Imagining Warfare – Khan

Our third reading from month 1 is ‘Imagining Warfare‘ by Paul Khan in European Journal Of International Law, 2013, Vol. 24(1), pp.199-226.

The abstract and paper are available here.

Without further a-do, let us get into the discussion.


Brief Summary of the article: Map + constitution/laws = nation state. Put another way, if attacking the map, you are an enemy, if breaking the laws you are a criminal. The difficulty that drones have exacerbated (drones being an incremental change not a paradigm shift) is that they travel along all the fault lines of this traditional schema. They transgress borders yet attack those who are not clearly marked as combatants – the targets are not suited, booted soldiers. The crones’ controllers, if thee drones are nto fuly automated, are far away from the target so here is no reciprocity of risk. Drones are (as things stand predominantly) under the control of a nation state rather than any supra-national law enforcement body such as the United Nations etc. This all tends to the collapse of conventional definitions of war and peace, and brings to our attention the need for a new imagining, a new understanding of political violence and how it does and will occur in the future.

The article is excellent on the paradoxes involved in the oscillations in the political imaginary between criminal and enemy and explores these switches tellingly in the dissection of meanings around for instance ‘suicide bomber – sacrifice bomber’. The article outlines a ‘regime of disappearance’ that has arisen as a response to asymmetrical advantage. This regime may drag us back to the pre Human Rights era of rightless individuals. If so, the age of Human Rights may be passing.

Having mulled over the article I found myself thinking about the following:

  • Semantic collapse (1971 Arthur Schlesinger):  the way in which the objectification of the targets of the drones is achieved.  From humans to objects to things, to something less than things  (see ‘Thing’ theory’).
  • The Deconstructionist approaches of Derrida et al: the impossibility of a simple symbolic correlation between sign and signifier: eg how many meanings the word ‘war’ can generate etc.
  • I was particularly thrown by the USA generated article’s use of the first person plural ‘we’ to mean the West, or Americans.  I had reflexively read that ‘we’ to mean the targets of the drones.

Peter Kalu, Lancaster University


Khan’s work on imagining warfare is not my usual fare for academic reading.  However, it did give me a number of ideas. Firstly, its focus upon the blurred line between war and peace, and the sovereign action to declare war, did make me wonder whether the drive to outlaw war in the UN Charter and other initiatives following WWII have resulted in the state of quasi-war, quasi-law enforcement that we now find ourselves studying? The capabilities of modern weapons allowing a sovereign to go beyond their borders and exercise their sovereign powers extraterritorially, without real recompense from the international community do, perhaps, show a fraying of the framework outlawing war, with drone killings and counterterrorism as the alternative when the sovereign has chosen its enemy.

Secondly, Khans’ words about legal regulation of soldiers being quite different from what is ‘ordinary and everyday’ (p.214) reminded me of the recent case of Alexander Blackman, aka ‘Marine A, who executed an injured Taliban fighter in 2011. Despite Blackman clearly, and knowingly breaching the Law of Armed Conflict, many members of the public do not recognise this, but instead, refer to him as a hero who was doing his job of killing enemies. The fact that particular method of killing has been outlawed by the international community seems to be irrelevant to his supporters. (His conviction for murder was recently reduced to Manslaughter.)

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


In ‘Imagining Warfare’ Paul Kahn provides a broad overview of the social imaginary construct of warfare in the modern world, with particular reference to the use of drones in armed conflict. Kahn is particularly interested here in targeting, and the definition of the enemy compared to that of the criminal. War is no longer between organised state militaries, and this has some major implications for the way warfare is carried out, and the way it is constructed in the social imaginary. Previously, there was a distinction made between property and territory, where the criminal was associated with property, and the enemy was associated with territory. However this distinction no longer holds as wars are no longer fought over marked boundaries by uniformed combatants with clearly defined goals. Now it would seem, we need a new category, for the modern terrorist is forcing us to redefine our view of warfare, and drone strikes in states with whom we (the West) are not directly at war is one such side effect of this changing nature of conflict in the 21st century.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


As always, if you would like to join please contact admin@ttac21.net

We look forward to hearing your comments.

One thought on “Imagining Warfare – Khan

  1. Hi Josh — to continue on our previous chat about Marine A, I find it very interesting that were it not for cameras (/technology) this incident wouldn’t have come to pass at all. I don’t want to pre-empt our discussion about ‘Wired for War’, but I found an interesting stat in there that suggests 45% of US army soldiers wouldn’t report a fellow soldier they saw injuring or killing a civilian noncombatant (394) — OR, we can infer, a fatally injured soldier who is beyond saving. Again, this comes back to the problematic distinction between civilian and soldier, and the way our definitions of such are shaped (as Kahn has suggested here, and in other places), in a sense, by public perception.

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