Life in the Age of Drone Warfare by Lisa Parks and Caren Kaplan (Editors).
Weaponized drones are efficient killers. Though the history of drones or Unmanned Aerial
Vehicles (UAVs) goes back to World War I, the literature on implications of drone warfare has
emerged only recently. Lisa Parks’ and Caren Kaplan’s edited volume, Life in the Age of Drone
Warfare (2017) is the latest and probably richest constellation of perspectives on drone warfare
and its effects on various dimensions of life. Prior to this volume, Akbar Ahmad’s Thistle and
the Drone (2013) foregrounded drone warfare as targeting tribal Islam in North West of
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Grégoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone (2015)
complicated the notions of distance war and counterinsurgency through air, and revisited the
genealogy and psychopathology of the drone. In Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and
the Rise of the Drone (2015), Scott Shane studied the drone-terrorist connection, explaining why
Barack Obama, a technology-loving president of the US, preferred drones as an anti-terrorism
tool. Ian Shaw in his Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance (2016)
argued that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US multiplied the manufacturing and deployment
of weaponized drones so that “American empire is transforming from a labor intensive to a
machine- or capital-intensive system: the Predator Empire” (Shaw 10).
Methodologically, the book privileges “critical humanities, post-structuralist, and
feminist perspectives” (Parks and Caplan 7) to support cultural-theoretical underpinnings of
“drone technology [...] and its relation to life worlds on Earth” (Parks and Caplan 9). Persisten
use of drones to kill people in the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen,
and Somalia increasingly normalizes distance wars with a total disregard for the sovereignty of
these countries. The selections here question the “ethics of drone warfare,” (Parks and Caplan 2)
counter the dominant rhetoric of the precision of drone-strikes, and demonstrate that “drone
warfare is far from humane […]” (4). The book’s goal is to introduce “new critical languages
and technical histories” to enable a discourse that contests the “emergent paradigm of
militarization and warfare” (Parks and Caplan 19).
This interdisciplinary intervention into drone-related debates is divided into three parts, each comprising five chapters. The first part, “Juridical, Genealogical and Geopolitical Imaginaries” taps into some of the unimaginative drone-debates to uncover their imaginative potential. Derek Gregory invokes the colonial and racial imaginary by arguing that the drone operation in the borderlands of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan “reactivates a colonial form of power in a radically new constellation” (Parks and Caplan 45) and “strips those who live under them of their well-being and dignity” (Parks and Caplan 52). Lisha Hajjar plunges into the juridical imaginary of drone violence when she contends that the war on terror, launched by the Bush administration after 9/11, is “an unprecedented project of state lawfare” because the US cleared the legal ground by setting aside Geneva conventions as “inapplicable to a war against stateless enemies” (Parks and Caplan 64). Hajjar proposes the imaginary of resistance through counter-lawfare; the anti-drone activists and drone-victims must challenge “law violations by powerful states, even when immediate results are losses in court” (Parks and Caplan 84). Katherine Chandler traces a genealogical imaginary of drones to the 1930’s when “American drones were put forth as analogous to Japanese kamikazes” (Parks and Caplan 90). She contradicts the United States’ claim that drones are more humane than Japanese Kamikazes, and posits that in drone-formations, “human and machine are produced in tension with each other…” (Parks and Caplan 91). Recognizing the centrality of human to drone warfare, Andrea Miller turns to a juridical imaginary and describes drones as a materialization of the United States’ policy of preemption. She argues that a weaponized drone embodies a “racializing technology” (Parks and Caplan 113). She bases her analysis on two US citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a US drone strike in 2011 in Yemen, and Tarek Mehanna, whom the US arrested and jailed in 2012 in the US. Their crime was “their online activity” and their “potential to inspire future would-be terrorists to commit violent actions” (Parks and Caplan 112). This is how “affective realms”— “inspiration, desire and imagination”—become “actionable and criminal for racialized Muslim and Arab bodies in the war on terror” (Parks and Caplan 113). To conclude the section, Lisa Parks explores the material imaginaries of US drone operations and the United States’ “vertical mediation” (Parks and Caplan 136) in the social lives of the people. Situating drones in “the infrastructural, the perceptual, and the forensic” frames (Parks and Caplan 136), she scrutinizes relevant Google Earth screenshots, training manuals, infrared images, and drone crash photos. Her inference is concrete and convincing: drones “reorder, reform, and remediate life on Earth in a most material way” (136).
Part II, “Perception and Perspective” invites the reader to ponder the impressions weaponized drones etch in the minds of the viewers. The contemporary debates perceive drones as “‘new’ things of the present moment” but Caren Kaplan contends that the notion of newness ignores the “most traces or connections to the past” and thus misleads “historical, ethical, and political analysis and critique” (Parks and Caplan 161). She deconstructs “drone discourse” undoing the divides of domestic versus foreign and “old” versus “new” (Parks and Caplan 166). While we revisit the history of drones, we also find some futuristic perspectives, like the one Ricardo Dominguez advances as a “utopian plagiarist gesture” to transcribe a future of drone warfare (Parks and Caplan 194). In a narrative snapshot of Pakistan, Dominguez imagines “tagging” that tracks the people engaged in “civil disobedience” (Parks and Caplan 181). As a scarier and more violent development, the U. S. Air Force acquires drone-competency to employ “weather as a weapon” and wage a “weather warfare” (Parks and Caplan 183). The dystopian potential of drones remains essentially ambivalent as a serious anecdote of a drone-crash turns out to be “a minor simulation” (Parks and Caplan 193). Because of their dependence on live-simulation and capacity for “image production,” drones become, in Thomas Stubblefield’s words, legitimate subject for aesthetics and arts (Parks and Caplan 195). Drone art and literature question “the invisibility that popular discourse ascribes to the UAV as well as the larger framework of surveillance through which its operations tend to be read” (Parks and Caplan 201). Surveillance makes drones tools of state-violence to the extent that they invoke the histories of the imperialism. Madiha Tahir tracks the history of the bombardment of North West Frontier Province of Pakistan (now named as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to 1915 when the British bombarded the British India Frontier. She argues that just like the British colonial power, the US is employing “racialized cultural justifications” for controlling the rebellious tribesman from above (Parks and Caplan 221). The section also offers some perspectives on resistance. Anjali Nath analyses “affective registers that challenge the visual logics of drone warfare” (Parks and Caplan 242). Scaffolding her argument on Jack Halberstam’s “low theory,” she empowers “wilful absurdity” of South Asian American rapper Himanshu ‘Heems’ Suri’s “Soup Boys: Pretty Drones” (Youtube 2012) that renders “drones as ...troubling aerial presence” (Parks and Caplan 242).
Part III, “Biopolitics, Automation, and Robotics” takes into account the interaction between weaponized drones and humans, and the new subjectivities this interaction produces. Jeremy Packer and Joshua Reeves investigate the United States military’s race for “software superiority” and spotlight the experimentation “with taking humans out of as many links in the chain of command as possible” (Parks and Caplan 263). The absolute excision of humans from the warfare technology enables a “computerized automation of enemy epistemology” (Parks and Caplan 273). The US empire thus is executing “nonhuman models of knowledge and communication” to identify and kill the suspect terrorists (Parks and Caplan 273). Peter Asaro takes a diametrically-opposed position when he argues that the largely unrecognized labor of the drone pilot creates a subjectivity which “sits at an intersection of multiple networks of power and technology, visibility and invisibility” (Parks and Caplan 283). Despite its deep imbrication in technology, drone operations depend on human mediation that has often caused grave errors of judgement. However, this revelation will surprise some readers that drone crew suffer stress, burnout and PTSD for their over work, meager job prospects, the frequent shifts between domestic and combat zones, and more importantly for witnessing “the violence of their own lethal decisions” (Parks and Caplan 311). As if to verify Asaro’s assessment, Brandon Bryant, a former sensor operator of the US Air Force and a whistleblower describes his experience as a drone operator and his conflict between duty and conscience. When he was assigned to target Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, he felt he was violating his oath as an American citizen. He observes that those who consider a drone operator as nothing more than one playing a video game are wrong because the act of killing through drones brought him alienation “not from our targets but with myself” (Parks and Caplan 318). Jordan Crandall contradicts the drone-pilot: drones function as “intelligent systems” with their automated cognition, withdrawing their reliance on human thought-process (Parks and Caplan 328). The invention of drone marks an “ontological break” with the conventional human-machine mutualism (Parks and Caplan 328). Crandall’s play with binaries becomes provocative when he refuses to replace a new binary with the one he negates: “...it is not that there is no pilot inside” the drone, “but that there is no inside” of the drone (329). Shifting from theoretical to literary, Indrepal Grewal analyzes George Brant’s play Grounded and Hari Kunzru’s short story “Drone” to enable “a literary and cultural critique” of weaponized drones, the agents of the “technoscientific rationality” of the US empire (346). Grounded vivifies the drone-pilot as an emerging subjectivity that is both accomplice and victim of “U. S. empire’s lethal military and policing power” (Parks and Caplan 348).
The chapters initiate diverse debates but are not without limitations. Derek Gregory appropriates Giorgio Agamben to label the sites of drone strikes as “space of exception” (Parks and Caplan 52). However, Gregory is not convinced that we can reduce the people in North Waziristan to what Agamben calls “bare life” (Parks and Caplan 52). I will suggest otherwise: Agamben’s biopolitical paradigm to study drone strikes does not necessarily make the victims of drone violence refugees of concentration camps, Agamben’s actual example of “bare life.” Gregory’s acknowledgment of North Waziristan as representative of a state of exception, but his reservation with qualification of drone-victims as bare-life is indeed a paradox. Agamben’s own suggestion opposes Gregory’s when the former observes that “…if the essence of the camp consists in the materialization of the state of exception and in the consequent creation of a space for naked life as such, we will then have to admit to be facing a camp virtually every time that such a structure is created” (Agamben 40-41). The state of exception produces bare-life: they co-exist.
Moreover, none of the chapters dealing with the connection between art and drone warfare take into account the artistic and cultural responses originating from the victims of drones. Mahwish Chishty, a Pakistani-American artist exploits truck art, a quintessential Pakistani cultural expression, to create what she calls “drone-art” (Chishty). A discussion on how the tribal/native music, songs and other art-forms respond to drones could have added an authentic dimension to the book. Also, the chapters dealing with literary expressions about drones ignore the drone-victims at the sites of war on terror. Indrepal Grewal regards the drone-pilot in Grounded as a victim of the empire. However, one wishes to read about the victims of the empire who are persistently exposed to Hellfire missiles. For example, Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me: A Gaza Diary (2016) and Mohsin Hamid’s short story “Terminator: Attack of the Drone,” (2011) voice the traumas of the people experiencing deaths by drone and aerial violence, yet such literature does not get any substantial mention in the book.
No doubt, the strength of the book lies in the variety of disciplinary approaches it encompasses, and in the plurality of geographical and cultural perspectives it accommodates. From juridical to artistic to literary to political to cultural—the volume provides provocative discussions for academics interested in weaponized drones and specializing in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Indirectly, the book also advocates the potential of Humanities in generating critical reflection about the tools of imperial violence and in delegitimizing the global warfare as well as its underlying neoliberal capitalist agenda that protects the funding, manufacturing and selling of the lethal drones. The book, an indispensable reference for any serious study about drones, reinforces the humanistic and cultural discussion about drone programs largely wrapped in secrecy or scientific technicalities.
Agamben, Giorgio. Means without End: Notes on Politics.(Tr. Binetti and Casarino) University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Chishti, Mahwish. “Drone Art.” http://www.mahachishty.com/#/drone-art-series/
Parks, Lisa and Kaplan, Caren. Life in the Age of Drone Warfare. Duke University Press, 2017
Shaw, Ian. Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.