Drone Fetishism and Shadow Warfare

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Photo by Getty Images/Stocktrek Images.

On a night map of the earth, the electric glimmer of capitals and coastlines contrasts with darkened areas inland, in the poor interior parts of Africa and Asia. Light against shadow. On versus off grid. Some war-on-terror operators talk about the off-grid world as their terrain. There, in its mountainous folds, the night air swarms with metallic machays (wasps), as Pakistani Pashtuns call the killer drones. Sensors alert, the wasps search the grounds with patience and care, their unblinking eyes fixed on human targets rendered in thermal infrared.

Drones swarm through the hive mind of our times. The “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) or “remote-piloted aircraft” (RPAs), the Predators and Reapers of the global war on terror, keep spawning Hollywood flicks and news stories that range from fascination to horror to horrified fascination. Drone-speak has also migrated from shadow warfare into the light of day, as newspapers lap up stories of home-piloted minidrones in near crashes with airplanes or discuss the pros and cons of Amazon’s Prime Air. Strategists fear terrorist weaponization of the toy drones, generating a growing market in antidrone defense systems, while others worry that the migration of drone-speak into the civilian realm normalizes the technology’s military usage. As I watch my son’s favorite cartoon, Paw Patrol, I am inclined to agree as he cries out “Drone!” whenever Chase the police puppy unleashes a surveillance UAV from the back of his primary-color-blue vehicle.

Drone fetishism is all around. To some, killer drones are the principal tool of an everywhere war without end and without legality, the omen of robo-wars to come. To war-on-terror strategists, drones rather allow for targeted killings with “minimal collateral damage,” or civilian deaths (usually, though, they define all more-or-less adult males as combatants, misrepresenting the figures). Still others hail drones’ capacity to monitor distant areas for humanitarian or peacekeeping purposes, especially where soldiers or aid workers cannot tread–witness the United Nations Refugee Agency and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali extolling their unarmed UAVs in the Sahel as they respectively monitor displaced people and jihadist movements. Unarmed drones can be used for both surveillance and intimidation in a form of militarized policing of rebellion first tested by peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and later deployed by the Swedish forces around Timbuktu. At the gates of the rich world, UAVs are also of a piece with the militarized quest to detect and intercept migrants, from Mediterranean coastlines, to the deserts of Arizona, where they hold out hope of an omniscient techno-border of sorts.

Leaving aside the rights or wrongs of today’s dronophiles and dronophobes as they debate such applications, they share a tendency to treat UAVs as things somehow magically imbued with action. In this, they are but the latest in a long line of technological dystopians and utopians, ranging from nineteenth-century Luddites to glorifiers of the “revolution in military affairs” at the turn of the millennium. Yet we must set aside any lingering technological determinism to see–as Marx would advise–the drone as part of a system of human labor, inquiring into the logics of this system as well as into its resonances beyond the battle space.

One thing should be clear from our descent so far into the global danger zones: that the windowless wasps buzzing through the “AfPak” borderlands are but part of a wider architecture of warfare. In this “shadow war,” the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) launches its killing sprees in cooperation with the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the US Army, who work together via drones, door-kicking, and military intelligence. Theirs is “a new kind of warfare where men and machines merge,” as one much-touted journalistic profile, “Confessions of a Drone Warrior,” puts it. They form a network, and they operate in a world where killings are talked about as “mowing the lawn” and drone victims as “bugsplat.” As one of JSOC’s number renders their godlike powers: “We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen.”

Ignore the boasts–the key part of the phrase is that they can’t be seen. The danger zone serves many useful functions, as we have seen, but one of its most powerful perks is the secrecy enabled by a “no entry” sign slapped on the door. Yet as we now tread onto the high-tech terrain of shadow warfare, managed from a safe distance, we find that entrance is blocked here too. In the post-9/11 years, the shadow US security state has expanded into a warren of secret offices, underground bunkers, and clandestine programs inaccessible to even the most inveterate diggers, as journalist Dana Priest and former soldier William Arkin find in their Top Secret America. Given this secrecy, all we may hope for is to catch a brief glimpse of the logics underlying the remapping of military intervention–while divining, as we will try to do, how these innovations have come back to haunt us, citizens and observers kept in the dark about the dark universe.

The Intimate Drone

Security scholars have been sticking their hands into the wasps’ nest of “late modern war” for some time now. What they find there, and what they see the drone as exemplifying, is a disturbing remaking of the legality of war and the battle space. For one, drone warfare seems to enact the very “bifurcation of the world” first announced by our cartographer manqué, Kaplan. To anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, drone strikes reinforce “the abject status of countries that do not have the legal right to territorial integrity” and so divide the world between those countries that may be hit by drones and those that may not. Further, no “boots on the ground” means no risk of dead soldiers, and consequently no “war”–allowing the US executive to bypass Congress, as Obama did in Libya. This legal loophole has implications for the space of battle and its extension. In his Drone Theory, Grégoire Chamayou writes that the “kill boxes” of lethal drone action dissolve old “geocentric” concepts of warfare, as armed conflict is redefined as “a mobile place attached to the person of the enemy,” following him wherever he goes. At the same time, drone warfare compresses the battle space into global circuits, promising both spatial and temporal dominance. “Speed has always been the advantage and the privilege of the hunter and the warrior,” the French philosopher Paul Virilio has observed. Now, man hunting can be world-spanning, extended in time, and without risk to the hunter.

Consider a Reaper hovering over its target for days on end in Pakistan or Afghanistan, where the CIA and the air force respectively operate their drones. As the drone’s Hellfire missile eventually obliterates its human target, it leaves a visual trace on monitors in a satellite-linked web of military control rooms, from the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Qatar to the Distributed Common Ground System in Langley, Virginia. At the far end of the “invisible data highway” linking up these disparate sites, in an American trailer park on an air force base, the operator scans the blurred scenes of carnage before he eventually winds up the day and commutes back home to his children. When Kaplan visited one such trailer park in Nevada, where one trailer each hosted Iraq and Afghanistan, he quipped: “So much for the tyranny of geography.”

Banality, awe, and horror intermix in this kill chain crossing continents. I recall one bizarre episode of a British sitcom–and there is more where that came from, as we will see shortly–where the good-for-nothing heroine lazes on her bedsheets, clicking away on a laptop; she has been contracted to finish the kills somewhere out there in the meatspace, earning pocket money for her sloppy habits. In this ridiculous scene resides the horror of the kill chain. The potential for vicarious warfare without risk, combined with the voyeuristic pleasure in dominating whatever we see on screen, is both shocking and darkly titillating. If warfare is cinematic at its core, as Virilio has argued, drone warfare is surely its most lurid manifestation, as the “Predator porn” genre of blurred surveillance and kill shots online testifies.

Pornography implies a peculiar kind of nearness and distance. As “Confessions of a Drone Warrior” puts it, there is a “voyeuristic intimacy” at work in how the operator follows people for days, building evidence of “pattern of life” and seeking positive identification. In his report, Kaplan notes how operators in the Nevada trailer park observe their human targets having sex on rooftops in the Afghan night or watch “a guy walk into the courtyard at night to take a crap, registered by the heat signature.” “Unclean” is what another observer, attuned to the voyeurism, calls UAV campaigns. Critics may compare them to “video games,” yet if anything they are even more immersive than the 3D shoot-’em-ups on which many a teenage boy spends his days and nights. For the soldier-turned-assassin, drone warfare “holds all the horrors of war without any of its comforts.” In ordinary war, the soldier finds solace in bravery; in a Nevada trailer park, there is no honor, and as yet no bravery medal, to be had.

This idea of intimacy is oddly comforting, as it seems to humanize drone operators (many of them get post-traumatic stress disorder, was the news story a while back). Yet the geographer Derek Gregory, with his trademark touch, picks this intimacy up as an object, studies it, and finds in it a phenomenal military function. For rather than creating empathy with the victim, or with civilians in the crosshairs, the intimacy of drone campaigns allows for military camaraderie to reemerge. As one commander recalls, “You hear the AK-47 going off, the intensity of the voice on the radio calling for help. You’re looking at him, 18 inches away from him, trying everything in your capability to get that person out of trouble.” The war is only as far away as the screen. On it are your men, the ones who are in charge once a strike has been called, and who often decide to use their newfound power to escalate the aerial attacks. Gregory concludes that the network of drone warfare produces a one-sided kind of intimacy, while the time-space compression of the kill chain reinforces “the techno-cultural distinction between ‘their’ space and ‘our’ space, between the eye and the target.”

We are back, then, with our bifurcated world. In the shadow universe of war, the Gap and the Core, the green and red zones, are made to emerge in brutally stark guise across spatial and temporal dimensions dominated by the aggressor. We hold this map of danger in our palms, thumb it, see its contours from new, starker, and darker angles as we wind our way from Mali to Somalia and Afghanistan. However, we must now leave this map behind. The drone’s world of light and shadows is real enough, yet it is part of our old top-down tale of the lie of the land. We need to fold this map into our pocket, raise our view, and tread into another territory. A cursory peek beyond the bifurcated map with its kill boxes, its crosshairs, its God fantasies, and its “Predator porn” reveals something more intricate at play, beyond the lopsided time-spaces of battle. Our glimpses into the shadow war will, in fact, suggest that the red and green zones of the world map are not as far apart as they seem: rather, they reflect back on each other in a darkening hall of mirrors.

Reprinted with permission from No Go World: How Fear is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics by Ruben Andersson, University of California Press, 2019.

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