‘Reach from the sky’ ONLINE


The video of my two Tanner Lectures, Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war, delivered in Cambridge last month, is now available on the Clare Hall website.  The first, ‘Good bomb, bad bomb’ is here, and the second, ‘Killing Space’, is here, while the responses from Grégoire Chamayou, Jochen von Bernstorff and Chris Woods are here.

I’m immensely grateful to the video team, who were exceptionally helpful and remarkably accomplished.

I’m now hard at work on the long-form version…  And yes, I have – just! – notice the mistake on the poster.  It was indeed ‘Reach from the sky.’  Per ardua….

There’s also a short and kind reflection on the lectures from Alex Jeffrey over at Placing Law here.

Still reaching from the skies…

Sorry for the long silence – I’ve had my head down since soon after Christmas preparing the Tanner Lectures which I gave this past week in Cambridge [‘Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war’].  The lectures were recorded and the video will be available on the Clare Hall website in a fortnight or so: more when I know more.

In outline – and after a rare panic attack the night before, which had me working until 2.30 in the morning –  I organised the two Lectures like this:


Prelude: The historical geography of bombing

Bombing is back in the headlines but it never really left – and yet those who remain advocates of aerial violence don’t seem to have learned from its dismal history.  They also ignore the geographies that have been intrinsic to its execution, both the division between ‘the bombers and the bombed’ (the diagram below is an imperfect and fragmentary example of what I have in mind) and the pulsating spaces through which bombing is performed.

The bombers and the bombed.001

Good bomb, bad bomb

(with apologies to Mahmood Mamdani….)  In the first part I traced The machinery of bombing from before the First World War through to today’s remote operations.  Even though most early commentators believed that the primary role of military aircraft would be in reconnaissance, it was not long before they were being used to orchestrate artillery fire and to conduct bombing from the air. This sequence parallels the development of the Predator towards the end of the twentieth century.  In fact, almost as soon as the dream of flight had been realised the possibility of ‘unmanned flight’ took to the air.  Perhaps the most significant development, though, because it directs our attention to the wider matrix within which aerial violence takes place, was the development of the electronic battlefield in Laos and Cambodia. I’ve written about this in detail in ‘Lines of Descent‘ (DOWNLOADS tab); the electronic battlefield was important not because of what it did – the interdiction program on the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a spectacular failure (something which too many historians have failed to recognise)  – but because of what it showed: it conjured up an imaginative landscape, an automated killing field, in which sensors and shooters were linked through computer systems and automatic relays.  Contemporaries described the system as a vast ‘pinball machine’ (see the image below: you can have no idea how long it took me to track it down…).

Pinball wizards.001

The analogy allowed me to segue into the parallel but wholly inadequate characterisation of today’s remote operations as reducing military violence to a video game.

That is an avowedly ethical objection, of course, so I then turned to The moral economy of bombing.  Here I dissected four of the main ways in which bombing has been justified.  These have taken different forms at different times, and they intersect and on occasion even collide.  But they have been remarkable persistent, so in each case I tracked the arguments involved and showed how they have been radicalised or compromised by the development of Predators and Reapers.

Moral economy of bombing.001

All of these justifications applied to ‘our bombs’, needless to say, which become ‘good bombs’, not to ‘their bombs’ – the ‘bad bombs’.

Their bombs.001


Killing Space

Phillips' Aerial Torpedo.001

I started the second lecture by discussing The deconstruction of the battlefield; the wonder of Raymond Phillips’s fantasies of ‘aerial torpedoes‘ before the First World War was not so much their promise of ‘bomb-dropping by wireless’ but the targets:

Phillips' bomb-dropping by wireless.001

It was this radical extension of the battle space that counted.  In the event,  it was not British airships that dropped bombs on Berlin but German Zeppelins that bombed London and Paris, but the lesson was clear:


To explore the formations and deformations of the battlespace in more detail, I used the image of The dark heart of bombing to describe a battlespace that alternately expanded and contracted.  So Allied bombing in the Second World war extended its deadly envelope beyond Germany, Italy and Japan into Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway and Romania; later the United States would bomb North Vietnam but reserved most of its ordnance for South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; and US air strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq would eventually spill over into Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere.  In the course of those air wars, the accuracy of targeting improved until it was possible to aim (if not always to hit) point-targets – individual buildings and eventually individual people – but this contraction of the killing space was accompanied by its expansion.  These ‘point-targets’ were selected because they were vital nodes that made possible the degradation or even destruction of an entire network.  Hence, for example, the Israeli attack on the Gaza power station (more in a previous post here):

Gaza Power Strip.001

A similar argument can be made about the US Air Force’s boast that it can now put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and I linked the so-called individuation of warfare to the US determination to target individuals wherever they go – to what Jeremy Scahill and others describe as the production of a newly expanded ‘global battlefield’.  What lies behind this is more than the drone, of course, since these killing fields rely on a global system of surveillance orchestrated by the NSA, and I sketched its contours and showed how they issued in the technical production of an ‘individual’ not as a fleshy, corporeal person but as a digital-statistical-spatial artefact (what Ian Hacking once called ‘making people up’ and what Grégoire Chamayou calls ‘schematic bodies‘).

Next I explored a different dialectical geography of the battlespace: Remote splits: intimacy and detachment.  I started with RAF Bomber Command and traced in detail the contrast between the intimacy between members of bomber crews (a mutual dependence reinforced by the bio-convergence between their bodies and the machinery of the bomber itself) and the distance and detachment through which they viewed their targets.

Bioconvergence and the bomber crew.001

Intimacy in Bomber Command.001

The Good Wife.001

Cockpit dials.001

Distance and blindness.001

There’s much more on this in ‘Doors into nowhere‘ (DOWNLOADS tab), though I think my discussion in the Lectures breaks new ground. All of this is in stark contrast to today’s remote operations, where – as Lucy Suchman reminds us – there remains a remarkable (though different) degree of bioconvergence and yet now a persistent isolation and anomie is felt by many pilots and sensor operators who work in shifts:

Anomie and the drone.001

This is thrown into relief by the closeness remote operators feel to the killing space itself, an immersion made possible through the near real-time full-motion video feeds, the internet relay chatter and the radio communications with troops on the ground (where there are any). In contrast to the bomber crews of the Second World War – or those flying over the rainforests of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – there is a repeated insistence on a virtualized proximity to the target.

Good Kill in high-definition.001

But I used a discussion of Andrew Niccol‘s Good Kill to raise a series of doubts about what drone crews really can see, as a way into the next section, Sweet target, which provided an abbreviated presentation of the US air strike in Uruzgan I discuss in much more (I hope forensic) detail in Angry Eyes (see here and here).  That also allowed me to bring together many of the key themes I had isolated in the course of the two lectures.

As I approached my conclusion, I invoked Thomas Hippler‘s Le gouvernement du ciel: Histoire globale des bombardements aériens, (I’ve just discovered that Verso will publish the English-language version later this year or early next: Governing from the skies: a global history of aerial bombing):

Hippler Neo-douhetism.001

I’m not convinced that the military and paramilitary violence being visited on people today is all ‘low-intensity’ (Gaza? Afghanistan? Iraq? Syria? Yemen?).  But neither do I think it’s ‘de-territorialised’, unless the word is flattened into a conventionally Euclidean frame.  Hence, following Stuart Elden‘s lead, I treated territory as a political-juridical technology whose calibrations and enclosures assert, enable and enforce a claim over bodies-in-spaces.  And it was those ‘bodies-on-spaces’ that brought me, finally, to The loneliest space of all:  the irreducible, truly dreadful loneliness of death and grief:

Counting the dead.001

Behind the body-counts and the odious euphemisms of collateral damage and the rest lies the raw, inconsolable loss so exquisitely, painfully rendered in ‘Sky of Horoshima‘…

In the coming days I’ll post some of the key sections of the Lectures in more detail, which I’ll eventually develop into long-form essays.

I learned a lot from the expert and wonderfully constructive commentaries after the Lectures from Grégoire Chamayou, Jochen von Bernstorff and Chris Woods, and I’ll do my best to incorporate their suggestions into the final version.

In his response Grégoire traced my project on military violence in general and bombing/drones in particular back to a series of arguments I’d developed in Geographical imaginations in 1994 about vision, violence and corporeality; I had overlooked these completely, full of the conceit that my work had never stood still…. I shall go back, re-read and think about that some more, since some of the ideas that Grégoire recovered (and elaborated) may be even more helpful to me now.  Jochen and Chris also gave me much food for thought, so I shall be busy in the coming months, and I’m immensely grateful to all three of them.

Tanner respondents

I’m delighted that Grégoire Chamayou and Chris Woods have both accepted invitations to act as discussants and interlocutors for my Tanner Lectures, “Reach from the Sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war“, in Cambridge in January.

The format for the Lectures is for me to give two presentations on the first day; the next day a panel of four respondents offers reactions and comments, and then we open up into general debate and discussion.

9780241970355I provided a series of detailed commentaries on Grégoire’s variously titled Drone Theory/A Theory of the Drone when it was originally published in French (see here for a full listing: scroll down), and we met last year at a wonderful workshop on Secrecy and Transparency at the Humanities Research Institute at Irvine, so I’m thrilled that the tables will be reversed.  Grégoire’s creative imagination seems to know no bounds – see, for example, here and here – and we keep in close touch so I know this will be a rewarding conversation.

9780190202590I’ve never met Chris, but I’m really looking forward to doing so: he has worked with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; his Sudden Justice: America’s secret drone wars is the gold standard for books about the conduct of US remote operations; and he is now busy at Airwars monitoring coalition air strikes over Iraq and Syria.  I greatly admire Chris’s combination of probing analysis and lucid prose, and his determination to bring the results to the widest possible public audience is an inspiration.

More on other respondents later.

Danse macabre

Patterns of life 3 JPEG

Grégoire Chamayou writes to say that after our conversations in Irvine last year he has worked with an artist friend, Julien Prévieux (who won the Prix Marcel Duchamp in 2014) and the Opéra national de Paris to turn his ideas about schematic bodies and patterns of life into a short film: Patterns of Life.

I’ve embedded it below, but if the link doesn’t work you can watch it here or on YouTube here. You will soon see why Anne Buttimer once described Torsten Hågerstrand‘s time-geography diagrams as a danse macabre.  The subtitles are in French but the commentary is in English.

I find the combination of intellectual imagination and performance work absolutely compelling – see my comments on ‘Bodies on the line’ here, for example.

Bombs and books

Among a million and one other things, I’ve returned to my work on the history of bombing for my Reach from the Sky lectures in January.

Secret History of the Blitz

I’ve long admired Joshua Levine‘s work, and his Secret History of the Blitz is thoroughly impressive.  Many others have picked their way across the bomb-sites before, of course, but there are genuinely novel insights to be found amidst the rubble and Levine is an excellent (and wonderfully literate) collector.

2015 is the 75th anniversary of the the Blitz of 1940-41. It is one of the most iconic periods in modern British history – and one of the most misunderstood. The ‘Blitz spirit’ is celebrated by some, whereas others dismiss it as a myth. Joshua Levine’s thrilling biography rejects the tired arguments and reveals the human truth: the Blitz was a time of extremes of experience and behaviour. People were pulling together and helping strangers, but they were also breaking rules and exploiting each other. Life during wartime, the author reveals, was complex and messy and real.

From the first page readers will discover a different story to the one they thought they knew – from the sacrifices made by ordinary people to a sudden surge in the popularity of nightclubs; from secret criminal trials at the Old Bailey to a Columbine-style murder in an Oxford college. There were new working opportunities for women and the appearance of unfamiliar cultures: whilst prayers were offered up in a south London mosque, Jamaican sailors were struggling to cross the country. Unlikely friendships were fostered and surprising sexualities explored – these years saw a boom in prostitution and even the emergence of a popular weekly magazine for fetishists. On the darker side, racketeers and spivs made money out of the chaos, and looters prowled the night to prey on bomb victims.

From the lack of cheese to the decreased suicide rate, this astonishing and entertaining book takes the true pulse of a ‘blitzed nation’. And it shows how social change during this time led to political change – which in turn has built the Britain we know today.

You can find good reviews from the Independent here and from the Telegraph here.

Le gouvernement du ciel

Very different in reach and tone (but also impressively literate), and in many ways much closer to some of the themes I want to address in Cambridge in January,  is Thomas Hippler‘s Le gouvernment du ciel: histoire globale des bombardements aériens.  Readers interested in these things will surely know his remarkable account of Giulio Douhet,  Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884–1939; the new book picks up from the last chapter of the previous one in many ways.

Here is the Contents List:


The earth, the sea and the sky

Towards perpetual peace

The colonial matrix

Civilisation, cosmopolitanism and democracy

The people and the populace

Philosophy of the bomb

Making and unmaking a people

Under the nuclear shield, ‘revolutionary war’

World governance and perpetual war

As you can perhaps divine from the chapter titles, this is at once an attempt to write a global history of the twentieth century through diagnostic episodes in bombing’s bleak history and a discussion of the political formations that aerial violence both presupposed and installed.


I stumbled upon a fascinating conversation between Thomas and Grégoire Chamayou (above) and since I provided a detailed commentary on Théorie du drone for those who can’t read French (you can access the full set here: scroll down for the links) I’ll try to do the same for Le gouvernment du ciel in the weeks ahead (and I’ll include some snippets from that extended conversation).

I don’t think my commentaries have been superceded by the publication of the translation, Theory of the drone, so I’m hoping the same will be true if there is an English version of Le gouvernment du ciel (though I can’t find any sign of one yet).

I saw a man

SHEERS I saw a man N Am ednLast week I was in Bloomington for the drones conference – more on that later – but while I was there I managed to finish Owen Sheers‘ new novel, I saw a man.  All of the reviews I’ve seen so far (and they have been very, very good: see here, here and here, for example) praise the way in which Owen so beautifully recovers the circles of grief that spiral from a drone strike on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that accidentally killed a party of foreign journalists, including Caroline, the wife of the book’s narrator.  ‘Despite its “fire and forget” name tag,’ we are assured, ‘once a Hellfire had been released there would always be someone who never would.’

In fact, Owen and I had corresponded about the details of drone strikes and casualty investigations while he was working on the book, and he certainly treats mourning and memory with extraordinary skill and empathy.  Restricting the victims to those outside the region, apart from a local driver and interpreter, may make the task easier – much of the story plays out in Hampstead – but it’s still formidably difficult.


Yet the book is also, equally centrally, about distancing.  Michael is an author with a reputation for effacing himself from his narratives.  Towards the end, in a phrase that powers the book’s meta-fictional twist (and which in some editions is captured on a cover from which Sheers’ own name is absent), Michael is told:

 “Isn’t that what you’re always saying? You need distance to see anything clearly? To become your own editor.”

Even when he tries to lose himself in his fencing lessons, his instructor insists:

“DISTANCE! DISTANCE MICHAEL! It’s your best defence!”

And it is of course distance that is focal to the fateful drone strike.  Those most directly involved in the kill-chain are soon effaced from the official narrative:

“A U.S. drone strike.” That was all the press release said. No mention of Creech, screeners, Intel coordinator, an operator, a pilot. It was as if the Predator had been genuinely unmanned. As if there had been no hand behind its flight, no eye behind its cameras.

And those who were killed are artfully turned into the authors of their own destruction (a tactic that is routinely used on Afghan and Pakistani victims too), even sacrificed for a greater good (international humanitarian law’s vengeful doctrine of ‘necessity’):

[T]he Pentagon statement also made mention of the journalists “working undercover,” of “entering a high-risk area.” They had known, it was implied, the dangers of their actions. And, the same statement reminded the world, an influential terrorist had been successfully targeted. The weight of blame, Michael knew, from the moment it happened, was being dissipated, thinned.

But distance is not a moral absolute (one of the most egregious mistakes of critics of drone warfare: if you think it wrong to kill someone from 7,000 miles away, over what distance do you think it is acceptable?).  In a narrative arc that will be familiar to many readers, the pilot of the drone (Daniel) is haunted by what happened, and by the dismal intimacy of death.

Charleston Mountains NV

Each morning, as he sets off from his home outside Las Vegas to drive to Creech Air Force Base, Daniel reflects on the similarity of the distant Charleston mountains to those over which he would soon be flying his Predator or Reaper.  It’s a common trope, actually: George Brant makes much of it in his play Grounded.  ‘Despite their proximity,’ though, Daniel hadn’t been into them and didn’t really know them.

They were his daily view but not yet his landscape, a feature of his geography but not yet his territory. Unlike those other mountains, 8,000 miles away. Those mountains Daniel knew intimately. He’d never climbed in them, either, but he was still familiar with the villages silted into their folds, the shadows their peaks threw at evening and the habits of the shepherds marshalling their flocks along their lower slopes. Recently he’d even been able to anticipate, given the right weather conditions, at what time the clouds would come misting down the higher peaks into the ravines of the valleys. Over the last few months he’d begun to feel an ownership over them. Were they not as much his workplace as that of those shepherds? For the troops operating in the area they were simply elevation, exhaustion, fear. They were hostile territory. But for Daniel they were his hunting ground, and as such it was his job not just to know them but to learn them, too. To love them, even, so that from the darkness of his control station in Creech, he might be able to move through their altitudes as naturally as the eagles who’d ridden their thermals for centuries.

It’s a brilliant paragraph, reflective and revealing, that captures the ways in which the pilot’s optical knowledge is transmuted into ‘ownership’, knowledge pinned to power, and distanced from the corpographies of troops on the ground for whom the mountains meant only ‘elevation, exhaustion, fear’ [see also here].  Daniel was freed from all that, soaring high above them, precisely because his territory appeared elsewhere.  If, as Stuart Elden suggests, territory can be conceived as a political technology that asserts a claim over bodies-in-spaces, then one of the most perceptive passages in I saw a man is the description of Daniel scanning ‘the territory of his screen (my emphasis)’…

Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 12.48.14 PM

Distance, intimacy, experience: all mediated by political technology and in consequence highly conditional and always partial.  That is how the pilot is made free to pursue what Grégoire Chamayou calls his ‘man-hunting‘: because what appears on the screen is a target – not a man or a woman.

Or, as the book’s epigraph says: ‘I saw a man who wasn’t there….’