Counterinsurgency and the counterrevolution

Another interesting interview tied to a book, this time between Jeremy Scahill and Bernard Harcourt, over at The Intercept.  A central argument of Bernard’s book, The Counterrevolution: how our government went to war against its own citizens,is that contemporary politics is based on – in fact, realizes – a counterinsurgency warfare model.  He explains it like this:

… all of the [ways] in which we govern abroad and at home is now funneled through a particular way of thinking about the world. It’s a mentality. It’s a way of thinking about society that triggers particular kinds of strategies and politics that result from that. And the way of thinking about society is this counterinsurgency paradigm of warfare.

So, counterinsurgency started in the 1950s – well, it started long before then, but it kind of crystallized with Western powers in the 1950s and 60s in Algeria, and Indochina before then, and in Vietnam for the Americans. And it was a particular way of thinking about society, the way society is structured into three groups. With, on the one hand, a small active minority who are the insurgents, and a large passive majority who can be swayed one way or the other, and then a small minority of counterinsurgents.

And that way of thinking has become internalized, second hand. Most, I would say, many in America, but certainly our political leaders are looking at the world through that lens when they look at other countries when they look domestically at their own population, and as a result of that it triggers particular kinds of counterinsurgency practices, really. And three practices particularly that I think when you look at what we’re doing both abroad and at home, you see resonances of them everywhere. The first is the idea of getting total information awareness. That’s always been the key linchpin of counterinsurgency theory, is to get total information on the total population.

And that’s what distinguishes it from just getting good intelligence. It’s that you have to get total intelligence on the total population, not just targeted to people who you suspect, but on the total population. So that you can make a distinction between or you can identify that small group of active insurgents. And you need the information on everyone so that you can make that separation, those fine distinctions between someone who is in that active minority or someone who’s just [in the] you know, passive masses. So that’s the first strategy. The second strategy is then that you have to rid of the active minority that you identified, just that small group of individuals, the insurgents, and you do that through any means possible. And then the third strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the masses, basically.

And I think that starting after 9/11. We saw that way of thinking become the dominant way of governing abroad particularly with the war in Iraq, but then more generally with the use of drones outside of war zones et cetera, use of total information through the NSA in the way in which everything was captured about everyone to the most minor detail. And then also trying to pacify the masses in Iraq through kind of some provision of services or just distribution of cash. But then eventually, when this way of thinking comes back to the United States through different forms of pacification of the masses. Particularly right now, I would say through forms of distraction, really.

The interview loops through a number of arguments that will be familiar to regular readers – about Guantanamo Bay, the carceral archipelago and torture; about the ‘cultural turn’ and counterinsurgency; about drones and targeting killing; and about international humanitarian law, international human rights law and the ‘individuation’ modality of later modern war – but repatriates them from the global borderlands to the United States.

Unimaginative geographies

In my commentary on the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris in November 2015, I drew attention to Islamic State’s desire to extinguish what it called ‘the grey zone’.  As Jason Burke explained at the time:

In February this year, in a chilling editorial in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, Isis laid out its own strategy to eliminate what the writer, or writers, called “the grey zone”.

This was, Isis said, what lay between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned. It was home, too, to all those who had yet to commit to the forces of either side.

The grey zone, Isis claimed, had been “critically endangered [since] the blessed operations of September 11th”, as “these operations showed the world” the two camps that mankind must choose between.

Over the years, since successive violent acts had narrowed the grey zone to the point where by the end of 2014 “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone everywhere”.

I noted then that ‘The imaginative geographies of Islamic State overlap with those spewed by the extreme right in Europe and North America and, like all imaginative geographies, they have palpable effects: not fifty shades of grey but fifty versions of supposedly redemptive violence.’

Syrian artist Khaled Akil has captured this congruence perfectly in “Hate Loves Hate“:


Amnesty International‘s latest report (2016/17) on Human Rights around the world confirms that this is fast becoming generalised:

Politicians wielding a toxic, dehumanizing “us vs them” rhetoric are creating a more divided and dangerous world, warned Amnesty International today as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world.

The report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights around the world, covering 159 countries. It warns that the consequences of “us vs them” rhetoric setting the agenda in Europe, the United States and elsewhere is fuelling a global pushback against human rights and leaving the global response to mass atrocities perilously weak.

“2016 was the year when the cynical use of ‘us vs them’ narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s. Too many politicians are answering legitimate economic and security fears with a poisonous and divisive manipulation of identity politics in an attempt to win votes,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.


“Divisive fear-mongering has become a dangerous force in world affairs. Whether it is Trump, Orban, Erdoğan or Duterte, more and more politicians calling themselves anti-establishment are wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people.

“Today’s politics of demonization shamelessly peddles a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others, stripping away the humanity of entire groups of people. This threatens to unleash the darkest aspects of human nature.”…

“In 2016, these most toxic forms of dehumanization became a dominant force in mainstream global politics. The limits of what is acceptable have shifted. Politicians are shamelessly and actively legitimizing all sorts of hateful rhetoric and policies based on people’s identity: misogyny, racism and homophobia.

“The first target has been refugees and, if this continues in 2017, others will be in the cross-hairs. The reverberations will lead to more attacks on the basis of race, gender, nationality and religion. When we cease to see each other as human beings with the same rights, we move closer to the abyss.”

Intelligence and War

Vue d’artiste de l’évolution de l’Homme peinte sur un mur, stencil graffiti on Vali-ye-Asr Avenue in central Tehran. By Paul Keller, 4 November 2007

A new edition of the ever-interesting Mediatropes is now online (it’s open access), this time on Intelligence and War: you can access the individual essays (or download the whole issue) here.  Previous issues are all available here.

The issue opens with an editorial introduction (‘Intelligence and War’ by Stuart J Murray, Jonathan Chau, Twyla Gibson.  And here is Stuart’s summary of the rest of the issue:

Michael Dorland’s “The Black Hole of Memory: French Mnemotechniques in the Erasure of the Holocaust” interrogates the role of memory and memorialization in the constitution of post-World War II France. Dorland hones in on the precarity of a France that grapples with its culpability in the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up, spotlighting the role of the witness and the perpetually problematized function of testimony as key determinants in challenging both the public memory and the historical memory of a nation.

Sara Kendall’s essay, “Unsettling Redemption: The Ethics of Intra-subjectivity in The Act of Killing” navigates the problematic representation of mass atrocity. Employing Joshua Oppenheimer’s investigation of the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966, Kendall unsettles the documentary’s attempts to foreground the practices of healing and redemption, while wilfully sidestepping any acknowledgment of the structural dimensions of violence. To Kendall, the documentary’s focus on the narratives of the perpetrators, who function as proxies for the state, makes visible the aporia of the film, substituting a framework based on affect and empathy in place of critical political analyses of power imbalances.

Kevin Howley is concerned with the spatial ramifications of drone warfare. In “Drone Warfare: Twenty-First Century Empire and Communications,” Howley examines the battlefield deployment of drones through the lens of Harold Innis’s distinction between time-biased and space-biased media. By considering the drone as a space-biased technology that can transmit information across vast distances, yet only remain vital for short periods of time, Howley sees the drone as emblematic of the American impulse to simultaneously and paradoxically collapse geographical distance while expanding cultural differences between America and other nations.

Avital Ronell’s essay, entitled “BIGLY Mistweated: On Civic Grievance,” takes direct aim at the sitting US president, offering a rhetorical analysis of what she calls “Trumpian obscenity.” Ronell exposes the foundations of the current administration, identifying a government bereft of authority, stitched together by audacity, and punctuated by an almost unfathomable degree of absurdity. In her attempt to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical and nihilistic discourse that Trump represents, Ronell walks alongside Paul Celan, Melanie Klein, and especially Jacques Derrida, concluding with a suggestive, elusive, and allusive possibility for negotiating the contemporary, Trumpian moment.

In “The Diseased ‘Terror Tunnels’ in Gaza: Israeli Surveillance and the Autoimmunization of an Illiberal Democracy,” Marouf Hasian, Jr. explains how Israel’s state-sanctioned use of autoimmunizing rhetorics depict the lives of Israelis as precarious and under threat. Here, the author’s preoccupation is with the Israeli strategy of rhetorically reconfiguring smuggling tunnels as “terror tunnels” that present an existential threat to Israeli citizens. In doing so, he shows how the non-combatant status of Gazan civilians is dissolved through the intervening effects of these media tropes.

Derek Gregory’s essay, “The Territory of the Screen,” offers a different perspective on drone warfare. Gregory leverages Owen Sheers’s novel, I Saw a Man, to explore the ways in which modern combat is contested through a series of mediating layers, a series of screens through which the United States, as Gregory argues, dematerializes the corporeality of human targets. For Gregory, drone warfare’s facilitation of remote killings is predicated on technical practices that reduce the extinguishing of life to technological processes that produce, and then execute, “killable bodies.”

But how is the increasingly unsustainable illusion of intelligence as being centralized and definitive maintained? Julie B. Wiest’s “Entertaining Genius: U.S. Media Representations of Exceptional Intelligence” identifies the media trope of exceptionally intelligent characters across mainstream film and television programs as key to producing and reinforcing popular understandings of intelligence. Through her analysis of such fictional savants, Wiest connects these patterns of representation to the larger social structures that reflect and reinforce narrowly defined notions of intelligence, and those who are permitted to possess it.

We end this issue with a poem from Sanita Fejzić, who offers a perspective on the human costs of war that is framed not by technology, but through poetic language.

My own essay is a reworked version of the penultimate section of “Dirty Dancing” (DOWNLOADS tab) which we had to cut because it really did stretch the length limitations for Life in the Age of Drone Warfare; so, as Stuart notes, I re-worked it, adding an extended riff on Owen Sheers‘ luminous I saw a man and looping towards the arguments I since developed in ‘Meatspace?

Liberties and Republicans

On this terrible morning, with Donald Trump elected as President-designate of the United States, what to say?  Wrestling with sleeplessness last night, I started to think about the Statue of Liberty (bear with me).  I wrote about its multiple valences more than twenty years ago in Geographical Imaginations:  

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi‘s original proposal was for a lighthouse in the likeness of a woman to be raised at the Mediterranean entrance to the Suez Canal as a symbol of the nineteenth-century expansion of Europe.  Its title, Egypt carrying light to Asia, was intended to assert the historical mission of Europe – with a colonized Egypt acting as its handmaiden – to bring “enlightenment” to the Orient.  Bartholdi spent two years making plans and models but in 1869 – the year the Canal opened – the Khedive Ismail withdrew his support and it was not until 1871 that Bartholdi was able to reactivate his scheme.

By then, in the wake of the Pais Commune, the project had been transformed and relocated.  One of his patrons, Édouard de Laboulaye, suggested that a monument be raised on the shores of the New World to symbolize Liberty Enlightening the World.  The representation of Liberty as a woman derived from classical antiquity, but this ‘whole allegorical apparatus’, as Maurice Agulhon called it, had been codified in France in the late seventeenth century.  When the Revolution occurred, Liberty already had an established iconographical status and a decree of 1792 adopted her as the seal of the republic: ‘the image of France in the guise of a woman, dressed in the style of Antiquity, standing upright, her right hand holding a pike surrounded by a Phyrgian cap or cap of liberty.’


By the opening decades of the nineteenth century the use of ‘Marianne’ as a symbol of both Liberty and the Republic had become a commonplace.  This was true in the most literal of senses.  “Where was this woman to be seen?” ask Agulhon.  The answer: “all over the place”.  Paris had two statues of her, in the Place de la Concorde and the Place Vendôme, and many other towns had their own effigies.  In 1848 she appeared on the second seal of the Republic, wearing a diadem of corn with seven rays of the sun encircling her head in a spiked halo.


The resemblance to the head of the American statue is striking, but a sunburst was also the Bartholdi family emblem and, still more significantly, it was intimately associated with the reign of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’.  To adorn Liberty with a sunburst was thus in a sense ‘to “crown” her’, Kaja Silverman argues, ‘and thereby align her with a tradition of stable and conservative government.’

That Liberty should be represented by a woman was clearly not without irony.  In practice, Joan Landes remarks,

the assault on paternalism was limited by force … and by the redirection of women’ public and sentimental existence into a new allegory of republican, virtuous family life.  Liberty herself is a profoundly ironic symbol, a public representation of a polity that sanctioned a limited domestic role for women … If Liberty represented woman, surely it was as an abstract emblem of male power and authority.

The power of patriarchy was reasserted still more forcibly after the fall of the Commune with the triumph of the bourgeois republic and its cult of respectability.  As Roger Magraw observed, ‘the official Mariannes who adorned town halls by the 1880s wore a halo of flowers and the motto Concorde, moving towards that anodyne statue which France sent to her fellow capitalist republic as the State of Liberty.’  Anodyne indeed: Silverman argues that Bartholdi virtually erased the corporeality of the body.  Thus he ‘completely buries the female form beneath hear classic drapery’ and ‘any thought that a body might nevertheless lurk beneath those folds is abruptly put to flight by the possibility of entering the statue and climbing up inside it.’  She is well aware of the sexual connotations of such a reading, of course, and moves quickly to foreclose them.  ‘Liberty is precisely an extension of the desire to “return” to the inside of the fantastic mother’s body,’ she proposes, ‘without having to confront her sexuality in any way.’  Viewed in this light, therefore, Liberty is rendered non-threatening and even ‘safe’.

It was thus from within a many-layered iconographical tradition that Laboulaye’s proposal was made.  He was Professor of Comparative Law at the Collège de France and although he never crossed the Atlantic he was regarded as France’s greatest expert on the United States.  Like many other republicans at the time, he regarded the United States as a model of the ideal society and he and his companions were convinced that a Statue of Liberty, given by France to America, would symbolize their most cherished principles.  For this reason Bartholdi was urged to ensure that the statue should ‘not be liberty in a red cap, striding across corpses with her pike at the port’ – a reference to Delacroix’s famous Liberty guiding the people to the barricades (below) –  but ‘the American liberty whose torch is held high not to inflame but to enlighten.’  Bartholdi agreed.  ‘Revolutionary Liberty cannot evoke American Liberty,’ he declared, ‘which after a hundred years of uninterrupted existence, should not appear as an intrepid young girl but as a woman of mature years, calm, advancing with the light but sure step of progress.’

Delacroix Liberty leading the people

For all there enthusiasm of the projects initiators, however, public subscriptions were slow – even Gounod conducting La liberté éclairant le monde at the Paris Opéra brought in a mere 8,000 francs – and in American they were slower still.  Bartholdi made a show of offering the statue to Philadelphia and Boston; other American cities submitted bids until at last prominent subscribers in New York were goaded into action.

In 1875 Bartholdi started work in his Paris atelier:

Statue Of Liberty In Bartholdi Workshop

He soon realized the magnitude of the task  and invited Gustave Eiffel to design the wrought-iron bracing needed to support the copper sheets that would form the outer skin of the sculpture.  It took several years to complete the disembodied sections of the statue, but by the spring of 1883 Bartholdi was at last ready to assemble them.  By the end of the year, as Victor Dargaud‘s canvas shows, the statue still surrounded by its scaffolding was looming about the rue de Chazelles.

That same year Emma Lazarus published ‘The New Colossus’ to raise money for the statue’s plinth; its famous lines were eventually mounted inside the lower level:


The government of France presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States on the Fourth of July 1884, and five months later it was dismantled, shipped across the Atlantic and reassembled on Bedloe’s Island in New York harbour.


Astonishingly when the inauguration ceremony was held in October 1886, all women were barred except for the wives of the French delegation (led by Bartholdi).  American suffragists held their own simultaneous ceremony, and issued this pointed declaration: ‘In erecting a Statue of Liberty embodied as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty, men have shown a delightful inconsistency which excites the wonder and admiration of the opposite sex.’


This is only a partial narrative but its echoes this morning are only too sonorous – not least the casual Orientalism, the overpowering whiteness, the complicated sexism and (in blessed counterpoint) Lazarus’s defiant acceptance of the exile and the refugee.

And so, for all the baggage carried by Liberty, if I could draw her now I would show an endless line of refugees; at the very back, a woman in a long flowing dress, her crown askew, using her battered torch as a crutch as she limps along in the dust, hoping against hope to be allowed to cross the border; and on an island in New York Harbor a new, glittering faux-gold statue of a man raising his searchlight in his tiny hands, and on the base Dante‘s immortal instruction: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here….’

Yet today of all days we surely cannot afford to abandon hope.  Never has it been more urgent for scholars to reach out far beyond the academy, to create and engage new publics, and to help revitalize a critical and participatory political and intellectual culture – one in which knowledge trumps ignorance, compassion hostility and solidarity selfishness.