Anxious Mo(ve)ments: Precision Guided Munitions and the Spatio-Temporal Delusions of Targeting

“[T]he desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet”

(Watts, 2011 [1951]: Loc. 818-820)

The logic of contemporary warfare has many different strands, but all, it seems, are characterised in some way by illusions of control: control over certain objects, over the future, over language. What’s more, this control is brazenly understood as being potentially absolute. There is no room for relativity in the discourse of the warring nation.

Therefore, where terms such as ‘clean’ and ‘precise’ are mobilised, it is with ignorance to their inherent relations to dirt and imprecision. In her discussion of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) for example, Maja Zehfuss (2011) explains in detail the multiple ways by which the associated meanings of that word – ‘precision’ – diverge in one direction from its use as a technical classification, and in the other from the reality of the weapons to which it is attached.

Traditionally, Zehfuss tells us, bombing from the air was an imprecise practice. A bomb might fall anywhere within 1000 metres of its target. The contemporary methods, the PGMs, by contrast, are said to be ‘precise’ because their guidance – either by GPS or laser systems – allows the likely radius of the target to be reduced from 1000 to between 3 and 13 metres. However, the difference between the traditional and the modern is not quite as great as it first seems. The military’s technical classification of precision is expressed in Circular Error Probable (CEP), a measurement of range which accounts for only 50% of the bombs that fall. The other 50%, Zehfuss notes, are granted no recognition: they simply fall elsewhere.

Through this ostracism, the use of the word ‘precision’ belies the continuation of an approach which assesses itself primarily from the perspective of the intended target. Either the target is hit, or it is missed. Correspondingly, risk is primarily interpreted not as the possibility of killing civilians, but as the possibility of not killing potential threats. And, if the risk is ‘not killing’, then the task of reducing it becomes a question of how to kill more thoroughly.

A strategy of insurance against imprecision – a strategy undifferentiated from ‘precision’ itself – is achieved by increasing the quantity of destruction delivered. In World War II – the blitz or the firebombing of Dresden – this involved many bombs of a small payload; now, it means fewer bombs which produce a considerably larger ‘lethal radius’. As in preparation for the hammering of a nail, a precise mark is drawn upon the surface of the proposed target. Yet, when the hammer falls, the point of the nail does not connect quite so accurately as the crosshairs suggest, perhaps slips, and then opens up a large, ungraceful hole as the tip enters and widens to its full beam.

Tracking Movements: The Denial of the Future

Already it is clear that a considerable gap exists between the usual cultural meaning of ‘precision’, and its realities in the context of PGMs. Furthermore though, since this rift is both vital to, and depends upon, the blotting out of the indiscriminate and chaotic moment of destruction, the military discourse has sought to distance itself even further by giving precision a more extreme, absolutist, definition.  The new definition aims to deny the chaotic moment by claiming to exercise control over it in advance, extending the notion of precision out into the future, thus refusing the possibilities of its inherent relativity. Imprecision, the very reason for precision to exist – as its counter, its sparring partner – is exorcised, thrown from the ring in this new absolutism.

By proxy to this refusal of imprecision, what the new meaning of precision also refuses is the realm in which imprecision resides: the future; or rather, the fundamental difference between the present and the future, the fact that the future does not (yet) exist. It is possible to argue that the present is a moment over which we have some degree of control. We might say, for instance, that when crosshairs are placed upon a target, they are done so according to the best, most up-to-date intelligence which the military possesses. However, to have control of this moment alone is no-longer good enough. In the face of mobile threats whose shadows are cast by politicians, and thrown long by media, the disjointedness of moments between a relatively assured present and an uncertain future breeds a deep feeling of anxiety.

In response to the unfortunate fact that the enemy moves, the military have sought to replace the two distinct moments of ‘taking aim’ and ‘firing’, the reactive moments of old-fashioned fighter pilots, with a smooth and uninterrupted process of ‘targeting’. The target moves in two vital senses: First, from non-threatening to threatening, or from potentiality to actuality, potentiality being the present state of an anticipated future. This notion has been covered well by James Der Derian among others: the body which is targeted is not the actualised ‘terrorist’ but the ‘terrorist’ coming into being, which is at present the body planning, plotting, or – since we may not be able to identify the plotting body with any certainty – the body meeting, talking, gathering with groups of other suspicious bodies in suspicious spaces, spaces previously deemed threatening in themselves, whether places of worship, or military ‘compounds’, or even an entire region or ‘rogue state’. In fact, it is increasingly the case that the term terrorist is conflated, via another term, militant, with the body of the not-yet-terrorist.

The process of targeting is an attempt therefore to cope with the movement of present into future, and the other, second kind of movement, geographical movement, which comes part and parcel with it. The problem with this transition, with claiming the “capability for total monitoring of any significant element moving on the surface of the earth”, is that it is in denial: it is in denial of the fact of the future as a realm that is ultimately beyond control (Virilio, 2007 [2000]: 19). It throws a rope into the future by claiming that there are no moments – along the path between the present moment and the moment when the target is destroyed – at which the objects, the missile and its target, are not under the subject’s control. As a result of the apparent cyborg state of the contemporary military subject – the drone pilot in particular – not only surrounded by but at one with, made up of the full input of ‘real-time’ intelligence, this control over movement amounts to ‘precision’ as it is fantasised by the tsars of technology.

Final Mo(ve)ments: The Ultimate Impossibility of Control

The fantasy of control exposes itself I think in its last resort assurance: the claim that, should the worst kind of movement, the movement of the target to within range of an unacceptable amount of civilian presence, occur, the PGM can simply ‘duck out’. Taking a simple everyday example, we can understand both the ultimate futility of this claim, and the true logic of the discourse as a whole. If you live in an urban area like me, you have, perhaps a thousand times, had the experience of walking towards a stranger coming at you on the same side of the pavement. Regardless of our grand experience, when it happens just once more, we are again faced by the same blank impossibility of knowledge. We spot them from a fair distance – our civilian target, as it were, whom we wish to avoid – so we have plenty of time; plenty of time between now, the present, and then, the future in which we imagine, with anxiety, smashing heads with the other person, or, with relief, passing smoothly by them. But despite the time we tell ourselves we have, we do not really have it at all, just as we do not have the other person. All that matters is that, from one moment to the next, as we approach, we twist and turn our body from one side of the path to the other, and it is purely a matter of chance as to whether the other will do the same. Really, it makes no difference whether we move or not, or at what moment(s), but we do it anyway because we wish to delude ourselves in the face of anxiety; because we believe that the self-deception will appease our psychological state.

“…at some point the weapon will be out of control. It will be beyond our intentions, in the realm of the future”

(Zehfuss, 2011)

Technology throws a rope, but the future cannot be lassoed. It is not something which may be tamed, reeled back in to our present moment. Nonetheless, political and military officials, large swathes of the media, and much of the Western public comfort themselves with the belief that it can. Like two strangers approaching one-another on the same side of the street, we combat our fears, though not our realities, with our own twists and turns, repeated technological innovations each one more ‘ethical’ and ‘precise’ than the last.

In this delusional state, it is not only precision which has mutated to suit our beliefs; the meaning of pre-emption too, has been blurred into that much more vague and distant concept of prevention. Despite the stated allegiance to the former policy, action is taken in advance not because the movement of the other can be pre-empted, but precisely because it can’t.

The point beyond control, though it may be postponed, can never be obliterated. As Zehfuss notes, this point may even occur after the weapon has struck. It may, for example, fail to detonate. According to Carl Conetta (2004: 24), 5-10% of guided cluster bomb munitions malfunction in this way, leaving ordinance buried in the earth, to be discovered in an ungoverned future by whosoever happens to have the misfortune of coming across it. In another sense, the weapon, or the conflict in general, can have a plethora of long-term effects. With NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbian electricity generators in mind, Paul Virilio alerts us to the fact that an infrastructural form of violence, inflicted unfortunately, but not unintentionally, upon the civilian population, is increasingly relied upon for the fighting of modern wars. In spite of their low payload, the graphite bombs used in the offensive were ‘soft’ only in appearance, for it was known that the explosion of graphite in a high-voltage environment “would act like an electric arc…produc[ing] a serious fire and a terrible detonation (Virilio, 2007 [2000]: 27).

Make it Look Like an Accident: Death, Anxiety, and the Ignorance of the Present

The bomb’s explosion contains both the loud, quick blast of a past moment and this slow present participle of debilitating violence: “It exploded; we are suffering”. The misconception that we can track, and thus exercise control over, future mo(ve)ments leads us to foreclose considerations of what might occur beyond our intentions. Rather than being open to the future possibilities deriving from present actions – therefore taking some form of responsibility for them – everything that we did not intend is thrown outside, classed as an accident, some strange event without cause.

Here we have two seemingly contradictory tactics unified into a single strategy: on the one side, a tactic of pre-emption that feigns the ability to predict the future in order to justify taking action in advance; on the other, a “militarization of the accident” that feigns the inability to foresee a range of possible unfortunate futures in order to justify that same action retroactively, thus eluding criminal accountability (Virilio, 2007 [2000]: 55).

The taming of chance, as Ian Hacking (1990) once called it, is really a taming of anxiety, that present moment of not knowing with regards to the future. This not knowing is, of course, the condition of life itself. As Zehfuss (2011) states with precision, “[l]ife always interferes”. The tragic irony is that those twists and turns, those innovations employed to soothe our anxiety, serve only to work us up into an even more frenzied state. When they are so obsessively and thoughtlessly devised, securitising innovations can so easily become the root of the anxiety itself.

For Alan Watts (2011 [1951]), we fail to recognise the law of reversed effort: that sometimes, the more one tries to stay on the surface of the water, the more one sinks, but when one tries to sink, one floats. By the same token, our obsession with the anxious fiction of the future leads us to ignore the present moment, an ignorance which amounts to nothing less than the negation of life, that is, a self-inflicted death. Whereas we often refer to the act of suicide as the negation of the future, a future life, Watts turns the notion on its head, begging the question of whether that physical self-destruction which we call suicide is really only the post-factum of a life which has already been ended, or at least suspended, by anxiety. The tragedy of suicide is thus not that “they had so much to live for”, but that they were forced to consider this potentiality, this target of opportunity, to such an extent that they found themselves unable to live life itself.

The West accuses suicide bombers of cowardly tactics, of refusing to take responsibility for the violence they inflict by removing themselves from the scene, yet when their own forces militarize the accident, they also employ suicide as a strategy of warfare. In the same way, they absent themselves from the consequences of their actions; they too search for certainty, security; an end to anxiety, only to realise that they must escape responsibility for life – both their life and the lives of others – in order to find it.


Conetta, C. (2004). ‘Disappearing the Dead: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Idea of a “New Warfare”’. Project on Defense Alternatives. Research Monograph No. 9, 18/02/2004. Available at:

Hacking, I. (1990). The Taming of Chance. Cambridge University Press.

Virilio, P. (2007 [2000]). Strategy of Deception (Trans. C. Turner). London & New York: Verso.

Watts, A. (2011 [1951]). The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. New York: Vintage Books [Kindle Version].

Zehfuss, M. (2011). ‘Targeting: Precision and the Production of Ethics’. European Journal of International Relations. 17(3), 543-556.


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