The word designating military drones comes from the word for bee. This is true all over the world, in countless languages. Partly because of this linguistic consistency, it is a common misperception that drones take their name from the buzzing sound when unmanned aircraft fill the air. More accurately, however, drones trace their etymological lineage to the male honey-bee that is called a drone. The male drone-bee is distinguished from the female worker-bees. It does no useful work and has one single function: to impregnate the queen-bee. What unites military drones with their apiary namesakes is not sound, but thoughtless purposefulness.
The beauty of the drone-bee—like the dark beauty of the military drone—is its single-minded purpose. It is a miracle of efficiency, designed to do one thing. The drone-bee is not distracted by the perfume of flowers or the contentment of labor. It is born, lives, and dies with only one task in mind. Similarly, the military drone suffers neither from hunger nor from distraction. It does what it is told. If necessary, it will sacrifice itself for its mission. It is a model of thoughtless efficiency.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Ernst Jünger’s novel The Glass Bees, in which a brilliant inventor produces tiny flying glass bees that offer limitless potential for surveillance and war. Today I turn to Jake Kosek’s recent paper “Ecologies of Empire: On The New Uses of the Honeybee.” Kosek does not cite Jünger’s novel, and yet his article is in many ways its non-fiction sequel. What Kosek sees is that the rise of drones in military strategy is tied deeply to their ability to mimic the activity and demeanor of male honey-bees. It is because bees can fly, swarm, change direction, alter their course, and yet achieve their single purpose absent any intentionality or thinking that bees are so useful in modern warfare.
Bees have long been associated with military endeavors, both metaphorically and literally. Kosek tells that our word bomb comes from the Greek bombos, which means bee. The first bombs were, it seems, beehives dropped or catapulted into the heart of the enemy camp. Bees are today trained to sniff out toxic chemicals; and beeswax was for generations an essential ingredient in munitions.
In the war on terror, bees have taken on a special significance. The “enemy’s lack of coherence—institutionally, ideologically, and territorially— makes the search for the enemy central to the politics of the war on terror.” War in the war on terror is ever less a contest of armies on the battlefield and is increasingly a war of knowledge. This means that surveillance—for centuries an important complement to battlefield tactics—comes to occupy the core of the modern war on terror. In this regard, drones are essential, as drones can hover in the air unseen for days, gathering essential intelligence on persons, groups, or even whole cities. All the more powerful would be miniature drones that fly through the air unseen and at ground level. That is why Kosek writes that “Intelligence gathering [is] not just limited to psychologists, sociologists, lawyers, and military planners, but [has come] to include biologists, anthropologists, epidemiologists, and even entomologists.” What the military use of bees promises is access to information and worlds not previously open to human knowledge. Bees, Kosek writes, are increasingly the model for the modern military.
The advantage of bees is not simply their thoughtlessness, but is found also in their ability to operate as part of a swarm. Current drone technology requires that each drone be controlled by a single pilot. What happens when hundreds of drones must share the airspace around a target? How can drones coordinate their activity? Kosek quotes a private contractor, John Sauter, who says:
“A central aspect of the future of warfare technology is to get networks of machines to operate as self-synchronized war fighting units that can act as complex adaptive systems. . . We want these machines to be fighting units that can operate as reconfigurable swarms that are less mechanical and more organic, less engineered and more grown.”
The point is that drones, be they large or small, must increasingly work in conjunction with each other at a speed and level of nuance that is impossible for human controllers to manage. The result is that we must model the drones of the future on bees.
The scientists working with the Pentagon to create drones that can fly and function like bees are not entomologists, but mathematicians. The DNA of the glass or silicone bees of the future will be complex algorithms inspired by but actually surpassing the ability of swarms “to coordinate and collect small bits of information that can be synchronized to make collective action by drones possible.” Once this is possible, one controller will be able to manage a single drone “and the others adapt, react, and coordinate with that drone.”
Kosek’s article is provocative and fascinating. His ruminations on empire strike me as overdone; his insights about the way our training and use of bees has transformed the bee and the ways that bees are serving as models and inspiration for our own development of new ways to fight wars and solve problems are important. So too is his imagination of the bee as the six-legged soldier of the future. Whether the drones of the future are cyborg bees (as some in Kosek’s article suggest) or mechanical bees as Jünger imagined half a century ago, it is nevertheless the case that thinking about the impact of drones on warfare and human life is enriched by the meditation on the male honeybee. For your weekend read , I offer you Jake Kosek’s “Ecologies of Empire: On The New Uses of the Honeybee.”
No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which, as previously mentioned, would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a push button to destroy whomever he pleased, could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence.
—Hannah Arendt, “On Violence.”
Hannah Arendt wrote these lines in the midst of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam. Her argument was that as long as robot soldiers were a thing of the future, brute violence and force like that unleashed by the United States would always succumb to collective power, of the kind exhibited by the Vietcong. Hers was, at least in part, a hopeful voice, praising the impotence of violence in the face of power.
To read Arendt’s lines today, amidst the rise of drone warfare, alters the valence of her remarks. Drones are increasingly prototypes and even embodiments of the “robot soldiers” that Arendt worried would dehumanize war and elevate violence over power. If we draw out the consequences from Arendt’s logic, then drone soldiers might displace the traditional limits that politics places on violence; drones, in other words, make possible unprecedented levels of unlimited violence.
The rise of drones matters, Arendt suggests, in ways that are not currently being seen. Her worry has little to do with assassination, the concern of most opponents of drones today. Nor is she specifically concerned with surveillance. Instead, against those, like General Stanley McChrystal, who argue that drones are simply new tools in an old activity of war, Arendt’s warning is that drones and robot soldiers may change the very dynamic of war and politics.
To see how drones change the calculus of violence in politics, we need to understand Arendt’s thesis about the traditional political superiority of power over violence. The priority of power over violence is based on the idea that power is “inherent in the very existence of political communities.” Power, Arendt writes, “corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert.” It “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.” All government, and this is central to Arendt’s thesis, needs power in order to act.
This need for popular support is true even for totalitarian governments, which also depend on the power of people—at least a select group of them like the secret police and their informers—continuing to act together. It is thus a myth that totalitarian rule can exist without the support of the people. Whether in Nazi Germany or contemporary Syria, totalitarian or tyrannical governments still are predicated on power that comes from support of key segments of the population.
Even if all government is predicated on some power, governments also employ violence—but that violence is held in check by political limits. As a government loses its popular support, it finds itself tempted to “substitute violence for power.” The problem is that when governments give in to the temptation to use violence to shore up slackening of popular power, their use of violence diminishes further their power and results in impotence. The more violence a government needs to rely upon, the less power it has at its disposal. There is thus a political limit on how much violence any government can employ before it brings about the loss of its own power.
As much as she respects the claims for power over violence, Arendt is clear-eyed about the damage violence can wield. In a direct confrontation between power and violence, violence will win—at least in the short term. Arendt writes that if Gandhi’s “enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance” had met a different enemy—a Stalin or Bashar al-Assad instead of a Churchill or Mubarek—“the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” Sheer violence can bring victory. But the price for such a triumph is high, not only for the losers, but also for the victors.
We see this exemplified in Middle East over the last few years. In those countries like Bahrain and Syria where governments did not shy from unlimited violence to repress popular revolts, the governments have maintained themselves and the Arab Spring has turned into a long and frigid winter. Assad has been able to maintain power; but his power is irreparably diminished. In the end, there is a limit to the viability and effectiveness of relying on mere violence at the expense of power. This is even more true in a constitutional democracy, where support of the people is a political necessity.
As confident as Arendt is that violence is limited in politics by the need for power, she worries that the coming age of “robot soldiers” might bring about the end of the political advantage power has over violence. Robot soldiers can be controlled absent of consent or political support. With the push of a button or a simple command, a tyrant or totalitarian ruler can exert nearly unlimited violence and destruction, even without the support a massive secret police or a network of informers. Drones threaten the time-immemorial dependence of even the most lonely tyrant on others who will support him and do his bidding.
Of course drones must be built, programmed, and maintained. No tyrant is fully autonomous. Yet building, programming, and maintaining machinery are fundamentally different jobs than arresting and killing dissenters. It is far easier for programmers and electricians to justify doing their jobs in a powerless yet violent state than for soldiers and secret agents to justify theirs.
In a drone-led war, men will rarely need to go into action as soldiers. That is of course one reputed advantage of drones, that they make war less dangerous and more technically predictable. But it also means that as modern warfare becomes safer and more humane, it also excludes without human soldiers and risks stripping war of its human and active character. This helps to explain an enigmatic passage of Arendt’s in The Human Condition, where she offers modern war as an example of when action “loses its specific character” as human action and “becomes one form of achievement among others.” The degradation of human action in modern war, she writes,
happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed ‘mere talk,’ simply one more means toward the end….
Arendt is here thinking of the anonymity of the modern soldier epitomized by the monuments to the unknown soldiers—the mute mass of humanity who fight and die without the “still existing need for glorification” that makes war a human instead of a merely mechanical activity.
Her modern warfare in its inhumanity and technological capacity abandons the togetherness that has traditionally made war a prime example of human political togetherness.
In the technological advances of modern warfare that made war so awful and so mechanical, Arendt actually found a glimmer of hope: that war’s rabid violence was compensated by neither political advantage nor personal glory. In On Revolution, she dared hope that the fact that technology had reached the stage “where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use” might lead to a “disappearance of war from the scene of politics….” It was possible, she thought, that the threat of total war and total destruction that accompanies war in the modern era might actually lead to the disappearance of war.
Clearly such a hope has not come to pass. One reason for the continuation of war, however, is that the horrors of war are made ever more palatable and silent—at least to the victors—by the use of technology that exerts violence without the need for political power and participation. The drone wars of the early 21st century are in this respect notable for the unprecedented silence that accompanies violence. Since U.S. soldiers are rarely injured or killed and since the strikes are classified and the damage remote, we have indeed entered an era where we can fight wars absent the speech, glory, and “human togetherness” that has traditionally marked both the comradeship of soldiers and the patriotic sacrifice of a nation at war. It is in this extraordinary capacity of mute violence to substitute for power in which we can glimpse both the promise and the peril of drones.