Gendering Drone Warfare

In the last week of January 2017, the Trump administration launched its first drone attack in Yemen to target al-Qaeda members, which led to the death of civilians. International coverage of this drone attack focused its coverage of civilian death on women and children, and did not name the loss of male civilian life with the same attention. Networks such as Al Jazeera, The Telegraph and The Independent mention women and children's death separately and with greater emphasis; Al Jazeera includes mention of the death of women and children explicitly in the subtitle of their article: “Locals say a US raid in Bayda province last month killed 16 civilians, including women and children”. This works to emphasise a distinction between violence against men and violence against women and children.

The usage of ‘womenandchildren’ has always played a central role in Western war discourses, and was first examined by Cynthia Enloe in 1991.  She critiques the excuse to intervene, go to war, or colonise a region in order to protect ‘womenandchildren’. This gendered terminology works to reproduce certain normative notions of masculinities and femininities: women and children are those that need protection, while men can either be the protector or the one which they need protection from. Where the West presents itself as the ‘civilised saviour' of 'womenandchildren', the male ‘other’ is constructed as ‘backward’ and ‘savage’, drawing on a history of racial discourse embedded within counterinsurgency narratives

The idea of ‘saving women’ in Western war discourses, often represented as ‘women’s empowerment’, is not new. However, war discourses have centralised civilians as potential objects of military operations through counterinsurgency strategies . Consequent to this development, the categorisation of civilians by gender further exaggerates the notion of 'womenandchildren' as those inherently in need of protection, whilst men become combatants. 

Civilians are distinguished between those who need to be protected from those who need to be feared or even destroyed according to their gender. The male ‘other’ is coded as a combatant or militant and marked as a threat with respect to what he might do if he is allowed to live, reinforcing the idea that violence against men is legitimate while violence against 'womenandchildren' is not.

This is evident particularly when looking at drone warfare, where targets are identified based on algorithms of artificial intelligence accompanied by visual surveillance. One central example in the reporting and theorisation of drone warfare is from the drone attack of 21 February 2010 in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan that killed 23 people.

The difference between violence against ‘womenandchildren’ or violence against men relies on a discursive framework to determine if deaths are mourned and condemned.

Three vehicles had stopped at an area where US forces were searching for insurgents and weapons. All of the occupants in the cars were positively identified by algorithms of artificial intelligence as males. Transcripts show that the surveillance team equated these ‘positively identified’ males with combatants, or 'legitimate' targets attack. But before their attack, there was a conversation among the surveillance team regarding the whereabouts of women and children. And when it became clear after the attack that female bodies and children were present, the targeting was identified as a mistake. The understanding that violence against 'womenandchildren' is an error demonstrates that violence against men,  especially military-aged men, is considered legitimate regardless of their status as a combatant.

The attack of 21 February 2010 against women and children is considered by authorities to be a mistake. This response occurred following other bombings such as the ‘wedding party massacre’ in Iraq that killed between 42 and 45 people, most of whom were children. Major General James Mattis was sceptical of those claims, saying “[t]hese were more than two dozen military-age males. Let’s not be naïve”. The difference between violence against ‘womenandchildren’ or violence against men relies on a discursive framework to determine if deaths are mourned and condemned.

Ultimately, the distinction between men and 'womenandchildren' ends up normalising violence against all, regardless of gender identity. The sovereign power committing such acts can blur the lines or expand the category of male ‘other’ without punishment and eventually apply the category to all bodies. This is called a homo sacre: a person that cannot appeal the laws of war for protection, because it is exactly these gendered laws that categorise him as combatant, exclude him from the notion of non-combatants and civilians, and make him a ‘legitimate’ target.

Drone warfare produces bodies in order to destroy them by assigning them to the category that is perceived to be a threat.

The application of a ‘legitimate target’ category on all bodies is evident within the transcripts of the 21 February 2010 attack in Afghanistan. The surveillance team discussed their uncertainties about the gender categorisation of the people on the screen. First, the drone operators do not agree on the categorisation of childhood. The age range of ‘adolescents’ identified within these transcripts is nine to thirteen years old. This is much younger than the English categorisation, in which an adolescent is understood to be someone who has begun puberty but not reached full adulthood. Within the context of these drone attacks, a child is fatally categorised as an adolescent when they are old enough to hold weapons.

Despite the ‘positive identification’ of the vehicle occupants as male by artificial intelligence, the surveillance team observed women’s clothing and jewellery. This was considered to be false by the team with the words, “that guy looks like he’s wearing jewellery and stuff like a girl but he ain’t”.

The bodies present on the screen were cognitively assimilated to the category of military-aged men. Drone warfare produces bodies in order to destroy them by assigning them to the category that is perceived to be a threat. Those killed were rendered “a population understood as by definition, illegitimate, if not dubiously human”.

It is key to remain wary of distinctions or categorisations that encourage the dehumanisation of people, such as that between violence against men and violence against 'womenandchildren'. Not only can it lead to ‘legitimate’ killing, which is the case with men in drone warfare, but can also lead to the sanctioned killing of all bodies. The result is killing without any consequences, except for those on the wrong side of the screen.


Martine Heijthuyzen is currently a postgraduate student at SOAS University London where she does an MSc in Middle East Politics with Arabic as part of her grade. 


Marissa Conway