Borderization and bombs

Just as I started to think about the Annual Lecture I have to give at the Kent Interdisciplinary Centre for Spatial Studies (KISS) next month, on the spaces of modern war, I stumbled across a splendidly angry and wonderfully perceptive new essay from Achille Mbembe on ‘Deglobalization‘ at Esprit (via Eurozine), 18 February 2019:

The spare abstract doesn’t begin to do it justice:

Digital computation is engendering a new common world and new configurations of reality and power. But this ubiquitous, instantaneous world is confronted by the old world of bodies and distances. Technology is mobilized in order to create an omnipresent border that sequesters those with rights from those without them.

The essay opens with some characteristically perceptive insights into digital computation (which Achille understands in three distinct but related ways) and its world-creating and world-dividing capacities, but given my KISS Lecture, I was much taken with this passage describing what Achille calls ‘borderization‘:

What is borderization if not the process by which world powers permanently transform certain spaces into places that are impassable to certain classes of people? What is borderization if not the deliberate multiplication of spaces of loss and grief, where so many people, deemed undesirable, see their lives shatter into pieces?

What is it, if not a way to wage war against enemies whose living environments and chances of survival have already been devastated? The use of uranium armour-piercing ammunition and prohibited weapons like white phosphorus; the high-altitude bombardment of basic infrastructure; the cocktail of carcinogenic and radioactive chemical products deposited in the soil and filling the air; the toxic dust raised by the ruins of obliterated towns; the pollution emitted by hydrocarbon fires?

And what about the bombs? Is there any type of bomb that has not been dropped on civilian populations since the last quarter of the twentieth century? Classic dumb bombs repurposed with tail-mounted inertial measurement units; cruise missiles with infrared seekers; microwave bombs designed to paralyze the enemy’s electronic nerve centres; other microwave bombs that do not kill but burn skin; bombs that detonate in cities releasing energy beams like bolts of lightning; thermobaric bombs that unleash walls of fire, suck the oxygen out of more or less confined spaces, send out deadly shockwaves and suffocate anything that breathes; cluster bombs that explode above the ground and scatter small shells, designed to detonate on contact, indiscriminately over a wide area, with devastating consequences for civilian populations; all sorts of bomb, a reductio ad absurdum demonstration of unprecedented destructive power – in short, ecocide.

Under these circumstances, how can we be surprised when those who can, those who have survived living hell, try to escape and seek refuge in any and every corner of Earth where they might be able to live safely?

This form of calculated, programmed war, this war of stupefaction with its new methods, is a war against the very ideas of mobility, circulation and speed, despite the fact that we live in an age of velocity, acceleration and ever more abstraction, ever more algorithms.

Its targets, moreover, are not singular bodies; they are entire human masses who are dismissed as contemptible and superfluous, but whose organs must each suffer their own specific form of incapacitation, with consequences that last for generations – eyes, nose, mouth, ears, tongue, skin, bones, lungs, gut, blood, hands, legs, all the cripples, paralytics, survivors, all the pulmonary diseases like pneumoconiosis, all the traces of uranium found in hair, the thousands of cancers, miscarriages, birth defects, congenital deformities, wrecked thoraxes, nervous system disorders – utter devastation.

All these things, it bears repeating, are connected to contemporary practices of borderization being carried out remotely, far away from us, in the name of our freedom and security. This conflict against specific bodies of abjection, mounds of human flesh, unfolds on a planetary scale. It is poised to become the defining conflict of our time.

Achille then connects this to Grégoire Chamayou‘s arguments about ‘manhunts’ (see my discussion of ‘the individuation of warfare’ here – though, like Achille, I’d now insist that ‘individuation’ is only one modality of later modern war and that, as I’ve suggested here, aerial violence and siege warfare both continue to target ‘the social’, those ‘entire human masses’):

This conflict often precedes, accompanies or supplements the other conflict being waged in our midst or at our doors: the hunt for bodies that have been foolish enough to move (movement being the essential property of the human body); bodies judged to have forced their way into places and spaces where they have no business being, places they clog up by simply existing, and from which they must be expelled.

As the philosopher Elsa Dorlin remarks, this form of violence is directed towards prey. It resembles the great hunts of the past – tracking and pursuing, laying traps and beating, and finally surrounding, capturing or slaughtering the quarry with the help of pack hounds and bloodhounds. It fits into a long history of manhunts. Grégoire Chamayou studies their various manifestations in Manhunts: A Philosophical History. They always involve the same sort of quarry – slaves, aborigines, dark skins, Jews, the stateless, the poor and, closer to home, the undocumented. They target animate, moving bodies that, marked out and ostracized, are seen as entirely different from our own bodies despite being endowed with attractive force, intensity, the capacity to move and flee. These hunts are taking place at a time when technologies of acceleration are proliferating endlessly and creating a segmented, multi-speed planet.

And finally this:

What is the deadliest destination for migrants in an increasingly balkanized and isolated world? Europe. Where lie the most skeletons at sea, where is the biggest marine graveyard at the beginning of this century? Europe. Where are the largest number of territorial and international waters, sounds, islands, straits, enclaves, canals, rivers, ports and airports transformed into technological iron curtains? Europe. And to crown it all, in this era of permanent escalation, the camps. The return of camps. A Europe of camps. Samos, Chios, Lesbos, Idomeni, Lampedusa, Ventimiglia, Sicily, Subotica – a garland of camps…. [I’ve taken the map below from ‘Camps in Europe’ here].

It bears repeating that this war (which takes the form of hunting, capturing, rounding up, sorting, separating and deporting) has one aim. It is not about cutting Europe off from the world or turning it into an impenetrable fortress. It is about arrogating to Europeans alone the rights of possession of and free movement around a planet that rightfully belongs to all of us.

I’m not sure about all of this, not least because that precious right of ‘free movement’ within Europe is precisely what is being called into question by the resurgent right across Europe.  But there is much to think about here, and I urge you to read the whole, brilliant essay.

The eyes have it…

The Disorder of Things has hosted a symposium on Antoine Bousquet‘s The eye of war: military perception from the telescope to the drone (Minnesota UP, 2018).  Antoine’s introduction is here.

There were four other participants, and below I’ve linked to their commentaries and snipped extracts to give you a sense of their arguments: but it really is worth reading them in full.

Kate Hall‘Linear Perspective, the Modern Subject, and the Martial Gaze’

For Bousquet this future of globalised targeting that the birth of linear perspective has brought us to throws the role of the human into question. With the move of perception into the realm of the technical, Bousquet sees that perception has become a process without a subject, and as human agency is increasingly reduced, so does the possibility for politics – leading, perhaps much like the concerns of the Frankfurt School, to passivity and a closing of the space of critique. For Bousquet the figure that captures this positioning or transformation of the human, and the image that ends the book, is the bomber instructor recording aircraft movement within a dark camera obscura tent. As Bousquet concludes, “…the camera obscura’s occupant is both a passive object of the targeting process and an active if compliant agent tasked with the iterative process and optimization of its performance. Perhaps this duality encapsulates the martial condition we inhabit today, caught between our mobilization within the circulatory networks of the logistics of perception and the roving crosshairs of a global imperium of targeting – and all watched over by machines of glacial indifference.” 

If this is the figure that encapsulates the condition of the present, Bousquet has shown in Eye of War how its foundations are found in the early modern period. And in tracing this history, it is clear the future does not look promising for humans (both as passive subjects and as objects of lethal surveillance). But Bousquet does not give us a sense of how we might change course. Eye of War does not ask, where is the space for politics in this analysis of the present?

Dan Öberg‘Requiem for the Battlefield’

While the culminating battle of the Napoleonic wars, Waterloo, was fought at a battlefield where 140,000 men and 400 guns were crammed into an area of roughly 3,5 miles, the latter half of the 19th century becomes characterised by the dispersal and implosion of the battlefield. As Bousquet has directed our attention to in his work, after the birth of modern warfare the battlefield dissolves due to the increased range of weapons systems. Its disappearance is also facilitated by how the military logistics of perception conditions the appearances of targets, particularly through how the “eye of war” manages to move from the commander occupying a high-point next to the field of battle, to being facilitated by balloons, binoculars, aerial reconnaissance, satellites, algorithms, and cloud computing. It is as part of this process we eventually reach the contemporary era where targeting is characterised by polar inertia, as targets arrive as digital images from anywhere on the globe in front of a stationary targeteer. However, I would like to argue that, parallel to this, there is a corresponding process taking place, which erases and remodels the battlefield as a result of the military disposition that is born with the operational dimension of warfare.

To grasp this disposition and its consequences we need to ponder the fact that it is no coincidence that the operational dimension emerges at precisely the time when the traditional battlefield is starting to disappear. As The Eye of War outlines, global targeting is enabled by a logistics of perception. However, the demand for maps and images as well as the attempts to make sense of the battlefield arguably receives its impetus and frame of reference from elsewhere. It finds its nexus in standard operating procedures, regulations, instructions and manuals, military working groups, administrative ideals, organisational routines, and bureaucratic rituals. And, as the battlefield is managed, coded, and homogenised, it simultaneously starts to become an external point of reference, enacted through operational analysis and planning far from the battlefield itself.

Matthew Ford‘Totalising the State through Vision and War’

The technologies of vision that Antoine describes emerge from and enable the political and military imaginaries that inspired them. The technological fix that this mentality produces is, however, one that locks military strategy into a paradox that privileges tactical engagement over identifying political solutions. For the modern battlefield is a battlefield of fleeting targets, where speed and concealment reduce the chance of being attacked and create momentary opportunities to produce strategic effects (Bolt, 2012). The assemblages of perspective, sensing, imaging and mapping, described in The Eye of War may make it possible to anticipate and engage adversaries before they can achieve these effects but by definition they achieve these outcomes at the tactical level.

The trap of the martial gaze is, then, twofold. On the one hand, by locking technologies of vision into orientalist ways of seeing, strategies that draw on these systems tend towards misrepresenting adversaries in a manner that finds itself being reproduced in military action. At the same time, in an effort to deliver decisive battle, the state has constructed increasingly exquisite military techniques. These hold out the prospect of military success but only serve to further atomise war down tactical lines as armed forces find more exquisite ways to identify adversaries and adversaries find more sophisticated ways to avoid detection. The result is that the military constructs enemies according to a preconceived calculus and fights them in ways that at best manage outcomes but at worst struggle to deliver political reconciliation.

Jairus Grove, ‘A Martial Gaze Conscious of Itself

If we take the assemblage and the more-than-human approach of Bousquet’s book seriously, which I do, then we ought not believe that the dream of sensing, imaging, mapping, and targeting ends with the intact human individual. As an early peak at what this could become, consider Bousquet’s review of the late 1970’s research on ‘cognitive cartography’ and the concern that human technology would need to be altered to truly take advantage of the mapping revolution. More than the development of GIS and other targeting technologies, the dream of cognitive mapping and conditioning was to manage the complex informatics of space and the human uses of it from the ground up. That is in the making of user-friendly human subjects. One can image targeting following similar pathways. The “martial gaze that roams our planet” will not be satisfied with the individual any more than it was satisfied with the factory, the silo, the unit, or the home.

The vast data revolutions in mapping individual and collective behavior utilized in the weaponization of fake and real news, marketing research, fMRI advances and brain mapping, as well nanodrones, directed energy weapons, and on and on, suggest to me that just as there has never been an end of history for politics, or for that matter war, there will be no end of history or limit to what the martial gaze dreams of targeting. I can imagine returns to punishment where pieces of the enemy’s body are taken. Jasbir Puar’s work on debility suggests (see our recent symposium) already suggests such a martial vision of the enemy at play in the new wars of the 21st century. Following the long tails of Bousquet’s machinic history, I can further imagine the targeting of ideas and behaviors for which ‘pattern-of-life’ targeting and gait analysis are use are only crude and abstract prototypes.

If we, like the machines we design, are merely technical assemblages, then the molecularization of war described by Bousquet is not likely to remain at the level of the intact human, as if individuals were the martial equivalent of Plank’s quanta of energy. The martial gaze will want more unless fundamentally interrupted by other forces of abstraction and concretization.

Antoine‘s response is here.

Lots to think about here for me – especially since one of my current projects on ‘woundscapes‘ (from the First World War through to the present) is located at the intersection of the military gaze (‘the target’) and the medical gaze (‘the wound’) but rapidly spirals beyond these acutely visual registers, as it surely must….  More soon!

Selling War

When there were endless real bookshops for me to haunt, I lost count of the number of times I’d take a book from the shelf, seduced by its lead title, only to put it back once I saw what came after the colon.   But that isn’t always a fail-safe strategy, and I’ve received news of a new book by Alex Fattawhere that really wouldn’t be smart.  Guerrilla Marketing has a relevance far beyond Colombia (interesting and important though that is in its own right):

Brand warfare is real. Guerrilla Marketing details the Colombian government’s efforts to transform Marxist guerrilla fighters in the FARC into consumer citizens. Alexander L. Fattal shows how the market has become one of the principal grounds on which counterinsurgency warfare is waged and postconflict futures are imagined in Colombia. This layered case study illuminates a larger phenomenon: the convergence of marketing and militarism in the twenty-first century. Taking a global view of information warfare, Guerrilla Marketing combines archival research and extensive fieldwork not just with the Colombian Ministry of Defense and former rebel communities, but also with political exiles in Sweden and peace negotiators in Havana. Throughout, Fattal deftly intertwines insights into the modern surveillance state, peace and conflict studies, and humanitarian interventions, on one hand, with critical engagements with marketing, consumer culture, and late capitalism on the other. The result is a powerful analysis of the intersection of conflict and consumerism in a world where governance is increasingly structured by brand ideology and wars sold as humanitarian interventions.

Full of rich, unforgettable ethnographic stories, Guerrilla Marketing is a stunning and troubling analysis of the mediation of global conflict.

The resonance of Guerilla Marketing clearly transcends its subtitle, as this tantalising extract makes clear:

Total mobilization is no longer a matter of a fluid transition from peace to war, but a matter of the continual co-presence of the two in a hot peace in which everywhere is always a potential scene of violence.  As commentators frequently note, the Global War on Terror is unbounded in scope and duration, an unending concatenation of episodes that render the world a battlefield from Waziristan, which has borne the brunt of drone warfare, to suburban Watertown, Massachusetts, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bomb attacks of 2013. What connects sites as disparate as Waziristan and Watertown is not only the War on Terror but marketing as a system of global provisioning that is productive of affective attachments. I borrow the idea of affect as a form of infrastructure from anthropologist Joseph Masco, who deftly teases out continuities between the Cold War and the War on Terror. For Masco, this affective infrastructure is built by the national security state, expansive in the wake of the “ongoing injury” of the September 11 attacks.  “Affect,” Masco writes, “becomes a kind of infrastructure for the security state, creating the collective intensities of feeling necessary to produce individual commitments, remake ethical standards, and energize modes of personal, and collective, sacrifice.”

The layering of national security affect, primarily paranoia and fear, I argue, cannot be separated from the aspirational affect of consumer culture, for the two have coevolved. At the height of the Cold War, for instance, advertisements pitched “Luxury Fall- Out Shelters” to people who would prefer to wait out a nuclear apocalypse in comfort. Such advertisements normalized the very idea of nuclear warfare and the paranoia it generated. Similarly, George W. Bush’s call on Americans to go shopping one week after September 11, 2001, mobilized consumption as a means of coping with the Global War on Terror. I take as given the idea, demonstrated by historical accounts of the coevolution of marketing and warfare in the twentieth century, that marketization and militarization are deeply interpenetrated. I am fascinated by how their convergence shapes an affective mode of governance in the early twenty-first century, a moment when simmering fears of an everywhere war and the rising aspirations of the global middle classes expand in tandem. It is more than a little curious that in the 2000s, just as war diffused further into everyday life, everything—nations, militaries, cities, universities, individual selves— became brands.

The language of the convergence of marketing and militarism is revealing. Targeting, for example, serves as a switch that connects the marketing nation and the security state. As marketers study, segment, and create new publics to target, the military compiles lists of targets to monitor and, at the right moment, destroy. A drive toward ever- greater precision unites both practices of targeting. Each year marketers improve their ability to micro- target tightly defined demographic groups by tracking users across the internet with algorithmic intelligence.  Similarly the military, through the use of special forces and drone warfare, creates micro-kill zones. In the words of Grégoire Chamayou, a French theorist of drone warfare, “The zone of armed conflict, having been fragmented into miniaturizable kill boxes, tends ideally to be reduced to the single body of the enemy-prey”— modern warfare as hunting. Whether it’s data capitalism’s drive to psychologically profile individual consumers or the whack- a-mole logic of twenty-first-century counterinsurgency, this scaling down to the individual approaches a vanishing point: advertising as nonadvertising, war as nonwar. Neither negation is neutral, nor is their entanglement haphazard. To the contrary, I would like to suggest that in this double negation there lies a key to understanding the state of the relationship between war and capitalism in the early twenty- first century.

Enter the double meaning of this book’s title, guerrilla marketing, which in business parlance is code for a bundle of tactics, most of which seek to invisibilize the sales pitch. Tom Himpe, an advertising intellectual, describes this tendency as “advertising that blends in seamlessly with real entertainment, real events or real life to the extent that it is not possible to tell what is advertising and what is not.”  Drawing upon the legacy of guerrilla warfare as articulated by Che Guevara and Mao Zedong, guerrilla marketing draws its strength from camouflage. But marketing’s camouflage aspires not merely to blend into the background but to act upon it. Branding, I argue, operates as an activist form of camouflage that seeks to subtly transform the environment. As an instrument of total mobilization, brands have proved to be modular weapons of productive persuasion, from the black flag of ISIS and its calls to mobilize individuals alienated from the West to a real estate mogul’s use of brand strategies to bluster his way to the White House. As an emergent phenomenon of extraordinary political consequence, brand warfare is ripe for critical analysis.

Since Guerilla Marketing comes from a US publisher (Chicago UP) the paperback is not pitched at a silly-extortionate price; there’s an e-book too.  More here.

Counterinsurgency and the counterrevolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google eyes

The Oxford English Dictionary recognised ‘google’ as a verb in 2006, and its active form is about to gain another dimension.  One of the most persistent anxieties amongst those executing remote warfare, with its extraordinary dependence on (and capacity for) real-time full motion video surveillance as an integral moment of the targeting cycle, has been the ever-present risk of ‘swimming in sensors and drowning in data‘.

But now Kate Conger and Dell Cameron report for Gizmodo on a new collaboration between Google and the Pentagon as part of Project Maven:

Project Maven, a fast-moving Pentagon project also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (AWCFT), was established in April 2017. Maven’s stated mission is to “accelerate DoD’s integration of big data and machine learning.” In total, the Defense Department spent $7.4 billion on artificial intelligence-related areas in 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The project’s first assignment was to help the Pentagon efficiently process the deluge of video footage collected daily by its aerial drones—an amount of footage so vast that human analysts can’t keep up, according to Greg Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who co-authored a lengthy July 2017 report on the military’s use of artificial intelligence. Although the Defense Department has poured resources into the development of advanced sensor technology to gather information during drone flights, it has lagged in creating analysis tools to comb through the data.

“Before Maven, nobody in the department had a clue how to properly buy, field, and implement AI,” Allen wrote.

Maven was tasked with using machine learning to identify vehicles and other objects in drone footage, taking that burden off analysts. Maven’s initial goal was to provide the military with advanced computer vision, enabling the automated detection and identification of objects in as many as 38 categories captured by a drone’s full-motion camera, according to the Pentagon. Maven provides the department with the ability to track individuals as they come and go from different locations.

Google has reportedly attempted to allay fears about its involvement:

A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement that it is providing the Defense Department with TensorFlow APIs, which are used in machine learning applications, to help military analysts detect objects in images. Acknowledging the controversial nature of using machine learning for military purposes, the spokesperson said the company is currently working “to develop polices and safeguards” around its use.

“We have long worked with government agencies to provide technology solutions. This specific project is a pilot with the Department of Defense, to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data,” the spokesperson said. “The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only. Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”

 

As Mehreen Kasana notes, Google has indeed ‘long worked with government agencies’:

2017 report in Quartz shed light on the origins of Google and how a significant amount of funding for the company came from the CIA and NSA for mass surveillance purposes. Time and again, Google’s funding raises questions. In 2013, a Guardian report highlighted Google’s acquisition of the robotics company Boston Dynamics, and noted that most of the projects were funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The weaponisation of social media

Following on from my last post, Foreign Policy has a thoughtful review from Sasha Polokow-Suransky of David PatrikarikosWar in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Basic Books):

A leading foreign correspondent looks at how social media has transformed the modern battlefield, and how wars are fought.
Modern warfare is a war of narratives, where bullets are fired both physically and virtually. Whether you are a president or a terrorist, if you don’t understand how to deploy the power of social media effectively you may win the odd battle but you will lose a twenty-first century war. Here, journalist David Patrikarakos draws on unprecedented access to key players to provide a new narrative for modern warfare. He travels thousands of miles across continents to meet a de-radicalized female member of ISIS recruited via Skype, a liberal Russian in Siberia who takes a job manufacturing “Ukrainian” news, and many others to explore the way social media has transformed the way we fight, win, and consume wars-and what this means for the world going forward.

 

You can read the introduction here (scroll down) and find an interview with the author here.

Sasha writes:

It’s popular these days to proclaim that Clausewitz is passé and war is now waged via smartphones and Facebook feeds. Few writers have actually explored what this means in practice. The journalist David Patrikarakos’s new book, War in 140 Characters, chronicles in granular detail how social media has transformed the way that modern wars are fought. From the battlefields of eastern Ukraine to the bot factories of St. Petersburg, Patrikarakos takes us into the lives of ordinary citizens with no military training who have changed the course of conflicts with nothing more than a laptop or iPhone.

At the core of Patrikarakos’s book is the idea that narrative war has become far more important than physical war due to new technologies that shape public perceptions of conflicts in real time, regardless of what is actually happening on the battlefield. The spread of social media, he argues, has brought about a situation of “virtual mass enlistment” that gives civilians as much power as state propaganda machines — and sometimes more. Although some techno-utopians have celebrated the breakdown of centralized state control of information and the empowerment of the individual to challenge authoritarian regimes, he is not starry-eyed about the leveling of the playing field. “[B]ecause these new social media forums are structurally more egalitarian,” he writes, “many delight in holding up the Internet as the ultimate tool against tyrants.” It is not. As Patrikarakos notes, “the state will always fight back” — and it has.

And she adds, tellingly:

The greatest strength of War in 140 Characters is the author’s preference for in-depth reporting over soundbite-ready platitudes. This is not a book of Lexuses and olive trees.

A caution that should be applied more widely….

Digital breaches

In my latest posts on the wars in Syria – Cities under Siege here and here – I tried to open a space for the voices of those inside the siege lines.  To supplement those discussions, I want to notice two other digital breaches of siege lines, one in Mosul in Iraq and the other in East Ghouta in Damascus.

Although the Syrian regime has been either unwilling or unable to prevent digital access to the world outside its barricades (no doubt for a variety of reasons), Islamic State has persistently sought to isolate the communities it controls from within.  For example:

In Mosul, Omar Mohammed – a 31 year-old ‘stealth historian‘ – risked his life to chronicle life under IS in a remarkable series of posts: Mosul Eye.  When he lost his job teaching ancient history at the university in June 2014 he started an anonymous blog and became the eponymous ‘Mosul Eye’.

Lori Hinnant and Maggi Michael reported for AP:

Anonymous for more than three years, Mohammed wandered the streets of occupied Mosul by day, chatting with shopkeepers and Islamic State fighters, visiting friends who worked at the hospital, swapping scraps of information. He grew out his hair and his beard and wore the shortened trousers required by the extremists. He forced himself to witness the beheadings and deaths by stoning, so he could hear killers call out the names of the condemned and their supposed crimes.

By night, he was Mosul Eye, and from his darkened room he told the world what was happening. If caught, he knew he would be killed.

Writing in the New Yorker in October 2016,  Robin Wright explained that Mosul Eye

provided details about life under the caliphate—initially offering hourly reports regarding roads around Mosul that were safe to travel, and then, in the following weeks, reporting on the dawning anxiety about the heavily armed ISIS fighters, the power blackouts, the rising prices, the chaos in local markets, the panic over food shortages, and the occupiers’ utter brutality. Over the next year, Mosul Eye expanded into a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The posts were determinedly stoic—melancholic and inspiring at once.

For the past two weeks, as Mosul has become the epicenter of a new U.S.-backed offensive to defeat ISIS—also known as ISIL—Mosul Eye has been posting dozens of times a day on its social-media outlets. On Monday, it tweeted, “Today, Mosul has entered the atmosphere of the war. The bombardment is continuous on many areas of the city, specifically the southern and northeastern outskirts of the city.”

Mohammed paid smugglers to arrange his escape, and once outside of Mosul he eventually revealed his identity; it was not an easy decision but once he had made it, he said, he finally felt free.

Most of the published interviews with Mohammed took place once he was outside Mosul and his identity was known, but Wright managed to reach him over social media inside the besieged city and her report addressed the key questions of provenance and credibility:

Iraqis and Mideast scholars believe that the site is for real. Rasha al Aqeedi, a scholar from Mosul who now writes from Dubai, told me that “the information is reliable,” and added, “The perspective and ideology, however, reflect Mosul’s young intelligentsia: the will to review Islam and question religious texts and the fault lines along historic narratives.”

But the same questions dogged the two AP journalists en arrière, once they had met with him and he revealed his identity.  Here is their detailed response:

Omar gave us databases from his hard drive tracking the dead, noting daily events in Mosul. Each one was a separate file — totaling hundreds of files. The origin dates on each matched the date of the file, or at most was one or two days away from it. For his account of the day on the Tigris, he gave us multiple photos and a video from the day, each with an origin date in March 2015, which was when he said the events had happened. On Google Maps, he showed us the curve in the river where he picnicked, and zoomed on the marshy areas to show how it matched up with his account. As for himself blogging inside a dark room in his house in Mosul, he provided a video that AP used. He used maps to show his escape route. He showed on Google a list of the top students from his high school in Mosul, and his name was among the top five.

On the third day, just before we filmed over the course of about 90 minutes, he stepped away to make a phone call, in English, to announce that in a few minutes he would be shedding his anonymity as he didn’t want to be anonymous anymore. He showed us footage from his thesis defense, in which one of the professors accused him of secularism.

After the meetings, we asked Omar for contact information for his thesis advisor, who was among the few to figure out his identity during the early days of Mosul Eye; his younger brother, who he had told over the summer; activists and volunteers he worked with in Mosul; an American history professor he was in touch with via Skype since 2012, who knew his real identity. He provided all of this, and we spoke with all of them, including one person who, as it turns out, also figured out who he was and discovered that they have mutual friends. Omar provided us with links to his own scholarly work on Mosul. He sent over screen grabs of exchanges with a reporter from another news organization who he had worked with during the airstrikes to try and extract trapped civilians. He explained that, by that point, people were just messaging Mosul Eye in hopes he could help them. He acknowledged one other person had administrator access to the account: a Mosul woman now living in the U.S. who helped him with some of the interviews in English.

Omar explained to us how he cross-checked his information, and we put some of that into the story, but Mosul Eye isn’t an infallible source any more than anyone else, especially in a chaotic war environment. His death toll numbers, especially during the final months of the battle, are unconfirmed but in line with other estimates.That said, some of his unpublished notes read by Lori and Maggie, with origin dates from 2014 and 2015 and early 2016 especially, showed knowledge of IS that would only be published later. The leaflets he was collecting and publishing, the photos he was using to offer biographies and diagrams of their leadership showed a historian’s desire for documentation.

Several activists whom AP interviewed said that Mosul Eye was the only window to the outside world and that they have been closely following but fearing to even “like” or “share,” knowing that IS keeps an eye on social media.

I have cited this passage in its entirety because in the deformed world of “fake news” (which plainly did not start with Donald Trump, even if he embodies its digital metastasis: see also here and here), where today the alt.left is as pernicious as the alt.right in disparaging stories they don’t like, questions of veracity – and, to be sure, of positionality – have assumed a new and profoundly political importance  The vomit-inducing denial of systematic Russian and Syrian air strikes on hospitals and medical facilities across Syria is a case in point; the disingenuous disparagement of the work of MSF, the Syrian Civil Defence (the White Helmets) and a host of other non-government agencies is another.

It’s a complicated terrain, of course, and my second example illustrates something of what is at stake.  It comes from East Ghouta.  I’m preparing a major post on recent events there – it should be ready next week – and, as in my previous work, here too I’ve drawn on voices from inside the siege.  Many newsrooms and digital platforms have reported the extraordinary videos posted on Twitter and YouTube by 15 year-old Muhammad Najem: see here and here.

CNN reported:

Najem’s videos have a common theme: an appeal to the world to bear witness to what is happening in Syria.
“People should know about everything happening in Syria,” he told CNN. “I want to follow my studies. I want to become a reporter when I grow up. “Our blood begs every day. You watch it daily without any reaction from you,” Najem says in one video, wearing a Syrian flag draped around his neck like a scarf. “Our hunger, cold, and displacement have become a common sight. Save our people in Ghouta.”
In one of his most powerful videos, Najem stands on a rooftop as explosions echo in the distance. “We are killed by your silence,” he says.”

 

(If you read some of the comments below his videos on YouTube, you will discover the killing is not only accomplished by silence.)

The CNN report added the by now standard disclaimer – ‘CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of these videos – but the tone and texture of their coverage makes it plain that CNN doubts neither their authenticity nor their accuracy.  There is no single, plenary Truth – Donna Haraway debunked the ‘God Trick’ ages ago – but passion and partiality do not automatically disqualify someone’s voice: still less so, when their position is so precarious.

But listen to this exchange from the state-owned France 24.

 

In one of the videos, Najem says he wants to become a reporter “when I am grown up”. But for Franco-American [photo]journalist Jonathan Alpeyrie, who covered the Syrian conflict (in 2013, he was held captive by an Islamist group for 81 days), “a journalist shouldn’t be seen… Otherwise he becomes the subject,” he told FRANCE 24. To Alpeyrie, the teenager is more activist than journalist. “He is hostile to Bashar al-Assad but the role of the press isn’t to take a stance….”

Although several news outlets have relayed the teenager’s testimony, Alpeyrie thinks it’s dangerous to do so: “We can’t confirm the provenance of these videos. He says that he’s filming in Eastern Ghouta, but we don’t know anything.”

 

Describing Najem’s videos as a series of ‘selfies’, France 24’s reporter asked philosopher-psychoanalyst Elsa Godart for her take on them:

If a teenager is behind the account, his reliance on the selfie can have different motivations, said Godart. In the worst situation, aside from manipulation: “We can envision an extreme narcissism, where one plays on a tragic event under the sympathetic guise of defending humanity.”

And if we assume that the gesture is real and sincere on the part of an adolescent on the ground? “Then this could be just as it appears: a selfie as an act of resistance. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei documented his 2009 arrest with a selfie that he later exhibited as a work of art,” said Godart.

To her, the selfie taken at war is similar: “It denounces something extraordinary. It is a testimony of something that one feels a duty to report. ‘I am attacked, and here is the photographic evidence.’”

I hope it’s obvious what I think too.