Book Review Symposium – Katherine Chandler’s “Unmanning: How Humans, Machines and Media Perform Drone Warfare”

Kate Chandler’s book Unmanning: How Humans, Machines and Media Perform Drone Warfare (Rutgers University Press, 2020) charts a genealogy of experimental pilotless planes flown between 1936 and 1992 across two major periods of development: from drones as targets/target planes in the early 20th century, to the “unmanned” targeting systems that facilitate contemporary weaponised networked warfare (i.e. from pilotless aircraft to guided bomb). Through examining the failures and contingencies of drone aircraft linked to air power in WWII, Cold War reconnaissance, and counter-terrorism responses in Vietnam and Lebanon, Chandler’s account shatters assumptions about drone aircraft as a rational and inevitable outcome of technical development or response to the “Global War on Terror”. On the contrary, Chandler’s “prehistory” of unmanned platforms places contemporary targeted killing in an earlier series of failed experiments to develop unmanned flight. The book pays careful attention to the strategic disavowal of the human figure and human action within these unmanned aerial systems: characteristics often attributed to the drone – including machine-like control, enmity, and remoteness – are achieved by disavowing the imbrications of human and machine that shape the mediated theatre of war. By foregrounding how drone aircraft constantly fail and crash – every mounting of these systems constantly culminates in failures, mishaps, collapse, corruption – Chandler deftly shows the vicissitudes of the ideological project of “unmanning” – how it has continually fallen apart and been put back together again and justified as “progress” by human intervention. The book’s demystifying of unmanning shows that the quest for the drone as an apolitical self-automated machine reproduces asymmetrical power relations and legitimates a calculus that, on the one hand, claims technological invulnerability as a political legacy and right of American empire/exceptionalism, and on the other, disseminates arbitrary, imminent violence and death as its necro-geopolitical purpose.

This book review symposium gathers commentary from three scholars – Alison Williams, Craig Jones, and Geoff Boyce – each of whom engages with distinct yet overlapping conceptual and empirical contributions of Unmanning. Williams reflects on “disruption” and the messy multiplicities of unplanned/unexpected “aftermaths” of drone projects; Jones takes up the book’s refusal of history as teleology by expanding on drone strike failure in terms of “corruption” and “secrecy”; Boyce further situates drone technology within the broader dimensions of US counterinsurgent practice, the legal architecture that ensures impunity, and public obfuscation. Closing out the forum, Kate Chandler responds to the reviews assembled here by contextualising the methodology and reflecting on the arc of the book from a 2002 protest to the 2020 pandemic. In my introduction, I share a vignette that reintroduces unmanning in the context of eagle anti-drone defence, followed by a brief overview of the content of Chandler’s book and several signal contributions.

Shiloh Krupar
March 2022

Introduction – Shiloh Krupar (Georgetown University)

Commentary 1 – Alison Williams (Newcastle University)

Commentary 2 – Craig Jones (Newcastle University)

Commentary 3 – Geoff Boyce (Earlham College)

Author’s Response – Katherine Chandler (Georgetown University)