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Drones and the New Ethics of War

By       Message Neve Gordon       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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This Christmas small drones were among the most popular gift under the tree in the U.S. with manufacturers stating that they sold 200,000 new unmanned aerial vehicles during the holiday season. 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, Toys "R" Us and Amazon serves, in turn, to normalize their deployment in the military.

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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 its ethical ramifications. And while his new book offers a concise history of drones, it focuses on how drones are changing warfare and their potential to alter the political arena of the countries that utilize them.

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Chamayou traces one of the central ideas informing the production and deployment of drones back to John W. Clark, an American engineer who carried out a study on "remote control in hostile environments" in 1964. In Clark's study, space is divided into two kinds of zones--hostile and safe--while robots operated by remote control are able to relieve human beings of all perilous occupations within hostile zones. The sacrifice of miners, firefighters, or those working on skyscrapers will no longer be necessary, since the collapse of a tunnel in the mines, for example, would merely lead to the loss of several robots operated by remote control.

The same logic informed the creation of drones. They were initially utilized as part of the military's defense system in hostile territories. After the Egyptian military shot down about 30 Israel fighter jets in the first hours of the 1973 war, Israeli air-force commanders decided to change their tactics and send a wave of drones. As soon as the Egyptians fired their initial salvo of anti-aircraft missiles at the drones, the Israeli airplanes were able to attack as the Egyptians were reloading.

Over the years, drones have also become an important component of the intelligence revolution. Instead of sending spies or reconnaissance airplanes across enemy lines, drones can continuously fly above hostile terrain gathering information. As Chamayou explains, drones do not merely provide a constant image of the enemy, but manage to fuse together different forms of data. They carry technology that can interpret electronic communications from radios, cell phones and other devices and can link a telephone call with a particular video or provide the GPS coordinates of the person using the phone. Their target is, in other words, constantly visible.

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Using drones to avert missiles or for reconnaissance was, of course, considered extremely important, yet military officials aspired to transform drones into lethal weapons as well. On February 16, 2001, after many years of U.S. investment in R&D, a Predator drone first successfully fired a missile and hit its target. As Chamayou puts it, the notion of turning the Predator into a predator had finally been realized. Within a year, the Predator was preying on live targets in Afghanistan.

A Humanitarian Weapon

Over the past decade, the United States has manufactured more than 6000 drones of various kinds. 160 of these are Predators, which are used not only in Afghanistan but also in countries officially at peace with the US, such as Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. In Pakistan, CIA drones carry out on average of one strike every four days. Although exact figures of fatalities are difficult to establish, the estimated number of deaths between 2004 and 2012 vary from 2562 to 3325.

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Neve Gordon is an Israeli academic. He has been a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the Watson Institute at Brown University. During the first intifada, he was the director of (more...)
 

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