POV in the killbox

Killbox Player 1

An update on Joe DeLappe‘s Killbox project (my original post, with links to more info on the concept of a killbox, is here).

Over at Quartz, Ananya Bhattacharya provides more details about the latest iteration of the simulation:

Killbox, an online two-player game named after the military term for an area targeted for destruction, serves as a critique of drone warfare. One player is a civilian exploring her surroundings with few instructions. The second player is guided with tasks, leading up to the administration of a drone strike. Even if the drone pilot player refuses to deploy the weapons, autopilot kicks in and carries out the attack. When it hits, the drone pilot can see the extent of the destruction on the ground but hear nothing. Meanwhile, the child on the ground is barraged by sound. And just in case the first strike doesn’t demolish enough, a second strike is administered—the classic “double-tap” attack to stop rescuers from getting help to the injured and retrieving the deceased.

The game is modelled – in some measure, at least – on the drone strike that killed Mamana Bibi as she gathered okra from the fields around her home in North Waziristan:

The characters in the game aren’t realistic though—they look like odd-shaped blobs. At first, non-human avatars seem less effective, but there’s meaning behind the simplistic design: “We were looking at the map where the drone strike killed people and these maps identified victims with little dots,” said DeLappe. “Almost like map pins, like they’ve been symbolically degraded in some way.”

Killbox player 2

I opened my essay on drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – and on the constitution of the FATA as a space of exception (see “Dirty Dancing” under the DOWNLOADS tab) – with a comparison between this strike, the murder of an innocent grandmother as she worked in the fields with her grandchildren,  and the targeted killing of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, in South Waziristan in 2009 (see also my posts here and here).

In Drone: remote control warfare Hugh Gusterson opens with exactly the same comparison but to a different effect – and one that resonates with Killbox.  Drawing on Jane Mayer‘s account of the assassination of Mehsud, based on testimony from those who watched the video feed from the Predator, he writes:

A technology that is almost magical gives its owners, who are looking on the scene from high in the sky, a godlike power over life and death. The observation of the scene is simultaneously intimate and remote. It is also deeply asymmetrical: Mehsud, unaware of his exposure, is watched by faraway drone operators who can see him as if close up, reclining on the roof of his house on a hot evening as his wife attends to his medical needs. They get to frame the picture while he does not even realize he is in it. Without warning, he is killed as if by a god’s thunderbolt from the sky. Seen from Virginia, the drone strike is quick, clean, and bloodless. Mehsud’s death is instant. Nor, described unambiguously as a terrorist, does he seem undeserving of death. Twelve people die altogether, but the narrative marks only Mehsud’s death as significant. The other deaths are almost outside the frame. And in a way that amplifies the strange mix of distance and intimacy, the scene is mediated entirely through a single sense—vision. The attack has no sound, smell, taste, or texture. And we are invited to experience it through a narrative of mastery and control—of the cool, righteous exercise of overwhelming power.


Drawing on testimony from Mamana Bibi’s family before a virtually empty Congressional hearing, Hugh writes:

This account is from the point of view of the victims, not the executioners. We share the experience of those who do not even realize that they are in the crosshairs until they are attacked. The account emphasizes the sudden incomprehensible eruption of violent force, literally out of the blue, in a warm scene of familial togetherness on an important holy day. We are led to experience the drone strike through multiple senses, of which sight may be the least salient: we are told about the blackness of the smoke, the sound of the screaming, the smell of the explosion, the sensation of the ground trembling, and the pain of shrapnel wounds. Unlike the first account, the narrative does not end shortly after the drone strike but dwells on the aftermath—the physical pain of the survivors, the enduring grief over the loss of the person “that held our family together.” Above all, this account foregrounds what is absent in the view from CIA headquarters—the psychological suffering of those on the ground, especially children, and the sense that the safe predictability of life has been permanently destroyed. It is a narrative of helplessness, terror, and injustice. The drone operators’ perspective was remote and objectifying, but this narrative is so affecting that it made the translator break down in tears.

The special effects created by privileging the visual are explored with skill and sensitivity in Nasser Hussain‘s brilliant essay, ‘The sound of terror: phenomenology of a drone strike‘, here.

[I]n order to widen our vision, I provide a phenomenology of drone strikes, examining both how the world appears through the lens of a drone camera and the experience of the people on the ground. What is it like to watch a drone’s footage, or to wait below for it to strike? What does the drone’s camera capture, and what does it occlude?

…  Although the pilots can hear ground commands, there is no microphone equivalent to the micro-scopic gaze of the drone’s camera. This mute world of dumb figures moving about on a screen has particular consequences for how we experience the image. As Michel Chion notes in The Voice in Cinema, although sound or voice is easily swallowed up by the image, it nonetheless structures the image: “only the creators of a film’s sound—recordist, sound effects person, mixer, director—know that if you alter or remove these sounds, the image is no longer the same.” In the case of the drone strike footage, the lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.

… If drone operators can see but not hear the world below them, the exact oppositeis true for people on the ground. Because drones are able to hover at or above 30 thousand feet, they are mostly invisible to the people below them. But they can be heard. Many people from the tribal areas of Pakistan (FATA) describe the sound as a low-grade, perpetual buzzing, a signal that a strike could occur at any time. The locals call the drones machar, mosquitos. Because the drone can surveil the area for hours at a time, and because each round of surveillance may or may not result in a strike, the fear and anxiety among civilians is diffuse and chronic.

That sense of optical power is not necessarily one of detachment.  For we surely know how vision, power and desire can be commingled; and today I learned – from Theodor Nadelson‘s Trained to kill: soldiers at war – that (some) US Marines describe setting their sights on a human target as ‘eye fucking’…

“What is that sound high in the air?”

Coming from MIT in April next year, a new book by the ever-creative anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, Drone: remote control warfare.

GUSTERSON DroneDrones are changing the conduct of war. Deployed at presidential discretion, they can be used in regular war zones or to kill people in such countries as Yemen and Somalia, where the United States is not officially at war. Advocates say that drones are more precise than conventional bombers, allowing warfare with minimal civilian deaths while keeping American pilots out of harm’s way. Critics say that drones are cowardly and that they often kill innocent civilians while terrorizing entire villages on the ground. In this book, Hugh Gusterson explores the significance of drone warfare from multiple perspectives, drawing on accounts by drone operators, victims of drone attacks, anti-drone activists, human rights activists, international lawyers, journalists, military thinkers, and academic experts.

Gusterson examines the way drone warfare has created commuter warriors and redefined the space of the battlefield. He looks at the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance involved in remote killing: is it easier than killing someone on the physical battlefield if you have to watch onscreen? He suggests a new way of understanding the debate over civilian casualties of drone attacks. He maps “ethical slippage” over time in the Obama administration’s targeting practices. And he contrasts Obama administration officials’ legal justification of drone attacks with arguments by international lawyers and NGOs.

People of the bombI met Hugh at a conference on Orientalism and War in Oxford several years ago, and I’ve recently been reading his Nuclear Rites: a weapons laboratory and the end of the Cold War and People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex as I continue my wanderings through the nuclear wastelands.

The coincidence between Hugh’s previous projects and his new one intersects with my presentation on “Little Boys and Blue Skies” in Toronto last week – see here and here – which sketched out a series of entanglements between drones and the nuclear wastelands (hence the Eliot quotation which serves as my title for this post).

Theory of the drone 6: Sacrifice, suicide and drones

This is the sixth in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.  I had planned to cover Part II, Ethos and psyche, in a single post, but I’ve received several requests not to speed up, so I’m continuing chapter by chapter, with supplementary readings and comments as I go.

1.  Drones and kamikazes

Soon after Oliver Belcher started his research programme with me – and I’m delighted to say his thesis on ‘The afterlives of counterinsurgency’ has now been submitted – we had one of many rich conversations about what he called ‘the art of war in an age of digital reproduction’.  The reference, of course, was to Walter Benjamin‘s famous essay, usually translated as ‘The work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction.’  This seems to be widely regarded as the standard, even canonical version since its inclusion in the volume of Benjamin’s essays edited by Hannah Arendt and published as Illuminations.

But it has a more complicated history.  Here is Eric Larsen:

‘After fleeing the Nazi government in 1933, Benjamin moved to Paris, from where he published the first edition of “Work of Art” in 1936. This publication appeared in French translation under the direction of Raymond Aron in volume 5, no. 1 of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Benjamin subsequently rewrote the essay and after editorial work by Theodore and Margarethe Adorno it was posthumously published in its commonly recognized form in his Schriften of 1955.’

Benjamin Work of ArtIn fact there were four versions of the essay, and several critics regard the second version as the most daring of all (you can find the third version here).  In the third volume of Harvard’s Selected Writings this is translated as ‘The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility’ (1936) – it’s also available separately in the little book shown on the left – and includes this remarkable passage in an expanded Section VI:

Compared to that of the machine age, of course, this [pre-historic] technology was undeveloped. But from a dialectical stand-point, the disparity is unimportant. What matters is the way the orientation and aims of that technology differ from those of ours. Whereas the former made the maximum possible use of human beings, the latter reduces their use to the minimum. The achievements of the first technology might be said to culminate in human sacrifice; those of the second, in the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew. The results of the first technology are valid once and for all (it deals with irreparable lapse or sacrificial death, which holds good for eternity). The results of the second are wholly provisional (it operates by means of experiments and endlessly varied test procedures). The origin of the second technology lies at the point where, by an unconscious ruse, human beings first began to distance themselves from nature.  It lies, in other words, in play.

It’s extraordinary to read these words 75 or so years after Benjamin wrote them, and their intimations of armed drones and even the supposed ‘Playstation mentality’ that misguides those who operate them (though I think that argument misunderstands the extraordinary immersive capacity of videogames, but that’s another story that I’ve told elsewhere).

Chamayou starts his exploration of ‘Ethos and psyche’ by invoking yet another version of Benjamin’s iconic essay, but his basic point shines through the version I’ve quoted above.  His purpose is to juxtapose one technology or at least its limit-case, sacrifice, which engages the human in the most direct and intimate way possible, once and for all, to another, from which (so he says) the human is disengaged in a mechanical act that is, in principle, endlessly repeatable.

Yet it turns out that this isn’t an historical succession in any simple sense at all: what Chamayou sees instead are two different genealogies – the kamikaze pilot and suicide-bomber on one side and the drone on the other – entwined in a truly deadly embrace.

The linchpin of his argument is provided by a Russian emigré engineer working for RAC, Vladimir Zworykin. Apparently alarmed by press reports in 1934 that the Japanese were considering the formation of a ‘Suicide Corps to control surface and aerial torpedoes’, Zworkyin proposed to use technology to counter the threat.  Previous experiments with radio-controlled aerial torpedoes were all very well, but these were ‘blind weapons’ that inevitably lacked precision.  The Japanese proposed to solve the  problem by using human pilots to guide the explosive platform on to its target – Zworykin’s contrary solution was to guide the aerial torpedo through an ‘electric eye’ (a sort of proto-television).

Zworykin aerial torpedo

The torpedo would be a glider,

‘carried on an airplane to the proximity of where it is to be used, and released.  After it has been released the torpedo can be guided to its target with shortwave radio control, the operator being able to see the target through the “eye” [or Iconoscope] of the torpedo as it approaches.’

In 1935 Zworykin submitted a memorandum to the War and Navy Departments describing a television-controlled missile that could be guided beyond the line of sight, and five years later the US approved ‘Project Block‘ for RCA to develop TV-guided ‘assault drones’ in concert with the US Navy.  When the first Japanese kamikaze units were formed they were indeed deployed against naval targets – but this wasn’t until 1944, so I’m not sure about the source of those much earlier reports that fired Zworykin’s imagination.

I described some earlier experiments with aerial torpedoes here, and you can find much more about Zworykin here and in Alexander Magoun‘s Television: the life story of a technology, pp. 78-84.  He notes that the US Army Air Force was a latecomer to these experiments, and didn’t demonstrate a TV-controlled drone until October 1943, largely because its major investment was in heavy bombers capable of inflicting major destruction on cities and military-industrial targets.  Project Aphrodite did experiment with the use of television to guide war-weary Flying Fortresses filled with explosives and napalm on to targets in Germany, but the attempts were largely unsuccessful and singularly irrelevant to the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II.

Nevertheless, Chamayou argues that to some degree Zworykin had identified the core principle that would later be used to develop the smart bomb and the drone.  His sharper point is that the forerunner of the drone was an anti-kamikaze; sharper because this conceptual origin places the drone within a distinctive ethico-technical economy of life and death.

This ethico-technical economy can be read as an ethic of heroic sacrifice on one side and an ethic of auto-preservation on the other, each a mirror image of its other, ‘two visions of horror’.    Chamayou joins several other commentators to connect the kamikaze attacks of the Second World war to suicide-bombers today, and so argues that in the global North today the cardinal opposition is usually expressed as ‘defiance of death’ versus ‘love of life’: the frequently repeated claim, as at once an explanation and a condemnation of suicide-bombing, that ‘they’ don’t value life as much as ‘we’ do.  Yet, as Chamayou insists, it’s not ‘life in general’ that we value at all: it’s our lives that we cherish.

To develop this argument (which he will later elaborate in other dimensions), Chamayou cites Richard Cohen‘s editorial in the Washington Post on 6 October 2009:

As for the Taliban fighters, they not only don’t cherish life, they expend it freely in suicide bombings. It’s difficult to imagine an American suicide bomber.

He then uses anthropologist Hugh Gusterson‘s response to sharpen his point still further.  Gusterson wonders, with Jacqueline Rose,  why ‘dropping cluster bombs from the air is not only less repugnant [than suicide bombing]: it is somehow deemed, by Western leaders at least, to be morally superior.’  He then reverses the terms of the argument (and in going so prefigures Chamayou’s own argument about the substitution of hunting for combat in many areas of later modern warfare and about the colonial antecedents of drone strikes):

ASAD On suicide bombing[M]any people in the Middle East feel about U.S. drone attacks the way Richard Cohen feels toward suicide bombers. The drone attacks are widely perceived in the Middle East as cowardly, because the drone pilot is killing people on the ground from the safety of an air-conditioned pod in Nevada, where there is no chance that he can be killed by those he is attacking. He has turned combat into hunting. In this regard, the drone is the culmination of a long tradition of colonial war-fighting technologies — going back at least to the machine guns with which British and French colonial soldiers mowed down spear-carrying Africans –that ensure that the “natives” die, in an unfair fight, in considerably larger numbers than the colonial soldiers.

The drone operator is also a mirror image of the suicide bomber in that he too deviates, albeit in the opposite direction, from our paradigmatic image of combat as an encounter between warriors who meet as equals risking the wounding or killing of their own bodies while trying to wound or kill the others’ bodies. The honorable drama of combat lies in the symmetrical willingness of warriors to wager their bodies against each other for a cause. But now, in the words of the anthropologist Talal Asad, in his book On Suicide Bombing, U.S. “soldiers need no longer go to war expecting to die, but only to kill. In itself, this destabilizes the conventional understanding of war as an activity in which human dying and killing are exchanged.”

But there are two other twists to this story that Chamayou doesn’t pursue.

First, in his essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Gusterson confounds Cohen’s difficulty in imagining ‘an American suicide bomber’ like this:

‘For decades loyal U.S. soldiers in nuclear missile silos have trained to launch their weapons in the expectation that they would be killed almost immediately afterwards in the ensuing nuclear war. I once interviewed a former special-forces officer who was trained to hike behind enemy lines with a tactical nuclear weapon on his back and place it near an important target. Although the weapon had a timer, he expected to die at ground zero.

If such men were the elite nuclear suicide bombers whose mission was prepared but never carried out, the Cold War turned the whole country into a suicide bomber rehearsing obsessively for the moment when we would “push the button” and take down millions of our enemies with us. Seen in this light, Americans trained for the biggest suicide bombing mission of all.’

Second, there have been ‘successful’ American suicide bombers.  To some historians the first candidate is Andrew Kehoe, who set off an explosion at a schoolhouse in Bath, Michigan in May 1927, killing 44 people, before setting off dynamite in his truck and killing himself and several other people.  Whether you count this as a suicide bombing in the modern sense of the term depends on the criteria you think appropriate.  Many commentators exclude Kehoe and identify three other, more recent American suicide bombers: Shirwa Ahmed, who drove a car bomb into a government compound in Puntland in October 2008, killing as many as 30 people; Farah Mohamed Beledi, who killed himself and three soldiers at a military checkpoint in Mogadishu in June 2011; and Abdisalan Hussein Ali, who attacked African Union troops in Mogadishu six months later.  All three were Somali-Americans who had lived in Minnesota and were recruited by al-Shabaab.

But to exclude Kehoe and claim that these three were not ‘really American’ is to immediately trigger one of Chamayou’s key arguments about the ways in which killing and dying in the age of the drone are racialized.  More soon.


As I finished up this post,  I discovered a young American performance artist, Ethan Fishbane, whose show American Suicide Bomber Association has been staged in New York and previously in Indonesia and South Africa.

Apparently he threw one of his stage ‘bombs’ into the garbage last week and unwittingly set off a bomb scare in Manhattan.

“I felt the response [by the police] was wholly appropriate,” he said. “Even if it’s just a prop for a theater piece, they were on top of it.”