On unintended consequences.

On unintended consequences.

After our current president ordered the assassination of an Iranian general by drone, my class in jail discussed excerpts from Gregoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone.

Chamayou argues that drone warfare is qualitatively distinct from other forms of state violence.  The psychological rift stems from asymmetry – one side risks money, the other risks life. 

The use of drones keeps U.S. soldiers safer.  But in Chamayou’s opinion (translated by Janet Lloyd, and slightly modified by me for students to read aloud),

If the U.S. military withdraws from the battlefield, enemy violence will turn against targets that are easier to reach.  Even if soldiers are safe, civilians are not.

Drone warfare compels enemy combatants to engage in terrorism.  They cannot shoot back at the soldier who is shooting them – that soldier might be sitting in a nondescript office building thousands of miles away, unleashing lethal force as though it were a video game.

I don’t mean to trivialize the suffering of U.S. soldiers who are involved in drone warfare.  Pilots have an extremely high suicide rate – they are expected to placidly shift from the battlefield to the civilian world each evening, and this is deeply disturbing to most people.

But enemy soldiers cannot fight back.  They could shoot down the drone, but the U.S. military would launch a new one.  There’s no comparison between that and the drone shooting a missile at your family’s home.

Image by Debra Sweet on Flickr.

An enemy combatant can only put U.S. lives at risk by attacking the general public.

Our policies don’t always have the outcomes we want.

Not unexpectedly, somebody in class mentioned the War on Drugs.  Banning marijuana caused a lot of problems, he said.

Somebody else disagreed – he’s been in and out of prison on drug charges for seventeen years, but has high hopes that this next stint of rehab is going to take.  “I still think marijuana’s a gateway drug.  That’s what I started with.”

“It’s not pot, it’s the lying about pot.  They say over and over that marijuana’s as bad as heroin.  What do they think will happen once kids realize marijuana’s safe?”

“If people could’ve bought pot, maybe nobody would’ve invented spice.  Like that K2 stuff was sold as incense or whatever, but everybody knew it was pot replacer.”

“You take this,” a guy said, holding up a sheet of paper, “spray it with spice, send it into prison.  Two thousand dollars, easy.  You get somebody to OD, then everybody’s gonna want some.  People like that feeling, right at the brink between life and death.”

Somebody sighed.  “I know.  I’ve done a lot of drugs, and with most drugs, I could take it or leave it.  But that spice, man.  No offense to anyone, but I’ve never sucked cock for drugs.  For spice, though, I’d think about it.”

“You just get so sick.”

“So sick!  I’ve kicked heroin, and that feeling sick was bad.  But not like this.  There were weeks when I had to set an alarm, get up every two hours to take another hit.  Otherwise I’d wake up puking and shitting myself.  And I’d be in there, you know, sitting on the toilet with a bag, still taking my hit.”

“I got that too.  I was waking up every ninety minutes.”

“Would you have started smoking spice if marijuana was legal?” I asked.

“I mean, yeah, now you’re gonna have people who would.  Because everybody knows about it.  Like you had that summer two years ago, people all along the street, up and down Kirkwood, smoking it right out in the open.  But, like, before it all started?  Nobody would’ve sat down and tried to invent spice if they could’ve sold pot.”

“I remember reading a review of K2 spice on Amazon,” I said, “must’ve been in 2008, before it was banned, all full of puns and innuendo.  The reviewer was talking about how it made him feel so ‘relaxed,’ in quotes.”

“ ‘Relaxed,’ shit, I get that.  I never touched the stuff before this last time I came to jail.  But I’ve smoked hella marijuana.  So somebody handed it to me and I took this giant hit, the way I would, and I shook my head and said, ‘Guys, that didn’t do shiii …’ and, BAM, I fell face first into the table.”

“You were so out of it!”

“It was like, WHOA, blast off.  I was lying there, like flopping all over.  That night I pissed myself.”

“That sounds … “ I said, “… bad.  A whole lot worse than smoking pot.”

“But you can get it!”

And there lies the rub.  With so many technologies, we’re playing whack-a-mole.  We solve one problem and create another.  But sometimes what comes up next isn’t another goofy-eyed stuffed animal mole – the arcade lights flash and out pops a hungry crocodile. 

Since people couldn’t buy pot, they started smoking a “not-for-human consumption” (wink wink) incense product that you could order online.  Since enemy combatants can’t shoot back at soldiers, they plant more bombs in subways.

As one American soldier explains, “We must understand that attempts to isolate our force against all potential enemy threats shifts the ‘burden of risk’ from a casualty-averse military force onto the populace.  We have lifted the burden from our own shoulders and placed it squarely upon civilians who do not have the material resources to bear it.”

On military drones.

On military drones.

http://dronesurvivalguide.org/
Drone Survival Guide, an art project by Ruben Pater.

Sleep Dealer is a lovely film.  Flawed, sure — the romantic bits are corny, the characters’ sudden shifts of heart are abrupt — but the ideas behind the film and they way they’re depicted are great.  If you like mildly-speculative science fiction that conveys powerful social commentary, you should definitely look for it.

sleep-dealer-workBut you should look for it soon, because some of the sci-fi components won’t be fiction long.

For instance, the murderous drones.  I watched Sleep Dealer shortly after it was released (meaning, as soon as the Stanford library bought a copy of the DVD), and the drones were pretty shocking.  One character is a soldier who participates in a live-action reality TV show where home viewers are shown a drone’s eye view of the war on terror.

Of course, there are many ways to decide who counts as a terrorist.  In the Ramayana, for instance, it’s considered terrorism for a low-caste man to pray in the same manner as his betters.  If a ruler allows that sort of behavior in his kingdom, women will turn wanton, sons will die before their time.  Here’s a passage from Valmiki’s Ramayana:

On the banks of that pond one ascetic was performing the most austere penances with his legs upwards and head downwards.  There upon approaching him, Rama Said–O you of good vows, blessed are you; I do ask you, now, O you highly effulgent and grown old in asceticism, in what Varna you are born.  I put this question out of curiosity.  I am the son of king Dasaratha and my name is Rama.

su1eFor what are you going through such hard austerities?  Is it heaven, or anything else that you pray for?  O ascetic, I wish to hear, of the purpose for which you are performing such hard penances.  Art you a Brahmana, or an irrepressible Ksatriya or the third caste Vaisyas or a Sudra?  Do you speak the truth and you shall be crowned with auspiciousness.

Hearing the words of Rama, the ascetic, whose face was downwards, gave out his degraded birth and communicated to him for what he was performing ascetic observances.

Hearing the words of Rama of unwearied actions, the ascetic, with his face downwards, said.

O highly illustrious Rama, I am born in the race of Sudras; and with a view to reach the region of the celestials with my body I am going through these austere penances.

O Kakutstha, I shall never utter a falsehood since I am willing to conquer the region of gods.  I am a Sudra and my name is Sambuka.

The Sudra ascetic having said this, Rama took out of scabbard a beautiful sharp sword and chopped off his head therewith.

But perhaps you’re more interested in contemporary U.S. policy.  As far as I know, we aren’t murdering anyone for simply praying… but praying with the wrong people might draw our wrath.  Here is a passage from Gregoire Chamayou’s excellent Theory of the Drone (translated by Janet Lloyd):

theory_of_the_drone_finalApart from these “personal strikes,” [killing individuals from an authorized list of suspects] there are also “signature strikes,” here meaning strikes authorized on the basis of traces, indications, or defining characteristics.  Such strikes target individuals whose identity remains unknown but whose behavior suggests, signals, or signs membership in a “terrorist organization.”

In such cases, the strike is made “without knowing the precise identity of the individuals targeted.”  It depends solely on their behavior, which, seen from the sky, appears to “correspond to a ‘signature’ of pre-identified behavior that the United States links to militant activity.”  Today, strikes of this type, against unknown suspects, appear to constitute the majority of cases.

In Sleep Dealer, some people murdered under suspicion of being terrorists are innocent.  It’s clear that the same is true in real life.  The drones fly far overhead & relay a grainy depiction of the world below at high latency to employees who must decide on the basis of sketchy information whether the pixelated figures below should live or die.  The low camera resolution probably helps drone pilots maintain emotional distance when they choose wrong; they don’t have a crisp view of children’s deaths.  That low resolution & emotional distance probably increases the frequency with which they choose wrong, though.  A clear view of shared humanity induces greater restraint.

And the people below, the putative terrorists whom the United States is terrorizing, know that death accompanies mere suspicion, & that incomplete, low-res information often gives rise to misguided suspicions.  Here’s another passage from Chamayou’s book:

hqdefaultDavid Rohde, a New York Times journalist kidnapped in 2008 and held in Waziristan for seven months, was one of the first Westerners to describe the effects that this lethal continuous surveillance produced upon the populations subjected to it.  Evoking a “hell on earth,” he added: “The drones were terrifying.  From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead.  The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”

The accounts collected in this region by the authors of a 2012 report titled “Living Under the Drones” are in a similar vein:

They’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike or attack.

Everyone is scared all the time.  When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike.  When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you.  We’re always scared.  We always have this fear in our head.

Drones are always on my mind.  It makes it difficult to sleep.  They are like a mosquito.  Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.

Children, grown-up people, women, they are terrified … They scream in terror.

One inhabitant of Datta Khel — a place hit more than thirty times by drones in the course of the past three years — says that his neighbors “have lost their mental balance … are just locked in a room.  Just like you lock people in prison, they are locked in a room.”

Drones are indeed petrifying.  They inflict mass terror upon entire populations.  It is this — over and above the deaths, the injuries, the destruction, the anger, and the grieving — that is the effect of permanent lethal surveillance: it amounts to a psychic imprisonment within a perimeter no longer defined by bars, barriers, and walls, but by the endless circling of flying watchtowers up above.

Honestly, Chamayou’s book is great — I highly recommend it.

I even thought I’d hate it; I don’t like reading about war, and I’d seen several pretty critical reviews.  Plus, I simply could not imagine why a philosopher would find it necessary to write an entire book about drones.  To my mind, killing is killing, so why would it matter whether we fought with machine guns, sniper rifles, missiles, or drones?

CaptureChamayou did an excellent job explaining why I was wrong.

For instance, drone pilots operate within the United States in unmarked facilities.  As reprehensible as the Boston Marathon bombing was, and as deranged as I think the perpetrators had to have been, acts of violence against any public gathering are about equally likely to harm those currently employed to murder suspected terrorists in the Middle East.

The use of drones forces an opposing army — if a two-sided war is indeed being fought — to target the general population.  Here’s the heart of the argument in Chamayou’s words:

However, the faults are not solely technical.  They are also politico-strategic.  In 1999, two Chinese strategists suggested that the American preference for “zero dead” offered the United States’ adversaries a rapid, easy, and low-cost means of thwarting the world’s greatest power: “These common American soldiers who should be on the battlefield have now become the most costly security in war, like precious china bowls that people are afraid to break.  All of the opponents who have engaged in battle with the American military have probably mastered the secret of success — if you have no way of defeating this force, you should kill its rank and file soldiers.”  The dronization of the armed forces further radicalizes this strategic fault.  If the military withdraws from the battlefield, enemy violence will turn against targets that are easier to reach.  Even if the soldiers are beyond reach, civilians are not.  As one American soldier explains, “We must understand that attempts to armorize our force against all potential enemy threats … shifts the ‘burden of risk’ from a casualty-averse military force onto the populace.  In doing so, we have lifted the burden from our own shoulders and placed it squarely upon those who do not possess the material resources to bear it — the civilian populace.” 

Chamayou’s analysis of suicide bombers was also enlightening.  Most people I’ve talked to have a reflexive distaste for suicide bombing — some words I’ve heard are “cold” and “cowardly.”  I too think the idea is horrible.  It’s hard for me to even imagine what it would feel like to knowingly strap explosives to my body.

640px-MQ-9_Reaper_in_flight_(2007)But Chamayou builds an argument from the history of military honor, the idea of willing sacrifice in defense of a cause, to work toward the idea that suicide bombers care so deeply about their struggle that they are willing to give up their very lives in defense of their ideas.  Whereas the U.S. cares so deeply about the cause that we are willing to risk a several-million-dollar drone to get our way.

Given that one side cares so much they’ll risk their lives, and the other side cares so much they’ll risk their money, it’s possible that my reflexive moral repugnance of suicide bombing was misplaced.

I am very grateful to Chamayou for giving me so much to think about.  You, too, should read his book.  (Look!  Here’s another link!)