Part of series: DisTex

Language, cognition and drone warfare


~900 words


Last modified: February 8th, 12,021 HE

Dr Matthew Voice of the University of Sheffield delivered a presentation on his research into drone warfare discourses to Lancaster University’s DisTex research group.

Having initially been interested in military autobiographies and the ways in which soldiers describe their participation in acts of violence, Voice was currently investigating the subgenre of drone warfare autobiographies, which he described as being discursively uncertain; that is, authors tended to alternate between describing how close they are to such violence and how distant, and repurpose the long-standing conventions and tropes of such literature without any consistent approaches (or new tropes of their own).

However, instead of looking at drone warfare autobiography, Voice today wanted to look at the language of drone operators in the moment of conflict itself. To this end, he presented the transcript of the Predator drone crew responsible for identifying the targets of the 2010 Uruzgan helicopter attack, in which a number of Afghani civilians were misidentified as armed combatants; 27–33 men, women and children were killed.

The crew, ~8,000 miles away in Nevada, were tasked with giving information to intelligence crews on the ground in Afghanistan. After tracking a convoy of vehicles for some time, they reported that they had positively ID’d weapons and a number of military-aged males (MAM), prompting the dispatching of helicopters to strike the convoy. Around 20 minutes later, during post-attack observation of the site, women and children were reported to be exiting the remaining vehicles. A subsequent investigation found no weapons present.

US Army Major General Timothy McHale was commissioned to conduct a full investigation. He identified four causes of the tragedy:

  1. ineffective location of command posts;
  2. the actions of the Predator crew (who he described as showing a propensity/bias towards kinetic action);
  3. the commander’s decision to engage; and
  4. ill-defined terminology (e.g., military-aged males).

Voice pointed out that three of these four related to the language of the Predator crew, which he would be exploring, courtesy of the transcript released as a result of FoI requests from the ACLU. The transcript contained some redactions (primarily callsigns; the crew’s language was practically untouched) and represented an amalgamation of two audio sources—the intercom between the Predator crew, and the Predator’s radio transmissions.

Voice first looked at examples of focusing at both its most egregious—I hope we get to shoot the truck with all the dudes in it—and more subtle—a MAM has passed a rifle to another MAM. These pre-emptively frame the situation in terms of militancy and potential violence, regardless of what is actually being observed. This was especially potent, Voice added, as the attack took place around 04:00 and so the Predator was only able to use thermal imaging feeds.

Voice then focused on examples of top-down reconstrual, where the crew proposed and mooted potential alternative explanations for what they were observing. For example, that guy looks like he’s wearing jewellery and stuff, like a woman, but he ain’t. This happens after the attack as well, such as at the end of the transcript when the Predator crew are handing over to another team: the pilot again describes the presence of multiple MAMs, to which the Safety Officer immediately interjects with don’t forget the women and children, dude.

Voice explained how a higher incidence of epistemic modals—modal verbs, hedging phrases, etc.—colours a text as being more uncertain. Whilst he expected to find that such modals would start off infrequent in the transcript, increasing in frequency only after the attack and its aftermath, he instead found that they were used consistently frequently throughout the transcript. For example, one of the crew reported early on that some things that could have been other objects [looked] more like rifles, if I had to make a guess, and in one instance of cyclical certainty the Sensor Operator at one pointed cited his own prior certainty as evidence in favour of the positive ID of weapons.

Instead of the modality waiting until later, Voice said, only the impossibility of certainty did. In his words, the crew only talked about what was not possible to know when it was too late. This led into the convoluted interactions between the different elements of the Predator command. For example, the Predator crew and the screening team (who examined the video feeds and relayed back their positive IDs) had only an audio connection, and the screeners had no direct link to anyone in Afghanistan at all. As a result, much of the Predator crew’s discussions in the aftermath of the attack foregrounded what they had been told by others in the chain.

To conclude, Voice presented a Virilio quote: There is no war, then, without representation, no sophisticated weaponry without psychological mystification. Whilst the quote originally referred to the victims of such attacks (specifically, those being bombed by planes thousands of feet up in the air), Voice suggested that drone warfare extended that psychological mystification to those conducting attacks as well.