Big Data and Bombs on Fifth Avenue

Big Data, No Thanks

James Bridle has posted a lightly edited version of the excellent presentation he gave to “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto last month – Big Data, No Thanks – at his blog booktwo.  It’s an artful mix of text and images and, as always with James, both repay close scrutiny.

If you look at the situation we are in now, a couple of years after the Snowden revelations, most if not all of the activities which they uncovered have been, if not secretly authorised already, signed into law and continued without much fuss.

As Trevor Paglen has said: Wikileaks and the NSA have essentially the same political position: there are dark secrets at the heart of the world, and if we can only bring them to light, everything will magically be made better. One legitimises the other. Transparency is not enough – and certainly not when it operates in only one direction.  This process has also made me question my own practice and that of many others, because making the invisible visible is not enough either.

James talks about the ‘existential dread’ he feels caused not ‘by the shadow of the bomb, but by the shadow of data’:

It’s easy to feel, looking back, that we spent the 20th Century living in a minefield, and I think we’re still living in a minefield now, one where critical public health infrastructure runs on insecure public phone networks, financial markets rely on vulnerable, decades-old computer systems, and everything from mortgage applications to lethal weapons systems are governed by inscrutable and unaccountable softwares. This structural and existential threat, which is both to our individual liberty and our collective society, is largely concealed from us by commercial and political interests, and nuclear history is a good primer in how that has been standard practice for quite some time.

newyorker-720-loIt’s a much richer argument than these snippets can convey.  For me, the high spot comes when James talks about IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (really), which turns out to be the most explosive combination of secrecy and visibility that you could possibly imagine.

I’m not going to spoil it – go and read it for yourself, and then the title of this post will make horrible sense.  You can read more in George Dyson‘s absorbingly intricate account of Turing’s Cathedral: the origins of the digital universe (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2012).

Atomic soldiers and the nuclear battlefield

As promised, I’ve posted the slides from my presentation on “Little Boys and Blue Skies: drones through post-atomic eyes” under the DOWNLOADS tab.  Given my previous posts (here and here) these ought to be reasonably self-explanatory, but I’ve added a series of images derived from Matt Farish‘s brilliant presentation “Beneath the bombs” at the same conference and these probably need explanation.

Tumbler-Snapper 1 June 1952.001

One of the central themes of my presentation was the emphasis placed on American lives by those who planned the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which is why the crew of the Enola Gay had to execute such a tight turn to escape the shock waves from the blast – and by American commentators who almost immediately contemplated the possibility of a nuclear attack on the continental United States.

The same was true of those who prepared for subsequent nuclear strikes (which is why the US Air Force experimented with drones to ‘deliver’ the bombs) and by those who orchestrated subsequent nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands and in Nevada (which is why the US Air Force and the US Navy used drones to fly through the atomic clouds to collect samples).

As I showed in the presentation, these same priorities have been extended to today’s use of armed drones by the US Air Force, which repeatedly cites its Predators and Reapers as ‘projecting power without vulnerability’.

All of this will be clear from my slides and posts.

Troops watching atomic test, Yucca Flat, November 1951

But what I didn’t know was that the US Army and Marine Corps had no such qualms about exposing the bodies of their soldiers and marines to the dangers of atomic tests.  Matt described a series of exercises in Nevada – Desert Rock – held between 1951 and 1957 in which ground troops not only watched the tests from a distance (this I did know: see the image above) but were also ordered forward to secure the blast area.  Here is an official video (watch from 3.00).

This is a silent film, but if you prefer a video with a jaunty, reassuring commentary you can find one from the Internet Archive here.  It’s accompanied by this transcript of an interview between a sergeant and a training officer before a blast:

Question. “How many of your men would volunteer to go up and be in the foxholes?” (one-half mile from ground zero)

Answer. “I guess about half a dozen.”

Question. “It’s quite a loud noise when that bomb goes off … would it do them any harm?”

Answer. “No sir, not the noise, no.”

Question. “How about the radiation? Do you think there is much danger?”

Answer. “Radiation is the least of their worries that the men are thinking about.”

Question. “I think most thought radiation was the greatest danger, didn’t they? Where did they learn differently?”

Answer. “They were, prior to our instructions here. We received a very thorough briefing.”

royal_nevada_atomic_soldiers_19550418_courtesy_las_vegas_news_bureau_WEB-300x300

Part of the purpose of the tests was indeed to show how safe the tests were.  As Dr Richard Meiling, the chair of the Armed Forces Medical Policy Council, explained in a memorandum to the Pentagon on 27 June 1951:

‘Fear of radiation … is almost universal among the uninitiated and unless it is overcome in the military forces it could present a most serious problem if atomic weapons are used…. It has been proven repeatedly that persistent ionizing radiation following air bursts does not occur, hence the fear that it presents a dangerous hazard to personnel is groundless.’

Meiling-Richard-L.-218x300Meiling recommended that ‘positive action be taken at the earliest opportunity to demonstrate this fact in a practical manner’, ideally by deploying a Regimental Combat Team ‘approximately twelve miles from the designated ground zero of an air blast and immediately following the explosion . . . they should move into the burst area in fulfillment of a tactical problem.’

In effect, Meiling wanted to conduct an extended psychological experiment in which the Test Site would become a vast human – as much as physical – laboratory.

Simon 1953 EMP shock test

According to a report from the Human Resources Research Organization:

By means of attitude measurement methods measuring psychological effects of stress, both applied at critical points during the maneuver, an attempt was made:

1. To evaluate effects of atomic indoctrination on troop participants; and

2. To estimate effects of the detonation together with its accompanying affects on performance.

One Army officer, Captain Richard Taffe, provided a remarkably cheery first-hand account for Collier’s on 26 January 1952:

I walked through an atom-bombed area. I didn’t get burned, I didn’t become radioactive, and I didn’t become sterile. And neither did the 5,000 guys with me. Furthermore, I wasn’t scared—either while taking my walk through the blasted miles, or while watching the world’s most feared weapon being exploded seven miles in front of me.

But, I’ve been asked a hundred times since the Desert Rock maneuvers at Yucca Flats in the Nevada atomic test site, “What was it like?”…

Suddenly it came. A gigantic flash of white light, bright as a photoflash bulb exploding in our eyes—even with our backs turned. The order “Turn” screamed over the public address system and 5,000 soldiers spun and stared. As we turned, it was as though someone had opened the door of a blast furnace as the terrific heat reached us. There, suspended over the desert floor, was the fireball which follows the initial flash of an atomic bomb.

Hung there in the sky, the tremendous ball of flame was too blinding to stare at, and suddenly there was much more to see.

Sucked into that fireball were the tons of debris from the desert floor. Almost at once dust clouds climbed hundreds of yards off the ground for miles in each direction. Then the familiar column of dirty gray smoke formed and started to rise.

Up to this point we had seen, but we had not heard and we had not felt, the explosion.

But then came the shock wave. The ground beneath us started to heave and sway. Not back and forth as you might expect, but sideways. The earthquakelike movement of the ground rocked us on our haunches and, had we been standing, it could have knocked us down.

About that time, our heads were snapped back with the force of the terrible blast as the sound finally crossed those seven miles and reached us. The tremendous crack was a louder one than most of us had ever heard before. And right behind it came another crack—there seemed to be some debate as to whether this was an echo or another chain reaction in the fireball.

From the throats of everyone there came noises. Noises, not words. I listened particularly for the first coherent statement, but, like myself, few people could voice normal exclamations. It was not something normal and words just wouldn’t come out—only unintelligible sounds.

The first words I did hear came from a caustic corporal behind me, who said, almost calmly, “Well, I finally located that damned Ground Zero.”

Our roar of laughter broke the tension, but the spectacle was far from over.

The horror turned to beauty. It isn’t difficult to associate the word beautiful with such a lethal exhibition, because from this point on, the atomic blast became just that—beautiful. A column rose from where the fireball had dimmed, crawled through the brown doughnut above the fireball, and boiled skyward. The dirty gray of the stem was rapidly offset by the purple hues and blues of the column. Then came the mushroom—the trade-mark of an atomic bomb.

Capped in pure white, the seething mushroom emitted browns, blood orange, pastel pinks, each fighting its way to the surface only to be sucked to the bottom and then back into the middle of the mass of white. Within minutes, the top was at 30,000 feet and then the huge cloud broke loose from the stem and drifted in the wind toward Las Vegas. . . .

This explosion had three lethal qualities. They were: blast, heat and radiation. The greatest fear the public has today in connection with the atom bomb probably is radiation. People forget that it caused only 15 per cent of the 140,000 deaths at Hiroshima.

One second after an air burst of an atom bomb, 50 per cent of the radiation is gone. All danger of lingering radiation has disappeared after 90 seconds.

As to the other two qualities, blast caused 60 per cent of the deaths at Hiroshima. Heat and the accompanying fires accounted for the other 25 per cent. . . .

As we moved up the road in the trucks, the effects of the blast became more apparent. About two miles from Ground Zero—and incidentally the bomber dropped his lethal egg in the proverbial bucket, right on the target—it became obvious that a terrible force had been at work.

At one of the closest positions we again left the trucks and walked through the charred area. Despite the devastation, there was no doubt that a successful attack could have been made by friendly troops directly through the blasted area—immediately after the explosion.

You can find much more here (scroll way down).  The purpose of reports like this was clearly to ‘indoctrinate’ a far wider audience than the US military.

All of this raises two questions.  One is about the radical difference between saving the lives of airmen and risking the lives of ground troops; the answer surely lies only partly in the insistence that there was no risk at all – since the Air Force clearly believed otherwise – and so must also lie in a dismal cost-benefit analysis that reckoned the cost (and time) involved in training aircrew against that involved in training ground troops.

The other is about what could possibly have required a ‘successful attack’ on ground zero and what would have been left for those troops to ‘secure’ after the blast…

Note: If you wonder about the long-term effects of the tests on residents of the area around the Nevada Test Site, see Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon, Killing our own: the disaster of America’s experiencewith atomic radiation, which is open access here (see chapter 3: ‘Bringing the bombs home’).

The US Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments provided a report on the effects on ground troops in The Human Radiation Experiments (1996) (Ch 10: ‘Atomic veterans: human experimentation in connection with bomb tests’).

“What is that sound high in the air?”

Coming from MIT in April next year, a new book by the ever-creative anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, Drone: remote control warfare.

GUSTERSON DroneDrones are changing the conduct of war. Deployed at presidential discretion, they can be used in regular war zones or to kill people in such countries as Yemen and Somalia, where the United States is not officially at war. Advocates say that drones are more precise than conventional bombers, allowing warfare with minimal civilian deaths while keeping American pilots out of harm’s way. Critics say that drones are cowardly and that they often kill innocent civilians while terrorizing entire villages on the ground. In this book, Hugh Gusterson explores the significance of drone warfare from multiple perspectives, drawing on accounts by drone operators, victims of drone attacks, anti-drone activists, human rights activists, international lawyers, journalists, military thinkers, and academic experts.

Gusterson examines the way drone warfare has created commuter warriors and redefined the space of the battlefield. He looks at the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance involved in remote killing: is it easier than killing someone on the physical battlefield if you have to watch onscreen? He suggests a new way of understanding the debate over civilian casualties of drone attacks. He maps “ethical slippage” over time in the Obama administration’s targeting practices. And he contrasts Obama administration officials’ legal justification of drone attacks with arguments by international lawyers and NGOs.

People of the bombI met Hugh at a conference on Orientalism and War in Oxford several years ago, and I’ve recently been reading his Nuclear Rites: a weapons laboratory and the end of the Cold War and People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex as I continue my wanderings through the nuclear wastelands.

The coincidence between Hugh’s previous projects and his new one intersects with my presentation on “Little Boys and Blue Skies” in Toronto last week – see here and here – which sketched out a series of entanglements between drones and the nuclear wastelands (hence the Eliot quotation which serves as my title for this post).

Drones and atomic clouds

I’m off to Toronto on Thursday to speak at the symposium “Through Post-Atomic Eyes“.  I posted some of my earlier notes for my presentation, ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies: Drones through post-atomic eyes‘, and since then I’ve been digging deeper into the strange intersections between nuclear weapons and today’s Predators and Reapers.

In my original post I described the US Air Force’s early attempts to devise a way of delivering atomic bombs from remotely piloted aircraft – notably Project Brass Ring:

B-47 drone.001

Following a tip from Matt Farish (who will also be speaking at the conference) I’ve now discovered that drones were also used to monitor the ‘atomic clouds’.

Shortly after the Second World War the US Air Force’s Pilotless Aircraft Branch resumed its experiments with remotely controlling B-17 bombers from ‘director aircraft’ and from ground stations:

B17 experiments.001

By July 1946 six to them were being successfully operated by the Army Air Group’s Drone Unit, and they were in action over Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands for the series of nuclear tests known as Operation Crossroads.   The first test (Able) was carried out on 1 July 1946, when a B-29 Superfortress (“Dave’s Dream”) dropped a plutonium bomb of the same power used against Nagasaki from a height of 30,000 feet on a target fleet of 90 obsolete ships; it was an air burst, detonating 520 feet above the ships (the aim point was the battleship USS Nevada, perhaps appropriately enough given that state’s use for nuclear testing in the decades ahead; it was painted bright red to make it visible to the bombardier, but the bomb missed it y 1870 feet).

Bikini2

Operation Crossroads Target Array

The B-17s were on station 20-30 miles away, and they were the first to approach the target area.  Eight minutes after Mike Hour one of them entered the cloud at 24,000 feet, followed by three others at 30,000 feet, 18,000 feet and 13,000 feet.  The image below shows a B-17 landing at Eniwetok under ground control:

B-17 drone Bikini

There was nothing secret about their use – like the bomb itself, making the drones public was a vital part of demonstrating American military and technical superiority.  Here, for example, is an image from Mechanix Illustrated in June 1946 describing Operation Crossroads :

Crossroads at Bikini Mexhanix Illustrated June 1946

According to Bombs at Bikini, the official (public) report on Operation Crossroads, prepared for Join Task Force One and published in 1947:

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. To be sure, a fewwar-weary B-17’s had been flown without crews during the latter part of the recent war [Operation Aphrodite], but they and their cargoes of explosives were deliberately crash-landed. Also, a few B-17’s had been landed by remote control; but pilots were aboard, ready to take over control in case of trouble. 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.

As this video clip shows (start at 6.01), take-off was under the control of a ‘ground beep pilot’, who then handed over to a ‘beep television control pilot’ in an accompanying director aircraft (‘the mother ship’), who handed back to the ground beep pilot for the landing.  This parallels today’s ‘remote-split operations’, though on a greatly reduced spatial scale, where a Launch and Recovery crew stationed in or near the combat zone is responsible for take-off and landing while the mission is flown by a ground control crew in the continental United States):

The B-17 drones operated in concert with the US Navy’s F6F-5 Hellcat drones which made transits of the cloud at 20,000 feet, 15,000 feet and 10,000 feet (see the first image below; the tail fins are painted different colours to indicate different control frequencies: more here).  The second image shows a pilot on the deck of the aircraft carrier Shangri-La controlling an F6F-5 before take-0ff; landing on the deck of a carrier was difficult enough at the best of times and with a skilled crew on board, and not surprisingly the Navy drones returned to Roi island, part of Kwajalein Atoll.

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shangri-la.jpg__600x0_q85_upscale

Paul Hoversten reports:

No manned aircraft flew over the center of the blast, called Zeropoint, until four hours later, although manned boats were on the scene after two hours.  Drones were also flown after the second test, Baker, on July 25, which was an underwater shot suspended from a target ship in Bikini’s lagoon.

Bikini atoll target disposition

In each case the drones were tasked to take air samples from the cloud (using filters housed in boxes under the wings) and to photograph the cloud formation:

Bikini 4

As the official pictorial record boasted (its very existence underlining the importance of a controlled ‘publicness’ to these tests):

Drone planes penetrated where no man could have ventured, flew through the mushroom cloud on photographic missions, sampled its poisonous content, televised to remote onlookers their instrument panel readings for flight analysis.

The samples were crucial, and drones remained of vital importance in collecting them.  The image below shows the air filters being removed from a remotely operated B-17 used in Operation Sandstone (a series of nuclear tests conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission at Eniwetok Atoll in 1948):

Boeing_B-17_drone_at_Eniwetok_1948

The capstone attempt to deliver atomic bombs by remote controlled aircraft, Project Brass Ring, was abandoned in March 1951 when the Air Force determined that a manned aircraft could execute the bomb delivery safely (at least for those on board), but drones continued to be used during atomic tests.  In 1953 QF-80 drones were in use at Indian Springs, the Air Force portal to the Nevada Proving Grounds (the full story is here):

Drones at Indian Springs.001Drones at Indian Springs 2.001

Lockheed QF-80 drone (FT-599) and director aircraft (a Lockheed DT33) ready for take-off at Indian Springs

Lockheed QF-80 drone (FT-599) and director aircraft (a Lockheed DT33) ready for take-off at Indian Springs

This was the first time ‘jet drones’ had been used during continental tests.  NULLO (‘No Live Operator Onboard’) operations used the same system of hand offs between beep pilots and director aircraft that had been used for the B-17s, but Sperry claimed that its precision marked a new milestone in remote operations.  Here’s a video of the drones in operation – and the effects of the blast on the aircraft:

But some tests were designed to evaluate the effects of the blast and the cloud on living creatures.  Here is a clipping from the Chicago Tribune, reporting on a test carried out over Nevada on 6 April 1953 – in fact the mission shown in the last still photograph above.  Note that the radiation effects were expected to be so powerful that all air traffic was excluded from an area of 100,00 square miles:

Chicago Tribune 6 April 1953

Today Indian Springs is known as Creech Air Force Base: the operating hub for the US Air Force’s MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers…

Doomsday Books

DOOMSDAYStill wandering through the nuclear wastelands… (see also here, here and here).  Not surprisingly, there is a considerable literature on the United States and nuclear war, but much less on the UK.  I still have my tattered copy of Doomsday:  Britain after nuclear attack by Stan Openshaw, Philip Steadman and Owen Greene, published more than thirty years ago.  Those were heady days: the authors were members of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, and the book was put together soon after the European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal launched by E. P. Thompson (who famously announced he had “left his desk” to further the campaign), Mary Kaldor, Dan Smith and Ken Coates.

Next to Doomsday is my equally battered and well-thumbed copy of a book of essays edited by two other British geographers, David Pepper and Alan Jenkins, The geography of peace and war, which appeared in 1985.  It was in three Parts, ‘The geography of the Cold War and the arms race’, ‘The geography of nuclear war’ (which included an update from Stan and Philip) and ‘The geography of peace’ (with an essay on nuclear weapon free zones).

Fast forward twenty years, and these emphases are in stark contrast to Colin Flint‘s edited collection, Geography of war and peace, in which nuclear war receives just passing mention(s).  The same is true of Audrey Kobayashi‘s still more recent Geography of peace and armed conflict – apart from one brief chapter concerned with Iran.

HOGG British Nuclear CultureAll of this will explain why I am looking forward to the publication of Jonathan Hogg‘s British Nuclear Culture: official and unofficial narratives in the long 20th century, coming from Bloomsbury in January:

The advent of the atomic bomb, the social and cultural impact of nuclear science, and the history of the British nuclear state after 1945 is a complex and contested story. British Nuclear Culture is an important survey that offers a new interpretation of the nuclear century by tracing the tensions between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ nuclear narratives in British culture.

In this book, Jonathan Hogg argues that nuclear culture was a pervasive and persistent aspect of British life, particularly in the years following 1945. This idea is illustrated through detailed analysis of various primary source materials, such as newspaper articles, government files, fictional texts, film, music and oral testimonies. The book introduces unfamiliar sources to students of nuclear and cold war history, and offers in-depth and critical reflections on the expanding historiography in this area of research.

Chronologically arranged, British Nuclear Culture reflects upon, and returns to, a number of key themes throughout, including nuclear anxiety, government policy, civil defence, ‘nukespeak’ and nuclear subjectivity, individual experience, protest and resistance, and the influence of the British nuclear state on everyday life. The book contains illustrations, individual case studies, a select bibliography, a timeline, and a list of helpful online resources for students of nuclear history.

Joseph Masco – author of The nuclear borderlands: The Manhattan Project in post-Cold War New Mexico and The theater of operations: National security affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror  – likes it, which is more than enough for me:

We know the atomic bomb fundamentally transformed modern life, but Jonathan Hogg shows us that it did not do so in the same way everywhere. This is a important contribution to nuclear studies as it takes both nation and region seriously in the production of a nuclear culture. Hogg does not just follow expert concerns or defense policy debates, he also attends to the vernacular forms of local activisms across British cities and generations. British Nuclear Culture leads the way to a new comparative nuclear studies, and with it, a deeper understanding of the nuclear revolution.

Here is the Contents List:

Introduction
1. Early Nuclear Culture
2. The Manhattan Project
3. 1945 – 1950: Early Responses to the Bomb
4. 1950 – 1958: Maturing Responses
5. 1958 – 1979: Radicalised and Realist Responses
6. 1979 – 1989: Extreme Realism
7. 1989 – 2011: The Persistence of Nuclear Culture
8. Conclusion

For those who don’t think it surprising that – apart from people like Michael Curry, Matt FarishScott Kirsch and Fraser MacDonald– human geographers should have turned away from a critical scrutiny of atomic geographies so speedily with the presumptive waning of the Cold War, notice the title of Chapter 7…

Little Boys and Blue Skies

These are very preliminary notes and ideas for my presentation at “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto next month: I would really – really – welcome any comments, suggestions or advice.  I don’t usually post presentations in advance, and this is still a long way from the finished version, but in this case I am venturing into (irradiated) fields unknown to me until a few months ago…

CHOMSKY On Western terrorismAt first sight, any comparison between America’s nuclear war capability and its drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen seems fanciful. The scale of investment, the speed and range of the delivery systems, the nature of the targets, the blast radii and precision of the munitions, and the time and space horizons of the effects are so clearly incommensurable. It’s noticeable that the conversation between Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek published as On Western Terrorism: from Hiroshima to drone warfare (2013) says virtually nothing about the two terms in its subtitle.

Yet nuclear weapons and drone strikes have both been attended by intense diplomatic, geopolitical and geo-legal manoeuvres, they have both sparked major oppositional campaigns by activist organisations, and they have both had major impacts on popular culture (as the two images below attest).

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President-Strangelove

But there are other coincidences, connections and transformations that also bear close critical examination.

When Paul Tibbets flew the Enola Gay across the blue sky of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 one of his major concerns was to execute a fast, tight 155 degree turn to escape the effects of the blast from ‘Little Boy’.  There is some dispute over the precise escape angle – there’s an exhaustive discussion in the new preface to Paul Nahin‘s Chases and escapes: the mathematics of pursuit and evasion (second edition, 2007) – but the crucial point is the concern for the survival of the aircraft and its crew.

Enola Gay co-pilot [Robert Lewis]'s sketch after briefing of approach and 155 turn by the B-29s weaponeer William Parsons, 4 August 1945

Tibbets successfully made his escape but four years later, when the US Atomic Energy Commission was developing far more powerful bombs, the Air Force became convinced that escape from those blasts would be impossible. And so it implemented Project Brass Ring which was intended to convert B-47 Stratojet bombers into remotely-piloted aircraft capable of delivering atomic bombs without any loss of American lives.  (What follows is taken from Delmer Trester, ‘Thermonuclear weapon delivery by unmanned B-47: Project Brass Ring‘; it was included in A history of the Air Force Atomic Energy Program, 1949-1953, which can be downloaded here; you can obtain a quick overview here).

‘It appeared that the Air Force would need some method to deliver a 10,000-pound package over a distance of 4,000 nautical miles with an accuracy of at least two miles from the center of the target. It was expected the package would produce a lethal area so great that, were it released in a normal manner, the carrier would not survive the explosion effects. Although not mentioned by name, the “package” was a thermonuclear device – the hydrogen or H-bomb…

B-47 Stratojet bomber (USAF)

‘The ultimate objective was to fashion a B-47 carrier with completely automatic operation from take-off to bomb drop… The immediate plan included the director B-47A aircraft as a vital part of the mission. Under direction from the mother aircraft, the missile would take off, climb to altitude and establish cruise speed conditions. While still in friendly territory, the crew aboard the director checked out the missile and committed its instruments to automatically accomplish the remainder of the mission. This was all that was required of the director. The missile, once committed, had no provision for returning to its base… either the B-47 became a true missile and dived toward the target … or a mechanism triggered the bomb free, as in a normal bombing run.’

This was a re-run of Operation Aphrodite, a failed series of experiments carried out in the closing stages of the Second World War in Europe, and – as the images below show – after the war the Air Force had continued to experiment with B-17 aircraft remotely piloted from both ‘director aircraft’ [top image; the director aircraft is top right] and ‘ground control units’ [bottom image].  These operated under the aegis of the Air Force’s Pilotless Aircraft Branch which was created in 1946 in an attempt to establish the service’s proprietary rights over missile development.

B-17 drones

Ground control unit for B-17 drone

But the Brass Ring team soon discovered that their original task had swelled far beyond its original, taxing specifications: in October 1951 they were told that ‘the super-bomb’ would weigh 50,000 lbs. They modified their plans (and planes) accordingly, and after a series of setbacks the first test flight was successful:

‘The automatic take-off, climb and cruise sequence was initiated remotely from a ground control station. The aircraft azimuth, during take-off, was controlled by an auxiliary control station at the end of the runway. Subsequent maneuvers, descent and landing (including remote release of a drag parachute and application of brakes) were accomplished from the ground control station. The test was generally satisfactory; however, there were several aspects – certain level flight conditions, turn characteristics and the suitability of the aircraft as a “bombing platform” – which required further investigation.’

This was part of a larger imaginary in which, as Life had commented in its issue of 20 August 1945, echoing USAAF General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, ‘robot planes … and atomic bombs will do the work today done by fleets of thousands of piloted bombers.’ (Arnold thought this a mixed blessing, and in an essay ghost-written with William Shockley he noted that nuclear weapons had made destruction ‘too cheap and easy’ – one bomb and one aircraft could replace hundreds of bombs and vast fleets of bombers – and a similar concern is often raised by critics of today’s Predators and Reapers who argue that their remote, often covert operations have lowered the threshold for military violence).

Henry H Hap Arnold.001

Brass Ring was abandoned on 13 March 1953, once the Air Force determined that a manned aircraft could execute the delivery safely (at least, for those on board).  It would be decades before another company closely associated with nuclear research – General Atomics (more here) – supplied the US Air Force with its first MQ-1 Predators.

1994-august

These were originally conceived as unarmed, tactical not strategic platforms, designed to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for conventional strike aircraft. But the concern with American lives became a leitmotif of both programs, and one of the foundations for today’s remote operations is the ability (as the USAF has it) to ‘project power without vulnerability’.

BOYER By the bomb's early lightThe visible effects of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the Japanese population were the subject of strict censorship – still photographs were never published, while Japanese media and even US military film crews had their documentary footage embargoed – and public attention in the United States was turned more or less immediately towards visualising ‘Hiroshima USA’ (Paul Boyer is particularly good on this; there are also many images and a good discussion here). Even the US Strategic Bombing Survey indulged in the same speculation: ‘What if the target for the bomb had been an American city?’ it asked in its June 1946 report. ‘The casualty rates at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, applied to the massed inhabitants of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, yield a grim conclusion.’ Although the original targets had been Asian cities it was American cities that were designated as future victims.  ‘Physically untouched by the war’ (apart from Pearl Harbor), Boyer wrote,

‘the United States at the moment of victory perceived itself as naked and vulnerable.  Sole possessors and users of a devastating instrument of mass destruction, Americans envisioned themselves not as a potential threat to other peoples, but as potential victims.’

This was the abiding anxiety instilled by the national security state and orchestrated through its military-industrial-media-entertainment complex throughout the post-war decades.  Perhaps the most famous sequence of images – imaginative geographies, I suppose –accompanied an essay by John Lear in Collier’s Magazine in August 1950, ‘Hiroshima USA: Can anything be done about it?‘, showing a series of paintings by Chesley Bonestell and Birney Lettick imagining the effects of a nuclear strike on New York:

Hiroshima USA 11950-aug-6-colliers-p12-sm

Similar sequences, often accompanied by maps, were produced for many other cities (and the simulations continue: see, for example, here).  The images below, from Life on 19 November 1945, come from ‘The 36-Hour War’ (see here for a commentary) that envisaged a nuclear attack on multiple cities across the USA, including Washington DC, from (presumably Soviet) ‘rocket-launching sites [built] quickly and secretly in the jungle’ of equatorial Africa:

1945-Life-36-Hour-War-2

1945-Life-36-Hour-War-1

Schlosser-Command-and-Control-bookAs it happened, American cities did indeed become targets – for the US Air Force.  According to Eric Schlosser, under General Curtis Le May the goal was

to build a Strategic Air Command that could strike the Soviet Union with planes based in the United States and deliver every nuclear weapon at once. SAC bomber crews constantly trained and prepared for that all-out assault. They staged mock attacks on every city in the United States with a population larger than twenty-five thousand, practicing to drop atomic bombs on urban targets in the middle of the night. San Francisco was bombed more than six hundred times within a month.

VANDERBILT Survival CityTests were also conducted at the Nevada Proving Ground, ‘the most nuclear-bombed place on the planet’, to determine the likely effects.  One of the purposes of the Strategic Bombing Survey’s Physical Damage Division had been to document the effects of the bombs on buildings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to read them as ‘blueprints for the atomic future‘ – and both Japanese and American medical teams had been sent in shortly after the blasts to record their effects on bodies (from 1947 their work was subsumed under the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission).  It was now imperative bring the two together and to bring their results home.  And so, starting in 1953 with ‘Operation Doorstep’, mannequins were placed inside single-family houses at the Nevada site to calculate the prospects for the survival of what Joseph Masco calls the American ‘nuclearised’ family in the event of a nuclear attack; they subsequently went on public exhibition around the country with the tag line:

‘These mannikins could have been real people; in fact, they could have been you.’

In the Second World War experimental bombing runs had been staged against mock German and Japanese targets at the Dugway Proving Ground but – significantly – the buildings had no occupants: as Tom Vanderbilt wryly remarks, now ‘the inhabitants had been rewritten into the picture’ because the objective was to calibrate the lives of Americans.

Rachele Riley Mannequins

I have borrowed this image from the mesmerising work of artist Rachele Riley, whose project on The evolution of silence centres on Yucca Flat in the Nevada Test Site and raises a series of sharp questions about both the imagery and the soundscape of the nuclear age.

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,’ as Kyo Maclear observed, and it had to be seen and believed in Moscow as well as in Tokyo.  Here the visual economies of nuclear attacks are radically different from drone strikes. In the immediate aftermath there was no shortage of atomic ‘views from the air’ –  aerial photographs of the vast cloud towering into the sky and of Hiroshima before and after the bomb.  Here is Life (sic) on 20 August 1945:

LIFE:Hiroshima 1

LIFE:Hiroshima 2LIFE:Hiroshima 3

Yet for the most part, and with some significant exceptions, aerial views are singularly absent from today’s drone wars. To Svea Braeunert (‘Bringing the war home: how visual artists return the drone’s gaze‘) that is all the more remarkable because drone strikes are activated by what video artist Harun Farocki called operative images: but that is also the reason for the difference. Aerial photographs of Hiroshima or Nagasaki reveal a field of destruction in which bodies are conspicuously absent; the resolution level is too coarse to discern the bomb’s victims.

But the video feeds from a Predator or Reaper, for all their imperfections, are designed to identify (and kill) individuals, and their aerial gaze would – if disclosed – reveal the bodies of their victims. That is precisely why the videos are rarely released (and, according to Eyal Weizman, why satellite imagery used by investigators to reconstruct drone strikes is degraded to a resolution level incapable of registering a human body – which remains ‘hidden in the pixels‘ – and why their forensic visual analysis is forced to focus on buildings not bodies).

OMAR FAST %000 Feet is Best

One might expect visual artists to fill in the blank. Yet – a further contrast with Hiroshima – apart from projects like Omar Fast’s ‘5,000 Feet is Best’ (above) and Thomas van Houtryve’s ‘Blue Sky Days’ (below) there have been precious few attempts to imagine drone strikes on American soil.

van HOUTRYVE Blue Sky Days

Perhaps this is because they are so unlikely: at present these remote platforms can only be used in uncontested air space, against people or states who are unable (or in the case of Pakistan, unwilling) to defend themselves. But there has been a protracted debate about such strikes on American citizens (notably the case of Anwar al-Awlaki) and a concerted attempt to focus on the rules followed by the CIA and JSOC in their programs of targeted killing (which has artfully diverted public attention to Washington and away from Waziristan).

There is also a visceral, visible continuity between the two: just as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been little public concern over the victims of drone strikes, the vast majority of whom have once again been Asian.

If the targeting process continues to be racialised, it also continues to be bureaucratised. After the Second World War the US Air Force was determined to speed up its targeting cycle, and in 1946 started to compile a computerised database of potential targets in the Soviet Union; this was soon extended to Soviet satellites and Korea, and by 1960 the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World (now called the ‘Basic Encyclopedia’) contained 80,000 Consolidated Target Intelligence Files. These were harvested to plan Strategic Air Command’s nuclear strikes and to calibrate Damage and Contamination Models. One of the analysts responsible for nominating targets later described the process as ‘the bureaucratisation of homicide’. Similar criticisms have been launched against the ‘disposition matrix’ used by the CIA to nominate individuals authorised for targeted killing (see here and here); most of these are in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, though there are other kill lists, including Joint Prioritised Effects Lists compiled by the US military for war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases the target files are in principle global in reach, and both nuclear strikes and targeted killings (outside established war zones) are judged to be sufficiently serious and ‘sensitive’ to require direct Presidential approval.

Speeding up the targeting cycle has involved more than the pre-emptive identification of targets. In contrast to the fixed targets for nuclear strikes, today’s Predators and Reapers are typically directed against mobile targets virtually impossible to locate in advance. Pursuing these fleeting ‘targets of opportunity’ relies on a rapidly changing and expanding suite of sensors to identify and track individuals in near-real time. In 2004 the Defense Science Board recommended the Pentagon establish ‘a “Manhattan Project”-like program for ID/TTI’ [identification, tagging, tracking and locating], and one year later a Technical Advisor working for the National Security Agency’s Target Reconnaissance and Survey Division posed the following question:

NSA's Little Boy

The onboard sensor suite in the pod has since become ever more effective in intercepting and monitoring electronic communications as part of a vast system of digital data capture, but Predators had already been armed with Hellfire missiles to compress the kill-chain still further, and to many commentators the most radical innovation in later modern war has been the fusion of sensor and shooter in a single platform. The new integrated systems were first trialled – on a Predator flown by test pilots from General Atomics – in February 2000 at Indian Springs Auxiliary Field. The main objective was to hunt and kill Osama bin Laden, and at the request of the Air Force and the CIA a series of tests was carried out.

First, the Air Force wanted to determine whether the Predator could withstand a missile being fired from beneath its insubstantial wings (a ghostly echo of earlier anxieties over the survivability of the Enola Gay and its successors – though plainly much reduced by the absence of any pilot on board).

Second, the CIA wanted to assess the likely effects of a Hellfire strike on the occupants of a single-storey building like those found in rural Afghanistan (nuclear tests had used mannequins and pigs as human surrogates; these used plywood cut-outs and watermelons).

predatorBoth sets of tests were eventually successful (see also here) but, as Richard Whittle shows in consummate detail, a series of legal and diplomatic obstacles remained. In order to secure satellite access over Afghanistan, previous Predator flights to find bin Laden had been flown from a ground control station at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. But using a Predator to kill bin Laden was less straightforward. After protracted debate, US Government lawyers agreed that a Predator armed with a missile would not violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated nuclear and conventional missiles with intermediate ranges but which – unhelpfully for the CIA – defined missiles as ‘unmanned, self-propelled … weapon-delivery vehicles’; the lawyers determined that the Predator was merely a platform and, unlike a cruise missile, had no warhead so that it remained outside the Treaty. But they also insisted that the Status of Forces Agreement with Germany would require Berlin’s consent for the activation of an armed Predator. (The United States stored tactical nuclear warheads at Ramstein until 2005; although the US insisted it retained control over them, in the event of war they were to have been delivered by the Luftwaffe as part of a concerted NATO nuclear strike).

RAMSTEIN English captions

The need to bring Berlin onside (and so potentially compromise the secrecy of the project) was one of the main reasons why the ground control station was relocated to Indian Springs, connected to the satellite link at Ramstein through a fibre-optic cable under the Atlantic:

remote-split-operations-usaf

In fact, since 1952 Indian Springs had been a key portal into the Nevada Test Site – its purpose was to support both US Atomic Energy Commission nuclear testing at the Nevada Proving Grounds and US Air Force operations at the Nellis Air Force Base’s vast Gunnery and Bombing Range – and in June 2005 it morphed into Creech Air Force Base: the main centre from which ‘remote-split’ operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere are flown by USAF pilots. Most of the covert operations are directed by the CIA (some by Joint Special Operations Command), but the Predators and Reapers are used for more than targeted killing; the primary missions are still to provide ISR for conventional strikes and now also close air support for ground troops.

Wfm_area51_map_en

The geographies overlap, coalesce and – even allowing for the differences in scale – conjure up a radically diffuse and dispersed field of military violence.  When Tom Vanderbilt described ‘a war with no clear boundaries, no clear battlefields … a war waged in such secrecy that both records and physical locations are often utterly obscured’ he was talking about nuclear war.  But exactly the same could be said of today’s drone wars, those versions of later modern war in which the body becomes the battle space (‘warheads on foreheads’) and the hunting ground planetary: another dismal iteration of the ‘everywhere war’ (see here and here).

For all these connections and intersections, a key divide is the issue of civilians and casualties. On 9 August 1945 President Truman (below) described Hiroshima as a ‘military base’ selected ‘because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians’.

TRUMAN Hiroshima speech

This was simply untrue, and similar – often no less deceptive – formulations are routinely used to justify US drone strikes and to minimise what is now called ‘collateral damage’. Still, the scale of civilian casualties is clearly different: usually dozens rather than hundreds of thousands.

And yet, there is something irredeemably personal and solitary about the response to death from either cause; parents searching for the bodies of their children in the ruins are as alone in Dhatta Khel as they were in Hiroshima.  When Yukiko Hayashi [her real name is Sachiko Kawamura] describes the anguish of a young woman and her father finding the remains of their family – the poem, ‘Sky of Hiroshima‘, is autobiographical – it is surely not difficult to transpose its pathos to other children in other places:

Daddy squats down, and digs with his hands
Suddenly, his voice weak with exhaustion, he points
I throw the hoe aside
And dig at the spot with my hands
The tiles have grown warm in the sun
And we dig
With a grim and quiet intent

Oh…
Mommy’s bone
Oh…
When I squeezed it
White powder danced in the wind
Mommy’s bone
When I put it in my mouth
Tasted lonely
The unbearable sorrow
Began to rise in my father and I
Left alone
Screaming, and picking up bones
And putting them into the candy box
Where they made a rustle

My little brother was right beside my mommy
Little more than a skeleton
His insides, not burnt out completely
Lay exposed…

NOOR BEHRAM Orphans Dande Darpa Khel 21 August 2009

MASCO Theater of OperationsIn The Theater of Operations Joseph Masco draws a series of distinctions between the US national security state inaugurated by the first atomic bombs and the counter-terror state whose organs have proliferated since 9/11.

He properly (and brilliantly) insists on the affects instilled in the American public by the counter-terror state as vital parts of its purpose, logic and practice – yet he says virtually nothing about the affects induced amongst the vulnerable populations forced to ‘live under drones’ and its other modes of military and paramilitary violence.

In Waziristan no air raid sirens warn local people of a strike, no anti-aircraft systems protect them, and no air-raid shelters are available for them to seek refuge.

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Hence young Zubair Rehman’s (above, top right) heartbreaking admission after a drone killed his grandmother as she tended the fields in Ghundi Kala in North Waziristan (see here and here):

‘I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.’

Post-atomic eyes

Postcard

I’m speaking at a conference called “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto next month.

Through Post-Atomic Eyes brings together an interdisciplinary group of artists and scholars to explore the complex legacy of the atomic age in contemporary art and culture. In what ways do photography and other lens-based art practices shed light on this legacy in the 21st century, and how has atomic culture shaped contemporary intersections of photography, nuclear industries, and military techno-cultures? Join us as we explore some of the most urgent issues of our time, from climate change and the Anthropocene to surveillance culture and the advent of drone warfare, through a post-atomic lens.

Through Post-Atomic Eyes is scheduled to coincide with John O’Brian’s groundbreaking exhibition, Camera Atomica, the first substantial exhibition of nuclear photography to encompass the postwar period from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to the meltdown at Fukushima in 2011. Now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario (until November 15, 2015).

(John’s exhibition at the AGO follows a successful showing in London late last year: see my post here).

I confess that when I received the Toronto invitation I was at a loss: how was I supposed to view drone warfare through post-atomic eyes?  At first sight, any comparison between America’s nuclear war capability and its drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen seems fanciful. The scale of investment, the speed and range of the delivery systems, the nature of the targets, the blast radii and precision of the munitions, and the time and space horizons of the effects are so clearly incommensurable.  So I dragged my feet, accepting the invitation because the other presenters (see the poster above) include so many people whose work I admire, but not making much progress.

Eventually I realised that the root problem was that, while I had extensive research on genealogies of bombing under my belt, I knew next to nothing about The Bomb.  So, while I’ve been burrowing away in the archives in London for my project on casualty evacuation 1914-2014 and also inching my “Dirty Dancing’ essay into the home straight, I’ve also been reading and reading and reading.  So much wonderful, sobering material out there, some of which surfaced in my recent posts on Hiroshima and the metastases of nuclear weapons since then.

And, as I’ll try to show in detail in my next post, I’ve found a startling series of coincidences, convergences and transformations.  I now have a rough shape for my presentation, which I’m calling “Little Boys and Blue Skies“: a title which, as you’ll soon see, traces an arc from bombing Hiroshima to bombing Waziristan.  Watch this space.