Totalising the State through Vision and War

Another commentary in our series on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press), following the author’s introduction and pieces by Katharine Hall and Dan Öberg. This latest intervention comes from Dr Matthew Ford, Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Matthew has written extensively on military innovation, science and technology studies, and counter-insurgency. Matthew’s latest works are Weapon of Choice: Small Arms and the Culture of Military Innovation (Hurst, 2017), and (with Alexander Gould), ‘Military Identities, Conventional Capability and the Politics of Standardisation at the Beginning of the Second Cold War, 1970-1980’ in The International History Review. He is in addition the founding editor of the British Journal for Military History, a peer-reviewed open access that caters to audiences outside of academia as well as within.

usa seal


The Eye of War does not draw a connection to the official seal of the United States of America but the book does serve to remind us that among all the world’s powers, the United States has done the most to make the symbol of the all-seeing eye a technological reality. Tracing the pattern of ideas that framed the American political imaginary and subsequent reification of the Eye of Providence is not Antoine Bousquet’s purpose. Instead, Antoine’s book makes a double move. In the first instance, the majority of the work goes wider and draws attention to how technologies of vision personify the Leviathan state (Neocleous, 2003). In the second, it shows how technologies of hiding have undermined battle as a point of decision.

In an effort to develop these lines of reasoning and add my own provocation, I advance a three-step argument. In part one, I draw parallels with James Scott’s Seeing like a State (1998) and argue that the technologies of vision that Antoine identifies reflect the impulse of the state to sedentarise populations in an attempt to assert control over them. Expanding my point, in part two, I argue that the martial desire to achieve decisive battle has been frustrated by camouflage and concealment, technologies that are represented in orientalist terms by Western militaries. Finally, I contend that these modes of seeing have reified Western military strategies into technical systems that in effect reproduce what might best be described as a frustrated Western Way of Warfare (Hanson, 2009), trapping martial thinking in orientalist (Porter, 2009) and counter-productive ways.

Seeing beyond the state

In the introduction to Seeing like a State, Scott tells us that the original plan for his book was to investigate why the state has always been the enemy of ‘people who move around’. On thinking the question through further, he soon came to realise that legibility was crucial for enabling the state’s functions of taxation, conscription and the prevention of rebellion. Drawing these points together, Scott went on to observe that the link between sedentarisation and legibility was expressed through the detailed mapping of geographical space and the populations that lived there. Having produced these representations and abstractions, the state would then be in a position to develop the sorts of synoptic measures by which it could re-engineer society and strengthen its control over the population.

Crucial to the project of the pre-modern state was, therefore, the administrative ordering of subjects and environments. Standardising units of measurement, codifying land tenure, fixing surnames down lines of inheritance, classifying official language were all precursors to the assemblage of the modern state. At one and the same time the state schematised the complexities of practical life, abstracting, simplifying and rationalising so as to render legible what otherwise might be obscured by customary practices and rules of thumb. Only having undertaken such elementary tasks could the idea of society be constructed and then further domesticated through war (Owens, 2015).

The centralisation of violence within the state and the further administrative ordering this made possible took the state from high modernist ideology to the increased destructive capacity of wars between authoritarian states. These technologies of power were underpinned by technical knowledge that itself further stratified and empowered certain groups of people over others. When combined with the emergence of a prostrate civil society, the conditions created by this narrowing of vision has contributed to a sense of alienation in the general population and led to a rejection of the high knowledge that is required to maintain the functioning of the complex modern state.

Understandably, The Eye of War only tangentially deals with Scott’s arguments. Nevertheless, in light of the technologies of vision that Antoine explores, the irony of the state’s impulse to sedentarise populations given its need for highly skilled technicians needs to be made explicit. For the modern state depends on complex interactions between highly qualified and technically proficient population groups. Necessarily this is a small subsection of the world’s populace. Unable to generate all the necessary skills from within its own borders, the 21st century state increasingly depends on attracting the best and the brightest from across the world. This is further made possible by patterns of trade, ease of travel and the reduction of legal barriers to cross borders. The modern 21st century state thus depends on the freedom of movement of the technically proficient in ways that are contrary to the impulse of the pre-modern state to sedentarise populations. If the state is to retain any control over this then it must put in place technologies of vision that provide it with the means by which it can restrict movement to groups that sustain its acquisition of power against those who look to subvert the impulses of the administrative order as expressed in the international system.

The Eye of War thus offers an invaluable lens through which we can start to understand how powerful states like the United States have totalised their mode of seeing from the state to the globe. Mirroring the shifting patterns of perception that Scott identified, Antoine’s work shows how assemblages of perspective, sensing, imaging and mapping combine in ways that expand the capacity of the state to assert itself well beyond its sovereign borders. At the same time, as the final chapter on hiding alludes, it has also prompted technologies of resistance, technologies that I contend have trapped the martial gaze in increasingly vicious strategic paradoxes.

Frustrating the Western Way of Warfare?

In The Western Way of Warfare, Victor Davis-Hanson famously declares that instances of Greek hoplite warfare can be generalised to describe a Western preference for decisive battle. This is a distinctive mode of warfare and, he claims, should not be confused with either the European embrace of superior technology or the ability of Western armed forces to change in more agile ways than its adversaries. Nor should this preference be viewed as coterminous with the capacity of Western armies to raise finance by integrating themselves with ‘the general landscape of markets’ or maintain loyal soldiers by means of a social contract with the nation in arms. Instead, what Hanson means by decisive battle is the willingness of Greek hoplites to meet their enemies, whether the Egyptians, Hittites or Persians, head-on and en masse. This, he argues, has become idealised as a general willingness of Western armies to face adversaries in battles of decision.

Hanson’s definition of a Western way of war has been disputed by many and is clearly at odds with the central thrust of The Eye of War which points to how states in general have sought to find the technical means to put ‘warheads on foreheads’. And yet, as Antoine amply demonstrates, by juxtaposing the technologies of vision with the technologies of hiding we see how armed forces have sought decisive battlefield advantage through assemblages of perspective, sensing, imaging and mapping, which in turn have been frustrated by an adversary’s use of hiding as a counter-measure. When viewed this way, The Eye of War offers an oblique commentary on Hanson’s Western Way of Warfare. For if we take Hanson’s argument on face value then Western states have sought battles of decision but, unable to achieve these, they have sought to refine the technical means by which decision might be delivered.

In this respect, as The Eye of War spells out, there have been numerous refinements in technologies of vision. These have principally been aimed at rationalising the decision-making cycle for those having to identify and eliminate fleeting targets. Thus, for example, the various systems associated with direction finding, GPS and Heads Up Display have the advantage of closing the time gap that comes from processing complex assemblages of data. As these technologies become widespread, the comparative advantage that comes from using them declines. Consequently, additional augmentation – through prosthetics or the application of algorithms aimed at reducing cognitive load – is required if killing is to become an extension of seeing. Pushed too far, the logic of this observation resonates with the determinisms found in the Revolution in Military Affairs literature, determinisms that over emphasise battle as the engine for wider technological and social change (Parker, 1988; Rogers, 1992). Nevertheless, the logic of achieving a battle of decision can still be seen even as the technologies for engaging fleeting targets becomes more exquisite.

However, it is Antoine’s interest in technologies of hiding that provokes me to develop an argument about Western armies and their willingness to face their enemies head-on. For implicit in the final chapter of The Eye of War is a series of reflections on suicide bombers and ‘little green men’ that point to the reification of military orientalism in material and martial culture (Porter, 2009; Ansorge, 2012). Wagner points out how this works in relation to 19th century weapons and doctrine (Wagner, 2018) but it is also the case that this can be seen in relation to how Western armed forces have historically fought in the open and without taking recourse to hiding. 

sir samuel baker

As Antoine notes, during the 19th century these instances have been in response to the challenge posed by black powder ammunition and the need to retain control over subordinate commands. Yet there is also evidence that the use of brightly coloured clothing among European powers reflected a commonly held view among the military that non-Europeans were morally inferior.That Europeans eschewed hiding and camouflage because they saw it as uncivilised. Such tendencies can be seen in the observations of Sir Samuel Baker who, in his explorations of the Upper Nile, noted that, ‘An Officer in command of European troops engaged in “savage warfare” should always beware of two great dangers, “treachery” and “Surprise”’ and that ‘the sight of the red blouse was enough to create dismay among the natives’ (Baker 1873, p. 905 and p. 912). Such anecdotes may not be sufficient to draw wider generalisations about the place of brightly coloured uniform and hiding in Western attitudes towards ‘savage warfare’. However, as an indication of a Western martial imaginary, the historical antecedent points to more contemporary debates on robots and the reification of orientalist prejudice as codified into targeting algorithms (Vagle, 2016).

The trap of the martial gaze

No battle— Tarutino, Borodino, or Austerlitz— takes place as those who planned it anticipated. That is an essential condition.

— Tolstoy, War and Peace

So far I have depicted a technological cycle framed against an unrealised desire to control population movement and bring about decisive battle. Both of these ambitions emerge out of ideational trajectories that have their origins in making population groups legible and a preference for fighting adversaries head-on. The administrative ordering of populations made it possible to prepare and plan war. The preference for head-on war made it possible to weigh up the balance of power and predict the way battle might unfold. Each has a seductive logic that schematises the preparation, planning and prediction of war in society, the benefits of which Western states have been unwilling to challenge and give up.

The technologies of vision that Antoine describes emerge from and enable the political and military imaginaries that inspired them. The technological fix that this mentality produces is, however, one that locks military strategy into a paradox that privileges tactical engagement over identifying political solutions. For the modern battlefield is a battlefield of fleeting targets, where speed and concealment reduce the chance of being attacked and create momentary opportunities to produce strategic effects (Bolt, 2012). The assemblages of perspective, sensing, imaging and mapping, described in The Eye of War may make it possible to anticipate and engage adversaries before they can achieve these effects but by definition they achieve these outcomes at the tactical level.

The trap of the martial gaze is, then, twofold. On the one hand, by locking technologies of vision into orientalist ways of seeing, strategies that draw on these systems tend towards misrepresenting adversaries in a manner that finds itself being reproduced in military action. At the same time, in an effort to deliver decisive battle, the state has constructed increasingly exquisite military techniques. These hold out the prospect of military success but only serve to further atomise war down tactical lines as armed forces find more exquisite ways to identify adversaries and adversaries find more sophisticated ways to avoid detection. The result is that the military constructs enemies according to a preconceived calculus and fights them in ways that at best manage outcomes but at worst struggle to deliver political reconciliation.

napoleon at borodino


Ansorge, Joseph. 2012. “Orientalism in the Machine.” In Orientalism and War, edited by Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski, 129-150. London: Hurst & Co.

Baker, Samuel White. 1873. ‘Experience in Savage Warfare.’ RUSI Journal no. 17 (75): 904-921. doi:

Bolt, Neville. 2012. The Violent Image: insurgent propaganda and the new revolutionaries. London: Hurst & Co.

Hanson, Victor Davis. 2009. The Western Way of War – Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University California Press.

Neocleous, Mark. 2003. Imagining the State. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Owens, Patricia. 2015. Economy of Force: counterinsurgency and the historical rise of the social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parker, Geoffrey. 1988. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Porter, Patrick. 2009. Military Orientalism – Eastern War Through Western Eyes. London: Hurst & Co.

Rogers, Clifford. J. 1992. The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Scott, James. C. 1998. Seeing Like a State – How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Vagle, Jeffrey. 2016. “Tightening the OODA Loop: Police Militarization, Race, and Algorithmic Surveillance.” Michigan Journal of Race and Law no. 22 (1):101-137.

Wagner, Kim. A. 2018. “Savage Warfare: Violence and the Rule of Colonial Difference in Early British Counterinsurgency.” History Workshop Journal:dbx053-dbx053. doi: 10.1093/hwj/dbx053.


3 thoughts on “Totalising the State through Vision and War

  1. Pingback: A Martial Gaze Conscious of Itself | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: Returning the Gaze: A Reply to The Eye of Symposium | The Disorder Of Things

  3. Pingback: The eyes have it… | geographical imaginations

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