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.