Erik Moshe

Child Labor & Slavery in the Sundarbans: Interview with Kari B. Jensen

The history of the Sundarbans area can be sourced back to 200 AD, according to what’s been written in folklore.[1] It is one of the largest mangrove forests in the world, located on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal. “In Bangladesh, children, adolescents and adults are trafficked into slavery in many sectors of the economy, such as fishing, domestic work, and prostitution,” writes Kari Jensen, a professor of global studies and geography at Hofstra University in New York. In her paper, “Child Slavery and the Fish Processing Industry in Bangladesh” she examines child slavery in the dry-fish industry on Dublar Char, which is a remote silt island in the Sundarbans.

She wrote of her husband, Naser Khan, who is a Norwegian freelance photojournalist originally from Bangladesh who went to this area to record information about fishing techniques that the area was notorious for. He accidentally found himself in the role of a rescuer -- he came across slavery in a fish processing camp on Dublar Char. After seeing people on the island, he decided to request to be taken there, and Naser convinced the guards that he was trying to document “the efficient work practices in order to dispel Western myths of third-world labor being characterized by low productivity, begging, stealing, and delinquency.”

What Naser shockingly discovered was that about 1,000 fish processing ‘workers’ -- boys and young men who, as it turned out, were completely unpaid laborers. He began listening to stories from the workers whenever he had the opportunity, and this reconnaissance also allowed him the space to take photographs of the fish processing operation on the island. He received requests to be rescued, and Naser told them to be at his boat prior to dawn on the day he would be leaving. Only one boy showed up, a 14-year old, and the boat took off from the shore and the rescue was a success.

“His mother had recently gotten married to a man who didn't like [the boy] and who had repeatedly beaten him, and this was the reason why he had run away a few months earlier only to be lured away by a slave recruiter. The recruiter had told him he had found a job for him with a wealthy family where his main task would be to look after the beautiful, 12-year-old daughter of the family. Not realizing it was too good to be true, [the boy] thought he had commenced on the adventure of his life and immediately started daydreaming about his life as a “prince”, only to be awakened by the stark stench of drying fish on a remote island a few days later.”

To find out more about this remarkable story, read the article in its entirety for free on Wiley Online Library.

Jonathan Blagbrough, a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Dundee and the Co-Founder and Programme Director at Children Unite, wrote in “Child Domestic Labour: A Modern Form of Slavery” that “whilst prospective employers may approach the child or her family directly, it is more often intermediaries who broker deals between parents and employers, and who transport children to their employing families. Intermediaries tend to be known in the communities from where they recruit children for domestic service. They are often local vendors or business people, with connections in both source and destination areas, but they may also be recruiters from job placement agencies, friends or even family members.”[2]

Kevin Bales, a professor of contemporary slavery and the author of Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide and the Secret to Saving the World, wrote:

“There are thousands of children enslaved in the area where Naser travelled, as well as the wider Bay of Bengal. “Some process fish, others work the shrimp farms or process shrimp in makeshift factories. Fifty years ago there were no shrimp farms or camps like his carved out of the protected forest… As demand for cheap fish and shrimp ramped up, a gold rush began in Bangladesh, Southern India, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. ‘Worthless; swamp was converted into monoculture shrimp farms, fish processing camps sprang up, and the great freezer ships were always hungry for more. Hearing of work, poor families flooded into the Sundarban wilderness. Some people were able to make a fresh start, and some landowners working in fish and shrimp were honest and treated their workers well. But criminals were already using child slaves on fishing platforms out in the ocean, and for them it was an easy step to enslave more workers to rip out mangrove forests and farm the little wrigglers that would make such a fine profit.”[3]

In 2000, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that 170 million of the total 350 million working children around the world were working in hazardous jobs that had adverse effects on their safety, health, and moral development.[4] In Bangladesh, 87 per cent of the labour force is employed in the informal economy according to the 2010 Labour Force Survey. Those working in the informal economy include wage labourers, self-employed persons, unpaid family labour, piece-rate workers, and other hired labour.[4] Some 1.2 million children are victims of child slavery in its most severe forms, according to a National Child Labour Survey report, published in 2015.[5]

The National Child Labour Survey (NCLS) 2002-2003 conducted in Bangladesh found that 7.9 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are working and that 8 percent of the working children between the ages of 5 and 17 are hurt or become sick due to work. These child workers often are found to work long hours in a variety of hazardous occupations and sectors that have the potential to seriously damage their health.[6]

“Criminals are creative and will use any available means to conceal, rationalise, and justify slavery - be it race, ethnicity, religion, gender, caste, 'custom' or any other excuse or vulnerability they can exploit,” writes Samir Majumdar.[7] Sally Atkinson-Sheppard, an ethnographer and researcher, wrote that “Hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of children live on the streets in Bangladesh and according to the Bangladesh Police Force the numbers of street-involved children are set to rise to over 1.6 million by 2024.”[8] In her article, “The gangs of Bangladesh: Exploring organized crime, street gangs and ‘illicit child labourers’ in Dhaka”, Atkinson-Sheppard goes on to talk about political violence and ‘hartals’ which means ‘enforced political strikes’, citing Bangladesh as having a chaotic political situation, with ‘hartals’ often causing the country’s various functions to come to an abrupt stop.

“Hartals are widely feared among Bangladeshis because they repeatedly result in violence on the streets. It is common practice for people to stay at home during these demonstrations, rather than go into work or school, to avoid the unrest. The fieldwork data illustrated that street children are hired by mastaans to work on behalf of politicians to cause disturbance at political demonstrations, burn buses and throw bombs…” [9]

During my interview with Professor Jensen, we spoke about how political protests caused her time in Bangladesh to be a major hindrance, as she stayed indoors for much of the time, feeling quite (and understandably) uncomfortable. See: The Guardian reported in 2015, “30 dead as Bangladesh political violence escalates” and “Bangladesh opposition leader Zia calls for blockade” or “Political deadlock, violence put Bangladesh on the brink of civil war”.

Interview with Kari B. Jensen

Kari B. Jensen, PhD is an Associate Professor at the Department of Global Studies and Geography at Hofstra University. According to her website, she’s a cultural geographer who has worked for the immigration authorities in Norway and for a non-governmental organization helping orphan children in Bangladesh get an education. She has also conducted research in Bangladesh intermittently for the last twenty years, mainly focusing on the lived experiences of children from low-income households. Her doctoral research focused on child domestic workers from poor, rural families who work for wealthier families in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In particular, she explored the cultural context of the children's relationship with employers and the prospects for increasing their quality of life through access to public and semi-public spaces where they can develop their social network and seek help in case of neglect and abuse. One of her more recent research projects focuses on the importance of place in the process of identity formation among young people with South Asian parents, through an analysis of Oslo as a multicultural city.

Read her article which was a main focus of the interview: Child Slavery and the Fish Processing Industry in Bangladesh

Newsbud: Greetings, Professor. How was your semester teaching at Hofstra University?

Kari Jensen: It’s been good, I’m teaching human geography, cultural geography, and a seminar on child labor which is usually only for freshmen but this semester, a misstep happened for registration, so they opened it up for everybody finally, so I have a mix of students in that seminar which is interesting. Then I teach the so called senior seminar for geography majors which is a methodology seminar where I focus mostly on qualitative methodology and on top of that I co-teach world regional geography. In other words, a teaching overload, and it’s been very busy but good.

Newsbud: As a professional ethnographer who is experienced in the field, do you have any tricks of the trade or principles that you abide by to guide your work?

Kari Jensen:  Just be yourself and really delve into it. Participate in whatever you can, and always keep in mind that whatever trivial things happen can be actually quite significant in the end, so keep taking notes. I find note-taking very tedious, but I force myself to do it constantly when I’m on fieldwork because, really, what you think might not be important sometimes turns out to be significant. I got to see that, especially when I did research with child domestic workers in private homes, and their employers. Sometimes things that employers say might seem unimportant but when you go deeper into the analysis, there could be some really good examples hidden in between that you can flesh out and use for presentations or publications. That’s what I found happening to me several times at least. Often times, some people will say one thing, and then when you interact with them in daily life and they kind of forget you are there to observe, they do things that totally contradict what they’ve said. It’s easy to say that you care deeply for children’s education but when you don’t send your child worker to school… things like that.

Newsbud: You have been to many places in Bangladesh where you’ve conducted ethnographic studies on diverse peoples and environments. To date, what research site or place you’ve travelled to has had the biggest effect on you?

Kari Jensen: The specific site that made the biggest impression on me was when my husband and I visited a village in Bangladesh where the whole village was a brothel. Seeing people there, knowing things they are going through; I got to interview a woman there who totally blamed herself for what had happened, and was talking in terms of, “Oh, god will never forgive me” and “I am an evil person” and things like that. That’s very hard to listen to and so I would try to console her in a language that is not my own. I speak Bangla (Bengali), but I’m not fluent, so when really intricate things like that are communicated, I have to talk through an interpreter. Trying to explain to her that things are not her fault, as she was basically lured into prostitution; she was lured to get engaged with a guy who made her believe that he loved her, and then he just sold her to a brothel, and since then she has been in different brothels for 15 years or so. Sometimes I tell my students of human geography -- we talk a lot about terms such as sense of place, or feeling out of place -- that that was a place where I felt the most out of place in my life.

Also, at that point I was quite used to Bangladeshi culture; I had been back and forth by then maybe 8 times, by now 10 times, and usually I stay between a month or three; sometimes longer. I felt that I knew Bangladeshi culture, which is much more reserved when it comes to females and males interacting in public spaces, and then suddenly being in a place where those norms don’t exist. That was very weird, and made me feel out of place. I should maybe add to that story that we did see some really good, more positive things too. We did visit a project that was initiated and funded by Save the Children Australia in that village where they had built almost like an orphanage for daughters of the sex workers, so they could go to school and have a somewhat normal childhood. Unfortunately, there was no equivalence for the sons, though, so they faced a hard time. That village was certainly a site that made a big impression.

Newsbud: The International Labour Organization published a report in 2013 that said that the global number of children in child labour has declined by one third since 2000, from 246 million to 168 million children. More than half of them, 85 million, are in hazardous work. How accurate are these numbers, realistically?

Kari Jensen: I always take such numbers with many, many grains of salt. I mean, it’s great to be able to tell my students at the seminar who I feed so many depressing statistics; not only statistics, but depressing stories and facts, to say that actually, the overall trend is that it’s going in the right direction, there are less children who work full-time and who are doing exploitative and hazardous jobs. However, I’m reluctant to even put those numbers up on the board, because how do we even measure child labor and what is considered child work? For instance, a lot of work done by children, usually girls, in private homes may not be recognized at all. I’m skeptical, but I hope they [researchers in the ILO] are right, and I think at least that they are right about the trend, that it is going in the right direction, because if Bangladesh can be used as an indicator, which I hope it can, it is telling: Today, almost all children do at least enroll and go to school a few years, and more girls than boys attend primary school in Bangladesh, and if you compare it to a couple of decades ago, there’s been tremendous change in a positive direction, so youth literacy in Bangladesh is much higher than adult literacy and female youth literacy is actually higher than male youth literacy. Of course, there’s also a correlation between child labor and lack of education, so yes, that gives me hope. I don’t even memorize such global numbers though, because I see them as very unsure.

Newsbud: How does it make you feel when you go to Bangladesh? Is it a mixture of work and pleasure, or just one?

Kari Jensen: No, it’s definitely for work, but even if it’s work, it’s just so different than teaching or doing research here or in Norway, so although it never really feels like vacation, it feels different and it gives me a lot of flexibility. A good change, I would say. However, you ask how does it make me feel. Last time we went, which was two years ago, it was the first time that I did not feel comfortable in Bangladesh, and that was because of the political situation, which was very tense at the moment. We were very unlucky, we were there for exactly those three months when there was a traffic blockade instilled by the political opposition.

The government had refused the main opposition party to have a national gathering. They wanted to gather to commemorate that it was one year since they had walked out of the parliamentary election in protest because they saw what the governing party was doing as killing democracy, because they refused to instill a transition government, like a neutral caretaker government, which is usually what’s happened in Bangladesh during the time of the elections, so they have a supposedly neutral caretaker government leading up to an election, in order to avoid the usual corruption. The political party in power refused to do so, and therefore, the election was boycotted by the main opposition party. They wanted to commemorate one year since killing democracy day, and they were refused to get the permission to have such a national gathering, and therefore declared a transportation blockade, and more complicated than that was they also apparently paid people to make homemade bombs which they would just throw at random people who did not follow their transportation blockade.

In the daily news on TV, we would see hospitals filling up with people who were burned terribly, and according to mainstream media in Bangladesh more than a hundred people were killed in the span of two or three weeks. Things like that don’t get international media coverage, you don’t really hear anything from Bangladesh unless maybe if there’s an election, or if a hundred

thousand or at least some tens of thousands of people die in a flood or a cyclone, or if hundreds die in a clothing factory -- then Bangladesh is in the world news, but otherwise… I was discussing with colleagues back in the US, “We haven’t heard anything,” they said. We would hear bombs go off at night, but there were also bombs going off anytime, any part of the day, and we didn’t want to risk our lives. We pretty much spent our days inside at home. I’ve been thinking about it a lot afterwards, that we could probably have done a little more, been a bit more courageous. At least I did get to still do my research with people in households that I would just visit within the different neighborhoods we stayed in.

Our plan was to travel to Dublar Char, and to travel to several places within rural areas where former child domestic workers who are now married with kids are living so that I could do a “ten years after” kind of interview follow-up with several young women who I had interviewed when they were teenage girls working in private homes in Dhaka ten years earlier. Several people warned us from travelling, so we decided not to take the risk. Dhaka is very stressful, very polluted, overpopulated but coming out to the rural areas is always a pleasure! So we were sorry to miss out on that. People are overall very nice in Bangladesh though; friendly, very curious to get to know foreigners because there are not very many foreigners there, and the few foreigners who are there often don’t mingle with the locals much, because they stay in the embassy areas. That’s not what I do when I go there, I spend my days with middle-class and low-income people.

Newsbud: That sounds like a hazardous experience with the bombings. Was it resolved when you left?

Kari Jensen:  No, it was not resolved. Actually when we arrived in Bangladesh, the worst part had not started. There was a hartal - general strike - the day we arrived, and that was declared in advance, so we were aware of it, so we actually got help from a contact in the military, to greet us at the airport and escort us to his home so we could stay there for the first night, he would also escort us to the place we were going to stay the next day. When we left Bangladesh almost three months later, the situation had still not calmed down. It was the same thing, we were lucky we got the same military escort also back to the airport. A few weeks later, gradually, it became sorted out, so yes, just bad timing!

Newsbud: Do you there’s a reason for the lack of media coverage - is it entertainment value, or maybe freelance journalists are not as present in Bangladesh?

Kari Jensen: I think it’s a combination of those factors. I think too many journalists are in the field for sensational stories, but even then… I’m just very frustrated with the media overall. Even National Public Radio, I have listened a lot to NPR over the years, and I feel like they are becoming more and more sanitized, kind of wanting to please everybody, afraid to step on anyone’s toes, because ‘after all, we need their donations to our radio station’ kind of thing. Foundations and private donors, private people. I still prefer listening to NPR over, let’s say, watching CNN. Those entertainment news channels are just, I don’t know, I can’t stand it. I wish we had more news coverage like Democracy Now.

Newsbud: You should check out Newsbud! Human trafficking and sex trafficking. How do you explain human and sex trafficking to people who aren’t familiar or acquainted with the subject?

Kari Jensen: : I recently did, and I look forward to reading more!

Newsbud: Human trafficking and sex trafficking. How do you explain human and sex trafficking to people who aren’t familiar or acquainted with the subject?

Kari Jensen: I say things like: “What are you supposed to do if you have nobody to help you? Are you going to starve to death or are you going to do something that you otherwise wouldn’t have done? It’s not like these children who are working don’t want to go to school. If you ask them, they are kind of puzzled by your question because of course they want to go to school, what kind of question is that? It’s like asking: Do you want an ice cream or not? But that’s not an option for many of them, it’s not an option. If it were an option, they would go to school. We just have to keep in mind that people do what they can to survive. Concerning human trafficking, people are often naive and gullible and they believe people who are well-dressed coming into their village saying ‘hey why don’t you come with me?’, ‘Hey why don’t you send your daughter with me, I have this really nice friend or relative in Dhaka who runs this successful restaurant and she can work there as a waitress and make tons of money and send money home and come home for the holidays’ and so forth. Many people actually believe such stories.

Also, I tell my students to not believe what the media is usually saying about trafficking, which is “Oh, so and so sold her daughter into bondage for $5! They don’t know the value of life, like how can they let their children go like that?! Evil people...” That’s not how it is, because what they do, I mean, most people in this world love their kids to death, but you know, often times if a recruiter comes and says, “Here’s an upfront payment, I see you’re in a desperate situation, let me give you some of her salary upfront, here you go, and you will get much more, you will get twice as much next month,” that’s what it is. It’s not like you’re selling your child, you’re letting your child go with somebody who you actually believe will make things better for your child and yourself.

Newsbud: Do you think that there are any accurate depictions in popular culture about what’s happening in South Asia? Are any movies that may be misrepresenting the truth, or have any actually impressed you? I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire.

Kari Jensen:

Since you mentioned Slumdog Millionaire; I don’t mind about following social norms and being politically correct and all of that, so I don’t mind saying that I liked that film. It reminded me a lot of my own fieldwork in the slums of Dhaka as a student at the University of Oslo. I was walking around in different slums for several months and interviewed people in more than a hundred households, seeing their life right in front of my eyes. Not only that, but the kids being blinded or maimed to go begging in the streets for the mafia or whatever. I’ve seen that too; I’ve not seen the actual process of branding them, but I’ve seen cases of children begging in the streets where you think to yourself, I wonder whether that was really an accident or whether that was done on purpose to make money. I’ve certainly heard that that’s happened in Bangladesh. I actually showed Slumdog Millionaire to some of my students when it was quite new and not many people had seen it yet. Some students were shocked. One student actually decided to major in geography and global studies because of it - she realized she had no clue about the world. There was a lot of entertainment in that film and the overall story was unrealistic, winning all of that money and all that, but the depictions of slum life and the communal tensions were accurate. Fortunately, communal tensions are not as prevalent in Bangladesh as in India, but they seem to be on the rise, and that’s very disturbing.

When it comes to depicting slum life, Katherine Boo also did a good job with her “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”. When I teach Geography of South Asia the students have to write an essay based on that book, and they seem to get a lot out of it. It’s a non-fiction novel, but it’s written in a way so that it has the feel of fiction. It’s just mind-boggling to know that all the stories in there are true. Boo spent over three years with her research subjects, and did a lot of research of public records and so on, too. Her depiction of corruption is quite powerful.

Another popular culture contribution about South Asia that I like is Arundhati Roy’s novel “The God of Small Things”. That novel is fiction, but still it depicts aspects of South Asian culture that seem authentic from what I can tell based on my own experiences there, and readings and documentaries. The post-colonial inferiority complex vis-a-vis the colonial master culture is something I’ve seen first hand in Bangladesh, and it’s so sad, and annoying at the same time. As an example, I can mention an incident where I and other members of the Norwegian Bangladesh Association were invited to an upper-class club in Chittagong, where there was a sign near the entrance mentioning what types of clothing that were not accepted in the club. It was basically a list of all traditionally Bangladeshi/Indian garments! So I asked one of the leaders of the club what they would do if Muhammad Yunus would come visit. Because, you know, Yunus always dresses in Bangladeshi-made kurtas. His answer was that Yunus is a VIP so for him they would of course make an exception! So, in other words, in order to be allowed to use your country’s traditional garments, you have to be a VIP! I wrote in the club’s guest book what I felt about those rules, but I doubt it had any effect. A rule like that may sound innocent and silly, but I think it’s important to consider what it says about the mindset of some very powerful people.

Roy also covers the caste system, which, well…the caste system may not feel important to all Hindus, but it has caused and still is causing serious problems for many people. For instance, a huge proportion of victims of contemporary slavery in South Asia are Dalits. Roy writes in such a way that you get drawn into the story. I’ve read the book several times and deeply recommend it.

Newsbud: What’s your life philosophy that guides you?

Kari Jensen: My life philosophy. Wow… hmmm… I’m just laughing because consciously I don’t really have a life philosophy. I’m just an eclectic person who feels very strongly that we need to be guided by our hearts much more and just do what is right and not think about making money. Yes, I need an income, but you still have to think about the higher principles that you want to be in place in your society, right? I would say I’m guided by trying to be nice, trying to be kind, focusing on social justice, trying to see the good in people, although sometimes that’s difficult. Trying to not be judgmental, that’s even more difficult.

It’s so crucial to have dialogues, not only dialogues but friendships across these terribly artificial boundaries we have built for humankind. It’s like, ‘you are Jewish’ or ‘you are Buddhist’ or ‘you are Christian’ or ‘you are this’ or that. It seems like many people feel they have the only right answer and everyone else is wrong and therefore don’t even deserve their time. I see that so much. I feel really lucky to have been brought up without a lot of such prejudices. I think it’s a combination of being lucky with teachers and my parents, relatively speaking.

Newsbud: What kind of social justice issues do you like to follow?

Kari Jensen: Poverty, powerlessness, vulnerability, all kinds of discrimination. I think that pretty much covers it.

Newsbud: Which countries do you think have the worst social justice problems?

Kari Jensen: We have so many grave social justice issues right here in our own country, although if you look at the poverty here, it’s of a very different character than the poverty in South Asia, where a lot of children are actually starving to death. We don’t hear about that either but they are. It’s terrible, the hunger and malnutrition in South Asia, including India and Bangladesh, where we hear that the gross domestic product is so fantastic, it’s been growing by five to six percent every year over the last twenty years, but still there’s terrible poverty and a big percentage of children don’t have enough food, and they are dying from easily preventable diseases due to their vulnerabilities caused by hunger. Also, many children are born with mental disabilities caused by the mother’s malnutrition during her pregnancy.

First, when you asked your question I was going to mention several other far-away places, with victims of wars and other serious situations that are instigated and perpetuated by powerful people’s hunger for profit, resources and even more power. But I want to get back to our problems right here in the US: Uma Narayan, who is a philosopher and feminist, puts it very clearly in her book titled “Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third-World Feminism”. She compared data from India and the US: we like to focus on those kinds of exotic domestic violence things we find in India, such as staged kitchen fires, where young brides get maimed or killed because the groom and his family are pressuring them for more dowry and so on. Uma Narayan compared numbers of such killings by domestic violence in India to killings by domestic violence in the U.S., and percentage-wise they were the same! So, as a woman, you are as likely to be killed by an intimate partner or other household member here in the US as in India. It’s just that here, women are basically killed by guns, and there, they are killed by other methods. I try to keep that in mind; it’s so easy to see the thorn in the other person’s eyes and not your own.

*For more of Professor Jensen’s work, check out her website.

# # # #
Erik Moshe is a Newsbud journalist. He lives in Northern Virginia and is currently studying writing and rhetoric at George Mason University. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013 and he can be contacted at


[1] Bandyopadhyay, K. (2016, August 01). Civilisation in Sunderbans traced to Mauryan era - Times of India. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from

[2] Blagbrough, J. (2008, April 07). Child Domestic Labour: A Modern Form of Slavery. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from

[3] Bales, K. (2016, January 14). How Hunger for Shrimp and Slavery Destroy Mangroves [Excerpt]. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from



[6] Ahmed, S. Health consequences of child labour in Bangladesh. Demographic research. (01/01/2014), 30 p. 111 - 150.

[7] Majumdar, Samir. Slavery in India. Alive, Mar 2015, Issue 389, pp. 56-58.

[8] Huebler, F. (2006). Child Labour and School Attendance in Developing Countries: Empirical Evidence from National Household Surveys. PhD Thesis. New York: New School University, New School for Social Research.

[9] Atkinson-Sheppard, S. (2015). The gangs of Bangladesh: Exploring organized crime, street gangs and 'illicit child labourers in Dhaka. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 16(2), 233-249.

Drones in the Contemporary Urban City: Interview with Ole. B. Jensen

How will drones affect the way you live your life in the city? Will their increasing presence in the ‘grid’ have a direct effect on your day-to-day routines, routes, and privacy? According to the Center for the Study of the Drone, drones are changing the nature of aerial surveillance. [1] Not your average helicopters and commercial airliners, drones are more sizeably manageable, less noisy, cheaper to fly, and their versatility and mobility allows them to maintain surveillance for 24 hour periods.

The Center for the Study of the Drone’s document, The Drone Primer, also observes that “while it is true that we are in the midst of a frenetic—and at times hyperbolic—public reaction to the prospect of drones emerging in domestic space, it is very possible that society will in time become accustomed to this technology, just as those in urban centers have acclimatised to an environment of prevalent police surveillance platforms such as CCTV systems.”[2] Civilian populations becoming fully acclimated to drones may take another decade or so, in theory, but we are already partially becoming familiarized with how drones, both the DIY kind and the government kind, are changing the way we think about structuring the architecture of our cities and airports, for instance.

Central drone command and control centres. Drone landing pods integrated into skyscrapers. The material infrastructure of the three-dimensional city ‘inscribed’ with visual clues and ‘routes’ for drones.[3] All of these ideas may be a reality once drones become further entrenched as mobile technologies into the urban landscape. Graham and Hewitt view drones as fundamentally mobile.[4] Wall and Monahan wrote about how this mobility is frequently placed at the center of attention in how drones are promoted - discourses focusing on the advancements of the operation of these aircrafts, referencing their ability to stay in the air for longer periods of time and function more efficiently all-around.[5]

Ole B. Jensen, a Professor of Urban Theory and Design at Aalborg University in Denmark, considers drone research only a minor part of his general research interest, which is about mobility and human-spatial dimensions. He explained in an e-mail that this interest covers “pretty much anything about how contemporary (urban) everyday life changes as a function of traffic systems and infrastructures to digital communication technologies.” As an urban scholar with an interest in mobilities, Jensen said that drones have piqued his interest into “how they may transform future urban life” and “surveillance and power issues are an inevitable part of this discussion.”

In “Drone city – power, design and aerial mobility in the age of ‘smart cities’”, Jensen asks:

“As with the advent of any technology the presence of drones triggers a number of issues: are drones the future of urban information and surveillance infrastructure?

“Will drones patrol cities and urban neighbourhoods in the future?

“How will this be controlled and regulated, and what will such mobile surveillance mean for urban life?

“Will mobile drone surveillance be confined to state agencies, or will private businesses and citizen also be able to apply these technologies?”[6]

“With drones we are facing a highly flexible and versatile surveillance technology, which when applied to urban surveillance (and when social recognition software is provided), may become even more contentious,” Jensen says. “Already, the issue of CCTV systems applying social recognition software begs questions of how one becomes a person of interest and how particular algorithms verify identification and authenticity. Such power-technical questions will not become less important or complex with the addition of the ‘fifth dimension’ of drone surveillance to future urban spaces.”

What happens with our cities if the fifth dimension of surveillance becomes institutionalised as a standard operation procedure of surveillance? “Seen from the point of view of the state apparatus, this means new and unseen potential for crowd control and surveillance. Seen from the point of view of the citizen, this means the end of public space as we know it. One thing for certain, however, is that we have only seen the beginning of how drones may affect issues of power, design and aerial mobility in the age of smart cities.”

Professor Jensen’s take on drones goes via the French philosopher Michel Foucault. “In one of his famous lectures he speaks of how disciplinary systems, technologies, government systems and procedures, and many other means of power historically have been ‘tested’ as it were in ‘foreign and uncivilized territories’ only then to bounce back to (Western) societies,” Jensen said.

“Foucault uses the quite compelling metaphor of a ‘boomerang’ to describe this mechanism, and you might want to think of the application of the helicopter in Vietnam. This is a surveillance technology ‘tested far away’ only later to become absorbed into the surveillance technologies in many (dare I say peaceful… but then at least non-military conflict zones) of urban metropolises.”

His paper entitled “New ‘Foucauldian Boomerangs’: Drones and Urban Surveillance”[7] was the subject of an e-mail interview I conducted with him.

Interview with Professor Ole B. Jensen

Newsbud: Is there a particular example of technologies ‘migrating’ from warfare and military to urban policing which troubles or concerns you more than others?

Jensen: No, not really. I think most of the high-tech warfare technologies are pretty scary when applied in urban contexts. However, we are of course also appreciating some of the migrating technologies. Try to imagine contemporary urban wayfinding and navigation without GPS! The thing that is worrying is the increasing migration of the violent and anti-democratic applications of military technology into non-combat zones (urban or elsewhere). The migration of these technologies are not only related to new power geometries and undemocratic practices. They are also contributing to the ‘naturalization’ of these technologies. This is for example the case with GPS tracking which any kid with a smart phone utilizes on a daily basis. Having said so I am personally even more concerned about the biometric surveillance technologies whose reach into the very intimate and embodied zones of human existence raises grounds for serious concern.

Newsbud: In 100 years, do you think we will see a surveillance “panopticon” in major metropolises?

Jensen: In many respects we already have a form of surveillance panopticism in our cities. Algorithms and software are surveilling us as we speak and computer vision, facial recognition and pervasive biometrics are already a reality. So the outlook for the next 100 years defies my imagination. Suffice to say that unless something very dramatic happens we are on a trajectory of increased surveillance by all sorts of technologies.

Newsbud: You mentioned terms like ‘human subjects’, ‘crowd control’, ‘modified-behavior’, and ‘violent dehumanization and non-differentiation’ and ‘blurred notions of peaceful versus conflict zones’. With such a complex new area in urban studies, is it difficult to navigate drone technologies and the effect they have on human society, while applying multiple disciplinary discourses to their study: mobilities, geopolitics, geography, and surveillance?

Jensen: I don’t know if it is as difficult as it is mandatory. Most contemporary urban development traits actually should be studied across disciplines. When it comes to drones this is no exception. One also have to remember that drones are in principle ‘flying computers’ which means that studying drone applications also means that one is looking at software, codes, and complex digital technologies. Furthermore, the drone suggest that we should apply what has been termed ‘volumetric thinking’. In other words, we need to contemplate the three dimensionality of urban spaces as the presence of the drone makes us explore the voids and volumes between buildings and not just the flat, horizontal surfaces of roads and plazas. This means again a new interface between urban geography and architecture is needed.

Newsbud: In your paper, you ended your final paragraph with an exclamation mark. “Urban drone surveillance systems potentially emerge as hybrid socio-technical assemblages of complex three-dimensional, non-hierarchal foam city space that may be explored for their capacity to act as new Foucauldian boomerangs!” Are you excited for the future or does part of you also yield to being cautious and prepared for what it brings?

Jensen: If you read my paper as an expression of positive excitement on behalf of drone surveillance I need to explain myself for sure. In the paper I am trying to exercise the needed academic distance to create the analysis, but as a citizen I am deeply worried and not at all excited about the prospects of a future with urban drone surveillance. Having said so, I do feel that drones are fascinating technological artefacts. That does not mean, however, that I am normatively appreciative when they are applied to comprehensive surveillance of public spaces in cities. Just because we study things and find them fascinating does not mean we are normatively appreciative of them.

Newsbud: How would you guide the advancement of drones if, let’s say, tomorrow, you automatically became the acting president and chief decisionmaker of every military and civilian corporation in the world?

Jensen: An interesting question. I often exercise the ‘what if …’ question on my own students. In accordance with my personal beliefs I would be very, very concerned if the omnipotent decision power that you describe should reside with one person – that being me or anyone else for that matter! However, I take it that you are suggesting what I would do if I had any real influence on drones in cities. I don’t think I could imagine to rule out their presences totally since there are good and justifiable reasons to apply drone surveillance. However, the ‘rules of engagement’ would have to be very strict and under some form of public control and accountability. How such a system should look is beyond my capabilities to explain in detail, but I would definitely be concerned if drones surveillance becomes the order of the day – and I actually think they might be!

Newsbud: What attracts you to the study of mobility and human-spatial dimensions? Because you focus on urban architecture, communications, cities as artifacts, infrastructures, and so forth, do you find yourself missing the ‘natural’ aspects? Or does nature (forests, oceans, animals, and the universe) also trickle into your life’s work?

Jensen: I don’t think ‘nature’ is ‘out there’ or outside cities or complex mobilities systems. The complex ecosystems, microclimates, and co-existence of multiple species in cities are surely a ground condition. However, I am a sociologist by training and thus inclined to study people as the foreground of my analysis. There are many, many relevant and important explorations on the non-human and ecological dimension of (urban) life that needs to be studied. I do, however, have limits to my capacity and time as a researcher so I need to trust other to explore and engage the dimension of ‘nature’. The only thing that is really important in this respect is that one does not separate ‘nature’ as something ‘next to’ or ‘besides’ ‘society’ or ‘humans’. On an ontological level we are all enrolled into large complex systems and ecologies. The big ‘modern mistake’ has been to think that humans are so very special and always in control – but that’s surely another story.

# # # #

Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, lives in Northern Virginia and is currently studying writing and rhetoric at George Mason University. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013. He can be contacted at


[1] The Drone Primer: A Compendium Of The Key Issues

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rawn, Evan. 2015. The Three-Dimensional City: How Drones Will Impact the Future Urban Landscape, 01 Jan 2015. ArchDaily

[4] Graham, S. and Hewitt, L.: Getting off the ground: On the politics of urban verticality, Prog. Hum. Geogr., 37, 72–92, 2013.

[5] Wall, T. and Monahan, T.: Surveillance and violence from afar: The politics of drones and liminal security-scapes, Theor. Criminol., 15, 239–254, 2011.

[6] Drone city – power, design and aerial mobility in the age of “smart cities”

[7] Jensen, O. B.: New “Foucauldian Boomerangs” – Drones and Urban Surveillance, Surveillance & Society, 13, in press, 2016.

Oil, the Iraq War, and the Geopolitical & Capitalist Dynamics Underlying World Order

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Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice in the School of Politics and International Relations at Nottingham University. His general expertise is in the area of International Relations/International Political Economy theories and the analysis of European integration as well as resistance to neo-liberal globalisation with a particular emphasis on the possible role of trade unions. His latest book is Chinese Labour in the Global Economy: Capitalist Exploitation and Strategies of Resistance. On his blog, he provides “analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.” You can also find Andreas on Twitter or at his website.

In 2015, Bieler wrote an article with Adam David Morton entitled “Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel? Spaces of New Imperialism and the Iraq War” which appeared in a Marxist journal, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory. The article examined “how the Iraq War was a space in the ongoing geographical extension of global capitalism linked to US foreign policy. Was it simply the decision by a unitary, hegemonic actor in the inter-state system overriding concerns from other states? Was it an imperialist move to secure the ‘global oil spigot’? Alternatively, did the use of military force reflect the interests and emergence of a transnational state apparatus?” Bieler and Morton argued that “the US imperium needs to be conceptualised as a specific form of state, within which and through which fractions of national and transnational capital operate. In so doing, the Iraq War is assessed as a moment in the extension of global capitalism in which the interests of a national fraction of capital within the US state form was dominant, thereby placing processes of class struggle and their relation to wider spaces of imperialism at the centre of analysis.”

Bieler and Morton concluded that “neither an approach focusing on inter-imperialist rivalry nor an approach emphasising multilateral cooperation under the leadership of the US can adequately examine the internal relations between the geopolitical and capitalist dynamics underlying world order. Unsurprisingly, both sets of approaches produce rather state-centric accounts of the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq in 2003.” Other subjects that were covered: an assessment of the transnational state (TNS) thesis, how contracts were distributed for the reconstruction of Iraq after the war, The Project for the New American Century, organic intellectuals as the architects of war, oil and armament groups, and the MIC and Military-Industrial-Academic-Complex.

Interview with Andreas Bieler

Newsbud: Does the U.S. now have more access to diesel than it did before the Iraq War?

AB: As we tried to argue in the article, access to diesel is always essential in the global economy, but it wasn’t the core motive when we look at the reasons underlying the war in Iraq. We need to get the ways of how the interests of transnational capital have been internalized within the U.S. form of state or not, and we would argue that at that point in the early 2000s, it was more a fraction of nationally oriented class forces of capital which had the dominant position within the United States. It was more arms manufacturers, it was more construction companies such as Bechtel which were in the driving seat, whereas a lot of more transnational oriented parts of the capitalist fraction - they were opposed to going to war on their own before United Nations backing. So I think the access to oil today is as much secured as it was before the war.

Newsbud: Was the invasion of Iraq about maintaining an open market for oil?

AB: Violence, in a way, is a part of capitalism, and to some extent, at times, outward expansion carried out through violence also brings with it new investment opportunities, and especially at the moment where some people argue such as David Harvey, that there’s a crisis of overaccumulation, in which you have much more private capital circulating in the system than actually profitable investment opportunities. In such a situation - you can see that especially in the post-war period in Iraq -  that created new investment opportunities, and how certain U.S. companies were privileged when awarding contracts - part of the initial defeat of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Newsbud: How do those business transactions play out between statesmen and businessmen before a war breaks out?

AB: I don’t think we should see that in kind of a conspiracy theory understanding. It’s not a situation where the CEO of Bechtel calls up a former associate in the government, and says “Oh, look, if you invade them, would that not be a fantastic profit opportunity for our company and you would get your share in it?” I don’t think it works like that. We have all kinds of powerful foreign policy think tanks in the U.S., there are different kinds of discourses, projects of what should the U.S. foreign policy look like, and how is that related to also the wealth of U.S. companies. In this kind of different discourses you get rival interpretations of what’s important, and you have certain transnational corporations who would say, “Well, we need to have close cooperation with partners in Europe. If there’s no support for the war, we’d better not cause damage there, because we want to keep the trade links open.”

On the other hand, you will have discourses around national security coming first. “Saddam Hussain is a threat to our national security,” and that’s often funded and sponsored by, for example, big arms manufacturers, but not in the sense that they say, “Look, let me fund you so that you can organize a war fast, where we can then make an all-around profit,” because, of course, every war you can see the arms manufacturers’ shares go up in value. So it’s not so directly, but it’s much more wide in scope, the visions of how the world should be organized, which come to play here, and what we argue is that visions of how security policy should be constructed are always also linked back to material interests.

Newsbud: You describe the Military-Industrial-Academic-Complex as being key to understanding some of the dynamics of U.S. geopolitics.

AB: The way of how foreign policy would be developed, I would argue, especially in our democratic societies, is that it’s not simply that you have a group of people within a room behind closed doors making decisions over how the next steps are organized, but it’s very much also precisely the creation of these wider projects. What has U.S. security looked like post-9/11 where academics would play a close role for certain material interests? Certain corporations would have some kind of general interest and be willing to fund certain undertakings by think tanks, and of course there’s always the close relationship between business and government anyway. Sometimes you even have people going to and fro, in the Bush Administration for instance the vice president came from Bechtel, if I recall that correctly, so there’s always a very direct link. Again I don’t think it’s in the sense of conspiracy theory, but there’s a kind of a direct link in the formation of a common understanding of how one should move forward. At this point in time with a new administration coming in, it will be quite interesting to look at what are the policies via free trade and I could imagine some different arguments are at the moment being discussed.

Newsbud: What do you remember about the Iraq War shock and awe campaign?

AB: It was quite flashy, quite bombastic, triumphalist, I think at the beginning, and it was not long after this that Bush then declared the war as won and over, and of course if you look back from today’s perspective, one can only conclude what a massive disaster it had been. The emergence of ISIS can be linked to the kind of way of how Iraq has been unsettled at that time. Now we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction. In the UK, the reputation of Tony Blair was completely destroyed. I think I could contrast the shock and awe with today’s assessment and the kind of problems that we have created.

Newsbud: Was there anything notable you recall about the Gulf War?

AB: What’s notable were all the discussions in the run-up to the Gulf War, and this idea of, could the United Nations endorse the war collectively, which had been done in the early 1990s, or would the U.S. really go with the coalition of the willing, on its own, against the United Nations? I remember the very big demonstration against the Iraq War in February 2003 comprised of almost 2 million people in London alone - it was a worldwide event that I think was a historic moment, so it’s those things which come back to my mind.

Newsbud: Does the capitalist accumulation strategy of bomb and build have a predecessor?

AB: I would argue those people who look at outward expansion, if we accept that capitalism emerged first in Europe, and  then expanded outward, I think I would argue that capitalist outward expansion was always also carried out through violence. For example, in the early 19th century, the British opened up the Chinese by force to the Opium Wars. When there was outward expansion in Asia, in general that was often carried out by brutal force. Violence has always been part and parcel of capitalist outward expansion. Some people more recently would actually argue we had a global recession in the early 20th century, and it was really overcome only after WW2, when suddenly, so many European countries had to be rebuilt, and so huge profitable investment opportunities were offered at that time.

Newsbud: What are the inner workings of an imperialist intervention?

AB: From a capitalist point of view you look for either new markets for your products in times of crisis or you attempt to bring new labor into the economy. For example, Rosa Luxemburg analysed the way of how in Egypt, the whole production was shifted towards cotton to be exported to Britain, but in the process, the Egyptian government basically took out huge loans in order to buy certain machinery from Britain in the first place, in order to start the cotton planting and process, so Egypt was heavily indebted. Egypt planted loads of cotton in order to pay back, but ultimately, grew more and more in debt, and more and more loans were extended which were used again to pay back debt, and to buy more British machinery. So in a way, Britain not only secured its access to cotton at that time, but Britain also actually secured Egypt as a customer of British products, the British loans were basically money given to Egypt to buy more British products. The debt level rose ever higher.

Newsbud: Why is capitalist development different from other forms of development?

AB: Historically, there were other forms of accumulation which were equally violent, so the slaveholder society is also violent. Feudalist society and the exploitation of peasants was also based on violence, directly and politically enforced. I think capitalism is perhaps different because of this enormous inner dynamic. Within capitalist relations, it’s not just workers who compete for jobs with each other, but also companies compete with each other for market share, and so you could say you have to be one step ahead of your competitors. Take Nokia for instance, they dominated the mobile phone market 10 years ago. Today it’s as good as disappeared, and it’s this constantly having to be ahead which makes it so dynamic which also applies when there’s systemic pressure of constantly expanding outward, and it’s this kind of pressure which then is also a dynamic, which can involve violence if necessary.

Newsbud: What is the origin of transnational corporations?

AB: Some people argued before that we always had transnational corporations, let’s say the English East India Company organizing during the 18th-19th century, some kind of economic production, across borders between India and the UK. I think, however, we need to look at the early 70s as a much more distinctive point of time. That was when suddenly during the post war period in industrialized countries, we had a declining rate of profit, and it was that at that situation, a lot of big Western companies decided to shift labor intensive production to the global South. It was at that moment you had a grand scale production organized across borders, so you retained the more research intensive design of some of these, but all the assembling, the textile industry, the sewing together of garments required extensive labor, you had that shifted to countries in the global South.

Today, people speak about global value chains, which is where transnational corporations control this production across borders but they don’t own directly all the various factories in the countries, yet they control them. Pressure on producers in Bangladesh can then be applied along the following lines, for example: “We still give you orders but we need it now at a 10 percent lower price, and if you can’t do it, we will switch to Honduras”, perhaps. So they control these global value chains but they don’t own them all along.

Newsbud: What’s next after globalisation, or is that the final form, so to speak?

AB: That’s tricky to say because I think many people have before announced the imminent death of capitalism as the main system, and I think that capitalism is very flexible in how to adjust to the kind of internal contradictions and massive crises. At the moment we have this kind of more right-wing, xenophobic backlash in the UK, certainly with the Brexit situation. In the U.S. perhaps with Trump, we have to see how that plays out. But that raises of course questions of what comes next? So far, the response to the crisis has been just more globalization, more neoliberal restructuring. Opposition forces haven’t really been able to change this.

Newsbud: What is the most urgent issue in historical-materialist geopolitics?

AB: From a historical-materialist analysis of globalisation at this point in time we would try to focus on the contradictions within capitalism, and the kind of potential for alternatives which come out from these contradictions. The purpose is not just to look at how capitalism unfolds at this point and time but also the kinds of resistance movements you will find and especially the kinds of resistance movements which go across different kinds of groups. Very often you will see resistance toward privatization, for example cooperation between trade unions and user groups. It’s interesting how with Standing Rock in the U.S., you have cooperation between indigenous people and other social movements. There are cracks in capitalism, and within these cracks you can see alternative developments and the focus on this potential for alternative developments that will become part of the historical-materialist analysis.

Newsbud: How do governments use ‘free trade’ to pursue their national interests?

AB: With free trade, you have the huge Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, this kind of free trade agreements, and if you look at free trade, what it means in practice, is that very generally those countries which are more advanced, they benefit disproportionately vis a vis those countries which are less developed. In a way, if you are an advanced country with a free trade agreement, be it the U.S., be it Latin America, be it Europe, be it African countries, then that directly implies you’re strengthening that economic position of your own country or region. And some people also refer to this kind as ‘free trade imperialism’, so capitalist outer expansion is not just through war, although it can play a part.

Newbud: In your paper, you mentioned that the United States is shaped by the intertwining of both financial and military vectors. What are your thoughts on the military-industrial complex?

AB: What’s important is that you can’t just talk about capitalist society like it’s just a kind of homogenous, internally contradiction-free kind of system. There are always different fractions, and the military industrial complex is a particular fraction because it is so closely linked to national security and foreign policy. It’s normally, one would say, more of a nationalist kind of fraction of capital. When it comes to military manufacturing, because of the sensitivity of the area, that’s not something where you just have companies buying each other up. The U.S. would not accept one of the big U.S. arms manufacturers being taken over by a company from the Gulf states, for example, and so in that sense, I think that particular class fraction is a more national class fraction. When you analyze concrete political developments to see what kind of different class fractions are involved in the policymaking process, that’s where the argument goes, that there was a more nationalist class fraction of capital which had the upper hand in the decision to go to war with Iraq, despite a lack of public support by the UN.

Newsbud: Here are some other relevant sources:

Axis of Evil or Access to Diesel? Spaces of New Imperialism and the Iraq War

Petroimperialism: US Oil Interests and the Iraq War

Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta

Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum

Bush-Cheney Energy Strategy: Procuring the Rest of the World’s Oil

The $3 Trillion War

Tell me lies : propaganda and media distortion in the attack on Iraq

Petrodollar Warfare: Oil, Iraq and the Future of the Dollar

How Big Oil Conquered the World

Why Oil Was a Prime Motivator For the Iraq War

Why the war in Iraq was fought for Big Oil

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Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, lives in Northern Virginia and is currently studying writing and rhetoric at George Mason University. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013.

China’s Environmental Issues & Culture: Interview with Jingfang Liu

Jingfang Liu is an Associate Professor in the Communications Department at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Her paper, “China’s Green Public Culture: Network Pragmatics and the Environment”, co-authored with G. Thomas Goodnight, appeared in the International Journal of Communication in 2016. Green Public Culture “is an ensemble of communicative activities that come to exist in the push and pull of local, national, and international networks affecting material conditions and bio-ecologies. Such activities foster network pragmatics that function as ties connecting humans, nonhuman actors, and apparatus into productive work of a culture scaled at different levels.” Liu and Goodnight illustrate GPC as “an emergent, complex array of cultural spaces that continues to grow and invites ever-more inquiry.” They also map the terrains of China’s GPC by “identifying ongoing ties and relations among players, connections, media, actions, discourses, institutional relations, and cultural norms.”

Interview with Jingfang Liu:

Newsbud: What is network pragmatics and how did you come up with this idea?

Jingfang Liu: It’s a new term, me and my co-author invented it, we are still also trying to figure out what it means for us. It’s an interesting new concept that can help us explain the very complex things going on, especially in China. I have been studying environmental movements in China for the past ten years. My co-author Tom Goodnight is a very famous professor in the field of public spheres.

Newsbud: What was it like growing up in China for you?

Jingfang Liu: I was born in the 70s, and everybody was poor so we didn’t have a lot of material stuff to share, to use, or even to dispose of. We didn’t have so much plastic bags or packaging, it was different. I went to the United States to study in 1999 and I spent 13 years doing my Masters, PhD and worked before I came back. China is a totally different society now. When I left, it was not so much about consumer culture back then. When I first left China and went to the US, I thought, “Wow, there’s such a consumer culture here, everyone buys a lot of stuff!” In China, I told my mother, “Why didn’t you get rid of your old belongings? People are buying in the U.S., you should buy new stuff.”

Later, after several years, I realized that China is starting to look like the U.S., there is a consumer culture booming and my mother was purchasing new things. I told her to just stop buying. This is one example, because I was absent from China for a long time before the consumer culture was growing very rapidly here. In the past 10-20 years, it has grown so fast, and I think people who were born in this generation, especially post-90s, they didn’t experience what I experienced when I was little, when there was a scarcity of material stuff, so they don’t see a need. Part of the reason I came back to China is that a lot of the research I do is all about China. As a Chinese person, I’m naturally interested, from my area as a researcher and scholar, to try and understand what’s really happening in our society, and especially in the environmental area. What can I do as a Chinese person? If I would’ve stayed in the U.S. I would be having difficulties collecting data about what’s going on in China.

To this day, I think China has become the world’s #2 economic power in the world, and you see a country changing so fast, so your identity changes along with it. You kind of have to adjust yourself to what’s going on. My hometown is Beijing and it’s a city that’s still dear to my heart. It’s made of small alleys, small streets, a city that contains my friends. I used to live near the Temple of Heaven, which is a very famous leisure park in Beijing where I used to go and play. The Emperor used to go there in the ancient times. After coming back to China, I sort of felt like my hometown was not there anymore. While I was in the U.S. pursuing my studies, I went back to Beijing once every couple of years, so quite often. Every time I went back, many of the streets were widened and places I had once known were gone. There was a lot of modern construction and development going on.

In 2007, I did fieldwork with twenty environmental NGOs all over Beijing so I went to visit them. Every time I went out, I got lost. I just got so lost. I don’t know the roads anymore, it’s like my hometown doesn’t exist anymore. The physical part of my hometown exists only in my memories. Of course, I still have my friends and family there but it’s kind of made me wonder, where is my hometown? It’s now notoriously famous for smog problems, which I don’t want to see. When people mention Beijing, they joke about the smog. And I think the same problem happens with a lot of other people. Even though some of my students came from a small town, in the past twenty years there has been so much development all over China. Maybe they will find the same thing, the same reality, as I do. Maybe their hometown has changed drastically. As a Chinese person, you go through all of the rapid economic developments, so part of you wants to go forward as a society, but then part of you doesn’t want to go forward, because modern development brings us many problems such as the environment. You want to have something old to go back to. You are kind of still searching for what that is. I’m trying to help my students see the connection between nature, people, and society. I do what I can to make more people realize what was lost there.

Newsbud: What do you think China can do more than anything to help quicken the process of getting back to a ‘greener’ country?

Jingfang Liu: I think the good thing about China is the central government is very determined to save the environment, to cure environmental problems. Much of the time, the problem is at the local government level, or the central government has certain laws. Since January 1st, 2015 for example, there’s a new law which establishes that NGOs can sue any parties who damage the environment, or anybody can do that, so that’s quite an advancement for China.

The smog problem is quite heavy so the government is quite determined to solve the issue, but meanwhile, they’re faced with the issue of economic development, of feeding a huge population of the world, so it has the dilemma of having to decide which is more important. For example, you can help with the smog problem in Northern China by closing many factories during smog seasons, but then you’ll have tons of people who are unemployed who can’t make a living, so what do you do as a government? It’s hard for the government to balance between economic and environmental goals. Local government sometimes don’t fully implement existing laws for different reasons, because local leaders award based on economic standards not environmental standards, so often times they put environmental protection behind. In general, the government’s working on this and are realizing the urgency of the situation.

Excerpt from Liu’s paper:

In 2011, the Beijing-based Daerwen Nature Quest Agency and several other provincial nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) initiated the “I Monitor the Air for My Country” campaign. They called for volunteer citizens to keep a daily air quality log and track safety. These efforts pressured the central government to release official particulate matter (PM) 2.5 data daily. Unable to ignore urban experiences, officials spoke out: “This pollution is leading to much public worry,” party leader Liu Jigang observed of the heavy smog in urban districts. Flights were cancelled on gloomy days, increases in lung cancer rates were noted, and controversy over measurement accuracy flourished. “Is Beijing’s smog getting worse?” the press asked. “Smogpocalypse” is here, China’s headlines read in 2013. True, the press pictured dirty air, even while passing along optimistic public policy pronouncements. Stories featured pictures of city landscapes, iconic monuments, and masked citizens, all shrouded in white. To these front-page images was added health threat information depicting day-by-day the floating hazards.

China’s national and local environmental agencies responded. Smog monitors were set up by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in 2012. In 2014, the director of the National Development and Reform Commission’s health program spoke of the spread of these measuring initiatives as a “watershed moment” that would help local officials and citizens “to target their concerns and focus attention on the big problems“. New local commitments followed as city governments acted. For instance, China Daily headlined an effort by Shanghai in 2015 to cut PM 2.5 by 20% from the level in 2013, with an investment of 100 billion Yuan in environmental protection. A daily PM 2.5 index was provided to the public to inform choices for outdoor activity. Some wore masks publically as personal protection. Intended as safety measures, data and masks fused to signal and pace environmental stress. To address air quality, China adopted a cap-and-trade policy, with cost incentives different from its European counterparts. Neoliberal cap-and-trade efforts to fight pollution are subject to gaming and price manipulation and therefore remain controversial in the West. It is unclear whether China’s efforts will succeed. In Beijing, however, it was reported that the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide in the air declined from 7% to 4% over 2014.

There is a very famous documentary called Under the Dome by this Chinese former journalist, Chai Jing. It was out in 2015, it got circulated online, so it’s the first documentary that talks about what smog is, what causes it, and what the solutions are. It points to the parties that are responsible for causing the smog, but unfortunately it was banned in China after two years and is still banned, but in two days, there were huge numbers of Chinese people who viewed the film and got an education. Just by this one event - it’s very interesting. We start to have people like Chai who brings people’s attention to environmental issues.

Excerpt from Liu’s paper:

In March 2015, air quality urgencies were publicized dramatically by Under the Dome, an independent documentary that identified the causes and dangers of smog in China. The producer, Chai Jing, was a former state news anchor, hostess, and advocate of 5Km Green Commuting in Beijing. She spoke sharply in TED-talk fashion on air pollution. Her moving personal account spoke of fear and directed blame toward industrial polluters. Videos of the documentary were posted on Weibo, Youku, Tencent, and even YouTube quickly. Millions watched online. The high-quality video produced a sophisticated blend of personal testimony with scary visual scenes. The “talk” was timed fortuitously with China’s two key meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Could it have been a government trial balloon? The film “may not be independent” was as far as the speculation went. Professors, scientists, and experts “discussed the validity of Ms. Chai’s arguments, the relationship between business practices and pollution and government oversight of air quality issues”. Debates followed. At a press conference, Premier Li Kegiang vowed publicly that the government would do more to enforce laws.

People are still enjoying their material life until they are faced with the issue of, for example, every morning I check the PM 2.5 level on my phone, the first thing when I wake up and I decide whether I need to wear a mask or not when I go out. More and more people are doing that these days. I have a six year old daughter and I’m really worried about her health, so I put her in a mask even though she doesn’t like it.

Newsbud: You describe your old hometown as completely changed as a place. Are there still traces of the old culture there?

Jingfang Liu: I’m trying to think about what the culture means for us anymore. I think it’s like the U.S., for example, how Christmas is taken over by the commercial industries - the same thing is happening in China. We’re going to have the Chinese New Year soon, and it has become quite commercial as well. You see the advertisements, etc. I think in general the Chinese people are facing this crisis of searching for what culture is, where it is they can find culture. There are more people who are trying to believe in religion like Buddhism, Christianity; there’s such a religious culture recently in China. A Confucianism school has also been established by different universities; I think the government has been trying to promote culture in different ways. In such a modern society, it’s hard for me to really experience the culture. We have something of a ritualistic cultural event, for example, during the Chinese spring festival, a cultural fair happening in parks and different venues, but in Beijing it’s so crowded! It’s hard to take my family to it because of this, you wouldn’t be able to see anything. There are other events I could be forgetting, but I would have to think hard about that.

There’s a theory that modernity makes us externalize nature, so we don’t think nature is part of us anymore. Modernity places material things as above people. We don’t internalize nature anymore. If we say that there’s a slogan in China, ‘we protect the environment’ - even this slogan, there’s nothing wrong with it but ‘we protect the environment’ means the environment is not part of us, it’s something fragile that needs our protection. Actually, we should say that we should respect nature because nature is mother nature. It’s above us, it’s part of us, so there is a huge problem with modern development all over the world.

Newsbud: Is the Chinese internet community and how people communicate within it different from other places in the world?

Jingfang Liu: I just wrote a little article in Chinese where I traced the environmental NGOs website - their online public space - I compare what’s happening in 2007 to 8 years later, and I was looking for what kind of green discourse that I can discover. In the environmental area, I feel that most of the language is not as active as it’s supposed to be, as what you would imagine it is. A lot of the discussions about environmental issues are very polite but not active, and it’s driven by philosophical ideas. It always points to people as the party who we should blame, not the specific party who actually causes these environmental problems. They have ethical, philosophical discussions about the issues, and point to all of us: everyone should take responsibility. It’s not the heated political discussion as you would see regarding environmental issues in the West. There’s a difference, which is interesting. Something that applies to other online discussions and issues is, for some issues there are very heated political discussions - not polite at all. If you are Chinese, you expect to see a vibrant discussion taking place within the framework compared to what you see ten years ago in the online world in China.

Newsbud: Which websites do you frequently go on that you would like to recommend?

Jingfang Liu: If you aren’t familiar with WeChat, it has a huge influence on Chinese society. It’s kind of like Facebook, so many people resort to WeChat for news, for discussion, or anything, because you can have a friend’s circle. For example, I am connected with people who have an interest in environmental issues, so we will have private discussions. There’s also a newspaper called Southern Weekend that has an environmental section, and I follow several NGOs. There is a famous one called Friends of Nature, or you can go to or Part of my research is on green technologies, so I think this online space is bringing more and more environmental impacts. I actually did my PhD on “green IT” - everything we write online doesn’t just disappear. It goes to the physical servers, and if you have more and more information stored in them, it’s very expensive to maintain them. They are having an increasing amount of environmental influence as we develop this crazy online world. We’re also damaging the environment in the process, but most people don’t realize it.

Newsbud: Cyberspace has a real tangible effect on public space, then?

Jingfang Liu: Yes, cyberspace, the public space, and the natural space are all linked. It doesn’t mean that if we read books online, that saves the environment - it depends on the degree, maybe you aren’t saving the environment if you are using too much online space. There is a double-sided effect. If you write one line of text, and it stays there, that requires a physical machine to maintain it 24/7, using energy that creates environmental burdens. On the software side, there are electronic waste issues. In South China, there is a large amount of e-waste sites, and people deal with that. It’s imported from abroad and it has a negative impact on people’s health.

Environmental issues are just so complex, so profound; they’ve expanded into other social areas. There’s a discussion about using air purifiers in primary schools in Beijing (some schools are able to do this while others are not) which has become a set of ‘educational fairness’ problems, or education justice problems. Also, some rich people in Beijing cannot stand the bad air, so they are immigrating to other countries like the U.S. Since they are wealthy, they can do this, but for poor people, they do not have the means. They have to stay there and survive, so environmental problems have become class problems and public housing issues. The environment is a standard with which to judge whether a society is in good condition. It’s not about nature. It’s about how we treat, how we perceive it. The way you treat nature will eventually reflect back onto that society and its people.

The good thing is, there is always hope, because it’s not like we don’t want to save the environment. It’s not like people want to ruin the environment, or that the government doesn’t want to put environmental protection as a priority. The problems are the implementation: what should we do and how should we do it? Whether we can forget about some parts of our luxury life, whether we can use less stuff, this implementation is going to take a long time. People are realizing this, and different organizations and the government are working on this together.

When I was in my 20s, I went from Beijing to the Silk Road in Northern China. I went to Xi’an, the ancient capital, and Xinjiang, where there is a lake called the Lake of Heaven. I went through desert, I couldn’t go to Kashgar. I went there in 1996 and they didn’t have a railway station yet. There is a place called the Flaming Mountain, and it was just so beautiful. Under the Flaming Mountain, there is this old woman making Muslim-style pancakes on a stove made of stone in a little stand. It’s interesting how the food is made, and then it’s so delicious. The Silk Road, the Lake of Heaven, and then the Flaming Mountain, those areas are some of my favorite. I do plan to do some research whenever I do get the time to look into how these ethnic groups and ethnic cultures regard nature, to see how our green public culture extends there.

I would also like to mention that my wonderful experience in the US, being exposed to real nature-visiting national parks, travelling through many natural sceneries and spots such as my favorite place, Alaska, and experiencing all sort of green cultures-that played a key role in changing my perception about nature and society. I then began attending to China’s environmental problems. If I had never been to the U.S., I would be like many other Chinese people and would not be doing what I do, so I’m very appreciative of the natural world and land  in the U.S., I’m thankful for the life-changing experiences I had there.

Newsbud: Here are some other sources on the loss of traditional Chinese culture in China today:

In China, ‘Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone’

Shanghai Culture Lost

Survey: People Are Losing Touch With Tradition

Loss of traditions, Western inroads lamented in China

Rural Chinese society fractured by loss of traditional ways of life

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Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, lives in Northern Virginia and is currently studying writing and rhetoric at George Mason University. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013.

The Practicalities & Politics of Leaking Information: Interview with Brian Martin

A Conversation with an Expert on Whistleblowing

Brian Martin is a social scientist at the Faculty of Arts School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong in NSW, Australia. He was president of Whistleblowers Australia from 1996 to 1999 and remains their International Director. He received a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Sydney in 1976, and his interest is in the research of the suppression of dissent.

He is the author of The Whistleblower's Handbook: How to Be an Effective Resister, which is a practical manual for people who speak out in the public interest. It tells how to assess options, prepare for action, use official channels, build support and survive the experience.

Suppression Stories describes experiences and insights from years of studying and opposing suppression of dissent. The book covers patterns of suppression, the problem of defamation, peer review, formal channels, the role of media, difficulties in opposing suppression and advice for dissidents. It uses numerous case studies to illustrate suppression and methods of dealing with it.

Interview with Brian Martin

Newsbud: Have you spoken to any government officials about whistleblowing?

BM: The dominant approach to whistleblowing in governments but also in the media is to assume that whistleblowing legislation is the solution. Namely, whistleblowers are being attacked, therefore we need big laws to protect them, and the trouble is, the laws don’t work. They work rarely, but they usually don’t help and in many cases they give many people an illusion of protection, so they’re actually worse off than before, because if you didn’t have any official protection, then you’d be more careful about what you’d did. My general approach is to encourage people to develop skills and understandings to be effective when they speak out.

Newsbud: How did you get started doing this?

BM: It started back in the late 1970s when I first got interested in what I call “suppression of dissent”. I found out about ten cases of environmental scientists and teachers who came under attack because of their views. Environmental views doesn’t sound very radical these days but back then that was considered to be fairly threatening to the establishment, even inside universities. There was this pattern of people who had spoken out, critical of some dominant interests. They’d come under attack, have their tenure denied or thesis blocked, or they’d lose their job. I started getting interested in that whole area, reading this stuff about whistleblowing that was coming out in the U.S. over time.

As I wrote articles about it, people would contact me and they’d send more information about their own cases so I kept learning. That went on for about 10 or 15 years, and then in the early 1990s, Whistleblowers Australia was set up, which is a support organization for whistleblowers, primarily made up of whistleblowers themselves. I went along to some of the meetings and heard lots of stories, acquired a greater understanding, and then in 1996, I became the president. Like a lot of organizations, if you’re the president, even though you’re not in that position anymore, people still assume you know all the answers. More and more whistleblowers are contacting me and it’s like a broken record: I’ve heard the same story over and over again. It’s that “I saw a problem,” and this could be in the churches, corporations, public service, teaching, military, police, didn’t really matter which occupation, they saw a problem, they reported it, usually to the boss or somebody else in the organization, and then reprisal started.

But then here is the significant thing: then they started going to other people to try and find a solution. They’d go to a grievance committee, they’d go to the boss’ boss, the board of management, or they’d go to the external bodies, an auditor general, to parliamentarians, sometimes they’d go to courts. The story over and over was that it didn’t help, sometimes they were worse off, so they’d go to the anti-corruption commission in the state and then the commission would find out the other side. They’d contact the whistleblower's employer and through this, the reprisals would get worse. That’s when I came to the conclusion that whistleblowing legislation wasn’t really helping.

All of these official channels, formal procedures, they’re not helping very much because they’re set up to give the appearance of providing justice. In practice, the whistleblowers did get treated very badly. It wasn’t just my subjective opinion, I mean, obviously I’m seeing a biased sample, I’m talking with the people who had problems, because of those who spoke out and everything was fixed... well, they wouldn’t be bothering to contact Whistleblowers Australia if that were the case. An academic named Bill de Maria at the University of Queensland did a study where he surveyed hundreds of whistleblowers and found out that they’d been helped by various agencies’ appeal procedures, less than 1 out of 10 times. There was research to back up all of the things I’ve been seeing, hearing, and probably by now I talked to many hundreds of whistleblowers. If you stay in the field for years, and if I’ve talked to one every two weeks, then in 20 years I’ve talked to 500.

The fascinating thing is that many whistleblowers are totally isolated in their workplace. Many of them have came to us in the early days before there was a lot of media attention on this, they thought they were the problem because everyone was telling them, “You’re the problem. Your work’s no good, you’ve got psychological problems,” and so forth. They’d get sent to psychiatrists. Then someone would come along and say, “Oh, you’re a whistleblower.” They’d look up online or in a telephone directory, “Whistleblowers Australia”, contact someone there.

They’d come to along to meetings that were in Sydney every week. I went often enough to know the certain thing that happens. It’s the first time they’ve ever been affirmed in what they’re doing, because they talk to other whistleblowers which is, psychologically, incredibly powerful. Even just talking to someone like me, I’m more a dissident than a whistleblower, talking to someone who’s sympathetic or understands what’s happening, that makes an incredible difference to whistleblowers. That’s the encouraging part of all of it. The discouraging part is that all of them had come to us after they had blown the whistle, after they had suffered reprisals, after they’d tried some of the official channels that didn’t work. We’re the last resort. Things are changing very slightly now because we’re getting more people contacting us before they speak out.

Newsbud: How do you get to whistleblowers before the aftermath?

BM: I don’t think it’s us, per say, I think it’s a process by which whistleblowing has become mainstream, it’s in media coverage. A few decades ago, it was a sort of unusual thing, but now whistleblowing stories are very common and the media tends to portray whistleblowers as good guys - not always, sometimes they are on the attack, but in many cases there seems to be a courageous white knight against a corrupt organization because it’s a good story. The second thing that helps whistleblowers is publicity which helps as far as the official channels go. More publicity means whistleblowing has a better reputation, if you like. Not inside the organization but in the general population. The organization goes on the attack but if the message gets out to a wider audience, those people tend to be more supportive. Also, because of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, leaking has become much more well understood and therefore more people are thinking about this beforehand, so we get a few more people contacting us before they speak out.

Newsbud: I’m sure it keeps you busy.

BM: Whistleblowers Australia is entirely voluntary, our annual income is less than $5,000, just from a very small membership, a few donations, so we cannot actually advocate on behalf of whistleblowers, unlike say the Government Accountability Project, who they have lawyers and take up cases. We don’t have the resources so we try and help people help themselves, give them an understanding, point them to resources, suggest contacts, that’s very valuable, and we do what we can in those circumstances.

Newsbud: How does defamation law work, how does it infringe on free speech?

BM: One of the first things I did when I became president of Whistleblowers Australia is prepare a leaflet about defamation and free speech, because many whistleblowers get threatened - that they’ll be sued, they’ll say something about the organization or individuals and so defamation law -- that’s libel and slander -- is designed to protect reputations, but it’s often used in practice to silence people. Being threatened with the defamation actually means... people say, “I’m not going to say anything because they might take me to court.” An actual court case is extremely expensive, at least in Australia. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars defending, and in the U.S. there’s a phenomenon called SLAPS, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, which is when corporations or police or various groups take legal action against citizens who are just speaking out as a means of silencing them.

SLAPS were then identified as a major threat to free speech, and the most common legal action taken is defamation. That’s in the U.S. where there are constitutional protections for free speech. In practice, things aren’t so good, but in Australia there’s no constitutional protection for free speech and the defamation laws are in many ways worse than the U.S., much more harsh penalties and so forth. So they’re one of the serious things to be used against whistleblowers, and so I wrote this leaflet and it turned out to be the most highly downloaded thing I’d ever written which is amazing because there a lots of people out there, they don’t so much need to know the legalities of it, but they need to know the practicalities of what you do when someone threatens you with being sued for defamation.

Newsbud: Are there any whistleblower cases that people haven’t heard of?

BM: There’s lots of them, actually. If you look at whistleblower cases, you can analyze them in different ways and classify them, so they could be by the occupation, be it teaching cases or police cases, or you could think about the scale of how deep the abuses are. You’ve got cases involving billions of dollars. There’s famous ones in the US: Ernest Fitzgerald, one of the pioneers, who wrote about waste in the Pentagon. There’s cases in Australia like that and another way to look at it is to say, is there a particular type of case which illustrates a principle or a significant aspect about whistleblowing?

One of our members developed a set of criteria specifying, “What’s a whistleblower case of national significance?” and shows something about the failures of whistleblower laws or about the need for investigative powers. Those cases are not so much the case itself as significant - although many of them are - but that they illustrate some wider principle. Then we kept gradually increasing acceptance of the idea in Australia that whistleblowing should be encouraged, but so far the governments have not introduced the equivalent of the False Claims Act which you’ll find in the U.S. They don’t want to pay any whistleblowers. Just to comment on one aspect the way the government deals with whistleblowing is starting in the 1990s, the various states, there’s 6 states in Australia, two territories and the federal government. The various states and federal governments would consider setting up whistleblower law, which they did, and they’ve all got laws now. They never consult with whistleblower organizations when they do it - they just go set this thing up, and so the implication that I draw is that they want to have the appearance of protecting whistleblowers but without the substance.

We have a whistleblower law on the books so everyone thinks it’s all okay, but whistleblower laws are almost never used against employers who take reprisals, they could be but they’re just never implemented. We’ve got these things on the books and they’re supposed to protect people but they don’t actually work in practice. Groups have been trying for years to get the governments to take action. The typical scenario is you get somebody in the workplace who speaks out and there’s a whole pattern in Australia where, in New South Wales, the employer would send the employee to a psychiatrist, and they’d send to them to this standard organization which classifies the person as insane. They dismiss them, they fire them on that basis: there’s dozens of cases like this. The trouble is once you’re unemployed you have to go to court to try and invoke the law. That’s incredibly expensive, especially if the organization is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending. It’s rigged against the whistleblower, so we say it’s better to go public. Get your story to the media, put it on a website, on social media, that will have an impact, and we get a few more now who see the wisdom of seeking publicity.

My guess is that no one’s ever done the research to have a full understanding of the spectrum of whistleblowers, and why they do it, what their motivations are, the circumstances, and the reason I say this is because I’m a social researcher, and I’m quite aware of the limitations of our knowledge. We only come across some whistleblower cases, but consider those who get targeted and they either just go silent and stay in their job, get penalized in some way, or they lose their job but they leave voluntarily. We never hear about it, nobody ever hears about it because they don’t allow any publicity. We don’t have the full knowledge about the range of even how many whistleblowers are out there - that’s the strange thing, there are thousands in Australia, but no one knows for sure how many. There’s also the question of, is it a whistleblowing case, is it a valid concern, or is this a dysfunctional employee who’s claiming to be a victim?

We don’t have the investigative capacity to judge all these cases. Some of the people who contact us are obviously deluded in some way because they think there’s a microprocessor embedded in their brain and controlling them, etc. Those don’t make any sense to me. In many others instances, it sounds like a wild case and I don’t know how much is imagined and how much actually happened. Others fit the pattern: this is a standard case, it ticks all the boxes. We don’t even know the full spectrum, but then I’d say roughly half, it might be a quarter, it might be three quarters, but roughly half of people who become whistleblowers never thought about it. They thought they were doing their job! It’s like the accountant who sees a discrepancy in the figures, and so he says, “Here we go, tell the boss he’d better check this out here” but turns out that the boss is cooking the books, so they’re targeted. They weren’t doing it on a conscious basis, they were just doing their job. You might say they’re less receptive to others because they didn’t think about the fact the boss might be in on it, but I don’t think the evidence is there to say how they’re different from other people other than the circumstances.

There are some others from which everyone knows it’s risky to speak out, but a few do. That’s a different story, and those are the ones you might say they’ve got a particular ethical position, but there’s not much evidence to show how you can predict someone’s going to be a whistleblower. I say this with some confidence, because if there was a way to do it, lots of employers would be screening people who they thought would be whistleblowers. They haven’t developed a test to try to identify them early-on, so that’s a good sign, that we don’t know for sure what motivates them, but a lot of it is circumstance. A combination of personality, opportunity, and you might say a certain position within the organization, so you’re high enough up so you have access to things, yet not so high up that you get totally incarcerated, totally adapted to what’s going on and supporting it. That’s an area that deserves more study.

Newsbud: How different would an average day be for you in another country in your position?

BM: Whistleblowers Australia is not unique, but it does have some special characteristics. I looked at whistleblower organizations in several different countries and the U.S. has a range of them, but there’s no Whistleblowers United States, no organization made up of whistleblowers to support whistleblowers across the whole country.The U.S. is a bit different but also the U.S. has the capability of actually providing legal assistance to some whistleblowers -- you’ve got the False Claims Act. You have lawyers running whistleblower cases. Australia’s has 1/15th of the population of the U.S., it’s got less population than Texas. If we became Whistleblowers Texas, that would be the equivalent. There is Freedom To Care, Whistleblowers UK, there’s a group in Germany, there’s individuals in various other countries.

It’s tough to say, there’s not really many that have maintained themselves over a period of years, decades, and with whistleblower support organizations, my assessment is it’s very difficult because whistleblowers are not an easy group of people to try and bring together. They’ve got diverse types of people, ages, occupations, political views, people with differing views on issues. Often with people, even if they weren’t difficult beforehand, they become traumatized through their experience and they can be difficult to try and bring together in a sort of a nice, harmonious group effort. Whistleblowers Australia has had its own struggles but we have managed to survive them, but not all organizations have. In most European countries, you don’t have grassroots organizations to support whistleblowers, not that I’m aware of. In a lot of cultures, the very idea of being an informer, like in the countries occupied in Nazi Germany, have seemed to be, “You’re being a traitor to the cause” so that’s taken over from one set of circumstances to something completely different. But still, it’s a hangover that inhibits the idea that anyone should question their employer, question what’s going on. In many countries, it’s seen to be something that people don’t even understand, and if they do, they think it’s a terrible thing. Australia is moving along in this direction like the US but the public thinks we’ve learned from each other but also a lot of countries, people there have things to learn from Australia and the U.S.

One other thing which is important is that it’s become more difficult to report on whistleblowing in Australia because of two things: there are laws passed to criminalize whistleblowing in national security, and that means journalists and whistleblowers receive 5 to 10 years in prison. Also, in the detention centers for refugees, they can get two years in prison, even though they’re not implementing it. The other thing is that there’s mandatory data retention, so all electronic communications, the phone companies and internet service providers have to maintain records of every transaction, every phone call, for two years. So it means if a person, let’s say a whistleblower, contacts a journalist, then the government police can go in and access the records and find out, “Ahh, we’ve had a story about this major corruption in this particular company,” let’s say a bank. They have the ability to look at the journalist, all the phone records, who they’re talking with, and find out who the whistleblower is, because if it’s a leak, that’s much better. Some of the media companies have set up their own equivalent of WikiLeaks, their own websites to make anonymous disclosures, anonymous contact and so forth, so it’s becoming like an oppressive state from the point of view of reporting on whistleblowing. Not very nice, but it shows even more the importance of developing skills to do this well rather than relying on whistleblower protection.

The strange thing about whistleblowing is, people aren’t trying to hide the information, they want the information to get out there, but it’s only those who are leaking who unconsciously play in their head so much that they’ve thought, “Oh, I’m going to leak this information, I don’t want to be identified.” They’re the one for which anonymous browsers like Tor and all of these things are important. Most of the people who contact us, they’ve already spoken out, so it’s a bit too late. I encourage leaking whenever possible.

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Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, lives in Northern Virginia and is currently studying writing and rhetoric at George Mason University. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013.

Newsbud Exclusive- The Buzz About the Bipolar Drone Queen Interview with Andreas Graae

Exploring the Cultural Imagination of Drone Warfare- An Interview with Andreas Graae

If you thought articles about intimacy issues would never grace the newsstand of Newsbud, you were partly right. However, domestic relationship problems may not be the focus in this case. The relationship between the drone voyeur and the target below who is being monitored is known as “voyeuristic intimacy,” a term that drone and geography expert Derek Gregory introduced. The nature of targets being watched while they sleep, play with their children, have sex, get married, and play soccer, is ‘an improved focus in modern war’, increasingly significant to military operations - not only knowing your enemy, but knowing what kind of breakfast they are eating in the morning, an intimacy that goes beyond the battlefield and into the ‘global battlespace’.

Homeland is an American political thriller television series about a female Central Intelligence Agency officer with bipolar disorder named Carrie Mathison. She comes to believe that a U.S. Marine Corps Scout Sniper, who was held captive by al-Qaeda as a prisoner of war, was “turned” by the enemy and poses a threat to the United States. In Season 4, episode 1, “The Drone Queen”, Carrie authorizes an airstrike on a top terrorist who she suspects is hiding in a farmhouse. The day of the airstrike also happens to be Carrie’s birthday, and her fellow staff members at the CIA have brought her a birthday cake with "The Drone Queen" written with decorative icing. It turns out that the farmhouse strike hit 40 civilians who were attending a wedding, and the target wasn’t there.

This fictional storyline parallels real life examples of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes and airstrikes from other types of aircraft. In one case, “a U.S. drone mistakenly targeted a wedding convoy in Yemen's al-Baitha province after intelligence reports identified the vehicles as carrying al Qaeda militants," CNN reported, citing government sources in Yemen. 14 people were killed and 22 others injured, nine in critical condition. In a similar tragedy, the Deh Bala wedding party airstrike was an attack by U.S. forces on July 6, 2008, in which 47 Afghans were killed. The group was claimed to be escorting a bride to a wedding ceremony in the groom's village in Dih Bala district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. The United States Government denied that civilians were killed in the incident. An investigation by the Afghan Government disagreed and determined that 47 civilians, including the bride, had been killed.

The Wech Baghtu wedding party airstrike resulted in 63 people including 37 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, and 26 insurgents by a U.S. military airstrike on November 3, 2008. The group was celebrating a wedding at a housing complex in the village of Wech Baghtu, a Taliban stronghold in the Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan. The Afghan government accused the Taliban of seeking shelter near the wedding party.

The Globe and Mail’s Jessica Leeder and Alex Strick Van Linschoten reported from Afghanistan about the incident:

The sparsely populated mountainous region surrounding the village is a known Taliban stronghold. In the past the area has been a target of various anti-insurgent special operations. Mr. Khan said his village is situated at the foot of a mountain frequented by Taliban insurgents. At the time of the wedding, insurgents on the mountain had attempted to attack troops in the area with an improvised explosive device, [a tribal elder from the district Abdul Hakim Khan] said. Fighting broke out between troops and insurgents after the Taliban began firing from the top of the mountain, which triggered the air strike, he said.

What did people think of the “Drone Queen” episode in particular?

Lesli Linka Glatter, remarked in a trailer about what she thought was an interesting aspect of the show: “The Taliban is always saying, you’ve hit a mosque, you’ve hit an orphanage, and absolutely sometimes that is true. But a lot of the time, it’s not true, so there’s fault on both sides … from everyone’s perspective, they are right.”

Slant Magazine noted in their recap that “The Drone Queen depicts the willful iconoclasts of Homeland dulled by participation in the machinery of war, perhaps as a critique of the ways the United States turned post-9/11 counterterrorism into a perpetual global conflagration, the means and ends of which become more opaque with each passing year.”

In a program called Homeland AfterBuzz TV AfterShow on October 5th, 2014, the three hosts: Nando Velasquez, Lexie Hammesfahr, and Danny Hoyt held a discussed and reflected about the content of the show in their webcast. The following excerpt from the show is a small example of how the popular imagination of drone warfare and how it functions through kill lists and CIA or military protocols may leave an impression on TV watchers, average U.S. citizens who have certain ideas and reactions towards the processes of the war on terror. Follow along with the YouTube video, starting at 9:28.

Nando: ...Sandy has a source, that they’ve gotten some high value targets before, and we see that this target right now is very different. It’s a very different day, as far as we’re concerned because Carrie automatically is not comfortable with the timeframe … when they have to attack … apparently, they have a very limited time window before he escapes, before he leaves, and she’s feeling a lot of pressure. Sandy says “look, you know, we always double confirm these, but my source is solid. We’re good.” So Carrie makes the decision after checking with her sources, checking for Pakistani airspace, checking drones. They end up using F15s instead to actually bomb this remote house. My thoughts - actually it seems cut and dry. It seems on the surface, she’s checked everything out. Do you guys feel the same way about that whole scene?

Lexie: I think if you’re in a time restriction, then there’s only so much you can do before you lose this target who’s so high up on your kill list, so it makes sense to me that she went through what she thought was a full checklist, and made a decision. You don’t have a lot of time to bring a lot of emotions into that, in my opinion.

Danny: Well, I don’t feel like she took any shortcuts, she did what she could with the time that was allotted, and I thought she did what most people would do in that situation. So no, I had no fault in that, I feel like she had legitimate questions but in a timeframe you can’t do everything that you want to necessarily do so she did what was best. She made a judgement call.

Nando: Yeah, I feel not many people would have as many questions as Carrie did and not put as much emphasis into this as she did. We see that eventually this becomes somewhat of a mistake, or I mean, it’s a… I guess you could see both sides of it.

Danny: Even the process that validated it for me, when she’s fully back to 100% operational capacity, back to Carrie with zero mental side issues, at least in that moment.

Nando: At least in that moment, we’ve seen that it is probably not going to have an effect on her later on in this season, what she finds out is that they actually bombed a wedding, and there were forty civilians in there that were all members of [the target’s] family.

Danny: See, at first she looked kind of cold-blooded to it, like when she first saw [character] and he was like, “Well does it bother you?” and she was just kind of like…

Nando: I think she justified it. Just like Sammy did.

Danny: She was able to compartmentalize. That’s part of the job.

Nando: One thing I wanted to say that was also really weird is right after - and we see the shot from the satellite - and all of a sudden, we this this house, bird’s eye view, and then boom. Totally gone. And then the next second later, they bring out a birthday cake, and they say “for she’s a jolly good fellow!” which I thought was such a weird - I guess it’s awesome in a weird way, to see this scene, to see them celebrate a death with a birthday cake.

Danny: Here’s what was interesting to me: The chief, or whoever it was she was talking to, said that they were hijacking off a NATO satellite, and so it was different in that as soon as they were done, they backed off somebody and they were on somebody else’s transmission, it wasn’t like their uplink … it’s like they were on something they shouldn’t have been on, so as soon as they were done, they cut it off, I felt that was easier to remove yourself from that situation and be like, “OK, next” as opposed to winding down and debriefing from a process.

Lexie: But it’s also probably pretty realistic, if you’re over there and it’s your birthday, you might have just done a drone strike but there’s the cake!

Nando: We just killed somebody, let’s have a birthday.

Danny: Later on, Maggie said “Hey, how’s your day?” and [Carrie replies] “Ehhh, I interrogated two suspects…” it was like, that’s the norm.

Lexie: And to them, in the moment, they don’t know right then that it’s a wedding, so all they know is that, hey, they just killed number four on their list, let’s bring in a cake.

Nando: I totally get the whole wedding thing, I just think it’s very weird … the cake says “The Drone Queen” which I think says so much about her character to be called it, because it’s like ‘the ice queen’ - the ‘drone queen’. How much more robotic or … it’s like an insult in a weird way,

Danny: In a backwards way.

Nando: Yeah, but she kind of accepts it, but she is, at that moment, kind of robotic. You have to be after a death like that … but I think that’s a really funny name, “the drone queen” and they keep talking about drones even though they didn’t use drones, to at least do the bombing in this case. So when she celebrates her birthday, we find out that it was a wedding, that they did confirm the kill, they saw it on TV, but obviously the Islamic Taliban is upset and they’re swearing for revenge, and like you said, Sandy and Carrie pretty much have the same theory, it’s like, all those people there - they should’ve known what they were in for.

Danny: That really interested me, the way that Sandy said that, he’s like “well, that was their decision. He endangered them, not us.” I thought that was really interesting, how he pushed it off on them, and she reiterated that later to Quinn, and he said that Sandy said the same thing.

Nando: “He put their lives at risk, not us.” But I think what’s interesting about that too is that technically she had the same issues with Brody, I mean, she was kind of in Brody’s crossfire, she was a casualty of war through Brody, and kind of like in the same way that perhaps this family may know that Hassani is a terrorist, and they know what they’re in for if they’re spending any time with him. Carrie’s spending time with Brody all those past three seasons so I think it was really her mentality - “hey, it happened to me, that’s the way it is.” If you associate yourself with these kind of people.

Lexie: It’s guilt by association. (Source: AfterBuzzTV)

Voyeurism and intimacy as the dominating poles

The Body of War: Drones and Lone Wolves was an international symposium on the changing character and future of war which took place on the 24th and 25th of November 2016 at the Lancaster City Centre in the UK. The first panel, the Drones Imaginaria, featured Andreas Graae as a speaker, who is a researcher, teacher and PhD student from the University of Southern Denmark. His presentation was entitled “The Bipolar Drone Queen: Intimacy and Distance in Showtime’s Homeland”.

Graae’s presentation and forthcoming paper explores the themes of the show in detail, finding that Carrie’s bipolar disorder “mirrors the paranoid political regime she works for; a regime where voyeurism and intimacy become the dominating poles in a manic hunt for more and more information.” Andreas dubs this the ‘bipolar phenomenology’ of the drone, in how this schizophrenia dominates both the individual and political imagination of drone warfare.

Andreas also explains ‘mosaic’ theory which encompasses the function of a drone, and even a drone’s camera, which adds up millions of pixels (or digital images) of surveillance into a recognizable picture of what’s going on on the ground below:

[It] is essentially like the iconomania: constantly adding new images, new threats, and new names to put on the “kill lists”. Thus, paradoxically the mosaic theory contradicts every imagination of a “complete picture” or “master image” ... it is closer to what Jacques Derrida described as “archive fever” – that is, an endless accumulation of additions, appendixes, insertion and notes into an “anarchive”.

He coins his findings into what he calls a ‘bipolar configuration of the drone’ while also suggesting how this bipolar experience of drone operations might be viewed as a mosaic:

A bipolar disorder, even schizophrenia, dominating both the individual and political imagination of drone warfare … Homeland works as a highly significant example of how the individual and the political experience of bipolarity seem to be inextricably linked: Carrie is bipolar, but her manic phases and the fact that she is able to alter between the level of intimacy and the larger picture is exactly what makes her a brilliant spy. In other words, Carrie’s bipolar personality mirrors the paranoid political regime she works for; a regime where voyeurism and intimacy become the dominating poles in a manic hunt for more and more information.

Interview with Andreas Graae

Newsbud: Can you talk about what got you into this line of inquiry with the ‘bipolar drone queen’ and what excites you about it?

AG: What excites me about my research is how the way in which we wage war has changed very radically within the last decade, specifically with how that change, that reconfiguration of warfare, has impacted the cultural imagination of war. I’m in the Department for Cultural Studies so my approach is to historically, but also to culturally, examine how it affects the way we think about war and new technologies. I have a Masters degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Copenhagen. I wrote my master thesis on disaster culture, cultures of disaster, and I was very interested in how we speak about disasters and how disasters are represented in popular culture, how that impacts the way people are dealing with disasters in real life, in politics, and this translates well to this project on drones. The discourses, the metaphors, the kind of common imagination being created in popular culture and on TV shows like Homeland - even some of the more recent movies on drone warfare.

Newsbud: What interests you more: the impact of shows like this on the public imagination, or on the imagination of the drone operators themselves?

AG: What interests me more is the public imagination. I mean, the drone operators are, of course, the ones who really know what it’s about, but yet it’s – at least it used to be – a very secretive and invisible way of waging war, so I see a need for culturally coping with this new unmanned and remote warfare. Since the real facts, and how these things actually function, are so inaccessible to ordinary people, the images and conceptions comes directly from Hollywood and other cultural producers. What interests me is both the common imagination, but also how culture, art and aesthetics are capable of reflecting more deeply into some of the issues – both the historical but also the ethical issues of drones. The precursors to drones in the 20th century took place in the first and second world where soldiers were gradually withdrawn from the battlefield and replaced by more and more advanced machines. Autonomously functioning machines have substituted the soldier. Art, literature, and films have this ability to show the deeper historical narrative of drones, but also to reflect on contemporary news.

Newsbud: Living in Denmark, have you identified that Danish people see drones from a different perspective?

AG: I don’t think there’s something very nation-specific about my approach to drones. Yet, there’s something about Denmark which is, compared to the states, a considerable higher degree of confidence in the authorities here. In that kind of way, maybe we’re more open and optimistic to new technologies. We’re not that anxious or paranoid about how it can be misused for state surveillance. However, I try to keep a more critical perspective in my research, but generally the Nordic/European countries, especially in Scandinavia, are very confident, very trustworthy of authorities not illegally using drones for surveillance.

In the last decades, Danish government has been working on more activist foreign policy, very supportive of the U.S. engagement in wars - a very tiny force, but still morally and symbolically supporting the U.S. led War on Terror. It’s going to be interesting to see how it could change after the new president gets in. It all depends on what kinds of wars Trump will wage and how he will use a weapon like drones.

Newsbud: How did the Drones and Lone Wolves conference go?

AG: It was extremely enriching! There were very inspiring perspectives for me – since it was mainly drones being discussed through a lot of genuinely interdisciplinary approaches from both political theory and from cultural studies, aesthetics and social sciences. In my panel was Peter Lee, who you recently interviewed on the drones imaginarium. Then there was an art historian, Claudette Lauzon, who had these very interesting views on drones from a more post-humanistic perspective. In her presentation, “Drones Gone Wild”, she got into how drones can attain their own lives in this aesthetic imagination, exclusive to art and culture, this way of imagining future war scenarios that includes drones in a much more autonomous, intelligent way.

Newsbud: What’s your favorite part about being an up and coming scholar?

AG: I like that I have lot of time and freedom to do what I find the most interesting and exciting, as well as all the possibilities of going to conferences and sharing ideas, teaching what you’re interested in. At my university, they’re very interested in drones. They have this big research project, and a center for drone studies which is also more technical, with engineers working on tiny robot drones, looking at biomimetics - for instance, how bats navigate with the use of echoes and sounds, trying replicate that for drone technologies. Microdrones, the next generation of small drones, are growing much harder to detect, so there could potentially be this new regime of surveillance from tiny drones. This is also present in some of the newer cultural representations like the movie Eye in the Sky, where they have this tiny drone that can access and infiltrate the terrorists in a much more stealthy way. What I really like about my project is being in the loop, and being a young scholar during a time when these issues are so relevant and there’s so much focus on drones and future warfare.

There are drone artists working on formations, some clips on YouTube show swarms with lights on them, and it looks amazing. There’s also a little something uncanny to them as well. I mean, there seems to be conflicting feelings about drones. On the one hand, there is this sense of techno-fetishism, enthusiastic emotions toward drones. Then there’s also the opposite:  the negative feelings, the paranoia and anxiousness of how they can be misused for surveillance but also for terrorist attacks. The Islamic State have already started using smaller drones for attacks with bombs. I am interested in all these new feelings that are attached to drones, and I want to investigate how they are being represented and given life in the public and cultural discourse.

Newsbud: How did you find out about the Homeland TV series?

AG: It’s actually very popular in Denmark. I know people who had been talking about it, and I started watching it before starting my Ph.D. In the first season, drone warfare is lurking in the background of the plot as the main villain, the terrorist Abu Nazir’s son is being killed in a drone attack, which is his motivation for revenge. But then in the fourth season, drones takes a much more active role with Carrie being the drone queen. And there is all these images shot from the drone’s perspective, with the vertical camera angles. That’s really fascinating to me how some of the newer films and TV series are utilizing the drone’s perspective on a more frequent basis. That’s not exclusive to films that are dealing specifically with drone warfare – It’s also this new camera technology that allows the movie industry to make a ton of use of the drone perspective, which has opened up a new world for lower budget films to get that kind of filmmaking experience and perspective of motion – for instance there was a remake of The Blair Witch Project, shot from a drone.

Newsbud: There is a scene in the show where Carrie makes ‘eye contact’ through the drone camera and surveys a boy on the ground after a drone strike. In a moment of intimacy she is staring into his eyes as he look back into hers. Were you skeptical about it, or did you sit back and enjoy it as a piece of entertainment?

AG: I mostly just enjoyed it because I’m not so much into how realistic it is, but I liked this intensity during that very strong scene – the illusion of a mutual gaze between the boy on the ground and Carrie in the control room. In my paper, I deal with this new intimacy and voyeurism linked to the drone gaze, that you can get so close to the targets of the drones.

But there is also a counter move to that ubiquitous surveillance. In a movie called Body of Lies, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, there’s also this interaction between the people on the ground and the drones. Some terrorists are kidnapping the main character, and then he’s being followed by his allies with a drone. But the cars are driving around making a lot of dust so the drone cannot see anything. You could say that the terrorists use camouflage to outsmart the drones. This also reminds me of the Body of War conference. Here there was a presentation of an artist, Adam Harvey, who created a drone burka. He designed this clothing which you can wear so that it can’t be seen by the infrared drone camera. I see this as a new way of engaging with drone surveillance that both deflect the drone gaze and functions as a form of a counter-stare.

Newsbud: Were you able to speak with any of the presenters about your concept of a bipolar configuration of the drone?

AG: Yes, I got some great inputs to my paper from some of the other participant on how this new intimacy of the drones relates to the psychology of the drone operators.

You were also talking about the psychopathologies the psychology of drone operators, and how there are mental illnesses like PTSD. I don’t know how many of these drone pilots could be diagnosed with bipolar disorder because it’s more like these traumatic stress syndromes are predominantly present in these cases. Carrie’s character also has this dualism which I found useful in the way of describing the dialectics of the drone, I suppose, the voyeuristic, broad overview but also this very detailed ‘zooming in’ on specific things.

Newsbud: What do you think of the CIA?

AG: When talking about cultural imaginations, the CIA is almost like... mythical in a sense. The CIA is portrayed very heavily Hollywood films, so of course there’s this legendary notion of the heroic ‘CIA agent’. But I’m also aware that there’s a specific, very pro-Western way of portraying the War on Terror. The Homeland series has nuances to it for sure – it has this way of describing both the pros and cons of remote/drone war – but it also has the antagonism between Western democracies fighting the barbaric countries. It’s important to keep in mind that there’s a certain Western hegemonic way of looking at the drone.

Moreover, there might be a change into how the CIA is being portrayed after 9/11. In the TV series 24, Jack Bauer is also a CIA agent, right? Before 9/11, there were these villains who tortured certain characters in the storyline, but after 9/11, suddenly Jack Bauer was the one who tortured the terrorists in order to avoid an attack or a disaster. I think there’s been this change also from Hollywood and the cultural industry at large that has been more arcane, perhaps, in the common imagination, to take issues used in the fight against terror like drones or torture – because now the heroes are doing it. Now, they can be portrayed by balancing both the bad and good sides, but just the fact that the heroes in these TV series actually use these ethically problematic methods impacts and affects the common imagination of how to wage war and what moral boundaries there might be to certain measures.

Of course, there is also critical cultures that takes a more activist approach towards drones. For instance, on an artist group performs a sort of counter stare to the drone by making this giant poster of a boy looking back at the drone that is flying overhead. There are also criticisms in some of the recent and famous Hollywood movies like Eye in the Sky and Good Kill. However these films do not problematize drones from the victim’s perspective, they’re problematizing the psychological experience of drone operators who often suffer from post-traumatic stress due to their intimate-voyeuristic experience – what I call the bipolar configuration. So, it’s the operators that become the victims and not the actual civilians. In fact, there’s a big potentiality in the cultural industry to put more focus on the actual consequences occurring in the Pakistani regions and how that affects their daily lives.

Newsbud: You mention how there is a “flickering dialectic between voyeurism and intimacy” in the TV-series, which “does play on this obscurity, since it is often unclear when and to what extent Carrie ‘fakes’ the intimacy – or when she is genuinely affected. Such places of indeterminacy do not only drive Carrie as character, but also the narrative motor in Homeland as they characterize the bipolar logic of the drone.”

Is there another narrative motor that the show is missing out on that you think could develop the storyline to make it more effective?

AG: I don’t’ think that Homeland goes that much into artificial intelligence, you know how the targets are being produced from algorithmic pattern recognition. Of course, there are still humans in the loop, but it’s starting to get more machinic in the way targets are being selected. I don’t think Homeland deals with that aspect – instead it’s very much still focused on the personal identification and the individual feelings of the drone operator, or the “drone queen”, Carrie. That could be another position: the dialectic between human and non-human ethics.

In comparison, the recent season of 24 has a fair share of drones – but here, the drones are being hacked by terrorists. In other words, the American state loses control of their own drones, which is, in fact, a very present fear scenario.

Newsbud: The terms “iconomania” and “scopophilia” come up in your paper. You wrote that:  “the two extremes of the bipolar configuration of the drone appear: At the one extreme, a paranoid ‘iconomania’ systemized into a voyeuristic desire for total surveillance – and at the other, a laser focused gaze on the intimate and individual parts of the montage. This is how the affective politic of drone operations works – as an oscillating dialectics between the macro and the micro perspective, between ever-increasing mass surveillance and so-called ‘surgical’ strikes on individuals.”

AG: With iconomania, WJT Mitchell explores how this manic obsession with images or ‘big data’ produces these huge archives and database which is this new way of surveillance: Seeking more information, seeking more data, to get that master image or master picture. Carrie’s obsession with seeing everything and not missing anything also relates to iconomania - she says in the introduction to the show that she once missed something and she won’t let that happen again, and that was 9/11. She’s traumatized by 9/11 because she missed it, so it’s an odd way of saying that 9/11 produced this global paranoia, where the Western societies ought to see everything, ought to increase the surveillance in order to not miss anything.

Scopophilia is more of a psychoanalytical, Freudian concept that has to do with the power of the gaze and the pleasure of looking. You have it in the naming of the drone’s camera technologies, the Gorgon Stare and the Argus system. Both are named after mythological figures which is symbolizing gazing. For instance, the primordial giant Argus has hundreds of eyes, and the Gorgon has this gaze that turns people into stone. Freud writes about the Gorgon and the Medusa myth as this infantile, instinctive fear of seeing the Other, that is the boy looking at his mother and seeing the lack of a penis – and that’s what causes castration anxiety. You can say scopophilia is a curiosity towards seeing the other, but also the anxiety of losing yourself.

Newsbud: Have you been to any countries where drones are used during your research?

AG: Unfortunately, I haven’t been to any regions where drones are being used, but that would indeed be a very interesting study. It would probably be more like cultural anthropology, going there and interviewing the people living under the drones, which has actually already been done. It could be very eye-opening to talk to people who’ve experienced drone surveillance and attacks. In my research, I’m majorly interested in military drones – but I also find the ways that drones are being used for civilian purposes interesting as well. I met a photographer who was using a drone as his way of photographing: this winter he was exhibited in MoMA, New York, where he was presenting his photos of the refugee crisis he shot from a drone when he travelled to Lesbos, Greece. He took pictures from above of refugees and refugee trail up through Europe, documenting how they were treated, how some of them were drowning, and thus he showed how people were suffering from this very distanced, almost alienated, vertical viewpoint. I found this to be such a strong way of depicting a real crisis, and he also had many ethical reflections on that. It was also very intense watching these images of the consequences of war from an alternative drone perspective.

Newsbud: If there is a drone queen, does that mean there’s a drone king?

AG: That might be the president, I guess? The funny thing about this name, and the episode “The Drone Queen”, is that there’s this connection to the insect world, since a drone, of course, means a stingless male bee. The drone has one single purpose, and that is to mate with the queen. The drone queen controls the drones and they’d only have the purpose to serve her which I think touches upon this intrinsic relationship between insects and technology. Also, the sound of the drones, this monotonous buzzing sound is present, which I also find in the scene in the episode with the boy looking up at Carrie and the eye of the drone. At the same time, when looking from Carrie’s perspective in the control room, you can hear the buzzing sound of the drone, from all the monitors. Therefore there is this affinity between insects, natural sounds, and the machine sounds.

Actually, I’m doing a chapter of my dissertation on the relationship between insects and drones. I also came across this media scholar, Jussi Parikka, who wrote a book called Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. It’s not about drones, but it’s about how technology and insects are related and how insects can be viewed as a medium. I came across another book entitled Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War by Jeffrey A. Lockwood, which is about how, historically, insects have been used in war.

There’s also this German author, Ernst Jünger, who’s very famous for his war diaries from the first world war. In 1957, he wrote a book called The Glass Bees which is a kind of science fiction narrative and it’s ahead of its time in the sense that it very accurately describes how small robot bees are being used in swarms for military surveillance purposes, and for collecting nectar. It’s strangely prescient, being that he foresaw these current technologies in 1957. Also, Jünger had an enormous personal interest in insects: he made these insect diaries from the trenches of the first world war. These diaries contained metaphorical descriptions of balloons and airplanes used during the first world war which he compared with insects. This is why I started my cultural history of drones here – because I was inspired by his observations of machines used in warfare.

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Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, lives in Northern Virginia and is currently studying writing and rhetoric at George Mason University. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013.

Newsbud Exclusive: Nick Robinson on Videogames & the Military Entertainment Complex

A conversation with an expert on military videogames

Nick Robinson is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Studies/Videogames research at the University of Leeds, UK. He has published widely in journals such as Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Perspectives on Politics, Political Studies, JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, the Political Quarterly and Critical Studies on Security. He is author of a couple of books and is presently working on a book for the Popular Culture and World Politics book series (Routledge) entitled Videogames, Popular Culture and World Politics. He is also presently working as part of an international research team on a four-year Framework Grant from the Swedish Research Council as part of its programme, ‘The Digitized Society: Past, Present, and Future’. Their project, ‘Militarization 2.0: Militarization’s Social Media Footprint Through a Gendered Lens’, involves project partners from Sweden, the UK and Germany.

In ‘Videogames, persuasion and the War on Terror: Escaping or embedding the military–entertainment complex?’, published in Political Studies, Nick wrote about how games can be a force for both social stability and social change. The article has examined the different ways in which games have impacted upon the militarisation of society. It argued that the pervasive nature of the military–entertainment complex from the 1980s onwards has created a cycle whereby militarisation has affected the content of games, and at the same time that games have aided in the militarisation of society. It also examined the way in which games have increasingly been employed to challenge creeping militarisation, showing how games are being used as sites of activism (through virtual protest and modifications to the game world) and as forms of political activism (with the procedural powers of games being exploited in order to produce games that challenge the dominant ideological position of the West).

In another one of his articles, Militarism and opposition in the living room: the case of military videogames, published in Critical Studies on Security, Nick explores “the importance of videogames and their associated promotional media for both militarism and the resulting opposition. It focuses on the games Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor Warfighter – two mainstream, commercially successful military combat games which purport to offer an ‘authentic’ experience of post 9/11 military action to the player – to develop a framework to explore the role of videogames in this area. In terms of the military industrial and military entertainment complex, it shows the close association between the game developers and the military, with the military providing consultancy services, access to military hardware and openly celebrating their mutual associations.

“These associations take on an important spatial dimension with the developers and weapons makers producing promotional materials which literally show both parties ‘enjoying one another’s company ’ in the same physical space; games also ‘transport the player’ into the virtual battlefield and allow them to embody the soldier. Finally, gendered militarism is shown in the gameplay and narratives within these games, alongside their associated promotional materials, all of which place significant emphasis on the links between militaristic values and masculinity. In both games, the celebration of militarism was highly controversial, prompting heated debate and active opposition – albeit varying in the two cases – from the military, politicians and players on the appropriateness of using videogames for militaristic entertainment. This suggests that there are limits to society’s acquiescence in militarism and a continuing capacity to critique militaristic popular culture.”

I got the chance to speak with Dr. Robinson, and here’s the full conversation that we had about videogames, popular culture, warfare, virtual reality, political messages, and Mario Kart.

Interview with Nick Robinson

Newsbud: Was there a catalyst that set you off on this career path of research, or was it always your calling?

Nick Robinson: There’s a lot of exploring what might, initially appear to be blind alleys, some guesswork and an element of chance in what I do, but also something which is about a passion that I’ve always had. I’ve always been passionate about playing videogames, and I also loved computers. When I was a small child, I remember having a paper-round to save the money up to buy home computers in those days, in which you had a tape cassette and you shoved them in, things like a Commodore 64. The other thing is what happened, it’s a really strange situation, I was on sabbatical leave a few years ago, and I had a contract for a book, and to cut a long story short, things got delayed and I was sitting there thinking: What should I do with this book project? And I thought, I wonder if there’s anything interesting politically about videogames? I wrote an article, ‘Videogames, Persuasion and the War on Terror: Escaping or Embedding the Military-Entertainment Complex?’ which was published in the journal Political Studies. It was from that kind of segue, that bit of luck combined with that desire to see if there was anything interesting politically in videogames which was the catalyst for moving into that field.

Newsbud: If a prominent game-developing studio enlisted your assistance for designing a game of your choice, with unlimited funding and full commitment to bring your vision to reality, what would the game be like? Would it be complementary of the work you have been doing examining videogame culture and militarism, or something completely different?

NR: What a great question! There was a time – just a few years ago - when that question would’ve been quite easy to answer because the videogames medium wasn’t doing very many interesting things. But in the last few years games have become so much more interesting and so that’s a really hard question to answer. We now have something like This War of Mine, which to me is an extraordinary game in a lot of ways because it suddenly makes us look at war in a completely different way. Now that’s the kind of thing I would’ve wanted to have done, something that gives us an empathetic connection to a victim of warfare in that context. I’ve played Her Story as well recently and it was just incredible. People are now making games that don’t require you to be a gamer, and that is the absolute game-changer. I suppose for me it would be about trying to go about creating the next Spec Ops: The Line, a game which uses the idea of shooting in a subversive fashion to make the player reflect back on themselves and their actions within the game.

There was a campaign by the Red Cross a couple of years ago that talked about creating a game centered around the ethical decisions a soldier makes on the battlefield, which would be really interesting, wouldn’t it? One of the fascinating things about games is that people keep saying “Oh you can’t make games of a certain sort because people won’t want to play them.” I just don’t think that’s true, actually. This War of Mine is not a lot of fun to play, it’s quite a grim game, however people are playing it in huge numbers. It comes from a small studio, and they’ve become incredibly successful through a game which is not instinctively great fun.

If you can break the idea that videogames are games and that they have to be fun, then we can start to give the medium the proper respect that it deserves. Videogames are more like interactive forms of art – yes they can be entertaining, but they can also be challenging and thought provoking. It’s a disservice also to the player if you don’t treat them with a considerable degree of respect.

Something about me: I’m 46 years of age, I’ve been engaging with this medium since I was about 12, so that’s a lot of years. I’m not the same person, now I love Mario, don’t get me wrong - but I also want to play something that makes me go, wow, that can evoke real emotional responses, and that for me within a game, because it’s interactive, is massively more powerful than the effect of a film, for example.

Newsbud: I can definitely see videogames having the potential to be more emotionally moving than a film. One example would be the game Mario Kart: anyone who has hit a banana on the racetracks, spun out of control, and lost the race, can sympathize with this!

NR: I’ve got some nephews and we will play Mario Kart in my house when they come around. They’ll cry when they hit the banana.

Newsbud: Yes, the bananas are pretty brutal, they can quickly derail a race.

NR: Particularly when you’re in the front, there’s nothing more heartbreaking, you can see the line coming towards you and then suddenly you get overtaken by everyone flying past you!

Newsbud: During your gameplay efforts throughout your time investigating certain games with a military edge, did you ever find yourself so immersed in a game that you forgot you were conducting research? Did you have to "try" for the full rhetorical effect to kick in, and allow the game to capture your imagination, 'plugging yourself in' so to speak to simulate how, for example, an American player might feel in response to it?

NR: I do play a lot of games specifically for research purposes, but I also frequently play games for the pure pleasure of playing them. I teach a module called Videogames: Politics, Society, and Culture at the University of Leeds which brings research and teaching together and here the students are constantly bringing incredible games to my attention. But also when you play for fund I’ll often see things when I’m not expecting them but often I am glad that I can play just for pleasure. Not all research, thankfully!

Newsbud: It’s a great stress reliever.

NR: Yes, and/or stress adder, if you keep failing at something, it adds trauma!

Newsbud: That is true, if you’re a very competitive player, it raises your blood pressure up a bit.

NR: About questions of difficulty, games like the Dark Souls series, Bloodborne, I’ve actually avoided those because everybody I know who’s played them has told me they’ve been so stressful to play, and I haven’t the time or the emotional capacity to suffer for that length of time to win, so I just leave those and play something easier and more palatable like Uncharted!

In response to the ‘plugging yourself in’ question, I’m struck by the work by a man named Alexander R. Galloway who wrote some interesting work in which he discussed notions of perspective. Can I embody somebody else? Firstly, I think we need to be very careful about assuming that there would be something like ‘an American player’ because people in the US are so varied. Looking, for example, at something as simple as the recent American election result, and what it throws up to me is that there isn’t any such thing as an American perspective -- there are lots of American perspectives. I can imagine playing a videogame with people in the U.S. who were significantly more liberal than me, and presumably, people who are more conservative than me, and in the same way I would expect to find the same kinds of varied viewpoints within the UK context and elsewhere.

What interests me about games, in what lies partly behind your question about how an American player might respond, is who is represented in those games and who aren’t being represented?. If I’m playing as a gruff, Scottish bloke in the Call of Duty series, does it make me feel more of an affinity with that person given that I am from the UK, than if I’m playing as an American in the context of those games? There are people who I never get to play as, right? I can’t think of a single example where I would play as somebody from the Middle East in a single player story mode fighting against the West, in a Western released military shooter game. That’s an interesting political question: why are certain people are not represented in these fights?

Most single player games, particularly, have a narrative in them, and they have a voice actor in that narrative, so that voice actor is either represented in the third person, like in the Mass Effect series or Uncharted or Tomb Raider, or, very rarely, in war games. Spec Ops: The Line is quite unusual because it’s a third person war game. Normally, of course, it’s first person. So we look through the eyes of the person we play, and the only time we hear them is when they speak and more often than not, they don’t speak at all. When they do speak, we can see what they say with the subtitles turned on, but when we hear them speak, they speak with a particular accent. In Call of Duty, there’s more of a global perspective. You fight as a Russian, or a Scottish SAS, or an American, so there’s a sort of special relationship between realpolitiks which is being played out in the representations in these games.

Newsbud: In Grand Theft Auto IV, the main character is an Eastern European named Niko Bellic who has to become a very violent individual in order to survive in ‘Liberty City’ which consists of four boroughs, based on four of the boroughs of New York City. Is this an example of realpolitiks showing up in a game, popular geopolitics reflected in the portrayal of Eurasian immigrants?

NR: If we’re talking specifically about GTA4, and if we think back to the story, Niko Bellic arrives on a boat. I think he’s a Serbian probably, it’s not totally clear, but he has a particular relationship to conflict. He comes to the U.S. and stays with his nephew Roman, who is a taxi driver. Roman very quickly makes it clear that whatever Niko was told about America is not true - that the dream he was sold when he got on that boat wasn’t the reality he was confronting when he arrives. One of the ways this can be interpreted is as a critique of Russia: there’s a lot stereotyping in it and so forth, Russian gangsters etc., or (and this is my own view) it can be seen as a satire which asks a series of questions about the American Dream. Here comes the immigrant who’s promised the world by America and when he arrives the only way he can survive in that system is through massive violence because the system is stacked against him. In that context, his identity as an outsider is integral to the story.

Until the fifth game in the GTA series, with three main characters, they always used minority figures in different kinds of ways to make those kinds of points, if you see the game as a satire, which I personally do. The new one is interesting because you’ve got these three different characters, causing the relationship to what the message of the game is to become much more ambigious. In GTA 5, you have this traveller/slightly sociopathic hillbilly character, then you have Michael, the slightly dysfunctional guy from Hollywood Hills, and Franklin, an African American, the most rational, sensible, and normal of all three in his own way.

The GTA games are interesting because they are the one game, historically, that have dealt with different racial perspectives, so placing the player in these different racial roles which is still quite rare in the videogame medium, especially for a game as successful as that series is commercially. The numbers that series does is just off the charts.

Newsbud: America's Army, a first-person shooter game published in 2002 by the U.S. Army, representing the first large-scale use of game technology by the U.S. government as a platform for strategic communication and the first use of game technology in support of U.S. Army recruiting. It has been described as an extension of the military entertainment complex or militainment. When a player is killed in the game, blood isn’t shown.

NR: There’s been a lot of research on America’s Army, and it’s fair to say that a lot of it is very critical of it. For two reasons: the sanitization question, and the second concern is that it’s a game that’s playable by young people, so the age rating on the game is lower than is the norm. The average war game in America is rated mature. The question is, should the Department of Defense be producing a videogame which is freely available and targeted at young people? They explicitly make a point that they wanted to have the absence of blood so that young people can play the game. It is about marketing, it is about recruiting people, it is about getting people interested in the U.S. military.

There is something particular about the idea that the game itself is explicitly playable by people under a certain age, which is the ethically problematic issue. So if the blood came in, the short answer is, the age rating would have to go up. Now that raises another question, doesn’t it? In my feeling, generally about war, is it’s less about the blood, and it’s more about ensuring the player is at least in a position to think and be conscious of the ethical questions they are engaging in when they fight in that war, which is one of the reasons I’m worried about a lot of young people playing games such as Call of Duty or Battlefield. It’s not because I’m bothered about the violence, it’s because I’d like them to have at least thought a little bit about what it means to get involved in fighting a war against real people, often – a war which is actually going on outside their own windows, in reality. I wonder about how ethically sophisticated people are when they’re very young, because we know a lot of people are playing huge numbers of videogames under the age rating. We know that to be a truism.

Newsbud: Have you noticed any difference between war games in the U.S. and the UK?

NR: The most important question we’ve got to ask as an academic, in a critically reflexive way, and I don’t think many people do this, is does it matter if lots and lots of people are playing online war? The assumption of most academic writing is that is a real problem. It’s dangerous, it’s desensitizing people, it’s predisposing them to violence. I would actually start in a different position with the online play. I think a lot of that is like team sport, so for me the fact that people are shooting may not be much different from playing a sport, like American football.

We ought to investigate quite seriously and critically whether this is a serious problem, because there are presently strong assumptions that it might be. Much of the existing work comes from psychological research on the relationships between screen-related violence and what it might means to be committing that violence. The other question which we’ve never looked at - which is probably more important in many ways – comes explicitly out of playing offline. When you play the story mode, does it change my perceptions of, for example, the Middle East, if I play a lot of games which involve me killing people in the Middle East? Now that’s nothing to do with violence; that has to do with my attitude, or my predispositions towards another place. Do I associate that place with lawlessness, dysfunctionality, and violence? Do I associate it with a need to control it and dominate it?

If it is the case that players tend to be more persuaded by those kinds of positions, that is really serious, more serious than violence, from my perspective, because then what that means is that already we live in a world where we’re being showered by misinformation, and if videogames are contributing to that, then we should have a very serious ethical and moral conversation about what it is that we’re doing when we’re going into a place like the Middle East and killing people. From my knowledge, that series of questions, has never been asked systematically – in fact, it’s not really been asked at all.

Newsbud: Can you talk about the military entertainment complex and what you’ve found out about it?

NR: There’s some really great work by people like Henry Lowood and Tim Lenoir, and a fantastic book called The Complex by Nick Turse. What they’ve done is looked at and actually tried to start to map it. Nick Turse’s work is quite contemporary, but what’s striking about the videogame sector, is that there’s always more that we can do. The videogames industry is very interesting and quite paradoxical, because on the one hand, it’s very open about the relationships that it has to the military. For example, I’ve written an article in Critical Studies on Security [which you mention above] where I talked about the games Medal of Honor & Medal of Honor: Warfighter, and what was crucial to both those games and their commercial success was this explicit advertising of the military relationship. The military industrial complex, or the military entertainment complex, was laid bare as part of the advertising. They were saying, “We’ve got these weapons associations, we’ve got these relationships with military equipment makers, and we’ve got all these consultants working with us on this game, this is an authentic game!” That all came from that.

What’s strange is that’s common in the videogames industry. Celebrating those relationships is an important part of what the industry does. Normally the military is hiding the MIC from the public, and yet the videogames industry celebrates it. That has led to one of the things I was trying to explore in that recent work, which is some serious backlashes. A lot of gamers are quite uncomfortable, actually, with the idea of an advertising campaign associated with a game where I can then click on a link and buy a sniper rifle or something like that, which is what happened in the Medal of Honor: Warfighter campaign. I think it’s one thing to say we’ve got the real equipment in this game, and there’s quite another thing to say, “Oh, by the way, here’s the link and you can go and buy this thing!” Many players were really unhappy with those direct associations.

What’s even more interesting is another point: we’ve now moved into a really fascinating period in videogame war; the three big games that have come out in the last month: Titanfall 2, set in the future, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, set in the future, Battlefield 1: set during WWI (i.e. the real past). Suddenly, this ethical minefield where they’re dealing with real consultants, using real weapons, fighting in real wars - has been vacated. I wonder a little bit about whether there could be two reasons for this: one is we might have all got bored of shooting the same old people in the same old places. That’s possible, so we go into space war and we go into the past, or maybe the developers are sitting there thinking, “These wars which are happening around us in ‘reality’ are not working out the way we thought that they were gonna work out.”

The war on terror, which was a ‘clean’ war, ethically, as far as it was framed by George W. Bush in the first place. It was framed as Them against us, as simple and easy, it’s like WW2 and all that. Yet now, the conflicts in 2016 appear to be anything like that and maybe videogames developers are picking up on this. If in reality, politically we are saying that this is a mess and we don’t know how, politically, to extricate ourselves from these wars. So now, in entertainment terms, we have a very complicated minefield, and as a result of that, the desire to engage in ‘real war’ seems to have declined and so there is less of this other problem with the military industrial complex because developers are not as explicitly celebrating working with the military.

The kind of work other scholars have done where they literally started to track this complex in granular detail - we really need to continue doing that. We might also want to look into the security industrial or security entertainment complex, which relates to the relationship with, for example, when you make a TV program like Homeland: how much advice and work are they doing with the CIA when they make that program? Is there actual behind the scenes collaboration, a kind of complicit relationship going on when a program like The West Wing is made with anyone from the security or military complexes? We know The West Wing was watched by people within the US presidential team in the U.S., and it was reported that certain themes were run past the American public through that program, and if that’s the case, those kinds of things need much more systematic exposure.

My last comment on this is that Hollywood has moved into the superhero genre, and there’s a lot of military equipment being depicted and used in those films - in Iron Man, particularly. Clearly, again the entertainment sector is being well served by the military in a kind of bad-ass way; this stuff is really cool. We need more of this granular investigatory work where people start to look into it further, because there are questions that come out of it that are important.

Newsbud: You offered three examples of mainstream military shooter games that specifically engage with the military industrial complex, but you note that whether these games offer a critique of the military industrial complex or affirm its dominance is a subjective judgement.

The plot of Splinter Cell: Conviction reveals that a private military contractor is working alongside forces within an organization to overthrow the liberal tendencies of the President who aims to downscale American militarism.

The game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 contains a similar narrative, with the end of the game revealing that a conspiracy of convenience between an American military general (who wishes to maintain the military capabilities of the US) and a Russian ultranationalist (who is similarly motivated to enhance/maintain the military credibility of Russia) prompted the Russian invasion of the USA. Both these individuals are seen as products of the Cold War, with an overwhelming desire to maintain the military capabilities of their respective nations, whose actions lead to all out global war.

The game Army of Two places the player in the role of one of two former military personnel who work for a Private Military and Security Corporation, ‘Security and Strategy Corporation’ (SSC), undertaking assassination operations as paid mercenaries. Early missions in the game appear to conform to a typical post 9/11 narrative arc with the player engaged in missions in Afghanistan and Iraq to kill terrorists who have control of WMD (Afghanistan) and who have taken US army hostages (Iraq). As the game unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the Middle Eastern terrorists are actually collaborating with SSC who stand to gain considerable political and economic power from proposals to privatise the US military. The two men thus become involved in direct conflict with their employers as they reveal the conspiracy and ultimately kill the corporate conspirators.

How did you feel when you came upon these storylines, and did they surprise you?

NR: The thing that really surprised me is that nobody else noticed it, because all the other academic literature (I’m not trying to big myself up here) often criticize these kind of games. The point I was trying to make is that they are ambiguous. If we think back to the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 example, and indeed the more recent Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, what do we make of that game? On the one hand, yes, it’s a military shooter, you’re using lots of equipment and so forth, but actually the enemy proves be malevolent forces within the U.S. government, and so what do we make of that?

The reason I said it was a subjective judgement is because the question becomes, “How powerfully does that message resonate beyond the shooting given that in the majority of the game you are shooting Russian enemies, which is the predominant narrative of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 into Modern Warfare 3? Or does that crucial line where the actual enemy is exposed in that scene, right at the very end of the game in quite dramatic fashion - is that crucial to the message that the player picks up?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I would say that most military videogames are more ambiguous and artistically interesting than most people give them credit for. They’re invariably seen in very crude ways, as something that celebrates American military might against an enemy who’s morally defined in a particular way. In fact, the point that’s coming out of those three examples is that it’s much more complicated than that.

Newsbud: You also find in those games a sense of beauty and the aesthetic, such as eye-catching landscapes or tranquil environments before you enter a battle zone, or even while you are in a firefight, you are shooting at trees, rivers of water, or through green vegetation.

NR: They’re quite fleeting aren’t they? They are morally removed from the player. Thinking about Call of Duty: Ghosts, at the beginning of the game there is a father and son (I think) going for a walk, sharing a casual conversation, when suddenly it goes to ‘hell in a handbasket’, and the countryside gets destroyed. When you get a tranquil wilderness like that, it’s often very quickly destroyed. The other great example as far as a place of sanctuary is in Homefront: there’s an area in which the rebels have made their home called Oasis and the player explores that area (he’s fighting as a member of the resistance). There’s a guy digging up vegetables, there are kids on swings etc. and the player has a series of everyday conversations if you wander around, The player is then called off to a mission and then comes back again and that place has been discovered by the North Koreans, and destroyed, and the people in it have been killed. The sanctuary, the place of spiritual leisure is immediately removed from the player. This is very different to, for example, the Legend of Zelda games, where there is a place genuinely of beauty when you can get on a horse and gallop around or you can go fishing(!), there’s no threat, and the sun is shining. There, the countryside becomes a space of idyllic pleasure and relaxation whereas in military games, it’s normally wiped out very quickly.

Newsbud: Is it the case that the production of these games has made it easier to market militarism and American exceptionalism to the public?

NR: First of all, why is it that the military, in its forms would be so interested in supporting the production of entertainment? Presumably, they’re interested because they gained something from that. What is also striking is that there’s a very particular kind of message, both in the general narrative that comes out of the United States, and games. For example, the individual soldier is never ethically questioned, their actions are never questioned in videogames. That is an interesting situation when you think about how we understand Abu Ghraib. Was those horrifying events caused by individuals, were those soldiers as individual people morally responsible, or was it the circumstances that they were put into, was it due to their leadership?

With games, there aren’t those ethical problems, so as a result, a lot of the things we know to be the most complicated when we talk about war, which are about individual decisions that people take, are removed from games (apart from Spec Ops: The Line), which comes back to that whole point about the individual making highly questionable decisions which can lead to all kinds of problematic consequences. The military industrial complex’s relationship to videogames doesn’t get involved in anything that’s ethically complicated, like soldier’s decisions – soldiers don’t kill civilians or violate the ethical codes of the battlefield. What it does do, as well, is it often provides a valorized narrative of heroism but it’s very keen to have equipment used in particular kinds of ways. Equipment is very present in military games. In newer games, there are drones, a lot of high tech equipment, and you get to use high powered weapons which highlight enemies within a targeting sight. We get to use exo-suits - all of that is about a type of extreme sports, or celebratory relationship to warfare.

The technology - it’s clean, you’re not going through villages that you bombed where there are civilians writhing in agony on the floor. The war that you’re fighting in the videogame is a clean war, and that is the vision that is being sold through things like 24 hour news coverage. James Der Derian talks about virtuous war, a clean kind of surgical, precise warfare which is exactly what you perpetrate in a videogame. Those are the kind of messages that the military industry is very happy to see communicated. They don’t want the ethical problems of the soldiers, they don’t want to show soldiers with PTSD, they don’t want drone pilots to be traumatized by the work that they’re doing. They want equipment to be controllable, for it to be exciting, there to be incredible explosions, and there not to be dead civilians all over the place. They don’t get involved in the intractable conflict that you can’t win. That’s the other thing about a videogame, right? 5 hours of playing, chuck it in, I’ve won the war! There is a very different reality to the intractable conflicts that we are engaged in - Britain and the U.S. and many other countries around the world at the moment. We are in a situation, where we literally, I mean Trump can tell us he’s got straightforward answers, but these are not straightforward questions about what should or shouldn’t be done in these circumstances – it’s in fact incredibly complicated. That’s tough too, none of that is what the industry want to sell.

Newsbud: How does virtual reality change the game for videogames? How do you think it’ll affect future research?

NR: There was a wonderful comment by a videogames journalist in a fantastic magazine called Edge which I’ve been reading now for about 20 years. It made the comment that for the first time in his life, he was actually sick playing a game. It wasn’t due to the motion sickness of virtual reality, but it was because he got totally terrified playing a horror game. It’s remarkable. You’re talking about the possibility of playing tricks with the mind, really, where it’s sufficiently immersive to the point where we forget that it isn’t real, and that raises some interesting ethical questions for the industry, because we’ve already been accusing people of making games which are so immersive that people lose touch with reality, and that’s with the physical detachment around me, that’s with the room around me, with potted plants in the corner, with my kids shouting in the back of my ears. Now we’re talking about something immersive in a holistic way. I’m genuinely intrigued to see what comes out of these early games, like a Resident Evil version of virtual reality. That could be stunningly, shockingly traumatizing, or it might be great fun!

Newsbud: For scholars to take up a controller and play a videogame in order to investigate the political messages, enabled insights, possibility spaces, and key concepts being engaged with, what would they need for starters? Clearly, there are steps and methods to approaching this in a formal manner. Is there a way for a casual observer who's interested in playing and reporting their finds to do so, while furthering the overall body of work on the subject?

NR: Definitely. An anecdote that I would give you is as follows: I teach an undergraduate module which I previously mentioned, and all the students that start that module are what you might call ‘casual videogamers’ doing degrees in international relations, physics, economics, etc. All of them, by the end of it, are outstandingly good at critically engaging with games. All that I would say to anyone who is interested in doing this is to ask: Is there any question I have in my mind I feel very informed about? Say I’m a philosopher. What kind of philosophy am I interested in? Say I’m a historian, what sort of history am I interested in? Say I’m somebody who does the social sciences, like gender or racial and ethnicity politics, or what have you. What might you be interested in? That’s the first question, which is don’t throw away your prior learning when you’re thinking about the games.

The second question would be how do I deal with the game? You could look at the games in several different ways. What are the storylines? What are people saying? What are they not saying? How do the male and female characters interact with one another, for example, within the story? Are some characters privileged over other characters, and what might that mean? But the other key questions relate to gameplay. What can I do in the game? What does the game persuade me to do or deny me the opportunity to do? It might help if we think about this with an example. If I played GTA 4, first of all, who am I? Niko Bellic. When I encounter a female character in that game, and they’re represented as a prostitute, does that mean that it’s a sexist game, or is there a message behind that player being represented as a prostitute? What can I do as Niko Bellic? I can become a taxi driver, drive around, and get paid 20$ a day, and it can take me 500 years playing that game to become wealthy. Or I can get a hold of an Uzi 9mm, I can go shoot up a load of people and I can become a millionaire in a few hours. There’s a point to that: the game then is a result of those choices that it allows you to make - you can be a taxi driver forever if you want, working the roads - but if you want to unlock the whole game space you have to perpetrate the violence, so the game forces you into the violence, so then the question becomes why is the game causing me to do violence, and what do I think the violence means?

Earlier I suggested that maybe the violence in GTA is a satirical argument about the American dream. I can only succeed as an immigrant if I kill a load of people, I can’t succeed by hard work, right? It doesn’t do me any good. Why is he an immigrant character, what are the options that I have in that game, and what does that mean about what that game might be saying about American capitalism? So the key point about how to approach games is to keep your prior learning - think about the story and the characterization.

Another example. There is literature on the game Civilization about history. Does this game represent history effectively? What are the choices that you’ve got in key branching moments in the game, how easy is it to augment and develop your technology trees and evolve, and are those things more successful than other things? All of those elements tell us something about history. If you’re a historian, you already know something about the evolution of history, so you bring that historical thinking and apply it onto Civ, and say, if the world was really like Civilization, what would my history class be like? I don’t think everyone has to be a brilliant scholar of games, they just start from what they know and they think for themselves about how they can use that to think about the games that they are playing.

It would be a revolution in intellectual thinking if more people did it, because what would happen is that videogames would have to be considered a valuable art form. If all of us engaged with them critically, it means we respect them as artistically valuable. For me, that’s the most important thing: that the games themselves are respected in the same way that the movie, music or theatre industry is.

There are some crap movies out there, but there are some wonderful films, and nobody will seriously turn around to me and tell me that films aren’t an artistic medium. At the moment,  videogames in that position where they are increasingly being accepted but we need everyone’s grandparents and moms and dads to be playing games, so they can all get to appreciate and enjoy them and start to value them as I do. The more people get involved in this critical engagement with them the more likely that is to happen. So we need more engagement with games at all levels of learning not just for students who are interested in programming. What we actually need are games to be studied in programs like literature programs - not everyone in literature programs is writing novels, a lot of students are engaging with books in terms of the critical value of the text. Kids should be engaging with videogames in the same way that they’re engaging with novels, in my opinion, but that’s a revolution in intellectual thinking in educational programs. That’s what we could do, and should do, because there’s as much value in critically engaging with a game as there is in critically engaging with a novel, play, music, or with any other form of art.

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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.

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

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

***Join our effort and support this one of a kind people funded media with integrity- Because, together, we can!

“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:

“ 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

# # # #

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.

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.

Masculinity, Femininity & the Military-Industrial Complex in the Films of James Cameron

A Film Analyst Examines Avatar, the Terminator, Terminator 2, the Abyss, and Aliens

Have you ever watched a film and saw something in it completely different than anyone else you know? Did you notice an underlying theme that was obvious to you, but when you told your friends and family about it, they rolled their eyes and told you to stop watching excessive amounts of TV? Let’s say you were suddenly considered the pre-eminent film aficionado of 2016 and it was your job to find a links and common themes between films by the same director. Sure, you’ve developed your skillset to the point of Film-stradamus. You are no stranger to the art of film analysis. You’ve read up on the skills and know-how of the art of film analysis - the process in which a film is read in terms of mise-en-scene, cinematography, sound, and editing, as well as iconic analysis, which deals with image or picture, and trying to understand how different pictorial elements convey the meaning of the film, or semiotic analysis, which can be applied to media texts and to the practices involved in producing and interpreting those texts.

A recent NYT article explored how movies can change our minds, and how they can affect our view of government, citing a study by which suggests that films can act as an influence. Researchers asked undergraduates at a private Midwestern college to fill out a questionnaire regarding their views on government before and after watching “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” After watching the films, 25 percent of the participants changed their opinion on questions about government - their trust in government increasing, as well as optimism about U.S. foreign policy. In the previous article of this series, we looked at how military and weapons manufacturing corporations advertisements are short microfilms of sorts, containing messages, symbolism, and storylines - promoting the company’s image and urging action.

Film critics evaluate films by using criteria such as the believability of a story, innovative techniques, and notable performances, comparing the current work to other films by the same director. “Any viewer’s ability to find meaning in a film is based on knowledge, cultural experiences, preferences, formal training, and expectations,” Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis explain in Film: A Critical Introduction. “But the significance a viewer derives from a film also depends upon the choices a filmmaker has made. For example, a director may rely on genre conventions or she may revise them, introducing unexpected characters or situations. The more a spectator knows about the pattern, and the significance of deviating from it, the more he will understand and appreciate the film.”

This week, we’ll take a look at a thought provoking example of deep film analysis by Vincent Gaine, who dissected five popular films by James Cameron: ‘The Terminator’, ‘Terminator 2’, ‘Avatar’, ‘The Abyss’, and ‘Aliens’, and made some interesting observations. In his article, “The Emergence of Feminine Humanity from a Technologised Masculinity in the Films of James Cameron” which appeared in the Journal of Technology, Theology, and Religion in 2011.

Film analyst Vincent Gaine argued that Cameron’s films valorise natural femininity over technologised masculinity, constituting a criticism of the military-industrial complex and a utopian desire for an egalitarian, pre-industrial society of equality and humanity. An in depth read, the paper boasts a mixture of gender studies, an evaluation of Marxist ideals, and an analysis of science fiction as a genre. As Gaine explains, it’s important to understand that both natural femininity and technologised masculinity are power structures in these films:

While technologised masculinity of the military-industrial complex pursues the alienating endeavours of manufacturing and exploitation, natural femininity maintains distinctiveness by advocating and embodying non-indenture and engagement with others. The terms are important here – masculinity has become technologised whereas femininity remains, or attempts to re-acquire, a natural, original state, free from the demands of capitalism, which are ultimately indenture.  The masculine goal is to “transcend nature – biology, mortality – by allotting nature to the side of women,” and also to further masculine domination over the environment through the military-industrial complex. The feminine, I will argue, is more engaged with the natural environment and the people with whom the environment is shared – the feminine is free humanity in contrast to the indentured masculinity of technology.

In Cameron’s science fiction worlds, the military-industrial complex must be overcome for things to become good again. Characters are presented as “fallen” or defeated against technology, the manifestation of the MIC, an enemy to all mankind. Each film features a prominent military contractor embedded in the framework of a society, for example, in ‘The Terminator’, the super-computer Skynet, the Weyland-Yutani company in ‘Aliens’, and the RDA in ‘Avatar’.

Power Structures on the Big Screen

How does each film project the underlying concepts of technologised masculinity, natural feminity, and the military-industrial complex? Below are excerpts from Gaine’s interpretations.

The Terminator

Technologised masculinity:

  1. The figure of the Terminator, a man-machine cyborg, the Cyberdyne Systems 800 series, model 101, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator is indestructible and single-minded, the ideal capitalist doing his job no matter the obstacle.

Natural femininity:

  1. Sarah, for whose life Kyle sacrifices his own. The feminine body is presented as worth dying for.
  2. Sarah is pregnant with John, the future leader of the human resistance in the war against the machines. What she carries represents the freedom of humanity.

Military-industrial complex:

  1. Even though the Terminator has been destroyed, the military industrial complex remains dominant and dominating.
  2. The freedom that Sarah represents is only the freedom to fight, and fighting must be done when the military industrial complex of capitalism remains active.


Technologised masculinity:

  1. Throughout Aliens, Ripley is the one who can utilise technology rather than be subsumed by it, as over-reliance and overconfidence in machines leads to one's demise. This over-reliance is technologised masculinity. The attitude of the Marines is one of stereotypical machismo, their confidence based upon their equipment, from the atmospheric condensers which make habitation on alien planets possible to the computers which monitor the Marines and their surroundings.

Natural femininity:

  1. Constance Penley notes that in Aliens, “Ripley 'develops' a maternal instinct,” leading to an eventual “conservative moral lesson about maternity … mothers will be mothers, and they will always be women.”
  2. [Ripley] achieves victory by blowing the Queen and the loader into space. The loader is the tool for her victory and a source of delight for the viewer, but like all technology, it is only retained for a specific purpose and then can and should be discarded. As Ripley clambers out of the loader and up the ladder, femininity literally emerges from technology, to embrace the child who affirms the maternal aspect of Ripley with the word “Mommy!”
  3. Ripley's femininity is more than an indication of gender difference and she is more than an “acceptable form and shape of woman” because she demonstrates humanity through her engagement with others such as Newt and Hicks, and through her creative thinking rather than the procedures of the Company and, initially, the Marines. She is distinct from the capitalists because she simply utilises technological tools for her human endeavours, rather than becoming indentured to capitalism like Burke, and therefore her being-in-the-world is distinctive.

Military industrial complex:

  1. It is the capitalist ideology of profiteering, a single-mindedness like that of the Terminator, which is the enemy in Aliens – the alien creatures themselves serve as a manifestation of the dehumanisation and alienation at the heart of the military-industrial complex.
  2. The men who represent the military-industrial complex show more concern for their capital than for human lives. The Marines receive the same lack of regard as the colonists from the Company, their class effectively separating them from the military-industrial complex despite their enlistment – for Burke, the “bio-weapons division” is a larger concern than the lives of the soldiers who serve the Company.  The Marines have been following company orders, and their dependence on company technology led to the deaths of most of them.
  3. The Queen is perhaps a mother protecting her brood, but she could equally be a corporate executive protecting her stock, as executives such as Burke are shown to be murderously invested in their products. This investment puts humans in the position of being worse than the aliens, as Ripley points out “you don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
  4. Burke has as much feeling for the colonists, Ripley, Newt and the Marines as the Queen does; the alienating effect of capitalist technologised masculinity has isolated him from empathy and engagement with others. It also indentures him, making him as much a slave to the demands of profiteering and production as the Terminator. If humanity continues in this direction, it will likely end up like the aliens.

The Abyss

Technologised masculinity:

  1. Lindsey Brigman is immediately presented in the film in unflattering terms. Upon her introduction, she is described as “queen bitch of the world,” and after her first conversation with her estranged husband Bud, he comments “I hate that bitch.” Indeed, “bitch” is the general description of Lindsey throughout the film, even used by herself. She is a skilled engineer, able to manage the rig and work with the rest of the drilling team without any concerns over her competence, but her “bitch” personality suggests that in order to be successful in the technologised masculinity of capitalism, a woman must be a bitch.

Natural femininity:

  1. Cameron's normal interest in strong women is lost to an extent in this film, as the capable male goes through little change and the woman becomes a much weaker figure, there to welcome the hero when he (literally) emerges from the deep-sea city of non-terrestrial intelligence.
  2. When Lindsey mourns for Bud, her husband whom she believes is dead, Lindsey therefore displays an empathetic humanity as much as an emotional femininity (it may be worth considering if a person weeping for the death of a loved one is necessarily a conservative female role or simply a realistic reaction), an emergence from the bitch persona she used in the technologised masculine environment. Her reincorporation into the working class is the emergence of an empathetic, feminine humanity, out of the technologised masculinity in which she had been operating. Bud's encounter with the NTs is strongly indicative of re-birth, a re-birth of the feminine in place of technologised masculinity.  When Bud first dons the suit, he is advised by Ensign Monk that his body will remember how to breathe liquid oxygen as that is how a fetus breathes. When the NTs rescue Bud and take him to their submerged city, the image of the city resembles female genitalia, the hero in an embryonic state being taken back into the female body so as to be re-born.
  3. The aquatic non-terrestrials represent a unified and peaceful society integrated with their environment, a society that is coded as feminine through their harmonious relationship with their environment, which contrasts with the technologised masculinity of the military-industrial complex. Their message to the human nations is to cease their conflicts, i.e. end the military-industrial complex and “grow out of our infancy.”

Military industrial complex:

  1. In common with Cameron's general ideology, technologised masculinity in The Abyss is problematic and dangerous. The Abyss explicitly links this concern to the military-industrial complex and the threat of global annihilation. Studies of science fiction have explained the relation between the preoccupations of science fiction films and the social events and concerns at the time of production; and The Abyss as well as Aliens and Terminator are preoccupied by the possibility of nuclear war, The Abyss making direct reference to the SALT talks of the 1980s. Coffey aims to detonate a nuclear weapon at the site of the settlement of the non-terrestrial (NT) intelligence, and Bud and the rest of his team must avert this disaster. However, the oil-drilling endeavour is itself problematic, as an instance of technology being used by humans in an attempt to dominate the environment. The endeavour is coded as masculine, since the people in charge such as Kirkhill and the Navy commanders are all male, as well as the masculinised Lindsey.
  2. Nuclear weaponry is a great threat, the criticism of this technological terror apparent as the increasingly psychotic Coffey aims to attack the non-terrestrial intelligence that he believes to be hostile, against the advice of his fellow SEALs.
  3. Bud's re-birth suggests a re-birth for all humanity, as the NTs threaten to engulf the land with massive tidal waves, but relent because of Bud's sacrifice. Their message to the human race is to “put away childish things,” which certainly refers to weapons of mass destruction but perhaps also industrial tools like the rig.
  4. The philosophy of integration, rather than construction, is the approach and the form of the NTs, contrasted with the “clunky” machinery of the humans. Rather than the “horrifying otherness” of the creatures in Aliens, the NTs represent a state better than that of humanity, or perhaps a better state for humanity than the technologised masculinity of the military-industrial complex.

Terminator 2

Technologised masculinity:

  1. It is instructive to examine the sequence of Sarah's attempted act of termination. Her

military shirt exposes her muscular arms and shoulders, black sunglasses obscure her eyes and, in a direct re-working of the original film, she aims at Dyson with a laser sight.  By all appearances, she has become a terminator, technologised through the transformation of her body into a masculine form, the association emphasised by the extra-textual contrast between Linda Hamilton and her co-star Schwarzenegger, whose character, paradoxically, becomes more maternal. She is well muscled, her body transformed into a weapon that is further supplemented by the various firearms she sports during the film.

  1. Rather than being consigned to a conservative female role of “just a mother,” Sarah's acceptance of her maternal role is a rejection of her technologisation, which, with the masculinity associated with muscles and guns, is also a masculinisation.

Natural femininity:

  1. Her attempt at being a terminator fails because of empathy: when she sees the wounded and terrified Dyson and his screaming and sobbing family; she experiences empathetic engagement, the film suggesting that if one empathises, one will not kill. It is a recognition of distinctive being-in-the-world, Sarah unable and unwilling to become an inhuman killing machine like that which hunts her son.
  1. Sarah's redemption through the emergence of her feminine humanity from her technologised masculinity, combined with the rejection of technology that would supersede humanity, demonstrates that there is an alternative to the military-industrial complex.

Military-industrial complex:

  1. The artificial intelligence portrayed in Terminator presents humanity as obsolete, this obsolescence our own termination.
  2. For the Terminator, a technologised masculine mechanical form, to learn empathy and ethics is for it to supersede humanity altogether. As always, technology is to be discarded – the Terminator declares that the chip in his head “must be destroyed also.” There is double meaning here – not only must he be destroyed to ensure that Skynet is never built, but he must also be destroyed because his very existence, his physical superiority combined with what he has learned – “nothing less than genuine human subjectivity”55 – makes him the nightmare of human obsolescence. Here is the nightmare that Pyle does not mention: if the distinction between human and cyborg is lost, what place is there for humanity?


Technologized masculinity:

  1. The company executive Parker Selfridge explains the reason for the human presence on Pandora, that the mineral unobtanium “sells for 40 million a kilo.” Exactly why unobtanium is so valuable is never explained – the value is an abstract concept as are the driving forces behind the mining operation: shareholders hate “a bad quarterly statement.” These exploitative forces have ravaged Earth to such an extent that Jake explains “there's no green there”; capitalist forces are so divorced from their environment that it has been completely destroyed.  This alienation is more apparent on Pandora, as humans cannot breathe the atmosphere of the planet at all and so are dependent on breathing masks to survive. Combined with the machines used to move through the forest, Earthlings are presented as physically alienated from their surrounding environment by a carapace of technology, technology which, as always, is masculine due to its burly, stocky shape and aggressive, dominating purpose.
  2. The technologised masculinity of the military industrial complex receives its most blatant display in Avatar: a rapacious, ruthless exploitation of the natural environment for the purposes of high numbers on quarterly statements. This is the logical conclusion of the technologised masculinity of the military-industrial complex.

Natural femininity:

  1. The Na'Vi are a pre-industrial, egalitarian community, engaged with its environment and its members with each other in a way that the Earthlings cannot be because of the alienation of the technologised masculinity of the military-industrial complex. The Na'Vi use the term “see” to denote an understanding of one's place within the environment and within society, and are scornful of humans' inability to see. The journey of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) over the course of Avatar is to learn to see with new eyes, and in doing so he undergoes a re-birth into a more integrated and therefore natural state of being, a state that is coded as feminine.
  2. Jake's awakening is similar to Bud's re-birth in the alien complex in The Abyss.  Both men emerge into a natural feminine state in contrast to technologised masculinity. Partly this is by default – the machinery of the humans on Pandora is similar to the “clunky steel can” described by Lindsey, including space craft, gyrocopters and mechanical suits, the last being very similar to the loader in Aliens (Sigourney Weaver's presence echoes the earlier film as well).  By contrast and like the NTs of The Abyss, the Na'Vi are graceful, lithe and integrated with their environment.  Although the Na'Vi are not human, they represent humanity in a more naturally attuned form, likened by some to indigenous people such as the Native Americas who were decimated by European colonisation. Therefore, the Na'Vi represent humanity in tune with nature, rather than the humans who encase themselves in technological shells.
  3. The Na'Vi’s engagement with nature is coded as feminine, especially because of the cultural connection between nature and the female. The Na'Vi's grace and engagement with their environment may be a stereotypical version of femininity but it is not restricted to “New Age-y, hippy-dippy language,” as they are also fierce warriors, skilled hunters and creative healers, who display genuine insight toward the humans.
  4. The mother's presence, in this case Eywa, provides stability and identity, rather than the indistinct industrial production that threatens to replace humanity.

Military-industrial complex:

  1. The significance of Jake's crippled body is not that it is disabled, rather that it is a product of the military-industrial complex. Jake's paralysis is caused by his military service; he moves with the aid of a machine, other Marines disparage him as “meals on wheels,” and Quaritch promises him that further technological procedures will repair his spine.

Interview with Vincent Gaine

Dr. Vincent M. Gaine is a film and television researcher. His first book, Existentialism and Social Engagement in the Films of Michael Mann was published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2011.  His work on film and media has been published in Cinema Journal and The Journal of Technology, Theology and Religion, as well as edited collections including The 21st Century Superhero and The Directory of World Cinema. Vincent is married and lives in Norwich, England.

BFP: Hi Vincent, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. Of all the films you studied in your article, which was your favorite to watch and scrutinize in detail?

VG: If I have a favourite to watch and scrutinize, it would be 'The Terminator' and 'Terminator 2' equally. This is because I have known these films the longest and have watched them the most, so revisiting them has a long-established pleasure. Plus I keep finding meaning and pleasure in individual shots and cuts, making the pleasure even deeper and allowing me to develop my arguments all the more.

BFP: Do any films come to mind that are in support of the defense industrial base and push some of that masculine imagery and ideology onto viewers?

VG: I think a great many films support and valorize the military industrial complex, but not entirely. 'Transformers' is a good example, as are other films that endorse American might and righteousness. However, it is important to not consider these things simplistically or in isolation. Some analyses argue that superhero cinema endorses fascism, but in their valorization of the exceptional individual, such films as 'Batman V Superman' also expose the inadequacy of state machinery. Then again, if these figures are representations of American individual exceptionality, perhaps they are also supporting the MIC. Tough call.

I'm sure statistics for military recruitment in particular years are available. There was certainly a spike in recruitment in late 2001.

BFP: How long did it take for you to research your sources for your article? How much time did it take to write in general?

VG: The research was very piecemeal since I have limited time during the working week. The overall time frame was probably about six to eight months.

BFP: Is James Cameron is aware of this conceptual framework in his films, or is it the job of the critical evaluator to discover linkages and underlying meanings, a trail of breadcrumbs, so to speak?

VG: Yes and yes. The consistency of theme in Cameron's films suggest an interest in these concepts, and in the case of 'Avatar' he has spoken publicly of his belief in films having a moral message and his environmental activism. That said, the particular critical readings that academics and critics make need not be limited to the filmmakers' words or what we perceive may be their intention. If you have a reading and can support it with evidence from the text and related critical theory, that is your job as a reader.

BFP: How much influence does the U.S. government have on the movie industry?

VG: That will vary widely, I doubt there is any general pattern. Some films like 'Transformers', 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Zero Dark Thirty' emphasise their relationships with military consultants and liaisons, but I don't know enough to advise on the extent of this influence. There is a very interesting book 'The CIA and Hollywood' by Tricia Jenkins, which I recommend, and the bibliography will have other useful resources.

BFP: Is the current world system leaning more towards masculinization or feminization, and what are the causes of this shift?

VG: Again, I am not qualified to make that assessment, you would need to research cultural scholars with an interest in gender. I recommend Diane Negra in this field, her work is remarkable. In my unqualified opinion, there are some significant female figures such as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Theresa May and Angela Merkel, but these are exceptions to the rule. Patriarchal hegemony is a very strong and prominent force and I do not believe this is a shift towards masculinization, but simply a continuation of a centuries' old institution. Misogyny and sexism are just as prevalent and ingrained as racism and other forms of prejudice, and this is nothing new.

BFP: Can the movie industry affect this trend in any way?

VG: All these sectors and systems interrelate, and therefore all can influence each other. If more films utilised gender like Cameron does, and enjoyed the commercial success that he has, it would demonstrate the commercial viability of films that valorise the female. Another good example is Paul Feig, who is steadily injecting women into previously male roles. See here for more:

BFP: If you could sit down at a coffee shop and have a casual conversation with James Cameron, what might you ask him concerning some of the issues you brought up?

VG: After I got past the fanboy gushing, what would I say? I would ask him about his views on feminism and if he believes it is an important movement that he sees his films as illustrating. I would ask him about the tension between his films' technophobia and his own innovation and constant use of technology. I would ask him about his method on set and in the editing room, what guides him and influences his creative decisions. And I would ask him to reminisce about his experiences and simply listen to him talk.

# # # #

Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, is an independent writer who resides in Northern Virginia. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013. His writings focus on technology, weapons of war, and futurism. He's currently studying Rhetoric at George Mason University.

The New Drone Order, Part V: Sci-Fi Rhetoric & Militainment

How the U.S. Air Force and Arms Corporations Portray Themselves Through Advertisements

“Advertising is essentially an American achievement, successful to the nth degree. It made us a great commercial nation. It can play a most important part in winning the war. No one doubts that the responsibility for winning the war is upon our armed forces. But the time it will take to win the war rests with the civilian. He who was formerly the consumer must now be the producer. The young men of the nation who used to produce are waging battle. The civilians who are left must provide food, munitions, clothing for the millions of men of our armed forces, and then, if there is anything left, the civilians are to have it.

“There are dire days ahead for us. We civilians are asked to encourage our officials, but no one stops to think that we civilians need all the encouragement from government that we can get. The government can do a great job of building morale, of selling the winning of this war. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are stunned by the war's impact and are not awake to the fact that if each of us does a little, the result is colossal. Yes, there is a tremendous advertising job to be done by government. What a challenge it could be to some clear-thinking, patriotic advertising craftsmen!”

― Leonard Dreyfuss, Public Opinion Quarterly, 1942

“Science fiction as a genre has the benefit of being able to act as parable, to set up a story at a remove so you can make a real-world point without people throwing up a wall in front of it.”

― Joe Haldeman, author of the sci fi novel, The Forever War

Principles: The fine print of consignment

The U.S. military encourages, values, and respects the following traits in individuals who enlist their services for the country: integrity, sacrifice, courage, and vigilance. Universal human values that project strength, honesty, and devotion foster a strong, secure military which can in turn ensure national sovereignty is defended. Since these are universal human values not only reserved for uniformed personnel, ethical guidelines from arms corporations come from a very similar place in terms of the desired package of core characteristics for their staff members.

For instance, Lockheed Martin declares its ethical principles to be, “do what’s right, respect others, perform with excellence.” Corporations who sell weapons to the government try to project similar traits, as they construct the company’s image - and how it’s represented - in favorable, and sometimes immoral ways. The reality of it is, not many organizations’ mission statements are accurate or forthcoming about the exact nature of their operations and aims, their bottom-line and verified conditions. For now, it’s just science fiction. But it can become different once you are out in the operational military forces. A simple one-on-one conversation with a local Army or Marines veteran will inform you how different the real thing is from the sanitized and exaggerated commercials on TV.

America being the consumerist nation that it is, we’re accustomed to being exposed to ads promoting things ‘too good to be true,’ sometimes to an absurd degree. As a result, many have developed a healthy skepticism to combat the impulse to splurge, acquire things we don’t necessarily need. Televised military ads are effective because they contain powerful imagery and emotional content - the government employs highly capable advertising and marketing teams to assist the next generation of volunteers in finding their way gracefully into the domain of the national security apparatus.

The chief aims of ads are: To attract new recruits to the service, to instill pride in current members, and to develop informed public support [of the Air Force]. The U.S. military spends roughly $100 million annually on advertising to promote enlistments. They are getting exceedingly good at it, especially when it comes to appealing to consumers of a digital age. This issue will be explored in detail during this edition of The New Drone Order.

Introducing the ‘veil of science fiction cool’

Nicholas R. Maradin III, a graduate student from the University of Pittsburgh has explored with great detail the way that the Air Force tagline ‘‘It’s not science fiction. It’s what we do every day’’ functioned as a recent example of occultatio, when it was used in a series back in 2009.

The term ‘occultatio’ sounds like a spell Harry Potter might use on his enemies to make them read more esoteric literature. Occultatio is actually a rhetorical strategy of concealment with origins in classical argument. In Maradin’s article, “Militainment and mechatronics: Occultatio and the veil of science fiction cool in United States Air Force advertisements,” he focuses on how the superimposition of science fiction imagery over depictions of Air Force operations frames those missions as near-future sci-fi adventures.

These short advertisements (1, 2, and 3) were developed by GSD&M, a Texas-based advertising agency, who use a marketing strategy that targets “today’s generation of high-quality candidates” who are “digital natives and not traditional military recruits.” In order to secure those candidates, they “create cutting-edge interactive and digital experiences that captivate, challenge and help recruit the youth who will continue to elevate the world’s most technologically advanced military power into the future.” The “young and technologically minded” must be enabled to “get up close and personal with all the future tech and advanced thinking the Air Force has to offer.”

Maradin raises concerns about the ethics of this rhetorical tactic, noting that, “As the concept behind each advertisement depends on its ability to successfully blur the line between reality and fantasy, we can question the extent to which this tactic is ethically suspect, both on the part of the advertising agencies involved and the U.S. Air Force for signing off on the project.” He also describes the association of military technology with sci fi and videogames as having a name: militainment, a term that started being used in 2003 as a way to describe the reframing of the consumption of war as entertainment. It first appeared in the book, Militainment Inc. War Media, and Popular Culture, where the author, Roger Stahl, defined the term as ‘‘state violence translated into an object of pleasurable consumption.”

Maradin explains what “the veil of science fiction cool” is:

In the “Reaper” ad, Air Force operations are made out to have one foot in the world of real-life technology and military operations, and the other in the more speculative, imaginative realm of contemporary science fiction cinema. What makes occultatio so effective in this case is the ability for the Air Force to occupy these two worlds simultaneously, playing the most appealing aspects of each world against each other for maximum effect. The use of visual-verbal occultatio strategies in combination with science fiction imagery is what I term the veil of science fiction cool.

Here, the veil of science fiction cool involves the rhetorical act of repackaging and re-presenting those ‘‘every day,’’ real-life elements within the aesthetic and thematic context of science fiction film and video games. Like a silhouette in sunset, even as the veil hides certain details, it brings certain forms into sharp contrast. In this ad, like others in the ‘‘It’s Not Science Fiction’’ campaign, it is the life-saving power of communications and transport technologies—not their advanced killing potential—that is being showcased. At the same time, the unique ‘‘science fiction’’ qualities of these devices are enhanced through visual embellishment and cinematic framing. As a result, the veil allows for a certain ethics of military technologies to be smuggled in without being directly addressed.

A complete and thorough analysis of silhouettes at sunset is given in Ian Roderick’s article, “Bare life of the virtuous shadow warrior: The use of silhouette in military training advertisements.” Roderick broke down a set of advertisements featuring soldier silhouettes. His research addressed “how the silhouette is adopted as a semiotic resource in order to convey certain specifically desirable qualities of the well-trained soldier through what is essentially a generalized form of representation.”

The images of shadow warriors in a series of ads featured in Training and Simulation Journal (TSJ), a highly specialized trade magazine published by a large commercial publisher of military industry periodicals, was a representation that “heralds the coming of a virtuous/virtual warfighter which applies actualized experience and acumen gained through immersion in virtual environments.”

Roderick explains who the audience is:

The readership for TSJ primarily consists of those who would be involved in the decision-making processes relating to the procurement and contracting for goods and services pertaining to the training of military personnel... The defence contractors that commissioned the silhouette image advertisements represent key corporate members of the military industrial complex.

Analysis of the Air Force’s sci fi ad

Have a look at the advertisement, and consider Maradin’s summary and assessment:

The scene begins with a squad of infantry patrolling a rocky, Mars-like desert landscape. A thunderstorm booms in the distance behind dark, orange-red clouds. One of the soldiers reports into his radio: ‘‘This is Titan one-four. No signs of life.’’ Overhead flies a Reaper remote-control aerial drone—only it isn’t. This aircraft features a stealthy and nondescript black paint job. We see a close-up of its glowing red camera-eye and the frame then switches to a “‘robot’s-eye-view,’’ complete with a schematic terrain overlay, seeking targeting reticule, and various numerical measurements and unit identification symbols. In a cinematic move tracing the path of a telecommunications signal, the camera pulls back, zooming up and outside the planet’s atmosphere and past a large orbiting communications satellite. The view then returns to the surface, now on the other side of the globe at the combat unit’s futuristic base of operations. There, soldiers monitoring the robotic drone’s tactical display on a wall-sized view screen receive visual confirmation of nearby enemy snipers and send a warning to the troops on the ground: ‘‘Titan one-four, hold your position. Unmanned aircraft is identifying enemy sniper.’’ The warning is relayed back to the touch screen armband computer of the commanding soldier on the ground, who directs his troops accordingly. We pan up to the black silhouette of the unmanned aircraft, flying high among clouds.

Suddenly, the veil is lifted like a wave washing left-to right across the frame and both the plane and the surrounding environment return to their Earthly equivalents, displaying the traditional white UAV paint job, Air Force markings, blue skies and organic greenery that lets us know this is our own planet Earth. The words ‘‘It’s not science fiction. It’s what we do every day’’ appear onscreen in prominent lettering. The final shot is a behind-the scenes look at actual Air Force drone pilots at a flight center controlling the unmanned aircraft from a remote cockpit. ‘‘Thanks Reaper One–One, we got it from here,’’ says one of the operators. ‘‘Sensors coming off target,’’ adds another. The scene ends with a voiceover offering the opportunity to ‘‘learn more at’’ The entire ad comes equipped with a tense, orchestrated soundtrack, providing a dramatic accompaniment to the onscreen Action.

This ad appeals to recruits with the promise of operating sleek, lethal gadgets. It also depicts young men doing the jobs. This portrayal of the younger crowd helps recruits identify with their age group, where they can put themselves in the soldier’s shoes, and imagine what it’ll feel like to be a war hero. The final frame of the ad suggests that drone pilots make just as much of a difference in the events of war and conflict as infantry does.

Two articles that appeared in Wired were critical of this ad campaign, and could be read for further insight:

Air Force’s ‘Not Science Fiction’ Commercial Totally Is

Air Force’s Scare-Mongering Space Ad Shoves Facts Out of the Airlock.”

Camaraderie and inclusion in Lockheed Martin advertisements

In her article, “Marketing militarism in the digital age,” Dr. Susan T. Jackson examined how digital popular culture artifacts (YouTube promos on official corporate channels) could contribute to the normalization of military values in civilian life. She also studied how selective rhetorical direction was used to provide a “sanitized and heroic version of their products, including by obscuring the actual role/effects of the large conventional weapons system they produce, to focus instead on the pride of craftsmanship and community.”

“Within arms industry advertisements,” Jackson explains, “the viewers often are reminded that arms production is a welcome and expected part of the global political economy, especially in terms of local jobs. The understanding amongst [workers] is that they are participating in something special, and that this ‘specialness’ is a benefit that is shared with their families and the communities around them only enhances this understanding. As an employee of Raytheon, one of the world’s largest weapons producers stated, ‘we have strong ethical values toward staff and our customers. You don’t just leave that at the office. You take it home to your family, to your friends, to the community, and it really creates that positive Raytheon brand.’”

Jackson chose 17 arms industry ads and analyzed thousands of words that were spoken or presented on screen, and discovered that many of the companies’ YouTube videos transmitted a sense of inclusion. “The viewer seems to be invited to be a part of the company, of supporting the soldiers and of creating and benefiting from a particular form of national security.”

This sense of inclusion is seen in the many uses of ‘we’ in some examples Jackson provided:

‘We make the visible invisible’
‘We make a difference’
‘We are working closely with the U.S. government’
‘We deliver’

In the U.S. Air Force’s sci fi ad, they also use the word ‘we,’ as if inviting the viewer into their ranks to witness a world out of a Heinlein novel, and contribute to making it a reality by enlisting, by getting away from mundane civilian life to pursue something purposeful. “It’s not science fiction. It’s what we do every day.”

Jackson also notes how the ads use the word ‘you’ to invite inclusion as well. “‘World’ is another example of the inclusion effect,” Jackson wrote, “because it is assumed in most of the videos that there is a common agreement on what threats the ‘world’ faces and how those threats should be countered: invariably the solutions that the company provides. The economy is another aspect of the inclusion idea in that several times the videos mention how the systems are affordable and/or will do great things for the country’s economy.”

Furthermore, Jackson mentions how companies position themselves as world leaders, a simple enough marketing strategy which acts to normalize products and services by leaving out that they are leaders of the military industrial complex.

Maradin also analyzes techno-fetishism and techno-eroticism in his article:

Militainment-style techno-eroticism necessitates that weapons be depicted as objects of aesthetic beauty, often shot as silhouettes against sunset backlighting. In the ‘‘Reaper’’ ad, the black figure of the veiled Reaper is similarly held against the bold, orange backdrop of our imaginary planet, creating a silhouette that emphasizes the drone’s sleek lines and elongated rectangles. There is a stark serenity to the scene as the aircraft appears to hover silently in the center of the frame. This style of imagery is evocative of similar depictions of military weapons in feature films such as Transformers and Iron Man, and situates the Reaper drone firmly into familiar aesthetic territory previously occupied by M1 Abrams tanks and F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters during the Gulf War.

In terms of how the Air Force targets audiences, in the book Attitudes, Aptitudes, and Aspirations of American Youth: Implications for Military Recruitment, Paul Sackett and Anne Mavor found Air Force ad audiences “to be intrigued with engines, technology, and speed. These are not restless youth; they have self-assurance.”

There is an abundance of scholarship on this subject. In Enlisting Masculinity: The Construction of Gender in US Military Recruiting Advertising during the All-Volunteer Force, Melissa T. Brown notes:

Air Force recruitment has emphasized job training and specifically offered respect and advancement to blue-collar, mechanically inclined young men, reinforcing a working-class masculinity that values skilled labor and economic independence. The Air Force has also made advanced technology a central draw; through association with this technology, the Air Force offers the masculine rewards of mastery, dominance, and control. In recent years, [they’ve] offered recruits not direct physical excitement, as the other services tend to do, but the vicarious thrills of the videogamer, who has extreme experiences through the mediation of technology.

On if recruitment videos address existing conflicts, Brown explained:

For the most part, they have ignored the wars. When they do present combat imagery, it is mainly used to denote a masculine realm of challenge, excitement, and brotherhood and is disconnected from the conflicts at hand. Within the recruiting ads, women’s roles are carefully contained. Even as the wars have expanded their military functions, the depictions of women continue to segregate them from any markers of war, keeping combat male in the military’s self-representations.

In his article, Militarization, Public Pedagogy, and the Biopolitics of Popular Culture, Henry A. Giroux says, “from video games to Hollywood films to children's toys, popular culture is increasingly bombarded with militarized values, symbols, and images.” In an example, he cites how Humvee ads offer “the fantasy of military glamour and machismo masculinity, marketed to suggest that ownership of these military-designed vehicles, first used in Desert Storm, guarantees virility for its owners and promotes a mixture of fear and admiration from everyone else.”

Giroux gets into why military recruitment ads seem to appear in entertainment, using “sophisticated marketing tools.” Giroux also notes, “In light of the militaristic transformation of the country, attitudes toward war play have changed dramatically and can be observed in the huge increase in the sales, marketing, and consumption of military toys, games, videos, and clothing. Corporations recognize that there are big profits to be made at a time when military symbolism is getting a boost from the war in Iraq and from the upsurge in patriotic jingoism.”

Our own analysis of advertisements

Using Maradin’s example of how he analyzed the “It’s not science fiction” ad, we’ll act on his example and look at various ads by arms corporations.

Lockheed Martin - The Next 100 Years

The video begins with a quote from former Lockheed CEO Robert Gross outlined on a dark backdrop: “You look ahead--where the horizons are absolutely unlimited.”  The video transitions to a transparent cylindrical device that appears to be a super advanced version of an hourglass, with the tagline: “The Next 100 Years.” The thin stream of cascading sand in an hourglass is, in this case, a very molecular and ‘blue’ dust, suggesting something nano-scale and state of the art. Triumphant music then starts playing, and a woman’s soothing, artificial intelligence-like voice reminiscent of science fiction movies narrates a poetic introduction to the company and its progress during the last century of business operations.


From a garage in California to the surface of Mars, from bamboo and silk to advanced composites and titanium, from green eyeshades to cloud computing, the story of Lockheed Martin’s first 100 years has been a story of constant innovation: a story that continues to be written by men and women who look forward to the future and ask the big questions.

How can we create a more secure world? And defeat unknown threats from unknown quarters? How can we harness new sources of energy? Support a growing population? And expand our knowledge of the universe?

The answers will be pursued with purpose, creativity, and a relentless commitment to innovation as we go forward into our next 100 years.

The first visuals show two men, Allan and Malcolm Loughead (pronounced “Lockheed”) flying early models of aircraft. The next scene shows a large exploration spacecraft whizzing by like a comet as it’s burning like a fireball in an exotic planet’s atmosphere, before landing comfortably on the surface of Mars. It turns back to an early model plane, which soars through the air above a forest, and then it shows a highly technological material being handled by an employee’s white gloved hands. Another employee is depicted in the next scene, where he is working on the surface of an aircraft’s shiny exterior. Then we see employees working on the inside of a tunnel, chamber, or pipe, standing on or around a cutting-edge construction scaffolding platform. A set of light passes by as we see them, as if a live scan is in progress. Next, it shows an early version of a computer or a typewriter, being operated by a woman who also might be a Lockheed employee.

This then transitions to an image that is supposed to be conveying “cloud computing” yet it resembles the bionic or robotic eye of a sentient intelligence, similar to the Reaper’s eye in the Air Force ad. Computer code suspended in a manner similar to the Matrix: in this case, azure blue, not green, is then shown. The view moves forward and we make contact with the shimmering strands. A fighter jet does a roll. A frigate makes swift headway on a blue ocean, driving through the water. We then see the inside of a white, blue, and black indoor area, possibly the interior of a mechanical silo. A man with glasses appears in the next frame, with light reflecting.

In the next, a holographic looking model of overlapping spheres, something that a computer simulation might produce, while faint bleeping sounds slowly fade out. Then a woman typing in an elaborate looking room, like a ‘robotic castle.’ Mathematical equations flit into existence above her, floating across the screen, like a speech bubble that got punctured and the words just leaked free. Then a middle-aged man, bald, wearing glasses, with his hands in his pockets in a very technological looking hallway (a Lockheed facility might look like this) is seeing the same mathematical equations flow on the glass windows he is observing.

The doors behind him open as the narrator says “look forward to the future” and the slightly dark hallway is filled with bright light. Then we see a spinning atom or a molecule, and a buzzing sound signifying cellular speed and movement as a small particle of light flies and spirals, then the next scene shows how an aircraft is launched out of the ocean in a cinematic arc, with blue, cloudy skies above. A bird in flight - no, rather a plane in flight that looks like a bird in its natural habitat, flies past us over a beautiful green mountainous landscape. Next, a super-advanced jet coasts through the sky; a bed of fluffy white clouds and cerulean blue frame its pleasant flight.

Then we see three different aircraft, black and hostile looking in their flight formation - one fires a red laser into the unknown where we can’t see, as the narrator says “and defeat unknown threats.” Then we see a virtual battlefield - if you’ve ever played Age of Empires, Empire Earth, or Starcraft, then this strategic overview of the battleground will look familiar. It shows futuristic tanks and drones navigating through a lush green forest, showing statistics, clickable controls, and real-time monitoring of assets and unit positions. This is probably the strongest science fiction video game-like scene of the ad. Then we’re transported to a satellite’s view of the Earth, and the glittering stars and bright sun shining behind it. The satellite is using a beam-like device, simulating how we use technology to extract resources from the planet. We see the United States from space, the lights of glowing cities, towns, and metropolises. A bumblebee looking drone aircraft rotates along with it.

In the next scene, we are flown in a swooping dive towards a very futuristic looking platform on the sea, with yellow buoys surrounding it on the blue waters. The sky is blue with a hint of stormclouds and banana-yellow sunlight. Flying directly overhead, it shows separate yet interconnected platforms with vegetation growing on top of it, and two large purple half-spheres. This is referring to a sustainability platform, where food and water can be stored or generated in a controlled environment, in order to “support a growing population” as the voice narrates. “And expand the knowledge of our universe” is then spoken as we are taken back into space, where we see a high-voltage spacecraft patiently gliding through the crimson/dark purple nebulae of deep space. The music is at its height here, similar to a scene in Star Trek in the aftermath of a victorious galactic battle.

A galaxy in full view is shown in the next frame. Then another employee, along with the mathematical equations floating in the air. Now a white room, where a woman is working on a laptop on top of a wooden table. Man in the background is working on a ladder and filling in mathematical boxes. Now back to the robotic looking castle lobby, where a man in a suit appears contemplative and in deep thought. Five TVs are showing different monitoring displays (math equations are floating by again). Other various light patterns and spherical manipulations are shown. Then the logo, company tagline, and the end.

Lockheed Martin: Who We Are


One country
from sea to shining sea
Words we all learn
But are they just words?
Or are they something more
A call, perhaps
A call more important today than ever
A call that reminds us that we’re a country greater than the sum of its parts
That we are a people capable of reaching unparalleled heights
That innovation, pride, commitment, is part of us
Part of what we do
Part of our DNA
Are building the world’s most advanced stealth multi-role fighter
It may roll out of a single factory
But it comes from a city of angels
And the shores of the great lakes
From Sundance square to the home of our nation’s capital
We design it
We build it
We test it
Because our country needs it
It’s not an easy prospect
Not a simple process
It has its challenges
Some of those yet unseen
For this country wasn’t forged out of easy or founded on simple
The challenges? We face them head-on…

The F-35 Lightning II
It’s what we do
It’s who we are

The transcript for this video is troubling, in that it confirms much of what scholars have been writing on the subject concerning inclusiveness, the use of the word ‘we,’ and other rhetorical devices such as a company unequivocally ‘supporting the troops.’ When Dr. Jackson weighed in on this video and gave her reaction during an e-mail exchange, she mentioned that: “I think one of the things that stands out to me is how the language insinuates 'we' in other ways. Especially notable, the ad says it is in our DNA (so indisputable and natural and something 'we' share) alongside the listing of the various iconic geographic locations in the US (city of angels, great lakes, Sundance, nation's capital...). In a way, that seems to make the 'we' in 'what we do' to really reach outside of the actual LM employees and bring in the US as a nation.”

‘We’ is a device used repetitively. The ad insinuates that ‘we’ are all weapons manufacturers. ‘We’ share something in common that is profound and fundamental to our way of life. Every single person on American soil can base their identity on the well-being of Lockheed Martin’s finances and sales. The ad speaks of answering our nation’s call, and enlisting in a military service to serve our country. The notion that we, “ALL of us” - are manufacturing F-35’s (spending on the program by being taxpayers, at the very least) is a little troubling. Weapons of war roll out of factories in cities of angels. Should we give up on the F-35 program? No, because being American means dealing with challenges. What we should do is pour more money into the darn thing. Dust yourself off and try again, try again.

The visuals in the beginning seem to suggest that the machinery of modern society revolves around, and is powered by a strong and secure military-industrial defense base, with all of its cogs and gears turning in unison to support the machine.

Lockheed Martin: Second to None


What does it mean to feel secure?
What does it mean to feel protected?
What does it mean to feel safe?
To feel like your family
Your friends
Your home
Your way of life
Will go on?
What does it mean
To know your nation is defended
By the most innovative

The most advanced
The most effective
The most astonishing equipment
In all of history?

What does it mean to know
That, as a nation
You will not be defeated?
It means that the men and women
The technicians
The engineers
The scientists
The designers
The fabricators
The maintainers
The administrative
And business teams
The pilots
Who work here
Come to work
With a rock-solid belief
That what they do matters
That whatever they do
Whatever they make
Whatever they design
Must be better than the day before

That whatever they do

Must be done with integrity
With creativity
With pride
And with a level of skill
That is very simply
Second to None

To live in a world that needs no jet fighters
That needs no weapons
That needs no protection
That needs no relief
Is a wonderful dream

It is not, however, reality

That is why we work every day as a team
United in purpose
Brimming with talent
Alive with innovation
We help families sleep easier
We help nations all over the world
Live more peacefully
We make peace
We make peace through strength
One company. One team.

Lockheed Martin - We’re Engineering A Better Tomorrow


Technology that enables cars to drive themselves
Routine flights to Mars
Fusion reactors that produce limitless energy
To most people, they’re pure science fiction from the world of tomorrow
Like...something out of a movie
But at Lockheed Martin, we live on the cutting edge of physics, material science, technology, and engineering
We obsess over things most people only imagine
We’re at the forefront of the science that makes them real
And they’re available when it matters most

It’s why we’re always thinking about new ways to prevent the unthinkable
And building the most advanced fighter the world has ever seen
It’s how we redefined what a combat ship looks like
Why we are harnessing the tides to generate electricity
And protecting our most valuable resources
And while we don’t know what’s going to change the world next
We’re probably already working on it


Lockheed Martin - Innovators


We are the innovators
The ones with the new ideas
Ideas that transform our world
To improve the quality of life for billions
Capturing and storing energy until it’s needed
Providing unmatched protection from threats
through precision targeting and navigation systems
Helping farmers use precision mapping to maximize crop growth
Revolutionizing vertical flight through faster, autonomous and intelligent aircraft
Because we are the visionaries who look at the commonplace
and see solutions never before imagined

At Lockheed Martin, we are in the business of innovation
Where creative thinking has always been a competitive advantage
It’s what we’ve always done
While many were focused on designing better maps,
we were making GPS more accurate and reliable
And while some focused on flying below the radar, we perfected stealth technology
We have a rich legacy of looking beyond the horizon
Soaring into the wild blue, then way beyond
Making amazing discoveries
Adventuring where humans can’t go
Always working to connect the dots
Whether separated by lightyears or a simple molecule
We are ready to address the world’s biggest challenges
Like preserving the planet
Helping customers monitor and analyze our changing climate
And meeting the growing demands for clean and affordable energy
Including technology that converts waste to electricity
We confront the challenge of global security
Building the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft
That tracks without being tracked
Redefining combat ships, ground vehicles and weapons systems
to address the threats of the future
Ensuring information is secure and reliable across the battlespace
And through cyberspace
We are the innovators
Who support our customer’s missions with fierce loyalty
With a drive to create amazing solutions to difficult challenges
We are the innovators who inspire the next generation to find answers for questions yet to be asked
Because that’s what we do

See the world filled with endless possibilities
Envision the future and then make it a reality
We’re engineering a better tomorrow.

Lockheed Martin - Anything is Possible

The voice of a little girl (perhaps the daughter of a Lockheed employee) is the narrator.


Do you like to dream?
I like to dream.
Like all the great explorers did
Our nation is built on dreams
People don’t decide to become extraordinary,
they decide to do extraordinary things
Proving anything is possible
We can overcome any obstacle
Even when things change
Especially when things change
And times are tough
Sometimes tough times bring out our best
And we’re so capable of amazing things
There is so much still to learn
And so many places still to explore
We need to keep discovering, exploring, to keep asking questions
The answers are out there and I want to find them
Let’s see how far we can go
I like to dream
Don’t you?

Northrop Grumman - Aircraft


At Northrop Grumman, we’ve always built the most advanced aircraft. Even when the world said it couldn’t be done or be invisible. Even when they said, it couldn’t see everything, or endure, or adapt. Well, THIS is what we do. And who knows what we’ll do next?

The use of “this is what we do” is similar to the Air Force’s tagline: “It’s what we do every day.”

Northrop Grumman - Unknown Title


For us, the dream begins like this. Designing, creating, building, then we take off, invisible like the wind, and suddenly the future passes before our eyes. Only it’s not the future - it’s the present. And our dream has become reality. And just wait ‘til you see what’s next.

The bolded text is heavily reminiscent of the Air Force science fiction ad.

Northrop Grumman - Platoon

This one looks like Rainbow Six or Call of Duty: Black Ops gameplay, with soldiers who can turn invisible at will and avoid detection. Very sci-fi, with an action movie score.

Northrop Grumman - Detection

This one looks like something straight out of a videogame.

Northrop Grumman - Sounds

This ad features elements very similar to Lockheed Martin’s videos: American troops, families, the security of the country, innovation, and factory workers.

Northrop Grumman - A World Leading Aerospace and Security Company

This ad features employee interviews, varied musical background, with themes of protecting the country, ethical values of the corporation. Trust and honesty.

Northrop Grumman - We Are Northrop Grumman

This ad uses “we” throughout the commercial.

General Atomics - Predator C Avenger

The beginning of this ad is reminiscent of the movies Air Force One or Titan A.E, and then it turns into an infomercial of sorts with ornate special effects. The company shows off how this new drone can destroy enemy targets and deflect enemy missiles by shooting them with a built in defense system.

Boeing - The Next 100 Years of Flight Starts Here

This ad takes the form of a slideshow of videos with relaxing yet exciting background music. The viewer is taken briefly through a timeline of Boeing’s origins, with black and white footage of factory workers building aircraft, and then transitioning to shots of space stations and rocket launches. We see maintenance/construction workers and scientists, the American flag, and staff members in offices. We catch a glimpse of a successful lift-off, and get to see the satisfied reactions from people at headquarters while people cheer on the sidelines, especially children (the next generation of military recruits, taxpayers, and workers).

American supremacy in space seems to be the message at this point. There’s a theme of inclusion, where the viewer feels like they are a part of the company, and there are science fiction shots of futuristic space ships coasting through space, and multiple crafts landing on Mars.

Boeing - Some Come Here

In this ad, Boeing describes how some people come to the company with the desire to build something smarter, stronger, faster, safer, and greener - something the whole world can share. The use of “we” at the end seals it together nicely, and the music has a hint of African safari-like epicness to it, like an action movie that ends in the jungle.

Boeing - You Just Wait


Welcome to the world, 2116, you can fly across town in minutes, or across the globe in under an hour. Whole communities are living on Mars, and solar satellites provide Earth with unlimited clean power. In less than a century, Boeing took the world from sea planes to space planes, across the universe and beyond. And if you thought that was amazing - you just wait.

Well, for one, it’s using a tiny bit of false advertising. Boeing didn’t take us across the universe, or beyond the universe, for that matter, which would be a high order. This ad is trying to portray a futuristic world spearheaded by Boeing technology. It’s very well made, and resembles a science fiction film.

British Royal Air Force: Careers

Everyday objects are separated from their original function, and like being attracted to a magnet they join together into the sky to form a speeding jet. Very sci-fi.

Other relevant advertisements:

Lockheed Martin - Accelerating Tomorrow

Lockheed Martin - Three Old Men

U.S. Air Force - Aerovac

U.S. Air Force - Predator

U.S. Air Force - Air Force

To see more related video ads, check out this advertisement search page where you can find hundreds from around the world, many of which use a variety of ‘science fiction,’ ‘make a difference,’ ‘prove the naysayers wrong,’ ‘inclusive,’ and ‘challenge yourself’ devices.

Interview with SIPRI’s Dr. Susan T. Jackson

Susan is Principal Investigator of Militarization 2.0: Militarization’s social media footprint through a gender lens, a four-year framework project funded by Vetenskapsrådet (the Swedish Science Research Council). Susan works in Sweden as a researcher at Stockholm University and is an associated senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Her research focuses on militarization and international relations with an emphasis on corporate actors and the conventional arms industry. Prior to joining Stockholm University, she was head of the Arms Production Project at SIPRI and a lecturer and researcher at Malmö University College. She has published on the marketing of militarism, the national security exception (arms industry exceptions in multilateral trade agreements), and the selling of national security through arms industry promotional videos posted on corporate YouTube channels.

BFP: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today via e-mail, Dr. Jackson. In your article, you wrote about how arms industry YouTube videos normalize military values in civilian life, as corporations use language to provide a ‘sanitized and heroic’ version of their products by understating the role/effects of large weapons, and focusing instead on the pride of craftsmanship and community. Could something like that, in an equivalent form, happen in a SIPRI video?

STJ: Social media is used for a variety of reasons, not least to project an image. For me, the difference with the arms companies is that they aren’t selling us a product or service, but they are selling us particular imaginings of sovereignty, foreign policy, international relations. We, the public, can’t buy these weapons. Sales of these large conventional weapons systems are highly regulated and between states. While it is certain that some of the people involved in the purchase of these systems do watch these videos, the intended audience is much broader than that and the messaging is very Hollywood and disingenuous in a way.

BFP: How did you get into this work, and can you tell us a little about SIPRI?

STJ: My basic background is in militarization studies and trying to understand how and why the majority of the world prioritizes the military as the central actor in maintaining sovereignty. I started out by researching sex work around US military bases but couldn’t get the permissions I needed from a foreign government to do overseas fieldwork. I then focused on military spending and examined how the arms industry is privileged in multilateral trade agreements as pivotal in providing for national security and what that privileging might mean for how we construct spending priorities. A few years ago, along with a group of researchers who focus on other industries, I received a grant to extend my militarization and arms production research into social media.

BFP: You view militarization as a process that largely rests on the acceptance of two key notions as common sense: national security is best achieved via military security, and the military is ‘good, natural, and necessary.’ Do you think that it’s in our human nature to wage war, and be downright enamored by all of the cool new siege weapons out there on the market, or is this fascination the result of social engineering?

STJ: I am not sure about whether aggression and fetishizing technology are part of human nature. To be honest, I don’t care so much. To me, people surely are evolved enough to come up with better solutions to international tensions than deterrence through threat (e.g., having massive militaries, nuclear weapons…) and war. That said the reliance on weapons to project and protect sovereignty is reinforced by social constructions of what it means to be a country and what components are required to maintain sovereignty. The dominant discourse (the one that has been accepted as ‘commonsense’) centers on militaries and weapons and these constructions are part of the ‘commonsense’ view that weapons are our safest bet (ironically enough).

BFP: Did anything surprise you about the ‘word cloud’ that appeared most frequently in videos and advertisements?

STJ: I think the most surprising aspect was realizing that the videos almost never say ‘soldier’ but instead use ‘customer’ while showing an image of a soldier. That realization prompted me to do research on the images and sounds in the videos (that article is under review now). I have watched so many of these YouTube videos and read through so much of the companies’ Facebook pages that the words they use to sanitize the effect of these weapons systems wasn’t a surprise once I started going through the data. I expected many of these words since I had been hearing them for a while.

BFP: In your research, you analyzed the tropes and concepts of videos from SIPRI’s Top 100 arms-producing companies. If the average person or someone who is not knowledgeable about research methods were to try out this type of inquiry for themselves, how do you recommend they go about it?

STJ: Right now, short of taking a methods course, I am unsure how the uninitiated would process the messaging in the videos and other online marketing materials these companies produce. There are some entry-level methods textbooks if someone is really interested. Cynthia Enloe and Roger Stahl have some good, accessible work on culture, constructions and militarization. I also am in the initial stages of reviewing possibilities for putting together a toolkit of sorts that can be accessed online in order to help people learn how to be more savvy social media consumers. I really don’t know if that toolkit will be possible, but I am hoping so.

BFP: In a Saab ‘Gripen’ video, you describe how the narrator discussed how a country of strategic value could be overrun at any time and the combat aircraft used by the joint international command is necessary in order to keep everything under control as ‘brother turns against brother.’ In a Lockheed Martin ‘Innovators’ video, it uses the language ‘adventuring where humans can’t go’ and supporting customer’s missions with ‘fierce loyalty.’ In another Lockheed video, ‘Second to None,’ the narrational text said:

“United in purpose.
Brimming with talent
Alive with innovation
We help families sleep easier
We help nations all over the world
Live more peacefully
We make peace
We make peace through strength
One company. One team.”

What’s your reaction to this?

STJ: I am in the process of conducting more research on these videos. My initial reaction to the Lockheed Martin materials is unsurprised. While there are some universal tropes used by companies regardless of headquarter country, there are parts of the messaging that are more specific to how these companies want to brand themselves via the lens of the country with which they most identify. My work on Saab shows a general view of Sweden as having natural ruggedness, keeping the everyday secure so people can forget about being afraid, exhibiting altruism in saving others as part of international collaborations; that sort of thing. I haven’t systematically gone through LM videos to see what kinds of US nationalism are projected but my initial take on some of the LM videos is that of an almost hyper-energy stance, when compared to the more almost calm and reassuring Saab videos. The US companies more generally seem to have a more patriarchal ‘we do this world security thing and the world needs us to’ kind of perspective. I am hoping later this year to have more time to go through the US companies more systematically on a national level to see what kinds of constructions they use in their messaging.

BFP: Do you know of anyone who has done similar analyses of advertisements, such as deep technical or rhetorical readings of marketing techniques in relation to the defense industry, or elsewhere?

STJ: The media studies literature has a good bit on both company-level and nation branding messaging. I am trying to apply some of this literature in the International Relations field. There is some work out there on militaries as well and the use of social media, for example, in recruiting. That work tends to support my work on the intersection between marketing techniques and national identity (a la state sovereignty and so on). The Pop Culture and World Politics book where you found my marketing chapter has a chapter by Rhys Crilley. If I remember, he outlines his approach on military recruitment (though I might be thinking of something else he did; I don’t have the table of contents in front of me just now). There’s another researcher in the UK, Laura Lyddon, who is doing work on the arms industry but she is just finishing up her degree and hoping to publish soon.

BFP: This ‘rollout’ video of the Sikorsky S-97 Raider Helicopter looks more like a Spartan babyshower than the release party for a combat helicopter aircraft. There was even some team-building interaction going on with the crowd. This video was listed at the top of your article. Was it your inspiration for the project?

STJ: That video shocked me, to be honest. It is one of the videos that made me sit back and think about how to analyze the messaging in the videos as both universalizing while at the same time supporting national perceptions. Then at the end the video has the disclosure basically about how none of the information presented was secret. I found the juxtaposition of the forcefulness of the video, the almost corporate bonding or religious revival effect, with how these weapons are protected information so odd in a way. In effect, the disclosure seems to add to the appeal of the excitement of the video and a sense of inclusion of the viewer in something that is privileged.

BFP: Have you ever played a computer or videogame centered on war and killing, or military operations? If so, did working on these subjects change your ‘game-playing’ perspective?

STJ: I don’t play videogames. A colleague of mine in the UK does research on the military videogame industry. You can look up some of his work: Nick Robinson.

# # # #

Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, is an independent writer who resides in Northern Virginia. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013. His writings focus on technology, weapons of war, and futurism. He's currently studying Rhetoric at George Mason University.

The New Drone Order, Part IV- Reapernomics: An Economic Way of Thinking About Drones

To get some pointers about how the defense industry is intimately involved with governmental policy affairs, we’ll speak with an economist who has written numerous scholarly papers on the subject. In Part 4 of the New Drone Order series, Reapernomics: An Economic Way of Thinking About Drones, we’ll unpack pertinent information surrounding the increased use of drones and UAV technology, asking if it actually serves the public’s best interest. Need funds for your project, with the Dept. of Defense as a creditor? Don’t say ‘put your money where your mouth is’ because we’re already eating through Predators...

The loss which is probably the most evident, on account of the enormous proportions which it assumes, is the direct expenditure for war appliances. Especially is this true in these days of inventive science, when new firearms, new projectiles, new methods of naval construction and engineering apparatus are daily displacing the old. No nation is willing to be outdone by any other in the perfection of the material which it employs, and hence a governmental activity in this department is incessantly going on, the result of which is a factitious demand for a certain kind of manufacturing skill which the best scientific energy of the day finds it well worthwhile to satisfy, even at the expense of withdrawing itself from the remunerative fields of ordinary industrial activity.

Thus the latest scientific results, the finest artistic contrivances, and the most exact mechanical appliances are, at the first moment of their discovery, impressed into the service of war, and render those previously in use incapable of fulfilling the newly created ends. It need not be pointed out how great a consumption of precious material and diversion of ingenuity all this involves, when it is multiplied over so many centuries and repeated in such interminable succession. The support of armies in peace as well as in war constitutes another channel into which flows the wealth of nations. Of all the political and economic forces that now operate in modern Europe, these armies are considered the most absolutely indispensable to the stability of the government. Let us consider their cost. It has been estimated that the average sum expended for the training of a soldier is $500, while to support him annually costs $150. In Europe alone, the force of the standing armies in time of peace is approximately 4,000,000 men to which 500,000 recruits are added each year, thus making a total annual expenditure of $850,000,000.

“From this array of figures, the mind instinctively retreats, and yet the undoubted tendency in Europe at the present time is toward an enlargement rather than contraction of the system. The conflict between these so called military exigencies and a better economic condition is every day becoming more momentous, and if continued, must at some time assume so monstrous a form as either to be no longer tolerated or to be tolerated only by the destruction of what are now the most powerful states.”

--Arthur K. Kuhn, The Economic Waste of War, March 1, 1895

Economics & War are Inseparable

As a non-economist who is slowly learning the ropes (and dealing with rope burn), it is interesting to turn another knob of understanding, to build on the phrase ‘the numbers don’t lie’ by hearing insight about decisionmaking and the human mind. In order to grasp how the world functions politically, psychologically, and socially, understanding economics and having a basic understanding of the financial markets of defense procurement is usually a good place to start.

Economics is defined as the science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, or the material welfare of humankind. When making a decision, it’s considered wise to consider the implications of what you are doing, and also to consider the immediate, short-term, or long-term effects your decision will have. It’s also a question of motives, wants, and needs. Supply and demand. The same rules of economical thinking apply when thinking about how the U.S.’s drone policy is either helping or hurting the economy. The monthly Department of Defense expenditure/distillation reports provided by BFP’s Christian Sorensen serve as a constant reminder that the U.S. government’s defense spending is ‘leading the world market’ so to speak.

“It is assumed that those who design and implement drone policy set aside private incentives and construct policies to maximize the production of national defense and security,” says Abigail R. Hall, an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa. Her academic paper: Drones: Public Interest, Public Choice, and the Expansion of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, is the first of its kind to offer an examination of “the robustness of the assumption of publically interested drone policy [by analyzing] UAVs in the Global War on Terror with a particular focus on the broader institutional structure under which drone policy is formed, and offers insight into the interplay between the relevant actors in government and in private industry and how their interaction generates outcomes that are often at odds with what the public interest would predict.

“Academic scholars and policymakers have assumed, often implicitly, that the increased use of UAV technology and decisions regarding drones have been, and will be, made in the ‘public interest.’ That is, it is assumed that those who design and implement drone policy set aside private incentives and construct policies to maximize the production of national defense and security. The purpose of this paper is to explore a number of conjectures that follow from this assumed public interest and to examine the robustness of these predictions. To the extent these claims are not supported empirically, this work seeks to offer an alternative explanation to reconcile observed policy outcomes and the public interest ideal.

“If drone policy is constructed solely to serve the public interest, we should expect to see strong evidence supporting each of the above conjectures, as well as general agreement among experts on their implications. Evidence contrary to these conjectures, or substantial disagreement regarding these claims would indicate that motivations outside the public interest are impacting the creation, implementation, and ultimate use of drones.”

Listed below are the “public interest conjectures”, followed by Hall’s analysis and assessment of each:

Conjecture 1: Defense expenditures on the production of UAV technology are allocated to maximize defense and security for U.S. citizens  

Conjecture 1.1: Producing drones is the most cost effective means, relative to known alternatives, of achieving U.S. security objectives.

The available evidence casts doubt on the suggested cost efficacy of drones. At best, drones appear to provide a minimal cost advantage to comparable manned aircraft. At worst, UAVs provide no more security than manned aircraft and are significantly more expensive. Taken together, this suggests the public interest framework may be insufficient in explaining the current utilization of drones by the U.S. government.

Conjecture 1.2 Drones provide a technically and operationally superior means of defense relative to alternative technologies.

A variety of reports, including those by top military officials, indicate drones are operationally suspect. Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of the air service’s Air Combat Command, for example, described the drones most frequently used in Iraq and Afghanistan, “useless in [many] environment[s]….[Drones are] not the force structure the nation needs or can afford.” Dyke Weatherington, head of the DOD’s UAS planning taskforce stated that issues with drones had complicated missions to the point that the technical effectiveness of UAVs had been greatly reduced.

Conjecture 2: Ineffective or counterproductive drone policies would be eliminated or modified

Conjecture 2.1 Drones are superior at detecting, targeting, and dismantling terrorists and other enemies better than manned aircraft or other means. 

Evidence suggests that, at a minimum, drone strikes are not intrinsically better than other means at targeting and eliminating terror threats. In the worst case, current UAV policy has led to an increase in terrorist group membership and an expansion of terror activity. One study of over 250 terrorist groups found that most terrorist groups cease operations when group members decide to join in the political process (43 percent) or local law enforcement dismantle key members of the group (40 percent). Only seven percent of terrorist groups ended through military force, suggesting that drones, and military strikes in general, are not the best method for eliminating terrorists.

Conjecture 2.2 Drones are more effective at reducing collateral damage, minimizing civilian casualties, and at reducing potential harms to troops relative to alternative technologies. 

Analysis indicates the narrative regarding casualty reduction is at best unclear and raises doubts regarding the proposal that drones protect civilians or soldiers. At worst, drones not only increase the number of civilian casualties, but also increase the number of U.S. personnel in the field. In this case, current policy would be in direct conflict with the assumption of publically interested policy.

Conjecture 2.3 Government officials responsible for constructing UAV policy will utilize the best information available to create, evaluate, and alter drone policies to maximize social welfare.

In the case of drones and defense policies, we should expect policymakers seek out those with a comparative advantage in military and counterterrorism experience and to incorporate this feedback into their decision making. While it is impossible to know of all the correspondence between the military and policymakers, there is evidence to suggest that the advice of experts with regard to drones is being ignored. A variety of former military and counterterrorism experts have pointed out a number of issues regarding technical and allocative issues, and called for radical policy changes.

Prof. Hall then asks: “How may one explain the continued expansion of UAVs despite evidence their use may not align with, or even contradict, the public interest?”

To answer this, she “examines two core groups from the public choice model—special interest groups (namely, defense contractors) and politicians (Congress and other elected officials).”

See her paper for full details on this.

The conclusion of the paper presents four main implications:

  • We cannot be confident that drone technology is being developed and utilized in a way which fully fulfills the public interest.
  • Despite the fact drones may not be the best means to serve the public interest in these and other cases, the internal and external pressures faced by policymakers indicate further development and manufacture of UAVs.
  • Given that the rules that govern drone policy are very similar to the rules which govern other defense acquisitions, this indicates that the misalignment of defense policy with the public interest may be substantial.
  • The standard narrative of benevolent public actors looking to maximize a larger social welfare function may not be the appropriate lens for analyzing defense issues. Instead, it is necessary to understand the individual incentives facing both private and public actors.

Prof. Hall has also co-authored a highly informative paper with her colleague, Christopher Coyne, an economics professor at George Mason University, entitled “The Political Economy of Drones”, in which they conclude:

The Big Players in the market and the polity (i.e. the military, elected officials, and drone manufacturers) utilize a variety of means, including lobbying, campaign finance, political clout, and other pressures to influence the other groups and reap various benefits for their members. The central issue is whether these narrow interests align with broader notions of the public interest as it relates to defense. Our central purpose has been to document this history. In itself, this has value purely as an exercise in U.S. military history and political economy. But beyond this, the political economy of drones has important implications for current policy debates. Lastly, our work sets forth a significant challenge to those undertaking the construction of drone policy. How does one design policies which constrain the narrow interests of those involved in the drone industry while maintaining the potential benefits offered by UAV technologies. Given the entrenched entanglements discussed throughout this paper, this is no easy task. Such issues, however, must occupy the foreground of any policy discussion if we are to avoid perverse outcomes and obtain the best possible policies.

Interview with Abigail Hall

BFP: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. What is the role of an economist in a permanent war economy? (As in, do economists have a more fundamental understanding of how the numbers work, and how we as societies are affected by it, than others?)

Abigail: As economists, our job is to understand how individuals make decisions in the real world. With regard to the permanent war economy, the job of the economist is to understand how the structure of the military, our political system, and private industries influence the decisions of policymakers. I don’t know that economists necessarily have a better understanding of how the numbers work. Indeed, there are others who are more familiar with the particulars of weapons development and production than your average economist. What an economist has that others don’t, however, is a powerful framework for understanding and analyzing the world. As economists, we can understand decisions on multiple levels. By looking at how individuals act and respond to incentives, we can bring valuable insight into discussions of military spending and foreign policy more generally.

BFP: What is the path that led you to thinking critically about subjects like the military-industrial complex, the U.S. arms industry, and foreign intervention?

Abigail: I’ve always been interested in military issues. My grandfather was a WWII veteran and I always asked him about it. When I was six, I brought home a library book about the atomic bomb drop in Hiroshima. I remember being both intrigued and terrified that such things existed…and was subsequently banned from getting any more such books by my parents who were really unhappy they had to explain nuclear warfare to their first grader! As a college undergraduate, I became interested in economic development. As I started my graduate study of economics, I came to the important realization that foreign intervention, whether we’re discussing humanitarian aid, war, or anything in between, is vital for understanding human progress. Programs we don’t think about as having development implications, like weapons as foreign aid, for instance, have very real consequences for people who are often the least able to defend themselves or seek change.

BFP: Can you share some economic theories that you have applied to the processes of the defense industry?

Abigail: The theories I apply to the economics of defense really all come back to those things we teach our students in econ 101. I look at things like institutions, rational self-interest and decision making, and scarcity. What people seem to find the most interesting is what’s called “public choice” economics. This is essentially taking economic frameworks and applying them to the political arena to understand the decisions of policymakers. I’ve looked intensely at how the economic incentives facing Congress, the military, and private industry, for example, have led to the rapid expansion of the use of drones in the post 9/11 period.

BFP: As a scholar, professor, and a member of an organization like the Independent Institute, that focuses on social and economic issues in the U.S., have the tides changed at all? For instance, do you see more awareness in the populace about the negative effects of perpetual war?

Abigail: I really think it depends on who you ask. My frequent co-author and I are presently working on a book that explores how foreign intervention has domestic repercussions. We look at how things like torture, surveillance, police militarization, and drones, which were once exclusively tools of foreign intervention, have wound up coming home to the United States. We then analyze how these changes have and continue to impact civil liberties. It’s interesting what happens to peoples’ views of foreign policy once you get them to lose the false dichotomy of “foreign policy vs. domestic policy.” Too often, people see these two areas as completely distinct. Foreign intervention happens “over there” and that’s the end of the story—but that’s not at all the case. Take drones, for example, the American public greatly favors the use of drones in the Global War on Terror, but are highly opposed to the use of drones by domestic law enforcement for many activities. When people start to see these tools of war used at home, they get understandably nervous. That said, I’m not sure that many people readily understand the connection. We’re hoping our work may help more individuals understand these connections.

It’s also very hard to present a complete accounting of the true cost of war. One theme of my work is that the costs of foreign intervention are grossly understated. There are things that happen no one can predict—casualties, geopolitical changes, and other things. Sometimes, these costs don’t appear until ten, twenty, or more years down the road. When you’re looking at a supposed immediate threat, bringing up the issue of unseen costs is often unsatisfying when the natural response of many in the face of crisis is to cry out from someone to “do something."

BFP: How do you keep up with the news about these issues, especially from an economic perspective?

Abigail: I keep up in a few ways. I read a variety of defense blogs, for example. Every morning I read the news. I have alerts set up for particular topics I’m researching. Google News has a great feature where you can sort what kind of news you’re interested and what sources you’d like. This lets me get a lot of information from multiple sources. Also, never underestimate the power of social media. I cannot tell you how many times someone has pointed me to a great article or piece of information on Twitter!

BFP: What are some tips, tools, or general guiding principles that someone who isn't seasoned in an economic way of thinking can use?

Abigail: The basic principles of economics teach us that individuals make decisions. Moreover, people make choices based off the perceived costs and benefits of an activity. If the expected benefit is greater than the cost, we’d expect people to do whatever they’re thinking about. Conversely, if the expected cost is greater, we’d expect them to refrain. Even people who have never taken an economics class can use these basic economic tenets when thinking about foreign policy, or any policy for that matter. Ask yourself, who is involved in this transaction? What incentives do they face in making a particular choice. It’s amazing how this way of thinking can shed so much light on remarkably complex scenarios.

BFP: What is your advice for people who are just dipping their toes into this subject, and may be overwhelmed by by all of the facts, figures, numbers, and balance sheets?

Abigail: For people who are looking for a primer into economics, I’d highly recommend the book Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. It’s a wonderful book that’s easily accessible and jam packed with economic insight. For those who are particularly interested in issues surrounding foreign policy, I’d actually encourage them to stay far away from datasets and databases. One thing I have learned from researching this topic so intensely is that the data is often scattered, overwhelming, or the statistical method used to gather or interpret the data can skew what is being presented to the reader. It’s just not a profitable exercise in many instances, especially if your goal is to gain an understanding of a broader topic of issue. If you are keenly interested in foreign intervention and want to have an economist’s perspective on the issue, there are two books I’d suggest by economist Christopher Coyne. The first is titled After War, the second is Doing Bad by Doing Good. They are excellent pieces of work that do a wonderful job of bringing the economic way of thinking to foreign intervention, specifically exporting democracy and humanitarian aid. Coyne and I have also written several papers together on topics ranging from weapons as foreign aid, to imperialism, to drones, to police militarization. A Google Scholar search of our names and one of those terms should pull the papers up. Most of our papers are absolutely accessible to those with limited economics training. I’d also recommend the work of economist Robert Higgs. Higgs also blogs a great deal with the Independent Institute and has many posts on foreign policy. He’s also written a variety of books on the topic which I reference frequently.

BFP: If you and a colleague of your choice could have a sit-down with the CEO's of the top 10 most profitable defense contractors, the secretary of defense, the Federal Reserve chairman, and the president, what would you say to them?

Abigail: I’m trying to envision a scenario in which this would happen! I’ve actually thought about this before, as when I lived in northern Virginia during graduate school, I lived a stone’s throw away from one of the largest defense contractors and would actually run past it while I exercised. I don’t know what I would say, to be perfectly honest. One thing that I’m frequently asked is why there are so many “bad people” in foreign policy. But that’s not accurate. The people working in these institutions aren’t naturally nefarious, looking to harm other people or the American public, they are just like any other economic actor. They respond to the incentives they face and make their choices. Where we would likely differ is in our outlook on whether or not U.S. foreign policy can actually achieve its stated goals. One recurring theme in my work, the work of my coauthors, and others, is that the stated goals of foreign policy may be extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve. It all comes down to basic economic ideas of knowledge and incentives. Put simply, we argue that there is no way any one person, or group of supposed experts could have the knowledge necessary to successfully plan many interventions. Moreover, we’d argue that the current incentives facing those in the foreign policy arena are misaligned. Put these two together and you’re bound to get less than ideal outcomes. This is a conversation and an argument we make frequently to those with whom we disagree. So if I had to guess, I think we’d probably start there.

# # # #

Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, is an independent writer who resides in Northern Virginia. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013. His writings focus on technology, weapons of war, and futurism. He's currently studying Rhetoric at George Mason University.


The full list of Abigail’s academic papers & Her personal website.

Wall Street Keeps Wary Eye on Defense Biz

The Political Economy of US Military Spending

Blowing the Roof off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy

Do we underestimate the economic commitments involved in lengthy wars overseas?

The Economics of War

The Origins of the Permanent War Economy

Part 1: The New Drone Order is Only Beginning: All is Buzzing on the Geopolitical Front

Part 2: Dronetopia: Lessons and Parallels from the Insect World

Part 3: At the Advent of Winged Drones, Research Progresses Forward

The New Drone Order – Part III_Intro: At the Advent of Winged Drones, Research Progresses Forward

Biology-inspired Engineering and Morphing Technology

Drones with wings? But why?! While some Dronesters are dwelling on the metallic, the plastic, and the 3D printed, other roboticists & researchers are harkening back to the whims of the natural world. There are birds that can maneuver like no human built aircraft can. Researchers have found that the courtship dive of the Anna's Hummingbird makes it comparatively speedier than a jet fighter at full throttle or the space shuttle re-entering the atmosphere. Anyone who's anyone has admired how frustratingly hard it is to catch a fly, much less swallow one. I once knew an old lady who swallowed a fly. It's a good thing it wasn't a drone fly, or she may have sputtered and wheezed. Perhaps she could’ve sued Lockheed Martin if she survived?

The third edition of the New Drone Order series will introduce readers to projects like the Lentink Lab at Stanford University, and other related information.


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*Read Part 2 here

The New Drone Order – Part II_Intro: Dronetopia: Lessons and Parallels from the Insect World

Drone Warfare, Propaganda, Proliferation, Mutualism, Symbiosis & Biomimicry

What can insect societies teach us about our own? Sure, we bug out from time to time, but we’re intelligent, and they’re not. Right? Well, it turns out that humans share common traits with ants, bees, and other insects. We even go to war in similar ways. This edition of the New Drone Order series will explore how drone technology fits into our world system, and question where it’s taking us, utilizing lessons from the realm of insect species to guide the topic, as well as an interview with an expert on insect societies and autonomous robotics. Propaganda, proliferation, global sales, the military industrial complex, and the concept of biomimicry will all be examined. Go on, read it, give it a chance! If you think you’re so different from insects, you’ve got ants in your pants…


To read the exclusive analysis click here (BFP Community Members Only)

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The New Drone Order – Part II: Dronetopia: Lessons and Parallels from the Insect World

Drone Warfare, Propaganda, Proliferation, Mutualism, Symbiosis & Biomimicry

What can insect societies teach us about our own? Sure, we bug out from time to time, but we’re intelligent, and they’re not. Right? Well, it turns out that humans share common traits with ants, bees, and other insects. We even go to war in similar ways. This edition of the New Drone Order series will explore how drone technology fits into our world system, and question where it’s taking us, utilizing lessons from the realm of insect species to guide the topic, as well as an interview with an expert on insect societies and autonomous robotics. Propaganda, proliferation, global sales, the military industrial complex, and the concept of biomimicry will all be examined. Go on, read it, give it a chance! If you think you’re so different from insects, you’ve got ants in your pants.

“One day when I went out to my wood-pile, I observed two large ants, one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.

"We thought we were smarter than the Bugs." -- Carmen Ibanez, Starship Troopers (1997)

We thought we weren't the bugs

Last year, published an article entitled "10 Surprisingly Human Traits Found in Insects". It turns out that dragonflies have selective attention. Bees can understand abstract concepts, do math, become stressed, and they react the same as we do to cocaine. Crickets display chivalry in combat situations when a damsel is involved. Ants have been shown to give less alert comrades lessons about locating food in what scientists claim is the first example of "teaching" to be found in the animal world. Springtails hitch rides on mayflies, and they don't even need to call up Uber.

Insects build cities, herd other animals, and they also conduct traffic management and public health activities. They farm to sustain themselves just like we do. They make music, communicate in symbols, grow subterranean crops, enslave each other, and fight wars.

What might surprise you is that these creatures have displayed characteristics of what we humans call “culture”. Culture is comprised of the artifacts and skills that are produced as a result of reasoning. Most people would not believe that insects are capable of reasoning, but research has shown that ants make rational decisions and learn from experience. Like ants, bees can make complex decisions at the group level based upon experience.

Renowned evolutionary biologist Bert Hölldobler once wrote:

If visitors from another star system had visited Earth a million years ago, before the rise of humanity, they might have concluded that leafcutter colonies were the most advanced societies this planet would ever be able to produce. Yet there was one step to take, the invention of culture, making it possible for humans to become the most dominant species on this planet.

How much ARE we like them, exactly?

Human brains are fundamentally just a more complex version of the insect brain, with many striking similarities and patterns of behavior. These include the use of exactly the same neurotransmitters, receptors and physiological processes!

The scientific questions about ants and brains are the same ones we have about many other biological systems that function without hierarchy, such as the immune system, the communities of bacteria in our bodies, and the patterns we see in the diversity of tropical forests. For all of these systems, we still don’t understand how the parts work together to produce the dynamics, the history, and the development of the whole system.

If an omniscient biologist viewed us under a microscope, watched us move, scramble and conglomerate over our abundant planet, would we be perceived as intelligent insects? Or perhaps foolish and naive ones, however advanced we may be - humanoid critters with large appetites for resources, ambitious to the point of volatility, possessors of creative, expansive, and destructive tendencies and impulses and dispositions.

It turns out that for ants, as for humans, warfare involves an astonishing array of tactical choices about methods of attack and strategic decisions about when or where to wage war.

As Mark Moffet writes in his article for Scientific American, "Ants and the Art of War":

Colonies that rely on scouts may kill fewer adversaries in total because a scout must return to its nest to assemble a fighting force—usually by depositing a chemical called a pheromone for the reserve troops to follow. In the time it takes a scout to assemble those troops for battle, the enemy might have regrouped or retreated. Ants that are less cavalier about loss of troops employ long-range weapons that allow them to hurt or impede the enemy from afar; for example, stunning their enemy with a Mace-like spray, as Formica wood-ants from Europe and North America do, or dropping small stones onto enemy heads as Dorymyrmex bicolor ants from Arizona do.

Why is this relevant? That's easy. Drones.

In 2009, BFP founder Sibel Edmonds wrote about Political System Termites. Taking a leaf out of her book -- like an ant would, perhaps, I must say, today's drones may be the human equivalent of colony scouts. They are precision weapons and surveillance technology in one complete package. The U.S. drone program employs the disposition matrix, signature strikes, and double taps, which each serve as a countermeasure to the possibility of a suspect's escape or survival. Ian Shaw writes in Predator Empire: The Geopolitics of US Drone Warfare:

Since 2010, Obama administration officials have busily constructed a database for administering life and death. The “disposition matrix” as it’s called, contains a list of suspects targeted for elimination across the planet. These spreadsheets are now a permanent feature of U.S. national security.


To avoid being massacred, some slave maker ants release a “propaganda” chemical that throws the raided colony into disarray and keeps its workers from ganging up on them.

The phrase "winning hearts and minds" is a phrase that’s been commonly associated with the challenges of an interventionist U.S. foreign policy. However, the use of drone strikes in foreign countries is generating disdain - not loyalty, respect, or even reverence. In the words of David Kilcullen, the former advisor to General David Petraeus, “every one of these dead non-combatants represents a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement.”

International agreements exist to specifically regulate a number of inherently problematic weapons, such as landmines, poisonous gases, blinding lasers, and expanding bullets, but no such regime exists for autonomous weapons.

At the start of 2012, President Obama and his Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, unveiled a new national strategy built around the unmanned aerial vehicle and special operations forces. Troop numbers were cut by as much as 100,000 as part of a restructuring to create a “smaller, leaner” military that would no longer engage in large-scale counterinsurgency.

This drone-centric strategy has more striking parallels with war methodologies from the insect world. Whit Gibbons wrote in an article entitled "Giant Hornets Attack Visiting Honeybees":

The giant hornet is the only species of hornet known in which individuals gather together and then attack other social bees or wasps en masse, fascinating behavior displayed by an extraordinary predator. But one of its prey species doesn't take too well to being bullied. The hornet's foraging strategy sounds like a four-phase military exercise. The first step in the giant hornet's feeding sequence is raiding. Then comes phase two, recruitment. The hornet rubs secretions from a special gland onto the area surrounding the honeybee nest. The secretion is a pheromone, a chemical compound used in communicating specific messages to its own or other species of animals. Detecting a pheromone is like having a sixth sense for chemical awareness. And the chemicals deliver information. In this case the hornet's pheromone is a signal for other giant hornets to amass and attack.

Parallels: Drone strike initiatives in foreign countries have all taken place in the shadows, and they collectively set a dangerous precedent that may soon be emulated across the globe by a range of state and non-state actors. The drone war waged inside of Pakistan’s tribal areas for eight years appears to be in direct contravention of international humanitarian law on numerous fronts. What happens when countries don't take too well to being bullied? They will respond with force when they have the means, and they may have total disregard for proportionate retaliation.

If autonomous robots are replacing the role of humans in warfare, then where will accountability lie when something goes wrong? Should we be concerned about the development of autonomous systems if reliance on them could result in a situation where nobody can be held accountable? As weapons systems are given increasing autonomy in order to respond to threats which humans may be too slow to respond to, in ways which are too complex for humans to control, it becomes even less realistic to expect human operators to exercise significant veto control over their operations.

Deborah Gordon writes in her fascinating article "Colonial Studies" that:

The tension between what we really know about ants—that no ant directs the behavior of another—and the familiar metaphors for social organization, permeates not only our stories about ants, but also the scientific study of ants. These contradictions appear in biologist E. O. Wilson’s novel Anthill (2010), which tells the story of an extended war involving three ant colonies. In Anthill, the ants are greedy, and their lack of foresight and unchecked consumption depletes their resources and causes them to perish.

Anthill blurs the lines between science and fiction. Wilson’s scientific account of colony organization quickly becomes entangled in contradictions as he depicts ants as the passive and uncomprehending pawns of their mother, yet, at the same time, making decisions based on an almost-human intelligence and sophisticated understanding of their colony’s history and what it means for their future. Many times the ants are described as programmed, propelled by an “instinct machine.” At other times, the ants are said to have agency but are compelled to sacrifice for their mother, the “fountainhead” of the colony, and go obediently to their deaths. These little robots whose every move is dictated, sometimes by some internal program and sometimes in allegiance to the queen, are also, by contrast, savvy and purposeful enough to plan out their tasks in advance and engage in military strategy.

When we figure out how ants run their colonies, will we learn anything that will help us to run human society?

It is true that as people become more as we rely more on ant-like interaction networks such as text messaging and email, we can say that, in some ways, some humans are behaving more like ants. Consider the patterns in the network of your email correspondence, including all the people you sent email to last week, and all the people to whom they sent email, and so on. There are some hubs of repeated interactions and some links that went one way, once, and will never connect you and that source again. Such ant-like networks are now being used in telecommunications, robotics, and advertising. For example, the recommendations on an online store informing you that customers who bought x also bought y simply track the patterns of purchases rather than antennal contacts.

But though we humans can be in some ways ant-like, ants are not like us. It takes a work of fiction to give ants identity, feelings, and motives that we recognize as human. For ants, only the structure of the network matters. For us, the content is crucial. We care about what the emails say; the ants care only about how often they get them. As we move through the networks that shape our lives, we constantly produce a narrative about what is happening and why. We may be wrong about what we think is going on, but it is vitally important that we think we know.

Insect pheromones = tracking devices?

The Navy has a $450 million contract with Blackbird Technologies, Inc. to produce beacons to track suspected terrorists. Kris Pister, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's R&D branch, more than a decade ago to work on smart dust and was able to create sensors the size of rice grains.

In the beginning, he now says, he and his colleagues imagined "smart burrs" that could attach to a target's clothing as he or she brushed by, or "smart fleas" that could jump onto their targets. Pister says that this kind of autonomous microsensor is probably still not feasible. In 2001, however, his group succeeded in scattering more primitive smart-dust motes from a small aerial drone and using them to track vehicles.

Native Japanese honeybees can detect the hornet pheromone, and they understand the message being sent, something akin to deciphering an enemy code. The bees modify their behavior by increasing the number of defenders at the nest. The first hornet to attack is greeted by a swarm of more than 500 bees, which form a large ball around the intruder.

Civilians are being "terrorized" 24 hours a day by CIA drone attacks that target mainly low-level militants in north-west Pakistan. Rescuers treating the casualties are also being killed and wounded by follow-up strikes, says a report by Stanford and New York Universities.

According to research by Nick Turse, the U.S. military operates 1,100 bases across the planet. Eventually, countries being victimized by drone strikes may be capable of developing their own drone technology, and retaliation could be a possible scenario in a classic case of the chickens coming home to roost, only in this instance, it would be larva coming home to hatch. It could be decades from now, but targeted killings which result in civilian deaths are breeding resentment. Every hoverfly has its day.

The native Japanese honeybee evolved a counterstrategy, developing an effective defense against the predator. The introduced European honeybee did not evolve in a system requiring such a response. Hence, as a species they are essentially helpless against the warlike tactics of the giant hornet.

Predator drones have been manufactured with more efficient killing and surveillance mechanisms. New models are coming out yearly, such as the Predator C Avenger (appropriately named). What happens when Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are able and determined to launch counterstrikes against those they deem terrorists? Human folly isn't exempt from the laws of nature, some of which are echoed by insect warfare. We should take heed before we over-breed, and proliferate beyond our means. Once our honeycombs are overrun by the machines we've created, concepts like the disposition matrix could evolve into a hazardous hybrid, and all that's sweet and prosperous could be endangered.

Drone Proliferation and Global Sales

U.S. industry has long been looking to open up overseas markets to its drone technology, said Huw Williams, an expert in unmanned technology.

"There's a lot of customers who want this sort of capability and US industry has been looking to sell its systems. Reaper and Predator drones have been very successful in British and American hands, and a lot of people have wanted that but not been able to get access to it."

As well as European nations, potential customers include India, Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and Asian allies such as Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia.

Data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies identifies 56 different types of UAVs used in 11 different countries. Where it can calculate actual stocks, this covers 807 drones in active service around the world - and this is a huge underestimate: number data is not available for China, Turkey and Russia. The proliferation of armed drones in other nations is indicative of the platform’s increasing strategic significance as countries recognize UAVs as a valuable war fighting tool that will play a vital role in future conflicts.

What the opening of the civilian airspace will do to robotics is akin to what the Internet did to desktop computing. The field was there before, but then it boomed like never before. For instance, if you are a maker of small tactical surveillance drones in the U.S. right now, your client pool numbers effectively one: the U.S. military. But when the airspace opens up, you will have as many as 21,000 new clients – all the state and local police agencies that either have expensive manned aviation departments or can’t afford them.

Here is another interesting and revealing example of the US selling drone technology to other ant colonies far and wide. I will quote it in its entirety because I feel that it has significant implications for the future. From

The possibility of an Iran nuclear deal depressing weapons sales was raised by Myles Walton, an analyst from Germany’s Deutsche Bank, during a Lockheed earnings call this past January 27. Walton asked Marillyn Hewson, the chief executive of Lockheed Martin, if an Iran agreement could “impede what you see as progress in foreign military sales.” Financial industry analysts such as Walton use earnings calls as an opportunity to ask publicly-traded corporations like Lockheed about issues that might harm profitability.

Hewson replied that “that really isn’t coming up,” but stressed that “volatility all around the region” should continue to bring in new business. According to Hewson, “A lot of volatility, a lot of instability, a lot of things that are happening” in both the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region means both are “growth areas” for Lockheed Martin.

The Deutsche Bank-Lockheed exchange “underscores a longstanding truism of the weapons trade: war — or the threat of war — is good for the arms business,” says William Hartung, director of the Arms & Security Project at the Center for International Policy. Hartung observed that Hewson appeared to regard the normalization of relations with Iran not as a positive development for the future, but as an impediment. “And Hewson’s response,” Hartung adds, “which in essence is ‘don’t worry, there’s plenty of instability to go around,’ shows the perverse incentive structure that is at the heart of the international arms market.”

Rising tensions in the Middle East have prompted governments to go on a shopping spree for American lobbyists and weapons. DefenseOne reports that over the next five years, “Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan are expected to spend” more than $165 billion on arms. And in the U.S., concerns over ISIS and Iran have prompted calls for an increase in the defense budget.

During the call, Hewson proudly noted that 20 percent of Lockheed’s sales in 2014 were “international” — meaning, to non-American customers. “So we’re pleased with that,” she said, adding that Lockheed has set a goal “to get to 25 percent over the next few years.”

Lockheed Martin’s trademarked slogan is “We never forget who we’re working for,” which Lockheed likes to suggest means Americans in general and military veterans in particular. The January earnings call indicates that Lockheed in fact answers to very different constituencies.

The Military Industrial Complex: Mutualism and Symbiosis

The mutual, symbiotic relationship between military services and industrial corporations has given rise to the concept of the military industrial complex, which, in the United States, is composed on the military side by the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines. On the industry side, it is composed of about two dozen corporations. The largest of these defense contractors are those engaged in the production of aircraft and missiles. In the 1990s, most of these merged into three large groups: Boeing-McDonnel Douglas, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.

A crucial link in the military industrial complex is the elected political officials, especially those who sit on the congressional committees dealing with the armed services and who vote the authorizations and appropriations for weapons systems. They benefit from having weapons contracts given to firms in their districts or states, and they both pressure or support the military in the awarding of these contracts. Some observers consider the congressional committees to be as important to the process as the military services and the defense corporations, and speak of the other three elements as an ‘iron triangle’.

The Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago. Within the next decade the Air Force anticipates a decrease in manned aircraft but expects its number of “multirole” aerial drones like the Reaper — the ones that spy as well as strike — to nearly quadruple, to 536. Already the Air Force is training more remote pilots, 350 this year alone, than fighter and bomber pilots combined. “It’s a growth market,” said Ashton B. Carter, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer.

The Pentagon has asked Congress for nearly $5 billion for drones next year, and by 2030 envisions ever more stuff of science fiction: “spy flies” equipped with sensors and microcameras to detect enemies, nuclear weapons or victims in rubble. Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Wired for War,” a book about military robotics, calls them “bugs with bugs.”

In 2008, the U.S. Air Force showed off bug-sized spies as "tiny as bumblebees" that would not be detected when flying into buildings to "photograph, record, and even attack insurgents and terrorists."

Lockheed Martin's Intelligent Robotics Laboratories unveiled "maple-seed-like" drones called Samarai that also mimic nature. U.S. troops could throw them like a boomrang to see real-time images of what's around the next corner, the Navy Times reported. It could also be "useful for the military and police" to look inside buildings. But nano-biomimicry MAV design has long been studied by DARPA, who in 2008, hosted a discussion on "bugs, bots, borgs and bio-weapons."

The University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab showed off drones that swarm, a network of 20 nano quadrotors flying in synchronized formations.

Vijay Kumar, an engineer at the University of Pennsylvania, along with Arizona State University biologist Stephen Pratt, came up with three applicable lessons learned from ant swarms to be used on fleets of quadrotors.

1) In nature, ants act autonomously. Engineers traditionally use a centralized system to choreograph movement in swarms, Kumar says. As a swarm grows larger, the control algorithms become increasingly complex. Instead, Kumar tries to program his aerial vehicles with a common set of instructions; the quadrotors divide up tasks and assume complementary roles.

2) Individual ants are interchangeable. “If I want to scale up my swarm, maintain the predictability of its behavior, and make it robust, the gang has to be able to perform the task if an individual is knocked out,” Kumar says. So he makes his aerial vehicles identical to one another.

3) Ants sense their neighbors and act on local information. Kumar outfitted his vehicles with motion-capture systems, cameras, and lasers that enable them to avoid obstacles and maintain a set distance from each other. As a result, they can fly in tight formations, work together to pick up heavy objects, and collaboratively create a map of their environment.

“Nature has a several-hundred-million-year lead time on us when it comes to great design,” says Peter Singer. “The robots you know tomorrow are going to look like nothing you know today. More likely, they will look like the animals around you.”

“We’re careful not to practice biomimicry since it could lead us to some strange design that’s irrelevant or worse,” says Daniel Koditschek, a professor of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s extremely easy to go wrong.”

Young-Hui Chang, director of the comparative neuromechanics laboratory at Georgia Institute of Technology said: “Engineering can surpass biology, but the key is to search wisely, not just imitate for the sake of imitating.”


What is Biomimicry?

The Center for Bio-Inspired Solar Fuel Production – funded with a $14 million Department of Energy grant – focuses on unlocking the secrets of energy conversion in photosynthetic organisms and will use these natural processes as a model for creating an artificial system of solar-powered fuel production.

Paragraphs like this are commonplace in an evolving world. Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature's best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. The term, which predominantly refers to industrial products and products based in biology, wasn't known until the 1990s, when Janine Benyus, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8, wrote the book "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature."

Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor, is fond of biomimicry, citing it as a way of improving existing technology. As can be seen on their Advanced Aeronautics page on their official website, “how can we improve the human-machine interface using data analytics and biomimicry?"

"Biomimicry is looking at how you can use Mother Nature as a measure. It is looking to the biological system and seeing where you can find guidance and inspiration," says Airbus senior manager of flight physics research David Hills. It involves studying how nature solves problems and formulating solutions that are "free from the trappings of civil aeronautical design."

Boeing is also following the science of biomimicry closely - so much so that it has sent teams of engineers on field trips to the rainforests of Costa Rica to take inspiration from their surroundings for use back at the design table. The trips were organized by the Montana-based Biomimicry Guild, a consultancy which specializes in guiding companies towards finding solutions to their engineering problems by studying the natural world.

A study from Point Loma Nazarene University calls biomimicry "an economic game changer" representing possibly $300 billion of U.S. GDP annually and 1.6 million U.S. jobs by 2025.

Bharat Bhushan, director of the Nanoprobe Laboratory for Bio and Nanotechnology & Biomimetics at Ohio State University, estimates that the revenue from the top 100 biomimetic products totaled $1.5 billion between 2005 and 2008.

Biomimicry can additionally be applied to solve complex social issues by understanding insects. The conference Social Biomimicry: Insect Societies and Human Design investigates lessons learned from bees, ants or termites and what could be translated into biomimetic design.

Businesses have become fascinated by intelligent swarm performance of ants, bees and termites and have translated these into mathematical models. Unilever, McGraw-Hill, and Capital One have improved their efficiency on task division, organization of people, and plot strategy based on ant-foraging techniques.

If you check out MAST’s (Army Research Lab’s Micro-Autonomous Systems Technology Collaborative Technology Alliance) mission statement, you can see how the concept of robot-soldier teaming fits into biomimicry on a macro scale, the end goal being mechanical combat multipliers that are able to act as a team with human beings and follow their commander’s intent.

The Center for Biologically Inspired Design interviewed Janine Benyus, the mother of biomimicry, asking her: "What will prevent humans from, as you say, "stealing nature's thunder and using it in the ongoing campaign against life?"

Janine replied:

That's a good question, because any technology, even if it's a technology inspired by nature, can be used for good or bad. The airplane, for instance, was inspired by bird flight; a mere eleven years after we invented it, we were bombing people with it.

As author Bill McKibben says, our tools are always employed in the service of an ideology. Our ideology, the story we tell ourselves about who we are in the universe, has to change if we are to treat the living Earth with respect.

Right now we tell ourselves that the Earth was put here for our use. That we are at the top of the pyramid when it comes to Earthlings. But, of course, this is a myth. We've had a run of spectacular luck, but we are not necessarily the best survivors over the long haul. We are not immune to the laws of natural selection, and if we overshoot the carrying capacity of the Earth, we will pay the consequences.

Practicing ethical biomimicry will require a change of heart. We will have to climb down from our pedestal and begin to see ourselves as simply a species among species, as one vote in a parliament of 30 million. When we accept this fact, we start to realize that what is good for the living Earth is good for us as well.

If we agree to follow this ethical path, the question becomes: how do we judge the "rightness" of our innovations? How do we make sure that they are life-promoting? Here, too, I think biomimicry can help. The best way to scrutinize our innovations is to compare them to what has come before. Does this strategy or design have precedence in nature? Has something like it been time-tested long enough to wear a seal of approval?

If we use what nature has done as a filter, we stop ourselves from, for instance, transferring genes from one class of organism to another. We wouldn't put mammalian growth genes into a potato plant, for instance. Biomimicry says: if it can't be found in nature, there is probably a good reason for its absence. It may have been tried, and long ago edited out of the population. Natural selection is wisdom in action.

Presenting Tucker Balch:

Tucker Balch is a former F-15 pilot, co-founder and CTO of Lucena Research, Inc. and professor at Georgia Tech whose research focuses on topics that range from the understanding social animal behavior to the challenges of applying Machine Learning to Finance. His online course, Computational Investing Part I, is the top online course offered by Georgia Tech with over 175,000 students enrolled. His work has been reported in Institutional Investor, the New York Times and the New Scientist. Tucker has authored over 150 technical papers, journal articles and books, including the recent book What Hedge Funds Really Do with Philip Romero. He is also interested in the integration of deliberative planning and reactive control, communication in multirobot societies, and parallel algorithms for robot navigation. Throughout his academic career, Tucker was intrigued by the challenge of applying Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence to investment decision-making. He is also Vice President of the Robocup Federation, an international scientific initiative with the goal to advance the state of the art of intelligent robots. Lastly, he is the President of Georgia Robotics, a non-profit that manufactures and sells robots for education.

Interview with Dr. Tucker Balch

I had the chance to speak with Dr. Balch, and here's what he had to say.

BFP: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. This may seem an abrupt first question, but I wanted to know, what is your opinion of U.S. drone policy?

Tucker: Drones are a powerful and important tool because they enable the US to engage on foreign soil at low risk to human life. I believe that aggressive use of drones in this way is a good idea. However, I believe also that we need more US troops on the ground in these risk areas as well. Most drones at present are remotely controlled by a human. They are not autonomous (or AI controlled).

BFP: Has the work you've done in the robotics field had any influence on the bigger picture of autonomous robots?

Tucker: My research is about coordinating multiple autonomous robots. The US isn’t ready technologically to unleash teams of non-human robot weapons. So no, my work isn’t yet influencing policy.

BFP: Popular media has portrayed artificial intelligence as a pertinent and rising science that also poses some risks and consequences. You've been in the labs. You've seen the technology and worked with it for decades. Can you really see a robot going rogue?

Tucker: We’re lucky if we can get autonomous robots to barely work. There’s essentially no chance that they will gain free will and try to hurt us. More likely ways that AUVs might become dangerous is if: 1) They break while in flight and accidentally deploy weapons on the wrong people, or 2) Someone hacks them and aims their weapons at the wrong people.

BFP: In your research involving ants and other insects, have you seen any indication that we are not so different from these tiny creatures?

Tucker: In my lab we try to model the intelligence of social animals by pretending that they are robots. We then use special algorithms to reverse engineer what the robot program is. This works as long as we’re looking at just part of an ant’s life: A simple task like foraging. In a similar way, we could pretend that people are robots and try to learn how they drive in traffic. We’re able to build just about as good a model of people driving as we can of ants foraging. However, we’re not able to learn the *whole* program for an ant or a person, just a small snippet.

BFP: What can we learn from them?

Tucker: Individual insects have apparently simple programs, and they execute them separately. Yet somehow when behavior is considered at the colony level, the colony seems intelligent. As an example, you know how traffic jams seem to move in waves of stopping and starting? This would not happen, it wouldn’t be a problem if we all drove slowly. Ants seem to have learned this lesson already. Ants rarely have traffic jams.

BFP: Following your career as an F-15 pilot, you moved into the robotics, A.I., and machine intelligence fields. What was that transition like?

Tucker: I get bored after doing one thing for too long. I tend to change careers about every 10 years. I view each new career with the same excitement I felt when I graduated from Georgia Tech and moved to my first job in California. But I bring the knowledge of what I did before to each new field.

BFP: Let's say the most advanced and ambitious of A.I. strategies come to fruition during the next century. Can you envision a peaceful century, or an uncertain, tumultuous one?

Tucker: There is a possibility that these technologies will be accessible mostly to the wealthy and that they will serve to further expand the wealth gap. I hope that we can find ways for AI to be available to everybody. I hope we find ways for robots to help everybody. If we can do that, it will be a peaceful century.

BFP: How might multi-robot societies fit into this paradigm?

Tucker: The main idea about multi-robot systems is that you can solve a problem (possibly) more easily with lots of cheap robots than a single expensive one. As a simple example, we have 4 sweeping robots at home and we let them all go to sweep at the same time. Our floor gets cleaned much more quickly. There are other ways they can help each other more intelligently as well.

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Erik Moshe is BFP investigative journalist and analyst. He is an independent writer from Hollywood, Florida, and has worked as an editor of alternative news blog Media Monarchy and as an intern journalist with the History News Network. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013. You can visit his site here.