Theorizing the Drone

What does the rise of the drone mean for justice, for the ethics of heroism, for psychology? Most important of all, who is dying and why?

Grégoire Chamayou | A Theory of the Drone | The New Press | January 2015 | Translated by Janet Lloyd | Originally published in France as Théorie du Drone by la Fabrique Editions, Paris, 2013 | 28 minutes (7,693 words)


Below are four chapters excerpted from the book A Theory of the Drone, by French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.


* * *


Pattern-of-Life Analysis

Enemy leaders look like everyone else; enemy combatants look like everyone else; enemy vehicles look like civilian vehicles; enemy installations look like civilian installations; enemy equipment and materials look like civilian equipment and materials.

—American Defense Science Board


“It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals,” write two New York Times reporters. “Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.” In Washington, this weekly meeting has been labeled “Terror Tuesday.” Once established, the list of nominees is sent to the White House, where the president orally gives his approval to each name. With the “kill list” validated, the drones do the rest.

The criteria that go into making these lists of people condemned to death without trial remain unknown. The administration refuses to provide any information on this subject. Harold Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser, nevertheless tried to be reassuring: “Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust, and advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise.” In short: Trust us, even blindfolded.

Apart from these “personal strikes,” there are also “signature strikes,” here meaning strikes authorized on the basis of traces, indications, or defining characteristics. Such strikes target individuals whose identity remains unknown but whose behavior suggests, signals, or signs membership in a “terrorist organization.”

In such cases, the strike is made “without knowing the precise identity of the individuals targeted.” It depends solely on their behavior, which, seen from the sky, appears to “correspond to a ‘signature’ of pre-identified behavior that the United States links to militant activity.” Today, strikes of this type, against unknown suspects, appear to constitute the majority of cases.

To locate these anonymous militants, targeters “rely on what officials describe as ‘pattern of life analysis,’ using evidence collected by surveillance cameras on the unmanned aircraft and from other sources about individuals and locations. . . . The information then is used to target suspected militants, even when their full identities are not known.” As one Reaper drone operator explains, “We can develop those patterns of life, determine who the bad guys are, and then get the clearance and go through the whole find, fix, track, target, attack cycle.”

Each and every person has a particular form or pattern of life. Your daily actions are repetitive, your behavior has certain regularities. For example, you rise at roughly the same hour and regularly make the same journey to work or elsewhere. You frequently meet up with the same friends in the same places. If you are placed under surveillance, it is possible to record all your movements and establish a spatiotemporal map of all your usual doings. Furthermore, by intercepting your telephone calls, observers can superimpose your social network upon this map, determine which are your personal links, and calculate the importance of each one in your life. As an American army manual explains: “While the enemy moves from point to point, reconnaissance or surveillance tracks and notes every location and person visited. Connections between those sites and persons to the target are built, and nodes in the enemy’s network emerge.” Once this network of places and links in your life is established, it will be possible to predict your behavior: if it is not raining, on Saturday you will probably go jogging in a particular park at a particular time. But an observer may also perceive suspicious irregularities: today you have not followed your usual route, and you have met with someone in an unusual place. Any interruption of the norm that you yourself have established by your habits, any departure from your regular behavior, can sound an alarm bell: something abnormal and therefore potentially suspect is happening.

An analysis of the pattern of a person’s life may be defined more precisely as “the fusion of link analysis and a geospatial analysis.” For some idea of what is involved here, imagine a superimposition, on a single map, of Facebook, Google Maps, and an Outlook calendar. This would be a fusion of social, spatial, and temporal particulars, a mixed mapping of the socius, locus, and tempus spheres—in other words, a combination of the three dimensions that, not only in their regularities but also in their discordances, constitute a human life.

This method stems from activity-based intelligence, or ABI. From the mass of information collected about a particular individual, group, or place gradually emerge patterns, or traceable themes. Activity becomes an alternative to identity. Once a target has been named, instead of trying to localize it, do quite the opposite. Start by establishing surveillance and gathering information. Next, make large-scale graphs to do an analysis of “big data,” picking out nodular points that, by reason of the position and scale they occupy on the diagram, can be identified as threats that need to be neutralized. “By compiling activity-based association data with its metadata over time and adding analysis and reporting from many analysts,” wrote Keith L. Barber of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, “a rich archive will be formed to harvest patterns of life, networks and abnormalities which may have been overlooked otherwise.” The tools of human geography and the sociology of social networks are now enlisted in the service of a policy of eradication in which “persistent surveillance” makes it possible to pick out dangerous individuals. The painstaking work of establishing an archive of lives progressively gathers together the elements of a file that, once it becomes thick enough, will constitute a death warrant.

Officials claim that these methods ensure selective targeting. “You can track individuals and—patiently and carefully—build up a picture of how they move, where they go and what they see,” noted a U.S. counterterrorism official. Those who end up being killed “are people whose actions over time have made it obvious that they are a threat,” added another.

But the whole problem—at once epistemological and political—lies in this claimed ability to be able to correctly convert an assembly of probable indices into a legitimate target.

Both the means and the methodology are patently limited. As a former CIA officer admits, “You can only see so much from 20,000 feet.” A drone can distinguish shapes only more or less imprecisely. For example, in April 2011, American drones were “unable to discriminate the highly distinctive combat outline of two Marines (with full battle equipment) from the irregular enemy.” A telling joke made in the corridors of American power went, “When the CIA sees three guys doing jumping jacks, the agency thinks it’s a terrorist training camp.”

On March 17, 2011, an American strike decimated a group of men meeting in Datta Khel, Pakistan, on the grounds that “they acted in a manner consistent with AQ [al-Qaeda]-linked militants.” The manner of their gathering corresponded to that predefined as resembling terrorist behavior. But the meeting observed from the skies was actually a traditional assembly, a jirga, convoked to resolve a disagreement in the local community. Seen from the sky, a village meeting looks just like a gathering of militants. Between nineteen and thirty civilians are estimated to have perished in the attack.

On September 2, 2010, the American authorities announced that they had eliminated an important Taliban leader in Afghanistan. But in actual fact the missiles had killed Zabet Amanullah, a civilian engaged in an electoral campaign, as well as nine other people. That confusion was possible only because of the excessive faith placed in quantitative analysis (necessary, however, for this kind of device): the analysts had concentrated on SIM card data, the interception of phone calls, and graphs of social networks. Special forces troops told journalist Kate Clark that “they were not tracking the name, but targeting the telephones.”

As for establishing the truth, quantity of indications cannot be converted into quality. And that is certainly the problem since, as Gareth Porter explains,

the link analysis methodology employed by intelligence analysis is incapable of qualitative distinctions among relationships depicted on their maps of links among “nodes.” It operates exclusively on quantitative data—in this case the number of phone calls to or visits made to a pre-existing JPEL target or to other numbers in touch with that target. The inevitable result is that more numbers of phones held by civilian non-combatants show up on the charts of insurgent networks. If the phone records show multiple links to numbers already on the “kill/capture” list, the individual is likely to be added to the list.

In short, according to this theory, group membership and identity can be deduced from the number and frequency of contacts, regardless of their nature. Thus it is inevitable that, as one officer concluded, “if we decide [someone is] a bad person, the people with him are also bad.”

This profiling method works only with schemas. And a single schema may, by definition, correspond to a number of heterogeneous phenomena. Imagine that you see a shadow resembling a huge dog. If you have access only to the shadow, how can you tell with certainty what object created it? It may simply have been made by an arrangement of someone’s hands as part of a shadow play.

It is nevertheless on the strength of such epistemological bases that “signature strikes” are today made by American drones. The authorities have built themselves a theater of shadows, but “the result, way too often, is firing blind based on ‘pattern of life’ indicators, without direct confirmation that the targets are, in fact, who we think they are—killing innocent people in the process.”

That echoed the words of a young Pakistani man, a victim, together with his family, of a drone strike, when he was asked why he thought they had been attacked: “They say there were terrorists, but it was my home. . . . There are no terrorists. It’s just common people with beards.”

Photo illustration by STML

Photo illustration by STML



These imposters sold charms that made people invulnerable in warfare and fortunate in hunting and preserved them from all danger.

—Charles-Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg


The great myths of invulnerability are almost all accounts of failure. The heroes are invulnerable, except at one point. Achilles’ body is entirely “impenetrable by iron,” with the exception of his heel. Siegfried, who was bathed in the entrails of a dragon, has a body covered “with skin as hard as scales, unaffected by the blows of an axe,” except for his right shoulder, on which the leaf of a lime tree had alighted. Heracles envelops the child Ajax in the pelt of a Nemean lion, and this makes Ajax’s body invulnerable except in his armpits, which were not in contact with the wild beast’s hide. In Persian mythology, Zoroaster pours enchanted water over the head of Isfendiyar, but the latter makes the mistake of closing his eyes, so Rustam will be able to fell him by shooting an arrow into his right eye. In the Nordic fables, Frigga, the mother of Baldur, makes all beings, both animate and inanimate, swear to spare her son. All swear the oath except for one puny plant, mistletoe, which she had omitted to invite to the meeting.

The message of these myths is that invulnerability is precisely that, a myth. There is always one unforeseen weak point, one flaw. He has felled a dragon but will die from a fallen leaf. The lesson is not only that invulnerability can never be total, but also that any attempt to achieve invulnerability in turn engenders a corresponding vulnerability. It is by grasping Achilles’ body in order to plunge it into the river that Thetis makes it invulnerable and at the same time produces its vulnerable point, which is the spot at which she grasped it. With regard to invulnerability and vulnerability, these two, far from excluding one another, each summon up the other.

This warning may also be read as a prescription: when faced with an enemy who is seemingly invulnerable or who wishes to be so, find the fault, seek out the Achilles’ heel. Everything depends upon discovering in what way the seemingly invulnerable one is vulnerable. Combat presupposes an inquiry, and that inquiry concerns the body of the enemy.

In the Middle Ages, before gunpowder upset the socio-technical conditions for life and death in battle, it was said that the knights had managed “to render themselves almost invulnerable by thinking of joining together their pieces of armor so closely that neither spear nor sword nor dagger could penetrate easily to their bodies and making that armor so hard that no piece could be pierced.” Consequently, however, “part of the skill of combatants, both in battles and in single combat, lay in finding a fault in the armor.”

There is a time lag between what happens on the ground and when the drone operators see the image of that on their screen. The problem lies with the signal’s latency. Space, which it was claimed could be suppressed by technical means, made a comeback in the form of an incomprehensible time lag. All that the operators have to aim at is the slightly obsolete image of an earlier situation. The New York Times reports that targets now make the most of this asynchrony: when individuals think that they are being hunted by a drone, they adopt zigzag movements.

A far cry from the all-powerful image that they wish to convey, drones are fragile weapons, riddled with faults and deep contradictions. They have multiple vulnerabilities. First are the technological ones. Their use presupposes mastery over the airspace in which they move. If this condition, automatically acquired in the context of asymmetrical warfare in which the enemy lacks effective antiair defenses, should disappear, most of the present-day drones would, as David Deptula himself admits, simply “start falling from the sky like rain.”

Mastery over the airwaves is also necessary. In 2009, the press reported that Iraqi insurgents had managed to intercept the video feeds transmitted by Predator drones. To accomplish this, all they needed was a satellite antenna and software that could be purchased on the Internet for $26. Convinced of their own technological superiority, the American military had apparently not taken the elementary precaution of effectively encrypting their transmissions.

The Israeli army recently realized that as a result of similar negligence, Hezbollah had over the past ten years developed the capacity to intercept video feeds from Israeli drones, which enabled that organization to, among other things, pinpoint the position of the Israeli battalions on the ground, the better to ambush them. Armed surveillance was, without the Israelis knowing it, lending its eyes to the enemy. One of the classic principles of guerrilla warfare is to supply oneself with weapons taken from the enemy camp. It is a rule that today is equally valid for the electromagnetic components of one’s arsenal.

If the signals emitted by the drones have been so easily intercepted, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the flows of data that control them could likewise be hacked. The air pirates of the future will use software to crack codes and take control from a distance. In 2011 Wired magazine revealed that malware had infected the Creech Air Force Base computers, including those handled by drone operators. This involved a software spy of the keylogger variety, capable of recording keystrokes and transmitting them to a third party in such a way as to make it possible to recover passwords. That threat remained relatively benign, but it is obviously possible to envisage other scenarios. Just like any other connected computer system, the drone is vulnerable to intrusions. A computer army can be paralyzed by a viral attack more efficiently than by bombs.

The option of having totally robotized drones would certainly eliminate any problems involving humans in the command centers. However, it would have another security weakness: these machines would be dependent upon GPS data, which can easily be jammed or manipulated. In the course of a test organized by the American authorities in June 2012, a group of researchers from the University of Texas demonstrated how easily a drone could be brought down in this way. Thanks to an apparatus put together at the cost of a few thousand dollars’ worth of material, “we fooled the UAV into thinking that it was rising straight up.” The drone’s autopilot immediately compensated, sending the drone toward the ground. If no one had intervened, it would have crashed.

However, the faults are not solely technical. They are also politico-strategic. In 1999, two Chinese strategists suggested that the American preference for “zero dead” offered the United States’ adversaries a rapid, easy, and low-cost means of thwarting the world’s greatest power: “These common American soldiers who should be on the battlefield have now become the most costly security in war, like precious china bowls that people are afraid to break. All of the opponents who have engaged in battle with the American military have probably mastered the secret of success—if you have no way of defeating this force, you should kill its rank and file soldiers.” The dronization of the armed forces further radicalizes this strategic fault. If the military withdraws from the battlefield, enemy violence will turn against targets that are easier to reach. Even if the soldiers are beyond reach, civilians are not. As one American soldier explains, “We must understand that attempts to armorize our force against all potential enemy threats . . . shifts the ‘burden of risk’ from a casualty-averse military force onto the populace. In doing so, we have lifted the burden from our own shoulders and placed it squarely upon those who do not possess the material resources to bear it—the civilian populace.” The paradox is that hyperprotection of military personnel tends to compromise the traditional social division of danger, in which soldiers are at risk and civilians are protected. By maximizing the protection of military lives and making the inviolability of its “safe zone” the mark of its power, a state that uses drones tends to divert reprisals toward its own population.

This type of scenario is all the more probable given that the viability of the security model associated with the principle of “projecting power without projecting vulnerability” rests upon very fragile assumptions. It postulates that the establishment of an effective domestic “safe zone” is possible—that the danger, the threat, the enemy can be absolutely confined to the space outside. This assumption runs up against the problem of the irreducible porosity of frontiers. There is no wall high enough, no barrier sufficiently impassable to guarantee the absolute isolation of a national “gated community.”

The military drone is a low-cost weapon—at least in comparison to classic fighter planes. That has long been one of the principal selling points for such a weapon. But of course the contradiction lies in the fact that it is in the nature of such a weapon to proliferate.

What does Francis Fukuyama do after the end of history? In his leisure hours, he puts together little drones in his garage and then proudly exhibits them on his blog. He is part of an rapidly developing subculture: that of the homemade drone. Following in the footsteps of the model enthusiasts of the 1960s, there today exists a whole little community of amateurs who buy or construct drones at the cost of a few hundred dollars. With their microcameras on board, these machines make it possible to produce unofficial little films, some of which are strikingly beautiful. I am thinking in particular of a flight over New York in which, once over the Brooklyn Bridge, the camera scans the facades of the skyline, ending up by gliding past the flame on the Statue of Liberty. Proof enough of the validity of Walter Benjamin’s thesis that technology, today used for death-dealing purposes, may eventually recover its emancipating potential and readopt the playful and aesthetic aspirations that secretly inspire it.

But even if the drone can and should be demilitarized, it is also perfectly possible to convert such homemade machines into daunting unconventional weapons at little cost. The Russian researcher Eugene Miasnikov sees in amateur drones a “suicide bomber on steroids”: unlike a suicide bomber, an amateur drone “can easily penetrate security and threaten otherwise safe areas (e.g., the Green Zone) or reach crowded public places like sports stadiums.”

In November 2006, a confidential report produced by the U.S. military noted that a new technique was being used by the insurgents in Iraq. Suicide bombers were now equipped with a camera that transmitted images directly to their superiors. Thanks to this equipment, “a second member of a terrorist cell is able to observe the activities of the suicide bomber via a miniature camera installed in the vest. The second member will ensure the bomber approaches the intended target and actually conducts the detonation. Should the bomber fail to detonate the device, the observer is able to detonate the device remotely.”

A human drone is thus invented: a man, remotely controlled by others, who can be blown up at any moment, thanks to a long-distance detonating device. The irony is that commanders in the opposite camp might, thanks to the video cameras installed on the helmets of their own soldiers, be watching as some individual approaches and makes suspicious gestures. From the snow that simultaneously covers their respective screens, those on both sides will instantly know that their men have perished. Once this stage is reached, the next step in perfecting the art of assassination is to do without the man carrying the bomb: move on from a dronized partisan to, quite simply, a drone.

Photo by defenceimages

Photo by defenceimages


Drones and Kamikazes

To me, the robot is our answer to the suicide bomber.

—Bart Everett


Walter Benjamin did some thinking about drones, radio-controlled planes that the military thinkers of the mid-1930s were already imagining. He used this example to illustrate the difference between what he called the “first technique,” which could be traced back to prehistoric art, and the “second technique,” which was characteristic of modern industry. As he saw it, the distinction between them was not so much the inferiority or archaism of the one in comparison to the other but rather a “difference of trends.” “The first technique,” he wrote, “engages the human being as much as possible, the second as little as possible. The great technological feat of the first technique is, in a manner of speaking, the human sacrifice; that of the second lies along the lines of remote-controlled airplanes that don’t require any human crew.”

On one hand, the techniques of sacrifice; on the other, those of play. On one hand, integral engagement; on the other, total disengagement. On one hand, the uniqueness of a living action; on the other, the limitless reproducibility of a mechanical gesture. Wrote Benjamin, “Once and for all is the motto that applies to the first technique (it deals with the forever irreparable lapse or the eternal vicariousness of the sacrificial death). Once is nothing is the motto of the second technique (it has to do with the experimentation and its tireless variations of the test set-up).”

On one hand, the kamikaze or the suicide bomber, who crashes once and for all in a single explosion; on the other, the drone, which fires its missiles repeatedly, as if nothing happened.

Whereas the kamikaze implies a total fusion of the fighter’s body and weapon, the drone ensures their radical separation. The kamikaze: My body is a weapon. The drone: My weapon has no body. The former implies the death of the agent. The latter totally excludes it. Kamikazes are those for whom death is certain. Drone pilots are those for whom death is impossible. In this sense, they represent two opposite poles on the spectrum of exposure to death. In between the two are classic fighters, those for whom death is a risk.

One speaks of “suicide bombing” or of “suicide assassination,” but what would be the antonym? There is no specific expression to designate those who kill by explosion without ever risking their lives. Not only is it not necessary for them to die in order to kill, but it is impossible for them to be killed as they kill.

Contrary to the evolutionist schema that Benjamin, in truth, only suggested, the better to subvert it, the kamikaze and the drone—the weapon of sacrifice and the weapon of self-preservation—did not succeed each other chronologically, one following from the other as history follows from prehistory, On the contrary, they emerged together, as two opposed but historically simultaneous tactics.

In the mid-1930s, an engineer working for the RCA read an article about the Japanese army that greatly alarmed him. From that article he learned that the Japanese were training squadrons of pilots for suicide aircraft. Long before the tragic surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Vladimir Zworykin understood the scale of this threat: “The efficiency of this method, of course, is yet to be proven but if such a psychological training of personnel is possible, this weapon will be of the most dangerous nature. We hardly can expect to introduce such methods in our country and therefore have to rely on our technical superiority to meet the difficulty.” At that time the United States already possessed prototypes of “radio-controlled planes” that could be used as air torpedoes. But the problem was that these remote-controlled devices were blind. Noted Zworykin, “They lose their efficiency as soon as they are beyond visual contact with the directing base. The solution to this problem was evidently found by the Japanese.” That solution was the kamikaze: since the pilot has eyes and is ready to die, he is able to guide the machine right to its target.

However, Zworykin was also one of the pioneers of television. And therein, of course, lay the solution: “One possible means of obtaining practically the same results as the suicide pilot is to provide a radio-controlled torpedo with an electric eye.”

The operator would be able to watch the target right to the end and, through radio control, visually guide the weapon to the point of impact.

Coupling television with the remote-controlled plane, Zworykin had discovered the formula that, much later, would become that of both “smart bombs” and armed drones: remove from the plane any part of the pilot save an electronic retina, with the pilot’s actual body remaining elsewhere, out of range of the enemy antiair defenses.

Zworykin’s text is remarkable because, though his was one of the very first theoretical formulations, he recognized the ancestor of the drone as an anti-kamikaze, and did so not only from the logical point of view of his definition but also and above all at a tactical level. This was the weapon that responded to the kamikaze both as its antidote and as its twin. The drone and the kamikaze constituted two opposed practical options for resolving one and the same problem, that of guiding the bomb to its target. What the Japanese intended to bring about through psychological training and their mores of sacrifice, the Americans would achieve through material technology and purely technical procedures.

The conceptual genesis of the drone takes place within the framework of an ethico-technical economy of life and death in which technological power takes over from a form of undemandable sacrifice. While on one side there were to be courageous combatants ready to sacrifice themselves for the cause, on the other there were to be nothing but ghostly machines.

This antagonism between the kamikaze and remote control reappears today: suicide bombings versus phantom bombings. The polarity is primarily economic. It sets those who have nothing but their bodies with which to fight in opposition to those who possess capital and technology. But these two regimes, the one tactical, the other material, also correspond to two different ethical regimes: the ethic of heroic sacrifice, on one hand, and the ethic of vital self-preservation, on the other.

The drone and the kamikaze stand in contrast as two opposed forms of moral sensibility, two forms of ethos that reflect each other but are each other’s antithesis and nightmare. What is at stake in this difference, at least on the face of it, is a particular concept of one’s relationship to death, both one’s own and that of others; to sacrifice or self-preservation; to danger and to courage and to vulnerability and destructiveness. Involved here are two political and affective economies regarding one’s relationship to death, both the death that one deals and that to which one exposes oneself; but also two opposed concepts or visions of horror.

Richard Cohen, a columnist at the Washington Post, sets out his view of the situation: “As for the Taliban fighters, they not only don’t cherish life, they expend it freely in suicide bombings. It’s difficult to envisage an American suicide bomber.” He asserts: “There is really no such thing as an American suicide bomber. We don’t extol the bomber and parade his or her children before the TV cameras so that other children will envy them for the death of a parent. This is odd to us. This is chilling to us. This is downright repugnant.” Then he adds complacently, “Maybe we have come to cherish life too much.”

So what is “odd,” “chilling,” and “repugnant” is being ready to die in the struggle and find glory in so doing. The old idol of martial sacrifice, falling directly from its pedestal into the enemy clutches, has become utterly repellent, the epitome of moral horror. Sacrifice, at once incomprehensible and ignoble and immediately interpreted as scorn for life (without any sense that it may, on the contrary, imply scorn for death), is opposed by an ethic based on a love of life—of which the drone surely represents the ultimate expression. As an ultimate affectation, we admit that we love life so much that we do perhaps overprotect it. This excessive love would certainly be excusable were it not that so much self-complacency hints at self-love. For, contrary to Cohen’s claims, it is certainly our lives, not life in general, that we hold so dear. If the case of an American kamikaze seems to be inconceivable, that is because it would be an oxymoron. Here life could not possibly be denied, for the very good reason that the only life that is denied is that of others.

When questioned by a journalist in order to find out if it was “true that Palestinians were not concerned about human life, not even that of those close to them,” Eyad El-Sarraj, the director of the mental health program in Gaza, replied, “How can you believe in your own humanity if you do not believe in the humanity of the enemy?”

In what respect might it be less horrible to kill without exposing oneself than to share the fate of one’s victims? In what respect might a weapon making it possible to kill without danger be less repugnant than the opposite? Jacqueline Rose, amazed that “dropping cluster bombs from the air is not only less repugnant: it is somehow deemed, by Western leaders at least, to be morally superior,” asks herself why “dying with your victim should be seen as a greater sin than saving yourself.”

Hugh Gusterson adds that an “anthropologist from Mars might note that many people in the Middle East feel about U.S. drone attacks the way that Richard Cohen feels toward suicide-bombers. The drone attacks are widely perceived in the Middle East as cowardly, because the drone pilot is killing people on the ground from the safety of an air-conditioned pod in Nevada, where there is no chance that he can be killed by those he is attacking.”

Talal Asad suggests that the horror provoked in Western societies by suicide bombings lies in the fact that the author of the attack, through his action, a priori rules out any kind of retributive justice. By dying with his victim, coagulating both crime and punishment within a single action, he makes punishment impossible and thereby deactivates the fundamental resort of a form of justice conceived in the penal mode. He will never be able “to pay for what he has done.”

The horror aroused by the idea of death administered by pilotless machines is perhaps connected to a similar perception. Gusterson goes on to say, “The drone operator is also a mirror image of the suicide bomber in that he too deviates, albeit in the opposite direction, from our paradigmatic image of combat.”

Argus Eyes, Interactive video installation by Michel Winterberg, 2013. Via Flickr

Argus Eyes, Interactive video installation by Michel Winterberg, 2013. Via Flickr


Psychopathologies of the Drone

In the case of war neuroses, . . . what is feared is nevertheless an internal enemy.

—Sigmund Freud


“The trauma of drone pilots” has become a common theme in the media. An early appearance was in an Associated Press article in 2008: “Long-distance warriors are suffering some of the same psychological stresses as their comrades on the battlefield.” But the rest of the article produced nothing to corroborate that statement. In fact, quite the contrary: the journalist reported that in the course of various interviews with drone operators, “none said they had been particularly troubled by their mission.” The same procedure—an announcement followed up discreetly by a vague denial—seems to have been adopted in most press articles devoted to the matter.

Many American soldiers did not hesitate to vent their scorn and anger toward the drone pilots and their supposed trauma: “Fricken cry babies, that’s what they are. . . Fire them and get somebody new if they can’t take the stress of the air-conditioned trailer and going home every night.” Or, in a similar register, “I simply scoff at the idea of some computer nerds whining about ‘battle fatigue’ or ‘PTSD’ when they not only know what they’re getting into but aren’t even in same country getting shot at. It’s a slap in the face to those who really deploy, who really get shot at and who really have to deal with the psychological effects of war.”

By making it a point of honor to distance themselves from those whom they consider to be a bunch of wimps, those self-appointed spokesmen for “classic” soldiers indirectly illuminated the role that this media-promulgated theme played in the debate. The emphasis placed on the supposed traumas suffered by drone operators made it possible to assimilate them, via a common psychic vulnerability, to classic soldiers (fighters suffer from the stress of fighting and so do drone operators, so drone operators must be fighters too) and to humanize them as agents of armed violence (despite the technical nature of their weapon, they were not just cold killers).

The emphasis placed on the psychic agony of the drone operators also made it possible to dismiss the “PlayStation mentality,” according to which putting murder on the screen involves a virtualization of the consciousness of homicide. Before the drones became the subject of daily arguments in the American press, there was a time when drone pilots could still reply more or less honestly to the questions put to them, such as “How do you feel about killing through the intermediary of a screen?” Here is a brief record of the replies:

Oh, it’s a gamer’s delight.

Almost like playing the computer game Civilization, in which you direct units and armies in battle.

It’s like a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool.

In the aftermath of such public relations disasters, press officers must have reframed their aim and rebriefed the troops, for nowadays there is no longer any sign of such statements in their interviews. On the contrary, when in 2012 a New York Times reporter visited a drone base, he noted, “As more than one pilot told me, a bit defensively, ‘We are not just playing video games here.’”

This is how the website, affiliated with the defense industry, describes this discursive U-turn: “While it was initially thought that those operating drones would be more callous about their actions than personnel operating in the battlefield, the opposite now appears to be true. Some analysts argue that UAV operators may almost care too much and that they are experiencing higher levels of combat stress than some units in Afghanistan, with significantly increased fatigue, emotional exhaustion and burnout.” We have come full circle: far from living through an experience of murder made unreal, the operators are affected by it so much that there is a serious concern that they “almost care too much” about their victims.

Clearly, if they felt nothing at all, this would raise a moral problem. But given that they kill with sensitivity and even with “care,” they can continue to do so with our blessing. This sensitivity and care, this supposed empathy with the victims, is, paradoxically, what now makes a public rehabilitation of homicide by drones possible. The theme of empathy here undergoes a reversal similar to that of the psychic vulnerability mentioned above. Whereas empathy for the enemy was classically understood as a ferment of possible resistance to murder, as a possible premise for a refusal to kill, in the discourse that we are now considering it serves to apply a layer of humanity to an instrument of mechanized homicide. In the face of this vast operation involving the instrumentalization of ethico-affective categories for military ends, however, there is another image that comes to mind: that of the crocodile shedding tears, the better to devour its prey.

Nevertheless, there is a shadow darkening the media picture of empathetic drone operators suffering psychic trauma: it has no empirical basis. The military psychologist Hugo Ortega recently conducted a vast investigation into the subject. He subjected drone operators to psychological tests in order to determine their levels of stress and discover whether they might be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. His conclusion:

We haven’t diagnosed any pilots with PTSD—that’s right, that’s right. We had, I think, one sensor operator that we thought maybe . . . but what is one? . . . The major findings of the work so far have been that the popularized idea of watching the combat was really not what was producing the most day-to-day stress for these guys.

On the other hand,

shift work, schedule changes—those are the top number-one issue for stress. And then they have long hours, low manning. It’s really kind of a boring job to be vigilant on the same thing for days and days and days. It’s really boring. It’s kind of terrible. And maintaining relationships with their families—these were the kinds of things that they reported as stressful for them. And if you look through that stuff, they don’t say “Because I was in combat.” They don’t say “Because we had to blow up a building.” They don’t say “Because we saw people getting blown up.” That’s not what causes their stress—at least subjectively to them. It’s all the other quality-of-life things that everybody else would complain about too. If you look at nurses who work night shift, anybody who does shift work, they complain of the same things.

Warfare becomes tele-work with shifting timetables, and the symptoms its agents present are all connected with this.

Apart from that, adds Ortega,

they have more of an existential conflict. It’s more of a guilt feeling, perhaps, or a “Did I make the right decision?” . . . So a lot more second-guessing in this, as opposed to the classic PTSD description of symptoms, which is really related to a physical threat event. . . . One was the feeling of a sort of guilt, that they were watching a battle take place and they could see it in extraordinary detail.

However, that “guilt” is not something that Ortega studies. It lies outside his field of competence. At a theoretical level, it is relegated to the domain of existential matters that lie outside the framework of psychological research. So at a practical level, the notion of guilt is entrusted to the care of military social workers specifically assigned to take care of this kind of moral distress on drone bases—murder being considered as one of these spiritual problems.

So the media buzz around the suffering of drone operators was without foundation. Military psychologists discovered no trace of post-traumatic stress disorder. But it should be pointed out that it would have been impossible for them to find any such traces, for one very simple reason that stems from the categories of disease at their disposal. Let us take a look at their bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. What exactly is PTSD? The DSM is of the opinion that the patient must have been exposed to “an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury or other threat to one’s physical integrity.” Drone operators are by definition excluded from that kind of situation, for there is no threat to their physical integrity. Perhaps it could be argued that the drone operators are nevertheless in a position of “witnessing an event that involves death or a threat to the physical integrity of another person,” but the truth is that they are far more than just witnesses: they are the authors of that death, that injury, that threat. The DSM’s category of PTSD is too indeterminate to cover the particular form taken by their experience. Once again, the drone upsets the available categories, to the point of rendering them inapplicable. As for the more general notion of “combat stress”—defined as stress that is “the result of exposure to the same conditions during military actions that cause physical injury and disease in battle” or to conditions close to those of battle in an “area of operations characterized by continuous action and high danger”—short of deciding somehow or other to change the meaning of the words, one is bound to conclude that that notion too is inapplicable to drone operators.

Military psychologists could well save themselves both time and money, as there is no point in carrying out lengthy and costly inquiries in order to discover whether these pathologies, thus defined, are to be found among drone operators. For it is, by definition, impossible: the technology radically rules out or substantially modifies the only stress factors that are covered by the existing categories of disease.

As is often the case, in order to understand this matter more clearly, it is helpful to reread some of the psychoanalytic literature. In the aftermath of World War I, in a conference on war neuroses that gathered together most of the great names of the period, Karl Abraham made the following comment: “It is not only demanded of these men in the field that they must tolerate dangerous situations—a purely passive performance—but there is a second demand which has been much too little considered; I allude to the aggressive acts for which the soldier must be hourly prepared, for besides the readiness to die the readiness to kill is also demanded of him.”

Abraham was particularly interested in the case of soldier-patients for whom “the anxiety as regards killing is of similar significance to that of dying.” So now the question seems to become: what does the fact of killing, of becoming a killer, threaten to kill within the subject himself? Freud, who wrote the preface to the conference proceedings, suggested a reply to that question: “In the case of war neuroses, . . . what is feared is nevertheless an internal enemy.” What the violent subject sees developing within him in the course of the war is a new self, a “war-ego.” This is a threat that does not come from outside but from within, for what this emerging self endangers is the old “peace-ego.” A war neurosis is a response to that inner conflict; it is an attempt to find a pathological form of resolution.

Closer to our own times, the psychologist Rachel McNair has suggested expanding the overly narrow notion of PTSD by defining a condition called “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress” (PITS). Noting that recent literature has focused almost exclusively on the traumas inflicted on passive victims by external forces, she tries to isolate the active component of the anxiety, the one that stems from the fact of having been the agent of violence, in fact a perpetrator of it. Within the mixed experience of a soldier, it is hard to sort out one particular element from the rest, but McNair studies cases of pure perpetration, for example the nightmares of executioners haunted by images of the last moments of their condemned prisoners. She does not cite the case of drone operators, as her book was published too early for that, but it looks as if that might be a good means by which to test out her idea, for it presents a case of pure perpetration, armed violence reduced solely to its active aspect and without any vital threat to its perpetrator. It is this emerging category of PITS that needs to be tested empirically if one wishes to illuminate debates about trauma suffered by drone operators.

The rapid development of new techniques of violence at a distance will doubtless reorient the psychoethical modes of problematizing the experience of war in Western societies. The first signs of such a reorientation are already detectable. In a state supplied with largely dronized armed forces, one will probably move on inexorably from a study of psychic traumas linked to violence personally suffered to a study of psychic wounds linked to violence personally perpetrated. A kind of clinic for executioners would thus develop alongside psychotherapies for assassins, all of which would be designed to deliver them from their unease.

We are thus faced, for the moment, with two hypotheses regarding the psychic life of drone operators: either this weaponry creates insensitive killers, or else it produces a mental process that involves being tormented by guilt, potentially to the degree of inducing neurosis. In practice, the truth about any given individual probably falls somewhere between those two poles. As for which of the two options is the more desirable, that is a question that remains open.

* * *

Copyright © 2013 by La Fabrique Editions. This excerpt originally appeared in A Theory of the Drone, published by The New Press, and is used here with permission.

Friends: We Need Your Help to Fund More Stories

We want to dramatically increase our story fund this year, but we can't do it without your support. Every dollar you contribute goes to writers and publishers who spend hours, weeks, and months reporting and writing outstanding stories. Now is the time to join us.
Become a Member