Countdown before midnight


Another year rolls by, and the elves at WordPress have compiled this list of my top posts for 2014:

1  The Death Zone

2  The War on Ebola

3  Theory of the Drone 1: Genealogies (2013)

4  Gaza 101

5  Is Paris Burning? (2012)

6  Kunduz and ‘seeing like a military

7  Darkness descending

8  Conflicts without borders

9  War comes home

10  War and distance: logistics (2012)

In fact, the list simply shows the ‘most read’ posts this year – two of them were written in previous years, so it’s good to see that the shelf-life of the blog is longer than the usual jibes about ‘ephemera’ imply; on several occasions people have read a post and suggested that I publish it — to which I say: ‘But I just did…’

Still, contemporary issues clearly dominate: 1, 3 and 7 were all about Gaza, and ‘The war on Ebola’ (2) got more views in a single day than anything I’ve ever posted (or probably written…).

Even this list is misleading, though, since ‘Home Page’ tops the list, and that always shows the latest posts.  And ‘DOWNLOADS’ was also right up there, with more than 4,000 hits – so I promise to try to keep that up to date.

In any event, thanks very much for stopping by and making this a much less solitary affair than I first thought it would be.  This is where you all came from:

Visitors 2014


Untargeted killing

Back in November 2012 I explained that the debate over CIA-directed targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere risked overlooking the conduct of targeted killing by the US military and its coalition partners in Afghanistan:

Targeted killings are also carried out by the US military – indeed, the US Air Force has advertised its ability to put ‘warheads on foreheads’ – and a strategic research report written by Colonel James Garrett for the US Army [‘Necessity and Proportionality in the Operation Enduring Freedom VII Campaign‘] provides a rare insight into the process followed by the military in operationalising its Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL). Wikileaks has provided further information about JSOC’s Task Force 373 – see, for example, here and here – but the focus of Garrett’s 2008 report is the application of the legal principles of necessity and proportionality (two vital principles in the calculus of International Humanitarian Law (IHL)) in counterinsurgency operations. Garrett describes ‘time-sensitive targeting procedures’ used by the Joint Targeting Working Group to order air strikes on ‘high-value’ Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, summarised in this diagram:


Notice that the members included representatives from both Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) and the CIA (‘Other Government Agency’, OGA). This matters because Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) – once commanded by General Stanley McChrystal – and the CIA, even though they have their own ‘kill lists’, often co-operate in targeted killings and are both involved in strikes outside Afghanistan. Indeed, there have been persistent reports that many of the drone strikes in Pakistan attributed to the CIA – even if directed by the agency – have been carried out by JSOC.

Now Spiegel Online has provided new, detailed information about the Joint Prioritized Effects List and targeted killing in Afghanistan.  Its base materials – some of which come from the Snowden cache – cover the period 2009-2011 and include an anonymised version of the JPEL (extract below).

JPEL Afghanistan PNG

The Spiegel team explains:

[This is] the first known complete list of the Western alliance’s “targeted killings” in Afghanistan. The documents show that the deadly missions were not just viewed as a last resort to prevent attacks, but were in fact part of everyday life in the guerilla war in Afghanistan.

The list, which included up to 750 people at times, proves for the first time that NATO didn’t just target the Taliban leadership, but also eliminated mid- and lower-level members of the group on a large scale. Some Afghans were only on the list because, as drug dealers, they were allegedly supporting the insurgents.

As I’ve said, the JPEL was maintained through close collaboration between the CIA and the US military, including Joint Special Operations Command, so it is not surprising that the list is not confined to Afghanistan but also includes Pakistanis who were located inside Pakistan.

We already know that targeted killings inside Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas involved signal intelligence from the NSA, Britain’s GCHQ and Australia’s Pine Gap facility.  Spiegel‘s cache of documents shows that coalition states outside the ‘Five Eyes’ (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) were included in the wider Center Ice platform that also supplied geospatial intelligence for tracking and targeting.  Taken together:

Predator drones and Eurofighter jets equipped with sensors were constantly searching for the radio signals from known telephone numbers tied to the Taliban. The hunt began as soon as the mobile phones were switched on.

Britain’s GCHQ and the US National Security Agency (NSA) maintained long lists of Afghan and Pakistani mobile phone numbers belonging to Taliban officials. A sophisticated mechanism was activated whenever a number was detected. If there was already a recording of the enemy combatant’s voice in the archives, it was used for identification purposes. If the pattern matched, preparations for an operation could begin. The attacks were so devastating for the Taliban that they instructed their fighters to stop using mobile phones.

The document also reveals how vague the basis for deadly operations apparently was. In the voice recognition procedure, it was sufficient if a suspect identified himself by name once during the monitored conversation. Within the next 24 hours, this voice recognition was treated as “positive target identification” and, therefore, as legitimate grounds for an airstrike. This greatly increased the risk of civilian casualties…

[In addition]  Center Ice was not just used to share intelligence about mobile phone conversations, but also information about targets.

Finally – and directly relevant to that penultimate paragraph – Spiegel includes a detailed post-strike ‘Dynamic Target Storyboard‘ that explains how one mission executed by a British AH-60 helicopter (callsign/codename UGLY 50) armed with Hellfire missiles missed its target (‘Objective DOODY’, a mid-level Taliban commander called Mullah Niaz Muhammed categorised as JPEL ‘level 3’) on its first pass and then, coming in for a second attack, seriously wounded an innocent father and killed his child:

Dynamic Targeting Storyboard PNG

To navigate the storyboard – a standard ‘after action’ report – you need to wade through an alphabet soup of acronyms, some of which I know and others I don’t.  Working left to right along the top line, the mission was under the control of TFH – ISAF’s Task Force Helmand – whose main component was provided by the UK military; under BDAR (Battle Damage Assessment and Repair) the AH-64 attack helicopter is identified as operating under ISAF Rules of Engagement 429 (the details of all these ROEs remain classified).  The Intelligence Summary shown below identifies the target as ‘Objective DOODY’, provides skeletal details of his activities, and links him with two other targets on the JPEL, ‘KOJAK’ and ‘STILTSKIN’ (presumably part of the military’s standard social network analysis).

The far right column provides further information about the attack.  At 0741 intelligence (ELINT is electronic intelligence, but RELINT is not included in the Ministry of Defence’s acronym list) places ‘DOODY’ in Nad-e-Ali (South); by 0950 he is holding a meeting with five other men, and at 1003 a ‘PURSUE 50 operator’ [how I would like to know more about what means] confirms positive identification (PID) which denotes ‘reasonable certainty that this is a legitimate military target’. Shortly afterwards, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), listed as a ‘Qualified Observer’ with the grim call sign WIDOW 87,  contacts the helicopter crew and talks them on to the target: once they have him in their field of view they are ready to attack.  What isn’t clear from all this is whether the JTAC is relying on a video feed from a drone – this seems the most likely source, and an aerial view is included on the storyboard, tracking the target’s movements once the attack is under way – or whether s/he is on the ground (unlikely, I think, since ground troops take more than an hour to arrive on site after the attack: see ‘Follow-on Plans’ box).

When the target walks away from the meeting, accompanied by one man, the helicopter crew is cleared to engage both of them (TEA) (I’ve explained PID but if anyone knows what PIDROF means please let me know since that seems to authorise killing his unknown and unnamed companion).

According to a supplementary page on the storyboard file, shown below, the AH-64 makes its initial run but fails to engage and returns for a second attempt; in doing so, the crew loses visual identification of the target, what the military usually calls the ‘visual chain of custody’, and at 1017 fires a Hellfire missile which misses the nominated target and instead causes fragmentation injuries to two civilians nearby (marked 1 on the aerial view).  The helicopter returns again; by then ‘DOODY’ and his companion have parted company, and the crew fires 100 rounds from its 30 mm cannon at ‘DOODY’, leaving him seriously wounded (EWIA: ‘enemy wounded in action’; marked 2 on the aerial view).

Over an hour later, at 1134, ground troops arrive to capture ‘DOODY’ – but they also find one other seriously wounded man and the body of his young son.  The boy is buried by his family, and the casualties are airlifted to the military hospital at Camp Bastion (BSN);  ‘DOODY’ is later transferred to Kandahar for further treatment for a serious head wound.
ISAF launched an investigation into the incident, but no details have been released.

So: two innocent, unnamed bystanders killed.  As more evidence unfolds of the inaccuracies of ‘targeted killing’, even when the target is supposedly named and identified (so not a ‘signature strike’), it seems that we should start talking about the prevalence of untargeted killing…

Psycho-geographies of violence

0747590338Will Self‘s series of columns for the Independent on ‘psycho-geography’ attracted considerable attention (they were published between 2003 and 2007 and then collected in the book shown on the left).  In its original form, of course, psychogeography can be traced back to the Lettrist International and the Situationists, and David Pinder‘s Visions of the city: utopianism, power and politics remains one of the most eye-opening introductions to these and similar experiments.

But in today’s Guardian Self turns to a far from utopian prospect to consider what in less avant-garde and more demotic terms would probably also count as a ‘psycho-geography’ of sorts:  ‘We are passive consumers of the pornography of violence‘.

He begins with a devastating imaginative reconstruction of one of the executions carried out by IS/IS/IL: seen not from the point of view of the video-viewing (or not-viewing) public, or even the executioner, but the victim.  He’s aware of the objections:

Surely, at the end of a year in which the public arena has been fully booked for grand guignol, the last thing anyone needs is such an intrusive – and arguably insensitive – speculation? May we not take this opportunity, on the verge of a new year, to sit back, relax, and turn away from the theatre of horrors – not, of course, because we don’t care about all this suffering, all this hideously violent discorporation, but because at least we know this much about ourselves: we may not be the most ethically motivated, caring, community-minded people around; however, we aren’t like them – we aren’t like those men in Raqqa who beat and burn and stone and rape and enslave and shoot and chop and cut: we aren’t evil. And surely, in the opinionated maelstrom we can all at least agree with David Cameron and Barack Obama on this: to cut off someone’s head is an act of such maleficence that it necessarily, in and of itself, renders those who do it evil; if by evil is understood a will-to-absolute-negation, a nihilism that metastasises through the failing body politic, leaving in its necrotic wake only dead-eyed zombies incapable of any authentic feeling.

And yet I wonder: what I wrote above was an active attempt on my part to sympathise with Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, Alan Henning, Steven Sotloff, James Foley and David Haines in the last moments of their lives. It was painful to write because I needed to try and put myself in their heads – possibly it was uncomfortable to read for the same reason; yet reading it was also an activity, requiring the translation of marks on page or screen into ideas, images and sensations. Some attempts to understand these perverse and evil actions are similarly engaged, but for the most part our response to the hostage crisis that unfolded over 2014 was necessarily passive. Passive in part because our government wishes to retain its monopoly both on what it sees as the legitimate exercise of violence, and on the prerogative of mercy as well: there will be no ransoms paid for British hostages, while the knife wielded by the man who has been called Jihadi John will be parried – or so they assure us – by targeted air strikes against Islamic State forces, while our “commitment to the region” is re-emphasised in other ways.

So, our passivity – the passivity of civilians who depend on a professional army to assert our moral will, and the passivity in my case – and quite possibly yours – of citizens who have long since recoiled from the spectacle of this interminable conflict worthy of Orwell’s 1984: the so-called “war on terror”.

There’s more – much more – that takes in themes that will be familiar to many readers but here given new urgency by the torsions of Self’s imagination and the sharpness his prose.  It’s an extraordinary ride, and it grips intellectually, politically and ethically.  One of Self’s central arguments is that even as we are reduced to the status of ‘passive consumers’ of this execrable violence (one that is, as he shows, far from absent from our own history) we are – those of us that live in the United States, Canada, the UK, France and elsewhere – also profoundly implicated not only in what is being staged by IS but also in the administration of military violence by the states that make up the latest ‘coalition’.

‘… we are all kneeling in the desert, staring at the serrations on that knife; the very personal and intimate nature of these murderous beheadings calls to our attention – try as we might to repress it – the cold impersonality of the murders committed in our name; for, just as in recent decades the west found it profitable to outsource manufacturing production to low-wage economies, so our own moral accounting has in the short term benefited from a form of outsourcing: western governments no longer find it expedient to perpetrate violence closer to home (it makes for bad PR and restive electorates); yet in a globalised world the exercise of “legitimate” violence is the one monopoly they continue to operate. Perhaps one way of looking at the Middle East is that it’s one of the most productive “bloodshops” we have, a reliable supplier of conflicts that give the west a showroom within which to demonstrate its overwhelming firepower.’

As I say, there’s much, much more, and Self’s reflections on the braiding threads between imagery, passivity , disembodiment and military and paramilitary violence make this the one essay I’d urge everyone to read and reflect on this week, even this month.  And probably all next year.

Scorched Earth

(c) Mr Russell Falkingham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In ‘The Natures of War’ (DOWNLOADS tab) I didn’t have space to address the legal dimensions of militarized natures, but Bronwyn Leebaw provides a helpful review in ‘Scorched Earth: Environmental War Crimes and International Justice‘ in the latest issue of Perspectives on Politics (12 [4] (2014) 770-788.  From the abstract:

Environmental devastation is not only a byproduct of war, but has also been a military strategy since ancient times. How have the norms and laws of war addressed the damage that war inflicts on the environment? How should “environmental war crimes” be defined and addressed? I address these questions by critically examining the way that distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate wartime environmental destruction have been drawn in debates on just war theory and the laws of war. I identify four distinctive formulations for framing the wartime significance of nature that appear in such debates and analyze how each is associated with distinctive claims regarding what constitutes “humaneness” in times of war: nature as property; nature as combatant; nature as Pandora’s Box; and nature as victim.

In the text she elaborates on those four formulations like this:

First, in early debates and documents, as well as contemporary interpretations of humanitarian law, a prominent approach to analyzing wartime destruction of nature has been to evaluate it in relation to claims regarding property protections in times of war. Humaneness, in this formulation, has been defined in relationship to dominion, ownership, discipline, and control, as defined against “wanton” or undisciplined actions. Second, in debates that influenced provisions of humanitarian law regarding chemical and biological weapons, nature has also been framed as a combatant. In this context, humaneness is associated with the use of technically superior weapons and the close identification of human agency with scientific mastery in response to anthropomorphized “enemies” in nature. Third, provisions of humanitarian law that aim to define and address the crime of ecocide emerged in response to the massive herbicidal campaign carried out by the US in Vietnam. Debates on the crime of ecocide were not only influenced by an ecological view of nature and humanity as interdependent, but also by a new formulation that positioned nature as a kind of Pandora’s Box, filled with creative and destructive forces that humanity has the power to unleash, yet not control. Finally, with the rise of international justice institutions, the expansion of the environmental movement as well as the human rights movement, nature has also been framed as a victim, or potential victim, of war crimes. In this formulation, humaneness and human agency are defined in relation to the criminal justice binary of guilt and innocence.

The last three all appear, in various forms, in ‘The Natures of War’, though – as I’ve tried to show, and as others know far better than me – questions of ‘human-ness’ are far from straightforward.

Theories and counter-theories of the drone

CROGAN Gameplay modeI expect many readers will know Patrick Crogan‘s Gameplay mode: war, simulation and technoculture (Minnesota, 2011).  He has now uploaded what I think is a draft of Drones and global technicity: automation and (dis)individuation at academia.  Here’s the extended abstract:

This paper (for General Organology conference [held last month at the University of Kent]) will explore the expansion of military drone usage by Western powers in the “war on terror” over the last decade or so in relation to Bernard Stiegler’s organological approach to questions concerning human historical, cultural and technological becoming.. Theorists approaching drones from different fields such as Grégoire Chamayou, Derek Gregory and Eyal Weizman have argued that the systematic and growing deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles should be understood as the “avant-garde” of a general movement toward remote and increasingly autonomous robotic systems by all branches of the armed forces of the U.S. and many of allies and competitors. These developments put into question all established cultural political, legal and ethical framings of war, peace, territory, civilian and soldier in the societies of the “advanced powers” on behalf of which these systems are deployed. Animating this indetermination is what Chamayou calls the “tendency inherent in the material development of drones” leading to this profound undoing of cultural and geopolitical moorings. I will explore the organological nature of this tendency inherent in drone materiality and technology, concentrating on the virtualizing, realtime digital developments in remotely controlled and increasingly automated robotic systems.

The projection of a simulational model of the contested space over the inhabited world is a constitutive part of this tendency. Indeed, the inhabitants of the spaces of concern in the war on terror—which in principle and increasingly in practice are everywhere—are better understood as environmental elements or “threats” in what simulation engineer and theorist Robert Sargent has called the “problem space” the computer simulation designer seeks to model conceptually in order to make the simulation serve as an effective solution. A specifically designed spatio-temporality is enacting a performative, “operational” and automated reinvention of the lived experience of both inhabiting and contesting the control of space in time.

If, as the above writers have shown, this projection of and over “enemy territory” has clear precedents in European colonialist strategies and procedures, what is unprecedented today is the digitally-enabled expansion and intensification of this spatio-temporal reanimation of the world. This reanimation must be understood as key contributor to a transformative and extremely problematic pathway toward the automation of military force projection across the globe. This essay will analyse the nature and implications of these transformative digital modellings of the enemy in and as milieu, a milieu as tiny as the space around a single ‘target’ and as large as the world, existing both in a brief “window of opportunity” and within a permanent realtime of preemptive pan-spectrum surveillance.

From an organological perspective developments in drone technics must also be approached as a particularly pressing political and ethical challenge of the global transformations of human technicity in the digital “epoch”—or rather, in the generalised crisis of epochality and spatio-temporal orientation that Stiegler sets out to thematise and respond to in his “philosophical activism”. If as Stiegler provocatively suggests in Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus) human being had a “second origin” in the historical development of the West which achieved its culmination its “worldwide extension”, it is one whose epoch has led us tendentially and increasingly rapidly to the crisis of ethnocultural idiomatic differentiation and specificity (as he argues in Technics and Time 2: Disorientation). The history of Western techno-capitalist, imperial colonisations, wars and subsequent post-colonial globalisation is attaining its full extent and its exacerbation, readable in the above noted indeterminations of war, peace, sovereignty, citizenship and so on. What goes with this is a doubled movement (which Virilio termed “endocolonisation”) of intensification of the reorganisation of social and individual surveillance, control and regulation via realtime, pervasive digital technical regimes. The systematic deployment of computational abstraction, simulational virtualisation and anticipatory, realtime preemptive materialisation of this doubled movement is perceivable in all its cultural-political, conceptual and technological complexity in drone technics. Indeed, drones are a major driver of research and development in automation and AI for the spectrum of what the U.S.A.F calls the “perceive and act vector”, as well as for “big data” processing in realtime to handle ever-growing monitoring and surveillance feeds.

Today a voluntarist and cynical (and nihilist in Stiegler’s view) adoption of the automatising potentials of digital technics supports the rapid advances in drone systems (and I have proposed that an “elective naivety” sustains this in the academy, across scientific and humanities disciplinary contexts). From Stiegler’s organological perspective, I will argue that the autonomy of human agency is always composed with various automated functions that form part of our material, prosthetic conditions of existence. By addressing some of the inherent contradictions arising from the proposed development of fully autonomous military robotic systems, I hope to contribute toward the urgently needed “redoubling” of the first adoption of the possibilities of digital automation evidenced in drone technics (as the “logical” outcome in strategic-political terms of the latest advances of computer technology). To “re-double” technocultural becoming reflectively, critically, in the name of a less inhuman potential of automated digital technics is the responsibility of those able to read and write, to reflect and respond to the accelerating epochal transformation of the world in this “our” era of the permanent war on terror. This is the horizon in which “we” maintain the possibility of a non-inhuman future (or further “re-birth”) for contemporary humanity. For, as Stiegler has argued in What Makes Life Worth Living, this is a better way to think the present and future than that implied in the term “post-human”, for the human remains a project and a projection and not a superceded entity.


Bernard Stiegler (above) was a keynote speaker at the conference, and if you want some tantalising glimpses into some of the other possibilities opened out by his ideas for the analysis of drones, I’d recommend James Ash, ‘Technology and affect: Towards a theory of inorganically organised objects’, Emotion, space and society (in press, 2014) – incidentally, James reviews Gameplay mode in Cultural politics 8 (3) (2012) 495-497 – and Sam Kinsley‘s ‘The matter of virtual geographies’, Progress in human geography (2014) 38 (3) (2014) 364-84.

As you can see from the abstract, Patrick also engages with my work and, crucially, Gregoire Chamayou‘s, and since the English-language translation of Theory of the drone is published at the end of this month I thought it might be helpful to list and link to my detailed commentaries on the book in one place, so here they are:


Theory of the drone 1: Genealogies

Theory of the drone 2: Hunting

Theory of the drone 3: Killing grounds

Theory of the drone 4: Pennies from heaven [on counterinsurgency/COIN]

 Theory of the drone 5: Vulnerabilities

Theory of the drone 6: Sacrifice, suicide and drones

Theory of the drone 7: Historical precedents and postcolonial amnesia

Theory of the drone 8: From invisibility to vulnerability

Theory of the drone 9: Psychopathologies of the drone

Theory of the drone 10: Killing at a distance

Theory of the drone 11: Necro-ethics

Theory of the drone 12: ‘Killing well’?

You can also find my essay on ‘Drone geographies’ from Radical Philosophy (2014) under the DOWNLOADS tab.

Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer‘s combative review of Theory of the drone, ‘Ideology of the drone’, is here and my extended commentary on that review is here.  Simon Labrecque provides another review here, invoking the USAF’s own description of its remote missions: ‘Projeter du pouvoir sans projeter de vulnérabilité.’

Meanwhile over at the Funambulist Papers, Stuart Elden suggested one way of wiring Grégoire’s previous book Manhunts to Theory of the drone here, while Grégoire’s own postscript (which suggests another route) is here.

Expect more commentary once the English edition is out.

Method and madness

methodNews from the ever enterprising OR Books of Norman Finkelstein‘s new and superbly titled book, Method and Madness: the hidden story of Israel’s assaults on Gaza.  (There’s a delay in ordering this via Amazon or even the Book Depository, so if you want it before next spring you’ll need to get it directly from OR).

In the past five years Israel has mounted three major assaults on the 1.8 million Palestinians trapped behind its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Taken together, Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), and Operation Protective Edge (2014), have resulted in the deaths of some 3,700 Palestinians. Meanwhile, a total of 90 Israelis were killed in the invasions.
On the face of it, this succession of vastly disproportionate attacks has often seemed frenzied and pathological. Senior Israeli politicians have not discouraged such perceptions, indeed they have actively encouraged them. After the 2008-9 assault Israel’s then-foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, boasted, “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded.”

However, as Norman G. Finkelstein sets out in this concise, paradigm-shifting new book, a closer examination of Israel’s motives reveals a state whose repeated recourse to savage war is far from irrational. Rather, Israel’s attacks have been designed to sabotage the possibility of a compromise peace with the Palestinians, even on terms that are favorable to it.

Looking also at machinations around the 2009 UN sponsored Goldstone report and Turkey’s forlorn attempt to seek redress in the UN for the killing of its citizens in the 2010 attack on the Gaza freedom flotilla, Finkelstein documents how Israel has repeatedly eluded accountability for what are now widely recognized as war crimes.

Further, he shows that, though neither side can claim clear victory in these conflicts, the ensuing stalemate remains much more tolerable for Israelis than for the beleaguered citizens of Gaza. A strategy of mass non-violent protest might, he contends, hold more promise for a Palestinian victory than military resistance, however brave.

Reviews by Alex Doherty here and Deborah Maccoby here.

Situation Rooms

I’m back from Europe at last, including a presentation of Angry Eyes at Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin.  It was a sort of Berlin Wall Exchange, and I had a wonderful time; my interlocutor was Martin Gak, who raised a series of probing and thoughtful questions about drones and military violence to which I plan to return, and I had some exhilarating conversations extending over two nights about HAU’s three performance spaces and in particular its investment in documentary drama.


Which brings me to Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms playing at HAU 2 also as part of its Waffenlounge (‘Weapons Lounge’: its logo above uses a silhouette that must rank alongside the AK-47 as one of the most iconic – and in this case, of course, German – guns in the world; one of the aims of ‘Weapons Lounge’ is to drive home the point that, after the USA and Russia, Germany is the third largest arms exporter in the world).

The title Situation Rooms is of course provoked by this famous image:


Here, incidentally, I recommend Keith Feldman‘s bravura reading in ‘Empire’s verticality: the Af/Pak frontier, visual culture and racialization from above‘ in Comparative American Studies 9 (4) (2011) 325-41; I’ll return to its relevance at the end.

But Situation Rooms provides an even more dispersed, global mapping of contemporary military violence:

Situation Rooms gathers together from various continents 20 people whose biographies have been shaped by weapons in a film set that recreates the globalised world of pistols and rocket-propelled grenades, of assault rifles and drones, of rulers and refugees, becoming a parcours of unexpected neighbourhoods and intersections.

With the personal narratives of the ‘inhabitants’, the images start to move and the audience follows the individual trails of the cameras they have been given. They start to inhabit the building, while following what they see and hear on their equipment. The audience does not sit opposite the piece to watch and judge it from the outside; instead, the spectators ensnare themselves in a network of incidents, slipping into the perspectives of the protagonists, whose traces are followed by other spectators.
One spectator sits at the desk of a manager for defence systems. At the same time, another follows the film of a Pakistani lawyer representing victims of American drone attacks in a cramped room with surveillance monitors. On her way there, she sees a third spectator who follows his film into the shooting range of a Berlin gun club, listening Germany’s parcours shooting champion. Around the corner stands another spectator in the role of a doctor carrying out amputations in Sierra Leone, while in the room next door a press photographer sorts pictures of German army missions in Afghanistan, only to stand in the shooting range himself a little later to do exactly what he was able to observe in passing just a while ago, thereby becoming a subject for observation himself.

The audience gradually becomes entangled in the film set’s spatial and material labyrinth; each individual becoming part of the re-enactment of a complicatedly elaborated multi-perspective “shooting”.


As some readers will recognise, there are all sorts of formal parallels (as well as the obvious disjunctures) with Gerry Pratt and Caleb Johnston‘s  Nanay: a testimonial play – in staging, in evidentiary base – which was in fact performed at HAU in 2009 as well as in Vancouver and Manila.

You can read an extremely informative interview with Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel, the three architects of Rimini Protokoll, here, and what they have to say collectively about the politics of staging – about perspective, spectatorship and situation – is particularly illuminating:

‘We’re … creating a way to access what certain people, who have experience with weapons, arms trade, weapons use and war, have to say… It is not the experts that can be seen, but the situation in which they find themselves, from their perspective. That’s the shift. Instead of looking at a protagonist from outside, to a certain degree you look at an event “from inside”…

‘You hear their voices through headphones. On the iPad or as you walk through the rooms of the film set you see their typical work situations. The visitor is always following the path, so to speak, that the expert in each case has paved by narrating/filming. This kind of approach is quite different than it would be looking at these people from a comfortable theatre seat. The piece operates from the sentence that is often used to explain things in conflicts: Put yourself in my shoes! It is about creating a form of proximity that is also perhaps a bit disturbing…

‘You don’t look into a room from outside, but instead find yourself in it – in this case, although it’s theatre, there are four and not three walls. You also see the behaviour of other participants who are following the films of other experts. The 20 perspectives of the 20 experts collectively produce a sort of clockwork. The participant lands in a mechanism, and it has a certain rhythm. It jumps back to zero every 7 minutes. Then it moves the participant on into the perspective of a different expert, from which you can suddenly also observe the role that you had previously assumed.’


With good reason, this started me thinking about the multiple ‘situations’ folded into a single air strike orchestrated by a drone.  Daniel emphasises that the different situations are connected ‘through their lack of connectedness’, and yet what comes into view is precisely the dispersed, uneven and labile formation of what Foucault called a dispositif.  Daniel again:

‘First “you are” an off-duty general from the Indian Air Force. He sees drones as the military device of the future, a boon for humanity. Seven minutes later “you are” a Pakistani lawyer who represents victims of drone attacks and says that they trample on human rights…’

So the challenge for me, now, is to think about how I might stage the multiple situations that punctuate and animate the ‘incident’ in Afghanistan that I describe in Angry Eyes.… and, in particular, to incorporate the ‘situations’ of the Afghan victims who survived the attacks and who were treated in military hospitals for their awful injuries.

Thinking explicitly about how to stage all this is a way not only of presenting research differently but of conducting research differently.  Because once you start to think in these terms, you begin to see things that were otherwise at best at the very edges of your field of view.  Daniel insists that there is no overarching point of view, no ‘God trick’ (which, in a different register, is precisely what I sought to show in Angry Eyes):

‘The ten stories that everyone sees, the 20 stories [from which they are drawn], are also only a small excerpt from an infinite number of stories. What you see is an excerpt of an excerpt of an excerpt. What you don’t see, and the knowledge that there’s a lot that you don’t see – this is just as important as what you end up seeing. “Situation Rooms” is also a project at the interface of film and theatre.’

It’s also at the creative interface of the performing arts and critical research and I think offers another way of disclosing ‘Empire’s verticality’ and its imbrications with ‘Angry Eyes’…

Making sense of war

The irresistible Léopold Lambert managed to prompt me to re-work my thoughts on corpography (click on the Categories column on the right for more) for the second series of The Funambulist Papers: you can read the result here, and the printed vesion is en route.  I’m immensely grateful to Léopold for the invitation to take part, for his encouragement – and not least for his patience (all the more remarkable given his legendary capacity to answer any e-mail sent at any time within a single, terrifying minute….).

Regular readers will know that this short essay grows out of both Gabriel’s map: cartography and corpography in modern war and The natures of war, both of which are available under the DOWNLOADS tab.


My previous conversation with Léopold for his other (podcast) platform, Archipelago, is here.

Tortured geographies

Guantanamo 'Suicides' In what now seems another life, I wrote about US torture during the early years of the “war on terror”, in ‘The Black Flag’ (which was specifically about Guantanamo, and which opened with three ‘suicides’ that we now have good reason to believe were anything but: see here and here) and ‘Vanishing Points’ (which extended the argument to Abu Ghraib and the archipelago of black sites like the ‘Salt Pit’ [shown below] within the global war prison).  Both are available in their original forms under the DOWNLOADS tab, and form part of the material I’ve been working with for a new essay to be included in The everywhere war.

Salt Pit

cia-report-p1-normalNow I’m digesting the Executive Summary that has been released by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, but you can download the original (redacted) summary here, ‘Other Views’ here, and the Minority View from the Republicans – and please God it remains a minority view – here.

The New York Times‘ coverage is here, the Washington Post‘s here, and the Guardian‘s here.

In the meantime, some of the best work on the dispersed geography of this vast apparatus was carried out by Trevor Paglen (see my updated discussion here).


Readers of his Blank spaces on the map will know of Trevor’s own attempt to see the ‘Salt Pit’ for himself, on the ground rather than from the air, and the images that result from this dimension of his work make clear – in plain sight, so to speak – their constitutive difficulties: see, for example, Jonah Weiner‘s essay on his work, ‘Prying eyes’, that appeared in the New Yorker here.

But here is part of what Trevor had to say about the mappings like the one above involved in his Torture Taxi and Terminal Air projects in An Atlas of Radical Cartography:

I’ve actually tried to stay away from cartography and “mapping” as much as possible in my work. The “God’s eye” view implicit in much cartography is usually not helpful in terms of describing everyday life, nor in describing the qualities of the relationships that cartography depicts. Because of what cartography cannot represent… it becomes pretty clear why it (and the forms of power that the cartographic viewpoint suggests) have traditionally been such powerful instruments of both colonialism and the contemporary geopolitical ordering of the world (which of course very much comes out of colonialism)…

I tend to be far more attracted to “on the ground” viewpoints and to embrace their fragmentedness and incompleteness. This project, as well as the “Terminal Air” project with the Institute for Applied Autonomy, are of course notable exceptions. With both of these projects that use the cartographic viewpoint, I was interested in taking what might seem like a familiar image and trying to and make it strange – trying to capture the feeling I had when I first started following CIA flights: it was the constant domestic flights to places like Tulsa, Las Vegas, Fresno, Fort Lauderdale and such that made a big impression on me. In working with John Emerson and the IAA, I insisted that we try to show a continuum between the domestic landscape and the landscape “somewhere else.” Neither of these projects are in my view not particularly useful as didactic tools but are instead useful in helping to see the point that we talked about above: that the “darkest” spaces of the war on terror blur into the everyday landscapes here “at home” and are in many way mutually constitutive. In this sense, they’re … images rather than analytic tools.

As I’ve noted before, this is part of the ‘capture’ side of the US kill-capture apparatus that uses drones (and often Special Forces) for the ‘kill’.  I say ‘US’, but it’s clear – not least from the map above – that a network of other states that radiates far beyond the other ‘Five Eyes‘ which have been so deeply involved in providing geospatial intelligence for drone strikes (and more) has been complicit in the production and concealment of this global archipelago of torture.

But there’s an irony in all this: even as the Obama administration ramped up drone strikes – and after a lull they have been resumed with a vengeance in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas – it was also condemning torture and, last month, committed the United States to acknowledging the extraterritorial reach of the Convention Against Torture (see Sarah Cleveland at Just Security here and Ryan Goodman and Eric Messenger here).  The refusal of the Bush administration to do so was a central part of the argument about legal geographies that I developed in both ‘The Black Flag’ and ‘Vanishing Points’.

So now we have an administration that recognises extra-territoriality to proscribe torture – and insists on it (or its own version of extra-territoriality) to authorise targeted killing.

Irresponsible Eyes

The Left to Die Boat

I’m off to Berlin to give a new version of ‘Angry Eyes‘ at HAU’s Waffenlounge (‘Weapons Lounge’), so I’ve been thinking some more about the dispersed and distributed field of militarized vision.  En route, I’ve read Timothy Raeymaekers‘ thoughtful reflection over at Liminal Geographies on Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani‘s short film Liquid Traces.

Their video retraces the awful journey of 72 desperate people who set out from Tripoli on 27 March 2011.  Two weeks later their boat washed ashore on the Libyan coast again – but with only 11 survivors on board, two of whom later died.

I expect many readers will recognise that Liquid Traces derives from a project at Forensic Architecture called The Left to Die Boat:

The Forensic Oceanography project was launched in summer 2011 to support a coalition of NGOs demanding accountability for the deaths of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea while that region was being tightly monitored by the NATO-led coalition intervening in Libya. The efforts were focused on what is now known as the “left-to-die boat” case, in which sixty-three migrants lost their lives while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime surveillance area.

By going “against the grain” in our use of surveillance technologies, we were able to reconstruct with precision how events unfolded and demonstrate how different actors operating in the Central Mediterranean Sea used the complex and overlapping jurisdictions at sea to evade their responsibility for rescuing people in distress. The report we produced formed the basis for a number of ongoing legal petitions filed against NATO member states.


As Tim notes,

The paradox is this: despite its departure during a period of massive Frontex and NATO deployment following the Tunisian and Libyan uprisings, and despite the vicinity of 38 NATO ships (see below) and numerous commercial vessels, the migrants who were traveling across the Mediterranean were left to die while being actively observed through an assemblage of multiple, irresponsible eyes.


Tim concludes in terms that echo my own invocation of Donna Haraway, though in a radically different context:

Rather than being a God’s eye, which towers high above human activity, as if it were seeing from nowhere, the assemblage that surveys Mediterranean waters constitutes a patchy puzzle of often conflicting and contradictory visions and legislations, and – I might add – quite different and opposing temporalities. As Haraway points out, the main question in this case becomes not what but “how to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinded? Who wears blinders? Who interprets the visual field? What other sensory powers do we wish to cultivate besides vision?” And… “with whose blood were my eyes crafted?”

in Berlin, I’ll be presenting a new reading of an air strike orchestrated by an MQ-1 Predator in Uruzgan; here’s the programme note:

In the early hours of 21 February 2010 a team of US Special Forces soldiers and Afghan National Army troops flew in by helicopter to the village of Khod in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Their job was to search for a factory making Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). In the darkness the headlights of three vehicles were spotted in the far distance, and their movements were tracked by a Predator drone sending back full motion video to its crew at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Hour after hour, the Predator crew became more and more convinced that they were watching a group of Taliban preparing to attack the Special Forces team. But the Predator only had only one missile left, and so two combat helicopters were ordered in to attack. As the smoke cleared, it became obvious that a dreadful mistake had been made: women and children were visible among the casualties. A subsequent US Army investigation revealed that at least 15 innocent civilians had been killed and another 12 seriously injured; there were no Taliban present. The crew of the Predator were blamed – not least for having a ‘Top Gun’ mentality. But re-reading the 2,000 pages of that investigation reveals another story that dramatically complicates what has become the standard critique of Unmanned Aerial Violence and raises a series of troubling questions about militarized vision and later modern war.

More here on the narrowness of the standard ‘Predator view’, and I’ll post the full essay as soon as it’s finished.