All the ways we kill and die

all-the-ways-we-kill-and-die-cover

I’ve noticed Brian Castners astonishing work before – see my post here – and I’m now deep into his latest book (published on my birthday).  I’ll write a detailed response when I’m finished, but it is so very good that I wanted to give readers advance notice of it.  It’s called All the ways we kill and die (Arcade, 2016):

The EOD—explosive ordnance disposal—community is tight-knit, and when one of their own is hurt, an alarm goes out. When Brian Castner, an Iraq War vet, learns that his friend and EOD brother Matt has been killed by an IED in Afghanistan, he goes to console Matt’s widow, but he also begins a personal investigation. Is the bomb maker who killed Matt the same man American forces have been hunting since Iraq, known as the Engineer?

In this nonfiction thriller Castner takes us inside the manhunt for this elusive figure, meeting maimed survivors, interviewing the forensics teams who gather post-blast evidence, the wonks who collect intelligence, the drone pilots and contractors tasked to kill. His investigation reveals how warfare has changed since Iraq, becoming individualized even as it has become hi-tech, with our drones, bomb disposal robots, and CSI-like techniques. As we use technology to identify, locate, and take out the planners and bomb makers, the chilling lesson is that the hunters are also being hunted, and the other side—from Al-Qaeda to ISIS— has been selecting its own high-value targets.

This is how Brian himself describes the book:

In January of 2012, a good friend of mine–Matt Schwartz from Traverse City, Michigan–was killed in Afghanistan. Matt was an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician. We had the same job, but while I had done my two tours in Iraq and went home, Matt deployed again and again and again. He was shot on his second tour, and died on his sixth.

I realize now that I was bound to do an investigation into his death; my training demanded it. But instead of asking “what” killed him–we knew immediately it was a roadside bomb–I asked “who” killed him. It’s a question that would not have made any sense in past wars, not even at the start of this one. But we have individualized the war, we target specific people in specific insurgent organizations, and in the course of my research, I discovered the leaders on the other side do the same in reverse to us.

This is the story of an American family at war, and the men and women who fight this new technology-heavy and intelligence-based conflict. I interviewed intel analysts, biometrics engineers, drone pilots, special operations aircrew, amputees who lost their legs, and the contractors hired to finish the job. They are all hunting a man known as al-Muhandis, The Engineer, the brains behind the devices that have killed so many soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You can read an excerpt at VICE (‘The problem with biometrics at war‘) and another at Foreign Policy (‘You will know the Bomber by his designs).

Reading this in counterpoint to Harry Parker‘s  Anatomy of a soldier (see my post here) – both deal with the aftermath of an IED in Afghanistan – is proving to be a rich and truly illuminating experience.

Red Cross-Fire

Yet more on violations of medical neutrality in contemporary conflicts (see my posts here, herehere and here).  Over at Afghan Analysts Network Kate Clark provides a grim review of (un)developments in Afghanistan, Clinics under fire? Health workers caught up in the Afghan conflict.

Those providing health care in contested areas in Afghanistan say they are feeling under increasing pressure from all sides in the war. There have been two egregious attacks on medical facilities in the last six months: the summary execution of two patients and a carer taken from a clinic in Wardak by Afghan special forces in mid-February – a clear war crime – and the United States bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz in October 2015, which left dozens dead and injured – an alleged war crime. Health professionals have told AAN of other violations, by both pro and anti-government forces. Perhaps most worryingly, reports AAN Country Director Kate Clark, have been comments by government officials, backing or defending the attacks on the MSF hospital and Wardak clinic [see image below].

SCA Wardak clinic JPEG

So, for example:

Afghan government reactions to the news of the Wardak killings [at Tangi Sedan during the night of 17/18 February 2016; see also here] came largely at the provincial level, from officials who saw no problem in those they believed were Taleban – wounded or otherwise – being taken from a clinic and summarily executed. Head of the provincial council, Akhtar Muhammad Tahiri, was widely quoted, saying: “The Afghan security forces raided the hospital as the members of the Taliban group were being treated there.” Spokesperson for the provincial governor, Toryalay Hemat, said, “They were not patients, but Taliban,” and “The main target of the special forces was the Taliban fighters, not the hospital.” Spokesman for Wardak’s police chief, Abdul Wali Noorzai, said “Those killed in the hospital were all terrorists,” adding he was “happy that they were killed.”

Yet, the killings were a clear war crime. The Laws of Armed Conflict, also known as International Humanitarian Law, give special protection to medical facilities, staff and patients during war time – indeed, this is the oldest part of the Geneva Conventions. The Afghan special forces’ actions in Wardak involved numerous breaches: forcibly entering a medical clinic, harming and detaining staff and killing patients.  The two boys and the man who were summarily executed were, in any case, protected either as civilians (the caretaker clearly, the two patients possibly – they had claimed to have been injured in a motorbike accident) or as fighters who were hors d’combat (literally ‘out of the fight’) because they were wounded and also then detained.  Anyone who is hors d’combat is a protected person under International Humanitarian Law and cannot be harmed, the rationale being that they can no longer defend themselves. It is worth noting that, for the staff at the clinic to have refused to treat wounded Taleban would also have been a breach of medical neutrality: International Humanitarian Law demands that medical staff treat everyone according to medical need only.

That the Wardak provincial officials endorsed a war crime is worrying enough, but their words echoed reactions from more senior government officials to the US military’s airstrikes on a hospital belonging to the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières on 3 October 2015. Then, ministers and other officials appeared to defend the attack by saying it had targeted Taleban whom they said were in the hospital (conveniently forgetting that, until the fall of Kunduz city became imminent when the government evacuated all of its wounded from the hospital except the critically ill, the hospital had largely treated government soldiers). The Ministry of Interior spokesman, for example, said, “10 to 15 terrorists were hiding in the hospital last night and it came under attack. Well, they are all killed. All of the terrorists were killed. But we also lost doctors. We will do everything we can to ensure doctors are safe and they can do their jobs.”

MSF denied there were any armed men in the hospital. However, even if there had been, International Humanitarian Law would still have protected patients and medical staff: they would still have had to have been evacuated and warnings given before the hospital could have been legally attacked.

Not surprisingly heads of various humanitarian agencies all reported that the situation was worsening:

“General abuses against medical staff and facilities are on the rise from all parties to the conflict,” said one head of agency, while another said, “We have a good reputation with all sides, but we have still had threats from police, army and insurgents.” The head of a medical NGO described the situation as “messy, really difficult”:

All health facilities are under pressure. We have had some unpleasant experiences, The ALP [Afghan Local Police] are not professional, not disciplined. If the ALP or Taleban take over a clinic, we rely on local elders [to try to sort out the situation]. We are between the two parties.

He described the behaviour of overstretched Afghan special forces as “quite desperate,” adding, “They are struggling, trying to be everywhere and get very excited when there’s fighting.” Most of them, he said, were northerners speaking little or no Pashto, which can make things “difficult for our clinics in the south.”

The head of another agency listed the problems his staff are facing:

“We have seen the presence of armed men in medical facilities, turning them into targets. We have seen violations by the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces], damage done to health facilities that were taken over as bases to conceal themselves and fight [the insurgents] from. We have seen checkpoints located close to health centres. Why? So that in case of hostilities, forces can take shelter in the concrete building. We have seen looting. We have seen ANSF at checkpoints deliberately causing delays, especially in the south, including blocking patients desperately needing to get to a health facility. We can never be certain that [such a delay] was the cause of death, but we believe it has been.”

He said his medical staff had been threatened by “ANSF intervening in medical facilities at the triage stage, forcing doctors to stop the care of other patients and treat their own soldiers, in disregard of medical priorities.” Less commonly, but more dangerously for the doctors themselves, he said, was the threat of Taleban abduction. He described a gathering of surgeons in which all reported having been abducted from their homes at least once and brought to the field to attend wounded fighters “with all the dangers you can imagine along the road.” He said the surgeons were “forced to operate without proper equipment and forced to abandon their own patients in clinics because the abduction would last days.”

Locally, medical staff often try to mitigate threats from both government forces and insurgents by seeking protection first from the local community. One head of agency described their strategy:

“When we open a clinic, our first interlocutors are the elders. Everyone wants a clinic in their area, but we decide the location and make the elders responsible for the clinic… They have to give us a building – three to four rooms. All those who work in the clinic – the ambulance driver, the owner of the vehicle, everyone – come from the area. We also need the elders to deal with the parties… If the ALP or Taleban take over clinic, we always start with the elders [who negotiate with whoever has taken over the clinic].”

However, this tactic puts a burden on community elders who may not be able to negotiate if the ANSF, ALP or insurgents are also threatening them.

***

I’ve delayed following up my previous commentaries on the US airstrike on the MSF Trauma Center in Kunduz (here and here) because I had hoped the full report of the internal investigation carried out by the US military would be released: apparently it runs to 3,000-odd pages.  I don’t for a minute believe that it would settle matters, but in any event nothing has emerged so far – though I’m sure it’s subject to multiple FOIA requests and, if and when it is released, will surely have been redacted.

CAMBELL Press conference

All we have is an official statement by General John Campbell on 25 November 2015 (above), which described the airstrike as ‘a tragic, but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error’, and a brief Executive Summary of the findings of the Combined Civilian Casualty Assessment Team (made up of representatives from NATO and the Afghan government) which emphasised that those errors were ‘compounded by failures of process and procedure, and malfunctions of technical equipment.’

The parallel investigations identified a series of cumulative, cascading errors and malfunctions:

(1) The crew of the AC-130 gunship that carried out the attack set out without a proper mission brief or a list of ‘no-strike’ targets; the aircraft had been diverted from its original mission, to provide close air support to ‘troops in contact’, and was unprepared for this one (which was also represented as ‘troops in contact’, a standard designation meaning that troops are under hostile fire).

(2) Communications systems on the aircraft failed, including – crucially – the provision of video feeds to ground force commanders and the transmission of electronic messages (the AC-130 has a sophisticated sensor and communications suite  – or ‘battle management center’ –on board, staffed by two sensor operators, a navigator, a fire control officer, and an electronic warfare officer, and many messages are sent via classified chat rooms).

AC-130U_Sensor_Operator

The problem was apparently a jerry-rigged antenna that was supposed to link the AC-130 to the ground.  Here is how General Bradley Heithold explained it to Defense One:

“Today, we pump full-motion video into the airplane and out of the airplane. So we have a Ku-band antenna on the airplane … the U-model….  On our current legacy airplanes, the solution we used was rather scabbed on: take the overhead escape hatch out, put an antenna on, stick it back up there, move the beams around. We’ve had some issues, but we’re working with our industry partners to resolve that issue.”

He added, “99.9 percent of the time we’ve had success with it. These things aren’t perfect; they’re machines.”

Heithold said that dedicated Ku-band data transfer is now standard on later models of the AC-130, which should make data transfer much more reliable.

(3)  Afghan Special Forces in Kunduz had requested close air support for a clearing operation in the vicinity of the former National Directorate of Security compound, which they believed was now a Taliban ‘command and control node’.  The commander of US Special Forces on the ground agreed and provided the AC-130 crew with the co-ordinates for the NDS building.  He could see neither the target nor the MSF Trauma Center from his location but this is not a requirement for authorising a strike; he was also working from a map that apparently did not mark the MSF compound as a medical facility.  According to AP, he had been given the coordinates of the hospital two days before but said he didn’t recall seeing them.  The targeting system onboard the AC-130 was degraded and directed the aircraft to an empty field and so the crew relied on a visual identification of the target using a description provided by Afghan Special Forces – and they continued to rely on their visual fix even when the targeting system had been re-aligned (‘the crew remained fixated on the physical description of the facility’) and, as David Cloud points out, even though there was no visible sign of ‘troops in contact’ in the vicinity of the Trauma Center (‘An AC-130 is normally equipped with infrared surveillance cameras capable of detecting gunfire on the ground’):

MSF Kunduz attack

Sundarsan Raghaven adds that ‘Not long before the attack on the hospital, a U.S. airstrike pummeled an empty warehouse across the street from the Afghan intelligence headquarters. How U.S. personnel could have confused its location only a few hours later is not clear…’  More disturbingly, two US Special Forces troops have claimed that their Afghan counterparts told their commander that it was the Trauma Center that was being used as the ‘command and control node’, and that the Taliban ‘had already removed and ransomed the foreign doctors, and they had fired on partnered personnel from there.’

(4) The aircrew cleared the strike with senior commanders at the Joint Operations Center at Bagram and provided them with the co-ordinates of the intended target.  Those commanders failed to recognise that these were the co-ordinates of the MSF hospital which was indeed on the ‘no-strike’ list; ‘this confusion was exacerbated by the lack of video and electronic communications between the headquarters and the aircraft, caused by the earlier malfunction, and a belief at the headquarters that the force on the ground required air support as a matter of immediate force protection’;

(5) The strike continued even after MSF notified all the appropriate authorities that their clinic was under attack; no explanation was offered, though the US military claims the duration was shorter (29 minutes) than the 60-minutes reported by those on the ground.

Campbell announced that those ‘most closely associated’ with the incident had been suspended from duty for violations of the Rules of Engagement – those ‘who requested the strike and those who executed it from the air did not undertake the appropriate measures to verify that the facility was a legitimate military target’ – though he gave no indication how far up the chain of command responsibility would be extended; in January it was reported that US Central Command was weighing disciplinary action against unspecified individuals.  In the meantime, solatia payments had been made to the families of the killed ($6,000) and injured ($3,000).

doctors-without-borders-us-credibility

Not surprisingly, MSF reacted angrily to Campbell’s summary: according to Christopher Stokes,

‘The U.S. version of events presented today leaves MSF with more questions than answers.  The frightening catalog of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war.’

Joanne Liu, MSF’s President, subsequently offered a wider reflection on war in today’s ‘barbarian times’, prompted by further attacks on other hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere:

“The unspoken thing, the elephant in the room, is the war against terrorism, it’s tainting everything,” she said. “People have real difficulty, saying: ‘Oh, you were treating Taliban in your hospital in Kunduz?’ I said we have been treating everyone who is injured, and it will have been Afghan special forces, it will have been the Taliban, yes we are treating everybody.”

She added: “People have difficulty coming around to it. It’s the core, stripped-down-medical-ethics duty as a physician. If I’m at the frontline and refuse to treat a patient, it’s considered a crime. As a physician this is my oath, I’m going to treat everyone regardless.”

Kate Clark‘s forensic response to the US investigation of the Kunduz attack is here; she insists, I think convincingly, that

‘… rather than a simple string of human errors, this seems to have been a string of reckless decisions, within a larger system that failed to provide the legally proscribed safeguards when using such firepower. There were also equipment failures that compounded the problem but, again, if the forces on the ground and in the air had followed their own rules of engagement, the attack would have been averted.’

This is what just-in-time war looks like, but it’s not enough to blame all this on what General Campbell called a ‘high operational tempo’.  As a minimum, we need to be able to read the transcripts of the ground/air communications – which are recorded as a matter of course, no matter what the tempo, and which are almost always crucial in any civilian casualty incident resulting from ‘troops in contact’ (see, for another vivid example, my discussion here) – to make sense of the insensible.

Viewing Eyes in the Sky

 

This image released by Bleecker Street shows Phoebe Fox, left, and Aaron Paul in a scene from "Eye In the Sky." (Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street via AP)

This image released by Bleecker Street shows Phoebe Fox, left, and Aaron Paul in a scene from “Eye In the Sky.” (Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street via AP)

The New York Review of Books has a characteristically thoughtful response by David Cole to Gavin Hood‘s newly released Eye in the Sky: ‘Killing from the Conference Room‘.

The film traces the arc of a joint US/UK drone strike in Nairobi, told from the viewpoints of those charged with authorising and executing the kill.  The nominal target is a safehouse, and the two al-Shabab leaders inside (conveniently one American citizen and one British citizen); less conveniently, after the strike has been authorised a young girl sets up a bread stand in front of the house.

It’s a more complicated scenario than the serial drone strikes dramatized in Andrew Niccol‘s  Good Kill – because here the politicians are brought into the frame too – and David sees it as a twenty-first century version of the ‘trolley-problem’:

Eye in the SkyIn the classic version of the problem, a runaway train is hurtling down a track on which five people are tied; they will die if the train is not diverted. By pulling a lever, you can switch the train to an alternate track, but doing so will kill one person on that track. Should you pull the switch and be responsible for taking a human life, or do nothing and let five people die?

In Eye in the Sky, the question is whether to [use a drone to] strike the compound, thereby preventing an apparent terrorist attack and potentially saving many lives, though the strike itself might kill the young girl as well as the suspected terrorists. If the operation is delayed to try to avoid endangering the girl, the terrorists may leave the compound, and it may become impossible to prevent the suicide mission. But it’s also possible that the girl will finish selling her bread and leave the danger zone before the suspects depart. If the terrorists leave the compound, an opportunity to capture or kill them without harming others may arise. And of course, the suicide mission itself might fail. As a Danish proverb holds, predictions are hazardous, especially about the future. But a decision must nonetheless be made, and the clock is ticking.

As he points out, there’s no right, neat answer:

There are only competing intuitions, based on utilitarian calculations, the difference, or lack thereof, between act and omission, and the like. In Eye in the Sky, and all the more so in the real world, the choices are never as clearly delineated as in the “trolley problem”; decisions must be made in the face of multiple unknowns. The girl may die and the terrorists may get away and kill many more. But what the film makes clear is that, notwithstanding today’s most sophisticated technology, which allows us to see inside a compound in Africa from half a world away, to confirm positive identifications with facial imaging technology, to make joint real-time decision about life and death across several continents, and then to pinpoint a strike to reduce significantly the danger to innocent bystanders, the dilemmas remain. Technology cannot solve the moral and ethical issues; it only casts them into sharper relief.

Consider, for example, the implications of the purported accuracy of armed drones. The fact that it is possible to conduct “surgical” strikes and to maintain distance surveillance for extended periods of time increases the moral and legal obligation to avoid killing innocents. When the only way to counter an imminent threat was with more blunt explosives or by sending in ground forces, attacks entailing substantial harm to civilians were nonetheless sometimes warranted. As technology makes it increasingly feasible to strike with precision, risks to civilian lives that were once inescapable can now be avoided. And if they can be avoided, mustn’t they be? Thus, when President Barack Obama in May 2013 announced a standard for targeted killings away from traditional battlefields, he said he would authorize such strikes only when there was a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Precisely because they are so discriminating, drones may demand such a standard. Yet as the film shows, that standard can be very difficult to uphold, even under the best of circumstances.

Given my own interest in the film, I’ll share my thoughts as soon as I’ve seen it.

Note: In the most recent US strike against al-Shabab on 5 March, in which drones and conventional strike aircraft were used to kill perhaps 150 people (or perhaps not) at a training camp 120 miles north of Mogadishu, it seems clear that few doubts were entertained (but see Glenn Greenwald here).

Intelligence designed

LIMN 6

The latest issue of Limn is on ‘The total archive‘:

Vast accumulations of data, documents, records, and samples saturate our world: bulk collection of phone calls by the NSA and GCHQ; Google, Amazon or Facebook’s ambitions to collect and store all data or know every preference of every individual; India’s monumental efforts to give everyone a number, and maybe an iris scan; hundreds of thousands of whole genome sequences; seed banks of all existing plants, and of course, the ancient and on-going ambitions to create universal libraries of books, or their surrogates.

Just what is the purpose of these optimistically total archives – beyond their own internal logic of completeness? Etymologically speaking, archives are related to government—the site of public records, the town hall, the records of the rulers (archons). Governing a collective—whether people in a territory, consumers of services or goods, or victims of an injustice—requires keeping and consulting records of all kinds; but this practice itself can also generate new forms of governing, and new kinds of collectives, by its very execution. Thinking about our contemporary obsession with vast accumulations through the figure of the archive poses questions concerning the relationships between three things: (1) the systematic accumulation of documents, records, samples or data; (2) a form of government and governing; and (3) a particular conception of a collectivity or collective kind. (1) What kinds of collectivities are formed by contemporary accumulations? What kind of government or management do they make possible? And who are the governors, particularly in contexts where those doing the accumulation are not agents of a traditional government?

This issue of Limn asks authors to consider the way the archive—as a figure for a particular mode of government—might shed light on the contemporary collections, indexes, databases, analytics, and surveillance, and the collectives implied or brought into being by them.

The issue includes an essay by Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff on the US Air Force’s Bombing Encyclopedia of the World.  I’ve discussed the Encyclopedia in detail before, but they’ve found a source that expands that discussion, a series of lectures delivered in 1946-48 to the Air War College by Dr. James T. Lowe, the Director of Research for the Strategic Vulnerability Branch of the U.S. Army’s Air Intelligence Division. The Branch was established in 1945 and charged with conducting what Lowe described as a ‘pre-analysis of the vulnerability of the U.S.S.R. to strategic air attack and to carry that analysis to the point where the right bombs could be put on the right targets concomitant with the decision to wage the war without any intervening time period whatsoever.’

Bombing Encylopedia Coding Form

The project involved drawing together information from multiple sources, coding and geo-locating the nominated targets, and then automating the data-management system.

What interests the authors is the way in which this transformed what was called  ‘strategic vulnerability analysis’: the data stream could be interrogated through different ‘runs’, isolating different systems, in order to identify the ‘key target system’:

‘… the data could be flexibly accessed: it would not be organized through a single, rigid system of classification, but could be queried through “runs” that would generate reports about potential target systems based on selected criteria such as industry and location. As Lowe explained, “[b]y punching these cards you can get a run of all fighter aircraft plants” near New York or Moscow. “Or you can punch the cards again and get a list of all the plants within a geographical area…. Pretty much any combination of industrial target information that is required can be obtained—and can be obtained without error” (Lowe 1946:13-14).’

Their central point is that the whole project was the fulcrum for a radical transformation of knowledge production:

‘The inventory assembled for the Encyclopedia was not a record of the past; rather, it was a catalog of the elements comprising a modern military-industrial economy. The analysis of strategic vulnerability did not calculate the regular occurrence of events and project the series of past events into the future, based on the assumption that the future would resemble the past. Rather, it examined interdependencies among these elements to generate a picture of vital material flows and it anticipated critical economic vulnerabilities by modeling the effects of a range of possible future contingencies. It generated a new kind of knowledge about collective existence as a collection of vital systems vulnerable to catastrophic disruption.’

And so, not surprisingly, the same analysis could be turned inwards – to detect and minimise sites of strategic vulnerability within the United States.

All of this intersects with the authors’ wider concerns about vital systems security: see in particular their ‘Vital Systems Security: Reflexive biopolitics and the government of emergency‘, in Theory, Culture and Society 32(2) (2015):19–51:

This article describes the historical emergence of vital systems security, analyzing it as a significant mutation in biopolitical modernity. The story begins in the early 20th century, when planners and policy-makers recognized the increasing dependence of collective life on interlinked systems such as transportation, electricity, and water. Over the following decades, new security mechanisms were invented to mitigate the vulnerability of these vital systems. While these techniques were initially developed as part of Cold War preparedness for nuclear war, they eventually migrated to domains beyond national security to address a range of anticipated emergencies, such as large-scale natural disasters, pandemic disease outbreaks, and disruptions of critical infrastructure. In these various contexts, vital systems security operates as a form of reflexive biopolitics, managing risks that have arisen as the result of modernization processes. This analysis sheds new light on current discussions of the government of emergency and ‘states of exception’. Vital systems security does not require recourse to extraordinary executive powers. Rather, as an anticipatory technology for mitigating vulnerabilities and closing gaps in preparedness, it provides a ready-to-hand toolkit for administering emergencies as a normal part of constitutional government.

It’s important to add two riders to the discussion of the Bombing Encyclopedia, both of which concern techno-politics rather than biopolitics.  Although those responsible for targeting invariably represent it as a technical-analytical process – in fact, one of the most common elements in the moral economy of bombing is that it is ‘objective’, as I showed in my Tanner Lectures – it is always also intrinsically political; its instrumentality resides in its function as an irreducibly political technology.

KeptDark1As Stephen and Andrew make clear, the emphasis on key target systems emerged during the Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany in the Second World War, when it was the subject of heated debate.  This went far beyond Arthur Harris‘s vituperative dismissals of Solly Zuckerman‘s arguments against area bombing in favour of economic targets (‘panacea targets’, Harris called them: see my discussion in ‘Doors into nowhere’: DOWNLOADS tab).  You can get some sense of its wider dimensions from John Stubbington‘s intricate Kept in the Dark (2010), which not only provides a robust critique of the Ministry of Economic Warfare’s contributions to target selection but also claims that vital signals intelligence – including ULTRA decrypts – was withheld from Bomber Command.  Administrative and bureaucratic rivalries within and between intelligence agencies did not end with the war, and you can find a suggestive discussion of the impact of this infighting on US targeting in Eric Schmidt‘s admirably clear (1993) account of the development of Targeting Organizations here.

Any targeting process produces not only targets (it’s as well to remember that we don’t inhabit a world of targets: they have to be identified, nominated, activated – in a word, produced) but also political subjects who are interpellated through the positions they occupy within the kill-chain.  After the Second World War, Freeman Dyson reflected on what he had done and, by implication, what it had done to him:

FREEMAN DYSON

But data-management had been in its infancy.  With the Bombing Encyclopedia, Lowe argued, ‘the new “machine methods” of information management made it possible “to operate with a small fraction of the number of people in the target business that would normally be required.”‘  But there were still very large numbers involved, and Henry Nash –who worked on the Bombing Encyclopedia – was even more blunt about what he called ‘the bureaucratization of homicide‘:

HENRY NASH

This puts a different gloss on that prescient remark of Michel Foucault‘s: ‘People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.’

Nash began his essay with a quotation from a remarkable book by Richard J. Barnet, The roots of war (1972).  Barnet said this (about the Vietnam War, but his point was a general one):

‘The essential characteristic of bureaucratic homicide is division of labor. In general, those who plan do not kill and those who kill do not plan. The scene is familiar. Men in blue, green and khaki tunics and others in three-button business suits sit in pastel offices and plan complex operations in which thousands of distant human beings will die. The men who planned the saturation bombings, free fire zones, defoliation, crop destruction, and assassination programs in the Vietnam War never personally killed anyone.

BarnetRichard‘The bureaucratization of homicide is responsible for the routine character of modern war, the absence of passion and the efficiency of mass-produced death. Those who do the killing are following standing orders…

‘The complexity and vastness of modern bureaucratic government complicates the issue of personal responsibility. At every level of government the classic defense of the bureaucratic killer is available: “I was just doing my job!” The essence of bureaucratic government is emotional coolness, orderliness, implacable momentum, and a dedication to abstract principle. Each cog in the bureaucratic machine does what it is supposed to do.

‘The Green Machine, as the soldiers in Vietnam called the military establishment, kills cleanly, and usually at a distance. America’s highly developed technology makes it possible to increase the distance between killer and victim and hence to preserve the crucial psychological fiction that the objects of America’s lethal attention are less than human.’

Barnet was the co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies; not surprisingly, he ended up on Richard Nixon‘s ‘enemies list‘ (another form of targeting).

I make these points because there has been an explosion – another avalanche – of important and interesting essays on databases and algorithms, and the part they play in the administration of military and paramilitary violence.  I’m thinking of Susan Schuppli‘s splendid essay on ‘Deadly algorithms‘, for example, or the special issue of Society & Space on the politics of the list – see in particular the contributions by Marieke de Goede and Gavin Sullivan (‘The politics of security lists‘), Jutta Weber (‘On kill lists‘) and Fleur Johns (on the pairing of list and algorithm) – and collectively these have provided essential insights into what these standard operating procedures do.  But I’d just add that they interpellate not only their victims but also their agents: these intelligence systems are no more ‘unmanned’ than the weapons systems that prosecute their targets.  They too may be ‘remote’ (Barnet’s sharp point) and they certainly disperse responsibility, but the role of the political subjects they produce cannot be evaded.  Automation and AI undoubtedly raise vital legal and ethical questions – these will become ever more urgent and are by no means confined to ‘system failure‘ – but we must not lose sight of the politics articulated through their activation.  And neither should we confuse accountancy with accountability.

Redacted

Uruzgan Intel

Much of my work on                has had to    with documents that have been heavily          like this – not only text but as you can see also       .

There’s a     discussion of          by             over at               here.  For further discussion, I’d recommend            ‘s ‘Beyond the           ‘ available here (if you’re      ).

The last Bastion

Camp Bastion Role 3 hospital (2008-9)

Camp Bastion Role 3 hospital (late 2010)

In between my other projects, I’m battling my way back to my current research on casualty evacuation.  Reading about the military hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan – you can find a bare-bones’ (sic) summary of its development in a series of linked reports from David Vassallo here, here and here (the plans above document its expansion from 2008 to 2010) – I came across the ethnographic work of Mark de Rond:

Cornell University Press are publishing a monograph based on his work later this year – Doctors at war: an ethnographer’s account of life and death in a field hospital – though so far I’ve been unable to track down any more details of what promises to be an essential study of combat casualty care (and Mark’s key interest, ‘teamwork’ – hence his study of the Cambridge Boat Race crew).

Bastion casualty arrival

In the meantime, you can get a sense of what he calls ‘field work beyond the comfort zone’ from an essay, ‘Soldier, surgeon, photographer, fly’ that appeared in Strategic Organization 10 (3) (2012) 256-262, available open access here:

To treat major trauma effectively requires surgeons and anaesthetists to align their efforts in a context where the margin for error is small and the stakes matters of life and death. Yet even such close cooperation does not rule out rivalry. For leave these surgeons with little or nothing to do work-wise and they may turn on each other instead. Unable to sit still, some begin to interfere in the affairs of others or to compete for work. As one of the surgeons admitted: ‘He is fighting for work. I am fighting for work, each of us hoping the other will be late.’ Sebastian Junger described the troops he embedded himself with as so bored on occasion that ‘they prayed for contact [with the enemy] as farmers pray for rain’ (Hetherington, 2010: 15). Even when work is plentiful, surgeons may compete for the most interesting jobs.

As in Junger’s Korengal Valley, in Camp Bastion’s hospital periods of great intensity follow periods of boredom in which it is however impossible to relax or to put oneself to productive use; surgeons and warriors alike intentionally objectify casualties yet can feel callous for not caring more than they do. It is here that the extremes of busyness and boredom, significance and futility can change rapidly and unpredictably, and shift the balance between altruism and selfishness, pleasure and guilt, the thrill of warfare and cowardice. ‘In this kind of war’, wrote McCullin, ‘you are on a schizophrenic trip. You cannot equate what is going on with anything else in life. . . . None of the real world judgments seem to apply. What’s peace, what’s war, what’s dead, what’s living, what’s right, what’s wrong? You don’t know the answers’ (2002: 100–1).

I’m looking forward to reading Mark’s account alongside the remarkable work of David Cotterrell that I described in ‘Bodies on the line’ here.

The World’s E.R.

VanRooyen World's Emergency RoomAs military and paramilitary attacks on hospitals and medical facilities have increased – in Afghanistan, GazaSyria, Yemen and elsewhere – even as the number of casualties has soared, Michael VanRooyen‘s new book The World’s Emergency Room (out next month from St Martin’s) promises to provide an urgent overview of what has become a routinised violation of medical neutrality:

Twenty years ago, the most common cause of death for medical humanitarians and other aid workers was traffic accidents; today, it is violent attacks. And the death of each doctor, nurse, paramedic, midwife, and vaccinator is multiplied untold times in the vulnerable populations deprived of their care. In a 2005 report, the ICRC found that for every soldier killed in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 60 civilians died due to loss of immunizations and other basic health services.

The World’s Emergency Room: The Growing Threat to Doctors, Nurses, and Humanitarian Workers documents this dangerous trend, demonstrates the urgent need to reverse it, and explores how that can be accomplished. Drawing on VanRooyen’s personal experiences and those of his colleagues in international humanitarian medicine, he takes readers into clinics, wards, and field hospitals around the world where medical personnel work with inadequate resources under dangerous conditions to care for civilians imperiled by conflict. VanRooyen undergirds these compelling stories with data and historical context, emphasizing how they imperil the key doctrine of medical neutrality, and what to do about it.

Michael is a professor at the Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

From Kirkus:

A behind-the-scenes look at the nascent field of humanitarian medicine as it has evolved in recent years of civil wars, famines, tsunamis, and other natural and man-made disasters.

Since 1990, world conflicts and refugee crises have spurred the growth of a massive force of humanitarian aid workers—some 275,000 individuals with the United Nations and NGOs, most of whom lack the formal training needed to deal with complex events like the catastrophic 2010 Haiti earthquake. In that 25-year period, more than 1,000 aid workers were killed in attacks on hospitals, medical staff, and civilian patients. VanRooyen, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the co-founder and director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, came of age professionally in the fields of emergency medicine and humanitarian medicine, which are the focus of this fascinating debut. “What the emergency room is to Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore, humanitarian medical relief is to the world’s crisis zones,” he writes. Whether in an unstable inner city or a failed state, doctors provide a safety net of emergency health care for people with critical needs. The author recounts his experiences on the ground as an emergency physician in Bosnia, Chad, the Congo, Haiti, Somalia, and many other countries and how he and like-minded colleagues have sought to professionalize humanitarian efforts, which have frequently been criticized as uncoordinated and wasteful. (The Haitian relief effort was a “humanitarian free-for-all,” he writes, involving novice agencies, inexperienced surgical teams, and “disaster tourists.”) In 2005, VanRooyen and others established the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a first-of-its-kind, universitywide effort to pursue research, training, and innovative approaches to humanitarian aid that could be leveraged to achieve policy changes. Despite the subtitle, the author devotes relatively little attention to the increasing dangers facing aid workers, focusing mainly on the need to establish rigorous standards for the field in order to prevent the malnutrition and infectious diseases that are the biggest killers in communities in conflict.