The introduction of combat drones in military operations has revolutionised the art of warfare and made it possible to kill enemies from a distance. The drone is well suited to make us grasp the imaginary empowerment of the visionary organ, the eye detached from the body, which moves about on its own and looks at us. And it is the gaze which kills, which also implicates the subjectivity of drone pilots through counter-screens.
The concept of the drone dates back to the First World War, although their use took off during the Korean and Vietanamese wars with the advent of surveillance drones. They later multiplied in the 90’s with the advent of armed drones. The French army is not equipped with such models, although they are expected shortly; for the time being, they are being used for patrolling and scouting. Their use is rising exponentially – in 2011 the U.S. airforce had trained 350 drone operators in contrast to 250 actual pilots for fighter aircraft. Today, the drone has become a favoured weapon in the war against terrorism, outside the playground of traditional warcraft, unmediated by international law.
The developers of combat drones highlight their numerous tactical advantages : longer mission durations, access to previously inaccessible battlegrounds, and, most importantly, no loss of human life, as the pilot is absent from the war-theatre. The last point being the most crucial to satisfy western public opinions, who are often reluctant to sanction the deploying of troops on the ground and the loss of their children’s lives. Moreover, drones provide more precise targeting of war-agents, thereby sparing civilians as much as possible – in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
Nonetheless, in postmodern warfare -a.k.a ‘war against terrorism’-, drones can be used just for the sake of identifying the enemy. Sometimes, when intelligence operations are deemed insufficient, the American army authorises attacks against non-identifiable suspects as well. In Pakistan, drones have been responsible for a 20% civilian casualty rate over the course of 300 operations since 20041. A program named Signature Strikes aims to define the target according to simple behaviours or lifestyles without additional efforts to prove the combatant status of the personnel involved2. The location of a meeting, the kinds of people met, the nature of trips undertaken, carrying a weapon on the shoulder as well as the kind of outfit worn, are clues that may help identify a target. Such generalisations naturally lead to mistakes as well, especially as sympathy for a cause does not make one a fighter in the eyes of international law. From the point of view of those peoples they fly over, drones are literally an airborne threat. One doesn’t know where they will strike, nor why.
Another controversial point is that a large part of these American operations are directed by the CIA and not by the military: these strikes are therefore cloaked in official secrecy, which doesn’t allow victims of accidental strikes to turn towards international forums of justice. It also brings the issue of competence (if civilian members of the secret service order strikes, pilot drones and start firing) to the fore. Mere quibbling ? Maybe not. Being a part of the militia supposes an understanding of combat roles, accepting risks and owning up to consequences.
Moreover, military drone pilots are increasingly deserting their posts. Statistics reveal that 240 pilots trained by the US Airforce left over the course of a year3: « The optimal number of trained pilots is approximately 1700. However it is rare that the number touches a thousand due to the increasing number of pilots quitting service. The US Airforce has to increasingly turn to reserve personnel and commercial and cargo pilots.4» It is not a highly regarded post among the military and those who take it up are looked upon as button pushing lackeys. These departures have resulted in a reduced number of training missions, pilots suffering from burnout due to increasing demands of the job at hand, as well as a concurrent lowering of efficiency.
Since 2015, the press have had a field day highlighting the massive defections as an ‘unexplained phenomenon’ although the reports from ex-pilots were unambiguous to say the least, manifesting signs of pronounced post-traumatic stress. These reports denounced the unwholesome nature of these military operations mediated by the screen, even though the pilots were wholly secure, thousands of miles away from the victims of their strikes. They point to, primarily, the overwhelming gap between their professional and personal lives upon returning back to their families and daily civilian life.
In 2010, Philip Alston, a special reporter for the UN, denounced the «Playstation mentality» permeating drone pilots. But is this really the case? The fighters in general can certainly defend their actions by putting them at bay, as outside reality, and many indeed are soldiers suckled on video games of war. The glass teat and its pixellated images in front of which drone pilots work definitely reinforce this analogy. An ex-drone-pilot gave an example of this insensitivity when he described children in the target zone as ‘terrorists of an amusing size’5. However, as he himself admits, ‘It is not a video game. When you miss and kill the wrong person, you cannot restart the level’.
Whatever the vindication sought by the pilot to defend his actions may be, such acts imprint themselves, more so for ‘collateral damage’, i.e. strike errors and civilian casualties. Even in the case of the aimed target being the chosen one, the required surveillance to prepare for such an operation makes living with it difficult. ‘We observe the men for months, playing with their dogs, hanging up their washing. We know their habits like we know those of our neighbours, we even go to their burials… With the drone, the war becomes personal’ a recent recruit declared.6
Brandon Bryant, one of the ex-pilots who testified to his turmoil after more than five years of manning a Predator7, remembers with horror the day when – three seconds before impact- he thought he saw a child coming out of a house he had aimed and shot at. It was too late to cancel. The transmitted images come up with two to five seconds delay. While he and his colleague were questioning whether they had seen the child, a voice in their headset butted in ‘No, it was a dog’. His account testified as closely as possible to what extent the disembodiment of the pilot is not for real. The monitor doesn’t separate him from what he sees. On the contrary, this invasion by the image returns back in the subjectivity of the pilot by giving consistency to his own gaze, rendering it autonomous as it were.
Thus, Brandon Bryant, more and more disgusted with the part he was playing, wrote in his diary: “On the battlefield, there are no fighters: all there is is blood and total war. I feel so dead. I wish my eyes would rot.” He added that each time he closed his eyes, he could see every pixel of such and such a scene of agony and how, by dint of ‘seeing it all’, these horrible spectacles were more intimate than for a conventional pilot who would be leaving the area as quickly as possible. It was long after leaving this position that he stopped ‘dreaming in infrared’. As the eye of Cain pursuing him into the grave, the symptoms of Brandon Bryant were making him accountable for his actions.
War is not just a matter of technology or international law. If it has accompanied humanity from the very start, it is insofar as it places human desire -which has its own rules- at stake. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan often referred to the Hegelian myth of the master-slave dialectic, initiated by the fight to death for pure prestige, to illustrate some of the motivations of war.8 Thus, in wartime, risking one’s life is how the desire to be recognized as a man by another finds its expression. ‘This risk establishes (the master’s) superiority, and it is in the name of that risk, and not because of his strength, that he is recognized as a master by the slave.’9 Couldn’t it be that this risk that the drone pilot never takes is what –effectively- condemns his gaze to damnation, to becoming this stray object watching him?
(translation by Arunava Banerjee)
1 According to the statistics of Amnesty International. Cf. http://stories.amnesty.fr” According to the blog of Le Monde, between 2 562 and 3 325 people were killed in Pakistan between June 2004 and mid September 2012, of which between 474 et 881were civilians, including 176 children, cf. http://robots.blog.lemonde.fr
2 According to the same Amnesty International article.
3 Cf. https://fr.sputniknews.com
5 Cf. http://robots.blog.lemonde.fr
6 Cf. http://www.courrierinternational.com
7 One can find this account at : http://www.courrierinternational.comor at http://www.lemonde.fr
8 We can refer to p. 248-249 of Séminaire, livre I, Les Ecrits techniques de Freud, Paris, Seuil, 1975. 9 Ibid.