Book Review: Drone Theory

By Lochlann Atack

If 563 strikes across 3 countries and between 400 to 800 civilian casualties is the result of Obama’s ‘prudential limitation’ on drone use, then what does this tell us about the nature of drones? Surprisingly, despite the already vast research on the technical and historical documentation of drones, whose modern incarnation is barely more than a decade old, the literature seems to lack many attempts to answer this question.

Gregoire Chamayou’s Drone Theory, first published in French in 2013, then in English in 2015, is one of these few attempts. Drone Theory is a timely, founding text in the literature subjecting “the drone to a philosophical investigation”. Chamayou’s method is to survey (justifiably focussing on the US government) the rich pre-existing literature, in order to expose the consequences that the very idea of drones entails for everything from our ontology to our morality to our politics. As he sees it, the discourse on drones “is a battlefield”, with legislators and philosophers currently working to justify the use of drones. Chamayou finds drones reprehensible, and hence Drone Theory is “openly polemical”; its objective “to provide discursive weapons for the use of those…who wish to oppose the policy served by drones.”

The first eight chapters are dedicated to the concept of the ‘drone’- Chamayou gives the reader a comprehensive overview on what the literature has so far established about what drones are and how they are used. This covers the principles and motivations for using drones – primarily that they make warfare so asymmetrical that it no longer centres on Clausewitz’s classic ‘duel’ dynamic, but on a ‘hunting’ dynamic. In a duel, asymmetry is possible, but both duelists still put their lives at risk. With hunting, it is possible for the predator to be certain they will never be killed by their prey: the only question is if they will kill the prey. As Chamayou here remains largely impartial, he allows the harrowing facts he relates to speak for themselves (for example the inevitable inaccuracies of drone missiles or callous employment of a ‘kill box’). The message Chamayou communicates here is that drones can almost be seen to be inherently reprehensible.

The rest of the book is spent on a no-holds-barred investigation of the philosophical implications of this ominous concept. And when Chamayou eventually does “enter the fray” of tackling the arguments advocating drone use, it seems he’s the invulnerable hunter picking off his hopelessly defenceless prey. For example, in chapter eleven, drawing on empirical evidence, Chamayou effortlessly dismisses the US military’s rebuttal that drone pilots are exposed to harm (and hence able to demonstrate valour). This tension caused by the hypocrisy of the US military runs throughout Drone Theory, and is used to signify the fundamental problem Chamayou sees: we are hopelessly unprepared for life under drones. Never before have humans had the capacity to kill with so much precision and impunity.

This conclusion simmers threateningly below the surface until the final part of the book, where Chamayou relates all of his worries to the political sphere. If the description of the concept of the drone is harrowing, hearing about its implications for humanity is terrifying. At this point one gets the sense Chamayou is shooting fish in a barrel. The concept of the drone is, as he so comprehensively demonstrates earlier, such an inherently problematic one that he can choose any foundation of western society and destroy it by reminding us of the capabilities of drones.

Our established legal structures cannot cope with an entity that has free reign of the world, nevermind our traditional notions of sovereignty. Our ethical systems cannot account for something that enables a moral agent to ‘play God’ in such an unprecedented way – where it can enable that agent to assassinate someone who has been tracked from thousands of miles away. The mythical and intractable worries of Plato’s reference to the Ring of Gyges is now our reality. And yet, as Chamayou notes, drones are being used in the thousands as we speak.
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