Published in the November 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Conjectural Damage” traces the history of man and unmanned airstrikes. The article is free to read in full through October 19. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for instant access to our entire 165-year archive.
There’s glamour to an unmanned plane, perfect and ominous: the drones are a symbol of American might and also American wickedness, and all who praise them, or who find them troubling, concur that they represent something new. Two years ago, in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer wrote of “a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force.” “We’ve seen the future, and it’s unmanned,” panted the cover of Esquire. “Every so often in human history,” went the opening, “something profound happens that changes warfare forever.” Last March, Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution—author of Wired for War, a slightly histrionic book about robot technology and the future of warfare—met with the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. “The point here,” he noted, “is that every so often in history, the emergence of a new technology changes our world.” Drone talk had acquired its own vocabulary.
The Predator drone’s past is as long as the history of flight. “Even before World War I,” writes the pilot and military historian Kenneth Werrell, “the idea of an unmanned, automatically controlled ‘flying bomb’ or ‘aerial torpedo’ circulated in a number of countries.” In September 1916 the U.S. Navy tested a remote-controlled seaplane. The Army built the Liberty Eagle, a pilotless plane wrapped in muslin and brown paper, and on October 4, 1918, it flew in circles for forty-five minutes and crashed in a field in Ohio. The British had the Larynx, which sank in the Bristol Channel shortly after takeoff, and in 1934 fitted radio control to a Tiger Moth biplane. They called it Queen Bee, which is why we now refer to unmanned planes as “drones”: all are followers of the queen.
Early aviation was rough and chancy—spindly biplanes, catapult launches, a running jump—but with the start of World War II the quest for unmanned flight took on a greater urgency. On September 21, 1943, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons that “the speeches of the German leaders contain mysterious allusions to new methods and new weapons which will presently be tried against us.” In New York, Admiral Jonas Ingram, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, told reporters to expect Nazi robot planes. They could be launched, he said, from submarines off the coast. robot bomb attacks here held “probable” by admiral ran the headline in the next day’s New York Times.
When the German weapons came, in June 1944, they were the V-1 buzzbombs, fired from catapults in northern France and humming their way on pulse-jet engines and basic autopilot to burn out in stutters over London. The Allied response was Operation Aphrodite: a secret squadron of the Eighth Air Force took ten old B-17s, nicknamed “Weary Willies,” and packed each one with 20,000 pounds of explosives. According to the plan, two airmen would launch the planes before parachuting out. A separate mothership flying above would then steer the Weary Willies by remote control toward suspected V-1 launch sites. The project was abandoned that August when one robot B-17 escaped the mothership and vanished into the clouds, only to resurface over Ipswich; it crashed into the mudflats of the North Sea.
The doctrine of bombing is touchingly optimistic: the skies may be the antidote to armies locked in muddy battle; machines may solve the manmade problem of war. As the military historian Tami Davis Biddle argues in her study Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, the development of aerial weapons in the early twentieth century was spurred by the horrors of the trenches. The United States and Britain, she writes, “came to see bomber aircraft as a means of fighting wars at relatively low cost to themselves, avoiding a repetition of the harrowing experience of the 1914–1918 war.” The first step to a pilotless plane is to take the soldier from the battlefield and imagine a machine in his place.
Indeed, the robot planes are the perfect realization of the age-old military fantasy of strategic bombing. In 1921, the Italian militarist and amateur poet Giulio Douhet published a monograph called The Command of the Air. “To have command of the air means to be in a position to wield offensive power so great it defies human imagination,” he claimed. In 1925 the U.S. Army general Billy Mitchell followed with Winged Defense. “In the development of air power,” he wrote, “one has to look ahead and not backward and figure out what is going to happen, not too much what has happened.” In 1942, a Russian naval aviator who had lost a leg in World War I and emigrated to the United States picked up the theme. In Victory Through Air Power, Alexander de Seversky posited that “air power speaks a strategic language so new that translation into the hackneyed idiom of the past is impossible. It calls not only for new machines and techniques of warmaking but for new men unencumbered by routine thinking.” De Seversky’s book sold half a million copies and was made into a cartoon by Walt Disney.
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