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Issue 5

The compass of war is centered right at home.

Sanya Chandra

While aerial surveillance may hint at the future of warfare, it also hints at the future of humanity. Drones reveal how.

Why do people go to war? Is it a feeling of surrendering yourself to your country? Is it driven by necessity and socio-economic conditions? Is it a larger cause that drives you to condone and carry out violence, provided it is directed towards the ‘right’ target? Perhaps the reason cannot be boxed into a category.

Whatever be the motivation, through the conceptions of conventional war, a couple of themes remain ever-present. War distances you from you from your locale and loved ones. War puts you in danger. War puts involved parties at vulnerable proximities, oftentimes in very close contact with the enemy, it forces you to kill at close range.

With the coming of new technology, the perceived proximity with the enemy is being challenged. Let’s look at the case of the 44 day war in the area of Nagorno-Karabakh that erupted in September this year. Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to a peace deal after six weeks of conflict in the area. While the conflict has a tense history since the 1980s, the most recent spurt of violence left more than a 100 people dead. The deal, brokered by Russia, was signed on November 9. Correspondents like Robyn Dixon of The Washington Post have hailed drone warfare as the primary reason for Azerbaijan’s upper-hand in the conflict. Not only did it play an important part to help Azerbaijan gain military supremacy; the increasing use of drones in military conflict also provides a lens into the future of warfare. 

Nagorno-Karabakh has been a trigger for violence since the 1980s in light of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here, the population is ethnically Armenian while the land is inside the international boundary of Azerbaijan. In 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians declared independence. They were supported by Armenia in the war that erupted after. The altercations ended  with a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The agreement was uneasy at best, leaving about 600,000 Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts stranded away from their homes. 

Religious sentiments exacerbate historical tensions. It can be seen here as well.. The majority of Armenians are Christians whereas Muslims make up most of the Azerbaijan population. Both accuse each other of destroying temple sites among others.

It is in this context of such gradually heightened tensions that the 2020 violence has been different from all previous instances of conflict. Azerbaijan has used drones extensively to repeatedly bombard the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakertl. Conflicts build on constructing the ‘other’, an entity which is different from you either politically, ethnically, linguistically, religiously; or perhaps, on all those counts. Technology such as drones in warfare make sure that while the ideas of othering don’t change, the effects alter drastically. 

Think of what Donna Haraway calls the ‘god-trick’. This idea, simply put, is the ability to observe everywhere while being situated nowhere. This has persisted in fields of study such as history; especially that which deals with putting onus like colonialism. If you are nowhere, then you cannot possibly be blamed. Drones seem to have brought this conception to reality and warfare in a concrete way. 

The drone, or any other similar form of aerial surveillance, enables you to emulate a God figure on two counts– knowledge and visuals. It is not simply about what you can see but what you can think to see. The sights which earlier were limited to God are now seemingly perfected by man. It is of course an illusion, however, as ‘nowhere’ isn’t really possible– everything and everyone has their own politics, their own biases and their own vantage points. Therefore, three crucial aspects are ignored– partiality, situationality and locality, all hinting at the limitations of human surveillance. What the technology sees is determined by people and has a humane character to it. Therefore, it is prone to the lens, view and context of the operator. Usage of the drone then is not simply about differences in what is seen, but schisms in technology, and knowledge itself. 

This problematizes two things– first, the proximity to your target and second, who your target is. Home becomes the axis to understand the changing nature of warfare as operation of such weapons does not need presence in the battlefield. What is it then that the drone can see? Both are inherently tied to the idea of ‘rightness’ that I mentioned earlier. The basic idea is that you only kill combatants in war. They are people who are driven by the similar motives you have for their causes and their countries; and with whom you enter into an unspoken contract– it is okay for me to kill you and you to kill me. The conversation surrounding ‘right’ targets is important as harm to civilians is seen as something outside the norm for warfare. The Agence-France Presse reported that in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia had recorded 13 civilian deaths in early October. Azerbaijan had declined to report military casualties but reported 19 civilian casualties. 

In addition, the language that unmanned vehicles use is rational. It depends on abstractions and identity markers. What follows is a purely techno-strategic discourse which ignores humane aspects in pursuance of ‘targets’. People are seen as kill-able bodies through the  reinforcement of stereotypes. When the reliance is on identity markers, the trope with which drones are hailed as the future gets punctured. They can no longer bank on their precision when they deal in generalisations and result in any number of civilian casualties. Geographies of security hence move beyond the battlefield. 

Drones then cease to be simply machines of aerial surveillance and combat, but also complicate the distance-intimacy nexus. So we have a situation where the stereotypes remain, the distance increases, and the financial ease gives way. If aspects of war ever were humane, leaving it to algorithmic artificial intelligence removes that element completely. 

Sanya Chandra is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Image Credit: Pxfeul.com

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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