The Drone: Joseph de Maistre’s Executioner

The  drone (h/t Liliana Segura):

From his computer console here in the Syracuse suburbs, Col. D. Scott Brenton remotely flies a Reaper drone that beams back hundreds of hours of live video of insurgents, his intended targets, going about their daily lives 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. Sometimes he and his team watch the same family compound for weeks.

“I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer,” Colonel Brenton said.

When the call comes for him to fire a missile and kill a militant — and only, Colonel Brenton said, when the women and children are not around — the hair on the back of his neck stands up, just as it did when he used to line up targets in his F-16 fighter jet.

Afterward, just like the old days, he compartmentalizes. “I feel no emotional attachment to the enemy,” he said. “I have a duty, and I execute the duty.”

Drones are not only revolutionizing American warfare but are also changing in profound ways the lives of the people who fly them.

Colonel Brenton acknowledges the peculiar new disconnect of fighting a telewar with a joystick and a throttle from his padded seat in American suburbia.

When he was deployed in Iraq, “you land and there’s no more weapons on your F-16, people have an idea of what you were just involved with.” Now he steps out of a dark room of video screens, his adrenaline still surging after squeezing the trigger, and commutes home past fast-food restaurants and convenience stores to help with homework…

 The Executioner:

Who is then this inexplicable being who has preferred to all the pleasant, lucrative, honest, and even honorable jobs that present themselves in hundreds to human power and dexterity that of torturing and putting to death his fellow creatures? Are this head and this heart made like ours? Do they not hold something peculiar and foreign to our nature? For my own part, I do not doubt this. He is made like us externally; he is born like us but he is an extraordinary being, and for him to exist in the human family a particular decree, a FIAT of the creative power is necessary. He is a species to himself. Look at the place he holds in public opinion and see if you can understand how he can ignore or affront this opinion! Scarcely have the authorities fixed his dwelling-place, scarcely has he taken possession of it, than the other houses seem to shrink back until they no longer overlook his. In the midst of this solitude and this kind of vacuum that forms around him, he lives alone with his woman and his offspring who make the human voice known to him, for without them he would know only groans. A dismal signal is given; a minor judicial official comes to his house to warn him that he is needed; he leaves; he arrives at some public place packed with a dense and throbbing crowd. A poisoner, a parricide, or a blasphemer is thrown to him; he seizes him, he stretches him on the ground, he ties him to a horizontal cross, he raises it up: then a dreadful silence falls, and nothing can be heard except the crack of bones breaking under the crossbar and the howls of the victim. He unfastens him; he carries him to a wheel: the shattered limbs interweave with the spokes; the head falls; the hair stands on end, and the mouth, open like a furnace, gives out spasmodically only a few blood-spattered words calling for death to come. He is finished: his heart flutters, but it is with joy; he congratulates himself, he says sincerely, No one can break men on the wheel better than I. He steps down; he stretches out his blood-stained hand, and justice throws into it from a distance a few pieces of gold which he carries through a double row of men drawing back with horror. He sits down to a meal and eats; then to bed, where he sleeps. And next day, on waking, he thinks of anything other than what he did the day before. Is this a man? Yes: God receives him in his temples and permits him to pray. He is not a criminal, yet it is impossible to say, for example, that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he is estimable, and so on. No moral praise can be appropriate for him, since this assumes relationships with men, and he has none.

And yet all grandeur, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner: he is the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and at that very moment order gives way to chaos, thrones topple, and society disappears.


  1. casino implosion July 30, 2012 at 9:04 am | #

    Indeed, a drone pilot has much more in common with an executioner than with a warrior;

  2. jonnybutter July 30, 2012 at 9:06 am | #

    for him to exist in the human family a particular decree, a FIAT of the creative power is necessary.

    (love the fact that ‘FIAT’ is capitalized! It’s like an iron fist slamming down on a table. The word is its own justification, somehow).

    When I think about this line of thought – roughly speaking, that the essential human trait is the ability to be gratuitous/arbitrary/negative – I wonder about neuroses in mammals. Supposedly animals can’t do things which are gratuitous, but what if what we think of as ‘gratuitous’ is just ‘optional’. Neurosis is optional, and animals can be neurotic. I wonder if people in the past realized that about animals.

  3. Pathman July 30, 2012 at 9:10 am | #

    It certainly makes it easier to kill people if they don’t seem real. It’s just a video game. They’ll respawn soon. They’ll respawn with a hatred and desire to kill the people that did this to their families. That’s how this works. But is sure is good for the plutocracy/corporate bastards that run this country.

  4. edward scott July 30, 2012 at 9:27 am | #

    Comparing the two men as profiled conjures few similarities, but reflecting on the human nature we all share, notwithstanding Baptism’s erasure of Original Sin, we’re all quite capable of cruelty’s disassociation .
    I’ve often thought few, if any people of true virtue have gained the esteem of history.

  5. Vance Maverick July 30, 2012 at 10:02 am | #

    Is there any indication in the article that people draw back in horror from the drone controller?

    • casino implosion July 30, 2012 at 11:00 am | #

      I don’t know, but “Draw Back In Horror From The Drone Controller” is definitely the great lost Skinny Puppy song title.

  6. Burnt Norton July 30, 2012 at 11:41 am | #

    Émile Faguet described Maistre as part learned doctor, part inquisitor, part executioner. Sounds about right.

    Though the drone controller as executioner is far removed from the “hands on” work of the executioner as described by Maistre, the dissociation is no less severe. One has to wonder how that disconnect is manifesting in their lives and in the lives of those closest to them? At some point, their actions will catch up with them, no doubt.

  7. Frank July 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm | #

    Foucault maybe had it best. Not only is the job of executioner a job, one that the worker likely doesn’t want, but nonetheless needs the pay; while simultaneously, the move is increasingly towards hiding away the spectacle of execution, as we no longer need the public display.

  8. troy grant July 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm | #

    Awesome article. But a distinction needs to be made between the treatment of a soldier or political figure and someone who should be removed from society, like a serial killer. The first should be protected from summary execution by the Geneva Convention and the latter removed humanely from society whenever possible. There is no honor in executing enemies from a comfortable chair from the other side of the world. And capital punishment has never proven to deter crime.

    Cruelty and human suffering should not be taught. Its more constructive and productive to teach kindness than to respond to evil with more evil. In fact, most criminals are victims of other criminals, and/or mentally ill and should be treated as such.

  9. rolandrjs July 30, 2012 at 4:12 pm | #

    Reblogged this on Rolandrjs's Blog.

  10. andrew July 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm | #

    Hey Prof. Robin, what do you think about Andrew Sullivan’s “conservative defense of Obama”?

  11. Diana July 30, 2012 at 11:35 pm | #

    just curious, has anyone here ever read the Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe? a work of fantasy, to be sure, but an amazing one, and Severian is quite open and honest about his profession as a professional torturer and executioner.

    • casino implosion August 1, 2012 at 9:31 pm | #

      One of the finest works of fantasy ever written. Also, it lead me to Jack Vance–the greatest living American author.

  12. RobM July 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm | #

    Sorry it is more equivalent to being a sniper w/ out having to worry about keeping your cover.

  13. Seth Edenbaum August 1, 2012 at 1:21 am | #

    “And yet all grandeur, all power, all subordination rests on the LAW: It is the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and at that very moment order gives way to chaos, thrones topple, and society disappears.”

    All too true. The terror of the law is that it is impersonal. If it were to become subjective it would fall apart. Is the law objective? No. But I’m not here to explain to you the aporias of life, just that they exist.

    “The ACLU is a conservative organization”
    Spencer Coxe was director the the Philadelphia ACLU from 1952 to 1979.
    The ACLU defended the Nazis in Skokie out of a conservative’s sense of pessimism.
    Liberals are optimists; the rule of law is conservative.

    6 months ago your page looked like this

    The search brought up my comments and nothing else.
    I see now you wrote something, about anti-semitism. That’s progress I guess, but it doesn’t make me an optimist, or a liberal.

    • Philip Wohlstetter August 1, 2012 at 4:02 am | #

      What Dickensian prose! God help me but I love reading De Maistre. The opening of ‘Les Soirees de Saint-Petersbourg’, for example., a dialogue between three aristocrats staged on a boat sailing down the Neva River. “I’d like to see here, on this same boat with us, one of those perverted men, born for the misfortunate, one of those monsters who weary the earth,” says the Chevalier de B***. “I would ask him if this night seemed as beautiful to him as it does to us.” Taking my cue from the word ‘monster’, I tried to adapt this for a piece I was writing on Pinochet. It came out too precious. What I like about this conceit, at least as I read it, is that we know certain things about the Pinochets or Kissingers of the world (i.e. that they’re murderers) but we don’t know what if anything they find beautiful.

    • diegovela August 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm | #

      My comment was less a response to this post than to Frank Pasquale’s use of it.

      There’s a relation between a judge who frees a killer because the cops broke into his house without a warrant, and a killer who kills because the state tells him to. Both require the a kind of blindness. I don’t particularly like Col. Brenton and I doubt he understands the similarities or differences, but the JAGs defending detainees in Guantanamo understand both.

      Gore Vidal was an aristocrat and a conservative. We need people like him more than we need liberals.

    • diegovela August 2, 2012 at 12:20 am | #

      My response was directed less at this post than at Frank Pasquale’s use of it.

      That being said, there’s a similarity between a soldier who kills because he’s told to and a judge who frees a murderer because the cops found their evidence by entering his apartment without a warrant. There’s a similar blindness. The difference is between a presumption of innocence and a presumption of guilt. I’m not sure Col. Brenton understands this, but I’m pretty sure the JAGs defending the prisoners at Guantanamo do.
      And I’m not sure the author of this post understands the importance of blindness at all.

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