Wars in Words

New books forthcoming from Duke University Press (for my money, one of the most interesting and innovative of university presses – beautifully produced and at accessible prices too: UK publishers please note….)

First, Achille Mbembe‘s keenly awaited Necropolitics (coming in October):

In Necropolitics Achille Mbembe, a leader in the new wave of Francophone critical theory, theorizes the genealogy of the contemporary world—a world plagued by ever-increasing inequality, militarization, enmity, and terror, as well as by a resurgence of racist, fascist, and nationalist forces determined to exclude and kill. He outlines how democracy has begun to embrace its dark side, or what he calls its “nocturnal body,” which is based on the desires, fears, a ects, relations, and violence that drove colonialism. is shi has hollowed out democracy, thereby eroding the very values, rights, and freedoms liberal democracy routinely celebrates. As a result, war has become the sacrament of our times, in a conception of sovereignty that operates by annihilating all those considered to be enemies of the state. Despite his dire diagnosis, Mbembe draws on post-Foucault debates on biopolitics, war, and race, as well as Fanon’s notion of care as a shared vulnerability, to explore how new conceptions of the human that transcend humanism might come to pass. These new conceptions would allow us to encounter the Other not as a thing to exclude, but as a person with whom to build a more just world.

Contents:

Introduction. The Ordeal of the World
1. Exit from Democracy
2. The Society of Enmity
3. Necropolitics
4. Viscerality
5. Fanon’s Pharmacy
6. This Stifling Noonday
Conclusion. Ethics of the Passerby

And here’s Judith Butler on the book:

“The appearance of Achille Mbembe’s book, Necropolitics, will change the terms of debate within the English-speaking world. Trenchant in his critique of racism and its relation to the precepts of liberal democracy, Mbembe continues where Foucault left off, tracking the lethal afterlife of sovereign power as it subjects whole populations to what Fanon called ‘the zone of non-being.’ In these pages we find Mbembe not only engaging with biopolitics, the politics of enmity, and the state of exception, but he also opens up the possibility of a global ethic, one that relies less on sovereign power than on the transnational resistance to the spread of the death-world.”

Second, Ronak Kapadia‘s Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War (also October):

In Insurgent AestheticsRonak K. Kapadia theorizes the world-making power of contemporary art responses to U.S. militarism in the Greater Middle East. He traces how new forms of remote killing, torture, con nement, and sur- veillance have created a distinctive post-9/11 infrastructure of racialized state violence. Linking these new forms of violence to the history of American imperialism and conquest, Kapadia shows how Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic multimedia artists force a reckoning with the U.S. War on Terror’s violent destruction and its impacts on immigrant and refugee communities. Drawing on an eclectic range of visual, installation, and per- formance works, Kapadia reveals queer feminist decolonial critiques of the U.S. security state that visualize subjugated histories of U.S. militarism and make palpable what he terms “the sensorial life of empire.” In this way, these artists forge new aesthetic and social alliances that sustain critical opposition to the global war machine and create alternative ways of knowing and feeling beyond the forever war.

Contents:

Introduction. Sensuous Affiliations: Security, Terror, and the Queer Calculus of the Forever War
1. Up in the Air: US Aerial Power and the Visual Life of Empire in the Drone Age
2. On the Skin: Drone Warfare, Collateral Damage, and the Human Terrain
3. Empire’s Innards: Conjuring “Warm Data” in the Archives of US Global Military Detention
4. Palestine(s) in the Sky: Visionary Aesthetics and Queer Cosmic Utopias from the Frontiers of US Empire
Epilogue. Scaling Empire: Insurgent Aesthetics n the Wilds of Imperial Decline

And here’s Chandan Reddy on the book:

“At its core, Insurgent Aesthetics reminds us that war and security are—despite the modern ideologies that would declare otherwise—fundamentally racialized social practices that seek to manage their violence in everyday life through controlling what can be felt and known. By looking at the ways diasporic communities interfere with sovereign and statist logics that conserve the knowledge of loss for the national community alone, this exquisitely written book powerfully argues for the insurgent abilities of culture to interrupt, deform, and repopulate our felt and known worlds in ways that force a reckoning and connection with the racialized death and detritus that U.S. security at once creates and tries to disappear.”

Next month sees the publication of Leah Zani‘s Bomb Children: Life in the former battlefields of Laos:

Half a century after the CIA’s Secret War in Laos—the largest bombing campaign in history—explosive remnants of war continue to be part of people’s everyday lives. In Bomb Children Leah Zani offers a perceptive analysis of the long-term, often subtle, and unintended effects of massive air warfare. Zani traces the sociocultural impact of cluster submunitions—known in Laos as “bomb children”—through stories of explosives clear- ance technicians and others living and working in these old air strike zones. Zani presents her ethnography alongside poetry written in the field, crafting a startlingly beautiful analysis of state terror, authoritarian revival, rapid development, and ecological contamination. In so doing, she proposes that postwar zones are their own cultural and area studies, offer-ing new ways to understand the parallel relationship between ongoing war violence and postwar revival.

You can read the devastating, exquisitely compelling introduction (pdf) here.

Here’s Ann Laura Stoler on the book:

Bomb Children is a riveting and reflexive account of war remains, military waste, and ‘development’ in contemporary Laos. As a document it bears/bares the hazardous conditions of its making, poised on the edge of blasts in the margins of safety zones that are never safe, in the collision and convergence between social ecologies riddled with minefields, and between remains and (economic) revival. Tacking between these ‘paired conceptual frames’ and a set of parallelisms that collapse war and peace and life and death, Bomb Children labors in an ethnographic mode that eschews the pornography of detailing mutilated bodies and instead looks to the war damages that are not over and that remain viscerally present in the everyday of people’s lives.”

Also in August, Jairus Victor Grove‘s Savage Ecology War and Geopolitics at the End of the World:

Jairus Victor Grove contends that we live in a world made by war. In Savage Ecology he offers an ecological theory of geopolitics that argues that contemporary global crises are better understood when considered within the larger history of international politics. Infusing international relations with the theoretical interventions of fields ranging from new materialism to political theory, Grove shows how political violence is the principal force behind climate change, mass extinction, slavery, genocide, extractive capitalism, and other catastrophes. Grove analyzes a variety of subjects—from improvised explosive devices and drones to artificial intelligence and brain science—to outline how geopolitics is the violent pursuit of a way of living that comes at the expense of others. Pointing out that much of the damage being done to the earth and its inhabitants stems from colonialism, Grove suggests that the Anthropocene may be better described by the term Eurocene. The key to changing the planet’s trajectory, Grove proposes, begins by acknowledging both the earth-shaping force of geopolitical violence and the demands apocalypses make for fashioning new ways of living.

You can read the introduction (pdf) here, and here is the Table of Contents:

Aphorisms for a New Realism

Part I. The Great Homogenization
1. The Anthropocene as a Geopolitical Fact
2. War as a Form of Life
3. From Exhaustion to Annihilation: A Martial Ecology of the Eurocene
Part II. Operational Spaces
4. Bombs: An Insurgency of Things
5. Blood: Vital Logistics
6. Brains: We Are Not Who We Are
7. Three Images of Transformation as Homogenization
Part III. Must We Persist to Continue?
8. Apocalypse as a Theory of Change
9. Freaks or the Incipience of Other Forms of Life
Conclusion. Ratio feritas: From Critical Responsiveness to Making New Forms of Life
The End: Visions of Los Angeles, California, 2061

Here’s James Der Derian on the book:

“What Beck did for risk society, Hardt and Negri for empire, and Barad for technoscience, Jairus Victor Grove does brilliantly for global violence, delivering an ecology of warfare that is not only a corrosive critique of the three horsemen of our now daily apocalypse—geopolitics, biopolitics, and cybernetics—but a creative strategy for sustaining life now and thereafter. Grove is a philosopher with a hammer, writer with a stiletto, and artist with a spray can.”

Finally, we have to wait until December for a mammoth reader on Militarization, edited by Roberto J. González, Hugh Gusterson and Gustaaf Houtman.  No word on the contents just yet.

The aesthetics of drone warfare

A conference at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield (UK), 7-8 February 2020, organised by Beryl Pong – Vice Chancellor’s Fellow in English at the University of Sheffield – as part of a wider project funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award for 2019-2020:

Drones have now become commercial and readily available, with innovators promising unprecedented solutions to sectors as wide ranging as agriculture, energy, public safety, and construction. But this multi-billion-dollar industry is founded upon the technology’s origins in a military context, and drone warfare is rapidly redefining the meaning of war, peace, and their temporal and geographical boundaries. Combining surveillance with targeting, satellite imaging with ground-level intelligence, human observation with algorithmic apparatuses, drones have catalysed new ways of making and experiencing war. This international two-day conference explores the issues surrounding drone warfare through the prism of aesthetics: aesthetics understood as art, and as the relationship between the body, the self, and the material environment. How does drone warfare extend and augment the human sensorium? How have writers and artists engaged in new forms or genres to address drone warfare? What is the role of the human in future war? What opportunities and challenges does information-based warfare pose for human rights and peace work? Approaches from all fields are welcome, including literature, history, geography, philosophy, political science, and visual art.

Proposals are invited for 20-minute presentations or for three-paper panels. Topics could include but are not restricted to the following:

Literature and the arts which thematise or feature drone technology and drone warfare
The history and pre-histories of drone warfare, such as aerial bombardment
The relationship between war, technological innovation, and the entertainment industries
Narratives of robotics, artificial intelligence, and information-based warfare
The relationship between peace, surveillance, pre-emption, and human rights
Drones, drone warfare, and social media
Posthuman warfare

Please send 250-word individual paper proposals, or 350-word proposals for fully formed panels, along with short biographies, to Beryl Pong at artofdronewarfare@gmail.com

Note:  There will be a workshop, for postgraduates and early-career researchers, led by Drone Wars UK: an NGO that conducts research, and maintains an up-to-date public dataset, on the U.K. use of armed drones. If you are interested in participating in the workshop, please indicate this in your application.

You can find more about Beryl’s project, and the conference, here.  Conference keynotes from Debjani GangulyDirector of the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures at the University of Virginia, and me.

Paper trails

For an update and succinct review of attacks on hospitals and medical facilities in Syria – see also my ‘Your turn, doctor’ here – I recommend the latest fact-sheet from Physicians for Human Rights:

Attacks on health care, in gross violation of humanitarian norms and the Geneva Conventions, have been a distinctive feature of the conflict in Syria since its inception. PHR has documented and mapped 553 attacks on at least 348 separate facilities from March 2011 through December 2018. The reduction in the number of attacks over the past year is a clear reflection of the diminishing intensity of the conflict, which came as a direct result of the Syrian government’s takeover of most opposition-held areas. The systematic targeting of health facilities has been a crucial component of a wider strategy of war employed by the Syrian government and its allies – who are responsible for over 90 percent of attacks – to punish civilians residing in opposition- held territories, destroy their ability to survive, and draw them into government-held areas or drive them out of the country. This strategy of unbridled violence – which in addition to attacks on healthcare has included chemical strikes, sieges, and indiscriminate bombing of predominantly civilian areas – has devastated the civilian population, weakened opposition groups, and translated into direct military gains for the Syrian government.

Of the total number of documented attacks on health facilities, nearly 73 percent were carried out from the air. Nearly 98 percent of attacks on health facilities perpetrated from the air are attributable to the Syrian government and its ally Russian, which entered the conflict in 2015.

The share of attacks on health facilities from the air has grown from 38 percent of the total in 2012 to 90 percent in 2018. The Syrian government became steadily more reliant on airpower as the conflict evolved. Through their air forces, the Syrian government and Russia extended their strategy of collective punishment deep into opposition-held territory and far beyond hardened front lines. The Syrian government and its allies disabled or destroyed hundreds of facilities through aerial bombardment, leaving countless civilians without access to vital medical services.

The latest 20-page report from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic to the UN’s Human Rights Council is here.  I’ve drawn on many of these reports for my continuing work on siege warfare in Syria (see for example here, here and here), and this report – based on investigations carried out from 11 July 2018 to 10 January 2019 – makes for grim reading.  Here is the summary (but you really need to consult the full report):

Extensive military gains made by pro-government forces throughout the first half of 2018, coupled with an agreement between Turkey and the Russian Federation to establish a demilitarized zone in the north-west, led to a significant decrease in armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic in the period from mid July 2018 to mid January 2019. Hostilities elsewhere, however, remain ongoing. Attacks by pro-government forces in Idlib and western Aleppo Governorates, and those carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the international coalition in Dayr al-Zawr Governorate, continue to cause scores of civilian casualties.

In the aftermath of bombardments, civilians countrywide suffered the effects of a general absence of the rule of law. Numerous civilians were detained arbitrarily or abducted by members of armed groups and criminal gangs and held hostage for ransom in their strongholds in Idlib and northern Aleppo. Similarly, with the conclusion of Operation Olive Branch by Turkey in March 2018, arbitrary arrests and detentions became pervasive throughout Afrin District (Aleppo).

In areas recently retaken by pro-government forces, including eastern Ghouta (Rif Dimashq) and Dar’a Governorate, cases of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance were perpetrated with impunity. After years of living under siege, many civilians in areas recaptured by pro-government forces also faced numerous administrative and legal obstacles to access key services.

The foregoing violations and general absence of the rule of law paint a stark reality for civilians countrywide, including for 6.2 million internally displaced persons and 5.6 million refugees seeking to return. For these reasons, any plans for the return of those displaced both within and outside of the Syrian Arab Republic must incorporate a rights- based approach. In order to address effectively the complex issue of returns, the Commission makes a series of pragmatic recommendations for the sustainable return of all displaced Syrian women, men and children.

A report from Elizabeth Tsurkov in Ha’aretz confirms many of these findings.  Describing Assad’s Syria as a police state with rampant poverty’ and a ‘playground for superpowers’, she writes:

Eight years into the crisis, Syria’s economy is in tatters, half of its population displaced, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead, many of Syria’s cities and towns lie in ruins. Yet on top of this pile of ashes Assad sits comfortably, quite secure in his grip on power.
In areas reconquered by the regime — or as the regime euphemistically describes it, areas that “reconciled” and whose residents “returned to the bosom of the nation” — the Syrian police state is back, more aggressive than ever…

In 2011, Syrians took pride in “breaking the barrier of fear.” But fear now prevails, as the various branches of the regime’s secret police launch raids and arrest suspected disloyal elements. Many of those arrested are former activists, rebels, health and rescue workers, and civil society leaders. Syrians who wish to prove their loyalty to the regime, obtain power through it or simply settle personal scores inform on others to the regime. Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian analyst based in Istanbul, told Haaretz that Syrians are informing on each other “because they have been doing it for years or because they need money or favors from the regime.” In areas recently recaptured by the regime, “some locals were always pro-regime and stayed there to work as informants or just could not leave. Now they have the chance to take revenge on the majority of civilians who apparently held a more favorable view of the opposition,” Ghazi explained.

Most of Syria’s population now lives below the poverty line. Across all parts of Syria unemployment rates are high, as the normal economy has been disrupted by years of war and the mass flight of businesspeople and capital out of the country. Syria’s middle class has largely disappeared — many of them fled to neighboring countries or Europe, while others are now living in abject poverty, along with most Syrians.
A small group of war profiteers linked to the various armed groups have been able to enrich themselves by trading in oil, weapons, antiquities, stealing aid, and smuggling people and goods in and out of the country and into besieged areas, while most Syrians struggle to survive. Nearly two-thirds of Syrians are dependent on aid for their subsistence. Basic services like electricity, cooking gas, clean water and health services are lacking in many parts of the country.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a resident of Latakia — an area where many of the regime’s leadership and their relatives reside — told Haaretz: “You have corruption everywhere. Bribing was common before the war, but now it is endemic.”
He described the ostentatious displays of ill-gotten wealth: “High-ranking officials, they and their families, have more rights. They roam the city in fancy cars and do whatever they want. Half of the country is dying from hunger, while the sons of officials are arrogantly showing off their wealth. With money you can do everything. This is not new, but it has become more obvious because of the lawlessness prevailing in Syria.”

At the sub-regional scale Enab Baladi filed a revealing report last month on conditions in the Ghouta (which it describes as ‘military-ruled ruins’):

Today, Ghouta is living in a state of siege similar to that it witnessed between 2013 and 2018 at the service, relief and security levels, but the difference is that food is available.

With dozens of announcements about the restoration of electricity to areas east of the capital, as well as the restoration of water and communication services, the needs of civilians are still not covered by those services repeatedly announced by the regime.

Enab Baladi spoke to five people from the eastern Ghouta who returned to it, all of whom refused to be identified for fear of the regime prosecution. They described the service situation as “miserable”, especially with regard to the water and electricity services.

According to the five sources, the electricity is continuously cut for five hours, operates for only one hour, and then it is cut again, while water reaches homes one hour a day, and people rely on submersibles and artesian wells which they dug during siege in the previous years to get water.

Some areas of Ghouta also lacked many of the services that were the top priorities of organizations before the regime forces controlled the region, while food today enters without manipulated prices, unlike in the past….

The report describes Eastern Ghouta as riven by checkpoints; an emphasis on demolition rather than reconstruction; and continuing arrests and detentions.

In early August [2018], al-Assad forces launched a campaign of arrests, which has been considered as one of the largest security operations since the regime took over Ghouta, for it has targeted the regime dissidents and activists in the Syrian revolution. The campaign was carried out in the cities and towns of Saqba, Hamuriyah, Duma, Mesraba, and Ein Tarma.

The regime also subjected local activists, civil society workers, and former media professionals, as well as members of local councils and relief agencies, to investigations into the aids they received when the area was held by the opposition.

Security branches launched arrest campaigns targeting members of the former “local council” and other members of Rif-Dimashq Provincial Council in the city of Kafr Batna in central Ghouta, according to Enab Baladi referring to local sources.

Sources affiliated to the council told Enab Baladi that Syrian security forces raided the houses and workplaces of the detainees before taking them to an unknown destination. Other local council members, who preferred to stay in Ghouta rather than go to northern Syria, are detained for the same reasons.

In the face of all that, it’s not easy to find grounds for optimism, but there is a glimmer of hope in a report from Maryam Saleh at The Intercept:

Syrian activists and lawyers are testing the bounds of international law, making two new attempts to bring the government of Bashar al-Assad before the International Criminal Court.

Syrian refugees in Jordan, through London-based lawyers, sent communications to the office of the ICC prosecutor, asking her to exercise jurisdiction over Syria based on a precedent set last year in a case involving Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims. The communications are the latest push by Syrian civilians to hold accountable the government whose brutality upended their lives. In recent years, Syrian lawyers and human rights activists have experimented with rarely utilized aspects of international law, succeeding in getting European and American courts to weigh in on atrocities committed in Syria.

“Because of how politicized the war in Syria became, lawyers and those fighting for accountability really had to be creative,” said Mai El-Sadany, the legal and judicial director at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The most recent ICC Article 15 submissions” — a reference to communications with the ICC on information about alleged international crimes — “are evidence of this, that there is space for creativity in the accountability space.”

She continues:

Even when the evidence of potential crimes exists, investigations into crimes committed in states that have not ratified the Rome Statute are near impossible because of jurisdictional issues, and U.N. Security Council members are quick to use their veto power to block investigations into crimes potentially committed by their allies.

That’s what makes the various avenues Syrians are pursuing so significant. As of last March, more than two dozen cases had been filed in European courts regarding atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, rebel fighters, and the Islamic State and other fundamentalist militant groups. The family of Marie Colvin, an American journalist killed in 2012 while reporting from the city of Homs, sued the Syrian government in a U.S. district court; in January, the court found Syria responsible for killing Colvin.

Many of the cases in Europe were brought under a legal doctrine known as universal jurisdiction; application of the doctrine varies from country to country, but it essentially allows for courts to prosecute cases regardless of where the crime was committed or whether the accused party has any links to the prosecuting state.

The biggest success so far has been in Germany, where authorities last month arrested a former high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer and two others who are accused of crimes against humanity for torturing detainees in Syrian prisons. Other cases remain pending in France, Sweden, and Spain….

These attempts are possible in part due to an unprecedented level of documentation of crimes in Syria. The victims in some of the cases were identified from a trove of 28,000 photos of people killed in Syrian detention centers, smuggled out of the country by a military defector codenamed Caesar. The U.N. General Assembly, in December 2016, took the step of creating the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism to investigate crimes in Syria since 2011. The IIIM, as the body is known, does not have independent prosecutorial authority, but it exists to collect information that could later be provided to courts or tribunals with jurisdiction over the crimes. Last year, 28 Syrian nongovernmental organizations committed to collaborating with the IIIM on its work.

This is heartening in its way, but whenever I’ve been asked about attempts to enforce accountability in relation to the systematic attacks on hospitals, I’ve had to say that the hideous intimacy between torturer and tortured allows for an identification and assignment of culpability that is much more difficult in the case of the extended ‘kill-chain’ involved in bombing.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible: we know, from the courageous work of activists cited in Maryam’s report, that Assad’s security apparatus fetishized record-keeping, and that many of those records have been smuggled out of Syria so that they can now serve as testimony and evidence  (For other testimonies, see the work of Forensic Architecture on Saydnaya Prison that I described here: scroll down).  To sharpen the point, hare some of the slides from a presentation I once gave around precisely these questions:

If my work on bombing in other theatres of war is anything to go by, there will also be extensive trails (paper or digital) that animated the air strikes: though how they can ever be exposed is another question.

Towards dissipating the fog of war

Following on from my previous post – and my work on the gas attacks on Douma in April 2018 (see here) – I’ve been reading a detailed analysis by James Harkin over at the Intercept, ‘What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War.’

James emphasises the multiple versions of the Douma attack that were produced (and remain in circulation) and the wider implications of this studied polyvocality:

At least one chemical attack did take place in Douma on April 7 [2018], and people died as a result. There could have been no other culprit but a Syrian army helicopter. But the way it happened bears little resemblance to what was broadcast to the world. From the start, the evidence presented by rebel media activists was fraught and confusing. That’s hardly surprising, because some of those behind it — including some who produced immediate and detailed reports — weren’t actually there. Into the gaps of that initial propaganda barrage seeped skepticism, which morphed into confusion and outright conspiracy-theorizing. State actors, Russian propagandists, and international observers joined the fray, cherry-picking details to illustrate the story they wanted told. Added to the fog of war, in other words, was a fractious new layer of electronic propaganda that turned every tweet or screengrab into a potential weapon in the hands of one of the belligerents.

Beyond the war in Syria, the cloud of misinformation that enveloped the attack in Douma stands as a cautionary tale. In the era of “fake news,” it is a case study in the choreography of our new propaganda wars. With the mainstream media in wholesale retreat — and, in the case of Syria, credibly threatened with death from many sides — new information actors have stepped into the breach. Reading the runes of their imagery is an exciting reporting tool. But their photos, video, and social media posts also offers a vanishingly narrow, excoriatingly subjective view of how conflicts unfold. As a result, such artifacts have become light weapons in an information war that easily becomes an end in itself.

He then provides an intricate choreography of his own visit to Douma on 9 July 2018, three days after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published its interim report on the attack (see also here).

James was accompanied by officials from the Syrian Information Ministry – and he’s clearly aware of the limitations this imposed on what he saw and what he heard from those who remained in Douma after the forced evacuations – and interlaces his observations and interviews with the digital evidence examined by Forensic Architecture and bellingcat that I discussed in my original essay.

It’s an unsettling analysis, though I think it makes remarkably little (much too little) of two issues.  First, the pre-existing pattern of chemical attacks in Syria in general and East Ghouta in particular (see, for example, here):

And second, the deliberate disinformation campaigns launched by Russia and Syria, revolving around multiple and demonstrably false narratives of ‘staging’ (again, the details are in my original essay here) and their circulation by witting or unwitting commentator-journalists.  This matters because (as is the case with other, ongoing investigations that have exposed systematic falsehoods on the grand, one might say presidential scale) the core question is surely: why lie if you have nothing to hide?

For all that, James’s investigation adds significant layers to our understanding of what happened on that awful April night.

First, like several analysts, James is puzzled by the location of the gas canisters shown on videos after the attack, and his interview with a former official with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is highly suggestive:

[S]uspicions that the canisters had been moved didn’t lead the former OPCW official to conclude that there hadn’t been a chemical attack by Syrian military aircraft. In fact, given the dozens dead, which didn’t fit with the usual toll of injuries from breathing difficulties and vomiting that result from a Syrian chlorine bomb, and that the victims had apparently dropped unconscious on the spot, he thought it possible that the Syrian air force had used another more murderous poison, one that hadn’t been captured in the OPCW report. But for camerapeople desperate to show they had the goods and get the world on their side, he guessed, those videos of gas canisters and outsized gas masks made “compelling images.” The temptation, he said, is to “bring your own munition in.”

He’d seen such staging himself, the former OPCW official confided. In an infamous attack on an aid convoy on the outskirts of Aleppo in September 2016, which killed 14 civilians, he concluded that pieces of alleged photographic evidence had very likely been introduced or faked. In addition, he maintained, “some opposition witnesses had clearly been coached.” Ultimately, it didn’t matter, the official said; six months later the United Nations had rightly declared the Syrian government responsible. It was just “media ops,” he said; the activists had simply been concerned to get their narrative out as quickly and forcefully as they could.

Second, James contacts Theodore Postol – who, as I noted in my own essay, had cast doubt on reports of earlier chemical attacks on East Ghouta – who provides a plausible counter-narrative to claims that the attack was somehow staged:

When I showed videos of the canisters to Theodore Postol in Boston, he was immediately certain that both had been launched from the sky by the Syrian military and that any “brouhaha” from the Russians to the contrary could be safely ignored…

[He] concurred with the analysis of internet investigators like Eliot Higgins [at bellingcat], with whom he often ferociously disagrees. The canister, he reckoned, would have weighed around 250 pounds and carried about 120 kilos of chorine. But it landed in an entirely unexpected way. Since the concrete-and-steel-mesh roof wasn’t very strong, the bomb punched a hole in the ceiling. The effect was as if the nose of the canister had been deliberately rammed into the external wall, so as to point gas directly into the room below, creating a gas chamber. That room would have filled with chlorine in one or two minutes. Drawing on Forensic Architecture’s modeling of the building onto which it fell, Postol estimated that the chlorine gas would have poured out into the upper floor at a magnitude several hundred times higher than a lethal dose, its density much greater because the release occurred in an enclosed space. As it made its way down into the two floors below, its density would have decreased, but still would have been much more than enough for a lethal dose.

When it filled the building, the chlorine would have spilled out via open windows and doors and then drifted along the street, like a thick fog, at much lower concentrations. As it sank through the building, the residents hunkered down in the basement would have smelled it too. Many likely ran headfirst onto the street, only to be confronted by a chlorine gas cloud forming all around them. Instinct and training likely kicked in; since chlorine is thicker than air, the instructions they’d been given would have been to head for the roof. Under most circumstances, this would have been excellent advice, like the injunction to workers at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to stay put at their desks, but in this case, it failed the residents of Douma. As they ran back upward through the building, they’d have been rendered unconscious very quickly and dead within minutes. Delivered at that kind of dosage — thousands of milligrams per cubic meter — chlorine could easily have caused the frothing at the mouth, skin burns, and damaged corneas observed by medical workers, as well as the horrible smell and breathing difficulties of which residents complained. It also makes sense of what the motorbike rider had told me: that the whole street had been affected by the foul odor. To panic and terrorize the population was, after all, what this was for.

The murderous result, concluded Postol, was “a very peculiar set of circumstances” and a terrible twist of fate. If the building had had been larger with a firmer roof, the balcony canister would probably not have fallen through; even if it had broken open and begun dispersing its payload, the chlorine would have wafted off into the open air and likely not injured anyone. If the roof had been even weaker and the canister had fallen right through onto the third floor, its valve might not have opened at all, like the one on the bed. But because of the way the canister punctured the concrete, its valve snapped so as to spew the contents directly into the enclosed space below. A lot of stars would have had to align for something like this to happen, just as the former OPCW inspector had said. But in this case, they did.

And James ends with a sobering counter-factual.  Throughout my analysis of siege warfare in Syria, I have criticised the selectivity of public concern (where there has been any at all), and in particular the outrage over chemical weapons compared with the insouciant disregard for other, no less murderous forms of military and paramilitary violence.  (I admit this has become an obsession: hence my dismay at the political and critical energy directed against drone strikes in the world’s borderlands to the exclusion of other forms of aerial violence that have killed and maimed many, many more people).

If a 500-pound bomb had collided with the roof of that apartment block near al-Shuhada Square instead of a chlorine canister, it would have punched clean through and landed slap on one of the higher floors. There would have been a tiny delay, only a fraction of a second, while the fuse sensed that it had reached its destination, after which the building would have blown apart and its entire weight fallen downward onto the basement. Everyone hiding there would likely have been buried alive.

Whose voices would have been raised against that?

War, truth and peace

A fascinating essay in the weekend’s New York Times from William Davies at Goldsmith’s, ‘Everything is war and nothing is true‘.  It’s a remarkably wide-ranging essay, travelling from Brexit through ‘post-truth’ regimes to martial politics, and it’s derived from his new book, published in the UK at the end of last year as Nervous states: how feeling took over the world (Jonathan Cape/Penguin) and about to be published in North America as Nervous states: democracy and the decline of reason (W.W. Norton).

Here’s an extract from the NYT essay:

The principle that military and civilian operations should remain separate has been a cornerstone of liberal politics since religious and civil wars tore through Europe in the mid-17th century. The modern division between the army and civil policing originates in late-17th-century England, when early forms of public administration came to treat (and finance) the two independently of each other. Since then, the rule of law has been distinguished from rule by force.

However, there is an opposing vision of the modern state that also has a long history. According to this alternative ideal, the division between civil government and the military is a pacifist’s conceit that needs overcoming. And it’s not a coincidence that these days nationalists are especially keen to employ the rhetoric of warfare: The wars that fuel the nationalist imagination are not simply military affairs, going on far away between professional soldiers, but also mass mobilizations of politicians, civilians and infrastructure. Ever since the Napoleonic Wars witnessed conscription and the strategic mobilization of the economy, nationalists have looked to war to generate national solidarity and a sense of purpose.

There is another distinctive characteristic of military situations that civilian life often lacks: the promise of an instant response, without the delays that go with democratic argument or expert analysis. Warfare requires knowledge, of course, just not of the same variety that we are familiar with in times of peace. In civil society, the facts provided by economists, statisticians, reporters and academic scientists have a peace-building quality to the extent that they provide a common reality that can be agreed upon. The ideal of independent expertise, which cannot be swayed by money or power, has been crucial in allowing political opponents to nevertheless agree on certain basic features of reality. Facts remove questions of truth from the domain of politics.

War demands a different, more paranoid system of expertise and knowledge, which looks at the world as an uncertain and hostile place, where nothing is fixed. In situations of conflict, the most valuable attribute of knowledge is not that it generates public consensus but that it is up to the minute and aids rapid decision making. Meanwhile, the information shared with the public must be tailored to incite mass enthusiasm and animosity rather than objectivity.

The conditions that most lend themselves to military responses are those in which time is running out. Of course, many of the emergencies that we face today are fictions: the “emergency” at the Mexican border or, perhaps, the British government’s intentional exaggerations of the threat of a “no deal” Brexit to put pressure on Parliament. Framing an issue as an emergency where time is of the essence is a means of bypassing the much slower civilian world of deliberation and facts.

There’s much to think about here, though my immediate reaction is to suggest that much of what has come to be described as a ‘post-truth’ regime is in fact about establishing a post-trust regime: setting a thousand hares running across a hyper-accelerated public sphere so that it becomes exceptionally difficult to reach a common consensus – hence evidence yields to emotion.  I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the disinformation campaigns that have bedevilled the war in Syria (see, for example, here), and working on a more general formulation of the argument, and I’ll try to return to this in detail in a later post.

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!