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Five Minutes with Hugh Gusterson

Drones are changing the conduct of war. Advocates say that drones are more precise than conventional bombers, allowing warfare with minimal civilian deaths while keeping American pilots out of harm’s way. Critics say that drones are cowardly and that they often kill innocent civilians while terrorizing entire villages on the ground. In Drone: Remote Control Warfare, Hugh Gusterson looks at the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance involved in remote killing: is it easier than killing someone on the physical battlefield if you have to watch onscreen? Hugh Gusterson discusses his new book.

How has the use of military drones altered the way that war is conducted?

Traditional definitions of war assume combatants on either side who can kill one another. In drone warfare, one side is now physically absent from the field of combat. This is why some people have said drone warfare is more like hunting than war.

Further, democratically elected leaders have always been aware of a certain risk in going to war: if too many of their own citizens come home in body bags, the country may turn against them (as happened to Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and George W. Bush). But drone warfare, by sparing us Americans in body bags, offers the possibility of indefinite war without victory, but with very little political cost at home.

In Drone, you write that “the impersonality of remote killing is at least partially offset by what might be called remote intimacy.” Can you explain what you mean by this concept of “remote intimacy”?

Drone operators speak of being, simultaneously, thousands of miles away and fifteen inches away from those they kill. The powerful cameras on drones enable operators who are physically on the other side of the world the means of watching people close up as they track them for hours, even days. They may see their human targets with their families and develop a certain sense of them as people. One drone operator spoke of watching one of his victims slowly change color on screen (in infrared) as he gradually bled to death. In some ways that's a more intimate kind of killing than the infantryman who kills someone firing on them from the distance, but never really sees them.

You draw on very difference sources, including from drone operators, victims of drone attacks, and international lawyers in addition to military thinkers and experts. How have these varying perspectives informed and enriched the book?

I drew on first-person accounts by drone operators and survivors of drone strikes; journalistic accounts; NGO reports; military texts. One of the fundamental commitments of anthropology is holism: the attempt to understand things from as many points of view as possible. I can't imagine writing a book about drones that only gives the accounts of drone operators, and not parallel accounts from victims of drone strikes. You can't really understand a drone strike until you've seen it from both ends. Similarly, you can't fully evaluate the statements US officials have made defending drone strikes unless you've read the pushback against those statements from journalists on the ground or from international legal experts. That's not to say that the critics are always right, but their responses have to be in the mix. And—by quoting lawyers, soldiers, human rights activists, Pashtun peasants, pilots, and CIA officials—I try to show that there are lots of ways of understanding drones.

As an anthropologist, what dimensions of the debate on drone operation do you think have been lacking or misrepresented?

Anthropologists are often seen as custodians of the ethnic "other" in Western discussions. In keeping with that tradition, I can only be struck by how little Americans hear from those (in the tribal areas of Pakistan, in Yemen and in Somalia) who live under the drones. I wonder how our discussions of drone warfare might be different if those voices were more audible in our conversations. But I'm also struck by how little we hear from the drone operators themselves. All the talking seems to be done by people—government officials, activists, journalists—who are one step removed from what they're talking about.

The book lays out different scenarios for the future of drone usage—a “dystopian” one in which it is greatly expanded and unchecked and a second alternative where it is regulated and benign. Which seems more likely to you today? What factors will determine the outcome?

I'm afraid that we're much more likely to end up with the dystopian future. A fear I sketch out in the book's conclusion is that drones will increasingly be used for domestic law enforcement in the U.S. I argue that individual crises will enable the police to cross lines they haven't crossed before and set new precedents, and we just saw that in Dallas where the police used a robot—a kind of drone—to kill Micah Johnson, the man who shot five police officers. The only way we can avert the dystopian future is by having a conversation about these issues—which is what I hope my book will help provoke.

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Books, news, and ideas from MIT Press

The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.