Examining and Experiencing Emotions in Feminist Research on Drone Warfare

By Alex Edney-Browne (The University of Melbourne)

Researching Drone Warfare in Afghanistan

The view from Kabul from Wazir Akbar Khan Hill gives a sense of the skyline there: NATO helicopters, kites, Afghan flags. Courtesy of Alex Edney-Browne.
Wazir Akbar Khan Hill: Kites, NATO helicopters and Afghan flags contest for space in the sky. Courtesy of Alex Edney-Browne.

Mustafa hands me a photo of his son who, at 19 years old, was killed during a US drone attack in 2002. He has gentle eyes and relaxed shoulders. His close-mouthed smile, creating little dimples just above the corners of his mouth, reminds me of how I look in photographs. ‘He has a very kind face’, I say, and ask what kind of person he was.

“He was quiet and calm. He was our eldest child. He brought us comfort, as we did to him. He was like a pillar for us. The pillar that stops the ceiling from falling down.”

Mustafa has travelled from Bagrami – a district in Kabul province – to meet with me in Kabul city. His wife, two daughters, daughter-in-law, two remaining sons and baby grandson have come with him, and we are sitting together in the courtyard of a restaurant. Over the course of three hours, we talk, drink tea and eat lunch together. Every 10 minutes or so we stop talking mid-sentence to wait while NATO helicopters – almost always flying in pairs – pass overhead.

I have only just met Mustafa and his family, and yet I am asking them very personal questions about how drone warfare, and the loss of their eldest son, has affected them emotionally and psycho-socially. The line of questioning feels invasive – as it did with every person and family I interviewed – but I continue, in the hope that asking such questions and recording their responses will be ‘politically productive’.

Mustafa’s son was working as a guard at a Ministry of Communication antenna station in a village 40km from their home. At about 7pm, drones bombarded a community of Kuchi (nomadic) people living in tents next to the antenna station.

“And then maybe the drone dropped 1-2 more bombs just to empty their load; they struck the antenna station also.”

His son and three other young men guarding the station were killed. Mustafa didn’t find out until 10am the next day, when his employer drove his son’s body to their house.

“I saw my son in the car and saw his broken legs and I understood that he had been killed, and then I was told what happened.”

I ask if the US-led coalition have offered any explanation, apology or compensation for the loss of their son. ‘Compensation’ for the death of a loved one sounds cold: a person’s life cannot be ascribed a monetary value. But in war-torn Afghanistan, where many people are living in poverty, the loss of a male relative severely affects a family’s income and, thus, their livelihood. Mustafa tells me that he went to the US embassy and tried to get help for his family.

“There was a woman in a room, and I told her everything – I lost my son because of your bombing – but no-one cared to apologise or to give compensation.”


Hearing this fills me with anger. I tell Mustafa that the reaction he received at the embassy was shameful. As I label this behaviour shameful, I also feel ashamed. The last white Western woman Mustafa spoke to about the death of his son heard the same testimony I heard, yet did not have the heart to help his family, or to even apologise. Not for the first time, I’m ashamed of the colour of my skin, I’m ashamed of my colonial genealogy, and I’m ashamed of the politics of the Coalition countries I am a citizen of and pay taxes in.

Activism and Academic Research

The more uncomfortable truth, though, is that I also feel shame because I’m worried that very little differentiates me from the American embassy worker. How am I any better? Mustafa’s family and the many other Afghan people I interviewed spent hours sharing their most heart-wrenching memories with me, but how will my research help them? How will it change the way the US-led coalition acts militarily in Afghanistan and across the ‘Greater Middle East’? I wanted my PhD research to investigate and challenge Western government and military narratives that drones are ‘precise’ weapons that protect civilians and US military personnel from physical and psychological harm. Educating the public about people’s lived experiences of drone warfare was how I thought I’d be ‘politically productive’ with my research. The thesis offers a ‘corrective’; like subjects of false consciousness, I thought, all the Western public needed was greater knowledge and then they’d refuse to accept the acquisition and use of drones by their governments, in their name and with their taxpayer money.

Naïve or not, this is still my hope, but some days and weeks cynicism takes hold. I decided this week that I need to rote-learn a polite response to the comment ‘you are doing important work’, because I usually whisper ‘thanks’ or fall completely silent – reactions borne of disbelief that the research has any political value at all. As Sven Lindqvist writes in his book on European colonial violence, ‘you already know enough. So do I. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions’.[i] Is it necessary for me to research and write a drone warfare ‘exposé’? You already know enough – so did I, before I even started my research.

Emotions in the Social Sciences

Even if knowledge did lead to resistance, what is the most resonant way to communicate the pain and suffering of drone warfare to the Western public? Emotions have long been an undervalued subject of enquiry in social science research, which maintains a positivist bias. As Roland Bleiker and Emma Hutchinson write, ‘emotions are too ephemeral to be understood exhaustively by the type of systematic enquiries that characterise the social sciences’.[ii] Emotions are immaterial and often ineffable – for many social scientists, they do not pass the test of ‘serious research’.

The perception in academia of what constitutes ‘serious research’ has, in turn, created certain expectations in the public sphere. We see this in drone warfare debates, which are often framed around the ‘hard data’ of civilian casualty counts and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) rates. I provide this information when asked by journalists and members of the public, but resent doing so. In an effort to resonate with the public, I find myself compromising on my own feminist commitment to take the emotional and embodied effects of war seriously.

The ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Kabul is the place where participants get their injuries checked and their prosthetics repaired or changed.
The ICRC Orthopaedic centre in Kabul where three of Alex’s participants got their injuries checked and their prosthetics repaired or changed.

This compromise should not, however, be required. Despite the methodological difficulties of undertaking and communicating research on emotions, their social and political significance is undeniable. For the Afghan people I interviewed, it is not how many innocent people have been killed by US drones (a figure that, in any case, is near impossible to calculate), but the agony of loss, the nightmares and interrupted sleep, the flashbacks of finding their relative’s body, the fear of an impending attack, the imprisonment of living under near-constant surveillance, the anger towards centuries-long colonial violence, and the hopelessness over whether the war in Afghanistan will ever end. To reflect on my role as a researcher – the shame that I feel, and my oscillation between high levels of motivation and disillusionment – is also politically significant, as it brings to the fore the power dynamics of (neo)colonialism and the challenges of activist research in a society that refuses to confront its violence against people of colour.

Note: ‘Mustafa’ is a pseudonym. Names have been changed to protect identities.

Alex Edney-Browne is a PhD candidate in International Relations at The University of Melbourne. She graduated with a BA Hons (First Class) in Media, Film and Television and Politics and International Relations from the University of Auckland in 2015. Alex’s research is interdisciplinary, engaging with critical International Relations, cultural studies and science and technology studies.

[i] Sven Lindqvist, ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide (New York: The New Press, 1996 [orig. 1992]).

[ii] Roland Bleiker and Emma Hutchinson, ‘Fear No More: Emotions in World Politics’, Review of International Studies 34 (2008): 115–35.

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