An attempt to theorize the drone fails to keep its target in its sights.
Why are we so obsessed with the drone? Drone deployments are neither extraordinarily troublesome for their collateral damage, “supra-sovereignty,” or targeted assassinations, nor unusually humane in their virtuality, precision, or frugality with money and lives. Conventional war, special ops, and particularly air power have long offended human or juridical standards as they have sought cost-reduction. The sheer number of innocents killed by drones is still far below those killed in parallel conventional attacks. Killing from a distance has enjoyed a legacy as long as the modern Western state system, because it helped form it. From colonial war massacre, through Dresden and Hiroshima, to “smart bomb” slaughter in Iraq (both times), death-making from afar has mitigated risk to the killer in a similar mode to today’s drone killing. How does the drone constitute any qualitative difference?
Grégoire Chamayou, a philosopher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, devotes his new book Theory of the Drone to answering that question, deciding that the revolutionary, radical, obscene aspect of the drone is this: it is not very sporting. While his title promises theory, we instead are treated to a digression on the military and social ethics of attacks from the air, in which Chamayou asks without irony, “can counterinsurgency rise to the level of an aero-policy without losing its soul?” What offends Chamayou is the “elimination, already rampant but here absolutely radicalized, of any immediate relation of reciprocity” in warfare. This, we are told, is the problem.
Promised a theory of the drone, how do we arrive at a theory of the noble soldier? After tracking the beginnings of the drone in facilitating Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its assassination of non-collaborationist Palestinians, Chamayou then sketches the “revolution in sighting” that the drone has wrought as it became a crucial piece in the Global War on Terror. Chamayou acknowledges that the drone-system’s ambition is indeed remarkable, fusing: (1) the coverage of a target persistently over time so as to know him extensively; (2) a broad scope of sight in which “the whole field” is seen; (3) the ability to archive the lives of targets or sites of violence for later analysis (hence being able to “go back” and see how a car bomb was placed); (4) the ability to fuse vision with other electronic communications (such as cell phones) to get a full picture of the target’s life; (5) the ability to schematize forms of life so that (6) detection of anomalies and preemptive anticipation can occur. Taken together, those viewed as militants by the all-seeing eye would seem to be known better than they know themselves. As a result, militant networks would be severed, plots upended, entire movements foiled before they can even coalesce and catalyze.
But Chamayou argues that none of these ambitions or outcomes have actually been realized. While drone proponents argue that for every militant killed by a drone, there is one fewer militant on the ground (which, as analyst Micah Jenko points out, “is just math!”), on-going drone-led counter-insurgencies in Yemen and Pakistan have been manifest failures not only in reducing the overall numbers of militants, but in containing those counter-insurgencies’ political goals. With the arrival of ISIS, the failure of the global vision is two-fold: first, we are struck by how ISIS could have emerged without being seen and contained. Second, now that ISIS exists, suddenly ground troops are being discussed, as generals deride airstrikes (let alone drones) as casual sex. The global floating eye cannot succeed in finding Caliph al-Baghdadi nor enough men in black to “degrade” ISIS to the point of its unviability.
But the question is why has the drone failed? In Chamayou’s account,
the whole problem—at once epistemological and political—lies in this claimed ability to be able [sic] to correctly convert an assembly of probable indices into a legitimate target. Both the means and the methodology are patently limited. As a former CIA officer admits, “You can only see so much from 20,000 feet.” A drone can distinguish shapes only more or less imprecisely. For example, in April 2011, American drones were “unable to discriminate the highly distinctive combat outline of two Marines (with full battle equipment) from the irregular enemy.”
Along these lines, Chamayou points out that because of the time lag from the ground, to the camera, to the drone operator in Nevada, targets have an opportunity to deceive the drone by “adopt[ing] zigzag movements.” He also notes further that drones can be hacked; that drones can be contested with counter drones.
But in all of this, Chamayou is arguing against the efficacy of drones because of their technical limitations, and those limitations alone. Yet, wouldn’t a drone mastermind respond by assuring Chamayou that more drones with better cameras, better sensors, more satellites, etc will imminently eliminate such problems? In other words, Chamayou does not actually engage the theoretical problem posed by the technology: can the fascist spatial and political regime of power imagined by drone architects actually be put in place, or are there factors within the drone-system itself that militate against this possibility? Chamayou mostly takes the answer to this question on faith: relying on a form of dialectical axiomatics that insists that resistance always emerges from oppression, he holds that drones can never achieve their desire.
And so, dispatching with the dream of the drone by noting some current technological limitations and making some blanket philosophical assertions, Chamayou assumes the concerns not of the brutalized but of military leaders and soldiers. The problem with drones seems to boil down to their violation of the tenet of fair play, as drones take the conceit of heroism, so important for any military culture’s self-delusions, and counterfeit it. Chamayou shows how, to reconcile this glaring obscenity, “heroism” itself has to change meanings in order to be secured and perpetuated as a part of one-sided military slaughter. Heroism in the death-from-afar regime has come to mean taking on the burden of trauma that comes from un-heroically executing Others “over there” so that everyone “here” can live comfortably under quiet skies. Chamayou points out that while no soldier has actually been diagnosed with PTSD, conventional discourse insists they are vulnerable to it, adding, “if drone operators are not ‘brave’ in the classic sense of exposing their physical life in battle, they are brave in that they do indirectly expose their psychic life.”
Chamayou uses such observations about exposed psychic lives and applies them as a synecdoche to the entire society reliant on killing from afar. He asks “what if drone psychopathology lay not where it is believed to be, in the possible traumas of the drone operators, but in the industrial production of compartmentalized psyches, immunized against any possibility of reflecting upon their own violence, just as their bodies are already immunized against any possibility of being exposed to the enemy?” Chamayou explains this pathology later by observing that the dialectic between citizen-soldiers and the warring state has been severed: when those who before could die by killing for the state are now no longer at mortal risk, there is not only much less reason to limit war, but there is no way to paper over the scandal constituted in turning war into assassination.
Such analysis is grossly overstated. Is it the invention of drones, or the fact that America’s volunteer army has become wholly mercenary (a process which began long before the drone), that has really short-circuited the supposed positive dialectic between soldier and state? What’s more, in his fixation on the source of the killing rather than the objects, Chamayou’s investment simply mirrors mainstream treatment of drones, turning them into an excuse for romantic celebrations of the power of the emancipated liberal subject (a white male holding a gun) to resist the automation of amorality.
Chamayou spends an extended digression on a soldier in situ (as opposed to the drone operator in Nevada) not firing on a naked and defenseless enemy: “If he does it, he knows he will have to live with that action. And that is what he rejects in advance. It is a matter not of duty but of becoming. The crucial, decisive question is not ‘What should I do?’ but ‘What will I become?’” While this point is well-taken, we should also recall that when Robert Bales murdered 17 Afghan civilians in 2012, he may have not been struggling with those ethical demands. More critically, such preoccupations with “ethics” leave behind not only the actual people on the ground reduced to the labels “militant” or “collateral damage,” and not only the drone-assemblage and its desires, but the politics that links those people and that system together.
It is unfortunate that Chamayou fails to live up to the promise contained in his book’s title, since the drone demands proper theorization—not just for what it has done, but how it is imagined, what fantasies and trajectories it contains and conjures. In this sense, the drone is a novel ensemble of forces that leverages time-space compression through the medium of the sky, not just to traverse the globe in real time, breaching separate worlds to extinguish lives, but to foreclose the possibility on the part of targets to even imagine resistance. The dream of the drone makes manifest a nightmare expressed by theorist Paul Virilio in his Speed and Politics almost four decades ago: a regime of power capitalizing on superior command of a dromological medium (here the air) to such a degree that the Enemy’s movement itself is impossible. This is the “fleet in being,” the
permanent presence in the sea of an invisible fleet able to strike no matter where and no matter when, annihilating the enemy’s will to power by creating a global zone of insecurity in which it will no longer be able to “decide” with certainty, to want – in other words, to win.
The “fleet in being” was originally a nautical term describing a reactive tactic deployed by the weaker of two adversaries on the seas—the inferior power may not have been able to defeat the superior in open water, but in port the former contained the potential to concentrate all its force and strike at the weak spots of the superior’s deployed fleet. What is novel about Virilio’s use of the concept is its transformation from a tactic deployed in flight to a strategy encompassed by the hegemon. As a strategy, it is directed at the ontological status of the Other—and it seeks eradication of difference itself.
How does this work? By combining knowing (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), sighting (targeting in movement and in the moment), and eliminating (“putting warheads on foreheads”), the drone constitutes an assemblage of force (as drone-theorist Derek Gregory puts it) that promises a revolution in control and allows the US war apparatus to imagine space and politics in new ways. Because the body of the accused can ostensibly be precisely seen, it can be seen as itself carving out a body-sized exception to state sovereignty over the territory on which that body moves. In this way, eliminating the body does not constitute an assault on the territory of the state, as these bodies are presented as ontologically (and hence quasi-legally) disconnected from that territory: by harboring or potentially harboring unacceptable transnational desires, the militant uproots himself, and risks being plucked out and vaporized in open space that belongs only to him. The exception to sovereignty provides the drone the opportunity to extend this exception into temporal indefiniteness: wars are not declared, aggressions are not announced—the fleet, fusing police and military functions, merely watches and strikes, constantly pruning the ground of human weeds.
As the fleet uncovers and eliminates such militants it also terrorizes would-be replacements into capitulating before they even raise a weapon, before they have the thought “to want … to win.” Those who are irrational enough to strike out are removed with the quiet and efficient operation of point and click. But how are those militants identified? Much has been made of so-called “signature strikes” in which the drone-system has looked beyond terrorist commanders to kill any male of a certain age. The choice is often interpreted as a tactical error by a system calibrated to fear all Muslim men. But there is more here. Signature strikes tell us much about the logic of the system, about its form of improvisational and anticipatory violence that becomes an end in itself. Nothing is known about the signature strike victim, no goal is served in his killing (other than producing more radicalized people) outside of the system’s desire to create targets and eliminate them.
The irony is that Chamayou has written an entire book on the concept of manhunting (Manhunts: A Philosophical History) that implicitly critiques such forms of sovereign imagination. Although he does not apply the concept with any rigor to Theory of a Drone (he does not even cite it), the continually re-emerging theme of the hunter’s affective and libidinal investment in the act of hunting suggests the collapse of means into ends as seen in the signature strike. As Chamayou puts it in Manhunts: “With the body that it pursues, the police enters into a relationship that is animal-like, even in the affects that it experiences… A well-guarded secret today, but widely recognized in the nineteenth century: the police do not function out of respect for the law—that is not their main motivation—but because of the pleasure of the hunt”. And the drone-system (a synecdoche of the entire GWOT), caught in the logic of the police hunt, imagines all the world’s citizens as prey.
Such a vision constitutes a noteworthy combination of seeing and not-seeing. First, to be seen at all is to be produced as a threat. Hence the signature strike, in which one’s status as a terrorist is established through the fact of one’s own annihilation. The flipside is, of course, what is not-seen: while Chamayou’s Theory of the Drone shows the ways in which the drone is so far incapable of adequately seeing the objects it obliterates—what we can call tactical blindness—we might focus instead on the strategic kind. The drone’s logic perfects an inability and unwillingness by our empire to perceive the political lives of others. If they are not threats they are barely perceived at all. And so every attempt to better see the world (better cameras, more drones) only generates increasingly myopic perceptions of threat, drowning out the multiple meanings of that world.
The not-seeing is mirrored in discourse, the partially-shrouded nature of the drone-system making it more effective: being known but only known obliquely to the polities on whose behalf it is deployed (we’re bombing the Philippines now?!) provides benefits to both regime and polity alike. The state is provided cover through quasi-legality and covert status to expand its fleet to its strategic conclusion – to the point where it fulfills the symbolics inscribed on T-Shirts (“You can run… but you’ll just die tired”) and in drone names themselves (“Reaper” and “Predator,” both equipped with “Hellfire” missiles). The public is allowed to not have to fully know, but simultaneously is able also to rest assured that our global eye is “taking care of it”—that it can observe nefarious developments and eliminate them before they become developments at all. The key point is that even when such a vision fails—as shown by the resilience of targeted groups across the world—the imaginary of efficient, anti-septic, safely-distanciated killing remains unbroken.
The ambiguity of knowing/not-knowing (knowing what to know and when to know no more) has hystericized some, generating much interest on the liberal left. But as Madiha Tahir reminds us, when the loudest objection to drones is about their shrouded nature, the point is missed: knowing about the slaughter is not the political problem, and rectifying the knowledge deficit won’t provide a solution. Indeed most, swaddled in our era of open secrecy, give off an air of awe and confusion, appreciation and discomfort with drones, a fascination/repulsion which is continually reanimated and refreshed. If Americans are not quite satisfied with drones they are also certainly not protesting against them. Two thirds of Americans support drones—but what does it mean to support something when you really don’t know what it is and what it does? And that is precisely the point: drones provide a license to not-know, a factor inscribed into the social reality of the weapon itself, and hence essential to see as being endorsed.
Taking these forms of not-seeing together, drones matter not because, same as it ever was, the US kills from afar without risk or consequence, but because drones do so in a way that forecloses on the possibility of seeing politics. Chamayou is concerned with the beautiful souls of soldiers and statesmen, but the horror of the drone lies elsewhere, in the technological-strategic solution to the problem of politics found in the drone. Rather than consider legacies and continuing trajectories of imperialism (whether it be military bases in authoritarian Saudi Arabia or facilitating colonial expansion in apartheid Israel), rather than address political economic exploitation and degradation experienced by those kept outside the privileged enclaves of the capitalist world, rather than reflect on political difference itself and the realities of resistance against a particular ideology (liberalism) asserting itself across the globe, the drone reduces the entire terrain into beyond-the-pale Enemies to be vaporized, to the paradox of mowing the lawn continually and forever.
As such, the drone-system encapsulates that regime of strategic ambiguity that has seceded from the world not only of rules and laws (slaughter from the air has always exposed these as meaningless), but from rationality in which means must lead to ends. Like a machine stuck in the “on” position, the drone system churns up lives and renders them evil at the same time, inexorably. And so there is more to the drone than whether it currently works as imagined, or how it redounds on the subjectivities of Americans who need a noble military. It cuts to the very core of how America engages in the world, and whether it is a political actor which must compromise, negotiate, convince, or whether it is a war machine killing anything in its path.