Drones have forever changed us

Right to pursue prey wherever it may be transforms the way we understand international relations.

Drones are declared to be a humanitarian weapon; they are precise and ensure no human cost to the perpetrator, writes Gordon [EPA]

This Christmas, small drones were among the most popular gift under the tree in the US with manufacturers stating that they sold 200,000 new unmanned aerial vehicles during the holidays. While the rapid infiltration of drones into the gaming domain clearly reflects that drones are becoming a common weapon among armed forces, their appearance in Walmart serves, in turn, to normalise their deployment in the military.

Drones, as Gregoire Chamayou argues in his new book “A Theory of the Drone”, have a uniquely seductive power; one that attracts militaries, politicians and citizens alike.

A research scholar in philosophy at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Chamayou is one of the most profound contemporary thinkers working on the deployment of violence. And while his new book offers a concise history of drones, it focuses on how drones are changing warfare and on their potential to alter the political arena of the countries that utilise them.

Humanitarian weapon

Chamayou underscores how drones are changing our conception of war in three major ways. First, the idea of a frontier or battlefield is rendered meaningless as is the idea that there are particular places – like homesteads – where the deployment of violence is considered criminal.

If once the legality of killing was dependent on where the killing was carried out, today US lawyers argue that the traditional connection between geographical spaces … and forms of violence are out of date. Accordingly, every place becomes a potential site of drone violence.

In other words, if once the legality of killing was dependent on where the killing was carried out, today US lawyers argue that the traditional connection between geographical spaces – such as the battlefield, home, or mosque – and forms of violence are out of date. Accordingly, every place becomes a potential site of drone violence.

Second, drones are considered precise weapons. Precision, though, is a slippery concept. For one, chopping off a person’s head with a machete is much more precise than any missile, but there is no political or military support for precision of this kind in the West.

Indeed, “precision” turns out to be an extremely copious category. The US, for example, counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence proving them innocent posthumously. 

The real ruse, then, has to do with the relation between precision and geography. As precise weapons, drones also render geographical contours irrelevant since the ostensible precision of these weapons justifies the killing of suspected terrorists in their homes.

A legal strike zone is then equated with anywhere the drone strikes. And when “legal killing” can occur anywhere, then one can execute suspects anywhere – even in zones traditionally conceived as off-limits.

Finally, drones change our conception of war because it becomes, in Chamayou’s words, a priori impossible to die as one kills. One air force officer formulated this basic benefit in the following manner: “The real advantage of unmanned aerial systems is that they allow you to protect power without projecting vulnerability.”

Consequently, drones are declared to be a humanitarian weapon in two senses; they are precise vis-a-vis the enemy, and ensure no human cost to the perpetrator.

From conquest to pursuit

If Guantanamo was the icon of President George W Bush’s anti-terror policy, drones have become the emblem of the Obama presidency. Indeed, Chamayou maintains that Barack Obama has adopted a totally different anti-terror doctrine from his predecessor; kill rather than capture – replace torture with targeted assassinations.

Obama’s doctrine entails a change in the paradigm of warfare. In contrast to military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz, who claimed that the fundamental structure of war is a duel of two fighters facing each other, we now have, in Chamayou’s parlance, a hunter closing in on its prey.

Chamayou, who also wrote “Manhunts: A Philosophical History”, recounts how according to English common law one could hunt badgers and foxes in another man’s land “because destroying such creatures is said to be profitable to the public”. This is precisely the kind of law that the US would like to claim for drones, he asserts.

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The strategy of militarised manhunting is essentially pre-emptive. It is not a matter of responding to actual attacks but rather preventing the possibility of emerging threats by the early elimination of potential adversaries.

According to this new logic, war is no longer based on conquest – Obama is not interested in colonising northern Pakistan – but on the right of pursuit.

The right to pursue the prey wherever it may be found, in turn, transforms the way we understand the basic principles of international relations since it undermines the notion of territorial integrity and the broadly accepted definition of sovereignty as the supreme authority over a given territory.

The transformation of Clausewitz’s warfare paradigm manifests itself in other ways as well. Drone wars are wars without losses or defeats, but they are also wars without victory. The combination of the two lays the ground for perpetual violence, the utopian fantasy of those profiting from the production of drones and similar weapons.

Politics in drone states

Moreover, drones change politics within the drone states. Because drones transform warfare into a ghostly teleguided act orchestrated from a base in Nevada or Missouri, whereby soldiers no longer risk their lives, the critical attitude of citizenry towards war is also profoundly transformed, altering, as it were, the political arena within drone states. 

Drones, Chamayou says, are a technological solution for the inability of politicians to mobilise support for war. In the future, politicians might not need to rally citizens because once armies begin deploying only drones and robots there will be no need for the public to even know that a war is being waged. So while, on the one hand, drones help produce the social legitimacy towards warfare through the reduction of risk, on the other hand, they render social legitimacy irrelevant to the political decision-making process relating to war.

This drastically reduces the threshold for resorting to violence, so much so that violence appears increasingly as a default option for foreign policy. Indeed, the transformation of wars into a risk free enterprise will render them even more ubiquitous than they are today.

This too will be one of Obama’s legacies.  

Neve Gordon is the author of ‘Israel’s Occupation’ as well as ‘The Human Right to Dominate’ (co-authored with Nicola Perugini, forthcoming June 2015).