Hugh Gusterson, Drone: Remote Control Warfare. MIT Press 2016

Inside a foreign policy seminar, as a sour sort of luck would have it, I actually heard an Army officer, who was on leave to pick up an advanced degree, blurt just a bit too blithely that drone strikes in Pakistan were perfectly fine because the national government quietly approved. Why? Remote control warfare was reckoned to be the least worst of Pakistan’s paltry options, given all the scorch marks that the US was determined to inflict across the tribal wilderness bordering Afghanistan. Ninety percent of Pakistanis nonetheless oppose drones and three quarters accordingly regard the US as an enemy. No intervention at all, was not among the options. Apparatchiks really believe this stuff and do so because they want to believe it. How this self-serving stance differs from deception is not so easy to figure out.

Among a blizzard of new books probing drone warfare, Hugh Gusterson’s slim volume is among the most careful, concise and insightful, scrupulously giving all due credit along the way to other sharp investigators such as Patrick Cockburn, Medea Benjamin and Grigoire Chamayou. Gusterson, among many revealing themes, examines why so many well-trained and otherwise decent participants in the Drone ‘kill chain’ are either suckers for blatant rationalizations or else resort to them for the sake of careerist expedience. Readers may not be terribly comforted to learn that drone operators turn for guidance to an oracular computer program, sort of like a Jiminy Cricket on their shoulder, which forecasts collateral damage from any proposed air strike. The software is dubbed bugsplat.

Pilotless planes were armed as early as 2001 but only seemed to gain major media attention a decade later. Drone warfare has been a story mostly ‘told from the point of view of executioners” who are giddy about this magic wand means of rubbing out faraway foes. Drones, the author emphasizes, can only slither around the skies in decidedly asymmetric situations such as counter-insurgency campaigns. Any adequately armed State can blast the impertinent snoops out of the air in minutes flat. Indeed, seventy-six nations have drone capability themselves. So Drones are “an inherently colonialist technology,” somewhat advanced over flimsy biplanes that Britain dispatched over Iraq in the 1920s to strafe any impudent natives.

A key theme is how unmanned aerial gadgets offer operators both extremely remote and intimate experiences at the same time, reducing all normal human senses to a single menacing voyeuristic vision. Did Nazi camp guards not view the untermenschen in much the same clinical manner? Merely press a trigger and down hurtles a Hellfire rocket to whack the designated nuisance, a termination, as the saying goes, with extreme prejudice. So far there has been precious little urgency for authorities to consider the wider picture – beyond a screen fixation – because, as that arch old bit of imperial doggerel goes, ‘Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not.’ The more things change . . .

For all the Konrad Lorenzian cant about men as killer apes, the Pentagon long has been distressed as to how few natural born killers there are. S.L.A. Marshall’s controversial World War II study Men Against Fire found that only about a third of GIs in combat fired their weapons. An urgent aim since then has been to boost the firing rate, and distance remains the surest palliative for outbreaks of conscience. Pilots, for example, glimpse little of what they slaughter and therefore are fairly reliable trigger-pullers. Recall the Wikileaks footage of a scornful helicopter crew splattering Iraqi civilians on a street corner. Yet, as drone whistleblowers like Cian Westmoreland attest, emotions still interfere. Even drone operators seven thousand miles from the fray suffer stress tantamount to PTSD, if they lack the proper sociopathic nerve for their duties. The author, in passing, makes a telling plea for understanding PTSD as a “moral injury” rather than as a neurological condition.

Gusterson aims to reframe debate for a public kept largely in the dark about the shifty nature of these strange technological beasts. Sixty percent of Americans polled favor drone warfare, though support drops under thirty percent if civilians are endangered (which they almost always are). Drone strikes “collapse the distinction between civilians and combatants and, further, the “new form of state violence, hybridizing war and police actions, wriggles out of international laws of war, and indeed the US Constitution.” Gusterson highlights how rapidly norms melted from an initial reluctance to murder people from high altitude to casual acceptance. Though the CIA was banned by a 1976 executive order from assassinating executives and conducting other ‘extrajudicial killings, after 9/11 all norms and good sense seem to have been abandoned.

Afghanistan is the most heavily droned patch on the planet. The first aerial assassination attempts went embarrassingly awry, missing Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, who slipped away or perhaps were never there. Gusterson instructively quotes a Pentagon spokesperson on one such miscue: ‘We’re convinced that it was an appropriate target . . .[although] we do not yet know who exactly it was.” A drone strike killed an al-Qaeda leader linked to the 1995 USS Cole bombing. A US citizen died as well but a survivor of the strike was acquitted of terrorism charges afterward in Yemen. A report found 41 instances in which the same prominent target was ‘killed” in more than one drone attack. F-16s and Predators, tracking a switched-on cell phone, killed an anti-Taliban Afghan leader on election tour instead of a Taliban leader. Bureaucratic dimwits insisted anyway their data was correct.

Gusterson distinguishes “mixed drone warfare,” in Iraq and Afghanistan where Drones function as air support for soldiers on the ground, and “pure drone warfare” in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia where no US forces at least officially prowl and the Drones hunt ‘bad guys.’ One pervasive hitch is that everyone on screen becomes a shimmering blur, and anxious ethnocentric beholders can make a threatening mirage out of whomever they monitor. Gusterson cites the tempting ‘leaps of logic’ that ignorant observers often make to fill in gaps about movement and motives of their quarry. Technology “gives you a false sense of security” about identifying purported enemies. Is that a child or insurgent? Why take a chance? Above all, “a palpable hunger to attack” drives the way screen images are construed. The anesthetizing aesthetics of their video game takes over. Splat.

A Predator can lurk up to 24 hours at 10 to 15 thousand feet. The Reaper is twice as powerful, four times the price (22.5 million each) and hauls eight times the payload. Astonishingly, over half of Air Force pilots now are trained for drones. The share of ‘remote pilot aircraft’ shot up from 5% in 2005 to 31% by 2012. Manufacturers are ecstatic. No Yank is at risk in the cockpit, which is fortunate especially because half of all drones crack up. Three people in a tricked-out trailer guide each drone, slaving twelve hour shifts six days a week. The bleary-eyed Spartans sift assiduously through a confusing array of contradictory demands and murky orders. The ballyhooed pinpoint accuracy claims for drone weaponry suspiciously recalls the vaunted Norden bombsight of World War II, which had difficulty locating a German city, let alone a pickle barrel. Upbeat high-tech tales are geared to sooth public concerns. Gusterson goes on to contend the US has “created a new approach to counterinsurgency warfare and border policing that is organized around new strategies of information gathering, precision targeting, and reconceptualizing enemy forces as a cluster of networks and nodal leaders.”

US officials worry about Taliban fighters crossing to Pakistan from Afghanistan to regroup and return. So Drones have turned tribal area residents into, as a Waziristan chief complains, ‘psychiatric patients.” Tribal life has been reconfigured to avert encounters with these fickle ever-hovering death dealers. Yet you can’t do this just anywhere, at least as yet. Can you imagine, for example, the British government conducting drone strikes in the Irish Republic during the Northern Irish ‘troubles’ because known IRA members were roving around there? What would the consequences have been?

Reuters reports that drones kill 12 times as many ‘low level’ people as high profile targets. So-called “signature strikes” kill crowds of suspected insurgents based purely upon behavior patterns. “Double tap strikes” means help won’t go near a site for hours for fear of a follow-up missile. Comparing estimates by London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism (2400-3900 casualties with 10 to 40% civilian), the establishmentarian Long War Journal (2,900 casualties with 156 of them civilians), and the conservative New America Foundation (2200 – 3600 casualties with 7 to 14% civilians), the author finds the upper end estimates most credible. Gusterson draws a valid parallel between drones and suicide bombing, as both undermining the reciprocity of vulnerability inherent in war, thereby changing war’s character in unappreciated ways. To victims on the wrong end the distinction between a technical device and a wired-up insurgent disappears in the blast wave. Drones amount to a kind of black magic where you stick a pin in a digital doll and your quarry suffers. The nerve-wracking plight of those beneath flight paths makes one appreciate why our ancestors, however deluded, raged to burn imaginary broomstick-riding counterparts at the stake.

A sort of warmed -over ‘felicific calculus’ vainly is resorted to on the fly by officials who reckon how many innocent lives might be saved later by taking a number of innocents right now in an attack on presumed enemies. However much an otherwise critical film like Eye in The Sky dignifies it, the calculus smacks more of Madeleine Albright than Jeremy Bentham. The whole purpose of these gimmicks is to create and exploit slippage between rhetoric and reality to achieve the elite’s underlying goals.

What strikes one most keenly is how Vietnam, and its criminally discarded lessons, echoes everywhere. Any military-aged male is an insurgent, as in Vietnam. The target list piles up, as in Vietnam. This form of warfare is a perpetual enterprise in which blundering perpetrators keep accruing more power. Drones only motivate more rebel recruitment, as in Vietnam. The US confuses “killing with winning,” as in body-counted Vietnam. Decapitation does not work. The enemy is more incensed than demoralized and the US military consequently demands more resources and more of the same strategy, as in Vietnam.

The battlefield, under the 2001 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF), also is reinterpreted to extend wherever the enemy might be. The drone bathes itself in self-legitimating accuracy and does it not lead to a preference to kill instead of capture? To protect against any imagined threat, anything goes. Obama, once a constitutional lawyer, managed to assert that Libya strikes were not relevant to the War Powers Act because no US troops were on the ground, an argument which opens the door to attacks anywhere anytime by unchecked executive orders.

Gusterson foresees the difference between war and peace evaporating as we move into a world without demarcated battle zones. He brings up the key applicable concept of moral hazard: “a situation where a person may be willing to take risks because they know someone else will bear the consequences,’ which is the very definition of elite rule at home as well as in foreign policy. Drones can retard the expected waning in the ‘rally around the flag’ effect occurring as wars go badly or – same thing – on and on. Insulating citizen soldiers almost guarantees conflicts will continue and even spread.

The author demolishes the “legalistic opportunism and disingenuousness with which the Obama Administration has made its case, picking and choosing tidbits from the law as if it were a buffet dinner while building up executive power.” If war is not reciprocal such that both sides suffer to a degree “then it is torture,” and so far we do not award medals for torture. Finally, there is no such thing as “absolutely unilateral” action because the targeted parties eventually find ways to hit back, as we have learned in the last year. In sum, “drones are an imperial border-control technology for the age of late capitalism,” a tool of a stratified global society picking on the down and outers. Even anyone who thinks they know all there is to know about drone warfare will profit from Gusterson’s rich and penetrating study.

Kurt Jacobsen is book review editor at Logos.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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By Warren Leming: Mary Wisniewski, Algren: A Life. Chicago Review Press, 2016

By Aidan J. Beatty: Benedict Anderson. A Life Beyond Boundaries. London: Verso, 2016

By Kurt Jacobsen: Hugh Gusterson, Drone: Remote Control Warfare. MIT Press 2016