When Looks Can Kill: On Antoine Bousquet’s “The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone”

By Anna FeuerJanuary 14, 2019

When Looks Can Kill: On Antoine Bousquet’s “The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone”

The Eye of War by Antoine Bousquet

IN THE WAKE of the disastrous Tet Offensive, US Army General William Westmoreland reflected on the ineffectiveness of America’s firepower against North Vietnamese concealment in the jungle. “We were not quite a giant without eyes, but that allusion had some validity,” the former commander of US troops in South Vietnam admitted in a 1969 address.

But the American Polyphemus would soon recover its sight: an “entirely new battlefield concept” was emerging. “I see battlefields or combat areas that are under 24-hour real or near real time surveillance,” Westmoreland prophesied. “I see battlefields on which we can destroy anything we locate through instant communications and the almost instantaneous application of highly lethal firepower.” While the fantasy of a fully transparent battlefield would not be realized in time to salvage the campaign in Vietnam, Westmoreland proved prescient about today’s surveillance and precision strike capabilities.

Westmoreland would likely appreciate ARGUS-IS, a wide-area surveillance platform named for the hundred-eyed giant Argus Panoptes of Greek mythology. He might also admire Gorgon Stare, a (now defunded) video-capture tool that tracked targets using up to 12 distinct cameras. “Just as the mythical creature it drew its name from could turn the objects of her gaze into stone,” Antoine Bousquet writes in The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone, “this all-seeing eye promised to immobilize any entity” that fell within its field of vision.

The Eye of War, Bousquet’s ambitious history of surveillance and targeting technologies over nearly six centuries, chronicles the enduring military quest for the power to see everything and kill anything, all at a safe remove. “A martial gaze roams our planet,” Bousquet declares, “from the watchful satellites peering down from their silent orbits to the infrasonic sensors probing its subterranean and subaquatic depths.” Bousquet, a reader in international relations at London’s Birkbeck College, explores the implications of a military surveillance regime that is at once globe-spanning and fine-grained, all-encompassing and individuating.

Contemporary armed conflict, in Bousquet’s account, is marked to an unprecedented extent by the expansion of surveillance and sensing capabilities that enable targeted attacks virtually anywhere on the planet. “Visibility equals death,” he affirms (quoting RAND strategist Martin Libicki). The fusion of surveillance systems and lethal weaponry was on graphic display during the 1991 Gulf War, when American TV audiences watched US forces liberate Kuwait from the “bomb’s-eye view” of camera-equipped missiles. Today, drone pilots tracking insurgent targets put “warheads on foreheads” with the help of sensors, infrared imaging, and real-time video streams.

Bousquet’s premise, that modern military violence involves the “convergence of perception and destruction,” is not itself original; Paul Virilio pointed to the “deadly harmony that always establishes itself between the functions of eye and weapon” in his seminal 1989 book War and Cinema. But Bousquet expands on the significance of this lethal vision, both for the soldiers whose eyes are supplanted by advanced surveillance technologies, and for the civilians who find themselves in the crosshairs. He aims to show how the military pursuit of ever-more-perfect visibility and efficient targeting takes on a life of its own, with the result that traditional boundaries between combat zones and civilian space are eroded.

The road to this important conclusion runs a little too long. Bousquet begins his account not in 20th-century Iraq but in Renaissance Italy, where Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti developed perspectival representation that fixes the positions and proportions of objects in space relative to a specific viewpoint. This formalized understanding of visual perception, Bousquet tells us, set the stage for the enhancement and ultimate displacement of human sight by its technological substitutes.

Bousquet’s effort to present today’s targeting practices as the necessary culmination of linear perspective (and its refinement into a general projective geometry in the 17th century) is a little strained. It is surely right that militaries achieve mastery over the battlespace using methods derived from early modern geometric theory, including photogrammetry and cartography. But the connection is too generic to warrant the emphasis of a whole chapter.

The rest of the book is more tightly focused on the technological innovations that paved the way to present-day warfare. Borrowing Virilio’s notion of a “logistics of perception” — the techniques by which modern militaries generate and disseminate visual intelligence — Bousquet identifies its four elements in four corresponding chapters: sensing, imaging, mapping, and hiding. His inventory of “perceptual prosthetics developed to compensate for the innate limitations of the human eye” includes telescopes, binoculars (“the giant’s eye of modern mechanized warfare,” in the words of a World War II journalist), optical range finders, high-speed computation systems, and instruments that transcend visible light — such as night-vision scopes, thermal-infrared detectors, underwater sonar, and all-weather radar.

Bousquet takes us from the 19th-century chronophotographic gun, a bird-watching camera shaped like a rifle (and so a perfect symbol of the union of eye and weapon); to aerial reconnaissance missions carried out by kites, balloons, rockets, and motorized aeroplanes; to the development of US spaceborne satellites, which now reportedly boast a resolution of 10 centimeters or less. We learn that the French army, lacking the cartographic resources demanded by the Great War’s unprecedented scale, relied on an obsolete 1:80,000 map at the outbreak of hostilities; that the German, British, Russian, and American militaries produced more than three billion map sheets during World War II; and that today’s GPS satellites are armed with synchronized atomic clocks that keep time at an accuracy level of under a second in 300,000 years.

Some innovations are ridiculous. In the 1940s, the renowned American psychologist B. F. Skinner developed a plan to bomb Nazi Germany with pigeon-guided missiles. Inspired by Japanese kamikaze techniques, which used humans as guidance systems, “Project Pigeon” trained birds to peck at the image of a target projected on a screen. Three pigeons were placed inside each missile; the sum of their pecks “democratically” determined the direction in which the missile would steer. (The program was ultimately cancelled, but not before receiving $25,000 in federal funding.) “We have used pigeons,” Skinner explained, “because [the pigeon] can be made into a machine, from all practical points of view.”

The logical end of this trajectory is to make the soldier into a machine. The first step, Bousquet suggests, is the supplanting of human vision by mechanical, and eventually autonomous, substitutes. The “definitive untethering of the human eye from its corporeal shell” began with the military conscription of television. This was first attempted by the United States with the unsuccessful deployment of television-guided aircraft against the Japanese during World War II, refined during the Vietnam War with the detonation of the “fire-and-forget” Walleye bomb, and reaching its apex with the armed, unmanned MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones that provide continuous video streams of the battlefield below.

As the “martial gaze” peers into every nook and cranny of the battlespace, opponents have acquired increasingly sophisticated strategies of evasion. Bousquet describes “a perpetual arms race pitting hiders and seekers against each other”: new military surveillance technologies give rise to new techniques of camouflage, decoy, and simulacrum. World War I, which saw the advent of airplane reconnaissance and long-range gunnery, compelled combatants to develop creative means of concealment. French cubist painters were recruited to design camouflage for troops, artillery positions, even horses. Armies replaced burned-out trees with fakes, positioning spies and snipers in their hollow trunks, and created literal smoke screens using chemically manufactured fog.

For the relatively low-tech nonstate groups operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, the most effective concealment tactic is to blend into the civilian population. This form of “hypercamouflage,” a strategy to escape the ever-widening net of counterinsurgent surveillance platforms, turns the martial gaze on its own citizenry, extending the war zone into the civilian sphere. Suicide bombers wear regular clothing, US Special Forces operatives don indigenous Afghan dress, and “little green men” bear no recognizable military insignia at all. The breakdown of clear distinctions between soldier and noncombatant “dissolves any notion of the battlefield as a delineated space” and furthers the militarization of civilian life.

Bousquet may overplay the role of new technology here; asymmetric warfare involved concealment among and monitoring of civilian populations long before the advent of surveillance drones. (“The guerrilla must move among the people as the fish swims in the sea,” Mao Zedong wrote in 1937.) Crucially, though, he stresses how the persistent expansion of surveillance capabilities develops its own inertia — what he describes as a “general sociotechnical disposition” that is “[i]ncreasingly severed from the logic of means and ends.” The gunner or the drone pilot becomes a “ghost in the war machine,” his agency elusive, as automated technologies make his role more and more indeterminate.

The Eye of War is impressive in its methodical examination of perceptual technologies across six centuries. For all his focus on what these technologies can do, however, Bousquet spends too little time on what they can’t. He does acknowledge that human error and technical malfunctions make the pursuit of the perfect weapon a “quixotic quest.” But a number of high-profile targeting mistakes — including the accidental US bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan in 2015 that killed more than 40 people — warrants further reflection on the systematic distortions and blind spots of the martial gaze itself.

Still, Bousquet sounds a critical alarm bell as the march toward Westmoreland’s battlefield vision proceeds apace. Writing in 1952, the German architect and city planner E. A. Gutkind observed that aerial photography “has made all national frontiers obsolete, and their defense senseless.” In the age of global targeting, the boundaries that once defined theaters of war are fading fast.


Anna Feuer is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Yale University studying political violence, counterinsurgency, and environmental history.

LARB Contributor

Anna Feuer is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Yale University studying political violence, counterinsurgency, and environmental history.


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