Book review: A Theory of the Drone - the morality of killing by remote control

A new book explores the morality and effectiveness of using surveillance drones as missiles in the war against terrorists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm


A Theory of the Drone
by Grégoire Chamayou
New Press

In May 2009, a former adviser to General David Petraeus named David Kilcullen wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling for a moratorium on drone strikes carried out by the US against al-Qaeda and its associates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The military advantages of using drones (the US Army defines a drone as a "land, sea or air vehicle that is remotely or automatically controlled") are outweighed, Kilcullen argued, by their costs.

As French thinker Grégoire Chamayou observes in his subtle and provocative "philosophical investigation" of drone warfare, Kilcullen's article offered an insight into the "internal debates within the US military apparatus" over the transformation of a surveillance technology into a vehicle for administering lethal force.

(Predator drones, which had been used for surveillance purposes during the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999, were first equipped with Hellfire missiles in tests carried out in February 2001, turning, as Chamayou puts it, "an eye into a weapon".)

Kilcullen acknowledged the fatal appeal of drone attacks for policy makers: they have measurable effects, they impose a "sense of insecurity" on the enemy and, because drones are operated remotely (often by "pilots" sitting in an office on an airbase in the Nevada desert), they carry no risk of US casualties. The downsides, however, are considerable.

Drone attacks induce a "siege mentality" in the civilian population, Kilcullen suggested. One tribal leader in Pakistan told Steve Coll of The New Yorker last year that the amount of time a drone spends hovering above its target before it unleashes its weaponry - days, sometimes, rather than hours - has "turned people into psychiatric patients". (Chamayou neglects this temporal aspect of drone warfare, which is surely part of what makes it so distinctive - and so distinctively unsettling. His focus is, instead, on what a CIA operative once called the drone's "unblinking stare", the panoptic gaze of its surveillance systems, which compile "archives" of the lives of potential targets based on patterns of repeated behaviour, divergence from which can sometimes be grounds enough for a strike.)

Kilcullen argued that drone attacks undermine the US counter-insurgency effort in the tribal badlands of North and South Waziristan, the aim of which is to isolate Islamist militants from the communities that they live in: the proponents of drone warfare seek a technological fix for what is, in the first place, a political problem.

For Chamayou, Kilcullen's argument dramatised the tension between two apparently irreconcilable military paradigms: a counter-insurgency paradigm, in which "political results" (capturing the hearts and minds of the local population) are more important than tactical successes on the battlefield; and an anti-terrorist paradigm, of which the drone programme is a mutation, that is "both moralising and Manichean" and "abandons any real analysis of the roots of hostility and its own effects upon it".

Proponents of drone warfare seek a technological fix for what is, in the first place, a political problem

Kilcullen's appeal for a halt to the strikes went unheeded in the White House, however - to such an extent that it is plausible to suggest, as Chamayou does, that the drone target programme is today as much an "emblem" of Barack Obama's presidency as the Affordable Care Act.

The campaign has its origins in a memo written shortly after 9/11 by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, which authorised the targeted killing of al-Qaeda terrorists and their allies. The first strike using a drone took place in June 2004, when the CIA killed a Pakistani al-Qaeda sympathiser in South Waziristan.

The Bush administration was comparatively sparing in its use of drones for targeted assassination: Bush launched 49 drone strikes between 2004 and 2008. The programme really took off once Obama became president. According to figures assembled by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2009 and the present, Obama has launched 361 strikes in Pakistan alone. (And the strikes continue: three were carried out in Pakistan in the first half of January. The Bureau estimates that between 15 and 27 people were killed - al-Qaeda operatives, Pakistani Taliban and Uzbek fighters.)

Since 2009, a fixture in Washington's bureaucratic calendar has been the weekly meeting, known to some as Terror Tuesday, in which more than 100 officials of the US national security apparatus convene to draw up a "kill list", which identifies, for the president, candidates for assassination by drone.

Chamayou points out that the criteria used in assembling this list are unknown, although the US State Department's legal counsel has insisted that their procedures are "very robust", without specifying just how robust.

Such "reassurances" are not, as Chamayou rightly says, especially reassuring, although there have been some attempts, however inadequate, by the administration to codify the procedures followed in what Obama has called "lethal targeted action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces" using drones.

For example, in a speech - which Chamayou doesn't mention - delivered at the National Defence University in Washington in May 2013, Obama announced some tightening of the constraints on the use of drones, partly in response to growing public anxiety about who is targeted and how precisely.

That speech seemed to promise, among other things, limits on the notorious practice of "signature strikes", approved in 2008 by the then director of the CIA, Michael Hayden. The rules allowed drone pilots to shoot at any male of military age whose behaviour corresponded to a "signature" suggestive of suspicious activity. The results of the policy were predictably calamitous for any civilian or non-combatant who happened either to display the stipulated behavioural traits or else just happened to be in harm's way.

In the 2013 speech, Obama conceded that the way the US counts civilian casualties has been a matter of considerable controversy - for instance, everyone killed in a "signature strike" is counted as a legitimate target.

In using drones in this way, the Americans seemed to sacrifice the very "precision" that supporters of drone warfare have always argued is one of its principal advantages: after all, there is nothing "targeted" about a "signature strike". And in any case, "precision" is a rather elastic term when used in this context. The Hellfire missiles fired by Predator drones, for example, have a "kill zone" of 15 metres (in other words, nothing inside a 15-metre radius survives), whereas its successor, the Reaper, is able to fire the so-called "Small Smart Weapon", which can kill an individual while leaving the people in the next room unscathed.

Chamayou says US strategists expect that in 25 years' time they will be using "nano-drones", tiny robotic insects capable of operating in very confined spaces with unimaginable precision. But the problem with "precision"- talk like this is that it conflates, as Chamayou points out, "the technical precision of the weapon and its capacity to discriminate in the choice of targets". Despite the fevered dreams of men such as the theorist of drone warfare Bradley Jay Strawser, the moral dilemmas that philosophers in the "just war" tradition have wrestled with for centuries won't go away, whatever technological progress may seem to promise.

Machines don't discriminate and the "fact that your weapon enables you to destroy precisely whomever you wish does not mean that you are more capable of making out who is and who is not a legitimate target". That remains a task for human beings capable of making moral judgments.

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