Borderization and bombs

Just as I started to think about the Annual Lecture I have to give at the Kent Interdisciplinary Centre for Spatial Studies (KISS) next month, on the spaces of modern war, I stumbled across a splendidly angry and wonderfully perceptive new essay from Achille Mbembe on ‘Deglobalization‘ at Esprit (via Eurozine), 18 February 2019:

The spare abstract doesn’t begin to do it justice:

Digital computation is engendering a new common world and new configurations of reality and power. But this ubiquitous, instantaneous world is confronted by the old world of bodies and distances. Technology is mobilized in order to create an omnipresent border that sequesters those with rights from those without them.

The essay opens with some characteristically perceptive insights into digital computation (which Achille understands in three distinct but related ways) and its world-creating and world-dividing capacities, but given my KISS Lecture, I was much taken with this passage describing what Achille calls ‘borderization‘:

What is borderization if not the process by which world powers permanently transform certain spaces into places that are impassable to certain classes of people? What is borderization if not the deliberate multiplication of spaces of loss and grief, where so many people, deemed undesirable, see their lives shatter into pieces?

What is it, if not a way to wage war against enemies whose living environments and chances of survival have already been devastated? The use of uranium armour-piercing ammunition and prohibited weapons like white phosphorus; the high-altitude bombardment of basic infrastructure; the cocktail of carcinogenic and radioactive chemical products deposited in the soil and filling the air; the toxic dust raised by the ruins of obliterated towns; the pollution emitted by hydrocarbon fires?

And what about the bombs? Is there any type of bomb that has not been dropped on civilian populations since the last quarter of the twentieth century? Classic dumb bombs repurposed with tail-mounted inertial measurement units; cruise missiles with infrared seekers; microwave bombs designed to paralyze the enemy’s electronic nerve centres; other microwave bombs that do not kill but burn skin; bombs that detonate in cities releasing energy beams like bolts of lightning; thermobaric bombs that unleash walls of fire, suck the oxygen out of more or less confined spaces, send out deadly shockwaves and suffocate anything that breathes; cluster bombs that explode above the ground and scatter small shells, designed to detonate on contact, indiscriminately over a wide area, with devastating consequences for civilian populations; all sorts of bomb, a reductio ad absurdum demonstration of unprecedented destructive power – in short, ecocide.

Under these circumstances, how can we be surprised when those who can, those who have survived living hell, try to escape and seek refuge in any and every corner of Earth where they might be able to live safely?

This form of calculated, programmed war, this war of stupefaction with its new methods, is a war against the very ideas of mobility, circulation and speed, despite the fact that we live in an age of velocity, acceleration and ever more abstraction, ever more algorithms.

Its targets, moreover, are not singular bodies; they are entire human masses who are dismissed as contemptible and superfluous, but whose organs must each suffer their own specific form of incapacitation, with consequences that last for generations – eyes, nose, mouth, ears, tongue, skin, bones, lungs, gut, blood, hands, legs, all the cripples, paralytics, survivors, all the pulmonary diseases like pneumoconiosis, all the traces of uranium found in hair, the thousands of cancers, miscarriages, birth defects, congenital deformities, wrecked thoraxes, nervous system disorders – utter devastation.

All these things, it bears repeating, are connected to contemporary practices of borderization being carried out remotely, far away from us, in the name of our freedom and security. This conflict against specific bodies of abjection, mounds of human flesh, unfolds on a planetary scale. It is poised to become the defining conflict of our time.

Achille then connects this to Grégoire Chamayou‘s arguments about ‘manhunts’ (see my discussion of ‘the individuation of warfare’ here – though, like Achille, I’d now insist that ‘individuation’ is only one modality of later modern war and that, as I’ve suggested here, aerial violence and siege warfare both continue to target ‘the social’, those ‘entire human masses’):

This conflict often precedes, accompanies or supplements the other conflict being waged in our midst or at our doors: the hunt for bodies that have been foolish enough to move (movement being the essential property of the human body); bodies judged to have forced their way into places and spaces where they have no business being, places they clog up by simply existing, and from which they must be expelled.

As the philosopher Elsa Dorlin remarks, this form of violence is directed towards prey. It resembles the great hunts of the past – tracking and pursuing, laying traps and beating, and finally surrounding, capturing or slaughtering the quarry with the help of pack hounds and bloodhounds. It fits into a long history of manhunts. Grégoire Chamayou studies their various manifestations in Manhunts: A Philosophical History. They always involve the same sort of quarry – slaves, aborigines, dark skins, Jews, the stateless, the poor and, closer to home, the undocumented. They target animate, moving bodies that, marked out and ostracized, are seen as entirely different from our own bodies despite being endowed with attractive force, intensity, the capacity to move and flee. These hunts are taking place at a time when technologies of acceleration are proliferating endlessly and creating a segmented, multi-speed planet.

And finally this:

What is the deadliest destination for migrants in an increasingly balkanized and isolated world? Europe. Where lie the most skeletons at sea, where is the biggest marine graveyard at the beginning of this century? Europe. Where are the largest number of territorial and international waters, sounds, islands, straits, enclaves, canals, rivers, ports and airports transformed into technological iron curtains? Europe. And to crown it all, in this era of permanent escalation, the camps. The return of camps. A Europe of camps. Samos, Chios, Lesbos, Idomeni, Lampedusa, Ventimiglia, Sicily, Subotica – a garland of camps…. [I’ve taken the map below from ‘Camps in Europe’ here].

It bears repeating that this war (which takes the form of hunting, capturing, rounding up, sorting, separating and deporting) has one aim. It is not about cutting Europe off from the world or turning it into an impenetrable fortress. It is about arrogating to Europeans alone the rights of possession of and free movement around a planet that rightfully belongs to all of us.

I’m not sure about all of this, not least because that precious right of ‘free movement’ within Europe is precisely what is being called into question by the resurgent right across Europe.  But there is much to think about here, and I urge you to read the whole, brilliant essay.

The War Yet To Come

I fell in love with Beirut (its people and its food!) on my first visit, and I’ve returned many times since.  The first was in 2005, when I gave  a plenary lecture to a conference on ‘“America in the Middle East/The Middle East in America” at AUB.  I was back in 2006, shortly after the Israeli bombing of Beirut’s southern suburbs during the summer, and my plenary lecture to the Arab World Geography conference referred directly to those attacks (and marked the start of my work on aerial violence): see ‘In another time zone, the bombs fall unsafely’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

I took my title from a poem by Blake Morrison, ‘Stop’ (above), which was reprinted in an anthology to aid children’s charities in Lebanon compiled by Anna Wilson after the Israeli attacks.

Most of what I know about Beirut, both at first hand and from reading, comes from the brilliant work of Mona Fawaz and her students – I vividly remember Mona taking me around the rapid-fire construction taking place in the southern suburbs amidst the rubble from the air strikes – so I’m really pleased to see Emma Shaw Crane‘s appreciation of Hiba Bou Akar‘s For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers over at Public Books.

Emma explains:

Halfway through Bou Akar’s fieldwork, the “ghost of the civil war returned,” with the events of May 7, 2008, the worst sectarian fighting in Beirut since the civil war. When a Sunni Future Movement–led national government declared Hezbollah’s telecommunications infrastructure illegal, street battles broke out across the southern suburbs between Hezbollah, allied with Haraket Amal, and the Future Movement and the allied Druze PSP. The southern peripheries were once again battlegrounds. This time, the fight was for infrastructure.

Urbicide is the targeted destruction of cities as a tactic of war. The violence chronicled here is not aerial annihilation—hospitals and homes reduced to rubble—but the “gradual construction of buildings and infrastructure” in ways that collapse boundaries between war and peace, militarizing everyday life. A window in an apartment building is at once a source of light and a future sniper location; a ruin may be uninhabitable, but the land beneath it marks the edge of a territory. This doubleness saturates life on the on the peripheries of Beirut, where “every built space is a potential future battle space.”

For the War Yet to Come is a feminist and postcolonial critique of a masculinized geography of urban militarism that favors the spectacular and the sublime. This vision of the city at war is blindingly technological and curiously devoid of people, as if seen from above (perhaps from a fighter jet). Bou Akar’s Beirut is peopled, swirling with rumor. It is the site not of anonymized destruction but of calculated and complex construction.

Succinct and to the point, though I think it’s important to use the one to undercut the other: to reveal the masculinism that inheres in aerial violence (see below: the text is from John Steinbeck‘s appreciation [sic] of USAAF bomber crews in the Second World War, Bombs Away!; I used it in my Tanner Lectures) ––

–– but also to show that those who live in cities under siege are neither voiceless nor without creative, collective  agency (something I’ve tried to achieve in my work on Syria: see the GUIDE tab).

You can access the opening section of For the War Yet to Come here, and here is a syposis of the book:

Beirut is a city divided. Following the Green Line of the civil war, dividing the Christian east and the Muslim west, today hundreds of such lines dissect the city. For the residents of Beirut, urban planning could hold promise: a new spatial order could bring a peaceful future. But with unclear state structures and outsourced public processes, urban planning has instead become a contest between religious-political organizations and profit-seeking developers. Neighborhoods reproduce poverty, displacement, and urban violence.

For the War Yet to Come examines urban planning in three neighborhoods of Beirut’s southeastern peripheries, revealing how these areas have been developed into frontiers of a continuing sectarian order. Hiba Bou Akar argues these neighborhoods are arranged, not in the expectation of a bright future, but according to the logic of “the war yet to come”: urban planning plays on fears and differences, rumors of war, and paramilitary strategies to organize everyday life. As she shows, war in times of peace is not fought with tanks, artillery, and rifles, but involves a more mundane territorial contest for land and apartment sales, zoning and planning regulations, and infrastructure projects.

Here is the list of Contents, but if you go here you can find a detailed abstract for each chapter:

Prologue: War in Times of Peace
Chapter 1: Constructing Sectarian Geographi
Chapter 2: The Doubleness of Ruins
Chapter 3: The Lacework of Zoning
Chapter 4: A Ballooning Frontier
Chapter 5: Planning without Development
Epilogue: Contested Futures

1418 strikes and you’re still in…

The Syrian Archive has announced the release of a database of Russian-led airstrikes on civilian targets in Syria between September 2015 and September 2018.

Several years of monitoring alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria reveals a pattern of indiscriminate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. In an analysis of 3303 videos documenting alleged Russian airstrikes from 116 sources between 30 September 2015 and 9 September 2018, Syrian Archive has identified 1418 incidents in which Russian forces allegedly targeted civilians or civilian infrastructure of little to no military value. Content included in this database can be viewed, analysed and downloaded.

While data presented in this collection does not include all incidents of alleged Russian airstrikes on civilians between 2015 and 2018 [my emphasis], it presents all incidents for which visual content was available and verifiable as of the date of publication. Syrian Archive hopes this will support reporting, advocacy, research, and accountability efforts…

This open source database is fully searchable and queryable by date, location, keyword, relevance, and confidence score..

The database includes more than 3,000 videos of 1,400 incidents (some taken by citizens and activists, some by human rights organisations, and some by the Russian Ministry of Defence); its compilation involved a series of negotiations with YouTube over the removal of some of the video evidence (see here and my extended discussion of visual evidence here).

Airwars continues to do stellar work documenting civilian casualties from the US-led coalition’s military operations in Syria and elsewhere, but the Syrian Archive’s contribution is particularly valuable since, as Airwars notes:

Airwars maintains an extensive database of all known allegations in which civilians have been reported killed by Russian forces in Syrian casualty events since September 30th 2015. Our published month by month records include a case report on each known alleged event; photographs, videos, names of the dead where known; archived links to all known sources; and our provisional assessment as to whether Russian forces were likely responsible.

Due to the scale of the Russian campaign and the number of reported civilian casualty allegations, our team rolls out monthly assessments as we are able to complete them. Much of our deep assessment work had to be suspended in early 2017 given the high number of alleggations against the US-led Coalition.

The Grim Reaper

Peter Lee‘s Reaper Force has just been published in the UK – later in North America.  I’ve argued before that it’s a mistake to abstract drones from other forms of aerial violence (and its history) and to treat it as the only modality of later modern war, but there is no doubt that Reaper Force is an important contribution to the critical analysis of  today’s remote warfare.  Peter won a remarkable degree of co-operation from both the Ministry of Defence and the RAF for his interviews with the crew of Britain’s Reapers – largely a result of the security clearance obtained when he was an RAF Chaplain – and the result is a series of rich and compelling stories:

This unique insight into RAF Reaper operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is based on unprecedented research access to the Reaper squadrons and personnel at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, USA. The author has observed lethal missile strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq alongside the crews involved. He has also conducted extensive interviews with Reaper pilots, sensor operators, mission intelligence coordinators, and spouses and partners. The result is an intimate portrait of the human aspect of remote air warfare in the twenty-first century.

Chris Cole trails the book over at Drone Wars UK with a lively interview with Peter – focusing, in part, on the question of civilian casualties – and there’s also an extended review by Joe Chapa (a major in the USAF) over at War on the Rocks:

The force of Lee’s contribution is not primarily in the raising of familiar issues about distance and psychology. Instead, by focusing on individual crewmembers and preserving personal narrative, Reaper Force brings to the fore a set of questions that have not yet been adequately addressed.

For example, no other work of which I am aware properly depicts the Reaper crew in the appropriate set of command relationships within the broader warfighting organizational structure. Many arguments about Reaper crews’ level of involvement in mission-critical decisions tend either to assume that the crew is so autonomous that they can carry out atrocities without accountability or that the command chain hierarchy is so suffocating that they have no choices to make and are in need of no moral courage from which to make them. The reality that comes through Lee’s narrative is more complicated. Often, the Reaper crew — indeed the whole coalition air component — acts as a supporting command, while the ground force remains the supported command. The result is the often-misunderstood close air support relationship. Though the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) on the ground provides clearance for the aircrew to release the weapon, this clearance does not constitute an order. In the end, like two keys in a nuclear silo, the JTAC must provide clearance, and the Reaper pilot must “consent to release.” The result is a symbiotic relationship between air forces and ground forces, in which both the ground force commander and the pilot in command share the burden of responsibility for weapons release.

In practice, this means that “one of the many responsibilities faced by Reaper crews has been deciding when not to fire a missile or not to drop a bomb.” What happens when the JTAC calls for a weapon and all the legal requirements have been met but something feels wrong to members of the Reaper crew? Josh, one of Lee’s interview participants, describes it this way.

“Taking an objective ‘tick-box’ view we had an adult male emerge from a compound, armed, as friendly forces approached. The compound was in an area occupied by Taliban that had been engaging friendly forces, successfully, over the preceding few days. It met the criteria needed for a strike, we had all the approvals and authorization required. But the tiny details weren’t right.”

In this case, in contrast with the vertical hierarchy that is often assumed, the command relationships — and the authority of the Reaper pilot — seemed like an impediment for the ground force. Some RAF pilot half a world away thinks he knows what is best when it is the ground force that takes all the risk. The social and institutional pressures are palatable. “Brothers are going to die because of you,” the JTAC scolded the Reaper pilot over the radio. In this case, the Reaper pilot insisted that the armed man under the crosshairs was a farmer in the wrong place at the wrong time and not an enemy fighter in search of a fight. If this is not moral courage, then I do not know what is. Josh goes on to say, “trying to reassure the ground troops is not so easy, especially when you had just withheld a seemingly valid request for a shot. From the perspective of those on the ground waiting for a Taliban fighter to open fire at them was not a good tactic — but this was not a Taliban fighter.”

Sometimes the roles — those who want to shoot and those who want to withhold the shot — are reversed. In one instance, the Reaper crew watched an enemy sniper team target friendly forces through a “murder hole” in a stone wall. With some consistency, the team would depart a nearby building, fire upon friendlies through the murder hole, then return to the building. According to the restrictive rules of engagement under which the U.K. Reapers were operating, the crew was required to obtain positive identification of the enemy fighters by observing hostile activity prior to obtaining weapons release clearance. But each time the enemy team went back into the building, it invalidated the positive identification. Thus, time and again, the Reaper crew was unable to obtain positive identification and release a weapon before the enemy fighters returned to the building. The Reaper crew practically begged the ground force commander for a clearance to release the weapon, but the ground force commander insisted on submitting to the relevant restrictions. By the time the incident was over, a British soldier had been shot and was medically evacuated by helicopter. “It’s the closest I have been in my professional life,” the pilot said, “to pulling a trigger without a clearance.”

‘Sweet target, sweet child’

My keynote (‘Sweet target, sweet child: Aerial violence and the imaginaries of remote warfare’) at the conference on Drone Imaginaries and Society at the University of Southern Denmark in June is now available online here.

In February 2010 a US air strike on three vehicles in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan in support of US and allied ground forces caused multiple civilian casualties. The attack was the direct result of surveillancecarried out by a Predator drone, and a US Army investigation into the incident criticised the flightcrew for persistently misinterpreting the full-motion video feeds from the remotely operated aircraft.This has become the signature strike for critics of remote warfare, yet they have all relied solely on a transcript of communications between US Special Forces in the vicinity, the drone crew at Creech AirForce Base in Nevada, and the helicopter pilots who executed the strike. But an examination of the interviews carried out by the investigation team reveals a more complicated – and in some respects even more disturbing – picture. This presentation uses those transcripts to brings other actors into the frame, pursues the narrative beyond the strike itself, and raises a series of questions about civilian casualties. During the post-strike examination of the site the casualties were rendered as (still) suspicious bodies and, as they were evacuated to military hospitals, as inventories of injuries. Drawing on Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary film ”National Bird” I also track the dead as they are returned to their villages and the survivors as they struggle with rehabilitation: both provide vivid illustrations of the embodied nature of nominally remote warfare and of the violent bioconvergence that lies on the otherside of the screen.

Gender, war and technology

Christiane Wilke writes with news of a fascinating special issue of the Australian Feminist Law Journal (441, 1) on Gender, War, and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.

Gender, War, and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the Twenty-First Century:  Emily Jones, Sara Kendall & Yoriko Otomo

Targeting, Gender, and International Posthumanitarian Law and Practice: Framing The Question of the Human in International Humanitarian Law: Matilda Arvidsson

How International Law Learned to Love the Bomb: Civilians and the Regulation of Aerial Warfare in the 1920s: Christiane Wilke

Technology, Dead Male Bodies, and Feminist Recognition: Gendering ICT Harm Theo:  Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

War’s Perpetuity: Disabled Bodies of War and the Exoskeleton of Equality: Gina Heathcote

A Posthuman-Xenofeminist Analysis of the Discourse on Autonomous Weapons Systems and Other Killing Machines: Emily Jones

The Architecture of Slow, Structural, and Spectacular Violence and the Poetic Testimony of War: Helene Kazan

The editors explain in their Introduction:

As the following articles illustrate, triangulating gender, war, and technology as a field of inquiry produces a wide domain of analysis, with topics ranging from human enhancement technologies to autonomous weapons systems, surveillance and aerial bombardment, artificial intelligence, and big data. The three terms themselves invite interpretation and debate.

The first term, ‘gender’, has been used in the context of international humanitarian law to signify vulnerability; women are treated as a group that may require further protection, where gender operates as a qualified identity that supplements the category of civilian (or indeed, comes to define the category of civilian). Yet some of the articles considered here adopt a more reflexive approach informed by feminist scholarship, considering issues of agency, difference, and intersectionality, and contesting gendered constructions that presuppose femininity, ethnicity, and passivity. The gendered subjects of law and war are at the same time subjects embedded within political economies of race, class, ability, age, and other factors. While gender serves as the primary focus of many articles within this special issue, gender theory’s commitment to intersectionality can be seen throughout, with articles considering issues of race, colonialism, ability, masculi- nity, and capitalism (and thus, implicitly, class). Beyond this special issue, the field would benefit from analysis of the broader range of intersectional concerns that emerge from recent technological developments in warfare.

The second term, ‘war’, is understood through drawing on existing feminist and gender critiques of war and armed conflict. Our point of departure is Cockburn’s well-known ‘continuum of violence’, whereby war and peace are noted to be part of a shared continuum as opposed to distinct (legal) categories. Such an outlook dis- rupts legal categorisations of conflicts by acknowledging that when a conflict ends as a matter of law, it has not necessarily ended for people living through it.  Not only do the place and time of ‘armed’ conflict then become questions, but presumptions about who produces, participates in, and is affected by conflict are also revisited and critiqued.

The final term, ‘technology’, has been defined within the context of conflict in the twenty-first century, following the post-war ideological movement described above. We are aware of the vast amount of literature which seeks to define technology broadly, with Heidegger defining technology to include things such as art and law, roughly defining technology as a tool and theorising how it is technology which helps humans become human. This special issue focuses on technology specifically within the context of twenty-first-century armed conflict, such as military technologies and/or algorithmic decision-making and data collection. In light of the multiple ways in which technology is changing conflict, we argue that the focus on these technologies reflects the ways in which technology is impacting on and changing the global order and conflict. This special issue seeks to draw attention to the urgent need for gendered perspectives on the interrelationships between war and technology.

The Airspace Tribunal

News of a project dear to my research (and my heart):

Towards a new human right to protect the freedom to exist without a physical or psychological threat from above

by The Wapping Project

Doughty Street Chambers, 54 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LS

21st September 2018, 10.00 AM – 4.30 PM

Over the last century, humans have radically transformed airspace: chemically, territorially, militarily and psychologically. Technological developments mean that this transformation is accelerating and growing in complexity. There is widening disparity in the global landscape of power, with civilians increasingly subject to expanding commercial and military exploitation of technology in airspace and outer space and to the consequences of environmental change. The associated threats are not adequately addressed by the contemporary legal framework. There is an urgent need for new thinking.[1]

The Airspace Tribunal invites representations from experts across a broad range of disciplines and lived experience, such as human rights, contemporary warfare, new media ecologies, environmental change, neuropsychology, conflict and forced migration, to discuss the challenges and consider the case for and against the recognition of a new human right to protect the freedom to exist without physical or psychological threat from above.

Speakers include:

  • Nick Grief –  member of the legal team that represented the Marshall Islands and took the UK, India and Pakistan to the International Court of Justice for violating their nuclear disarmament obligations;
  • Conor Gearty – professor of human rights law who has published extensively on terrorism, civil liberties and human rights;
  • Andrew Hoskins – media sociologist known for his work on media, memory and conflict;
  • Martin A. Conway – cognitive neuropsychologist and expert on human memory and the law;
  • Shona Illingworth –  artist whose video and sound installations investigate memory, cultural erasure and structures of power in situations of social tension and conflict;
  • Maya Mamish – psychologist researching integration and well-being of Syrian youth affected by armed conflict and displacement;
  • Melanie Klinkner – transitional justice scholar majoring in international criminal justice with a background in philosophy, anthropology and biology;
  • William Merrin, a specialist in digital media and author of ‘Digital War’.

Conceived and developed by Nick Grief and Shona Illingworth, the Airspace Tribunal’s judges will include members of the public, challenging the traditional state-centric view of how international law is created. The hearings will be recorded and transcribed to document the drafting history of this proposed new human right.

The Airspace Tribunal is part of Topologies of Air, a major new artwork by Shona Illingworth, extract above, commissioned by The Wapping Project, that will be exhibited at The Power Plant, Toronto, in 2020 (more here: scroll down).

The London hearing of the Airspace Tribunal is supported by the University of Kent, The Wapping Project and Doughty Street Chambers.

[1] See Nick Grief, Shona Illingworth, Andrew Hoskins and Martin A. Conway, Opinion, ‘The Airspace Tribunal: Towards a New Human Right to Protect the Freedom to Exist Without Physical or Psychological Threat from Above’, European Human Rights Law Review, Issue 3 (2018) , pp 201.  You can download the brief via the War & Media Network (to whom I owe all this info) here.

Space is limited and booking is essential here.