Observations on ‘Collateral Murder’

NB: This video has graphic images of killing. Viewers should exercise discretion. You Tube recommends that the video is not viewed by anyone under the age of 18.

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and so have not been able to respond to the wikileaksCollateral murder‘ video.1 Like many others I was initially struck by the way the video exemplifies the contemporary intersection of video-gaming, spectacle and warfare. Indeed, the  uncanny resonance of the footage with the ‘Death from above’ mission in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare seem to invite the viewer to draw uncomfortable parallels.

However, my colleague Kyle Grayson has an excellent commentary on ‘Collateral Murder’ that raises some other points that prompted me to think further about what this footage might tell us about the contemporary intersection of war and society.

Kyle’s point – that Rules of Engagement (ROEs) and laws of war are ways of legitimating, not proscribing, the killing of civilians under certain circumstances is an important one. The point about ROEs or laws of war is that they accept – very openly – that civilians will be killed in war. These rules/laws are ways of legitimating that killing under rubrics of proportionality – specifically, that if the risk of killing civilians or damaging their property is less than the military importance of the objective that this targeting/activity can achieve then that death or damage is perceived to be legitimate. It takes little imagination to see that a fair amount of ‘collateral damage’ will be legitimate according to these rules/laws of war. Indeed, Martin Shaw has argued that the legitimation of collateral damage under rules/laws of proportionality, could be said to give rise to a form of war in which the massacre of civilians is an integral part – lamented, of course, but legitimated by the ROEs.

Kyle also makes the important point that focusing on the ROEs means that the focus is on how we fight rather than why we fight. I think this is an important point and Kyle is right to link that to an assemblage of political tactics that successfully depoliticises warfare by maintaining this focus on how, rather than why, we fight. Kyle shows how opponents of war who focus on ROEs (or on the way in which a war is fought) are failing to shift the spotlight onto the really important question: why we are engaged in war at all. Holding militaries to account for violations of ROEs/laws of war – while necessary – is, on its own, a very blunted form of oposition.

I would make several further observations along this line:

  1. The first is that on the whole, focusing on the legality of actions in war fails to comprehend what ROEs and laws of war are for. We should not, of course, diminish the importance of ROEs/laws of war for curbing the excesses of organised force (indeed, laws surrounding the legitimate use of armed force have been vital in holding perpetrators of appalling crimes in places as diverse as Abu Ghraib  and Bosnia to account). That said, ROEs/laws of war do not proscribe war, they legitimate it. These laws evolve over time to ensure that war can be fought within the normative horizons of contemporary society. As such the laws exist in order to make it possible for force to be applied by militaries in ways that society will not find abhorrent. Asking militaries to abide by ROEs/laws of war is thus not a mechanism for contesting war. Indeed, it is an acceptance of war – albeit within bounds set by societal norms. As of the present time although aggression was prosecuted at Nuremberg, no legal proscription applies to war per se.
  2. Given this, it seems odd that so much of recent anti-war discourse has revolved around applying law to war. The militaries of advanced industrial states are well versed in applying that law and are happy to utilise it to justify targeting and other actions. Violations are treated as aberrations (just as crime is treated as a break from the social norm, and thus unrelated to society’s dynamics). Moreover, much of the legal precedent being invoked (such as the prosecution of aggression at Nuremberg) applies to a system of states predicated on interstate violence. Putting aside for a moment the problem of equating contemporary military action and that of the Axis powers in World War 2, this means that anti-war discourses invoking such laws are tacitly arguing for the acceptance of an inter-state system in which violence is treated as endemic, albeit limited by legal frameworks. It might be better to invoke values that undermine the very idea of the state, its supposed monopoly on force and the territoriality that gives rise to its bellicosity.
  3. There is a further problem with the application of law to warfare in this way: it is evidence of the manner in which warfare in the contemporary era is becoming normalised as an everyday occurrence. Just as western societies have increasingly turned to law to regulate everyday politics, now they turn to law to regulate war. I don’t doubt that war is slowly suffusing everyday life. Indeed, I have argued that this is leading to an urbanisation of security. However, I see no reason to play a role in the further normalisation of the idea that war is an everyday activity.
  4. This raises the question of the nature of war. If it is exceptional, not normal, how are we to treat it, to contest it. Here, I have to say I disagree slightly with Kyle. I don’t accept that one can simply assume that war should be simply treated as aberrant. This is a common trope in contestations of organised force. However, it seems to me this misses the complex and mutually constitutive imbrication of war and society. This is an imbrication noted, of course, by Foucault in his lectures collected and published in English as Society must be Defended. This is of course difficult terrain. The last thing I would want to do is valorise war. However, it seems necessary to note that organised force is integral to modern society. Simply arguing for the end of war fails to note this imbrication. To follow Foucault, contesting and ending war would require a radical reworking of social relations in order  to undo that mutually constitutive imbrication. It would also fail to answer the question of how the intolerable should be faced (here one might think about how one would face an ethically abhorrent entity such as the Taliban without force, which is not the same as saying that the current course of action is acceptable). What would society look like that treated such an ethical demand without resort to force? This is a more complex question than the legal proscription of organised force.

Overall, this last point leads me to reassert something that I originally borrowed from Justin Rosenberg – specifically, that the failure of opponents of war to grasp the problem of the mutually constitutive imbrication of (as Waltz would put it) man, the state and war, means that realist theories still maintain their hegemony on thinking about the contemporary global political condition.2 Displacing realist theories of interstate violence would require examining the mutually constitutive relation of war and modern society and thinking in more complex terms (than simply proscribing one of those terms) about how that relation might be contested.

  1. Thanks to Nate Wright for alerting me to this video
  2. In Follies of Globalisation Theory (Verso, 2000) Rosenberg notes that ‘like it or not…realism…is sitting on the intellectual foundations…which we…need to make sense of international relations.’ (p.81)

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5 Responses to “Observations on ‘Collateral Murder’”

  1. Nate says:

    Oh, I meant to also add a quick observation about the COD4 video you posted. Notice how large the explosions are, but how when the smoke dissipates the village remains fundamentally unscathed? Technical limitations drive that, of course (they’d love to have a transformable world), but plays well into our sense that a grenade shot out of a C130 hundreds of feet in the air can take out the enemy and leave the shell intact.

  2. Nate says:

    I’ve been trying to think of a suitable reply to the last paragraph of your response for a couple days now, but haven’t really come up with one. I should say I’m not sure I agree with the assertion (ala Foucault) that war is constitutive of the social fabric of western modernity. This stems in part from the fact that I’m still not sure what Foucault means when he speaks of “war” (or “race” for that matter). It’s clear he doesn’t mean it in the common use terms most would understand war today. But is it simply “struggle” between competing groups, as it sometimes seems to be (which strikes me as Gramscian, btw)? If it is really struggle, then I’m not sure if I like turning this into “war”.

    There is a categorical difference in the way in which one can relate to otherness that I think is dissolved when we transmute struggle into warfare. We can do our best to mitigate it by coming up with new definitions of “war”, but I think ultimately we fail by relying on a term that functions differently than we want it to. There’s an interview with Said in “Power, Politics, and Culture” (I seem to have lost the reference) where he brings up the self-defeating qualities of seeing everything in terms of zero-sum struggles. He’s addressing the dual facts of his political critique of and enjoyment/admiration for the western literary tradition, and he basically says (if I’m remembering correctly), “yes, there is an opposition, but this opposition can only really function by being involved with its object of derision, not by standing outside of it or rejecting it.” And it’s this distinction in the terms on which we conduct the struggle/war which, to me, lies between the notions of society as being fundamentally about struggle or fundamentally about war. And again, this comes out of a sense that I still don’t know precisely what Foucault means when he speaks of “war”. But also a sense that my confusion may be related not to a mis-understanding of his text, but to a certain reservation in adopting his mode of analysis (I just finished Society Must be Defended a few days ago, so all of this is very fresh in my mind).

    Now, what does this have to do with your reply? Good question. I think the part I’m having trouble with is where we come to the problem of deligitimizing war if it is constitutive of social relations. My confusion pops up because I’m immediately uncertain: what is the “war” here? What is it we’re fighting against, and what is it that is constitutive of our relations? You say that delegitimizing war will require “something akin to de-militarising modernity”. To be honest, for me that works at a level of abstraction that becomes irrelevant. I have no idea what a de-militarised modernity would look like or even if I want one. I certainly don’t want a society without struggle, but maybe I want a society without war? Again, the confusion gets me.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kyle Grayson. Kyle Grayson said: Some excellent commentary on ‘Collateral Murder’ from my colleague Martin Coward: http://bit.ly/bfgWrg […]

  4. Nate says:

    I left a longer comment over at Kyle Grayson’s blog in response to this shift from the how to the why. The short version, I don’t think it’s a good idea.

    Since you brought up Society Must Be Defended, I wanted to say something about the way in which many who use Foucault often do so to dismiss rather than appropriate strategic options. In this case, there seems to be an assertion that the state uses the law to legitimate itself, and that therefore we ought not take recourse to it in our own strategies. “The law is the state’s, so we good non-state folks ought to have something else”.

    But it seems to me that the story Foucault tells in the first half of Society Must Be Defended is precisely the story of how history began as the law through which the state legitimized itself, but later was appropriated by forces which sought to contest the state. In other words, the strategic lesson is precisely the adaptability of discourse rather than its timeless allegiance to a particular set of forces, and the way in which the power of history was embedded within its forms rather than its substance. In this way, I think the law ought to be understood as a primary point of contestation rather than merely an apparatus of the state. Because the question of law is not just what is and isn’t permissible, but what ought or ought not be permissible. In that space, there is plenty of room to address the key questions this video raises.

    • Nate

      Many thanks for this, and I broadly agree on the necessity of tying how and why together. I think the problem that Kyle shows well is that a focus on whether actions of some pilots accorded with the ROEs/laws of war fails to do precisely this. So the tactical point for our posts has been to argue for a shifting of attention from whether this activity accorded with codified norms to larger questions about the ethico-political legitimacy of (this) war itself.

      I would also add that I do not want – as some do – to simply and cynically decry all uses of law as insignificant. On the contrary in my work I have argued that a turn to law might be one way to contest the social understandings of what is and is not a legitimate target. And I was careful to indicate that I regard the holding to account of those who have committed rimes against humanity such as genocide to be an important political tool. You are right, of course, that the law is not static and it is precisely through bringing cases and adding to the evolving body of case law that our perceptions of legitimacy are changed.

      That said, I am frustrated about a larger question that this legal contestation ignores – namely the desirability of living in the international system within which the laws of state conduct have evolved. The point is that inter-national law evolved in order to regulate a system of states in which war is taken to be endemic. Deploying that law tacitly accepts this system. And here I diverge from your account of Foucault. I am not arguing that we should leave law to the state (though I am arguing that militaries are very happy these days to have to deal with contestation in the legal sphere and so we might ask as to whether this is the space in which we will achieve the best results). I am drawing on Foucault’s insight that war is constitutive of the very fabric of social relations in western modernity. Delegitimising war thus requires understanding this constitutivity – not regarding war as a separate, abhorrent event to be regulated like criminal behavior. It will require something akin to de-militarising modernity. This is a larger question than simply going to court (partly because the adversarial relations of the court are yet more evidence that politics is war by other means). It was this I wanted to point out. Yes contesting the legitimacy of these pilots behavior is important, but it should not occlude the larger question of how war is integral to our societies. But of course this brings us back to your point that how and why are inseparable.