Un-Christmas reading

DOD-USRM-2013 (dragged)Two reports to put on the reading list.  The US military has been revising its Counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24 (December 2006), and as part of that process the Joint Chiefs of Staff have now issued their updated JP 3-24 on Counterinsurgency (November 2013).  I haven’t had time to digest it yet, but air power is no longer relegated to the closing pages…

The US Air Force is also in the closing stages of its so-called Vector Report on Remotely Piloted Aircraft, which is supposed to map out the likely role of military UAVs over the next 25 years; its release has been delayed for what are described a minor last-minute changes, but just before Christmas the Pentagon released its Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap 2012-2038, which includes its plans for aerial, ground and maritime systems.

Unseen war

I’m off to Beirut in early January for CASAR’s conference on Transnational American Studies, where I’ll be talking about CIA-directed drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  Even though Judith Butler had to cancel, it’s still an excellent program, including Paul Amar, Lisa Bhungalia, Brian Edwards, Keith Feldman, Waleed Hazbun, Craig Jones, Amy Kaplan, Laleh Khalileh, Vijay Prashad, Jeremy Scahill (and a screening of Dirty Wars), and an evening performance of Robert Myers‘s drone play, Unmanned.

I have about a week to get my own act together, so it’s welcome news that the Tactical Technology Collective has released a series of short films, Exposing the Invisible, the most recent of which – Unseen War – focuses on the FATA.

Unseen war

There are also transcripts of the full interviews that make up the 7 ‘chapters’  of the film: Sadaf Baig from the Centre for International Media Ethics (CIME) at the London School of Economics; Taha Siddiqui, an independent journalist in Islamabad; Safdar DawarAlice Ross from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; Noortje Marres from Goldsmiths, University of London; and James Bridle (who needs no introduction for readers of this blog).

Sadaf and Safdar are both very informative about FATA, and James provides an excellent introduction to his stream of work on drones.

Digital airstrikes and physical casualties


The US military defines Close Air Support (CAS) as ‘air action by fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces, and [it] requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.’  It’s a difficult and dangerous business, and not only for the intended targets.

The technologies of CAS have been transformed but, according to the the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, its fundamentals haven’t changed since the First World War.

‘Pilots and dismounted ground agents must ensure they hit only the intended target using just voice directions and, if they’re lucky, a common paper map. It can often take up to an hour to confer, get in position and strike—time in which targets can attack first or move out of reach.’

To achieve what is in effect the time-space compression of the kill-chain, DARPA is developing its Persistent Close Air Support program to provide an all-digital system.  The system ‘lets a Joint Tactical Air Controller call up CAS from a variety of sources, such as aircraft or missile platforms, to engage multiple, moving and simultaneous targets,’ explains David Szondy (from whom I’ve borrowed the short-hand ‘digital airstrikes’). ‘By eliminating all the radio chatter and map fumbling, the exercise is much faster and more accurate with reduced risk of friendly fire incidents.’  The program manifesto, for want of a better word, includes these aims and specifications:

The program seeks to leverage advances in computing and communications technologies to fundamentally increase CAS effectiveness, as well as improve the speed and survivability of ground forces engaged with enemy forces.

The program envisions numerous benefits, including:

  • Reducing the time from calling in a strike to the weapon hitting the target by a factor of 10, from up to 60 minutes down to just 6 minutes 
  • Direct coordination of airstrikes by a ground agent from manned or unmanned air vehicles
  • Improved speed and survivability of ground forces engaged with enemy forces
  • Use of smaller, more precise munitions against smaller and moving targets in degraded visual environments
  • Graceful degradation of services—if one piece of the system fails, warfighters would still retain CAS capability


PCAS has two components:

The first is PCAS-Air, which … involves the use of internal guidance systems, weapons and engagement management systems, and communications using either the Ethernet or aircraft networks for high-speed data transmission and reception. PCAS-Air processes the data received, and provides aircrews via aircraft displays or tablets with the best travel routes to the target, which weapons to use, and how best to use them.

The other half is PCAS-Ground, intended for improved mobility, situational awareness and communications for fire coordination. Soldiers on the ground can use an HUD eyepiece wired to a tablet that displays tactical imagery, maps, digital terrain elevation data, and other information [the image above is an artist’s impression of the Heads-Up Display]. This means they can receive tactical data from PCAS without having to keep looking at a computer screen.

PCAS-Ground has been deployed in Afghanistan since December 2012.  The original plan, as the emphasis on ‘persistent’ implies, was to integrate the system with drones, but after the cancellation of the US Air Force’s MQ-X (‘Avenger’) program Raytheon announced that PCAS would be developed using a conventional A-10 Thunderbolt.

There is of course a long history to the digitisation and automation of the battlespace, and that reference to the First World War was not an anachronism.  There were such intimate links between mapping, aerial photography and artillery ranging on the Western Front – whose cascade of updated imagery and intelligence underwrote the seeming stasis of trench warfare – that Peter Chasseaud described the result as ‘a sophisticated three-dimensional fire-control data base’ through which ‘in effect, the battlefield had been digitised.’  It was also, in a sense, automated; I discuss this in detail in ‘Gabriel’s Map’, but it’s captured perfectly in Tom McCarthy‘s novel C.

More obvious way stations to the present include the Vietnam-era Electronic Battlefield, whose sensor-shooter system I described in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab) as a vital precursor to today’s remote operations:

Another was the development of the PowerScene digital terrain simulation that was used to identify target imagery transmitted by proto-Predators over Bosnia-Hercegovina and to rehearse NATO bombing missions.

PowerScene at Wright-Dayton AFBRemarkably, it was also used at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base during the negotiations that led to the Dayton peace accords. As one US officer explained:  ‘It’s an instrument of war but we’ll use it for peace because you are willing to come to the table’.  The system was used to explore proposals for potential boundaries, but the sub-text was clear: if agreement could not be reached, NATO had a detailed military knowledge of terrain and targets.  (For more, see James Hasik‘s Arms and innovation: entrepreneurship and alliances in the twenty-first century defense industry (2008) Ch. 6: ‘Mountains Miles Apart’; Richard Johnson‘s ‘Virtual Diplomacy’ report here; and a precocious paper by Mark Corson and Julian Minghi here, from which I’ve taken the image on the left).

powerscene2PowerScene was later used by USAF pilots rehearsing simulated bombing missions against Baghdad in the 1990s (see right) – the system fixed target co-ordinates and red ‘bubbles’ displayed threats calibrated on the range of surface-to-air missile systems – and when Anteon Corporation and Lockheed Martin introduced TopScene air strikes over Afghanistan in 2001 were also rehearsed over digital terrain.

But there is another side to all this, because digital platforms can also be used to enable others to display and interrogate the geography of air strikes.  I’ve discussed this before in relation to the CIA-directed program of targeted killing in Pakistan here and here, but impressive progress has also been made in plotting air strikes across the border in Afghanistan.

The most remarkable use of USAF/ISAF data that I know is Jason Lyall‘s work in progress on what he calls ‘Dynamic coercion in civil wars’ – ‘Are airstrikes an effective tool of coercion against insurgent organizations?’ – which focuses on air strikes in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2011. This is part of a book project, Death from above: the effects of airpower in small wars; the most recent version of the relevant analysis is here.  The map below is Jason’s summary of air strikes in Afghanistan 2006-11, but as I’ll explain in a moment, it gives little idea of the critical digital power that lies behind it.

JASON LYALL Air strikes in Afghanistan 2006-2011

First, the original USAF/ISAF data was in digital form, but transforming it into a coherent and consistent geo-coded database has involved a truly extraordinary enterprise:

We draw on multiple sources to construct a dataset of nearly 23,000 airstrikes and shows of force in Afghanistan during 2006-11. The bulk of the dataset stems from newly-declassified data from the Air Forces Central’s (AFCENT) Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Southwest Asia, which recorded the location, date, platform, and type/number of bombs dropped for January 2008 to December 2011 in Afghanistan. These data required extensive cleaning to ensure that a consistent standard for each type of air operation was maintained and duplicates dropped. These data were supplemented by declassified data from the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) Combined Information Data Exchange Network (CIDNE) for the January 2006 to December 2011 time period. Finally, additional records from press releases by the Air Force’s Public Affairs Office (the “Daily Airpower Summary,” or DAPS) were also incorporated. … Each air operations’ intended target was confirmed using at least two independent coders drawing on publicly available satellite imagery. Merging of these records was extremely labor intensive, not least because of the near total absence of overlap between CAOC, CIDNE, and DAPS records. Only 448 events were found in all three datasets, underscoring the problems inherent in single-sourcing data, even official data, in conflict settings (my emphasis).

Second, to get the full visual effect of Jason’s analysis you absolutely need to see the animation that he’s made available on his website here; the image below is just a screenshot for September 2009 (I’ll explain why I chose that month in my next post).

JASON LYALL Air strikes in Afghanistan 09:2009

But what about casualty figures?  Josh includes a summary map of 216 air strikes involving acknowledged civilian casualties, taken from the same military databases (with all their limitations), and in January 2011 the US military released its data on ‘CIVCAS’ for the previous two years to the journal Science.  They included casualties from all parties to the conflict:

The numbers show that 2,537 Afghans civilians were killed and 5,594 were wounded in the past two years. Most of the deaths – 80 percent – are attributed to insurgents, with 12 percent caused by coalition forces, a 26 percent drop.

Here is Science‘s visualization of the CIVCAS data, designed to capture the time-space rhythms of violence from multiple causes:


You can access the interactive version here.

But other sources (notably the Afghan Rights Monitor and the UN Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, which produces six-monthly Reports on the protection of civilians in armed conflict) using different methodologies came up with much higher figures; here is a graph from the most recent UNAMA report showing casualties from air strikes 2009-13:

UNAMA Civilian casualties from air attacks 2009-13

UNAMA added this comment:

UNAMA welcomes the reduction in civilian casualties from aerial operations but reiterates its concern regarding several operations that caused disproportionate loss of civilian life and injury. UNAMA also raises concerns with the lack of transparency and accountability about several aerial operations carried out by international military forces that resulted in civilian casualties.

You can find the full analysis by John Bohannon, which includes a discussion of both databases, at Science (open access) here.

To be sure, counting casualties is always a contentious (and often dangerous) affair.  Getting information from the government of Afghanistan isn’t any more straightforward, as Nick Turse has shown: as he adds, ‘neither is it cheap’.  But he persevered, and the wonderful Pitch Interactive (a data visualization studio that also produced the haunting representation of deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan) collaborated with The Nation to produce a stunning interactive of ‘civilian deaths that have occurred in Afghanistan as a result of war-related actions by the United States, its allies and Afghan government forces.’  Here’s a screenshot:

Civilian fatalities in Afghanistan 2001-2012

You will see running along the top the military commanders during each period; the red dots mark major events.  It’s common knowledge – or should be – that the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was spearheaded by an intensive high-level bombing campaign (I described this in The Colonial Present), shown along that desperately deep left margin.  But I suspect fewer people have grasped the reliance that ISAF has continued to place on air power.  What stands out from the image above, clearly, is the disproportionate (sic) number of deaths attributed to air strikes (5, 622) compared with ground operations (794) throughout the period: the UNAMA data above suggest that this only started to change in 2013. You can read more about this in the essay by Bob Dreyfuss and Nick Turse that accompanied the interactive, ‘America’s Afghan victims’, here, and – as always – the tireless work of Marc Herold is indispensable.

And to forestall a stream of comments, my title is not intended to suggest that digital technologies or the airstrikes they facilitate are somehow ‘immaterial’; nothing could be further from the truth.  Or the killing fields.

Global terrorism

With all the usual caveats about the notoriously contentious definition(s) of ‘terrorism’,  the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), which has been up and running at the University of Maryland since 2005, has now geocoded its Global Terrorism Database – at least for 2012 – and from its list of more than 8,400 terrorist attacks that killed over  15,400 people its has produce this map of terrorist attacks last year:

START Terrorist attacks 2012

‘Although terrorism touched 85 countries in 2012, just three – Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan – suffered more than half of 2012’s attacks (54%) and fatalities (58%)… The next five most frequently targeted countries were India, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Thailand.’

You can download a hi-res and zoomable version here, and you can find out more about START here.

Of course, it’s a moving map:

‘In the 1970s, most attacks occurred in Western Europe. In the 1980s, Latin America saw the most terrorist acts. Beginning with the 1990s, South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East have seen steadily rising numbers of attacks, a trend that has accelerated in recent years.’

And since START is a ‘Center of Excellence of the US Department of Homeland Security’ then, no, the map doesn’t include US drone strikes or attacks on civilians carried out by US allies.


OVERY The Bombing War Europe 1939-1945I’m slowly working my war through Richard Overy‘s magisterial account of The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945; the subtitle is a necessary reminder that this wasn’t the only ‘bombing war’ of the period, but Overy’s scope is still much wider than the usual focus on the Blitz and the combined bomber offensive against Germany.  Too soon for me to work out what I think, but there’s an appreciative review by another brilliant historian of the period, Richard J. Evans, in the Guardian here.  Evans calls The Bombing War ‘probably the most important book published on the history of the second world war this century.’

Evans’s summary of bombing’s ‘surprising inefficiency’ and ‘staggering inaccuracy’ is worth repeating:

Bombing was surprisingly inefficient. As Overy shows, poor visibility, the sudden deterioration of weather conditions, malfunctioning equipment, outdated and slow-moving aircraft, pilot inexperience or crew exhaustion, and enemy action varying from anti-aircraft batteries to night-fighters or the jamming of navigation beams, all reduced the effectiveness of bomber fleets. Aircraft crashed, ran out of fuel or suffered engine failure with astonishing frequency. In its raids on Britain from January to June 1941, for example, 216 German bombers were lost and 190 damaged; 282 of these were as a result of flying accidents. The death rate among bomber crews was appallingly high (crew members in Bomber Command had a one-in-four chance of surviving their first tour of duty, and a one-in-10 chance of surviving their second) but not all of it was as a result of enemy action. At the end of 1941 Bomber Command reckoned that it was losing six aircraft to accidents for every one shot down by the enemy. The British and especially the Americans could make good these losses, and more besides; in the end, Germany’s smaller resources meant that the German air force was increasingly outproduced.

Above all, bombing was staggeringly inaccurate. Bomber fleets had to fly high to avoid anti-aircraft fire from the ground, so even if the weather was clear, they were often unable to locate their targets effectively. On one mission, Robert Kee, a bomber pilot who later became a successful historian, “bombed some incendiaries at what we hoped was Hanover” but mostly dropped his bombs on searchlight concentrations because that was all he could see through the cloud. One report, compiled in September 1941, reported that only 15% of aircraft were bombing within five miles of their target. In the last three months of 1944, it was reckoned that only 5.6% of bombs fell within a mile of the aiming point if there was cloud, despite the use of electronic navigation aids. One raid on a major oil plant saw 87% of the bombs missing their target entirely, and only two actually hitting the buildings.

There’s also a thoughtful review of The Bombing War by Keith Lowe here; Lowe’s account of the bombing of Hamburg, Inferno: the devastation of Hamburg, 1943, is another tour de force, which describes both the execution of the air raids and the consequences for those on the ground. Claire Tomalin‘s review of Inferno closed with a sentence that has haunted me ever since I read it: ‘Once you are committed to fighting, you are going to kill the innocent with whatever technology you have developed.’  Overy does discuss those consequences too, but I think it’s fair to say that the tone of his discussion is largely (though not exclusively) policy-directed – a matter of response rather than experience.

SUSS Death from the skiesThere are now a number of major studies of the effects of bombing individual cities, and Jörg Friedrich‘s The Fire: the bombing of Germany 1940-1945 is also indispensable.  But for an account of the experiences of those crouching (and dying) under the bombs on an equally epic scale to Overy, albeit confined to Britain and Germany, we have to wait for Dietmar Süss‘s  Death from the skies: how the British and Germans survived bombing in World War II, due from Oxford University Press next spring.  Originally published in 2011 as Tod aus der Luft, the book has been a bestseller in Germany.  Stefan Goebel provides a detailed review here:

‘The publication of Tod aus der Luft is to be highly welcomed, not least because it breaks into a market that for too long has been dominated by popular accounts on the one hand and official histories on the other. Süß’s extraordinary book combines the virtues of both genres: delivered with great panache, it is also based on a scrupulous examination of archival records. Potential buyers of Tod aus der Luft can expect multiple ‘two-in-one’ deals: not only is this book both sophisticated and accessible, written by an academic historian with a background in journalism, it is also a stimulating synthesis of the social, political, and cultural history of war, and a thoughtful comparative study of Britain (or ‘England’, as Süß has it) and Germany in the era of the Second World War…

‘At the centre of this comparative study are not the political systems (even though Süß has a great deal to say about their institutional structures) but the emergence of a Kriegsmoral (war morale) at the intersection of individual experiences and political mobilization. Moreover, this hefty tome is not meant to be a comprehensive ac-count of the British and German bombing campaigns of the Second World War. Rather, the author’s approach might be described as a history of the air war ‘from below’: one that is focused on the fear, experience, and memory (of people on the ground) of death and destruction….

‘The construction of a Kriegsmoral became the central preoccupation of both societies during the air war. This book offers an intriguing exploration of the comparative method; the author’s discussion of British society during the Blitz throws many aspects of the German experience of the air war into much sharper relief (and vice versa).’

Both books are, appropriately, blockbusters: Overy comes in at 880 pp and Süss  at 736 pp.

The Natures of War online


St Andrews has just posted the video of my Neil Smith Lecture on “The Natures of War” online here, and I’ve also embedded it below.  We lowered the lights so that the slides would pop, so it may seem a little dim (or perhaps I do) at the start, but each of the slides has been spliced in separately and they are crystal clear.

I started out by talking about Neil’s work and, as you’ll see, lost it; it’s never happened to me before, but then I’ve never given a lecture named after a close friend before.  I’d intended to return to Neil and the ‘production of nature’ at the end, but decided to leave that for the long-form version so I could at least carry on through the Q&A.  The focus is on ‘nature’ not as an arena on which military violence is staged, the trigger for resource wars and conflict commodities, but as a medium through which military violence takes place.  I develop the argument through three case studies: the Western Front of World War I, the Western Desert of World War II, and the rainforest of Vietnam.

My warmest thanks to everyone at St Andrews, and especially to Joe Doherty, who opened the event with a moving account of Neil’s career and contributions (as you can see above, this is included in the video), and to my good friend Dan Clayton for putting everything (including me) together so well.

Eyes in the sky, boots on the ground

When I was working on my ‘War and peace’ essay (Trans Inst Br Geogr 35 (2010) 154–186; DOWNLOADS TAB) – which will appear, in radically revised and extended form, in The everywhere war – I included this map of US military bases outside the continental United States, based on David Vine‘s Island of shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (2009), which was in turn derived from the Pentagon’s 2007 Base Structure Report:

US military bases

Various other versions are available around the web, but now – inspired in part by Trevor Paglen‘s Blank Spots on the Map – a new project by Josh Begley (of Dronestream fame) has worked from the 2013 Base Structure Report to produce a new base map supplemented by aerial/satellite imagery of more than 640 US military bases around the world.

It’s still a minimalist accounting, but the lacunae are produced not only by the secret installations that are systematically excluded from the Pentagon’s public accounting of what it calls its ‘real property’  – if only there could be a listing of its surreal property too (which is where Trevor comes in) – but also by the database’s predisposition towards permanence (of sorts).  You’ll see what I mean if you zoom in on Afghanistan: the main Forward Operating Bases are there but none of the firebases and combat outposts scattered across the landscape.  Still, even in this appropriately skeletal form, it’s a vivid reminder of the boots firmly planted on other people’s ground.

BEGLEY How do you measure a military footprint?

Josh includes a sharp-eyed commentary on the differences between images of the same site on different commercial platforms, and concludes his opening essay, ‘How do you measure a military footprint?’ like this:

Taken as a whole, I’d like to think this collection can begin to approximate the archipelago of militarized space often understood as empire. But I’m hesitant to say that. It seems to me that empire involves more than pushpins on a map. It is made up of human activity — a network of situated practices that preclude constellational thinking and sculpt geographies in their own image.

I’m not sure aerial photography can get at that complexity. But perhaps an outline of this footprint– of runways and bases and banal-looking buildings — might begin to chip away at the bumper-sticker simplicity much political discourse about the military-industrial complex gets reduced to.

A friend recently sent me this passage from Ananya Roy [‘Praxis in the time of Empire’, Planning Theory 5 (1) (2006) 7-29] that I’ve come to like quite a bit:

“The time of empire is war and destruction, but it is also creation, beauty, and renewal. The apparatus of empire is the military, but it is also architecture, planning, and humanitarian aid. The mandate of empire is to annihilate, but it is also to preserve, rebuild, and protect. Empire rules through coercion and violence, but it also rules through consent and culture.”

HAFFNER The view from aboveTwo quick comments.  First, if you want more on what aerial photography can get at – and in particular its historical formation as an indispensable vector of modern war – try Terrence Finnegan‘s Shooting the Front: Allied aerial reconnaissance in the First World War (2011), which has already established itself as a classic, or if you prefer a more theoretically informed survey, Jeanne Heffner‘s  The view from above: the science of social space (2013), especially Chapter 3, ‘The opportunity of war’.  War doesn’t loom as large as you’d think in Denis Cosgrove and William Fox‘s Photography and flight (2010), but you’ll also find interesting ideas in Paul Virilio‘s perceptive War and cinema.  On satellite imagery, the most relevant essay for the background to this project is probably Chris Perkins and Martin Dodge, ‘Satellite imagery and the spectacle of secret spaces‘, Geoforum 40 (4) (2009) 546-60.  The different platforms that Josh discusses (Google Earth and Bing) derive much of their imagery from DigitalGlobe: for an update on its new super-high res WorldView-3 (and its restriction to the US military and security apparatus), see Neal Ungerleider, ‘Google Earth, foreign wars and the future of satellite imagery’ here.  Among her many important essays, Lisa Parks‘ ‘Zeroing in: overhead imagery, infrastructure ruins and datalands in Iraq and Afghanistan’ is an indispensable kick-start for thinking about satellite imagery and military violence, and you can find it in Jeremy Packer and Stephen Crofts Wiley (ed) Communication matters (2013) and in Nicholas Mirzoeff‘s Visual culture reader (3rd edition, 2013).  One of my favourite essays – and the one that got me started on the intimate connections between political technologies of vision and military violence an age ago – is Chad Harris‘s ‘The omniscient eye: satellite imagery, “battlespace awareness” and the structures of the imperial gaze’, open access at Surveillance and society 4 (1/2) (2006) here.

Second, it is indeed important to think through all the ways in which the US military/security presence reaches beyond these pinpricks on the map.  These are bases for more extensive military operations, obviously, but there is also the roving US presence in outer space, air and ocean – and cyberspace – that is necessarily absent from these static arrays.  In addition – and there must be many other add-ons –  the US is hardening its borders in a transnational space, confirming the argument made explicit in the 9/11 Commission report: ‘the American homeland is the planet’.  Deb Cowen‘s seminal essay on ‘A geography of logistics’ is indispensable here, and Todd Miller provides a recent vignette on what he calls Border Patrol International here.

Oh – one more thing.  Josh’s new project has been widely advertised – from Gizmodo through the Huffington Post to the Daily Mail (really) – but if you want to see whether you’re in step with other posters and the trolls, look at the comments sections.  Sobering.  Gizmodo is particularly revealing/depressing.

Ideology of the drone

9782130583516Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer has published an extended critique of Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone at La vie des idées under the title ‘Ideology of the drone’.  Some of the essays from that site are eventually translated into English and appear on the mirror site Books & Ideas, but I have no idea when or even whether this one will be, so I thought it would be helpful to provide a summary.

First, some background.  Vilmer has travelled via Montréal, Yale and War Studies at King’s College London to his present position at Sciences Po in Paris, where he teaches ethics and the law of war; he also teaches at the military academy at Saint-Cyr, and is a policy adviser on security issues to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Vilmer is the author of more than a dozen books, of which La Guerre au nom de l’humanité : tuer ou laisser mourir (2012) is probably the best known.  If you’re not familiar with his work, here’s an English-language interview with him about La Guerre au nom de l’humanité via France 24 and the Daily Motion:

pe-3-2013I should note, too, that Vilmer’s critique trades in part on an essay published earlier this year, ‘Légalité et légitimité des drones armés’ [‘Legality and legitimacy of armed drones’], in Politique étrangère 3 (2013) 119-32, in which he rehearses a number of criticisms of Chamayou.  There Vilmer insists that the use of drones is perfectly compatible with the principles of international humanitarian law (this is about principle not practice, though, and he doesn’t address the implications of international human rights law which many critics and NGOs believe is the operative body of law for drone strikes outside war zones, like those carried out by the US in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan).

He also has no time for critics who turn the distance between the drone operator and the target into a moral absolute (though I don’t think Chamayou does that at all: instead, as I tried to show previously, he provides a nuanced discussion of the concept of distance).  Still, Vilmer is right to insist that the history of modern war is the history of killing the enemy from ever greater distances, and those who cling to the ‘nobility’ of hand-to-hand fighting are blind to an historical record reaching back over centuries.  If distance is a ‘moral buffer’, this is hardly unique to today’s remote operations, where in any case the greater physical distance is counterbalanced by a compression of what Vilmer calls ‘epistemic distance’ through the real-time full-motion video feeds transmitted from the drone.  The difference between the crew of a Lancaster bomber over Germany and the drone operator controlling an aircraft over Afghanistan is that the latter sees his victim.  And if conducting strikes by computer is ‘dehumanising’, the machetes used at close quarters in the Rwandan genocide were hardly less so.  What is more, Vilmer suggests, those video feeds are not only remote witnesses of the target; there is an important sense in which they also function as remote witnesses of the crew, providing a vital record for any subsequent military-judicial investigation and thus inviting and even institutionalising a regularised monitoring of ‘the conduct of conduct’.

la-theorie-du-droneNow to the extended critique of Chamayou.  Vilmer notes that Théorie du drone follows directly from Chamayou’s previous book, Chasses à l’homme [Manhunts], and in fact that’s his main problem with it: he says that Théorie reduces the function of drones to ‘hunting’, specifically to the US campaign of targeted killing, and identifies the one so closely with the other that the force of his analysis is blunted.  Vilmer thinks this is playing to the crowd: there is a considerable audience opposed to the use of drones who find Chamayou’s arguments convincing because they confirm their own views.

Indeed, Chamayou makes it plain that one of his express intentions is to provide the critics with useful tools to advance their political work.  Yet at the same time he presents Théorie as a philosophical investigation – and it is that, Vilmer concedes, erudite and at times brilliant – but in his view the objective is less to provide understanding than to provoke indignation.  In fact,  Chamayou has said in press interviews that what provoked him in the first place was the sight of philosophers collaborating with the military – and Vilmer freely admits to being one of them (though in France rather than the United States or Israel).

It’s important to examine the practice of targeted killing, Vilmer agrees, because it raises crucial ethical and legal questions.  But it’s also important not to confuse the ends with the means.  As I’ve noted in my own commentaries on Théorie, there are other ways of carrying out targeted killing (as Russian dissidents on the streets of London or Iranian scientists on the streets of Tehran have discovered to their cost) and there are many other military uses for drones.  Targeted killing gets the most publicity because it’s so controversial, Vilmer argues, but it’s far less important than the provision of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (though ISR is central to lethal strikes carried out by conventional aircraft and ground troops too).

Vilmer is breezily confident about the use of drones in war-zones, where he says they are no more problematic than any other observation platform or weapons system.  Contrary to Chamayou’s assertion that drones only save ‘our’ lives, Vilmer insists that they have saved the lives of others – ‘their’ lives – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali.  Yet Chamayou isn’t interested in these cases; instead his ‘theory of the drone’ reduces its role to CIA-directed targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which Vilmer complains is like calling a book on Russian cyber-attacks Theory of the computer.

aJeangène VilmerThat said, he thinks Chamayou’s critique of signature strikes is ‘excellent’, and he deeply regrets the migration of the American campaign away from ‘personality strikes’ against High Value Targets. The widening of the target lists and the ‘industrialisation’ of targeted killing deserves condemnation – and Vilmer notes that the Obama administration, responsible for ramping up the attacks, has since cut them back in response to criticisms – but in his view this only shows that Predators and Reapers ‘have been used in an imprecise way’ not that they are intrinsically less accurate than other systems.

When Chamayou seeks to show, to the contrary, that drones are ‘inhumane’ he advances two arguments that Vilmer flatly rejects.  (I have to say that I think Chamayou’s arguments are considerably more subtle than Vilmer allows: see here and here).  The first – the claim that ‘unmanned’ aircraft are by definition ‘inhuman’ – he dismisses as sophistry, not because each operation involves almost 200 people but because the bombers that destroyed Hamburg and levelled Dresden were ‘manned’: he says that Chamayou would hardly describe the results of their missions as ‘humane’. The second – that machines dedicated to killing cannot be ‘humane’ – is an absolutism that doesn’t engage with those (like Vilmer) who argue that some weapons are more humane than others. That, after all, is precisely why some weapons are banned by international law.  And unlike Chamayou, Vilmer insists that drones allow for a greater degree of compliance with principles of distinction because they are more than weapons systems: they also provide enhanced ISR.

Vilmer agrees that it is wrong to compare drone strikes with bombing missions in the Second World War, Korea or Vietnam, but he disagrees with the contemporary alternative canvassed by Chamayou: ground troops armed with grenades.  In the case of Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia this isn’t a realistic option, he argues, and in the absence of drones the only alternative would be a Kosovo-like bombing campaign or a rain of Tomahawk missiles – neither of which would be as accurate as a Hellfire missile.  But this is to substitute one absolutism for another.  Hellfire missiles are not confined to Predators and Reapers but are also carried by conventional strike aircraft and attack helicopters; and in any case cruise missiles have been launched from US Naval vessels to attack targets in Yemen, and Special Forces have been deployed on the ground in all three killing fields.  Perhaps more to the point, however, Vilmer knows very well that conventional operations involving ground troops do not typically minimise civilian casualties.  He points to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as reasons for Obama’s greater reliance on remote operations and a ‘lighter footprint’, and he also emphasises (as Chamayou does not) the casualties caused by Pakistan’s own military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see my discussions here and here).

This last brings Vilmer to a key objection, which is that Chamayou provides no detailed discussion of the reasons behind the US drone strikes.  It’s not enough to attribute them to American imperialism tout court, he insists, because this is a reductive argument that turns terrorists and insurgents into freedom fighters and fails to acknowledge let alone analyse the real dangers posed, both locally and trans-nationally, by al-Qaeda and its associates.  Théorie doesn’t simply ‘disappear’ the terrorists, Vilmer writes, it turns them into victims: like so many rabbits put back in the magician’s hat.  The imagery is almost Chamayou’s – he claims that ‘one no longer fights the enemy, one eliminates them like rabbits’ – but Vilmer prefers another one.  He says that Chamayou’s talk of the predator (or Predator) advancing, the prey fleeing, makes it seem as though the drones are targeting Bambi’s mother…

Bambi's mother

It’s another clever phrase (and Vilmer excels in them), but I think Chamayou is much more sensitive to civilian casualties – and to the plight of all those innocents living under the perpetual threat of attack – than Vilmer.  There are snares and dangers out there, to be sure; but there are also an awful lot of Bambis and their mothers.

Finally, Vilmer turns to France’s decision to buy Reapers, which Chamayou contends has caused no outcry in France only because the public is badly informed about drones. On the contrary, Vilmer replies: it’s because they can tell the difference between buying the technology and using it like the Americans. Vilmer has much more to say about this in a recent open access interview in Politique étrangère, where he explains that the Air Force had deployed four unarmed drones, a version of Israel’s Heron called the Harfang, in Afghanistan, Libya and Mali, but that from the end of this year France will start to take delivery of 12 MQ-9 Reapers: these too will be unarmed.  He also speculates about the future development of drones.  Among other things, there will be a lot more of them (so he does worry about their proliferation); he also thinks they will be faster and stealthier, more lethal and more autonomous, and that they will fly in swarms.  He also believes that aircraft of the future will increasingly be produced in two versions: either conventional operations with pilots onboard or remote operations with pilots in a Ground Control Station.

Please bear in mind that this is only a summary of Vilmer’s critique, which is vulnerable to its own simplifications and caricatures, though I obviously haven’t been able to keep entirely silent.  But I’ll reserve a fuller engagement until I’ve finished my own extended commentary on Théorie du drone.

Theory of the drone 12: ‘Killing well’?

This is the 12th in a series of extended posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone and covers the final chapter in Part III: Necro-ethics, called ‘Précisions’; in French the singular means accuracy, as you might expect, but the plural means ‘details’ – which is, of course, where the devil is to be found…

One of the most common claims advanced by those who defend the use of armed drones is that they reduce ‘collateral damage’ because they are so precise.  Following directly from his previous critique of Bradley Jay Strawser, Chamayou cites him again here: ‘Drones, for all their current and potential misuse, have the potential for tremendous moral improvement over the aerial bombardments of earlier eras.’  But he dismisses this as a misleading comparison: if Dresden or Hiroshima are taken as the yardstick against which accuracy is to be measured – or, for that matter, as the standard against which military ethics are to be judged – then virtually any subsequent military operation would pass both tests with flying colours.

The comparison confuses form with function.  Compared to Lancaster bombers and Flying Fortresses (even with their famous Norden bombsights: for Malcolm Gladwell on the ‘moral importance’ of the bombsight to Norden, a committed Christian, see here and here; for more on the bombsight, see here), the Predator and the Reaper are evidently more accurate.  But Chamayou insists that the real comparison ought to be with other tactical means currently available to achieve the same objective.

Situation Room

In the kill/capture raid against Osama Bin Laden on 1 May 2011 (assuming ‘capture’ was ever on the agenda), he argues that the choice was between drones and Special Forces not between drones and re-staging Dresden in Abbotabad.  This doesn’t quite work, since the raid was carried out by US Navy Seals who swept in from Bagram via Jalalabad by helicopter, but the mission also depended on real-time imagery from an RQ-170 stealth drone (‘the Beast of Kandahar’).  This was the source of the live video feed watched by Obama and members of his administration in the famous ‘Situation Room’ photograph [on which, see Keith Feldman on ‘Empire’s Verticality’ in Comparative American Studies 9 (4) (2011) 325-41].

The RQ-170 is an unarmed platform, but its role should remind us that drones are part of networked warfare – even when strikes are carried out by other means, the enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities provided by the long dwell-times of these remote platforms mean that they are instrumental in the activation of the kill-chain.  This holds for military operations far beyond targeted killing: in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011 drones were directly responsible for only 5-6 per cent of weapons released by the US Air Force, but they no doubt played a vital role in the release of many of the others.

Night raidStill, Chamayou’s basic point is a sharp one – and I rehearsed similar arguments in my discussion of The politics of drone wars last year – but readers of Jeremy Scahill‘s Dirty Wars may still reasonably object that the civilian casualties resulting from JSOC’s infamous night raids in Afghanistan cast doubt on the precision and accuracy of ground forces too.  Gareth Porter has estimated that more than 1,500 civilians were killed in night raids in just ten months in 2010-11, making them ‘by far the largest cause of civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan.’  Indeed, Afghan protests have frequently centred on the civilian toll exacted by drones and night raids.

Even if the appropriate comparison is between different modalities of military violence in the present, Chamayou argues that the discussion is bedevilled by another series of confusions about ‘accuracy’ or ‘precision’.   In fact, though he doesn’t say so, the the two terms aren’t interchangeable. Strictly speaking,  accuracy refers to the deviation from the aiming point, precision to the dispersion of the strike:

Accuracy and precision

CEP in the diagram above refers to the Circular Error Probable, once described by the Pentagon as ‘an indicator of the delivery accuracy of a weapon system’, which is a circle of radius n described around the aiming point.  Assuming a bivariate normal distribution, then – all other things being equal (which they rarely are) – 50% of the time a bomb, missile or round will land within the circle: which of course means that the other half of the time it won’t, even under ideal experimental conditions.  As this is a normal distribution, then 93 per cent should land within 2n and more than 99 per cent within 3n.

Chamayou doesn’t refer to the CEP directly, only briefly to the ‘accuracy of fire’,  but – to revert to the comparison he refuses – the CEP of bombing from the air has contracted dramatically since the Second World War when it was around 3,000 feet (though this improved over time): so much so that David Deptula, when he was USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for ISR, used to talk of crossing a ‘cultural divide of precision and information’.  The image below, taken from one of his presentations, shows the contraction (notice that the aim point is the Pentagon….).

Target mensuration (USAF)

Interestingly, the most recent Joint Publication (3-60) from the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Targeting (January 2013) has explicitly removed the concept from its Terms and Definitions, citing as its authority the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (it was still there on 31 January 2011, but no longer).  I haven’t been able to discover the reasons for the change, though there is longstanding scepticism about the validity of the measure: see, for a specific example, Donald MacKenzie‘s classic discussion in Inventing accuracy: a historical sociology of nuclear missile guidance (1993, pp. 352-7).  I’ve seen several comments to the effect that the measure isn’t useful for ‘smart bombs’ because they don’t display the same spread as ‘dumb bombs’.  (There’s a quick primer on the emergence of smart bombs during the Vietnam War here, and an account of the evolution of ‘precision strike’ since then here; for more detail, try David Koplow‘s Death by moderation: the US military’s quest for useable weapons (2009)).

The MQ-1 Predator carries two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles [shown below, top; for acronyphiles, AGM designates an Air-to-Ground Missile, while the ‘Hellfire’ was originally developed as a ‘Helicopter-Launched Fire-and-Forget Missile’; its main platform is still an attack helicopter], while the MQ-9 Reaper can carry four AGM-114 Hellfire Missiles or replace two of them with GBU-12 Paveway II bombs [GBU = Guided Bomb Unit; shown below, bottom].



Both weapons systems are laser-guided; the sensor operator, sitting beside the pilot in the Ground Control Station, uses a laser targeting marker (LTM) to ‘paint’ the target – this can also be done by ground troops in conventional combat zones – but its accuracy can be compromised by cloud, smoke, fog or dust.  (This is why the Air Force also uses GPS-guided weapons; they are less accurate but unaffected by these environmental conditions).  Once the necessary clearances have been obtained from mission commanders and military lawyers, the pilot fires the missile and the sensor operator guides it on to its target.

Omer Fast‘s interview with a sensor operator (‘Brandon’ –  whether this is a pseudonym or really Brandon Bryant is hard to know) for 5,000 Feet is the Best provides a series of insights into the operation in Afghanistan and Iraq.  You can’t see the beam with the naked eye, but American ground troops can see it with their infrared goggles.  According to ‘Brandon’, they call it the ‘Light of God’ (really); the image below is James Bridle‘s replication of the effect based on laser targeting night systems and a CC-licensed photograph of the Iraqi desert by Rob Bakker.



‘Usually the laser track is about half the size of this [hotel] room.  Poof!  By the time it hits the ground… a lot of times it turns into a square for some reason…  It could be anywhere from ten feet by ten feet to twenty feet by twenty feet… It starts off small and you watch it kind of open up’

This is not exactly putting ‘warheads on foreheads‘, but ‘Brandon’ explains that the crew is also required to identify a secondary ‘abort’ target.

‘… some of the contingencies we have to worry about are: if we’re firing at a building and somebody crosses – maybe – who knows, a group of children starts crossing in front of the building, we need a second site once that missile is already off the rails.  To go ahead and drop that missile so that we don’t harm the children  So usually we’ll choose an alternate site a couple hundred feet to a couple of hundred yards away.  It might be an empty field.  And we use that as the backup…

So let’s  say we get the missile off the rail and a group of kids comes into play: I call “abort” and I’ll start moving that laser over to an empty site so that we can detonate there and not cause any additional loss of life.’

Predator and Brandon Bryant

Sounds good, but the real Brandon Bryant (above) has a different story to tell; it turns out that there is an eight-second window in which the missile can be diverted:

With seven seconds left to go, there was no one to be seen on the ground. Bryant could still have diverted the missile at that point. Then it was down to three seconds. Bryant felt as if he had to count each individual pixel on the monitor. Suddenly a child walked around the corner, he says.

Second zero was the moment in which Bryant’s digital world collided with the real one in a village between Baghlan and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach.

“Did we just kill a kid?” he asked the man sitting next to him.

“Yeah, I guess that was a kid,” the pilot replied.

“Was that a kid?” they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.

Then, someone they didn’t know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. “No. That was a dog,” the person wrote.

They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?

Even then, think about that blossoming square, twenty feet by twenty feet.  Then factor in the Circular Error Probable of a Hellfire missile, which is usually calculated at between 9 and 24 feet. The ‘pinpoint’ accuracy of the missile is starting to blur and the ‘surgical’ strike beginning to blunt.  In fact, the development of the Hellfire missile suggests another narrative.  In 1991 the Pentagon was already advertising the Hellfire as capable of ‘pinpoint’ accuracy, and since then it has been upgraded more than half a dozen times, each version promising greater accuracy: as Matthew Nasuti asks in his catalogue of Hellfire errors, what can be more accurate than ‘pinpoint accurate’?

In any case, narrowing the discussion to the CEP misses two things.  First, as former USAAF officer Peter Goodrich points out in his discussion of ‘The surgical precision myth‘, this ‘totally disregards what happens after the bomb explodes’.  What Goodrich has in mind is the blast and fragmentation radius, which Chamayou calls ‘the kill radius’.  Fast’s ‘Brandon’ insists

‘All of us are taught about how far those Hellfire missiles go, how far their frag goes.  And “danger close” as we call it when you have troops that are very close or civilians that are present.  They’re just factors that  you have to work in to bring down the percentages of the harm that could be done.’

In the targeting cycle the US Air Force enters those ‘factors’ into both collateral damage estimation and ‘weaponeering’, modifying the missile or bomb to restrict its blast and fragmentation radius. Chamayou reports that the Hellfire missile has a ‘kill radius’ of 50 feet (15 metres) and a ‘wounding radius’ of 65 feet (20 metres); the GBU-12 Paveway II has a ‘casualty radius’ of between 200 and 300 feet (within which 50 per cent of people will be killed).   These calculations aren’t exactly equivalent – and it’s difficult to obtain precise and comparable figures – but nothing about this is as precise as the rhetoric  implies.  As Chamayou asks:

‘In what fictional world can killing an individual with an anti-tank missile [the Hellfire] that kills every living thing within a radius of 15 metres and wounds everyone else within a radius of 20 metres be seen as “more precise”?’

All those who are killed or wounded within the casualty radius are presumably guilty by proximity.

This is Chamayou’s second rider, which relates to what happens before the bomb or missile is released: to the production – the US military sometimes calls it the ‘prosecution’ – of the target.  In this sense, the technical considerations I’ve just described are beside the point (sic).  All of the calibrations I’ve set out in such detail apply to missiles and bombs irrespective of the platform used to deliver them; what is supposed to distinguish a Predator or a Reaper from a conventional strike aircraft or attack helicopter is that it combines ‘hunter’ and ‘killer’ in a single platform and, specifically, that its real-time full-motion video feeds enable crews (and others in the loop) to see what they are doing in unprecedented detail.

Signing a Hellfire missile attached to a MQ1-C (Gray Eagle) UAV at BagramDoes this political technology of vision make it possible, as advocates claim, to distinguish between combatants and civilians more effectively than ever before?  Here Chamayou rehearses common criticisms: that in standard US military practice ‘combatant’ morphs into ‘militant’, even ‘presumed militant’ and, at the hideous limit, into ‘military-aged male’ – counting ‘all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent’ – and that this process of (so to speak, performative) militantisation as Chamayou calls it is underwritten by a techno-judicial probabilisation (again his term) whose ‘epistemology of suspicion’ allows signature strikes that target un-named and unknown people on the basis of their ‘pattern of life‘.

But both these procedures and, indeed, the criticisms of them, obscure what is for Chamayou, the fundamental paradox, what he calls the ‘profound contradiction’.  International law defines a combatant and thus a legitimate target in terms of direct participation in hostilities and an imminent threat.  It’s more complicated than that, as I’ll show later, but this is enough for Chamayou to fire off two key questions: How can anyone be participating in hostilities if there is no longer any combat? How can there be any imminent threat if there are no troops on the ground?  The drone, praised for its forensic ability to distinguish between combatant and non-combatant, in fact abolishes the condition necessary for such a distinction: combat itself (p. 203; also p. 208).

It’s an artful claim, but it oversimplifies the situation.  Chamayou has (once again) confined the discussion to targeted killing but, as I’ve repeatedly emphasised, Predators and Reapers have also been used for other purposes in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the provision of ‘armed overwatch’ and close air support to ground troops.  Outside these war-zones – in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere – the critique is a powerful one (which is not to say that Obama’s lawyers have not claimed a legal warrant for their supposedly covert drone strikes in these areas: more on this later too).  Still, Chamayou’s argument loops back to earlier discussions about the intrinsic non-reciprocity of drone warfare.

And here Chamayou closes with a powerful argument.  If ethics is classically about how to live well and die well, he suggests that necro-ethics is a doctrine of ‘killing well’.  He notes that critics of the covert drone wars demand, time and time again, transparency.  They want to know the legal armature and adjudicative apparatus for the strikes, the rules and procedures that are followed, and the lists of casualties.  But he argues that their demands turn the issue into an arid juridico-administrative formalism endorsed by bureaucratic Reason.  In the kill zones, he says ruefully, there are no legal memoranda, no columns of numbers or ballistics reports (p. 207): these are the very formularies of necro-ethics.  And, as I’ve noted, there are no air-raid warnings, no anti-aircraft defences and no air-raid shelters either.

It’s in that spirit that Chamayou closes the chapter with an extended quotation from Madiha Tahir’s Louder than bombs‘:

Saudallah WazirWhat is the dream?

I dream that my legs have been cut off, that my eye is missing, that I can’t do anything … Sometimes, I dream that the drone is going to attack, and I’m scared. I’m really scared.

After the interview is over, Sadaullah Wazir pulls the pant legs over the stubs of his knees till they conceal the bone-colored prostheses.

The articles published in the days following the attack on September 7, 2009, do not mention, this poker-faced, slim teenage boy who was, at the time of those stories, lying in a sparse hospital in North Waziristan, his legs smashed to a pulp by falling debris, an eye torn out by shrapnel. nor is there a single word about the three other members of his family killed: his wheelchair-bound uncle, Mautullah Jan and his cousins Sabr-ud-Din Jan and Kadaanullah Jan.  All of them were scripted out of their own story till they tumbled off the edge of the page.

Did you hear it coming?


What happened?

I fainted. I was knocked out.

As Sadaullah, unconscious, was shifted to a more serviceable hospital in Peshawar where his shattered legs would be amputated, the media announced that, in all likelihood, a senior al-Qaeda commander, Ilyas Kashmiri, had been killed in the attack. The claim would turn out to be spurious, the first of three times when Kashmiri would be reported killed.

Sadaullah and his relatives, meanwhile, were buried under a debris of words: “militant,” “lawless,” “counterterrorism,” “compound,” (a frigid term for a home). Move along, the American media told its audience, nothing to see here.

Some 15 days later, after the world had forgotten, Sadaullah awoke to a nightmare.

Do you recall the first time you realized your legs were not there?

I was in bed, and I was wrapped in bandages. I tried to move them, but I couldn’t, so I asked, “Did you cut off my legs?” They said no, but I kind of knew.

When you ask Sadaullah or Karim or S. Hussein and others like them what they want, they do not say “transparency and accountability.” They say they want the killing to stop. They want to stop dying. They want to stop going to funerals — and being bombed even as they mourn. Transparency and accountability, for them, are abstract problems that have little to do with the concrete fact of regular, systematic death.’

And Madiha adds this: ‘The technologies to kill them move faster than the bureaucracies that would keep more of them alive: a Hellfire missile moves at a thousand miles per hour; transparency and accountability do not.’

Indeed they don’t; Sadaullah died last year, Mirza Shahzad Akbar reports, ‘without receiving justice or even an apology.’  Not even killing well, then.

War from afar

9780199959747_450My interest in tracking the history (or if you prefer, historical geography) of waging war at a distance – my ‘Deadly Embrace’ project, which will eventually produce a long-form essay for War material – has been given another boost by news of a new book from Patrick Coffey, Visiting Scholar in the Office for History of Science and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley: American Arsenal: a century of waging warfrom Oxford University Press, it’s out now in North America (at least as an e-book) and available elsewhere early next year.

When America declared war on Germany in 1917, the United States had only 200,000 men under arms, a twentieth of the German army’s strength, and its planes were no match for the Luftwaffe. Less than a century later, the United States today has by far the world’s largest military budget and provides over 40% of the world’s armaments.

In American Arsenal Patrick Coffey examines America’s military transformation from an isolationist state to a world superpower with a defense budget over $600 billion. Focusing on sixteen specific developments, Coffey illustrates the unplanned, often haphazard nature of this transformation, which has been driven by political, military, technological, and commercial interests. Beginning with Thomas Edison’s work on submarine technology, American Arsenal moves from World War I to the present conflicts in the Middle East, covering topics from chemical weapons, strategic bombing, and the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, to “smart” bombs, hand-held anti-aircraft missiles, and the Predator and other drone aircrafts. Coffey traces the story of each advance in weaponry from drawing board to battlefield, and includes fascinating portraits the men who invented and deployed them-Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project; Curtis LeMay, who sent the Enola Gray to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Herman Kahn, nuclear strategist and model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; Abraham Karem, inventor of the Predator and many others. Coffey also examines the increasingly detached nature of modern American warfare-the ultimate goal is to remove soldiers from the battlefield entirely-which limits casualties (211,454 in Vietnam and only 1,231 in the Gulf War) but also lessens the political and psychological costs of going to war.

I start the story much earlier – and so pay attention to other, older imperial powers too – but you can see the interest.  Here’s the Contents list:

Edison at War
Gassing the Senator
Mitchell’s War in Three Dimensions
The Bombsight
Precision Bombing Tested
The Switch
The Atomic Bomb
The Weapon Not Used
The Cold War and the Hydrogen Bomb
War games
Four lessons from Vietnam
Star Wars
Smart Bombs and Drones

And you can read the last substantive chapter, or at any rate a version of it, at Salon here: ‘War from afar: How the Pentagon fell in love with drones‘.  Despite the title, the essay is about more than the history of drones, which Coffey links to the development of so-called ‘smart bombs’ (and yes, I do think all bombs are dumb bombs):

In the last years of the twentieth century, two weapons changed the way that America fights air wars: smart bombs (bombs that “see” a target using a television camera or a radiation sensor, or that head for a programmed location) and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Smart bombs came into their own in the first Gulf War. Reconnaissance UAVs proved their worth in Bosnia and Kosovo in the late 1990s, and offensive UAVs began firing missiles in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere a few years later.

The connection between the two is a tightrope on which both advocates and critics of today’s drone wars sway – as I’ll discuss in detail in my next post on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.