Book review: Biopolitics After Truth: Knowledge, Power, and Democratic Life

by Sergei Prozorov, Edinburgh University Press, 2021, 192 pp., ISBN: 9781474485784

Rarely does a book of political philosophy manage to triangulate three themes of public interest as effectively as Sergei Prozorov’s Biopolitics After Truth: Knowledge, Power, and Democratic Life (2021). Its main topics—biopolitics, ‘post-truth,’ and post-Soviet Russia—not only speak directly to pandemic politics but also address the relationship between Russia and the West that has become a matter of intense public concern since the election of Donald Trump and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The latest in a trilogy of books on biopolitics written by Prozorov and published by Edinburgh University Press, Biopolitics After Truth extends and combines Prozorov’s earlier analysis of Soviet biopolitics in  The Biopolitics of Stalinism: Ideology and Life in Soviet Socialism (2016) and theory of affirmative biopolitics developed in Democratic Biopolitics: Popular Sovereignty and the Power of Life (2019) in order to diagnose the problem of post-truth and provide a strategy for resistance to it. The book weaves together continental philosophy, contemporary political theories of post-truth, and a study of post-Soviet politics with clarity and concision to diagnose the emergence of post-truth authoritarianism. In doing so the book engages debates in international political theory, security studies, continental philosophy, and studies of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, and will be of interest to scholars of these topics.

‘The book weaves together continental philosophy, contemporary political theories of post-truth, and a study of post-Soviet politics with clarity and concision to diagnose the emergence of post-truth authoritarianism’

Prozorov takes pains to distinguish the post-truth condition from the simple observation that political actors lie and the ancient observation that there is a relationship between knowledge and power. The worry is that dismissing post-truth as ‘nothing new’ risks a passivity or indifference that is itself the result of a post-truth condition. For post-truth, in Prozorov’s account, is about indifference to the question of truth rather than a questioning of truth or the promotion of lies. It is what Prozorov, drawing on Alain Badiou, calls a ‘regime of equivalence,’ (14) in which all statements are taken to be commensurable and substitutable according to a common measure. This is a useful conception of a much-abused term but does not necessarily indicate its novelty. Kant, for example, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, identifies neither dogmatism nor skepticism but ‘indifferentism, mother of chaos and night in the sciences’ (100 [A x]) as the gravest enemy of enlightenment and critical thought. This is not to disagree with Prozorov’s concern—urgency can be lent to a problem by its persistence as much as its novelty.  

The book is adept at drawing out the consequences of the link between biopolitics—government that ‘has taken the living processes of the population as its object’—and truth as a political technology. “Biopolitics is a mode of government,” Prozorov explains, “that claims a foundation in the scientific knowledge of life” (19). Here Prozorov’s analysis provides a useful lens on conflicts over vaccination and other public health measures in response to the pandemic. At stake in these conflicts is not only the question of evidence and misinformation (i.e., the rejection or acceptance of scientific expertise) but a disagreement over the purpose of government. The rejection of ‘truth’ in this sense is not simply a matter of delusion or misinformation but is bound up with the rejection of the biopolitical notion that the aim and purpose of government is the cultivation of life and the health of the population. Those who reject pandemic public health measures in their entirety also reject a set of very broad and very old justifications of modern political authority.

Prozorov, however, mounts an effective critique of the idea that being indifferent to truth is a means of gaining freedom from government or contesting political authority. Post-truth politics is not only a cultural phenomenon but a ‘domestic technology of governance,’ one which Prozorov argues is being exported to the West by post-Soviet Russia (91). The post-Communist order in Russia gained legitimacy, according to Prozorov, not by developing its own ideological system but rather by ‘radicalizing to the point of absurdity the ideology critique that weakened and eventually doomed the Soviet order’ (111). Russia is thus a case in point of Prozorov’s general identification (along with Latour) of post-truth with the generalisation of a critical attitude. Prozorov does not mistake this phenomenon as an effect of critique itself, however, or of poststructural critiques of truth, which remain invested in the question of truth and the distinction between truth and error. This post-ideological production of legitimacy lends itself to authoritarian politics because without any standard of truth ‘power can be exercised without any limitation’ (21).

Hence the need for a strategy for resisting post-truth authoritarianism which Prozorov finds in the idea of an affirmative biopolitics. Drawing on Foucault’s lectures on the Cynic practice of truth-telling, parrhesia, Prozorov develops a conception of truth-telling that institutes the distinction between truth and error through life activity that designed to demonstrate truth rather than argue for it. In its focus on performative efficacy over content it has some similarities with the move from proof to expression that Prozorov argues characterizes the post-truth era. This element of affirmative biopolitics means that it is ‘not associated with the objectification of life in the apparatus of government but rather with the subjectivation of living beings in resistance to and confrontation with these apparatuses’ (147). This points to a broader challenge raised by Prozorov’s analysis, which is the difficulty of separating subject from object, freedom from domination, and life from death.

‘Prozorov … mounts an effective critique of the idea that being indifferent to truth is a means of gaining freedom from government or contesting political authority.’

Prozorov uses Foucault’s Subjectivity and Truth lectures to argue for a gap between the subject and discourse that permits the subject to make use of discourse for their own purposes. Yet what is powerful about Foucault’s account of biopolitical government is the way subjectivation and objectivation are elements of a single process that relates knowledge and power. This is evident in the dual meaning of the word ‘subject’ is which one is at once subject to domination, that is, made an object of power, and produced as a subject with agency—no gap is required. It is similarly difficult to separate a politics of killing (or thanatopolitics) from a biopolitics aimed at the cultivation of life. Foucault does not present us with a choice between subjectivation and objectification, cultivating and eliminating life—in biopolitical order, each entails the other. It is not clear that choosing one element of these related processes can provide a way out of this predicament. Affirmative biopolitics is a kind of ‘living truth to power,’ so to speak, yet the truth of one’s (sexual, psychological, intellectual, emotional) life is a crucial element of the functioning of modern biopolitical government. Truth can be a weapon of the powerful and the weak, of freedom and of domination. Political decisions within a biopolitical condition lie in where, how, and by whom forms of subjectification and objectification, life and death are decided and distributed. The indifference that threatens the biopolitical regime of truth is thus also an indifference to these political questions. In this sense, Prozorov makes an urgent and timely defense of politics.

One force that organizes and justifies these decisions, according to Foucault, is racism and the ‘colonizing genocide’ that accompanies it (257). Prozorov has explored this topic in detail in The Biopolitics of Stalinism where he distinguishes between capitalist and Soviet biopolitics. While historical and geographical variations of biopolitical governance are clearly significant, consideration of the commonalities of modern biopolitics would help address a question raised by the contemporary activists that Prozorov argues exemplify affirmative biopolitics, Russian punk band Pussy Riot and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg: What is the relationship between biopolitics and geopolitics today? If Pussy Riot’s prayer to the Christian Mary to rid the world of Putin invokes a geopolitics of state conflict, Thunberg’s demands for action on climate change invoke geopolitics understood as a relationship between human beings, the earth and its inhabitants, and political order. In this context it would be useful to return to the beginnings of species thinking in the natural history of the eighteenth century when Kant was inveighing against indifferentism. This is not long after the birth of modern biopolitics when the link between human progress and exterminating violence is forged by analogy with ‘nature,’ a link that is far from broken today. Prozorov’s politically attuned philosophical analysis is well-suited to addressing these and many other questions provoked by Biopolitics After Truth. Perhaps the trilogy should become a tetralogy.   


Foucault M (2003). “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 (Vol. 1). Edited by François Ewald. Macmillan.

Kant I (1998). Critique of pure reason. Edited by Paul Guyer and Allan W. Wood. Cambridge University Press.

Prozorov S (2016). Biopolitics of Stalinism: Ideology and life in Soviet socialism. Edinburgh University Press.

Prozorov S (2019). Democratic biopolitics: Popular sovereignty and the power of life. Edinburgh University Press.

Book review: The Suspect: Counterterrorism, Islam, and the Security State

by Rizwaan Sabir, Pluto Press, 2022, 256 pp. ISBN: 9780745338484

The contemporary surveillance state of the UK and its allies is in many ways the bureaucratic par excellence, with its logics, language and processes operating through seemingly deliberate and elaborate sets of contradictions and linguistic sleights-of-hand. It is simultaneously vague, due to its characteristically administrative and ambiguous tone, yet clearly racialised and politically focused on its targets; it is surreptitious whilst continuing to post explicit and intense reminders of state power; and it is detached –sanitised– though, nevertheless, deeply personal, violent and traumatic. In The Suspect: Counterterrorism, Islam, and the Security State, Rizwaan Sabir highlights these points through a first-hand account of how, as a Master’s student at the University of Nottingham in 2008, he was arrested and detained under the UK Terrorism Act 2000 for downloading a document named the ‘Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ as a part of his postgraduate dissertation on Al-Qaeda in Iraq. A document, we are soon to discover, freely available to download from the US Department of Justice website (as well as other government sources), accessible via the University of Nottingham’s own library services, and able to be purchased in various UK high-street bookstores such as Blackwell’s. It is by design that the document’s title is suggestive of nefarious and underhanded intentions, as the document –an easily accessible ‘compilation of material drawn from various military, intelligence and law enforcement manuals’– was previously rebranded as the ‘Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ by US prosecutors to link US Embassy bombing suspects to Al-Qaeda, and, conveniently, create a guilt-by-association framework for future counterterror profiles and arrests. From this, Sabir is subsequently and swiftly drawn into the nexus of profiling, surveillance and counterterror pre-emption that permeates the day-to-day functions of present Western states.

The Suspect…reads as an examination and critique of the routine and assumed-as-neutral logics that strengthen and give shape to the legitimacy of the surveillance state’

At its core, The Suspect contributes an understanding of how ‘typical’ security practices such as profiling and surveillance are contingent on the creation of insecurity, and –contrary to conventional wisdom– the unexceptional nature of this. It chronicles how surveillance processes are increasingly normalised, articulated as mundane and legitimate by the state in order to pre-empt and monitor security threats (as well as co-opt dissent), and, from this, become largely accepted by the wider public – a seemingly meagre cost in order to live in a ‘safe’ liberal democracy. However, the account that Sabir puts forward is a detailed and vivid rebuttal of the moral and practical legitimacy of such perspectives, and a testimony of the wider harms that, incidentally or strategically, are often lost through attempts to navigate the mystifying labyrinths of bureaucratic process. Here, harm and insecurity are not framed as transgressive, rogue elements, but functional parts of the derivative, contested make-up of ‘security’. Consequently, The Suspect renders visible –and draws together the theory and practice of– this contingent insecurity, broadening and deepening our appreciation of what could or should be a focus of our –critical– attention. As such, it is a book that should be of great interest to those concerned with the politics of (in)security, state power, surveillance and its harms, and the racialisation of counterterror practice.

As noted, it is easy to see Sabir’s story as an exceptional, singularly erroneous form of over-reach conducted by the security state, yet he is clear in making the crucial point that his tale is but a single traumatic node in the wider, established, process and bureaucracy that ceaselessly profiles, monitors and interferes in racialised lives. The single raindrop never feels responsible for the flood, so the saying goes, and this thought would frequently return to me over the course of The Suspect’s 200-plus pages. Across the book is a clear understanding of how completely embedded and routine surveillance measures are towards racialised populations, and the depth and breadth of those individuals and institutions who, willingly or implicitly, contribute to their functioning. Indeed, one cannot help but notice the rota of –almost surrealist– individuals who, working as components within the grander security apparatus, offer sympathetic (and sometimes empathetic) condolences to Sabir as they continually intrude, provoke and cause lasting harm: “I am Italian, and I am sometimes stereotyped as being part of the Mafia so I know how you must be feeling”, one Department of Homeland Security agent nonchalantly tells Sabir after questioning him in an interrogation room at JFK Airport. Drip, drip, drip…

The Suspect, then, reads as an examination and critique of the routine and assumed-as-neutral logics that strengthen and give shape to the legitimacy of the surveillance state. Nevertheless, it is also an intimate and personal answer to a question, the implications of which are all too frequently understood by those who were, or still are, the obsession of the state: what happens when its focus and resources are groundlessly fixed on you and those you care about – is the price, then, a meagre one? To this, Sabir invokes his experience of the confusion, dissonance and cascading strains attendant to what one could reasonably label the contemporary panopticon. What is evident across The Suspect is that one’s awareness of the state’s shapeless remit is, in and of itself, a key feature of surveillance and its consequent disciplinary power. Although you may live in full knowledge that you are a ‘person of interest’, you will almost certainly not be cognisant of the particulars underpinning your surveillance. Paradoxically, when one attracts the attention of the state, the ambiguities which constitute its response(s) become increasingly apparent. What is inferred from this is the potent, stupefying appreciation that at any moment you may be the focus of a capricious and formidable gaze. The ensuing reaction to this is, as Michel Foucault theorised at length, that contingent logics of discipline and control are internalised and consolidated to form a continuously self-policing, and subsequently compliant, subject. It is control that not only endures but does so from a distance, both in space and time; it is the creation of lasting insecurity through securitisation.

‘Sabir invokes his experience of the confusion, dissonance and cascading strains attendant to what one could reasonably label the contemporary panopticon’

During the writing of The Suspect, a decade after his initial arrest, Sabir describes how he still felt that his ‘entire existence […] was exposed to the surveilling eyes of the security and intelligence services’. Whilst lecturing, Sabir notices an unfamiliar face in the crowd, someone who is not a student: a ‘middle-aged man […] frantically taking notes of everything I said’. Stress levels increase and Sabir starts to wonder if he is an intelligence agent briefed to log Sabir’s research on counterterrorism, if his presence is an intimidation tactic, or simply there to ‘send a message’. It transpires, after several deflective responses, that the man is a ‘note taker’ for a student entitled to additional learning support. Nevertheless, Sabir’s reflection is a significant one: ‘the traumatic and harmful effects [of the state’s legally sanctioned violence] were still looming over me’. At several other points, Sabir recounts how the UK government’s creation of him as a surveillance subject leads him down avenues of paranoia, distrust and helplessness. It is an insightful, brave and fundamentally necessary component of the book. It captures the personal costs and harms of surveillance that are too frequently ignored, swept away and justified by those in power, and it is a counter to the fatuous idea –habitually put forward by the surveillance state and its lackeys– that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to be concerned about (and please proceed about your business as normal).

‘Once you are marked as a ‘‘subject of interest’”, Sabir notes, ‘it is difficult to become ‘uninteresting’”. The ease with which one can be placed into the category of ‘suspected terrorist’, and the subsequent revocation of fundamental rights, should not only trigger alarm bells inside the minds of citizens within liberal democracies, but the ongoing harms inflicted from such ‘routine’ acts should be widely understood by the same citizens as a shameful and continuous moral failure by the state. Furthermore, these are harms which are too often and too easily overlooked when, conceptually, we assume security is merely ‘state-centric’. The Suspect is a crucial account of the personal and communal costs of surveillance, profiling and (in)security, and can be understood through the lens of resistance, not least due to its content, but also through Sabir’s closing recommendations to assist in helping those affected by the state’s counterterror measures. Attendant to these are notions of defiance and healing, yet we are also implicitly invited to consider other wide-reaching questions: What harms are missed when our focus is too narrow and superficial? What possible avenues for human emancipation have been preventatively stifled by these logics? how do we affect the modern security agenda?

It is perhaps unsurprising that there is a short reference to George Orwell’s novel, 1984, in The Suspect – unsurprising because, after all, who better to show us the dystopian horrors of routine, bureaucratised, authoritarian, surveillance practices than the person behind ‘Big Brother’, ‘doublespeak’ and ‘the capturing of the inner mind’? However, it is a different piece by Orwell that I feel is more suited to signify Sabir’s contribution. In Why I Write, Orwell champions the ‘power of facing unpleasant facts’, and the desire to ‘push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’. To resist the surveillance state and re-calibrate our assumptions surrounding security there are many unpleasant facts that one has to face head-on – The Suspect provides a number of these unpleasant but necessary truths first-hand, and emphasises the urgency with which we have to contest them.

The single raindrop never feels responsible for the flood

Book review: Radical Secrecy: The Ends of Transparency in Datafied America

by C. Birchall, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2021, 244 pp. ISBN 978-1-5179-1043-3

Why is it that debates about trade-offs between supposed binary opposites of secrecy and transparency, and between secrecy and security, so often feel unsatisfying? As Clare Birchall acutely points out in her new book, Radical Secrecy: The Ends of Transparency in Datafied America (2021), to question transparency in liberal democracies today is (seemingly) to be opposed to progress, to be corrupt, or to be antidemocratic. However, in this era of digital data and the power and economic value associated with its flows and accumulations, Birchall’s important work joins a school of scholars such as Jodi Dean, Alasdair Roberts, Lisa Stampnitzky and Shoshana Zuboff (to name just a few) in critiquing the narratives of secrecy, transparency, revelation/exposure and surveillance capitalism.

Birchall highlights that datafication has reinforced the monopoly that the state, in combination with big tech companies, has on secrecy in the form of surveillance, in which citizens become more transparent to the state through the accumulation of myriad data points. Meanwhile, attempts to make transparency more symmetrical, through programmes such as open government data for example, end up delegating responsibility to citizens to use and make sense of that data. As Birchall shows convincingly in the book though, the end effect of these initiatives is that they offer responsibility without power in a way that conversely curtails political agency or real change. In highlighting the unsatisfying results of initiatives in the name of transparency, Birchall sets the stage by suggesting that despite commonplace narratives that assume transparency is an unequivocal good, this is a moment in which visibility and revelation have lost most of their force.

Building on her scholarship in a series of articles (2011, 2015, 2017) and extending them into this book length treatment, Birchall makes the argument that progressive social goals would be better served by a radical form of secrecy, especially in this contemporary moment that sees state and corporate forces hold such an advantage over control of digital data. Calls for more transparency on the part of the data holders, or more privacy for data subjects, often seem to be the clarion call for those objecting to the unequal distributions of agency and political power that emerge in what Zuboff elsewhere has provocatively described as the ‘age of surveillance capitalism.’ However, in her book Birchall shows us the importance of moving beyond calls for privacy, and to interrupt the tension between state security and the public’s right to know, by presenting a compelling reformulation of secrecy as a key part of performing a digital ‘right to opacity,’ drawing on the work of Edouard Glissant. She does this by presenting a gradual and logically organised argument over the course of the early chapters to illustrate the shortcomings of transparency and privacy, as they are commonly enacted today. As she states in the preface, the book is intended to trouble “the vectors of secrecy and transparency to make room for more equitable distributions of power.” (p. ix). This book therefore presents a reassessment of secrecy and transparency as ideas, practices, and resources, and by temporarily reversing the values and promises of secrecy and transparency, she goes against the conventions of routine discourse to make a valuable intervention.

This book … offers crucial insights for scholars working on issues of security, war, critical terrorism studies, state and covert operation, networked technologies and algorithms, sensate regimes of war and affect, data and transparency and post-truth regimes, intelligence, surveillance, science and technology… the list goes on!

In order to reassess the ideas, practices and resources that secrecy and transparency present to us as critical scholars, Birchall therefore sets out to answer three questions. First, “how might transparency, in contrast to the high hopes placed in it by a range of political pundits, organisational and management theorists, and campaigners, actually delimit the scope of the political and serve agendas that are far from transparent?” Secondly, “can we imagine, or think with, a secret or secrecy that could act in the service of, rather than against, a progressive politics?” And thirdly, “how can we represent the relationship between secrecy and transparency in a way that avoids the dead ends of current debates?” (p. 2). Given the excellent conceptual nuance and empirical depth of the arguments though, the book would perhaps be unlikely to work as an introductory or undergraduate-level text to begin with. By treating secrecy and transparency as malleable, floating ‘empty signifiers’ (a la Ernesto Laclau) rather than fixed opposites, she begins to show scholars a framework for how we can think, and write, with the possibility of harnessing secrets and secrecy for progressive aims. As such, this book is a valuable and timely contribution to a growing literature and discipline dedicated to studying secrecy, one that would be most useful to scholars from across the social sciences and humanities.

First of all, this book and its conceptual framework is an important resource for security scholars. The discipline needs to pay attention to secrecy as both an epistemological but also ontological concern: its power, allure, affect and capacity for interpellating subjects. Through their genealogies of the secrecy and transparency in Enlightenment and American thought, Chapters One and Three in particular offer convincing critiques of the ways that transparency and secrecy can, and do, act as carriers of (liberal or Enlightenment or capitalist) ideology. But this approach in turn also offers a way of destabilising those assumptions, of ‘thinking against the grain,’ as Birchall described it. This book therefore offers crucial insights for scholars working on issues of security, war, critical terrorism studies, state and covert operation, networked technologies and algorithms, sensate regimes of war and affect, data and transparency and post-truth regimes, intelligence, surveillance, science and technology… the list goes on!

What unites these topics is an assumption about the power of hermeneutic suspicion, the sense that if we document and critique international affairs, if we can just ‘open’ up the information, uncover a ‘truth’, that ‘we’ as scholars can bring about political change, make a difference. Instead, this book prompts us to think more explicitly, and therefore more reflexively, about what such a critical project is founded upon if openness and transparency are predicated on a series of otherwise unquestioned assumptions of their good. For those interested in configuring secrets as a properly political subject, it is necessary to sidestep the debate as constructed by mainstream discourse, as this book amply demonstrates. But even if we are not researching matters directly related to secrecy or transparency or their cognate topics, this book still offers an important set of resources to critical security scholars, to international relations, and beyond.

Secondly, and related to previous point, this book explores a critical approach to, or conceptualisation of, ‘politics’ that shifts away from liberal and emancipatory ideals or that are automatically predicated on assumptions about the atomised individual as the basic operating unit, and its concept of representative or participatory democracy. Drawing on Jaques Rancierre’s ‘distribution of the sensible,’ and Hardt and Negri’s ‘multitude’, I found Birchall’s definition of politics (for example on p.98 and p.108) to offer a useful starting point for an alternative communitarian politics, made up of singularity, rather than atomised individuals. This in turn points to some alternative theorisations of politics than those critiqued by Browning and McDonald and others in critical security studies. This book also provides some lucid theorising on the relationships between resistance and revelation, obfuscation and politics. That said, there is plenty more work that needs to be done on these relations, particularly on what counts as a ‘revelation,’ and exploring how resistance can manifest or become available through these practices.

Secrecy, transparency, security, all have a temporal orientation, or a capability to act as a form of timing that need deeper theorisation if we are to understand how the ideologies of secrecy (or transparency) may change over time, or can effect political change over time, as Birchall urges.

Security scholars could be well placed to do this, given recent interest in how it is not just human agents, but also non-humans who can be ‘readers’ or ‘seers’ or ‘makers’ of secrecy and secrets and security. The book has a focus on US and there is still much more to be gained for theorisations of secrecy by engaging with non-Western contexts, as Birchall herself would be the first to tell us. But also, there could be more work done on the role of temporality in/of secrecy, and not just state or government secrecy but a more broadly cultural look, such as that deployed in the book. Secrecy, transparency, security, all have a temporal orientation, or a capability to act as a form of timing that need deeper theorisation if we are to understand how the ideologies of secrecy (or transparency) may change over time, or can effect political change over time, as Birchall urges.

Book review: Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect, and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army

by Maria Rashid, Stanford University Press, 2020. 288pp. ISBN: 9781503610415

Plenty of social scientists and humanities scholars are preoccupied with the technics of warfare, such as lawfare, drones, “low intensity warfare” and the shifting spaces of war. Yet, attention to a traditional means of war, that is, the institution of the military and its constituting labor force, the soldier, remains necessary. Fordespite its ever-expanding technologies, war-making continues globally to require human bodies willing to do its violence work. Permanent war requires production of instruments—and subjects—of violence. Thus, it remains pertinent to consider questions such as: How does the military retain its power when it all-but-guarantees the death of its subjects? How do subjects of violence consent to endure violence to their own bodies, and also bodies of those they love? And broadly, what is the nature of modern militarism, and how is it (re)produced?

Maria Rashid’s Dying to Serve is fundamentally concerned with answering such questions. It works out how it is that people become complicit in human sacrifice in the name of a nation-state, and how the powerful Pakistan military brings this about. The Pakistan Army remains amongst the top ten most powerful militaries in the world, with an all-volunteer force of approximately 560,000 active-duty personnel (as of 2020), and a history of interference in political and democratic processes. Given that the Pakistan military keep its secrets close and often censures critique, the book is striking in the range of evidence it gathers from this institution, as well as in the critique directed towards it. While the book emerges from political science, Rashid also draws on a broad range of theoretical traditions in anthropology, critical theory, geography, psychology, and sociology, and employs a feminist ethnographic method. Its multiple analytical registers—of gender, class, history, and geography—will be useful to students of many disciplines, especially scholars of critical military studies; anthropologies of institutions, affect, and masculinism; and feminist research methods.

Thirteen months of ethnographic research in five villages in district Chakwal in the Pakistani Punjab, a historically military region, forms the heart of this study. It covers both the institutional practices of the Pakistan Army, as well as the practices and meaning-making that subjects engage in living and dying in military service. The work’s key premise is that affect is deployed as a technology of rule: statecraft is invested in governing the affective selves of subjects. The evidence and analysis shows how the military controls, suppresses, and invokes affects such as grief, fear, attachment, and loyalty through policies of recruitment, training, and compensation, and orchestrated spectacles of mourning, that, for Rashid, together highlight the military’s gendered governing practices. Illuminating these practices uncovers how political, affective, and gendered subjects of militarism are produced, and how collusive relationships—between the military institution and its subjects who stand to suffer significant losses (soldiers and their families)—are sustained. Ultimately, it shows how these relationships fashion the appeal and presence of militarism in contemporary society.

‘Dying to Serve is elucidating the materialist grounds on which militarism stands, undergirded by a historical colonial political economy that is reworked for contemporary Pakistani militarism.’

This political ethnography, comprising more than 100 interviews with a spectacular range of interlocutors, offers a gripping view of military events, institutions, and subjects, and takes us on an arresting, oftentimes harrowing, journey with the subaltern—“non-commissioned,” “junior commissioned,” and disabled—subjects of the Pakistan military. Chapter 1 introduces the author’s implication and interest in the book’s themes, and expounds on its theoretical and methodological interventions. Chapter 2 begins with a reflexive ethnographic snippet of Rashid’s attendance of a “Defence day” celebration in the manicured lawns of the Pakistan Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, alongside a couple thousand attendees. Readers are subsequently eased into what lies behind the stage through a critical examination of national military commemorations. Chapter 3, then, take us to district Chakwal, and attends to the historical and contemporary political economy of this rural region. It lays out how and why this place came to be a “martial” district during British colonial rule, and traces the afterlives of that history in the discourse, policies, and practices of the present-day Pakistan military.

The next three chapters are grounded in rural Chakwal, and study the affects produced in the “sipahi” (soldier), his family, and their village towards military training (chapter 4), death (chapter 5), and compensation (chapter 6). Rashid contends that these affects tie soldiers, their families, the army, and the nation together in a narrative where masculinity, sacrifice, and nationalism interplay and produce a militarizing sensibility in broader society. Yet, the analysis remains attentive to moments of disengagement from the project of militarism, and in this way, allows for the emergence of an ambivalent subject. In the same spirit, chapters 7 and 8 highlight moments where the relationship between the military and its subjects is tested; first via the figure of the disabled soldier (who did not die in battle), and then through the vexed relation of Islam with the “war on terror.” The concluding chapter recapitulates how affect serves as a powerful technology of rule that affixes relationships of oppression, but can also engender ambivalence. This is deemed not insignificant, especially when one considers the systematic compensatory and remunerative regimes firmly in place to maintain consent and legitimize the military’s claims on the bodies of soldier-subjects.

This book is based on the premise that subject formation is mutually constitutive between subjects and the powers that form them. The analysis takes place at a variety of scales: the national, district, village, household, and individual. These are portrayed not as nested, but as contradictory and dialectical. One of the strengths of Rashid’s narrative is the use of evocative imagery from each of these scales to explore how the affective and material relationships crafted within militarism implicate the post-9/11 Pakistani Punjab. This approach treats militarism as a sociological phenomenon that manifests in social relations and practices, encompassing modes of economic production, popular culture, and hierarchies of race, gender, and class. With deepening scholarly interest in views of power formations “from below,” this work is a welcome contribution to understandings of the social relations of war-making.

Grief features centrally in this text. How it comes to be inhabited by gendered subjects is painstakingly rendered; and moments where it “overflows” are carefully attended to for their potential to unsettle military-scripted narratives. The ethnographic examination shows, however, that such grief-laden moments “paradoxically become the very junctures that permit a return to hegemonic power” (p. 136). Thus, grief serves a powerful technique of governmentality, but significantly, also contains its contradiction. Women appear as key figures in these economies of loss, and in Rashid’s analysis, their affect is instrumentalized by the military towards creating a hallowed culture of military death. Similar to other feminist scholars of militarism (such as Joanna Bourke, Cynthia Enloe, Catherine Lutz and others), Rashid highlights the tenuous relationship between women, militarism, and nation, showing how the female subject is central to the masculinist imaginings of militarist discourse.

One of the most important contributions of Dying to Serve is elucidating the materialist grounds on which militarism stands, undergirded by a historical colonial political economy that is reworked for contemporary Pakistani militarism. Throughout the text, subjects’ material relationship to the military—first as the soldier’s stable employer, and after his death, through the paternalistic dispensing of compensation to next of kin—remains crucial, alongside the affect deployed for meaning-making and garnering sustained consent for war-waging. Utilizing recollections by families of dead soldiers, and reminders, or hauntings, of these men visible in village homes and public sites of commemoration, this work is a rich study of the critical role of affect as a medium that allows power to diffuse through society. Laying bare the “sacrifice” rural working-class people make for the project of militarism, this book offers a profound critique of the culture of militarism by exposing its economies of loss.

Zahra Khalid is a PhD Candidate in Geography at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Expecting the exceptional in the everyday: Policing global transportation hubs

Global transportation hubs such as airports and maritime ports have become vital spaces for the international networked economy. Global economic opportunities depend on the effective flow of people and things, and make use of the different infrastructures and modes of the transport system. For instance, around 80 percent of global trade in goods, measured by volume, is carried by sea. Similarly, since the 1970s, when air travel ceased to be the preserve of elites and became available to the masses, aviation has seen tremendous growth and now acts as significant catalysts for socio-economic development. In this sense, airports and ports are prominent hubs, and are instrumental in connecting local and national regions to international ones.

Photo via Pexels, Tom Fisk

However, the fact that global hubs are considered critical infrastructures serving as symbolic locations of contemporary capitalism, commerce, and mobility, does not come without its risks and vulnerabilities. Although illicit activities and criminal exploitation (such as smuggling, piracy, and theft) have long been associated with the aviation and maritime industries, new and emerging risks have been added to a broadened security agenda. In particular, given the numerous terror attacks there have been, most notably 9/11, the London bombings in 2005, and the 2016 Brussels bombings, which targeted various parts of global transportation hubs (such as airlines, railways, and metros), concern about terrorism is very much to the fore in the imaginaries of airport and maritime port life. Therefore, in today’s environment, the security discourse of terrorism stands strong.

Influenced by the ‘war on terror’ discourse, the security landscape of airports and ports seems to be operating under constant threat of an exceptional nature with a minimal margin for error, because the potential consequences are so significant. Following the perceived necessity to make global hubs safe, numerous measures have been implemented, including stringent regulatory regimes and different tools for surveillance, controls, and risk management. Consequently, the heightened (in)security and exceptional threats influence the everyday environment of the aviation and maritime sectors, in that they are affected by embodied emotional responses, such as uncertainty, fear and anxiety, felt by passengers, customers, and employees.

Photo via Pexels, Matthew Turner

In my recent article in Security Dialogue, I engage with the debates on exceptionality and the everyday by unpacking how security agencies at global transportation hubs experience and cope with exceptionality in their everyday working life, and I examine how they feel about it, interpret it and respond to it. In doing so, I present arguments for moving attention from ‘spectacular’ and ‘exceptional’ events to the mundane, everyday nature of security in order to add a new layer to our understanding of security projects.  

The empirical assessment documents the impact of the exceptional through the embodied experiences of living with seemingly constant risk and uncertainty. In response, security agencies actively seek to compensate for the uneasiness in their everyday life by relying on instrumental governing logics, with risk management and analysis used to render uncertainties manageable and tangible. The use of these logics and measures are understood as prominent aspects of the coping strategies as developed by the agencies. As I demonstrate in my article, however, another way of coping with exceptionality in their everyday working life also emerged amongst the security agencies, one in which emphasizes the human dimension of security practices. This means that the value of human qualities is recognized when confronting the consequences of exceptionality in the security landscape of airports and ports. In particular, I illustrate how the notion of everyday security consciousness figures in the life of security agencies. Closely associated with this is the emergence of mechanisms of resistance that provide excitement and alleviate boredom, in response to what is sometimes seen as an overemphasis on the importance of the tangible nature of security practices. As part of their emotional response those delivering security find ways, in the way they perform security, to ridicule and challenge its instrumental governing logic.

Therefore, I suggest that, as emotions play an important role in how we experience and respond to security measures, it is crucial to pay attention to the embodied emotional experience and everyday security consciousness. Future attention to the role of emotions in experiences of security may offer crucial insights into the micro-practices or micro-politics of (in)security.

Rethinking and Revising the Theory of Network-centric Warfare

If we take a step back and cast a reflective eye over the evolutionary trajectory of western military thought, we will find that in around the 1990s—as Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) began to proliferate—discussions regarding the latest Revolution in Military Affairs also started to gather pace.

Figure 1: Trajectory of (modern) Western strategic-military evolution

It was in this context that some military theorists began to think in terms of a “new” theory of warfare. Recognizing that the “time we live in [is] unlike any other…a time when the pace of change demands that we change…” (Alberts et al, 2001: xiii), it was argued that it was fast becoming an imperative to craft “an emerging military response to the Information Age” (Alberts et al, 2000: 88). This would require, the theorists asserted, “a new way of thinking – network-centric thinking…” (Alberts et al, 2000: 88) and a “shift in focus from the platform to the network…” (Gartska & Cebrowski, 1998). Thus, was born the theory of network-centric warfare (NCW).

Figure 2: Network-centric Warfare: The Basic Model

By 2003, the US was heavily involved in the Iraq War and, under such conditions, the theory of NCW fell prey to the demands of urgent operationalization resulting in a critical failure to think through the nuances and implications of “network-centric thinking”. Further, dismal battlespace outcomes in the Afghan and Iraqi theatres led many to dismiss the theory as a failure.

Given our progressive immersion in an “internet of things”, which is exhibiting growing levels of ambient intelligence, and with the human condition being increasingly subjected to subtle forms of what Gernot Böhme refers to as “invasive technification”, the imperative to think about martial operability in network-centric terms has both a conceptual allure and a growing operational imperative. But to do this, we will need to “change…how we think” (Rumsfeld, 2002: 29).

In my recent article in Security Dialogue, against the backdrop of an emerging “internet of things” marked by a growing “ambient intelligence”, I explore how Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of technology which, by seeking an “understanding [of] technological elements, machines and ensembles…from the perspective of their genesis” (Fisch, 2018: 30), and by, among other things, invoking the notion of intensive and extensive reticularity, expands on what he refers to as “technical reality” in which “the role or function of the human [is] between machines” (LeMarre, 2013: 82) may be useful to construct a conceptual armature around which the project of rethinking and revising the theory of NCW may be undertaken in a manner that is responsive to the Age of Information and, prospectively, of Artificial Intelligence, albeit in a manner free from the intemperate technicism that has thus far held the theory of NCW captive.


Alberts DS, Gartska J, Stein F (2000) Network Centric Warfare: Developing and Leveraging Information Superiority 2nd Revised Edition (CCRP Program). Washington, DC: US Dept. of Defense

Alberts DS, Gartska JJ, Hayes RE, Signouri DA (2001) Understanding Information Warfare (CCRP Program). Washington DC: Dept. of Defense

Bohme G (2012) Invasive Technification: Critical Essays in the Philosophy of Technology, Trans. Shingleton C. London: Bloomsbury Academic

Fisch M (2018) An Anthropology of the Machine: Tokyo’s Commuter Train Network. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Garstka JJ and Cebrowski AK (1998) Network Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future. In Proceedings Volume 124/1/1, 139

LeMarre T (2013) Afterword. In Combes M Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of Transindividuation, Trans. LeMarre T, Cambridge: MA: MIT Press

Rumsfeld D (2002) Transforming the Military. In, Foreign Affairs, vol. 81, no. 3, May/June, Available at (accessed Oct 24, 2020)

Modular Sovereignty and Infrastructural Power: The Elusive Materiality of International Statebuilding

Space and materials matter. But how? My article (Open Access) in Security Dialogue explores what spatial and material arrangements reveal about the way international statebuilding exerts (sovereign) power.

Statebuilding interventions support the establishment of sovereign states by taking control of, arranging and ordering spaces. This was immediately apparent when I first entered the Mogadishu International Airport (MIA) zone in 2017, a heavily fortified and militarized enclave in Mogadishu, from where international actors are rolling out programmes to build a state, fight an Islamist insurgency, and alleviate human suffering. Hosting the headquarters of the United Nation’s Somalia programme and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM); embassies and diplomatic offices; logistic and security companies; warehouses; hotels and restaurants, the MIA zone is separated from the city by walls, fences, barbed wires, and crash barriers.  

Movement from Mogadishu into the zone is only possible in daytime, and through one of three heavily guarded gates. Offices, residential compounds, and other installations inside the zone are surrounded by additional walls and entry-barriers. Military and private security are guarding gates, patrolling roads, or gazing down on people from watchtowers. Helicopters cruise above the zone and patrol the shoreline. Tanks, military pick-up trucks and white SUVs move over dusty roads, revealing the militarisation of aid as well as the blurring boundaries of defence, development, and diplomacy characteristic for international statebuilding. The usual archipelago of fortified aid compounds is integrated into one spatial template in the MIA zone.

Zoning, walling, and partitioning are socio-spatial technologies aimed at controlling mobilities while separating good from bad and desired from undesired movements. They also illustrate that people and organisations inside the zone live in constant anticipation of violence and prepare for it. Violence, therefore, remains at the core of statebuilding, internationally supported or not.

The international airport is part of the zone, where containers are found everywhere. They are used to transport goods, assembled to walls, transformed into gyms or warehouses, and refurbished into hotels or restaurants. The airport and containers underscore the centrality of circulation and the importance of infrastructures and logistics. After all, international experts, security personnel and their supplies and technologies need to be deployed quickly as they move across crisis areas, along heavily secured paths within the MIA zone and to similar zones in other Somali cities.

‘The materials and infrastructures used to ensure and control circulation attest to the commercialisation of interventions.’

The materials and infrastructures used to ensure and control circulation attest to the commercialisation of interventions. I show this with the example of a container hotel and Hesco walls. They are provided by private companies that made the delivery of supplies to war and disaster zones their business. Hesco provides blast proof walls and advertise that these walls provide a ‘safe haven’ in remote or hostile environments. The providers of a container village advertise their ability to deliver a combination of security, comfort, care, and wellbeing to staff operating in risky environments. Both companies extend the humanitarian gesture of care to those who made the delivery of aid their profession.

The container village and Hesco wall are also examples for modular designs that dominate the MIA zone. Modularity enables the exchange of compartments from an interconnected system. This helps to contain the impacts of shocks but also makes installations adaptable and moveable. The MIA zone is composed of modular installations that can be speedily assembled, disassembled and, in different combinations, reassembled and used elsewhere. Modular installations are built to disappear as soon as the disaster is managed, the crisis under control or the state enabled to work. They obfuscate the differentiation between what is fixed and what mobile; solid or fluid; lasting or short time; durable or make-shift. Ironically, the mobility and fluidity of these installations makes them durable and allows them to move in different arrangements through crisis and disasters. Modular installations point to a form of sovereign power that is detached from the state while trying to deny its own power. It operates through mobile, modular, and transitory arrangements of an elusive humanitarian-military-diplomatic-aid apparatus.

‘The spaces and materials created by modular forms of sovereign power remain elusive, but nonetheless stratify experiences of power and security.’

Spaces such as the MIA zone constitute shifting, fragmented and elastic frontiers. They point towards a logic of rule that is itself modular and contradict the territorial fixes associated with sovereign statehood. The spaces and materials created by modular forms of sovereign power remain elusive, but nonetheless stratify experiences of power and security.

Time will tell – Defining violence in terrorism court cases

Counter-terrorism measures are characterized by pre-emptive logics: suspicious behavior must be detected and captured before it materializes into terrorist attacks. Terrorist networks need to be mapped and surveilled to prevent the moving of funds or weapons. Through increased regulations, these pre-emptive dynamics increasingly find their ways to the domestic judicial systems in Europe.

Court sketch, December 2020, The Netherlands. Sketched by Machteld Aardse

One concrete example is the criminalization and prosecution of terrorism financing. To anticipate the funding of terrorist attacks, the financial sector and law enforcement have an obligation to monitor and disrupt financial transactions that may facilitate terrorist activities. Those who engage in funding terrorist organizations or individuals, commit a criminal offence, even if the money was not intended to facilitate violence or terrorist operations. Even in the absence of a concrete plan to fund terrorism, individuals can be convicted of terrorism financing if they should have known that the money might be used for terrorist activities.

‘[S]tudying temporalities can help unpack other imaginations, arguments and objects of violence that challenge the dominant pre-emptive focus of counterterrorism financing regulations’

In this recent Security Dialogue article (Open Access) I examined how time and pre-emptive constructions of future terrorist violence are defined and contested in court cases. I argue that temporality becomes a key practice for both legal and security decisions in prosecuting financial behavior as terrorist violence. Rather than accepting the two temporalities as incompatible, I examined how terrorism financing court cases became important sites where law and security together produce new definitions of future terrorist threat that are very narrow and set low standards for conviction. Yet, inspired by post-colonial contributions on temporality and governance, I propose that this is not the full story. By unraveling the multiplicity of temporal claims that precede a court judgment, we find a variety of reconstructions of events and imaginations of potential future terrorist threat. For example, we can see how parents sent money to support their children who regret their decision to join a terrorist organization and wish to return. We hear the appeals of defendants who fear the grave repercussions of being a convicted terrorist offender for a one-time transaction. These definitions of violence and temporal claims, however, are often left out while narratives of a daunting future terrorist attack dominate the court room discussions. With this article, I showed that studying temporalities can help unpack other imaginations, arguments and objects of violence that challenge the dominant pre-emptive focus of counterterrorism financing regulations.

While pre-emptive and speed are considered key-features of counter-terrorism measures, legal proceedings are often described in very different temporal frames. Laws cannot be retroactively applied to crimes and legal terms restrict the times in which actions can be taken. Legal evidence should prove a past action beyond the shadow of a doubt, and is only accepted after careful consideration. Furthermore, court cases are held at a specific time and date, and even though legal proceedings should be finished within a reasonable time, they can take a very long time. At first glance, this slow and backward-looking feature of law does not sit well with the security objective to anticipate and prevent a potential terrorist future. Bringing pre-emptive counter-terrorism financing cases before a court, therefore raises tensions on how to reconcile these very different legal and security temporalities.

Book review: Encountering extremism. Theoretical issues and local challenges

by Alice Martini, Kieran Ford and Richard Jackson (Eds) Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2020. 328 pp. ISBN: 978-1-5261-3660-2.

What is the difference between terrorism and extremism? The book Encountering extremism. Theoretical issues and local challenges, edited by Alice Martini, Kieran Ford and Richard Jackson, jumps in this debate by charting the linguistic shift from terrorism to extremism. After 9/11, the category of ‘terrorism’ quickly turned into the overarching frame to define the constellations of groups and individuals committing crimes in the name of radical narratives (e.g. jihadism). The proliferation of articles occurred despite the contested definitions of terrorism. As Toros argued, even critical scholars reproduced the same construction of 9/11 as a critical juncture. While abundant literature is available on terrorism and radicalization (often associated with Islamism), non-violent extremism and counter violent extremism (CVE) programs have yet to receive the same amount of attention.  

The main argument supported by Martini, Ford and Jackson is that the semantic conversion to ‘extremism’ fulfils the crisis of legitimacy that the language of terrorism went through after the failures of Western ‘war on terror’ (p.4). Their key objectives are to interpret how extremism gained momentum, to deconstruct its muddled definition, and to bring to the surface the concealed and racialized logics of discrimination. This is indeed a much-needed contribution to conventional scholarship on terrorism, who mostly embraced the translation to counter-extremism without questioning its dangerous outcomes upon human and civil rights.

The book is made up of fourteen chapters, distributed into one theoretical and one empirical part. The originality lies in mixing theoretical rigour, normative commitments, and empirical sophistication to approaches as urgent an issue as the reflection on extremism. In so doing, Martini, Ford and Jackson select five common themes as a red thread underpinning the chapters (p.12). Besides the unjustified shift from the discourse on terrorism to extremism, much emphasis is put on how mainstream scholars neglected the political element lurking in the debates on terrorism. Another relevant aspect is the racialised and gendered understanding of violence retraced in counter-extremism, that targets the everyday life of subaltern categories (Muslims, BIPOC, etc.) artificially divided into moderate and extremist subjects.  

Encountering extremism‘ represents a substantial contribution to the field of terrorism studies because it provides one of the first attempts to demystify the ill-defined concept of extremism.

Two final aspects, the standardisation of the practices and the counter-productivity of the measures, are the main features discussed by the empirical chapters, that illustrate the frequent mismatch between homogeneous CVE’s vocabulary and little resonance with the local socio-political context (see Zia, p.267, on Pakistan). Among the cases selected, the authors map how CVE practices travelled to countries that were insufficiently covered by the literature (Bosnia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Spain, Tunisia) and how the United States under Obama (Tsui p.23) and the United Nations Security Council are significant cases for a genealogy of violent extremism.

The theoretical part of the book aims at defining the concepts and situating the volume into the pertinent academic literature. In terms of definition, the authors concur that both terrorism and extremism belong to the ‘essentially contested concepts‘ (Lindahl, p.40) that have driven much speculation in critical security studies. As their main purpose is to debunk the current mythology surrounding discourses and practices on extremism (ex. the putative causal relationship between extreme ideologies and adoption of political violence, p.2), the authors follow the ontological, epistemological, and normative commitments of ‘Critical Terrorism Studies’, pioneered among others by Richard Jackson (2009). In a sharp critique against the objectivist understanding of extremism as a fact, the authors invite us to consider the social production of knowledge that crafts our definition of the moderate/extremist dyad, as well as the power asymmetries that drive the identification of threatening subjects (Cuadro p.55). This Foucauldian perspective inspires the methodology privileged by the authors, who adhere to genealogy and critical discourse analysis to decipher how language and power are tightly embedded in the production of norms. This is well exemplified by Martini’s analysis of the UNSC’s imposition of best practices to discipline CVE’s programs on a global scale (p.162).

By using this interpretive lens, it is possible to retrace the contextual grounding that justifies the adoption of extremism. On one hand, the conceptual fuzziness enables law-enforcement agencies to label as ‘extremism’ allogenous beliefs and ideas that, albeit being non-violent, are deemed to jeopardize national values (see the definition of British PREVENT program, p.2). On the other, extremism is a legal loophole used to avoid severe penalties to white Far-Right terrorists, as several chapters focusing on the US show (Breen-Smyth, p.87; Dixit, p.221). Double standards and racialization are inherent practices in the implementation of CVE. On top of that, the new language of extremism had led to pervasive social engineering in local communities and the private sphere. Authors also draw on a feminist perspective to show that CVE programs brought to ‘securitizing the home’ as it is the first site of radicalization, presumably to mask the social and political grievances that intervene in the production of extremism. In this vein, CVE’s gendered logic emerges as techniques that may simultaneously empower women – employed in countering extreme narratives – and minimize their agency – in the case of female recruits (Archer p.99; Zia p.268).    

In conclusion, ‘Encountering extremism‘ represents a substantial contribution to the field of terrorism studies because it provides one of the first attempts to demystify the ill-defined concept of extremism. The volume has wider implications for IR because it aligns with existing trends – postcolonialism, feminism – that fight against the epistemic hegemony of Western-centred approaches. Besides, it contributes to flourishing research on the entanglement between terrorism and critical race theory, which is particularly needed after the spike in white supremacist and Far-Right violence at the end of the 2010s.The volume also offers a space of resistance against the exclusionary practices of counter-extremism. By aiming so, the authors choose to cross-fertilize a series of theoretical views and empirical findings that give voice to powerless subjects, often obscured by mainstream literature. Their normative commitment is brilliantly achieved as readers are left with the impression that CVE programs are the continuation of the war on terror through more docile means. 


Jackson R. (2009). Knowledge, Power and Politics in the Study of Political Terrorism. In: Jackson R., Gunning J., Breen Smyth M. Critical Terrorism Studies. A New Research Agenda. Routledge. London: New York.

Book review: Ethics of Drone Strikes. Restraining Remote-Control Killing

by Christian Enemark (ed.) Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021. IX + 204 p

The increasing use of armed drones has raised a series of ethical and legal questions. The fast-evolving development and sophistication of technologies that drones combine (aerospace, robotics, satellites, artificial intelligence) have stimulated intensive debates about the need of international regulation, tackling the challenge of drone violence moral status for ensuring compliance with international law. In particular with regards to armed drones, academic literature has problematised the advent of the “drone warfare”. To this discussion, this edited volume offers different “ways of thinking ethically” about current and future use of lethal drones. Contributions are organised around four key dimensions of drone strikes, namely as part of a war; as violent law enforcement; conducted by drone operators; and enabled by artificial intelligence (AI).

To discuss the theme of war, Robert Sparrow, in chapter 1, looks at the philosopher Paul Kahn’s main contributions, “War and Sacrifice in Kosovo” (1999) and “The Paradox of Riskless Warfare” (2002). Since armed drones were not officially used during the 1999 Kosovo war yet, these articles examine the use of airpower as a case of asymmetric warfare; they nevertheless became the academic references for the debate on targeted killing and drone warfare. Sparrow concludes that even if Kahn’s central argument was mistaken, his analysis remains inspiring for the debate on the ethics of drone warfare. In chapter 2, Christian Nikolaus Braun proposes a third way approach to the “Just War” theory to address moral concerns related to the use of armed drones, requiring a redefinition of the criteria “sovereign authority”, “just cause” and “right intention” in the light of targeted killings.

‘This edited volume offers rich, innovative and complementary analyses that guide the reader through the complex reality of armed drones’ usage and their future developments’

To examine whether drone strikes are military or law enforcement responses to terrorism, Max Brookman-Byrne, in chapter 3, assesses US drone strike campaigns in Yemen and Somalia from the perspective of international law and human rights. Considering their law enforcement nature and specific context in which they are used, he argues that what he defines as policing operations should be regulated by the more restrictive rules of international human rights law, especially as they resemble “colonial-era programmes” of air control. Also under the pretext whether lethal acts qualify as part of war or law enforcement paradigms, Christian Enemark, in chapter 4, is interested in personality strikes conducted by the US government since 2002. Considering the concept of “wild justice”, i.e. a form of violent law enforcement whereas the rule of law is weak, he suggests that circumstances and conceptualisations are necessary to determine which set of rules related to humanitarian law in wartime and more permissive or human rights law in peacetime and more restrictive should be considered. Eventually, in case uncertainties remain, he recommends to rather take the non-war posture for analysing drone violence to reduce the scope of “arbitrary killings”. Similar to this US-focused standpoint, Christopher J. Fuller shows in chapter 5 that the UK’s use of lethal drones in foreign territories relates to a specific legal position on self-defence, justice and imminence as well, irrespective a weaker domestic legal authority held by the UK prime minister compared with the US president.

Shifting to the perspective of the drone operator, Peter Olsthoorn, in chapter 6, questions the relevance of traditional military rules, virtues and ethics in the light of drone operators’ reality and concludes that factors such as courage and loyalty are not any longer central in drone warfare. From the feminist ethics of care perspective, Lindsay C. Clark and Christian Enemark highlight in chapter 7 the individual and relational dimensions of violent drone use, taking into consideration the non-physical harm effects on both, the “innocent others” and the drone operators themselves. Such moral reasoning, considering non-physical harm to civilians and shifting the focus on humans and their relationships, could transform the conduct of war with a new drone ethics, the authors argue.

The last two chapters finally address ethical challenges emerging from potential drones strikes relying on AI. Peter Lee, in chapter 8, examines the trend towards increasing autonomous elements in military drone systems. Questions concerning the degrees of autonomy, latent biases or accountability in lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) require guiding (and binding) principles for their development and use as integral part of ethics and laws of war. In a similar line of thought, Thompson Chengeta, in chapter 9, recapitulates the international debate on autonomous armed drones (AADs), commonly known as killer robots, and evaluates the probabilities to adopt a regulatory framework. Discussions in this direction are already taking place within the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), yet the herein required consensus of all parties concerned makes decisions lengthy and sometimes unlikely. This is already a key explanatory factor of the lack of progress, as CCW is the preferred forum by powerful states to secure their political interests in AAD use. A further issue is the public acceptability of AADs, especially in the context of arms race in AI military technologies. Hence, Chengeta concludes that it is most unlikely of seeing the adoption of a regulation on AADS within the CCW.

Based on insights from each chapter, editor Christian Enemark concludes the volume by highlighting once again the need for better governance, but also in assessing the meaning of risk and categorisation of drone violence. Overall, this edited volume offers rich, innovative and complementary analyses that guide the reader through the complex reality of armed drones’ usage and their future developments; and equally important, it also contributes to the essential debates about drone ethics and legal framework challenges.

Chantal Lavallée is Assistant Professor, Royal Military College Saint-Jean, Canada