Book review. Drones: the delusion of seeing what we want to see


  • We kill because we can: From soldiering to assassination in the drone age, Laurie Calhoun, Zed Books, 2015.
  • Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of High-Tech Assassins, Andrew Cockburn, Verso, 2015.
  • Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare, William M. Arkin, Little, Brown and Co., 2015.

We Kill Because We Can is a 300-page tirade on drones from cultural critic Laurie Calhoun.  Focusing on the use of drones for targeted killing, each chapter is more or less a self-contained polemical essay, with titles such as ‘Strike First, Suppress Questions Later’ and ‘The New Banality of Killing’.  I can’t disagree at all with Calhoun’s overall argument that “both the practise of and propensity towards institutional killing has been transformed by this new technology.”  However the tone of seething rage did begin to grate after a while.  Perhaps best kept as a resource to be dipped into if your anger about drone warfare needs re-kindling.

On all altogether different plane is Andrew Cockburn’s Kill Chain: Drones and the rise of the High-Tech AssassinsCockburn’s analysis, while certainly trenchant, is set in historical context and extremely well researched.  Chapter Five for example, ‘It’s not assassination if we do it, excellently documents a long history of US targeted killing (and its lack of effectiveness) starting with the assassination of Admiral Yamamato in WW11, through Guatemala in the fifties, Vietnam and the Phoenix program in the sixties and seventies, and the failed attempt on Colonel Gaddafi’s life via airstrikes from a fleet of F-111’s launched from the UK in 1986.

Equally well laid out is the fallibility of these remote systems, in contrast to the exaggerated claims of ‘defence’ companies, which are seemingly endlessly swallowed by military procurement officials and the media.  Details of the inadequacies of Gorgon Stare – supposedly able to overcome the narrow ‘soda straw’ view of drone cameras by ‘sewing together’ video feeds – were new to me.  According to reports Cockburn quotes, while this systems has been repeatedly trumpeted by officials and the press, the reality is that instead of giving full motion video (minimum of 24 frames per second), it achieves a mere 2 frames per second with lots of blind spots.

Throughout the book, Cockburn gives examples of how military officials have chosen to believe the ‘intelligence’ delivered by the (inadequate and partial) drone feed as well as NSA intercepts over the experience, eyes and ears of those on the ground.  Time and time again they were wrong to do so.  From low-lit, high-tech control rooms thousands of miles away commanders believe they are in control of what is happening on the ground, but as Cockburn details, the reality is they merely see want they want to see.

Focusing on this aspect in even more detail is William Arkin’s Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect WarfareArkin, a former military intelligence specialist turned journalist focuses on the ‘Global Information Grid’, the network of US military information systems that he dubs ‘the Data Machine.’  Arkin insists that “it is the Machine that is the story, not the drones.”

Using the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh as a kind of metaphor (stay with me) Arkin charts the rise of the Data Machine from the failure to find Saddam’s Scud missiles in 1991, through to the birth of the Distributed Common Ground System (DGCS) in 1994, and then the ever-increasing desire to hoover up as much data as possible in order to acquire, analyse and distribute ‘actionable intelligence’.  As Arkin somewhat sarcastically puts it, by 2008 huge number of varying systems were able to receive information from a variety of unmanned systems: “video and imagery and the magic data stream… all fused together, one image under God”.

While being less sceptical than Cockburn about the abilities of the various information acquiring nodes that feeds ‘the Data Machine’ (and he names a huge number including Windjammer, Airhandler, Gilgamesh, Nebula etc.) Arkin makes clear that the sheer amount of data being collected “masks the intelligence.  Processing, exploitation and dissemination of data has become both the leading and limiting factor argues Arkin, and the point has been reached where “there is no way of saying enough might be enough.”

Towards the end of the book Arkin reflects on the implication of all this, arguing (rightly I would say) that society is increasing divorced from its war making, “partly due to unmanning”.  He goes on:

“Drones and their puppeteer, the Data Machine, may have developed from some sense of need and good, but no matter what, this machine is going to kill, and it’s going to make godlike decisions.  In the end, having this Machine between us and the killing is making us less human.

Drones – and the ‘Data Machine’ – give the illusion of being able to know, understand and control what is happening on the ground thousands of miles away via remote armed systems.  The reality, as we shall no doubt continue to see, is just the opposite.


A version of this review first appeared in December 2015 Peace News.

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