The Drone War Is Not Happening

In the following post,1)Originally part of a research paper that I have since revised and made web-friendly. I will utilize the works of Jean Baudrillard (Baudrillard 1994; Baudrillard 1995), Nasser Hussain (Hussain 2013), and others (Dorrian 2014; Introna 2002; Meijer 2013) to make the case that the United States’ strategy of dealing with terrorists in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East via the usage of unoccupied aerial vehicles (drones)2)Drones are officially called “unmanned aerial vehicles,” but I have opted to change the gendered language and use the term “unoccupied” as opposed to “unmanned.” represents a profound shift in the way that war is, and is not conducted. Specifically, I will be arguing that the usage of drones has transformed war for all parties involved in a few ways. First, the usage of surveillance and weaponized drones has abstracted warfare far beyond what could be predicted after the First Gulf War by shifting conflict and conflict zones from the Real to the Hyperreal via the mediation of images from the drone. And second, conflict has become touted as “clean” and “surgical” while iconographies of war have been removed leading to not only a desensitization of war, but also a lack of ethical engagement with the Other (Baudrillard 1995, 32, 40, 62; Introna 2002)

The extremely popular video game series, Fallout, uses as its motto “War. War never changes.” That view is a perversely nostalgic one, however; one that seeks to contain war to its traditional causes: the acquisition of wealth, territory, and power. Despite a belief in the continuity of the causes of war, the ‘electronification’ and ‘virtualization’ of war tells a different story: “War is no longer what it used to be…” (Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place 1995, 85)

 

War, if such a thing can be said to exist any longer, has shifted so much that is hardly recognizable. Like Freud’s “encounter with himself” in the train compartment (Zupančič 2003, 14-15), the iconography of war has become perverted to such an extent that Douhet3)Giulio Douhet was one of the first major airpower theorists in the early 20th century with a focus on strategic bombing. would experience a moment of secondness were he to witness 21st century airpower. Warfare, specifically warfare post-optical mediation under a Virilian account, has changed from the days of old where soldiers would line up on either side of a field and fire projectiles at one another. As warfare became increasingly asymmetrical and fought unconventionally, the phemenological experience of war has changed. In ‘traditional’ conflict settings, soldiers would be physical present on the battlefield experiencing the world of the conflict zone in real time. They would feel the wind blowing on their faces, the dirt in their boots, and the mud on their rifles, and while this experience no doubt still occurs in the deserts of Iraq, something has been added that has served to take away from the phenomenon of war. As planes were developed to survey the battlefield and give information about conditions ahead of soldier’s locations, the possibility of warfare became mediated (Hussain 2013).

No longer did soldiers have to trek across mountains to find out what was on the other side, a pilot would relay information to them and they would create a mental image of the terrain ahead. As technology further advanced, surveys of target areas could be taken from high flying planes without a need for boots on the ground. This aerial imaging, the occupied precursors to drone surveillance, created the foundations for the “scopic regimes of modernity” as it allowed for vast areas of land to be mapped from afar and then interpreted in an entirely different context (Jay 1999). In this sense, the original planes that were used as scouts in combat while troops were still stationed on the ground can be considered first order simulacra while high flying reconnaissance planes relaying data back to a command center not on the battlefield can be considered second order simulacra.

The advent of drones drastically changed the game for a few reasons, however. First is that the unoccupied nature of a drone allows it to constantly survey an area for up to two weeks; mapping territory and marking potential targets (Meijer 2013). Second, the footage captured from a drone is on such a large scale (e.g. 2009’s drone footage would take 24 years to watch continuously (Dorrian 2014)) that either autonomized visual recognition needs to be employed or massive mediation of the images of the territory surveyed needs to occur by hand. In the status quo, because there is so much information coming in to pilots at a given time, “information is being mediated electronically via the camera and sensors” while “[t]he pilot flying the drone is only provided with information that has been selected by the other pilots operating the monitors, sensors and screens” (Meijer 2013). And third is that the mediation of information via multiple levels of abstraction – that is, the camera sees things “through a soda straw” (Gregory 2011), relays those images back to one pilot operating thousands of miles away in Nevada who picks and chooses what images are relevant for another pilot flying the drone to see while all the above is sent to a command center somewhere else where generals, based on the mediation of mediated images give a kill command – leads to a form of ethical erasure.

What’s unique about the aforementioned levels of abstraction, however, is that they serve to change the site of warfare from the Real to the Hyperreal. As the drone surveys an area thousands of miles away from its pilots while relaying the information back via satellite, the pilots must “construct their own reality of the actual battlefield” from a series of mediated images thus blurring the line between ‘objective’ reality and ‘virtual’ reality leading to the construction of a Hyperreal battlefield (Meijer 2013).

To further understand the reality, or Hyperreality, of drones and drone warfare, Jean Baudrillard’s analysis of the first Gulf War in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place can provide a good theoretical framework. In his book,4)The book is a compilation of three essays, “The Gulf War will not take place,” “The Gulf War: is it really taking place?,” and “The Gulf War did not take place,” published in Libération over the course of 1991. Baudrillard argues that while something did take place in the deserts of Iraq, whatever that was could not be considered a war and even if it were, the abstraction and domination by the media made it a cyber war. To understand the application of Baudrillard’s metaphysics to the non-existence of the drone war,5)Note: when I use the phrase “the drone war” I am using it as a blanket term to refer to all the US’ counter-terrorism drone operations in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. it is first prudent to understand the arguments behind his claim that the Gulf War did not take place by tracing his arguments along the division laid out above.

Baudrillard argued that whatever happened in the deserts of Iraq was not a war insofar as there was no ‘victory’ in the traditional sense. The US engaged in a conflict for explicitly moral reasons6)Baudrillard’s analysis of the cause of the conflict is not necessary here, although he discusses it on p. 32 and p. 85. but didn’t depose the ‘evil’ they were fighting; Saddam was still there and his regime endured. The US gained no material advantage while Iraq lost none; according to Baudrillard it was a war of deterrence (Baudrillard 1995, 70-72). What’s more, the military tactics utilized by both sides created an “asexual surgical war” where loss of life was minimized by Saddam not utilizing the Iraqi airforce, evacuating Kuwait, hiding tanks, etc. while the US utilized aerial bombing of infrastructure and obvious military installations (while avoiding television antenna!) as opposed to strictly troop garrisons (Baudrillard 1995, 63, 85). The lack of loss of life7)It is important to note that Baudrillard does point out the fact that there were deaths on the Iraqi side, but his analysis is largely that the war did not take place for people in the West. Further, either correctly or incorrectly he argues that the Iraqi deaths were Saddam’s “decoy”; people he utilized to maintain power. Baudrillard discusses this on p. 72. was, for Baudrillard, typified by the fact that “of the 50,000 American soldiers involved during the seven months of operations in the Gulf, three times as many would have died from road accidents alone had they stayed in civilian life” (Baudrillard 1995, 69). For Baudrillard, the tactics utilized amounted to a war that was both safe and “fake” (Baudrillard 1995, 68).

What’s more, operations in the Gulf could hardly be considered a war due to the sheer asymmetry of the conflict; an arms salesman bombing a rug salesman, as Baudrillard puts it (Baudrillard 1995, 19, 65). As Carl Schmitt points out in The Nomos of the Earth, in an asymmetrical war – that is, a war in which “the weapons are conspicuously unequal” – the opponent becomes nothing more than an object of violent measures [or ‘domestication,’ (Baudrillard 1995, 86)]” where “[t]he victors consider their superiority in weaponry to be an indication of their justa causa and declare the enemy to be a criminal” (Hussain 2013). What’s more, the images of the conflict, or lack thereof in this case, spoke to the fact that the ‘war’ was nothing more than a war of information, of “disfiguration” (Baudrillard 1995, 40). The lack of even some semblance of symmetry between the combatants – that is, the fact that the Americans never faced the Iraqis and the Iraqis could never face the Americans – leads us to ask ‘what war?’

The lack of traditional combat is only one aspect of the Hyperreality of the Gulf War, however. For Baudrillard, not only was the operation in the Gulf a war of deterrence and not materiality, but it was also pre-scripted and thus won in advance. While there were obviously contingencies that couldn’t be predicted (something Baudrillard doesn’t concede), the majority of the conflict was in line with what was predicted such that “everything unfolded according to the programmatic order” where “[n]othing occurred which would have metamorphosed events into a duel” (Baudrillard 1995, 73). The entire conflict, from the escalation to finish, was pre-programmed as if it were a Hollywood film, the details of which were broadcast live around the world on CNN, French television, and even on traffic reports (Baudrillard 1995, 4, 78)!

Combining the lack of traditional conflict with the broadcasted images leads us to the final point about the Gulf War. Images presented on CNN were so carefully picked and curated by the media (mediation at its finest!) that all iconography of a war was erased. There were “[n]o images of the field of battle” or any other direct icons of a conflict, rather the war was either indexically or, more often than not, symbolically referenced via “images of [gas] masks, of blind or defeated faces,” etc. (Baudrillard 1995, 40). Iconicity as a non-arbitrary sign of conflict was erased and replaced with images that referenced something, but not necessarily what ‘really’ occurred. The bombing of Highway 80 was hidden from the public while images of oil soaked birds were replayed over and over (Baudrillard 1995, 32). At the end of the evening news when the question in Western citizen’s minds should have been ‘why is this happening?’, it was ‘what is happening?’ The events in the Gulf thus became virtual, Hyperreal, and open to the interpretative power of whoever displayed the images; a false-consciousness of war, so to speak (Baudrillard 1995, 10-11).

The drone war is obviously not dissimilar to the Gulf War insofar as the world we live in is still one dominated by signs and drones are not exempt from that fact. If Baudrillard were alive today, I suspect he would be saying the same thing of the drone war that he did of the Gulf War in the early months of 1991: it is not taking place.8)It is important to note, lest we fall into the same critiques of Berkleyian Idealism as Baudrillard did, that this section discussing the non-existence of the drone war is written from a Western perspective.

Unlike the ground troops or reconnaissance planes utilized in the Gulf War which can be read as first and second order simulacra respectively, drones and their unoccupied nature necessarily make them, and the images they relay, third order simulacra; things so distinct for the Real that the Real can be said to not exist.9)For a discussion of the orders of simulacra, see Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, p. 6. To understand the non-existence of the drone war itself, we shall explain and discuss the policy surrounding drones in the same order that the Gulf War was discussed above.

Just as the Gulf War was seen as an “asexual surgical war,” drone operations can be seen in the same light. Using discourse referring to drones as “the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict” or by medicalizing their application by praising their “surgical precision – the ability with laser-like focus to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist, while limiting damage to the tissue around it” creates a climate where war becomes sterilized and loss of life is only confined to the “criminals,” as Schmitt would say (Hayden 2016; Brennan 2012). At the pinnacle of absurdity of the supposedly ‘confined’ and ‘clean’ nature of drone conflict where everything is prescribed and executed to perfection, there lies White House Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser, John Brennan’s, infamous comment in a talk at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Int’l Studies in 2011. During the talk, in reference to the current administration’s “precise and surgical” nature of dealing with terrorists in the Middle East, Brennan said “there has not been a single collateral death,” a claim so obviously false I won’t waste time refuting it (Brennan 2011).

What’s more, drones represent the ultimate asymmetrical weapon of modernity when utilized in the Horn of Africa or the Middle East as they cannot be seen for they fly too high (30 thousand feet, on average) and cannot be attacked without sophisticated anti-air weaponry that is largely inaccessible. Despite not being able to be seen, however, they are constantly heard. The sound of the engines, described as “a low­grade, perpetual buzzing,” are always above target areas signifying to the people below that a strike could come at any time. For peoples living under the gaze of the drone, sight does not signify danger as has historically been the case, but sound does; it indexes the drone overhead (Hussain 2013). Given the lack of means to fight back, both against strictly surveillance based drones as well as Hellfire-missile equipped attack drones, drones have become the ultimate symbols of global military police power as they can attack anywhere without fear of being attacked back. If we extend Baudrillard’s slightly orientalist view of Saddam’s ground forces vs the US Airforce being a case of a rug salesman fighting an arms salesman, peoples living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan can be seen as unsuspecting children selling bread being unaware that they are fighting an arms salesman; an asymmetrical conflict if ever there was one.

What makes the problem worse, however, is the fact that as Schmitt noted in The Nomos of the Earth, the inequality of weaponry is not only utilized to preserve American lives and maintain the myth of a ‘clean’ and ‘sterile’ (or “surgical”) war, but the inequality is also used as justification and vindication of the cause and the innate “criminality” of the ‘enemy’ further perpetuating the cycle of asymmetrical warfare and creating a view wherein “the opponent becomes nothing more than an object of violent measures” (Hussain 2013). As Nasser Hussain noted, reiterating Schmitt’s thesis:

Aerial bombing of those who have no chance to retaliate is not a war but an unequal exchange, which by its very nature accelerates the process through which war becomes a policing action and the adversary becomes a criminal or a mere object of violent reprisal. Policing action both begins and ends with the criminalization of the enemy. The overhead shot, coeval with air power itself, both produces and solidifies asymmetry and criminalization, which in turn produces a moral and legal justification of the violence (Hussain 2013).

As with Baudrillard’s analysis of the Gulf War, the lack of traditional conflict – that is, the ability to retaliate in any meaningful way – is only one side of Hyperreal coin of drones. As discussed at length above, drones are piloted from sheds in Nevada thousands of miles from the actual combat areas while the images they capture of the areas must pass through multiple layers of mediation before being seen (Meijer 2013). Unlike the solo missions of the U2 days, however, the obscene amount of data that are gathered by drones require extremely large numbers of people to manage. As Gregory points out, up to 185 people are required for one mission with various chunks of people mediating different aspects of the data retrieved by the drone. Not only does this extend the “kill-chain” across multiple continents and through dozens of people, (a phenomenon that, while interesting, is not relevant to a Hyperreal analysis of drones)10)For a more complete analysis of the “kill-chain” phenomena, see Derek Gregory’s cited article starting on page 193. but it compartmentalizes information as images are “scanned to filter out ‘uneventful footage’ and distinguish ‘normal activity from abnormal activity’” (what counts as ‘abnormal activity’ is obviously suspect)11)For an extremely detailed analysis of what activities are being looked for/what characteristics are being watched, see Jamie Allinson’s “The Necropolitics of Drones” (full citation in references). (Gregory 2011).

As images from the drone are mediated first by compartmentalized chunks of individuals sifting through the sea of data and then by the secondary pilot deciding what is relevant for the primary pilot to see, all sense of ‘reality’ is lost as the images on the screens have less and less in common with the Real. The images first mask “the absence of a profound reality” and then have “no relation to any reality whatsoever” thereby becoming their “own pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1994, 6). The ‘reality’ for the pilots becomes the mental map they make out of the simulacra that are presented to them, further distancing themselves from the individuals being surveyed. This form of extreme abstraction serves as an analog to the mediation of the events during the Gulf War and thus serves to replicate the Hyperreality of the drone and its pilots.

Finally, the question of the representation of targets must be examined. Following the previous discussion regarding the mediation of images to the pilots, we will examine the ethical implications of the ‘drone’s eye view’ picture fed through the military machine. Following that, we will examine the standard drone video released by the Department of Defense via its Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) and its effect on public discourse surrounding drones.

As images from drones reach their final destination, the pilots, they have, as discussed above, already gone through multiple levels of mediation and compartmentalization where parts of the image have been removed, angles have been changed, etc. until the image the pilots receive becomes a third order simulacrum. What’s equally important however, is the scopic framing of the targets combined with the distancing factor intrinsic to a pilot operating a drone thousands of miles away. There are two important features of the drone’s eye view: first is the overhead nature of the image, and second is the lack of sound. Overhead shots in film are unique insofar as they create a fundamentally different power dynamic than what is normally thought of. During a typical scene in a film where dialogue or engagement between two or more individuals is occurring, a shot/reverse shot sequence – that is, the camera faces one person and then switches to another – is utilized to emphasize some form of reciprocity between the individuals engaging one another (Hussain 2013; Pramaggiore and Wallis 2011, 206-207). While there may be different power dynamics that are displayed and represented by the placement of the camera or the angle of the shot, (e.g. lower shots looking up towards someone imply dominance) the reciprocity intrinsic to the shot/reverse shot sequence is still there (Pramaggiore and Wallis 2011, 138-139). Overhead shots, however, completely shatter this insofar as “[b]y definition, the overhead shot excludes the shot/reverse shot” as “there is no possibility of returning the gaze”; as Hussain says, “[i]t is the filmic cognate of asymmetric war” (Hussain 2013). That is only one side of the coin, however. On the other hand, overhead shots are able to do two key things that are relevant in an analysis of drone ethics: they “diminish the anthropomorphic characteristics of figures” thereby dehumanizing the victims by flattening the image in a manner similar to a telephoto lens, and they serve to obscure the identities of the parties involved, further bolstering the dehumanization effect (Dorrian 2014; Pramaggiore and Wallis 2011, 141). Both of these aspects combined, the flattening of figures and the obfuscation of identities, help to distance the drone pilots from the victims of their strikes and create a form of ethical disengagement.

What’s more, the lack of diagetic sound – that is in this scenario, sound within the environment of the target area – contrasts sharply with commands from superior officers. Pilots hear nothing from the ground; no conversations, no wind, no children playing or singing…nothing. The world of the drone pilot is a “mute world” of “figures moving about on a screen” while a superior officer rattles off commands. The targets not only have no ability to fight to back, but they are quite literally voiceless where “the lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed” (Hussain 2013).

Apart from the obvious disengagement that comes with dehumanization, there is a more insidious form that stems from the Hyperreal effects of electronic mediation. As drone pilots conduct strikes on unsuspecting targets from afar, the ‘action’ that is occurring does not involve them in any traditional sense of the word. While the pilots are pulling a trigger, they are not looking into the eyes of the person they are about to kill. They are not engaging the targets whom they kill as there is no shot/reverse shot. The act of killing becomes pure spectacle where those killed are “not people with names and faces, just images on the screen that explode” as the events unfold before the eyes of the pilots. There is no possibility for a moment of secondness to occur where a solider might stay their hand or question their orders12)Although popular culture, the most recent example being Gavin Hood’s 2016 film Eye In The Sky, may display drone pilots staying their hand or questioning orders, the causes for such actions (or inactions) seem to be based on catalysts in the story that are only knowable with technology far beyond what we have currently – micro-bug drones in the case of the aforementioned film; a deus ex machina of sorts. That being said, as a supplement to this paper, I strongly encourage the reader to view Eye In The Sky. as there is no face to face engagement with the Other; they are simply data on a screen (Introna 2002).

The last point of note that must be considered, if only briefly, is the effect released drone footage has on public discourse surrounding the legitimacy of drone usage. The footage released by the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) which is subsequently mirrored on YouTube has been nicknamed “drone porn”13)A gendered analysis of drone footage, while potentially interesting, is beyond the purview of this paper. Nasser Hussain begins the discussion in his cited article, however. and “shows short sequences of attacks and killings” (Dorrian 2014). While an analysis of only the footage yields interesting information, it would largely be a repeat of the analysis done involving drone pilots’ footage. What’s possibly more interesting, as Dorrian points out, is the role that metadata and titling play in legitimizing the strikes. The number of views, likes vs. dislikes, tone of the comments, etc. all serves to shape public opinion on drone strikes. Much like a mob inciting violence by chanting louder and louder, the comments section on a piece of drone porn mirror this mentality where groupthink ends up taking over and the actions witnessed are seemingly legitimized. What’s more, the titling of the video becomes crucial in legitimizing the violence as the titles categorize individuals into groups by labeling them “criminals” or “insurgents” thus priming the viewer to be pre-disposed to support the action taken by the US (Dorrian 2014). Discourse is a powerful tool and YouTube is not exempt from its sway. In a world where the footage has been so heavily mediated that it cannot be said to resemble the Real in any substantive way, the way the images are framed discursively serves as a very powerful way of legitimizing the action taken. When the Real is destroyed, definitions reign supreme and the Hyperreal is fabricated by creating a negative – that is to say a binary opposite – with which to compare things to. As Baudrillard points out in reference to Disneyland, the ‘make believe’ nature of it serves to mask the absurd nature of everything around it thereby making Los Angeles seem “real” and ‘grown up’ when everything is just as simulated; a perfect example of Americana-style binary opposition (Baudrillard 1994, 12-14). Applying this logic to the discourse surrounding the titles of drone porn films helps us to understand how the acts are seen as legitimate. The titles, as mentioned above, use the rhetoric of criminality and insurgency to describe the individuals being attacked, yet in a world where the negative creates the Hyperreal, “we stage criminality so that we can fabricate a system of justice that is seen as legitimate” (Introna 2002). Our titling of the videos directly reinforces our proscribed views about the legitimacy and ethical nature of drone strikes.

 

At the end of the day, it seems that Baudrillard was right when he said “[w]ar is no longer what it used to be…” As conflict has evolved, so too has everything surrounding it; wars are now touted as ‘clean’ and ‘sterile,’ loss of life is either downplayed or discursively justified, and the fighting occurs from afar. The days of dogfights in bi-planes are long gone and the days of solo spy flights are on their way out. Images have become the new weapons of war both legitimizing actions and creating a Hyperreal battlefield for soldiers to operate in. The stakes are lower for the technologically superior nation as attacks can occur remotely and the citizens eat up videos produced by the military. Imaging and mediation has changed the site of conflict from the Real to the Hyperreal and drones are leading the march. As a citizen I see the images the government wants me to see. I see the narrative I am told by the media. My knowledge of the world “over there” is structured by a symbolic order I have no say in. I don’t know what is really happening overseas and neither do you.

 

Works Cited

Allinson, Jamie. “The Necropolitics of Drones.” International Political Sociology 9, no. 2 (June 2015): 113-127.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

—. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Translated by Paul Patton. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Brennan, John. John Brennan Delivers Speech On Drone Ethics. NPR Talk of the Nation Podcast, Washington D.C.: NPR, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/05/01/151778804/john-brennan-delivers-speech-on-drone-ethics

—. Obama Administration Counterterrorism Strategy. Public lecture, Washington D.C.: C-SPAN, 2011. http://www.c-span.org/video/?300266-1/obama-administration-counterterrorism-strategy

Dorrian, Mark. “Drone Semiosis.” Cabinet, no. 54 (September 2014): 48-55.

Gregory, Derek. “From a View to a Kill: Drones and Late Modern War.” Theory, Culture & Society (SAGE) 28, no. 7-8 (2011): 188-215.

Hayden, Michael. “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare.” The New York Times, February 19, 2016: Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/opinion/sunday/drone-warfare-precise-effective-imperfect.html?_r=0

Hussain, Nasser. “The Sound of Terror: Phenomenology of a Drone Strike.” The Boston Review. October 16, 2013. https://bostonreview.net/world/hussain-drone-phenomenology (accessed May 5, 2016).

Introna, Lucas. “The (Im)possibility of Ethics in the Information Age.” Information and Organization 12, no. 2 (April 2002): 71-84.

Jay, Martin. “Scopic Regimes of Modernity.” In Vision and Visuality (Discussions in Contemporary Culture), by Hal Foster, edited by Hal Foster, 3-23. Seattle, Washington: Bay Press, 1999.

Meijer, Germano. “Military Drones: From a Software Studies’ Perspective .” Software Studies. Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht, Jully 11, 2013.

Pramaggiore, Maria, and Tom Wallis. Film: A Critical Introduction. 3rd. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2011.

Zupančič, Alenka. The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003.

References   [ + ]

1. Originally part of a research paper that I have since revised and made web-friendly.
2. Drones are officially called “unmanned aerial vehicles,” but I have opted to change the gendered language and use the term “unoccupied” as opposed to “unmanned.”
3. Giulio Douhet was one of the first major airpower theorists in the early 20th century with a focus on strategic bombing.
4. The book is a compilation of three essays, “The Gulf War will not take place,” “The Gulf War: is it really taking place?,” and “The Gulf War did not take place,” published in Libération over the course of 1991.
5. Note: when I use the phrase “the drone war” I am using it as a blanket term to refer to all the US’ counter-terrorism drone operations in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.
6. Baudrillard’s analysis of the cause of the conflict is not necessary here, although he discusses it on p. 32 and p. 85.
7. It is important to note that Baudrillard does point out the fact that there were deaths on the Iraqi side, but his analysis is largely that the war did not take place for people in the West. Further, either correctly or incorrectly he argues that the Iraqi deaths were Saddam’s “decoy”; people he utilized to maintain power. Baudrillard discusses this on p. 72.
8. It is important to note, lest we fall into the same critiques of Berkleyian Idealism as Baudrillard did, that this section discussing the non-existence of the drone war is written from a Western perspective.
9. For a discussion of the orders of simulacra, see Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, p. 6.
10. For a more complete analysis of the “kill-chain” phenomena, see Derek Gregory’s cited article starting on page 193.
11. For an extremely detailed analysis of what activities are being looked for/what characteristics are being watched, see Jamie Allinson’s “The Necropolitics of Drones” (full citation in references).
12. Although popular culture, the most recent example being Gavin Hood’s 2016 film Eye In The Sky, may display drone pilots staying their hand or questioning orders, the causes for such actions (or inactions) seem to be based on catalysts in the story that are only knowable with technology far beyond what we have currently – micro-bug drones in the case of the aforementioned film; a deus ex machina of sorts. That being said, as a supplement to this paper, I strongly encourage the reader to view Eye In The Sky.
13. A gendered analysis of drone footage, while potentially interesting, is beyond the purview of this paper. Nasser Hussain begins the discussion in his cited article, however.

2 comments

  1. This is a very interesting analysis, if dense. Though I supposed, the clearly scholarly intent makes that inevitable.

    I certainly see your point regarding the increased and increasing intermediation (to, possibly, coin a phrase) of war, though I wonder if it is a discrete modern phenomenon or merely a continuation of an ongoing trend of civilization and organization intermediating all human interaction, even as terrible and as terminal ones as war. After all, if you analyse the wars of, say, antiquity you have to notice two crucial things: First, as technology progressed, the act of killing could be done at a greater and greater distance, and the bow—hardly advanced technology—already produced death at a distance where the enemy was, at best, a distant anonymous figure, especially if one considers area-denial fire. Later, primitive firearms provided an even more interesting effect as they could not be, even in principle, aimed at the ranges they were used. And, of course, any crew serviced weapon, from the catapult onwards, introduced an even greater intermediation.

    The second thing is, I believe, more salient. While it is true that those fighting the wars had a more direct experience of them—they were real to them, certainly, and visceral and tangible—they had a direct experience of _parts_ of the war. Little snippets, little fights, little life-or-death struggles, and, frequently, just endless robotic labor, lethal and not, at barked orders based on a view of the battle said soldiers didn’t share. Indeed, at the time nobody had a complete view: the soldier’s was hyper-local, and the commanders had a severely delayed heavily intermediated view. This continued to be true in all of human history to an increasing degree as better logistics and more efficient farming enabled vaster armies and less comprehensible battlefields.

    The question I am unsure about is whether the introduction of drone warfare and, indeed, the hyperreality of war, represents a qualitative or quantitative shift. Is it a new thing entirely, or is it the continuation of a centuries-long process?

    Still, this kvetching aside, this remains an interesting analysis that bears thinking about. Thanks for sharing it.

    1. Mr. Janković,

      I appreciate your comments and I think they are very important and are things that certainly need to be addressed. Without going into a line-by-line response, I would say that Paul Virilio’s “War and Cinema” (https://www.amazon.com/War-Cinema-Logistics-Perception-Thinkers/dp/1844673464?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0) might be of interest to you insofar as it traces the genealogy of scopic killing. Another point on that note, I would suggest reading in full the cited article by Martin Jay.

      To the meat and potatoes of your comment however; do drones represent a qualitative or quantitative shift? The short answer I have is yes; I would argue they represent both.

      To be a bit more specific, however, I think that physics of the drone — that is to say, the aerial bombing and striking from a distance, etc. — is a continuation of the process you described. That is to say, the *act* of drone striking someone is just another step down the road of modernity’s intervention into warfare. But that is not all the drone is, however. Drones are more than just a gun mounted to a plane; they are tools of surveillance and bodily control.

      The referenced article by Jamie Allinson is fantastic on this point insofar as it describes the way that drones become ways to police from above and categorize and certain lifestyles as dangerous. To quote Allinson: “The drone’s eye view is a fundamentally biopolitical one, in the sense that it surveys and audits, in their ‘patterns of life.'” Another great (and short) article on this point that I highly suggest reading is Daniel Møller Ølgaard’s “Drones series, Part V. The biopolitics of drone warfare” (https://strifeblog.org/2014/04/22/drones-series-part-v-the-biopolitics-of-drone-warfare/). As Ølgaard says of drone’s surveillance capabilities,

      ‘dangerous signatures or patterns of life are assessed on their very potential to become dangerous’.[vi] Anyone in the proximity of a suspected threat is in essence targetable, and as the focus shifts from known threats to potential risks, everyone in essence becomes a potential subject to surveillance, control and punishment. It is here the drone most clearly emerges as a ‘technology of control’, that directs it power at groups and populations on a wider scale, rather than the individual body. The population subjected to its power is transformed from corporeal, fleshy bodies to sets of digital data that are categorized, catalogued and evaluated. In this way, life comes to be life as information; a mass of data on maps of movement rather than fleshy bodies.

      At the end of the day, I think the physical strike capabilities of the drone are simply a continuation of the long process of the mediation of conflict — I should add a caveat here, I am ignoring a simulacra based analysis as I am still working through that; I do think drones represent a move up (or down) the chain of semiosis, but that is for another time — but the surveillance capabilities of the drone and what the drone represents is something fundamentally new and is an interesting (and terrifying) expansion of biopolitics.

      Hopefully that cleared up some questions. If you have any other thoughts, I’d love to hear them!

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