The land looks like an ocean without water. Left alone for a few thousand years. There’s some mountains, but from this height they look more like sand dunes. Even though you’re hours from the beach, you still feel like you could make all this collapse underfoot.
The topography resolves itself into the land of Yemen, which to you is pretty much indistinguishable from everywhere else the U.S. uses drones. For that’s what you’re flying: not an angelic ICBM, but a MQ-1 Predator. You’re steering it through the sky like astral projection militarised. There are things moving down there that could be humans; could be ants. You want to get closer.
The crosshairs of the weapons system dance around shapes that are now resolved into people. They seem to be moving so slowly. Everything is given more weight by being on a screen. When you see an insurgent, what do you see? How do you tell them apart from civilians? These men with their shovels on the roads. They aren’t gardening.
There’s no sound, but if there was, it would be like when you put a piece of paper in a fan. You keep thinking, ‘why aren’t they running?’ The men on the road move like they have all the time in the world. Then, with a click, the screen is a sunburst. Everything is white. The pool of light quickly collapses in on itself, darkness rushing back and you find the road has become an instantaneous bonfire. So much smoke you can’t see anything, no matter how close you get.
Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVS), are either used for surveillance purposes or are armed with missiles and bombs. They can be “the size of a Boeing 737 or as small as a magazine”. If you’re imagining a deadlier version of a remote-controlled airplane, you’re not far off, though they do vary dramatically in size. Iran deployed the first armed drone in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. However, it has been the rapid development and introduction of the drone into the U.S. army that has caused this new technology to be noticed. The first Predator drone was introduced in 1995 as a surveillance and intelligence gathering tool, but now the U.S. has at least 600 drones in their Army, Navy and Airforce, many of which are armed. Even the Australian Army has eight drones. Although for the moment they are unarmed.
There has long been a fear that warfare will become a game, but never has this seemed more relevant than when you can control a drone in Iraq via satellite from a United States Air Force base in Nevada. Sitting behind a video screen, one person flies the drone, while another monitors the cameras.
It is precisely this physical detachment from on-the-ground warfare that people criticise for detracting from the intimacy of killing. Back when you had to bayonet your foe in waist-deep mud there was felt to be some kind of honour in killing. Clicking a button just isn’t the same. Distance might make them merciless.
The concern is that soldiers situated safely at a home base will be removed from the horrors of war and the deterrents that these provide. A response to this, at least in one small sense, comes from a drone pilot ‘Ask Me Anything’ interview on Reddit, which provides illuminating statements – even though the motives and identity of these pilots is still unknown. One pilot states:
I would not compare what I do as a job comparable to Call of Duty/any other video game, in any sense. It is very real and the seriousness of the lives on the ground is very real and instilled in all of our training. It is never something that we joke about.
And despite Obama playfully threatening to have the Jonas brothers killed by drones, there really is little to joke about, especially when it comes to civilian casualties – one of the main concerns surrounding drones used in warfare. In official statements from a strike, such as the ones from the British Royal Air Force’s weekly operational updates, it seems that painstaking care is taken to avoid collateral damage:
In all cases, the crew undertook extensive examination of the surrounding areas to ensure that there were no habitations or civilians carrying out their routine daily activity before carrying out the attack.
And yet there is no doubt that civilian casualties occur. It is just the numbers themselves which are very difficult to work out. One U.S. study claims that only two percent of drone strike casualties are top militants. While at the same time, the Pakistan Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, states that U.S. drones kill up to eighty per cent of civilians. The risk of civilian casualties is compounded by common military practice of a ‘double tap’ or ‘follow up’ drone strike, where, after one missile is fired, another will follow – a tactic that The Independent has described as casting “a shadow of fear over strike zones [where] rescuers often wait for hours before daring to visit the scene of an attack.” This just further exacerbates the psychological assault of living under daily threat of death from above.
It would be fair to wonder what the benefits of this technology are. Besides the simple fact that it removes soldiers from dangerous situations, there are practical social uses too.
Drones can monitor longer and more efficiently than any person, and can also fly into hurricanes to measure their force, or into disaster areas like Fukushima nuclear plant. They have also been used agriculturally, involved in forestry, fire fighting and land use planning. There are even hobbyist drones.
But it is ‘DIY Drones’ that encompass the second major issue around drones, and that is how, when humans look like ants, it’s easy not to think of their privacy. The ‘Newbie’s Guide to UAVs’, for example, gives instructions on how to build and fly your own remote controlled and GPS-guided autonomous drone.
Fears about security are well-grounded when there are military drones that can tell how many people are in a building and can intercept all landline, cellular and internet traffic. Currently it is illegal for a civilian to operate a drone above 400 feet and beyond the line of sight; but, just like no one expects to be spied on by a kite – while others don’t even know drones exist – this kind of thing will be hard to police. Unless the police are using them too.
The criteria of insurgency is a key concern in the drone debate, but so too is the use of drones outside war zones. Some U.S. states, such as Ohio, are considering using drones for aerial surveillance. But other states have outlawed their use, and citizen concern even made the Seattle Police Department return their drones, while a councilman from Virginia stated it’s like “Big Brother in the sky”. As with all new technology, the legal system is slow to catch up, and it will be interesting to see what kind of privacies are eroded before it does.
Zoom out. Way out.
The skyline is a more localised version of the Kessler syndrome. There is a constant buzzing, like God is mowing his lawn. You watch your neighbours from three towns away but can’t shake the feeling that everyone looks guilty in grayscale. You envy the people of the past, who didn’t know the fear of a death that can hang in the air for anywhere as long as a couple of hours to two weeks.
Freedom can’t protect itself, you understand this, but you’ve got the same videogame thousand-yard stare as the rest of your generation. You think briefly about morality. But it’s hard to see things in specifics when you’re omniscient.
Rafael S.W. is a recent graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.
Feature photo from NASA