Theatre of Operations

I am at last back in Vancouver after what seemed at times like a marathon on the road (even though part of it was vacation), and there’s much to catch up on and much to report.

But I’m going to ease myself in gently with news of a forthcoming book by Joseph Masco.  Many readers will know his previous book, The Nuclear Borderlands: the Manhattan Project in post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton, 2006), a tour de force – appropriately enough – that carried off a string of major prizes. (If you don’t know it, you can get a taste in his ‘Desert modernism’, available as a pdf from Cabinet 13 (2004) here).

MASCO Theater of OperationsHis new book, due out from Duke University Press in November, is The Theater of Operations: National security affect from the Cold War to the war on terror:

How did the most powerful nation on earth come to embrace terror as the organizing principle of its security policy? In The Theater of Operations, Joseph Masco locates the origins of the present-day U.S. counterterrorism apparatus in the Cold War’s “balance of terror.” He shows how, after the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. Global War on Terror mobilized a wide range of affective, conceptual, and institutional resources established during the Cold War to enable a new planetary theater of operations. Tracing how specific aspects of emotional management, existential danger, state secrecy, and threat awareness have evolved as core aspects of the American social contract, he draws on archival, media, and ethnographic resources to offer a new portrait of American national security culture. Undemocratic and unrelenting, this counterterror state prioritizes speculative practices over facts, and ignores everyday forms of violence across climate, capital, and health in an unprecedented effort to anticipate and eliminate terror threats – real, imagined, and emergent.

I’ve commented on the idea of a ‘theatre of war’ on several occasions (see here and here) and in his new book Masco seems to be excavating its performative/manipulative dimensions to explore the constitution of ‘a new, planetary theatre of operations’ – something else to take into account as I race towards completing The everywhere war.  I’m also greatly taken by a genealogy that begins not with 9/11, which is emphatically not the moment when ‘everything changed’, but with the Cold War…

The Theater of Operations has won advance praise from another of my favourite authors, Peter Galison:

“We know that in the Cold War transportation infrastructures boomed, electronic infrastructures had to be hardened. We know about weapons and counter-weapons; we even have learned about the astonishing proliferation of security mechanisms put in place during the War on Terror. What Joseph Masco shows us in The Theater of Operations is an entire affective structure—the management of anxiety, resilience, steadfastness, sacrifice—that is demanded of every citizen. Alert to liquid containers above 2.4 ounces, hypervigilant to abandoned bags, suspicious loitering, or the detonation of a thermonuclear weapon—we learn to live our lives aware of tiny and apocalyptic things. With an anthropologist’s eye long attuned to life in the para-wartime state, Masco is the perfect guide to the theater of our lives in the security state.”

Joseph MascoEvidently not a person to stand still for long, Masco is already at work on a book on environmental crisis: you can dip a toe into the water at the excellent somatosphere (on science, medicine and anthropology) here, or dig out his chapter on ‘Bad weather: the time of planetary crisis’ in Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen (eds), Times of security: ethnographies of fear, protest and the future, which came out from Routledge last summer.  The abstract (below), together with a link to an earlier essay on ‘Building the Bunker Society’ (available as a pdf), is here:

How, and when, does it become possible to conceptualize a truly planetary crisis? The Cold War nuclear arms race installed one powerful concept of planetary crisis in American culture. The science enabling the US nuclear arsenal, however, also produced unintended byproducts: notably, a radical new investment in the earth sciences. Cold War nuclear science ultimately produced not only bombs, but also a new understanding of the earth as biosphere. Thus, the image of planetary crisis in the US was increasingly doubled during the Cold War – the immediacy of nuclear threat matched by concerns about rapid environmental change and the cumulative effects of industrial civilization on a fragile biosphere. This paper examines the evolution of (and competition between) two ideas of planetary crisis since 1945: nuclear war and climate change. In doing so, the paper offers an alternative history of the nuclear age and considers the US national security implications of a shift in the definition of planetary crisis from warring states to a warming biosphere.

And while we are on the subject of ‘bad weather’, climate change and national security, the GAO recently released a report on the implications of global climate change for US military infrastructure. You can read a summary review here, which points out that while the Pentagon evidently takes climate change very seriously indeed – there has been a string of seminars, workshops and conferences testifying to that – the die-hards in the Republican Party continue to do everything they can to block even military-sponsored research into climate change.  As Representative David McKinley put it:

Our climate is obviously changing; it has always been changing. With all the unrest around the global [sic], why should Congress divert funds from the mission of our military and national security to support a political ideology? This amendment will ensure we maximize our military might without diverting funds for a politically motivated agenda.

The engorgement of ‘military might’ severed from a ‘politically motivated agenda’: you can’t make this stuff up.  Even for the theatre.

Cloud computing

Just caught up with this: a fine essay over at the Deterritorial Investigations Unit – ‘Instead of building a genealogy of neoliberalism, we must build a cartography of the system’ – called  “The sage speaks of what he sees”: War Games and the New Spirit of Capitalism.

It’s a provocative Deleuzian take on the intersections between systems technology, military violence and the production of code/space, that starts with World War II and tracks on into the present (so in fact it combines genealogy and geography).

Developments in aviation technology, such as the capability for flying at higher altitudes and more complex bomb and weapon systems, led to profound problems in fire-control: in high-speed warfare, it was necessary for gunners to be able to respond immediately to actions in the combat environment and to hit their targets with a greater degree of accuracy. In order to deal with this new machinic vision of warfare (which extends beyond the fire-control issue itself, as larger programs like the Manhattan Project indicate), militaries were quickly investing millions of dollars into scientific research in an effort to find mastery over combat theaters. Through science, the command structures of the military were seeking an orderly control over the environment. 


A central part in the narrative is played by the Semi-Automated [sometimes ‘Automatic’] Ground Environment (SAGE – hence in part the title) and its successor projects, including civilian derivatives like SABRE that revolutionised air travel ticketing (and Travelocity).  On that tangled web, see Jordan Crandall on ‘tracking’ here (also here) and here.

As George Valley and Jay Forrester (later of Urban dynamics fame) conceived of SAGE in 1953, the system would consist of

(1) a net of radars and other data sources and (2) digital computers that (a) receive the radar and other information to detect and tract aircraft, (b) process the track data to form a complete air situation, and (c) guide weapons to destroy enemy aircraft.


The system was developed at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory (at a greater cost than the Manhattan Project, incidentally), and this is how the Lab summarises SAGE:

 A large network of radars would automatically detect a hostile bomber formation as it approached the U.S. mainland from any direction. The radar detections would be transmitted over telephone lines to the nearest SAGE direction center, where they would be processed by an AN/FSQ-7 computer. The direction center would then send out notification and continuous targeting information to the air bases best situated to carry out interception of the approaching bombers, as well as to a set of surface-to-air missile batteries. The direction center would also send data to and receive data from adjoining centers, and send situational awareness information to the command centers.  As the fighters from the air bases scrambled and became airborne, the direction center would continue to process track data from multiple radars and would transmit updated target positions in order to vector the intercepting aircraft to their targets. After the fighter aircraft intercepted the approaching bombers, they would send raid assessment information back to the direction center to determine whether additional aircraft or missile intercepts were necessary.

The network as envisaged in 1958 is shown below (more details here):

SAGE network plan 1958

FARISH Contours of America's Cold WarThis plainly reaches back to the air defence systems set up by Britain and Germany during the Second World War, but more significantly for my purposes it intersects with the sensor-shooter system that was at the deadly centre of the ‘electronic battlefield’ during the Vietnam war and with a stream of subsequent tactical (rather than purely strategic) developments.  If you want to know more about SAGE and its spiralling military trajectory, I recommend Matt Farish‘s brilliant chapter in The contours of America’s Cold War (Minnesota, 2010), ‘The cybernetic continent: North America as defense laboratory’.

More recently still, there’s Jeremy Packer and Joshua Reeves, ‘Romancing the drone: military desire and anthropophobia from SAGE to swarm’, Canadian Journal of Communication 38 (2013) 309-31.  And, as their title suggests, all of this feeds into my continuing interest in the networks that make today’s drone wars possible, to which I’ll return shortly.

In digestion

SHARP Condensing the Cold WarWe’ve been in Mexico for the last two weeks – hence the silence – so there’s lots to catch up on and with.

While I was away Joanne Sharp wrote with news of her experience with CNN…  Reader’s Digest is in trouble, and readers will surely know of Jo’s Condensing the Cold War: Reader’s Digest and American Identity (University of Minnesota Press, 2000).  So CNN asked her for a commentary, which you can find here; here’s the conclusion:

Perhaps the decline of Reader’s Digest’s fortunes was inevitable with the longer-term social and political influences of 60s counterculture, the failure of general interest magazines, the rise of global media targeted at specific niches and the advent of the internet. But of equal importance was the end of the Soviet threat: With the fall of its arch enemy, the Evil Empire, there was no mirror against which it could present an alternative image of America and its historic mission.

As Jo ruefully notes, there is an irony in all this (and not only in being asked to condense her Condensing, if you see what I mean): ‘something that was rushed together between 1 and 4am (in Helsinki – I didn’t even have my notes!) – has reached a far larger audience than anything I’ve spent months sweating over.’  But, as she also notes, some of the online comments would provide material for another essay….

Bombing Encyclopedia of the World

Bombing from the air re-wrote the geography of war, blurring and blasting the boundaries between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ spaces.  But it also required a knowledge of geography.  In the Second World War the targeting cycle could extend over several weeks or even months as target folders were compiled, complete with aerial photographs, target maps and intelligence reports, but after the war the United States was determined to accelerate the process. When the US Air Force was separated from the US Army it quickly established its own Directorate of Targets, which was made responsible for the compilation of what was eventually called the ‘Bombing Encyclopedia of the World’.

Work started in January 1946 on potential targets in the Soviet Union and in six months IBM cards were punched for 5,594 targets.  In April 1949 a rare press report noted that the volume of work had ‘doubled since last summer’ and that the Air Force was requesting more funds to hire additional intelligence officers and civilian analysts.  The database was extended to Soviet satellites and Korea, but in 1952 the National Security Council was told that while ‘basic target research’ was progressing favourably ‘the Bombing Encyclopedia must be greatly expanded to meet current goals.’

The database soon became global, and by 1960 it contained 80,000 entries. Machine processing was still in its infancy, however, and the project was bedevilled by serious problems of information management that were still unresolved by the time American forces were deployed in Vietnam.  As the number of targets steadily increased, so it became ever more difficult to integrate data from multiple sources.  Standardisation was eventually achieved through the Consolidated Target Intelligence File (shown below; the image is imperfect because it is a composite).  Outten Clinard explained that the form was divided into five sections:

I.    Codes for machine processing and hand processing.
II.  Information identifying and locating the target.
III. Information on the category of the target and its individual characteristics within the category.
IV.  References to graphic coverage on the target.
V.   Sources.

The CTIF shown here is for a fictitious (industrial) target, but Clinard explained its structure thus:

Much of the information is entered on the form uncoded and may be read directly, for example the target’s name (02), location (06), elevation in tens of feet (20), roof cover in thousands of square feet (23), and output in thousands of pounds (57).  Some of it is entered in a simple code for which the IBM 705 is keyed. On the form shown, in the country block (08) “UR” represents the USSR; under command interest (28) the figure 2 in the E block indicates that the target has been nominated by the U.S. European Command; and under category requirements (68) the letters C and F indicate that additional information is needed on capacity/output and labor force, respectively.

The CTIF was more than a resource for planning particular missions.  Stored on magnetic tapes, the data-stream of CTIFs  was also ‘susceptible of rapid and complex manipulation in electronic data-processing machines’.  In 1959, when Clinard published his (then classified) essay in Studies in Intelligence,  the targeting effort was primarily directed towards Strategic Air Command  and the prospect of long-range nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union.  For this reason, the bombing database was used to calibrate (for example) a Damage and Contamination Model:

‘This is a large and complex program, involving 58,000 targets and geographic “cells” and 700,000 to 900,000 computations. With requisite inputs from a war plan, that is, a pattern of ground zeros, weapon types, etc., this program is capable of calculating the probabilities of blast damage to some 9,000 targets, the radiation dose and contamination pattern from the weapons which were ground burst, and the fatalities and other casualties in 40,000 geographic “cells.” It will also give damage and casualty summaries by categories and by regions.’

One of the analysts responsible for ‘nominating’ targets for inclusion in the Encyclopedia was Henry Nash, who described how, ‘in order for a nominated target to win its way into the Bombing Encyclopedia … a Significant Summary Statement was prepared which briefly (roughly 50 words or less) described each target and its strategic importance.’  Years later, as a professor of political science in a liberal arts college in Virginia, Nash wondered ‘What enabled us calmly to plan to incinerate vast numbers of unknown human beings without any sense of moral revulsion?’  This was what he called the ‘bureaucratization of homicide’ I referred to in an earlier post: the compartmentalization of tasks, the collective reinforcement through membership in committees or task forces, and the reward and recognition conferred by ‘special’ security clearances.  Nash also reflected on the powers of abstraction. A preoccupation with ‘the numbers game’ – ‘The strong technological and quantitative orientation of these tasks [clearly shown in the paragraphs above] held the attention of analysts and the relationship of weapons to human life was an incidental consideration’ – was reinforced by carefully sanitized language:

‘As America’s involvement in the Vietnam War grew deeper, the Defense vocabulary expanded and displayed an even greater imaginative and anaesthetizing flair. Targets for attack were given the picturesque name of “strategic hamlets.” Bombing raids became “surgical strikes” and the forced movement and impounding of Vietnamese citizens were part of America’s “pacification program” – terms suggesting images of the hospital operating room or a Quaker meeting.’

Much of this will be familiar to analysts of bombing today.  The Bombing Encyclopedia has been re-named the Basic Encyclopedia, the targeting process has been refined and the kill-chain has been ‘lawyered up’, but the process still relies on the rapid-fire production, analysis and dissemination of a vast database and on computer modelling of damage and blast effects.  Today, the target folders are computer files but as the example below shows, the BE number is still the key (top left):

Yet there are significant changes.  The BE number refers to an ‘object target’ and its fixed, physical location, and this remains important for active (and fortunately non-nuclear) bombing missions against conventional targets.  But in the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism wars conducted by the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere the target is often an individual – sometimes identified, if the person appears on a list of ‘High Value Targets’, but sometimes unknown and un-named – and almost always mobile.  And for named targets, even the CIA requires more than fifty words for inclusion on its hit list (though the dossiers submitted to its lawyers for approval are reportedly only 2-5 pages).

Still, when I was working on ‘Doors into Nowhere’ (see DOWNLOADS tab) I remember encountering elin o’Hara slavick‘s luminous work for the first time, and her remark that she had originally intended to call her series of paintings ‘Everywhere the United States has bombed’ but that, as she learned more about covert action and mis-information, she realised that was an impossible project.  How ironic, then, that behind her critical inclinations there should have been a global database that made all those bombings possible…

But the irony doesn’t end there.  For it turns out that slavick’s project was, until recently, no less difficult for the US Air Force: if not exactly mission impossible then at least mission improbable.

The other side of the Bombing Encyclopedia, verso to its recto, would indeed be a global database recording ‘everywhere the United States has bombed’, but  the data are widely scattered and unsystematic: millions of records, some on paper, some on punchcards and magnetic tape, and more recent ones in various digital forms.  Six years ago Lt Colonel Jenns Robertson started to transcribe, standardise and integrate the available records of individual strike missions from World War I down to the present, incorporating RFC/RAF data for the two World Wars.  The result, announced this week in an article by Bryan Bender in the Boston Globe, is THOR: Theater History of Operations Reports (how the military loves its acronyms).  Robertson started the project in his spare time, working at night and at weekends, but he’s now been assigned to work on it full time at the Air Force Research Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base.  His extraordinary database – which he admits is still incomplete and, in places, in need of scrubbing – can be searched in six main ways listed as follows:

  • When – date, time over target, flying hours, etc.
  • Who – campaign, country, service, unit, call-sign
  • How – aircraft, take-off location, mission type
  • What – weapons used
  • Where – location of target, BE #, release height, speed
  • Why – effects, JTAC reports, Bomb Damage Assessment

The visualizations from the project, displayed and interrogated using GIS, are often stunning – more on this in a later post – and they are designed to answer both historical strategic questions about the conduct of particular campaigns and also contemporary forensic ones about the locations of unexploded ordnance or the remains of missing aircrew killed in action.  I’m hoping that I’ll be able to access the database for my Killing Space project [see DOWNLOADS tab], which focuses on three bombing campaigns: the combined bomber offensive against Germany in World War II, the air wars over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and the ‘drone wars’ over Afghanistan/Pakistan and elsewhere.  But Bender’s description of the visualizations loops back to where I began:

‘The result: a compilation that, at the click of a mouse and a few keystrokes, reveals for the first time the sheer magnitude of destruction inflicted by the US and its allies from the air in the last century…. When plotted on a satellite map, the bombs — from the biplanes of the nascent US Air Service over France in World War I to pilotless drones targeting suspected terrorists in the war in Afghanistan — blanket many thousands of square miles from Europe to Africa, the Middle East and Asia.’

UPDATE:  I returned to the Bombing Encyclopedia here.