What we talk about when we talk about assymetrical warfare in our time: Reflections on Grégoire Chamayou’s ‘Drone Theory’

«In the end, we see what we want to see, and the rest falls away»

Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search For Six Of Six Million, 2007

On March 7 this year, international news media reported that some 150 «militants» had been killed in a single US drone strike north of the Somalian capital Mogadishu. The drones had apparently flown from a US military base in neighbouring Djibouti. The «militants» killed were according to statements from Pentagon officials «terrorists» attending a training camp run by the terrorist group al-Shabaab, and at the time of their killing engaged in some sort of graduation ceremony at the camp which apparently was a «prelude to an imminent attack against American troops.» «There were believed to be no civilian casualties in the strike», said Pentagon officials. Or so the story goes. For whilst international news media were once more content with simply parroting the claims of US officials, others at least made the obvious point that in this case, as in so many other case of drone killings, we shall probably never know the identities of all of those killed, or for that matter, the identities of their killers.  theintercept.com/2016/03/08/nobody-knows-the-identity-of-the-150-people-killed-by-u-s-in-somalia-but-most-are-certain-they-deserved-it

It is by now an old and established story, which says a great deal of the differentiated valuation of the sanctity and dignity of human lives which abounds in today’s polarized world, in which civilians killed – whether by default or design – outside our frames of imaginable shared humanity – by and large remain both faceless and nameless. If one had any doubts to that effect in the intial phases of the so-called ‘Global War On Terror’ (GWOT) spurred by al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks on the USA on September 11 2001, statistics now offer quite overwhelming evidence of the fact that Western states fighting terrorism by means which were always bound to be dubious under international conventions on warfare and human rights, has only generated more terror. Data from the Global Terrorism Index’ report from 2015 demonstrates a nine-fold increase in the number of casualties from terrorist attacks globally between 2000 and 2014.  and a doubling between 2013 and 2014. Terror attacks are regionally concentrated, and though Europe is certainly once more in the throes of a widespread ‘politics of fear’ likely to favor policies detrimental to long-term safety and security for all its citizens, only 3 per cent of casualties have occurred in Western countries over the past fifteen years.  One may therefore safely assert that both perpetrators and victims of terrorism globally are at present more likely than not to be Muslims.

Whilst Western media offers up a regular dish of horrendous details about the latest terrorist carnage, enabling us all to expand our worst private fears 24/7, Western states are now forced to spend vast amounts on both counter-terrorism and the terrorism research industry which feeds off it. Yet the terror which one once thought could somehow be contained and confined to the Middle East has long since reached the heart of Europe.

Noteworthy in this context is the extent to which the prevalent and hegemonic framing of terrorism in our times – a framing in which both the media and terrorism studies are by and large complicit – generates its own blind zones. For as Lisa Stampnitzky has indicated in her important monograph about the emergence of terrorism studies as a separate academic discipline in the 1960s, it must be counted as part of the epistemological achievement of this discipline that hardly anyone any longer talks and thinks through the categories of state terror. A recent case in point: when the Norwegian private broadcaster TV2 recently reported on the Syrian army’s recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria from ISIS, its news anchor introduced the item by referring to “the Syrian army and the terrorist army of ISIS.” There can be no doubt, of course, that ISIS meets any qualifications one might have for describing it as a “terrorist army”, but if one cares to have a look at the number of civilian Syrians killed by the Syrian army since 2011, so does the Syrian army. We do know, of course, that a category such as state terror exists (one would be hard pressed, for example, to find people outside the far left or the far right who does not accept that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his army and intelligence services have not engaged in state terror in Syria since 2011), yet terrorism by virtue of its very definition has long since come to refer exclusively to non-state actors targeting of civilians for indiscriminate murder.

Though one should avoid the temptations of a classical but now defunct ‘Thirld Worldism’ by virtue of which the terrorism of ‘others’, tended to get romantisized as ‘resistance’ to ‘Western hegemony’ and complex processes reduced to mono-causality, we should by now be able to see that part of the pattern that we are now seeing has to do with the long afterlife of the tragically misconceived ‘Global War On Terror.’ 

Upon coming to power in 2008, US President Obama was of course quick to dismantle the rhetoric which had accompanied his predecessor George W. Bush Jr.’s self-designated GWOT. But it quickly became clear that though the conceptual apparatus of the ‘war on terror’ had been abandoned, the ‘war on terror’ did in fact continue through other means. And that for Obama, who had come to power on the promise of backing out of his predecessor’s ill-fated war in Iraq and with a quite realistic sense of the limits of military power and interventions, the weapon of choice was the drone. That very much remains the case as we approach the end of the Obama presidency,

and after it has been thoroughly documented that drones are hardly the ‘perfect weapons’ able to eliminate the risk of killing innocent civilians that their most ardent defenders seem to think of them as, and that Obama administration officials have quite often resorted to lying about the fact when civilian non-combatants have in fact been killed by drones in the predominantly Muslim countries in which it has been used. As Chamoyou wrote his book, US Forces had at their disposal more than six thousand drones; and the US now trains more drone operators than pilots of fighter planes and bombers combined (Chamayou, page 13.)  The US does not publish statistics on the number of people it kills in drone strikes – and so even though the estimated figure for drone-related deaths in Pakistan alone between 2004 and 2012 hovers between 2,640 and 3,474, US officials have only ever admitted to the drone killing of four US citizens.

The most famous of which was of course the Yemeni-born al-Qaida propagandist and recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki (1971-2011) in a remote part of Yemen in 2011. His sixteen year old son was killed in a subsequent US drone attack in Yemen one week later, a targeted assassination which under any standards of international law would seem highly problematic.

Al-Awlaki was killed by an AGM-114 Hellfire missile fired by a Predator drone, which according to Chamayou (page 141) has a «kill zone» of 15 meters. This means what it says: namely that all who happen to find themselves in a radius of 15 meters around the point of impact will be killed – or rather vaporized – along with the intended target. As recounted by Chamayou (page 146), it took the New York Times’ journalists Jo Becker and Scott Shane to reveal that US administration officials in effect count all military-age males in a [drone] strike zone as combatants, unless proven innocent after their deaths.

There can be little doubt that drones as a method for targeted assassinations have ‘worked’ in the sense that a number of high-profile terrorists around the globe have in fact been killed by drones in the past decade or so. The problem is of course that it does – as Alex de Waal and others have pointed out  – not necessarily ‘work’ in the sense of by so doing impeding or preventing recruitment to terrorist organizations – which all too often in the post-September 11 2001 era have seemed like the proverbial Hydra: cut off one head, and another and potentially far more lethal head quickly grows out.

Drone warfare has long since become something of a publishing industry, with important tomes from Mark Mazetti , Medea Benjamin, Chris Woods  and numerous others. There is a fine and award-winning Norwegian-produced documentary by Tonje Hessen Schei, featuring the former drone operator Brandon Bryant, from 2014.  And now also the inevitable Hollywood feature film by the South African-born director Gavin Hood.

However, the to my mind most insightful and incisive analysis is that offered by the young French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou (1976 – ) in Drone Theory (2015).

And the reason for this is that Chamayou, unlike most of those reporting on or writing about drones, is keenly aware of the profound philosophical questions about the laws of war past and present, about sovereignity and the notion of a shared humanity that the drone and the proliferation of its uses for the purposes of targeted assassination pose. Chamayou situates the development of the drone as a tactical weapon of choice in the long political, legal and military transition from counter-insurgency to anti- or counter-terrorism. At «a tactical level», Chamayou argues, «drone strikes are equivalent to bomb attacks. They constitute the weapons of state terrorism.» (Chamayou, page 65.).

Most of us will already have forgotten this, but there was a time before the onset of the so-called ‘war on terror’ when US officials declared their principled opposition to targeted assassinations. Mark Mazetti in The Way of The Knife (page 98) quotes the former US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, who is about as far from a peacenik as one gets, but was and remains solidly supportive of Israel, as asserting at the height of the then Israeli government’s campaign of targeted assassinations of Palestinian Hamas officials during the second Palestinian intifida that «the United States is very clearly on the record as being against targeted assassinations». «They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.»

Chamayou is right, therefore, to zone in on the Israeli connection. For drone technology was of course first developed by the military-industrial complex of Israel, and first put to use in targeted assassinations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This also means that it was Israeli philosophers and lawyers closely aligned with the same military-industrial complex went through the pains and ethical contortions it involves to try to legitimize its use in targeted assassinations. Chamayou in the introduction to chapter 11 of his book cites one Daniel Reisner, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDFs) Legal Department as asserting that «if you do something for long enough, the world will accept it» and that «international law progresses through violations.» There are clear echoes here, of course of the German far-right philosopher Carl Schmitt’s famous dictum in Political Theology (1922) to the effect that «the sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception.»

And it was of course the disgraced US Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who perhaps more than any senior US official during the ill-fated GWOT between 2001 and 2008 advocated the flaunting of international law, human rights and principles of sovereignity, who became convinced that it was a great idea to deploy the techniques of the Israeli targeted assassination programmes on a large scale (Chamayou, page 32).

And so it was to be. Though the Obama Administration abandoned the discursive apparatus of the so-called ‘war on terror’ as early as in 2008, it has more or less followed in Rumsfeld’s and President George W. Bush Jr.’s footsteps in designating the whole world as a legitimate theatre of war and the projection of US military powers: Drone strikes are routinely carried out in countries with which the US has never officially been at war, countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and and Somalia. Chamayou is right to highlight the precedents offered by the so-called ‘Global War On Terror’ (GWOT) in all of this: «With the concept of a «global war on terror», armed violence has lost its traditional limits: indefinite in time, it is also indefinite in space.» (Chamayou, page 52). And also right to note that this by and large does away with traditional notions of sovereignity: «What is emerging is the idea of an invasive power based not so much on the right of conquest as on the rights of pursuit: a right of universal intrusion or encroachment that would authorize charging after the prey wherever it fund refuge, thereby trampling underfoot the principle of territorial integrity classically attached to state sovereignity. According to such a concept, the sovereignity of other states becomes a contingent matter.» (Chamayou, page 53). Chamayou notes that Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2010 put it to the Obama Administration that the notion that the entire world was a battlefield was in fact contrary to international law (Chamayou, page 58). «By geographically confining the licit exercise of violence, the fundamental legal aim was to circumscribe it», Chamayou contends (page 59).  For it is here, in defining the sovereignity and territorial integrity of other states as contingent and expendable, that the most radical potential of drone warfare comes into full view: For how are we to know that the same technology will not eventually, and given technology’s inherent tendency to proliferate and to be used promiscuously, be turned against the warring state’s own citizens at some indeterminate point in the future?  The power bestowed by the vast technological assymetries which the drone symbolize, is the Foucaultian-Benthamian panopticon in extremis: «We are entering into the era of winged and armed panoptics.» (Chamayou, page 44). The metaphor is apt, for beyond the threat of being killed, drones can, according to people who live in areas in which surveillance and detection flights by drones are a regular occurrence, «inflict mass terror upon entire populations», as Chamayou aptly phrases it (page 45).

Now, one of the very real attractions of drones for any politician in the present conflict-ridden and polarized world is of course that it enables a minimalization of military risk to one’s own military and can be said to maximize the military risk for one’s declared enemies. Drone warfare therefore entails a radical re-configuration of the very normative  foundations of laws on warfare, premised as these were on a de-criminalization of homicide in war which in Chamayou’s terms «presupposes a structure of reciprocity» in which «the killing is allowed only because it is a matter of killing each other» (Chamayou, page 161). To the extent that drone operators develop mental problems, it seems quite related to their capacity to understand that they are not involved in a form of warfare based on such reciprocity and the notions of soldierly honour which traditionally accompanied it, but a rather paid assassins engaged in radically assymetrical forms of combat. For Chamayou, the «choice of weapons» are ethical and existential: «it radically affects what we are, and at stake in that choice is the risk of losing our soul or essence.» (Chamayou, page 195). Chamayou quotes Kant of the Doctrine of Right to the effect that a state, whilst it may have the right to turn its own citizens into combatants, does not have the right to them into assassins. Be that as it may, there is of course nothing new in sovereign states flouting those principles: think only of Nazi Germany. So far, it seems, killing by means of drones requires a human being who authorizes the killing in the form of the drone operator. I think Chamayou is right in intimating, however, that the obvious long-term aim of the military-industrial complex involved in the manufacture of drones would be to eliminate the human factor altogether. The «robotization of soldiers» would of course rule out the problem of army indiscipline: «It rules out the very possibility of disobedience, but at the cost of simultaneously suppressing the principal source of infralegal limitation to armed violence: the critical conscience of its agents.» (Chamayou, page 218). We see here exactly why the «robotization of soldiers» can not be «an ethical gain.»

Chamayou also has some smart comments for the many political, military and academic propagandists for drone warfare these days. For «if the military withdraws from the battlefield, enemy violence will turn against targets that are easier to reach. Even if the soldiers are beyond reach, civilians are not.» And «by maximizing the protection of military lives and making the inviolability of its «safe zone» the mark of its power, a state that uses drones tends to divert reprisals towards its own population.» (Chamayou, page 77). Targeting civilians is of course the hallmark of terrorism past and present, but present-day terrorists from al-Qaida to ISIS do seem to represent a further radicalization of this tendency, and Chamayou here poses a question with profound implications. «In  a globalized world, armed violence produces transnational repercussions», Chamayou argues, and so we should not feign surprise at the fact that the very central GWOT notion of «us killing them there, so they won’t kill us here» has been horrendously refuted in recent years. And it is here that Chamayou seems more darkly pessimistic than modern teleology would allow most philosophers to be: «The partisans of the drone as a privileged weapon of «antiterrorism» promise a war without losses or defeats. What they fail to mention is that it will also be a war without victory. The scenario that looms before us is one of infinite violence, with no possible exit; the paradox of an untouchable power waging interminable wars toward perpetual war.» (Chamayou, page 71-72).

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