Several years ago we were in Dubrovnik and visited War Photo‘s mesmerising exhibition space in the old town; part of it was devoted to a permanent exhibition documenting the wars in the former Yugoslavia, but part of it was given over to a visiting exhibition by Maria Turchenokova. One image has haunted me ever since: two or three desperately young Yemeni children, standing in a narrow, shallow crevice in the ground, half-covered by a sheet of rusted corrugated iron: this was their ‘air raid shelter’. I’ve since searched for the image many times, without success; this isn’t it, but the photograph (of a man peering out of a “shelter” on the outskirts of Saada in 2015) conveys something of the vulnerability of ordinary Yemenis:
ACLED notes: ‘Around 67% [over 8,000] of all reported civilian fatalities in Yemen since 2015, resulting from direct targeting, have been caused by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, making the Saudi-led coalition the actor most responsible for civilian deaths…. Air and drone strikes were especially deadly for civilians in 2015 and during the Hodeidah offensive in 2018.’
The Yemen Data Project provides this timeline of air strikes (there’s also an interactive map by governorate on the same page):
You can find a summary version of the report from Rod Austin at the Guardianhere, which concludes with this prescient observation:
Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a member of the committee on arms export controls, said: “These statistics simply underline the fact that our government has enabled Saudi Arabia to destroy the social fabric of an entire country for money. I shudder to think of the consequences of our dirty war in Yemen. A generation of Yemenis now hate Britain as much as they hate the Saudi royal air force that is dropping our bombs on them.”
If you are puzzled by those sentiments, then you should read Arron Merrat‘s in-depth report from the previous week, ‘The Saudis couldn’t do it without us’: the UK’s true role in Yemen’s deadly war’, here:
For more than four years, a brutal Saudi air campaign has bombarded Yemen, killing tens of thousands, injuring hundreds of thousands and displacing millions – creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And British weapons are doing much of the killing. Every day Yemen is hit by British bombs – dropped by British planes that are flown by British-trained pilots and maintained and prepared inside Saudi Arabia by thousands of British contractors.
The Saudi-led military coalition, which includes the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, has “targeted civilians … in a widespread and systematic manner”, according to the UN – dropping bombs on hospitals, schools, weddings, funerals and even camps for displaced people fleeing the bombing.
Saudi Arabia has in effect contracted out vital parts of its war against Yemen’s Houthi movement to the US and the UK. Britain does not merely supply weapons for this war: it provides the personnel and expertise required to keep the war going. The British government has deployed RAF personnel to work as engineers, and to train Saudi pilots and targeteers – while an even larger role is played by BAE Systems, Britain’s biggest arms company, which the government has subcontracted to provide weapons, maintenance and engineers inside Saudi Arabia.
Arron documents the dispersed geography of contracted-out aerial violence in forensic detail:
The British bombs that rain down on Yemen are produced in three towns: Glenrothes in Scotland, and Harlow and Stevenage in south-east England. Bombs roll off production lines owned by Raytheon UK and BAE Systems, firms contracted by the government to manufacture Paveway bombs (£22,000 apiece), Brimstone bombs (£105,000 apiece), and Storm Shadow cruise missiles (£790,000 apiece) for the Saudi Royal Air Force. BAE, under government contract, also assembles the jets that drop these bombs in hangars just outside the village of Warton, Lancashire.
Once these weapons arrive in Saudi Arabia, Britain’s involvement is far from over. The Saudi military lacks the expertise to use these weapons to fight a sustained air war – so BAE, under another contract to the UK government, provides what are known as “in-country” services. In practice, this means that around 6,300 British contractors are stationed at forward operating bases in Saudi Arabia. There, they train Saudi pilots and conduct essential maintenance night and day on planes worn out from flying thousands of miles across the Saudi desert to their targets in Yemen. They also supervise Saudi soldiers to load bombs on to planes and set their fuses for their intended targets.
Around 80 serving RAF personnel work inside Saudi Arabia. Sometimes they work for BAE to assist in maintaining and preparing aircraft. At other times they work as auditors to ensure that BAE is fulfilling its Ministry of Defence contracts. Additional RAF “liaison officers” work inside the command-and-control centre, from where targets in Yemen are selected.
The image below shows crews from Britain’s Royal Air Force and the Saudi Royal Air Force involved in a joint training exercise, ‘Saudi British Green Flag 2018’. According to a report in Arab News:
The exercise aims to improve the overall combat readiness of the Saudi Air Force and increase the capacities of crews and personnel through a series of training flights of varying complexity. It allows both forces to share technical knowledge and learn about how the other operates.
Maj. Gen. Haidar bin Rafie Al-Omari, commander of the air base and the exercise, said it is a critical part of this year’s training plan for the armed forces.
“The Green Flag Exercise involves all our air force combat systems supporting Operation Decisive Storm and Operation Restoring Hope (in Yemen),” he added.
“The British Royal Air Force aims to integrate all combat systems, including air combat, air support and electronic warfare, and especially how to use them against the enemy’s land defense systems for maximum operational efficiency.”
‘Restoring Hope’; ‘operational efficiency’: the absurdist language is truly rebarbative.
Arron notes the pariah status of the UK and the US in these joint air wars, even if he doesn’t call it that:
The UK government’s argument that it does not pick the targets in Yemen resembles nothing so much as the logic of the American gun lobby, with its infamous claim that it’s not guns that kill people, but the people who use them. Since 2016, many countries have revoked or suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia – including Austria, Belgium, Germany, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. But Britain and the US, whose planes constitute the backbone of Saudi Arabia’s combat fleet, are still holding out.
There’s more – much more – in the full report.
There is a welcome sting in the tail: on 20 June the UK Court of Appeal ruled that arms sales to Saudi Arabia were illegal – albeit in one respect (but none the less a vital one).
British arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been ruled unlawful by the court of appeal in a critical judgment that also accused ministers of ignoring whether airstrikes that killed civilians in Yemen broke humanitarian law.
Three judges said that a decision made in secret in 2016 had led them to decide that Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Liam Foxand other key ministers had illegally signed off on arms exports without properly assessing the risk to civilians.
Sir Terence Etherton, the master of the rolls, said on Tuesday that ministers had “made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so”.
As part of its case the government had argued that RAF training (those ‘Green Flag’ exercises captured above, and those ‘in-country services’ described in Arron’s analysis) had made Saudi compliance with international humanitarian law more likely, but their case was shredded. Mark Townsend reported:
‘[C]ourt documents from the case show that indiscriminate bombing of civilians by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen took place after British training – sometimes almost immediately after. Three days after Britain provided training – between 27 July and 14 August 2015 – up to 70 people were killed by airstrikes and shelling at the port at Hodeidah.
The following month airstrikes on a wedding in the village of Wahijah, near the Red Sea port of al-Mokha, killed at least 135 people.
In October 2015 repeated airstrikes on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Haidan occurred, despite the hospital’s GPS coordinates being shared with the coalition. The episode prompted the UK to provide further training to the Saudi air force between October and January, including targeting training.
However, in March 2016 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition on a crowded village market in Hajjah province killed 106 people. Days later deadly attacks struck a civilian building in the city of Taiz.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against ArmsTrade, which brought the case, said: “We are always being told how positive the UK’s influence supposedly is on Saudi forces, but nothing could be further from the truth. The atrocities and abuses have continued unabated, regardless of UK training and engagement.
“The training and rhetoric has only served to provide a figleaf of legitimacy to a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”
Not incidentally: if you’re wondering about US involvement – not something that Donald Trump wonders about – then I recommend the President’s favourite newspaper, the New York Times, and its interactive report ‘Saudi Strikes, American Bombs, Yemeni Suffering‘ here (which also draws on the Yemen Data Project), together with Declan Walsh‘s report, ‘Saudi Warplanes, mostly made in America, still bomb Yemeni civilians‘ here. These should be read in conjunction with geographer (yes!) Samuel Oakford‘s report on the inability of the US to track its fuel supply for the Saudi military mission in Yemen and his subsequent report for the Atlantic (which includes characteristically sharp and well-informed commentary from Larry Lewis).
The latest issue of the wonderful Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)’s Middle East Report on ‘The Fight for Yemen‘ is now available online:
The ongoing war in Yemen that began in 2015 has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. The scope of destruction and human suffering is catastrophic: hundreds of thousands are dead from bombing, war-related disease and malnutrition and millions remain on the brink of famine without access to drinking water or medicine. While critical awareness of the magnitude of the crisis is growing, the political and economic roots of the crisis and the complex realities of Yemeni political life are often obscured by misunderstandings. Contributors to The Fight for Yemen disentangle the social, political and economic factors that are behind the war, the cataclysmic impact of the war on Yemeni society, particularly its women, and introduce readers to the complex realities within Yemen in order to create a just peace. Middle East Report 289 is partially available on-line with full access to all the articles available to our subscribers.
Toward a Just Peace in Yemen – Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Jillian Schwedler
The Saudi Coalition’s Food War on Yemen – Jeannie Sowers
Yemen’s Women Confront War’s Marginalization – Afrah Nasser
Yemen and the Imperial Investments in War – Priya Satia
Ambitions of a Global Gulf – Adam Hanieh
The Saudis Bring War to Yemen’s East – Susanne Dahlgren
American Interventionism and the Geopolitical Roots of Yemen’s Catastrophe – Waleed Hazbun
Roundtable: Three Women Activists Advancing Peace in Yemen – Stacey Philbrick Yadav
Progressive Surge Propels Turning Point in US Policy on Yemen – Danny Postel
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.
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 asymmetriceffacement. 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.
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 formas ‘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.
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).
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‘…
… 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:
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  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 McQuillancalls ‘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.
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:
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).
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?
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:
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).
Yet 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‘.
It’s not easy to keep track of the intensifying civil war/proxy war in Yemen, but the New York Times has published a series of maps – including the one below – that sketch out some of the contours of violence.
Not surprisingly, the Saudi-led air strikes (‘Operation Decisive Storm’ – really) have been ineffective in halting the advance of the Houthis; in fact, they may be counterproductive. Three days ago senior United Nations officials warned that the loss of civilian lives and the repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure may constitute grave violations of international law, and there are now reports that US officials are also becoming alarmed at the mounting toll of civilian casualties.
The United States is, of course, intimately involved in the air campaign. According to the Los Angeles Times:
Pentagon officials, who pride themselves on the care they take to avoid civilian casualties, have watched with growing alarm as Saudi airstrikes have hit what the U.N. this week called “dozens of public buildings,” including hospitals, schools, residential areas and mosques. The U.N. said at least 364 civilians have been killed in the campaign.
Although U.S. personnel don’t pick the bombing targets, Americans are working beside Saudi military officials to check the accuracy of target lists in a joint operations center in Riyadh, defense officials said. The Pentagon has expedited delivery of GPS-guided “smart” bomb kits to the Saudi air force to replenish supplies.
The U.S. role was quietly stepped up last week after the civilian death toll rose sharply. The number of U.S. personnel was increased from 12 to 20 in the operations center to help vet targets and to perform more precise calculations of bomb blast areas to help avoid civilian casualties.
U.S. reconnaissance drones now send live video feeds of potential targets and of damage after the bombs hit. The Air Force also began daily refueling flights last week to top off Saudi and United Arab Emirates fighter jets in midair, outside Yemen’s borders, so they can quickly return to the war.
You could be forgiven for thinking this a bit rich. The US has long been waging its own air campaign in Yemen:
The NYT map above is derived from the vital work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and you can find its detailed accounting of drone strikes in Yemen here. Drone strikes have not been suspended during the new air offensive: earlier this week Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula announced that one of its most prominent spokesmen and clerics, Ibrahim al-Rubeish, had been killed by a US drone strike near the coastal city of al Mukalla.
Readers will know that there has been considerable critical discussion of civilian casualties caused by the programme of targeted killing in Yemen (and elsewhere): so much so that on 23 May 2013 the Obama administration issued a Presidential Policy Guidance [PPG] for the use of force ‘outside the United States and areas of active hostilities’ that supposedly imposed more stringent restrictions on its use of (para)military violence outside ‘hot battlefields’ like Afghanistan.
The guidelines affirmed a preference for ‘capture’ over ‘kill’ – ‘The policy of the United States is not to use lethal force when it is feasible to capture a terrorist suspect, because capturing a terrorist offers the best opportunity to gather meaningful intelligence and to mitigate and disrupt terrorist plots’ – and so limited the use of lethal force to situations where ‘capture is not feasible at the time of the operation‘. That last clause –my emphasis – clearly provides wide latitude for elevating ‘kill’ over capture’, but for a recent, vigorous discussion of the kill/capture debate prompted by the arrest and indictment of Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh earlier this month, see David Cole on ‘Targeted killing’ here.
In addition, crucially, the PPG required there to be a ‘near certainty’ that civilians would not be killed or injured during the operation.
Yet even when the guidelines were issued, they were ambiguous. As Ryan Goodmanpointed out, grey zones remained:
The notion of “areas of active hostilities” essentially refers to geographic zones where belligerents engage in sustained fighting. It is a term of art, as far as we can tell, developed by the administration at an unknown date, and not found in international law. In congressional testimony, the administration has stated that it considers Afghanistan an area of active hostilities, and it considers Yemen (despite frequent drone operations in that country) and Somalia outside the area of active hostilities.
Ryan’s discussion focused on the ambiguous location of Pakistan in this atlas of violence, and in particular the Federally Administered Tribal Areas: were they inside or outside “areas of active hostilities” (or even ‘half-in, half-out’)? Since then, clearly, Yemen too may have been repositioned by Obama’s cartographers: it’s surely difficult to maintain the pretence that it is now not an ‘area of active hostilities’.
Their joint report, Death by Drone: civilian harm caused by targeted killing in Yemen, investigates nine US air strikes carried out between May 2012 and April 2014, and is based on interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses, relatives of individuals killed or injured in the attacks, local community leaders, doctors and hospital staff who were involved in the treatment of victims, and Yemeni government officials:
The nine case studies documented in this report provide evidence of 26 civilian deaths and injuries to an additional 13 civilians. This evidence casts doubt on the U.S. and Yemeni governments’ statements about the precision of drone strikes. Yemen’s President Abdu Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi praised U.S. drone strikes in Yemen as having a “zero margin of error” and commented that “the electronic brain’s precision is unmatched by the human brain.” The United States government has similarly emphasized that the precision afforded by drone technology enables the U.S. to kill al-Qaeda terrorists while limiting civilian harm…
[T]his report provides credible evidence that civilians were killed and/or injured in all nine airstrikes, including four which post-date President Obama’s [PPG] speech. To be sure, it is possible—owing to a mistake or an unforeseeable change of circumstances that manifests between the ordering of a strike and its occurrence—for civilians to be killed or injured despite a near-certainty prior to the strike that this would not happen. Nonetheless, the evidence of civilian deaths and injuries in nine cases raises serious concerns about the effective implementation of the “near-certainty” standard.
And in paragraphs that will be dismally familiar to anyone who has read the Stanford/NYU report on Living under drones in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the authors add:
The testimonies in this report describe desperately poor communities left to fend for themselves amid the devastation caused by U.S. drone strikes. Mothers and fathers who lost their children in drone strikes speak of inconsolable loss. They speak of their children’s bodies charred beyond recognition. Wives speak of losing their breadwinners, and of young children asking where their fathers have gone. The victims of these strikes say that these strikes will not make the United States or Yemen safer, and will only strengthen support for al-Qaeda.
The report also describes the terrorizing effects of U.S. drones on local populations. In many of the incidents documented, local residents had to live with drones continually flying overhead prior to the strikes and have lived in constant fear of another attack since. Some fled their villages for months after the strike, and lost their source of livelihood in the process. Survivors of the attacks continue to have nightmares of being killed in the next strike. Men go to their farms in fear. Children are afraid to go to school.
The Executive Summary is here, and you can download the full 123pp report here.
As I am (at last) moving into the finishing stages of my ‘Dirty Dancing’ essay on CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, it’s time to round up some of the latest work on drones and civilian casualties across multiple theatres.
First, Afghanistan: the principal theatre of US remote operations. I’ve noted Larry Lewis‘s remarkable work before (here and here), based on classified sources, and in particular this claim (see also here):
Drone strikes in Afghanistan were seen to have close to the same number of civilian casualties per incident as manned aircraft, and were an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement.
As I said at the time, the distinction between an ‘incident’ and an ‘engagement’ is crucial, though most commentators who have seized on Larry’s work have ignored it and focused on the dramatic difference in civilian casualties per engagement. Despite my best efforts, the Pentagon were unwilling to clarify the difference, so here is what Larry himself has told me:
An engagement is probably intuitively what you would expect – the use of force against a target. The distinction is the term incident, which is borrowed from ISAF definitions. I should have said “civilian casualty incident.” This refers to an engagement that results in civilian casualties.
This means that, if you look at the collection of civilian casualty incidents, the average number of civilian casualties is close to the same for manned and unmanned platforms. At the same time, the rate of civilian casualties for the two platforms is markedly different, with unmanned platforms being ten times more likely to cause civilian casualties than manned platforms. That doesn’t mean that drones caused more civilian casualties than manned aircraft, by the way, since the denominators (number of engagements of manned aircraft versus drones) can and in fact were very different. But it does suggest that the relative risk of civilian casualties was higher for one kind of platform versus the other.
And this is in the specific context of Afghanistan and for a specific time. I wouldn’t want to say that this specific rate would be repeated, necessarily. Yet there were certain risk factors I observed in the civilian casualty incidents that I would expect to continue to be factors unless steps were taken to mitigate them.
Larry’s most recent report, Improving lethal action: learning and adapting in US Counterterrorism Operations, is available here. It includes an analysis of the Uruzgan air strike that is central to my ‘Angry Eyes’ essay (next on my to-do list).
[The short clip above is from Baden Pailthorpe‘s stunning animation MQ-9 Reaper (That Others May Die) (2014) – you can find much more here]
You might think that all of this is now of historical interest since President Obama has declared the end of the Afghanistan war. Not so. Here is John Knefelwriting in Rolling Stone this week:
Though many Americans may not have realized it, December 28th marked what the U.S. government called the official end of the war in Afghanistan. That war has been the longest in U.S. history – but despite the new announcement that the formal conflict is over, America’s war there is far from finished. In fact, the Obama administration still considers the Afghan theater an area of active hostilities, according to an email from a senior administration official – and therefore exempts it from the stricter drone and targeted killing guidelines the president announced at a major speech at the National Defense University in 2013.
“Afghanistan will continue to be considered an ‘area of active hostilities’ in 2015,” the official tells RS. “The PPG does not apply to areas of active hostilities.” (PPG stands for Presidential Policy Guidelines, the formal name for the heightened drone rules.)
That perplexing distinction – that formal combat operations are over but that the U.S. still remains in an armed conflict – in many ways exemplifies the lasting legacy of Obama’s foreign policy.
If you assume the situation in Pakistan is somehow less ambiguous, read Ryan Goodman on ‘areas of active hostilities’ over at Just Securityhere (I’m having to sort all this out for ‘Dirty Dancing’, of course).
Second, the Bureau of Investigative Journalismhas released its end-of-year report on US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in 2014, which includes these tabulations of casualty rates for the first two countries:
The Bureau comments:
While there have been more strikes [in Pakistan] in the past six years, the casualty rate has been lower under Obama than under his predecessor. The CIA killed eight people, on average, per strike during the Bush years. Under Obama, it is less than six. The civilian casualty rate is lower too – more than three civilians were reported killed per strike during the past presidency. Under Obama, less than one. There were no confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistan in the past year, as in 2013….
The frequency of strikes [in Yemen] may have fallen in 2014 but more people were killed, on average, per strike than in any previous year. The casualty rate for last year even outstrips 2012 – the bloodiest year recorded in the US’s drone campaign in Yemen when at least 173 people were reported killed in 29 strikes. In 2014 at least 82 people were reported to have died in just 13 strikes.
You can find the Long War Journal‘s tabulations for Pakistan here and Yemen here.
Third, Israel. I’ve commented previously on an interview with an Israeli drone pilot, but it’s been difficult to put his observations in context (though see here and scroll down to the tabulations). Now Ann Rogers, who wrote Unmanned: drone warfare and global security (Pluto, 2014) with John Hill – as good an introduction to drone wars as you will find – has just released an essay on ‘Investigating the Relationship Between Drone Warfare and Civilian Casualties in Gaza‘. It’s in a special issue of the open-access Journal of Strategic Security 7 (4) (2014) on ‘Future challenges in drone geopolitics’. Here’s the abstract:
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are increasingly touted as ‘humanitarian’ weapons that contribute positively to fighting just wars and saving innocent lives. At the same time, civilian casualties have become the most visible and criticized aspect of drone warfare. It is argued here that drones contribute to civilian casualties not in spite of, but because of, their unique attributes. They greatly extend war across time and space, pulling more potential threats and targets into play over long periods, and because they are low-risk and highly accurate, they are more likely to be used. The assumption that drones save lives obscures a new turn in strategic thinking that sees states such as Israel and the US rely on large numbers of small, highly discriminating attacks applied over time to achieve their objectives. This examination of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza argues that civilian casualties are not an unexpected or unintended consequence of drone warfare, but an entirely predictable outcome.
It’s an interesting essay, but I fear that it takes the Israeli military at its word. Ann repeatedly refers to Israel’s ‘discriminating’ targeting:
‘The central point is that drones enabled the IDF to undertake detailed, extensive, and discriminating targeting of Gaza, before and during the actual fighting. The killing of civilians may be down to differing interpretations of military necessity, or in some cases, in how combatants and non-combatants are distinguished from one another. But it is the drone gaze that enables these targets to be ‘called into being’ (p. 102)…
‘As Israeli targeting of Gaza appears to have been highly discriminating, a more serious problem may lie in how its view of legitimate attacks differs from the global “norm.” (p. 104).’
I commented on Israeli attacks on hospitals and ambulances last summer here, here and here, and on the wholesale destruction of Gaza here and here, so I confess I am at a loss for words. But she is right to emphasise the operative power of international humanitarian law and its protocols of distinction (discrimination) and proportionality – though, as often as not, these seem to have been inoperative in anything other than a rhetorical sense. For much more on this, and the way in which military lawyers are incorporated into Israel’s kill-chains, you should click across to Craig Jones‘s War, Law and Space. All of which makes the Palestinian decision to seek membership of the International Criminal Court all the more important (there’s a good commentary on the wider legal issues by David Luban at Jus Security here and by a clutch of commentators at the Middle East Research and Information Project‘s blog here). Perhaps not surprisingly, Daniel Reisner, the former head of the Israeli military’s International Law Department, has condemned the Palestinian application as ‘a belligerent act within the framework of the non-physical and kinetic world of lawfare.’
Finally, the US-led air strikes on IS/ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. Here we know much less than we should, not least because the Pentagon knows much less than it should. Here is Nancy Youssefreporting earlier this week:
In a war fought largely from the air and in places no one can safely go, the impact is as opaque as the war itself, making it difficult to measure whether the U.S. and coalition effort is working.
“We don’t have the ability to count the nose of every guy we schwack,” as Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, using military jargon [sic] for killing. “That’s not the goal.”
Presumably, that also means the Pentagon can’t count how many civilians it has accidentally killed in the name of ridding the region of ISIS.
Drone Wars UK has an excellent survey of the logistics of air operations over Iraq and Syria from Chris Colehere, and the New York Times has produced a useful interactive map of US-led air strikes from which I’ve snipped this summary:
We don’t know how many of these were carried out by drones or even orchestrated by them, but as their limitations are becoming clearer it’s reasonable to assume that most involved conventional strike aircraft. We do know that targeting involves the analysis of video feeds from both remote and conventional platforms, and that CENTCOM has had considerable difficulty in juggling the competing demands for ISR from Afghanistan and from Iraq/Syria.
According to a report this week from W.J. Hennigan, who visited the USAF’s 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia:
In a vast windowless room, several dozen intelligence analysts worked under the glow of more than 100 computer screens, quietly studying video streaming from U.S. drones and spy planes hunting for Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
One team searched the incoming video to find a firefight underway between Iraqi security forces and militants somewhere south of the insurgent-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq.
For four hours, the analysts pored over the imagery before identifying 20 positions where the militants were dug in with machine guns and other weaponry. After the analysts called in the coordinates, 15 jets from five countries pounded the targets with more than two dozen bombs.
The Dec. 5 airstrike, one of 462 last month, underscores the Pentagon’s increased reliance on personnel far from the battlefield… Air Force analysts here stand — or rather sit — on the virtual front lines by tracking Islamic State fighters in a war zone some 6,000 miles away.
But here’s the rub:
Unlike in past wars, when U.S. troops on the ground helped provide targeting information and intelligence, commanders in the battle against Islamic State rely chiefly on airborne surveillance, captured communications chatter, signals intelligence and other material that is processed by analysts here.
U.S. officers said the video-watching analysts working half a world away are no match for spotters and other troops feeding intelligence from the front lines.
“We don’t have anywhere near the level of intelligence we used to,” Lt. Col. Marc Spinuzzi, a senior intelligence officer, wrote in an email from Baghdad. The analysts are under “a lot of pressure … to clearly distinguish friend from foe, and to pick out the enemy from the civilian population” on the battlefield.
That is precisely how mistakes are made and civilians killed. And, as Robert Naimanpointed out,
“There is a big danger here that U.S. air strikes in Syria are going to resemble the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the sense that there is no accountability for who is killed. We have reports of civilian casualties from people in the area and the U.S. government says, ‘No, they are bad guys.’ There has to be some public accountability for what happens when there are allegations of civilian casualties.”
At least the Pentagon has now gone some way towards recognising the problem. Previously it had insisted that it was unaware of any civilian casualties, which is disingenuous: it beggars belief that 1,000 air strikes could have resulted in no civilian casualties – but if your ISR is inadequate it’s scarcely surprising that you would be ‘unaware’ of the consequences. Even so, on 6 January the Pentagon announced that it had investigated 18 allegations of coalition airstrikes causing civilian casualties between 8 August and 30 December. It determined that 13 were ‘not credible’, but was continuing to review three others; a further two, one in Iraq and one in Syria, are now the subject of formal military investigations. But before you gold your breath, both Iraq and Syria are also exempt from the Presidential Policy Guidelines that require a ‘near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’. Here is Harold Koh(really):
‘They seem to be creating this grey zone… If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.’
Hard on the heels of its report into six US targeted killings in Yemen in 2009 and 2012-13, Human Rights Watch has published a detailed analysis by Letta Tayler of another drone strike carried out by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) against a wedding convoy on 12 December 2013. According to Greg Miller in the Washington Post,
The report represents the most detailed independent examination to date of a strike that has focused attention on the administration’s struggles to tighten the rules for targeted killing, provide more information about such operations to the public and gradually shift full control of the drone campaign from the CIA to the Pentagon.
There is considerable evidence of covert US-Pakistan co-operation in targeting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see here and here), but in the case of Yemen the collaboration is more overt and perhaps even more formalised: Yemen’s President described a ‘joint operations room’, including agents/officers from the US, the UK, NATO and Yemen that ‘identifies in advance’ prospective targets (who are usually described as members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).
In this case, as in so many others, the United States has insisted that all those killed were terrorists, but HRW’s on-the-ground interviews (and videos) tell a different story. After a wedding feast at the home of the bride, many of the men and some of the women jumped into their vehicles to escort the bridal couple to a second celebration at in the groom’s village of al Jashem 35 km away.
At 4.30 that afternoon four Hellfire missiles struck the vehicles, killing at least 12 men and wounding at least 15 others – who are named and identified in the HRW report, and according to relatives all civilians.
‘We were in a wedding,’ cried the groom, ‘but all of a sudden it became a funeral. …We have nothing, not even tractors or other machinery. We work with our hands. Why did the United States do this to us?’
The US isn’t saying, and HRW notes that accounts from the government of Yemen have been inconsistent – though the local governor an military commander apologies for the killings, describing them as ‘a mistake’. Some reports agreed that some of those targeted were Al-Qaeda members – though if so, it seems they escaped: AQAP has not identified ‘martyrs’ lost in the attack, which is its invariable practice – and some claimed that the victims included ‘smugglers and arms dealers’.
But they also all made it clear that this was a wedding convoy that was targeted, and the government of Yemen has made compensation payments to the families.
HRW discusses the implications of the killings under the different legal regimes of international humanitarian law (the ‘laws of war’) and international human rights law, but also notes that the attack seems to have violated the protocols set out by the Obama administration in May 2013. These included the ‘near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured…’
NBC – which also has video of the aftermath of the strike – reported in January that the Obama administration was carrying out an ‘internal investigation’, but nothing has been forthcoming and questions from HRW were rebuffed. All we have so far is this extraordinary statement, reported by Rooj Alwazirfor al Jazeera:
“Obviously, broadly speaking, we take every effort to minimise civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations – broadly speaking, without speaking to this one specifically,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said when asked about the strike.
‘Broadly speaking’, what is it about weddings that those carrying out air strikes don’t understand?
It’s not difficult to imagine what those who attended the wedding will remember of that day. But in case it is,Reprieve (which carried out its own investigation into the strike) has published photographs of some of the victims and their families – and of a funeral of nine people.
UPDATE: AP is now carrying sketchy information about the official investigation into the strike:
Three U.S. officials said the U.S. government did investigate the strike against al-Badani — twice — and concluded that only members of al-Qaida were killed in the three vehicles that were hit…
Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of Joint Special Operations Command, ordered an independent investigation by an Air Force general and the White House requested another by the National Counterterrorism Center. Both concluded no civilians were killed. Votel’s staff also showed lawmakers video of the operation. Two U.S. officials who watched the video and were briefed on the investigations said it showed three trucks in the convoy were hit, all carrying armed men.
The report provides no basis for the identification of the victims as non-civilians. Human Rights Watch had already questioned the presence of armed men as indicative:
‘Nearly everyone in the procession was an adult male, and one Yemeni government source said many of the men carried military assault rifles. But these details do not necessarily point to involvement in violent militancy. Yemeni weddings are segregated, including the traditional journey to bring the bride to her new home. And Yemeni men commonly travel with assault rifles in tribal areas, including in wedding processions, when celebratory gunshots are common.’
But here is the final Catch-22:
The officials said the Pentagon can’t release details [of the strike or the investigation] because both the U.S. military and the CIA fly drones over Yemen. By statute, the military strikes can be acknowledged, but the CIA operations cannot. The officials said that if they explain one strike but not another, they are revealing by default which ones are being carried out by the CIA.