The Drones Imaginarium: Charting a Domain of Death, Bodies, and Truth

Real, Imagined, Fantasised: An Inside Look at A Phenomenon Within Lethal Drones Discourse

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“And this," cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, "is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully.”

― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“And this,” piped Random Four-Star General, as he strode across the Command Center floor with authority, “is your opinion of drone war! This is the estimation in which you hold unmanned aircraft! I thank you for retaining the information from our mistakes so fully.”

The Birmingham Policy Commission, a Birmingham University research project that examines the security implications for the British Government of drone technology, both civil and military, summarizes why remotely-piloted aircraft are controversial: “everything about drone technology is contested: its novelty, legality, morality, utility and future development. Even the choice of what to call such systems is value-laden.”

The Commission also reports on the legal implications of UK personnel using armed RPA with the US Air Force, identifying RPA as the most controversial convention weapons platform in the UK Armed Forces’ portfolio.

Channel 4 News in Britain covered how Britain’s fleet of drones was being shown in public for the first time in an effort to get beyond the controversies surrounding unmanned aircraft blamed for causing civilian deaths. The Ministry of Defense staged a ‘drones photo-call’ in which they “gave journalists unprecedented access, and presented drones big and small. Their aim was to change the terms of debate about a technology that’s still controversial.”

The reporter on-site at Royal Air Force Waddington, Paul Mason, remarked, “The RAF insists that the planes are saving lives of British troops on the ground.”

Real footage from a British Reaper drone showed a Taliban fighter who fired his weapon, and retreated along a wall. A missile was fired, but as he entered a civilian compound, the pilot swung the crosshairs onto open ground, missing the ‘targeted individual’ on purpose.

The Wing Commander of the UK drone base at the time, Damian Killeen, was interviewed as well:

Mason: Are you confident that we are able to adequately avoid civilian casualties with this machine?

Killeen: I would say, with this machine, we are better empowered to be able to avoid civilian casualties. Sitting in that environment, away from directs threat itself allows you to have more cognitive thought processes rather than emotional reactions on a defensive basis.

Mason: Don’t we rely on soldiers and airmen having emotional reactions to other human beings?

Killeen: Absolutely, and don’t get me wrong, the guys in the cockpit are very, very aware of what’s going on on the other side of the sensors.

Defense Secretary Philip Hammond MP was also interviewed about the issues of civilian casualties, who acknowledged an incident where civilians were killed during a drone strike which was “unfortunate” and “regretted.” A clip was shown of Reprieve UK’s Katherine Craig, the Legal Director of the Abuses in Counter-Terrorism (ACT) team which investigates, and seeks to combat human rights abuses arising out of the ‘war on terror’. The BBC noted that, “The RAF is keen to challenge any impression that this is like some kind of hi-tech video game. The crew speak of their professionalism. They all learned to fly in the air first and insist that operating the Reaper is not that different.”

Will Inglis of British Forces News also covered the event, reporting that, “This new openness is an attempt to dispel some of the myth that surround them, but they’ve become such a key part in the battle in Afghanistan that there’s no question they’re here to stay.”

Hammond was interviewed by this other news outlet:

Inglis: Why is there this sudden openness about unmanned systems?

Hammond: Well we always have to balance, on the one hand, operational security requirements, and on the other hand, our desire to be as transparent as we possibly can. And part of what we’re trying to do today is demystify remotely piloted systems, explain to people how they work, how the safeguards and controls around them are exactly the same for manned aircraft, to show off the technological capability of the systems, and how they are likely to form an important part of our set up in the future going forward.

Inglis: Of course, around the world the drone … has a bad name because of the same it’s employed in certain countries. Is that unfair, is that the sort of thing that can happen with a manned system just as well?

Hammond: I think, with most things, it’s how you use them rather than what they are. We’re very clear about how we use our systems. We use them in accordance with international law, humanitarian law, and in Afghanistan we operate them in accordance with the mandate we have under United Nations security council resolutions…

Drone operations at RAF Waddington, the ‘drone headquarters’ of the UK, haven’t proceeded without protest from local British citizens. In January 2015, The Guardian reported that four people from a group, End the Drone Wars, who were campaigning against Britain’s use of armed drones were arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass. On another occasion, in October 2015, four anti-drone protesters from the same group were accused of cutting a wire and entering the base. The BBC reported that the group said they had entered the base with the intent of preventing more drone strikes on innocent people.

Public opinions and conceptions

There are many things to dislike and be skeptical about towards drones. They’ve ruined lives, saved lives, surveyed lives, impacted defense spending, and made us question the relationships between high-tech machinery and mankind in war. These happenings at RAF Waddington are a sample snapshot of the larger global picture: sentiments about drones, for or against them, incorporate both the pro’s and the con’s of the new way of waging warfare from great distances. Real life examples in the form of dialogue with actual drone pilots is an element of the argument which seems to be in short supply. Generalizations can be made based on what someone believes is an ethical way for a country’s military force to behave, but to take it one step further and speak to drone pilots themselves would be a great help.

Some people don’t approve of drone strikes in any shape, form, or military capacity. Others support the idea and practice of targeted ‘elimination’ from the skies. The lines in the sand are drawn with a thick and pungent brush - it isn’t a topic of debate without highly emotional edges.

A national survey of 2,000 adults by the Pew Research Center conducted in May of last year found that 58% approve of the U.S. conducting missile strikes from drones to target extremists in such countries as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, while a third disapproved of U.S. drone attacks. Another survey in July of 2014 found that a majority of the rest of the world opposes drone strikes. Israel, Kenya and the U.S. are the only nations polled where at least half of the public supports drone strikes. The top 10 search results on Startpage (an alternative to Google) for ‘Everything you need to know about drone strikes’ produces articles from The Washington Post, PBS, ProPublica, Popular Mechanics, and other popular news outlets.

Are there valid arguments to be offered from both sides of the spectrum about the pro’s and con’s of drone strikes? A surplus of opinions on the world’s news circuit has added credence to the notion that “the truth of subjective.” So how can we magnify this issue in a more effective manner, arm ourselves with more evidence, facts, and support for our arguments collectively, and figure out what holds weight and what doesn’t in the arenas of drone discourse? In an attempt to navigate this landscape, we will hear directly from a field researcher: Dr. Peter Lee, a specialist in the ethics and ethos of drone operations and the politics and ethics of war and military intervention. Dr. Lee has remarked that he is “trying to make sense of the vast, multifaceted drones domain that is so politically, ideologically, culturally and militarily contested and self-contradictory.”

The author of an unpublished paper, “Death, Truth, and Knowing in the Drones Imaginarium,” Dr. Lee wrote his paper in an attempt to explain the idea of a ‘drones imaginarium’ which is “a sense-making (not problem solving) domain where inconsistencies and paradoxes can be identified and held in tension while arguments that are rooted variously in claims to the ‘real’, the virtual, the hyperreal and the imagined/fantasized are explored.” He is also the author of a study entitled, ‘Exploring the roles of personal ethics, individual identity and operational practices in the formation of a collective ethos in RAF Reaper squadrons.’

Hearing a different perspective from a credible source

First, it should be emphasized that Dr. Lee’s insights and expertise is in British Reaper drone use, which he noted, “is not even closely related to how the CIA uses them.” Over recent years, he has conducted field research with the United Kingdom’s Reaper Force, but has just started a large project for which it took him a year to get the various access and research ethics permissions, spending the 2016 Summer season researching with the RAF Reaper community for a book on British drone operations from the operators’ perspectives. He spent a week at Creech AFB in early July, where he spent 12, 10 and 8 hours in the GCS [Ground Control Station] with the crews over his first three days, watching the fight against IS unfolding before him as he observed the drone pilots on the job.

“While there were no weapon releases on the first day, it took only a couple of hours before the first 'real time' strike and another not long afterwards,” Dr. Lee reflected. “It was, quite literally, breathtaking as I held my breath during the flight and explosion of the Hellfire missiles. It turns out the crew were all doing the same! I must be the only person who has been allowed to sit and take notes throughout a mission like that and it certainly adds a new dimension to field research.”

During the same week, he also interviewed 22 crew members, including several spouses, and in August, he spent two weeks with XIII Reaper Squadron at RAF Waddington, with the same access and observations. “In total, I have now interviewed 66 people across the whole RAF Reaper community for a total of 70+ hours, including 16 spouses/partners,” Dr. Lee said. He features key excerpts of these interviews with drone operators in his article which will be discussed here further, followed by an interview with Dr. Lee.

The ‘Drones Imaginarium’ and ‘hyperreal productions’

The ‘drones imaginarium’ is defined as “where irreconcilable truth claims surrounding death and killing in conflicting drones discourses co-exist, rooted in incommensurable understandings of the real, the virtual, the hyperreal, and the imagined. The advent of drones, their representations, the experiences of human targets and surrounding communities, as well as the experiences of the operators, are reshaping war, political violence, cultures, identities and behaviours, from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada to the tribal lands of Waziristan and the disputed landscapes of Syria, Yemen, Somalia and beyond.

“In the wake of the recent advances in drones, weaponry, and their application, associated conceptual, legal, ethical, social, cultural and other developments continually lag behind in a perennial game of catch-me-if-you-can. Differing, often contradictory, language is used not merely to describe these technological innovations but to constitute them as particular kinds of benefit or threat to societies. From newspaper headlines to anti-war activism, the term ‘drone’ has become ubiquitous in the discursive landscape, often complete with the inaccurate representations that they are independent, autonomous robotic killing machines beyond the control of human beings and the constraints of law and personal ethics. Drone-based social imaginaries informed by science fiction, dystopian fantasy and apocalyptic anxiety are represented as a major and ominous reality.

“The proposed drones imaginarium emerges from several years of engagement in a contested field where drones discourses based on certainty, ‘knowing’, belief and claims to truth are inconsistent with the lack of academic and journalistic access to drone facilities: certainties that are commonly mediated by way of mainstream media, social media, chatrooms and other internet fora...”

Disagreeing with popular conceptions, Dr. Lee talks about how the popular meme, the ‘Playstation killer’ reinforces the representation that drone operatives are emotionally disconnected from their targets, and are therefore synonymous with cowards, terrorists, and sociopaths - even serial killers. He gives various examples of these accusatory statements in his article; there is little scientific evidence to support such assertions, in the form of studies of drone crews, however. Critics of the usage of drones in lethal strikes frequently hypothesize, and rightly so - but they do lack the evidence to prove why drone pilots should be redefined as ‘sociopaths’.

This friction between what’s real and imagined, Peter claims, is the essence of the drones imaginarium, in that such evidence doesn’t have to be presented to validate the claim. It’s a “domain like no other” where elements of truth and exaggeration become mixed and matched, adding to the incomprehensibility of the entire debate as it moves forward.

Individuals killed by drone strikes are constituted as ‘Other’ to the drone, as well as members of communities and societies. Peter considers them “apparitions in a drones imaginarium” where their “value sometimes appears to lie in the manner of their death or wounding rather than the lives they lived.” In effect, they exist through Western reportage. In anti-drone discourse, noncombatant civilian bystanders and Taliban fighters are blurred together: no one that’s guilty is held accountable for their actions overseas.

Peter points out that representations of drone video feeds like the film Eye in the Sky, “are presented in full colour high definition clarity. In contrast the quality of full motion video (FMV) feeds available to Reaper drone operators is of lower quality: affected by the transmission and decoding process, as well as the available bandwidth for the broadcast. Yet it is the former – the representation – that becomes ‘real’ in public debate and media comment. This ‘reality’ goes largely unchallenged because an alternative ‘reality’ – the experience of the drone crews and the live-feed images they work with – is kept from view and classified as Secret. The quality of Reaper video footage can be seen in the samples released by the Ministry of Defence and located at the UK National Archives.”

Average citizens can only imagine what it’s like to watch the scenes on the screens in a Ground Control Station. The actual footage is classified, so the fictional film is interpreted as reality, or leaves a significant impression on viewers.:

“...for the hyperrealist, the truth of the film is no less ‘true’ than the truth of the targeting screen in the drone control unit. ‘Truth’ and ‘the truth’ clash, yet co-exist in different parts of the drones imaginarium. There is no need for dialogue across the limits of the imaginarium, primarily because there can be no limits if the imagination is creative enough. Targets, targeteers (who choose the targets), drones, operators, armourers, lawyers, policy makers and campaigning opposition groups co-exist within the imaginarium but they do not – cannot – engage with one another: at least not all at the same time or in some objective manner. When they each view the others through the lenses of political ideology, technical capability, humanitarian concern and military pragmatism, their images become distorted, grotesque even: hyperreal productions.”

It’s also inappropriate to evoke the plot of the Terminator film franchise when talking about drones as fully autonomous killing machines, acting without human interference. This, he says, is part of the “hyperreal domain of the drones imaginarium where reality, fiction, and representation blur together, a further development of the drone fantasy…”

He acknowledges that ‘contextually autonomous systems’ might not have achieved an artificial intelligence level to match humans, but are still capable of doing limited tasks without direct human oversight. However, “in practice … it is not full autonomy of thinking and movement of which humans are capable … Those who experience drone strikes through Hollywood or YouTube mediated representations create their own ‘reality’ from the images, the video footage, and the discourse that shapes and is shaped by ideologically-informed truth claims. The representations of death and destruction perpetuated by drones become, in themselves, objects of a form of veneration: they represent the ‘truth’ of unthinking, autonomous killing.”

Examining the Data

Peter examines statistics presented by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which provides comprehensive, non-governmental data on CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. “According to their figures for Pakistan,” Peter inquires, “between 2,497 and 3,999 people have been killed between 2004 and 2016, with civilians making up between 423 and 965 of the total. In these statistics, it is not clear who the ‘victims’ are. It would seem obvious that civilians and noncombatants are victims. However, where the Living Under Drones Report refers to ‘victims’ the distinction – if any – is not always clear.”

He files this statistical flaw into the ‘habitus’ of the drones imaginarium, a domain where “a body is not just a body ... it can be the physical representation of annihilation, injustice, illegality and cultural degradation, where physical existence gives way to a form of enduring political reality.”

Peter refers to the 2013 Department of Justice (DOJ) White Paper “on the lawfulness of lethal operations – either by drone or other means – against US citizens acting in sympathy with or support of enemy organizations who pose a threat to national security ... The political dimension of legal arguments is hard to avoid … both positions can co-exist in contradiction without reconciliation. Proponents of each perspective represent and advance its ‘truth’ across multiple media domains while seeking to undermine its equally vociferous adversary, all the while creating more chaos rather than clarity in the imaginarium.”

Whether chaos can be converted to clarity is in question. It’s reassuring to know that there are people operating in the field who have their ‘critical’ hats on, measuring the flames from both sides of the argument without fanning them, and adding more evidence and testimony to the ‘domain.’

Does fieldwork help to ultimately separate fact from fiction?

Drone criticism without nuance is common in the battle of ideas and stances in military affairs. One of Peter’s main issues is with the lack of anti-drone activists’ acknowledgement of the pilots who control the [Reaper] drones, as well as the lack of mention of the rules of engagement, military law, international law, and other factors involved in the lead-up to a drone strike. Little recognition of the differences in drone use between the UK, the CIA, the United States Air Force, Israeli Air Force, and other emerging actors, is also a concern for him.

The reality of crew members flying Reapers is hidden from the public, behind closed doors and fortified walls. Their lived experiences: pilots, sensor operators, mission intelligence coordinators who conduct reconnaissance or strikes, are highly mediated. What’s ‘real’ to the crew members, he says, is a series of images of ‘1’s and ‘0’s, a “digital reconstruction of a code that was created as an electronic echo of a physical event in a country far away” which appears in the form of multiple video screens and audio equipment.

“The final experience of the target on the ground in Pakistan, Syria or elsewhere is reduced to a signal, a transmission – decoded and reconstructed a world away. Three dimensions reduced to none, then rebuilt into two dimensions on a flat screen... The original – the actual physical impact of a missile – cannot be rerun or re-seen in time and space. Only the electronic facsimile remains. The video can be rewound, replayed, analysed and retransmitted but the original – the Event – has disappeared. Further, even by the time the Reaper crew watches the missile hitting the target that first time, the target no longer exists in ‘real’ time: it disappeared a second or two before the video transmission reached its audiences in command centres and in a Ground Control Station far away... The drones imaginarium becomes a simulacrum for the early twenty-first century drone wars, absorbing the ‘reality’ of lived experience, mediated representations, virtual reality and the images with no original, like the footage and photos of drone strikes.”

Peter mentions James Der Derian’s ‘virtuous war’ theory: an attempt at ‘mapping the military-industrial-media-entertainment network,’ and to link a way of acting for the greater good with the virtual - which has come to be known as the practice of asymmetric warfare. “A hyperreal, technologically driven existence where violence can be delivered remotely with maximal accuracy and damage to an enemy and minimal risk to the perpetrator.”

“Sovereignty,” Peter states, “that most malleable of constructs, can be seen again at the heart of drones debate: whose sovereignty is being violated or protected, on what basis, under whose authority and by whom/what? Der Derian’s linking of virtuality, terrorist threat and sovereignty creates the primus inter pares when it comes to the justification of violence in the drones imaginarium.”

Professor Der Derian may be featured in a future article to elaborate on this.

A shortage of voices from the world of drone strikes

“With so few drone operators coming forward to talk about their experiences, he sees this as a small number of extreme examples (Brandon Bryant, Michael Hass, Cian Westmoreland and Stephen Lewis) that dominates the ‘personal experience’ aspect of the drones imaginarium. A representational void exists “when it comes to the different cultures of the countries that operate them. The ‘moral disengagement’ and ‘dehumanization’ memes have consequently been used to fill that void.

What is missing is substantial research with the drone operator community to assess the extent to which Bryant, Hass, Westmorland and Lewis can be said to be typical representatives or whether they are outliers or extreme cases.

They refer to the intentional killing of hundreds of civilians, while the experience of other operators in a different drone ‘community’ says the opposite – with both possibilities not mutually exclusive. Opposing and much less dramatic accounts exist in the less high profile shadows of the drones imaginarium.”

When Peter spoke with a British Reaper sensor operator, who explained what happens before a lethal strike is made on a target:

“Ethical considerations are a large part of the pre-strike assessments. Where can we strike a target? Will this strike, by hitting a valuable piece of equipment the person/target is on/in/near affect a village’s ability to harvest/work? Is the person close to his family compound, thereby meaning are the first people to find the body post-strike his own family? These are some of the questions I’ve been asked and asked of myself prior to the decision to strike a target.”

“Such an approach,” Peter surmises, “considers the immediate impact of a strike on the surrounding area of a village and on the person or people who first comes across the dead target. Further, the individual to be killed in such a strike is viewed here as part of a wider family and community socio-economic context.”

The experience of a British drone pilot highlights that there is a larger scope of operators and countries, each working in “distinct political contexts, with unique rules of engagement that can range from the permissive to the highly constrained.” Peter also brings up the notion of ‘distant intimacy’ and “the limitations it exposes in just war theory when applied to drones.”

It is a refreshingly thorough pursuit of research that’s worth the read in order to get a different and substantive perspective on the way the public views the drones debate: both its pro’s, con’s, and its unsettling developments which can shock us, and are a legitimate cause for worry and meticulous investigative journalism carried out around the world.

Our impressions, notions, and exchanges of dialogue about drone strikes should be taken with a grain of salt at all times, perhaps because there truly is a drones imaginarium dangling above our heads like a thought cloud, shrouding, complicating, and misguiding our well-meaning efforts to get to the dead-center of the truth without ending up dead at the center of the crosshairs of a Reaper or a Predator. For any input on the subject or questions for Peter, please do so respectfully in the comments section below.

In summary, the purpose of his article is as follows:

“...to conceptualise a domain – the drones imaginarium – in which sense can be made of the incommensurable discourses therein, and within which representations of death, bodies and truth can be discussed and analysed. The discussion below explores how the foregoing contested ideas have contributed to the proliferation of selective conflations of reality, virtuality, hyperreality and the imagined/ fantasised. Crucially, in relation to truth claims made about drones, epistemological incommensurabilities and inconsistencies are overlooked in these conceptualisations. The drones imaginarium does not resolve contradictions or inconsistencies, it merely highlights them in ways that attempt to explain why, apparently for so many actors in the domain, there is no need for study, evidence and argument, or the release of governmental information. Assertion, imagination and fabrication is apparently as valid as reportage, lived experience (of operators as well as individuals in target areas) and scholarly research.”

Interview with Dr. Peter Lee

Peter is a University of Portsmouth Reader in Politics and Ethics and Assistant Director of Academic Support Service, based at RAF College Cranwell. His main ongoing area of research interest is in exploring the ethical and political dimensions of drone/remotely piloted aircraft operations, as part of a broader interest in the politics and ethics of war and military intervention. His other areas of interest are the politics and ethics of identity, and the application of Foucauldian conceptions of power, truth and subjectivity to contemporary political discourse. Another paper of note by Peter is ‘Rights, Wrongs and Drones: Remote Warfare, Ethics and the Challenge of Just War Reasoning’ which was published in Air Power Review in 2013. He is also the author of the book,Truth Wars: The Politics of Climate Change, Military Intervention and Financial Crisis. In December 2013, he appeared in a video debate on the use of drones in The Guardian where he stated that the CIA is “strategically naive,” and also appeared in a podcast on drone ethics at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Newsbud: I watched a few news segments from RAF Waddington's press day, and saw interviews conducted with drone pilots and the British defense secretary. In your professional research project, the interviews were more personal, and for a longer duration of time. Did you learn anything new or unexpected about your time spent there with actual RPA pilots?

Peter Lee: I have now conducted 68 interviews, lasting 80+ hours, and am just starting the transcription process which will provide the basis of my book. In a sense I will be writing my whole book in answer to your question. However, a couple of specific responses might be helpful to you.

Given the secrecy surrounding the UK's two Reaper drone squadrons and the controversy generated by drones elsewhere, the thing that has surprised me the most has been the enthusiasm of the RPA pilots, and other crew members, to talk to me and share often very personal experiences. I turned up at both squadrons with only one interview booked in advance but with someone on each squadron acting as a liaison person. There are strict academic ethics rules in place to make sure nobody was forced to talk to me but the opposite has been the case. Once the interviews started and I chatted informally to the crews over coffee and sat in the Ground Control Stations watching them at work (including the firing of missiles) , I like to think that a degree of trust was established and more and more people came forward to offer to be interviewed. This extended further when former operators and ex squadron members heard about my research through word of mouth and contacted me directly. Similarly, 16 spouses and partners came forward and have been interviewed. There is a clear and regularly stated desire for the RPA pilots and the whole community to let the world know what they do and how they feel about doing it. The crucial factor is that I am trying to tell as broad and all-encompassing a story as possible and not just garner a quick headline. My research captures everything from the mundane routine of squadron operations to the practicalities of setting up home in the US, from the basics of learning how to remotely fly the aircraft to the reality of killing for the first time in quite close-up detail.

The other thing that strikes me is the diversity of personalities and their responses to what they do. There is no such thing as a 'typical' drone/RPA pilot. Some seem to positively thrive on the personal challenge of fighting Islamic State, for example, because they see themselves as making the world a better place. Others are reluctant but willing to pull the trigger for the same reasons. Yet others have found it difficult and regularly struggle with what the job entails. However, my experience as a former military chaplain who has dealt with veterans of previous wars, tells me it is not possible to tell who from these different groups will, or will not, go on to develop mental trauma of PTSD.

Newsbud: Would you ever consider travelling to Pakistan yourself to conduct similar interviews, except with people who were targeted by drones, either accidentally or purposefully? Would the 'drones imaginarium' become more complete in terms of substantive commentary, thereby building a stronger argument with more evidence? Perhaps it might even extend the imaginarium.

Peter Lee: I am currently developing a project with another academic who does exactly that, so we can bring both perspectives together with evidence from both ends of the process. I am not at liberty to share what he is doing because he wants to protect his original ideas. The imaginarium already includes the Pakistan drone victims (p. 10ff) but you are right about wanting to build that dimension more thoroughly.

Newsbud: Do you have any advice for drone skeptics who may be caught up in the grey area between fact and fiction? Is your article a good place to start for navigating this confusing domain?

Peter Lee: I hope my Drones Imaginarium article at least raises awareness of the extent and complexity of the arguments in play when it comes to the use of lethal drones. That goes for both critics of drone use who have not taken the time to understand, for example, that they currently do not do anything that a manned aircraft can do and that they are extremely limited in their capabilities. Similarly, governments and military users should also be aware that drones are problematic for many people and strive to provide as much insight and information as possible. Perhaps my book will come under that category.

Newsbud: Where do you see your work going from here? Is there anything on the horizon that we can expect from you?

Peter Lee: The main focus of my work for the next 18 months will be to write my book on UK drone operations from the operators' perspectives for publication in 2018. After that I hope to produce another book which will be a more philosophical reflection of drones. I think my Drones Imaginarium article might even provide a useful framework for a much larger study of the same themes.

Newsbud: For corporations who manufacture and sell drones, Is the drones imaginarium good for business or is it a nuisance?

Peter Lee: Corporations and manufacturers are part of the drones imaginarium. Public anti-drone perspectives and protests are probably not good for business but manufacturers share some responsibility for what their drones do and they could engage the public more effectively. In some ways it would be in the manufacturers' interests - if the general public in any particular country becomes overwhelmingly opposed to drone use it will be very difficult for governments to buy and use them, even for a cause like fighting Islamic State and all that it stands for.

For additional listening:

Drone warriors and morality: Exploring the formation of ethical subjectivity in the UK’s Reaper operators

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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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Comments

  1. VoiceOf Arabi says:

    Hello Erik Moshe,

    Excellent report. I have enjoyed it. It is a topic that no one wants to touch, and I think it is a critical point that will impact every human being going forward. 30 years from now, we will all be saying “we should have got involved in this, or even, we should have stopped this”

    In my opinion, it is not the drone, or the pilots or the people killed that’s the issue.. It is whats coming next..

    What i mean is, Drones are just a tool.. Very much like when man invented a knife, which is just a tool useful for all kind of things, but it was used as a tool to kill people also, which requires you to be close, and get blood on your hand. The next move was a gun, which increased the distance, but you still had to pull the trigger and “see” the exploding head, which still puts blood on your hand.

    Drones in their current form are still tools to blow people’s brain, off course the distance has increased, but the concept is the same, and you still get blood on your hand.

    I suggest this research is done as a first step to move the Drones into the next level. Where it will be operated by Artificial Intelligence, hence removing the “video games player” from the picture and putting a serious mechanism in place. And that would be something we as humans do for the first time (blame the killing we are doing on a machine, and removing all responsibility and blood from our own hands).

    Off course, the real issue here is not whether to use Knife, Gun or the “Reaper” drones to kill people.. The question should be… Why is UK or USA killing people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Syria… Who gives them the right to do so. Who appointed UK or USA GODS.

    The bigger question is.. Why is the UK Foreign Office and US State Dept creating those Terrorist in the first place, and then eliminating them using drones. Don’t they have anything better to do with their citizens tax money??? Why are the citizens accepting that, unless of course, it is not a real democracy… (that would be an interesting article to write about Erik!)

    • One answer to your bigger question that seems pretty straightforward is this: creating an enemy that can never be fully eradicated is very good for business, if business is perpetual war. Arms sales, of course, but also the many security-related byproducts of the fear industry, if an elite happens to be, say, a bit paranoid about the need to control masses of people in general or specifically because they are preparing for a future marked by serious resource shortages. A shadowy enemy that could be under your bed is the perfect solution for justifying the limiting of civil liberties and permitting draconian police state tactics, plus of course when you need some mayhem stirred up somewhere you’ve got your army of mercenaries and patsies tailor-made for the job. Terrorism is practically the Swiss Army knife of elite criminality. Ask no questions, get no indefinite detention.

    • Hi Voiceof Arabi, thanks for your thoughts and for reading!

      Your post made me think about how the American public influences military spending decisions, as in I wonder how to pinpoint the moment between the people and the state, where national security directives such as drone programs are launched, fortified, or expanded. A deeper examination of both the UK Foreign Office, and the US State Department, as you note, would be a useful contribution to the debate. The idea that citizens accept undemocratic and unethical decisions made by the state they live in and pay taxes to sounds like something that numerous books have been written about, I just haven’t come across it yet.

      Not directly related, but there is a book by Rick Shenkman, “Just How Stupid Are We: Facing the Truth About the American Voter” which talks about how fifty percent of Americans can name four characters from “The Simpsons,” but only two out of five can name all three branches of the federal government. No more than one in seven can find Iraq on a map. I think this can give us a good measuring stick for examining how distracted and ‘socially’ incapacitated American society has become.

      Drones are very much a tool, I agree. In addition to being a tool of aerial warfare with great advantages and the next logical step for the age of mass surveillance, but one question I’m curious about is what do they represent about the human psyche? This would seem more like pseudo-research, comparative studies, than anything empirical, but I think it’s worth a shot to see how we progress through stages of weaponry and how we view them as they are slowly implemented and integrated permanently.

      It would be interesting to find parallels between falconry and drone missions where we use RPA to do our bidding. Falconry is defined as “the hunting of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained bird of prey” and hunting with eagles is a traditional form of falconry found throughout the Eurasian steppe.

      • VoiceOf Arabi says:

        Hi Erik,

        I want to thank you for two things..

        First, for responding to comments that your readers raise, you seem to be the only one doing it over the last 6 weeks, or so, which is really appreciated.

        Second, for bringing up Falconry, which is our heritage, and pride and joy, which i think is an unfair advantage, as my mind cease to think, and I am unable to come up with any sensible comments.

        on a serious note, in Falconry, the Falcon is the one responsible for the kill.. All we do is, prepare the environment.

        I enjoy your writing, keep up the good work.

  2. Always nice to see Jane Austen and Baudrillard (by reference) represented in the same article. Good stuff. One minor quibble I would have is against the suggestion that the drones imaginarium is a domain “like no other” in its propensity to mix elements of truth and exaggeration. I’d be tempted to say that in that respect, it is a domain like all others. In particular, however, the statement could be made more accurate if broadened to include the entire military-intelligence-national-security endeavor, which certainly sets the standard for making a mishmash of fact and fiction.

    • Great point, john. It’s like many other domains, although you don’t see much backlash from the general public in the form of protests, social outcries, and media coverage against other weapons systems like bomber aircraft, battleships, etc. as you do with combat drones. People who criticize drones are standing up for human rights, not arguing about what’s the most economical or humanitarian form of war strategy. I don’t think anyone can say ‘the alternatives are worse’ because only history can cement that as a fact – the impact on the ground, psychological wounds, a ‘gateway drug’ for other high tech ‘zapping’ platforms to be developed.

      The mishmash of fact and fiction from the military-intelligence-national-security endeavor is I feel very much part of our understandings (or misunderstandings) of the real, the virtual, the hyperreal, and the imagined. Every part of the drones imaginarium is changing, so maybe we’ll see an extension of its tenets in the near future.

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