Gender, war and technology

Christiane Wilke writes with news of a fascinating special issue of the Australian Feminist Law Journal (441, 1) on Gender, War, and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.

Gender, War, and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the Twenty-First Century:  Emily Jones, Sara Kendall & Yoriko Otomo

Targeting, Gender, and International Posthumanitarian Law and Practice: Framing The Question of the Human in International Humanitarian Law: Matilda Arvidsson

How International Law Learned to Love the Bomb: Civilians and the Regulation of Aerial Warfare in the 1920s: Christiane Wilke

Technology, Dead Male Bodies, and Feminist Recognition: Gendering ICT Harm Theo:  Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

War’s Perpetuity: Disabled Bodies of War and the Exoskeleton of Equality: Gina Heathcote

A Posthuman-Xenofeminist Analysis of the Discourse on Autonomous Weapons Systems and Other Killing Machines: Emily Jones

The Architecture of Slow, Structural, and Spectacular Violence and the Poetic Testimony of War: Helene Kazan

The editors explain in their Introduction:

As the following articles illustrate, triangulating gender, war, and technology as a field of inquiry produces a wide domain of analysis, with topics ranging from human enhancement technologies to autonomous weapons systems, surveillance and aerial bombardment, artificial intelligence, and big data. The three terms themselves invite interpretation and debate.

The first term, ‘gender’, has been used in the context of international humanitarian law to signify vulnerability; women are treated as a group that may require further protection, where gender operates as a qualified identity that supplements the category of civilian (or indeed, comes to define the category of civilian). Yet some of the articles considered here adopt a more reflexive approach informed by feminist scholarship, considering issues of agency, difference, and intersectionality, and contesting gendered constructions that presuppose femininity, ethnicity, and passivity. The gendered subjects of law and war are at the same time subjects embedded within political economies of race, class, ability, age, and other factors. While gender serves as the primary focus of many articles within this special issue, gender theory’s commitment to intersectionality can be seen throughout, with articles considering issues of race, colonialism, ability, masculi- nity, and capitalism (and thus, implicitly, class). Beyond this special issue, the field would benefit from analysis of the broader range of intersectional concerns that emerge from recent technological developments in warfare.

The second term, ‘war’, is understood through drawing on existing feminist and gender critiques of war and armed conflict. Our point of departure is Cockburn’s well-known ‘continuum of violence’, whereby war and peace are noted to be part of a shared continuum as opposed to distinct (legal) categories. Such an outlook dis- rupts legal categorisations of conflicts by acknowledging that when a conflict ends as a matter of law, it has not necessarily ended for people living through it.  Not only do the place and time of ‘armed’ conflict then become questions, but presumptions about who produces, participates in, and is affected by conflict are also revisited and critiqued.

The final term, ‘technology’, has been defined within the context of conflict in the twenty-first century, following the post-war ideological movement described above. We are aware of the vast amount of literature which seeks to define technology broadly, with Heidegger defining technology to include things such as art and law, roughly defining technology as a tool and theorising how it is technology which helps humans become human. This special issue focuses on technology specifically within the context of twenty-first-century armed conflict, such as military technologies and/or algorithmic decision-making and data collection. In light of the multiple ways in which technology is changing conflict, we argue that the focus on these technologies reflects the ways in which technology is impacting on and changing the global order and conflict. This special issue seeks to draw attention to the urgent need for gendered perspectives on the interrelationships between war and technology.

The Drone Memos


From the New Press on 15 November, Jameel Jaffers The Drone Memos: targeted killing, secrecy and the law:

The Drone Memos collects for the first time the legal and policy documents underlying the U.S. government’s deeply controversial practice of “targeted killing”—the extrajudicial killing of suspected terrorists and militants, typically using remotely piloted aircraft or “drones.” The documents—including the Presidential Policy Guidance that provides the framework for drone strikes today, Justice Department white papers addressing the assassination of an American citizen, and a highly classified legal memo that was published only after a landmark legal battle involving the ACLU, the New York Times, and the CIA—together constitute a remarkable effort to legitimize a practice that most human rights experts consider to be unlawful and that the United States has historically condemned.

In a lucid and provocative introduction, Jameel Jaffer, who led the ACLU legal team that secured the release of many of the documents, evaluates the “drone memos” in light of domestic and international law. He connects the documents’ legal abstractions to the real-world violence they allow, and makes the case that we are trading core principles of democracy and human rights for the illusion of security.

From Jameel’s introduction:

This book is possible because the secrecy surrounding American drone strikes has begun, at the margins, to erode. The documents collected here shed light on how a president committed to ending the abuses associated with the Bush administration’s “war on terror” came to dramatically expand one of the practices most identified with that war, and they supply a partial view of the legal and policy framework that underlies that practice. But while many of the documents collected here were meant to be defenses of the drone campaign, ultimately they complicate, at the very least, the government’s oft-repeated argument that the campaign is lawful.

To be sure, even the existence of these documents is an indication of the extent to which the drone campaign is saturated with the language of law. Perhaps no administration before this one has tried so assiduously to justify its resort to the weapons of war. But the rules that purportedly limit the government’s actions are imprecise and elastic; they are cherry picked from different legal regimes; the government regards some of them to be discretionary rather than binding; and even the rules the government concedes to be binding cannot, in the government’s view, be enforced in any court. If this is law, it is law without limits—law without constraint.

Ryan Goodman provides ’10 Questions to Ask Yourself When Reading Jameel Jaffer’s “The Drone Memos”’ here.  For me, the two most crucial on the list – which anyone writing about drones and limiting the discussion to targeted killing needs to ask themselves (and rarely does) – are these:

Despite the title of the book, how much of the discussion and issues raised are really about drones per se? How much applies to cruise missiles, night raids, and other forms of direct lethal action? What analytic or rhetorical work is being done by focusing on “drones”?

Despite the title of the book, how much of the discussion and issues raised are limited to pre-planned targeted killing? What about dynamic strikes when a moment of opportunity arises, or so-called signature strikes? What analytic or rhetorical work is being done by focusing on “targeted killing”?

UPDATE:  For an excerpt from Jameel’s introduction, see this article, ‘How the US justifies drone strikes: targeted killing, secrecy and the law‘, from The Guardian:

As the 2016 presidential primaries were getting under way, sporadic and sketchy reports of strikes in remote regions of the world provided a kind of background noise – a drone in a different sense of the word – to which Americans had become inured.

Senior officials in the administration of President Barack Obama variously described drone strikes as “precise,” “closely supervised,” “effective,” “indispensable,” and even the “only game in town” – but what they emphasized most of all is that the drone strikes they authorized were lawful.

In this context, though, “lawful” had a specialized meaning. Except at the highest level of abstraction, the law of the drone campaign had not been enacted by Congress or published in the US Code. No federal agency had issued regulations relating to drone strikes, and no federal court had adjudicated their legality. Obama administration officials insisted that drone strikes were lawful, but the “law” they invoked was their own. It was written by executive branch lawyers behind closed doors, withheld from the public and even from Congress, and shielded from judicial review…

Now the lethal bureaucracy whose growth Obama personally oversaw will be turned over to a new administration. The powers Obama claimed will be wielded by another president. Perhaps as significant is the jarring fact that the practice of targeted killing – assassination, as it would once have been called, without a second thought – no longer seems remarkable, and the fact that the United States now boasts a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure to sustain this practice. Eight years ago the targeted-killing campaign required a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure, but now that infrastructure will demand a targeted-killing campaign. The question the next president will ask is not whether the powers Obama claimed should be exploited, but where, and against whom.

Dirty Dancing online

I had a wonderful time at the Balsillie School at Waterloo last week – good company, constructive conversations and endless hospitality – and I’m truly grateful to Simon Dalby, Jasmin Habib and all the graduate students who made my visit so enjoyable.  I finished by giving one of the Centre for Global Governance Innovation (CIGI)’s Signature Lectures.

This was the latest (and near-final) version of “Dirty dancing: drones and death in the borderlands”.   The argument has developed considerably since my first presentations; I’ll upload the written version once it’s finished, but CIGI has posted the lecture and Q&A online here.  I’ve also embedded the YouTube version below, but if that doesn’t work try here.

My thanks to the AV technicians who made this possible: their help with the production followed by their assured and rapid-fire editing beats anything I’ve encountered anywhere.

In this version, I begin with two CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, one on Baitullah Mehsud (the leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban) and the other on ‘Mamana’ Bibi, an innocent grandmother and midwife, and ask what it is that makes strikes like these – which is to say strikes as unlike these – possible.  My answer turns on the kinds of space the FATA been made out to be: in particular, a space of exception in which people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death, and a territory conceived as a political technology through which power lays claim to bodies-in-space.

Unlike Giorgio Agamben‘s original formulation, though, my discussion of the space of exception focuses not on violence authorised through the suspension of the law but rather violence that operates inside the law: so I look at the legal regimes, both international and national, that affect military and paramilitary violence in the FATA.  A further difference is that this exceptional state of affairs is provoked not by an event but by a margin: by the construction of the FATA as a liminal zone, borderlands that are outside ‘Pakistan proper’ or ‘mainland Pakistan’.  Many commentators (including me) trace the origin of aerial violence to the British Raj, its Frontier Crimes Regulations and its ‘policing’ of the North-West Frontier.  This is important, but the line of descent to today’s air strikes is not direct.  In particular, it is important to bring into view the cross-border incursions made by Soviet and Afghan aircraft during the occupation of Afghanistan.  Thousands of people were killed and injured during these attacks, and this constitutes an important horizon of memory, but no less important is the response of the Pakistan Air Force: their US-supplied jets intercepted incoming aircraft and either escorted them out of Pakistani air space or, towards the end of the 1980s, engaged them in combat.  This begs an obvious question: if Pakistan objects to the US strikes – carried out by drones that are slow, noisy and sluggish – why does its Air Force not shoot them down?  Since today’s drones cannot be used in contested air space – bluntly, they can only be used against defenceless people – why does Pakistan elect to render the people of FATA defenceless?  This immediately brings into view the other source of aerial violence in the borderlands: the ongoing offensives in the FATA launched by the Pakistan Air Force (in concert with large-scale ground operations).  Even though the Pakistan Air Force has its own reconnaissance drones, some of which are now armed, these are not attempts to put ‘warheads on foreheads’, as the US Air Force would have it, but wide-area assaults conducted by conventional strike aircraft and attack helicopters – as I show in the case of Mir Ali and Miran Shah during Operation Zarb-i-Azb (see here and here and here).

To complete the sequence and add the US drone strikes, I trace the intimate collaboration between both the CIA and the US Air Force and between Washington and Islamabad.  The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks show time and time again that many of the negotiations about access to ‘flight boxes’ over North and South Waziristan were conducted by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of US Central Command.  I show, too, how the collaboration between Washington and Islamabad continued until at least 2013.


In order for the CIA-directed strikes to be possible, however, the FATA must also be turned into a territory in something like the sense proposed by Stuart Elden.  So I describe the multiple ways in which data is harvested by the NSA and other agencies to produce what Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge call code/space: the algorithmic combination of sensors, traces and intercepts to summon into being a body-as-target (for more, see here: scroll down), and to produce the space of the target where fleshy bodies disappear and are replaced by codes, co-ordinates and cross-hairs.  This is another version of what Ian Hacking calls ‘making up people’: there is an important sense, then, in which the supposed ‘individuation’ of later modern war depends on the selective and active production (and destruction) of an ‘individual’.

The questions and comments after the lecture were immensely helpful, and as I turn this into its final, written version I’d be grateful for any further comments if you watch the video.

Bombed, Destroyed, Slaughtered

Map Gaza

Following on from my previous post, Léopold Lambert has produced the map above, showing an ‘infrastructural and militarized cartography’ of Gaza; you can download a hi-res version and read his commentary here.

Notice those repetitions marked by arrows; Rami Khoury writes in Lebanon’s Daily Star this morning:

What we are witnessing today is Israel behaving against Palestinians much as the French, British and Italian colonial powers behaved against Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, Algerians and Libyans a century or more ago. In its colonization of Arab lands and its raw military savagery against civilians, Israel gives us the best history lesson available of the conduct of colonial powers who treated natives as servants or subversives without rights, and who dealt with them primarily by repeated shows of force.

Visit GazaBut this is far more than a postscript to my previous post on Gaza, with its own vocabulary of ‘all too familiar’, ‘this time round’, and ‘once again’. Over at Critical Legal Thinking Nimer Sultany has a truly excellent short essay, ‘Repetition and Death in the Colony: On the Israeli attacks on Gaza‘:

‘At the moment of writing these lines, the BBC reports 100 deaths thus far in Gaza in the recent Israeli onslaught. As we have seen these scenes before, the invocation of repetition comes naturally. “Once again” is a commonly used word when it comes to death and suffering under occupation in Palestine and specifically Gaza….

‘But “once again” is not a mere rhetorical gesture nor symptomatic of tragic despair. It connotes a recursive power dynamic and a structural relationship between an occupier and an occupied. It should be a reminder of context rather than an erasure of context…. Lacking context, the responsibility is either equally shared by two symmetrically opposed agents of violence or the stronger party bears no responsibility because it is merely responding to the irrational violence of the weak who bears the responsibility for death and suffering.’

Nimer develops his argument in relation to the juridification of (later) modern war, the construction of the (Palestinian) civilian as a negation (the non-combatant as ‘an afterthought’), and on a ‘peace process’ that is ‘conditioned on their abdication of their right to resist an unjust foreign occupier and … their subordination of demands on behalf of justice for the sake of peace’ (see also Nimer’s ‘Colonial realities’ here; his account of the role of the Israeli Supreme Court in the juridifcation of the occupation of Palestine, ‘Activism and Legitimation in Israel’s Jurisprudence of Occupation’ in Social and Legal Studies (online March 2014) is usefully read alongside George Bisharat, ‘Violence’s Law’, Journal of Palestine Studies 42 (3) (2013) 68-84, which addresses Israel’s concerted campaign to transform international humanitarian law [‘the laws of war’]).