Drone Casino Mimesis: The Wheel of Misfortune

The Lexicon of Casino Gambling & Drone Kills

The largest city in Nevada, Las Vegas, is known for its glittering casinos, luxurious hotels, and impromptu weddings. Casino and hotel magnate Steve Wynn once said that, “Las Vegas exists because it is a perfect reflection of America.” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Las Vegas Strip hosts business to over 40 million visitors annually.

Northeast of the Strip, about a half an hour away, is the home of Nellis Air Force Base, where drone pilots are known for around-the-clock remote-controlled flyovers and air strikes - a more serious contrast to the casino capital of the world, which is known for its tendency to induce hangovers at remote locations.

Nellis AFB is the previous home to the Air Force’s 2nd Special Operations Squadron. It relocated to its current home of Hurlburt Field, Florida, concurrent with its transition to the MQ-9 Reaper. Creech Air Force Base, also outside Las Vegas, is considered the global home of drone operations for the Air Force.

It can be argued that there are some crucial issues at stake concerning the locations of these bases in Las Vegas. Drone pilots take a gamble when they fire missiles at suspects, many of whom, when the dust settled, turned out to be unarmed civilians. Bad gambles produce bad results. Dangerous games encourage more reckless strategies.

But why is the seemingly casual melding of casino culture and perpetual drone war from afar a major problem? Is there actually a symbiotic relationship between casinos and ‘risk-taking’ elements of extrajudicial drone strikes?

Rebecca Solnit’s article “Anywhere But Here: Las Vegas and the Global Casino We Call Wall Street” touches on how casino culture intertwines with the methodology of drone warfare:

“The Nevada Test Site was carved out of Nellis Air Force Base, an expanse the size of Connecticut set aside during the Second World War and in use ever since. Nevada is a place in which the only wars fought were skirmishes against its own native people -- the Paiutes, Shoshone, Washoe, and Goshutes. It’s also where wars abroad are rehearsed.

“And these days it’s where drones on killing missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are operated. Pilots sit in rooms and decide whether to kill groups of people based on aerial video footage; the drones are both flying cameras and killing machines. The drone operators are gambling that, based on limited low-grade data, they are killing "militants." Over and over again they kill people who, even under their own dubious guidelines, are often not appropriate targets. But then, for drone operators, the losses are as low as the odds are bad. Maybe death, pleasure, security, and risk are the products of this region. The risk: one day driving down the Strip about a decade ago, I realized that every hotel tower, every fountain, and every chandelier was largely paid for by losing bets. I understood for the first time what gambling really means.”

Operating unmanned aerial vehicles from inside trailers in the Nevada desert, safe from danger, drone pilots are the prototypes for the future of ‘everywhere’ warfare. In a similar fashion as playing a videogame in a suburban household or in an RV on a family road trip, drones are flown by sitting in front of a series of computer screens and wearing headsets in a dark room. When a pilot’s shift is over, which may consist of 12 hours of surveillance, monitoring, or assassination strikes from the sky, they go home to their residences in Las Vegas.

What’s wrong with having a military base located near the casino capital of the world? There are casinos in almost every major American city, and gambling is also done through online entertainment databases. Surely the parallels are being overstressed and exaggerated… or perhaps not. Let’s see just how deep it goes.

An exceptional scholarly article has just been written about the residual effects of large suburban city life on military operations, and vice versa. In an article for Journal of Sociology, “Drone Casino Mimesis: Telewarfare and Civil Militarization,” Professor Joseph Pugliese of Macquarie University coins the term “drone casino mimesis” which he uses to describe how “the lexicon of casino gaming is now clearly constitutive of the practices of drone kills.”

Pugliese grounds his investigation “in the context of the increasing co-option of civil sites, practices and technologies by the United States military in order to facilitate their conduct of war and the manner in which drone warfare has now been seamlessly accommodated within major metropolitan cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada.”

His “analysis of the inscription of civil sites, practices and technologies within the regime of US drone warfare works to bring into focus what he terms modalities of civil militarization that effectively blur the line between the military apparatuses of state and civilian life … Civil militarization articulates the colonizing of civilian sites, practices and technologies by the military; it names the conversion of such civilian technologies as video games and mobile phones into technologies of war, and it addresses the dialogic exchanges between military sites, such as drone Ground Control Stations in which drone kills are conducted, and the larger suburban grid and practices of everyday life that tie drone operators to their everyday conduct of war.”

In examining drone kills in the context of Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Pugliese bring into focus a new military configuration that [he terms] ‘drone casino mimesis’.

Telewarfare and the Drone Habitus

The ‘routine’ of waging drone war in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria is best captured by the term, “the disposition matrix” which Pugliese states as having profound Bourdieusian resonances: killing at a distance in the US context settles into a “durable disposition,” or a habitual tendency that’s lined with a military-industrial infrastructure or matrix.

The drone habitus is best exemplified by the contemporary enmeshing of gaming technologies within the operational field of war. In the context of the drone habitus, the lines between the civilian and the military become blurred and often indistinguishable. This blurring can be seen by the parenthetical suspension of the ‘real’ and the ‘live’ that is produced by the new tele-techno economies of war that transmute killing into the stuff of video games. These tele-techno mediations work to generate a type of causal disconnect, and consequent disavowal, of the US-based drone operators’ relation to the killing that transpires on the ground in ‘remote’ Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen.

“In his theory of the habitus,” Pugliese notes, “Bourdieu brings into focus the manner in which sociocultural practices, values, and habits are essentially generated by a discursive matrix that, because it is immanent, is invisible to the very subjects of the habitus, even as it constitutes their dispositions to the world in which they live.”

Troubled by the ‘Playstation mentality’ of telewarfare, Pugliese sees it as a tactic that’s used in military recruitment drives, and expresses concern about the ‘drone console’ as a whole:

Moreover, the crossover between computer games and the lethal technologies that enable drone kills is clearly evidenced by the fact that ‘Bored drone pilots sometimes smuggled simple computer games onto the drone operating systems – chess, Solitaire, Battleship’. Another drone pilot ‘recalls playing Pinball and Solitaire during their time flying missions’. The drone console here becomes interchangeable with that of a computer game, as drone pilots upload their own civilian computer games into the same system. One is transposed onto the other. One informs and enables the other.

Fascinatingly enough, the use of gaming technology in the design of drone flight controls isn’t accidental. They have come to resemble video game controllers to make the job more attractive for young recruits who grew up in the Xbox age. Pugliese calls the template of video games a type of “spectral palimpsest” which “haunts and inscribes the actuality of a drone-kill.”

Further evidence for the gaming dimensions of US drone kills is the naming of the US’ counterterrorism manual as its ‘Playbook.’ Drone pilot crews also play games to stifle their boredom while operating aircraft, such as bingo. These examples are part of the militarization of civilian technologies, as in “the interchangeability of one with the other works to construct a continuum between military and civilian technologies.”

Playing bingo on drone-kill systems is a mimetic crossover between militarized killing and gaming practices. Pugliese also mentions the way that a person’s social media posts can lead to them being placed on the US drone-kill list, citing a real story.

The establishment of drone Ground Control Stations (GCS) in the midst of US metropolitan cities also strengthens civilian militarization, since pilots go home to their children and cook dinner, mere minutes after an act of war.

An article from The Atlantic, Hunting the Taliban in Las Vegas, talks about this unique dichotomy of war. Robert D. Kaplan notes:

Nellis Air Force Base is full of the same stuffy regulations—on driving, dress codes, inspections, saluting, and so forth—that are common to other bases far removed from war zones. (In war zones—inside those trailers—informality reigns because the mission is everything.) But beyond Nellis is the banal world of spouses, kids, homework, and soccer games—not to mention the absurdity of a city where even the gas stations have slot machines. Simply entering or leaving one of the trailers is tremendously disorienting.

A state of perpetual deployment for drone pilots, and the conduct of telewarfare has transported the battlefield to suburbia. Pugliese uses the example of suburban homes and gardens facing directly opposite Nellis AFB on Las Vegas Boulevard, a simulation of pastoral landscapes and animals, like a family of deer which contrast sharply with the harsh machinery of war being operated across the street inside Nellis AFB. Signs alert pedestrians that there are “Children at Play” while Hellfire missiles are being fired at children in Afghani villages, reflecting “tensions and contradictions that inscribe these spaces.” Drone pilots then go home to their own children at the end of the day.

“Through the emergence of telewarfare,” Pugliese says, “military culture has now become so thoroughly constitutive of civic spaces and civilian life that it can no longer be decisively separated off as an autonomous and categorically isolated entity. The capillary reach of tele-mediated militarization, fuelled by the colonizing forces of the military-industrial media-entertainment network, and virulent neoliberal demands for the privatization of government-run entities, is working to make untenable a military/civilian binary: the one is now thoroughly imbricated with the other.”

He talks about the private prison industry, where prisoners are put to work in slave-like conditions producing 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, canteens, and 46% of body armor.

Pugliese also considers non-state actors, including drone manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and General Atomics, and tech companies like Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, as problematic. They blur the lines between what should be a distinct set of categories: state/non-state and civilian/military.

The Geopolitical Conditioning of the Word ‘Children’

Pugliese analyzes instances of geopolitical racism embedded in the use of the word ‘children,’ explaining how semantic processes lead to the lives of American children and Pakistani children having a different value or significance. He gives a great example of this, in the form of a Predator crew’s drone log, where actual transcripts show that children were gradually referred to as “military-aged males” during a drone mission, after initially being considered as children near an SUV.

A drone strike on a school for boys in Chenegai, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Pakistan, killed up to 80 civilians, including numerous children. “The power of the racialized geopolitical qualifier works effectively to transmute these FATA children into what US drone pilots refer to as ‘fun-sized terrorists’ who need to be indiscriminately mowed down like ‘grass before it grows too long’. Other decorporealizing forms of language used by drone pilots consist of

‘dismounts’ and ‘squirters’ for human drone targets, which “all effectively work to render the human targets into little more than video game figures caught in the crosshairs of a hovering drone.”

Some members of US drone squadrons have left positions working in the casino industry and have re-trained as drone operators. As one drone operator remarks, ‘When I go to work, it’s Game Face On,’ with drone targets referred to as ‘customers’ of a lethal gaming practice.

One drone pilot referred to donning her headset during flying shifts as “game time” and as a moment when “we’re fangs out” or poised to take lethal action against prey from the other side of the world.

Pugliese doesn’t just argue that drones and casinos reflect each other as practices. He finds that gaming practices and technologies effectively work to constitute and inflect drone practices and technologies on a number of levels.

Casino drone mimesis identifies, in new materialist terms, the agentic role of casino and gaming technologies precisely as ‘actors’ in the shaping and mutating of both the technologies and conduct of war. Situated within a new materialist schema, I contend that the mounting toll of civilian deaths due to drone strikes is not only a result of human failure or error – for example, the misreading of drone video feed, the miscalculation of targets and so on. Rather, civilian drone kills must be seen as an in-built effect of military technologies that are underpinned by both the morphology (gaming consoles, video screens and joysticks) and the algorithmic infrastructure of gaming – with its foundational dependence on ‘good approximation’ ratios and probability computation.

Chaoplexity and network-centric warfare

In his analysis of what he terms the ‘coming of age’ of ‘network-centric warfare,’ Antoine Bousquet coined the term ‘chaoplexity’ (as integrating both chaos and complexity theories) in order to elucidate ‘an understanding of war in which uncertainty, unpredictability and change are central’. Drone warfare relies on drones, tracking, identification, visualization software, and pilots at their GCS consoles. Drones targeting, tracking, and killing suspects who are ‘unknown’ is a maneuver that is part and parcel of risky gambles.

Pugliese cites testimony reported in Living Under Drones, where Habibur Rehman, a 19-year-old Pakistani, was reportedly executed for allegedly dropping US-provided ‘transmitter chips’ at local Taliban and Al Qaeda houses, signaling specific targets for CIA drone strikes. In a videotaped ‘confession,’ Rehman admitted to ‘throwing the chips all over’ because the money was good.

The throwing of transmitter chips ‘all over’, and the consequent targeting of individuals who, unbeknownst to themselves, are carrying these chips, underscores the random, arbitrary and anonymous nature of US drone kills. The US military’s use of cell phones and transmitter chips is predicated on the geolocation technology’s foundational dependence on an algorithmic formula that provides a calculus of ‘risk probability’ for a designated target whose identity remains unknown. In other words, this algorithmic program works to transmute difference into serial sameness and interchangeability: the drone targets are thus rendered as anonymous, disposable and fungible objects that fail to qualify in terms of the legal category of personhood and its attendant rights. The random throwing of ‘chips’ and the use of such terms as ‘risk’ and ‘probability’ underscore the gaming dimensions of drone kills and their arbitrary casino-like logic.

Pugliese discusses how geopolitics and race are distorted to a point that some lives are valued and others are not. He mobilizes the term ‘coloured’ in terms of its racialized understanding and its symbolically charged deployment in the context of drone kills.

For example, US drone teams call their drone-kill targets ‘bugsplat’, when they see a picture of a compound, and there are red, yellow, and green colors on the screen, with red being a dead person, yellow as wounded, and green as alive and physiologically intact.

Pugliese considers this to be “a mélange of paintball and video gaming techniques that is underpinned, in turn by the probability stakes of casino gaming.” A drone official concluded that, ‘when all those conditions have been met, you may give the order to go ahead and spend the money’. If you hit and kill the person you intended to, that person is called a ‘jackpot’. One drone screener remarked that “every call I make is a gamble, and I’m betting on their life’.

Interview with Joseph Pugliese

Professor Joseph Pugliese is Research Director of the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Joseph's research and teaching are principally oriented by issues of social justice. He deploys critical and cultural theories in order to examine and address the relationship between knowledge and power, issues concerned with discrimination and injustice, state violence, institutional racism, and regimes of colonialism and empire.  He examines these issues in the context of everyday cultural practices, the state, institutions of power such as law, and the interface of bodies and technologies. His most recent publications include two monographs: State Violence and the Execution of Law: Biopolitical Caesurae of Torture, Black Sites, Drones. The book was nominated for the following international book prizes: the UK's Hart Socio-Legal Book Prize 2014 and the US Law and Society Herbert Jacob Book Prize 2014.

Newsbud: Hi Professor, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. When did you come up with the idea for ‘drone casino mimesis’? Have you been to Las Vegas and experienced the gambling scene prior to writing this paper?

JP: Yes, I had been to Las Vegas and I had visited the gambling complexes there and I had already written up the section on how critical the role of chance and probability was in drone killings. But it wasn’t until I continued to do more intensive research on the language of drone kills that I came across that extraordinary passage where drone pilots describe the drone targeting and killing processes by explicitly drawing on the language of gambling: ‘jackpots,’ ‘phenomenal gambles,’ ‘spending the money,’ etc. It was a ‘light-bulb’ moment as it enabled me, in practice, to connect, for example, Nellis AFB in Las Vegas with the surrounding casinos. To discover, in the course of my research, that a number of the drone pilots migrated over from the casino industry was the empirical clincher for my thesis. I then proceeded to map what I call the infrastructural mimetic components (language, technology, role of algorithms of probability, gaming/drone cubicles etc) that conjoin the two seemingly disparate sites.

Newsbud: How fast is civil militarization progressing, and where do you posit we'll be in 20-25 years?

JP: I think civil militarization is progressing at an alarming pace. Two of the areas that are of most concern: the growing uptake by our police and border protection forces of military equipment (including drones) previously deployed in theatres of war. Both these examples exemplify the insidious militarization of our society. I also talk at the end of my article on the crucial role of prison labour in the production of military equipment and the manner in which we are effectively seeing the expansion and consolidation of the military-industrial-prison-border-surveillance complex. This complex now names and identifies the key coordinates and agents of the ongoing expansion of the process of civil militarization. My concern is that in next 25 years we will see a growing intensification of the process of civil militarization through a steady process of institutional creep, where we get the continued crossover, cooptation of civilian sites and technologies and the enmeshment of military practices, equipment and values within civilian society.

Newsbud: What is wrong with the drone disposition matrix and what can be done about it?

JP: I discuss the problematics of the drone disposition matrix in some detail in another article titled “Drones,” in Mark B. Salter (ed.), Making Things International: Circuits and Motion, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 222-240. I don’t have an electronic copy that I can send you. In a nutshell, I examine how the term ‘disposition’ identifies how drone kills have now congealed into a form of habitual practice. The manner in which these killing-at-a-distance practices have now been normalized by the US state in the everyday conduct of its unending war on terror is succinctly captured by the qualifying term disposition. The terms disposition and matrix have profound Bourdieuian resonances; specifically, they evoke his foundational concept of the habitus. The disposition matrix of drones, as habitus, refers to an integrated assemblage of institutions of power, technologies, material sites, and embodied agents that enables and orients an ensemble of identifiable and reproducible practices. The habitus, precisely as matrix, signifies for Bourdieu the “the durably installed generative principle” that enables the production and reproduction of a range of practices immanent within the logic and rules of the matrix. The power of the habitus is defined, Bourdieu underscores, by the manner in which the practices that it engenders, both collectively and individually, are perdurable: the immanent laws, codes and conventions that engender a series of definable practices assume the “form of durable dispositions” across different subjects, sites and institutions. To conclude, the disposition matrix has thereby normalized drone kills as forms of habitual practice. Precisely because of the thousands of documented innocent civilians that have been killed through the operations of this disposition matrix in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, in contravention of international humanitarian law and the sovereignty of these respective states, the US should cease its campaign of drone terror.

Newsbud: Can you comment on the ‘decorporealizing language’ by drone pilots for human drone targets, and the geopolitical conditioning of other words? Are these naturally occurring, i.e. a product of their environment, or by linguistic design?

JP: I think there is a strategic and calculated use by the military of such decorporealising terms as ‘dismounts,’ ‘bugsplat,’ ‘MAMs,’ and so on, as they effectively occlude the human and embodied nature of their drone kill targets, turning them into non-human entities such as mere acronyms (MAMs) or animals (bugsplat). These linguistic techniques therefore distance drone operators from the reality that they are actually killing human subjects whose identities are so often unknown. It also works to obfuscate the fact that the drone victims have never been given a chance to prove their guilt in a court of law: they are guilty before the fact and, as less than human, they are positioned as not worthy of procedural justice – they are thus, in effect, victims of extrajudicial killing.  I think the geopolitical conditioning of these terms plays a critical role as it produces yet another distancing effect: it positions the human targets as both geographically and culturally remote, as lawless and barbaric and thus ‘legitimate’ targets for militarised killing. The geopolitical conditioning of the terms used for drone kills, in other words, are forms of what Edward Said called ‘Orientalism’: the peoples of the East are the West’s absolute others: uncivilized, barbaric, lawless and less than human: they can, according to Orientalist logic, thus be killed with impunity. Both Western media and governments deploy Orientalist language.

Newsbud: During the course of your research and travels, were you able to go inside Nellis AFB and speak to any drone pilots or commanders?

JP: No, I was told that, for ‘security reasons,’ I was not allowed to go inside the Nellis AFB. I did ask if I could interview some of the pilots or commanders and they said this was also not possible for ‘security reasons.’ I thus had to source my material from a number of former drone pilots who have gone public in condemning the drone program. Brandon Bryant is one of the leading drone whistleblowers and he is doing important work in exposing the horrors of drone kills.

Newsbud: If you could choose any one person or organization to read your paper, knowing that they would do their best to make changes using your research for support, who would you choose and why?

JP: I would actually go straight to the top and ask the US President, Barack Obama, to justify the ongoing killing of thousands of innocent civilians (as documented by Reprieve, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Amnesty International etc) by US drones. I would choose the president as he possesses the Commander in Chief Powers to change the course of US military policy and practice. I would ask him how he can wear the mantle of the Nobel Peace Prize and still oversee the ongoing killing of thousands of innocent civilians by drones. Significantly, it has been under Obama’s watch that the drone kill program has expanded by leaps and bounds.

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Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, is an independent writer who resides in Northern Virginia. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013, and is currently studying Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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