Theory of the drone 8: From invisibility to vulnerability

This is the eighth in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone and covers the third chapter in Part II, Ethos and psyche.

3: Crisis in military ethos

The track that Chamayou beats in this chapter is (perhaps appropriately) a tortured one: it twists from the invulnerability of the hunter through his defencelessness to his vulnerability to psychic harm.  And, as you’ll see, those gendered pronouns are a critical part of his argument.

Gyges (left) from Der König Kandaules

He begins with the story of Gyges.  In classical mythology Gyges was a shepherd who discovered a magical ring that could make him invisible.  Armed with his new power, Gyges eventually killed the king, married the queen and seized the throne.  ‘Invisibility’, Chamayou notes, ‘conferred upon him a kind of invulnerability.’  In Plato’s Republic the story is used to ask searching questions about virtue and justice: what happens to morality, to virtue, if it becomes possible to evade responsibility for one’s actions?

The dilemma is no longer confined to the realm of story-telling or philosophical speculation, Chamayou argues, because the thought-experiment has been realised through the political technology of the drone.  The modern answer to Plato’s question is now all too clear: invisibility produces not only invulnerability but also impunity.  In fact, in an Op-Ed last year on ‘The moral hazard of drones’ two American academics, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, suggested that the myth of Gyges does indeed find its most telling contemporary application in the use of drones for remote killing:

One might argue that the myth of Gyges is a suitable allegory to describe the combatants who have attacked and killed American civilians and troops in the last 10 years. A shepherd from the Middle East discovers that he has the power of invisibility, the power to strike a fatal blow against a more powerful adversary, the power to do so without getting caught, the power to benefit from his deception. These, after all, are the tactics of terrorism.

But the myth of Gyges is really a story about modern counterterrorism, not terrorism.

We believe a stronger comparison can be made between the myth and the moral dangers of employing precision guided munitions and drone technologies to target suspected terrorists. What is distinctive about the tale of Gyges is the ease with which he can commit murder and get away scot-free. The technological advantage provided by the ring ends up serving as the justification of its use.

Terrorists, whatever the moral value of their deeds, may be found and punished; as humans they are subject to retribution, whether it be corporal or legal. They may lose or sacrifice their lives. They may, in fact, be killed in the middle of the night by a drone. Because remote controlled machines cannot suffer these consequences, and the humans who operate them do so at a great distance, the myth of Gyges is more a parable of modern counterterrorism than it is about terrorism.

[You can find a different version of their critique of drone warfare, which mercifully leans on materiality rather than mythology, in ‘The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in contemporary conflict: a legal and ethical analysis’, Polity  44 (2012) 260-85, available on open access here; as I’ll show in a later post, that essay intersects more directly and substantially with Chamayou’s own critique].

Chamayou accepts the force of Plato’s original question, and evidently applauds the way in which Kaag and Kreps bring it to bear on the present,  but he thinks there is another way of putting it.  Not ‘can the invisible person be virtuous?’ but ‘what sort of “virtue” is invoked by the modern Gyges?’

He develops his answer through a thumb-nail sketch of what he sees as both a crisis in and a transformation of military ethos.  Traditional military ethos privileged courage, sacrifice and heroism, qualities that worked to make killing (Chamayou actually says ‘butchery’) acceptable, even glorious.  These virtues gave war what Clausewitz saw as its presumptive moral force, which depended on a fundamental reciprocity (sometimes called the combatant’s privilege): in order to kill with honour, the soldier must be prepared to die.  War then becomes the supreme ethical experience: ‘To wage war is to learn to die.’

But what happens, Chamayou wants to know, when all of this (apart from the killing) becomes unnecessary? When it becomes possible to kill without the risk of dying?  If the combatant’s privilege is annulled, doesn’t killing become the height of cowardice and dishonour? In the contemporary age of what Edward Luttwak called ‘post-heroic war’ – what former Air Chief Marshall Brian Burridge famously and more bluntly described as ‘virtue-less war’ – those traditional military virtues are threatened.  In short, it’s not only those living under drones who see these new weapons as cowardly, and Chamayou believes that the contradiction between the new technical means of waging war and the traditional ideology that is supposed to inform its prosecution has provoked a profound crisis in the military ethos.

In fact, he says, some of the fiercest critics of remote killing are pilots of conventional strike aircraft. Chamayou cites this song written by two F-16 pilots, Chris Kurek and Rob Raymond, who perform as Dos Gringos (more here – really):

They shot down a Predator, that’s one less slot for me
They shot down a Predator and it filled my heart with glee
I had a smile when I logged on to AFPC
They shot down a Predator, that’s one less slot for me

They shot down a Predator and I say let’s send some more
Let’s fly ‘em over Baghdad and then see what’s in store
‘Cause I heard that the Air Force wants another 24
They shot down a Predator and I say let’s send some more

They shot down a Predator and I wonder how that feels
For that operator who lost his set of wheels
It must feel so defenseless; it’s like clubbing baby seals
They shot down a Predator and I wonder how that feels

As this clip makes clear, the hostility is about more than military values: the USAF now trains more crews for remote operations than for flying conventional aircraft.  But the values in question are given a particular inflection.  It would be a mistake to read ‘clubbing baby seals’ in the last verse as a reference to striking a target that can’t strike back.  After all, the song is about a Predator being shot down, and so it homes in on their inability to fight back: on their inability to engage in combat.

What is at stake here, Chamayou suggests, is a series of ‘manly’ and masculinist virtues and even virilities.  The complaint is that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are literally ‘un-manned’ – their ‘pilots’ are not real pilots and not even real men. (You can find much more on this martial emasculation in Mary Manjikian, ‘Becoming Unmanned’ [International Feminist Journal of Politics (2013) doi: 10.1080/14616742.2012.746429]).

Even so, Chamayou is sceptical about the history being (re)written through these and similar objections.  Before announcing the end of the era of ‘manly’, heroic warfare, he suggests (in an obvious echo of Bruno Latour), we ought to ask whether ‘we’ moderns have ever fought heroic wars.  He draws attention to Walter Benjamin‘s scathing critique of a collection of essays edited by Ernst Jünger under the title War and Warrior in 1930:

‘These authors nowhere observe that the new warfare of technology and material [Materialschlacht] which appears to some of them as the highest revelation of existence,dispenses with all the wretched emblems of heroism that here and there have survived the [First] WorldWar.’

UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft SystemsFaced with this storm of criticism, Chamayou suggests, military ethicists have found it necessary to erect an altogether different version of virtuous war.  If the drone is to be considered ‘virtuous’, several writers have argued, it is first and foremost because it rules out the possibility of casualties on ‘our’ side. Chamayou will have more to say about this in a later chapter on combatant immunity, but for now he finds confirmation in a Ministry of Defence report on The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems in 2011 that, even as it acknowledged the ethical issues involved in abandoning the combatant’s privilege, nevertheless concluded that ‘use of unmanned aircraft prevents the potential loss of aircrew lives and is thus in itself morally justified.’

Statements like this bring into view an ongoing transformation from an ethic of sacrifice and courage to an ethic of auto-preservation (and, Chamayou adds, of cowardice): a sort of Revolution in Moral-Military Affairs.  The scale of traditional values is reversed, and in an Orwellian inversion words come to mean their opposite.  What used to be called cowardice is now called bravery, assassination becomes combat, and the spirit of sacrifice is turned into an object of opprobrium.  In Chamayou’s view we are witnessing not so much ‘virtue-less war’ as a vast operation to re-define the ‘virtues’ of war.


Chamayou fastens on the the Pentagon proposal late last year to award combat medals to drone operators.  Finally announcing the Distinguished Warfare Medal in February 2013, the Pentagon issued this statement:

Modern technology enables service members with special training and capabilities to more directly and precisely impact military operations at times far from the battlefield.  The Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded in the name of the secretary of defense to service members whose extraordinary achievements, regardless of their distance to the traditional combat theater, deserve distinct department-wide recognition.  

 “I have seen first-hand how modern tools like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems have changed the way wars can be fought,” said Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta.  “We should also have the ability to honor extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight.”

The proposal set off a firestorm of protest in Congress and within the Air Force and online military forums.   It was withdrawn for review in less than a month and rescinded by Panetta’s successor in April.

The saga doesn’t quite do the work Chamayou wants it to do.  He uses it to reflect on the meaning of ‘bravery in combat’ – after all, he asks, what can bravery mean in circumstances ‘physically removed from the fight’? – but the Pentagon statement made it clear that the medal was to be awarded ‘for actions in any domain but not involving acts of valor.’

Still, this does not diminish the force of Chamayou’s main line of inquiry.  From the testimony of drone operators, he concludes that bravery consists not in them putting their lives on the line but in seeing the consequences of their actions online.  Drone crews are supposed to be so deeply affected by the high-resolution full-motion video feeds from their Predators and Reapers, which show in intimate detail the corporeal results of the strikes for which they are responsible, that they become highly vulnerable to Post-Traumatic Sress Disorder.  Traditionally bravery involved putting your physical body in danger; Chamayou says that it now it seems to involve putting your psychic being at risk.

This amounts to the elevation of what he calls a ‘purely psychic heroism’.  In previous wars the soldier was both the vector of violence and its potential victim, because the reciprocity of combat called on warriors to be at once executioner and potential victim.  Today the remote warrior is still required to be the executioner, but he can also become the psychological victim of his duty as executioner.

Jane Addams and delegates to the Hague conference in 1915

Chamayou is troubled by this for two reasons.

First, the idea of psychic vulnerability – of the damage inflicted on soldiers by the trauma of killing – was given form and substance in the First World War. In 1915  Jane Addams (above) – who will, I suspect, be known to most human geographers for her other achievements, particularly her work at Hull House in Chicago – returned from the International Congress of Women at the Hague to deliver a stunning address at Carnegie Hall on “The Revolt against War”.  In it, Chamayou tells us, she spoke of nurses treating ‘delirious soldiers [who] are again and again possessed by the same hallucination – that they are in the act of pulling their bayonets out of the bodies of men they have killed’, and of five young soldiers who committed suicide ‘not because they were afraid of being killed but because they were afraid they might be put into a position where they would have to kill someone else.’  To overcome these inhibitions, she noted, soldiers were routinely given a shot of rum before they went over the top.  Addams used these testimonies to develop a courageous and principled critique of military violence, and in 1931 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  (Read her Peace and Bread in time of war here). To Chamayou’s evident disgust, the trauma of war that Addams and others exposed is now being recycled into a legitimation of targeted killing.  Like a snake eating its tail, trauma is being mobilised to restore to war the ethico-heroic temper Addams insisted it had lost through trauma.

But, second, as I’ll show in the next post in this series, Chamayou is deeply sceptical of what he calls ‘the psychopathologies of the drone’.

One last comment before I go.  I don’t think the deployment of armed drones is provoking a wholesale transformation of military ethics, because that would be to absolutise their use.  The Air Force still flies conventional strike aircraft, troops are still deployed on the ground (including Special Forces) and – as the controversy over the medal confirms – the Pentagon still insists on a difference between distinguished service and bravery.  I don’t mean that drones do not raise serious ethical questions; of course they do, and I am dismayed at how often these are trumped by arguments about the legality of military violence.  But military violence takes many different forms, and it’s important not to lose sight of the larger killing fields in which drones are embedded.