Book Review: Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence

by Rebecca A. Adelman and David Kieran (eds), University of Minnesota Press, 2020, ISBN 978-1-5179-0748-8, 352 pp.

Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence is a volume of essays edited by Rebecca A. Adelman and David Kieran, and addresses the contemporary conceptual constraints that surround academic research in remote warfare. In the words of the editors, this volume attempts to “interrogate the cultural and political dimensions” of the reality of remote warfare, and to move “beyond the questions of tactical efficacy and morality that tend to dominate debates” regarding the subject. Throughout the introductory chapter, they outline how the contributions in this book attempt to instead, “contemplate […] how various actors have interpreted and responded to the centrality of violence delivered from a distance” (Adelman & Kieran, 2020, p. 3).

Throughout the volume, the authors argue that there is a problem rooted in the understanding of the complex interaction between physical distance, violence, and its affective properties. This they emphasise is because of an ingrained technological determinism that is diffused across the subject that puts excessive focus on the drone. This produces a conceptual misdirection of how the thresholds of experiencing trauma are multi-dimensional, especially when the affective element is mediated through the technological interface between the ground and the console. 

Across twelve chapters, we see an exploration of the anticipation, imagination and conceptualisation of remote warfare.

Foregrounding their argument through the seminal works of Dave Grossman and Grégoire Chamayou, the editors consider how these authors fail to tackle the issue of trauma at a critical depth. They mention how recent findings regarding post-traumatic stress among drone operators complicates Grossman’s argument that “[a]rtillery crews, bomber crews, naval gunners, and missile crews […] are all protected by the same powerful combination of group absolution, mechanical distance, and, most pertinent to our current discussion, physical distance” (Adelman & Kieran, 2020, p. 5). In the case of Chamayou, who claims similar sentiments, the editors emphasise how his “dualistic thinking may be a convenient foundation for anti drone scholarship and activism, and it certainly accounts for operative power differentials, but it also belies the extent to which both parties to remote warfare are remade (albeit in radically different ways) through the encounter” (Adelman & Kieran, 2020, p. 9).

Adelman and Kieran suggest that these modes of thinking remote warfare repeat previous discourses regarding the distant battlefield, constricting much of the scholarship regarding the subject. Rather than adopt a pro or contra framing, researchers should be foregrounding to a greater extent the cultural entanglements, imprints, and consequences of remote warfare, and illuminating the overlooked histories of remoteness, and to experiment with novel methodologies for critical analysis.

These attempts at novel methodologies are organized into three sections: VisionIntimacies, and Reconfigurations. Across twelve chapters, we see an exploration of the anticipation, imagination and conceptualisation of remote warfare; the unexpected relationships and connections that are engendered by the distant battlefield and the degree of interactivity that is belied by the term itself; and critically, the development of an analysis that contradicts the determinist frameworks for understanding remote warfare, instead tracing forms of resistance, protest and creativity that develop in its gaps. Furthermore, the book includes several case studies that move between personal accounts of active and retired war personnel with extensive quotes from poetry and literature: The critical analysis of series such as Homeland, which open up the relationships between big data and deciphering the archive; drone music as conceptual blueprint to develop forms of resistance; discussions on the role of black humour and parody as an emotional analgesic for the war veterans and; military-grade surveillance embedded and tested within civilian environments which disrupt the citizen’s contract with the state, and the use of architectural art projects as tools to break down the paradigms of contemporary building-development projects.

The strength of this publication is that most, if not all of the texts are intertwined with cross-referencing of material across the three sections. The content of the book as a whole also reflects the research interest of both Adelman and Kieran, which is situated in the realm of the affective, encompassing mental health, memory, spectatorship and ethics. Each text encapsulates robustly the intention of the editors and, although most seem to be discussing very similar topics, enhances the argument put forth in the introductory sections. As Brunck mentions, “the notion of remote warfare also encapsulates ideas about spatial, cultural and psychological remoteness.” which all come into play in affecting interaction with the distant battlefield” (Adelman & Kieran, 2020, p. 179). These “notions”, abstract as they may be, risk “drowning out the actuality and relevance of soldiers’” and non-combatants’, the “very corpo-real experiences of remote warfare”, especially when seen through what Nielsen and most of the authors argue are an “Americanized, techno-fixated, and future-oriented discourse” that “tends to subdue other aspects and experiences” of the distant battlefield (Adelman & Kieran, 2020, p. 202).

[T]his book is an excellent resource for researchers intent on forming a better understanding of the methodological challenges that are reflected in researching trauma in complex environments

Indeed, the extensive discussion of “discourse” is permeating through the whole edition. Except for a small handful of texts, most material in this edited book is using pop culture, political narrative, poetry and literature to investigate the affective properties of remote warfare, which make the thematic sections seem arbitrary. In a sense, the strength of the volume is also its weakness in that although it does push forward a novel methodology to address these issues, that novel methodology is itself somewhat methodologically narrow. This raises the question of whether the effects of the distant battlefield, as producing effects which are psychologically decipherable, are indeed only decipherable within the analysis of texts and fiction and whether there is any possibility to develop instead a materially-bound analysis of the issue. Some texts do however attempt this in minute ways; Tim Jelfs for example proposes a consideration of the relationship between the human and non-human elements of remote warfare, but again turns back to literature as a support. For those interested in alternative breakdowns of the “technological determinism” mentioned through the book, which is deeply tied with the materiality of its effects, the chapters by Richardson, and Ortiz are strong candidates.

In summary, this book is an excellent resource for researchers intent on forming a better understanding of the methodological challenges that are reflected in researching trauma in complex environments, such as the distant battlefield, and how contemporary modes of approaching this topic have shifted over time. Readers interested in an overview will benefit greatly from the introductory chapter which delivers a concise round up of some of the critical components of the ongoing debates in the field. This holds true also for those who may not find explorations of literature, poetry and pop culture useful to their more materialist or technological oriented approach. However, the extensive referencing of seminal works in the area of research will surely expand one’s reading list.


Adelman, Rebecca A., and David Kieran, eds. 2020. Remote Warfare : New Cultures of Violence. 1st ed. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

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