Pictures of war

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full details of themes, abstracts etc here and here.

Those who don’t count and those who can’t count

An excellent article from the unfailing New York Times in a recent edition of the Magazine: Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal on ‘The Uncounted‘, a brilliant, forensic and – crucially – field-based investigation into civilian casualties in the US air war against ISIS:

American military planners go to great lengths to distinguish today’s precision strikes from the air raids of earlier wars, which were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties. They describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to “targeteers,” who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.

The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.

What Azmat and Anand found on the ground, however, was radically different:

Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014.

We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history [my emphasis].  Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes …  remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

They provide immensely powerful, moving case studies of innocents ‘lost in the wreckage’.  They also describe the US Air Force’s targeting process at US Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar (the image above shows the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division at the CAOC, which ‘provides a common threat and targeting picture’):

The process seemed staggeringly complex — the wall-to-wall monitors, the soup of acronyms, the army of lawyers — but the impressively choreographed operation was designed to answer two basic questions about each proposed strike: Is the proposed target actually ISIS? And will attacking this ISIS target harm civilians in the vicinity?

As we sat around a long conference table, the officers explained how this works in the best-case scenario, when the coalition has weeks or months to consider a target. Intelligence streams in from partner forces, informants on the ground, electronic surveillance and drone footage. Once the coalition decides a target is ISIS, analysts study the probability that striking it will kill civilians in the vicinity, often by poring over drone footage of patterns of civilian activity. The greater the likelihood of civilian harm, the more mitigating measures the coalition takes. If the target is near an office building, the attack might be rescheduled for nighttime. If the area is crowded, the coalition might adjust its weaponry to limit the blast radius. Sometimes aircraft will even fire a warning shot, allowing people to escape targeted facilities before the strike. An official showed us grainy night-vision footage of this technique in action: Warning shots hit the ground near a shed in Deir al-Zour, Syria, prompting a pair of white silhouettes to flee, one tripping and picking himself back up, as the cross hairs follow.

Once the targeting team establishes the risks, a commander must approve the strike, taking care to ensure that the potential civilian harm is not “excessive relative to the expected military advantage gained,” as Lt. Col. Matthew King, the center’s deputy legal adviser, explained.

After the bombs drop, the pilots and other officials evaluate the strike. Sometimes a civilian vehicle can suddenly appear in the video feed moments before impact. Or, through studying footage of the aftermath, they might detect signs of a civilian presence. Either way, such a report triggers an internal assessment in which the coalition determines, through a review of imagery and testimony from mission personnel, whether the civilian casualty report is credible. If so, the coalition makes refinements to avoid future civilian casualties, they told us, a process that might include reconsidering some bit of intelligence or identifying a flaw in the decision-making process.

There are two issues here.  First, this is indeed the ‘best-case scenario’, and one that very often does not obtain.  One of the central vectors of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism is volatility: targets are highly mobile and often the ‘window of opportunity’ is exceedingly narrow.  I’ve reproduced this image from the USAF’s own targeting guide before, in relation to my analysis of the targeting cycle for a different US air strike against IS in Iraq in March 2015, but it is equally applicable here:

Second, that ‘window of opportunity’ is usually far from transparent, often frosted and frequently opaque.  For what is missing from the official analysis described by Azmat and Anand turns out to be the leitmotif of all remote operations (and there is a vital sense in which all forms of aerial violence are ‘remote’, whether the pilot is 7,000 miles away or 30,000 feet above the target [see for example here]):

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of the United States Air Forces Central Command at Udeid, told us what was missing. “Ground truth, that’s what you’re asking for,” he said. “We see what we see from altitude and pull in from other reports. Your perspective is talking to people on the ground.” He paused, and then offered what he thought it would take to arrive at the truth: “It’s got to be a combination of both.”

The military view, perhaps not surprisingly, is that civilian casualties are unavoidable but rarely intentional:

Supreme precision can reduce civilian casualties to a very small number, but that number will never reach zero. They speak of every one of the acknowledged deaths as tragic but utterly unavoidable.

Azmat and Anand reached a numbingly different conclusion: ‘Not all civilian casualties are unavoidable tragedies; some deaths could be prevented if the coalition recognizes its past failures and changes its operating assumptions accordingly. But in the course of our investigation, we found that it seldom did either.’

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that whenever there is an investigation into reports of civilian casualties that may have been caused by US military operations it must be independent of all other investigations and can make no reference to them in its findings; in other words, as I’ve noted elsewhere, there is no ‘case law’: bizarre but apparently true.

But that is only part of the problem.  The two investigators cite multiple intelligence errors (‘In about half of the strikes that killed civilians, we could find no discernible ISIS target nearby. Many of these strikes appear to have been based on poor or outdated intelligence’) and even errors and discrepancies in recording and locating strikes after the event.

It’s worth reading bellingcat‘s analysis here, which also investigates the coalition’s geo-locational reporting and notes that the official videos ‘appear only to showcase the precision and efficiency of coalition bombs and missiles, and rarely show people, let alone victims’.  The image above, from CNN, is unusual in showing the collection of the bodies of victims of a US air strike in Mosul, this time in March 2017; the target was a building from which two snipers were firing; more than 100 civilians sheltering there were killed.  The executive summary of the subsequent investigation is here – ‘The Target Engagement Authority (TEA) was unaware of and could not have predicted the presence of civilians in the structure prior to the engagement’ – and report from W.J. Hennigan and Molly Hennessy-Fiske is here.

Included in bellingcat’s account is a discussion of a video which the coalition uploaded to YouTube and then deleted; Azmat retrieved and archived it – the video shows a strike on two buildings in Mosul on 20 September 2015 that turned out to be focal to her investigation with Anand:

The video caption identifies the target as a ‘VBIED [car bomb] facility’.  But Bellingcat asks:

Was this really a “VBIED network”? Under the original upload, a commenter starting posting that the houses shown were his family’s residence in Mosul.

“I will NEVER forget my innocent and dear cousins who died in this pointless airstrike. Do you really know who these people were? They were innocent and happy family members of mine.”

Days after the strike, Dr Zareena Grewal, a relative living in the US wrote in the New York Times that four family members had died in the strike. On April 2, 2017 – 588 days later – the Coalition finally admitted that it indeed bombed a family home which they confused for an IS headquarters and VBIED facility.

“The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition, told Airwars.

Even though the published strike video actually depicted the killing of a family, it remained – wrongly captioned – on the official Coalition YouTube channel for more than a year.

This is but one, awful example of a much wider problem.  The general conclusion reached by Azmat and Anand is so chilling it is worth re-stating:

According to the coalition’s available data, 89 of its more than 14,000 airstrikes in Iraq have resulted in civilian deaths, or about one of every 157 strikes. The rate we found on the ground — one out of every five — is 31 times as high.

One of the houses [shown above] mistakenly identified as a ‘VBIED facility’ in that video belonged to Basim Razzo, and he became a key informant in Azmat and Anand’s investigation; he was subsequently interviewed by Amy Goodman: the transcript is here. She also interviewed Azmat and Anand: that transcript is here.  In the course of the conversation Anand makes a point that amply and awfully confirms Christiane Wilke‘s suggestion – in relation to air strikes in Afghanistan – that the burden of recognition, of what in international humanitarian law is defined as ‘distinction’, is tacitly being passed from combatant to civilian: that those in the cross-hairs of the US military are required to perform their civilian status to those watching from afar.

It goes back to this issue of Iraqis having to prove that they are not ISIS, which is the opposite of what we would think. We would think that the coalition would do the work to find out whether somebody is a member of ISIS or not. Essentially, they assume people are ISIS until proven otherwise.

To make matters worse, they have to perform their ‘civilianness’ according to a script recognised and approved by the US military, however misconceived it may be.  In the case of one (now iconic) air strike in Afghanistan being an adolescent or adult male, travelling in a group, praying at one of the times prescribed by Islam, and carrying a firearm in a society where that is commonplace was enough for civilians to be judged as hostile by drone crews and attacked from the air with dreadful results (see here and here).

This is stunning investigative journalism, but it’s more than that: the two authors are both at Arizona State University, and they have provided one of the finest examples of critical, probing and accessible scholarship I have ever read.

War, law and visibilities

Two more forthcoming books on war.

Coming in May from Cambridge University Press, a book Richard Falk hails as ‘the most significant book on international law published in the last decade’, International law and New Wars by Christine Chinkin and Mary Kaldor:

International Law and New Wars examines how international law fails to address the contemporary experience of what are known as ‘new wars’ – instances of armed conflict and violence in places such as Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. International law, largely constructed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, rests to a great extent on the outmoded concept of war drawn from European experience – inter-state clashes involving battles between regular and identifiable armed forces. The book shows how different approaches are associated with different interpretations of international law, and, in some cases, this has dangerously weakened the legal restraints on war established after 1945. It puts forward a practical case for what it defines as second generation human security and the implications this carries for international law.

At 595 pages it’s clearly a blockbuster.  Here is the detailed Contents list:

Part I. Conceptual Framework:
1. Introduction
2. Sovereignty and the authority to use force
3. The relevance of international law
Part II. Jus ad Bellum:
4. Self-defence as a justification for war: the geopolitical and war on terror models
5. The humanitarian model for recourse to use force
Part III. Jus in Bello:
6. How force is used
7. Weapons
Part IV. Jus Post-Bellum:
8. ‘Post-conflict’ and governance
9. The liberal peace: peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding
10. Justice and accountability
Part V. The Way Forward:
11. Second generation human security
12. What does human security require of international law?

Coming in June from Rutgers University Press, In/Visible War: the culture of war in twenty-first century Americaedited by John Louis Lucaites and Jon Simons:

In/Visible War addresses a paradox of twenty-first century American warfare. The contemporary visual American experience of war is ubiquitous, and yet war is simultaneously invisible or absent; we lack a lived sense that “America” is at war. This paradox of in/visibility concerns the gap between the experiences of war zones and the visual, mediated experience of war in public, popular culture, which absents and renders invisible the former. Large portions of the domestic public experience war only at a distance. For these citizens, war seems abstract, or may even seem to have disappeared altogether due to a relative absence of visual images of casualties. Perhaps even more significantly, wars can be fought without sacrifice by the vast majority of Americans.
Yet, the normalization of twenty-first century war also renders it highly visible. War is made visible through popular, commercial, mediated culture. The spectacle of war occupies the contemporary public sphere in the forms of celebrations at athletic events and in films, video games, and other media, coming together as MIME, the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network.

Here’s the main Contents List:

Part I: Seeing War

Chapter 1: How Photojournalism Has Framed the War in Afghanistan – David Campbell Chapter 2: Returning Soldiers and the In/visibility of Combat Trauma – Christopher J. Gilbert and John Louis Lucaites Chapter 3: (Re)fashioning PTSD’s Warrior Project – Jeremy G. Gordon Chapter 4: Unremarkable Suffering: Banality, Spectatorship, and War’s In/visibilities – Rebecca A. Adelman and Wendy Kozol “War Is Fun,” a Photo-Essay – Nina Berman Chapter 5: Laying bin Laden to Rest: A Case Study of Terrorism and the Politics of Visibility – Jody Madeira

Part II: Not Seeing War

Chapter 6: Digital War and the Public Mind: Call of Duty Reloaded, Decoded – Roger Stahl Chapter 7: A Cinema of Consolation: Post-9/11 Super Invasion Fantasy – De Witt Douglas Kilgore Chapter 8: Differential Configurations: In/visibility through the Lens of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) – Claudia Breger Chapter 9: Canine Rescue, Civilian Casualties, and the Long Gulf War – Purnima BosePart III:

Theorizing the In/visibility of War 

Chapter 10: The In/visibility of Liberal Peace: Perpetual Peace and Enduring Freedom – Jon Simons Chapter 11: Why War? Baudrillard, Derrida, and the Absolute Televisual Image – Diane Rubenstein Chapter 12: War in the Twenty-first Century: Visible, Invisible, or Superpositional? – James Der Derian

A landscape of interferences

Uruzgan strike (National Bird reconstruction)

[Still image from NATIONAL BIRD © Ten Forward Films; the image is of the film’s re-enactment of the Uruzgan air strike based on the original transcript of the Predator crew’s radio traffic.]

I’ve been reading the chapter in Pierre Bélanger and Alexander Arroyo‘s Ecologies of Power that provides a commentary on what has become the canonical US air strike in Uruzgan, Afghanistan in February 2010 (‘Unmanned Aerial Systems: Sensing the ecology of remote operational environments’, pp. 267-320).  In my own analysis of the strike I emphasised the production of

a de-centralised, distributed and dispersed geography of militarised vision whose fields of view expanded, contracted and even closed at different locations engaged in the administration of military violence. Far from being a concerted performance of Donna Haraway‘s ‘God-trick’ – the ability to see everything from nowhere – this version of networked war was one in which nobody had a clear and full view of what was happening.

Part of this can be attributed to technical issues – the different fields of view available on different platforms, the low resolution of infra-red imagery (which Andrew Cockburn claims registers a visual acuity of 20/200, ‘the legal definition of blindness in the United States’), transmission interruptions, and the compression of full-colour imagery to accommodate bandwidth pressure…

But it is also a matter of different interpretive fields. Peter Asaro cautions:

‘The fact that the members of this team all have access to high-resolution imagery of the same situation does not mean that they all ‘‘see’’ the same thing. The visual content and interpretation of the visual scene is the product of analysis and negotiation among the team, as well as the context given by the situational awareness, which is itself constructed.’

The point is a sharp one: different visualities jostle and collide, and in the transactions between the observers the possibility of any synoptic ‘God-trick’ disappears. But it needs to be sharpened, because different people have differential access to the distributed stream of visual feeds, mIRC and radio communications. Here the disposition of bodies combines with the techno-cultural capacity to make sense of what was happening to fracture any ‘common operating picture’.

ecologies-of-powerPierre and Alexander’s aim is to ‘disentangle’ the Electromagnetic Environment (EME), ‘the space and time in which communications occur and transmissions take place’, as a Hertzian landscape.  The term is, I think, William J. Mitchell‘s in Me++:

‘Every point on the surface of the earth is now part of the Hertzian landscape – the product of innumerable transmissions and of the reflections and obstructions of those transmissions… The electronic terrain that we have constructed is an intricate, invisible landscape.’

(Other writers – and artists – describe what Anthony Dunne called Hertzian space).

The Hertzian landscape is often advertised – I use the world deliberately – as an isotropic plane.  Here, for example, is how one commercial company describes its activations (and its own product placement within that landscape) in a scenario that, in part, parallels the Uruzgan strike:

A bobcat growls over the speaker, and Airmen from the 71st Expeditionary Air Control Squadron [at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar] spring into action within the darkened confines of the Battlespace Command and Control (C2) Center, better known as ‘Pyramid Control.’

Keeping WatchThis single audio cue alerts the Weapons Director that an unplanned engagement with hostile force – referred to as Troops in Contact, or TIC – has occurred somewhere in Afghanistan. On the Weapons Director’s computer monitor a chat room window ashes to distinguish itself from the dozens of rooms he monitors continuously.

More than a thousand kilometers away, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground has called for a Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft to assist the friendly forces now under assault. The Weapons Director has minutes to move remotely piloted vehicles away from the CAS aircraft’s ight path, to de-conict the air support and ground re from other aircraft, and to provide an update on hostile activity to all concerned.

The Weapons Director has numerous communication methods at his disposal, including VoIP and tactical radio to quickly get the critical information to operators throughout southwest Asia and across the world, including communicating across differently classied networks. This enables key participants to assess the situation and to commence their portions of the mission in parallel.

You can find the US military’s view of the 71st here – it called the Squadron, since deactivated, its ‘eyes in the sky’ – and on YouTube here.


In practice, the Hertzian landscape is no isotropic plane.  Its heterogeneous in space and inconstant in time, and it has multiple, variable and even mobile terrestrial anchor points: some highly sophisticated and centralised (like the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid), others improvisational, even jerry-rigged (see above), and yet others wholly absent (in the Uruzgan case the Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the Special Forces Detachment had no ROVER, a militarized laptop, and so he was unable to receive the video stream from the Predator).

Pierre and Alexander provide an ‘inventory of interferences’ that affected the Uruzgan strike:

‘Saturating the battlefield with multiple electro-magnetic signals from multiple sources, a Hertzian landscape begins to emerge in relief.  In this sense, it is interference – rather than clarity of signal – that best describes a synoptic and saturated environment according to the full repertoire of agencies and affects through which it is dynamically composed, transformed and reconstituted.’ (p. 276)

In fact, they don’t work with the ‘full repertoire of agencies’ because, like most commentators, their analysis is confined to the transcript of radio communications between the aircrews tracking the vehicles and the Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground.  Although this excludes testimony from the ground staff in superior command posts (‘operations centres’) in Kandahar and Bagram and from those analysing the video feeds in the continental United States, these actors were subject to the same interferences: but their effects were none the less different.  The catastrophic air strike, as Mitchell almost said, was ‘smeared across multiple sites’… a ‘smearing’ because the time and space in which it was produced was indistinct and inconstant, fractured and febrile.

Here, in summary form, are the interferences Pierre and Alexander identify, an inventory which they claim ‘renders the seemingly invisible and neutral space of the electromagnetic environment extremely social and deeply spatial’ (p. 319).  It does that for sure, but the the exchanges they extract from the transcripts do not always align with the general interferences they enumerate – and, as you’ll see, I’m not sure that all of them constitute ‘interferences’.



(1) Thermal interference:  The Predator started tracking the three vehicles while it was still dark and relied on infrared imagery to do so (so did the AC-130 which preceded them: see the images above).  Movement turns out to be ‘the key signature that differentiates an intensive landscape of thermal patterns into distinct contours and forces’, but it was not only the movement of the vehicles that mattered.  The crew also strained to identify the occupants of the vehicles and any possible weapons – hence the Sensor Operator’s complaint that ‘the only way I’ve ever been able to see a rifle is if they move them around when they’re holding them’ –  and the interpretation of the imagery introduced ‘novel semiotic complexities, discontinuities and indeterminacies’ (p. 280).

(2) Temporal interference: Times throughout the radio exchanges were standardised to GMT (‘Zulu time’), though this was neither the time at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada (-8 hours) nor in Uruzgan (+4 1/2 hours).  Hence all of those involved were juggling between multiple time zones, and the Sensor Operator flipped between IR and ‘full Day TV’.   ‘Yet this technical daylighting of the world [the recourse to Zulu time] is not always a smooth operation, always smuggling back in local, contingent temporalities into universal time from all sides’ (p. 281).


(3) Electromagnetic interference: The participants were juggling multiple forms of communication too – the troops on the ground used multi-band radios (MBITRs), for example, while the aircrew had access to secure military chatrooms (mIRC) to communicate with bases in the continental United States and in Afghanistan and with other aircraft but not with the troops on the ground, while the screeners analysing the video stream had no access to the radio communications between the Ground Force Commander and the Predator crew – and the transcripts reveal multiple occasions when it proved impossible to maintain ‘multiple lines of communication across the spectrum against possible comms failure.’  But this was not simply a matter of interruption: it was also, crucially, a matter of information in one medium not being made available in another (though at one point, long before the strike, the Predator pilot thought he was on the same page as the screeners: ‘I’ll make a radio call and I’ll look over [at the chatroom] and they will have said the same thing.’)

(4) Informational interference:  The transcript reveals multiple points of view on what was being seen – and once the analysis is extended beyond the transcript to those other operations centres the information overload (sometimes called ‘helmet fire’) is compounded.

(5) Altitudinal, meteorologic interference:  The Predator’s altitude was not a constant but was changed to deconflict the airspace as other aircraft were moved into and out of the area; those changes were also designed to improve flight operations (remote platforms are notoriously vulnerable to changing weather conditions) and image quality.  There were thus ‘highly choreographed negotiations of and between contingently constituted spatial volumes – airspace – and [electro-magnetic] spectral spaces, both exploiting and avoiding the thickened electromagnetic atmospheres of communications systems and storms alike’ (p. 288).

(6) Sensorial interference:  When two strike aircraft (‘fast movers’) were sent to support the Special Forces, the Ground Force Commander ordered them out of the area in case they ‘burn’ (warn) the target; similarly, the OH-158 helicopters did not move in ‘low and slow’ to observe the three vehicles more closely in case that alerted their occupants.

 ‘While the acoustic space of [the Predator] personnel is characterised by speech and static, the occupation of spectral space generates another acoustic space for surface-bound targets of surveillance.  Each aircraft bears a particular acoustic signature … [and] in the absence of visual contact the whines, whirs and wails of encroaching aircraft warn targets of the content of communications… These disparate acoustic spaces reveal the asymmetry of sensory perception and heightened awareness between the graphic (visual) and acoustic channels’ (p. 289).

burning-the-target-001 burning-the-target-2-001

That asymmetry was accentuated because, as Nasser Hussain so brilliantly observed, the video feeds from the Predator were silent movies: none of those watching had access to the conversations between the occupants of the vehicles, and the only soundtrack was provided by those watching from afar.

(7) Orbital interference:  The crowded space of competing communications requires ‘specific orbital coordinations between patterns of  “orbiting” (circling) aircraft and satellites’ (p. 292), but this is of necessity improvisational, involving multiple relays and frequently imperfect – as this exchange cited by Pierre and Alexander indicates (it also speaks directly to (3) above):

02:27 (Mission Intelligence Coordinator MIC): Alright we need to relay that.

02:27 (Pilot): Jag that Serpent 12 can hear Fox 24 on sat in (muffled) flying

02:27 (Pilot): Jag 25 [JTAC on the ground], Kirk97 [Predator callsign]

02:27 (Unknown):..Low thirties, I don’t care if you burn it

02:27 (Sensor): “I don’t care if you burn it”? That really must have been the other guys talking [presumably the ‘fast movers’]

02:27 (JAG 25): Kirk 97, Jag 25

02:28 (Pilot): Kirk 97, go ahead

02:28 (Pilot): Jag 25, Kirk 97

02:28 (JAG 25):(static) Are you trying to contact me, over?

0228 (Pilot): Jag 25, Kirk97, affirm, have a relay from SOTF KAF [Special Operations Task Force at Kandahar Airfield] fires [Fires Officer], he wants you to know that he uhh cannot talk on SAT 102. Serpent 12 can hear Fox 24 on SATCOM, and is trying to reply. Also ,the AWT [Aerial Weapons Team] is spooling up, and ready for the engagement. How copy?

02:28 (JAG 25): Jag copies all

02:28(Pilot):K. Good.

02:29(Pilot): Can’t wait till this actually happens, with all this coordination and *expletive*

(agreement noises from crew)

02:29 (Pilot): Thanks for the help, you’re doing a good job relaying everything in (muffled), MC. Appreciate it

(8) Semantic interference:  To expedite communications the military relies on a series of acronyms and shorthands (‘brevity codes’), but as these proliferate they can obstruct communication and even provoke discussion about their meaning and implication (hence the Mission Intelligence Controller: ‘God, I forget all my acronyms’); sometimes, too, non-standard terms are introduced that add to the confusion and uncertainty.

(9) Strategic, tactical interference:  Different aerial platforms have different operational envelopes and these both conform to and extend ‘a strategic stratigraphy of airspace and spectral space alike’ (p. 296).  I confess I don’t see how this constitutes ‘interference’.

(10) Occupational interference:  The knowledge those viewing the Full Motion Video feeds bring to the screen is not confined to their professional competences but extends into vernacular knowledges (about the identification of the three vehicles, for example): ‘The casual fluency with which particular visuals signals are discussed, interpreted and mined for cultural information shows a broad base of vernacular technical knowledge’ (p. 297).  The example Pierre and Alexander give relates to a discussion over the makes of the vehicles they are tracking, but again I don’t see how this constitutes ‘interference’ – unless that vernacular knowledge collides with professional competences.  The most obvious examples of such a collision are not technical at all but reside in the assumptions and prejudices the crew brought to bear on the actions of those they were observing.  Some were ostensibly tactical – the investigation report noted that the crew ‘made or changed key assessments [about the intentions of those they were observing] that influenced the decision to destroy the vehicles’ and yet they had ‘neither the training nor the tactical expertise to make these assessments’  – while others were cultural (notably, a marked Orientalism).

(11) Physiological interference:  Here Pierre and Alexander cite the corporeality of those operating the Predator: the stresses of working long shifts (and the boredom), the rest breaks that interrupt the ‘unblinking stare’, and the like.

(12) Organizational interference:   At one point the Sensor Operator fantasised about having ‘a whole fleet of Preds up here… ripple firing missiles right and left’  but – seriously, ironically, grumpily: who knows? – adds ‘we’re not killers, we are ISR.’


Pierre and Alexander see a jibing of these two missions (though whether that justifies calling this ‘interference’ is another question): ‘Despite the blurry, hairline differences between [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and kill-chain operations, the ontologies of informational and kinetic environments make for different occupational worlds altogether’ (p. 301).  I’m not sure about that; one of the key roles of Predators – as in this case – has been to mediate strikes carried out by other aircraft, and while those mediations are frequently complicated and fractured (as Pierre and Alexander’s inventory shows) I don’t think this amounts to occupying ‘different occupational worlds’ let alone provoking ‘interference’ between them.

(13) Geographic, altitudinal interference:  This refers to the problems of a crowded airspace and the need for deconfliction (hence the pilot’s call: ‘I got us new airspace so even if they do keep heading west we can track them’).

(14) Cognitive interference: Remote operations are characterised by long, uneventful periods of watching the screen interrupted by shorter periods of intense, focused strike activity – a cyclical process that Pierre and Alexander characterise as an ‘orbital tension of acceleration and deceleration [that] lies at the heart of the killchain’ that profoundly affects ‘cognitive processing in and of the volatile operational environment’ (p. 305).  For them, this is epitomised when the Mission Intelligence Coordinator typed ‘Killchain’ into mIRC and immediately cleared the chat window for all but essential, strike-related communications.

(15) Topographic, organizational interference: Pierre and Alexander claim that ‘the complex relief of the ground, that is terrain and topography, is magnified in remote-split operations’ – this is presumably a reference to the restricted field of view of those flying the platforms – and that this is paralleled by the different levels of command and control to which the crews are required to respond: ‘navigating competing command pyramids is taken in stride with maneuvering around mountains’  (p. 308).  These are important observations, but I don’t see what is gained by the juxtaposition; in the Uruzgan case the Predator was navigating mountainous terrain  (‘You got a mountain coming into view,’ the Safety Observer advises, ‘keep it in a turn’) but the crew was not responding to directives from multiple operations centres.  In fact, that was part of the problem: until the eleventh hour staff officers were content to watch and record but made no attempt to intervene in the operation.

(16) Demographic, physiologic interference:  Here Pierre and Alexander cite both the composition of the crews operating the remote platforms – predominantly young white men who, so they say, exhibit different inclinations to those of ‘conventional’ Air Force pilots – and the repeated identification of the occupants of the suspect vehicles as ‘Military-Aged Males (‘statistical stereotyping’) (p. 309).


[Still image from NATIONAL BIRD © Ten Forward Films]

(17) Motile interference: Pierre and Alexander treat the crew’s transition from a gung-ho desire to strike and an absolute confidence in target identification to confusion and disquiet once the possibility of civilian casualties dawns on them as a disjunctive moment in which they struggle to regain analytical and affective control: ‘The revelation of misinterpretation exposes the persistence of interference all along, and generates its own form of cognitive shock’ (p. 312).  This feeds directly into:

(18) Operational, ecological interference:  As the crew absorbed new information from the pilots of the attack helicopters about the presence of women and children in the vehicles they registered the possibility of a (catastrophic) mistake, and so returned to their ISR mission – taking refuge in their sensors, what they could and could not have seen, and bracketing the strike itself – in an attempt to screen out the discordant information: ‘The optic that initially occasioned the first identifiable instances of misinterpretation is re-activated as a kind of prosthetic inducer of cognitive distance’ (p. 313).  The exchange below (beautifully dissected by Lorraine de Volo) captures this almost therapeutic recalibration perfectly:


(19) Political, epistemological interference:  Here the target is the cascade of redactions that runs through the unclassified version of the transcripts (and, by extension, the investigation report as a whole).  ‘That redaction and the strategic project it serves – secrecy in the form of classification – is not necessarily deployed electromagnetically does not mean its effects are limited to analog media’ since the objective is to command and control a whole ‘ecology of communication'(p. 316) (see my posts here and here).

This inventory is derived from a limited set of transactions, as I’ve said, but it’s also limited by the sensing and communication technology that was available to the participants at the time, so some caution is necessary in extrapolating these findings.  But the general (and immensely important) argument Pierre and Alexander make is that the catastrophic strike cannot be attributed to ‘miscommunication’ – or at any rate, not to miscommunication considered as somehow apart from and opposed to communication.  Hence their focus on interference:

‘Defined by moments of incoherence or interruption of a dominant signal that is itself a form of interference, interferences can take on different and often banal forms such as radio static, garbled signals, forgotten acronyms, misread gestures or even time lapses, which in the remote operational theaters of military missions result in disastrous actions.  Moreover, interference indexes the common media, forms, processes, and spaces connecting apparently disparate communication and signals across distinct material and operational environments.

In this sense, interference is not a subversion of communication but rather a constitutive and essential part of it.  Interference is thus both inhibitor and instigator.  Interference makes lines of communication read, alternatively, as field of interactions.  In this expanded field, interference may complexify by cancelling out communications, blocking or distorting signals, but conversely it may also amplify and augment both the content of sensed information and sensory receptions of the environment of communications.  Interference is what makes sensing ecologies make sense.’ (p. 318)

They also emphasise, more than most of us, that the ‘networks’ that enable drone strikes are three-dimensional (so reducing them to a planar map does considerable violence to the violence), that the connections and communications on which they rely are imperfect and inconstant in time and space, and that these extend far beyond any conventional (or even unconventional) ‘landscape’.  In general, I think, the critical analysis of drone warfare needs to be thickened in at least two directions: to address what happens on the ground, including the preparation of the ground, so to speak; and to reconstruct the fraught geopolitics of satellite communications and bandwidth that so materially shapes what is seen and not seen and what is heard and not heard.  More to come on both.

Incoming, upcoming


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.


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.


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.

Topographies of Mass Violence


I’ve agreed to speak at the Max and Iris Stern International Symposium on Topographies of Mass Violence to be held at the wonderful Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) (above) 31 March 31/1 April 2017.

We’re still figuring out what I might do, but here is the general description of the symposium.  More details when I have them.

The 11th annual Max and Iris Stern International Symposium, Topographies of Mass Violence, will be held at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal on March 31 and April 1, 2017, accompanying the shows Mundos by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles and Now Have a Look at this Machine, by Quebec artist Emanuel Licha. The symposium will address the phenomena of mass violence and the ways in which it is intimately linked to the territories and spaces in which it is perpetrated, but also the spatial and architectural arrangements through which it is mediated.

Mass violence is defined as violence by a government or organized group against certain members of a community or an entire population (members of an ethnic, religious or sexual community, inhabitants of a country). It encompasses violence against a few individuals to several hundred thousand victims: shootings, terrorist acts, feminicides, armed conflict, genocide. While there has always been mass violence, with war being one of the most common manifestations, since the early 1990s the nature of such violence as well as its modes of appearance and representation have changed. Far from making the world a peaceful place, the end of the Cold War and the opening of political, cultural and commercial borders has resulted in ongoing war, even in the heart of Europe, and a resurgence of the oldest forms of mass violence (such as genocide and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the Balkans). Recent decades have also been marked by an increase in certain types of mass violence: against women (the Polytechnique massacre, killing of First Nations women), against sexual communities (the shooting in Orlando, murders of transgender people), against Blacks (police violence) and even against certain social and occupational categories (Charlie Hebdo journalists, Mexican students). Climate change—which has its roots in political decisions about territorial management and is often closely intertwined with conflict—is also a source of broad-scale violence against civilian populations, provoking major movements of people which has in turn resulted in government attempts to impose spatial management on individuals (border walls, refugee camps, apartheids).

The ways in which these phenomena are represented has also undergone major transformations since the early 1990s. The first Gulf War marked the start of an intensive production of images of conflict, leading to tight governmental controls on their dissemination. Later, the advent of the Internet and social media allowed new actors to get involved in producing and disseminating such images, including amateur reporters and victims, but also perpetrators, in a trend toward the spectacularization of group killings: the September 11 attacks, the macabre scenes staged by Mexican drug cartels and the executions filmed by the Islamic State.

In this symposium, an international group of specialists in a variety of disciplines (historians of art, architecture and urban planning, of film and media, as well as architects, artists, activists and curators) will address these phenomena and suggest ways to think about them that go beyond their traditional representations in the media. Their contributions will help us imagine how the investigation of certain spatial artefacts inherent to architecture, city planning or military tactics can lead to a better understanding of these forms of violence.

Mapping, forensic architecture and visual cultures provide tools for conducting such spatial investigations, and certain artistic practices associated with these inquiries seek to offer alternative modes of representation. To escape the media polarization of unrepresentability/spectacularization, but also to counter government erasure and denial of mass violence, many artists take on the role of topographer by recording and representing the traces of this violence in the places where it has been directly or indirectly inscribed. Whether this involves territories where the violence has occurred (such as the Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan deserts; the Highway of Tears in British Columbia and Downtown Eastside in Vancouver;Ciudad Juárez and adjacent neighbourhoods), the evidence that remains (mass graves, destroyed cities, abandoned houses …) or the architectural structures which have made the representation and mediatization possible (war hotels …), mass violence is inseparable from topos.


Margolles’s Mundos brings together multiple works addressing violence in Mexico:

For over 30 years, Margolles has developed her practice in response to the endemic violence that ravages her country (violent deaths from the drug trade, marginalities and exclusions, feminicides and social injustice). The exhibition, Mundos, brings together works mainly created in this decade, along with pieces that have never been shown before. It includes sculptural and photographic installations, performative interventions and videos. Spare, yet powerfully moving, the work by Margolles reaches out and brings us into the world of those whose lives have been made invisible.


Licha’s Now Have a Look at this Machine is an installation version of a documentary, Hotel Machine:

Licha filmed in five cities—Beirut, Sarajevo, Gaza, Kiev and Belgrade—in five hotels that house war correspondents covering conflicts. The film is presented in a central space surrounded by five adjacent archive stations, which through texts, images and other documents explore aspects of the concept of the “war hotel.”

Seeing machines



The Transnational Institute has published a glossy version of a chapter from Steve Graham‘s Vertical – called Drone: Robot Imperium, you can download it here (open access).  Not sure about either of the terms in the subtitle, but it’s a good read and richly illustrated.

Steve includes a discussion of the use of drones to patrol the US-Mexico border, and Josh Begley has published a suggestive account of the role of drones but also other ‘seeing machines’ in visualizing the border.

One way the border is performed — particularly the southern border of the United States — can be understood through the lens of data collection. In the border region, along the Rio Grande and westward through the desert Southwest, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deploys radar blimps, drones, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, seismic sensors, ground radar, face recognition software, license-plate readers, and high-definition infrared video cameras. Increasingly, they all feed data back into something called “The Big Pipe.”

Josh downloaded 20,000 satellite images of the border, stitched them together, and then worked with Laura Poitras and her team at Field of Vision to produce a short film – Best of Luck with the Wall – that traverses the entire length of the border (1, 954 miles) in six minutes:

The southern border is a space that has been almost entirely reduced to metaphor. It is not even a geography. Part of my intention with this film is to insist on that geography.

By focusing on the physical landscape, I hope viewers might gain a sense of the enormity of it all, and perhaps imagine what it would mean to be a political subject of that terrain.


If you too wonder about that last sentence and its latent bio-physicality – and there is of course a rich stream of work on the bodies that seek to cross that border – then you might visit another of Josh’s projects, Fatal Migrations, 2011-2016 (see above and below).


There’s an interview with Josh that, among other things, links these projects with his previous work.

I have a couple of projects that are smartphone centered. One of them is about mapping the geography of places around the world where the CIA carries out drone strikes—mostly in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Another was about looking at the geography of incarceration in the United States—there are more than 5,000 prisons—and trying to map all of them and see them through satellites. I currently have an app that is looking at the geography of police violence in the United States. Most of these apps are about creating a relationship between data and the body, where you can receive a notification every time something unsettling happens. What does that mean for the rest of your day? How do you live with that data—data about people? In some cases the work grows out of these questions, but in other cases the work really is about landscape….

There’s just so much you can never know from looking at satellite imagery. By definition it flattens and distorts things. A lot of folks who fly drones, for instance, think they know a space just from looking at it from above. I firmly reject that idea. The bird’s eye view is never what it means to be on the ground somewhere, or what it means to have meaningful relationships with people on the ground. I feel like I can understand the landscape from 30,000 feet, but it is not the same as spending time in a space.

Anjali Nath has also provided a new commentary on one of Josh’s earlier projects, Metadata, that he cites in that interview – ‘Touched from below: on drones, screens and navigation’, Visual Anthropology 29 (3) (2016) 315-30.

It’s part of a special issue on ‘Visual Revolutions in the Middle East’, and as I explore the visual interventions I’ve included in this post I find myself once again thinking of a vital remark by Edward Said:


That’s part of the message behind the #NotaBugSplat image on the cover of Steve’s essay: but what might Said’s remark mean more generally today, faced with the proliferation of these seeing machines?


Killing over Kunduz

This is the second in a new series of posts on military violence against hospitals and medical personnel in conflict zones.  It examines the US attack on the Trauma Centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Kunduz on 3 October 2015.  I provided preliminary discussions here (on the conduct of US military investigations into civilian casualty incidents), here (on MSF’s own investigation into the attack), here (on the Executive Summary of the US military investigation), here (on two first-hand accounts from MSF personnel), here and here on the final report, and here (on the likelihood that the attack constituted a war crime).   This post draws on those discussions but also on a close reading of the redacted report of the US military investigation [all page references refer to that report], on work by investigative journalists, and on ancillary materials and commentaries. 

spooky-mainOne year ago today, in the early hours of the morning of 3 October 2015, a US AC-130U gunship (‘Spooky’) launched a concentrated attack on the Trauma Centre in Kunduz run by Médecins Sans Frontières.  In an otherwise probing report on what happened,  the Washington Post claimed that the gunship has sensors ‘that give it a “God’s eye” of the battlefield’.  Here  I explore some of the multiple ways in which such a view was – and remains – impossible.  For militarized vision, like any other optical modality, is never a purely technical affair.  A series of cascading technical errors bedevilled the US attempt to re-take Kunduz from the Taliban, who had swept into the city a few days earlier, but these were compounded by a series of profoundly human decisions and interactions and it was the intimate entanglement of the technical and the human that determined the hideous outcome.

At least 42 people were killed, including 24 patients, 14 medical staff and 4 caretakers.  Many others were wounded and traumatized.  Here is Dr Evangeline Cua, a Philippina surgeon who was on duty when the attack started:

msf164464-profileWe were like two headless chickens running in total darkness — me and the surgeon who assisted me in an operation. The nurses who were with us a moment ago had run outside the building, braving the volley of gunshots coming from above. I was coughing, half-choked by dust swirling around the area. Behind my surgical mask, my mouth was gritty, as if somebody forced me to eat sand. I could hear my breath rasping in and out. Layers of smoke coming from a nearby room made it hard to see where we were. Blinking around, I caught sight of a glow, from a man’s hand holding a phone. He seemed mortally wounded but was still trying to send a message…perhaps to a loved one?

I stood transfixed, not knowing where to turn or what to do. All around us, bombing continued in regular intervals, shaking the ground, sending debris sweeping and flying. One. Two. Three. I tried to count but there seems to be no abatement to the explosions. I stopped counting at eight and silently prayed that we could get out of there alive.

Fire licked at the roof at one end of the building, dancing and sparkling in the dark, reaching towards the branches of the trees nearby. The ICU was burning.  Outside, only the constant humming from above pointed to the presence of something. An aircraft? Airstrike? Why the hospital? Why us? Then, without warning, another tremendous, ear splitting blast shook the building. The ceiling came crashing down on us and the last remaining lights were turned off, sending us to total darkness. I screamed in terror as wires pinned me to the ground. That was the last thing I could remember.

What follows is an attempt to answer those questions.  It is fraught with uncertainty: the most detailed investigation to date has been carried out by the US military, but the redacted version of the final report that has been released to the public is (by the standards of other US military investigations) profoundly unsatisfactory – redacted with a brutishly heavy hand.  Time and time again, ironically, references to the time of events have been removed; transcripts of radio communications and interviews by the investigating panel that have been released in other cases have been suppressed; and some redactions seem to have been made not for reasons of privacy or security but to avoid embarrassment (more here; you can download the report from US Central Command’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) library here).

All of this reinforces MSF’s original call for an independent investigation.  I understand May Jeong‘s pessimism:

A former Afghan special forces commander who was at the command and control center in Kunduz during the fight assured me I would never get to the bottom of the attack. The reason why I couldn’t figure out exactly what had happened, he said, was the fog of war. “Ground truth is impossible to know. Even those who were there wouldn’t be able to tell you what they saw.”

But when the ‘fog of war’ – so often a convenient cover for all manner of horrors – is deliberately thickened – when visibility is ruthlessly reduced by redaction – then perfectly proper public interest is trumped by political and military expediency.


When the NATO-led combat mission to Afghanistan conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) finished at the end of 2014 it was replaced by a much smaller advisory mission, Resolute Support, which was ‘to provide further training, advice and assistance for the Afghan security forces and institutions’.  Resolute Support was authorized by a Status of Forces agreement between NATO and the Afghan government in Kabul.  Its central hub was Kabul/Bagram, with four ‘spokes’ formed by four other ‘Train Assist Advise’ Commands to support four Afghan National Army Corps outside the capital (more here and here):


US troops were the major contributor to Resolute Support, but they were also assigned to the United States’s continuing (‘concurrent and complementary’) counter-terrorism mission now designated as ‘Operation Freedom’s Sentinel’.  Until March 2016 both missions were under the overall command of General John Campbell.

By September 2015 the focus of US concern in Afghanistan was Helmand in the south – where the Taliban were on the ascendant, forcing Afghan government forces to retreat as they seized control of key districts and gained control of the Kajaki dam – and US Special Forces were rushed to Camp Bastion after the fall of Musa Qala gave the insurgents a strategic advantage.

By contrast, Kunduz in the north was regarded as ‘secure’ [135] after a series of combat operations at the start of the fighting season earlier in the year.  As late as 13 August Brigadier-General Wilson Shoffner, Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications with Resolute Support, declared that although there had been ‘an attempt by the Taliban to try to stretch the Afghan security forces in the north’ the city of Kunduz ‘is not now and has not been in danger of being overrun by the Taliban’ (he also described the situation at Kajaki as merely a ‘local security challenge’).  But those previous operations in Kunduz had targeted Taliban operations areas and did not extend to support zones outside the city.


Obeid Ali reports that during the summer the Taliban continued to make inroads until they controlled areas to the south west, north west and south east of the city.

On 28 September 2015, the Taliban stormed various ANSF locations in Kunduz city from the three different directions they had spent so long preparing… The simultaneous attacks on the city and the collapse of check posts at the city ‘gateways’ destroyed the confidence of the ANSF inside the city in their ability to stand against this unexpected offensive. In the face of the well-organised and coordinated insurgent operation, most held out for only a few hours. A chaotic environment quickly spread and government officials, ALP [Afghan Local Police] commanders and some of the ANA [Afghan National Army] officers, fled to the military base at the airport [Camp Pamir], leaving Kunduz effectively leaderless.


Kunduz was a spectacular, strategic prize: the first city to fall to the mujaheddin in 1998 and the first time the Taliban had seized a major city since 2001, its capture signalled both a resilient Taliban and a faltering government footprint in the region.


On 28 September there was a detachment of US Special Forces (‘Green Berets’) based at Kunduz airfield as part of the Train, Assist, Advise mission.  Like every Operational Detachment – Alpha (OD-A) it consisted of just 12 soldiers, all cross-trained and capable of operating for extended periods of time with little or no support.  On 29 September their superior command – the US Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan – ordered two other OD-As to Kunduz.  While they were in the air the OD-A on the ground sketched out a contingency plan (‘Kunduz City Foothold Establishment’) to assist the Afghan forces to return to the city and secure the Kunduz City Hospital and the Prison.  There were repeated US airstrikes against Taliban positions in and around the city throughout the day, but by the time the OD-A reinforcements, together with other Afghan troops including Afghan Special Security Forces (below), arrived in the evening it was clear that the original plan was unworkable and their immediate priority had to be the defence of the airfield [032, 382].


The US reinforcements included Major Michael Hutchinson, who assumed overall command of the combined OD-As (he was identified as the Ground Force Commander by the New York Times).  He had misgivings about the mission but accepted that ‘we can’t lose the provincial capital’ [377].   The next day a revised plan (‘Kunduz Clearing Patrol’) was submitted to the Special Operations Task Force for approval, which was granted that night, and the OD-As requested that Afghan Special Security Forces be accorded ‘designated special status’ that would permit the Green Berets to extend their own envelope of self-defence and assume a direct combat role (including calling in air strikes) to defend their partner forces if they came under attack [046-7].

By this time Médecins Sans Frontières had been in contact with both US and Afghan forces to ensure that they were aware of the location and status of its Trauma Centre in Kunduz.  It was in the eye of the storm.  Dr Kathleen Thomas, an Australian doctor in charge of the Emergency Room and the Intensive Care Unit, explained:

We all knew that at times, our hospital was in the middle of the rapidly changing front line – we could feel it. When the fighting was close – the shooting and explosions vibrated the walls. I was scared – we were all scared. When a loud “BOOM” would sound a bit closer to the hospital, we would all drop to the floor away from the large windows that lined the ICU walls. We also tried to move the patients and large (flammable) oxygen bottles away all from the windows, but the layout of the ICU prohibited doing this effectively. I worried constantly about the exposure from those windows – yet never thought to worry about the exposure from the roof.


Most of the patients were civilians.  Of the combatants, MSF reported that most of them were from the Afghan army and police, as had been the case since the Trauma Centre opened, but once the city fell on 28 September ‘this shifted to primarily wounded Taliban combatants.’  The Afghan government speedily arranged the transfer of all its patients (apart from the most severely wounded cases) to another hospital.

By that night the Taliban announced that it was in control of the district.  Kathleen Thomas described the scene:

The first day was chaos – more than 130 patients poured through our doors in only a few hours. Despite the heroic efforts of all the staff, we were completely overwhelmed. Most patients were civilians, but some were wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict. When I reflect on that day now, what I remember is the smell of blood that permeated through the emergency room, the touch of desperate people pulling at my clothes to get my attention begging me to help their injured loved ones, the wailing, despair and anguish of parents of yet another child lethally injured by a stray bullet whom we could not save, my own sense of panic as another and another and another patient was carried in and laid on the floor of the already packed emergency department, and all the while in the background the tut-tut-tut-tut of machine guns and the occasional large boom from explosions that sounded way too close for comfort.

Although the Trauma Centre had been on US Central Command’s ‘No-Strike List’ since October 2014 MSF now re-supplied its GPS coordinates and reminded the Ministry of Defence in Kabul that ‘MSF and its personnel observes strict neutrality and impartiality in the name of universal medical ethics and rights of populations affected by conflicts to humanitarian assistance’ and claimed ‘full respect of these principles and rules in order to be able to continue responding to the humanitarian and medical needs of all Afghans’ [144].  On 29 September MSF issued what would prove to be a remarkably optimistic statement:

We are in contact with all parties to the conflict and have received assurances that our medical personnel, patients, hospital and ambulances will be respected.  With the government provincial hospital not currently functioning, MSF’s hospital is now the only place in Kunduz where people in need of urgent trauma care can receive it.


MSF had withdrawn from Afghanistan in August 2004 – after the targeted killing of five of its aid workers in June, the government’s failure to arrest those responsible, and Taliban threats to target organizations like MSF that they falsely claimed ‘work for US interests’ – and returned five years later with agreements from the US-led coalition, the Afghan government and the Taliban to respect the de-militarization of its hospitals (including a strict ‘no-weapons’ policy inside them). Initially MSF assumed responsibility for two public hospitals in Kabul and Helmand; two years later it opened its Trauma Centre in Kunduz inside the old Spinzer cotton factory.  It soon became immensely important:


[Source: Miguel Trelles, Barclay T Stewart and others, ‘Averted health burden over 4 years at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Trauma Centre in Kunduz, Afghanistan, prior to its closure in 2015’, Surgery (2016) in press]

Between August 2011 and August 2015 the Trauma Centre cared for 6,685 patients; roughly one-third were suffering from ‘violence-related trauma’, which included land mines and bomb blasts, gunshots, stabbings, assaults, rape and torture; one quarter of those were children.  Procedures for complex wounds were the most common – debridement (excision), removed of shrapnel, care of burns – followed by orthopaedic procedures (including amputation).  Those injuries increased dramatically in the months before the city fell to the Taliban.  Miguel Trelles and his collaborators estimate that during this period the Trauma Centre averted 154, 254 ‘Disability Adjusted Life Years’; more prosaically:

The MSF Kunduz Trauma Centre provided surgical care for a large number of wounded and injured patients in the region. The surgical epidemiology is consistent with reports from other areas of prolonged insecurity in that unintentional, traumatic, non–war-related injuries generally outnumber those from violence. Nevertheless … the Trauma Centre provided surgical care for many adults and children injured directly by conflict (eg, injuries due to gunshots, land mines, bomb blasts). The health burden averted by surgical care at the Trauma Centre was large…

And yet, despite the importance of the Trauma Centre and its inclusion on a centralized No-Strike List that database was not consulted during the operational vetting and legal approval of the two plans drawn up by the OD-As [032, 045] (which, to be fair, had never been in the city and had no direct knowledge of the terrain; their Joint Terminal Attack Controllers had tried to print hard copy of ISR imagery before they set out from Camp Pamir but the base’s only printer was so old all it could produce were ‘giant magenta blobs’  that were completely useless [383] – so initially they relied on a single 1:50,00 map to plan and execute their operations [048]).

In fact – the irony is extraordinary – one member of the Special Operations Task Force testified that even they had no access to the No-Strike List and only discovered the existence of the Trauma Centre by accident, when ‘somebody was looking for additional medical facilities for use as emergency means to treat our own casualties’ if they could not make it back to Camp Pamir and the Forward Surgical Team based there [217, 219].  It was only then, late in the night of 29 September, that the Trauma Centre was added to the database maintained by the ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] Tactical Controllers at the Special Operations Task Force at Bagram; early the next morning e-mails with this information were sent to ‘all ISR assets supporting operations in Kunduz’ [213].



On 30 September there was a secure videoconference between General Campbell, his Afghan counterpart and Major Hutchinson.  It was clear that Campbell was exasperated at the conduct of the Afghan forces and attached great importance to re-taking the city.  Fired up, Hutchinson briefed his men on the planned Kunduz Clearing Patrol, relaying the spirit of Campbell’s comments and telling them this was ‘a no fail mission’, that ‘all of the civilians have fled and only the Taliban are in the city’, and that ‘everything is a threat’ [256].  That night, once the mission had been approved, the Green Berets fought their way into the city alongside the Afghan Special Security Forces, with Close Air Support from US aircraft including an AC-130 gunship that ‘continuously called out and engaged [Taliban] ambush sites’ [325].  This seems to have been the same aircraft and crew that returned on 2/3 October; the sensor operator described that fateful mission as their third flight over Kunduz, following two others on 2 September and 30 September, the last when they provided armed overwatch for a US convoy into the city centre and engaged the Taliban at multiple locations.  Indeed, he claimed that those previous missions had provided them with ‘good situational awareness’ of Kunduz and the ‘patterns of life’ of both civilians and insurgents [362].

Before dawn on 1 October the US and Afghan troops had cleared several key buildings and established a defensive strongpoint in the Provincial Chief of Police Compound [PCOP].  They hunkered down and came under repeated mortar, rocket-propelled grenade and automatic weapons fire, and throughout that day and the next their Joint Terminal Attack Controller called in multiple strikes from F-16 aircraft, many of them ‘danger close’, in immediate proximity to the PCOP [332].


By the end of the afternoon on 2 October several Afghan troops had been wounded.  Their commander was all for taking the casualties back to Camp Pamir immediately, but Hutchinson persuaded them that this was madness: they were stable so the medical evacuation should wait for the cover of darkness.  The Afghan Special Security Forces agreed; while they were at Pamir they would re-supply and then return to attack a command and control centre they said had been established by the Taliban in the National Directorate of Security compound (NDS) to the south west of the PCOP which the Afghan SSF also referred to as ‘the NDS prison’ [386-8].  The investigation report includes this map showing the relationship of the PCOP to the NDS Compound and the MSF Trauma Centre:


[A similar map included in a detailed analysis by The Intercept mis-locates the PCOP – almost certainly confusing it with the NDS Prison that the Operations Center in Bagram wrongly assumed was the intended target of the air/ground operation: see below]

The Afghan Special Security Forces were assured that Close Air Support would be extended to the convoy once they had returned to the ‘self-defence perimeter’ beyond the PCOP – a ‘bubble’, Hutchinson called it, roughly defined by the range of the heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns used by the Taliban [387].

But by then the F-16s providing close air support were running low on munitions and in the early evening, with the situation in Kunduz remaining precarious, the Special Operations Task Force scrambled the AC-130 gunship from Bagram to take over.


The AC-130 (call-sign ‘Hammer’) was a mission in a hurry and the aircraft took off without a proper briefing or any geospatial intelligence products.  All the aircrew had was the grid location of the PCOP and the call sign and contact frequency for the OD-As [052].  By then, superior commands had received the e-mail detailing the location of the Trauma Centre, and at 1847 the Fires Officer from Combined Joint Special Operations e-mailed a package of ‘mission products’ to the Electronic Warfare Officer onboard the AC-130 which included that information.  But en route to Kunduz one of the aircraft’s communications systems failed and the message never arrived; when the aircrew did not acknowledge receipt, the Fires Officer at Bagram made no attempt to pass the information over the radio (which was working) [052].

At 0130 on 3 October the Afghan convoy left on its evacuation and re-supply mission, and Hutchinson contacted the AC-130 through his Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) to ask them to carry out a ‘defensive [infrared] scan’ of the area of operations.  Specifically, he wanted to prepare the ground ahead of the convoy’s return: if they were ambushed and ‘got fixed in place what I wanted to do was to reduce heavy weapons and strongpoints so that they would be able to effectively maneuver on to the objective’ [390].  To that end he supplied the aircraft with a grid location for the NDS compound.

It is unclear – from the redacted report, at least – how the co-ordinates of the target were obtained. Hutchinson said that when the Afghan Special Security Forces showed him their plan for securing the NDS compound it included ‘a grid [which] said, I think, NDS prison’, but when he plotted the location he realised it was not the Prison to the south that was one of the objectives included in the original plan to establish a foothold in the city. Hutchinson riffed on the multiple NDS facilities throughout Kunduz, but this begs a crucial question: how did he plot the grid to confirm the location?  He claimed to have been working from the 1:50,00 map spread out on the hood of his armoured vehicle, which could hardly have provided the co-ordinates required for a precision strike.  The Joint Terminal Attack Controllers would have had access to digital imagery stored on their laptops, but by this stage they were running low on batteries and cannibalising the radios of other Green Berets to keep communications with the AC-130 open [334, 383].  ‘The worst part of it,’ Hutchinson said, was that the day after the strike they found a detailed 1:10,000 map produced by a Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2013 ‘with nice crisp imagery, and it had everything labelled with 10-digit grids’ [397].  The commanders of the other two OD-As remembered it differently, both testifying that the map was found in the provincial governor’s office on 1 October.


All this matters because when the TV sensor operator on the AC-130 (above) inputted the grids that were passed by Hutchinson via his JTAC he found ‘it put me in a field with residential buildings’.  The AC-130 has a sophisticated sensor suite, including high resolution sensors (an All Light Level Television system, infrared detection set and strike radar to permit all weather/night target acquisition).  But reading between the redactions in the investigation report there is some suggestion that there are also known technical issues with the system (perhaps distortion introduced by the aircraft’s height and/or orbit, because the AC-130 had been forced out of its overhead orbit at 2220 by taking evasive action against a surface-to-air threat): ‘Nothing in the immediate location matched the target but from training I was aware that at significant [redacted]…’ [363].

So the sensor operator widened the search and found a large compound 300 metres to the south that appeared to match the description of the target.  It was not difficult to find: the Trauma Centre had its own generator and was the only building in the city that was still brightly illuminated.  At first sight the sensor operator said ‘there was nothing else near the original location that could match the description of a prison.’


‘As we got closer,’ s/he continued,

I observed multiple [redacted: this is surely MAMs or ‘military-aged males’, a term the US military was supposed to have discontinued, which would explain the otherwise puzzling deletion] walking in between buildings [redacted] entrances with [redacted: guards?] posted. After passing back the information to the JTAC he said the compound was under enemy control and that those [redacted: MAMs?] were declared hostile [363].

The navigator had informed the JTAC that the grids had originally plotted to the middle of a field but they now had a large compound in their sights, a T-shaped structure with an arch gate and nine people ‘roaming outside’.  The Green Berets conferred with the Afghan Special Security Forces in the PCOP who confirmed that this was the NDS compound, and the Fire Control Officer on the AC-130 adjusted the target location in the fire control system accordingly [054, 242].


But the sensor operator, more mindful of the Tactical Guidance issued by General Campbell (below), testified that he wanted ‘to make sure we were not inadvertently declaring civilians hostile’.


So he re-entered the original co-ordinates (‘to determine any system [redacted: error?]’) – by then the AC-130 had moved to a more accurate, overhead orbit [057] – and this time the sensor homed in on a second compound:

a much smaller compound with two large buildings, what appeared to be a third smaller shack, two overhangs, a wall surrounding, what appeared to be guard towers at the four corners with a single entrance on the south side of the compound and was unable to observe any movement in that compound [363].

This underscored his concerns.  ‘Now that we are closer,’ he told the rest of the crew,

even though that compound [is] the only one that’s limited and has activity, if you look in the TV’s screen you can see this hardened structure [the second compound] that looks very large and could also be more like a prison with cells. So I just want to verify that before we start declaring people hostile, that we are 100 per cent sure that this is the correct compound [057].

He asked the navigator to request a more detailed target description from the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (though the JTAC was not told that the aircraft’s sensors had now identified two different compounds from the same grids).

The JTAC came back with a target description of multiple buildings with a wall surrounding, and a main gate with an arch shape. I asked for further clarification on which side of the compound that gate was on, to which he replied the North side of the compound. The gate I was able to make out at the first compound was on the north side and matched the target description [363].

The first compound was the MSF Trauma Centre; the second was the NDS compound.


The redacted version of the investigation report includes a satellite image of the MSF Trauma Centre but conspicuously failed to include a corresponding image of the NDS compound.  Yet from TerraServer’s satellite imagery (below) it is clear that the two are radically different, and in fact the gate on the NDS compound faced south not north.




Neither Hutchinson nor his JTAC had access to real-time imagery from the AC-130 because the same antenna that prevented the aircraft receiving the e-mail with the No-Strike List also prevented it from transmitting a video feed to the JTAC’s laptop, and so both the aircrew and the US forces on the ground had to rely on verbal descriptions.  The investigation report calls the characterisation of the target building ‘a vague description’ [034] but, as Mathieu Aikins pointed out in a superb analysis of the strike, ‘it’s actually a rather specific description that corresponds to MSF’s distinctive layout.’  Indeed, when the aircrew compared the two compounds they were persuaded by the description of a ‘T-shaped structure’ that they had identified the correct target.

Once the AC-130 aircrew’s description of the Trauma Centre had been confirmed by the Afghan Special Security Forces as the NDS compound, the circle was closed.  As Hutchinson testified, he had a report from the AC-130 ‘that describes a target, the disposition of the target and the pattern of life on it that’s completely consistent with what I’ve heard from the Afghans…’  Whether the Afghans deliberately substituted a description of the Trauma Centre for the NDS compound remains an open question.  From their own (separate) interviews in Kunduz, both May Jeong and Mathieu Aikins repeatedly raise this as a distinct possibility.  Some informants insisted that the Trauma Centre had been overrun by the Taliban, confirmed (so they said) by raw intelligence and communications intercepts, even that it was being used as a firing position – a claim that was repeated by the government in Kabul in the immediate aftermath of the strike – while others complained that MSF treated Taliban casualties who then returned to the fray: ‘patching up fighters and sending them back out.’  Much of this is ex post facto rationalisation; clearly many Afghans regarded the attack on the Trauma Centre as perfectly justified.  But Aikins asks a more pointed question: Did Afghan forces, out of longstanding mistrust of MSF, draw the United States into a terrible tragedy?’

If they did, then it had to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision to take advantage of a developing situation, since the Afghan Special Security Forces had originally provided the correct grids for the NDS compound.

More telling, I suspect, is that from 0100 until well into the attack on the Trauma Centre the only people who had the co-ordinates for the target now in the sights of the AC-130 were the aircrew, who did not pass the grid location for what they had incorrectly identified as the target back to Hutchinson.  And yet the ground force commander had already told the navigator he had ‘great confidence in the grids passed [057]’, and it is astonishing that this did not prompt a more extensive discussion among the aircrew since the original grids had plotted first to an open field and second to the NDS compound but never to the Trauma Centre that had now been designated as the target.

Neither did the aircrew pass the revised grids back to the Special Operations Task Force who were monitoring events from Bagram.  Repeating Hutchinson’s earlier mistaken assumption, the staff in the Operations Center at Bagram believed the target (‘the NDS prison’) was the Prison in the south of the city which had been included in the original Kunduz City Foothold Establishment plan, and they tasked an MQ-1 Predator to provide surveillance over that location [059].


Hutchinson could not view the video feed from the Predator, since the laptops in the PCOP were desperately short of batteries, but the Special Operations Task Force did have access to the drone’s real-time imagery.  Nothing was happening around the Prison, and confident that this was the strike location nobody at Bagram attempted to confirm the coordinates until the attack on the Trauma Center was well under way.  At 0207 they heard a sudden, direct transmission from the AC-130 – ‘unreadable numbers followed by going hot/rounds away’ – and ‘the quickness of the going hot call’ suggested to one experienced JTAC at Bagram that ‘there was possibly a dire situation on the ground.’  But ‘the passing of engagement grids was broken, unreadable’, and s/he immediately ‘made multiple attempts to get a resend of [the] grid of engagement’.  Those requests ‘were either not acknowledged or met with “still engaging/hot”‘, but this was ‘not uncommon due to the task saturation during coordination and employment by ground JTACs and aircraft’.   Meanwhile another JTAC in the Operations Centre, realising that ‘no activity was noted at the facility’ – presumably by the Predator on station over the Prison; the Taliban had reportedly freed all the prisoners when they took the city – tasked the Predator crew to ‘find the engagement area’ [261-4].  At 0220 they were successful, and once the new grids had been checked the Operations Center realised that the AC-130 was attacking the Trauma Center.


Hutchinson provided two contradictory rationales for the attack.  One was offensive: his JTAC relayed to the AC-130 that Hutchinson’s intent was to ‘soften the target’ (meaning the NDS compound) for the Afghan convoy returning from Camp Pamir.  When the aircrew asked for clarification they were told they were to ‘destroy targets of opportunity that may impede partner forces’ success’ [059].  When he was questioned by the investigating officers, Hutchinson represented this as pre-emptive and precautionary: ‘If they were going to take contact I did not want to play twenty questions while they were taking fire’ [391].  The other was unambiguously defensive: the immediate trigger for Hutchinson to clear the AC-130 to open fire was the sound of automatic gunfire from the east-west road near the NDS compound.

What did it for me in the end was when I believed the [redacted] convoy to be at that parallel cross street … or the perpendicular cross street … to the facility, I heard sustained automatic weapons fire … and it was coming from that general direction. And so I asked the [redacted] are they in contact yet. He can’t get through [to] them at first, and so I think okay, so that’s a sign they’re probably in contact… Fire continues and I ask him again and he says strike now, assume they are decisively engaged’ [393-4].

It’s not clear from the redactions who Hutchinson was talking to, but it was almost certainly someone from the Afghan Special Security Forces in the PCOP.  What is certain – and known to the aircrew on the AC-130, who were also tracking the convoy, but not to Hutchinson – was that the convoy was nowhere near the NDS compound or even the Trauma Centre at that time but 9 km away, still within the northern perimeter of the airfield.

Hutchinson’s attention was on the sound of gunfire.  He explained that most of the fire directed against his forces in the PCOP compound had been from the west, and it was ‘unthinkable’ that ‘there would have been anything functional over there in terms of essential services’ [394] – like a hospital.

And so, at 0202 Hutchinson had his JTAC instruct the AC-130 to strike the ‘objective building first’ and then to provide ‘suppressing fire’ (which the JTAC later described as a ‘PAX cocktail’ and the aircrew translated as ‘MAMs’ [military-aged males]).   Again the aircrew sought clarification; they wanted to be sure that their target was the ‘large T-shaped building in the centre of the compound’ and that ‘we are [also] cleared on people in this compound.’  It was and they were; at 0208 the first round was fired as the Electronic Warfare Officer announced the grids over the radio: the garbled transmission received at Bagram [064-6].



The AC-130 made five passes over the Trauma Centre at 15-minute intervals, firing a total of 211 rounds.  But ’rounds’ fails to convey the scale of the ordnance involved.  As May Jeong notes, the AC-130 is ‘built around a gun’; it is, after all, a gunship.  It has a 105 mm M102 Howitzer that fires high explosive shells at 10 rounds a minute (reputedly the largest gun ever operated from a US aircraft); a 40 mm Bofors cannon that fires 120 rounds a minute; and a 25mm 5-barrelled Gatling cannon that fires incendiary rounds at 1,800 rounds a minute.  YouTube has a video of a live-firing exercise carried out by the 4th Special Operations Squadron in 2016 that is truly chilling:

All these weapons are side-firing; the AC-130 performs a slow left-banking pylon turn in a five-mile orbit to keep its weapons on target for much longer than a conventional strike aircraft:


The results on the ground were catastrophic.



All the patients in the ICU died except one, alongside the caretakers who were with them; one doctor, three nurses and a cleaner who were in the ICU were also killed.  Here is Kathleen Thomas again:

I hope with all my heart that the three sedated patients in ICU, including our ER nurse Lal Mohammad, were deep enough to be unaware of their deaths — but this is unlikely. They were trapped in their beds, engulfed in flames.

The same horror that rocked the ICU rocked the rest of the main building as the plane hit with alarming precision. Our ER nurse Mohibulla died. Our ER cleaner Najibulla died. Dr. Amin suffered major injuries but managed to escape the main building, only to then die an hour later in the arms of his colleagues as we desperately tried to save his life in the makeshift operating theater set up in the kitchen next to the morning meeting room.  The OT nurse, Abdul Salam, died. The strikes continued further down the building, tearing through the outpatients department, which had become a temporary sleeping area for staff. Dr. Satar died. The medical records officer Abdul Maqsood died. Our pharmacist Tahseel was lethally injured. He also made it to safety in the morning meeting room, only to die soon after, having bled to death. Two of the hospital watchmen Zabib and Shafiq also died.

Our colleagues didn’t die peacefully like in the movies. They died painfully, slowly, some of them screaming out for help that never came, alone and terrified, knowing the extent of their own injuries and aware of their impending death. Countless other staff and patients were injured; limbs blown off, shrapnel rocketed through their bodies, burns, pressure wave injuries of the lungs, eyes, and ears. Many of these injures have left permanent disability. It was a scene of nightmarish horror that will be forever etched in my mind.



The loss of life and the destruction of the hospital was appalling.  But the effects of the air strike have reverberated far beyond the Trauma Centre and the events of 3 October.  In February this year Sophia Jones told the troubling story of a father of four who lost his right arm and the sight of one eye when he was caught in cross-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan army.  With the destruction of the Trauma Centre in Kunduz there were no local hospitals capable of treating his life-threatening injuries, and it took him two agonising days to travel 200 miles to the Surgical Center for War Victims run by another NGO, Emergency, in Kabul – now ‘the only free, specialized trauma hospital of its kind treating war victims in Afghanistan.’  Like MSF, Emergency is absolutely clear that ‘we cannot be on one side of the war’: ‘a patient is a patient’.  Like MSF, most of Emergency’s patients are civilians.  But, as Luke Mogelson found in the spring of 2012,

At Emergency’s hospital in Kabul, it’s not unusual to find Afghan national security forces recovering in the same ward as Taliban insurgents, and after a while, the ideas that make enemies of the two men lose their relevance; the daily spectacle of their impact on human bodies invalidates them.

That was then.  ‘After Kunduz’, Emergency’s program co-ordinator now concedes, ‘anything is possible.’  It would be truly, desperately awful if one of the casualties of the air strike on the Trauma Centre turned out to be the core principle of medical neutrality.

One year after Kunduz, Christopher Stokes, MSF’s General Director, warned that ‘A war without limits leads to a battlefield without doctors.’  MSF pledged not to allow that to happen.  They must not stand alone.

To be continued

More terror from the skies

IS drone imagery Syria

Commentators have been worrying away at the likelihood of terrorist groups turning to small commercial drones not only for surveillance – IS have been doing that for some time now (see the image above) – but also for air strikes (see, for a recent example, Robert J Bunker‘s report for the US Army War College here).  The surveillance capabilities of quadcopters have been used to direct attacks by IS ground forces, including vehicles carrying suicide bombs, but the Pentagon now reports that the drones have also been equipped with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

In response, the Pentagon has asked for $20 million for its Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency to develop counter-measures: to ‘identify, acquire, integrate and conduct testing’ of methods that are able to ‘counter the effects of unmanned aerial systems and the threats they pose to U.S. forces.’

Perhaps they should also look closer to home.  Two men in Connecticut have contested the right of the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate their use of ‘recreational drones’ equipped with a handgun and a flamethrower.  Here’s a video clip:

And other commentators are already looking beyond war zones: systems like these enable groups like IS – and individuals – to carry the fight far beyond the territory they control and into the heart of cities in North America, Europe and elsewhere.

Vertical fields

I’ve just been reading and thinking about Lisa Parks‘s short but immensely suggestive essay, ‘Drones, Vertical Mediation, and the Targeted Class’, in Feminist Studies 42 (2016) 227-35. Lisa develops her ideas about vertical mediation but at the end of the essay she illustrates them through an art installation staged in Beirut last spring. This is what she says:

In an effort to publicize the drone’s vertical mediations—the way the technology uses the vertical field in efforts to materially reform life on earth—I collaborated with a group of Lebanese and Slovenian artists (Marc Abou Farhat, Tadej Fius, Elie Mouhanna, and Miha Vipotnik) to create a multimedia installation titled Spectral Configuration. The installation was part of the Vertical Collisions exhibition at the Station Art Gallery in Beirut in May 2015. The installation’s centerpiece is a massive, elevated, four-meter-long, supine human body, hand-crocheted out of thin aluminum wire. As it soars in mid-air, the wiry surface of this colossal corpse turns translucent as multiple media projections, made from video footage leaked from the US military-industrial complex, flicker around and upon it. These electromagnetic projections envelop the silvery drone-like body within the luminous footprint of world his- tory and militarization, cycling through a series of spectral suspects, framed targets, and aerial strikes that appear in visible light and infrared.

Circumnavigating the earth on an endless flight path, this “spectral configuration” not only captures and reflects light and heat waves, it remediates life on earth, altering one’s disposition to the sky, the ground, and the skin…  To make Spectral Configuration, we used the same global information networks, geospatial images, and video-capture technologies utilized each day by US drone operators. The difference, however, was that we commandeered these devices to conceptualize and produce a form and an event that would question the militarization of the vertical field by enacting it on a micro-scale and trying to make its effects intelligible and palpable to publics beyond drone war. By staging the militarization of the vertical field in a country adjacent to, yet not subject to drone war (Lebanon), Spectral Configuration also spoke to the exploitation of borders and associative relations by US drone operators and aroused concerns about the usage of the technology in the region.