Inspired by Roland Barthes, Meghan O’Gieblyn’s monthly column Objects of Despair examines contemporary artifacts and the mythologies we have built around them.
There was a big magazine story several years ago—I don’t remember where—about drone pilots who worked at an air force base in Nevada’s desert. The pilots spent their days in a windowless control room at this complex, which was some distance outside of Las Vegas, operating drones in Iraq—or maybe it was Afghanistan. I can’t seem to remember any of the details precisely. At the time, drones were still novel, and the central thrust of the article seemed to be the ethically troublesome fact that a strike could be enacted from a distance of 7,500 miles. One detail I remember clearly was that the base was deliberately remote, so that the pilots, after their shifts were over, were forced to drive several hours back to civilization. Whoever was in charge decided that humans who had been at war should not be allowed to simply zip home and eat dinner with their families, or grab drinks with friends. They needed time alone in their cars to decompress and segue back into ordinary life, to transform from soldiers into civilians.
After reading this article, I tried to write a short story about a drone pilot who worked at this base. The story took place entirely during his drive home, and was largely interior, unfolding in the character’s mind. It was the kind of premise that interested me at the time. I envisioned a claustrophobic moral drama unfolding against the desert landscape as the car hummed across the interminable highway and the sun went down, turning the mountains the color of blood. But in the end, I couldn’t finish the piece. I could not imagine myself into the pilot’s head. Had he truly been at war? Or had he spent the afternoon in a Naugahyde recliner, pressing buttons?
This is the enduring question of foreign policy in the age of the drone: Are we at war? A strike kills six civilians in Yemen. The headline scrolls across the ticker on an airport flatscreen, appears on a news app amid the noonday quiet in a corporate office park. There is little or no context, little or no commentary. Outside, the sky is a clear and endless blue. The drone embodies the remoteness of modern warfare, but more than that, its thoughtlessness. It is the symbol of wars that are without leaders, of conflicts so diffuse and underreported they seem to have no face, no soul. Drone is a type of bee that is believed to be entirely mindless. It also describes the monotonous hum that machines make—or humans, when they are speaking like machines. Both meanings reflect our era of perpetual war, which is so unvaried and automatic that it can transition seamlessly from one presidential administration to the next, radically different one. (As the bumper sticker on my neighbor’s car puts it: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY DRONES ON.) At the time, I thought my failure to write the story was due to an epistemological problem—that I, a civilian, could not understand the psychological demands of war. But the problem was actually ontological. I was looking for consciousness in the byways of bureaucracy, searching for thought and conviction where there was none. Read More