Project(ion)s

Happy New Year!  With this, as with so much else, I’m late – but the greeting is none the less sincere, and I’m grateful for your continued interest and engagement with my work.

I’ve resolved to return to my usual pace of blogging in 2019; it slowed over the last several months, not least because I’ve been deep in the digital archives (apart from my merciless incarceration in Marking Hell and my release for Christmas).

My plan is to finish two major essays in the next couple of months, one on “Woundscapes of the Western Front” and the other the long-form version of my Antipode Lecture on “Trauma Geographies” (see also here). Both have involved close readings of multiple personal accounts of the journeys made (or not made) by the wounded, and the first essay informs the second, as you can see here.

I also want to bring together my research on attacks on hospitals, casualty clearing stations and aid posts during the First World War in a third essay – I’ve been talking with the ICRC about this one.  Paige Patchin managed to track down a series of files on the Etaples bombings in the National Archives for me, including an astonishing map plotting the paths of the enemy aircraft and the locations of the bombs: I’ll share that once I’ve managed to stitch together the multiple sheets.  But I’ve widened the analysis beyond the attacks on base hospitals on the coast, to include other attacks – notably the bombing of the hospital at Vadelaincourt near Verdun – and a more general discussion of the protections afforded by the Red Cross flag and the Hague Conventions.

This will in turn thread its way into a fourth essay providing a more comprehensive view on violations of what I’ve called ‘the exception to the exception’: the disregard for the provisions of International Humanitarian Law evident in the attacks on hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan, Gaza, Syria and elsewhere, in short “The Death of the Clinic“.

That project interlocks with my developing critique of Giorgio Agamben‘s treatment of the “space of exception”.  In brief:

  • I think it’s a mistake to treat the space of the camp as closed (there is a profoundly important dispersal to the space of exception, evident in the case of Auschwitz that forms the heart of Agamben’s discussions – I’m thinking of the insidious restrictions on the movement of Jews in occupied Europe, the round-ups in Paris and other cities (see my lecture on Occupied Paris under the TEACHING tab), and the wretched train journeys across Europe to Poland – and this matters because if we don’t recognise the signs of exception at the peripheries they will inexorably be condensed inside the enclosure of the camp).
  • It’s also unduly limiting to restrict the space of exception to the camp, because the war zone is also one in which people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the removal of legal protocols that would otherwise have offered them protection (and here too what Frédéric Mégret calls ‘the deconstruction of the battlefield‘ emphasises the complex topology of the exception).  I’ve written about this in relation to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (see “Dirty Dancing” under the DOWNLOADS tab) and the conduct of siege warfare in Syria (multiple posts, listed under the GUIDE tab), but it’s a general argument that I need to develop further).

  • In neither case – camp or war zone – is there an absence of law; on the contrary, these spaces typically entail complex legal geographies, at once national and – never discussed by Agamben – international (though part of my argument addresses the highly selective enforcement of international humanitarian law and the comprehensive contemporary assault on its provisions by Russia and Syria and by the United States, Israel and the UK, amongst others).

  • In both cases, too, the space of exception is profoundly racialised (I’ve written about that in relation to the bombing of Japan in World War II and the contemporary degradations inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo  – you can find the relevant essays under the DOWNLOADS tab – but I’ve found Alexander WeheliyeHabeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human immensely helpful in deepening and generalising the argument).

I’ll be developing these arguments in my KISS Lecture at Canterbury in March, which ought to form the basis for a fifth essay (and it’s also high time I revisited what I said in “The everywhere war”!).

More on those projects soon, all of which will feed in to two new books (once I’ve decided on a publisher – and a publisher has decided on me), but in the interim I’ll be sharing some of the drafts and jottings I’ve prepared en route to the finished essays.

So lots to keep my busy, and I hope you’ll continue to watch this space – and, as always, I welcome comments and suggestions.

Counterinsurgency and the counterrevolution

Another interesting interview tied to a book, this time between Jeremy Scahill and Bernard Harcourt, over at The Intercept.  A central argument of Bernard’s book, The Counterrevolution: how our government went to war against its own citizens,is that contemporary politics is based on – in fact, realizes – a counterinsurgency warfare model.  He explains it like this:

… all of the [ways] in which we govern abroad and at home is now funneled through a particular way of thinking about the world. It’s a mentality. It’s a way of thinking about society that triggers particular kinds of strategies and politics that result from that. And the way of thinking about society is this counterinsurgency paradigm of warfare.

So, counterinsurgency started in the 1950s – well, it started long before then, but it kind of crystallized with Western powers in the 1950s and 60s in Algeria, and Indochina before then, and in Vietnam for the Americans. And it was a particular way of thinking about society, the way society is structured into three groups. With, on the one hand, a small active minority who are the insurgents, and a large passive majority who can be swayed one way or the other, and then a small minority of counterinsurgents.

And that way of thinking has become internalized, second hand. Most, I would say, many in America, but certainly our political leaders are looking at the world through that lens when they look at other countries when they look domestically at their own population, and as a result of that it triggers particular kinds of counterinsurgency practices, really. And three practices particularly that I think when you look at what we’re doing both abroad and at home, you see resonances of them everywhere. The first is the idea of getting total information awareness. That’s always been the key linchpin of counterinsurgency theory, is to get total information on the total population.

And that’s what distinguishes it from just getting good intelligence. It’s that you have to get total intelligence on the total population, not just targeted to people who you suspect, but on the total population. So that you can make a distinction between or you can identify that small group of active insurgents. And you need the information on everyone so that you can make that separation, those fine distinctions between someone who is in that active minority or someone who’s just [in the] you know, passive masses. So that’s the first strategy. The second strategy is then that you have to rid of the active minority that you identified, just that small group of individuals, the insurgents, and you do that through any means possible. And then the third strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the masses, basically.

And I think that starting after 9/11. We saw that way of thinking become the dominant way of governing abroad particularly with the war in Iraq, but then more generally with the use of drones outside of war zones et cetera, use of total information through the NSA in the way in which everything was captured about everyone to the most minor detail. And then also trying to pacify the masses in Iraq through kind of some provision of services or just distribution of cash. But then eventually, when this way of thinking comes back to the United States through different forms of pacification of the masses. Particularly right now, I would say through forms of distraction, really.

The interview loops through a number of arguments that will be familiar to regular readers – about Guantanamo Bay, the carceral archipelago and torture; about the ‘cultural turn’ and counterinsurgency; about drones and targeting killing; and about international humanitarian law, international human rights law and the ‘individuation’ modality of later modern war – but repatriates them from the global borderlands to the United States.

Disappearing War

Out last month, but I’ve only just caught up with it, a collection of essays edited by Christina Hellmich and  Lisa PurseDisappearing War: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cinema and Erasure in the Post-9/11 World (Edinburgh University Press):

The battles fought in the name of the “war on terror” have re-ignited questions about the changing nature of war, and the experience of war for those geographically distant from its real world consequences. What is missing from our highly mediated experience of war? What are the intentional and unintentional processes of erasure through which the distortion happens? What are their consequences?
Cinema is a key site at which questions about our highly mediated experience of war can be addressed or, more significantly, elided. Looking at a range of films that have provoked debate, from award-winning features like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper, to documentaries like Kill List and Dirty Wars, as well as at the work of visual artists like Harun Farocki and Omer Fast, this book examines the practices of erasure in the cinematic representation of recent military interventions. Drawing on representations of war-related death, dying and bodily damage, this provocative collection addresses ‘what’s missing’ in existing scholarly responses to modern warfare; in film studies, as well as in politics and international relations.

Here’s the Contents list:

1. Introduction: Film and the epistemology of war, Christina Hellmich & Lisa Purse
2. Good Kill? U.S. soldiers and the killing of civilians in American film, Cora Sol Goldstein
3. ‘5000 feet is the best’: drone warfare, targets, and Paul Virilio’s ‘accident’, Agnieszka Piotrowska
4. Post-heroic war / the body at risk, Robert Burgoyne
5. Disappearing bodies: visualising the Maywand District murders, Thomas Gregory
6. The unknowable soldier: the face of Freddie Quell, James Harvey-Davitt
7. Visible dead bodies and the technologies of erasure in the war on terror, Jessica Auchter
8. Ambiguity, ambivalence and absence in Zero Dark Thirty, Lisa Purse
9. Invisible war: broadcast television documentary and Iraq, Janet Harris
10. Nine cinematic devices for staging (in)visible war and the (vanishing) colonial present, Shohini Chaudhuri
11. Afterword: Reflections on knowing war, Christina Hellmich

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.”

Footprints of War

 

When I was working on my essay on ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), I was surprised at how few sustained discussions of ‘nature’ as a medium through which military violence is conducted – though there were of course countless, vital discussions of ‘nature’ as a commodity bank that triggers so-called resource wars – so when it came to the section on Vietnam I learned much from David Biggs‘ brilliant account Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (2011).  It deservedly won the George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history.

(You can find an illustrated version of the section of ‘Natures’ on Vietnam here and here, and some of my other work on the militarization of nature in Vietnam here and here).

David now has a new book, Footprints of War: militarized landscapes in Vietnam, due from the University of Washington Press at the end of this year,

When American forces arrived in Vietnam, they found themselves embedded in historic village and frontier spaces already shaped by many past conflicts. American bases and bombing targets followed spatial and political logics influenced by the footprints of past wars in central Vietnam. The militarized landscapes here, like many in the world?s historic conflict zones, continue to shape post-war land-use politics.

Footprints of War traces the long history of conflict-produced spaces in Vietnam, beginning with early modern wars and the French colonial invasion in 1885 and continuing through the collapse of the Saigon government in 1975. The result is a richly textured history of militarized landscapes that reveals the spatial logic of key battles such as the Tet Offensive.

Drawing on extensive archival work and years of interviews and fieldwork in the hills and villages around the city of Hue to illuminate war’s footprints, David Biggs also integrates historical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data, using aerial, high-altitude, and satellite imagery to render otherwise placeless sites into living, multidimensional spaces. This personal and multilayered approach yields an innovative history of the lasting traces of war in Vietnam and a model for understanding other militarized landscapes.

The pre-publication reviews confirm the importance of Footprints:

“David Biggs’s second major book on the social and environmental history of modern Vietnam. His nuanced use of Vietnamese-language publications and his extensive interviews with local people are outstanding. He tells a compelling story in fluent, vivid, and even lyrical prose, expressing compassionate insight into both society and ecosystem.”
-Richard P. Tucker, University of Michigan

“In this rich and innovative new book, David Biggs considers the spatial dimension of the war in Vietnam, through an examination of the densely layered militarized landscapes around Hu . The result is a gem, a fluid, authoritative, compelling work that shows just how deep, complex, and long-lasting were ‘The Footprints of War.'”
-Fredrik Logevall, author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam

Other Wars Imagined

In early October I’m giving a keynote at a conference in Leipzig on Imaginations and Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition.  There’s an interesting interview with the organiser Steffi Marung here, and you can find the full programme (in English) and more details here.

I’ve been trying to work out what I might do, and this is what I’ve come up with; it’s still a draft, and the presentation is very much in development, so I’d welcome any comments or suggestions.  I see this as part of a comprehensive re-working of my essay on “The everywhere war” – which desperately needs it (it was written to order and in very short order).

Other Wars Imagined: visuality, spatiality and corpography

When Samuel Hynes wrote his classic account of A War Imagined he identified two ways in which the First World War transformed English (and by implication European) culture. First the emergence of a new visual field disclosed military violence in selective but none the less shocking ways: the half-tone block allowed photographs to be printed in newspapers, and cinema provided an even more vivid rendering of industrialised violence. Second the new dislocation of time and space was epitomised in what Hynes called ‘the death of landscape’ – the ‘annihilation of Nature’ and the monstrous appearance of ‘anti-landscape’ – and the substitution of abstract, ‘de-rationalized and de-familiarized’ spaces of pulverized geometries. This presentation explores the implications of Hynes’s views for the imaginative geographies of later modern war. Less concerned with representation – with images as mirrors of military violence – I focus on performative effects and, in the company of Judith Butler, consider the ways in which imaginative geographies enter into the very conduct of war. The visual technologies are different, so I pay close attention to the digital production of targets and to counter-geographies that fill these spaces with ordinary men, women and children. The formation of this counter-public sphere is contested – propaganda has never been more aggressive in its deformations – and so I also examine the implications of a ‘post-truth regime’ for critical thought and action. But the spaces of military and paramilitary violence are different too – no longer abstract and linear – and I suggest some of the ways in which an embodied corpography can subvert the cartographic imaginaries of previous modern wars. This critical manoeuvre also has vital implications for international humanitarian law and the constitution of war zones as what, not following Giorgio Agamben, I treat as spaces of exception. Throughout I draw on examples from my research on Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq and Syria.

If you don’t know Hynes’ book, first published in 1990 – it helped me think through some of the ideas I sketched in “The natures of war” – here is a review by P.N. Furbank from the LRB.

Death machines

New from Elke Schwarz, Death machines: the ethics of violent technologies (Manchester UP):

As innovations in military technologies race toward ever-greater levels of automation and autonomy, debates over the ethics of violent technologies tread water. Death Machines reframes these debates, arguing that the way we conceive of the ethics of contemporary warfare is itself imbued with a set of bio-technological rationalities that work as limits. The task for critical thought must therefore be to unpack, engage, and challenge these limits. Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, the book offers a close reading of the technology-biopolitics-complex that informs and produces contemporary subjectivities, highlighting the perilous implications this has for how we think about the ethics of political violence, both now and in the future.

Contents:

Introduction: The conditioned human
1. Biopolitics and the technological subject
2. Biopolitical technologies in Arendt and Foucault
3. Anti-political (post)modernity
4. Procedural violence
5. Ethics as technics
6. All hail our robot overlords
7. Prescription drones
Conclusion: For an ethics beyond technics