Theory of the drone 2: Hunting

This is the second in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.

3: Theoretical principles of man-hunting

Chamayou opens his discussion with a revealing vignette.  In 2005 Texas entrepreneur John Lockwood developed a website,, which promised a ‘real-time on-line hunting and shooting experience’.  The cyber-hunter was after deer and other game kept for the purpose on a 300-acre ranch near San Antonio.


You might think that a more relevant example would be Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension described in his Shoot an Iraqi: art, life and resistance under the gun:

‘For one month, Bilal lived alone in a prison cell-sized room in the line of fire of a remote-controlled paintball gun and a camera that connected him to internet viewers around the world. Visitors to the gallery and a virtual audience that grew by the thousands could shoot at him 24 hours a day.’

Wafaa Bilal, Domestic Tension

There is a wonderful discussion of the project and its wider implications for experimental geopolitics by Alan Ingram [‘Experimental geopolitics: Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension‘] in the Geographical Journal 1788 (2) (2012) 123-133.  He explains that Bilal conceived Domestic Tension as a commentary on ‘remote control warfare’ after his brother had been killed in a strike by a US helicopter gunship called in by commanders watching a video feed from a Predator in the skies over Kufa.

But Lockwood’s venture is even more revealing, particularly when juxtaposed with Domestic Tension, because it involved real-time killing (of captive deer, antelope and other animals) and after a public outcry it was eventually banned.  A full report from the Washington Post is here. Even the National Rifle Association was up in – er – arms: its spokesperson declared,  ‘We believe that hunting should be outdoors and that sitting in front of a computer three states away doesn’t qualify as hunting.’  Chamayou’s translation of one police officer’s condemnation – “It’s not hunting.  It’s killing’ – becomes ‘It’s not hunting.  It’s murder’, which artfully raises the stakes, but you get the point, which is about the hue and cry that attended killing animals on line while ‘man-hunting by remote control’ attracted considerably less public attention: then, anyway.

Live Shot

To be fair, there were critics like Dale Jamieson who saw Live Shot as symptomatic of a wider issue:

“If you look at this as being kind of a continuum or slippery slope,” said Jamieson, “you have people who enjoy the act of killing and destruction in video games, you have people who enjoy killing animals over the Internet…. But of course the next step in this is that people start killing people over the Internet. That’s the worry.”

California state Senator Debra Brown was equally forthright in her condemnation:

“What happens if this technology gets expanded to other uses?” she said. “It’s actually pretty scary. What’s the line between real life and a video game? It has all the video game feel: It’s remote, it’s disconnected from the reality of it, the hunter doesn’t have to deal with any blood or wounding or tracking.”

Chamayou doesn’t track these responses, which surely sharpen his point, but he doesn’t really need to: I haven’t been able to find any critics who drew attention to the remote killings of people that were already taking place under the unblinking eye of US Predators in Pakistan and Yemen. (Incidentally, this chapter is illustrated by an image of a Predator firing a Hellfire missile; the photograph is all over the web – for example here – but, as James Bridle has shown, this now canonical image is in fact a Photo-shopped fake, ‘a computer-generated rendering of a drone … flying over an abstracted landscape’).

For Chamayou those targeted killings are the effects of an apparatus that he describes as militarized man-hunting.  He invokes George W. Bush’s line (in a speech at the FBI in February 2003) about the ‘war on terror’ being a ‘different kind of war’ that ‘requires us to be on an international manhunt’ to argue that that within a decade what seemed to most commentators at the time to be just a folksy Texan cowboy phrase had been converted into a state doctrine of non-conventional violence that combines elements of military and police operations  without fully corresponding to either.

He suggests that US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already playing with the possibilities of what Eyal Weizman has called thanatotactics. Rumsfeld was convinced that ‘Israeli techniques for dealing with Palestinian resistance could be simply scaled up.’  If the IDF had turned Gaza into a laboratory for targeted killing from the air, however, how could this be done by the Pentagon on the global scale?  And – for some Pentagon insiders at least – how could this be done without having a new Phoenix program rise from the flames of what one adviser was already calling ‘preventive manhunting’?

CRAWFORD ManhuntingThis is where those ‘theoretical principles’ start to emerge.  Some of the most difficult issues concern the provision of a legal armature, as I’ll discuss in a later post (and it is these that interest me the most), but what Chamayou has more directly in mind here is the formulation of a military (rather than policing: the difference, as we’ll see, is crucial) doctrine to guide these operations.  He suggests that its most developed form drew upon the work of a private-sector consultant, George Crawford, who published Manhunting: reversing the polarity of warfare in 2008 and a subsequent report for the Joint Special Operations University, Manhunting: counter-network organization for irregular warfare  in 2009.

CRAWFORD Manhunting 2

Crawford’s report included a ‘chronology of American manhunting operations’, and out of that remarkably long history Chamayou fastens on the Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916.  This was a massive (and spectacularly unsuccessful) ground operation across the US/Mexico border, in which thousands of US troops under the command of General Pershing penetrated deep into Mexico in an effort to capture the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa (who had conducted a series of cross-border raids into New Mexico).

Chamayou doesn’t mention it, perhaps because it would complicate the clean lines of his narrative, but the expedition included air support from the eight planes of the 1st Aero Squadron (below) in what was to become ‘the first combat engagement of American Army pilots and airplanes’ (more here and here).  Their principal function, as with the use of military aircraft on the Western Front, was reconnaissance, but if this was a distant forerunner of US aerial surveillance of the southern border it was a dismal failure.  According to Pershing:

“[T]he aeroplanes have been of no material benefit so far, either in scouting or as a means of communication.  They have not at all met my expectations.  The further south Villa goes into the mountains the more difficult will be their tasks, and I have no doubt we shall soon be compelled to abandon them for either scouting the enemy or keeping in touch with the advance columns.”


But the entire expedition was a failure, and the crucial lesson, spelled out by Crawford and repeated by Chamayou, was the imperative to reverse the polarity: instead of deploying large numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ – what Crawford ridiculed as using an elephant gun to swat ‘the terrorist mosquito’ – operations against non-state actors should be conducted by small teams networked into a targeted killing operation.  This changes the terms of war not so much because the conflict is asymmetric, or even because it’s not about territorial gain, but rather because war is transformed from the classical paradigm of a duel into something quite other: ‘a hunter who advances, and a prey who flees or hides’.

The (tactical) rules of the game are quite different; the hunter must engage to win, while the fugitive must evade to win.  Crawford:

Firepower becomes less significant in terms of mass, while the precision and discretion with which firepower is employed takes on tremendous significance, especially during influence operations. Why drop a bomb when effects operations or a knife might do? Maneuver adopts new concept and form. In manhunting, friendly forces seek to engage the enemy. Like a lone insurgent, the enemy seeks to avoid the allied force, biding time until he has an opportunity to strike at vulnerable, unprotected, or noncombat assets.

The first task is thus not to immobilise but to identify and locate the enemy, which implies an apparatus of detection.  ‘Man-hunting’ thus becomes, in Crawford’s eyes at any rate, an intelligence-based operation directed towards identifying pivotal nodes (which is to say key leaders or ‘High Value Targets’) in the virtual and physical spaces of social networks.  Here Chamayou cites John Dodson‘s attempt – one of countless others – to provide a statistical methodology for ‘man-hunting’:

‘Nexus Topography is an extension of the common practice of Social Network Analysis (SNA) used to develop profiles of [High Value Targets]. Currently, SNA examines the links in a social group, whereas, Nexus Topography is a template that can be used to construct a map of relationships in different social environments. Nexus Topography maps social forums or environments, which bind individuals together (this can be extended to include Dark Networks and Small Worlds).

Network analysis, in multiple forms, is a staple of geo-spatial intelligence and contemporary counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism.  But how far Crawford’s specific proposals directly informed US military operations is another question, and one Chamayou doesn’t address.  I suspect their influence was at best indirect.  Even so, pursuing their logic enables Chamayou to conclude that militarized man-hunting is not about responding to specific attacks but instead providing ‘pre-emptive security’ against emergent threats.  On this new terrain ‘war’ becomes a vast campaign of extra-judicial killing, for which (as he says) the ‘Predator’ and the ‘Reaper’ live up to their names.  Hence the next chapter,which traces the next set of principles:

4: Surveillance and annihilation

FOUCAULT Surveillir et punirThe English translation doesn’t capture Chamayou’s substitution, which is a play on the French title of Michel Foucault‘s Discipline and punish: Surveillir et punir.

The reference to Foucault is entirely apposite.  Chamayou’s central point here is that, within the apparatus of militarized man-hunting, ‘detection’ is above all a visual modality (and much of Foucault’s work involved a sustained interrogation of the gaze). Chamayou argues that drones promise something like a ‘God’s eye view’; their protagonists claim that their near real-time, full-motion and increasingly high-definition video feeds have revolutionised the capacity to provide a constant view of the enemy.

This is all familiar ground, to me at any rate, and in this chapter Chamayou draws on my own work (and others’) to tease out six core principles.  I discuss all of them in ‘From a view to a kill’ and ‘Lines of descent’ [DOWNLOADS tab], so here I will simply list them in summary form:

1: Persistent stare or permanent watch – Predators and Reapers have long ‘dwell-times’ and in principle permit protracted surveillance;

2: Totalisation of perspectives or synoptic view – ‘wide-area surveillance’  promises to be able to ‘quilt’ multiple images together;

3: Complete archive – the question of data retrieval and analysis is immensely difficult, which is why the US Air Force has consistently worried about ‘swimming in sensors, drowning in data’, and why specialist image analysts have experimented with TV/video archival and retrieval techniques;

4: Data fusion from multiple sensors;

5: ‘Pattern of life’ analysis;

6: Detection of anomalies and pre-emption.

The classical names given to these new political technologies of vision – like Gorgon Stare and Argus (in Greek mythology the hundred-eyed giant, which in DARPA-speak becomes Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance) – confirm the premium placed on visibility or even hypervisibility.

Gorgon Stare

But Chamayou argues that this political technology is far more ‘economical’ than Bentham’s Panopticon, which Foucault uses so powerfully to figure modern surveillance, because it requires neither spatial partitions nor architectural demarcations. It is what Zygmunt Bauman might call a ‘liquid’ technology, since it needs only airspace to function (though the current interest in A2/AD (‘anti-access/areal denial’) is a sharp reminder that at present – and even for the foreseeable future – Predators and Reapers can only hunt in uncontested air space).

And even more unlike the Panopticon, this political technology is not directed towards enclosure or confinement.  Just as the Gorgon’s stare petrified its enemies to death, turning them into stone, so this too is a deadly gaze. Video feeds trigger missile launches: ‘No longer surveillir et punir but surveiller et anéantir’ (annihilation) (p. 67).

(Incidentally, how far the US will continue to fund some of these systems is unclear: recent reports suggest that the Pentagon is scaling back its funding for the Gorgon Stare, but the Air Force is still promoting the ARGUS-IS as its next-generation sensor technology).

Living Under DronesThe shadows cast by these capacities are far longer than the supposedly ‘precision strikes’ they facilitate: they impose a new landscape of threat and dread. Here Chamayou invokes the Stanford/NYU report Living under drones (2012) to conclude that the presence of Predators and Reapers terrifies whole populations who live under them (see also my commentary here).  Above and beyond the deaths and physical injuries they inflict, and the rubble, the rage and the bereavements they produce, Chamayou concludes that drones also produce ‘a psychic enclosure whose boundaries are no longer defined by bars, barriers or walls but by the invisible circles described overhead by the ceaseless gyrations of these flying sentinels’ (literally, ‘watch-towers’).

As Chamayou’s patient excavation of these various principles proceeds, it becomes clear that the ‘doctrine’ that is coming in to view is much more than doctrine as the military understands the term.  For the Pentagon, doctrine consists of those ‘fundamental principles by which the military forces or elements thereof guide their actions in support of national objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application.’  The appeal to its authoritative status is significant, of course, and speaks directly to (or rather from) from the military chain of command.

CHAMAYOU ManhuntsBut what Chamayou is after in what elsewhere he calls ‘the manhunt doctrine‘ is something that transcends the military (this form of ‘man-hunting’ deliberately blurs the distinctions between conventional military and police operations to produce what Chamayou calls ‘hybrid operations, monstrous offspring [enfants terribles] of the police and the military, of war and peace’) and seeks to expose the political technologies, the discursive systems and the scopic regimes from which it derives its wider authority and through which it exercises its powers.

In doing so it follows directly from his previous work, Les chasses à l’homme (in English, Manhunts), which promises a philosophical history – or, as I said in my previous post, a genealogy.  But Théorie du drone is more than the next chapter, because it has much to say about the transformation of ‘techno-war’ into something radically different, a modality of later modern war that is focused more than ever on the identification, pursuit and elimination of individuals.

To be continued.

11 thoughts on “Theory of the drone 2: Hunting

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  9. Reblogged this on Nuclear Philosophy and commented:
    Derek Gregory has been reading Chamayou’s text “Theory of the Drone” and posting an excellent series of accompanying comments. What I like about these posts so far is that they high light the role of the drone in the shift from total war as nuclear war to total war as a never-ending manhunt. Nuclear weapons were the ultimate fetish object in the drive to maximize indiscriminate destruction. The drone is poised to become the technological fetish object for the ultimate form of discriminate war.

  10. Thanks for making Chamayou’s text accessible to all of us inveterate Americans out there who have never learned to speak French. I am looking forward to the next installment.

  11. Reblogged this on Militainment and the National Security State and commented:
    This is another really interesting discussion by Derek Gregory via Geographical Imaginations on Grégoire Chamayou’s Théorie du drone and his genealogies of “militarized man-hunting”, which Gregory links to his own account of late modern war (which we should all be able to read soon in the highly anticipated The Everywhere War).

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