POV in the killbox

Killbox Player 1

An update on Joe DeLappe‘s Killbox project (my original post, with links to more info on the concept of a killbox, is here).

Over at Quartz, Ananya Bhattacharya provides more details about the latest iteration of the simulation:

Killbox, an online two-player game named after the military term for an area targeted for destruction, serves as a critique of drone warfare. One player is a civilian exploring her surroundings with few instructions. The second player is guided with tasks, leading up to the administration of a drone strike. Even if the drone pilot player refuses to deploy the weapons, autopilot kicks in and carries out the attack. When it hits, the drone pilot can see the extent of the destruction on the ground but hear nothing. Meanwhile, the child on the ground is barraged by sound. And just in case the first strike doesn’t demolish enough, a second strike is administered—the classic “double-tap” attack to stop rescuers from getting help to the injured and retrieving the deceased.

The game is modelled – in some measure, at least – on the drone strike that killed Mamana Bibi as she gathered okra from the fields around her home in North Waziristan:

The characters in the game aren’t realistic though—they look like odd-shaped blobs. At first, non-human avatars seem less effective, but there’s meaning behind the simplistic design: “We were looking at the map where the drone strike killed people and these maps identified victims with little dots,” said DeLappe. “Almost like map pins, like they’ve been symbolically degraded in some way.”

Killbox player 2

I opened my essay on drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – and on the constitution of the FATA as a space of exception (see “Dirty Dancing” under the DOWNLOADS tab) – with a comparison between this strike, the murder of an innocent grandmother as she worked in the fields with her grandchildren,  and the targeted killing of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, in South Waziristan in 2009 (see also my posts here and here).

In Drone: remote control warfare Hugh Gusterson opens with exactly the same comparison but to a different effect – and one that resonates with Killbox.  Drawing on Jane Mayer‘s account of the assassination of Mehsud, based on testimony from those who watched the video feed from the Predator, he writes:

A technology that is almost magical gives its owners, who are looking on the scene from high in the sky, a godlike power over life and death. The observation of the scene is simultaneously intimate and remote. It is also deeply asymmetrical: Mehsud, unaware of his exposure, is watched by faraway drone operators who can see him as if close up, reclining on the roof of his house on a hot evening as his wife attends to his medical needs. They get to frame the picture while he does not even realize he is in it. Without warning, he is killed as if by a god’s thunderbolt from the sky. Seen from Virginia, the drone strike is quick, clean, and bloodless. Mehsud’s death is instant. Nor, described unambiguously as a terrorist, does he seem undeserving of death. Twelve people die altogether, but the narrative marks only Mehsud’s death as significant. The other deaths are almost outside the frame. And in a way that amplifies the strange mix of distance and intimacy, the scene is mediated entirely through a single sense—vision. The attack has no sound, smell, taste, or texture. And we are invited to experience it through a narrative of mastery and control—of the cool, righteous exercise of overwhelming power.

gusterson-drone-cover

Drawing on testimony from Mamana Bibi’s family before a virtually empty Congressional hearing, Hugh writes:

This account is from the point of view of the victims, not the executioners. We share the experience of those who do not even realize that they are in the crosshairs until they are attacked. The account emphasizes the sudden incomprehensible eruption of violent force, literally out of the blue, in a warm scene of familial togetherness on an important holy day. We are led to experience the drone strike through multiple senses, of which sight may be the least salient: we are told about the blackness of the smoke, the sound of the screaming, the smell of the explosion, the sensation of the ground trembling, and the pain of shrapnel wounds. Unlike the first account, the narrative does not end shortly after the drone strike but dwells on the aftermath—the physical pain of the survivors, the enduring grief over the loss of the person “that held our family together.” Above all, this account foregrounds what is absent in the view from CIA headquarters—the psychological suffering of those on the ground, especially children, and the sense that the safe predictability of life has been permanently destroyed. It is a narrative of helplessness, terror, and injustice. The drone operators’ perspective was remote and objectifying, but this narrative is so affecting that it made the translator break down in tears.

The special effects created by privileging the visual are explored with skill and sensitivity in Nasser Hussain‘s brilliant essay, ‘The sound of terror: phenomenology of a drone strike‘, here.

[I]n order to widen our vision, I provide a phenomenology of drone strikes, examining both how the world appears through the lens of a drone camera and the experience of the people on the ground. What is it like to watch a drone’s footage, or to wait below for it to strike? What does the drone’s camera capture, and what does it occlude?

…  Although the pilots can hear ground commands, there is no microphone equivalent to the micro-scopic gaze of the drone’s camera. This mute world of dumb figures moving about on a screen has particular consequences for how we experience the image. As Michel Chion notes in The Voice in Cinema, although sound or voice is easily swallowed up by the image, it nonetheless structures the image: “only the creators of a film’s sound—recordist, sound effects person, mixer, director—know that if you alter or remove these sounds, the image is no longer the same.” In the case of the drone strike footage, the lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.

… If drone operators can see but not hear the world below them, the exact oppositeis true for people on the ground. Because drones are able to hover at or above 30 thousand feet, they are mostly invisible to the people below them. But they can be heard. Many people from the tribal areas of Pakistan (FATA) describe the sound as a low-grade, perpetual buzzing, a signal that a strike could occur at any time. The locals call the drones machar, mosquitos. Because the drone can surveil the area for hours at a time, and because each round of surveillance may or may not result in a strike, the fear and anxiety among civilians is diffuse and chronic.

That sense of optical power is not necessarily one of detachment.  For we surely know how vision, power and desire can be commingled; and today I learned – from Theodor Nadelson‘s Trained to kill: soldiers at war – that (some) US Marines describe setting their sights on a human target as ‘eye fucking’…

Killboxes and drone shadows

After the AAG Conference in San Francisco next month I’m heading across to UC Davis for a conference on ‘Eyes in the skies: Drones and the politics of distance warfare‘, organised by Caren Kaplan (5 April if you’re in the area).  The event is sponsored by the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Surveillance Democracies and the Mellon Research Initiative in Digital Cultures.

The program includes a presentation from Joseph DeLappe and a panel on his work.  His own presentation is on Killbox, a game on/about drone warfare.

Killbox is an online game and interactive installation that critically explores the nature of drone warfare, its complexities and consequences. It is an experience which explores the use of technology to transform and extend political and military power, and the abstraction of killing through virtualisation.

Killbox involves audiences in a fictionalized interactive experience in virtual environments based on documented drones strikes in Northern Pakistan.

The work is an international collaboration between U.S. based artist/activist, Joseph DeLappe and Scotland-based artists and game developers, Malath Abbas, Tom Demajo and Albert Elwin.

If you want to know more about kill-boxes, incidentally, I provided a detailed discussion in one of my commentaries on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone – you can find it here: scroll down –  and there’s a recent essay by Scott Beauchamp for the Atlantic on ‘the moral cost of the kill-box’ here:

Kill boxes might have been one strategic reason why the Gulf War only lasted 100 hours.

In particular, kill boxes proved an efficient way for the Air Force to dismantle opposing militaries. This worked in 1991, and again during the first years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these early stages, using a kill box required positive identification of an enemy target, a process called PID, before engaging. “We have to visually identify the target and we have to determine whether it’s a hostile [military] target. We determine that it’s not friendly by using visual recognition features and through ground elements of the nearest friendly positions,” Air Force Major Greg Defore told National Defense Magazine in 2003. In other words: Servicemen look at who or what they’re going to shoot with their own eyes before shooting to make sure the person or object is actually the part of the enemy’s military forces. “You may be 100 percent sure that a vehicle is not a friendly and still not engage. It could, for instance, be a humanitarian food truck or a farm vehicle,” Defore said.

This strategy worked well during the initial invasion of Iraq, but only because the opposing team was wearing a jersey, so to speak. It was possible to look at a truck and know whether or not it was hostile. But as a conventional war degenerated into a complex quagmire of militants engaged in guerilla warfare, that sort of certainty wasn’t possible any longer. As Major James MacGregor explains in his paper, “Bringing the Box into Doctrine: Joint Doctrine and the Kill Box,” an officer from 1918 would have, with a little help, been able to understand the maps of the Gulf War: Enemy forces are here, friendly forces over here, that sort of thing. But today, the enemy could be anyone, anywhere. This type of warfare doesn’t naturally lend itself well to kill boxes. As the American military started using kill boxes in conjunction with drones in targeted killings, it effectively grafted a strategy from the past onto the present, a la Frankenstein. The military began using kill boxes in the so-called war on terror as a technique to exert force in “ungoverned spaces,” territories that are not controlled by a state and are populated by people who might not share American cultural values. Kill boxes are only used in places that are very different from the United States; military forces would never initiate a kill box Manchester or Ann Arbor, for example, even if a suspected terrorist lived there. Too many innocent people would be killed. The innocent people living in Afghanistan or Yemen, however, are apparently judged by a different standard. And this is the moral cost of the kill box: When used widely and indiscriminately, the tactic devalues human life.

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Joseph has several other projects that address drone warfare, the most interesting of which (to me, anyway) is his ongoing visualization of drone strikes around Mir Ali in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (see above):

A collaborative project to create a large-scale installation to map, via sculptural and electronic components, the history of ongoing US drone strikes in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. The work shown here includes 25 3-D printed paper reproductions of MQ9 Predator Drones, arranged in a pattern of documented drone strikes around the town of Mir Ali. This is a prototype for a much larger installation that, when completed, will feature over 405 paper drones – one each representing every documented drone strike in Pakistan. The drones will be arranged to create a map of drone strikes – each drone is individually lit by an addressable LED light which will go off in a staccato pattern – in the final installation the staccato pattern will be interrupted over time by individual drones strikes being highlighted in red and the incorporation of an LED panel on the wall that will note the location, date and number of people killed.

There’s a preview of the prototype, ‘Drone Shadow’, on YouTube: