I’m just back from a lovely week at Dartmouth, so there’s lots to catch up on. This post is confined to (yet more) notes on writing about drones. It’s selective, partly because I’m sure I’ve missed all sorts of important recent contributions – and if I have please let me know – but partly because so many supposedly critical interventions retrace familiar steps unburdened by substantive research.
This is far from the case with this one. Part of the purpose of my stay in Dartmouth was to spend time with Kate Kindervater, one of the first cohort of five post-docs at Dartmouth’s new Society of Fellows (selected from 1700 applicants!). She completed her PhD at the University of Minnesota last year on ‘Lethal Surveillance: Drones and the Geo-History of Modern War‘.
Interdisciplinary both in scope and method, my dissertation, Lethal Surveillance: Drones and the Geo-History of Modern War, examines the history of drone technology from the start of the 20th century to the present in order to understand the significance of the increasing centrality of drones to current American military engagements and security practices more generally. Much of the scholarship on drones and many other contemporary military technologies tends to view the technology as radically new, missing both the historical development of these objects as well as the perspectives and rationalities that are embedded in their use. For this research, I focused on three main periods of drone research and development: the early years of World War I and II in the UK, the Cold War, and the 1990s. In studying this history of the drone, I found that two key trends emerge as significant: the increasing importance of information to warfare under the rubric of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance; and a shift toward more dynamic, speedier, and individualized targeting practices. I argue that the widespread use of drones today thus represents the culmination of attempts in war to effectively link these two trends, creating a practice I call lethal surveillance — with the armed Predator effectively closing the loop between identifying and killing targets. The concept of lethal surveillance, which in my dissertation I place squarely within the histories of modern scientific thinking and Western liberal governance, allows us to see how techniques of Western state power and knowledge production are merging with practices of killing and control in new ways, causing significant changes to both the operations of the state and to practices of war. Framing the drone through the lens of lethal surveillance, therefore, allows us to see the longer histories the drone is embedded in as well as other security practices it is connected to.
We had lots of really good conversation, and while I was at Dartmouth Kate had a paper published at Security dialogue, drawing from her thesis: ‘The emergence of lethal surveillance: Watching and killing in the history of drone technology’:
This article examines the history of the development of drone technology to understand the longer histories of surveillance and targeting that shape contemporary drone warfare. Drawing on archival research, the article focuses on three periods in the history of the drone: the early years during World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and the 1990s. The history of the drone reveals two key trends in Western warfare: the increasing importance of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and the development of dynamic targeting. These trends converge today in a practice of lethal surveillance where ISR capabilities are directly linked to targeted killing, effectively merging mechanisms of surveillance and knowledge production with decisions on life and death. Taking this history of lethal surveillance into account not only reframes current debates on drone warfare, but also connects the drone to other practices of security and control.
Kate is absolutely right to trace through the trajectories of ISR and dynamic targeting, and I applaud the way in which she doesn’t move directly from colonial ‘air policing’ and ‘pilotless bombing’ (in the case that interests her the most, in Iraq in the 1920s) to today’s remote operations but insists on the pivotal importance of the Cold War and, post-1989, Kosovo. Kosovo is particularly interesting, I think, and here is my own summary take on developments there:
Another exceptionally interesting paper is Cara Daggett‘s ‘Drone disorientations: how unmanned weapons queer the experience of killing in war’, which appeared in the International journal of feminist politics 17 (3) (2015) 361-379:
Killing with drones produces queer moments of disorientation. Drawing on queer phenomenology, I show how militarized masculinities function as spatiotemporal landmarks that give killing in war its “orientation” and make it morally intelligible. These bearings no longer make sense for drone warfare, which radically deviates from two of its main axes: the home–combat and distance–intimacy binaries. Through a narrative methodology, I show how descriptions of drone warfare are rife with symptoms of an unresolved disorientation, often expressed as gender anxiety over the failure of the distance–intimacy and home–combat axes to orient killing with drones. The resulting vertigo sparks a frenzy of reorientation attempts, but disorientation can lead in multiple and sometimes surprising directions – including, but not exclusively, more violent ones. With drones, the point is that none have yet been reliably secured, and I conclude by arguing that, in the midst of this confusion, it is important not to lose sight of the possibility of new paths, and the “hope of new directions.”
There have been several commentaries that take the ‘un-manning’ of remote operations literally and seriously, and I drew on several of them in accounting for the moral economy of bombing in my Tanner Lectures last month: the (hideous) claim that bombing is, in all sorts of ways, virile and manly – so that, by extension, those who fly today’s Predators and Reapers are neither since they are never in harm’s way. It’s an alarming argument, since it inadvertently legitimates (and even celebrates) the masculinism of conventional bombing, misses the new reality of today’s air wars, and ignores a crucial observation made by Robert Gates [the slides below are from my Tanner Lectures]:
Cara’s argument is much more artful than that, and well worth thinking through.
As both writers know, the use of military drones is not confined to targeted killing (though so many continue to write as though that were the case). That said, Laurie Calhoun‘s We kill because we can: from soldiering to assassination in the drone age (Zed Books, 2015) is as deft an examination of the issues that you can find:
Welcome to the Drone Age. Where self-defense has become naked aggression. Where courage has become cowardice. Where black ops have become standard operating procedure. In this remarkable and often shocking book, Laurie Calhoun dissects the moral, psychological and cultural impact of remote-control killing in the twenty-first century. Can a drone operator conducting a targeted killing be likened to a mafia hitman? What difference, if any, is there between the Trayvon Martin case and the drone killing of a teen in Yemen? We Kill Because We Can takes a scalpel to the dark heart of Western foreign policy in order to answer these and many other troubling questions.
Part I: Find
1. Drone Nation
2. From Black Ops to Standard Operating Procedure
3. The Logic of Targeted Killing
4. Lethal Creep
Part II: Fix
5. Strike First, Suppress Questions Later
6. The New Banality of Killing
7. The Operators
8. From Conscience to Oblivion
Part III: Finish
9. Death and Politics
10. Death and Taxes
11. The Death of Military Virtue
12. Tyrants Are as Tyrants Do
Appendix: Drone Killing and Just War Theory
You can find an extended interview with Laurie here.
Finally – and as you’ll soon see from an upcoming post – I can’t seem to stop wandering through the nuclear wastelands. I described the role that drones played in the early development of Strategic Air Command (through its “Project Brass Ring”) and in monitoring US atomic tests in the Marshall Islands in my “Little Boys and Blue Skies” presentation at Toronto last fall (see DOWNLOADS tab and the extended post here), which I reworked for one of my presentations at Dartmouth. Over at Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, Dan Gettinger replays the same little-known story – though he doesn’t play it forward to the atomic tests that took place at the Nevada Proving Grounds and the role of Indian Springs as a base for those early drone missions in the continental United States. Indian Springs is now Creech Air Force Base, of course, one of the central nodes for today’s remote operations.