Art review: Drone attack

A new exhibition raises uncomfortable questions about the modern way of waging war.

On the door of the gallery is the following warning: "You are likely to find some of the documentary images of bomb victims very distressing. Not suitable for children."

I sit down in front of a large projector screen. A video of low quality footage composed of photographs and amateur film plays. Running on a continuous loop, the only sound comes from the images featuring drones buzzing in the sky and the projector whirring behind me.
Part of Gaming in Waziristan, these images are by journalist Noor Behram. They form one part of the three-piece exhibition currently on display at the Beaconsfield gallery - its aim to draw attention to the unreported consequences of growing drone strikes in Pakistan and the Middle East by American forces.

Little is known about such military attacks waged by the U S in remote areas. They utilise the latest technology and are reported upon only sporadically. Often they are just a footnote in articles reporting military successes, for instance when a member of Al-Qaeda is killed. Flown by the U S military out of bases in America, they allow allied forces to attack barren areas where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are believed to take refuge. Keeping home casualties to a minimum, they use information from a network of CIA-employed spies in the area to find their targets.

On the screen: a still image of a child appears. He lies buried amongst rubble, killed after an American drone attack. At first you don't notice, you think it is a trick of the light, but the top of his head is missing. Looking again you see also his face is partially crumpled like a deflated basketball.
Of the 60 strikes Behram has managed to document in North and South Waziristan, 27 feature in the looped reel at the exhibit. His work goes beyond the official narrative on such attacks to show the horrific and hidden consequences of what is a new way of waging war.

Whereas traditionally one would see first hand the outcomes of one's actions whilst fighting, drones create a mode of combat in which the outcomes of deadly acts are dehumanised. Placing physical and emotional distance between actions and consequences, between the act of killing and the killed, they alter the nature of conflict. No longer does an American soldier need to be present on the battlefield, to look physically at their targets or see with their own eyes the outcomes of their deadly behaviour.

On the screen: A child, killed in a drone attack, lying in state. He is adorned with flowers.

Drones are, proponents argue, highly accurate and relatively safe ways of fighting a war, however information from reporters such as Behram contradict this. Civilians, not terrorists, are by far the heaviest casualties of drone attacks (Reprieve states that of the 2,490 people killed in Pakistan by U S drones since 2004, as many as 2,046 have been wholly innocent).

On the screen: a severed hand is held up before a group of people.

Even if one were to question the veracity of Behram's work (his pictures, the curator at Beaconsfield tells me, have not been authenticated) I would argue their truth is not essential to the impact of this exhibit. For what we should take from it is not necessarily a collection of facts, but rather a set of questions that need to be raised and ultimately answered; questions about how we should understand this new and even more inhuman way of warfare. A way of war that makes it possible to sit in a control room in the U S and kill a group of people in Waziristan one moment and go on your lunch break in a pleasant park the next.

Gaming In Waziristan runs at the Beaconsfield Gallery, London SE11 until 2nd September

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times