We know how often the vocabulary of medicine has been hi-jacked to describe military violence (‘surgical strikes’ and the rest) – if you are unfamiliar with the trope, I recommend Colleen Bell’s two essays, ‘Hybrid warfare and its metaphors’, Humanity 3 (2) (2012) 225-247, and ‘War and the allegory of medical intervention’, International Political Sociology 6 (3) (2012) 325-8 – and, for that matter, the reverse: see Mark Harrison‘s classic essay, ‘The medicalization of war – the militarization of medicine’, Social History of Medicine 9 (2) (1996) 267–276.
The most obvious example of the latter is Trump’s grotesque self-inflation as a ‘war-time president‘ defeating the ‘Chinese virus’ (the racialization of epidemic disease has a long history too: think of European panic over the ‘Asiatic’ or ‘Indian cholera’ in the nineteenth century). Another example, grotesque for entirely other reasons – which have to do with the mendacious incompetence of the US feral government – are descriptions of scenes in hospitals in New York City as war-zones where front-line doctors and nurses desperately struggle to treat and care for patients with Covid-19 while fighting for their own lives. (For brief but insightful commentaries on these issues, on the performative work done by these metaphors, see Yasmeen Serhan at The Atlantichere and Eric Levenson at CNN here).
None of this is confined to the United States, I realise, and the questions that swirl through these metaphors (through which the virus becomes both a biopolitical and a social agent, infecting not only bodies and populations but also our imaginative geographies) reappear in still starker form once we think – in obdurately non-metaphorical terms – about the likely course of Covid-19 in war zones like Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Yemen where hospitals and clinics have been deliberately and systematically targeted, doctors and nurses killed, and the lives of desperately vulnerable populations inside and outside refugee camps made even more precarious (I’ll try to address this in detail in a later post, but see here and here).
All this is on my mind, a jumbled series of thoughts, impressions and emotions, as I sit at home – privileged and relatively safe – doing my best to practice physical distancing, and read this imaginative call for contributions from Warscapes.
We find ourselves in a truly challenging moment as this coronavirus pandemic becomes a long and difficult daily reality. Not only are our individual lives feeling severely compromised but the massive structural shifts are beyond despairing — the shocking death toll, the triumph of surveillance structures, the displacements, the police brutality, curfews, imminent starvation, mass unemployment…the list is long. We know that many of you have survived war, reported on war or lived through intensive periods of violence, scarcity and uncertainty. Perhaps you find yourself working through tangled memories of all kinds of warscapes. Perhaps some of you have no luxury of memory and have been thrown into the pandemic as doctors, social workers, aid workers, teachers, activists. Perhaps some of you have seen this as a welcome respite from a deeply pressured life and are enjoying time with family. Perhaps some are in an intellectual overdrive as our fight against inept governments and greedy capitalist systems intensifies. And perhaps some of you are quite ill and we wish you love and speedy healing. Whatever mood or situation you find yourself in, we are somehow all in this together processing our new reality, wittingly or unwittingly.
Unsurprisingly, there is an uptick in war rhetoric during this pandemic and since this is an online space dedicated to reflecting on the world through the “lens of war” we are launching a Warscapes video segment tentatively titled “Open Call: The Corona Notebooks.” If you are willing and able, we would love it if you could record a 2-3 minute video of yourself thinking about this pandemic, maybe accessing a previous memory, maybe reporting on an injustice, maybe narrating a sweet fragment from your daily life, maybe recounting a second chance that this pandemic gave you, maybe telling us about a loved one you reconnected with, maybe you’ve seen a movie or read a book that was powerful, maybe telling us about having the illness. The tone, the tale, the genre and the language is yours to choose. There is an overwhelming amount of news and information but we will together weave an emotionally vibrant and artistic tapestry.
We will simultaneously transcribe these and start publishing them online as well. And when/if/after this is all over, we can publish all the entries and either give them away as free chapbooks or see if it can go towards a relief effort. For those that are available and happy to do facebook/instagram live events, we will happily make this an event with audience interaction and allow for discussions centering around your piece.
1. WIDESCREEN recording — Flip your phone to widescreen. Do NOT shoot in vertical.
2. CLEAR SOUND — Make sure the sound is clear, our world has been quiet so this should be easy.
3. PLAN IN ADVANCE — While informal, casual and intimate is great, it would be better write your piece down, work through it before recording, experiment with form, play with the visual. We would prefer to keep editing to the minimal.
4. TWO MINUTES MINIMUM — your entry should be at least 2 minutes long, no stipulations for maximum length.
5. Send videos to bhakti [dot]shringarpure[at]gmail [dot]com
If you too are sitting at home, weary of yet another Zoom meeting, and wondering what (else) you might do, then perhaps you might like to give this a try…
Several years ago we were in Dubrovnik and visited War Photo‘s mesmerising exhibition space in the old town; part of it was devoted to a permanent exhibition documenting the wars in the former Yugoslavia, but part of it was given over to a visiting exhibition by Maria Turchenokova. One image has haunted me ever since: two or three desperately young Yemeni children, standing in a narrow, shallow crevice in the ground, half-covered by a sheet of rusted corrugated iron: this was their ‘air raid shelter’. I’ve since searched for the image many times, without success; this isn’t it, but the photograph (of a man peering out of a “shelter” on the outskirts of Saada in 2015) conveys something of the vulnerability of ordinary Yemenis:
ACLED notes: ‘Around 67% [over 8,000] of all reported civilian fatalities in Yemen since 2015, resulting from direct targeting, have been caused by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, making the Saudi-led coalition the actor most responsible for civilian deaths…. Air and drone strikes were especially deadly for civilians in 2015 and during the Hodeidah offensive in 2018.’
The Yemen Data Project provides this timeline of air strikes (there’s also an interactive map by governorate on the same page):
You can find a summary version of the report from Rod Austin at the Guardianhere, which concludes with this prescient observation:
Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a member of the committee on arms export controls, said: “These statistics simply underline the fact that our government has enabled Saudi Arabia to destroy the social fabric of an entire country for money. I shudder to think of the consequences of our dirty war in Yemen. A generation of Yemenis now hate Britain as much as they hate the Saudi royal air force that is dropping our bombs on them.”
If you are puzzled by those sentiments, then you should read Arron Merrat‘s in-depth report from the previous week, ‘The Saudis couldn’t do it without us’: the UK’s true role in Yemen’s deadly war’, here:
For more than four years, a brutal Saudi air campaign has bombarded Yemen, killing tens of thousands, injuring hundreds of thousands and displacing millions – creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And British weapons are doing much of the killing. Every day Yemen is hit by British bombs – dropped by British planes that are flown by British-trained pilots and maintained and prepared inside Saudi Arabia by thousands of British contractors.
The Saudi-led military coalition, which includes the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, has “targeted civilians … in a widespread and systematic manner”, according to the UN – dropping bombs on hospitals, schools, weddings, funerals and even camps for displaced people fleeing the bombing.
Saudi Arabia has in effect contracted out vital parts of its war against Yemen’s Houthi movement to the US and the UK. Britain does not merely supply weapons for this war: it provides the personnel and expertise required to keep the war going. The British government has deployed RAF personnel to work as engineers, and to train Saudi pilots and targeteers – while an even larger role is played by BAE Systems, Britain’s biggest arms company, which the government has subcontracted to provide weapons, maintenance and engineers inside Saudi Arabia.
Arron documents the dispersed geography of contracted-out aerial violence in forensic detail:
The British bombs that rain down on Yemen are produced in three towns: Glenrothes in Scotland, and Harlow and Stevenage in south-east England. Bombs roll off production lines owned by Raytheon UK and BAE Systems, firms contracted by the government to manufacture Paveway bombs (£22,000 apiece), Brimstone bombs (£105,000 apiece), and Storm Shadow cruise missiles (£790,000 apiece) for the Saudi Royal Air Force. BAE, under government contract, also assembles the jets that drop these bombs in hangars just outside the village of Warton, Lancashire.
Once these weapons arrive in Saudi Arabia, Britain’s involvement is far from over. The Saudi military lacks the expertise to use these weapons to fight a sustained air war – so BAE, under another contract to the UK government, provides what are known as “in-country” services. In practice, this means that around 6,300 British contractors are stationed at forward operating bases in Saudi Arabia. There, they train Saudi pilots and conduct essential maintenance night and day on planes worn out from flying thousands of miles across the Saudi desert to their targets in Yemen. They also supervise Saudi soldiers to load bombs on to planes and set their fuses for their intended targets.
Around 80 serving RAF personnel work inside Saudi Arabia. Sometimes they work for BAE to assist in maintaining and preparing aircraft. At other times they work as auditors to ensure that BAE is fulfilling its Ministry of Defence contracts. Additional RAF “liaison officers” work inside the command-and-control centre, from where targets in Yemen are selected.
The image below shows crews from Britain’s Royal Air Force and the Saudi Royal Air Force involved in a joint training exercise, ‘Saudi British Green Flag 2018’. According to a report in Arab News:
The exercise aims to improve the overall combat readiness of the Saudi Air Force and increase the capacities of crews and personnel through a series of training flights of varying complexity. It allows both forces to share technical knowledge and learn about how the other operates.
Maj. Gen. Haidar bin Rafie Al-Omari, commander of the air base and the exercise, said it is a critical part of this year’s training plan for the armed forces.
“The Green Flag Exercise involves all our air force combat systems supporting Operation Decisive Storm and Operation Restoring Hope (in Yemen),” he added.
“The British Royal Air Force aims to integrate all combat systems, including air combat, air support and electronic warfare, and especially how to use them against the enemy’s land defense systems for maximum operational efficiency.”
‘Restoring Hope’; ‘operational efficiency’: the absurdist language is truly rebarbative.
Arron notes the pariah status of the UK and the US in these joint air wars, even if he doesn’t call it that:
The UK government’s argument that it does not pick the targets in Yemen resembles nothing so much as the logic of the American gun lobby, with its infamous claim that it’s not guns that kill people, but the people who use them. Since 2016, many countries have revoked or suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia – including Austria, Belgium, Germany, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. But Britain and the US, whose planes constitute the backbone of Saudi Arabia’s combat fleet, are still holding out.
There’s more – much more – in the full report.
There is a welcome sting in the tail: on 20 June the UK Court of Appeal ruled that arms sales to Saudi Arabia were illegal – albeit in one respect (but none the less a vital one).
British arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been ruled unlawful by the court of appeal in a critical judgment that also accused ministers of ignoring whether airstrikes that killed civilians in Yemen broke humanitarian law.
Three judges said that a decision made in secret in 2016 had led them to decide that Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Liam Foxand other key ministers had illegally signed off on arms exports without properly assessing the risk to civilians.
Sir Terence Etherton, the master of the rolls, said on Tuesday that ministers had “made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so”.
As part of its case the government had argued that RAF training (those ‘Green Flag’ exercises captured above, and those ‘in-country services’ described in Arron’s analysis) had made Saudi compliance with international humanitarian law more likely, but their case was shredded. Mark Townsend reported:
‘[C]ourt documents from the case show that indiscriminate bombing of civilians by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen took place after British training – sometimes almost immediately after. Three days after Britain provided training – between 27 July and 14 August 2015 – up to 70 people were killed by airstrikes and shelling at the port at Hodeidah.
The following month airstrikes on a wedding in the village of Wahijah, near the Red Sea port of al-Mokha, killed at least 135 people.
In October 2015 repeated airstrikes on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Haidan occurred, despite the hospital’s GPS coordinates being shared with the coalition. The episode prompted the UK to provide further training to the Saudi air force between October and January, including targeting training.
However, in March 2016 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition on a crowded village market in Hajjah province killed 106 people. Days later deadly attacks struck a civilian building in the city of Taiz.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against ArmsTrade, which brought the case, said: “We are always being told how positive the UK’s influence supposedly is on Saudi forces, but nothing could be further from the truth. The atrocities and abuses have continued unabated, regardless of UK training and engagement.
“The training and rhetoric has only served to provide a figleaf of legitimacy to a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”
Not incidentally: if you’re wondering about US involvement – not something that Donald Trump wonders about – then I recommend the President’s favourite newspaper, the New York Times, and its interactive report ‘Saudi Strikes, American Bombs, Yemeni Suffering‘ here (which also draws on the Yemen Data Project), together with Declan Walsh‘s report, ‘Saudi Warplanes, mostly made in America, still bomb Yemeni civilians‘ here. These should be read in conjunction with geographer (yes!) Samuel Oakford‘s report on the inability of the US to track its fuel supply for the Saudi military mission in Yemen and his subsequent report for the Atlantic (which includes characteristically sharp and well-informed commentary from Larry Lewis).
The latest issue of the wonderful Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)’s Middle East Report on ‘The Fight for Yemen‘ is now available online:
The ongoing war in Yemen that began in 2015 has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. The scope of destruction and human suffering is catastrophic: hundreds of thousands are dead from bombing, war-related disease and malnutrition and millions remain on the brink of famine without access to drinking water or medicine. While critical awareness of the magnitude of the crisis is growing, the political and economic roots of the crisis and the complex realities of Yemeni political life are often obscured by misunderstandings. Contributors to The Fight for Yemen disentangle the social, political and economic factors that are behind the war, the cataclysmic impact of the war on Yemeni society, particularly its women, and introduce readers to the complex realities within Yemen in order to create a just peace. Middle East Report 289 is partially available on-line with full access to all the articles available to our subscribers.
Toward a Just Peace in Yemen – Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Jillian Schwedler
The Saudi Coalition’s Food War on Yemen – Jeannie Sowers
Yemen’s Women Confront War’s Marginalization – Afrah Nasser
Yemen and the Imperial Investments in War – Priya Satia
Ambitions of a Global Gulf – Adam Hanieh
The Saudis Bring War to Yemen’s East – Susanne Dahlgren
American Interventionism and the Geopolitical Roots of Yemen’s Catastrophe – Waleed Hazbun
Roundtable: Three Women Activists Advancing Peace in Yemen – Stacey Philbrick Yadav
Progressive Surge Propels Turning Point in US Policy on Yemen – Danny Postel
I’ve been on the road – I’m in London now for more archival work at the Wellcome, after a wonderful conference on “Drone imaginaries” at Odense – but I hope to post the next essay in my series on siege warfare in Syria shortly. It will address medical care under siege – a continuation and extension of my wider work on ‘surgical strikes’ on hospitals and medical facilities (see for example here: more under the GUIDE tab) – but in the interim here is a short post from Jonathan Whittallat Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF Analysis; also at al Jazeerahere) on the ‘bomb and siege routine’:
Medicine and medical workers have also been sucked into the violence. This can be seen in the attempts by the Syrian government to control the provision of healthcare in opposition-held areas by denying humanitarian access, threatening or arresting medical staff, and damaging or destroying medical infrastructure.
Early on in the conflict, medical facilities went underground, forming the beginning of a network of field hospitals such as the ones I visited in Homs. The international backers of the Syrian armed opposition on their part imposed stringent sanctions on the Syrian government which contributed to the decline of the government healthcare system.
As the war raged on, we saw indiscriminate bombing and shelling that did not differentiate between civilian and military targets. In some cases, civilians were considered military targets based on the fact that they had remained in areas controlled by groups designated as “terrorist”.
Hospitals have regularly been hit. This is the new norm. We no longer know if they are struck accidentally or intentionally or destroyed as part of a general rampage of violence. Either way, the infrastructure that sustains life is being eliminated….
From Syria to Iraq and from Yemen to Gaza, the armies and their backers use the trump card of the “fight against terrorism” as the ultimate justification for any atrocities committed against civilian populations under siege.
Indiscriminate bombing is never acceptable, no matter who the enemy is. Nor is targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. Humanitarian supplies must always be exempt from the military tactic of siege.
The wounded and civilians wishing to escape the violence must always be allowed safe passage. The civilians who stay behind do not become legitimate targets. Providing treatment to patients – both civilians and wounded combatants alike – is never an act of “terrorism”, nor is it a form of support for “terrorism”. It is a legally protected act of humanity.
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).
I’ve been in Copenhagen and in Nijmegen talking about the war in Syria, presenting both updated versions of The Death of the Clinic (on attacks on hospitals and medical facilities: see here, here and – for my first update – here) and a new presentation, Cities under siege in Syria.
The new presentation ties those violations of medical neutrality – bluntly, war crimes – into the conduct of siege warfare in Syria and elsewhere and tries to recover the experiences and survival strategies of people and communities living under those desperate conditions (a far cry from my good friend Steve Graham‘s ‘new military urbanism‘, and a catastrophic combination of spectacular, episodic violence through bombing and shelling, and the slow violence of deprivation, dislocation and starvation).
More on this soon, but on Thursday the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a remarkable report, I saw my city die, which is accompanied by an immersive microsite. If you scroll to the end of the microsite, you’ll be asked to submit your e-mail for a link to the downloadable pdf of the report (I’ve just discovered you can also access it here). More from the ICRC on the report here and here.
The report focuses on Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and includes wrenching first-hand testimonies:
The three conflicts in the report – Iraq, Syria and Yemen – account for around half of all conflict-related casualties worldwide between 2010 and 2015.
Some 17.5 million people have fled their homes, creating the largest global refugee and migration crisis since World War II. 11.5 million people – more than three people per minute – have fled their homes in Syria alone, since the start of the war.
It is not only lives and homes that are destroyed in these conflicts. The increasing use of explosive weapons that have wide impact areas, decimate the complex systems of services such as electricity, water, sanitation, garbage collection and health-care that civilians rely on to survive, making an eventual return to these cities even harder for those who have fled.
“The majority of people had very little choice and felt it was best to leave,” said Marianne Gasser, Head of ICRC’s Delegation in Syria. “Their houses were turned to rubble; there was very little food and no water or electricity. Not to mention the violence they had been witnessing for so long; no one could be expected to endure such suffering.”
This is a just preliminary notice: I’ll have much more to say when I’ve had a chance to read all this and think some more, so watch this space (and their space).
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‘.
Those providing health care in contested areas in Afghanistan say they are feeling under increasing pressure from all sides in the war. There have been two egregious attacks on medical facilities in the last six months: the summary execution of two patients and a carer taken from a clinic in Wardak by Afghan special forces in mid-February – a clear war crime – and the United States bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz in October 2015, which left dozens dead and injured – an alleged war crime. Health professionals have told AAN of other violations, by both pro and anti-government forces. Perhaps most worryingly, reports AAN Country Director Kate Clark, have been comments by government officials, backing or defending the attacks on the MSF hospital and Wardak clinic [see image below].
So, for example:
Afghan government reactions to the news of the Wardak killings [at Tangi Sedan during the night of 17/18 February 2016; see also here] came largely at the provincial level, from officials who saw no problem in those they believed were Taleban – wounded or otherwise – being taken from a clinic and summarily executed. Head of the provincial council, Akhtar Muhammad Tahiri, was widely quoted, saying: “The Afghan security forces raided the hospital as the members of the Taliban group were being treated there.” Spokesperson for the provincial governor, Toryalay Hemat, said, “They were not patients, but Taliban,” and “The main target of the special forces was the Taliban fighters, not the hospital.” Spokesman for Wardak’s police chief, Abdul Wali Noorzai, said “Those killed in the hospital were all terrorists,” adding he was “happy that they were killed.”
Yet, the killings were a clear war crime. The Laws of Armed Conflict, also known as International Humanitarian Law, give special protection to medical facilities, staff and patients during war time – indeed, this is the oldest part of the Geneva Conventions. The Afghan special forces’ actions in Wardak involved numerous breaches: forcibly entering a medical clinic, harming and detaining staff and killing patients. The two boys and the man who were summarily executed were, in any case, protected either as civilians (the caretaker clearly, the two patients possibly – they had claimed to have been injured in a motorbike accident) or as fighters who were hors d’combat (literally ‘out of the fight’) because they were wounded and also then detained. Anyone who is hors d’combat is a protected person under International Humanitarian Law and cannot be harmed, the rationale being that they can no longer defend themselves. It is worth noting that, for the staff at the clinic to have refused to treat wounded Taleban would also have been a breach of medical neutrality: International Humanitarian Law demands that medical staff treat everyone according to medical need only.
That the Wardak provincial officials endorsed a war crime is worrying enough, but their words echoed reactions from more senior government officials to the US military’s airstrikes on a hospital belonging to the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières on 3 October 2015. Then, ministers and other officials appeared to defend the attack by saying it had targeted Taleban whom they said were in the hospital (conveniently forgetting that, until the fall of Kunduz city became imminent when the government evacuated all of its wounded from the hospital except the critically ill, the hospital had largely treated government soldiers). The Ministry of Interior spokesman, for example, said, “10 to 15 terrorists were hiding in the hospital last night and it came under attack. Well, they are all killed. All of the terrorists were killed. But we also lost doctors. We will do everything we can to ensure doctors are safe and they can do their jobs.”
MSF denied there were any armed men in the hospital. However, even if there had been, International Humanitarian Law would still have protected patients and medical staff: they would still have had to have been evacuated and warnings given before the hospital could have been legally attacked.
Not surprisingly heads of various humanitarian agencies all reported that the situation was worsening:
“General abuses against medical staff and facilities are on the rise from all parties to the conflict,” said one head of agency, while another said, “We have a good reputation with all sides, but we have still had threats from police, army and insurgents.” The head of a medical NGO described the situation as “messy, really difficult”:
All health facilities are under pressure. We have had some unpleasant experiences, The ALP [Afghan Local Police] are not professional, not disciplined. If the ALP or Taleban take over a clinic, we rely on local elders [to try to sort out the situation]. We are between the two parties.
He described the behaviour of overstretched Afghan special forces as “quite desperate,” adding, “They are struggling, trying to be everywhere and get very excited when there’s fighting.” Most of them, he said, were northerners speaking little or no Pashto, which can make things “difficult for our clinics in the south.”
The head of another agency listed the problems his staff are facing:
“We have seen the presence of armed men in medical facilities, turning them into targets. We have seen violations by the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces], damage done to health facilities that were taken over as bases to conceal themselves and fight [the insurgents] from. We have seen checkpoints located close to health centres. Why? So that in case of hostilities, forces can take shelter in the concrete building. We have seen looting. We have seen ANSF at checkpoints deliberately causing delays, especially in the south, including blocking patients desperately needing to get to a health facility. We can never be certain that [such a delay] was the cause of death, but we believe it has been.”
He said his medical staff had been threatened by “ANSF intervening in medical facilities at the triage stage, forcing doctors to stop the care of other patients and treat their own soldiers, in disregard of medical priorities.” Less commonly, but more dangerously for the doctors themselves, he said, was the threat of Taleban abduction. He described a gathering of surgeons in which all reported having been abducted from their homes at least once and brought to the field to attend wounded fighters “with all the dangers you can imagine along the road.” He said the surgeons were “forced to operate without proper equipment and forced to abandon their own patients in clinics because the abduction would last days.”
Locally, medical staff often try to mitigate threats from both government forces and insurgents by seeking protection first from the local community. One head of agency described their strategy:
“When we open a clinic, our first interlocutors are the elders. Everyone wants a clinic in their area, but we decide the location and make the elders responsible for the clinic… They have to give us a building – three to four rooms. All those who work in the clinic – the ambulance driver, the owner of the vehicle, everyone – come from the area. We also need the elders to deal with the parties… If the ALP or Taleban take over clinic, we always start with the elders [who negotiate with whoever has taken over the clinic].”
However, this tactic puts a burden on community elders who may not be able to negotiate if the ANSF, ALP or insurgents are also threatening them.
I’ve delayed following up my previous commentaries on the US airstrike on the MSF Trauma Center in Kunduz (here and here) because I had hoped the full report of the internal investigation carried out by the US military would be released: apparently it runs to 3,000-odd pages. I don’t for a minute believe that it would settle matters, but in any event nothing has emerged so far – though I’m sure it’s subject to multiple FOIA requests and, if and when it is released, will surely have been redacted.
All we have is an official statement by General John Campbell on 25 November 2015 (above), which described the airstrike as ‘a tragic, but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error’, and a brief Executive Summary of the findings of the Combined Civilian Casualty Assessment Team (made up of representatives from NATO and the Afghan government) which emphasised that those errors were ‘compounded by failures of process and procedure, and malfunctions of technical equipment.’
The parallel investigations identified a series of cumulative, cascading errors and malfunctions:
(1) The crew of the AC-130 gunship that carried out the attack set out without a proper mission brief or a list of ‘no-strike’ targets; the aircraft had been diverted from its original mission, to provide close air support to ‘troops in contact’, and was unprepared for this one (which was also represented as ‘troops in contact’, a standard designation meaning that troops are under hostile fire).
(2) Communications systems on the aircraft failed, including – crucially – the provision of video feeds to ground force commanders and the transmission of electronic messages (the AC-130 has a sophisticated sensor and communications suite – or ‘battle management center’ –on board, staffed by two sensor operators, a navigator, a fire control officer, and an electronic warfare officer, and many messages are sent via classified chat rooms).
The problem was apparently a jerry-rigged antenna that was supposed to link the AC-130 to the ground. Here is how General Bradley Heithold explained it to Defense One:
“Today, we pump full-motion video into the airplane and out of the airplane. So we have a Ku-band antenna on the airplane … the U-model…. On our current legacy airplanes, the solution we used was rather scabbed on: take the overhead escape hatch out, put an antenna on, stick it back up there, move the beams around. We’ve had some issues, but we’re working with our industry partners to resolve that issue.”
He added, “99.9 percent of the time we’ve had success with it. These things aren’t perfect; they’re machines.”
Heithold said that dedicated Ku-band data transfer is now standard on later models of the AC-130, which should make data transfer much more reliable.
(3) Afghan Special Forces in Kunduz had requested close air support for a clearing operation in the vicinity of the former National Directorate of Security compound, which they believed was now a Taliban ‘command and control node’. The commander of US Special Forces on the ground agreed and provided the AC-130 crew with the co-ordinates for the NDS building. He could see neither the target nor the MSF Trauma Center from his location but this is not a requirement for authorising a strike; he was also working from a map that apparently did not mark the MSF compound as a medical facility. According to AP, he had been given the coordinates of the hospital two days before but said he didn’t recall seeing them. The targeting system onboard the AC-130 was degraded and directed the aircraft to an empty field and so the crew relied on a visual identification of the target using a description provided by Afghan Special Forces – and they continued to rely on their visual fix even when the targeting system had been re-aligned (‘the crew remained fixated on the physical description of the facility’) and, as David Cloudpoints out, even though there was no visible sign of ‘troops in contact’ in the vicinity of the Trauma Center (‘An AC-130 is normally equipped with infrared surveillance cameras capable of detecting gunfire on the ground’):
Sundarsan Raghavenadds that ‘Not long before the attack on the hospital, a U.S. airstrike pummeled an empty warehouse across the street from the Afghan intelligence headquarters. How U.S. personnel could have confused its location only a few hours later is not clear…’ More disturbingly, two US Special Forces troops have claimed that their Afghan counterparts told their commander that it was the Trauma Center that was being used as the ‘command and control node’, and that the Taliban ‘had already removed and ransomed the foreign doctors, and they had fired on partnered personnel from there.’
(4) The aircrew cleared the strike with senior commanders at the Joint Operations Center at Bagram and provided them with the co-ordinates of the intended target. Those commanders failed to recognise that these were the co-ordinates of the MSF hospital which was indeed on the ‘no-strike’ list; ‘this confusion was exacerbated by the lack of video and electronic communications between the headquarters and the aircraft, caused by the earlier malfunction, and a belief at the headquarters that the force on the ground required air support as a matter of immediate force protection’;
(5) The strike continued even after MSF notified all the appropriate authorities that their clinic was under attack; no explanation was offered, though the US military claims the duration was shorter (29 minutes) than the 60-minutes reported by those on the ground.
Campbell announced that those ‘most closely associated’ with the incident had been suspended from duty for violations of the Rules of Engagement – those ‘who requested the strike and those who executed it from the air did not undertake the appropriate measures to verify that the facility was a legitimate military target’ – though he gave no indication how far up the chain of command responsibility would be extended; in January it was reported that US Central Command was weighing disciplinary action against unspecified individuals. In the meantime, solatia payments had been made to the families of the killed ($6,000) and injured ($3,000).
Not surprisingly, MSF reacted angrily to Campbell’s summary: according to Christopher Stokes,
‘The U.S. version of events presented today leaves MSF with more questions than answers. The frightening catalog of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war.’
Joanne Liu, MSF’s President, subsequently offered a wider reflection on war in today’s ‘barbarian times’, prompted by further attacks on other hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere:
“The unspoken thing, the elephant in the room, is the war against terrorism, it’s tainting everything,” she said. “People have real difficulty, saying: ‘Oh, you were treating Taliban in your hospital in Kunduz?’ I said we have been treating everyone who is injured, and it will have been Afghan special forces, it will have been the Taliban, yes we are treating everybody.”
She added: “People have difficulty coming around to it. It’s the core, stripped-down-medical-ethics duty as a physician. If I’m at the frontline and refuse to treat a patient, it’s considered a crime. As a physician this is my oath, I’m going to treat everyone regardless.”
Kate Clark‘s forensic response to the US investigation of the Kunduz attack is here; she insists, I think convincingly, that
‘… rather than a simple string of human errors, this seems to have been a string of reckless decisions, within a larger system that failed to provide the legally proscribed safeguards when using such firepower. There were also equipment failures that compounded the problem but, again, if the forces on the ground and in the air had followed their own rules of engagement, the attack would have been averted.’
This is what just-in-time war looks like, but it’s not enough to blame all this on what General Campbell called a ‘high operational tempo’. As a minimum, we need to be able to read the transcripts of the ground/air communications – which are recorded as a matter of course, no matter what the tempo, and which are almost always crucial in any civilian casualty incident resulting from ‘troops in contact’ (see, for another vivid example, my discussion here) – to make sense of the insensible.
Since my post on the use of drones to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over Iraq and Syria I’ve been thinking about the image stream provided by Predators and Reapers. Then I used an image from what I think must be an MQ-9 Reaper operated by France which was in full colour and – this is the important part – in high definition. Over the weekend the New York Times published a report, culled from the Italian magazine L’Espresso, which – together with the accompanying video clip (the link is to the Italian original not the Times version) – confirmed the power of HD full motion video, this time from a Reaper operated by Italy:
The footage … begins with grainy black-and-white images of an airstrike on what appears to have been a checkpoint on a road in northern Iraq, beneath a huge black flag.
Then there is something altogether different: high-resolution, color video of four distinct armed figures walking out of a house and along the streets of a town. At one stage, the picture suddenly zooms in on two of the suspected militants to reveal that one of them is almost certainly a child, propping a rifle on his shoulder that indicates how small he is relative to the man next to him. The images are so clear that even the shadows of the figures can be examined.
But the significance of all this is less straightforward than it might appear.
First, not all drones have this HD capability. We know from investigations into civilian casualty incidents in Afghanistan that the feeds from Predators but also early model (‘Block’) Reapers are frequently grainy and imprecise. Sean Daviesreports that the video compression necessary for data transmission squeezed 560 x 480 pixel resolution images into 3.2 MBps at 30 frames per second whereas the newer (Block 5) Reapers provide 1280 x 720 pixel resolution images resolution images at 6.4 MBps. The enhanced video feeds can be transmitted not only to the Ground Control Stations from which the aircraft are flown – and those too have been upgraded (see image below) – but also to operations centres monitoring the missions and, crucially, to ruggedized laptops (‘ROVERs’) used by special forces and other troops on the ground.
The significance of HD full-motion video is revealed in the slide below, taken from a briefing on ‘small footprint operations’ in Somalia and Yemen prepared in February 2013 and published as part of The Intercept‘s Drone Papers, which summarises its impact on the crucial middle stage of the ‘find, fix, finish‘ cycle of targeted killing:
As you can see, HD FMV was involved in as many as 72 per cent of the successful ‘fixes’ and was absent from 88 per cent of the unsuccessful ones.
Second, Eyal Weizmancautions that the image stream shown on the Italian video was captured ‘either very early or very late in the day. Without shadows we could not identify these as weapons at all.’ Infra-red images captured at night could obviously not provide definition of this quality, but even so-called ‘Day TV’ would not show clear shadows at most times of the day. In Eyal’s view, ‘showing these rare instances could skew our understanding of how much can be seen by drones and how clear what we see is.’
Third, no matter how high the resolution of the video feeds, we need to remember that their interpretation is a techno-cultural process. One of the figures shown in the Italian video ‘is almost certainly a child’, reports the New York Times. So bear in mind this exchange between the crew of a Predator circling over three vehicles travelling through the mountains of Uruzgan in February 2010 (see also here and here):
1:07 (MC): screener said at least one child near SUV
The Intercept has released a new series of documents – not from Edward Snowden – that provide extraordinary details about the Obama administration’s targeted killing operations (especially in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia).
I haven’t had a chance to work through them yet – today is taken up with teaching and Eyal Weizman‘s visit for tonight’s Wall Exchange – but I imagine that readers who don’t already have their heads up will welcome a head’s up.
The reports include a considerable number of informative graphics (taken from briefing slides) together with analysis. Here is the full list: