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n an interview for the “Drone Futures” podcast (Richardson 2020) hosted by the Media Futures Hub, Katherine Chandler recounts the meandering, unexpected way through which she came to write about the history of drones. Interested in learning about how violence is visualized and embedded onto landscapes, she visited various locations, including the land mines of Bosnia and the fortifications of Palestine, before traveling to the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in the United States. She was at the latter in 2009—a time when little public information was available on then-President Barack Obama’s drone war—when she found out that military drones being used in the war on terror were being operated out of the former nuclear test site. “Literally, the military-industrial site… where all of the nuclear weapons tests took place—a corner of that has been converted into the Creech Air Force Base,” she explains (Richardson 2020). She realized that drones were a part of the “visible invisibilities that we associate with the history of nuclear weapons” (Richardson 2020), and she embarked on a decade-long research project which excavated the often inchoate history of military drone technology as it intersected with the broader history of modern war.
The result is her deeply researched book, Unmanning: How Humans, Machines, and Media Perform Drone Warfare. It examines several case studies of largely American military drone projects from the interwar period to the end of the Cold War, offering what she calls a “genealogy of drone failure” (p. 12). As Chandler shows, early drone projects rarely achieved their intended effects, and the theme of failure is as much a part of drone technology’s history as it is the enabling condition for her book’s own approach and methodology. In the podcast interview, Chandler remarks that she focused on historical research because, when she began her project, very little was known about drones, which made contemporary research on the topic difficult and impractical. Her narrativizing of her own book’s history illuminates the aims and the achievements of Unmanning, which is partly inspired by Donna Haraway’s concept of “situated knowledges,” as well as by broader feminist approaches to science and technology which “analyze [the] affective dimensions of technoscience and their social mapping of power” (p. 7). Failure is thus an important dimension of her research because it counters notions of what Haraway (1988: 581) called “the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere”—the way visual technologies are often construed as objective, disembodied, and impartial.
Chandler’s overall concern is with the idea of “unmanning,” which, rather than forgoing the presence of “man,” is in fact “a contingent set of situated practices imperfectly made by human, media, and machine” (p. 64). Her book makes the argument for understanding drones as this dynamic assemblage through five historical case studies of drone projects which were deemed at the time to have failed, from roughly 1936 to 1992. Chapter One, “DRONE”, begins with the interwar period and the Navy Research Laboratory’s Project Drone, which gave unmanned aircraft its more familiar name. Although we tend to think of military drones as weapons that do the targeting, Project Drone conceived of the drone “as an aircraft built to be shot down,” as they were envisioned as target practice for anti-aircraft gunners (p. 17). Chapter Two, “American Kamikaze,” moves to the World War II period when the drone system was modified for use as a weapon. At the heart of this chapter is Vladimir Zworykin, familiar to media studies scholars as a pioneer of television technology, and his envisioning of television-guided drones. Chapter Three, “Unmanning,” studies drone reconnaissance during the Cold War with projects like the Firebee, which mimicked the actions of attack aircraft and were used to train surface-to-air and air-to-air defenses; the chapter also considers the widely publicized downing of an American manned surveillance aircraft over the Soviet Union, which resulted in political pressure to push for fully unmanned surveillance.
Chapter Four, “Buffalo Hunter,” addresses the imbrication of drone technology with postcolonial violence through events such as Operation Crossroads, a pair of nuclear weapons tests in the Bikini Atoll in 1946, when the US Army and Navy flew remotely operated aircraft to collect photographic reconnaissance of the explosions; and Operation Buffalo Hunter, which involved the use of unmanned spy planes to counter the “unconventional” warfare environment of Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Chapter Five, “Pioneer,” looks at the ways in which the Israeli military used remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) for real-time surveillance in the Bekaa Valley in the 1980s. Although the chapter moves beyond American drone programmes, the Israeli RPVs led to the development of a prototype of the Predator drone, which was used during the war on terror. The US military, Chandler argues, later refashioned the RPV tactics outlined in a 1986 CIA report on the Lebanon war as legitimate targeted killings, rather than as terrorism. Overall, the book makes a convincing case for understanding drones not in terms of technofetishism or newness, but as recurring manifestations of longstanding concerns related military and colonial power, and overseas and domestic control.
Unmanning is a fluently interdisciplinary work which draws by turns from political sciences, history, science and technology studies, media studies, cultural studies, visual studies, and rhetorical studies. Although it shares with recent books like Antoine Bousquet’s The Eye of War (2018) and Caren Kaplan’s Aerial Aftermaths (2018) a genealogical approach to the material and discursive histories of aerial violence, Chandler’s focus is firmly on the six or so decades from the mid- to late twentieth century in the United States while the others have opted to tackle wider spatio-temporal remits. Comparatively, these narrower coordinates may at times make for a more constricted view of drone history; however, this focus enables a remarkable level of depth in analysis. What distinguishes Unmanning is not only its emphasis on the genealogy of failure—which counters a straightforward history of drones which might take their development as a teleology or foregone conclusion—but Chandler’s careful use of archives to flesh out that thesis.
Drawing from textual and visual documents from places like the National Air and Space Museum Archives in Virginia, the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives in California, and the IDF & Defense Establishment Archives in Tel Aviv, Chandler scrutinizes the way that language and rhetoric perform the politics of drones themselves. Examining a range of material, some formerly classified—including technical reports, press releases, government reports, scrapbooks, memoirs, and industry briefings—Chandler observes, for instance, that Ryan Aeronautical, which produced the Firebee, evoked cybernetic theories in their promotional materials to present the drone as an aircraft that seemed to act on its own impulse, thereby reinforcing its “unmanned” capabilities.
More important than the politics that are propagated, however, are the politics that get disavowed. For Chandler, these often concern racialized violence. With a dogged commitment to unpeeling the layers of meaning—explicit, implied, or otherwise evoked—in the writings, photographs, and films she studies, Chandler’s analysis reveals, for example, how Zworykin’s RCA memoranda drew on American racial stereotypes of the Japanese suicide bomber to advance the project of the television-guided torpedo as a more-than-human kamikaze. Correlated with enemy tactics, these drones were nevertheless depicted as exemplary of American moral superiority because they eliminated risk and human casualties. She similarly finds racist cultural stereotypes underpinning the language of other reports, like the off-handed remark made by authors of a Ryan Aeronautical report to describe the survival and success of the Firebee targets program as like “‘Topsy’—it just grew”. The phrase is borrowed from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), thereby linking the drone’s apparent ability to develop on its own with “a racially circumscribed ideal of social evolution” in the drone imaginary (p. 76).
While “[u]nmanning is premised on the undoing of human action as technological optimization,” Chandler writes, the drone is in fact constructed through, and as, “a disavowal of politics by technology” (p. 2). The writer herself uses language to insightful effect. Although many of the book’s scholarly interlocutors would be familiar to those working on drone studies and science and technology studies—these include Derek Gregory for the former, and Bruno Latour for the latter—the final chapter compellingly draws from the work of anthropologist Akhil Gupta. Gupta examines the discourse of corruption in India, and Chandler consciously extends Gupta’s analysis to unsettle “the usual geopolitical focus on corruption as a phenomenon limited to the developing world” (p. 119). On one hand, she does so by recovering the now-neglected history of the largest case of military corruption prosecuted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which concerned the use of bribes and preferential contracts in the acquisition of drone aircraft by the United States from Israel in 1991. On the other hand, she also sees corruption conceptually, in terms of failure or error, and therefore as something endemic to how drones work on the basis of disavowal. The history of drones is “like a faulty data file,” she writes, where certain politics are “forgotten, over-written by an easily readable narrative of technological advance” (p. 120). Drones, therefore, organize and facilitate a kind of forgetting. “One might rather think about what can be seen by real-time images [of the drone] 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” (p. 108).
Corruption serves as an eloquent analogy and metaphor in Chandler’s own methodology of historical excavation, as the book asks us to consider what the archival encounter reveals about the politics which have been obscured or occluded. Chandler’s writing in Unmanning isn’t candid in the same way as her podcast interview, but its readings of archival materials do indicate the affective dimensions through which she, and scholars of drones and military history more broadly, might have come to “know” about historical violence. For example, in her reading of the Operations Crossroads Scrapbook held at the National Air and Space Museum, Chandler contends with the inclusion of pages documenting the final days of the Indigenous people of Bikini Atoll on their land before their home was destroyed by nuclear tests. “Pictures of the Indigenous inhabitants of Bikini Atoll in the scrapbook suggest how their erasure by the United States was paradoxically carried out by documentation,” Chandler reflects. With the Indigenous presence confined to a separate “Natives” section of the scrapbook, the document “shows how scenes from the island, and the collection of oral stories, prefigures not a record of Indigenous history but its erasure as part of American technoscience and global control” (p. 86). Like the corrupted, faulty data file, another version or narrative of violence lies behind, while being sidelined by, a selective act of historical documentation in the history of drone technology.
Unmanning is an absorbing examination of the “innumerable crashes, image glitches, and navigational failures” that are symptomatic of drones, even though these failures are “papered over as part of the larger erasures and disavowals that make ‘unmanning’ an ontology” (p. 107). Chandler’s account of drone history is all the more needed, not only because more work on racialized violence and colonialism is required in drone scholarship, and not only because the field remains influenced by accounts of the drone as embodying a “god’s eye” view of panoptic surveillance, such as Grégoire Chamayou’s Drone Theory (2015). We are ourselves in the midst of a revolution in drone technology, as drones have become cheaper and more accessible, and as they are used by more diversified communities beyond the martial for a variety of contexts and ends. As Anna Jackman (2019: 367) shows, with the current proliferation of consumer, off-the-shelf drones, unmanned aerial vehicles have become “malleable” objects that blur military and civilian realms, and they are increasingly used both as objects of threat and as valuable assets to security and the visualization of data. In the not-so-distant future, drone warfare will become part of the “visible invisibilities” of a broader everyday drone landscape, as unmanned aerial vehicles will be used for a wider and more unpredictable range of purposes beyond top-down surveillance and targeted killing, whether that is to carry lethal or non-lethal payloads, to navigate or cause disruption to the airspace, or to provide a different way of seeing and experiencing the mundane and the banal more generally. “[T]here is no smooth narrative of progress,” Chandler writes. “There are only disjointed historical histories of targets and targeting that we connect, partially, in hindsight” (p. 36). In foregrounding failure, her book manages the work of offering one narrative of drone history while prising open the spaces of contingency. By showing us the politics that have been disavowed, Unmanning also seems to be asking us to consider what politics of our present might be overlaid or overwritten in a future of unmanned technologies.
Bousquet, B (2018) The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Chamayou, G (2015) Drone Theory. London: Penguin.
Haraway, D (1988) “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial perspective.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-99.
Jackman, A (2019) “Consumer Drone Evolutions: Trends, Spaces, Temporalities, Threats.” Defense and Security Analysis 35(4): 362-83.
Kaplan, C (2018) Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above. Duke: Duke University Press.
Richardson, M (Host) (2020, October 19) Drone Futures E3: Katherine Chandler [Audio podcast episode]. In Media Futures: Media Futures Hub, University of New South Wales Sydney.
Beryl Pong is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in English at the University of Sheffield and an Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore. She is the author of British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime: For the Duration (Oxford University Press, 2020) and the holder of a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award for her project, “The Aesthetics of Drone Warfare.”