Book review: ‘Visibility equals death’ – living under the martial gaze

In 1978 the then-US under-Secretary of Defense, William Perry, declared that the Pentagon was seeking the ability “to be able to see all high-value targets on the battlefield at any time, to be able to make a direct hit on any target we can see, and to be able to destroy any target we can hit.”  In ‘The Eye of War‘, author Antoine Bousquet argues that military technology is increasingly allowing this objective to be achieved at virtually any time and in virtually any place around the world.

‘The Eye of War’ is the story of the evolution of what Bousquet calls ‘the martial gaze’ – a gaze that threatens anything which falls under it with obliteration.  Today’s military drones are a high profile, modern manifestation, of an ability to spot and destroy a target which has been emerging since the Middle Ages, and ‘The Eye of War’ sets out in vivid terms the histories of the various technologies involved and how they have converged to create a world which, in the words of military scholar Martin Libicki “visibility equals death”. 

The journey begins with an account of how Renaissance artists and mathematicians achieved, in developing an understanding of the rules of perspective, a ‘rationalisation of vision’ with a technique for representing three dimensional scenes accurately on a flat surface.  Not only was this a landmark in the history of art, it was also a breakthrough in the world of surveying, and allowed the science of cartography to progress.

Maps Are Weapons: US Army Air Service, 1942

Bousquet shows how the histories of map making and military targeting are closely intertwined and provide the key components of the martial gaze: the ability to sense, image, and locate a target.  As technology has moved forward the process of vision has become increasingly mechanised and automated through the development of photography and the camera, video and motion film, and computer vision.  An increasingly wide range of sensing techniques have emerged beyond the realm of vision, with the use of sound to detect military targets through radar and sonar; the exploitation of bands of the electromagnetic spectrum beyond visual light; and the use of chemical, radiological, and biological sensors.

It is no surprise that the desire for military superiority has driven  many of these innovations, especially during wartime.  World War I provided to be a crucial period in the development of mechanised military technology and the martial gaze.  Aviation technology, military photography, and the optics industry took major strides forward over this period, and the mathematical military techniques of surveying, range-finding, and mapping came of age.  Bousquet recounts how the French army were taking up to ten thousand photographs every day by the end of the war and quotes German air fighter ace Manfred von Richtofen (the Red Baron) as acknowledging that “often a photographic plate is more important than shooting down an enemy machine”, emphasising the importance of aerial reconnaissance during the war.

During World War II and the Cold War the importance of surveillance and intelligence gathering continued to grow, underpinning the concept of deterrence through the identification of nuclear targets and the verification of disarmament measures as warfare changed from a contest of direct force-on-force conflict to a game of hide-and-seek and bluff.  ‘The Eye of War’ chronicles these developments, setting out the milestones in technology development leading up to the present and occasionally exploring some of the quirkier inventions which didn’t make it past the starting line, including a patented helmet-mounted gun, chronophotographic gun cameras, and a pigeon controlled missile-guidance system.

Hand in hand with the automation of vision has been the mechanisation of the fire control chain.  Firstly through the use of mechanical gunsights and then,  with the role of the human operator fading as supersonic aircraft emerged – flying too fast for human reflexes to track and requiring computer based radar-controlled weapons to shoot them down – radar-guided anti-aircraft guns.   Emerging artificial intelligence techniques now have the potential to allow imagery to be processed without human involvement, threatening the development of ‘killer robots‘ in the near future.


Combined with wide area persistent surveillance systems such as the Gorgon Stare camera which can capture video images of an entire city, artificial intelligence may now be able to track the movements of an individual over time and, within limits, predict their actions.  As a result, we are now all caught in the martial gaze – potentially the subject of lethal surveillance.  At the same time the traditional notion of a battlefield is disappearing as the ability to target becomes globalised and the notion of boundaries for the use of armed force in space and time disintegrate.  As the martial gaze ascends, Bousquet concludes, the society which created it is now caught in its scrutiny.

HMS Kildangan in dazzle camouflage, Imperial War Museums

However, the story does not end there.  In an interesting coda to the book, Bousquet also discusses at length how the martial gaze can be obstructed by concealment and camouflage techniques.  Such methods have largely developed in parallel to the development of military technology, for example to conceal targets from view from the air.  By using a wide range of approaches – disrupting, decoying, blinding, screening, dazzling, and misdirecting – adversaries can exploit the weak points of the martial gaze and escape its view.  Modern technology – for example stealth technology and dynamic camouflage – can be employed to deceive a hunter every bit as fruitfully as it can be used to track a prey.  Concealment, too, has become a part of modern warfare, with ‘little green men’ operating at the boundaries of the military and the civilian worlds as a central part of modern unattributable military actions.

‘The Eye of War’ is first and foremost a scholarly book, rather than a general read.  There are some places where the theoretical conceptualisation and academic jargon may put off the casual reader, but hopefully not too many, and not to too great an extent.  The rich mixture of philosophy, history, and technical analysis makes the book a highly rewarding read, telling a fascinating story of how the interweaving of technologies has shaped the face of modern warfare.  This is an insightful book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about how the world of the past has created the world of today.

  • The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone,  Antoine Bousquet, University of Minnesota Press, 2018

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