System Failures and the Technical Defence of Murder

Yesterday’s bombing of a residential district of Tripoli, killing an as-yet unknown number of civilians has led to the re-constitution of a fundamental trope of “humanitarian” military intervention.  This, is the spectacle of a Nato public relations official delivering a press conference to explain how the alliance has ended up in breach of the security council resolution that it, itself is supposed to be enforcing.

Recall Jamie Shea, NATO’s PR man par exellence during the war in Kosovo, discussing the Varavin bridge bombing, during which NATO warplanes (the nationality of which still remains classified) bombed a civilian convoy, killing 10 and severely injuring 17:

“All precision guided ordinance had hit the target….(the bridge was) a designated and legitimate target….Nato does not attack civilian targets, we attack exclusively military targets and take every precaution to avoid inflicting harm on civilians.”

This kind of discursive logic (supplemented by Shea’s introduction of “collateral damage” into the mainstream lexicon of war) established one of the fundamental tenets of the Kosovo campaign with regard to civilian deaths: i.e. that “our” selection and designation of targeting, our systems of intelligence management etc… are correct and if, subsequently civilians are incinerated at these locations, then this is a failure of reality as such, rather than the military practices in which we are engaged.  Ergo, if “we” do not target civilians, and yet, civilians happen to have been targeted, we need give no further explanation, as we are clearly not to blame.

Last night’s attack, and the subsequent statement by Wing Commander Mike Bracken, takes on a similar, if more abstracted form.  The problem, in this instance, is one of a “system malfunction” within the technology of the weapon itself.  This abstracts responsibility to a further degree, suggesting that no only had the moral framework, planning and intelligence been accurate and correctly carried out, but that the execution of the raid (i.e. that the act of dropping the bombs as such) had also worked perfectly.  What had failed was the technical process, after the completion of all of these human-centric processes.

The language and the construction of humanitarian discourses overlaid by war-fighting discourses, as though the two were somehow naturally and immutably compatible, seems to expand and mutate with every new intervention.  Similarly, the language used to justify and prevaricate around the entirely foreseeable deaths of innocents which follow such conflations, grows ever more abstracted, technical and scientific, stretched out, away from the twisted metal and scorched bodies begat by its implementation.


As of 17:00 today (20th June) another “weapons failure” has been announced, during an operation to strike “a key Gaddafi regime command and control node” to the West of Tripoli.  Up to 17 are reported killed.   It seems clear that the discourse of network systems has become and will remain the primary mode of public representation between NATO and the public during this, and most possibly all future, military interventions.  Wagers of war can thus be reconfigured as altogether more prosaic systems engineers, ensuring the smooth operating of network infrastructure, removing malware etc…  Nodes, codes and networks are not made of flesh, blood and bone and hence have none of the visually troublesome reactions to physical trauma exhibited by such matter when subjected to heat, blast and fragmentation munitions.


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