Our Drones, Ourselves

Drones have changed modern warfare almost beyond recognition. In the 19th century, the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz likened war to “a duel on a larger scale,” but drones do away with ...

Drones have changed modern warfare almost beyond recognition. In the 19th century, the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz likened war to “a duel on a larger scale,” but drones do away with chivalry, removing one of the duelists from danger and subjecting the other to a barrage of missiles.1 Thus, according to the philosopher Grégoire Chamayou, war has become more akin to hunting. Fighting is now simply killing. Soldiers are executioners. “The drone,” Chamayou claims, “upsets the available categories, to the point of rendering them inapplicable.” 2  In other words, we’ve lost our language for war. How, then, can we understand it?

The killing machine of the early 21st century can serve as an object lesson, helping us understand, among other problems, the significance of geographic distance in an era of global war and terrorism. Indeed, what counts as nearby and what as faraway when armies can watch and kill in real time on the other side of the planet? And if distance fosters apathy, what’s the effect of a drone, which allows one to look up close at otherwise remote people and places for long periods of time and at least partially understand them?

The implications of such category confusions lie at the heart of two new books: Hugh Gusterson’s Drone: Remote Control Warfare and Caren Kaplan’s Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above. Pilots of drones, we learn, struggle with doubt and guilt, feeling bewildered and conflicted in front of their multiple screens. And some pilots identify and empathize with the people they’re supposed to reduce to targets. The machines themselves both expand and reduce vision, taking in greater total area but minimizing affective detail. Still, however distant, the pain and suffering on the ground remain perceivable if we look against the grain and think historically, remembering the prewar past, anticipating the trauma in the future. That trauma is always what one might call an “absent presence,” a conspicuous void betrayed by the strenuousness of military stoicism.

The killing machine of the early 21st century can serve as an object lesson, helping us understand the significance of geographic distance in an era of global war and terrorism.

Gusterson, an anthropologist, forces us to look at the carnage. Even avid news readers will find much to surprise—and disturb—them. Did you know, for instance, the Air Force now trains more pilots for drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), than for conventional aircraft? Have you ever heard of “signature” or “double-tap” strikes? Both reflect a lowered threshold for identifying enemy combatants. The protocol for a signature strike allows attacks on anyone exhibiting behavior deemed adequately suspicious or threatening. Double-tap strikes send two staggered missiles: one hits the target, then another hits those who rush in to help, on the presumption of complicity. The military touts drones’ effectiveness, claiming “surgical” precision, but these tactics incur—even elicit—heavy, though underreported, civilian casualties.

Pilots make decisions with too little information and too much narrative infilling, sometimes with an urge to pull the trigger. And the chain of command gets muddled, with regular power struggles between the Air Force and the CIA. Still, when civilian casualties are estimated at 10 or fewer, the decision to fire can be made relatively low on the ladder. And all decisions arise in circumstances in which danger is totally nonreciprocal, in which pilots themselves face no risk. For Gusterson, to neglect these problems is to reason from “drone essentialism,” a kind of technological essentialism according to which UAVs always do what they’re supposed to do, what they’re designed to do, without human error. Who, then, is responsible?

Some critics point to Obama, under whose leadership drone attacks increased dramatically. It’s unsettling to contrast his eloquent remarks on the unjust killing of Trayvon Martin to his support for a military strategy based largely on appearances and associations. But it was George W. Bush who first authorized signature and double-tap strikes, and so far under Trump, the rate of drone bombings has doubled. Both Democrats and Republicans have been keen to wage the war on terror with no American casualties, and without due process, though each attack turns away more hearts and minds, inspiring new recruits for terrorist groups.

Like the political lines, the battle lines—and many other distinctions—are hard to discern. Missions, after all, originate from trailers in Nevada and extend across the world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, in countries where the United States isn’t formally at war. It’s now hard to tell the difference between wartime and peacetime, between enemy combatant and civilian. Weapons are reminiscent of video games—hence Gusterson’s subtitle. Even within the Armed Forces, there’s confusion over the status of drone pilots: can they too, despite their safety, display honor and valor? Pilots of jets deride pilots of UAVs as the “Chair Force” and “Chairborne Rangers.”


The War in the Air

By Sarah Chihaya

In the seat of a drone pilot, distance feels less absolute, enabling what Gusterson calls “remote intimacy.” We might assume it’s easier to kill from afar, removed from up-close consequences, but the video feed engenders “an uneasy combination of physical remoteness and vivid mediated presence.” The experience is immersive. Pilots log many hours getting to know strangers on-screen, observing their habits and idiosyncrasies, developing complex feelings about these people. After the blast, there’s the difficult task of counting casualties—often from scattered limbs in the rubble. Then the pilots commute home or pick up their kids from soccer practice. It should be no surprise that they suffer PTSD at the same rate as those who engage in combat more directly. Of course, the same affliction can be found in entire populations where drone attacks have leveled schools and hospitals.

The dystopic present was a long time coming, according to Kaplan, a professor of American Studies. Drones aren’t exceptional. These technologies are built as improvements on predecessors; they’re just the latest imperfect machines in the history of aerial warfare. Thus, Kaplan’s book works backward from drones to test a claim by the theorist Paul Virilio: “From the original watch-tower through the anchored balloon to the reconnaissance aircraft and remote-sensing satellites, one and the same function has been indefinitely repeated, the eye’s function being the function of a weapon.” 3 Kaplan challenges the assessment that the view from above must always entail power and control, though that’s often the purpose of this perspective. Instead, she reworks Virilio’s model, positing a more varied and uneven history, one that includes fragility and failure and even the possibility of connection and reconciliation.

Take balloons, for starters. In the beginning, there were great hopes—and fears—that the new invention could be used to gather intelligence or bombard enemies behind fortified walls. The original idea for so-called “lighter-than-air” flight was dreamt up by Joseph-Michel Montgolfier as a means to lay siege to Gibraltar. But the first balloons, buoyed by smoke and hydrogen, were dangerous and impossible to steer. Looking down, balloonists stared death in the face—but it was their own deaths they contemplated. The actual experience of floating in the sky could be unsettling and disorienting, eliciting intense feelings and revealing a landscape below that looked quite different from what one saw on a map. So balloons too upset available categories, rendering them obsolete. Thomas Baldwin, the first to draw the balloon prospect, struggled mightily to turn his impressions into coherent geographic knowledge—and at last failed. Awed by the enveloping clouds, confused by peculiarities of perspective, he landed in a field after several hours and had no idea where he was.

as Kaplan shows, the view from above can be appropriated by artists and activists to challenge military claims and call attention to the suffering on the ground.

In the First World War, powered flight and photography made it possible to fly over enemy lines and take pictures of hills and bases, rivers and trenches. Kaplan calls this a time of “massive intensification” in the history of aerial reconnaissance, and given recent history we might not be surprised that the locus was the deserts of Iraq, far from the European theater. At first, it was unclear whether these photographs would be useful. They captured only broad outlines at single moments, presenting shapes and colors needing analysis and translation. But the military drafted keys to decipher objects and give significance to different shades of brown and black. Ultimately, the “Mesopotamian campaign” was a turning point in the militarization of the view from above, establishing a perspective on the Middle East that emptied the terrain of life and filled it back up with only enemy targets and extractable resources.

Still, however cold and distant, reconnaissance photos made it possible to sense, if not understand, the aftermath of a bombing, the wreckage and corpses in the impending future. Borrowing a term from the affect theorist Kathleen Stewart, Kaplan calls this a “rogue intensity”: the sensation of some under-the-surface reality that exceeds official discourse, in this case the military’s rationalizing propaganda of precise and deliberate warfare with minimal collateral damage. 4 A rogue intensity transcends distance and suggests possibilities for connection rather than just dissociative violence.

Now, in the age of drones, it’s perhaps harder to dispute Virilio’s equation of eye and weapon. The latest technology seems omniscient and omnipotent. Drones, after all, can hover many hours, relaying round-the-clock video, then destroy cars and buildings with the push of a button. Of course, they’re clumsy in the air, easy to shoot down, and ultimately inferior to conventional jets. Drone pilots, moreover, complain about peripheral vision, toggling among multiple screens to compensate for the limitations of each. But whatever these deficiencies, Kaplan’s story makes clear just how easy it’s become to kill from afar.


Can Drones Have Ethics?

By Claire Richard et al.

New UAVs will produce more information and exert more power on those below. The latest camera system, called Gorgon Stare, increases the visual range of a single drone to a hundred square kilometers. Nonmilitary versions now prowl above New York City and Baltimore, surveying not just horizontal space but also vertical and volumetric space below ground and up through buildings. Kaplan reports that the next generation of surveillance will integrate data for predictive and prohibitive functions, remotely sensing not just the built environment but also, supposedly, the thoughts and feelings of mass populations. The techniques of distant warfare come home in the form of policing.

Gusterson too peeks at our nightmare future, and although he never rejects UAVs altogether, the force of his examples makes the argument for him. In one scenario, he imagines the deployment of drones for new domestic roles, for instance to put down civil unrest and track undocumented immigrants. Perhaps then Americans will look beyond America and see a shared, if uneven, subjection with people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and all the other countries with drones hovering overhead.

The failure of these two categories—foreign and domestic—offers the chance to create new ones. Yes, the drone’s-eye view is the perspective of state violence, but it can also help us reenvision the world beyond the state. The view from above elides national borders. It makes the colors and borders of maps disappear. The world is a continuous landscape with regions and countries conjoined to one another on the same horizontal plane. Additionally, as Kaplan shows, the view from above can be appropriated by artists and activists to challenge military claims and call attention to the suffering on the ground. She herself takes a view from higher above to critique drone warfare. Aerial photography, moreover, can show us the finitude of our planet and the scale of ecological depredations: oil spills, for instance, or deforestation too vast to appreciate from ground level. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad benign applications that range from crop maintenance to search-and-rescue missions. The view from above has never been monolithic, and the dissemination of recreational drones makes this more obvious than ever, giving every hobbyist a different view from above. If pilots feel empathy for supposed enemies, as Gusterson shows, perhaps the rest of us can repurpose aerial vistas for projects beyond the horizon of military intelligence.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated from the German by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 75.
  2. Grégoire Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone, translated from the French by Janet Lloyd (The New Press, 2015), p. 111.
  3. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logics of Perception, translated from the French by Patrick Camiller (Verso, 1989), p. 4.
  4. Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, 2007), pp. 44–45.
Featured image: Killing At A Distance is Immoral, Drone Protest (2013). Photograph by Debra Sweet / Flickr