(in)Humanity and drones

SATIA Spies in ArabiaThe latest issue of Humanity: an international journal of human rights, humanitarianism and development 5 (1) (2014) – see my previous post here – contains a wonderful dossier on Drones between past and present.  It includes Priya Satia, whose work I’ve admired ever since I read her wonderful Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East, on ‘Drones: a history from the Middle East’ (pp. 1-31), Anna Chotzen on ‘Beyond bounds: Morocco’s Rif War and the limits of international law’ (pp. 33-54: ‘From a legal standpoint, the United States’ drone offensives are eerily similar to Spain’s chemical war in Morocco a century ago’), and a Photo Esssay from Trevor Paglen (pp. 57-71), introduced by Nicholas Guilhot (pp. 55-56).

Priya’s essay is of particular interest to me, since it recovers the genealogy and, crucially, what she calls ‘the cultural history of bombardment’ that connects colonial practices of ‘air control’ to the ideologies that activate the drone strikes prosecuted by the US in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.  She’s more sanguine about the transparency of those carried out by the USAF in Afghanistan than I am:

‘… in my conversations with military officers, it is clear how strongly the USAF wishes to distinguish its use of drones from ‘‘other agencies’ ’’ use of them, even while acknowledging that tactics are shared. The USAF’s drone strikes in Afghanistan are transparent; a JAG (judge advocate) assesses the proportionality of the action and the likelihood of collateral damage; official casualty figures line up well with independent counts.’

I now suspect it’s more than ‘tactics’ that are shared, and the lines between the USAF and the CIA are more blurred than – I agree – most military officers would wish.  And my project on ‘Militarized vision‘ is trying to identify the parameters within which the USAF’s transparency and its visual mediations operate.  But as she goes on to say, ‘However, all of this hardly matters politically, given the older and more recent history of aerial counterinsurgency in these regions.’  And she provides a rich and compelling account of that history and its traces in present memories and (para)military practices.

PAGLEN Untitled (Predator drone) 2013

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