Review: A Theory of the Drone

By Anna Hadfield

“What I have to say is openly polemical,” writes Grégoire Chamayou in the introduction of A Theory of the Drone, translated from the French by Janet Lloyd, “for, over and above the possible analytical contributions this book may make, its objective is to provide discursive weapons for the use of those men and women who wish to oppose the policy served by drones.” In particular, Chamayou, a French philosopher and the author of Manhunts: A Philosophical History, is writing a book for those who, like him, are particularly horrified at the way in which academic theory and language is being utilized to justify and legitimize violence.

Such “theoretical offensives” and “semantic coups” partly consist of dry euphemisms used to describe as well as legitimize the “vast campaigns of extrajudicial executions” and slaughter—Chamayou’s preferred word—perpetrated through the use of drones. He highlights, among other instances, Air Force General David Deptula’s remark that drones “project power without projecting vulnerability,” and philosopher and drone advocate Bradley Strawser’s “principle of unnecessary risk,” which instructs that it is “morally obligatory” to preserve the lives of combatants as much as possible (through the use of drones). More broadly, however, Chamayou is referring to the systematic erosion of traditional concepts and distinctions of just warfare, a project that is legitimized through a sophisticated style of writing and argument that he terms “necro-ethics,” or the ethics of “killing well.” “More than ever, philosophy is a battlefield,” observes Chamayou. “It is time to enter the fray.”

Chamayou makes the case that the drone radicalizes certain tendencies in warfare, such that it represents a new era with new dimensions of immorality.

In his discussion of necro-ethics, Chamayou follows in the footsteps of Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, whose 2006 article “Lethal Theory” discusses how IDF officers appropriated the work of French postmodern theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari to articulate new methods of urban warfare, and whose book, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, Chamayou references. Like Weizman, Chamayou wants to investigate the logic of military violence, and in particular its ethical implications and hypocrisies. Nowhere is this flawed and immoral logic more evident, he argues, than in the drone, the “humanitarian” weapon par excellence.

Rather than argue that the drone is unprecedented in its capabilities, Chamayou makes the case that the drone radicalizes certain tendencies in warfare, such that it represents a new era with new dimensions of immorality: “By prolonging and radicalizing preexisting tendencies, the armed drone goes to the very limit: for whoever uses such a weapon, it becomes a priori impossible to die as one kills. Warfare, from being possibly asymmetrical, becomes absolutely unilateral. What could still claim to be combat is converted into a campaign of what is, quite simply, slaughter.” In their radical asymmetricality, “life-saving” drone campaigns are in fact a reincarnation of the logic of colonial violence. Nonetheless, as Chamayou points out, this is a legacy that is never actually spelled out by drone advocates, even as they point out that one-sided warfare is, historically speaking, nothing new.

Much of Chamayou’s claim about the radical nature of drones rests upon his conception of the possibly redemptive, or at least human, aspects of “what could still claim to be combat.” Foremost among these aspects is the ethic of sacrifice and putting oneself in harm’s way, and thereby having to reflect on one’s personal relationship to violence and killing: “To be aware of what I am as a combatant, it is not enough to simply handle the weapon; I must also know what it is like to be its object.” In other words, it is only by putting oneself at risk that one has the potential to become a moral agent—a capacity, Chamayou points out beautifully, that has to do less with the question of “What should I do?” than “What will I become?” And this question, in turn, rests for every soldier on the distinction between fighting and merely killing, between bravery and cowardice. As Chamayou would have it, the ethic of total self-preservation reinforced by the rise of the drone is abominable partially because it turns American soldiers into nothing more than assassins.


Despite the common claim that drone pilots are at risk of developing psychic trauma (a claim that, Chamayou argues, has little empirical basis), he suggests that the real danger to soldiers—and society at large—lies elsewhere. “…[W]hat if drone psychopathology lay not where it is believed to be, in the possible traumas of the drone operators,” he asks, “but in the industrial production of compartmentalized psyches, immunized against the possibility of reflecting upon their own violence, just as their bodies are already immunized against any possibility of being exposed to the enemy?” What is threatened by this capacity to compartmentalize is not just the “soul” of the individual soldier, Chamayou insists, but the very grounds by which a society comes to critique or reject violence. When the distinction between (honorable) fighting and (dishonorable) killing is no longer at stake, the move from “a personal refusal to a general refusal, in other words a political one” becomes irrevocably less possible.

If Chamayou is highly invested in the question of what the drone “does” to those who use it, how it shapes or numbs or compartmentalizes the American military psyche, and perhaps the population as a whole, it’s not because he is all that interested in glorifying the pre-drone combat of the liberal security state. To the contrary, he sees the drone as the natural endpoint of such a state—one that cannot politically and ethically justify the sacrifice that it calls for to its people, and so has made that sacrifice unnecessary. The drone is also emblematic, Chamayou implies, of a larger existential shift in Western values: the gradual erosion of an idea of meaningful struggle and death in favor of “an ethic based on love of life—of which the drone surely represents the ultimate expression.” (He adds that “it is certainly our lives, not life in general, that we hold so dear.”)

In addition to being a product of destructive American policies, the drone carries its own seeds of self-destructiveness.

Ethical paradigms aside, the takeaway of A Theory of the Drone is far more political than it might appear at first glance. Chamayou ends the book by quoting at length from a 1973 article entitled Science for the People, written by a group of young scientists who were aware of the military’s research programs concerning remotely piloted systems and vehicles. “First it must be pointed out,” reads the review, “that the development of the remote war technology issues from the weakness, not strength of American capitalism. In fact this technology signifies further estrangement of the system from the American people…Remote warfare will come into being because this war and any future wars waged by the American Imperialists to control the world are no longer politically acceptable to the American people.” The drone emerges as the veil begins to be lifted on the destructiveness, and self-destructiveness, of American imperialism. But it also serves to further that imperialism immeasurably—one of its crucial paradoxes. Chamayou might point out that with two-thirds of Americans supporting the use of drones, it is clear that most Americans do still support their country’s wars—but only as long as they don’t have to see or think about them, or put themselves in the line of fire.

In addition to being a product of destructive American policies, the drone carries its own seeds of self-destructiveness. Chamayou argues that the drone embodies the shift from the paradigm of counterinsurgency that “implies (apart from brute force) compromise, diplomatic action, pressure, and agreements, all of which operate under constraints,” to that of antiterrorism, which “fundamentally has to do with policing and security” and “excludes any political impact upon the conflict.” Unlike counterinsurgency, antiterrorism does not seek to understand and defeat a defined enemy; instead, it aims to eradicate any potential threats as they emerge. “According to this logic, the total body count and a list of hunting trophies take the place of a strategic evaluation of the political effects of armed violence,” Chamayou writes. As commentators such as Joshua S. Jones have argued, while the drone has made it far easier to go to war, the paradigm it serves engages in a type of war that is essentially unwinnable.

Ultimately, A Theory of the Drone is a compendium of objections—a starter’s handbook of criticisms of the drone that references widely and addresses the issue from a variety of angles. But its most interesting sections are those in which Chamayou, who is, after all, a philosopher, veers into ambitious moral and philosophical terrains that are less widely discussed with regards to drones, and which may be much more up for grabs—and are consequently where the stakes are higher.

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