Yet more on targeted killing/assassination: new from Verso and Henry Holt in March, Andrew Cockburn‘s Kill Chain: the rise of the high-tech assassins.
Kill Chain uncovers the real and extraordinary story of drone warfare, its origins in long-buried secret programs, the breakthroughs that made drone operations possible, the ways in which the technology works, and, despite official claims, does not work. Through the well-guarded world of national security, the book reveals the powerful interests—military, CIA, and corporate—that have led the drive to kill individuals by remote control. Most importantly of all, the book describes what has really happened when the theories underpinning the strategy—and the multi billion-dollar contracts they spawn—have been put to the test.
Andrew is the author of the brilliant Rumsfeld: an American disaster, and he’s also been writing around the issue of military and paramilitary violence for some time. There’s an early review of Kill Chain from Kirkus here, and Andrew discusses writing the book in a short audio clip here.
If you can’t wait until March, there’s a taster in ‘Drones, baby, drones‘, which appeared in the London Review of Books (8 March 2012); if you aren’t a subscriber you can obtain 24-hour access free of charge.
Time and again, the military has claimed that advances in technology have finally made warfare predictable and precise. That was the promise of Igloo White in Vietnam [see my ‘Lines of descent’: DOWNLOADS tab], the video-game spectacle of the Gulf War, the war for Kosovo and the counter-guerrilla wars of the past ten years. Time and again, the military’s claims have been disproved. Will drones change everything? Robert Gates, secretary of defence from 2006 to 2011, expressed the official view in his address to the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation annual dinner last March. Confessing that he hadn’t initially done enough to quash resistance to innovation from ‘flyboys in silk scarves’, Gates said: ‘From now on, it’s drones, baby, drones.’
In the audio clip Andrew insists that the full-motion video feeds from Predators and Reapers are far less clear than most commentators make out, and in subsequent contributions Andrew has perceptively linked the fantasies of the God-trick with militarized vision more generally: see, for example, his ‘Tunnel vision‘ (about the comparative merits of the A10 and the B1 bomber) which appeared in Harper’s in February 2014 and ‘Flying Blind‘, which appeared on Harper’s blog in September.
I’m not convinced that the A-10 is able to ‘observe the battleground with such precision, and safely to target enemy forces a stone’s throw away from friendly troops’ as Andrew maintains, but his more general point is a sharp one. Too often we forget that other aircraft rely on optical sensors and video screens too, not only Predators and Reapers, and that these political technologies differ from platform to platform, as the following slides from ‘Angry eyes’ indicate (where the captain of an AC-130 gunship in fact defers to the crew of a Predator):
And, as Andrew also makes clear, these technologies produce their own interpellations:
Video will often supply a false clarity to preconceived notions. One A-10 pilot described to me an afternoon he spent circling high over southern A ghanistan in May 2010, watching four people—tiny figures on his cockpit screen—clustering at the side of a road before they retreated across a field to- ward a house. Everything about their movements suggested a Taliban I.E.D.- laying team. Then the door to the house opened and a mother emerged to hustle her children in to supper.
“On the screen,” he explained, “the only way to tell a child from an adult is when they are standing next to each other. Otherwise everyone looks the same.”
“We call the screens face magnets,” remarked another veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Billy Smith, a former A-10 squadron commander who flew tours over Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “They tend to suck your face into the cockpit, so you don’t pay attention to what’s going on outside.”
All of this intersects with my continuing work on militarized vision, and in the next several weeks I’ll be uploading a series of new essays that deal with drone strikes in Pakistan [based on my ‘Dirty dancing‘ presentations], the Sangin Valley in Afghanistan (a ‘friendly fire’ incident), and an air strike in Uruzgan in Afghanistan that was orchestrated by a drone [based on my ‘Angry Eyes’ presentations]. So watch this space…
Incidentally, ‘kill chain’ is both the extended, networked apparatus that leads from air targeting to execution – for all platforms, remote and conventional – and the injunction that is typed into US military chat rooms (mIRC) to close down ‘chatter’ that might distract pilots once they are cleared to engage (see my discussion here).