Academic journal article Humanity

Drones: A History from the British Middle East

Academic journal article Humanity

Drones: A History from the British Middle East

Article excerpt

During the presidency of George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched a secret program that put hundreds of unmanned surveillance and attack aircraft into the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan, and later Pakistan. After Barack Obama came into office, drone use increased dramatically. He and Gates grew convinced that constant, ubiquitous drone surveillance coupled with airstrikes triggered remotely would solve U.S. tactical problems in these regions. The U.S. government has refused to share even the most basic information about drone use and attacks, but estimated figures for CIA-run strikes in Pakistan alone are about three hundred since Obama came into office, killing roughly three thousand individuals, including several hundred civilians.1

The fascination with technology that dominates most historical accounts of drones does not leave us any wiser about the uses to which they are being put or their likelihood of success in achieving their goals, for political and cultural factors have had a critical influence on the invention of and response to policing by drones.2 I offer here a history of the tactical imagination behind drone surveillance, which at once illuminates the politics of their reception in the places in which they have been most heavily and controversially employed: Iraq and the region familiarly known as "AfPak."

Many critics of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, focus on remote piloting as their most controversial quality, but as others, too, have pointed out, distancing technologies have long been central to the history of warfare, invariably prompting fears of the ways in which they casualize violence.3 Certainly, drones remove aggressors entirely out of harm's way, to an unprecedented distance, raising all kinds of questions about the place of martial values in American warfare. But, as we will see, close-up surveillance on detailed screens also allows a new kind of intimacy. From this historian's point of view, the technological innovations of drone warfare distract from critical continuities with earlier uses of air power. By minding those continuities, we gain crucial insight into why drones are doomed to fail in their current objective. The crux of the matter is not so much that drones are unmanned but that they promise panoptic aerial surveillance of a region understood as otherwise essentially unknowable. For this has happened before: although drones are used all over the world for a range of purposes, their initial deployment over Iraq and AfPak was shaped by historical factors dating from the early twentieth century, when the British first came to control these regions with airpower. That initial experiment failed, which in itself does not bode well for today's analog. Furthermore, memory of that first experiment ensures that today's stands even less chance of success.

Aerial policing was invented in British Iraq after World War I. The key features in favor of an aerial regime were that (i) it was cheap; (2) it promised omniscience in a land of mystery; (3) it was discreet; (4) it was romantic; and (5) it signaled cultural respect. Today's drone surveillance and policing are intended to offer similar advantages, indeed, to more perfectly fulfill the ideal of panoptic surveillance. They are inspired by an aggressively propagated myth about the success of the British air control regime in those parts of the world, a myth so powerful that it almost singlehandedly secured the survival of the newly created Royal Air Force (RAF) after World War I. Today, too, it remains profitable to many vested interests (the Pentagon, drone manufacturers, the CIA, and so on). To understand the continuity between the past and the seemingly revolutionary present, we need to first understand how and why aerial control became the British panacea for an intractable situation in the heart of the Middle East.

Cheap and (Theoretically) Omniscient The Practical Advantages

The British occupied the three provinces of the Ottoman Empire that make up present-day Iraq during World War I. …

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