Book review: Unmanning: How Humans, Machines and Media Perform Drone Warfare

by Katherine Chandler, New Brunswick & Newark: Rutgers University Press, 2020. 190pp. ISBN: 1978809743

Imaginations of the possibility (and the terror) of drone strikes existed well before they were possible. Echoing science fiction work like H.G. Wells’ War in the Air, Nikola Tesla warned in 1921 of “Machines of destruction more terrible than anything conceited by the master minds behind the ‘World War.’ Armies and navies will sail under the ocean and through the skies with not a man onboard.” (Quoted in Everett, 2015: 6) Somehow this scenario of machinic violence was seen as resembling a whole other scale of destruction greater than that already being enacted by manned weapons systems and rained down from the sky in ‘small wars’ air policing campaigns. The horrible reality of this violence is displaced (and rendered invisible) to the future by the anxiety of robotic warfare, something we see again in contemporary debates about the future of drone warfare and fully-automated targeted killing. 

This kind of “work” that unmanning does is at the center of Katherine Chandler’s book. The drone and the process of unmanning that underpins it is productive and performative, and in particular, Chandler argues, what it performs is a disavowal of politics from these kinds of machinic weapons systems.  As she shows through the historical examples in her book, the drone is an assemblage of parts and practices – a mixture of human, nonhuman, and media – that often get confused for one another. Picking apart these relationships of human and machine allows Chandler to show how unmanning – or rather, the myth of unmanning – tries to minimize politics. As she writes, “Unmanning sets up a disavowal between what is human and what is not to establish conditions for contemporary targeted killing and overwrite a genealogy built on failures.” (15)

While focused primarily on drone warfare, Chandler’s book – in its investigations into failure, human/machine relations, and threat production – points … also to ways of thinking about how politics is denied and disavowed in other techniques of state violence like policing.

Chandler does this through an examination of key moments in the development of drone technology, starting in the 1930s. Each of the main chapters engage with one of these programs and together these produce a historical narrative of “disjointed histories,” which are attuned as much to technological development as they are to technological failures. Failure is an important part of these narratives, and it is in these moments of failure of the technology that Chandler finds that politics comes to the surface. In other words, these failures reveal what is disavowed in drone warfare, which is often its intertwinement with histories of racialized violence and colonialism. For example, in the chapter titled “Buffalo Hunter,” Chandler brings to the foreground the colonial violence of drone warfare in the use of drones for nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Focusing on the displacement of Bikini Atoll inhabitants and the ongoing health effects of the tests, Chandler shows the work that unmanning does to make these effects invisible: “A dispersed network of bases, laboratories, industry, and personnel allowed for the illusion of unmanning to cohere, shaping a context for U.S. global control that claimed to be machinelike, deterritorialized, and all-seeing. Yet, this global control is only made conceptually possible by erasing the land below.” (87)

Much of this analysis parallels and adds to a subset of scholarship in drone studies that is attentive to genealogy and historical analysis, notably work by Derek Gregory (2011), Ian Shaw (2016), Caren Kaplan (2018), and others. Chandler’s focus on failure in this history and her extensive archival work bring out new stories in the history of these technologies. One of the most interesting chapters, which adds an important new element to our understanding of the genealogy of the drone strike, is the one titled “Pioneer.” In this chapter, Chandler examines the use of surveillance drones by Israel in the Bekaa Valley in the 1980s, how the US military interpreted the success of these drones, and the acquisitions scandal that surrounded the Pioneer drone. Not only is this an account often left out of the history of drone technology, but Chandler frames this narrative around the concept of corruption in really generative ways. Most straightforwardly, in this chapter corruption trains a lens on the bribery scandal. However, Chandler also uses corruption in connection with the larger narrative of failure in the book. Corruption here is also the ‘corrupted file’ or an ‘error.’ Reading the image from the drone as corrupted allows us to see the failures of unmanning and the myth of an omniscient gaze, or in the words of Rey Chow (2006): how the world becomes target. As Chandler writes, “One might rather think about what can be seen by real-time images as corrupted: evidence of systemic failures that undo the neat overlay of state power and eyesight to instead emphasize how the claim to being all-seeing is error-prone and ultimately undecipherable.” (108)

To me this framing of corruption provides a way to extend our thinking about unmanning beyond the context of drone warfare. How, for example, does unmanning name a practice that exceeds the drone? What does it mean to think about unmanning at work in other registers? For Chandler, corruption in the sense of a corrupted file points to systemic failure and it is around this idea that we might develop potential links between the drone and other technologies and practices of state violence, such as policing, although Chandler does not do so in the book. A number of scholars, including Tyler Wall (2016) and Andrea Miller and Kaplan (2019), have been working through the connections between police violence and the drone strike, especially around the racialization of threat production. Unmanning, I would argue, does “work” here too, especially if we look at the role of police discretion and video footage of police violence – we can see how media in this sense is performative of a process of political disavowal.  Can unmanning as Chandler describes it help us to unpack the problem, for example, of the police body camera, and the violence it both records and enables?

The corrupted image of the drone and the myth of unmanning perhaps finds resonance with what Lindsey P. Beutin (2017) names as a “racialization as a way of seeing,” or Benedict Stork (2016) calls the police hermeneutic, and the ways that video – initially seen as a tool of countersurveillance – becomes enrolled in reproducing structures of policing and police violence. Unmanning, in a way, seems to be produced here too. While focused primarily on drone warfare, Chandler’s book – in its investigations into failure, human/machine relations, and threat production – points perhaps also to ways of thinking about how politics is denied and disavowed in other techniques of state violence like policing.

Works Cited:

Beutin LP (2017) Racialization as a Way of Seeing: The Limits of Counter-Surveillance and Police Reform. Surveillance & Society (15)1: 5-20.

Chow R (2006) The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work, Durham: Duke University Press.

Everett HR (2015) Unmanned Systems of World Wars I and II, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gregory D (2011) Lines of Descent. Open Democracy Online:

Kaplan C (2018) Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime From Above, Durham: Duke University Press.

Kaplan C and Miller A (2019) Drones as ‘Atmospheric Policing’: From US Border Enforcement to the LAPD. Public Culture 31(3): 419-445.

Shaw I (2016) Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stork B (2016) Aesthetics, Politics, and the Police Hermeneutic: Online Videos of Police Violence Beyond the Evidentiary Function. Film Criticism 40(2): online–aesthetics-politics-and-the-police-hermeneutic-online-videos?rgn=main;view=fulltext

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