Reading List: Mengele’s Skull – The Advent of Forensic Aesthetics. Thomas Keenan & Eyal Weizman (2012), Sternberg Press

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.


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.