Eye in the Sky

Several years ago I met Guy Hibbert in a London hotel to discuss his draft script for a BBC drama about a targeted killing by a British drone in East Africa.  It was a clever script and an interesting conversation – and I hope a helpful one – but in the interim I heard no more about it and assumed that the BBC had shelved the project.


Now I see that Eye in the Sky is in production as a feature film directed by Gavin Hood and starring Helen Mirren (swoon).  As First Showing reports,

An American drone pilot (Aaron Paul) finds himself at a crossroads when a 9-year-old girl enters the kill zone his drone operation, under the command of military intelligence officer Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is poised to destroy after they learn their targets are planning a suicide mission. What follows is a climb up the “kill chain” of command, weighing the legality and morality of action and inaction.

Eye in the Sky is scheduled for release next year.

UPDATE: Guy has written to say that shooting in Cape Town finishes this week, and then it’s nine months of post-production for a September 2015 première.

Unfinished business

I’m sorry for the long silence: the past two weeks have been unusually busy, with a stream of wonderful visitors to the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, including Philippe Descola, Anne-Christine Taylor and Bruno Latour.  More on this soon, but during a series of conference presentations – in which, more or less in passing, I mentioned Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The act of killing (2012) (see here and here) – I was told of another, related project that readers will find interesting.

This is Yael Hersonski‘s A Film Unfinished [Shtikat Haarchion] (2010).  The centre of the documentary – you can hardly say its ‘heart’ – is an unfinished propaganda film shot by the Nazis in 1942, Das Ghetto, which purported to portray the Warsaw Ghetto.  It was found in an archive in East Germany in 1954, but in 1988 two discarded film cans containing 30 minutes of outtakes were discovered – scenes left on the cutting room floor – which radically transformed the interpretation of the film and revealed the elaborate staging of its scenes.  You can obtain another overview of the project here, which includes a number of stills from A Film Unfinished.

A film unfinished

The parallel with Oppenheimer’s project is drawn by Hersonski’s re-staging of an interview with one of the original cameramen, Willy Wist (he died in 1999 but Hersonski works from a transcript she found by chance in an archive in Ludwigsburg), and by her decision to invite five survivors of the Ghetto to watch the out-takes and to record their reactions.

This is from Jeannette Catsoulis‘s thoughtful review in the New York Times:

What if I see someone I know?jpg“What if I see someone I know?” one woman asks [she does], hardly daring to look. As the flickering atrocities play across the survivors’ faces — one film observing another — Ms. Hersonski silently creates space for memories. More than just valuable reality checks (“When did you ever see a flower? We would have eaten a flower!”), these recollections anchor the past to the present, and the images to human experience, in a way that shifts our perception of the Warsaw film. Whether cringing at the sight of naked men and women being forced at gunpoint into a ritual bath, or contemptuously dismissing the Nazis’ efforts to highlight Jewish privilege (“My mother wore her beautiful coat, and sometimes a hat. So what?”), the survivors seem to speak for those who cannot.

Here is the trailer.  The whole film is available on YouTube but I can’t embed it because it has a restricted rating, so you need to confirm you are old enough to watch it: here.

Catsoulis suggests that the film is concerned with the difference between watching and seeing, and in this sense the other obvious parallel is with Giorgio Agamben‘s philosophico-ethical probings of the witness and the camp.  Hersonski herself says that her film ‘first emerged out of my theoretical preoccupation with the notion of the “archive”, and the unique nature of the witnessing it bears.’ (She elaborates this in an interview with Max Goldberg here and there is also a really excellent interview with Lalev Melamed, ‘A Film Unraveled’, in the International journal of politics, culture and society 26 (13) 9-19, which includes an interesting comparison between Hersonski and Harun Farocki).

Witnessing is of more than historical significance, of course, and in an extended interview with Clyde Fitch – in which he asks her about complicity and guilt – Hersonski deflects his question from the past to our own present:

I’m asking myself a different question. I’m asking myself: What is my ethical position when I’m sitting very comfortably in my living room and seeing whatever is happening a few kilometers from my city in the occupied territories?…

What can I do? No, it’s not a rhetorical question. I’m seeing this and other events unfold — I’m watching it, I know about it, I know it’s there. I’m not talking about politics right now, by the way, just images of people suffering. And, as the images of people suffering in my own country go, you become a witness. Then what do you do as a witness? It’s a terrible question — it’s a haunting, torturing question. It’s our essential question.

I think that it was also a major reason why I made this film — because the Holocaust not only confronted humanity with an inconceivable horror but it also did mark the very beginning of the systematic implementation on film of that horror. And I think that something changed in our perception — I don’t know even how to define this something — after we saw images from the camps, something that we hadn’t witnessed before. It seems that documentation became more technically advanced, more massive, since then.

Well, as long as this bombardment of images becomes more intense, we will become more and more incapable of really seeing suffering, or war.

Fitch describes the film as ‘an act of anthropology’ – something which our three guests at the Wall would surely recognise too.

The death merchants

The opening sequence of Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War (2005), starring Nicholas Cage, provides one of the starkest visualizations of the arms trade as it follows the ‘life of a bullet’ – thousands and thousands of them and one in particular – from the point of view of the bullet itself.   You can watch it (and listen to the wonderful Buffalo Springfield) below:

Here is the script:


– Gunpowder is poured into a metal casing, lead slug mounted on top.

A BULLET is born.  A perfect 39mm.

– The BULLET travels along a conveyor belt with thousands of identical siblings in a Ukrainian factory so grey it’s monochrome.

– The BULLET, picked up by a ham-fisted UKRAINIAN FACTORY WORKER, is tossed into a crate.

– The BULLET, lying in its open crate, rolls down a chute where it’s inspected by a UKRAINIAN MILITARY OFFICER holding a manifest.  He seems to stare directly at our BULLET.

UKRAINIAN OFFICER (to his SUBORDINATE carrying a manifest, in Ukrainian) Call it “agricultural machinery”.

– The BULLET’s crate rattles around in an open-bed truck along an industrial road, passes a decapitated statue of LENIN. – The crate containing our BULLET is placed on a ship in the cold grey Odessa harbor.  A container door closes, plunging the bullet into darkness.

– The door re-opens.  The BULLET, still in its crate, now basks in bright, tropical sunshine, surrounded by an azure sea.

– The crate is removed by a pair of slim, dark hands, revealing a glimpse of the bustling, weathered port of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.  The crate is one of dozens unloaded from the ship.

– BULLET’s POV from another open-air truck, now slogging through a mud-clogged road in lush rainforest.

– The BULLET is unloaded from the truck in Freetown, Sierra Leone – immediately grabbed by the young HAND of a RUF soldier.

– The BULLET is loaded into a 30-round magazine which is inserted into an AK-47 machine gun

– The BULLET waits – in the gloomy chamber.  Suddenly, from outside,the sound of raised voices and gunfire.

– The BULLET and its neighbors start to rise quickly up the magazine towards the chamber as the Kalashnikov is fired.

– Our hero BULLET is next.  Will it see action?

– Smack.  The gun’s bolt strikes the explosive cap, gunpowder ignited, the BULLET driven out of the barrel.

– Shed of its casing – now only a slug – the BULLET emerges into bright sunshine.  It is flying down the main street in Freetown.

– The BULLET gives us a perfect point-of-view of the bullet ahead of it.  They are both flying towards their intended target – a wild-eyed CHILD SOLDIER, a boy no more than twelve, firing an AK-47 almost as tall as he is.

– The leading bullet narrowly misses, whistles past the boy’s ear, striking the whitewashed wall behind – one more pock-mark in a building riddled with pock-marks.

– Our BULLET, following close behind, finds its mark, slamming into the boy’s forehead just above his left eye – his expression, oddly relieved.

– The BULLET carves through the lobes of the boy’s brain where it is enveloped in blood, finally plunged into darkness – the bullet’s final resting place.


I can imagine – I think – all sorts of ways in which today’s object-oriented philosopher-geographers might be interested in this sequence, but there’s also a much more obvious geography embedded in it.  Yet it turns out that it’s not so obvious after all.  One of the liveliest (sic) analyses of the global arms trade is Andrew Feinstein‘s The shadow world: inside the global arms trade (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011); there are also trenchant analyses in Rachel Stohl and Suzette Grillot, The international arms trade (Cambridge: Polity, 2009).  But if you want to track those shadow geographies and their entanglements with the shifting geographies of military and paramilitary violence, then you have to look elsewhere.  And once you start looking you begin to realise why neither of these books includes any maps.

The Stockholm Institute for Peace Research has been tracking global military spending and the arms trade since 1967, and Ian Taylor has converted their recent tabulations into several maps, like the one below that plots military spending in 2011 as a proportion of GDP.

Armsflow has an animated sequence of global arms transfers from 1950 through to 2006, based on the SIPRI database.  And Worldmapper has some maps showing arms exports and arms imports, but these use data from 2003 only and exclude small arms and ammunition.  In fact most investigations of the global arms trade, until at least the end of the Cold War, were directed at major weapons systems – calibrating the ‘arms race’ – but since the 1990s there has been considerable interest in tracking small arms and light weapons (SALW); le monde diplomatique provided a map of small arms for 2002, but this was confined to the legal trade (though it did show the zones where illegal trafficking was most dense), and there is a visualization of the global distribution of small arms here.  In addition, the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT) has a series of maps ranking exporting and importing states.

But these maps are static and don’t show the flows involved. But now a new project between the Igarapé Institute in Brazil and Google’s Creative Lab team uses data from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (one of NISAT’s three partners) to produce an interactive that charts the ‘government-authorised’ global trade in small arms from 1992 to 2010.  I’ve posted a screenshot below but this is an interactive and you really need to move through the image flow. The project claims that 60 per cent of violent deaths in the world are inflicted through the use of small arms and light weapons.  Note: You need Google Chrome to view the interactive.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey identifies the major exporters (excluding ammunition) thus:

Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and the United States routinely report annual exports of small arms, light weapons, their parts, accessories, and ammunition worth USD 100 million or more. The Small Arms Survey estimates that China and the Russian Federation also routinely achieve this level of activity although Beijing and Moscow do not report doing so. In 2007, customs data alone indicated that these eight countries, along with Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, exceeded USD 100 million in exports.’

And the importers:

‘An analysis of customs data suggests that for the period 2001 to 2007 five countries—Canada, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—routinely imported small arms, light weapons, their parts, accessories, and ammunition worth USD 100 million or more per year. Customs data also suggests that eight additional countries imported at least USD 100 million or more in at least one year during this seven-year period: Australia, Cyprus, Egypt, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, and the United Kingdom. A review of customs data shows that Italy routinely imported more than USD 50 million per year from 2001 to 2007.  The United States is by far the biggest documented importer of small arms.

All this matters because, as C.J. Chivers – the author of a remarkable history of the AK-47, The Gun, notes in Foreign Affairs 90 (2011) 110-121 – small arms and ammunition play a central role in ‘fueling the forever war’.  And, as these fragmentary notes suggest, their cascading geographies also explain how they propel what I call ‘the everywhere war’ too. There are two vectors that need to be emphasized.  First – and Chivers is very good on this – there is a layered historical geography to the diffusion of small arms.  As state militaries spasmodically upgrade their stocks so their discarded models typically enter the arms bazaar in what Chivers calls ‘arms cascades’ – which explains how US Marines in Marja seized stocks of both Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles and World War II ammunition and automatic Kalashnikovs.  What this example shows, too, is that there is no clear line dividing ‘white’  from ‘black’ (illicit) trade, what Mike Bourne – whose work I’ve just stumbled upon – calls an ‘upperworld’ and an ‘underworld’.   There may not be fifty shades of grey, but Bourne insists that there is ‘an important distinction between the greyness that occurs because of unclear or weakly enforced procedures or corrupt individuals and that which arises through covert arms supply by states’ [‘Controlling the shadow trade’, Contemporary security policy 32 (2011) 215-240].

Second, the geographies of small arms transfer are much more heterogeneous than the visualizations shown above imply: purely private black-market transfers are often intensely regionalized rather than globalized (again, Bourne’s Arming conflict: the proliferation of small arms (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007) is very helpful here, and there is a clutch of revealing regional studies, notably of arms trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa.  I said something about this – all too briefly – in my ‘War and peace’ (see DOWNLOADS tab) but I need to think much more carefully about it.  My discussion of small arms trafficking in that essay was linked to the ‘new wars’ thesis, and Thomas Jackson has provided a much more incisive critique of the claim that the ‘globalization’ of arms supply feeds into intra-state conflicts, and of the importance of ‘domestic procurement’, in ‘From under their noses: rebel groups’ arms acquisition and the importance of leakages from state stockpiles’, International Studies Perspectives 11 (201) 131-147.  It’s a clunky title but an interesting argument: in Jackson’s view, only well organized non-state actors ‘have the organizational strength and external support to access the global arms market’.

But it’s Bourne’s contemplation of ‘an inglorious mess of hybrids and ever evolving assemblages’, and his continuing riffs on heterogeneity, that open up the most interesting theoretical and political possibilities, for me at any rate.  I recommend his reflections on ‘geopolitical imaginations’ (yes) and ‘netwar geopolitics’ [British journal of Politics and International Relations 13 (2011) 490-513] and (especially) ‘Guns don’t kill people, cyborgs do: a Latourian provocation for transformatory arms control and disarmament’ [Global change, peace and security 24 (2012) 141-163].  That last essay loops back to ways of re-envisaging the opening sequence of Lord of War with which I began…

Sounds of War

In my post on War and Distance, I referred to a BBC radio broadcast of a Bomber Command raid on Berlin on the night of 3/4 September 1943. There had been previous British broadcasts of bombing raids, notably by Richard Dimbleby who flew on twenty-odd missions with the RAF, but his commentaries were all recorded after the event.  This one was different.  Reporter Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and his sound engineer Reg Pidsley made their recording during a flight in a Lancaster bomber, “F for Freddie”, part of a force of over 300 Lancasters that attacked Berlin that night.  Their live recording was edited for transmission a couple of nights later.  You can listen to an extract here, and there is a lively discussion about whether the recording was fake or not (it evidently wasn’t), together with more details of the recording and the raid, here.

This episode is of interest for reasons that spiral beyond my original post.  Much of the discussion of the histories/geographies bombing – my own included – focuses on the visual, and there are good reasons for this.  During the combined bomber offensive against Germany, as I try to show in ‘Doors into nowhere’ [see DOWNLOADS], what today would be called the kill-chain was choreographed through a sequence of air photographs, maps, charts and visual displays.  In 1941 Harry Watt produced an extraordinary drama-documentary, Target for Tonight, for the Crown Film Unit and the Ministry of Information that tracked this visual sequence in vivid detail.  The film used RAF personnel (not actors); it was shot at RAF Mildenhall and on special sound stages at Elstree and Denham, where Bomber Command’s Operations Room at High Wycombe was recreated (with twice the number of available squadrons listed on the walls); and it followed the fortunes of  a Wellington bomber – also “F for Freddie” – on a strike against a “military-industrial target”, an oil refinery at Freihausen.

The film was a huge success.  Writing in the Spectator Graham Greene marvelled at the way in which ordinary men and women carried out ‘their difficult and dangerous job in daily routine like shop or office workers.. What we see is no more than a technical exercise…’  The New York Times reviewer said much the same; the film ‘shows the manner in which the Bomber Command lays out its operations, how instructions are transmitted to the squadrons which are to participate, how the plan of attack is “briefed” by the men of one particular squadron and then how the crew of one powerful Wellington conducts its appointed task….The true, thrilling quality of it lies in the remarkable human detail which Mr Watt has worked into it — the quiet, efficient way in which each man goes about his job.’   You can watch it here (and marvel at the cut-glass English accents: “Bad luck, Catford!”; how did the language change so much between then and now?)

[There is a much longer discussion in K.R.M. Short’s account of the film in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 17:2 (1997) 181-218 (which includes the script) and, again, I discuss its visual thematics in “Doors into nowhere”].

In the Second World War air raids were often described in cinematic terms, by observers in the air and on the ground.  As Lara Feigel notes, ‘accounts of the Blitz in both Britain and Germany frequently figure the bombs as photographic and cinematic.’  Partly, she says, this is a matter of lighting – and given the growing importance of incendiaries in the bomb mix, and the emphasis on bombing by night, you can see why – but she thinks there is also a deeper reason. ‘In seeing the war as a photograph,’ she suggests, writers were ‘detaching themselves from the world around them.’  The sense of detachment, if she is right, is not only one possible effect of the visual (or of a particular visuality); bombing was abstracted from the horror it brought to bodies through its bureaucratization – Greene’s ‘technical exercise’; the locus classicus for this discussion is still Henry Nash’s ‘The bureaucratization of homicide’ in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 36: 4 (1980), describing his experience in the USAAF’s Air Targets Division in the 1950s and 60s – as well as specific forms of its visualization, and the two often operated together (as in the kill-chain, in fact).

The emphasis on the visual and, in particular, the cinematic recurs again and again – most generally in Paul Virilio‘s War and cinema: the logistics of perception (which was originally published in 1984 and is surely long overdue for critique).  Virilio draws attention to the elective affinity between flying and filming and, in relation to the combined bomber offensive in particular, describes how

‘The Allied air assault on the great European conurbations suddenly became a son-et-lumiere, a series of special effects, an atmospheric projection designed to confuse a frightened, blacked-out population.  In dark rooms that fully accorded with the scale of the drama, victims-to-be witnessed the most terrifying night-time fairy theatre, hellish displays of an invading cinema that reproduced the Nuremberg architecture of light.’

I think the emphasis on the visualities of military violence is extremely important, though I also think we need to disentangle different modes and effects, and James Der Derian’s discussion of the military-industrial-media-entertainment complex (MIME-NET) suggests that, in the decades after the Second World War, the cinematic entered even more fully into the conduct of warfare [for a discussion between Virilio and Der Derian, see here].

But what of other registers?  Specifically, what of the son that accompanied, and on occasion substituted for the lumière?  In the 1940s British cinemas showed endless black-and-white newsreels of RAF (and USAAF) bombing raids, with rousing commentaries and jaunty music; but try this rare colour version, with a contemporary soundtrack provided by Italian musician and historian Vincent Romano, and pay particular attention to the effect of the new score, especially from  2.20 on.

My point here is not about politics or aesthetics, particularly, but, first, to note that – in contrast to that recurrent emphasis on the visual — for many civilians, at least, the experience of an air raid was a matter of sound: the wail of the air-raid sirens, the crump-crump of the anti-aircraft guns, the boom of the explosion, the crash of glass shattering and buildings collapsing, the whistles and bells of the fire and ambulance services.  ‘Especially in darkness, and during bombings,’ Patrick Deer  in argues in his brilliant Culture in camouflage, ‘the sounds of war took on extraordinary power.’

Pete Adey gets this exactly right, I think, when he writes:

‘For geographer Kenneth Hewitt, sound “told of the coming raiders, the nearness of bombs, the plight of loved ones”. The enormous social survey of Mass Observation concluded that “fear seems to be linked above all with noise.” As one report found, “It is the siren or the whistle or the explosion or the drone – these are the things that terrify. Fear seems to come to us most of all through our sense of hearing.” Yet the power of the siren came not only from its capacity to propagate sound and to alert, but the warning held in its voice of ‘keeping silent’. “Prefacing in a dire prolepsis the post-apocalyptic event before the event”, as Bishop and Phillips put it, the stillness of silence was incredibly virtual in its affects, disclosing – in its lack of life – the lives that would be later taken.’

This isn’t a purely historical affair, of course, and in an interesting post on what he calls ‘warsound’ Geoff Manaugh mixes Dexter Filkins’ brilliant account of the visuals of The forever war with an arresting litany of its sounds:

‘The night sky echoed with pops and pings, the invisible sounds of frantic action.  Most were being made by the AC-130 gunships, whose propellers were putting out a reassuring hum. But over the droning came stranger sounds: the plane’s Gatling gun let out long, deep burps at volumes that were symphonic. Its 105mm cannon made a popping sound, the same as you would hear from a machine that served tennis balls. A pop! followed by a boom! Pop-boom. And then there was the insect buzz of the ScanEagle, the pilotless airplane that hovered above us and beamed images back to base. It was as if we were witnessing the violent struggles of an entire ecosystem, a clash of airborne nocturnal beasts we could not see.’

Those who live in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan know of other terrors, by day and night.  Here is Rasul Mana, who lives in Waziristan:

‘When the drone is 5 km away the sound is very different. It sounds like a missile. As they come closer, it turned into a repetitive humming. Bangana is the word we use for drones. It means bee in Pashtu. I first heard that term in 2005, and the killer bees have been all over us ever since. The kids know what the voice of the drone now. Every day we hear the voice of the drones at least six or seven times.  We listen for the voice 24 hours a day. We are afraid at night as we lie in our beds. The drones are going around and around over our heads. There may be four or five at any given time. They are normally very high, but sometimes they come down if there is a dust storm or it is cloudy.  They also tend to come down lower to attack, which is when you get very scared. When the missile is launched it makes a loud noise – zzhhooo – as it drops onto its target…’

Mana talks of the voice of the drones, but there are other voices in war too.  And so, thinking of Vaughan-Thomas and Pidsley, and the audience gathered around their radio each night (not only in Britain), I also want to remind myself how important it is not to gloss over radio as temporary static in the inexorable mobilization of an insistently visual economy – from photographs through film to television and video – since, as Patrick Deer also writes, in the Second World War  ‘radio shaped the sensory landscape of wartime like no other medium’.   And that matters because a soundscape elicits a profoundly imaginative response on the part of its auditors (which is why Romano’s new soundtrack is so immensely powerful)…

These thoughts have been prompted by a series of conversations with one of our graduate students, Max Ritts, who has also pointed me in the direction of Steve Goodman’s Sonic warfare: sound, affect and the ecology of fear (MIT, 2010)