Book Review from the April 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Grégoire Chamayou: ‘Drone Theory‘. Penguin £6.99
A drone is an unmanned aerial combat vehicle or, in an alternative formulation, a flying video camera armed with missiles. They have been used in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, among other places, and in the five years to January 2014 US drones alone are estimated to have killed at least 2,400 people. In this book (translated from French by Janet Lloyd) Grégoire Chamayou looks at various issues related to the use of drones, from military to more philosophical questions.
Drones were originally deployed just as cameras, and the US military made use of software developed for sports broadcasting to track individuals. The result can be a kind of persistent surveillance, with eyes in the sky always watching people, so there is no escape for either combatants or civilians on the ground. And this is not just in war zones as the concept of a ‘zone of armed conflict’ is no longer purely geographic.
But with missiles added to them drones allow the remote-controlled hunting down of humans. The operator may sit in comfort in an air force base in Nevada, attempting to identify acceptable targets several thousand miles away and then releasing missiles at them. Air force pilots regard killing by means of drones as cowardice, as the operators are in no danger themselves. There have been claims that drone operators suffer from trauma as a result of their work, as it involves the invulnerable killing the defenceless, but Chamayou argues that there is no actual evidence for this.
Drones effectively abolish combat, as there is no way to fight against them. This creates a problem for those who see killing in war as justified on the basis that it is a matter of self-defence, with both sides at risk and liable to be killed. But if one side is more or less defenceless and the other side’s soldiers are thousands of miles away from the death zone, where is the justification for the killing? Apologists for US power have come to the rescue here, arguing that the drone is a humanitarian means of killing (for an example, see here). This is because the use of drones conforms to the principle of avoiding unnecessary risk, removing any chance of the operator being killed or injured. Never mind that it often leads to the deaths of non-combatants and, as noted above, can result in people being permanently observed and harassed and so living in a kind of psychological prison. As Chamayou says, drones ‘constitute the weapons of state terrorism’.
This book provides an instructive picture of the use of drones and how this barbaric weapon is transforming warfare in both theory and practice.