The slow violence of bombing

When I spoke at the symposium on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ in Utrecht before Christmas, one of my central arguments was about the slow violence of bombing.  The term is, of course, Rob Nixon‘s, but I borrowed it to emphasise that the violence of sudden death from the air – whether in the air raids of the First and Second World Wars or the drone strikes of the early twenty-first century – neither begins nor ends with the explosion of bombs and missiles.

Paul Saint-Amour speaks of ‘traumatic earliness’: that dreadful sense of deadly anticipation.  The sense of not only preparation – communal and individual – but also of an involuntary tensing.  I described this for the First and Second World Wars in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’, which you can download from the TEACHING tab, but here is A.L. Kennedy who captures it as well as anyone:

Add to that the blackouts, the new landscape of civil defence with its sandbags and shelters, the new choreography of movement through the war-time city, the air-raid sirens and the probing arcs of the searchlights.

Perhaps this seems remote, but it shouldn’t.  Modern technology can radically heighten that sense of foreboding: calibrate it, give it even sharper definition.  Here is Salam Pax, counting down the hours to US air strikes on Baghdad:

Fast forward to drone strikes.  The sense of dread visited on innocents by multiple US drone programmes is readily overlooked in the emphasis on ‘targeted killing’, on what the US Air Force once called its ability to put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and on the individuation of this modality of later modern war.  ‘The body is the battlefield’, as Grégoire Chamayou argues.

I’ve written about all those things, but there is a powerful sense in which the battle space still exceeds the body: for in order to target the individual these programmes also target the social, as this set of slides from my Utrecht presentation tries to show:

Here too, surely, is traumatic earliness.  (I’ve discussed this in more detail in ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies’ [DOWNLOADS tab], and I’m indebted to Neal Curtis, ‘The explication of the social’, Journal of sociology 52 (3) (2016) 522-36) for helping me to think this through).

And then, after the explosion – the shocking bio-convergence that in an instant produces the horror of meatspace – the violence endures: stored in the broken buildings and in the broken bodies.  In the Second World War (again as I show in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’) the landscape was made strange every morning: buildings newly demolished, people driven from their homes and their workplaces, roads blocked by hoses and ambulances, by craters and unexploded bombs, rescue workers still toiling in the rubble to remove the dead and the injured, hospitals still treating and caring for the casualties.

And the violence of a drone strike lingers too: not on the same scale, but still the destroyed houses, the burned-out cars, the graves of the dead and above all the traumatized survivors (and their rescuers), some of them forced into newly prosthetic lives (see here and here).  The explosion is instantaneous, a bolt from the blue, but the pain, the grief and the scars on the land and the body endure.

These effects have a horizon that is not contained by any carefully calculated blast radius.  The grief spirals out through extended families and communities; and – depending on the target – so too do the casualties.  As I’ve said before, power stations in Gaza or Iraq have been targeted not for any localised destructon but because without power water cannot be pumped, sewage cannot be treated, food (and medicines) stored in refrigerators deteriorates.  And hospitals have been systematically targeted in Syria to deny treatment to hundreds and thousands of sick and injured:

The work of enumerating and plotting air strikes, in the past or in the present, is immensely important.  But those columns on graphs and circles on maps should not be read as signs of an episodic or punctiform violence.

‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’

Today’s Guardian has a report from Roy Wenzl called ‘The kill-chain: inside the unit that tracks targets in America’s drone wars’.  There’s not much there that won’t be familiar to regular readers, but the focus is not on the pilots and sensor operators but on the screeners – the analysts who scrutinise the full-motion video feeds from the drones to provide ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance).

The report describes the work of the 184th Intelligence Wing of the National Air Guard at McConnell AFB in Kansas:

‘They video-stalk enemy combatants, and tell warfighters what they see… The group does this work in the middle of America, at an air base surrounded by flat cow pastures and soybean fields….

The work is top secret.They say that they see things in those drone images that no one wants to see. Sometimes, it’s terrorists beheading civilians. Sometimes it’s civilians dying accidentally in missions that the Kansans help coordinate.

They agonize over those deaths. The most frequently heard phrase in drone combat, one airman says, is: “Don’t push the button.”

“You see [enemy combatants] kiss their kids goodbye, and kiss their wives goodbye, and then they walk down the street,” said a squadron chief master sergeant. “As soon as they get over that hill, the missile is released.”

The Americans wait to fire, he says, “because we don’t want the family to see it”.

One of those involved marvels at the technology involved: ‘The technology we use is just insane, it’s so good.’  As the report notes, critics of the programme have a more literal meaning of insanity in their minds….

The report also confirms the intensity (and, as part of that intensity, the tedium) of the shift-work involved:

Back in Kansas, in the SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facility), members of Col Brad Hilbert’s group watch dozens of screens. One eight-hour shift will watch multiple targets, then hand off surveillance to the next shift. Multiple missions run simultaneously.

While enemy combatants walk around carrying weapons, the group studies their movements. They can watch one person, or one building, or one small neighborhood. The drones loiter high and unseen, giving clear, hi-tech visuals….

Most of what they watch is tedious. “They will sometimes watch one pile of sand every day for a month,” their chaplain says.

But sometimes, they see that an enemy is about to attack US troops. The commanders decide to “neutralize” him. When commanders order attacks, the Kansans become one link in a kill chain, which can include armed Reaper and Predator drone operators, fighter pilots, ground artillery commanders – and commanders with authority to approve or deny strikes.

Taking it to the limit

A postscript to my posts here, here and here on civilian deaths from air strikes in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere: Vice has an extended interview with Chris Woods of Airwars here.

The biggest issue we saw in 2017—particularly if we look at the US-led coalition—was that the war moved very heavily into cities. That, more than any other single factor, resulted in the deaths of many more civilians and casualty events. We saw a similar pattern at the back end of 2016, when Russia and the Assad regime heavily bombed east Aleppo. There’s a very strong correlation between attacks on cities and large numbers of civilian casualties. And frankly, it doesn’t matter who’s carrying out those attacks. The outcome for civilians is always dire…

Things didn’t get any better under Trump for civilians—in fact, they got a lot worse. One of the reasons for that was the intensity of the bombardment. We saw an absolutely ferocious bombing campaign by the US and its allies in both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. Between those two cities, the coalition alone dropped 50,000 munitions. One bomb or missile was dropped on Raqqa every 12 minutes, on average, for the duration of the four-month battle…

When Russia and the Assad regime were bombing Aleppo in late 2016, we had assumed that a key reason for the large number of civilian casualties was down to the fact they were primarily using dumb-bombs. We have actually changed our modeling since then, based on what we have seen with the coalition in places like Raqqa and Mosul. The reason is that even when you use precision bombs on cities, really, the outcome for civilians is the same as a dumb bomb. You can’t control what the bombs do when they land.

We saw very little difference between Russian and coalition strikes when it came to bombing cities. This is the big problem we have with a shift to urban warfare —it’s really taking us to the limits of any benefits we might have in terms of protecting civilians by using precision munitions.

Chris also has some characteristically smart (and sharp) things to say about transparency and accountability too…

Killing cities

In a perceptive commentary on the ground-breaking investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal into civilian casualties caused by the US air campaign against Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq – see also my posts here and hereRobert Malley and Stephen Pomper write:

The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.

And yet. Those dead civilians that The New York Times found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.

Part of the problem, as they note, is the nature of the campaign itself.  This is not the sort of counterinsurgency campaign that emerged in Afghanistan and Iraq in which air power was used in support of US and allied ground troops (although we know that also produced more than its share of civilian casualties); neither is it a counterterrorism campaign directed against so-called High Value Targets who supposedly ‘present a direct and imminent threat to the United States’ (ditto; and as I discuss in ‘Dirty dancing’ – DOWNLOADS tab – ‘imminence’ turned out to be remarkably elastic, a deadly process of time-space expansion).
Ultimately, though, their anxieties turn on what they call the ‘over-militarization’ of the US response to al Qaeda and its affiliates and to IS.  They explain, succinctly, what has encouraged this militarized response (not least the lowering of the threshold for military violence allowed by remote operations):
[U]ntil this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.
In December the Bureau of Investigative Journalism confirmed an escalation in US air strikes across multiple theatres in Trump’s first year in office:
President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.

However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen [in 2017].

In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.

Much remains unclear about these actions, apart from Trump’s signature combination of machismo and ignorance, but we do know that Obama’s restrictions on the use of military force outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been loosened:

In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House.

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

In September NBC reported that the Trump administration was planning to allow the CIA to take a more aggressive role and to give the agency more authority to conduct (para)military operations.  In consequence a comprehensive revision of Obama’s guidelines was in prospect:

The drone playbook, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG, includes a provision that no strike should go forward unless analysts determine that there is a near-certainty that no civilians will be harmed. And it includes a provision forbidding the addition of new detainees to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The Trump administration is contemplating removing both of those restrictions.

Pakistan remains a nominally covert area of operations.  US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas resumed in March after a nine-month hiatus – though Trump’s latest spat with Islamabad raises questions about the sporadic but systematic co-operation that had characterised so much of the campaign – and (provocatively: again, see ‘Dirty Dancing’ for an explanation) one strike took place outside the FATA in June 2017.  The Bureau’s detailed list is here: five strikes are listed, killing 15-22 people.

In Afghanistan the Bureau noted that air strikes had doubled and that this escalation has been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in transparency (Chris Woods told me the same story for Iraq and Syria when we met in Utrecht).

All of this confirms the report released today by Action on Armed Violence.

At least 15,399 civilians were killed in the first 11 months of 2017 according to Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) recording of English language media explosive violence events.  This devastating toll – up to the end of November – strongly suggests that 2017 was the worst year for civilian deathsfrom explosive weapons since AOAV’s records began in 2011.

This sharp rise, constituting a 42% increase from the same period in 2016, when 10,877 civilians were killed, is largely down to a massive increase in deadly airstrikes.

Compared to 2011, the first year of AOAV’s recording, the rise in civilians killed by explosive violence in the first 11 months of 2017 constitutes an 175% increase (5,597 died in the same period seven years ago).

On average, our records to November show that there were 42 civilian deaths per day caused by explosive violence in 2017.

The report continues:

For the first time since our recording of all English language media reports of explosive weapon attacks began, the majority of civilian deaths were by air-launched weapons. Of the total civilian deaths recorded (15,399), 58% were caused by airstrikes, mainly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Civilian deaths from airstrikes in this 11-month period was 8,932 – an increase of 82% compared to the same period in 2016 when 4,902 civilians were killed, or 1,169% compared to 2011, when 704 died.

Significantly, as airstrikes are almost always used by State actors, rather than non-State groups, States were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths from explosive weapons for the first time since our records began.

Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV commented:

 These are stark figures that expose the lie that precision-guided missiles as used by State airforces do not lead to massive civilian harm. When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, the results are inevitable: innocent children, women and men will die.

In the same vein, Karen McVeigh‘s summary for the Guardian quotes Chris Woods from Airwars:

This is about urban warfare and that’s why we are getting crazy numbers… War is moving into cities. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Russia or the US-led coalition or ground forces leading the assault, the outcome for civilians under attack is always dire…. We’re becoming too complacent about urban warfare, and militaries and governments are downplaying the effects.

I think that’s right, though I also think war is moving back into the cities (if it ever left them); the serial military operations in Mosul and Raqqa are vivid examples of what Chris means, but they also recall the assaults on Fallujah and other cities documented in Steve Graham‘s still utterly indispensable Cities under siege.

The point is sharpened even further if we widen the angle of vision to take in air campaigns conducted by other air forces: the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Air Force in Syria, or the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Yet again, killing cities to save them.  As a spokesperson for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently put it last summer, ‘This is very similar to the Vietnam war, where entire cities were destroyed… What is happening in Raqqa is like dropping a nuclear bomb in stages.’

Steve’s work should also remind us that these dead cities are not produced by air strikes alone.  Once reduced to rubble they have often been disembowelled (I can think of no better word) by ground forces; it’s as though these now barely human landscapes compel or at any rate license the continued degradation of both the living and the dead:  see, for example, Kenneth Rosen on ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’ here or  Ghaith Abdul-Ahad‘s chillingly detailed report on the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul here.

I’m still astonished that all those high-minded theoretical debates on planetary urbanism somehow ignore the contemporary intensification of urbicide and urban warfare (see ‘Mumford and sons’ here).

War Stories

New books on the radar:

Gary Fields, Enclosure: Palestinian landscapes in a historical mirror (California, September 2017):

Enclosure marshals bold new arguments about the nature of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. Gary Fields examines the dispossession of Palestinians from their land—and Israel’s rationale for seizing control of Palestinian land—in the contexts of a broad historical analysis of power and space and of an enduring discourse about land improvement. Focusing on the English enclosures (which eradicated access to common land across the English countryside), Amerindian dispossession in colonial America, and Palestinian land loss, Fields shows how exclusionary landscapes have emerged across time and geography. Evidence that the same moral, legal, and cartographic arguments were used by enclosers of land in very different historical environments challenges Israel’s current claim that it is uniquely beleaguered. This comparative framework also helps readers in the United States and the United Kingdom understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the context of their own histories.

There is an excellent review essay by the inimitable Raja Shehadeh over at the New York Review of Books for 18 January; you can read the opening chapter (‘The contours of enclosure’) here; and there’s a brief, illustrated blog post by Gary on ‘the will to resist’ here.

Caren Kaplan, Aerial aftermaths: wartime from above (Duke, January 2018):

From the first vistas provided by flight in balloons in the eighteenth century to the most recent sensing operations performed by military drones, the history of aerial imagery has marked the transformation of how people perceived their world, better understood their past, and imagined their future. In Aerial Aftermaths Caren Kaplan traces this cultural history, showing how aerial views operate as a form of world-making tied to the times and places of war. Kaplan’s investigation of the aerial arts of war—painting, photography, and digital imaging—range from England’s surveys of Scotland following the defeat of the 1746 Jacobite rebellion and early twentieth-century photographic mapping of Iraq to images taken in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Throughout, Kaplan foregrounds aerial imagery’s importance to modern visual culture and its ability to enforce colonial power, demonstrating both the destructive force and the potential for political connection that come with viewing from above.

Contents:

Introduction. Aerial Aftermaths
1. Surveying Wartime Aftermaths: The First Military Survey of Scotland
2. Balloon Geography: The Emotion of Motion in Aerostatic Wartime
3. La Nature à Coup d’Oeil: “Seeing All” in Early Panoramas
4. Mapping “Mesopotamia”: Aerial Photography in Early Twentieth-Century Iraq
5. The Politics of the Sensible: Aerial Photography’s Wartme Aftermaths
Afterword. Sensing Distance

Anna Feigenbaum, Tear Gas: from the battlefields of World War I to the streets of today (Verso, November 2017):

One hundred years ago, French troops fired tear gas grenades into German trenches. Designed to force people out from behind barricades and trenches, tear gas causes burning of the eyes and skin, tearing, and gagging. Chemical weapons are now banned from war zones. But today, tear gas has become the most commonly used form of “less-lethal” police force. In 2011, the year that protests exploded from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, tear gas sales tripled. Most tear gas is produced in the United States, and many images of protestors in Tahrir Square showed tear gas canisters with “Made in USA” printed on them, while Britain continues to sell tear gas to countries on its own human rights blacklist.

An engrossing century-spanning narrative, Tear Gas is the first history of this weapon, and takes us from military labs and chemical weapons expos to union assemblies and protest camps, drawing on declassified reports and witness testimonies to show how policing with poison came to be.

I’ve trailed this before, but now it’s out; there’s an engaging and detailed review by Peter Mitchell at Review 31 here.

Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars: how the first global conflict was fought and won (Basic Books, October 2017):

World War II was the most lethal conflict in human history. Never before had a war been fought on so many diverse landscapes and in so many different ways, from rocket attacks in London to jungle fighting in Burma to armor strikes in Libya.

The Second World Wars examines how combat unfolded in the air, at sea, and on land to show how distinct conflicts among disparate combatants coalesced into one interconnected global war. Drawing on 3,000 years of military history, Victor Davis Hanson argues that despite its novel industrial barbarity, neither the war’s origins nor its geography were unusual. Nor was its ultimate outcome surprising. The Axis powers were well prepared to win limited border conflicts, but once they blundered into global war, they had no hope of victory.

An authoritative new history of astonishing breadth, The Second World Wars offers a stunning reinterpretation of history’s deadliest conflict.

I was alerted to this by Joshua Rothman‘s thoughtful review in the New Yorker just before Christmas.

Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell, The Military-Entertainment Complex (Harvard, February 2018)

With the rise of drones and computer-controlled weapons, the line between war and video games continues to blur. In this book, the authors trace how the realities of war are deeply inflected by their representation in popular entertainment. War games and other media, in turn, feature an increasing number of weapons, tactics, and threat scenarios from the War on Terror.

While past analyses have emphasized top-down circulation of pro-military ideologies through government public relations efforts and a cooperative media industry, The Military-Entertainment Complex argues for a nonlinear relationship, defined largely by market and institutional pressures. Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell explore the history of the early days of the video game industry, when personnel and expertise flowed from military contractors to game companies; to a middle period when the military drew on the booming game industry to train troops; to a present in which media corporations and the military influence one another cyclically to predict the future of warfare.

In addition to obvious military-entertainment titles like America’s Army, Lenoir and Caldwell investigate the rise of best-selling franchise games such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, and Ghost Recon. The narratives and aesthetics of these video games permeate other media, including films and television programs. This commodification and marketing of the future of combat has shaped the public’s imagination of war in the post-9/11 era and naturalized the U.S. Pentagon’s vision of a new way of war.

Contents:

Induction: The Military–Entertainment Complex and the Contemporary War Imaginary

1. From Battlezone to America’s Army: The Defense Department and the Game Industry

2. Creating Repeat Consumers: Epic Realism and the Birth of the Wargame FranchiseWindows

2.1. The Ludic Affordances of Special Forces

2.2. Franchise Game Business Models

2.3. The RMA in Contemporary Wargaming

3. Coming to a Screen Near You: The RMA and Affective Entertainment

4. Press X to Hack: Cyberwar and VideogamesWindows

4.1. The Narrative Affordances of Hackers and Cyberwarfare

Discharge: Counter-Wargaming in Spec Ops: The Line

This is part of what James Der Derian famously called the Military-Industry-Media-Entertainment complex (MIME), and what I’ve called the Military-Academic-Industrial-Media complex (MAIM). Here is Colin Milburn on the book:

Locked and loaded, this astonishing account of the ‘military-entertainment complex’ exposes the links between military technologies and popular media, the alignments and affinities among defense agencies, video game companies, and Hollywood studios. With tactical precision, Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell show how the militarization of contemporary society is driven less by political interests than by economic interests, revealing the ways in which the entertainment industry and its commercial practices shape the imagination of postmodern warfare. This is a provocative, high-octane book about the war games of everyday life and the future of digital culture. Epic pwn.

Maja Zehfuss, War and the politics of ethics (Oxford, March 2018):

Contemporary Western war is represented as enacting the West’s ability and responsibility to help make the world a better place for others, in particular to protect them from oppression and serious human rights abuses. That is, war has become permissible again, indeed even required, as ethical war. At the same time, however, Western war kills and destroys. This creates a paradox: Western war risks killing those it proposes to protect.

This book examines how we have responded to this dilemma and challenges the vision of ethical war itself, exploring how the commitment to ethics shapes the practice of war and indeed how practices come, in turn, to shape what is considered ethical in war. The book closely examines particular practices of warfare, such as targeting, the use of cultural knowledge, and ethics training for soldiers. What emerges is that instead of constraining violence, the commitment to ethics enables and enhances it. The book argues that the production of ethical war relies on an impossible but obscured separation between ethics and politics, that is, the problematic politics of ethics, and reflects on the need to make decisions at the limit of ethics.

Contents:

1: Introduction
2: The Paradox of Ethical War and the Politics of Ethics
3: Targeting: Precision Bombing and the Production of Ethics
4: Culture: Knowledge of the People as Technology of Ethics
5: Ethics Education: Ethics as Ethos and the Impossibly Good Soldier
6: The Politics of War at the Limits of Ethics

Laura Auslander and Tara Zahra (eds), Objects of War: the material culture of conflict and displacement (Cornell, May 2018)

Historians have become increasingly interested in material culture as both a category of analysis and as a teaching tool. And yet the profession tends to be suspicious of things; words are its stock-in-trade. What new insights can historians gain about the past by thinking about things? A central object (and consequence) of modern warfare is the radical destruction and transformation of the material world. And yet we know little about the role of material culture in the history of war and forced displacement: objects carried in flight; objects stolen on battlefields; objects expropriated, reappropriated, and remembered.

Objects of War illuminates the ways in which people have used things to grapple with the social, cultural, and psychological upheavals wrought by war and forced displacement. Chapters consider theft and pillaging as strategies of conquest; soldiers’ relationships with their weapons; and the use of clothing and domestic goods by prisoners of war, extermination camp inmates, freed people and refugees to make claims and to create a kind of normalcy.

While studies of migration and material culture have proliferated in recent years, as have histories of the Napoleonic, colonial, World Wars, and postcolonial wars, few have focused on the movement of people and things in times of war across two centuries. This focus, in combination with a broad temporal canvas, serves historians and others well as they seek to push beyond the written word.

Eli Berman,‎ Joseph H. Felter andJacob N. ShapiroSmall Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict (Princeton, June 2018):

The way wars are fought has changed starkly over the past sixty years. International military campaigns used to play out between large armies at central fronts. Today’s conflicts find major powers facing rebel insurgencies that deploy elusive methods, from improvised explosives to terrorist attacks. Small Wars, Big Data presents a transformative understanding of these contemporary confrontations and how they should be fought. The authors show that a revolution in the study of conflict–enabled by vast data, rich qualitative evidence, and modern methods―yields new insights into terrorism, civil wars, and foreign interventions. Modern warfare is not about struggles over territory but over people; civilians―and the information they might choose to provide―can turn the tide at critical junctures.

The authors draw practical lessons from the past two decades of conflict in locations ranging from Latin America and the Middle East to Central and Southeast Asia. Building an information-centric understanding of insurgencies, the authors examine the relationships between rebels, the government, and civilians. This approach serves as a springboard for exploring other aspects of modern conflict, including the suppression of rebel activity, the role of mobile communications networks, the links between aid and violence, and why conventional military methods might provide short-term success but undermine lasting peace. Ultimately the authors show how the stronger side can almost always win the villages, but why that does not guarantee winning the war.

Small Wars, Big Data provides groundbreaking perspectives for how small wars can be better strategized and favorably won to the benefit of the local population.

 

Ground Truth

I’m just back from an invigorating conference on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ at Utrecht – more on this shortly – and it was a wonderful opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones.  Chris Woods gave an outstanding review of air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and told me of an interview Airwars had conducted with Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal whose forensic investigation of civilian casualties in Iraq I discussed in a previous post.  The US-led Coalition has still not responded to their findings, even though they initially afforded a remarkable degree of co-operation.

The full interview really is worth reading, but here is Azmat explaining how their joint investigation started:

We began planning this in February 2016. By April I was on the ground [In Iraq] and I was embedding with local forces, both Shia militias and then with Peshmerga forces, in certain frontline towns. I remember early on seeing how pivotal these airstrikes were in terms of re-taking cities.

There was one town that was really important to Shias, and so dozens of Shia militias had tried to retake it — Bashir — from where ISIS had launched mortars with chemical agents into a neighboring town, Taza. I watched several Shia militias based in Taza try and fail to retake Bashir, putting in all of their troops. Then the peshmerga agreed to try and retake it, and they put in maybe a fraction of the number of troops, but were supported by Coalition airstrikes in a way the militias weren’t, and Bashir fell within hours.

It really showed me the extent to which these airstrikes played a pivotal role in re-taking territory, but also the level of devastation. Many parts of Bashir were just up in smoke, when I visited the day after it was re-taken.

Unless you were on the ground, you couldn’t get a real sense of that scale. There’d been good accounts looking at civilian casualties — but nobody had looked at both those that successfully hit ISIS targets and those that didn’t, so a systematic sample. That’s what we teamed up to do. As more cities were being retaken, we though there’s an opportunity to do this….

In terms of verifying allegations, our work went far beyond interviews and analyzing satellite imagery. In addition to interviewing hundreds of witnesses, we dug through rubble for bomb fragments, or materials that might suggest ISIS use, like artillery vests, ISIS literature, sometimes their bones, because nobody would bury them.

We also got our hands on more than 100 sets of coordinates for suspected ISIS sites passed on by local informants. Sometimes we were able to get photos and videos as well. And ultimately, we verified each civilian casualty allegation with health officials, security forces, or local administrators.

The interview also revisits the attack on the Rezzo family home, a pivot of their NYT essay, which includes even more disturbing details.  As Azmat and Anand explain, this was a strike which ought to have shown Coalition targeting at its most adept; far from it.

Khan: This is a deliberate airstrike, not a dynamic one. It was an “ISIS headquarters,” which we were told, when I was at the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center), a very senior intelligence officer told me that a target with one of the highest thresholds to meet is usually an ISIS headquarters… In so many ways Basim’s case was the ultimate, highest most deliberative process.

Airwars: When you say the best case scenario, you mean the best case on the Coalition side in terms of what intelligence they could have, and they still screwed up in such a fundamental way?

Gopal: if there was ever a strike they could get right, this would be the one. They have weeks to plan it, they have it as an ISIS headquarters. And so you know, if it’s an ISIS headquarters, the threshold for actionable intelligence has to be much higher. It can’t just be drone footage that doesn’t see women and children.

Airwars: They identified it as a headquarters and what was the genesis of that? In the story you talk about – it’s infuriating to read – that they didn’t see women and children.

Khan: One of the things I asked at the CAOC in Qatar was how do you identify local patterns of behavior. For example, I said, under ISIS a lot of women are not leaving their homes. So when you are looking at these pattern of life videos, are you taking these variable local dynamics into account? How do you distinguish for example when you are bombing in Iraq and one of these areas, how do you distinguish between patterns of behavior that are specific to Iraq vs. bombing in Afghanistan. What are the differences?

I was told that they could not get into a great deal of detail about ISIS’ “TTPs” — tactics, techniques, and procedures — their understanding of how ISIS generally operates.  They told me that these are developed through the intelligence community, in coordination with a cultural expert, but that they could not offer more detail about it.

Gopal: At the end of the day, it appears there are no consequences for getting it wrong, so there are no incentives to try to get it right.

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