Vika Kirchenbauer, essay, 2014


With drones carrying missiles designed to blow up tanks and bunkers, and drone pilots operating them from air-conditioned complexes on a distant side of the globe, it has become difficult to distinguish between civilian and combatant, warzone and workplace.

The drone system is a stealthy achievement of capitalism and the nation state, a schizophrenic, yet efficient and profitable way of organising labour and warfare. It breaks up reality and lets the modern ‘combat commuter’ experience thrill and spectacle alongside the conveniences of ordinary life.

With new ways of conceptualising the soldier having been created, the drone technology leads to a de-professionalisation of war. What would be a job first reserved for combat-experienced pilots is now tasked to instructed individuals, usually in their early twenties and often without prior military service experience. Facing a shortage of ‘volunteers’—as if any kind of labour was ever ‘voluntary’ in our economic system—hiring and training of future drone operators is partially outsourced and made attractive through learn-on-the-job or home-training programmes. In times of wars orchestrated between collaborating state military entities and private companies within the federal contracting arena, the war business structurally resembles a branch of the service industry in which life and death, cost and efficiency are manoeuvred as economic values using managerial gestures.

Enjoying an unobstructed view with total safety and clarity, drone operators carry out missions considered too dull, dirty and dangerous for onboard-piloted aircraft. Between temporary legroom for recreation and off-war normalcy, the ‘combat commuters’ translate hot and unhot information into clues to obtain ‘situational awareness’.

As opposed to soldiers in field combat where war becomes a shared normal for everyone stationed, drone pilots live in an individualised split reality where contexts perpetually shift. One day they observe a building in Afghanistan, and the next day possibly perform a strike in Pakistan. Between these vastly different workdays they will leave the military base, drive back into the city, have dinner at home and sleep in their own bed, potentially maintain an affair; maybe pick up their children from sports training, or go to a local pub with their pals.

As players in the endless war, the pilot and the sensor operator each observe five screens feeding live footage from the drone’s camera, satellite images, data, and additionally infrared vision. Via radio and instant messenger, they are in contact with ground troops and employees of aeronautic companies who launch, land and maintain the drones in regions where they are deployed.

After a strike, drone operators assess the damage, and unlike fighter pilots who fly thousands of feet above their targets, they see in vivid detail what or whom they have destroyed. If their equipment enables them to clearly make out the colour of someone’s hair or the brand of shoes that they are wearing, it is indeed not an unusual event for the drone operators to see someone’s arm fly off or heads roll around; their gaze and action extend beyond the surface of bodies. While most of their time is spent observing people or buildings, sometimes for weeks on end, and analysing landscape as a container for possible danger and threat, they are used to watching the aftermath, watching someone bleed out, watching their funeral and then possibly launching another ‘Hellfire’ strike at that funeral.

In opposition to the common critique of the drone system as a distanced methodology of killing, drone pilots often state that they are not detached but rather often develop close emotional relationships to those whose lives they may eventually take. With their ‘targets’, the drone operators share a strange cohesion of everyday life and sudden death. When they closely follow their ‘targets’ daily routines, watching them eat meals with friends and family, drone pilots are much closer to them than any ground combat soldier could be.

The argument that the drone system dehumanises the ‘target’ misses the mark. In order to kill, the other needs to be dehumanised. Therefore, the problem should be framed more precisely as the act of killing itself. In fact, the task of dehumanising those whom the drone operator has observed so closely has emerged as an obstacle to the functionality of the drone system as a new mechanism of death.

Living in a reality marked by excitement and anxiety, intensity and exhaustion, the drone operators are subject to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression or suicidal ideation at a proportion similar to traditional combat aircrews. Consequently, PTSD as a condition is now rephrased as ‘moral injury’, rather than the formerly prevailing definition of ‘fear conditioning’. What is considered trauma in this case nevertheless results from a lapse between active experience and the realisation of the weight of significance of death.

A whole new professional field has since emerged for chaplains and psychologists to convince the ‘morally injured’ combat commuters that their activity in the killing business ultimately saves lives—and that those in service do a better, more skilled and less damaging job than if replaced by an inexperienced ‘newbie’. Informed by motivational language borrowed from the new economy’s workshop culture, arguments are formed to elevate the operators’ work and fill it with heroic meaning. Ideology ultimately serves as a tool to present killing to the killers in a favourable light.

In a self-congratulatory affirmation, to feel bad about killing is celebrated as a sign of moral intactness, and at its most cynical, the symptoms of PTSD are interpreted as good news and as proof of a remainder of human empathy in the not fully numb and cognitively dissonant killing machine. This feeling of guilt becomes an achievement, while the act of killing is reconciled by the killer’s burdened subconscious.

In parallel with the modern worker’s reality, overloaded with identification and commitment, the work of the drone operator bleeds into his or her personal life. Their inability to disassociate their so-called ‘virtual stress’ with the real effects on the lives of people leads a vast number of (former) pilots and sensor operators into alcoholism and drug addiction. Those are respectable and viable choices in life, yet it must be said that countless others manage to pursue such careers successfully without any detours through the killing business.



In our present moment, to cheerfully announce one’s current state of mind, one’s inclinations and location has become less a form of expression than a mode of normality. For the human condition to be present everywhere without physical presence marks a society merged with technology.

But why do we awake in shock from this nightmare of drones? Are drones significantly different, more unique or complex compared with other war technologies? Hasn’t the cognitive challenge of an image/reality split become our everyday natural task through videoconferences, smartphones and emailing? Do drones perhaps remind us of our own structural attachment to technology? Have we already become hybridised posthumans of technoscience without really noticing? Is our moral shock regarding this new mechanism of killing once again less about those killed than a moment of self-reflection for the West? Is it possible to lead a cyborg existence without physically merging with technological devices?

Technology can be regarded as value-neutral and defined only through human use. Nevertheless, technology defines the possibility of scenarios performed and conceived; we think and act through technology. Drones are tools, instruments, agents or machines, yet at the same time they open up new realms of imagining and executing military actions on a global level. This is not necessarily a shift in terms, but it definitely constitutes a shift in the way we relate to each other and ourselves.

When drone operators report having nightmares in infrared, it should be read as the operators’ merging with the drone; it unites the representational experience of reality through images with subjective perception. To dream in infrared is to have taken on the perspective and position of the drone as one’s own, to transgress the physical limitations of one’s body and to gain the perception of being able to travel through space freely.

If in a sense the drone has emerged as a way of looking over technology’s shoulder to see what the future will be, it is important to reflect on how technology works as a means of human enhancement; it increases human capabilities, making life without it inconceivable. Free will and empathy, as characteristics considered to divide humans from machines, are becoming less stable categories. Furthermore, the very idea of a cybernetic organism indeed has been replaced by that of a cybernetic system: one of dispersed brains and components in a wireless era. Implants and a shared organism between technology and human flesh are now outdated tales of the past. Drones are not to be considered a single object but rather hybrid systems distributed across the earth, including aircraft, ground control systems, data distribution terminals, satellite networks, pilots and sensor operators. Thus, the drone system is nothing less than a form of artificial intelligence that functions through the use of human and robotic components, both replaceable.

With screens described as immersive ‘drool buckets’, drone operators tend to drown in a turbulent stream of raw information. While they are overloaded with live footage, data, instant messages and radio contact it is not unusual to overlook important details, therefore making harmful decisions. The frequent failure to fulfil the simultaneous demands of absolute focus and multi-tasking emphasises the limits of the human component within the drone system.

A ‘drone strike’ is never a drone striking but a strike conducted by a pilot and a sensor operator in accordance with a ground force commander and in collaboration with the entire drone system. The misunderstanding of the drone as autonomous leads to a hysterical fallacy of understanding the drone as an undead, uncontrollable entity, oblivious to itself, yet driven by an instinct to kill. Whatever alienates us makes easy comparison to the zombie, but while drones are not factually autonomous, it is important not to ignore the human responsibility as the authority of decisions. To present the drone as a new modern monster, mindlessly meandering yet capable of lethal action, is taking fiction as a fact.

Not only since the invention of drone technologies have images begun to cover the rupture between the Western media spectators of wars and those physically experiencing armed conflict. The dualistic split between the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ has become a Western condition. The West experiences only itself as authentic, considering the rest of the world as little more than its virtual body—the provider of resource, labour and image realities imagined to make our lives easier and more entertaining at no cost.

No location is actually ‘cyber’ and nothing is ever ‘virtual’ but rather deeply real, existing through bodies within concrete political situations and spaces. To imagine a fictional space while remaining oblivious to the notion of real impact of ‘virtual action’ means dehumanising those not physically present to us.

To argue advocating the ‘honourable’ way of ‘real’ combat is misleading and smells of essentialism, bloodthirst and Abenteuerlust. To privilege the ‘authentic’ experience of killing over the ‘distanced’ experience of killing avoids the understanding of ‘virtual actions’, romanticises the idea of killing an individual with one’s bare hands at risk of one’s own life, while forgetting that the act of killing itself is the morally tricky bit, regardless of the means. Even if drones were able to make lethal decisions autonomously in the future, why does the notion of ‘human error’ make people more comfortable with the deaths of bodies declared ‘collateral damage’?



Cameras already existed in the cockpits of bomber pilots to evaluate performance; however, the use of images in modern warfare has shifted significantly. Images serve as temporary live-time carriers of truth to mirror the otherwise exported reality TV format in a role reversal play. Still, the bird’s eye perspective is present to the spectator as a military perspective, turning life and landscape into abstraction, visual patterns, cues and ornaments. Yet while bomber pilots had little knowledge concerning the extent or details of the damage caused, drone operators see a very clear picture of the effects of their actions. Unless their ‘targets’ are hidden in architecture, video material exists of everyone killed in a strike performed through a drone. After a strike, operators assess the damage as a means of efficiency control and evaluation. From the point of view of the operators, the strike itself and its analysis unite vita activa and vita contemplativa, protagonism and spectatorship, in a modern manifestation of immaterial labour that materialises through technology.

While the politics of drone warfare have established a ‘kill not capture’ policy, the execution of ‘personality strikes’ largely shifted toward ‘signature strikes’. The term ‘personality strike’ is used for strikes where the identity of the target is known and classified as that of a terrorist, whereas ‘signature strikes’ operate purely on suspicion, based on a behavioural analysis. Driving in a car, meeting with a group of men, carrying a weapon or even a phone with suspicious metadata, or maintaining personal contact with a ‘suspected militant’ all suffice as justification for a strike. The exact criteria of such categorisations remain murky, and if comparison is drawn to how racial profiling operates, there is little hope that the evaluation processes classifying someone as a terrorist are any more sophisticated than ‘male body over 15 who meets with other male bodies over 15 -> terrorist’.

The constant and threatening presence of drones ultimately works as a means of disciplining individuals to act for camera, teaching subjects under the lens the potentially deadly consequences of not modifying their behaviour for the camera, compartmentalising life, denying community and mobility altogether. Due to the frequent use of so-called ‘double tap strikes’, meaning two strikes on the same target within a timespan of only few minutes, people in regions under attack have learned not to approach the scene with humanitarian intent.

The term ‘surgical strike’, often deployed in official announcements concerning drone warfare, is supposed to suggest medical precision in the elimination of the right individual or cancerous cell from an otherwise intact global organism; a virus that would otherwise corrupt the other cells and justice would not prevail. Remarkably, the notion of a global capitalist organism is now so pervasive in the West that the ‘virus’ is considered an internal problem, and no longer portrayed as an external threat.

In infrared all people look white, and those who bleed out turn into the same colour as the ground once their heat signature cools down, blending in with the temperature of their environment. After scanning the landscape as a vessel for potentially dangerous bodies, after inserting craters into it, and watching body parts flying around, the infrared view returns the newly unhot bodies to the landscape. Outside this infrared view corpses lay still as a reminder to other subjects marked as ‘dangerous bodies or viruses’.

The drone system could be read as the resurrection of god, a new transcendental moment for the West with revival of religion in the public sphere. As god once was, the drone is now a reflection and extreme expression of the sociopolitical state of the earth. In its capacity to see while remaining unseen, and deliver death without warning, legal grounds or judgment, the drone is a morbid reflection of the global inequity of wealth and power in capitalist reality. Installed and brought to power by some in one earthly desert, it is circling overhead others in another earthly desert. At higher altitude, the drone is inaudible and invisible from the ground; however, the drone sound, a monotonous buzz, can serve as a constant reminder of the overhanging threat of sudden death when the drone is descended. Signalling both omnipresence and omnipotence, it strives to discipline into submission the earth-bound creatures who happen to be on the wrong side of the camera.

Drone technology as a weapon is the installation of an unloving god, one that does not promise immortality of the soul and could hardly be swayed with gifts and sacrifices. He offers only the preservation of one’s image as a video document, while holding anally precise views on the proper execution of rituals, fears collective potential and pathologically dislikes men in groups or in cars. Video and the analysis of movement and action are of much higher importance to him than outdated religious media like scripts or books. He rains ‘Hellfire’ missiles down at supersonic speed on the possibly guilty, and he beams down a ray of laser targeting light to guide the ground troops with what they call ‘the Light of God’.



Through drones, the powerful modern state extends surveillance to the killing of human bodies. Drone conception, fabrication, field deployment, as well as the outsourced pilot training serve as examples of national-corporate fusion. The drone programme marks the perfect marriage between capitalism and formal democracy, constituting the promise of borderless, profitable and permanent war.

Drones in their current state are nearly defenceless when attacked and they are not tailored for air-to-air combat. Their use is exclusively practical for asymmetrical wars in rural areas. This same asymmetry renders obsolete all endgame scenarios that dominated popular culture in the past. While the ‘payload’ of ‘Hellfire’ missiles with their ability to blow up tanks and attack bunkers makes them difficult to deploy in urban areas outside an official state of war, ‘collateral damage’ in rural areas does not exceed a critical point of moral wrong or ‘diplomatic embarrassment’ in the views of those who oversee their use. Clearly, not only the battles are asymmetrical; they are merely symptoms of a growing global divergence between the rich and the poor. This divergence, a result of global capitalism, is now countered only marginally with alternative imaginations of economic and social organisation.

The modern Western nation state operates with a double standard: internally it performs ‘the right to make live and let die’, while externally it embodies the more sovereign approach of ‘take life or let live’; internally, death is considered private and unavoidable, while externally it is public and potentially desirable.

While the domestic use of drones often constitutes an infringement of privacy, and frequently creates concern about air safety, the state needs an outside-of-the-constitution instance in order to declare others outlaws and kill them without trial or judgment. The drone technology eliminates geography and constitutionality as complicating factors and makes war convenient in a post-legal world.

Over the last decades we have witnessed first the manufacturing industry, and then slowly parts of the service industry relocating the material and immaterial labour to those extra-constitutional terrains beyond the reach of workers’ unions and state laws. Similar to the manufacturing or service industry, war is no longer physically located in one space alone. The drone operators as transnational, post-internet workers mirror this flow of labour in the hierarchical (if you will, asymmetrical) setup of capitalist global organisation.

Western democracies prove the ideal breeding ground for capitalism, and those constitutional terrains would be dysfunctional without the outside-of-the-nation-state, where labour and war are executed without legal boundaries. These flows of money, labour and intelligence document forms of neocolonial exchanges, while supra-legal remotely piloted aircraft transgress borders and space to control and kill illegalised bodies.



Drones are masturbatory: they resemble only a self-consuming illusion of total subjectivity, a lonesome wank in the safest place. The drone is the ultimate Peeping Tom of modern warfare. Looking at the world through drones, with no one looking back, the West—former West, Global North or whatever term is considered adequate—ultimately stares back at itself. The gaze unmet by the observed is lastly directed inwards with self-satisfactory fulfilment.

This habit of unilateral staring is a form of one-sided transparency motivated by an urge to recognise, and resembles existential crisis. With a total evaluation of the amounts of data, information and images collected being impossible and implausibly beneficial to security, reconnaissance and intelligence are the clearest symptoms of Western neurosis and paranoia, the sheer twitchiness of the manically obsessed. Our reality, not only warfare, is marked by total looking: Market research, online dating, surveillance mechanisms and war strategies have strong similarities in their motives of identifying, understanding and controlling. The idea of transparency subsequently found ways to diffuse into all realms of life.

With blind trust in the recognisable, in that which is considered understood, the strategies of war have shifted to smaller, more covert bases and operations. The Western nation state reserves for itself the privilege of secrecy while imposing transparency onto the other as an implementation of hierarchy. Transparency is not a shared condition, but a measure to obtain and consolidate power, to gain and exploit knowledge, to legitimise and delegitimise.



Many criticise the drone system for further contributing to a masculinisation of war, yet their picture of masculinity as an infinite scale remains dubious. While historically war is not a particularly gender-neutral activity, it is complicated to argue against that point without re-enforcing faulty binary gender conceptions of the peaceful female and the aggressive male.

A confused gender perspective stems from the following: Equal to ‘Reaper’ and ‘Predator’—the two most prominent US drones—which are of the MALE category (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance), the European Union is developing a drone of comparable stamina and operational height named FEMALE (Future European MALE).

While the two US MALEs do little to camouflage their use and function, the European idea behind the drone’s name remains remarkably opaque. If the FEMALE is the Future European MALE, does this suggest a total feminist takeover in Europe? If the Future European MALE will be FEMALE, is there promise for a total queering of gender on the horizon? And what does this imply for continents as stereotypically gendered entities? Do those European engineers imagine that they are reacting to ‘Reaper’ and ‘Predator’—the standard US American trigger-happy cowboys—with FEMALE, a tough yet caring social-democratic mother drone that kills passive-aggressively? Given the field we are considering, it is safe to assume blatant sexism in an infinite variety of manifestations.

Against all better judgment let us agree to anthropomorphise these drones to better imagine a worst-case scenario: FEMALE & MALE dating (assumed heterosexuality seems feasible in this case). Immediately Rae Spoon’s pop anthem ‘We Can’t Be Lovers with These Guns on Each Other’ comes to mind. The problem is: we can. What sounds absurd at first reveals itself upon critical observation as the standard situation of romantic relationships between earth-bound, late-capitalist cyborgs.

Love is a power game and the utopia of love overcoming power structures of oppression is at best a naive illusion. What ties romantic lovers together is a pact that while holding guns on each other they refrain from firing them. Each knows they can destroy the other and be destroyed by the other, so they live the classic Cold War scenario of arms race and one touch dial phone calls. At best, this type of relationship describes a more balanced situation than the asymmetrical wars of the present, although it needs to be admitted that, in love as in global politics, a ‘Cold War’ is never cold but gets very hot in other areas further away from the main focal point.

Just as in war, the knowledge about the other—or ‘intelligence’ about the other—constructs power; it is the currency that economies of love and war operate on. Nevertheless, the collection of knowledge about the other rarely extends beyond pseudo-factual proof of prior suspicion, most frequently deployed to confirm an identity already inscribed onto the other. The same way the drone pilot translates landscape into targets, potential targets and potentially hidden targets, the jealous boyfriend translates his partner’s social media account into betrayal, potential betrayal and potentially hidden betrayal. Change, fluidity, discontinuity and incoherence—if you will, freedom—in this light become enemies of the dictate of ‘understanding’. Love is surely closer to punishment and discipline than it is to liberty.

Like all heterosexual couples of ‘Medium Altitude’ class background—conscious of the glass ceiling, thus fearful of social and actual descent—MALE and FEMALE would tend to make crisis permanent as a mode of stability. They would pay Ikea an inescapable and compulsive joint visit in an attempt to solidify their mutual commitment against fundamental change, and they could hardly imagine in that moment how deeply they, in a not-so-distant future, will resent each other and their furniture. Would FEMALE and MALE with their weapons drawn be able to overcome narcissism and self-love so as to release each other into freedom? That is doubtful …

In the worst case, they would not only further reproduce their wars and conflicts, they would also reproduce themselves; although Reaper, as the offspring of Predator, should be a strong argument against all procreation, and for the end of that precise lineage in particular. Adoption (the freeganism of reproduction, as it is probably euphemised in activist circles) of abandoned drones would probably not suggest itself as a viable practice in this context either. Perhaps the only hope lies in the end of humanity, and consequently the end of its deployment of its sophisticated technological inventions. O apocalypse come forth, o apocalypse arise, o apocalypse ascend, o apocalypse come in.



In the West, the emergence of drones is the wet dream of media theorists, the raw material of critical artists and a promising career opportunity for academics, writers and intellectuals of all kinds (this piece of writing is obviously no exception). However, in the regions where those drones are deployed, they signify mostly brutality. They are not a metaphor.

For the spectators, war images of disfigured individuals make us reflect on our own lives, they make us feel physically intact, attractive and blessed. It is even possible to occupy this safe position of cynicism as mere manifestation of helplessness. On the other side of the lens, modern warfare most literally bleeds into the intimacies of people.

While here exists the possibility to poeticise the slowly vanishing heat profiles of bodies declared casualties in a politically correct manner, elsewhere the effects of drone warfare leave individuals unable to distinguish between the corpses of friends and those of livestock.

What in the West can be intellectualised as the interaction of individual and collective experiences on the dramatic level of death elsewhere actually means death.

(Originally published in Married Print #1: Infrared Dream in Times of Transparency, illustrated by Amrei Hofstätter, published by Dicey Studios)