The Kill Box: A Temporary Zone of Slaughter

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Drones and the verticalization of power allow a military force to move a combat zone to anywhere it deems "necessary."
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“A Theory of the Drone,” by Grégoire Chamayou, analyzes the effect drones have and will continue to have on the military and warfare around the globe.

A Theory of the Drone(The New Press, 2015), by Grégoire Chamayou, urges us to broaden the range of questions we ask about drone policy beyond right versus wrong. As remote-controlled drones turn our enemies into mere targets with no threat of returned fire, we’re asked to consider what happens when warfare no longer necessitates combat. In the following excerpt from Chapter 6, “Kill Box,” Chamayou examines the kill box, a mobile battle zone, and the effects it could have on aerial sovereignty.

Nothing man can do on the surface of the earth can interfere with a plane in flight, moving freely in a third dimension.

—Giulio Douhet

With the concept of a “global war against terror,” armed violence has lost its traditional limits: indefinite in time, it is also indefinite in space. The whole world, it is said, is a battlefield. But it would probably be more accurate to call it a hunting ground. For if the scope of armed violence has now become global, it is because the imperatives of hunting demand it.

While warfare is defined, in the last analysis, by combat, hunting is essentially defined by pursuit. Two distinct types of geography correspond to the two activities. Combat bursts out wherever opposing forces clash. Hunting, on the other hand, takes place wherever the prey goes. As a hunter-state sees it, armed violence is no longer defined within the boundaries of a demarcated zone but simply by the presence of an enemy-prey who, so to speak, carries with it its own little mobile zone of hostility.

In order to elude its pursuers, the prey endeavors to render itself undetectable or inaccessible. Now, inaccessibility is a matter not simply of the topography of the landscape— bushy heaths or deep crevices—but also of the asperities of political geography. As the theorists of manhunting remind us, “borders are among the greatest allies” that a fugitive can have. Out in the countryside, English common law used to authorize “the hunting of ravenous prey, such as badgers and foxes, in another man’s land, because destroying such creatures is said to be profitable to the Public.” That is the kind of right that the United States today would like to claim in the case of human prey worldwide. As Paul Wolfowitz has put it, we need “to deny them sanctuaries.”

What is emerging is the idea of an invasive power based not so much on the rights of conquest as on the rights of pursuit: a right of universal intrusion or encroachment that would authorize charging after the prey wherever it found refuge, thereby trampling underfoot the principal of territorial integrity classically attached to state sovereignty. According to such a concept, the sovereignty of other states becomes a contingent matter. Full enjoyment of that sovereignty is recognized only if those states take imperial tracking to heart. If they do not—“failed” states cannot, “rogue” states will not—their territories can legitimately be violated by a hunter-state.

The drone counters the terrestrial forms of territorial sovereignty, founded upon the enclosure of land, with the continuity of the air above. In doing so, it extends the great historical promises of aerial power. As Douhet puts it, the aerial weapon, unaffected by harsh landscapes, “moves freely through a third dimension.” It draws its own lines in the sky.

By becoming stratospheric, an imperial power alters its relationship to space. It now becomes a matter not so much of occupying a territory as of controlling it from above by ensuring its mastery of the skies. Eyal Weizman has explained a whole sector of contemporary Israeli strategy in those terms, describing it as a politics of verticality. In this “technology versus occupation model,” the point is to “maintain domination of the evacuated areas by means other than territorial control.” This verticalization of power implies a form of above-the-ground authority, in which everything—every individual, every house, every street, even the smallest event—“can thus be monitored, policed or destroyed from the air.”

The question of sovereignty now assumes an aeropolitical dimension: who is it that holds the power over the air, and over the airwaves as well? Alison Williams, who emphasizes the importance of thinking of political geography as a three-dimensional phenomenon, speaks of “a crisis of aerial sovereignty.” The repeated violations of subordinate aerial spaces by U.S. drones constitute one of today’s most striking examples. Just as sovereignty is no longer flatly territorial but instead volumetric and three-dimensional, so too are the ways to challenge or deny it.

Stephen Graham explains that classical military doctrines used to rely on “the horizontal projection of power across an essential ‘flat’ and featureless geopolitical space.” Today that mode of projection has been replaced or supplemented by another. To put that in very schematic terms, we have switched from the horizontal to the vertical, from the two- dimensional space of the old maps of army staffs to geopolitics based on volumes.

In contemporary doctrines of aerial power, operational space is no longer regarded as a homogeneous and continuous area. It has become “a dynamic mosaic where insurgent objectives and tactics may vary by neighborhood.” We should see it as a patchwork of squares of color, each of which corresponds to specific rules of engagement.

But those squares are also, and above all, cubes. This is the central concept of the “kill box,” a notion that emerged in the early 1990s: “The kill box is graphically portrayed by a solid black line defining the area with diagonal black lines within.” One should imagine a theater of operations portrayed on a screen in 3-D as a set of cubes laid out on a surface divided into squares.

A “kill box” has a particular life cycle: it is opened, activated, frozen, and then closed. One can follow these developments on a screen, rather like the defragmentation of a hard disc: small clusters that are activated and change color as they are used.

“When established, the primary purpose of a kill box is to allow air assets to conduct interdiction against surface targets without further coordination with the establishing commander.” Once one recognizes that “the mosaic nature of COIN [counterinsurgency] is ideally suited to decentralized execution,” each cube becomes “an autonomous zone of operations” for the combat units assigned to it. To put this more clearly: within a given cube, one may fire at will. A kill box is a temporary autonomous zone of slaughter.

In this model, the conflict zone appears as a space fragmented into a provisional multitude of kill boxes that can be activated in a manner both flexible and bureaucratic. As General Richard P. Formica explained, with undisguised enthusiasm, in an e-mail: “Kill boxes enable us to do what we wanted to do for years . . . rapidly adjust the delineation of battlespace.  . . . Now with automation technology and USAF [U.S. Air Force] employment of kill boxes, you really have a very flexible way of delineating battlespace both in time and on the ground.”

In a memo addressed in 2005 to secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, the president of the RAND Corporation advised him that “a non-linear system of ‘kill boxes’ should be adopted, as technology permits,” for counterinsurgency operations. He stressed the following essential point: “Kill boxes can be sized for open terrain or urban warfare and opened or closed quickly in response to a dynamic military situation.”

This twofold principle of intermittence and scalar modulation for the kill box is of capital importance: it makes it possible to envisage extending such a model beyond the zones of declared conflict. Depending on the contingencies of the moment, temporary lethal microcubes could be opened up anywhere in the world if an individual who qualifies as a legitimate target has been located there.

When American army strategists imagine what drones will be like in twenty-five years, they begin by getting an infographist to create a composite image of a typical Arab town, complete with mosque, other buildings, and palm trees. In the sky are what appear to be dragonflies, but they are actually nano-drones, autonomous robotic insects capable of marauding in a swarm and “navigating in increasingly confined spaces.”

With devices such as these, armed violence could be unleashed in tiny spaces, in microcubes of death. Rather than destroy an entire building in order to eliminate one individual, a miniaturized could be sent through a window, and the impact of the resulting explosion could be confined to one room or even one body. Your room or study could become a war zone.

Even before the advent of the micromachines of the future, drone partisans are already emphasizing the technological precision of their weapons. But the paradox is that they use this supposed gain in precision to extend the field of fire to take in the entire world. What we find here is a double movement that seizes upon the spatiolegal notion of an armed conflict zone in a way that tends to dislocate it almost completely. The two principles of this paradoxical dismemberment are the following: (1) The zone of armed conflict, having been fragmented into miniaturizable kill boxes, tends ideally to be reduced to the body of the enemy or prey. That is, his body becomes the battlefield. This is the principle of precision or specification. (2) In order for the pursuit and surgical strikes to be carried out, this mobile microspace must be able to be aimed wherever necessary—so the whole world becomes a hunting ground. That is the principle of globalization or homogenization. According to the military and the CIA, it is because we can aim at our targets with precision that we can strike them down wherever we choose, even outside any war zone.

Similarly, a whole contingent of U.S. lawyers today claim that the notion of a “zone of armed conflict” should no longer be interpreted in a strictly geographic sense. That geocentric concept, supposedly out of date, is now opposed to a target-centered one that is attached to the bodies of the enemy-prey. The conflict zone now “goes where they go, irrespective of geography,” and “the boundaries of the battlefield are not determined by geopolitical lines but rather by the location of participants in an armed conflict.”

One of their principal arguments, of a pragmatic rather than legal nature, is borrowed directly from the discourse of the American administration. The geocentric interpretation of the laws of warfare must be thrown overboard, they obediently insist, because to extend it would in effect “create sanctuaries for terrorist organizations in any state . . . in which law enforcement is known to be ineffective.” But that argument, lurking beneath the semantic debate, also reveals what is at stake politically: it aims to justify the use of lethal policing powers regardless of borders.

As Derek Gregory points out, one of the problems is that the “legal logic through which the battlespace is extended beyond the declared zone of combat in Afghanistan is itself infinitely extendable.” By redefining the notion of armed conflict as a mobile place attached to the person of the enemy, one ends up, under cover of the laws of armed conflict, justifying the equivalent of a right to execute suspects anywhere in the world, even in zones of peace, illegally and without further procedures, one’s own citizens included. Where will all this end? That is the question that the NGO Human Rights Watch put to Barack Obama in 2010: “The notion that the entire world is automatically by extension a battleground in which the laws of war are applicable is contrary to international law. How does the administration define the ‘global battlefield’  . . . ? Does it view the battlefield as global in a literal sense, allowing lethal force to be used, in accordance with the laws of war, against a suspected terrorist in an apartment in Paris, a shopping mall in London, or a bus station in Iowa City?”

Reacting to the dangers of such an interpretation, critics defend a more classical notion of a zone of armed conflict, emphasizing the fundamental idea that armed violence and the laws that govern it operate within the context of space. That is, as a legal category, warfare is and should be a geographically defined object. Is one feature of armed conflict the fact that it occupies a particular place, a definable zone? Despite its apparent abstraction, this ontological question has decisive political implications. If the answer to that question is affirmative, a succession of truisms follow: war and peace have a legal geography if they are conceived to be states that succeed one another not only in time but also within definable spaces. A zone is a zone, a portion of space that is circumscribed, with limits, having an inside and an outside; an armed conflict is an armed conflict, characterized by a certain intensity of violence. But these simple definitions have extremely important normative implications, starting with the following: if the special laws of war apply only in the place where the fighting takes place, then beyond that place one has no right to behave as a warrior.

As the jurist Mary Ellen O’Connell, who describes the present-day drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen as illegal, reminds us: “Drones launch missiles or drop bombs, the kind of weapons that may only be used lawfully in armed conflict hostilities.” The fact is that “there was no armed conflict on the territory of Pakistan because there was no intense armed fighting between organized armed groups. International law does not recognize the right to kill with battlefield weapons outside an actual armed conflict. The so-called ‘global war on terror’ is not an armed conflict.” These strikes therefore constitute grave violations of the laws of war.

It is immediately clear that the proposed globalized manhunts stand in contradiction to this traditional interpretation of the law. Hence their promoters’ intensive attempts to contest that view of the situation and to dismiss the notion that armed conflicts presuppose an implicit geographical ontology. In the present struggle to extend the hunting domain, jurists stand in the front line, and the ontology that they apply constitutes their field of battle. The question “What is a place?” becomes a matter of life or death. Perhaps the time has come to remember that by geographically confining the licit exercise of violence, the fundamental legal aim was to circumscribe it.

Copyright © 2015 by La Fabrique Editions. This excerpt originally appeared inA Theory of the Drone, published by The New Press, and is used here with permission.

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