Medical neutrality and modern war

md_p0361-memory-solferinoI expect most readers know how the International Committee of the Red Cross had its origins in Henry Dunant‘s horror at the unrelieved suffering he witnessed in the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in 1859 (see my earlier post here).

In A Memory of Solferino (1862) he asked: ‘Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers?’

Dunant’s vision of an impartial relief society to provide aid to those wounded in time of war led to the formation of a series of national relief societies and, as John Hutchinson shows in Champions of Charity: War and the rise of the Red Cross, these national societies soon became entangled with nationalism.  ‘Gripped by the passions of patriotism,’ he writes, by the time of the First World War these national societies ‘undertook to perform whatever repair work the armies required of them.’

And yet, even with these entanglements, a key principle was defended: medical neutrality.  According to Physicians for Human Rights, medical neutrality requires:

  1. The protection of medical personnel, patients, facilities, and transport from attack or interference;
  2. Unhindered access to medical care and treatment;
  3. The humane treatment of all civilians; and
  4. Nondiscriminatory treatment of the sick and injured.

During the First World war there were complaints that the principle had been sporadically violated: that stretcher-bearers had been attacked by snipers when they sought to recover the wounded or that military hospitals had been deliberately shelled or bombed.  Here, for example, is the aftermath of one of several air raids targeting base hospitals at Etaples on the French coast between May and August 1918 (supposedly in retaliation for a British air raid on Cologne):

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But in the last decade of our own century such violations have become increasingly systematic. And, as more and more civilians have become trapped and even targeted in conflict zones whose ‘battlefields’ know no bounds, so those violations have extended far beyond attacks on military-medical infrastructure and personnel.

Last summer I detailed the attacks made by the Israeli military on medical facilities and emergency systems in Gaza, and I drew attention to the work of Physicians for Human Rights in documenting the precariousness of medical care there.  But the calculated production of these spaces of exception is not exceptional, and attacks like these have become part of the arsenal of later modern war.  “Instead of being protected,” says Donna McKay, executive director of PHR, “medical care is actually a target.”

HRW Attacks on Health

Physicians for Human Rights is part of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition which has now joined with Human Rights Watch to publish Attacks on Health: a Global Report (2015) that summarises attacks on health care facilities and health care workers around the world:

Over the past year armed groups have attacked hospitals, clinics, and health personnel in 41 incidents in Afghanistan and deliberately killed over 45 health workers, primarily polio vaccinators, in Nigeria and Pakistan. In Syria, where medical facilities in Aleppo have been hit with government barrel bombs, 194 medical personnel have been killed and 104 medical facilities attacked since 2014….

The organizations described attacks in South Sudan, where 58 people were killed in four hospitals in a series of attacks in early 2014, and in eastern Ukraine, where it is estimated that 30 to 70 percent of health workers have fled the region because of insecurity. In Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants carried out attacks on health facilities in early 2014, and the 10-country Saudi-led coalition conducted air strikes that hit hospitals and interrupted medical supplies during the conflict in early 2015. Relying on data from Insecurity Insight’s Security in Numbers Database, the report also shows trends in attacks on health care over the course of a decade in South Sudan and Central African Republic.

PHR Critical Condition

In close concert with the report Physicians for Human Rights have produced an interactive online map of attacks on health care around the world between January 2014 and April 2015 (see the screenshot above).

PHR Attacks on health care in Syria

The organisation has also produced a detailed map of attacks on health care systems – or what’s left of them – in Syria (see the screenshot above), which you can access here.  It needs to be supplemented by PHR’s Doctors in the crosshairs: four years of attacks on health care in Syria, which was published in March:

The symbols of the Red Cross and Red Crescent have been turned from a shield of protection into crosshairs on the backs of those who knowingly risk their lives to save others.

You can find more on the violation of medical neutrality in Syria in an open-access article by Ravi S. Katari in the Journal of global health here and in a short essay by Sasha Zients and Dylan Okabe-Jawdat for the Columbia Political Review (May 2015) here.

And you can find more on the systematic violation of medical neutrality in Bahrein and elsewhere here.

Civil(ian) wars in Yemen

It’s not easy to keep track of the intensifying civil war/proxy war in Yemen, but the New York Times has published a series of maps – including the one below – that sketch out some of the contours of violence.

Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen to April 2015

Not surprisingly, the Saudi-led air strikes (‘Operation Decisive Storm’ – really) have been ineffective in halting the advance of the Houthis; in fact, they may be counterproductive.  Three days ago senior United Nations officials warned that the loss of civilian lives and the repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure may constitute grave violations of international law, and there are now reports that US officials are also becoming alarmed at the mounting toll of civilian casualties.

The United States is, of course, intimately involved in the air campaign.  According to the Los Angeles Times:

Pentagon officials, who pride themselves on the care they take to avoid civilian casualties, have watched with growing alarm as Saudi airstrikes have hit what the U.N. this week called “dozens of public buildings,” including hospitals, schools, residential areas and mosques. The U.N. said at least 364 civilians have been killed in the campaign.

Although U.S. personnel don’t pick the bombing targets, Americans are working beside Saudi military officials to check the accuracy of target lists in a joint operations center in Riyadh, defense officials said. The Pentagon has expedited delivery of GPS-guided “smart” bomb kits to the Saudi air force to replenish supplies.

The U.S. role was quietly stepped up last week after the civilian death toll rose sharply. The number of U.S. personnel was increased from 12 to 20 in the operations center to help vet targets and to perform more precise calculations of bomb blast areas to help avoid civilian casualties.

U.S. reconnaissance drones now send live video feeds of potential targets and of damage after the bombs hit. The Air Force also began daily refueling flights last week to top off Saudi and United Arab Emirates fighter jets in midair, outside Yemen’s borders, so they can quickly return to the war.

You could be forgiven for thinking this a bit rich.  The US has long been waging its own air campaign in Yemen:

US air strikes in Yemen 2009-15

The NYT map above is derived from the vital work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and you can find its detailed accounting of drone strikes in Yemen here.  Drone strikes have not been suspended during the new air offensive: earlier this week Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula announced that one of its most prominent spokesmen and clerics, Ibrahim al-Rubeish, had been killed by a US drone strike near the coastal city of al Mukalla.

Readers will know that there has been considerable critical discussion of civilian casualties caused by the programme of targeted killing in Yemen (and elsewhere): so much so that on 23 May 2013 the Obama administration issued a Presidential Policy Guidance [PPG] for the use of force ‘outside the United States and areas of active hostilities’ that supposedly imposed more stringent restrictions on its use of (para)military violence outside ‘hot battlefields’ like Afghanistan.

KLAIDMAN Kill or CaptureThe guidelines affirmed a preference for ‘capture’ over ‘kill’ – ‘The policy of the United States is not to use lethal force when it is feasible to capture a terrorist suspect, because capturing a terrorist offers the best opportunity to gather meaningful intelligence and to mitigate and disrupt terrorist plots’ – and so limited the use of lethal force to situations where ‘capture is not feasible at the time of the operation‘.  That last clause –my emphasis – clearly provides wide latitude for elevating ‘kill’ over capture’, but for a recent, vigorous discussion of the kill/capture debate prompted by the arrest and indictment of Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh earlier this month, see David Cole on ‘Targeted killing’ here.

In addition, crucially, the PPG required there to be a ‘near certainty’ that civilians would not be killed or injured during the operation.

Yet even when the guidelines were issued, they were ambiguous.  As Ryan Goodman pointed out, grey zones remained:

The notion of “areas of active hostilities” essentially refers to geographic zones where belligerents engage in sustained fighting. It is a term of art, as far as we can tell, developed by the administration at an unknown date, and not found in international law. In congressional testimony, the administration has stated that it considers Afghanistan an area of active hostilities, and it considers Yemen (despite frequent drone operations in that country) and Somalia outside the area of active hostilities.

These topological contortions did not begin with Obama.  The Bush administration made no secret of its central interest in ‘conducting war in countries we are not at war with‘.

Ryan’s discussion focused on the ambiguous location of Pakistan in this atlas of violence, and in particular the Federally Administered Tribal Areas: were they inside or outside “areas of active hostilities” (or even ‘half-in, half-out’)?  Since then, clearly, Yemen too may have been repositioned by Obama’s cartographers: it’s surely difficult to maintain the pretence that it is now not an ‘area of active hostilities’.

But in between the PPG and the opening of the new air offensive in Yemen, how effective were those restrictions on civilian casualties?  A collaborative investigation carried out by the Open Society Justice Initiative in the United States and the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights in Yemen raises plausible doubts.

Death by Drone (Yemen) (2015)

Their joint report, Death by Drone: civilian harm caused by targeted killing in Yemen, investigates nine US air strikes carried out between May 2012 and April 2014, and is based on interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses, relatives of individuals killed or injured in the attacks, local community leaders, doctors and hospital staff who were involved in the treatment of victims, and Yemeni government officials:

The nine case studies documented in this report provide evidence of 26 civilian deaths and injuries to an additional 13 civilians. This evidence casts doubt on the U.S. and Yemeni governments’ statements about the precision of drone strikes. Yemen’s President Abdu Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi praised U.S. drone strikes in Yemen as having a “zero margin of error” and commented that “the electronic brain’s precision is unmatched by the human brain.” The United States government has similarly emphasized that the precision afforded by drone technology enables the U.S. to kill al-Qaeda terrorists while limiting civilian harm…

[T]his report provides credible evidence that civilians were killed and/or injured in all nine airstrikes, including four which post-date President Obama’s [PPG] speech. To be sure, it is possible—owing to a mistake or an unforeseeable change of circumstances that manifests between the ordering of a strike and its occurrence—for civilians to be killed or injured despite a near-certainty prior to the strike that this would not happen. Nonetheless, the evidence of civilian deaths and injuries in nine cases raises serious concerns about the effective implementation of the “near-certainty” standard.

death-drones-report-eng-20150413 (dragged)

And in paragraphs that will be dismally familiar to anyone who has read the Stanford/NYU report on Living under drones in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the authors add:

The testimonies in this report describe desperately poor communities left to fend for themselves amid the devastation caused by U.S. drone strikes. Mothers and fathers who lost their children in drone strikes speak of inconsolable loss. They speak of their children’s bodies charred beyond recognition. Wives speak of losing their breadwinners, and of young children asking where their fathers have gone. The victims of these strikes say that these strikes will not make the United States or Yemen safer, and will only strengthen support for al-Qaeda.

The report also describes the terrorizing effects of U.S. drones on local populations. In many of the incidents documented, local residents had to live with drones continually flying overhead prior to the strikes and have lived in constant fear of another attack since. Some fled their villages for months after the strike, and lost their source of livelihood in the process. Survivors of the attacks continue to have nightmares of being killed in the next strike. Men go to their farms in fear. Children are afraid to go to school.

The Executive Summary is here, and you can download the full 123pp report here.

‘That others may die’

As I am (at last) moving into the finishing stages of my ‘Dirty Dancing’ essay on CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, it’s time to round up some of the latest work on drones and civilian casualties across multiple theatres.

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First, Afghanistan: the principal theatre of US remote operations.  I’ve noted Larry Lewis‘s remarkable work before (here and here), based on classified sources, and in particular this claim (see also here):

Drone strikes in Afghanistan were seen to have close to the same number of civilian casualties per incident as manned aircraft, and were an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement.

usaf_mq_9_reaper_1024x1024As I said at the time, the distinction between an ‘incident’ and an ‘engagement’ is crucial, though most commentators who have seized on Larry’s work have ignored it and focused on the dramatic difference in civilian casualties per engagement. Despite my best efforts, the Pentagon were unwilling to clarify the difference, so here is what Larry himself has told me:

An engagement is probably intuitively what you would expect – the use of force against a target. The distinction is the term incident, which is borrowed from ISAF definitions. I should have said “civilian casualty incident.” This refers to an engagement that results in civilian casualties.

This means that, if you look at the collection of civilian casualty incidents, the average number of civilian casualties is close to the same for manned and unmanned platforms. At the same time, the rate of civilian casualties for the two platforms is markedly different, with unmanned platforms being ten times more likely to cause civilian casualties than manned platforms. That doesn’t mean that drones caused more civilian casualties than manned aircraft, by the way, since the denominators (number of engagements of manned aircraft versus drones) can and in fact were very different. But it does suggest that the relative risk of civilian casualties was higher for one kind of platform versus the other.

And this is in the specific context of Afghanistan and for a specific time. I wouldn’t want to say that this specific rate would be repeated, necessarily. Yet there were certain risk factors I observed in the civilian casualty incidents that I would expect to continue to be factors unless steps were taken to mitigate them.

Larry’s most recent report, Improving lethal action: learning and adapting in US Counterterrorism Operations, is available here.  It includes an analysis of the Uruzgan air strike that is central to my ‘Angry Eyes’ essay (next on my to-do list).

[The short clip above is from Baden Pailthorpe‘s stunning animation MQ-9 Reaper (That Others May Die) (2014) – you can find much more here]

You might think that all of this is now of historical interest since President Obama has declared the end of the Afghanistan war.  Not so.  Here is John Knefel writing in Rolling Stone this week:

Though many Americans may not have realized it, December 28th marked what the U.S. government called the official end of the war in Afghanistan. That war has been the longest in U.S. history – but despite the new announcement that the formal conflict is over, America’s war there is far from finished. In fact, the Obama administration still considers the Afghan theater an area of active hostilities, according to an email from a senior administration official – and therefore exempts it from the stricter drone and targeted killing guidelines the president announced at a major speech at the National Defense University in 2013.

“Afghanistan will continue to be considered an ‘area of active hostilities’ in 2015,” the official tells RS. “The PPG does not apply to areas of active hostilities.” (PPG stands for Presidential Policy Guidelines, the formal name for the heightened drone rules.)

That perplexing distinction – that formal combat operations are over but that the U.S. still remains in an armed conflict – in many ways exemplifies the lasting legacy of Obama’s foreign policy.

If you assume the situation in Pakistan is somehow less ambiguous, read Ryan Goodman on ‘areas of active hostilities’ over at Just Security here (I’m having to sort all this out for ‘Dirty Dancing’, of course).

Second, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has released its end-of-year report on US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in 2014, which includes these tabulations of casualty rates for the first two countries:

cas-rates-cia-pak-09-14

cas-rate-yemen-02-14

The Bureau comments:

While there have been more strikes [in Pakistan] in the past six years, the casualty rate has been lower under Obama than under his predecessor. The CIA killed eight people, on average, per strike during the Bush years. Under Obama, it is less than six. The civilian casualty rate is lower too – more than three civilians were reported killed per strike during the past presidency. Under Obama, less than one.  There were no confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistan in the past year, as in 2013….

The frequency of strikes [in Yemen] may have fallen in 2014 but more people were killed, on average, per strike than in any previous year.  The casualty rate for last year even outstrips 2012 – the bloodiest year recorded in the US’s drone campaign in Yemen when at least 173 people were reported killed in 29 strikes. In 2014 at least 82 people were reported to have died in just 13 strikes.

You can find the Long War Journal‘s tabulations for Pakistan here and Yemen here.

unammed-rogershillThird, Israel.  I’ve commented previously on an interview with an Israeli drone pilot, but it’s been difficult to put his observations in context (though see here and scroll down to the tabulations). Now Ann Rogers, who wrote Unmanned: drone warfare and global security (Pluto, 2014) with John Hill – as good an introduction to drone wars as you will find – has just released an essay on ‘Investigating the Relationship Between Drone Warfare and Civilian Casualties in Gaza‘.  It’s in a special issue of the open-access Journal of Strategic Security 7 (4) (2014) on ‘Future challenges in drone geopolitics’.  Here’s the abstract:

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are increasingly touted as ‘humanitarian’ weapons that contribute positively to fighting just wars and saving innocent lives. At the same time, civilian casualties have become the most visible and criticized aspect of drone warfare. It is argued here that drones contribute to civilian casualties not in spite of, but because of, their unique attributes. They greatly extend war across time and space, pulling more potential threats and targets into play over long periods, and because they are low-risk and highly accurate, they are more likely to be used. The assumption that drones save lives obscures a new turn in strategic thinking that sees states such as Israel and the US rely on large numbers of small, highly discriminating attacks applied over time to achieve their objectives. This examination of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza argues that civilian casualties are not an unexpected or unintended consequence of drone warfare, but an entirely predictable outcome.

Drone-flying-above-me-Friday-afternoon-400-x-300It’s an interesting essay, but I fear that it takes the Israeli military at its word.  Ann repeatedly refers to Israel’s ‘discriminating’ targeting:

‘The central point is that drones enabled the IDF to undertake detailed, extensive, and discriminating targeting of Gaza, before and during the actual fighting. The killing of civilians may be down to differing interpretations of military necessity, or in some cases, in how combatants and non-combatants are distinguished from one another. But it is the drone gaze that enables these targets to be ‘called into being’ (p. 102)…

‘As Israeli targeting of Gaza appears to have been highly discriminating, a more serious problem may lie in how its view of legitimate attacks differs from the global “norm.” (p. 104).’

I commented on Israeli attacks on hospitals and ambulances last summer here, here and here, and on the wholesale destruction of  Gaza here and here, so I confess I am at a loss for words.  But she is right to emphasise the operative power of international humanitarian law and its protocols of distinction (discrimination) and proportionality – though, as often as not, these seem to have been inoperative in anything other than a rhetorical sense.  For much more on this, and the way in which military lawyers are incorporated into Israel’s kill-chains, you should click across to Craig Jones‘s War, Law and Space.  All of which makes the Palestinian decision to seek membership of the International Criminal Court all the more important (there’s a good commentary on the wider legal issues by David Luban at Jus Security here and by a clutch of commentators at the Middle East Research and Information Project‘s blog here).  Perhaps not surprisingly, Daniel Reisner, the former head of the Israeli military’s International Law Department, has condemned the Palestinian application as ‘a belligerent act within the framework of the non-physical and kinetic world of lawfare.’

Finally, the US-led air strikes on IS/ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria.  Here we know much less than we should, not least because the Pentagon knows much less than it should.  Here is Nancy Youssef reporting earlier this week:

In a war fought largely from the air and in places no one can safely go, the impact is as opaque as the war itself, making it difficult to measure whether the U.S. and coalition effort is working.

“We don’t have the ability to count the nose of every guy we schwack,” as Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, using military jargon [sic] for killing. “That’s not the goal.”

Presumably, that also means the Pentagon can’t count how many civilians it has accidentally killed in the name of ridding the region of ISIS.

Drone Wars UK has an excellent survey of the logistics of air operations over Iraq and Syria from Chris Cole here, and the New York Times has produced a useful interactive map of US-led air strikes from which I’ve snipped this summary:

Iraq:Syria air strikes 4 August to 31 December 2014

We don’t know how many of these were carried out by drones or even orchestrated by them, but as their limitations are becoming clearer it’s reasonable to assume that most involved conventional strike aircraft.  We do know that targeting involves the analysis of video feeds from both remote and conventional platforms, and that CENTCOM has had considerable difficulty in juggling the competing demands for ISR from Afghanistan and from Iraq/Syria.

According to a report this week from W.J. Hennigan, who visited the USAF’s 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia:

In a vast windowless room, several dozen intelligence analysts worked under the glow of more than 100 computer screens, quietly studying video streaming from U.S. drones and spy planes hunting for Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

One team searched the incoming video to find a firefight underway between Iraqi security forces and militants somewhere south of the insurgent-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq.

For four hours, the analysts pored over the imagery before identifying 20 positions where the militants were dug in with machine guns and other weaponry. After the analysts called in the coordinates, 15 jets from five countries pounded the targets with more than two dozen bombs.

The Dec. 5 airstrike, one of 462 last month, underscores the Pentagon’s increased reliance on personnel far from the battlefield…  Air Force analysts here stand — or rather sit — on the virtual front lines by tracking Islamic State fighters in a war zone some 6,000 miles away.

But here’s the rub:

Unlike in past wars, when U.S. troops on the ground helped provide targeting information and intelligence, commanders in the battle against Islamic State rely chiefly on airborne surveillance, captured communications chatter, signals intelligence and other material that is processed by analysts here.

U.S. officers said the video-watching analysts working half a world away are no match for spotters and other troops feeding intelligence from the front lines.

“We don’t have anywhere near the level of intelligence we used to,” Lt. Col. Marc Spinuzzi, a senior intelligence officer, wrote in an email from Baghdad. The analysts are under “a lot of pressure … to clearly distinguish friend from foe, and to pick out the enemy from the civilian population” on the battlefield.

That is precisely how mistakes are made and civilians killed.  And, as Robert Naiman pointed out,

“There is a big danger here that U.S. air strikes in Syria are going to resemble the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the sense that there is no accountability for who is killed. We have reports of civilian casualties from people in the area and the U.S. government says, ‘No, they are bad guys.’ There has to be some public accountability for what happens when there are allegations of civilian casualties.”

At least the Pentagon has now gone some way towards recognising the problem.  Previously it had insisted that it was unaware of any civilian casualties, which is disingenuous: it beggars belief that 1,000 air strikes could have resulted in no civilian casualties – but if your ISR is inadequate it’s scarcely surprising that you would be ‘unaware’ of the consequences.  Even so, on 6 January the Pentagon announced that it had investigated 18 allegations of coalition airstrikes causing civilian casualties between 8 August and 30 December.  It determined that 13 were ‘not credible’, but was continuing to review three others; a further two, one in Iraq and one in Syria, are now the subject of formal military investigations.  But before you gold your breath, both Iraq and Syria are also exempt from the Presidential Policy Guidelines that require a ‘near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’.  Here is Harold Koh (really):

‘They seem to be creating this grey zone…  If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.’

Drones, battlefields and later modern war

STIMSON Drone report 2014

This morning the Stimson Center issued an 81-page Recommendations and Report of the Task Force on US Drone Policy: you can access it online via the New York Times here or download it as a pdf here; Mark Mazetti‘s report for the Times is here.

Founded in 1989, the Stimson Center is a Washington-based ‘non-profit and non-partisan’ think-tank that prides itself on providing ’25 years of pragmatic solutions to global security’.  It’s named after Henry Stimson, who served Presidents Taft, Roosevelt and Truman as Secretary of War and President Hoover as Secretary of State.  The Center established its 10-member Task Force on drones a year ago, with retired General John Abizaid (former head of US Central Command, 2003-2007) and Rosa Brooks (Professor of Law at Georgetown) as co-chairs; the Task Force was aided by three Working Groups – on Ethics and Law; Military Utility, National Security and Economics; and Export Control and Regulatory Challenges – each of which is preparing more detailed reports to be published later this year.  The present Report focuses on

‘key current and emerging issues relating to the development and use of lethal UAVs outside the United States for national security purposes. In particular, we focus extensively on the use of UAVs for targeted counterterrorism strikes, for the simple reason that this has generated significant attention, controversy and concern.’

But this focus repeats and compounds the myopia of both conventional wisdom and contemporary debate.  The Report summarily (and I think properly) rejects a number of misconceptions about the use of drones, insisting that their capacity to strike from a distance is neither novel nor unique; noting that the vast majority of UAVs in the US arsenal are non-weaponized (‘less than 1 percent of … UAVs carry operational weapons at any given time’ – though their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions are of course closely tied to the deployment of weapons by conventional strike aircraft or ground forces); and arguing that ‘UAVs do not turn killing into “a video game”‘. These counter-claims are unexceptional and the Task Force presents them with clarity and conviction.

But the Report also accepts that the integration of UAVs into later modern war on ‘traditional’ or ‘hot’ battlefields [more about those terms in a moment] is, by and large, unproblematic.  Thus:

‘UAVs have substantial value for a wide range of military and intelligence tasks. On the battlefield, both weaponized and non-weaponized UAVs can protect and aid soldiers in a variety of ways. They can be used for reconnaissance purposes, for instance, and UAVs also have the potential to assist in the detection of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, as well as ordinary explosives. Weaponized UAVs can be used to provide close air support to soldiers engaged in combat.’

A footnote expands on that last sentence:

‘In the past, warfighters on the ground under imminent threat would have to navigate a complicated command hierarchy to call for air support. The soldier on the ground would have to relay coordinates to a Forward Air Controller (FAC), who would then talk the pilot’s eyes onto a target in an extremely hostile environment. These missions have always been very dangerous for the pilot, who has to fly low and avoid multiple threats, and also for people on the ground. It is a human-error rich environment, and even today, it is not uncommon for the wrong coordinates to be relayed, resulting in the deaths of friendlies or innocent civilians. To ease these difficulties, DARPA is currently investigating how to replace the FAC and the pilot by a weaponized UAV that will be commanded by the soldier on the ground with a smartphone.’

And subsequently the Report commends the ‘robust’ targeting process put in place by the US military and the incorporation of military lawyers (JAGs) into the kill-chain:

‘The Department of Defense has a robust procedure for targeting, with outlined authorities and steps, and clear checks on individual targets. The authorization of a UAV strike by the military follows the traditional process in place for all weapons systems (be they MQ-9 Reaper drones or F-16 fighter jets). Regardless of whether particular strikes are acknowledged, the Pentagon has stated that UAV strikes, like strikes from manned aircraft, are subject to the military’s pre-strike target development procedures and post-strike assessment.

‘The process of determining and executing a strike follows a specific set of steps to ensure fidelity in target selection, strike and post-strike review.’

Targeting cycle

Both Craig Jones and I have discussed the targeting cycle [the figure above shows one of six steps in the ‘find-fix-track-target-engage-assess’ cycle, taken from JP 3-60 on Joint Targeting, issued in January 2013] and the role of operational law within it (Craig in much more detail than me), and these are all important considerations.  But the Report glosses over the fragilities of the process, which in practice is not as ‘robust’ as the authors imply.  They concede:

‘No weapons system is perfect, and targeting decisions — whether for UAV strikes or for any other weapons delivery system — are only as good as the intelligence on which they are based. We do not doubt that some US UAV strikes have killed innocent civilians. Nonetheless, the empirical evidence suggests that the number of civilians killed is small compared to the civilian deaths typically associated with other weapons delivery systems (including manned aircraft).’

cover_646That last sentence is not unassailable, but in addition I’ve repeatedly argued that it is a mistake to abstract strikes carried out by UAVs from the wider network of military violence in which their ISR capabilities are put to use:  hence my ongoing work on the Uruzgan airstrike in Afghanistan, for example, and on ‘militarised vision’ more generally.  What these studies confirm is that civilian casualties are far more likely when close air support is provided – by UAVs directly or by conventional strike aircraft – to ‘troops in contact’ (even more so when, as in both the Kunduz and Uruzgan airstrikes, it turns out that troops calling in CAS were not ‘in contact’ at all).

In short, while it’s perhaps understandable that a Task Force that included both General Abizaid and Lt-Gen David Barno (former head of Combined Forces Command – Afghanistan from 2003-2005) should regard the use of UAVs on ‘traditional’ battlefields as unproblematic, I think it regrettable that their considerable expertise did not result in a more searching evaluation of remote operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But what, then, of those ‘non-traditional’ battlefields?  A footnote explains:

‘Throughout this report, we distinguish between the use of UAV strikes on “traditional” or “hot” battlefields and their use in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. These are terms with no fixed legal meaning; rather, they are merely descriptive terms meant to acknowledge that the US of UAV strikes has not been particularly controversial when it is ancillary to large-scale, open, ongoing hostilities between US or allied ground forces and manned aerial vehicles, on the one hand, and enemy combatants, on the other. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States deployed scores of thousands of ground troops and flew a range of close air support and other aerial missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and UAV strikes occurred in that context. In Libya, US ground forces did not participate in the conflict, but US manned aircraft and UAVs both operated openly to destroy Libyan government air defenses and other military targets during a period of large scale, overt ground combat between the Qaddafi regime and Libyan rebel groups. In contrast, the use of US UAV strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere has been controversial precisely because the strikes have occurred in countries where there are no US ground troops or aerial forces openly engaged in large scale combat.’

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A major focus of the report is on what Frédéric Mégret (above) has called ‘the deconstruction of the battlefield‘ and the countervailing legal geographies that provide an essential armature for later modern war (though it’s surprising that the Report makes so little use of academic research on UAVs and contemporary conflicts).  The authors ‘disagree with those critics who have declared that US targeted killings [in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia] are “illegal”’ – no surprise there either, incidentally, since one of the Working Groups included Kenneth Anderson, Charles Dunlap and Christine Fair: I’m not sure in what universe that counts as ‘non-partisan’) but they also accept that these remote operations move in a grey zone (and in the shadows):

‘The law of armed conflict and the international legal rules governing the use of force by states arose in an era far removed from our own. When the Geneva Conventions of 1949 were drafted, for instance, it was assumed that most conflicts would be between states with uniformed, hierarchically organized militaries, and that the temporal and geographic boundaries of armed conflicts would be clear.

‘The paradigmatic armed conflict was presumed to have a clear beginning (a declaration of war) and a clear end (the surrender of one party, or a peace treaty); it was also presumed the armed conflict to be confined geographically to specific, identifiable states and territories. What’s more, the law of armed conflict presumes that it is a relatively straightforward matter to identify “combatants” and distinguish them from “civilians,” who are not targetable unless they participate directly in hostilities. The assumption is that it is also a straightforward matter to define “direct participation in hostilities.”

‘The notion of “imminent attack” at the heart of international law rules relating to the use of force in state self-defense was similarly construed narrowly: traditionally, “imminent” was understood to mean “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”

‘But the rise of transnational non-state terrorist organizations confounds these preexisting legal categories. The armed conflict with al-Qaida and its associated forces can, by definition, have no set geographical boundaries, because al-Qaida and its associates are not territorially based and move easily across state borders. The conflict also has no temporal boundaries — not simply because we do not know the precise date on which the conflict will end, but because there is no obvious means of determining the “end” of an armed conflict with an inchoate, non-hierarchical network.

‘In a conflict so sporadic and protean — a conflict with enemies who wear no uniforms, operate in secret and may not use traditional “weapons” — the process of determining where and when the law of armed conflict applies, who should be considered a com- batant and what counts as “hostilities” inevitably is fraught with difficulty…

‘While the legal norms governing armed conflicts and the use of force look clear on paper, the changing nature of modern conflicts and security threats has rendered them almost incoherent in practice. Basic categories such as “battlefield,” “combatant” and “hostilities” no longer have a clear or stable meaning. And when this happens, the rule of law is threatened.’

These too are important considerations, but they are surely not confined to counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia: they also apply with equal force to counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and intersect with a wider and much more fraught debate over the very idea of ‘the civilian’.

There is a particularly fine passage in the Report:

‘Consider US targeted strikes from the perspective of individuals in — for instance — Pakistan or Yemen. From the perspective of a Yemeni villager or a Pakistani living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), life is far from secure. Death can come from the sky at any moment, and the instability and incoherence of existing legal categories means that there is no way for an individual to be certain whether he is considered targetable by the United States. (Would attending a meeting or community gathering also attended by an al-Qaida member make him targetable? Would renting a building or selling a vehicle to a member of an “associated” force render him targetable? What counts as an “associated force?” Would accepting financial or medical aid from a terrorist group make him a target? Would extending hospitality to a relative who is affiliated with a terrorist group lead the United States to consider him a target?).

‘From the perspective of those living in regions that have been affected by US UAV strikes, this uncertainty makes planning impossible, and makes US strikes appear arbitrary. What’s more, individuals in states such as Pakistan or Yemen have no ability to seek clarification of the law or their status from an effective or impartial legal system, no ability to argue that they have been mistakenly or inappropriately targeted or that the intelligence that led to their inclusion on a “kill list” was flawed or fabricated, and no ability to seek redress for injury. Their national laws and courts can offer no assistance in the face of foreign power, and far from protecting their fundamental rights and freedoms, their own states may in fact be deceiving them about their knowledge of and cooperation with US strikes. Meanwhile, geography and finances make it impossible to access US courts, and a variety of legal barriers — such as the state secrets privilege, the political question doctrine, and issues of standing, ripeness and mootness — in any case would prevent meaningful access to justice.’

This is one of the clearest summaries of the case for transparency and accountability I’ve seen, but the same scenario has also played out in Afghanistan (and in relation to the Taliban, which appears only once in the body of the Report) time and time again.  There are differences, to be sure, but the US military has also carried out its own targeted killings in Afghanistan, working from its Joint Prioritized Effects List.  The Report notes that ‘in practice, the military and CIA generally work together quite closely when planning and engaging in targeted UAV strikes: few strikes are “all military” or “all CIA”’ – which is true in other senses too – and this applies equally in Afghanistan.

In sum, then, this is a valuable and important Report – but it would have been far more incisive had its critique of ‘US drone policy’ cast its net wider to provide a more inclusive account of remote operations.  The trans-national geographies of what I’ve called ‘the everywhere war’ do not admit of any simple distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ battlefields, and trying to impose one on such a tangled field of military and paramilitary violence ultimately confuses rather than clarifies.  I realise that this is usually attempted as an exercise in what we might call legal cartography, but I also still think William Boyd‘s Gabriel was right when, in An Ice-Cream War, he complained that maps give the world ‘an order and reasonableness’ it doesn’t possess.  And we all also know that maps – like the law – are instruments of power, and that both are intimately entangled with the administration of military violence.

A wedding turned into a funeral

yemen0214_reportcoverHard on the heels of its report into six US targeted killings in Yemen in 2009 and 2012-13, Human Rights Watch has published a detailed analysis by Letta Tayler of another drone strike carried out by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) against a wedding convoy on 12 December 2013.  According to Greg Miller in the Washington Post,

The report represents the most detailed independent examination to date of a strike that has focused attention on the administration’s struggles to tighten the rules for targeted killing, provide more information about such operations to the public and gradually shift full control of the drone campaign from the CIA to the Pentagon.

There is considerable evidence of covert US-Pakistan co-operation in targeting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see here and here), but in the case of Yemen the collaboration is more overt and perhaps even more formalised: Yemen’s President described a ‘joint operations room’, including agents/officers from the US, the UK, NATO and Yemen that ‘identifies in advance’ prospective targets (who are usually described as members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).

In this case, as in so many others, the United States has insisted that all those killed were terrorists, but HRW’s on-the-ground interviews (and videos) tell a different story.  After a wedding feast at the home of the bride, many of the men and some of the women jumped into their vehicles to escort the bridal couple to a second celebration at in the groom’s village of al Jashem 35 km away.

HRW Drone strike Yemen 12 December 2013

At 4.30 that afternoon four Hellfire missiles struck the vehicles, killing at least 12 men and wounding at least 15 others – who are named and identified in the HRW report, and according to relatives all civilians.

‘We were in a wedding,’ cried the groom, ‘but all of a sudden it became a funeral. …We have nothing, not even tractors or other machinery. We work with our hands. Why did the United States do this to us?’

The US isn’t saying, and HRW notes that accounts from the government of Yemen have been inconsistent – though the local governor an military commander apologies for the killings, describing them as ‘a mistake’.  Some reports agreed that some of those targeted were Al-Qaeda members – though if so, it seems they escaped: AQAP has not identified ‘martyrs’ lost in the attack, which is its invariable practice – and some claimed that the victims included ‘smugglers and arms dealers’.

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But they also all made it clear that this was a wedding convoy that was targeted, and the government of Yemen has made compensation payments to the families.

HRW discusses the implications of the killings under the different legal regimes of international humanitarian law (the ‘laws of war’) and international human rights law, but also notes that the attack seems to have violated the protocols set out by the Obama administration in May 2013.  These included the ‘near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured…’

NBC – which also has video of the aftermath of the strike – reported in January that the Obama administration was carrying out an ‘internal investigation’, but nothing has been forthcoming and questions from HRW were rebuffed.  All we have so far is this extraordinary statement, reported by  Rooj Alwazir for al Jazeera:

“Obviously, broadly speaking, we take every effort to minimise civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations – broadly speaking, without speaking to this one specifically,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said when asked about the strike.

‘Broadly speaking’, what is it about weddings that those carrying out air strikes don’t understand?

It’s not difficult to imagine what those who attended the wedding will remember of that day.  But in case it is, Reprieve (which carried out its own investigation into the strike) has published photographs of some of the victims and their families – and of a funeral of nine people.

UPDATE:  AP is now carrying sketchy information about the official investigation into the strike:

Three U.S. officials said the U.S. government did investigate the strike against al-Badani — twice — and concluded that only members of al-Qaida were killed in the three vehicles that were hit…

Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of Joint Special Operations Command, ordered an independent investigation by an Air Force general and the White House requested another by the National Counterterrorism Center. Both concluded no civilians were killed. Votel’s staff also showed lawmakers video of the operation. Two U.S. officials who watched the video and were briefed on the investigations said it showed three trucks in the convoy were hit, all carrying armed men.

The report provides no basis for the identification of the victims as non-civilians.  Human Rights Watch had already questioned the presence of armed men as indicative:

‘Nearly everyone in the procession was an adult male, and one Yemeni government source said many of the men carried military assault rifles. But these details do not necessarily point to involvement in violent militancy. Yemeni weddings are segregated, including the traditional journey to bring the bride to her new home. And Yemeni men commonly travel with assault rifles in tribal areas, including in wedding processions, when celebratory gunshots are common.’

But here is the final Catch-22:

The officials said the Pentagon can’t release details [of the strike or the investigation] because both the U.S. military and the CIA fly drones over Yemen. By statute, the military strikes can be acknowledged, but the CIA operations cannot. The officials said that if they explain one strike but not another, they are revealing by default which ones are being carried out by the CIA.

Dirty wars and stained maps

I’m still in Beirut where I’ve had a wonderful time at the Transnational American Studies conference at AUB.  Yesterday morning I chaired a panel on ‘Geographies of War‘, which featured Laleh Khalili (on Kuwait, military logistics and private contractors: abstract here), Lisa Hajjar (on the (il)legal strictures and injustices at Guantanamo; she changed her paper so I can’t link to an abstract), and Jeremy Scahill (‘The world is America’s battlefield’: abstract here).

In the evening Jeremy showed the film of Dirty Wars, co-written with David Riker and directed by Rick Rowley.  Bear with me here; I’ll return to those ‘geographies’ in a moment.  Seeing the film for a second time (the first was in Toronto in the fall with Jaimie and Jorge) I have to say I found it less satisfactory – I much prefer the book, but it’s not only because the written version is (inevitably) more detailed and more nuanced.  I think it has something to do with the film being less an act of investigative journalism than a reconstruction of investigative journalism, a noir docudrama in which the investigator (no less inevitably) becomes the central figure: Sam Spade with a notebook.  For that reason, I think Michael O’Sullivan is simply wrong to say that ‘the film is a documentary pure and simple.’

Dirty Wars

You can see that most obviously in the section that deals with a Special Forces night raid in February 2010 on a compound in Gardez, Afghanistan, where much of the ground-breaking reporting was done by another journalist, Jerome Starkey.  But these scenes have incredible dramatic force, none the less, and the incorporation of cellphone footage of the raid and the unmasking of the Special Forces commander are genuinely and profoundly arresting (if only that were literally true).

Dirty Wars Gardez

I’m less convinced by the sections that treat the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, probably because I’m still dismayed that it was the killing of a U.S. citizen that sparked so much public outrage in the United States rather than the killing of all the others.  Certainly in the film, far more so than the book, there’s an unwavering focus on the ‘Americanness’ of al-Awlaki, and especially of his transparently innocent teenage son, murdered by a drone strike just two weeks later.  Home videos, games, clothes, a whole series of images are put to work to show not that ‘they’ are just like ‘us’ but that in some substantial sense ‘they’ are ‘us’.   I was left wondering about those who don’t qualify for these sort of identifications, who can’t provide similarly legible identity papers: how are we to recognise and acknowledge their lives as grievable too?  There’s also something unsettling about Jeremy’s epiphany that he’s come to Yemen ‘to apologise’: I’m still trying to figure out how he could, and what position he would have had to occupy for that to mean very much to al-Awlaki’s grandparents and cousins in Sa’ana.  

Dirty Wars SomaliaFinally, the extended passage through a war-ravaged town in Somalia, crouching alongside militias and interviewing a warlord who gives very little away, seems to run into the sand.  I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that these sequences had been retained primarily for Mohamed Afrah Qanyare‘s assertion (about his paymasters) that ‘America knows war… They are the war masters.’  

And yet, of course,  America doesn’t know war: Bush and Cheney famously avoided Vietnam, most of the war managers view the results of their military and paramilitary violence on screens and spreadsheets, and most of the public turns the other way.  As Kamila Shamsie says in Burnt Shadows, the United States fights ‘more wars than anyone else; because you understand war least of all’ (see also my draft introduction to The everywhere war here; scroll down).

That’s precisely why investigative journalism and documentary films are so urgently necessary – and why we need these different forms – but I’m not sure that rendering Jeremy’s courageous and principled investigations in the black and white tones of a Hollywood thriller is the best way to bring ‘what is hidden in plain sight’ into public view.  (For a different take, that pays close attention to the visual codes in the film, see Mike Hill‘s very smart essay over at Feedback here).  I do know that films have to be different from books, that they have different grammars if you like, and I also understand that one of the most effective ways of soliciting an audience’s response is through story-telling – academic prose would be considerably less deadly if it had more narrative force – but in the end I’m with Roger Ebert:  

‘Scahill is so respected and convincing that he doesn’t need such propping up, so the flashy directing and editing makes it feel as though “Dirty Wars” is trying too hard to sell things that might have sold themselves just fine without the hot box approach.’ 

Other (non-film) critics have objected to the way in which the history of clandestine/covert war is foreshortened in Dirty Wars, so that the CIA is left in the shadows.  But that’s surely because in the wake of 9/11 the CIA was, in some crucial respects, pushed out of the limelight and a vastly aggrandised Joint Special Operations Command took centre stage to play for Cheney and Rumsfeld. And it’s the combination of a para-militarized CIA and JSOC that is instrumental in pushing the boundaries of the everywhere war.

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  • Red markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2013.
  • Blue markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2013.
  • Purple markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2012.
  • Yellow markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2012.

US Special Operations Deployments, 2012-2013

While I was writing this, a new report from Nick Turse popped on to my screen, charting the extraordinary global geography of JSOC (above) and its entanglements with other militaries and agencies like USAID.  JSOC has set up its own shadow system of subcommands mirroring the Pentagon’s division of the globe into unified combatant commands like US Central Command, each assigned to a different geographical region:

JSOC sub-commands

US Special Operations Command – Subcommands

I’ve taken the map above from US Special Operations Command’s own ‘Factbook‘, though it’s so reluctant to disclose any information that here too, as you’ll see if you read Nick’s article, part of the story is getting the story.  If you read this alongside Steve Niva‘s brilliant essay, ‘Disappearing violence: JSOC and the Pentagon’s new cartography of networked warfare’, Security dialogue 44 (3) (2013) 185-202, and in conjunction with the gritty detail (and vivid prose) of Dirty Wars, you’ll have a desperately disturbing sense of one of the modalities that is producing these new geographies of war.  As Scott Horton tells Jeremy in Dirty Wars, ‘suddenly the theatre of war has become the entire globe – it’s become everywhere.’

Theory of the drone 10: Killing at a distance

This is the tenth in a series of extended posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone and covers the fifth and final chapter in Part II, Ethos and psyche.

Gulf_war_target_camChamayou begins with a lecture given by German artist and film-maker Harun Farocki in Karlsruhe in 2003 called  ‘Phantom Images‘.  A ‘phantom image’, Farocki explained, is a view that is otherwise inaccessible to a human being – like the ‘bomb’s-eye view’ that became so familiar during the Gulf War (‘a suicidal camera’).  Like so many other ‘technical representations which maintain that they only represent the operative principle of a process’ these are, of course, techno-cultural performances.  They are techno-cultural because they produce a constructed and constrained space – in the Gulf War images that Farocki used to frame his argument, the battle space appears empty of people, a landscape without figures, an odyssey of destruction based on an object-ontology – and they are performances because they are what Farocki called ‘operative images’ that ‘do not represent an object but are part of an operation‘ (my emphasis).

You can find more on Farocki’s fascination with the virtual/real and Immersion here and on Images of War (at a distance) here.  Both ideas – immersion and distance – are central to Chamayou’s argument, but his starting-point is the idea of an operative image.  He wants to think of militarized vision as a ‘sighting’ that works not only to represent an object but also to act upon it and, in the case that most concerns both of us, this is the mainspring of the production of the target.

This has a long (techno-cultural) history, but drones use a video image to fix and execute the target: ‘You can click, and when you click, you kill.’  There’s something almost magical about it, Chamayou says: a hi-tech form of voodoo violence, like sticking pins into a wax doll, in which bringing someone into view – ‘pinning’ the target in the viewfinder – transports them into the killing space.

GROSSMAN On KillingBut what sort of space is it?  Chamayou considers a simple diagram from Dave Grossman‘s On Killing. For readers unfamiliar with his work, here is how Grossman describes himself on the website of his Killology Research Group:

Col. Grossman is a former West Point psychology professor, Professor of Military Science, and an Army Ranger who has combined his experiences to become the founder of a new field of scientific endeavor, which has been termed “killology.” In this new field Col. Grossman has made revolutionary new contributions to our understanding of killing in war, the psychological costs of war, the root causes of the current “virus” of violent crime that is raging around the world, and the process of healing the victims of violence, in war and peace. 

And here is the diagram, which summarises Grossman’s views on the relationship between ‘resistance to killing’ and distance from the target:

Resistance to killing as a function of distance

Grossman’s basic argument is that distance increases indifference and, as the annotations imply, there appears to be an historical sequence to all this.  Grossman’s book was published before the advent of the drone, but – given these two axes – the Predator and the Reaper presumably ought to appear on the extreme right of the diagram, representing the radicalisation of killing at a distance.

In fact, Grossman provides a discussion of videogames in which he says that the screen acts as a barrier between the player and the violence s/he unleashes in the game, making it easier to ‘kill’: exactly the argument advanced by those who claim that drones induce a ‘Playstation mentality’ to killing.

And yet, as I’ve explained in ‘From a view to a kill’ (DOWNLOADS tab), modern videogames are profoundly immersive, and the high-resolution full motion video feeds from the drones induce such an extraordinary sense of proximity, even intimacy – remember that crews frequently claim to be 18 inches from the combat zone, the distance from eye to screen – that drones are surely also pulled towards towards the extreme left of Grossman’s diagram.

Chamayou doesn’t quote him, but Diderot’s Letter on the blind set out the original terms of the debate perfectly:

DIDEROT.001

But Chamayou is quick to show that ‘distance’ is a weasel-word, and in an extended footnote he elaborates his concept of pragmatic co-presence.  Co-presence denotes the possibility of A affecting B in some way, which means (in the absence of sorcery) that B must be within the sphere of action of A; more formally, co-presence involves the inclusion of one within the ‘range’ or ‘reach’ of another.  This is multi-dimensional – without technical mediation you can see someone much further away than you can hear them – but in many situations technical mediations are involved and so transform the relation.  This matters for two reasons.

First, there is nothing necessarily reciprocal about co-presence: what Chamayou calls ‘the structure of of co-presence’ determines what it is possible for you to do to the other, and is itself the product of struggle: each party to a conflict manouevres to produce a favourable asymmetry so that it becomes much easier for you to strike than to be hit.  In this sense, all war strives to be asymmetric – it’s not confined to wars between states and non-state actors – and it’s this that in part underwrites the history of war at a distance; as William Saletan put it, effectively re-describing Grossman’s diagram,

‘Technically, this is marvelous. Look at the history of weapons development: catapult, crossbow, cannon, rifle, revolver, machine gun, tank, bazooka, bomber, helicopter, submarine, cruise missile. Every step forward consists of a physical step backward: the ability to kill your enemy with better aim at a greater distance or from a safer location. You can hit him, but he can’t hit you.’

But – Chamayou’s second rider – ‘teletechnologies’ radically transform this sequence by severing co-presence from co-localisation.   What is distinctive about teletechnologies is not their capacity to act ‘at a distance’ but their indifference to and their interdigit(is)ation of ‘near’ and ‘far’.

This has far-reaching (sic) consequences because it produces a double disassociation.  Where, exactly, does the action take place?  Here (at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada) or there (Kandahar in Afghanistan)?  There is no single answer, of course, which is precisely Chamayou’s point.  This split – or series of splits, if you think of the wider networks involved – in turn engenders radically new forms of experience, of being-in-the-world, that can no longer be contained within the physico-corporeal confines of the conventional human subject.

Chamayou wants to show that this double disassociation is anything but ‘marvellous’.   He accepts that the targets that are produced through the full-motion video feeds from the Predators and Reapers are much less abstract: the crews see their targets – often people, not physical objects like the buildings or missile batteries that constituted Farocki’s ’empty’ battlespace – and they see the corporeal consequences of each strike.  ‘This novel combination of physical distance and visual proximity gives the lie to the old [Clausewitz-Hegelian] law of distance,’ Chamayou writes, since ‘increased distance no longer makes violence more abstract or more impersonal but, on the contrary, more graphic and more personal.’

But he insists that this proximity, even intimacy is counterbalanced by two factors which are also inscribed within the political technology of vision:

(1) ‘Proximity’ is contracted to the optical – and even this is degraded because the resolution of the video feeds reduces people to ‘avatars without faces’.  I think this is less straightforward than Chamayou implies.  He cites Salatan – ‘There’s no flesh on your monitor; just co-ordinates’ – which is a sharp remark, but the journalist was referring to the launch of long-range missiles (‘… tap a button on one continent and send a missile to another’) whereas the screens at Creech and elsewhere show human figures as well as co-ordinates.  More significant, I think, is that when drone operators provide close air support they are also in radio and online contact with troops on the ground, and this produces a pragmatic co-presence which is considerably more ‘fleshed out’ than their otherwise purely optical encounters with others in their field of view.

(2) Drone operators can see without being seen, and Chamayou argues that ‘the fact that the killer and his victim are not inscribed in “reciprocal perceptual fields” facilitates the administration of violence’ because it ruptures what psychologist Stanley Milgram in his notorious experiments on Obedience to authority [below] called ‘the phenomenological unity of the act’.  Milgram actually wrote “experienced”, not “phenomenological”, but you get the point; Milgram was discussing how much easier it is to hurt someone ‘if there is a physical separation of the act and its consequences’, which is radicalised in what the US Air Force calls the ‘remote split’ operations carried out by its Predators and Reapers.

MILGRAM Experiments

Milgram’s thesis was a general one, but to nail the sense of disassociation to the drone Chamayou quotes Major Matt Martin, a Predator operator:

‘The suddenness of action played out at long distance on computer screens left me feeling a bit stunned…  It would take some time for the reality of what happened so far away, for “real” to become real.’

Again, I think it’s more complicated than that.  Martin was clearly recalling an early experience, low on the learning curve, and interviews with other drone pilots suggest that within 6 months or so most had little difficulty in apprehending the reality, even the physicality of pragmatic co-presence. The sensor operator interviewed by Omer Fast for 5,000 Feet is the Best had this to say, for example:

‘… you get more into it the longer you’re working on the Predator.  Like my first fire mission.  You know, we fired a Hellfire missile at the target.  It didn’t quite strike [sic] me as, “Hey! I just killed someone!”  My first time.  It was within my first year there.  It didn’t quite impact.  It was like, “Yeah! I got somebody!”  You know?  And it was later on through a couple of more missions that I started to… The impact really dawned on me.  I just ended someone’s life!  That was me that did that!”‘

obedience-to-authority-milgramIt’s important to remember, too, that Milgram’s work was about structures of authority, and this has a palpable effect in the case of the military chain of command which has been transformed by the networked incorporation of video feeds from the drones and the deployment of military lawyers (JAGs) on the operations floor of the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (what I called ‘oversight’ in “From a view to a kill”),  which provides for a dispersion of responsibility across the network.

Equally important, I suspect, is that fact that drone crews are not only ‘following orders’, as the familiar jibe has it: they are also following procedures that transform military violence into a process that is at once techno-scientific and quasi-juridical and thus seen as conducted under the sign of an unimpeachable (military) Reason.

Joseph Pugliese makes a parallel argument about the incorporation of military-legal discourse into the techno-logic of the targeting process:

‘I argue that the parenthetical relation of law to technology is premised on a topical hiatus that disassociates the executioner who manipulates the killing technology of the drone from the facticity of the resultant execution. In this scenario, law is conceived of in the most radically instrumental of understandings: it enables and legitimates the execution while simultaneously suspending the connection between the doer and the deed.’

state-violence-and-the-execution-of-lawAnd yet at the same time, Pugliese explains, there is a ‘prosthetic’ relation between law and technology, in which ‘the human agent is always already inscribed by the technics of law.’ From the very beginning, he insists, the body is always already ‘instrumentalised by a series of technologies’ and also inscribed, from the very beginning, by a series of laws.  In short, ‘law is always already inscribed on the body, precisely as techné from the very first. This process of prosthetic inscription operates to constitute the very conditions of possibility for the conceptual marking of the body as”‘human’”‘: ‘The prosthesis,’ notes Bernard Stiegler, ‘is not a mere extension of the human body; it is the constitution of this body qua “human”’.’

Still, Chamayou suggests that (1) and (2) work together to sustain what Mary Cummings calls ‘moral buffering’.  In other words, and in counterpoint to optical proximity, the dispositif also provides a powerful means of distanciation.  Here is Fast’s interviewee again:

‘There’s always more of a personal touch when you’re watching something live.  And it’s even more personal when you’re the one that did it… Well, I mean you get more – I guess – emotionally distant.  As time goes on.  But I mean… I guess in my case, and some of the cases of the guys that I knew, as more time went by you put yourself more and more in the position that this is more and more real life and that you are actually there… And after a while you become emotionally distant.  But still you put yourself more and more as if you’re standing right there…’

MARTIN PredatorThis is compounded, so Chamayou argues, by a different dimension of ‘remote split’ operations. Because Predators and Reapers can stay aloft for 18 hours or more (the ‘persistent presence’ that makes them so much in demand), their crews work shifts and commute each day (or night) between home and work or, more accurately, between peace and war.  One drone operator saw this as a peculiarly strung-out existence: ‘We were just permanently between war and peace’  (my emphasis).  Matt Martin said much the same.  US-based crews ‘commute to work in rush-hour traffic, slip into a seat in front of a bank of computers, fly a warplane to shoot missiles at an enemy thousands of miles away, and then pick up the kids from school or a gallon of milk at the grocery store on [their] way home for dinner.’  He described it as living ‘a schizophrenic existence between two worlds’; the sign at the entrance to Creech Air Force Base read ‘You are now entering CENTCOM AOR [Area of Operations]’, but ‘it could just as easily have read “You are now entering C.S. Lewis’s Narnia” for all that my two worlds intersected.’

The way crews survive, Chamayou suggests, is by partitioning, ‘setting aside’, but this is extremely difficult for commuter-warriors as they regularly and rapidly move between a domestic sphere in which killing is taboo and a military sphere where (so he says) it is ‘a virtue’.   The superimposition of these two worlds – their contradictory clash – means that crews are in a sense ‘both in the rear and at the front, living in two very different moral universes between which their lives are torn.’

This is precisely the situation dramatised in George Brant‘s play Grounded, which I noted in an earlier post, and Chamayou cites a former USAF sensor operator Brandon Bryant (whose testimony I discussed here) to the same effect.  In both cases, crew members plainly are affected, even distressed by what they see on the screen; in fact Bryant has bee diagnosed with PTSD.

But Chamayou insists that this sort of testimony is rare and that most of them do manage to compartmentalise.  Fast’s sensor operator:

‘A lot of us learn real fast to leave all of our problems at the door.  You know, when we’re leaving the squadron and heading home.  Just kind of putting it on a rack and pushing it out of your mind.’

And this, Chamayou concludes, nails the real psychopathology of the drone.  He calls French philosopher Simone Weil’s Gravity and grace to his aid:

‘The faculty of setting things aside opens the door to every sort of crime…  The ring of Gyges who has become invisible – this is precisely the act of setting aside: setting oneself aside from the crime one commits; not establishing the connection between the two.’

Chamayou has used the myth of Gyges earlier in his critique, but here he invokes Weil to claim that the psychopathology of the drone is not the trauma some say that drone crews experience ‘but on the contrary the industrial production of compartmentalised psyches, protected from all possibility of reflection on the violence they have committed, just as their bodies are already protected against every possibility of exposure to the enemy.’

rwg05074-1I’m really not sure about this.  ‘Protected from all possibility of reflection’?  Much of the evidence that Chamayou cites here – like Milgram’s experiments – could be applied to most forms of military violence.  Here, for example, is Arnold Bennett describing artillery at work in Over there: war scenes on the Western Front (1915):

‘The affair is not like shooting at anything.  A polished missile is shoved into the gun.  A horrid bang – the missile has disappeared, has simply gone.  Where it has gone, what it has done, nobody in the hut seems to care.  There is a telephone close by, but only numbers and formulae – and perhaps an occasional rebuke – come out of the telephone, in response to which the  perspiring men make minute adjustments in the gun or in the next missile.

 ‘Of the target I am absolutely ignorant, and so are the perspiring men.’

I’ve found the same sentiments expressed by bomber crews during the Second World War.  The difference, clearly, is that drone strikes involve far more than ‘numbers and formulae’ – co-ordinates on the screen – and that the visual  production and so-called ‘prosecution’ of the target takes place in near real time, in vivid detail and under the eye of military lawyers.  But it is not surprising (nor, I think, especially pathological) that those who carry out these strikes conduct themselves with a certain seriousness, a ‘professionalism’ if you like, that precludes emotional investment. This is from David Wood‘s interview with a highly experienced USAF drone pilot:

Q: You must develop an emotional tie with the people on the ground that makes it hard if there is going to be a strike or a raid, people are going to be killed.

A: I would couch it not in terms of an emotional connection, but a … seriousness. I have watched this individual, and regardless of how many children he has, no matter how close his wife is, no matter what they do, that individual fired at Americans or coalition forces, or planted an IED — did something that met the rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict, and I am tasked to strike that individual.

‘Professionalism’ shouldn’t be used as a mask to hide from critique, to be sure.  These crews are trained to perform with a calculative reason, dispassionately, through a techno-cultural and techno-legal armature, so that, as one USAF major told Nicola Abé, when she was preparing for a strike ‘there was no time for feelings’.  Or again, from another pilot operating a Predator over Afghanistan:

‘We understand that the lives we see in the screens are as real as our own…  I would not compare what I do as a job comparable to Call of Duty/any other video game, in any sense. It is very real and the seriousness of the lives on the ground is very real and instilled in all of our training. It is never something that we joke about. Very serious business.’

As I’ve noted before, there are (too) many instances in which crews do joke about their missions, the sort of ‘gallows humour’ that is no doubt a common reaction to  hunter-killer missions: but isn’t this also likely to be common amongst all military professionals who are trained to kill?  One pilot explicitly rejected the suggestion that drone crews become disassociated from what they do:

‘I wonder why people think this. We understand what we are doing is real world operations. We know our actions have consequences. I don’t understand the idea of being desensitized due to some operators not being in an actual firefight/combat zone.’

Later in the online exchange, the same pilot insists: ‘It’s very real.  Some of the stuff I’ve seen is burned into my brain’ – and then Brandon Bryant joins the conversation to ‘agree with what you guys have said.’  He’s on record as writing in his personal combat diary ‘I wish my eyes would rot.’

I realise that these passages can’t settle matters, but they surely cast doubt on the implication that drone crews are as machinic as the aircraft they fly.  Pugliese insists that the drone ‘cannot be reduced to a mindless machine of purely robotic acts’; neither, by virtue of what Pugliese calls their prosthetic relation to the drone, can the crew who fly them.   I still think that one of the most salient differences introduced by drones is the differential distanciation they allow when they provide close air support: an unprecedentedly close relation with troops on the ground and a calculative detachment from others in their field of view.

I realise, too, that this can’t apply to targeted killings, and so I leave you with this statement by Lt General Michael DeLong, who as deputy commander of US Central Command had to sign off on the first CIA-directed targeted killing, in Yemen in November 2002.  Then CIA Director George Tenet called DeLong to ask him to give the order, since the Predator was flown by a USAF crew:

delongp‘Tenet calls and said, “We got the target.” … I called General Franks [commander of CENTCOM]. Franks said, “Hey, if Tenet said it’s good, it’s good.” I said, “Okay … I’m going down to the UAV room.” … We had our lawyer there. Everything was done right. I mean, there was no hot dog. … The rules of war, the rules of combat that we had already set up, the rules of engagement ahead of time. Went by them. Okay, it’s a good target. …

I’m sitting back … looking at the wall, and I’m talking to George Tenet. And he goes, “You got to make the call?” These Predators had been lent to him, but the weapons on board were ours. So I said, “Okay, we’ll make the call. Shoot them.” 

Everything may have been ‘done right’, the procedures followed, but  when DeLong was asked ‘What does it feel like when you know you’re going down there to kill somebody?’ He replied:

‘It’s just war. It’s no different than going to the store to buy some eggs; it’s just something you got to do.’

And, as Chamayou would surely insist, it wasn’t war.  It was, as Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker on 23 December 2002, a manhunt.

HERSH Manhunt

To be continued.

‘Un-Manning’

I don’t imagine that anyone who has seen it will ever forget the cockpit video of US Apache attack helicopters mowing down two Reuters journalists and ten other civilians in Baghdad in July 2007.  It was part of the cache that the principled and courageous Bradley Manning gave to Wikileaks, which released the full, unedited clip as Collateral Murder in 2010, and earlier this month Manning’s lawyers opened their defence with a showing of the same video.

The transcript of the video is here, and a redacted copy of the US Army’s investigation report (with annotated video stills) is here.

The incident has been the subject of two short documentary films, linked by a common figure, Ethan McCord, a US soldier who arrived at the scene minutes after the shooting began (more here).

The first is Shuchen Tan‘s Permission to engage, which won the Prix Europa for the best European TV investigation in 2012.  Here’s the trailer:

And here is the full (brilliant) film:

The second is James Spione‘s  Incident in New Baghdad, which won the prize for the best documentary short at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 and for best picture and best documentary short at the Fargo Film Festival in 2012.

Incident in New Baghdad

This is how Spione introduces his film:

Psychologists call it “psychic numbing.” Tell someone that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in the Iraq conflict, or that thousands of U.S. veterans of our Mideast wars suffer from crippling PTSD, and their eyes will likely glaze over. Most people simply cannot comprehend the meaning of such vast numbers, nor are they likely to show any particular concern. Conversely, however, the tale of a single tragic incident can create great empathy in the same person–and greater understanding of the wider effects of war.

On April 5th, 2010, the controversial website WikiLeaks released a grainy black-and-white video that stunned the world. Recorded from the gunsight camera of an U.S. Army attack
helicopter during one of the most chaotic and deadly periods of the Iraq War, the footage depicts the violent deaths of two Iraqi journalists, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh,
along with at least eight other mostly unarmed individuals on the streets of Baghdad in July 2007. Minutes later on the video, when the driver of a passing van attempts to come to the aid of the mortally wounded Chmagh, a second helicopter attack occurs that destroys the van and kills several more people, wounding two small children in the process…

My short film INCIDENT IN NEW BAGHDAD examines what happened that day from the first-hand perspective of an American infantryman whose life was profoundly changed by his experiences on the scene. U.S. Army Specialist Ethan McCord bore witness to the devastating carnage, found and rescued the two children caught in the crossfire, and soon turned against the war that he had enthusiastically joined only months before. Denied psychological treatment in Iraq for his PTSD, McCord returned home, struggling for years with anger, confusion, and guilt over the war. When Wikileaks released the video of the incident, McCord was finally spurred into action, and began traveling the country, speaking out for the rights of PTSD sufferers and against the American wars in the Middle East.

However, there is so much more to the story, and I am now developing a more in-depth, feature-length examination of this incident that will include the perspectives of many more people involved in this incident: the infantry on the ground; the families of both Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh; the children, whose father was killed in front of them in the van, as well as their mother; and if possible, the 1-8 Cavalry Airborne gunner who pulled the trigger. My hope is that, by hearing from all of the first-hand participants of this tragic event, we may come to better understand the profoundly damaging consequences that ripple out through the lives of survivors over many years from just one so-called “engagement” in a war. And when we learn from all involved that this incident was not an aberration, but a commonplace occurrence over the course of many years, perhaps then we will start to understand those mind-numbing statistics, and feel the true moral scale of the damage, the wounds, the folly of a war of choice that never needed to happen.

I rehearse all this now for two reasons other than the shadow of sentencing that now hangs over Manning (though that is reason enough) .

First, the video at the dark heart of this incident – and these films – was not captured by a Predator or Reaper thousands of feet in the air and fed back to pilots, screeners and commanders thousands of miles away in the continental United States: this was close-in and immediate, and this raises important questions about scopic regimes and military violence that spiral far beyond the usual (and I think narrowly framed) debate over drones.

Approximate Target

Second, Incident in New Baghdad was part-financed by Carol Grayson, who became one of the film’s executive producers.  She is clearly a remarkable woman in all sorts of ways, not least because she has spent much (I suspect most) of her time since then working on a new documentary film project, The Approximate Target that charts ‘the human cost of remote control killing, the dangers of covert government policy and unaccountability in modern warfare.’  It’s been a long, difficult and continuing journey with seemingly no end of obstacles and obstructions: you can read more on her blog here.

BJCiq-vCMAAgpWe-1From what I’ve been able to discover – which is not as much as I’d like – the focus of the The Approximate Target appears to be on CIA-directed strikes in Waziristan.  But Carol’s most recent posting (today) includes a letter from a Yemeni civilian to President Obama and Yemen’s President Hamadi on the eve of their meeting at the White House.  The letter was released today by Reprieve.  In it, Faisal bin Ali Jabera,  young engineer who lost two of his relatives in a drone strike on Hadhramout last summer, writes:

Our family are not your enemy. In fact, the people you killed had strongly and publicly opposed al-Qa’ida. Salem was an imam. The Friday before his death, he gave a guest sermon in the Khashamir mosque denouncing al-Qa’ida’s hateful ideology. It was not the first of these sermons, but regrettably, it was his last…

Our town was no battlefield. We had no warning – our local police were never asked to make any arrest. My young cousin Waleed was a policeman, before the strike cut short his life…

Your silence in the face of these injustices only makes matters worse. If the strike was a mistake, the family – like all wrongly bereaved families of this secret air war – deserve a formal apology. To this day I wish no vengeance against the United States or Yemeni governments. But not everyone in Yemen feels the same. Every dead innocent swells the ranks of those you are fighting.

Obama’s signature

627227-signature-reveals-obama-039-s-secrets

For decades Presidents of the United States have used a machine to sign ‘personal’ letters.  According to reports, Obama used the ‘autopen’ to sign an extension to the Patriot Act when he was at a G8 summit in France and out of reach (more examples here).

autopen

But  others are never out of reach of Obama’s signature.  The ‘signature strikes’ carried out by Predators and Reapers also disclose a disconcerting entanglement of the ‘personal’ (these are not robotic: a network of human agents is actively involved and they have access to high-resolution full-motion video feeds) with the machinic (not least because the President doesn’t personally ‘sign off’ on them).  I’ve discussed them in detail here, and the Brave New Foundation has released an important video about them and the Dhatta Khel incident in March 2011 in particular.

Film-maker Robert Greenwald provides background to the video here and Arianna Huffington returns to it today.  Referring to Obama’s speech on 23 May 2013 – see my discussion here – she writes:

“Before any strike is taken,” he declared, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”

Though signature strikes were not mentioned, some assumed language like “near certainty” and “highest standard” meant they were no longer going to be used. That assumption was proven wrong as just days later an administration official told the New York Times that signature strikes will continue in Pakistan, a statement the Times’ Andrew Rosenthal wrote“seem[ed] to contradict the entire tenor of Mr. Obama’s speech.”

Two weeks later, on June 9, a drone struck a vehicle in Yemen, killing not only several supposed militants, but also a boy named Abdulaziz. He was 10 years old. “Near certainty” and those new “clear guidelines” apparently weren’t enough for Abdulaziz. The administration refused to comment on the boy’s death, or the strike itself. So much for accountability and transparency. And just last week, a strike in Waziristan killed 16 people and wounded five others.

I’m left thinking of those famous lines from Edward Fiztgerald‘s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, 
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit 
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, 
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.