Eyes in the sky – bodies on the ground

Several months ago I was invited to contribute a short essay to Critical Studies on Security, for an ‘Interventions’ section edited by Linda Roland Danil.  Here’s the brief:

Visual representations of war and violence: considering embodiment

The recent release of a number of critically acclaimed films that involve wars of the 20th century – such as Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016), and more recently, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) – both of them World War II films – raise questions anew about the representation of war and violence. However, an insufficiently investigated field is the specific embodied experiences of those represented. What is the embodied or “corpographic” (Gregory, 2015) experience of those represented in the films/artistic works/photographs/documentaries/etc. – and therefore what are the specific embodied dimensions of war (McSorley, 2014) that are represented? How do these representations of the embodied dimensions of war preclude the possibility of conceiving of war in a de-realized, surgical, or “virtuous” (Der Derian, 2000) manner? Such embodied experiences may also include the aftermath of war and conflict, such as through the embodied experiences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). How does an understanding of the embodied experiences of soldiers (as well as the enemy Other) feed into an understanding of the larger geopolitical dynamics at play (Basham, 2013), if at all? This call is seeking Interventions that explore specific visual representations of war and violence in relation to the above and related questions…’

I’ve written about Dunkirk earlier – and I wish I’d said more about the extraordinary, keening sound-track – so in this short essay I returned to the classic US air strike in Afghanistan in February 2010 – see here and here  – and elaborated on the visual rendering of its aftermath by the US military (see here) and in Sonia Kennebeck‘s marvellous National Bird.

You can find the result under the DOWNLOADS tab: the title is ‘Eyes in the sky – bodies on the ground’ but the pdf is simply ‘Bodies on the ground’.

A landscape of interferences

Uruzgan strike (National Bird reconstruction)

[Still image from NATIONAL BIRD © Ten Forward Films; the image is of the film’s re-enactment of the Uruzgan air strike based on the original transcript of the Predator crew’s radio traffic.]

I’ve been reading the chapter in Pierre Bélanger and Alexander Arroyo‘s Ecologies of Power that provides a commentary on what has become the canonical US air strike in Uruzgan, Afghanistan in February 2010 (‘Unmanned Aerial Systems: Sensing the ecology of remote operational environments’, pp. 267-320).  In my own analysis of the strike I emphasised the production of

a de-centralised, distributed and dispersed geography of militarised vision whose fields of view expanded, contracted and even closed at different locations engaged in the administration of military violence. Far from being a concerted performance of Donna Haraway‘s ‘God-trick’ – the ability to see everything from nowhere – this version of networked war was one in which nobody had a clear and full view of what was happening.

Part of this can be attributed to technical issues – the different fields of view available on different platforms, the low resolution of infra-red imagery (which Andrew Cockburn claims registers a visual acuity of 20/200, ‘the legal definition of blindness in the United States’), transmission interruptions, and the compression of full-colour imagery to accommodate bandwidth pressure…

But it is also a matter of different interpretive fields. Peter Asaro cautions:

‘The fact that the members of this team all have access to high-resolution imagery of the same situation does not mean that they all ‘‘see’’ the same thing. The visual content and interpretation of the visual scene is the product of analysis and negotiation among the team, as well as the context given by the situational awareness, which is itself constructed.’

The point is a sharp one: different visualities jostle and collide, and in the transactions between the observers the possibility of any synoptic ‘God-trick’ disappears. But it needs to be sharpened, because different people have differential access to the distributed stream of visual feeds, mIRC and radio communications. Here the disposition of bodies combines with the techno-cultural capacity to make sense of what was happening to fracture any ‘common operating picture’.

ecologies-of-powerPierre and Alexander’s aim is to ‘disentangle’ the Electromagnetic Environment (EME), ‘the space and time in which communications occur and transmissions take place’, as a Hertzian landscape.  The term is, I think, William J. Mitchell‘s in Me++:

‘Every point on the surface of the earth is now part of the Hertzian landscape – the product of innumerable transmissions and of the reflections and obstructions of those transmissions… The electronic terrain that we have constructed is an intricate, invisible landscape.’

(Other writers – and artists – describe what Anthony Dunne called Hertzian space).

The Hertzian landscape is often advertised – I use the world deliberately – as an isotropic plane.  Here, for example, is how one commercial company describes its activations (and its own product placement within that landscape) in a scenario that, in part, parallels the Uruzgan strike:

A bobcat growls over the speaker, and Airmen from the 71st Expeditionary Air Control Squadron [at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar] spring into action within the darkened confines of the Battlespace Command and Control (C2) Center, better known as ‘Pyramid Control.’

Keeping WatchThis single audio cue alerts the Weapons Director that an unplanned engagement with hostile force – referred to as Troops in Contact, or TIC – has occurred somewhere in Afghanistan. On the Weapons Director’s computer monitor a chat room window ashes to distinguish itself from the dozens of rooms he monitors continuously.

More than a thousand kilometers away, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground has called for a Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft to assist the friendly forces now under assault. The Weapons Director has minutes to move remotely piloted vehicles away from the CAS aircraft’s ight path, to de-conict the air support and ground re from other aircraft, and to provide an update on hostile activity to all concerned.

The Weapons Director has numerous communication methods at his disposal, including VoIP and tactical radio to quickly get the critical information to operators throughout southwest Asia and across the world, including communicating across differently classied networks. This enables key participants to assess the situation and to commence their portions of the mission in parallel.

You can find the US military’s view of the 71st here – it called the Squadron, since deactivated, its ‘eyes in the sky’ – and on YouTube here.

us-marines-command-ops-center-at-patrol-base-jaker-nawa-district-helmand-4-july-2009

In practice, the Hertzian landscape is no isotropic plane.  Its heterogeneous in space and inconstant in time, and it has multiple, variable and even mobile terrestrial anchor points: some highly sophisticated and centralised (like the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid), others improvisational, even jerry-rigged (see above), and yet others wholly absent (in the Uruzgan case the Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the Special Forces Detachment had no ROVER, a militarized laptop, and so he was unable to receive the video stream from the Predator).

Pierre and Alexander provide an ‘inventory of interferences’ that affected the Uruzgan strike:

‘Saturating the battlefield with multiple electro-magnetic signals from multiple sources, a Hertzian landscape begins to emerge in relief.  In this sense, it is interference – rather than clarity of signal – that best describes a synoptic and saturated environment according to the full repertoire of agencies and affects through which it is dynamically composed, transformed and reconstituted.’ (p. 276)

In fact, they don’t work with the ‘full repertoire of agencies’ because, like most commentators, their analysis is confined to the transcript of radio communications between the aircrews tracking the vehicles and the Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground.  Although this excludes testimony from the ground staff in superior command posts (‘operations centres’) in Kandahar and Bagram and from those analysing the video feeds in the continental United States, these actors were subject to the same interferences: but their effects were none the less different.  The catastrophic air strike, as Mitchell almost said, was ‘smeared across multiple sites’… a ‘smearing’ because the time and space in which it was produced was indistinct and inconstant, fractured and febrile.

Here, in summary form, are the interferences Pierre and Alexander identify, an inventory which they claim ‘renders the seemingly invisible and neutral space of the electromagnetic environment extremely social and deeply spatial’ (p. 319).  It does that for sure, but the the exchanges they extract from the transcripts do not always align with the general interferences they enumerate – and, as you’ll see, I’m not sure that all of them constitute ‘interferences’.

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(1) Thermal interference:  The Predator started tracking the three vehicles while it was still dark and relied on infrared imagery to do so (so did the AC-130 which preceded them: see the images above).  Movement turns out to be ‘the key signature that differentiates an intensive landscape of thermal patterns into distinct contours and forces’, but it was not only the movement of the vehicles that mattered.  The crew also strained to identify the occupants of the vehicles and any possible weapons – hence the Sensor Operator’s complaint that ‘the only way I’ve ever been able to see a rifle is if they move them around when they’re holding them’ –  and the interpretation of the imagery introduced ‘novel semiotic complexities, discontinuities and indeterminacies’ (p. 280).

(2) Temporal interference: Times throughout the radio exchanges were standardised to GMT (‘Zulu time’), though this was neither the time at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada (-8 hours) nor in Uruzgan (+4 1/2 hours).  Hence all of those involved were juggling between multiple time zones, and the Sensor Operator flipped between IR and ‘full Day TV’.   ‘Yet this technical daylighting of the world [the recourse to Zulu time] is not always a smooth operation, always smuggling back in local, contingent temporalities into universal time from all sides’ (p. 281).

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(3) Electromagnetic interference: The participants were juggling multiple forms of communication too – the troops on the ground used multi-band radios (MBITRs), for example, while the aircrew had access to secure military chatrooms (mIRC) to communicate with bases in the continental United States and in Afghanistan and with other aircraft but not with the troops on the ground, while the screeners analysing the video stream had no access to the radio communications between the Ground Force Commander and the Predator crew – and the transcripts reveal multiple occasions when it proved impossible to maintain ‘multiple lines of communication across the spectrum against possible comms failure.’  But this was not simply a matter of interruption: it was also, crucially, a matter of information in one medium not being made available in another (though at one point, long before the strike, the Predator pilot thought he was on the same page as the screeners: ‘I’ll make a radio call and I’ll look over [at the chatroom] and they will have said the same thing.’)

(4) Informational interference:  The transcript reveals multiple points of view on what was being seen – and once the analysis is extended beyond the transcript to those other operations centres the information overload (sometimes called ‘helmet fire’) is compounded.

(5) Altitudinal, meteorologic interference:  The Predator’s altitude was not a constant but was changed to deconflict the airspace as other aircraft were moved into and out of the area; those changes were also designed to improve flight operations (remote platforms are notoriously vulnerable to changing weather conditions) and image quality.  There were thus ‘highly choreographed negotiations of and between contingently constituted spatial volumes – airspace – and [electro-magnetic] spectral spaces, both exploiting and avoiding the thickened electromagnetic atmospheres of communications systems and storms alike’ (p. 288).

(6) Sensorial interference:  When two strike aircraft (‘fast movers’) were sent to support the Special Forces, the Ground Force Commander ordered them out of the area in case they ‘burn’ (warn) the target; similarly, the OH-158 helicopters did not move in ‘low and slow’ to observe the three vehicles more closely in case that alerted their occupants.

 ‘While the acoustic space of [the Predator] personnel is characterised by speech and static, the occupation of spectral space generates another acoustic space for surface-bound targets of surveillance.  Each aircraft bears a particular acoustic signature … [and] in the absence of visual contact the whines, whirs and wails of encroaching aircraft warn targets of the content of communications… These disparate acoustic spaces reveal the asymmetry of sensory perception and heightened awareness between the graphic (visual) and acoustic channels’ (p. 289).

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That asymmetry was accentuated because, as Nasser Hussain so brilliantly observed, the video feeds from the Predator were silent movies: none of those watching had access to the conversations between the occupants of the vehicles, and the only soundtrack was provided by those watching from afar.

(7) Orbital interference:  The crowded space of competing communications requires ‘specific orbital coordinations between patterns of  “orbiting” (circling) aircraft and satellites’ (p. 292), but this is of necessity improvisational, involving multiple relays and frequently imperfect – as this exchange cited by Pierre and Alexander indicates (it also speaks directly to (3) above):

02:27 (Mission Intelligence Coordinator MIC): Alright we need to relay that.

02:27 (Pilot): Jag that Serpent 12 can hear Fox 24 on sat in (muffled) flying

02:27 (Pilot): Jag 25 [JTAC on the ground], Kirk97 [Predator callsign]

02:27 (Unknown):..Low thirties, I don’t care if you burn it

02:27 (Sensor): “I don’t care if you burn it”? That really must have been the other guys talking [presumably the ‘fast movers’]

02:27 (JAG 25): Kirk 97, Jag 25

02:28 (Pilot): Kirk 97, go ahead

02:28 (Pilot): Jag 25, Kirk 97

02:28 (JAG 25):(static) Are you trying to contact me, over?

0228 (Pilot): Jag 25, Kirk97, affirm, have a relay from SOTF KAF [Special Operations Task Force at Kandahar Airfield] fires [Fires Officer], he wants you to know that he uhh cannot talk on SAT 102. Serpent 12 can hear Fox 24 on SATCOM, and is trying to reply. Also ,the AWT [Aerial Weapons Team] is spooling up, and ready for the engagement. How copy?

02:28 (JAG 25): Jag copies all

02:28(Pilot):K. Good.

02:29(Pilot): Can’t wait till this actually happens, with all this coordination and *expletive*

(agreement noises from crew)

02:29 (Pilot): Thanks for the help, you’re doing a good job relaying everything in (muffled), MC. Appreciate it

(8) Semantic interference:  To expedite communications the military relies on a series of acronyms and shorthands (‘brevity codes’), but as these proliferate they can obstruct communication and even provoke discussion about their meaning and implication (hence the Mission Intelligence Controller: ‘God, I forget all my acronyms’); sometimes, too, non-standard terms are introduced that add to the confusion and uncertainty.

(9) Strategic, tactical interference:  Different aerial platforms have different operational envelopes and these both conform to and extend ‘a strategic stratigraphy of airspace and spectral space alike’ (p. 296).  I confess I don’t see how this constitutes ‘interference’.

(10) Occupational interference:  The knowledge those viewing the Full Motion Video feeds bring to the screen is not confined to their professional competences but extends into vernacular knowledges (about the identification of the three vehicles, for example): ‘The casual fluency with which particular visuals signals are discussed, interpreted and mined for cultural information shows a broad base of vernacular technical knowledge’ (p. 297).  The example Pierre and Alexander give relates to a discussion over the makes of the vehicles they are tracking, but again I don’t see how this constitutes ‘interference’ – unless that vernacular knowledge collides with professional competences.  The most obvious examples of such a collision are not technical at all but reside in the assumptions and prejudices the crew brought to bear on the actions of those they were observing.  Some were ostensibly tactical – the investigation report noted that the crew ‘made or changed key assessments [about the intentions of those they were observing] that influenced the decision to destroy the vehicles’ and yet they had ‘neither the training nor the tactical expertise to make these assessments’  – while others were cultural (notably, a marked Orientalism).

(11) Physiological interference:  Here Pierre and Alexander cite the corporeality of those operating the Predator: the stresses of working long shifts (and the boredom), the rest breaks that interrupt the ‘unblinking stare’, and the like.

(12) Organizational interference:   At one point the Sensor Operator fantasised about having ‘a whole fleet of Preds up here… ripple firing missiles right and left’  but – seriously, ironically, grumpily: who knows? – adds ‘we’re not killers, we are ISR.’

were-not-killers-were-isr-001

Pierre and Alexander see a jibing of these two missions (though whether that justifies calling this ‘interference’ is another question): ‘Despite the blurry, hairline differences between [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and kill-chain operations, the ontologies of informational and kinetic environments make for different occupational worlds altogether’ (p. 301).  I’m not sure about that; one of the key roles of Predators – as in this case – has been to mediate strikes carried out by other aircraft, and while those mediations are frequently complicated and fractured (as Pierre and Alexander’s inventory shows) I don’t think this amounts to occupying ‘different occupational worlds’ let alone provoking ‘interference’ between them.

(13) Geographic, altitudinal interference:  This refers to the problems of a crowded airspace and the need for deconfliction (hence the pilot’s call: ‘I got us new airspace so even if they do keep heading west we can track them’).

(14) Cognitive interference: Remote operations are characterised by long, uneventful periods of watching the screen interrupted by shorter periods of intense, focused strike activity – a cyclical process that Pierre and Alexander characterise as an ‘orbital tension of acceleration and deceleration [that] lies at the heart of the killchain’ that profoundly affects ‘cognitive processing in and of the volatile operational environment’ (p. 305).  For them, this is epitomised when the Mission Intelligence Coordinator typed ‘Killchain’ into mIRC and immediately cleared the chat window for all but essential, strike-related communications.

(15) Topographic, organizational interference: Pierre and Alexander claim that ‘the complex relief of the ground, that is terrain and topography, is magnified in remote-split operations’ – this is presumably a reference to the restricted field of view of those flying the platforms – and that this is paralleled by the different levels of command and control to which the crews are required to respond: ‘navigating competing command pyramids is taken in stride with maneuvering around mountains’  (p. 308).  These are important observations, but I don’t see what is gained by the juxtaposition; in the Uruzgan case the Predator was navigating mountainous terrain  (‘You got a mountain coming into view,’ the Safety Observer advises, ‘keep it in a turn’) but the crew was not responding to directives from multiple operations centres.  In fact, that was part of the problem: until the eleventh hour staff officers were content to watch and record but made no attempt to intervene in the operation.

(16) Demographic, physiologic interference:  Here Pierre and Alexander cite both the composition of the crews operating the remote platforms – predominantly young white men who, so they say, exhibit different inclinations to those of ‘conventional’ Air Force pilots – and the repeated identification of the occupants of the suspect vehicles as ‘Military-Aged Males (‘statistical stereotyping’) (p. 309).

uruzgan-survivor

[Still image from NATIONAL BIRD © Ten Forward Films]

(17) Motile interference: Pierre and Alexander treat the crew’s transition from a gung-ho desire to strike and an absolute confidence in target identification to confusion and disquiet once the possibility of civilian casualties dawns on them as a disjunctive moment in which they struggle to regain analytical and affective control: ‘The revelation of misinterpretation exposes the persistence of interference all along, and generates its own form of cognitive shock’ (p. 312).  This feeds directly into:

(18) Operational, ecological interference:  As the crew absorbed new information from the pilots of the attack helicopters about the presence of women and children in the vehicles they registered the possibility of a (catastrophic) mistake, and so returned to their ISR mission – taking refuge in their sensors, what they could and could not have seen, and bracketing the strike itself – in an attempt to screen out the discordant information: ‘The optic that initially occasioned the first identifiable instances of misinterpretation is re-activated as a kind of prosthetic inducer of cognitive distance’ (p. 313).  The exchange below (beautifully dissected by Lorraine de Volo) captures this almost therapeutic recalibration perfectly:

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(19) Political, epistemological interference:  Here the target is the cascade of redactions that runs through the unclassified version of the transcripts (and, by extension, the investigation report as a whole).  ‘That redaction and the strategic project it serves – secrecy in the form of classification – is not necessarily deployed electromagnetically does not mean its effects are limited to analog media’ since the objective is to command and control a whole ‘ecology of communication'(p. 316) (see my posts here and here).

This inventory is derived from a limited set of transactions, as I’ve said, but it’s also limited by the sensing and communication technology that was available to the participants at the time, so some caution is necessary in extrapolating these findings.  But the general (and immensely important) argument Pierre and Alexander make is that the catastrophic strike cannot be attributed to ‘miscommunication’ – or at any rate, not to miscommunication considered as somehow apart from and opposed to communication.  Hence their focus on interference:

‘Defined by moments of incoherence or interruption of a dominant signal that is itself a form of interference, interferences can take on different and often banal forms such as radio static, garbled signals, forgotten acronyms, misread gestures or even time lapses, which in the remote operational theaters of military missions result in disastrous actions.  Moreover, interference indexes the common media, forms, processes, and spaces connecting apparently disparate communication and signals across distinct material and operational environments.

In this sense, interference is not a subversion of communication but rather a constitutive and essential part of it.  Interference is thus both inhibitor and instigator.  Interference makes lines of communication read, alternatively, as field of interactions.  In this expanded field, interference may complexify by cancelling out communications, blocking or distorting signals, but conversely it may also amplify and augment both the content of sensed information and sensory receptions of the environment of communications.  Interference is what makes sensing ecologies make sense.’ (p. 318)

They also emphasise, more than most of us, that the ‘networks’ that enable drone strikes are three-dimensional (so reducing them to a planar map does considerable violence to the violence), that the connections and communications on which they rely are imperfect and inconstant in time and space, and that these extend far beyond any conventional (or even unconventional) ‘landscape’.  In general, I think, the critical analysis of drone warfare needs to be thickened in at least two directions: to address what happens on the ground, including the preparation of the ground, so to speak; and to reconstruct the fraught geopolitics of satellite communications and bandwidth that so materially shapes what is seen and not seen and what is heard and not heard.  More to come on both.

Meatspace?

In Lucy Suchman‘s marvellous essay on ‘Situational Awareness’ in remote operations she calls attention to what she calls bioconvergence:

A corollary to the configuration of “their” bodies as targets to be killed is the specific way in which “our” bodies are incorporated into war fighting assemblages as operating agents, at the same time that the locus of agency becomes increasingly ambiguous and diffuse. These are twin forms of contemporary bioconvergence, as all bodies are locked together within a wider apparatus characterized by troubling lacunae and unruly contingencies.

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In the wake of her work, there has been a cascade of essays insisting on the embodiment of air strikes carried out by Predators and Reapers – the bodies of the pilots, sensor operators and the legion of others who carry out these remote operations, and the bodies of their victims – and on what Lauren Wilcox calls the embodied and embodying nature of drone warfare (‘Embodying algorithmic war: Gender, race, and the posthuman in drone warfare’ in Security dialogue, 2016; see also Lorraine Bayard de Volo, ‘Unmanned? Gender recalibrations and the rise of drone warfare’, Politics and gender, 2015).  Lauren distinguishes between visual, algorithmic and affective modes of embodiment, and draws on the transcript of what has become a canonical air strike in Uruzgan province (Afghanistan) on 21 February 2010 to develop her claims (more on this in a moment).

And yet it’s a strange sort of embodying because within the targeting process these three registers also produce an estrangement and ultimately an effacement.  The corporeal is transformed into the calculative: a moving target, a data stream, an imminent threat.  If this is still a body at all, it’s radically different from ‘our’ bodies.  As I write these words, I realise I’m not convinced by the passage in George Brant‘s play Grounded in which the face of a little girl on the screen, the daughter of a ‘High Value Target’, becomes the face of the Predator pilot’s own daughter.  For a digital Orientalism is at work through those modes of embodiment that interpellates those watching as spectators of what Edward Said once called ‘a living tableau of queerness’ that in so many cases will become a dead tableau of bodies which remain irredeemably Other.

There is a history to the embodiment of air strikes, as my image above shows.  Aerial violence in all its different guises has almost invariably involved an asymmetric effacement.  The lives – and the bodies – of those who flew the first bombing missions over the Western Front in the First World War; the young men who sacrificed their lives during the Combined Bomber Offensive in the Second World War; and even the tribulations and traumas encountered by the men and women conducting remote operations over Afghanistan and elsewhere have all been documented in fact and in fiction.

And yet, while others – notably social historians, investigative journalists and artists – have sought to bring into view the lives shattered by aerial violence, its administration has long mobilised an affective distance between bomber and bombed.  As I showed in ‘Doors into nowhere’ and ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), the bodies of those crouching beneath the bombs are transformed into abstract co-ordinates, coloured lights and target boxes.  Here is Charles Lindbergh talking about the air war in the Pacific in May 1944:

You press a button and death flies down.  One second the bomb is hanging harmlessly in your racks, completely under your control.  The next it is hurtling through the air, and nothing in your power can revoke what you have done…  How can there be writhing, mangled bodies?  How can this air around you be filled with unseen projectiles?  It is like listening to a radio account of a battle on the other side of the earth.  It is too far away, too separated to hold reality.

Or Frank Musgrave, a navigator with RAF Bomber Command, writing about missions over Germany that same year:

These German cities were simply coordinates on a map of Europe, the first relatively near, involving around six hours of flying, the second depressingly distant, involving some eight or nine hours of flying. Both sets of coordinates were at the centre of areas shaded deep red on our maps to indicate heavy defences. For me ‘Dortmund’ and ‘Leipzig’ had no further substance or concrete reality.

Harold Nash, another navigator:

It was black, and then suddenly in the distance you saw lights on the floor, the fires burning.  As you drew near, they looked like sparkling diamonds on a black satin background… [T]hey weren’t people to me, just the target.  It’s the distance and the blindness which enabled you to do these things.

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One last example – Peter Johnson, a Group Captain who served with distinction with RAF Bomber Command:

Targets were now marked by the Pathfinder Force … and these instructions, to bomb a marker, introduced a curiously impersonal factor into the act of dropping huge quantities of bombs.  I came to realize that crews were simply bored by a lot of information about the target.  What concerned them were the details of route and navigation, which colour Target Indicator they were to bomb… In the glare of searchlights, with the continual winking of anti-aircraft shells, the occasional thud when one came close and left its vile smell, what we had to do was search for coloured lights dropped by our own people, aim our bombs at them and get away.

The airspace through which the bomber stream flew was a viscerally biophysical realm, in which the crews’ bodies registered the noise of the engines, the shifts in course and elevation, the sound and stink of the flak, the abrupt lift of the aircraft once the bombs were released.  They were also acutely aware of their own bodies: fingers numbed by the freezing cold, faces encased in rubbery oxygen masks, and frantic fumblings over the Elsan.  But the physicality of the space far below them was reduced to the optical play of distant lights and flames, and the crushed, asphyxiated and broken bodies appeared – if they appeared at all – only in their nightmares.

These apprehensions were threaded into what I’ve called a ‘moral economy of bombing’ that sought (in different ways and at different times) to legitimise aerial violence by lionising its agents and marginalising its victims (see here: scroll down).

But remote operations threaten to transform this calculus.  Those who control Predators and Reapers sit at consoles in air-conditioned containers, which denies them the physical sensations of flight.  Yet in one, as it happens acutely optical sense they are much closer to the devastation they cause: eighteen inches away, they usually say, the distance from eye to screen.  And the strikes they execute are typically against individuals or small groups of people (rather than objects or areas), and they rely on full-motion video feeds that show the situation both before and after in detail (however imperfectly).  Faced with this highly conditional intimacy, as Lauren shows, the bodies that appear in the cross-hairs are produced as killable bodies through a process of somatic abstraction – leaving the fleshy body behind – that is abruptly reversed once the missile is released.

Thus in the coda to the original version of ‘Dirty Dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab) – and which I’ve since excised from what was a very long essay; reworked, it will appear in a revised form as ‘The territory of the screen’ – I described how

intelligence agencies produce and reproduce the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] as a data field that is systematically mined to expose seams of information and selectively sown with explosives to be rematerialised as a killing field. The screens on which and through which the strikes are animated are mediations in an extended sequence in which bodies moving into, through and out from the FATA are tracked and turned into targets in a process that Ian Hacking describes more generally as ‘making people up’: except that in this scenario the targets are not so much ‘people’ as digital traces. The scattered actions and interactions of individuals are registered by remote sensors, removed from the fleshiness of human bodies and reassembled as what Grégoire Chamayou calls ‘schematic bodies’. They are given codenames (‘Objective x’) and index numbers, they are tracked on screens and their danse macabre is plotted on time-space grids and followed by drones. But as soon as the Hellfire missiles are released the transformations that have produced the target over the preceding weeks and months cascade back into the human body: in an instant virtuality becomes corporeality and traces turn into remains.

There are two difficulties in operationalising that last sentence.  One is bound up with evidence – and in particular with reading what Oliver Kearns calls the ‘residue’ of covert strikes (see his ‘Secrecy and absence in the residue of covert drone strikes’, Political Geography, 2016) – and the other is one that I want to address here.

To do so, let me turn from the FATA to Yemen.  The Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights in Sa’ana has released a short documentary, Waiting for Justice, that details the effects of a US drone strike on civilians:

If the embedded version doesn’t work, you can find it on YouTube.

At 6 a.m. on 19 April 2014 a group of men – mainly construction workers, plus one young father hitching a ride to catch a bus into Saudi Arabia –  set off from from their villages in al-Sawma’ah to drive to al-Baidha city; 20 to 30 metres behind their Toyota Hilux, it turned out, was a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying suspected members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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That car was being tracked by a drone: it fired a Hellfire missile, striking the car and killing the occupants, and shrapnel hit the Hilux.  Some of the civilians sought refuge in an abandoned water canal, when the drone (or its companion) returned for a second strike.

Four of them were killed – Sanad Hussein Nasser al-Khushum (30), Yasser Abed Rabbo al-Azzani (18), Ahmed Saleh Abu Bakr (65) and Abdullah Nasser Abu Bakr al-Khushu – and five were injured: the driver, Nasser Mohammed Nasser (35), Abdulrahman Hussein al-Khushum (22), Najib Hassan Nayef (35 years), Salem Nasser al-Khushum (40) and Bassam Ahmed Salem Breim (20).

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The film draws on Death by Drone: civilian harm caused by US targeted killing in Yemen, a collaborative investigation carried out by the Open Society Justice Initiative in the United States and Mwatana in Yemen into nine drone strikes: one of them (see pp. 42-48) is the basis of the documentary; the strike is also detailed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as YEM159 here.

That report, together with the interview and reconstruction for the documentary, have much to tell us about witnesses and residues.

In addition the father of one of the victims, describing the strike in the film, says ‘They slaughter them like sheep‘…

they-slaughter-them-like-sheep

… and, as Joe Pugliese shows in a remarkable new essay, that phrase contains a violent, visceral truth.

Joe describes a number of other US strikes in Yemen – by cruise missiles and by Hellfire missiles fired from drones (on which see here; scroll down) – in which survivors and rescuers confronted a horrific aftermath in which the incinerated flesh of dead animals and the flesh of dead human beings became indistinguishable.  This is a radically different, post-strike bioconvergence that Joe calls a geobiomorphology:

The bodies of humans and animals are here compelled to enflesh the world through the violence of war in a brutally literal manner: the dismembered and melted flesh becomes the ‘tissue of things’ as it geobiomorphologically enfolds the contours of trees and rocks. What we witness in this scene of carnage is the transliteration of metadata algorithms to flesh. The abstracting and decorporealising operations of metadata ‘without content’ are, in these contexts of militarised slaughter of humans and animals, geobiomorphologically realised and grounded in the trammelled lands of the Global South.

Indeed, he’s adamant that it is no longer possible to speak of the corporeal in the presence of such ineffable horror:

One can no longer talk of corporeality here. Post the blast of a drone Hellfire missile, the corpora of animals-humans are rendered into shredded carnality. In other words, operative here is the dehiscence of the body through the violence of an explosive centripetality that disseminates flesh. The moment of lethal violence transmutes flesh into unidentifiable biological substance that is violently compelled geobiomorphologically to assume the topographical contours of the debris field.

By these means, he concludes,

the subjects of the Global South [are rendered] as non-human animals captivated in their lawlessness and inhuman savagery and deficient in everything that defines the human-rights-bearing subject. In contradistinction to the individuating singularity of the Western subject as named person, they embody the anonymous genericity of the animal and the seriality of the undifferentiated and fungible carcass. As subjects incapable of embodying the figure of “the human,” they are animals who, when killed by drone attacks, do not die but only come to an end.

You can read the essay, ‘Death by Metadata: The bioinformationalisation of life and the transliteration of algorithms to flesh’, in Holly Randell-Moon and Ryan Tippet (eds) Security, race, biopower: essays on technology and corporeality (London: Palgrave, 2016) 3-20.

It’s an arresting, truly shocking argument.  You might protest that the incidents described in the essay are about ordnance not platform – that a cruise missile fired from a ship or a Hellfire missile fired from an attack helicopter would produce the same effects.  And so they have.  But Joe’s point is that where Predators and Reapers are used to execute targeted killings they rely on the extraction of metadata and its algorithmic manipulation to transform individualised, embodied life into a stream of data – a process that many of us have sought to recover – but that in the very moment of execution those transformations are not simply, suddenly reversed but displaced into a generic flesh.  (And there is, I think, a clear implication that those displacements are pre-figured in the original de-corporealisation – the somatic abstraction – of the target).

Joe’s discussion is clearly not intended to be limited to those (literal) instances where animals are caught up in a strike; it is, instead, a sort of limit-argument designed to disclose the bio-racialisation of targeted killing in the global South.  It reappears time and time again.  Here is a sensor operator, a woman nicknamed “Sparkle”,  describing the aftermath of a strike in Afghanistan conducted from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada:

Sparkle could see a bunch of hot spots all over the ground, which were likely body parts. The target was dead, but that isn’t always the case. The Hellfire missile only has 12 pounds of explosives, so making sure the target is in the “frag pattern,” hit by shrapnel, is key.

As the other Reaper flew home to refuel and rearm, Spade stayed above the target, watching as villagers ran to the smoldering motorbike. Soon a truck arrived. Spade and Sparkle watched as they picked up the target’s blasted body.

“It’s just a dead body,” Sparkle said. “I grew up elbows deep in dead deer. We do what we needed to do. He’s dead. Now we’re going to watch him get buried.”

The passage I’ve emphasised repeats the imaginary described by the strike survivor in Yemen – but from the other side of the screen.

Seen thus, Joe’s argument speaks directly to the anguished question asked by one of the survivors of the Uruzgan killings in Afghanistan:

uruzgan-survivor

How can you not identify us? (The question – and the still above – are taken from the reconstruction in the documentary National Bird).  We might add: How do you identify us?  These twin questions intersect with a vital argument developed by Christiane Wilke, who is deeply concerned that civilians now ‘have to establish, perform and confirm their civilianhood by establishing and maintaining legible patterns of everyday life, by conforming to gendered and racialized expectations of mobility, and by not ever being out of place, out of time’ (see her chapter, ‘The optics of war’, in Sheryl Hamilton, Diana Majury, Dawn Moore, Neil Sargent and Christiane Wilke, eds., Sensing Law [2017] pp 257-79: 278).  As she wrote to me:

I’m really disturbed by the ways in which the burden of making oneself legible to the eyes in the sky is distributed: we don’t have to do any of that here, but the people to whom we’re bringing the war have to perform civilian-ness without fail.

Asymmetry again.  Actors required to perform their civilian-ness in a play they haven’t devised before an audience they can’t see – and which all too readily misunderstands the plot.  And if they fail they become killable bodies.

But embodying does not end there; its terminus is the apprehension of injured and dead bodies.  So let me add two riders to the arguments developed by Lauren and Joe.  I’ll do so by returning to the Uruzgan strike.

I should say at once that this is a complicated case (see my previous discussions here and here).  In the early morning three vehicles moving down dusty roads and tracks were monitored for several hours by a Predator controlled by a flight crew at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada; to the south a detachment of US Special Forces was conducting a search operation around the village of Khod, supported by Afghan troops and police; and when the Ground Force Commander determined that this was a ‘convoy’ of Taliban that posed a threat to his men he called in an air strike executed by two OH-58 attack helicopters that killed 15 or 16 people and wounded a dozen others.  All of the victims were civilians.  This was not a targeted killing, and there is little sign of the harvesting of metadata or the mobilisation of algorithms – though there was some unsubstantiated  talk of the possible presence of a ‘High-Value Individual’ in one of the vehicles, referred to both by name and by the codename assigned to him on the Joint Prioritised Effects List, and while the evidence for this seems to have been largely derived from chatter on short-wave radios picked up by the Special Forces on the ground it is possible that a forward-deployed NASA team at Bagram was also involved in communications intercepts.  Still, there was no geo-locational fixing, no clear link between these radio communications and the three vehicles, and ultimately it was the visual construction of their movement and behaviour as a ‘hostile’ pattern of life that provoked what was, in effect, a signature strike.  But this was not conventional Close Air Support either: the Ground Force Commander declared first a precautionary ‘Air TIC’ (Troops In Contact) so that strike aircraft could be ready on station to come to his defence – according to the investigation report, this created ‘a false sense of urgency’ –  and then ‘Troops in Contact’.  Yet when the attack helicopters fired their missiles no engagement had taken place and the vehicles were moving away from Khod (indeed, they were further away than when they were first observed).  This was (mis)read as ‘tactical maneuvering’.

My first rider is that the process is not invariably the coldly, calculating sequence conjured by the emphasis on metadata and algorithms – what Dan McQuillan calls ‘algorithmic seeing’ – or the shrug-your-shouders attitude of Sparkle.  This is why the affective is so important, but it is multidimensional.  I doubt that it is only in films like Good Kill (below) or Eye in the Sky that pilots and sensor operators are uncomfortable, even upset at what they do.  Not all sensor operators are Brandon Bryant – but they aren’t all Sparkle either.

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All commentaries on the Uruzgan strike – including my own – draw attention to how the pilot, sensor operator and mission intelligence coordinator watching the three vehicles from thousands of miles away were predisposed to interpret every action as hostile.  The crew was neither dispassionate nor detached; on the contrary, they were eager to move in for the kill.  At least some of those in the skies above Uruzgan had a similar view.  The lead pilot of the two attack helicopters that carried out the strike was clearly invested in treating the occupants of the vehicles as killable bodies.  He had worked with the Special Operations detachment before, knew them very well, and – like the pilot of the Predator – believed they were ‘about to get rolled up and I wanted to go and help them out… [They] were about to get a whole lot of guys in their face.’

Immediately after the strike the Predator crew convinced themselves that the bodies were all men (‘military-aged males’):

08:53 (Safety Observer): Are they wearing burqas?

08:53 (Sensor): That’s what it looks like.

08:53 (Pilot): They were all PIDed as males, though. No females in the group.

08:53 (Sensor): That guy looks like he’s wearing jewelry and stuff like a girl, but he ain’t … if he’s a girl, he’s a big one.

Reassured, the crew relaxed and their conversation became more disparaging:

09:02 (Mission Intelligence Coordinator (MC)): There’s one guy sitting down.

09:02 (Sensor): What you playing with? (Talking to individual on ground.)

09:02 (MC): His bone.

….

09:04 (Sensor): Yeah, see there’s…that guy just sat up.

09:04 (Safety Observer): Yeah.

09:04 (Sensor): So, it looks like those lumps are probably all people.

09:04 (Safety Observer): Yep.

09:04 (MC): I think the most lumps are on the lead vehicle because everybody got… the Hellfire got…

….

09:06 (MC): Is that two? One guy’s tending the other guy?

09:06 (Safety Observer): Looks like it.

09:06 (Sensor): Looks like it, yeah.

09:06 (MC): Self‐Aid Buddy Care to the rescue.

09:06 (Safety Observer): I forget, how do you treat a sucking gut wound?

09:06 (Sensor): Don’t push it back in. Wrap it in a towel. That’ll work.

The corporeality of the victims flickers into view in these exchanges, but in a flippantly anatomical register (‘playing with … his bone’; ‘Don’t push it back in.  Wrap it in a towel..’).

But the helicopter pilots reported the possible presence of women, identified only by their brightly coloured dresses, and soon after (at 09:10) the Mission Intelligence Coordinator said he saw ‘Women and children’, which was confirmed by the screeners.  The earlier certainty, the desire to kill, gave way to uncertainty, disquiet.

These were not the only eyes in the sky and the sequence was not closed around them.   Others watching the video feed – the analysts and screeners at Hurlburt Field in Florida, the staff at the Special Operations Task Force Operations Centre in Kandahar – read the imagery more circumspectly.  Many of them were unconvinced that these were killable bodies – when the shift changed in the Operations Centre the Day Battle Captain called in a military lawyer for advice, and the staff agreed to call in another helicopter team to force the vehicles to stop and determine their status and purpose – and many of them were clearly taken aback by the strike.   Those military observers who were most affected by the strike were the troops on the ground.  The commander who had cleared the attack helicopters to engage was ferried to the scene to conduct a ‘Sensitive Site Exploitation’.  What he found, he testified, was ‘horrific’: ‘I was upset physically and emotionally’.

My second rider is that war provides – and also provokes – multiple apprehensions of the injured or dead body.  They are not limited to the corpo-reality of a human being and its displacement and dismemberment into what Joe calls ‘carcass’.  In the Uruzgan case the process of embodying did not end with the strike and the continued racialization and gendering of its victims by the crew of the Predator described by Lauren.

The Sensitive Site Exploitation – the term was rescinded in June 2010; the US Army now prefers simply  ‘site exploitation‘, referring to the systematic search for and collection of ‘information, material, and persons from a designated location and analyzing them to answer information requirements, facilitate subsequent operations, or support criminal prosecution’ – was first and foremost a forensic exercise.  Even in death, the bodies were suspicious bodies.  A priority was to establish a security perimeter and conduct a search of the site.  The troops were looking for survivors but they were also searching for weapons, for evidence that those killed were insurgents and for any intelligence that could be gleaned from their remains and their possessions.  This mattered: the basis for the attack had been the prior identification of weapons from the Predator’s video feed and a (highly suspect) inference of hostile intent.   But it took three and a half hours for the team to arrive at the engagement site by helicopter, and a naval expert on IEDs and unexploded ordnance who was part of the Special Forces detachment was immediately convinced that the site had been ‘tampered with’.  The bodies had been moved, presumably by people from a nearby village who had come to help:

The bodies had been lined up and had been covered… somebody else was on the scene prior to us … The scene was contaminated [sic] before we got there.

He explained to MG Timothy McHale, who lead the subsequent inquiry, what he meant:

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The Ground Force Commander reported that he ‘wouldn’t take photos of the KIA [Killed in Action] – but of the strike’, yet it proved impossible to maintain a clinical distinction between them (see the right hand panel below; he also reported finding bodies still trapped in and under the vehicles).

vehicle-one-uruzgan

His photographs of the three vehicles were annotated by the investigation team to show points of impact, but the bodies of some of the dead were photographed too.  These still photographs presumably also had evidentiary value – though unlike conventional crime scene imagery they were not, so far I can tell, subject to any rigorous analysis.  In any case: what evidentiary value?  Or,  less obliquely, whose crime?  Was the disposition of the bodies intended to confirm they had been moved, the scene ‘contaminated’ – the investigator’s comments on the photograph note ‘Bodies from Vehicle Two did not match blast pattern’ – so that any traces of insurgent involvement could have been erased?  (There is another story here, because the investigation uncovered evidence that staff in the Operations Centres refused to accept the first reports of civilian casualties, and there is a strong suspicion that initial storyboards were manipulated to conceal that fact).  Or do the shattered corpses driven into metal and rock silently confirm the scale of the incident and the seriousness of any violation of the laws of war and the rules of engagement?

casualties-uruzgan

The Ground Force Commander also had his medics treat the surviving casualties, and called in a 9-line request (‘urgent one priority’) for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC).  Military helicopters took the injured to US and Dutch military hospitals at Tarin Kowt, and en route they became the objects of a biomedical gaze that rendered their bodies as a series of visible wounds and vital signs that were distributed among the boxes of standard MEDEVAC report forms:

medevac-2

At that stage none of the injured was identified by name (see the first box on the top left); six of the cases – as they had become – were recorded as having been injured by ‘friendly’ forces, but five of them mark ‘wounded by’ as ‘unknown’.  Once in hospital they were identified, and the investigation team later visited them and questioned them about the incident and their injuries (which they photographed).

These photographs and forms are dispassionate abstractions of mutilated and pain-bearing bodies, but it would be wrong to conclude from these framings that those producing them – the troops on the ground, the medics and EMTs – were not affected by what they saw.

And it would also be wrong to conclude that military bodies are immune from these framings.  Most obviously, these are standard forms used for all MEDEVAC casualties, civilian or military, and all patients are routinely reduced to an object-space (even as they also remain so much more than that: there are multiple, co-existing apprehensions of the human body).

k9963Yet I have in mind something more unsettling.  Ken MacLeish reminds us that

for the soldier, there is no neat division between what gore might mean for a perpetrator and what it might mean for a victim, because he is both at once. He is stuck in the middle of this relation, because this relation is the empty, undetermined center of the play of sovereign violence: sometimes the terror is meant for the soldier, sometimes he is merely an incidental witness to it, and sometimes he, or his side, is the one responsible for it.

If there is no neat division there is no neat symmetry either; not only is there a spectacular difference between the vulnerability of pilots and sensor operators in the continental United States and their troops on the ground – a distance which I’ve argued intensifies the desire of some remote crews to strike whenever troops are in danger –  but there can also be a substantial difference between the treatment of fallen friends and foe: occasional differences in the respect accorded to dead bodies and systematic differences in the (long-term) care of injured ones.

But let’s stay with Ken.  He continues:

Soldiers say that a body that has been blown up looks like spaghetti. I heard this again and again – the word conjures texture, sheen, and abject, undifferentiated mass, forms that clump into knots or collapse into loose bits.

He wonders where this comes from:

Does it domesticate the violence and loss? Is it a critique? Gallows humor? Is it a reminder, perhaps, that you are ultimately nothing more than the dumb matter that you eat, made whole and held together only by changeable circumstance? Despite all the armor, the body is open to a hostile world and can collapse into bits in the blink of an eye, at the speed of radio waves, electrons, pressure plate springs, and hot metal. The pasta and red sauce are reminders that nothing is normal and everything has become possible. Some body—one’s own body—has been placed in a position where it is allowed to die. More than this, though, it has been made into a thing…

One soldier described recovering his friend’s body after his tank had been hit by an IED:

… everything above his knees was turned into fucking spaghetti. Whatever was left, it popped the top hatch, where the driver sits, it popped it off and it spewed whatever was left of him all over the front slope. And I don’t know if you know … not too many people get to see a body like that, and it, and it…

We went up there, and I can remember climbing up on the slope, and we were trying to get everybody out, ’cause the tank was on fire and it was smoking. And I kept slipping on – I didn’t know what I was slipping on, ’cause it was all over me, it was real slippery. And we were trying to get the hatch open, to try to get Chris out. My gunner, he reached in, reached in and grabbed, and he pulled hisself back. And he was like, “Holy shit!” I mean, “Holy shit,” that was all he could say. And he had cut his hand. Well, what he cut his hand on was the spinal cord. The spine had poked through his hand and cut his hand on it, ’cause there was pieces of it left in there. And we were trying to get up, and I reached down and pushed my hand down to get up, and I reached up and looked up, and his goddamn eyeball was sitting in my hand. It had splattered all up underneath the turret. It was all over me, it was all over everybody, trying to get him out of there…

I think Ken’s commentary on this passage provides another, compelling perspective on the horror so deeply embedded in Joe’s essay:

There is nothing comic or subversive here; only horror. Even in the middle of the event, it’s insensible, unspeakable: and it, and it …, I didn’t know what I was slipping on. The person is still there, and you have to “get him out of there,” but he’s everywhere and he’s gone at the same time. The whole is gone, and the parts – the eye, the spine, and everything else – aren’t where they should be. A person reduced to a thing: it was slippery, it was all over, that was what we sent home. He wasn’t simply killed; he was literally destroyed. Through a grisly physics, there was somehow less of him than there had been before, transformed from person into dumb and impersonal matter.

‘Gore,’ he concludes, ‘is about the horror of a person being replaced by stuff that just a moment ago was a person.’  Explosive violence ruptures the integrity of the contained body – splattered over rocks or metal surfaces in a catastrophic bioconvergence.

I hope it will be obvious that none of this is intended to substitute any sort of equivalence for the asymmetries that I have emphasised throughout this commentary.  I hope, too, that I’ve provided a provisional supplement to some of the current work on metadata, algorithms and aerial violence – hence my title.  As Linda McDowell remarked an age ago – in Working Bodies (pp. 223-4) – the term ‘meatspace’ is offensive in all sorts of ways (its origins lie in cyberpunk where it connoted the opposite to cyberspace, but I concede the opposition is too raw).  Still, it is surely important to recover the ways in which later modern war and militarised violence (even in its digital incarnations) is indeed obdurately, viscerally offensive – for all of the attempts to efface what Huw Lemmey once called its ‘devastation in meatspace‘.

National Bird

Sonia Kennebeck‘s documentary National Bird is previewed in today’s New York Times:

If we can eliminate enemy threats without placing boots on a battlefield, then why not do so? That’s one of the unspoken questions raised, and largely unanswered, by “National Bird,” Sonia Kennebeck’s elegantly unsettling documentary about the United States’ reliance on aerial combat drones.

The weapons themselves, though, demand less of her attention than their psychological impact on three former operators and current whistle-blowers. Identified only by first names (though one full name is visible in a shot of a 2013 exposé in The Guardian), all three were involved in some form of top-secret data analysis and the tracking of targets. Justifiably nervous, they wear haunted, closed expressions as they relate stories of guilt, PTSD and persecution…’

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The documentary includes a re-enactment (see still above) of what has become a signature drone strike to critics of remote warfare – the attack on a ‘convoy’ of three vehicles in Uruzgan in 2010 that I analysed in Angry Eyes (here and here); the strike was orchestrated by the crew of a Predator but carried out by two attack helicopters.  Kennebeck based her reconstruction on the report from the same US military investigation I used, though I think her reading of it is limited by its focus on the Predator crew in Nevada and its neglect of what was happening (or more accurately not happening) at operations centres on the ground in Afghanistan.  She’s not alone in that – follow the link to the second part of Angry Eyes above to see why –  but what she adds is a series of vital interviews with the survivors:

I found the survivors of the airstrike and was the first person to interview them and get their first-person accounts…  Their stories give a much larger dimension to the incident and reveal that parts of the military investigation had been sugarcoated.

uruzgan-survivor

Winston Cook-Wilson agrees that the cross-cutting between the strike and its victims is immensely affecting:

The most powerful section of Kennebeck’s film, by far, are the interviews with family members and witnesses of a mistaken drone attack which killed 22 men, women and children in Afghanistan. Before meeting the Afghani mother who lost her children, the man who lost his leg in the explosion, and others, Kennebeck shows the attack in re-enactment that utilizes frighteningly blurry drone vision. Slightly overdone, static-ridden voiceovers from a radio transcript are included. The emotional footage in Afghanistan here is undeniably powerful; Kennebeck then unexpectedly cuts in grainy footage, filmed by one of the families of the victims, poring over their maimed remains.

This section of the film induces nausea, grief, and confusion all at the same time.

uruzgan-sweet-target

‘Frighteningly blurry drone vision’ is exactly right, as I’ve argued elsewhere (you can find a discussion of this in the second of my ‘Reach from the Skies’ lectures and in the penultimate section of ‘Dirty Dancing’, DOWNLOADS tab).  Here is Naomi Pitcairn who sharpens the same point:

We can see, clearly, how little they can actually see: tiny dots, like ants walking slowly, in single file. This is the all seeing but lacking feeling, understanding and cultural context, vision of a drone video feed and the drone operators callousness in the transcript seems to reflect that. Their bloodlust combined with the minimalism of the feed is intense in its very … primitivism.

Jeanette Catsoulis also thinks the cross-cutting between the strike and the survivors is highly effective (see also Susan Carruthers, ‘Detached Retina: The new cinema of drone warfare’, in Cineaste, who regards those sequences as providing ‘a more profound, affecting, and sustained reckoning with what drones do than anything else to date’), but she doesn’t think it sufficient:

If “National Bird” wants to persuade us that the emotional and collateral damage of this technology is greater than that caused by conventional weapons, it needs to widen its lens. Interviews with military specialists able to elucidate the complex calculus of risk and reward would have been invaluable in balancing the narrative and perhaps clarifying the ethical fuzziness.

Even so, there’s a sense that some unwritten human compact has been broken. As an ominously beautiful drone’s-eye camera glides above peaceful American streets, we’re uncomfortably reminded that an invisible death could one day hover over us all.

So it could – perhaps especially now.  As a reminder of that dread possibility, one of the phrases that recurs in the transcript from the Uruzgan strike is ‘military-aged males’ (with all that implies), so here is an image from Tomas van Houtryve‘s photographic series Blue Sky Days.  It’s also called ‘Military-Aged Males‘:

"Military-Age Males" (Tomas van Houtryve)

It shows civilian cadets assembling in formation at the Citadel Military College in Charleston, South Carolina.

Angry Eyes (2)

MAP isaf-rc-south

This is the second installment of my analysis of an air strike orchestrated by a Predator in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan on 21 February 2010; the first installment is here.

(4) Command and control?

What was happening in and around Khod was being followed not only by flight crews and image analysts in the continental United States but also by several Special Forces command posts or Operations Centers in Afghanistan.  In ascending order these were:

(1) the base from which ODA 3124 had set out at Firebase Tinsley (formerly known as Cobra);

(2) Special Operations Task Force-12 (SOTF-12), based at Kandahar;

(3) Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) based at Bagram.

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Once the ODA 3124 left the wire, command and support passed to SOTF-12; the OD-B at Tinsley had limited resources and limited (and as it happens intermittent) communications access and could only monitor what was happening.

That was normal, but in fact both higher commands did more or less the same: and the investigating team was clearly appalled.  At SOTF-12 all senior (field grade) officers were asleep during the period of ‘highest density of risk and threatening kinetic activity’ (although they had established ‘wake-up criteria’ for emergency situations).  The Night Battle Captain had been in post for just three weeks and had been given little training in his role; he received a stream of SALT reports from the Ground Force Commander of ODA 3124 (which detailed Size of enemy force, Activity of enemy force, Location and Time of observation) but simply monitored the developing situation – what one investigating officer characterised as ‘a pretty passive kind of watching’.

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The same was true at CJSOTF-A (the staff there monitored 15-25 missions a day, but this was the only active operation that had declared a potential Troops in Contact).

When the more experienced Day Battle Captain entered the Joint Operations Center at Kandahar and was briefed by the Night Battle Captain he was sufficiently concerned to send a runner to ask the Judge Advocate, a military lawyer, to come to the JOC.  He believed the occupants of the vehicles were hostile but was not convinced that they posed an immediate threat to troops on the ground:  ‘I wanted to hear someone who was extremely smart with the tactical directive and use of CAS [Close Air Support] in a situation I hadn’t seen before’.

This was a smart call for many reasons; the commander of US Special Forces, Brigadier General Edward Reeder, told the inquiry: ‘Honestly I don’t take a shit without one [a JAG], especially in this business’.  Significantly, the Safety Observer at Creech testified that there was no ‘operational law attorney’ available onsite for aircrews conducting remote operations; conversely, JAGs were on the operations floor of CENTCOM’s Combined Air and Space Operations Centre at Ul Udeid Air Base and, as this case shows, they were available at operations centers established by subordinate commands in-theatre.

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The JAG at Kandahar was not routinely called in for ‘Troops in Contact’ but on this occasion he was told ‘my Legal Opinion [was] needed at the OPCENT and that it wasn’t imminent but they wanted me to rush over there right away…’

Meanwhile up at Bagram Colonel Gus Benton, the commanding officer of CJSOTF-A, was being briefed by his second-in-command who understood that the Ground Force Commander’s intention was to allow the three vehicles to move closer to his position at Khod.  He thought that made sound tactical sense.

‘I said that … is what we did, we let them come to us so we can get eyes on them. During my time I never let my guys engage with CAS if they couldn’t see it. I said that is great and COL [Benton] said “that is not fucking great” and left the room.’

At 0820, ten minutes after the JAG entered the JOC at Kandahar, while he was watching the Predator feed, the phone rang: it was Benton.  He demanded Lt Colonel Brian Petit, the SOTF-12 commander, be woken up and brought to the phone:

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He spectacularly mis-read the situation (not least because he mis-read the Predator feed).  It was true that the vehicles were in open country, and not near any compounds or villages; but Benton consistently claimed that the vehicles were ‘travelling towards our objective’ whereas – as MG McHale’s investigating team pointed out to him – they were in fact moving away from Khod.

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There had also been some, inconclusive discussion of a possible ‘High Value Target’ when the vehicles were first tracked, but the presence of a pre-approved target on the Joint Prioritised Effects List (Benton’s ‘JPEL moving along this road’) had never been confirmed and the Ground Force Commander had effectively discarded it (‘above my authority’, he said).

Certainly, the JAG at Kandahar read the situation differently:

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When Benton rang off, the JAG went over to the Day Battle Captain and Lt Col Petit and recommended an Aerial Vehicle Interdiction (AVI) team be called in for a show of force to stop the vehicles without engaging the occupants in offensive action.

They agreed; in fact another Task Force also watching the Predator feed called to make the same suggestion, and the Fires Officer set about arranging to use their Apache helicopters to conduct an AVI:

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The Fires Officer had been responsible for setting up the Restricted Operating Zone for aircraft supporting the ODA – de-conflicting the airspace and establishing what aircraft would be available – but its management was de-centralised:

‘I establish the ROZ, give the initial layout of what assets are going on, and then I pass that to the JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the Ground Force Commander at Khod].  I pass the frequencies to the assets and the JTAC controls them from there.’

At 0630, long before all this frantic activity at Kandahar, the two OH-58s had arrived at a short hold location beyond the ‘range of enemy visual and audio detection’, and at 0730 they had left to refuel at Tarin Kowt.  The Day Battle Captain and the Fires Officer both thought they were still off station.  In fact, the helicopters had returned to hold at Tinsley/Cobra at 0810 and flat pitched to conserve fuel (which means they landed and left the rotor blades spinning but with no lift); thirty minutes later the JTAC called them forward and the Predator began to talk them on to the target.

The Day Battle Captain had another reason for thinking he and his colleagues in the JOC had more time.  He maintained that the helicopters had been brought in not to engage the three vehicles but to provide air support if and when the ‘convoy’ reached Khod and the precautionary ‘AirTic’ turned into a real TIC or Troops in Contact:

‘… the CAS brought on station for his [the Ground Force Commander’s] use was not for the vehicles but for what we thought was going to be a large TIC on the objective. The weapons team that was pushed forward to his location was not for the vehicles, it was for the possibility of a large TIC on the objective based on the ICOM chatter that we had.’

That chimes with Benton’s second-in-command at Bagram, who also thought the Ground Force Commander was waiting for the ‘convoy’ to reach Khod, but neither witness explained the basis for their belief.  It was presumably a string of transmissions from the JTAC to the Predator crew: at 0538 he told them the Ground Force Commander wanted to ‘keep tracking them and bring them in as close as we can until we have CCA up’ (referring to the Close Combat Attack helicopters, the OH-58s); shortly before 0630 he confirmed that the Ground Force Commander’s intent was to ‘permit the enemy to close, and we’ll engage them closer when they’re all consolidated’; and at 0818 he was still talking about allowing the vehicles to ‘close distance.’

Yet this does not account for the evident urgency with which the Day Battle Captain and the JAG were concerned to establish ‘hostile intent’ and ‘immediate threat’.  When the vehicles were first spotted they were 5 km from Khod, and when they were attacked they were 12 km away across broken and difficult terrain: so what was the rush if the Ground Force Commander was continuing to exercise what the Army calls ‘tactical patience’ and wait for the vehicles to reach him and his force?

In fact, the messages from the Ground Force Commander had been mixed; throughout the night the JTAC had also repeatedly made it clear that the ODA commander’s intent was ‘to destroy the vehicles and the personnel’.  The Ground Force Commander insisted that ‘sometime between 0820 and 0830’ he sent a SALT report to SOTF-12 to say that he was going to engage the target.  Unfortunately there is no way to confirm this, because SOTF’s text records of the verbal SALT reports stopped at 0630 for reasons that were never disclosed (or perhaps never pursued), but it would explain why the JTAC’s log apparently showed the JAG contacting him at 0829 to confirm there were no women and children on the target.  It would also account for testimony by one of the screeners, who realised that the helicopters were cleared to engage at 0835, ten minutes before the strike, when the NCO responsible for monitoring the Predator feed at SOTF-12 ‘dropped’ into the ‘ISR’ (I presume the relevant chat room window), and in response:

‘The MC [Mission Intelligence Co-ordinator at Creech] passed that the OH58 were cleared to engage the vehicles. We were all caught off guard… It seemed strange because we had called out that these vehicles were going west. I don’t know how they determined these vehicles to be hostile… I brought up a whisper [private chat] with the MC, I said are you sure, what are the time frames when they will be coming in, and the MC responded saying we don’t know their ETA and at that moment the first vehicle blew up…’

Should those watching the events unfold have been taken aback when the vehicles were attacked?  According to the pilot of the Predator, he and his crew were surprised at the rapid escalation of events:

‘The strike ultimately came a little quicker than we expected…. we believed we were going to continue to follow, continue to pass up feeds… When he decided to engage with the helos when they did, it happened very quickly from our standpoint. I don’t have a lot of info or situational awareness of why the JTAC decided to use them when they did. When they actually came up … the JTAC switched me on frequencies. So we weren’t talking on the frequency I was talking to him on a different frequency to coordinate with the helos.

But their surprise was as nothing compared to the reaction of most observers when the first vehicle exploded.  The officer in charge of the screeners and imagery analysts who had been scrutinising the Predator feed at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida couldn’t believe it:

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The Day Battle Captain testified:

‘I did not feel that the ground force commander would use any kind of close air support whatsoever to engage those vehicles… Based on the information that I had and looking at the vehicles move away it did not appear that they were moving towards the ground forces…

… as we were watching the Predator feed the first vehicles exploded. And everyone in the OPSCEN was immediately shocked… The amount of time from when that course of action approved by the SOTF commander to when we actually saw the strike occur there was no time, there was not adequate time to inform the ground commander that that was the course of action decided by the CJSOTF commander… I have phones ringing left and right, talking to people, trying to explain things, you know we look up on the screen and it happened…’

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The Fires Officer:

‘I don’t think at any time anyone communicated to the GFC [Ground Force Commander] not to strike these vehicles because it is not something that we normally do. We feel that if he is in contact with the Predator and the OH-58s that we sent out to screen which we were not aware of and he is on the ground he generally has a pretty good picture of what is going on. He might be more privy to some conversation that he had with the OH-58 than what we know about. We normally give the GFC pretty big leeway on how they operate and the same with the JTAC because he has control of the assets and I am not going to try to take his assets away.’

In short, the investigation concluded that the Ground Force Commander never knew that an Aerial Vehicle Interdiction was being arranged, and neither of his higher commands were aware that he had cleared the helicopters to attack the three vehicles.

But, as I will show next, what lay behind these failures of communication was a de-centralised, distributed and dispersed geography of militarised vision whose fields of view expanded, contracted and even closed at different locations engaged in the administration of military violence.  Far from being a concerted performance of Donna Haraway‘s ‘God-trick’ – the ability to see everything from nowhere – this version of networked war was one in which nobody had a clear and full view of what was happening.

Part of this can be attributed to technical issues – the different fields of view available on different platforms, the low resolution of infra-red imagery (which Andrew Cockburn claims registers a visual acuity of 20/200, ‘the legal definition of blindness in the United States’), transmission interruptions, and the compression of full-colour imagery to accommodate bandwidth pressure.  So for example:

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But it is also a matter of different interpretive fields.  Peter Asaro cautions:

‘The fact that the members of this team all have access to high-resolution imagery of the same situation does not mean that they all ‘‘see’’ the same thing. The visual content and interpretation of the visual scene is the product of analysis and negotiation among the team, as well as the context given by the situational awareness, which is itself constructed.’

The point is a sharp one: different visualities jostle and collide, and in the transactions between the observers the possibility of any synoptic ‘God-trick’ disappears.  But it needs to be sharpened, because different people have differential access to the distributed stream of visual feeds, mIRC and radio communications.  Here the disposition of bodies combines with the techno-cultural capacity to make sense of what was happening to fracture any ‘common operating picture’.   As one officer at Kandahar put it:

‘We didn’t have eyes on, minus ISR platform, that we can all see, who watches what? All the discrepancies between who watches what. What I see may be different from what someone else might interpret on the ISR… ISR is not reliable; it is simply a video platform.’

He was talking specifically about the multiple lines of communication (and hence bases for interpretation) within his Operations Center: now multiply that across sites scattered across Afghanistan and the continental United States and it becomes clear that the contemporary ‘fog of war’ may be as much the result of too much information as too little.

To be continued.

Angry Eyes (1)

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I promised to post the notes for my presentation of ‘Angry Eyes: the God-Trick and the geography of militarised vision‘, and this is the first instalment (illuminated by some of the slides from the presentation). This isn’t the final, long-form version – and I would welcome comments and suggestions on these notes – but I hope it will provide something of a guide to where I’m coming from and where I’m going.

In many ways, this is a companion to ‘Dirty Dancing: drones and death in the borderlands’ (I’ll post the full text version of that shortly; until then see here, here and here), but that essay examines aerial violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, tracing the long history of air strikes in the region, from Britain’s colonial ‘air policing’ of its North West Frontier through the repeated incursions by Afghan and Soviet aircraft during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (which are missing from most critical accounts) to today’s drone strikes directed by the CIA and air raids conducted by the Pakistan Air Force. ‘Angry Eyes’ focuses instead on a series of US air strikes inside Afghanistan.

(1) Eyes in the Sky

The history of aerial reconnaissance reveals an enduring intimacy between air operations and ground operations. Balloons and aircraft were essential adjuncts to army (and especially artillery) operations; before the First World War most commentator insisted that the primary use of military aircraft would be to act as spotters for artillery, enabling the guns to range on distant targets, and that bombing would never assume a major offensive role. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Orville Wright was among the sceptics: ‘I have never considered bomb-dropping as the most important function of the airplane,’ he told the New York Times in July 1917, ‘and I have no reason to change this opinion now that we have entered the war.’  For him – though he did not altogether discount the importance of striking particular targets, like the Krupp works at Essen – the key role of the aeroplane was reconnaissance (‘scouting’) for ground forces, including artillery: ‘About all that has been accomplished by either side from bomb dropping has been to kill a few non-combatants, and that will have no bearing on the result of the war.’  That was, of course, a short-sighted view – even in the First World War aircraft carried out strikes against targets on and far beyond the battlefield – but the sharper point is that the importance of aerial reconnaissance depended on a version of what today would be called networked war (albeit a desperately imperfect one) (see my ‘Gabriel’s Map [DOWNLOADS tab]; for the pre-war history of bombing, see here; for the bombing of Paris in the First World War see here). 

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Over the next 50 years the technologies of vision changed dramatically: from direct to indirect observation, from delayed to real-time reporting, and from still to full motion imagery.

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And the ligatures between seeing (or sensing) and shooting steadily contracted until these functions were combined in a single platform – notably (but not exclusively) the Predator and the Reaper.  Even then, wiring aerial operations to ground manoeuvres often (even usually) remains central:

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Remarks like these speak directly to Donna Haraway’s cautionary critique of the ‘God-Trick’: the claim to see everything from nowhere, or at least from a privileged ‘vanishing point’. This has been made explicit by Lauren Wilcox in Bodies of Violence:

… the satellite systems and the drone’s video cameras mean that the bomber’s eye view is the God’s eye view of objectivity… this myth is put into practice in the apparatus of precision bombing, in which the view from above becomes the absolute truth, the view from nowhere.

And – Haraway’s point, which has been sharpened by Wilcox – is that this view from nowhere is, in some substantial sense, a view from no-body (and even of no-body). Here is Owen Sheers in his novel I saw a man:

“A U.S. drone strike.” That was all the press release said. No mention of Creech, screeners, Intel coordinator, an operator, a pilot. It was as if the Predator had been genuinely unmanned. As if there had been no hand behind its flight, no eye behind its cameras.

wilcox-bodies-of-violenceThe appeal to the divine is thus more than a rhetorical device. One Predator pilot admitted that ‘Sometimes I felt like God hurling thunderbolts from afar.’ As Wilcox notes, then,

‘Precision bombing reproduces the illusion of a disembodied subject with not only a privileged view of the world, but the power to destroy all that it sees…. The posthuman bodies of precision bombers, relying on God’s eye, or panoptical, views are produced as masterful, yet benign, subjects, using superior technology to spare civilians from riskier forms of aerial bombardment.’

And yet there have been seemingly endless civilian casualties…

(2) Killing and casualties in Afghanistan

Throughout the US-led occupation of Afghanistan, air strikes have been the overwhelming cause of civilian deaths caused by coalition forces:

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As Jason Lyall‘s marvellous work shows (below), air strikes have been concentrated in the south.  I should note that the title of his map refers explicitly to ISAF air operations – I’m not sure if this includes those conducted under the aegis of Operation Enduring Freedom, a separate US-UK-Agfghan operation, although a primary source of his data is USAF Central Command’s Airpower Statistics.  It makes a difference, for reasons I’ll explain later; the strike that is my primary focus took place in the south (in Uruzgan) but was in support of a Special Forces operation conducted under OEF.

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In any event, most of those strikes have been carried out from conventional platforms – strike aircraft or attack helicopters – not drones (though notice how the data on weapons released from Predators and Reapers was rapidly removed from the regular Airpower Statistics issued by US Central Command):

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This relates to a specific period, and one might expect drone strikes to become even more important as the numbers of US ground troops in Afghanistan fall.  Even so:

  • in many, perhaps most of those cases drones have provided vital intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities: in effect, they may well have orchestrated the attacks even if they did not execute them;
  • according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism [‘Tracking drone strikes in Afghanistan‘], ‘Afghanistan is the most drone bombed country in the world… Research by the Bureau… has found more than 1,000 drone attacks hit the country from the start of 2008 to the end of October 2012. In the same period, the Bureau has recorded 482 US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya’; and
  • where drones have also carried out the attacks, Larry Lewis’s analysis of classified SIGACT data shows that ‘unmanned platforms [are] ten times more likely to cause civilian casualties than manned platforms’ (see also here)

There have been two main forms of air strike in Afghanistan.  First, the US military carries out so-called ‘targeted killing’ there as well as elsewhere in the world; it has its own Joint Prioritized Effects List of people deemed to be legitimate military targets (see here and here), and the supposed capacity of its drones and their crews to put ‘warheads on foreheads’ means that they are often involved in these remote executions.

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Even so, these operations have certainly caused the deaths of innocent civilians (see, notably, Kate Clark‘s forensic report on the Takhar attack in September 2010: more here).

Second, the US Air Force also provides close air support to ground troops – and civilian casualties are even more likely to result from these  situations, known as ‘Troops in Contact’.

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HRW Troops in Contact and CIVCAS

As Marc Garlasco noted when he was working for Human Rights Watch:

“When they have the time to plan things out and use all the collateral damage mitigation techniques and all the tools in their toolbox, they’ve gotten to the point where it is very rare for civilians to be harmed or killed in these attacks.  When they have to do it on the fly and they are not able to use all these techniques, then civilians die.”

That said, it is simply wrong to claim that the US military is indifferent to civilian casualties.   There have been several major studies of civilian casualties (see also here and here).

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In addition, the juridification of later modern war means that military lawyers (JAGs) are closely involved in operational decisions (though the laws of war provide at best a limited shield for civilians and certainly do not outlaw their deaths); Rules of Engagement and Tactical Directives are issued and modified; and investigations into ‘civilian casualty incidents’ (CIVCAS) are established at the commander’s discretion.  Of most relevance to my own argument is General Stanley McChrystal‘s Tactical Directive issued on 6 July 2009.

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This was not window-dressing.  Here is Michael Hastings in his by now infamous profile of McChrystal in Rolling Stone (8 July 2010):

McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

Indeed, McChrystal’s actions were fiercely criticised: see Charles Dunlap here (more here).

(3) Predator View

And so I turn to one of the most extensively documented CIVCAS incidents in Afghanistan: an attack on three vehicles near the village of Shahidi Hassas in Uruzgan province in February 2010, which killed at least 15-16 civilians and injured another 12.  This has become the ‘signature strike’ for most critical commentaries on drone operations:

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In the early morning of 21 February 2010 a US Special Forces team of 12 soldiers (these are always described as Operational Detachment Alpha: in this case ODA 3124) supported by 30 Afghan National Police officers and 30 Afghan National Army troops flew in on three Chinook helicopters to two locations near the village of Khod.  This is an arid, mountainous region but Khod lies in a river valley where an extensive irrigation system has been constructed to create a ‘green zone’:

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On a scale from 0 to 2, this was a ‘level 1 CONOPS’, which means that it was judged to pose a ‘medium risk’ to the troops with ‘some potential for political repercussions’.  These are usually daylight cordon and search operations with air support.  In this case the mission was to search the compounds in and around the village for a suspected IED factory and to disrupt ‘insurgent infrastructure’.

The Taliban clearly knew they were coming.  While the troops waited for dawn the scanners on their MBITR radios picked up chatter urging the mujaheddin to gather for an attack, and they passed the frequency to an AC-130 gunship which was providing air support; through their night vision goggles the troops could see figures ducking into the cover provided by the irrigation ditches; and communications intercepted by other support aircraft, including a manned electronic signals intelligence platform referred to only by its call sign ‘Arrow 30’, confirmed a strong Taliban presence.

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There were reports of vehicles moving towards the village from the south, and then headlights were detected five kilometres to the north.  The AC-130 moved north to investigate.  It had an extensive sensor suite on board but its resolution was insufficient for the crew to detect whether the occupants of the vehicles were armed [PID or ‘positive identification’ of a legitimate military target], and so they co-ordinated their surveillance with a Predator that had taken off from Kandahar Air Field and was controlled by a crew (call-sign KIRK 97) at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.  In addition to its Multi-Spectral Targeting System, the Predator was equipped with an ‘Air Handler’ that intercepted and geo-located wireless communications; this raw signals intelligence was handled by an ‘exploitation cell’ (almost certainly operated by a National Security Agency unit at Kandahar) who entered their findings into one of the chat-rooms monitored by the Predator and other operations centres that were involved in the mission.

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When the AC-130 started to run low on fuel, the Predator took over ISR for the duration of the mission.  The JTAC could not see the trucks from his position on the ground, and neither did he have access to the full-motion video feed from the Predator – the ODA was not equipped with a ruggedised laptop or ROVER [Remote Operational Video Enhanced Receiver] that should have been standard equipment (‘There’s one per base, and if it goes down you’re out of luck’) – and so he had to rely entirely on radio communications with the flight crew.

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Throughout the night and into the morning the crew of the Predator interpreted more or less everything they saw on their screens as indicative of hostile intent: the trucks were a ‘convoy’ (at one stage they were referred to as ‘technical trucks’); the occupants were ‘Military Aged Males’ (’12-13 years old with a weapon is just as dangerous’); when they stopped to pray at dawn this was seen as a Taliban signifier (‘I mean, seriously, that’s what they do’); and when the trucks swung west, away from the direct route to Khod, this was interpreted as ‘tactical manoeuvring’ or ‘flanking’.

Eventually the ground force commander with ODA 3124 became convinced of hostile intent, and anticipated an imminent ‘Troops in Contact’.  This in turn prompted the declaration of a precautionary ‘AirTIC’ to bring strike aircraft on station since the Predator only had one Hellfire missile onboard.  The ground force commander was annoyed when fighter aircraft arrived (call-sign DUDE 01) – ‘I have fast movers over my station, my desire is to have rotary-wing aircraft’ – because he believed the engine noise would warn the target.  In fact, the JTAC who had access to intercepts of Taliban radio communication confirmed that ‘as soon as he showed up everyone started talking about stopping movement’;  coincidentally, as it happened, the vehicles immediately swung west, heading away from Khod.

Two US Army Kiowa combat helicopters (OH-58s, call-sign BAM-BAM) were now briefed for the attack.

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Their situation map (below) confirmed this as a landscape of ever-present threat, and this imaginative geography was instrumental in the reading of the situation and the activation of the strike:

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Meanwhile, the Predator’s sensor operator was juggling the image stream, switching from infrared to ‘Day TV’ and trying to sharpen the focus:

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The helicopters had their own sensor system – a Mast Mounted Sight (MMS) – but its resolution was low (see below); they were also reluctant to come in low in case this warned the target:

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In any case, there were severe limitations to what the pilots could see:

So, for all these reasons, they were reliant on what the Predator crew was telling them (they too had no access to the FMV feed from the Predator).  They lined up for the shot, and the Predator crew keenly anticipated being able to ‘play clean up’. ‘As long as you keep somebody that we can shoot in the field of view,’ the Predator pilot told his Sensor Operator, ‘I’m happy.’

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Throughout the mission the Predator crew had been communicating not only by radio but also through mIRC (internet relay chat); multiple windows were open during every mission, but KILLCHAIN was typed into the primary chat room to close down all ‘extraneous’ communications during the final run so that the crew could concentrate on executing the strike.

The ground commander through the JTAC cleared the helicopters to engage: ‘Type Three’ on the slide above refers to a control situation in which the JTAC can see neither the target nor the strike aircraft and wishes to authorise multiple attacks within a single engagement.  According to the US Air Force’s protocols for terminal control:

Type 3 control does not require the JTAC to visually acquire the aircraft or the target; however, all targeting data must be coordinated through the supported commander’s battle staff (JP 3-09.3). During Type 3 control, JTACs provide attacking aircraft targeting restrictions (e.g., time, geographic boundaries, final attack heading, specific target set, etc.) and then grant a “blanket” weapons release clearance to meet the prescribed restrictions. The JTAC will monitor radio transmissions and other available digital information to maintain control of the engagement.

Hellfire missiles from the helicopters ripped into the trucks, and when the smoke cleared those watching – from the helicopters and on screens at multiple locations in Afghanistan and the continental United States – began to suspect that women and children were clearly in the field of view.  A team from ODA 3124 was helicoptered in to co-ordinate the evacuation of casualties and to conduct a ‘sensitive site exploration’.

It turned out that the occupants of the vehicles were all Hazaras who were vehemently anti-Taliban (4,000 Hazara had been massacred by the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998); they were going to Kandahar for a variety of reasons – shopkeepers going for supplies, a mechanic going to buy spare parts, students returning to school, patients seeking medical treatment, others simply looking for work – and they were travelling together (‘in convoy’) for safety through what they knew was Taliban territory. When civilian casualties were eventually confirmed – which is a story in itself – General McChrystal set up an Informal Investigation.

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Most commentators (including me in “From a view to a kill”: DOWNLOADS tab) have endorsed the central conclusion reached by the Army investigation:

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But this was not the conclusion reached by the USAF Commander’s Directed Investigation into the actions of the Predator crew (which McChrystal ordered when he received McHale’s report).  Major-General Robert Otto conceded that ‘the Predator crew’s faulty communications clouded the picture on adolescents and allowed them to be transformed into military-aged males’, but he insisted that their actions were otherwise entirely professional:

‘Upon INFIL and throughout the operation, extensive Intercepted Communications (ICOM) chatter correlated with FMV and observed ground movement appeared to indicate a group of over thirty individuals were an insurgent convoy…. Kirk 97 did not display an inappropriate bias to go kinetic beyond the desire to “support the ground commander”. The crew was alert and ready to execute a kinetic operation but there was no resemblance to a “Top Gun” mentality.’

The reference was to a statement made to McHale’s team by a captain at Creech:

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Be that as it may, the last clause– the desire ‘to help out and be part of this’ – is, I think, substantial.  As I argued in “From a view to a kill”, most Predator and Reaper crews insist that they are not thousands of miles from the battlefield but just eighteen inches away: the distance from eye to screen.  There is something profoundly immersive about the combination of full-motion video and live radio communication; perhaps the crews who operate these remote missions over-compensate for the physical distance to the troops on the ground by immersing themselves in a virtual distance that pre-disposes them to interpret so much that appears on their screens as hostile and threatening.

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So far, so familiar.  But two qualifications impose themselves.

First, virtually all the published accounts that I have read – and the one that I have published – draw on a detailed report by David S. Cloud, ‘Anatomy of an Afghan war tragedy‘, that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on 10 April 2011, which was based on a transcript of radio communications between the Predator crew, the helicopter pilots and a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) who was relaying information to and from the ground force commander.  But according to Andrew Cockburn, McHale’s original investigation compiled a hand-drawn timeline of events that ran for 66 feet around the four walls of a hangar he had commandeered for his office; his investigation ran to over 2,000 pages of evidence and transcripts.  It’s a complicated, composite document: a record of transactions – of conversations, negotiations and interrogations inflected by the chain of command – made at different times, in different places and under different circumstances. Redactions make inference necessarily incomplete, and there are inevitably inconsistencies in the accounts offered by different witnesses. So I need to be cautious about producing a too coherent narrative – this is not the tightly integrated ‘network warfare’ described by Steve Niva in his excellent account of Joint Special Operations Command (‘Disappearing violence: JSOC and the Pentagon’s new cartography of networked warfare’, Security dialogue 44 (2013) 185-202).

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Still, when you work through those materials a radically different picture of the administration of military violence emerge.  In his important essay on ‘The necropolitics of drones’ (International Political Sociology 9 [2015] 113-127) Jamie Allinson uses McHale’s executive summary to demarcate the kill-chain involved in the incident:

The US military “kill chain” involved in the Uruzgan incident comprised ground troops, referred to in the text as “Operational Detachment Alpha” (ODA), the Predator Drone operators based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the “screeners” processing information from the Predator video feeds at Hurlburt Field Base in Florida, and helicopter gunships known as ‘OH-58D’ in the text. The helicopters fired the actual missiles: but this was on the basis of decision made by drone operators based on their interpretation of what the screeners said.

But – as I’ll show in the second instalment – the kill-chain was far more extensive and included two Special Forces operations centers at Kandahar and Bagram that were responsible for overseeing and supporting the mission of ODA-3124.

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The significance of this becomes clearer – my second qualification – if the air strike in Uruzgan is analysed not in isolation but in relation to other air strikes that also produced unintended casualties.  As a matter of fact, official military investigations are required to be independent; they are not allowed to refer to previous incidents and, indeed, JAGs who advise on targeting do not routinely invoke what we might think of as a sort of ‘case law’ either.  But if this air strike is read in relation to two others – an attack by two F-15E strike aircraft on a tanker hijacked by the Taliban near Kunduz on 4 September 2009, and an attack carried out by a Predator in the Sangin Valley on 6 April 2011 – then revealing parallels come into view.  All three were supposed to involve ‘Troops in Contact’; the visual feeds that framed each incident – and through which the targets were constituted as targets – were highly ambiguous and even misleading; and the role of the ground force commander and the operations centers that were supposed to provide support turns out to have been critical in all three cases.

To be continued.

Playing a blinder

A characteristically smart post from Larry Lewis at War on the Rocks about Obama’s promise to investigate the mistakes made in the CIA-directed drone strike that unwittingly killed two hostages in Pakistan in January 2015.  ‘We’ve been on that path before, in Afghanistan,’ he writes, ‘and we know where it leads: more promises followed by a repeat of similar mistakes.’

Larry explains that the US military was causing an ‘unacceptable number’ of civilian casualties in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2009:

JCCSWhen an incident occurred, they investigated the incident, made changes to guidance, and promised to keep such an incident from happening again. But these incidents kept happening. So the military repeated this ineffective review process again and again. This “repeat” cycle was only broken when military leaders approved the Joint Civilian Casualty Study, a classified outside review requested by General Petraeus. This effort had two key differences from earlier efforts. First, it was independent, so it was able to overcome false assumptions held by operating forces that contributed to their challenges. And second, the study looked at all potential civilian casualty incidents over a period of years, not just the latest incident. This approach helped identify systemic issues with current tactics and policies as the analysis examined the forest and not just the nearest tree. This study also considered different sets of forces operating within Afghanistan and their relative propensity for causing civilian casualties.

You can access the unclassified Executive Summary – co-written by Larry with Sarah Sewell – here.  I’ve noted Larry’s important work on civilian casualties before – here, here and here – but his short Op-Ed raises two issues that bear emphasis.

The first is that it is a mistake to abstract strikes carried out by a Predator or a Reaper from air strikes carried out from conventional platforms; the latter are often facilitated and even orchestrated by a UAV – as in the ‘signature’ case of the Uruzgan strike in 2010 – but, pace some drone activists, our central concern should surely be the wider matrix of military violence.  This also implies the need to articulate any critique of CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan with the use of air power in Afghanistan (and not only because USAF pilots fly the ‘covert’ missions across the border).  Here General Stanley McChrystal‘s Tactical Directive issued in July 2009 that directly addressed civilian casualties is a crucial divide.   As Chris Woods emphasizes in Sudden Justice,

‘Radically different tactics were now being pursued on either side of the “AfPak” border…. Even as Stanley McChrystal was cutting back on airstrikes in Afghanistan, the CIA was escalating its secret air war in Pakistan’s tribal areas.’

The second issue is the extraordinary partitions – blinkers might be more accurate – that seem to be imposed on military operations and investigations.  In the case of the Uruzgan attack, for example, a military lawyer was called in at the eleventh hour to monitor the video feeds from the Predator as it tracked a ‘convoy’ (a term surely as leading as ‘Military-Aged Male’) in the early morning.  As the next two slides show, taken from my ‘Angry Eyes’ presentation, the JAG knew the Rules of Engagement (ROE) and the Tactical Directive; he obviously also knew the legal requirements of proportionality,  distinction and the rest.

Angry Eyes:1

Angry Eyes:2

Knowing the ROE, the Tactical Directive and the formal obligations of international law is one thing (or several things): but what about ‘case law’, so to speak?  What about knowledge of other, similar incidents that could have informed and even accelerated the decision-making process?  In this case, before the alternative course of action could be put into effect and an ‘Aerial Vehicle Interdiction’ set in motion – using helicopters to halt the three vehicles and determine what they were up to – two attack helicopters struck the wholly innocent ‘convoy’ and killed 15-21 civilians.  Fast forward to the subsequent, I think forensic Army investigation.  This is the most detailed accounting of a ‘CIVCAS’ incident I have read (and you’ll be able to read my analysis of it shortly), and yet here too – even with senior military legal advisers and other ‘subject experts’ on the investigating team – there appears to be no reference to other, similar incidents that could have revealed more of the ‘systemic issues’ to which Larry so cogently refers.

This is made all the stranger because there is no doubt – to me, anyway – that the US military takes the issue of civilian casualties far more seriously than many of its critics allow.

CIVCAS