Drone Fetishism and Shadow Warfare

Drone technology—for better or worse—heralds the deconstruction of modern geopolitics and warfare.

| June 2019

Photo by Getty Images/Stocktrek Images.

On a night map of the earth, the electric glimmer of capitals and coastlines contrasts with darkened areas inland, in the poor interior parts of Africa and Asia. Light against shadow. On versus off grid. Some war-on-terror operators talk about the off-grid world as their terrain. There, in its mountainous folds, the night air swarms with metallic machays (wasps), as Pakistani Pashtuns call the killer drones. Sensors alert, the wasps search the grounds with patience and care, their unblinking eyes fixed on human targets rendered in thermal infrared.

Drones swarm through the hive mind of our times. The “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) or “remote-piloted aircraft” (RPAs), the Predators and Reapers of the global war on terror, keep spawning Hollywood flicks and news stories that range from fascination to horror to horrified fascination. Drone-speak has also migrated from shadow warfare into the light of day, as newspapers lap up stories of home-piloted minidrones in near crashes with airplanes or discuss the pros and cons of Amazon’s Prime Air. Strategists fear terrorist weaponization of the toy drones, generating a growing market in antidrone defense systems, while others worry that the migration of drone-speak into the civilian realm normalizes the technology’s military usage. As I watch my son’s favorite cartoon, Paw Patrol, I am inclined to agree as he cries out “Drone!” whenever Chase the police puppy unleashes a surveillance UAV from the back of his primary-color-blue vehicle.

Drone fetishism is all around. To some, killer drones are the principal tool of an everywhere war without end and without legality, the omen of robo-wars to come. To war-on-terror strategists, drones rather allow for targeted killings with “minimal collateral damage,” or civilian deaths (usually, though, they define all more-or-less adult males as combatants, misrepresenting the figures). Still others hail drones’ capacity to monitor distant areas for humanitarian or peacekeeping purposes, especially where soldiers or aid workers cannot tread—witness the United Nations Refugee Agency and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali extolling their unarmed UAVs in the Sahel as they respectively monitor displaced people and jihadist movements. Unarmed drones can be used for both surveillance and intimidation in a form of militarized policing of rebellion first tested by peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and later deployed by the Swedish forces around Timbuktu. At the gates of the rich world, UAVs are also of a piece with the militarized quest to detect and intercept migrants, from Mediterranean coastlines, to the deserts of Arizona, where they hold out hope of an omniscient techno-border of sorts.

Leaving aside the rights or wrongs of today’s dronophiles and dronophobes as they debate such applications, they share a tendency to treat UAVs as things somehow magically imbued with action. In this, they are but the latest in a long line of technological dystopians and utopians, ranging from nineteenth-century Luddites to glorifiers of the “revolution in military affairs” at the turn of the millennium. Yet we must set aside any lingering technological determinism to see—as Marx would advise—the drone as part of a system of human labor, inquiring into the logics of this system as well as into its resonances beyond the battle space.

One thing should be clear from our descent so far into the global danger zones: that the windowless wasps buzzing through the “AfPak” borderlands are but part of a wider architecture of warfare. In this “shadow war,” the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) launches its killing sprees in cooperation with the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the US Army, who work together via drones, door-kicking, and military intelligence. Theirs is “a new kind of warfare where men and machines merge,” as one much-touted journalistic profile, “Confessions of a Drone Warrior,” puts it. They form a network, and they operate in a world where killings are talked about as “mowing the lawn” and drone victims as “bugsplat.” As one of JSOC’s number renders their godlike powers: “We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen.”

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