Cheerful Robots and Solar Drones: Rationality without Reason

When we first moved to Syracuse in 2005, the roar of the F-16s stationed at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base as part of the 174th Attack Wing were a regular part of the background noise. I would watch them fly over and mostly marvel at the impressive sound and speed, sometimes reminiscing of childhood trips to the EAA fly-in in Oshkosh with my dad and brothers. It’s easy to forget that these are machines of war if you focus on the awe inspiring physical experience of sound or the incredible technological achievement of human flight.

Today, Hancock is home to the MQ-9 Reaper. Quieter and smaller, the technology of these remote controlled aircraft is significantly more impressive than that of the outdated F-16.

The MQ-9 is part of an “Unmanned Aircraft System” (UAS) which involves pilots sitting at computer screens to remotely control the drone’s weapons and surveillance systems via satellite signal. Critics have described drones as a technology that efficiently does the work of dehumanizing an enemy, making it easier to kill intended targets. Protests have been a regular occurrence outside of Hancock Field, and there has been a lot of coverage of drone strikes killing civilians. Some drone operators, however, complicate this perspective when they tell us how the cutting edge surveillance capacity of the MQ-9 allows them to know more about the personal lives of those they attack than they would have when flying over in manned warplanes. Some dislike the term ‘drone’ because it ignores the humans piloting the aircraft. Nonetheless, while some pilots experience psychological stress related to taking lives, those profiled in the New York Times say that they know they have only targeted those who deserve to die. These stories of UAS pilots reveal similarities with the typical white collar worker who puts in a day at the office and then heads home for dinner and time with family. The grunt work of war, then, is increasingly like that of any other professional. There are unpleasant aspects of the work, but the technology makes it doable.

C. Wright Mills would undoubtedly agree with those who see drone technology as a frightening advance of military rationality. In his classic essay Culture and Politics, Mills writes about what he calls the Fourth Epoch. In the Fourth Epoch, the rise of rationality without reason results in “men possessed by an abstracted view that hides from them the humanity of their victims and as well their own humanity” (238). Mills would add Unmanned Aircraft Systems to his list of military technologies like the atomic bomb and napalm that are the result of “gentle scientists who are now rationally – and absurdly – planning the weapons and the strategy of the third world war” (238). Mills knew that, in the Overdeveloped Nation, the average citizen, his ‘cheerful robots,’ would spend their lives enamored with consumer gadgets they did not understand (you know, what you bought or bought from on Black Friday) while those in power would rationally use cutting edge technology to improve the weapons of war (245). The experts creating the gadgets and the weapons do not understand humanity. They are rational, but not reasonable. The average citizen is too distracted by gadgets to protest the inhuman decisions of elites.

Mills would not have been the least surprised to read recent news (here and here) about solar powered drones. He would shake his head while knowingly watching our public debate center mostly around extraction of ever dwindling supplies of coal, oil, and gas, sources we know contribute to climate change, all while clean solar energy, a source we could have invested in heavily 30 years ago, is being made rugged and flexible for military use. Mills writes that these rational but unreasonable actions are not sadistic, but “are merely businesslike; they are not emotional at all; they are efficient, rational, technically clean cut. They are inhuman acts because they are impersonal” (238).

Mills, C. Wright. 1963. “Culture and Politics” in Power, Politics, and People. Edited by Louis Horowitz. Ballantine Books: New York.

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