In my crosshairs

Two new books on the military gaze:

First, from the ever-interesting Roger StahlThrough the Crosshairs: War, Visual Culture, and the Weaponized Gaze (Rutgers).

Now that it has become so commonplace, we rarely blink an eye at camera footage framed by the crosshairs of a sniper’s gun or from the perspective of a descending smart bomb. But how did this weaponized gaze become the norm for depicting war, and how has it influenced public perceptions?

Through the Crosshairs traces the genealogy of this weapon’s-eye view across a wide range of genres, including news reports, military public relations images, action movies, video games, and social media posts. As he tracks how gun-camera footage has spilled from the battlefield onto the screens of everyday civilian life, Roger Stahl exposes how this raw video is carefully curated and edited to promote identification with military weaponry, rather than with the targeted victims. He reveals how the weaponized gaze is not only a powerful propagandistic frame, but also a prime site of struggle over the representation of state violence.


1 A Strike of the Eye
2 Smart Bomb Vision
3 Satellite Vision
4 Drone Vision
5 Sniper Vision
6 Resistant Vision
7 Afterword: Bodies Inhabited and Disavowed

And here’s Lisa Parks on the book:

“Immersing readers in the perilous visualities of smart bombs, snipers, and drones, Through the Crosshairs delivers a riveting analysis of the weaponized gaze and powerfully explicates the political stakes of screen culture’s militarization.  Packed with insights about the current conjuncture, the book positions Stahl as a leading critic of war and media.”

Incidentally, if you don’t know Roger’s collaborative project, The vision machine: media, war, peace – I first blogged about it five years ago – now is the time to visit: here.

And from Antoine Bousquet, The Eye of War: military perception from the telescope to the drone (Minnesota):

From ubiquitous surveillance to drone strikes that put “warheads onto foreheads,” we live in a world of globalized, individualized targeting. The perils are great. In The Eye of War, Antoine Bousquet provides both a sweeping historical overview of military perception technologies and a disquieting lens on a world that is, increasingly, one in which anything or anyone that can be perceived can be destroyed—in which to see is to destroy.

Arguing that modern-day global targeting is dissolving the conventionally bounded spaces of armed conflict, Bousquet shows that over several centuries, a logistical order of militarized perception has come into ascendancy, bringing perception and annihilation into ever-closer alignment. The efforts deployed to evade this deadly visibility have correspondingly intensified, yielding practices of radical concealment that presage a wholesale disappearance of the customary space of the battlefield. Beginning with the Renaissance’s fateful discovery of linear perspective, The Eye of War discloses the entanglement of the sciences and techniques of perception, representation, and localization in the modern era amid the perpetual quest for military superiority. In a survey that ranges from the telescope, aerial photograph, and gridded map to radar, digital imaging, and the geographic information system, Bousquet shows how successive technological systems have profoundly shaped the history of warfare and the experience of soldiering.

A work of grand historical sweep and remarkable analytical power, The Eye of War explores the implications of militarized perception for the character of war in the twenty-first century and the place of human subjects within its increasingly technical armature.


Introduction: Visibility Equals Death
1. Perspective
2. Sensing
3. Imaging
4. Mapping
5. Hiding
Conclusion: A Global Imperium of Targeting

And here is Daniel Monk on the book:

The Eye of War is a masterful contemporary history of the martial gaze that reviews the relation between seeing and targeting. The expansion of ocularcentrism—the ubiquitization of vision as power—Antoine Bousquet shows us, coincides with the inverse: the relegation of the eye to an instrument of a war order that relies on the sensorium as the means to its own ends. As he traces the development of a technocracy of military vision, Bousquet discloses the vision of a military technocracy that has transformed the given world into units of perception indistinct from ‘kill boxes.’

Coming from excellent US university presses that – unlike the commercial behemoths (you know who you are) favoured by too many authors in my own field (you know who you are too) – these books are both attractively designed and accessibly priced.

Ground Truth

I’m just back from an invigorating conference on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ at Utrecht – more on this shortly – and it was a wonderful opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones.  Chris Woods gave an outstanding review of air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and told me of an interview Airwars had conducted with Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal whose forensic investigation of civilian casualties in Iraq I discussed in a previous post.  The US-led Coalition has still not responded to their findings, even though they initially afforded a remarkable degree of co-operation.

The full interview really is worth reading, but here is Azmat explaining how their joint investigation started:

We began planning this in February 2016. By April I was on the ground [In Iraq] and I was embedding with local forces, both Shia militias and then with Peshmerga forces, in certain frontline towns. I remember early on seeing how pivotal these airstrikes were in terms of re-taking cities.

There was one town that was really important to Shias, and so dozens of Shia militias had tried to retake it — Bashir — from where ISIS had launched mortars with chemical agents into a neighboring town, Taza. I watched several Shia militias based in Taza try and fail to retake Bashir, putting in all of their troops. Then the peshmerga agreed to try and retake it, and they put in maybe a fraction of the number of troops, but were supported by Coalition airstrikes in a way the militias weren’t, and Bashir fell within hours.

It really showed me the extent to which these airstrikes played a pivotal role in re-taking territory, but also the level of devastation. Many parts of Bashir were just up in smoke, when I visited the day after it was re-taken.

Unless you were on the ground, you couldn’t get a real sense of that scale. There’d been good accounts looking at civilian casualties — but nobody had looked at both those that successfully hit ISIS targets and those that didn’t, so a systematic sample. That’s what we teamed up to do. As more cities were being retaken, we though there’s an opportunity to do this….

In terms of verifying allegations, our work went far beyond interviews and analyzing satellite imagery. In addition to interviewing hundreds of witnesses, we dug through rubble for bomb fragments, or materials that might suggest ISIS use, like artillery vests, ISIS literature, sometimes their bones, because nobody would bury them.

We also got our hands on more than 100 sets of coordinates for suspected ISIS sites passed on by local informants. Sometimes we were able to get photos and videos as well. And ultimately, we verified each civilian casualty allegation with health officials, security forces, or local administrators.

The interview also revisits the attack on the Rezzo family home, a pivot of their NYT essay, which includes even more disturbing details.  As Azmat and Anand explain, this was a strike which ought to have shown Coalition targeting at its most adept; far from it.

Khan: This is a deliberate airstrike, not a dynamic one. It was an “ISIS headquarters,” which we were told, when I was at the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center), a very senior intelligence officer told me that a target with one of the highest thresholds to meet is usually an ISIS headquarters… In so many ways Basim’s case was the ultimate, highest most deliberative process.

Airwars: When you say the best case scenario, you mean the best case on the Coalition side in terms of what intelligence they could have, and they still screwed up in such a fundamental way?

Gopal: if there was ever a strike they could get right, this would be the one. They have weeks to plan it, they have it as an ISIS headquarters. And so you know, if it’s an ISIS headquarters, the threshold for actionable intelligence has to be much higher. It can’t just be drone footage that doesn’t see women and children.

Airwars: They identified it as a headquarters and what was the genesis of that? In the story you talk about – it’s infuriating to read – that they didn’t see women and children.

Khan: One of the things I asked at the CAOC in Qatar was how do you identify local patterns of behavior. For example, I said, under ISIS a lot of women are not leaving their homes. So when you are looking at these pattern of life videos, are you taking these variable local dynamics into account? How do you distinguish for example when you are bombing in Iraq and one of these areas, how do you distinguish between patterns of behavior that are specific to Iraq vs. bombing in Afghanistan. What are the differences?

I was told that they could not get into a great deal of detail about ISIS’ “TTPs” — tactics, techniques, and procedures — their understanding of how ISIS generally operates.  They told me that these are developed through the intelligence community, in coordination with a cultural expert, but that they could not offer more detail about it.

Gopal: At the end of the day, it appears there are no consequences for getting it wrong, so there are no incentives to try to get it right.

Those who don’t count and those who can’t count

An excellent article from the unfailing New York Times in a recent edition of the Magazine: Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal on ‘The Uncounted‘, a brilliant, forensic and – crucially – field-based investigation into civilian casualties in the US air war against ISIS:

American military planners go to great lengths to distinguish today’s precision strikes from the air raids of earlier wars, which were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties. They describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to “targeteers,” who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.

The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.

What Azmat and Anand found on the ground, however, was radically different:

Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014.

We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history [my emphasis].  Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes …  remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

They provide immensely powerful, moving case studies of innocents ‘lost in the wreckage’.  They also describe the US Air Force’s targeting process at US Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar (the image above shows the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division at the CAOC, which ‘provides a common threat and targeting picture’):

The process seemed staggeringly complex — the wall-to-wall monitors, the soup of acronyms, the army of lawyers — but the impressively choreographed operation was designed to answer two basic questions about each proposed strike: Is the proposed target actually ISIS? And will attacking this ISIS target harm civilians in the vicinity?

As we sat around a long conference table, the officers explained how this works in the best-case scenario, when the coalition has weeks or months to consider a target. Intelligence streams in from partner forces, informants on the ground, electronic surveillance and drone footage. Once the coalition decides a target is ISIS, analysts study the probability that striking it will kill civilians in the vicinity, often by poring over drone footage of patterns of civilian activity. The greater the likelihood of civilian harm, the more mitigating measures the coalition takes. If the target is near an office building, the attack might be rescheduled for nighttime. If the area is crowded, the coalition might adjust its weaponry to limit the blast radius. Sometimes aircraft will even fire a warning shot, allowing people to escape targeted facilities before the strike. An official showed us grainy night-vision footage of this technique in action: Warning shots hit the ground near a shed in Deir al-Zour, Syria, prompting a pair of white silhouettes to flee, one tripping and picking himself back up, as the cross hairs follow.

Once the targeting team establishes the risks, a commander must approve the strike, taking care to ensure that the potential civilian harm is not “excessive relative to the expected military advantage gained,” as Lt. Col. Matthew King, the center’s deputy legal adviser, explained.

After the bombs drop, the pilots and other officials evaluate the strike. Sometimes a civilian vehicle can suddenly appear in the video feed moments before impact. Or, through studying footage of the aftermath, they might detect signs of a civilian presence. Either way, such a report triggers an internal assessment in which the coalition determines, through a review of imagery and testimony from mission personnel, whether the civilian casualty report is credible. If so, the coalition makes refinements to avoid future civilian casualties, they told us, a process that might include reconsidering some bit of intelligence or identifying a flaw in the decision-making process.

There are two issues here.  First, this is indeed the ‘best-case scenario’, and one that very often does not obtain.  One of the central vectors of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism is volatility: targets are highly mobile and often the ‘window of opportunity’ is exceedingly narrow.  I’ve reproduced this image from the USAF’s own targeting guide before, in relation to my analysis of the targeting cycle for a different US air strike against IS in Iraq in March 2015, but it is equally applicable here:

Second, that ‘window of opportunity’ is usually far from transparent, often frosted and frequently opaque.  For what is missing from the official analysis described by Azmat and Anand turns out to be the leitmotif of all remote operations (and there is a vital sense in which all forms of aerial violence are ‘remote’, whether the pilot is 7,000 miles away or 30,000 feet above the target [see for example here]):

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of the United States Air Forces Central Command at Udeid, told us what was missing. “Ground truth, that’s what you’re asking for,” he said. “We see what we see from altitude and pull in from other reports. Your perspective is talking to people on the ground.” He paused, and then offered what he thought it would take to arrive at the truth: “It’s got to be a combination of both.”

The military view, perhaps not surprisingly, is that civilian casualties are unavoidable but rarely intentional:

Supreme precision can reduce civilian casualties to a very small number, but that number will never reach zero. They speak of every one of the acknowledged deaths as tragic but utterly unavoidable.

Azmat and Anand reached a numbingly different conclusion: ‘Not all civilian casualties are unavoidable tragedies; some deaths could be prevented if the coalition recognizes its past failures and changes its operating assumptions accordingly. But in the course of our investigation, we found that it seldom did either.’

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that whenever there is an investigation into reports of civilian casualties that may have been caused by US military operations it must be independent of all other investigations and can make no reference to them in its findings; in other words, as I’ve noted elsewhere, there is no ‘case law’: bizarre but apparently true.

But that is only part of the problem.  The two investigators cite multiple intelligence errors (‘In about half of the strikes that killed civilians, we could find no discernible ISIS target nearby. Many of these strikes appear to have been based on poor or outdated intelligence’) and even errors and discrepancies in recording and locating strikes after the event.

It’s worth reading bellingcat‘s analysis here, which also investigates the coalition’s geo-locational reporting and notes that the official videos ‘appear only to showcase the precision and efficiency of coalition bombs and missiles, and rarely show people, let alone victims’.  The image above, from CNN, is unusual in showing the collection of the bodies of victims of a US air strike in Mosul, this time in March 2017; the target was a building from which two snipers were firing; more than 100 civilians sheltering there were killed.  The executive summary of the subsequent investigation is here – ‘The Target Engagement Authority (TEA) was unaware of and could not have predicted the presence of civilians in the structure prior to the engagement’ – and report from W.J. Hennigan and Molly Hennessy-Fiske is here.

Included in bellingcat’s account is a discussion of a video which the coalition uploaded to YouTube and then deleted; Azmat retrieved and archived it – the video shows a strike on two buildings in Mosul on 20 September 2015 that turned out to be focal to her investigation with Anand:

The video caption identifies the target as a ‘VBIED [car bomb] facility’.  But Bellingcat asks:

Was this really a “VBIED network”? Under the original upload, a commenter starting posting that the houses shown were his family’s residence in Mosul.

“I will NEVER forget my innocent and dear cousins who died in this pointless airstrike. Do you really know who these people were? They were innocent and happy family members of mine.”

Days after the strike, Dr Zareena Grewal, a relative living in the US wrote in the New York Times that four family members had died in the strike. On April 2, 2017 – 588 days later – the Coalition finally admitted that it indeed bombed a family home which they confused for an IS headquarters and VBIED facility.

“The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition, told Airwars.

Even though the published strike video actually depicted the killing of a family, it remained – wrongly captioned – on the official Coalition YouTube channel for more than a year.

This is but one, awful example of a much wider problem.  The general conclusion reached by Azmat and Anand is so chilling it is worth re-stating:

According to the coalition’s available data, 89 of its more than 14,000 airstrikes in Iraq have resulted in civilian deaths, or about one of every 157 strikes. The rate we found on the ground — one out of every five — is 31 times as high.

One of the houses [shown above] mistakenly identified as a ‘VBIED facility’ in that video belonged to Basim Razzo, and he became a key informant in Azmat and Anand’s investigation; he was subsequently interviewed by Amy Goodman: the transcript is here. She also interviewed Azmat and Anand: that transcript is here.  In the course of the conversation Anand makes a point that amply and awfully confirms Christiane Wilke‘s suggestion – in relation to air strikes in Afghanistan – that the burden of recognition, of what in international humanitarian law is defined as ‘distinction’, is tacitly being passed from combatant to civilian: that those in the cross-hairs of the US military are required to perform their civilian status to those watching from afar.

It goes back to this issue of Iraqis having to prove that they are not ISIS, which is the opposite of what we would think. We would think that the coalition would do the work to find out whether somebody is a member of ISIS or not. Essentially, they assume people are ISIS until proven otherwise.

To make matters worse, they have to perform their ‘civilianness’ according to a script recognised and approved by the US military, however misconceived it may be.  In the case of one (now iconic) air strike in Afghanistan being an adolescent or adult male, travelling in a group, praying at one of the times prescribed by Islam, and carrying a firearm in a society where that is commonplace was enough for civilians to be judged as hostile by drone crews and attacked from the air with dreadful results (see here and here).

This is stunning investigative journalism, but it’s more than that: the two authors are both at Arizona State University, and they have provided one of the finest examples of critical, probing and accessible scholarship I have ever read.

War crimes

Kunduz MSF report cover JPEG

In my preliminary commentary on the US military investigation into the air strike on MSF’s trauma centre in Kunduz in October 2015 – and I’ll have much more to say about that shortly – I circled around the Pentagon’s conclusion that even though those involved in the incident had clearly violated international humanitarian law (‘the laws of war’) and the Rules of Engagement no war crimes had been committed.

That conclusion has sparked a fire-storm of protest and commentary, and to track the narrative I’ve transferred some of my closing comments from that post to this and continued to follow the debate.  (It’s worth noting that when the Pentagon published its updated Law of War Manual last year it produced an equally heated reaction – much of it from commentators who complained that its provisions hamstrung commanders and troops in the field: see here and scroll down).

Not a war crime 3 JPEG

At Just Security Sarah Knuckey and two of her students complained that the report provided no justification for such a claim. After listing the gross violations of IHL (failure to take precautions in an attack, failure to distinguish between civilians and combatants, failure to respect the requirement of proportionality), they concluded:

While it is legally correct to state that the war crime of murder requires an “intent” to kill a protected person (e.g., a civilian), nowhere in the 120-page report is there an analysis of the legal meaning of “intention.” The report actually makes no specific or direct findings about war crimes. (“War crime” appears only once, in reference to a report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) [Here I should note that UNAMA’s view of what constitutes a war crime has on occasion changed with the perpetrator.  As this commentary shows, the Taliban have sometimes been held to a higher standard than the US military: in one case UNAMA suggested that the very use of high explosives in an urban area ‘in circumstances almost certain to cause immense suffering to civilians’ rendered the Taliban guilty of war crimes, whereas after the Kunduz air strike UNAMA declared that ‘should an attack against a hospital be found to have been deliberate, it may amount to a war crime’ (emphasis added)] .

Under international law, “premeditation” is not necessary for the war crime of murder, but the precise scope of intention is less clear. Numerous cases have stated that genuine mistakes and negligence are insufficient for murder. But a number of international cases and UN-mandated inquiries have found that “recklessness” or “indirect intent” could satisfy the intent requirement. Article 85 of Additional Protocol I also provides that intent encompasses recklessness. (See The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary, from page 449, for a full discussion.)

The investigation released today makes clear that US forces committed numerous violations of fundamental rules of the laws of war, violations which should and could have been avoided. Yet the report provides zero direct analysis of whether these violations amounted to war crimes. Given the seriousness of the violations committed, the US should specifically explain why the facts do not amount to recklessness, and explain the legal tests applied for the commission of war crimes.

Not a war crime 1 JPEG

Over at Lawfare, Ryan Vogel argues that the report will ‘will surely attract the attention of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Office of the Prosecutor (OTP)’. In fact, while the OTP has acknowledged

that the strike was being investigated by the United States [it has also] declared that “the [a]lleged crimes committed in Kunduz [would] be further examined by the Office” as part of the ongoing preliminary examination [see extract below]. By characterizing the incident as a violation of international law (and choosing not to prosecute), the United States may unwittingly be strengthening the OTP’s case. It is true that CENTCOM’s release statement makes clear that the investigation found that the actions of U.S. personnel did not constitute war crimes, noting the absence of intentionality. But the OTP might disagree with CENTCOM’s legal rationale, as it seems to have done previously with regard to detention operations, and decide to investigate these acts anyway as potential war crimes.


As both commentaries make clear, much hangs on the interpretation of ‘intentionality’.  At Opinio Juris the ever-sharp Jens David Ohlin weighs in on the question.  Drawing from his essay on ‘Targeting and the concept of intent‘, he notes:

The word “intentionally” does not have a stable meaning across all legal cultures. … [It] is generally understood in common law countries as equivalent to purpose or knowledge, depending on the circumstances. But some criminal lawyers trained in civil law jurisdictions are more likely than their common law counterparts to give the phrase “intentionally” a much wider definition, one that includes not just purpose and knowledge but also recklessness or what civilian lawyers sometimes call dolus eventualis.

He concludes that the consequences of the latter, wider interpretation would be far reaching:

If intent = recklessness, then all cases of legitimate collateral damage would count as violations of the principle of distinction, because in collateral damage cases the attacker kills the civilians with knowledge that the civilians will die. And the rule against disproportionate attacks sanctions this behavior as long as the collateral damage is not disproportionate and the attack is aimed at a legitimate military target. But if intent = recklessness, then I see no reason why the attacking force in that situation couldn’t be prosecuted for the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against civilians, without the court ever addressing or analyzing the question of collateral damage. Because clearly a soldier in that hypothetical situation would “know” that the attack will kill civilians, and knowledge is certainly a higher mental state than recklessness. That result would effectively transform all cases of disproportionate collateral damage into violations of the principle of distinction and relieve the prosecutor of the burden of establishing that the damage was indeed disproportionate, which seems absurd to me.

His solution is to call for the codification of  ‘a new war crime of recklessly attacking civilians, and the codification of such a crime should use the word “recklessly” rather than use the word “intentionally.”’  This would then  ‘create a duty on the part of attacking forces and then penalize them for failing to live up to it.’  And this, he concludes, would allow a prima facie case to be made that those involved in the attack on the Kunduz trauma centre were guilty – but in his view, clearly, they also escape under existing law.

Not a war crime 2 JPEG

Note those five, deceptively simple words: ‘those involved in the attack’.  I’ve had occasion to comment on this dilemma before – the dispersal of responsibility that is a characteristic of later modern war (see also here: scroll down) – and Eugene Fiddell, writing in the New York Times, clearly dismayed at the way in which the military inquiry was conducted, sharpens the same point:

Among the challenges a case like Kunduz presents is how to achieve accountability in an era in which an attack on a protected site is not the act of an isolated unit or individual. In today’s high-tech warfare, an attack really involves a weapons system, with only some of the actors in the aircraft, and others — with real power to affect operations — on the ground, in other aircraft, or perhaps even at sea.

And what if some of those ‘actors’ are algorithms and/or machines?

UPDATE:  Kevin Jon Heller offers this counter-reading to Jens’s:

As I read it, the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” consists of two material elements: a conduct element and a circumstance element. (There is no consequence element, because the civilians do not need to be harmed.) The conduct element is directing an attack against a specific group of people. The circumstance element is the particular group of people qualifying as a civilian population. So that means, if we apply the default mental element provisions in Art. 30, that the war crime is complete when (1) a defendant “means to engage” in an attack against a specific group of people; (2) that specific group of people objectively qualifies as a civilian population; and (3) the defendant “is aware” that the specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population. Thus understood, the war crime requires not one but two mental elements: (1) intent for the prohibited conduct (understood as purpose, direct intent, or dolus directus); (2) knowledge for the necessary circumstance (understood as oblique intent or dolus indirectus).

Does this mean that an attacker who knows his attack on a military objective will incidentally but proportionately harm a group of civilians commits the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” if he launches the attack? I don’t think so. The problematic element, it seems to me, is not the circumstance element but the conduct element: although the attacker who launches a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective knows that his attack will harm a civilian population, he is not intentionally attacking that civilian population. The attacker means to attack only the military objective; he does not mean to attack the group of civilians. They are simply incidentally — accidentally — harmed. So although the attacker has the mental element necessary for the circumstance element of the war crime (knowledge that a specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population) he does not have the mental element necessary for its conduct element (intent to attack that specific group of people). He is thus not criminally responsible for either launching a disproportionate attack or intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.

It’s a sharp reminder that international humanitarian law offers some protections to civilians but still renders their killing acceptable.  The exchange between Kevin and Jens continues below the line to this conclusion:

Opinio Juris JPEG

But if you read Charles Dunlap at Lawfire (sic), you will find him insisting that the mistakes made by the US military in firing on the MSF hospital ‘do not necessarily equate to criminal conduct’ – even though the investigation report concedes that they amounted to violations of international law – and that the charge of recklessness needs to be laid at the smashed-in door of MSF.  Really.  Here is what he says:

Had, for example, the hospital been marked with large Red Crosses/Red Crescents or one of the other internationally-recognized symbols (as the U.S. does) or something that would make its protected use clear from the air, isn’t it entirely plausible that the aircrew (or someone) might have recognized the error and stopped the attack before it began?

There were in fact two large MSF flags on the roof of the Trauma Centre, which was also one of the few buildings in the city on that fateful night to have been fully illuminated (from its own generator).

But in case you are still wondering about the responsibility borne by MSF – as ‘one of the few international humanitarian organisations that carries professional liability insurance’ (in contrast to amateur insurance, I presume), Dunlap says that is an admission that ‘even honest, altruistic, and well-intended professionals do make mistakes, even tragic ones, especially when trying to operate in the turmoil of a war zones’,  here is a paragraph from that investigation report:

MSF reach-out JPEG

How reckless was that?  The crew of the gunship that carried out the attack – in case you are still wondering – ‘specifically did not have any charts showing no strike targets or the location of the MSF Trauma Center.’

And if you picked up on Dunlap’s suggestion that if not the aircrew then ‘someone’ might have recognised the error, try this for size from the same source (and note especially the last sentence):

Multiple command failures JPEG

More to come.

Flying lessons

Reach from the Sky PERFORMANCE WORK

To complement the comparison implicit in my last post – between ‘manned’ and ‘unmanned’ military violence – I’ve added a presentation to those available under the DOWNLOADS tab.  I prepared it last month for an event at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, where I performed it with my good friend Toph Marshall.  It’s part of my performance-work on bombing, and stages two cross-cutting monologues between a veteran from RAF Bomber Command who flew missions over France and Germany in the Second World War and a pilot at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada operating a Predator over Afghanistan.  As the title implies, it dramatises many of the themes I discuss in more analytical terms in my Tanner Lectures, ‘Reach from the Sky’.

For the performance, each speech was complemented by back-projected images.  Virtually all of the words were taken from ‘found texts’ – memoirs, diaries, letters and interviews – and the only consciously fictional lines were lifted from Andrew Niccol‘s Good Kill (and I’m sure that they originated in an interview with a real pilot).

It’s imperfect in all sorts of ways, and it is still very much a work in progress, but I’m posting it because it might be helpful for anyone teaching about aerial violence and its history.  If it is – or even (especially) if it is isn’t – I hope you’ll let me know.

Intelligence designed


The latest issue of Limn is on ‘The total archive‘:

Vast accumulations of data, documents, records, and samples saturate our world: bulk collection of phone calls by the NSA and GCHQ; Google, Amazon or Facebook’s ambitions to collect and store all data or know every preference of every individual; India’s monumental efforts to give everyone a number, and maybe an iris scan; hundreds of thousands of whole genome sequences; seed banks of all existing plants, and of course, the ancient and on-going ambitions to create universal libraries of books, or their surrogates.

Just what is the purpose of these optimistically total archives – beyond their own internal logic of completeness? Etymologically speaking, archives are related to government—the site of public records, the town hall, the records of the rulers (archons). Governing a collective—whether people in a territory, consumers of services or goods, or victims of an injustice—requires keeping and consulting records of all kinds; but this practice itself can also generate new forms of governing, and new kinds of collectives, by its very execution. Thinking about our contemporary obsession with vast accumulations through the figure of the archive poses questions concerning the relationships between three things: (1) the systematic accumulation of documents, records, samples or data; (2) a form of government and governing; and (3) a particular conception of a collectivity or collective kind. (1) What kinds of collectivities are formed by contemporary accumulations? What kind of government or management do they make possible? And who are the governors, particularly in contexts where those doing the accumulation are not agents of a traditional government?

This issue of Limn asks authors to consider the way the archive—as a figure for a particular mode of government—might shed light on the contemporary collections, indexes, databases, analytics, and surveillance, and the collectives implied or brought into being by them.

The issue includes an essay by Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff on the US Air Force’s Bombing Encyclopedia of the World.  I’ve discussed the Encyclopedia in detail before, but they’ve found a source that expands that discussion, a series of lectures delivered in 1946-48 to the Air War College by Dr. James T. Lowe, the Director of Research for the Strategic Vulnerability Branch of the U.S. Army’s Air Intelligence Division. The Branch was established in 1945 and charged with conducting what Lowe described as a ‘pre-analysis of the vulnerability of the U.S.S.R. to strategic air attack and to carry that analysis to the point where the right bombs could be put on the right targets concomitant with the decision to wage the war without any intervening time period whatsoever.’

Bombing Encylopedia Coding Form

The project involved drawing together information from multiple sources, coding and geo-locating the nominated targets, and then automating the data-management system.

What interests the authors is the way in which this transformed what was called  ‘strategic vulnerability analysis’: the data stream could be interrogated through different ‘runs’, isolating different systems, in order to identify the ‘key target system’:

‘… the data could be flexibly accessed: it would not be organized through a single, rigid system of classification, but could be queried through “runs” that would generate reports about potential target systems based on selected criteria such as industry and location. As Lowe explained, “[b]y punching these cards you can get a run of all fighter aircraft plants” near New York or Moscow. “Or you can punch the cards again and get a list of all the plants within a geographical area…. Pretty much any combination of industrial target information that is required can be obtained—and can be obtained without error” (Lowe 1946:13-14).’

Their central point is that the whole project was the fulcrum for a radical transformation of knowledge production:

‘The inventory assembled for the Encyclopedia was not a record of the past; rather, it was a catalog of the elements comprising a modern military-industrial economy. The analysis of strategic vulnerability did not calculate the regular occurrence of events and project the series of past events into the future, based on the assumption that the future would resemble the past. Rather, it examined interdependencies among these elements to generate a picture of vital material flows and it anticipated critical economic vulnerabilities by modeling the effects of a range of possible future contingencies. It generated a new kind of knowledge about collective existence as a collection of vital systems vulnerable to catastrophic disruption.’

And so, not surprisingly, the same analysis could be turned inwards – to detect and minimise sites of strategic vulnerability within the United States.

All of this intersects with the authors’ wider concerns about vital systems security: see in particular their ‘Vital Systems Security: Reflexive biopolitics and the government of emergency‘, in Theory, Culture and Society 32(2) (2015):19–51:

This article describes the historical emergence of vital systems security, analyzing it as a significant mutation in biopolitical modernity. The story begins in the early 20th century, when planners and policy-makers recognized the increasing dependence of collective life on interlinked systems such as transportation, electricity, and water. Over the following decades, new security mechanisms were invented to mitigate the vulnerability of these vital systems. While these techniques were initially developed as part of Cold War preparedness for nuclear war, they eventually migrated to domains beyond national security to address a range of anticipated emergencies, such as large-scale natural disasters, pandemic disease outbreaks, and disruptions of critical infrastructure. In these various contexts, vital systems security operates as a form of reflexive biopolitics, managing risks that have arisen as the result of modernization processes. This analysis sheds new light on current discussions of the government of emergency and ‘states of exception’. Vital systems security does not require recourse to extraordinary executive powers. Rather, as an anticipatory technology for mitigating vulnerabilities and closing gaps in preparedness, it provides a ready-to-hand toolkit for administering emergencies as a normal part of constitutional government.

It’s important to add two riders to the discussion of the Bombing Encyclopedia, both of which concern techno-politics rather than biopolitics.  Although those responsible for targeting invariably represent it as a technical-analytical process – in fact, one of the most common elements in the moral economy of bombing is that it is ‘objective’, as I showed in my Tanner Lectures – it is always also intrinsically political; its instrumentality resides in its function as an irreducibly political technology.

KeptDark1As Stephen and Andrew make clear, the emphasis on key target systems emerged during the Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany in the Second World War, when it was the subject of heated debate.  This went far beyond Arthur Harris‘s vituperative dismissals of Solly Zuckerman‘s arguments against area bombing in favour of economic targets (‘panacea targets’, Harris called them: see my discussion in ‘Doors into nowhere’: DOWNLOADS tab).  You can get some sense of its wider dimensions from John Stubbington‘s intricate Kept in the Dark (2010), which not only provides a robust critique of the Ministry of Economic Warfare’s contributions to target selection but also claims that vital signals intelligence – including ULTRA decrypts – was withheld from Bomber Command.  Administrative and bureaucratic rivalries within and between intelligence agencies did not end with the war, and you can find a suggestive discussion of the impact of this infighting on US targeting in Eric Schmidt‘s admirably clear (1993) account of the development of Targeting Organizations here.

Any targeting process produces not only targets (it’s as well to remember that we don’t inhabit a world of targets: they have to be identified, nominated, activated – in a word, produced) but also political subjects who are interpellated through the positions they occupy within the kill-chain.  After the Second World War, Freeman Dyson reflected on what he had done and, by implication, what it had done to him:


But data-management had been in its infancy.  With the Bombing Encyclopedia, Lowe argued, ‘the new “machine methods” of information management made it possible “to operate with a small fraction of the number of people in the target business that would normally be required.”‘  But there were still very large numbers involved, and Henry Nash –who worked on the Bombing Encyclopedia – was even more blunt about what he called ‘the bureaucratization of homicide‘:


This puts a different gloss on that prescient remark of Michel Foucault‘s: ‘People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.’

Nash began his essay with a quotation from a remarkable book by Richard J. Barnet, The roots of war (1972).  Barnet said this (about the Vietnam War, but his point was a general one):

‘The essential characteristic of bureaucratic homicide is division of labor. In general, those who plan do not kill and those who kill do not plan. The scene is familiar. Men in blue, green and khaki tunics and others in three-button business suits sit in pastel offices and plan complex operations in which thousands of distant human beings will die. The men who planned the saturation bombings, free fire zones, defoliation, crop destruction, and assassination programs in the Vietnam War never personally killed anyone.

BarnetRichard‘The bureaucratization of homicide is responsible for the routine character of modern war, the absence of passion and the efficiency of mass-produced death. Those who do the killing are following standing orders…

‘The complexity and vastness of modern bureaucratic government complicates the issue of personal responsibility. At every level of government the classic defense of the bureaucratic killer is available: “I was just doing my job!” The essence of bureaucratic government is emotional coolness, orderliness, implacable momentum, and a dedication to abstract principle. Each cog in the bureaucratic machine does what it is supposed to do.

‘The Green Machine, as the soldiers in Vietnam called the military establishment, kills cleanly, and usually at a distance. America’s highly developed technology makes it possible to increase the distance between killer and victim and hence to preserve the crucial psychological fiction that the objects of America’s lethal attention are less than human.’

Barnet was the co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies; not surprisingly, he ended up on Richard Nixon‘s ‘enemies list‘ (another form of targeting).

I make these points because there has been an explosion – another avalanche – of important and interesting essays on databases and algorithms, and the part they play in the administration of military and paramilitary violence.  I’m thinking of Susan Schuppli‘s splendid essay on ‘Deadly algorithms‘, for example, or the special issue of Society & Space on the politics of the list – see in particular the contributions by Marieke de Goede and Gavin Sullivan (‘The politics of security lists‘), Jutta Weber (‘On kill lists‘) and Fleur Johns (on the pairing of list and algorithm) – and collectively these have provided essential insights into what these standard operating procedures do.  But I’d just add that they interpellate not only their victims but also their agents: these intelligence systems are no more ‘unmanned’ than the weapons systems that prosecute their targets.  They too may be ‘remote’ (Barnet’s sharp point) and they certainly disperse responsibility, but the role of the political subjects they produce cannot be evaded.  Automation and AI undoubtedly raise vital legal and ethical questions – these will become ever more urgent and are by no means confined to ‘system failure‘ – but we must not lose sight of the politics articulated through their activation.  And neither should we confuse accountancy with accountability.

A short history of schematic bodies

While I was in Irvine last month for the Secrecy and Transparency workshop, I had a series of rich conversations with Grégoire Chamayou — who also made a brief but brilliant presentation on targeting, signature strikes and time-space tracking.  He now writes to say that he has elaborated his ideas in a longer contribution to Léopold Lambert‘s Funambulist papers: ‘A very short history of schematic bodies‘.

(Even more) briefly, Grégoire connects Torsten Hågerstrand‘s time geography – which Anne Buttimer once saw as a danse macabre – to the activity-based intelligence that supposedly ‘informs’ CIA-directed drone strikes [see my ‘Lines of descent’ essay: DOWNLOADS tab] via three diagrams drawn from Paul Klee.


The first two (above) distinguish (1) ‘dividuals‘ from (2) ‘individuals‘: so, following Deleuze, Grégoire distinguishes (1) ‘societies of control articulated through the dyad of “dividuals” and databanks’ from (2) ‘disciplinary societies structured around a relationship between the individual and the mass.’ Seen thus, Hagerstrand’s project mapped the reverse move from (1) to (2), from ‘statistical dividuality’ to ‘chronospatial individuality’.

But Grégoire suggests that targeting involves a third fabrication, a co-construction of (1) and (2), thus:


He writes:

The corresponding object of power here is neither the individual taken as an element in a mass, nor the dividual appearing with a code in a databank, but something else: a patterned individuality that is woven out of statistical dividualities and cut out onto a thread of reticular activities, against which it progressively silhouettes in time as a distinctive perceptible unit in the eyes of the machine.

The production of this form of individuality belongs neither to discipline nor to control, but to something else: to targeting in its most contemporary procedures, whose formal features are shared today among fields as diverse as policing, military reconnaissance and marketing. It might well be, for that matter, that we are entering targeted societies.

This speaks directly to current theses about the individuation of military violence as one (and only one) modality of later modern war, but we need to remember that targeting appears at the interface of the market and the military, as Sam Weber shows in Targets of opportunity.  

It’s also important to think through the ‘body’ that is made to appear in the sights and as a sight; it’s not a fleshy body but a digital-statistical trace that is literally ‘touched’ by the cross-hairs (the apparatus of the drone as prosthesis).  As I wrote in ‘Drone geographies’ (DOWNLOADS tab),

[People] are brought within the militarized field of vision through the rhythmanalysis and network analysis of a suspicious ‘pattern of life’, a sort of weaponized time-geography… 

Killing is made the culmination of a natural history of destruction – in precisely not the sense intended by W.G. Sebald – and the targets are rendered as ‘individuals’ in a calculative rather than corporeal register.

Here Ian Hacking‘s ideas about ‘making up people‘ are also relevant.  In his classic British Academy lecture, ‘Kinds of people: moving targets‘, he described how ‘a new scientific classification may bring into being a new kind of person’ – in this case, the target – and how ‘a classification may interact with the people classified.’  A signature strike is surely the deadliest version of this ‘interaction’…

Incidentally, anyone who thinks that so-called ‘personality strikes’ are somehow less deadly needs to read REPRIEVE‘s latest report, You only die twice: multiple kills in the US drone program.  Spencer Ackerman has a good summary (and graphic, extracted below) here, describing the multiple deaths involved in the search for specific, named targets:

'Personality strikes' in Pakistan