Drone-Ethics part 6

My Whole Body’s a Weapon: Milgram, Moral Buffering and the Phenomenology of Killing

Drone-Ethics part 6
Airman First Class Brandon Bryant

“The kamikaze: My body is a weapon. The drone: My weapon has no body.” (Chamayou, 2015, p.84).

Part 5 of this series explained how although drone warfare can protect drone pilots from physical harm, it cannot protect them from mental harm. This instalment of the exploration of Gregoire Chamayou’s Drone Theory will now examine in greater detail the psychological cost drone pilots experience due to the phenomenological break between location and killing engendered by drone warfare.

Weapons, the Essence of Combatants

Push a button and in another room somebody screams. Push a button and thousands of miles away somebody dies. The greater the distance between assailant and target the easier it is to kill. If, as Hegel claims, ‘The firearm is the discovery of a death that is general, indifferent and impersonal’ (p.254), then drones take this discovery to its ultimate end. For Hegel, the combatant experiences his potential for violence reflected in the weapon of his opponent: ‘Weapons are nothing else than the essential being of the combatants themselves, a being which only makes its appearance for them both reciprocally’ (p.195). So, if weapons constitute the essence of combatants, Chamayou asks, what is the essence of those who fight using Drones? Perhaps it is that of the ghost or phantom?

Moral Buffering

Certainly, Stanley Milgram, the patron saint of pain-from-afar (what is it about behaviourism and torturing defenceless rodents?) claimed that, ‘Possibly it is easier to harm a person when he is unable to observe our actions than when he can see what we are doing.’ (p.118). The drone pilot does not experience the pain and terror, shame and embarrassment of the victim; doesn’t have to look into the victim’s eyes.

In his notorious experiments, Milgram found that harming from a distance breaks the ‘phenomenological unity’ of the act. The one-sided ‘hemepelegic’ experience of pushing a button and someone being killed thousands of miles away leads to a ‘moral buffering’ effect whereupon the reality of what has been carried out takes some time to register (p.119).

Telecommuting to the War Zone

For Chamayou, this ‘telecommuting to the war zone’ leads to the the ‘industrial production of compartmentalised psyches’ (p.123). Eventually, however, the moral bandwidth increases and the reality of the act of killing catches up to the drone pilot, leading to high levels of PTSD (p.119).

Having so far highlighted the costs drone warfare presents for mainstream military personnel, part 7 in this series will explore how drone warfare undermines some of the most advantageous asymmetric tactics generally deployed by insurgent combatants.