Book Review: ‘Drone Theory’ by Grégoire Chamayou (Trans: Janet Lloyd)

drone-theoryREADING WEEK:  The second in our short series of book reviews related to the use of armed drones.

Henrietta Cullinan reviews  Drone Theory by Grégoire Chamayou

‘One side loses people, the other side loses toys. All that is left is the shooting and the dying…..and toys don’t die.’
Toys against the People, or Remote Warfare,   Science for the People Magazine, May 1973, quoted in the Epilogue

When US armed drones, operated by teams in the Nevada desert, conduct air strikes over Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, countries the US is not at war with, when the battlefield is a ‘killbox’, when drones are only one step away from fully automated robots, it is time for philosophy to demolish the arguments put forward in support of their use.

In his book, Drone Theory, the French thinker Grégoire Chamayou guides us through the philosophical and legal debates that challenge the moral and ethical implications of modern drone warfare. Chamayou’s use of intriguing cultural references makes for an exhilarating ride: a drone is a ‘moral hazard’, a weapon without a body, a pretense, a toy. Each short chapter examines drone warfare from a different view-point and applies a different argument and can be considered by itself, providing rich material for further discussion.

Following Simone Weil, and the materialist method, Chamayou begins by saying we must take apart and examine the means and the consequences of the means. This could be examining the weapon, even knowing about the specifications of the hardware and the software. This could be knowing about the committing of armed violence, the number of casualties. But equally important is knowing what the effect is on us as individuals, on our humanity and on us as the citizens of a drone using state. We need to consider the consequences of being ‘bound’ to this technology on our legal frameworks, on our ethics.

“It would be a mistake to limit the question of weaponry solely to the sphere of external violence. What would the consequences of becoming the subjects of a drone state be for that state’s own population?’

Chamayou depicts the drone as a terrifying Gorgon, who turns her victims to stone with her gaze. People living under the threat of drones are literally petrified. He likens the drone to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, later analysed by Foucault, an instrument of surveillance and control, where it is enough for the prisoners to believe they are being watched by an invisible guard. Now the panopticon has coordinates and wings.

Being based on philosophical enquiry, several of the chapters concern the discussion of doubt (aporia). Drones have caused a crisis of military ethics, and possibly here is a chink in the new kind of armour. In two live transcripts quoted in the book, one  in the preface and one in the story of Brandon Bryant, the drone operator is unsure whether to shoot, and unsure whether the target is legitimate. Is it a child or a dog? Bryant describes the seconds leading up to a strike in slow motion, when he felt he had to count every pixel. Doubts are expressed about whether drone pilots could be awarded medals, since medals are awarded for bravery. The chapter on counterinsurgency, where drones have caused a U-turn in military strategy, asks whether there are even combatants in a drone war, since it is impossible to fight a drone and those on the ground have no one to fight.

Chamayou compares drone warfare with colonial pseudo wars, such as took place in Sudan in 1898, where ten thousand dervishes were killed by Anglo Egyptian forces, who only suffered 48 fatalities. Supporters use such examples to show that asymmetrical warfare is nothing new. Chamayou asks why this should be seen as a reason to make drone warfare defensible, concluding that the drone is ‘the weapon of amnesiac post colonial violence.’

The drone produces a crisis of doubt in the language of military ethics, which claims that the drone is a ‘humanitarian weapon’. In a world where soldier’s lives are seen as more precious than those of civilians the drone is seen as less evil and therefore good. Choosing a lesser evil is still evil. The language of murder becomes the language of care.

The section that I found most powerful and would recommend for activists is in ‘Political Bodies’. Chamayou introduces the idea that drones alter the relationship between citizens and the state. He describes the centuries old contradiction between the desire of the state to go to war and the state’s obligation to protect its citizens. A later chapter quotes Kant’s Doctrine of Right. The state cannot ask the citizens to undertake actions that would lessen their humanity, such as assassination or poisoning.

In the ‘Essence of Combatants’ Chamayou discusses a famous story from Lussu where two soldiers discuss whether to shoot a naked soldier, who is having a bath. One says, ‘I’m not going to fire on a man alone, like that’. He recognises the naked soldier, without his uniform, as a fellow human and cannot shoot. Chamayou refers to the philosopher Cora Diamond, who says it is not ideas of right and wrong that stop him from shooting but the fact that he does not wish to, being fearful of what he might become. He then asks his friend to shoot if he wants.

According to Chamayou, this is the moment when the soldier’s refusal moves from a personal refusal to a political one. “We are not a nation of killers’ or ‘Not in our name” are slogans from anti-war protests that repeat this idea on a larger scale.

The subjective refusal to shoot, can turn into a political one when we together decide to refuse and form a movement. The danger is that the decision to go to war has been taken away from us by the absence of the need for soldiers. The state no longer needs large numbers of citizens to form an army. Instead it can carry on perpetual war, in secret, without regard to the political cost. Therefore the citizens have lost their bargaining power.

But Chamayou argues, there is another limiting factor arising; that now that the citizens are in opposition to the warmongering state, the state might just use drones on the citizens. His hopeful message is that the drone and its robot descendants are only machines that piss gas, belches black smoke, that can end up on the scrap heap, that are vulnerable and not very effective.

I found this a very fruitful book, which prompted discussion with fellow drone activists. It presents different ways of interpreting and challenging drone warfare, both historical and current. Some arguments would be hard to use on the street at an anti-drones vigil but I sincerely recommend that all peace groups try out a couple of chapters for roundtable discussion.

About the reviewer:

Henrietta Cullinan  is a writer and activist and blogs at Henrietta Cullinan . You can follow her at @Henrietta_


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