I’m later to this than I should be, but over at the American Anthropologist there is a very interesting series of four podcasts conducted by Emily Sogn.and Vasiliki Touhouliotis on what they call ‘the military present’:
In the first episode, we spoke to Joe Masco (here) about the historical formation of an affective politics that creates an ethos of continuous, yet increasingly incoherent militarization justifying itself as a response to a monopoly of perceived threats. Next, we spoke to Madiha Tahir (here) about the ways in which new weapons technologies, particularly drones, have reshaped social landscapes in places like the Waziristan region of Pakistan where threats both in the air and on the ground have become an ever present fact of everyday life….
In our [third] episode we spoke with was Wazhmah Osman (here) about the embodied effects of nearly four decades of continuous war in Afghanistan. we talked about how the deployment of new military strategies and the use of new supposedly more precise weapons obscures the deep yet everyday cumulative damage that is caused by ongoing war. [The interview focuses on the US deployment of the the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) in Afghanistan in April of 2017].
And in the final episode – which is how I stumbled upon the series, as I’m in the final stages of prepping my Antipode lecture on “Trauma Geographies” – they talk with my good friend Omar Dewachi (here)
about war as a form of governance asking how war orders and creates the terms by which different forms of injury caused by war can be recognized and acted upon. We were prompted to frame a conversation around this topic as a response to what we see as a troubling absence of public discussion of the deaths and illnesses that are caused by war, but which get obscured as such by the language of by products, secondary effects, or collateral damage.
Unless I’ve missed something, the conversation with Omar is the only one of the series to have a transcript, but you can listen to all of them online.
In my analysis of CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see ‘Dirty Dancing’: DOWNLOADS tab) I drew upon the tabulations provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Chris Herwig‘s cartographic animation of casualties between 2004 and 2013: see my discussion here and the maps here.
Quartz’s CityLab is now running a week-long series on Borders (‘stories about places on the edge’) and it includes a new series of interactive maps showing civilian casualties from drone strikes in the FATA (this series also ends in 2013). Here’s a screenshot:
There’s not much geographical analysis – apart from noting the focus on North and South Waziristan – and, as I argued before, I think it a mistake to isolate drone strikes from the wider matrix of military and paramilitary violence in the borderlands (including air strikes by the Pakistan Air Force). And there are obvious problems in disentangling civilian casualties – the US Air Force has the greatest difficulty in identifying civilians in the first place.
It’s difficult to put all this together – and particularly to hear the voices of those caught up in a matrix of such extensive violence that, as Madiha Tahir puts it so well, ‘war has lacerated the land into stillness.’ In an exquisite essay in Public Culture 29 (1) (2017) Madiha reflects on that difficulty and the ‘spatial stories’ local people struggle to tell. Her title – ‘The ground was always in play’ – is borrowed from Michael Herr‘s despatches from Vietnam, but the full quotation explains how aerial violence echoes across this shattered land:
‘The ground was always in play, always being swept. Under the ground was his, above it was ours. We had the air.’
But the ‘we’ in the FATA is plural – a product of the ‘dirty dancing’ between Washington and Islamabad – and so we come to the story Madiha pieces together:
The story Mir Azad came to tell is this [and, as Madiha shows, he had travelled 500 difficult miles across South and North Waziristan to tell it]. In July 2015, American drones bombed and killed two of his cousins, Gul Rehman Khan and Mohammad Khandan. After Zarb-e-Azb began in June 2014, thousands of Waziris fled in all directions, businesspeople, farmers, militants, and students, including to the Pakistani villages in Barmal, and there the drones followed. The military operation and the “surgical” operation, carpet bombing and “precision strikes,” coordinated maybe, intentionally or not, they worked together to redraw the lines of movement, new containment zones, a shockwave that could start with ground troops in North Waziristan and end with a drone bombing a car in Barmal [in Paktika province, on the border with North Waziristan].
My extract can’t do justice to the essay: do read it if you can.
Since I completed the original version of ‘Dirty Dancing’ a number of new reports from Waziristan have provided more details of the co-ordination of air/ground operations. Over the summer AFP reported that the Pakistani military had removed the roofs of houses to provide a better ‘aerial view’:
“(The) military has removed the roofs of the houses to have a better aerial view and stop militants taking refuge in these abundant, fort-like mud houses,” the official told reporters. From the helicopter journalists could see scores of homes with no roofs but appearing otherwise intact, their interiors exposed to the elements.
But in many cases – especially in North Waziristan – those ordered by the military to leave their homes have returned to find them reduced to rubble.
Earlier this month Ihsan Dawarreported from North Waziristan on ‘Life on the debris of wrecked houses’:
Murtaza Dawar sat with his children and cousins on the debris of his house. Behind him the setting sun was a ball of fire in the sky, reducing him and his family to silhouettes, the shards of glass in the wreck of his house catching the light and winking in the gathering dark of an early evening.
Coming back home to Mirali in North Waziristan has been a bittersweet experience for Dawar, 48. Sweet because he and his family has returned home after more than two years of displacement. Bitter, because they have come back to wreckage where their home was.
“We have nothing to do with militancy or Talibanization but our house has been demolished,” says Dawar, taking a break from pitching a tent. “There is not a single room intact. I don’t know where to take my family to protect them from the terrible cold.”
Dawar’s is not the only house that was razed during the military operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in June 2014 to clear North Wazristan of militants. Of the nearly million tribesmen displaced by the operation, many have lost not only their belongings and assets they left behind in the tribal district and their houses have been demolished for no reason.
The government has not issued any clear data on the number of houses demolished in North Waziristan. In May 2016, a property damage survey conducted by the Fata Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) revealed that 11,663 houses were fully and partially damaged during operations against militants in South Waziristan, North Waziristan and the Khyber Agency.
Local tribesmen working in the political administration’s office in North Waziristan told Truth tracker on condition of anonymity – because of the sensitivity of information – that about 1500 houses were completely destroyed in the Mirali subdivision alone.
Cartographic animations can’t capture these in-animations, but we must surely do our best to attend to them.
Just back from a wonderful trip to Toronto and York, where (among other things) I gave a new presentation on “Drones and the everywhere war“. It turned out to have been timely: there’s been a flurry of revelations and reports about the US campaign of targeted killing in Pakistan and Yemen, and I managed to incorporate some of them into the argument.
I’ll be posting about all this shortly, but in the meantime – and directly related – news from Madiha Tahir that Wounds of Waziristan premieres on VICE Motherboard on line for a limited period today.
It’s smart and stunning, and addresses a swath of vital issues about the drone strikes in just 25 minutes: from their colonial antecedents in ‘air policing’ and the special laws imposed on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas by the British state through extraordinary testimony from survivors to the collusion between the US and Pakistan in exposing the population of FATA to military violence.
Reading and thinking about these testimonies has helped convince me that the root problem with drones is not that they enable killing from a distance: as I’ve said before, if you object to killing someone 7,500 miles away, over what distance do you think it is acceptable? In fact, although Predators and Reapers are controlled from the continental United States they have to be deployed close to their targets: these are not weapons of global reach. One of the most fundamental issues is that they can only be used in uncontested air space, so that they are limited to haunting the skies over some of the most vulnerable and marginal populations on earth, whose own governments care little about them and where the distinction between a combatant and a civilian is made to count for precious little. One of my next tasks is to revise “Moving targets and violent geographies” (DOWNLOADS tab) to incorporate these reports and to emphasise this conclusion.
In one sequence, repeating a tactic which has been used by other artists in Iraq in particular, “Wounds” projects US drone strikes in Waziristan onto a map of Madiha’s home state, New Jersey:
Madiha also appears on a panel on “Life Under Drones” at the Drones & Aerial Robotics Conference in New York earlier this month, with Wazhmah Osman, Chris Rogers and Tara McKelvey, also now up at YouTube:
I’m just finishing up a new essay on drones and later modern war – “Moving targets and violent geographies” – and I’ll post the draft as soon as I’m done (this weekend, I hope).
Next up is the essay version of my various posts and presentations on air strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, past and present, by the US and by the Pakistan Air Force [see here and here], so I was heartened by news from Madiha Tahir [see my post here] of progress with her short documentary film, Wounds of Waziristan (they are down to the final edits):
More about the project and crowd-sourcing here, and you can find more information at the film’s website, which includes an image gallery and opens with some of the most hauntingly beautiful music composed by André Barros(shades of Arvo Part‘s Spiegel im Spiegel):
Haunting indeed. In a report for Delhi’s Sunday Guardian, Tanishree Bhasinwrites:
When Barack Obama finally admitted to the needless loss of life in Pakistan’s Waziristan area due to American drone attacks, he spoke about how the death of innocents would haunt him forever. Interrogating this notion of ‘haunting’ and what it means for those affected by these attacks is Pakistani filmmaker Madiha Tahir in her film Wounds of Waziristan….
With Wounds of Waziristan, Tahir tries to foreground the people who materially experience loss and absence — not as abstract body counts, but as the absence of a brother or a niece or a wife. “Haunting is the insistence by the dead that they be acknowledged, that the social conditions that brought about their demise be made known and rectified. So, haunting is about unfinished business. And, it’s thoroughly social and political. This film focuses on the people who live in Waziristan and who live among loss. Material conditions, whether it’s the rubble after a drone attack or the grave of one’s kin, persist in reminding the living of what they have lost,” she explains.
On her blog, Madiha wryly notes that her interest in the question of haunting may show ‘my academic side coming out’ – as well as an independent journalist she’s also a graduate from NYU and Columbia, where she’s currently working on her PhD – and human geographers will probably be no strangers to the idea, from research by Steve Pile and Karen Till and most recently Alison Mountz‘s analysis of detention centres and Akin Akinwumi‘s work on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.
Much of this has been indebted to Avery Gordon‘s by now classic study, Ghostly matters:
‘Haunting is one way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life, especially when they are supposedly over and done with or when their oppressive nature is denied… Haunting is not the same as being exploited, traumatized, or oppressed, although it usually involves these experiences or is produced by them. I used the term haunting to describe those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view.’
It’s not difficult to see how this applies to air strikes in Waziristan – the sense of familiarity unmoored by the devastations of state violence – but Madiha’s starting point is a two-page note Max Horkheimerand Theodor Adorno appended to Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘On the theory of ghosts’, that also figured briefly in Gordon’s book (where she described it as an ‘unfilled promissory note’):
Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead: unity with them because we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and the same disappointed hope.
It’s that first clause that animates Madiha’s work:
Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead.
She notes that so much (too much) of the contemporary debate about drones is framed by the language of international law and its grammar of execution that is deeply embedded in military violence: as operational law has become a central discourse in the animation and legitimation of the kill-chain, so it turns targeted killing into a quasi-juridical process. In consequence, as she says with a nod to Eyal Weizman, ‘international law is caught up in constructing the proper order of violence.’
And as a journalist she is dismayed at the complicity of journalists in popularizing law
‘as the only frame through which we can talk about drone attacks and moral standards. Journalists regularly fail to look beyond the usual “experts” in policy and legal circles to other fields that may have an alternative to offer. We are becoming vulgar empiricists who seem to think that a truth not attached to a number (say, the number of “militants” vs. “civilians” killed), or a legal rule (for example: whether an action does/does not violate international law) is no truth at all.’
So Madiha proposes haunting as an alternative frame ‘through which one can re-direct the conversation from issues of legal standards to the lives lived and lives lost under the drones in Waziristan and elsewhere’:
‘The questions then turn on the material conditions and the loss suffered – not as evidence for legal arguments but as queries about what it does to a person to live in such conditions. The question is not, ‘Do I stick him in the “militant” or “civilian” column?’ but instead, who survives him? How do they deal with that loss? What is it like to live among the rubble?
It isn’t through legal standards but though trying to understand the horror of the destruction that we create the correct relationship — with the dead, yes — but with the living, too.’
This matters so much – and reappears in a different form in ‘Moving targets’ – because the contemporary individuation of ‘war’ (if it is war) works to sanitize the battlefield: to confine attention to the individual-as-target (which is itself a technical artefact separated from the exploded fleshiness that flickers briefly on the Predator’s video screens) and to foreclose the way in which every death ripples across a family, a community, a district and beyond [see my brief discussion with Ian Shawhere].
And, as Madiha explained to the Sunday Guardian, these effects ripple across time as well as space, tearing the very fabric of history:
Speaking about her experiences while making this film, she explained that it’s not just a question of life being lost, but also the obliteration of history. “When drone attacks destroy homes — as they often do — they erase entire family histories. Homes in this area are built over time as families grow. There may be as many as 50 members of a family living in one house. When you destroy structures like that, you not only destroy people, you also destroy their history. The rubble that’s left in the wake of an attack is a living memory of what happened there. It embodies loss. The people in Waziristan have to live around this loss, near it, in it. They have to live among ghosts,” says Tahir.
Over the weekend I worked my way through New Inquiry‘s special issue, Game of drones – Pete Adey‘s recommendation. For me, the stand-out essay is Madiha Tahir‘s “Louder than bombs”…
A graduate of Barnard College, NYU and the Columbia School of Journalism, Madiha is currently an independent multimedia/print journalist reporting on conflict, culture and politics in Pakistan; somehow she has also found the time to co-edit Dispatches from Pakistan (LeftWord Books, 2012) with the indefatigable Vijay Prashad and Qalander Bux Memom: more about Madiha here.
“Louder than bombs” begins with harrowing and matter-of-fact (all the more harrowing because matter-of-fact) testimony from Sadaullah Wazir, a teenage boy who lost both his legs and an eye after a US drone attack in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas; he was just 13, and three other members of his family were killed in the attack.
Madiha’s root objection is to the way in which what she calls the Obama administration’s ‘theatrical performance of faux secrecy’ over its drone war in the FATA (and elsewhere) – a repugnantly teasing dance in which the veil of secrecy is let slip once, twice, three times – functions to draw its audience’s entranced eye towards the American body politic and away from the Pakistani bodies on the ground. The story is always in Washington and never in Waziristan. It’s a hideously effective sideshow, in which Obama and an army of barkers and hucksters – unnamed spokesmen ‘speaking on condition of anonymity’ because they are ‘not authorised to speak on the record’, and front-of-house spielers like Harold Koh and John Brennan – induce not only a faux secrecy but its obverse, a faux intimacy in which public debate is focused on transparency and accountability as the only ‘games’ worth playing.
But when you ask people like Sadaullah what they want, Madiha writes,
‘they do not say “transparency and accountability”. They say they want the killing to stop. They want to stop dying. They want to stop going to funerals – and being bombed even as they mourn. Transparency and accountability, for them, are abstract problems that have little to do with the concrete fact of regular, systematic death.’
So we have analysts, activists and reporters falling over themselves to determine whether targeted killings outside a war zone like Afghanistan are legal; fighting to disclose the protocols that are followed to provide legal scrutiny of the targeting process; finally reassuring us, in a peculiarly American Story of O, that Obama is fully sensible of the enormous weight that rests on his shoulders. But all of this distracts our collective gaze from the enormous weight that has been brought to bear on Sadaullah’s shiny new prostheses. “I had a dream to be a doctor,” he tells a reporter. “Now I can’t even walk to school.”
Any discussion of the ways in which the kill-chain has been ‘lawyered up’ needs to acknowledge that – as the very formulation implies – the law is not apart from military violence: it has become part of military violence. In Foucault’s ringing phrase, ‘the law was born in burning towns and ravaged fields’, and in the intervening centuries it has become ever more closely entwined with military (and paramilitary) violence. Legality now substitutes for legitimacy, silencing any questions about politics or ethics. As Madiha says, speaking of the calibration between the deaths of militants and the deaths of civilians, it is as though ‘if we could just get the calculus right, there would be no further ethical or political questions’. Similarly, referring to the computer programs used by the US military (and seemingly, the CIA) to predict collateral damage, and so to adjudicate between the legal principles of necessity and proportionality, Eyal Weizman notes that ‘it is the very act of calculation – the very fact that calculation took place – that justifies their action.’ But this is never a neutral appeal to algorithms or attorneys: not for nothing do those involved refer to the ‘prosecution’ of the target, and as Anne Orford emphasises, the relevant body of international law ‘immerses its addressees in a world of military calculations’ and ensures that proportionality will always be weighed on the military’s (or the CIA’s) own scales. In Weizman’s words, ‘violence legislates.’
Even as we debate the legal machinations, official leaks and governmental manipulations by which they are killed, the daily, material, precarious existence of the people living under the disquieting hum of american drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas rarely sits at the center of discussion.
But what if it did? if, instead of the public secret, one begins with a prosthetic limb, a glass eye, and a funeral photo, the nightmare takes form, solidifies.
None of this means that the law does not matter; its matter-iality ought to be obvious. But it is to say that we need to be alert to what appeals to ‘the law’ do – and what they seek to foreclose. Legal questions do matter – but their answers must not be allowed to silence other political and ethical questions. Neither should they close our eyes to the contrapuntal geographies that are staged far beyond the peep-shows of the Washington beltway.
Note: For more on drone wars, see Remote witnessing and, in detail, ‘From a view to a kill’ and ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab). I’ve also provided a preliminary reading/screening list that notes some of the same emphases and omissions that trouble Madiha here.