Taking it to the limit

A postscript to my posts here, here and here on civilian deaths from air strikes in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere: Vice has an extended interview with Chris Woods of Airwars here.

The biggest issue we saw in 2017—particularly if we look at the US-led coalition—was that the war moved very heavily into cities. That, more than any other single factor, resulted in the deaths of many more civilians and casualty events. We saw a similar pattern at the back end of 2016, when Russia and the Assad regime heavily bombed east Aleppo. There’s a very strong correlation between attacks on cities and large numbers of civilian casualties. And frankly, it doesn’t matter who’s carrying out those attacks. The outcome for civilians is always dire…

Things didn’t get any better under Trump for civilians—in fact, they got a lot worse. One of the reasons for that was the intensity of the bombardment. We saw an absolutely ferocious bombing campaign by the US and its allies in both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. Between those two cities, the coalition alone dropped 50,000 munitions. One bomb or missile was dropped on Raqqa every 12 minutes, on average, for the duration of the four-month battle…

When Russia and the Assad regime were bombing Aleppo in late 2016, we had assumed that a key reason for the large number of civilian casualties was down to the fact they were primarily using dumb-bombs. We have actually changed our modeling since then, based on what we have seen with the coalition in places like Raqqa and Mosul. The reason is that even when you use precision bombs on cities, really, the outcome for civilians is the same as a dumb bomb. You can’t control what the bombs do when they land.

We saw very little difference between Russian and coalition strikes when it came to bombing cities. This is the big problem we have with a shift to urban warfare —it’s really taking us to the limits of any benefits we might have in terms of protecting civilians by using precision munitions.

Chris also has some characteristically smart (and sharp) things to say about transparency and accountability too…

War comes home


The debate over the militarisation of policing in the United States that has been sparked by the shooting of a young Afro-American by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri increasingly cites Radley Balko‘s Rise of the warrior cop: the militarisation of America’s police forces.  It was published last year to considerable acclaim, and last August the Wall Street Journal‘s Saturday Essay featured what was, in effect, Balko’s three-minute version.

BALKO Rise of the warrior copSince the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment – from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers – American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop – armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.

So far, so familiar – and by no means confined to the United States.  There the present debate seems to have been conducted in an intellectual vacuum.  When ‘Warrior cop’ was published, Glenn Greenwald wrote that ‘there is no vital trend in American society more overlooked than the militarization of our domestic police forces’, and he’s since repeated the claim (though he does acknowledge the ACLU report produced earlier this year, War Comes Home: the excessive militarization of American policing (see also Matthew Harwood‘s ‘One Nation Under SWAT’ here – he’s a senior writer/editor at the ACLU).

ACLU War comes home

I suspect the debate could be advanced, both politically and intellectually, by including two other (academic) voices that approach the situation from two different directions.  One is Steve Graham‘s Cities under siege: the new military urbanism (2010), which starts from new constellations of military violence, and the other is Mark Neocleous‘s War power, police power (2014), which starts from a wider conception of policing than has figured in the present discussion. Doing so would also enable the role of racialisation – which flickers in the margins of both accounts – to be given the greater prominence I think it deserves.  But it would also considerably sharpen talk of war ‘coming home’, as though it ever left

For now, though, let me make two further points.  One is about the need to enlarge the conventional conception of the military-industrial complex.  It has already been extended in all sorts of ways, of course – the Military-Industy-Media-Entertainment complex (MIME) and the Military-Academic-Industrial-Media complex (MAIM) to name just two – but it has become increasingly clear that the producers and designers of military equipment also have domestic police forces in their sights (sic).

It’s a complicated business, because on one side there is an active Department of Defense program that, since 1990, has channelled surplus military equipment to state and local police departments in the United States: more details from Shirley Li here.  The New York Times has a sequence of interactive maps showing the spread of everything from aircraft and armoured vehicles through grenade launchers and assault rifles to body armour and night vision goggles (the accompanying article is here).  The map below is just one example, showing the transfer of armoured vehicles:

Armoured vehicles transferred from US military to US police departments

On the other side, there’s also an active market for new equipment – and some of the latest ‘toys for the boys‘ (see also here) include drones (at present unarmed versions only for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance).  Jane’s, widely acknowledged as an indispensable global database on military equipment and platforms, now advertises a new guide dedicated to ‘Police and Homeland Security Equipment’:

Jane’s Police & Homeland Security Equipment delivers a comprehensive view of law enforcement and paramilitary equipment in production and service around the world, providing A&D businesses with the market intelligence that drives successful business development, strategy and product development activity, and providing military, security and government organizations with the critical technical intelligence that they need in order to develop and maintain an effective capability advantage….

Profiles of more than 2,200 types of law enforcement equipment and services around the world, including firearms, body armor, personal protection, riot and crowd control equipment, communications, security equipment and biometric solutions, make Jane’s Police & Homeland Security Equipment the most comprehensive and reliable source of police equipment technical and program intelligence.

There is a genealogy to all of this, of course, which means there is important work to be done in tracing the historical pathways through which both offensive and defensive materials have migrated from external uses (by the military) to internal uses (by the police).  This breaches one of the canonical divides of the liberal state, a rupture signalled by the hybrid term ‘security forces’, but it has been going on for a long time.

Anna FeigenbaumIn an excellent essay – a preview of her book, Tear Gas: 100 years in the making, due out from Verso next year – Anna Feigenbaum shows how tear gas drifted from the battlefields of France and Belgium onto streets around the world.  The French were the first to use toxic gas shells on a large scale – engins suffocants – which discharged tear gas; in most cases the effects were irritating rather than disabling, and when the Germans used similar shells against the British in October 1914 at Neuve Chapelle they too proved largely ineffective.

These were ‘Lilliputian efforts’, according to historian Peter Bull, and experiments by both sides with other systems were aimed at a greater and deadlier harvest.  You can find much more on the use of lethal gas on the battlefield from Ulrich Trumpener, ‘The road to Ypres’, Journal of modern history 47 (1975) 460-80; Tim Cook, No place to run: the Canadian Corps and gas warfare in the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999) – which despite its title is much less Canuck-centric than it might appear; Jonathan Krause, ‘The origins of chemical warfare in the French Army’, War in history 20 (4) (2013) 545-56; and Edgar Jones, ‘Terror weapons: the British experience of gas and its treatment in the First World War’, War in history 21 (3) (2014) 355-75.

But many military officers realised that tear gas had other potential uses, and Anna shows that the process of repatriation and re-purposing began even before the First World War had ended:

By the end of the 1920s, police departments in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Chicago were all purchasing tear-gas supplies. Meanwhile, sales abroad included colonial territories in India, Panama, and Hawaii.

With this new demand for tear gas came new supply. Improved tear-gas cartridges replaced early explosive models that would often harm the police deploying them….

Leading American tear-gas manufacturers, including the Lake Erie Chemical Company founded by World War I veteran Lieutenant Colonel Byron “Biff” Goss, became deeply embroiled in the repression of political struggles. Sales representatives buddied up with business owners and local police forces. They followed news headlines of labor disputes and traveled to high-conflict areas, selling their products domestically and to countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Cuba. A Senate subcommittee investigation into industrial-munitions sales found that between 1933 and 1937, more than $1.25 million (about $21 million today) worth of “tear and sickening gas” had been purchased in the U.S. “chiefly during or in anticipation of strikes.”

Tear gas against protesters in Bahrain

Anna continues the story through the Second World War and the Vietnam War (where in an unremarked irony tear gas was used against anti-war demonstrations) and down to the present, but you get the (horrible) idea.  She closes with the supreme irony:

Yet while tear gas remains banned from warfare under the Chemical Weapons Convention, its use in civilian policing grows. Tear gas remains as effective today at demoralizing and dispersing crowds as it was a century ago, turning the street from a place of protest into toxic chaos. It clogs the air, the one communication channel that even the most powerless can use to voice their grievances.

This brings me to my second point, and it’s one that both Steve and Mark sharpen in different ways: the militarization of policing is not only about weapons but also about the the practices in which they are embedded.  One place to start such an investigation would be the cross-over in what the military calls doctrine.  There’s many a slip between doctrine on the books and practice on the streets.  But Public Intelligence has recently published U.S. Army Techniques Publication 3-39.33: Civil Disturbances, which will now repay even closer reading.  The cross-overs between counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism and police operations against organised crime are now a matter of record – and I’ve discussed these on several occasions (see here and here) – but 3-39.33 is perhaps most revealing in its preamble:

ATP 3-39.33 provides discussion and techniques about civil disturbances and crowd control operations that occur in the continental United States (CONUS) and outside the continental United States (OCONUS)….Worldwide instability coupled with U.S. military participation in unified-action, peacekeeping, and related operations require that U.S. forces have access to the most current doctrine and techniques that are necessary to quell riots and restore public order.

Which is where I came in…  These are just preliminary jottings, and there’s lots more to say – and lots more to consider (as the Martha Rosler photomontage at the top of this post implies: it’s from her 2004 series Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, which carries an implicit plea to attend to their homes and their streets not just ‘ours’ ) – so watch this space.

UPDATE:  See Stuart Schrader‘s elegant short essay on ‘Policing Empire’ at Jacobin:

‘… we should be skeptical of calls for police reform, particularly when accompanied by cries that this (militarization) should not happen here. A close look at the history of US policing reveals that the line between foreign and domestic has long been blurry. Shipping home tactics and technologies from overseas theaters of imperial engagement has been a typical mode of police reform in the United States. When policing on American streets comes into crisis, law-enforcement leaders look overseas for answers. What transpired in Ferguson is itself a manifestation of reform.

From the Philippines to Guatemala to Afghanistan, the history of US empire is the history of policing experts teaching indigenous cops how to patrol and investigate like Americans. As a journalist observed in the late 1950s, “Americans in Viet-Nam very sincerely believe that in transplanting their institutions, they will immunize South Viet-Nam against Communist propaganda.” But the flow is not one-way: these institutions also return home transformed.’

Thanks to Alex Vasudevan for the tip.

The tragedies of other places

Rafia Zakaria, a columnist for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest-circulation English-language newspaper, reflects at Guernica on the disjuncture between the global attention paid to the victims of violence in her own country and those in the United States:

Attacks in America are far more indelible in the world’s memory than attacks in any other country. There may be fewer victims and less blood, but American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality, in a way that evokes a more sympathetic response. Within minutes American victims are lifted from the nameless to the remembered; their individual tragedies and the ugly unfairness of their ends are presented in a way that cannot but cause the watching world to cry, to consider them intimates, and to stand in their bloody shoes. Death is always unexpected in America and death by a terrorist attack more so than in any other place.

It is this greater poignancy of attacks in America that begs the question of whether the world’s allocations of sympathy are determined not by the magnitude of a tragedy—the numbers dead and injured—but by the contrast between a society’s normal and the cruel aftermath of a terrorist event. It is in America that the difference between the two is the greatest; the American normal is one of a near-perfect security that is unimaginable in many places, especially in countries at war.

I’m not so sure the differential apprehension can be explained quite so cleanly – that ‘American normal’ is shot through with violence and insecurity for millions of people too, and on the same day that Rafia published her essay the Guardian reproduced this map of terrorist incidents in the United States 1970-2011; the animated version is here.

Terrorist incidents in US 1970-2011

The data on which the map is based raise all sorts of questions, of course, but still the numbers surprised me.  America is even more violent than I had imagined.

SONTAG Regarding the pain of othersAnd yet Rafia does have a point; the scale of political violence in Pakistan is surely far greater than this, and yet its victims received far less sympathetic attention from audiences outside the country than many of those elsewhere in the world.  This habituation to the violence done to others (Others?) intersects with Susan Sontag‘s reflections on the suffering of others, and it’s that multi-stranded process of othering that deserves critical reflection.  But I think Rafia is on to something important when she suggests that this is about places as well as peoples – about the ways in which habituation and habitus are bound in to apprehensions of different places.  Place is one of the crucial ways in which we navigate the world, physically and imaginatively, through the spatial cues provided by the meanings that become attached to place (what does ‘Baghdad’ signify to you?) and the places that become attached to meaning (which places are made to stand for ‘violence’?).  I realise I’m using shorthand, but it is the differential play between these meanings-in-place that surely has a significant role in our (dis)regard for the pain of others.