How We’ll Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Drone

Posted on July 22nd, 2015 by Liam McCarthy

In 1986 a small movie was released that had a tremendous impact on recruitment for the US navy and men’s volley ball. Well, I may be making up the men’s volley ball, but in the aftermath of Top Gun the pentagon announced a 500% boost in applications to become Navy Aviators. Whilst correlation does not equate to causation, the relationship between the media and our love of the military is one that has been embedded for a long time. The glamour, and romance of sleek military equipment, whether knights in shining armour, or pilots in the sky capture the public imagination and shaped our impression of the professions. One area of the modern military that has found it more difficult to attract love however is the humble bomber pilot (and crew).


Image courtesy of PH2 Michael D.P. Flynn, U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons


Despite their significance in the Second World War, and beyond, the bomber is not a beacon of romance and love, it is ugly, it is dangerous, and pales next to the status and looks of fighters. In a UK context Churchill ignored the role of Bomber Command in his VE Day speech, and a commemorative clasp for veterans was not issued until 2013… some sixty-seven years after the war had ended.

But why? Strategic bombing is a necessary and vital part of any modern war effort. But with the best will in the world, a huge aircraft dropping tonnes of munitions onto an enemy thousands of feet below them does not feel the most honourable thing. Footage of the impact of bombing campaigns, whether the Blitz, Kyoto, or Vietnam, draws the observers to the inescapable reality of bombing in a way that fighters do not have to face.

Fighters fly missions against other fighters, it is honourable and it is fair. Bombers fly against ground based targets, and unfortunately it has proven to be historically difficult to ensure that the targets that they hit are enemy combatants. Whether striking industrial Dresden, or ISIS targets in Iraq, the possibility of hitting an innocent is present, no matter how pressing or significant the intended target is. Ultimately, bombing an enemy is a necessary evil, but an evil none the less. This leads to a relative demonization of bombers in the public eye, in particular in the eyes of those who are being bombed.



Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons


In recent years I have become increasingly interested in the subject of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, the ubiquitous drones that either represent a disproportionate and terrifying threat to civilians on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan (or wherever the United States and its allies see fit to strike), or they are our last, best hope at tackling the radical extremism of groups like ISIS, whilst giving “our” pilots the time and distance to do so “safely”. The drone as a tool of war fuels a dual sense of separation anxiety and serenity. Anything that seemingly removes people from an action is prone to demonization and deification, and drones currently are frequently in the public eye for this.

In much the same way as Top Gun helped a Cold War jaded public fall in love with the military all over again, the media has had a more complex impact on our relationship with technology. In fictional representations technology is framed as both our saviour and oppressor, and sometimes both. This summer has been particularly interesting in the “Technology is our saviour/oh no it’s not” front. With Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, and Terminator Genisys all presenting environments where technology is simultaneously our biggest threat, and ultimate saviour.

This ambiguity has led to a dual deification and demonization of drones in the public consciousness. The technophiles argue that drones reduce the cruelty for war, making it easier than ever to hit the “right” targets, they enable the operators to take their time and ensure they do not make a mistake, meaning there is less risk to innocents and non-combatants.  When this is coupled with the fact that the operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, they are also less risky to “us”. As we can hit them, but they cannot hit us.



Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt/Wikimedia Commons


Meanwhile the technophobes take the same operational reality, but draw different conclusions. The separation from the battlefield brings about disassociation, the idea being that the further away you are from the target the easier it is to kill. This ease of operation is also manifest in the political decision making process too. As it is easier to hit an enemy target, and it is harder for them to hit us, this lack of risk makes it easier for us to make the decision to go to war in the first place.

This ambiguity in many ways is healthy, it shows a public that is engaging with complex issues. But ambiguity is not as desirable from the point of view of the military or their political masters.  They have a tool they wish to use, and they wish to recruit new pilots to fly them. It is necessary for them to glamourise and romanticise drones in the same way as knights in shining armour, and volley ball playing aviators have done in previous years. News of Top Gun 2’s desire to focus its attention onto US drone operators, with Tom Cruise’s Maverick returning to the Danger Zone, is therefore a tremendous boost to those wishing for a less ambiguous vision of drones. With clear cut heroes, villains, and ideally a happy ending, Hollywood’s version of drone warfare will attempt to have us seeing drones as the solution to all of our problems, being an operator will be the dream of every boy and girl, and Tom Cruise will teach us all to stop worrying and love the drone.




Liam McCarthy is a Lecturer in International Relations at Nottingham Trent University, he is also co-director of NTU’s Insecurity, Political Violence and Change research cluster, and co-convenor of the Pacific Asia PSA Specialist Group.

Liam’s research interests explore three main strands. Firstly, exploring the pedagogic challenges in teaching Politics and International Relations, in particular the drivers imposing positivist epistemologies and methodologies on students of all levels.

Secondly, the nature of political legitimacy and the transitions to, and through, authoritarianism and democracy. He is interested in the challenges that new democratic institutions face, and their impact in shepherding nations from authoritarianism.

Thirdly, Liam examines the mechanisms of norm formation, and the implications of this for the practice and study of security. He is also interested in analysing the relationship between technology and warfare, with particular reference to “Drones”, and exploring the distortion that has facilitated the militarisation of defence and security.