In 2008, the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) uploaded a video of a missile strike conducted by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to youtube.com. The one minute 18 second video has 2.7 million views as of May 2013. Anyone with an internet connection can watch short, tightly edited videos that include munitions strikes resulting in death. A typical UAV video is a low-contrast dark grey video image in a small video window. The subject of the video is an incomprehensible mass of swirling pixels that vanish in a flash. For example, watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNNJJrcIa7A. An interested audience member can follow links to more videos of strangers being blown up by Predator, Reaper, and Apache helicopters. Over and over again, I can watch little rectangles dissolve in clouds of black. Devoid of narration or text, the videos are ambiguous. The formal qualities of the videos produce a sense of texture and little else. If many people thought the events of 11 September 2001 felt more like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie than real life, UAV videos are more like the peeping tom’s camera shoved in a hole in a bathroom wall that seduce the viewer to looking closer at scenes of killing.
In her description of haptic cinema, Laura U. Marks describes a way of viewing that “puts the object into question, calling on the viewer to engage in its imaginative construction. Haptic images pull the viewer close, too close to see properly, and this itself is erotic.” The pixelated textures of UAV videos obscure the gruesome imagery of people being blown to pieces. There is no blood, no body parts, no fire. Instead, the viewer sees incomprehensible shapes and textures that appear, disappear, and swirl around in a sea of grey pixels. In this seductive way, UAV strike videos pull the viewer in, face close to the screen, and seduce him or her into watching intimate scenes of horrific violence. UAV kill videos are a dirty thrill that can be accessed from the comfort of your home.
Drones operate in a curious space of both distance and proximity. The distant war is brought incredibly close to drone operators and image analysts. In a Benjaminian sense, drones are the ultimate form of mechanical reproduction. Drones bring their subjects closer but completely remove the authenticity of the subject. Benjamin calls the “aura” of movie stars the “phony spell of the commodity.” The subjects of drone strikes often have the “spell of the terrorist.” For long shifts, drone operators and image analysts watch video feeds from areas where the US government has decided there might be terrorists. The operators may observe the same family over the course of several days or weeks watching for suspicious activity or waiting for the women and children to leave before a strike is ordered. Watch the video again. How do the operators on the kill chain know what they are looking at? How do operators sort through the hours and hours of collected footage to determine with the certainty that allows them to end a life that the person they are looking at is a terrorist? The interpretation of the images is already partially determined by the controllers of the image-making technology.
The United States is engaged in multiple conflicts where the use of UAVs is, as Leon Panetta famously quipped, “the only game in town.” Much has been written and said about the use of UAVs, including investigations of the moral and legal implications of fighting wars from a distance, the benefits to United States military personnel, and, to a much lesser extent, the physical and psychological impact on drone-monitored communities. One comparison that is frequently made is that operating UAVs is like playing a video game. The implication is that UAV operators can behave like video game players and detachedly kill enemies. While the apparatus of a UAV does share similarities with a video game such as screens, buttons, and joysticks, the experience of looking is quite different.
UAV operators resist the comparison between their job and video games. Instead, they comment on the closeness they experience in the course of performing their jobs. In the New York Times, UAV operators talk about watching families for hours, getting to know their routines, and perhaps even coming to identify with them a little. In addition, UAV operators feel a sense of closeness with their deployed counterparts. UAV camera technology allows the operator to have a strong sense of being-there through visual proximity. They watch over troops. They communicate with troops on the ground during take-offs, landings, and strikes. While people on the ground have a limited view, a UAV operator appears to have unlimited visibility. From their seats in remote US locations, UAV operators appear to have access to an all-seeing eye, but instead, they actively participate in the imaginative construction of terrorists.
When you are looking for terrorists, everyone can be a terrorist. The choice to send drones to a particular place to look for particular behaviors constrains what can be apprehended by drone operators. In one particularly vivid account recounted by Gregory in his 2011 article “From a view to a kill: Drones and late modern war”, drone operators who were providing air support for ground troops identified a group of people as militants, possibly Taliban. A strike was authorized. In the aftermath, the targets turned out to be women, children, and families. Jonathan Landay (2013) utilizes US intelligence reports to sharply contrast the Obama administration’s discourse of precision with the deaths of people who were inaccurately identified as terrorists. Landay identifies the following inconsistencies of precision: groups targeted were not on a list of terrorist groups prior to the 9-11 attacks, many who are killed are unidentified individuals, approximately half of the people killed in attacks Landay reviewed were not al Qaeda but simply determined by the US military to be extremists, and finally, drone operators have difficulty making identifications when men dress similarly and openly and routinely carry weapons.
Mechanically recorded images are not mere documents; they are framed in multiple ways. Drone images are framed first by the choice of where to deploy them. The images are then framed by what the administration and military hope to find. The operators of drones are on the hunt for terrorists and therefore they find terrorists everywhere they look. Viewers are drawn into the seductive killing screen to see whatever they want to see in these mechanically produced and reproduced images of more anonymous deaths conducted by an increasingly barbaric state.
Rachael Thompson is a MA candidate in communication at University of Colorado Denver. Her research interests include media erotics and vernacular media texts. She is particularly interested in texts that cross boundaries and create discomfort.