Those who don’t count and those who can’t count

An excellent article from the unfailing New York Times in a recent edition of the Magazine: Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal on ‘The Uncounted‘, a brilliant, forensic and – crucially – field-based investigation into civilian casualties in the US air war against ISIS:

American military planners go to great lengths to distinguish today’s precision strikes from the air raids of earlier wars, which were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties. They describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to “targeteers,” who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.

The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.

What Azmat and Anand found on the ground, however, was radically different:

Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014.

We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history [my emphasis].  Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes …  remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

They provide immensely powerful, moving case studies of innocents ‘lost in the wreckage’.  They also describe the US Air Force’s targeting process at US Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar (the image above shows the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division at the CAOC, which ‘provides a common threat and targeting picture’):

The process seemed staggeringly complex — the wall-to-wall monitors, the soup of acronyms, the army of lawyers — but the impressively choreographed operation was designed to answer two basic questions about each proposed strike: Is the proposed target actually ISIS? And will attacking this ISIS target harm civilians in the vicinity?

As we sat around a long conference table, the officers explained how this works in the best-case scenario, when the coalition has weeks or months to consider a target. Intelligence streams in from partner forces, informants on the ground, electronic surveillance and drone footage. Once the coalition decides a target is ISIS, analysts study the probability that striking it will kill civilians in the vicinity, often by poring over drone footage of patterns of civilian activity. The greater the likelihood of civilian harm, the more mitigating measures the coalition takes. If the target is near an office building, the attack might be rescheduled for nighttime. If the area is crowded, the coalition might adjust its weaponry to limit the blast radius. Sometimes aircraft will even fire a warning shot, allowing people to escape targeted facilities before the strike. An official showed us grainy night-vision footage of this technique in action: Warning shots hit the ground near a shed in Deir al-Zour, Syria, prompting a pair of white silhouettes to flee, one tripping and picking himself back up, as the cross hairs follow.

Once the targeting team establishes the risks, a commander must approve the strike, taking care to ensure that the potential civilian harm is not “excessive relative to the expected military advantage gained,” as Lt. Col. Matthew King, the center’s deputy legal adviser, explained.

After the bombs drop, the pilots and other officials evaluate the strike. Sometimes a civilian vehicle can suddenly appear in the video feed moments before impact. Or, through studying footage of the aftermath, they might detect signs of a civilian presence. Either way, such a report triggers an internal assessment in which the coalition determines, through a review of imagery and testimony from mission personnel, whether the civilian casualty report is credible. If so, the coalition makes refinements to avoid future civilian casualties, they told us, a process that might include reconsidering some bit of intelligence or identifying a flaw in the decision-making process.

There are two issues here.  First, this is indeed the ‘best-case scenario’, and one that very often does not obtain.  One of the central vectors of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism is volatility: targets are highly mobile and often the ‘window of opportunity’ is exceedingly narrow.  I’ve reproduced this image from the USAF’s own targeting guide before, in relation to my analysis of the targeting cycle for a different US air strike against IS in Iraq in March 2015, but it is equally applicable here:

Second, that ‘window of opportunity’ is usually far from transparent, often frosted and frequently opaque.  For what is missing from the official analysis described by Azmat and Anand turns out to be the leitmotif of all remote operations (and there is a vital sense in which all forms of aerial violence are ‘remote’, whether the pilot is 7,000 miles away or 30,000 feet above the target [see for example here]):

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of the United States Air Forces Central Command at Udeid, told us what was missing. “Ground truth, that’s what you’re asking for,” he said. “We see what we see from altitude and pull in from other reports. Your perspective is talking to people on the ground.” He paused, and then offered what he thought it would take to arrive at the truth: “It’s got to be a combination of both.”

The military view, perhaps not surprisingly, is that civilian casualties are unavoidable but rarely intentional:

Supreme precision can reduce civilian casualties to a very small number, but that number will never reach zero. They speak of every one of the acknowledged deaths as tragic but utterly unavoidable.

Azmat and Anand reached a numbingly different conclusion: ‘Not all civilian casualties are unavoidable tragedies; some deaths could be prevented if the coalition recognizes its past failures and changes its operating assumptions accordingly. But in the course of our investigation, we found that it seldom did either.’

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that whenever there is an investigation into reports of civilian casualties that may have been caused by US military operations it must be independent of all other investigations and can make no reference to them in its findings; in other words, as I’ve noted elsewhere, there is no ‘case law’: bizarre but apparently true.

But that is only part of the problem.  The two investigators cite multiple intelligence errors (‘In about half of the strikes that killed civilians, we could find no discernible ISIS target nearby. Many of these strikes appear to have been based on poor or outdated intelligence’) and even errors and discrepancies in recording and locating strikes after the event.

It’s worth reading bellingcat‘s analysis here, which also investigates the coalition’s geo-locational reporting and notes that the official videos ‘appear only to showcase the precision and efficiency of coalition bombs and missiles, and rarely show people, let alone victims’.  The image above, from CNN, is unusual in showing the collection of the bodies of victims of a US air strike in Mosul, this time in March 2017; the target was a building from which two snipers were firing; more than 100 civilians sheltering there were killed.  The executive summary of the subsequent investigation is here – ‘The Target Engagement Authority (TEA) was unaware of and could not have predicted the presence of civilians in the structure prior to the engagement’ – and report from W.J. Hennigan and Molly Hennessy-Fiske is here.

Included in bellingcat’s account is a discussion of a video which the coalition uploaded to YouTube and then deleted; Azmat retrieved and archived it – the video shows a strike on two buildings in Mosul on 20 September 2015 that turned out to be focal to her investigation with Anand:

The video caption identifies the target as a ‘VBIED [car bomb] facility’.  But Bellingcat asks:

Was this really a “VBIED network”? Under the original upload, a commenter starting posting that the houses shown were his family’s residence in Mosul.

“I will NEVER forget my innocent and dear cousins who died in this pointless airstrike. Do you really know who these people were? They were innocent and happy family members of mine.”

Days after the strike, Dr Zareena Grewal, a relative living in the US wrote in the New York Times that four family members had died in the strike. On April 2, 2017 – 588 days later – the Coalition finally admitted that it indeed bombed a family home which they confused for an IS headquarters and VBIED facility.

“The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition, told Airwars.

Even though the published strike video actually depicted the killing of a family, it remained – wrongly captioned – on the official Coalition YouTube channel for more than a year.

This is but one, awful example of a much wider problem.  The general conclusion reached by Azmat and Anand is so chilling it is worth re-stating:

According to the coalition’s available data, 89 of its more than 14,000 airstrikes in Iraq have resulted in civilian deaths, or about one of every 157 strikes. The rate we found on the ground — one out of every five — is 31 times as high.

One of the houses [shown above] mistakenly identified as a ‘VBIED facility’ in that video belonged to Basim Razzo, and he became a key informant in Azmat and Anand’s investigation; he was subsequently interviewed by Amy Goodman: the transcript is here. She also interviewed Azmat and Anand: that transcript is here.  In the course of the conversation Anand makes a point that amply and awfully confirms Christiane Wilke‘s suggestion – in relation to air strikes in Afghanistan – that the burden of recognition, of what in international humanitarian law is defined as ‘distinction’, is tacitly being passed from combatant to civilian: that those in the cross-hairs of the US military are required to perform their civilian status to those watching from afar.

It goes back to this issue of Iraqis having to prove that they are not ISIS, which is the opposite of what we would think. We would think that the coalition would do the work to find out whether somebody is a member of ISIS or not. Essentially, they assume people are ISIS until proven otherwise.

To make matters worse, they have to perform their ‘civilianness’ according to a script recognised and approved by the US military, however misconceived it may be.  In the case of one (now iconic) air strike in Afghanistan being an adolescent or adult male, travelling in a group, praying at one of the times prescribed by Islam, and carrying a firearm in a society where that is commonplace was enough for civilians to be judged as hostile by drone crews and attacked from the air with dreadful results (see here and here).

This is stunning investigative journalism, but it’s more than that: the two authors are both at Arizona State University, and they have provided one of the finest examples of critical, probing and accessible scholarship I have ever read.

Tracking and targeting

News from Lucy Suchman of a special issue of Science, Technology and Human Values [42 (6) (2017)]  on Tracking and targeting: sociotechnologies of (in)security, which she’s co-edited with Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber.

Here’s the line-up:

Lucy Suchman, Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber: Tracking and targeting

This introduction to the special issue of the same title sets out the context for a critical examination of contemporary developments in sociotechnical systems deployed in the name of security. Our focus is on technologies of tracking, with their claims to enable the identification of those who comprise legitimate targets for the use of violent force. Taking these claims as deeply problematic, we join a growing body of scholarship on the technopolitical logics that underpin an increasingly violent landscape of institutions, infrastructures, and actions, promising protection to some but arguably contributing to our collective insecurity. We examine the asymmetric distributions of sociotechnologies of (in)security; their deadly and injurious effects; and the legal, ethical, and moral questions that haunt their operations.

Karolina Follis: Visions and transterritory: the borders of Europe

This essay is about the role of visual surveillance technologies in the policing of the external borders of the European Union (EU). Based on an analysis of documents published by EU institutions and independent organizations, I argue that these technological innovations fundamentally alter the nature of national borders. I discuss how new technologies of vision are deployed to transcend the physical limits of territories. In the last twenty years, EU member states and institutions have increasingly relied on various forms of remote tracking, including the use of drones for the purposes of monitoring frontier zones. In combination with other facets of the EU border management regime (such as transnational databases and biometrics), these technologies coalesce into a system of governance that has enabled intervention into neighboring territories and territorial waters of other states to track and target migrants for interception in the “prefrontier.” For jurisdictional reasons, this practice effectively precludes the enforcement of legal human rights obligations, which European states might otherwise have with regard to these persons. This article argues that this technologically mediated expansion of vision has become a key feature of post–cold war governance of borders in Europe. The concept of transterritory is proposed to capture its effects.

Christiane Wilke: Seeing and unmaking civilians in Afghanistan: visual technologies and contested professional visions

While the distinction between civilians and combatants is fundamental to international law, it is contested and complicated in practice. How do North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers see civilians in Afghanistan? Focusing on 2009 air strike in Kunduz, this article argues that the professional vision of NATO officers relies not only on recent military technologies that allow for aerial surveillance, thermal imaging, and precise targeting but also on the assumptions, vocabularies, modes of attention, and hierarchies of knowledges that the officers bring to the interpretation of aerial surveillance images. Professional vision is socially situated and frequently contested with communities of practice. In the case of the Kunduz air strike, the aerial vantage point and the military visual technologies cannot fully determine what would be seen. Instead, the officers’ assumptions about Afghanistan, threats, and the gender of the civilian inform the vocabulary they use for coding people and places as civilian or noncivilian. Civilians are not simply “found,” they are produced through specific forms of professional vision.

Jon Lindsay: Target practice: Counterterrorism and the amplification of data friction

The nineteenth-century strategist Carl von Clausewitz describes “fog” and “friction” as fundamental features of war. Military leverage of sophisticated information technology in the twenty-first century has improved some tactical operations but has not lifted the fog of war, in part, because the means for reducing uncertainty create new forms of it. Drawing on active duty experience with an American special operations task force in Western Iraq from 2007 to 2008, this article traces the targeting processes used to “find, fix, and finish” alleged insurgents. In this case they did not clarify the political reality of Anbar province but rather reinforced a parochial worldview informed by the Naval Special Warfare community. The unit focused on the performance of “direct action” raids during a period in which “indirect action” engagement with the local population was arguably more appropriate for the strategic circumstances. The concept of “data friction”, therefore, can be understood not simply as a form of resistance within a sociotechnical system but also as a form of traction that enables practitioners to construct representations of the world that amplify their own biases.

M.C. Elish: Remote split: a history of US drone operations and the distributed labour of war

This article analyzes US drone operations through a historical and ethnographic analysis of the remote split paradigm used by the US Air Force. Remote split refers to the globally distributed command and control of drone operations and entails a network of human operators and analysts in the Middle East, Europe, and Southeast Asia as well as in the continental United States. Though often viewed as a teleological progression of “unmanned” warfare, this paper argues that historically specific technopolitical logics establish the conditions of possibility for the work of war to be divisible into discreet and computationally mediated tasks that are viewed as effective in US military engagements. To do so, the article traces how new forms of authorized evidence and expertise have shaped developments in military operations and command and control priorities from the Cold War and the “electronic battlefield” of Vietnam through the Gulf War and the conflict in the Balkans to contemporary deployments of drone operations. The article concludes by suggesting that it is by paying attention to divisions of labor and human–machine configurations that we can begin to understand the everyday and often invisible structures that sustain perpetual war as a military strategy of the United States.

I’ve discussed Christiane’s excellent article in detail before, but the whole issue repays careful reading.

And if you’re curious about the map that heads this post, it’s based on the National Security Agency’s Strategic Mission List (dated 2007 and published in the New York Times on 2 November 2013), and mapped at Electrospaces: full details here.

Distinction and the ethics of violence

In another lifetime, or so it seems, I wrote a short essay on ‘The death of the civilian’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and I seem to have spent much of the intervening years developing those early ideas.  So I’m thrilled to see an important new paper from Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon, ‘Distinction and the Ethics of Violence: on the legal construction of liminal subjects and spaces’, available online now at Antipode:

This paper interrogates the relationship among visibility, distinction, international humanitarian law and ethics in contemporary theatres of violence. After introducing the notions of “civilianization of armed conflict” and “battlespaces”, we briefly discuss the evisceration of one of international humanitarian law’s axiomatic figures: the civilian. We show how liberal militaries have created an apparatus of distinction that expands that which is perceptible by subjecting big data to algorithmic analysis, combining the traditional humanist lens with a post-humanist one. The apparatus functions before, during, and after the fray not only as an operational technology that directs the fighting or as a discursive mechanism responsible for producing the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a force that produces liminal subjects. Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—we show how the apparatus helps justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war.

Their two case studies focus on US drone attacks in Pakistan and the use of human shields in Gaza (the image below, taken from the article, shows the Israeli Defence Force’s ‘Laboratory of Discrimination’ (sic)).

You can watch a video where Nicola and Neve discuss their ideas on the Antipode website here, which also provides a less formal gloss:

[Their paper] examines how militaries actually make distinctions in the battlefield, given that today most fighting takes place in urban settings where distinguishing between combatant and civilian is becoming increasingly difficult.

Their paper shows how liberal militaries are utilizing new technologies that aim to expand that which is perceptible within the fray. Combining the more traditional forms of making distinctions such as binoculars and cameras with cutting edge hi-tech, militaries subject big data to algorithmic analysis aimed at identifying certain behavioral patterns. The technologies of distinction function before, during, and after the fray not only in order to direct the fighting and to help produce the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a mechanism that identifies and at times creates new legal figures.

Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—Nicola and Neve show how technologies of distinction help justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war. Ultimately, they maintain that distinction, which is meant to guarantee the protection of civilians in the midst of armed conflict, actually helps hollow the notion of civilian through the production of new liminal legal figures that can be legitimately killed.

For more on the intersections between international law, military protocols and the (in)visibility of the civilian, I also recommend the insightful work of Christiane Wilke (see ‘Seeing Civilians (or not)’ here).

Seeing Civilians (or not)

Very welcome news from Christiane Wilke that her essay, ‘Seeing and Unmaking Civilians in Afghanistan: Visual Technologies and Contested Professional Visions‘, has just been published in Science, Technology and Human Values.

It’s an original, compelling and immensely important analysis of a US air strike on two tankers hijacked by the Taliban and beached on a river crossing near Kunduz (Afghanistan) in September 2009.  The strike was called in by a Bundeswehr officer who claimed – falsely – that he was facing what the military call ‘troops in contact’ which required immediate action; the two American pilots of the F-15s repeatedly questioned his decision but to no avail, and when the smoke cleared somewhere between 26 and 147 civilians who had been siphoning petrol from the stranded tankers had been killed.

I published a preliminary analysis of the attack, ‘Seeing like a military‘, and subsequently heard Christiane give an early version of her own argument at a conference in Lancaster in May 2014; we’ve had a lively dialogue about the strike since then.  Here is the abstract:

While the distinction between civilians and combatants is fundamental to international law, it is contested and complicated in practice. How do North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers see civilians in Afghanistan? Focusing on 2009 air strike in Kunduz, this article argues that the professional vision of NATO officers relies not only on recent military technologies that allow for aerial surveillance, thermal imaging, and precise targeting but also on the assumptions, vocabularies, modes of attention, and hierarchies of knowledges that the officers bring to the interpretation of aerial surveillance images. Professional vision is socially situated and fre- quently contested with communities of practice. In the case of the Kunduz air strike, the aerial vantage point and the military visual technologies cannot fully determine what would be seen. Instead, the officers’ assumptions about Afghanistan, threats, and the gender of the civilian inform the vocabulary they use for coding people and places as civilian or noncivilian. Civilians are not simply “found,” they are produced through specific forms of professional vision.

And here is her key conclusion which clearly resonates far beyond Kunduz (see, for example, here and here; I’ve radically reworked the presentation from which those two posts derive, and you can get some sense of where I’m heading here):

In Afghanistan and in situations of armed conflict more generally, the distinction between civilians and noncivilians is a crucial dimension of seeing, intervening in, and responding to violence. The protection of civi- lians is an almost universally proclaimed goal; it is the centerpiece of the ISAF 2009 Tactical Directive. Yet without a reliable understanding of who counts as a civilian and how they can be recognized, the promise of civilian protection rings hollow. The category of the civilian, derived from specific Eurocentric understandings of armed conflict, had been grafted onto Afgha- nistan and Afghans who had to negotiate their security amidst conflict. Yet it is not clear what Afghans should do or avoid in order to be recognized as civilians. Those who shared the aerial viewpoint could not agree on the civilian status of the people near the trucks and neither could those who had extensive personal knowledge of the local social structures. Thus, a shift in perspective did not solve the problem that civilians are not clearly recogniz- able to those who have a mission to spare and protect them. At a deeper level, the lack of consensus about visually identifying civilians indicates a lack of agreement about who counts as a civilian. NATO officers consistently try to stabilize and shrink the category of civilian by juxtaposing it with a capacious category of noncivilians: insurgents, militants, supporters, and Taliban…

Yet civilians don’t simply exist. They are enacted and produced by, among other sites, socially situated interpretation of images produced with the aid of visual technologies. Sociocultural prisms of visibility not only produce counts of legitimate civilians but also legitimize the category of civilian as a workable and meaningful foundation of international law. The people who would like to be regarded as civilians bear the burden of distinguishing themselves from putative noncivilians according to criteria that they can never fully grasp because they don’t know which background knowledges and epistemes will be mobilized by those in charge of distinguishing civilians from combatants.

And – please note – this is not about drone strikes; not only have the vast majority of strikes in Afghanistan been carried out by conventional strike aircraft (why do so many of those who campaign against drones ignore other forms of aerial violence?) but no drones were involved in this particular attack either; the sharp point that Christiane makes applies to all airstrikes – and indeed, to militarised vision more generally.


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.


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.


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.




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).


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‘…


… 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:


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.


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:


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).


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?


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:


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‘.