What can we learn from British fighter pilots’ memoirs? Surely, the first element is the possibility to read some factual components on their involvement in Afghanistan and how they appreciate their “missions”. Yet, there is something else one can read in-between the lines: how the imaginary of war came to be established in the relations between the fighter pilots and their machines. The nexus between technologies, technological discourses, and the construction of representations that ultimately influence attitudes and behaviours is patent, yet rarely investigated.
This article proposes a reflection structured around a re-appropriation of the anthropological concept of « colonial situation » (http://www.amazon.com/Enforcing-Order-Ethnography-Urban-Policing/dp/0745664806). The anthropologist Didier Fassin uses «colonial situation » as a conceptual device to underline that one cannot properly understand French police action by focussing only on the moments interactions between officers and urban population take place. According to Didier Fassin, their interactions are inscribed in a particular historical and political context characterised by some forms of domination. Specific rules and habits of behaviour they haven’t defined are the expression of this situation. The situation, however it guides the actors’ exchanges, thus escapes their purview. Finally, the social “unconsciousness” of the codified dimension of the interplay participates in the reinforcement and reproduction of the so-called situation. Relations between police officers and civilians can thus not be satisfyingly analysed without taking into consideration this context exceeding the sole individual actions. For the purpose of this text, I will rely on a modified version of the concept. Rather than considering the impact of colonialism, I will focus on a « technostrategic situation ». My thesis is that interactions between soldiers manning weapons technologies and their environment must be studied by taking into consideration a historically sedimented technical and strategic background.
The governing idea of my text consists of acknowledging that soldiers have a tendency to make sense of what they live and do in war through their (military) machines. How they make sense of enmity, how they understand the practical utility (and limitations) of violence, or how they perceive what should be their “ideal” behaviour is filtered through a technostrategic regime embodied in their aircrafts (http://www.amazon.com/The-Perfect-War-Technowar-Military/dp/0871137992). To put it differently, their machines are a material and symbolic incarnation of a long history of engineers’ and weapons designers’ craft, tactical lessons learned, and military institutional choices. Far from being strictly instrumental like realists and determinists think, machines and weapons are contributing to normalise the use of force by inspiring the development of weakly critical technostrategic subjectivities among soldiers.
Machines, weapons and ammunition
The memoirs of British pilots deployed in Afghanistan during the year 2000 are not only people’s stories but also and perhaps more importantly machine’s stories. The description and explanation of the capacities of the machines and weapons used is most of the time a huge component of these memoirs and could certainly be read in terms of “techno-fetishism” (http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520213739). Ed Macy’s memoir is centred on his machine, the Apache AH64(http://www.amazon.com/Apache-Inside-Cockpit-Fighting-Machine/dp/0802144780):
Apache is the incredible true story of Ed Macy, a decorated Apache helicopter pilot that takes you inside the cockpit of the world’s most dangerous war machine. A first-hand account of the exhilaration and ferocity of war, Apache chronicles a rescue mission involving a stranded soldier in Afghanistan in 2007 (Amazon.com).
From the front cover to the end, the volume contains numerous descriptions of the equipment (guns, rockets and electronic devices) so that one could easily read it as a promotional catalogue of the designer and manufacturer of his helicopter, Agusta Westland. In his memoirs, Ed Macy is not only extremely accurate about the different components of his helicopter, but also openly laudatory and touched about its prodigious lethality:
In 1998, the AH64Dcame into service. It was even deadlier; 400 per cent more lethal (hitting more targets) and 720 per cent more survivable than its predecessor. The most significant addition was the state of the art Longbow Radar which could operate in all weathers, day or night, simultaneously detect 1,024 potential targets, moving or static, up to eight kilometres away, classify the top 256 and display the sixteen most threatening for destruction – all in three seconds. Twenty-one seconds later, every one of those targets could be destroyed by a single Apache’s Hellfire. A squadron of eight AH64Ds working in unison could terminate 128 tanks in twenty-eight seconds” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Apache-Ed-Macy/dp/0007288174) (32).
Impressively techno-obsessed one may think, but not singular at all. Damien Lewis’ memoirs – an Apache helicopter pilot – are also clearly centred on his “ferocious hunter-killer” helicopter (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Apache-Dawn-Always-outnumbered-outgunned/dp/0751541915). The eight rockets that can release no less than 640 five-inch tungsten-made darts are described as a “battle-winner par excellence”. Ade Orchard’s book – a Harrier airplane pilot – follows the same pattern: the precise description of the technicalities of the CRV-7 rockets, the Maverick air-to-surface missiles and the Blue Vixen radar system which, “linked to the brilliant Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM Missile (also known as the ‘Slammer’), created a fantastic weapon system” (sic) (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Joint-Force-Harrier-Ade-Orchard/dp/0141035714).
Enmity through scopes
The machine and its equipment are an integral non-human part within these pilots’ memoirs. They work as a solid anchorage and a story line. In these pilots’ memoirs, the description of the enemy is very often connected to the machine. Representations of the Taliban are less based on classic nationalistic categories and centred more on the technicalities of the engines used to track them and kill them. As Ed Macy describes it, “attack pilots didn’t deliver soup. We didn’t help old ladies across the road, and we didn’t shoot out lollipops. Our main battle function was to close with the enemy and kill them”. Obviously, there is an element of detachment between aircraft pilots and targets on the ground (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Rise-American-Air-Power/dp/0300044143) and these pilots acknowledge it. “There’s a big difference between stabbing someone with a bayonet – when you can see their face and their body and you’re close enough to touch them, see their pain and see their blood – and dropping a bomb on them” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Joint-Force-Harrier-Ade-Orchard/dp/0141035714). Or, in the words of Ed Macy, “Apache pilots never met any Afghans. Life in the cockpit was remote from the real life of the country; it was one disadvantage of the job”. Detachment does not mean ignorance of what happens on the ground, especially if one considers the high-level of surveillance equipment available on-board allowing the pilots to see extremely precisely the effects of their bombing. Across these memoirs there is a clear dehumanizing translation of the enemy into ‘targets’:
The groundies [maintenance and support crews on the ground] decided to start a ‘Taliboard’ in one of the hangars – a scoreboard of the number of enemy soldiers, vehicles and big guns taken out by the Apaches” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Apache-Ed-Macy/dp/0007288174) or “For all the violence revealed by the flash and burn below us, there was still something almost magical about it” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Joint-Force-Harrier-Ade-Orchard/dp/0141035714).
Defining acceptable risks for civilians
There is another common frame in these pilots’ memoirs in the figure of the civilians. They contend their absolute respect of the rules of engagement, their professionalism and all of them recount as a form of alibi the number of missions aborted because of the presence of civilians and the necessity to avoid “collateral damage”:
The F16 [an American fighter-bomber airplane] had dropped a five-hundred-pound JDAM (joint direct attack munition), a GPS-guided smart bomb. Only in this case, while JDAM had obliterated the armoured vehicle it had also ripped apart the buildings to either side. The destruction was clear to the Apache aircrew as they arrived over the battle scene. Hopefully there hadn’t been any Afghan civilians taking cover in those buildings” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Apache-Dawn-Always-outnumbered-outgunned/dp/0751541915).
But still, Afghanistan is viewed, lived and presented as a war by these pilots and by extension any activity by people on the ground could well be hostile in intent. “In a battle environment, anything out of the ordinary raised immediate suspicion and the safest reaction was to assume that what we were looking at was some kind of highly sophisticated and lethal trap” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Joint-Force-Harrier-Ade-Orchard/dp/0141035714). What is disturbing in these pilots’ accounts is their conviction that everything is done to prevent “collateral damage”. One can have a different view, reading the same memoirs. They also contribute to show that armed forces in Afghanistan put civilian lives at risk by using huge amounts of firepower and superfast machines.
On the utility of violence
What about the (political) utility of force? Sometimes, utility is narrowly expressed as combat efficiency, thus aligned with the technostrategic situation expectations. According to Ed Macy, this efficiency is demonstrated by the insecurity of the pilots back home in Great Britain. Apache pilots are protected the same way Special Forces are, in order to avoid them being targeted by the Taliban or any kind of opponent at home (sic). The “price of success” as Ed Macy puts it. The pilots’ discourse about the utility of force is not always so naive. Ade Orchard estimates that “we can never kill all the Taliban” and later on in his memoirs points to the fact that “sooner or later, we will have to start talking with the Taliban, if we aren’t doing so already. Peace will not be possible if all we do is bomb and shoot them. And for all the violence that’s been an unavoidable feature of the campaign in Afghanistan, the priority of the British mission there remains improving the lives of the civilian population through reconstruction and aid”. Still, the heart of his memoirs is a passionate account of the weight and number of bombs dropped. “At the end of October 2006, our first month at KAF [Kandahar Air Filed], we’d flown over 503 hours and dropped more than 32,000lb or ordnance. That’s over 1,000lb every day”. And the number of bombs used is connected to the volatility of the country and of its inhabitants. The circle is complete. These pilots finally have produced a discourse that rests on and ensures the reproduction of a technostrategic regime embodied in their machines. The problem is not only that they do not experience what they live in Afghanistan free of any social determinations (such a possibility sounds like utter illusion). It is mostly that military technology, rather than the particular political and social conditions of the conflict they are involved in, is determining their interpretation of what should legitimately be done. The final result is that military technology, through a technostrategic situation, contributes to the normalisation of the recourse to violence for political purpose.