Tag Archives: Gregoire Chamayou

A Closer Look: Why ISIS Is Destroying Historical Treasures

Originally published by Breaking Modern:

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has turned its destructive attention against archaeological treasures – and it’s partly our fault.

This week the United Nations called ISIS’ destruction of the 2,000-year-old Parthian city of Hatra a war crime. This follows reports that ISIS blew up the ancient Assyrian capital city of Dur Sharrukin and Nimrud, “known as Calah or Kalhu in the Bible … capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which flourished under King Ashurnasirpal II in the First Millennium BC.”

1st to 2nd Century CE Hercules statuette, Hatra, Iraq: Wikimedia Commons


The group released a video of its members taking sledgehammers and electric drills to antiquities on display at the museum at Mosul, currently under ISIS rule. Looting of archaeological sites is rampant.

The cradle of Western civilization is losing buildings and artifacts that have survived countless invading armies. The loss is staggering, incomprehensible and irreplaceable.

There are several motivations behind what the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) calls “cultural cleansing.” 

One is economic.

“ISIS is said to be encouraging civilians to plunder historic sites, and charging a 20% tax on anything they sell. Intelligence officials say looting is the terror group’s second largest source of income after oil,” according to New York Magazine.

If we are to take ISIS at its word, there is also a religious motivation. According to at least one video released by the group, the destruction is an attempt to carry out Islamic law. “A man in the video says the Prophet Mohammed ordered to get rid of statues and relics, and that the objects are idols for Assyrians and Akkadians,” reports RT.

But there is a deeper underlying reason that radical Islamists have declared war on historically significant relics under their control – one that most Western journalists are too deeply embedded within their own culture and political paradigm to discern.

Cornell archaeologist Sturt Manning speaks for many when he tells CNN that the problem is ignorance.

Manning suggests that maybe the ISIS guys simply don’t understand why history and archaeology matter:

The destruction eloquently speaks of the human folly and senseless violence that drives ISIS. The terror group is destroying the evidence of the great history of Iraq; it has to, as this history attests to a rich alternative to its barbaric nihilism.”


Never believe people who tell you that other people’s behavior has no rational explanation, that they are “senseless” or nihilistic. People do things for a reason. Just because you don’t know what it is doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. In the case of ISIS, many of its members are Western-educated and highly intelligent. They know what they are doing.

Manning’s conclusion that “Providing educational opportunities and empowering communities to learn more about their cultures and histories, and those of others, is one of the best ways to eradicate destructive hatred and violence,” is facile and lazy and in no way explains what’s going on in Iraq and Syria.

In addition to the religious and financial motivations, these acts – like the 2001 bombing by the Taliban of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan – are cries for attention by people who have been completely marginalized from the international system.

We were smarter before 9/11.


Writing in USA Today in March 2001, W.L. Rathje noted that Sunni Islam’s strictures against idolatry turned against statues that had survived centuries of Muslim occupation in large part as a way of getting the attention of the West:

Probably most important, the Taliban government for more than a year has been requesting international humanitarian aid for a country ravaged by drought, earthquakes, and war. No aid is forthcoming as long as the Taliban harbor international terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, an anathema to key voting members of the UN Security Council, including the United States, Russia (where the Taliban are working with the Chechnyan [sic] rebels), and China (where the Taliban are active among Muslim separatists).

As the Taliban see it, the UN and others (such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, and even such Taliban friends as Iran, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) will give millions of dollars to save un-Islamic stone statues but not one cent to save the lives of Afghani [sic] men, women, and children.

It is not America and the West’s air war against the Islamic State that is prompting its attacks against archaeological treasures. It is the way that it is being carried out: using remote control drone aircraft whose downing cannot hurt a single pilot, laser-guided missiles fired by high-altitude fighter jets far out of reach of antiaircraft guns — not really a war at all but a one-sided onslaught in which the US-led coalition brutalizes an adversary that has 0.00% chance of fighting back.

Like the Taliban in 2001 at the time of the Buddha bombings, ISIS has nothing to lose.

As Machiavelli wrote hundreds of years ago in a book that ought to have been read by the signers of the Treaty of Versailles, nothing is more dangerous than an enemy backed into a corner. It is always wise, he counseled, to allow a graceful exit – and to be willing to negotiate. Especially when you are going to win.

Arrogance and technology are merging to create a post-democratic America accountable to no one, not even its own citizens, and thus impossible to talk to.

As Chamayou writes in A Theory of the Drone:

A sovereign, given that he never places himself in danger in the war, ‘can thus decide on war, without any significant reason, as a kind of amusement’ or hunting party … in a republican regime the situation is different” since “the consent of the citizens is required to decide whether or not war is to be declared.”

Chamayou argues that the “dronization” of American warfare – riskless attacks using unmanned aerial vehicles in distant lands – undermines this fundamental precept of representative government, that a United States that fights wars without the consent or even discussion of its citizens is no longer a democracy.


If you think that’s terrifying, and I do, imagine how it looks on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Like them or not – and I don’t – the leaders of the Islamic State know that they cannot and will not ever have a seat at the table with a mega-superpower that demands unconditional surrender and refuses to negotiate with terrorists.

That was the situation in 2001. The Taliban controlled 95 percent of the territory of Afghanistan, and had been in effective control of the vast majority of the nation since 1996, yet the United States and therefore the world refused to acknowledge them as a legitimate government.

They weren’t stakeholders in the international community. 

They were outlaws, outliers, rōnin. Like North Korea today, they were an isolated regime whose only way of getting headlines and attention from Western leaders was by lashing out.

It may well be that economic and trade sanctions and a unilateral air war designed to completely isolate ISIS is the correct path to drive them out of power – though it didn’t work against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But, until that happens, don’t be at all surprised if these policies contribute to the decision of radical Islamists to take bulldozers to the world’s most precious archaeological artifacts.

A Theory of the Drone: Clarifying, Terrifying

Originally published by ANewDomain:

Without debate or even formal acknowledgment by the government that it uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to kill people overseas, drones will – or have, depending on your perspective – revolutionize war as we know it.


Written with breathtaking clarity from a perspective that blends politics, history and philosophy, A Theory of the Drone convincingly argues that armed drones are drastically altering relations between nations and individuals, and that it’s probably already too late to turn back.

I’ve been obsessed with drones since the Bush administration deployed them during the months after 9/11 over Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they have since killed thousands of people, the vast majority of them demonstrably innocent civilians who were not targeted, the remainder so-called “militants” who don’t fit the popular definition of a terrorist determined to attack America, but are merely guerrilla fighters trying to bring down the governments of American client states and allies.

Coverage of the Aviary, a drone research facility at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio that designs drones to mimic flight in the animal kingdom from hawks and hummingbirds down to bees and dragonflies, convinces me that we have only begun to scratch the surface of the unmanned flight revolution.

Even though I’ve read tons about drones, French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou blew my mind with his lucid observations about the political and psychological of armed UAV warfare. Whether or not you find the subject of interest, I can say with certainty that “A Theory of the Drone” will be one of the most important books you have ever read.

Because even if you don’t care about drones, drones care about you.

In combat, two or more adversaries clash violently. To be sure, there can be and often is a wide gap in manpower, training, and technology that all but assures the outcome. Nevertheless, combat entails risk to everyone who participates in it.

To cite an extreme sample, the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima might have experienced an equipment malfunction that caused his plane to crash.

There was of course a vast difference in the risks taken by the Japanese residents of Hiroshima on the ground and Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, but still, he did place himself in some physical jeopardy.

Drone warfare, on the other hand, is not combat between adversaries. Drone warfare, Chamayou points out, is the relationship between hunter and prey.

“Contrary to Cael von Clausewitz’s classical definition,” he writes, “the fundamental structure of this type of warfare is no longer that of a duel, of two fighters facing each other the paradigm is quite different: a hunter advancing on a prey that flees or hides from him. The rules of the game are not the same.”

He quotes George A. Crawford, author of a report on “manhunting theoretical principles” for a military university:

In the competition between two enemy combatants, the goal is to win the battle by defeating the adversary: both combatants must confront to win. However, a manhunt scenario differs in that each player’s strategy is different. The fugitive always wants to avoid capture; the pursuer must confront to win, whereas the fugitive must evade to win.”

This is huge.

Chamayou notes attempts by the military, including an attempt to issue combat medals to drone operators, to imbue these remote-control killers with the glory that follows the courage demonstrated by risk-taking.

But there is no risk-taking – none whatsoever. Not even psychological: despite media reports that drone operators could suffer PTSD, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is ever happened to a single one.

a-theory-of-the-drone-review-ted-rallAt worst, drone operators report being mind numbingly bored as they watch hour after hour of ordinary civilians walking around dusty towns in the Middle East and South Asia doing ordinary civilian things, and sometimes the surreal aspect of blowing people up at work and then coming home to your wife and kids every night in the American suburbs.

Eliminating physical risk, however, comes at a political cost to the country that uses drones to invade foreign airspace.

And notice how no one talks about sovereignty?

Classic counterinsurgency doctrine teaches that asymmetric warfare is a war for hearts and minds.

Drones, Chamayou says, seem to solve the problem of the terrorist hydra whose death inspires dozens of his family and friends to take up the fight.

Chamayou writes:

An armada of hunter killer drones…can win that race and eliminate individuals at least as fast as new ones are recruited. The strategic plan of air counterinsurgency is now clear: as soon as the head grows back, cut it off. And never mind if, in a spiraling development of attacks and reprisals that is hard to control, the perverse effect of that prophylactic measure is to attract new volunteers … Never mind if the enemy ranks thicken, since it will always be possible to neutralize the new recruits as fast as they emerge. The cull will be repeated periodically, in a pattern of infinite eradication.”

Even if this doesn’t make your blood thicken, it should make your brain hurt: “The partisans of the drone as a privileged weapon of ‘antiterrorism’ promise a war without losses or defeats,” he writes. “What they fail to mention is that it will also be awarded the victory. The scenario that looms before us is one of infinite violence, with no possible exit; the paradox of an untouchable power waging interminable wars toward perpetual war.”

“Nobody dies – except the enemy.” That’s the argument proponents of drone warfare have sold, fairly successfully, to the American public. It’s understandable. Nobody wants to see their sons or daughters, or other American sons or daughters, coming home from battle in body bags.

The problem with this tribalist attitude, writes Chamayou, is that the rest of the world is paying attention. Drones broadcast: American lives matter, foreign lives do not. You can’t blame the foreigners for not liking us very much.

Especially when the US military and its allies in the media claim that drones are actually a humanitarian weapon due to their precision – he makes a mockery of this – and because it saves American lives. “The drone,” he scoffs, “does indeed save our lives.”

When you choose this lesser evil, he notes, you are nevertheless choosing evil.

Countries like the United States – spending billions of dollars for thousands of drones employed around the world – will become “drone states,” nations whose reliance on military technology abroad must inevitably lead them to apply them domestically, by law enforcement agencies in the cities and states.

One can easily foresee how police drones, which have already been acquired by numerous local law enforcement agencies and have taken part in the pursuit of criminal suspects on the lam, might be used to shoot and kill a dangerous fugitive.

Few people would complain about this use of armed drones on American soil.

What happens next is less a slippery slope argument than a logical prediction.

The US military and CIA often justify using drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan on the grounds that it’s too dangerous to send in ground troops to try to capture its targets.

Rather than send policemen into a hostage situation, drug den, or other place where a criminal suspect or someone wanted for questioning who might be considered armed and dangerous, the authorities might instead choose to use a so-called precision drone to blow the place up and eliminate the suspect entirely.

Although it happened during the pre-drone era, this isn’t unprecedented in recent history: Philadelphia police dropped military grade bombs on the headquarters of a radical political cult called MOVE in 1985, burning down 65 houses.

Eventually, drones will be used to crush domestic political dissent.

Unfortunately, we have forgotten so much of America’s basic constitutional rights and traditional political ethics that those who appeal to our better natures find themselves lecturing to us as though we were not particularly bright kindergartners. Having found myself there, I wish there were a better way. In the meantime, we need to digest Civil Society 101:

“In law enforcement, one should first try to capture the individual, giving him the possibility of surrendering and even, if possible, offering him that chance,” Chamayou writes.

How far we have devolved since 9/11!

Did, for example, anyone ask whether Osama bin Laden was given the chance to surrender? And when it came out that he was captured alive but wounded, and was then executed on orders from someone sitting next to the President of the United States in the White House Situation Room, did anyone but a few leftists care?

When someone like bin Laden is denied rights that until recently were widely considered universal, is only a matter of time before those rights erode and eventually vanish.

The armed drone, which unambiguously allows the state to kill anyone and everyone with impunity, without the slightest physical risk whatsoever, has set the stage for a future dystopian nightmare even George Orwell didn’t imagine.