The phenomenology of a drone strike

Nasser Hussain writes: Let us then take a closer look at the visual regime of the drone. Let us see what a drone sees (and what it does not). Here is a representative clip, chosen more or less randomly from the many available online.

While many commentators worry about the “video-game style warfare” of such footage, the comparison is both exaggerated and inapt. Contrary to drone footage, video games offer a deeply immersive environment in which at least the player’s virtual life is at stake. Perhaps what fuels the comparison of drone footage to video games is the aura of detachment they share. The worry is that detachment eases the ability to kill.

In his study On Killing, Dave Grossman, a colonel in the military, argues persuasively for a correlation between distance and the ease of killing.

On the one hand, the video feed of drone footage transmitted to a distant location, precisely fits Grossman’s maximum range category: “a range at which the killer is unable to perceive his individual victims without using some form of mechanical assistance—binoculars, radar, periscope, remote TV camera, and so on.” At this distance, Grossman reports, “I have not found a single instance of individuals who have refused to kill the enemy under these circumstances, nor have I found a singe instance of psychiatric trauma associated with this type of killing.” On the other hand, the drone’s ability to zoom in to a sight line just a few hundred feet above the ground produces images of startling intimacy. In the end, we should be less concerned with how the mediation of the drone’s camera increases or decreases the pilot’s willingness to fire—since that decision is dispersed along a complex chain of command, referred to in military circles as the “kill chain”—than with how the purely visual quality reinforces certain conditions of control and asymmetric violence.

Looking at the clip again, one element is obviously missing: sound. Although the pilots can hear ground commands, there is no microphone equivalent to the micro-scopic gaze of the drone’s camera. This mute world of dumb figures moving about on a screen has particular consequences for how we experience the image. As Michel Chion notes in The Voice in Cinema, although sound or voice is easily swallowed up by the image, it nonetheless structures the image: “only the creators of a film’s sound — recordist, sound effects person, mixer, director — know that if you alter or remove these sounds, the image is no longer the same.” In the case of the drone strike footage, the lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.

The camera angle is always the same: the overhead shot. By definition, the overhead shot excludes the shot/reverse shot, the series of frontal angles and edits that make up face-to-face dialogue. With the overhead shot, there is no possibility of returning the gaze. The overhead shot neither invites nor permits participation in its visual economy. It is the filmic cognate of asymmetric war.

Asymmetric war is typically a conflict between a regular army and a guerilla force, but could describe any conflict in which one side cannot retaliate in kind. [Continue reading…]

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