Theory of the drone 6: Sacrifice, suicide and drones

This is the sixth in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.  I had planned to cover Part II, Ethos and psyche, in a single post, but I’ve received several requests not to speed up, so I’m continuing chapter by chapter, with supplementary readings and comments as I go.

1.  Drones and kamikazes

Soon after Oliver Belcher started his research programme with me – and I’m delighted to say his thesis on ‘The afterlives of counterinsurgency’ has now been submitted – we had one of many rich conversations about what he called ‘the art of war in an age of digital reproduction’.  The reference, of course, was to Walter Benjamin‘s famous essay, usually translated as ‘The work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction.’  This seems to be widely regarded as the standard, even canonical version since its inclusion in the volume of Benjamin’s essays edited by Hannah Arendt and published as Illuminations.

But it has a more complicated history.  Here is Eric Larsen:

‘After fleeing the Nazi government in 1933, Benjamin moved to Paris, from where he published the first edition of “Work of Art” in 1936. This publication appeared in French translation under the direction of Raymond Aron in volume 5, no. 1 of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Benjamin subsequently rewrote the essay and after editorial work by Theodore and Margarethe Adorno it was posthumously published in its commonly recognized form in his Schriften of 1955.’

Benjamin Work of ArtIn fact there were four versions of the essay, and several critics regard the second version as the most daring of all (you can find the third version here).  In the third volume of Harvard’s Selected Writings this is translated as ‘The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility’ (1936) – it’s also available separately in the little book shown on the left – and includes this remarkable passage in an expanded Section VI:

Compared to that of the machine age, of course, this [pre-historic] technology was undeveloped. But from a dialectical stand-point, the disparity is unimportant. What matters is the way the orientation and aims of that technology differ from those of ours. Whereas the former made the maximum possible use of human beings, the latter reduces their use to the minimum. The achievements of the first technology might be said to culminate in human sacrifice; those of the second, in the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew. The results of the first technology are valid once and for all (it deals with irreparable lapse or sacrificial death, which holds good for eternity). The results of the second are wholly provisional (it operates by means of experiments and endlessly varied test procedures). The origin of the second technology lies at the point where, by an unconscious ruse, human beings first began to distance themselves from nature.  It lies, in other words, in play.

It’s extraordinary to read these words 75 or so years after Benjamin wrote them, and their intimations of armed drones and even the supposed ‘Playstation mentality’ that misguides those who operate them (though I think that argument misunderstands the extraordinary immersive capacity of videogames, but that’s another story that I’ve told elsewhere).

Chamayou starts his exploration of ‘Ethos and psyche’ by invoking yet another version of Benjamin’s iconic essay, but his basic point shines through the version I’ve quoted above.  His purpose is to juxtapose one technology or at least its limit-case, sacrifice, which engages the human in the most direct and intimate way possible, once and for all, to another, from which (so he says) the human is disengaged in a mechanical act that is, in principle, endlessly repeatable.

Yet it turns out that this isn’t an historical succession in any simple sense at all: what Chamayou sees instead are two different genealogies – the kamikaze pilot and suicide-bomber on one side and the drone on the other – entwined in a truly deadly embrace.

The linchpin of his argument is provided by a Russian emigré engineer working for RAC, Vladimir Zworykin. Apparently alarmed by press reports in 1934 that the Japanese were considering the formation of a ‘Suicide Corps to control surface and aerial torpedoes’, Zworkyin proposed to use technology to counter the threat.  Previous experiments with radio-controlled aerial torpedoes were all very well, but these were ‘blind weapons’ that inevitably lacked precision.  The Japanese proposed to solve the  problem by using human pilots to guide the explosive platform on to its target – Zworykin’s contrary solution was to guide the aerial torpedo through an ‘electric eye’ (a sort of proto-television).

Zworykin aerial torpedo

The torpedo would be a glider,

‘carried on an airplane to the proximity of where it is to be used, and released.  After it has been released the torpedo can be guided to its target with shortwave radio control, the operator being able to see the target through the “eye” [or Iconoscope] of the torpedo as it approaches.’

In 1935 Zworykin submitted a memorandum to the War and Navy Departments describing a television-controlled missile that could be guided beyond the line of sight, and five years later the US approved ‘Project Block‘ for RCA to develop TV-guided ‘assault drones’ in concert with the US Navy.  When the first Japanese kamikaze units were formed they were indeed deployed against naval targets – but this wasn’t until 1944, so I’m not sure about the source of those much earlier reports that fired Zworykin’s imagination.

I described some earlier experiments with aerial torpedoes here, and you can find much more about Zworykin here and in Alexander Magoun‘s Television: the life story of a technology, pp. 78-84.  He notes that the US Army Air Force was a latecomer to these experiments, and didn’t demonstrate a TV-controlled drone until October 1943, largely because its major investment was in heavy bombers capable of inflicting major destruction on cities and military-industrial targets.  Project Aphrodite did experiment with the use of television to guide war-weary Flying Fortresses filled with explosives and napalm on to targets in Germany, but the attempts were largely unsuccessful and singularly irrelevant to the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II.

Nevertheless, Chamayou argues that to some degree Zworykin had identified the core principle that would later be used to develop the smart bomb and the drone.  His sharper point is that the forerunner of the drone was an anti-kamikaze; sharper because this conceptual origin places the drone within a distinctive ethico-technical economy of life and death.

This ethico-technical economy can be read as an ethic of heroic sacrifice on one side and an ethic of auto-preservation on the other, each a mirror image of its other, ‘two visions of horror’.    Chamayou joins several other commentators to connect the kamikaze attacks of the Second World war to suicide-bombers today, and so argues that in the global North today the cardinal opposition is usually expressed as ‘defiance of death’ versus ‘love of life’: the frequently repeated claim, as at once an explanation and a condemnation of suicide-bombing, that ‘they’ don’t value life as much as ‘we’ do.  Yet, as Chamayou insists, it’s not ‘life in general’ that we value at all: it’s our lives that we cherish.

To develop this argument (which he will later elaborate in other dimensions), Chamayou cites Richard Cohen‘s editorial in the Washington Post on 6 October 2009:

As for the Taliban fighters, they not only don’t cherish life, they expend it freely in suicide bombings. It’s difficult to imagine an American suicide bomber.

He then uses anthropologist Hugh Gusterson‘s response to sharpen his point still further.  Gusterson wonders, with Jacqueline Rose,  why ‘dropping cluster bombs from the air is not only less repugnant [than suicide bombing]: it is somehow deemed, by Western leaders at least, to be morally superior.’  He then reverses the terms of the argument (and in going so prefigures Chamayou’s own argument about the substitution of hunting for combat in many areas of later modern warfare and about the colonial antecedents of drone strikes):

ASAD On suicide bombing[M]any people in the Middle East feel about U.S. drone attacks the way Richard Cohen feels toward suicide bombers. The drone attacks are widely perceived in the Middle East as cowardly, because the drone pilot is killing people on the ground from the safety of an air-conditioned pod in Nevada, where there is no chance that he can be killed by those he is attacking. He has turned combat into hunting. In this regard, the drone is the culmination of a long tradition of colonial war-fighting technologies — going back at least to the machine guns with which British and French colonial soldiers mowed down spear-carrying Africans –that ensure that the “natives” die, in an unfair fight, in considerably larger numbers than the colonial soldiers.

The drone operator is also a mirror image of the suicide bomber in that he too deviates, albeit in the opposite direction, from our paradigmatic image of combat as an encounter between warriors who meet as equals risking the wounding or killing of their own bodies while trying to wound or kill the others’ bodies. The honorable drama of combat lies in the symmetrical willingness of warriors to wager their bodies against each other for a cause. But now, in the words of the anthropologist Talal Asad, in his book On Suicide Bombing, U.S. “soldiers need no longer go to war expecting to die, but only to kill. In itself, this destabilizes the conventional understanding of war as an activity in which human dying and killing are exchanged.”

But there are two other twists to this story that Chamayou doesn’t pursue.

First, in his essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Gusterson confounds Cohen’s difficulty in imagining ‘an American suicide bomber’ like this:

‘For decades loyal U.S. soldiers in nuclear missile silos have trained to launch their weapons in the expectation that they would be killed almost immediately afterwards in the ensuing nuclear war. I once interviewed a former special-forces officer who was trained to hike behind enemy lines with a tactical nuclear weapon on his back and place it near an important target. Although the weapon had a timer, he expected to die at ground zero.

If such men were the elite nuclear suicide bombers whose mission was prepared but never carried out, the Cold War turned the whole country into a suicide bomber rehearsing obsessively for the moment when we would “push the button” and take down millions of our enemies with us. Seen in this light, Americans trained for the biggest suicide bombing mission of all.’

Second, there have been ‘successful’ American suicide bombers.  To some historians the first candidate is Andrew Kehoe, who set off an explosion at a schoolhouse in Bath, Michigan in May 1927, killing 44 people, before setting off dynamite in his truck and killing himself and several other people.  Whether you count this as a suicide bombing in the modern sense of the term depends on the criteria you think appropriate.  Many commentators exclude Kehoe and identify three other, more recent American suicide bombers: Shirwa Ahmed, who drove a car bomb into a government compound in Puntland in October 2008, killing as many as 30 people; Farah Mohamed Beledi, who killed himself and three soldiers at a military checkpoint in Mogadishu in June 2011; and Abdisalan Hussein Ali, who attacked African Union troops in Mogadishu six months later.  All three were Somali-Americans who had lived in Minnesota and were recruited by al-Shabaab.

But to exclude Kehoe and claim that these three were not ‘really American’ is to immediately trigger one of Chamayou’s key arguments about the ways in which killing and dying in the age of the drone are racialized.  More soon.


As I finished up this post,  I discovered a young American performance artist, Ethan Fishbane, whose show American Suicide Bomber Association has been staged in New York and previously in Indonesia and South Africa.

Apparently he threw one of his stage ‘bombs’ into the garbage last week and unwittingly set off a bomb scare in Manhattan.

“I felt the response [by the police] was wholly appropriate,” he said. “Even if it’s just a prop for a theater piece, they were on top of it.”

3 thoughts on “Theory of the drone 6: Sacrifice, suicide and drones

  1. Pingback: Grégoire Chamayou – books received | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: Drones and drama | geographical imaginations

  3. Pingback: Theories and counter-theories of the drone | geographical imaginations

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