Derek Gregory argues that the logics underlying modern drone warfare can be traced back to the Second Indochina war (as well as World War II). The ‘distancing’ and ‘detachment’ associated with modern unmanned aerial vehicles is not so different from bomber pilots sat thousands of feet in the air. If anything, the intimacy of seeing people blown to pieces means that traditional bombing is more detached that the ‘video-game-esque’ logic of drones.
One more clear evolution is the shift from widely inaccurate and poorly marked ‘kill boxes’ and other geometric targets, to individuals and ‘patterns of life’.
Crucial elements of today’s ‘drone wars’ were assembled during the US bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s and early 70s. A key transition from deliberate to dynamic targeting, from fixed to fleeting targets, comes into clear view during that war, and I will show that this not only reinforced the power of abstraction that animated bombing in the Second World War but also introduced elements that prepared for late modern war in the global borderlands. There were three crucial but largely separate innovations: remotely piloted aircraft; real-time visual surveillance; and a networked sensor-shooter system. When these were subsequently integrated into the late modern military assemblage the targeting process incorporated two core practices, a (conditional) visual intimacy and a (limited) normative armature
He concludes by calling for more nuanced understandings of ‘how’ the kill-chain operates
Our understanding of bombing has been dominated by political and military historians who focus on strategy and social historians who recover the experiences of those who were bombed. These are vital contributions, but the gap between the two – the kill-chain – is too important to be left to buffs and geeks. Too often, focusing on strategy can make air war seem as clinical as its ‘progressive’ proponents proclaimed, and yet by the time we crouch under the bombs and give voice to the victims it is too late. We need to understand not only why the thing was done and with what consequences, but also how.
In short, I think it is a mistake to turn distance into a moral absolute. Pilots and crews in Nevada are 7,000 miles from their targets, but is this experientially any more remote than the B-52 crews flying from Guam to bomb targets five miles below them in South Vietnam? If distance is the issue (and I’m not sure that it is) at what point does wartime killing become acceptable? In posing these questions I don’t mean to say that nothing has changed since Vietnam either: Predators and Reapers do not carpet bomb whole landscapes. To be sure, many writers have drawn parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan – and, again, there are differences too – but if Vietnam was a quagmire then Afghanistan-Pakistan threatens to become a vortex. If the battle space is now global, and if the United States claims the right to use lethal force against its enemies wherever it finds them, then what happens when other states claim the same right? And when non-state actors possess their own remotely piloted aircraft?