The prosthetics of military violence

Neve Gordon‘s review of Grégoire Chamayou‘s A theory of the drone on Al-Jazeera is now available in a more extended form at Counterpunch here.  It’s a succinct summary of the book’s main theses, though there’s not much critical engagement with them (you can access my own series of commentaries here [scroll down]).  He closes his review like this:

Because drones transform warfare into a ghostly teleguided act orchestrated from a base in Nevada or Missouri, whereby soldiers no longer risk their lives, the critical attitude of citizenry towards war is also profoundly transformed, altering, as it were, the political arena within drone states.

Drones, Chamayou says, are a technological solution for the inability of politicians to mobilize support for war. In the future, politicians might not need to rally citizens because once armies begin deploying only drones and robots there will be no need for the public to even know that a war is being waged. So while, on the one hand, drones help produce the social legitimacy towards warfare through the reduction of risk, on the other hand, they render social legitimacy irrelevant to the political decision making process relating to war. This drastically reduces the threshold for resorting to violence, so much so that violence appears increasingly as a default option for foreign policy. Indeed, the transformation of wars into a risk free enterprise will render them even more ubiquitous than they are today.

Neve is the author of the indispensable Israel’s occupation, and while these paragraphs closely follow A theory of the drone the title of the book is in the singular – and so I’m left wondering about military violence that isn’t orchestrated from Nevada or Missouri and what other ‘theories of the drone’ are needed to accommodate a ‘drone state’ like Israel (not that I’m sure what a ‘drone state’ is…)?

Shoot and Strike

The Israeli military is no stranger to what, following Joseph Pugliese, I’ll call prosthetic violence. While Israel remains a leading manufacturer of drones (see here and here), and routinely deploys them over the occupied territories, it also enforces its ‘Death Zone‘ in Gaza through an automated, ground-based ‘Spot and Strike’ shooting system:

The soldiers, trainees in the course for the “Spot and Strike” system, sit in a tower facing the wilderness of the southern Negev, at the far edge of the Field Intelligence School at the Sayarim base, not far from Ovda. Between their tower and the wide-open desert stands another tower topped by a metal dome. With the press of a button the dome opens to reveal a heavy machine gun. Small tweaks of the joystick aim the barrel. To the right of the gun is a camera, which transmits a clear picture of the target onto a screen opposite the soldier. A press of the button and the figure in the crosshairs is hit by a 0.5-inch bullet.

This dovetails (wrong bird) with a discussion of online shooting in A theory of the drone, but here is risk-transfer war waged over extremely short distances.  ‘Remoteness’ is as much an imaginative as a physical condition, and one that is constantly manipulated so that the threat from Hamas’s rockets and tunnels becomes ‘danger close’ even as the hideous consequences of Israel’s own military offensives become distanced (unless, of course, you choose to turn killing into a spectator sport).  In Israel, it seems, these prosthetic assemblages – of which drones are a vital part – serve to animate a deeply militarised society in which evidence of a martial stance is precisely a prerequisite for its claims to legitimacy.

PUGLIESE State violence

So we clearly need a more inclusive analysis of the prosthetics of military violence – the bio-technical means by which its range is extended – that acknowledges the role of drones for more than ‘targeted killing’ and which incorporates other emergent modalities altogether, including cyberwarfare.  One of the best places to start thinking through these issues, in relation to drones at any rate, is Joseph’s tour de force, State violence and the execution of law (2013), which emphasises how ‘through a series of instrumental mediations, the biological human actor becomes coextensive with the drone that she or he pilots from the remote ground control station’ (p. 184) (I connected this to Grégoire’s theses here).

The experience may be more conditional than this allows, though.  Timothy Cullen‘s study of USAF crews training to operate the MQ-9 Reaper found that the sense of ‘co-extension’ – or bioconvergence – was much stronger among sensor operators than pilots:

After a couple hundred hours of flight experience and a sense of comfort with the modes, interfaces, and capabilities of the sensor ball, sensor operators began to feel like they were a part of the machine. With proficiency as a “sensor,” sensor operators found themselves shifting and straining their bodies in front of the [Heads Up Display] to look around an object.  As pilots flew closer to a target, the transported operators tilted their heads in anticipation of the camera’s [redacted].  Feelings of remote presence helped sensor operators move their bodies, and instructors believed that operators who felt as if they were “flying the sensor” could hold their attention longer on a scene…

Both pilots and sensor operators said pilots did not transport themselves conceptually into the machine to the same extent as a sensor operator. Nor did pilots attain similar feelings of connection and control with Reaper as they did with their previous aircraft.

The term ‘prosthetics’ implies these are at once extensions and embodiments of a military violence whose prosthetics also assume more mundane bioconvergent forms.  This is an obvious but in most cases strangely overlooked point.  Joseph mentions it in passing, juxtaposing his ‘mobilisation of the prosthetic trope’ with ‘the material literality of prosthetics: drones as the militarized prosthetics of empire inherently generate civilian amputees in need of prosthetic limbs’ (p. 214).  There’s also a suggestive discussion in Jennifer Fluri‘s ‘States of (in)security’, which devotes a whole section to what she calls ‘prosthetics biopower’ and the multiply corporeal geographies of contemporary wars [Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 32 (2014) 795-814].  Although Jennifer doesn’t directly connect these intimacies to distant vectors of military violence, the implication (and invitation) is clearly there.

So let me try to supplement her observations, drawing in part on my project on military-medical machines that treats (among other theatres of war) the evacuation of injured soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan.  It’s important to trace the two pathways, as I’ll show in a moment (and I’ll say much more about this in a later post), but it’s also necessary to remember, as Sarah Jain crisply observes in her classic essay on ‘The prosthetic imagination‘ (p. 36), that ‘it usually is not the same body that is simultaneously extended and wounded’  [Science, technology and human values 24 (1) (1999) 31-54].  That said, there is a distinctively corporeal geography to those that are.

US military Limb amutations in Afghanistan and Iraq PNG

Major limb amputations (US military) in Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan (OEF) 2001-2014 (Source: Congressional Research Services US Military Casualty Statistics, November 2014)

The incidence of devastating injuries to the limbs of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (see the graph above; for comparable UK figures, see here) – mainly from IEDs – has been acknowledged in the role played by amputees in mission rehearsal exercises and pre-deployment training since 2005 (see here for an excellent general account).

Peter Bohler:Fort Irwin training

Private contractors like Amputees in Action pride themselves on providing ‘de-sensitising’ exposure to ‘catastrophic injury amputations’ and replicating the latest field injuries for these exercises.  There is a risk in re-enrolling war veterans, as the company concedes:

Every amputee is vetted and put through specialist training beforehand to see if they are up to the job. For some it is too close to the mark, too realistic. The last thing we want to do is traumatize someone, stymie their rehabilitation.

These simulations have been used to prepare ordinary soldiers for the situations they will face – today it’s not only the ‘golden hour’ between injury and surgery that is crucial but also (and much more so) the ‘platinum ten minutes’ immediately following the incident, so the first response is vital. They have also been used to ready trauma teams for the war zone: the BBC has a report on the Royal Army Medical Corps’s mock ‘Camp Bastion’ at Strenshall in Yorkshire here.

These various exercises incorporate the latest advances in evacuation and trauma care, which have meant that today’s soldiers are far more likely to survive even the most life-threatening wounds than those who fought in previous conflicts, but the horrors experienced by young men and women in the military who lose arms and legs – sometimes all of them – are truly hideous:  read, for example, Anne Jones‘s mesmerising and deeply moving account of  They Were Soldiers: How the wounded return from America’s wars (you can get an idea from her ‘Star-spangled Baggage’ here).  Their road to rehabilitation is far longer, and infinitely more painful, than the precarious journey through which they returned to the United States (see also my ‘Bodies on the line‘).

Zac Vawter at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

Researchers unveiled the world’s first thought-controlled bionic leg  on 25 September 2013  funded through the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s (USAMRMC) Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) and developed by researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) Center for Bionic Medicine. 

There is some light in the darkness – ongoing experiments with state-of-the-art, ‘bionic’ prosthetics animated by microprocessors in the US, the UK and elsewhere that restore far more stability, mobility and movement than would have been possible even five years ago (see above, and here and here for the US, here and here for the UK).  In the 1980s less than 2 per cent of US soldiers who had suffered major limb amputations returned to duty; by 2006 that had increased to over 16 per cent (see also here and here).  There are several reasons for the change, but in 2012 Jason Koebler reported:

According to the Army, at least 167 soldiers who have had a major limb amputation (complete loss of an arm, leg, hand, or foot) have remained on active duty since the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, with some returning to battle. Many others have returned overseas to work in support roles behind the lines.

“When we have someone we know wants to return, their rehab is geared that way,” says John Fergason, chief of prosthetics at the Army Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam in Houston, Texas.

Kevin Carroll, vice president of Prosthetics at Hanger, a company that makes artificial limbs, says prosthetics have become more comfortable to wear and closer in range of motion to natural limbs.  “Unfortunately, when you have war, you have casualties, but with that comes innovation,” he says. Artificial joints are getting better at approximating the knee, elbow, wrist, and ankle, and microprocessors embedded in prostheses are able to pick up and adjust for impacts from walking, running, jumping, and climbing.

“The person doesn’t have to worry about the prosthetic device, they’re worrying about the task in front of them,” Carroll says. “If they want to go back to be with their troops, that’s an option for many soldiers these days.”

Notice, though, that these advances in prosthetic design and manufacture are part of an intimate conjunction between military violence and military medicine, in which materials science, bio-engineering, electronics and computer science simultaneously provide new means of bodily injury and new modalities of bodily repair.  This is captured in the title of David Serlin‘s thought-provoking essay, ‘The other arms race’ [in Lennard Davis (ed), The Disability Studies Reader (second edition, 2006) 49-65; this essay is not included in the latest edition, but see also the collection David edited with Katherine OttArtificial parts, practical lives: modern histories of prosthetics (2002) and his own Replaceable You: engineering the body in postwar America (2004)].  You can also find an excellent brief historical review of ‘Prosthetics under trials of war’ here.

War XAnd, given the circuits within the military-medical machine, there may be more to come.  There are those who anticipate a future in which prosthetics will not only reinstate but also increase a soldier’s capabilities.  Koebler cites Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, who ‘talks about a future where prosthetics are “enhancers” that allow soldiers to be stronger, faster, and more durable than their peers.’  These fantasies feed through the masculinist imaginary of the post-human cyborg soldier (sketched an age ago by Chris Hables Gray and revisited here) to the prosthetics of military violence with which I began. Here Tim Blackmore‘s War X: Human extensions in battlespace (2011) is also relevant.

But Koebler is quick to add that all this is still a distant prospect:

“I know the question is often, ‘How close are we to true bionic or having artificial limbs that are more versatile than natural ones?'” Fergason says. “Frankly, we’re not that close. You’re not going to see anyone decide, ‘Boy, I think I’d like to get a bionic leg because they’re so fantastic.’

“We love to read about the super-soldier, but that’s not the case right now. Amputation is so complex in what it does to your body that it’s a very long recovery,” he adds.

So what, then, of civilians?  Under ISAF’s Medical Rules of Eligibility Afghan civilians who were injured during military operations and/or needed ‘life, limb or eyesight saving care’ could be admitted to the international medical system, and were eligible for emergency casualty evacuation and treatment at one of the Category III advanced trauma centres at Bagram or Camp Bastion.

Medical Rules of Eligibility PNG

As soon as possible, however, Afghans were to be treated by Afghans and so, after surgical intervention they had to be transferred to the local healthcare system.  The same applied to the Afghan National Army and police.  In consequence, the drawdown of international forces – which also includes their medevac and trauma teams – has left the local population desperately vulnerable to the after-effects of continuing and residual military and paramilitary violence (see here and here).

The inadequacies and insufficiencies of the Afghan healthcare system have prompted a number of NGOs to fill the gap between the radically different systems, and they have done – and continue to do –  immensely important work.

But compare the prosthetics available to US soldiers with those supplied to Afghan civilians.  I don’t mean to minimise the invaluable work done by hard-pressed and underfunded NGOs, but the image below is from the ICRC‘s Orthopedic Center in Kabul (see also here).  There are other centres supported by the ICRC in Faizabad, Gulbahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Lashkar Gah, and Mazar-e-Sharif, together with a manufacturing facility in Kabul, and other NGOs are active elsewhere  – Médecins sans Frontières runs a similar facility in Kunduz, for example.

ICRC Orthopedic Center Kabul PNG

In addition to these facilities, there have been some ingenious work-arounds.  Carmen Gentile describes how US soldiers at Forward Operating Base Kasab in Kandahar were moved by the plight of Mohammed Rafiq, an eight-year old boy whose legs were blown off by an IED.  ‘Since we couldn’t get a supply of commercially made legs, we decided that maybe we could make them ourselves,’ explained Major Brian Egloff, a US Army surgeon at the base.

Using scrap tubing and some ingenuity, Egloff fitted Rafiq with small prosthetic legs. Rafiq was now able to get around the village…

Egloff did not end his work with Rafiq. He knew there must be other amputees living in the area…  Soldiers on patrol had noticed “a lot of guys with amputations that had no prosthetic legs and were reduced to crawling around on the ground and relying on the charity of strangers just to get by,” he says.  Afghans heard about what was done for Rafiq and asked for help for others. Egloff made the legs from material readily available in any welding shop, he says, mostly scrap aluminum tubing for the legs and aluminum plates for the prosthetic feet. A spring-loaded hinge served as the ankle joint.  “It’s a very simple design, nothing complicated,” he says.

These legs were intended to be temporary replacements until ‘a professionally fitted prosthetic’ was available, but the same report notes that ‘getting to a provincial capital, where most hospitals are located, is not easy for many Afghans and the routes are dangerous.’  There’s much more about inaccessibility in MSF’s Between rhetoric and reality: the ongoing struggle to access healthcare in Afghanistan (February 2014).

Like Mohammed – and many ISAF and Afghan soldiers – many of these amputees are the victims of IEDs or even land mines left over from the Soviet occupation (for a global review of the rehabilitation of people maimed by the explosive remnants of war [ERW], see this 2014 report from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines–Cluster Munition Coalition).

But some of them will be the victims of air strikes from or orchestrated by Predators and Reapers: in recent years Afghanistan has been the most heavily ‘droned’ theatre of operations in the world.  In some cases they were caught in the blast, but in others they were the victims of what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence‘.  According to a report by Sune Engel Rasmussen in the Guardian:

Since 2001, the coalition has dropped about 20,000 tonnes of ammunition over Afghanistan. Experts say about 10% of munitions do not detonate: some malfunction, others land on sandy ground. In rural areas, children often bring in vital income to households, but collecting scrap metal or herding animals can be fraught with unpredictable risks. Of all Afghans killed and maimed by unexploded ordnance, 75% are children…

Their future is usually bleak.  Erin Cunningham reports that ‘even as the population of Afghans who are missing limbs grows, amputees face discrimination and the harsh stigma of being disabled.’

“Socially and financially, their lives are destroyed,” Emanuele Nannini, program director at the Italian nonprofit Emergency, which operates health-care centers across Afghanistan, said of Afghan amputees.

From January to June [2014], Emergency’s Center for War Trauma Victims in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, performed 69 amputations. The fiercest fighting between the two sides usually takes place in the warmer summer months.

Emergency then sends the amputees to the nearby International Committee for the Red Cross orthopedic facility for long-term rehabilitation. The patients receive vocational training and other support to reintegrate them into society. The ICRC said that between April and June this year, it admitted 351 amputee patients to its facilities across Afghanistan.

But for the most part, amputees “are completely dependent on their families, and they become a huge burden,” said Nannini, who is based in Kabul. “The real tragedy starts when they go home. If they don’t have a strong family, they become beggars.”

Emergency runs two other surgical centers, in Kabul and Anabah, as well as a number of clinics and first aid posts in the villages; at Lashkar Gah six out of every ten admissions are victims of bombs, land mines or bullets.

The story is, if anything, even worse across the border in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, whose inhabitants are also subject to explosive violence from the Taliban and other groups, and from CIA-directed drone strikes and air and ground attacks by Pakistan’s military.  As Madiha Tahir has shown, the victims usually disappear from public attention, at least in the United States:

What is the dream?

I dream that my legs have been cut off, that my eye is missing, that I can’t do anything … Sometimes, I dream that the drone is going to attack, and I’m scared. I’m really scared.

After the interview is over, Sadaullah Wazir pulls the pant legs over the stubs of his knees till they conceal the bone-colored prostheses.

The articles published in the days following the attack on September 7, 2009, do not mention this poker-faced, slim teenage boy who was, at the time of those stories, lying in a sparse hospital in North Waziristan, his legs smashed to a pulp by falling debris, an eye torn out by shrapnel….

Did you hear it coming?

No.

What happened?

I fainted. I was knocked out.

sadulla1As Sadaullah, unconscious, was shifted to a more serviceable hospital in Peshawar where his shattered legs would be amputated, the media announced that, in all likelihood, a senior al-Qaeda commander, Ilyas Kashmiri, had been killed in the attack. The claim would turn out to be spurious, the first of three times when Kashmiri would be reported killed.

Sadaullah and his relatives, meanwhile, were buried under a debris of words: “militant,” “lawless,” “counterterrorism,” “compound,” (a frigid term for a home). Move along, the American media told its audience, nothing to see here. Some 15 days later, after the world had forgotten, Sadaullah awoke to a nightmare.

Do you recall the first time you realized your legs were not there?

I was in bed, and I was wrapped in bandages. I tried to move them, but I couldn’t, so I asked, “Did you cut off my legs?” They said no, but I kind of knew.

Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani and Hira Bashir listed some of the long-term implications in a report completed last December for the Costs of War project:

Drone injuries are catastrophic ones.  Wounded survivors of drone attacks have often lost limbs and are usually left with intense and unmanaged pain, and some desire death. Those who survive with severe disabilities face a difficult situation given lack of accommodation for people with disabilities in Pakistan. FATA is an extremely difficult terrain for a disabled person. A walk out for the morning naan (traditional bread) may require navigating through a twisty mud track, with regular dips and bumps. The traditional mud houses of the area themselves have a mud floored haweli (an open-air area onto which all the rooms usually open up). A person with a leg amputation cannot use a regular wheel chair, go to school or hospital, or even use a toilet on his own. Disability of the primary breadwinner can change the course of life for an entire family, since most village jobs are physical ones.

Here too the barriers are more than physical.  In 2011 Farooq Rathore and Peter New described how disability remains a stigma in many sectors of Pakistani society, and rehabilitation medicine is still underdeveloped.

The leading prosthetics center is the Armed Forces Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine at Rawalpindi – whose rehabilitation services for injured soldiers are reportedly ‘the best in the country‘ – but it ‘still manufactures prostheses and orthoses with wood, leather, and metal.’  For injured civilians, the outlook is still more grim.  In 2012 a plan was announced to appoint orthotic specialists and physiotherapists at district hospitals throughout the FATA:

The prolonged United States-led war against terrorism has left a large number of people disabled in Pakistan, compelling the government to institute a rehabilitation plan that will include imparting vocational skills…

“We plan to enhance the physical rehabilitation services for the victims of terrorism to save them from permanent disability,” [Mahboob ur Rehman, head of the physiotherapy department at the Hayatabad Medical Complex (HMC)in Peshawar] told IPS.

The decade-long armed conflict has resulted in injuries to thousands of people from blasts, shelling and drone attacks, with the majority of the victims needing prosthetic and orthotic management to help regain the ability to walk, he said.

But it turns out that the emphasis is as much on ‘wheelchairs and sewing machines’ as it is on even the most basic prosthetics.

Once again, NGOs have provided vital services in the most difficult circumstances.  In 1979 the ICRC established a Paraplegic Rehabilitation Center in Peshawar for victims of the Afghan war, for example, which was subsequently transferred to the control of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government.  It has achieved some notable successes, but here too the focus is on physical therapy and it is outside the FATA so that access is difficult for many people.

And so, finally, to Gaza.  Here the differences with Afghanistan and Pakistan are striking.  Throughout the Israeli assault last summer, as I showed in detail here, medical services were severely compromised, and hospitals and medical centres actively targeted.  The only rehabilitation hospital, El-Wafa, was destroyed.  The injuries were also aggravated by the use of Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME) – developed for the US Air Force in 2006 – and which, according to a Briefing Note issued by the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, were fired from Israeli drones.

DIME blast injuries

These experimental weapons are supposed to decrease collateral damage by constricting the lethal blast radius.  But inside that perimeter the explosive blast is concentrated and magnified:

The injuries of victims who have been in contact with experimental DIME weapons are distinguishable from injuries sustained by non-experimental weapons. While signs of solid shrapnel or metal fragments are typical of amputations sustained from traditional explosives, physicians in the Gaza Strip are witnessing gruesome amputations caused by a metal vapor or residue which indicate the detonation of an extreme force in a small radius. In fact, as a result of these weapons, reported cases in the Gaza Strip include entire bodies cut in half, shattered bones, and skin, muscle and bones turned into charcoal due to the destructive burns associated with the weaponry’s extreme force and high temperature.

The lacerations are so severe that many victims bleed out and die.

The scale of destruction in Gaza also presents a radically different landscape for survivors of blast injuries.  If the terrain in FATA is formidably difficult for anyone using prosthetics or in a wheelchair, imagine what it must be like to be confronted with this:

al Shejaiya Gaza 2014

When you look at that, bear in mind that when the assault came to an end there were still around 7,000 unexploded bombs and other explosive remnants of war beneath the rubble.

These are all dreadful effects and yet, compared to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the situation for prosthetics and rehabilitation seems somewhat better.  The prosthetics are more advanced, and some patients have been able to travel to Beirut, Amman and on occasion into Israel for treatment.  But there are still formidable obstacles in the essential provision of continuing local care.  Bayan Abdel Wahad reports from the Artificial Limb Centre, the only one of it kind in Gaza:

The number of patients who have benefited from the service of prosthetic replacement which the Centre provides for free is about 300 people who have been injured as a result of the Israeli bombardments in the past five years. However, a number of people injured in the last war – Operation Protective Edge – have not been able to come to the center yet because they are still bed-ridden due to several injuries whose treatment takes precedence over prosthetic replacement…. The technical coordinator at the center, Nivine al-Ghusain, said that “despite all the difficulties we face in funding and getting the materials necessary to manufacture the artificial limbs, we will continue in our work.” She [said] that the Centre takes upon itself the maintenance of the prosthesis from time to time “in addition to changing it based on the patients’ needs.”

15_0

The Centre relies on the ICRC for components and raw materials from France, Germany, Switzerland and the United States, but there are continuing difficulties in importing these via Israel or Egypt.  In December 2014 the Center was treating around 950 amputees.

Reports about the cultural and social response to these visible victims of military violence are mixed. Guillaume Zerr, who directs Handicap International’s operations in Gaza, told Reuters that ‘there can be less acceptance of their condition than in other regions of the world’, whereas one young man – a double amputee – insisted that ‘I feel more love, support and sympathy from people now than before my injuries, and Gazan society is non-discriminating toward me.’  Perhaps this is, at least in part, because he, like others wounded in Gaza, can provide an unambiguous narrative, ‘to tell the story behind the loss of his legs’.  I remember Omar Dewachi explaining to me how patients from Iraq, Libya or Syria who are treated in Beirut for their wounds have to return home with a narrative that can explain what happened to them in terms that will satisfy whichever side in those civil wars might call them to account.  Such narratives are important not only for their rehabilitation (and here they are vital) but also for their very survival.  This is presumably more straightforward in Gaza, but this ‘politics of the wound’ is also always a geopolitics of the wound.

One last thought.  I’m struck by how often the term ‘asymmetric war’ is used to imply that conflicts of this sort are somehow unfair – to those who possess overwhelming firepower.  But war is about more than firepower, more even than killing, and I hope I’ve shown that the differences between the continuing care and rehabilitation available to those who are maimed in these wars reveal not only a different prosthetics of military violence but also a new and grievous asymmetry in its enduring consequences.

‘That others may die’

As I am (at last) moving into the finishing stages of my ‘Dirty Dancing’ essay on CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, it’s time to round up some of the latest work on drones and civilian casualties across multiple theatres.

tumblr_nhlv56QBGc1t8pecvo1_1280

First, Afghanistan: the principal theatre of US remote operations.  I’ve noted Larry Lewis‘s remarkable work before (here and here), based on classified sources, and in particular this claim (see also here):

Drone strikes in Afghanistan were seen to have close to the same number of civilian casualties per incident as manned aircraft, and were an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement.

usaf_mq_9_reaper_1024x1024As I said at the time, the distinction between an ‘incident’ and an ‘engagement’ is crucial, though most commentators who have seized on Larry’s work have ignored it and focused on the dramatic difference in civilian casualties per engagement. Despite my best efforts, the Pentagon were unwilling to clarify the difference, so here is what Larry himself has told me:

An engagement is probably intuitively what you would expect – the use of force against a target. The distinction is the term incident, which is borrowed from ISAF definitions. I should have said “civilian casualty incident.” This refers to an engagement that results in civilian casualties.

This means that, if you look at the collection of civilian casualty incidents, the average number of civilian casualties is close to the same for manned and unmanned platforms. At the same time, the rate of civilian casualties for the two platforms is markedly different, with unmanned platforms being ten times more likely to cause civilian casualties than manned platforms. That doesn’t mean that drones caused more civilian casualties than manned aircraft, by the way, since the denominators (number of engagements of manned aircraft versus drones) can and in fact were very different. But it does suggest that the relative risk of civilian casualties was higher for one kind of platform versus the other.

And this is in the specific context of Afghanistan and for a specific time. I wouldn’t want to say that this specific rate would be repeated, necessarily. Yet there were certain risk factors I observed in the civilian casualty incidents that I would expect to continue to be factors unless steps were taken to mitigate them.

Larry’s most recent report, Improving lethal action: learning and adapting in US Counterterrorism Operations, is available here.  It includes an analysis of the Uruzgan air strike that is central to my ‘Angry Eyes’ essay (next on my to-do list).

[The short clip above is from Baden Pailthorpe‘s stunning animation MQ-9 Reaper (That Others May Die) (2014) – you can find much more here]

You might think that all of this is now of historical interest since President Obama has declared the end of the Afghanistan war.  Not so.  Here is John Knefel writing in Rolling Stone this week:

Though many Americans may not have realized it, December 28th marked what the U.S. government called the official end of the war in Afghanistan. That war has been the longest in U.S. history – but despite the new announcement that the formal conflict is over, America’s war there is far from finished. In fact, the Obama administration still considers the Afghan theater an area of active hostilities, according to an email from a senior administration official – and therefore exempts it from the stricter drone and targeted killing guidelines the president announced at a major speech at the National Defense University in 2013.

“Afghanistan will continue to be considered an ‘area of active hostilities’ in 2015,” the official tells RS. “The PPG does not apply to areas of active hostilities.” (PPG stands for Presidential Policy Guidelines, the formal name for the heightened drone rules.)

That perplexing distinction – that formal combat operations are over but that the U.S. still remains in an armed conflict – in many ways exemplifies the lasting legacy of Obama’s foreign policy.

If you assume the situation in Pakistan is somehow less ambiguous, read Ryan Goodman on ‘areas of active hostilities’ over at Just Security here (I’m having to sort all this out for ‘Dirty Dancing’, of course).

Second, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has released its end-of-year report on US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in 2014, which includes these tabulations of casualty rates for the first two countries:

cas-rates-cia-pak-09-14

cas-rate-yemen-02-14

The Bureau comments:

While there have been more strikes [in Pakistan] in the past six years, the casualty rate has been lower under Obama than under his predecessor. The CIA killed eight people, on average, per strike during the Bush years. Under Obama, it is less than six. The civilian casualty rate is lower too – more than three civilians were reported killed per strike during the past presidency. Under Obama, less than one.  There were no confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistan in the past year, as in 2013….

The frequency of strikes [in Yemen] may have fallen in 2014 but more people were killed, on average, per strike than in any previous year.  The casualty rate for last year even outstrips 2012 – the bloodiest year recorded in the US’s drone campaign in Yemen when at least 173 people were reported killed in 29 strikes. In 2014 at least 82 people were reported to have died in just 13 strikes.

You can find the Long War Journal‘s tabulations for Pakistan here and Yemen here.

unammed-rogershillThird, Israel.  I’ve commented previously on an interview with an Israeli drone pilot, but it’s been difficult to put his observations in context (though see here and scroll down to the tabulations). Now Ann Rogers, who wrote Unmanned: drone warfare and global security (Pluto, 2014) with John Hill – as good an introduction to drone wars as you will find – has just released an essay on ‘Investigating the Relationship Between Drone Warfare and Civilian Casualties in Gaza‘.  It’s in a special issue of the open-access Journal of Strategic Security 7 (4) (2014) on ‘Future challenges in drone geopolitics’.  Here’s the abstract:

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are increasingly touted as ‘humanitarian’ weapons that contribute positively to fighting just wars and saving innocent lives. At the same time, civilian casualties have become the most visible and criticized aspect of drone warfare. It is argued here that drones contribute to civilian casualties not in spite of, but because of, their unique attributes. They greatly extend war across time and space, pulling more potential threats and targets into play over long periods, and because they are low-risk and highly accurate, they are more likely to be used. The assumption that drones save lives obscures a new turn in strategic thinking that sees states such as Israel and the US rely on large numbers of small, highly discriminating attacks applied over time to achieve their objectives. This examination of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza argues that civilian casualties are not an unexpected or unintended consequence of drone warfare, but an entirely predictable outcome.

Drone-flying-above-me-Friday-afternoon-400-x-300It’s an interesting essay, but I fear that it takes the Israeli military at its word.  Ann repeatedly refers to Israel’s ‘discriminating’ targeting:

‘The central point is that drones enabled the IDF to undertake detailed, extensive, and discriminating targeting of Gaza, before and during the actual fighting. The killing of civilians may be down to differing interpretations of military necessity, or in some cases, in how combatants and non-combatants are distinguished from one another. But it is the drone gaze that enables these targets to be ‘called into being’ (p. 102)…

‘As Israeli targeting of Gaza appears to have been highly discriminating, a more serious problem may lie in how its view of legitimate attacks differs from the global “norm.” (p. 104).’

I commented on Israeli attacks on hospitals and ambulances last summer here, here and here, and on the wholesale destruction of  Gaza here and here, so I confess I am at a loss for words.  But she is right to emphasise the operative power of international humanitarian law and its protocols of distinction (discrimination) and proportionality – though, as often as not, these seem to have been inoperative in anything other than a rhetorical sense.  For much more on this, and the way in which military lawyers are incorporated into Israel’s kill-chains, you should click across to Craig Jones‘s War, Law and Space.  All of which makes the Palestinian decision to seek membership of the International Criminal Court all the more important (there’s a good commentary on the wider legal issues by David Luban at Jus Security here and by a clutch of commentators at the Middle East Research and Information Project‘s blog here).  Perhaps not surprisingly, Daniel Reisner, the former head of the Israeli military’s International Law Department, has condemned the Palestinian application as ‘a belligerent act within the framework of the non-physical and kinetic world of lawfare.’

Finally, the US-led air strikes on IS/ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria.  Here we know much less than we should, not least because the Pentagon knows much less than it should.  Here is Nancy Youssef reporting earlier this week:

In a war fought largely from the air and in places no one can safely go, the impact is as opaque as the war itself, making it difficult to measure whether the U.S. and coalition effort is working.

“We don’t have the ability to count the nose of every guy we schwack,” as Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, using military jargon [sic] for killing. “That’s not the goal.”

Presumably, that also means the Pentagon can’t count how many civilians it has accidentally killed in the name of ridding the region of ISIS.

Drone Wars UK has an excellent survey of the logistics of air operations over Iraq and Syria from Chris Cole here, and the New York Times has produced a useful interactive map of US-led air strikes from which I’ve snipped this summary:

Iraq:Syria air strikes 4 August to 31 December 2014

We don’t know how many of these were carried out by drones or even orchestrated by them, but as their limitations are becoming clearer it’s reasonable to assume that most involved conventional strike aircraft.  We do know that targeting involves the analysis of video feeds from both remote and conventional platforms, and that CENTCOM has had considerable difficulty in juggling the competing demands for ISR from Afghanistan and from Iraq/Syria.

According to a report this week from W.J. Hennigan, who visited the USAF’s 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia:

In a vast windowless room, several dozen intelligence analysts worked under the glow of more than 100 computer screens, quietly studying video streaming from U.S. drones and spy planes hunting for Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

One team searched the incoming video to find a firefight underway between Iraqi security forces and militants somewhere south of the insurgent-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq.

For four hours, the analysts pored over the imagery before identifying 20 positions where the militants were dug in with machine guns and other weaponry. After the analysts called in the coordinates, 15 jets from five countries pounded the targets with more than two dozen bombs.

The Dec. 5 airstrike, one of 462 last month, underscores the Pentagon’s increased reliance on personnel far from the battlefield…  Air Force analysts here stand — or rather sit — on the virtual front lines by tracking Islamic State fighters in a war zone some 6,000 miles away.

But here’s the rub:

Unlike in past wars, when U.S. troops on the ground helped provide targeting information and intelligence, commanders in the battle against Islamic State rely chiefly on airborne surveillance, captured communications chatter, signals intelligence and other material that is processed by analysts here.

U.S. officers said the video-watching analysts working half a world away are no match for spotters and other troops feeding intelligence from the front lines.

“We don’t have anywhere near the level of intelligence we used to,” Lt. Col. Marc Spinuzzi, a senior intelligence officer, wrote in an email from Baghdad. The analysts are under “a lot of pressure … to clearly distinguish friend from foe, and to pick out the enemy from the civilian population” on the battlefield.

That is precisely how mistakes are made and civilians killed.  And, as Robert Naiman pointed out,

“There is a big danger here that U.S. air strikes in Syria are going to resemble the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the sense that there is no accountability for who is killed. We have reports of civilian casualties from people in the area and the U.S. government says, ‘No, they are bad guys.’ There has to be some public accountability for what happens when there are allegations of civilian casualties.”

At least the Pentagon has now gone some way towards recognising the problem.  Previously it had insisted that it was unaware of any civilian casualties, which is disingenuous: it beggars belief that 1,000 air strikes could have resulted in no civilian casualties – but if your ISR is inadequate it’s scarcely surprising that you would be ‘unaware’ of the consequences.  Even so, on 6 January the Pentagon announced that it had investigated 18 allegations of coalition airstrikes causing civilian casualties between 8 August and 30 December.  It determined that 13 were ‘not credible’, but was continuing to review three others; a further two, one in Iraq and one in Syria, are now the subject of formal military investigations.  But before you gold your breath, both Iraq and Syria are also exempt from the Presidential Policy Guidelines that require a ‘near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’.  Here is Harold Koh (really):

‘They seem to be creating this grey zone…  If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.’

Gazonto

I’ve discussed the political-aesthetic practice of transposition before – superimposing war ‘over there’ on a city ‘over here’ – in relation to both Baghdad and Gaza.  For the most part, these have been cartographic exercises or art performances (see the closing sections of  ‘War and peace’ [DOWNLOADS tab] for some more examples).

Film-maker John Greyson has just released this short video, Gazonto, which is doubly different.  It takes the rash of video games about Gaza – many of which glorify successive Israeli assaults – and turns them to critical account, and it re-locates the air strikes from Gaza to Toronto (the flipping of the map near the beginning is inspired).

More here; if you are trying to remember where you’ve heard of John before, he was arrested and jailed in Egypt last summer, en route to Gaza with Tarek Loubani, an ER doctor who is one of the main architects of the Canada-Gaza collaboration that is responsible for taking Canadian doctors to Gaza to train local physicians.  They spent fifty days in a Cairo jail after John was seen filming Tarek treating demonstrators who had been shot by police in Ramses Square, where they had been protesting the military coup.  It was never clear which was the greater crime – treating the demonstrators or witnessing the emergency treatment.

This, of course, is one of the many appalling back-stories spawned by the intimacy between the al-Sisi government in Egypt and the Netanyahu government in Israel: what the splendid Richard Falk calls ‘neighbourly crimes of complicity’.  Geopolitics is rooted in these ‘accommodations’, and it cultivates all sorts of deadly blossoms.

But the tendrils reach far beyond the region, and many readers will appreciate why it is so important for a Canadian film-maker to re-stage the attacks on Gaza in a Canadian city.  For those who don’t, check out this report on the Harper government’s own video, released as the Israeli assault on Gaza was intensifying, affirming Canada’s support for Israel “Through Fire and Water”.   Really.

While I’m on this subject, Laleh Khalili has an excellent essay at the Society & Space open site to accompany the virtual issue on Israel/Palestine.  It’s called ‘A habit of destruction’:

The devastation to which Gaza has been subjected in the last few weeks seems to be yet another repetition of Israeli settler-colonial apparatus’ habit of destruction. Gaza has become emblematic of this habit, because in recent years it has so frequently been subjected to bombing while under a state of siege, but like all settler-colonialisms, the violence of the state is rooted not in an episodic “cycle of violence” but in the very ideology and practice of the settler-colonial movement…. 

The lesson of the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza, as in all previous assaults, is that civilians are not “collateral” or accidental casualties of war between combatants, but the very object of a settler-colonial counterinsurgency. The ultimate desire of such asymmetric warfare is to transform the intransigent population into a malleable mass, a docile subject, and a yielding terrain of domination.

And, as she concludes, ‘That ever so frequently the Israeli military plunges Palestinians into conflagrations of lead and steel and concrete dust and destruction is the clearest sign that it has failed at making Palestinians into such a docile population.’

Legal geographies and the assault on international law

I suspect anyone interested in international/transnational legal geographies will know of Jens David Ohlin‘s work already (he’s Professor of Law at Cornell and recently co-edited Targeted Killings: Law and Morality in an Asymmetrical World [Oxford, 2012]).  If not, check out his page on ssrn for recent papers; I’ve found three particularly helpful in thinking about US air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, more recently, the Israeli offensive against Gaza (more on this and the space of exception soon, I promise):

Targeting and the concept of intent (2013); Acting as a sovereign versus acting as a belligerent (2014); and The combatant’s privilege in asymmetric and covert conflicts (2014)

I’ve just received news of his new book out early in the New Year, whose relevance will be apparent from its title: The assault on international law.

OHLIN Assault of international lawInternational law presents a conceptual riddle. Why comply with it when there is no world government to enforce it? The United States has a long history of skepticism towards international law, but 9/11 ushered in a particularly virulent phase of American exceptionalism. Torture became official government policy, President Bush denied that the Geneva Conventions applied to the war against al-Qaeda, and the US drifted away from international institutions like the International Criminal Court and the United Nations.

Although American politicians and their legal advisors are often the public face of this attack, the root of this movement is a coordinated and deliberate attack by law professors hostile to its philosophical foundations, including Eric Posner, Jack Goldsmith, Adrian Vermeule, and John Yoo. In a series of influential writings they have claimed that since states are motivated primarily by self-interest, compliance with international law is nothing more than high-minded talk. Theses abstract arguments then provide a foundation for dangerous legal conclusions: that international law is largely irrelevant to determining how and when terrorists can be captured or killed; that the US President alone should be directing the War on Terror without significant input from Congress or the judiciary; that US courts should not hear lawsuits alleging violations of international law; and that the US should block any international criminal court with jurisdiction over Americans. Put together, these polemical accounts had an enormous impact on how politicians conduct foreign policy and how judges decide cases – ultimately triggering America’s pernicious withdrawal from international cooperation.

In The Assault on International Law, Jens Ohlin exposes the mistaken assumptions of these ‘New Realists,’ in particular their impoverished utilization of rational choice theory. In contrast, he provides an alternate vision of international law based on a truly innovative theory of human rationality. According to Ohlin, rationality requires that agents follow through on their plans even when faced with opportunities for defection. Seen in this light, international law is the product of nation-states cooperating to escape a brutish State of Nature–a result that is not only legally binding but also in each state’s self-interest.

Michael Sfard

But not all assaults on international law derive from the United States and from professors hostile to its philosophical foundations.  I urge you to read Michael Sfard‘s coruscating Op-Ed from Ha’artez on 4 August, ‘A “targeted assassination” of international law‘ (which is also available here if it disappears behind a paywall).  Michael is an Israeli human rights lawyer, specializing in international humanitarian law and dealing directly with the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and he is also the legal adviser to Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights:

Israelis are surprised. Did I say surprised? Downright shocked. Even before the dust from the fighting has settled, even before this “most just of all wars” has ended, even as the most moral army in the world is still mired in Gaza – there is already talk of war crimes and an international investigation.

We, who didn’t carpet-bomb even though we could have, who dropped fliers and made phone calls and knocked on the roof; we, who agreed to the humanitarian cease-fire that Hamas violated; we, who took more precautions than any other nation would have done – we are once again being accused of war crimes. Once again, the same old song is being sung: decisions about opening an international investigation, talk of the International Criminal Court, fear of arrests in Europe. And we don’t understand why we deserve all this.

It is possible to console ourselves by accepting the explanation that the television journalists keep repeating to us: that the world is anti-Semitic and two-faced and supports Hamas. But this would constitute a regrettable evasion of the tough questions. It would constitute an effort to flee the pointed discussion Israeli society ought to be holding about the way we have waged armed conflicts with our enemies over the last decade.

Since the Second Lebanon War of 2006, the Israel Defense Forces has adopted an extremely problematic combat doctrine for conflicts that take place in urban areas with dense civilian populations, and in which the enemy is seen as an illegitimate terrorist entity (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza). This combat doctrine is supported by a legal theory developed by the IDF’s international legal division, which interprets the laws of war in a manner that is shockingly different from their accepted interpretation by experts in the field worldwide. Its direct result is massive civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian neighborhoods.

This combat doctrine consists of two elements, each of which is a declaration of war against the fundamental principles of the laws of armed combat. The first element redefines what constitutes a legitimate target for attack, such that it now includes not only classic military targets (bases, combatants, weapons stockpiles and so forth), but also facilities and objects whose connection to the enemy organization is nonmilitary in nature….

The second element is even more far-reaching: It holds that when fighting in urban areas, we are entitled to treat the entire area as a legitimate target and bombard it via air strikes or artillery shelling – as long as we first warn all the residents of our intention to do so and give them time to leave. The IDF first used this method in Beirut’s Dahiya neighborhood during the Second Lebanon War. Before bombing, the army dropped fliers telling the residents to leave. Then the bombs were dropped, and most of Dahiya’s houses were destroyed.

This doctrine was applied, to varying degrees, in Operations Cast Lead and Protective Edge as well, primarily in Gaza City’s Shujaiyeh neighborhood. It does not take into consideration the question of whether the prior warning given the population is effective – i.e., whether the population can in fact leave, whether solutions have been found for the elderly, the ill and the children. Nor is it accompanied by the creation of a safe corridor through which people can flee to someplace that won’t be fired on, and where civilians have what they need to survive.

The terrifying result of this combat doctrine, in both Cast Lead and Protective Edge, was piles of bodies of women, children and men who weren’t involved in the fighting….

The IDF’s lawyers, who provide legal support for this combat doctrine, are conducting a “targeted assassination” of the principles of international law: the principle of distinction, which requires differentiation between military targets (which are legitimate) and civilian targets (which aren’t); the principle of proportionality, which forbids attacking even a legitimate target if the anticipated harm to civilians is excessive in comparison to the military benefit from the target’s destruction; and the need to take effective, rather than merely symbolic, precautions.

More soon.

BDS

w640A follow-up to ‘Bombed, Destroyed, Slaughtered‘: Verso has now made available its 2012 anthology, The case for sanctions against Israel, as a free download here:

In July 2011, Israel passed legislation outlawing the public support of boycott activities against the state, corporations, and settlements, adding a crackdown on free speech to its continuing blockade of Gaza and the expansion of illegal settlements. Nonetheless, the campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) continues to grow in strength within Israel and Palestine, as well as in Europe and the US.

This essential intervention considers all sides of the movement—including detailed comparisons with the South African experience—and contains contributions from both sides of the separation wall, along with a stellar list of international commentators. With contributions by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, Merav Amir, Hind Awwad, Mustafa Barghouthi, Omar Barghouti, Dalit Baum, Joel Beinin, John Berger, Angela Davis, Nada Elia, Marc H. Ellis, Noura Erakat, Neve Gordon, Ran Greenstein, Ronald Kasrils, Jamal Khader, Naomi Klein, Paul Laverty, Mark LeVine, David Lloyd, Ken Loach, Haneen Maikey, Rebecca O’Brien, Ilan Pappe, Jonathan Pollak, Laura Pulido, Lisa Taraki, Rebecca Vilkomerson, Michael Warschawski, and Slavoj Žižek.

Virtual Gaza

idffacebook

I had originally thought The everywhere war would include a reworked and extended version of my discussion of cyberwarfare and Stuxnet which appeared in the Geographical Journal (DOWNLOADS tab), but the chapter is now about ‘virtual’ battlespaces more generally – which are far from being purely ‘virtual’, of course – and includes some of the jottings I’ve made on the role of digital media in later modern war (see here and here).  With that in mind – but rather more than that in mind – I should update the part they are playing in Israel’s latest war on Gaza where, as the Wall Street Journal‘s headline on 23 July had it, ‘Israel and Hamas take fight to social media’.

The IDF is no stranger to information warfare and to the power of social media.  John Timpane explains the back-story succinctly:

In November 2012, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense – on Twitter. It thereby became the first nation to initiate hostilities by social media. Starting with a YouTube video of the aerial assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed al-Jabari, Pillar of Defense escalated the social-media war. The Israeli Defense Force (Twitter following: 292,000) tweeted times and places of rocket strikes against Israel. A rag-tag bunch of pro-Hamas Twitter feeds (such as the oft-shut-down @alqassam, with 11,000-plus followers), Facebook pages, and YouTube videos published images of torn bodies and bombed schools.

As of 2014, “both sides,” says [Lawrence] Husick, “have become remarkably more sophisticated in how they use social media to engage with the rest of the world.”

To provide some idea of the scale of operations, al-Jazeera has produced this remarkable representation of the unfolding of a global Twitterstorm about the war; what appears below are screenshots and you really need to watch the whole thing:

#Israelunderfire

#Gaza under attack

The resources each side has at its disposable are far from equal.  According to Harriet Sherwood:

The propaganda war between Israel and the Palestinians is not new, but this battle-round is being fought with unprecedented ferocity. And like the asymmetry in the military conflict, the strength and resources of the Israel social media troops outweigh those of Hamas and other Palestinian organisations.

And those asymmetries have increased. Max Schindler reports,

With dueling Twitter hashtags, Facebook posts and YouTube channels, the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, are trading not just fire but also barbs over social media, in an attempt to win hearts and minds around the world. But Hamas, barred from certain platforms, faces additional challenges in the Internet war.

In this round of violence, the social media battle has become increasingly important. Israel’s ability to wage its campaign in Gaza depends on the level of international criticism it sustains.

On Wednesday, Twitter suspended several accounts used by Hamas…. Twitter’s terms of service block use of the website to “a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction.” Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department, denying it access to American commercial products…. Facebook maintains a similar policy, and has deleted dozens of Hamas accounts due to American government restrictions.

All of this has still wider implications because many of the tweets and the cell-phone videos uploaded to YouTube(see below) re-circulate through mainstream media too – though my strong suspicion is that the cautionary ‘cannot be verified‘ tag is used more often to diminish the suffering of people in Gaza than to call into question the IDF’s hasbara (public diplomacy/propaganda, take your pick).

These are more than military (or paramilitary) media operations, but the remainder is not only the work of individual ‘citizen-journalists’.  Ali Abunimah reports on a social media ‘war room’, set up on the first day of the current offensive by students at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private university, to ‘explain’ Israel’s actions to overseas audiences: ‘israelunderfire’ originated here.  Some 400 volunteers from around the world are now involved in targeting online forums and producing their own (dis)infographics (more – and affirmative – reporting from the the Jerusalem Post here).

IDC Herzliya %22War Room%22

But most of the running is being made by the  IDF’s own concerted media campaign, and as I noted earlier Rebecca Stein has provided a timely analysis of ‘How Israel militarized social media’ that debunks some of the myths that have grown up around its ‘success’ (see also the link to her previous work here):

‘What’s been lost in this coverage – in this story of surprise — is the history of the Israel’s army presence on social media. For in fact, the military’s move to social media as a public relations platform has been rife with improvisation and failure, a process that runs counter to IDF narratives about its innovative work in this regard (the IDF lauding itself as a military early adopter). The army’s interest in the wartime potential of social media can be traced to the first few days of the 2008-2009 Gaza incursion….

In the years that followed, the IDF investment in social media would grow exponentially both in budgetary and manpower allocations, building on this ostensible wartime triumph.

But the process was rife with challenges and missteps…

Today, Israelis are also concerned about losing the media war. But they tell the story differently. In their rendering, the Israeli media problem is a by-product of damning or doctored images (this was the spirit of Netanyahu’s infamous “telegenically dead” remarks), of Palestinian media manipulation, of global anti-Israeli cum anti-Semitic bias. The Israeli media manages these problems by removing most traces of Palestinian dead and wounded from national news broadcasts.’

This feeds in to a deeper narrative in which both Palestinian casualties and Israeli culpability disappear from view, deftly characterised by Yonatan Mendel:

‘”We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,” Golda Meir said in 1969, ‘but we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.’ Forty-five years on, in the third week of the Israeli attack on Gaza, with more than 800 Palestinians killed, about a quarter of them children, Israel’s government, its media and Israeli society have turned Meir’s idea of Israel being ‘forced’ to do unacceptable things into a vast and dangerous superstition. It refuses to take responsibility for the killing, just as it refused to take responsibility for the military occupation and the blockade: these, it tells itself, are what it has been forced into. Killing in Gaza in 2014, killing in 2012, and in 2008. But Israel has convinced itself, despite the rising numbers of dead, that isn’t killing anyone in Gaza. Hamas are the people doing the killing; they are responsible for the siege, the destruction, the underdevelopment, the poverty, the absence of peace talks, the postponement of a ceasefire and the use of UNRWA schools for military purposes.’

One final, crucial qualification. Even as he explains how the IDF and Hamas are fighting a media war, a battle to control the story on social media, John Tirmane insists that ‘the real war is of steel and fire, flesh and blood.’  What the countervailing voices of the ‘Twitterstorm’ seek to enable and to disable is an all too material firestorm.

The facts on the ground

Razed to the groundHuman Rights Watch has released a bleak report, Razed to the Ground: Syria’s unlawful neighborhood demolitions, 2012-2013.

Satellite imagery, witness statements, and video and photographic evidence show that Syrian authorities deliberately and unlawfully demolished thousands of residential buildings in Damascus and Hama in 2012 and 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 38-page report, “Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions in 2012-2013,” documents seven cases of large-scale demolitions with explosives and bulldozers that violated the laws of war. The demolitions either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population or caused disproportionate harm to civilians, Human Rights Watch found.

“Wiping entire neighborhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government.”

Demolitions, Hama

More images and commentary here, but this is almost certainly only a fragmentary map of a still wider geography of urbicide.  According to Martin Chulov, reporting from Beirut,

Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “These are the areas that we were told about by witnesses. There are likely to be other areas, but there are many black holes in Syria where we don’t have information. This is likely part of a systematic policy in rebel held areas elsewhere in the country as well.

“It shows yet again that this is not a one-off act by a commander. This is part of a strategy targeting all opposition-held areas. It is a mirror image of the starvation of people in Yarmouk [refugee camp in Damascus] or in Old Homs. It shows yet again how ready the government is to collectively harm areas of people that are supporting the opposition.”

The circumstances and context are different, but Assad is clearly borrowing yet another tactic from Israel’s playbook.  The ongoing demolition of homes in occupied Palestine is a slower process, but just as brutal and just as illegal: see the work of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions here (though I wish it were called the Committee against Home Demolitions to capture more fully what is being so deliberately and callously destroyed).  Here is Human Rights Watch last summer:

Israeli forces should immediately end unlawful demolitions of Palestinian homes and other structures in Occupied Palestinian Territory. The demolitions have displaced at least 79 Palestinians since August 19, 2013. Demolitions of homes and other structures that compel Palestinians to leave their communities may amount to the forcible transfer of residents of an occupied territory, which is a war crime.

Human Rights Watch documented demolitions on August 19 in East Jerusalem that displaced 39 people, including 18 children. Israeli human rights groups and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) documented additional demolitions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank on August 20 and 21 that destroyed the homes of 40 people, including 20 children.

“When Israeli forces routinely and repeatedly demolish homes in occupied territory without showing that it’s necessary for military operations, it appears that the only purpose is to drive families off their land, which is a war crime,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The politics of peace talks do not make it any less unlawful for Israel to demolish Palestinians’ homes without a valid military reason.”

Remember these two reports when you read the response from the ‘international community’ to the latest Syrian revelations.  And listen to the silences.