Cities and War

This week the Guardian launched a new series on Cities and War:

War is urbanising. No longer fought on beaches or battlefields, conflict has come to the doors of millions living in densely populated areas, killing thousands of civilians, destroying historic centres and devastating infrastructure for generations to come.

Last year, the world watched the Middle East as Mosul, Raqqa, Sana’a and Aleppo were razed to the ground. Across Europe, brutal attacks stunned urban populations in Paris, London and Berlin, while gang warfare tore apart the fabric of cities in central and south America.

In 2018, Guardian Cities will explore the reality of war in cities today – not merely how it is fought, but how citizens struggle to adapt, and to rebuild stronger than ever.

The series opened on Monday with a photographic gallery illustrating ‘a century of cities at war’; some of the images will be familiar, but many will not.  When I was working on ‘Modern War and Dead Cities‘ (which you can download under the TEACHING tab), for example, I thought I had seen most of the dramatic images of the Blitz, but I had missed this one:

It’s an arresting portfolio, and inevitably selective: there is a good discussion below the line on what other cities should have made the cut.

The first written contribution is an extended essay from Jason Burke, ‘Cities and terror: an indivisible and brutal relationship‘, which adds a welcome historical depth and geographical range to a discussion that all too readily contracts around recent attacks on cities in Europe and North America, and suggests an intimate link between cities and terrorism:

[I]t was around the time of the Paddington station attack [by Fenians in 1883]  that the strategy of using violence to sway public opinion though fear became widespread among actors such as the anarchists, leftists and nationalists looking to bring about dramatic social and political change.

This strategy depended on two developments which mark the modern age: democracy and communications. Without the media, developing apace through the 19th century as literacy rates soared and cheap news publications began to achieve mass circulations, impact would be small. Without democracy, there was no point in trying to frighten a population and thus influence policymakers. Absolutist rulers, like subsequent dictators, could simply ignore the pressure from the terrified masses. Of course, a third great development of this period was conditions in the modern city itself.

Could the terrorism which is so terribly familiar to us today have evolved without the development of the metropolis as we now know it? This seems almost impossible to imagine. Even the terror of the French revolution – Le Terreur – which gives us the modern term terrorism, was most obvious in the centre of Paris where the guillotine sliced heads from a relatively small number of aristocrats in order to strike fear into a much larger number of people.

The history of terrorism is thus the history of our cities. The history of our cities, at least over the last 150 years or so, is in part the history of terrorism. This is a deadly, inextricable link that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon.

Today Saskia Sassen issued her ‘Welcome to a new kind of war: the rise of endless urban conflict‘.  She begins with an observation that is scarcely novel:

The traditional security paradigm in our western-style democracies fails to accommodate a key feature of today’s wars: when our major powers go to war, the enemies they now encounter are irregular combatants. Not troops, organised into armies; but “freedom” fighters, guerrillas, terrorists. Some are as easily grouped by common purpose as they are disbanded. Others engage in wars with no end in sight.

What such irregular combatants tend to share is that they urbanise war. Cities are the space where they have a fighting chance, and where they can leave a mark likely to be picked up by the global media. This is to the disadvantage of cities – but also to the typical military apparatus of today’s major powers.

The main difference between today’s conflicts and the first and second world wars is the sharp misalignment between the war space of traditional militaries compared to that of irregular combatants.

Irregular combatants are at their most effective in cities. They cannot easily shoot down planes, nor fight tanks in open fields. Instead, they draw the enemy into cities, and undermine the key advantage of today’s major powers, whose mechanised weapons are of little use in dense and narrow urban spaces.

Advanced militaries know this very well, of course, and urban warfare is now a central medium in military training.  Saskia continues:

We have gone from wars commanded by hegemonic powers that sought control over sea, air, and land, to wars fought in cities – either inside the war zone, or enacted in cities far away. The space for action can involve “the war”, or simply specific local issues; each attack has its own grievances and aims, seeking global projection or not. Localised actions by local armed groups, mostly acting independently from other such groups, let alone from actors in the war zone – this fragmented isolation has become a new kind of multi-sited war.

This is, in part, what I tried to capture in my early essay on ‘The everywhere war’, and I’m now busily re-thinking it for my new book.  More on this in due course, but it’s worth noting that the Trump maladministration’s National Defense Strategy, while recognising the continuing importance of counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency, has returned the Pentagon’s sights to wars between major powers – notably China and Russia (see also here)– though it concedes that these may well be fought (indeed, are being fought) in part through unconventional means in digital domains.  In short, I think later modern war is much more complex than Saskia acknowledges; it has many modalities (which is why I become endlessly frustrated at the critical preoccupation with drones to the exclusion of other vectors of military and paramilitary violence), and these co-exist with – or give a new inflection to – older modalities of violence (I’m thinking of the siege warfare waged by Israel against Gaza or Syria against its own people).

The two contributions I’ve singled out are both broad-brush essays, but Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has contributed a two-part essay on Mosul under Islamic State that is truly brilliant: Part I describes how IS ran the city (‘The Bureaucracy of Evil‘) and Part II how the people of Mosul resisted the reign of terror (‘The Fall‘).

Mosul fell to IS in July 2014, and here is part of Ghaith’s report, where he tells the story of Wassan, a newly graduated doctor:

Like many other diwans (ministries) that Isis established in Mosul, as part of their broader effort to turn an insurgency into a fully functioning administrative state, the Diwan al-Siha (ministry of health) operated a two-tier system.There was one set of rules for “brothers” – those who gave allegiance to Isis – and another for the awam, or commoners.

“We had two systems in the hospitals,” Wassan said. “IS members and their families were given the best treatment and complete access to medicine, while the normal people, the awam, were forced to buy their own medicine from the black market.

“We started hating our work. As a doctor, I am supposed to treat all people equally, but they would force us to treat their own patients only. I felt disgusted with myself.”

(Those who openly resisted faced death, but as IS came under increasing military pressure at least one doctor was spared by a judge when he refused to treat a jihadist before a civilian: “They had so few doctors, they couldn’t afford to punish me. They needed me in the hospital.”)

Wassan’s radical solution was to develop her own, secret hospital:

“Before the start of military operations, medicines begun to run out,” she said. “So I started collecting whatever I could get my hands on at home. I built a network with pharmacists I could trust. I started collecting equipment from doctors and medics, until I had a full surgery kit at home. I could even perform operations with full anaesthesia.”

Word of mouth spread about her secret hospital.

“Some people started coming from the other side of Mosul, and whatever medicine I had was running out,” she said. “I knew there was plenty of medicine in our hospital, but the storage rooms were controlled by Isis.

“Eventually, I began to use the pretext of treating one of their patients to siphon medicine from their own storage. If their patient needed one dose, I would take five. After a while they must have realised, because they stopped allowing doctors to go into the storage.”

The punishment for theft is losing a hand. Running a free hospital from her home would have been sedition, punishable by death…

When Wassan’s hospital was appropriated by Isis fighters [this was a common IS tactic – see the image below and the Human Rights Watch report here; the hospital was later virtually destroyed by US air strikes] her secret house-hospital proved essential. More than a dozen births were performed on her dining table; she kicked both brothers out of their rooms to convert them into operating theatres; her mother, an elderly nurse, became her assistant.

As the siege of Mosul by the Iraqi Army ground on, some of the sick and injured managed to run (or stumble) the gauntlet to find medical aid in rudimentary field hospitals beyond the faltering grip of IS, while others managed to make it to major trauma centres like West Irbil.

But for many in Mosul Wassan’s secret hospital was a lifeline (for a parallel story about another woman doctor running a secret clinic under the noses of IS, see here).

Yet there is a vicious sting in the tail:

For Wassan, the ending of Isis rule in Mosul is bittersweet. After many attempts to reach Baghdad to write her board exams for medical school, she was told her work in the hospital for the past three years did not count as “active service”, and she was disqualified.

“The ministry said they won’t give me security clearance because I had worked under Isis administration,” she said.

This, too, is one of the modalities of later modern war – the weaponisation of health care, through selectively withdrawing it from some sections of the population while privileging the access and quality for others.  ‘Health care,’ writes Omar Dewachi, ‘has become not only a target but also a tactic of war.’  (If you want to know more about the faltering provision of healthcare and the fractured social fabric of life in post-IS Mosul, I recommend an interactive report from Michael Bachelard and Kate Geraghty under the bleak but accurate title ‘The war has just started‘). 

The weaponisation of health care has happened before, of course, and it takes many forms. In 2006, at the height of sectarian violence in occupied Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shi’a militia controlled the Health Ministry and manipulated the delivery of healthcare in order to marginalise and even exclude the Sunni population.  As Amit Paley reported:

 ‘In a city with few real refuges from sectarian violence – not government offices, not military bases, not even mosques – one place always emerged as a safe haven: hospitals…

‘In Baghdad these days, not even the hospitals are safe. In growing numbers, sick and wounded Sunnis have been abducted from public hospitals operated by Iraq’s Shiite-run Health Ministry and later killed, according to patients, families of victims, doctors and government officials.

‘As a result, more and more Iraqis are avoiding hospitals, making it even harder to preserve life in a city where death is seemingly everywhere. Gunshot victims are now being treated by nurses in makeshift emergency rooms set up in homes. Women giving birth are smuggled out of Baghdad and into clinics in safer provinces.’

He described hospitals as ‘Iraq’s new killing fields’, but in Syria the weaponisation of health care has been radicalised and explicitly authorized by the state.

You may think I’ve strayed too far from where I started this post; but I’ve barely moved.  For towards the end of her essay Saskia wonders why military and paramilitary violence in cities in so shocking – why it attracts so much more public attention than the millions murdered in the killing fields of the Congo.  And she suggests that the answer may lie in its visceral defilement of one of humanity’s greatest potential achievements:

Is it because the city is something we’ve made together, a collective construction across time and space? Is it because at the heart of the city are commerce and the civic, not war?

Lewis Mumford had some interesting things to say about that.  I commented on this in ACME several years ago, and while I’d want to flesh out those skeletal remarks considerably now, they do intersect with Saskia’s poignant question about the war on the civic:

In The Culture of Cities, published just one year before the Second World War broke out, Mumford included ‘A brief outline of hell’ in which he turned the Angelus towards the future to confront the terrible prospect of total war. Raging against what he called the ‘war-ceremonies’ staged in the ‘imperial metropolis’ (‘from Washington to Tokyo, from Berlin to Rome’: where was London, I wonder? Moscow?), Mumford fastened on the anticipatory dread of air war. The city was no longer the place where (so he claimed) security triumphed over predation, and he saw in advance of war not peace but another version of war. Thus the rehearsals for defence (the gas-masks, the shelters, the drills) were ‘the materialization of a skillfully evoked nightmare’ in which fear consumed the ideal of a civilized, cultivated life before the first bombs fell. The ‘war-metropolis’, he concluded, was a ‘non-city’.

After the war, Mumford revisited the necropolis, what he described as ‘the ruins and graveyards’ of the urban, and concluded that his original sketch could not be incorporated into his revised account, The City in History, simply ‘because all its anticipations were abundantly verified.’ He gazed out over the charnel-house of war from the air — Warsaw and Rotterdam, London and Tokyo, Hamburg and Hiroshima — and noted that ‘[b]esides the millions of people — six million Jews alone — killed by the Germans in their suburban extermination camps, by starvation and cremation, whole cities were turned into extermination camps by the demoralized strategists of democracy.’

I’m not saying that we can accept Mumford without qualification, still less extrapolate his claims into our own present, but I do think his principled arc, at once historical and geographical, is immensely important. In now confronting what Stephen Graham calls ‘the new military urbanism’ we need to recover its genealogy — to interrogate the claims to novelty registered by both its proponents and its critics — as a way of illuminating the historical geography of our own present.

It’s about more than aerial violence – though that is one of the signature modalities of modern war – and we surely need to register the heterogeneity and hybridity of contemporary conflicts.  But we also need to recognise that they are often not only wars in cities but also wars on cities.

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.

 

The Unconscious Life of Bombs

Last month I did a long interview with Daniel Pick for a BBC Radio 4 documentary, The Unconscious Life of Bombs.  It’s now been broadcast, and you can listen to the whole thing here.

Historian and psychoanalyst Daniel Pick of Birkbeck College, University of London tells the story of how aerial bombardment – from Zeppelins to B52s, from H-Bombs to drones – has made the unconscious mind a field of battle.

Daniel explores how, in the shadow of the First World War, Freud turned his analytical eye from desire to the ‘death drive’, and how psychoanalysts probed what might happen if another war came.

Would survivors of mass aerial bombardment hold up psychically, or would they collapse into infantile panic? Or would they become uncontrollably aggressive?

And why do humans come to be so aggressive in the first place?

When the war – and the bombers – did come to Britain, it appeared that survivors were much more stoical and defiant than had been expected.

But, as Daniel discovers, brave faces concealed a great deal of psychological damage.

With historian Lyndsey Stonebridge, he visits the Wellcome Library to see – courtesy of the Melanie Klein Trust – the case notes of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein on her analysis of a troubled ten year old boy, ‘Richard’.

What do Klein’s notes, and Richard’s extraordinary drawings, reveal about his attitude to being bombed?

Daniel examines how, with the advent of the Cold War and the distinct possibility that bombs and missiles could destroy civilisation, technocrats trying to plan for the end of the world coped with staring into the abyss.

Finally, Daniel shows how a radical new turn in aerial bombardment opens up this field anew. Nuclear weapons can destroy the planet; but what does it do to the mind to live under the threat of ‘surgical’ attack by unmanned drones?

With: Derek Gregory, Peter Hennessy, Dagmar Herzog, Richard Overy, Lyndsey Stonebridge

Drones through Post-Atomic Eyes

A post-script to my last post: the (very!) long-form version of “Little Boys and Blue Skies: Drones through Post-Atomic Eyes” is now available under the DOWNLOADS tab.  The sections are:

  1. Escape from Hiroshima
  2. Atomic clouds and drones
  3. Atomic bombs and drones
  4. American Hiroshimas
  5. Predator and prey
  6. Manhattan Projects 1.0 and 2.0
  7. Visual economies
  8. Little boys and blue skies

This is a draft, so if you have any comments or suggestions I’d be pleased to have them.

Nuclear narcissism

As Donald Trump‘s grotesque unfitness for office becomes ever clearer – though to most of us it was as plain as a pikestaff long before the election – a central vector of concern has been his proximity to the nuclear codes.  For background, I recommend Adam Shatz‘s essay in the LRB, ‘The President and the Bomb‘:

What’s really terrifying about Trump’s control of the bomb is that it’s no aberration: in fact, it’s utterly normal. Democratic politicians – presidents, and would-be presidents – have spoken with no less gusto of their willingness to ‘keep all options on the table’. When Obama said that he wouldn’t consider using nuclear weapons against Pakistan at a presidential debate in 2008, Hillary Clinton scolded him: ‘I don’t believe any president should make blanket statements with regard to use or non-use.’ The right to annihilate one’s enemies (or frenemies, as in the case of Pakistan) is a right no American leader can afford to relinquish, for fear that he or she would be accused of being a pushover, an appeaser – a pussy. (A president can only grab a pussy: he can’t be one.) When Obama tried to discuss a no-first-use declaration, his cabinet quickly dissuaded him. Although he achieved the nuclear agreement with Iran, averting a potential war, and expressed symbolic atonement on his visit to Hiroshima, he also oversaw a programme of nuclear modernisation, with a commitment to a trillion dollars in extra spending over thirty years, increasing America’s ability to crush its opponents in a first strike. Trump has happily inherited that programme, without, of course, crediting his predecessor.

Against this wretched backdrop, it’s worth revisiting America’s history of nuclear narcissism.

I first discussed this in my presentation of ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies‘ at a wonderful symposium ‘Through Post-Atomic Eyes‘ [see here, here, here and here], and I’ve now revisited it for the long-form version (which you can at last find under the DOWNLOADS tab).  Here is part of that new essay (‘Little Boys and Blue Skies: Drones through post-atomic eyes‘):

On 19 November 1945, barely 100 days after Hiroshima, Life published an illustrated essay entitled ‘The 36-Hour War’, which was informed by a report from General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold as commander of the US Army Air Force to the Secretary of War. Although the opening paragraphs predicted that in the future ‘hostilities would begin with the explosion of atomic bombs on cities like London, Paris, Moscow or Washington’ – Arnold’s report had warned that ‘the danger zone of modern war is not restricted to battle lines’ and that ‘no one is immune from the ravages of war’ [1] – the global allusion of the text was dwarfed by Alexander Leydenfrost’s striking illustration of ‘a shower of white-hot rockets’ falling on Washington DC.

In case any reader should doubt the location of what the strapline called ‘the catastrophe of the next great conflict’, the next image sprawled across two pages and presented a vast panorama looking east across the United States from 3,000 miles above the Pacific: ‘Within a few seconds atomic bombs have exploded over New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boulder Dam, New Orleans, Denver, Washington, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Kansas and Knoxville (sic)’ killing 10,000,000 people.

Arnold’s report had suggested that there were ‘insurmountable difficulties in an active defense against future atomic projectiles.’ Now Life warned that ‘low-flying robot planes’ were even more dangerous because they would be more difficult to detect by radar – and ‘radar would be no proof at all against time bombs of atomic explosive which enemy agents might assemble in the U.S’ – so that defence was more or less impossible. A counterattack could be launched (against an enemy who remained unidentified throughout the essay), but nuclear strikes would surely be followed by invasion. By then, the US would have suffered ‘terrifying damage’: ‘All cities of more than 50,000 have been levelled’ and New York’s Fifth Avenue reduced to a ‘lane through the debris.’

That final image was unique; it was the only one to envision a nuclear attack from the ground. Perhaps that was unsurprising; the power of the image – ‘the nuclear sublime’ – was one of the central objectives of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘The weapon’s devastating power had to be seen to be believed,’ Kyo Maclear observed, in Moscow as well as in Tokyo.  And above all, literally so, it was designed to be seen from the air. During the seven years of the US occupation of Japan the effects on the people who lived and died in the irradiated rubble were subject to strict censorship. Still photographs could not be published – professionals and amateurs were ordered to burn their films and prints (fortunately some refused and hid them instead) – while Japanese media and even US military film crews had their documentary footage embargoed. In their place were endless images of the vast cloud towering into the sky. In fact Life had published a series of aerial views of the ‘obliteration’ of Hiroshima and the ‘disembowelling’ of Nagasaki just three months before its speculations on the 36-hour war. All those high-altitude views, and the maps that accompanied them, planed away the field of bodies: all that could be seen, deliberately so, were levelled spaces and superimposed concentric circles. In the studied absence of a visual record it was left to the imagination of writers to convey the effect of the bombs on human beings. And yet, as often as not, it was the bodies of Americans that filled the frame.

Philip Morrison’s remarkable essay for the Federation of American Scientists was at once the best informed and the most exemplary. Morrison was a former student of Oppenheimer who had worked with him on the Manhattan Project, and in July 1945 he was sent to the Mariana Islands as part of the team charged with assembling Little Boy. One month later he was on the ground in Hiroshima with the US Army mission to investigate the effects of the bomb. Their report was submitted in June 1946, but Morrison’s personal essay had appeared three months earlier and had already acknowledged the impossibility of conveying the enormity of the scene in dry and distanced scientific prose. It also proposed a solution.

‘Even from pictures of the damage realization is abstract and remote. A clearer and truer understanding can be gained from thinking of the bomb as falling on a city, among buildings and people, which Americans know well. The diversity of awful experience which I saw at Hiroshima … I shall project on to an American target.’

Warning that in any future war there would be twenty such targets – and not one bomb but ‘hundreds, even thousands’ – Morrison, as befitted someone who served with the US Army’s Manhattan Engineer District (the Manhattan Project), selected Manhattan.

‘The device detonated about half a mile in the air, just above the corner of Third Avenue and East 20th Street, near Grammercy Park. Evidently there had been no special target chosen, just Manhattan and its people. The flash startled every New Yorker out of doors from Coney Island to Van Cortland Park, and in the minute it took the sound to travel over the whole great city, millions understood dimly what had happened.’

After an endless chamber of horrors – bodies of old men ‘charred black on the side towards the bomb’, men with clothing in flames, women with ‘red and blackened burns’, and ‘dead children caught while hurrying home’; toppled brownstones, roads choked with rubble – he concluded that at least 300,000 people would have died: 200,000 ‘burned and cremated’ by volunteers, and the rest ‘still in the ruins, or burned to vapour and ash.

Hard on the heels of the Army in Hiroshima was the US Strategic Bombing Survey, whose findings were rendered in the same, impersonal voice that Morrison found wanting.   But in the concluding section of its report, the authors confessed that investigators had been bothered by the same troubling question as Morrison: ‘What if the target for the bomb had been an American city?’ They provided rough and ready answers, which they accepted had ‘a different sort of validity’ from the measurable data used in the preceding sections, but they insisted that their speculative calculations were ‘not the least important part of this report’ and that they were offered ‘with no less conviction.’ Acknowledging substantial differences between Japanese and American cities, the report none the less concluded that most buildings in American cities would not withstand an atomic bomb bursting a mile or a mile and a half from them, and that the vertical densities of high-rise buildings would produce large numbers of dead, injured and desperately sick people: ‘The casualty rates at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, applied to the massed inhabitants of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, yield a grim conclusion.

The most vivid, visceral contrast to the dry recitations of the official reports appeared on 31 August 1946, when the New Yorker devoted an entire issue to John Hersey’s epic essay on Hiroshima. It was based on interviews he had conducted with more than 40 survivors over three weeks in April. Written when he returned to New York, beyond the scrutiny of military censors, Hersey focused on six people whose stories he told in spare, unadorned prose (he later said he chose to be ‘deliberately quiet’ so that ‘the horror could be presented as directly as possible’). The essay was cinematic in its execution, cutting from individual to individual across the shattered city, and excruciating in its painstaking detail. Their splintered accounts combined a methodical matter-of-factness – the numbing one-thing-after-another of their acts of survival – with the almost unspeakable horror of what lay beyond: ‘Under many houses, people screamed for help, but no one helped; in general, survivors that day assisted only their relatives or immediate neighbors, for they could not comprehend or tolerate a wider circle of misery.’ Two of Hersey’s respondents were doctors, which enabled him to pan out across that vast sea of casualties (‘Wounded people supported maimed people; disfigured families leaned together’) and then bring the focus back to individuals: ‘Tugged here and there in his stockinged feet, bewildered by the numbers, staggered by so much raw flesh, Dr. Sasaki lost all sense of profession and stopped working as a skillful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding.’ Hersey’s narrative moved carefully through the weeks after the blast until the results of radiation sickness began to take their toll and even the signs of a precarious normality became sinister: ‘a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green’ as wild flowers bloomed ‘among the city’s bones.

Surely this awful litany would turn the American public’s post-atomic eyes to Japan? In fact the extraordinary success of Hersey’s essay – the print run of 300,000 sold out, ‘Hiroshima’ was reprinted in many newspapers, broadcast on the radio in nightly instalments, and when it appeared in book form it became an immediate bestseller – served not only to dispel the claims of those who had sought to minimise the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it also redoubled the fears of an attack on the continental United States. In consequence, it was not only the New Yorker but also New York that dominated the American atomic imaginary in the late 1940s and 50s. Even the first mass-market edition of Hiroshima confirmed that the preoccupation with American lives had not sensibly diminished. Hersey later said he had wanted his readers ‘to identify with the characters in a direct way’ – ‘to become the characters enough to suffer some of the pain’ – but the artist responsible for the cover of the paperback, Geoffrey Biggs, took that literally. His image showed what he described as ‘two perfectly ordinary people’ in ‘a city like yours or mine’: who happened to be Americans in an American city:

The publication of ‘Hiroshima’ was preceded by the two tests at Bikini Atoll, and in 1947 the official report on Operation Crossroads illustrated the vastly more spectacular effects of the second (Baker) shot by superimposing its towering cloud over Manhattan:

Perhaps the most iconic series of images of a post-atomic New York was painted by Chesley Bonestell and Birney Lettick. They accompanied John Lear’s contribution to Collier’s in August 1950, whose title seemed to evoke Hersey’s essay only to transpose it: ‘Hiroshima USA’. A prefatory note from the editor William Davenport insisted that nothing in the report was fantasy. While ‘the opening account of an A-bombing of Manhattan may seem highly imaginative,’ he wrote, ‘little of it is invention.’

It was based on the two US military surveys of Hiroshima, interviews with officials at the Atomic Energy Commission and the Pentagon, and advice from physicists, engineers, doctors and other experts. The description that followed was apocalyptic:

‘Aerial reconnaissance was impractical immediately after the blast because of the cloud of black grime that masked the lower city. Even after that cleared, it was only possible for the police helicopter squad to get a numb impression of the devastation. Streets could not be seen plainly. Many were blotted out entirely. In an area roughly 15 blocks long and 20 blocks across – from Canal Street north to Tenth and from Avenue B to Sullivan Street – there was now an ugly brown-red scar. A monstrous scab defiling the earth…

‘Rising gradually outward from this utter ruin … was all that was left of Manhattan between Thirty-Eighth Street and Battery Park.’

As this passage implies, however, Lear’s vantage point was far from Hersey’s, who had described ‘four square miles of reddish-brown scar, where everything had been buffeted down and burned’ but who was clearly more invested in the suppurating wounds and scarred flesh of the survivors. Consistent with the official sources from which Lear drew, his emphasis was instead on the geometries of destruction: only here and there did the bodies of ‘the burned, the crushed and the broken’ flicker into view. Still, the sting was in the tail. ‘Fortunately for all of us,’ Lear concluded fifty pages after his editor’s admonitory note, ‘the report you have just read is fiction.’ But ‘if it ever does happen, the frightfulness will almost certainly be more apocalyptic than anything described in these pages.’

‘For this documentary account is a conservative application to Manhattan Island of the minimum known consequences of explosion of one of the 1945 model A-bombs. And the Russians, if they once decide to attack us, surely will drop two or three or four of the 1950 models, each of which would ruin almost twice the area here circumscribed… In fact, one of the primary assumptions of current military planning for defense of the United States is that an enemy’s first move will be to try to disable not only New York but the entire Atlantic seaboard…’

Similar scenarios were regularly offered for other cities, including Chicago in 1950, Washington in 1953, Houston in 1955 and Los Angeles in 1961, and all of them dramatized their accounts through photomontages, maps and artwork.

Significantly, the burden of these accounts was on the effects of blast, burn and destruction. Hersey’s descriptions of radiation sickness in Hiroshima were not mirrored in the United States, where the government consistently minimized its dangers. For the benefit of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in February 1953 the Atomic Energy Commission superimposed the blast radius from the first hydrogen bomb detonated in the Marshall Islands the previous November (‘Ivy Mike’) over a map of Washington DC, and the conceit provoked laugher from members of Congress because the ‘zero point’ was centred on the White House not the Capitol.  The high-yield thermonuclear blast of Castle Bravo on 1 March 1954 was of a different order, and its fallout contaminated thousands of square miles. To illustrate its extent the AEC superimposed the plume over the eastern seaboard of the United States. Had this bomb been detonated over Washington, then Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York would have become uninhabitable.

President Eisenhower insisted on the map remaining classified, and when the New York Times splashed across its front page ‘The H-Bomb can wipe out any city’ its map was centred on New York and emphasised physical damage and destruction:

I rehearse all this because in her reflections on ‘the age of the world target’ Rey Chow writes of ‘the self-referential function of virtual worlding that was unleashed by the dropping of the atomic bombs, with the United States always occupying the position of the bomber, and other cultures always viewed as the … target fields.’  Yet, as I have shown, a common – perhaps even the most common – American response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the years immediately after the war was precisely the opposite. To be sure, the preoccupation with American cities as targets was spectacularly self-referential. Peter Galison was not sure whether ‘the bombsight eye had already begun to look back’ before Hiroshima, but he had no doubt that analysts working in the atomic rubble started ‘to see America through the bombardier’s eye.’ In a further twist to the examples I have cited, he shows how this scopic regime was refracted so that US defence planning in the 1950s included a national programme of ‘self-targeting’ in which cities were required to transform large-scale maps of their communities into target zones for nuclear bombs: what Galison called a ‘new, bizarre yet pervasive form of Lacanian mirroring.’

[1] Third Report of the Commanding General of the Army Air Force to the Secretary of War (12 November 1945), p. 59

[2] ‘The 36-Hour War: Arnold report hints at the catastrophe of the next great conflict’, Life, 19 November 1945, pp. 27-35; see also Alex Wellerstein, ‘The 36-Hour War’, Restricted Data, at http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2013/04/05/the-36-hour-war-life-magazine-1945, 5 April 2013.

[3] Kyo Maclear, Beclouded visions: Hiroshima-Nagasaki and the art of witness (New York: SUNY Press, 1998); Barbara Marcon, ‘Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the eye of the camera’, Third Text 25 (6) (2011) 787-97.

[4] ‘War’s ending’, Life, 20 August 1945, pp. 25-31. In an accompanying editorial on ‘The Atomic Age’, the unease of the magazine about the effects of the twin bombings haunted its uncertain prose. ‘Every step in [the] bomber’s progress has been more cruel than the last,’ the editors wrote. ‘From the very concept of strategic bombing, all the developments – night, pattern, saturation, area, indiscriminate – have led straight to Hiroshima, and Hiroshima was and was intended to be almost pure Schrecklichkeit [terror].’ The use of the German was deliberate; noting that the Hague ‘rules of war’ had been persistently violated during the war by both sides, the editorial insisted that ‘Americans, no less than Germans, have emerged from the tunnel with radically different standards and practices of permissible behaviour toward others’ (p. 32).

[5] It was this artfully staged geometry of destruction that enabled some apologists to treat Hiroshima and Nagasaki as no different from other Japanese cities that had been subject to US firebombing, and to erase the suffering of the victims of both air campaigns from the field of view.

[6] Philip Morrison, ‘If the bomb gets out of hand’, in One world or none (Federation of American Scientists, 1946) pp. 1-15; cf. The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Manhattan Engineer District, US Army, 29 June 1946, at http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/MED/index.shtml.

[7] ‘That the Survey had seldom, if ever, felt compelled to ask such a question as it pored over the ruins of Germany spoke to the sheer psychic effect of the magnitude of the new weapon’: Tom Vanderbilt, Survival City: Adventures among the ruins of Atomic America (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002) p. 74.

[8] The effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (US Strategic Bombing Survey, submitted 19 June 1946; published version 30 June 1946) pp. 39-41. The published version included a selection of photographs, virtually all of them aerial views, and the only photograph showing a victim was of a Japanese soldier with superficial burns: bodies were rendered as biomedical objects. Although most of the images obtained by the Survey remained classified, many of them are now available in David Monteyne, Adam Harrison Levy and John Dower (eds) Hiroshima Ground Zero 1945 (Göttingen: Steidl, 2011).

[9] John Hersey, ‘Hiroshima’, New Yorker, 31 August 1946. Hersey later explained that he wanted ‘to write about what happened not to buildings but to bodies’ and ‘cast about for a form to do that’; he found it on the marchlands between T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (which he read onboard ship on his way to Japan). See John Hersey, ‘The Art of Fiction No 92’ (interview with Jonathan Dee), The Paris Review 100 (1986) 1-23. For commentaries, see Dan Gerstle, ‘John Hersey and Hiroshima’, Dissent 59 (2) (2012) 90-94; Patrick Sharp, ‘From Yellow Peril to Japanese wasteland’, Twentieth Century Literature 46 (2000) 434-52; Michael Yaavenditti, ‘John Hersey and the American conscience: the reception of “Hiroshima”’, Pacific Historical Review 43 (1974) 24-49.

[10] The Bantam edition appeared in 1948; Hersey, ‘Art of fiction’.

[11] Paula Rabinowitz, American Pulp: how paperbacks brought modernism to Main Street (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014) p. 211.

[12] John Lear, ‘Hiroshima USA’, Collier’s, 5 August 1950, pp. 11-15, 60-63: 15.

[13] Lear, ‘Hiroshima USA’, 62. One year later the magazine devoted an entire issue to ‘The war we do not want’ purporting to describe the defeat and occupation of the Soviet Union; the conflict was punctuated by air strikes on Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Washington and missiles launched from submarines against Boston, Los Angeles, Norfolk (Virginia), San Francisco, and Washington. There were also Soviet nuclear strikes on London and US saturation strikes on the Soviet Union: Collier’s, 27 August 1951.

[14] Richard Hewlett and Jack Holl, Atoms for Peace and War 1953-1961: Eisenhower and the Atomic Energy Commission (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1989) p. 181. The map followed a press conference held by Rear Admiral Lewis Strauss, chairman of the AEC, who explained that by ‘any city’ he meant ‘the heart of Manhattan’: William Laurence, ‘Vast power bared’, New York Times, 1 April 1954. Strauss also shared with the press part of the briefing he had given the President; his reported remarks minimised any dangers from radioactivity: ‘any radioactivity falling into the test area would become harmless within a few miles’: ‘Text of statement and comments by Strauss on hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific’, New York Times, 1 April 1954.

[15] Rey Chow, in ‘The age of the world target: atomic bombs, alterity, area studies’, in her The age of the world target: self-referentiality in warm theory and comparative work (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) pp. 25-43: 41.

Pictures of war

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full details of themes, abstracts etc here and here.

Drones and atomic bombs

I’ve had my head down these past few weeks writing the long-form version of ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies’ (see here and here for preliminary notes), and en route I’ve been doing some more digging into the entanglements between nuclear weapons and drones.  And, as you’ll see, I ended up in Korea.

Until now I’ve focused on the US Air Force‘s use of B-17 drones flown by remote control from ground stations and accompanying director aircraft to sample the atomic clouds produced by tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands from 1946, and its Project Brass Ring in the early 1950s designed to convert a B-47 Stratojet into a similarly remotely operated carrier capable of delivering the next generation of thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs.

But the US Navy was no bystander.

In fact, the first series of postwar atomic tests, Operation Crossroads in July 1946, was an attempt by the Navy to move centre stage after Hiroshima and Nagasaki – when the Air Force had played the leading role – and to establish that sea power was still relevant in the atomic age.  The target for the bombs was a fleet of 95 ships (ironically readied at Pearl Harbor) and now anchored in the Bikini lagoon. But critics inside and outside Congress doubted the value of the tests: the bombs would be of the same type as ‘Fat Man’, dropped over Nagasaki, so no development in weapons technology was involved, and in any event surface ships were unlikely to be the targets of such devastating weapons.   They dismissed Crossroads as an expensive, purely theatrical extravaganza. And certainly, despite the remote location, 4,000 miles from San Francisco, every effort was made to attract international attention, both public and professional; the official record trumpeted that ‘never before had a nation fanfared its most secret weapon so closely before the eyes of the world’ [the official ‘pictorial record’ is here].

As far as the Air Force was concerned, however, Crossroads would be ‘a laboratory test’ not a ‘bomb-versus-battleship stunt’ [Sidney Shalett, ‘Atomic bomb test no “stunt” to AAF’, New York Times, 21 February 1946].  It would involve not only bomb delivery by one of its bombers but also cloud monitoring by drones.   ‘Almost as dramatic as the flight of the B-29 bomber’, General W.E. Kepner told reporters, ‘will be the plunge of the unpiloted but mothered drone planes into the sky-reaching, irradiated cloud.’  ‘Where men cannot go,’ he added, ‘the drone will take electronic and other recording instruments.’  Vice-Admiral William Blaney told reporters that ‘robot aircraft will dive into the atomic blast to gather scientific data’ and ‘uncover facts of radioactive phenomena as well as supply data on blast effects on airborne aircraft.’

As I noted in my earlier post, both the Air Force and the Navy supplied the drones.

For its part, the Air Force retained its love affair with the heavy bombers that had driven its ill-fated Project Aphrodite in the dog days of the war, in which war-weary B-17 Flying Fortresses were filled with high explosives and flown from an accompanying director aircraft into enemy targets in Occupied Europe. This time its Drones Unit utilised new B-17s: four were converted into drones operated by radio-control from four others flying at a safe distance, while one acted as the master control aircraft.  The drones were stripped of all their defensive armaments and fitted with radio and television equipment; air filters were fixed to their top turrets to trap particles from the cloud and collection bags installed in their bomb bays.  Ground controllers launched the drones from control jeeps and then handed off to the airborne controllers (‘beeper pilots’) on board the accompanying B-17s who directed the aircraft into the cloud before returning them to the ground controllers who managed the landing.

But the Navy had experimented with its smaller, carrier-based aircraft during the war too.  Its Project Option had used TDR-1 drones loaded with 500-2000 lb bombs with nose-mounted TV cameras controlled from the back seat of an Avenger Torpedo bomber.

As it happens, one of the first missions of the Special Task Air Group (STAG-1) had been to deploy its drones in support of a US assault on the Marshall Islands, but the Marines landed long before the planned invasion date; the Group was then tasked with attacking targets of opportunity throughout the Solomon Islands.  In a single month, between 27 September and 26 October 1944, STAG-1 launched 46 drones, of which 29 successfully destroyed their targets.  This was a short-lived project in another sense.  As with Aphrodite, these were all in effect kamikaze missions in which the unoccupied aircraft plunged into its targets and exploded:  James Hall provides a pilot’s view in his American Kamikaze, and you can find an exquisite analysis of the project in the second chapter of Katherine Chandler‘s thesis, Drone flight and failure: the United States’ secret trials, experiments and operations in unmanning, 1936-1973.  For Crossroads, less than two years later, the Navy used carrier-based Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat fighter aircraft as drones and as control aircraft, mustering 30 drones and 26 control aircraft (below, the USS Shangri-La en route to Bikini with the drones on the flight deck).

The first shot in the series, codenamed Able, took place on 1 July 1946. At 0900 Dave’s Dream dropped the bomb over the target fleet, but the result was not the thrilling spectacle that had been advertised [below: Able shot from Enyu Island].  Visually it was a damp squib.  Judged by its own Broadway razzamatazz, one reporter jibed, it was a complete flop: ‘Operation Chloroform, the logical sequel to Operation Build-Up and Handout.’

Scientifically it was not much better.  Although Vice-Admiral Blaney initially declared that the bomb was dropped ‘with very good accuracy’, in fact it detonated off-target, exploding over one of the instrumentation vessels and compromising the readings from many others.  Even most of the high-speed cameras missed the shot. One critic concluded that ‘from the standpoint of pure science no test was ever more haphazard’ [more in Jonathan Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll (1994) and Keith Parsons and Robert Zabella, Bombing the Marshall islands:a Cold War tragedy (2017)].

Against this catalogue of errors, which was glossed over in the official report, the aerial sampling missions were judged a considerable success.

(When the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty put an end to atmospheric testing in 1963 you might think the need for aerial sampling disappeared with the cloud.  But the US still operates two sampling aircraft as the ‘Constant Phoenix’ program that acts as a supplement to the satellite sensor network of the US Atomic Energy Detection System: earlier this year Constant Phoenix flew sampling missions to assess North Korea’s claim to have detonated a hydrogen bomb).

Back to the future.  As soon as the bomb was released over Bikini the first B-17 control aircraft turned its huge drone (Fox) into the cloud at an altitude of 24,000 feet; Fox was then switched to its automatic pilot, entering the cloud eight minutes after the explosion, while the control (or “beeper”) aircraft raced around the cloud and resumed control when the drone emerged on the other side.  Fox was followed by George (at 30,000 feet), How (at 18,000 feet) and Love (at 12,000 feet).  All four drones were directed back to Eniwetok atoll where they were handed back to the ground controllers in jeeps at the end of the runway who taxied them to the radiological safe area where the filters and bags were removed and flown to Los Alamos Laboratory for analysis (below).

The Navy launched four of its drones from the Shangri-La, but only three of them – Yellow, White and Blue – sampled the cloud at 5,000, 10,000 and 15,000 feet before being directed back to Roi island for a ground landing and sample recovery (below).

The official report emphasised that this was a notable first. ‘At Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’ it declared, ‘a few photographs and pressure measurements were made of the explosions, but almost nothing of value to physicists was learned.’ Crossroads had changed that; ‘for the first time samples had been taken from an atomic cloud’ during what one military engineer hailed as ‘the most hugely instrumented experiment in history’.

To the Air Force its drones had made crucial contributions not only to the aerial sampling programme but also to the development of remote operations more generally: ‘For the first time, four-motored drone aircraft had been flown without a safety pilot aboard.’  The author of the official report was equally impressed.  ‘With no one aboard,’ he marvelled, ‘these great planes were radio-guided through their prescribed flights across the target area, a unique and impressive feat.’  In a footnote he continued:

‘A number of Army Air Forces officials believe that the drone-plane program undertaken for Crossroads advanced the science of drone-plane operations by a year or more… Operation Crossroads was the first operation in which take-off, flight, and landing were accomplished with no one aboard.  The feat was an impressive one; many experts had thought it could never be accomplished with planes of this size.’

These were the experiments that captured the imagination of  Hanson Baldwin, a military affairs correspondent for the New York Times and Life magazine.  He had already predicted that ‘robot planes, rockets, television and radar bombing and atomic bombs will do the work today done by fleets of thousands of piloted bombers.’  Now he saw the future materialising in front of him.  ‘Today,’ he wrote in the New York Times for 25 August 1946, ‘planes without crews can be flown from almost anywhere, and can even survive… the atomic cloud.’  At Bikini the drones were controlled over a distance of eight miles or less, but Baldwin had been told that remote control up to fifty and perhaps even 100 miles was possible.  These were what today would be called line-of-sight operations, so their range was limited and Baldwin stressed that ‘an unmanned drone cannot be sent careening into a target in Europe by an operator standing at his “beep box” on La Guardia field in New York’.   But he was also adamant that a threshold had been crossed:

‘In the Pacific so much experience in the handling of drones was accumulated during the summer and the operations were so far in advance of drone operations during the war that it is safe to say that a simplified and reliable system of drone control – with all that implies – has been achieved…. Drones thus add a new and dangerous instrument to the growing armory of Mars, increase the power of the offensive and further complicate the tasks of the defensive’ [Hanson W. Baldwin, ‘The “Drone”: portent of a push-button war’, New York Times, 25 August 1946].

He was right, and the lines of descent from these post-war experiments to today’s remote operations by the US Air Force reveal continuing entanglements with nuclear weapons.

The official report of Crossroads makes no mention of the implications for remote operations of the smaller Navy drones.  Yet the Navy retained an interest in their development, and here too the connections with weapons of mass destruction are more than marginalia.

In April 1952 Herbert Johansen, an associate editor for Popular Mechanics, was invited to observe a flight of four F6F-5K Hellcats – though ‘they could just as well be our fastest jets’ – converted to drone operations at the Navy’s Pilotless Aircraft Laboratory and controlled from a single aircraft off the Atlantic coast.  Although the caption to a photograph noted that ‘Big Fellows’ – the Air Force’s Flying Fortresses – ‘can also be radio-controlled’ (see right), it was the smaller drones that got this reporter’s attention.

The Navy was ‘tight-lipped’ about its plans for the Hellcat drones, but Johansen had no difficulty imagining a future in which they would ‘carry atomic warheads and crash-dive as projectiles of destruction’ [‘No Live Operator Aboard’, Popular Mechanics 160 (4) (1952)].

Perhaps this was Johansen’s own, wild conjecture; perhaps not.  Bruce Cumings has shown that Washington had contemplated the use of nuclear weapons ‘from the first days of the Korean war’.  General MacArthur had requested atomic bombs to support ground operations as early as July 1950; in November President Truman, in response to a reporter’s question, insisted that their use was on the table, and Strategic Air Command was told that aircraft despatched to the Pacific theatre (based on Guam and Okinawa) should have ‘atomic capabilities’.  Cumings argues that ‘the US came closest to using nuclear weapons’ in April 1951, when the Pentagon prepared for immediate ‘atomic retaliation’ against any Chinese or Russian escalation; nine Mark IV bombs were transferred to the Air Force, and the President authorised their use against North Korean and Chinese targets.  But these were enormous bombs destined for the Air Force’s B-29s – each weighed 11,000 lbs and was far beyond the capacity of the Navy’s Hellcats (though not its AJ-1 bombers) – and they were never used.  Still, the Pentagon continued to consider the nuclear option, and in September and October 1951 flights of B-29s carried out simulated runs over the North, dropping dummy atomic bombs to assess their utility as battlefield weapons [see Bruce Cumings, ‘On the strategy and morality of American policy in Korea, 1950 to the present’, Social Science Japan Journal 1 (1) (1998) 57-70; see also here; Daniel Calingaert, ‘Nuclear weapons and the Korean War’, Journal of strategic studies 11 (2) (1988) 177-202; and here).

One year later the same bleak prospect as Johansen’s was conjured up by a naval officer much closer to the conflict, who was overseeing an experimental flight of Navy drones against targets in North Korea. Between 28 August and 2 September six Hellcat drones on the carrier USS Boxer were loaded with 2000 lb bombs and, with TV pods slung under their wings, yoked to director aircraft – AD-2Q Skyraiders this time – whose pilots used TV screens to guide what were now described as ‘robot missiles’ on to their targets.

The test roared on to the front pages.  An American correspondent cabled a vivid description of what he called ‘one of the most dramatic and historical events of the Korean War’:

‘We watched a guided missile roar off a catapult, climb north-westward in a sweeping turn and head for a dangerous flak-ridden communist target in North Korea more than 150 miles away.

‘As the doomed craft streaked towards its target, grim-faced electronic experts, in a secret room on this ship, rode with the missile, mile by mile, through wondrous electronic instruments.  On their dials in the secret room, the experts crossed the Sea of Japan and watched the jagged peaks of Eastern Korea loom in the distance and grow larger.  Far from the missile, an automatic device transmitted every dying moment of the missile’s last hour to the USS Boxer.

‘The target – an enemy concentration in a valley between two shadowy hills – was indicated on the receiving instrument – a real flak-ridden trap for any hapless Allied pilot.

‘A second to go now – the signal of the instruments grew stronger as the guided missile dived straight at the target at hundreds of miles an hour.  Then the instruments went suddenly blank.  The screaming dive had ended squarely on the target and the missile had crashed to oblivion’ [His dispatch was dated 1 September but delayed and censored; it was published in several regional newspapers in the United States and in the Australian press almost three weeks later: ‘United States ready for push-button warfare’, Canberra Times, 19 September 1952].

With that blank screen, he continued, those on board the Boxer knew that ‘here at last in actual combat, was a new era of battle’, when ‘electronic brains will ride in tough, dangerous places, saving the lives of American pilots.’  Or, as one observing officer marvelled, ‘It’s a nice way to fight a war’ [More from Jeremy Hsu, ‘When US Navy suicide drones went to war’, here].

Although observers were ‘amazed at the drone’s sensitive response to remote control’ and the TV screen supposedly ‘enabled the controlling officer to keep the drone “on the target” until the last second, giving the missile unbelievable accuracy’, only one of the six hit its target [‘Navy uses robot missiles against targets in Korea’, New York Times, 18 September 1952].  The others recorded near-misses, but this was enough for Lt-Cdr Lawrence Kurtz, the (less than tight-lipped) commander of Guided Missile Unit 90 responsible for the trial, to boast that the United States had enough of them to ‘launch and sustain a large-scale robot campaign’.  And he then added this ominous rider: some of the ‘missile planes’ were ‘capable of carrying an atomic bomb from one continent to another’ [ ‘United States ready for push-button warfare’; ‘Guided missiles in Korean War: Deadly new US technique’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 1952].

Agency reports of his comments were played down in the United States, where they evidently incurred the wrath of his superiors. Rear Admiral John Sides described the use of the Hellcat drones as an ‘interim measure’ before the development of ‘more effective guided missiles’, conceding that ‘it wouldn’t take much imagination to realize that there are better ways of doing this job.’  But he would give no further details: the Navy was ‘investigating the use of classified information in news dispatches on the employment of pilotless bombers in Korea’, but refused to elaborate [‘Korea robot raids “interim measure”’, New York Times, 19 September 1952].  Instead, Sides switched the focus from the aircraft to American lives.  The  object of the experimental programme observed by the Popular Mechanics correspondent earlier in the year was ‘to obtain air kills by individuals operating from beyond the range of the enemy’s armament’, he emphasised, and in Korea ‘a controller sitting in relative safety’ outside the range of anti-aircraft defences ‘had been able to direct an effective drop on the enemy positions.’ The previous Times report had already underlined the significance: ‘The planes were sacrificed but, of course, not a man was lost.’

On 22 September NBC broadcast a short Department of Defense film describing what it called the dawn of ‘a new era in warfare’ in Korea but which made no mention of nuclear weapons.  Instead the commentary emphasised that the pilot of the ‘robot bomber’ was ‘safely out of range’ and that these ‘guided missiles’ might ‘someday eliminate the human element’ altogether :

‘The carrier USS Boxer launches guided missiles for the first time in combat, bringing the push-button war of tomorrow into present day reality. Defense Department films show the first mission of the robot bombers, weapons that may someday eliminate the human element from air war.

The robot missile is catapulted aloft. It is a semi-obsolete Hell Cat, carrying a one-ton bomb load and a television camera instead of a pilot.

Already in the air is the mother plane, with an observer who flies the drone by remote control. Side by side, missile and mother plane head for the target. Then the pilot, safely out of range of interception and anti-aircraft fire, guides the robot directly into the target with unerring accuracy.’

And this was, of course, the larger and sharper point.  The reason drones were originally used to fly through the atomic cloud (though they were later replaced by crewed missions); the reason the Air Force needed a remotely operated aircraft to drop the next generation of nuclear weapons; the reason the Navy wanted ‘offensive drones’ and ‘robot missiles’ to attack heavily defended targets was to save the lives of American crews.  It is the same mission that continues today in the US prosecution of what are its avowedly asymmetric wars: to ‘project power without vulnerability’.