Aerial Surveying as Air Control: Geographical Knowledge in Mandate-Era Iraq



Over two terrible days in late November and early December 1923, the British Royal Air Force dropped 25 tons of bombs and 8,600 incendiary bombs on Samawah, a small Iraqi city that lay mid-way between Baghdad and Basra. The firebombing of Samawah was one of the most notable examples of “exemplary punishment” dealt by the British who were infuriated by a tax revolt in the region. A cadre of military strategists from the Mesopotamia Campaign of World War I, who were now tasked with colonial governance in Iraq under the terms of the League of Nations Mandate, approached the challenges of a tight budget and the requirements of managing a large territory by intensifying their advocacy of “air control” — the doctrine of replacing extensive colonial administration with policing from the air. Throughout the Mandate era, the Royal Air Force conducted aerial patrols and bombed any community, large or small, that resisted British authority. As Priya Satia has put it, “what was permissible only in wartime in advanced countries turned out to be always permissible in Iraq” (“The Defense of Inhumanity: British Air Control and the British Idea of Arabia,” 2006). With indiscriminate targeting of noncombatants as well as combatants, the attacks from the air terrorized the population and destroyed communities, homes, industries and infrastructure. Comprehensive British air control of Iraq required the building of air bases and the development of geographical tools for effective navigation and targeting. The British could neither bomb nor strafe effectively without another key component of air control: accurately detailed maps made through aerial surveying.

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Photograph by Royal Air Force Sgt. Grant over Iraq (early 1920s).

Aerial surveying was a new science in the period immediately following WWI. The incorporation of airplanes into warfare had begun with Italian aerial observation and attacks on Ottoman forces in Libya in 1911 and evolved into full-scale air units for all of the major militaries by the first year of the world war. Given the challenges of navigation in this early phase of air war, the contributions of aerial surveying to topographical mapping struck military strategists as especially noteworthy. While many military topographers clung to more traditional methods and materials, the advocates of aviation pushed energetically to bring the latest advances in aerial photography and surveying into the production of updated maps. There was an urgent need for them because the British and their allies had created such a wide arena for war, stretching across not only the Western and Eastern fronts but also the sites of engagement in North Africa and the Middle East. While the Western front offered a deep archive of cartographic material, maps of North Africa and the Middle East were less available to Europeans or believed to be inadequate. Accordingly, the British air divisions deployed to Iraq from 1916 on were tasked with developing a standardized aerial survey to assist in the production of much improved detailed maps. At the close of the war, with Winston Churchill assuming the position of Secretary of State for Air and the consolidation of the fledgling Royal Flying Corp into the Royal Air Force, advocates for air power pushed successfully for the continued integration of aviation into the production of “peacetime” geographical knowledge.

Yet, in Mandate-era Iraq there was no true “peacetime”; post-war mapping took place during a period of persistent and undeclared war. The aerial campaign in Iraq at the close of WWI and throughout the years of the Mandate period operated on multiple levels, from “soft” control to “terror.” The new strategy involved unprecedented levels of violence in metropolitan as well as rural sites. During WWI, the advocates of air war had argued that it was more humane in the long run to conduct massive bombing raids on cities because the scale of violence would force an early surrender, potentially saving large numbers of lives. Although greatly feared during the war, this level of aerial bombardment remained at the level of theory. However, while pundits debated the ethics of so-called area bombing in the West, there was no “moral or legal taboo” to prevent the bombing of largely civilian populations in colonized or Mandate zones (Beau Grosscup, Strategic Terror: The Politics and Ethics of Aerial Bombardment, 2006). Indeed, the “peacetime” that followed the Armistice in 1918 saw British bombing raids in India, Egypt, Afghanistan, Somaliland, Iraq, and South West Africa; Spain bombing Morocco; France fighting anti-colonial groups from the air in Syria; and Italy continuing its air war in North Africa — a wartime aftermath of particularly violent intensity.

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Photograph by Royal Air Force Sgt. Grant over Iraq (early 1920s).

Air control was advocated by a new generation of politicians like Winston Churchill, who argued that the British empire could no longer be maintained effectively by expensive investments in ground forces and extensive tiers of administrators. While the policy of “control without occupation” following the end of WWI promised to relieve the drained coffers of the British treasury, under Churchill’s supervision it also structured colonial spaces as laboratories for practicing air war before the next, seemingly inevitable world war. Under Churchill’s aegis, RAF strategies and tactics throughout the colonies and former colonies contributed directly to the British doctrine of “terror bombing” civilians during WWII. Post-WWI aerial bombardment in Iraq began early in the summer of 1920 when angry responses to the new British tax policy led swiftly to a general insurrection of not insignificant numbers — the rebellion was estimated to involve approximately 131,000 at the height of the unrest. Seeking to subdue those who refused to submit to British authority, the RAF devised a variety of practices including nighttime bombing raids on sleeping populations and the use of incendiary bombs which reduced many of the reed villages of southern Iraq to cinders. This kind of retributive aerial strafing and bombardment had a huge impact on the emotional as well as the physical state of the population on the ground. Prefiguring the effect of drones on civilian populations today, the threat of aerial attack produced an atmosphere of terror and a violent disruption of daily life that permeated Iraqi society.

Air control, officially inaugurated in Iraq in the fall of 1922 with the establishment of bases for eight squadrons of aircraft, not only produced new models of military policing, surveillance, and bombardment but also firmly and definitively linked the practices of aerial photography and topographical survey to cartographic weaponization. Aerial observation offered a technological solution to the challenge of the land-based surveying of a terrain that had been regarded by Westerners as a barren and even hostile wasteland. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the landscape of “Mesopotamia,” as Westerners came to refer to this large area, appeared to those outsiders to contain only scattered settlements and ancient ruins — a region that was poorly represented in European map collections, and, therefore, despite centuries of maps produced by Islamic empires, deemed to be inherently empty. As information about locations mentioned in the Judeo-Christian Bible began to circulate in Europe and North America, religious pilgrims and antiquity scholars organized expeditions to “discover” and excavate sites, removing their contents to be displayed in metropolitan museums and universities. Although these activities generated more travel guides and maps in English and Western European languages, large areas continued to be represented as blank space, further underscoring orientalist descriptions of arid regions as devoid of life or biological diversity. Proponents of aerial surveying in Mandate-governed regions easily revived the “blank” map and “empty” space discourses to advocate for both new techniques of producing geographical knowledge and controlling populations via air war.

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Photograph by Royal Air Force Sgt. Grant over Iraq (early 1920s).

The boom in the production of maps and manuals based on aerial surveying in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East during WWI and the Mandate period seemingly ignored both previous official and unofficial local and regional geographic knowledge. For example, as Sara Pursley argues, British maps like the one usually presented as accompanying the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement — the infamous plan between Britain and France that allocated areas in the Middle East to European interests — were based almost exactly on Ottoman maps. Furthermore, none of these maps (British or Ottoman) represented “empty” space. As Pursley writes: “They took many things into account: mountains, deserts, rivers, and ports; known and suspected oil deposits; population densities; existing Ottoman borders […] previous treaty agreements and current diplomatic relations and balances of power; military strategies, gains, and losses […] and perceived local desires, demands, and conflicts as well as perceived ethnicities, languages, and religious sects” (“‘Lines Drawn on an Empty Map’: Iraq’s Borders and the Legend of the Artificial State,” 2015). Despite these details, British topographers during and after WWI continued to argue that Iraq and other arid regions were historically illegible to cartography and challenging to even the most intrepid land-based surveyors. The only solution, according to many post-war pundits, was aerial surveying.

In post-WWI Britain, an influential group of current and former military officers that included archeologists, classicists, geologists, geographers, engineers, and religious scholars, among experts in other fields, viewed desert terrain as the ideal space for experimenting with state-of-the art aerial surveying techniques such as strip-mapping and working with both oblique and vertical aerial imagery. Building on older mythologies of the exceptionalism of desert terrain, British pilots like Lt. Col. J.E. Tennant, the commander of Air Squadron 30 in Iraq during WWI, stressed in their notes and memoirs published after the war that conditions in arid regions enabled pilots and observers to see details on the ground “plain as draughts on a board” (In the Clouds Above Baghdad, 1920). Drawing on such testimonies, Mandate-era strategists argued that an area with no enemy air force and many months of clear skies offered almost perfect conditions for aerial surveying. As Captain H. Hamshaw Thomas explained in a paper delivered to the Royal Geographical Society in 1920, aerial surveying of the Western Front during WWI had been exceedingly difficult due to concentrations of ground fire and the frequency of inclement weather: “Straight flying and the production of long series of photographs were virtually impossible.” In Palestine, on the other hand, where Thomas flew reconnaissance flights, the “airman” could fly “unhampered” (“Geographical Reconnaissance by Aeroplane Photography, with Special Reference to the Work Done on the Palestine Front,” 1920).

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Photograph by Royal Air Force Sgt. Grant over Iraq (early 1920s).

The entire rationale for aerial surveying in this time period depended on an emerging realist argument that linked geographical “ground truth” to political domination. Rather than admit that maps supported ideological projects such as British imperialism and territorialization, the advocates of the aerial surveying of Iraq during the Mandate era asserted a one-to-one correlation between “lines drawn on a map” and fact. As the British worked to influence and control nation-building in an Iraq heading for “independence,” cartographic identification and verification of otherwise malleable elements such as ethnic differences, religious sites, locations of communities, and national borders became an exacting and self-justifying “science.” As British planes conducted reconnaissance and aerial surveys, delivered communications rapidly over large distances, and conducted punishing aerial attacks on targeted cities and towns, the coordination of geographical information, military intelligence, and warfare achieved a new standard of efficiency. The detailed maps produced throughout the Mandate period with the energetic cooperation of the RAF Photographic Section and the Survey Department worked to transform Iraq into “one of the most extensively mapped and imaged areas on the face of the planet” (Rashad Salim, “Ur’s Echo: Cosmopolitans and Radical Loss,” 2013).

Beyond the technical triumphalism of any narrative of Mandate-era cartography lies a more complicated history. Although air control of regions like Iraq promised perfection of performance, the results were uneven: despite the much-vaunted advantages of the weather in Iraq, visibility was often a problem, and pilots would become disoriented. Many targets were completely missed, and, with enough warning, the rebels had little trouble evading the supposedly omniscient powers of the aerial observers. Resentment and hostility towards the British became a constant reminder that bombing a population into compliance has lasting political implications. Nevertheless, since only the British forces had aircraft, the aerial strafing and bombardment had a huge impact on the emotional as well as the physical state of the population on the ground. The British had been terrorizing populations that rebelled against their occupation for several hundred years. The instrumental advantage offered by aviation shifted public perception on the homefront from debates about “strong arm” tactics to celebrations of technological development and scientific achievement. If aerial surveying in areas like Iraq produced uneven results politically and militarily, the benefit of such experimentation for the evolution of modern surveying methods for urban planning, academic fields such as archaeology, and other purposes cannot be underestimated.

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Map of the Sykes–Picot Agreement between the U.K. (B) and France (A) carving up the Middle East in two colonial areas (May 1916).

In many ways, the history of aerial surveying in Mandate-era Iraq supports Bruno Latour’s contention that the technologies that endure, at least for a time, are those that not only operate satisfactorily but also help their advocates win their arguments or, I would add, secure financial as well as political advantages (“Drawing Things Together,” 1990). No map is neutral, and the cartographic representation of Iraq became layered with the territorial interests of governments and corporations. The rise of British Petroleum and other oil companies during the Mandate period cannot be understood as separate from the production of geographical knowledge of the region (in particular, the inclusion of Mosul within the boundaries of the nation state and control of the oil fields). As the US joined and even replaced the British as the foreign power most “interested” in Iraq, the air wars have persisted along with the proliferation of mapping technologies. Iraq provided the “perfect laboratory” once again for air power during “Operation Desert Shield” in 1990-91, as the US used the satellites of the global positioning system for the first time to direct air to ground missiles to targets. The ferocity of the US and allies’ air campaign during that conflict led to thousands of civilian casualties and widespread devastation of communities and infrastructure. “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” which began in 2003 and continues indefinitely, has featured the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) not only for air strikes but for observation and aerial imaging. The mapping continues, relentlessly, in the era of the “war on terror,” aiding contemporary air forces in their bombing runs while signaling the high stakes in determining which geographical information technologies will prevail.

Although declared and undeclared air wars have wrought devastation and claimed countless lives, the resilience of towns and cities like those attacked by the RAF in Iraq during the Mandate period is undeniable. Today Samawah is described as an agricultural market center, located on the Baghdad-Basra rail line. Built on both sides of the Euphrates and boasting numerous palm groves, the city has been continuously settled since the 3rd century AD. In addition to cement plants and a small oil refinery, the city produces salt from a nearby salt lake and is also known for bricks baked in the sun (a traditional craft) and a small carpet industry. Violence and trouble has not been absent since the creation of the nation-state in 1932 — the city has seen deportations and removals of citizens based on religious and political affiliation throughout the 20th century. Some neighborhoods of Samawah are known for rebellions against authorities ranging from Ottoman to British administrators and from Sunni to US rulers and occupiers. A satellite map of the city clearly shows the curving path of the Euphrates and the deep green of the celebrated palm groves. Main thoroughfares and primary buildings are easily identified. Less clear from the map is the historical contribution of communities like Samawah to the cartographic technologies that we take for granted today. The operations maps produced by RAF aerial surveying enabled the firebombing of Samawah in 1923 just as satellite and drone imagery made possible occupation of the city by the US 82nd Airborne Division in 2003. Every map is linked historically to the weaponized cartography inaugurated in the era of air control in places like Iraq. Once we recognize this history, the question that remains open is whether or not geographical knowledge production can be disarticulated from war.

This text is an adaptation for The Funambulist from Aerial Aftermaths published by Duke University Press, 2018.