When I wear my alligator boots

When I wear my alligator bootsI left at the crack of dawn the very next day for Madison, so I couldn’t post about this before: last Wednesday Shaylih Muehlmann gave a reading from her new book, When I wear my alligator boots: Narco-culture in the US-Mexico borderlands (University of California Press, 2014) at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (where she was an Early Career Scholar last year).

Her reading was beautifully judged – a series of exquisitely written (and read) extracts that re-traced the narrative arc of the book, explained her own take on ethnography (and its writing), and sparked a lively discussion.  Thanks to Gaston Gordillo‘s generosity, I was able to devour the book on the flight to Madison; since I had to get up at 3 a.m., that was no mean feat and speaks volumes about the book.

When I Wear My Alligator Boots examines how the lives of dispossessed men and women are affected by the rise of narcotrafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. In particular, the book explores a crucial tension at the heart of the “war on drugs”: despite the violence and suffering brought on by drug cartels, for the rural poor in Mexico’s north, narcotrafficking offers one of the few paths to upward mobility and is a powerful source of cultural meanings and local prestige.

In the borderlands, traces of the drug trade are everywhere: from gang violence in cities to drug addiction in rural villages, from the vibrant folklore popularized in the narco-corridos of Norteña music to the icon of Jesús Malverde, the “patron saint” of narcos, tucked beneath the shirts of local people. In When I Wear My Alligator Boots, the author explores the everyday reality of the drug trade by living alongside its low-level workers, who live at the edges of the violence generated by the militarization of the war on drugs. Rather than telling the story of the powerful cartel leaders, the book focuses on the women who occasionally make their sandwiches, the low-level businessmen who launder their money, the addicts who consume their products, the mules who carry their money and drugs across borders, and the men and women who serve out prison sentences when their bosses’ operations go awry.

Read it to find out much more about the intersections between popular culture, the ‘drug wars’ , and the borderlands than the usual cartel-talk.  A central theme of the book is not so much the narco-corridors snaking across the border as the narco-corridos, folk-ballads telling stories of the men and women who work the drug business.  These are also the subject of Shaul Shwarz‘s prize-winning documentary Narcocultura (2013); I’ve embedded the trailer below, and you find out more here and read a thoughtful review here.

Shaylih’s subjects, then, are the low-level players who are, in their way, also being played.  For this very reason, their construction and celebration of narco-culture is also a real challenge to the corruptions, exactions and violences of the state.  Shaylih unravels the connections between prohibition, poverty and addiction in northern Mexico, and en route her gift for narrative – for telling their stories – provides a powerful analytical lens:

‘The people whose lives are chronicled in this book reveal the extent to which the war on drugs ultimately pushes many of the costs of trafficking – the deaths, the vulnerability, and the risk – over the border into Mexico and particularly onto the Mexican poor.  These are the people who run the risks of the business, experience the brunt of the violence, and serve the prison sentences that the wealthy cartel bosses largely avoid…  In the stories that follow, we will see that those who become involved in the narco-economy do so precisely because the Mexican and U.S. governments have declared war against it.  And as their stories show, for a long time this war was already being waged against them.’

Read it, too, for an object lesson in writing prose that doesn’t hobble the flight of the intellectual imagination – as even the chapter titles show:

Introduction: Life at the Edges of the War on Drugs
1. Narco-Wives, Beauty Queens, and a Mother’s Bribes
2. “When I Wear My Alligator Boots”
3. “A Narco without a Corrido Doesn’t Exist”
4. The View from Cruz’s Throne
5. Moving the Money When the Bank Accounts Get Full
6. “Now They Wear Tennis Shoes”: Social Debts and Calculated Risks
Conclusion: Puro pa’delante Mexico

You can access the first chapter here (box, top right). The marvellous title is easily explained:

‘Javier … wore alligator boots like a badge of his past smuggling work… He said that while you may see people dressed as cheros, the alligator boots are how you know if they are really narcotraficantes.’

Eternal Harvest

Many readers will know the remarkable work that’s been done to reconstruct the US bombing of Cambodia during the ‘Vietnam’ War: I’m thinking of Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan‘s ‘Bombs over Cambodia’ which appeared in The Walrus in 2006: available here and here.

The still-incomplete database (it has several “dark” periods) reveals that from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. The database also shows that the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed—not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson. The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.

US bombing of Cambodia

The contemporary significance of these air strikes includes, of course, what Rob Nixon calls the ‘slow violence’ of the unexploded ordnance that still haunts the Cambodian landscape today.  But they also have implications for recent bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, as Ben and Taylor discuss in ‘Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent’  here, and for today’s cross-border (though rather less covert) drone strikes in Pakistan, as Henry Grabar argued last year in The Atlantic here.

Eternal HarvestThe conflict in Vietnam spilled across into Laos too, and a new book by Karen Coates (with photographs by Jerry Redfern) documents the effects of this even more shocking campaign in depth and detail: Eternal Harvest: the legacy of American bombs in Laos.  The short animation below, just 98 seconds of your time, prepared by Jerry for Mother Jones, shows each bombing run:

The nearly 600,000 bombing runs delivered a staggering amount of explosives: The equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years, or a ton of bombs for every person in the country—more than what American planes unloaded on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. Laos remains, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth.

There’s a much longer version at vimeo here, which comes with this rider:

This video shows the US Air Force bombing campaign in Laos, from 1965 to 1973. The data comes from the website of the National Regulatory Authority of Lao PDR (NRA), which oversees UXO clearance in that country. They received the data from the US Embassy in Vientiane in 2000, from records originally created by the Department of Defense and stored at the National Archives.

The NRA data sets include information on the number and types of aircraft flown, types of bombs dropped, target conditions and after-action reports. For this graphic, only the dates, latitude and longitude, and the number of bombs dropped per mission are used.

The US Air Force began bombing Laos in June 1964. Many branches of the US, Thai, Lao, South Vietnamese and other forces also conducted aerial missions. But this graphic reflects only bombing missions noted in the NRA data, which show US Air Force missions beginning on October 1, 1965.

There’s much more information, plus photographs from the book, at the website that accompanies the book.

COVER MAKER 5.5X8.25.inddIf you want a quick overview of the geography of bombing Laos, Peter Larson also has a useful survey which includes some helpful maps here; he’s constructed his own animation here.

‘Animation’ is hardly the verb for such appalling carnage, I realise; the classic English-language account giving voices to the survivors (and victims) is Fred Branfman‘s brilliant Voices from the Plain of Jars: life under an air war, first published in 1972 and republished last year with an introduction by Alfred McCoy and available as an e-book.

Britain’s Reapers

UK Remote Control

As Craig Jones has discussed in detail, it’s been much easier to get information about the ways in which the United States has incorporated drones into its military and paramilitary operations than to prise open the door of UK operations (see also Chris Cole on ‘five basic facts we are simply not allowed to know here).

But the House of Commons Defence Committee has just published a two-volume report, Remote Control: remotely piloted air systems – current and future UK use.

Volume 1, the report and formal minutes (58 pp), can be downloaded as a pdf here, and Volume II, written evidence (130 pp), is available here.  The second volume includes submissions from the Ministry of Defence, Northrop Grumman, and General Atomics together with critical submissions from Drone Wars UK, Reprieve, the Network for Social Change’s Remote Control project, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Over at the Bureau, Alice Ross has a first response and summary here, while Chris Cole has a trenchant critique at Drone Wars UK here.

I’m still working my way through all this, but here are some key passages.

First, on the ‘double proximity’ of drone operations – as I’ve said before, even though these platforms can be controlled from thousands of miles away they are not weapons of global reach:

‘The MoD told us that in order to utilise unmanned air systems in the most efficient manner, they should be based as close as possible to the target area of interest to allow for the longest loiter time possible. In a “non-permissive” or hostile environment this would be “extremely difficult”.’

The other side of this is the invocation of a new (though, as I’ve also emphasised, thoroughly conditional and technologically mediated) quasi-intimacy:

‘It was very clear from the visit to XIII Squadron and discussions with Reaper aircrew that all were experienced professional personnel with a clear purpose and keen understanding of the Rules of Engagement which govern their operations. Despite being remote from the battle space they exhibited a strong sense of connection to the life and death decisions they are sometimes required to take. This was in stark contrast to the image portrayed by some commentators of “drone” pilots as video gaming “warrior geeks”.’

RAF Reaper

Again, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that ‘sense of connection’ is much more highly developed in relation to troops on the ground than to others who are in (or beyond) the field of view, and who are inevitably shut out from audio or online communications, which in part accounts for the risk to non-combatants whenever troops are ‘in contact’ with the Taliban and other fighters.

Second, the report seeks to draw a line between the US program of targeted killing and UK military operations in Afghanistan:

‘We acknowledge that over the last few years there has been a growing concern in relation to the sharing of intelligence with allies and the uses to which such data may contribute. While the issues raised by Reprieve stray beyond the terms of reference for our inquiry and indeed the remit of the Defence Committee, we do believe that there should be greater transparency in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK Government has in place for the sharing of intelligence…

‘We consider that it is of vital importance that a clear distinction be drawn between the actions of UK Armed Forces operating remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan and those of other States elsewhere… In Afghanistan UAS provide intelligence in support of our ground commanders, enabling them to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Whether for targeting the Taliban or supporting troops on patrol, their ability to loiter over and survey areas for enemy activity and then feed back images and video in real time means they are an invaluable asset to our forces on the ground. Together, the UK’s fleet of UAS have carried out over 160,000 hours of ISR operations.

‘The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper operated by the RAF is the UK’s only armed remotely piloted air system. The RAF fleet rose to ten in early 2014 as an additional five aircraft were accepted into service. RAF Reapers provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) for ISAF forces in Afghanistan, mostly in support of UK forces in Helmand province…. Since May 2008, UK Reaper aircraft have been armed with precision-guided weapons—Hellfire laser guided air-to-ground missiles and GBU-12 Paveway 500lb laser guided bombs… By 31 August 2013, UK operated Reaper aircraft had flown over 50,000 hours on operations in the ISR role with 418 weapons fired in the same period.’

RAF Reaper and weapons

Here are the raw figures released to Drone Wars UK last month, following a FoI Request to the Ministry of Defence:

Weapons released by UK Reapers in Afghanistan 2008-2013 (Drone Wars UK)

Chris Cole is not convinced by the Committee’s (and, by extension, the Ministry’s) attempt to draw the line:

‘The report also argues that it is “of vital importance” that a clear distinction be draw between the use of drones by UK armed forces and what it discreetly calls “those of other States elsewhere.” It urges the MoD to continue its PR campaign – what the committee calls a “public awareness programme” – in order to “aid public understanding and acceptance.” PR it seems trumps transparency.’

Third, and closely connected to Chris’s misgivings, the report restates without examination the legal armature for UK military operations:

‘…the MoD told us that UK remotely piloted aircraft operate within the constraints of UK rules of engagement (ROE) and policy, even where operational control is assigned to a Coalition Commander, such as the Commander of ISAF. The MoD also stated that UK policy relating to targeting by remotely piloted aircraft is exactly the same as that for manned aircraft (and land and maritime weapons where applicable):

‘It is entirely compliant with International Humanitarian Law. Targets are always positively identified as legitimate military objectives and both pattern of life assessment and collateral damage estimate conducted. Strikes are carried out in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict.

‘Personnel were keen for the public to know more and understand better what it is they do and to dispel some myths that have grown up about Reaper operations in particular. One pilot commented that the public needed to know that remotely piloted aircraft are “not robots, they’re not autonomous and we spend an awful lot of time training to fly them”. This training emphasised all aspects of the RAF rules of engagement such as whether a strike is necessary, whether any civilians are nearby, and what instructions have been received from the ground commander. Reaper aircrew were firmly of the view that the loiter time of remotely piloted aircraft allowed more informed decisions to be made and consequently the risk of civilian casualties was reduced should a missile strike be required….

Fourth, on civilian casualties and transparency:

‘The MoD told us that it was aware of only one incident involving an armed UK remotely piloted air system Reaper, which had resulted in the deaths of civilians:

‘On 25 March 2011 [three years ago to the day!] an attack on two pick-up trucks resulted in the destruction of a significant quantity of explosives and the death of two insurgents. Sadly, four Afghanistan civilians were also killed. In line with current ISAF procedures, an ISAF investigation was conducted to establish if any lessons could be learned or if any errors in operational procedures could be identified. In that case, the report concluded that the actions of the Reaper crew had been in accordance with extant procedures and rules of engagement.

…We note the conclusion of the UN Special Rapporteur [Ben Emmerson] that in any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been, killed, there is an obligation on the State responsible to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation. We recognise that this is not a simple and straightforward request as to do so could seriously jeopardise continuing operations. Nonetheless, we recommend that, to the extent that it is operationally secure to do so, following an event which has resulted in confirmed civilian casualties the MoD should seek to publish details about the incident and any lessons learned from the review process…’

For a good discussion of the UK’s definition of ‘civilian’ in such cases, see Dapo Akande at the European Journal of International Law here.

To be continued.

Scarry thoughts

SCARRY Thermonuclear monarchyI imagine most readers will know Elaine Scarry‘s vital account of The Body in Pain.  She has produced several important books since then, of course, but Scarry explains that her latest book, Thermonuclear monarchy: choosing between democracy and doom, published last month by Norton, emerged directly from her first:

It directly emerged from “The Body in Pain,” which has a first chapter on torture and a second on war. I was trying to address the question why when people prohibit torture they make it an absolute prohibition, but when they make a prohibition on war, they always make exceptions.

I realized that nuclear weapons much more approximate the condition of torture than of war. Torture involves zero consent on the part of the injured, whereas conventional war allows many levels of consent. With nuclear weapons, there’s zero consent.

There is an excellent, wide-ranging conversation between Scarry and Sarah Gerard at The American Reader here that goes back as far as Hobbes (who turns out to be crucial for Scarry’s argument) and spools forward to today’s drone wars.  If you read just one thing this week, read that.

When war comes home

After the US invasion of Iraq there were all sorts of artistic interventions that sought to bring home to Americans what was happening in Baghdad.  I described some of them in ‘War and peace’ (DOWNLOADS tab), noting that many of them seemed to take their cue from Martha Rosler‘s double photomontage of ‘Bringing the war home’, in which she re-staged first Vietnam and then the Iraq war in American domestic interiors:

Captives are paraded around gleaming kitchens on leashes, combat troops stalk in living rooms, while beyond the drapes fires flicker, a grieving woman slumps on the deck, and an Army patrol files by. Domestic critics have frequently noted the interchange between security regimes inside and outside the United States; they insist that the ‘war on terror’ ruptures the divide between inside and outside, and draw attention to its impact not only ‘there’ but also ‘here’. But Rosler’s sharper point is to goad her audience beyond what sometimes trembles on the edge of a critical narcissism (‘we are vulnerable too’) to recognise how often ‘our’ wars violate ‘their’ space: her work compels us to see that what she makes seem so shocking in ‘our’ space is all too terrifyingly normal in ‘theirs’.

Several projects made cartographic transpositions or mash-ups: superimposing the bombing of Baghdad on San Francisco (Paula Levine‘s Shadows from another place) or Boston (Alyssa Wright‘s Cherry Blossoms), for example, or choreographing a situationist tour of Baghdad in Brooklyn.  I’ve been more hesitant about these interventions; I know that these three projects were linked to – and in the last case depended on – ground performances, and I know too that it’s possible to undo the abstractness of conventional cartography, to turn it against itself (here I’m thinking of elin o’Hara slavick‘s brilliant Bomb after bomb).

WRIGHT Cherry Blossoms

I’ve now seen a different cartographic transposition that dramatizes the firebombing of Japan during the Second World War by juxtaposing a map of the United States with a map of Japan.  Almost as soon as the war was over there were several visualizations of a nuclear attack on US cities.  The image below comes from Collier’s Magazine in 1950, for a cover story called ‘Hiroshima, USA’; you can access the original here and read more here.  But projects like these still deflect the critical gaze from the horror of what happened there to the horror of what might happen here.  Indeed, that was precisely the point, as Joseph Masco shows in his brilliant essay, ‘”Survival is Your Business”: Engineering ruins and affect in nuclear America’, Cultural Anthropology 23:2 (2008) 361-98; reprinted in Ann Laura Stoler (ed), Imperial debris: on ruins and ruination (Duke, 2013).

Colliers-03-04-1

The problem is redoubled in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because those two hideous mushroom clouds have so often blocked our view of the firebombing of Japanese cities that preceded the two nuclear attacks.  Here the work of David Fedman and Cary Karacas on bombing Japan is indispensable, not least for its illuminating discussion of the central role of cartography (see Cary’s bilingual historical archive here).

In fact in 1945 the United States Air Force produced a map in which the earlier bombing campaign was projected on to a map of the United States:

FirebombsMapFinal-1.jpg.CROP.original-original

And this was the starting-point for Alex Wellerstein‘s remarkable intervention, whose critical force comes precisely from its juxtaposition (rather than simple superimposition) of the two maps: what happened in Japan is visibly there, magnified rather than marginalized through the map of the continental United States.  In fact, when you click on the interactive a line appears linking an American city to its equivalent target-city in Japan:

Firebombs-USA-interactive-600x321

 

Security by remote control

Security by remote control

News from Lucy Suchman that the website for the Security by Remote Control conference at Lancaster, 22-23 May, is now live here.  It will be enhanced and updated as the symposium approaches – including programme details: I’m still thinking over what I might present – but registration is open now.

Despite investment in new technologies, the legitimacy and efficacy of actions taken in the name of security is increasingly in question. In April of 2013 a coalition led by Human Rights Watch initiated a campaign in favour of a legally binding prohibition on the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapon systems. Simultaneously, some military and robotics experts argue that equipping robots with the capacity to make ethical judgments is an achievable technological goal. Within these debates, the ‘human in the loop’ is posited alternately as the safeguard against illegitimate killing, or its source. Implicit across the debate is the premise of a moment of decision in which judgements of identification and appropriate response are made. This symposium will focus on on the troubling space between automation and autonomy, to understand more deeply their intimate relations, and the inherent contradictions that conjoin them.

Hiding in the pixels

FA_UN_DRONES_FIG_2

For more on the role of forensic architecture in the analysis of drone strikes, which I discussed earlier this week, see Rebecca Chao‘s report – including an interview with Eyal Weizman – at TechPresident here.  The report includes an interesting qualification about the limitations of satellite imagery:

The drone analysis videos are not only evidential, however. They are also instructional. “These videos,” says Weizman, “do three things. We undertake the investigation while telling viewers how we do what we do and in the end we also reflect on how confident we are about the results.”

The purpose is to teach human rights activists or journalists how to conduct their own forensic architectural investigations. For example, the highest resolution satellite imagery comes from private American companies that cost $1,000 per image, which Weizman says is relatively affordable since an analysis would usually require just two: one right before the strike and one after.

There are certainly limitations to the data they obtain, however. With satellite imagery, for example, even the highest resolution images degrade to a pixel that translates to 50 cm by 50 cm of actual terrain. This means that a drone could easily hide undetected in one of those pixels, says Weizman…. [It] also hides the damage caused by drone strikes. When asked if this an uncanny coincidence, Weizman explains, that while there is prerogative for states and militaries to maintain an advantage, that pixel is also proportioned to hide a human and the private companies issuing such data are cognizant of privacy issues. Even so, this allows countries to deny drone strikes, says Weizman, because drones are beyond the threshold of detectability in the available satellite imagery.

And while I’m on the subject of architecture, the Guardian reports that on 19 March the Royal Institute of British Architects called for the suspension of the Israeli Association of United Architects from the International Union of Architects for its complicity in the construction of illegal settlements in occupied Palestine: what Israel consistently calls ‘the facts on the ground‘.  And those dismal ‘facts‘ aren’t hiding in the pixels.

Security archipelagos

Three short contributions that have caught my eye raise a series of interesting questions about contemporary ‘security archipelagos’ (in multiple sense of the term, hence the plural).

amar-security-archipelagoThe term itself comes from Paul Amar, and Austin Zeiderman has a short but interesting review of his The Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism (Duke, 2013) over at Public Books (Public Culture‘s public site):

‘Amar asserts that we need an analytical framework focused on the rise of human security—a governance regime that “aim[s] to protect, rescue, and secure certain idealized forms of humanity.” This new regime is gradually replacing neoliberalism, Amar contends, “as the hegemonic project of global governance and of state administration.” This shift is evident in how security is now justified and pursued by states. The antagonistic relationship between security and human rights that characterized the “neoliberal market states” of the late 20th century is no longer so evident. The repressive security strategies that underpinned earlier development paradigms have been succeeded by the “promise to reconcile human rights and national security interests” in the interest of economic prosperity. Progressive and conservative security doctrines now agree on the imperative to “humanize” (or “humanitarianize”) both state and parastatal security apparatuses. The result, Amar argues, is what he calls the “human-security state”: a globally emergent governance regime with “consistent character and political profile.” From Latin America to the Middle East, political legitimacy is increasingly based on securing humanity against a range of malicious forces….

If the megacities of the Global South are indeed “laboratories” in which new logics and techniques of global governance are being created, it is up to other researchers to fill out and develop further Amar’s concept of the “security archipelago.” Though his study provides both the theoretical rationale and the analytical tools with which to do so, it may be worth questioning whether the “human” is necessarily central to emerging security regimes. For along with human security apparatuses and the human actors struggling to articulate progressive alternatives, a host of non-humans—drones, border fences, hurricanes—are actively producing the security landscape of the future.’

Secondly, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the work of these ‘laboratories’ often relies on non-state, which is to say corporate, commercial sites (this isn’t news to Paul, of course, even if he wants to challenge our ideas about neoliberalism).  We surely know that the traditional concept of the military-industrial complex now needs wholesale revision, and I’ve noted before the timely and important essay by Jeremy Crampton, Sue Roberts and Ate Poorthuis on ‘The new political economy of geospatial intelligence‘ in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104 (1)  (2014) (to which I plan to return in a later post).  The latest MIT Technology Review has a short but suggestive essay by Antonio Regalado, ‘Spinoffs from Spyland’, which describes some of the pathways through which the National Security Agency commercializes (and thus potentially subcontracts and, in some cases, even subverts) its surveillance technology:

In 2011, the NSA released 200,000 lines of code to the Apache Foundation. When Atlas Venture’s Lynch read about that, he jumped—here was a technology already developed, proven to work on tens of terabytes of data, and with security features sorely needed by heavily regulated health-care and banking customers. When Fuchs’s NSA team got cold feet about leaving, says Lynch, “I said ‘Either you do it, or I’ll find five kids from MIT to do it and they’ll steal your thunder.’”

Eventually, Fuchs and several others left the NSA, and now their company [Sqrrl] is part of a land grab in big data, where several companies, like Splunk, Palantir, and Cloudera, have quickly become worth a billion dollars or more.

Over the summer, when debate broke out over NSA surveillance of Americans and others, Sqrrl tried to keep a low profile. But since then, it has found that its connection to the $10-billion-a-year spy agency is a boost, says Ely Kahn, Sqrrl’s head of business development and a cofounder. “Large companies want enterprise-scale technology. They want the same technology the NSA has,” he says.

SQRRL

And finally, before we rush to radicalise and globalise Foucault’s critique of the Panopticon, it’s worth reading my friend Gaston Gordillo‘s cautionary note – prompted by the search for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 – on ‘The Opaque Planet’:

The fascination with, and fetishization of, technologies of global location and surveillance often makes us forget that, for all their sophistication, we live on a planet riddled with opaque zones that will always erode the power of human-made systems of orientation, for the simple fact that no such system (contrary to what the NSA seems to believe) will ever manage to create an all-seeing God. This opacity is intrinsic to the textured, three-dimensional materiality of the surface of the planet, and is especially marked in the liquid vastness of the ocean.

MH370-military_radar-tracking-peninsula-170314-eng-graphcs-tmi-kamarul

Phil Steinberg has already commented on the geopolitics of the search, but Gaston draws out attention to the gaps in the surveillance capabilities of states, and here too the geopolitical meshes (and sometimes jibes against) the geoeconomic, as described in this report from Reuters:

Analysts say the gaps in Southeast Asia’s air defenses are likely to be mirrored in other parts of the developing world, and may be much greater in areas with considerably lower geopolitical tensions.

“Several nations will be embarrassed by how easy it is to trespass their airspace,” said Air Vice Marshal Michael Harwood, a retired British Royal Air Force pilot and ex-defense attache to Washington DC. “Too many movies and Predator (unmanned military drone) feeds from Afghanistan have suckered people into thinking we know everything and see everything. You get what you pay for. And the world, by and large, does not pay.”

Thatcher’s Gift: law and ordering

Datta Khel strike satellite analysis

Following on from my last post…  The failure of the anonymous US official to recognise what I called the operative presence of customary law is symptomatic of a structural condition: Pakistan’s borderlands, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, must be construed as ‘lawless’ in order for law (which is to say ‘order’) to be imposed from the outside, through military and paramilitary violence shrouded, as it so often is, in the cloak of law itself.

Talking with Michael Smith yesterday – who is busy co-editing a special issue of Society & Space on legal geographies with Craig Jones  – I suggested that this effectively repeated the canonical double gesture of Orientalism, in which the space of the Other is summoned as a space of the bizarre, the exotic and at the limit the monstrous (‘a living tableau of queerness’, Edward Said called it), that must be imperatively normalised – straightened out, if you prefer – through the imposition of the order it has been deemed to lack.  In this case, the ordering is imposed through a deadly dance choreographed in Washington and Islamabad.

Michael then provided me with this remarkable quotation from Peter Fitzpatrick‘s ‘Racism and the innocence of law’ from the Journal of Law and Society 14 (1) (1987) 119-132 (p. 129):

“It is hardly surprising, then, that the resort to law as a symbol of race and nation should be so facile, so common and so effective. Thus, to return to the stratagem of the telling instance and to Thatcher’s contribution, she precisely echoes the imperialist claim to law as a gift we gave them, gave those “people with a different culture”, people who did not have law, who did not give it to the world and who in remaining essentially alien have failed to assimilate the gift adequately.”

The reference is to a speech given by Margaret Thatcher in January 1978, in which she praised Britain’s contribution to law (‘throughout the world’) and sympathised with those who feared that immigration would see this ‘swamped’ – submerged, drowned – ‘by people with a different culture’.

Datta Khel strike BoJ PNG

So, in the telling instance of Datta Khel [the image above is from an official Pakistani transcript published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; there is also a detailed report here – scroll down to 17 March) colonial and imperial power redux: Midnight’s Children being ‘ordered’ by Thatcher’s….. It would have been better if the Jirga targeted by the drone had been a ‘charity car-wash’ – but that distant prospect was evidently (and I think necessarily) construed as even less likely than its being a properly constituted legal assembly.

In case this is misunderstood, to insist on the operative presence of customary law is emphatically not to deny that people in these areas are subject to extraordinary violence from the air and from the ground, by the CIA, the Pakistan military, and the Taliban and other groups – but it is to acknowledge how what Michael called ‘liberal legality’s denigration of its others (tradition, custom, customary law)’ is a vital, constitutive moment in the imposition of those violent exactions.

The scene of the crime: customary law and forensic architecture

I returned from a wonderful visit to Glasgow last week – thanks so much to Jo Sharp, who ensured I had a criminally good time – and I’ve spent this week trying to catch up.  It rained most of the time I was there, and in fact my first impression of the University was of a quadrangle turned into a quagmire: a case of mire in the flood, you might say.  But nothing could dampen my spirits, and in the gaps between marvellous restaurants, coffee shops that would make anyone in Vancouver (or Seattle) green with envy, the best lunch ever, and truly excellent conversation, I gave two talks: one on my skeletal ideas about my new project on Medical-military machines and casualties of war, 1914-2014, and the other a more formal affair on ‘Dirty dancing: drone strikes, spaces of exception and the everywhere war.’ The purpose of the first talk was to explore, largely for graduate students, how I work; it generated a lively discussion, so I thought I would try to do the same in this post but in relation to the second presentation.  And in doing so, I’ll also have more to say about the scene of a real crime.

I’d prepared my formal presentation before I left Vancouver, and as I’ve explained before I now never read from a written text: I design the slides carefully (see my ‘Rules’ here) and talk to them, so that I retain as much flexibility as possible.  It’s a sort of semi-scripted improv, I suppose, and it also means that the argument can develop from one presentation to the next.

On the train up from London I started to think some more about the air strikes on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see also herehere and here).  Part of my purpose was to trace a narrative of air attack that, for those now ‘living under drones’, stretched back (at least in memory) to British air control and counterinsurgency on the North West Frontier in the 1920s and the 1930s.

Waziristan bombing 1920s and 30s PNG

War of Terror inside Pakistan PNGI’d made this point before, and sharpened it during an earlier version of the presentation in Beirut, but I’d since realised that the narrative was resumed by the Soviet and Afghan Air Forces striking mujaheddin bases in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  I hadn’t paid much attention to this in The colonial present, where my focus was on the aid provided by the CIA to mujaheddin striking across the border in the opposite direction, but these air raids were described by the Washington Post on 13 March 1988 as part of the USSR’s “war of terror” (really).  They are an important moment in the genealogy of air strikes and counterinsurgency in the FATA, and I’d managed to unearth some estimates of the number of cross-border violations of Pakistani air space and the number skilled and injured in the strikes:

Afghan:Soviet cross-border air strikes 1980-88

Then, in one of the ironic twists of our post 9/11 world, the (il)logic of air war was revived and ramped up by the CIA-directed drone strikes that have convulsed the borderlands since 2004.

I wanted to show, as I’ve argued in previous posts, that this narrative was more than a cross-border affair and that the Pakistan Air Force has been also actively involved in a series of domestic air campaigns: since 2008 it has carried out thousands of air strikes against what it describes as militants, insurgents and terrorists in the FATA.  In fact, the offensive was resumed earlier this year, when F-16 aircraft and helicopter gunships attacked targets in North Waziristan, driving thousands of people from their homes.

the-frontier-crimes-regulationIn some measure, all of these air campaigns raise the spectre of colonial power, but so too does the legal status of the FATA and its exceptional relation to the rest of Pakistan.  This is usually traced back to Lord Curzon’s Frontier Crimes Regulations (1901), which were retained by Pakistan after independence in 1947.  They were minimally revised in 2011, but the FATA are still under the direct executive control of the President through his appointed Political Agents who have absolute authority to decide civil and criminal matters. The exceptional status of the FATA was confirmed by the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations in 2011 which exclude the high court from jurisdiction on fundamental rights issues in any area where the Pakistan armed forces have been deployed ‘in aid of the civil power’.

All of this indicates that the FATA constitute a ‘space of exception’ in something like Giorgio Agamben‘s sense of the term: a space in which particular people are knowingly exposed to death through the juridical or quasi-juridical removal of legal protections from them.  This was, in part, my argument, but I was also concerned to show that this was not a matter of a legal void: rather, military and paramilitary violence was orchestrated, as it almost always is, through the law.

But there is quite another sense in which the FATA is not a legal void, despite all the rhetoric about them being ‘lawless’ lands.  So I started to think through the intersections between these formal legal geographies (and the state violence they sanction) and the system of customary law known as Pashtunwali (loosely, “the way of the Pashtuns”).  The system is far from static, but it still governs many areas of life among Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border whose cultures and communities were bisected when the Durand Line was drawn in 1893.  I’d been reading as much as I could by anthropologists and others to help me understand its contemporary relevance: for recent surveys, see Tom Ginsburg‘s ‘An economic interpretation of the Pashtunwali’ from the University of Chicago Legal Forum (2011) here,  Lutz Rzehak‘s ‘Doing Pashto’ here, and Thomas Ruttig‘s qualifications in relation to the Taliban here.  For a sense of how the US military understands Pashtunwali, as part of its ‘cultural turn’, see Robert Ross‘s thesis here.

Pashtunwali is more than a legal system, of course, but I was particularly interested in its legal force and how this is put into practice.  Many commentators have shown that Pashtunwali is precisely the sort of ‘mobile’ legal system that you would expect to find among (originally) nomadic peoples, for whom the fixed statutes of a centralised state had neither appeal nor purchase.  It includes obligations of hospitality and protection, asylum and refuge, and revenge and restitution, and provides for a system of resolution through a council (or Jirga).  Within its patriarchal and masculinist framework, the system is resolutely non-hierarchical: the men who compose the Jirga sit in a circle and each, as a symbol of authority and equality, carries a gun.

Sitting in a circle, the Jirga has no speaker, no president, no secretary or convener. There are no hierarchical positions and required status of the participants. All are equal and everyone has the right to speak and argue, although, regard for the elders is always there without any authoritarianism or privileged rights attached to it. The Jirga system ensures maximum participation of the people in administering justice and makes sure that justice is manifestly done.

On my way over to the UK I’d read an extremely interesting essay in the International Review of Law and Economics 37 (2014) 108-20 – stored on Good Reader on my iPad – in which Bruce Benson and Zafar Siddiqui argued that the system works not only to provide a decentralised, local and regional system of order and regulation – so Hobbes was wrong: without the state people do not automatically revert to a ‘state of nature’ (Tom Ginsburg is very good on this) – but also to defend the Pashtun from the incursions of the central state.  Indeed, the Frontier Crimes Regulations specifically recognised the validity and autonomy of the Jirga: much more here.  The message from all this was clear: ‘The Pashtun tribes who inhabit the rugged mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan are neither lawless nor defenceless.’

The Pakistan Taliban know this very well, not surprisingly, and in many instances work with Pashtunwali to mediate disputes in the FATA.  In fact, as the train curved around the Lake District I remembered reading about a Jirga being convened in Datta Khel in March 2011 to resolve a dispute over a chromite mine.  It’s odd how some things stick in your mind, like burrs on your jeans, but this incident had stayed with me because the Jirga had been targeted by the CIA and two Hellfire missiles were launched from a drone, killing more than 40 people.  In itself, that probably wouldn’t have been enough for me to remember it in any detail since it was all too common – but the usual faceless and anonymous US official, speaking off the record because he was not authorised to comment in his official capacity, had offered a series of ever more bizarre justifications for the strike: and I remembered those (as you’ll see in a moment, you could hardly forget them).

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So I started to dig some more – WiFi on the train – and discovered that Eyal Weizman and his brilliant colleagues at Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture had reconstructed this very strike (the image above is from their work):

‘In the absence of on-the-ground photographic or video documentation, and with no visible impact on buildings, this investigation unfolded by cross-referencing witness testimonies with satellite imagery. An examination of before and after satellite imagery indicated two areas with surface disturbance consistent with the reported missile strikes, thus allowing us to confirm the location of the strike. From the testimonies of survivors and eye-witnesses, we harvested spatial information that helped us to generate a 3D model of the site of the drone strike on the Jirga.’

Then all (!) I had to do was go back in to my e-files (each morning I work my way through the press, copying and pasting reports and commentaries into a series of files so that I have my own searchable archive), recover the glosses provided by that anonymous official, and put them together with the reconstruction.  Here’s the result:

Dhatta Khel 1 PNGDhatta Khel 2 PNGDhatta Khel 3 PNG

Dhatta Khel 4 PNGDhatta Khel 5 PNGDhatta Khel 6 PNGDhatta Khel 7 PNGDhatta Khel 8 PNG

You can read more about these reconstructions here (‘The forensics of a lethal drone attack’).  This strike is one of several investigated by the UN’s Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, and you can find much more information at the interactive website produced in collaboration with Forensic Architecture and SITU Research that accompanies his written report to the United Nations (28 February 2014) (the Datta Khel incident is summarised in paragraph 50, but the website provides a far richer understanding).  You can also download hi-res versions of Forensic Architecture’s stills and videos here.

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What I find so significant is that the anonymous official provided a series of different and, as I’ve said, bizarre (even offensive) descriptions of what the assembly in Datta Khel was not: but he was clearly incapable of recognising what it was.  This was certainly another performance of the space of exception, but it was plainly not a legal ‘black hole’, as some commentators gloss Agamben.  The only ‘black holes’ were the craters in the ground and the conspicuous failure to recognise the operative presence of customary law.