Book review: Adelman, Rebecca A., and David Kieran, eds. Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence. University of Minnesota Press, 2020.
By T. F. A. Watts
Remote warfare scholarship has grown significantly over the last decade. Recent edited collections on this subject have explored the legal, policy, and security implications of the trend in Western warfighting toward military intervention at a distance without the deployment of large numbers of “boots on the ground” (Ohlin 2017; McKay, Watson & Karlshøj-Pedersen 2021). Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence, a thirteen-chapter volume edited by Rebecca Adelman and David Kieran, makes a timely contribution to this growing field of study. It interrogates the “cultural entanglements, imprints, and consequences of remote warfare” (p.10) from a range of disciplinary perspectives spanning the humanities. It is essential reading for researchers interested in how the technologies of remote warfare have been imagined, presented, and resisted. For researchers interested in the geopolitical logics of remote warfare (see Biegon & Watts 2020, 2021), this text sheds new light on how the constitutive “remoteness” of remote warfare has come to be mediated and encountered by Western publics through a range of different forms of popular culture.
The relationship between cultural understandings of remote warfare and the practices of contemporary political violence are an important area of academic enquiry. Adelman and Kieran argue that remote warfare is “central to modern state-sponsored violence” (p.3). Consistent with this claim, since the genesis of this research field during the early years of Obama’s presidency, remote warfare has developed into a vibrant area of academic enquiry. The field has travelled beyond its original grounding in the interdisciplinary debates on drone technologies toward the study of multiple security agents and security practices used by an intervening agent to distance their conventional ground forces from frontline fighting. What unites this emerging research field is a shared analytical focus on the production, character, and effects of various forms of distance in war. Three broad areas of debate can be identified: (1) studies examining the legality and experience of using various “remote” weapons technologies, principally drones but also autonomous weapons systems and cyber warfare capabilities; (2) practitioner-oriented studies scrutinising the transparency, efficacy and human costs of recent Western counterterrorism and stabilisation operations; and (3) studies examining the socio-political effects and geopolitical appeal of remote warfare from the perspective of Western states.
At its core, Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence is an investigation of “how various actors have interpreted and responded to the centrality of violence delivered from a distance to modern warfare” (p.3). In keeping with this research field’s traditional focus, it is principally orientated around the study of remote warfare as technology. Amongst other themes, chapters explore the genealogy of contemporary drone warfare’s widening geography and violence to the writing of early aviation theorists including Giulio Douhet, the narrative depiction of “remote” wars and warriors in American war literature, and the necro-politics of killing at a distance. Taken as a whole, this volume aims to move the field beyond its current “gridlock” on questions of efficacy and ethics toward an investigation of remote warfare’s cultural impact (p.7). Animating this push is a stated concern with the narrowing and increasing circularity of the critical focus on drones and killing at a distance. The contributions to this volume thus aim to “illuminate overlooked histories of remoteness, experiment with novel methodologies for studying it, and integrate unexpected voices into its analysis” (p.10). In terms of methods, this volume adopts an interpretivist approach to exploring the various cultural productions of remote warfare with several chapters providing detailed textual analysis of literary works.
Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence is a more detailed investigation of the themes introduced in a 2018 special issue published in the Journal of War & Culture Studies (Adelman & Keiran 2018). In the introduction to Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence, Adelman and Keiran carve out the gap for, and contribution made by, this volume to remote warfare scholarship. The ways in which drone technologies challenge the traditional understandings of the psychological impact of killing at a distance is recognised, but drone warfare is rightly contextualised as part of a wider historical trend in the development of new weapon technologies. The remainder of this volume consists of a collection of twelve chapters written by a diverse range of scholars working across the field of humanities.
These contributions are organised around three thematical sections consisting of four chapters. Section 1 – “Visions” – unpacks the different imaginations and conceptualisations of remote warfare over time and in different contexts. Section 2 – “intimacies” – “charts the sometimes unexpected relationships and connections engendered by remote warfare, a degree of interactivity belied by the term itself” (p.16). The analytical focus shifts here toward exploring how the distances generally associated with remote warfare can be collapsed through the public’s interaction with video games, literature and the media . Section 3 – “Reconfigurations” – analyses how remote warfare has come to reshape cultural forms of resistance and protest within and beyond the communities amongst which this form of political violence is used.
In the reviewers assessment, one of the most significant contributions which this volume makes to remote warfare scholarship is to advance the study of its constitutive “remoteness”. The remoteness of remote warfare is often understood in terms of the physical distance created from frontline fighting via the use of various technologies like drones and the delegation of security tasks to commercial actors or local security forces. Jens Ohlin, in perhaps its most influential definition to date, understands remoteness as “allowing operators to use ever more discriminating force while also receding further in time and space from the target of the military operation” (2017a, p.2).
Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence moves the field forward by advancing our understanding of how Western publics “encounter” and come to “mediate” remote warfare through the media and popular culture. Annika Brunck’s chapter on “The Hunt for Osama Bin Laden” makes a particularly timely contribution in this regard, introducing a novel typology of different forms of remoteness. Ann-Katrine Nielsen’s contribution to this volume also shines an important light on how the complex interplays of “remoteness” and “intimacy” plays out in the literary works of Danish veterans of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The study of such texts, Nielsen argues, advances remote warfare scholarship by highlighting “how the (post)war experience cannot be contained by or bound in the individual veteran body but perpetually seeps and leaks through to create intimate and affective entanglements between remote war, veteran, civilian reader, and society” (p.203).
Through its various methodological innovations and push to expand the horizons of remote warfare scholarship toward its various cultural impacts, Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence provides a starting point for future research. It invites the discussion of a series of other research puzzles. How are the other security agents that have also been studied under the umbrella of remote warfare – special operation forces, private military security contractors, partnered security forces – depicted in culture? How have various actors interpreted, responded to and resisted the depiction of these security agents? What are the “cultural preconditions” for the activities of these agents? (p.10) This volume’s focus on remote weapons technologies is, of course, appropriate given where the field is and its current intellectual trajectory. The point here is not to criticize this volume. Rather it is to call for a further investigation of the research puzzles that it invites discussion of.
To conclude, this edited collection makes a much-needed contribution to remote warfare scholarship. It interrogates the different ways in which the “remoteness” of remote warfare is experienced from a diverse range of perspectives: drone operators, veterans, Western publics, protestors and the communities that live amongst the sites of military intervention. Furthermore, Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence also provides the foundation from which to push the field toward a greater understanding of the cultural depictions of other Western security agents involved in remote warfare operations and the concept’s constitutive remoteness. As Adelman and Kieran (p.21) note, it is through the types of cultural artefacts examined in this volume that the reader of this review will most likely come to encounter the violence intrinsic to remote warfare. For this reason alone, Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence should be considered essential reading and a highly recommended addition to reading lists on courses studying war and security.
Adelman, R. A., & Kieran, D. (2018). Re-Conceptualizing Cultures of Remote Warfare: Editors’ Introduction. Journal of War & Culture Studies, 11(1), 1-4, https://doi.org/10.1080/17526272.2017.1416764.
Biegon, R., & Watts, T. F. A. (2020). ‘Remote Warfare and the Retooling of American Primacy’, Geopolitics, 1-24, https://doi.org/10.1080/14650045.2020.1850442
Biegon, R., & Watts, T.F.A (2021). Security Cooperation as Remote Warfare: The US in the Horn of Africa. In A. Mckay, A. Watson & M. Karlshøj-Pedersen (Eds.), Remote Warfare Interdisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 152-172). Bristol: E-IR Publishing, https://www.e-ir.info/publication/remote-warfare-interdisciplinary-perspectives/
McKay, M., Watson, A., and M., Karlshøj-Pedersen, (2021). Remote Warfare: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Bristol: E-IR Publishing, https://www.e-ir.info/publication/remote-warfare-interdisciplinary-perspectives/
Ohlin, J. D. 2017a. Research Handbook on Remote Warfare. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/research-handbook-on-remote-warfare-9781784717001.html
Ohlin, J. D. 2017b. Introduction. In J. D. Ohlin (Eds.), Research Handbook on Remote Warfare (pp. 1-11). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/research-handbook-on-remote-warfare-9781784717001.html