In ancient times, warriors fought within meters of their opposition, feeling the sweat and blood of their human enemies. Now, rifles, bombs and artillery increasingly distance the soldier from the gaze of the dead. Today, hundreds can be killed with the push of a button and the deployment of an unmanned orbital missile.
The ever-growing distance between the killer and the killed is not exclusively physical. It is a dissociation of the human on the other side to his humanity, which, some warn, will engender in drone controllers a Playstation mentality. But the inhumanity of drone killings goes beyond empathic distance as well. Where did drones come from?
They are a response to the economic concerns of waging modern warfare; drones are to expensive air force pilots what the assembly line was to cottage industries: mass-produced death. What are the consequences of drone strikes?
“Collateral damage,” as human lives are now being called. War is no longer about man and his target, the object of his murderous intent. In this day and age, other humans who happen to be near the target are rendered insignificant, regardless of their (non)combatant status. At every level, drones are emblematic of the subjugation of the human to economic and political demands. Crucially, human deaths are not the telos of these new technologies; they are mere logistical side constraints.
We cannot help understanding drone killings as one tactic deployed in the strategic oppression of the global South. The relationship of what the West dubs modernity to the ethnic Other has always been one of violence. Superior mechanization characterizes the American relation to Others. New technologies realize new methods of establishing U.S. global hegemony, figured in the post-colonial context not as intrusive terretorialization but as defensive deterrence. They calmly assert: don’t mess with America, or accept the gruesome consequences. What, as Mark asks, is the effect of such characteristic high-handedness on our reputation abroad? How can other nations not see us as the bully in the sandbox when we look at the lives of non-citizens and even some U.S. native as collateral?
Significantly, the deployment of drone strikes undermines our own political foundation. One guilty target is killed at the expense of the civilians nearby with no respect for that man’s rights or innocence. Doesn’t that fundamentally the sacrifice of the one for the many, the preeminence of the group over the individual? Doesn’t the voluntary use of drone weaponry contradict the liberal rhetoric of individual rights and “innocent until proven guilty”? When we assign accountability for wartime murder via unmanned craft, don’t we reify the collectivist ideology we seek to oppose? Doesn’t killing Pakistanis through a computer screen in Nevada impart a certain expendability to human life in the same way that crashing a plane into a building does?
This is not to disregard the specific political and social context in which drone warfare has emerged. Mark reminds us that the battle against terrorism is a kind of arms race in which the side that outguns the other will win. The legality asserted by Urja is questionable to me, since assassination is illegal under U.S. law. Even if we have located a legal loophole by which to justify drone strikes, I am dubious that it is in the interest of due process for this power to reside not only with the armed forces but also with the CIA. One can justifiably fear a future in which unaccountable government bureaucracies launch surgical strikes when there is insufficient evidence to take formal military action. Regrettably, that future is now.
Thus, the object of my post is not to downplay the practical concerns (like those raised by Urja) facing the U.S. military today. Rather, I want to question, as Mark does, “the attitude we have in our discourse and our military operations towards drones and the deaths they cause, the way we count them.” I do not, however, see these attitudes as concerns limited to the use of drone weaponry.
I think drone weaponry has serious implications for the way we imagine ourselves as political subjects, the value we assign to human life, and our understanding of the U.S.’s relationship to the international community. As things now stand, drones represent the unprecedented mechanization of the human (as controller, as incidental victim, as the object of military force) and thus the unprecedented dehumanization of the U.S. citizen and the ethnic Other alike. We should be skeptical of the sacrificial rhetoric of drone advocates in the government. It is not a matter of logistics: We can and will refine drone weaponry to an exquisite science. That doesn’t change the fact that drones represent humans’ use of robots to kill other humans, often indiscriminately.
Military drones are undoubtedly here to stay, regardless of whether they can be redeemed as a method of relationality between the U.S. and the global South. Reconciling drone weaponry with the demands of liberalism and due process, as daunting a task as it is, is only half the battle. The issue is not to imagine a way to exterminate people in a more sanitary, efficient way. We need to rethink our military objectives, their cost, and what importance human life is going to have as we become increasingly decentered from the technological world. Only with concurrent ideological upheaval will drones ever be an acceptable way for one human to impose his will on another.