Aerial violence and the death of the battlefield

UBC’s term started last week, but I was in Nijmegen so I’ve started this week.  I’ve posted the revised outlines and bibliographies for my two courses this term under the TEACHING tab.

I was primarily in Nijmegen to give a ‘Radboud Reflects’/Humboldt Lecture.  As usual, I had a wonderful time; I’ve pasted the abstract below – though this was written before I had put the presentation together, so it doesn’t incorporate the closing section at all (“Geographies of the Remote”).  It draws, in part, on my Tanner Lectures, “Reach from the sky“, but it also incorporates new material [see, for example, my reflections on the Blackout here].

You can download the slides as a pdf here: GREGORY War at a distance Aerial violence and the death of the battlefield [this version includes several slides that I subsequently cut to bring the thing within bounds], and the video version will be available online shortly.

War at a distance: aerial violence and the death of the battlefield

Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk” is remarkable for many reasons, but prominent among them is the fact that, as the director himself notes, ‘we don’t see the Germans in the film… it’s approached from the mechanics of survival rather than the politics of the event.’ This raises a series of important questions, but central to any understanding of aerial violence is precisely what can be seen and what cannot be seen: what can those crouching under the bombs see of the perpetrators, and what can those carrying out the strikes see of their targets? You might think this becomes even more important when war is conducted at a distance, but the history of military violence shows that ‘distance’ is a complicated thing…

The first large-scale use of aircraft for offensive purposes (rather than surveillance) was on the Western Front during the First World War, when aircraft were used to ‘spot’ targets for artillery and eventually to conduct bombing operations on the battlefield. But more consequential was the use of aircraft and airships to conduct bombing raids far beyond the battlefield, on cities like London and Paris, because this brought civilians directly into the line of fire and in doing so started to dissolve the idea of the battlefield [what Frédéric Mégret calls ‘the deconstruction of the battlefield‘] and to assault the very concept of a civilian. The bombing offensives of the Second World War, especially in Europe and Japan, accelerated this dismal process, but they also reveal a deadly dialectic between intimacy and domesticity (the effects on everyday life on the ‘home’ front) and abstraction (the way in which targets were produced and made visible to bomber crews).e

That same dialectic reappears in today’s drone operations over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. But these new technologies of ‘war at a distance’ have their own history that overlaps and intersects with the story of manned flight. Indeed, the dream of ‘unmanned’ flight soared in lockstep with the dream of those extraordinary flying machines. This too goes back to the First World War, when inventors proposed ingenious aerial vehicles whose ‘bomb-dropping’ would be controlled by radio. These proved impractical until after the Second World War, when drones were used by the US to photograph and collect samples from atomic clouds in the Marshall Islands and Nevada [see here and here]. The over-arching principle was to protect American lives by keeping operators at a safe distance from their targets, and this is one of the logics animating contemporary drone strikes (‘projecting power without vulnerability’). But for this to work new technologies of target recognition as well as mission control were required; these were first developed during the Vietnam War, when the US Air Force tried to ‘wire’ the Ho Chi Minh Trail and connect its sensor systems to computers that would direct aircraft onto their targets (or, rather, target boxes).

The Pentagon looked forward to the installation of an ‘automated battlefield’ on a global scale [see my ‘Lines of Descent’, DOWNLOADS tab]. Although its plans were premature, the subsequent development of targeted killing using Predators and Reapers has since completed the dissolution of a distinctive battlefield: the United States Air Force boasts that it can put ‘warheads on foreheads’ and the US has claimed the right to pursue its targets wherever they go, so that (in Grégoire Chamayou’s words) ‘the body becomes the battlefield.’ These targeted bodies are at once abstract – reduced to digital traces, the products of a global system of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – and yet at the same time, by virtue of the high-resolution full-motion video feeds used to track them, peculiarly intimate to those that kill them. Drone pilots operate their aircraft from thousands of miles away, yet they are much ‘closer’ to their targets than pilots of conventional strike aircraft: previously, the only aerial vehicles to approach this level of intimacy, and then but fleetingly, were the Zeppelins of the First World War. But this intimacy is conditional and even illusory, and case studies [see here, here and here] show that as the battlefield transforms into the multi-dimensional battlespace the very idea of the civilian [see here and here] is put at increased risk.

All of this will appear, in extended and elaborated form, in my new book, also called “Reach from the sky”.

2 thoughts on “Aerial violence and the death of the battlefield

  1. Pingback: ‘War at a Distance’: video | geographical imaginations

  2. Pingback: Derek Gregory, ‘War at a Distance: the Modern Battlefield’ (video) | Progressive Geographies

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