I’m later to this than I should be, but over at the American Anthropologist there is a very interesting series of four podcasts conducted by Emily Sogn.and Vasiliki Touhouliotis on what they call ‘the military present’:
In the first episode, we spoke to Joe Masco (here) about the historical formation of an affective politics that creates an ethos of continuous, yet increasingly incoherent militarization justifying itself as a response to a monopoly of perceived threats. Next, we spoke to Madiha Tahir (here) about the ways in which new weapons technologies, particularly drones, have reshaped social landscapes in places like the Waziristan region of Pakistan where threats both in the air and on the ground have become an ever present fact of everyday life….
In our [third] episode we spoke with was Wazhmah Osman (here) about the embodied effects of nearly four decades of continuous war in Afghanistan. we talked about how the deployment of new military strategies and the use of new supposedly more precise weapons obscures the deep yet everyday cumulative damage that is caused by ongoing war. [The interview focuses on the US deployment of the the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) in Afghanistan in April of 2017].
And in the final episode – which is how I stumbled upon the series, as I’m in the final stages of prepping my Antipode lecture on “Trauma Geographies” – they talk with my good friend Omar Dewachi (here)
about war as a form of governance asking how war orders and creates the terms by which different forms of injury caused by war can be recognized and acted upon. We were prompted to frame a conversation around this topic as a response to what we see as a troubling absence of public discussion of the deaths and illnesses that are caused by war, but which get obscured as such by the language of by products, secondary effects, or collateral damage.
Unless I’ve missed something, the conversation with Omar is the only one of the series to have a transcript, but you can listen to all of them online.
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 here – Robert 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 YorkTimes 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 Journalismconfirmed 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).
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 Silentlyput 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).
In another lifetime, or so it seems, I wrote a short essay on ‘The death of the civilian’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and I seem to have spent much of the intervening years developing those early ideas. So I’m thrilled to see an important new paper from NicolaPerugini and Neve Gordon, ‘Distinction and the Ethics of Violence: on the legal construction of liminal subjects and spaces’, available online now at Antipode:
This paper interrogates the relationship among visibility, distinction, international humanitarian law and ethics in contemporary theatres of violence. After introducing the notions of “civilianization of armed conflict” and “battlespaces”, we briefly discuss the evisceration of one of international humanitarian law’s axiomatic figures: the civilian. We show how liberal militaries have created an apparatus of distinction that expands that which is perceptible by subjecting big data to algorithmic analysis, combining the traditional humanist lens with a post-humanist one. The apparatus functions before, during, and after the fray not only as an operational technology that directs the fighting or as a discursive mechanism responsible for producing the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a force that produces liminal subjects. Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—we show how the apparatus helps justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war.
Their two case studies focus on US drone attacks in Pakistan and the use of human shields in Gaza (the image below, taken from the article, shows the Israeli Defence Force’s ‘Laboratory of Discrimination’ (sic)).
You can watch a video where Nicola and Neve discuss their ideas on the Antipode website here, which also provides a less formal gloss:
[Their paper] examines how militaries actually make distinctions in the battlefield, given that today most fighting takes place in urban settings where distinguishing between combatant and civilian is becoming increasingly difficult.
Their paper shows how liberal militaries are utilizing new technologies that aim to expand that which is perceptible within the fray. Combining the more traditional forms of making distinctions such as binoculars and cameras with cutting edge hi-tech, militaries subject big data to algorithmic analysis aimed at identifying certain behavioral patterns. The technologies of distinction function before, during, and after the fray not only in order to direct the fighting and to help produce the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a mechanism that identifies and at times creates new legal figures.
Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—Nicola and Neve show how technologies of distinction help justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war. Ultimately, they maintain that distinction, which is meant to guarantee the protection of civilians in the midst of armed conflict, actually helps hollow the notion of civilian through the production of new liminal legal figures that can be legitimately killed.
For more on the intersections between international law, military protocols and the (in)visibility of the civilian, I also recommend the insightful work of Christiane Wilke (see ‘Seeing Civilians (or not)’ here).
In Reach from the Sky, my Tanner Lectures which I’m presently preparing for publication, I sketched what I called a ‘moral economy of bombing’:
It’s the last of these claims that concerns me here: bombing represented as ‘law-full’. In the lectures I discussed the legal armature of aerial violence – referring to the combined bomber offensive against Germany in the Second World War Air Chief Marshall Arthur Harris famously insisted that ‘In this matter of the use of aircraft in war there is, it so happens, no international law at all’, a claim that was, I suppose, literally true in so far as it applied to the specific application of air power; I tried to show what has (and has not) changed since then, not least through the development of international humanitarian law and the juridification of later modern war – and the insistence that air power is an effective means of imposing a legal order on the nominally ‘lawless’ (a claim registered through colonial ‘air policing’ and continued in the US and Pakistan air strikes on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan: see ‘Dirty Dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab).
In the ghastly light of the Trump administration’s decision last month to drop (for the first time in combat) what the US Air Force calls ‘the Mother Of All Bombs‘ (MOAB), the GBU-43/B, on an IS ‘tunnel complex’ in eastern Afghanistan, Michael Weinman has written an excellent essay for Public Seminar on ‘Ordnance as ordinance‘ that elaborates the second part of my claim about bombing being ‘law-full’:
[B]oth the decision to name this weapon MOAB and the decision to deploy it in Afghanistan is tightly linked with what Judith Butlercalled a “new military convention” begun by Colin Powell when he described the deployment of “smart bombs” during the first Iraq War as “the delivery of ordnance.” In “Contingent Foundations,” Butler noted that Powell “figures an act of violence as an act of law” by substituting “ordnance” (munitions, agents of destructive violence) for “ordinance” (a law or decree). Powell’s speech act, apparently delivered in an unscripted moment during a press conference in January 1991, is an important instance of the “illocutionary force” of language that Butler explores throughout the work she did in the late 1990s and early 2000s — her most impressive and important work in my view. This aerial bombardment of Iraqi installations with technologically advanced munitions, viewable in real time on network and cable TV for the first time, was itself a phenomenon. But it was the declaration that such a display in itself was an act of law enforcement that truly brought us into a new era. An era in which, thanks to Powell and the Bush (41) administration, the alignment of violence and law against a regime that violates international law figures state violence, even where it might be in contradiction of international agreements, as the very agent of law and legitimation. Watching the media response to the recent deployment of MOAB in Afghanistan, it is clear we still haven’t learned Butler’s lesson.
The deeper resonance of reading this particular ordnance as a form of ordinance requires that we attend to a different resonance of its chosen acronym, MOAB. Not the “Mother of All Bombs” nomenclature, which bespeaks its terrifying awesomeness — in the literal sense of the term “awesome,” connoting utter sublimity. That is part of the story too, but it is not the heart of it. Rather, continuing Butler’s pursuit of the line of thought by which Saddam (Hussein) was recast as (the Biblical) Sodom, we must turn instead to the Biblical Moab, patriarch of the Moabites. Crucially, we must bear in mind that, within the Hebrew Bible, this people, whose lands lay across the Dead Sea, is cast as a hostile neighboring people — indeed, the Moabites are depicted as the neighboring tribe most inherently in conflict with the people of Israel. Viewed in this light, there is continuing power in Powell’s fantasy that the deliverance of ordnance is the way “we” publicly declare the ordinance that those who defy international law will be vanquished by the synthesis of law and force executed by the United States military as the leader the coalition of the willing. This vision remains the reigning principle behind the self-image of the United States as an actor on the international scene. And this is so because, deeply steeped in an “Old Testament morality” (a morality wherein the enemies of the United States are figured as the ancient enemies of the people of Israel), this vision justifies a view of America as the model exemplar of a “Judeo-Christian” civilization. A civilization that is — as it ever was — waging a war, engaging in a “clash of civilizations.” Of course we would name our most deadly non-nuclear weapon “Moab” (or M.O.A.B., if you like): what other name than that of the oldest and deepest “frenemy” of Israel could the United States military have possibly dreamt up?
There is more that could be said, I think, especially if one stays with Butler and thinks of this episode as a speech-act. After all – and repeating a line that was repeated endlessly during the Rolling Thunder campaign against North Vietnam – MOAB was originally developed in 2002 for the ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign that heralded the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the Pentagon claimed that deploying the MOAB was an act of communication (really): it sent ‘a very clear message’ to IS that it would be ‘annihilated‘. (The message-in-a-bomb line shouldn’t be confused with the terse messages that ground crews have scrawled on bombs in war after war after war, and I suppose it is less grotesque than the description of bombing Syria as a form of ‘after-dinner entertainment‘ for the US President – which sends an even more terrifying message to anyone with a shred of decency or understanding).
If the bombing in Afghanistan did send a message to IS – and to state actors elsewhere in the world – it also sent a message to innocent others in the vicinity of the blast:
“There is no doubt that Isis are brutal and that they have committed atrocities against our people. But I don’t see why the bomb was dropped,” said the mayor of Achin, Naweed Shinwari. “It terrorised our people. My relatives thought the end of the world had come. Every day fighter jets, helicopters and drones are in the area.”
In that vein, and to return to the colonial genealogy I mentioned at the start, the use of the global South as a laboratory for weapons testing and demonstration has a long history, as Scott Beauchamp‘s report here documents:
…the most interesting commentary probably came from former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, who tweeted that “This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as a testing grounds for new and dangerous weapons.”
He’s got a point. There is a dark history of Western military powers testing novel weapons and strategies on technologically overmatched non-Western (and non-white) populations. It’s a legacy that mixes the brutal arrogance of colonialism with the technological promise of an easy fix. There are of course numerous examples of this cruel dynamic at play in the centuries leading up to the 20th — conquistadors with dogs and swords, gunpowder in general — but the disparity that currently exists between the material advantages of Western countries and the technological capability of enemies abroad continues to be exploited in ways that conform to a recognizable pattern.
PS Much as I’ve enjoyed Michael’s essay, I think Stephen Fry also had a point.
In Lucy Suchman‘s marvellous essay on ‘Situational Awareness’ in remote operations she calls attention to what she calls bioconvergence:
A corollary to the configuration of “their” bodies as targets to be killed is the specific way in which “our” bodies are incorporated into war fighting assemblages as operating agents, at the same time that the locus of agency becomes increasingly ambiguous and diffuse. These are twin forms of contemporary bioconvergence, as all bodies are locked together within a wider apparatus characterized by troubling lacunae and unruly contingencies.
In the wake of her work, there has been a cascade of essays insisting on the embodiment of air strikes carried out by Predators and Reapers – the bodies of the pilots, sensor operators and the legion of others who carry out these remote operations, and the bodies of their victims – and on what Lauren Wilcox calls the embodied and embodying nature of drone warfare (‘Embodying algorithmic war: Gender, race, and the posthuman in drone warfare’ in Security dialogue, 2016; see also Lorraine Bayard de Volo, ‘Unmanned? Gender recalibrations and the rise of drone warfare’, Politics and gender, 2015). Lauren distinguishes between visual, algorithmic and affective modes of embodiment, and draws on the transcript of what has become a canonical air strike in Uruzgan province (Afghanistan) on 21 February 2010 to develop her claims (more on this in a moment).
And yet it’s a strange sort of embodying because within the targeting process these three registers also produce an estrangement and ultimately an effacement. The corporeal is transformed into the calculative: a moving target, a data stream, an imminent threat. If this is still a body at all, it’s radically different from ‘our’ bodies. As I write these words, I realise I’m not convinced by the passage in George Brant‘s play Grounded in which the face of a little girl on the screen, the daughter of a ‘High Value Target’, becomes the face of the Predator pilot’s own daughter. For a digital Orientalism is at work through those modes of embodiment that interpellates those watching as spectators of what Edward Said once called ‘a living tableau of queerness’ that in so many cases will become a dead tableau of bodies which remain irredeemably Other.
There is a history to the embodiment of air strikes, as my image above shows. Aerial violence in all its different guises has almost invariably involved an asymmetriceffacement. The lives – and the bodies – of those who flew the first bombing missions over the Western Front in the First World War; the young men who sacrificed their lives during the Combined Bomber Offensive in the Second World War; and even the tribulations and traumas encountered by the men and women conducting remote operations over Afghanistan and elsewhere have all been documented in fact and in fiction.
And yet, while others – notably social historians, investigative journalists and artists – have sought to bring into view the lives shattered by aerial violence, its administration has long mobilised an affective distance between bomber and bombed. As I showed in ‘Doors into nowhere’ and ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), the bodies of those crouching beneath the bombs are transformed into abstract co-ordinates, coloured lights and target boxes. Here is Charles Lindbergh talking about the air war in the Pacific in May 1944:
You press a button and death flies down. One second the bomb is hanging harmlessly in your racks, completely under your control. The next it is hurtling through the air, and nothing in your power can revoke what you have done… How can there be writhing, mangled bodies? How can this air around you be filled with unseen projectiles? It is like listening to a radio account of a battle on the other side of the earth. It is too far away, too separated to hold reality.
Or Frank Musgrave, a navigator with RAF Bomber Command, writing about missions over Germany that same year:
These German cities were simply coordinates on a map of Europe, the first relatively near, involving around six hours of flying, the second depressingly distant, involving some eight or nine hours of flying. Both sets of coordinates were at the centre of areas shaded deep red on our maps to indicate heavy defences. For me ‘Dortmund’ and ‘Leipzig’ had no further substance or concrete reality.
Harold Nash, another navigator:
It was black, and then suddenly in the distance you saw lights on the floor, the fires burning. As you drew near, they looked like sparkling diamonds on a black satin background… [T]hey weren’t people to me, just the target. It’s the distance and the blindness which enabled you to do these things.
One last example – Peter Johnson, a Group Captain who served with distinction with RAF Bomber Command:
Targets were now marked by the Pathfinder Force … and these instructions, to bomb a marker, introduced a curiously impersonal factor into the act of dropping huge quantities of bombs. I came to realize that crews were simply bored by a lot of information about the target. What concerned them were the details of route and navigation, which colour Target Indicator they were to bomb… In the glare of searchlights, with the continual winking of anti-aircraft shells, the occasional thud when one came close and left its vile smell, what we had to do was search for coloured lights dropped by our own people, aim our bombs at them and get away.
The airspace through which the bomber stream flew was a viscerally biophysical realm, in which the crews’ bodies registered the noise of the engines, the shifts in course and elevation, the sound and stink of the flak, the abrupt lift of the aircraft once the bombs were released. They were also acutely aware of their own bodies: fingers numbed by the freezing cold, faces encased in rubbery oxygen masks, and frantic fumblings over the Elsan. But the physicality of the space far below them was reduced to the optical play of distant lights and flames, and the crushed, asphyxiated and broken bodies appeared – if they appeared at all – only in their nightmares.
These apprehensions were threaded into what I’ve called a ‘moral economy of bombing’ that sought (in different ways and at different times) to legitimise aerial violence by lionising its agents and marginalising its victims (see here: scroll down).
But remote operations threaten to transform this calculus. Those who control Predators and Reapers sit at consoles in air-conditioned containers, which denies them the physical sensations of flight. Yet in one, as it happens acutely optical sense they are much closer to the devastation they cause: eighteen inches away, they usually say, the distance from eye to screen. And the strikes they execute are typically against individuals or small groups of people (rather than objects or areas), and they rely on full-motion video feeds that show the situation both before and after in detail (however imperfectly). Faced with this highly conditional intimacy, as Lauren shows, the bodies that appear in the cross-hairs are produced as killable bodies through a process of somatic abstraction – leaving the fleshy body behind – that is abruptly reversed once the missile is released.
Thus in the coda to the original version of ‘Dirty Dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab) – and which I’ve since excised from what was a very long essay; reworked, it will appear in a revised formas ‘The territory of the screen’ – I described how
intelligence agencies produce and reproduce the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] as a data field that is systematically mined to expose seams of information and selectively sown with explosives to be rematerialised as a killing field. The screens on which and through which the strikes are animated are mediations in an extended sequence in which bodies moving into, through and out from the FATA are tracked and turned into targets in a process that Ian Hacking describes more generally as ‘making people up’: except that in this scenario the targets are not so much ‘people’ as digital traces. The scattered actions and interactions of individuals are registered by remote sensors, removed from the fleshiness of human bodies and reassembled as what Grégoire Chamayou calls ‘schematic bodies’. They are given codenames (‘Objective x’) and index numbers, they are tracked on screens and their danse macabre is plotted on time-space grids and followed by drones. But as soon as the Hellfire missiles are released the transformations that have produced the target over the preceding weeks and months cascade back into the human body: in an instant virtuality becomes corporeality and traces turn into remains.
There are two difficulties in operationalising that last sentence. One is bound up with evidence – and in particular with reading what Oliver Kearns calls the ‘residue’ of covert strikes (see his ‘Secrecy and absence in the residue of covert drone strikes’, Political Geography, 2016) – and the other is one that I want to address here.
To do so, let me turn from the FATA to Yemen. The Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights in Sa’ana has released a short documentary, Waiting for Justice, that details the effects of a US drone strike on civilians:
If the embedded version doesn’t work, you can find it on YouTube.
At 6 a.m. on 19 April 2014 a group of men – mainly construction workers, plus one young father hitching a ride to catch a bus into Saudi Arabia – set off from from their villages in al-Sawma’ah to drive to al-Baidha city; 20 to 30 metres behind their Toyota Hilux, it turned out, was a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying suspected members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
That car was being tracked by a drone: it fired a Hellfire missile, striking the car and killing the occupants, and shrapnel hit the Hilux. Some of the civilians sought refuge in an abandoned water canal, when the drone (or its companion) returned for a second strike.
Four of them were killed – Sanad Hussein Nasser al-Khushum(30), Yasser Abed Rabbo al-Azzani (18), Ahmed Saleh Abu Bakr(65) and Abdullah Nasser Abu Bakr al-Khushu– and five were injured: the driver, Nasser Mohammed Nasser (35), Abdulrahman Hussein al-Khushum (22), Najib Hassan Nayef(35 years), Salem Nasser al-Khushum (40) and Bassam Ahmed Salem Breim (20).
The film draws on Death by Drone: civilian harm caused by US targeted killing in Yemen, a collaborative investigation carried out by the Open Society Justice Initiative in the United States and Mwatana in Yemen into nine drone strikes: one of them (see pp. 42-48) is the basis of the documentary; the strike is also detailed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as YEM159 here.
That report, together with the interview and reconstruction for the documentary, have much to tell us about witnesses and residues.
In addition the father of one of the victims, describing the strike in the film, says ‘They slaughter them like sheep‘…
… and, as Joe Pugliese shows in a remarkable new essay, that phrase contains a violent, visceral truth.
Joe describes a number of other US strikes in Yemen – by cruise missiles and by Hellfire missiles fired from drones (on which see here; scroll down) – in which survivors and rescuers confronted a horrific aftermath in which the incinerated flesh of dead animals and the flesh of dead human beings became indistinguishable. This is a radically different, post-strike bioconvergence that Joe calls a geobiomorphology:
The bodies of humans and animals are here compelled to enflesh the world through the violence of war in a brutally literal manner: the dismembered and melted flesh becomes the ‘tissue of things’ as it geobiomorphologically enfolds the contours of trees and rocks. What we witness in this scene of carnage is the transliteration of metadata algorithms to flesh. The abstracting and decorporealising operations of metadata ‘without content’ are, in these contexts of militarised slaughter of humans and animals, geobiomorphologically realised and grounded in the trammelled lands of the Global South.
Indeed, he’s adamant that it is no longer possible to speak of the corporeal in the presence of such ineffable horror:
One can no longer talk of corporeality here. Post the blast of a drone Hellfire missile, the corpora of animals-humans are rendered into shredded carnality. In other words, operative here is the dehiscence of the body through the violence of an explosive centripetality that disseminates flesh. The moment of lethal violence transmutes flesh into unidentifiable biological substance that is violently compelled geobiomorphologically to assume the topographical contours of the debris field.
By these means, he concludes,
the subjects of the Global South [are rendered] as non-human animals captivated in their lawlessness and inhuman savagery and deficient in everything that defines the human-rights-bearing subject. In contradistinction to the individuating singularity of the Western subject as named person, they embody the anonymous genericity of the animal and the seriality of the undifferentiated and fungible carcass. As subjects incapable of embodying the figure of “the human,” they are animals who, when killed by drone attacks, do not die but only come to an end.
You can read the essay, ‘Death by Metadata: The bioinformationalisation of life and the transliteration of algorithms to flesh’, in Holly Randell-Moon and Ryan Tippet (eds) Security, race, biopower: essays on technology and corporeality (London: Palgrave, 2016) 3-20.
It’s an arresting, truly shocking argument. You might protest that the incidents described in the essay are about ordnance not platform – that a cruise missile fired from a ship or a Hellfire missile fired from an attack helicopter would produce the same effects. And so they have. But Joe’s point is that where Predators and Reapers are used to execute targeted killings they rely on the extraction of metadata and its algorithmic manipulation to transform individualised, embodied life into a stream of data – a process that many of us have sought to recover – but that in the very moment of execution those transformations are not simply, suddenly reversed but displaced into a generic flesh. (And there is, I think, a clear implication that those displacements are pre-figured in the original de-corporealisation – the somatic abstraction – of the target).
Joe’s discussion is clearly not intended to be limited to those (literal) instances where animals are caught up in a strike; it is, instead, a sort of limit-argument designed to disclose the bio-racialisation of targeted killing in the global South. It reappears time and time again. Here is a sensor operator, a woman nicknamed “Sparkle”, describing the aftermath of a strike in Afghanistan conducted from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada:
Sparkle could see a bunch of hot spots all over the ground, which were likely body parts. The target was dead, but that isn’t always the case. The Hellfire missile only has 12 pounds of explosives, so making sure the target is in the “frag pattern,” hit by shrapnel, is key.
As the other Reaper flew home to refuel and rearm, Spade stayed above the target, watching as villagers ran to the smoldering motorbike. Soon a truck arrived. Spade and Sparkle watched as they picked up the target’s blasted body.
“It’s just a dead body,” Sparkle said. “I grew up elbows deep in dead deer. We do what we needed to do. He’s dead. Now we’re going to watch him get buried.”
The passage I’ve emphasised repeats the imaginary described by the strike survivor in Yemen – but from the other side of the screen.
Seen thus, Joe’s argument speaks directly to the anguished question asked by one of the survivors of the Uruzgan killings in Afghanistan:
How can you not identify us? (The question – and the still above – are taken from the reconstruction in the documentary National Bird). We might add: How do you identify us? These twin questions intersect with a vital argument developed by Christiane Wilke, who is deeply concerned that civilians now ‘have to establish, perform and confirm their civilianhood by establishing and maintaining legible patterns of everyday life, by conforming to gendered and racialized expectations of mobility, and by not ever being out of place, out of time’ (see her chapter, ‘The optics of war’, in Sheryl Hamilton, Diana Majury, Dawn Moore, Neil Sargent and Christiane Wilke, eds., Sensing Law  pp 257-79: 278). As she wrote to me:
I’m really disturbed by the ways in which the burden of making oneself legible to the eyes in the sky is distributed: we don’t have to do any of that here, but the people to whom we’re bringing the war have to perform civilian-ness without fail.
Asymmetry again. Actors required to perform their civilian-ness in a play they haven’t devised before an audience they can’t see – and which all too readily misunderstands the plot. And if they fail they become killable bodies.
But embodying does not end there; its terminus is the apprehension of injured and dead bodies. So let me add two riders to the arguments developed by Lauren and Joe. I’ll do so by returning to the Uruzgan strike.
I should say at once that this is a complicated case (see my previous discussions here and here). In the early morning three vehicles moving down dusty roads and tracks were monitored for several hours by a Predator controlled by a flight crew at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada; to the south a detachment of US Special Forces was conducting a search operation around the village of Khod, supported by Afghan troops and police; and when the Ground Force Commander determined that this was a ‘convoy’ of Taliban that posed a threat to his men he called in an air strike executed by two OH-58 attack helicopters that killed 15 or 16 people and wounded a dozen others. All of the victims were civilians. This was not a targeted killing, and there is little sign of the harvesting of metadata or the mobilisation of algorithms – though there was some unsubstantiated talk of the possible presence of a ‘High-Value Individual’ in one of the vehicles, referred to both by name and by the codename assigned to him on the Joint Prioritised Effects List, and while the evidence for this seems to have been largely derived from chatter on short-wave radios picked up by the Special Forces on the ground it is possible that a forward-deployed NASA team at Bagram was also involved in communications intercepts. Still, there was no geo-locational fixing, no clear link between these radio communications and the three vehicles, and ultimately it was the visual construction of their movement and behaviour as a ‘hostile’ pattern of life that provoked what was, in effect, a signature strike. But this was not conventional Close Air Support either: the Ground Force Commander declared first a precautionary ‘Air TIC’ (Troops In Contact) so that strike aircraft could be ready on station to come to his defence – according to the investigation report, this created ‘a false sense of urgency’ – and then ‘Troops in Contact’. Yet when the attack helicopters fired their missiles no engagement had taken place and the vehicles were moving away from Khod (indeed, they were further away than when they were first observed). This was (mis)read as ‘tactical maneuvering’.
My first rider is that the process is not invariably the coldly, calculating sequence conjured by the emphasis on metadata and algorithms – what Dan McQuillancalls ‘algorithmic seeing’ – or the shrug-your-shouders attitude of Sparkle. This is why the affective is so important, but it is multidimensional. I doubt that it is only in films like Good Kill (below) or Eye in the Sky that pilots and sensor operators are uncomfortable, even upset at what they do. Not all sensor operators are Brandon Bryant – but they aren’t all Sparkle either.
All commentaries on the Uruzgan strike – including my own – draw attention to how the pilot, sensor operator and mission intelligence coordinator watching the three vehicles from thousands of miles away were predisposed to interpret every action as hostile. The crew was neither dispassionate nor detached; on the contrary, they were eager to move in for the kill. At least some of those in the skies above Uruzgan had a similar view. The lead pilot of the two attack helicopters that carried out the strike was clearly invested in treating the occupants of the vehicles as killable bodies. He had worked with the Special Operations detachment before, knew them very well, and – like the pilot of the Predator – believed they were ‘about to get rolled up and I wanted to go and help them out… [They] were about to get a whole lot of guys in their face.’
Immediately after the strike the Predator crew convinced themselves that the bodies were all men (‘military-aged males’):
08:53 (Safety Observer): Are they wearing burqas?
08:53 (Sensor): That’s what it looks like.
08:53 (Pilot): They were all PIDed as males, though. No females in the group.
08:53 (Sensor): That guy looks like he’s wearing jewelry and stuff like a girl, but he ain’t … if he’s a girl, he’s a big one.
Reassured, the crew relaxed and their conversation became more disparaging:
09:02 (Mission Intelligence Coordinator (MC)): There’s one guy sitting down.
09:02 (Sensor): What you playing with? (Talking to individual on ground.)
09:02 (MC): His bone.
09:04 (Sensor): Yeah, see there’s…that guy just sat up.
09:04 (Safety Observer): Yeah.
09:04 (Sensor): So, it looks like those lumps are probably all people.
09:04 (Safety Observer): Yep.
09:04 (MC): I think the most lumps are on the lead vehicle because everybody got… the Hellfire got…
09:06 (MC): Is that two? One guy’s tending the other guy?
09:06 (Safety Observer): Looks like it.
09:06 (Sensor): Looks like it, yeah.
09:06 (MC): Self‐Aid Buddy Care to the rescue.
09:06 (Safety Observer): I forget, how do you treat a sucking gut wound?
09:06 (Sensor): Don’t push it back in. Wrap it in a towel. That’ll work.
The corporeality of the victims flickers into view in these exchanges, but in a flippantly anatomical register (‘playing with … his bone’; ‘Don’t push it back in. Wrap it in a towel..’).
But the helicopter pilots reported the possible presence of women, identified only by their brightly coloured dresses, and soon after (at 09:10) the Mission Intelligence Coordinator said he saw ‘Women and children’, which was confirmed by the screeners. The earlier certainty, the desire to kill, gave way to uncertainty, disquiet.
These were not the only eyes in the sky and the sequence was not closed around them. Others watching the video feed – the analysts and screeners at Hurlburt Field in Florida, the staff at the Special Operations Task Force Operations Centre in Kandahar – read the imagery more circumspectly. Many of them were unconvinced that these were killable bodies – when the shift changed in the Operations Centre the Day Battle Captain called in a military lawyer for advice, and the staff agreed to call in another helicopter team to force the vehicles to stop and determine their status and purpose – and many of them were clearly taken aback by the strike. Those military observers who were most affected by the strike were the troops on the ground. The commander who had cleared the attack helicopters to engage was ferried to the scene to conduct a ‘Sensitive Site Exploitation’. What he found, he testified, was ‘horrific’: ‘I was upset physically and emotionally’.
My second rider is that war provides – and also provokes – multiple apprehensions of the injured or dead body. They are not limited to the corpo-reality of a human being and its displacement and dismemberment into what Joe calls ‘carcass’. In the Uruzgan case the process of embodying did not end with the strike and the continued racialization and gendering of its victims by the crew of the Predator described by Lauren.
The Sensitive Site Exploitation – the term was rescinded in June 2010; the US Army now prefers simply ‘site exploitation‘, referring to the systematic search for and collection of ‘information, material, and persons from a designated location and analyzing them to answer information requirements, facilitate subsequent operations, or support criminal prosecution’ – was first and foremost a forensic exercise. Even in death, the bodies were suspicious bodies. A priority was to establish a security perimeter and conduct a search of the site. The troops were looking for survivors but they were also searching for weapons, for evidence that those killed were insurgents and for any intelligence that could be gleaned from their remains and their possessions. This mattered: the basis for the attack had been the prior identification of weapons from the Predator’s video feed and a (highly suspect) inference of hostile intent. But it took three and a half hours for the team to arrive at the engagement site by helicopter, and a naval expert on IEDs and unexploded ordnance who was part of the Special Forces detachment was immediately convinced that the site had been ‘tampered with’. The bodies had been moved, presumably by people from a nearby village who had come to help:
The bodies had been lined up and had been covered… somebody else was on the scene prior to us … The scene was contaminated [sic] before we got there.
He explained to MG Timothy McHale, who lead the subsequent inquiry, what he meant:
The Ground Force Commander reported that he ‘wouldn’t take photos of the KIA [Killed in Action] – but of the strike’, yet it proved impossible to maintain a clinical distinction between them (see the right hand panel below; he also reported finding bodies still trapped in and under the vehicles).
His photographs of the three vehicles were annotated by the investigation team to show points of impact, but the bodies of some of the dead were photographed too. These still photographs presumably also had evidentiary value – though unlike conventional crime scene imagery they were not, so far I can tell, subject to any rigorous analysis. In any case: what evidentiary value? Or, less obliquely, whose crime? Was the disposition of the bodies intended to confirm they had been moved, the scene ‘contaminated’ – the investigator’s comments on the photograph note ‘Bodies from Vehicle Two did not match blast pattern’ – so that any traces of insurgent involvement could have been erased? (There is another story here, because the investigation uncovered evidence that staff in the Operations Centres refused to accept the first reports of civilian casualties, and there is a strong suspicion that initial storyboards were manipulated to conceal that fact). Or do the shattered corpses driven into metal and rock silently confirm the scale of the incident and the seriousness of any violation of the laws of war and the rules of engagement?
The Ground Force Commander also had his medics treat the surviving casualties, and called in a 9-line request (‘urgent one priority’) for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC). Military helicopters took the injured to US and Dutch military hospitals at Tarin Kowt, and en route they became the objects of a biomedical gaze that rendered their bodies as a series of visible wounds and vital signs that were distributed among the boxes of standard MEDEVAC report forms:
At that stage none of the injured was identified by name (see the first box on the top left); six of the cases – as they had become – were recorded as having been injured by ‘friendly’ forces, but five of them mark ‘wounded by’ as ‘unknown’. Once in hospital they were identified, and the investigation team later visited them and questioned them about the incident and their injuries (which they photographed).
These photographs and forms are dispassionate abstractions of mutilated and pain-bearing bodies, but it would be wrong to conclude from these framings that those producing them – the troops on the ground, the medics and EMTs – were not affected by what they saw.
And it would also be wrong to conclude that military bodies are immune from these framings. Most obviously, these are standard forms used for all MEDEVAC casualties, civilian or military, and all patients are routinely reduced to an object-space (even as they also remain so much more than that: there are multiple, co-existing apprehensions of the human body).
Yet I have in mind something more unsettling. Ken MacLeish reminds us that
for the soldier, there is no neat division between what gore might mean for a perpetrator and what it might mean for a victim, because he is both at once. He is stuck in the middle of this relation, because this relation is the empty, undetermined center of the play of sovereign violence: sometimes the terror is meant for the soldier, sometimes he is merely an incidental witness to it, and sometimes he, or his side, is the one responsible for it.
If there is no neat division there is no neat symmetry either; not only is there a spectacular difference between the vulnerability of pilots and sensor operators in the continental United States and their troops on the ground – a distance which I’ve argued intensifies the desire of some remote crews to strike whenever troops are in danger – but there can also be a substantial difference between the treatment of fallen friends and foe: occasional differences in the respect accorded to dead bodies and systematic differences in the (long-term) care of injured ones.
But let’s stay with Ken. He continues:
Soldiers say that a body that has been blown up looks like spaghetti. I heard this again and again – the word conjures texture, sheen, and abject, undifferentiated mass, forms that clump into knots or collapse into loose bits.
He wonders where this comes from:
Does it domesticate the violence and loss? Is it a critique? Gallows humor? Is it a reminder, perhaps, that you are ultimately nothing more than the dumb matter that you eat, made whole and held together only by changeable circumstance? Despite all the armor, the body is open to a hostile world and can collapse into bits in the blink of an eye, at the speed of radio waves, electrons, pressure plate springs, and hot metal. The pasta and red sauce are reminders that nothing is normal and everything has become possible. Some body—one’s own body—has been placed in a position where it is allowed to die. More than this, though, it has been made into a thing…
One soldier described recovering his friend’s body after his tank had been hit by an IED:
… everything above his knees was turned into fucking spaghetti. Whatever was left, it popped the top hatch, where the driver sits, it popped it off and it spewed whatever was left of him all over the front slope. And I don’t know if you know … not too many people get to see a body like that, and it, and it…
We went up there, and I can remember climbing up on the slope, and we were trying to get everybody out, ’cause the tank was on fire and it was smoking. And I kept slipping on – I didn’t know what I was slipping on, ’cause it was all over me, it was real slippery. And we were trying to get the hatch open, to try to get Chris out. My gunner, he reached in, reached in and grabbed, and he pulled hisself back. And he was like, “Holy shit!” I mean, “Holy shit,” that was all he could say. And he had cut his hand. Well, what he cut his hand on was the spinal cord. The spine had poked through his hand and cut his hand on it, ’cause there was pieces of it left in there. And we were trying to get up, and I reached down and pushed my hand down to get up, and I reached up and looked up, and his goddamn eyeball was sitting in my hand. It had splattered all up underneath the turret. It was all over me, it was all over everybody, trying to get him out of there…
I think Ken’s commentary on this passage provides another, compelling perspective on the horror so deeply embedded in Joe’s essay:
There is nothing comic or subversive here; only horror. Even in the middle of the event, it’s insensible, unspeakable: and it, and it …, I didn’t know what I was slipping on. The person is still there, and you have to “get him out of there,” but he’s everywhere and he’s gone at the same time. The whole is gone, and the parts – the eye, the spine, and everything else – aren’t where they should be. A person reduced to a thing: it was slippery, it was all over, that was what we sent home. He wasn’t simply killed; he was literally destroyed. Through a grisly physics, there was somehow less of him than there had been before, transformed from person into dumb and impersonal matter.
‘Gore,’ he concludes, ‘is about the horror of a person being replaced by stuff that just a moment ago was a person.’ Explosive violence ruptures the integrity of the contained body – splattered over rocks or metal surfaces in a catastrophic bioconvergence.
I hope it will be obvious that none of this is intended to substitute any sort of equivalence for the asymmetries that I have emphasised throughout this commentary. I hope, too, that I’ve provided a provisional supplement to some of the current work on metadata, algorithms and aerial violence – hence my title. As Linda McDowell remarked an age ago – in Working Bodies (pp. 223-4) – the term ‘meatspace’ is offensive in all sorts of ways (its origins lie in cyberpunk where it connoted the opposite to cyberspace, but I concede the opposition is too raw). Still, it is surely important to recover the ways in which later modern war and militarised violence (even in its digital incarnations) is indeed obdurately, viscerally offensive – for all of the attempts to efface what Huw Lemmey once called its ‘devastation in meatspace‘.
In my analysis of CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see ‘Dirty Dancing’: DOWNLOADS tab) I drew upon the tabulations provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Chris Herwig‘s cartographic animation of casualties between 2004 and 2013: see my discussion here and the maps here.
Quartz’s CityLab is now running a week-long series on Borders (‘stories about places on the edge’) and it includes a new series of interactive maps showing civilian casualties from drone strikes in the FATA (this series also ends in 2013). Here’s a screenshot:
There’s not much geographical analysis – apart from noting the focus on North and South Waziristan – and, as I argued before, I think it a mistake to isolate drone strikes from the wider matrix of military and paramilitary violence in the borderlands (including air strikes by the Pakistan Air Force). And there are obvious problems in disentangling civilian casualties – the US Air Force has the greatest difficulty in identifying civilians in the first place.
It’s difficult to put all this together – and particularly to hear the voices of those caught up in a matrix of such extensive violence that, as Madiha Tahir puts it so well, ‘war has lacerated the land into stillness.’ In an exquisite essay in Public Culture 29 (1) (2017) Madiha reflects on that difficulty and the ‘spatial stories’ local people struggle to tell. Her title – ‘The ground was always in play’ – is borrowed from Michael Herr‘s despatches from Vietnam, but the full quotation explains how aerial violence echoes across this shattered land:
‘The ground was always in play, always being swept. Under the ground was his, above it was ours. We had the air.’
But the ‘we’ in the FATA is plural – a product of the ‘dirty dancing’ between Washington and Islamabad – and so we come to the story Madiha pieces together:
The story Mir Azad came to tell is this [and, as Madiha shows, he had travelled 500 difficult miles across South and North Waziristan to tell it]. In July 2015, American drones bombed and killed two of his cousins, Gul Rehman Khan and Mohammad Khandan. After Zarb-e-Azb began in June 2014, thousands of Waziris fled in all directions, businesspeople, farmers, militants, and students, including to the Pakistani villages in Barmal, and there the drones followed. The military operation and the “surgical” operation, carpet bombing and “precision strikes,” coordinated maybe, intentionally or not, they worked together to redraw the lines of movement, new containment zones, a shockwave that could start with ground troops in North Waziristan and end with a drone bombing a car in Barmal [in Paktika province, on the border with North Waziristan].
My extract can’t do justice to the essay: do read it if you can.
Since I completed the original version of ‘Dirty Dancing’ a number of new reports from Waziristan have provided more details of the co-ordination of air/ground operations. Over the summer AFP reported that the Pakistani military had removed the roofs of houses to provide a better ‘aerial view’:
“(The) military has removed the roofs of the houses to have a better aerial view and stop militants taking refuge in these abundant, fort-like mud houses,” the official told reporters. From the helicopter journalists could see scores of homes with no roofs but appearing otherwise intact, their interiors exposed to the elements.
But in many cases – especially in North Waziristan – those ordered by the military to leave their homes have returned to find them reduced to rubble.
Earlier this month Ihsan Dawarreported from North Waziristan on ‘Life on the debris of wrecked houses’:
Murtaza Dawar sat with his children and cousins on the debris of his house. Behind him the setting sun was a ball of fire in the sky, reducing him and his family to silhouettes, the shards of glass in the wreck of his house catching the light and winking in the gathering dark of an early evening.
Coming back home to Mirali in North Waziristan has been a bittersweet experience for Dawar, 48. Sweet because he and his family has returned home after more than two years of displacement. Bitter, because they have come back to wreckage where their home was.
“We have nothing to do with militancy or Talibanization but our house has been demolished,” says Dawar, taking a break from pitching a tent. “There is not a single room intact. I don’t know where to take my family to protect them from the terrible cold.”
Dawar’s is not the only house that was razed during the military operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in June 2014 to clear North Wazristan of militants. Of the nearly million tribesmen displaced by the operation, many have lost not only their belongings and assets they left behind in the tribal district and their houses have been demolished for no reason.
The government has not issued any clear data on the number of houses demolished in North Waziristan. In May 2016, a property damage survey conducted by the Fata Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) revealed that 11,663 houses were fully and partially damaged during operations against militants in South Waziristan, North Waziristan and the Khyber Agency.
Local tribesmen working in the political administration’s office in North Waziristan told Truth tracker on condition of anonymity – because of the sensitivity of information – that about 1500 houses were completely destroyed in the Mirali subdivision alone.
Cartographic animations can’t capture these in-animations, but we must surely do our best to attend to them.
The Transnational Institute has published a glossy version of a chapter from Steve Graham‘s Vertical – called Drone: Robot Imperium, you can download it here (open access). Not sure about either of the terms in the subtitle, but it’s a good read and richly illustrated.
Steve includes a discussion of the use of drones to patrol the US-Mexico border, and Josh Begley has published a suggestive account of the role of drones but also other ‘seeing machines’ in visualizing the border.
One way the border is performed — particularly the southern border of the United States — can be understood through the lens of data collection. In the border region, along the Rio Grande and westward through the desert Southwest, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deploys radar blimps, drones, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, seismic sensors, ground radar, face recognition software, license-plate readers, and high-definition infrared video cameras. Increasingly, they all feed data back into something called “The Big Pipe.”
Josh downloaded 20,000 satellite images of the border, stitched them together, and then worked with Laura Poitras and her team at Field of Vision to produce a short film – Best of Luck with the Wall – that traverses the entire length of the border (1, 954 miles) in six minutes:
The southern border is a space that has been almost entirely reduced to metaphor. It is not even a geography. Part of my intention with this film is to insist on that geography.
By focusing on the physical landscape, I hope viewers might gain a sense of the enormity of it all, and perhaps imagine what it would mean to be a political subject of that terrain.
If you too wonder about that last sentence and its latent bio-physicality – and there is of course a rich stream of work on the bodies that seek to cross that border – then you might visit another of Josh’s projects, Fatal Migrations, 2011-2016(see above and below).
There’s an interview with Josh that, among other things, links these projects with his previous work.
I have a couple of projects that are smartphone centered. One of them is about mapping the geography of places around the world where the CIA carries out drone strikes—mostly in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Another was about looking at the geography of incarceration in the United States—there are more than 5,000 prisons—and trying to map all of them and see them through satellites. I currently have an app that is looking at the geography of police violence in the United States. Most of these apps are about creating a relationship between data and the body, where you can receive a notification every time something unsettling happens. What does that mean for the rest of your day? How do you live with that data—data about people? In some cases the work grows out of these questions, but in other cases the work really is about landscape….
There’s just so much you can never know from looking at satellite imagery. By definition it flattens and distorts things. A lot of folks who fly drones, for instance, think they know a space just from looking at it from above. I firmly reject that idea. The bird’s eye view is never what it means to be on the ground somewhere, or what it means to have meaningful relationships with people on the ground. I feel like I can understand the landscape from 30,000 feet, but it is not the same as spending time in a space.
Anjali Nath has also provided a new commentary on one of Josh’s earlier projects, Metadata, that he cites in that interview – ‘Touched from below: on drones, screens and navigation’, Visual Anthropology 29 (3) (2016) 315-30.
It’s part of a special issue on ‘Visual Revolutions in the Middle East’, and as I explore the visual interventions I’ve included in this post I find myself once again thinking of a vital remark by Edward Said:
That’s part of the message behind the #NotaBugSplat image on the cover of Steve’s essay: but what might Said’s remark mean more generally today, faced with the proliferation of these seeing machines?
An update on Joe DeLappe‘s Killbox project (my original post, with links to more info on the concept of a killbox, is here).
Over at Quartz,Ananya Bhattacharyaprovides more details about the latest iteration of the simulation:
Killbox, an online two-player game named after the military term for an area targeted for destruction, serves as a critique of drone warfare. One player is a civilian exploring her surroundings with few instructions. The second player is guided with tasks, leading up to the administration of a drone strike. Even if the drone pilot player refuses to deploy the weapons, autopilot kicks in and carries out the attack. When it hits, the drone pilot can see the extent of the destruction on the ground but hear nothing. Meanwhile, the child on the ground is barraged by sound. And just in case the first strike doesn’t demolish enough, a second strike is administered—the classic “double-tap” attack to stop rescuers from getting help to the injured and retrieving the deceased.
The game is modelled – in some measure, at least – on the drone strike that killed Mamana Bibi as she gathered okra from the fields around her home in North Waziristan:
The characters in the game aren’t realistic though—they look like odd-shaped blobs. At first, non-human avatars seem less effective, but there’s meaning behind the simplistic design: “We were looking at the map where the drone strike killed people and these maps identified victims with little dots,” said DeLappe. “Almost like map pins, like they’ve been symbolically degraded in some way.”
I opened my essay on drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – and on the constitution of the FATA as a space of exception (see “Dirty Dancing” under the DOWNLOADS tab) – with a comparison between this strike, the murder of an innocent grandmother as she worked in the fields with her grandchildren, and the targeted killing of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, in South Waziristan in 2009 (see also my posts here and here).
In Drone: remote control warfareHugh Gusterson opens with exactly the same comparison but to a different effect – and one that resonates with Killbox. Drawing on Jane Mayer‘s account of the assassination of Mehsud, based on testimony from those who watched the video feed from the Predator, he writes:
A technology that is almost magical gives its owners, who are looking on the scene from high in the sky, a godlike power over life and death. The observation of the scene is simultaneously intimate and remote. It is also deeply asymmetrical: Mehsud, unaware of his exposure, is watched by faraway drone operators who can see him as if close up, reclining on the roof of his house on a hot evening as his wife attends to his medical needs. They get to frame the picture while he does not even realize he is in it. Without warning, he is killed as if by a god’s thunderbolt from the sky. Seen from Virginia, the drone strike is quick, clean, and bloodless. Mehsud’s death is instant. Nor, described unambiguously as a terrorist, does he seem undeserving of death. Twelve people die altogether, but the narrative marks only Mehsud’s death as significant. The other deaths are almost outside the frame. And in a way that amplifies the strange mix of distance and intimacy, the scene is mediated entirely through a single sense—vision. The attack has no sound, smell, taste, or texture. And we are invited to experience it through a narrative of mastery and control—of the cool, righteous exercise of overwhelming power.
This account is from the point of view of the victims, not the executioners. We share the experience of those who do not even realize that they are in the crosshairs until they are attacked. The account emphasizes the sudden incomprehensible eruption of violent force, literally out of the blue, in a warm scene of familial togetherness on an important holy day. We are led to experience the drone strike through multiple senses, of which sight may be the least salient: we are told about the blackness of the smoke, the sound of the screaming, the smell of the explosion, the sensation of the ground trembling, and the pain of shrapnel wounds. Unlike the first account, the narrative does not end shortly after the drone strike but dwells on the aftermath—the physical pain of the survivors, the enduring grief over the loss of the person “that held our family together.” Above all, this account foregrounds what is absent in the view from CIA headquarters—the psychological suffering of those on the ground, especially children, and the sense that the safe predictability of life has been permanently destroyed. It is a narrative of helplessness, terror, and injustice. The drone operators’ perspective was remote and objectifying, but this narrative is so affecting that it made the translator break down in tears.
The special effects created by privileging the visual are explored with skill and sensitivity in Nasser Hussain‘s brilliant essay, ‘The sound of terror: phenomenology of a drone strike‘, here.
[I]n order to widen our vision, I provide a phenomenology of drone strikes, examining both how the world appears through the lens of a drone camera and the experience of the people on the ground. What is it like to watch a drone’s footage, or to wait below for it to strike? What does the drone’s camera capture, and what does it occlude?
… Although the pilots can hear ground commands, there is no microphone equivalent to the micro-scopic gaze of the drone’s camera. This mute world of dumb figures moving about on a screen has particular consequences for how we experience the image. As Michel Chion notes in The Voice in Cinema, although sound or voice is easily swallowed up by the image, it nonetheless structures the image: “only the creators of a film’s sound—recordist, sound effects person, mixer, director—know that if you alter or remove these sounds, the image is no longer the same.” In the case of the drone strike footage, the lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.
… If drone operators can see but not hear the world below them, the exact oppositeis true for people on the ground. Because drones are able to hover at or above 30 thousand feet, they are mostly invisible to the people below them. But they can be heard. Many people from the tribal areas of Pakistan (FATA) describe the sound as a low-grade, perpetual buzzing, a signal that a strike could occur at any time. The locals call the drones machar, mosquitos. Because the drone can surveil the area for hours at a time, and because each round of surveillance may or may not result in a strike, the fear and anxiety among civilians is diffuse and chronic.
That sense of optical power is not necessarily one of detachment. For we surely know how vision, power and desire can be commingled; and today I learned – from Theodor Nadelson‘s Trained to kill: soldiers at war– that (some) US Marines describe setting their sights on a human target as ‘eye fucking’…
In Jochen’s view, the UK has effectively endorsed the policies of the Obama administration and in doing so has hollowed out fundamental legal regimes that supposedly constrain state violence.
First is the concerted attempt to legitimise the unilateral killing of suspected terrorists outside ‘hot’ battlefields – in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, for example – as a new form of pre-emptive self-defence to be invoked whenever the state whose sovereignty is transgressed is ‘unwilling or unable’ to take appropriate counter-measures. I discuss other dimensions of this in ‘Dirty dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and pay attention to its colonial genealogy, but Jochen emphasises another even more starkly colonial inflection:
‘The main protagonists in this discursive effort take it for granted that the new legal regime will not be applied among us, which is among Western states and the five permanent Security Council members. There will be no US-drone attacks in Brussels or Paris to kill ISIS-terrorists without the consent of the Belgian or French government, even if these governments proved to be unable to find and arrest terrorists. The new regime is a legal framework for what can be called the “semi-periphery”, consisting of states that do not belong to the inner circle or are not powerful enough to resist the application of the regime.’
Second, and closely connected, is the claim that armed conflict follows the suspect – that the individuation of warfare (‘the body becomes the battlefield’, as Grégoire Chamayou has it) licenses the everywhere war: simply, wherever the suspect seeks refuge s/he becomes a legitimate target of military violence. But there is nothing ‘simple’ about it, Jochen contends, because this involves a wholesale exorbitation of the very meaning of armed conflict that completely trashes the role of international human rights law in limiting violence against those suspected of criminal wrong-doing.
Finally, Jochen concludes that the arguments adduced by the UK and the USA (and, I would add, Israel) demonstrate that international law is so often transformed through its violation: in Eyal Weizman‘s ringing phrase, ‘violence legislates‘. Here is Jochen:
‘The Zombie is created by a fundamental reconceptualization of the notion of self- defence and armed conflict in international law with the aim to get rid of all legal constraints on state violence imposed by the law enforcement paradigm. Is this a new legal regime? Are we really moving towards an administrative law of transnational executions? It is an inherent problem of international legal discourse that measures of Great Powers violating the law will often be reformulated as an evolving new legal regime and legal scholars should be extremely sceptical of any such claims, since whoever says “emerging” in an international legal context very likely wants to cheat.’
I have – at long last – finished the longform version of “Dirty dancing: drones and death in the borderlands“, which analyses drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and situates them within a wider context of military violence in the region. You can find it under the DOWNLOADS tab, but I’ve pasted the conclusion below; there’s also a video of the last presentation I gave under that title here.
To make sense of the conclusion, I should explain that the essay opens by juxtaposing the killing of two people, Baitullah Mehsud (leader of the Pakistan Taliban) and Mamana Bibi (a village midwife), to pose the question: what kinds of spaces are the FATA made to be for incidents like these – incidents as unlike as these – to be possible?
My answer works with two framing devices.
The first is the space of exception – a space in which people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the political-juridical removal of legal protections and affordances that would otherwise be available to them. My version of this is different from that proposed by Giorgio Agamben, and far from invoking a suspension of the law I explore three legal geographies that have been used to prepare the ground for aerial violence in the borderlands.
The second is the space of execution; here I riff off Owen Sheers‘ perceptive remark about ‘the territory of the screen’ (as I note, ‘Killing somebody with a Hellfire missile controlled from thousands of miles away depends upon a screen – or more accurately a series of screens – on which the image of a human body will eventually be touched by the cross-hairs of a targeting pod’). Owen’s phrase is much more than metaphor, so I treat ‘territory’ as a (bio)political technology whose calibrations enable states to assert, enact and enforce a claim over bodies-in-space (you can no doubt hear the echoes of Stuart Elden) and then explore the technicity involved in three of its screen elements that jointly transform the FATA into a space of execution: kill lists, signals intercepts and visual feeds.
Here, then, is the conclusion:
The production of the borderlands as spaces of exception and spaces of execution are attempts to force those who live there into particular subject-positions as a means of subjugation. These positions are partial and precarious but the project to establish them as legitimate and rational has consequences that are material and affective. They clearly affect those targeted – people like Baitullah Mehsud – whose political agency exceeds in terrifying ways the normative space allowed them by the state of Pakistan and the United States and in so doing brings their actions to the attention of both. But they also impact the rest of the population in the FATA, constricting their mobilities and stoking their fears to such a degree that ‘normal life’ for many of them threatens to become a memory or a fantasy. Their existence is rendered more precarious because the subject-positions to which they are so brutally assigned are racialized. These are ‘tribal peoples’, different from those who inhabit ‘mainland Pakistan’, while the United States writes off their incidental deaths as ‘collateral damage’ whose anonymity confers on them no individuality only a collective ascription. When a CIA-directed drone strike on a compound in the Shawal Valley of South Waziristan on 15 January 2015 was found to have killed not only a deputy leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and a local Taliban commander but also two hostages, an American development contractor and an Italian aid worker, a ‘grim-faced’ and ‘visibly moved’ Obama made a personal and public apology. [i] The rarity of the gesture is revealing. For the value of their lives was acknowledged and their deaths were made grievable in ways that others – which is to say Others – were not. Nobody has ever accepted responsibility or apologised for the death of Mamana Bibi or any of the other innocent victims of aerial violence.
For this reason it is important to resist those versions of the space of exception that are complicit in the denial of agency to those who live within its confines. The state of Pakistan administers the inhabitants of the FATA through Political Agents: but this does not remove (though it does diminish) their own political agency. Pakistan’s armed forces conduct clearing operations that ruthlessly drive people from their homes and into camps for displaced persons: but this does not turn the FATA into one vast ‘camp’. The presence of US drones strips those who live under them of their well-being and dignity: but this does not reduce them to ‘bare life’. Similarly, the emergent subject that is produced within the space of execution, apprehended as a network trace, a sensor signature and a screen image, is a cipher that stands in for – and in the way of – a corporeal actor whose existence is not measured by the calculative alone.
This version, or something very much like it, will appear in a collection edited by Caren Kaplan and Lisa Parks, Life in the Age of Drones. But an (even longer!) version will eventually appear in my own book, with images and maps (you can find many of them scattered through my previous posts: for example here, here and here), so I really would welcome any comments or suggestions if you have time to read the full thing: email@example.com.