Seeing Civilians (or not)

Very welcome news from Christiane Wilke that her essay, ‘Seeing and Unmaking Civilians in Afghanistan: Visual Technologies and Contested Professional Visions‘, has just been published in Science, Technology and Human Values.

It’s an original, compelling and immensely important analysis of a US air strike on two tankers hijacked by the Taliban and beached on a river crossing near Kunduz (Afghanistan) in September 2009.  The strike was called in by a Bundeswehr officer who claimed – falsely – that he was facing what the military call ‘troops in contact’ which required immediate action; the two American pilots of the F-15s repeatedly questioned his decision but to no avail, and when the smoke cleared somewhere between 26 and 147 civilians who had been siphoning petrol from the stranded tankers had been killed.

I published a preliminary analysis of the attack, ‘Seeing like a military‘, and subsequently heard Christiane give an early version of her own argument at a conference in Lancaster in May 2014; we’ve had a lively dialogue about the strike since then.  Here is the abstract:

While the distinction between civilians and combatants is fundamental to international law, it is contested and complicated in practice. How do North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers see civilians in Afghanistan? Focusing on 2009 air strike in Kunduz, this article argues that the professional vision of NATO officers relies not only on recent military technologies that allow for aerial surveillance, thermal imaging, and precise targeting but also on the assumptions, vocabularies, modes of attention, and hierarchies of knowledges that the officers bring to the interpretation of aerial surveillance images. Professional vision is socially situated and fre- quently contested with communities of practice. In the case of the Kunduz air strike, the aerial vantage point and the military visual technologies cannot fully determine what would be seen. Instead, the officers’ assumptions about Afghanistan, threats, and the gender of the civilian inform the vocabulary they use for coding people and places as civilian or noncivilian. Civilians are not simply “found,” they are produced through specific forms of professional vision.

And here is her key conclusion which clearly resonates far beyond Kunduz (see, for example, here and here; I’ve radically reworked the presentation from which those two posts derive, and you can get some sense of where I’m heading here):

In Afghanistan and in situations of armed conflict more generally, the distinction between civilians and noncivilians is a crucial dimension of seeing, intervening in, and responding to violence. The protection of civi- lians is an almost universally proclaimed goal; it is the centerpiece of the ISAF 2009 Tactical Directive. Yet without a reliable understanding of who counts as a civilian and how they can be recognized, the promise of civilian protection rings hollow. The category of the civilian, derived from specific Eurocentric understandings of armed conflict, had been grafted onto Afgha- nistan and Afghans who had to negotiate their security amidst conflict. Yet it is not clear what Afghans should do or avoid in order to be recognized as civilians. Those who shared the aerial viewpoint could not agree on the civilian status of the people near the trucks and neither could those who had extensive personal knowledge of the local social structures. Thus, a shift in perspective did not solve the problem that civilians are not clearly recogniz- able to those who have a mission to spare and protect them. At a deeper level, the lack of consensus about visually identifying civilians indicates a lack of agreement about who counts as a civilian. NATO officers consistently try to stabilize and shrink the category of civilian by juxtaposing it with a capacious category of noncivilians: insurgents, militants, supporters, and Taliban…

Yet civilians don’t simply exist. They are enacted and produced by, among other sites, socially situated interpretation of images produced with the aid of visual technologies. Sociocultural prisms of visibility not only produce counts of legitimate civilians but also legitimize the category of civilian as a workable and meaningful foundation of international law. The people who would like to be regarded as civilians bear the burden of distinguishing themselves from putative noncivilians according to criteria that they can never fully grasp because they don’t know which background knowledges and epistemes will be mobilized by those in charge of distinguishing civilians from combatants.

And – please note – this is not about drone strikes; not only have the vast majority of strikes in Afghanistan been carried out by conventional strike aircraft (why do so many of those who campaign against drones ignore other forms of aerial violence?) but no drones were involved in this particular attack either; the sharp point that Christiane makes applies to all airstrikes – and indeed, to militarised vision more generally.

4 thoughts on “Seeing Civilians (or not)

  1. Pingback: Distinction and the ethics of violence | geographical imaginations

  2. Pingback: Aerial violence and the death of the battlefield | geographical imaginations

  3. Pingback: Tracking and targeting | geographical imaginations

  4. Pingback: Those who don’t count and those who can’t count | geographical imaginations

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