Grégoire Chamayou. Translated by Janet Lloyd
Penguin, 292pp, £6.99
Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues
Edited by Marjorie Cohn
Olive Branch Press, 296pp, £15.99
The US army defines a drone as “a land, sea or air vehicle that is remotely or automatically controlled”. Missing from that jarringly prophylactic description is the use of drones as tools of death. The French writer Grégoire Chamayou, in what might be termed a philosophical investigation into drones and their implications, defines them more pithily – and accurately. “Their history,” he writes, “is that of an eye turned into a weapon.”
This weapon is now at the centre of American military doctrine. The US, Chamayou tells us, trains more drone operators than “all the pilots of fighter planes and bombers put together”. This is, perhaps, unsurprising, given that the number of US armed drone “patrols” increased by 1,200 per cent between 2004 and 2012. And these patrols are deadly. During the same period, drones killed between 2,640 and 3,474 people in Pakistan alone.
In conflicts from the Vietnam war to those in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has always had to contend with its soldiers returning home in body bags. Dead Arabs are an acceptable consequence of war; dead Americans, not so much. This is the problem faced by superpowers since their concept first existed: exerting influence requires sending in troops. The beauty of drones is that they nullify this. In the euphemistic words of the air force officer David Deptula, “The real advantage of unmanned aerial systems is that they allow you to project power without projecting vulnerability.” Chamayou is, as ever, more blunt. Drones, he explains, allow war to go from being possibly asymmetrical to “absolutely unilateral”. They radicalise existing processes of remote warfare and extend them to their logical conclusion: doing away with combat altogether.
Yet this is true only for one side. To the many Pakistanis and Yemenis on the receiving end, these all-seeing eyes – Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon given wings – make combat not only deadly but perennial. The result is that the drones often torture before they kill. Buzzing overhead, sometimes for days before striking, they reduce subject populations to nervous wrecks, all of this achieved from the comfort of a Nevada control room in which drone operators eat M&M’s and hope they “get to shoot the truck with all the dudes in it”.
Chamayou’s moral outrage seeps on to almost every page, even if the language never loses its precision (a rarity in philosophical works). The book opens with a transcript of a conversation between members of a drone unit, in which it becomes clear that confusion (“Did they blow that up? They did, right?” “They did, yeah.” “No, they didn’t”) combined with boredom (“months of monotony and milliseconds of mayhem” is how their job is described in the introduction) are the dominating impulses of 21st-century warfare. Fear is almost entirely absent, as it would be when you’re thousands of miles from your target and he or she has no chance to strike back against you.
If the “just war” theory holds that certain criteria must be met for a conflict to be considered morally justifiable, the book makes it clear that drone warfare fails. Supporters may laud the precision of drones (especially when compared to, say, aircraft bombing) but it doesn’t matter how precise your weapon is if the humans manning it cannot discern exactly who the target is – or, indeed, if targets are decided on almost whimsically, as this 2010 conversation regarding a situation in Afghanistan shows:
Mission intelligence co-ordinator: Adolescent near the rear of the SUV.
Sensor operator: Well, teenagers can fight.
Mission intelligence co-ordinator: Pick up a weapon and you’re a combatant, it’s how that works.
Similar themes are covered in Drones and Targeted Killing, a series of essays that stress the immorality and illegality of drone warfare. The book’s tone is made clear in its foreword, written by the anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who damns “Obama’s drones” that “have been killing thousands of people with no due process at all”. Tutu is particularly enraged by the way in which Americans called for special courts to rule in cases when their government found it necessary to kill US citizens (on US soil, no less) – but non-Americans would be afforded no such consideration. “Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours?” he asks.
Such are the moral contradictions on which drone warfare is built. We learn, for example, the absurdly vague (and terrifying) way in which the Obama administration has counted drone casualties. The criterion is simple: “All military-age men killed in a drone strike zone are considered to be combatants ‘unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent’.” One suspects again that this approach would fail the “just war” test.
Even when the administration attempts to be more specific, differentiating between “personality strikes” (on “named, high-value terrorists”) and “signature strikes” (on “training camps” and “suspicious compounds”), the effect is often to strike large crowds of people, giving the lie to the supposed precision of drone killings. These lax standards have become an unpleasant joke among state department officials. When the CIA “‘sees three guys doing jumping jacks’, the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp”, one said. But sceptics argue: “Men loading a truck with fertiliser could be bomb makers – but they might also be farmers.”
Regardless of its critics, drone warfare is here to stay. It’s too easy, too cheap (in terms of American casualties) and too established in US security and political apparatuses to be discarded now. These books remind us that, contrary to some received wisdom, using drones is not necessarily a more ethical form of warfare. And, although they may fly overhead, they do not provide governments with what they always crave in war: the moral high ground.
David Patrikarakos is the author of “Nuclear Iran: the Birth of an Atomic State” (I B Tauris) and a Poynter fellow at Yale University