By the Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson
Kyle Grayson, Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. Tables. References. Index. Hbk. 218 pp.
One cannot venture very far in the field of contemporary air power studies without encountering remotely piloted air systems, which have become a central feature of western military operations. Their use has raised many questions regarding their ethical status, and the effects they may have both on the battlefield and in the control cabin. Kyle Grayson, Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University, has taken a slightly different approach in this volume, looking more widely at the interaction between culture, technology, the economy, government, and geostrategic elements. The book is part of the ‘Interventions’ series, which aims to examine international issues through a range of disciplines including critical, post-structural, and postcolonial approaches; this is not simply a primer on the rights and wrongs of conducting war with remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS) – or drones. Grayson’s focus is on what he describes as ‘targeted killing’, which he sees as a form of modern-day assassination from the air, an activity which has often been debated on the fringes of the western ethical tradition (p. 4). In writing the volume, he seeks to demonstrate how modern liberal societies have come to terms with targeted killing through culture, emphasising ‘the incorporation of disparate elements including the non-human, power-relations, plasticity and the importance of discourse’ (p. 199).
In his first chapter, Grayson’s approach is to examine the use of RPAS for targeted killing as primarily a cultural phenomenon, trying to understand how culture interacts with such practices in such a way that they can become ‘part of the common sense of security thinking’ (p. 200). His second chapter looks at the legal frameworks which maintain a distinction between assassination and targeted killing while expanding the legal scope of such operations. Chapter three looks at the ‘moral problematics and gender relations’ of assassination and targeted killing, arguing that the use of RPAS systems can help overcome some of the ‘narrative ambivalence’ that these relations involve (p. 201). Chapter four examines how technology alone does not explain the increased usage of RPAS. Rather, a much broader scope of ‘chaoplexic thinking, network centric imaginaries, and preferences for speed, maximising information flows, flexibility, delayered organisational forms, and automation’ help explain current trends to use such systems (p. 201). The fifth chapter focuses on what Grayson describes as the ‘aesthetic’ of killing, examining how those who authorise and those who participate in RPAS warfare experience what is taking place on their screens. In the last chapter, the author emphasises the effect that missile strikes have on the homes of those targeted, arguing that this ‘colonises places and seeks to disrupt their temporalities’ (p. 202).
Grayson concludes his work by elucidating six factors that arise from liberal political culture; issues involving the legitimacy of assassination/targeted killing, the influence of modern camera technology, the role of information technology networks, politics of gender, the use of the law, and representation of the other (pp. 202-6). In his final comments, he urges the need for modern liberal societies to continually evaluate their relationship with RPAS usage, and to critically reflect upon their political culture.
There is much in this book that is of great interest. For instance, Grayson very helpfully notices the importance of the contemporary market economy in world affairs, emphasising how much the private sector engages with defence. In Grayson’s analysis, ‘the continuing growth of the RPA industry is benefiting from a favourable constellation of politico-economic elements’ (p. 125). Alternatively, to put it another way, the unmanned aerial vehicle is an ideal fit for the current economic climate and the political ecosystem. It would have been fascinating to see even more of an interaction with current thinking on neoliberalism, such as the writing of Wendy Brown, on how the market economy has effects far beyond the market. Grayson’s observations on the ‘complex social assemblage of war’ are thought-provoking and could arguably have been pressed even further, on such subjects such as deskilling and delayering of the economy. Similarly, Grayson’s interaction with Guy Debord and the role of spectacle in society merited further attention (pp. 93-135).
Grayson’s book has the potential to ask real and meaningful questions about the use of RPAS in contemporary warfare. By offering an approach that goes beyond a basic ethical analysis, considering the wider role of culture and warfare, his work could offer real insights into the interface of weapons and worldviews. Thus, for example, his comment that ‘a disproportionate amount of applied innovation in forms of governmentality under liberalism has been directed at the margins within territory, or oriented towards its periphery […] [liberalism] has shown great brutality to those it identifies as being beyond reclamation’ (p. 206). Such considerations are worthy of serious debate and analysis, whether one agrees with Grayson’s premises or not. Many commentators such as Nicholas Carr and Neil Postman have commented on the highly visual nature of contemporary culture – Grayson’s focus on the ‘aesthetics’ of RPAS warfare has the potential to offer real insights in this field. However, a great deal of his writing is delivered in a style which, in generous terms, one would describe as technical. The general reader who wishes to avail of Grayson’s insights is obliged to hack, word by word, through a lexical jungle overgrown with the bon mots of social theory. Many of the terms such as ‘problematisation’ and ‘biopolitics’ are inadequately defined for the non-specialist, which means that reading the book can be a profoundly frustrating experience. This is unfortunate, as Grayson shows an ability to express himself clearly in portions of the book where social theory assumes a lesser role, such as when describing the interaction between the global market and the armed forces of western nations. In short, Grayson raises many useful questions, but this is a book for only the most determined reader.
The Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson is a chaplain in the Royal Air Force, initially ordained into the Church of Ireland. A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and King’s College London, he has served on a variety of RAF stations. His operational experience includes tours across Afghanistan and Iraq.
Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)