The doublespeak of drones

The media’s conflation of military and civilian unmanned aerial vehicles is deeply problematic. Such blurred boundaries pave the way for a wholesale militarisation of the civilian domain.

Sam Mutter
17 March 2015
RAF MQ-9 Reaper, Afghanistan. Wikimedia Commons/Steve Follow. Some rights reserved.

RAF MQ-9 Reaper, Afghanistan. Wikimedia Commons/Steve Follow. Some rights reserved.The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a technology that begs an unusually large number of categorical ambiguities. The origin of its common name, ‘drone’, is seemingly self-evident: it is logical to make a connection between the musical drone and the low hum of a jet engine. This is not, however, the true etymology. Instead, the name ‘drone’ derives from that of the male honey bee, a bee that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “does no work but can fertilise the queen”, and which shares the black abdominal stripes used to distinguish the first UAVs. And yet, the bee also buzzes, its wings whirr. Regardless of the intended meaning, the UAV both is and does drone.

More than a conventional fighter jet, the experience of the drone – for those who, as a result of military campaigns waged predominantly by the US (in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia) and Israel (in Gaza), spend much of their lives with UAVs loitering in the skies above – is one characterised by the low, continuous thrum laden with the imminent potential for destruction and death.

If the lesson of this first phenomenon is to accept that it is the very nature of language to collide, for its words to flow into one another, throwing forth unforeseen meanings, then it is the lesson of a second similar blurring that at times such unintended consequences must be resisted in spite of their inevitability.

Here I am talking of the softening of the boundary between two realms in which the UAV is used: what are usually termed the ‘military’ and the ‘civilian’ domains. Since 1995, when it flew the GNAT-750 surveillance drone over Bosnia, the CIA has used military drones as a tool of surveillance; since 2002, when the first CIA drone strike was conducted by an MQ-1 Predator on a ‘tall man’ in Afghanistan – believed to be Osama bin Laden, but in actual fact one of a group of innocent civilians collecting scrap metal – these drones have held lethal potential.

The ‘civilian’ drone, on the other hand, possesses a somewhat rosier complexion. Over the last few years, there have been a flurry of stories in which the drone is an agent of environmentalism or humanitarianism, guarding against rhino poachershelping farmers to spray their cropsbearing witness to nuclear disaster, and leading the search for the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram

Redeeming the drone

The problem is that such positive narratives concerning civilian use often begin from the familiar ground of the military drone. Many of these articles carry the image of the MQ-1 Predator, which has become a sort of habitual mode of advertising, playing on a combination of brand loyalty and shock tactics to capture the attention of the potential reader. Or else the kind civilian drone is introduced by way of its troubled former self, constructing a redemptive narrative.

In the BBC piece on agricultural use for instance, an upbeat tone accompanies the notion that the drone is moving ‘from battlefield to farm’. Yet the dangerous reality is that, by viewing the drone as a singular technology, it is only our gaze that shifts from fields of destruction to those of production. The military UAV itself remains and continues to kill unabated. As Steven Poole has it, the personality of the drone appears split between two poles: “assassination or conservation”. The technology’s ambiguous media presence allows for the mutual contamination of these poles, facilitating a normalization of ‘that which destroys life’ via the benign discourse of ‘that which saves it’.

If we are not cautious of this contagion, the ramifications will be more than merely theoretical. If the discourses are blurred, the physical uses themselves will not lag far behind in being conflated. Already, it is the nature of contemporary ‘hybrid’ or ‘non-linear’ warfare for conflict to merge with the sphere of everyday governance, functioning through a collage of previously distinct agencies. Armies are no longer self-contained instruments, but are increasingly made up of, and used in coordination with, a milieu of special forces, police, intelligence, humanitarian NGOs, diplomats, media, and, last but certainly not least, civilian populations themselves.

Especially in the call and response of terrorism and counterterrorism, a soldier’s battlefield might be their own streets, and a policeman’s beat a foreign port; the soldier is trained to govern, while the policeman wields a gun; journalists render pens and cameras into weapons on the front line, and, as we have recently been made aware, come to be targeted like soldiers themselves.      

From tool to toy   

By virtue of its development through America’s covert wars, the moral legitimacy of the military drone has always been dubious, and now the civilian drone, adopted by police forces to catch criminals and patrol borders, is edging too into murky waters. How long before these civilian technologies are weaponised? How long, too, before the affordability of small drones makes them the perfect vehicles for miniature explosives devices? In the sense that it implicitly accepts these transgressions, the current doublespeak paves the way for a wholesale militarisation of the civilian domain.   

The aim of separating the two meanings is not, however, to once and for all clear the conscience of the civilian drone, determining it as innocent, while the military drone remains (potentially) guilty. Rather, both must be made subject to thorough critique, but on different grounds: The civilian drone as an issue of rights to privacy and as an airborne hazard to commercial airliners; the military drone as a weapon of unaccountable war.

It is doubly necessary, therefore, to be wary of the civilian drone’s trivial allure as it expands its remit from tool to toy. Particularly evident in the build-up to Christmas – the first (but certainly not the last) Christmas at which quadcopters were the ‘must have’ gadget – was the recurrent portrayal of drones as playthings. From a Halloween video showing a drone garbed in a skeleton costume, terrorising morning joggers in an American park, to the new cultural vocabulary of ‘drone selfies’, gadgetry is one of the most insidious forms of normalization. A society of media is by definition a viral society, and we must take care that the ambiguous term ‘drone’ does not become infected with unreserved approval, nor with the cancer of apolitical indifference.  

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