Goodbye Blue Sky. Derek Gregory on Drones through Post-Atomic Eyes

Written by Andreas Immanuel Graae, PhD Candidate at Department for the study of Culture

“Look mummy. There’s an airplane up in the sky.” The child voice opening one of Pink Floyd’s many memorable songs, “Goodbye Blue Sky” from The Wall, somehow came to my mind when I saw the title of Derek Gregory’s presentation: “Little Boys and Blue Skies: Drones Through Post-Atomic Ayes”. Derek Gregory is Peter Wall Distinguished Professor and Professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He visited Roskilde University (RUC) this week for a presentation on drones and the history of nuclear weapons. 

Gregory’s enigmatic title did not refer to little Pink and his war imaginations in The Wall – but to the codename of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima the 6th of August 1945; “Little boy”, probably one of the most infamous warheads in the history of bombing. And in this history, Gregory traces the drone.

Still from The Wall, “Goodbye Blue Sky”, (1982)

At first sight, the differences between America’s nuclear bombs and drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia etc. seem big. Drones, for instance, are surprisingly short ranged compared to nuclear missiles. And whereas “Little boy” had a blast radius of 3,5 kilometers, a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone has an impact of 15-20 meters. Precision, in other words, marks a huge difference between the nuclear obliteration and the drone’s capability of – as is said – “putting warheads to foreheads”. 

But when the US Air force dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, precision didn’t matter. What mattered was for the crew to escape the mushroom cloud. By executing a thoroughly tested, fast and tight 155-degree turn, the pilot managed to escape the blast from “Little Boy”. According to Professor Gregory, this endeavor to securing American lives marks one of the major connecting lines to today’s drone strikes. Or as a senior Defense official once put it, to “project power without vulnerability”. 

In the years following WW2, the objective of delivering nuclear bombs while keeping American lives safe was radicalized. With Project Brass Ring from 1949-1951 an effort was made to convert B-47 bombers into remotely piloted aircraft capable of dropping atomic bombs without any loss of American lives. Thus, the first robot planes had appeared preceding today’s drone technology of “killing without risk”. 

However, Project Brass Ring was abandoned a few years after when the Air Force determined that manned aircrafts were capable of delivering atomic bombs safely. But as Professor Gregory shows in his presentation, the obsession with remotely controlled airplanes continually marks the history of bombing and the presence of aerial surveillance power. 

Hereby, the nuclear bomb and the drone share another feature: the blurring of the battlefield and its creation of a world in which no one is safe anywhere; or as Gregory puts it: “The Everywhere War”. This loss of the innocent blue sky he powerfully expresses by quoting a young boy, Zubalr Rehman, who lost his grandmother in a drone strike: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.” 

In “Goodbye Blue Sky” Pink Floyd proceeds: 

Did you see the frightened ones 

Did you hear the falling bombs 

Did you ever wonder 

Why we had to run for shelter 

When the promise of a brave new world 

Unfurled beneath a clear blue sky 

Derek Gregory is well known for his book The colonial present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq (2004) and for his recent writings on drones, later modern war, military violence and the geographies of bombing. 

See more about his presentation on Roskilde University (RUC) here.

Read his presentation here.

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