Monthly Archives: September 2021

Drone Warfare, Carpet Bombing, Righteous Strikes

This problem seemed to come from Hell. The “righteous strike” of a drone-fired Hellfire Missile killed Afghan aid worker Zemari Ahmadi, his nieces and nephews was America’s military doing what it did best–a targeted precision strike. As much as targeting a human target who was instantaneously dismembered as his car shifted into park, the “Over the Horizon” strike cell commander who fired the missile from the drone was firing at a coordinate, and trusting in its authority. United States Dept. of Defense spokesperson John F. Kirby vowed “to study the degree to which any policies, procedures or targeting mechanisms may need to be altered going forward,” to be reviewed by former senior staff officer s who served in Afghanistan, assigning it high priority–but insisting that the strike was only green lighted after the American General at Central Command, or CENTCOM, who remained apprised of surveillance found “a reasonable certainty of the imminent threat that this vehicle posed.”

The CENTCOM Commander himself apologized, saying “we thought [we had] a good lead,” the balance between “certainty” and “threat” was not so clearly mapped as the pinpoint targeting of the vehicle, watched for over eight hours. As if in a surplus expenditure of energy at the conclusion to the war, or a final moment of fireworks, the huge discrepancy of wealth and technology between two sides was made manifest in the explosion that took the aid worker Zemari’s life with his nine family members, a final salvo of the Forever Wars. -But the striking of the vehicle containing Ahamdi, and which his nieces and nephews surrounded, were perhaps the fault less of a human error–if that was involved–than of a desire for a new method of war conducted in alarmingly disembodied terms,, in which “it is exceedingly important to shoot the missile, not at the target, but in such a way that missile and target can come together in space,” as Norbert Weiner wrote in 1948, in a classic work of communication networks in animal and machine, in which human judgement become part of feedback loops, but not ever making anything like what we might classify as ethical calls: the transmission of information in this model is based on the clear transmission of alternatives, and reduction of ethics to so much background noise, based on the probability of how much accurate information was available or at hand.

Moreover, and perhaps most crucially, at a time when ISIS had effectively internalized the danger of a sense of western besiegement, and the United States had almost amplified its power to suggest that waves of besiegement were utterly insurmountable and impossible to defend against, the arrival of a final Over-the-Horizon strike of a Hellfire missile seemed a parting strike of particular cruelty, by accident effectively perpetuating the inevitability of a continued narrative of besiegement for the world; as the escalated pummeling of ISIS presence in the hills of Peshwar and Afghan provinces had provided ample evidence of besiegement attempting at exhausting the “enemy,” in record numbers, over a decade of intense bombardment focussed firepower one final time on a residential courtyard in Kabul.

American Drone Strikes, 2004-2014, The Economist

There are problems of balancing an awesome strike ability of a Hellfire missile, a missile conjuring the eternal fire faced by the dammed with a “righteous strike,” and the scale of local damage it can cause: the death sentence that the missile passed as a remotely tracked technology of obliteration was invested with curiously religious terms, the fire of damnation a sentence of divine wrath, sending the fire of hell to the courtyard of a Kabul family residence to shatter the life of the wrong man who had been tracked for eight hours by Over-the-Horizon Strike Cell dedicated to disrupt the Islamic State Khorasan. But this time the Over-the-Horizon strike in Kabul was, if precise, focussed on the wrong white sedan, as the intelligence about the car that was being tracked for over four hours was terrifyingly incorrect. The poor debut of “Over-the-Horizon” strikes was a bad omen of the value of geospatial precision.

Afghan Neighbors Ponder the Courtyard of the Zemari Ahmadi’s Home in Kabul, Afghanistan
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Were the mechanisms for firing the laser-guided missiles encoded in the authority of the mapping tools that sent the laser-guided Hellfire missile to Kabul, as much as in faulty intelligence, and the limited guidance on targeting individuals? In what was almost a bravura use of force, American military drones fired Hellfire missiles as the airlift continued, on the eve of the United States departure, pointing to the appearance of secondary explosions as fireballs to indicate presence of explosives inside vehicles that ISIS operatives might drive into the airport for a second suicide attack. But if the strike was “deliberated” and the information military had collected “all added up,” the rules of engagement of airstrikes, as much as the human intelligence, implied deep ethical problems of trusting in the logic of maps to sift through evidence with greater accountability, especially as we seem to be approaching a threshold of increased engagement without men on the ground in Afghanistan, in developing an “over-the-horizon” strategy for the immediate future, as President Biden pursues his commitment to fight ISIS-K without actually increasing civilian deaths.

An Afghan man who lost family due to US drone strikes weeps.
Ajmal Ahmadi, Mourns Members of His Family Killed byu Hellfire Missile in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. 
Marcus Yam/Getty Images

The mechanics of the decision-making process that led to fire a drone that later killed Ahmadi and his children, nephews, and cousins is under review, but the verbal and epistemic confusion between what was first described as a “righteous strike” of vengeance, evoking the theory of “just war” that was invoked by President Barack Obama in invoking “just war theory” to rationalize the use of the military force not as a wanton or needless display of power and with the hope of saving lives to prevent the loss of lives, required, in his hope a “near-certainty of no collateral damage.” And while this was of course collateral damage of the most extensive time, the coverage of the extent of mis-targeting of believed terrorists reveal a terrifying cheapness of life, undoubtedly only able to be researched in detail for the jaw-dropping mistake of targeting of innocent civilians by a laser-guided missile due to the density of journalistic coverage of this particular strike, and journalistic presence documented the costs of erroneous strikes and the scope of civilian casualties as horrific as carpet bombing–if far more surgical–as if this were a far more humanitarian form of war whose precision could be labeled just. We were able to see the Taliban checkpoint that let in suicide bombers to Kabul’s airport, causing almost a hundred and fifty deaths, we became convinced of the ability of targeting precision strikes of the perpetrators of similar crimes, and amped up the intelligence networks to scour the city for signs of any activity appearing that it demanded to be targeted, and snuffed out.

Planet Labs Inc., image of Taliban checkpoint blocking access to Kabul’s international airport Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021
(Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Precise targeting, unlike bombing raids of the past, provided this certainty, or was supposed to offer surety of not being needless. But if such near-certainty depended on a map, it rests not on the accuracy of mapping. The strike that killed Zemerai Ahmadi — and ten of his family members–was mistakenly categorized as a “righteous strike,” killing an innocent aid worker and his family members. While it occurred in the heady atmosphere of retaliatory strikes for attempt to sabotage the withdrawal from Kabul’s airport attempted to be just, the slippage between the logic of targeted bombing and justice became apparent. It was a lurch to affirm global strength, more than justice, in using a technology of geolocation that had evolved to coordinate hand in glove with surveillance from Reaper drones. The ability to pinpoint track the progress of one car tagged as an imminent danger.

U.S. Central Command maps movement across Kabul of white Toyota Corolla on Aug. 29, 2021. CENTCOM/via Military Times

The mistaken of surveilling and targeting a young Afghan civilian in a Toyota Corolla was terrifyingly akin to the senseless bombing campaigns of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and Laos, or more terrifying. Surveillance of Kabul and its airport were much better than Vietnam, by remote satellite and drone photography, the ability of such targeting–and the rush of such precision killing–seemed to follow the logic of the map, as much as people on the ground.

1. The maps used to conduct action at a great distance in Vietnam were not as transparent or evident, but they were for the time. In the 1960s and 1970s, they offered grounds to pose the eerily analogous question of the extent and expanse of the globalist claims of American power. The trust in the accuracy of maps provided an eery precedent for the confidence in strikes an old theater of empire, a theater once defined by imperial maps. The surety of the strikes that the UTM and LORAN B offered to American pilots existed in two theaters–the arena of the map that determined the strikes and the geographical space to which it corresponded, and old imaginaries of imperial and colonial power. The British empire was driven from Kabul in 1842 and 1843, and the French hold on Indochina had led them to withdraw; as the mapping techniques of post-war Europe led the United States to inherit Southeast Asia, global technologies of mapping opened the possibility of launching strikes that would offer lasting reminders as America withdrew from the Forever Wars in Afghanistan, leaving as the English did from both Kabul and Kandahar, but, in an attempt not to be forgotten, leaving a lasting imprint of the power of long-distance bombing. If combatants of most all wars fight with different maps, often reflecting differences in military intelligence, both these post-colonial wars were defined by the drastic dissonance of radically different maps of geospatial intelligence, one from the air and one on the ground, and the pursuit of a stubborn logic of air maps as if they offered both superior exactitude and geospatial intelligence, modernizing the struggle for control by defining a logic of modern military operations by which to understand and to shape the “sharp edge” of war.

Carpet Bombing in Vietnam by B-52 American USAF Planes

The beginning of the end of American Empire has been recently pegged to 1972, a year that marked and took stock of the the end of a huge expenditure of sustained bombing drives with little apparent enduring accomplishment. The geospatial logic that drove such earlier long-distance aerial bombing campaigns in Vietnam were driven by perhaps misplaced confidence in how maps enabled and facilitated military action at a distance: maps offered a logic, if there was one, for conducting the over six hundred sorties and operations over eight and a half thousand miles away. There is an eery analogy that we have the most complete and exact database for bombing raids of the American military in Vietnam, coordinates that were painstakingly compiled by Americans, so analogous to the geodata of thousands of drone strikes in Northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, from 2004-2018, that the New American Foundation asserts the vast majority–over 80%–of those killed, were militants, though the Brookings Institution counters that drone strikes killed “10 or so civilians” for every militant who died,; Pakistan’s Interior Minister complained vigorously that a preponderance of the killed with civilians–especially in habitual follow-up strikes, targeting those responding to victims of the first hit, targeting of funeral processions, or mourners, or simply less surgical strikes. In an attempt to respond to these attacks from above, the Taliban’s weapon of choice was improvised explosive devices–literally, IEDs, placed on roads and activated by radio signal, mobile phones, or triggered by victims who step on them.

Paul Scruton, The Guardian

The warscape that developed 2004-9 of explosive shells, made often from diesel or fertilizer, along the major Afghan highway by the border with Pakistan where the Taliban was geographically contained–an increased density of which was tracked by Paul Scruton in the screen shot maps to the right of the map. The first attachment of a Hellfire missile to a drone followed the sighting of Osama bin Laden by one of the Predator Drone of the sort that flew across Afghanistan from September 7-25, 2000, in search of the terrorist who was wanted from 1998 suicide bombings in two U.S. embassies, his first strike at American territory; the unarmed CIA Predator was able to laster-illuminate and geolocate him so that it tracked him fro almost four and a half hours, but he could be hit by a Tomahawk missiles, but the time-lag for firing Tomahawk missiles failed to guarantee a similar sort of accuracy; as the new tool of the CIA and US Air Force were mounted with Hellfire missiles, they sighted and shot at Mullah Omar in 2001, but missed him, destroying only his car.

When Barack Obama assumed office in 2009, he tweaked George Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan by rehabilitating the “just war” theory, of medieval origin, formulated by Christian and protestant thinkers. Obama chose to rely on the accuracy and surgical nature of precision strikes as surgical means of not striking civilians, or focussing on enemy combatants, although the berth of such distinctions lay in the military or CIA: ifAfghanistan became the terrain for “the future of our military,” where Predators defined the mobile “edge” of warfare waged overhead and across borders. Targeted assassinations by CIA and USAF targeted the Waziristan region, mapping the region with pin-point in the notion of a “just-war” theory, rehabilitating an ancient doctrine of right conduct in war–“jus in bello” doctrine of Christian thinkers–by modern tools of geolocation, leading to the escalation of pin-point targeting by drone-fired missiles. In the face of global opposition to the use of missile enhanced drones as tools of targeting objectives in war in the mountainous areas of Pakistan province where the Taliban had fled by 2011,–

Escalating Drone Strikes Targeting Taliban in Remote Mountainous Region of Waziristan

–and, from 2012, the CIA went out of its way to try to design alternate missiles to “shred” vehicles and their inhabitants, but without blasts, to attempt to minimize “collateral damage” or killings.

Secret U.S. Missile Aims to Kill Only Terrorists, Not Nearby Civilians - WSJ
 Hellfire Modified to Limit Damage of Bystanders, Used from 2012

By the time the final American forces were set to ferry the final civilians from Kabul, however, the logic of drone strikes shifted to the home front of Kabul, set motion by the terrifying suicide bomber who struck Kabul’s airport, killing 143 Afghans and 13 American servicemen. In what was either the last gap or new frontier of geolocated killing, drones targeted Hellfire missiles in pinpoint strikes across Afghanistan, in “just” retribution of the fear of further K-ISIS suicide attacks on the ground during the last days of American presence in Afghan territory focussed on flights departing Kabul, revealing an ability of surveilling, targeting and striking far into the country as American forces departed the ground, as if to alert the Taliban of the continued proximity of CENTCOM bases in Qatar.

However celebratory the drone strike seemed, hellfire missled that killed Ahmadi suggested the haunting return of a lack of justice on August 29, as twenty pounds of explosive struck the car of the breadwinner of an extended Afghan family, with seven children who depended on his work. The children who had rushed out to greet him as he pulled his own white Toyota Corolla into the driveway of his personal home were not seen by the man who fired the drone missile, who felt secure no civilians were nearby. As we examined footage to detect the alleged secondary explosion, we found a weird echo of the airstrikes of an earlier war removed from our continent. While much comparison between the messy tactics and poor planning American withdrawals from Vietnam and Kabul spun, the incomplete coverage of the “collateral deaths” of civilians from the strike led to the military’s eventual backpedalling of its story of striking ISIS-K as an act of counterterrorism or “righteous strike.”

It was only due to careful investigation on the ground that the horrendous mistake was discovered. Reporters used footage from security cameras to follow the forty-one year old aid worker before he was driver targeted by the Hellfire missile suggested the poor intelligence which operators of “strike cel commander” who had been operating the drone in Kabul. Even as we await analysis of the decision-making mechanisms, we wonder a the high degree of certainty in public statements, even as questions circulated from the start of accurate video analysis of an after-blast confirming, as was claimed, that the Toyota Corolla was carrying a payload of ISIS-K bombs, and the lack of a mechanism of review before the drone strike. The accuracy of targeting the car was questioned by journalists as Spencer Ackerman all too familiar from the targeting of civilians that had escalated in previous years. Although announced as compensatory for the deadly suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport, killing Afghans and thirteen U.S. military, as a second drone strike on ISIS-K leaders in Nangarhar Province of an “Islamic State planner” in retaliation for the deadly suicide bombing–and entranced the world with the surgical take-out of the very operatives who allegedly planned the airport attack that killed thirteen American service men and 146 Afghans, as they rode a three-wheeled truck near the Pakistani border from 7,350 miles away in the Nevada desert, injuring an associate but killing the two men immediately. There was a perfect symmetry in the image of men who were riding in a tuk-tuk being obliterated by a strike that left a crater four feet deep.

While removed in time, the bombing campaigns in Vietnam have left precise geodata for bombing raids so comprehensive to be able to map cumulative raids over time. The result privileges strikes over deaths, in the eerily lifeless and quite terrifying record of Bombing Target Maps,–charting sustained campaigns of bombing at a distance waged in maps. This blog considered human costs of aerial perspectives both as a result of the acceleration of bombing campaigns in World War II and how maps jusfitied and normalized the Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. As the longest and least accomplished use of maps to sustained military engagement at a distance, is impossible not to consider the retrospective view it offers and reveals on the logic of the role of drones in Forever Wars. Systematic carpet bombing of Southeast Asia was pursued 1965-1973 as if by a logic of mapping, escalating by 1972 in a failing attempt to illustrate global dominance. The increased exactitude of the map becam a rationale for the power to wage war from afar, both to compensate for a lack of information on the ground, and to compensate for more irreducible problems of distance: mapping tools promised a logic of the ability to operate smoothly across frontiers. The unprecedented global coverage of GPS coordinates was administered and run by the United States for Vietnam through 1975, long after the war concluded. But the role of maps in waging war early emerged. If the United States in 1959 had blocked adoption of new standards of global projection, perhaps linking knowledge to power, the Army Service had recalculated surveys of Southeast Asia–Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam from the global projection that became a basis to collate new geodata–the Army relied on for staging helicopter raids in Vietnam, and, later, for long-range bombing campaigns.

Tet Offensive, 1968

Not that this was always smooth. Despite troubling distortions inherent in the UTM along South Vietnam’s north-south axis and border with Cambodia, coordinates provided a basis for conducting war at an unprecedented distance, even if they would necessitate revamped geodetic networks to minimize built-in distortions.

Serial Aerial Bombing by United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1975
Hatfield Consultants, Ltd; Ordinance Data Prepared by Federal Resources Corporation

Aerial strikes offered a sense of security, notwithstanding, and aerial sorties that continued to exercise claims to global power even in an unfamiliar theater of combat, evident in the dark lines of ordnance dropped along fairly fixed flight paths on what were deemed strategic locations in North Vietnam, and dense napalm dropped in the Thura Thiên region, where the saturation with napalm provided a carpet bombing of unprecedented scale, with limited sense of the effects on the local ecosystems. The planes’ almost indiscriminate blanketing of the strategic Thừa Thiên province and mountainous border with Cambodia where Việt Cộng hid were blanketed with ordnance and herbicides including Agent Origin, creating a massive deforestation there and on the network of roads known as the Hồ Chí Minh Trail.

Serial Aerial Bombing by United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1975
Hatfield Consultants, Ltd; Ordinance Data Prepared by Federal Resources Corporation

Despite the bracketing of huge ethical questions and costs, the authority of maps assumed huge costs as they were were able to conceal huge liabilities, changing the nature of the battle line at which we were now, as a nation, waging war, and its ethical costs: for we were bombing locations, not people, and the people were faceless who the bombs were targeting, othered, and in the national imaginary all but erased. It would take a force of consciousness, indeed, to place them on the map–on the ground photography remained relatively rare. And it is the ability to erase people by dots that provided, this post argues, a similar logic for the expansion of drone raids and drone-delivered bombs.

As bombing raids hit the the Seventeenth Parallel, the war was fought on a map: as much as Võ Nguyên Giáp revealed his military tactical genius as military commander of the Việt Minh, who had developed with stunning success the principle of Sun Tzu in successfully applying minimum military force to maximum effect in deploying light infantry in the First Indochina War, and in engineering of the network of roads known as the Hồ Chí Minh Trail, whose targeting continued in the war, even as its north-south course were distorted in UTM projections. The uncertainty is almost registered by Americans turning for solace to sing Toby Hughes’s “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” a wartime blues to the tune of “Billy the Kid,” as a blues of airspace: “When you fly on the Trail through the dark and the haze/It’s a think you’ll remember the rest of your days./A nightmare of vertigo, mountain, and flak,/And the cold wind of Death breathing soft at your back“? “Uncle Sam needs your help again,” is the mock-resolute start of another of the many songs that tried to process distance and space during the war, “He’s got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Viet Nam,” as was no better evident than in targeting the elusive Hồ Chí Minh Trail.

File:Ho Chi Minh Trail network map.jpg
Hồ Chí Minh Trail Netork (1990)
Week of September 27 | Vietnam War Commemoration

Americans administrators plagued by lack of knowledge about Southeast Asia or South Vietnam’s leadership relied on maps crippled by distortions. If the blues developed on the plantation, the wartime blues was a lament popular with American pilots as a new folksong of a technological divide pilots sung for psychic stability seemed to balance the demands they shouldered and fears–“the trucks must be stopped, and it’s all up to you,/ So you fly here each night to this grim rendez-vous”–as each sortie tempted fates in contested military space above the Trail; they watched from above “trucks roll on through darkness not stopping to rest,” consigned to their fate nervously navigating airspace by charts, “our whole world confined to the light of the flare,/And you fight for your life just to stay in the air./For there’s many a man who there met his fate,/On the dark roads of Hell, where the grim reaper waits.”

Carpet bombing was hardly comfortable, but was filled with fear. And one is filled by an eery apprehension at the ease with which geolocated records of bomb strikes in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Cambodia translate across time into a Google Maps platform, and the translation of the coordinates to a geospatial grid that we all have come to adopt to navigate space. UTM grid zones in Southeast Asia, as Bill Rankin noted, split in inconvenient ways in Southeast Asia, and although bombers were relying on them in raids that spanned over five years, As the provisional line of demarcation between North and South Vietnam, the so called “DMZ” of the Seventeenth Parallel Mendès France negotiated in 1954 was pounded twenty years later with all the firepower America could muster, trying to secure its border by a crazy huge show of power at a distance.

The result of these compound offensives was to riddle the countries with some 2.7 tonnes of explosives, as we were asked to keep our eyes on a static maps on television screens. This was described poetically as “carpet bombing” or continuous bombardment, first used only in 1944, in response to destructive V-1 and V-2 bombs, to mark a shift from the largely targeted bombing of industrial sites in the war. The sense of a lack of restraints or targets dramatically grew in the Vietnam War, as a no holds barred method, long before Ted Cruz vowed to recommit American to the carpet bombing of the Middle East to “utterly destroy ISIS,” asserting, as if in a perverse science experiment, that while he didn’t “know if sand can glow in the dark,” he would ensure American planes bomb ISIS positions until the sand glowed, in 2015,–intimating a carpet bombing of nuclear proportions. Donald Trump amped up Cruz on the campaign trail in Iowa, by promising not only to “bomb the shit out of ’em,” and “bomb the pipes, bomb the refineries, and blow up every single inch” of refineries to prepare for several months of rebuilding of pipelines by Exxon to “take the oil.” Since the debut of smart bombs in global video during the 1991 Gulf War, the sense of carpet bombing seems to have been consigned into the past, with the trust in the security of drone-fired bombs from 2003 promising to strike targets in a far more humanitarian way.

As the Vietnam War intensified, the long year of March 18, 1969-May 28, 1970 brought daily bombing of Cambodia, all but omitted from the entry of troops into Cambodia we watched on a static map on black and white televisions. Even as the escalation of disproportionate bombing campaigns that only ended on August 15, 1973 grew, they set a standard of sorts for the elegance of airborne strikes from afar.

Tet Offensive Bombing Campaign, 1968

Is it only a coincidence that after serving the nation as Special Assistant to the Undersecretary for Policy in George W. Bush’s Dept. of Defense that the right-wing columnist who has romanticized Gen. Custer devoted time to dispelling the “flawed Tet mythology still shaping perceptions of American military conflicts against unconventional enemies and haunting our troops,” completing This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive (2012), winning praise from Henry A. Kissinger, who agreed that “the self-perpetuating myth that the Tet Offensive ended in a defeat for America continues to do us harm,” while endorsing Jerome S. Robbins’ re-examination of the bombing offensive “through the lens of terrorism, war crimes, intelligence failures, troop surges, leadership breakdown, and media bias”–as if to champion the very losing strategy that informed bombing raids in Afghanistan.

2. The limits of local intelligence recalled the opaque maps before which an earlier Commandeer-in-Chief who, convinced of the logic of military strikes, attempted to project assurance at having directed American troops to enter Cambodia in April, 1970, as bombing grew. Just two years before the continued expenditure on aerial bombing campaign seven thousand miles away revealed a failure to reach military objectives announced a start of the decline of the American empire, the drone strike at the old colonial city of Kabul CentCom ordered revealed a continued commitment to the logic of military engagement by drone that animated the logic of war under an inauspicious promise to Maker America Great Again: the conducting of increased bombing strikes eight and a half thousand miles away would grow in intensity from 1970, but the argument Richard Nixon made was not apparent, as it rested on a geospatial map, but used the crude maps of boundaries of states few Americans were familiar–Laos, Cambodia; South Vietnam; North Vietnam–that hardly reflected why such intense bombing would be occurring around the seventeenth parallel, or mapped a clear vision of strategy.

American Troops Enter Cambodia, April 30, 1970

Even as we knew enough to be skeptical of his map of crude cut-outs, remembering Dresden Hiroshima, and My Lai aggression against civilians, but knowing we had heard stories from reporters on the ground about its intensity. And so we watched the maps of new offensives, distrusting escalated air bombing in times of war–if we knew not to trust them, we took to the streets in protests because we remembered, and because the official news maps of selective hits in one offensive was a partial story–and the danger of what was being targeted by a carpet of explosive bombs dropped.

B-52 Carpet Bombing of Vietnam

–hardly mapped the increased intensity of air strikes of carpet bombing, the new illustration of force that blanketed the nation with strikes to cover borders between north and south Vietnam and the coast, as Air Force data reveals, releasing over two and a half million tons of bombs on over 115,000 sites in Cambodia, from 1969-72, of which over 11,738 were indiscriminate–with the blatantly false assurance from the military commander in South Vietnam, who requested the sites be targeted in a neutral country, that Cambodians did not live in them, in the wave of secret bombings ordered in violation of international law, and quickly developed by Nixon’s National Security Advisor Kissinger–

The unprecedented concerted orchestration of carpet bombing campaigns by air sorties attempted to wipe out all VietCong bases in eastern Cambodia, vaunted precision in dropping 7.5 million tons of bombs across Laos, Vietnam , and Cambodia, between 1965-75, from Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-68) and Operation Steel Tiger (1965-68), to the extended campaigns in Laos of Operation Barrel Roll (1964-1973) to Cambodia, before Operation Menu (1969-70), blanketing the nation and creating untold civilian deaths and injury in a show of force.

The latter raids covering the country in toto, but to target Khmer Rouge ranged widely across borders of Cambodia and Laos, which was facing a communist insurgency in its borders, and the nation Vietnam had invaded became central to the Domino Theory that rationalized an expansion of boming across borders, before returning with intensity to the seventeenth parallel from 1971-2, trying to hit precise coordinates, and effectively carpeting the old DMZ with bombs. There was something weird, as from a nation of the crossers of borders, we flew bombs across borders, carpeting regions with devastation, from the shorelines of Southeast Asia, to the interior, to the shore again, this time with even greater intensity and around what was then Saigon.

The intensity of carpet bombing was astounding in Cambodia and Vietnam, literally coloring huge swaths of the country red, in these maps that use red dots for cumulative tallies of bombing strikes.

Taylor Owen, University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues
U.S. Secret Bombing of Cambodia | rabble.ca
Aerial Bombardment by US Air Force of Cambodia, 1965-1973

The danger of those bombing strikes on civilians were rarely described, or even comprehended, at a distance. But visualizing the faces of the civiliians whose towns and life were disrupted so violently became a basis for protesting the war–and a crystallizing factor in antiwar protests as the bombing campaigns grew–as the ends of carpet bombing as a targeting of civilians nonetheless grew all too painfully clear, as the very intensity of such carpet bombing created a new architecture of destruction in an already profoundly unethical war.

Anti-War Protest Button, 1972

3. Precision strikes seemed more humane than carpet bombs. But the precision bombs of the Forever Wars were, perhaps haunted by those images of civilians with targets on their crudely drawn heads, trying to advertise themselves less as a global over-reach of the targeting of precise strikes in another hemisphere, a campaign that in fact began, back in the response to the apparent hubris of 9/11, in the battery of B-52’s brought out from retirement, before the Defense Department hit on the new idea of acquiring drones and investing in drone technologies, a budget that has risen to above $7 billion by 2021, whose use is severely restricted in American airspace, but seems the perfect medium for fighting forever wars, on which the United States has come to rely since at least 2005. Fighting the Forever Wars and for counterterrorism programs, a new logic of military engagement, although the program that was first used in 2003 to strike targets developed in secrecy as a way of blurring the “sharp edge of battle,” described by British military historian John Keegan as incomplete or elided in most military histories. Now the “sharp edge” is both everywhere, blurred, and intentionally difficult to see.

The airspace for operating for the 11,000 drones or “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” in the United States that the U.S. Department of Defense currently owns and operates in American airspace are far from civilian centers in the United States–but the logic of pinpointing strikes 7,000 miles away provided a precision bombing that replaced or antiquated carpet bombing, billed in a new humanitarian guise.

Department of Defense Special Use Airspace, 2006

–but the rest of the world is, as the Kabul airstrike reveals, an open surgical target. And the increasingly intentionally reduced transparency of an increased national commitment to military drones in the Trump administration has created a new logic for the use of military force, via armed drones, and the unprecedented mobility of military theaters, under the cover of the advancement of either military or national security objectives. The bulk of the drone programs run by the CIA are shrouded in entire secrecy, although the commitment to reducing any sense of transparency and accountability–a main operating strategy or modus operandi of the recent Commander-in-Chief–has left a stamp on the U.S. Drone Program that will be difficult to erase, and a new sense of the secret maps by which war is waged.

As military operators of drones gained far greater air-strike-decision ability and independence, both in the military and the CIA’s separate drone strike operations, a new level of security was increasingly embedded in the logic of the map. There was, moreover, not even a requirement for registering enemy or civilian casualties, even if they might embrace deaths, since Trump issued Executive Order 13732, exempting both the US Army or for the CIA for any such responsibility for strikes outside combat zones; strike-enabled drones were granted greater operating grounds with less scrutiny or oversight. At the same time, oversight of sales of U.S. drones waned, and the Department of State gained the ability of direct commercial sales without oversight or special export conditions. Drones, in short, became the new currency of the war, and the means by which anything like a familiar battle line vanished. Removing strikes of pin-point precision from a system of military review so localized the “sharp of edge of battle” that it might migrate, given the ease of mapping, to a civilian garage.

Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 30, 2021. Marcus Yam / MCT

The drone strike seems emblematic not of a hasty withdrawal from Kabul, but of the confusion of military and civilian space in the war that readily relocated anywhere on the geospatial grid. In targeting the driver’s side of the white Toyota with incredible precision, we can see something of a history lesson in how mapping tools offer terrifyingly increased precision strikes. Although the Pentagon assured us that the existence of “significant secondary explosions” occurred, indicating a “significant explosive load” in the car with “minimum collateral damage,” and “reasonable certainty” of no nearby civilians, the lack of any grounds for certainty of explosives or an absence of civilians suggest not only the fallibility of human intelligence, but the Hellfire warhead that ruptured the tank while targeting the driver’s seat was a disproportionate show of force of awesome precision led its operators to trusted was trusted with “reasonable certainty” to pose “imminent threat.”

Drone strikes were not particularly effective against Taliban forces, and rarely contained them. But the act of power of pummeling Afghan locations that seemed worrisome with credible degrees of “reasonable certainty” was a release. It led to an escalation unprecedented in airstrikes against the nation as a show of power–until the end of DOD releasing of air strike data during negotiations with the Taliban; if airstrikes stopped, the shipment and stockading of increased armaments funneled to the Afghan army’s American-built bases in an attempt to overpower the nation that created its own dynamic of awesome war all but erasing the sharp edge of battle. The escalation of strikes as Trump assumed office had only recently grown to unprecedented heights.

More seriously, without any public release of the principles and procedures guiding the U.S. drone program, secrecy shrouds the legitimacy of the use of drones or the notion of the responsible use of drone strikes of increasingly powerful capacity, undermining the accountability of the military’s actions. It is perhaps ironic that this is being revealed on the eve of the departure from Afghanistan, and twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, which were such a shocking violation of territoriality: the expansion of no oversight on drone strikes risks undermining legitimate military goals, and even undermining national security interests, in finally attaining the capacity to act as a rogue state.

4. Although the possibility of retributive payments for these lives have not been publicly raised, although America has discussed “considering ex gratia or reparations,” the demands for some sort of compensation for those who were killed outright by what U.S. Cent Com admits as a “mistake.” If the walking back from early qualifications that rather than being a direct hit in retribution for the airport strike against U.S. military, the strike was “unlikely . . . those who died [jn the drone strike] were associated with ISIS-K,” or a “righteous strike” foiling a strike, the admission of guilt by the “strike cell commander” located in Kabul raises questions of the logic of military engagement in an era of drone war. The increased trust in the mapping systems–rather than on-the-ground intelligence or a need for confirmation–had brought the war on rural Afghanis to the nation’s capitol, leaving looming questions of why the country was not so concerned to use arms left by Americans to repel the Taliban, and how the logic of drone warfare expanded in the Forever Wars as a logic of surgical strikes that had boasted to not involve or affect civilian populations.

This time, the on the ground tracing of the Toyota Corolla’s movement in downtown Kabul led it to be targeted based on faulty information, and faulty flagging of suspicions in Ahmadi’s white Corolla, or the proximity with which it was parked or had stopped near an ISIS-K compound. The tracking of the car as it moved along city blocks and well-known streets led to the capture of surveillance footage of Ahamadi filling his car with water bottles, and dropping off coworkers, while he returned to his family, but it is unclear how a review of policies and procedures of targeting mechanisms will alter the logic of the drone strike as a surgical tool of war; just after the admission of mistakes in mapping and targeting of an Afghan civilian, CENTCOM followed up with announcement of the drone strike of a “senior al-Qaida leader” in Syria, in which “we struck the individual we were aiming for, and there are no indications of civilian casualties as a result of the strike,” as if to demonstrate how the smoothly the logic of drone strike technology could continue to work.

Yet, as journalists were increasingly present in Vietnam to film, witness and provide testimony of the devastation of bombing raids, with increased secrecy around drone strike programs, we have to wonder whether the mapping of civilian casualties will be something that would be in the government interests to continue, or if it is the case that the sharp edge of war has been definitively blurred. There was, by chance, due to the intense on the ground presence of journalists, an attempt to review the way that we set up what was almost a “home front” in Afghanistan; the victims of strikes were captured on closed circuit television, and could be tracked through the city of Kabul. Unlike for most drone strikes, we have faces, making it all the more possible to grieve their deaths and need to figure out how best to mourn their needless deaths, if not to take them as emblematic of the 71,000 civilian deaths from military campaign in Afghanistan we are told will come to an end. Though this time, we know their names–and can say them–the children of Mr. Ahmadi, Zamir, 20; Faisal, 16; Farzad (10); the children of his cousin Naser, Arwin, 7; Benyamin, 6; Hayat, 2, Malika, 2, and Somaya, 3, as well as a former Afghan officer who worked with the US military, Ahmad Naser–and we know how to say their names, that basic, elemental form of mourning that we never had access to in the past–let alone the series of smiling head shots.

More to the point, our actions are effectively setting international standards for drone strike accountability and for the limits of drone use, running counter to global security, and how drone strikes in the future wars that may be, eventually, used against us, as well.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, bombing raids, military maps, military weapons

The Undue Burdens of Heartbeats on Health Care

We are rightly alarmed. Indeed, red seems the only color to use to map the shrinking territory where women who are pregnant have an option of access to abortion. As abortion has been demonized as if it, too, were poised to join mass-culture society, and Supreme Court justices resurrect the specter of a society collectively endorsing “abortion on demand” as an apocalypse more apocalyptic than climate change or environmental degradation, the fate of life seems to have been projected to the unborn, even as maternal mortality rates remain staggeringly high across the nation–and seem especially high in those places where the strongest opposition to abortion seems to have arisen on a local level, as a new rebellion in which a substantial, and unable to be ignored, part of America is persistently dedicated to worrying about the fate of the unborn, aggrieved this demographic had been failed to be considered in earlier judicial reasoning about abortion rights.

We have, at the same time, changed how we map access to abortion, now part of our civil society, and also a part that would be wrenching to have invalidated as a individual right. Or is abortion poised to become a civil rights issue, more than a medical one, as it is understood through what this post understands is, rather terrifyingly, a theological context, as it is uprooted and removed from a scientific or medical one?

The color spectrum of these charts flip, but the human impact of how we remap abortion access–or have come to remap it in the United States–indeed seems to bears attention, as it can help us map the situation on the ground. If the header to this post suggests the radical contraction of abortion access in the manner of a geographic warper, similar to the distorted global maps of the prolifically virtuosic Ben Hennig, whose Views of the World are worth perusing to orient oneself to a changing world–but far more dramatically shifting the landscape of access to abortion, in ways that would make maps as important for finding legal access to abortion–suddenly made as complicated a question as migrant routes for asylum.

Indeed, even as the landscape of access to abortion had been creepily and rather creepingly changing by 2014, as a spate of local Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers–TRAP Laws–were enacted across much of what came to be called the “heartland” of the nation, the sense of “abortion havens” was mapped already by Business Insider, reflecting how imposition of commercial restrictions on abortion providers had forced many to close–as the introduction on a county and state level of specifics from the width of their corridors, the size and equipment of procedure rooms, and admission privileges at local hospitals, if rarely necessary, imposed costs that compelled many clinics to silently close, even as the “rights” to abortion access were nominally intact–and as no clear “burden” was detected in the partisan decisions and policy moves of state legislatures. The divide between “red” and “blue” states is rarely reduced to abortion, but the notions of family planning, women’s control over their bodies, and the privacy of a woman’s relation to her doctor–if all cast in terms of “cultural” differences among regions of this great nation–are now turned to be resolved, the deck having been fully stacked, to the august institution of the U.S. Supreme Court, having been entrusted with multiple landmark cases in the past to move us to a more perfect union.

Yet it doesn’t seem as if that union’s perfection is on the horizon. The rifts portrayed by Business Insider India in terms of havens in the midst of the hopes to expand health care grew in the United States, but debates about that expansion raged on right-wing television, and among evangelists, was shifting toward the terrifying tones of alarming reds in which we seem compelled to map abortion access as a good that is not only scarce but shrinking at an amazingly unfamiliar and unforseeable rate, as our oceans warm, and fill with more bacteria, and rise, as the polar ice caps melt. It is alarming, because the courts do not seem able to resolve this issue, as the opinions issued on a local level seem incapable of being resolved–and belong do differently framed logics and differently dated discursive fields. One cannot have a rupture, perhaps, but there seem parallel realities that the country is yet again either in danger of entering or existing, which any federal legal resolution by Supreme Court justices seems improbable to provide.

In recent years, judicial opinions have gained a unique status in the headlines of national news. As the courts have gained new status as a battleground where judicial positions rehearse divides in our body politic, the new status of abortion rights as a strategically posed issue has distanced debate from public health–or access to better health care–but a return to “first precepts,” to guiding freedoms, to understand the role of the court on maternal health care practices relate to abortion. Mapping the rapidly shifting nature of this medical landscape as a concerted partisan strategy is only part of the point. For the redefinition of maternal health is nothing less than a deep effort of misinformation, recasting the termination of pregnancy as early as six weeks as a criminal act in the community’s–and state’s–interest to protect, even if the actual “topography” of where abortions occurs has become increasingly uneven.

The prospect of the outright banning of abortion in twenty-six states in the nation demands you to read the current statistics of aborted pregnancies not only as a new “culture” of abortion in the northeast, California, and Florida, but a register of the need that these states meet and provide: if there are “sharp edges” to where abortion is accessed, they reflect population density, poverty, and increased stresses on family planing and growth.

For that map, a poor proxy that shows the steep divides across the nation, many sharply drawn in states–perhaps most unevenly in Texas, with its complex palette of light greens, dark green, and pockets of red giving it a sense hardly of a backwater, but state where, even more than North Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia, sharp dissonances in the availability of medical care for maternity give it a complexion that seems almost as divided as the nation, and unlike the several states–Alaska and Louisiana among them, but also Colorado and the Dakotas, as well as Florida, New York, and California, of far, far greater homogeneity. Compare this county-by-county map to the prospect of “trigger laws” banning abortion in twenty-six states of the nation, local legislatures have staged a bit of a trap for the vast majority of women nationwide, whose legal access to abortion should the constitutional protections of a right for women to access abortion facilities in their pregnancy fail to sustain a local challenge.

The result is nothing less than a crisis in national health care policies, marking red those states either certain or likely to ban abortion, and those likely–Florida, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming–arrayed in an unmistakable echo of the familiar breakdown of our electoral maps, reminding us of the partisan origins of such a challenge–a challenge that has been reframed not in terms of the rights of women, but the rights of the unborn, as if this new demographic and constituency had been discovered by legal sleuths in recent years.

 States Certain or Likely to Ban Abortion Should Supreme Court Weaken or Overturn Roe v. Wade
Guttmacher Institute

Unlike the county-level map of aborted pregnancies, this future map is a prognostication. It dramatically and monitory but maps a landscape of sharp and stark divides, suggesting the remove of women across a sea of continuous states who stand to be placed at a geographic removed from abortion providers without moving themselves. The legislative strategy of rolling back rights that have been presumed for two generations is akin to storming the U.S. Capitol, but reflects a long lain groundwork to secure the state’s compelling interest in protecting the lives of the unborn.

An even starker version of the map by the Guttmacher Institute of amplified monitory value is an image of a brave, new world, with far greater respect for such creatures in it unborn. This landscape, enforced by local legal challenges more arcane assert a compelling interst that the state has in protecting of the unborn, is far more prescriptive than any seen in the twentieth century. It is something of the ground-plan of a strategy that seeks to nail the nation, and its body of laws, to a cross: the red expanse is a sagging net for maternal health care , tracing an opening salvo in a battleground for states’ rights or, more accurately, for the conscription of the unborn fetus in what is cast as a heightened “culture” wars about health care–

–in which the mute protagonist of the unborn fetus is persuasively made a compelling interest of the state. to use its laws to protect, the health or well-being of mothers put aside from any compelling interest that the state might be able to entertain. Unlike the county-level map of clinical practice, which shows variations, the impositions of cookie-cutter prescriptive laws is an intentional an alteration of the terrain, lacking justification or reasoning behind a shift so dramatic, or sense of its implications on the ground in peoples’ lives, out of a deep belief that the previous decision is a pestilence across the land that needs to be contained. But it is also a strategy of promoting the lives of unborn, or of using that line to foster deep social divides.

The seemingly scientific justification of reducing the threshold to permit abortion not only removes the practice from the context of maternal health, but suggests “rights” of the unborn that are removed from the subjectivity of the mother, as soon as they are seen–and “mapped”– within the womb. By overturning the notion that the state had a compelling interest in reproductive health, constitutional liberties, or bodily health, attempts to preserve fetal personhood that lacks medical logic has been increasingly dressed in pseudo-scientific garb, by exporting the visual logic of ultrasound to grow a shifting “legal” landscape entertains the rights of the unborn–rather than the burden on women, the health care system, or the law. And if pregnant women were once forced, in the past landscape of the pre-Roe world, to travel outside the nation for abortions–heading to Mexico or Sweden from the east coast and to Japan or Mexico from the west, many states are bracing for an efflux or overflow of women seeking abortion arriving from Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi–including Florida, already emerging as the go-to sanctuary for female reproductive care, given difficulties of border-crossing, with California, Illinois and to some extent New Mexico more costly alternatives.

The current attempts of states to devise local workarounds that evade the constitutional right of access to abortion–and guarantee of access as a binding precedent of the court–has come up against loggerheads with the concept of the freedom of “unborn children” posing pressing questions of what is a “compelling interest” of the state in a fetus before life can be sustained outside of the womb. The recent focus of on the heartbeat, or rather the appearance or perception of the heartbeat, as an index or sign of value–if without basis in medical science–has become a new basis to increase the burdens on women in most states to access maternal health. For the designation of cardiac contractions as evidence of a “person” or a soul that in the interest to the state to protected is, in fact, a terrifying smokescreen for the radical contraction of a pregnant women’s rights.

Cardiac Activity in a Fetus of Eight Weeks

In ways that have framed the question of access to abortion in the nation in terms of how they are addressed in the U.S. Constitution–reticent or silent of any issue of women’s health–the question of what the role of courts is in preserving states’ rights to restrict access to abortion and health care, or to defend the access of women to be able to terminate a pregnancy, has placed undue stress on the place of legal reasoning in determining access to maternal health care. The current drive to regulate abortion, itself a pronounced response to the expansion of the health care markets from 2008, have become a national divide of striking proportions, so much that they are cast–wrongly, for this blogger–as a cultural divide.

But the storied cultural divide of abortion is a deeply geographic one, as we have long been habituated to preserve access to abortion since reproductive rights first came under attack before Casey, in the 1990s, as preserved by cities as the National Institute for Reproductive Health shifted their ground game to ensuring that cities–not necessarily where abortions were most in demand, but where voters and elected officials were far more sympathetic–lived. As if the riots of January 6, 2021 attempting to stop the end of Trump’s Presidency by a show of force in Washington DC, the latte-drinking liberal city-dwellers before their laptops–a tired political cliché we all love–is also apt. For it is among urban audiences of a certain age that a political precipice seems to have suddenly reached, as constitutional grounds for health care shifted beneath their feet.

John Cole/Scranton Times Tribune, PA

The protection of “abortion rights” by local safeguards in cities emerged in dialogue with, to be sure, the expansion of local restrictions on access to abortion from 2010-2016, and the cumulative weight of three hundred and thirty measures to restrict abortion, and a logic of shoring up rights in a deeply divided polity where rights of migrants, unhoused, and poor were feared to be evanescent or at risk, and the law no longer a stable fabric. Urban preserves where women’s rights to access maternal health care were predominantly coastal, and often, far removed oases from the sites lacking sanctuaries of legal protection, revealing the shifting palette of access to “freedoms” protected in the constitution by standing legal opinion. From 2016, at the end of the Obama era, as battle-lines over Obamacare concealed fights about abortion, reproductive freedom was a mixed bag across the country, reflecting in terrifying ways the 2016 electoral map of a broad continuity of red states as a mythical “heartland.”

The new ground-game of shifting the threshold of permitting abortion–imagined as enacted by local legislatures–suggests an endgame of a territorial fragmentation of once-universal rights to access abortion would shift the clock back five decades overnight. The ground-game is swift, and demands to be drilled into, both in Texas, and in other states, as it may well be poised to be recognized as law of the land, setting off tremors of health care and desperate searches for access to clinics–or potentially unsafe, if used as a last resort, abortion pills designed to simulate miscarriages–across the land, placing pregnant women at only greater risk.

The swift pace of shuttering abortion clinics in Texas by local legislation–magenta dots marking the actual closures of clinics offering abortion in Texas due to local laws, chipping away at or decreasing the actual liberty of access that is ostensibly the law of the land some years ago.

Abortion Clinics Forced to Close by Local Legislation in Texas, 2012-15/ Bloomberg Business Week

The map can be drilled down into far more deeply to describe the distance at which local laws have “placed” women of child-bearing age from clinics–creating a skewed topography in which, by 2014 data, women were compelled to travel nearly two hundred miles, at their own expense, to obtain abortion services, curtailing health services that were available to women and the abortion “deserts” that were quickly–and intentionally–created across the state.

Distances Women Forced to Travel for Abortion, 2014/The Lancet Public Health

The burden of such restricted access to clinics that can offer abortion in a substantial area of the state where women would be demanded to travel upward of 100 miles to a clinic has created exactly such a burden, but has emerged as a state’s right, by expanding the “compelling interest” of state counties to ban abortion not by the yardstick of the trimester of pregnancy–a standard in Roe v. Wade or fetal viability, measured by twenty-three to twenty-four weeks after conception, permitting the procedure up to that non-arbitrary date. Yet the unequal remove of women from abortion providers seems a burden as undue as an other, especially on women without the economic option for extensive travel to locate a provider within the state’s bounds–or, as seems poised to become the need, outside of them.

Should Roe v. Wade fall, and the constitutional right of women enjoy to access abortion as a form of maternal health care vanish overnight, “tigger laws’ already on the books would prompt an immediate jump of average distances of women to abortion clinics from 36 to 280 miles, as 41% of women in the United States would find the nearest abortion clinic closing overnight, no preparatory window or period of adjustment–or alternative–in place. The ground-game, rooted in the election of local Republican officials of a pro-life strip on city councils and state legislative chambers, is an open attempt to erode the affirmation of rights that cut against the , creating something akin to “cities of God” that follow outdated norms of the protection of unborn lives by using the odd index of the sonograph as a proxy for what medieval theologians called “ensoulment,” adopting Aristotelian science to gloss scriptures, in a proscriptive model that has little relation to medical science or health care, or the freedoms to privacy and self-determination that were once protected by the Constitution.

It was another helpful service to American webizens, the Decolonial Atlas, your place to go for go to remedies on the web, posted a travel map of routes to abortion providers in southern states, collating affordable transit routes to clinics that would provide abortion services–services that were still technically “legal” but out of the range of many, and prohibitively expensive for most in need of them. The bus routes women might take to reproductive health service centers in many states–Illinois; Missouri; North Carolina; West Virginia; Tennessee; Florida; South Carolina–would be open, but prompted questions of economics and opportunity. The further question of the fear of undocumented being stopped by a zealous Border Patrol, should they move across and be stopped at checkpoints en route, would be wary to avoid. The feature lending prominence to the “border zone”–an inheritance of the over-policed border of the Trump Presidency–was kept from an earlier map that had gone live September 4, 2021, setting a six-week window for abortions as state law overnight, panicking women across the state who had suddenly lost access to a crucial piece of their health care.

Already, the mobility of women seeking abortion had seemed a steep threat to many in Texas, where an undocumented woman seeking an abortion might risk deportation for traveling from Laredo or Corpus Christi to Health Care Centers in New Orleans or Jackson, or even on her return from Austin.

nTo be sure, the heightened mobility of women seeking abortion is a new iteration of the regular plans that, before Roe, the Society for Humane Abortion offered those with sufficient means to travel to doctors outside of the United States’ borders–from the west coast, Japan was a destination of choice from the late 1940s, if not Mexico, helping some 12,000 with their passage to clinics outside American territoriality. These burdens of travel, indeed, were no small part of the logic for revisiting the placement of “substantial obstacle[s] in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable fetus,” a tricky problem that seemed a necessary point of consensus in the modern world of birth defects, often due to other medications. Yet the image of increased out-of-state travel and the burden that this would place in the paths of women was not clearly addressed by the Court, nor does it seem to have since. The rather terrifying image of freedom to access abortion being curtailed or removed due to the orthodoxy of a majority of justices recalls the pamphlet of the same organization protesting the right to “breath unpregnant,” wom the Society for Humane Abortion would happily send forth to another shore, her rights and liberties curtailed in the United States.

Society for Humane Abortion, September 1968

While Roe resulted in the reasoning that voided “the purpose or effect of creating a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable fetus” as placing “undue burden” reflected a standard that a burdensome restriction of constitutional rights could not be imposed by states, a finding of the late nineteenth century. The unconstitutionality of imposing an burden by any state in the union from the late nineteenth century: the standard applied in 1992 preserved women’s right to terminate pregnancy before viability does not relate to counties, only recognizing rights to ban abortion after the “viability” of a fetus outside the womb, save when the pregnancy endangered the mother’s health, and not using the rhetoric of personhood to describe the unborn. Definition of a burden as “undue” “either because [it] is too severe or because it lacks a legitimate, rational justification,” posits protection of rights of mothers, but are argued to deny the rights of “unborn.” But the shifting global limits on abortion are practically unique in multiple standards that are on the books in the United States, with some states holding no gestational limits, and some shifting them to a window as small as a month and a half, producing a forced mobility for obtaining abortions in the horizon. Perhaps this is all to familiar in a nation that experiences multiple realities and opportunities–and now liberties– for different levels of wealth.

Spectrum of Different Global Policies of Legality of Abortion, 2021/Wikimedia

Put another way, equal access to abortion is no longer the law of the land. And the drilling into the data of the multiple laws that have been locally proposed in states reveals not only a partisan strategy, but a deeply unworkable system of different tiers of maternal care. Since 2011, these rights have been attempted to be defined nowhere more prohibitively than in Texas. In the nation, over half of the closure of clinics that offer abortion services to women have closed by local legislation, in a concerted partisan push unfairly argued to reflect “local cultures.” The partisan nature of closures has been a template for “red state” policies from Iowa to Ohio to Louisiana, changing the on-the-ground landscape of access to abortion by forcing many closures due to safety violations, difficult work environments, and business decisions,–already a bleak landscape for maternity care for over the past decade, in eery contemporaneity to a public health option that would provide more maternal health options.

The opposition to abortion that focuses on the “unborn”–and the humanization of the heartbeat of the unborn, rather than the fetus–has become one of the more striking defenses of pseudo-freedoms. These are freedoms not ever articulated in Enlightenment thought, and foreign to it, from freedoms of belief, to freedoms of owning automatic rifles and military-style arms in one’s home, that extend to the protection of freedoms of the unborn. Such freedoms are resonant with full-throated opposition to mandates for mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing, or vaccines. The spread of challenges to the access to abortion and abortion pills across the nation deny the life-changing role of pregnancy on all women, and the greater dangers that childbirth–hardly a risk-free event!–imposes on women, let alone the dark topography of sharply disproportionate and increasing rates of maternal mortality in many of the states that have restricted access to abortion.

Maternal Mortality Rates per 100,000 births (2015)
Changes in Maternal Mortality in United States of America 1997-2012/BMC Health

The freedom to restrict abortion is similarly anti-scientific, and theocratic, strategically removed from the undue onus that state laws against abortion would have on women–especially if a good share of the clinics providing abortion to clients–sites marked below in orange and black–cease providing clinical care to women. Although it is argued that this will shift demand to mail-order abortifacients, safely used only in the first ten weeks of a woman’s pregnancy but providing subject to local and state provider restrictions, 99.6% successful if used at nine weeks from conception or less, and require in-person–consultation with a physician to be prescribed in fourteen states that have enacted restrictive abortion laws–including Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina–of thirty-three states permitting only physicians to provide mifepristone, creating divides to access “self-managed” that are poised to sharply grow along clear fault-lines, and perhaps creating a undue underground economy for abortifacients of unseen proportion; states limit abortion pills to being dispensed by physicians, despite that they are as effectively dispensed by nurse practitioners or midwives, create compromised access to health care in thirty-three states.

–and five states that have ban telemedicine for medication abortions, including Louisiana and Arkansas.

The result is a terrifyingly unequal deep, dark landscape distant from abortion facilities, whose loss is indicated by dense orange colored dots, suggests the severe restriction of health options for pregnant women that would result from overturning Roe v. Wade. Twenty-two states have adopted laws that the overturning would ban abortion within their borders.

Distances to Clinics ShouldTrigger Bans on Abortion Go into Effect /Axios

The undue burden on women who unable to provide the option to terminate their pregnancy before viability would grow in such ‘abortion deserts’ and impose a significant burden on states that affirm abortion on their edges, whose surviving centers would face ethical problems of facing a greater demand–if women travel to them, the states are potentially now exposed to the legal suits for violating laws restricting women’s access to terminate a pregnancy they do not want. Concerns that overturning Roe would increase travel to California to seek an abortion by almost 3000% is born out by the map below–restrictive laws in other state long increased out-of-state clients in California; increased demand for access to abortion from women residing in state laws restricting access to abortion would expose California to legal action for violating their laws.

The urgency to address the demographic of the “unborn” recuperates a category from the thirteenth century that enjoying a recent resurgence with the legal parsing of personhood. But while one spoke of the “fetus” in the 1970s, when Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, the shift to “fetal personhood” expressed by 2018 in Iowa, then the state with the most restrictive abortion laws yet, which made abortion illegal after a fetal heartbeat is detected, skipped over the question of a woman’s right to abortion, but expanded the ability of states to “regulate access to abortion” to the extreme, by permitting a ban on abortion earlier than most women would be likely to know they are pregnant, putting Iowa in the range of states with court-imposed restriction to abortion, contraception and reproductive services. While not framed as about sexual freedom, anxiety about women’s sexual freedom in 2017 and moral arguments led many central, southern, and midwestern states to adopt court-ordered restrictions parallel to the expansion of health care that included access to abortion–

-and must be seen as a resistance to it that set the basis for the “red states” which emerged as a united front in 2016 and the pro-life candidacy of Donald Trump.

The majority of states in the union adopted restrictions without any basis in scientific evidence at all, or clear roots in jurisprudence. The restrictive laws that were predominantly of proscriptive cast, betraying a terrifyingly theocratic origin in identifying the origins of “life” as a focus of judicial inquiry in a neo-medieval cast. Is establishment of any “heartbeat” law not in itself an undue burden on women, inviting the undue burden of placing a ban on abortion before fetal viability, that would demand to be struck down as such? While placing burdens on women throughout a large number of states, the local laws create new concepts of strict scrutiny around heartbeats, arbitrary weeks since conception, or the detection of reflexive movements in ultrasounds, all of which are coercive controls that serve to undo the undue burden concept.

1. Abortion was historically challenged by the medical profession as a way to restrict the role of women healers–and female agency–in the nineteenth century. But the search for legal obstacles to abortion is wrongly treated as a return to first principles but a shift in freedoms of access to health care. But the question of fetal “personhood”–or indeed of personhood of the unborn–dispensed with the very logic of potentiality that Roe left in the law by reserving for the state an “important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life from the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy,” dissolving that interest in favor of shifting the question from “potentiality” or a “Golden Rule” that grew out of attention on the fetus as a focus of protection; the expansion, due to stem cells, in vitro fertilization, and fetal tissue transplants on the moral status of the embryo as a subject in place of the woman’s right to access abortion or abortion providers.

While Aristotle was primarily concerned with the emergence of a rational soul, a concern that was adopted by twelfth century theologians who embraced his notion of the formation of the soul in the developing human embryo—the vegetal soul, the animal soul the intellective or human soul–the notion of personhood dispensed with the epigenetic stages of ensoulment, but focussed on vital signs located in the heart as a sign of life, independent from science, but reflecting the technologization of birth. The adoption of policies hostile to abortion rights in 6 states and of laws extremely hostile to abortion rights in 23 states) to abortion rights, and the hostility expanding to Iowa and West Virginia for the first time, created not only a new map of abortion rights, but mapped the origins of personhood in the womb. The result, according to the Guttmacher institute, placed the majority of American women able to bear children in states hostile or extremely hostile to abortion–without rooting their arguments in science.

Policy Trends in the States, 2017 | Guttmacher Institute

The defense of the “unborn person” flew in the face of science, beyond questions of cultural difference, from “mandated ultrasounds” to regulations on abortion clinics, including removing clinics from Medicaid, to, in Alabama, a state-wide ballot initiative to agree that personhood began at conception, the Human Life Protection Act, signed into state law in 2019, that “defines all unborn children as humans”–and allowing no exceptions for rape or incest. The bill was adopted only to encourage the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade around the question, in the word’s of its sponsor of whether “the baby in the womb is a person.”

For by redefining the fetus as a “life,” with freedoms and liberties attached and pursuant, Iowa’s legislature abandoned the standard of viability outside of the womb, asserting that the unborn is a person, and abortion tantamount to killing a life, as if “the burdens of carrying a child to term [could] justify the killing of a child,” per the lawyer representing the state of Iowa in 2018. It takes arguments of the potentiality of the unborn to the extreme, not discussing the Thomistic idea of potentiality of human life recently promoted by Catholic theologians as a middle ground, but mapping the heart of the matter–the heartbeat–the visual evidence of personhood. Fueled by the affective relations of ultrasounds that offer the “science” that seems to sever the personhood of the “unborn child” from the standard of viability that had set the threshold for up to what point the protection of a woman’s access to abortion was permitted by constitutional law. The rise of proscribed ultrasounds across multiple states reflect the new focus on personhood and heartbeats, whose mandated display and discussion provided a preventive basis for persuading those seeking abortion to forego the procedure.

Prespcriptive Ultrasounds as a Form of Clinical Counseling about Abortion
States Mandating Women View Ultrasounds if Taken or Ultrasounds Mandated by Law (2015)

Cast as a “Right to Know” legislation that was introduced in Pennsylvania in 2012 mandating all women who are seeking abortions to view the ultrasound designed to determine the gestational age of the unborn fetus–a means of placing the abortion in a window of viability–offered all women seeking an abortion the “right” see the image, and to hear the heartbeat, offering a new way to map life and epigenetic questions of ensoulment around the “beating” of the heart, although no ultrasound was mandated in states protecting abortion rights.

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The states that have pushed back on this definition for one more consensus hardly appears scientific, gives a scholastic sense of ensoulment first articulated in the thirteenth century contemporary relevance, mapping the unborn on an ontogenic continuity of personhood that reduced the concept of viability that the court once embraced to a relic as quaintly outdated as Plessy v. Ferguson’s ruling that segregation did not violate the fourteenth amendment. The insistence of a Justice on the highest national court that the compelling interests of the “unborn” has become grounds to review the liberty of women to access abortion prior to the line of fetal viability outside the womb. Defining personhood from conception has pushed back these freedoms to the unborn in ways without legal precedent or, championing the court’s role to represent the interest of the unborn, preventing violence against those being carried to term, handing down a sentence against all women asked to carry a child to term.

The imaging tools of the ultrasound after all transformed the fetus to a “baby’s head” and “baby’s heart” able to be recognized on the screen, and indeed labeled for identification, in ways that seemed to deliver a deeper truth, in an age when we have difficulty distinguishing representation and reality, expanding the case in the courtrooms that the presence of a fetal heartbeat offered incontrovertible evidence in a court of law that a “a human child with a heartbeat is a living child,” even if few judges in Iowa were ready to hear the argument, if the state’s lawyer refused to accept that the fetus with a heartbeat was a “potential life”

An ultrasound is performed at Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines.

Although Roe v. Wade has been discussed as precedent for decades, occasioning only recently clear skepticism about reducing women’s right to abortion by restricting the window of “viability” of the unborn to twenty weeks, in North Carolina, one to two months less than the usual 24-28 weeks, but currently nineteen states take the date as the cut-off for access to abortion, in ways that have made the former standard of viability to seem virtually arbitrary, rather than grounded in embryology. The emptying of any embryological standard–or indeed medical expertise–has come to be cast as a “cultural divide,” out of the court’s sphere of decision making or competence, with seven states on board to limit abortion to the greatest extent possible to twenty weeks: Kansas; Kentucky; Arkansas; Louisiana; Missouri; North Dakota; and Ohio. The critical curtailing of this access in Iowa, the site of the first primary to select the United States President, suggests an undue prominence of an ambivalence to abortion in our national politics.

the latest you can get an abortion in every state map

The effective reframing of rights to access abortion as a question of “states rights,” rather than public health, and of local “liberties,” makes Texas the perfect site at which a national debate about abortion access can be balanced, however, as the current debates on similar local laws in Mississippi–reducing the window to fifteen weeks–it almost even left Chief Justice Roberts flummoxed to ask if the window would always be effectively arbitrary, as if the number of weeks were divorced from a woman’s body or a woman’s womb. The voiding of any constitutional right to abortion in four states of the deep south–Alabama; Louisiana; Tennessee; West Virginia–already pushed the debate away from constitutional rights. Yet the result of shifting the “burden” pregnancy places on women from the nation’s courts suggests a seeming time warp for much of the country, maybe not to the the 1200s, but at least to the years before 1972 at the stroke of a pen–or a verdict of 5-4.

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