SUBURBICIDE: Remote Drone Warfare, Mental Health, and the Suburban American Dream
The United States Air Force does not publish statistics on suicides committed by pilots of their unmanned combat aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones, but it is the most significant bodily risk they face. In general, suicide ranks as the biggest killer of all active-duty Airmen, and surpassed war as the entire military’s leading cause of death in 2014 (as reported by USA Today in October of that year). Contrary to common assumptions, the suicides are not necessarily preceded by trauma from battlefield experiences. In fact, 68% of members of the Air Force who committed suicide were never deployed, according to the Air Force deputy chief of staff for Manpower, Personnel, and Services when interviewed by U.S. Medicine in October 2011. In the 2016 documentary National Bird, which investigated the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among employees of the U.S.’s drone division, Heather Linebaugh, a former imagery and geospatial analyst for the program, stated that three of her colleagues had gone on to kill themselves. And they weren’t the only ones: for example there was Tech Sergeant Derek Langford, a member of the 799th Air Base Group who provided communication support to drone pilots, who shot himself in the head in August 2013; or Travis Kent Navarro Parkhurst, a 37-year-old master sergeant working as a sensor operator, whose obituary appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal in April 2015, to name just two more. In February 2013, The New York Times reported that drone pilots were found to have similar rates of psychological distress, including suicidal ideation, to traditional pilots. This correlates to findings from a 2008 report by the Naval Postgraduate School, which found that among the leading causes were long work hours and “combat compartmentalization,” or the disjunct caused by switching between remote combat and civilian life within short periods of time. That is, drone pilots are “deployed on station,” in military language, which means they spend hours working in air-conditioned trailers, fighting a war thousands of miles away, before returning home to their families. In an August 2017 piece in The New York Times, General James B. Hecker described how days might be spent surveilling a family compound, learning intimately the patterns of their targets’ behavior — watching them play soccer with their children, celebrate holidays with their friends, sleep with their wives — before launching a Hellfire missile that detonates in high definition. Then the drone operators leave to play soccer with their own children, celebrate holidays with their own friends, sleep with their own husbands or wives. According to a 2014 report by the Air Force, pilots in each of ten focus groups cited this as a major cause of their distress, with some even stating a preference to be deployed in theater. Grégoire Chamayou, in the English-language version of his book A Theory of the Drone (2015), reported one pilot as saying, “Sometimes it’s hard to keep switching on and off. Back and forth. It’s like living in two places at the same time. Parallel universes. It was enough to make a Predator pilot schizophrenic.”
These two parallel universes are, for the majority of drone pilots, about a 40-minute drive apart. That is, most Air Force drone operators are stationed at Creech Air Force Base, 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas. They typically live in either Indian Springs, the town directly adjacent to Creech, or in the North Las Vegas suburbs. Some rent or buy private homes while others live in military housing communities, such as Nellis Family Housing on the nearby Nellis Air Force Base. That particular housing company manages over 1,100 homes divided between five distinct communities, all of which feature “a blend of contemporary and traditional Mediterranean and Mission-style elements,” as its website states. The communities cater to the specificities of military life, such as offering a payment-in-arrears structure. They also boast pools, a pharmacy, a gun club, a barbershop, a post office, a golf course, and even a hospital. In short, they constitute an ideal of suburban living — both distant from the workplace and self-enclosed — specifically attuned to the needs of military personnel. And yet, for the Air Force drone pilots, it is precisely this safe remove from combat that causes distress. Rapidly and repeatedly switching back and forth from war zone to home life, the drone pilot experiences a breakdown in the semantic register of both. Suburbia, a signifier of domesticity, becomes a battlefield. The inoculation proves poisonous.
Autoimmunity is when the body attacks itself while attempting to protect itself, unable to distinguish the self from the non-self. More precisely, it refers to when an organism’s T-cells attack its own healthy cells and tissues. The antigen, a molecule that provokes an immune response, turns out to be a part of the body itself.
In an interview with Giovanna Borradori, conducted five weeks after 9/11 (published in the 2003 book Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida), French philosopher Jacques Derrida recouped this biological process into a political metaphor — wherein the human body becomes the body politic — in order to reflect on the events of September 11, 2001. Specifically, Derrida questioned what designated those events as “major.” He noted that their significance was not quantitative — having to do with body count or building size, for example — but rather qualitative. “The obvious fact is that since the ‘end of the Cold War,’ what can be called the world order, in its relative and precarious stability, depends largely on the solidity and reliability, on the credit, of American power.” In short, the attacks were not confined to the territorial limits of the United States, but rather implicated the global order. To destabilize the United States was to destabilize this order, “including the declared enemies of the United States.” In other words, Derrida understood the post-Soviet global — and globalized — context as structurally tethered to the U.S. This constituted a body politic that surpassed the boundaries of nation states, even as it often acted to shore them up. As such, the events of September 11, 2001 could not be properly understood within a normative framework of warfare, characterized by distinct and opposing sides. Rather, Derrida asserted, they constituted an auto-immunitary process, which he described as “that strange behavior where a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, ‘itself’ works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its ‘own’ immunity.” That is, the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks used American machinery to attack an American city through an American airport. Descendants of the mujahideen and acolytes of Osama Bin Laden, they were, in effect, trained and funded by the United States. Their enmity towards the United States was born, in part, from the American support for Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. The very threat they pose emerges from the “victory” of the United States against the Soviet Union and the end of the “Cold War.” The war launched in reaction to the attacks of September 11 was called the “global war on terror” — meaning the whole world became a potential battlefield — and has been marked by American impunity in crossing the territorial borders of other states. In short, the attacks came from within: an accidental suicide. And to combat them, to wage war against this anonymous and unforeseeable threat, only regenerates the cause.
The suburbs were born under shadows cast by bombers. In his 2001 essay War Against the Center, Peter Galison traces the origins of “architectural dispersion” back to World War II and, specifically, the development of aerial bombardment. Tasked with analyzing the German military-industrial economy, a coalition of planners, lawyers, engineers, businessman, academics, economists, and even poets were gathered together as the Army Air Forces’ Committee of Operations Analysts. By taking out key nodes within their industrial system, they believed the German war machine would fall apart. That is, complex modern military technologies, from aircraft to bombs, depend on certain “linchpin” components to function. Take out all the ball-bearing factories, for example, and the Luftwaffe goes with it. But the committee soon found the task was harder than they anticipated. Each time one node was targeted, the Germans would disperse their production.
According to Galison, it was only after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the Allies began to reflect on the lessons learned from studying the Germans. “Sifting the rubble, interviewing the wounded survivors, the Bombing Survey investigators began to see similarities between Japanese buildings and American ones, between surviving structures at Hiroshima and possible shelters in the United States.” Startled by its capacity to wipe out entire cities, which were then centralized hubs of industry, the government began a major campaign of decentralization as a defense strategy, which intensified after the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb for the first time in 1949. Businesses were incentivized to move their factories outside the range of a city attack. This was followed by zoning and planning strategies that developed new school districts, tax plans, and forms of government. Not long after, President Eisenhower was able to begin the construction of the Interstate and Defense Highway System with 25-billion dollars in federal support. Alongside this, the technologies that preceded the Internet were invented as a means of maintaining communication networks in the case of an atomic or nuclear attack. These information technologies would, down the line, also help enable the spread of industry — and, subsequently, housing — away from urban centers.
But this defensive strategy is just one aspect of the multifaceted relationship between the military and American suburbia. As Beatriz Colomina explicates in her 2007 book Domesticity at War, the suburbs were first built using technologies of mass production developed during World War II and were intended to house, in part, returning soldiers. Soon after, they gained semantic associations enmeshed within the burgeoning military-industrial complex. For example, in July 1959, Vice President Nixon visited Moscow to open the American National Exhibition, which showcased an ideal American suburban home replete with the most advanced domestic gadgetry. There he engaged in a famous exchange — the so-called “Kitchen Debate” — with Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the virtues of Soviet versus American life, which was represented metonymically by suburban domesticity. Modern technologies and affordable housing were offered as symbols of freedom. Similarly, in a chapter in her book entitled The Lawn at War, Colomina describes how, during and after the Second World War, the lawn became at once a symbol of domestic architecture, of national ideology, and of American affluence, manifested in advertisements, informational brochures, and other media. She details how its upkeep became “a national duty performed for the morale of both those at home and those in the armed forces.”
In short, the image of the suburbs within the American imaginary represents the idealized form of life which one fights to preserve and, pivotally, the place of return for which one survives. If the image degrades, then so does this motivation. And if the nature of the fight changes, then so does its relationship to the image.
THAT OTHERS MAY DIE
As Grégoire Chamayou notes, as early as 1964 engineer John W. Clark wrote that “(w)ith technology as advanced as it is today, it is unnecessary to require a man to expose himself to physical danger in order to earn a living. There is no hazardous task performed by men today that cannot, in principle, be performed by remotely controlled machines.” Clark was an early theorist of drones, or the “telechiric machine,” as he called it, but they did not appear in full force on the field of combat for several decades. Preceded by unmanned surveillance vehicles and later decoy planes developed by the Israel Defense Forces, weaponized drones were first used in combat in Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11, 2001. More precisely, the first time a Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile was on February 4, 2002. It was flown by the CIA and its target was a tall man assumed to be Osama Bin Laden. He was not Bin Laden, although the military maintained that the target was legitimate. “We’re convinced that it was an appropriate target,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clark, as The New York Times reported two weeks later. But, she added, “We do not know yet exactly who it was.”
Since then, drones have been used by the American military and the CIA in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Pakistan. Their use has grown exponentially — a 1,200% increase between 2004 and 2012 alone, according to Chamayou. There are more drone pilots being trained in the United States than all fighter plane and bomber pilots put together. During President Obama’s two terms, there were 563 strikes, mostly by drones, in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, as The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in January 2017. According to monitoring project Airwars, 104,724 bombs and missiles have been dropped by coalition forces in Iraq, Syria, and Libya since 2012, many of which were also from drones.
Of course, the first and primary rationale for drone warfare is that it protects the lives of soldiers. One British report, quoted by Chamayou, summed up this conviction: “The use of unmanned aircraft prevents the potential loss of aircrew lives and is thus in itself morally justified.” The Air Force has readily assumed this defense: the patch of the MQ-9 Reaper drone reads, “That others may die,” alongside an image of the Grim Reaper. The self-protective capacity of drones extends to combatants on the ground as well. Not only do American drones serve as attack weapons, they also provide aerial surveillance support, such as locating enemy forces and identifying improvised explosive devices hidden in roads.
But those on the ground are not always as appreciative as drone pilots might hope. Chamayou quotes one soldier as declaring, “Frickin’ cry babies, that’s what they are. Fire them and get somebody new if they can’t take the stress of the air-conditioned trailer and going home every night.” Drone pilots have taken notice. “We’re the red-headed stepchild,” one reported in the RAND Corporation’s 2017 study Stress and Dissatisfaction in the Air Force’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Community. “Fighter pilots will go out of their way to call us operators and not pilots.” In short, drone pilots are often construed as cowards. And, in a culture that fundamentally operates around the production of a mythos of courage, the accusation of cowardice can take a toll, displacing the pilot from the very world they call home.
Following a precipitous fall after the Great Depression, the United States homeownership rate skyrocketed from 43.6% in 1940 to 60.4% in 1956. Alongside Federal Housing Administration loans, this was due in large part to the V.A. Loan program, authorized by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, which granted mortgages guaranteed by the Veterans Administration to veterans returning from the war. The program widened access to homeownership for a sizable amount of the population previously unable to afford it. For example, a veteran could purchase a home in the newly constructed New York Levittown community (1947–51) with no down payment and for installments of only 56 dollars a month — the equivalent of about 611 dollars in 2016. The accompanying building boom transformed the American built morphology. By 2000, 60.3% of housing units were single-family detached homes.
According to Dolores Hayden in her book Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life (second edition 2002), “The pressures of war and the communal style of military-barracks living made suburban privacy attractive to many veterans, especially those with new cars to go with their new houses.” In turn, the veteran became the archetypal resident of this new typology, which, it was assumed, would not only prove an antidote to wartime experiences but also help adjust the soldier back into civilian life. Hayden continues, “Developers argued that a particular kind of house would help the veteran change from an aggressive air ace to a commuting salesman who loved to mow the lawn.” Suburbia, in other words, was not just understood but also marketed as a conditioning technology. It had the capacity to transform the subject, in particular one traumatized by warfare. This rehabilitated veteran became the idealized image of an American in post-war culture. “The veteran, his young wife, and their prospective children appeared as the model family of 1945,” Hayden writes. In turn, their archetypal residence — the suburban home — became the ideal for society at large. “Suburban housing was idealized as the ‘American dream’ and for a period the ‘dream’ seemed both desirable and achievable for most Americans,” write Richard L. Florida and Marshall M.A. Feldman in their 1988 essay Housing in U.S. Fordism.
Today, this aspiration for homeownership persists. According to Lawrence Yun, Chief Economist of the National Association of Realtors, 87% of those polled in the Housing Opportunity and Market Experience survey stated that homeownership remains an integral component of the “American dream” (as he reported in Forbes in August 2016). This remains true for members of the military who, together with veterans, make up a full 18% of all homebuyers in the United States. The V.A. Loan program, however, has not kept up with the American housing market. In 2007, for example, the Veterans Administration gave out only 2,000 loans with a cap of 417,000 dollars. Many military members therefore also take out private loans. This became a crisis after the 2007 housing-market crash. Like many Americans, members of the military widely participated in what is now understood as a historic market bubble, which was fueled in part by media depictions of homeownership as not just an ideal but also a safe investment strategy. But the securitization of mortgages — that is their bundling and their high-speed trade on open markets — had transformed the home into a speculative asset, radically shifting its signifying capacity. With the collapse of the housing market, this mutation of meaning accelerates. Unlike other Americans, members of the military did not have the freedom to wait out a market crash, often having to sell below purchase price when ordered to relocate. While encouraged by the military to rent instead of purchase, many service personnel still bought homes. “In good years, they purchased properties with the intent of turning them for profit, saving them for retirement or renting them out as an investment,” wrote Cristina Silva in The Seattle Times in June 2011. “For some, homeownership was a way to provide their family with a temporary feel of permanency, a home where they could paint their bedroom walls and host holiday parties.” Among the worst-hit were those stationed at Nellis and Creech Air Force bases outside of Las Vegas, which has been called the “epicenter” of the foreclosure crisis.
Like drones and suburbia itself, securitization is a remote technology — a machine for producing distance — enabled by the decentralized information technologies developed by the military in the midcentury. In this case, the distance produced is between the actual property and the mortgage, as well as between the lender and risk. That is, securitization liquidates real estate, traditionally an illiquid asset, enabling banks to lend to a greater number of potential homeowners. But it also displaces risk from the creditor onto the investor, which, in the early 2000s, resulted in the issuance of subprime mortgages by a largely unregulated banking industry. When people began to default on their loans, it produced a chain reaction that spread rapidly across the globalized economy. In short, a technology intended to widen access to homeownership resulted in a market crash that forced thousands out of their homes.
If the suburban home has the capacity to transform a subject, then its sudden loss — the evacuation of a sense of both present and future security — would likewise leave traces, indelibly marked by the image of the suburban home produced in media since the post-war period. That is, the suburban house is never just a built structure but also exudes a constellation of meanings and associations. It is enmeshed within the so-called “American dream” — that aspirational mentality constitutively related to the post-war economy and the American military, a dynamic accelerated by securitization. When a home is foreclosed, so too are the futures it promises. But rather than vanish, these specters of the past and the future remain, turning suburbia into a field of haunted houses.
“America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists,” Barack Obama asserted in a speech delivered at the National Defense University in May 2013. “Our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute.” But when that is not an option, when it puts too many lives at risk, the second-best option is to use drones. That is, drones are more precise than conventional weapons, and therefore spare civilian lives. “Yes, the conflict with Al-Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy,” he stated. “But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”
In this, Obama tacitly acknowledged the unique character of contemporary American warfare. That is, such a “preference” is only really possible when warfare is not merely asymmetrical but rather unilateral. Within such a framework, in order to maintain a position of moral legitimacy, it becomes necessary not only to defend the reasons for warfare, but also the means. In testimony delivered to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, Kenneth Anderson, a professor of law at the American University in Washington D.C., argued, “Drones are a major step forward toward much more discriminating uses of violence in war and self-defense — a step forward in humanitarian weapons technology.” Similar assertions have become increasingly common with the escalation of the use of drones, perhaps even more prevalent than the argument that they save American lives. But they are not necessarily true.
Laser-guided missiles are indeed incredibly precise. Moreover, the military’s “kill-chain” involves a sizable amount of steps before a missile is fired, from gathering research to computer-generated modeling of the strike to consultations with a team of lawyers. And yet, according to research conducted over a period of 18 months by The New York Times and published in November 2017, one in five coalition strikes result in a civilian casualty, which is a rate 31 times higher than acknowledged by American officials. The problem is, essentially, twofold: the breadth of the explosion radius and the misidentification of a target. Regarding the former, the U.S. government tends to assert that these are primarily unavoidable accidents — a child running into the scene after the missile has already been fired, for example. The latter is more complex. A transcript released by The Los Angeles Times in April 2011 records the dialogue between the team of people responsible for an airstrike by a Predator drone in Afghanistan. In it, they try to label a group of Afghanis as militants by identifying weapons. After a long back-and-forth, and without positive identification of a weapon, the crew was ultimately given the go-ahead to launch a missile. When the smoke cleared, a huddled group emerged, waving flags in an act of surrender. In total, according to the U.S. count, there were 15 or 16 men killed and twelve people injured, including a woman and three children. According to Afghan elders, 23 had been killed, including two children, aged three and four. Neither account reported the deaths of any militants.
This incident appears to contradict U.S. claims for high precision in drone warfare. That is in part because there are two types of drone strike: targeted and signature. The former serves as the basis for such claims of precision and tends to involve high-profile targets. The latter comprises assassinations of people that the United States cannot necessarily confirm are militants. Unlike targeted strikes, signature strikes do not require approval by the president. The rationale behind them is often shaky — the assumption of the presence of a weapon, for example. Primarily, they are based around recording people’s movements, looking for aberrant behavior and speculating on its cause. “The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp,” reported The New York Times in May 2012. In short, mistakes are frequent and civilian casualties high — although official numbers remain low. This is largely because, according to the same Times piece, the government “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants... unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
The emphasis on precision belies an error in logic, in which data accumulation is confused with data specificity, information with knowledge. In other words, drone warfare frequently mistakes the civilian for the combatant, within a landscape in which the very definition of a combatant — one who engages in combat — is rendered illegible. “By ruling out the possibility of combat,” as Chamayou asserts, “the drone destroys the very possibility of any clear differentiation between combatants and noncombatants.” And as civilian casualties rise with no possibility of counter-action, so does the opposition to drones in countries under their watch, particularly Pakistan. As has been stated frequently elsewhere, this mode of military intervention — starkly imperial — frequently serves to breed further resentment against the United States. In an attempt to immunize its own soldiers from threat, the U.S. creates its future foes.
THE OVEREXPOSED CITY
“The history of armed conflict has been one long series of procedures for dematerializing military tools,” writes Paul Virilio in his book A Landscape of Events (English edition 2000). This occurs in three registers: optics, armaments, and command. The first, which he also calls “visual domination,” has transformed from securing access to the highest point in a region to telescopes to reconnaissance planes to satellites to drones. Alongside this, weapons have progressively moved away from hand-to-hand combat towards remote warfare, by way of arrows, projectiles, and missiles. Finally, there is what Virilio describes as “the depersonalization of the chain of command,” well-illustrated by the “kill-chain” of drone warfare. Described as a bureaucracy, the “kill-chain” requires that any strike pass through hundreds of individuals, each with a compartmentalized task, in the process rendering responsibility for the act of killing diffuse. These dematerializing processes not only serve as a form of protection, but also install a distance between combatant and combat, making warfare virtual.
According to Virilio, the development of suburbia parallels this dematerialization of war. As he asserted in the 1984 essay The Overexposed City, over the course of the last century or so the city has become decentered, first by the emergence of suburbs and then by the introduction of telecommunications and new sites of work and interaction. He describes the “overexposed city” as a place defined by media and images, where urban boundaries have been eliminated, not just physically, but also experientially. “Here and there,” he writes, “no longer mean anything.” Media channels and technologies open up windows to the outside world, to the world as picture, and the concrete experience of city life gives way to a virtual experience marked by heterogeneity, dislocation, and alienation.
Perhaps the apotheosis of this subject position, drone pilots — sequestered away in the suburbs of the American Southwest — are always at a remove. Their orders come down a distant chain of command, and they have little or no agency in what they do. The faces of the people whose lives they end do not register in the pixels captured by their prosthetic eyes, hovering miles above. Space and time literally collapse into the screen. The distinction between work and the rest of life, between war and not-war, disintegrates. Even the moment of killing is mediated: when they launch a missile, a signal must first travel beneath oceans through fiber-optic cables or across the firmament through a satellite. They are the product of centuries of development of technologies of distantiation and dispersal — machinic assemblages inoculated from any unmediated contact with the realities they indelibly mark, the lives they extinguish.
The development of this context, of the city and its suburbs, of securitization as well as drone warfare, constitutes a set of fundamentally related autoimmune processes within the body politic. That is, the city is a defense technology that morphed, in order to keep apace with accelerating advancements in offensive technologies, into the suburbs. In order to further populate these suburban regions, as well as to maintain economic hegemony within a global order, technologies of securitization were developed, enabled by the information technologies developed by the military. Subsequently, the suburbs became sites of warfare as well. These progressive processes of distantiation due to the accelerating development of war technologies corrode the capacity of built forms to maintain their semantic register. At the same time, their prior meanings continue to persist spectrally, to haunt the scene.
The incessant drive for self-defense turns self-destructive. The subject is reduced to a single component within a war machine without boundaries, composed not just of bombs but also of economies, politics, technologies — in short, a global body politic always at war. Fueled by a blind imperative to inoculate itself, to survive at all costs, this body attacks itself, mistaking the self for the enemy. And the subject, stranded in a landscape haunted by displaced signifiers, becomes unmoored.