Last week I was in Bloomington for the drones conference – more on that later – but while I was there I managed to finish Owen Sheers‘ new novel, I saw a man. All of the reviews I’ve seen so far (and they have been very, very good: see here, here and here, for example) praise the way in which Owen so beautifully recovers the circles of grief that spiral from a drone strike on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that accidentally killed a party of foreign journalists, including Caroline, the wife of the book’s narrator. ‘Despite its “fire and forget” name tag,’ we are assured, ‘once a Hellfire had been released there would always be someone who never would.’
In fact, Owen and I had corresponded about the details of drone strikes and casualty investigations while he was working on the book, and he certainly treats mourning and memory with extraordinary skill and empathy. Restricting the victims to those outside the region, apart from a local driver and interpreter, may make the task easier – much of the story plays out in Hampstead – but it’s still formidably difficult.
Yet the book is also, equally centrally, about distancing. Michael is an author with a reputation for effacing himself from his narratives. Towards the end, in a phrase that powers the book’s meta-fictional twist (and which in some editions is captured on a cover from which Sheers’ own name is absent), Michael is told:
“Isn’t that what you’re always saying? You need distance to see anything clearly? To become your own editor.”
Even when he tries to lose himself in his fencing lessons, his instructor insists:
“DISTANCE! DISTANCE MICHAEL! It’s your best defence!”
And it is of course distance that is focal to the fateful drone strike. Those most directly involved in the kill-chain are soon effaced from the official narrative:
“A U.S. drone strike.” That was all the press release said. No mention of Creech, screeners, Intel coordinator, an operator, a pilot. It was as if the Predator had been genuinely unmanned. As if there had been no hand behind its flight, no eye behind its cameras.
And those who were killed are artfully turned into the authors of their own destruction (a tactic that is routinely used on Afghan and Pakistani victims too), even sacrificed for a greater good (international humanitarian law’s vengeful doctrine of ‘necessity’):
[T]he Pentagon statement also made mention of the journalists “working undercover,” of “entering a high-risk area.” They had known, it was implied, the dangers of their actions. And, the same statement reminded the world, an influential terrorist had been successfully targeted. The weight of blame, Michael knew, from the moment it happened, was being dissipated, thinned.
But distance is not a moral absolute (one of the most egregious mistakes of critics of drone warfare: if you think it wrong to kill someone from 7,000 miles away, over what distance do you think it is acceptable?). In a narrative arc that will be familiar to many readers, the pilot of the drone (Daniel) is haunted by what happened, and by the dismal intimacy of death.
Each morning, as he sets off from his home outside Las Vegas to drive to Creech Air Force Base, Daniel reflects on the similarity of the distant Charleston mountains to those over which he would soon be flying his Predator or Reaper. It’s a common trope, actually: George Brant makes much of it in his play Grounded. ‘Despite their proximity,’ though, Daniel hadn’t been into them and didn’t really know them.
They were his daily view but not yet his landscape, a feature of his geography but not yet his territory. Unlike those other mountains, 8,000 miles away. Those mountains Daniel knew intimately. He’d never climbed in them, either, but he was still familiar with the villages silted into their folds, the shadows their peaks threw at evening and the habits of the shepherds marshalling their flocks along their lower slopes. Recently he’d even been able to anticipate, given the right weather conditions, at what time the clouds would come misting down the higher peaks into the ravines of the valleys. Over the last few months he’d begun to feel an ownership over them. Were they not as much his workplace as that of those shepherds? For the troops operating in the area they were simply elevation, exhaustion, fear. They were hostile territory. But for Daniel they were his hunting ground, and as such it was his job not just to know them but to learn them, too. To love them, even, so that from the darkness of his control station in Creech, he might be able to move through their altitudes as naturally as the eagles who’d ridden their thermals for centuries.
It’s a brilliant paragraph, reflective and revealing, that captures the ways in which the pilot’s optical knowledge is transmuted into ‘ownership’, knowledge pinned to power, and distanced from the corpographies of troops on the ground for whom the mountains meant only ‘elevation, exhaustion, fear’ [see also here]. Daniel was freed from all that, soaring high above them, precisely because his territory appeared elsewhere. If, as Stuart Elden suggests, territory can be conceived as a political technology that asserts a claim over bodies-in-spaces, then one of the most perceptive passages in I saw a man is the description of Daniel scanning ‘the territory of his screen (my emphasis)’…
Distance, intimacy, experience: all mediated by political technology and in consequence highly conditional and always partial. That is how the pilot is made free to pursue what Grégoire Chamayou calls his ‘man-hunting‘: because what appears on the screen is a target – not a man or a woman.
Or, as the book’s epigraph says: ‘I saw a man who wasn’t there….’