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A Theory of the Drone

A Theory of the Drone by Gregorie Chamayou, trans. Janet Lloyd. The New Press, 2015, 304 pp.

Gregoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone delves into the ethical and moral effects raised by the United States’ position as a dominant state, its hyperbolic capabilities, the use of drones, and the increasing commonality of signature strikes. The technology has become basic: Drones were hypothesized as far back as the 1930s with their usefulness quickly converted to the battlefield. The theory of armed drones has hybridized police and army functions into what Chamayou calls a “conceptual monstrosity” (p. 33). Their use is predicated on the legal justification of the needs of armed conflict and the laws of war. Change the definitional underpinnings of armed conflict, and one frees oneself from legal restriction. Chamayou explains the causal juxtaposition by which the threats that need preempting are everywhere, in turn requiring a new understanding of the geography of killing in which the combatant on the battlefield has been flipped so that the battlefield is the combatant. This new foundational premise fundamentally changes war.

Clausewitz described war as a duel between protagonists when explaining his principles of battle. To Chamayou, drone warfare is a manhunt. Instead of combatants confronting each other, one is the hunter, and the other is the prey who flees and hides. This transitions war from what we knew to a war of the hunt. The changing relationship between what the state offers and what the citizen demands requires a change in the imposition of security. Antiterrorism has as its tactic the elimination of the emerging threats. Chamayou’s calculus is that killing breeds more terrorists, an assumption buttressed by the statistics of success, which are misleadingly simple. The positive reinforcement of the tactics of preemption leads to more killing in an amaranthine loop. Military professionals are familiar with the ne plus ultra of irregular war that the hunter must kill to win, while the hunted simply has to avoid death to win. War has become hunting and combat has become assassination.

The seduction of the drone has been the promised inevitable invulnerability. In its current form airpower is the new mythical hero, the latest in a line stretching back to Achilles, Ajax, Isfenidiyar, and Baldur. Like the giants of old, the increasingly technological aspect of warfare reveals the built-in weakness that invulnerability has—the valuation of human life, specifically, those of US citizens. Previously expected to close with and destroy the enemy, drones are the answer to America’s allergic reaction to the fate of combat (p. 77). A thousand dead in a battle in World War II led to the efficacy of airpower in Vietnam with battles of hundreds dead, which led to “smart bombs” and finally drones. As the ability to preempt casualties has increased to the point of pondering riskless wars, the death threshold—that level at which the United States is willing to sustain deaths for a cause—has dropped precipitously. Only 18 dead in Mogadishu was enough to force a retreat. The subsequent death tolls in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 4,495 and 2,380 respectively, have seen a correlative increase in drone strikes. The Obama administration’s campaign promises of ending those wars saw an increase in drone strikes of some 700 percent, expanding from Pakistan to Somalia and Yemen, according to an article in the New York Times in April 2015. The covert apathy of riskless killing has caught on: The BBC reported in October 2015 that the United Kingdom would more than double its Reaper fleet with the purchase of the new Protector UAVs. This valuation of human life has been the progenitor of the US security industries’ expanding use of drone warfare and is the visceral reaction to the suicide bomber. In an arms race, the utter devaluation of a life would be met with no life at all, but Chamayou points out that if we kill 10,000, we are not victorious, but if they kill one, they are successful. Political expediency will continue to drive the automation of drone warfare. In an effort to avoid the odium of war and potential charges of public responsibility, increasingly complex algorithms will match behavior to predetermined guilt. The desire to kill from a distance is not new; indeed, it is the goal of all commanders. Chamayou dismisses this important facet of the discussion of drone wars in his goal to maximize his argument and minimize those to whom a drone is, literally, the difference between life and death. Technological supremacy gives giant advantage to one side or the other, with spectacular results, such as General Lord Kitchener’s machine guns mowing down 10,000 Mahdi at Omdurman at only the cost of 50 British. The implication is that there is a disguised element of racism in the use of untouchable, technologically advanced weapons against tribes not far removed from witchcraft and magic. Other examples conveniently leave out the ugly truth of aggression (p. 131). Many times throughout the book, Chamayou uses the 1999 war against Serbia to demonstrate the operationalization of “riskless war.” To protect aircraft and crews from air defenses, NATO accepted the risk of the potential killing of civilians (collateral damage) flying at 15,000 feet, a distance that at that time limited identification of targets. Chamayou does not mention that Serbia was guilty of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, in addition to atrocities in Bosnia and Croatia, and the air war launched to save Muslims.

Chamayou returns to the individual moral argument about the equality of combat, the obligation to reduce risk to soldiers and the emerging hazard of removing that risk completely (p. 155). With no risk, politicians can invoke the drone to dispatch problems, with the covertness of strikes in the illiterate third world providing little chance of discovery.

This separation of the public-personal from the dirty end of killing shunts aside public outcry that would arise from deploying very expensive and valuable people to the far ends of the earth. Perhaps Chamayou’s best lesson to the military professional comes early in his work (p. 62). He touches on the idea that superiority drives asymmetry; dominating offensive tactics will drive the enemy to develop his own methods that work, the IED and suicide bomber. This new US method is asymmetrical to how our enemies would want to fight, and there is some poetic justice. Drones are meant to make the enemy feel helpless; they are a psychological weapon (p. 173). Remember the lament of the mountaintop mullah who cried, “We can’t fight these bombs; give us Americans to kill!” Asymmetry works two ways. As the United States prepares its digital weapons, it inevitably will forget about networks and strong bonds. In the same way past enemies forgot landmines and guerilla warfare, the enemy will reinvent the old analog ways of killing, against which there will be no defenses.

Chamayou’s lengthy discussions of jus ad bellum are meant to invoke the idea of basic fairness in war. The uncaring and untiring drone archiving for days the lives of our enemies cannot be the adjudicator of analysis that builds the case that a person’s actions are consistent with terrorist activity, the all-knowing eye (p. 58). It is either policing or combating but cannot do both. Chamayou is telling us that one cannot, despite legal acrobatics, separate the personal from the killing. In war, to kill is a reaction. In drone wars, the act of killing is the culmination of the hunt. In war, a soldier is defending himself, but in the hunt, there is no threat. Justice requires the opportunity to confront one’s accuser, police or soldier, and for the judge to accept responsibility for imposing the ultimate judgment. Whereas drone warfare has trophies (the hunt) and statistics as success, warfare should return to strategy and policy, necessarily much more difficult politically (p. 68). If drone strikes are not war, then are they a crime? Chamayou’s most important contribution to the philosophy of war is shouting out that life at both ends of killing demands a pause, an acceptance that combat is a most unfortunate option, and a rejection of the idea of riskless war. The lesson of A Theory of the Drone is that it is not research to kill the defenseless, even those intent on murder.

LTC Phil Reynolds, US Army

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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