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.

Cities and War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Word of mouth spread about her secret hospital.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet there is a vicious sting in the tail:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The slow violence of bombing

When I spoke at the symposium on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ in Utrecht before Christmas, one of my central arguments was about the slow violence of bombing.  The term is, of course, Rob Nixon‘s, but I borrowed it to emphasise that the violence of sudden death from the air – whether in the air raids of the First and Second World Wars or the drone strikes of the early twenty-first century – neither begins nor ends with the explosion of bombs and missiles.

Paul Saint-Amour speaks of ‘traumatic earliness’: that dreadful sense of deadly anticipation.  The sense of not only preparation – communal and individual – but also of an involuntary tensing.  I described this for the First and Second World Wars in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’, which you can download from the TEACHING tab, but here is A.L. Kennedy who captures it as well as anyone:

Add to that the blackouts, the new landscape of civil defence with its sandbags and shelters, the new choreography of movement through the war-time city, the air-raid sirens and the probing arcs of the searchlights.

Perhaps this seems remote, but it shouldn’t.  Modern technology can radically heighten that sense of foreboding: calibrate it, give it even sharper definition.  Here is Salam Pax, counting down the hours to US air strikes on Baghdad:

Fast forward to drone strikes.  The sense of dread visited on innocents by multiple US drone programmes is readily overlooked in the emphasis on ‘targeted killing’, on what the US Air Force once called its ability to put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and on the individuation of this modality of later modern war.  ‘The body is the battlefield’, as Grégoire Chamayou argues.

I’ve written about all those things, but there is a powerful sense in which the battle space still exceeds the body: for in order to target the individual these programmes also target the social, as this set of slides from my Utrecht presentation tries to show:

Here too, surely, is traumatic earliness.  (I’ve discussed this in more detail in ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies’ [DOWNLOADS tab], and I’m indebted to Neal Curtis, ‘The explication of the social’, Journal of sociology 52 (3) (2016) 522-36) for helping me to think this through).

And then, after the explosion – the shocking bio-convergence that in an instant produces the horror of meatspace – the violence endures: stored in the broken buildings and in the broken bodies.  In the Second World War (again as I show in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’) the landscape was made strange every morning: buildings newly demolished, people driven from their homes and their workplaces, roads blocked by hoses and ambulances, by craters and unexploded bombs, rescue workers still toiling in the rubble to remove the dead and the injured, hospitals still treating and caring for the casualties.

And the violence of a drone strike lingers too: not on the same scale, but still the destroyed houses, the burned-out cars, the graves of the dead and above all the traumatized survivors (and their rescuers), some of them forced into newly prosthetic lives (see here and here).  The explosion is instantaneous, a bolt from the blue, but the pain, the grief and the scars on the land and the body endure.

These effects have a horizon that is not contained by any carefully calculated blast radius.  The grief spirals out through extended families and communities; and – depending on the target – so too do the casualties.  As I’ve said before, power stations in Gaza or Iraq have been targeted not for any localised destructon but because without power water cannot be pumped, sewage cannot be treated, food (and medicines) stored in refrigerators deteriorates.  And hospitals have been systematically targeted in Syria to deny treatment to hundreds and thousands of sick and injured:

The work of enumerating and plotting air strikes, in the past or in the present, is immensely important.  But those columns on graphs and circles on maps should not be read as signs of an episodic or punctiform violence.

Taking it to the limit

A postscript to my posts here, here and here on civilian deaths from air strikes in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere: Vice has an extended interview with Chris Woods of Airwars here.

The biggest issue we saw in 2017—particularly if we look at the US-led coalition—was that the war moved very heavily into cities. That, more than any other single factor, resulted in the deaths of many more civilians and casualty events. We saw a similar pattern at the back end of 2016, when Russia and the Assad regime heavily bombed east Aleppo. There’s a very strong correlation between attacks on cities and large numbers of civilian casualties. And frankly, it doesn’t matter who’s carrying out those attacks. The outcome for civilians is always dire…

Things didn’t get any better under Trump for civilians—in fact, they got a lot worse. One of the reasons for that was the intensity of the bombardment. We saw an absolutely ferocious bombing campaign by the US and its allies in both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. Between those two cities, the coalition alone dropped 50,000 munitions. One bomb or missile was dropped on Raqqa every 12 minutes, on average, for the duration of the four-month battle…

When Russia and the Assad regime were bombing Aleppo in late 2016, we had assumed that a key reason for the large number of civilian casualties was down to the fact they were primarily using dumb-bombs. We have actually changed our modeling since then, based on what we have seen with the coalition in places like Raqqa and Mosul. The reason is that even when you use precision bombs on cities, really, the outcome for civilians is the same as a dumb bomb. You can’t control what the bombs do when they land.

We saw very little difference between Russian and coalition strikes when it came to bombing cities. This is the big problem we have with a shift to urban warfare —it’s really taking us to the limits of any benefits we might have in terms of protecting civilians by using precision munitions.

Chris also has some characteristically smart (and sharp) things to say about transparency and accountability too…

Laughscream

In an early phase of my work on later modern war I explored the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in US counterinsurgency and its invasive mapping of ‘human terrain’, and as part of the attempt to impel (and interpellate) US soldiers into what I called this ‘rush to the intimate’ I considered the role-playing simulations acted out in mock Iraqi villages and towns fabricated for pre-deployment training in the continental United States (see ‘The rush to the Intimate’: DOWNLOADS tab).

In the interim many more detailed studies have appeared, but one of the most imaginative and insightful can be found in Cultural Anthropology (32/1) (February 2017): Nomi Stone‘s Living the laughscream: human technology and effective maneuvers in the Iraq war (open access).

It focuses not on the US soldiers and their reactions but on the Iraqi role-players, many of whom served as US interpreters in Iraq, described by one US officer as ‘the apparatus’ or what Nomi reconceptualizes as ‘human technology’.  Their performances are carefully scripted, and yet:

Amid this artifice, role-players have been hired to enact Middle Eastern villagers authentically—not by their own measures, but rather within prescribed military terms. Role-players are asked to be exemplars of their cultures and those cultures must be synchronic, pruned of their excesses and any relationship to the outside: Iraqis, as it were, in a box. However … the Iraqis who worked for the American military first as interpreters and contractors in the 2003 Iraq War and subsequently as role-players are a somewhat unique subset of the population; indeed, they are often quite far removed from the U.S. military’s imagined characteristics of a prototypical Iraqi. Not only are many of them educated, they are also particularly versed in American culture and critical of Iraqi politics. They typically bear an ambivalent relationship to both countries as they negotiate past accusations, allegiances, and the prospect of assimilation. Many show little trust for outsiders and even less for each other, and because of their dangerous affiliations in wartime, they have learned to chameleon in most circumstances. As they are turned into stereotypes inside an archetypal village, and as they act out wartime precarity so often that their homes and their losses turn into even more estranging archetypes, they laugh.

The machine thus turns out to be made of flesh. Role-players inject new ways of being, in part through laughter, into their performances. Those interjections indicate the limits of a military fantasy that believes human beings can be wholly resourced and turned into technologies.

This is on my mind because this past term, in a series of lectures on performance and performativity – the differences between them and the dots that can join them – I returned to these role-playing exercises to flesh out (literally so) the ideas involved; above all, to emphasise how every performance is different even when the script is nominally the same, and so the contingency of the performative.

And ‘the laughscream’?

The [Iraqi role-player] knows or feels more than the military narrative of their experience can accommodate, exceeding the constricted functions prescribed for a hired cultural tool. Additionally, the laughscream acts as a refusal to be lived by the role and the role-players’ fraught wartime pasts. For those accused of betrayal and marginalized by their compatriots, pursued by Iraqi militias and not always trusted by the U.S. soldiers whom they worked for, that past is painful. As one role-player explained, reflecting on the harshness many Iraqis had endured: “We are turned inside out. At the same time, we can laugh and cry.” Indeed, for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military, it is presently prohibitively dangerous to return to their former home, particularly amid the ascendance of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, due to their wartime choices, many now negotiate ongoing ambivalence and feel stranded between nations: although they were frequently ejected to the peripheries of their countries for working with the Americans, many strongly identify with Iraq and are ill at ease with full assimilation in America. As they continue to work for the U.S. military, some conceal that work from their families in Iraq, grappling with how they might be perceived. Amid these tensions, the laughscream functions in part as an actor, an agentive vector out.

Laughter rises to confirm that, for the role-players at least, the Iraq of the simulation is not the Iraq of their homeland. As fake guns sound, role-players repeat themselves, becoming increasingly estranged from the original object. Yet, through laughter, the archetypal and mechanical face of country and person give way to Iraqis who live impossibly hybrid and ambivalent lives in the United States to which they have aligned at such great cost. In the parodic redeployment of power as Judith Butler has conceived it, the mechanical performance of death becomes a complexly subversive act that momentarily insinuates life into the playing of a role.

But there is another reason for reading Nomi’s essay: it is so beautifully written.  If, like me, you often feel assailed by the sheer grimness of so much academic prose, provoked into your own laughscream, this is a wonderful demonstration that intellectual agility and analytical depth need not involve the death of style.

Not surprisingly, Nomi is an accomplished poet too: more at her website here.  You can also find an excellent interview about her movements in the borderlands between anthropology and artistic practice here:

My academic work and my poetry are inextricable and cross-pollinating. I was a poet first. My first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008) was based on my time in Djerba. I was deeply moved by Carolyn Forché’s call to comprehend the impress of the social on the poetic imagination; this led me to begin conducting ethnographic fieldwork and then to become an anthropologist.

By now, my anthropological engagement is essential to my poetry. As I explained in a poet’s statement some years ago, my philosophy of seeing is “deeply inflected by the anthropologist’s mandate to estrange the familiar and de-estrange the hitherto unknown.” Additionally, my work as an anthropologist sends me both toward moments of conceptual clarity and toward continuous re-complication: as the tidy military diagrams of culture remind us, the world is instead messy and tangled and contingent, as we each engage in the daily work of living and loving and getting by. I want my poems to demand that same complexity, and I only learned how to think it through the wonderful, arduous, and singular training that becoming an anthropologist demanded. What an astonishment to spend seven years shuttling back and forth between reading social theory about war, Empire, technology, migration, and laughter or political histories of America and Iraq and then witnessing the stagings of Empire itself, in its scatterings across the Middle East and the United States, as well as interviewing those whose lives had been demarcated and unmade by those very terms. These forms of seeing and knowing are to me humbling, and both my in-progress ethnographic manuscript and my forthcoming collection of poems, Kill Class, are the beneficiaries of that long academic journey.

Kill Class is due from Tupelo Press later this year; the collection is based on her ethnographic fieldwork across those US military training camps.  You can find her poem War Game, America’ here.

“What to do when the concepts and methods most essential to a field of scholarship are taken and deployed as instruments of war? American anthropology has struggled with this question since the Cold War era, when many fieldworkers were drawn into counterinsurgency campaigns around the globe. In this courageous and compassionate book, Kill Class, Nomi Stone offers a new way of grappling with this most difficult problem. Her stark and unflinching poems give a harrowing sense of cultural understanding made into a vehicle of state violence. At the same time, with tremendous delicacy and grace, they enter into the minds and lives of American soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts, revealing bewilderment where you would have thought to find certitudes, vulnerability where you would expect only hardness, small moments of wonder in the face of horror. The result is a truly arresting ethnography of American military culture, one that allows readers to circle at length through the cloverleaf interchanges where warfare nestles into the most mundane corners of everyday life, only to arrive at an exit where you would have expected least to find it: in an ethics of radical and transformative encounter, a way of coming undone in the company of others through the practice of sympathetic imagination.”  Anand Pandian, Johns Hopkins University

There’s also an earlier interview with her about her fieldwork (and her ideas about later modern war) over at the Wenner-Gren blog here: also well worth reading and savouring.

All this is much on my mind because over Christmas I read Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Sparsholt Affair and luxuriated in its mesmerising prose; as with other authors I admire this isn’t a purely formal (ahem) affair, though he is undoubtedly a master stylist.  Rather, you can roll the words around in your mouth, taste them and so find yourself ineluctably drawn into – rather than distracted from – the pulsing arc of the narrative: in an inversion of the metaphor with which I began, consumed by it.  So too The Swimming-Pool Library and Line of Beauty.  I get the same immersive pleasure from authors like Tom McCarthy (C is still one of my all-time favourite novels), Pat Barker (try Noonday) and Sarah Waters (oh, The Night Watch!).   This isn’t a matter of genre either; Peter May‘s Lewis trilogy is one of the finest works of crime fiction I know, along with almost anything by the ought-to-be legendary John Harvey (also a poet).

I’ve never forgotten a prescient admonition by Pierce Lewis in ‘Beyond description‘ (which appeared in the Annals of what was then the Association of American Geographers in 1985) – a lovely, lovely essay about passion and prose – in which he forestalled a possible objection: ‘we are not trained to be painters or poets, and while that is true, I do not think we should boast about it.’

For the record, I’ve written my share of God-awful prose, especially in the early stages of my career; the fault wasn’t only the dismal Harvard reference system (though it doesn’t help at all: too many names and dates crammed into brackets you have to hurdle over in a madcap race to retain the meaning of the sentence).  The colonial present was a cathartic release, in a way, because – after completing that awful opening chapter – I started to lose my academic voice.  I’m not desperate to get it back, and the two books I’m working on now will, I hope, show how far I’ve come.

But who, I wonder, are your favourite stylists?

Postscript: For my rant about the Harvard reference system, see ‘Gregory, D.’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  And there’s more on the corporeality and contextuality of (my) writing here.

Killing cities

In a perceptive commentary on the ground-breaking investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal into civilian casualties caused by the US air campaign against Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq – see also my posts here and hereRobert Malley and Stephen Pomper write:

The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.

And yet. Those dead civilians that The New York Times found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.

Part of the problem, as they note, is the nature of the campaign itself.  This is not the sort of counterinsurgency campaign that emerged in Afghanistan and Iraq in which air power was used in support of US and allied ground troops (although we know that also produced more than its share of civilian casualties); neither is it a counterterrorism campaign directed against so-called High Value Targets who supposedly ‘present a direct and imminent threat to the United States’ (ditto; and as I discuss in ‘Dirty dancing’ – DOWNLOADS tab – ‘imminence’ turned out to be remarkably elastic, a deadly process of time-space expansion).
Ultimately, though, their anxieties turn on what they call the ‘over-militarization’ of the US response to al Qaeda and its affiliates and to IS.  They explain, succinctly, what has encouraged this militarized response (not least the lowering of the threshold for military violence allowed by remote operations):
[U]ntil this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.
In December the Bureau of Investigative Journalism confirmed an escalation in US air strikes across multiple theatres in Trump’s first year in office:
President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.

However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen [in 2017].

In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.

Much remains unclear about these actions, apart from Trump’s signature combination of machismo and ignorance, but we do know that Obama’s restrictions on the use of military force outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been loosened:

In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House.

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

In September NBC reported that the Trump administration was planning to allow the CIA to take a more aggressive role and to give the agency more authority to conduct (para)military operations.  In consequence a comprehensive revision of Obama’s guidelines was in prospect:

The drone playbook, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG, includes a provision that no strike should go forward unless analysts determine that there is a near-certainty that no civilians will be harmed. And it includes a provision forbidding the addition of new detainees to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The Trump administration is contemplating removing both of those restrictions.

Pakistan remains a nominally covert area of operations.  US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas resumed in March after a nine-month hiatus – though Trump’s latest spat with Islamabad raises questions about the sporadic but systematic co-operation that had characterised so much of the campaign – and (provocatively: again, see ‘Dirty Dancing’ for an explanation) one strike took place outside the FATA in June 2017.  The Bureau’s detailed list is here: five strikes are listed, killing 15-22 people.

In Afghanistan the Bureau noted that air strikes had doubled and that this escalation has been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in transparency (Chris Woods told me the same story for Iraq and Syria when we met in Utrecht).

All of this confirms the report released today by Action on Armed Violence.

At least 15,399 civilians were killed in the first 11 months of 2017 according to Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) recording of English language media explosive violence events.  This devastating toll – up to the end of November – strongly suggests that 2017 was the worst year for civilian deathsfrom explosive weapons since AOAV’s records began in 2011.

This sharp rise, constituting a 42% increase from the same period in 2016, when 10,877 civilians were killed, is largely down to a massive increase in deadly airstrikes.

Compared to 2011, the first year of AOAV’s recording, the rise in civilians killed by explosive violence in the first 11 months of 2017 constitutes an 175% increase (5,597 died in the same period seven years ago).

On average, our records to November show that there were 42 civilian deaths per day caused by explosive violence in 2017.

The report continues:

For the first time since our recording of all English language media reports of explosive weapon attacks began, the majority of civilian deaths were by air-launched weapons. Of the total civilian deaths recorded (15,399), 58% were caused by airstrikes, mainly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Civilian deaths from airstrikes in this 11-month period was 8,932 – an increase of 82% compared to the same period in 2016 when 4,902 civilians were killed, or 1,169% compared to 2011, when 704 died.

Significantly, as airstrikes are almost always used by State actors, rather than non-State groups, States were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths from explosive weapons for the first time since our records began.

Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV commented:

 These are stark figures that expose the lie that precision-guided missiles as used by State airforces do not lead to massive civilian harm. When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, the results are inevitable: innocent children, women and men will die.

In the same vein, Karen McVeigh‘s summary for the Guardian quotes Chris Woods from Airwars:

This is about urban warfare and that’s why we are getting crazy numbers… War is moving into cities. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Russia or the US-led coalition or ground forces leading the assault, the outcome for civilians under attack is always dire…. We’re becoming too complacent about urban warfare, and militaries and governments are downplaying the effects.

I think that’s right, though I also think war is moving back into the cities (if it ever left them); the serial military operations in Mosul and Raqqa are vivid examples of what Chris means, but they also recall the assaults on Fallujah and other cities documented in Steve Graham‘s still utterly indispensable Cities under siege.

The point is sharpened even further if we widen the angle of vision to take in air campaigns conducted by other air forces: the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Air Force in Syria, or the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Yet again, killing cities to save them.  As a spokesperson for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently put it last summer, ‘This is very similar to the Vietnam war, where entire cities were destroyed… What is happening in Raqqa is like dropping a nuclear bomb in stages.’

Steve’s work should also remind us that these dead cities are not produced by air strikes alone.  Once reduced to rubble they have often been disembowelled (I can think of no better word) by ground forces; it’s as though these now barely human landscapes compel or at any rate license the continued degradation of both the living and the dead:  see, for example, Kenneth Rosen on ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’ here or  Ghaith Abdul-Ahad‘s chillingly detailed report on the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul here.

I’m still astonished that all those high-minded theoretical debates on planetary urbanism somehow ignore the contemporary intensification of urbicide and urban warfare (see ‘Mumford and sons’ here).

Ground Truth

I’m just back from an invigorating conference on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ at Utrecht – more on this shortly – and it was a wonderful opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones.  Chris Woods gave an outstanding review of air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and told me of an interview Airwars had conducted with Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal whose forensic investigation of civilian casualties in Iraq I discussed in a previous post.  The US-led Coalition has still not responded to their findings, even though they initially afforded a remarkable degree of co-operation.

The full interview really is worth reading, but here is Azmat explaining how their joint investigation started:

We began planning this in February 2016. By April I was on the ground [In Iraq] and I was embedding with local forces, both Shia militias and then with Peshmerga forces, in certain frontline towns. I remember early on seeing how pivotal these airstrikes were in terms of re-taking cities.

There was one town that was really important to Shias, and so dozens of Shia militias had tried to retake it — Bashir — from where ISIS had launched mortars with chemical agents into a neighboring town, Taza. I watched several Shia militias based in Taza try and fail to retake Bashir, putting in all of their troops. Then the peshmerga agreed to try and retake it, and they put in maybe a fraction of the number of troops, but were supported by Coalition airstrikes in a way the militias weren’t, and Bashir fell within hours.

It really showed me the extent to which these airstrikes played a pivotal role in re-taking territory, but also the level of devastation. Many parts of Bashir were just up in smoke, when I visited the day after it was re-taken.

Unless you were on the ground, you couldn’t get a real sense of that scale. There’d been good accounts looking at civilian casualties — but nobody had looked at both those that successfully hit ISIS targets and those that didn’t, so a systematic sample. That’s what we teamed up to do. As more cities were being retaken, we though there’s an opportunity to do this….

In terms of verifying allegations, our work went far beyond interviews and analyzing satellite imagery. In addition to interviewing hundreds of witnesses, we dug through rubble for bomb fragments, or materials that might suggest ISIS use, like artillery vests, ISIS literature, sometimes their bones, because nobody would bury them.

We also got our hands on more than 100 sets of coordinates for suspected ISIS sites passed on by local informants. Sometimes we were able to get photos and videos as well. And ultimately, we verified each civilian casualty allegation with health officials, security forces, or local administrators.

The interview also revisits the attack on the Rezzo family home, a pivot of their NYT essay, which includes even more disturbing details.  As Azmat and Anand explain, this was a strike which ought to have shown Coalition targeting at its most adept; far from it.

Khan: This is a deliberate airstrike, not a dynamic one. It was an “ISIS headquarters,” which we were told, when I was at the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center), a very senior intelligence officer told me that a target with one of the highest thresholds to meet is usually an ISIS headquarters… In so many ways Basim’s case was the ultimate, highest most deliberative process.

Airwars: When you say the best case scenario, you mean the best case on the Coalition side in terms of what intelligence they could have, and they still screwed up in such a fundamental way?

Gopal: if there was ever a strike they could get right, this would be the one. They have weeks to plan it, they have it as an ISIS headquarters. And so you know, if it’s an ISIS headquarters, the threshold for actionable intelligence has to be much higher. It can’t just be drone footage that doesn’t see women and children.

Airwars: They identified it as a headquarters and what was the genesis of that? In the story you talk about – it’s infuriating to read – that they didn’t see women and children.

Khan: One of the things I asked at the CAOC in Qatar was how do you identify local patterns of behavior. For example, I said, under ISIS a lot of women are not leaving their homes. So when you are looking at these pattern of life videos, are you taking these variable local dynamics into account? How do you distinguish for example when you are bombing in Iraq and one of these areas, how do you distinguish between patterns of behavior that are specific to Iraq vs. bombing in Afghanistan. What are the differences?

I was told that they could not get into a great deal of detail about ISIS’ “TTPs” — tactics, techniques, and procedures — their understanding of how ISIS generally operates.  They told me that these are developed through the intelligence community, in coordination with a cultural expert, but that they could not offer more detail about it.

Gopal: At the end of the day, it appears there are no consequences for getting it wrong, so there are no incentives to try to get it right.