Drones, John Gray, and What it Means to be Modern

In 2003 John Gray wrote a book called  ‘Al-Qaeda: On What it Means to be Modern’.  For Gray, modern refers to the idea of progress, reason, science, and the inevitability of eventual utopia. Far from improving humanity, Gray argues, these ideas are inextricably linked with the mass slaughters of the twentieth century, principally Nazism and Communism. The book, heavily praised by both the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement, wants to include Al Qaeda in this list:

“Like communism and Nazism, radical Islam is modern. Though it claims to be anti-western, it is shaped as much by western ideology as by Islamic traditions. Like Marxists and neo-liberals, radical Islamists see history as a prelude to a new world. All are convinced teat they can remake the human condition. If there is a uniquely modern myth, this is it.”[1]

And that’s not all, as large scale terrorism are apparently another modern phenomenon. As Gray writes: “Al Qaeda’s closest precursors are the revolutionary anarchists of the late nineteenth-century Europe.”[2]

What Gray is  trying to achieve by connecting the dots like this is not clear, apart from perhaps giving us yet another casualty of Enlightenment reasoning. However, I don’t want to take issue with what the book says so much as with what it leaves out. But first, a quick detour into American foreign policy.

An important detail of the ‘war on terror’ in recent years is American use of Predator Drones. As you may know, these are unmanned vehicles, remotely controlled, used to carry out assassinations and bombings with zero risk to American life.

Long in development, the first example of a lone predator drone killing a target was on November 4th 2002.[3] According to Johann Hari, the U.S. now has 12 000 robot drones carrying out 33 000 missions a year. Since 2004, the CIA have been sending Predator drones into Pakistan in America’s “most extensive assassination campaign since the Vietnam era”, killing over 600 people including hundreds of Pakistani civilians.[4] As the Brookings Institute note, this suggests around 10 civilians dead for every militant killed.

Drones are the apex of another, much darker kind of modernity that falls outside Gray’s analysis. This modernity is given it’s best elucidation in Zygmaunt Bauman’s renowned book, Modernity and the Holocaust.

Here, Bauman shows that the holocaust, while partly due to the modern ideas that Gray describes, was in fact only possible because it combined with a second type of modernity. This second modernity resides within the vast bureaucratic systems that underlie modern states. This is because, in Bauman’s view,  bureaucracies create myriad ways of distancing actors from the outcomes of their actions, creating the capacity for highly rationalized, efficient, organized action, despite taking place in a moral black hole. Outlining this idea, he writes:

“We need to take stock of the evidence that the civilizing process is, among other things, a process of divesting the use and deployment of violence from moral calculus, and of emancipating the desiderata of rationality from inference of ethical norms of moral inhibitions.”[5]

In Bauman’s view, when a civilization can successfully divest it’s actions from the obvious moral consequences – as bureaucracies do in a variety of ways – the chance of ordinary people taking part in horrific violence will increase. This illustrates why Gray is wrong to limit his analysis to modernity as an idea. While it’s hard to imagine that the CIA are utopians, the predator drones are disastrously modern in precisely the second sense. This is because, by keeping the ‘cubicle warriors’ who fly the planes at such a distance (miles away, behind a screen) from their actions, the morality of their actions can be suitably ignored.

This comes across in the literature. In the New Yorker, Jane Meyer found that, across a human screen: “Human being running for cover are such a common sight that they have inspired a slang term: “squirters”….“Nearly all the victims have remained faceless, and the damage caused by the bombings has remained unseen. In contrast to Gaza, where the targeted killing of Hamas fighters by the Israeli military has been extensively documented – making clear that the collateral damage, and the loss of civilian life, can be severe…”[6]

P. W. Singer, author of Wired for War interviewed a number of pilots, getting unsurprisingly disengaged responses, such as: “It’s like a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool.”[7] As Royakkers and van Est note: “The depersonalization of war by dehumanizing the enemy leads to a loss of locus of control orientations of cubicle warriors, and therefore to moral disengagement of cubicle warriors…this disengagement also limits, or even eliminates, proper reflection among cubicle warriors on the life-and-death decisions they make.”[8]

This all contributes to the perpetuation of the destruction, as there is little incentive to stop. In Bauman’s words: “Dehumanized objects cannot possibly possess a ‘cause’, much less a ‘just’ one; they have no ‘interests’ to be considered, indeed no claim to subjectivity. Human objects become there a ‘nuisance factor’.”[9] When this happens, killing can become a matter of simple extermination.  This may then trickle down to the populations of the concerned countries, as American or British people are seldom confronted with the reality of drone strikes, and the perpetrators have little incentive to speak up.

Bauman shows us how important modern institutions are, as opposed to modern ideas. While Gray makes it clear that these ideas can wreak incredible havoc, looking at both ideas and structures in the war on terror shows how important a composite approach is. Already, the technology is lethal in the hands of the present administration. What might happen should a more extreme, or perhaps more ‘modern’, administration come to power is almost too distressing to imagine.


[1] Gray, John Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern (2003) Faber and Faber, pp. 3

[2] ibid. pp. 2

[3] Yenne, Bill Attack of the Drones: a history of unmanned aerial combat (2004) Zenith Press

[4] Williams, Brian Glyn The CIA’s Covert Predator Drone War in Pakistan, 2004-2010: The History of an Assassination Campaign (2010) Studies in Conflict and Terrorism Issues, vol. 33, pp. 871-892, pp. 872

[5] Bauman, Z Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) Polity Press pp. 28

[6] Mayer, Jane The Predator War: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program? The New Yorker, October 26, 2009, pp. 36-45, pp. 40

[7] Singer, Wired for War (2009) pp. 308-309, brought to my attention in source quoted in n. 6

[8] Royakkers, L, van Est, R The cubicle warrior: the marionette of digitalized warfare (2010) The Journal of Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 12, No. 3 pp. 289-296, pp. 295

[9] Ibid. 103

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