Holy Drones!: Media Framing and the Writing of a Hagiography of American Predator Drones

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Presentation Date


Conference Name

Union for Democratic Communication

Conference Location

Toronto, Ontario


Hagiography is a traditional construction of the religious biography of holy people. While generally studied in relationship to formally and informally canonized saints, hagiographies have been constructed and identified in literature, among social activists, and in a host of secular locations. Using data from a media framing analysis, we argue that coverage of the American military’s drone use in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars not only constitutes the drones as agentic, giving them pseudo personhood, but also tells a story of the drones as saints—constituting a hagiography of drones. As both a biography and the construction of the subject as holy, hagiography is comprised of the following general characteristics: few specific biographical details in deference to documenting extraordinary characteristics, the stressing of ethical principles and the subject’s innocence, strengthen the goodness and truth of the subject, and, finally, construct the subject and their characteristics in such a way that they may be imitated by readers. In the expansive analysis section we use media framing data that demonstrates drones are predominately characterized as agentic—that is, drones are drawn to possess human characteristics. They can make decisions and they need no human motivation or influence to do their job. Establishing the human-ness of the drones is central to the hagiographic narrative. Once human, the drones are glorified to reflect their goodness, justness, and power in theatre wars. Because drones fundamentally change the impact of ground wars on troops from the United States, they are imagined as a savior from increased casualties. Drones are not just saviors of U.S. troops, however. Drones are imagined as a more precise way to ensure that the “right” targets are killed versus the flawed nature of human warfare. Further, John Arquilla, executive director of the Information Operations Center at the Naval Postgraduate school, underscores the ethicality, justness, and strength of drones—the essential components of a hagiography: “I stand my artificial intelligence against your human any day of the week and tell you that my A.I. will pay more attention to the rules of engagement and create fewer ethical lapses than a human force.” In this form, the drones become exemplars of humane warfare, models that individuals may emulate or strive to imitate. We ultimately argue that the construction of drones as holy, saintly, or even simple exemplars of warfare is critically troubling because it gives lie to the possibility of ethical conflict. Framing drones as superior to humans in both philosophy and execution of war excuses both direct and indirect responsibility and culpability in the military industrial complex, war culture, and the othering of enemies. Further distancing the American public from the material reality of conflict, death, and disaster precipitated by warfare cements American militarism.



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