"Black Drone Down": The Anti-Pathos Nature of Remote Warfare

Special for Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen Soldiers: Guy Cohen in a column on the riskless warfare presented to the IDF by the use of drones, and the de-glorification of war it creates

Drones have become the face of modern warfare. They enjoy political backing and they are lynch-pins of a variety of national security strategies in the west and poster-boys for civil-liberties groups.

The use of UAVs for reconnaissance missions and ground strikes by Israel has demonstrated the IDF's relative success in minimizing casualties among its own troops. When it comes to politicians, there is minimal risk involved of a backlash from the war weary general public. Pilots now need not die, be taken captive, or be paraded across the world media.

Behind the legal, ethical and political issues thrown up by the use of drones, the "targeted preventions" from the days of the Second Intifada springs to mind, there is an avant-garde enthusiasm for remote warfare as an aesthetic gesture - a celebration of accelerating influx of technology. Drones - a hallmark of high-tech weaponry - do not require pilots to display the courage that has traditionally encouraged people to romanticize war.

Pilot is an interesting word choice for a drone operator. Pilot is seemingly redefined, if not devalued, by its inflationary use in the last few years of drone warfare. Israel's ultimate pilot, arguably, is Brigadier General Iftach Spector. He is an Israel Air Force (IAF) living legend credited with 12 air-kills and over 40 sorties under the SAM threat during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He was one of the eight Israeli pilots who attacked Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and the acclaimed author of Loud and Clear: The Memoir of an Israeli Fighter Pilot. For a great many Israelis it is hard to resist the excitement and melancholy of the seriousness of the era Spector describes.

While our image of aerial combat might still be the "dogfight", the risks have long since changed. Technology has gradually shaped participants and rid Israeli society from the uncertainties and ambiguities of the experiences of "real" pilots in the battlefield. A drone pilot is distanced from reality. In fact, remote warfare technology conflates tactical and strategic effectiveness with a new poetic principle: "an ironic alienation from war", to borrow the expression from Christopher Coker, the British logician of war and foreign policy. 

The rapid expansion of UAV operations, from surgical strikes and intelligence gathering to border patrols, shows us not only the intense multi-tasked involvement of UAV "pilots" in today's battlefields. Rather how they determine an outcome without any exposure to physical risk – albeit with highlighting the recrimination and stress they must inevitably feel. All this has changed our understanding of the term "pilot" with regard to individual and collective experience.

Compared with the risks that fighter-jet pilots faced, the responsibilities of piloting UAVs, staring at video feeds for days, rotating shifts and adapting to additional workload from a variety of commanders within the IDF, seem less dangerous to us because the pilot is not physically present in the battlefield. It is a point proven by the contrast between the crash of a self-propelled Skylark 1 reconnaissance drone in southern Gaza Strip in March and navigator Capt. Ron Arad's downed Phantom jet over the phonetically forgotten Lebanese city of Sidon in October 1986. Indeed, the iconic operation by Cobra pilots Major Asaf and Capt. Abraham to rescue Arad's co-pilot, Capt. Yishai Aviram who hung on to bar connecting the Cobra's rescue skid amid enemy fire, amplifies this contrast further.

The poetics of this riskless warfare represents a de-glorification of war. This is not surprising - considering the horrors of real war. Yet it has simultaneously affected our concept of risk by propagating the idea of battlefields where human qualities such as survival, courage, fear and more crucially moral judgment, however subjective this latter quality might be, are increasingly excluded from our individual and collective consciousness.

It is precisely the lack of pathos in piloting UAVs operations that has trampled on the utility of "pilot". In order to ever stir sentimental and nostalgic feelings which will stifle future generations, "Memoirs of a Melancholic Drone Pilot" would have to be a tour de force reminiscent of James Joyce’s Ulysses, involving hours of video stream analysis.

Guy Cohen is a Compliance Analyst at ELIEL Security Technologies, based in Munich, Germany.

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