The radio-controlled television plane

I’ve written before about the long history of drones (UAVs or RPAs, if you prefer – and the Air Force does prefer), and the unrealised intersections between remotely-controlled aircraft and early television: I’m thinking of Archibald Low‘s experiments with what he called Televista in 1914 and his trial pilotless aircraft (codenamed ‘Aerial Target”) in the dog days of the First World War.  I had assumed that the connections did not materialise – and even then in very precarious ways – until the closing stages of the Second World War with the US Project Aphrodite, which I discussed briefly in ‘Lines of Descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

But now, via Gizmodo, I discover another way-station that was put in place in 1924.  First published in The Experimenter magazine, and then republished in Television News in 1931 in its March-April issue, an article by Hugo Gernsback described the military operation of a ‘radio-controlled television plane’, directed by radio and navigated using ‘electric eyes’ that would enable ‘the control operator, although 50, 100 or possibly 500 miles away, [to] see exactly what goes on around the plane, just the same as if he himself were seated in the cockpit; with the further advantage that, sitting before a screen, he can scan six directions all at once, which no human aviator can do.’

Television-News-1931-Mar-Apr

And, just like Project Aphrodite and its modern descendants, this would be a hunter-killer mission:

‘The radio-controlled television airplane can then be directed to the spot where it is supposed to drop its bombs. Moreover, the distant-control operator can see exactly when his machine arrives over a given spot. A sighting arrangement can be attached to the plane in such a manner that, when the object to be bombed comes over the cross-wires in the range-finder, the bomb or bombs are dropped at the exact moment.’

But as the illustration indicates – and in contrast to today’s Predators and Reapers – it was assumed that the aircraft would be able to operate in contested air space – and even more effectively than a conventional aircraft:

If, for instance, an enemy airplane suddenly comes out of a cloud and starts dropping bombs on our machine below, the control operator sees this enemy machine quicker 500 miles away, than if an aviator sat in the cockpit one-quarter of a mile away from or below the enemy bomber. The control operator will send a radio signal that will immediately discharge a smoke screen from his radio television plane, hiding his craft in smoke.

Explaining the decision to republish the article, Gernsback accepted that when it first appeared ‘the ideas set forth therein might have appeared more or less fantastic’ – but ‘they are no longer considered so today’:

‘As a matter of fact, the radio-controlled airplane is with us today.  Several of the leading governments have already in their possession airplanes that can now fly and stay aloft for any length of time, within reason, without a pilot or any human being on board.

‘The television adjunct will follow as a matter of course.’

tvglasses

Gernsback was an extraordinary man.  Sometimes hailed as the father of science fiction – hence the Hugo Awards – he was keenly interested in turning his imaginative ideas into material fact.  Even before the First World War he had invented a home radio set.  Matthew Lasar explains:

Gernsback’s “Telimco Wireless” didn’t receive the signals of any broadcast radio stations,  since there were almost none before 1920. But it did ring a bell in an adjacent room without any connecting wires. Such was the sensation the device made that local police demanded a demonstration, following up on a fraud complaint. Satisfied that it worked, the Telimco was subsequently sold in many department stores … until the first World War, when the government banned amateur wireless transmission.

But he was soon fascinated by television; he launched Radio News and then move on to Television News as platforms for his ideas and enthusiasms.  The image above shows him in 1963 wearing his ‘television glasses’.  He died the following year, or he might have invented Google Glass too.

The other side of NSA

I’ve emphasised the networks in which drone operations take place several times on this blog, and I’ll have more to say about it (and, crucially, the satellite links involved) very shortly.  But this applies to all domains in which advanced militaries now operate.  In 2012 Army magazine (62: 6) put it like this:

The world in which U.S. forces operate is increasingly wireless and computer network-based. Rapidly evolving information technologies are expanding the speed, capacity, agility, efficiency and usefulness of modern networks. The prolif- eration of these systems is changing the way humans interact with each other and their environment, including military operations. This creates conditions that will make U.S. forces increasingly dependent on these technologies and require soldiers to counter technology-empowered and so- phisticated adversaries who can utilize commercial indus- try and the network as their primary combat developers. This broad and rapidly changing [Operational Environment] will present a plethora of potential threats and opportunities that are primarily limited by our own—and our opponents’—imagination, causing the Army to operate within a cyberspace domain and EMS [Electromagnetic Spectrum] that are increasingly congested and contested.

The authors went on to emphasise the convergence of ‘cyber and EMS capabilities’ (and, not coincidentally to my interest in satellite communications, the intersections between commercial and military systems):

Commercial and military systems are increasingly reliant on both as networks and telecommunication infrastructures expand their use of wireless means. This is particularly important for collaborative systems that require connectivity to operate effectively. The synergistic effect of these networks is a significant reason why EW [electronic warfare], EMSO [EMS operations] and cyber operations must be viewed as interrelated and interdependent.

The Pentagon has now published its first Field Manual on Cyber Electromagnetic Activities (FM 3-38).  If you are still wondering what these are, and why I’ve described them as the ‘other side’ of NSA (and by extension, GCHQ and the other ‘Five Eyes’) global surveillance operations, this is what the manual says:

Cyber electromagnetic activities are activities leveraged to seize, retain, and exploit an advantage over adversaries and enemies in both cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum, while simultaneously denying and degrading adversary and enemy use of the same and protecting the mission command system (ADRP 3-0). CEMA consist of cyberspace operations (CO), electronic warfare (EW), and spectrum management operations (SMO).

Cyber Electromagnetic Activities

The FM – and remember this is doctrine: we have a long way to go before we are able to probe into practice – diagrams the relation between the ‘five domains’ of US military operations (air, land, sea, space and cyberspace) and the electromagnetic spectrum like this:

Five domains and the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Operationally, for ‘unified land operations’ (this is a US Army manual, remember) this translates into undertaking Cyber Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA) thus:

Cyber electromagnetic activities Operational View

You can find a short discussion of the pre-history behind the Field Manual here.

I’m going to work my way through the manual in detail, and think through its implications for what I already know about cyberwar (even if Thomas Rid thinks it will never take place).  I sketched out some of my early ideas in ‘The everywhere war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), largely in relation to Stuxnet and cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear programme, but there have been many more developments and revelations since then, so watch this space.

Primer on Palestine

MERIP 2014The indispensable Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) has just published a new edition of its brilliant Primer on Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar.  It was first published in 1991 and updated in 2001.

The new edition is available as an open access publication online (and you can also download it as a pdf) here (16pp).  It’s succinct, sharp and savvy – and excellent for teaching.

The Primer includes one of Dutch cartographer Jan de Jong‘s meticulous maps tracing the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, originally produced for the equally indispensable Foundation for Middle East Peace: you can follow their regular Settlement Reports here.

War and therapeutic geographies

Tall Rifat hospital near Aleppo attacked by helicopter gunships June 2012

I previously noted the problems of providing medical care to those fleeing the war in Syria – and to those who’ve been left behind – and an article by Thanassis Cambanis in the Boston Globe (‘Medical care is now a tool of war’) reinforces the importance of the issue:

 The medical students disappeared on a run to the Aleppo suburbs. It was 2011, the first year of the Syrian uprising, and they were taking bandages and medicine to communities that had rebelled against the brutal Assad regime. A few days later, the students’ bodies, bruised and broken, were dumped on their parents’ doorsteps.

Dr. Fouad M. Fouad, a surgeon and prominent figure in Syrian public health, knew some of the students who had been killed. And he knew what their deaths meant. The laws of war—in which medical personnel are allowed to treat everybody equally, combatants and civilians from any side—no longer applied in Syria.

“The message was clear: Even taking medicine to civilians in opposition areas was a crime,” he recalled.

As the war accelerated, Syria’s medical system was dragged further into the conflict. Government officials ordered Fouad and his colleagues to withhold treatment from people who supported the opposition, even if they weren’t combatants. The regime canceled polio vaccinations in opposition areas, allowing a preventable disease to take hold. And it wasn’t just the regime: Opposition fighters found doctors and their families a soft target for kidnapping; doctors always had some cash and tended not to have special protection like other wealthy Syrians.

Doctors began to flee Syria, Fouad among them. He left for Beirut in 2012. By last year, according to a United Nations working group, the number of doctors in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, had plummeted from more than 5,000 to just 36.

Since then, Fouad has joined a small but growing group of doctors trying to persuade global policy makers—starting with the world’s public health community—to pay more urgent attention to how profoundly new types of war are transforming medicine and public health.

It is grotesquely ironic that ‘global policy-makers’ should have to be persuaded of the new linkages between war, medicine and public health, given how often later modern war is described (and, by implication, legitimated) through medical metaphors: see in particular Colleen Bell, ‘War and the allegory of medical intervention: why metaphors matter’, International Political Sociology 6: 3 (2012) 325-28 and ‘Hybrid warfare and its metaphors’, Humanity 3 (2) (2012) 225-47.

AI Health Crisis in SyriaBut there are, as Fouad emphasises, quite other, densely material biopolitics attached to contemporary military and paramilitary violence, including not only the targeting of medical staff, as he says, but also their patients.

“In Syria today, wounded patients and doctors are pursued and risk torture and arrest at the hands of the security services,” said Marie-Pierre Allié, president of [Médecins san Frontières’]. “Medicine is being used as a weapon of persecution.”

In October 2011 Amnesty International described the partisan abuse of the wounded in hospitals in Damascus and Homs, and the denial of medical care in detention facilities, in chilling detail.

At least then (and there) there were hospitals.  Linking only too directly to my previous post on Aleppo, Cambanis concludes:

Today, Fouad’s former home of Aleppo is largely a ghost town, its population displaced to safer parts of Syria or across the border to Turkey and Lebanon. The city’s former residents carry the medical consequences of war to their new homes, Fouad said—not just injuries, but effects as varied as smoking rates, untreated cancer, and scabies. Wars like those in Syria and Iraq don’t follow the old rules, and their effects don’t stop at the border.

I first became aware of these issues at a conference on War and medicine in Paris in December 2012, which prompted my current interest in the casualties of war, combatant and civilian, and the formation of modern medical-military machines.  Several friends from the Paris meeting (Omar Dewachi, Vinh-Kim Nguyen and  Ghassan Abu Sitta) have since joined with other colleagues to produce a preliminary review published this month in The Lancet: ‘Changing therapeutic geographies of the Iraqi and Syrian wars’.  They write:

War is a global health problem. The repercussions of war go beyond death, injury, and morbidity. The effects of war are long term, reshaping the everyday lives and survival of entire populations.

In this report,we assess the long-term and transnational dimensions of two conflicts: the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the ongoing armed conflict in Syria, which erupted in 2011. Our aim is to show that, although these conflicts differ in their geopolitical contexts and timelines, they share similarities in terms of the effects on health and health care. We analyse the implications of two intertwined processes—the militarisation and regionalisation of health care.  In both Syria and Iraq,boundaries between civilian and combatant spaces have been blurred. Consequently,hospitals and clinics are no longer safe havens. The targeting and misappropriation of health-care facilities have become part of the tactics of warfare. Simultaneously, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have caused large-scale internal and external displacement of populations. This displacement has created huge challenges for neighbouring countries that are struggling to absorb the health-care needs of millions of people.

They emphasise ‘the targeting and implication of medicine in warfare’ and note that ‘the militarisation of health care follows the larger trends of the war on terror, where the boundaries between civilian and combatant spaces are broadly disrespected.’  They have in mind ‘not only the problem of violence against health care, but also [the ways in which] health care itself has become an instrument of violence, with health professionals participating (or being forced to participate) in torture, the withholding of care, or preferential treatment of soldiers.’

And they describe a largely unplanned dispersal of medical care across the region that blurs other – national – boundaries, requiring careful analysis of the ‘therapeutic geographies‘ which trace the precarious and shifting journeys through which people obtain medical treatment in and beyond the war zone.  They insist that ‘migrants seeking refuge from violence cannot be framed and presented as mere victims but as people using various strategies to acquire health care and remake their lives.’ The manuscript version of the report included the map below, which illustrates the scale of the problem:

Therapeutic geographies

My own work addresses similar issues through four case studies over a longer time-span, to try to capture the dynamics of these medical-military constellations: the Western Front in 1914-18, the Western Desert in the Second World War, Vietnam, and Afghanistan 2001-2014 (see ‘Medical-military machines’, DOWNLOADS tab).

msf-afghanistan-report-finaToday Médecins sans Frontières published an important report, Between rhetoric and reality:  the ongoing struggle to access healthcare in Afghanistan, that speaks directly to these concerns.  Like the Lancet team, the report explores the ways in which war affects not only the provision of healthcare for those wounded by its violences but also access to healthcare for those in the war zone who suffer from other, often chronic and life-threatening illnesses: ‘The conflict creates dramatic barriers that people must overcome to reach basic or life- saving medical assistance. It also directly causes death, injury or suffering that increase medical needs.’  Releasing their findings, MSF explained:

After more than a decade of international aid and investment, access to basic and emergency medical care in Afghanistan remains severely limited and sorely ill-adapted to meet growing needs created by the ongoing conflict…  While healthcare is often held up as an achievement of international state-building efforts in Afghanistan, the situation is far from being a simple success story. Although progress has been made in healthcare provision since 2002, the report … reveals the serious and often deadly risks that people are forced to take to seek both basic and emergency care.

The research – conducted over six months in 2013 with more than 800 patients in the hospitals where MSF works in Helmand, Kabul, Khost and Kunduz provinces – makes it clear that the upbeat rhetoric about the gains in healthcare risks overlooking the suffering of Afghans who struggle without access to adequate medical assistance.

“One in every five of the patients we interviewed had a family member or close friend who had died within the last year due to a lack of access to medical care,” said Christopher Stokes, MSF general director. “For those who reached our hospitals, 40 per cent of them told us they faced fighting, landmines, checkpoints or harassment on their journey.”

The patients’ testimonies expose a wide gap between what exists on paper in terms of healthcare and what actually functions. The majority said that they had to bypass their closest public health facility during a recent illness, pushing them to travel greater distances – at significant cost and risk – to seek care.

MSF provides a photoessay describing some of these precarious journeys (‘Long and dangerous roads’) here, from which I’ve taken the photograph below, showing an inured man being led by a relative into the Kunduz Trauma Centre.

MSB5652

Mapping Aleppo – and more

Mapping Aleppo

I’ve posted about mapping the war in Syria and its spillover effects before (see here and here), but most of these projects cover a wide area with varying degrees of reliability.  Now News from Laleh Khalili of a report from David Kilcullen‘s Caerus Associates (with the American Security Project) on the civil war in Aleppo, “Mapping the conflict in Aleppo, Syria”, which provides a much more fine-grained view of what is happening on the ground.  You can download the report here or view the interactive version via First Mile Geo here, and you can read an account of the project from Wired‘s Greg Miller here.

Caerus has also joined with the Pentagon’s Center for Complex Operations to produce a special supplement of PRISM (vol.  4, 2014) on the Syrian conflict, which includes an essay by Kilcullen and Nathaniel Rosenblatt on ‘The Rise of Syria’s Urban Poor: Why the War for Syria’s Future Will Be Fought Over the Country’s New Urban Villages’; the whole issue is available on open access here.

These interventions are important and interesting for several reasons.

First, the report is based on exacting local fieldwork.  Acknowledging that local people in conflict zones develop vitally important stocks of local knowledge as a means of survival, the report also accepts that this ‘information-rich environment remains analytically poor.’  For that reason, the field teams ‘provided training and cloud-based tools to help local actors collect locally understood knowledge about their conflict for rigorous analysis.’

From September 16, 2013 to January 6, 2014, we collected four types of information: a monthly survey of perceptions among 560 residents in Aleppo’s 56 neighborhoods, biweekly location and status data for bakeries (a key indicator of humanitarian conditions due to the centrality of bread in the Syrian diet), biweekly location and status data on security checkpoints (a key indicator of security, territorial control and public safety conditions), and a monthly neighborhood-level assessment filled out by our enumerators. These four data streams not only allowed the research team to detect and visualize shifts in the environment in near-real time, but also provided an extremely rich source of insights on the geo-social dynamics at play. All field research was conducted in Arabic.

First Mile Geo notes that it will make the data available to organisations ‘for responsible use’: see Open Data here.

KILCULLEN Out of the mountainsSecond, Kilcullen’s analytical argument (he is described as ‘Principal Investigator’ for the Mapping project) is, naturally enough, fully conformable with the thesis he develops at length in his latest book, Out of the mountains: the coming age of the urban guerrilla (2013); the report reveals the grisly details of contemporary siege warfare and urbicide – central themes in the book, where Kilcullen notes the work of  Steve Graham and Eyal Weizman – and gestures towards a future ‘feral city’ (how I hate that phrase) broken into multiple fiefdoms where gangs and militias exact violence and provide rudimentary services to the residents:

‘The inability of opposition groups to aid residents of neighborhoods they control suggests Aleppo – and Syria as a whole – will become a mosaic of small, intersecting fiefdoms, each providing assistance to its respective neighborhood without regard to macro-level concerns for national governance and reconciliation. Growing warlordism may be particularly acute in Aleppo, where economic rent-seeking opportunities will attract armed gangs who will attempt to seize control of its neighborhoods. These “conflict entrepreneurs” will have little incentive to end a conflict from which they derive power, prestige, and profit. Even in the event of peace, Aleppo’s strategic location will help these actors establish roots for illicit networks that may endure well beyond the present conflict. Moreover, as a non-capital city, Aleppo will not benefit from national government attention. Instead, Aleppo’s future may resemble that of similarly conflict-plagued second cities in the Middle East, such as Mosul in Iraq or Benghazi in Libya. These cities are plagued by warlordism and dominated by illicit economies. They have quickly become safe havens enabling terrorist networks to plan, recruit, and launch attacks.’ 

I’ve posted about Out of the Mountains here, when I promised an extended commentary: Laleh and I will be working on a joint examination of Kilcullen’s larger thesis in the near future, so watch this space. We already have Mike Davis‘s thumbnail view:

‘Although an enemy of the state, I must concede that this is a brilliant book by the most unfettered and analytically acute mind in the military intelligentsia. Kilcullen unflinchingly confronts the nightmare of endless warfare in the slums of the world.’

Here, incidentally, it’s revealing to read Kilcullen’s theses alongside Neil Brenner‘s ‘Theses on urbanisation’, Public culture 25:1 (2013) 85-114, which makes a series of suggestive proposals – but from which war is strikingly absent.  So Kilcullen’s thesis certainly demands serious scrutiny, particularly by those who think that the future of war is somehow encapsulated in the drone.  In my previous note, I joined Geoff Manaugh in being sceptical about the ‘aerial-algorithmic’ interventions that attracted Kilcullen in a series of talks based around the book, but ‘Mapping the conflict in Aleppo’ reveals a much more substantial interest in ‘the facts on the ground’, local actors and local knowledge.  (And here a good counter-text would be the brilliant work of AbdouMaliq Simone; see also his blog, Villes-Noires, here).  So, as I say, watch this space.

First Mile Geo ALEPPO

But there’s a third reason this matters.  I’ve been reading and thinking about Jeremy Crampton, Sue Roberts and Ate Poorhuis‘s ‘The new political economy of geographical intelligence’ – a fine essay in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104: 1 (2014) 196-214 – and I’ll be returning to this in the next day or two.  They emphasise the importance of satellite imagery in the production of US geospatial intelligence, whereas I’ve been developing a different (though related) argument about  the importance of satellite communications for the ‘everywhere war’.  In both cases, there is an intimate relation between ‘milsat’ and ‘comsat’, the military and commercial sectors, which will come as no surprise to those who’ve been plotting the extending contours of the military-industrial complex.

Those contours have snared all sorts of other institutions, of course, which is why James Der Derian talks about MIME-NET (the military-industrial-media-entertainment network) and I’ve talked about MAIM-NET (the military-academic-industrial-media network).  The role of universities in the development of military capabilities and military knowledge (and ultimately the production of military violence) is no less surprising, of course, and in fact there’s a session on ‘Geography and the military’ organised by Eric Sheppard at the AAG conference in Tampa (an appropriate location for several reasons) to debate these issues.  But it should now be clear that the production of these geographical knowledges is not confined to the military and civilian intelligence agencies, the academy and large corporations but also includes a host of much smaller private contractors devoted to ‘geographical intelligence’.  They come in different shapes and sizes, and with different agendas.  Caerus, for example, describes itself as a ‘strategy and design firm’ that helps clients ‘understand and thrive in complex, conflict-afflicted, and disaster-affected environments’.  But there are many others, and it’s important not to lose sight of their role in what the US military would call ‘shaping the battlespace’…

Death, drones and Camp Delta

When I wrote ‘The Black Flag’ (DOWNLOADS tab), exploring the idea of Guantanamo Bay as a space of exception, three young men had just committed suicide in the war prison.  This is how I started:

In the early morning of 10 June 2006 three prisoners held at the military detention facility at the US Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, two from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen, were found dead in their cells. Although the three men had been detained without trial for several years and none of them had court cases or military commissions pending (none of them had even been charged), the commander of the prison dismissed their suicides as ‘not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us’. Although the three men had been on repeated hunger strikes which ended when they were strapped into restraint chairs and force- fed by nasal tubes, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy described their deaths as ‘a Public Relations move to draw attention’ – to what, she did not say – and complained that since detainees had access to lawyers, received mail and had the ability to write to families, ‘it was hard to see why the men had not protested about their situation’. Although by presidential decree prisoners at Guantánamo are subject to indefinite detention and coercive interrogation while they are alive, when President George W. Bush learned of the three deaths he reportedly stressed the importance of treating their dead bodies ‘in a humane and culturally sensitive manner’. 

KAISER Tod in Camp Delta

After ‘The Black Flag’ was published, I read a remarkable account of the despair and desperation of these three men by Mario Kaiser.  His original essay has now been updated and translated into English as ‘Death in Camp Delta‘ at Guernica.  Here is an extract:

At some point during their captivity, these three men began to retreat. They no longer touched the food the guards pushed through the holes in the doors of their cells. Their bodies dwindled. Their lives hung on thin yellow tubes shoved down their nostrils each morning to let a nutrient fluid drip into their stomachs. In their minds, nothing changed. They didn’t want to stay, and one night, on June 9, 2006, they decided to leave Guantánamo. They climbed on top of the sinks in their cells and hanged themselves.

In the Pentagon’s view, the men hanging from the walls of their cells were assassins whose suicides were attacks on America. The Pentagon struck back.

The story of the lives and deaths of these prisoners is an odyssey of three young men who left for Afghanistan and ended up in Cuba. It is the story of a war against a terror that is difficult to define, a war that the United States government wages even in the cells of its prisoners. It is about a place, Camp Delta, that exposes the asymmetry of this war, and it leads to the front lines—and the American lawyers standing between them, struggling to defend presumed enemies of their country. It is the story of the internal and external battle over Guantánamo.

Nobody but the dead knows the whole truth. But there are places where the story can be pieced together. There are files and letters, people who distinctly remember these prisoners. There are places where the strands of this story intersect. A law firm in Washington. A mosque in London. A living room in North Carolina. A cell in Guantánamo.

This is on my mind today for three reasons.  The first is that Kaiser describes himself as

‘a writer who combines in-depth reporting with literary storytelling. Taking on issues of social transformation and human rights, Kaiser’s stories are based on long-term immersion in environments that are difficult to access. His hope is that this approach provides a fuller understanding of the ways in which policies and social change affect people’s lives and long-term prospects.’

It’s worth reflecting on those aspirations if you read his essay (which I urge you to do) because they raise important questions about the lazy distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, and about the ability of researchers to produce and animate publics through their (our) work.  There’s something there, too, about the power (and, yes, the seductions) of story-telling: so much academic writing still seems to substitute and so privilege our own narrative (‘I did this… then I did that .. I thought this…. then I felt that’) for the stories of others.  And, as Kaiser shows in that brief extract, those stories are often multi-sited.

AGAMBEN State of exceptionThe second reason Kaiser’s work matters to me is that I’m revisiting ‘The Black Flag’ for The everywhere war (more on this later) and, partly in consequence, thinking again about spaces of exception.  I’m in Mexico this week, and I’ve been re-reading Giorgio Agamben‘s Homo sacer and The state of exception.  I was originally doing this to sharpen my arguments about the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as a space of exception for air strikes by the CIA/JSOC and the Pakistan Air Force – I’ll be talking about this in Glasgow early next month, and I’ll post the presentation slides as soon as I’ve finished – but as I’ve worked my way through these texts still wider issues have emerged.

One of the central elements of Homo sacer (and Remnants of Auschwitz – though here too the differences between the two texts are suggestive) is the deliberate exposure of bodies to death: outcasts from whom the protections of the law have been stripped so that their death is no crime.  But in The state of exception Agamben’s focus is on the genealogy of the ‘force of law’ through which this takes place: the victims are nowhere in sight.  Throughout the short text Agamben makes much of the proximity of war and, for the ’emergency’ that activates the modern state of exception, of the First World War, but war and its developing armature of (international) law is never subjected to critical scrutiny.

Yet war (and its casualties) can reveal something else about spaces of exception.  On the battlefield – and let us immediately agree with Frédéric Mégret that ‘the battlefield’ is a highly unstable conceptual constellation – soldiers are at once vectors and victims of violence.  Here the usual restrictions on killing are removed; they can kill, provided they do so ‘lawfully’, without risk of punishment (‘combatant immunity’).  The other side of the contract, of course, is that those who might kill them are not subject to  legal sanction either.

This is not what Agamben means by the state of exception, and apart from repeated references to a contemporary ‘global civil war’ (and to Guantanamo) the transnational rarely appears in his writing and international law disappears into the margins.  His thumb-nail history of the state of exception is framed by the state and its sovereign.

But for reasons that I’ll set out in a later post, the proximity of the exceptional space of  the ‘battlefield’, of war zones and killing fields, to the ultimate reductions of bare life, is far from accidental.  In fact, that’s one of the links between the three deaths in Guantanamo Bay and air strikes and targeted killings in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan which, as I’ll want to show, requires a radically enlarged view of spaces of exception and their historical geographies.  (In the case of the FATA, the Obama administration insists it requires a radically enlarged juridical conception of the ‘battlefield’ in time and space too).

To be continued.

A wedding turned into a funeral

yemen0214_reportcoverHard on the heels of its report into six US targeted killings in Yemen in 2009 and 2012-13, Human Rights Watch has published a detailed analysis by Letta Tayler of another drone strike carried out by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) against a wedding convoy on 12 December 2013.  According to Greg Miller in the Washington Post,

The report represents the most detailed independent examination to date of a strike that has focused attention on the administration’s struggles to tighten the rules for targeted killing, provide more information about such operations to the public and gradually shift full control of the drone campaign from the CIA to the Pentagon.

There is considerable evidence of covert US-Pakistan co-operation in targeting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see here and here), but in the case of Yemen the collaboration is more overt and perhaps even more formalised: Yemen’s President described a ‘joint operations room’, including agents/officers from the US, the UK, NATO and Yemen that ‘identifies in advance’ prospective targets (who are usually described as members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).

In this case, as in so many others, the United States has insisted that all those killed were terrorists, but HRW’s on-the-ground interviews (and videos) tell a different story.  After a wedding feast at the home of the bride, many of the men and some of the women jumped into their vehicles to escort the bridal couple to a second celebration at in the groom’s village of al Jashem 35 km away.

HRW Drone strike Yemen 12 December 2013

At 4.30 that afternoon four Hellfire missiles struck the vehicles, killing at least 12 men and wounding at least 15 others – who are named and identified in the HRW report, and according to relatives all civilians.

‘We were in a wedding,’ cried the groom, ‘but all of a sudden it became a funeral. …We have nothing, not even tractors or other machinery. We work with our hands. Why did the United States do this to us?’

The US isn’t saying, and HRW notes that accounts from the government of Yemen have been inconsistent – though the local governor an military commander apologies for the killings, describing them as ‘a mistake’.  Some reports agreed that some of those targeted were Al-Qaeda members – though if so, it seems they escaped: AQAP has not identified ‘martyrs’ lost in the attack, which is its invariable practice – and some claimed that the victims included ‘smugglers and arms dealers’.

2014181435057734_20

But they also all made it clear that this was a wedding convoy that was targeted, and the government of Yemen has made compensation payments to the families.

HRW discusses the implications of the killings under the different legal regimes of international humanitarian law (the ‘laws of war’) and international human rights law, but also notes that the attack seems to have violated the protocols set out by the Obama administration in May 2013.  These included the ‘near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured…’

NBC – which also has video of the aftermath of the strike – reported in January that the Obama administration was carrying out an ‘internal investigation’, but nothing has been forthcoming and questions from HRW were rebuffed.  All we have so far is this extraordinary statement, reported by  Rooj Alwazir for al Jazeera:

“Obviously, broadly speaking, we take every effort to minimise civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations – broadly speaking, without speaking to this one specifically,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said when asked about the strike.

‘Broadly speaking’, what is it about weddings that those carrying out air strikes don’t understand?

It’s not difficult to imagine what those who attended the wedding will remember of that day.  But in case it is, Reprieve (which carried out its own investigation into the strike) has published photographs of some of the victims and their families – and of a funeral of nine people.

UPDATE:  AP is now carrying sketchy information about the official investigation into the strike:

Three U.S. officials said the U.S. government did investigate the strike against al-Badani — twice — and concluded that only members of al-Qaida were killed in the three vehicles that were hit…

Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of Joint Special Operations Command, ordered an independent investigation by an Air Force general and the White House requested another by the National Counterterrorism Center. Both concluded no civilians were killed. Votel’s staff also showed lawmakers video of the operation. Two U.S. officials who watched the video and were briefed on the investigations said it showed three trucks in the convoy were hit, all carrying armed men.

The report provides no basis for the identification of the victims as non-civilians.  Human Rights Watch had already questioned the presence of armed men as indicative:

‘Nearly everyone in the procession was an adult male, and one Yemeni government source said many of the men carried military assault rifles. But these details do not necessarily point to involvement in violent militancy. Yemeni weddings are segregated, including the traditional journey to bring the bride to her new home. And Yemeni men commonly travel with assault rifles in tribal areas, including in wedding processions, when celebratory gunshots are common.’

But here is the final Catch-22:

The officials said the Pentagon can’t release details [of the strike or the investigation] because both the U.S. military and the CIA fly drones over Yemen. By statute, the military strikes can be acknowledged, but the CIA operations cannot. The officials said that if they explain one strike but not another, they are revealing by default which ones are being carried out by the CIA.