Last month OpenDemocracy were kind enough to publish a short essay of mine – under my human name – on the media’s portrayal of civilian and military drones. Here is the link. Enjoy.
Drones are a technology seemingly defined by their particular ability to reside, almost exclusively, in air-space. Unlike conventional planes, they apparently do not rely on the ground, that domain of human life, for anything apart from their first breath. Just like satellites, once launched drones can float indefinitely. This is no-longer flight. Flying is what planes and birds do; flying is defined in relation to the ground. What drones do is more akin to an orbit of the skies, a low orbit, but even orbit does not have the same level of freedom as this. Orbit is held in a trajectory restricted, even if not entirely determined, by the cosmic body about which it occurs. Though of course affected by gravity, the drone resists it with lasting success. It may very well soon be the case that drones need never come down. Even birds must return to feed their young; drones are not weighed down by the mortal necessity of reproduction, and can feed off the near-immortal energy of the sun. And satellites, though they do not require fuel to remain, do require guidance to function. The ambition for drones is to transcend even this minimal level of dependence: to become ‘autonomous’, not only in a physical but also a mental sense; to develop the capacity to make decisions based on their own perceptions. It is even proposed, by the scientist Ronald Arkin among others, that these decisions could be not only logical, but ethical, thoughtful, calculations[i].
True, robotic autonomy was predicted in many-a-sci-fi dystopia, but what was not foreseen, as far as I know, is the significance of airspace autonomy; the combination of a highly-autonomous machine and a highly-independent space. We, the corporeal human, cannot directly approach the sky without the use of another technology – a plane or a jetpack – as we might approach the land by walking, or the sea by swimming. The independence, the privacy which the sky attains from this has a clear impact upon the ability for human legal control of these environments. Thus, since the sea is comparatively unapproachable, uninhabitable, maritime law has always been more difficult to enforce than the law of the land. Similarly, the law of the skies is found to be vulnerable because, although we can enter it, we cannot inhabit it – but even more so than the seas as, whereas we can swim for minutes; hours, we can only jump for a fraction of a second.
Yet we must ask, as always, what does this idea permit or encourage? What are the effects of believing that at some point, if not already, we will not be able to control the drone or its corresponding space?
I would argue that it is a belief laced with peril. It is perilous because it leads us to the false conclusion that a certain force, a geographical-legal principle, has entirely dissolved. This principle can be most simply expressed as that narrow-minded view of the world held by maps, and demonstrated by the colonial despots who, during the era of Empire, drew arbitrary lines on them to separate one’s land from another’s. The point is that this principle has not at all dissolved, and in fact resides at the heart of the very functionality of drone warfare itself.
Geographical-Legal Exceptionality: The ‘Double Standards’ of Drone Warfare
Recently, Carol Anne Grayson has drawn attention, on her blog, to the ‘double standards’ of drone strikes with regard to the Pakistani capital Karachi:
“While [s]till NO meaningful action has been taken to tackle the US on the continued use of drones on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)…
…It’s an entirely different attitude with drones over Karachi. The hypocrisy is beyond belief. Dawn is now reporting that security agencies want action for a complete ban on heli-cams (drone cameras) over Karachi for fear of surveillance operations by undesirables and turning small drones into explosive devices”.
To the extent that drones are regarded as autonomous and free, their movement is apparently indiscriminate, they do not care for our earthly geographies, or the legal divisions – sovereignty being the most obvious – that accompany them. There seems to be a careless equality to the drone. Particularly as the smaller quadcopters and micro-drones become cheaper and more accessible to the general public, they express a liberal individualist sense of freedom.
But this naivety leads us to pay scant attendance to the continuing inequalities of power through space. In terms of geographical-legal discriminations in the waging of drone warfare, we are usually given the bare minimum of analysis: that simple binary of a Western nation regulating drones in its own skies whilst raining down Hellfire from another’s. And even this, it is reckoned, might disappear with the proliferation of drones into the hands of ‘lone wolf’ insurgents. But of course the governments realise their hypocrisy, and they will not let its principle of discrimination dissolve so easily. As we have already seen, the threat of equality that drones pose will be countered, quashed with ever-stricter regulation: Geographical-legal regulation, like the ‘no-fly zones’ proposed in Washington after a small unarmed drone landed on the White House lawn late last month, and now, as Grayson observes, in Karachi[ii]. The response to a so-called democratising technology will, as we are gradually seeing with the internet, be an increasing proliferation of more authoritarian divisions and blockades.
The ‘double standards’ to which Grayson refers are thus geographical-legal by nature, and the case of FATA draws attention to the regional or urban/rural order by which this hypocrisy often functions. The Federally Administrated Tribal Areas are, as Shaw and Akhter have explained in detail, an exceptional space. They have, since their status as a frontier region of the British Raj in the 19th century, and in particular the imposition of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) in 1901, been constructed as a territory outside the normal legal order, a by-turn formal and discursive tradition upheld to this day by Karachi and Islamabad[iii]. It is with this concept of geographical-legal exception in mind that we should in fact regard all grants of ‘consent’ given by governments in those countries affected by US drone strikes. Because, whether a formal legal exceptionality exists as in FATA, it is nevertheless always the case that those geographies being targeted are isolated from those that give the go-ahead. In arguments that portray the whole state as victim, there is a failure to take into account the fact that, though the government may be under pressure from Washington or London, it is in turn the pressurising force in an inequitable relation of power with its own (rural) population.
I propose that a vital precursor to appreciating these continuing geographical-legal orders of dominance and exception is to banish the notion that the drone and its airspace is autonomous or free in any true sense of that word.
The False Freedom of the Liberated Being
Regardless of the potential ability of the drone to act with reference to its own ‘intelligence’, what must be remembered is that the decisions that it makes are only required because we demand them. For any of you familiar with John Rawls’s Theory of Justice[iv], it may be helpful to reflect on one of the criticisms aimed at that work. In short, Rawls argued that his theory of justice, the theory of ‘justice as fairness’, was moral, and – until he was forced to clarify his error in Political Liberalism[v] – potentially universal, because it is the system which would be chosen by a group of citizens in what he called the ‘original position’. This is a situation in which the individuals choosing the system of justice are stripped of the knowledge of their own status in the society they are deciding upon, placed behind of a ‘veil of ignorance’ as to their vested interests, so that their choice could not be unfairly influenced. However, the problem is that these beings-without-interests are not really individuals at all, and that, as empty vessels deprived of their humanity, they would have no sense of morality whatsoever. Their care-less equality is a paradox, and the only way it can be solved, the only way they would come to a decision, is if they were made to choose by whoever put them in the position in the first place: that is, none other than Rawls himself. From what Rawls envisioned as ultimate freedom, we have suddenly moved into the epitome of dictatorship, of being forced to be free.
In the same way, the drone is merely forced to be autonomous. It not only remains sutured to its dictator – the human that requires it; it also, returning to the geographical-legal principle, remains dependent upon the ground for its life. Not, you understand, for its source of energy, of survival, but for its sense of purpose. Just because the drone does not touch the ground, its bombs do. They are not faecal matter, waste simply dropped; they are limbs extended, umbilical cords like those extracting nutrients from the blood of the human race in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. And just like those fiery tendrils, the drone’s source of life; its dependence on the ground, is precisely death. Even if its gaze no-longer needs to tell the human operator what it sees, this intelligence leads ultimately – via the network of targeting – to the enforced choice of who to kill.
Though it finds it so easy to survive, the only reason that the drone exists at all is that we are so intent on our own impossible immortality – an immortality achieved, according to the foolish minds of men, out of the death of others. We have indeed invented this thing in our own image, yet not only so that it can materialise our dream of immortality in itself, but also so it may bring about, accelerate the mortality of others, ‘our enemies’, on our behalf.
Whatever the relative freedom of the drone, and the relative lawlessness of the skies, the people killed are killed on the ground, (un)certain people fell victim to the evacuation of law from (un)certain spaces; killed at the will of certain people in certain – protected, regulated, powerful – geographies. We must not let our heads escape up into the sky while our drones continue to pummel the earth.
[i] Arkin, R. ‘Ethical Robots in Warfare’. Technology Research News. 09.12.2005.
[iii] Shaw, I. & Akhter, M. (2012). ‘The Unbearable Humanness of Drone Warfare in FATA, Pakistan. Antipode. 44(4), p.1498.
[iv] Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[v] Rawls, J. (1993). Political Liberalism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
In a previous post, I developed a number of ideas brought forward by Derek Gregory, and talked about the concept of distance or separation in the context of drone warfare, attempting to reposition the primary separation from between the drone pilot and the victim of the drone’s violence – where it is often presumed to be – to between us, the body of individuals whom make up the public, and the phenomenon of war as a whole.
The reality of war has always, and increasingly, concerned its perception. In this way, we can view the two positions above as being part of a causal relationship. That is, the reality of the separation at point 2 is exacerbated by the perception shown at point 1. For the extent to which, in spite of our best intentions, we (and thus our politicians) can escape a feeling of responsibility for the violence of drone warfare by separating ourselves from its horrors is dependent upon the extent to which we can deny the fact of this separation to ourselves, and lay the blame for our ignorance elsewhere. Even those of us who do not buy the notion that drone warfare is entirely clean tend to believe that it is only dirty on the side of the victim, and that drone pilots – those we deem the perpetrators – are caught up in the delusion of a just or honourable fight.
This view has been encouraged by the reductive claim that, because the pilot’s visual perception is mediated, it must be clean, even when the victim’s reality is not. Yet this perception-of-perception does not represent the subversion or unveiling of the discourse of ‘smart’ or precision weaponry, but is rather just another of its strands. For to criticise drone warfare for accomplishing the evacuation of risk on the side of the aggressor – to say that it is asymmetrical – nonetheless maintains its attractiveness in domestic strategic terms. By positing a false criticism about drone warfare, we inadvertently give it praise.
Ian Shaw (2010) has responded to the propagators of the ‘joystick warfare’ narrative in interesting terms, arguing that they may in fact be half-right – that is, drone piloting may not be unlike gaming – but what they fail to realise is the level of graphics that contemporary gaming has reached, and the level of immersion that it achieves. He begs the question of whether we can really be so blunt anymore about the distinction between the virtual – a trivial or false domain – and the real, serious world. When we view photos of the drone pilot sitting in the dark, cramped operating room, what is most often commented upon is its seclusion and safety, but what should be paid more attention is the fact that the individual is in all senses plugged in. It is necessary to look beyond the visual, to recognise that he or she is wired to such an extent that, though we cannot say that they are on the battlefield, neither can we really say that they are entirely contained within the readily-visible walls of that room. Following Shaw, the conclusion must be that they are somewhere in between these two spaces; that a new, ambiguous space – the transitory space of ‘play’ – has been entered into.
This space is one which demands a far more nuanced understanding. It is first of all an intensely multi-sensory space, the result of numerous multi-lateral flows of perception and reality; virtuality and physicality passing between and across publics, politicians, media, militaries, perpetrators and victims.
Second, it is an unclean space. Thus it is not only the separation but the asymmetry which has to this point been misplaced: the spaces of both the victim and the drone pilot are traumatic, but the great asymmetry is internal to each of them. While the victim space is clearly asymmetrical because of the impossibility of resistance against an unmanned variety of airpower, the drone pilot’s is asymmetrical for the reason that it holds all the horrors of war without any of its comforts. Its consequences may be terrifying and painful, but the soldier is comforted by the idea that they risk themselves. This is the principle of honour, and it is paired, in traditional, territorial war, with the mutual reassurance and therapy of camaraderie – individuals risking themselves for other, known, individuals. The irony is that, by claiming to have succeeded in the age-old ambition to remove the physical risk from one’s own men, drone technology has simultaneously removed both the main theoretical disincentive to wage war, and the incentive for those who, in reality, are needed to fight it. Whilst the psychological risk, the trauma, remains, the drone pilot is denied the usual methods for coping with it. Honour relies upon the external perception of risk; it cannot be self-prescribed; like shame or pride, it demands the recognition of the other. This recognition – whether from a known individual (a friend/comrade), or a wider (national/international) community – is what is withdrawn when we think the pilot’s experience clean, and, by the same logic, they are deemed by their employers to need little more support than the average office worker.
The symptoms have, in the past few weeks, revealed themselves in a classic free market asymmetry. It has emerged that the U.S. military are at “breaking point” with regard to their drone pilot capacity. Demand for pilots is far outstripping supply due to a “perfect storm of increased COCOM [Combatant Commander] demand, accession reductions, and outflow increases”. The use of the ‘perfect storm’ idea in the press release is however a disguise for a deeper structural problem: the rift between the clean discourse and the unclean surreality of the ‘play’ space in which contemporary war is fought.
In the Balkans in 1999, Paul Virilio (2007: 15) observed:
“[a] war with zero deaths for the military, but also zero victories in political terms”
It is this clean zero, this absolute negativity of contemporary warfare’s image, that is rejected by the would-be drone pilots who have refused to take up their fated role. Their argument is not an ethical one, nor is it even conscious, being expressed only in their absence. It is rather a simply rational decision in the economic sense, but it nevertheless reveals the gulf, reveals the extent to which we have been deceived.
In at least two senses therefore, the US Air Force is stifled by its own administration’s discourse. To begin with, there is a refusal to believe that the technology-led mode of fighting should require a supply of men at all. The fetishisation of drones by government and media has worked so well that it has already removed the individual, honourable, labourer from these new wars in the minds of the public, only to realise too late that they are – at least for the moment – still needed.
Yet even when this realisation is made, the discourse blocks any effective action being taken. Faced with the supply issues, the logical choice would be to increase incentives, but doing so would mean undermining the narrative of clean war so skilfully disseminated over the last 15 or so years. Whenever such initiatives have been attempted – the notion, for instance, of a medal of bravery for drone pilots – they have met with a public backlash, who demand to know why, when being a drone pilot is so dishonourably easy, cowardly, perhaps even fun, those with the potential should require any greater encouragement to take the job.
Given that the discourse cannot be retracted to meet with the reality, the only option remaining is to accelerate the reality into the discourse. That is, if the US is going to continue fighting on all fronts, whilst maintaining the illusion that the fight is a clean fight, the technology must live up to the fantasies dreamed up for it. This is a dangerous position, for the pressure to accelerate technological progress may encourage riskier applications of unproven or imperfect models. It is already true to say that, where weaponry is concerned, the US is affected by a tragi-comic infantilization: an affliction whereby “the warrior, like a child in its playpen, wants to try out everything, show off everything, for fear of otherwise seeming weak and isolated” (Virilio, 2007: 10). Yet, we must now see these experiments additionally in the context of a discursive deficit. We should therefore be deeply wary of proclamations, such as that which recently promoted the capacity of drones to hunt in packs like wolves, which conveniently reduce the need for manpower in the operation of weaponry. Having already burnt their bridges with the soldier, the administrators of drone warfare have left themselves no other ally but the technology itself. They have little choice but to sleep in the bed they have made, pushing the drone towards greater autonomy even if the consequences are violent. It is our duty to perceive and resist these alliances and their discourses, no matter how convenient they might appear.
Shaw, I. (2010). ‘Playing War’. Social & Cultural Geography. 11(8), 789-803.
Virilio, P. (2007 ). Strategy of Deception (Trans. C. Turner). London & New York: Verso.
This exhibition holds the viewer by way of its curation. The works, all concerning various conflicts – from the American civil war, to Vietnam and the Gulf – are threaded together along a strict linear timeline. Most interestingly though, the form of time is non-historical. It showcases works created between 1850 and the present, but it does not arrange them in order from 1850 to the present. Instead, ‘time’ refers to what may be called photographic lapse: the time which has passed between the moment of the conflict in question – whenever that may be – and the moment when the shutter release was pressed and the film exposed; the moment of documentation. From ‘seconds later’ – a gallery of shots taken of the mushroom cloud towering above Hiroshima – to months and years, the feeling is of a gradual transition along a continuum from one talent of photography to another; from photograph as action captivated or ‘snapped’, to photograph as a more static article of evidence.
If we are to talk of photography in a journalistic or political sense, then it is often the idea of the witness that is employed to justify the ethical worth of the practice. The photographer, increasingly embedded in conflict – acting, and, with often tragic consequences, being targeted as a combatant of sorts; their camera their weapon – sees his or her role as the communicator of violence to domestic publics, such that they cannot ignore it and are forced into political mobilisation. This ideal has, of course, been proven again and again to be sadly imperfect, and conditions such as ‘compassion fatigue’ – a phrase originating in the medical care profession – are frequently used to explain our failure to act. This, however, is an overly simplistic critique – David Campbell even refers to it as a ‘myth’. It cites the passing of time as sole factor in our degrading emotional attachment to global causes, when in fact time must always be weaved into a myriad network of geographies and technologies.
This exhibition consciously takes the photographic time-lapse as its anchor, and leaves both historical time and geography to be thrown about by it, skipping from one photo to the next between deserts and cities; the American mid-west and the Middle East; 19th and 21st century warfare. The strange mosaic brings together certain unexpected patterns and reactions. For example, it becomes clearly apparent that, in this heavily mediatised world – in which war in particular can only be viewed by western publics through the prism of the press – it is not historical time but photographic lapse which tends to shape our emotional process. Thus, most members of my family felt more affected by the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, taken in 1945, or Don Mcullin’s portrait of an American soldier’s shellshocked gaze immediately following the battle of Hue in Vietnam in 1968, than by Sophie Ristelhueber’s images of the potholed Afghan and Iraqi landscapes by U.S. bombs during the 1990s.
This suggests that, as we look at the photograph, we enter its time, and therefore it matters whether the victims portrayed have, in this moment – not our moment, but the moment of exposure – escaped or been evacuated. The image of the American soldier in Vietnam is powerful because he remains, as far as we can tell, a victim held in the horror of battle. For Hiroshima, we enter into those atomic clouds, and position ourselves as victims obscured but present. Conversely, the craters left by bombs in fields leave it ambiguous as to if there is any perpetrator here, and therefore if there is any victim. It is rare that a landscape with which we are familiar – one of our fields or cities – would remain long enough in such a damaged state to be photographed. It is either built anew, memorialised (think of ‘Ground Zero’), or else (if it remains untouched) we begin to think of it as natural, beautiful even, and both perpetrator and victim seem to vanish. The blotches appear with a mystic quality: like something from another world, crop circles perhaps. What they do not appear to be is, precisely, violent.
While Ristelhueber’s landscapes are, alone, troubling, this is exactly their point. She draws attention first to the way in which we habitually view these sorts of markings, and then she disturbs the non-violence with the insertion of works that depict markings much more familiar to us – the undeniable violence of human scarring. Throughout the exhibition in fact, Ristelhueber’s work interacts with that of others. In particular, Shomei Tomatsu’s images of the scarring incurred by the Nagasaki bomb suddenly awaken one to the fact that, when human skin is concerned, violence almost always leaves its mark – an indelible mark in spite of time, and a mark that exerts great power on those who view it.
The point of Ristelhueber’s work, only clearly visible when we look at her whole portfolio, is thus for me to point to the way in which these two phenomena – marks of violence on the landscape and marks of violence on the body – are not currently, but must in time be, regarded as similar. To see them both as ‘scars’ (as Ristelhueber refers to them) is vitally important particularly given contemporary warfare’s tendency to obliterate bodies. While we must attempt to reinstate the identity of those killed, for example by drone strikes (as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is currently doing), there is an additional task: we must try to view landscapes – particularly rural ones – as sites which scar. This means especially resisting the temptation to naturalise the craters, the burnt-out buildings and the rubble as conditions or diseases belonging to the land (and its population) itself. Rather, it is necessary to ask, when we see these images of land, the same questions as if we came face to face with that victim of Nagasaki. Namely, what happened to you? Who or what did this to you? And why?
In the light of the recent public attention paid to the CIA’s practices of torture and deception following the US Senate Select Committee study’s partial declassification, Elaine Scarry’s 1985 masterpiece illustrates the seriousness of the state we find ourselves in.
First of all, The Body in Pain serves as a rigorous outline of what it means to be in pain – a world-destroying sensation which, in its undeniable, immanent presence, forces us to surrender our sensuous interaction with the world. Pain blinds, deafens, reduces our voices to screams and, eventually, to inaudible gasps. In other words, it presses us back into ourselves; confines us to certain limits, both architectural – we are house-bound and bed-stricken – and corporeal, restricting our capacity for social existence.
Second, and most significantly, Scarry writes in depth on the different ways in which pain is inflicted. Two systematic modes: war and torture, are explored, compared, and come to be distinguished by a number of features, of which mutual consent is deemed the most important. However ‘asymmetrical’ it may be, war bears violence on both sides. Torture, on the other hand, is a wholly unilateral exercise: the pain that it inflicts panders, above and beyond its purported necessity in the name of intelligence, to the power and status of the torturer(s). Furthermore, Scarry identifies a dramatic element to torture which is necessary for its self-aggrandising effect. Where pain may destroy worlds, torture does so in an intentionally drawn out way, prolonged with extensive symbolisms. In Scarry’s language, it not only inflicts pain but simultaneously mimes that infliction, loudly announcing its own movements as it performs them.
Alone, this analysis is crucial, but the work is perhaps even greater for the way in which, by its clear division between torture and war, it alerts us, the 21st century reader, to the way in which the line separating these two forms of violence may now be far more blurred. With the rise of the drone as a military tool – a weapon to which those facing it can pose no threat beyond the economic cost of a small remote-controlled vehicle – can we still call war merely ‘asymmetric’? While the dissemination of drone technology will likely soon provide a tragic fix to this problem – soon everyone will have access to UAVs – it remains that the method by which the drone goes about its work corresponds, disturbingly, more closely to Scarry’s definition of torture than her definition of war.
One example in particular strikes me. From her examination of the testimonies of torture victims under numerous 20th century regimes, Scarry observes that, almost without exception, every one talks of “being made to stare at the weapon with which they were about to be hurt”. Not only the duration, but also the intimacy of torture resonates with the lengthy surveillance of the drone; its ability to linger in the air above a target for days, sometimes weeks before electing to strike. The possible victim/potential threat stares at the dormant weapon and – an interesting addition – the dormant weapon stares back at its prey. Like the props and acts of the interrogation room: domestic objects and medical procedures like chairs, tables, lamps, baths, even fridges; injections, rectal insertions and dentistry, accounts from those living under the drones repeatedly recount how their very environments and behaviours – the social gatherings at which the weapon aims, and the skies (particularly blue skies) in which the weapon hovers – are rendered from sources of light, warmth, life and joy, into the sites of fear, pain and death. A perverse inversion, as Scarry points out, from hospes: root of hospitality and the hospital, to its close etymological cousin, hostis: father of hostility. Just as in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, where the instrument of torture replicates a giant sewing machine, the wars we currently wage are punishments of the order of torture, turning the domestic mechanisms of production and health into world-destroying instruments of domination and pain.
I am writing about this book now first of all because I love it, and second of all because I have lost it. Or rather, I attended a book-swap and, in a fit of foolish generosity, gave it away.
It is shorter and far more beautiful than you would ever believe that a book essentially about court processes could ever be.
Beginning from the case of Joseph Mengele, the Nazi leader whom was captured and trialed only posthumously, the authors work towards the hypothesis that dead bodies and other objects (including damaged buildings) have been increasingly utilised in courtrooms over the last few decades. Though often inserted, as objective, passive props for the proofs of scientific experts, Keenan & Weizman declare a more hopeful and open-minded trend towards viewing these things as occupying an uncertain identity between objective truth or evidence on the one hand, and the speaking testimony of a witness on the other.
In this sense, they envision a way of re-making a space of interpretation and performance for the law, thus ungrounding the technocratic, non-political, unbiased portrayal it is sometimes given. The law is, after all, about persuasion, and even objects; dead bodies; concrete structures, can persuade, negotiate, and lie.
This book, as well as having a great theoretical relevance to arguments of legal accountability which surround drone warfare as well as numerous other issues, is also directly relevant to current practice. For one, Eyal Weizman, as head of the organisation ‘Forensic Architecture’ at Goldsmiths University of London, is heavily involved in an ongoing UN inquiry into civilian casualties caused by drones.