A probable female, a probable child: Civilian casualties, remote monitoring, and recognition work in the air war against ISIS
“You cannot see through rubble,” said Greg Bagwell, an erstwhile Royal Air Force Commander, when asked if the British military was doing everything possible to detect civilian harm in Iraq and Syria. (Drone Wars UK 2018)
Responding to Bagwell, I question if the claim “you cannot see through rubble,” can be unsettled by local and situated knowledge. Where are you? Who are you ‘looking’ for? The last question hints that what is at stake is perhaps not ‘seeing’ but “mis/seeing”, that is to say, recognising. (Sharpe 2016)
The chapter is an inquiry into how the digital record of the war against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East has been instrumentalised (cached, catalogued and annotated) by activists in Europe to counter official counts of no or low civilian harm. What possibilities might these emergent archi-activist practices offer?
My investigation focuses on the activities of the London-based, remote conflict monitor, Airwars, the near-real time casualty data of which, was referenced in news articles, parliamentary hearings and classified military studies during the American-led war against IS. Its scope is limited to the main territorial conflict that began in Northern Iraq, in August 2011 and ended with the siege of Baghouz Fawqani in Syria, in March 2018.
The text moves through Airwars’ public and private research documents to map their archival relations, that are also the relations between sensed and sensing bodies – from cold fleshy bodies, to “probable” pixelated bodies, to “hot data subjects”. (Schuppli 2017; CENTCOM 2015) I propose Derek McCormack’s modified definition of remote sensing as a set of “modest techniques” as opposed to technology, and Judith Butler’s call for a “radical equality of the grievable” as conceptual tools with which to unpack the labour, ethics and efficacy of ‘civic sensing’. (Butler 2018; McCormack 2010) By civic, I mean not military.
The international war against the IS in Iraq and Syria is one of the first in history to be extensively documented en masse by civilians, militants and state militaries alike, all uploading content to the Internet in near-real time. The result is a “polyperspectival” and highly distributed, digital record of the conflict. (Weizman 2019) Working with this record, Airwars estimates that between 8,000 to 12,000 civilians died as a result of US-led Coalition air and artillery fire. The small non-government organisation is the source for over two-thirds of all Coalition investigations into alleged civilian harm. At the time of writing, the Coalition had conceded the deaths of only 1,302 civilians.
Poles apart, the two accounts cast doubt on one another. At stake is an accurate, historical record of the Coalition’s air war over Iraq and Syria, and vitally, how it was experienced on the ground by the “innocent civilians” America purported “to stand with”. (Obama 2011; US Office of Legal Counsel 2014) To begin to understand whose deaths count, we must first understand how they are counted.
Butler, Judith. 2018. ‘My Life, Your Life, Equality and the Philosophy of Non-Violence’. Gifford Lecture, Glasgow University, October 2.
United States Central Command. 2015. ‘Declassified Iraq/Syria CIVCAS Allegation Tracker’. Airwars.
Drone Wars UK. 2018. ‘Interview of Air Marshall Greg Bagwell by Chris Cole, Drone Wars UK’. Drone Wars UK. January 2018.
McCormack, Derek. 2010. ‘Remotely Sensing Affective Afterlives: The Spectral Geographies of Material Remains’. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100 (03): 640–54.
Obama, Barak. 2011. ‘Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly’. presented at the Speech, United Nations, New York, September 21.
Schuppli, Susan. 2017. ‘The Subterfuge of Screens’. In Et Maintenant Regardez Cette Machine, 125–39. Montréal: Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.
Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness And Being. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
US Office of Legal Counsel. 2014. ‘Memorandum Opinion for the Counsel to the President: Authority to Order Targeted Airstrikes Against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’. US Department of Justice.
Weizman, Eyal. 2019. ‘Open Verification’. E-Flux. 18 June 2019.