Sensing, Seeing, and Striking: A Case Study of Two U.S. Airstrikes on Protected Sites

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 10:55
Oral Presentation
Anna BANCHIK, The University of Texas at Austin, USA
Carlos BECK, University of Texas at Austin, USA
Drone, satellite, and other remote-sensing technologies enable dramatic lines of imagery, visuality and forms of power. Studies have revealed that, far from being self-evident or unproblematic, the processes by which “civilians” are visually distinguished from combatants and thus made into appropriate military targets vis-a-vis drones and other aerial surveillance technologies involve ways of seeing that are situated, assumption-laden, and technically and epistemically fraught. While much research has focused on problematic classifications of individuals from the “view from above,” little work has examined the interpretive logics, technical mediations, and visual habits through which architectural structures are made sense of from this vantage point--whether as targets, sites outlined as protected by international humanitarian law (IHL), or both simultaneously.

Through an analysis of two U.S. air strikes targeting protected civilian structures, a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan and a mosque in al-Jinah, Syria, we examine two questions: 1) How do protected structures become visualized and interpreted as military targets? 2) And, how do state actors and NGOs strategically deploy images to support or challenge official narratives regarding these attacks? We find that visual artefacts play a central role in displacing and assigning accountability within debates over the operations’ legality, successes, and failures. U.S. military actors mobilize images “from above” to simultaneously justify force and construct its attacks on the buildings as “precise” and “proportional,” while conceding to gross organizational and technical errors. Drawing on local knowledges and visualities, NGOs instead produce and circulate visual material to challenge state narratives and its mis-recognition of the buildings’ lived uses. Our analysis points to the ways in which a range of novel image types--from drone images to multimedia composites and architectural reconstructions--become enrolled in these contestations and help to unsettle meanings of “precision” itself.