I’ve changed the header for this site; the original was cropped from a famous Frank Hurley image – perhaps the most famous Frank Hurley image – showing Australian infantry moving up to the front near Hooge in October 1917:


I’ve written about Hurley before, and it turns out that this may be one of his many manipulated images: see Bob Meade‘s detective work here (though see the cautionary notes in the comments too).

While I was doing some image research for my presentation at the Association of American Geographers in Tampa, I discovered the parallel, contemporary  image I’ve substituted.  Here is the uncropped image, taken by Mark Doran, which shows soldiers from the 7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment at sunset at Tarin Kot (Uruzgan, Afghanistan) in 2013:

Sunset shadows in Uruzgan


Imag(in)ing drones


The USAF has at last published its RPA Vector: Vision and enabling concepts, 2013-2048, outlining its projected future for Remotely Piloted Aircraft: you can download it here.

I’ll be working my way through this in detail in the next several days, but scanning its 100 pages my eyes were drawn to Figure 4 on p. 18.  Noting that the Air Force is transitioning to an all-Reaper flight, the images is captioned ‘MQ-9 firing an AGM-114 Hellfire.’


As James Bridle noted, the image is everywhere; it’s also nowhere: a fake.

At first, the feeling was just unease. Staring at it for some time, seeing it endlessly reproduced across the web and in print, it began to seem unreal, a fiction, too smooth, too perfect. But that’s an effect of drones: they always appear otherworldly…

Of course, it’s not just that. The Canon Drone is indeed entirely unreal. A close inspection, and comparison with other Reaper images, including 09-4066, bears this out almost immediately. The level of detail is too low: missing hatches on the cockpit and tail, the shape of the air intake, the greebling on the fins and body. That ‘NY’ on the tail: it’s not aligned properly, it’s a photoshop. Finally, the Canon Drone’s serial, partly obscured, appears to be 85-566. The first two numbers of USAF serials refer to the year an aircraft entered service: there were no Reapers back in 1985 (development didn’t even begin until 2001).

The Canon Drone does not exist, it never has. It is computer generated rendering of a drone, a fiction. It flies over an abstracted landscape…

In fact, as Alexis Madrigal revealed last year, the image is a computer rendering produced by Michael Hahn:

“I had never seen an image of a drone actually firing a missile so that is what I decided to create,” he said. And suddenly, everyone else, who also had never seen a drone actually firing a missile, had a way of seeing with their own eyes.

Strange then, that the US Air Force – which surely has seen countless drones firing countless missiles – should resort to a computer-generated, photoshopped image.  And an inaccurate one at that.

Endless War and the machine

When I wrote ‘Seeing Red: Baghdad and the event-ful city’ (DOWNLOADS tab) I was intrigued by the way in which the US military apprehended the city as a field of events:

‘In Baghdad, these security practices performed a continuous audit that compiled reports of events (Significant Activity Reports or SIGACTS) and correlated the incidence of ‘enemy-initiated attacks’ and other ‘enemy actions’ with a series of civil, commercial and environmental indicators of the population at large: moments in the production of what Dillon and Lobo-Guerrero call a generalized bio-economy.’  

The animating core of the system was the SIGACT  – shown below – and these were eventually fed into a single reporting and analysis platform, the Combined Information Data Network Exchange (CIDNE).


‘The primary transcription of an event, its constitution as a SIGACT, with all its uncertainties and limitations, was transmitted downstream to be digitized and visualized, correlated and ‘cleansed’, so that it could be aggregated to show trends or mapped to show distributions.  All the systems for SIGACT recording and analysis interfaced with visualization and presentation software, which was used to generate ‘storyboards’ at every level in the chain.’

The chain as it was constituted in Iraq in May 2006 is shown below; CENTRIX (top left) is the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System that provided information exchange across the US-led coalition;  CPoF (scattered across the centre field) is the Command Post of the Future, a distributed GIS system I discussed in the original essay that provided a command-level visualization of the battlespace as a field of events (a system that has since been upgraded multiple times); and at the centre right you can see the key automated data exchanges to and from CIDNE:

MNF-I Event Reporting, May 2006 (Wortman)

Since I wrote, scholars have used SIGACT reports much more systematically to analyse the connective tissue between ethno-sectarian violence and the ‘surge’ – see, for example, Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedman and Jacob Shapiro, ‘Testing the surge’, International Security 37 (1) (2012) 7-40; Nils Weidmann and Idean Saleyhan, ‘Violence and ethnic segregation: a computational model applied to Baghdad‘, International Studies Quarterly 57 (2013) 52-64 – to explore the political dynamics of civilian casualties – see, for example, Luke Condra and Jacob Shapiro, ‘Who takes the blame?  The strategic effects of collateral damage’, American Journal of Political Science 56 (1) (2012) 167-87 – and to conduct more general evaluations of counterinsurgency in Iraq: see, for example, Eli Berman, Jacob Shapiro and Joseph Felter, ‘Can hearts and minds be bought? The economics of counterinsurgency in Iraq’, Journal of political economy 119 (4) (2011) 766-819.

I’ve been revisiting these modelling exercises for The everywhere war, because they require me to rework my essay on ‘The biopolitics of Baghdad’ (though not, I think, to change its main argument).  I’m struck by the idiom they use – my critique of spatial science written in another age would have been substantially different had it been less preoccupied with the detecting of spatial pattern, had its methods been applied more often to issues that matter, and had its architects been less convinced of the self-sufficiency of their methods.

But I’m also struck by the idiom of the SIGACT itself.  We’ve since become much more accustomed to its staccato rhythm through Wikileaks’ release of the Afghan and Iraq War Diaries, whose key source was CIDNE.  Again, these have been visualised and analysed in all sorts of ways: see, for example, herehere, here and here (and especially Visualizing Data and its links here).  The image below comes from Andrew Zammit-Mangion, Michael Dewar, Visakan Kadirkamanathan and Guido Sanguinetti,’Point-process modelling of the Afghan War Diaries’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (31) (2012) and shows the time-space incidence of events recorded in the Diaries (here I suspect I’m channelling half-remembered conversations with Andrew Cliff….)


And here, rather more prosaically, is another version – by Drew Conway and Mike Dewar – that provides a time-sequence of the mounting intensity of the war 2004-2009 (for Danger Room‘s discussion and gloss, see here):


Now David Pinder has kindly drawn my attention to an extraordinarily suggestive essay by Graham Harwood,Endless War: on the database structure of armed conflict’ over at rhizome, and to the art-work that is it subject, which together have returned me to my original interest in the ‘event-field’ of later modern war and the automated interactions between its data platforms.

Graham’s central question is deceptively simple: ‘How does the way war is thought relate to how it is fought?’ SIGACTS populate the digital battlespace with events and invite a calculative and algorithmic apprehension of the field of military violence.  To show what this means, Graham and his partner Matsuko Yokokoji (who together compose YoHa: English translation ‘aftermath’) joined with his Goldsmith’s colleague Matthew Fuller to produce an intriguing artwork, Endless War.

It processes the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diary data set as a collection of analytic viewpoints, both machine and human. A software-driven system, Endless War reveals the structure of these viewpoints by using N-gram fingerprints, a method that allows sorting of the text as an anonymous corpus without having to impose predetermined categories on it. Presented as a gallery installation, the system includes a computer that processes the data in real time, projections of the results, and coil pick-up microphones on the central processing unit that sonify the inner working of the machine.

The torrent files released by WikiLeaks in 2010 are the residue of the system that created them, both machine and human. They seem to hint at the existence of a sensorium, an entire sensory and intellectual apparatus of the military body readied for battle, an apparatus through which the Afghan war is both thought and fought.

You can get a sense of the result from vimeo’s record of the installation at the Void Gallery in Derry:

This is a video, obviously, but Endless War isn’t a video.  As the artists explain in a note added to the vimeo clip:

Just as an algorithm is an ‘effective procedure’, a series of logical steps required to complete a task, the Afghan War Diary shows war as it is computed, reduced to an endless permutation of jargon, acronyms, procedure recorded, cross-referenced and seen as a sequence or pattern of events.

Endless War is not a video installation but a month-long real-time processing of this data seen from a series of different analytical points of view. (From the point of view of each individual entry; in terms of phrase matching between entries; and searches for the frequency of terms.) As the war is fought it produces entries in databases that are in turn analysed by software looking for repeated patterns of events, spatial information, kinds of actors, timings and other factors. Endless War shows how the way war is thought relates to the way it is fought. Both are seen as, potentially endless, computational processes. The algorithmic imaginary of contemporary power meshes with the drawn out failure of imperial adventure.

This computational assemblage (think not only of the cascading algorithms but also of the people and the handshakes between the machines: a political technology ‘full of hungry operators’, as Graham has it) is performative: it is at once an inventory – an archive – and a machine for producing a particular version of the military future. Graham again:

‘A SigAct necessarily retains evidential power that reflects its origin outside of the system that will now preserve it, but once isolated from blood and guts, sweat and secretions of the theatre of action (TOA), the SigActs are reassembled through a process of data atomisation. This filter constructs a domain where the formal relation, set theory, and predicate logic has priority over the semantic descriptions of death, missile strikes, or the changing of a tank track and the nuts and bolts needed…

This system of record keeping can be seen as a utopia of war. It is idealized, abstracted, contained; time can be rolled back or forward at a keystroke, vast distances traversed in a query, a Foucauldian placeless place that opens itself up behind the surface of blood-letting and hardware maintenance and the ordering of toilet rolls. A residue that casts a shadow to give NATO visibility to itself. As the ensemble of technical objects and flesh congeal, they create an organ to collectively act to rid itself of some perceived threat—this time from Al Qaeda or the Taliban—faulty vehicles, bad supplies, or invasive politics. This organ also allows NATO’s human souls to imagine themselves grasping the moment, the contingency of now. All of the war, all of the significant events, all of the time, all of the land, coming under the symbolic control of a central administration through the database, affording governance to coerce down the chain of command.’

This is a much more powerful way of capturing – and, through the physical installation itself, conveying – what I originally and imperfectly argued in ‘Seeing Red’:

‘… optical detachment is threatened by a battle space that is visibly and viscerally alive with death; biopolitics bleeds into necropolitics. And yet the Press Briefings that are parasitic upon these visualizations move in a dialectical spiral, and their carefully orchestrated parade of maps, screens and decks reinstates optical detachment. For even as the distancing apparatus of the world-as-exhibition is dissolved and the map becomes the city, so the city becomes the map: and in that moment – in that movement – Baghdad is transformed into an abstract geometry of points and areas and returned to the field of geopolitics. And as those maps are animated, the body politic is scanned, and the tumours visibly shrink, so Baghdad is transformed into a biopolitical field whose ‘death-producing activities [are hidden] under the rhetoric of making live’ (Dauphinee and Masters 2007: xii). In this looking-glass world bodies are counted but they do not count; they become the signs of a pathological condition and the vector of recovery. These processes of abstraction are, of course, profoundly embodied. This is not algorithmic war, and behind every mark on the map/city is a constellation of fear and terror, pain and grief. For that very reason our disclosure of the infrastructure of insight cannot be limited to the nomination of the visible.’


I’m putting together my presentation on ‘Seeing like a military‘ for the AAG Conference in Tampa next week, but – prompted in part by my interest in forensic architecture (see also here and here) – I’ve also been thinking about other ways of seeing (perhaps ‘re-viewing’ would be better) military violence.

2014_cover_publication_forensis_imgsize_SSo I’ve been interested to read a report over at rhizome on Forensis, an exhibition and installation curated by Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman at the Haus der Kulteren der Welt in Berlin, on ‘Constructions of Truth in a Drone Age’:

Any act of looking or being looked at is mediated by technology. This is true of any scientific process too, where each tool or method of looking is developed with a purpose in mind which influences the data that it produces. This is precisely what forensic investigation reveals: not only the reality of an event, but also the intention of a viewing mechanism and the political weight of that intention once made visible. Representations of warfare illustrate this as successfully as any art object.

As part of the exhibition Forensis, now on view at Haus der Kulteren der Welt in Berlin, Forensic Architecture and SITU Research investigate drone strikes in situations where state-mandated degradation and pixelation of publicly available surveillance footage is a legal regulation rather than a visual constraint, and drones are designed to evade the digital image. Missiles are developed that burrow through targeted buildings, leaving holes that are smaller than a low resolution pixel. Attacking at “the threshold of visibility,” the legal, political, and technical conditions equally attempt to remain invisible. The job of forensics is then to recover them.

Anselm and Eyal traffic in the roots between forensics and the Roman forum, which they envisage as a ‘multi-dimensional space of negotiation and truth-finding in which humans and objects participated together in politics, law and the economy.’  The underlying argument of Forensis, the report suggests, is that ‘the object of forensics should be as much the looker and the act of looking as the looked-upon’ – which will be precisely my point in Tampa.

Exorbitant witnessing

PLIThe first issue of the Cambridge journal of postcolonial literary inquiry, edited by Ato Quayson, on ‘New topographies of the postcolonial’, is available as an open access edition here.

The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry is a new peer-review journal that aims to deepen our grasp of postcolonial literary history while enabling us to stay comprehensively informed of all critical developments in the field. The journal will provide a forum for publishing research covering the full spectrum of postcolonial critical readings and approaches, whether these center on established or lesser known postcolonial writers or draw upon fields such as Modernism, Medievalism, Shakespeare and Victorian Studies that have hitherto not been considered central to postcolonial literary studies, yet have generated some of the best insights on postcolonialism. The Journal aims to be critically robust, historically nuanced, and will put the broadly defined areas of literature and aesthetics at the center of postcolonial exploration and critique. Essays of up to 8000 words on any aspect of postcolonial literature, literary history and aesthetics should be sent to The Editor at pli@cambridge.org.

The special issue includes a fine essay by Debjani Ganguly,The world novel, mediated wars and exorbitant witnessing‘, which provides close and illuminating readings of Art Spiegelman‘s Maus and In the shadow of no towers and Michael Ondaatje‘s Anil’s Ghost and connects them to what she calls ‘our era of humanitarian wars’ (see p. 16 for her characterization).  Here is the abstract:

This essay traces the emergence of a new contemporary novel form at the conjunction of global violence in the wake of the Cold War, digital hyperconnectivity, and a mediated infrastructure of sympathy. Since the first Gulf War, and more so, in the rhetoric presaging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have come to accept that there is very little difference between the technologies used to wage war and those used to view it. This essay argues that the novels of our time are not contiguous with contemporary cinematic or televisual or new media genres in representing the immediacy of violence, but are rather texts that graph the sedimented and recursive history of such mediation. Their alternative way of documenting “witness”—that is, of abstracting the architectonics of testimonial work—urges us to focus not so much on the question of visibility—and its stock thematics of overexposure and desensitization—as on the legibility of this new mode of witnessing. The distinction between visibility and legibility amounts to calibrating differently the work of witnes- sing in novels, their textual and tropological play with multiple modes of spectatorship and engagement, and their distinctively different braiding of the factual and the evidentiary in comparison with genres of the visual.