Drones and Dissociation

Dorothy Butchard

In January 2013 the novelist Teju Cole released a series of tweets introduced as “Seven Short Stories about Drones.” Each rewrites the opening of a classic novel, cutting off the narrative with a drone strike. For example, the third in the series rains “fire from heaven” on Joyce’s Ulysses:

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven” (Cole n.pag.).

Cole described his tweets as an effort to overcome an “empathy gap” in public reactions to drone strikes (Zhang n.pag.). This article compares the invocation of literary fiction in Cole’s “Short Stories” with personal testimony of life under threat of attack in Atef Abu Saif‘s war diary The Drone Eats With Me (2015) and George Brant‘s depiction of a female drone pilot in the play Grounded (2013). Each work contemplates effects of distance and dissociation arising as a result of technologised warfare, exploring the ramifications of increasing military use of weaponised drones for surveillance and attack.


The use of drones has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and in Pakistan since their first use in the Balkans war. 

[Image by Caspar Girl under a CC BY license]

A drone is defined as any unmanned vehicle operated via a remote control interface. In practice, drones are usually airborne, and their uses extend beyond military surveillance and attack. From aerial photography to “toy” drones hailed as the “perfect Christmas gift” in 2014, they have an increasing range of forms and functions. Within military contexts, drones vary “from the 8-inch-long Wasp Micro UAV… to the 44-foot-long Global Hawk” (Enemark 2). Authors and theorists who tackle the depiction of drones engage with an issue which is fraught, fast-moving and often shrouded in secrecy. Advising caution regarding the ethics of armed drones, Bradley Strawser notes a “paucity of consistent data” (6), warning against “an absolutist position on either side of the drone divide” (Ibid). Others refute cautious equivocation. Naqvi passionately denounces the use of armed drones, explaining that “Mr. Strawser lives in a nation of drone operators,” while “I live in a nation of drone targets” (Naqvi 125). Debates frequently focus on the ethics of the weaponry; for Gregoire Chamayou, drone warfare “degenerates into slaughter or hunting,” since “[o]ne no longer fights the enemy; one eliminates him, as one shoots rabbits” (Chamayou 91).

The literary works discussed here offer a fresh perspective by adopting deliberately subjective approaches to a “drone divide” (Strawser 6). Eschewing demands for data and caution, these authors focus on drones’ direct impact on operators and victims.

Teju Cole described his “Seven Short Stories” as an effort to start a “conversation” about the impact of targeted U.S. drone strikes overseas, hoping to end a “silence that has surrounded the use of drones to assassinate people outside this country” (Zhang n.pag.). Cole deemed this “an empathy gap” (Ibid) arising from public dissociation and disinterest regarding the effects of drone strikes elsewhere. John Yoo, quoted in Bowden’s “Killing Machines”, speculated that “with drone killings, you do not see anything, not as a member of the public… It’s kind of antiseptic” (Bowden n.pag.). Such “antiseptic” perceptions are encouraged by official descriptions which emphasise precision and efficiency. Citing White House claims that armed drones are “exceptionally precise, exceptionally surgical and exceptionally targeted” (Carney n.pag.), Conor Friedersdorf finds that this portrayal is a “downright dishonest metaphor” (Friedersdorf n.pag.). Nevertheless, claims of surgical precision combine with distance and secrecy to widen an “empathy gap” regarding armed drones, where the populace of regions dominated by “drone operators” are encouraged to ignore or elide their consequences for those populated by “drone targets” (Naqvi 125).


Drones are unmanned and operated via a remote control interface reminiscent of video games. A drone operator’s physically distant and screen-based view might encourage dangerous levels of dissociation. 

[Image by Corwyn Alex under a CC BY license]

Atef Abu Saif’s personal testimony of living through Israeli drone strikes in Gaza endeavours to overturn such “antiseptic” portrayals of weaponised drones. A common defence of drones is the minimising of “collateral” damage and reduced loss of human life. In The Drone Eats With Me, Saif urges his readership to contrast the distancing effect of such commentaries with the reality of becoming a numbered victim. “Imagine what it must be like to be converted into a number,” he muses, “that you are not ‘Atef Abu Saif’. You are ‘Victim Number 568’” (Saif 76). Saif resorts to a comparison with literary fiction to illustrate the brutality of casually truncated lives. A family killed by a drone strike “were not just SIX,” he asserts:

They were six infinitely rich, infinitely unknowable stories that came to a stop when a dumb missile fell from a drone and tore their bodies apart. Six novels that Mahfouz, Dickens or Marquez could not have written satisfactorily. […] Instead they are tales that have cascaded into the news as numbers. (77)

Cole’s “Short Stories” deploy a reversed version of Saif’s metaphor by deliberately forestalling the unfolding of famous literary lives. His brief narratives cut off the trajectories of famous, beloved and admired characters from canonical literary fiction. The first victim is Mrs Dalloway. Cole truncates Woolf’s opening line, “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (Woolf 26). “Pity,” the modification concludes with sardonic understatement, “A signature strike levelled the florist’s” (Cole n.pag.). Like Cole’s “Small Fates” project, the “Short Stories” use grimly ironic juxtaposition to short-circuit the dissociation involved in dismissing strikes as something happening elsewhere, to other people.


Cole’s brief narratives violently cut off the trajectories of beloved characters from canonical literary fiction.

[Image by Ian under a CC BY NC license]

Cole’s “Short Stories” combine linguistic detail with carefully constructed literary reference-points in their effort to close an “empathy gap”. As in Phil Klay’s “OIF,” Cole’s use of technical terms and official language lends a clipped, detached effect which satirises claims to military precision by bluntly mimicking official language and terms; “killed by a Predator drone”, “[t]his program saves American lives” (Cole n.pag.). They also retain traces of the original narratives. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man finds symmetrical invisibility in the mysterious unknowability of an “unmanned aerial vehicle” coming “from a secret location”. Whereas the narrator of Ellison’s novel contends that “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids” (Ellison 1), Cole’s rewriting performs a figurative immolation, transforming it into a figure whose “name is unknown. My loves are a mystery.” Similarly, Buck Mulligan finds a eerily suitable fate, killed by a bomb which “whistled in”, spilling “blood on the walls”. A few lines later in Ulysses, the unmurdered Mulligan “peered sideways up and gave a long slow whistle of call” (Joyce 24). Kafka’s Josef K, whose full name is never revealed, is destroyed by a weapon named in full when he is “killed by a Predator drone”. The “Stories” mix gruesome specificity with literary echoes to draw attention to the dissociative effects of drone strikes: these characters are rendered anonymous, dismembered, figuratively cut off from their narrative context, by the sudden impact of “signature strikes” and “fire from heaven”.

Whereas Cole is concerned with an “empathy gap” in public opinion, Atef Abu Saif and George Brant both envision effects of dissociation experienced by individual drone operators who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away from the scene of attack. Chamayou argues that operators’ physical distance causes a “radical imbalance in exposure to death” (91), a “radical asymmetry” (Enemark 77) which is reflected in the motto printed on a military patch designed for Reaper drone operators, “that others may die” (my emphasis). Introducing the patch as an apt symbol for the physical “invulnerability” (91) of drone operators, Chamayou compares its scythe-bearing Death-figure with sixteenth-century portrayals of “an armed warrior fighting against a skeleton – death itself” (Ibid), a futile struggle against an invulnerable opponent. The operator’s invulnerability is a key concern in Brant’s monologue, Grounded. “I’m not there I can’t be killed” (780), the protagonist reminds herself before her first strike. Distanced by a mediating screen, the scenes she observes appear simultaneously detailed and unreal, “a world carved out of […] high-definition putty” (710). In this grey world, the individuals who she targets are merely “putty people” (785), who she initially dismisses as “the guilty” (Ibid).


Cole is concerned with an “empathy gap” in public opinion. 

[Image by Quinn Dombrowski under a CC BY SA license]

Atef Abu Saif reflects bitterly on the combination of invulnerability and unreality in his diary of life under threat of drone attack. “Our fates are all in the hands of a drone operator in a military base,” he observes, picturing an operator who “looks at Gaza the way an unruly boy looks at the screen of a video game” (31). Like the putty world in Brant’s play, Saif uses a metaphor of image manipulation to suggest that onscreen visualisations render his city hazardously malleable:

Many buildings have completely disappeared, as if a designer somewhere had simply Photoshopped them out of the picture — the designer being an F1 pilot, a drone operator, a soldier sitting in a warship or a tank. Seated in front of screens, far far away from where their killing machines have their effect, they each take turns playing their favourite game. (Saif 129)

Expanding his earlier image of “an unruly boy” who “presses a button and might destroy a whole street” (31), Saif offers no suggestion that these “designers” linger over the effects of their capricious deletions. Instead, he pictures them in contest, eagerly scrambling to “take turns” at this “favourite game” (Ibid). As the conflict ends, Saif speculates that the operator of a drone still flying overhead “wants to make the most of his last go at the game, for now” (231).

Saif’s invocation of video games echoes official concerns that a drone operator’s physically distant and screen-based view might encourage dangerous levels of dissociation from the effects of the “killing machines” (Saif 129) they control. A report on armed drones in the United States noted the risk of developing “a ‘playstation’ mentality to killing,” since operators are “based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio feed” (Alston 25). Though Enemark cautions that this “would need to be substantiated by more research into the emotions of drone operators” (86), an association of gaming and high-tech warfare remains prevalent in anecdotal commentaries. In “Killing Machines” Bowden quotes chilling comparisons with gaming, while Prince Harry’s comments on his time as an apache co-pilot in Afghanistan infamously illustrated how seamlessly high-tech warfare can converge with onscreen representations: “It’s a joy for me,” he said of his role as gunner, “because I’m one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox”. Though Saif’s imagined drone operator is a fictional construct, the scenario he envisages is neither improbable nor far-fetched.

In the absence of detailed psychological investigations into the emotions of drone operators, George Brant‘s monologue Grounded considers the possibility that operators suffer psychological harm despite their physical invulnerability. The protagonist is an ex-bomber whose fighter plane was always “long gone by the time the boom happens” (262). As a drone operator, by contrast, she must remain “lingering” above the site of attack:

Are those?

I didn’t notice that last time

Flying through the air

Body parts

Those must be body parts


Body parts (850)

Initially the protagonist restores dissociation by reassuring herself that these are “guilty body parts” (Ibid). Yet the monologue explores the gradual erasure of distinctions between victim and operator, those deemed guilty or not guilty. Pursuing a target for assassination, the operator tracks “the guiltiest-looking” car, but observes it “Looks kinda like mine […] My car sure likes to drive in the desert / Same war different desert” (1088). Eventually the grey world onscreen converges with hers, and the “empathy gap” is fully closed when she sees a child caught up in an attack as her own, victim to “approaching Hellfire” (1498).

By adopting literary forms to describe advanced military technologies, these works are able to offer urgent polemical commentary on the dangers of preserving an “empathy gap” in the use of weaponised drones. The imaginative freedoms of fiction and performance mean these authors are able to sidestep the cautious collection of data and consideration of military ethics often demanded in other discursive areas. As a result, they provide valuable and much-needed contemplations on effects of distance and dissociation, vividly illustrating the effects of “radical imbalance” in the contemporary development and use of highly technologised, screen-based warfare.

CITATION: Dorothy Butchard, “Drones and Dissociation in Contemporary Fiction,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2015): n. pag. Web. 13 May 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.2.02

Dr Dorothy Butchard completed her PhD at the University of Edinburgh in 2015. Her research explores literary portrayals of new and changing technologies, focusing on depictions of contemporary cultural anxieties, materiality and marginalised voices.

Works Cited:

Alston, Philip. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Summary or Arbitrary Executions. New York: United Nations General Assembly, 2010.

Boone, Jon. “Taliban Retaliate after Prince Harry Compares Fighting to a Video Game.” The Guardian. Accessed March 30, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jan/22/afghanistan-taliban-response-prince-harry.

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Brant, George. Grounded. Oberon Modern Plays. London: Oberon Books, 2013.

Carney, Jay. “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 1/31/12.” Whitehouse.gov, January 31, 2012. https://www.whitehouse.gov/embeds/footer.

Chamayou, Grégoire. Drone Theory. Translated by Janet Lloyd. London: Penguin, 2015.

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DroneLifestyle.com. “Why Drones Make the Perfect Christmas Gift.” DroneLifestyle.com, May 11, 2014. http://dronelifestyle.com/drones-make-perfect-christmas-gift/.

Enemark, Christian. Armed Drones and the Ethics of War: Military Virtue in a Post-Heroic Age. War, Conflict and Ethics. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.

Friedersdorf, Conor. “Calling U.S. Drone Strikes ‘Surgical’ Is Orwellian Propaganda.” The Atlantic, September 27, 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/calling-us-drone-strikes-surgical-is-orwellian-propaganda/262920/.

Naqvi, Feisal. “The Other Side of the Line.” In Opposing Perspectives on the Drone Debate, edited by Bradley Jay Strawser, 125–35. New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Saif, Atef Abu. The Drone Eats with Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire. Fasila (Comma Press), 2015.

Strawser, Bradley Jay. “More Heat Than Light: The Vexing Complexities of the Drone Debate.” In Opposing Perspectives on the Drone Debate, edited by Bradley Jay Strawser, 5–21. New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. Vintage Classics. London: Vintage, 2004.

Zhang, Sarah. “Teju Cole on the ‘Empathy Gap’ and Tweeting Drone Strikes.” Motherjones.com, March 6, 2013. http://www.motherjones.com/media/2013/03/teju-cole-interview-twitter-drones-small-fates.

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