Vasiliki:                                    00:18

Welcome to the third episode of the Military Present podcast, hosted by anthropological airwaves. This special series features interviews with scholars of militarism that shed light on how our present is shaped by the technologies, logics, histories, and economy of war. My name is Vasiliki Touhouliotis.

Emily:                                        00:38

And I’m Emily Sogn. We’re both ethnographic researchers of the military present and this special podcast series as a collaborative effort to assess what the recent shift in political power, specifically the Trump presidency means for militarism globally and domestically.

Vasiliki:                                    00:54

In this series, we’ve been grappling with a big question, how might we understand what is novel about this particular moment of the military present with its dangerous escalations of force, intensified racisms and novel destructive technologies while holding close the longer histories of race and empire that animate and produce it.

Emily:                                        01:15

In the last two episodes of this podcast, conversations with Madiha Tahir and Joe Masco expose the grossly uneven distribution of militarism is material effects and visibility.n the United States. Carefully mobilized emotions of fear and terror that go back to the Cold War era. Strategically elaborated threats that are now attributed to a diffuse terrorist enemy and a future harnessed almost exclusively to potential of terrorist attacks, has served to normalize militarism and render it are largely unnoticed part of everyday life.

Vasiliki:                                    01:46

Madiha Tahir showed us that a similarly radical reconfiguring of social relations is also underway and the official battlefields of the so called war on terror. The targeting of bodies by US drones and Pakistan, for example, relies on a range of agents and constant surveillance both on the ground and from drones in the sky that rework social relations at what Madiha calls the granular level.

Emily:                                        02:13

n our last episode, Madiha had made clear that an approach toward that privileges the perspective of the drone in the sky produces narratives that dangerously obscure the ground, perhaps contributing to why military and remains a background concern for many who at a distance from its physical violence.

Vasiliki:                                    02:29

In this episode, we extend our view of war from the ground. We look at the dropping of the largest non nuclear weapon by the United States and think critically about how it was represented. The massive ordinance air blast known by the acronym MOAB, was dropped on Afghanistan on April 13th of 2017, and the media responded with a burst of coverage.

News Clip 1:                          02:55

“The largest conventional bomb ever dropped in combat, exploded above a complex of caves and tunnels in a remote area of eastern Afghanistan. The top US commander adamant the mission was only about killing ISIS. One military official tells CNN the massive bomb is powerful enough to destroy nine city blocks.”

News Clip 2:                          03:18

“A diameter of 15 to 20 a soccer field, football fields. It will level that area and provide an unbelievable amount of concussion. If you’re alive afterwards, you’re going to have perforated eardrums and a lot of trauma.”

News Clip 1:                          03:32

“General Nicholson says, it all went according to plan. Afghan officials say, dozens of ISIS” fighters killed.

News Clip 2:                          03:40

“We had persistent surveillance over the area before, during, and after the operation and see no evidence of civilian casualties, nor have there been any reports of civilian casualties.”

Emily:                                        03:51

How might the perspective of the ground complicate and disrupt official governmental accounts and mainstream media representations of the MOAB that it fixated on this weapon’s novel power? How might we think critically about the MOAB without taking this particular strike and the technology out of the longer history of war and then killing technologies to which it belongs.

Vasiliki:                                    04:10

We invited Wazhmah Osman to speak about the MOAB in the context of a much longer history of war in Afghanistan and Assistant Professor in Temple University’s Department of Media Studies and production. Wazhmah writes about the colonial histories of new weapons technologies and the politics of their representation. Wazhmah has also directed the stunning documentary postcards from Tora Bora.

Emily:                                        04:35

We started our conversation by asking Wazhmah to reflect on the multiple temporalities of war.

Wazhmah:                             04:45

I was born in Afghanistan and I grew up partially in Afghanistan and I, uh, then we became refugees and I spent part of my childhood as a refugee in Pakistan. I remember most of my childhood was around the series of Cold War events. I remember the Soviet invasion being a child in Kabul. And I remember when there was bombs dropped on the school where I went to school and my mom was a teacher. What I also remember is on an everyday basis, that fear of being surveillanced and having to do everything covertly and knowing that there is intelligence organizations that are trying to find the information and trying to find out who is rogue or who is challenging them and actually KGB and KHAD, which was the Afghan secret police at the time under the Soviet puppet regime there. They overheard my father talking about resisting the occupation and arrested him and a group of his friends and he became a political prisoner to which to this day has impacted and the rest of the family. I’m like very adversely those long-term impacts of being under back kind of occupation becomes on the one hand mundane, but on the other hand it perpetually wears down on you. So you know, most, most recently I’ve been traveling to Afghanistan for field work and film work and on the one hand there’s a suicide bomb and people go to the bazar and buy vegetables and rice for dinner or they still have to go and do their laundry. On the other hand, the emotional impact, the physical impact, psychological impact, is incredibly deep and detrimental.

Emily:                                        06:41

We’re interested in your reading of the mainstream media depiction of the MOAB, because we were talking a bit about how the novelty of this bomb may have been played up to, to kind of show a particular kind of singularity that, as you’ve been saying, really doesn’t reflect the kind of longer duration of the impacts of war. What do you think are the political effects of this way of representing the war, really fixating on the newness of something like the MOAB?

Wazhmah:                             07:09

There’s always this pr campaign from the earliest, a war weapons to currently where they’re described in such a way that this will change war for the better. This will create less bloodshed. There will be less civilian casualties. We saw with drones and the drones are precise and the more research there has been done on it, it shows that it’s actually not. When part of the problem is, is that both the, the military and the mainstream media actively censor the effects of it. Right, so then they can say it’s a cleaner war. There’s been great research done by different human rights clinics and thethe Bureau of investigative Journalism and other groups that shows that actually they’re not precise, they’re not clean, they’re damaging in many ways, including the same, you know, the same types of surveillance that the KGB and KHAD, which is was the Afghan secret police did on people, you know, by eavesdropping and tapping phones. It’s a different type, but it’s also surveillance work. They’re watching people through cameras on drones, so it’s. It’s new, but it’s not new in in that respect and it’s still gory. It’s just we don’t see it

Vasiliki:                                    08:34

In your recent piece called “Jamming the Simulacrum,” which is from a volume entitled “Culture Jamming Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance”. You’ve argued that the technological fetishization strategy of the United States has been to use technologies and to prop up technologies as that which can make ethical and clean up the horrors and messiness of war is to turn them into something clean and sleek. I’m wondering if you see that same strategy being deployed with this Moab Strike and the way that it’s been represented because in that piece he really specific speaking specifically about drones and I’m wondering if we can take that critique and apply it to other technologies that are quite different in certain ways. Right. But maybe not in others.

Wazhmah:                             09:24

Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of, you know, what I’ve written about drones is, is directly applicable to the MOAB to so with the MOAB, they can’t actually make the claim that it’s precise because how can something that, you know, estimates range from I think three to seven mile radius, that it completely decimates even with all the fake news going around even that’s something for them that would be hard to fake, but you know, the newness of the MOAB is the sheer scale and area that it can decimate in that respect. Not only is it new, it’s very scary. Right? On the mainstream media, they reported that they did the MOAB strike, killed I think 90 something militants, but if you look at the coverage more closely, that’s not possible at all because with that kind of a range and that kind of destructive power and also where the location is, which I’m familiar with, it’s in a. it’s in a valley.

Wazhmah:                             10:37

They describe it as, and this goes to colonial iconography of Afghanistan, being this mountainous region with that much life going on. In a way it’s this exotic backwards place without a doubt. I know that the moab annihilated entire villages, but we heard nothing of that and part of the reason is because they completely quarantine that area. The US can claim such sovereignty over another country without any kind of international oversight where they can block this entire area from not only not only international journalists but even Afghanistan officials from going in and so when they make claims, like only a handful of militants were killed, it’s. It becomes very difficult to dispute. And the other thing that’s unique to the MOAB is that with a drone strike, the body is still there. They’re so they’re still at least some kind of way of identifying the dead. With drone warfare, activism has been useful to a degree in the respect that lawyers and Afghanistan, Pakistan working on behalf of drone victims and their families can show evidence that no, actually this person was a school teacher in the local village. They had no affiliation with ISIS or Taliban or al-Qaeda or any of these groups. And so in a situation like this, it’s difficult to even do that, and so their claims of pre-framing individuals, just by virtue of living in those regions, as terrorists become that much more difficult to counter.

Vasiliki:                                    12:27

I was actually curious to ask if you’ve noticed any of the culture jamming techniques that you talked about being applied to the drone strikes, here people in the Afghanistan, Pakistan border areas where these drone strikes and targeted killings have been carried out, have engaged in various projects to bring visibility to this violence that has been very carefully concealed. Since you visit Afghanistan regularly and have connections there. I’m curious if, if there were any, any of these techniques being used to bring visibility to the use of this massive bomb in the context of all of this effort to, to conceal any information about it?

Wazhmah:                             13:10

Yeah, I mean I’ve been, I’ve been waiting. I’ve been waiting to, you know, see some evidence of that and hoping that, that there’s people that can bring some visibility to the area that’s been quarantined and also organized to do some culture jamming techniques and strategies to show the number of people that were actually killed. The environmental impacts and all kinds of other impacts. But I, you know, so far I haven’t heard anything and I have family that doesn’t live far from there and like you said, I go back frequently and I know a good number of journalists that are Afghanistan-based, but across the board they’ve had so much difficulty getting there and I think that’s also something that’s new or unique to the war on terror and where we’re going and now with the media corporations and monopolies becoming more empowered and also more entrenched with the government. There’s, there’s even less of a likelihood that we can get that kind of coverage, but having frontline on the ground coverage of war is really important. I think the level of censorship that I’ve witnessed has definitely decreased the likelihood of culture jamming and activist activities and I think we need to think about new mechanisms and new ways of bringing the war home again and by bringing the war home again, I mean documenting it and showing the evidence of what’s happened.

Emily:                                        14:52

So we began the conversation by talking about newness as a way to think about the narrow focus on specific military technologies and how they can sometimes eclipse the role that military policies play in enacting specific forms of violence and harm. What are your thoughts about the work that newness might do in framing specific political discourses as more or less complicit with the military industrial complex? For example, I’m thinking about what it means to distinguish between the particular forms of militarism enabled by the Bush administration as opposed to the Obama administration and the Obama administration as opposed to the trump administration. Did these distinctions come up in your work?

Wazhmah:                             15:32

In terms of the different administration, as I was saying earlier, in many ways it’s a continuation because the two party system we have here benefits from the war machine and I think the newness that we should be mindful of and figure out ways of countering are things like new methods of censorship. It’s something that’s directly related to war and bringing a peace movement back and I think that’s the bigger question here of how do we counter these methods of censorship and I think part of it is we need to be outraged. We technically live in a democracy. We are supposed to have freedom of speech.

Vasiliki:                                    16:19

We’ve so far been discussing new newness as an analytic with very important political effects that’s deployed by the US government and its allies and the media that’s allied with the interests and objectives of the US government. But your last comment also made me think about how newness is oftentimes articulated by those people who are anti-war. So newness is on the one hand, a way of celebrating new military technologies and strategies. It also becomes a way of condemning them to what extent is thinking about singularity and newness, not a very effective political strategy.

Wazhmah:                             17:02

I think newness is an effective strategy by advocates who are trying to revive the defunct anti-war movement, and so I respect them for that. I respect them for for pointing out ways that these new technologies actually are different and dangerous and new ways including mechanisms of censorship, but I think on the other hand where it’s not effective is that the focus too much on novelty or newness of technology leads to technological fetishization, which is a way of not seeing what really matters when what really matters ultimately is the destructive capabilities of these weapons of for how many people that had kill and how many people’s lives that are destroyed. I think those are the more crucial questions. Ultimately the goal is to cause damage and destruction and newness is counterproductive and the respect that like we lose sight that a mine, which is a really old technology of war and the MOAB in certain ways are similar because they’re destructive instruments that we’ve created specifically designed to cause harm to another human being.

Vasiliki:                                    18:30

That scene in, in your documentary where you actually visit the Mine Museum is fascinating because the guide is really telling this history of, you know, these multiple layers of, of war through the remnants and I was particularly struck by that because I visited very similar makeshift museums in the south of Lebanon. Perhaps the focus on newness, conceal some of those geographical linkages because there’s also something, it seems to me that’s that striking there about the geographies in which you find these sorts of museums about war where people are collecting decades of munitions in order to tell their stories and the stories that they’re telling, there are not ones that are captured by this idea of a new technology.

Wazhmah:                             19:24

Yeah. Yeah. And I think ultimately the linkages between the old weapons of war and the new ones, um, is just their destructive ability. But I think you also bring up a good point in that war museums, it’s a way for people to tell their own stories and talk about it in a way that makes sense to them. And the people who run and organized these museums are definitely seeing a distinction and the differences between different balms of different areas and different weapons of war, of different arrows, but the way they’re contextualizing it isn’t within the prism of newness per se. Right. So they’re more talking about, oh, this was used in this province to do this type of thing in this era, but, but not necessarily in the way that it’s been talked about here, that the newness per se makes it one way or another.

Emily:                                        20:28

I’m curious thinking about this concept of newness, about how other kinds of technologies that are not necessarily weapons but are also technologies of war, political strategies, humanitarian organizations and different kinds of constellations of the war machine, some of which are destructive and some of which are in the service of doing a certain kind of kind of read creation or a reconfiguration of things on the ground. And I’m curious how our conversation about newness might apply to things that are not necessarily weapons but our other otherwise kind of engaged also in the war-making effort.

Vasiliki:                                    21:09

Yeah. We’ve been focused on the question of newness around weapons, right, but, but war does all sorts of things

Emily:                                        21:15

And is often the case in the war on terror, and as you really described very well at the mountainous region of Afghanistan being seen as almost like blank spaces on the map. That particular depiction kind of leads to the idea that war is also about rebuilding, right? That there’s a destructive component, but there also is this building component.

Wazhmah:                             21:39

It’s very complicated because you know, as you said, these are opportunities that war creates, and then the rebuilding is an industry of itself. In fact, that’s what I’m looking at with my book that I’m currently working on is in what ways the development projects or the nation-building projects that the US government as well as European nations and other nations are engaging in have been effective and in what ways they haven’t been effective. These are, these are complicated questions because the country needs to be rebuilt, but the mechanisms of development sometimes also dictate that a vast majority of the profits go back to the developing countries. Like it’s actually indicated and stipulated in the guidelines of many of the projects and, you know, with what’s going on in Afghanistan right now, they’re thinking about increasing the military presence partially because more and more they’re realizing that Afghanistan, I mean they always knew it was rich and oil and natural gas, but there’s also precious gems and vast reserves of iron. And so the days of colonialism in certain ways are not far gone, many of the projects are, are intricately connected to the war machine. So it makes the motivations of, of those projects sometimes murky.

Emily:                                        23:15

Thank you so much, Wazhmah, for this great conversation.

Vasiliki:                                    23:18

Thank you Wazhmah and everyone joining us for this episode of the Military Present Podcast hosted by anthropological airwaves. In our next and final episode, anthropologist and physician Omar Dewachi talks about war and the production of ungovernability in Iraq.

Emily:                                        23:43

Omar blurs easy distinctions, the direct and indirect effects of war, and discusses new strains of multi-drug resistant pathogens spreading across the Middle East and potentially threatening the viability of antibiotics. We hope you’ll join us.