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  • The Drone Penal ColonyA review of Grégoire Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone
Chamayou, Grégoire. A Theory of the Drone. Translated by Janet Lloyd, The New P, 2015.

Grégoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone (published in French in 2013) provides a provocative and insightful assessment of nearly ten years of drone warfare conducted by the US since sometime after its invasion of Afghanistan. Drone warfare is now being used increasingly by other countries, but was developed by Israel, first for surveillance, and then for assassinations in Gaza. That Israeli pedigree has been analyzed convincingly by Eyal Weizman in Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, where he shows how Gaza, following the Israeli withdrawal in 2005, became “the world’s largest laboratory for airborne assassinations” (241). The evolution of the Israeli assassination program—from a first Apache helicopter attack in 2000, through the use of drones for reconnaissance, and finally for the assassinations themselves starting in 2004—nearly mirrored the development of the American program. The similarities extend into such policies as the reliance (in order to justify the practice) upon international law governing armed conflict, and the definition of a combatant as any man of combat age who happens to be in the vicinity when the attack takes place.

For Chamayou, the drone derives its theoretical logic, and its logical paradox, from the kamikaze forces deployed by Japan in the Pacific naval battles late in World War II: “Whereas the kamikaze implies a total fusion of the fighter’s body and weapon, the drone ensures their radical separation. The kamikaze: My body is a weapon. The drone: My weapon has no body. Kamikazes are those for whom death is certain. Drone pilots are those for whom death is impossible” (84). What emerges as a consequence of this logic, according to Chamayou, is “an ethico-technical economy of life and death in which technological power takes over from a form of undemandable sacrifice” (86). This new ethical framework, and its consequences for everyone from warriors, to victims, to a populace that condones or supports such warfare, is ultimately the focus of his study.

In the beginning, in 1944, an opposition played out between the Japanese ethics of heroic sacrifice and the American desire for self-preservation. But those differences did not function in competition without also forming a chiasmic relation whose vectors have now reappeared with the drone: “The antagonism between the kamikaze and remote control reappears today: suicide bombings versus phantom bombings. . . . It sets those who have nothing but their bodies with which to fight in opposition to those who possess capital and technology” (86).

Drone warfare clearly reconfigures the spatiality of conflict—intercontinentalizes it, perhaps—in a way that far exceeds the mobilizations that, Carl Schmitt already feared, displaced the front and its polemologico-political relations in World War I. But drone theory cannot be reduced to a treatment of the intercontinental expansion by means of which a foreign sovereign territory, such as Yemen or Somalia, comes to be represented on a screen in Nevada or upstate New York on the way to being bombarded. In the first place, any theory of the drone is ultimately a theory of a robotization of conflict that must take into account various technological developments, from the “unmanned” soldier to the miniature drone whose uses are only beginning to be exploited, from Amazon delivery vehicle (one presumes before too long) to offensive weapon. Second, as Chamayou makes clear, in its current virtualization of a theatre of operations reaching from Nevada to Mali, the drone conversely concentrates or miniaturizes its attack, in theory at least, on a single vehicle, a single room, and even a single body. In this sense, the drone operator is a high-tech sniper. The consequences are twofold: in the first place, the zone of fire is extended to the point where it “take[s] in the whole world” (56); in the second place, “by redefining the notion of armed conflict as a mobile place attached to the person of the enemy, one ends up, under cover of the laws of armed conflict, claiming the equivalent of a right to extrajudicial execution” (57). That calls into question in the most dramatic way certain foundations of the modern political order.

On the level of state sovereignty in the traditional, post-Westphalian sense, drone attacks constitute indefensible violations of the airspace and territory of countries such as Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. These violations take place on a regular basis, and involve constant diplomatic dispute, and complicated deniabilities, concerning whether permission was requested or granted. But beyond these particular inter-sovereign disputes, the whole globe is potentialized as a battlefield. For Chamayou, however, a much more important effect is constituted by the complicated transformations of political and ethical space referred to above, or the extent to which drone warfare modifies “the State’s relation to its own subjects” (177). In the traditional, Schmittian schema, the concept of the political relies on the always potential idea of soldiers exposing themselves to existential risk in fighting an enemy at the front on behalf of a nation that extends, and stands, behind them: our proverbial young men and women in uniform put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. Chamayou examines the changes that take place along these vectors of exposure and vulnerability once soldiers are no longer put in harm’s way, at least not in this traditional, existential sense; in particular, he meditates on the reciprocal effect this has upon the protection the state provides its citizens in exchange for their service—particularly military service. Not only, he argues, is the concept of combat thereby redefined, but elements of the contract binding the state to its citizens are irremediably problematized.

Chamayou goes back to Hobbes, for whom a natural state of war was to be superseded by a monarchical system where the individual’s sovereign control over his own life is ceded in exchange for protection from the Sovereign (which means, in turn, that the subject offers his life to protect the Sovereign in a time of war), before considering Kant’s late-eighteenth-century philosophy of right. As he describes it, an emphasis on “citizenship” came then to replace what was, in Hobbes, effectively a “zoopolitical sovereignty” (182) whose paradigm was slavery. In Kant’s republican schema—tending toward what we now call democracy—the sovereign has a more rigorously defined duty toward his subjects; instead of giving obedience in exchange for protection, the citizens of a republic require the sovereign who exposes them to obey them, especially when exposure means they are being asked to risk their lives in a war. That would supposedly lead the sovereign to think twice about going to war.

However, once a republican or democratic state is able to wage war without exposing its subjects, its power is no longer bound by the same constraint. In Chamayou’s analysis, this overturning of Kant’s model began with the outsourcing of military operations in the British Empire of the nineteenth century, when troops were commandeered from colonial populations to fight for the English, effectively allowing a Hobbesian monarchic commonwealth to obtain abroad so that the British population could rest easy at home as Kantian citizens. In the age of the drone, a similar military outsourcing takes place thanks to the machine: “Once warfare became phantom and remote controlled, citizens, no longer risking their lives, would at the outside no longer even have a say in it” (188).

Such a crisis in, or corruption of the democratic body politic has widespread effects, but it also has the more local effect of a crisis in, or corruption of a military ethos that remains informed by Schmitt’s traditional model of the noble Spartan wrestler-warrior, founded on values of courage and sacrifice. Of course, the rise of the drone is not the first challenge to the idea that war should be waged between roughly symmetrical forces, that it be a type of duel in which combatants on both sides are exposed and at risk, and that the fighting take place on a circumscribable field of combat in some sort of real time. That Spartan ideal has been called into question at various historical moments, and between various enemies, notably as result of technological innovation—bronze, steel, musket, missile, A-bomb, etc. By the same token, however, the principle of a type of symmetricality has endured, and led to rules of war that essentially forbid the use of “a weapon that by its very nature deprive[s] the enemy of the freedom to defend himself” (159). Prohibitions concerning mustard gas or other chemical weapons are cases in point, concerning not just the risk they pose to civilians but also the extent to which they paralyze the warrior’s virility or physicality. That drone killing is another such case in point is a view shared not only by the targets of such attacks, but also by ordinary soldiers in their reactions to the armchair security, and daily return to family, of drone operators who, supposedly, never find themselves in harm’s way. Chamayou says that “initially the most virulent criticisms of drones came not from incorrigible pacifists but from Air Force pilots, in the name of the preservation of their traditional warrior values” (99).

Chamayou does not hesitate to call this transformation of polemological standards a necro-ethics. Once counterinsurgency tactics or strategies are abandoned in favor of anti-terrorist tactics, the possibility of a political treatment of a conflict is excluded, and principles of international law are “eviscerated” in favor of “a nationalism of vital self-preservation” (134). It is no longer a question of changing hearts and minds; indeed, various official and unofficial bodies, as well as sources as unsympathetic as retired General Michael Flynn, have attested to the counterproductivity of drone killings, the fact that they produce more combatants than they eradicate. Given widespread recognition of such counterproductivity, one is led to find the motivation for a drone assassination policy in a type of culling, or grass-mowing, critiqued by Chamayou in damning terms:

The strategic plan of air counterinsurgency is now clear: as soon as a head grows back, cut if off. And never mind if, in a spiraling development of attacks and reprisals that is hard to control, the perverse effect of that prophylactic measure is to attract new volunteers. . . . Never mind if the enemy ranks thicken, since it will always be possible to neutralize periodically the new recruits, as fast as they emerge. The cull [tonte] will be repeated periodically, in a pattern of infinite eradication.


Yet the most radical and most fundamentally troubling consequence of such an anti-terrorist policy based on an extreme asymmetricality is to call into question the traditional distinction between killing in war and murder:

The right to kill with impunity in war [seems] based upon a tacit structural premise: if one has the right to kill without crime, it is because that right is granted mutually. If I agree to confer upon another the right to kill me or my people with impunity, that is because I count on . . . the same exemption.


Chamayou is adamant that, absent such a reciprocity, “war degenerates into a putting-to-death,” to a situation of “execution or [animal] slaughter [abattage]” (162); in short, to what might be called a drone penalty.

The extra-polemological status of the drone penalty is reinforced in various ways. First, it takes place by means of the participation of non-military entities such as the CIA (whose agents thereby commit war crimes). Bush introduced this practice, allowing the CIA to function in parallel with the killing priorities of the Department of Defense; it was perpetuated, then discontinued by Obama, and then reintroduced by Trump. Second, the drone penalty raises the fraught question of how a targeted combatant is defined—according to Obama’s Defense University doctrine, the US targets only those “who pose a continuing and imminent threat,” but imminence has been interpreted with an almost millenarist license. Third, the drone penalty implies the limitless extension of the war zone in both space and time. In the final analysis, summary assassination by drone kills so-called combatants in a context where there is, in many respects and according to various definitions, no combat.

The European powers scandalized by technological transformations of their own battlefields—which led to such international agreements as the Hague Convention of 1907 (laying out principles for naval bombardment), or the Geneva Protocol of 1925 (prohibiting chemical and biological weapons)—showed much less compunction when it came to employing their technological superiority against the non-European military forces and populations they were colonizing. Chamayou gives the example of Kitchener’s slaughter of ten-thousand-odd opposing soldiers with the newly invented Maxim machine gun in the Sudan in 1898. Also in use for one of the first times in that battle was the expanding “dumdum” bullet. During a discussion of the legality of such ordinance, which took place during the 1899 Hague Conference, the British General Sir John Ardagh intervened with pertinent information relating to colonial situations, a question in which “quite a large number of nations [we]re interested.” He described colonialism’s moral and military quandary in these terms:

In civilized war a soldier penetrated by a small projectile is wounded, withdraws to the ambulance, and does not advance further. It is very different with a savage. Even though pierced two or three times, he does not cease to march forward, does not call upon the hospital attendants, but continues on, and before anyone has time to explain to him that he is flagrantly violating the decisions of the Hague Conference, he cuts off your head.

The reductive dehumanization of an enemy functions consistently as the justification for extreme military measures, and discourses not so very far in tone and substance from that of General Ardagh, are again mobilized in the context of today’s anti-terrorist warfare. So it was that when sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed by a drone strike, he was reproached by Obama’s press secretary for not having “a more responsible father.” Neocolonialist policies worthy of the nineteenth century are very much on display on the new global battlefield, and one can again trace their pedigree back to the situation that has been fundamental for the development of drone warfare, namely, Israeli pacification of the Occupied Territories, and of Gaza.

For Chamayou, at the outside limit of the necro-ethics of targeted assassinations there emerges the specter of the “drone state” (31). It is spectral to the extent that it has abdicated its responsibilities in more than one respect: it has transformed Kant’s citizen-soldiers—fulfilling their duty to the republic—into assassins, thereby betraying its side of the contract that produced the state; and, conversely, it has removed from that governmental contract the (at least potential) military obligation placed upon its subjects, allowing it to wage war without their consent or even consultation. Granted, there has always existed a tension between a state’s protection and exposure of its subjects, which led Hegel to argue for a more high-minded ambition for the state, one that would cultivate a citizenry rising above the economic and biological to seek its freedom in an authentic confrontation with death. But by introducing a sense of invulnerability, by telling its subjects that they can remain protected through a war, the drone state risks not only reducing the subject’s vitality to “the preservation of physical life at all cost”; it also, more importantly, risks introducing a security state that claims to have dispensed with the tension or contradiction between protection and exposure, thereby allowing it to “freely exercis[e] war-waging sovereignty, but within the internal political conditions of sovereign security and protection” (181). The drone state, Chamayou warns—though much of the force of his excellent study consists in acknowledging that any warning already comes too late—will be a state of compliant subjects, their contestation of military adventurism neutralized by an absence of body bags, their concept of security wholly determined by the new “democratic militarism” to whose economy they blindly ascribe (188). And that blind ascription compounds into a form of subservience, even servility, attached as those compliant citizen-subjects are to a state of security whose costs remain invisible to them. They enjoy that comfort whereas, a continent away, entire populations remain slaves to fear and violence within the kill zones to which the drone state has consigned them.

David Wills
Brown University
David Wills

David Wills is Professor of French Studies and Comparative Literature at Brown University. His publications include books on film theory, and on Thomas Pynchon, as well as Matchbook: Essays in Deconstruction (Stanford, 2005) and a three-volume analysis of the originary prostheticity of the human: Prosthesis (Stanford, 1995), Dorsality (Minnesota, 2008), and Inanimation (Minnesota, 2016). His latest book is titled Killing Times: the Temporal Technology of the Death Penalty (Fordham U. Press, 2019). He has translated works by Derrida (Right of Inspection, Counterpath, The Gift of Death, and The Animal That Therefore I Am), and is a founding member of the Derrida Seminars Translation Project.

Works Cited

Chamayou, Grégoire. A Theory of the Drone. Translated by Janet Lloyd, The New Press, 2015.
The Proceedings of the Hague Peace Conferences: The Conference of 1899. Edited by James Scott Brown, Oxford UP, 1920.
Weizman, Eyal. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. Verso, 2007.

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