Life in the Age of Drone Warfare Cover

Life in the Age of Drone Warfare

Edited by Lisa Parks and Caren Kaplan

Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2017, 448 pages

Book Review published on: June 8, 2018

Lisa Parks and Caren Kaplan have compiled a collection of provocative and insightful essays that address critical issues associated with drone warfare. Life in the Age of Drone Warfare is divided into three parts, each containing five essays. The authors for the book include sociologists, media specialists, feminists, gender specialists, journalists, cultural studies scholars, and artists. The first part addresses juridical, genealogical, and geopolitical imaginaries. In this section, readers of Military Review will find some intriguing essays related to drone employment. The second part deals with perception and perspective. In it, readers will find a somewhat creative, if not eclectic, analysis of drone warfare. The last part covers biopolitics, automation, and robotics. In this section, the editors asked the contributors to address specific challenges associated with drone technology and operating systems. It provides actual and fictional discussions on the nature and challenges of drone operations from a human-machine interface perspective.

This book investigates many of the controversial issues related to drone usage—targeting, ethics, morality, legality, and more. Overall, the authors tend to focus primarily on drone-related militarization. Specifically, a drone’s domestic and international surveillance capability, coupled with the lethality of some drones, is often characterized as illegal and immoral due to this militarization. Using armed drones to seek and achieve justice from a Western perspective violates human rights and due process. For example, several contributors characterized the use of drones in Yemen and Pakistan as similar to the vigilante legacy of the American West. It also addresses the concept of lawfare from an imperial perspective, which, as employed in these essays, is far different than those described by Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap’s discussions. Instead of terrorists using the American legal system to achieve their objectives, it describes lawfare as the use of state power to exact justice on known or suspected terrorists across the globe regardless of territorial or sovereignty issues. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, for example, becomes “a space of exception” for the United States and for its allies to use drones to identify and “assassinate” terrorists living in these relatively uninhabited areas. Of course, the killing of innocents with these drone operations raises moral and legal questions.

Several of the contributors address the legality and morality of using armed drones in the pursuit of American foreign policy objectives. The criticism largely focuses on drones and drone operators identifying, targeting, and killing known or suspected enemies. Although the proliferation of drone usage throughout the world has raised local, national, and international concerns, the contributors tend to frame the problem in terms of Western or American imperialism, or some version of neo- or postcolonialism. Drones, in other words, are simply the latest technological means to enforce American or Western justice and dominance on “other” peoples.

Related to this concern are arguments associated with re-spacialization and racialization of certain areas of the world. The American capability to monitor activities, to conduct surveillance, and to precipitate targeted killings with platforms such as Predators and Reapers has contributed to the existing debate on the role and purpose of airpower. While some readers will find some of these arguments questionable, they are worth reading to appreciate alternative interpretations. They include explanations regarding how those most affected by drone operations live and adapt to constant surveillance or the threat from death from above.

Of note is the historical reflection on the concept of air policing. Readers will find these references engaging. These discussions generate renewed interest and debate on this concept. Ironically, Life in the Age of Drone Warfare addresses many of the same geographic areas of the world that the British Empire dominated using air control during the 1920s and 1930s—Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

Related to most of the book’s topics is the fundamental military and ethical problem of targeting. While the book makes a compelling argument that armed drones have altered the character of warfare, from an airman’s perspective, drones are simply a continuation of airpower employment. Whether the vehicle or platform is manned or unmanned, the functionality of drones remains the same. It is simply a means to achieve better intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and, when necessary, an advantageous platform to apply lethal force. Granted there are numerous issues associated with using remote platforms to achieve these results, but from a military perspective, drones are simply an additional tool in the arsenal of modern warfare.

Overall, Life in the Age of Drone Warfare has much to offer for those interested in a variety of perspectives associated with drone warfare. Several of the arguments go beyond what some readers Military Review would consider practical, but it makes the reader think about the influence and potential challenges associated with drones. Readers will likely disagree with some of the arguments, but the book makes one think more holistically about drones and their role in peace and war.

Book Review written by: Tony R. Mullis, PhD, San Angelo, Texas