Some recent open access work on drones that intersects with my ongoing reading of Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.
First, Philippe Theophanidis, a PhD student at the Université de Montréal, writes with the welcome news that he’s developed an online bibliography of English and French language materials, Grégoire Chamayou: bodies, manhunts and drones, available here.
Philippe’s own research concerns the theory of community in Jean-Luc Nancy and Roberto Esposito. He adds:
‘I’m especially preoccupied by the fact that our contemporary mode of being-together paradoxically takes the form of destructive interactions. For that reason, I’m interested about war and space in general, and more precisely about “global civil war” (Schmitt) or war in the time of globalization. That’s why Chamayou’s new book caught my attention when it came out.’
Second, another contribution to the ramifying genealogy of drones that I’ve addressed in several previous posts (for example here and here): at OSU’s Origins: current events in historical perspective, Kenneth Hough provides an extended essay on what he calls ‘the long cultural history of drones’. He adds some interesting material, most of it about the ways in which drones have been registered in American popular culture:
Since their emergence in the late nineteenth century, Americans have regarded unmanned aerial systems as four basic cultural phenomena: heralds of human accomplishment and hope for the future, signs of inhuman depravity portending society’s doom, mechanical misfires that are both ineffective and humorous, and transcendent machines that spark existential questions about war and society, tapping into what David Nye calls our “fundamental hopes and fears.”
But his long cultural history turns out to be a remarkably narrow cultural geography in which – apart from an excursus on V-1 rockets in the Second World War – experimental laboratories outside the United States (notably Britain and Israel) disappear from view. For all that, I’m surprised that James Cameron‘s Avatar isn’t on his cultural hit list (though I know Cameron’s Canadian): to see what I mean, and for a more general cultural critique, check out Patrick Lichty‘s interesting essay, Drone: camera, weapon, toy on ‘the aestheticization of dark technology’.
Which brings me to my last sighting: Mark Bowden‘s cover essay in the latest (September) issue of Atlantic on ‘The Killing Machines: how to think about drones‘. Despite the subtitle, much of Bowden’s extended essay asks how we should feel about drones.
Anyone familiar with his previous work (from Black Hawk Down on) probably won’t be surprised by his ultimate take on matters, and the early online comments show that he’s set off a firestorm of protest by what several writers call his ‘apologia’.
As a matter of fact, I think the essay is more complicated than that, and Bowden does address one of the central issues that Chamayou returns to again and again, the ways in which remote (split) operations transform the very nature of ‘combat’:
Drone strikes are a far cry from the atomic vaporizing of whole cities, but the horror of war doesn’t seem to diminish when it is reduced in scale. If anything, the act of willfully pinpointing a human being and summarily executing him from afar distills war to a single ghastly act.
One day this past January, a small patrol of marines in southern Afghanistan was working its way at dusk down a dirt road not far from Kandahar, staying to either side to avoid planted bombs, when it unexpectedly came under fire. The men scattered for cover. A battered pickup truck was closing in on them and popping off rounds from what sounded like a big gun.
Continents away, in a different time zone, a slender 19-year-old American soldier sat at a desk before a large color monitor, watching this action unfold in startlingly high definition. He had never been near a battlefield. He had graduated from basic training straight out of high school, and was one of a select few invited to fly Predators. This was his first time at the controls, essentially a joystick and the monitor. The drone he was flying was roughly 15,000 feet above the besieged patrol, each member marked clearly in monochrome on his monitor by an infrared uniform patch. He had been instructed to watch over the patrol, and to “stay frosty,” meaning: Whatever happens, don’t panic. No one had expected anything to happen. Now something was happening.
The young pilot zoomed in tight on the approaching truck. He saw in its bed a .50-caliber machine gun, a weapon that could do more damage to an army than a platoon of Goliaths.
A colonel, watching over his shoulder, said, “They’re pinned down pretty good. They’re gonna be screwed if you don’t do something.”
The colonel told the pilot to fix on the truck. A button on the joystick pulled up a computer-generated reticle, a grid displaying exact ground coordinates, distance, direction, range, etc. Once the computer locked on the pickup, it stayed zeroed in on the moving target.
“Are you ready to help?” the colonel asked.
An overlay on the grid showed the anticipated blast radius of an AGM-114 Hellfire missile—the drone carried two. Communicating via a digital audio link, the colonel instructed the men on the ground to back away, then gave them a few seconds to do so.
The pilot scrutinized the vehicle. Those who have seen unclassified clips of aerial attacks have only a dim appreciation of the optics available to the military and the CIA.
“I could see exactly what kind of gun it was in back,” the pilot told me later. “I could see two men in the front; their faces were covered. One was in the passenger seat and one was in the driver’s seat, and then one was on the gun, and I think there was another sitting in the bed of the truck, but he was kind of obscured from my angle.”
On the radio, they could hear the marines on the ground shouting for help.
“Fire one,” said the colonel.
The Hellfire is a 100-pound antitank missile, designed to destroy an armored vehicle. When the blast of smoke cleared, there was only a smoking crater on the dirt road.
“I was kind of freaked out,” the pilot said. “My whole body was shaking. It was something that was completely different. The first time doing it, it feels bad almost. It’s not easy to take another person’s life. It’s tough to think about. A lot of guys were congratulating me, telling me, ‘You protected them; you did your job. That’s what you are trained to do, supposed to do,’ so that was good reinforcement. But it’s still tough.”
One of the things that nagged at him, and that was still bugging him months later, was that he had delivered this deathblow without having been in any danger himself. The men he killed, and the marines on the ground, were at war. They were risking their hides. Whereas he was working his scheduled shift in a comfortable office building, on a sprawling base, in a peaceful country. It seemed unfair. He had been inspired to enlist by his grandfather’s manly stories of battle in the Korean War. He had wanted to prove something to himself and to his family, to make them as proud of him as they had been of his Pop-Pop.
“But this was a weird feeling,” he said. “You feel bad. You don’t feel worthy. I’m sitting there safe and sound, and those guys down there are in the thick of it, and I can have more impact than they can. It’s almost like I don’t feel like I deserve to be safe.”
I’ve described this identification with troops on the ground before, what one of Bowden’s correspondents calls ‘a very visceral connection to operations on the ground’. And Bowden is stacking the deck by starting with what the US military calls ‘Troops in Contact‘ in Afghanistan rather than CIA-directed targeted killing in Pakistan: only later will he turn to the legal and quasi-legal landscape through which those strikes pass (more on this in a later post) . But he then adds this:
If the soldier who pulls the trigger in safety feels this, consider the emotions of those on the receiving end, left to pick up the body parts of their husbands, fathers, brothers, friends. Where do they direct their anger? When the wrong person is targeted, or an innocent bystander is killed, imagine the sense of impotence and rage. How do those who remain strike back? No army is arrayed against them, no airfield is nearby to be attacked. If they manage to shoot down a drone, what have they done but disable a small machine? No matter how justified a strike seems to us, no matter how carefully weighed and skillfully applied, to those on the receiving end it is profoundly arrogant, the act of an enemy so distant and superior that he is untouchable.
As I say, more to come…