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.

References

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: http://www.comw.org/pda/fulltext/0402rm9.pdf

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.

Perception, Deception, and Drone Warfare: Clean Discursive Fantasy and the Messy Space of ‘Play’

In a previous post, I developed a number of ideas brought forward by Derek Gregory, and talked about the concept of distance or separation in the context of drone warfare, attempting to reposition the primary separation from between the drone pilot and the victim of the drone’s violence – where it is often presumed to be – to between us, the body of individuals whom make up the public, and the phenomenon of war as a whole.

Drone Perception Graphic

The reality of war has always, and increasingly, concerned its perception. In this way, we can view the two positions above as being part of a causal relationship. That is, the reality of the separation at point 2 is exacerbated by the perception shown at point 1. For the extent to which, in spite of our best intentions, we (and thus our politicians) can escape a feeling of responsibility for the violence of drone warfare by separating ourselves from its horrors is dependent upon the extent to which we can deny the fact of this separation to ourselves, and lay the blame for our ignorance elsewhere. Even those of us who do not buy the notion that drone warfare is entirely clean tend to believe that it is only dirty on the side of the victim, and that drone pilots – those we deem the perpetrators – are caught up in the delusion of a just or honourable fight.

This view has been encouraged by the reductive claim that, because the pilot’s visual perception is mediated, it must be clean, even when the victim’s reality is not. Yet this perception-of-perception does not represent the subversion or unveiling of the discourse of ‘smart’ or precision weaponry, but is rather just another of its strands. For to criticise drone warfare for accomplishing the evacuation of risk on the side of the aggressor – to say that it is asymmetrical – nonetheless maintains its attractiveness in domestic strategic terms. By positing a false criticism about drone warfare, we inadvertently give it praise.

Ian Shaw (2010) has responded to the propagators of the ‘joystick warfare’ narrative in interesting terms, arguing that they may in fact be half-right – that is, drone piloting may not be unlike gaming – but what they fail to realise is the level of graphics that contemporary gaming has reached, and the level of immersion that it achieves. He begs the question of whether we can really be so blunt anymore about the distinction between the virtual – a trivial or false domain – and the real, serious world. When we view photos of the drone pilot sitting in the dark, cramped operating room, what is most often commented upon is its seclusion and safety, but what should be paid more attention is the fact that the individual is in all senses plugged in. It is necessary to look beyond the visual, to recognise that he or she is wired to such an extent that, though we cannot say that they are on the battlefield, neither can we really say that they are entirely contained within the readily-visible walls of that room. Following Shaw, the conclusion must be that they are somewhere in between these two spaces; that a new, ambiguous space – the transitory space of ‘play’ – has been entered into.

This space is one which demands a far more nuanced understanding. It is first of all an intensely multi-sensory space, the result of numerous multi-lateral flows of perception and reality; virtuality and physicality passing between and across publics, politicians, media, militaries, perpetrators and victims.

Second, it is an unclean space. Thus it is not only the separation but the asymmetry which has to this point been misplaced: the spaces of both the victim and the drone pilot are traumatic, but the great asymmetry is internal to each of them. While the victim space is clearly asymmetrical because of the impossibility of resistance against an unmanned variety of airpower, the drone pilot’s is asymmetrical for the reason that it holds all the horrors of war without any of its comforts. Its consequences may be terrifying and painful, but the soldier is comforted by the idea that they risk themselves. This is the principle of honour, and it is paired, in traditional, territorial war, with the mutual reassurance and therapy of camaraderie – individuals risking themselves for other, known, individuals. The irony is that, by claiming to have succeeded in the age-old ambition to remove the physical risk from one’s own men, drone technology has simultaneously removed both the main theoretical disincentive to wage war, and the incentive for those who, in reality, are needed to fight it. Whilst the psychological risk, the trauma, remains, the drone pilot is denied the usual methods for coping with it. Honour relies upon the external perception of risk; it cannot be self-prescribed; like shame or pride, it demands the recognition of the other. This recognition – whether from a known individual (a friend/comrade), or a wider (national/international) community – is what is withdrawn when we think the pilot’s experience clean, and, by the same logic, they are deemed by their employers to need little more support than the average office worker.

The symptoms have, in the past few weeks, revealed themselves in a classic free market asymmetry. It has emerged that the U.S. military are at “breaking point” with regard to their drone pilot capacity. Demand for pilots is far outstripping supply due to a “perfect storm of increased COCOM [Combatant Commander] demand, accession reductions, and outflow increases”. The use of the ‘perfect storm’ idea in the press release is however a disguise for a deeper structural problem: the rift between the clean discourse and the unclean surreality of the ‘play’ space in which contemporary war is fought.

In the Balkans in 1999, Paul Virilio (2007: 15) observed:

“[a] war with zero deaths for the military, but also zero victories in political terms”

It is this clean zero, this absolute negativity of contemporary warfare’s image, that is rejected by the would-be drone pilots who have refused to take up their fated role. Their argument is not an ethical one, nor is it even conscious, being expressed only in their absence. It is rather a simply rational decision in the economic sense, but it nevertheless reveals the gulf, reveals the extent to which we have been deceived.

In at least two senses therefore, the US Air Force is stifled by its own administration’s discourse. To begin with, there is a refusal to believe that the technology-led mode of fighting should require a supply of men at all. The fetishisation of drones by government and media has worked so well that it has already removed the individual, honourable, labourer from these new wars in the minds of the public, only to realise too late that they are – at least for the moment – still needed.

Yet even when this realisation is made, the discourse blocks any effective action being taken. Faced with the supply issues, the logical choice would be to increase incentives, but doing so would mean undermining the narrative of clean war so skilfully disseminated over the last 15 or so years. Whenever such initiatives have been attempted – the notion, for instance, of a medal of bravery for drone pilots – they have met with a public backlash, who demand to know why, when being a drone pilot is so dishonourably easy, cowardly, perhaps even fun, those with the potential should require any greater encouragement to take the job.

Given that the discourse cannot be retracted to meet with the reality, the only option remaining is to accelerate the reality into the discourse. That is, if the US is going to continue fighting on all fronts, whilst maintaining the illusion that the fight is a clean fight, the technology must live up to the fantasies dreamed up for it. This is a dangerous position, for the pressure to accelerate technological progress may encourage riskier applications of unproven or imperfect models. It is already true to say that, where weaponry is concerned, the US is affected by a tragi-comic infantilization: an affliction whereby “the warrior, like a child in its playpen, wants to try out everything, show off everything, for fear of otherwise seeming weak and isolated” (Virilio, 2007: 10). Yet, we must now see these experiments additionally in the context of a discursive deficit. We should therefore be deeply wary of proclamations, such as that which recently promoted the capacity of drones to hunt in packs like wolves, which conveniently reduce the need for manpower in the operation of weaponry. Having already burnt their bridges with the soldier, the administrators of drone warfare have left themselves no other ally but the technology itself. They have little choice but to sleep in the bed they have made, pushing the drone towards greater autonomy even if the consequences are violent. It is our duty to perceive and resist these alliances and their discourses, no matter how convenient they might appear.

References      

Shaw, I. (2010). ‘Playing War’. Social & Cultural Geography. 11(8), 789-803.

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