‘Reach from the sky’ ONLINE


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

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

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

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

Still reaching from the skies…

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

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


Prelude: The historical geography of bombing

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

The bombers and the bombed.001

Good bomb, bad bomb

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

Pinball wizards.001

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

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

Moral economy of bombing.001

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

Their bombs.001


Killing Space

Phillips' Aerial Torpedo.001

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

Phillips' bomb-dropping by wireless.001

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


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

Gaza Power Strip.001

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

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

Bioconvergence and the bomber crew.001

Intimacy in Bomber Command.001

The Good Wife.001

Cockpit dials.001

Distance and blindness.001

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

Anomie and the drone.001

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

Good Kill in high-definition.001

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

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

Hippler Neo-douhetism.001

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

Counting the dead.001

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

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

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

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

Reach from the Sky


Reach from the sky JPEG.001

I now have more details to share about my Tanner Lectures in Cambridge next month, Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war.

First, here is a preliminary summary (not an easy thing to provide, since the two presentations are still very much in formation: but it will give you a rough idea of what I want to address).

Bombing is back in the headlines – but then it never really left. Over the last hundred years, bombing has become the preferred military option for many states, but it has supposedly been radically transformed over the last decade or so by the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles (‘drones’). Their use has sparked a vigorous debate, inside and outside military circles, but commentators have rarely situated Predators, Reapers and other drones within the longer history of aerial violence or the larger matrix of armed conflict within which they have been deployed.

These lectures seek to fill both those gaps by addressing two fundamental questions. The first lecture, Good bomb, bad bomb, asks how people – both those who carry out air strikes and those publics who endorse them – have been persuaded of the propriety of aerial violence. Four responses run like red threads throughout the long history of bombing from the air: bombing saves lives, especially when compared with ‘boots on the ground’; bombing is bold, brave and ‘separates the men from the boys’; bombing is scientific, objective and precise, organised through an extended ‘kill-chain’ that ensures efficiency and disperses responsibility; and bombing is ‘law-full’, not only legal but also a means of imposing law on those who lack its ordering. These claims only apply to our bombs of course, not theirs, and these arguments and the practices that lie behind them have been substantially re-worked by today’s drone wars.

The second lecture, Killing space, asks what spaces have been produced through the changing ‘destruction line’ that has animated military targeting and military violence. Here there are two issues of crucial importance. One concerns the locus of targeting: in particular the range of aerial violence, the emergence of ‘wars without fronts’ and the extension of military violence beyond any demarcated battlefield, and the subsequent ‘individuation of warfare’ in which targets have contracted from areas and boxes to groups and individuals even as they have expanded through their location within networks that transmit and amplify the effects of individual strikes. The other concerns the grammar of targeting: in particular the reification and abstraction of targets, the rise of dynamic targeting and the incorporation of real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and the increased reliance on digital signatures for the cultivation of the killing fields.

Answers to these questions have much to tell us about the changing contours of modern war and the adjudication of what is to count as a ‘grievable life’ in the twenty-first century.

The lectures draw on a series of presentations, essays (most of them available under the DOWNLOADS tab) and posts, but they will also break new ground – and lots of it.  I’ll be going back to the origins of bombing before the First World War, tracing some of the parallels between bombing on the Western Front and the late modern deployment of Predators and Reapers, tracking the development of drones since the Second World War, and coming right up to the multiple forms of aerial violence currently being visited on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.  The lectures will also be packed with images (and even poetry).

The format: I’ll give two 50-minute presentations starting at 5 p.m. on Wednesday 13 January, separated by a refreshment break (!) and followed by a reception.  Then at 5 p.m. on Thursday 14 January a panel of four respondents – which will include Chris Woods, (author of Sudden Justice: America’s secret drone wars), Grégoire Chamayou (author of A theory of the drone/Drone theory) and Jochen von Bernstorff, (Professor of Constitutional Law, Public International Law and Human Rights in Tübingen) will provide their reactions and comments, to be followed by a general discussion and debate.

The place: The lectures are organised by Clare Hall but will be given at the Robinson College Auditorium.  Admission is free but you will need a ticket from:

tannerbookings@clarehall.cam.ac.uk (Tel: 01223 761247)

I’m told that the tickets are going fast (really).  I’ll post updates on my progress; after the event I’ll post the presentation slides, and there will also be a published version at a later date.

Tanner respondents

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

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

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

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

More on other respondents later.

Reach from the Sky


I’ve been invited to give the annual Tanner Lectures in Cambridge on 13-14 January 2016. The Lectures are given in parallel at nine universities in the UK and the USA: Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, Michigan and Utah.

Appointment as a Tanner lecturer is a recognition for uncommon achievement and outstanding abilities in the field of human values. The lecturers may be elicited from philosophy, religion, the humanities, the sciences, the creative arts, and learned professions, or from leadership in public or private affairs. The lectureships are international and intercultural and transcend ethnic, national, religious, and ideological distinctions.

The purpose of the Tanner Lectures is to advance and reflect upon the scholarly and scientific learning relating to human values. This intention embraces the entire range of values pertinent to the human condition, interest, behavior, and aspiration. The lectures are published in an annual volume.

The Tanner Lectures were established by the American scholar, industrialist, and philanthropist, Obert Clark Tanner. In creating the lectureships, Professor Tanner said, “I hope these lectures will contribute to the intellectual and moral life of mankind. I see them simply as a search for a better understanding of human behavior and human values. This understanding may be pursued for its own intrinsic worth, but it may also eventually have practical consequences for the quality of personal and social life.”

It’s a huge honour, and thoroughly intimidating when I look at the roster of previous speakers and those delivering the other lectures in 2015-16, and I’m thrilled – though so far I’ve only got as far as a title: ‘Reach from the Sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war‘.  The clock is ticking, so watch this space for progress reports…