The Last Dance

Mansour strike photo

I have – at long last – finished the longform version of “Dirty dancing: drones and death in the borderlands“, which analyses drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and situates them within a wider context of military violence in the region.  You can find it under the DOWNLOADS tab, but I’ve pasted the conclusion below; there’s also a video of the last presentation I gave under that title here.

To make sense of the conclusion, I should explain that the essay opens by juxtaposing the killing of two people, Baitullah Mehsud (leader of the Pakistan Taliban) and Mamana Bibi (a village midwife), to pose the question: what kinds of spaces are the FATA made to be for incidents like these – incidents as unlike as these – to be possible?

My answer works with two framing devices.

The first is the space of exception – a space in which people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the political-juridical removal of legal protections and affordances that would otherwise be available to them.  My version of this is different from that proposed by Giorgio Agamben, and far from invoking a suspension of the law I explore three legal geographies that have been used to prepare the ground for aerial violence in the borderlands.

The second is the space of execution; here I riff off Owen Sheers‘ perceptive remark about ‘the territory of the screen’ (as I note, ‘Killing somebody with a Hellfire missile controlled from thousands of miles away depends upon a screen – or more accurately a series of screens – on which the image of a human body will eventually be touched by the cross-hairs of a targeting pod’).  Owen’s phrase is much more than metaphor, so I treat ‘territory’ as a (bio)political technology whose calibrations enable states to assert, enact and enforce a claim over bodies-in-space (you can no doubt hear the echoes of Stuart Elden) and then explore the technicity involved in three of its screen elements that jointly transform the FATA into a space of execution: kill lists, signals intercepts and visual feeds.


Mamana Bibi's surviving family

Here, then, is the conclusion:

The production of the borderlands as spaces of exception and spaces of execution are attempts to force those who live there into particular subject-positions as a means of subjugation. These positions are partial and precarious but the project to establish them as legitimate and rational has consequences that are material and affective. They clearly affect those targeted – people like Baitullah Mehsud – whose political agency exceeds in terrifying ways the normative space allowed them by the state of Pakistan and the United States and in so doing brings their actions to the attention of both. But they also impact the rest of the population in the FATA, constricting their mobilities and stoking their fears to such a degree that ‘normal life’ for many of them threatens to become a memory or a fantasy. Their existence is rendered more precarious because the subject-positions to which they are so brutally assigned are racialized. These are ‘tribal peoples’, different from those who inhabit ‘mainland Pakistan’, while the United States writes off their incidental deaths as ‘collateral damage’ whose anonymity confers on them no individuality only a collective ascription. When a CIA-directed drone strike on a compound in the Shawal Valley of South Waziristan on 15 January 2015 was found to have killed not only a deputy leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and a local Taliban commander but also two hostages, an American development contractor and an Italian aid worker, a ‘grim-faced’ and ‘visibly moved’ Obama made a personal and public apology. [i] The rarity of the gesture is revealing. For the value of their lives was acknowledged and their deaths were made grievable in ways that others – which is to say Others – were not. Nobody has ever accepted responsibility or apologised for the death of Mamana Bibi or any of the other innocent victims of aerial violence.

For this reason it is important to resist those versions of the space of exception that are complicit in the denial of agency to those who live within its confines. The state of Pakistan administers the inhabitants of the FATA through Political Agents: but this does not remove (though it does diminish) their own political agency. Pakistan’s armed forces conduct clearing operations that ruthlessly drive people from their homes and into camps for displaced persons: but this does not turn the FATA into one vast ‘camp’. The presence of US drones strips those who live under them of their well-being and dignity: but this does not reduce them to ‘bare life’. Similarly, the emergent subject that is produced within the space of execution, apprehended as a network trace, a sensor signature and a screen image, is a cipher that stands in for – and in the way of – a corporeal actor whose existence is not measured by the calculative alone.


This version, or something very much like it, will appear in a collection edited by Caren Kaplan and Lisa Parks, Life in the Age of Drones.  But an (even longer!) version will eventually appear in my own book, with images and maps (you can find many of them scattered through my previous posts: for example here, here and here), so I really would welcome any comments or suggestions if you have time to read the full thing:


Killboxes and drone shadows

After the AAG Conference in San Francisco next month I’m heading across to UC Davis for a conference on ‘Eyes in the skies: Drones and the politics of distance warfare‘, organised by Caren Kaplan (5 April if you’re in the area).  The event is sponsored by the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Surveillance Democracies and the Mellon Research Initiative in Digital Cultures.

The program includes a presentation from Joseph DeLappe and a panel on his work.  His own presentation is on Killbox, a game on/about drone warfare.

Killbox is an online game and interactive installation that critically explores the nature of drone warfare, its complexities and consequences. It is an experience which explores the use of technology to transform and extend political and military power, and the abstraction of killing through virtualisation.

Killbox involves audiences in a fictionalized interactive experience in virtual environments based on documented drones strikes in Northern Pakistan.

The work is an international collaboration between U.S. based artist/activist, Joseph DeLappe and Scotland-based artists and game developers, Malath Abbas, Tom Demajo and Albert Elwin.

If you want to know more about kill-boxes, incidentally, I provided a detailed discussion in one of my commentaries on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone – you can find it here: scroll down –  and there’s a recent essay by Scott Beauchamp for the Atlantic on ‘the moral cost of the kill-box’ here:

Kill boxes might have been one strategic reason why the Gulf War only lasted 100 hours.

In particular, kill boxes proved an efficient way for the Air Force to dismantle opposing militaries. This worked in 1991, and again during the first years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these early stages, using a kill box required positive identification of an enemy target, a process called PID, before engaging. “We have to visually identify the target and we have to determine whether it’s a hostile [military] target. We determine that it’s not friendly by using visual recognition features and through ground elements of the nearest friendly positions,” Air Force Major Greg Defore told National Defense Magazine in 2003. In other words: Servicemen look at who or what they’re going to shoot with their own eyes before shooting to make sure the person or object is actually the part of the enemy’s military forces. “You may be 100 percent sure that a vehicle is not a friendly and still not engage. It could, for instance, be a humanitarian food truck or a farm vehicle,” Defore said.

This strategy worked well during the initial invasion of Iraq, but only because the opposing team was wearing a jersey, so to speak. It was possible to look at a truck and know whether or not it was hostile. But as a conventional war degenerated into a complex quagmire of militants engaged in guerilla warfare, that sort of certainty wasn’t possible any longer. As Major James MacGregor explains in his paper, “Bringing the Box into Doctrine: Joint Doctrine and the Kill Box,” an officer from 1918 would have, with a little help, been able to understand the maps of the Gulf War: Enemy forces are here, friendly forces over here, that sort of thing. But today, the enemy could be anyone, anywhere. This type of warfare doesn’t naturally lend itself well to kill boxes. As the American military started using kill boxes in conjunction with drones in targeted killings, it effectively grafted a strategy from the past onto the present, a la Frankenstein. The military began using kill boxes in the so-called war on terror as a technique to exert force in “ungoverned spaces,” territories that are not controlled by a state and are populated by people who might not share American cultural values. Kill boxes are only used in places that are very different from the United States; military forces would never initiate a kill box Manchester or Ann Arbor, for example, even if a suspected terrorist lived there. Too many innocent people would be killed. The innocent people living in Afghanistan or Yemen, however, are apparently judged by a different standard. And this is the moral cost of the kill box: When used widely and indiscriminately, the tactic devalues human life.


Joseph has several other projects that address drone warfare, the most interesting of which (to me, anyway) is his ongoing visualization of drone strikes around Mir Ali in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (see above):

A collaborative project to create a large-scale installation to map, via sculptural and electronic components, the history of ongoing US drone strikes in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. The work shown here includes 25 3-D printed paper reproductions of MQ9 Predator Drones, arranged in a pattern of documented drone strikes around the town of Mir Ali. This is a prototype for a much larger installation that, when completed, will feature over 405 paper drones – one each representing every documented drone strike in Pakistan. The drones will be arranged to create a map of drone strikes – each drone is individually lit by an addressable LED light which will go off in a staccato pattern – in the final installation the staccato pattern will be interrupted over time by individual drones strikes being highlighted in red and the incorporation of an LED panel on the wall that will note the location, date and number of people killed.

There’s a preview of the prototype, ‘Drone Shadow’, on YouTube:

Targeting and technologies of history

Vectors from USC has reappeared after a (too) long hiatus.  I first encountered Vectors through Caren Kaplan‘s Dead Reckoning project that tracked what she called ‘Aerial Perception and the Social Construction of Targets’.  This was in 2007, when my own interest in targeting and bombing was just kicking in as a reaction to Israel’s war on Lebanon the previous year (see ‘In another time zone…’ in DOWNLOADS).  She introduced the project like this:

‘”Dead reckoning” has a number of different meanings. For many of us, it simply means the ways in which we figure out where we are or what we are aiming at by using the naked eye-it is, then, the first order cultural construct of directional sight. In strictly navigational terms, especially at sea, it refers to the use of measured distances between points to discern longitude. A reckoning is also a form of retribution or punishment as well as a collection of accounts. Many of these meanings come into play in a militarized context where the determination of position enhanced by technology enables the annihilation of enemies. In this piece, Raegan [Kelly, her Vectors programmer and designer] and I came to see this term as the one best suited to describe what we were working through over many discussions. Although many other techniques of sight are involved in this piece, the reckoning of the cultural politics of sight in modernity leads, unfortunately, to state-sponsored death as much as to anything else and, thus, the aptness of the term becomes almost unavoidable.’

Since then Caren has continued to push the boundaries of inquiry and presentation – and the connections between the two – in extraordinarily imaginative ways, constantly circling around what she calls ‘the view from above’: see, for another example, her Precision Targets: GPS and the militarization of everyday life.

The new digital issue of Vectors contains Steve Anderson‘s Technologies of History, which intersects with my still continuing work on bombing and its representations, though its ostensible subject is different. Editor Tara Macpherson on Anderson’s project:

Within the confines of this piece, author Steve Anderson observes, “We should not ask film or video for the truth about the past, but we can look to them for clues, myths, and symptoms of historical fixations.” The project takes as its central object of analysis one of those moments of historical fixation that seems indelibly engrained in the American consciousness, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jr. in November, 1963. In exploring multiple mediations of this event, Anderson and designer Erik Loyer repeatedly draw our attention to the textured, layered and unstable nature of both historical representation and historical memory.

This is an argument about the truth claims of media that is instantiated via media, both through the curated collection of media artifacts assembled here and through their formation into a new interactive experience. The assortment of clips runs the gamut from historical footage to televisual re-imaginings to video game reenactments, providing a rich compendium of the tenacity of this moment within the nation’s collective memory. Various tonal registers collide: the somber, the flippant, the intimate, the nostalgic. Disparate visual styles intersect and refract one another. But this argument does not unfold solely at the level of content. The form of the piece also reconfigures and undermines the possibility of a single, authoritative history. As the user engages the piece and assembles these historical fragments into new forms, building her own history along the way, the primacy of any one meaning is collaged away.

Before the digital era Alexander Kluge had experimented with the collisions of testimony and artefact, and in particular with montage-collage, to convey an American air raid on Halberstadt (his hometown) in 1945 (I drew on this in “Doors into nowhere”). Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945 was first published in German 1977 and has been available in both his Collected Works and as a separate book for some time, but I’m thrilled to discover that an English translation by Martin Chalmers under the title Air Raid is at last due from the University of Chicago Press/Seagull Books in December 2012 with an afterword by the much lamented W.G. Sebald.

Frederic Jameson, in one of the few English-language commentaries on the text, raises a question that speaks directly to Anderson’s project:

“The Bombing of Halberstadt” is another such collage, in which individual experiences, in the form of anecdotes, are set side by side less for their structures as the acts of traditional characters … than as names and destinies, the latter being reduced in many cases to peculiar facts and accidents, of the type of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The juxtaposition of these anecdotes with quotations from academic studies on the history of bombing and on RAF techniques, from scholarly conferences on the relation between aerial strategy and ethics (“moral bombing” is, for example, specified as a matter, not of morals, but of morale), and from interviews with the allied pilots who participated in this raid—all these materials, which we take to be nonfictional (although they may not be; the interviews in particular bear the distinctive marks of Kluge’s own provocative interview methods), raise the question of the fictionality or nonfictionality of the personal stories of the survivors as well. Halberstadt is, to be sure, Kluge’s hometown, and he is perfectly capable of having assembled a file of testimonies and eyewitness documen- tation and of using the names of real people. On the other hand, these stories, with their rich detail, afford the pleasures of fictional narrative and fictional reading. Is this text (written in the 1970s) a non-fictional novel? I believe that we must think our way back into a situation in which this question makes no sense…’ [‘War and representation’, PMLA 124 (2009) 1532-47]

Perhaps.  But Jameson’s exegesis never grapples with what is also so compelling in Anderson’s project – and, as Kaplan’s work shows, no less avoidable in any discussion of bombing – which is to say Kluge’s determination to confront the multiple visualities involved in, productive of and produced through bombing:

Cyrus Shahan [‘Less then bodies: Cellular knowledge and Alexander Kluge’s “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945″‘, Germanic Review 85 (2010) 340-58] provides one of the richest discussions of Kluge’s use of montage in ‘Luftangriff’; I can’t convey the artfulness of his argument here – a blog surely isn’t the place to do so! – but here’s an extract that, again, speaks to Anderson’s project too:

‘“The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945” consists of thirty vignettes. The majority are accounts of what the residents of Halberstadt did during the air raid, where they were, what they were thinking, and whether they survived. These stories “from below” are interrupted for a twenty-two-page segment about “Strategy from Above,” a documentary montage of interviews with pilots, images of bomb schematics and flight formations, and pictures of pilots. The documentary aspect of Kluge’s Halberstadt essay and his Neue Geschichten [‘New Histories’] as a whole is a ruse. Rather than lend the text authenticity, Neue Geschichten uses a feigned documentary to debunk the authority of the documentary, to undermine the validity of a singular point of view, and thereby to buttress the usefulness of montage. For Kluge, montage is superior to documentary because it is “the form-world of connectivity.” In other words, while montage creates quasi-unreal perspectives with hyperconnectivity, it simultaneously contains productive political processes in which fractured factual elements articulate within a field of possibilities.’