So-called drone aircraft are fast becoming the standard, though controversial, vehicles of modern warfare. In one of those bitter ironies that sometimes lurk behind the history of a word or a name, 'drones' could have been an ideal symbol of the hippy lifestyle in the days of my youth in the 1960s.
To fully grasp this tragic irony, let's first take a look at what the drone represents today.
Military applications for unmanned aerial vehicles go back to the First World War. But it was only after the first of what were then called Remote Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) were developed by the film star and model aeroplane enthusiast Reginald Denny in 1935, that they really took off.
The Second World War, with its heavy investment in the development of military technology, saw the development and manufacture of RPVs in significant numbers. Although some of them were used on attack missions, the main application was as targets in training air gunners on bomber aircraft.
It was also during this time that these RPVs got their modern name. The RPVs used for target practice were marked with black stripes along the tail of the fuselage. These stripes looked like those of the original drone, which is found in the insect world.
Honeybee and other bee males are called drones. The word, itself, derives from the Old English word dran or dræn, which probably originated as onomatopoeia; a word that imitates or suggests the source of the sound that it describes.
Since the original drone craft were mainly used for target practice, the name was most appropriate in another sense as well. In the insect world, the drone, despite being the larger member of the species, is not a fighter at all. In fact it is stingless!
But what has happened to the drone in the military environment? The next major phase in the development of the drone came during the cold war. They were equipped to be used mainly for reconnaissance or spying purposes.
Its first large-scale use in combat zones by the United States came during the Vietnam war. At the time, General John C. Meyer, then Commander in Chief of Strategic Air Command, stated, "we let the drone do the high-risk flying ... the loss rate is high but we are willing to risk more of them ... they save lives!"
But what has happened since is that drones are increasingly being used for targeted killings in conflict areas like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and lately, the north of Africa.
In a recent lecture at the Imperial War Museum in London, expert Professor Mary Kaldor said, “It is hard to believe that the first armed drones were used in Afghanistan in 2001. In less than 10 years they have become an essential part of fighting war.
“They are controlled from half a world away by people who have never been to the country they are targeting; who have no knowledge of the way of life, the culture of the little blobs of humanity they track in their monitors; who have no understanding of the political and corporate background to the war they are fighting; and, most importantly, by people who are in no danger of having their own blood spilt. The deaths they cause are meaningless to the hand that presses the button.”
According to a report last week, since president Barack Obama was first inaugurated just over four years ago, more than 300 drone strikes have been launched and “the death toll reaches as high as 3 000”.
A bitter irony lies in calling these machines of death “drones”. In the world of bees the drone’s only glorious job is that of mating with the queen bee. He does not even gather nectar or pollen. In that sense, the drone would have been the perfect symbol for the hippy slogan of the 1960s that went, “Make love, not war!”