Drones and Shadow Wars

I ended my lecture at the Drone Imaginaries conference in Odense this week by arguing that the image of the drone’s all-seeing ‘eye in the sky’ had eclipsed multiple other modalities of later modern war:

Simply put, drones are about more than targeted killing (that’s important, of course, but remember that in Afghanistan and elsewhere ‘night raids’ by US Special Forces on the ground have been immensely important in executing supposedly ‘kill or capture’ missions); and at crucial moments in the war in Afghanistan 90 per cent of air strikes have been carried out by conventional aircraft (though intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from remote platforms often mediated those strikes).

To sharpen the point I showed this image from a drone over Afghanistan on 15 April 2017:

This showed the detonation of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB or ‘Mother Of All Bombs’):

This is a far cry from the individuation of later modern war, the US Air Force’s boast that it could put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and that often repeated line from Grégoire Chamayou about ‘the body becoming the battlefield’.

And, as I’ve been trying to show in my series of posts on siege warfare in Syria, there are still other, shockingly violent and intrinsically collective modalities of later modern war.  Drones have been used there too, but in the case of the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces targeting has more often than not avoided precision weapons in favour of saturation bombing and artillery strikes (see here).

All this means that I was pleased to receive a note from the brilliant Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the widening of its work on drones (which will continue, to be sure):

Under President Donald Trump the US counterterrorism campaign is shifting into another phase, and the Bureau is today launching a new project to investigate it – Shadow Wars.  The new phase is in some ways a continuation and evolution of trends seen under Obama. The same reluctance to deploy American troops applies, as does the impetus to respond militarily to radical groups around the world. But as extremist groups spread and metastasise, the US’s military engagements are becoming ever more widespread, and complicated. Peter Singer, a senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, who is a leading expert on security, says: “Shadow wars have been going on for a long time, but what’s clearly happened is that they’ve been accelerated, and the mechanisms for oversight and public notification have been peeled back. The trend lines were there before, but the Trump team are just putting them on steroids.”

A new US drone base has been built in Niger, but its ultimate purpose is unclear. In Afghanistan, the US is trying to prevail over the Taliban, without committing to a substantial increase in troop numbers, by waging an increasingly secretive air war. In Yemen, the US is leaning on the United Arab Emirates as its on the ground counterterrorism partner, a country with a troubled human rights record. Meanwhile, proxy confrontations with Iran are threading themselves into the mix.

Our Shadow Wars project will widen the focus of the Bureau’s drone warfare work. Over the next year, we will bring new and important aspects of US military strategy to light, of which drones are just one troubling aspect.

We aim to explore issues such as America’s increasing reliance on regional allies, the globalisation of the private military industry, the blurring of lines between combat and support missions and the way corruption fuels a state of permanent conflict. As with our work on drones, our primary concern in this new project is to publicise the effects these evolving practices of war have on the civilians on the ground.

Insurgent terrain

Just available from Gastón Gordillo: ‘Terrain as insurgent weapon: An affective geometry of warfare in the mountains of Afghanistan’, Political Geography (2018) [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2018.03.001].

Gastón explains:

My argument…   is that the irreducibility of terrain can be best examined through the bodily experiences, affects, and agency of the human actors engaging it da lens I call an affective geometry. This is not the Euclidian or Cartesian geometry of mathematized grids, coordinates, and straight lines abstracted from bodies and affects. This is the qualitative, non-linear geometry conceptualized by Spinoza (1982), attentive to how bodies affect and are affected by other bodies in a multiplicity of ways, which range from negative ways that may diminish the body’s capacity to act to positive ways that may expand the body’s powers for action.

In analyzing how bodies are affected by and affect terrain, an affective geometry can be seen as a materialist phenomenology that conceives of human bodies in their subjective interiority and dispositions and also as mobile, self-propelling bodies that in sit- uations of combat dand as long as they remain able bodiesd walk, run, climb rocks, duck on the ground, fall in ditches, shoot, feel exhausted hiking a mountain, and feel pain if hit by gunfire.

 

Turning to the Korengal Valley, and drawing on the work of Sebastien Junger and Tim Hetherington (especially Restrepo: see here for a commentary that meshes with this post) Gastón shows how terrain was opaque, threatening, even penetrative to the US military – for all the ‘imperial verticality’ of its air power – and that the mountains (in all their ‘ambient thickness’) ‘confused them, tired them, and disrupted imperial phantasies of spatial mastery’, whereas their enemies, who weaponised the terrain far more effectively, were able to realise an ‘insurgent verticality’ though their knowledge of and, indeed, intimacy with the mountains.

Losing sight

May Jeong – whose excellent investigation of the US air strike on the MSF Trauma Centre at Kunduz I’ve commended before – has a new, equally enthralling extended report over at the Intercept on the sole survivor of a US drone strike in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan on 7 September 2013: ‘Losing Sight‘.

It’s a long, rich read, but there are two issues I want to highlight.

First, May captures the stark, bio-physical horror of an air strike with an economy and force I’ve rarely seen equalled.  As I’ve noted before (see here and here), many critical analyses emphasise the bio-convergences that animate what happens behind the digital screens of the kill-chain and say remarkably little about those that lie on the other side.  It’s all too easy to lose sight of the embodied nature of remote warfare, though in another powerful essay Joseph Pugliese argues that it’s often not possible to speak of the corporeal at all in the face of such catastrophic violence: ‘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’ ( ‘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).

So here is May describing the strike on a pick-up truck in the early evening as it ground its way along a rough road through the Pech Valley; inside the cabin were the driver, three women and four young children, while seven men were crammed into the back along with sacks of flour they had bought to take back to their village.  There were a couple of miles from home, Gambir, when five missiles hit the truck in a 20-minute period.  Minutes later a second truck – which had been racing to catch up with the first – arrived close to the scene.  The driver (Mohibullah) scrambled up a small hill with a local villager:

[T]hey saw the husk of the pickup, strafed and lit up in flames. They hurried toward the fire.

When Mohibullah arrived at the blast site, he saw that of the 17 bags of flour he had helped load onto the truck, just two were intact. The rest had splayed open. There was a sick beauty to the scene — white powder over blood-red carnage.  These were men and women Mohibullah had grown up with, but he couldn’t recognize any of them. Their mangled body parts made it difficult to ascertain where one person ended and another began: spilled brains over severed limbs over ground flesh…

At first, it was just Mohibullah, another driver named Hamish Gul, and three villagers from Quroo who came to help. Most people in the area knew to stay away. The ghanghai [drones] often attacked again. Even so, the five of them worked at untangling the dead bodies — among them Aisha’s mother, father, grandmother, and little brother — and stacking them in neat rows atop the bed of Mohibullah’s truck.

Astonishingly, there was one survivor, but she too had been brutalised beyond recognition:

Mohibullah did not recognize the girl — her face had been “scrambled, she didn’t have her nose.” She still had both of her legs, but he wasn’t sure if her torso was connecting them to the rest of her body. It wasn’t until she asked in a frail voice — “Where is my father? Where is my mother?” — that he understood her to be his 4-year-old niece Aisha

A neighbor named Nasir held Aisha together for the drive back to Gambir. During the 2-mile journey, Aisha did not make a sound. Life seemed to be slipping away from her. Nasir assumed she would be buried. But when they arrived in Gambir, Aisha turned her head and asked for water. Her voice was so full of intent that they decided to rush her to a hospital in Asadabad.

Read those paragraphs again to see what Pugliese means.

Now the second issue starts to come into focus.  They reached Asadabad Provincial Hospital at 10 p.m., but the duty nurse could do little for Aisha:

Her stomach was missing, as were parts of her face and her left arm. He registered her into the hospital database, writing “acute abdominal injuries” next to her name, treated her with basic first aid, and sent her to the nearest hospital in Jalalabad, 57 miles away.

Aisha reached Jalalabad Public Health Hospital shortly after midnight, where her burns were dressed.  But here too there was little the surgeon could do; she had multiple head injuries, had lost one of her hands, and had major internal injuries.  A helicopter was called to take her to Kabul but it couldn’t land; a second helicopter arrived at midnight – 24 hours after she had reached Jalalabad – and ferried her to the French military hospital at Kabul Airport.

That hospital was a NATO Role 3 hospital, which had been run by the French since July 2009; by the summer of 2013 43 per cent of the procedures carried out by its staff had involved orthopaedic surgery.  Half of these were emergency surgeries; just 17 per cent of the patients were French military personnel and another 17 per cent were Afghan National Army or other ISAF soldiers,  while 47 per cent were Afghan (adult) civilians and 17 per cent were children.

Like other Role 3 hospitals, the facility was tasked with ‘damage-control’, for which it could call on three surgical teams rotation with a general surgeon, (abdominal, chest or vascular surgery) and an orthopedic surgeon as well as an ophthalmologist,  a neurosurgeon and an ENT or maxillofacial surgeon (I’ve taken these details from O. Barbier and others, ‘French surgical experience in the Role 3 Medical Treatment Facility of KaIA (Kabul International Airport…’, Orthopaedics and Traumataology: Surgery & Research 100 (6) (2014) 681-5; see also Christine Joubert and others, ‘Military neurosurgery in operation’, Acta Neurochir 158 (8) (2016) 1453-63).

While Aisha was being treated the hospital was visited by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  Here is May again:

There, Karzai was confronted with a girl who had lost her sight, her nose, her lower lip, the skin on her forehead, the skin on her torso, her left hand, and nine members of her family, including her grandmother, her uncles, her aunts, her cousin, her mother, her father, and her baby brother.

“I cannot describe what I saw there,” Rangin Spanta, who served as national security adviser under Karzai and accompanied him to the hospital that day, told me from his home in Kabul. We were sitting on a rattan set on his front porch. In telling this story, Spanta covered his face and wept. “Still I have my trauma.” Spanta had lost five family members in the war, but the sight of Aisha, a girl who had been reduced to a “piece of biological construct,” gave him “the feeling that this was a kind of a nightmare.” Spanta, who had seen the guts of suicide bombers splattered across his car window and has visited double, triple, and quadruple amputees, said Aisha was the “most shocking thing I’ve seen in this war.” Karzai asked the attending doctor why her face was covered. “Because there is nothing there” was the answer.

That a high proportion of patients the military hospital were Afghan civilians was by no means unusual for a Role 3 facility, but as I’ve noted before ISAF had strict Rules of Medical Eligibility.  Afghan civilians who were injured during military operations and/or needed ‘life, limb or eyesight saving care’ – both of which applied to Aisha – could be admitted to the international medical system.  But as soon as possible, Afghans were to be treated by Afghans and so, after surgical intervention, they had to be transferred to the local healthcare system.



That system was – is – often rudimentary, which is why Aisha was passed from Asadabad to Jalalabad before reaching Kabul.  And returning someone in her post-operative condition to that system was obviously fraught with danger.  Here is Emily Mayhew in A Heavy Reckoning describing the dilemma for doctors at the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand province:

Some of the most difficult decisions taken by the Deployed Medical Director related to local patients, Afghans civilians, their families and others. Locals made up the majority (probably as much as 80 per cent) of the patients cared for during the lifetime of the hospital. During the war there were no Afghan hospitals with the technology or capability to ventilate patients with severe chest wounds, therefore leaving Bastion meant death. So anyone intubated who could not be returned to Britain had to stay at Bastion until they could breathe unaided, which sometimes took days or weeks. They were discharged only when it was certain they could survive away from Bastion: probably in a local hospital that was under severe stress, and which could only provide medical care for two or three hours a day, where the rest of the time they would be looked after by their families.

I’ll return to this in a later post, because in some cases those local hospitals have been supplemented and even supplanted by more advanced medical facilities operated or supported by international NGOs like Emergency or MSF.

But what is extraordinary in Aisha’s case is that her pathway did not follow any of these routes.  Karzai had asked both the French and the Germans to help, but they deferred to the Americans who insisted that she be taken to the United States for further treatment.  ‘Twelve days after the strike,’ May reports, ‘Aisha was gone’: but nobody ever told her relatives what had happened to her.  Every attempt they made to find out was rebuffed.

Months later her uncle was informed that she was at Walter Reed hospital in Maryland; she had been sponsored by an American organisation, Solace for the Children.  According to its website:

Each Summer Solace for the Children Summer Medical Program brings children from areas affected by war to the United States so they may receive medical care unavailable to them in their country. We currently focus our efforts on children in Afghanistan. Each fall, applications are accepted for treatment. Our office in Afghanistan typically receives more than 50 applications they must review and qualify. Youth are qualified for services based on need and health condition. They are then placed with a host family for approximately 6 weeks while receiving the medical care they require. After care, youth return to Afghanistan with a better quality of life, brighter future and hope for peace.

While ‘there was no official relationship between the U.S. military and Solace,’ May was told by the charity’s director Patsy Wilson, ‘individual members of the military often reached out to Solace, which had been the case for Aisha.’

“We just get calls. We get calls from the military all over Afghanistan,” she said. She repeatedly deferred to the military, stating, “I am sure they don’t say we kidnap children.” Wilson also expressed doubts that Aisha had been injured in a drone strike, despite the claims of scores of villagers interviewed by The Intercept. “We do not necessarily believe Aisha was in a drone strike, but I know that is one of the stories,” she said. When pressed for details, she said, “I have been told not to discuss that,” adding, “We have no facts. There are no facts.”

Those last sentences are becoming all too familiar, but in this case ISAF not only acknowledged the ‘IM [international military] aerial attack’ but carried out its own investigation into the civilian casualties.  It has never been declassified.

Killing cities

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 hereRobert 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 York Times 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 Journalism confirmed 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).

All of this confirms the report released today by Action on Armed Violence.

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 Silently put 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).

The final arbiter

There have been many interviews with ‘drone operators’ but most of them seem to have been with sensor operators serving with the US Air Force.  Some of the most cited have been ‘whistleblowers’ like Brandon Bryant while some reporters have described conversations with service members allowed to speak on the record during carefully conducted tours of airbases.  Some have even been captured on film – think of the interviews that frame so much of Sonia Kennebeck‘s  National Bird (though I think the interviews with the survivors of the Uruzgan drone strike are considerably more effective) – while others have been dramatised, notably in Omar Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is The Best.

But over at Drone Wars UK Chris Cole has just released something different: a detailed transcript of an extended interview with “Justin Thompson“, a former British (Royal Air Force) pilot who flew Reapers over Afghanistan for three years from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.  He also spent several months forward-deployed to Afghanistan as a member of the Launch and Recovery element: remember that missions are controlled from the continental United States – or now from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire – but the Reapers have an operational range of 1, 850 km so they have to be launched in or near the theatre of operations.

He served as a pilot of conventional strike aircraft before switching to remote operations early in the program’s development – the RAF started flying Reapers over Afghanistan for ISR in October 2007; armed missions began the following May – which gives Justin considerable insight into the differences between the platforms:

“The real difference with UAVS is persistence. That’s the big advantage as it allows you to build up a very detailed picture of what is going on in a particular area. So if you are in a particular area and a need for kinetic action arises, generally speaking you have already got knowledge of the kind of things you would need to know to assist that to happen. That’s versus a fast jet that might be called in having been there only five minutes, with limited fuel and with limited information – what it can get from the guys on the ground – Boom, bang and he’s off to get some fuel. That’s a bit flippant. It’s not quite like that, but you see what I mean.

“The big difference is the amount of detail we are able to amass about a particular area, not just on one mission, but over time. If you are providing support in a particular area, you develop a great deal of detailed information, to the point where you can recall certain things from memory because you were looking at this last week and spent two weeks previously looking at it and you know generally what goes on in this particular area. The other thing this persistence gives you is a good sense if something has changed or if something is unusual. You go ‘Hang on, that wasn’t there last week, someone’s moved it. Let’s have a look to see what is going on here.’”

Later, having discussed the Reaper’s entanglement of ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) with lethal strike (‘kinetic’) capabilities, he returns to the theme:

“If you are talking about kinetic action, I think essentially they [conventional aircraft and drones] are no different. It’s a platform in the air that has a sensor on board you are using to look at the ground. The picture you seen in a [Ground Control Station] is essentially the same as you would see in a fast jet. The sort of weapons you are delivering are exactly the same sort as you would be delivering from a fast jet. Essentially all of the principles are the same…

“A lot of things are significantly better in that you get much more extensive and much more detailed information on the area you are looking at and on any specific targets. That’s not because of any particular capability, it’s just because you can spend a hell of a lot more time looking at it.

“A fast jet pilot would, say, do a four month tour in some place. He’s got four months’ worth of knowledge and then he’ll be gone. He might come back in a year or two, but we are there for three years. Constantly, every day, building up massive amounts of knowledge and a detailed picture of what goes on. We come armed with so much information, and so much information is available to you, not just from your own knowledge, but from sources you can reach out to. You’ve got the text. You’ve got phones. You have got other people you can call on and drag into the GCS. You can get other people to look at the video feed. You can get many opinions and views….”

At times, he concedes, that can become an issue (sometimes called ‘helmet-fire’: too many voices in your head):

“If you want it, there can be a lot of other ‘eyes on’ and advice given to you. If you want something explained to you, if you want a second opinion on something, if you want something checked you can say “Guys, are you seeing this?” Or “What do you think that is?” And that is really useful. You can also reach out for command advice, for legal advice. The number of people who can get a long screwdriver into your GCS is incredible and it does happen that occasionally you have to say ‘Please can you get your long screwdriver out of my GCS’. But generally speaking, it’s well managed and people don’t interfere unless they think there is a reason to.”

He makes it clear that as an RAF pilot his was the final decision about whether to strike – he was ‘the final arbiter’ –  and discusses different situations where he over-ruled those other voices.

RAF Reaper strike in Afghanistan, 2010

Justin also talks about the ways his previous flying experience modulated his command of the Reaper (and here I think there are interesting parallels with Timothy Cullen‘s experience as an F-16 pilot and his important study of USAF Reaper crews: see also here):

“… [T]here is an idea that because you are not directly manipulating the control surfaces of an aircraft by being sat in it, that somehow lowers the skill level required in order to successfully operate one of these things. It may change some specifics in motor skills, but then so does an Airbus. Conceptually, you are wiggling a stick, pushing a peddle, turning a wheel. That gets converted into little ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’, sent down a wire to a computer that decides where to put the flying control surfaces and throttles the engines of the aircraft. It’s very similar, at least technically, in a modern airliner as in a Reaper. The level of skill required is similar. Piloting has only ever been 10% hand-flying skills, 90% is judgement and airmanship…

“For me, what I was seeing on the screen was very real. In addition to that for me it was more than just two-dimensional. My mind very easily perceived a three-dimensional scene that extended out of the side of the image. Whether that was because I was used to sitting in a cockpit and seeing that sort of picture I don’t know. Someone whose only background is flight simulators or playing computer games may have a different view. I relate it to sitting in an aircraft and flying it, others may relate it slightly differently…”

There’s much more in those packed 17 pages.  You can find Chris’s own commentary on the interview here, though his questions during the interview are, as  his regular readers would expect, also wonderfully perceptive and well-informed.

One cautionary note.  The time-frame is extremely important in commenting on remote operations, even if we limit ourselves to the technology involved.  The early Ground Control Stations were markedly different from those in use today, for example, while the quality of the video streams, their compression and resolution is also highly variable.  And there is, of course, much more than technology involved.

MOAB and the moral economy of bombing

In Reach from the Sky, my Tanner Lectures which I’m presently preparing for publication, I sketched what I called a ‘moral economy of bombing’:

It’s the last of these claims that concerns me here: bombing represented as ‘law-full’.  In the lectures I discussed the legal armature of aerial violence – referring to the combined bomber offensive against Germany in the Second World War Air Chief Marshall Arthur Harris famously insisted that ‘In this matter of the use of aircraft in war there is, it so happens, no international law at all’, a claim that was, I suppose, literally true in so far as it applied to the specific application of air power; I tried to show what has (and has not) changed since then, not least through the development of international humanitarian law and the juridification of later modern war – and the insistence that air power is an effective means of imposing a legal order on the nominally ‘lawless’ (a claim registered through colonial ‘air policing’ and continued in the US and Pakistan air strikes on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan: see ‘Dirty Dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

In the ghastly light of the Trump administration’s decision last month to drop (for the first time in combat) what the US Air Force calls ‘the Mother Of All Bombs‘ (MOAB), the GBU-43/B,  on an IS ‘tunnel complex’ in eastern Afghanistan, Michael Weinman has written an excellent essay for Public Seminar on ‘Ordnance as ordinance‘ that elaborates the second part of my claim about bombing being ‘law-full’:

[B]oth the decision to name this weapon MOAB and the decision to deploy it in Afghanistan is tightly linked with what Judith Butler called a “new military convention” begun by Colin Powell when he described the deployment of “smart bombs” during the first Iraq War as “the delivery of ordnance.” In “Contingent Foundations,” Butler noted that Powell “figures an act of violence as an act of law” by substituting “ordnance” (munitions, agents of destructive violence) for “ordinance” (a law or decree). Powell’s speech act, apparently delivered in an unscripted moment during a press conference in January 1991, is an important instance of the “illocutionary force” of language that Butler explores throughout the work she did in the late 1990s and early 2000s — her most impressive and important work in my view. This aerial bombardment of Iraqi installations with technologically advanced munitions, viewable in real time on network and cable TV for the first time, was itself a phenomenon. But it was the declaration that such a display in itself was an act of law enforcement that truly brought us into a new era. An era in which, thanks to Powell and the Bush (41) administration, the alignment of violence and law against a regime that violates international law figures state violence, even where it might be in contradiction of international agreements, as the very agent of law and legitimation. Watching the media response to the recent deployment of MOAB in Afghanistan, it is clear we still haven’t learned Butler’s lesson.

The deeper resonance of reading this particular ordnance as a form of ordinance requires that we attend to a different resonance of its chosen acronym, MOAB. Not the “Mother of All Bombs” nomenclature, which bespeaks its terrifying awesomeness — in the literal sense of the term “awesome,” connoting utter sublimity. That is part of the story too, but it is not the heart of it. Rather, continuing Butler’s pursuit of the line of thought by which Saddam (Hussein) was recast as (the Biblical) Sodom,[1] we must turn instead to the Biblical Moab, patriarch of the Moabites. Crucially, we must bear in mind that, within the Hebrew Bible, this people, whose lands lay across the Dead Sea, is cast as a hostile neighboring people — indeed, the Moabites are depicted as the neighboring tribe most inherently in conflict with the people of Israel. Viewed in this light, there is continuing power in Powell’s fantasy that the deliverance of ordnance is the way “we” publicly declare the ordinance that those who defy international law will be vanquished by the synthesis of law and force executed by the United States military as the leader the coalition of the willing. This vision remains the reigning principle behind the self-image of the United States as an actor on the international scene. And this is so because, deeply steeped in an “Old Testament morality” (a morality wherein the enemies of the United States are figured as the ancient enemies of the people of Israel), this vision justifies a view of America as the model exemplar of a “Judeo-Christian” civilization. A civilization that is — as it ever was — waging a war, engaging in a “clash of civilizations.” Of course we would name our most deadly non-nuclear weapon “Moab” (or M.O.A.B., if you like): what other name than that of the oldest and deepest “frenemy” of Israel could the United States military have possibly dreamt up?

There is more that could be said, I think, especially if one stays with Butler and thinks of this episode as a speech-act.  After all – and repeating a line that was repeated endlessly during the Rolling Thunder campaign against North Vietnam – MOAB was originally developed in 2002 for the ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign that heralded the US-led  invasion of Iraq, and the Pentagon claimed that deploying the MOAB was an act of communication (really): it sent ‘a very clear message’ to IS that it would be ‘annihilated‘.  (The message-in-a-bomb line shouldn’t be confused with the terse messages that ground crews have scrawled on bombs in war after war after war, and I suppose it is less grotesque than the description of bombing Syria as a form of ‘after-dinner entertainment‘ for the US President – which sends an even more terrifying message to anyone with a shred of decency or understanding).

If the bombing in Afghanistan did send a message to IS – and to state actors elsewhere in the world – it also sent a message to innocent others in the vicinity of the blast:

“There is no doubt that Isis are brutal and that they have committed atrocities against our people. But I don’t see why the bomb was dropped,” said the mayor of Achin, Naweed Shinwari. “It terrorised our people. My relatives thought the end of the world had come. Every day fighter jets, helicopters and drones are in the area.”

In that vein, and to return to the colonial genealogy I mentioned at the start, the use of the global South as a laboratory for weapons testing and demonstration has a long history, as Scott Beauchamp‘s report here documents:

…the most interesting commentary probably came from former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, who tweeted that “This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as a testing grounds for new and dangerous weapons.”

He’s got a point. There is a dark history of Western military powers testing novel weapons and strategies on technologically overmatched non-Western (and non-white) populations. It’s a legacy that mixes the brutal arrogance of colonialism with the technological promise of an easy fix. There are of course numerous examples of this cruel dynamic at play in the centuries leading up to the 20th — conquistadors with dogs and swords, gunpowder in general — but the disparity that currently exists between the material advantages of Western countries and the technological capability of enemies abroad continues to be exploited in ways that conform to a recognizable pattern.

PS Much as I’ve enjoyed Michael’s essay, I think Stephen Fry also had a point.

A heavy reckoning

Emily Mayhew‘s Wounded was one of the catalysts for my present research project on medical care and casualty evacuation in war zones.  The original idea was to complete four case studies – the Western Front in the First World War, the deserts of North Africa in the Second, Vietnam and Afghanistan – but since then it has expanded to include a detailed analysis of attacks on hospitals and healthcare in Syria and elsewhere.  But running throughout these investigations is an interest in what Emily called ‘precarious journeys‘ – and a determination to break away from the usual academic voice (see here) –  so an announcement of her new book is extremely welcome.

It’s due from Profile in May:

What happens when you reach the threshold of life and death – and come back? As long as humans have lived together on the planet, there have been wars, and injured soldiers and civilians. But today, as we engage in wars across the globe with increasingly sophisticated technology, we are able to bring people back from ever closer encounters with death. But how do we do it, and what happens next? Here, historian Emily Mayhew explores the modern reality of medicine and injury in wartime, from the trenches of World War One to the dusty plains of Afghanistan and the rehabilitation wards of Headley Court in Surrey. Mixing vivid and compelling stories of unexpected survival and giving astonishing insights into the frontline of medicine, A Heavy Reckoning is a book about how far we have come in saving, healing and restoring the human body. But what are the costs involved in this hardest of journeys back from the brink? From the plastic surgeon battling to restore function to a blasted hand to the double amputee learning to walk again on prosthetic legs, Mayhew gives us a new understanding of the limits of human life and the extraordinary costs paid both physically and mentally by casualties all over the world in the twenty-first century.

The book is published in conjunction with the Wellcome Collection, and I should note that Emily has also co-curated the current exhibition Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care at London’s Science Museum (more information here and here).  I spent a fascinated couple of hours there when I was in London last month – it is well worth a visit, though the parallels it draws between the Western Front and Afghanistan were too abbreviated for me.