Bombing lists

It’s the time of year for endless – and often unimportant or uninformative – statistics to be released.  But this one is important, even if its meaning is less than clear.  Micah Zenko has published this tabulation showing the geographical distribution of bombing by the US Air Force in 2016 (from all platforms, including remotely piloted aircraft):


The problem comes in knowing how the figures (‘numbers of bombs dropped’) have been derived, since the Air Force reports numbers of ‘strikes’ not munitions dropped.  Here is US Central Command:

A strike, as defined in the CJTF [Combined Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve] releases, means one or more kinetic events that occur in roughly the same geographic location to produce a single, sometimes cumulative effect for that location.

So having a single aircraft deliver a single weapon against a lone ISIL vehicle is one strike, but so is multiple aircraft delivering dozens of weapons against a group of buildings and vehicles and weapon systems in a compound, for example, having the cumulative effect of making that facility (or facilities) harder or impossible to use.

Accordingly, CJTF-OIR does not report the number or type of aircraft employed in a strike, the number of munitions dropped in each strike, or the number of individual munition impact points against a target.

You can find a comparison with 2015 here.


Tabulations are often competitive, of course, and irregular readers may be surprise to discover that there is a long history of bombing competitions: you can find an account of the bombing competitions sponsored by the Michelin brothers before the First World War here and of the ‘Bomb Comp‘ hosted by US Strategic Air Command (‘The World Series of Bombing’) here (and a detailed listing here).

This all weighs heavily on my mind at the moment because I’m finishing the written version of my Tanner Lectures, ‘Reach from the Sky‘, which discusses those extraordinary attempts to treat bombing as a sport….  I’ll post the final version as soon as it’s ready.

Governing from the skies

HIPPLER Governing from the skies

Forthcoming from Verso in January, the English translation of Thomas Hippler‘s Le gouvernement du ciel:

The history of the war from the past one hundred years is a history of bombing.

Ever since its invention, aviation has embodied the dream of perpetual peace between nations, yet the other side of this is the nightmare of an unprecedented deadly power. A power initially deployed on populations that the colonizers deemed too restive, it was then used to strike the cities of Europe and Japan during World War II.

With air war it is now the people who are directly taken as target, the people as support for the war effort, and the sovereign people identified with the state. This amounts to a democratisation of war, and so blurs the distinction between war and peace.

This is the political shift that has led us today to a world governance under United States hegemony defined as ‘perpetual low-intensity war’, which is presently striking regions such as Yemen and Pakistan, but which tomorrow could spread to the whole world population.

Air war thus brings together the major themes of the past century: the nationalization of societies and war, democracy and totalitarianism, colonialism and decolonization, Third World-ism and globalization, and the welfare state and its decline in the face of neoliberalism. The history of aerial bombing offers a privileged perspective for writing a global history of the twentieth century.

I drew on this for my Reach from the Skies lectures in Cambridge earlier this year – it really is a must-read, though I’m not persuaded by the arguments in the closing pages… as you’ll see when I post the text of those lectures in the near future.

The machinery of (writing about) bombing

I began the first of my Tanner Lectures – Reach from the Sky – with a discussion of the machinery of bombing, and I started by describing an extraordinary scene: the window of a Georgian terrace house in London being popped out – but not by a bomb.  The year was 1968, and the novelist Len Deighton was taking delivery of the first word-processor to be leased (not even sold) to an individual.

As Matthew Kirschenbaum told the story in Slate:

The IBM technician who serviced Deighton’s typewriters had just heard from Deighton’s personal assistant, Ms. Ellenor Handley, that she had been retyping chapter drafts for his book in progress dozens of times over. IBM had a machine that could help, the technician mentioned. They were being used in the new ultramodern Shell Centre on the south bank of the Thames, not far from his Merrick Square home.

A few weeks later, Deighton stood outside his Georgian terrace home and watched as workers removed a window so that a 200-pound unit could be hoisted inside with a crane. The machine was IBM’s MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter).

It was a lovely story, because the novel Deighton was working on – almost certainly the first to be written on a word-processor – was his brilliant account of bombing in the Second World War, Bomber.  It had started out as a non-fiction book (and Deighton has published several histories of the period) but as it turned into a novel the pace of research never slackened.

Deighton recalls that he had shelved his original project until a fellow writer, Julian Symons, told him that he was ‘the only person he could think of who actually liked machines’:

I had been saying that machines are simply machines… That conversation set me thinking again about the bombing raids. And about writing a book about them. The technology was complex but not so complex as to be incomprehensible. Suppose I wrote a story in which the machines of one nation fought the machines of another? The epitome of such a battle must be the radar war fought in pitch darkness. To what extent could I use my idea in depicting the night bombing war? Would there be a danger that such a theme would eliminate the human content of the book? The human element was already a difficult aspect of writing such a story.

And so Bomber was born.

The novel describes the events surrounding an Allied attack during the night of 31 June (sic) 1943 – the planned target was Krefeld, but the town that was attacked, a ‘target of opportunity’, was ‘Altgarten’.  And like the bombing raid, it was a long haul.  As Deighton explained:

I am a slow worker so that each book takes well over a year—some took several years—and I had always ‘constructed’ my books rather than written them. Until the IBM machine arrived I used scissors and paste (actually Copydex one of those milk glues) to add paras, dump pages and rearrange sections of material. Having been trained as an illustrator I saw no reason to work from start to finish. I reasoned that a painting is not started in the top left hand corner and finished in the bottom right corner: why should a book be put together in a straight line?

Deighton’s objective, so he said, was ‘to emphasize the dehumanizing effect of mechanical warfare. I like machines but in wars all humans are their victims.’

I pulled all this together in this slide:

Len Deighton BOMBER (Tanner Lecture 1).001

I then riffed off Deighton’s work in two ways.

First, I noted that Bomber was written at the height of the Vietnam War, what James Gibson calls ‘techno-war’:

Len Deighton TECHNOWAR (Tanner 2).001

I focused on the so-called ‘electronic battlefield’ that I had discussed in detail in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and its attempt to interdict the supply lines that snaked along the Ho Chi Minh Trail by sowing it with sensors and automating bombing:

Electronic battlefield 1 (Tanner Lectures).001 Electronic battlefield 2 (Tanner Lectures).001

The system was an expensive failure – technophiles and technophobes alike miss that sharp point – but it prefigured the logic that animates today’s remote operations:

Electronic battlefield 3 (Tanner Lectures).001

Second – in fact, in the second lecture – I returned to Bomber and explored the relations between Deighton’s ‘men and machines’.  There I emphasised the intimacy of a bomber crew in the Second World War (contrasting this with the impersonal shift-work that characterises today’s crews operating Predators and Reapers).  ‘In the air’, wrote John Watson in Johnny Kinsman, ‘they were component parts of a machine, welded together, dependent on each other.’  This was captured perfectly, I think, in this photograph by the inimitable Margaret Bourke-White:

Men-machines (BOURKE-WHITE) Tanner Lectures).001

Much to say about the human, the machine and the cyborg, no doubt, but what has brought all this roaring back is another image of the entanglements between humans and machines that returns me to my starting-point.  In a fine essay in The Paris Review, ‘This faithful machine‘, Matthew Kirschenbaum revisits the history of word-processing.  It’s a fascinating read, and it’s headed by this photograph of Len Deighton working on Bomber in his study:


Behind him you can see giant cut-away diagrams of British and German bombers, and on the left a Bomber Command route map to ‘the target for tonight’ (the red ribbon crossing the map of Europe), and below that a target map.  ‘Somber things,’ he called them in Bomber:

‘inflammable forest and built-up areas defined as grey blocks and shaded angular shapes.  The only white marks were the thin rivers and blobs of lake.  The roads were purple veins so that the whole thing was like a badly bruised torso.’

More on all that in my ‘Doors into nowhere’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and much more on the history of word-processign in Matthew’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing just out from Harvard University Press:

The story of writing in the digital age is every bit as messy as the ink-stained rags that littered the floor of Gutenberg’s print shop or the hot molten lead of the Linotype machine. During the period of the pivotal growth and widespread adoption of word processing as a writing technology, some authors embraced it as a marvel while others decried it as the death of literature. The product of years of archival research and numerous interviews conducted by the author, Track Changes is the first literary history of word processing.

Matthew Kirschenbaum examines how the interests and ideals of creative authorship came to coexist with the computer revolution. Who were the first adopters? What kind of anxieties did they share? Was word processing perceived as just a better typewriter or something more? How did it change our understanding of writing?

Track Changes balances the stories of individual writers with a consideration of how the seemingly ineffable act of writing is always grounded in particular instruments and media, from quills to keyboards. Along the way, we discover the candidates for the first novel written on a word processor, explore the surprisingly varied reasons why writers of both popular and serious literature adopted the technology, trace the spread of new metaphors and ideas from word processing in fiction and poetry, and consider the fate of literary scholarship and memory in an era when the final remnants of authorship may consist of folders on a hard drive or documents in the cloud.

And, as you’d expect, it’s available as an e-book.

Flying lessons

Reach from the Sky PERFORMANCE WORK

To complement the comparison implicit in my last post – between ‘manned’ and ‘unmanned’ military violence – I’ve added a presentation to those available under the DOWNLOADS tab.  I prepared it last month for an event at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, where I performed it with my good friend Toph Marshall.  It’s part of my performance-work on bombing, and stages two cross-cutting monologues between a veteran from RAF Bomber Command who flew missions over France and Germany in the Second World War and a pilot at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada operating a Predator over Afghanistan.  As the title implies, it dramatises many of the themes I discuss in more analytical terms in my Tanner Lectures, ‘Reach from the Sky’.

For the performance, each speech was complemented by back-projected images.  Virtually all of the words were taken from ‘found texts’ – memoirs, diaries, letters and interviews – and the only consciously fictional lines were lifted from Andrew Niccol‘s Good Kill (and I’m sure that they originated in an interview with a real pilot).

It’s imperfect in all sorts of ways, and it is still very much a work in progress, but I’m posting it because it might be helpful for anyone teaching about aerial violence and its history.  If it is – or even (especially) if it is isn’t – I hope you’ll let me know.

Eyes in the Skies


I’m just back from a wonderful time at UC Davis, where I was speaking at a symposium called “Eyes in the skies: drones and the politics of distance warfare.”  It was a creative program, packed with insights from Caren Kaplan and Andrea Miller, Priya Satia and Joe Delappe.

On my way back to Vancouver on Wednesday I received an invitation from Britain’s Guardian (in fact, the Sunday version, the Observer) to write something around that very question using the Gavin Hood film “Eyes in the sky” as a peg.

It’s just been published and you can find it here.

GREGORY Observer

At Davis I’d been giving what I think will be my final presentation of “Angry Eyes” (see here and here), so I was still preoccupied with remote platforms and close air support – not the contradiction it sounds – rather than targeted killing (which is the focus of the film).  The published version has, inevitably, been edited, so I’m pasting the full-length version below and added some links that might help.  There are still lots of short-cuts and elisions, necessarily so for anything of this length, so I hope readers will forgive the inevitable simplifications.


Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky is a thrillingly intelligent exploration of the political and ethical questions surrounding drone warfare. It’s been carefully researched and is on the cutting-edge of what is currently possible. But there’s a longer history and a wider geography that casts those issues in a different light.  As soon as the Wright Brothers demonstrated the possibility of human flight, others were busy imagining flying machines with nobody on board.  In 1910 Raymond Phillips captivated crowds in the London Hippodrome with a remotely controlled airship that floated out over the stalls and, when he pressed a switch, released hundreds of paper birds on the heads of the audience below. When he built the real thing, he promised, the birds would be replaced with bombs. Sitting safely in London he could attack Paris, Berlin – or Manchester (a possibility that understandably prompted questions about navigation).

There has always been something hideously theatrical about bombing, from the Hendon air displays in the 1920s featuring attacks on ‘native villages’ to the Shock and Awe visited on the inhabitants of Baghdad in 2003. The spectacle now includes the marionette movements of Predators and Reapers whose electronic strings are pulled from thousands of miles away. And it was precisely the remoteness of the control that thrilled the crowds in the Hippodrome. But what mattered even more was surely the prospect Phillips made so real: bombing cities and attacking civilians far from any battlefield.

Remoteness’ is in any case an elastic measure. Human beings have been killing other human beings at ever greater distances since the invention of the dart, the spear and the slingshot. Pope Urban II declared the crossbow illegal and Pope Innocent II upheld the ban in 1139 because it transformed the terms of encounter between Christian armies (using it against non-Christians was evidently a different matter). The invention of firearms wrought another transformation in the range of military violence, radicalized by the development of artillery, and airpower another. And yet today, in a world selectively but none the less sensibly shrunken by the very communications technologies that have made the deployment of armed drones possible, the use of these remote platforms seems to turn distance back into a moral absolute.

But if it is wrong to kill someone from 7,500 miles away (the distance from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to Afghanistan), over what distance is it permissible to kill somebody?  For some, the difference is that drone crews are safe in the continental United States – their lives are not on the line – and this has become a constant refrain in the drone debates. In fact, the US Air Force has been concerned about the safety of its aircrews ever since its high losses during the Second World War. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Air Force experimented with using remotely controlled B-17 and B-47 aircraft to drop nuclear bombs without exposing aircrews to danger from the blast, and today it lauds its Predators and Reapers for their ability to ‘project power without vulnerability’.

It’s a complicated boast, because these remote platforms are slow, sluggish and easy to shoot down – they won’t be seen over Russian or Chinese skies any time soon. They can only be used in uncontested air space – against people who can’t fight back – and this echoes Britain’s colonial tactic of ‘air policing’ its subject peoples in the Middle East, East Africa and along the North-West Frontier (which, not altogether coincidentally, are the epicentres of todays’ remote operations). There are almost 200 people involved in every combat air patrol – Nick Cullather once described these remote platforms as the most labour intensive weapons system since the Zeppelin – and most of them are indeed out of harm’s way. It’s only a minor qualification to say that Predators and Reapers have a short range, so that they have to be launched by crews close to their targets before being handed off to their home-based operators. This is still remote-control war, mediated by satellite links and fiber-optic cables, but in Afghanistan the launch and recovery and the maintenance crews are exposed to real danger. Even so, Grégoire Chamayou insists that for most of those involved this is hunting not warfare, animated by pursuit not combat [see here, here and here].

Yet it’s important not to use this aperçu to lionize conventional bombing. There is an important sense in which virtually all aerial violence has become remarkably remote. It’s not just that bombing has come to be seen as a dismal alternative to ‘boots on the ground’; advanced militaries pick their fights, avoid symmetrical warfare and prefer enemies whose ability to retaliate is limited, compromised or degraded. When he was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that the US had not lost a pilot in air combat for forty years. ‘The days of jousting with the enemy in the sky, of flirting daily with death in the clouds, are all but over,’ writes the far-from-pacifist Mark Bowden, ‘and have been for some time.’ The US Air Force goes to war ‘virtually unopposed’. In short, the distance between the pilot in the box at Creech and the pilot hurtling through the skies over Afghanistan is less than you might think. ‘Those pilots might as well be in Nevada’, says Tom Engelhardt, ‘since there is no enemy that can touch them.’

This suggests that we need to situate armed drones within the larger matrix of aerial violence.  Bombing in the major wars of the twentieth century was always dangerous to those who carried it out, but those who dropped bombs over Hamburg or Cologne in the Second World War or over the rainforests of South Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s were, in a crucial sense, also remote from their targets. Memoirs from Bomber Command crews confirm that the target cities appeared as lights sparkling on black velvet, ‘like a Brocks firework display.’ ‘The good thing about being in an aeroplane at war is that you never touch the enemy’, recalled one veteran. ‘You never see the whites of their eyes. You drop a four-thousand-pound cookie and kill a thousand people but you never see a single one of them.’ He explained: ‘It’s the distance and the blindness that enables you to do these things.’ The crews of B-52 bombers on Arc Light missions dropped their loads on elongated target boxes that were little more than abstract geometries. ‘Sitting in their air-conditioned compartments more than five miles above the jungle’, the New York Times reported in 1972, the crews ‘knew virtually nothing about their targets, and showed no curiosity.’ One of them explained that ‘we’re so far away’ that ‘it’s a highly impersonal war for us.’

Distance no longer confers blindness on those who operate today’s drones. They have a much closer, more detailed view of the people they kill. The US Air Force describes their job as putting ‘warheads on foreheads’, and they are required to remain on station to carry out a battle damage assessment that is often an inventory of body parts.  Most drone crews will tell you that they do not feel thousands of miles away from the action: just eighteen inches, the distance from eye to screen.

Their primary function is to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. This was exactly how the Wright brothers thought military aircraft would be used – in July 1917 Orville insisted that ‘bomb-dropping’ would be at best a minor role and almost certainly useless, though he was speaking before the major air offensives in the final year of the war and could have had no inkling of what was to come in the Second World War. The Predator and its precursors were designed to identify targets for conventional strike aircraft over the Balkans in the 1990s, and thirty years later it is still those ‘eyes in the sky’ that make the difference. Although drones have been armed since 2001, until late 2012 they were directly responsible for only 5-10 per cent of all air strikes in Afghanistan. But they were involved in orchestrating many more. Flying a Predator or a Reaper ‘is more like being a manager’, one pilot explained to Daniel Rothenberg: ‘You’re managing multiple assets and you’re involved with the other platforms using the information coming off of your aircraft.’ In principle it’s not so different from using aircraft to range targets for artillery on the Western Front, but the process has been radicalized by the drone’s real-time full-motion video feeds that enable highly mobile ‘targets of opportunity’ to be identified and tracked. In the absence of ground intelligence, this becomes crucial: until drones were relocated in sufficient numbers from Afghanistan and elsewhere to enable purported IS-targets in Syria to be identified, most US aircraft were returning to base without releasing their weapons.

Armed drones are used to carry out targeted killings, both inside and outside areas of ‘active hostilities’, and to provide close air support to ground troops. Targeted killing has spurred an intense critical debate, and rightly so – this is the focus of Eye in the sky too – but close air support has not been subject to the same scrutiny. In both cases, video feeds are central, but it is a mistake to think that this reduces war to a video game – a jibe that in any case fails to appreciate that today’s video games are often profoundly immersive.   In fact, that may be part of the problem. Several studies have shown that civilian casualties are most likely when air strikes are carried out to support troops in contact with an enemy, and even more likely when they are carried out from remote platforms. I suspect that drone crews may compensate for their physical rather than emotional distance by ‘leaning forward’ to do everything they can to protect the troops on the ground. This in turn predisposes them to interpret every action in the vicinity of a ground force as hostile – and civilians as combatants – not least because these are silent movies: the only sound, apart from the clacking of computer keys as they talk in secure chat rooms with those watching the video feeds, comes from radio communications with their own forces.

In contrast to those shown in Eye in the Sky, those feeds are often blurry, fuzzy, indistinct, broken, compressed -– and, above all, ambiguous. How can you be sure that is an insurgent burying an IED and not a farmer digging a ditch?  The situation is more fraught because the image stream is watched by so many other eyes on the ground, who all have their own ideas about what is being shown and what to do about it.  Combining sensor and shooter in the same (remote) platform may have ‘compressed the kill-chain’, as the Air Force puts it, and this is vital in an era of ‘just-in-time’, liquid war where everything happens so fast. Yet in another sense the kill-chain has been spectacularly extended: senior officers, ground force commanders, military lawyers, video analysts all have access to the feeds. There’s a wonderful passage in Brian Castner‘s All the ways we kill and die that captures the dilemma perfectly. ‘A human in the loop?’, Castner’s drone pilot complains.

‘Try two or three or a hundred humans in the loop. Gene was the eye of the needle, and the whole war and a thousand rich generals must pass through him… If they wanted to fly the fucking plane, they could come out and do it themselves.’

This is the networked warfare, scattered over multiple locations around the world, shown in Eye in the Sky. But the network often goes down and gets overloaded – it’s not a smooth and seamlessly functioning machine – and it is shot through with ambiguity, uncertainty and indecision.  And often those eyes in the sky multiply rather than disperse the fog of war.

Deadly animation

IWM Strategic bombing campaign 14 December 1941

IWM Strategic bombing campaign 12 August 1944

Britain’s Imperial War Museum has produced a striking animation of the ‘strategic bombing campaign’ in Europe during the Second World War:

If the YouTube link (above) doesn’t work in your region, try this.  I can’t find any version on the IWM website – this version originates with the Daily Mail here – but an interactive version will be available to visitors at the reopened American Air Museum in Britain (at IWM Duxford) from the weekend.  The first bombing mission by the USAAF took place on 29 June 1942 against the Hazebrouk marshalling yards.

‘Reach from the sky’ ONLINE


The video of my two Tanner Lectures, Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war, delivered in Cambridge last month, is now available on the Clare Hall website.  The first, ‘Good bomb, bad bomb’ is here, and the second, ‘Killing Space’, is here, while the responses from Grégoire Chamayou, Jochen von Bernstorff and Chris Woods are here.

I’m immensely grateful to the video team, who were exceptionally helpful and remarkably accomplished.

I’m now hard at work on the long-form version…  And yes, I have – just! – notice the mistake on the poster.  It was indeed ‘Reach from the sky.’  Per ardua….

There’s also a short and kind reflection on the lectures from Alex Jeffrey over at Placing Law here.

Still reaching from the skies…

Sorry for the long silence – I’ve had my head down since soon after Christmas preparing the Tanner Lectures which I gave this past week in Cambridge [‘Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war’].  The lectures were recorded and the video will be available on the Clare Hall website in a fortnight or so: more when I know more.

In outline – and after a rare panic attack the night before, which had me working until 2.30 in the morning –  I organised the two Lectures like this:


Prelude: The historical geography of bombing

Bombing is back in the headlines but it never really left – and yet those who remain advocates of aerial violence don’t seem to have learned from its dismal history.  They also ignore the geographies that have been intrinsic to its execution, both the division between ‘the bombers and the bombed’ (the diagram below is an imperfect and fragmentary example of what I have in mind) and the pulsating spaces through which bombing is performed.

The bombers and the bombed.001

Good bomb, bad bomb

(with apologies to Mahmood Mamdani….)  In the first part I traced The machinery of bombing from before the First World War through to today’s remote operations.  Even though most early commentators believed that the primary role of military aircraft would be in reconnaissance, it was not long before they were being used to orchestrate artillery fire and to conduct bombing from the air. This sequence parallels the development of the Predator towards the end of the twentieth century.  In fact, almost as soon as the dream of flight had been realised the possibility of ‘unmanned flight’ took to the air.  Perhaps the most significant development, though, because it directs our attention to the wider matrix within which aerial violence takes place, was the development of the electronic battlefield in Laos and Cambodia. I’ve written about this in detail in ‘Lines of Descent‘ (DOWNLOADS tab); the electronic battlefield was important not because of what it did – the interdiction program on the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a spectacular failure (something which too many historians have failed to recognise)  – but because of what it showed: it conjured up an imaginative landscape, an automated killing field, in which sensors and shooters were linked through computer systems and automatic relays.  Contemporaries described the system as a vast ‘pinball machine’ (see the image below: you can have no idea how long it took me to track it down…).

Pinball wizards.001

The analogy allowed me to segue into the parallel but wholly inadequate characterisation of today’s remote operations as reducing military violence to a video game.

That is an avowedly ethical objection, of course, so I then turned to The moral economy of bombing.  Here I dissected four of the main ways in which bombing has been justified.  These have taken different forms at different times, and they intersect and on occasion even collide.  But they have been remarkable persistent, so in each case I tracked the arguments involved and showed how they have been radicalised or compromised by the development of Predators and Reapers.

Moral economy of bombing.001

All of these justifications applied to ‘our bombs’, needless to say, which become ‘good bombs’, not to ‘their bombs’ – the ‘bad bombs’.

Their bombs.001


Killing Space

Phillips' Aerial Torpedo.001

I started the second lecture by discussing The deconstruction of the battlefield; the wonder of Raymond Phillips’s fantasies of ‘aerial torpedoes‘ before the First World War was not so much their promise of ‘bomb-dropping by wireless’ but the targets:

Phillips' bomb-dropping by wireless.001

It was this radical extension of the battle space that counted.  In the event,  it was not British airships that dropped bombs on Berlin but German Zeppelins that bombed London and Paris, but the lesson was clear:


To explore the formations and deformations of the battlespace in more detail, I used the image of The dark heart of bombing to describe a battlespace that alternately expanded and contracted.  So Allied bombing in the Second World war extended its deadly envelope beyond Germany, Italy and Japan into Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway and Romania; later the United States would bomb North Vietnam but reserved most of its ordnance for South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; and US air strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq would eventually spill over into Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere.  In the course of those air wars, the accuracy of targeting improved until it was possible to aim (if not always to hit) point-targets – individual buildings and eventually individual people – but this contraction of the killing space was accompanied by its expansion.  These ‘point-targets’ were selected because they were vital nodes that made possible the degradation or even destruction of an entire network.  Hence, for example, the Israeli attack on the Gaza power station (more in a previous post here):

Gaza Power Strip.001

A similar argument can be made about the US Air Force’s boast that it can now put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and I linked the so-called individuation of warfare to the US determination to target individuals wherever they go – to what Jeremy Scahill and others describe as the production of a newly expanded ‘global battlefield’.  What lies behind this is more than the drone, of course, since these killing fields rely on a global system of surveillance orchestrated by the NSA, and I sketched its contours and showed how they issued in the technical production of an ‘individual’ not as a fleshy, corporeal person but as a digital-statistical-spatial artefact (what Ian Hacking once called ‘making people up’ and what Grégoire Chamayou calls ‘schematic bodies‘).

Next I explored a different dialectical geography of the battlespace: Remote splits: intimacy and detachment.  I started with RAF Bomber Command and traced in detail the contrast between the intimacy between members of bomber crews (a mutual dependence reinforced by the bio-convergence between their bodies and the machinery of the bomber itself) and the distance and detachment through which they viewed their targets.

Bioconvergence and the bomber crew.001

Intimacy in Bomber Command.001

The Good Wife.001

Cockpit dials.001

Distance and blindness.001

There’s much more on this in ‘Doors into nowhere‘ (DOWNLOADS tab), though I think my discussion in the Lectures breaks new ground. All of this is in stark contrast to today’s remote operations, where – as Lucy Suchman reminds us – there remains a remarkable (though different) degree of bioconvergence and yet now a persistent isolation and anomie is felt by many pilots and sensor operators who work in shifts:

Anomie and the drone.001

This is thrown into relief by the closeness remote operators feel to the killing space itself, an immersion made possible through the near real-time full-motion video feeds, the internet relay chatter and the radio communications with troops on the ground (where there are any). In contrast to the bomber crews of the Second World War – or those flying over the rainforests of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – there is a repeated insistence on a virtualized proximity to the target.

Good Kill in high-definition.001

But I used a discussion of Andrew Niccol‘s Good Kill to raise a series of doubts about what drone crews really can see, as a way into the next section, Sweet target, which provided an abbreviated presentation of the US air strike in Uruzgan I discuss in much more (I hope forensic) detail in Angry Eyes (see here and here).  That also allowed me to bring together many of the key themes I had isolated in the course of the two lectures.

As I approached my conclusion, I invoked Thomas Hippler‘s Le gouvernement du ciel: Histoire globale des bombardements aériens, (I’ve just discovered that Verso will publish the English-language version later this year or early next: Governing from the skies: a global history of aerial bombing):

Hippler Neo-douhetism.001

I’m not convinced that the military and paramilitary violence being visited on people today is all ‘low-intensity’ (Gaza? Afghanistan? Iraq? Syria? Yemen?).  But neither do I think it’s ‘de-territorialised’, unless the word is flattened into a conventionally Euclidean frame.  Hence, following Stuart Elden‘s lead, I treated territory as a political-juridical technology whose calibrations and enclosures assert, enable and enforce a claim over bodies-in-spaces.  And it was those ‘bodies-on-spaces’ that brought me, finally, to The loneliest space of all:  the irreducible, truly dreadful loneliness of death and grief:

Counting the dead.001

Behind the body-counts and the odious euphemisms of collateral damage and the rest lies the raw, inconsolable loss so exquisitely, painfully rendered in ‘Sky of Horoshima‘…

In the coming days I’ll post some of the key sections of the Lectures in more detail, which I’ll eventually develop into long-form essays.

I learned a lot from the expert and wonderfully constructive commentaries after the Lectures from Grégoire Chamayou, Jochen von Bernstorff and Chris Woods, and I’ll do my best to incorporate their suggestions into the final version.

In his response Grégoire traced my project on military violence in general and bombing/drones in particular back to a series of arguments I’d developed in Geographical imaginations in 1994 about vision, violence and corporeality; I had overlooked these completely, full of the conceit that my work had never stood still…. I shall go back, re-read and think about that some more, since some of the ideas that Grégoire recovered (and elaborated) may be even more helpful to me now.  Jochen and Chris also gave me much food for thought, so I shall be busy in the coming months, and I’m immensely grateful to all three of them.

It’s not brain surgery

I’ve often drawn attention to the biomedical and surgical metaphors that have become commonplace in attempts to sanitise and legitimise later modern war.  Reading Stephen Zunes‘s chillingly helpful commentary, ‘Republican candidates defend killing civilians to fight terrorism—and so do Democrats’, I stumbled across this exchange between Hugh Hewitt and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who compares his own surgical skills to bombing (from the recent Republican Party ‘debate’ on 15 December 2015:

HUGH HEWITT: We’re talking about ruthless things tonight — carpet bombing, toughness, war. And people wonder, could you do that? Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands?

BEN CARSON: … have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job, rather than death by 1,000 pricks.

HEWITT: So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilian? It’s like…

CARSON: You got it. You got it.

A pity he didn’t stick to his day job.

Watching the detectives

Hospital bombing, Kunduz, October 2015 MSF

I wrote about medical neutrality earlier this year (see here).  As I noted then, Physicians for Human Rights stipulates that medical neutrality requires:

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

In the wake of the US air strike on a hospital operated by Médecins Sans Frontières  (MSF) in Kunduz on 3 October, that first requirement assumes even greater significance: the obligation is not merely to exempt medical personnel, patients and infrastructure from military and paramilitary violence but to protect them from attack.

MSF provides details and updates on the strike here.  As I write, far and away the most substantial commentary on what happened – given what we know so far – is Kate Clark‘s detailed analysis at the Afghan Analysts Network here (though Matt Lee‘s angry comparison with an Israeli military attack on a hospital in Gaza is worth reading too).  As Kate notes,

Expressing distrust in the US military, NATO or Afghan government to uncover the truth, [MSF] said it wants an investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC), a body set up by the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions and, says MSF, is the only permanent body set up specifically to investigate violations of international humanitarian law. It has never been used before and, as neither Afghanistan or the United States have formally recognized the Commission, any investigation would have to be voluntary.

logo_ihffcThe IHFFC issued this statement today:

The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) has been contacted by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) in relation to the events in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on 3 October 2015.

The IHFFC stands ready to undertake an investigation but can only do so based on the consent of the concerned State or States. The IHFFC has taken appropriate steps and is in contact with MSF. It cannot give any further information at this stage.

Alex Jeffrey has commented briefly on the geopolitics of any investigation by the IHFFC, but there has been little or no commentary on how the US military investigates civilian casualty incidents – and this merits discussion because the Obama administration has insisted that the inquiry already under way by the Pentagon will be ‘transparent’, ‘thorough’ and ‘objective’.  And whatever may or may not transpire with respect to the IHFFC, it’s exceptionally unlikely that the US military investigation will be stopped.

I’ve worked through five investigations of so-called ‘CIVCAS’ in Afghanistan that have been released through Freedom of Information Act requests.  Each branch of the US military is required to maintain its own digital FOIA Reading Room, so that any documentation supplied in response to these requests is released into the public domain.  I should say that you need to be adept at using the search function, and to have a very good idea of what you are looking for before you start (though the Pentagon has been remarkably helpful in responding to my inquiries and questions).

It’s also fair to say that the release of investigation reports is uneven.  In the immediate aftermath of an earlier, devastating air strike on two tankers hijacked by the Taliban near Kunduz, called in by the German Bundeswehr but carried out by two US aircraft (see my extended discussion here), the United States repeatedly promised to release the investigation report: but it never did, even to the German Bundestag’s committee of inquiry, and despite repeated requests it remains classified.

There is also considerable variation in the transparency and quality of the reports that have been released: some are so heavily redacted that it is extremely (and no doubt intentionally) difficult to construct a reasonably comprehensive narrative, while others are the product of inquiries that seem to have been, at best, perfunctory.

AR 15-6 CIVCAS Uruzgan February 2010

The report into the airstrike in Uruzgan that I have been using for my analysis of the US air strike in Uruzgan in February 2010 – see ‘Angry Eyes (1)‘ and ‘Angry Eyes (2)‘: more to come – is neither.  It has been redacted, presumably for reasons of national, operational or personal security, but its 2,000 pages provide enough detail to reconstruct most of what happened.  And the investigation team was remarkably thorough: by turns forensic, sympathetic, exasperated and eventually blisteringly angry at what they found.  Whether this provides an indication of what we can expect from the present inquiry I don’t know, but it does provide a benchmark of sorts for what we (and, crucially, MSF) ought to expect.  (There are also ongoing investigations by NATO and by the Afghan authorities, but no details have been released about them either).

The strike took place on 21 February 2010, and the very next day General Stanley McChrystal (Commander US Forces – Afghanistan and ISAF, Afghanistan) appointed Major-General Timothy McHale to conduct what the US Army calls ‘an informal investigation’ into the incident that ‘allegedly resulted in the deaths of 12-15 local Afghan nationals and caused injured to others’; McHale was assisted by a team of senior officers, including subject matter experts and legal advisers:

GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.139

There are two points to note here.

First, this was an investigation conducted by the US Army because the airstrike had been called in by US Special Forces and had been carried out by two US Army helicopter crews.  But the strike was orchestrated in large measure by a US Air Force Predator crew from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada; in addition to questioning the soldiers and helicopter crews involved, McHale’s team also questioned the Predator flight crew together with the screeners and video analysts at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida.  McHale’s report triggered a second ‘Commander-Directed Investigation’ by US Air Force Brigadier-General Robert Otto into the actions and assessments of the Predator crew; that report was submitted on 30 June 2010.  As I write, it’s not known who is leading the US investigation into the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz.  Since (on the fourth telling) the strike appears to have been called in by US Special Forces (at the request of Afghan forces) and carried out by a US Air Force AC-130 gunship this will presumably be a joint investigation.

Second, the term ‘informal investigation’ is a technical one; certainly, on McHale’s watch the conduct of the inquiry was remarkably rigorous.  US Army Regulation 15-6 sets out how the Army is to conduct an investigation:

‘The primary function of any investigation or board of officers is to ascertain facts and to report them to the appointing authority. It is the duty of the investigating officer or board to ascertain and consider the evidence on all sides of each issue, thoroughly and impartially, and to make findings and recommendations that are warranted by the facts and that comply with the instructions of the appointing authority.’

Here is the distinction between informal and formal investigations (I’ve taken this summary from a US Army Legal Guide here; the full version, specifying the conduct of an informal investigation, is here and here):

Informal investigations may be used to investigate any matter, to include individual conduct. The fact that an individual may have an interest in the matter under investigation or that the information may reflect adversely on that individual does not require that the proceedings constitute a hearing for that individual. Even if the purpose of the investigation is to inquire into the conduct or performance of a particular individual, formal procedures are not mandatory unless required by other regulations or by higher authority. Informal investigations provide great flexibility. Generally, only one investigating officer is appointed (though multiple officers could be appointed); there is no formal hearing that is open to the public; statements are taken at informal sessions; and there is no named respondent with a right to counsel (unless required by Art 31(b), UCMJ); right to cross-examine witnesses; etc….

“Generally, formal boards are used to provide a hearing for a named respondent. The board offers extensive due process rights to respondents (notice and time to prepare, right to be present at all open sessions, representation by counsel, ability to challenge members for cause, to present evidence and object to evidence, to cross examine witnesses, and to make argument). Formal boards include a president, voting members, and a recorder who presents evidence on behalf of the government. A Judge Advocate (JA) is normally appointed as recorder but is not a voting member. If a recorder is not appointed, the junior member of the board acts as recorder and is a voting member. Additionally, a non-voting legal advisor may be appointed to the board. Formal AR 15-6 investigations are not normally used unless required by regulation.’

In setting all this out, I should add two riders.  In treating MG McHale’s investigation in such detail, I don’t mean to imply that I fully concur with its analysis.  This is a judgement call, of course: the redactions make it difficult to press on several key issues, all of which relate to who knew what when and where (more to come on this).  And neither do I mean to suggest that any US military investigation into what happened in Kunduz, however probing, would be adequate. As MSF’s Chris Stokes has said, ‘relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient.’  But if the report is conducted with the same careful attention to detail – and if it is released with minimal redactions – it would provide a necessary resource for all those involved in and affected by this truly appalling incident.

More to come – I hope.

UPDATE (1):  The US investigation is headed by Brigadier-General Richard Kim.  Nancy Youssef reports that his arrival in Kunduz was delayed ‘because of instability in the northern Afghan city.’ As with the Uruzgan air strike in 2010, the video recording from the AC-130 gunship that carried out the attack, together with audio recordings of conversations between the air crew and ground troops, will be of great importance.  According to Youssef, these show that ‘rules of engagement—the guidelines for the use of force—were misapplied.’  (In the Uruzgan case, the radio conversations between the air crew(s) and the Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground were released in redacted form in response to a FOIA request; apart from a single image of the strike, however, the video remains classified.)

I’ve previously noted the debate surrounding the Pentagon’s new Law of War manual which was issued in June 2015; since the US has admitted that the strike on the hospital was carried out within the US chain of command, section 7.17 on ‘Civilian hospitals and their personnel’ is particularly relevant (see also the Guardian report here):

During international armed conflict, civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm, and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the parties to the conflict.

7.17.1 Loss of Protection for Civilian Hospitals Used to Commit Acts Harmful to the Enemy. The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Acts Harmful to the Enemy. Civilian hospitals must avoid any interference, direct or indirect, in military operations, such as the use of a hospital as a shelter for able-bodied combatants or fugitives, as an arms or ammunition store, as a military observation post, or as a center for liaison with combat forces. However, the fact that sick or wounded members of the armed forces are nursed in these hospitals, or the presence of small arms and ammunition taken from such combatants and not yet handed to the proper service, shall not be considered acts harmful to the enemy. Due Warning Before Cessation of Protection. In addition, protection for civilian hospitals may cease only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit, and after such warning has remained unheeded.


The obligation to refrain from use of force against a civilian medical facility acting in violation of its mission and protected status without due warning does not prohibit the exercise of the right of self-defense. There may be cases in which, in the exercise of the right of self- defense, a warning is not “due” or a reasonable time limit is not appropriate. For example, forces receiving heavy fire from a hospital may exercise their right of self-defense and return fire. Such use of force in self-defense against medical units or facilities must be proportionate. For example, a single enemy rifleman firing from a hospital window would warrant a response against the rifleman only, rather than the destruction of the hospital.

MSF has consistently denied that anyone was firing from the hospital; it has also insisted that it received no advance warning of the attack – on the contrary, MSF ensured that all US and Afghan forces had the co-ordinates of the hospital, and made frantic phone calls to try to stop the bombing once it started.

UPDATE (2):  A team from the Washington Post has produced a remarkably detailed report, ‘based on multiple interviews in Afghanistan and the United States with U.S. and Afghan military officials, Doctors Without Borders personnel and local Kunduz residents’; it includes maps and a graphic showing exactly what an AC-130 is capable of.


As you can see, the illustration makes much of the aircraft’s concentrated firepower, unleashed as it circles counter-clockwise around the target in a five-mile orbit, but the AC-130 also has an extensive sensor suite on board (see ‘Angry Eyes (1)‘: an AC-130 was involved in the early stages of the Uruzgan incident).  The reporters do note that the aircraft is equipped with ‘low-light and thermal sensors that give it a “God’s eye [view]” of the battlefield in almost all weather conditions’ – but, as I’ve tried to show in my posts on Uruzgan (and as we know from other sources!), there’s no such thing as a God’s eye view.  Even so, the aircrew can surely have been in no doubt that they were bombing a hospital.