Under American Skies

I’ll be in Berlin in December for a conversation with James Bridle about drone wars and related issues, and I’m already looking forward to it since I’m a great admirer of his work. I particularly admire the way in which he challenges so many of our assumptions about ‘looking’ through his presentations about militarised vision and violence, and I’ve noted before the filiations between his various projects and Josh Begley‘s.

Tomas van HoutryveSo I was interested to read about photographer Tomas van Houtryves (right) project Blue Sky Days.  He begins with an arresting observation with which both James and Josh would be only too familiar:

‘Although a huge amount of [full motion video] footage has been collected [by US drones], the program is classified, and few people have ever seen images of the drone war and its casualties. This seems like a paradox in our thoroughly media-connected age. How can America be involved in a decade-long war where the sky is buzzing with cameras, and yet the public remains totally in the dark?’

But his response to the question is distinctly different: he repatriates the drone wars from Pakistan to the United States (here the most appropriate comparison is with Omar Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is the Best).

Tomas van Houtryve 1

To do so, Tomas travelled across America with a small quadcopter drone bought from Amazon.com attached to his camera.  His concept was simple, Rena Silverman explains in the New York Times:

Take the idea of foreign drone strikes and instead target similar domestic situations, putting them under surveillance using his drone in public spaces. He made a list of hundreds of different strike reports, gleaning as many details about the circumstances…

He rented a black car with tinted windows and placed himself, his drones, his batteries and lists in the car. He spent six weeks in late 2013 averaging between seven and 10 drone flights daily, sleeping in a different town every night. He would pull the car into an empty lot, get out, launch the drone for about five to 10 minutes — about as long as its power lasted — take footage, land the drone, drive away and recharge the batteries while en route to the next location…

He followed his list carefully, trying to imitate “signature strikes,” referring to a May 2012 New York Times article in which some State Department officials complained about the lax criteria for identifying a terrorist “signature.” The joke was that “three guys doing jumping jacks” could be enough suspicious activity for the C.I.A. to conclude it could be a terrorist training camp. In other words, targeting people based on behavior rather than identity.

Tomas van Houtryve 2 copy

He photographed people exercising in Philadelphia, their shadows long and pinned against the grid of a park. He noticed more “signature” behavior while driving through San Francisco, where he encountered a group doing yoga [above]. When Mr. van Houtryve recently printed the image, he asked viewers if they thought the subjects were praying or exercising. It was a toss-up.

Although these images are not quite ‘what drone attacks in America would look like’, as Pete Brook suggested in WIRED – Tomas’s drone was flying much lower (‘only about six stories high’) and these images are pin-point sharp: there’s none of the ambiguity of infra-red heat signatures here – none the less that last sentence really says it all.  Images do not speak for themselves and interpretation counts for everything – which is why, as I’ve repeatedly argued, it matters so much what pilots, sensor operators and image analysts are pre-disposed to see.

It turns out that a particular incident provoked Tomas’s project – the murder of Mamana Bibi at Ghunda Kala in North Waziristan on 24 October 2012, which I described here –  and also gives it its title.

Zubair RehmanIn October 2012, a drone strike in northeast Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra outside her house. At a briefing held in 2013 in Washington, DC, the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to a group of five lawmakers. “I no longer love blue skies,” said Rehman, who was injured by shrapnel in the attack. “In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

There’s more from Tomas at Harper’s here, which originally co-sponsored the project with the Pulitzer Center, and you can see more of his drone’s eye view images at the National Geographic here.

There’s also a revealing interview conducted by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone here; it contains all sorts of interesting observations, but one in particular resonated.  Asked about the tension between the beauty of his photographic compositions and the horror of what he is seeking to convey, Tomas says this:

‘The base subject that I’m trying to raise awareness about and get people to think about in less abstract terms is the foreign drone war. If you take the time to read through the particular airstrikes, a lot of them are quite horrifying. But on the other hand, as a photographer, I know that beauty is one of the tools that we use to get people to look at a picture. Beauty has a lot of power, so there’s a tension between trying to seduce people with the language of photography, which is beautiful composition, and trying to reveal something that might be uncomfortable or difficult to digest, once people fully grasp it.’

Another of my art icons, elin o’Hara slavick, says something very similar about her mesmerising sequence of aerial images of places bombed by the US, Bomb after bomb (see also Brian Howe‘s discussion here and my own in ‘Doors in to Nowhere’ [DOWNLOADS tab], from which I’ve taken this passage):

‘She adopts an aerial view—the position of the bombers—in order to stage and to subvert the power of aerial mastery. The drawings are made beautiful “to seduce the viewer,” she says, to draw them into the deadly embrace of the image only to have their pleasure disrupted when they take a closer look. “Like an Impressionist or Pointillist painting,” slavick explains, “I wish for the viewer to be captured by the colors and lost in the patterns and then to have their optical pleasure interrupted by the very real dots or bombs that make up the painting.”’

A tart reminder that there are multiple ways of ‘just looking‘.

The war on Ebola

ECONOMIST The war on Ebola

We’ve been here before – ‘wars’ on this and ‘wars’ on that.  It’s strange how reluctant states are to admit that their use of military violence (especially when it doesn’t involve ‘boots on the ground‘) isn’t really war at all – ‘overseas contingency operations’ is what the Pentagon once preferred, but I’ve lost count of how many linguistic somersaults they’ve performed since then to camouflage their campaigns – and yet how eager they are to declare everything else a war.

These tricks are double-edged.  While advanced militaries and their paymasters go to extraordinary linguistic lengths to mask the effects of their work, medical scientists have been busily appropriating the metaphorical terrain from which modern armies are in embarrassed retreat.

Yet all metaphors take us somewhere before they break down, and the ‘war on Ebola’ takes us more or less directly to the militarisation of the global response.  In an otherwise critical commentary, Karen Greenberg draws parallels between the ‘the war on terror’ and the ‘war on Ebola’:

‘The differences between the two “wars” may seem too obvious to belabor, since Ebola is a disease with a medical etiology and scientific remedies, while ISIS is a sentient enemy. Nevertheless, Ebola does seem to mimic some of the characteristics experts long ago assigned to al-Qaeda and its various wannabe and successor outfits. It lurks in the shadows until it strikes. It threatens the safety of civilians across the United States. Its root causes lie in the poverty and squalor of distant countries. Its spread must be stopped at its region of origin — in this case, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in West Africa — just as both the Bush and Obama administrations were convinced that the fight against al-Qaeda had to be taken militarily to the backlands of the planet from Pakistan’s tribal borderlands to Yemen’s rural areas.’

There are other parallels too, not least the endless re-descriptions of terrorism and even insurgency as life-threatening diseases, ‘cancers’ on the body politic.  And, as Josh Holmes shows, there is also an entirely parallel (geo)politics of fear in both cases (see also Rebecca Gordon on the racialization of ‘the fear machine’ here).  Given the threat supposedly posed by ‘the enemy within’, it’s not surprising that US Northern Command has already set up a 30-person ‘military rapid response team‘ for domestic Ebola cases, and that the Department of Homeland Security has been issuing Biosurveillance Event Reports on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from the National Biosurveillance Integration Center.

National Biosurveillance EBOLA DHS 1 Oct 2014

But as I’ve said, Karen’s is a critical commentary and so, before the military metaphors carry us away,  her conclusion bears repeating:

The United States is about to be tested by a disease in ways that could dovetail remarkably well with the war on terror. In this context, think of Ebola as the universe’s unfair challenge to everything that war bred in our governmental system. As it happens, those things that the U.S. did, often ineffectively and counterproductively, to thwart its enemies, potential enemies, and even its own citizenry will not be an antidote to this “enemy” either. It, too, may be transnational, originate in fragile states, and affect those who come in contact with it, but it cannot be stopped by the methods of the national security state.

To make sense of all this, I think we need to stand back and start with four general observations:

(1) Modern military medicine has long involved more than evacuating and treating the wounded from the field of battle.  It has always had a substantial public health component.  Until the early twentieth century, ‘infectious diseases unrelated to trauma were responsible for a much greater proportion of the deaths during war than battle-related injuries‘.  As militaries started to pay much closer attention to hygiene and disease prevention, Matthew Smallman-Raynor and Andrew Cliff estimate that the ratio of ‘battle deaths’ to deaths from disease amongst the military population fell from 1:0.4 in the First World War to 1:0.1 in the Second World War; then it rose to 1:0.13 in the Vietnam War but in the first US-led Gulf War (1991) it fell to 1:0.01.

Beyond Anthrax(2) Modern militaries are no strangers to biowarfare either.  Both sides in the First World War experimented with chemical weapons, and although the US Army’s explicitly offensive Biological Warfare Weapons Laboratories closed in 1969 the commitment to ‘bio-defense’ and bio-security has ensured a continuing military investment in the weaponisation of infectious diseases (see right).  I don’t subscribe to the view that the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is the result of a rogue US biowarfare program – see for example the claims made by ‘Robert Wenzel’ here: and if you want to know why his name is in scare-quotes, appropriately enough, read Chris Becker‘s takedown here –  nor to the fear that what Scientific American calls ‘weaponised Ebola’ is poised to become a ‘bio-terror threat’.  But I do think it worth noting the work of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases which has had field teams on the ground in West Africa since 2006, and the importance placed on surveillance and monitoring.

(3) I also think it’s necessary to think through the biopolitics of public health in relation to military and paramilitary violence.  This takes multiple forms.  It’s become dismally apparent that in many conflict zones hospitals, doctors and other health-care workers have become targets: in Gaza, to be sure, but in Syria and elsewhere too.  The treatment of disease has also become a tactical vector: think of the CIA’s use of polio vaccination campaigns as a cover for its intelligence operations and – the conjunction is imperative – the Taliban’s manipulation of polio vaccinations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  Think, too, of the way in which the Assad regime has inflicted a resurgent, even counterinsurgent geography of polio on the Syrian people.  As Annie Sparrow shows (see also here):

‘This man-made outbreak is a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war—a war crime of truly epidemic proportions. Even before the uprising, in areas considered politically unsympathetic like Deir Ezzor, the government stopped maintaining sanitation and safe-water services, and began withholding routine immunizations for preventable childhood diseases. Once the war began, the government started ruthless attacks on civilians in opposition-held areas, forcing millions to seek refuge in filthy, crowded, and cold conditions. Compounding the problem are Assad’s ongoing attacks on doctors and the health care system, his besieging of cities, his obstruction of humanitarian aid, and his channeling of vaccines and other relief to pro-regime territory.


Late this summer she provided this update:

‘… nearly all the cases of polio have occurred in areas of northern Syria under rebel control, where the government is seemingly doing everything in its power to prevent vaccination. The Syrian government has appealed to the UN for hundreds of medicines for areas of the country it controls, while largely ignoring the far more dire needs of opposition-held areas. Many children, especially newborns, still do not have access to polio immunization. Daily government airstrikes target the very health facilities that should be the foundation of vaccination efforts, as well as the children who should be protected from polio, measles, and other preventable childhood diseases. As Dr. Ammar, a doctor from Aleppo, said to me bitterly after an April 30 airstrike killed twenty-two schoolgirls, “The government’s polio control strategy for children is to kill them before they can get polio.”’

(4) Finally, biopolitics threads its way from the sub-national and the national to the trans-national and so to what Sara Davies calls, in a vitally important essay, ‘securitizing infectious disease‘. (The link will take you to an open access version, which was originally published in International affairs 84 (2008) 295-313; see also her ‘The international politics of disease reporting: towards post-Westphalianism?‘, International politics 49 (2012) 591-613, and the collection she has edited with Jeremy Youde, The politics of surveillance and response to disease outbreaks: the new frontier for states and non-state actors – due out next year).


In her original essay, Sara shows how powerful states in the global North joined forces with the World Health Organisation to construct infectious disease as an existential security threat that demanded new rules and protocols for its effective containment.  Crucially:

‘The outcome of this has been the development of international health cooperation mechanisms that place western fears of an outbreak reaching them above the prevention of such outbreaks in the first place. In turn, the desire of the WHO to assert its authority in the project of disease surveillance and containment has led it to develop global health mechanisms that primarily prioritizes the protection of western states from disease contagion.’

This has a genealogy as well as a geography (or what Alan Ingram once called a ‘geopolitics of disease’).  Peter Dörrie notes that on 18 September 2014 the U.N. Security Council declared the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa ‘a threat to international peace and security’, and that this was ‘the first time the U.N. had taken this step in a public health crisis‘ (in fact the Council had previously expressed similar concerns about the impact of HIV/AIDS on ‘stability and security’).  Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter this declaration has significant legal implications, as Jens David Ohlin notes here, but what most concerns Peter is how long it took for the Security Council to stir itself.  It issued its statement 180 days after the WHO confirmed the outbreak, and over a month after the WHO had declared Ebola a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’, and in his eyes the international system ‘ignored the problem until it was too big for any solution other than full-scale military intervention.’   But I’ve already suggested, it’s wrong to treat the militarisation of epidemic disease as somehow new.  Of direct relevance to the present ‘war on Ebola’ is this passage from Sara’s essay:

The United States has been a keen participant in disease surveillance and response since the mid-1990s. The United States Department of Defense (US DoD) has had overseas infectious disease research laboratories located in over 20 countries for nearly ten years. The Global Emerging Infectious Surveillance and Response System (DoD-GEIS) mobile laboratories were set up for the purpose of ‘responding to outbreaks of epidemic, endemic and emergent diseases’, and their location in the DoD, as opposed to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) or Centre for Disease Control (CDC) demonstrates how seriously the United States views the response to infectious disease as a key national security strategy.

So, four observations about the military-medical-security nexus that provide a context for the ‘war on Ebola’.  There are two other issues that should also be on the table before proceeding.


The first involves the imaginative geographies circulating in the global North that (mis)inform public response to the epidemic.  Many of them can be traced back to colonial descriptions of the coast of nineteenth-century West Africa (and Sierra Leone in particular) as ‘the white man’s grave’, a form of what in a different context Dan Clayton calls a ‘militant tropically’.  The contemporary reactivation of these tropes is clearly a serious concern because it corrodes an effective political response.  As geographer Kerrie Thornhill writes,

African and diaspora scholars, already accustomed to the ‘thousand tiny paper cuts’ of casual racism, demonstrate how these (metaphorical) cuts escalate into real fatalities. Writers such as Nanjala Nyabola and Lola Okolosie point out the abundance of racist tropes depicting West African societies as inherently unclean, chaotic, uncooperative, ungrateful, and childlike. This racism reinforces a global culture of disregard for black African lives, and the perception that they are a source of social and biological contamination.

You can find much more on this in Cultural Anthropology‘s brilliant Ebola in Perspective series.

Health care systems in West Africa Economist

The second is the precarious condition of health care systems in West Africa (Ebola in Perspective is good on this too).  Brice de la Vigne, the operations director of MSF, reminds us that ‘both Sierra Leone and Liberia were at war ten years ago and all the infrastructure was destroyed. It’s the worst place on earth to have these epidemics.’  Other critics suggest that these uncivil wars were not the only culprits.  In their view, it was the neoliberal economic model forced on West Africa by the global North that was primarily responsible for gutting public health systems:

While years of war played a role in weakening public systems, it is the “war against people, driven by international financial institutions” that is largely responsible for decimating the public health care system, eroding wages and conditions for health care workers, and fueling the crisis sweeping West Africa today, says [Emira] Woods. “Over the past six months to a year there have been rolling health care worker strikes in country after country—Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia,” said Woods. “Nurses and doctors are risking and losing their lives but don’t have protective gear needed to serve patients and save their own lives. They are on the front lines and have not had their voices heard.”


So – back to the front lines.  Despite the geopolitical-military-security back story, it was Médecins Sans Frontières that made the first public call (on 2 September) for military assistance in combatting Ebola.

‘States with biological-disaster response capacity, including civilian and military medical capability, must immediately dispatch assets and personnel to West Africa… 

‘Many countries possess biological threat response mechanisms. They can deploy trained civilian or military medical teams in a matter of days, in an organised fashion, and with a chain of command to assure high standards of safety and efficiency to support the affected countries…

‘In the immediate term, field hospitals with isolation wards must be scaled up, trained personnel must be dispatched, mobile laboratories must be deployed to improve diagnostics, air bridges must be established to move personnel and material to and within West Africa, and a regional network of field hospitals must be established to treat medical personnel with suspected or actual infections.’

MSF call 2 Sept 2014

Ten days later Peter Piot, the Director of the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and the microbiologist who helped identify the Ebola virus in 1976, also called for a ‘quasi-military intervention’.  Although he spoke about a ‘state of emergency’, he too wanted to reverse the response prefigured by Giorgio Agamben in such situations and contract the spaces of exception that were multiplying across West Africa.  He had in mind ‘beds, ambulances and trucks as well as an army of clinicians, doctors and nurses.’

What materialised was rather different.

Africom_emblemOn 16 September President Obama flew to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to announce Operation United Assistance.  He committed 3-4,000 US troops and $750 million in defence funding to the mission, which is being orchestrated by US Africa Command (AFRICOM) through US Army Africa in concert with USAID.  The focus of the US military-medical mission is Liberia. There are close historical connections between the US and Liberia, which originally offered to host AFRICOM’s headquarters in the capital Monrovia; now a Joint Force Command has been set up there.  You can find the 75-page AFRICOM operational order here, dated 15 October 2014, from which I’ve taken the ‘common operating picture’ below.  The title puzzles me – the only ‘Operation United Shield’ (singular) I’ve been able to find was a multinational operation to evacuate peacekeeping forces from Somalia in 1995.  Appendix B is particularly worth reading, incidentally, because it identifies ‘the enemy’: ‘Ebola Virus Disease is the enemy, aided by poor preventive medicine practices in areas where EVD cases are prevalent and difficulties in identifying and treating EVD patients.’

USAFRICOM-EbolaResponseOPORD (dragged)

The US deployment is complemented by the deployment of UK forces to Sierra Leone (Operation Gritrock)and French forces to Guinea.  In both cases there are also close, colonial connections, and the British-led International Military Advisory Training Team Sierra Leone has been on the ground since 2000 (since last year this has been re-tasked as the International Security Advisory Team Sierra Leone).


(The map above is borrowed from the BBC; in addition, the Guardian has an interactive map tracing the historical geography of Ebola from the first known case in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976 to the present epidemic in West Africa here).

These forces differ in more than geographical deployment; their capabilities differ significantly too.  The UK is sending 750 troops, including contingents from the Royal Army Medical Corps (notably 22 Field Hospital), who will construct treatment centres (the aim is to add 700 beds to triple Sierra Leone’s existing capacity) and treat doctors and other health-care workers who contract the disease; they are supported by the Royal Navy’s ‘Primary Casualty Receiving Ship’ RFA Argus (which will provide a further 100 beds), and by another 780 volunteer health care staff.

AFRICOM update 29

The US has mobilised troops from the 101st Airborne, whose primary mission is to set up 17 Ebola Treatment Units (each with 100 beds); meanwhile the US Air Force’s 633rd Medical Group is establishing a 25-bed Expeditionary Medical Support System field hospital for doctors and other health care workers who contract the disease (below).  The US Army has also fielded three mobile laboratories to test samples for the virus, reducing the time to diagnosis from days to hours. According to Pardis Sabeti, who leads viral-genome research at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, ‘the faster you can get a diagnosis of Ebola, the faster you can stop it.’


‘Our enemy is a disease’, declared Lt Col Brian De Santis, echoing AFRICOM’s operational order – but it was quickly made clear that the vast majority of troops will not come into contact with the enemy or any of its victims at all.  This is just as well; most of the soldiers have minimal medical training – just four hours from the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease – and the Pentagon’s Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby explained that there is ‘no intention right now that [troops] will interact with patients or be in areas where they would necessarily come into contact with patients’:

‘They’re not doctors. They’re not nurses. They’re not trained for that and not equipped for that. That’s not part of the mission. They will be kept in locations where they can do their jobs without coming into contact with patients.’

Andrew Bacevich thinks all this absurd:

‘It’s like the city that spends all its money to raise up a formidable police force only to discover that what it really needs is a bigger sewage treatment plant. Of course, you can always put cops to work burning human excrement but there are better — that is, more effective and cheaper — ways to solve the problem.’

In effect, this is another case of the military preferring remote operations.  Here is a telling passage from Sophie Arie’s interview with MSF’s president Joanne Liu:

‘“Countries are approaching this with the mindset of going to war,” she says. “Zero risk. Zero casualties.” Liu describes the current military efforts as the equivalent, in public health terms, of airstrikes without boots on the ground. Pledges of equipment and logistical support are helpful—“The military are the only body that can be deployed in the numbers needed now and that can organise things fast.” But there is still a massive shortage of qualified and trained medical staff on the ground. “You need to send people not stuff and get hands on, not try to do this remotely,” Liu says…’

The primary areas for military operations in the ‘war on Ebola’  to date are surveillance, logistics and containment.  I’ll consider each in turn.

Last week Public Intelligence released a series of weekly Security Updates and daily Intelligence Summaries produced by AFRICOM to support Operation United Assistance.  These rely largely on WHO reporting to track the spread of the disease.

USAFRICOM Ebola Security Oct 2014

This is to work at a highly aggregate level.  Most public health experts suggest that the key to stopping the spread of the disease is contact tracing – which, in its essentials, is the same methodology used by the military and the intelligence services to track individuals through terrorist and insurgent networks – and has been used successfully in both the United States and in Nigeria (which was declared free of Ebola on 20 October).  Ezra Klein describes it as ‘almost ludicrously simple’ and ‘as low-tech as medicine gets’, and so it is in principle.

But its application in much of West Africa is immensely difficult: the UN estimates that only 16 out of 44 zones have adequate procedures and personnel in place.  And since many local people are understandably fearful of the consequences of their answers, it is unlikely that military involvement would improve the situation.  Here is Elizabeth Cohen and John Bonifield:

‘People are often uncooperative with the tracers, sometimes even throwing stones at health care workers. They fear that they or their loved ones will be put in the hospital; they’ve seen firsthand that people who go there often don’t return.

“The community perceives this as a death sentence,” [Donald Thea, an infectious disease epidemiologist] said. “Relinquishing your loved one is tantamount to death.”

And health care workers have very little to offer people as an incentive to cooperate. “With smallpox, we could offer people a vaccine, a carrot in essence to induce them to be cooperative. With Ebola, we have nothing,” Thea said.’


Logistics is the area where the military comes into its own.  MSF had emphasised that its priorities included ‘the mass expansion of isolation centers, air bridges to move personnel and equipment to and within the most affected countries, mobile laboratories for testing and diagnosis, and building a regional network of field hospitals to treat suspected or infected medical personnel.’ Much of the military effort is currently concentrated in these areas, but the other side to mobilising medical personnel, equipment and testing and treatment facilities is, in effect, immobilising the population.

Containment runs the gamut from quarantine through curfews and lockdowns to border closures.  Most observers believe that border closures would be counter-productive: if you want to know why, see Debora MacKenzie‘s short essay here.  The other, seemingly lesser measures also have their dangers.  In its original call for assistance, MSF insisted that ‘any military assets and personnel deployed to the region should not be used for quarantine, containment, or crowd control measures’, and it emphasised that ‘forced quarantines have only bred fear and unrest, rather than stem the virus.’

But others have other ideas.  Major Matt Cavanaugh, from the US Army War College, has made an unofficial, back-of-the-envelope calculation of what a successful ‘containment strategy’ for Ebola would require.  He is adamant that only ‘boots on the ground’ could do the job, though the nature of that ‘job’ remains elusive in his account.  He talks about military logistics – the ability to ‘fix “the last mile” problem’ – but he also notes the need ‘to fill the basic state functions related to health, security, and public order in order to adequately respond to the threat.’  In case that triptych isn’t clear enough, in his subsequent ‘Ebola Manifesto‘ the major declares that ‘There is exactly one organization designed to rapidly hold and control territory and the people on it: the military.’ The figure he eventually arrives at – somewhere between 36,600 to 73,200 troops – is derived from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and suggests that, for some commentators at least, the Ebola crisis is an opportunity to deepen AFRICOM’s investment in what Jan Bachmann calls ‘policing Africa’ [see his ‘Policing Africa: the US military and visions of crafting “good order”‘, Security Dialogue 45 (2) (2014) 119-36]:

‘The spectrum of [AFRICOM’s] activities can be understood most comprehensively through an analytical perspective of policing, in which the aim of establishing ‘good order’ through an expansive regulatory engagement in issues of welfare is applied to contexts of ‘fragile’ statehood and ‘ungoverned spaces’.’

This is not a uniquely American view.  The Daily Mail (where else?) reports that one of the options being considered by Britain’s Chief of the General Staff is a full-scale military lockdown of Sierra Leone:

‘From a military perspective ebola is like a biological warfare attack and should be countered accordingly. There needs to be a clampdown on human movement inside Sierra Leone and possibly to and from the country between now and late 2015 when it is hoped that an antidote will have been developed.’

ByKlg1IIEAAmBwnIt’s hard to know how much credence this should be given, of course, though the very existence of proposals like these suggests that the ‘soft power’ which Joeva Rock sees in the militarisation of Ebola conceals an iron fist.  And Niles Williamson believes that the military-medical missions are a smokescreen:

‘The main purpose of this military operation is not to halt the spread of Ebola or restore health to those that have been infected. Rather the United States is seeking to exploit the crisis to establish a firm footing on the African continent for AFRICOM.’

That may be one of the objectives, but I think it’s a bridge too far to claim it as the main purpose: as I’ve tried to show, the militarisation and securitisation of Ebola has many other geopolitical and biopolitical dimensions.  And Nick Turse has revealed that AFRICOM, far from having a ‘light footprint’, has already achieved a remarkably rapid tempo of operations across the whole continent.

Still, even in its less extreme versions, the ‘war on Ebola’ clearly raises urgent questions about the militarisation of humanitarian aid, about what Kristin Bergtora Sandvik  calls a ‘crisis of humanitarian governance’, and about the violence that is involved in the production of the humanitarian present.


Predator View

I’m in Zurich – many thanks to Benedikt Korf for the invitation and the wonderful hospitality – for a seminar with Benedikt’s doctoral students on the long form version of ‘The Natures of War’ (they have what I hope is the penultimate draft; I’ll post the final version once I’ve reworked it after the seminar) and then a public lecture: ‘Angry eyes: the militarization of vision and modern war’.

Part of my argument in the lecture is about the narrowness of ‘Predator View’, so let me explain what I mean.  My starting point is the illusion that the use of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of remote platforms like the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper produces a transparent battlespace: in effect, a version of Donna Haraway‘s ‘God-trick’, the ability to see everything from nowhere in particular.  The most succinct version of this is the treatment of laser targeting as ‘the eye of God’:

Eye of God.001

In fact, ‘Predator View’ is remarkably narrow. First, and most directly, a common complaint is that the view provided by its Full Motion Video is literally too narrow – ‘like looking through a soda straw’.  It’s for this reason that pilots and sensor operators also use FalconView, a Windows-based mapping tool that is supposed to provide them with situational awareness.  I’ve taken the image below from a presentation by Lt Col Paul Hastert (USAF) on ‘Spiral development in wartime’ – the screenshot is the FalconView image, the small square the field of view from a Predator – but the most detailed account of FalconView is Jon Lindsay‘s ‘”War upon the map”‘: User innovation in American military software’, Technology and culture 51 (3) (2010) 619-51.


There have been several later releases of FalconView, and a version is now even open source, so it’s probably not surprising that the US military also uses Google Earth.  In fact, in two of the air strikes I consider in detail it was, in part, juggling these different views that contributed to wrong targeting decisions.  (There are projects that provide a wider field of view – the nine-camera suite of Gorgon Stare is in operation and its second increment is already in use in Afghanistan – and others that integrate imagery from multiple sources, like Raytheon’s Zeus, which is intended to supplant FalconView as the ‘primary mission execution tool‘).

But in the air strikes that I consider those involved in these networked operations are also busy communicating via radio and – crucially – via the typed messages displayed in mIRC‘s online chat windows.  The image below is taken from the US military’s multi-service manual on Tactical Chat (see also the discussion at Public Intelligence here).

mIRC 3 chatrooms

In the case of the ‘friendly fire’ incident in the Sangin Valley in 2011, the pilot and sensor operator were unaware of crucial entries made by image analysts in mIRC and of private (or ‘whisper’) chats to the Mission Intelligence Co-ordiator.  That’s not entirely surprising.  Once permission has been given to engage a target, ‘KILL CHAIN” is typed into the room to minimise extraneous chatter that might otherwise visually distract and so ‘degrade’ the strike.  According to the Mission Intelligence Controller for the Sangin incident:

‘When we got a standby for a 9-line [strike briefing] we put [KILLCHAIN] in the mIRC room to shut down chatter so we can be heads down supporting the pilot and the sensor … as they are getting ready for a possible Hellfire shot our whatever action… That’s our job, to be their third set of eyes…’

That third set of eyes is vital, though of little use if its responses are shut down.  In this case the pilot was paying no attention to mIRC because he was fully occupied:

‘I did not see the chat in the main mission room after seeing muzzle flashes. From that point on, my focus was clear concise communications with the [Joint Terminal Attack Controller] and ensuing [Close Air Support] comms, 9 line etc. At this point I was also focused on keeping the aircraft in position to maintain FMV on the individuals. I was also getting the aircraft into the [Weapons Engagement Zone]. Winds were 30 knots out of the west so I had to make sure I kept the aircraft position and direction in cross check.’

All of this suggests that it is unduly narrow to focus the analytical gaze on the Full Motion Video feeds.

But there’s more.  Militarised vision is not limited to Predators and their successors, and it’s important to consider the clarity and resolution of the imagery captured and transmitted from other, conventional aircraft like the AC-130 (first image below), the B-1 bomber, F-15E strike aircraft or attack helicopters (second image below)  – again, this was important in two of the strikes I consider in detail.

AC-10 Uruzgan.001

MMS from attack helicopter - Uruzgan.001

This leads me to two other senses in which the critical emphasis on ‘Predator View’ is too narrow.  It’s a mistake to fasten on one incident – even what has become the iconic ‘signature strike’ coordinated by a Predator on three civilian trucks in Uruzgan – because that misses the continuities, repetitions and transformations in Close Air Support (which is where most of the mistakes are made).

Better, I think, to widen the analytical gaze, which is why I examine the Kunduz air strike on 4 September 2009 (in which no remote platform was involved), the Uruzgan air strike of 21 February 2010 (which was co-ordinated by a Predator but carried out by two attack helicopters), and the Sangin Valley air strike of 6 April 2011 (which was executed by a Predator).  The Granai strike is included because it trigged McChrystal’s Tactical Directive of 6 July 2009 to minimise civilian casualties: ‘‘We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.’  In all three cases I’ve worked through thousands of pages of official investigations – one by the German Bundestag since the ISAF report remains classified (Kunduz), and the others by the US Army and US Air Force (Uruzgan) and the US Marine Corps (Sangin Valley).

4 US air strikes in Afghanistan.001

And finally, it is also necessary to consider the multiple viewing positions involved in networked military violence.  There is a de-centralised, distributed and dispersed geography of militarised vision whose fields of view expand, contract and even close at different locations engaged in the administration of military violence.  And in all three incidents it turns out that vital mistakes in the interpretation of imagery were made at operations centres in theatre on the ground.

This has prompted me to radically revise the argument I originally set out in ‘From a view to a kill’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  There my focus was on the geography shown in the first map below – like every other commentator I’ve read, incidentally – but I’ve now widened the angle to take in the geography shown in the second map and this substantially changes the story.

Dispersed vision Uruzgan (1).001

Dispersed vision Uruzgan (2).001

It was what happened at the operations centres at Special Operations Task Force 12 in Kandahar and Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Bagram that turned out to be every bit as important as the Predator crew’s obvious desire to ‘go kinetic’.

I make similar arguments about Kunduz, where the F-15E pilots were clearly reluctant to strike and the ground commander and JTAC at the Forward Operating Base overrode their objections.

Sangin is even more instructive, because the official investigation of this ‘friendly fire’ incident that resulted in the deaths of two Marines largely exonerated both the Predator crew and the ground commander and JTAC at the operations centre – but a detailed, spirited counter-memorandum from the US Marines commandant refuted the findings line by line, castigated the attempt to pin the blame for what happened on the young, inexperienced lieutenant leading the patrol, and excoriated the ground commander and JTAC back at the patrol base.  More on this soon.

The (long!) essay on these  strikes is the last chapter I need to complete for The everywhere war. There is a strong sense, so I shall argue, in which it was the view ‘on the ground’ that mattered much more than any ‘light of God’ from above.  And as for transparency….

Inhumanitarian mapping

It’s strange how things sometimes come together – or collide and crash.  Two weeks ago I wrote about satellite imagery and ‘remote violence’, and over the summer I discussed several projects that mapped Israel’s military assault on Gaza and its people,  including the Gaza Crisis Atlas produced by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (which makes extensive use of hi-res satellite imagery).

The links between those two posts are obvious enough, but today I have something altogether different in my sights.  ‘Judge Dan’ (Dan Smith), who blogs for Israellycool, has used the Gaza Crisis Atlas to construct a series of maps to geo-wash Israel’s military campaign.

Working from the data in the Atlas, Smith produces four maps to disaggregate the severity of destruction (the four levels, increasing from left to right, are based on OCHA’s own assessment):

DAN SMITH Gaza-Damage-Points-Vertical-All

His conclusions from this exercise are the following:

The attacks are in no way “random” or “indiscriminate”. One can clearly see the spatial distribution of the damage in several aspects. We find 8,952 of the 12,433 total points (72%) are within a 3 KM buffer abutting the border with Israel. The main objective of Operation Protective Edge was to find and destroy dozens of terror tunnels dug from Gaza into Israel.

That the most intensive damage was caused to the area where the tunnels naturally originated is thus perfectly understandable. Furthermore, of the 4,441 destroyed structures, 3,481 of them (78%) are within the 3 KM buffer, as are 2,531 of 3,303 (77%) of the lowest intensity damage (simple craters), which are mostly strikes on rocket launchers and tunnels.

Most of the attacks are grouped around certain neighborhoods or villages, such as Shuja’iyya, Johur ad-Dik, Sureij, and Khuza’a. These were probably the result of the ground operations that took place in dense urban areas also within the 3 KM buffer that housed multiple tunnel entrances and shafts, as well as launch sites for mortars and rockets.

Smith then takes the Israeli military’s map of ‘terrorist infrastructure’ in Shuja’iya and overlays this on what he calls ‘OCHA’s damage points’: ‘the correlation is uncanny.’

Smith’s next manoeuvre is to sweep aside OCHA’s focus ‘on the civilian aspect’ because it ‘misses the big picture’ (really – or perhaps Israelly): ‘the overall intensity of the strikes’.  So he constructs a kernel density map or a ‘damage intensity heat map’:

It now becomes very clear that most of the damage was caused to 5 locations right on the border with Israel. The rest of the Gaza Strip was, for the most part, undamaged. The main population areas of Gaza city, Jabaliya, Khan Yunes, Rafah and Deir el-Balah were disproportionately undamaged (sic).

DAN SMITH Gaza-Damage-Heatmap-Vertical2

He continues:

If we do a rough estimate of the damage area, it is once again clear the vast majority of the Gaza Strip was unscathed. With a fairly generous estimation that a damage point has a 25 meter radius – the footprint of a house, or the blast radius of a bomb – the total damage area of the 12,433 impacts was in the order of 15 KM2. The land area of the Gaza strip is 360 Km2. In other words, less than 5% of the land was affected.

There’s a follow-up post on ‘damage clusters’ here, but in this commentary I’ll focus on Smith’s ‘big picture’.  I take the basic points to be these:

(1)  Smith’s approach makes an appeal to the supposed objectivity and even facticity of the map (and, by extension, the satellite image), but there is a substantial body of scholarship that goes back 25 years and underscores the multiple ways in which mapping is an exercise in the production of power.  For a depressingly relevant example of the ways in which maps can speak power to truth, taken from Israel’s attack on Gaza in November 2012, see my discussion here (scroll down to the maps).

(2)  Appealing to the map and its manipulations as the single source of authority is designed to disavow the testimony of witnesses on the ground: precisely the point sharpened by Andrew Herscher in his timely critique of ‘Surveillant witnessing’ (see my discussion here) and a far cry from the incorporation of photographs in (say) the Gaza War Map.

(3) Smith’s methodology reduces Gaza to an object space of structures and buildings, craters and points; he constructs a kernel density map (more on this in a moment) but provides no population density map that would at least gesture towards the people killed, wounded and traumatised by the Israeli offensive and who are wholly absent from his account.  Here, by contrast, is a map I posted previously showing deaths in Gaza to 6 August:


The Gaza Crisis Atlas focuses on damage to buildings and infrastructure because it is a tool directed explicitly towards reconstruction, so the same criticism doesn’t apply (particularly if you look at OCHA’s work more generally, including the information it provided for the map I’ve just reproduced). But if we are to limit ourselves to gazing on structures from space, UNOSAT’s analysis of satellite imagery provides a sharp reminder that these buildings included schools and hospitals (see also here and here); the report also provides a telling comparison between the intensity of destruction in 2009 and 2014:


(4) Smith prefers to construct his own generalised map of damage density using kernel density estimation, a smoothing algorithm that converts point data into a continuous surface.  I discussed the way in which the US military uses this technique in ‘Seeing Red’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and what I said there bears repeating:

The maps are known for their dramatic visual impact, and the desired message can be engineered into the production process. One of the most influential handbooks on KDE is published by the US National Institute of Justice and describes how to map crime ‘hot spots’…  The authors of the NIJ handbook acknowledge that ‘map production is an iterative process’ and that ‘the first map produced is very rarely the one presented to the target audience.’ They continue: ‘The intended message should also be seen as the driving force behind what the map should look like’ (US National Institute of Justice, 2005: 26, 33).

So let’s turn to the rest of Smith’s message.

(4) Smith justifies the pattern of destruction shown on his maps by claiming that ‘the main objective of Operation Protective Edge was to find and destroy dozens of terror tunnels dug from Gaza into Israel.’  In fact, the stated objectives of the Israeli assault changed throughout the campaign.  The attacks were supposedly sparked by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers – in the West Bank not Gaza – and as the mission was ratcheted up so their central objective changed: according to the IDF the aim was to put an end to Hamas rockets being fired into Israel (for a radically different view, see Graham Liddell‘s more general discussion at Mondoweiss here).  The rhetoric of ‘terror tunnels’ came later.  And while Smith is right to draw attention to the swathes of destruction to the east of Gaza’s central spine, he never addresses the human consequences of successive Israeli expansions of this so-called ‘buffer zone’ until it covered more than 40 per cent of Gaza: see my post here for more details.

(5) Towards the end of his analysis, Smith concedes that destruction is not punctiform.  Bombs are not ‘pinpoints’ (cf. Nathan Guttman‘s report on Smith’s work and ‘the pinpoint accuracy of Israel’s strikes’), not only because they rarely land exactly on target but also because their blast radiates outwards from the point of impact.  But Smith’s ‘fairly generous estimate that a damage point has a 25 meter [82 feet] radius‘ – is in fact a serious underestimate that at the very least halves the blast radius of a 155 mm shell.  Here is Mark Perry‘s report that I cited previously, which includes testimony from senior US military officers about the shelling of Shuj’aiyya:

Artillery pieces used during the operation included a mix of Soltam M71 guns and U.S.-manufactured Paladin M109s (a 155-mm howitzer), each of which can fire three shells per minute. “The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible,” said the senior U.S. military officer. “It’s not mowing the lawn,” he added, referring to a popular IDF term for periodic military operations against Hamas in Gaza. “It’s removing the topsoil.”

“Holy bejeezus,” exclaimed retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard when told the numbers of artillery pieces and rounds fired during the July 21 action. “That rate of fire over that period of time is astonishing. If the figures are even half right, Israel’s response was absolutely disproportionate.” A West Point graduate who is a veteran of two wars and is the chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C., he added that even if Israeli artillery units fired guided munitions, it would have made little difference.

Even the most sophisticated munitions have a circular area of probability, Gard explained, with a certain percentage of shells landing dozens or even hundreds of feet from intended targets. Highly trained artillery commanders know this and compensate for their misses by firing more shells. So if even 10 percent of the shells fired at combatants in Shujaiya landed close to but did not hit their targets — a higher than average rate of accuracy — that would have meant at least 700 lethal shells landing among the civilian population of Shujaiya during the night of July 20 into June 21. And the kill radius of even the most precisely targeted 155-mm shell is 164 feet. Put another way, as Gard said, “precision weapons aren’t all that precise.”

(6) Finally, let’s take Smith’s central claim that ‘less than 5% of the land [of Gaza] was affected’ – and reverse it.  If Hamas were to say that less than 0.00005% of Israel had been hit by its rockets – to be fair, it’s a difficult calculation to make because Israel has never fixed its borders and so it’s not possible to determine its area – and that the rest of Israel was ‘disproportionately undamaged’, would Israelis have simply shrugged them off?


Conflicts without borders

In Finland last month I gave a presentation on Law, violence and b/ordering, in which I began by making two preliminary points about border crossings and (para)military violence: trans-border incursions and transgressions have been facilitated by (i) new stealth technologies deployed by state actors and (ii)  the rise of new non-state and para-state actors.  Here are the relevant slides:

GREGORY 2 Law, violence and b:ordering.001

GREGORY 2 Law, violence and b:ordering.002

GREGORY 2 Law, violence and b:ordering.003

GREGORY Law, violence and b:ordering.003

I derived the map showing the advance of IS(IS)/ISIL from the Institute for the Study of War; say what you like about their politics (this is the Kagans we are talking about), their maps and summaries are extremely helpful.

Now Public Intelligence has just published a series of (unclassified) maps of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan produced by the Humanitarian Information Unit of the US State Department called Conflicts Without Borders:

‘Conflicts Without Borders refers to a conflict in one country that draws in other governments and non-state actors, exacerbates stresses and conflicts in the neighbouring countries, and generates displacement across borders.’

That’s a definition to think about; there are obvious ironies in the US offering a definition that I suspect is intended to exclude its own part in initiating conflicts (if so, it doesn’t work), and there is the interesting attribution of causal powers to conflicts (which ‘draw in’ other actors like so many black holes).

This map series is dated 9 October 2014; the maps provide a Regional Overview (the first map below) and then show Northern Syria and Turkey, Western Syria and Lebanon, Southern Syria and Jordan and Eastern Syria and Iraq (the second map below).


DoS-Iraq and Syria-ISIL

You can access a single summary map for late June here (shown below):

DoS Iraq Syria Conflict June 2014

Alternate spaces of war 1914-2014

German 'sound radar' 1917

Via the War & Media Network, news of an international, interdisciplinary conference on ‘Alternate spaces of war, 1914 to the present’, to be held at Plymouth University (I think) in the UK, 6-7 July 2015.

The aim is ‘to investigate alternate spaces of war and identify new ways of understanding the experience of conflict in the modern world’:

‘This event will be organised as a part of the AHRC funded ‘Alternate Spaces’ Network set up in 2014. By expanding the timescale of the project to include the last century we are seeking to develop the ideas and outcomes of the initial network project to further investigate the legacy of the First World War in contemporary society.’

Keynote speakers:  Stephen Badsey (University of Wolverhampton); Krista Cowman (University of Lincoln); Martin Hurcombe (University of Bristol); and Mary Brewer (University of Loughborough)

Possible topics include:

Alternate viewings of the Western Front

Alternate Theatres of World War

Global implications of local conflicts since 1914

Civilians’ experience of war


Domestic Spaces in Wartime

Colonial spaces

Children’s experience of war

War in 21st Century

Literary representations of war

War and life writings

Visual cultures of war

Abstracts (2-300 words) plus a short bio (100 words) should be sent by 5 January 2015 to Angela K. Smith (aksmith@plymouth.ac.uk), Sandra Barkhof (Sandra.barkhof@plymouth.ac.uk) and Cherry Walsh (cherry.walsh@plymouth.ac.uk)

Missing maps

Missing Maps ProjectA postscript (of sorts: a postpost?) to my previous discussion of the use of satellite imagery by humanitarian organisations.

Today’s Guardian includes a notice by Chris Michael of the Missing Maps project, an open, collaborative venture between Médecins sans Frontières, the American Red Cross, the British Red Cross and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to map what MSF calls ‘the most crisis-prone parts of the developing world.’

It is, says Michael, ‘nothing less than a human genome project for the world’s cities.’  Less hyperbolically, mapping is of vital importance in any emergency, and MSF’s experience in providing medical aid after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 alerted the organisation to the importance of accurate and reliable geo-locational data.

HOT Ebola

The base will be satellite imagery but, unlike HOT’s existing disaster response mapping [see its response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa (above) here and here], the new project is intended to be pre-emptive.  And in case you are wondering what’s wrong with Google Maps, the answer is: a lot.  Michael again:

Crowdsourcing … gives the open-source project an advantage over Google Maps, which is engaged in its own effort to build proprietary maps for cities in Africa and the developing world. By harnessing the aggregated individual acts volunteered by everyday people, Missing Maps can make its scope truly planetary. Google has similarly been asking people to voluntarily flesh out Google Maps, following criticism that the company was ignoring places where there was no advertising money to be made. After all, there’s no Starbucks in a slum. And Google Maps is, like the rest of Google’s projects (whatever their current openness and freedom of use), privately owned and subject to fees at any time they might choose to start charging.

“The point of the project is that the maps will all be open source,” says Missing Maps coordinator Pete Masters. “It will be illegal for anyone to charge anyone to [have access to OpenStreetMap.org] – meaning local people will have total access to them, not just to look at, but to edit and develop.”

That idea more than any other has fired the imaginations of the people in unmapped places, says Gayton. “It’s legally impossible for someone to steal it, to close off and own the data. It’s created by genuine volunteer labour, and belongs to everyone. And the question everyone asks me is: ‘Why?’ They couldn’t believe it.”


To give you an idea of what is envisaged, the image above juxtaposes a hand-drawn MSF map in Katanga (DRC) with a map of Lubumbashi (DRC) made by local university students and others (see below) supported by the Humanitarian Open Street Map team.


I’ve borrowed both images from MSF, and you can find more information about the project and how to get involved from MSF here, via the project’s wiki here, and on Facebook here.

I realise that there’s nothing new about participatory mapping: have a look at Map Kibera, which has successfully put a marginalised zone of Nairobi on the map and morphed into an interactive community information project.

Map Kibera

And there are risks and dangers in being ‘put on the map’ too.  The OpenStreetMaps community has produced constantly evolving maps of Syria, for example [follow the link for some animations], and while I don’t dispute Eric Fischer‘s claim at Mapbox that ‘this data is of vital importance to humanitarian workers on the ground’, I suspect it’s also valuable to others on the ground – and, for all I know, in the air too.

But even if you don’t want to or can’t get involved in Missing Maps, reading this project alongside parallel ventures by MapAction (which this year alone has had field teams in Iraq, Liberia, Paraguay, Serbia and south Sudan), together with other established work in participatory mapping and GIS (like the Rainforest Foundation‘s Mapping for Rights project) and counter-mapping and counter-cartography is highly instructive.