Politics of the poppy

Poppy in Poilly, near Reims, France, 2009. Photo by author.

On Remembrance Day, here are my reflections from 2011. (I updated some of the links. Also, as you know, this year is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.)

It’s Remembrance Sunday in the UK today. The Queen has laid a wreath at the Cenotaph. In the UK it’s also traditional to purchase a plastic poppy to wear in your lapel.

Why do people do this? As someone said recently, there’s probably as many reasons to display the poppy as there are people who do so. The history of it is given here by the Peace Pledge Union (UK). It’s obviously not an unproblematic symbol, and I like their idea of a white poppy (white for peace).

To display a red poppy is not to be pro-war in today’s context, at least speaking for myself. I do remember as a schoolchild bitterly resenting the peer pressure to buy a poppy from the goody-goodies who came round every year. (There was even a minor class distinction, the rich schoolkids bought one with the leaf cluster.)

However, today I display red poppies having read a little about WWI and the huge loss of life that occurred, and having visited some of the sites in northern France, such as Verdun where the fighting took place. When I display it, I am doing so in an act of remembrance, the “work of mourning.”

Since my work academically has carried me to WWI and WWII, and now to modern intelligence and its links to the military, I often find myself in a relationship with members of the military, for example as students in my class who ask me for letters of reference to enter officer school. (This is beyond the common experience of being asked to clap soldiers in uniform on planes–I’m still waiting to be asked to clap for nurses, teachers and doctors and let them off first). We also have an ROTC at UK, coincidentally right next to the building housing the Geography Department. And as a geographer, it is hard to deny the discipline’s role in the military-academic complex.

I resolve this, at least for now, by neither seeking out nor ignoring those in uniform on a personal level (trying to treat them the same–this means not clapping them on planes until we also clap others who serve such as school teachers).

How many drones does the US have?

As part of our “Drone Economies” project, last week we traveled to Washington DC to interview various people in government about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as remotely piloted aircraft (RPA).

One message that came through is that there is currently a slowdown if not pause in UAV acquisition. Yes, well known systems such as the Predator (MQ-1) have been retired (the DoD only has 228 in inventory as of last summer). But there’s also a pause more generally. So how many drones does the DoD (excluding CIA) possess and what can we expect going forward?

The DoD has over 11,000 UAVs, with the vast majority of these in Groups 1, 2 or 3 (small drones), as this figure illustrates:


DoD spending on UAVs is also decreasing for several reasons. First, their operational deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq is no longer required as the US military withdraws from those regions (even if it is increasing in Syria). Second, the Predator and its big brother the Reaper are not very good at what the military calls the “A2/AD” environment, or anti-access, aerial denial: contested airspace. Over Afghanistan there is nothing to shoot down the UAVs, but in other environments (eg the infamous “pivot to Asia”) this is a different story.

Here’s a recent spending chart, including R&D as well as procurement:


(PB = President’s Budget, OCO = overseas contingency operations, ie wars).

It would be worthwhile going through the recent DoD budget requests and enacted amounts to update this chart.

What factors would prompt the pause to be alleviated? We heard the same things over and over again:

1. Ability to operate in A2/AD. UAVs with defensive capabilities (might include stealth, armaments or flying at higher levels without the need to descend to take surveillance–as some UAVs currently have to do) are required. Some of this might be to do with the sensors. Several of our interviewees referred to UAVs as “trucks,” to de-emphasize the UAV itself as simply a general purpose transport. It’s what it carries and can do that is important (whether manned or unmanned).

2. Autonomy. Despite their name, UAVs are not really unmanned (including the ground control station [GCS] some UASs require over 100 personnel to operate), and are only cheaper to the extent that they eliminate or vastly reduce the human element.

3. UCAVs. Unmanned combat air vehicles, such as the Northrup-Grumman X-47. The future of this seems less certain. Certainly the Navy is pursuing this at the moment with its UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike) program. But as I understand there has been controversy about the program.

4. The “smalls.” Several of our sources emphasized the small UAVs as the most viable way forward (Groups 1-3). They already comprise most of the UAVs by number (about 10,000) in the DoD inventory.

Despite all this, we were actually in town to talk about commercial uses of UAVs! We’ll be going through our interviews and notes and hopefully writing it up as a paper.

Latest in “Snow-lit”: Shane Harris @War

Here’s an excerpt in what might be called “Snow-lit” or books that are firmly based in the post-Snowden era, not so much analyzing the documents he released, but taking seriously the intelligence, surveillance and security landscape they highlight, and writing for the public.

Shane Harris is national security reporter for the Daily Beast (late of Foreign Policy mag), and this is an excerpt from his latest book, @War: the Rise of the Military-Internet Complex.

How the NSA (Sorta) Won the (Last) Iraq War
In an excerpt from his new book, @War, Daily Beast reporter Shane Harris shows how the NSA went partners with the military in Iraq and changed warfare forever.

BBC News – The time when spy agencies officially didn’t exist

Interesting story from the BBC on secrecy about the existence of MI5 and MI6, tied to the announcements of new heads of the GCHQ and MI6 (SIS).

BBC News – The time when spy agencies officially didn’t exist

Gregory on degrees of intimacy

Derek Gregory on degrees of intimacy in military UAV strikes and what looks like a must-have book called Drone wars (CUP) edited by Peter Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg. Includes contributions by Peter Singer, an unnamed USAF pilot, and analyses of “conflict, law and policy” as the subtitle has it.

Latest intelligence spending figures analyzed


A former Congressional Research Service (CRS) expert, who wrote a very useful analysis of intelligence spending last year, has updated his analysis following the release of the FY2014 figures.

Erwin Marshall provides an amazing chart (above) that provides the most complete year-by-year totals for IC funding going all the way back to 1980. The clever part about this is that it is only recently that actual numbers have been released, so it relies on extensive estimations. Compare this chart to the one we provided in our article on the IC earlier this year and you’ll see that they agree.

Here’s our figure:

Figure 1

We were more conservative on figures we included, not having the capability or access to make informed estimates (or the 2013 CRS report since our paper was already in production at that time). Despite this, you can see the trends very clearly show huge increases in spending after 9/11, and recent declines. But as Marshall asks: can the IC absorb these cuts or will they cause operational difficulties?

On the challenge side, Marshall argues the US faces many threats from small actors, and the intelligence is ever-more important as US military downsizes and becomes more “hesitant” to engage militarily. (These are his arguments, not my own.) So fewer boots on the ground, more ISR.

Despite this, Marshall argues that the IC can “easily” absorb budget cuts. This is not what Clapper says of course; in his remarks about current threats he often says this is the most challenging set of conditions for the IC in his career. But basically Marshall says the IC has been wasteful following 9/11. All of this can be cut: “There are plenty of opportunities to cut budgets without degrading capabilities.” Marshall blames lack of IC leadership, lack of effort at reducing inefficiencies (especially by ODNI) and legislators for the continuation of IC wastefulness.

From my perspective, I think the thing to keep in mind is that despite recent tailing off of post-9/11 spending levels from a high in 2010, levels are still way higher than pre-9/11. In fact, adjusting for inflation, it has grown by more than 200 per cent, according to Marshall. By comparison, the DoD budget has grown by only 60 per cent over the same time period. From the CRS:


The CRS report notes that this indicates how intel and defense spending are “decoupled” but I think you can see that the trends are the same if not the rates of change.

I would agree with Marshall that intel and ISR are the tings to watch. However, there too we have seen a significant drop-off of UAV or drone orders (the exception is the Global Hawk, the winner of a battle between Congress, who favored it over the U2, which was favored by the military). According to interviews we just carried out in DC with CRS and others, it is likely that currently there is a “pause” in UAV orders. This is prompted by drawdowns of activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the need to operate drones in contested airspace, where they are vulnerable. So the “pause” might be ended if manufacturers can provide persistent surveillance in contested airspace or improved stealth capabilities.

Stuart Elden: Two Foucault reviews – Berfrois

Lengthy review essay by Stuart Elden of two recent Foucault publications On the government of the living, and Wrong-doing, truth-telling: the function of avowal in justice, in Berfrois.

Some quotes:

It is perhaps too little noted that what we have in these and other publications, expertly edited and translated though they are, are transcribed lecture courses, supplemented by material from manuscripts. The references are, for the most part, the work of the editors, rather than Foucault’s own, and they bear many marks of their verbal delivery.

As he [Foucault] notes: “what I would like to do and know that I will not be able to do is write a history of the force of truth, a history of the power of truth, a history, therefore, to take the same idea from a different angle, of the will to know.”

But it is in confession that perhaps the key importance of this material lies…Foucault here uses two terms that we might translate as ‘confession’ – l’aveu and la confession. Foucault is not always consistent in his separation of the terms, which has meant many previous translations have rendered both in the same way.