My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How will the Obama presidency be remembered? However else our first African American president is valued or villainized, an important aspect of his presidency that must be recognized is the fundamental changes to how warfare is conducted, instigated by the usage of drones. This did not begin with the Obama administration, but as Hugh Gusterson recounts in the brief history of drones that begins his study, is was greatly expanded and continually transformed under the outgoing administration.
Drones—the unmanned aerial vehicles used in conjunction with ground forces and survalience but more and more commonly used for targeted strikes against assumed militants—have fundamentally changed the way warfare is conducted, even the nature of warfare itself. For most of us, these developments are on the edges of our media consciousness. Most of us probably have vague notions that technology is allowing new types of strikes in the borderlands of Pakistan and the airspace of Yemen, through planes piloted by personnel thousands of miles away and beyond any real danger of retaliation. Drones have been used for years, but today they are being utilized by our military in ways many of us don’t fully understand. Hugh Gusterson’s short, accessible study of drones aims to explain and analyze what’s happening: how this technology is causing slippage in how strikes are conducted and in the boundary between fundamental distinctions underlying our definitions of warfare, including concepts like civilian and combatant and the boundary between what is and what is not a war zone.
Gusterson’s book is a quick study, and the author avoids polemic, not coming down hard for or against the technology. Rather, Gusterson wants to outline the transformative nature of this technology to conflict itself. Proponents of drone usage, including President Obama, cite the benefits of long-term observation and reconnaissance this technology affords, of the ability for surgical targets against known militants that spare collateral damage or non-combatant life (and have zero risk for American servicemen). In a war against a state-less enemy, the argument goes, drones provide important tactical advantages.
On the other hand, drones—when used in places that are not formally war zones—strain our current categories of warfare and blur the line between military and police intervention. And, as the author takes time to examine, the limits of the technology itself impose certain costs: surveillance is not perfect, and a “god’s-eye-view” allows dangerous reductions, especially when (as is often the case in drone strikes) this view is divorced from actual intelligence from the ground or cultural understanding. Our military, Gusterson points out, has confused killing with winning, and various third party groups have cited the high civilian casualty counts of drone strikes. In addition, Gusterson highlights what the threat of drone attacks does to societies to under constant danger of unseen, striking power and the antithesis this poses to winning hearts and minds.
Again, Gusterson’s treatise is not an impassioned argument for or against drones, which adds to its value. Rather, the book is a nuanced analysis of the implications of drones for conflict. Though he makes a compelling case for the ways in which use of drones causes ethical and procedural slippages in warfare, Drone: Remote Control Warfare is a scholarly work aimed at examining how drones are deployed in combat (including a brief but illuminating history of drone warfare) and what the implications and possible future ramifications are. Whether you’re a technology buff interested in learning more about what and how these machines are actually used, or someone more interested in the philosophy of technology or foreign policy, this is a quick, accessible, and piercing analysis of something that has framed Obama’s presidency and current US foreign interventions, for better or worse.