Art in another age of mechanical destruction

Paglen (Untitled, Predators, Indian Springs)

Anthony Downey‘s beautifully illustrated and generously hyperlinked essay on The legacy of the war on terror for Tate Etc (34) (2015) is here.

For centuries artists have both responded to and reflected on political actions and events that shape society. Now they have risen to the challenge of questioning the moral ambiguity and culpability of governments waging the war on terror, whose methods may, according to this writer, have done more to weaken democracy than any terrorist.

The essay considers the art works of Trevor Paglen (see his Untitled, Predators, Indian Springs, above) Christoph Büchel and Gianni Motti, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Gregor Schneider, (see his Passageway No 1 from White Torture below), Wafaa Bilal, Coco Fusco, Hasan Elahi and Gerhard Richter.

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If you know Anthony’s previous work (for example his essay on ‘Exemplary subjects: Camps and the politics of representation’), or his Art and Politics now (2014), you will not be surprised to find that – as the image above suggests – there’s much in this essay about Guantanamo — but also much more besides.

Here is the Introduction:

In the months after the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 a significant number of artists and cultural practitioners compared the events, in all their visual impact and operatic pitching of good against evil, with a work of art. These comments were dismissed at the time as reactionary and in bad taste, but they did reveal an imminent desire to develop a degree of distance – be it aesthetic or otherwise – from the emotive, ‘spectacular’ and brutal realities that unfolded on that fateful day. In the months and years that followed, under the political logic of a so-called war on terror, we saw yet another unprecedented attack, this time on the legal systems protecting basic civil rights. The war on terror segued, in short order, into an assault on human rights. For some, terrorism has become the single biggest challenge facing democratically elected governments worldwide. For others, it is the political reaction to it that has done more to weaken democracy than any act of terror.

Executed as it was in the name of justice, the war on terror has resulted in a nominal state of emergency being declared across North America and Europe. Since 2001 we have witnessed the repeated suspension of due legal process, the revocation of constitutional law, the institutionalisation of torture, the withdrawal of civil rights, the deployment of mass surveillance, the routine collection of information on innocent citizens and arbitrary detention without trial for countless people worldwide.

Contemporary artists, in examining the ambiguity of this state of affairs, often create narratives and forms of speculative visual rhetoric that expose the anxieties surrounding these acts.

War against the people

I’ve long admired Jeff Halper‘s work with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (though to me, haunted by the passages from The poetics of place that Edward Said invokes in Orientalism,  ‘home demolition’s would carry even more resonance: it’s so much more than buildings that the Israelis so brutally turn to rubble).

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Jeff’s classic, even canonical essay on ‘the matrix of control‘ (see also here) was a constant reference point for my chapters on occupied Palestine in The Colonial Present, and on my first visit to the West Bank I was part of a group that Jeff generously spent a day showing the materialities of military occupation and illegal colonisation: you think you know what you’re going to see, but all the reading in the world can’t prepare you for what Israel has done – and continues to do – to the people of Palestine.

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So I’m really pleased to hear from Jeff that his new book, War against the people: Israel, the Palestinians and global pacification, will be out in September (from Pluto Press in the UK and via the University of Chicago Press in the USA):

Modern warfare has a new form. The days of international combat are fading. So how do major world powers maintain control over their people today?

HALPER War against the peopleWar Against the People is a disturbing insight into the new ways world powers such as the US, Israel, Britain and China forge war today. It is a subliminal war of surveillance and whitewashed terror, conducted through new, high-tech military apparatuses, designed and first used in Israel against the Palestinian population. Including hidden camera systems, sophisticated sensors, information databases on civilian activity, automated targeting systems and, in some cases, unmanned drones, it is used to control the very people the nation’s leaders profess to serve.

Drawing from years of research, as well as investigations and interviews conducted at international arms fairs, Jeff Halper reveals that this practice is much more insidious than was previously thought. As Western governments tighten the grip on their use of private information and claw back individual liberties, War Against the People is a timely reminder that fundamental human rights are being compromised for vast sections of the world, and that this is a subject that should concern everyone.

I’ve noted before the ways in which Israel has used its continuing occupation of Palestine as a laboratory to test new technologies of military violence – and as a series of test cases designed to push the envelope of what is permissible under international humanitarian law and even international human rights law – but here Jeff radicalises the argument to develop a deeply disturbing vision of what he calls ‘securocratic wars in global battlespace’.  It’s vitally necessary to remember that later modern war is not the exclusive artefact of the United States and its military-academic-industrial-media (MAIM) complex, and that what happens in Israel/Palestine has desperately important implications for all of us.

Many commentators have claimed – I think wrongly – that one of the new characteristics of war in the twenty-first century is that it has become ‘war amongst the people’: as though No Man’s Land on the Western Front was somehow roped off from the gas attacks and shells that assaulted farms, villages and towns behind the front lines, for example, and air raids were limited to exclusively military-industrial targets.  Even if we confine ourselves to the trajectory of ostensibly modern warfare and track forward through the Second World War, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia…. the story is the same: modern war has long been fought amongst the people (though increasingly amongst ‘their’ people).  The deconstruction of the battlefield, as Frédéric Mégret calls it, is clearly visible in Palestine and is inseparable from its globalization.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that ‘war amongst the people’ should so easily turn into what Jeff describes as ‘war against the people’.

Here is the list of contents:

Introduction : How Does Israel Get Away With It?

Part I: The Global Pacification Industry
1. Enforcing Hegemony: Securocratic Wars in Global Battlespace

Part II: A Pivotal Israel
2. Why Israel? The Thrust Into Global Involvement
3. Niche-Filling in a Global Matrix of Control

Part III: Weaponry of Hybrid Warfare and Securocratic Control (Niche 1)
4. Niche 1: Weaponry of Hybrid Warfare and Securocratic Control
5. Dominant Maneuver
6. Precision Engagement

Part IV: Securitization and “Sufficient Pacification” (Niche 2)
7. Niche 2: The Securocratic Dimension: A Model of “Sufficient Pacification”
8. Operational Doctrines and Tactics

Part V: Serving Hegemons Throughout the World-System
9. Serving the Hegemons on the Peripheries: The “Near” Periphery
10. Security Politics on the “Far” Periphery
11. The Private Sector

Part VI: Domestic Securitization and Policing
12. Serving the Core’s Ruling Classes “At Home”

Conclusions: Mounting Counterhegemonic Challenges and Resisting Pacification
Resisting Capitalist Hegemony and Pacification: The Need for Infrastructure
Resistance to Pacification: Focusing on the MISSILE Complex

Future imperfect and tense

A clutch of forthcoming books on war that seek, in different ways, to illuminate dimensions of what I’ve been calling ‘later modern war’:

Antonia ChayesBorderless Wars (due in August at an eye-popping price from Cambridge University Press):

9781107109346In 2011, Nasser Al-Awlaki, a terrorist on the US ‘kill list’ in Yemen, was targeted by the CIA. A week later, a military strike killed his son. The following year, the US Ambassador to Pakistan resigned, undermined by CIA-conducted drone strikes of which he had no knowledge or control. The demands of the new, borderless ‘gray area’ conflict have cast civilians and military into unaccustomed roles with inadequate legal underpinning. As the Department of Homeland Security defends against cyber threats and civilian contractors work in paramilitary roles abroad, the legal boundaries of war demand to be outlined. In this book, former Under Secretary of the Air Force Antonia Chayes examines these new ‘gray areas’ in counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism and cyber warfare. Her innovative solutions for role definition and transparency will establish new guidelines in a rapidly evolving military-legal environment.

Christopher Coker‘s Future War (due in September from Polity):

COKER Future WarWill tomorrow’s wars be dominated by autonomous drones, land robots and warriors wired into a cybernetic network which can read their thoughts? Will war be fought with greater or lesser humanity? Will it be played out in cyberspace and further afield in Low Earth Orbit? Or will it be fought more intensely still in the sprawling cities of the developing world, the grim black holes of social exclusion on our increasingly unequal planet? Will the Great Powers reinvent conflict between themselves or is war destined to become much ‘smaller’ both in terms of its actors and the beliefs for which they will be willing to kill?

In this illuminating new book Christopher Coker takes us on an incredible journey into the future of warfare. Focusing on contemporary trends that are changing the nature and dynamics of armed conflict, he shows how conflict will continue to evolve in ways that are unlikely to render our century any less bloody than the last. With insights from philosophy, cutting-edge scientific research and popular culture, Future War is a compelling and thought-provoking meditation on the shape of war to come.

Brian Massumi‘s Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception (due in September from Duke University Press):

MASSUMI OntopowerColor coded terror alerts, invasion, drone war, rampant surveillance: all manifestations of the type of new power Brian Massumi theorizes in Ontopower. Through an in-depth examination of the War on Terror and the culture of crisis, Massumi identifies the emergence of preemption, which he characterizes as the operative logic of our time. Security threats, regardless of the existence of credible intelligence, are now felt into reality. Whereas nations once waited for a clear and present danger to emerge before using force, a threat’s felt reality now demands launching a preemptive strike. Power refocuses on what may emerge, as that potential presents itself to feeling. This affective logic of potential washes back from the war front to become the dominant mode of power on the home front as well. This is ontopower—the mode of power embodying the logic of preemption across the full spectrum of force, from the “hard” (military intervention) to the “soft” (surveillance). With Ontopower, Massumi provides an original theory of power that explains not only current practices of war but the culture of insecurity permeating our contemporary neoliberal condition.

Military, media and (im)mobilities

Two important new books on Israel’s occupation of Palestine that both have even wider implications.

First, Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein on Digital militarism: Israel’s occupation in the social media age from Stanford University Press:

pid_23022Israel’s occupation has been transformed in the social media age. Over the last decade, military rule in the Palestinian territories grew more bloody and entrenched. In the same period, Israelis became some of the world’s most active social media users. In Israel today, violent politics are interwoven with global networking practices, protocols, and aesthetics. Israeli soldiers carry smartphones into the field of military operations, sharing mobile uploads in real-time. Official Israeli military spokesmen announce wars on Twitter. And civilians encounter state violence first on their newsfeeds and mobile screens.

Across the globe, the ordinary tools of social networking have become indispensable instruments of warfare and violent conflict. This book traces the rise of Israeli digital militarism in this global context—both the reach of social media into Israeli military theaters and the occupation’s impact on everyday Israeli social media culture. Today, social media functions as a crucial theater in which the Israeli military occupation is supported and sustained.

Here is Laleh Khalili on the book:

“Amidst the hype of Facebook revolutions and the ostensible democratizing power of social media, Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein illuminate the counterpoint: online militarization and the extension of state politics into the virtual realm. They expose the machinery of the Israeli state power at work within social media, and show the possibilities for countering the force of this machinery. Powerfully argued, beautifully researched, and thought-provoking, Digital Militarism is vitally important.”

Second, Hagar Kotef‘s Movement and the Ordering of Freedom: On Liberal Governances of Mobility from Duke University Press:

KOTEF Movement and the ordering of freedomWe live within political systems that increasingly seek to control movement, organized around both the desire and ability to determine who is permitted to enter what sorts of spaces, from gated communities to nation-states. In Movement and the Ordering of Freedom, Hagar Kotef examines the roles of mobility and immobility in the history of political thought and the structuring of political spaces. Ranging from the writings of Locke, Hobbes, and Mill to the sophisticated technologies of control that circumscribe the lives of Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, this book shows how concepts of freedom, security, and violence take form and find justification via “regimes of movement.” Kotef traces contemporary structures of global (im)mobility and resistance to the schism in liberal political theory, which embodied the idea of “liberty” in movement while simultaneously regulating mobility according to a racial, classed, and gendered matrix of exclusions.

And here is Eyal Weizman on this one:

“In this book Hagar Kotef manages to successfully weave several intellectual projects: a wide-ranging and theoretically sophisticated contribution to political theory, a robust and fine-grained analysis of the mechanisms of Israeli control of Palestinian movement, and a direct confrontation with its injustice. This book is a major contribution to the topological shift in the study of space. Kotef does nothing less than rewrite the history of territory as a matter of movement, and that of sovereignty as the control of matter in movement. By pushing her original insight as far as it would go, she best captures the logic of the world we struggle to live within.”

You can read the introduction on Scribd.

Visual occupations and a counter-politics of visuality

Most readers will know Eyal Weizman‘s searing account of the cruel intersections between the politics of visibility and the politics of verticality in occupied Palestine, Hollow Land: Israel’s architecture of occupation.

But there are other, no less intimate and intrusive dimensions to the politics of visibility for a people under military (and civilian) occupation that amount to what Gil Hochberg calls an ‘uneven distribution of “visual rights”‘.  In her brilliant new book from Duke University Press, Visual occupations: violence and visibility in a conflict zone, she explores ‘the political importance of various artistic attempts to redistribute the visible’ (my emphasis) and, in effect, to put in place a counter-politics of visuality.

978-0-8223-5887-9_prIn Visual Occupations Gil Z. Hochberg shows how the Israeli Occupation of Palestine is driven by the unequal access to visual rights, or the right to control what can be seen, how, and from which position. Israel maintains this unequal balance by erasing the history and denying the existence of Palestinians, and by carefully concealing its own militarization. Israeli surveillance of Palestinians, combined with the militarized gaze of Israeli soldiers at places like roadside checkpoints, also serve as tools of dominance. Hochberg analyzes various works by Palestinian and Israeli artists, among them Elia Suleiman, Rula Halawani, Sharif Waked, Ari Folman, and Larry Abramson, whose films, art, and photography challenge the inequity of visual rights by altering, queering, and manipulating dominant modes of representing the conflict. These artists’ creation of new ways of seeing—such as the refusal of Palestinian filmmakers and photographers to show Palestinian suffering or the Israeli artists’ exposure of state manipulated Israeli blindness —offers a crucial gateway, Hochberg suggests, for overcoming and undoing Israel’s militarized dominance and political oppression of Palestinians.

Here’s the Contents List:

Introduction. Visual Politics at a Conflict Zone

Part I. Concealment

1. Visible Invisibility: On Ruins, Erasure, and Haunting
2. From Invisible Spectators to the Spectacle of Terror: Chronicles of a Contested Citizenship

Part II. Surveillance

3. The (Soldier’s) Gaze and the (Palestinian) Body: Power, Fantasy, and Desire in the Militarized Contact Zone
4. Visual Rights and the Prospect of Exchange: The Photographic Event Placed under Duress

Part III. Witnessing

5. “Nothing to Look At”; or, “For Whom Are You Shooting?”: The Imperative to Witness and the Menace of the Global Gaze
6. Shooting War: On Witnessing One’s Failure to See (on Time)

Closing Words

2014_cover_publication_forensisIt’s a compelling book, and I’m struck by another parallel with Eyal’s work.  In Hollow Land Eyal showed the central role that architecture and architects play in Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, but in subsequently developing his collaborative Forensic Architecture project he effectively reverse-engineers architecture’s dominant imaginary to use built forms and spatial formations as a way of revealing prior trajectories of violence to a public forum.  That too is a counter-politics of visuality.

‘By our algorithms we shall know them’

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Radical Philosophy 191 is out now, including two contributions of particular interest to me as I continue to grapple with the surveillance apparatus that (mis)informs US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  This has come into sharper view after Obama’s rare admission of not only a strike in the FATA but of a mistake in targeting – though his statement was prompted by the death of an American and Italian hostage not by the previous deaths of innocent Pakistanis.

First, Grégoire Chamayou‘s ‘Oceanic enemy: a brief philosophical history of the NSA‘ which traces a path from the sonic surveillance of submarines off Barbados in 1962 to ‘pattern of life’ analysis in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and which – not surprisingly – intersects with his Theory of the drone in all sorts of ways:

‘The premiss is the same as before: ‘in environments where there is no visual difference between friend and enemy, it is by their actions that enemies are visible.’ Today the task of establishing a distinction between friend and enemy is once again to be entrusted to algorithms.’

Second, Claudia Aradau‘s ‘The signature of security: big data, anticipation, surveillance‘ shatters the crystal balls of the intelligence agencies:

‘We are not crystal ball gazers. We are Intelligence Agencies’, noted the former GCHQ director Iain Lobban in a public inquiry on privacy and security by the Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament (ISC) in the wake of the Snowden revelations about mass surveillance….

I argue here that the disavowal of ‘crystal ball gazing’ is as important as the image of finding the clue through the data deluge in order to locate potential dangerous events or individuals in the future. Intelligence work is no stranger to the anticipation of the future – rather, it justifies itself precisely through the capacity to peer into the future in order to prevent or pre-empt future events from materializing. Big data has intensified the promise of anticipating the future and led to ‘exacerbat[ing] the severance of surveillance from history and memory’, while ‘the assiduous quest for pattern-discovery will justify unprecedented access to data’. ‘Knowledge discovery’ through big-data mining, and prediction through the recording of datafied traces of social life, have become the doxa of intelligence and security professionals. They claim that access to the digital traces that we leave online through commercial transactions or social interactions can hold a reading of the future. They repeat the mantra of data scientists and private corporations that the ‘digital bread crumbs’ of the online world ‘give a view of life in all its complexity’ and ‘will revolutionize the study of human behaviour’.

Unlike statistical technologies of governing populations, big data scientists promise that through big data ‘we can escape the straightjacket of group identities, and replace them with more granular predictions for each individual’. To resist their unreasonable promise of predicting crises, preventing diseases, pre-empting terrorist attacks and overall reshaping society and politics, I recast it as divination rather than detection. Big-data epistemics has more in common with the ‘pseudo-rationality’ of astrology than the method of clues. As such, it renders our vocabularies of epistemic critique inoperative…

‘There is nothing irrational about astrology’, concluded Adorno, ‘except its decisive contention that these two spheres of rational knowledge are interconnected, whereas not the slightest evidence of such an interconnection can be offered.’ The irrationality of big-data security is not in the data, its volume or messiness, but in how a hieroglyph of terrorist behaviour is produced from the data, without any possibility of error.

You can obtain the pdfs of both essays by following the links above – but they are time-limited so do it now.

Irresponsible Eyes

The Left to Die Boat

I’m off to Berlin to give a new version of ‘Angry Eyes‘ at HAU’s Waffenlounge (‘Weapons Lounge’), so I’ve been thinking some more about the dispersed and distributed field of militarized vision.  En route, I’ve read Timothy Raeymaekers‘ thoughtful reflection over at Liminal Geographies on Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani‘s short film Liquid Traces.

Their video retraces the awful journey of 72 desperate people who set out from Tripoli on 27 March 2011.  Two weeks later their boat washed ashore on the Libyan coast again – but with only 11 survivors on board, two of whom later died.

I expect many readers will recognise that Liquid Traces derives from a project at Forensic Architecture called The Left to Die Boat:

The Forensic Oceanography project was launched in summer 2011 to support a coalition of NGOs demanding accountability for the deaths of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea while that region was being tightly monitored by the NATO-led coalition intervening in Libya. The efforts were focused on what is now known as the “left-to-die boat” case, in which sixty-three migrants lost their lives while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime surveillance area.

By going “against the grain” in our use of surveillance technologies, we were able to reconstruct with precision how events unfolded and demonstrate how different actors operating in the Central Mediterranean Sea used the complex and overlapping jurisdictions at sea to evade their responsibility for rescuing people in distress. The report we produced formed the basis for a number of ongoing legal petitions filed against NATO member states.

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As Tim notes,

The paradox is this: despite its departure during a period of massive Frontex and NATO deployment following the Tunisian and Libyan uprisings, and despite the vicinity of 38 NATO ships (see below) and numerous commercial vessels, the migrants who were traveling across the Mediterranean were left to die while being actively observed through an assemblage of multiple, irresponsible eyes.

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Tim concludes in terms that echo my own invocation of Donna Haraway, though in a radically different context:

Rather than being a God’s eye, which towers high above human activity, as if it were seeing from nowhere, the assemblage that surveys Mediterranean waters constitutes a patchy puzzle of often conflicting and contradictory visions and legislations, and – I might add – quite different and opposing temporalities. As Haraway points out, the main question in this case becomes not what but “how to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinded? Who wears blinders? Who interprets the visual field? What other sensory powers do we wish to cultivate besides vision?” And… “with whose blood were my eyes crafted?”

in Berlin, I’ll be presenting a new reading of an air strike orchestrated by an MQ-1 Predator in Uruzgan; here’s the programme note:

In the early hours of 21 February 2010 a team of US Special Forces soldiers and Afghan National Army troops flew in by helicopter to the village of Khod in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Their job was to search for a factory making Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). In the darkness the headlights of three vehicles were spotted in the far distance, and their movements were tracked by a Predator drone sending back full motion video to its crew at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Hour after hour, the Predator crew became more and more convinced that they were watching a group of Taliban preparing to attack the Special Forces team. But the Predator only had only one missile left, and so two combat helicopters were ordered in to attack. As the smoke cleared, it became obvious that a dreadful mistake had been made: women and children were visible among the casualties. A subsequent US Army investigation revealed that at least 15 innocent civilians had been killed and another 12 seriously injured; there were no Taliban present. The crew of the Predator were blamed – not least for having a ‘Top Gun’ mentality. But re-reading the 2,000 pages of that investigation reveals another story that dramatically complicates what has become the standard critique of Unmanned Aerial Violence and raises a series of troubling questions about militarized vision and later modern war.

More here on the narrowness of the standard ‘Predator view’, and I’ll post the full essay as soon as it’s finished.

Degrees of intimacy

Drone warsNext month Cambridge University Press is publishing a book of essays edited by Peter Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg, Drone wars: transforming conflict, law and policy, due out from Cambridge University Press at the end of the year.  Here’s the blurb:

Drones are the iconic military technology of many of today’s most pressing conflicts, a lens through which U.S. foreign policy is understood, and a means for discussing key issues regarding the laws of war and the changing nature of global politics. Drones have captured the public imagination, partly because they project lethal force in a manner that challenges accepted rules, norms, and moral understandings. Drone Wars presents a series of essays by legal scholars, journalists, government officials, military analysts, social scientists, and foreign policy experts. It addresses drones’ impact on the ground, how their use adheres to and challenges the laws of war, their relationship to complex policy challenges, and the ways they help us understand the future of war. The book is a diverse and comprehensive interdisciplinary perspective on drones that covers important debates on targeted killing and civilian casualties, presents key data on drone deployment, and offers new ideas on their historical development, significance, and impact on law and policy. Drone Wars documents the current state of the field at an important moment in history when new military technologies are transforming how war is practiced by the United States and, increasingly, by other states and by non-state actors around the world.

And here is the Contents List:

Part I. Drones on the Ground:

1. My guards absolutely feared drones: reflections on being held captive for seven months by the Taliban David Rohde
2. The decade of the drone: analyzing CIA drone attacks, casualties, and policy Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland
3. Just trust us: the need to know more about the civilian impact of US drone strikes Sarah Holewinski
4. The boundaries of war?: Assessing the impact of drone strikes in Yemen Christopher Swift
5. What do Pakistanis really think about drones? Saba Imtiaz

Part II. Drones and the Laws of War:

6. It is war at a very intimate level USAF pilot
7. This is not war by machine Charles Blanchard
8. Regulating drones: are targeted killings by drones outside traditional battlefields legal? William Banks
9. A move within the shadows: will JSOC’s control of drones improve policy? Naureen Shah
10. Defending the drones: Harold Koh and the evolution of US policy Tara McKelvey
Part III. Drones and Policy Challenges:
11. ‘Bring on the magic’: using drones in combat Michael Waltz
12. The five deadly flaws of talking about emerging military technologies and the need for new approaches to law, ethics, and war P. W. Singer
13. Drones and cognitive dissonance Rosa Brooks
14. Predator effect: a phenomenon unique to the war on terror Meg Braun
15. Disciplining drone strikes: just war in the context of counterterrorism David True
16. World of drones: the global proliferation of drone technology Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland

Part IV. Drones and the Future of Warfare:

17. No one feels safe Adam Khan
18. ‘Drones’ now and what to expect over the next ten years Werner Dahm
19. From Orville Wright to September 11: what the history of drone technology says about the future Konstantin Kakaes
20. Drones and the dilemma of modern warfare Richard Pildes and Samuel Issacharoff
21. How to manage drones, transformative technologies, the evolving nature of conflict and the inadequacy of current systems of law Brad Allenby
22. Drones and the emergence of data-driven warfare Daniel Rothenberg

Over at Foreign Policy you can find an early version of Chapter 6, which is an interview with a drone pilot conducted by Daniel Rothenberg.  There are two passages in the interview that reinforce the sense of the bifurcated world inhabited by drone crews that I described in ‘From a view to a kill’ and ‘Drone geographies’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  On the one side the pilot confirms the inculcation of an intimacy with ground troops, particularly when the platforms are tasked to provide Close Air Support, which is in some degree both reciprocal and verbal:

“Because of the length of time that you’re over any certain area you’re able to engage in lengthy communications with individuals on the ground. You build relationships. Things are a little more personal in an RPA than in an aircraft that’s up for just a few hours. When you’re talking to that twenty year old with the rifle for twenty-plus hours at a time, maybe for weeks, you build a relationship. And with that, there’s an emotional attachment to those individuals.

“You see them on a screen. That can only happen because of the amount of time you’re on station. I have a buddy who was actually able to make contact with his son’s friend over in the AOR [area of responsibility]. If you don’t think that’s going to make you focus, then I don’t know what will.

“Many individuals that have been over there have said, ‘You know, we were really happy to see you show up’; ‘We knew that you were going to keep us from being flanked’; ‘We felt confident in our ability to move this convoy from ‘A’ to ‘B’ because you were there.’ The guy on the ground and the woman on the ground see how effective we are. And it gives them more confidence.”

GREGORY Angry Eyes Extract.001

[The image above is taken from my ‘Angry Eyes’ presentation; the Predator pilot in this instance was involved in orchestrating the air strike in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan on 21 February 2010, and the quotation is taken from the US Army investigation into the incident.  I’m converting the presentation into the final chapter for The everywhere war, and I’ll post the draft as soon as I’m finished.]

But when the pilot in Rothenberg’s interview goes on to claim that ‘Targeting with RPAs is very intimate’ and that ‘It is war at a very intimate level’, he reveals on the other side an altogether different sense of intimacy: one that is strictly one-sided, limited to the visual, and which resides in a more abstracted view:

“Flying an RPA, you start to understand people in other countries based on their day-to-day patterns of life. A person wakes up, they do this, they greet their friends this way, etc. You become immersed in their life. You feel like you’re a part of what they’re doing every single day. So, even if you’re not emotionally engaged with those individuals, you become a little bit attached. I’ve learned about Afghan culture this way. You see their interactions. You’re studying them. You see everything.”

The distinction isn’t elaborated, but the claims of ‘immersion’ and becoming ‘part of what they’re doing every day’ are simply astonishing, no?  You can find more on the voyeurism of ‘pattern of life analysis’ and the remarkable conceit that ‘you see everything’ here.

GREGORY Drones and the everywhere war 2014 Homeland insecurities.001

[The image above is taken from my ‘Drone geographies’ presentation]

The interview emphasises a different bifurcation, which revolves around the alternation between ‘work’ and ‘home’ when remote operations are conducted from the United States:

“”When you’re doing RPA operations, you’re mentally there, wherever there is. You’re flying the mission. You’re talking to folks on the ground. You’re involved in kinetic strikes. Then you step out the ground control station (GCS) and you’re not there anymore…

“Those are two very, very different worlds. And you’re in and out of those worlds daily. I have to combine those two worlds. Every single day. Multiple times a day. So, I am there and then I am not there and then I am there again. The time between leaving the GCS [Ground Control Station] and, say, having lunch with my wife could be as little as ten minutes. It’s really that fast.”

You can find much more on these bifurcations in my detailed commentary on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone here and in ‘Drone geographies’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

There’s one final point to sharpen.  In my developing work on militarized vision, and especially the ‘Angry eyes’ presentation/essay,  I’ve tried to widen the focus beyond the strikes carried out by Predators and Reapers to address the role they play in networked operations where the strikes are carried out by conventional strike aircraft.  Here is what Rothenberg’s pilot says about what I’ve called the administration of military violence (where, as David Nally taught me an age ago, ‘administration’ has an appropriately double meaning):

‘”Flying an RPA is more like being a manager than flying a traditional manned aircraft, where a lot of times your focus is on keeping the shiny side up; keeping the wings level, putting the aircraft where it needs to be to accomplish the mission. In the RPA world, you’re managing multiple assets and you’re involved with the other platforms using the information coming off of your aircraft.

“You could use the term ‘orchestrating’; you are helping to orchestrate an operation.”

***

Drone wars appears just as remote operations over Iraq and Syria are ramping up: you can find an excellent review by Chris Cole at Drone Wars UK here, ‘Drones in Iraq and Syria: What we know and what we don’t.’  The images below are from the Wall Street Journal‘s interactive showing all air strikes reported by US Central Command 8 August through 3 November 2014:

Air strikes in Iraq and Syria

During this period  769 coalition air strikes were reported: 434 in Syria (the dark columns), including 217 on the besieged border city of Kobane, and 335 in Iraq (the light columns), including 157 on Mosul and the Mosul Dam.

Air strikes in Iraq and Syria August-November 2014

But bear in mind these figures are for all air strikes and do not distinguish between those carried out directly by drones and those carried out by conventional strike aircraft.  As Chris emphasises:

‘Since the start of the bombing campaign, US drones have undertaken both surveillance and strike missions in Iraq and Syria but military spokespeople have refused to give details about which aircraft are undertaking which strikes repeatedly using the formula “US military forces used attack, fighter, bomber and remotely-piloted aircraft to conduct airstrikes.”’

Although the USAF has used a mix of MQ-1 (Predator) and MQ-9 (Reaper) drones, F-15E, F-16, F/A-18 and F-22 fighters, B-1 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters in these operations, it seems likely that its capacity to use remote platforms to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is limited by its continuing commitments in Afghanistan (though Britain’s Royal Air Force has now deployed its Reapers for operations in both Iraq and Syria).

IS (Islamic State) claims to have its own drones too.  In February it released video of its aerial surveillance of Fallujah in Iraq, taken from a DJI Phantom FC40 quadcopter, in August it released video of Taqba air base in Syria taken from the same platform, tagged as ‘a drone of the Islamic State army’, and in September a propaganda video featuring hostage John Cantile showed similar footage of Kobane (below).

1414438887900_wps_7_IS_have_released_a_new_vi

These image streams are all from commercial surveillance drones, but in September the Iranian news agency Fars reported that Hezbollah had launched an air strike from Lebanon against a command centre of the al-Nursra Front outside Arsal in Syria using an armed (obviously Iranian) drone.

You can find Peter Bergen’s and Emily Schneiders view on those developments here, and a recent survey of the proliferation of drone technologies among non-state actors here.

The details of both the state and non-state air strikes remain murky, but I doubt that much ‘intimacy’ is claimed for any of them.

Under American Skies

I’ll be in Berlin in December for a conversation with James Bridle about drone wars and related issues, and I’m already looking forward to it since I’m a great admirer of his work. I particularly admire the way in which he challenges so many of our assumptions about ‘looking’ through his presentations about militarised vision and violence, and I’ve noted before the filiations between his various projects and Josh Begley‘s.

Tomas van HoutryveSo I was interested to read about photographer Tomas van Houtryves (right) project Blue Sky Days.  He begins with an arresting observation with which both James and Josh would be only too familiar:

‘Although a huge amount of [full motion video] footage has been collected [by US drones], the program is classified, and few people have ever seen images of the drone war and its casualties. This seems like a paradox in our thoroughly media-connected age. How can America be involved in a decade-long war where the sky is buzzing with cameras, and yet the public remains totally in the dark?’

But his response to the question is distinctly different: he repatriates the drone wars from Pakistan to the United States (here the most appropriate comparison is with Omar Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is the Best).

Tomas van Houtryve 1

To do so, Tomas travelled across America with a small quadcopter drone bought from Amazon.com attached to his camera.  His concept was simple, Rena Silverman explains in the New York Times:

Take the idea of foreign drone strikes and instead target similar domestic situations, putting them under surveillance using his drone in public spaces. He made a list of hundreds of different strike reports, gleaning as many details about the circumstances…

He rented a black car with tinted windows and placed himself, his drones, his batteries and lists in the car. He spent six weeks in late 2013 averaging between seven and 10 drone flights daily, sleeping in a different town every night. He would pull the car into an empty lot, get out, launch the drone for about five to 10 minutes — about as long as its power lasted — take footage, land the drone, drive away and recharge the batteries while en route to the next location…

He followed his list carefully, trying to imitate “signature strikes,” referring to a May 2012 New York Times article in which some State Department officials complained about the lax criteria for identifying a terrorist “signature.” The joke was that “three guys doing jumping jacks” could be enough suspicious activity for the C.I.A. to conclude it could be a terrorist training camp. In other words, targeting people based on behavior rather than identity.

Tomas van Houtryve 2 copy

He photographed people exercising in Philadelphia, their shadows long and pinned against the grid of a park. He noticed more “signature” behavior while driving through San Francisco, where he encountered a group doing yoga [above]. When Mr. van Houtryve recently printed the image, he asked viewers if they thought the subjects were praying or exercising. It was a toss-up.

Although these images are not quite ‘what drone attacks in America would look like’, as Pete Brook suggested in WIRED – Tomas’s drone was flying much lower (‘only about six stories high’) and these images are pin-point sharp: there’s none of the ambiguity of infra-red heat signatures here – none the less that last sentence really says it all.  Images do not speak for themselves and interpretation counts for everything – which is why, as I’ve repeatedly argued, it matters so much what pilots, sensor operators and image analysts are pre-disposed to see.

It turns out that a particular incident provoked Tomas’s project – the murder of Mamana Bibi at Ghunda Kala in North Waziristan on 24 October 2012, which I described here –  and also gives it its title.

Zubair RehmanIn October 2012, a drone strike in northeast Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra outside her house. At a briefing held in 2013 in Washington, DC, the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to a group of five lawmakers. “I no longer love blue skies,” said Rehman, who was injured by shrapnel in the attack. “In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

There’s more from Tomas at Harper’s here, which originally co-sponsored the project with the Pulitzer Center, and you can see more of his drone’s eye view images at the National Geographic here.

There’s also a revealing interview conducted by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone here; it contains all sorts of interesting observations, but one in particular resonated.  Asked about the tension between the beauty of his photographic compositions and the horror of what he is seeking to convey, Tomas says this:

‘The base subject that I’m trying to raise awareness about and get people to think about in less abstract terms is the foreign drone war. If you take the time to read through the particular airstrikes, a lot of them are quite horrifying. But on the other hand, as a photographer, I know that beauty is one of the tools that we use to get people to look at a picture. Beauty has a lot of power, so there’s a tension between trying to seduce people with the language of photography, which is beautiful composition, and trying to reveal something that might be uncomfortable or difficult to digest, once people fully grasp it.’

Another of my art icons, elin o’Hara slavick, says something very similar about her mesmerising sequence of aerial images of places bombed by the US, Bomb after bomb (see also Brian Howe‘s discussion here and my own in ‘Doors in to Nowhere’ [DOWNLOADS tab], from which I’ve taken this passage):

‘She adopts an aerial view—the position of the bombers—in order to stage and to subvert the power of aerial mastery. The drawings are made beautiful “to seduce the viewer,” she says, to draw them into the deadly embrace of the image only to have their pleasure disrupted when they take a closer look. “Like an Impressionist or Pointillist painting,” slavick explains, “I wish for the viewer to be captured by the colors and lost in the patterns and then to have their optical pleasure interrupted by the very real dots or bombs that make up the painting.”’

A tart reminder that there are multiple ways of ‘just looking‘.