#BookReview – Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence

#BookReview – Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence

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.

Cultural-Politics-of-Targeted-Killing-cover

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.

Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System
A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

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)

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Society and #highintensitywar

Society and #highintensitywar

By the Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, the Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson discusses the relationship between society, political culture, and military sacrifice.

In his thoughtful account of the closing days of the Second World War, Max Hastings argues that the character of the conflict in western Europe was determined by the character of the western democracies themselves. The armies of Britain, America and their associates, he suggests, may have lacked the ruthless military prowess and determination of the German and Soviet forces, but ‘fought as bravely and well as any democracy could ask, if the values of civilisation were to be retained in their ranks’[1]. When Churchill and Roosevelt invoked ‘Christian Civilization’ as the grand cause worthy of sacrifice, they were not so much making a religious statement as appealing to a shared sense of identity which they expected their listeners to understand and relate to.  Seventy-five years later, it is by no means evident that this shared identity still holds. In this series articles published by From Balloons to Drones and The Central Blue considering the possibility of high-intensity war in the future, it is worth pausing to reflect on this relationship between political culture and military sacrifice, and some of its implications.

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Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference, c. January 1943. (Source: © IWM (A 14063))

As peace returned to the shattered remains of Europe in 1945, some positive developments followed in its wake. West of the Oder, at least, liberal democracy seemed to strike deeper roots than ever before, going hand in hand with a prosperity that followed a solid upward trajectory. Across the Atlantic, America abandoned isolationism and committed itself to be both the guardian and bankroller of freedom. The only primary rival in town, Marxist-Leninism, was seen off the stage after 1990 – it seemed as if the liberal democratic steamroller would flatten a global path for economic and personal freedom. However, all was not quite as it seemed.

Before considering just how the course of history unravelled after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is useful to lay out – with a very broad brush – some of the presuppositions that had driven western society up to this point. From the Fall of Rome until the Enlightenment, religious horizons essentially bounded the world, symbolised most powerfully by the Holy Roman Emperor kneeling in the snow at Canossa. Architecture, art, and music all reflected this human concern about relating to the divine. Come the Enlightenment; the focus changed to working out what kind of world humans could create for themselves, relying on their unfettered reason and empirical discoveries. This was the age of science and developing democracy, which held out a dream of unending human progress. The waves of devastation which swept across Europe twice in the first half of the twentieth century cruelly mocked any such hopes. The last spasms of Enlightenment optimism at least gave birth to the liberal democratic project which seemed to triumph – and had been worth making sacrifices for.

However, the liberal democratic project rested on increasingly shaky foundations. Premodern people could find their certainties in religious truth. Enthusiasts for the Enlightenment could base their philosophy on a confidence that the truth was out there for any rational person to discover. Although these two views were divergent in almost every respect, they had this in common – a belief in a transcendent universe which provided a framework for understanding the place of human beings in the world.[2] As James Davison Hunter expresses it, there was a ‘common grammar for recognising the natural affections and moral sentiments shared by all humanity…the seeds of social solidarity could be found in human sentiments, the public good within private interests, the universal within the individual’[3]. This is precisely the transcendent worldview assumed by Churchill and Roosevelt in 1945. One of the tragic ironies of recent history is that, just as the liberal democratic project appeared to triumph, its internal coherence began to dissolve.

To put it crudely, liberal democracy bifurcated into liberal and democratic elements. Regarding liberalism, this was not the classic liberalism that Adam Smith would have recognised. Instead, it is something new – neoliberalism. The underlying assumption behind this concept is that the market is sovereign – and not merely over economic issues. Based on the theory of Friedrich Hayek, nothing has a given and immutable value – even those aspects of human significance and meaning that previous generations would have treated as normative. Objective truth is no longer ‘out there’ to be revealed or reasoned out but is determined by what the market will bear. As Stephen Metcalf points out, the old political processes of public reason – debate and thoughtful argument –  are incongruent with this process, as in market terms they are simply opinions. What happens instead is that the public square ‘ceases to be a space for deliberation, and becomes a market in clicks, likes and retweets’[4]. There is no longer a shared, transcendent mise en scène for human existence. Virtues have transformed into values – individually held and formulated – but of no binding or enduring significance.

Regarding democracy, the individual now has an unprecedented status. Once seen in relation to divinity or wider society, human beings are now increasingly regarded as sovereign agents. As the public sphere has become eviscerated of a shared cultural story, the individual is now free to decide his or her path through life.  Alternatively, so the theory goes. Jackson Lears expresses it like this – ‘redefined as human capital, each person becomes a little firm with assets, debts, and a credit score anxiously scrutinised for signs of success or failure’[5]. The individual may be freer to choose than ever before, but also carries an increasingly heavy burden for their destiny. Lacking the safeguards of a benevolent Providence – or a paternalistic society – the individual must shift for themselves. The mantra that every schoolchild knows so well – ‘follow your dreams and you can achieve whatever you want’ has a darker side that few if any primary school assemblies ever spell out. Failure to achieve those dreams or ambitions will be your responsibility alone. In such a culture, the individual faces an unrelenting pressure to boost their own image and status above all else. For example, an intriguing textual analysis of Norway’s main national newspaper between 1984 and 2005 revealed that as the occurrence of self-referencing words such as ‘I’ and ‘my’ increased, instances of other-focused concepts such as ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ declined[6].

What, if anything, does all this have to do with high-intensity warfare in the twenty-first century? Going back to where we began, the armies which liberated western Europe in 1945 did so against a broadly shared cultural outlook. Britannia, Marianne, and Columbia are hardly identical sisters, but bequeathed a remarkably similar legacy of shared understanding to their descendants – and the freedoms for which they gave their lives had a transcendent quality. This situation, it may be argued, no longer obtains. Evidence for this can be seen in a wide variety of forms, from Allan Bloom’s analysis of education to Robert Putnam’s influential work on the decline of social cohesion in late twentieth century America[7].  As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes, ‘the individual has been taken out of a rich community life and now enters instead into a series of mobile, changing, revocable associations’[8]. With his or her small stock of human capital, each person makes their way through life via a series of short-term contracts, which run the gamut of human existence from car insurance to employment. What matters most is the utilitarian and the instrumental – an epistemic ecology where traditional concepts such as humility, duty and sacrifice seem anachronistic surds. Moreover, as analysts of our neoliberal world have suggested, the promised blessings of prosperity and success have not trickled down universally, leading to a considerable degree of cynicism about public life – from fake news to the political establishment. This is not a development which augurs well for a strong common existence. If citizens withdraw from political and civic engagement into a private sphere of personal fulfilment, as Larry Siedentop remarks, liberal freedoms are at risk[9].

PUMA SQUADRON MARKS 100 YEARS
An RAF Puma deploying flares whilst on Operation TORAL in Afghanistan, c. 2016. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

One of the founding principles of modern democracy is that the individual citizen surrenders certain freedoms and benefits to the state in exchange for protection and stability. This relationship is perhaps seen in its starkest form when a nation sends its citizens to war. In the post-2001 operations, when the legitimacy of the campaigns was subject to intense public scrutiny, this affected the commemoration of those citizens who had given their lives. As Sandra Walklate, K.N. Jenkings and others have observed, repatriation ceremonies became ‘deeply political acts’ protesting against military action, where those who died were remembered as victims of government policy[10]. Anthony King, in his analysis of the obituaries of British service personnel, comments that the death of soldiers is not seen so much as an act of service for the nation as ‘the meaningful expression of a man who defined himself by his profession’[11]. If the individual is indeed a small firm with a limited stock of human capital, a strong relationship of trust between citizen and society is vital should the citizen be required to sacrifice that capital for a bigger purpose.

Moreover, this is the nub of the argument. As Alexis de Tocqueville saw some two centuries ago, a society which favours atomism and instrumentalism undermines the very freedoms which it cherishes.[12] Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the freedoms that the western world enjoys have primarily been sustained without significant periods of high-intensity conflict – and the associated heavy demands of blood and treasure. Future military operations may not follow this pattern, and free nations may have to pay a large price for such nebulous terms as liberty and democracy. A worldview furnished from the moral stockroom of utilitarian instrumentalism will offer little strength in such circumstances. To quote Taylor again, ‘high standards need strong sources’ – a stripped down public square does not provide the wherewithal to sustain a deep understanding of human meaning and purpose.[13] Churchill and Roosevelt saw the battle that they were engaged in as something more than a struggle over resources and the possession of territory.

Alternatively, in other words, they understood the need for spiritual resilience – an awareness that human existence cannot be reduced to a profit and loss transaction. The free society which values the individual did not arise from an instrumentalist worldview – indeed Siedentop has recently published a fascinating volume which explicitly traces the development of modern liberal equality right back to Christian thinkers in the middle ages.[14] One does not need to share the faith of these scholars to appreciate their insights. Perhaps it is time to pause in our pursuit of relentless individualism to consider the bigger truths of the world to which we belong. Davison Hunter remarks that our current cultural trajectory is likely set to bend us away from the very concepts of justice, freedom, and tolerance that we treasure. Before we are called upon to defend these convictions in intensive conflict, it is undoubtedly worth reflecting on why they are worth defending in the first place.

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: Stretcher bearers of the Red Crescent evacuate a civilian casualty in Basra during Operation TELIC. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (OP-TELIC 03-010-37-091))

[1] Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-45 (London: Macmillan, 2004) p. 588.

[2] James Davison Hunter, ‘Liberal Democracy and the Unravelling of the Enlightenment Project,’ The Hedgehog Review, 19:3 (2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stephen Metcalf, ‘Neoliberalism – the idea that swallowed the world,’ The Guardian, 18 August 2017.

[5] Jackson Lears, ‘The long con of Neoliberalism,’ The Hedgehog Review, 19:3 (2017).

[6] Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic (New York, NY: Free Press, 2010), p. 264.

[7] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (London: Penguin, 1987); Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York, NY: Touchstone, 2000).

[8] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 502.

[9] Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual (London: Penguin, 2014), p. 363.

[10] Sandra Walklate, Gabe Mythen and Ross McGarry, ‘Witnessing Wootton Bassett; An Exploration in Cultural Victimology,’ Crime, Media and Culture, 7:2 (2011), pp. 149-65. K.N. Jenkings, N. Megoran, R. Woodward and D. Bos, ‘Wootton Bassett and the political spaces of remembrance and mourning,’ Area, 44:3 (2012), pp. 356-63.

[11] Anthony King, ‘The Afghan War and ‘postmodern’ memory: commemoration and the dead of Helmand’, The British Journal of Sociology, 61:1 (2010), pp. 1-25.

[12] Quoted in Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 502.

[13] Ibid., p. 516.

[14] Siedentop, Inventing the Individual.