The Sound of the Drone
James Bridle / booktwo.org
Originally published in "Dread: The Dizziness of Freedom", Valiz, 2013 http://www.valiz.nl/en/Dread
The silver bird circles in the sky, its lawnmower rasp mingling with the loud birdsong audible on the ground, and the cries of children. Two men drink coffee on a balcony: steam rises from their glasses in the sharp morning light. One waves up at the circling plane.
"We call them surveillance planes. In Gaza, they call it 'zenana'. Zenana means…. zzzzzzzzz - the voice."
A cock crows. The drone continues to circle overhead.
The contemporary, military, unmanned aerial vehicle, the drone, pioneered by Israeli defence contractors and since adopted by armed forces around the world, is seen directly by very few. When it is, it is usually glimpsed from a distance, and from below, as in the YouTube video described above, entitled "Israeli Drone over head in Gaza (Zionism/911)" and uploaded by eON3z on September 12th, 2011. It's one of surprisingly few videos that give a sense of what it's like to be under the shadow of the drone: most public footage is drawn from promotional videos, news reports, official photographs. There's plenty of footage of the drone's-eye view, looking down; the black and white landscape overlaid with crosshairs and telemetry, the patient tracking, the sudden whiteout of a "surgical" strike. Very few videos are looking up.
Noor Behram's Reaper video, to be found on Trevor Paglen's Vimeo account, captures half a minute of a distant drone, isolated against a grey sky, floating in and out of focus, its two-stroke rattle only occasionally audible over the sound of livestock and more children. After thirty seconds of wobbly cameraphone footage, the apparition and its soundtrack disappear, fading to total grey. It's unclear if the drone has been swallowed by cloud, or the camera failed. (Behram is one of the very few photographers working in Waziristan, in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), inhospitable to foreigners, journalists, and thus accessible documentation.) By contrast, "drones over Gaza - Audio + Livestream", uploaded to YouTube on the 18th of November 2012, focusses only on sound. A fixed webcam points at a Mosque. It is, according to the uploader, 5:40am; it's dark and the streets glow with lamplight. Nobody is visible, but overhead can be heard the whirring of the everpresent drone.
The 'drone' of the drone, the zenana, is not its most significant or important feature, not by a long way, but it is a useful shorthand for the dread evoked by a machine designed to pick its way unseen and untouched among overwhelmingly civilian populations, a technological prosthesis for a very 21st Century kind of warfighting, a very 21st Century kind of network.
In September 2012, the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law released a joint report entitled "Living Under Drones", a 180 page dossier and analysis of expert-gathered eyewitness accounts of the human experience of US drone actions in Pakistan. Since 2004, the CIA has been engaged in a covert war in the tribal areas of Pakistan, initially so secret that the Pakistan government agreed to take responsibility for the attacks, switching to faux-outrage and condemnation once the true situation became widely known (this process of obscuration and elision is a constant theme of drone-dread, and one we'll return to later).
In the report, the authors detail how the constant presence or anticipation of drones in the sky above Waziristan "leads to substantial levels of fear and stress in the civilian communities below." One of the key effects produced by contemporary conflict is 'anticipatory anxiety', a pervasive worry about future trauma composed of a feeling of helplessness and the belief that "[t]hey could be attacked at any time", compounded by the visual imperceptibility of the drone.
Saeed Yayha, a day labourer injured in a 2011 drone strike on a bus depot in Datta Khel, described how “I can’t sleep at night because when the drones are there … I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain, I can’t sleep. When I hear the drones making that drone sound, I just turn on the light and sit there looking at the light.”
The most common symptoms of this anticipatory anxiety include "emotional breakdowns, running indoors or hiding when drones appear above, fainting, nightmares and other intrusive thoughts, hyper startled reactions to loud noises, outbursts of anger or irritability, and loss of appetite and other physical symptoms, […] insomnia and other sleep disturbances. […] A father of three said, "drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.""
This pervasive fear is not limited to one culture: a humanitarian worker who worked in communities affected by drone strikes made the connection an active one, relating it back to the trauma inflicted upon New Yorkers: "Do you remember 9/11? Do you remember what it felt like right after? I was in New York on 9/11. I remember people crying in the streets. People were afraid about what might happen next. People didn’t know if there would be another attack. There was tension in the air. This is what it is like. It is a continuous tension, a feeling of continuous uneasiness. We are scared. You wake up with a start to every noise."
David Rohde, a New York Times journalist who spent months held hostage by Taliban fighters in FATA, saw the same symptoms in both his captors, and the civilian populations they moved among: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”
The style of war facilitated and encouraged by the drone is frequently described as remote, distant, morally disengaged. This illusion has been bolstered by popular ideas of "video game warfare", compounded by the United States Air Force's stated intention to recruit drone pilots from the ranks of dedicated computer game players, and illustrated by a series of recruitment adverts featuring UAVs. In one, a glossy liquid-chrome Reaper drone sweeps over a digitally-enhanced Martian landscape, zeroing in on a sniper position and relaying its coordinates to a squadron of augmented marines on the ground. The gloss bleeds from the screen, to reveal a contemporary, if highly stylised, battlefield, with the tagline: "It's not Science Fiction, it's what we do every day." The US military has also developed its own video games to simulate UAV combat, and installed in the Franklin Mills shopping mall in northeast Philadelphia a "U.S. Army Experience Center" featuring 60 computers and 19 XBoxes loaded with military games and recruitment material.
This public understanding, which mimics wider perceptions of the lesser value of digital experiences, found full expression in the reaction to the announcement in February of 2013 of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, a military decoration intended to be awarded to individuals who made "extraordinary achievements" in cyberwarfare or combat drone operations. (Unlike most contemporary commentators, the US military has consistently recognised "cyberspace" as a specific domain of experience and operation, alongside land, air and sea.) Outspoken public and media opposition to the medal focussed on the fact that it would be ranked above honours such as the Purple Heart, awarded to those wounded or killed while serving in the military. The organisation Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a statement that "Medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear", firmly placing technologically-mediated experience in the latter category. The medal has since been withdrawn from consideration, and replaced by a series of "devices": decorative attachments to existing awards.
Yet there is a growing body of evidence that drone pilots experience mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder - the same symptoms reported by psychologists working among the victims of drone strikes in Pakistan - at the same rate as combat pilots. Jean Lin Otto, an epidemiologist at the US Defence Department's Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, which monitors mental health trends in the military, offered one take on the results: “Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days. They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”
Such statements are mirrored firsthand by the drone pilots themselves. In a series of interviews in 2012 with Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, Brandon Bryant, a former Predator drone sensor operator, recalled a series of harrowing events which left him, after service, traumatised and unable to work. He describes turning on the infrared sensors of the plane at night, and seeing Afghan families sleeping on their roofs because of the heat. "I saw them having sex with their wives. It's two infrared spots becoming one." For a time, he dreamed in infrared. Drone pilots, who surveil their targets for days, weeks, or even months, come to know the routines of those beneath their lenses, working their fields, playing with their children, hanging out laundry.
The core functions of the drone are invulnerable sight and action at a distance: omniscience and omnipotence. In this, and particularly in their invisibility, they resemble the network in microcosm. Over great distances, networked technologies allow us to see through webcams, livestreaming cameraphones, robot avatars, satellites and remotely piloted aircraft. And they allow us to act: to think and resolve, to communicate, and to strike. But like many of our contemporary technologies they are almost impossible to apprehend: intangible, unapproachable, and thus illegible. The drones and the social web most of us encounter every day are aspects of the same network: one tuned towards openness and empathy, the other to obscuration and dissociation. But technological distance is no insulator against dread - indeed, it may facilitate it, raising us from physical to virtual beings, separating fear from the corporeal into something more affective and existential.
Technology, for all the grandiose claims made about its operation, rarely engenders truly novel behaviours; rather it enables or permits latent ones, and thus reveals them to our new, technologically augmented point of view. And this action may be active or passive: the new forms of friendship and experience quickened by online social networks emerge almost unseen from the network, adopted by their users as a natural development of social relationships. But used actively, it permits a kind of transformation of intent between different domains, from human intent to programmatic description, to digital transmission, to reification in airborne weapons systems, to craters in the ground of faraway lands. The drones are transformative in this way: their significance is not wholly in their appearance, but in how they transform the space around them; not only the physical space through which they fly, or the cyberspaces in which they also operate, but also the legal, national and diplomatic spaces which are transformed by their passage and as a result immanentise new kinds of warfare and its contiguous fears. The drones are perfected expressions of the weaponised network.
Thus, we can come to understand that dread is technologically mediated, something which can be designed and programmed. And this apparently seamless technology is all around us, in our devices, in cables under the streets and oceans, in datacentres and network access points, in satellites and the electromagnetic spectrum. Dread is an intended product of certain uses of technology; but a technology which is continuous and pervasive, that flows across the surfaces of all the networks that we - civilians on the social web, drone pilots in their satellite trucks, farmers on cellphones in the tribal villages of Pakistan - not only use, but inhabit.