Sinister Automatons

‘Before they were blind, deaf and dumb,’ exults Mark Maybury, chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force. ‘Now we’re beginning to make them to see, hear and sense.’

We know that rhetoric.

‘I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter!’ boasts Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s great gothic novel.

Yet Maybury’s automatons are innately more sinister than Frankenstein’s, since, unlike his creature, they were explicitly designed to kill. In the border areas of Pakistan, drones – yes, that’s what he’s talking about – circle all day and all night at 1500 metres, terrifying the entire population before, every so often, turning large numbers of innocents into bone fragments and puddles of flesh. According to a much-cited report compiled by Stanford and New York Universities, barely 2 percent of their victims could be identified as ‘militants’ (whatever that means) – the rest just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Drones have been hailed as an evolutionary step in warfare, offering a way to pursue unpopular conflicts without the western casualties that spurred opposition to the Iraq debacle.

But Frankenstein is not a novel of scientific success. It’s a book about rebellion. And if we look more closely, it raises intriguing possibilities for the future of mechanised war.

Frankenstein’s literary longevity stems partly from Shelley’s acute sensitivity to the social contradictions embodied in scientific advancement. As David McNally notes in his fascinating Monsters of the Market, Victor Frankenstein constructs his creature from parts taken from the dissecting room; he animates it by the application of ‘galvanic force’ or electricity. In this, Shelley drew upon a number of widely publicised real life experiments. A few decades earlier, for instance, Luigi Galvini had showed that electric currents would cause newly dead animals to twitch; his nephew, Luigi Aldini, extended the principle to humans.

But the most sensational example of galvanic reanimation took place the very year of Frankenstein’s publication. In 1820, a certain Professor Andrew Ure delivered a paper at the Glasgow Literary Society. Entitled ‘An account of some Experiments made on the Body of a Criminal immediately after Execution, with Physiological and Practical Observations’, it chronicled the remarkable results achieved when Ure attached his ‘philosophical apparatus’ (a large battery) to the partially disassembled cadaver of a certain Matthew Clydesdale, an executed criminal.

[Fifty shocks, each greater than the preceding one, were given in two seconds,’ Ure explained, ‘[and] every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face, surpassing far the wildest representation of a Fuseli or a Kean. At this period, several of the spectators were forces to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.’

When, upon the further application of the apparatus, Clydesdale’s arm extended convulsively, several spectators were convinced the dead man had been re-animated.

Of course, he hadn’t. Unlike Mark Maybury, Ure could not claim to given sensation to lifeless matter. Yet it would be wrong to call the Professor’s experiments a failure. In another sense, Ure succeeded – and the Predator drone can be understood as a distant consequence.

To understand how, we must remember that Clydesdale had been executed. With the rise of capitalism, and the corresponding destruction of rural self-sufficiency, the authorities sought to integrate an impoverished populace into the discipline of the factory through a harshly punitive legal code.

Early modernity was, you might say, a Golden Age for executioners – and, as a result, a boom time for anatomists. That is, Clydesdale arrived on Ure’s slab because the Glasgow court that imposed a capital sentence also stipulated that he’d be dissected.

The grisly display of state power upon the bodies of malefactors might seem grotesque but similarly gruesome practices still take place on the system’s fringes today. We know, for instance, that today’s drone technicians refer to their targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and in ‘failed states’ like Yemen and Somalia, as ‘bug splat’, since it’s that to which Hellfire missiles reduce them. In the Stanford/ NYU study, a man called Ejaz Ahmad discusses what happened to his uncle and others after a strike on a village gathering.

‘The bodies were completely destroyed,’ he says. ‘All we could retrieve was the torso and upwards.’

In the early nineteenth century, the poor, as much as the rich, knew what so-called ‘punitive anatomy’ meant: the fusion of naked class power with the new science of the rising bourgeois, ostentatiously demonstrated on the bodies of law breakers.

‘A threat … has been eliminated,’ writes McNally of one such anatomical performance, ‘a transgressor ripped to pieces. In the process, the body politic has been symbolically reaffirmed, social order restored.’

Furthermore, it was not coincidental that, in life, Clydesdale had been a weaver.

Weaving was a skilled trade; its practitioners possessed a certain confidence to assert themselves against their employers. By 1818, the year of Ure’s researches, the General Association of Operative Weavers had already been declared illegal. But that didn’t suppress their agitation. Scottish weavers led the insurrection of 1820, calling upon their fellow workers ‘to desist from their labour from and after this day … and attend wholly to the recovery of their Rights’.

Their revolt was crushed; its leaders (all weavers) were publicly executed and then ritually dismembered — ostentatiously transformed, you might say, into ‘bugsplat’.

At his literary presentation, Ure described Clydesdale as a ‘middle sized, athletic and extremely muscular man, about thirty years of age’, an assessment in which we can perhaps detect a note of class fear.

Yet it was precisely that anxiety that the experiment seemed to quell. With his ‘philosophical apparatus’, Ure discovered he could, at least for a time, control this muscular body. ‘The fingers now moved nimbly,’ he noted, ‘like those of a violin performer …’

The professor thus made a dead weaver bend to his will in a fashion that the Scottish industrialists were manifestly unable to achieve with Clydesdale’s living comrades.

Galvanisation itself might have proved a failure, but the possibility that science might transform recalcitrant workers into obedient automatons remained alluring.

Ure simply needed a new method – and, by 1835, he’d discovered it.

That year, he published the book for which he’s probably best known, The Philosophy of Manufactures. In it, Ure argues that that technology provides industrialists with a crucial weapon against their employees, since ‘when capital enlists science into her service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility.’

Machines, he realised, broke down the artisanal skills that gave workers independence.

‘The principle of the factory system then is to substitute mechanical science for hand skill, and the partition of a process into its essential constituents, for the division or graduation of labour among artisans.’

In Capital, Marx quotes Ure repeatedly, hailing his work as ‘the classical expression of the spirit of the factory.’

That’s because what’s crucial for Ure is not the technology as such but the social relations in which it lies embedded. The machine itself is a metonym for the factory, which, Ure says, should be understood as a ‘vast automaton, composed of various mechanical and intellectual organs, acting in an uninterrupted concert for the production of a common object, all of them being subordinated to a self-regulating moving force.’

It’s an image of the entire workforce recast as Clydesdale’s corpse, labouring as directed by the galvanic power of the owner. Ure is the original Dr Frankenstein, and drone warfare represents the most recent extensions of his principles.

Clausewitz, the original theorist of modern war, suggested that, in some respects, an army should be understood mechanically. Yet, unfortunately, it remained a machine made of people, and thus could not be analysed on an entirely mechanistic basis, without the generals taking into account ‘the chain of human weakness’.

Much military training then, is explicitly designed to overcome the human contribution to what Clausewitz called ‘friction’. As the philosopher Glenn Grey noted of his own experiences in the Second World War, ‘it is astonishing how much of the business of warfare can be carried on by men who act as automatons, behaving as mechanically as the machines they operate’.

That’s why parade manoeuvres, originally designed to maximise the effectiveness of musket fire, continue in the modern era, because ceaseless repetition accustomed men to behave predictably, despite the smoke and stress of combat. Even today, military training seeks to break down recruits’ individuality and then reconstitute them to function in predetermined roles.

As former Army Ranger Stan Goff explained in an interview for my book Killing a few years ago, the modern military functions very much like a modern business.

‘The infantry is factory work,’ he said. ‘It’s completely Taylorised. There’s a soldier’s manual, and it tells you how to do every single task in your job. […] Technology just makes it more and more mechanised, since often the main thing you do is maintenance on the vehicle. It’s extremely routine. […] Even the tactics are rote. They do battle drills over and over again. You know, someone calls out red; you do a red. They yell blue; you do a blue.’

Ure’s book was written in the context of industrialists’ struggles with their skilled employees. Goff identified a similar tension in the military in respect of Special Operations units.

‘In a Taylorised, factory-style military, Special Operations constitutes an artisan class. The military leadership is constantly trying to impose Taylorised efficiency on those units, and so between the conventional military and the unconventional military, there’s a constant tension. Special Forces do not want to wear their uniforms correctly; they don’t want to march; they don’t want to call anyone by their rank.’

That’s the tremendous advantage of military drones: they conduct operations that, in the not too distant past, would have required Special Forces units on the ground. But human troops, no matter how well-trained, dramatically escalate the possibility of Clausewitz’s ‘friction’ jamming up the plan.

Almost by definition, an imperialist nation possesses tremendous technological superiority relative to those nations in which it asserts itself. For that reason, technical solutions have always appealed to colonial powers.

‘Whatever happens we have got/The Maxim Gun, and they have not,’ quipped Hilaire Belloc about another empire’s repressive efforts. But never before has that firepower been available with such minimal risk to those deploying it.

That is, historically, the application of high-tech weapons generally meant a dependence on precisely those skilled workers Ure distrusted so much, a point that Brecht famously made.

‘General,’ he wrote, ‘your tank is a powerful vehicle.

‘It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
‘But it has one defect:
‘It needs a driver.’

A drone, of course, doesn’t – or, at least, not in the same way.

The difference rendered by technology becomes most apparent in considerations of the moral burden of killing today. Unmanned devices directed from a distant continent away, drastically reduce the moral autonomy of the operators, with the technicians are as far removed from the carnage as anyone subsequently watching the kill on a YouTube clip.

Marx writes of how, in a modern factory, ‘[i]t is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it’. The souls imperilled by extrajudicial killings in the tribal areas thus belong to automatons, not their operators.

On the one hand, then, the drone represents a historic achievement for the military, the logical result of years of evolution. But, at the same time, and for the same reason, it also opens new possibilities for the peace movement.

That is, if, organisationally, the military has always embraced Ure’s approach to transforming individuals into automatons, ideologically, it has long presented itself as doing precisely the opposite. And that presentation is now in jeopardy.

Since the late nineteenth century, apologists of militarism have emphasised war as the antithesis of capitalist industrialisation. The values that the military claims to foster – service, honour, duty, valour and so on – are precisely those traits imperiled by the assembly line. That’s why the typical recruiting pitch involves an implicit – and often explicit – critique of the very society the military claims to defend.

As a civilian, life seems dull and empty, a matter of tedious routines, performed without purpose or value. In war, however, you’ll become ‘An Army of One’: a warrior for whom heroism is no longer an empty abstraction.

For the philosopher William James, this promise of an escape from an industrialised order was central to militarism’s appeal at the dawn of the twentieth century.

‘[Wars] “horrors”,’ he warned, ‘are a cheap price to pay for rescue from the only alternative supposed, of a world of clerks and teachers, of co-education and zo-ophily, of ‘consumer’s leagues’ and ‘associated charities,’ of industrialism unlimited, and feminism unabashed.’

You can see how that sentiment played out in the delirious patriotism that marked the outbreak of the First World War, when, as Rupert Brookes famously put it, young men chose:

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary …

War seemed attractive to naïve, idealistic youths like Brookes precisely because peacetime, in newly industrialised Europe, felt empty and vacuous and meaningless.

That’s why the actual experience of the Great War provoked such a tremendous sense of betrayal, since, in reality, combat proved not a deliverance from the old, cold and weary order but its exponential intensification.

‘Instead of escaping the soul-killing mechanism of modern technological society,’ wrote the playwright Ernst Toller about his generation’s exposure to the trenches, ‘they learned that the tyranny of technology ruled even more omnipotently in war than in peacetime. The men who through daring chivalry had hoped to rescue their spiritual selves from the domination of material and technical forces discovered that in the modern war of material the triumph of the machine over the individual is carried to its most extreme form.’

The German writer Carl Zuckmayer documented exactly the same phenomenon, noting in trench combat ‘the monstrous boredom, the exhaustion, the unheroic, mechanical day-to-day of war in which terror, fear and death were inserted like the striking of a time clock in an endless industrial process’.

But the Great War simultaneously demonstrated how protean the myths of war as a deliverance from the problems of modernity could be. For, as the trenches revealed industralised killing to be fundamentally corrosive of heroic individualism, the tropes of chivalric combat shifted to those skilled specialists who were assumed to exercise the autonomy that ordinary soldiers so patently lacked.

Thus the peculiar valorisation of early aviators. ‘The heavens are their battlefield,’ exclaimed David Lloyd George of the Great War’s fighter pilots. ‘[T]hey are the Cavalry of the clouds. High above the squalor and the mud, so high in the firmament that they are not visible from the earth, they fight out the eternal issues of right and wrong.’

Note how George’s formulation exults flying machines precisely because they differentiate themselves from the results of mechanisation, soaring over the grubby trenches of industrial war.

Not surprisingly, such an innately contradictory rhetoric couldn’t be sustained in the long term.

For a start, air war was entirely as brutal as ground combat. Kyle Nellesen quotes the RAF ace Bogart Rogers.

‘Every time I hear someone speak of the war in the air as a gallant and romantic business, a modern counterpart of the chivalrous strife of old, I break right out laughing,’ Rogers explained. ‘It was a cold, calculating, deadly occupation — sans chivalry, sans sportsmanship, and sans any ethics except that you got the other fellow or he got you.’

More fundamentally, the technology of aviation developed according to the same remorseless logic that exerted itself elsewhere, with each innovation emphasizing the power of the machine over its operator, so that the pilot becoming more and more evidently merely part of a larger aggregation of social relations. Today, the identification of individual ‘aces’ has largely disappeared, since everyone knows that the man flying the machine is not in any meaningful sense master of his own destiny but simply functions as part of a collective war machine.

During the Great War, planes required pilots, and those pilots died in huge numbers. Technology now allows the Pentagon to fight without the possibility of suffering casualties – and this is assumed to be drones’ great advantage.

But is this the case? Certainly, William James’s argument suggests that casualties are, perversely, central to war’s appeal, a sacrifice that makes battle seem meaningful in contrasts to the inanity of industrialised peace.

‘The horrors make the fascination,’ James stresses. ‘War is the strong life; it is life in extremis … [T]he possibility of violent death is the soul of all romance.’

Without that possibility, war loses its enchantment.

That might seem counterintuitive, almost nonsensical, but you can see the argument illustrated in the progress of the Afghan conflict.

The US-led war has now entered its twelfth year – and now almost nobody in the NATO countries can explain why it is being fought. Defeating terrorism, promoting democracy, fostering the rights of women: as these claims become more and more incoherent, the war features in the media almost exclusively in terms of the sacrifices of the troops. Each new death provides a chance for politicians to drag out rhetoric of the type that Wilfred Owen so bitterly excoriated in ‘The Old Lie’, the strange cod-medieval vocabulary about ‘fallen warriors’ and the rest of it.

In any other context, Edwardian-style militarism would sound laughable amidst the cynicism of the twenty-first century but today’s military funerals invest the evil old tropes with genuine power.

Too many combat deaths would, of course, become politically problematic, as we saw in Iraq. But it’s simply wrong to think that the low level casualties currently experienced by NATO forces in Afghanistan poses an inherent threat to the war’s continuation. For militarists, these deaths aren’t problems so much as opportunities, allowing every warmonger waving the bloody shirt of past casualties to urge renewed sacrifices in the future.

It’s in that sense that drones take war into a new territory – as, at some level, their operators understand.

In interviews, military drone crews often heatedly insist that they’re not just nerds playing video games, that they’re as much combat pilots as anyone else. In one sense, that’s probably true, since flying a modern fighter jet involves the same complex technology that makes the Predator possible. Yet the distinct innovation of drone warfare – namely, the removal of the pilot from the battlefield – makes a qualitative difference. And the operators clearly sense it.

‘It sounds strange but being far away and safe is kind of a bummer,’ says Air Force Major Bryan Callahan, responsible for steering a remote control drone over Afghanistan from a base in Arizona. ‘The other guys are exposing themselves, and that to me is still quite an honorable thing to do. So I feel like I’m cheating them. I’m relatively safe. If I screw up or miss something, if I screw up a shot, I wish it was me down there, not them. Sometimes I feel like I left them behind.’

In Callahan’s sense of ‘cheating’ notions of the honorable, we can detect a recognition of how drones render the old militarist ideologies increasingly threadbare.

Drone warfare represents the furthermost extension of the mechanization of warfare and, as such, is fundamentally, inherently, anti-heroic.

It’s not merely that, because the operators don’t risk their lives, there’s no romance (in the Jamesian sense) about what they do (and let’s note, they’re not ‘relatively safe’ – they’re absolutely safe). It’s also that the killing they perform can’t offer any illusion of heroic escape from the world of everyday America, precisely because it takes place so recognisably within (or, more exactly, as a product of) everyday America.

Here’s Callahan again.

‘Before you were at war 24/7, and when you’re home you’re home. This is different. I do e-mails in the morning, rush to the airplane, come out, go to the [Base Exchange], get myself a hamburger, do some more e-mail, do it again, drive home.’

Drone pilots are, in other words, ordinary rather than exceptionable. They work on military bases and they wear military uniforms but they perform routines recognisable to IT workers everywhere, sitting on front of computer screens until it’s time to grab a burger.

This is precisely Ure’s argument in practice. ‘On the handicraft plan,’ he explained, ‘labour more or less skilled, was usually the most expensive element of production — materiam superabat optis; but on the automatic plan, skilled labour gets progressively superseded, and will, eventually, be replaced by mere overlookers of machines.’

So it came to pass.

Yet, paradoxically, the development of Ure’s conception represents the posthumous triumph of Mathew Clydesdale.

Ure’s methods were intended to defeat the weavers, to use, as he put it, the ‘resources of science’ to reinstate the industrialists ‘in their legitimate rule, that of the head over the inferior members.’  That was why he hailed the example of those mill owners who employed what he called ‘a creation destined to restore order among the industrious classes’ – a spinning contraption known as the ‘Iron Man’.

In his book, Ure can barely contain his delight over the Iron Man’s repressive potential.

‘The news of this Herculean prodigy,’ he writes, ‘spread dismay through the union, and even long before it left its cradle, so to speak, it strangled the Hydra of misrule.’

In the short term, using the Iron Man and its mechanical brethren to crush artisanal independence proved spectacularly successful. But in the longer term, it fostered a much more fundamental unity of labour. The transformation of skilled weavers into automatons broke down the barriers of sectionalism, laying the basis for workers everywhere to recognise each other as equivalents rather than seeing only isolated practitioners of particular skills.

As representatives of a distinctive craft, the weavers were destroyed. But as members of a global working class, they arose in an infinitely more powerful incarnation.

‘You are my creator,’ declares, eventually, the creature to Doctor Frankenstein, ‘but I am your master; obey!’

That’s not to suggest that the new reliance on Iron Men in the skies of Pakistan means that drone pilots will suddenly declare their solidarity with the American labour movement. Of course they won’t.

Yet one should not underestimate the ideological consequences of the drone revolution, the way it challenges core presumptions of American militarism.

In past colonial wars, the experience of combat bonded soldiers together while separating them from the population at home, just as a sense of obligation to those dying on the battlefield dampened antiwar sentiment in the broader working class. So what happens when the war reveals itself not as a transcendental adventure fought by square-jawed heroes but a nine-to-five job for keyboard jockeys, increasingly indistinguishable from white collar workers elsewhere?

On the one hand, calls to honour the sacrifices of the troops exercise markedly less purchase when those responsible for the killings quite clearly aren’t making any sacrifices. On the other, military technicians living and working an ordinary American life become far more susceptible a mass-based antiwar campaign than soldiers actually based in a combat zone.

Nothing is inevitable, nothing should be taken for granted. In the short term, the drone revolution makes the atrocities of counter-insurgency more viable rather than less. But in the longer term, well, matters might be quite different.

‘You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!’

That’s how a war ends, with a recognition by subalterns of the power their superiors have inadvertently invested in them.

Mark Maybury’s drones are beginning to see, hear and sense. But it may yet be the people who spectacularly awake.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of “Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship.