Emergency Response

I’ve been catching up on a stream of publications by Pete Adey and Ben Anderson on emergencies, including ‘Affect and security: exercising emergency in UK “civil contingencies”‘, Society & Space 29(6) (2011) 1092-1109; ‘Anticipating emergencies: Technologies of preparedness and the matter of security’, Security dialogue 43 (2) (2012) 99-117; and ‘Governing events and life: “Emergency” in UK Civil Contingencies’, Political Geography 31 (1) (2012) 24-33.

This has been prompted by a continuing conversation with Theo Price about a series of political/artistic interventions under the rubric of COBRA RES, in which he’s invited me to take part. COBRA, as many readers will know, is

the British Government’s emergency response committee set up to respond to a national or regional crisis. Standing for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A [below], the COBRA Committee comes together in moments of perceived crisis under the chairmanship of either the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary. At COBRA meetings, decisions and a possible response, sometimes simply a press conference, are made under real or imagined conditions of emergency and/or crisis. 

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The committee can evoke emergency powers such as suspending Parliament or restricting movement. Such emergency-based responses have ranged from tackling Ash Dieback disease to the deployment of military hardware on civilian rooftops during the London Olympics.  Emergency and crisis-based politics are becoming increasingly common as modes of contemporary governance in an age of hyped terrorism and economic and environmental crises.

COBRA RES is a critical response, holding up a mirror to COBRA ‘as a way of producing different information, new perspectives and alternative narratives, while existing in a mimetic relationship to the emergency Committee itself and the situation it is responding to.’

COBRA RES aims to re-frame the response from an aesthetic perspective, while operating as an active-archive that follows, traces and maps the constantly changing tide of emergency politics. COBRA RES is a collective of artists and writers who aim to ask critical questions of COBRA through a series of creative responses. Reflecting and mimicking the structure of the COBRA Committee, the artists, writers and filmmakers are chosen for their relevance to the given context of the COBRA meeting.

The artists and writers are given nine days from the initial COBRA meeting in which to respond to either COBRA or the context it is meeting under. For the process to work, it is important that pressure is applied to the artists and writers so as prevent too much consideration, with limited facts available, in an attempt to re-create a parallel action of response. 

Steve Bell's If …

You can read more from Theo about the project in ‘Art in an Emergency’ here:

Art allows a certain freedom to explore and reimagine politics, offering a reflective surface on which to review the distorted image projected by the state in moments of crisis. But in recent years, it is politics that has increased its use of aesthetics to help manipulate and develop – often in a favourable light – its own agenda.

This image-based politics is a politics of presentation, of appearance and constructed images that tell a certain story, often a moral story of good v evil, of citizen v terrorist. Such morals are created through aesthetic and performative means to convince the general public that not only is the government protecting them, but that new terror legislation is necessary and justified. This approach is not new, but when political spin is used in ’emergency’ events, from which new terror legislation may then emerge, surely it is better to deal in fact than gesture.

Not all political situations invite an artistic response, but the government’s Cobra committee, and the ’emergencies’ prompting its meetings, offer a wide array of unknown variables that leave an open space for interpretation and imagination. Often Cobra closes this gap with its publicly announced meeting – we aim to re-open it.

As politics and society become increasingly brand-aware, with digital images and presentation the preferred power-tools to promote a political position, art becomes the obvious medium through which to ask questions. Art can only respond to the world around it and if politics and politicians increasingly attempt to define, promote and manipulate their position by aesthetic and performative means, art must reflect, mimic and respond in kind.

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COBRA and thus COBRA RES have met five times since January 2013:

COBRA 1.0 Our first response was an exhibition after COBRA had met when hostages had been held in the Tiguentourine gas plant in Algeria.

COBRA 1.1 The second response was a book of artistic and written responses to the COBRA meeting following the killing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London.

Artists: Steve Bell, Hugh Jordan, Kennardphillipps, Nima Esmailpour, Nicolas Hausdorf, & Alex Goller ( H+Corp), Frida Go, Chie Konishi, Samuel Stevens, Theodore Price, Adam Ferguson, Jenny Richards, Richard Wilson, Robert Malt  Writers: Iain Boal (foreword), Nicolas Hausdorf, Theodore Price, Philip Howe, Samuel Stevens

COBRA 1.2 Responding to the situation in Nairobi shopping centre, secret postal responses were submitted to COBRA RES by a selection of artists. This work will not be viewed or opened until the final COBRA RES exhibition in 2018.

COBRA 1.3 DVD of artist films with accompanying book of texts, which responded to the extensive flooding to hit large parts of the United Kingdom.

Artists: Adam Chodzko, Stephen Connolly, Alison Ballard, Margaret Dickinson, John Jordan, Theodore Price, Stina Wirfelt, Samuel Stevens, Rose Butler, Nabli Ahmed, Daniel Shanken, Oliver Bancroft, James Connelly, Stevie Deas, Wonderland Collective  Writers: Nina Power ( Lead Essay) Christopher Collier, Jenny Richards, Nicolas Hausdorf, John Jordan, Isabelle Fremeaux, Theodore Price, Samuel Stevens, Stephen Connolly.

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The most recent (fifth) COBRA RES production (see above) is in response to three COBRA meetings in July and August 2014:

18th July 2014 in response to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine (Chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron)

30th July 2014 in response to the continued outbreak of Ebola in West Africa (Chaired by newly appointed Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond)

8th August 2014 in response to Islamic State forcing thousands to flee their homes and take refuge on Mount Sinjar, Iraq (Chaired by newly appointed Defence Secretary Michel Fallon)

Examining the inter-play of emergency politics, COBRA RES has issued a set of emergency card games and an accompanying book of theoretical texts. The games invite the reader to become player by moving towards an active ‘participation’ within the grand narrative of each separate emergency episode.

Cards by: COBRA RES and H+Corp  Texts by: Richard Barbrook, Roland Bleiker, David Campbell, Derek Gregory, Nicolas Hausdorf, Emma Hutchinson, Theodore Price and Strategic Optimism Football Club.

The book accompanying the latest COBRA RES includes my ‘Drone geographies’ (see DOWNLOADS tab) and my post on ‘The war on Ebola‘ (artfully and graciously re-crafted by Theo),

Laboratories and assemblages

I’m on my way home from Bergen, where I was taking part in the Norsk Sakprosafestival (loosely, ‘Non-Fiction Festival’).  I gave a sawn-off version of ‘Angry eyes’, followed by a conversation with the ever-interesting Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, and took part in a panel discussion on ‘Freedom’ with Astri Suhrke, Kareem Amer, Jonny Steinberg, Ilan Pappe and Hilde Sandvik.  I had a marvellous time, and I’m deeply grateful to my hosts and especially Oyvind Vagnes for their warm welcome and generous hospitality.  This was the first time the festival has been held outside Oslo, and I hope it continues for many years to come.  It certainly deserves to do so.

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Over dinner, Ilan (whose new book is on ‘the largest prisons in the world’, Gaza and the West Bank) reminded me of an excellent film that I’d neglected to write about when it first came out – and given my previous post, and the horror of Gaza over the summer, it’s not too late to do so.

The film is Yotam Feldman‘s The Lab, which was released in North America in August.  Feldman writes:

The Lab is a cinematic investigation into the lure of Israeli weapons in the international arms trade. Why are countries all over the world lining up to buy Israeli arms? And how did such a small country become one of the biggest military exporters in the world? Israeli salesmen and executives in huge arms corporations seem eager to promote their products and pride themselves on their booming business. Profits have never been better — sales are doubling every year, and the potential seems unlimited.

But the product they are selling is unique. Rather than rifles, rockets or bombs, the Israeli companies sell their experience. The long-running conflict with the Palestinians has created a unique and unrivalled laboratory for testing technologies and ideas relating to “asymmetric warfare” — a conflict between a state and civil or irregular resistance. In this manner the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians may be seen as a national asset — rather than a burden…

While making the film, I witnessed the relationship between a network of military generals, politicians and private business; the use of current military operations as a promotional device for private business; the brutal employment of the Israeli experience, and the blurred lines between what is legitimate and forbidden in this line of business.

You can read Jonathan Cook’s characteristically perceptive take on the film’s central argument here, from which I’ve taken the following extract:

The title relates to the film’s central argument: that Israel has rapidly come to rely on the continuing captivity of Palestinians in what are effectively the world’s largest open-air prisons.

The reason is that there are massive profits to be made from testing Israeli military innovations on the more than four million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

According to Feldman, that trend began with Operation Defensive Shield, Israel’s re-invasion of the West Bank and Gaza in 2002, which formally reversed the process of Israeli territorial withdrawals initiated by the Oslo accords.

Following that operation, many army officers went into private business, and starting in 2005 Israel’s arms industry started to break new records, at $2 billion a year.

But the biggest surge in sales followed Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s month-long assault on Gaza in winter 2008-09, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Record sales in the wake of that attack reached $6 billion.

These military operations, including the most recent against Gaza, last year’s Pillar of Cloud, the film argues, serve as little more than laboratory-style experiments to evaluate and refine the effectiveness of new military approaches, both strategies and weaponry.

Gaza, in particular, has become the shop window for Israel’s military industries, allowing them to develop and market systems for long-term surveillance, control and subjugation of an “enemy” population.

But Feldman’s still sharper point is that this means that the claim ‘we are all Palestinians’ has a greater purchase than most of us realise:

The effects of Israeli theory and technology on other countries can hardly be overestimated. Forces choosing to employ Israeli-cultivated military techniques ultimately begin to alter their political and social circumstances. Therefore, countries all over the world are increasingly “Palestinizing” (or “Israelizing”) their conditions. Both sides — seller and buyer — become partners in the development of a form of future war between the state and civil resistance groups.

War, police and assemblages of intervention

This needs to be added to the mix when we (re)think about contemporary war/police assemblages – which is an appropriate note for me to cheer the publication today of War, police and assemblages of intervention, edited by Jan BachmannColleen Bell and Caroline Holmqvist.

This book reflects on the way in which war and police/policing intersect in contemporary Western-led interventions in the global South. The volume combines empirically oriented work with ground-breaking theoretical insights and aims to collect, for the first time, thoughts on how war and policing converge, amalgamate, diffuse and dissolve in the context both of actual international intervention and in understandings thereof.

The book uses the caption WAR:POLICE to highlight the distinctiveness of this volume in presenting a variety of approaches that share a concern for the assemblage of war-police as a whole. The volume thus serves to bring together critical perspectives on liberal interventionism where the logics of war and police/policing blur and bleed into a complex assemblage of WAR:POLICE. Contributions to this volume offer an understanding of police as a technique of ordering and collectively take issue with accounts of the character of contemporary war that argue that war is simply reduced to policing. In contrast, the contributions show how – both historically and conceptually – the two are ‘always already’ connected. Contributions to this volume come from a variety of disciplines including international relations, war studies, geography, anthropology, and law but share a critical/poststructuralist approach to the study of international intervention, war and policing.

Here’s what it contains (and you can see that The Lab adds a really important dimension to the discussion):

Assemblages of War:Police – An Introduction, Jan Bachmann, University of Gothenburg, Colleen Bell, University of Saskatchewan, Caroline Holmqvist, Swedish National Defence College

Part I: Ordering
1.The Police Power in Counterinsurgencies: Discretion, Patrolling, and Evidence, Colleen Bell, University of Saskatchewan

2. Policing Africa – The US Military and Visions of Crafting ‘Good Order’, Jan Bachmann, University of Gothenburg

3. Security Sector Reform (SSR) and the War:Police Assemblages of International Interventions, Marc Doucet, St. Mary’s University and Miguel de Larrinaga, University of Ottawa

Part II: Othering

4. The Enemy Live: A Genealogy, Laurence McFalls, University of Montreal and Mariella Pandolfi, University of Montreal

5. The Utility of Proxy Detentions in Counterinsurgencies, Laleh Khalili, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

6. Tribal Militias, Neo-Orientalism and the US Military’s Art of Coercion, Oliver Belcher, University of Oulu, Finland

7. Checkpoints and the Gendered Policing of ‘Civilized’ Nation-State Boundaries in Southern Thailand, Ruth Streicher, Free University of Berlin

Part III: Spatializing

8. A Mediterranean Police Assemblage, Barry J Ryan, Keele University

9. Air Power as Police Power, Mark Neocleous, Brunel University

10. Intervention and Ontological Politics: Security, Pathologization, and the Failed State Effect in Goma, Peer Schouten, University of Gothenburg and Kai Koddenbrock, University of Duisburg-Essen

Afterword: War and Crime, Military and Police: The Assemblage of Violence by Security? Didier Bigo, King’s College, University of London and Sciences Po

Wounding the world

BOURKE Wounding the world

Joanna Bourke‘s new book, Wounding the world, has just been published in the UK by Virago (the North American edition, re-titled Deep Violence: Military Violence, War Play, and the Social Life of Weapons, is due from Counterpoint early next year).

Wars are frequently justified ‘in our name’. Militarist values and practices co-opt us, permeating our language, invading our dream space, entertaining us at the movies or in front of game consoles. Our taxes pay for those war machines. Our loved ones are killed and maimed.

With killing now an integral part of the entertainment industry in video games and Hollywood films, war has become mainstream.

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the First World War, and with it comes a deluge of books, documentaries, feature films and radio programmes. We will hear a great deal about the horror of the battlefield. Bourke acknowledges wider truths: war is unending and violence is deeply entrenched in our society. But it doesn’t have to be this way. This book equips readers with an understanding of the history, culture and politics of warfare in order to interrogate and resist an increasingly violent world.

Here is the list of chapters:

PART ONE: WAR WITHOUT END

Introduction

PART TWO: THE SOCIAL LIFE OF WEAPONS

It’s only words

The circulation of violence

PART THREE: INCITEMENT TO MURDER

Kind-hearted Gunmen

Wounding the Innocent

The Dark Art of Ballistics

PART FOUR: MILITAINMENT

Playing War

Violent Gaming

PART FIVE: THE END OF WAR

Protest

You can read the introduction here, from which I’ve snipped this extract:

Our garrisons are maintained throughout the world and yet the military campaigns we wage abroad seem as real to most of us as the metaphorical wars on drugs or obesity. It is not uncommon to hear people waxing lyrical about the sanctity of life – including that of the two-cell embryo – while revering the troops on Remembrance Day. Militarist incursions into our ways of thinking, talking and enjoying ourselves are barely acknowledged. The blurring of entertainment and war, the infiltration of ‘violence-as-fun’ into the popular imagination (‘militainment’) and the advent of warbots – a generic term for drones, robotic weapons, unmanned vehicles, and suchlike – have led many of us to take for granted that war is without end and without borders. Unwittingly, we have effectively been turned into citizen-soldiers.

We have inherited a toxic genealogy. Its names are legion but its purpose is singular: violence. It is precisely its everyday nature – the way it creeps up on us by stealth – that makes it so powerful. But we are not merely passive observers, in thrall to a set of amorphous, militaristic ideologies or corrupting institutions. We are involved in the production of violence: it constitutes who we are and might be and, as such, can be resisted.

There is an early review by Yvonne Roberts in today’s Guardian here.

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It’s a timely book in all sorts of ways, but I’m particularly pleased it’s available now because next month I’ll be in Berlin as part of Hebbel am Ufer’s Waffenlounge (Weapons Lounge):

After the USA and Russia, Germany is the third largest arms exporter in the world. The global market constantly demands better, more effective and ‘cleaner’ weapons. This month HAU Hebbel am Ufer is presenting a new production by Hans-Werner Kroesinger, “Exporting War,” as well as the Berlin premiere of “Situation Rooms,” a groundbreaking installation by Rimini Protokoll, created in co-production with HAU. Both works take up the paradoxical relationships that societies maintain to weapons, and both make use of personal biographies, current military conflicts as well as historical and political contexts. Under the motto “Weapons Lounge” HAU will also be presenting performances, installations, expert talks, and a project by the Houseclub with Kreuzberg pupils.

I’ll be talking about drones, but I’ve been thinking about what Joanna calls ‘the social life of weapons’ and also about the global arms trade (see my early post on ‘The death merchants’ here), so I’m looking forward to reading what she has to say.

Keeping up with the Drones

Patrick Svensson:Unblinking stare

Several recent contributions on military drones – what Forensic Architecture calls Unmanned Aerial Violence – you might be interested in.

First, Steve Coll has a long essay in the latest New Yorker on ‘The Unblinking Stare‘ (and, yes, I do know that those watching the screens blink.  Duh) about the drone war in Pakistan.  Many readers will remember that it was the New Yorker that published Jane Mayer‘s classic essay on ‘The Predator War‘ (26 October 2009), so it’s high time for an up-date since so much has happened since then.  It’s a very helpful survey.  Much of it will not be news, but Steve does provide some interesting background to the deadly gavotte between the US and Pakistan (what I’ve called ‘dirty dancing‘; see also here):

Pakistan’s generals and politicians, who come mainly from the country’s dominant, more developed province of Punjab, treated Waziristan’s residents “as if they were tribes that were living in the Amazon,” the journalist Abubakar Siddique, who grew up in the region and is the author of “The Pashtun Question,” told me.

In 2002, Musharraf sent Pakistan’s Army into South Waziristan to quell Al Qaeda and local sympathizers. In 2004, the Army intensified its operations, and, as violence spread, Musharraf allowed the C.I.A. to fly drones to support Pakistani military action. In exchange, Musharraf told me, the Bush Administration “supplied us helicopters with precision weapons and night-operating capability.” He added, “The problem was intelligence collection and targeting. . . . The Americans brought the drones to bear.”

Musharraf allowed the C.I.A. to operate drones out of a Pakistani base in Baluchistan. He told me that he often urged Bush Administration officials, “Give the drones to Pakistan.” That was not possible, he was told, “because of high-technology transfer restrictions.”

We know that close co-operation and even co-ordination between Washington and Islamabad was still the order of the day until at least 2011.  We know, too, that local people live under a double threat, and the essay reports on a group interview in Islamabad with half a dozen young men, mainly university students, from Waziristan.  On one side, recalling the Stanford/NYU ‘Living under dronesreport:

Being attacked by a drone is not the same as being bombed by a jet. With drones, there is typically a much longer prelude to violence. Above North Waziristan, drones circled for hours, or even days, before striking. People below looked up to watch the machines, hovering at about twenty thousand feet, capable of unleashing fire at any moment, like dragon’s breath. “Drones may kill relatively few, but they terrify many more,” Malik Jalal, a tribal leader in North Waziristan, told me. “They turned the people into psychiatric patients. The F-16s [of the Pakistan Air Force] might be less accurate, but they come and go.”

On the other side:

Families in North Waziristan typically live within large walled compounds. Several brothers, their parents, and their extended families might share a single complex. Each compound may contain a hujra, or guesthouse, which usually stands just outside the main wall. In the evening, men gather there to eat dinner and talk war and politics. A rich man signals his status by building a large hujra with comfortable guest rooms for overnight visitors. The less well-heeled might have a hujra with just two rooms, carpets, rope cots, and cushions.

Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders moved from hujra to hujra to avoid detection. The available records of drone strikes make clear that the operators would regularly pick up commanders’ movements, follow them to a hujra attached to a private home, watch for hours—or days—and then fire. Many documented strikes took place after midnight, when the target was presumably not moving, children were asleep, and visitors would have returned home.

North Waziristan residents and other Pakistanis I spoke with emphasized how difficult it would be for a drone operator to distinguish between circumstances where a Taliban or Al Qaeda commander had been welcomed into a hujra and where the commander had bullied or forced his way in. If the Taliban “comes to my hujra and asks for shelter, you have no choice,” Saleem Safi, a journalist who has travelled extensively in Waziristan, told me. “Now a potential drone target is living in a guest room or a guesthouse on your compound, one wall away from your own house and family.”

“You can’t protect your family from a strike on a hujra,” another resident of North Waziristan said. “Your children will play nearby. They will even go inside to play.” The researcher in Islamabad said, “There is always peer pressure, tribal pressure, to be hospitable.” He went on, “If you say no, you look like a coward and you lose face. Anyway, you can’t say no to them. If a drone strike does take place, you are a criminal in the courts of the Taliban,” because you are suspected of espionage and betrayal. “You are also a criminal to the government, because you let the commander sleep in your hujra.” In such a landscape, the binary categories recognized by international law—combatant or noncombatant—can seem inadequate to describe the culpability of those who died. Women, children, and the elderly feel pressure from all sides. A young man of military age holding a gun outside a hujra might be a motivated Taliban volunteer, a reluctant conscript, or a victim of violent coercion.

This speaks directly to a general point made by Christiane Wilke: in today’s wars the requirement that combatants identify themselves as combatants (a standard obligation of international humanitarian law) has effectively been transferred to civilians, so that it becomes their responsibility to make themselves known as non-combatants.  Even to an unblinking eye at 20,000 feet.

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Second, this week the Telegraph carried a video and an interview with ‘Major Yair’, the pseudonym for the pilot of a Israeli Heron TP drone based near Tel Aviv.  He reports that roughly 65 per cent of Israeli air operations are conducted by drones.  ‘Yair’ served in all three Israeli assaults on Gaza and he says nothing about Israel’s targeted killing – the focus is on the provision of Close Air Support.  But the claims he makes will be all too familiar to those familiar with USAF air strikes in Afghanistan:

As Israeli ground units pressed into Gaza, they would call Major Yair for close air support. “They’d be saying ‘we keep getting fire from within those buildings’ and I’m sitting at a distance – on a neat floorspace with screens and air conditioning systems – but you’re sweating and it’s ‘what do I do, what do I do’? How do I not cause more damage than help?”

I’ve repeatedly noted the affinity – even proximity – USAF crews working out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada feel with troops on the ground in Afghanistan.  But ‘Yair’ doesn’t elaborate on the Israeli ground assault.  Instead, remarkably, persistently – unblinkingly, you might say – he circles around his own last sentence:

Major Yair stressed how he was constrained by rules of engagement designed to avoid innocent deaths. Hamas operatives, he added, routinely exploited this restraint by hiding behind civilians. One sequence shot by a Heron showed four men preparing to launch a salvo of rockets under a screen of trees. Seconds later, the men were shown running to a nearby street filled with children.

“They’re untouchable now,” said Major Yair, pointing at the screen. “I know that no mission commander, under current directions given by the chief of staff, will engage in this situation. No way.”

He added: “It is sometimes frustrating because you feel that you’re fighting with your hands tied. There are a lot of situations where you see your targets, but you will not engage because they’re next to kindergartens, because they’re driving with their wives and their kids.”

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David Blair presses him on the large number of Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza, including children, only to be told:

“We do make mistakes… but it’s nature. People make mistakes. We learn from those mistakes. You’ll see no smiling face after an incident where kids were killed. None of us wants to be in a position where he does these mistakes. We learn and try to avoid this as much as we can.”…

“You learn to live with it,” he said. “It’s not easy. I’ve made mistakes that, for many years, will come back at me. But it’s something that people have to do. It’s not easy. We do not shove it back somewhere in our minds and try to avoid talking about it. We talk about it, we support each other.”

And so, as so often happens in the United States (and elsewhere) too, our gaze is directed away from the victims and towards the torment suffered by those who inflict military violence from the air.

But, third, Corporate Watch has just published the fifth in its series of reports on living under drones in Gaza.  These eyewitness reports are indispensable because there are serious problems in using satellite imagery to reconstruct drone strikes.  Nobody is better at doing so than Forensic Architecture, but as they note, there is a threshold of detectability:

IMG_0076rsSome drone-fired missiles can drill a hole through the roof before burrowing their way deep into buildings, where their warheads explode. The size of the hole the missile leaves is smaller than the size of a single pixel in the highest resolution to which publicly-available satellite images are degraded [a square that translate sin to 50 cm by 50 cm of terrain].  The hole is thus at the “threshold of visibility” and might appear as nothing more than a slight color variation, a single darker pixel perhaps. This has direct implications for the documentation of drone strikes in satellite imagery, which is often as close to the scene as most investigators can get. When the figure dissolves into the ground of the image, it is the conditions—legal, political, technical—that degrade the image, or that keep it at a lower resolution that become the relevant material for forensic investigations.

The Corporate Watch report also includes a remarkable tabulation from the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, showing the numbers of people killed by the Israeli military in Gaza (col. 2) and the proportion killed by drone strikes (col. 3):

Israeli drone strikes in Gaza

I’m not sure what the sources for these tabulations might be: as Craig Jones has emphasised in a vitally important post, it’s exceptionally difficult to parse Israel’s targeted killings in occupied Palestine, and while these tabulations clearly include many other situations I have no idea how you begin to separate different killing machines in what is, after all, a networked mode of military violence in which drones are likely to perform vital surveillance operations for strikes carried out from other platforms. But the increased reliance on drones chimes with the report from David Blair.

Fighting Ebola

Following up my post on The war on EbolaAlex de Waal has a characteristically thoughtful essay over at the Boston Review on Militarizing global health:

This is worryingly authoritarian, bad for public health, and strategically counterproductive. Despite its impressive logistics, the army makes only a marginal contribution to international disaster relief — and often makes things worse. Nor do soldiers “fight” pathogens — and the language of warfare risks turning infected people and their caretakers into objects of fear and stigma.

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Even brave and compassionate civilian fieldworkers are not immune from the military metaphors. Here, for example, is Sarah Crowe of UNICEF describing her work on the ‘frontline’ in Liberia’s ‘biological war’:

‘Ebola has turned survivors into human booby traps, unexploded ordnance – touch and you die. Ebola psychosis is paralysing…

‘In the car with colleagues, they talk almost nostalgically about the long civil war here – a time when the enemy was seen, the rockets were heard, the bullets could be dodged.’

If you want refuge from the paranoid hallucinations about the non-metaphorical weaponisation of Ebola by either the United States or ISIS read (respectively) Jim White here and Scott Stewart here.

Back to Alex, who provides a crucial and extremely helpful gloss on the recent history of US research on the intersections between epidemic disease and national security, which shows:

Modern epidemics do not cause security crises… Newly evolved pathogens are a constant threat, but a rerun of the near-total devastation of the native American populations by diseases entirely new to them is far-fetched for the simple reason that there are no longer any large populations wholly isolated from, and therefore at risk of, major infections.  The greater dangers come from panicked or coercive responses to disease.

And for all the attempts to securitise Ebola, there has been remarkably little attention paid to its implications for food security (an altogether different problematic).  Here the work of the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS), an initiative of Action Contre la Faim, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children International, is exemplary – see their detailed Briefing Note, Ebola in West Africa: potential impact on food security (10 November), from which I’ve taken the map below (there are others in the Note).

b-acaps-bn-west-africa-ebola-impact-on-food-security-11-nov-2014 (dragged)

Alex points out another problem with the militarization of public health: ‘the legacy of colonialism and coercive medicine.’

Best practices in global health include efforts to be sensitive to national histories and cultures and to overcome the suspicions induced by outside health programs. Medicine in khaki is not only inefficient, it is bad practice.

British, French, and American armies have a history of imposing control in the name of hygiene, cordoning off a city or as-yet-insufficiently governed parts of the global borderlands…. In much of Africa, public health has struggled to free itself from the way it was implicated in coercive colonial control measures.

It is precisely this insight that eludes Tom Koch in his discussion of the history of mapping and containing epidemic disease in general and Ebola in particular.   ‘It’s not “like” wartime,’ he proclaims: ‘It is war.’

To combat the expanding bacterium or an advancing, viral incursion has always required military style thinking. To survive, a microbe requires potential hosts who can be effected just as invading armies require supplies if they are to advance. To tame a microbial incursion requires containment procedures that will deny it new hosts, new supplies.

He is right to point to the strategic importance of mapping – on the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s public involvement, incidentally, see here – but maps (like metaphors) do more than describe, and depending on the web of practices and powers in which they are activated the connections between mapping and containment are in many cases performative.  I’m surely not the only one to be reminded of Michel Foucault‘s illuminating discussion of the plague-stricken town: see also Stuart Elden‘s commentary on ‘Plague, Panopticon, Police’ here, which reinforces the suggestions I made about military/policing and quarantine in my original post.  But this involves more then AFRICOM, and Donald McNeil‘s report on the decision to use local militaries to impose a cordon sanitaire in areas of Liberia and Sierre Leone (below) is also instructive – as he says, ‘a tactic unseen in a century’ and with ‘the potential to become brutal and inhumane’.

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It may also backfire.  Alex again (my emphases):

One of the great, under-recognized successes of the response to HIV and AIDS in Africa was that the spread of an incurable sexually transmitted infection did not lead to repressive measures or massive stigmatization. On the contrary, the United Nations and donors insisted that public health be linked to human rights, and civil society organizations and people living with HIV and AIDS be represented in the governance of UNAIDS and the Global Fund.

That is the polar opposite of the war-like approach to Ebola. The Sierra Leonean journalist Oswald Hanciles drew out the implications of Koroma’s “war” on Ebola, comparing it favorably with the weak government defenses against the rebel attacks fifteen years ago: “This strategy of energizing and mobilizing youth to ‘comb’ their neighborhoods to ferret out ‘Ebola suspects’ could be the most potent in this Ebola War. We are optimistic that the President would use the security forces to back up the youths who the President said should be ‘hard.’” That would be a frightening prospect. Vigilante mobs dragging people from their homes or sealing off neighborhoods would destroy the public trust and community involvement at the heart of good public health practice.

It’s not only vigilante mobs; the image below shows a Liberian soldier beating a local resident while enforcing a quarantine in Monrovia’s West Point slum:

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And yet several loud voices doubt that local militaries, even acting in concert with AFRICOM, can provide a sufficiently powerful vector, and they want the militarised response to be stepped up. Earlier this month Britain’s former Chief of the Defence Staff joined calls for NATO to take command:

General Sir David Richards said that he was “strongly supportive” of a proposal for Nato to take command of the international response to West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, adding that the crisis demanded “a grand strategic response…

“What a crisis like this requires more than anything else is efficient organisation and leadership. It is quite clear that currently these vital ingredients are missing… The military’s core skills are to analyse a problem, devise a plan … and then to execute that plan under pressure.”

It may be that the ‘organisation and leadership’ they have in mind is a matter of logistics.  The United Nations has a Global Logistics Cluster, whose ‘concept of operations’ is mapped below (see also its Regional Situation Report for 3-10 November here) , and Richards and his co-signatories make it plain that, in their view, the UN is ‘most unlikely to be up to the job’ – though they never clarify exactly what that ‘job’ might be and what they expect NATO to do.  In any case, readers of Deb Cowen may well wonder about another dimension of what she calls ‘the deadly life of logistics’…

UN Logistics CONOPS Ebola 29 October 2014

So I leave the last word to Alex:

The comparative advantage of the military lies in a few niche activities, such as airport infrastructure, transport helicopters, and — uniquely for this case — medical facilities to treat health workers when they themselves fall sick. All other activities are done far better by civilians.

The Natures of War

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I have – at last – uploaded what I hope is the final version of ‘The Natures of War’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  It’s the long-form version of the first Neil Smith Lecture I gave at St Andrew’s (Neil’s alma mater) almost exactly a year ago (you can access the online video here).  The basic argument remains the same, but the written version is substantively different (and much longer).  If you do have any comments or suggestions, or you spot any egregious errors, please let me know.  Here’s the introduction:

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In his too short life, Neil Smith had much to say about both nature and war: from his seminal discussion of ‘the production of nature’ in his first book, Uneven development, to his dissections of war in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in American Empire – where he identified the end of the First World World and the end of the Second as crucial punctuations in the modern genealogy of globalisation – and its coda, The endgame of globalization, a critique of America’s wars conducted in the shadows of 9/11. And yet, surprisingly, he never linked the two. He was of course aware of their connections. He always insisted that the capitalist production of nature, like that of space, was never – could not be – a purely domestic matter, and he emphasised that the modern projects of colonialism and imperialism depended upon often spectacular displays of military violence. But he did not explore those relations in any systematic or substantive fashion.

He was not alone. The great Marxist critic Raymond Williams once famously identified ‘nature’ as ‘perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language.’ Since he wrote, countless commentators have elaborated on its complexities, but few of them have paused to note that ‘war’ was not one of Williams’s keywords (though ‘violence’ – ‘often now a difficult word’ – was). Williams was radicalised by the rise of European fascism; he joined the British Army in 1941 and served as a tank commander during the Second World War. Yet at its end he found the world had turned, and it was for that very reason that he sought to find the terms for a post-war world in which, seemingly, ‘war’ had no place.

‘In 1945, after the ending of the wars with Germany and Japan, I was released from the Army to return to Cambridge. University term had already begun, and many relationships and groups had been formed. It was in any case strange to travel from an artillery regiment on the Kiel Canal to a Cambridge college. I had been away only four and a half years, but in the movements of war had lost touch with all my university friends. Then, after many strange days, I met a man I had worked with in the first year of the war, when the formations of the 1930s, though under pressure, were still active. He too had just come out of the Army. We talked eagerly, but not about the past. We were too much preoccupied with this new and strange world around us. Then we both said, in effect simultaneously: ‘the fact is, they just don’t speak the same language’.’

I want to track backwards and forwards from Williams’s war-time experience to trace three different co-productions of nature and military violence: the soiled earth of the Western Front during the First World War, the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War (an armoured campaign very different from the European theatre in which Williams served), and the rainforests of Vietnam. My accounts can only be sketches, but they share a way of thinking of ‘nature’ (in all its complexity) as a modality that is intrinsic to the execution of military and paramilitary violence. In much the same way that ‘space’ is not only a terrain over which wars are waged – the fixation on territory that remains at the heart of modern geopolitics – but also a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted, so ‘nature’ is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations: the problematic of resource wars and conflict commodities. The spoils of war include the short-term bludgeoning of landscapes and the long-term toxicity of contamination (what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’), but it is also important to trace the bio-physical formations – the conditions, provided the term is understood in the most active of senses – that are centrally involved in the militarisation of ‘nature’. For nature too is a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted.

I speak of ‘co-productions’ and ‘formations’ in order to signal in advance three issues that will reappear across all three studies. First, each of these wars was in large measure what Paul Saint-Amour calls, in relation to the first of them, an optical war: they depended on geo-spatial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance which in its various forms provided the essential basis for the maps, plans and orders that activated the war machine. And yet the remote orderings of military violence were never autonomous projections onto a pure plane; they also depended on the bodies of soldiers whose apprehension of the battle space was always more than visual. In part, this was a matter of affect, but it was also a matter of knowledge – of a corpography rather than a cartography – whose materialities also inflected imaginative geographies of militarised nature. Second, those diverse stocks of knowledge about the battle space were invested in the co-production of a ‘trickster nature’. It was commonplace to describe the Western Front as a surreally empty landscape in which the capacity for military violence was hidden from view once men withdrew into the troglodyte world of the trenches. But I have in mind a more pervasive sense of uncertainty instilled by a militarised nature: one where the earth and air could kill through an infected wound, a buried mine or a cloud of gas, and whose camouflaged landscapes could wreak havoc with the military gaze to dissemble and distract, lure and entrap. Third, this was a hideously hybrid ‘cyborg nature’ whose terrain and life-forms were saturated with the debris of violent conflict: burned-out vehicles and bombed-out buildings, barbed wire and exploded munitions, discarded weapons and abandoned supplies, toxic residues and body parts. So far so familiar, except that none of these entanglements was inert; they shaped the military operations that took place through them. In all three ways each of these battle spaces was composed of ‘vibrant matter’ that was often also deadly matter.

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This version is so long I’ve cut all the illustrations, but I have uploaded the original lecture slides too (DOWNLOADS tab); I’ve already posted early versions of some of the sections – and those were illustrated – here and here.

Vietnam, Vietnam

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The New York Times has a fascinating clip from a longer documentary by Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara called In Country, about a group in Oregon that re-enacts scenes from the Vietnam War:

IN COUNTRY is a feature documentary that follows 2/5 1st Cav (Reenacted), a “platoon” of hardcore Vietnam War re-enactors. Weaving together verité footage of the reenactments with flashbacks to the characters’ real lives and archival footage from the Vietnam War, IN COUNTRY blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, past and present to tell a story about men trying to access the past.

The question at the center of IN COUNTRY is why? Why would these men – many of them combat veterans of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan haunted by their own experiences on the frontline – try to recreate a war that so many have tried to forget?

The film-makers give part of their answer in the NYT:

Unlike most war re-enactments, the pretend battles they stage are private, free of spectators and created for the experience of the participants alone. Outfitted in authentic period military gear, the men hike through the woods for days at a time, sleep on the ground, eat canned rations and carry actual Vietnam-era weapons (loaded with blanks). They do not stage battles but rather attempt to find and “kill” a group of Vietcong re-enactors waiting to ambush them.

Most remarkable perhaps is how this unusual hobby brings combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan together with civilians and veterans of Vietnam. They work collectively to create a fascinating space where real emotions and memories mix with history and fantasy. Their reasons for participating vary: Some seek the camaraderie they experienced in their deployment, while others want to relive a vital time in their life. And for all of the veterans involved, it is an event at which their service is acknowledged and respected.

They elaborate in an interview with PBS here, and in a You Tube clip from IFF Boston here.

For my part, there have been many comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam, but from the clips I’ve seen (and the clean uniforms) I don’t think the literal meaning of quagmire is re-staged in the Oregon woods very often…