The Chronicle Review

The Doubtful Ethics of Drone Warfare

Khaled Abdullah, Reuters

A car destroyed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, 2012
November 08, 2015

At what point do would-be reformers of the law and ethics of war slide into complicity with a morally untenable status quo? When is the moralization of force a prelude for the ration­alization of slaughter? Grégoire Chamayou’s penetrating recent book, A Theory of the Drone, raises these uncomfortable questions for lawyers and engineers both inside and out of the academy. Chamayou, a French philosopher, dissects legal academics’ arguments for targeted killing by unmanned vehicles. He also criticizes university research programs purporting to engineer ethics for the autonomous weapons systems they view as the inevitable future of war. Writing from a tradition of critical theory largely alien to both engineering and law, he raises concerns that each discipline should address before it continues to develop procedures for the automation of war.


A Theory of the Drone

by Grégoire Chamayou

(The New Press)

 Drone debates have focused on international humanitarian law, a set of principles for limiting the effects of armed conflict, particularly on noncombatants. Drone advocates have praised the technology for targeting attacks to minimize casualties: A massive bomb will cause far more civilian deaths than a carefully targeted drone attack. They want to deploy drones to evermore conflict zones.

Some military experts demur, based on studies of collateral damage by these supposedly precise weapons. For example, from January 2012 to February 2013, leaked documents show, 200 people were killed by U.S. drone strikes, but only 35 were targets. Even so, many lawyers and engineers hope that automated weapons systems will eventually reduce the horrors of war. Given advances in face- or gait-recognition technology, a drone might be programmed to shoot, say, only men between 21 and 65. Michael Schmitt of the U.S. Naval War College envisions American autonomous weapons systems as guarantors of peace, quietly protecting populations from terrorists or even the depredations of their own governments. Drone surveillance might enable "combat zones that see," meticulously keeping track of who among the enemy are armed and dangerous and who are dormant.

Chamayou questions that optimism. To what extent can such one-sided aggression even be called "warfare"? If the endpoint of drone technology is to create such perfect domination over a territory that drone operators suffer no risk of harm, and the "enemy" is known so well that individual members of a household can be uniquely targeted — then policing, rather than war, seems a more appropriate description.

As Mary Ellen O’Connell of Notre Dame Law School has explained, drones cannot comply with police rules: "In law enforcement it must be possible to warn before using lethal force." In response to worries like O’Connell’s, drone defenders call for a tertium quid, some new category between policing and war. Chamayou rejects such "solutions," observing that they tend to be "curious legal hybrid" categories that "could benefit from the liberalities of both regimes without being obliged to accept the constraints of either."

This is not to say that a category of force deployment outside the parameters of war and policing is, by its nature, illegitimate. The increasing availability of capacities for devastation may well require new forms of surveillance, intelligence gathering, and intervention. The problem is that U.S. authorities are attempting to develop such a category unilaterally and seemingly haphazardly. They are aided by the blasé quietism of military academics who casually observe that "the desire to take out one’s enemies from a safe distance" has long been a goal of warriors. One law professor at West Point actually proposed prosecuting scholars for treason if their writing "propagandizes" suspect interpretations of the law of armed conflict. Though his work appears to have been quickly disavowed, the general technocratic drift of the military academies is to fine-tune drone warfare rather than question its morality over all.

Domination is Chamayou’s other central concern: the gradual conversion of armed conflict from truly contestable battlegrounds to bureaucratically administered shooting ranges. Consider the situation on the ground in Yemen or the Pakistani hinterlands: Is there really any possible resistance that the "militants" can sustain against a stream of hundreds or thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles patrolling their skies? Chamayou drily compares public outrage at, a website that allowed subscribers to remotely fire a gun at animals that wandered into its range, with general acceptance of similar technologies of remote gunnery aimed at persons. Chamayou’s striking characterization of drone warfare and policing as "manhunting" deserves attention from human-rights lawyers.

Admittedly, moral judgments here are inevitably comparative. For some drone ethicists, unmanned vehicles are veritable "machines of loving grace" when compared with the brutality regularly meted out by humans. Ronald Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology believes that autonomous weapon systems may "reduce man’s inhumanity to man through technology," since a robot will not be subject to all-too-human fits of anger, sadism, or cruelty. He has proposed taking humans out of the loop of targeting decisions, while coding ethical constraints on lethal actions into robots.

Chamayou dismisses Arkin’s project in its entirety: Whatever rules of morality are programmed into such weaponry, they "clearly can be uninstalled or reprogrammed at any time." And further into the future, a society of control is in the offing: "For in the list of human failings that military robots would avoid, there is one that is decisive," Chamayou argues: "a capacity for insubordination."

Radicals and revolutionaries can hope that human soldiers facing them down might realize a common aim and drop their weapons (as happened in the 1830 Paris uprising and, less spectacularly, in Russia in 1991, when soldiers refused to fire on crowds during a coup attempt). Judgment is ineradicable from all but brainwashed humans. But in swarms of drones programmed in the past or controlled from afar, the present moral dilemma of confronting fellow humans is missing. All that governs is some programmers’ instructions, or a remote controller’s perceptions of televised persons reminiscent of figures from video games.

A Theory of the Drone is, at its core, a contribution to political theory, raising concerns too often elided in both legal academics’ treatment of drones and computer-science departments’ angling for Defense Department grants. At present we have no reliable sense of whether U.S. drone strikes are guaranteeing security or temporarily disabling some bad actors while enraging a generation subject to an aerial version of foreign occupation. Is the war futurists’ dream — a persistent Pax Americana underwritten by insuperable technological advantage — actually possible, or one more marketing campaign from wealthy defense contractors? Mired in ignorance, we would do well to challenge our present drift toward hyper-technologized foreign policy.

As Andrew Bacevich has argued, maturely grappling with the need for cooperation in an unmasterable world is a viable alternative to arms races. At present, though, the military-industrial complex is speeding us toward the development of "human out of the loop" drone swarms, ostensibly because only machines will be fast enough to anticipate the enemy’s counterstrategies.

To break out of this self-destructive cycle of domination-seeking, we need to start grappling with the thought of public intellectuals like Peter Asaro, Derek Gregory, Lucy Suchman, and Noel Sharkey, who question the entire reformist discourse of imparting ethics to military robots. Chamayou deserves great credit for his arresting characterizations of drone warfare, his skillful reversal of the usual pro-drone rhetoric, and, most of all, his shattering of the short-sighted cost-benefit frame of incremental military technological development. As A Theory of the Drone makes clear, we need a different path to cooperation and peace — however fragile and difficult its achievement may be.

Frank Pasquale is a professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law and author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information (Harvard University Press, 2015).