Frames of War (Introduction to the Paperback Edition)

9 Nov, 22

[T]here are conditions under which war is waged, and we have to know them if we are to oppose war. Indeed, the opposition to war has to take place, in part, through remaking the conditions of its possibility and probability. Similarly, if war is to be opposed, we have to understand how popular assent to war is cultivated and maintained, in other words, how war waging acts upon the senses so that war is thought to be an inevitability, something good, or even a source of moral satisfaction.
Any effort to understand must consider how wars are waged and the technology of war, but to understand the operation of technology we have to consider how it works on the field of the senses. What is formed and framed through the technological grasp and circulation of the visual and discursive dimensions of war? This grasping and circulation is already an interpretive maneuver, a way of giving an account of whose life is a life, and whose life is effectively transformed into an instrument, a target, or a number, or is effaced with only a trace remaining or none at all. Although no final or exhaustive account of war waging is undertaken in these pages, some suggestions are made about what form such an account might take.
Such a task requires that we rethink the received terms of materialism in order to understand, for instance, how cameras work as instruments of war, how they both frame and form the human and non-human target along with a field of collateral damage (equally necessary to war, even if perpetually part of peripheral vision), and to develop an anti-war politics that focuses on the dispossessed and those rendered precarious in ways that require new vocabularies and new practices.

When we think about how wars are waged, what forms war waging takes, we tend to think first about the material instruments of war, assuming that we know what we mean by “material instruments” when we speak this way. Even if we agree that cameras are among the material instruments of war, it remains understandably difficult to say that the cameras themselves wage war, or even that they are part of war waging. Surely, common sense tells us that persons wage war, not the instruments they employ. But what happens if the instruments acquire their own agency, such that persons become extensions of those instruments? The populations targeted can be cast as instruments of war, as happened most recently in the effort to justify civilian deaths caused by the Israeli army in Gaza. Similarly, the soldier can be treated as an extension of the instrument he carries, when the soldier is considered one with the weapon he bears, but so too can the camera sometimes appear to be co-extensive with the camera’s use. When cast as a mere instrument of aggressive military power, a threat to civilization, or as a potentially unmanageable demographic problem, populations are framed by the tactics of war, and living humans become cast as instruments, blockades, targets and shields. Similarly, very often the one who uses the camera is positioned within the perspective of battle, mid becomes a soldier-reporter who visually consecrates the destructive acts of war. As a result, we have to pose the question of the material of war waging, what counts as material, and whether cameras and their images are part of that extended materiality.

Although we reserve some sense of materiality for the image, we tend to give priority to that materiality that belongs to guns, bombs, and the directly destructive instruments of war without realizing that they cannot operate without the image. [1] In a way, that focusing on the target produces a position for the soldier, the reporter, and the public audience, structuring the visual field that makes each position possible. The frame not only orchestrates such positions, but also delimits the visual field itself. In the context of war photography, the image may reflect or document a war; at times it may rally emotional responses either in support of the war effort or in resistance to it. Other times the image becomes a dense site of political ambivalence about the war itself. So can we say that the image itself is really part of the waging of war? Cameras are literally appended to missiles and bombing devices, sometimes replacing human agency—as with the pilot-less drones whose destructiveness in the war in Afghanistan cannot be doubted. Indeed, the camera-bomber that is the drone has produced many civilian casualties, since its aim is imprecise and its destructive power always disproportionate to its target.

[1] For an excellent visual exploration of the relation between human and machine in the mapping of military targets, see these videos by Harun Farocki: “Eye Machine, I, II, III” (2001-3) and “War at a Distance” (2003).

Efforts to control the visual and narrative dimensions of war delimit public discourse by establishing and disposing the sensuous parameters of reality itself—including what can be seen and what can be heard. As a result, it makes sense to ask, does regulating the limits of what is visible or audible serve as a precondition of war waging, one facilitated by cameras and other technologies of communication? Of course, persons use technological instruments, but instruments surely also use persons (position them, endow them with perspective, and establish the trajectory of their action); they frame and form anyone who enters into the visual or audible field, and, accordingly, those who do not. But further, under conditions of war waging, personhood is itself cast as a kind of instrumentality, by turns useful or dispensable. How is the public sphere constituted by the visual technologies of war? And what counter-public emerges over and against that ideal postulate? We think of persons as reacting to war in various ways, but communicable reactions to war also variably constitute and de-constitute personhood within the field of war. Is there some way to register war in a way that transforms the senses? And what role do transformed senses have in the demands for the cessation of war? If those of us who watch the wars our governments conduct at a distance are visually solicited and recruited into the war by embedded reporting and publicly approved media reports, under what conditions can we refuse that recruitment effort? What restructuring of the senses does that require and enable?

To approach this question, we have to understand how the senses are part of any recruitment effort. Specifically, there is a question of the epistemological position to which we are recruited when we watch or listen to war reports. Further, a certain reality is being built through our very act of passive reception, since what we are being recruited into is a certain framing of reality, both its constriction and its interpretation. When the state issues directives on how war is to be reported, indeed on whether war is to be reported at all, it seems to be trying to regulate the understanding of violence, or the appearance of violence within a public sphere which has become decisively transformed by the internet and other forms of digital media. But if we are to ask whether this regulation of violence is itself also violent in some way, part of violence, then we need a more careful vocabulary to distinguish between the destruction of the bomb and the framing of its reality, even though, as we know, both happen at the same time, and the one cannot happen without the other. In the same way that Althusser (drawing on Spinoza) once argued that there can be different modalities of materiality, there can surely be, and are, different modalities of violence and of the material instrumentalities of violence. How do we understand the frame as itself part of the materiality of war and the efficacy of its violence?

The frame does not .simply exhibit reality, but actively participates in a strategy of containment, selectively producing and enforcing what will count as reality. It tries to do this, and its efforts are a powerful wager. Although framing cannot always contain what it seeks to make visible or readable, it remains structured by the aim of instrumentalizing certain versions of reality. This means that the frame is always throwing something away, always keeping something out, always de-realizing and de-legitimating alternative versions of reality, discarded negatives of the official version. And so, when the frame jettisons certain versions of war, it is busily making a rubbish heap whose animated debris provides the potential resources for resistance. When versions of reality are excluded or jettisoned to a domain of unreality, then specters are produced that haunt the ratified version of reality, animated and de-ratifying traces. In this sense frame seeks to institute an interdiction on mourning: there is no destruction, and there is no loss. Even as the frames are actively engaged in redoubling the destruction of war, they are only polishing the surface of a melancholia whose rage must be contained, and often cannot. Although the frame initiates (as part of weaponry) or finishes off (as part of reporting) a whole set of murderous deeds, and seeks to subordinate the visual field to the task of war waging,its success depends upon a successful conscription of the public. Our responsibility to resist war depends in part on how well we resist that daily effort at conscription.

We may think that circulating alternative images will rally resistance, but we have to remember that graphic depictions can sometimes do no more than sensationalize events. When that happens, we respond with outrage periodically, but the outrage is not transformed into a sustained political resistance. Is there another way to act upon the senses, or to act from them, that resists both sensationalism and episodic outrage at the limits on the visual imposed by techniques of war waging?

The image is nearly impossible to control by virtue of the contemporary forms of its reproducibility and circulability. But this uncontrollability is not a sufficient basis for utopian excitement. Images within digital culture travel beyond the reach of those who seek to censor them and sometimes run counter to whatever intentions animate them at the start. Circulation reanimates intentions in new ways, exposes the image to new animating conditions, and often ends up producing effects that turn back on those whose control is supposed to be reflected back and solidified through the circulation itself. [2] This was one effect of the frenzied circulation of the Abu Ghraib photos on the internet. Indeed, the uncontrolled circulability of the image and shifting contexts of its reception helped to produce a public outcry against the war across the globe.

[2] See W. J. T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2011.

On the other hand, that same uncontrolled circulability can work to scatter the effects of war, undermine our ability to focus on its costs, and even naturalize the effects of war as a presupposed background of everyday life. This is a consequential metalepsis when the visual effects of war become the ground of everyday life. The destruction of our ability to focus is yet another form of collateral damage. As a result, intensified circulability cannot be affirmed as an unequivocal utopian effect of new visual technology, since the transmutation of ordinary life into the continuation of war is a clear and present risk.

Indeed, we must ask: can there be the continuation of war or, indeed, the escalation of war, as we are now witnessing in Afghanistan, without first preparing and structuring the public understanding of what war is, and by attempting to suppress any visual, audible, or narrative accounts of war that might help to break open a popular resistance to war? Television coverage of war positions citizens as visual consumers of a violent conflict that happens elsewhere, at least in the United States where geographical distance from our so-called enemies allows us to wage war without close domestic scrutiny of our actions. It may be that global media operations like CNN actually export the perspective of the US, enforcing a sense of infinite distance from zones of war even for those who live in the midst of violence. But if the framing of what we see challenges the credibility of the claims made about war, then we fail to be effectively recruited into the war effort by the news. Indeed, if soldiers fail to be interpellated by the visual and narrative accounts of the wars they fight, then they start to lose faith in what they do, claim to be ill, go AWOL, request a transfer, stop working, or simply leave. The incentives to do this are not great, especially when soldiers are recruited with the promise of escaping poverty and acquiring job skills. In this way, they become instruments of the economy and begin in neo-liberal fashion to calculate their chances at success rather than ask whether the war is just or justified. It does not help that the discourse of justification has been effectively subordinated to strategic aims, at which point there is no operative public way to distinguish between instrumental forms of reasoning and normative justifications. To achieve a normative evaluation of a war, we have first to be able to take it in, to register war by the senses in ways that allow us openly and publicly to question whether such destruction is justifiable.

In some sense, every war is a war upon the senses, which does not mean that, conversely, only the senses can save us now. There is no thinking and judgment without the senses, and there is no thinking and judgment about war without the senses assuming a social form that can be reliably reproduced over time. The assault can take various forms: rendering sensational losses that are borne by nations with whom identification is intensified through the individual icons of death, rendering insensate certain losses whose open mourning might challenge the rationale of war itself. Without the assault on the senses, it would be impossible for a state to wage war. Waging war in some ways begins with the assault on the senses; the senses are the first target of war. Similarly, the implicit or explicit framing of a population as a war target is the initial action of destruction. It is not just preparation for a destruction to come, but the initiating sequence of the process of destruction.

Shall we perhaps expand our idea of how wars are waged in order to understand how the regulation of the visible and audible field seeks to maintain the apparent public consensus that permits a state to wage its wars without instigating a popular revolt?

Although the images of war are meant to recruit us to the waging of war, they also solicit us in other ways. Even when the precarious condition of targeted lives is precisely what we are not supposed to see, we can nevertheless apprehend that precarity at the limit of the frame. The apprehension of the precarity of others—their exposure to violence, their socially induced transience and dispensability—is, by implication, an apprehension of the precarity of any and all living beings, implying a principle of equal vulnerability that governs all living beings. Since we are also living, the apprehension of another’s precarity is implicitly an apprehension of our own, although the singular determination of lives makes it impossible to assimilate the one into the other. In other words, equal vulnerability does not imply radical substitutability; and yet, formally, there is no living being that is not at risk of destruction. At the same time, precarity is distributed unequally or, at least, strategies to implement that unequal distribution are precisely what is at work in war and in the differential treatment of catastrophes such as famine and earthquakes. When populations become implicitly framed as targets for destruction within ordinary discourse, then the frame solicits our complicity with this practice of the visual and discursive normalization of war.

But another form of solicitation is also at work in such a frame, one that would lead us to an understanding of the equal value of life from an apprehension of shared precariousness. Can we discern the way the frame normalizes destruction, and can we be solicited both ethically and politically by the lives whose precarious conditions are suspended or shut out by the frame, or whose traces the frame cannot quite efface? Our visual apprehension of war is an occasion in which we implicitly consent or dissent to war or where our ambivalent relation is formulated, where we also are able to pose questions about what and how war is presented, and what absence structures and limns this visual field. If the visual field ratifies the target as a way to conceptualize precarious populations, can we read the frame as participating in the production of precarity, inducing precarity? Under what conditions might we apprehend and analyze this very induction and participation? As we watch video or see an image, what kind of solicitation is at work? Are we being invited to take aim? Are we conscripted into the trajectory of the bullet or missile? Or is there another solicitation that works through the prior one, a solicitation to apprehend the precarious conditions of life as imposing an ethical obligation on us? Is this not precisely a solicitation to refuse the target as frame, to expose its ruse, and to insist on an ethical connection to the populations being “depicted” in this way? Does the visual also become the field in which we are solicited to assume responsibility to resist unjust war and to affirm convergent precarious conditions? But as we know, wars do not always follow such controlled plans; some populations are killed simply because they are in the way, situated in proximity to the ostensible target. That is because the destructive power of the war machine exceeds its target, invariably producing collateral damage. In the destructiveness of war, there is no way to restrict the trajectory of destruction to a single visualized aim. Invariably, the fantasy of controlled destruction undoes itself, but the frame is still there, as the controlling fantasy of the state, albeit marking its limit as well. The destructiveness that the state tries to focus on this or that population cannot be controlled, which is why there are international protocols of war that seek to protect civilian lives within war. The Goldstone Report, for instance, focuses on the destruction of civilian lives as instances of war crimes. The idea of a legal war or, indeed, a just war, relies on the controllability of instruments of destruction. But because uncontrollability is part of that very destructiveness, there is no war that fails to commit a crime against humanity, a destruction of civilian life. In other words, the international law that prohibits crimes against civilians presupposes that there can be a war without such crimes, reproduced the idea of a “clean” war whose destruction has perfect aim. Only on such a condition can we distinguish between war and crimes of war. But if there is no stable way to distinguish permissible collateral damage from the destruction of civilian life, then such crimes are inevitable, and there is no non-criminal war. In other words, wars become permissible forms of criminality, but they are never non-criminal.

In targeting populations, war seeks to manage and form populations, distinguishing those lives to be preserved from those whose lives are dispensable. War is in the business of producing and reproducing precarity, sustaining populations on the edge of death, sometimes killing its members, and sometimes not; either way, it produces precarity as the norm of everyday life. Lives under such conditions of precarity do not have to be fully eviscerated to be subject to an effective and sustained operation of violence.

My point is that such visual and conceptual frames are ways of building and destroying populations as objects of knowledge and targets of war, and that such frames are the means through which social norms are relayed and made effective. At the same time, another solicitation works through the frame, one that asks us to refuse the regulation of the senses that would accept the radical ungrievability of certain populations or, rather, the differential distribution of grievability upon which war depends. Ungrievable lives are those that cannot be lost, and cannot be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone; they are, ontologically, and from the start, already lost and destroyed, which means that when they are destroyed in war, nothing is destroyed. To destroy them actively might even seem like a kind of redundancy, or a way of simply ratifying a prior truth. So it is not just that such frames serve as a mechanism through which the living and the dead are distinguished and maintained in times of war. Rather, the time of war is precisely the time of this iteration, that is, this repeated and violent differentiation between the living and the dead.

But if certain schemes operate to distinguish from the start who counts as living and who does not, how are we to count the war dead? If all war brings with it crimes of warj the targeted and collateral destruction of populations, how do such populations count when the rationale for the destruction is that they do not count at all? The reporting of the number of war dead, including civilian losses, can be one of the operations of war waging, a discursive means through which war is built, and one way in which we are conscripted into the war effort. Numbers, especially the number of war dead, circulate not only as representations of war, but as part of the apparatus of war waging. Numbers are a way to frame the losses of war, but this does not mean that we know whether, when, or how numbers count. We may know how to count, or we may well rely on the reliability of certain humanitarian or human rights organizations to count well, but that is not the same as figuring out how and whether a life counts. Although numbers cannot tell us precisely whose lives count, and whose deaths count, we can note how numbers are framed and unframed to find out how norms that differentiate livable and grievable lives are at work in the context of war.

Invariably, when an assault breaks out, such as the Israeli war on Gaza in December of 2008 and January of 2009 that took place under the name “Operation Cast Lead,” we can start with the numbers, counting the injured and the dead as a way of taking stock of the losses. We can also tell and relay anecdotes that, along with numbers, start to develop an understanding of what has happened. At the same time, I am not sure that numbers or anecdotes, though modes of taking account, can alone answer the question of whose lives count, and whose lives do not. Even when it proves possible to know what the numbers are, the numbers may not matter at all. In other words, there are situations when counting clearly does not count. Some people are horrified to learn the number of war dead, but for others, those numbers do not matter. Under what conditions, then, do numbers count, for whom, and why? And why is it that sometimes numbers do not count at all?

Of course, there is something paradoxical here, since we are used to hearing, for instance, that quantitative methods reign in the social sciences, and that qualitative approaches do not “count” for very much at all. And yet, in other domains of life, numbers are remarkably powerless. This suggests that certain implicit schemes of conceptualization operate quite powerfully to orchestrate what we can admit as reality; they function through ritualized forms of disavowal, so even the positivist weight of numbers does not stand a chance against them. Indeed, we might imagine that if someone, anyone, were to know how many women and children have died in Gaza that they would feel outrage. That category, “women and children” has a certain salience, makes a certain emotional claim, since both categories designate presumptively innocent populations. We may imagine that no frame or matrix is needed through which to know such facts, and that knowing them would lead immediately to outrage. Or we may think that the popular disposition to object to the killing of women and children is so strong that any effort to dismiss the seriousness of these war crimes would be easily defeated. And yet, we can see how the matrix through which grievability is made possible is operative in the case of Gaza. On the one hand, it is always possible to argue: we do not know exactly whether all minors— under eighteen—are in the category of the child. But let us presume for the moment that there is something like a general disposition, broadly cultivated and operative in a wide range of cultural contexts, to regard the death of women and children as unjust and unacceptable forms of civilian casualties in war. I want to suggest that it may be possible to have this point of view, but to question whether the women and children ought really to be conceived as women and children, whether they operate in the same way that women and children do, or whether, in fact, they ought to be named and regarded in a fully different way. Once that happens, one can hold to the general view that the killing of women and children is an unacceptable part of war, but maintain, through a complicated form of disavowal and rationalization, that these deaths do not fall under that category. I want to suggest that this form of reasoning was quite popular in the Israeli press in the aftermath of that assault on Gaza. The numbers were known, but they did not count. And that is because the assaulted and destroyed body was already conceived as a pure instrument of war.

Numbers do not speak for themselves. I hope to offer a way of counting the war dead that is not part of the framing of the war—indeed, I am trying to offer something other than an act of war. My interest here is guided by a normative principle that the radical inequality that characterizes the difference between grievable and ungrievable lives is something that we all must struggle to overcome in the name of an interdependent world and within the terms of a more radical and effective form of egalitarianism. So, I offer the numbers here with the aim of trying to ameliorate that inequality, one that pervades dominant schemes of conceptualization and affect. So yes, there is a normative framework within which these numbers appear, but I want to suggest that it is one that opposes war, and is not part of the war effort.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights sought to count the casualties of the twenty-two-day assault on Gaza. The last documented number I found was that 1,417 Palestinians were killed and 4,336 wounded, and that the vast majority in both categories were civilians. The United Nations special rapporteur, Richard Falk, offered slightly different numbers: 1,434 Palestinians killed in the Gaza invasion, of whom 960 were civilians, and among those civilians, there were 121 women and 288 children, although other statistics claim 313 children and youth. Israel has sought to dispute all of these numbers, accusing Hamas of inflating the number of civilian casualties, saying it can name more than 700 Hamas militants killed in the fighting. Even if we grant that point, that leaves between 500 and nearly 1,000 Palestinian civilians dead. It seems clear that the number we settle upon depends upon how we understand the category of “civilian.” And to understand how that category works, we have to ask whether anyone who is understood to belong to Hamas can still be considered a civilian, and then, secondly, whether it is finally knowable within Gaza, or from an aerial view, whether someone is or is not Hamas. Let us remember that Hamas itself has its civilian and military wings, so when we say that the war dead were “Hamas,” we have not said which part of Hamas, and perhaps that makes a difference. If we understand Hamas to have organized and sustained civil society in Gaza, then Hamas is not fully dissociable from civilian life. That would mean that it might not be possible to distinguish between who is Hamas and who is civilian. Indeed, one reason that Israel has refused to admit humanitarian aid into Gaza is that it does not want the already established food distribution systems, run by Hamas, to be ratified or legitimated by the distribution efforts. This means that Israel—by which I mean the government—acknowledges that Hamas is coextensive with civil society and with the material infrastructure of Gaza. If we understand that only some part of Hamas is engaged in fighting (and that in some instances it is splinter groups, themselves opposed to Hamas), and other parts of Hamas are part of a civil police force, and yet others are working on irrigation, water, food, transportation, and shelter, then what do we mean when we say that some of those killed were part of “Hamas”?

And here are some further numbers, also undisputed: Over 80 percent of the population of 1.5 million (compared to 63 percent in 2006) is dependent on international food assistance, which was dramatically reduced, and brought to a full standstill under the recent siege. The issue of starvation in Gaza has been discussed for some time. Over a year before this most recent assault, 87 percent of Gazans already lived below the poverty line, a number that had tripled since 2000. After the recent assault, it is predicted that close to 95 percent of the population will be living below the poverty line. In a November 2007 report, the Red Cross stated regarding the food allowed into Gaza that people are getting “enough to survive [but] not enough to live.” B’tselem reports that 20,000
Gazans remain homeless after the destruction of their residences. And in the last year, we know through a series of documented anecdotes about those who lost their lives without adequate food, especially those with serious and untreated medical conditions.

It is always possible to listen to such numbers and to set them aside, or to listen to the numbers, but hear something other than the numbers, or to listen to the numbers and let them function as numbers with no referential force. Similarly, some may presume that anyone who offers such numbers has taken sides, is anti-Israel, or is not interested in the “whole story” or “the full picture.” But let us remember that Jewish groups are quite active in the critique of the Israeli state and its occupation, and that even those who care about the future of Israel have argued that its militarism is self-destructive. If one sets aside the numbers because one fears the political conclusion that they support, then one blinds oneself to the numbers in order to ward off any challenge to one’s already established political point of view. Of course, it is still possible to read or hear such statistics, and to not deny them, but to insist that they do not finally matter—it may be a matter of indifference, or it may be that such suffering is understood as deserved, or it may be something else: a form of righteous coldness cultivated over time through local and collective practices of nation-building, supported by prevalent social norms as they are articulated by both public policy, dominant media, and the strategies of war. These are ways of countering or quelling modes of indignation that might translate into calls for the end to violence. Righteous coldness is not only what it takes to kill, but also what is required to look on the destruction of life with moral satisfaction, even moral triumph.

We might then analyze some of the cultural tributaries of military power in Israel during the assault on Gaza— and the ongoing siege—as attempting to maximize precariousness for others while minimizing precariousness for Israel. This is, of course, a strategy that seeks to manage the unmanageable and that cannot work precisely because it disowns a common exposure to violence, by establishing the territory of Gaza as an open-air prison, as radically, if not permanently, unprotected and exposed to destruction at the same time that Israel phantasmically walls itself off from that possibility. The generalized condition or precariousness that establishes a certain equality of exposure is denied in favor of a differential distribution of prccarity. Of course, this cannot work since to heighten precariousness for the other at the expense of one’s own will lead to certain kinds of consequences, namely, the other will seek to invoke those same principles of self-defense that are monopolized in this instance by the colonizing power. And whereas the self-defense of the colonizer is given infinite capacity to justify acts of violent destruction, any efforts on the part of the colonized to defend life and land are taken as evidence of “inherent” violence or premodern tribalism. Even though this is a fairly predictable result, my argument is not finally a consequentialist one. My point is that this logic is one that cannot hold, not because we are rational creatures, but because we are invariably exposed to suffering and death through political arrangements that fail to supply protections and entitlements to life and land. Precariousness is not simply an existential condition of individuals, but rather a social condition from which certain clear political demands and principles emerge. Under political conditions in which the denial of the colonizer’s precariousness in the name of invulnerable self-defense seeks to deny the condition in which human animals are each exposed to the other, and where precariousness is a generalized condition of living beings. Thus precariousness does not uniquely characterize a human life, but neither is human life exempt from the exigencies that attend to all living beings.

This way of being bound to one another in precariousness is not precisely a social bond that is entered into through volition and deliberation; it precedes contract, and is often effaced by those forms of social contract that depend on an ontology of volitional individuals. It is to the stranger that we are bound, the one, or the ones, we never knew and never chose. To kill the other is to deny my life, not just mine alone, but that sense of my life which is, from the start, and invariably, social life. This generalized truth is manifest in some explicit ways in the relation between Israel (what is called “Israel”—its borders constantly expand and it is difficult to localize at any given moment) and “Palestine” (its borders contract all the time), since they are joined inextricably, without contract,
without reciprocal agreement, and yet ineluctably. So the question emerges: what obligations are to be derived from this dependency, contiguity and unwilled proximity that now defines each population, which exposes each to the fear of destruction, which incites destructiveness in the absence of any durable political structures? How are we to understand such bonds without which neither population can live and survive, and to what obligations do they lead?

This undeniable situation of proximity and interdependency, of vulnerability, is nevertheless denied. Let us return to the category of the civilian in order to understand how this denial takes place. There are those in the Israeli press who say that if civilians were killed, if children were killed, it was because Hamas hides itself in civilian centers, uses children to shield itself, and so sets up the situation in which Israel must kill civilians and children in order to defend itself, legitimately, against Hamas. Hamas is accused of “cynically” using children and civilian centers to hide its own armaments. There are several sources that can document the untruth of these claims, but for the moment, let us consider how this argument works. If the Palestinian children who are killed by mortar and phosphorous bombs are human shields, then they are not children at all, but rather bits of armament, military instruments and materiel, aiding and abetting an assault on Israel.

The Israelis, as we know, have targeted schools, open playgrounds, and UN compounds. So in what sense could such assaults be construed as justifiable self-defense? Still the hyper-defensive claim is made that this is Hamas’ limit—the use of children as human shields—and we heard the same argument against Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. I am wondering: are all children human shields? Only some? Are we supposed to understand Palestinian children as nothing but so many shields? If this Israeli view is right, then the children who have been killed by Israeli military aggression were already transformed into military instruments, shields that let attackers attack. If one “feels” for the children or, indeed, if one comes to regard the children as those whose lives are being unjustly and brutally destroyed in an instant, and in grotesque and appalling ways, then that kind of “sentiment” has to be over-ridden by a righteous and cold military rationality. Indeed, it is not only a cold military rationality, but one that prides itself on its ability to see and feel past the vision of massive human suffering in the name of an infinitely expanding rationale of self-defense. We are asked to believe that, those children are not really children, are not really alive, that they have already been turned to metal, to steel, that they belong to the machinery of bombardment, at which point the body of the child is conceived as nothing more than a militarized metal that protects the attacker against attack. The only way to defend oneself against this attack is, then, to kill this child, all the children, the whole cluster; and if the United Nations defends their rights, then the UN facility should really be destroyed as well. If one were to conceptualize the child as something other than part of the defensive and manipulative machinery of war, then, there would be some chance of understanding this life as a life worth living, worth sheltering, and worth grieving. But once transformed into duplicitous shrapnel, even the Palestinian child is no longer living, but is, rather, regarded as a threat to life. Indeed, there is no life other than Israeli life that counts as life to be defended at all costs. And though we can count the number of Palestinian civilians and children dead, we cannot count them. We have to continue to count them again and again. We have to start to count them, as if we have never yet learned how to count. How and when does a population begin to count? What radical changes in matrix and frame allow for the breaking out of those numbers as the animated traces of so many lives? And under what condition do those numbers efface the trace of the living, and so fail to count? Under what conditions does grievability become possible?

But, someone might object, what about the Israelis in the villages in the south of Israel? Do those lives not count? They surely do, and I say this, not only noting that they have counted, they have been acknowledged, but also that they ought to be counted. Amnesty USA reports that “Palestinian rocket attacks killed three Israeli civilians and caused severe injuries to 4 people, moderate injuries to 11, and light injuries to 167 others … (that) six Israeli soldiers were killed in the attacks by Palestinian armed groups (and 4 other were killed by Israeli forces in ‘friendly fire’ incidents), [and that] several hundred rockets in all were fired by Palestinian armed groups on Southern Israel.” [3]

[3] http://www.amnestyusa.org/document.php?id=ENGMDEl 50212009

Although the numbers show us that the Palestinian losses are enormous in comparison with the Israeli ones, it does not suffice to simply make a comparison of that kind. The point is not to achieve an equality of losses. One would not want to argue that there ought to be as much destruction on the Israeli side. The point is to oppose the destruction in all of its forms in the name of a livable mode destruction in all of its forms in the name of a livable mode of co-habitation.

Even if there are significantly fewer Israelis who have died from this conflict than Palestinians, it remains true not only for Israelis but for most every public media, that the graphics of Israeli life, death, and detention are more vibrant; it conforms to the norm of human life already established, is then more of a life, is life, whereas Palestinian life is either no life, a shadow-life, or a threat to life as we know it. In this last form, it has undergone a full transformation into arsenal or spectral threat, figuring an infinite threat against which a limitless “defense” formulates itself. That defense without limit then embodies the principles of attack without limit (without shame, and without regard for established international protocols regarding war crimes). [4]

[4] Consider these numbers published by Btselem, the Israeli human rights network, regularly referenced by the Israeli government website. In the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire—the Qassam rockets launched from the north of Gaza into Israel. On the other hand, in 2005-7 alone, the Israeli military forces killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children—and this is prior to the most recent war. Of course, one is struck by the massive disproportion, but consider as well that the
numbers—and their distribution over the prior months—suggest that it is wrong
io think that Hamas cannot or will not lay down its arms under any conditions.

We may concur that we oppose the slaughter of innocent civilians in principle, and even if we oppose it no matter where it happens, and we oppose it no matter who does it, and which people suffer it. But this principle is only effectively applied if “slaughter” is what we are willing to call the destruction of children playing in their schoolyards, and only if we are able to apprehend as “living” those targeted populations. In other words, if certain populations—and the Palestinians are clearly prominent among them—do not count as living beings, if their very bodies are construed as instruments of war or pure vessels of attack, then they are already deprived of life before they are killed, transformed into inert matter or destructive instrumentalities, and so buried before they have had a chance to live, or to become worthy of destruction, paradoxically, in the name of life. To kill such a person, indeed, such a population, thus calls upon a racism that differentiates in advance who will count as a life, and who will not. So by the time we seek to apply the norm, “thou shalt not kill,” we have already lost sight of what and who is alive. Under such conditions, it becomes possible to think that ending life in the name of defending life is possible, even righteous. We fail to grasp that “life” is redoubled in such a formulation, that the one life cannot be fully dissociated from the other. And it is not as “humans” that we are bound together, but human animals whose survival depends on the workable political organization of social conditions of both unwilled proximity and
interdependency. Of course, it is possible, even actual, to try to allocate death to others and reserve life for oneself, but that is to fail to understand that the life of the one is bound to the life of the other, and that certain obligations emerge from this most basic social condition. Sometimes we are able to apprehend that we are bound to each other in this way, and that precarity is one basis for claiming the equal value of lives. Such apprehension takes place at the limits of established norms of recognition, especially when those norms are in the service of war waging. Such an apprehension lets us know that precarity haunts every norm of recognition in the context of war. Such norms are articulated through media frames, through discourse, number, and image that circulate in ways that are neither static nor predictable. When the frames of war break up or break open, when the trace of lives is apprehended at the margin of what appears or as riddling its surface, then frames unwittingly establish a grievable population despite a prevalent interdiction, and there emerges the possibility of a critical outrage, war stands the chance of missing its mark.

May 2010
Berkeley, California

First published in the Paperback Edition of Judith Butler, “Frames of War. When is Life Grievable?” by Verso, 2010