Are Drone Strikes Cowardly?

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Heroic warriors?

W.J. Astore

A recent article in The National Interest captured an open secret: Donald Trump has been using drone strikes far more than Barack Obama ever did.

The Pentagon likes to depict such strikes as incredibly accurate, with few or even no innocents killed.  Such a portrayal is inaccurate, however, since “precision” bombing isn’t precise.  Intelligence is often wrong.  Missiles don’t always hit their targets.  Explosions and their effects are unpredictable.

Recognizing those realities, are drone strikes also cowardly?

America likes to fancy itself the “home of the brave,” a land of “heroes” and “warriors.” But how heroic is it to launch a Hellfire missile from a drone, without any risk to yourself?  Aren’t warriors supposed to be on the receiving end of elemental violence as well as being the inflictors of it?

Experiencing violence, even reveling in it while enduring war’s passions and horrific results was part of what it meant to be a warrior.  Think of Achilles versus Hector in ancient days, or knights jousting with knights in the Middle Ages, or men not firing until they saw the white of the enemy’s eyes at Bunker Hill.  Even when machines intruded, it wasn’t just T-34 tanks versus Tigers at Kursk in 1943, or B-17 bombers versus Focke-Wulf Fw 190s over Berlin in 1944: it was the men operating those machines who mattered — and who demonstrated heroism and warrior spirit.

But when war becomes robotic and routine for one side, action at a great distance and indeed at total remove from violence and its effects, can that be heroic in any way?  Isn’t drone warfare a form of denatured war, war without passion, war without risk to U.S. drone operators?

Don’t get me wrong.  Drone warfare has its pains for its “operators.”  PTSD exists for these men and women who pilot the drones and launch the missiles; watching other people die on video, when you’re responsible for their deaths, carries a cost, at least for some.  But is it not all-too-tempting to smite and kill others when they have no way of smiting you back?

Back in 2012, I wrote an article on the temptations of drone warfare.  I suggested that, “In light of America’s growing affection for drone warfare combined with a disassociation from its terrible results, I submit to you a modified version of General [Robert E.] Lee’s sentiment:

It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.”

That the Trump administration is turning so fondly to drone strikes (following the example of Obama, for once proudly) is yet another sign that America is far too devoted to war.  Is it not because war is so profitable for a few, and so painless for the rest of us?

There is no direct pain to America from drone warfare, but there’s also little recognition of war’s horrific costs and the need to end them; there is no immediate risk, but there’s also little recognition that there are ways to triumph other than simply killing one’s perceived enemies.

A final, heretical, question: Are Americans so eager to celebrate their warriors as heroes precisely because they so often practice a form of warfare that is unheroic and even cowardly?  If Americans were routinely on the receiving end of drone strikes by a distant foreign power, I think I know how we’d answer that question.

American-Style Drone Warfare and How and When Humans Count

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Most drone-strike images show technology, e.g. drones, missiles, or targeting crosshairs with foreigners appearing as ant-like creatures in infrared cameras.  Rarely do we see damage, and, rarer still, the shredded and blasted bodies of innocents

W.J. Astore

When do humans count in drone warfare, and when do they not?

I thought of this question as I read Christopher Fuller’s “See It/Shoot It: The Secret History of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program.”  Revealingly, U.S. pilots and crews who operate these drones, such as Predators and Reapers, reject the terminology of “drones” and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UAS (unmanned aerial system).  They prefer the term RPA, or remotely piloted aircraft.  They want to be known as the essential humans in the loop, they want to stand out, they want to count for something, and in fact the Department of Defense at various times has suggested a new “drone medal” to recognize their service.

Whereas American pilots want to stand up and be recognized as the pilots of their “remote aircraft,” the Pentagon doesn’t want to think about the targets of these drones as human beings.  Civilian casualties are grouped and shrouded under the term “collateral damage,” a nasty euphemism that combines a banking term (collateral) with the concept of damage that hints at reversibility and repair.  But collateral damage really means innocents blown up and blasted by missiles.  Shouldn’t these humans count?

Another term that Fuller discusses is “neutralization.”  The U.S. counterterrorism goal is to “neutralize” opponents, meaning, as Fuller notes, “killing, rendition, and imprisonment.”  Again, with a word like neutralization, we’re not encouraged to think of those being attacked as humans.  We’re just “neutralizing” a threat, right?  A terrorist, not a fellow human being.  Right?

Interestingly, the whole idea of terrorism is something they do, not us.  Why?  Because the U.S. defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”  Note that word: subnational.  By this definition, nations do not commit terrorism, which is handy for the U.S., which presents its drone attacks as defensive or proactive or preemptive.

Finally, the Pentagon and the CIA are at pains to assert they take the utmost care in reducing “collateral damage” in their “neutralization” efforts.  Yet as Fuller notes in his book (page 214), “the U.S. government did not always know the identity or affiliations of those killed in its drone strikes.”

So who counts, and who doesn’t?  Whose humanity is to be celebrated (pilots of RPAs?), and whose humanity (innocent victims) is to be suppressed?

Addendum: On how the U.S. seriously undercounts civilian deaths in its air strikes, see this article.

Selling Drones, Exporting War

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Exporting Drones: What could go wrong?

W.J. Astore

The business of America is weapons sales.  That much is true when you consider the following snippet today from FP: Foreign Policy:

Drone sales. The United States is looking to make changes to a major international arms control treaty that would open the door for wider exports of military drones, Defense News reports. The proposed change to the Missile Technology Control Regime would make it easier for nations to sell drones.

Proliferation of drones: What could go wrong?

America is the world’s leader in drone technology, and the companies that have developed them see even bigger profits on the horizon if they can sell them to America’s allies around the globe.  The nature of drones is that they make killing easier — usually bloodless — for those countries that possess the technology.  They promise results, but the American use of drones in places like Iraq and Afghanistan has not led to any resolution of those conflicts.  Only the body count has increased.

As I wrote in 2012:

famous utterance attributed to General Robert E. Lee during the U.S. Civil War is, “It is well that war is so terrible – lest we should grow too fond of it.” His words capture the idea that war is an elemental thing – and also a seductive one. Much like a storm-tossed ocean, war is relentless, implacable, and unsparing. It is chaotic, arbitrary, and deadly. It is not to be bargained with; only to be endured.

Given its ferocity, its rapacity, the enormity of its waste and devastation, war is best to be avoided, especially since war itself has its appeals, especially since war itself can be intoxicating, as the quotation from Lee suggests, and as the title of Anthony Loyd’s fine book on the war in Bosnia, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (1999), indicates.

What happens when we decouple war’s terrible nature from its intoxicating force? What happens when one side can kill with impunity in complete safety? Lee’s words suggest that a nation that decouples war from its terrors will likely grow too fond of it. The temptation to use deadly force will no longer be restrained by knowledge of the horrors unleashed by the same.

Such thoughts darken the reality of America’s growing fondness for drone warfare. Our land-based drone pilots patrol the skies of foreign lands like Afghanistan in complete safety. They unleash appropriately named Hellfire missiles to smite our enemies. The pilots see a video feed of the carnage they inflict; the American people see and experience nothing. In rare cases when ordinary Americans see drone footage on television, what they witness is something akin to a “Call of Duty” video game combined with a snuff film. War porn, if you will.

Many Americans seem happy that we can smite foreign “militants” at no risk to ourselves. They trust that our military (and the CIA) rarely misidentifies a terrorist, and that “collateral damage,” that mind-numbing euphemism that obscures the reality of innocent men, women, and children obliterated by missiles, is the regrettable price of keeping America safe.

But the reality is that sloppy intelligence and the fog and friction of war combine to make seemingly antiseptic drone warfare much like all other forms of war: bloody, wasteful, and terrible. Terrible, that is, for those on the receiving end of American firepower. Not terrible for us.

There is a real danger that today’s drone warfare has become the equivalent to the Dark Side of the Force as described by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back: a quicker, easier, more seductive form of terror. It is indeed seductive to deploy the technological equivalent of Darth Vader’s throat-constricting powers at a safe distance. We may even applaud ourselves for our prowess while doing so. We tell ourselves that we are killing only the bad people, and that the few innocents caught in the crosshairs constitute an accidental but nonetheless unavoidable price of keeping America safe.

In light of America’s growing affection for drone warfare combined with a disassociation from its terrible results, I submit to you a modified version of General Lee’s sentiment:

It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.

America’s “Beautiful” Weapons

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

W.J. Astore

President Trump is hawking weapons in the Middle East.  After concluding a deal with the Saudis for $110 billion in weaponry, he sought out the Emir of Qatar and said their discussions would focus on “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.”

Trump’s reference to American weapons as “beautiful” echoed the recent words of Brian Williams at MSNBC, who characterized images from the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria as “beautiful,” not once but three times.

We can vilify Trump and Williams for seeing beauty in weapons that kill, but we must also recognize Americans love their technology of death.  It’s one big reason why we have more than 300 million guns in America, enough to arm virtually every American, from cradle to grave.

Why do we place so much faith in weapons?  Why do we love them so?

In military affairs, America is especially prone to putting its faith in weapons.  The problem is that often weaponry is either less important than one thinks, or seductive in its promise.  Think of U.S. aerial drones, for example.  They’ve killed a lot of people without showing any decisiveness.

Technology is a rational and orderly endeavor, but war is irrational and chaotic.  Countries develop technology for war, thinking they are adding order and predictability, when they are usually adding just another element of unpredictability while expanding death.

U.S. air power is a great example — death everywhere, but no decisiveness.  Look at Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia).  The U.S. obliterated vast areas with high explosive and napalm and Agent Orange, killing millions without winning the war.  The technological image of America today is not stunning cars or clever consumer inventions but rather Predator and Reaper drones and giant bombs like MOAB.

Profligate expenditures on weapons and their export obviously feed America’s military-industrial complex.  Such weapons are sold by our politicians as job-creators, but they’re really widow-makers and life-takers.   Americans used to describe armament makers as “merchants of death,” until, that is, we became the number one producer and exporter of these armaments.  Now they’re “beautiful” to our president and to our media mouthpieces.

We have a strange love affair with weapons that borders on a fetish.  I’ve been to a few military re-enactments, in which well-intended re-enactors play at war.  The guys I’ve talked to are often experts on the nuts and bolts of the military weaponry they carry, but of course the guns aren’t loaded.  It’s all bloodless fun, a “war game,” if you will.

Nowadays real war is often much like a video game, at least to U.S. “pilots” sitting in trailers in Nevada.  It’s not a game to an Afghan or Yemeni getting blown to bits by a Hellfire missile fired by a drone.  For some reason, foreigners on the receiving end of U.S. weaponry don’t think of it as “beautiful.”  Nor do we, when our weapons are turned against us.

Enough with the “beautiful” weapons, America.  Let’s stick to the beauty of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.

A Revealing Moment at the Democratic National Convention

no more war
Honest passion at the DNC

W.J. Astore

Yes, there was a revealing moment at last night’s Democratic National Convention.  No, it wasn’t President Obama’s soaring speech, or Joe Biden’s heartfelt appeal, or Tim Kaine’s “believe me” lampoon of Donald Trump.  All these were scripted.

It was the anti-war protesters who spoke out against drone assassinations and war while former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke.

Good for them.  This democratic convention has been at pains to please the military. Last night, Panetta called the U.S. military our greatest national treasure.  Obama repeated his claim that the U.S. military is the finest fighting force since Cain slew Abel.  Tim Kaine opened his remarks by mentioning the Marines and shouting Semper Fi.

The Democrats are the new Republicans: they’re going “all in” on military boosterism and ra-ra patriotism.

Which is why the anti-war protest was so refreshing.  End the wars — end the killing — what’s wrong with these protesters for expressing such crazy sentiments at a Democratic political rally?  (An aside: my favorite sign read “Fauxmocracy.”)

The DNC response was swift.  Apparently, they cut the lights to the section where the main body of protesters sat (the Oregon delegation), but the protesters simply pulled out their Smart phones for light.  Panetta, of course, ignored them, carrying on with his prepared speech that vilified Trump for his remarks about Vladimir Putin and hacking.  (Pretty dumb by The Donald, but the man is an empty barrel, an Archie Bunker who loves to make lots of noise.)

Most interesting of all was media response.  I was watching MSNBC (I think) when a commentator attacked the anti-war protesters for undercutting Panetta’s speech against Trump.  Yes, it was the protesters who were TOTALLY in the wrong!  How dare they chant “no more war” at a former CIA Director and secretary of war? How dare they challenge an olympian like Panetta while he’s on the stage?  How dare they organize and exercise their first amendment rights?

Expect more unbounded praise of the U.S. military tonight by Hillary Clinton. Expect more talk of war.  Just don’t expect any honest talk about the cost of America’s wars or any vows about ending them in our lifetimes.

Update (7/28):

I just endured General Allen’s jingoistic speech/scream and all the “USA! USA!” chants, followed by a short speech by a Medal of Honor recipient in favor of Clinton.

After which Brian Williams of MSNBC said, “Sadly,” you could still hear faintly the voices of protesters shouting “No more war.” Why is that so sad, Brian Williams? Why is it so sad for Democrats to be against war? Why must they shut up when a general speaks, a general who boasts of making the U.S. military stronger with even better weaponry with which to kill?

That’s the real “sad” part, Brian Williams: How the Democratic Party has become the war party.

Drone Casualties: The New Body Count (Updated)

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A method of war, not a strategy

W.J. Astore

In President Obama’s drone wars, how many innocent civilians have been killed?  An official U.S. government report will suggest that roughly 100 civilians have been killed since 2009 in drone strikes, a surprisingly small number.  According to NBC News:

The Long War Journal, a project of the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank whose numbers tend to be the most favorable for U.S. policy-makers, tallied 207 civilian casualties since 2009 in 492 strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. That does not include strikes in Somalia and Libya, which the Obama administration includes in its count of around 100 [civilians killed].

New America, a left-leaning Washington think tank, counted between 244 and 294 civilians killed in 547 attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that as many as 1068 civilians were killed in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the vast majority since 2009.

So it’s unclear whether the Obama administration’s drone strikes have killed 100 innocents, 300 innocents, or over 1000 innocents.  Part of the discrepancy involves who is a “militant” and who is an innocent civilian.  The U.S. government tends to count all military-age males killed in drone strikes as “militants,” effectively changing the meaning of civilian to “women and children.”

In one respect, this body count doesn’t matter.  Dead is dead, whether you’re talking about 100 people or 1000.  And isn’t the death of 100 innocents enough to provoke protest if not outrage?  Think of the reaction in the U.S. to the killing of 49 innocent civilians in Orlando.  Better yet, think if a foreign government was flying drones over our skies, taking out American “terrorists” while killing a few innocent civilians now and again.  Would we dismiss 100 dead American civilians as “collateral damage,” regrettable but necessary in this foreign power’s war on terror?

Of course not.  Americans would memorialize the dead, honor them, and make them a cause for vengeance.

For all the people the U.S. government is killing overseas in hundreds of deadly drone strikes, it’s not obvious that any progress is being made in the war on terror. The wars continue, with the Taliban gaining strength in Afghanistan.  ISIS is on the wane, until it rebounds or morphs into another form.  What is essentially terror bombing as a weapon against terror has little chance of ending a war on terror.  Meanwhile, hammer blows from the sky against fractured societies only serve to propagate the fractures, creating new fault lines and divisions that are exploitable by the determined and the fanatical.

Indeed, we really have no clear idea whether these multi-billion dollar air campaigns are making any progress in war. Much of the data and results of these campaigns are both classified and open to bias, with reports of casualties being manipulated or “spun” by all sides.  All we really know is that innocents are killed (whether 100 or 1000) as the wars persist with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, American exceptionalism rules.  As Tom Engelhardt noted back in May of 2015:

In his public apology for deaths [of innocents by drones] that were clearly embarrassing to him, President Obama managed to fall back on a trope that has become ever more politically commonplace in these years.  Even in the context of a situation in which two innocent hostages had been killed, he congratulated himself and all Americans for the exceptional nature of this country. “It is a cruel and bitter truth,” he said, “that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur.  But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

Whatever our missteps, in other words, we Americans are exceptional killers in a world of ordinary ones.  This attitude has infused Obama’s global assassination program and the White House “kill list” that goes with it and that the president has personally overseen.

Drone strikes are a method of war, but they’ve become the American strategy.  The strategy, so it seems, is to keep killing bad guys until the rest give up and go home.  But the deaths of innocents, whether 100 or 1000, serve to perpetuate cycles of violence and revenge.

We have, in essence, created a perpetual killing machine.

Update (7/2/2016): Well, the Obama administration has done it again, releasing its report on drone casualties on the afternoon of Friday, July 1st, just before the long Independence Day weekend, ensuring minimal media coverage.  The report excludes “active” war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, a convenient definition that serves to lower the death toll.

According to the report, U.S. drone strikes in places like Yemen, Libya, tribal Pakistan, and Somalia have accounted for about 2500 “terrorists” while killing 64 to 116 civilian bystanders.  The tacit message: We’re killing 25 times (or perhaps 40 times) as many “terrorists” as we are innocent civilians, a very effective (even humane?) kill ratio.

Talk about an exercise in cynical bookkeeping!  One can guess what happened here. Someone high up in the government began with the civilian body count judged acceptable: I’m guessing that figure was roughly 100.  Then, they worked backwards from that.  How do we get 100?  Well, if we exclude “active” war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and if we squint sideways …

Well, you probably know the saying: the very first casualty in war is truth.  Followed by an honest accounting of civilian casualties, as this latest report from the Obama administration shows.

Random Thoughts on Death, Dying, and the Reality of America’s Wars

Jarecke's photo of a dead Iraqi was considered too disturbing to publish in America
Kenneth Jarecke’s 1991 photo of a dead Iraqi was considered too disturbing to publish in America

W.J. Astore

Americans tend to fear death.  It makes us uncomfortable.  Yet death is inevitable.  Its inevitability should teach us to revel in the richness of the here and now.  It should also teach us the foolishness of undue pride.

All is vanity, the Bible teaches.  Death reminds us of this — that human vanity, as unavoidable as it may be, is ultimately shallow.  There are riches out there that we should seek away from the glaring and garish light of vanity.  Riches that give deeper meaning to life.

Of all cultures in the world, I wonder if there’s another that ignores or denies death as much as American culture.  We’re the culture of new beginnings, fresh starts, reinvention, and also of the perpetual now, of youth, of defying or denying death through face lifts, cosmetics, adrenalin-driven adventures, and so on.  Technology and consumerism also provide distractions.  After all, how can I be nearing the end if I have the latest iPhone or iPad or if I’m wearing the latest hip fashions?

Our funeral homes seek to deny death with open casket rituals in which the dead person is made up to look alive.  Paul Fussell skewered this cultural tendency in his book, Class.  We use euphemisms like “passed away” or “passed on” for “died”; the descriptive term of “undertaker” has morphed into “funeral home director.”  Our religions stress life after death, not death itself.

We even deny that our wars produce death.  Think of the Bush/Cheney Administration, which refused to show photographs of flag-draped coffins of American troops, ostensibly for “privacy” reasons but mainly to minimize the deadly costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  (Indeed, we don’t talk of troops dying in combat; we talk instead of troops “paying the ultimate price” or “making the ultimate sacrifice.”)

In minimizing the cost of war to its troops, the U.S. government and media also seek to deny the reality of death to the enemy.  War coverage in the media is often stock footage showing drones or aircraft firing missiles, enhanced by graphics and music.  You might see an enemy building or truck blowing up, but you’ll never see dead bodies.  Too disturbing, even though violent gun play and bleeding corpses are routinely shown in American crime shows and movies as entertainment.

In the first Iraq war (Desert Storm) in 1991, the photographer Kenneth Jarecke caught a powerful image of a dead Iraqi soldier burnt alive in his truck on the infamous “highway of death.”  Jarecke believed his photo would change America’s vision of the war, which in the U.S. media had been staged like a Hollywood production, neat and sanitary and clean.  But no U.S. media outlet would publish the image.  It was relegated to overseas publications.

What price do we pay as a people by ignoring death?  We lack a certain depth and maturity; put differently, we are callous and shallow.  Death has little meaning to us, especially the deaths of those in other lands.  For in seeking to deny the inevitability of our own deaths, how can we possibly recognize and process the death of others?

A death-denying culture that rains death on others using drones named “Predator” and “Reaper”; a culture that finds images of war dead too disturbing even as its TVs and movies and videos are saturated by bloody murders.  What are we to make of this?

The most powerful speech I’ve seen in any movie is that of Chief Dan George in “Little Big Man.”  In trying to make sense of the White Man’s war on Native Americans, Chief Dan George’s character, Old Lodge Skins, suggests that the White Man kills because he believes everything is dead already.  Lacking a moral center, the White Man has no sense of, or appreciation for, the sanctity of life.

Do we deny death because in some sense we are already dead?  Dead to the richness and sanctity of life?

Random thoughts, as promised.  But I hope they stimulate thought.  What say you, readers?