Derek gregory killing space: targeting, technoculture and the art of bombing

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Derek Gregory

‘Death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise, and eventually, inhabit.’

Tom McCarthy, International Necronautical Society at the Royal Geographical Society, London, 2002
Note: The INS was founded by Tom McCarthy in 1999 and, as Wikipedia notes, is ‘closely modeled on European avant-gardes of the early 20th century. It replays, not without parody, the politically-inflected structures of these avant-gardes, with their manifestoes, committees, splinter groups and purges. At the same time the INS makes use of these structures to generate artistic projects that explore the relations between death and representation.’

Bombing has always attracted passionate responses – and not only from its victims. But contemporary public debate is largely uninformed about the transformations in air war since its inception in the early twentieth century. This program seeks to provide just such a critical understanding of bombing by locating it in the transition from modern to late modern war. This has progressively produced the world as target through the construction of an abstract visual space that hollows out places and reduces them to co-ordinates, traces and pixels on display screens from which all signs of broken bodies are erased. This supposed ‘re-enchantment’ of war, with its lexicon of ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘smart bombs’, feeds on and feeds back into the mediatization of war: war made scientific, mundane and acceptable through its visual contraction of the world to a series of targets.
The desire to bring the victims of bombing back into the frame is an important one, but this program takes a different tack and asks how the trick is done in the first place. A primary objective of the program is to analyze the changing techno-cultural production of targets. The project tracks the mutations of military air power theory and its targeting protocols and procedures (‘operational art’) from the modern strategic bombing offensive against Germany in World War II through the US bombing of Vietnam to the late modern air wars over Afghanistan/Pakistan. Its focus is on the changing cartographic and visual technologies that convert places into targets. It examines developments in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that have compressed the time between detection and destruction, and developments in precision weapons that have contracted the target area. It traces the transition from ‘deliberative targeting’ (in which targets are assigned to aircrews before takeoff) to ‘dynamic targeting’ (in which cruising aircraft are assigned to emergent ‘targets of opportunity’). It maps the networked spaces within which these visualizations are produced to show that what seems to be a purely logical-scientific process of abstraction has always involved a series of embodied, profoundly cultural practices that are shot through with emotion (‘affect’) as well as calculation. And it traces the development of a political and legal armature and its incorporation into the nominally scientific targeting process, and shows how public concerns about bombing have come to be mediated by NGOs like Human Rights Watch that also bring in to view the logic of the targeting process.
The second objective is to analyze the convergences between visual technologies in the military and civilian spheres, and the effects these have had on public representations of bombing. Film and television are of central importance. Dramatizations and newsreels of bombing played a crucial legitimating role in World War II, for example, while the Vietnam War has often been called the first ‘television war’ or ‘the living room war’. Through a critical interrogation of multiple visual archives for all three bombing campaigns, the program examines the extent to which advances in photography, film, television and video have (or have not) allowed the public a more intimate view of bombing. It may be that these visual images produce not empathy but indifference – that the abstractions of the targeting process are repeated in the imaginative geographies of war imaging and reporting – and so a final objective of the program is to analyze the work of visual artists who have deliberately drawn on those abstractions to reveal the ‘violence of representation’ that is necessary for targeting long before the first bombs fall.
This program investigates three episodes in the developing geography of bombing to identify the ways in which visualizations have made bombing (technically) possible and (culturally) permissible, and to examine critical responses to them by visual artists.
(1) The Great Divide: Histories of bombing Apart from general surveys (Grosscup 2006; Lindqvist 2001; Tanaka and Young 2009), the history of bombing has taken two main approaches: (A) A political history concerned with the strategy of bombing: debates over ‘area bombing’ versus ‘precision bombing’ in World War II (e.g. Biddle 2002; Crane 1993; Davis 2006; Overy 2005; Sherry 1997); debates over Operations Rolling Thunder and Linebacker I/II in North Vietnam (e.g. Clodfelter 1989; Parks 1982, 1983; Smith 1994, 1998; Thompson 1980); debates over the relation between intensified US air strikes and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (Exxum and others 2009); and (B) A social history concerned with the experience of being bombed: vivid accounts of air raids on cities in Spain, Britain, Germany and Japan in the 1930s and 40s (e.g. Friedrich 2006; Gaskin 2005; Hewitt 1983, 1987, 1994, 2009; Lowe 2007; Paterson 2007; Stansky 2007).
Friedrich (2006) identifies these twin approaches with ‘the strategy from above’ and ‘the strategy from below’, Hewitt (1983) with the view from the war room and the ‘civilian view’, and there are affinities with O’Tuathail’s (1996) contrast between the high-level, distanced ‘geopolitical eye’ and the grounded, embodied ‘anti-geopolitical eye’. These all provide important insights – not least through their common accent on visualization – but they install a problematic opposition between ‘inhuman technology’ and ‘the human face’ (Hüppauf 1983). In contrast, this program explores the space between political histories and social histories through a techno-cultural history of destruction. It is inspired by Sebald’s (2004) questions about ‘a natural history of destruction’. He found the phrase in a memoir by Zuckerman (1978), who was involved in planning the Allied bombing campaign. As the war ended, he ‘wanted to get as quickly as possible to the places that suffered’: and yet he confessed that none of his scientific analyses prepared him for the enormity of what he saw at Aachen in December 1944. It is that gap between the abstract space of targeting and the concrete place of destruction that I want to close.
Some exceptional writers have brought the two together: in fiction, Deighton’s (1970) Bomber, which traces the arc of an air raid from Britain to Germany, and in non-fiction Taylor’s (2004) magisterial reconstruction of the raid on Dresden or Hansen’s (2008) Fire and fury, which opens and closes its strategic narrative with compelling vignettes of the experience of being bombed. But Sebald’s ‘natural history’ was as much a theoretical as a concrete construction, which can be traced back to Benjamin, Adorno and their joint interest in spaces of constructed visibility (Gregory 2009). This is the theoretical ground of this program. Others have made general epistemological claims about the ‘cosmic view’ of air power (Adey 2998; Kaplan 2006a) but the devil is in the details, which is why I analyze the visual technologies that have made bombing possible and – eventually – watchable by viewing publics.
(2) Techno-cultural histories of destruction Deighton explains that the genesis of his novel was his interest in technology: ‘suppose I wrote a story in which the machines of one nation battled against the machines of another?’ My own interest is less in the aircraft than in the techno-cultural apparatus that leads from the identification of targets to their destruction: a complex assemblage that generate images, maps and sensors to produce targets, guide aircraft and release weapons (cf. Wakelam 2009). The targeting process is itself a moving target – it has been restructured multiple times (Glock 1994) – but its epicenter is a series of visual technologies that enframe a target. And yet war cannot be reduced to technology, and so I want to incorporate the role of embodiment and affect within the targeting process. Deighton showed that the Allied bombing offensive was no algorithmic war but one that constantly demanded decisions that could not be delegated to machines (even though they were mediated by them). Bomber was written at the height of the Vietnam War when bombing was seen as the advancing edge of a new ‘techno-war’ (Gibson 1986), and as such remote from the terrible physicality of the ground war: but it was no less dependent on human subjects whose actions were as much corporeal as they were calculative. The digital revolution of the twenty-first century promises ‘immaculate warfare’ (Wrage, 2003) and ‘virtuous war’ (Der Derian, 2009) – wherein aerial sensors, advanced information systems and smart bombs virtually erase the body from the battle space – but it has not erased the fleshiness of the human in the loop: even the Nevada-based operators of drones over Afghanistan suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from viewing the high-resolution images of destruction. In short, the chain that links the identification of a target to its ultimate destruction is typically represented as a technical one but there is no purely technical division of labour, and memoirs by flight crews, forward air controllers and others demonstrate the importance of visceral forms of affect (e.g. Bishop 2008; Flanagan 1992; see also Miller 2006).
(3) Spatial science: the targeting process In his classic account of air war Douhet (1921: 57) noted that ‘the choice of enemy targets … is the most delicate operation of aerial warfare.’ Modern targeting has been dominated by deliberative targeting, which involves the assignment of targets to aircrews before takeoff, but it has been increasingly supplemented by dynamic targeting, which involves cruising aircraft being directed to emergent ‘targets of opportunity’ by ground forces. I have selected three diagnostic campaigns to chart the transition from one to the other:

  • The combined bombing offensive against Germany (1940-45) involved an extended process of deliberative targeting against fixed targets.

  • The air war in Vietnam (1965-1973) involved a mix of deliberative targeting, controlled by the Johnson administration whose restrictions on fixed targets in Hanoi-Haiphong were relaxed by Nixon for Linebacker II (Clodfelter 1989), and dynamic targeting against mobile targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail triggered by automated sensors (Deitchman 2008; Rosenau, 2001: 8-27).

  • The US-led invasion of Afghanistan opened in 2001 with deliberative targeting (Gregory 2004; Herold 2003), but since 2005 dynamic targeting has become steadily more important (Dadkah 2008; Cordesman 2008).

targeting categories (revised).tiff

I will draw on studies of imagery and targeting during the first Gulf War (1990-91) to bring these changes into still sharper relief (Harris, 2006; Knights, 2002)

The first objective of this program is to map the targeting process. I say ‘map’ because targeting is not only about the transformation of a place into a target; it is also a process that takes place through the mobilization of a network of specific sites that is not incidental to its outcome (cf. Livingstone, 2003). Targeting is thus a doubly spatial science: it involves a spatial analytic and is itself a spatially distributed process. Over the last fifty years it has been transformed by advances in compression and contraction that I will chart in detail.
deptula cultural divide of precision and information.tiff

(a) Compression involves shortening the time between target identification and execution, which is supposed to provide for more efficient (and at the limit pre-emptive) action (Hebert 2003). During what Deptula (2008) calls ‘industrial-age warfare’ this assumed a ‘factory-like, assembly line form’ that, for RAF Bomber Command, included the production and analysis of aerial photographs and the collation of target books; the assignment of numerical/graphical key point ratings to establish a hierarchy of targets; the production of zone maps of target cities to calibrate firestorms; and the production of target maps, supplemented by real-time images of the target outline produced by H2S radar. The kill-chain was thus a concatenation of aerial views produced through a process of calculation that was also a process of abstraction. None of the images was stable; they were all subject to constant revision and interpretation at each of the points through which the chain extended. In this case a minimum mapping would include the Central Interpretation Unit (responsible for the analysis of aerial photographs), the Ministry of Economic Warfare and the Air Ministry in London (which identified potential targets), the Air Ministry’s Air Intelligence section AI 3 (c) near High Wycombe (responsible for producing descriptions of targets for operational planners, and target maps, illustrations and files for briefing officers and aircrew), Bomber Command HQ, six to eight Bomber Command Groups and their airfields in eastern England, and individual flight crews. The kill-chain was rationalized by subdividing its production and regulating its practices through standard operating procedures. This entailed not only an abstraction of the target but also an abstraction of the process through which the target was produced, which was made to appear inevitable – target as telos – and its destruction the terminus of a more or less ‘natural’ history. In Graham Greene’s review of Target for Tonight (1941), a dramatized account of a mission, he admired how everyone carried out ‘their difficult and dangerous job in daily routine just like shop or office workers’ so that ‘what we see is no more than a technical exercise’ (Short 1997).
After the Second World War the USAF streamlined its targeting process through the establishment of a Directorate of Targets responsible for the compilation of the ‘Bombing Encyclopedia of the World.’ Work started in January 1946 on potential targets in the USSR and in six months IBM cards had been punched for 5,594 targets; the database quickly became global, and by 1960 contained 80,000 entries (Eden 2003: 99-109). Machine processing was in its infancy, and the USAF faced formidable problems of information management (Clinard 1959). Ten years later these had not been satisfactorily resolved, and while Deptula and Brown (2008) locate the ‘cultural divide’ that inaugurated information-age warfare’ in the 1970s, the air war in Vietnam retained many of the sequential, assembly-line characteristics of conventional warfare (Gibson, 1986). In addition, the technical possibilities of enhanced compression were modulated by a developing political and legal armature that had surrounded bombing since 1945. In consequence, for much of the Vietnam war the kill-chain was an even more extended process. During Operation Rolling Thunder, targets were proposed and reviewed by a succession of Army and Air Force committees, by the Pentagon and the State Department, and then decided at the White House Tuesday lunch. The constant target checking was the product of acute political and legal sensitivity (Clodfelter 1989; Parks 1982; Parks 1983; Smith 1994; Smith 1998; Thompson, 1980). Since then the technical prospects for what Cullather (2003) calls ‘bombing at the speed of thought’ have increased spectacularly, but in the early stages of dynamic targeting in Afghanistan there were still complaints that Pentagon micro-management and the involvement of Air Force lawyers in every stage of the targeting process was reducing its effectiveness (Ricks 2002; cf. Westhusing 2002). Those legal protocols are an important part of this study, as is the scrutiny of NGOs like Human Rights Watch; law regulates the conduct of war but is also reconfigured through political-military actions that establish what is/not acceptable (Canestaro 2004; Gregory 2006; Roblyer 2004; Roscini 2005; Schmitt 2005). The use of drones and automated video/firing systems has introduced new ethical and legal issues (Beier 2003, 2006), but it has also radically compressed the kill-chain: UAVs can maintain a persistent presence over the war-zone, supplying continuous video feeds and firing missiles and bombs, and since this means that a mission can be executed from a single platform, the USAF now envisages an ‘optimized’ kill-chain of under two minutes (Deptula, 2008).

deptula optimized kill chain.tiff

(b) Contraction involves reducing the Circular Error Probable (CEP) of weapon delivery systems. This is measured by the radius of a circle centred on the aiming point within which 50 per cent of the strikes ought to fall. Under ideal test conditions and using the latest technologies, the CEP fell from 3300 ft over Germany to 400 ft over Vietnam, and is now estimated at 10-40 ft (Deptula 2001; see also Conetta 2004). But these raw figures conceal two crucial analytical issues. First, the sequence implies the progressively more successful isolation of a target, but deliberative targeting is based on the location of a target within a network whose geometries displace the co-ordinates of precision weapons so that their destructive effects knowingly surge far beyond any immediate point of impact (cascading, for example, from a power station to hospitals, sewage plants and pumping stations). Second, dynamic targeting does not allow for careful modelling of the likely effects: ‘every [emergent] target is inscribed in a network or chain of events that inevitably exceeds the opportunity that can be seized or the horizon that can be seen’ (Weber 2005). Most civilian casualties in Afghanistan thus now occur when troops are suddenly ‘in contact’ and call in close air support (Human Rights Watch, 2008).
(4) Media geographies: representation and rationalization Zehfuss (forthcoming) argues that precision bombing is used rhetorically to ‘produce us and only us as ethical’, but I doubt that publics are persuaded of the acceptability (or otherwise) of air strikes by abstract arguments about ethics (cf. Garrett 1993; Grayling, 2006). For the media play a central role in mediating the official view of air war, and the transformation of the Military-Industrial complex into a Military-Industry-Media-Entertainment network (Der Derian 2009) has promoted a rapid convergence between military and civilian visual technologies. Military violence is now so intimately entangled with visualization that Butler (2009) insists ‘there is no way to separate, under present historical conditions, the material reality of war from those representational regimes through which it operates and which rationalize its own operation.’ These rationalities extend from those who conduct air war to those who watch it. The second objective of this program is therefore to analyze images of bombing transmitted to British and American publics.
McLuhan (1968: 134) famously described Vietnam as ‘our first television war’, while Arlen (1969: 6) called it ‘the living room war’. But I seek to recalibrate these metaphors because WWII was also a ‘living room war’ of sorts. Print media were immensely powerful here, yet existing studies all but ignore the images and graphics they deployed (Connelly 2002): when Marwick (1982: 146) described war photography as ‘neutered’ he was referring to images of bomb damage in Britain not bombing raids over Berlin. Film played a vital role in bringing those raids to British audiences (Cumings 1992: 85), and I will pay particular attention to newsreel footage (Fox 2007; McKernan 2002). Its images of bombing were episodic, but Arlen’s description of the television coverage of the Vietnam War emphasized its seamlessness: he argued that the war was little more than moving wallpaper and that, as Mandelbaum (1982: 162) put it, the images were ‘no more urgent or alarming than all the others regularly paraded across the small grey screen.’ In fact, few television reports included images of casualties (Paterson 1984), and Hallin (1984; 1986) shows that TV presented a highly idealized view during the early years and remained assiduously close to the ‘official’ view throughout the conflict. Perhaps the same is true today: Harris (2006) suggests that military violence is now ‘rendered everyday, bureaucratic and even mundane by the technologies and practices of image production’ (Harris 2006: 102). This happens not only because its ‘panorama of bombing operations minimizes emotional identification with sufferers’ by even more effectively rendering it as a technical accomplishment, but also because it substitutes ‘the aesthetic register of Hollywood cinematography’ (Chouliaraki 2006: 42). I want to know if this is borne out by visual representations of air wars in Afghanistan.
(5) Visual arts and counter-geographies There is a long tradition of ‘official’ war art, now reinforced by video and digital forms that often also reproduce the military view (Brandon 2007; Kaplan 2008). Jabri (2006) emphasizes the contrary capacity of art to reinstate the corporeality of late modern war. She praises Rebecca Horn’s Painpaper (2004) because it aims ‘to disrupt and interrupt sanitized renditions of the aerial bombardment’ in which we are otherwise ‘removed, at temporal and spatial distance, from those on the ground and in the event.’ But it does so not by showing broken bodies but by re-presenting an expressive, abstract geometry. My own focus is to focus instead on critical responses to the visualization practices that make targeting possible. Targeting involves a disjuncture between ‘our’ space and ‘their’ space – between what Chow (2006) calls the eye and the target – that can be interrupted in several ways. The most common response is simple transposition. Thus Paula Levine’s ‘Shadows from another place’ superimposes the sites and sounds of the initial aerial attack on Baghdad in 2003 over San Francisco, while Alyssa Wright’s ‘Cherry Blossoms’ does the same for Boston. Interventions like these enact what Ingram (2009) calls ‘a re-twisting and re-folding of our space and their space into a space where a kind of simultaneity is possible that is otherwise foreclosed by material geography and hegemonic performances of space.’
These artworks are all tied to performances on the ground, however, whereas some of the most effective interventions remain suspended in the air, forcing the viewer to re-cognize the abstracted violence of targeting: it is the critical analysis of these productions that forms the third objective of the program. Thus Kaplan’s (2006b) ‘Dead Reckoning’ invites the online viewer to perform a series of interactive tasks that bring the process of targeting during WWII into sharper focus. Slavick’s (2007) ‘Violent cartography’ extends the historical range through Vietnam to Afghanistan. Her strategy is one of deliberate abstraction, layering the ghosts of maps and air photographs over the bomb bursts on the ground, and composing beneath and around them a spectral, almost subliminal cellular imagery that ‘conjures up the buried dead’, to topple the assumption of aerial mastery from within the aerial view itself (Gregory, 2009). Other artists have brutalized the bomber’s view of the city: Raquel Maulwurf (2006-7) reproduces aerial photographs and radar traces of bombing raids over Germany and then scores the surface to ‘materialize destruction in both subject and process’, while Hanna Mal Allah breaches the vertical separation between bomber and bombed in a series of aerial views that are slashed, burned and blackened, and the geometric orders of Islamic art that form their ground perforated by what Rashad Selim calls ‘modern warfare’s vicious trigonometry’. All of these artworks are chilling reminders of the violence of visualization that is constitutive of the targeting process.
maulwurf markierungsfeuer uber hamburg 1943 charcoal:paste on mat board 2007.jpg

Maulwurf: Markierungsfeuer uber Hamburg 1943 charcoal/paste on mat board 2007
slavick afghanistan.tiff

slavick: Afghanistan I

(a) Targeting [Years 1/2]: Targeting is an iterative process, and so it is essential to recover the geography of bombing to which it contributes and responds. There are maps of the combined bombing offensive, but the targeting books have been subject to little spatial analysis beyond mapping (cf. Hohn 1994). I will also analyze the Raid Reports held by the RAF Historical Branch, the targeting files held in PRO AIR/14, and the files of the British Bombing Survey and the US Strategic Bombing Survey. These have been mined by other scholars but with different questions. Similar cartographic-spatial analyses will be conducted on the database held at the US National Archives in Record Group 218 that locates all ordnance dropped in Vietnam 1965-1975; I will also examine the Linebacker II Briefing Books and the Linebacker USAF Bombing Survey including the Air Operations Summary and Target Damage Files at the USAF Historical Research Agency. Comparable data on air operations over Afghanistan will be accessed via the USAAF and the daily airpower summaries issued by CENTCOM. I will use these archives to reconstruct the changing operational chain of command and the organization of the targeting process and to analyze sample visual images produced through the chain. I will conduct a close reading of evolving air force doctrine (RAF and USAF) that codified and regulated targeting in relation to the development of air power theory (e.g. RAF Manual - Operations, successive editions; USAF Intelligence Targeting Guide (1998); Targeting (AF Doctrine Document 2-1.9, 2006); Joint Doctrine for Targeting (2007). Finally, I will conduct a critical reading of published memoirs of aircrew (I have a short list of 22) to flesh out the technical processes involved.
(b) Media geographies [Years 2/3]: The focus will be on visual images of bombing and so (for print media) I will use the major image banks (AP, Corbis, Getty, Life). For World War II, I will concentrate on successive raids on Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin, for which I will conduct ancillary research at the British Library Newspaper Reading Room; British newsreels will be accessed online via and For Vietnam, I will concentrate on operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail and on Linebacker II, for which I will also analyze select US newspapers and news magazines via Pro-Quest; TV coverage will be accessed via the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. For Afghanistan/Pakistan I have maintained a detailed e-file of media coverage of the air wars since 2004. I will undertake standard content analysis of all these materials, but I will concentrate on qualitative visual analysis (see Rose 2007) with a particular emphasis on framing, perspective, composition and resolution.
(c) Visual arts and counter-geographies [Year 3]: I will focus my initial analysis on the artworks of Raquel Maulwurf, elin o’Hara slavick and Hannah Mal Allah.
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