Michele Haapamaki / Politics

In the Shadow of the Drone

The advent of drone warfare is, to many, deeply troubling. But questions that ethicists and artists are now probing have been with us for some time.

In the Shadow of the Drone

In early 2012 the conceptual artist James Bridle alighted on the idea of tracing the outlines of a predator drone outside his studio in Shoreditch, East London. He called his piece Drone Shadow 001 (above). Bridle and his collaborators are at the forefront of a mass and multi-media artistic movement dubbed ‘the New Aesthetic.’ Seeking to express new forms of being and relating in a networked age, the drone provided them with the ultimate dramatic symbol of a new world in which the consequences of the technology we have built are still unknown. He has since duplicated the physical outlines of the drone itself in Istanbul with Drone Shadow 002, and through a photo blog utilizes virtual space to impose in the viewer’s mind landscape as seen through the eyes of the predator drone. It is a world detached from humanity. The drone’s perspective is a cold and calculating one which sees all but does not perceive in the manner to which we are used to beholding either urbanity or nature.

The advent of drone warfare, especially when utilized against civilians, has provoked many questions but no easy conclusions. War without warriors, often described in dehumanizing terms such as ‘Nintendo warfare,’ is deeply troubling to the conscience. Many murky ethical problems are entailed in the combination of technology with moral decisions about acceptable war targets. Critics of US President Barack Obama’s increased use of drones against insurgent targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula (most particularly Yemen) refute his claim that their deployment in a ‘just war’ is defensible. These critics are concerned about the inevitable killing of civilians, no matter how targeted or ‘surgical’ strikes are intended to be. And what about drones equipped with Artificial Intelligence to decide on targets for themselves? Many are disturbed that this could soon be a reality. The use of drones is presently guided by four ‘rules’ outlined by the US government: ‘near certainty’ that the target is present and that civilians would not be killed or injured, impossibility of capture, the inability or unwillingness of local authorities to deal with the target, and a general lack of feasible alternatives. Critics believe that these criteria are insufficient, and in most cases not followed in the spirit of their intent.

Specific visceral questions lie at the heart of opposition to drone warfare, beyond warranted concerns over the deaths of innocent civilians. Civilians are, regrettably, killed daily in many conflicts around the world, but ‘conventional’ deaths do not provoke the same outrage as those caused by weapons which are seen as remote and, to use the phraseology of a much earlier generation, ‘ungentlemanly.’ This is true of drones and also of chemical and biological weapons, which have been ‘taboo’ since ancient recorded history. Those who deploy poison as a weapon have been deemed treacherous and cowardly. This taboo has been demonstrated most recently with the ‘red line’ warnings uttered by world diplomats in response to the strongly suspected use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. Though it is rather less certain how the world community would react to bring an end to their use, the revulsion against tools of mechanized death is clear.

The roots of this collective opinion can be traced to the early twentieth century when it became apparent that mechanization had permanently changed the face of conflict. Humans have an aversion to forms of warfare in which the warrior who perpetuates attack is far removed from the scene of destruction. We fear the unknown and the novel in the realm of warfare as in any other arena. Anthropologists have argued that weapons that imitate primitive violence – bayonets, mortars, artillery, and even machine guns – are more readily accepted by both soldiers and civilians than any form of mechanized and scientific warfare. During the First World War the use of chlorine gas attack was shocking to participants. Throughout the interwar years international treaties sought to definitively outlaw and prevent future chemical attack. Yet casualty statistics from the Great War demonstrated that the majority of soldiers who were gassed suffered relatively minor short-term effects when compared to soldiers who suffered conventional wounds. Over 90 percent of casualties returned to active duty. In short, blisters and lung damage from gas often healed (which is not to minimize the suffering of those who did sustain grave or fatal injury); grievous damage from shells and shrapnel largely did not. A few commentators in the interwar years such as Basil Liddell Hart and J.B.S. Haldane fought a fruitless minority campaign to have gas considered as a more neutral and even ‘humane’ weapon based on these grounds. But public opinion remained unchanged, and gas was viewed as essentially ‘unfair,’ even if determining fair and unfair warfare in the trenches of the Western Front was a wholly impossible task. It may not have been rational, but what mattered most was that those who initiated poison gas attacks were removed from their victims and able to enjoy protective advantages that seemed fundamentally wrong.

The divorcing of war and warrior was also evident as aerial bombing became an unprecedented threat, most particularly when utilized against civilians. This too was a startling development of the First World War and provoked many doomsday scenarios in interwar fiction and film. The most famous of these was H.G. Wells’ novel The Shape of Things to Come, which was adapted into a film released in 1936. The bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 cemented this horror. The event, which killed up to 1,650 civilians, was made famous by Pablo Picasso’s mural of the same name. Its abstract form seemed to echo the shock and bafflement of civilian helplessness against the machine and the foreboding of what technological advances meant for future warfare. Following the Second World War, nuclear weaponry and the possibility of remote destruction provided the ultimate example of the apocalyptic threat inherent in push-button warfare.

The use of drones, in comparison to the spectre of nuclear warheads, might seem relatively minor. Yet those controlling drones differ in one specific way from either the pilots of bombing aircraft or generals initiating a nuclear strike. The pilot, even if far removed from his victims, does face at least some risk in the endeavour. Though his advantage is considerable, it is not absolute. He may be shot down, captured, or suffer death or injury in an accident. Both sides in a nuclear war are well aware that ultimately, even if not immediately, they face grave consequences and possibly death should they choose to commence such an exchange. Their Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) at least theoretically puts them in the picture of victimhood.

None of these dangers attend the operator of the drone, who is both far removed and most likely completely unidentifiable. His or her war decisions will never result in personal blowback. We are familiar with the science fiction genre featuring Artificial Intelligence rising up to enslave or actively destroy humanity. But what if a rather more banal future unfolds in which the machine does serve our bidding but inevitably changes our humanity in ways we did not imagine? These are questions that ethicists and the artists behind the New Aesthetic are probing. It is worth pointing out that these questions are not as ‘New’ or novel as they might first appear. The deeply troubling potential of war with the absence of a traditionally understood notion of the noble warrior has been with us for some time. ■

The Coming of the Aerial WarMichele Haapamäki holds a PhD in History from McMaster University, Hamilton, and her new book is The Coming of the Aerial War: Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-war Britain.
Image shows James Bridle’s Drone Shadow 001 via STML.

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