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 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2002-05-01/transforming-military (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

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


Screenshot from book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFP2m8O2Ex8

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.” https://undocs.org/en/S/PV.6491.

Info Box

For more discussion, see Jeff Bachman’s interview with A. Dirk Moses through the New Books Network:  https://newbooksnetwork.com/the-problems-of-genocide.

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: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/lines-of-descent/

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 https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/fc/13761232.0040.210/–aesthetics-politics-and-the-police-hermeneutic-online-videos?rgn=main;view=fulltext