one space keeps superimposing itself over the other; the fixed, precise sensor of the Gorgon Stare yields to a blurred vision in which the pilot finds it increasingly difficult to know where (or who) she is.

She begins by familiarising herself with the landscape in Afghanistan and the spectral figures moving through it:

‘I stare at the desert. They’re twelve hours ahead there. Night. Weird. I stare at the screen. It’s not like a videogame. A videogame has color. I stare at grey. At a world carved out of putty. Like someone took the time to carve a putty world for me to stare at twelve hours a day. High-definition putty….

‘The eye in the sky waits for the putty people to get closer together. Just a little closer. Closer. Closer. There I press the button. I watch the screen. A moment. A moment. And boom. A silent grey boom.’ 

628x471-1‘It becomes your world,’ she says, a world populated by the living and the dead whose greyness bleeds one into the other:

‘Lingering over the dead. A mound of the dead. Our dead. They were ambushed and I am to linger over their bodies. I do. With no idea of who they are or how they got here. A mound of our grey. Our boys in grey. Please let me find the guilty who did this the military age males who did this send me to shred their bodies into pieces too fine for my resolution…’

But then the Nevada desert on the drive home starts to resemble the landscape in Afghanistan; the face of a little girl on the screen, the daughter of a ‘High Value Target’, becomes the face of her own child:

‘The girl Her face She stops running and I see it Her face I see it clearly I can see her It’s Sam It’s not his daughter it’s mine…’

There’s much more – much of it turning on imagery and surveillance – and it’s richer and less linear than I can convey here.  You can download the script from Amazon or buy hard copy from Oberon Books here; in the UK Grounded has just transferred from the Edinburgh Festival to the Gate in London until 28 September: details here, and other dates in the US here (scroll down).

I’ve also received a message from Hjalmar Joffre-Eichhorn, a German-Bolivian theatre-maker who has lived and worked in Afghanistan for the last six years.  Hjalmar brought the “Theatre of the Oppressed” to Afghanistan and co-founded the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO).  He’s currently writing a new play to be premiered in Kabul in November, which focuses on drones and suicide bombers in Afghanistan and Pakistan: clearly another parallel with Grégoire Chamayou‘s work.

More to come, I hope, and I’ll keep you posted, but you can watch and listen to an inspiring talk by Hjalmar on Afghanistan and community-based theatre here:

Note: Back to my reading of Théorie du drone next week – this week has been filled with preparing for the new term which starts on Tuesday (so I’m updating the course outlines under the TEACHING tab).  I’ve also had a lovely e-mail from Grégoire Chamayou, and we are going to try a digital conversation – once the dust of the beginning of term has settled – and when we’re done, I’ll post the transcript here.