Three strikes…

I’ve been working away on my Tanner Lectures, which has plunged me back in to my research on air strikes.  There is a dismal topicality to the subject, since in the UK the hawks on both right and left are circling the lobbies in the wake of the attacks in Paris (but still not, it seems, those in Beirut) demanding that yet more bombs fall on Syria.  They are less than hawk-eyed, however, since they offer no insight into what – precisely (not exactly the right word where bombing is concerned) – this is designed to achieve.  They have learned nothing from the 100-odd years of the history of bombing, or even from its more recent effects.

And talking of Beirut: when I delivered a presentation there in 2006, six months after Israel’s devastating air strikes on its southern suburbs, I borrowed my title [‘In another time-zone the bombs fall unsafely’: see DOWNLOADS tab] from Blake Morrison‘s poem ‘Stop’ which was reprinted in an anthology to aid children’s charities in Lebanon:

Blake Morrison STOP.001

So let me turn to three recent investigations of civilian casualties caused by US air strikes.  In each case it’s difficult to say as much as one ought to be able to say: in the first two cases (in Iraq and Syria) the reports have been heavily redacted, and in the third case (the attack on MSF’s hospital in Kunduz) all we have so far is an extended summary (though Kate Clark, as always, does a brilliant forensic job in filleting it here).

In this post I’ll discuss the report of an investigation into an air strike by two A-10 (‘Warthog’) aircraft on an Islamic State checkpoint near Al Hatra in Iraq on 13 March 2015.  On 2 April CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar was forwarded the following e-mail:

e-mail translation Al Hatra CIVCAS

Officers at the CAOC completed an initial ‘Civilian Casualty [CIVCAS] Credibility Assessment’ and agreed that the details in the e-mail were consistent with the known air strike.  On 20 April an investigation was established ‘to determine the veracity of the CIVCAS claim’ and, in the event that it was upheld, to review the targeting process ‘to determine if any errors occurred.’  Between 22 April and 1 June the investigating officer interviewed the military personnel involved in the air strike and reviewed intelligence reports and imagery of the target area.  This included an examination of the weapons system video (WSV) conducted by an ISR imagery analyst, and a transcript of the associated audio: neither has been released to the public, but you can get a sense of what A-10 imagery can (and cannot) show in this compilation video from Iraq here.

al Hatra map JPEG

Al Hatra is the site of the ancient fortified city of al Hadr, 2km northwest of the modern settlement (see map above), established under the Seleucids, and after its capture by the Parthians it became one of the major cities of the post-Alexandrian world.   Since October, intelligence reports had identified the ruins as an Islamic State training camp, and in March IS announced its intention to level the site and purge it of the ‘symbols of idolatry‘. (In April it released a video showing just that: see the images below, and more here).

IS video of al Hatra

IS Video of destruction at al Hatra

The initial target for the air strike on 13 March was an IS checkpoint and ‘enemy personnel’ who were stopping traffic.  They had been seen by an A-10 aircraft en route for refuelling – A10s fly sorties lasting between five and nine hours, and can require two or three inflight refuellings – and the information had been passed to the Dynamic Targeting Cell responsible for drawing up a detailed target folder or target package (a ‘Joint Targeting Message’) for all emergent targets: in effect, targets of opportunity.

Targeting and Targets (JP 3-60) 2013

It must have seemed routine to those on duty in the CAOC (shown below): there had been multiple strikes in the vicinity for several months.  The Dynamic Targeting Cell cleared the operation via the Battle Director at Al Udeid with the CAOC director who acted as the ‘Target Engagement Authority’ to sanction the strike, with ultimate responsibility for all lethal strikes against Islamic State in Syria and designated areas of western Iraq.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC), Al Udeid Air Base, 2015

While this was happening, the same aircraft reported that two vehicles had pulled into the side of the road next to the checkpoint (and within ‘the target area outline’: notice how rapidly individuals disappear from view, contained first within objects and then the objects within an area).

The occupants began to interact with the people manning the checkpoint – the pilot said the two vehicles ‘appeared to be a part of the checkpoint’ but he also made it clear that this was only an ‘opinion’ and that responsibility for the positive identification of the vehicles and passengers as a legitimate target had to rest with superior officers – and the Dynamic Targeting Cell agreed to ‘seek additional authority’.  After a short time he radioed back with permission for them to be included as part of the original Joint Targeting Message: ‘You’re cleared to execute Joint Targeting Message [Reference Number] including vehicles and all associated PAX [people/passengers] with PID [Positive Identification].’  The investigating officer evidently thought this perfectly reasonable, agreeing that ‘these vehicles did not display characteristics typical of transient vehicles at checkpoints’; rather than passing through (as seven other vehicles did), they stopped and ‘appeared to be functionally and geospatially tied to the … checkpoint and personnel authorized for strike.’

But this amendment to the original targeting package was never reported up the chain of command to the Target Engagement Authority who only validated the original Joint Targeting Message.  He was provided with imagery showing the intended target area, confirmed that it had ‘a single use purpose’, and so had no doubt that the checkpoint and its operators constituted ‘a functionally and geospatially defined object of attack’ and that it was a ‘legitimate military target’ in accordance with international humanitarian law – what the US military prefers to call ‘the law of armed conflict’ – and consistent with the military’s own rules of engagement.  The repetition of those qualifiers is vital: the US military defines Positive Identification [PID] as ‘the reasonable certainty that a functionally and geospatially defined object of attack is a legitimate military target’.

The Target Engagement Authority sought no advice from a Judge Advocate, the military lawyer on duty, about the propriety of striking the vehicles and passengers because they were not included in the original package.  He testified that ‘at no point was there any discussion of vehicles in association with this strike’: in fact, he explicitly instructed the aircrew ‘to clear for transients [passing vehicles] prior to weapons release.’

The deputy legal adviser to the Combat Operations Division in the CAOC explained that a Judge Advocate was involved in all Dynamic Targeting strikes.  The Dynamic Targeting Chief works with the Targets Duty Officer to establish positive identification of the target.  The Targets Duty Officer usually spends half of a 12-hour shift on the combat operations floor with the Chief and half with ISR analysts preparing target packages, and it is the responsibility of the Chief to write the ‘5Ws’ – who, what, where, when and why – necessary for any dynamic targeting strike.  As the two of them ‘work’ the target, the deputy legal adviser added, they ‘may bring [in] the legal adviser at various times’ throughout the process to provide advice derived from international humanitarian law, the rules of engagement and any special instructions (‘spins’).  The Judge Advocate also acts as ‘a second pair of eyes’ scrutinising the co-ordinates of the target and provides legal recommendations to the Target Engagement Authority.

It seems clear, even with the redactions, that in this case the Judge Advocate was not consulted about the (verbal) amendment to the initial targeting package because the procedure was amended as a direct consequence of the incident under investigation.  Instead of ‘returning to his or her desk’ once approval had been obtained from the Target Engagement Authority, the Judge Advocate is now required to observe ‘the passing of the Joint Targeting Message and [to] monitor the strike by remaining close to the Dynamic Targeting cell.’

There is also a wider responsibility: the deputy legal adviser made it clear that ‘anyone in the chain or the Dynamic Targeting cell has the responsibility to call an abort on the strike if the conditions change.’  In this case, clearly, they did – but nobody intervened.

The Dynamic Targeting Chief claims he telephoned the Battle Director for permission to extend the original Joint Targeting Message, but the exchange took just 80 seconds.  One witness – who may well have been the Battle Director: it’s impossible to know for sure – thought this highly unlikely: 80 seconds would have been ‘very, very quick for [him] to take a call, gather the information, relay it to the Targeting Engagement Authority, get approval, and then relay it back down to [the Dynamic Targeting Cell].’  And the CAOC director was adamant: ‘even if the aviators could identify the vehicles as hostile … there was still no authority to strike without requesting authorization for a Joint Targeting Message change‘ from him.


The A-10’s sensor remained ‘padlocked on these vehicles’ and when the pilot was finally cleared to engage he naturally assumed that the Target Engagement Authority had been satisfied by their inclusion in the target package.  Six seconds before they were hit, four people got out; the ISR analyst reviewing the post-strike video concluded that one of them was possibly a child.  But the investigating officer emphasised that they were only visible on the weapons system video and only after being played back at slow speed: ‘There is no reasonable expectation that [the pilot] could have seen, assessed and called for ABORT on the strike through real-time viewing of his targeting pod display inflight.’  The A-10 has a targeting pod under one wing which, as Andrew Cockburn reports, ‘ in daylight transmits video images of the ground below, and infrared images at night. This video feed is displayed on the plane’s instrument panel.’  As the pilot approached the target and entered his ‘weapons engagement envelope’ – again, note the geometric disposition – the investigating officer accepts that neither could he have ‘been able to discriminate between combatant and non-combatant personnel’.

The vehicles were attacked with the A-10’s 30mm rotary cannon – ‘a good weapon for reducing collateral damage’, according to one pilot (see the image below!) – and soon after a second A-10 dropped a single GBU-38 bomb and destroyed the guard shack; this is a conventional 500 lb bomb converted into a ‘guided bomb’, a ‘precision munition’, through the incorporation of a GPS/inertial navigation system so that it can attain a circular error probable of between 10 and 30 metres (which means that, assuming a bivariate normal distribution and all other things being equal, then 50% of the time it will land within that radius: which also means that the other half of the time it won’t, even under ideal experimental conditions).


Here is how that same pilot (who was not, so far as I know, flying this mission) characterised these operations against IS to Tom Philpott in April:

A-10 pilots are trained to find a target, seek verification and do on-the-fly targeting and strike. While that sounds like a solo operation, Stohler says “the coalition flying up there is enormous and we work as a team.”

Almost all targets get vetted up to higher command to determine validity. “As you can imagine this is complex,” Stohler says… The most challenging moment “is the weapon employment phase of the flight,” says Stohler. “Our number one focus is to deliver the ordnance on target, on the first pass, while minimizing collateral damage. This takes a great deal of skill that our pilots train to daily back home.”

“I tell our guys this is like trying to drop bombs on bad guys in your hometown. Your goal is not to hurt anyone else, or destroy anything that you don’t have to destroy. It’s a constant challenge to do that and we do it very well.”

But while collateral damage is key it might not be “a showstopper,” says Stohler. “Clearly if the target we need to hit is significant we will employ on it wherever it is – if we have the approval.”

In this case it took under an hour from first observing the checkpoint to striking the target; only eight minutes elapsed between the confirmation of the Joint Targeting Message and the execution of the strike; and it took just three or four seconds ‘from trigger squeeze to impact’.  According to the e-mail, at least two women and three children were killed.  The military decided not to award the writer of that message any compensation for the destruction of her vehicle and no solatia payments will be made to the families of the deceased since no survivors have come forward to ask for them.

CENTCOM’s press release summarising the investigation is a model of complacency and fails to include any of the qualifications and mis-steps I’ve noted in the previous paragraphs:

Based on the actions being observed, aircrew and CAOC personnel assessed that the checkpoint, additional vehicles, and additional personnel were lawful targets consistent with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) at the time the weapon was released on the target area.

The investigation concluded that the airstrikes resulted in the destruction of the intended target, and that the two vehicles parked at the checkpoint were also hit. Upon further review, it was determined that all ordnance functioned properly and accurately struck the intended target.

The investigation concluded that the airstrikes were conducted in accordance with applicable military authorizations, targeting guidance, and LOAC. The target engaged was a valid military target, and the LOAC principles of military necessity, proportionality, and distinction were observed. All reasonable measures were taken to avoid unintended deaths of or injuries to non-combatants by reviewing the targets thoroughly prior to engagement, relying on accurate assessments of the targets, and engaging the targets when the risk to non-combatants was thought to be minimized.

Micah Zenko has an analysis of this strike here, and he adds these chilling paragraphs:

To intensify the U.S.-led coalition’s war against the Islamic State … the Pentagon is considering further loosening the rules of engagement (ROEs) that are intended to minimize civilian casualties and expanding the target sets that can be bombed…

The first problem with this theory is that large militant armies are not defeated, either exclusively or primarily, with air power. Military and civilian policymakers repeat the mantra that “you can’t kill your way out” of the problem posed by such adversaries, but then continue to call upon air power to do just that. This is despite the fact that all of the militant armies and terrorist groups that have been bombed and droned for the past 14 years have survived. None have been completely destroyed, which is allegedly the strategic objective against the Islamic State. Moreover, the size of the al Qaeda-affiliated groups that the United States claims to be at war with have either stayed flat or grown, while the total number of State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations has grown from 34 in 2002 to 59 in 2015.

However, the larger concern with this mindset is the assured growth of collateral damage and civilian casualties that will accompany significantly loosened ROEs. Last month, Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, the U.S. Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, observed that the coalition was “challenged in finding enough targets that the airplanes can hit that meet the rules of engagement.” However, he added an important caveat: “If you inadvertently — legally — kill innocent men, women, and children, then there’s a backlash from that. And so we might kill three and create 10 terrorists.”

And yet, as Micah emphasizes, there have been only two military investigations into civilian casualties throughout the air campaign against IS:

8,300 airstrikes, 16,000 Islamic State targets destroyed, more than 20,000 Islamic State fighters killed — and only two claims of collateral damage. Either the U.S.-led coalition is really, really, really good at bombing these days, or they are shooting first and not asking questions later.

More in the same vein from Joseph Trevithick at War is Boring here.  You can access the US Air Force’s own (secret) tabulation of CIVCAS allegations here, which lists 45 separate incidents, far in excess of the two that have been officially acknowledged to date.  Joseph notes that most of them were dismissed within 48 hours as ‘not credible’ because there was ‘insufficient evidence’ or ‘insufficient information.’  Al Hatra was number 44:

CIVCAS allegation 44 al Hatra

The  Airwars team has provisionally estimated that from 8 August 2014 to 24 November 2015 ‘between 682 and 977 civilian non-combatants are likely to have been killed in 113 incidents where there is fair reporting publicly available of an event, and where Coalition strikes were confirmed in the near vicinity on that date.’  I’ve pasted their map of total claimed civilian casualties in Iraq (to 30 June 2015) below; you can find their full report, Cause for Concern, here.

Civilian casualties claimed Iraq 8 August 2014-30 June 2015

To be continued.  Sadly.

The sound of refugees

Distance from home

Brian Foo is a programmer and visual artist who has been conducting a series of music experiments at Date Driven DJ that combine data, algorithms, and borrowed sounds.  His video below (screenshot above), ‘Distance from home‘, which is also available on vimeo, uses refugee data from the United Nations from 1975 to 2012 to create a truly remarkable audio visualization.

Brian explained that his composition was inspired by The Refugee Project, and that it follows a series of algorithms:

Each year between 1975 and 2012 correlates to a 4-second segment in the song.

The annual global aggregate volume of refugee migration controls the quantity of instruments playing. The higher the volume of refugee migration, the more instruments are added to the song.

The annual average distance of refugee migration controls the duration and pitch of the instruments. Longer distances yield instruments that play longer and lower-pitch notes (e.g. long distances: , short distances: ).

The annual amount of countries with 1000+ refugees control the variety of instruments playing, where the more countries with 1000+ refugees, the more variety of instruments are playing in the song.

Thanks to Jaimie for bringing this project to my attention – which assumes a new significance as so many politicians and commentators foment fear, anger and rejection towards refugees seeking to escape war, misery and violence.  For a counterpoint, try this.

Operational Banality

The next Neil Smith Lecture will be given by the amazing Shiloh Krupar at St Andrews next week (24 November at 3 p.m.) on “Operational Banality: medical geographies of administration and the biopolitical grotesque”: online version will follow soon after.


In case the text in the poster (above) is too small:

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 12.21.07

I wish I could be there.

Paris of/in the Middle East


Islamic State has claimed responsibility for last night’s co-ordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, calling them the ‘first of the storm’ and castigating the French capital as ‘the capital of prostitution and obscenity’.   Walter Benjamin‘s celebrated ‘capital of the nineteenth century’ has been called many things, of course, and as I contemplated the symbol that has now gone viral (above), designed by Jean Jullien, I realised that Paris had been the stage for the 1919 Peace Conference that not only established the geopolitical settlement after the First World War but also accelerated the production of today’s ‘Middle East’ by awarding ‘mandates’ to both Britain and France and crystallising the secret Sykes-Picot agreement struck between the two powers in 1916 (more on that from the Smithsonian here).

Margaret MacMillan has a spirited summary of the conference here, with some lively side-swipes at the astonishing lack of geographical knowledge displayed by the principal protagonists.  Much on my mind was the French mandate for Syria and Lebanon:

French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon

For as I watched Friday night’s terrifying events in Paris unfold, I had also been reminded of the horrors visited upon Beirut the evening before.

Two suicide bombers detonated their explosives in Burj el-Barajneh in the city’s southern suburbs; the attacks were carefully timed for the early evening, when the streets were full of families gathering after work and crowds were leaving mosques after prayers: they killed 43 people and injured more than 200 others.

Islamic State issued a statement saying that ’40 rafideen– a pejorative term for Shiite Muslims used by Sunni Islamists – were killed in the “security operation”’ and claimed the attacks were in retaliation for Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war.


In the 1950s and 60s Beirut was known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ (above) – widely seen as more chic, more cosmopolitan than the ‘Paris-on-the-Nile’ created by Francophile architects and planners west of the old city of Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Now I’ve always been troubled by these city switchings – the ‘Venice of the North’ is another example – because they marginalise what is so distinctive about the cities in question and crush the creativity that is surely at the very heart of their urbanity.

And yet, after last night, I can see a different point in the politics of comparison (from Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner to the post 9/11 insistence that “we are all New Yorkers…”).  More accurately, in the politics of non-comparison: as Chris Graham asks (and answers): why the silence over what happened in Beirut on Thursday?  Why no mobilisation of the news media and no interruptions to regular programmes on TV or radio?  Why no anguished personal statements from Obama, Cameron or, yes, Hollande?


Nobody has put those questions with more passion and justice than Elie Fares writing from Beirut:

I woke up this morning to two broken cities. My friends in Paris who only yesterday were asking what was happening in Beirut were now on the opposite side of the line. Both our capitals were broken and scarred, old news to us perhaps but foreign territory to them….

Amid the chaos and tragedy of it all, one nagging thought wouldn’t leave my head. It’s the same thought that echoes inside my skull at every single one of these events, which are becoming sadly very recurrent: we don’t really matter.

When my people were blown to pieces on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, the headlines read: explosion in Hezbollah stronghold, as if delineating the political background of a heavily urban area somehow placed the terrorism in context.

When my people died on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, world leaders did not rise in condemnation. There were no statements expressing sympathy with the Lebanese people. There was no global outrage that innocent people whose only fault was being somewhere at the wrong place and time should never have to go that way or that their families should never be broken that way or that someone’s sect or political background should never be a hyphen before feeling horrified at how their corpses burned on cement. Obama did not issue a statement about how their death was a crime against humanity; after all what is humanity but a subjective term delineating the worth of the human being meant by it?

Here we might pause to remind ourselves that most of the victims of Islamic State have been Muslims (see, for example, here and here).

Here Hamid Dabashi‘s reflections are no less acute:

In a speech expressing his solidarity and sympathy with the French, US President Barack Obama said, “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

Of course, the attack on the French is an attack on humanity, but is an attack on a Lebanese, an Afghan, a Yazidi, a Kurd, an Iraqi, a Somali, or a Palestinian any less an attack “on all of humanity and the universal values that we share”? What is it exactly that a North American and a French share that the rest of humanity is denied sharing?

In his speech, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking as a European, was emphatic about “our way of life”, and then addressing the French he added: “Your values are our values, your pain is our pain, your fight is our fight, and together, we will defeat these terrorists.”

What exactly are these French and British values? Can, may, a Muslim share them too – while a Muslim? Or must she or he first denounce being a Muslim and become French or British before sharing those values?

These are loaded terms, civilisational terms, and culturally coded registers. Both Obama and Cameron opt to choose terms that decidedly and deliberately turn me and millions of Muslims like me to their civilisational other.

They make it impossible for me to remain the Muslim that I am and join them and millions of other people in the US and the UK and the EU in sympathy and solidarity with the suffering of the French.

As a Muslim I defy their provincialism, and I declare my sympathy and solidarity with the French; and I do so, decidedly, pointedly, defiantly, as a Muslim.

When Arabs or Muslims die in the hands of the selfsame criminal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gangs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon, they are reduced to their lowest common denominator and presumed sectarian denominations, overcoming and camouflaging our humanity. But when French or British or US citizens are murdered, they are raised to their highest common abstractions and become the universal icons of humanity at large.

Why? Are we Muslims not human? Does the murder of one of us not constitute harm to the entire body of humanity?

BUTLER Frames of WarElie’s and Hamid’s questions are multiple anguished variations of Judith Butler‘s trenchant demand: why are these lives deemed grievable and not those others?

To ask this is not to minimise the sheer bloody horror of mass terrorism in Paris nor to marginalise the terror, pain and suffering inflicted last night on hundreds of innocents – and also affecting directly or indirectly thousands and thousands of others.

In fact the question assumes a new urgency in the wake of what happened in Paris – where I think the most telling comparison is with Beirut and not with the attacks on Charlie Hebdo (see my commentary here) – because the extreme right (the very same people who once elected to stuff “Freedom Fries” down their throats) has lost no time in using last night’s events to ramp up their denigration of Syrian refugees and their demands for yet more bombing (and dismally failing to see any connection between the two).  You can see something of what I mean here.

And so I suggest we reflect on Jason Burke‘s commentary on Islamic State’s decision to ‘go global’ and its tripartite strategy of what he calls ‘terrorise, mobilise, polarise’.  The three are closely connected, but it’s the last term that is crucial:

In February this year, in a chilling editorial in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, Isis laid out its own strategy to eliminate what the writer, or writers, called “the grey zone”.

This was, Isis said, what lay between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned. It was home, too, to all those who had yet to commit to the forces of either side.

The grey zone, Isis claimed, had been “critically endangered [since] the blessed operations of September 11th”, as “these operations showed the world” the two camps that mankind must choose between.

Over the years, since successive violent acts had narrowed the grey zone to the point where by the end of 2014 “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone everywhere”.


More from Ben Norton here.  The imaginative geographies of Islamic State overlap with those spewed by the extreme right in Europe and North America and, like all imaginative geographies, they have palpable effects: not fifty shades of grey but fifty versions of supposedly redemptive violence.

UPDATE (1):  For more on these questions – and the relevance of Butler’s work– see Carolina Yoko Furusho‘s essay ‘On Selective Grief’ at Critical Legal Thinking here.

As it happens, Judith is in Paris, and posted a short reflection on Verso’s blog here.  She ends with these paragraphs:

My wager is that the discourse on liberty will be important to track in the coming days and weeks, and that it will have implications for the security state and the narrowing versions of democracy before us. One version of liberty is attacked by the enemy, another version is restricted by the state. The state defends the version of liberty attacked as the very heart of France, and yet suspends freedom of assembly (“the right to demonstrate”) in the midst of its mourning and prepares for an even more thorough militarization of the police. The political question seems to be, what version of the right-wing will prevail in the coming elections? And what now becomes a permissable right-wing once le Pen becomes the “center”. Horrific, sad, and foreboding times, but hopefully we can still think and speak and act in the midst of it.

Mourning seems fully restricted within the national frame. The nearly 50 dead in Beirut from the day before are barely mentioned, and neither are the 111 in Palestine killed in the last weeks alone, or the scores in Ankara. Most people I know describe themseves as “at an impasse”, not able to think the situation through. One way to think about it may be to come up with a concept of transversal grief, to consider how the metrics of grievability work, why the cafe as target pulls at my heart in ways that other targets cannot. It seems that fear and rage may well turn into a fierce embrace of a police state. I suppose this is why I prefer those who find themselves at an impasse. That means that this will take some time to think through. It is difficult to think when one is appalled. It requires time, and those who are willing to take it with you – something that has a chance of happening in an unauthorized “rassemblement” [gathering].

UPDATE (2): At Open Democracy Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed has a helpful essay, ‘ISIS wants to destroy the “grey zone”: Here’s how we defend it’: access here.

Collateral damage

A gracious note from Antipode prompts me to add that today is also a day to remember the countless others who are victims of war and military/paramilitary violence.  And so to a new book due at the end of the month from Frederik RosénCollateral Damage: a candid history of a peculiar form of death (Hurst/Oxford University Press):

ROSEN Collateral damageThe dilemmas precipitated by the unintentional killing of civilians in war, or ‘collateral damage’, shape many aspects of military conduct, yet noticeable by its absence has been a methodical examination of the place and role of this phenomenon in modern warfare. This book offers a fresh perspective on a distressing consequence of conflict.

Rosén explains how collateral damage is linked to ideas of authority, thereby anchoring it to the existential riddles of our individual and collective lives, and that this peculiar form of death constitutes an image of what it means to be human.

His investigation of collateral damage is notable too for how the death of non-combatants sheds light on some of today’s critical challenges to war and global governance, such as the growing role of non-state actors, mercenary contractors and the impact of military privatization.

In the ethical realm those who successfully prove that collateral damage has occurred also enter the debate about which institutions may exert authority and thus how a truly decentralized world might be organized. This is why the in many ways underrepresented victims of collateral damage appear on closer inspection to have experienced a most significant form of death.


1. The Third Category of Death
2. Urban Warfare and Collateral Damage
3. Collateral Damage and the Question of Legal Responsibility
4. Collateral Damage and Compensation
5. Lifting the Fog of War and Collateral Damage
6. How Bad Can Be Good
7. A Death Without Sacrifice
8. Collateral Damage or Accident?
9. A Private Call for Collateral Damage?
10. A Place Between it All

This is a good moment to remember Patricia Owens’ classic and still vitally important essay, ‘Accidents don’t just happen: the liberal politics of high-technology “humanitarian” war’, Millennium 32 (3) (2003) 596-616, and to reflect on what is surely a classic-in-the-making: Emily Gilbert‘s brilliant new essay, ‘The gift of war: cash, counterinsurgency and “collateral damage”‘, Security dialogue (online early).

Then there is the intentional killing of civilians in war….

Unimaginative geographies

Last week I was asked to contribute a 6-700 word Op-Ed to the Washington Post‘s In Theory series on ‘othering’ and the Middle East.  They wanted me to write about Edward Said‘s concept of ‘imaginative geographies’ and its implications for US foreign policy.

I wrote a quick draft and sent it off.  The core argument was that one of the most debilitating consequences of these bipolar imaginative geographies is their refusal to recognize and value those things that we have in common with others.  This wasn’t a clarion call for the reinstatement of the supposedly universal subject of humanism, of course: just a reminder that the accent on difference can blind us to the co-presence of commonality.  Nothing new about that, really, and like Matthew Yglesias (below) I’ve been arguing this for an age:

YGLESIAS Commonality.001

Then I took the dog for a walk.  By the time I returned, I had an idea for a conclusion, which was about radical narcissism, so I sent it off:

At best, we are offered a radical narcissism in which we imagine what it would be like if the suburbs of Washington, D.C., suffered air raids night after night, or if our skies were full of the sound of drones, watching and waiting to strike without warning. In imagining our lives made newly vulnerable to military violence, however, we continue to privilege “our” space and separate it from “their” space. If we can imagine such horrors happening to us, why is it so difficult to imagine them being visited on others?

This follows more or less directly from what I’d been thinking about the ways in which, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States collectively imagined itself as newly vulnerable: hence the stream of articles and illustrations in the 1940s and 50s imagining a nuclear strike on New York or Washington.

But over the weekend I took the dog for another walk, and had another thought – about the politics of affect.   If we limit our understanding of imaginative geographies to the interpretative frameworks of ‘the other’ – the assumptions and conventions through which they make sense of the world – then we marginalise the affective: in particular those visceral responses to the experience of violent death and destruction which we also share to varying degrees.  So it is that too often we fail to grasp the anger of somebody desperately seeking shelter from yet another air strike, the anguish of a mother or father cradling the body of their dead child, the despair of a family as they watch their home bulldozed to the ground, or the humiliation of a young man made to lower his trousers and raise his shirt by soldiers at a checkpoint.  And as we attribute their response to ‘their’ unreason we continue to inflict our own, always ‘rational’ – read ‘precise’, ‘measured’, ‘scientific’ – violence upon them.

Too late for the published version, which you can find here.

Surgical strike

Kunduz Trauma Center (Andrew Quilty)

An update to my post (which I’ve updated several times) on the US air strike on the hospital in Kunduz early last month: MSF has released an internal review of the events that took place that night.  It’s only a preliminary report – the inquiry is ongoing – but it makes for grim reading.

MSF opened its Kunduz Trauma Center in August 2011, providing free, high-quality surgical care to all those who needed it (for more on MSF and other medical charities in Afghanistan, see my post on ‘The prosthetics of military violence’ here).

By the end of September 2015 the original 92 beds had grown to 140 as the numbers being treated grew:

Case load Kunduz Trauma Center 2011-2015 (MSF)

MSF is an experienced, highly regarded relief organisation and so it comes as no surprise to learn that it was fully aware of the cardinal principle of medical neutrality and took all possible steps to secure the legal and military foundations on which it operated:

MSF activities in Kunduz were based on a thorough process to reach an agreement with all parties to the conflict to respect the neutrality of our medical facility. In Afghanistan, agreements were reached with the health authorities of both the government of Afghanistan and health authorities affiliated with the relevant armed opposition groups. These agreements contain specific reference to the applicable sections of International Humanitarian Law including:

  • –  Guaranteeing the right to treat all wounded and sick without discrimination
  • –  Protection of patients and staff guaranteeing non-harassment whilst under medical care
  • –  Immunity from prosecution for performing their medical duties for our staff
  • –  Respect for medical and patient confidentiality
  • –  Respect of a ‘no-weapon’ policy within the hospital compound

The report makes it clear that this had been clearly endorsed by all the military and paramilitary parties to the conflict.

Fighting intensified in the week before the air strike.  Most of those treated since the Trauma Center opened had been from the Afghan government side, but from Monday 28 September ‘this shifted to primarily wounded Taliban combatants.’  The Afghan government speedily arranged the transfer of all its patients (apart from the most severely wounded cases) to another hospital.  By that night the Taliban announced that it was in control of the district.

The next day, as the numbers seeking treatment increased yet again, MSF reconfirmed the GPS co-ordinates of the Trauma Center with both the Afghan authorities and the US military.

On Thursday 1 October MSF was asked by Carter Malkasian, a a special adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether the hospital ‘had a large number of Taliban “holed up” and enquired about the safety of [MSF] staff’ and was told that its staff ‘were working at full capacity’ and that the hospital ‘was full of patients including wounded Taliban combatants’.  And because the Taliban were hors de combat they were not a legitimate military target: there is absolutely no ambiguity about this.

That same day a UN civilian/military liason ‘advised MSF to remain within the GPS coordinates provided to all parties to the conflict as “bombing is ongoing in Kunduz.”’

On Friday 2 October two large MSF flags were placed on the roof of the hospital.  That night the hospital was calm, there was no fighting taking place within the vicinity and MSF insists that there were no armed combatants in the buildings or the grounds of the hospital.

The air strikes began soon after 2 a.m. on Saturday 3 October, and throughout the attack – which lasted for over an hour – MSF made repeated attempts to stop the assault:

MSF Kunduz phone log

And yet, despite everything the US military had been told in advance and despite these repeated attempts to stop the air strikes, an AC-130 gunship made five repeated passes:

A series of multiple, precise and sustained airstrikes targeted the main hospital building, leaving the rest of the buildings in the MSF compound comparatively untouched. This specific building of the hospital correlates exactly with the GPS coordinates provided to the parties to the conflict [my emphasis].

Bombing of Kunduz Trauma Center

As MSF’s Director concludes,

‘The question remains as to whether our hospital lost its protected status in the eyes of the military forces engaged in this attack – and if so, why. The answer does not lie within the MSF hospital. Those responsible for requesting, ordering and approving the airstrikes hold these answers’.

And, as the report notes, this is the view from the inside: ‘What we lack is the view from outside the hospital – what happened within the military chains of command.’

So far, controlled leaks from the US military investigation have suggested that an Afghan ‘rapid reaction force’ requested the attack, that it had been rushed to Kunduz from elsewhere in Afghanistan, arriving ‘just days before the air strike’, and that it had no experience in working with the US ground troops from the Third Special Forces Group who relayed the request for ‘aerial fires’ to the Joint Operations Center at Kunduz airfield.  The Green Berets ‘were aware it was a functioning hospital,’ AP reported, ‘but believed it was under Taliban control.’  The report continues:

The Green Berets had asked for Air Force intelligence-gathering flights over the hospital, and both Green Berets and Air Force personnel were aware it was a protected medical facility, the records show, according to the two people who have seen the documents.

The analysts’ dossier included maps with the hospital circled, along with indications that intelligence agencies were tracking the location of [an] … operative [from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate who was allegedly co-ordinating Taliban operations in the area] and activity reports based on overhead surveillance, according to a former intelligence official who is familiar with some of the documents. The intelligence suggested the hospital was being used as a Taliban command and control center and may have housed heavy weapons.

According to the Washington Post,

… the crew of the AC-130, call sign Hammer, verified their permission to fire twice before engaging the hospital. AC-130Us carry a crew of 14, often including a special forces liaison officer responsible for communicating with ground units.

And the US troops remained in contact with the AC-130 gunship throughout the attacks.

So even if you accept all these unverified claims about the intelligence (or lack of it) behind the air strikes, you surely have to wonder about the studied lack of response to the repeated calls to have the attacks stopped.  Bear in mind, too, that the AC-130 has a sophisticated sensor suite on board, including IR and low-light cameras, that the hospital kept its lights on throughout the night (it was one of the few buildings in the city whose electricity was still working), and that MSF staff were advised to remain inside the co-ordinate grid they had given to the military: which turned out to be the very co-ordinates used for the attack.  It seems dismally clear that the trauma center was precisely targeted and that it could not have been mistaken for any other building.

Regular readers will know that the US military has repeatedly relied on an elaborate bio-medical discourse to legitimise its actions (for a brilliant recent discussion, see Elke Schwarz‘s ‘Prescription drones: on the techno-biopolitical regimes of contemporary ‘ethical killing’’, online early at Security Dialogue); the most familiar version, hideously ironic given the events in Kunduz, is the claim that the US military has an unprecedented ability to carry out ‘surgical strikes’…

UPDATE:  For an excellent analysis, see Kate Clark at the Afghan Analysts Network here

Big Data and Bombs on Fifth Avenue

Big Data, No Thanks

James Bridle has posted a lightly edited version of the excellent presentation he gave to “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto last month – Big Data, No Thanks – at his blog booktwo.  It’s an artful mix of text and images and, as always with James, both repay close scrutiny.

If you look at the situation we are in now, a couple of years after the Snowden revelations, most if not all of the activities which they uncovered have been, if not secretly authorised already, signed into law and continued without much fuss.

As Trevor Paglen has said: Wikileaks and the NSA have essentially the same political position: there are dark secrets at the heart of the world, and if we can only bring them to light, everything will magically be made better. One legitimises the other. Transparency is not enough – and certainly not when it operates in only one direction.  This process has also made me question my own practice and that of many others, because making the invisible visible is not enough either.

James talks about the ‘existential dread’ he feels caused not ‘by the shadow of the bomb, but by the shadow of data’:

It’s easy to feel, looking back, that we spent the 20th Century living in a minefield, and I think we’re still living in a minefield now, one where critical public health infrastructure runs on insecure public phone networks, financial markets rely on vulnerable, decades-old computer systems, and everything from mortgage applications to lethal weapons systems are governed by inscrutable and unaccountable softwares. This structural and existential threat, which is both to our individual liberty and our collective society, is largely concealed from us by commercial and political interests, and nuclear history is a good primer in how that has been standard practice for quite some time.

newyorker-720-loIt’s a much richer argument than these snippets can convey.  For me, the high spot comes when James talks about IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (really), which turns out to be the most explosive combination of secrecy and visibility that you could possibly imagine.

I’m not going to spoil it – go and read it for yourself, and then the title of this post will make horrible sense.  You can read more in George Dyson‘s absorbingly intricate account of Turing’s Cathedral: the origins of the digital universe (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2012).

Atomic soldiers and the nuclear battlefield

As promised, I’ve posted the slides from my presentation on “Little Boys and Blue Skies: drones through post-atomic eyes” under the DOWNLOADS tab.  Given my previous posts (here and here) these ought to be reasonably self-explanatory, but I’ve added a series of images derived from Matt Farish‘s brilliant presentation “Beneath the bombs” at the same conference and these probably need explanation.

Tumbler-Snapper 1 June 1952.001

One of the central themes of my presentation was the emphasis placed on American lives by those who planned the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which is why the crew of the Enola Gay had to execute such a tight turn to escape the shock waves from the blast – and by American commentators who almost immediately contemplated the possibility of a nuclear attack on the continental United States.

The same was true of those who prepared for subsequent nuclear strikes (which is why the US Air Force experimented with drones to ‘deliver’ the bombs) and by those who orchestrated subsequent nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands and in Nevada (which is why the US Air Force and the US Navy used drones to fly through the atomic clouds to collect samples).

As I showed in the presentation, these same priorities have been extended to today’s use of armed drones by the US Air Force, which repeatedly cites its Predators and Reapers as ‘projecting power without vulnerability’.

All of this will be clear from my slides and posts.

Troops watching atomic test, Yucca Flat, November 1951

But what I didn’t know was that the US Army and Marine Corps had no such qualms about exposing the bodies of their soldiers and marines to the dangers of atomic tests.  Matt described a series of exercises in Nevada – Desert Rock – held between 1951 and 1957 in which ground troops not only watched the tests from a distance (this I did know: see the image above) but were also ordered forward to secure the blast area.  Here is an official video (watch from 3.00).

This is a silent film, but if you prefer a video with a jaunty, reassuring commentary you can find one from the Internet Archive here.  It’s accompanied by this transcript of an interview between a sergeant and a training officer before a blast:

Question. “How many of your men would volunteer to go up and be in the foxholes?” (one-half mile from ground zero)

Answer. “I guess about half a dozen.”

Question. “It’s quite a loud noise when that bomb goes off … would it do them any harm?”

Answer. “No sir, not the noise, no.”

Question. “How about the radiation? Do you think there is much danger?”

Answer. “Radiation is the least of their worries that the men are thinking about.”

Question. “I think most thought radiation was the greatest danger, didn’t they? Where did they learn differently?”

Answer. “They were, prior to our instructions here. We received a very thorough briefing.”


Part of the purpose of the tests was indeed to show how safe the tests were.  As Dr Richard Meiling, the chair of the Armed Forces Medical Policy Council, explained in a memorandum to the Pentagon on 27 June 1951:

‘Fear of radiation … is almost universal among the uninitiated and unless it is overcome in the military forces it could present a most serious problem if atomic weapons are used…. It has been proven repeatedly that persistent ionizing radiation following air bursts does not occur, hence the fear that it presents a dangerous hazard to personnel is groundless.’

Meiling-Richard-L.-218x300Meiling recommended that ‘positive action be taken at the earliest opportunity to demonstrate this fact in a practical manner’, ideally by deploying a Regimental Combat Team ‘approximately twelve miles from the designated ground zero of an air blast and immediately following the explosion . . . they should move into the burst area in fulfillment of a tactical problem.’

In effect, Meiling wanted to conduct an extended psychological experiment in which the Test Site would become a vast human – as much as physical – laboratory.

Simon 1953 EMP shock test

According to a report from the Human Resources Research Organization:

By means of attitude measurement methods measuring psychological effects of stress, both applied at critical points during the maneuver, an attempt was made:

1. To evaluate effects of atomic indoctrination on troop participants; and

2. To estimate effects of the detonation together with its accompanying affects on performance.

One Army officer, Captain Richard Taffe, provided a remarkably cheery first-hand account for Collier’s on 26 January 1952:

I walked through an atom-bombed area. I didn’t get burned, I didn’t become radioactive, and I didn’t become sterile. And neither did the 5,000 guys with me. Furthermore, I wasn’t scared—either while taking my walk through the blasted miles, or while watching the world’s most feared weapon being exploded seven miles in front of me.

But, I’ve been asked a hundred times since the Desert Rock maneuvers at Yucca Flats in the Nevada atomic test site, “What was it like?”…

Suddenly it came. A gigantic flash of white light, bright as a photoflash bulb exploding in our eyes—even with our backs turned. The order “Turn” screamed over the public address system and 5,000 soldiers spun and stared. As we turned, it was as though someone had opened the door of a blast furnace as the terrific heat reached us. There, suspended over the desert floor, was the fireball which follows the initial flash of an atomic bomb.

Hung there in the sky, the tremendous ball of flame was too blinding to stare at, and suddenly there was much more to see.

Sucked into that fireball were the tons of debris from the desert floor. Almost at once dust clouds climbed hundreds of yards off the ground for miles in each direction. Then the familiar column of dirty gray smoke formed and started to rise.

Up to this point we had seen, but we had not heard and we had not felt, the explosion.

But then came the shock wave. The ground beneath us started to heave and sway. Not back and forth as you might expect, but sideways. The earthquakelike movement of the ground rocked us on our haunches and, had we been standing, it could have knocked us down.

About that time, our heads were snapped back with the force of the terrible blast as the sound finally crossed those seven miles and reached us. The tremendous crack was a louder one than most of us had ever heard before. And right behind it came another crack—there seemed to be some debate as to whether this was an echo or another chain reaction in the fireball.

From the throats of everyone there came noises. Noises, not words. I listened particularly for the first coherent statement, but, like myself, few people could voice normal exclamations. It was not something normal and words just wouldn’t come out—only unintelligible sounds.

The first words I did hear came from a caustic corporal behind me, who said, almost calmly, “Well, I finally located that damned Ground Zero.”

Our roar of laughter broke the tension, but the spectacle was far from over.

The horror turned to beauty. It isn’t difficult to associate the word beautiful with such a lethal exhibition, because from this point on, the atomic blast became just that—beautiful. A column rose from where the fireball had dimmed, crawled through the brown doughnut above the fireball, and boiled skyward. The dirty gray of the stem was rapidly offset by the purple hues and blues of the column. Then came the mushroom—the trade-mark of an atomic bomb.

Capped in pure white, the seething mushroom emitted browns, blood orange, pastel pinks, each fighting its way to the surface only to be sucked to the bottom and then back into the middle of the mass of white. Within minutes, the top was at 30,000 feet and then the huge cloud broke loose from the stem and drifted in the wind toward Las Vegas. . . .

This explosion had three lethal qualities. They were: blast, heat and radiation. The greatest fear the public has today in connection with the atom bomb probably is radiation. People forget that it caused only 15 per cent of the 140,000 deaths at Hiroshima.

One second after an air burst of an atom bomb, 50 per cent of the radiation is gone. All danger of lingering radiation has disappeared after 90 seconds.

As to the other two qualities, blast caused 60 per cent of the deaths at Hiroshima. Heat and the accompanying fires accounted for the other 25 per cent. . . .

As we moved up the road in the trucks, the effects of the blast became more apparent. About two miles from Ground Zero—and incidentally the bomber dropped his lethal egg in the proverbial bucket, right on the target—it became obvious that a terrible force had been at work.

At one of the closest positions we again left the trucks and walked through the charred area. Despite the devastation, there was no doubt that a successful attack could have been made by friendly troops directly through the blasted area—immediately after the explosion.

You can find much more here (scroll way down).  The purpose of reports like this was clearly to ‘indoctrinate’ a far wider audience than the US military.

All of this raises two questions.  One is about the radical difference between saving the lives of airmen and risking the lives of ground troops; the answer surely lies only partly in the insistence that there was no risk at all – since the Air Force clearly believed otherwise – and so must also lie in a dismal cost-benefit analysis that reckoned the cost (and time) involved in training aircrew against that involved in training ground troops.

The other is about what could possibly have required a ‘successful attack’ on ground zero and what would have been left for those troops to ‘secure’ after the blast…

Note: If you wonder about the long-term effects of the tests on residents of the area around the Nevada Test Site, see Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon, Killing our own: the disaster of America’s experiencewith atomic radiation, which is open access here (see chapter 3: ‘Bringing the bombs home’).

The US Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments provided a report on the effects on ground troops in The Human Radiation Experiments (1996) (Ch 10: ‘Atomic veterans: human experimentation in connection with bomb tests’).

Spaces of Danger

Spaces of Danger

On the same day I heard the news of Ed Soja‘s untimely death I received my copy of Spaces of Danger: culture and power in the everyday, a volume in the University of Georgia Press’s Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series.  It’s a collection of essays edited by Heather Merrill and Lisa Hoffman: all of the contributors have been inspired by the work of another friend who I also miss very much, Allan Pred.

These twelve original essays by geographers and anthropologists offer a deep critical understanding of Allan Pred’s pathbreaking and eclectic cultural Marxist approach, with a focus on his concept of “situated ignorance”: the production and reproduction of power and inequality by regimes of truth through strategically deployed misinformation, diversions, and silences. As the essays expose the cultural and material circumstances in which situated ignorance persists, they also add a previously underexplored spatial dimension to Walter Benjamin’s idea of “moments of danger.”

The volume invokes the aftermath of the July 2011 attacks by far-right activist Anders Breivik in Norway, who ambushed a Labor Party youth gathering and bombed a government building, killing and injuring many. Breivik had publicly and forthrightly declared war against an array of liberal attitudes he saw threatening Western civilization. However, as politicians and journalists interpreted these events for mass consumption, a narrative quickly emerged that painted Breivik as a lone madman and steered the discourse away from analysis of the resurgent right-wing racisms and nationalisms in which he was immersed.

The Breivik case is merely one of the most visible recent examples, say editors Heather Merrill and Lisa Hoffman, of the unchallenged production of knowledge in the public sphere. In essays that range widely in topic and setting—for example, brownfield development in China, a Holocaust memorial in Germany, an art gallery exhibit in South Africa—this volume peels back layers of “situated practices and their associated meaning and power relations.” Spaces of Danger offers analytical and conceptual tools of a Predian approach to interrogate the taken-for-granted and make visible and legible that which is silenced.


1 Introduction: Making sense of our contemporary moment of danger


Trevor Paglen: Angelus Novus (from back)

2 Katharyne Mitchell: It’s TIME: The cultural politics of memory in the current moment of danger

3 Gunnar Olsson: Skinning the Skinning


Trevor Paglen: From Allan’s notes on Benjamin

4 Gillian Hart: Exposing the Nationa: entanglements of race, sexuality and gender in post-apartheid nationalism

5 Heather Merrill: In other for(l)ds: situated intersectionality in Italy

6 Damani Partridge: Monumental memory, moral superiority, and contemporary disconnects: racisms and noncitizen in Europe, then and now


Trevor Paglen: From Allan’s notes on Benjamin

7 Richard Walker: The city and economic geography: then and now

8 Shiloh Krupar: Situated spectacle: cross-sectional soil hermeneutics of the Shanghai 2010 World Expo


Trevor Paglen: Angelus Novus

9 Michael Watts  Insurgent Spaces: power, place and spectacle in Nigeria

10 Nancy Postero: Even in plurinational Bolivia: indignity, development and racism since Morales

11 Derek Gregory: Moving targets and violent geographies


12 Cindi Katz: A Bronx chronicle

There’s also a warm and exquisitely written Foreword by Paul Rabinow, who co-taught a graduate course with Allan at Berkeley, which ends like this:

‘Dame Fortune smiled on me when she sent Allan Pred my way.  I am forever in her debt.  The glimmers of hope in these dark times continue to emanate from those rare friends, not just their magnificent work, but the way they lived – the way they patiently, unobtrusively, daringly and thoughtfully taught us how to live.’

The stunning cover image, Travelers, is by Allan’s hyper-talented daughter Michele: it shows scissors confiscated at US airports and now suspended under a vast umbrella.  Spaces of Danger indeed.