The fog of war and the fog of research

This semester I am enjoying the parallel tracks of two activities: research on a new subject and teaching undergraduate students about doing research. The tricky thing about research in much of the social sciences and humanities is that the work takes place inside our little brains, and is hard to show, describe, or document. After all, you only show up with the final result: a research paper that notes a puzzle, asks a precise question, and delivers (hopefully) a stunning answer.

The process of research is about getting there. It’s about all the ideas, guesses, questions, and suspicions you have before everything lines up neatly. But then again, who would write down their preliminary ideas and share them with the public?

Let that be me.

I’m furiously reading, thinking, and scribbling away at a talk I will give next week at U of O. This involves a lot of rethinking of assumptions, guesses, and refining of questions. So let me sketch some thoughts and tell you how I’ve discarded/refined/rethought them.

The topic: “The Optics of Bombing: International Law, Civilians, Technology and Fantasies of Visibility.” How did I get there? When I taught a seminar on international law and violence, I had come across a UN press release that chided the Israeli Defence Force for not respecting the fundamental distinction between civilians and combatants in their attack on Gaza. This is a standard line you hear from the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. The curious thing was that at the bottom of the document, the UN explained how it distinguished civilian from combatant casualties: only women and children counted as civilians. WTF? Really? You’re telling others to respect a fundamental distinction, but you can’t figure out who’s a civilian except for looking at age and gender, even when people are already dead?

Turns out that this is a common strategy, documented and interrogated brilliantly by Helen Kinsella in her article Gendering Grotius. Being civilians is a gendered performance. Check. But what can I do with this? How can I add anything to this research?

The other concern I had about bombing and civilians was that the common complaint about the NATO aerial bombardment of Serbia in 1999 was that the aircraft were flying too high, and that they would therefore be unable to distinguish civilian from military objects. There are plenty of reasons why human rights folks think the high altitude bombing was strange, not the least because it shifted the risks of the war from the combatants (pilots) to the local civilians. And it seems common sense that I can distinguish people better if I go closer.

Okay. Then I was thinking: If the UN can’t tell a civilian from a combatant in Gaza when they’re standing in front of them, why do we think that flying lower, or having better visual technology in airplanes would diminish civilian deaths?

When I initially wrote abstracts for my paper in progress, this is what I focused on: a critique of the fantasy that better technology allows us to see civilians better.

I still think that’s true, except for that it’s more complicated. I am combing through a German parliamentary report about the NATO airstrike in the Kunduz area that killed lots of people on September 4, 2009. The estimates about the numbers of people killed, and the numbers of Taliban and civilians vary wildly.

There are some things I expected about the report: the presence of women and children would indicate civilians. Different actors find it hard to distinguish civilians from combatants. There are constant complaints about the Taliban not wearing uniforms.

These are some of the things in the report that I didn’t expect, and that I find productively puzzling:

1. There were about half a dozen investigations of this air strike. The sheer amount of resources from different organizations (NATO, PRT, UN, Afghan authorities, human rights groups, …) is fascinating.

2. The officers themselves admit that they don’t know how to distinguish individual civilians from combatants (with the possible exception of women and children.)

3. NATO strongly relies on profiling Afghans as populations: a NATO directive asked that in preparation of air strikes, a 48 hour observation of “patterns of life” takes place in order to distinguish average civilian from combatant activities. Also, the main argument for why those present around the target (two abducted fuel trucks stuck in a river bank) can’t have been civilians was that civilians don’t hang out in rivers in the middle of the night.

4. While no one seems to be able to classify individual people as civilians or combatants, everyone is very keen on upholding the distinction and publishing lists of casualties that rely on civilians versus combatants.

5. Other proxies for distinguishing Taliban from civilians seem to be: locals are civilians, those who are not from the locality are Taliban. Only Taliban and their supporters move around at night.

What follows from this?

1. The distinction between civilian and combatant might not really help any civilian, but it helps those who direct bombs to make their conduct appear ethical.

2. The duty to distinguish oneself, make oneself visible, is no longer with the combatants, but with the civilians. This is not only a gendered performance, but has to do with inscrutable criteria and patterns such as not going out late, not being in the proximity of Taliban, and doing what “normal” civilians have been determined to do. Oh, and not carrying weapons. (Weapons can be made visible from aircraft, and have been used to determine that people are combatants. I wonder about the effects that this determination of status would have for the policing of, say San Antonio, TX.)

3. Some of the actors who counted lots of civilian casualties did so by asking villagers in the environs. But other authorities with local access, notably the Afghan government, noted a really high death toll, but also a very high number of Taliban killed and a low number of “real” civilians.

4. The terminology is shifting: from civilians to non-combatants;  the words “innocent” and “guilty” are being used a lot. I suspect translation patterns, but there is a clear moralizing going on as well. The German word I find, and I find troubling, is “unbeteiligt,” which translates as “not involved.”

5. The fog of war has nothing to do with poor visual equipment. It is not the image on the screen that is blurry, but the categories. What is interesting then, is how the distinction is maintained in spite of the impossibility of seeing the line between civilians and combatants, and what is done with the distinction. Clearly, civilians bear the burden of showing that they are indeed civilians. Also, the military actors emphasize the care they put into avoiding civilian casualties. However, they themselves don’t always know who’s a civilians and who isn’t.

More forthcoming. This is really a scrapbook. Its rough. It’s research at work, or in motion (is this trademark now available?). Please do comment about the process, content, or anything you would like to add.