Drones seemed to come out of nowhere, sexy as the latest iPhones and armed to kill. They were all-seeing eyes in the sky ("a constant stare," as drone promoters liked to say) and surgically precise in their ability to deliver death to evildoers. Above all, without pilots in their cockpits, they were, in terms of the human price of war (at least when it came to the lives that mattered to us), cost free. They transformed battle into a video-game experience, leaving the "warriors" -- from pilots to generals -- staring at screens. What could possibly go wrong?
As it happened, so much went wrong. It often proved hard for the drone operators to tell what exactly they were seeing on those video feeds of theirs and mistakes were regularly made. In addition, drones turned out to kill with a remarkable lack of discrimination, while putting whole rural populations that fell under Washington's robotic gaze into a state of what, if they had been American soldiers, we would have called PTSD. Worse yet, as recent events in Yemen indicate, drones proved remarkably effective weapons not in staunching terror outfits but in spreading terror, and so became powerful recruitment tools for extremist groups. In rural societies repeatedly attacked by the grimly named Predators and Reapers, the urge for revenge was apparent.
Drones were, that is, terror instigators. Everywhere they were sent by the last two administrations to pursue campaigns of "targeted killing" (i.e. assassination) and "signature strikes" (on suspicious patterns of "behavior" on the ground below, as judged by video from thousands of miles away), extremist groups have grown, societies have fragmented, and things have, from Washington's point of view, gotten worse. In the process, they turned the White House with its secret "kill list" and its "terror Tuesday" meetings into a den of assassins, the CIA into assassination central, and the president into an assassin-in-chief. The drones even took an unexpected toll on their pilots waging a theoretically cost-free war.
From the point of view of drone proponents, one curious thing did go right, however -- not in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Iraq or Yemen or Somalia, but here at home. Even though Americans in multiplexes had for years sided with human rebels against the inhuman gaze of robots on the prowl, they now backed the robots, as opinion polls showed, in part because their reputation here remained remarkably untarnished by their dismal and destructive track record in the distant backlands of the planet.
Now, another kind of "gaze," another form of "constant stare," has fallen on the drone and it comes from the least robotic of places. In his new book, A Theory of the Drone, French philosopher Gregoire Chamayou has taken a fresh look at the radically new form of warfare wreaking havoc on fundamental human categories, whether of war, legality, or sovereignty. It's a fascinating effort to deal with a weapons and surveillance system that turns out not to have arrived out of the blue at all. Today, TomDispatch offers a taste of Chamayou's original approach, presenting two early chapters from his book on how the drone entered our world and transformed the classic "duel" between warriors into a "hunt" in which an all-seeing, lidless eye-in-the-sky searches out distant humans below as its "prey." In the meantime, the warriors of the past are, as Chamayou writes, morphing into the executioners of the twenty-first century. It couldn't be a grimmer tale of post-modernity. Tom
How the Predator and Extra-Judicial Execution Became Washington's Calling Cards
By Gregoire Chamayou
[The following is slightly adapted from chapters two and three of Gregoire Chamayou's new book, A Theory of the Drone, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press.]
Initially, the English word "drone" meant both an insect and a sound. It was not until the outbreak of World War II that it began to take on another meaning. At that time, American artillery apprentices used the expression "target drones" to designate the small remotely controlled planes at which they aimed in training. The metaphor did not refer solely to the size of those machines or the brm-brm of their motors. Drones are male bees, without stingers, and eventually the other bees kill them. Classical tradition regarded them as emblems of all that is nongenuine and dispensable. That was precisely what a target drone was: just a dummy, made to be shot down.
However, it was a long time before drones were to be seen cruising above battlefields. To be sure, the idea dates back quite a while: there were the Curtiss-Sperry aerial torpedo and the Kettering Bug at the end of World War I, and then the Nazi V-1s and V-2s unleashed on London in 1944. But those old flying torpedoes may be considered more as the ancestors of cruise missiles than as those of present-day drones. The essential difference lies in the fact that while the former can be used only once, the latter are reusable. The drone is not a projectile, but a projectile-carrying machine.
It was during the Vietnam War that the U.S. Air Force, to counteract the Soviet surface-to-air missiles that had inflicted heavy casualties on it, invested in reconnaissance drones nicknamed "Lightning Bugs," produced by Ryan Aeronautical. An American official explained that "these RPVs [remotely piloted vehicles] could help prevent aircrews from becoming casualties or prisoners" With RPVs, survival is not the driving factor."
Once the war was over, those machines were scrapped. By the late 1970s, the development of military drones had been practically abandoned in the United States. However, it continued elsewhere. Israel, which had inherited a few of these machines, recognized their potential tactical advantages.
In 1973, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), facing off against Egypt, ran up against the tactical problem of surface-to-air missiles. After losing around 30 planes in the first hours of the Yom Kippur War, Israeli aviation changed its tactics. They decided to send out a wave of drones in order to mislead enemy defenses: "After the Egyptians fired their initial salvo at the drones, the manned strikes were able to attack while the Egyptians were reloading." This ruse enabled Israel to assume mastery of the skies. In 1982, similar tactics were employed against the Syrians in the Bekaa Valley. Having first deployed their fleet of Mastiff and Scout drones, the Israelis then sent out decoy planes that were picked up by enemy radar. The Syrians activated their surface-to-air missiles, to no effect whatsoever. The drones, which had been observing the scene from the sky, easily detected the positions of the antiaircraft batteries and relayed them to the Israeli fighter planes, which then proceeded to annihilate them.
The drones were used for other purposes as well:
"Two days after a terrorist bomb destroyed the [U.S.] Marine Barracks in Beirut in October 1983, Marine Commandant Gen. P.X. Kelley secretly flew to the scene. No word of his arrival was leaked. Yet, across the border, Israeli intelligence officers watched live television images of Kelley arriving and inspecting the barracks. They even zoomed the picture in tight, placing cross hairs directly on his head. Hours later, in Tel Aviv, the Israelis played back the tape for the shocked Marine general. The scene, they explained, was transmitted by a Mastiff RPV circling out of sight above the barracks."
This was just one of a series of minor events that combined to encourage the relaunch of American drone production in the 1980s. "All I did," confessed Al Ellis, the father of the Israeli drones, "was take a model airplane, put a camera in it, and take the pictures" But that started an industry."