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Beware the Drone: Orientalism and UAV Drone Stikes


Today, the nature of and response to terrorism is rapidly changing. The goal of this paper is to look at the unfolding events surrounding US Drone strikes and how it apply to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism. Orientalism can be understood as a distorted way of seeing, imagining, and understanding the differences of Arab people. It involves exoticizing the Arab world as backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.” (, 2013). Orientalism is applied in this essay to better understand the justification of extreme violence towards the “Orient” by Western powers.

The approach for this assignment is rooted in critical social theory as it relates to Sociology and Social Anthropology. One of the founding fathers in sociology and anthropology is Max Weber. Weber in his essay, Politics as a Vocation writes a state is any “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”(Warner, p.9) Weber’s understanding provokes a new way of understanding the importance of Drone Strikes in Post-Colonial domination. The agenda of Neocolonial domination through clandestine means. Applying the concepts of Weber and Said  to the use of American drone strikes this reveals a larger and apparatus of power.

Beware the Drone

A major development in modern warfare is the development of UAVs(Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or “drones” as a popular name for these robotic flying death dealers. Specifically the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, The General Atomics MQ-1 and MQ-9 are the most commonly used UAVs by the United States Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency. UAV drones have been and are still used in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia. Finding a reliable source for drone strike data is a problematic task. Currently the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is the best source for drone strike statistics. They have confirmed 462 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. This number expands to 658 when including unconfirmed and other covert drone operations. A particularly grim statistic to confront is the number of children killed by American drone strikes: 243 (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 2014).

The negative social consequences of drones is not limited to the victims in theatre of war, drones also impact their pilots. Wayne Chappelle, chief of aerospace psychology at the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio is quoted as saying “They experience real and visceral reactions, like elevated heart rate and adrenaline — similar to what you would experience if you were in real combat, so they have that same heightened level of awareness and vigilance” (Chow, 2013). While the chance of drones operators developing PTSD(Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is relatively low, Chapelle did find that 17% of MQ drones pilots and 24% of Global Hawk drone pilots showed signs of what the Air Force calls “clinical distress”. Compare this percentage with the 28% of soldiers returning from Iraq who experience “clinical distress” (Chow, 2013). While the Air Force claims these numbers are low it is important to notice there is little differential between foot soldiers and drone pilots. Even though drone pilots are not working in harsh physical conditions, they still experience the excitement and anxiety conducting strikes.

In December 2013 the Associated Pressed tweeted “BREAKING: Yemeni officials say U.S. drone strike hits convoy heading to wedding party, killing 13 people”. Later in a statement the Associated Pressed revealed the gruesome details of the strike:

“Missiles fired by a U.S. drone slammed into a convoy of vehicles traveling to a wedding party in central Yemen on Thursday, killing at least 13 people, Yemeni security officials said… left charred bodies and burnt out cars on the road.” (Ahmed, 2013)

A wedding day which began as a day of celebration ended as a funeral. After the Snowden revelations began Mr. Snowden’s primarily journalist Glenn Greenwald started “The Intercept”. The Intercept is a magazine in the short-term devoted to disseminating and reporting on documents released by Snowden. In a recent article a drone pilot revealed how they track terrorists through their phone’s:

“Some have as many as 16 different SIM cards associated with their identity within the High Value Target system. Others, unaware that their mobile phone is being targeted, lend their phone, with the SIM card in it, to friends, children, spouses and family members. Some top Taliban leaders, knowing of the NSA’s targeting method, have purposely and randomly distributed SIM cards among their units in order to elude their trackers. ’They would do things like go to meetings, take all their SIM cards out, put them in a bag, mix them up, and everybody gets a different SIM card when they leave,’ ” ( Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald, 2014)

This quote illustrates how problematic drone strikes are. In this same article it tells the story of when a drone strike was used to kill an American living in Yemen. He was not contacted, charged, or sentenced. This raises considerable ethical concern questions how far drone strikes are able to go.

Drone Orientalism

When thinking about drone strikes in the Middle East, most people in the western world explain away civilian casualties by assuring themselves that they were ‘somehow’ related to or associated with terrorism. When thinking about the Snowden revelations most people take an apathetic stance because they assume it is all for the greater good and goal of security and fighting terrorism. How little westerns care about civilian deaths in drone strikes illustrates the embeddedness of Orientalism. To begin this second section, first we must grasp Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism.

First published in 1978, Edward Said’s groundbreaking book “Orientalism” was the first strong and sustained attack on the western monopoly of legitimate knowledge production, as well as being a founding text in Post-Colonial Studies. The aim of his book was to uncover and respond to the politics of knowledge production about the “Orient”. The Orient is roughly the space extending from Morocco in North Africa to India in South Asia. All too typically in western society, we see people of the Orient as sharing some kind of fundamental collectiveness that binds them together and separates them from “us” in the West. Said shows how the conception of the Orient does not actually existence, instead it was purposeful constructed and serves a purpose. He exposed the production of knowledge about the East as a discourse in the Foucauldian sense. Said demonstrated in his book how Orientalism became authoritative in western thinking about the Orient. While academic/expert knowledge can be produced by the Orient, the west stills controls most forms of legitimate knowledge and subordinates the Orients own understanding of themselves.

Orientalism is at the dark heart of why the west is indifferent to drones being used across the world; because, the west seems people of the Orient as disposable and all the same. Just by turning on the television there can be no question that the West is more concerned with the latest fashion trends of the Kardashians than the hundreds of innocent lives being lost to these strikes. The ongoing use of drone strikes has dulled media interest and numbed the average person to the gravitas of the situation. “These contemporary Orientalist attitudes flood the press and the popular mind. Arabs, for example are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization” (Said, 1977). While not expressed in such obvious terms, turn on FOX News and anyone can see the operating stereotype is: “They are all just terrorists anyway so why does it matter!?”.

Unfortunately it does not even take turning on the television to see Orientalism at work. Reading from The Essentials of Terrorism, there are examples of the latent and embedded influence of Orientalist. Examining the latent forms of Orientalism could fill an essay unto itself. Without digressing into too much detail, just read the book and notice how terror groups which come from the Orient are discussed in more finer detail than terrorist groups coming from western nations.

The Neocolonial

Still thinking about Edward Said, Orientalism is indelibly tied to the post-colonial period when he wrote the book. In the 1970s when Said was writing, control of colonies by colonial powers had by in large ended. Formal political colonization had mostly ended and colonies were gaining independence. Nevertheless colonies were left reeling from the colonial legacy and western knowledge production still dominated. This period of national independence by former colonies is known as post-colonialism and ushered in Neocolonialism. Marxist thinker Kwame Nkrumah summarizes Neocolonialism this way:

“The essence of Neocolonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside. The methods and form of this direction can take various shapes. For example, in an extreme case the troops of the imperial power may garrison the territory of the neo-colonial State and control the government of it. More often, however, neo-colonialist control is exercised through economic or monetary means. The neo-colonial State may be obliged to take the manufactured products of the imperialist power to the exclusion of competing products from elsewhere.” (Nkrumah, 1965)

What emerges from Neocolonialism is economic exploitation instead of economic development in the former colonies. This has the effect of widening the economic gap between rich, western nations and the poor, former colonies which make-up the majority of the third world/global south.

The concept of Neocolonialism develops out of a Marxian critique of economy, capitalism and exploitation. Marx was concerned that national works would be subjugated and placed in exploitative, economic hierarchy which would leave nations at the bottom with nothing while those at the top got rich. In today’s globalized world, worker exploitation has moved beyond national worker exploitation to exploitation on an international level. Exploiting labour in whole countries and regions of the world for western capitalist gain.

 “The essence of Neocolonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty”(Nkrumah, 1965). Neocolonialism is not about the destruction of infrastructure, it is about securing economic dominance over other nations so they become dependent. In this kind of system Marx’s fear of the exploited labourer swells to the size of whole regions and nations being exploited.

Drones and the Neocolonial

How does Neocolonialism plays out through the use of UAV drones? In his book An Ethical Responsibility to International Relations, Daniel Warner explains use of force as understood by Max Weber. Max Weber is considered to be one of the three founding fathers in sociology and anthropology, along with Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx. For this reason, applying Warner’s quotation and interpretation of Weber will give great depth to my analysis:

“The state, in turn, was defined as ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Weber concluded that politics was the ‘striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power either among states or among groups within a state.’ Since the state is defined in terms of force, it follows that politics, the leadership within the state, be defined in terms of power, since it is that power that controls or utilizes the force. Hence, if the essence of the state is the successful monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force, the political leader is he who successfully dominates or uses that force. He is, for Weber, the power behind the force, if not the force itself.”

With this quote in mind, thinking about the 658 individuals executed via drones in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia we must question “Who is in control of these countries/states?”. If we incorporate Warner/Weber into Marxian Neocolonialism, we have our answer – The United States of America. While Weber may argue that Obama is the power behind the force, I would argue today’s Neocolonialism is a sort of machine and the operator isn’t as important as the function. Furthermore, Weber may not have envisioned such a large bureaucratic governments as we have today; Weber certainly did not plan for drones.

Combining Weber/Warner with Neocolonialism this paper has come to one of its major thrusts. At the time of Weber’s writing, globalization and unmanned aerial vehicles were unheard of. During his time, legitimate use of physical force could only be understood by the physical power of physical men. Today we would consider this an inadequate and very narrow understanding of physical force. To apply Weber, his understanding of physical force and power must extrapolated to the modern understanding. Right now as it stands, the use of drones across the world is legitimate. when a strike takes place it is a legitimate use of physical force in a foreign land. It is the UAV drone which is exercising physical force within that country or territory. Therefore i propose two claims: first, that it is the physical drone itself which embodies the invisible and deadly hand of western neocolonialism. Secondly, since drones exercise legitimate physical force and violence overseas, US actually rules these countries in a neocolonial way by exercising legitimately power through drone strikes.

This is a serious watershed moment. No longer does legitimate rule need to be physically enforced by physical men. Instead these machine robots function as the embodied but nonhuman vanguards of Neocolonialism. In the Terminator films, when a terminator was destroyed all of its information was lost and its mission over. The terminator essential functioned an autonomous unit and it’s threat ended with its destruction. This is not the case with the ‘terminators’ we have today. One drone or a hundred drones could be shot down and destroyed but, the mission would not end. The legitimacy of a drone’s use of violence is the linchpin to its powerful role in Neocolonialism. If drones are to end as the enforces of neocolonial domination, its legitimacy to act must be the focus. If the legitimacy of its power is removed it will no longer be able to function as the embodied enforcer of neocolonial domination.


Situating drone strikes within sociological theory reveals a rich set of troubling ideas to think about. At the time of writing this paper there has not been enough academic writing on theory analysis of UAV drones and their role within neocolonial. Trying to write about this topic is like trying to hit a moving target because, everyday something new happens or is revealed.

It is important to highlight at this junction that the purpose of this paper is not to suggest a conspiracy theory. The purpose of this paper is an attempt to understand the impact of UAV drone strikes through the lens of social theory. Said’s theory of Orientalism explains why so many people either passively or actively approve of problematic drone strikes. Orientalism distorts reality into making everyone from the Orient some how related to terrorism. Even if they are not related to terrorism the West still sees the Orient as subordinate to western liberalism.

When the same concept of Neocolonialism is applied to UAV drones, their strikes take on a new dimension of meaning. No longer are they ‘just a UAV’, instead they become something more. Imbued with special metaphysical properties, the drone is the embodiment of colonial domination which is still present today despite the countries no longer being under direct colonial rule. When thinking about Weber and The Protestant Ethic, he may help to explain why Christian, Western capitalism is opposed to Muslim, eastern capitalism. Orientalism comes into play as a means of creating boundaries, distorting knowledge, and creating the false conception of The Orient. By thinking about these events in a new way I hope will challenge our perspectives

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This Essay is an edited and condensed version of my final assignment for “Understanding & Responding to Global Terrorism”, a Dalhousie University 4th year special topics course.

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