Intervention – 'Ghosts in the Machine: Drone Warfare will Haunt the Future'

Ian Shawby Ian G. R. Shaw, University of Glasgow

How did the planet become a robotic hunting ground? The grip of a single nation over the world is a fantasy as old as empire. But in the past decade the hubris of that dream—of a global battlespace—has slowly been materializing, first as shadow, then as spectacle. While there is no single tipping point, there is certainly a moment that characterizes our imperial present: the death of Osama bin Laden, the existential bogeyman. Our watchkeepers could hardly wait to leak the bloody details of the extrajudicial raid. Walt Disney even tried to trademark “SEAL Team 6” but soon withdrew “out of deference to the Navy”. One can only speculate what Disney had in mind with such a profitable patent—cartoons, action-figures, or perhaps kids’ bedding? The next year, in 2012, the movie Act of Valor was released, starring active-duty Navy SEAL personnel: it shot to number one at the U.S. box office, despite a critical mauling. The shadow had become spectacle.

A new world map reveals its colours. The Navy SEALs flown into the Abbottabad assault, “sheep-dipped” under CIA authority, are no longer the exception to conventional warfare: they are the new normal. Consider the infrastructure that supports them. Over 1,000 military bases now ring the globe—and nobody really knows the exact number. The late Chalmers Johnson sounded the warning loudly and repeatedly. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has elected to maintain its earth-spanning network of bases: a superstructure that places tripwires everywhere, from the jungles of South America to the deserts and slums of Africa. Some of the poorest inhabitants of the planet are now under the watchful eyes of high-tech machines in the sky—a one-sided war between the destitute and the military-industrial complex grinds on. As Johnson warned, “acts committed in service to an empire but never acknowledged as such have a tendency to haunt the future” (2002: 8).

If the future will be possessed by the spectres of the past, then consider the ghosts that we are sending forwards: the phantasms of American citizens assassinated without trial and the spirits of those that were in the wrong place at the wrong time—collateral damage. The Reaper was once a scythe-carrying collector of souls. It is now a profitable unmanned aerial vehicle—a drone—that delivers Hellfire missiles (to a street near you). Drones are increasingly everywhere: Predators waging covert wars in “denied areas” of the globe, controlled from thousands of miles away in suburban America. There are at least 60 military bases integral to the maintenance of Droneworld, and in excess of 8,000 robots that are deployed within the U.S. military for reconnaissance and targeted killings.

ReaperThe term “blowback” designates the unintended consequences of secret operations that have been kept hidden from the U.S. public. But it can be imagined in a much broader sense, almost as a scientific axiom: to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every Predator that is deployed into the mountains of Pakistan, every Hellfire that liquidates flesh, every dollar that is spent on “kamikaze” drones, carries with it a cost. Not simply an actual, monetary cost (or profit!)—but an existential cost, an unstoppable Newtonian phantom that will shadow our future. Cause and effect, unavoidable cause and effect.

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We each inherit a technological past that was never ours: an artificial world that surrounds us, nourishes us, and sometimes destroys us. Since the smoky upheavals of the industrial revolution, this past been engineered, to a greater and greater extent, by machines. It is machines that help coordinate and police our social systems; it is machines that increasingly survey and eliminate other human beings.

This machinic reality is not limited to a single nation, friend or enemy. Its logic reproduces everywhere it touches. While drone-assisted warfare may have accelerated under the U.S. military and CIA, it will not be bound to these institutions. Like a travelling spore, it will mutate and reproduce, creating monstrous offspring in every corner of the globe. Again, Johnson saw this chain reaction: “Because we live in an increasingly interconnected international system, we are all, in a sense, living in a blowback world. Although the term originally applied only to the unintended consequences for Americans of American policies, there is every reason to widen its meaning” (2002: 18). We are all heirs of such existential blowback—Americans or not—unavoidable recipients of the titanic clash between life and death. In a globalized world, actions echo over land, sea and space.

The drone, as one type of machine, harbours within it a “past” trajectory, and the seeds for a particular future. And as machines lock together, they stabilize the very contours of reality. This disciplinary function does not necessarily require a “state”, a “government”, or an “ideology” to function. Authority is already situated within the field of reality itself. While Karl Marx famously discussed the “mode of production” as the organization of labour, technology, and raw materials, we can imagine a more general “mode of existence”—a regulatory, even disciplinary, organization of machines. As the materiality of the world reorganizes itself into new modes of existence, thought follows in its wake, realigning itself within emergent parameters of the possible and impossible. There is thus a pervasive solidarity between the physical, the technical, and the psychic. We live inside machines and they form our second skins.

What’s more, as such machines advance they cast off their artificial shackles to such an extent that human intervention is needed less and less. To survive, the machine colonizes and conditions its surrounding world. As it mutates and becomes, it draws in other things towards its centre of gravity: causes become effects, and effects become causes. Machines thus interlock to form a resonating “background” that patterns, or formats, the world in which we live. Reality is always the product of these generative structures—reality never exists by “itself”, and is endlessly, even ruthlessly engineered. This blue planet we call home, watched from hovering satellites from above, appears as a single entity, wrapped up in water. But it’s not. Home is wriggling with machines.

The urgent questions that we must attend to thus become: what is the “background” that drone warfare is creating, or has created? What is the “technogeographic” space that extends beyond the tips of a Predator’s wings? How is the planet—a suprasystem of machines—adapting to the shock and awe of new and violent environments?

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Johnson penned his “blowback trilogy” over the course of a decade, during which time he saw the excesses of the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan. His final book was called Nemesis—published three years before his death in 2010, and before the Obama doctrine of targeted killings crystallized for the world to see. In Greek mythology, Nemesis is the divine spirit of retribution: the goddess of revenge, punisher of hubris. Much hubris abounds today: from the billions lost in an everywhere war that sucks money out of American streets and converts it into drones, to the naive belief that humans are in control.

NemesisIf Johnson was alive today, he would no doubt connect the wreckage of extrajudicial drone strikes with the poverty-bitten American homeland—wasted opportunities piled upon wasted lives. He would see with the deployment of drones by U.S. police forces the hubris of the Predator Empire returning home, connecting the “battlefield” with the “backyard”, and the “terrorist” with the “criminal”. He would see Nemesis, walking away, having visited her revenge upon this mortal realm: delivering over to us a brave new reality—the full-spectrum dominance of life: in land, in sea, in space, in cyberspace, in mind.

Certainly, the Predator Empire is riddled with “opaque zones”: unwatched places that are hidden on the “inside” and unseen on the “outside”. But after it was recently revealed that the NSA is inside the smartphone game Angry Birds, you can’t help but sense that even the banal has become battlespace.


Johnson C (2002) Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. London: Time Warner

Johnson C (2007) Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. New York: Holt

Ian Shaw is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences. You can follow his work at his excellent website/blog, Understanding Empire.