“All warfare is based on deception,” wrote Sun Tzu in his famed The Art of War. According to the general, the powerful must appear weak, the distant must seem to be close, the one prepared should maintain the illusion of its unpreparedness. Millennia later, we find this to be the core of military practice in the contemporary use of drones in warfare. Combat drones keep their distance from the target, but preserve the power to reduce it in a few seconds; they appear decentralised, with no clear point of origin of their power, and yet they are immensely precise and carefully regulated. The highest point of deception reached by drones is their ability to create the illusion of their non-humanity, when in fact they are extensions of their human operators.

A still from  Drone Vision , 2010 by Trevor Paglen.

A still from Drone Vision, 2010 by Trevor Paglen.

Despite the apparent disembodied condition of this type of warfare, the act of military killing with drones has an inevitable emphasis on the human body, both at the level of action, control, and operation of drones, and at the level of those targeted for killing, or turned into collateral damage. The interplay of proximity and remoteness that defines the relation of drones with their operators and their targets leads to a reconceptualisation of war as manhunt, embedding and normalising the violence of this act in the very logic of the operation.

The vertical direction of the relation between drone and target points to a tension of recognition and exclusion, instilling a one-directional demarcation line between a seemingly disembodied hunter and the embodied prey. This asymmetry informs the impossibility of reciprocity, as instituted by the visual regime of the combat drone: it is all-encompassing and all-seeing, while attempting, and often managing, to stay invisible. Moreover, the body of the target is rendered hypervisible, while the body of the operator is confined to anonymity and invisibility. As with much of our modern world and media today, visibility seems to become a battleground in its own, strangely being the weapon, the field, and the spoils of this war.

Military drones move the understanding of war past its direct correlation with the human body, and the subsequent risk of losing human lives. Heroism as we know is not necessary anymore, and the type of patriotic heteromasculinity associated with being a soldier fighting the enemy is bound to become obsolete. The iconicity of the body in trenches is replaced by the remoteness of the body controlling the drone, with the movement, posture, and disposition uncannily similar to playing video games.

This new spatial and temporal organisation of combat generates a new intimacy with the act of killing, now closely connected with that of seeing: operators activate the missile and find themselves lingering on the scene, to analyse and see the effects. In fact, this underlining voyeurism permeates the combat scene from the very beginning, as targeted individuals or civilians cannot return the distant gaze, or act in a manner that signifies tactical movement. As a way of looking back, a group of artists of the north-western Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan installed a huge sky-facing poster with the portrait of a girl whose parents were killed in a drone strike, forcing a reclaiming of human life from under the dehumanising definitions of “collateral damage” or “target.”

A poster bearing the image of a Pakistani girl whose parents were killed in a drone strike, lies in a field at an undisclosed location in the northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Photo source: # NotABugSplat /AFP/Getty Images.

A poster bearing the image of a Pakistani girl whose parents were killed in a drone strike, lies in a field at an undisclosed location in the northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Photo source: #NotABugSplat/AFP/Getty Images.

According to Sun Tzu, earth, as a factor that governs war, “comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.” In drone warfare, earth is itself governed by a new logic of war, one that turns it into a flat surface to be perused by a powerful seeing entity in the sky, while placing bodies on the ground in a liminal zone of waiting for their death by silent strikes of invisible, unreachable men.

Words: Elena Stanciu