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

Book club review: Savage Ecology – War and Geopolitics at the End of the World


Screenshot from book trailer:

Pardon me, I was dreaming; I forgot you are here
waiting for me to accept you again, tell you that you’re not dangerous.

Alice Notley, Above the Leaders

With the global security system implicated in just about every scenario of civilisational and species collapse, should it be said that scholars have given too much time to chattering about geopolitical fact patterns, or actually not enough? Jairus Grove, in his 2019 book Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World, poses that inhabiting modernity’s lethal “effects” anew can itself contribute to re-directing and, to a needed extent, “de-directing” human purposes.

          Whatever’s to be said about ancestral, cosmological, or evolutionary origins of unbound power and, eventually, the world’s aggressive and techno-powered unification, Grove especially doesn’t want covered up the “elite-driven Euro-American geopolitics of industrialized war and capitalism made ecocide that is now a global historical fact” (pp. 10-11). His chapter “A Martial Logic of the Eurocene” references Peter Sloterdijk for the latter’s use of First World War gas attacks to exemplify a signal moment at which even one’s environmental milieu was made a vector of annihilation (p. 82). If this is the very escalation of the history of violence confronted in Wilfred Owen’s poems—like “Exposure” (published posthumously in 1920), with its “bullets […]. / Less deathly than the air”—Grove mentions land clearances, species eliminations, and urbanisations on the American continent as earlier manifestations of the same directed development of suffering (p. 98). Scanning “the terrain of apocalypse and war” on behalf of those “moderns no longer interested in being along for the ride”, Savage Ecology affirms, however, that even a “tortured topography” carries with it “a world of persistent provocations”—of vibrancy, of fragility. “[T]hinking is at its best when it is along for [that] ride” (pp. 229, 282, 12).

          The signature-evasive-manoeuver of Grove’s politics is represented in a sci-fi horror tale that appears as Savage Ecology‘s closing pages (pp. 281-284). With this story set in the early 2060s, Grove faces readers with the latest in a long line of ghoulish imaginings of Los Angeles. His brief narrative unfolds cimematically as a drone’s camera “pans down […] in a wide landscape shot” to surveil an electrically reanimated army advancing on a military compound. With overhead footage of zombies capturing war’s would-be relentlessness, Grove’s amassing victim-killers have been joined by a newest recruit whose dying words are recorded: “we are not who we are”. What soon plays out, however, is a resonant, yet less joyless, diversion. The flying killer robot spies its own beauty over the ocean—“titanium wings outstretched”—and becomes momentarily a transport of delight. In this way, rather than allow himself to indulge an over-libidinal end-of-days narrative—perhaps by a plotline in which every unmarked data point gets revealed as just an enemy, or a hero, we haven’t yet met—Grove’s “postvision” (p. 9) portals to a world where at least some-body stops considering itself according to the shooting script of a filmmaker in the sky.

          Grove accuses usual suspects of political closure: those who entertain plans to harness and husband the Earth at scale. But the book also calls out the bearers of what attempt to pass as more benignly or virtuously transformative solutions. Liberal managerialists or global revolutionaries offer little more than other definers and exploiters of the future to model the thought of ever giving up vast power. And in the meantime, of course, they pull focus from alternative worldly experiences. Grove’s “protean” politics thus instead positions itself outside the conventionally “political” in magnetising to a “complexity of human and nonhuman assemblages [that] alters the expected provocateurs as well as tactics” (pp. 258-259). Without insisting that “the world slow down”, a savage ecologist cultivates responsiveness to what shifts or what mutates, what surges or what melts, what coalesces, and that at any rate, animately or inanimately, has “life of its own” (pp. 230; 264). She adventures “weird[ly]” and “creative[ly]” with the things of the world to “unblock certain flows corralled by the arborescent strategies of fortress state craft” (pp. 17; 230).

          A “planetary struggle for homogenization” (p. 50) will have been no politics, and no struggle, if it always decides for whatever the Eurocene has “built back” itself. Yet notwithstanding Grove’s impatience with giving “politics as usual” any more time of day, I am curious when it comes to whether the savage ecologist really does best in walling off the part of life’s tableau that overlaps consensus reality. For instance, consider the “ability” heard by Donna Haraway (2016) in “responsibility” as it bears on engaging forgotten others. Is it definitely not the case that intonations like this, response-ability, ever come to brush souls with the very aligners of the world? Do none ever catch sight of others rooms, as it were, in the rooms where they are? Are there no secret savage ecologists, out of place, maybe unaware, and passing over and over again into silence? To be sure, Grove’s own bearing, operating deep within and yet simultaneously beyond International Relations (IR) theory, should probably not be imagined to be without counterpart in other professional realms.

          After a sequence on the “Great Homogenization” (pp. 33-110), as engendered in the book’s judgment by the Eurocene, and before a third part titled “Must We Persist to Continue?” (pp. 227-272), Savage Ecology‘s middle chapters file investigations into a trio of “Operational Spaces” (pp. 111-189): (1) killer materials spread by security forces, repurposed in motlier ways by insurgents (“Bombs”); (2) varicosed circulations of blood feeding a politics of racial hierarchy (“Blood”); and (3) the problematique of neuroplasticity for a coming neuropolitics (“Brains”). To go over just the first, we have the stylishly volatile “matter” of Grove’s “Bombs” chapter: the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Knocked together using “weapons left behind” and a “deluge of electronic waste shipped, dumped, and smuggled throughout the Global South” (p. 130), the weapon that re-wilds the master’s tools speaks for “things” whose intimacy with the system can be one of culmination or betrayal. So far as it’s hoped that becoming attentive to things needn’t involve reorienting to technology, reflection on the IED offers an occasion to note that the dimensions of this issue could presently be said to have unworked its own tensions. A collapsed relation between means and ends in view of an apocalyptic endgame: such is, after all, Grove’s new geopolitical thought to craft with the natural and the made without treating either as “under construction” or as “raw material”.

          A passage late in Savage Ecology aims at embracing all that blasts away the single firing range of experience owing to “elite-driven […] geopolitics”. Yet somehow this vigorous moment isn’t everything it could be. Thus, in “Apocalypse as a Theory of Change”, Grove embeds an epiphanous list of possible becomings, to wit, an Improvised Explosive Linguistic Device (IELD): 

Becoming agonistic, becoming active, becoming rage, becoming justice, becoming quiet, becoming still, becoming disobedient, becoming graceful, becoming kind, becoming indifferent, becoming defiant, becoming gentle, becoming sacrifice, becoming fire (as many monks in Vietnam did and at least three individuals in the United States have in the face of the Iraq War), becoming generous, becoming courageous, becoming feral … (p. 230). 

A next paragraph says geopolitics cannot be “disowned”, only, indeed, “diverted”; but marks the channels for this diversion as running toward “arguments, justice, compassion, forgiveness, politics, resistance, grief, art, beauty, the world”. It is as if the text, right away, moves to hedge the likes of ferality, disobedience, indifference… Indeed, the paragraph at the foot of the page that includes Grove’s “IELD” (not his term) soon also refuses rage among the “practices, bodily dispositions, emotions” appropriate if one wants to “externalize or banish the Eurocene”. Do such selections begin to set up a nominally gentler matrix for history rather, in fact, than hold moments open to events and arrangements happening unprogressively on their own time?

          This seems plausibly to be so. In step with William Connolly, Grove asks explicitly for “care” in welcoming the unheard, unthought, and warding off “indifference to the cutting edges of change that can be violent and dismissive” (p. 266). Yet consequences arise from his employment, again via Connolly, of the theorist-as-“seer” (e.g., p. 239). Thinking on what it would be to become or to encounter such an insistent shepherd of re-beginnings, and leaning in to becoming’s many-many-sidedness, wouldn’t the trans-political seer be a character occupying intensely paradoxical moments? That Euro-American refinements and globalisations of violence are vulnerable to being described as careless and oblivious to care does not make the opposing quality the calling card of A-list seers. My mind runs to a poem of Alice Notley’s that operates the shamanic genre of a healing ceremony: “I don’t care about you. I do it for the joy of it” (2016, p. 104).

          “Becoming” itself isn’t above critique. What describes the seer’s refashioning of command if not that she, indeed, models paradox, but also teaches that if being forks-and-forks-and-forks this only truly divides possibilities if the direction and very condition of flow is part of what gets unmade in the passage? Hence, the atom bomb, styled by Sloterdijk as itself a sort of oracle, “the only Buddha that Western reason could understand”, he pictures as possessing, among its other qualities, “infinite” “calm” and “irony”. It resides inside of time but also outside it as an “extreme objectification of the spirit of power” (1987; p. 130). Grove’s seer, “fortune-teller”, supposedly isn’t in the business of patching back through to teleology: she deals in “incipient possibilities, not catastrophic certainties” (p. 264). All the same, “becoming” as a keyword seduces minds to devise a pattern for time’s energies as if one had defined their conditions. This is almost to say that to unite one’s affirmations around it is “becoming boring”.

          And what if the seer is blind, or doesn’t only look? Typical of traditional understandings of the senses, Grove emphasises “[looking and listening] for the incipient”, and also incorporates touch—in recommending, for instance, “[allowing] yourself to be touched rather than always touching” (pp. 253, 270). As unsurprisingly, he says less, especially positively, about smell and taste—but for a few citations envisioning that a species “[smells its] extinction”, or that the colonialist secures himself a spot to “enjoy the smell of his own shit”; or where, regarding neurochemical interventions, Grove quips that “once mythical muses may soon be swallowed or inhaled” (pp. 186, 198, 167). A savage ecologist may have to anticipate a period of reflection not only on the sufficiency of her eyes and ears but also on “sensation” as a concept with its own weightedness, history, and limits.

          A question of whether Grove’s use of “sensation” is sufficient to itself, or for that matter to all the ways in which people receive ideas, and gauge the weight of what they manage to sense, closes in again on the relation of savage ecological practice to that play of interior images whose practical embodiment is poetry. Grove matches the contemporary considerations of poets in mourning the murders and starvations of languages of recent centuries. At the same time, the official course of his argument gives verbal languages wide berth on account of their exclusivity within the possibilities of the “corporeal” (p. 258). But languages—by their revisionings, veerings-off, their frail vibrations—are complicit not only in death-dealing unifications and expulsions but also in methods for introducing lightness, fluidity, life. Thus, for instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a quoted passage, calls for “actions over states”, “struggle over hope”, but also “verbs over nouns” (p. 17). What if, regarding this, one should remix Grove with IR writers who sense “beyond the catastrophe of our times […] a more poetic subjectivity” (Evans and Reid 2014, p. 203)? 

          Savage Ecology in fact opens onto a Walt Whitman poem—“As I Sat Alone by Blue Ontario’s Shores”—which, into the folds of “you and me”, names, among others, “power, weapons”, “lies, thefts”, “war”, “America”, “Natural and artificial”, but also “Freedom, language, poems, employments”. Later linking Whitman to Kerouac and Ginsberg—and he could have named Gregory Corso, and his “BOMB” (1960)—Grove illustrates inheritances of form generally with poetic “procreation” (p. 262). He offers early on that “We can study airports, poetry, endurance races, borders, bombs, plastic, and warfare, and find them all in the world” (p. 27); not to mention that, throughout, the written prose of Savage Ecology itself is metaphoric, characterful, honest. Might its author, then, have oriented more evenly among thingly and oral particulars—if not toward a “poetic subjectivity”, toward a selectivity without prejudice, a response-ability, in the passing of any resonance? —in the object world, okay, but also in the voices, or better, tongues, that try to speak the world of things.

          Nowhere even does Grove decipher the particular thought-shape of his book’s title, which thus awaits readers like a puzzle in relating destructuring and aliveness. So, if one might try puzzling it out: Might “savage ecology” be the script stuck to by that species whose performance of a self-centred cosmos begins chewing the scenery? Does it name a world of dangerous things as well as what Eurocene-tric humans had denied about nature? —the IED become Gaia, or Gaia as the ultimate in improvisatory explosiveness. Zooming in, the charged word “savage” relates to the “wild”, out of the Latin, silvaticus: “of the woods”. Savage ecology, then, goes to forest ecology, and so a certain combined de-territorialisation and re-territorialisation. To be sure, when Grove refers to arborescent strategies of fortress state craft, it’s practically to juxtapose managed and legible to other more labyrinthine tree-scapes.

          Thus, the metaphorics themselves already regrow a thicket of non-knowing—where discovering new details, or finding out what’s happening, can be matters of bodily or imaginative migration and not of gaining a security clearance or deferring to an expert. “Ecology”, for its part in this, stems from the Ancient Greek, oikos and logos. Former term binding to the household, the latter to a putatively unifying discourse, a savage ecology, besides, then, being a forest ecology, is also a savage—as violent, yet also as forest-likediscourse on the home as well, indeed, as a discourse on the home as the forest, and it could even indicate an orderly forest household. Grove does discuss oikos as common core of “ecology” and “economics” (pp. 121, 131). Yet a missed reflection via logos would go to a surplus vibrancy and unsurpassable fragility of that which formats a household but never solves for its own polemicism. The expression “Savage Ecology”, hence, certainly itself lends to explosions of thought that themselves teem with (de)composition. 

          Despite the woodsy title, when offering readers a lived-in feel for “incipience” Grove’s exemplary landscape isn’t the forest—or the “grove”—but a different scene of ignorance before excessive beyonds: the shore. Via Foucault, we’re asked to anticipate modern “humanity” “erased like a face drawn in sand” (p. 186). Later, before probing whether the sandprint “irreversibly alters the pattern on the beach”, Grove evokes an “essential experience” marking humans as bearers of “thingness”. “Try”, he poses, “giving up and allowing the cross-current of the ocean to drag you down shore” (pp. 270-271). —Maybe there’ll be no irreversible human alteration, regardless the over-representations of the Eurocene. And yet, even as certain ends of the world are arriving, embodied and poetic gestures can go on energising, encapsulating, and prolonging new intricacies and successions. To be sure, Grove’s argument having already put the “emergence” in “emergency”, a kaleidoscope of temporalities may already be felt to await transcription at the tips, and beyond the idea, of our senses. Thus, has the body buoyed by waves tired itself, or is it calming itself, in desiring to convey something else to other islands of experience? As Grove concludes in his own voice before pressing play on his postvision: “I am experimenting with the role of the seer in order to push further into the metaphysical fallout of cosmic fragility” (p. 280).

          Grove writes of an “academy of refuge”, a discipline of “deviants” (pp. 26-27). To this army of the Euro-unseen, Savage Ecology offers an immersive initiation: a book desirous that what Notley in her ceremony calls the “machine I must be part of, causing planetary death” be morphed and materialised into a school of life through the act of reading (2016, p. 110). With sources ranging from pop culture to military manuals via Mearsheimer and DeleuzeGuattari, the book lives large even in dreaming of lying low. A decision to sign-off—below the remark about “metaphysical fallout”—with a call to “#DIFFERENTIATE #SPECIATE” could, like priority lanes for “care” or “becoming”, be deemed over-doctrinal (p. 280). But such an expression—doubling, multiplying, as a mission statement and as a plea or epiphany—could as well resemble a movement of transforming-becoming. Landing readers in a thoughtscape designed for the rolling aftermath rather than in decisional anticipation of military and economic geostrategies—a scene in which expectations of the worst aren’t met by projects and projections of global betterment but by glimmers of “[lives] worth repeating” in the transpiring struggle (pp. 26-27)—Grove conspires to elevate the output of IR theory, and, more than anything else, its passion.

Savage Ecology: War and geopolitics at the end of the world by Jairus V. Grove. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019, 368pp. ISBN: 978-1-4780-0484-4

For more about this book, read Michael Murphy’s introduction to this book-review section.


Evans B and Reid J (2014)  Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously. Cambridge: Polity, 208 pp.

Haraway DJ (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 312 pp.

Notley A (2016) Certain Magical Acts. New York: Penguin, 144 pp . 

Sloterdijk S (1987 [1983]) Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Eldred M. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 600 pp. 

Book club review*: Savage Ecology – War and geopolitics at the end of the world

*An in-depth review from @SecDialogue

by Jairus V. Grove. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019, 368pp. ISBN: 978-1-4780-0484-4

Welcome, reader, to a new experience for the Security Dialogue blog. While we will continue to feature standard book reviews, in our book club reviews we present a novel kind of in-depth engagement with interesting books. First out is Jairus Grove’s recently-published Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World (Duke University Press, 2019). Adam Freeman’s response essay draws on many of the themes and threads of Savage Ecology, but steps out of the constraints of the standard book review to creatively play with key ideas from Grove’s text. To provide context for the work itself, this introduction will complement the video trailer in bridging between Grove’s text and Freeman’s provocation.

The ambitious theoretical project touches down empirically through a series of cases, including developments in the weapons and arrangements of war, the ecology of the improvised explosive devise, the politics of blood, and the ontology of brains.

Employing ecology as a methodology for analyzing geopolitics, Grove argues that the contemporary condition is one made by war. The crises of today follow from the political violence of the Eurocene—a concept that recognizes the erasure of colonialism and Euro-American imperialism in the “Anthropocene” (47ff). Drawing together multiple lines of historical inquiry, Grove weaves critique of industrialized warfare, colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and international distributions of power into a single tapestry. The ambitious theoretical project touches down empirically through a series of cases, including developments in the weapons and arrangements of war, the ecology of the improvised explosive devise, the politics of blood, and the ontology of brains.

As previous reviews of Savage Ecology have noted, the vast terrain covered in the text makes it provocative in a full sense. Taking brutal honesty as a tact for a critique of common sense, the work “makes for enlightening if not grim reading.” As an anti-positivist call for radical reimagination, Grove “is not interested in proving his assertions but instead seeks to thoroughly rethink core assumptions in IR.” And yet, as another reviewer notes, there is still much that a positivist reader may take away from such a foundation-shaking critique: “Readers wedded to positivist methodologies may not find value in Grove’s approach, though they would do well to contemplate his sophisticated methodological justifications.” As Freeman’s response essay demonstrates, the work that remains to be done in reimagining the foundational ideas of the international, of politics, and of life in the Eurocene may often take a necessarily anti-positivist form. Exploration, speculation, and critique are fundamentally entangled.

Adam Freeman’s response essay draws on many of the themes and threads of Savage Ecology, but steps out of the constraints of the standard book review to creatively play with key ideas from Grove’s text.

The first section of the book contains three chapters which set out the work’s broad conceptual foundation, first by exploring the ontology and ecology of the Anthropocene, then by arguing powerfully for the ubiquity of war within the contemporary epoch. The third chapter offers a carefully historical reading of war’s changes to describe wars of annihilation and wars of exhaustion. Part two includes a trio of chapter-length case studies—examining the martial logics of bombs, blood, and brains—before canvassing the transformational projects seeking to homogenize the world through modernism, Marxism, or militarism. Through this series, the reader sees how the crucial concepts of ubiquitous warfare, competing martial logics, and the forces of the great homogenization operate through radically different objects and through-lines. The third section posits radical approaches to change grounded first in the idea of the apocalypse and then in the figure of the freak. Searching for a new form of life within the apocalypse offers a fundamentally different project from the three described in chapter 7. We are not seeking a revolution that promises to avert the apocalypse, but the new forms of life that the apocalypse makes possible. The conclusion—as well as the dystopian vision of Los Angeles in 2061—offer a fittingly pessimistic-yet-enlightening close to the ecology of the end. Serving as a kind of commencement ceremony for Grove’s intellectual adventure, he calls for a new social science that is “uncivilized” and “committed to a feral reason” (278). In Freeman’s response essay, we can perhaps find this kind of radically other voice, similarly exploratory and entirely beyond the bounds of the classical positivist social science that Grove critiques.

Savage Ecology speaks to a wide audience of critically-minded theorists of politics, environmental studies, and international relations. Security Dialogue readers will recognize how critical security studies scholarship influenced by critical war studies and martial empiricism will benefit directly, though its bridge-building between theoretical traditions will be perhaps leave its stage-setting for interdisciplinary exchange as the book’s signature contribution.

Book review: The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression

by A. Dirk Moses, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2021, 598 pp.

On March 23, 2021—just over ten years from the day the UN Security Council authorized the United States and NATO intervention in Libya—the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on Samantha Power’s nomination to lead the US Agency for International Development. During the hearing, Rand Paul questioned Power on the Obama administration’s decision to use military force in Libya in 2011, a decision on which Power advised. Paul asked, “You’d acknowledge Libya is worse now than it was before we started bombing them?” In her response to this question, and the subsequent ones Paul asked in an effort to get a straight answer, Power invoked “mass atrocities,” “grave atrocities,” and “the slaughter that would ensue” if Benghazi fell, while understatedly  acknowledging that the “fallout in the wake of the intervention, the centrifugal forces, have been incredibly difficult to manage and, above all, hard on the Libyan people.” Despite a decade of post-intervention human rights violations, some of which no doubt constitute crimes against humanity, Power made sure to highlight that Libya now has “the opportunity to have elections at the end of this year.”

In The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression, A. Dirk Moses defines the language of transgression as that which “determines the upper threshold of mass criminality,” comprising the “matrix of words and concepts used to define and police that threshold” (Moses 2021: 28), and permanent security as a “deeply utopian and sinister imperative” that is “concerned not only with eliminating immediate threats but also with future threats,” and is governed by “a logic of prevention (future threats) as well as preemption (imminent threats)” (34-35). Moses further divides permanent security into two modalities: illiberal and liberal. Illiberal permanent security entails “preventive killing of presumed future threats to a particular ethnos, nation, or religion, in a bounded ‘territoriality’” with disregard for “international law and claims of universal morality” (Moses 2021: 37). In this modality, peoples, as a whole, are threats to permanent security. Meanwhile, liberal permanent security “envisions the world as the territory to be secured in the name of ‘humanity,’” often placing the “objects of condemnation beyond the realm of humanity, as ‘barbarians,’ ‘savages,’ and ‘enemies of humanity,’ to justify the permanent extension of their power to oppose and even eliminate them” (39-40).

Power’s testimony offers a textbook illustration of the language of transgression and liberal permanent security. As had been done by the US and NATO members in 2011 (UN Security Council 2011: 2-5), Power continues to employ the language of transgression—“atrocities” and “slaughter”—to legitimate actions taken that, as Moses writes, “unleashed far more violence than the Western intervention was designed to prevent” (Moses 2021: 491). Through the language of transgression, the US and NATO condemned Qaddafi’s illiberal permanent security, initiating oppositional discourses that led to liberal permanent security. Qaddafi and Libya’s security forces were to the US and NATO what the people of Benghazi were to Qaddafi and Libya’s security forces. For evidence of this claim, one need look no further than Hillary Clinton’s response to the news that Qaddafi had been summarily executed: “We came, we saw, he died!”

Moses’ critique of liberal permanent security is not limited to liberal interventionism. He also shows how permanent war, exemplified by the emergence of use of drones, and “the legal killing of civilians in the name of humanity,” are key elements of liberal permanent security (440). When combined with Moses’ deconstruction of what might now be appropriately referred to as the “Lemkinian Myth,” The Problems of Genocide smashes the hierarchy of state violence and its associated hierarchy of civilian suffering. He does so not simply by asking why comparable violence that does not involve the elusive-to-prove genocidal intent has been deemed less criminal and reprehensible than that which does. Rather, through a massive historical and analytical undertaking, Moses shows how differentiation of violence and suffering is the result of multiple processes, some with deep historical roots and others that can be traced back to Raphael Lemkin himself, the individual who coined the term ‘genocide,’ and the post-World War II development of international law.

With Moses’ concept of permanent security, conceptual stretching is unnecessary.

Though Moses’ contributions to various literatures and fields of study are many, I wish to further spotlight the significant impact of Moses’ book on genocide studies and security studies. Beginning with the former, Moses attends to the process by which the ideas and concepts that preceded Lemkin’s own concept of genocide were depoliticized by Lemkin. Moses shows how Lemkin consciously disconnected violence perpetrated against members of groups from the objective of the violence—the achievement of permanent security. In doing so, Moses not only raises doubts about the originality of Lemkin’s contributions to the development of international law, but also highlights the way the codification of Lemkin’s concept of genocide-as-nonpolitical-hate crime has contributed to a hierarchy of international crimes, with genocide firmly at the top as the “crime of crimes.”

Moving to Moses’ impact on security studies, the hierarchy of international crimes inevitably produces a parallel hierarchy of civilian suffering in which victims of genocide are valued more than victims of crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as, and especially, victims of permanent war who are euphemistically labeled “collateral damage.” Moses asserts, “What is the experiential difference between a victim of genocide and a victim of collateral damage? Both are innocent” (43). Indeed, Moses implores us to reevaluate international law to promote civilian protection by making permanent security a crime in order to “discourage states from exceeding legitimate security concerns: so they do not engage in civilian destruction, try to impose ethnic or religious homogeneity on diverse populations, or attempt to dominate regions, indeed the world, with the attendant extreme violence” (511). Put differently, at a time when it is common to claim the existence of internal and external “enemies,” or the need to use violence to apprehend violence elsewhere, permanent security must not be permitted to supersede actual human security.

Moses’ book came at the right time for me, as I imagine will prove to be the case for others. Without being consciously aware of it, I had been standing at a precipice for some time. Through my analysis of the US relationship with genocide, I have argued that the US conspired to commit genocide in Indonesia, committed genocide in Vietnam, and is complicit in genocide in Yemen. In each of these cases, I do not question my analysis of the role of the US in the perpetration of violence, whether that be material, logistical, and/or political support in Indonesia and Yemen, or its direct responsibility for violence in Vietnam. Rather, Moses has pushed me to contemplate whether I have subconsciously sought to conceptually stretch the meaning of genocide for the purpose of underscoring the incredible human suffering for which the US is responsible. As Moses rightly points out, “Attempts to stretch the concept of genocide to other modes of permanent security have so far met with limited success despite the efforts of younger Genocide Studies scholars who followed in [Mark] Levene’s footsteps” (461). With Moses’ concept of permanent security, conceptual stretching is unnecessary. Indeed, permanent security captures the violence described above, while also making essential connections between them and other violent acts such as those in Libya, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

As I hope is evident in the above, The Problems of Genocide is about so much more than the problems of genocide (studies). Moses’ book ought to be a source of rupture and, therefore, a paradigm shifter in genocide studies, security studies, and international law. It replaces a hierarchy of international crimes with a new non-hierarchical approach that places civilian protection against all manifestations of state violence at its center. In this regard, Moses’ book is admirable and necessary.


United Nations Security Council. 2011. “Provisional Record of the 6491st Meeting.”

Info Box

For more discussion, see Jeff Bachman’s interview with A. Dirk Moses through the New Books Network:

Book review: Unmanning: How Humans, Machines and Media Perform Drone Warfare

by Katherine Chandler, New Brunswick & Newark: Rutgers University Press, 2020. 190pp. ISBN: 1978809743

Imaginations of the possibility (and the terror) of drone strikes existed well before they were possible. Echoing science fiction work like H.G. Wells’ War in the Air, Nikola Tesla warned in 1921 of “Machines of destruction more terrible than anything conceited by the master minds behind the ‘World War.’ Armies and navies will sail under the ocean and through the skies with not a man onboard.” (Quoted in Everett, 2015: 6) Somehow this scenario of machinic violence was seen as resembling a whole other scale of destruction greater than that already being enacted by manned weapons systems and rained down from the sky in ‘small wars’ air policing campaigns. The horrible reality of this violence is displaced (and rendered invisible) to the future by the anxiety of robotic warfare, something we see again in contemporary debates about the future of drone warfare and fully-automated targeted killing. 

This kind of “work” that unmanning does is at the center of Katherine Chandler’s book. The drone and the process of unmanning that underpins it is productive and performative, and in particular, Chandler argues, what it performs is a disavowal of politics from these kinds of machinic weapons systems.  As she shows through the historical examples in her book, the drone is an assemblage of parts and practices – a mixture of human, nonhuman, and media – that often get confused for one another. Picking apart these relationships of human and machine allows Chandler to show how unmanning – or rather, the myth of unmanning – tries to minimize politics. As she writes, “Unmanning sets up a disavowal between what is human and what is not to establish conditions for contemporary targeted killing and overwrite a genealogy built on failures.” (15)

While focused primarily on drone warfare, Chandler’s book – in its investigations into failure, human/machine relations, and threat production – points … also to ways of thinking about how politics is denied and disavowed in other techniques of state violence like policing.

Chandler does this through an examination of key moments in the development of drone technology, starting in the 1930s. Each of the main chapters engage with one of these programs and together these produce a historical narrative of “disjointed histories,” which are attuned as much to technological development as they are to technological failures. Failure is an important part of these narratives, and it is in these moments of failure of the technology that Chandler finds that politics comes to the surface. In other words, these failures reveal what is disavowed in drone warfare, which is often its intertwinement with histories of racialized violence and colonialism. For example, in the chapter titled “Buffalo Hunter,” Chandler brings to the foreground the colonial violence of drone warfare in the use of drones for nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Focusing on the displacement of Bikini Atoll inhabitants and the ongoing health effects of the tests, Chandler shows the work that unmanning does to make these effects invisible: “A dispersed network of bases, laboratories, industry, and personnel allowed for the illusion of unmanning to cohere, shaping a context for U.S. global control that claimed to be machinelike, deterritorialized, and all-seeing. Yet, this global control is only made conceptually possible by erasing the land below.” (87)

Much of this analysis parallels and adds to a subset of scholarship in drone studies that is attentive to genealogy and historical analysis, notably work by Derek Gregory (2011), Ian Shaw (2016), Caren Kaplan (2018), and others. Chandler’s focus on failure in this history and her extensive archival work bring out new stories in the history of these technologies. One of the most interesting chapters, which adds an important new element to our understanding of the genealogy of the drone strike, is the one titled “Pioneer.” In this chapter, Chandler examines the use of surveillance drones by Israel in the Bekaa Valley in the 1980s, how the US military interpreted the success of these drones, and the acquisitions scandal that surrounded the Pioneer drone. Not only is this an account often left out of the history of drone technology, but Chandler frames this narrative around the concept of corruption in really generative ways. Most straightforwardly, in this chapter corruption trains a lens on the bribery scandal. However, Chandler also uses corruption in connection with the larger narrative of failure in the book. Corruption here is also the ‘corrupted file’ or an ‘error.’ Reading the image from the drone as corrupted allows us to see the failures of unmanning and the myth of an omniscient gaze, or in the words of Rey Chow (2006): how the world becomes target. As Chandler writes, “One might rather think about what can be seen by real-time images as corrupted: evidence of systemic failures that undo the neat overlay of state power and eyesight to instead emphasize how the claim to being all-seeing is error-prone and ultimately undecipherable.” (108)

To me this framing of corruption provides a way to extend our thinking about unmanning beyond the context of drone warfare. How, for example, does unmanning name a practice that exceeds the drone? What does it mean to think about unmanning at work in other registers? For Chandler, corruption in the sense of a corrupted file points to systemic failure and it is around this idea that we might develop potential links between the drone and other technologies and practices of state violence, such as policing, although Chandler does not do so in the book. A number of scholars, including Tyler Wall (2016) and Andrea Miller and Kaplan (2019), have been working through the connections between police violence and the drone strike, especially around the racialization of threat production. Unmanning, I would argue, does “work” here too, especially if we look at the role of police discretion and video footage of police violence – we can see how media in this sense is performative of a process of political disavowal.  Can unmanning as Chandler describes it help us to unpack the problem, for example, of the police body camera, and the violence it both records and enables?

The corrupted image of the drone and the myth of unmanning perhaps finds resonance with what Lindsey P. Beutin (2017) names as a “racialization as a way of seeing,” or Benedict Stork (2016) calls the police hermeneutic, and the ways that video – initially seen as a tool of countersurveillance – becomes enrolled in reproducing structures of policing and police violence. Unmanning, in a way, seems to be produced here too. While focused primarily on drone warfare, Chandler’s book – in its investigations into failure, human/machine relations, and threat production – points perhaps also to ways of thinking about how politics is denied and disavowed in other techniques of state violence like policing.

Works Cited:

Beutin LP (2017) Racialization as a Way of Seeing: The Limits of Counter-Surveillance and Police Reform. Surveillance & Society (15)1: 5-20.

Chow R (2006) The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work, Durham: Duke University Press.

Everett HR (2015) Unmanned Systems of World Wars I and II, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gregory D (2011) Lines of Descent. Open Democracy Online:

Kaplan C (2018) Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime From Above, Durham: Duke University Press.

Kaplan C and Miller A (2019) Drones as ‘Atmospheric Policing’: From US Border Enforcement to the LAPD. Public Culture 31(3): 419-445.

Shaw I (2016) Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stork B (2016) Aesthetics, Politics, and the Police Hermeneutic: Online Videos of Police Violence Beyond the Evidentiary Function. Film Criticism 40(2): online–aesthetics-politics-and-the-police-hermeneutic-online-videos?rgn=main;view=fulltext

Book review: Protecting Human Rights Defenders at Risk

edited by Alice M. Nah, London: Routledge, 2021. 212p. ISBN 9781138392618

‘Seguridad’ refers to all the conditions necessary to make human and political life flourish. These are conditions of dignity. But security [to the government] is reduced to a military or police perspective…. People have been sold the idea that the more troops, the more security. More bodyguards, more bulletproof vests, and more armoured cars. The overall perspective is missing.

This quotation from Dr Alice M. Nah’s edited collection Protecting Human Rights Defenders at Risk is attributed to a woman human rights defender who promotes the rights of campesinos in Colombia, the country which continues to be associated with the highest numbers of killings of human rights defenders worldwide. Yet, given the pace of securitisation globally over the last 20 years, one could imagine similar observations being made almost anywhere in the world.

This volume, which explores the risks faced and protection strategies employed by human rights defenders in Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya, and Mexico, jarringly exposes the paradox of a world made insecure by ‘security’ and its apparatuses. Given the scale of the crises that humanity currently faces, it is surely in the interest of all to protect human rights defenders and movements, whose diverse emancipatory projects may hold the potential to address them. However, little help appears to be found in a militarised and policing-based model of security which is often tightly historically connected with the root causes of these crises – such as colonialism, patriarchy, racism, and extractivism – and which is therefore blind to the processes which produce defenders’ vulnerability.

I first came into contact with the project which would go on to become this book in 2015 as I prepared a workshop with a network of women human rights defenders in Mexico, focusing on digital security practices in the broader context of a ‘holistic’ approach to protection. One of my co-facilitators was carrying out interviews for the book at the time; as it happened, what we would go through together over those few days would encapsulate these dissonant understandings of security like no other experience I have had. In response to ongoing protests, the federal government militarised the city and overnight our hotel became a makeshift barracks for over 100 federal police. Over the next four days, inside our conference room – the windows now blocked for privacy – our diverse group of land rights defenders, queer folks, journalists, lawyers, and grassroots activists reimagined security from a holistic, intersectional, and feminist perspective. The strategies we explored included those typical to protection planning, but went much further than this, including economic solidarity, use of libre software, secure communication tools, stress management, and collective care.

Each of the studies provides a clearly scoped and structured, deeply disturbing, and thoroughly necessary account of the egregious attacks to which human rights defenders, their families, and communities are subjected.

As we passed through the courtyard that separated our conference room from our hotel rooms, day and night, we experienced a constant reminder why we were doing this. The federal police officers, clad in black with bullet-proof vests and firearms, did not spare our participants and team their wolf-whistles, untoward comments, and even on one occasion a push from behind, as they prepared themselves for their next confrontation with protesters in city centre in the name of a ‘security’ radically different to ours.

This dichotomy comes across vividly in the case studies explored in Protecting Human Rights Defenders at Risk, each containing lucid and nuanced accounts composed by activist researchers who make ample space for the voices of the activists on whose testimonies the book is based. Each of the studies provides a clearly scoped and structured, deeply disturbing, and thoroughly necessary account of the egregious attacks to which human rights defenders, their families, and communities are subjected. In elaborating their narratives, the contributors do not pull their punches but name, time and again, states’ entanglement with economic, religious or criminal interest groups, and the function of violence against defenders as being in the service of specific political and economic ends. What is worse, it is a violence which often comes wrapped in a discourse which associates peaceful progressive activism with ‘terrorism’ or other threats to national security, unity, values, or morals.

By contrast, readers also find further rich testimony to the creativity and vision of human rights movements, as evidenced by their elaboration of practices of self- and collective care and protection. As reflected in a growing literature which has emerged in recent years, it is in these practices, both formal and informal, that glimpses of a different ‘security’ emerge: one which recognises and responds to the structural nature of socio-political violence in a holistic manner. In their chapter on Indonesia, for example, Alice Nah and Budi Hernawan highlight the role of neighbourly and kinship ties in saving defenders from attacks in Indonesia; similarly, in their exploration of the socio-geographies of security in Kenya, Irina Ichim and Patrick Mutahi recount the role played by neighbours and communities in informal settlements in warning defenders of potential attacks or mobilising in solidarity to respond to them. Further noteworthy examples of creative and effective approaches to protection among civil society which are highlighted include the unarmed traditional indigenous guards in Colombia, and the intersecting web of protection mechanisms which civil society has developed to fill the chasm left by the state in Mexico. While not without their challenges, these strategies stand in stark contrast to the few existing state-based mechanisms for human rights defender protection which, modest successes notwithstanding, are often characterised by under-resourcing, a lack of political will, and an ill-fitting, individualistic, and policing-based understanding of security. Moreover, and importantly, in their recognition and interweaving of economic, cultural, and social resources within security practices, civil society’s protection strategies represent a vision of the indivisibility of human rights in action.

The kind of depth and detail found in an edited collection such as this perhaps necessarily comes at the expense of some breadth. As diverse and emblematic as the country studies are, we are left without exploration of the particular and influential dynamics of the likes of China, Europe, North America, and Russia, all of which matter significantly in the context of the intersectional crises global civil society currently faces. Perhaps reflecting the research methodology, certain ever more common forms of violence against human rights defenders such as digital surveillance or online violence and its gender-based expressions, are also notable for their relative absence.

The many common threads which do emerge, however, are brought together with the eye of an insightful and dedicated practitioner in Nah’s concluding chapter

The many common threads which do emerge, however, are brought together with the eye of an insightful and dedicated practitioner in Nah’s concluding chapter, which calls for a ‘reimagination’ of protection and makes a series of helpful assertions in this regard. Fundamental to many of these recommendations is a commitment to collective and holistic understandings of security and protection as embodied by defenders’ own practices: recognition of the importance of family, community, and economy; moving beyond individualistic models; trusting and integrating the wisdom of movements and organisations into state-based mechanisms, and recognising and integrating an analysis of power from a gendered and intersectional perspective.

As such, the book adds significant literary weight to a growing movement in this direction within the protection niche of the human rights field over recent years, and will be a welcome and hopefully influential milestone in this regard. Perhaps beyond this niche, indeed, there are resources here to be offered to the broader debates relating to public security which are rightfully finding their way into the mainstream over the last year. The mass protests in defence of women’s and Black lives over the last 12 months have served to further highlight the drastic shortcomings of the currently dominant military and policing-based models, which may well be too bound up with the root causes of inequity to coexist with social movements or a social order which seek in earnest to address them. To be sure, building alternative proposals will require creativity, participation, and context sensitivity of the kind that can be observed in the practices of the human rights defenders and communities in resistance highlighted in this volume. Perhaps, then, it can also offer some visions of what a security which truly reflects ‘the conditions necessary to make human and political life flourish’, could look like.

Book review: Breaking Through: Understanding Sovereignty and Security in the Circumpolar Arctic

edited by Wilfrid Greaves and P. Whitney Lackenbauer. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2021., 278p. ISBN 9781487523527

Breaking Through examines the state of sovereignty and security in the Arctic. Over the past four decades, scholars have identified sovereignty as challenge in the region, particularly in Canada, in the works of researchers such as Michael Byers, Franklyn Griffiths and Rob Huebert. Sovereignty, in global politics, refers to having authority or the ability to control what happens in a particular area, either in a legally recognized sense (de jure sovereignty) or a practical sense (de facto sovereignty). Wilfrid Greaves and Whitney Lackenbauer, in their edited volume, seek to understand sovereignty and security broadly, such as “environmental, economic, social and cultural issues” (13). The book argues, “Security in the rapidly changing Arctic region can no longer be exclusively about military threats and dangers and that sovereignty cannot fixate on the rights of states to the exclusion of those of Indigenous communities or regional and global governance” (14).

The editors are two of Canada’s foremost experts on Arctic policy. Wilfrid Greaves is an assistant professor at the University of Victoria in political science. P. Whitney Lackenbauer is the Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North at Trent University. They have assembled an impressive roster of academic researchers and international experts, with scholars from across Canada, as well as Denmark, Norway and Russia.

”[The book] presents rigorous and thought provoking chapters, making significant contributions about framing of sovereignty and notions of security in countries other than Canada.”

A common thread between the chapters is that the Arctic is a region of profound change, from colonialism, to neglect, to Second World War co-operation, to Cold War surveillance, to climate change, to co-operation. Peter Kikkert and Adam Lajeunesse separately point out that which states have the right to control the Canadian and broader North American Arctic has been a persistent national anxiety. This feeling that Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is in question has never really gone away. Mathieu Landriault finds that newspaper op-eds during the 2000s often focused on crisis and challenges to sovereignty by outside actors, such as disputes over Hans Island, the USS Charlotte incident and Russian flag planting. P. Whitney Lackenbauer characterizes the tenure of Prime Minister Stephen Harper as “suggesting a need to break from established understandings and ‘rules’ to respond to a perceived threat” (143).

”sovereignty today is less understood as control in a legal sense but rather as control in a practical sense.”

A second common thread between the chapters is that sovereignty today is less understood as control in a legal sense but rather as control in a practical sense. As Peter Kikkert writes of the attitudes of Commonwealth officials during the interwar years, “They insisted that in the harsh polar environment, control could consist of the occasional visit by state officials, administrative acts, the issuing of licences to foreigners operating in the claimed area, legislation and, in the Canadian context, a small number of occupied police posts” (32-33). Chapters in the book highlight issues that have become an important part of the regional agenda and that we have often discussed in the context of security, such as Petra Dolata’s chapter on energy security, Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv’s chapter on human security or Natalia Loukacheva’s chapter on food security.

Does a state have control if it cannot deliver food security to 70 per cent of pre-school aged children in one of its territories, which is the case in Nunavut, as pointed out by Frank Sejersen? What is the future of economic development if so many hopes of Arctic gold rush lay in oil, when the afterword of this book says that “private corporate actors are turning away from Arctic fossil fuels” (254)? Is Russia building up its military in the Arctic, or are its actions more about maintenance? As Alexander Sergunin writes, “The significant degeneration of the Soviet-era military machine in the Arctic in the 1990s and early 2000s left Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces badly in need of modernization in order to meet new challenges and threats” (123).

A question that emerges is whether the focus on sovereignty is optimal. As the book notes, sovereignty is not really in question in the Arctic region. The introduction says, “Sovereignty issues between Arctic states are generally managed in an orderly and non-confrontational way” (6). Several contemporary issues in the Arctic region that the book discusses could be understood through the lens of security alone. Human security issues can relate to de facto sovereignty, but the book does not distinguish aspects of sovereignty in this way. There are human security issues in every region of Canada, but we do not discuss an issue such as homelessness in Toronto as a sovereignty issue for Canada.

 Sovereignty, however, can be useful as an analytical concept. In Canadian Arctic politics, in particular, it has become something of a brand to unify disparate themes such as the legal status of waterways, the delineation of outer continental shelves, economic development, Indigenous land rights or climate change. It would be foolhardy to look at each of these issues in isolation. Climate change impacts the legal stays of waterways, which impacts economic prospects, which impacts Indigenous land use, and so on. Sovereignty allows us to talk about disparate issues in a coherent way, which is a major accomplishment of this book.

One omission the volume is the lack of a chapter on Indigenous sovereignty. Multiple chapters focus on human security, which certainly is relevant to Indigenous peoples and northern residents in general. Perhaps the most significant change in the Arctic region and question of sovereignty is colonialism against Indigenous peoples. In the 20th century, outsiders forced Indigenous peoples from their lands and stripped them of rights they did not know they had because those rights were rooted in Western cultural understandings. Children were forced to attend schools that set out to destroy their identity. Today, Indigenous peoples have regained their land rights across much of the Arctic, though self-government remains elusive in places such as Inuvialuit.

The book presents rigorous and thought provoking chapters, making significant contributions about framing of sovereignty and notions of security in countries other than Canada. The book will be of interest to Arctic scholars, particularly in Canada, in addition to less specialized readers interested in Canadian foreign policy or broad regional politics. It also would serve as a very good textbook for an upper-year university seminar about Arctic studies. It provides accessible yet rigorous overviews of the major political issues of the Arctic region.

Military drones beyond targeted killing: The case of Israel

The emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones” as they are more popularly known, is one of the most widely discussed developments in contemporary security and military affairs. So far, the academic literature on drones has been heavily focused on what is usually known as “targeted killings” in the context of the US-led war on terror. This focus, however, is not representative for how the vast majority of drones are de facto used in military operations. On the contrary, most drones are not used for targeted killings but for what in military parlance is known as ISTAR tasks, i.e., for the purposes of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance.  

The more conventional literature on military drones often seeks to extract drones from the wider social forces that enable or disable their use in particular contexts. To examine the ways in which drones change warfare, however, my contention is that a different approach is needed – one which is simultaneously historical, technological and social, where the drone is inserted into an assemblage of technology, tactics and wider societal forces.

”the use of drones enables drawn-out, low-intensity conflicts”

In a recently published piece in Security Dialogue, I take such an approach to Israeli drone warfare. I examine the changing roles played by drones in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and the difference that the emergence of UAVs has made to practices of Israeli warfare. The vast majority of drones in the IDF are unarmed with the primary function of providing intelligence by means of conducting so-called loitering surveillance. The broader importance of the drone, the Israeli experience shows, is not primarily its use as an armed platform but rather as a provider of ISTAR, to assist the targeting process. Having examined the emergence and development of the Israeli drone program, I argue that drones have enabled operational sustainability over a long period of time, precisely since both one’s own and civilian casualties may be kept limited and stretched out over, rather than concentrated in, time. In that way, the use of drones enables drawn-out, low-intensity conflicts, of the kind we have witnessed on the Gaza Strip. 

Negotiating Detention

In mid-October 2020, hundreds of Houthi rebels and pro-government fighters were freed in Yemen in a prisoner swap agreed at UN-supervised talks. In September, Afghanistan resumed freeing Taliban militants whose release was a key part of the peace deal between the US and the Taliban in February. These recent events underscore how conflict-related imprisonment, far from being a peripheral issue, often becomes a pivotal aspect of protracted conflicts, with prisoner exchanges frequently employed as a principal element of broader peace negotiations.

The significance of imprisonment in protracted conflicts, and its impact on broader conflict trajectories, is not new. As history tells us—and as I explain in a new Security Dialogue article—prisons have functioned as epicentres of protracted conflicts in numerous high-profile contexts, including Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa. In each of these cases, the state attempted to use ‘preventive’ detention[1] and mass incarceration to contain, control, and punish dissidents. However, these tactics often backfire on states as politically-motivated prisoners exert their relevance by making imprisonment itself a central issue in the wider conflicts. Rather than retreating to the margins, prisoners have taken back prison spaces as loci of organising and resistance, forcing both state authorities and their own external parties to engage with them seriously as political actors.

”prisoners exert the most influence on both state authorities and their own factions when they engage in…‘radical pragmatism.’

This subversion of the prison space is not automatic, however, nor is it is limited to high-profile tactics such as hunger strikes (though these do play a role). Indeed, as my article (free access) in Security Dialogue demonstrates, prisoners exert the most influence on both state authorities and their own factions when they engage in what I call ‘radical pragmatism.’ In this longer form strategy, prisoners first and foremost establish self-governing ‘counter-orders,’ systems of internal organising that enable them to maintain a sense of autonomy, while also regulating their daily life via covert leadership elections, financial coordination, communications systems, and education curricula.  

The ‘radical pragmatism’ approach also includes low-profile everyday acts of refusal to protest for rights and improved conditions, such as refusing to comply with orders, refer to guards by honorifics, or submit to strip searches. Only when these actions fail to produce gains do prisoners resort to hunger strikes, which (contrary to popular belief) typically focus on improving conditions or drawing attention to the issue of imprisonment rather than pushing for mass release. Hunger strikes are most successful when they put so much internal pressure on prison authorities that the prison system itself, which relies on compliance and order, essentially becomes unworkable, such that prison authorities have an incentive to negotiate conditions. External pressure from factions, solidarity groups, and at times, international networks, can put additional pressure on the state, but this is typically secondary to the internal dynamics.

In each of the cases I examined, the issue of imprisonment became central in conflict negotiations, with prisoners and ex-prisoners directly involved in early talks in South Africa and Northern Ireland, and prisoner releases being a key confidence building measure in the last round of (failed) talks in Israel-Palestine.  As such, the politics of contention that characterises prisons can affect broader conflict trajectories, as the back-and-forth dynamic between prisoners and authorities, combined with external pressure, transforms prisons from mere jails to spaces for control, resistance, and at times, compromise.

[1] Called ‘administrative detention’ in Israel-Palestine, ‘internment’ in Northern Ireland, and ‘arbitrary detention’ in South Africa.

Book Review: The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and Juridical Warfare

by Craig Jones. Oxford University Press, p.400. Hardback: 9780198842927 

The law of armed conflict is often imagined as a moderating force, limiting the violence that can be inflicted on the battlefield by banning certain practices, prohibiting certain targets and outlawing certain weapons. Although the law allows civilians to be killed in certain circumstances, it states belligerents must differentiate between combatants and noncombatants when executing an attack and ensure that the incidental harm to civilians is proportionate to the anticipated military gains. According to the prevailing view, the law can help to minimise the destructiveness of armed conflict by preventing its worst excesses. Craig Jones challenges this view in his book The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and Juridical Warfare, which traces how the law is entangled with the violence it is supposed to regulate. Rather than viewing war and law as two separate and diametrically opposed entities, Jones explains how they ‘co-constitute and animate each other in all kinds of ways’ (p.1). He documents how the law helps to channel the violence inflicted on the battlefield, assisting with everything from the legal immunities granted to soldiers stationed at overseas bases through to the targets selected for destruction. The book focuses particular attention on the military lawyers involved with aerial operations, showing how these lawyers ‘do not stand outside or above the technical targeting matters on which they advise [but…] are a constitutive and entangled part of the targeting apparatus’ (p.1). As such, this book makes an invaluable contribution to debates about the relationship between war and law. 

”[T]his book makes an invaluable contribution to debates about the relationship between war and law”

The book develops the concept of ‘juridical warfare’ to illustrate how ‘war has become more law-full— full of law— in the sense that it is increasingly conducted and understood in relation to law, legal discourse, and legal debates’ (p.37). Jones is not suggesting that the law is simply a tool of legitimation that can be used to render certain actions permissible, no matter how they have been conducted or what consequences they have had. Instead, he is interested in how the law has been used to help channel the violence inflicted on the battlefield, ensuring that militaries are able to kill the people they want to kill without necessarily violating any rules. As Anand Gopal (2020) argued in a recent article about the assault on Raqqa, the United States ‘razed an entire city, killing thousands in the process, without committing a single obvious war crime’. At the same time, Jones is interested in how our reliance on the law to assess the legitimacy of military operations has worked to displace other ways of assessing the harms inflicted during war, particularly when it comes to the ‘slow violence’ that is often factored into military plans but actively excluded from legal calculations (pp.119-120). 

This book provides an impressive historical overview of the increasing entanglement between war and law, drawing on interviews with around 50 military lawyers and detailed archival analysis. Jones explains that the juridification of late modern warfare did not happen overnight but something that was ‘forged in the crucibles of several wars’ (p.35). Vietnam is identified as a decisive historical moment, as the conflict helped create the conditions for greater legal involvement. Although military lawyers were not involved in combat operations, they were responsible for dealing with the grisly aftermath, issuing condolence payments to the victims (p.53-58) and prosecuting soldiers accused of war crimes (pp.78-87). In the aftermath of Vietnam, the Department of Defense established its Law of War Program to ensure that soldiers understood the rules governing the use of force. Jones argues that operationalising international law was not a simple process of translating it into a more accessible format, but actively re-configuring its content (pp.89-90). As well as expanding the role of military lawyers and involving them with combat operations, Jones shows how this process helped to establish a ‘zone of permissible conduct’ (pp.98-99). During Operation Desert Storm, lawyers were involved with drawing up a list of potential targets (pp.141-143). When Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan rolled around, military lawyers had been woven into the targeting process, providing time-sensitive legal advice to commanders at multiple points along the way (p.200).  

”His meticulous analysis of these historical trends enables Jones to draw out three important theoretical points”

His meticulous analysis of these historical trends enables Jones to draw out three important theoretical points. Firstly, he argues that the law is indeterminate, whilst the battlefield is juridically complex, so commanders have become increasingly reliant upon military lawyers to navigate this complexity (p.282). Secondly, he argues that the law produces violence because it establishes what can be targeted at the very moment it determines that certain things cannot be struck (p.283). Finally, he argues that military lawyers do not simply apply the law but actively create it every time they render their legal advice. The indeterminacy that is inherent within the law means that these interpretations helped to establish new legal precedents. As Colonel Daniel Reisner – the former Head of the International Law Branch of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) – explains, ‘if you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries’ (quoted on p.1). Recent attacks on Gaza provide a striking example of this. Contrary to those who have argued that these assaults were marked by an extensive suspension or abandonment of the law, Jones argues that they were realised through international law (p.172). At the same time, he argues that IDF lawyers introduced new legal constructs on targeted killing and violence short of war to legalise their attacks on Gaza. Although these constructs were contested at the time, other states – including the United States and the United Kingdom – have adopted them to legitimise their own targeted killings (pp.193-195).  

The War Lawyers is an impressive piece of work.”

The War Lawyers is an impressive piece of work. Jones has produced a magnificent book, which is not only an absolute pleasure to read but makes an invaluable contribution to debates about military law. Although previous studies have pointed to the ways in which the law might enable rather than restrain the violence inflicted on the battlefield, nobody has been able to document this relationship in such a thorough and incisive manner. Jones provides us with a book that is not only rich with empirical detail but equips us with the theoretical tools needed to interrogate how contemporary practices of violence are legitimised despite the enormous death and destruction left in their wake. There are some areas that will need to be developed. Jones is relatively silent about the gendered and racialised assumptions that animate the laws of armed conflict, rendering certain populations so much more killable – or injurable – than others (see Kinsella, 2011). Nevertheless, this book carefully unpacks idealised images about the relationship between the law and war to document how the ‘supposed humanization of the laws of war has become part of the problem’ (p307). Not just because the law is replete with a multitude of blind spots and biases, but because it forms part of the ‘necropolitical bureaucracy’ used to calibrate the violence inflicted in war (p.241). As such, the book succeeds in its endeavour to provide a much-needed critical perspective on how the law works to enable and enhance the destructives of war. 


Anand Gopal (2020) “America’s war on Syrian civilians”. Available online at: (accessed 8 February 2021).

Craig Jones (2020) The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and the Juridical Warfare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Helen Kinsella (2011) The Image Before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction between Combatant and Civilians. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.