- A Theory of the Drone by Grégoire Chamayou
On 23 April 2015, Barack Obama made a rare public announcement about American drone strikes, apologizing for “accidently” killing an American and an Italian in Pakistan, aid workers who were being held hostage by Al Qaeda. The outpouring in the media ranged from worrying about the secrecy of the drone program to issues relating to the drone program’s legal status and executive overreach, military command structure and the ethics of machine warfare, failures in intelligence and inter-agency communications, civilian casualties or “collateral damage,” habeas provisions, surveillance, sovereignty, and national security. The incident re-kindled debates that had been simmering since at least 2001 (According to the editors of The Nation in “Drones, Cops and the Unaccountable Machinery of Death,” between 65 and 96 civilians have been killed by drones in Yemen since 2002, and between 423 and 962 in Pakistan since 2004, including 172 children [29 April 2015]), and particularly since Obama had advanced new legal parameters for drone attacks in a May 2013 speech, citing that drones would only be used in cases where there was “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” The New York Times claimed, in an article by [End Page 518] Scott Shane entitled “Drone Strikes Reveal Uncomfortable Truth: U.S. Is Often Unsure About Who Will Die,” that even after the scattered reports of unintended hits, where “most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names,” as well as the backlash in the Muslim world, two-thirds of Americans still support drones because of the reduction of risks to American forces (23 April 2015). The coverage set off into a tailspin the conventions of judging the permissible, revealing the difficulty of fitting the implications of this new form of warfare into categories of liberal understanding.
First published in French in 2013, philosopher Grégoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone takes on this task of working through the contradictions between liberal political systems and their new war machines, contradictions he calls “crises in intelligibility” (14) or “necro-ethics” (17). Drones are defined as “flying, high-resolution video cameras armed with missiles” that “allow you to project power without projecting vulnerability” (12). In clear and at times pithy prose, Chamayou moves through the genealogy of an ideology of the drone as a precarious resolution to the twentieth-century’s problems of legitimizing warfare. Overall, Chamayou is concerned that drones remove the politics of waging war from the purview of the citizens affected and their critical assessment and ushers in, instead, a collapse of citizen agency into the performance of the instrument: disobedience is eliminated, command centralized, and responsibility rendered mute. The drone “slips out of the normative framework initially designed for armed conflict” (162) in a number of ways: re-making conflict on the model of a hunt, confusing an ethics based in the reciprocity of the duel with the unilateralness of punishment, reshaping how sovereign space works, refocusing the liberal contract away from being about an exchange of obligation for protections, and redefining the warrior virtue of injury and risk into a psychic trauma of self-inflicted guilt, for example. For Chamayou, the drone leads to a disassociation in the mutual obligations of citizens and states so that the rationale of war no longer needs to anchor itself in a social connection or in the political moment, now engaging, as Walter Benjamin notes, with human beings “as little as possible” (83). Chamayou interrogates the various transformations in the relationships between social geographies and the state apparatus engaged in drone warfare, pointing to a sea change in the epistemological landscapes of liberal democracy.
A Theory of the Drone provides rich philosophical detail for addressing the new concepts that drones introduce. For example, drone attacks are “defined by pursuit” (52), meaning that the target can move anywhere, crossing borders outside of designated zones of conflict and making all territory a potential place of operations. Instead of restricting violence...