Reach out and touch someone: a point about drone warfare

Spear Thrower, a 1921 sculpture in bronze by Paul Manship. Image © 2013 - 2015 Akron Art Museum.

Spear Thrower, a 1921 sculpture in bronze by Paul Manship. Image © 2013 – 2015 Akron Art Museum.

The common perception of armed drones is that they’ve introduced something new to the realm of conflict by separating the drone operator from the human targets of his or her work—separating the killer from the killed. George Packer, in a July 20 New Yorker article discussing a recent book called Violence All Around, by John Sifton, provides a good illustration of this view:

One striking feature of violence in the age of terror is its anonymity. The hijackers couldn’t see the faces of the workers in the Twin Towers. American pilots over Kandahar didn’t know whether children were present in the compound they were about to destroy. The goal of the suicide bomber in the Baghdad market was to kill as many people as possible. The drone operator in Nevada pushed the button based on a video feed of supposedly suspicious activity by passengers in a vehicle. Advances in weapons technology make violence easier by obviating the natural aversion to face-to-face killing, turning war into an automated activity and eliminating the mitigation that comes with our tendency toward submission and retreat. “On the one hand, we have the most intimate form of violence,” Sifton says of drone strikes, “while on the other hand, the least intimate of weapons.” But, judging by the number of drone operators who have been treated for alcoholism, depression, and other outcomes of post-traumatic stress, even this degree of remoteness can’t insulate the perpetrator from the effects of killing. “Modern killers and torturers suffer more than those of the past,” Sifton writes, “because of the larger discordance between our ordinary social lives and our violent activities.”

This view is incomplete. In considering any given thing, we can look at how it differs from others but also at how it’s similar, and it seems to me that we’re missing an important similarity here. The development of armed conflict—anything beyond the use of fisticuffs—can be seen in part as one extended effort to separate oneself from one’s foes: the history of weaponry is to a great extent the history of standoff weapons. David in the Old Testament story could see very well whom he was facing, but he was able to bring down Goliath without touching him, by means of a rock and a sling. An ancient warrior hurling a spear might strike an opponent a few dozen yards away. The arrow of a medieval archer could travel many times farther. The gun crews of the cannon on an early 18th-century sailing ship probably couldn’t discern clearly the sailors on the enemy’s ship, but they had to see the ship itself in order to aim at it. Not so the gunners on a World War II–era battleship, whose largest weapons could send over the horizon a projectile weighing more than some cars. Admittedly, the horizon isn’t very far away, only about three miles to an observer at sea level, but the point is that a naval gun, like the largest ground-based artillery, could attack something no one present could see, as much as two dozen miles away. Likewise, bombers of that period could let fall their weapons from an altitude far above that at which people on the ground could be made out. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, as their very name suggests, can travel a good way around the planet.

Drones, then, can easily be seen as another chapter in a long story, and I’m surprised that this hasn’t been more widely recognized. Nonetheless, there’s at least one important difference between drone warfare and many, perhaps most, other forms of armed conflict. Across a vast swath of history, combatants have been separated from their home grounds. Ulysses traveled far to besiege Troy, and the ardors of his return gave us a founding document of Western literature. (I recognize that wars of conquest, including that for Troy, have taken place on somebody’s home ground but must leave that aside.) By contrast, a drone operator, as at least one play and one film have taken pains to point out, can do his work, or hers, in a van or an office-like setting mere miles from where he lives and get back to Penelope the same day. He hardly seems like a warrior in the traditional sense of the word. It’s eerie to think that the closest comparison may be an insurgent in a contested zone who leaves home one morning to trigger a roadside detonation or blow himself up in a crowd.


4 thoughts on “Reach out and touch someone: a point about drone warfare

  1. Agree that drone warfare belongs at the extreme end of a long continuum of standoff weapons down through history. But there is something new about it – uncertainty of targets and lack of real contextual awareness – which is troubling, and which I presume accounts for the large number of drone pilots having severe mental/emotional problems resulting from their work. Before drones, the warrior enjoyed relative certainty that the target he was aiming for was in fact the enemy – at least, enough certainty to allow him to sleep at night in the security that he had done the job he was supposed to do: kill the enemy. Drone warfare denies that small peace-of-mind to the warrior. Even with all the intelligence, the cross-checks, the chain-of-command, the drone pilot can never really be sure, deep in his mind, that the havoc he wreaks is being wrought on the “bad guys.” All he has is a grainy IR image from halfway around the world, and his superiors telling him to push the button: scant reassurance which must naturally, over time, instill doubt and a corrosive sense of vague, yet omnipresent, guilt.


  2. Could it be that the generation that has conceived and now executes this type of warfare prepared for it practically and theoretically with video games? As vid games became really violent, parents and experts worried that young players would also become violent, or at least callous, just as another generation of elders worried about violent TV. Obviously, from all the reports of PST and other emotional and mental fallout, drone operators are not callous. I don’t think that video games made remote warfare seem less awful; the devil is that they made it seem possible. Which, of course, it was. Possibility is the devil in science, when it isn’t the angel. Depends where the possibility is leading…


    • Although, as I tried to stress, violence at a distance has a long history, you may be onto something with regard to the particular kind of remote warfare represented by drone operations. Sitting at a console and controlling what happens on a screen is very like a video game. The experience of the drone pilot may be more unreal, because more mediated, than any of the other forms of violence I mentioned. The missile crews who still sit at their desks in some underground chamber or on board a submerged submarine are almost totally isolated from what their button-press will set in motion, whereas the drone pilot retains a visual connection and a sense of controlling events on the fly, yet this might as well be a game.

      Incidentally, a science-fiction novel called Ender’s Game, published in 1985, presented children being trained for a space war by way of elaborate games, which were increasingly indistinguishable from the real thing.


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