Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

W. J. T. Mitchell reviews A Theory of the Drone

Grégoire Chamayou. A Theory of the Drone. Trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: The New Press, 2014. 304 pp.

Review by W. J. T. Mitchell

This is the most philosophically sophisticated treatment of the new drone technology that I have encountered. Deeply versed in the history of war and in theories of “just war,” Grégoire Chamayou also has a good command of the internal discourse of drone operators, right alongside their tactical and strategic symbolism. The argument of the book is bold: attack drones have transformed the very nature of warfare in out time, while bringing back to the surface the most abiding long-range questions about war itself. It is not just the qualitative novelty of drones (actually, unmanned aerial vehicles have been around for about two hundred years) but also their quantitative presence in everyday life as well as their centrality to global military strategy for the Western powers. While Amazon.com explores the use of drones as delivery vehicles for commodities, the frontier of Israeli and American military research is focused on the delivery of death to suspected terrorists, insurgents, and other appropriately designated “bad guys.” Although it has always been a goal of war to inflict damage on the enemy at a distance (how else could Paris have justified using the cowardly weapon of a bow and arrow to bring down the mighty Ulysses?), it is now possible to do so from a distance of thousands of miles. The whole logic of the invulnerable killer immune to counterattack has been realized. For Chamayou, it transforms the very idea of war into hunting. There is no encounter of combatants face-to-face or even on the same continent. There is no "combat" that deserves the name, only targeted assassination, along with bureaucratic euphemisms about regrettable “collateral damage.”

Chamayou’s book is a passionate indictment of drone warfare. He sees it at the strategic level as inevitably recapitulating the asymmetrical scenarios of colonial wars, which used technological superiority to massacre thousands of “natives” in the name of civilization. The cold reduction of human beings to “bugsplats” on a video screen produces a new relation of war and media. Very few of “our boys” come home in flag-draped caskets; we withdraw our “boots on the ground” from actual theaters of war. The war on terror is rendered invisible, except for the periodic attacks on soft targets in Western countries. And we turn to the drone as a substitute, where it has become “one of the emblems of Barack Obama’s presidency, the instrument of his official antiterrorist doctrine, ‘kill rather than capture’” (p. 14).

The transformation of contemporary war talk from the Powell doctrine of “overwhelming forces” of “boots on the ground” has been transformed into a war without risk to us, a complete fetishization of “force protection.” The strategy of regime change and military occupations aimed at “winning hearts and minds” has been replaced by withdrawal of forces and the targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists. It is not clear to me which of these alternatives is worse; Chamayou seems to think that the turn to drone warfare is morally worse because it means that the counter-insurgent force has no “skin in the game” and is fundamentally a symptom of cowardice. At times he can seem nostalgic for classic notions of the just conduct of war, noting the way jet pilots, who regard themselves as the “knights of the air,” look down on drone operators as perversions of the old chivalric code of high risk and dazzling skill. My own inclination is to recall a line from Slavoj Žižek and declare that both alternatives are worse. Or rather, they are simply two sides of the same coin, a coinage that descends from George W. Bush’s declaration of a global war on terror. If there is a moral to Chamayou’s book, it might be that the hearts and minds that need changing are those that (like Bush’s or Obama’s) have bought into the whole notion of a global counterinsurgency conducted by either technical superiority or military occupation.

Chamayou has many smart things to say about concepts such as “precision” (it is a comforting illusion, reminiscent of the “smart bomb” and “surgical strike”); about “humanitarian violence” (which spares our lives, but not theirs); about PTSD and the psychological stress attributed to drone operators, guilty about their nasty work (this is revealed to be a kind of urban legend); about “subjective agency” and a sense of responsibility (deeply compromised by the autonomous behavior of advanced weapon systems); and about the long philosophical tradition of just war theory from Plato to Carl von Clausewitz, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Walter Benjamin (which in our time seems to increasingly detached from any real possibility of justice). If there is a problem with this book, it is Chamayou’s tendency to iconize the drone in a way that positions it as both a final and formal cause of the massive historical tragedy of the War on Terror. It would perhaps be more accurate to see the drone as an efficient and material cause, a tactical weapon that has become the fetish object of a self-destructive illusion. What the book does not put into question is its own historical contingency. The technical superiority of US drone warfare may be a transitory phenomenon. Already the Dutch are exploring ways of training eagles to bring down drones,[1] and it is only a matter of time before terrorists develop the use of weaponized drones. What happens when the playing field is leveled once again? Will this restore a sense of honor to the drone operators and make them worthy of the medals that the US Defense Department would like to award them?


[1] Stephen Castle, “Dutch Firm Trains Eagles to Take Down High-Tech Prey: Drone,” New York Times, 28 May 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/world/europe/drones-eagles.html?_r=0 ;