Response to Derek Gregory Roundtable: Distance and the Myth of Drone Pilot Detachment

In his roundtable at the Centre for Research Architecture, Derek Gregory[i] makes two important points which I would like to pick up on. First, he asserts (as have others elsewhere), that the idea of the operation of military drones as a ‘joystick’ or ‘playstation war’ is false. He realises wisely that the material distance from battlefield to drone pilot[ii] does not necessarily equate to emotional distance. In fact, as he suggests, it is possible that drone pilots are in fact closer, in emotional terms, than the bomber pilots of WWII were to their targets. Both pre-assassination, in which time the drone pilot may follow their target for days, possibly even weeks, and post-assassination, when the pilot must carry out a ‘Bomb Damage Assessment’, they see, in graphic detail, the damage they inflict. The consequences of this visual clarity, together with the fact that drone pilots do not benefit from the camaraderie of regular soldiers – this is a 9-5 job and, at the end of the day, they must go home to partner and children, and repress all they have seen and done in the preceding hours – are evident in the high records of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered by drone pilots[iii].

Secondly, Gregory argues that where more attention should perhaps be paid – rather than to the distance between pilot and victim – is to the notion of spectatorship: the way in which we in the West now always view war from afar, and via multiple layers of mediation.

What Gregory has, at least to my knowledge, not yet explored fully is the link between these two very valid points.

Put another way, what has not been answered is why it is vital that we do not perpetuate the myth that drone pilots are emotionally unattached, indifferent to their acts of violence. Of course, a pilot would say that it is vital because such a myth denigrates the work and character of drone pilots, creating the idea that they somehow ‘have it easy’. This pilot’s say would be true and legitimate.

However, I would argue that, for those of us who wish to bring greater accountability to the use of drones, the myth brings its own danger. Simply, it is that to pin the moral corruption of drone warfare on these individual pilots, and on the pure technical means by which they operate with the technology, takes aim, as it were, at the wrong target; at the wrong space.

According to the myth, the distance; the separation is located between the pilot and the people whom they watch and bomb; between the pilot’s virtuality and the victim’s violent reality. But what the accusations, using this myth as ammunition, inadvertently facilitate is the creation of another separation somewhere else. This separation – the more real and more dangerous one – occurs further back along the so-called ‘kill chain’, between the public on the one side, and the pilot (or the wider military establishment) and the victim – war as a whole – on the other. In arguing that drone pilots do not experience the horrors of war inflicted upon the victim, it is us who fail to comprehend the horrors of war experienced by both the victim of violence and the pilot whom inflicts it.

The link between Gregory’s points is thus established: Gregory’s first request, that we draw attention away from the distance between pilot and victim, is vital because focussing on this distance distracts us from Gregory’s second point, the distance between war and its western or global spectators.

To do this, to accomplish this epistemological shift from one space to another, is difficult not least because it requires the fighting of a temptation. The temptation is a temptation towards blissful ignorance; that is, our own blissful ignorance which our accusations of the blissful ignorance of the pilots has until now facilitated. While we claim, via the sphere of the media, that the pilots are ignorant of violence, we can appear to ourselves as knowledgeable of it, but, once we admit that the pilots are more knowledgeable than they first appeared, our own ignorance must be painfully confronted. Let me be clear about this ignorance: it is not the ignorance of violence or war itself; it is rather the ignorance of the fact that it is we who have the power and, more so, the responsibility, to change the situation. We appeal to the drone pilots to stop doing what they are doing, when we should be appealing to ourselves.

A caveat must be added here: that our ignorance, as facilitated by the myth of the pilot’s ignorance, in turn facilitates the ignorance of our politicians. It is they who, after all, make the decisions, and, until we are more obvious in our knowledge of our own guilt, they will live by our ignorance as we do. Both we and they have a moral conscience (though some of theirs may at times be very questionable), but, ultimately, if we do not make our objections explicit to them, then it gives their consciences the ultimate let-off. For me, our politicians’ seeming lack of morality on this and other issues derives from the fact that they come to be dependent on the democratic system for it. They survive by a democratic delusion in which, they say to themselves, “if I am immoral, then they will tell me with their votes”. And yet, the trouble with this is that all politicians seem to be reassuring themselves with the same whispers, leaving the voting public with little option, little power to vote for morality. This is why it falls to us to live politics outside of the political establishment; to give ourselves the options we have the responsibility to choose.

Putting the truth of the pilot’s experience aside then, it is regardless this space – a space of self-imposed public ignorance – which matters most in practical terms because, unlike that between the pilot and the victim, the space between public and victim carries at least the potential for influencing decision-making via politics. What I mean here is that the drone pilot, whether emotionally attached or not, will likely continue to bomb on the command of superiors. If they are not attached, as the myth goes, then they will bomb indifferently, and if they are, they will likely continue to bomb according to the justification and pride of a regular soldier, that theirs is a suffering necessary for the protection of the nation. This is not to say that the drone pilot is merely a passive cog in the machine, but they are nonetheless immersed in a system, an assemblage – or what is known in the US as a ‘kill chain’ – far larger than themselves. Their agency in this situation is to some extent restricted.

It is we who, being on the outside of the ‘kill chain’, have the agency, the choice of whether to become part of it or not.

Notes & References:

[i] Gregory, D. (2011). ‘The Everywhere War: PhD Roundtable with Derek Gregory’. Hosted by Eyal Weizman at The Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London. 10.11.2011. Available at:

Derek Gregory is author of The Colonial Present (2004), and a forthcoming book on the historico-geographical evolution of military aircraft (including drones) called Killing Space. See also his blog:

[ii] The fact that drone pilots operate their aircraft from great distances, for instance from Creech Airbase in Nevada, is oft-used as an insult towards them, leading to their labelling as ‘warrior geeks’.

[iii] See Benjamin, M. (2013). Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. London & New York: Verso.

Lecture Response: Slavoj Zizek @ Birkbeck, University of London. 10/11/2014

Yesterday morning, the Drone Philosophical (in its human guise) attended a lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, from the Slovenian ‘pop-philosopher’ Slavoj Žižek[i]. The lecture did not directly address drones, but raised a number of more general political-philosophical ideas which are relevant or applicable. Given Žižek’s famed tendency to veer randomly from topic to topic (in his books, as well as in person), the thoughts are brief, but they are strong enough to be drawn upon and expanded into deeper explorations. At the start of the lecture, Žižek produces a very interesting notion. He says that the very act of allowing debate on the permissibility of torture – even when it is frequently reiterated throughout that debate that torture is not permissible – in itself normalises the idea of torture. Žižek seems to find this normalisation of ideas more worrying than their reality; that is, the reality that numerous states do carry out torture. In a sense then, Žižek feels that the most worrying trend is not the continuation of secret torture, but the increasing politicisation of its idea. This is a politicisation which comes with the growing knowledge of the public concerning the secret reality – the movement of torture from a secret secret to an open secret – so, oddly, it is not secrecy, but transparency, which is the danger. The difficult point is that this seems to imply that secrecy, or even ignorance, is positive. For this to not be the case then, we would need to identify a certain kind of transparency, a certain method by which inhuman acts such as torture currently enter the realm of knowledge. The currently predominant method normalises torture, as Žižek argues, by entering it into the context of a debate, a forum in which arguments for both sides are put forward. But what I would add is that it enters a forum of consensus; a forum in which everyone agrees that torture is unacceptable. Arguments for both sides are indeed put forward, but no one actually argues in favour of torture. There may be plenty of Devil’s advocates, but no devil, in such a debate. Take the BBC’s Question Time for example, in which you will notice that every member of the panel, whatever their political allegiance, begins their answer to the question of torture, civilian deaths, or any number of other similarly inhuman acts, with a generic statement of their personal and political disagreement with the act. But, if everyone makes this same statement, then what does it mean? If anything, does not the fact that they still feel the need to state the obvious – not to mention the fact that the audience still feel the need to applaud the obvious – imply an underlying and oppositional motive? In other words, if all are agreed in their disagreement with torture, and yet it is nonetheless repeatedly chosen as a subject for debate on shows such as this, then what purpose or effect does such a forum really have on the views of the listeners? In my opinion, the effect is most likely to be a mixture of boredom and self-congratulation. “We are all opposed to torture. Well done us”. Except of course, what usually emerges after this statement of the obvious is a real debate – with disagreements this time – over the technicalities, legal and moral, of torture. We have established, with ease, a rule: torture is unacceptable. But what shall we do with the rest of the show? What is left to do apart from argue about the ‘what’ and the ‘when’. First: what really counts as ‘torture’? And, second: when, given that torture is unacceptable, and yet exists (and is committed by liberal democracies), is torture in fact acceptable? The very establishing of the rule here facilitates exceptions to it. Rules truly are made to be broken. Žižek’s brief conclusion was that things such as these should not (need to) be debated, but if we leave the point at this simple level, I feel personally that we betray or rule out entirely the radical principle of violent disagreement, or what Jacques Rancière calls ‘dissensus’[ii] – a principle with which I suspect Žižek would, at least at a very fundamental level, agree. It is for me not debate itself, but the fact that the debate is simulated, that ends up lending a creeping legitimacy to acts of torture. The nature of the forum presents itself as an open democratic space in which the moral principle of torture is debated – “should we torture, or not?” – but really it is a forum which, from its very outset, has already accepted the reality – “torture is happening” – and thus its purpose is to answer the question of “why”, then broken down into ‘what’ and ‘when’. Such a focus on explaining the reality amounts to a ‘how’: “how does torture happen?”. Or, further, “how can torture happen?” Put otherwise, the purpose of the debate on torture is precisely to answer the question of how we can legitimise/facilitate the torture that does, inevitably, happen. The whole process, from the statement of morality at the top of the show, is one of discarding that morality; of finding exceptions to it. It is the movement from morality to reality or technicality. Where morality and reality are in contradiction to one-another, it is reality; ‘the way things are’, which must be favoured. Normalisation and the Drone How, you are probably asking, does all the above relate to the drone that is the subject of my blog? It is quite simple: like torture, the extrajudicial killing of terror suspects, whom sit on a blurred definitional boundary with non-combatant civilians, is an open secret that sits outside international law and, I would argue, outside moral/ethical standards as defined by the states (such as the US, the UK, and Israel) and publics which nevertheless conduct or tolerate the conduction of the act. The extreme lack of accountability in the campaigns of drone surveillance, bombing, and targeted assassination in Palestine, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan by various governments and their agencies is, I think, in part maintained by their open secret status, and by the form of debate whereby it is not the principles themselves, but their technicalities – the exceptions to the rule – which are contested. The Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben[iii] has said that the law functions via exceptions to itself, and has warned that the present liberal-democratic politics is one of permanent exception. This theory remains controversial, but it is surely fair to say that, owing to the tendency for western democracies to not only claim, but in fact presume their own moral values, moral principles go undebated and in fact may be discarded in favour of technical arguments over the definition of legitimate exceptions, explanations, and excuses. What needs to be questioned is the moral fabric itself. If we state that we think torture and unlawful killing are unacceptable, but then go on to facilitate their continuation, should we really be allowed to make the first statement? [i] Žižek, S. ‘Freedom – For Whom? To Do What?’. Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London. 10.11.2014. [ii] See Rancière, J. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. (2003). London & New York: Continuum. [iii] See Agamben, G. (2005). State of Exception. University of Chicago Press.