Incoming, upcoming

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Richard Mosse‘s Incoming opens at the Barbican Art Centre in London on 17 February and runs until 23 April.  In collaboration with composer Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, Richard has created an immersive multi-channel video installation (shown across three 26-foot wide screens) that turns military technology against itself – using a camera ‘that sees as a missile sees’ – to show the journeys of refugees (hence the artful title).  He explains :

I am European. I am complicit. I wanted to foreground this perspective in a way, to try to see refugees and illegal immigrants as our governments see them. I wanted to enter into that logic in order to create an image that reveals it. So I chose to represent these stories, really a journey or series of journeys, using an ambivalent and perhaps sinister new European weapons camera technology. The camera is intrusive of individual privacy, yet the imagery that this technology produces is so dehumanized – the person literally glows – that the medium anonymizes the subject in ways that are both insidious and humane. Working against the camera’s intended purpose, my collaborators and I listened carefully to the camera, to understand what it wanted to do — and then tried to reconcile that with these harsh, disparate, unpredictable and frequently tragic narratives of migration and displacement.

If you can’t get to it, there is a book version from Mack:

The major humanitarian and political issue of our time is migration and with his latest video work, Irish artist Richard Mosse has created a searing, haunting and unique artwork. Projected across three 8 meter wide screens, the film is accompanied by a loud dissonant soundtrack to create an overwhelming, immersive experience. Moving from footage of a live battle inside Syria, in which a US aircraft strafes Daesh positions on the ground, to a scene showing pathologists extracting DNA from the bones of unidentified corpses of refugees drowned off the Aegean island of Leros, the film opens a testimonial space of historical document – bearing witness to significant chapters in recent events – mediated through an advanced weapons-grade camera technology. Narratives of the journeys made by refugees and migrants across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, are captured using an extremely powerful thermal camera not generally available to the public. This super-telephoto military camera can perceive the human body beyond 50km day or night, reading the biological trace of human life. The camera translates the world into a heat signature of apparent temperature difference, producing a dazzling monochrome halo-image which alludes literally and metaphorically to hypothermia, climate change, weapons targeting, border surveillance, xenophobia, and the ‘bare life’ of stateless people.

The book version recreates the immersive nature of the film, combining still images from the entire sequence over nearly 600 pages to represent the harsh and compelling narrative in a full bleed layout.

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A related exhibition of Richard’s photographs from the same body of work – entitled Heat Maps – has opened at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.  At the New Yorker Max Campbell describes the exhibition like this:

[U]sing a new “weapon of war,” as he describes it, Mosse captured encampment structures, servicemen, border police, boats at full capacity, and migrants of all ages. Mosse would spend time in the refugee camps before photographing, and some of the migrants sheltered there helped him to arrange his shots. But in the images his subjects are always seen at a distance, photographed from an above-eye-level perspective. Each “Heat Map” was constructed from hundreds of frames shot using a telephoto lens; a robotic system was used to scan the landscapes and interiors and meticulously capture every corner…

By adopting a tool of surveillance, Mosse’s photographs consciously play into narratives that count families as statistics and stigmatize refugees as potential threats. He recognizes that operating the infrared camera entails brushing up against the violent intentions with which the device has been put to use. “We weren’t attempting to rescue this apparatus from its sinister purpose,” he said. Instead, his project acts as a challenge. The people in his images appear as inverted silhouettes, sometimes disjointed, torn by the time passing between individual frames. The thermal readouts rub features out of faces and render flesh in washy, anonymous tones. Someone lays back on a cot, looking at a cell phone. Someone else hangs laundry. We can imagine what these people might look like in person, guess at the expressions on their faces or the color of their skin. Yet seeing them in Mosse’s shadowy renderings erases the lines that have been drawn between refugees, immigrants, natives, citizens, and the rest. His camera makes little distinction between the heat that each body emits.

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Heat Maps was shown in Berlin last year, where the links with the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben were made explicit:

Heat Maps attempts to foreground the biopolitical aspects of the refugee and migration situation that is facing Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The project charts refugee camps and other staging sites using an extreme telephoto military grade thermographic camera that was designed to detect and identify subjects from as far away as fifty kilometers, day or night.

The camera itself is export controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations — it is regarded as a component in advanced weapons systems and embargoed as such — and was designed for border surveillance and regulation. It can be seen as a technology of governance, a key tool in what Foucault and Agamben have described as biopower. It is an apparatus of the military-humanitarian complex.

The camera translates the world into a heat signature of relative temperature difference, literally reading the biological trace of human life – imperceptive of skin colour – as well as proximity to death through exposure or hypothermia, even from a great distance. The living subject literally glows, and heat radiation creates dazzling optical flare.

Instead of individuals, the camera sees the mass — in Foucault’s words: massifying, that is directed not as man-as-body, but as man-as-species. It elicits an alienating and invasive form of imagery, but also occasionally tender and intimate, tending to both dehumanize and then rehumanize the bare life (Agamben) of the human figure of the stateless refugee and illegal economic migrant, which the camera was specifically designed to detect, monitor, and police.

The camera is used against itself to map landscapes of global displacement and more powerfully represent ambivalent and charged narratives of migration. Reading heat as both metaphor and index, these images attempt to reveal the harsh struggle for human survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, seen but overlooked by our governments, and ignored by many.

You can find out more from a helpful interview with Iona Goulder which puts these twin projects in the context of Richard’s previous work in the Congo (see here and here).  En route, Richard says this:

Reading heat as both metaphor and index, I wanted to reveal the harsh struggle for survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, while investigating one of the sinister technologies that our governments are using against them.

By attaching this camera to a robotic motion-control tripod, I scanned refugee camps across Europe from a high eye-level, to create detailed panoramic thermal images. Each artwork has been painstakingly constructed from a grid of almost a thousand smaller frames, each with its own vanishing point.

Seamlessly blended into a single expansive thermal panorama, I was surprised to find that some of the resulting images seem to evoke the spatial description, minute detail, and human narratives of certain kinds of classical painting, such as Breughel or Bosch. Yet they are also documents disclosing the fence architecture, security gates, loudspeakers, food queues, tents and temporary shelters of camp architecture. Very large in scale, these Heat Maps disclose intimate details of fragile human life in squalid, nearly unliveable conditions in the margins and gutters of first world economies.

The Death of the Clinic

This is the fifth in a new series of posts on military violence against hospitals and medical personnel in conflict zones. It follows directly from my analysis of the situation in Syria here.

President Bashar al-Assad has consistently denied that his forces have attacked hospitals or doctors.  In an interview with SBS Australia on 1 July 2016 he asked his interviewer:

‘… the very simple question is: why do we attack hospitals and civilians?… No government in this situation has any interest in killing civilians or attacking hospitals. Anyway, if you attack hospitals, you can use any building to be a hospital. No, these are anecdotal claims, mendacious statements …’

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There are at least four answers to Assad’s disingenuous question (if you falter at the adjective, see here).

(1) Silencing the witnesses

When Widney Brown from Physicians for Human Rights testified at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on 31 March 2016 she provided one clear and compelling rationale for Assad’s attacks on doctors:

‘… attacks on doctors silence particularly powerful witnesses. When the Syrian government denies its use of chemical weapons, cluster munitions, starvation, or torture, doctors can bear witnesses to these violations because they have seen and treated the victims.’

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To be sure, there are other witnesses and even paper trails and photographic records.  Ben Taub, who has done so much to bring ‘Syria’s war on doctors‘ to the attention of a wider public, has also provided a detailed account of the work done by Bill Wiley and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability whose volunteers have smuggled over 600,000 documents out of Syria detailing mass torture and killings by the regime.

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The war crimes have not been confined to attacks on hospitals in opposition-held areas.  A photographer known only as ‘Caesar’, who had been attached to the Defence Ministry’s Criminal Forensic Division, smuggled out thousands of high-resolution digital images exposing the horrors of the regime’s own military hospitals:

The pictures, most of them taken in Syrian military hospitals, show corpses photographed at close range – one at a time as well as in small groupings. Virtually all of the bodies – thousands of them – betray signs of torture: gouged eyes; mangled genitals; bruises and dried blood from beatings; acid and electric burns; emaciation; and marks from strangulation…

These unfortunates may have lived and died in different ways, but they were bound in death by coded numerals scribbled on their skin with markers, or on scraps of paper affixed to their bodies. The first set of numbers (for example, 2935 in the photographs at bottom) would denote a prisoner’s I.D. The second (for example, 215) would refer to the intelligence branch responsible for his or her death. Underneath these figures, in many cases, would appear the hospital case-file number (for example, 2487/B)…

[T]he system of organizing and recording the dead served three ends: to satisfy Syrian authorities that executions were carried out; to ensure that no one was improperly discharged; and to allow military judges to represent to families—by producing official-seeming death certificates—that their loved ones had died of natural causes. In many ways, these facilities were ideal for hiding “unwanted” individuals, alive or dead. As part of the Ministry of Defense, the hospitals were already fortified, which made it easy to shield their inner workings and keep away families who might come looking for missing relatives. “These hospitals provide cover for the crimes of the regime,” said Nawaf Fares, a top Syrian diplomat and tribal leader who defected in 2012. “People are brought into the hospitals, and killed, and their deaths are papered over with documentation.” When I asked him, during a recent interview in Dubai, Why involve the hospitals at all?, he leaned forward and said, “Because mass graves have a bad reputation.”

(2) Multiplying the casualties

This is a radicalisation of an old strategy.  As Sam Weber pointed out in Targets of opportunity (2005), ‘every target is inscribed in a network or chain of events that inevitably exceeds the opportunity that can be seized or the horizon that can be seen.’  So, for example, when the United States or Israel bombs a power plant it often as not explains that it has been careful to bomb in the small hours when only a skeleton staff was in the building in order to minimise collateral damage.  But this begs the question: why bomb the power plant at all?  In most instances the degradation of the electricity supply means that it becomes impossible to pump water or treat sewage; refrigerators fail and food perishes; hospitals are forced to use unreliable generators. The result – the intended, carefully calculated result – is that casualties rise at considerable distances from the target and over an extended period of time.

Similarly, Dr Abdulaziz Adel notes:  ‘Kill a doctor and you kill thousands.’  Simply put, patients who are sick or injured then go without treatment and in many cases their lives are put at risk.  (The images below are from Collateral Damage: more here).

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Dr Rami Kalazi, a neurosurgeon from East Aleppo, agrees:

‘They are the artery of life in the city. Can you imagine a life in city without hospitals? Who will treat your kids? Who will make the surgeries for the injured people? So, they are targeting these hospitals because they know, if these hospitals were completely destroyed, the life will be completely destroyed.’

(3) ‘Moral[e] bombing’

This too is an old strategy.  The architects of ‘area bombing’ during the combined bomber offensive against Germany during the Second World War described it as ‘moral [sic] bombing’: a sustained and systematic attempt to undermine the morale of the enemy population so that they would demand their leaders sue for peace.  If this was a tried and tested strategy, however, the test showed that it was a complete failure (see my ‘Doors into nowhere’: DOWNLOADS tab).

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But the lesson was lost in Syria, where attacks on hospitals have had a central place.  As Samir Puri argues, the strategy behind the joint Syrian and Russian air campaign seems to be:

“If there is a total collapse of any kind of trauma care, those are the sort of things that can contribute to collapsing morale very suddenly. The morale of a besieged force can look robust until it collapses.”

And Syria is not unique in contemporary wars: Israel has deployed the same strategy in its repeated assaults on Gaza (see here, here and here for ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014), and the Saudi-led coalition has attacked more than 70 hospitals and health facilities in Yemen since March 2015 (in this latter case Russian media have reported MSF’s objections to the ‘utter disregard for civilian life’ without dissent: see for example here).

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‘Preventing medicine’, as Annie Sparrow puts it, has become ‘a new weapon of mass destruction’.

(4) ‘Violence legislates’

Following the attack on the UN aid convoy delivering supplies to a Syrian Red Crescent warehouse outside East Aleppo on 19 September 2016, 101 humanitarian organisations issued a joint appeal to the United Nations on 22 September; in part it read:

‘Deliberate attacks on humanitarian workers and civilians are war crimes. This must mark a turning point: the UN Security Council cannot allow increasingly brazen violations of international humanitarian law to continue with impunity.

‘Heads of state are gathered in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly. Each one that accepts a lack of accountability for perpetrators and facilitators of war crimes colludes in the ongoing dissolution of international humanitarian law’ (my emphases).

The first paragraph is damning enough.  Ben Taub in the New Yorker again:

Nowhere has the supposed deterrent of eventual justice proved so visibly ineffective as in Syria. Like most countries, Syria signed the Rome Statute, which, according to U.N. rules, means that it is bound by the “obligation not to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.” But, because Syria never actually ratified the document, the International Criminal Court has no independent authority to investigate or prosecute crimes that take place within Syrian territory. The U.N. Security Council does have the power to refer jurisdiction to the court, but international criminal justice is a relatively new and fragile endeavor, and, to a disturbing extent, its application is contingent on geopolitics.

But the sting comes in the second paragraph.  As I’ve noted before, international humanitarian law is not a neutral court of appeal, a deus ex machina above the fray, but has always been closely entangled with military violence.  In many respects it travels in the baggage train, constantly pulled by the trajectory of the very violence it supposedly seeks to regulate (or facilitate, depending on your point of view).  In short, as Eyal Weizman has it, ‘violence legislates‘.

There is good reason to fear that the systematic violation of medical neutrality is intended to force its dissolution.  Thomas Arcaro writes: ‘Humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality that once seemed so self-evident have been drawn into question, especially on the politically and ethnically complex battlefields of Iraq and Syria.’

And not only there.  In the case of the US airstrike on the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz in 2015, I’ve suggested that some key Afghan officers and politicians chafed at the protections afforded to wounded Taliban combatants by international humanitarian law.  They also alleged that the Trauma Centre had breached its conditional immunity because the Taliban had overrun the hospital and were firing at US and Afghan forces from its precincts.  There is no evidence to support that assertion, but it is an increasingly familiar claim.  On 7 December 2016 US Central Command justified a ‘precision strike’ requested by Iraqi forces on a building within the al-Salem hospital complex in Mosul by claiming that IS fighters had used it as a base to launch heavy and sustained machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade attacks.  That would certainly have compromised the hospital’s immunity, but international humanitarian law still requires a warning to be issued before any attack and a proportionality analysis to be conducted; Colonel John Dorrian said that the US Air Force did not ‘have any reason to believe civilians were harmed’ but conceded that it was ‘very difficult to ascertain with full and total fidelity’ whether any medical staff or patients were in the building at the time of the air strike.

But what the Syrian case suggests is a new impatience with medical neutrality tout court: not only a hostility towards the treatment of wounded and sick combatants but also an unwillingness to extend sanctuary to wounded and sick civilians.

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And that reluctance is not confined to the Assad regime and its allies.    A survey carried out for the International Committee of the Red Cross between June and September makes for alarming reading – even once you’ve overcome your scepticism about public opinion polls.  As Spencer Ackerman reports:

Areas in active conflict record greater urgency over questions of civilian protection in wartime than do the great powers that often conduct or participate in those conflicts. In Ukraine, 83% believe everyone wounded and sick during a conflict has a right to health care, compared with 62% of Russians. A full 100% of Yemenis endorse the proposition, as do 81% of Afghans, 66% of Syrians and 42% of Iraqis – compared with 49% of Americans, 53% of Britons, 37% of the Chinese and 67% of the French.

It’s that last clause that is so disturbing: for the last four states listed are all permanent members of the UN Security Council…

So what, then, are we to make of what I’ve been calling ‘the exception to the exception’?

The exception to the exception

homo-sacerI think it’s a mistake to treat ‘the camp’, following Giorgio Agamben‘s vital work, as the exemplary, diagnostic site of the modern space of exception; the killing fields of today’s wars (themselves spaces of indistinction, where it is never clear where war stops and peace begins, where the geometry of the battlefield or, better, ‘battlespace’ becomes ever more fractured and blurred, and where the partitions between international and internal conflicts have been reduced to rubble) are also spaces within which groups of people are deliberately and knowingly exposed to death through the removal of legal protections that would ordinarily be afforded to them.  In short, killing and injuring become legally permissible.

Those exposed groups include both combatants and civilians, but their fate is not determined solely by the suspension of national laws (the case that concerns Agamben) because international humanitarian law continues to afford them some minimal protections.  One of its central provisions has been medical neutrality: yet if, through its serial violations in Syria and elsewhere, we are witnessing the slow ‘death of the clinic’ – which I treat as a topological figure which extends from the body of the sick or wounded through the evacuation chain to the hospital itself – and the extinction of ‘the exception to the exception’, the clinic as a (conditionally) sacrosanct space – then I think it’s necessary to add further twists to Agamben’s original conception.

As Adia Benton and Sa’ed Ashtan have argued, medical neutrality – the exception to the exception – represents a fraught attempt to restrict the state’s recourse to military violence: it is a limitation on and has now perhaps become even an affront to sovereign power and the state’s insistence that it is ‘the sole arbiter of who can live and who can die’.

Agamben describes the inhabitants of the space of exception as so many homines sacri – where sacer has the double meaning of both ‘sacred’ and ‘accursed’ – and it may be that in today’s killing fields doctors, nurses and healthcare workers are being transformed into new versions of homo sacer: once ‘sacred’ for their selfless devotion to saving lives, they are now ‘accursed’ for their principled dedication to medical neutrality.

 

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Yet the precarity of their existence under conditions of detention and torture, siege and airstrike, has not reduced them to what Agamben calls ‘bare life’.  They care – desperately – whether they live or die; they have improvised a series of survival strategies; they have not been silent in the face of almost unspeakable horror; and they have developed new forms of solidarity, support and sociality.

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The evolution of warfare

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The latest issue of the International Review of the Red Cross (open access here) focuses on the evolution of warfare:

To mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the Review asked historians, legal scholars and humanitarian practitioners to look back at the wars of the past century from a humanitarian point of view. In using what we know of the past to illuminate the present and the future, this issue of the Review adopts a long-term perspective, with the aim to illustrate the changing face of conflict by placing human suffering ‒ so often relegated to the backdrop of history ‒ front and center. It focuses on WWI and the period immediately leading up to it as a turning point in the history of armed conflict, drawing important parallels between the past and the changes we are witnessing today.

Among the highlights: an interview with Richard Overy on the history of bombing; Eric Germain, ‘Out of sight, out of reach: Moral issues in the globalization of the battlefield’; Lindsey Cameron, ‘The ICRC in the First World War: Unwavering belief in the power of law?’; Rain Liivoja, ‘Technological change and the evolution of the law of war’; Claudia McGoldrick, ‘The state of conflicts today: Can humanitarian action adapt?’; and Anna Di Lellio and Emanuele Castano, ‘The danger of “new norms” and the continuing relevance of IHL in the post-9/11 era’.

Incidentally, there may be something Darwinian about the trajectory of modern war – but I’m not sure that ‘evolution’ is exactly the right word…

Red Cross-Fire

Yet more on violations of medical neutrality in contemporary conflicts (see my posts here, herehere and here).  Over at Afghan Analysts Network Kate Clark provides a grim review of (un)developments in Afghanistan, Clinics under fire? Health workers caught up in the Afghan conflict.

Those providing health care in contested areas in Afghanistan say they are feeling under increasing pressure from all sides in the war. There have been two egregious attacks on medical facilities in the last six months: the summary execution of two patients and a carer taken from a clinic in Wardak by Afghan special forces in mid-February – a clear war crime – and the United States bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz in October 2015, which left dozens dead and injured – an alleged war crime. Health professionals have told AAN of other violations, by both pro and anti-government forces. Perhaps most worryingly, reports AAN Country Director Kate Clark, have been comments by government officials, backing or defending the attacks on the MSF hospital and Wardak clinic [see image below].

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So, for example:

Afghan government reactions to the news of the Wardak killings [at Tangi Sedan during the night of 17/18 February 2016; see also here] came largely at the provincial level, from officials who saw no problem in those they believed were Taleban – wounded or otherwise – being taken from a clinic and summarily executed. Head of the provincial council, Akhtar Muhammad Tahiri, was widely quoted, saying: “The Afghan security forces raided the hospital as the members of the Taliban group were being treated there.” Spokesperson for the provincial governor, Toryalay Hemat, said, “They were not patients, but Taliban,” and “The main target of the special forces was the Taliban fighters, not the hospital.” Spokesman for Wardak’s police chief, Abdul Wali Noorzai, said “Those killed in the hospital were all terrorists,” adding he was “happy that they were killed.”

Yet, the killings were a clear war crime. The Laws of Armed Conflict, also known as International Humanitarian Law, give special protection to medical facilities, staff and patients during war time – indeed, this is the oldest part of the Geneva Conventions. The Afghan special forces’ actions in Wardak involved numerous breaches: forcibly entering a medical clinic, harming and detaining staff and killing patients.  The two boys and the man who were summarily executed were, in any case, protected either as civilians (the caretaker clearly, the two patients possibly – they had claimed to have been injured in a motorbike accident) or as fighters who were hors d’combat (literally ‘out of the fight’) because they were wounded and also then detained.  Anyone who is hors d’combat is a protected person under International Humanitarian Law and cannot be harmed, the rationale being that they can no longer defend themselves. It is worth noting that, for the staff at the clinic to have refused to treat wounded Taleban would also have been a breach of medical neutrality: International Humanitarian Law demands that medical staff treat everyone according to medical need only.

That the Wardak provincial officials endorsed a war crime is worrying enough, but their words echoed reactions from more senior government officials to the US military’s airstrikes on a hospital belonging to the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières on 3 October 2015. Then, ministers and other officials appeared to defend the attack by saying it had targeted Taleban whom they said were in the hospital (conveniently forgetting that, until the fall of Kunduz city became imminent when the government evacuated all of its wounded from the hospital except the critically ill, the hospital had largely treated government soldiers). The Ministry of Interior spokesman, for example, said, “10 to 15 terrorists were hiding in the hospital last night and it came under attack. Well, they are all killed. All of the terrorists were killed. But we also lost doctors. We will do everything we can to ensure doctors are safe and they can do their jobs.”

MSF denied there were any armed men in the hospital. However, even if there had been, International Humanitarian Law would still have protected patients and medical staff: they would still have had to have been evacuated and warnings given before the hospital could have been legally attacked.

Not surprisingly heads of various humanitarian agencies all reported that the situation was worsening:

“General abuses against medical staff and facilities are on the rise from all parties to the conflict,” said one head of agency, while another said, “We have a good reputation with all sides, but we have still had threats from police, army and insurgents.” The head of a medical NGO described the situation as “messy, really difficult”:

All health facilities are under pressure. We have had some unpleasant experiences, The ALP [Afghan Local Police] are not professional, not disciplined. If the ALP or Taleban take over a clinic, we rely on local elders [to try to sort out the situation]. We are between the two parties.

He described the behaviour of overstretched Afghan special forces as “quite desperate,” adding, “They are struggling, trying to be everywhere and get very excited when there’s fighting.” Most of them, he said, were northerners speaking little or no Pashto, which can make things “difficult for our clinics in the south.”

The head of another agency listed the problems his staff are facing:

“We have seen the presence of armed men in medical facilities, turning them into targets. We have seen violations by the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces], damage done to health facilities that were taken over as bases to conceal themselves and fight [the insurgents] from. We have seen checkpoints located close to health centres. Why? So that in case of hostilities, forces can take shelter in the concrete building. We have seen looting. We have seen ANSF at checkpoints deliberately causing delays, especially in the south, including blocking patients desperately needing to get to a health facility. We can never be certain that [such a delay] was the cause of death, but we believe it has been.”

He said his medical staff had been threatened by “ANSF intervening in medical facilities at the triage stage, forcing doctors to stop the care of other patients and treat their own soldiers, in disregard of medical priorities.” Less commonly, but more dangerously for the doctors themselves, he said, was the threat of Taleban abduction. He described a gathering of surgeons in which all reported having been abducted from their homes at least once and brought to the field to attend wounded fighters “with all the dangers you can imagine along the road.” He said the surgeons were “forced to operate without proper equipment and forced to abandon their own patients in clinics because the abduction would last days.”

Locally, medical staff often try to mitigate threats from both government forces and insurgents by seeking protection first from the local community. One head of agency described their strategy:

“When we open a clinic, our first interlocutors are the elders. Everyone wants a clinic in their area, but we decide the location and make the elders responsible for the clinic… They have to give us a building – three to four rooms. All those who work in the clinic – the ambulance driver, the owner of the vehicle, everyone – come from the area. We also need the elders to deal with the parties… If the ALP or Taleban take over clinic, we always start with the elders [who negotiate with whoever has taken over the clinic].”

However, this tactic puts a burden on community elders who may not be able to negotiate if the ANSF, ALP or insurgents are also threatening them.

***

I’ve delayed following up my previous commentaries on the US airstrike on the MSF Trauma Center in Kunduz (here and here) because I had hoped the full report of the internal investigation carried out by the US military would be released: apparently it runs to 3,000-odd pages.  I don’t for a minute believe that it would settle matters, but in any event nothing has emerged so far – though I’m sure it’s subject to multiple FOIA requests and, if and when it is released, will surely have been redacted.

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All we have is an official statement by General John Campbell on 25 November 2015 (above), which described the airstrike as ‘a tragic, but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error’, and a brief Executive Summary of the findings of the Combined Civilian Casualty Assessment Team (made up of representatives from NATO and the Afghan government) which emphasised that those errors were ‘compounded by failures of process and procedure, and malfunctions of technical equipment.’

The parallel investigations identified a series of cumulative, cascading errors and malfunctions:

(1) The crew of the AC-130 gunship that carried out the attack set out without a proper mission brief or a list of ‘no-strike’ targets; the aircraft had been diverted from its original mission, to provide close air support to ‘troops in contact’, and was unprepared for this one (which was also represented as ‘troops in contact’, a standard designation meaning that troops are under hostile fire).

(2) Communications systems on the aircraft failed, including – crucially – the provision of video feeds to ground force commanders and the transmission of electronic messages (the AC-130 has a sophisticated sensor and communications suite  – or ‘battle management center’ –on board, staffed by two sensor operators, a navigator, a fire control officer, and an electronic warfare officer, and many messages are sent via classified chat rooms).

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The problem was apparently a jerry-rigged antenna that was supposed to link the AC-130 to the ground.  Here is how General Bradley Heithold explained it to Defense One:

“Today, we pump full-motion video into the airplane and out of the airplane. So we have a Ku-band antenna on the airplane … the U-model….  On our current legacy airplanes, the solution we used was rather scabbed on: take the overhead escape hatch out, put an antenna on, stick it back up there, move the beams around. We’ve had some issues, but we’re working with our industry partners to resolve that issue.”

He added, “99.9 percent of the time we’ve had success with it. These things aren’t perfect; they’re machines.”

Heithold said that dedicated Ku-band data transfer is now standard on later models of the AC-130, which should make data transfer much more reliable.

(3)  Afghan Special Forces in Kunduz had requested close air support for a clearing operation in the vicinity of the former National Directorate of Security compound, which they believed was now a Taliban ‘command and control node’.  The commander of US Special Forces on the ground agreed and provided the AC-130 crew with the co-ordinates for the NDS building.  He could see neither the target nor the MSF Trauma Center from his location but this is not a requirement for authorising a strike; he was also working from a map that apparently did not mark the MSF compound as a medical facility.  According to AP, he had been given the coordinates of the hospital two days before but said he didn’t recall seeing them.  The targeting system onboard the AC-130 was degraded and directed the aircraft to an empty field and so the crew relied on a visual identification of the target using a description provided by Afghan Special Forces – and they continued to rely on their visual fix even when the targeting system had been re-aligned (‘the crew remained fixated on the physical description of the facility’) and, as David Cloud points out, even though there was no visible sign of ‘troops in contact’ in the vicinity of the Trauma Center (‘An AC-130 is normally equipped with infrared surveillance cameras capable of detecting gunfire on the ground’):

MSF Kunduz attack

Sundarsan Raghaven adds that ‘Not long before the attack on the hospital, a U.S. airstrike pummeled an empty warehouse across the street from the Afghan intelligence headquarters. How U.S. personnel could have confused its location only a few hours later is not clear…’  More disturbingly, two US Special Forces troops have claimed that their Afghan counterparts told their commander that it was the Trauma Center that was being used as the ‘command and control node’, and that the Taliban ‘had already removed and ransomed the foreign doctors, and they had fired on partnered personnel from there.’

(4) The aircrew cleared the strike with senior commanders at the Joint Operations Center at Bagram and provided them with the co-ordinates of the intended target.  Those commanders failed to recognise that these were the co-ordinates of the MSF hospital which was indeed on the ‘no-strike’ list; ‘this confusion was exacerbated by the lack of video and electronic communications between the headquarters and the aircraft, caused by the earlier malfunction, and a belief at the headquarters that the force on the ground required air support as a matter of immediate force protection’;

(5) The strike continued even after MSF notified all the appropriate authorities that their clinic was under attack; no explanation was offered, though the US military claims the duration was shorter (29 minutes) than the 60-minutes reported by those on the ground.

Campbell announced that those ‘most closely associated’ with the incident had been suspended from duty for violations of the Rules of Engagement – those ‘who requested the strike and those who executed it from the air did not undertake the appropriate measures to verify that the facility was a legitimate military target’ – though he gave no indication how far up the chain of command responsibility would be extended; in January it was reported that US Central Command was weighing disciplinary action against unspecified individuals.  In the meantime, solatia payments had been made to the families of the killed ($6,000) and injured ($3,000).

doctors-without-borders-us-credibility

Not surprisingly, MSF reacted angrily to Campbell’s summary: according to Christopher Stokes,

‘The U.S. version of events presented today leaves MSF with more questions than answers.  The frightening catalog of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war.’

Joanne Liu, MSF’s President, subsequently offered a wider reflection on war in today’s ‘barbarian times’, prompted by further attacks on other hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere:

“The unspoken thing, the elephant in the room, is the war against terrorism, it’s tainting everything,” she said. “People have real difficulty, saying: ‘Oh, you were treating Taliban in your hospital in Kunduz?’ I said we have been treating everyone who is injured, and it will have been Afghan special forces, it will have been the Taliban, yes we are treating everybody.”

She added: “People have difficulty coming around to it. It’s the core, stripped-down-medical-ethics duty as a physician. If I’m at the frontline and refuse to treat a patient, it’s considered a crime. As a physician this is my oath, I’m going to treat everyone regardless.”

Kate Clark‘s forensic response to the US investigation of the Kunduz attack is here; she insists, I think convincingly, that

‘… rather than a simple string of human errors, this seems to have been a string of reckless decisions, within a larger system that failed to provide the legally proscribed safeguards when using such firepower. There were also equipment failures that compounded the problem but, again, if the forces on the ground and in the air had followed their own rules of engagement, the attack would have been averted.’

This is what just-in-time war looks like, but it’s not enough to blame all this on what General Campbell called a ‘high operational tempo’.  As a minimum, we need to be able to read the transcripts of the ground/air communications – which are recorded as a matter of course, no matter what the tempo, and which are almost always crucial in any civilian casualty incident resulting from ‘troops in contact’ (see, for another vivid example, my discussion here) – to make sense of the insensible.

The World’s E.R.

VanRooyen World's Emergency RoomAs military and paramilitary attacks on hospitals and medical facilities have increased – in Afghanistan, GazaSyria, Yemen and elsewhere – even as the number of casualties has soared, Michael VanRooyen‘s new book The World’s Emergency Room (out next month from St Martin’s) promises to provide an urgent overview of what has become a routinised violation of medical neutrality:

Twenty years ago, the most common cause of death for medical humanitarians and other aid workers was traffic accidents; today, it is violent attacks. And the death of each doctor, nurse, paramedic, midwife, and vaccinator is multiplied untold times in the vulnerable populations deprived of their care. In a 2005 report, the ICRC found that for every soldier killed in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 60 civilians died due to loss of immunizations and other basic health services.

The World’s Emergency Room: The Growing Threat to Doctors, Nurses, and Humanitarian Workers documents this dangerous trend, demonstrates the urgent need to reverse it, and explores how that can be accomplished. Drawing on VanRooyen’s personal experiences and those of his colleagues in international humanitarian medicine, he takes readers into clinics, wards, and field hospitals around the world where medical personnel work with inadequate resources under dangerous conditions to care for civilians imperiled by conflict. VanRooyen undergirds these compelling stories with data and historical context, emphasizing how they imperil the key doctrine of medical neutrality, and what to do about it.

Michael is a professor at the Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

From Kirkus:

A behind-the-scenes look at the nascent field of humanitarian medicine as it has evolved in recent years of civil wars, famines, tsunamis, and other natural and man-made disasters.

Since 1990, world conflicts and refugee crises have spurred the growth of a massive force of humanitarian aid workers—some 275,000 individuals with the United Nations and NGOs, most of whom lack the formal training needed to deal with complex events like the catastrophic 2010 Haiti earthquake. In that 25-year period, more than 1,000 aid workers were killed in attacks on hospitals, medical staff, and civilian patients. VanRooyen, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the co-founder and director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, came of age professionally in the fields of emergency medicine and humanitarian medicine, which are the focus of this fascinating debut. “What the emergency room is to Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore, humanitarian medical relief is to the world’s crisis zones,” he writes. Whether in an unstable inner city or a failed state, doctors provide a safety net of emergency health care for people with critical needs. The author recounts his experiences on the ground as an emergency physician in Bosnia, Chad, the Congo, Haiti, Somalia, and many other countries and how he and like-minded colleagues have sought to professionalize humanitarian efforts, which have frequently been criticized as uncoordinated and wasteful. (The Haitian relief effort was a “humanitarian free-for-all,” he writes, involving novice agencies, inexperienced surgical teams, and “disaster tourists.”) In 2005, VanRooyen and others established the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a first-of-its-kind, universitywide effort to pursue research, training, and innovative approaches to humanitarian aid that could be leveraged to achieve policy changes. Despite the subtitle, the author devotes relatively little attention to the increasing dangers facing aid workers, focusing mainly on the need to establish rigorous standards for the field in order to prevent the malnutrition and infectious diseases that are the biggest killers in communities in conflict.

Watching the detectives

Hospital bombing, Kunduz, October 2015 MSF

I wrote about medical neutrality earlier this year (see here).  As I noted then, Physicians for Human Rights stipulates that medical neutrality requires:

The protection of medical personnel, patients, facilities, and transport from attack or interference;
Unhindered access to medical care and treatment;
The humane treatment of all civilians; and
Nondiscriminatory treatment of the sick and injured.

In the wake of the US air strike on a hospital operated by Médecins Sans Frontières  (MSF) in Kunduz on 3 October, that first requirement assumes even greater significance: the obligation is not merely to exempt medical personnel, patients and infrastructure from military and paramilitary violence but to protect them from attack.

MSF provides details and updates on the strike here.  As I write, far and away the most substantial commentary on what happened – given what we know so far – is Kate Clark‘s detailed analysis at the Afghan Analysts Network here (though Matt Lee‘s angry comparison with an Israeli military attack on a hospital in Gaza is worth reading too).  As Kate notes,

Expressing distrust in the US military, NATO or Afghan government to uncover the truth, [MSF] said it wants an investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC), a body set up by the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions and, says MSF, is the only permanent body set up specifically to investigate violations of international humanitarian law. It has never been used before and, as neither Afghanistan or the United States have formally recognized the Commission, any investigation would have to be voluntary.

logo_ihffcThe IHFFC issued this statement today:

The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) has been contacted by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) in relation to the events in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on 3 October 2015.

The IHFFC stands ready to undertake an investigation but can only do so based on the consent of the concerned State or States. The IHFFC has taken appropriate steps and is in contact with MSF. It cannot give any further information at this stage.

Alex Jeffrey has commented briefly on the geopolitics of any investigation by the IHFFC, but there has been little or no commentary on how the US military investigates civilian casualty incidents – and this merits discussion because the Obama administration has insisted that the inquiry already under way by the Pentagon will be ‘transparent’, ‘thorough’ and ‘objective’.  And whatever may or may not transpire with respect to the IHFFC, it’s exceptionally unlikely that the US military investigation will be stopped.

I’ve worked through five investigations of so-called ‘CIVCAS’ in Afghanistan that have been released through Freedom of Information Act requests.  Each branch of the US military is required to maintain its own digital FOIA Reading Room, so that any documentation supplied in response to these requests is released into the public domain.  I should say that you need to be adept at using the search function, and to have a very good idea of what you are looking for before you start (though the Pentagon has been remarkably helpful in responding to my inquiries and questions).

It’s also fair to say that the release of investigation reports is uneven.  In the immediate aftermath of an earlier, devastating air strike on two tankers hijacked by the Taliban near Kunduz, called in by the German Bundeswehr but carried out by two US aircraft (see my extended discussion here), the United States repeatedly promised to release the investigation report: but it never did, even to the German Bundestag’s committee of inquiry, and despite repeated requests it remains classified.

There is also considerable variation in the transparency and quality of the reports that have been released: some are so heavily redacted that it is extremely (and no doubt intentionally) difficult to construct a reasonably comprehensive narrative, while others are the product of inquiries that seem to have been, at best, perfunctory.

AR 15-6 CIVCAS Uruzgan February 2010

The report into the airstrike in Uruzgan that I have been using for my analysis of the US air strike in Uruzgan in February 2010 – see ‘Angry Eyes (1)‘ and ‘Angry Eyes (2)‘: more to come – is neither.  It has been redacted, presumably for reasons of national, operational or personal security, but its 2,000 pages provide enough detail to reconstruct most of what happened.  And the investigation team was remarkably thorough: by turns forensic, sympathetic, exasperated and eventually blisteringly angry at what they found.  Whether this provides an indication of what we can expect from the present inquiry I don’t know, but it does provide a benchmark of sorts for what we (and, crucially, MSF) ought to expect.  (There are also ongoing investigations by NATO and by the Afghan authorities, but no details have been released about them either).

The strike took place on 21 February 2010, and the very next day General Stanley McChrystal (Commander US Forces – Afghanistan and ISAF, Afghanistan) appointed Major-General Timothy McHale to conduct what the US Army calls ‘an informal investigation’ into the incident that ‘allegedly resulted in the deaths of 12-15 local Afghan nationals and caused injured to others’; McHale was assisted by a team of senior officers, including subject matter experts and legal advisers:

GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.139

There are two points to note here.

First, this was an investigation conducted by the US Army because the airstrike had been called in by US Special Forces and had been carried out by two US Army helicopter crews.  But the strike was orchestrated in large measure by a US Air Force Predator crew from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada; in addition to questioning the soldiers and helicopter crews involved, McHale’s team also questioned the Predator flight crew together with the screeners and video analysts at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida.  McHale’s report triggered a second ‘Commander-Directed Investigation’ by US Air Force Brigadier-General Robert Otto into the actions and assessments of the Predator crew; that report was submitted on 30 June 2010.  As I write, it’s not known who is leading the US investigation into the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz.  Since (on the fourth telling) the strike appears to have been called in by US Special Forces (at the request of Afghan forces) and carried out by a US Air Force AC-130 gunship this will presumably be a joint investigation.

Second, the term ‘informal investigation’ is a technical one; certainly, on McHale’s watch the conduct of the inquiry was remarkably rigorous.  US Army Regulation 15-6 sets out how the Army is to conduct an investigation:

‘The primary function of any investigation or board of officers is to ascertain facts and to report them to the appointing authority. It is the duty of the investigating officer or board to ascertain and consider the evidence on all sides of each issue, thoroughly and impartially, and to make findings and recommendations that are warranted by the facts and that comply with the instructions of the appointing authority.’

Here is the distinction between informal and formal investigations (I’ve taken this summary from a US Army Legal Guide here; the full version, specifying the conduct of an informal investigation, is here and here):

Informal investigations may be used to investigate any matter, to include individual conduct. The fact that an individual may have an interest in the matter under investigation or that the information may reflect adversely on that individual does not require that the proceedings constitute a hearing for that individual. Even if the purpose of the investigation is to inquire into the conduct or performance of a particular individual, formal procedures are not mandatory unless required by other regulations or by higher authority. Informal investigations provide great flexibility. Generally, only one investigating officer is appointed (though multiple officers could be appointed); there is no formal hearing that is open to the public; statements are taken at informal sessions; and there is no named respondent with a right to counsel (unless required by Art 31(b), UCMJ); right to cross-examine witnesses; etc….

“Generally, formal boards are used to provide a hearing for a named respondent. The board offers extensive due process rights to respondents (notice and time to prepare, right to be present at all open sessions, representation by counsel, ability to challenge members for cause, to present evidence and object to evidence, to cross examine witnesses, and to make argument). Formal boards include a president, voting members, and a recorder who presents evidence on behalf of the government. A Judge Advocate (JA) is normally appointed as recorder but is not a voting member. If a recorder is not appointed, the junior member of the board acts as recorder and is a voting member. Additionally, a non-voting legal advisor may be appointed to the board. Formal AR 15-6 investigations are not normally used unless required by regulation.’

In setting all this out, I should add two riders.  In treating MG McHale’s investigation in such detail, I don’t mean to imply that I fully concur with its analysis.  This is a judgement call, of course: the redactions make it difficult to press on several key issues, all of which relate to who knew what when and where (more to come on this).  And neither do I mean to suggest that any US military investigation into what happened in Kunduz, however probing, would be adequate. As MSF’s Chris Stokes has said, ‘relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient.’  But if the report is conducted with the same careful attention to detail – and if it is released with minimal redactions – it would provide a necessary resource for all those involved in and affected by this truly appalling incident.

More to come – I hope.

UPDATE (1):  The US investigation is headed by Brigadier-General Richard Kim.  Nancy Youssef reports that his arrival in Kunduz was delayed ‘because of instability in the northern Afghan city.’ As with the Uruzgan air strike in 2010, the video recording from the AC-130 gunship that carried out the attack, together with audio recordings of conversations between the air crew and ground troops, will be of great importance.  According to Youssef, these show that ‘rules of engagement—the guidelines for the use of force—were misapplied.’  (In the Uruzgan case, the radio conversations between the air crew(s) and the Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground were released in redacted form in response to a FOIA request; apart from a single image of the strike, however, the video remains classified.)

I’ve previously noted the debate surrounding the Pentagon’s new Law of War manual which was issued in June 2015; since the US has admitted that the strike on the hospital was carried out within the US chain of command, section 7.17 on ‘Civilian hospitals and their personnel’ is particularly relevant (see also the Guardian report here):

During international armed conflict, civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm, and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the parties to the conflict.

7.17.1 Loss of Protection for Civilian Hospitals Used to Commit Acts Harmful to the Enemy. The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy.

7.17.1.1 Acts Harmful to the Enemy. Civilian hospitals must avoid any interference, direct or indirect, in military operations, such as the use of a hospital as a shelter for able-bodied combatants or fugitives, as an arms or ammunition store, as a military observation post, or as a center for liaison with combat forces. However, the fact that sick or wounded members of the armed forces are nursed in these hospitals, or the presence of small arms and ammunition taken from such combatants and not yet handed to the proper service, shall not be considered acts harmful to the enemy.

7.17.1.2 Due Warning Before Cessation of Protection. In addition, protection for civilian hospitals may cease only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit, and after such warning has remained unheeded.

2008-1

The obligation to refrain from use of force against a civilian medical facility acting in violation of its mission and protected status without due warning does not prohibit the exercise of the right of self-defense. There may be cases in which, in the exercise of the right of self- defense, a warning is not “due” or a reasonable time limit is not appropriate. For example, forces receiving heavy fire from a hospital may exercise their right of self-defense and return fire. Such use of force in self-defense against medical units or facilities must be proportionate. For example, a single enemy rifleman firing from a hospital window would warrant a response against the rifleman only, rather than the destruction of the hospital.

MSF has consistently denied that anyone was firing from the hospital; it has also insisted that it received no advance warning of the attack – on the contrary, MSF ensured that all US and Afghan forces had the co-ordinates of the hospital, and made frantic phone calls to try to stop the bombing once it started.

UPDATE (2):  A team from the Washington Post has produced a remarkably detailed report, ‘based on multiple interviews in Afghanistan and the United States with U.S. and Afghan military officials, Doctors Without Borders personnel and local Kunduz residents’; it includes maps and a graphic showing exactly what an AC-130 is capable of.

w512

As you can see, the illustration makes much of the aircraft’s concentrated firepower, unleashed as it circles counter-clockwise around the target in a five-mile orbit, but the AC-130 also has an extensive sensor suite on board (see ‘Angry Eyes (1)‘: an AC-130 was involved in the early stages of the Uruzgan incident).  The reporters do note that the aircraft is equipped with ‘low-light and thermal sensors that give it a “God’s eye [view]” of the battlefield in almost all weather conditions’ – but, as I’ve tried to show in my posts on Uruzgan (and as we know from other sources!), there’s no such thing as a God’s eye view.  Even so, the aircrew can surely have been in no doubt that they were bombing a hospital.

Gravity modelling

Mediterranean migration crisis (HRW) MAP

The latest issue of Radical Philosophy (192, July/August 2015) is out now, and it includes a short essay by Martina Tazzioli, ‘The politics of counting and the scene of rescue: Border deaths in the Mediterranean’ (see also my post about The Left to Die Boat).  Her commentary adds new dimensions to discussions of the humanitarian present:

The exclusive focus on the modalities of rescue has overshadowed the peculiar politics of life that underpins military-humanitarian operations: migrants seeking asylum become lives to rescue and their freedom – of movement and of choosing a safe place to stay – is dislodged from the outset. The mechanisms of capture and containment of unauthorized movements act simultaneously through border restrictions that cause border deaths and through the humanitarian channelling system. The risks to life that people who seek asylum in Europe take, being forced to cross the Mediterranean ‘illegally’, and rescue politics are not opposite mechanisms of migration government. This means that humanitarian measures hold a specific political technology over migrant lives by rescuing, sorting and channelling migrants, one in which people escaping wars can seek asylum only by first becoming shipwrecked persons to rescue. Humanitarian and security measures are thus two intertwined political technologies of migration governmentality.

mapsmania

The map above is drawn from the Migrants Files, a database recording the deaths of more than 29,000 migrants who have tried to seek refuge in Europe since 200.  But Martina’s commentary details what she calls the ‘politics of counting’ and in doing so she enlarges the scope of those (other) projects that seek to move behind the statistical toll of wars and other forms of military and paramilitary violence to identify and name their otherwise nameless casualties:

If border deaths are accounted for through a logic of counting, something remains undetectable from the political perspective of the northern shore of the Mediterranean. Moving beyond the logic of counting means refusing to look at border deaths from the standpoint of this governmental gaze – migration agencies or states – and taking into account what border deaths are for the friends and the relatives of the missing migrants. This means engaging in a decolonial move that challenges the logic of recognition that sustains political campaigns and research projects aiming to count and identify dead migrants. By moving from the northern to the southern shore of the Mediterranean we realize that these uncounted deaths not only have a name but are fully known by their friends and relatives. Rather than producing a more exact border deaths population database, it is a question of bringing into visibility the reality of what the visa regime and the European mechanisms of border control generate: the ‘disappearance’ of women and men who die without being detected but who are counted as ‘missing’ in the countries of origin or of transit by those who know them. The logic of identification – giving a name to corpses found at sea – risks, paradoxically, reproducing the hierarchy that assumes dead migrants are people who, in order to exist, have to be recognized, counted and named from the northern shore of the Mediterranean. A politics that accounts for border deaths without reproducing this space of governmentality attends to what exists beyond counting and identification: unaccountable deaths represent the unquantifiable ‘cost’ of borders that cannot be assessed from the northern shore of the Mediterranean and that requires taking into account those people – friends and relatives – for whom they are missing persons.

HRW Med Migration Crisis JPEG

Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a report on The Mediterranean Migration Crisis: Why People Flee, What the EU Should Do; the map at the head of this post identifies sample migration routes derived from the interviews carried out by HRW for its report:

The report draws on Human Rights Watch’s extensive work on the human rights situation in the four main sending countries as well as interviews with Syrians, Eritreans, Afghans, and Somalis who crossed the Mediterranean in May 2015. Human Rights Watch staff interviewed over 150 recently-arrived migrants and asylum seekers in Italy (Lampedusa, Catania, and Milan) and Greece (the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos).

Note: For those who had the good fortune to escape spatial science in the 1960s and 70s, and who might well be puzzled by my title, gravity models were (and probably still are) one of the canonical forms of migration modelling.  Martina’s commentary is an urgent reminder of the gravity that lies behind the politics of calibration and calculation.

The prosthetics of military violence

Neve Gordon‘s review of Grégoire Chamayou‘s A theory of the drone on Al-Jazeera is now available in a more extended form at Counterpunch here.  It’s a succinct summary of the book’s main theses, though there’s not much critical engagement with them (you can access my own series of commentaries here [scroll down]).  He closes his review like this:

Because drones transform warfare into a ghostly teleguided act orchestrated from a base in Nevada or Missouri, whereby soldiers no longer risk their lives, the critical attitude of citizenry towards war is also profoundly transformed, altering, as it were, the political arena within drone states.

Drones, Chamayou says, are a technological solution for the inability of politicians to mobilize support for war. In the future, politicians might not need to rally citizens because once armies begin deploying only drones and robots there will be no need for the public to even know that a war is being waged. So while, on the one hand, drones help produce the social legitimacy towards warfare through the reduction of risk, on the other hand, they render social legitimacy irrelevant to the political decision making process relating to war. This drastically reduces the threshold for resorting to violence, so much so that violence appears increasingly as a default option for foreign policy. Indeed, the transformation of wars into a risk free enterprise will render them even more ubiquitous than they are today.

Neve is the author of the indispensable Israel’s occupation, and while these paragraphs closely follow A theory of the drone the title of the book is in the singular – and so I’m left wondering about military violence that isn’t orchestrated from Nevada or Missouri and what other ‘theories of the drone’ are needed to accommodate a ‘drone state’ like Israel (not that I’m sure what a ‘drone state’ is…)?

Shoot and Strike

The Israeli military is no stranger to what, following Joseph Pugliese, I’ll call prosthetic violence. While Israel remains a leading manufacturer of drones (see here and here), and routinely deploys them over the occupied territories, it also enforces its ‘Death Zone‘ in Gaza through an automated, ground-based ‘Spot and Strike’ shooting system:

The soldiers, trainees in the course for the “Spot and Strike” system, sit in a tower facing the wilderness of the southern Negev, at the far edge of the Field Intelligence School at the Sayarim base, not far from Ovda. Between their tower and the wide-open desert stands another tower topped by a metal dome. With the press of a button the dome opens to reveal a heavy machine gun. Small tweaks of the joystick aim the barrel. To the right of the gun is a camera, which transmits a clear picture of the target onto a screen opposite the soldier. A press of the button and the figure in the crosshairs is hit by a 0.5-inch bullet.

This dovetails (wrong bird) with a discussion of online shooting in A theory of the drone, but here is risk-transfer war waged over extremely short distances.  ‘Remoteness’ is as much an imaginative as a physical condition, and one that is constantly manipulated so that the threat from Hamas’s rockets and tunnels becomes ‘danger close’ even as the hideous consequences of Israel’s own military offensives become distanced (unless, of course, you choose to turn killing into a spectator sport).  In Israel, it seems, these prosthetic assemblages – of which drones are a vital part – serve to animate a deeply militarised society in which evidence of a martial stance is precisely a prerequisite for its claims to legitimacy.

PUGLIESE State violence

So we clearly need a more inclusive analysis of the prosthetics of military violence – the bio-technical means by which its range is extended – that acknowledges the role of drones for more than ‘targeted killing’ and which incorporates other emergent modalities altogether, including cyberwarfare.  One of the best places to start thinking through these issues, in relation to drones at any rate, is Joseph’s tour de force, State violence and the execution of law (2013), which emphasises how ‘through a series of instrumental mediations, the biological human actor becomes coextensive with the drone that she or he pilots from the remote ground control station’ (p. 184) (I connected this to Grégoire’s theses here).

The experience may be more conditional than this allows, though.  Timothy Cullen‘s study of USAF crews training to operate the MQ-9 Reaper found that the sense of ‘co-extension’ – or bioconvergence – was much stronger among sensor operators than pilots:

After a couple hundred hours of flight experience and a sense of comfort with the modes, interfaces, and capabilities of the sensor ball, sensor operators began to feel like they were a part of the machine. With proficiency as a “sensor,” sensor operators found themselves shifting and straining their bodies in front of the [Heads Up Display] to look around an object.  As pilots flew closer to a target, the transported operators tilted their heads in anticipation of the camera’s [redacted].  Feelings of remote presence helped sensor operators move their bodies, and instructors believed that operators who felt as if they were “flying the sensor” could hold their attention longer on a scene…

Both pilots and sensor operators said pilots did not transport themselves conceptually into the machine to the same extent as a sensor operator. Nor did pilots attain similar feelings of connection and control with Reaper as they did with their previous aircraft.

The term ‘prosthetics’ implies these are at once extensions and embodiments of a military violence whose prosthetics also assume more mundane bioconvergent forms.  This is an obvious but in most cases strangely overlooked point.  Joseph mentions it in passing, juxtaposing his ‘mobilisation of the prosthetic trope’ with ‘the material literality of prosthetics: drones as the militarized prosthetics of empire inherently generate civilian amputees in need of prosthetic limbs’ (p. 214).  There’s also a suggestive discussion in Jennifer Fluri‘s ‘States of (in)security’, which devotes a whole section to what she calls ‘prosthetics biopower’ and the multiply corporeal geographies of contemporary wars [Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 32 (2014) 795-814].  Although Jennifer doesn’t directly connect these intimacies to distant vectors of military violence, the implication (and invitation) is clearly there.

So let me try to supplement her observations, drawing in part on my project on military-medical machines that treats (among other theatres of war) the evacuation of injured soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan.  It’s important to trace the two pathways, as I’ll show in a moment (and I’ll say much more about this in a later post), but it’s also necessary to remember, as Sarah Jain crisply observes in her classic essay on ‘The prosthetic imagination‘ (p. 36), that ‘it usually is not the same body that is simultaneously extended and wounded’  [Science, technology and human values 24 (1) (1999) 31-54].  That said, there is a distinctively corporeal geography to those that are.

US military Limb amutations in Afghanistan and Iraq PNG

Major limb amputations (US military) in Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan (OEF) 2001-2014 (Source: Congressional Research Services US Military Casualty Statistics, November 2014)

The incidence of devastating injuries to the limbs of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (see the graph above; for comparable UK figures, see here) – mainly from IEDs – has been acknowledged in the role played by amputees in mission rehearsal exercises and pre-deployment training since 2005 (see here for an excellent general account).

Peter Bohler:Fort Irwin training

Private contractors like Amputees in Action pride themselves on providing ‘de-sensitising’ exposure to ‘catastrophic injury amputations’ and replicating the latest field injuries for these exercises.  There is a risk in re-enrolling war veterans, as the company concedes:

Every amputee is vetted and put through specialist training beforehand to see if they are up to the job. For some it is too close to the mark, too realistic. The last thing we want to do is traumatize someone, stymie their rehabilitation.

These simulations have been used to prepare ordinary soldiers for the situations they will face – today it’s not only the ‘golden hour’ between injury and surgery that is crucial but also (and much more so) the ‘platinum ten minutes’ immediately following the incident, so the first response is vital. They have also been used to ready trauma teams for the war zone: the BBC has a report on the Royal Army Medical Corps’s mock ‘Camp Bastion’ at Strenshall in Yorkshire here.

These various exercises incorporate the latest advances in evacuation and trauma care, which have meant that today’s soldiers are far more likely to survive even the most life-threatening wounds than those who fought in previous conflicts, but the horrors experienced by young men and women in the military who lose arms and legs – sometimes all of them – are truly hideous:  read, for example, Anne Jones‘s mesmerising and deeply moving account of  They Were Soldiers: How the wounded return from America’s wars (you can get an idea from her ‘Star-spangled Baggage’ here).  Their road to rehabilitation is far longer, and infinitely more painful, than the precarious journey through which they returned to the United States (see also my ‘Bodies on the line‘).

Zac Vawter at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

Researchers unveiled the world’s first thought-controlled bionic leg  on 25 September 2013  funded through the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s (USAMRMC) Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) and developed by researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) Center for Bionic Medicine. 

There is some light in the darkness – ongoing experiments with state-of-the-art, ‘bionic’ prosthetics animated by microprocessors in the US, the UK and elsewhere that restore far more stability, mobility and movement than would have been possible even five years ago (see above, and here and here for the US, here and here for the UK).  In the 1980s less than 2 per cent of US soldiers who had suffered major limb amputations returned to duty; by 2006 that had increased to over 16 per cent (see also here and here).  There are several reasons for the change, but in 2012 Jason Koebler reported:

According to the Army, at least 167 soldiers who have had a major limb amputation (complete loss of an arm, leg, hand, or foot) have remained on active duty since the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, with some returning to battle. Many others have returned overseas to work in support roles behind the lines.

“When we have someone we know wants to return, their rehab is geared that way,” says John Fergason, chief of prosthetics at the Army Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam in Houston, Texas.

Kevin Carroll, vice president of Prosthetics at Hanger, a company that makes artificial limbs, says prosthetics have become more comfortable to wear and closer in range of motion to natural limbs.  “Unfortunately, when you have war, you have casualties, but with that comes innovation,” he says. Artificial joints are getting better at approximating the knee, elbow, wrist, and ankle, and microprocessors embedded in prostheses are able to pick up and adjust for impacts from walking, running, jumping, and climbing.

“The person doesn’t have to worry about the prosthetic device, they’re worrying about the task in front of them,” Carroll says. “If they want to go back to be with their troops, that’s an option for many soldiers these days.”

Notice, though, that these advances in prosthetic design and manufacture are part of an intimate conjunction between military violence and military medicine, in which materials science, bio-engineering, electronics and computer science simultaneously provide new means of bodily injury and new modalities of bodily repair.  This is captured in the title of David Serlin‘s thought-provoking essay, ‘The other arms race’ [in Lennard Davis (ed), The Disability Studies Reader (second edition, 2006) 49-65; this essay is not included in the latest edition, but see also the collection David edited with Katherine OttArtificial parts, practical lives: modern histories of prosthetics (2002) and his own Replaceable You: engineering the body in postwar America (2004)].  You can also find an excellent brief historical review of ‘Prosthetics under trials of war’ here.

War XAnd, given the circuits within the military-medical machine, there may be more to come.  There are those who anticipate a future in which prosthetics will not only reinstate but also increase a soldier’s capabilities.  Koebler cites Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, who ‘talks about a future where prosthetics are “enhancers” that allow soldiers to be stronger, faster, and more durable than their peers.’  These fantasies feed through the masculinist imaginary of the post-human cyborg soldier (sketched an age ago by Chris Hables Gray and revisited here) to the prosthetics of military violence with which I began. Here Tim Blackmore‘s War X: Human extensions in battlespace (2011) is also relevant.

But Koebler is quick to add that all this is still a distant prospect:

“I know the question is often, ‘How close are we to true bionic or having artificial limbs that are more versatile than natural ones?'” Fergason says. “Frankly, we’re not that close. You’re not going to see anyone decide, ‘Boy, I think I’d like to get a bionic leg because they’re so fantastic.’

“We love to read about the super-soldier, but that’s not the case right now. Amputation is so complex in what it does to your body that it’s a very long recovery,” he adds.

So what, then, of civilians?  Under ISAF’s Medical Rules of Eligibility Afghan civilians who were injured during military operations and/or needed ‘life, limb or eyesight saving care’ could be admitted to the international medical system, and were eligible for emergency casualty evacuation and treatment at one of the Category III advanced trauma centres at Bagram or Camp Bastion.

Medical Rules of Eligibility PNG

As soon as possible, however, Afghans were to be treated by Afghans and so, after surgical intervention they had to be transferred to the local healthcare system.  The same applied to the Afghan National Army and police.  In consequence, the drawdown of international forces – which also includes their medevac and trauma teams – has left the local population desperately vulnerable to the after-effects of continuing and residual military and paramilitary violence (see here and here).

The inadequacies and insufficiencies of the Afghan healthcare system have prompted a number of NGOs to fill the gap between the radically different systems, and they have done – and continue to do –  immensely important work.

But compare the prosthetics available to US soldiers with those supplied to Afghan civilians.  I don’t mean to minimise the invaluable work done by hard-pressed and underfunded NGOs, but the image below is from the ICRC‘s Orthopedic Center in Kabul (see also here).  There are other centres supported by the ICRC in Faizabad, Gulbahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Lashkar Gah, and Mazar-e-Sharif, together with a manufacturing facility in Kabul, and other NGOs are active elsewhere  – Médecins sans Frontières runs a similar facility in Kunduz, for example.

ICRC Orthopedic Center Kabul PNG

In addition to these facilities, there have been some ingenious work-arounds.  Carmen Gentile describes how US soldiers at Forward Operating Base Kasab in Kandahar were moved by the plight of Mohammed Rafiq, an eight-year old boy whose legs were blown off by an IED.  ‘Since we couldn’t get a supply of commercially made legs, we decided that maybe we could make them ourselves,’ explained Major Brian Egloff, a US Army surgeon at the base.

Using scrap tubing and some ingenuity, Egloff fitted Rafiq with small prosthetic legs. Rafiq was now able to get around the village…

Egloff did not end his work with Rafiq. He knew there must be other amputees living in the area…  Soldiers on patrol had noticed “a lot of guys with amputations that had no prosthetic legs and were reduced to crawling around on the ground and relying on the charity of strangers just to get by,” he says.  Afghans heard about what was done for Rafiq and asked for help for others. Egloff made the legs from material readily available in any welding shop, he says, mostly scrap aluminum tubing for the legs and aluminum plates for the prosthetic feet. A spring-loaded hinge served as the ankle joint.  “It’s a very simple design, nothing complicated,” he says.

These legs were intended to be temporary replacements until ‘a professionally fitted prosthetic’ was available, but the same report notes that ‘getting to a provincial capital, where most hospitals are located, is not easy for many Afghans and the routes are dangerous.’  There’s much more about inaccessibility in MSF’s Between rhetoric and reality: the ongoing struggle to access healthcare in Afghanistan (February 2014).

Like Mohammed – and many ISAF and Afghan soldiers – many of these amputees are the victims of IEDs or even land mines left over from the Soviet occupation (for a global review of the rehabilitation of people maimed by the explosive remnants of war [ERW], see this 2014 report from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines–Cluster Munition Coalition).

But some of them will be the victims of air strikes from or orchestrated by Predators and Reapers: in recent years Afghanistan has been the most heavily ‘droned’ theatre of operations in the world.  In some cases they were caught in the blast, but in others they were the victims of what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence‘.  According to a report by Sune Engel Rasmussen in the Guardian:

Since 2001, the coalition has dropped about 20,000 tonnes of ammunition over Afghanistan. Experts say about 10% of munitions do not detonate: some malfunction, others land on sandy ground. In rural areas, children often bring in vital income to households, but collecting scrap metal or herding animals can be fraught with unpredictable risks. Of all Afghans killed and maimed by unexploded ordnance, 75% are children…

Their future is usually bleak.  Erin Cunningham reports that ‘even as the population of Afghans who are missing limbs grows, amputees face discrimination and the harsh stigma of being disabled.’

“Socially and financially, their lives are destroyed,” Emanuele Nannini, program director at the Italian nonprofit Emergency, which operates health-care centers across Afghanistan, said of Afghan amputees.

From January to June [2014], Emergency’s Center for War Trauma Victims in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, performed 69 amputations. The fiercest fighting between the two sides usually takes place in the warmer summer months.

Emergency then sends the amputees to the nearby International Committee for the Red Cross orthopedic facility for long-term rehabilitation. The patients receive vocational training and other support to reintegrate them into society. The ICRC said that between April and June this year, it admitted 351 amputee patients to its facilities across Afghanistan.

But for the most part, amputees “are completely dependent on their families, and they become a huge burden,” said Nannini, who is based in Kabul. “The real tragedy starts when they go home. If they don’t have a strong family, they become beggars.”

Emergency runs two other surgical centers, in Kabul and Anabah, as well as a number of clinics and first aid posts in the villages; at Lashkar Gah six out of every ten admissions are victims of bombs, land mines or bullets.

The story is, if anything, even worse across the border in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, whose inhabitants are also subject to explosive violence from the Taliban and other groups, and from CIA-directed drone strikes and air and ground attacks by Pakistan’s military.  As Madiha Tahir has shown, the victims usually disappear from public attention, at least in the United States:

What is the dream?

I dream that my legs have been cut off, that my eye is missing, that I can’t do anything … Sometimes, I dream that the drone is going to attack, and I’m scared. I’m really scared.

After the interview is over, Sadaullah Wazir pulls the pant legs over the stubs of his knees till they conceal the bone-colored prostheses.

The articles published in the days following the attack on September 7, 2009, do not mention this poker-faced, slim teenage boy who was, at the time of those stories, lying in a sparse hospital in North Waziristan, his legs smashed to a pulp by falling debris, an eye torn out by shrapnel….

Did you hear it coming?

No.

What happened?

I fainted. I was knocked out.

sadulla1As Sadaullah, unconscious, was shifted to a more serviceable hospital in Peshawar where his shattered legs would be amputated, the media announced that, in all likelihood, a senior al-Qaeda commander, Ilyas Kashmiri, had been killed in the attack. The claim would turn out to be spurious, the first of three times when Kashmiri would be reported killed.

Sadaullah and his relatives, meanwhile, were buried under a debris of words: “militant,” “lawless,” “counterterrorism,” “compound,” (a frigid term for a home). Move along, the American media told its audience, nothing to see here. Some 15 days later, after the world had forgotten, Sadaullah awoke to a nightmare.

Do you recall the first time you realized your legs were not there?

I was in bed, and I was wrapped in bandages. I tried to move them, but I couldn’t, so I asked, “Did you cut off my legs?” They said no, but I kind of knew.

Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani and Hira Bashir listed some of the long-term implications in a report completed last December for the Costs of War project:

Drone injuries are catastrophic ones.  Wounded survivors of drone attacks have often lost limbs and are usually left with intense and unmanaged pain, and some desire death. Those who survive with severe disabilities face a difficult situation given lack of accommodation for people with disabilities in Pakistan. FATA is an extremely difficult terrain for a disabled person. A walk out for the morning naan (traditional bread) may require navigating through a twisty mud track, with regular dips and bumps. The traditional mud houses of the area themselves have a mud floored haweli (an open-air area onto which all the rooms usually open up). A person with a leg amputation cannot use a regular wheel chair, go to school or hospital, or even use a toilet on his own. Disability of the primary breadwinner can change the course of life for an entire family, since most village jobs are physical ones.

Here too the barriers are more than physical.  In 2011 Farooq Rathore and Peter New described how disability remains a stigma in many sectors of Pakistani society, and rehabilitation medicine is still underdeveloped.

The leading prosthetics center is the Armed Forces Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine at Rawalpindi – whose rehabilitation services for injured soldiers are reportedly ‘the best in the country‘ – but it ‘still manufactures prostheses and orthoses with wood, leather, and metal.’  For injured civilians, the outlook is still more grim.  In 2012 a plan was announced to appoint orthotic specialists and physiotherapists at district hospitals throughout the FATA:

The prolonged United States-led war against terrorism has left a large number of people disabled in Pakistan, compelling the government to institute a rehabilitation plan that will include imparting vocational skills…

“We plan to enhance the physical rehabilitation services for the victims of terrorism to save them from permanent disability,” [Mahboob ur Rehman, head of the physiotherapy department at the Hayatabad Medical Complex (HMC)in Peshawar] told IPS.

The decade-long armed conflict has resulted in injuries to thousands of people from blasts, shelling and drone attacks, with the majority of the victims needing prosthetic and orthotic management to help regain the ability to walk, he said.

But it turns out that the emphasis is as much on ‘wheelchairs and sewing machines’ as it is on even the most basic prosthetics.

Once again, NGOs have provided vital services in the most difficult circumstances.  In 1979 the ICRC established a Paraplegic Rehabilitation Center in Peshawar for victims of the Afghan war, for example, which was subsequently transferred to the control of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government.  It has achieved some notable successes, but here too the focus is on physical therapy and it is outside the FATA so that access is difficult for many people.

And so, finally, to Gaza.  Here the differences with Afghanistan and Pakistan are striking.  Throughout the Israeli assault last summer, as I showed in detail here, medical services were severely compromised, and hospitals and medical centres actively targeted.  The only rehabilitation hospital, El-Wafa, was destroyed.  The injuries were also aggravated by the use of Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME) – developed for the US Air Force in 2006 – and which, according to a Briefing Note issued by the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, were fired from Israeli drones.

DIME blast injuries

These experimental weapons are supposed to decrease collateral damage by constricting the lethal blast radius.  But inside that perimeter the explosive blast is concentrated and magnified:

The injuries of victims who have been in contact with experimental DIME weapons are distinguishable from injuries sustained by non-experimental weapons. While signs of solid shrapnel or metal fragments are typical of amputations sustained from traditional explosives, physicians in the Gaza Strip are witnessing gruesome amputations caused by a metal vapor or residue which indicate the detonation of an extreme force in a small radius. In fact, as a result of these weapons, reported cases in the Gaza Strip include entire bodies cut in half, shattered bones, and skin, muscle and bones turned into charcoal due to the destructive burns associated with the weaponry’s extreme force and high temperature.

The lacerations are so severe that many victims bleed out and die.

The scale of destruction in Gaza also presents a radically different landscape for survivors of blast injuries.  If the terrain in FATA is formidably difficult for anyone using prosthetics or in a wheelchair, imagine what it must be like to be confronted with this:

al Shejaiya Gaza 2014

When you look at that, bear in mind that when the assault came to an end there were still around 7,000 unexploded bombs and other explosive remnants of war beneath the rubble.

These are all dreadful effects and yet, compared to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the situation for prosthetics and rehabilitation seems somewhat better.  The prosthetics are more advanced, and some patients have been able to travel to Beirut, Amman and on occasion into Israel for treatment.  But there are still formidable obstacles in the essential provision of continuing local care.  Bayan Abdel Wahad reports from the Artificial Limb Centre, the only one of it kind in Gaza:

The number of patients who have benefited from the service of prosthetic replacement which the Centre provides for free is about 300 people who have been injured as a result of the Israeli bombardments in the past five years. However, a number of people injured in the last war – Operation Protective Edge – have not been able to come to the center yet because they are still bed-ridden due to several injuries whose treatment takes precedence over prosthetic replacement…. The technical coordinator at the center, Nivine al-Ghusain, said that “despite all the difficulties we face in funding and getting the materials necessary to manufacture the artificial limbs, we will continue in our work.” She [said] that the Centre takes upon itself the maintenance of the prosthesis from time to time “in addition to changing it based on the patients’ needs.”

15_0

The Centre relies on the ICRC for components and raw materials from France, Germany, Switzerland and the United States, but there are continuing difficulties in importing these via Israel or Egypt.  In December 2014 the Center was treating around 950 amputees.

Reports about the cultural and social response to these visible victims of military violence are mixed. Guillaume Zerr, who directs Handicap International’s operations in Gaza, told Reuters that ‘there can be less acceptance of their condition than in other regions of the world’, whereas one young man – a double amputee – insisted that ‘I feel more love, support and sympathy from people now than before my injuries, and Gazan society is non-discriminating toward me.’  Perhaps this is, at least in part, because he, like others wounded in Gaza, can provide an unambiguous narrative, ‘to tell the story behind the loss of his legs’.  I remember Omar Dewachi explaining to me how patients from Iraq, Libya or Syria who are treated in Beirut for their wounds have to return home with a narrative that can explain what happened to them in terms that will satisfy whichever side in those civil wars might call them to account.  Such narratives are important not only for their rehabilitation (and here they are vital) but also for their very survival.  This is presumably more straightforward in Gaza, but this ‘politics of the wound’ is also always a geopolitics of the wound.

One last thought.  I’m struck by how often the term ‘asymmetric war’ is used to imply that conflicts of this sort are somehow unfair – to those who possess overwhelming firepower.  But war is about more than firepower, more even than killing, and I hope I’ve shown that the differences between the continuing care and rehabilitation available to those who are maimed in these wars reveal not only a different prosthetics of military violence but also a new and grievous asymmetry in its enduring consequences.

Inhumanitarian mapping

It’s strange how things sometimes come together – or collide and crash.  Two weeks ago I wrote about satellite imagery and ‘remote violence’, and over the summer I discussed several projects that mapped Israel’s military assault on Gaza and its people,  including the Gaza Crisis Atlas produced by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (which makes extensive use of hi-res satellite imagery).

The links between those two posts are obvious enough, but today I have something altogether different in my sights.  ‘Judge Dan’ (Dan Smith), who blogs for Israellycool, has used the Gaza Crisis Atlas to construct a series of maps to geo-wash Israel’s military campaign.

Working from the data in the Atlas, Smith produces four maps to disaggregate the severity of destruction (the four levels, increasing from left to right, are based on OCHA’s own assessment):

DAN SMITH Gaza-Damage-Points-Vertical-All

His conclusions from this exercise are the following:

The attacks are in no way “random” or “indiscriminate”. One can clearly see the spatial distribution of the damage in several aspects. We find 8,952 of the 12,433 total points (72%) are within a 3 KM buffer abutting the border with Israel. The main objective of Operation Protective Edge was to find and destroy dozens of terror tunnels dug from Gaza into Israel.

That the most intensive damage was caused to the area where the tunnels naturally originated is thus perfectly understandable. Furthermore, of the 4,441 destroyed structures, 3,481 of them (78%) are within the 3 KM buffer, as are 2,531 of 3,303 (77%) of the lowest intensity damage (simple craters), which are mostly strikes on rocket launchers and tunnels.

Most of the attacks are grouped around certain neighborhoods or villages, such as Shuja’iyya, Johur ad-Dik, Sureij, and Khuza’a. These were probably the result of the ground operations that took place in dense urban areas also within the 3 KM buffer that housed multiple tunnel entrances and shafts, as well as launch sites for mortars and rockets.

Smith then takes the Israeli military’s map of ‘terrorist infrastructure’ in Shuja’iya and overlays this on what he calls ‘OCHA’s damage points’: ‘the correlation is uncanny.’

Smith’s next manoeuvre is to sweep aside OCHA’s focus ‘on the civilian aspect’ because it ‘misses the big picture’ (really – or perhaps Israelly): ‘the overall intensity of the strikes’.  So he constructs a kernel density map or a ‘damage intensity heat map’:

It now becomes very clear that most of the damage was caused to 5 locations right on the border with Israel. The rest of the Gaza Strip was, for the most part, undamaged. The main population areas of Gaza city, Jabaliya, Khan Yunes, Rafah and Deir el-Balah were disproportionately undamaged (sic).

DAN SMITH Gaza-Damage-Heatmap-Vertical2

He continues:

If we do a rough estimate of the damage area, it is once again clear the vast majority of the Gaza Strip was unscathed. With a fairly generous estimation that a damage point has a 25 meter radius – the footprint of a house, or the blast radius of a bomb – the total damage area of the 12,433 impacts was in the order of 15 KM2. The land area of the Gaza strip is 360 Km2. In other words, less than 5% of the land was affected.

There’s a follow-up post on ‘damage clusters’ here, but in this commentary I’ll focus on Smith’s ‘big picture’.  I take the basic points to be these:

(1)  Smith’s approach makes an appeal to the supposed objectivity and even facticity of the map (and, by extension, the satellite image), but there is a substantial body of scholarship that goes back 25 years and underscores the multiple ways in which mapping is an exercise in the production of power.  For a depressingly relevant example of the ways in which maps can speak power to truth, taken from Israel’s attack on Gaza in November 2012, see my discussion here (scroll down to the maps).

(2)  Appealing to the map and its manipulations as the single source of authority is designed to disavow the testimony of witnesses on the ground: precisely the point sharpened by Andrew Herscher in his timely critique of ‘Surveillant witnessing’ (see my discussion here) and a far cry from the incorporation of photographs in (say) the Gaza War Map.

(3) Smith’s methodology reduces Gaza to an object space of structures and buildings, craters and points; he constructs a kernel density map (more on this in a moment) but provides no population density map that would at least gesture towards the people killed, wounded and traumatised by the Israeli offensive and who are wholly absent from his account.  Here, by contrast, is a map I posted previously showing deaths in Gaza to 6 August:

w6401

The Gaza Crisis Atlas focuses on damage to buildings and infrastructure because it is a tool directed explicitly towards reconstruction, so the same criticism doesn’t apply (particularly if you look at OCHA’s work more generally, including the information it provided for the map I’ve just reproduced). But if we are to limit ourselves to gazing on structures from space, UNOSAT’s analysis of satellite imagery provides a sharp reminder that these buildings included schools and hospitals (see also here and here); the report also provides a telling comparison between the intensity of destruction in 2009 and 2014:

UNOSAT_GAZA_REPORT_OCT2014_WEB (dragged)

(4) Smith prefers to construct his own generalised map of damage density using kernel density estimation, a smoothing algorithm that converts point data into a continuous surface.  I discussed the way in which the US military uses this technique in ‘Seeing Red’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and what I said there bears repeating:

The maps are known for their dramatic visual impact, and the desired message can be engineered into the production process. One of the most influential handbooks on KDE is published by the US National Institute of Justice and describes how to map crime ‘hot spots’…  The authors of the NIJ handbook acknowledge that ‘map production is an iterative process’ and that ‘the first map produced is very rarely the one presented to the target audience.’ They continue: ‘The intended message should also be seen as the driving force behind what the map should look like’ (US National Institute of Justice, 2005: 26, 33).

So let’s turn to the rest of Smith’s message.

(4) Smith justifies the pattern of destruction shown on his maps by claiming that ‘the main objective of Operation Protective Edge was to find and destroy dozens of terror tunnels dug from Gaza into Israel.’  In fact, the stated objectives of the Israeli assault changed throughout the campaign.  The attacks were supposedly sparked by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers – in the West Bank not Gaza – and as the mission was ratcheted up so their central objective changed: according to the IDF the aim was to put an end to Hamas rockets being fired into Israel (for a radically different view, see Graham Liddell‘s more general discussion at Mondoweiss here).  The rhetoric of ‘terror tunnels’ came later.  And while Smith is right to draw attention to the swathes of destruction to the east of Gaza’s central spine, he never addresses the human consequences of successive Israeli expansions of this so-called ‘buffer zone’ until it covered more than 40 per cent of Gaza: see my post here for more details.

(5) Towards the end of his analysis, Smith concedes that destruction is not punctiform.  Bombs are not ‘pinpoints’ (cf. Nathan Guttman‘s report on Smith’s work and ‘the pinpoint accuracy of Israel’s strikes’), not only because they rarely land exactly on target but also because their blast radiates outwards from the point of impact.  But Smith’s ‘fairly generous estimate that a damage point has a 25 meter [82 feet] radius‘ – is in fact a serious underestimate that at the very least halves the blast radius of a 155 mm shell.  Here is Mark Perry‘s report that I cited previously, which includes testimony from senior US military officers about the shelling of Shuj’aiyya:

Artillery pieces used during the operation included a mix of Soltam M71 guns and U.S.-manufactured Paladin M109s (a 155-mm howitzer), each of which can fire three shells per minute. “The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible,” said the senior U.S. military officer. “It’s not mowing the lawn,” he added, referring to a popular IDF term for periodic military operations against Hamas in Gaza. “It’s removing the topsoil.”

“Holy bejeezus,” exclaimed retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard when told the numbers of artillery pieces and rounds fired during the July 21 action. “That rate of fire over that period of time is astonishing. If the figures are even half right, Israel’s response was absolutely disproportionate.” A West Point graduate who is a veteran of two wars and is the chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C., he added that even if Israeli artillery units fired guided munitions, it would have made little difference.

Even the most sophisticated munitions have a circular area of probability, Gard explained, with a certain percentage of shells landing dozens or even hundreds of feet from intended targets. Highly trained artillery commanders know this and compensate for their misses by firing more shells. So if even 10 percent of the shells fired at combatants in Shujaiya landed close to but did not hit their targets — a higher than average rate of accuracy — that would have meant at least 700 lethal shells landing among the civilian population of Shujaiya during the night of July 20 into June 21. And the kill radius of even the most precisely targeted 155-mm shell is 164 feet. Put another way, as Gard said, “precision weapons aren’t all that precise.”

(6) Finally, let’s take Smith’s central claim that ‘less than 5% of the land [of Gaza] was affected’ – and reverse it.  If Hamas were to say that less than 0.00005% of Israel had been hit by its rockets – to be fair, it’s a difficult calculation to make because Israel has never fixed its borders and so it’s not possible to determine its area – and that the rest of Israel was ‘disproportionately undamaged’, would Israelis have simply shrugged them off?

 

‘Just looking’? Remote violence and surveillant witnessing

herscher_bookI’m sure many readers will know Andrew Herscher‘s Violence taking place: the architecture of the Kosovo conflict (Stanford, 2010) – not least for its compelling discussion of what Andrew called ‘warchitecture’ [for a summary see his ‘Warchitectural theory‘, Journal of architectural education (2008) 35-43] and his supplement on ‘the architecture of humanitarian war’.

It’s a book which seems to me to become ever more relevant, and also connects in all sorts of ways with Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture project.

If you don’t know it, there’s a helpful interview with Andrew at Rorotoko here:

What if the destruction of architecture was understood to be just as complicated, just as culturally resonant, and just as open to interpretation as architecture itself—or, indeed, as any other cultural form? This is the question that Violence Taking Place considers.

The salience of the question emerges from dominant perspectives on destruction, in public culture and the social sciences alike, which often insist on it as either a simple rational act, reducible to the intentions of its author, or an irrational act, completely escaping interpretation at all. What these perspectives each block, in equal but opposites ways, is consideration of the cultural labor that destruction performs—as a social performance, a spatial practice, an object of narrative and a figure of collective imagination.

Of particular relevance to my own work, is this passage:

Much of Violence Taking Place appears to be dedicated to violence “over there,” apparently far away—politically if not geographically—from most readers in the Global North.

But in one section of the book, a supplement on NATO’s 1999 air war against Serbia, I suggest that architecture functioned in that war in just the same way as it functioned on the ground in Kosovo—as a way to make manifest otherwise inchoate or invisible presences. For NATO, those presences were the Serbian “war machine,” “command-and-control system,” “military network,” and “infrastructure”—the explicit targets of NATO’s violence. Yet those targets were made available to NATO and subject to destruction by representing them architecturally, as the different sorts of buildings which came to be included in NATO’s every-expanding “target set.”

At the same time, the representation of targets as architecture and not as human beings allowed NATO to leave the human targets of its bombing campaign—both members of Serbian armed forces and civilians alike—unrepresented. NATO represented its war by images like videos shot by cameras mounted on precision-guided weapons or by surveillance photographs that showed buildings before and after they were attacked.

But these images displaced other images and even knowledge of other destruction, inflicted on human beings whose injury or death was only noted as “collateral damage.” Human bodies were often violated in the course of violating buildings; in these cases, then, the videos shot by precision-guided weaponry were snuff films screened as architectural studies.

Think about that last clause… and compare it with the unruffled commentary on US satellite imagery (1960-1999) from the National Security Archive here, which focuses on the ‘burdens’ imposed on image interpreters and the degradation of the images when released to the public (see below).

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I rehearse all this because Andrew has returned to these and related issues around militarised vision in a spell-binding essay in Public Culture 26: 3 (2014) 46-500: ‘Surveillant witnessing: satellite imagery and the visual politics of human rights’.

I’ve written about ‘remote witnessing’ before – see here and here – and argued that it ‘requires difficult, painstaking work in multiple registers because the imagery does not speak for itself’ and that it must become ‘a multi-modal, highly mediated structure of testimony, inference and evidence: always situated, inescapably precarious, and absolutely vital.’  Without that, there is the ever-present danger that, in Andrew’s words, the act of remote witnessing becomes ‘action without acting’.

Satellite Sentinel Project

I based these claims, in part, on the Satellite Sentinel Project, which is also one of Andrew’s foci, but he places it in a carefully constructed genealogy that opens up the complicities between the surveillance state and human rights geo-witnessing.

One of Andrew’s most provocative arguments concerns what he calls the ‘imaginative geography’ performed and sanctioned through satellite imaging:

Human rights satellite imaging takes place within a geography of closed territories and open skies—the geography of a world in which repressive regimes can prevent reporting of any human rights abuse and surveillance satellites can report freely on every such abuse….

The binary opposition that underlies such accounts— closed territory / open sky — speaks to what Edward Said (1978) called an imaginative geography. In human rights advocacy, this is a geography in which the satellite gaze makes a place for itself by negating the gaze of on-the-ground witnesses—the same geography, of course, that underlay satellite surveillance from the Cold War through the Iraq War. On one side, this geography ignores the local and sometimes transnational or international human rights organizations whose reports provide the basis for satellite examination in the first place. These reports evince the human rights issues that satellite imagery is recruited to corroborate. Satellite images themselves, then, do not reveal or expose secret spaces: they revisualize a prior revelation. The secrecy that the satellite image dispels is therefore only partial or fragmented—it’s a secrecy that exists for certain publics and not for others.

On the other side, this geography ignores the status of satellite imagery as at once corporate property and the subject of a dense constellation of national laws and policies. In the United States, the government has attempted to maintain control of commercial satellite imagery by reserving a right to “shutter control,” or to restrict imagery, in order to protect “national security” or “foreign policy interests”; by instituting various time restrictions determining the release of imagery; by denying commercial licenses for certain sorts of high-resolution imagery; and by maintaining the right to “censorship by contract,” or the purchase of all output from a satellite for a specified period of time (Campbell 2008: 23). A geography of closed territories and open skies thus denies both the openings to repressive states made by on-the-ground human rights advocates and the closures of the sky structured by corporate practice and national law and policy. Both denials serve to stage the surveillance witnessing conducted by satellite imaging systems as a privileged view on human rights abuses, providing a monopoly on the discursive construction of the human rights abuse to those human rights organizations with access to satellite imagery.

Here Andrew’s analysis intersects with another excellent essay: Jeremy Crampton, Susan Roberts and Ate Poorthuis, ‘The new political economy of geographical intelligence’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104 (1) (2014) 196-214.

But I wonder if it really is the case that the satellite gaze necessarily ‘negates the gaze of on-the-ground witnesses’?  It may well, of course, and Andrew is right to draw our attention to the way in which the framing of these images works to interpellate the viewer.  In particular, he suggests that the seeming objectivity of satellite imagery – or at any rate its politico-technical erasure of ‘subjectivity’ – is part of its extraordinary panoptical power that can simultaneously produce an apolitical viewing subject.

But this is conditional – see, for example, my discussion of Human Rights Watch‘s report on chemical weapons attacks in Damascus; equally, Forensic Architecture‘s brilliant work with satellite imagery surely shows that there is nothing necessary about these reductions (though constant vigilance is clearly the order of the day).

That said, Andrew’s root concern is that ‘in the current global order, violence inflicted in the name of human rights can look similar or identical to violence whose infliction is categorized as a human rights abuse.’  And that is perhaps the most important sentence in an extremely important essay.