[Prefatory Note: The purpose of this post is to recommend highly a book by Elisabeth Weber addressing the interrelated issues of torture, indefinite detention, and drone warfare from a perspective that is both humanistic and deeply steeped in European philosophical thought, treating especially the work of Jacques Derrida as illuminating and situating these complex questions of state violence and technology in the special circumstances that unfolded after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Appearing below is a review of the book that appeared in a recent issue of The Huffington Post followed by my Afterword that is printed at the end of Weber’s important book. Kill Boxes can be ordered in the normal ways, including by Amazon, which these days I mention reluctantly as it remains one of the few respected companies that continue to advertise on the Breitbart alt-right website. The publisher’s website with information about how to obtain the book can be found at https://punctumbooks.com/titles/kill-boxes-facing-the-legacy-of-us-sponsored-torture-indefinite-detention-and-drone-warfare/
Book Review: “Kill Boxes: Facing the Legacy of US-Sponsored Torture, Indefinite Detention, and Drone Warfare,” by Elisabeth Weber
In her timely book, “Kill Boxes,” Elisabeth Weber ironically notes the “long history of images uniting figures of torture and sacredness or divinity.” She explores the use of “no touch” “positional” torture in which the terrified victims are forced to inflict suffering on themselves, leaving no marks. When the Abu Ghraib photos emerged, the media focused on the pornographic aspects and the exploitation of cultural sensitivities. Most commentators accepted that “a few bad apples were to blame,” rather than seeing it as standard CIA and military practice. Yet, despite the 2014 Senate report on the use of torture, those responsible have enjoyed almost total impunity. What’s more, torture is back on the political agenda, and with popular backing, according to opinion polls.
Weber, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, explores the writing of Jean Amery, a survivor of the Gestapo during World War Two. He described torture as being let down by one’s own flesh, and experiencing death while still alive, prompting Weber to draw parallels with the paintings of Francis Bacon. With the first blow received from an agent of the state, Amery wrote, a person’s trust in the world broke down irreparably, and with it any expectation of help. Disturbing as some might find torture, evidently the producers of the “24” phased out torture from the show’s plots because it had become “trite” and was no longer a novelty.
“Kill Boxes” also traces the post-Abu Ghraib shift from capturing and interrogating suspects to extrajudicial drone assassinations. The NGO Reprieve has counted 4,700 attacks on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, all places where the US is not, officially, at war. Weber writes of the post-traumatic stress experienced by people living in places where the hum of drones overhead is constant, and where concentrating on school lessons or work is impossible if one fears attack at any moment.
Drawing on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is transformed into an insect, Weber cites the term “bug splat,” used by drone operators to describe those they kill. As the leading interpreter of Jacques Derrida, she also examines his “two ages of cruelty;” scientifically and technologically sophisticated, and allegedly surgical and precise, as opposed to archaic, indiscriminate and bloody. As Derrida concluded, “One does not count the dead in the same way from one corner of the globe to the other.”
“Kill Boxes” concludes with a scorching essay by human rights authority Richard Falk. He recalls Henry Kissinger’s post-Vietnam aim to maximize effectiveness while minimizing the risk to Americans, enjoying invulnerability while the enemy is completely vulnerable. It is, Falk, warns, the surest way to convince young Muslims that only violent resistance can protect their cultural space from American aggression.
The United States emerged from World War II with a triumphal sense that its military power had defeated evil political forces in Europe and Asia, and should not be subject to scrutiny despite causing massive civilian casualties along the way to victory. There were few tears shed as a result of the firebombing of Dresden, an occurrence given a long literary life thanks to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or in reaction to the firebombing of Tokyo, or even in reaction to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These two Japanese cities were selected because they had not been previously bombed in the war as they contained no important military targets and would be ideal sites to convey the extent of devastation caused by this new hyper-weapon.
There is little doubt that if Germany or Japan had developed the bomb and used it in a similar fashion, and then despite this, lost the war, their leaders would have certainly been charged with crimes and held accountable. What the United States learned from this major wartime experience was that military superiority ensured the triumph of justice as well as gained for the country diplomatic ascendancy and enormous economic benefits. The unpleasant fact that the vehicle for such success included recourse to genocidal tactics of warfare was put aside as irrelevant, or worse, a demeaning of a just war and those who fought it. Ever since World War II there has been this psychotic doubling of moral consciousness that fractures the coherence of law by violating its essential imperative: treating equals equally. The contrary approach of ‘victor’s justice’ is to grant impunity to the victor while imposing accountability on the loser as by way of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials.
Visiting North Vietnam in June of 1968 to view what the American Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, had described as the most ‘surgical’ bombing campaign in all of history, I was shocked by the indiscriminately devastated cities that had been targeted from air. I was even more shocked by the awareness of total vulnerability of Vietnamese society to the onslaught of what was then almost limitless high tech superiority in weaponry, which translated into total American domination of air, sea, and land dimensions of the Vietnam War. One aspect of this vulnerability of this essentially peasant society, which disturbed me deeply at the time, was the relative helplessness of the Vietnamese to do anything by way of retaliation. In this respect, the war was relatively one-sided, with war thinkers at such think tanks as RAND openly advocating a gradual escalation of the pain being inflicted on Vietnamese society until the political leadership in Hanoi came to their senses and surrender as Germany and Japan had finally done two decades earlier. After lesser forms of punishment failed to achieve their desired result, American political and military leaders pondered whether to bomb the dikes in the Red River Delta that would cause flooding in heavily populated areas, thus likely producing several million civilian casualties, or use nuclear weapons with even worse results, but held back, not because of moral or legal inhibitions, but because they feared a severe political backlash and home and internationally.
It would be misleading to suppose that the Vietnamese were entirely helpless. The Vietnamese had the capacity to rely on relatively low tech weaponry and the advantages of fighting in their territorial homeland against a foreign enemy, to inflict significant casualties on American ground forces and even to shoot down American planes now and then, often capturing and imprisoning the pilot. Unable to overcome this Vietnamese resilience and faced with a growing political discontent at home, the U.S. Government began as early as 1968 to search for an exit strategy to cut their losses in Vietnam. The highest priority of American diplomacy was to cover up the startling reality that despite the American military juggernaut, the United States still lost the Vietnam War. This effort also failed as the outcome in Vietnam eventually became clear enough for all to see, although Washington’s effort to save face prolonged the combat for seven long years, causing tens of thousands of superfluous casualties on both sides. Of course, this was not the first time that the political resolve of a mobilized native population shifted the balance against a Western state that enjoyed a decisive military superiority. All the colonial wars after 1945 exhibited a similar pattern, perhaps most spectacularly in India, where Gandhi led a massive nonviolent movement to induce the United Kingdom to abandon its most prized colonial possession.
Unlike the European colonial powers that came to understand that the imperial age was over, the United States was not prepared to cut back on its global security role. Instead it made three sets of adjustments to the Vietnamese experience so that it might carry on as previously: (1) it did its best to undermine citizen opposition to non-defensive wars of choice by professionalizing the armed forces, eliminating the draft, and managing the media to minimize adverse comment during the course of a war; (2) it worked hard to find tactics and weaponry that enabled one-sided warfare, avoiding battlefield casualties for American troops while inflicting heavy damage on the adversary; (3) it struggled politically to demonstrate to the American people that its military power could again be efficiently used to achieve geopolitical goals (disguised as ‘security’) and by so doing overcome what Washington policymakers derisively referred to as ‘the Vietnam Syndrome,’ that is a post-Vietnam reluctance by the citizenry to back a distant overseas war that had nothing to do with self-defense. The United States finally found an ideal war in 1991 to rehabilitate militarism when with UN blessings it restored Kuwaiti sovereignty by forcing an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait in the First Gulf War, experiencing more American casualties due to ‘friendly fire’ than from enemy resistance. This reinstatement of American military credibility was further reinforced, again rather brutally, by the Kosovo War (1999) in which NATO achieved its political goals entirely through air power without suffering a single casualty, while causing substantial civilian casualties on the ground in Kosovo. After Serbia withdrew from Kosovo Washington think tanks began boasting about the new tactical wonders of ‘zero casualty wars,’ seeming not to be aware of the vast differences between types of warfare, thus paving the wave for frustrating repetitions of Vietnam in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
When approaching Elisabeth Weber’s extraordinary group of essays on how war is being waged beneath the shadows cast by the 9/11 attacks, I find this background relevant. It especially shows how reliance on one-sided warfare was being achieved by technological and tactical innovations at the close of World War II and later by a series of adjustments to the American defeat in Vietnam. There were two important changes between the wars that occurred before and after 9/11. Perhaps, the most important of these changes was the determination and capacity of the militarily inferior enemy to retaliate in ways that inflicted important symbolic harm on their militarily superior adversary and gave rise to fear and anger among the civilian population.
In the period between 1945 and 2001 the wars fought could be described as ‘Westphalian Wars,” that is, wars either between territorial sovereign states or within one such state, and mainly wars involving Northern countries seeking to retain their positions of dominance in the South. In these wars the combat zone was confined to the South. After 9/11 the ensuing wars were more properly understood as North/South with reactive violence in the South directed at targets in the North, sometimes with great effect, as in the 9/11 attacks. True, the military superiority, although taking new forms thanks to technological and tactical innovations, remained in the North, particularly the United States, but the other side developed the will and capacity to retaliate, although in a manner that was accurately perceived as immoral and illegitimate, and characterized as ‘terrorism.’
The second fundamental change in the nature of warfare, also of a post-Westphalian character, was to make the whole world a potential battlefield including, or even particularly, the homeland. In effect, the United States developed weapons and tactics to hunt for the prey wherever on the planet they might be hiding, including within ‘sleeper cells’ in its own society. Similarly, the adversary used what ingenuity it possessed to find soft spots in ‘homeland security’ and deliver violent blows wherever it might inflict harm and cause fear, a kind of low tech ‘shock and awe.’ The entire world, without much respect for boundaries and sovereign rights, has become a global battlefield in which the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is being waged between two non-Westphalian political entities. On one side is the United States as the first ‘global state’ in history with its network of hundreds of foreign military bases, navies in all oceans, militarization of space, and its many allies among foreign countries. On the other side are a variety of non-territorial extremist networks (Al Qaeda, ISIS) spread across the globe, and capable of attracting followers in the heartland of its enemies who are willing to undertake suicide missions either by following orders or spontaneously.
Weber’s brilliant essays shine the bright light of philosophical, cultural, and psychological interpretation on these new patterns of violent conflict that have completely overwhelmed the outmoded Westphalian political consciousness. Her approach is heavily influenced by the complex illuminations of Jacques Derrida, especially his electrifying insights into the inevitability of living together on this planet, his profound application of the auto-immune mechanism to the kind of monstrous political behavior that these post-9/11 shockwaves have produced, and his depictions of the unnerving equivalencies between the sophisticated cruelties of the ‘civilized’ countries and the ‘barbaric’ cruelties of their supposedly primitive enemies.
These are fundamental realities that elude the conscience, and even the consciousness, of the political class that devises the war policies for the West, which, above all claims the high moral and legal ground for its counterterrorist campaigns. It is helpful to remember that the consciousness of the politicians and decision-makers has been shaped for centuries by a form of cynical realism misleadingly attributed to Thucydides and Machiavelli that allegedly adopts the simplistic amoral formula of ‘might makes right,’ which has the secondary effect of marginalizing considerations of law. Henry Kissinger, the arch realist of our era, makes no secret in various writings of his annoyance with ill-tutored aides that remind him of legal or moral constraints that should be considered when contemplating policy choices. For the Kissingers of this world, the only considerations that count are effectiveness and the minimization of risks, underpinned by the idea that the principal agency of history is military power the results of which tended to be mostly vindicated by nationally oriented historians, although also challenged by a few historians with revisionist interpretations.
What Weber’s essays of exploration help us understand is that this Kissinger worldview directly leads to torture, kill boxes, indefinite detention, and drone attacks in response to the post-Westphalian non-territorial reconfiguration of conflict that currently controls the political imagination in the West. Put more explicitly, the conventional Westphalian geopolitical constructs of deterrence, defense, and retaliation do not work in non-territorial struggles in which the combat soldiers of the enemy engage in suicide missions, lack high value targets to destroy, and do not threaten invasion or occupation. What works, then, is gaining information as to the intentions and location of the potential attackers, places of refuge, and the leaders. Given this understanding, normalized recourse to torture was an irresistibly attractive option for those who saw the world through a realist optic. As well, preventive war and preemptive tactics of taking out anyone deemed by word or deed to pose a threat to compensate for the absence of an effective reactive option; this circumstance contrasts with Westplalian patterns of warfare where the stonger side militarily always retained a retaliatory capability even if the adversary struck first. An exemplary victim of a drone strike was the extra-judicial, presidentially approved killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of delivering extremist radio broadcasts from his Yemen hideout that allegedly inspired ‘homegrown terrorists’ to launch lethal attacks against Americans. The realist mentality has a hard time accepting social science findings that question the utility of torture as the preferred means to gather information, and since there is only lip service given to normative considerations, it is not surprising that torture persists despite being unconditionally criminalized internationally. True, torture is sanitized to some extent for the sake of modern liberal sensibilities by leaving the victim unscarred or transferring the suspect to a CIA ‘black site’ or to a torture-friendly foreign government by way of ‘extraordinary rendition.’ We are perceptively reminded in two of the prior essays how the CIA relied extensively on the secret use torture during the Cold War, having made a great effort to develop methods of torture that did not leave the victim physically disfigured.
Another puzzle of these post-Westphalian challenges involves figuring out how to retain the strategic and tactical benefits of military superiority in essentially non-territorial contexts of conflict and political inhibition. The main goal becomes how to find and destroy the enemy while losing as few lives as possible on the technologically advanced side. Drone warfare, at first glance, seems like the ideal solution, a technology that puts to ‘battlefield’ use the information procured through torture and bribery, in a manner that identifies and locates suspects in the most remote parts of the planet, and delivers precise lethal blows with supposedly minimal collateral damage to those nearby. Yet as Weber so well shows the reader, the real circle of devastation is far broader than the ‘kill box’ within which the targeted individuals are closeted. Studies have now shown that the entire surrounding communities are literally terrorized and so acutely alienated as to be receptive to extremist recruitment efforts. It is revealing that a mainstream film, Eye in the Sky, claimed to address the morality of drone strikes by limiting the civilian collateral damage to one young female street vendor in an African town while the use of the drone was justified to avoid a terrorist attack on the local market that would have killed 80 persons. What was occluded from the movie watcher was the realization that the entire community would be indefinitely traumatized by this attack launched from the sky.
On further reflection, drone warfare may turn out to be a Pandora’s Box for the United States. Already there are reports of ISIS making use of drone, and unlike nuclear weaponry the idea of a nonproliferation regime for drones is generally dismissed as utterly fanciful. But the seductive short-term appeal of drone warfare seems irresistible even to a Nobel Peace Prize recipient like Barack Obama. What drones offer is a way of ignoring sovereignty and geography without provoking widespread protests likely to erupt if either lots of civilians died (civilian casualties were not even counted in Iraq and Afghanistan by the Rumsfeld Defense Department as a matter of policy and if deaths do not result, while the Obama presidency ignores completely the community terrorization caused by drone strikes) or American pilots were occasionally shot down or captured. It also avoids the Guantánamo range of problems. Drone operators can sit comfortably in their Nevada office complex thousands of miles from the target, and yet have an eerily intimate relationship to the human damage done due to remote visualization technology. Weber’s commentary here tells us much about the paradoxically unnerving relationship between distance and proximity in this new era.
The greatest blow to our Westphalian sensibilities is undoubtedly what Derrida describes as the dynamics of the ‘auto-immune response.’ It is here that horror is reproduced by adopting methods to protect the threatened political organism, the homeland, that are no less cruel than what has been experienced. In effect, terrorism begets terrorism, and humane values, always precarious and subject to rights of exception, are explicitly subordinated to the alleged requirements of ‘security.’ The post-Westphalian turn encroaches upon the rights of the threatened society by making everyone a potential suspect, and especially implicates those who share a religious and ethnic identity with the assailants, and become too often designated as secondary targets. Weber shows the rather grotesque equivalence between the suicide bomber and the drone operator, simultaneously inflicting death and situating their bodies outside the zone of retaliatory violence.
One of the greatest contributions made by Weber takes the form of indicating the extreme censorship imposed on the publication of poems written by those detained at Guantánamo. The justification given was that poems might transmit coded messages, although it is hard to imagine what useful information could be conveyed by those held in conditions of prolonged captivity. A better explanation might be the reluctance of Guantánamo officials to give these prisoners an opportunity to bear witness to their sufferings and often personal and spiritual aspirations, which would undermine security by ‘humanizing’ terrorists that need to be thought of as ‘the worst of the worst’ to sustain homeland morale. Such a line of interpretation adds weight to Weber’s central claim that the humanist sensibility poses a real challenge, if not a threat, to the militarized mentality that allows the modern forms of cruelty to pass undetected through the metal detectors of ‘civilized societies.‘
I think a reading of Kill Boxes is particularly valuable at this time to unmask the inhumane features of post-Westphalian forms of violent conflict. We are left to ponder whether it is too late to wish for a humane future in which there is respect for and deference to the dynamics of self-determination in the non-West. We need also to seek to have the deadly mechanisms of the post-9/11 auto-immune reactive politics pass through ethical filters before carrying out their deadly missions, sometimes in foreign countries that are even remote from the declared combat zones. At the very least, the challenges posed throughout this book point to an urgent need to reconstruct international humanitarian law in light of the realities of these non-territorial patterns of transnational conflict.