Meatspace?

In Lucy Suchman‘s marvellous essay on ‘Situational Awareness’ in remote operations she calls attention to what she calls bioconvergence:

A corollary to the configuration of “their” bodies as targets to be killed is the specific way in which “our” bodies are incorporated into war fighting assemblages as operating agents, at the same time that the locus of agency becomes increasingly ambiguous and diffuse. These are twin forms of contemporary bioconvergence, as all bodies are locked together within a wider apparatus characterized by troubling lacunae and unruly contingencies.

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In the wake of her work, there has been a cascade of essays insisting on the embodiment of air strikes carried out by Predators and Reapers – the bodies of the pilots, sensor operators and the legion of others who carry out these remote operations, and the bodies of their victims – and on what Lauren Wilcox calls the embodied and embodying nature of drone warfare (‘Embodying algorithmic war: Gender, race, and the posthuman in drone warfare’ in Security dialogue, 2016; see also Lorraine Bayard de Volo, ‘Unmanned? Gender recalibrations and the rise of drone warfare’, Politics and gender, 2015).  Lauren distinguishes between visual, algorithmic and affective modes of embodiment, and draws on the transcript of what has become a canonical air strike in Uruzgan province (Afghanistan) on 21 February 2010 to develop her claims (more on this in a moment).

And yet it’s a strange sort of embodying because within the targeting process these three registers also produce an estrangement and ultimately an effacement.  The corporeal is transformed into the calculative: a moving target, a data stream, an imminent threat.  If this is still a body at all, it’s radically different from ‘our’ bodies.  As I write these words, I realise I’m not convinced by the passage in George Brant‘s play Grounded in which the face of a little girl on the screen, the daughter of a ‘High Value Target’, becomes the face of the Predator pilot’s own daughter.  For a digital Orientalism is at work through those modes of embodiment that interpellates those watching as spectators of what Edward Said once called ‘a living tableau of queerness’ that in so many cases will become a dead tableau of bodies which remain irredeemably Other.

There is a history to the embodiment of air strikes, as my image above shows.  Aerial violence in all its different guises has almost invariably involved an asymmetric effacement.  The lives – and the bodies – of those who flew the first bombing missions over the Western Front in the First World War; the young men who sacrificed their lives during the Combined Bomber Offensive in the Second World War; and even the tribulations and traumas encountered by the men and women conducting remote operations over Afghanistan and elsewhere have all been documented in fact and in fiction.

And yet, while others – notably social historians, investigative journalists and artists – have sought to bring into view the lives shattered by aerial violence, its administration has long mobilised an affective distance between bomber and bombed.  As I showed in ‘Doors into nowhere’ and ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), the bodies of those crouching beneath the bombs are transformed into abstract co-ordinates, coloured lights and target boxes.  Here is Charles Lindbergh talking about the air war in the Pacific in May 1944:

You press a button and death flies down.  One second the bomb is hanging harmlessly in your racks, completely under your control.  The next it is hurtling through the air, and nothing in your power can revoke what you have done…  How can there be writhing, mangled bodies?  How can this air around you be filled with unseen projectiles?  It is like listening to a radio account of a battle on the other side of the earth.  It is too far away, too separated to hold reality.

Or Frank Musgrave, a navigator with RAF Bomber Command, writing about missions over Germany that same year:

These German cities were simply coordinates on a map of Europe, the first relatively near, involving around six hours of flying, the second depressingly distant, involving some eight or nine hours of flying. Both sets of coordinates were at the centre of areas shaded deep red on our maps to indicate heavy defences. For me ‘Dortmund’ and ‘Leipzig’ had no further substance or concrete reality.

Harold Nash, another navigator:

It was black, and then suddenly in the distance you saw lights on the floor, the fires burning.  As you drew near, they looked like sparkling diamonds on a black satin background… [T]hey weren’t people to me, just the target.  It’s the distance and the blindness which enabled you to do these things.

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One last example – Peter Johnson, a Group Captain who served with distinction with RAF Bomber Command:

Targets were now marked by the Pathfinder Force … and these instructions, to bomb a marker, introduced a curiously impersonal factor into the act of dropping huge quantities of bombs.  I came to realize that crews were simply bored by a lot of information about the target.  What concerned them were the details of route and navigation, which colour Target Indicator they were to bomb… In the glare of searchlights, with the continual winking of anti-aircraft shells, the occasional thud when one came close and left its vile smell, what we had to do was search for coloured lights dropped by our own people, aim our bombs at them and get away.

The airspace through which the bomber stream flew was a viscerally biophysical realm, in which the crews’ bodies registered the noise of the engines, the shifts in course and elevation, the sound and stink of the flak, the abrupt lift of the aircraft once the bombs were released.  They were also acutely aware of their own bodies: fingers numbed by the freezing cold, faces encased in rubbery oxygen masks, and frantic fumblings over the Elsan.  But the physicality of the space far below them was reduced to the optical play of distant lights and flames, and the crushed, asphyxiated and broken bodies appeared – if they appeared at all – only in their nightmares.

These apprehensions were threaded into what I’ve called a ‘moral economy of bombing’ that sought (in different ways and at different times) to legitimise aerial violence by lionising its agents and marginalising its victims (see here: scroll down).

But remote operations threaten to transform this calculus.  Those who control Predators and Reapers sit at consoles in air-conditioned containers, which denies them the physical sensations of flight.  Yet in one, as it happens acutely optical sense they are much closer to the devastation they cause: eighteen inches away, they usually say, the distance from eye to screen.  And the strikes they execute are typically against individuals or small groups of people (rather than objects or areas), and they rely on full-motion video feeds that show the situation both before and after in detail (however imperfectly).  Faced with this highly conditional intimacy, as Lauren shows, the bodies that appear in the cross-hairs are produced as killable bodies through a process of somatic abstraction – leaving the fleshy body behind – that is abruptly reversed once the missile is released.

Thus in the coda to the original version of ‘Dirty Dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab) – and which I’ve since excised from what was a very long essay; reworked, it will appear in a revised form as ‘The territory of the screen’ – I described how

intelligence agencies produce and reproduce the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] as a data field that is systematically mined to expose seams of information and selectively sown with explosives to be rematerialised as a killing field. The screens on which and through which the strikes are animated are mediations in an extended sequence in which bodies moving into, through and out from the FATA are tracked and turned into targets in a process that Ian Hacking describes more generally as ‘making people up’: except that in this scenario the targets are not so much ‘people’ as digital traces. The scattered actions and interactions of individuals are registered by remote sensors, removed from the fleshiness of human bodies and reassembled as what Grégoire Chamayou calls ‘schematic bodies’. They are given codenames (‘Objective x’) and index numbers, they are tracked on screens and their danse macabre is plotted on time-space grids and followed by drones. But as soon as the Hellfire missiles are released the transformations that have produced the target over the preceding weeks and months cascade back into the human body: in an instant virtuality becomes corporeality and traces turn into remains.

There are two difficulties in operationalising that last sentence.  One is bound up with evidence – and in particular with reading what Oliver Kearns calls the ‘residue’ of covert strikes (see his ‘Secrecy and absence in the residue of covert drone strikes’, Political Geography, 2016) – and the other is one that I want to address here.

To do so, let me turn from the FATA to Yemen.  The Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights in Sa’ana has released a short documentary, Waiting for Justice, that details the effects of a US drone strike on civilians:

If the embedded version doesn’t work, you can find it on YouTube.

At 6 a.m. on 19 April 2014 a group of men – mainly construction workers, plus one young father hitching a ride to catch a bus into Saudi Arabia –  set off from from their villages in al-Sawma’ah to drive to al-Baidha city; 20 to 30 metres behind their Toyota Hilux, it turned out, was a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying suspected members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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That car was being tracked by a drone: it fired a Hellfire missile, striking the car and killing the occupants, and shrapnel hit the Hilux.  Some of the civilians sought refuge in an abandoned water canal, when the drone (or its companion) returned for a second strike.

Four of them were killed – Sanad Hussein Nasser al-Khushum (30), Yasser Abed Rabbo al-Azzani (18), Ahmed Saleh Abu Bakr (65) and Abdullah Nasser Abu Bakr al-Khushu – and five were injured: the driver, Nasser Mohammed Nasser (35), Abdulrahman Hussein al-Khushum (22), Najib Hassan Nayef (35 years), Salem Nasser al-Khushum (40) and Bassam Ahmed Salem Breim (20).

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The film draws on Death by Drone: civilian harm caused by US targeted killing in Yemen, a collaborative investigation carried out by the Open Society Justice Initiative in the United States and Mwatana in Yemen into nine drone strikes: one of them (see pp. 42-48) is the basis of the documentary; the strike is also detailed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as YEM159 here.

That report, together with the interview and reconstruction for the documentary, have much to tell us about witnesses and residues.

In addition the father of one of the victims, describing the strike in the film, says ‘They slaughter them like sheep‘…

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… and, as Joe Pugliese shows in a remarkable new essay, that phrase contains a violent, visceral truth.

Joe describes a number of other US strikes in Yemen – by cruise missiles and by Hellfire missiles fired from drones (on which see here; scroll down) – in which survivors and rescuers confronted a horrific aftermath in which the incinerated flesh of dead animals and the flesh of dead human beings became indistinguishable.  This is a radically different, post-strike bioconvergence that Joe calls a geobiomorphology:

The bodies of humans and animals are here compelled to enflesh the world through the violence of war in a brutally literal manner: the dismembered and melted flesh becomes the ‘tissue of things’ as it geobiomorphologically enfolds the contours of trees and rocks. What we witness in this scene of carnage is the transliteration of metadata algorithms to flesh. The abstracting and decorporealising operations of metadata ‘without content’ are, in these contexts of militarised slaughter of humans and animals, geobiomorphologically realised and grounded in the trammelled lands of the Global South.

Indeed, he’s adamant that it is no longer possible to speak of the corporeal in the presence of such ineffable horror:

One can no longer talk of corporeality here. Post the blast of a drone Hellfire missile, the corpora of animals-humans are rendered into shredded carnality. In other words, operative here is the dehiscence of the body through the violence of an explosive centripetality that disseminates flesh. The moment of lethal violence transmutes flesh into unidentifiable biological substance that is violently compelled geobiomorphologically to assume the topographical contours of the debris field.

By these means, he concludes,

the subjects of the Global South [are rendered] as non-human animals captivated in their lawlessness and inhuman savagery and deficient in everything that defines the human-rights-bearing subject. In contradistinction to the individuating singularity of the Western subject as named person, they embody the anonymous genericity of the animal and the seriality of the undifferentiated and fungible carcass. As subjects incapable of embodying the figure of “the human,” they are animals who, when killed by drone attacks, do not die but only come to an end.

You can read the essay, ‘Death by Metadata: The bioinformationalisation of life and the transliteration of algorithms to flesh’, in Holly Randell-Moon and Ryan Tippet (eds) Security, race, biopower: essays on technology and corporeality (London: Palgrave, 2016) 3-20.

It’s an arresting, truly shocking argument.  You might protest that the incidents described in the essay are about ordnance not platform – that a cruise missile fired from a ship or a Hellfire missile fired from an attack helicopter would produce the same effects.  And so they have.  But Joe’s point is that where Predators and Reapers are used to execute targeted killings they rely on the extraction of metadata and its algorithmic manipulation to transform individualised, embodied life into a stream of data – a process that many of us have sought to recover – but that in the very moment of execution those transformations are not simply, suddenly reversed but displaced into a generic flesh.  (And there is, I think, a clear implication that those displacements are pre-figured in the original de-corporealisation – the somatic abstraction – of the target).

Joe’s discussion is clearly not intended to be limited to those (literal) instances where animals are caught up in a strike; it is, instead, a sort of limit-argument designed to disclose the bio-racialisation of targeted killing in the global South.  It reappears time and time again.  Here is a sensor operator, a woman nicknamed “Sparkle”,  describing the aftermath of a strike in Afghanistan conducted from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada:

Sparkle could see a bunch of hot spots all over the ground, which were likely body parts. The target was dead, but that isn’t always the case. The Hellfire missile only has 12 pounds of explosives, so making sure the target is in the “frag pattern,” hit by shrapnel, is key.

As the other Reaper flew home to refuel and rearm, Spade stayed above the target, watching as villagers ran to the smoldering motorbike. Soon a truck arrived. Spade and Sparkle watched as they picked up the target’s blasted body.

“It’s just a dead body,” Sparkle said. “I grew up elbows deep in dead deer. We do what we needed to do. He’s dead. Now we’re going to watch him get buried.”

The passage I’ve emphasised repeats the imaginary described by the strike survivor in Yemen – but from the other side of the screen.

Seen thus, Joe’s argument speaks directly to the anguished question asked by one of the survivors of the Uruzgan killings in Afghanistan:

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How can you not identify us? (The question – and the still above – are taken from the reconstruction in the documentary National Bird).  We might add: How do you identify us?  These twin questions intersect with a vital argument developed by Christiane Wilke, who is deeply concerned that civilians now ‘have to establish, perform and confirm their civilianhood by establishing and maintaining legible patterns of everyday life, by conforming to gendered and racialized expectations of mobility, and by not ever being out of place, out of time’ (see her chapter, ‘The optics of war’, in Sheryl Hamilton, Diana Majury, Dawn Moore, Neil Sargent and Christiane Wilke, eds., Sensing Law [2017] pp 257-79: 278).  As she wrote to me:

I’m really disturbed by the ways in which the burden of making oneself legible to the eyes in the sky is distributed: we don’t have to do any of that here, but the people to whom we’re bringing the war have to perform civilian-ness without fail.

Asymmetry again.  Actors required to perform their civilian-ness in a play they haven’t devised before an audience they can’t see – and which all too readily misunderstands the plot.  And if they fail they become killable bodies.

But embodying does not end there; its terminus is the apprehension of injured and dead bodies.  So let me add two riders to the arguments developed by Lauren and Joe.  I’ll do so by returning to the Uruzgan strike.

I should say at once that this is a complicated case (see my previous discussions here and here).  In the early morning three vehicles moving down dusty roads and tracks were monitored for several hours by a Predator controlled by a flight crew at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada; to the south a detachment of US Special Forces was conducting a search operation around the village of Khod, supported by Afghan troops and police; and when the Ground Force Commander determined that this was a ‘convoy’ of Taliban that posed a threat to his men he called in an air strike executed by two OH-58 attack helicopters that killed 15 or 16 people and wounded a dozen others.  All of the victims were civilians.  This was not a targeted killing, and there is little sign of the harvesting of metadata or the mobilisation of algorithms – though there was some unsubstantiated  talk of the possible presence of a ‘High-Value Individual’ in one of the vehicles, referred to both by name and by the codename assigned to him on the Joint Prioritised Effects List, and while the evidence for this seems to have been largely derived from chatter on short-wave radios picked up by the Special Forces on the ground it is possible that a forward-deployed NASA team at Bagram was also involved in communications intercepts.  Still, there was no geo-locational fixing, no clear link between these radio communications and the three vehicles, and ultimately it was the visual construction of their movement and behaviour as a ‘hostile’ pattern of life that provoked what was, in effect, a signature strike.  But this was not conventional Close Air Support either: the Ground Force Commander declared first a precautionary ‘Air TIC’ (Troops In Contact) so that strike aircraft could be ready on station to come to his defence – according to the investigation report, this created ‘a false sense of urgency’ –  and then ‘Troops in Contact’.  Yet when the attack helicopters fired their missiles no engagement had taken place and the vehicles were moving away from Khod (indeed, they were further away than when they were first observed).  This was (mis)read as ‘tactical maneuvering’.

My first rider is that the process is not invariably the coldly, calculating sequence conjured by the emphasis on metadata and algorithms – what Dan McQuillan calls ‘algorithmic seeing’ – or the shrug-your-shouders attitude of Sparkle.  This is why the affective is so important, but it is multidimensional.  I doubt that it is only in films like Good Kill (below) or Eye in the Sky that pilots and sensor operators are uncomfortable, even upset at what they do.  Not all sensor operators are Brandon Bryant – but they aren’t all Sparkle either.

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All commentaries on the Uruzgan strike – including my own – draw attention to how the pilot, sensor operator and mission intelligence coordinator watching the three vehicles from thousands of miles away were predisposed to interpret every action as hostile.  The crew was neither dispassionate nor detached; on the contrary, they were eager to move in for the kill.  At least some of those in the skies above Uruzgan had a similar view.  The lead pilot of the two attack helicopters that carried out the strike was clearly invested in treating the occupants of the vehicles as killable bodies.  He had worked with the Special Operations detachment before, knew them very well, and – like the pilot of the Predator – believed they were ‘about to get rolled up and I wanted to go and help them out… [They] were about to get a whole lot of guys in their face.’

Immediately after the strike the Predator crew convinced themselves that the bodies were all men (‘military-aged males’):

08:53 (Safety Observer): Are they wearing burqas?

08:53 (Sensor): That’s what it looks like.

08:53 (Pilot): They were all PIDed as males, though. No females in the group.

08:53 (Sensor): That guy looks like he’s wearing jewelry and stuff like a girl, but he ain’t … if he’s a girl, he’s a big one.

Reassured, the crew relaxed and their conversation became more disparaging:

09:02 (Mission Intelligence Coordinator (MC)): There’s one guy sitting down.

09:02 (Sensor): What you playing with? (Talking to individual on ground.)

09:02 (MC): His bone.

….

09:04 (Sensor): Yeah, see there’s…that guy just sat up.

09:04 (Safety Observer): Yeah.

09:04 (Sensor): So, it looks like those lumps are probably all people.

09:04 (Safety Observer): Yep.

09:04 (MC): I think the most lumps are on the lead vehicle because everybody got… the Hellfire got…

….

09:06 (MC): Is that two? One guy’s tending the other guy?

09:06 (Safety Observer): Looks like it.

09:06 (Sensor): Looks like it, yeah.

09:06 (MC): Self‐Aid Buddy Care to the rescue.

09:06 (Safety Observer): I forget, how do you treat a sucking gut wound?

09:06 (Sensor): Don’t push it back in. Wrap it in a towel. That’ll work.

The corporeality of the victims flickers into view in these exchanges, but in a flippantly anatomical register (‘playing with … his bone’; ‘Don’t push it back in.  Wrap it in a towel..’).

But the helicopter pilots reported the possible presence of women, identified only by their brightly coloured dresses, and soon after (at 09:10) the Mission Intelligence Coordinator said he saw ‘Women and children’, which was confirmed by the screeners.  The earlier certainty, the desire to kill, gave way to uncertainty, disquiet.

These were not the only eyes in the sky and the sequence was not closed around them.   Others watching the video feed – the analysts and screeners at Hurlburt Field in Florida, the staff at the Special Operations Task Force Operations Centre in Kandahar – read the imagery more circumspectly.  Many of them were unconvinced that these were killable bodies – when the shift changed in the Operations Centre the Day Battle Captain called in a military lawyer for advice, and the staff agreed to call in another helicopter team to force the vehicles to stop and determine their status and purpose – and many of them were clearly taken aback by the strike.   Those military observers who were most affected by the strike were the troops on the ground.  The commander who had cleared the attack helicopters to engage was ferried to the scene to conduct a ‘Sensitive Site Exploitation’.  What he found, he testified, was ‘horrific’: ‘I was upset physically and emotionally’.

My second rider is that war provides – and also provokes – multiple apprehensions of the injured or dead body.  They are not limited to the corpo-reality of a human being and its displacement and dismemberment into what Joe calls ‘carcass’.  In the Uruzgan case the process of embodying did not end with the strike and the continued racialization and gendering of its victims by the crew of the Predator described by Lauren.

The Sensitive Site Exploitation – the term was rescinded in June 2010; the US Army now prefers simply  ‘site exploitation‘, referring to the systematic search for and collection of ‘information, material, and persons from a designated location and analyzing them to answer information requirements, facilitate subsequent operations, or support criminal prosecution’ – was first and foremost a forensic exercise.  Even in death, the bodies were suspicious bodies.  A priority was to establish a security perimeter and conduct a search of the site.  The troops were looking for survivors but they were also searching for weapons, for evidence that those killed were insurgents and for any intelligence that could be gleaned from their remains and their possessions.  This mattered: the basis for the attack had been the prior identification of weapons from the Predator’s video feed and a (highly suspect) inference of hostile intent.   But it took three and a half hours for the team to arrive at the engagement site by helicopter, and a naval expert on IEDs and unexploded ordnance who was part of the Special Forces detachment was immediately convinced that the site had been ‘tampered with’.  The bodies had been moved, presumably by people from a nearby village who had come to help:

The bodies had been lined up and had been covered… somebody else was on the scene prior to us … The scene was contaminated [sic] before we got there.

He explained to MG Timothy McHale, who lead the subsequent inquiry, what he meant:

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The Ground Force Commander reported that he ‘wouldn’t take photos of the KIA [Killed in Action] – but of the strike’, yet it proved impossible to maintain a clinical distinction between them (see the right hand panel below; he also reported finding bodies still trapped in and under the vehicles).

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His photographs of the three vehicles were annotated by the investigation team to show points of impact, but the bodies of some of the dead were photographed too.  These still photographs presumably also had evidentiary value – though unlike conventional crime scene imagery they were not, so far I can tell, subject to any rigorous analysis.  In any case: what evidentiary value?  Or,  less obliquely, whose crime?  Was the disposition of the bodies intended to confirm they had been moved, the scene ‘contaminated’ – the investigator’s comments on the photograph note ‘Bodies from Vehicle Two did not match blast pattern’ – so that any traces of insurgent involvement could have been erased?  (There is another story here, because the investigation uncovered evidence that staff in the Operations Centres refused to accept the first reports of civilian casualties, and there is a strong suspicion that initial storyboards were manipulated to conceal that fact).  Or do the shattered corpses driven into metal and rock silently confirm the scale of the incident and the seriousness of any violation of the laws of war and the rules of engagement?

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The Ground Force Commander also had his medics treat the surviving casualties, and called in a 9-line request (‘urgent one priority’) for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC).  Military helicopters took the injured to US and Dutch military hospitals at Tarin Kowt, and en route they became the objects of a biomedical gaze that rendered their bodies as a series of visible wounds and vital signs that were distributed among the boxes of standard MEDEVAC report forms:

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At that stage none of the injured was identified by name (see the first box on the top left); six of the cases – as they had become – were recorded as having been injured by ‘friendly’ forces, but five of them mark ‘wounded by’ as ‘unknown’.  Once in hospital they were identified, and the investigation team later visited them and questioned them about the incident and their injuries (which they photographed).

These photographs and forms are dispassionate abstractions of mutilated and pain-bearing bodies, but it would be wrong to conclude from these framings that those producing them – the troops on the ground, the medics and EMTs – were not affected by what they saw.

And it would also be wrong to conclude that military bodies are immune from these framings.  Most obviously, these are standard forms used for all MEDEVAC casualties, civilian or military, and all patients are routinely reduced to an object-space (even as they also remain so much more than that: there are multiple, co-existing apprehensions of the human body).

k9963Yet I have in mind something more unsettling.  Ken MacLeish reminds us that

for the soldier, there is no neat division between what gore might mean for a perpetrator and what it might mean for a victim, because he is both at once. He is stuck in the middle of this relation, because this relation is the empty, undetermined center of the play of sovereign violence: sometimes the terror is meant for the soldier, sometimes he is merely an incidental witness to it, and sometimes he, or his side, is the one responsible for it.

If there is no neat division there is no neat symmetry either; not only is there a spectacular difference between the vulnerability of pilots and sensor operators in the continental United States and their troops on the ground – a distance which I’ve argued intensifies the desire of some remote crews to strike whenever troops are in danger –  but there can also be a substantial difference between the treatment of fallen friends and foe: occasional differences in the respect accorded to dead bodies and systematic differences in the (long-term) care of injured ones.

But let’s stay with Ken.  He continues:

Soldiers say that a body that has been blown up looks like spaghetti. I heard this again and again – the word conjures texture, sheen, and abject, undifferentiated mass, forms that clump into knots or collapse into loose bits.

He wonders where this comes from:

Does it domesticate the violence and loss? Is it a critique? Gallows humor? Is it a reminder, perhaps, that you are ultimately nothing more than the dumb matter that you eat, made whole and held together only by changeable circumstance? Despite all the armor, the body is open to a hostile world and can collapse into bits in the blink of an eye, at the speed of radio waves, electrons, pressure plate springs, and hot metal. The pasta and red sauce are reminders that nothing is normal and everything has become possible. Some body—one’s own body—has been placed in a position where it is allowed to die. More than this, though, it has been made into a thing…

One soldier described recovering his friend’s body after his tank had been hit by an IED:

… everything above his knees was turned into fucking spaghetti. Whatever was left, it popped the top hatch, where the driver sits, it popped it off and it spewed whatever was left of him all over the front slope. And I don’t know if you know … not too many people get to see a body like that, and it, and it…

We went up there, and I can remember climbing up on the slope, and we were trying to get everybody out, ’cause the tank was on fire and it was smoking. And I kept slipping on – I didn’t know what I was slipping on, ’cause it was all over me, it was real slippery. And we were trying to get the hatch open, to try to get Chris out. My gunner, he reached in, reached in and grabbed, and he pulled hisself back. And he was like, “Holy shit!” I mean, “Holy shit,” that was all he could say. And he had cut his hand. Well, what he cut his hand on was the spinal cord. The spine had poked through his hand and cut his hand on it, ’cause there was pieces of it left in there. And we were trying to get up, and I reached down and pushed my hand down to get up, and I reached up and looked up, and his goddamn eyeball was sitting in my hand. It had splattered all up underneath the turret. It was all over me, it was all over everybody, trying to get him out of there…

I think Ken’s commentary on this passage provides another, compelling perspective on the horror so deeply embedded in Joe’s essay:

There is nothing comic or subversive here; only horror. Even in the middle of the event, it’s insensible, unspeakable: and it, and it …, I didn’t know what I was slipping on. The person is still there, and you have to “get him out of there,” but he’s everywhere and he’s gone at the same time. The whole is gone, and the parts – the eye, the spine, and everything else – aren’t where they should be. A person reduced to a thing: it was slippery, it was all over, that was what we sent home. He wasn’t simply killed; he was literally destroyed. Through a grisly physics, there was somehow less of him than there had been before, transformed from person into dumb and impersonal matter.

‘Gore,’ he concludes, ‘is about the horror of a person being replaced by stuff that just a moment ago was a person.’  Explosive violence ruptures the integrity of the contained body – splattered over rocks or metal surfaces in a catastrophic bioconvergence.

I hope it will be obvious that none of this is intended to substitute any sort of equivalence for the asymmetries that I have emphasised throughout this commentary.  I hope, too, that I’ve provided a provisional supplement to some of the current work on metadata, algorithms and aerial violence – hence my title.  As Linda McDowell remarked an age ago – in Working Bodies (pp. 223-4) – the term ‘meatspace’ is offensive in all sorts of ways (its origins lie in cyberpunk where it connoted the opposite to cyberspace, but I concede the opposition is too raw).  Still, it is surely important to recover the ways in which later modern war and militarised violence (even in its digital incarnations) is indeed obdurately, viscerally offensive – for all of the attempts to efface what Huw Lemmey once called its ‘devastation in meatspace‘.

Data.mil

Four years ago I described Project THOR (Theatre History of Operations Reports), Lt Col Jenns Robertson‘s remarkable attempt to transcribe, standardise and integrate the available records of US Air Force strike missions – see here (scroll down) and (especially) here.

His databases have now been incorporated into Defense Digital Service‘s  data.mil, described as ‘an attempt in open defence data’: it’s also an experiment, which invites not only use but interaction and comment.  You can now access the THOR databases – and find the backstory – here.

In 2006, Lt Col Jenns Robertson and his team in the Pentagon faced a daunting task. Every week, the Air Force’s Chief of Staff and other senior military officers would ask for the latest on the air war in Iraq and Afghanistan – how many aircraft had flown that week, which ground units they supported, and what munitions they had dropped.

Working in the Air Force’s Operations Directorate, Robertson had access to a wide array of classified data sources, yet the weekly report was tedious to produce.  Data was not easily searched and often contained only half the picture, forcing Robertson’s team to assemble the report manually every week over the course of several days. He knew there was an easier way.

In his spare time, Robertson began creating the Theater History of Operations Reports (THOR), initially a simple Excel spreadsheet that eventually matured into the largest compilation of releasable U.S. air operations data in existence. Robertson tested his database with his team, asking them to generate the Chief’s weekly report twice — once manually, and again using THOR. The result was impressive: THOR cut the report work from three days to just under an hour.

After receiving Department of Defense approvals, Robertson was able to post THOR files online so interested public citizens could search the data for their own purposes. Robertson understands the vast potential benefits of opening such a large compilation of previously inaccessible data to the public. “I can’t envision all the ways this can be used”.

One of the first (once forbidden) fruits of releasing this data to the public is a remarkable map by Cooper Thomas plotting 3.1 million US bombing and ground attack missions (including Close Air Support and aerial interdiction) in North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1966 and 1974:

vietnamwarbombing-01

Cooper promises further explorations of this and other THOR databases; if you know of any others, please let me know [see UPDATE below].

Data.mil is promising to release a new ‘data story’ each month – next month should see the release of a military casualty database.  The site went live in December 2016, and  Mary Lazzeri and Major Aaron Capizzi explain the background:

Mary:  Major Aaron Capizzi, USAF had the idea to use open data principles to solve Department of Defense (DoD) problems after attending a panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School sponsored by former Deputy CTO, Nick Sinai. In addition, I had been looking to seed an open data effort at DoD. Aaron’s idea, coupled with the opportunity to present the Theater History of Operations (THOR) bombing data in a new and interesting way, provided a perfect opportunity to put energy behind the effort.

We’re looking to use this pilot to jumpstart a larger open data effort at DoD. The beta site is a working proof-of-concept. The next step is to show the larger DoD community that open data merits investment.

Aaron: Our approach is unique in two ways. First, Data.mil will test various ways of sharing defense-related information, gauging public interest and potential value, while protecting security and privacy. We will quickly iterate and improve the data offerings on data.mil, using public feedback and internal department discussions to best unlock the value of defense data. Our goal is to provide all data with enough context that users, both the public and defense employees, can understand the potential value and get started using data quickly.

Second, Data.mil will prioritize opening data using a demand-driven model, focusing on quality rather than standard quantity metrics. The Department of Defense regularly reports on the significant challenges we face in defending the nation, which range from attracting talented recruits to developing game-changing technology within constrained budgets. Most of these aspects of defense business generate large amounts of unclassified data which, if released, can encourage collaboration and innovation with public and private sector partners.

Mary: The site is built using an open data storytelling platform, LiveStories. Rather than simply posting a list of datasets, the goal of Data.mil is to tell stories with data. The site provides narratives to complement the data so users can more quickly understand and begin using it. LiveStories was selected for its visualization and data analysis features allowing us to present an engaging site for its users. In addition, it’s easy to use. Non-technical staff can use the platform to share their data and tell their stories.

We want to compel collaboration from military components, industry partners and the public. The partnership with data.world enables that collaboration providing the social media tools to support exploration and a community discussion of the data.

Conversely, it’s also worth thinking about how digital platforms are now used to plan and execute air strikes.  As the origins of Project THOR show, there are crucial links between retrospective reporting and prospective mission planning.

UPDATE:  I’ve since discovered this map of Allied bombing raids over Europe in the Second World War by Dimitri Lozeve, also drawn from Data.mil’s THOR database (click on the link for an enlarged version):

Allied bombing in Europe, 1939-1945

You can zoom in; here are two close-ups:

screen-shot-2017-01-18-at-12-35-23-pm

screen-shot-2017-01-18-at-12-38-26-pm

The map comes without a key; all I know is that the original tabulations include ‘U.S. and Royal Air Force data, as well as some Australian, New Zealand and South African air force mission’ 1939-1945 and refer to tonnages dropped: more discussion here.

On the global scale, Data Is Beautiful has a GIF showing ‘every bomb dropped by Allied forces in World War II); you can view it as a video here, from which I’ve grabbed these screenshots that capture the shift from the European to the Pacific theatre:

allied-bombing-october-1940

allied-bombing-june-1943

allied-bombing-june-1944

allied-bombing-november-1944

allied-bombing-june-1945

Data World‘s Ian Greenleigh has kindly alerted me to a similar treatment of the THOR database for Vietnam by his colleague Mark DiMarco here:

Our point-of-view is from high above the South China Sea, where much of the US Navy fleet was stationed.
By giving the user a bird’s eye view, we can clearly see up and down the Vietnamese peninsula, and the neighboring countries of Laos & Cambodia, and precisely see where these missions took place.
Each frame of the visualization is a single day’s worth of missions. Some days had as many as 1,500 missions, while the records for some days are completely missing.
The colors of each of the circles dictates what type of mission took place.

The GIF is here; screenshot from the interactive:

Vietnam bombing GIF

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):

screen-shot-2017-01-06-at-12-02-44

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.

global-strike-challenge-usafjpg

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:

deighton-home-office-1

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

eyes_in_the_skies_pic

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.