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Death from Above

"If modern warfare is conducted through a screen across cyberspace, what has become of the Theatrum Belli, or Theatre of War?" Arjuna Keshvani-Ham takes a look at artist's approaches to the age of drone warfare.

‘Someone must have slandered Josef K, for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.’ Teju Cole published his Seven Short Stories About Drones via Twitter in 2013. Each one-line expostulation splices the first lines of famous novels – in this case, Franz Kafka’s The Trial – with sentences from news reports documenting drone activity. His minute snapshots are interlarded with a bleak and chilling irony, and present a startlingly accurate encapsulation of US military drone attacks. Just as Josef K is prosecuted and eventually stabbed to death without explanation by a remote authority, victims of Predator drone strikes are targeted and executed ruthlessly, and on tenuous moral grounds, from hundreds of miles away in remote American military bases. Between two 253-382 victims of drone strikes documented by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism thus far have been children. But unlike Josef K, they receive no court summons – a lack of procedure known as ‘dirty hands’ in ethics. And unlike Kafka’s unsettling tale, these events are not fictitious. ‘We waited for those men to settle down in their beds and then we killed them in their sleep’, reported ex-drone operator Brandon Bryant, one of four former air force drone operators who came forward to The Guardian – and the public – in 2015. ‘That was cowardly murder’.

In 2007, President George W Bush placed Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud on a classified kill list. It authorised the assassination of militant leaders by the CIA and American commandos. Such lists, which London-based artist George Barber describes as ‘rather like Stalin’s’, but ‘shorter’, are routinely given to drone pilots as a sort of daily to-do list. Mehsud’s assassination was carried out by drones in 2009, but was successful only on the seventeenth attempt. The failed strikes killed between 280 and 410 others; exact statistics are unreleased. In fact, precise data on drone attacks – their locations, justifications, number of casualties – is inaccessible to the public. Death by drone strikes is accompanied by a shocking absence of publicly accessible data and statistics.

The US’s ‘policy of obscurity’ towards drone action is best visualised by the actions of the US Air Force. In 2013, the Air Force announced plans to remove previously published statistics of drone strikes in Afghanistan when US lawmakers started questioning the legality of instances of targeted killing. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is an organization committed to filling this statistical void by reporting on civilian deaths, and providing the data needed ‘to hold the White House to account’. Their records show that between 8,153 and 11,650 people have been killed by unmanned aircrafts controlled by drone operators. This includes between 751 and 1,609 civilians – a disturbingly hazy range. ‘The stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms’, remarks a 2015 open letter signed by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Tesla chief Elon Musk. The letter, signed by just under four thousand AI and Robotics researchers, calls for a complete ban on ‘offensive autonomous weapons’. Their warnings continue to go unheeded.

Where data from the military is sparse and public accountability lacking, artists and writers are bringing autonomous warfare into the public sphere. Where information is hidden, obfuscated and obscured, they are placing the questionable ethics of drone warfare before public scrutiny. The artistic community is grasping for a new language, in an attempt to portray that which is currently kept invisible.

And indeed, the drone is ‘designed to be invisible’, artist James Bridle told the Evening Standard in 2017. ‘Physically invisible, impossible to see from the ground. But it’s also designed to be politically and legally invisible. You can send it to places where you can’t send soldiers, where that’s militarily or politically or morally unacceptable’. Bridle’s work, Drone Shadow, is an embodiment of this physical and informational absence. To the viewer, the exhibition space in the heart of the Imperial War Museum appears almost empty. Littered on the ground are the real-life objects of war; less noticeable is the white tape which outlines a shape so large that it is difficult, from the ground, to work out quite what it is. Were you to stand on the gallery ceiling, you might have a better view: the tape outlines the shadow of a Predator drone at a true-to-life scale. This gives the audience an opportunity to confront the sheer size of the vehicle from the perspective of a potential drone-attack victim. Though of course, an actual victim wouldn’t have the chance to see the shadow, and if they could they certainly wouldn’t have time to run. Bridle was shocked at the reactions of observers; the first thing people say when they see the shadow is ‘I didn’t know they were so big’. ‘How can people not know, in this day and age, the simplest detail about such an emblematic object of our time?’

Invisibility is unquestionably useful from a military perspective. But what about ethics? Aleksandar Fatic, who writes on the ethics of drone warfare, calls the entire process of drone execution ‘morally schizophrenic’. For Fatic, the use of drones in warfare marks a paradigm shift at the very foundations of warfare. At the heart of this change is an undermining of ‘effectivity’. He explains this by analogy: the leader of a group can only succeed by effectively taking part in the life and doings of the group. In order to successfully lead an army, the leader fights in the war, and places their own life at stake for a cause which is worthy of taking the lives of others. Warriors are part of military communities which are based on shared moral values and a strong sense of identity. ‘Effectivity’ means engaging in warfare on behalf of your country and showing you’re willing to die for it. Without this, Fatic notes, ‘the military community would hardly differ from a community of assassins.’

This structure has defined warfare since antiquity. But military leaders today are not fighters; they are more akin to businessmen and bureaucrats. It is not necessary for these people to possess qualities that were once at the heart of the military profession: courage, willingness to make sacrifices, a sense of justice, and respect. The Norwegian Armed Forces cite ‘respect, responsibility and courage’ as the ‘basis’ of all their activity, qualities integrally important in justifying the military as a moral institution. Professional military ethics must conform to the same general principles as social ethics. Fatic names these qualities as basic conditions for the justified use of military force – and drone operation fails to satisfy any of them. Operators have no need to be courageous and are presented with no scenarios in which they might need to make sacrifices. They tend to turn a blind eye to justice. From the operator’s perspective, the set-up is so similar to a computer game that justice and injustice hardly even factor. Who considers justice when playing Call of Duty? Who respects a collection of pixels on a screen?

The ironically named drone ‘pilots’ — almost all of whom would certainly fare poorly if placed in a real aircraft — are actually so far removed from the deaths of their victims that killing incidents were coined ‘drone splats’ by military members. And ‘Predator’ sounds like an aircraft named by a basement-dwelling science fiction fanatic hooked to their gaming console. ‘The lingua is arcane, archaic, old-fashioned,’ says Berlin-based artist Omer Fast, ‘like stickers from another era planted on this technology, almost nostalgically.’ Indeed, the likeness between the video-gamer and the drone operator is both uncanny and disturbing. Ex-operator Michal Haas told the Guardian that he and other drone pilots sat behind computer screens in Creech air force base outside Las Vegas, speaking in grotesque gardening-themed analogies, of their recent kills: they were simply ‘cutting the grass before it grows out of control’, ‘pulling the weeds out’. It is well-known that humour can be a useful subterfuge for horror.

Anyone who wanders into the Madrid gallery Teatros del Canal from January 2019 will experience the haunting similarities between drone strikes and videogames first-hand. The German art group Rimini Protokoll have designed an interactive environment in which the participant-viewer assumes the identity of one of twenty real-life individuals who would routinely participate, in some way or another, in a drone attack. But this is hardly clear from the outset; the roles are myriad, and web is complex. One participant may enter Situation Rooms: A Multiplayer Video Piece as a doctor engaging in amputations in Sierra Leone; another, as a lawyer representing the drone attack victims. Another may assume the role of a drone pilot, only to swap video sets later and become the lawyer representing the victims they were previously ‘responsible’ for terminating. The demarcation between perpetrator and victim begins suddenly to break down. The audience, as players in this alternate reality, guided by their screens in a complex game of which they can only understand small fragments, begin to comprehend how easy it is to distance themselves from reality and responsibility. It is equally random whether one slides into the shoes of an operator like Haas, or those of Baitullah Mehsud. Like those whose biographies we assume, as players we are subject to chance. And as humans, and bystanders, they are forced to take a share in the responsibility – and in the guilt.

Perhaps if drone operators were made to undergo the Rimini Protokoll experience, they would think twice about going to work in the morning. But the military chooses not to expose the operators directly to the consequences of their actions; the distance is useful in preventing pilots from questioning the ethics of what they do. Perhaps this explains why so many drone pilots are not military men: in fact, some were once strippers or porn stars. A 2016 National Post article tells of ex-operator Matt DeHart who pleaded guilty with a Tennessee court in 2015 to avoid a seventy-year prison sentence for child porn. It’s hardly difficult to guess the reason behind employing these sorts of people. In the eyes of Fatic, it’s ‘principled’: drone operation does not submit to the same military ethics as field operation, so drone strikes do not need to be conducted by morally integrated individuals. ‘I would venture into assuming that, for at least some missions, more labile personality structures are even more desirable, because people of integrity tend to ask moral questions’. That being said, the arena of drone operators is one in which ‘the banality of evil’ has taken hold. The phrase was coined by Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem; in Eichmann’s trial, he claimed he bore no responsibility as he was only ‘doing his job’. ‘Everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,”’ she writes of Eichmann.

Certainly, most of these men are not monsters—far from it. The experiences of many drone operators do come back to haunt them. The dissident officers who came forward in 2015 had assisted in the targeted killings of hundreds of people, and these statistics almost certainly include civilians. The ex-operators were painfully aware of these facts: ‘Ever step on ants and never give it another thought?’ Twenty-nine-year-old Michal Haas asked reporter Ed Pilkington. ‘That’s what you are made to think of the targets – as just black blobs on a screen. You had to kill part of your conscience to keep doing your job every day’. His desire to distance himself from his actions was so great that, when handed a report card that revealed his overall killing tally, he left it unopened. ‘I didn’t want anything to do with it’, he said. Bryant, on the other hand, chose to open the envelope and face the numbers; in his years of operation, he’d killed 1,626 people. Accumulated shocks like these explain why studies report similar levels of PTSD in ex-operators like Bryant and Hass as in field operators.

If modern warfare is conducted through a screen across cyberspace, what has become of the Theatrum Belli, or Theatre of War? As Situation Rooms make obvious, the Theatre of War no longer exists as a defined space. As the battlefield has become globalised, its parameters have disintegrated. We no longer have a clear idea of where the battlefield ends, no real understanding of whether it is war or peace time.

The voice of the talking drone in artist George Barber’s video piece The Freestone Drone gladly embraces this new and undefined Theatrum Belli: ‘I just happened to be in the neighbourhood, and I thought I’d drop by. I just happened to be in the neighbourhood, and I thought I’d burn you up’. Barber’s installation at the Waterside Contemporary creates a space which is at once domestic and at risk. Washing lines hung with random clothing assortments create an atmosphere of security, pervaded by the voice of the ‘Freestone Drone’. Disturbingly nasally and child-like, the voice presents an unsettling contrast to the monochrome stills, lifted from found public footage, projected across the walls and intercepting the hanging sheets. As the narrator repeatedly reminds us, the Freestone Drone is like Thomas the Tank Engine; he has developed a voice and a consciousness. ‘What will happen when I die?’ The Freestone Drone speaks with a pre-coded vocabulary which is, like his body, programmed for violence; within this, he has generated poetry and musicality. But self-awareness leads to more than poetry when the Freestone Drone begins to question his very existence: ‘I don’t like being me’.

Barber’s video allows the viewer to see the world through the eyes of a drone, an important perspective if we consider that these drones operate autonomously. Of course, it is unlikely that Predator drones will become advanced enough, at least for the time being, to start asking existential questions. But that shouldn’t stop us questioning exactly what forces opening Pandora’s box will set into motion. For just the AI experts in the 2015 letter, ‘the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting’. ‘An artistic response to drones is appropriate’ says George Barber, ‘in the way an artist can respond to a political issue like Palestine. When Francis Alÿs walks across Israel and Palestine dripping the green line with paint (Green Line, 2007), you’re not learning any facts, but it becomes a discussion point.’ Artists like Barber, Bridle and Rimini Protokoll have opened up this platform for discussion. It is a space that will -- and must -- continue to grow.

Art by George Wilson

ARJUNA KESHVANI-HAM reads English and German at Worcester. She can simultaneously write forwards with her right hand and backwards with her left hand. Unfortunately she has never found a channel for this obscure talent. She was previously an editor of the ORB.


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