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UP IN THE AIR
US Aerial Power and the Visual Life of Empire in the Drone Age
Violence is the standard operating procedure of visuality. — Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look
The managerial approach [in liberal wars] also means that all things — even those that should not be calculable — are made subject to measurement and quantitative finessing. All things can be counted: acceptable levels of collateral damage, the degree of pain meted out in interrogations, the number of people detained, the extent of their access to food or water or medical care. ... This need for quantitative data, for statistics, for an understanding of how to measure death, incarceration, "useful" intelligence, and the like, means that even as the counterinsurgents decry the crude use of metrics ... they try to construct vast databases that capture not only intelligence but also the everyday and the intimate. ... These knowledge repositories are crucial to managerialism but also, in their quantification of suffering, to the task of defending such confinement in courts of law and public opinion. — Laleh Khalili, Time in the Shadows
It is not just a more exhaustive reckoning with the past and present of imperialist violence that is needed but, more specifically, a non-juridical reckoning. For this, our starting point should be neither the law nor any desire for a "progressive" appropriation of the law, but the mounting dead for whom the law was either a useless means of defense or an accomplice to their murder. — Randall Williams, The Divided World
On May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden was discovered by a US Special Forces military unit to be hiding in a compound on the outskirts of Bilal Town, an affluent suburb of Abbottabad, Pakistan. A team of twenty-three US Navy SEALs from the US Naval Special Warfare Development Group (also known as "Seal Team Six") carried out "Operation Neptune Spear" under the command of President Barack Obama, the CIA, and the Joint Special Operations Command, killing bin Laden (codename "Geronimo") (figure 1.1). Reflecting on the US military operation's haunting codename, cultural historian Keith P. Feldman observed how "the residues of a late-nineteenth century settler colonial violence [have been] resuscitated in [this] contemporary project of extraterritorial jurisdiction." As news accounts of the raid and murder spread, speculation quickly ensued over whether images of bin Laden's bullet-stricken body (or even his hastily arranged Muslim burial at sea) would be circulated within the global press. There was some precedent for this moment: images and cellular phone videos of the capture and hanging of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in December 2006 were widely disseminated, as were later images of the ghastly public beating and killing of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. Visual studies scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff imparts how, particularly with Hussein's killing, "it no doubt seemed important that, in the swirling, rumor-driven climate of the occupation, some form of proof be made available." In times of contemporary forever war, this "proof" almost always takes the form of visual evidence, a dominant ocular logic that represents the prevailing sensorial relation to war and empire.
Notably, the few photographs that did emerge as visual testimony immediately after bin Laden's assassination in 2011 were aerial views and Google Earth images of the destroyed compound and surrounding areas in Pakistan (figure 1.2). These photographs are remarkably vital to both dominant world-making and war-making regimes of late modern US frontier violence in the Greater Middle East. The aerial image, as Caren Kaplan instructs, "does a certain kind of work. Like all photographs, the construction of the image — its intensely mediated process — is almost never what we notice. Instead, we think we see the world below us in precise, if flattened, form. A kind of truth-value in uncertain times, located and therefore seemingly known." News that the prolonged and fitful "hunt for bin Laden" had climaxed in his spectacular death at the hands of US military forces set off an outpouring of affective glee among wide swaths of Americans, a terrifying moment of jingoistic celebration and collective catharsis that could have, but of course did not, signal the cessation of the decade-long global war on terror in the Greater Middle East. This violent geopolitical and cartographic project was inaugurated long ago through bin Laden's spectral presence in grainy video and audio recordings released by Al-Qaeda at the turn of the century. In this belated moment, many in the West were eager to channel their sadness and rage about the events of September 11 and its violent aftermath into perhaps one definitive visual encounter with this foremost "enemy" (through pixelated evidence of bin Laden's disfigured body). They were presented instead with two-dimensional and disembodied representations of geographic space at a distance, what Kaplan calls "truth-values in uncertain times." These digitized "views from above" illustrate the political salience of the aerial view to war-making and the global circulation of that view through uploading, copying, and linking of the images.
Participating in the circulation and consumption of this abstracted aerial view provided epistemological certainty in "knowing" the forever war and its militarized terrains. As Mirzoeff notes, "much of the military video and photography from the Iraq war has [also] reflected this uncertain status. Raw TIFF files circulate with no means of contextualizing them, while unedited video footage of routine military events is interrupted on shocking occasion by the eruption of violence. Explanations, context, and consequences are rarely available, whether in US or purported insurgent video." Judith Butler further contends that the differential process of grieving produced in the context of US-led global state violence is rendered through visual representations and media forms that are themselves a central part of waging war. In reference to the spectacular bombing raids over Baghdad conducted by US and allied forces in March 2003, Butler argues that the "panoramic aesthetic," which is built into the discursive conventions of war-making strategies, compels Americans to ethically distance themselves from the consequences of US aerial bombardments abroad. This process, in turn, facilitates Americans' tacit approval of these violent projects, at least from afar. How then do these twenty-first-century technologies of distanced warfare and remote surveillance from above rearrange people's collective sense of place, space, and community on the frontiers of the forever war? And what are the insurgent implications for those of us living in the heart of empire during the drone age?
Taking the visual aftermath of the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden as a point of departure, this opening chapter offers a critical genealogy of the dominant logics of race-making and war-making that undergird the present sites of the US forever war and its complex visual orders. With an expansive approach to the study of US global state violence, I trace across the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries major historical and material transformations of counterinsurgent policing and killing, liberal confinement, and global war-making. The remnants of these imperial visualities and settler colonial trajectories allow for better appraisal of both the dominant visual life of contemporary US empire in the Greater Middle East and critical interventions by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic artists whose rebellious and unruly aesthetic practices are central to this book's account of the forever war. This genealogical method helps to locate twenty-first-century US global war-making in the recursive logic of the longue durée, or what critic Jodi Kim rightly calls "America's imperial pasts and presents." The wide array of contemporary military strategies and tactics of neoliberal security and liberal warfare examined in this book are unique and differentiable. These technologies include counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, incarceration, torture, biometrics, and surveillance. They fundamentally destroy and rework human existence and the human sensorium, but they do so by operating differentially and in ways that sometimes compound one another and at other times are at odds.
In later chapters, I explore insurgent aesthetic rejoinders to a distinct but interconnected range of national security and military practices across three major domains. In chapter 2, I read performance works that respond critically to US global military practices of outright killing via distance warfare and targeted assassinations through the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, in Af-Pak and Iraq. Chapter 3 examines the sensorial life of unlawful confinement in visual and installation art responses to US global military prisons and the related affective, ethical, and legal concerns over extrajudicial practices of torture, interrogation, and rendition at military bases and detention sites. In the fourth and final chapter, I turn to an important outpost of US neoliberal security and warfare, examining overt forms of settler colonial occupation through Palestinian diasporic visual art films produced in opposition to the US's client-state relation with the state of Israel and the enduring Israeli Zionist settler colonial occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Together, these multiple sites of investigation do not offer an exhaustive survey of contemporary South Asian and Middle Eastern diasporic visual cultures in the forever war. Instead, this book spotlights diverse but interrelated flashpoints of security and securitization to argue that an insurgent aesthetics can conjure sensuous modes of knowing and feeling the manifold fronts of the forever war.
This opening chapter portrays the dominant visual life of empire in which artists make their work, and it unfolds in three parts. I begin by examining the contemporary expansion of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism through twenty-first-century drone strikes and extrajudicial targeted killings in Af-Pak and beyond. I detail the nature and development of security policing and counterinsurgency in the US and across the Greater Middle East from the end of the Cold War to the present. This period is referred to as the global Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), a Cold War military theory about the advanced technological future of warfare that was reactivated by the fall of the Soviet Union, the dawning of a new era of globalization, the rise of US technological dominance, and the emergence of so-called global nonstate actors. The RMA is most often associated with the inclusion and expansion of new military tactics, including drones, satellite imaging, and remotely operated vehicles, and scholars have argued that the RMA "has [also] extended and transformed visuality, using digital technology to pursue nineteenth-century tactical goals." I further assess why the US military abandoned Cold War – style low-intensity proxy wars in favor of a bellicose reprisal of its global counterinsurgency doctrine in the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in the period since 9/11.
Second, this chapter explores legacies of imperial incarceration and counterinsurgent confinement to understand the inside/outside binary of US empire, thereby linking the study of US imperial wars abroad to domestic sites of racially targeted state-sanctioned violence at home. As such, I review critical scholarship on US empire, elucidating the tangled ideological and material links between the domestic and international contexts of contemporary global state violence and warfare. In the process, this discussion reconsiders prevailing ideas on the "American Century." I specifically track transformations in immigration law and the collusion of domestic counterinsurgent wars on crime/drugs/terror in the development of the homeland security state. Finally, I highlight the early twenty-first-century "cultural turn" in the US military related to the RMA, analyzing how the experimental and controversial Human Terrain System (HTS) program in particular ignited active debates among critical scholars and defense experts alike on the role of social scientists and academics in twenty-first-century US warfare.
Third and perhaps most centrally, this chapter reflects on the expanded use of drone weaponry in the imperial geographies of the forever war. Drawing on postcolonial feminist criticism and critical geography, lawfare, and military studies, I show how the aerial perspective is central to US global counterterrorism, thereby demonstrating the pivotal role of visual frames in manufacturing and obliterating vulnerable populations. I ask how the global forever war's panoramic "views from above" shape the way the US and its allies think about Orientalist imperial geographies in the Greater Middle East, and how those aerial views are conceived, framed, disavowed, and implicated in the fundamental destruction and reconstitution of populations, infrastructures, and social geographies targeted by US militarism throughout the region left in their wake. While global air power is neither omnipotent nor brand new, its expanded use in the twenty-first-century forever war has implications for the interplay between vision and power/knowledge projects and for the ethical engagements of those of us situated in US civic life whose liberal freedoms are predicated on the unfathomable violence of drone attacks in the frontier spaces of the US forever war. Attention to what is up in the air allows me to examine the pivotal role of sensory and affective knowledge in the racial and imperial formation of the US homeland security state and its forever wars in the Greater Middle East. In closing, I speculate on the possibility of transnational activist coalitional politics in the drone age and the desire to displace and reorder anew the visual life of empire, which is a principal goal of the chapters that follow.
US Global Counterinsurgencies: Empire Inside Out
While this book adopts a comparative and relational approach to interrogate the current carceral and militarized practices deployed by the neoliberal security regimes of the US and Israel across the Greater Middle East, it understands race wars and counterinsurgencies to be as old as empire. Contemporary US defense experts argue that, in contrast to conventional combat, global counterinsurgency (GCOIN) is a military strategy that involves containing or extinguishing the threat of insurgencies that thwart the political authority of an occupying power. Celebrated by advocates for its so-called technological precision, cultural and spatial knowledge, and intimate forms of intelligence gathering, early twenty-first-century US GCOIN doctrine signaled a transformation in military thinking about the nature of global power in the post – Cold War era. In her introduction to the rereleased US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, national security expert Sarah Sewall writes that counterinsurgency "emphasizes constant adaptation and learning, the importance of decentralized decision-making, the need to understand local populations and customs, and the key role in intelligence in winning the support of the population." A "kinder and gentler" form of counterinsurgency involves isolating and crushing resistance movements in occupied territories by "winning the hearts and minds" of local populations under siege. As Patrick Deer outlines, the goal of counterinsurgency operations in the US occupation of Iraq since 2003 had been "the deployment of culturally sensitive, technologically nimble Special Forces to 'clear, hold, and build' the territory as they persuade civilian populations that the insurgents have no legitimacy." In Mirzoeff's terms, this "clear, hold, and build" mantra of counterinsurgency entailed "remov[ing] insurgents from a locality using lethal force, sustain[ing] that expulsion by physical means such as separation walls, and then build[ing] neoliberal governance in the resulting space of circulation." As an existential neoliberal policing and surveillance strategy spanning multiple military and civilian agencies, counterinsurgency is not exceptional to the US, and its contradictory application in a wide set of cases across disparate geographies makes it difficult to assess as a coherent material, ideological, and cultural project. And yet many historians have shown how the US perfected tactics of counterinsurgency well before Vietnam and Iraq through both its fin de siècle wars in the Western Pacific and covert domestic Cold War programs. This involved the systematic repression of Black nationalists and other domestic radicals in the US, and the uneven exportation of those tactics to the post – 1945 hot wars in the Global South, a project whose afterlives continue to haunt the global terrain of war-making in the twenty-first century, as I will soon show.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Insurgent Aesthetics"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
Introduction. Sensuous Affiliations: Security, Terror, and the Queer Calculus of the Forever War 1
1. Up in the Air: US Aerial Power and the Visual Life of Empire in the Drone Age 44
2. On the Skin: Drone Warfare, Collateral Damage, and the Human Terrain 76
3. Empire's Innards: Conjuring "Warm Data" in the Archives of US Global Military Detention 103
4. Palestine(s) in the Sky: Visionary Aesthetics and Queer Cosmic Utopias from the Frontiers of US Empire 151
Epilogue. Scaling Empire: Insurgent Aesthetics n the Wilds of Imperial Decline 187