Wadi al Abu Jabara. Beit al Ahan. Jaar. Dhamar. Al-Saeed. Tappi. Bulandkhel. Hurmuz. Khaider khel.
These are the names of places. They are towns, villages, junctions and roads. They are the names of places where people live and work, where there are families and schools. They are the names of places in Afghanistan and Yemen, which are linked by one thing: they have each been the location of drone strikes in the past couple of months. (The latest was in the early hours of November 7th, the night of the US election.)
They are the names of places most of us will never see. We do not know these landscapes and we cannot visit them.
What can reach them are drones, what can see them—if not entirely know them—are drones. At anywhere between five and fifty thousand feet, the drones are impervious to the weapons of the people below them, and all-seeing across the landscape. Drones are just the latest in a long line of military technologies augmenting the process of death-dealing, but they are among the most efficient, the most distancing, the most invisible. These qualities allow them to do what they do unseen, and create the context for secret, unaccountable, endless wars. Whether you think these killings are immoral or not, most of them are by any international standard illegal.
For a few weeks now, I have been posting images of the locations of drone strikes to the photo-sharing site Instagram as they occur (there’s more on the methodology below). Making these locations just a little bit more visible, a little closer. A little more real.
The political and practical possibilities of drone strikes are the consequence of invisible, distancing technologies, and a technologically-disengaged media and society. Foreign wars and foreign bodies have always counted for less, but the technology that was supposed to bring us closer together is used to obscure and obfuscate. We use military technologies like GPS and Kinect for work and play; they continue to be used militarily to maim and kill, ever further away and ever less visibly.
Yet at the same time we are attempting to build a 1:1 map of the world through satellite and surveillance technologies, that does allow us to see these landscapes, should we choose to go there. These technologies are not just for “organising” information, they are also for revealing it, for telling us something new about the world around us, rendering it more clearly.
History, like space, is coproduced by us and our technologies: those technologies include satellite mapping, social photo sharing from handheld devices, and fleets of flying death robots. We should engage with them at every level. These are just images of foreign landscapes, still; yet we have got better at immediacy and intimacy online: perhaps we can be better at empathy too.
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Dronestagram posts images from Google Maps Satellite view to Instagram, and syndicates this feed to Tumblr and Twitter, along with short summaries of each site. You can follow Dronestagram at any of these locations.
I use a variety of sources to locate a suitable view for each image, including the original media reports, wikipedia, local government and media sites. Many are in outlying areas and the information on exact locations is scarce; where a precise location is not given, the view should be within a few kilometres in most cases. Instagram does not allow you to select a location on a map, only a place name, so unfortunately the images are geotagged to my current location. Nevertheless: the landscapes and the places and their names are real.
The BIJ is currently only reporting on those three territories, where covert drone operations are occurring. I would very much like to include other locations, and will try to (although I don’t know how sustainable this project is, for the moment).
Drones are in constant use in Afghanistan by British and American forces. Neither release any regular information about their use. The RAF has not even posted a public operations update since mid-September, which in any case only refer vaguely to reconnaissance, while Defence Minister Phillip Dunne was recently forced to admit in the Commons that UK drones have been used in almost 350 attacks in Afghanistan since 2008 (that’s a drone strike every four days), and recently moved to double the size of its fleet of reaper drones.
Dronewars UK is an invaluable resource, although it stopped updating its list of strikes in June. Drones are also used under dubious circumstances in many other parts of the world, such as Israel and Turkey. I would be very grateful for additional sources and verified reports.
If you feel strongly about these issues, please sign Drone Wars UK’s petition to end the secrecy around British drone strikes, and consider donating to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Reprieve.