Ice Cold in Alex

I think most of my research on medical care and casualty evacuation from the Western Front in the First World War is now complete, though there are still some loose ends to tie up and some more interviews/oral histories to listen to on-line courtesy of the wonderful Imperial War Museum.   So I spent much of the summer working on the very different situation in the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War: the material – at the IWM and the Wellcome Institute – is just as rich, though much less worked over.

If the First World War was the first industrialised war yet still  fought, for the most part, at short range, the campaigns in North Africa involved mechanised war fought over vast distances.  I had anticipated some of this in ‘The natures of war‘ (DOWNLOADS tab), particularly since some of my evidence was drawn from vivid accounts by volunteer ambulance drivers from the American Field Service working with the Allies, but now I’m finding that early essay on the entanglement of the desert terrain and the soldier’s body needs to be supplemented – often dramatically so – once the wounded body is brought into the centre of the frame.

The Battle of Egypt, 1942: New Zealand and Indian Infantry Casualties (Art.IWM ART LD 2722) image: Interior of a tent with casualties lying on stretchers, main figure with arm and leg in makeshift
traction Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/11555

For the Western Front I’ve experimented with how to bring together the systems of evacuation that were put in place (with all their delays and dangers, imperfections and improvisations) with the wounded bodies that were moved through them, and – as regular readers will know – I’ve tried to incorporate the imbrications of those bodies with the changing and highly variable technological apparatus that made all this possible.  You can see some of my first attempts in Anatomy of another soldier

At the end of that essay, I worried about two issues: an anthropomorphism and a functionalism (in which everything that is pressed into service works inexorably to carry the soldier through the evacuation chain).

The spur for all this was Harry Parker‘s remarkable Anatomy of a soldier (see here and ‘Object lessons‘: DOWNLOADS tab), about the experience of a young British soldier who suffers traumatic blast injuries from an IED in Afghanistan.

But I’ve now found another, much earlier example that speaks directly to my work on North Africa.  And while the anthropomorphism remains a problem, as you’ll see the functionalism is much less secure – and for that very reason.

I’ve just finished Christopher Landon‘s Ice-Cold in Alex, a novel published in 1957 that provided the basis for J. Lee Thompson‘s celebrated film the following year, starring John Mills, Harry AndrewsSylvia Sims and Anthony Quayle.  (For a reading of the film, see Michael Leyshon and Catherine Brace, ‘Men and the desert: contested masculinities in Ice Cold in Alex’, Gender, place and culture 14 (2) (2007) 163-182).

The story describes a desperate drive in a British military ambulance from Tobruk, where the Afrika Korps is closing in, across the trackless desert to safety in Alexandria (and to a bar where the beer is always ‘ice-cold’).  Landon served with the 51st Field Ambulance and the Royal Army Service Corps in North Africa during the war, and knew what he was writing about.

Before the party sets off, Landon describes the Sergeant-Major lying underneath a lorry:

‘Above him, the bowels of the engine – gleaming crankshaft and loosened connecting rods , tied to the sides of the crank-case with wire – seemed to be grinning.  It was a challenging grin – “what’s wrong with me?”  He started back, up at the glint of metal, framed in the black space where the sump had been removed.  “It’s easier for doctors,” he thought.  “Patients can talk.  But machinery goes on uncomplaining, until it breaks.”‘

Later he has a similar conversation with one of the nurses they have been ordered to escort to Alexandria:

‘”Not so difficult, or different from your job.  They’re like humans, really.  If you give them the right food and drink – a dose occasionally – and don’t overwork them, they obey all the rules.”  He was moving the fan blades to and fro, feeling with the other hand behind it.  “The only trouble – and difference – is they can’t talk.  So that by the time you know they have a pain, it’s usually too late.”

But between these two passages Landon has given the ambulance a voice.

I’m going to be rehearsing these issues at a seminar tomorrow at the Wall – I’ll be interested to see how this year’s Scholars can  help me think this through….  And I’ll be posting more about my work on the Western Desert in the months ahead.

Fragments

The flu has restricted me to not so much light reading as lighter-than-air reading, so here are some short contributions and notices that appeared during the Christmas break and which address various aspects of (later) modern war and military violence:

Peter Schwartzstein on ‘The explosive secrets of Egypt’s deserts‘ – the recovery of military maps, aerial photographs, personal journals and sketchbooks from the Second World War to plot the vast minefields that continue to haunt ‘one of the most hotly contested killing fields of the twentieth century’.  You can find more in Aldino Bondesan‘s ‘Between history and geography: The El Alamein Project’, in Jill Edwards (ed) El Alamein and the struggle for North Africa (Oxford, 2012).

I discussed those minefields in ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and that essay intersects in all sorts of ways with my good friend Gastòn Gordillo‘s project on terrain, so here is a short reflection from him entitled Terrain, forthcoming in Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen.

Not the ‘war on drugs’ but the war through drugs: Mike Jay‘s sharp review essay (‘Don’t fight sober’) on Łukasz Kamieński‘s brilliantly titled Shooting Up: a short history of drugs and war and Norman Ohler‘s over-the-top Blitzed: drugs in Nazi Germany (for another, equally critical take on Ohler, see Richard J Evans‘s splenetic review here; more – and more appreciative – from Rachel Cooke‘s interview with Ohler here).

Here’s an extract from Mike’s review:

9780190263478In Shooting Up, a historical survey of drugs in warfare that grew out of his research into future military applications of biotechnology, Łukasz Kamieński lists some of the obstacles to getting the facts straight. State authorities tend to cloak drug use in secrecy, for tactical advantage and because it frequently conflicts with civilian norms and laws. Conversely it can be exaggerated to strike fear into the enemy, or the enemy’s success and morale can be imputed to it. When drugs are illegal, as they often are in modern irregular warfare, trafficking or consumption is routinely denied. The negative consequences of drug use are covered up or explained away as the result of injury or trauma, and longer-term sequels are buried within the complex of post-traumatic disorders. Soldiers aren’t fully informed of the properties and potency of the drugs they’re consuming. Different perceptions of their role circulate even among participants fighting side by side.

Kamieński confines the use of alcohol in war to his prologue and wisely so, or the rest of the book would risk becoming a footnote to it. A historical sweep from the Battle of Hastings to Waterloo or ancient Greece to Vietnam suggests that war has rarely been fought sober. This is unsurprising in view of the many different functions alcohol performs. It has always been an indispensable battlefield medicine and is still pressed into service today as antiseptic, analgesic, anaesthetic and post-trauma stimulant. It has a central role in boosting morale and small-group bonding; it can facilitate the private management of stress and injury; and it makes sleep possible where noise, discomfort or stress would otherwise prevent it. After the fighting is done, it becomes an aid to relaxation and recovery.

All these functions are subsidiary to its combat role and Kamieński’s particular interest, the extent to which drugs can transform soldiers into superhuman fighting machines. ‘Dutch courage’ – originally the genever drunk by British soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War – has many components. With alcohol, soldiers can tolerate higher levels of pain and hardship, conquer fear and perform acts of selfless daring they would never attempt without it. It promotes disinhibition, loosens cultural taboos and makes troops more easily capable of acts that in civilian life would be deemed criminal or insane. The distribution of alcohol and other drugs by medics or superior officers has an important symbolic function, giving soldiers permission to perform such acts and to distance themselves from what they become when they’re intoxicated.

Opium, cannabis and coca all played supporting roles on the premodern battlefield but it was only with the industrialisation of pharmaceutical production that other drugs emerged fully from alcohol’s shadow. Morphine was widely used for the first time in the American Civil War and the 19th-century cocaine boom began with research into its military application. Freud was first alerted to it by the work of the army surgeon Theodor Aschenbrandt, who in 1883 secretly added it to the drinking water of Bavarian recruits and found that it made them better able to endure hunger, strain and fatigue. During the First World War cocaine produced in Java by the neutral Dutch was exported in large quantities to both sides. British forces could get it over the counter in products such as Burroughs Wellcome’s ‘Forced March’ tablets, until alarms about mass addiction among the troops led to a ban on open sales under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707During the 1930s a new class of stimulants emerged from the laboratory, cheap to produce, longer-acting and allegedly less addictive. Amphetamine was first brought to market in the US by Smith, Kline and French in 1934 in the form of a bronchial inhaler, Benzedrine, but its stimulant properties were soon recognised and it was made available in tablet form as a remedy for narcolepsy and a tonic against depression. As with cocaine, one of its first applications was as a performance booster in sport. Its use by American athletes during the Munich Olympic Games in 1936 brought it to the attention of the German Reich and by the end of the following year the Temmler pharmaceutical factory in Berlin had synthesised a more powerful variant, methamphetamine, and trademarked it under the name Pervitin. As Norman Ohler relates in Blitzed, research into its military applications began almost immediately; it was used in combat for the first time in the early stages of the Second World War. Ohler’s hyperkinetic, immersive prose evokes its subjective effects on the German Wehrmacht far more vividly than any previous account, but it also blurs the line between myth and reality.

This too blurs the line between myth and reality, or so you might think.  Geoff Manaugh‘s ever-interesting BldgBlog reports that the US Department of Defense ‘is looking to develop “biodegradable training ammunition loaded with specialized seeds to grow environmentally beneficial plants that eliminate ammunition debris and contaminants”.’  Sustainable shooting.  But notice this is ammunition only for use in proving grounds…

shotgun

At the other end of the sustainable spectrum, John Spencer suggests that ‘The most effective weapon on the modern battlefield is concrete‘.  To put it simply, you bring today’s liquid wars to a juddering halt – on the ground at any rate – by turning liquidity into solidity and confounding the mobility of the enemy:

Ask any Iraq War veteran about Jersey, Alaska, Texas, and Colorado and you will be surprised to get stories not about states, but about concrete barriers. Many soldiers deployed to Iraq became experts in concrete during their combat tours. Concrete is as symbolic to their deployments as the weapons they carried. No other weapon or technology has done more to contribute to achieving strategic goals of providing security, protecting populations, establishing stability, and eliminating terrorist threats. This was most evident in the complex urban terrain of Baghdad, Iraq. Increasing urbanization and its consequent influence on global patterns of conflict mean that the US military is almost certain to be fighting in cities again in our future wars. Military planners would be derelict in their duty if they allowed the hard-won lessons about concrete learned on Baghdad’s streets to be forgotten.

When I deployed to Iraq as an infantry soldier in 2008 I never imagined I would become a pseudo-expert in concrete, but that is what happened—from small concrete barriers used for traffic control points to giant ones to protect against deadly threats like improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and indirect fire from rockets and mortars. Miniature concrete barriers were given out by senior leaders as gifts to represent entire tours. By the end my deployment, I could tell you how much each concrete barrier weighed. How much each barrier cost. What crane was needed to lift different types. How many could be emplaced in a single night. How many could be moved with a military vehicle before its hydraulics failed.
Baghdad was strewn with concrete—barriers, walls, and guard towers. Each type was named for a state, denoting their relative sizes and weights. There were small barriers like the Jersey (three feet tall; two tons), medium ones like the Colorado (six feet tall; 3.5 tons) and Texas (six feet, eight inches tall; six tons), and large ones like the Alaska (12 feet tall; seven tons). And there were T-walls (12 feet tall; six tons), and actual structures such as bunkers (six feet tall; eight tons) and guard towers (15 to 28 feet tall).

concrete-barriers-stored-at-bagram-afb-january-2015

But it’s nor only a matter of freezing movement:

Concrete also gave soldiers freedom to maneuver in urban environments. In the early years of the war, US forces searched for suitable spaces in which to live. Commanders looked for abandoned factories, government buildings, and in some situations, schools. Existing structures surrounded by walled compounds of some type were selected because there was little in the environment to use for protection—such as dirt to fill sandbags, earthworks, or existing obstacles. As their skills in employing concrete advanced, soldiers could occupy any open ground and within weeks have a large walled compound with hardened guard towers.

Now up into the air.  My posts on the US Air Force’s Bombing Encyclopedia (here and here) continue to attract lots of traffic; I now realise that the project – a targeting gazetteer for Strategic Air Command – needs to be understood in relation to a considerable number of other texts.  Elliott Child has alerted me to the prisoner/defector interrogations that provided vital intelligence for the identification of targets – more soon, I hope – while those targets also wound their way into the President’s Daily Brief (this was an era when most Presidents read the briefs and took them seriously, though Nixon evidently shared Trump’s disdain for the CIA: see here.)  James David has now prepared a National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book (No 574) which provides many more details based on redacted releases of Briefs for the period 1961-77.

Two of the most critical intelligence targets throughout the Cold War were Soviet missile and space programs. U.S. intelligence agencies devoted a huge amount of resources to acquiring timely and accurate data on them. Photoreconnaissance satellites located launch complexes and provided data on the number and type of launchers, buildings, ground support equipment, and other key features. They located R&D centers, manufacturing plants, shipyards, naval bases, radars, and other facilities and obtained technical details on them. The satellites also occasionally imaged missiles and rockets on launch pads. There were four successful photoreconnaissance satellite programs during the four administrations in question. CORONA, a broad area search system, operated from August 1960 until May 1972. The first successful high resolution system, GAMBIT-1, flew from 1963-1967. The improved GAMBIT-3 high resolution satellite was launched from 1966-1984. HEXAGON, the broad area search successor to CORONA, operated from 1971-1984. High-resolution ground photography of missiles and rockets displayed at Moscow parades and other events also proved valuable at times.

sigint-targets-ussr

Signals intelligence platforms [above] also contributed greatly to understanding Soviet missile and space programs. Satellites such as GRAB (1960-1962), POPPY (1962-1971), and AFTRACK payloads (1960-1967) located and intercepted air defense, anti-ballistic missile, and other radars and added significantly to U.S. knowledge of Soviet defensive systems and to the development of countermeasures. Other still-classified signals intelligence satellites launched beginning around 1970 reportedly intercepted telemetry and other data downlinked from missiles, rockets, and satellites to Soviet ground stations, and commands uplinked from the stations to these vehicles. Antennas at intercept sites also recorded this downlinked data. During the latter stages of missile and rocket tests to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Pacific, ships and aircraft also intercepted telemetry and acquired optical data of the vehicles. Analysis of the telemetry and other data enabled the intelligence agencies to determine the performance characteristics of missiles, rockets, and satellites and helped establish their specific missions. Radars at ground stations detected launches, helped determine missile trajectories, observed the reentry of vehicles, and assisted in estimating the configuration and dimensions of missiles and satellites. Space Surveillance Network radars and optical sensors detected satellites and established their orbital elements. The optical sensors apparently also photographed satellites.

And for a more recent take on sensors and shooters, coming from Yale in the Spring: Christopher J Fuller‘s See It/Shoot It: The secret history of the CIA’s lethal drone program:

An illuminating study tracing the evolution of drone technology and counterterrorism policy from the Reagan to the Obama administrations.

This eye-opening study uncovers the history of the most important instrument of U.S. counterterrorism today: the armed drone. It reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the CIA’s covert drone program is not a product of 9/11. Rather, it is the result of U.S. counterterrorism practices extending back to an influential group of policy makers in the Reagan administration.

Tracing the evolution of counterterrorism policy and drone technology from the fallout of Iran-Contra and the CIA’s “Eagle Program” prototype in the mid-1980s to the emergence of al-Qaeda, Fuller shows how George W. Bush and Obama built upon or discarded strategies from the Reagan and Clinton eras as they responded to changes in the partisan environment, the perceived level of threat, and technological advances. Examining a range of counterterrorism strategies, he reveals why the CIA’s drones became the United States’ preferred tool for pursuing the decades-old goal of preemptively targeting anti-American terrorists around the world.

You can get a preview of the argument in his ‘The Eagle Comes Home to Roost: The Historical Origins of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program’ in Intelligence & National Security 30 (6) (2015) 769-92; you can access a version of that essay, with some of his early essays on the US as what he now calls a ‘post-territorial empire’, via Academia here.

Finally, also forthcoming from Yale, a reflection on War by A.C. Grayling (whose Among the Dead Cities was one of the inspirations for my own work on bombing):

grayling-warFor residents of the twenty-first century, a vision of a future without warfare is almost inconceivable. Though wars are terrible and destructive, they also seem unavoidable. In this original and deeply considered book, A. C. Grayling examines, tests, and challenges the concept of war. He proposes that a deeper, more accurate understanding of war may enable us to reduce its frequency, mitigate its horrors, and lessen the burden of its consequences.

Grayling explores the long, tragic history of war and how warfare has changed in response to technological advances. He probes much-debated theories concerning the causes of war and considers positive changes that may result from war. How might these results be achieved without violence? In a profoundly wise conclusion, the author envisions “just war theory” in new moral terms, taking into account the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust and laying down ethical principles for going to war and for conduct during war.

Blank verse

douglas-alamein-to-zem-zem-001

When I was working on ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab; the slide above is from my presentation) I stumbled across the poetry of Keith Douglas and his prose account of the desert war, From Alamein to Zem Zem (see my post here).

I was familiar with the soldier-poets of the First World War, of course, but I confess I had no idea how much fine poetry had emerged from the deserts of North Africa in the 1940s.  Ironically, Edmund Blunden was Douglas’s tutor at Oxford….

douglas-alamein-to-zem-zem

The LA Review of Books recently published an appreciation of Douglas’s importance by Steven Isenberg here:

Douglas wrote Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), his account of men and tanks in North Africa, so close in time and space to the desert battlegrounds that it pulses with ebullient immediacy. He became the answer to his own question: “Why are there no poets like [Wilfred] Owen and Sassoon who lived with the fighting troops and wrote of their experience while enduring them?”

In continent

160311024028-drone-warfare-film-eye-in-the-sky-sesay-pkg-00001425-super-169

Over at the LA Review of Books Will Govinsky has a fine essay on Eye in the Sky called ‘The beauty of an imperial dilemma‘.  It begins with the image of a French gunboat firing shots into the African rainforest from Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness:

The ship’s absurdly one-sided battle becomes, for Marlow, an emblem of pointless, indiscriminate imperial violence: “[T]here she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.”

Will’s point is about the parallel between the anonymity of imperial violence in the African rainforest and the anonymity of the US (un)targeted killing program:

The chilling anonymity of this “targeted” drone program’s victims, crossed with the sanguine official line, again recalls Conrad’s French warship. “There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding,” Marlow says, which “was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives ­— he called them enemies! — hidden out of sight somewhere.”

Conrad’s critique of European imperial violence moves with notorious swiftness from the opacity of the victim to the opacity at the heart of the colonizer. Marlow does not know who exactly are the victims of the French warship’s shells, but Conrad’s racism, as Chinua Achebe famously argued, precludes his narrator from caring that much. Marlow’s concern is not for the mangled bodies on the receiving end of colonial violence, but for the deplorable madness at the heart of the imperialist himself.

As I’ve described elsewhere, the genealogy can be traced across multiple theatres.  Here, for example, is Arnold Bennett on the Western Front:

Of the target I am absolutely ignorant.001

And here is Frederic Downs describing a US artillery bombardment in Vietnam – Francis Ford Coppola‘s setting for Heart of Darkness – in terms which loop back directly to Will’s (Conrad’s) point about anonymity, impersonality and the madness of it all:

The coordinates for that location and the time for firing would be relayed to the gun crews. At the specified time, the gun crews would be awakened. Perhaps it would be just after midnight. As the minutes ticked closer to a time set by an unknown intelligence the men would load the artillery pieces, anticipating the release of their impersonal death into a grid square. The gun commander would give the order to fire and the night would explode with man’s lightning and thunder. After the prescribed rounds, the guns would cease, the cleanup would begin, and the men would go back to their bunks. Thinking what? Within the range of those guns, within a specified area, the Central Highlands had for a brief moment changed from the jungle it had been for thousands of years into the particular insanity of man.

artillery

In these two cases, clearly, the gunners were firing blind – but what lay behind their guns was a stream of co-ordinates.

This raises two issues that bear directly on the use of today’s remote platforms.

The first is about the ethics of killing at a distance which, as Will notes, also has a (far longer) genealogy.  He cites Chateaubriand‘s question – ‘If, merely by wishing it, you could kill a man in China and inherit his fortune in Europe, being assured by supernatural means that the deed would remain forever unknown, would you allow yourself to form that project?’ – and explains that ‘killing the mandarin’ became shorthand in French for committing ‘an evil action in the hope that it will remain unknown.’

But the US targeted killing program is hardly unknown, and my own preference – which turns out to be closely related to tuer le mandarin – is to turn to Denis Diderot:

Diderot.001

The intimate connection between distance and blindness can be read again and again in accounts of bombing during the Second World War, most directly here:

Distance and blindess.001

But again, what lay behind ‘the distance and the blindness’ was a stream of intelligence.

Recognising the importance of those intelligence streams – and conceding that ‘crunching petabytes of metadata just wouldn’t make for good cinema’ – Will’s key point (and the second issue) is that in its representation of a drone strike in East Africa Eye in the Sky artfully reverses Conrad’s trope:

It asks what we would do if we knew everything. In a taut 102 minutes, the film condenses the ambiguities of drone warfare into a balance sheet of nigh certainties.

eye-in-the-sky

In a fine passage, he suggests the film offers the fantasy

of perfect, visual knowledge — a platform for the terrible beauty of a globe-girdling ethical dilemma. Poised, confident, her silver hair luminescent in the metallic grey-blue glow of her theater-like command center, [Helen] Mirren’s Col. Powell gathers up in her steely 10,000-mile stare the awful knowledge of her options.

But – as I argued in my own commentary on Eye in the Sky – this is indeed a fantasy.  The video feeds from remote platforms do not render the battle space transparent, and the make-believe that they do, Will concludes, renders the film ‘less a representation of drone warfare than a grotesque abstraction of it.’  Hence his brilliantly sobering conclusion:

We need plots that provide the narrative space to ask questions: whether the very terms of our dilemmas are spurious; whether firing into continents, day in and day out, can be anyone’s prerogative, let alone ours.

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).

A long day’s journey…

Anti-landscape of the Western Front.001

A note from Antipode to say that the latest edition is now available online and, unless I’ve mis-read things, is open access (for now, at any rate).  It includes what the editors say ‘might well be Antipode‘s longest ever paper’ – pp. 3-56! – my ‘Natures of war’ essay here.

JARMAN Sand.001

Matters of definition

Since my post on the use of drones to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over Iraq and Syria I’ve been thinking about the image stream provided by Predators and Reapers.  Then I used an image from what I think must be an MQ-9 Reaper operated by France which was in full colour and – this is the important part – in high definition.  Over the weekend the New York Times published a report, culled from the Italian magazine L’Espresso, which – together with the accompanying video clip (the link is to the Italian original not the Times version) – confirmed the power of HD full motion video, this time from a Reaper operated by Italy:

The footage … begins with grainy black-and-white images of an airstrike on what appears to have been a checkpoint on a road in northern Iraq, beneath a huge black flag.

Then there is something altogether different: high-resolution, color video of four distinct armed figures walking out of a house and along the streets of a town. At one stage, the picture suddenly zooms in on two of the suspected militants to reveal that one of them is almost certainly a child, propping a rifle on his shoulder that indicates how small he is relative to the man next to him. The images are so clear that even the shadows of the figures can be examined.

Italian Drone video BItalian drone video CItalian drone video AItalian drone video DItalian drone video I

But the significance of all this is less straightforward than it might appear.

First, not all drones have this HD capability.  We know from investigations into civilian casualty incidents in Afghanistan that the feeds from Predators but also early model (‘Block’) Reapers are frequently grainy and imprecise.  Sean Davies reports that the video compression necessary for data transmission squeezed 560 x 480 pixel resolution images into 3.2 MBps at 30 frames per second whereas the newer (Block 5) Reapers provide 1280 x 720 pixel resolution images resolution images at 6.4 MBps.  The enhanced video feeds can be transmitted not only to the Ground Control Stations from which the aircraft are flown – and those too have been upgraded (see image below) – but also to operations centres monitoring the missions and, crucially, to ruggedized laptops (‘ROVERs’) used by special forces and other troops on the ground.

ground-control-stations

The significance of HD full-motion video is revealed in the slide below, taken from a briefing on ‘small footprint operations’ in Somalia and Yemen prepared in February 2013 and published as part of The Intercept‘s Drone Papers, which summarises its impact on the crucial middle stage of the ‘find, fix, finish‘ cycle of targeted killing:

HD FMV impact on Fix

As you can see, HD FMV was involved in as many as 72 per cent of the successful ‘fixes’ and was absent from 88 per cent of the unsuccessful ones.

Second, Eyal Weizman cautions that the image stream shown on the Italian video was captured ‘either very early or very late in the day.  Without shadows we could not identify these as weapons at all.’  Infra-red images captured at night could obviously not provide definition of this quality, but even so-called ‘Day TV’ would not show clear shadows at most times of the day. In Eyal’s view, ‘showing these rare instances could skew our understanding of how much can be seen by drones and how clear what we see is.’

Third, no matter how high the resolution of the video feeds, we need to remember that their interpretation is a techno-cultural process.  One of the figures shown in the Italian video ‘is almost certainly a child’, reports the New York Times.  So bear in mind this exchange between the crew of a Predator circling over three vehicles travelling through the mountains of Uruzgan in February 2010 (see also here and here):

1:07 􏰀(MC):􏰀 screener􏰀 said 􏰀at least 􏰀one 􏰀child 􏰀near 􏰀SUV􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Sensor):􏰀 bull􏰀 (expletive 􏰀deleted)…where!?􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Sensor): 􏰀send 􏰀me 􏰀a 􏰀(expletive􏰀deleted) 􏰀still,􏰀􏰀 I􏰀 don’t 􏰀think 􏰀they 􏰀have 􏰀kids 􏰀out 􏰀at 􏰀this 􏰀hour, 􏰀I 􏰀know􏰀 they’re 􏰀shady 􏰀but􏰀 come􏰀 on􏰀

1:07􏰀 (Pilot):􏰀 at 􏰀least 􏰀one 􏰀child…􏰀Really?􏰀 Listing 􏰀the􏰀 MAM [Military-Aged Male], 􏰀uh, 􏰀that 􏰀means 􏰀he’s 􏰀guilty􏰀

1:07􏰀 (Sensor):􏰀 well 􏰀may be􏰀 a 􏰀teenager 􏰀but 􏰀I 􏰀haven’t􏰀 seen􏰀 anything 􏰀that 􏰀looked 􏰀that 􏰀short, 􏰀granted 􏰀they’e􏰀 all 􏰀grouped 􏰀up 􏰀here,􏰀 but.􏰀..

1:07 􏰀(MC): 􏰀They’re 􏰀reviewing􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Pilot):􏰀Yeah 􏰀review 􏰀that􏰀 (expletive 􏰀deleted)…why􏰀 didn’t 􏰀he 􏰀say􏰀 possible􏰀 child,􏰀 why􏰀 are􏰀 they􏰀 so 􏰀quick􏰀 to 􏰀call 􏰀(expletive􏰀 deleted) 􏰀kids 􏰀but􏰀 not 􏰀to 􏰀call 􏰀(expletive􏰀deleted) 􏰀a 􏰀rifle􏰀….

03:10 􏰀(Pilot):􏰀 And 􏰀Kirk􏰀97, 􏰀good 􏰀copy􏰀 on􏰀 that.􏰀 We 􏰀are 􏰀with 􏰀you.􏰀 Our 􏰀screener􏰀 updated􏰀 only􏰀 one􏰀 adolescent 􏰀so 􏰀that’s 􏰀one􏰀 double 􏰀digit􏰀 age 􏰀range.􏰀 How􏰀 Copy?􏰀

03:10 􏰀(JAG25):􏰀We’ll􏰀 pass 􏰀that 􏰀along 􏰀to 􏰀the 􏰀ground 􏰀force􏰀 commander.􏰀 But 􏰀like 􏰀I 􏰀said, 􏰀12 􏰁13 􏰀years 􏰀old 􏰀with􏰀 a 􏰀weapon 􏰀is􏰀 just 􏰀as􏰀 dangerous.􏰀􏰀

In other words – it’s more than a matter of high definition; it’s also a matter of political and cultural definition.