Standing on occupied ground

This is Reading Week at UBC, so I’m doing just that…  At the AAG Annual Meeting in San Francisco there is a Plenary Session on Friday 1 April (sic) on Forging Solidarity: Taking a stand on Palestine:

In July 2015 the International Critical Geography Group convened its seventh conference in the occupied city of Ramallah, Palestine. The conference brought together scholars and activists committed to combating social exploitation and oppression. Altogether four hundred participants from over forty countries energetically took up issues on and beyond the violent frontlines of class, gender, race, sexual, and colonial divisions. Yet they also took critical steps beyond discussion and debate of our intellectual work towards concrete collective action. An example of this was the overwhelmingly vote of conference participants for a strong resolution to sign onto the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott and the broader Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The resolution adopted is both a political statement in solidarity with the anti-colonial struggle of our Palestinian comrades but also an agenda for a broader commitment to anti-capitalist, decolonial, anti-racist, feminist and queer social movements and struggles around the world against growing social, economic and political precarity, rising authoritarianism, encroachment of fundamental rights, dispossession, structural adjustment in the south and north, revanchism, ongoing colonization of public space, land and resources, the privatization of the commons, as well as structural and state-sanctioned violence against racialized, gendered, queer bodies, and other targeted bodies and communities.

Building on the momentum generated by the conference and this resolution, this discussion panel aims to open up a serious discussion about BDS and the academic boycott of Israel within the Association of American Geographers. This is, we believe, particularly relevant in light of the current situation in Palestine/Israel but also taking into consideration how academics from other professional organisations such as the American Anthropological Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Studies Association and the Native American Studies Association, as well as a number of student councils worldwide, have already endorsed this call for solidarity. Our distinguished panel of scholars and activists will speak out about the importance and the urgency to adopt a political stand on Palestine and to further the work of decolonizing the discipline of geography. In doing so, we hope to reaffirm a commitment to critical scholarship and praxis by encouraging and enabling spaces of political and conceptual possibility for geographers in solidarity with ongoing socio-political, economic and environmental struggles around the globe.


In the wake of that ICG Conference in Ramallah, David Lloyd‘s moving reflections on another conference/workshop in the same city, ‘Walter Benjamin in Palestine‘, repay careful reading:

Activism is in fact the antagonist of complacency and of the satisfaction with familiar protocols that dulls thinking and makes the institutionalized academic a little stupid. But activism is not always expressed in headlong mobilization or fervent debates, nor is thought only the forethought that shapes or the afterthought that reflects on practice. As “Benjamin in Palestine” exemplified, it can also take the form of deliberate thinking in common whose very exercise is a form of resistance, however limited. As the BDS movement continues to advance, perhaps workshops like these, which step beyond mere “severance of relations” (as Benjamin described the act of striking) to shape conditions for new modes of relation, may offer a way to think the future of our resistance to Israeli apartheid. Perhaps too it offers a model also for an alternative to the insidious corporatization of our intellectual and creative lives under the neoliberal dispensation we all confront, wherever we reside, and not only in occupied Palestine. That, indeed, may be the insight we have been gifted by those who daily struggle for the right to education in the face of dispossession.

BUTLER NotesIn its way this, too, is a modestly performative politics of assembly.  So it’s good to see that panelists at the AAG plenary include this year’s Honorary Geographer, Judith Butler; full list is here.  You can find Judith’s previous remarks on BDS (at Brooklyn College) here.

You can also find out much more about the American Anthropological Association’s stand (last year) here; the statement that accompanied the successful resolution is here; a series of FAQs (“Yes, but…”) is here; and other resources are here.

It’s opportune, too, that the latest issue of borderlands should be devoted to The politics of suffering – with a special focus on occupied Palestine.  Among the many truly excellent essays three stand out for me.

First, Suvendrini Perera‘s accomplished contrapuntal reading of transnational justice, ‘Visibility, Atrocity and the Subject of Postcolonial Justice‘, which proceeds’ through a series of key sites – Congo, Belgium, Nuremberg, Israel, Gaza – that links past and present, colonial and colonizing worlds’, and then focuses on the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians on the beaches of Mullivaikkal in northeast Sri Lanka:

In the context of the 2009 atrocities in Lanka, in this paper I attempt to think through a set of questions about visibility, witness, suffering, accountability and disposability as they are played out in the relations between the necro-geo-politics of global institutions and the patchworks of local and transnational movements that attempt to materialize peoples’ suffering and realize the possibility of justice within fragile and compromised frameworks.

Drone feed Gaza city November 2012

Second, Joseph Pugliese‘s characteristically innovative ‘Forensic ecologies of occupied zones and Geographies of dispossession: Gaza and occupied East Jerusalem‘:

In this essay, I work to develop what I term multi-dimensional matrices of suffering that envisage the understanding of suffering beyond the locus of the human subject. In my theorising of multi-dimensional matrices of suffering, I proceed to conceptualise the suffering experienced in occupied zones as both relational and distributed. In the occupied zone, suffering encompasses complex, multi-dimensional vectors that bind humans, animals, animate and non-animate objects and entities, buildings and land. In the context of the regimes of violence that inscribe occupied zones, I situate suffering, and a range of other affects, in ecological configurations that, through a range of forensic indices, evidence the impact of these regimes of violence on the broad spectrum of entities that comprise a particular occupied zone. The conceptualisation of suffering and trauma in occupied zones in terms of its relational multi-dimensionality, its site-specific matrices and relational distribution across ecologies, I conclude, enables an understanding of suffering that moves beyond anthropocentric approaches. I situate my analysis in the context of Israel’s drone-enabled regime of unrelenting surveillance, occupation and military control over Gaza [see image above] and its continuing occupation of East Jerusalem.

It really is a tour de force, only too literally so, and builds not only on Joe’s brilliant State violence and the execution of law and his previous research but also on Jane Bennett‘s work and – as the title signposts – on Eyal Weizman‘s project of forensic architecture.  It’s doubly important because so much critical writing on military drones has virtually nothing to say about Israel’s use (and sale) of them.

Finally, Jasbir Puar‘s ‘The ‘right’ to maim: Disablement and inhumanist biopolitics in Palestine‘:

This essay argues that Israel manifests an implicit claim to the ‘right to maim’ and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control and as central to a scientifically authorized humanitarian economy. In this context, the essay tracks the permeating relations between living and dying that complicate Michel Foucault’s foundational mapping of biopower, in this case, the practice of deliberate maiming. In doing so it demonstrates the limitations of the idea of ‘collateral damage’ that disarticulates the effects of warfare from the perpetration of violence, and notes that the policy of maiming is a productive one, a form of weaponized epigenetics through the profitability of a speculative rehabilitative economy.

This too is meticulously argued and imaginatively constructed, and adds important dimensions to my posts about Israel’s war on Gaza and, in particular, my preliminary speculations about the prosthetics of military violence.

Another Manhattan Project

I still regard Postmodern geographies as Ed Soja‘s finest book – his most considered and his most creative – and within that his essay on ‘Taking Los Angeles Apart‘ is surely the stand-out contribution.  By turns playful and passionate, it’s packed with insights about Los Angeles and late modern cities.  I discussed it at length in Geographical imaginations – the book not the blog – but the essay has come back to haunt me ever since I learned of an extraordinary new book which I know Ed would have read with the greatest interest.

KISHIK The Manhattan Project

It’s David Kishik‘s The Manhattan Project, which I stumbled across because of its title and my new-found interest in seeing drones through post-atomic eyes.  But it’s not about that Manhattan Project at all.  Instead, it riffs on Benjamin’s Arcades Project in the most astonishing of ways:

In The Manhattan Project, David Kishik dares to imagine a Walter Benjamin who did not commit suicide in 1940, but managed instead to escape the Nazis to begin a long, solitary life in New York. During his anonymous, posthumous existence, while he was haunting and haunted by his new city, Benjamin composed a sequel to his Arcades Project. Just as his incomplete masterpiece revolved around Paris, capital of the nineteenth century, this spectral text was dedicated to New York, capital of the twentieth. Kishik’s sui generis work of experimental scholarship or fictional philosophy is thus presented as a study of a manuscript that was never written.

The fictitious prolongation of Benjamin’s life will raise more than one eyebrow, but the wit, breadth, and incisiveness of Kishik’s own writing is bound to impress. Kishik reveals a world of secret affinities between New York City and Paris, the flâneur and the homeless person, the collector and the hoarder, the covered arcade and the bare street, but also between photography and graffiti, pragmatism and minimalism, Andy Warhol and Robert Moses, Hannah Arendt and Jane Jacobs. A critical celebration of New York City, The Manhattan Project reshapes our perception of urban life, and rethinks our very conception of modernity.

Another good friend who is sadly no longer with us, Allan Pred, would surely have relished that too. I’m sure Ed would have insisted that Benjamin would never have gone to New York and that, in common with Adorno, he would have sought refuge in L.A. (where else? In fact Adorno left New York for LA, though it’s impossible to think of Ed calling that ‘exile’).

You can read the Introduction to The Manhattan Project here and an extract from the first chapter here; there’s also an extended interview with David about the project here.

Finally, there’s an excellent review by Dustin Illingworth at The Brooklyn Rail here.  When Dustin says this –

Like Borges’s “Aleph,” New York is “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.” It is therefore much to Kishik’s credit that his slim volume, a drop in the vast ocean of literature on the city, packs such a considerable theoretical punch.

– then we are back with Ed Soja’s essay, which also began with an appeal to The Aleph and also packed a considerable theoretical punch.

Spaces of Danger

Spaces of Danger

On the same day I heard the news of Ed Soja‘s untimely death I received my copy of Spaces of Danger: culture and power in the everyday, a volume in the University of Georgia Press’s Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series.  It’s a collection of essays edited by Heather Merrill and Lisa Hoffman: all of the contributors have been inspired by the work of another friend who I also miss very much, Allan Pred.

These twelve original essays by geographers and anthropologists offer a deep critical understanding of Allan Pred’s pathbreaking and eclectic cultural Marxist approach, with a focus on his concept of “situated ignorance”: the production and reproduction of power and inequality by regimes of truth through strategically deployed misinformation, diversions, and silences. As the essays expose the cultural and material circumstances in which situated ignorance persists, they also add a previously underexplored spatial dimension to Walter Benjamin’s idea of “moments of danger.”

The volume invokes the aftermath of the July 2011 attacks by far-right activist Anders Breivik in Norway, who ambushed a Labor Party youth gathering and bombed a government building, killing and injuring many. Breivik had publicly and forthrightly declared war against an array of liberal attitudes he saw threatening Western civilization. However, as politicians and journalists interpreted these events for mass consumption, a narrative quickly emerged that painted Breivik as a lone madman and steered the discourse away from analysis of the resurgent right-wing racisms and nationalisms in which he was immersed.

The Breivik case is merely one of the most visible recent examples, say editors Heather Merrill and Lisa Hoffman, of the unchallenged production of knowledge in the public sphere. In essays that range widely in topic and setting—for example, brownfield development in China, a Holocaust memorial in Germany, an art gallery exhibit in South Africa—this volume peels back layers of “situated practices and their associated meaning and power relations.” Spaces of Danger offers analytical and conceptual tools of a Predian approach to interrogate the taken-for-granted and make visible and legible that which is silenced.


1 Introduction: Making sense of our contemporary moment of danger


Trevor Paglen: Angelus Novus (from back)

2 Katharyne Mitchell: It’s TIME: The cultural politics of memory in the current moment of danger

3 Gunnar Olsson: Skinning the Skinning


Trevor Paglen: From Allan’s notes on Benjamin

4 Gillian Hart: Exposing the Nationa: entanglements of race, sexuality and gender in post-apartheid nationalism

5 Heather Merrill: In other for(l)ds: situated intersectionality in Italy

6 Damani Partridge: Monumental memory, moral superiority, and contemporary disconnects: racisms and noncitizen in Europe, then and now


Trevor Paglen: From Allan’s notes on Benjamin

7 Richard Walker: The city and economic geography: then and now

8 Shiloh Krupar: Situated spectacle: cross-sectional soil hermeneutics of the Shanghai 2010 World Expo


Trevor Paglen: Angelus Novus

9 Michael Watts  Insurgent Spaces: power, place and spectacle in Nigeria

10 Nancy Postero: Even in plurinational Bolivia: indignity, development and racism since Morales

11 Derek Gregory: Moving targets and violent geographies


12 Cindi Katz: A Bronx chronicle

There’s also a warm and exquisitely written Foreword by Paul Rabinow, who co-taught a graduate course with Allan at Berkeley, which ends like this:

‘Dame Fortune smiled on me when she sent Allan Pred my way.  I am forever in her debt.  The glimmers of hope in these dark times continue to emanate from those rare friends, not just their magnificent work, but the way they lived – the way they patiently, unobtrusively, daringly and thoughtfully taught us how to live.’

The stunning cover image, Travelers, is by Allan’s hyper-talented daughter Michele: it shows scissors confiscated at US airports and now suspended under a vast umbrella.  Spaces of Danger indeed.

Casualties of war

As most readers will know, there has been a lively debate – at once profoundly philosophical and intensely practical – about what counts as a ‘grievable’ (and indeed survivable) life after military and paramilitary violence, and on the calculus of war-time casualties.

Two reports released yesterday conclude that recording and analysing data on the casualties of conflict and armed violence (both those killed and those who survive their wounds) can improve the protection of civilians and save lives.  The first, by Action on Armed Violence, is called Counting the Cost and surveys ‘casualty recording practices and realities around the world’:

Counting the costThe AOAV report shows that transparent and comprehensive information on deaths and injuries can protect civilians and save lives. The numbers of casualties have always been a contentious issue, generally dominated by secretive counting criteria, and public numbers that have been dictated more by political agendas than evidence. In other cases, the arguments have been dictated simply by the use of different estimating techniques. An example in this sense has been the debate on the total number of people that were killed during the Iraq War between Iraq Body Count and a survey published in the Lancet medical journal. The Lancet estimated over 650,000 deaths due to the war, more than 10 times the number of deaths estimated by the Iraq Body Count for the same period. A series of articles arguing for one or the other have highlighted how different systems to estimate number of deaths can lead to very different end results.

What the AOAV new report confirms is that when transparency both in the numbers produced as well as the techniques used to record them are clear and public, the debates around these numbers can be overcome. For Serena Olgiati, report co-author, “transparency makes it clear that this data is not a political weapon used to accuse opponents, but rather a practical tool that allows states to recognise the rights of the victims of violence.”

I have a more reserved view about a ‘transparent’ space somehow empty of politics – and we all know what the first casualty of war is – but the report is more artful than the press release suggests: it begins by invoking Walter Benjamin on Klee’s Angel of History:

“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees on single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm1.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote these words in 1940 as he saw Europe engulf in flames. Within the year he had taken his own life on the French-Spanish border, the threat of deportation to a Jewish concentration camp seemingly too great for him to bear.

They are words that resonate as much today as they did then. Syria is engulfed in flames, Iraq descends back into the abyss and gun violence takes thousands of lives a week. The single catastrophe the Angelus Novus sees in the 21st century has to be the terrible harm caused by armed violence, a harm estimated to take over half a million lives a year.

Seeing this harm in its entirety is a gruelling task. Recording the true toll of armed violence reveals hard truths: it tells of underlying prejudices, of racism, of sexism: humanity’s ugliness. But only by turning behind us and calculating how many people have died and have been injured in a conflict, in a slum area, in a city in the grip of violence, can we ever begin to address the impact that armed violence has.

The report provided an analytical overview and a series of case studies (Colombia, Thailand and the Phillipines).

Counting the Cost Infographic

The second report is from the Oxford Research Group and is part of its Every Casualty program (see my post here).  In this report the ORG reviews the United Nations and Casualty Recording:

ORG-UN-and-CR Cover_1It concludes that when the UN systematically records the direct civilian casualties of violent conflict, and acts effectively on this information, this can help save civilian lives. However, casualty recording is not currently a widespread practice within the UN system.

The report recommends that the advancement of casualty-recording practice by the UN in conflict-affected countries should be pursued, as this would have clear benefits to the work of a range of UN entities, and so to the people that they serve.

This report looks at experiences of, and attitudes towards, casualty recording from the perspectives of UN staff based in New York and Geneva that we interviewed. It includes a case study of UN civilian casualty recording by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s Human Rights unit. Finally, the report discusses challenges to UN casualty recording, and how these might be met.

Theory of the drone 8: From invisibility to vulnerability

This is the eighth in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone and covers the third chapter in Part II, Ethos and psyche.

3: Crisis in military ethos

The track that Chamayou beats in this chapter is (perhaps appropriately) a tortured one: it twists from the invulnerability of the hunter through his defencelessness to his vulnerability to psychic harm.  And, as you’ll see, those gendered pronouns are a critical part of his argument.

Gyges (left) from Der König Kandaules

He begins with the story of Gyges.  In classical mythology Gyges was a shepherd who discovered a magical ring that could make him invisible.  Armed with his new power, Gyges eventually killed the king, married the queen and seized the throne.  ‘Invisibility’, Chamayou notes, ‘conferred upon him a kind of invulnerability.’  In Plato’s Republic the story is used to ask searching questions about virtue and justice: what happens to morality, to virtue, if it becomes possible to evade responsibility for one’s actions?

The dilemma is no longer confined to the realm of story-telling or philosophical speculation, Chamayou argues, because the thought-experiment has been realised through the political technology of the drone.  The modern answer to Plato’s question is now all too clear: invisibility produces not only invulnerability but also impunity.  In fact, in an Op-Ed last year on ‘The moral hazard of drones’ two American academics, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, suggested that the myth of Gyges does indeed find its most telling contemporary application in the use of drones for remote killing:

One might argue that the myth of Gyges is a suitable allegory to describe the combatants who have attacked and killed American civilians and troops in the last 10 years. A shepherd from the Middle East discovers that he has the power of invisibility, the power to strike a fatal blow against a more powerful adversary, the power to do so without getting caught, the power to benefit from his deception. These, after all, are the tactics of terrorism.

But the myth of Gyges is really a story about modern counterterrorism, not terrorism.

We believe a stronger comparison can be made between the myth and the moral dangers of employing precision guided munitions and drone technologies to target suspected terrorists. What is distinctive about the tale of Gyges is the ease with which he can commit murder and get away scot-free. The technological advantage provided by the ring ends up serving as the justification of its use.

Terrorists, whatever the moral value of their deeds, may be found and punished; as humans they are subject to retribution, whether it be corporal or legal. They may lose or sacrifice their lives. They may, in fact, be killed in the middle of the night by a drone. Because remote controlled machines cannot suffer these consequences, and the humans who operate them do so at a great distance, the myth of Gyges is more a parable of modern counterterrorism than it is about terrorism.

[You can find a different version of their critique of drone warfare, which mercifully leans on materiality rather than mythology, in ‘The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in contemporary conflict: a legal and ethical analysis’, Polity  44 (2012) 260-85, available on open access here; as I’ll show in a later post, that essay intersects more directly and substantially with Chamayou’s own critique].

Chamayou accepts the force of Plato’s original question, and evidently applauds the way in which Kaag and Kreps bring it to bear on the present,  but he thinks there is another way of putting it.  Not ‘can the invisible person be virtuous?’ but ‘what sort of “virtue” is invoked by the modern Gyges?’

He develops his answer through a thumb-nail sketch of what he sees as both a crisis in and a transformation of military ethos.  Traditional military ethos privileged courage, sacrifice and heroism, qualities that worked to make killing (Chamayou actually says ‘butchery’) acceptable, even glorious.  These virtues gave war what Clausewitz saw as its presumptive moral force, which depended on a fundamental reciprocity (sometimes called the combatant’s privilege): in order to kill with honour, the soldier must be prepared to die.  War then becomes the supreme ethical experience: ‘To wage war is to learn to die.’

But what happens, Chamayou wants to know, when all of this (apart from the killing) becomes unnecessary? When it becomes possible to kill without the risk of dying?  If the combatant’s privilege is annulled, doesn’t killing become the height of cowardice and dishonour? In the contemporary age of what Edward Luttwak called ‘post-heroic war’ – what former Air Chief Marshall Brian Burridge famously and more bluntly described as ‘virtue-less war’ – those traditional military virtues are threatened.  In short, it’s not only those living under drones who see these new weapons as cowardly, and Chamayou believes that the contradiction between the new technical means of waging war and the traditional ideology that is supposed to inform its prosecution has provoked a profound crisis in the military ethos.

In fact, he says, some of the fiercest critics of remote killing are pilots of conventional strike aircraft. Chamayou cites this song written by two F-16 pilots, Chris Kurek and Rob Raymond, who perform as Dos Gringos (more here – really):

They shot down a Predator, that’s one less slot for me
They shot down a Predator and it filled my heart with glee
I had a smile when I logged on to AFPC
They shot down a Predator, that’s one less slot for me

They shot down a Predator and I say let’s send some more
Let’s fly ‘em over Baghdad and then see what’s in store
‘Cause I heard that the Air Force wants another 24
They shot down a Predator and I say let’s send some more

They shot down a Predator and I wonder how that feels
For that operator who lost his set of wheels
It must feel so defenseless; it’s like clubbing baby seals
They shot down a Predator and I wonder how that feels

As this clip makes clear, the hostility is about more than military values: the USAF now trains more crews for remote operations than for flying conventional aircraft.  But the values in question are given a particular inflection.  It would be a mistake to read ‘clubbing baby seals’ in the last verse as a reference to striking a target that can’t strike back.  After all, the song is about a Predator being shot down, and so it homes in on their inability to fight back: on their inability to engage in combat.

What is at stake here, Chamayou suggests, is a series of ‘manly’ and masculinist virtues and even virilities.  The complaint is that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are literally ‘un-manned’ – their ‘pilots’ are not real pilots and not even real men. (You can find much more on this martial emasculation in Mary Manjikian, ‘Becoming Unmanned’ [International Feminist Journal of Politics (2013) doi: 10.1080/14616742.2012.746429]).

Even so, Chamayou is sceptical about the history being (re)written through these and similar objections.  Before announcing the end of the era of ‘manly’, heroic warfare, he suggests (in an obvious echo of Bruno Latour), we ought to ask whether ‘we’ moderns have ever fought heroic wars.  He draws attention to Walter Benjamin‘s scathing critique of a collection of essays edited by Ernst Jünger under the title War and Warrior in 1930:

‘These authors nowhere observe that the new warfare of technology and material [Materialschlacht] which appears to some of them as the highest revelation of existence,dispenses with all the wretched emblems of heroism that here and there have survived the [First] WorldWar.’

UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft SystemsFaced with this storm of criticism, Chamayou suggests, military ethicists have found it necessary to erect an altogether different version of virtuous war.  If the drone is to be considered ‘virtuous’, several writers have argued, it is first and foremost because it rules out the possibility of casualties on ‘our’ side. Chamayou will have more to say about this in a later chapter on combatant immunity, but for now he finds confirmation in a Ministry of Defence report on The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems in 2011 that, even as it acknowledged the ethical issues involved in abandoning the combatant’s privilege, nevertheless concluded that ‘use of unmanned aircraft prevents the potential loss of aircrew lives and is thus in itself morally justified.’

Statements like this bring into view an ongoing transformation from an ethic of sacrifice and courage to an ethic of auto-preservation (and, Chamayou adds, of cowardice): a sort of Revolution in Moral-Military Affairs.  The scale of traditional values is reversed, and in an Orwellian inversion words come to mean their opposite.  What used to be called cowardice is now called bravery, assassination becomes combat, and the spirit of sacrifice is turned into an object of opprobrium.  In Chamayou’s view we are witnessing not so much ‘virtue-less war’ as a vast operation to re-define the ‘virtues’ of war.


Chamayou fastens on the the Pentagon proposal late last year to award combat medals to drone operators.  Finally announcing the Distinguished Warfare Medal in February 2013, the Pentagon issued this statement:

Modern technology enables service members with special training and capabilities to more directly and precisely impact military operations at times far from the battlefield.  The Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded in the name of the secretary of defense to service members whose extraordinary achievements, regardless of their distance to the traditional combat theater, deserve distinct department-wide recognition.  

 “I have seen first-hand how modern tools like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems have changed the way wars can be fought,” said Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta.  “We should also have the ability to honor extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight.”

The proposal set off a firestorm of protest in Congress and within the Air Force and online military forums.   It was withdrawn for review in less than a month and rescinded by Panetta’s successor in April.

The saga doesn’t quite do the work Chamayou wants it to do.  He uses it to reflect on the meaning of ‘bravery in combat’ – after all, he asks, what can bravery mean in circumstances ‘physically removed from the fight’? – but the Pentagon statement made it clear that the medal was to be awarded ‘for actions in any domain but not involving acts of valor.’

Still, this does not diminish the force of Chamayou’s main line of inquiry.  From the testimony of drone operators, he concludes that bravery consists not in them putting their lives on the line but in seeing the consequences of their actions online.  Drone crews are supposed to be so deeply affected by the high-resolution full-motion video feeds from their Predators and Reapers, which show in intimate detail the corporeal results of the strikes for which they are responsible, that they become highly vulnerable to Post-Traumatic Sress Disorder.  Traditionally bravery involved putting your physical body in danger; Chamayou says that it now it seems to involve putting your psychic being at risk.

This amounts to the elevation of what he calls a ‘purely psychic heroism’.  In previous wars the soldier was both the vector of violence and its potential victim, because the reciprocity of combat called on warriors to be at once executioner and potential victim.  Today the remote warrior is still required to be the executioner, but he can also become the psychological victim of his duty as executioner.

Jane Addams and delegates to the Hague conference in 1915

Chamayou is troubled by this for two reasons.

First, the idea of psychic vulnerability – of the damage inflicted on soldiers by the trauma of killing – was given form and substance in the First World War. In 1915  Jane Addams (above) – who will, I suspect, be known to most human geographers for her other achievements, particularly her work at Hull House in Chicago – returned from the International Congress of Women at the Hague to deliver a stunning address at Carnegie Hall on “The Revolt against War”.  In it, Chamayou tells us, she spoke of nurses treating ‘delirious soldiers [who] are again and again possessed by the same hallucination – that they are in the act of pulling their bayonets out of the bodies of men they have killed’, and of five young soldiers who committed suicide ‘not because they were afraid of being killed but because they were afraid they might be put into a position where they would have to kill someone else.’  To overcome these inhibitions, she noted, soldiers were routinely given a shot of rum before they went over the top.  Addams used these testimonies to develop a courageous and principled critique of military violence, and in 1931 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  (Read her Peace and Bread in time of war here). To Chamayou’s evident disgust, the trauma of war that Addams and others exposed is now being recycled into a legitimation of targeted killing.  Like a snake eating its tail, trauma is being mobilised to restore to war the ethico-heroic temper Addams insisted it had lost through trauma.

But, second, as I’ll show in the next post in this series, Chamayou is deeply sceptical of what he calls ‘the psychopathologies of the drone’.

One last comment before I go.  I don’t think the deployment of armed drones is provoking a wholesale transformation of military ethics, because that would be to absolutise their use.  The Air Force still flies conventional strike aircraft, troops are still deployed on the ground (including Special Forces) and – as the controversy over the medal confirms – the Pentagon still insists on a difference between distinguished service and bravery.  I don’t mean that drones do not raise serious ethical questions; of course they do, and I am dismayed at how often these are trumped by arguments about the legality of military violence.  But military violence takes many different forms, and it’s important not to lose sight of the larger killing fields in which drones are embedded.

Theory of the drone 6: Sacrifice, suicide and drones

This is the sixth in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.  I had planned to cover Part II, Ethos and psyche, in a single post, but I’ve received several requests not to speed up, so I’m continuing chapter by chapter, with supplementary readings and comments as I go.

1.  Drones and kamikazes

Soon after Oliver Belcher started his research programme with me – and I’m delighted to say his thesis on ‘The afterlives of counterinsurgency’ has now been submitted – we had one of many rich conversations about what he called ‘the art of war in an age of digital reproduction’.  The reference, of course, was to Walter Benjamin‘s famous essay, usually translated as ‘The work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction.’  This seems to be widely regarded as the standard, even canonical version since its inclusion in the volume of Benjamin’s essays edited by Hannah Arendt and published as Illuminations.

But it has a more complicated history.  Here is Eric Larsen:

‘After fleeing the Nazi government in 1933, Benjamin moved to Paris, from where he published the first edition of “Work of Art” in 1936. This publication appeared in French translation under the direction of Raymond Aron in volume 5, no. 1 of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Benjamin subsequently rewrote the essay and after editorial work by Theodore and Margarethe Adorno it was posthumously published in its commonly recognized form in his Schriften of 1955.’

Benjamin Work of ArtIn fact there were four versions of the essay, and several critics regard the second version as the most daring of all (you can find the third version here).  In the third volume of Harvard’s Selected Writings this is translated as ‘The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility’ (1936) – it’s also available separately in the little book shown on the left – and includes this remarkable passage in an expanded Section VI:

Compared to that of the machine age, of course, this [pre-historic] technology was undeveloped. But from a dialectical stand-point, the disparity is unimportant. What matters is the way the orientation and aims of that technology differ from those of ours. Whereas the former made the maximum possible use of human beings, the latter reduces their use to the minimum. The achievements of the first technology might be said to culminate in human sacrifice; those of the second, in the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew. The results of the first technology are valid once and for all (it deals with irreparable lapse or sacrificial death, which holds good for eternity). The results of the second are wholly provisional (it operates by means of experiments and endlessly varied test procedures). The origin of the second technology lies at the point where, by an unconscious ruse, human beings first began to distance themselves from nature.  It lies, in other words, in play.

It’s extraordinary to read these words 75 or so years after Benjamin wrote them, and their intimations of armed drones and even the supposed ‘Playstation mentality’ that misguides those who operate them (though I think that argument misunderstands the extraordinary immersive capacity of videogames, but that’s another story that I’ve told elsewhere).

Chamayou starts his exploration of ‘Ethos and psyche’ by invoking yet another version of Benjamin’s iconic essay, but his basic point shines through the version I’ve quoted above.  His purpose is to juxtapose one technology or at least its limit-case, sacrifice, which engages the human in the most direct and intimate way possible, once and for all, to another, from which (so he says) the human is disengaged in a mechanical act that is, in principle, endlessly repeatable.

Yet it turns out that this isn’t an historical succession in any simple sense at all: what Chamayou sees instead are two different genealogies – the kamikaze pilot and suicide-bomber on one side and the drone on the other – entwined in a truly deadly embrace.

The linchpin of his argument is provided by a Russian emigré engineer working for RAC, Vladimir Zworykin. Apparently alarmed by press reports in 1934 that the Japanese were considering the formation of a ‘Suicide Corps to control surface and aerial torpedoes’, Zworkyin proposed to use technology to counter the threat.  Previous experiments with radio-controlled aerial torpedoes were all very well, but these were ‘blind weapons’ that inevitably lacked precision.  The Japanese proposed to solve the  problem by using human pilots to guide the explosive platform on to its target – Zworykin’s contrary solution was to guide the aerial torpedo through an ‘electric eye’ (a sort of proto-television).

Zworykin aerial torpedo

The torpedo would be a glider,

‘carried on an airplane to the proximity of where it is to be used, and released.  After it has been released the torpedo can be guided to its target with shortwave radio control, the operator being able to see the target through the “eye” [or Iconoscope] of the torpedo as it approaches.’

In 1935 Zworykin submitted a memorandum to the War and Navy Departments describing a television-controlled missile that could be guided beyond the line of sight, and five years later the US approved ‘Project Block‘ for RCA to develop TV-guided ‘assault drones’ in concert with the US Navy.  When the first Japanese kamikaze units were formed they were indeed deployed against naval targets – but this wasn’t until 1944, so I’m not sure about the source of those much earlier reports that fired Zworykin’s imagination.

I described some earlier experiments with aerial torpedoes here, and you can find much more about Zworykin here and in Alexander Magoun‘s Television: the life story of a technology, pp. 78-84.  He notes that the US Army Air Force was a latecomer to these experiments, and didn’t demonstrate a TV-controlled drone until October 1943, largely because its major investment was in heavy bombers capable of inflicting major destruction on cities and military-industrial targets.  Project Aphrodite did experiment with the use of television to guide war-weary Flying Fortresses filled with explosives and napalm on to targets in Germany, but the attempts were largely unsuccessful and singularly irrelevant to the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II.

Nevertheless, Chamayou argues that to some degree Zworykin had identified the core principle that would later be used to develop the smart bomb and the drone.  His sharper point is that the forerunner of the drone was an anti-kamikaze; sharper because this conceptual origin places the drone within a distinctive ethico-technical economy of life and death.

This ethico-technical economy can be read as an ethic of heroic sacrifice on one side and an ethic of auto-preservation on the other, each a mirror image of its other, ‘two visions of horror’.    Chamayou joins several other commentators to connect the kamikaze attacks of the Second World war to suicide-bombers today, and so argues that in the global North today the cardinal opposition is usually expressed as ‘defiance of death’ versus ‘love of life’: the frequently repeated claim, as at once an explanation and a condemnation of suicide-bombing, that ‘they’ don’t value life as much as ‘we’ do.  Yet, as Chamayou insists, it’s not ‘life in general’ that we value at all: it’s our lives that we cherish.

To develop this argument (which he will later elaborate in other dimensions), Chamayou cites Richard Cohen‘s editorial in the Washington Post on 6 October 2009:

As for the Taliban fighters, they not only don’t cherish life, they expend it freely in suicide bombings. It’s difficult to imagine an American suicide bomber.

He then uses anthropologist Hugh Gusterson‘s response to sharpen his point still further.  Gusterson wonders, with Jacqueline Rose,  why ‘dropping cluster bombs from the air is not only less repugnant [than suicide bombing]: it is somehow deemed, by Western leaders at least, to be morally superior.’  He then reverses the terms of the argument (and in going so prefigures Chamayou’s own argument about the substitution of hunting for combat in many areas of later modern warfare and about the colonial antecedents of drone strikes):

ASAD On suicide bombing[M]any people in the Middle East feel about U.S. drone attacks the way Richard Cohen feels toward suicide bombers. The drone attacks are widely perceived in the Middle East as cowardly, because the drone pilot is killing people on the ground from the safety of an air-conditioned pod in Nevada, where there is no chance that he can be killed by those he is attacking. He has turned combat into hunting. In this regard, the drone is the culmination of a long tradition of colonial war-fighting technologies — going back at least to the machine guns with which British and French colonial soldiers mowed down spear-carrying Africans –that ensure that the “natives” die, in an unfair fight, in considerably larger numbers than the colonial soldiers.

The drone operator is also a mirror image of the suicide bomber in that he too deviates, albeit in the opposite direction, from our paradigmatic image of combat as an encounter between warriors who meet as equals risking the wounding or killing of their own bodies while trying to wound or kill the others’ bodies. The honorable drama of combat lies in the symmetrical willingness of warriors to wager their bodies against each other for a cause. But now, in the words of the anthropologist Talal Asad, in his book On Suicide Bombing, U.S. “soldiers need no longer go to war expecting to die, but only to kill. In itself, this destabilizes the conventional understanding of war as an activity in which human dying and killing are exchanged.”

But there are two other twists to this story that Chamayou doesn’t pursue.

First, in his essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Gusterson confounds Cohen’s difficulty in imagining ‘an American suicide bomber’ like this:

‘For decades loyal U.S. soldiers in nuclear missile silos have trained to launch their weapons in the expectation that they would be killed almost immediately afterwards in the ensuing nuclear war. I once interviewed a former special-forces officer who was trained to hike behind enemy lines with a tactical nuclear weapon on his back and place it near an important target. Although the weapon had a timer, he expected to die at ground zero.

If such men were the elite nuclear suicide bombers whose mission was prepared but never carried out, the Cold War turned the whole country into a suicide bomber rehearsing obsessively for the moment when we would “push the button” and take down millions of our enemies with us. Seen in this light, Americans trained for the biggest suicide bombing mission of all.’

Second, there have been ‘successful’ American suicide bombers.  To some historians the first candidate is Andrew Kehoe, who set off an explosion at a schoolhouse in Bath, Michigan in May 1927, killing 44 people, before setting off dynamite in his truck and killing himself and several other people.  Whether you count this as a suicide bombing in the modern sense of the term depends on the criteria you think appropriate.  Many commentators exclude Kehoe and identify three other, more recent American suicide bombers: Shirwa Ahmed, who drove a car bomb into a government compound in Puntland in October 2008, killing as many as 30 people; Farah Mohamed Beledi, who killed himself and three soldiers at a military checkpoint in Mogadishu in June 2011; and Abdisalan Hussein Ali, who attacked African Union troops in Mogadishu six months later.  All three were Somali-Americans who had lived in Minnesota and were recruited by al-Shabaab.

But to exclude Kehoe and claim that these three were not ‘really American’ is to immediately trigger one of Chamayou’s key arguments about the ways in which killing and dying in the age of the drone are racialized.  More soon.


As I finished up this post,  I discovered a young American performance artist, Ethan Fishbane, whose show American Suicide Bomber Association has been staged in New York and previously in Indonesia and South Africa.

Apparently he threw one of his stage ‘bombs’ into the garbage last week and unwittingly set off a bomb scare in Manhattan.

“I felt the response [by the police] was wholly appropriate,” he said. “Even if it’s just a prop for a theater piece, they were on top of it.”