Drones are everywhere; everywhere, however, drones are poorly understood. One reason is the confusion of drones with targeted killings in the war on terror. Much of the commentary about drones concerns the legitimacy of extrajudicial killing as well as the civilian casualties that accompany such attacks. Such killings are hardly new, as warring states and clandestine operations have been eliminating high-value targets by sniper fire, mail bombs, IEDs, and other means for centuries. UAVs are powerful weapons, but they are just that, a new tools improving upon a long-standing practice. To the extent discussions about drones get lost in questions of the morality or legality of targeted killing, we are not actually talking about drones.
Debates about targeted killing are important, but as drones are popping up everywhere around us, we need also to ask: What is the drone? And how does the omnipresence of drones impact the world in which we live? I’ve written a fair bit about this question here and here, and I’ll have more to say soon in a longer essay. But for now, it is quite helpful to take a look at Nasser Hussain’s recent essay in The Boston Review: The Sound of Terror: Phenomenology of a Drone Strike.
It is not irrelevant to note that the editors of the Boston Review chose to focus the headline “The Sound of Terror” on the experience of drones from the perspective of the victims. Hussain’s describes how drones dominate life in areas where they are in use, creating a low pitched humming sound that reminds inhabitants that at any moment a missile might pierce their daily routines.
To read Hussain’s essay, however, is to see that the vast majority of his analysis concerns how drones are changing the way those who operate see and experience war and also the way drones impact the culture of those nations or groups that employ and deploy drones in their name. That the editors focus on the short section on the experience of victims is telling of the way that the debate about drones continues to be driven by a concern for human rights of the victims rather than a worry about what drones and the use of drones are doing to the people and societies that employ them.
The victims’ perspective on drone strikes is important; but Hussain’s essay is noteworthy because of the way it explores the impact of drones on the very society that is increasingly dependent upon drones. The first change Hussain notes is that drones are part of the reason “we have become too accustomed to seeing from the air, which violates all the familiar geometry and perspective of our mundane, grounded vision.” Of course planes and satellites have given us aerial views for nearly a century. But whether or not the omnipresence of drone imagery and its increased utility in maps, videos, and on the web is truly revolutionary, it has an impact.
Aerial vision at once expands the range of view and hones in on a perceived target. But this focus inwards, this claim of precise aim, is not just one among other ways of looking. Rather, the accuracy of the drone’s eye structures more than vision; it shapes the way we think about, talk about, and evaluate a bombing. We focus in on the target, the moment of impact. We dispute how contained or collateral the damage was, how many civilians died alongside the chosen target. These questions begin to eclipse all other questions about the global military apparatus that makes the strike possible or about civilian injury that goes beyond body counts.
I take seriously the claim that looking through the lens of a drone camera produces a partial visual construction. At the same time, I wonder whether it is true that we focus on the target and impact and thus forget the civilians who die. Indeed, the choice of headline and the way that questions about civilian casualties dominate the debate about drones suggest the opposite.
A second insight Hussain offers argues that the rise of drones turns war from a battle amongst antagonistic forces into a practice of policing. Building upon an analysis of air power by Carl Schmitt in The Nomos of the Earth (1950), Hussain writes,
the technological imbalance inherent in the use of air power transforms conflicts by adding an element of policing. The introduction of air power combined specific spatial transformations within a global nomos with changes in the technology of weaponry. Schmitt saw with prescient clarity that air war would not only create an “intensification of the technical means of destruction” and the “disorientation of space,” but also intensify the problem of unequal sides, and allow the dominant side to re-label enemies as criminals. Schmitt understood that air power would create a world in which those who command the sky could police and punish those who do not. For Schmitt, this widening gap is both the cause and result of a juridification of war, a shift towards conceptualizing war as a policing activity of criminals:
Air power allows for unimpeded surveillance, giving the drone operator the ability to both watch and punish. What is more, the airborne perspective intensifies the feeling of power, as one literally looks down on others, intrudes into their daily lives, and holds the power of both arrest and execution. Such a viewpoint of power cannot but change the way those who see the world through drone lenses or surveillance cameras. As more Americans are employed in positions that view others secretly over video, it is likely that the policing perspective on the world becomes ever more vivid and present.
A final way that Hussain sees drones to be changing the way we see and experience the world is through the popularity of videos of drone strikes that are proliferating on YouTube and other video sharing sites.
For Hussain, these videos are akin to “drone porn.” And similar to the real thing, this technological porn satisfies deep desires in those who watch it.
With over ten million hits online, the clips are consumed voraciously, and attract a community of viewers (judging from the comment profiles, mostly men) who comment on what they portray and inform each other of new postings. Given the distinct action in these clips and the obsessive interest in them, some commentators have called the phenomenon “drone porn.” This offensive moniker does not so much equate the subject matter with that of a snuff film as offer a clue to the structure of the videos. Just as pornography caters to masculine desire, and the so-called money shot or male orgasm structures the film and retrospectively casts the action leading up to it as anticipation, so the experience of watching the drone strike footage is characterized by anticipation of the coming explosion, the moment of the strike.
That drone strikes play to fantasies of power, domination, and mastery is not unimportant. The cultural fascination with drones at this moment is intense. Even when drones are outfitted with cameras rather than explosives, drones carry with them the promise of power. With drones, we can fly. We can spy on others. And we can in some way feel ourselves empowered in a world of near constant surveillance.
The impact of drones on those who use them pales, of course, when set against their impact on victims. As Hussain writes, “While drone strike footage has entered our culture as fantasy, drones have entered these regions as psychological trauma.” The trauma of populations under surveillance by drones and even more of those at risk of drone strikes is real, and Hussain does a good job exploring it. You can read more about it here. The Sound of Terror: Phenomenology of a Drone Strike is your weekend read.