Modern War and Dead Cities

I’ve provided the pdf of the (unedited) slides for another new lecture in my Cities, space and power course under the TEACHING tab: it’s on bombing cities in the First and Second World Wars.

There’s only so much you can cover in a single lecture, so I focus on Britain and Germany; as I’ve been at pains to point out elsewhere, there were many other ‘blitzes’ during the Second World War, and I’ve addressed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my ‘Little Boys and Blue skies’ essay (which will soon be available to download).

This lecture covers:

  1. The First World War: Zeppelins and Gothas over London
  2. Inter-war reflections and admonitions
  3. The London Blitz
  4. Firestorms: Bombing Hamburg and Cologne

Pictures of war

An interesting CFP for a conference next spring on Pictures of war: the still image in conflict since 1945:

Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester UK
24th & 25th May 2018
(Deadline for CFP: January 12, 2018)

A conference on the intersections of conflict and pictures from the end of WWII until today.

Since the end of World War II, the nature and depiction of geopolitical conflicts have changed in technology, scale and character. The Cold War political landscape saw many struggles for liberation and national identity becoming proxy battlegrounds for the major powers. In the aftermath of anti-colonial conflicts, refugees and migrants who had relocated to the former metropolises joined those already fighting for civil equality in these countries. Wars continue to be waged in the name of democracy and terror, and in the interests of linguistic, theological and racial worldviews. Migration and displacement as a result of conflict are again at the top of the agenda.

As the technologies of war have shifted, so have the technologies of making pictures. This conference seeks to engage with these phenomena through critically engaged approaches to the processes of visualisation, their methodologies and epistemologies that will contribute to our understanding of the ways conflicts are pictured. The intention is to expand the field of enquiry beyond localised, thematic or media-specific approaches and to encourage new perspectives on the material and visual cultures of pictures.

We invite scholars, artists and activists interested in the study of images and pictures in their own right, with their own and admittedly interdependent discourses and visual and material capacities for producing knowledge and meaning (Mitchell, 2005). We are interested in presentations that consider the temporal and physical mobility of pictures and their visual, material, affective, political and economic value from multi and interdisciplinary positions.

Full details of themes, abstracts etc here and here.

Those who don’t count and those who can’t count

An excellent article from the unfailing New York Times in a recent edition of the Magazine: Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal on ‘The Uncounted‘, a brilliant, forensic and – crucially – field-based investigation into civilian casualties in the US air war against ISIS:

American military planners go to great lengths to distinguish today’s precision strikes from the air raids of earlier wars, which were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties. They describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to “targeteers,” who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.

The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.

What Azmat and Anand found on the ground, however, was radically different:

Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014.

We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history [my emphasis].  Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes …  remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

They provide immensely powerful, moving case studies of innocents ‘lost in the wreckage’.  They also describe the US Air Force’s targeting process at US Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar (the image above shows the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division at the CAOC, which ‘provides a common threat and targeting picture’):

The process seemed staggeringly complex — the wall-to-wall monitors, the soup of acronyms, the army of lawyers — but the impressively choreographed operation was designed to answer two basic questions about each proposed strike: Is the proposed target actually ISIS? And will attacking this ISIS target harm civilians in the vicinity?

As we sat around a long conference table, the officers explained how this works in the best-case scenario, when the coalition has weeks or months to consider a target. Intelligence streams in from partner forces, informants on the ground, electronic surveillance and drone footage. Once the coalition decides a target is ISIS, analysts study the probability that striking it will kill civilians in the vicinity, often by poring over drone footage of patterns of civilian activity. The greater the likelihood of civilian harm, the more mitigating measures the coalition takes. If the target is near an office building, the attack might be rescheduled for nighttime. If the area is crowded, the coalition might adjust its weaponry to limit the blast radius. Sometimes aircraft will even fire a warning shot, allowing people to escape targeted facilities before the strike. An official showed us grainy night-vision footage of this technique in action: Warning shots hit the ground near a shed in Deir al-Zour, Syria, prompting a pair of white silhouettes to flee, one tripping and picking himself back up, as the cross hairs follow.

Once the targeting team establishes the risks, a commander must approve the strike, taking care to ensure that the potential civilian harm is not “excessive relative to the expected military advantage gained,” as Lt. Col. Matthew King, the center’s deputy legal adviser, explained.

After the bombs drop, the pilots and other officials evaluate the strike. Sometimes a civilian vehicle can suddenly appear in the video feed moments before impact. Or, through studying footage of the aftermath, they might detect signs of a civilian presence. Either way, such a report triggers an internal assessment in which the coalition determines, through a review of imagery and testimony from mission personnel, whether the civilian casualty report is credible. If so, the coalition makes refinements to avoid future civilian casualties, they told us, a process that might include reconsidering some bit of intelligence or identifying a flaw in the decision-making process.

There are two issues here.  First, this is indeed the ‘best-case scenario’, and one that very often does not obtain.  One of the central vectors of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism is volatility: targets are highly mobile and often the ‘window of opportunity’ is exceedingly narrow.  I’ve reproduced this image from the USAF’s own targeting guide before, in relation to my analysis of the targeting cycle for a different US air strike against IS in Iraq in March 2015, but it is equally applicable here:

Second, that ‘window of opportunity’ is usually far from transparent, often frosted and frequently opaque.  For what is missing from the official analysis described by Azmat and Anand turns out to be the leitmotif of all remote operations (and there is a vital sense in which all forms of aerial violence are ‘remote’, whether the pilot is 7,000 miles away or 30,000 feet above the target [see for example here]):

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of the United States Air Forces Central Command at Udeid, told us what was missing. “Ground truth, that’s what you’re asking for,” he said. “We see what we see from altitude and pull in from other reports. Your perspective is talking to people on the ground.” He paused, and then offered what he thought it would take to arrive at the truth: “It’s got to be a combination of both.”

The military view, perhaps not surprisingly, is that civilian casualties are unavoidable but rarely intentional:

Supreme precision can reduce civilian casualties to a very small number, but that number will never reach zero. They speak of every one of the acknowledged deaths as tragic but utterly unavoidable.

Azmat and Anand reached a numbingly different conclusion: ‘Not all civilian casualties are unavoidable tragedies; some deaths could be prevented if the coalition recognizes its past failures and changes its operating assumptions accordingly. But in the course of our investigation, we found that it seldom did either.’

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that whenever there is an investigation into reports of civilian casualties that may have been caused by US military operations it must be independent of all other investigations and can make no reference to them in its findings; in other words, as I’ve noted elsewhere, there is no ‘case law’: bizarre but apparently true.

But that is only part of the problem.  The two investigators cite multiple intelligence errors (‘In about half of the strikes that killed civilians, we could find no discernible ISIS target nearby. Many of these strikes appear to have been based on poor or outdated intelligence’) and even errors and discrepancies in recording and locating strikes after the event.

It’s worth reading bellingcat‘s analysis here, which also investigates the coalition’s geo-locational reporting and notes that the official videos ‘appear only to showcase the precision and efficiency of coalition bombs and missiles, and rarely show people, let alone victims’.  The image above, from CNN, is unusual in showing the collection of the bodies of victims of a US air strike in Mosul, this time in March 2017; the target was a building from which two snipers were firing; more than 100 civilians sheltering there were killed.  The executive summary of the subsequent investigation is here – ‘The Target Engagement Authority (TEA) was unaware of and could not have predicted the presence of civilians in the structure prior to the engagement’ – and report from W.J. Hennigan and Molly Hennessy-Fiske is here.

Included in bellingcat’s account is a discussion of a video which the coalition uploaded to YouTube and then deleted; Azmat retrieved and archived it – the video shows a strike on two buildings in Mosul on 20 September 2015 that turned out to be focal to her investigation with Anand:

The video caption identifies the target as a ‘VBIED [car bomb] facility’.  But Bellingcat asks:

Was this really a “VBIED network”? Under the original upload, a commenter starting posting that the houses shown were his family’s residence in Mosul.

“I will NEVER forget my innocent and dear cousins who died in this pointless airstrike. Do you really know who these people were? They were innocent and happy family members of mine.”

Days after the strike, Dr Zareena Grewal, a relative living in the US wrote in the New York Times that four family members had died in the strike. On April 2, 2017 – 588 days later – the Coalition finally admitted that it indeed bombed a family home which they confused for an IS headquarters and VBIED facility.

“The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition, told Airwars.

Even though the published strike video actually depicted the killing of a family, it remained – wrongly captioned – on the official Coalition YouTube channel for more than a year.

This is but one, awful example of a much wider problem.  The general conclusion reached by Azmat and Anand is so chilling it is worth re-stating:

According to the coalition’s available data, 89 of its more than 14,000 airstrikes in Iraq have resulted in civilian deaths, or about one of every 157 strikes. The rate we found on the ground — one out of every five — is 31 times as high.

One of the houses [shown above] mistakenly identified as a ‘VBIED facility’ in that video belonged to Basim Razzo, and he became a key informant in Azmat and Anand’s investigation; he was subsequently interviewed by Amy Goodman: the transcript is here. She also interviewed Azmat and Anand: that transcript is here.  In the course of the conversation Anand makes a point that amply and awfully confirms Christiane Wilke‘s suggestion – in relation to air strikes in Afghanistan – that the burden of recognition, of what in international humanitarian law is defined as ‘distinction’, is tacitly being passed from combatant to civilian: that those in the cross-hairs of the US military are required to perform their civilian status to those watching from afar.

It goes back to this issue of Iraqis having to prove that they are not ISIS, which is the opposite of what we would think. We would think that the coalition would do the work to find out whether somebody is a member of ISIS or not. Essentially, they assume people are ISIS until proven otherwise.

To make matters worse, they have to perform their ‘civilianness’ according to a script recognised and approved by the US military, however misconceived it may be.  In the case of one (now iconic) air strike in Afghanistan being an adolescent or adult male, travelling in a group, praying at one of the times prescribed by Islam, and carrying a firearm in a society where that is commonplace was enough for civilians to be judged as hostile by drone crews and attacked from the air with dreadful results (see here and here).

This is stunning investigative journalism, but it’s more than that: the two authors are both at Arizona State University, and they have provided one of the finest examples of critical, probing and accessible scholarship I have ever read.

Occupied Paris

I try to make sure all of my lectures are up-to-date each year, but this term I’ve added some completely new ones to my course on Cities, space and power.  One of them – which I gave last week – is on Paris under Nazi occupation; elsewhere in the course I discuss Cairo under French occupation (1798-1801) and, later in the nineteenth century, Shahjahanabad (Delhi) under British occupation: but working on Paris during the Second World War swept me away for much of the term (when I was supposed to be doing quite other things…).

You can find the raw slides under the TEACHING tab (‘raw’ because I couldn’t possibly use all of them in a single lecture, though I did my best, so this is the unedited version).

I hope the slides will be self-explanatory, but here’s the lecture outline:

1: Before the Occupation [civil defence or défense passive; the mass exodus from Paris; air raids; the departure of the French government; the declaration of Paris as an Open City].

2: The Fall of Paris [the entry of the Wehrmacht into a seemingly empty Paris; the Armistice and the creation of Vichy France; Hitler’s three-hour tour of Paris]

3: Occupation and the right to the city [Occupied Paris as object-space; German re-signing of the city; the cityscape and the administrative apparatus of Occupation; geographies of  military tourism (the conceit that an anterior, vibrant Paris of leisure and pleasure can still be found beneath the grid of military occupation)]

4: Everyday life in the ‘City without a Face’ [the uncanny city; ‘Food is power’: rationing, the black market, the grey market and the administration of hunger; the Nazi control of time and space]

5: Paris’s Jews and the Nazi Genocide [registrations, regulations and round-ups; the co-operation and collaboration of the French police; Drancy camp; exclusions from public space; the Vélodrome d’Hiver]

6: The Allied Offensive and the Liberation of Paris [Allied bombing; ‘Is Paris Burning?’; post-Liberation violence]

A treasure trove for imagery, incidentally, is Parisien Images here; I’ve long maintained that image research – including a creative use of Google Images – is an absolutely indispensable part of research, since the results often provide insights and take you to places you would never have thought of otherwise.  I also recommend Occupation de Paris, a wonderful, eclectic collection of images and commentary here.

Among the books I mined: Allan Mitchell, Nazi Paris: The History of an Occupation, 1940-1944; David DrakeParis at War: 1939-1944 (brilliant); and Ronald Rosbottom, When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 (suggestive but you’ll need to find the detail elsewhere).  A good place for a quick start is Bernard Toulgoat‘s series on Life in Paris under Nazi Occupation: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4.

Army of None

Coming next spring from Norton – and with a very clever title – Paul Scharre‘s Army of None: Autonomous weapons and the future of war.

A Pentagon defense expert and former U.S. Army Ranger traces the emergence of autonomous weapons.

What happens when a Predator drone has as much autonomy as a Google car? Although it sounds like science fiction, the technology to create weapons that could hunt and destroy targets on their own already exists. Paul Scharre, a leading expert in emerging weapons technologies, draws on incisive research and firsthand experience to explore how increasingly autonomous weapons are changing warfare.

This far-ranging investigation examines the emergence of fully autonomous weapons, the movement to ban them, and the legal and ethical issues surrounding their use. Scharre spotlights the role of artificial intelligence in military technology, spanning decades of innovation from German noise-seeking Wren torpedoes in World War II—antecedents of today’s armed drones—to autonomous cyber weapons. At the forefront of a game-changing debate, Army of None engages military history, global policy, and bleeding-edge science to explore what it would mean to give machines authority over the ultimate decision: life or death.

You can get a taste – in fact a whole tasting menu – of Paul’s arguments at Just Security here.

Paul is at the Centre for a New American Security, and you can download two reports (which have been endlessly ripped by others) on Robotics on the Battlefield: Part I is Range, persistence and daring and Part II is The Coming Swarm (both 2014).

Tracking and targeting

News from Lucy Suchman of a special issue of Science, Technology and Human Values [42 (6) (2017)]  on Tracking and targeting: sociotechnologies of (in)security, which she’s co-edited with Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber.

Here’s the line-up:

Lucy Suchman, Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber: Tracking and targeting

This introduction to the special issue of the same title sets out the context for a critical examination of contemporary developments in sociotechnical systems deployed in the name of security. Our focus is on technologies of tracking, with their claims to enable the identification of those who comprise legitimate targets for the use of violent force. Taking these claims as deeply problematic, we join a growing body of scholarship on the technopolitical logics that underpin an increasingly violent landscape of institutions, infrastructures, and actions, promising protection to some but arguably contributing to our collective insecurity. We examine the asymmetric distributions of sociotechnologies of (in)security; their deadly and injurious effects; and the legal, ethical, and moral questions that haunt their operations.

Karolina Follis: Visions and transterritory: the borders of Europe

This essay is about the role of visual surveillance technologies in the policing of the external borders of the European Union (EU). Based on an analysis of documents published by EU institutions and independent organizations, I argue that these technological innovations fundamentally alter the nature of national borders. I discuss how new technologies of vision are deployed to transcend the physical limits of territories. In the last twenty years, EU member states and institutions have increasingly relied on various forms of remote tracking, including the use of drones for the purposes of monitoring frontier zones. In combination with other facets of the EU border management regime (such as transnational databases and biometrics), these technologies coalesce into a system of governance that has enabled intervention into neighboring territories and territorial waters of other states to track and target migrants for interception in the “prefrontier.” For jurisdictional reasons, this practice effectively precludes the enforcement of legal human rights obligations, which European states might otherwise have with regard to these persons. This article argues that this technologically mediated expansion of vision has become a key feature of post–cold war governance of borders in Europe. The concept of transterritory is proposed to capture its effects.

Christiane Wilke: Seeing and unmaking civilians in Afghanistan: visual technologies and contested professional visions

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 frequently 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.

Jon Lindsay: Target practice: Counterterrorism and the amplification of data friction

The nineteenth-century strategist Carl von Clausewitz describes “fog” and “friction” as fundamental features of war. Military leverage of sophisticated information technology in the twenty-first century has improved some tactical operations but has not lifted the fog of war, in part, because the means for reducing uncertainty create new forms of it. Drawing on active duty experience with an American special operations task force in Western Iraq from 2007 to 2008, this article traces the targeting processes used to “find, fix, and finish” alleged insurgents. In this case they did not clarify the political reality of Anbar province but rather reinforced a parochial worldview informed by the Naval Special Warfare community. The unit focused on the performance of “direct action” raids during a period in which “indirect action” engagement with the local population was arguably more appropriate for the strategic circumstances. The concept of “data friction”, therefore, can be understood not simply as a form of resistance within a sociotechnical system but also as a form of traction that enables practitioners to construct representations of the world that amplify their own biases.

M.C. Elish: Remote split: a history of US drone operations and the distributed labour of war

This article analyzes US drone operations through a historical and ethnographic analysis of the remote split paradigm used by the US Air Force. Remote split refers to the globally distributed command and control of drone operations and entails a network of human operators and analysts in the Middle East, Europe, and Southeast Asia as well as in the continental United States. Though often viewed as a teleological progression of “unmanned” warfare, this paper argues that historically specific technopolitical logics establish the conditions of possibility for the work of war to be divisible into discreet and computationally mediated tasks that are viewed as effective in US military engagements. To do so, the article traces how new forms of authorized evidence and expertise have shaped developments in military operations and command and control priorities from the Cold War and the “electronic battlefield” of Vietnam through the Gulf War and the conflict in the Balkans to contemporary deployments of drone operations. The article concludes by suggesting that it is by paying attention to divisions of labor and human–machine configurations that we can begin to understand the everyday and often invisible structures that sustain perpetual war as a military strategy of the United States.

I’ve discussed Christiane’s excellent article in detail before, but the whole issue repays careful reading.

And if you’re curious about the map that heads this post, it’s based on the National Security Agency’s Strategic Mission List (dated 2007 and published in the New York Times on 2 November 2013), and mapped at Electrospaces: full details here.

Hersey Wars

I have very nearly finished the long-form version of ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies‘ (really), and en route I’ve re-read John Hersey‘s stunning essay on Hiroshima that took up a whole issue of the New Yorker in 1946 (you can read it online here).

As so often happens, to me anyway, I was lured down all sorts of other paths while I was digging around.  One of them, which looped back to my wider work on aerial violence, led me to another essay by Hersey.  In several of my presentations on bombing I’ve used this image from Life magazine on 27 December 1943:

But what I had missed was the author of the essay wrapped around Floyd Davis‘s image: it was John Hersey.  Called ‘Experience by Battle’ it accompanied a 32-page portfolio of paintings by six American war artists of different theatres of war.  ‘Each battleground and each type of warfare has a distinctive effect on the men it involves,’ Hersey wrote.  ‘The pictures bring out the differences.  They are universal war, but they are also particular war.’

Hersey explained that he wasn’t interested in artistic technique – he probably wasn’t the person to write about that – but in a combination of memory and mood.  In his view, a painting was ‘a kind of memory – of an event, of a place, of an idea – and if it is good, it will give the person who sees it a pang quite like that of a vivid memory.’

In order the theatres and artists were:

Guadalcanal (Dwight Shepler):

Submarine warfare (Paul Sample):

Hill 609 in Tunisia (Fletcher Martin):

The saturation bombing of Hamburg (Floyd Davis; shown at the top of this post)

Rendova (Aaron Bohrod):

Sicily (Mitchell Jamieson):

Hersey was a master at conveying the experience of war – it was precisely that gift that he used to such extraordinary effect in ‘Hiroshima’, and at a time when so many American writers and artists had turned their eyes away from Japan to imagine instead ‘Hiroshima USA’….

He also had a remarkable ability to imagine military violence  from both sides.  In the text that accompanies Davis’s painting of the saturation bombing of Hamburg, Hersey had this to say:

‘It was not for our fliers to see in their minds’ eyes that Hamburg was as bad as the seventh circle of Dante’s hell, where flakes of fire fell on naked sinners.  They could not afford to spend too much time imagining the scene in the tunnel under the Elbe River, where thousands of people had taken shelter, at the moment when a bomb burst one end and the water rushed in.  As fliers with an important job to do they could not afford to have nightmares about people driven from shelters by heat into an ocean of flame outside; or about the city gradually dying – water no longer running, gas gone out of the mains, telephones silent, buses stopped, food distribution crippled – finally a city populated by people either dead or blank in the face.’

It’s a remarkable passage, conjuring up what Hersey acknowledges the aircrews could not see and dared not imagine.  He later explained that in ‘Hiroshima’ he wanted to ‘write about what happened not to buildings but to bodies’…

And the final panel of the Life portfolio returns me to my current work on wounded bodies:

In case you are wondering – you can access the full run of Life via Google Books: it is a truly excellent resource.