Unmanned: Embedded Reporters, Predator Drones and Armed Perception

Event Scenes

Unmanned

Embedded Reporters, Predator Drones and Armed Perception

On a scale never before seen in the American military, around 500 journalists have been assigned positions alongside combat and support troops — intended to give us all “front row seats to the war.” Previously trained by the Pentagon in week-long media boot camps, these “embedded” journalists are not of course allowed to carry guns but they are allowed to carry cameras. If the first Gulf War (where the reporters were confined to hotels) was something like a war game, this war would seem to be something more like reality TV. Buoyed by its collaborations with Hollywood — which is riding high on an unprecedented wave of revenue from reality TV programming that now constitutes over half of the top 10 shows in the US — and increasingly information-savvy, the Pentagon now knows that stage-managed “real life” is where the action’s at. It will no longer be accused, it thinks, of withholding or controlling information. It will give us real life on the front lines, truth behind the facades, Ted Koppel in a tank.

However, like the overproduced reality television show that ends up squeezing out any sense of spontaneity, these images turn out to be as misleading as those of the first Gulf War. There are rules of engagement that all embedded journalists have sworn to abide by. There is a social code of conduct among personnel as to what can be said. The details of military actions can only be described in general terms and journalists are prohibited from writing about possible future missions, classified weapons, or sensitive information. The commander of an embedded journalist’s unit can block any reporter from filing stories via satellite connection at any time. Much of what appears to be live was actually recorded hours earlier. And the whole thing gets fed into the graphics-heavy, soundbyte-oriented news machine anyway, itself a primary interface to a media-driven market of investors who “play the war” and trade based on news. Embedded reporting is itself embedded within a host of now- familiar conventions, accompanied by scrolling updates, computer-generated flyovers over Baghdad, animated EarthViewer satellite imagery, drum rolls, and links to websites that allow us to fondle 3D animations of munitions. The war doesn’t end up looking like reality TV so much as a media Olympics.

Standing out prominently alongside these embedded images are the familiar echoes of the first Gulf War: those haunting images from camera-mounted bombs (or rather, bomb-mounted cameras) that explode upon impact and mask any repercussion at groundlevel. Those flying points of view to which we have only virtual access.

Camera handheld on the ground. Camera precision-mounted in the sky. Which viewpoint are we to assume?

One wonders, as always, what the real artillery is in this war — images or bullets. Perhaps the soldiers should be allowed to carry cameras, or the camera and gun should simply collapse into one another. For the military, the distance between has been narrowing for quite some time anyway. It has been narrowing in terms of what has been called the military-entertainment complex. (Already it is difficult to distinguish between managed combat information, news, and entertainment.) It has been narrowing in terms of the windows between detection and engagement, “sensor” and “shooter,” intelligence-gathering and deployment — which in many ways drives military development and especially its aerial imaging.

There are two modes to this collapse. We might call them the manned and the unmanned.

A channel of reembodiment opens up via reality media and its focus on unfiltered immediacy. At the same time, a channel of disembodiment opens up via automated vision and the “umanned.” Think of two modes. One is the handheld camera, live and on the scene. We watch seemingly immediate, raw footage through it. The other is the disembodied gaze. We don’t watch through it. It is the gaze that belongs to everyone and no one. The camera-riding bomb is only one example. There are many other examples that we can’t see. In many senses, this gaze has moved into the status of a condition. That is, it has moved from something that we can represent to something that helps to structure representation itself, as if lurking behind the visual field.

So which is it? If we think of perception as being relocated — and in many ways warfare is about such relocation — can we say that it is becoming re- physicalized, or not? I want to consider both of these modes. In so doing, I want to also introduce another element — in a sense, outfitting these concepts with armaments. I want to suggest that the condition of this relocation of perception is its subsequent arming — its subsequent backing by an apparatus of conquest and defense. Can we think of perception as becoming armed in this way? How could such an increasingly ephemeral and distributed capacity be simultaneously fortified, couched within an apparatus of warfare? Dematerialized, yet weighted?

The Drone

The current star of the unmanned vehicles is the Predator, which had its major debut in 1995 in Bosnia. The Predator is a toylike and windowless vehicle, originally built for reconnaissance missions, that is flown by both the military and the C.I.A. There is no pilot in its cockpit — there is an operator who sits hundreds or thousands of miles away at a console. The Predator beams a continuous live video feed to military and intelligence personnel around the world.

The Predator was not initially used to fire upon targets. It had on many occasions captured potential targets on video but was unable to do anything about it. In other words, it had “got them in its sights” but was unable to fully capture — i.e., shoot — as if it were impotent. For example, a Predator drone once captured a “tall turban-wearing man” on video in Afghanistan that many officials believe was bin Laden. But there was nothing to be done except to relay the information back to command posts, who may then channel it to other vehicles equipped for interception. There was no chance to eliminate that which appeared in the image, an act which seems to negate the very purpose of photography. Meanwhile, the target slipped from view.

The impotence of the image led to the reengineering of the vehicle. In the new regimes of the image, there can be no possibility of escape. Vision must be outfitted, the body retooled, the apparatus armed.

Institutional effect: The military has always been seeking to reduce the time from “sensor to shooter” to almost zero. It has sought to more closely integrate the apparatuses of detection and engagement. The growing urgency reached its culmination after September 11. Now Predators were being hastily equipped with Hellfire missiles and laser-targeting systems. On the nose and underside of the Predator now stood video camera, targeting system, and missile launcher, which could work in tandem. Missile and video camera sit side-by- side, pointed toward the ground, aimed to capture, mounted on the belly of a windowless airplane. Recording-launching. Seeing-aiming-firing.

Photography was once an accurate replica of the world, driven by the need to remove the human from direct physical contact with the site of experience. The need to place the human “on the other side” of representation as a kind of shield from reality. The need to protect one from the vicissitudes and dangers of physical presence and to allow a form of disembodied presence. Presence through removal. I am there yet not there. The image and its technical support act as protector, as life-giver, yet they are bound up in a technical development that threatens the human with obsolescence. They provide a means for its extension, yet a means for its removal. Warfare: protection through the aid of the image, countered with the anniliation that the image also facilitates.

Who are its agents? During the conflict in Afghanistan, Air Force officers monitored ground level activity at the C.I.A. headquarters in Virgina, where, as reported by The Washington Post, they were occasionally “surprised to see an explosion, only to learn later that the C.I.A. was firing a missile.” Who is watching, who is analyzing, who is flying the plane, who is shooting? Such capacities are suspended within an uneasy alliance between agencies, who are themselves often in competition.

We have the narrowing of divisions between the technologies of detection and engagement, as well the blurring of the roles of intelligence-gathering and deployment. Think of the blurring of the roles and limits to the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. and the creation of the new intelligence unit within the Department of Homeland Security. From this consolidation “erupts” the technology itself. Or is it the other way round? Then there is the image, and the role of seeing. The image both tracks and aims, traces and targets, its framings operating as a new development of perspective. If we think of perspective as a way of locating relationships between objects in space and their representations, what is it, then, if we seek to collapse that space? Is this a perspective aimed at obliteration? A final collapse of the referential fallacy, an implosion in the midst of an explosion? A precise freezing in time and space, a precise sedimentation of image, referent, and projectile in realtime, in order to guide and mark an annihilation?

Strike 1. In February of 2002, several men on the ground in Afghanistan, after having been monitored for some time by the US military and the C.I.A, were shot down dead by a Predator drone. The men were determined to have been involved in “suspicious activity” and one of them was suspected to be bin Laden himself. The strike was a mistake. The men were subsequently thought to have been simply foraging for scrap metal on the ground. The Pentagon defended the attack, but at the same time, it tried to distance itself and blamed the C.I.A. It was the first time that the public learned that the C.I.A. was involved in firing missiles.

Strike 2. About three months later, on May 9, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a suspected Afghan factional leader, was also shot at by a Predator drone. He survived. It was the first confirmed mission to kill someone who was not officially part of the fallen Taliban government or the Al Qaeda network.

Strike 3. On November 3, 2002, a missile fired from a Predator drone killed Qaed Salim Sinan Harithi, also known as Abu Ali, a senior leader of Al Qaeda. He was traveling by car in Yemen with five low-level associates who were also killed. The car and the bodies were incinerated. The attack was the first using an armed Predator against suspects outside of Afghanistan.

In each of these cases, in each of these strikes, I remember trying to picture the scene. One man — standing alone or in a group, or traveling by car — is suddenly fired at from the sky, as if zapped by a lightning bolt. He is singled out for destruction among the others standing nearby, as if by an act of God. To what remote hidden bunker was this image sent, whose hidden hand released its payload? In The New York Times, Walter Kirn wrote that, from the perspective of his sofa, this latest incident had the quality of an “immaculate destruction.” “It may well have been Thor doing the shooting,” he wrote. “Or me.” He said that “with no individual human being to take credit for the hit – – no swaggering flying ace, no deadeye tail gunner, no squinting rifleman — it felt like a pure projection of my will.” It felt like a pure projection of his own continuing anger about terrorism.

One can immediately picture a peculiar kind of armed couch potato, caught somewhere between a videogame and the news. We hold our own remote devices that give us the fictions of instant command, and sitting in front of our television sets or computer screens, we are oddly enough about as close to the action as the actual pilots get — as well as those secret teams who have their fingers on the triggers. Part of a distributed mass with no fixed contours, with no one person to locate at the helm, the unmanned system is no ONE yet everyone. Its projectile: the extension of some inner combative state? A distributed, armed intent?

One can think of the action of slamming the phone down as somehow “getting back” at the person on the other line, or of blasting the horn at a stupid driver who nearly caused an accident. We transfer anger through our devices. Through remotes of all kinds, we can picture the very common gesture of the “point and shoot.” None of these actions are anywhere near that of launching an actual missile, of course. But we can identify with the gesture, the response mechanism, the conditioning process, the interceptive goal. We can speak of mechanisms behind the “decision to engage.” One can speak metaphorically of “pushing one’s buttons,” which means that someone is deliberately exploiting one’s soft spots, inciting anger in a knee-jerk reaction. The device marks a loop between perception, technology, and the pacings of the body. Eye, viewfinder, and trigger. A structure for orienting attention and facilitating differentiation or division. Subject/object, me/you, friend/enemy. We choose this over that. We locate ourselves to “this side” of image, to the safe side, against the enemy it protects us from. We draw lines in the sand; we say, “I stand here against you,” defining ourselves by that which we oppose. How far are we willing to go to defend it? What kind of technology backs us?

The Reporter

The surprise attack on the Iraqi command bunker that launched Gulf War II was supposed to be the mother of all smart strikes. Think of all of the computational power and intelligence that went into the determination of that one precise moment. It was supposed to be the apex of the entire operation, the magnum opus, the punctum, the crowning glory of the American military machine. Imagine: to obliterate Saddam Hussein himself in one enormous zap, one precise blast from the sky, as if God himself had struck the man down. The blast over Baghdad that morning shook the city and the entire world.

Later, Donald Rumsfeld, who likes to simulate forms of combat machinery in his gestures, gripped both sides of his lecturn, elbows up and head thrust forward, as if morphing into an Apache helicopter looming above its prey. Such precision we could have never before dreamed of, he says.

Meanwhile, battalions of soldiers and reporters were already advancing into the country.

It has been said that there is so much reporting today, it often gets ahead of the news. Think of the swarms of reporters in Washington DC during the sniper attacks confronting the police force as if they were swat teams. In a cutthroat commercial news media world, timely information is artillery, and journalists are fighters. Paul Virilio once said that it is now reality that has to keep up with media, rather than the other way round. It is easy to see how embedded journalism would arise in a culture of “behind the scenes” entertainment, immediacy, and rapid media technological advance, and impatient with the kind of secrecy such as the Pentagon has shown in the past. “Truth is the best defense” said Col. Jay DeFrank, the Pentagon’s director of press operations, as legions of Americans grabbed their popcorn.

Camera and weapon, in the trenches together on the battlefield. Trigger click, camera click. With the Predator, the distance between was narrowed in the drive for “capture” in its most violent sense. That is, there could be no escape for the represented. It fuses with its image as it is obliterated. An image and a life are both “taken” as eye and projectile join. The distance for human error shrinks since it is a machine that coordinates. Here at groundlevel, however, camera and weapon cohabit a space through the agency of a fallible human. The camera shakes. Its bearer’s life is on the line. In the field between seeing and shooting a human is not removed but reintroduced. In a sense, it is the human that is deployed to serve a need within the workings of the apparatus.

What is that need?

It is well known that, within the scrims of hyperreality, a mode of witnessing has been lost. An indexical bond has been severed. Through a verité of the everyday, real life media arises to fill the gap. It purports to put us on the front lines. Media moves into the space of the audience by allowing its “authentic” participation. A sense of unscriptedness counters the polished quality of the media mis-en-scène and opens up an entry point. The deceptive character of the media is suspended for a moment, and one can project oneself inside. I do not abandon myself to the image, or live in the world of images. Rather, this “realness” allows a seamless interface between. A port of synchronization is opened up that allows a shuttling back and forth. “Real feelings” and “real people” are what code authenticity. We identify with the people on screen because they are somehow more like us, in situations and under conditions that are more like life. The distance that voyeurism relies on for its source of pleasure migrates into other geometries. These real-time image streams, life-like settings, “real actors,” and seemingly live actions and effects however could only have opened up a site of identification for a populace that had already been conditioned to see itself through media self- reflection. This could not have taken hold unless the media mis-en-scène had already arisen, as it has, to form the sole authenticating construct of our time — the cultural background for awareness, identity, and representation, the background against which subjectivity and social relations are formed.

Through embeddedness, I am put back in the place that photography had once purported to remove me, in order to protect me. I am (seemingly) reintroduced at the other side of the shield, dropped onto the battlefield of the Real and (seemingly) subject all of its dangers.

Embeddedness, then, constitutes a language that signifies the real — a real that has been under siege in more ways than one — by helping to develop new coherencies and cohabitations against a violent other. It offers a form of indexical compensation. The handheld, grainy video verité mode that we know well from television shows and movies has come to signify a mode of real presence — and here the staggered motion and artifacting brought about by limited transmission capacity serves as a new mode of the real, a kind of transmission verité. The “real” equals credibility via its sense of unfiltered immediacy. The reality of representation is substituted for the representation of reality. That is, “authenticity” arises less from the authenticity of reality per se than the authenticity of the means by which reality is portrayed.

The compensation works linguistically as well. Listening to the embedded reporters, one notices that they sometimes seem to talk like they are soldiers instead of journalists. They will use military-speak and say “we,” as if they were part of the combat force. “‘We’ went out on patrol.” “‘We’ took out about 30 or 40 Iraqis” in a firefight. Warfare is always about such divisions and cohesions, as they traverse language. Newscasters say “we” or “us” in order to create an interior of cohesion against an exterior of disarray. An interior of safety against an exterior of danger. Through such mechanisms, which include stacks of hierarchically-arranged worlds, sartorial and acting codes, graphics, and other carefully ordered conventions, a cohesive world is constructed that contains its viewer in a comforting here-and-now. As Margaret Morse has written, we see in such news constructs a public being taught its place according to the conventions of power and position in discourse. Through carefully arranged divides within the news, where, for example, newscasters can address the viewer directly but the represented public cannot, positions are reinforced, battlelines are drawn and power is maintained. If we see a process of differentiation actively at work, we can regard this as part of a machine of subjectivity. An arsenal, in effect, of producing an interior/exterior divide.

Such mechanisms do not only represent the war. They ARE the war.

In the heat of battle, one does not think too much. One acts. Especially in a crisis state (increasingly the norm), the military machine does my thinking for me. In civilian terms: The construct is couched within what Elaine Scarry would call a mimesis of deliberation — a simulation of deliberation that replaces one’s own thinking. The media construct is such that it does its own thinking through mirroring one’s own thought processes, seducing one into a direct interface, a mind-meld. Automated deliberation, seamlessly achieved. I am there on the front lines and I virtually witness what is shown on the screen, it is real. This occurs within a news construct that virtually does my thinking for me. The image that I see — the smart image of high technology weaponry or the smart image of the multiformat newscast with its text crawls and weblinks – – is the image that thinks for itself, harboring cognition within its own confines. In some cases, as when image and ammunition coincide, it even destroys itself.

The “sightless gaze” of the unmanned system tends to acquire exceptional power since its bearer cannot be pinned down. The reinforced gaze of the embedded eye acquires its power precisely because it can.

Perhaps it is both that turn out to be equally “unmanned” — the latter being more insidious because it traffics in the guise of its opposite.

Postscript

A few days ago I saw a scene on CNN that was shot with a night vision camera. Someone was panning the area, casting it in the famiiar green glow of combat. But this time the camera was not focused at the enemy. It was wielded by an embedded reporter, who scanned the soldiers in that battalion — his battalion, “our” battalion — as they, in turn, scoped out the landscape, their weapons poised. A concert of gazes both armed and unarmed. In the place of the cold unflinching stare of the military machine, the presence of a human — a civilian — is reinstated behind the lens. Could it be me? What is the difference between the way that I see and the way that the military sees? I look for something out of the ordinary, something to reinforce me or to militate against.

Critic? Seducer? Victim?

Jordan Crandall is an artist and media theorist. He is Assistant Professor in the Visual Arts Department at University of California, San Diego. His most recent book, Drive: Technology, Mobility, and Desire, has just been released by Hatje Cantz Verlag in conjunction with ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlshrue, and Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz.