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.
Editor’s Intro: I asked Pamela if I could highlight a recent comment she made at this site about the U.S. military’s approach to Afghanistan. Not only did she give me her permission: she elaborated on her point in an email. Pamela, a former aid worker with a decade’s worth of on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan, worked with the Afghan people in relationships characterized by trust and friendship. Her words should be read by all Americans, especially our foreign policy “experts.” W.J. Astore
Cascading disaster is an apt term for the U.S. military’s strategy in Afghanistan, which involves the indiscriminate killing of terrorist leaders, whether Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS or whatever else.
In addition to heavily underreported civilian casualties, U.S. military strikes increase the ferocity of those terrorist outfits. Not just because those outfits want to show the world how strong they are. There is another element which arguably is even worse, as it is virtually impossible to reverse. Each “neutralized” leader leaves a power void within his organization and a number of usually younger and more ruthless members start fighting among each other to take over — with cruelty and spectacular attacks obviously being stronger “election” arguments than a “softy” willingness and capacity for peaceful dialogue.
Thus in Afghanistan the original Taliban – the ones who were ousted in 2001 – probably could have been convinced to take part in negotiations. They were an unsavory lot to have as a government, with medieval habits, but they were not terrorists like the ones nowadays. Few people know that in 2000 the British charity Christianaid (yes, with such a provocative name) had an office there, run by a female Australian doctor with her husband and little Sam, their six-month-old son. They enjoyed it very much and the Taliban had no objection against a foreign woman providing medical care to women and children, despite the obvious need for careful diplomacy.
Since then, however, there have been so many cascading series of eliminations of Taliban leaders at all levels – all for the purpose of PR spin rather than any coherent strategy – that we now have the umptiest generation, which has lost whatever dignity and humanity their predecessors may have had.
Furthermore, we knew the original Taliban leaders, and they were relatively predictable. Each new batch needs to be infiltrated, investigated and analyzed from scratch, after which we kill those too. What a waste of energy and knowledge! But President Trump believes that the evident lack of success is caused by too little rather than too much bombing/eliminating, so this vicious cascade can be expected to go on and on until doomsday.
This “destroy the Taliban by assassination” strategy has one more layer: the eroding authority of their original leaders. By continuously eliminating (often after several failed attempts in which civilians are killed instead) successive leaders at all levels — from village to nation-wide – the U.S. has shattered the Taliban into different splinter factions, each with its own power structure & power struggles. This has increased pressure and violence at the village level, as people who during the day were already pressured by coalition armies and at night by the Taliban, ended up with several competing “Taliban” factions all pressuring them to join. Some of these factions were foreign, as Afghan friends would tell me, meaning they were from some other part of Afghanistan, not necessarily from a different country, which made it even harder to negotiate with them. Multiple terrorist factions contributed to anarchy in which common criminality has flourished.
At the same time, as this cascading fracturing continued, successive local “terrorist” leaders became increasingly detached from central top leadership and therefore any negotiations with Mullah Omar or any other grey eminence might not translate into concrete changes in the field.
Negotiations should have been conducted in 2002, when the Taliban had been wiped out, which then was no major feat as the vast majority of its followers had been coerced into joining and were only too happy to have been delivered from this burden and being able to return home.
So few true believers were left in 2002 that the Taliban was in a very weak bargaining position, a perfect starting point for negotiations.
Systematic demonizing by the U.S., however, and the ludicrous strategy of killing them one by one — which is as absurd as believing that the best way to eliminate ants is by crushing them one at a time as they appear at our sugar bowl — have led to what we have now: a thoroughly opaque playing field with regularly shifting alliances and competition, which makes it even harder to keep track of who’s who, with whom, against whom. This increasingly chaotic situation makes counter-terror operations even more complicated (spectacular attacks may have more centralized backing, but smaller attacks are often initiated by local splinter factions).
The addition of ISIS further complicated the situation, as the Taliban have been fiercely fighting them — Afghans generally do not like Arabs nor any other foreigners who want to impose their ways — and thus the absurd situation developed in which everyone is fighting everyone — Taliban, ISIS, Haqqani et al, the Afghan army & police, coalition-supported local militias and coalition armies themselves. A bit like the present proxy-wars in the Middle East in a nutshell.
We also tend to forget that the Taliban — for all their senseless cruelty and often medieval ideas — were welcomed in 1996 with a huge sigh of relief when they cleaned up the murderous chaos of the civil war and restored law and order. When asking Afghan friends what part of their experiences since 1979 was the worst, they all would name the civil war. Unfortunately power corrupts and soon this relief was replaced with a different kind of horror. The Taliban regime was loathed but at least was relatively predictable. One could somehow adapt to its rules.
I am convinced that given a bit more time, the Afghans would have gotten rid of that regime themselves and the ensuing civil war would have been relatively short-lived as then they all were thoroughly fed-up with fighting.
Today, the chaos and corruption in Afghanistan is being hidden further, as the U.S.-led coalition acts to suppress information, specifically the reports of SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, has always been a hero of mine, shining a bright light on the mess that otherwise was swept under the carpet.
The U.S. government still keeps 41 prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba. Incredibly, some of these so-called alien enemy combatants have been imprisoned for up to 15 years without benefit of trial; indeed, without even being charged with a crime. How is this possible in a democracy? What does it say about our country?
I happen to own an old map of Cuba from 1897 that shows Guantánamo Bay, which is along the southeastern coast of Cuba. Here’s a photo of a segment of my old map that shows the Bahia de Guantánamo:
Who could have predicted that when our government, in an imperial land grab, “leased” this base from Cuba in 1903, it would become a century later the site of a loathsome prison for Muslim men snatched mostly from central Asia in a “global war on terror”?
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government needed a place to send prisoners gathered in the chaotic roundup of suspects in the war’s opening stages. Among other locations they chose the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo, considered a “safe” spot since it’s both isolated and not in the USA while also being far from the eyes of the media. What was an expedient, a temporary holding facility, became permanent. President Obama vowed to close it and failed; President Trump has vowed to expand it with fresh batches of prisoners.
In a remarkable piece at TomDispatch.com, Erin Thompson reminds us that the prisoners at Guantánamo are human beings. She did (and does) this by curating and displaying their art works. Their paintings, ship models, and other creations remind us that they exist, that they create, that they hope, that they dream. The U.S. government has responded by asserting ownership rights over their art.
America’s prison at Guantánamo Bay has been a spectacular fail. Its very existence amounts to a huge propaganda victory for terrorists and would-be terrorists everywhere. It’s a stain on our democracy (what’s left of it). In the eyes of much of the world, it reveals the USA itself to be a terrorist.
The persistence of this prison shows America is losing its own “war on terror.” Our government lacks the courage to try these men because of fear a few might go free and perhaps spearhead future attacks, despite a national security complex that spends roughly three quarters of a trillion dollars to predict and prevent such attacks.
To paraphrase Shakespeare in Julius Caesar: Cowards die a thousand deaths; a hero dies but once. By keeping this prison open, and by refusing to offer justice to its occupants out of fear of what they might do if released, we are dying a thousand deaths.
As a private citizen and presidential candidate, Donald Trump railed against the Afghan war. A waste, he said. Americans should withdraw, he said. But in last night’s speech, Trump went against his own instincts (so he said) and went with the failed policies of his predecessors. The war will continue, no timetable set, no troop levels determined, with conditions on the ground dictating America’s actions, according to the president.
What caught my attention, beyond the usual paeans of praise to America’s “warriors” and “warfighters,” was the specious reasoning to justify the continuation of the war. Trump gave three reasons, so let’s take them one at a time:
“First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives …”
It’s piss-poor reasoning to argue that, because a lot of people have sacrificed and died in a war, the war should continue (with more people dying) to justify those previous sacrifices. By this logic, the more who die, the more we should keep fighting, meaning more dead, meaning more fighting, and so on. Where is the honor and “worthy” outcome here?
“Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.”
Actually, the consequences of an American withdrawal are both unpredictable and (most probably) acceptable. Sure, terrorist organizations may gain impetus from an American withdrawal. It’s also possible that a notoriously corrupt Afghan government might finally negotiate with the Taliban and other organizations, and that regional power brokers like Pakistan and Iran, who have their own interests in regional stability, might broker a settlement that Americans could live with.
Trump further argued that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 led to “hard-won gains slip[ping] back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS.” The truth is far more complex. The prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq helped to create ISIS in the first place, and failed American efforts to create and train reliable Iraqi security forces contributed to easy ISIS victories after U.S. forces left in 2011.
“Third and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.”
Isn’t it remarkable that, after sixteen years of sustained effort by the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region is now home to 20+ terrorist organizations? The “highest concentration” in the world? Is this not an admission of the utter failure of U.S. policy and actions since 2001? How is this failure to be rectified by yet more U.S. attacks?
Trump said the new American goal is to kill terrorists. This is not a strategy. It’s a perpetual and deadly game of Whac-A-Mole. That’s what Trump’s vaunted new strategy boils down to, despite the talk of economic pressure and working with Pakistan and India and other regional powers.
On Afghanistan, Trump should have listened to his instincts and withdrawn. Instead, he listened to “his” generals. With Trump, the generals won this round. What they can’t win, however, is the war.
If you want to know just what kind of mental space Washington’s still-growing cult of “national security” would like to take us into, consider a recent comment by retired general and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. In late May on Fox and Friends, he claimed that “the American public would ‘never leave the house’ if they knew what he knew about terrorist threats.”
That seems like a reasonable summary of the national security state’s goal in the post-9/11 era: keep Americans in a fear-filled psychic-lockdown mode when it comes to supposed threats to our safety. Or put another way, the U.S. is a country in which the growing power of that shadow state and its staggering funding over the last decade and a half has been based largely on the promotion of the dangers of a single relatively small peril to Americans: “terrorism.” And as commonly used, that term doesn’t even encompass all the acts of political harm, hatred, and intimidation on the landscape, just those caused by a disparate group of Islamic extremists, who employ the tactics by which such terrorism is now defined. Let’s start with the irony that, despite the trillions of dollars that have poured into the country’s 17 intelligence agencies, its post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon in these years, the damage such terrorists have been able to inflict from Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando, while modest in a cumulative sense, has obviously by no means been stopped. That, in turn, makes the never-ending flow of American taxpayer dollars into what we like to call “national security” seem a poor investment indeed.
To deal with so many of the other perils in American life, it would occur to no one to build a massive and secretive government machinery of prevention. I’m thinking, for instance, of tots who pick up guns left lying around and kill others or themselves, or of men who pick up guns or other weapons and kill their wives or girlfriends. Both those phenomena have been deadlier to citizens of the United States in these years than the danger against which the national security state supposedly defends us. And I’m not even mentioning here the neo-Nazi and other white terrorists who seem to have been given a kind of green light in the Trump era (or even the disturbed Bernie Sanders supporter who just went after congressional Republicans on a ball field in Virginia). Despite their rising acts of mayhem, there is no suggestion that you need to shelter in place from them. And I’m certainly not going to dwell on the obvious: if you really wanted to protect yourself from one of the most devastating killers this society faces, you might leave your house with alacrity, but you’d never get into your car or any other vehicle. (In 2015, 38,300 people died on American roads and yet constant fear about cars is not a characteristic of this country.)
It’s true that when Islamic terrorists strike, as in two grim incidents in England recently, the media and the security state ramp up our fears to remarkable heights, making Americans increasingly anxious about something that’s unlikely to harm them. Looked at from a different angle, the version of national security on which that shadow state funds itself has some of the obvious hallmarks of both an elaborate sham and scam and yet it is seldom challenged here. It’s become so much a part of the landscape that few even think to question it.
In his latest post, Ira Chernus, TomDispatch regular and professor of religious studies, reminds us that it hasn’t always been so, that there was a moment just a half-century ago when the very idea of American national security was confronted at such a basic level that, ironically, the challenge wasn’t even understood as such. In this particular lockdown moment, however, perhaps it’s worth staying in your house and following Chernus, who’s visited the 1960s before for this website, on a long, strange trip back to 1967 and the famed Summer of Love. Tom
Be sure to read the entire post, “A Psychedelic Spin on National Security,” by Ira Chernus, at TomDispatch.com. Ah, to have a “summer of love” again!
A favorite book of Steve Bannon’s is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. A classic of military strategy, The Art of War was compiled during the Warring States period (403-221 BCE) in ancient Chinese history. It was a time of intense civil warfare in China, a time when a cessation in fighting was merely a pause between the next round of battles among warlords. It’s still widely read today for its insights into war, its clever stratagems and tactics, and its lessons into human nature and behavior.
Bannon, who served in the U.S. Navy, is an armchair strategist with an affinity for military history books. He appears to believe in inevitable conflict between the Judeo-Christian West, which he favors due to its “enlightened” values, and the World of Islam, which he sees as retrograde and barbaric when compared to the West. He sees the world as already being in a “warring states” period writ large, a realm of conflict marked by “holy war” to be mastered by warrior/scholars like himself.
Joining him in this belief is Donald Trump, who took great pains to recite the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech before Congress, as if using these words were a mark of personal courage on his part. Trump has boasted about winning the “next” war, as if war during his presidency is inevitable. And I suppose it is, with Trump at the helm and advisers like Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller pursuing a bellicose hardline against Islam.
Be careful what you wish for, Trump and cronies, and be especially careful about declaring victory in wars before you’ve even fought them. Here Sun Tzu has much to teach our “warriors” in the White House.
For one thing, Sun Tzu writes that a battle is best won without fighting at all. Said Sun Tzu: “Fighting and winning a hundred wars is not the greatest good. Winning without having to fight is.” In other words, you set the stage so carefully that the enemy must surrender or face obliteration before the curtain is even raised on war.
Secondly, Sun Tzu warns about the folly of protracted wars, how they deplete the national budget and weaken a state, especially when support among the people is tepid. Warfare, notes Sun Tzu, must be treated with the greatest caution, even as it is waged with great cunning. Best of all is to outsmart the enemy; next best is to form alliances, to build a much bigger army than the enemy, which may force them to capitulate. Worst of all is to get bogged down in long wars, especially in cities, which require expensive sieges that wear on both sides (just ask the Germans at Stalingrad about this).
Ultimately, Sun Tzu writes that by understanding oneself and one’s enemy, a skilled leader can engage in a hundred battles without ever being in serious danger. But an unskilled leader who does not truly know his own nature or that of his enemies is one who is fated always to lose. Trump, who fancies himself a great leader and who is ignorant of foreign nations and peoples, does not inspire confidence here, even as he promises the American people that we’re going to win so much, we’ll get bored with winning.
Sun Tzu puts great emphasis on careful planning and sober deliberation before launching attacks. If the recent Yemen raid is any indicator, Trump is neither a careful planner nor a sober deliberator. Indeed, Trump’s personal qualities expose him to being manipulated by a cunning enemy. In listing the personal traits that are dangerous in a commander, Sun Tzu mentions “quick to anger” as well as “self-consciousness” or vanity. One who’s quick to anger can be goaded by insults into making poor decisions; one who’s vain and self-conscious can be humiliated or manipulated into rash action.
Trump promises an American military that is so big and so strong that no country will dare attack us. Yet Trump himself, surrounded by his “warrior” advisers, isn’t content to build a huge military while not using it. Indeed, Trump is already using it, notably in Yemen, pursuing policies that are fated to perpetuate warfare around the globe. And it’s hardly encouraging that, after the failed Yemen raid, Trump shifted the blame to his generals rather than taking it himself.
Remember what Sun Tzu warned about vanity as well as perpetual warfare, especially when your own people are increasingly divided? Something tells me this lesson is lost on Trump, Bannon, and crew. Embracing the stratagems of The Art of War, its emphasis on surprise, subterfuge, deception, and quick strikes, is not enough. You must seek the wisdom at its core, which is very much against war except as a last resort.
Know thyself, said Sun Tzu, echoing the Greek philosopher Socrates. Face yourself squarely, recognize your flaws, your vanity (“All is vanity,” say the Christian Bible, a book Trump professes to treasure), and be careful indeed in unleashing war.
Do Trump, Bannon, and company know themselves, admit to their flaws and vanities, and recognize that war, in all its perils and costs, should be a course of last resort? So far, evidence is wanting.
Update (8/12/17): Bannon has said his concern about a civilizational conflict with Islam dates from his time in the Navy and a visit to Pakistan. Apparently, however, his ship visited Hong Kong rather than Pakistan. Bannon also recalls specific details of Iran — its resemblance to a “primeval” wasteland — that he apparently was not privy to. All this is revealed in an article at The Intercept. Either Bannon’s memory is faulty or he is an esteemed member of the “alternative fact” club, where you just make things up to fit your preconceived notions.
As Peter Maass at The Intercept notes: “It turns out that Bannon, who has drawn a large amount of criticism for his exclusionary stances on race, religion, and immigration, has also inaccurately described his military service, simultaneously creating an erroneous narrative of how he came to an incendiary anti-Muslim worldview that helps shape White House policy.”
Last week, Army General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), expressed his dismay about the Trump administration. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” Thomas opined. “I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”
What does that mean, we’re a nation at war? Many will think that a dumb question, but is it? Sure, we have roughly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that war isn’t over. Sure, the U.S. is still helping Iraqi forces (notably in Mosul) against ISIS and related terrorist groups. Yes, the U.S. and NATO (joined by Russia?) are seeking to corral and eventually to end ISIS and “radical Islamic extremism/terrorism.” But do these efforts constitute a world war, like World Wars I and II?
It doesn’t feel like a war — not in the USA, at least. Congress has made no formal declaration of war. Few Americans are sacrificing (of course, the troops in harm’s way are). There’s no rationing. No tax increases to pay for the war. No national mobilization of resources. No draft. No change in lifestyles or priorities. Nothing. Most Americans go about their lives oblivious to the “war” and its progress (or lack thereof).
Here’s my point. Terrorism, whether radical Islamist or White supremacist or whatever variety, will always be with us. Yes, it must be fought, and in a variety of ways. Police action is one of them. Political and social changes, i.e. reforms, are another. Intelligence gathering. Occasionally, military action is warranted. But to elevate terrorism to an existential threat is to feed the terrorists. “War” is what they want; they feed on that rhetoric of violence, a rhetoric that elevates their (self)-importance. Why feed them?
Another aspect of this: a war on terrorism is essentially a permanent war, since you’ll never get rid of all terrorists. And permanent war is perhaps the greatest enemy of democracy — and a powerful enabler of autocrats. James Madison saw this as clearly as anyone:
Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …
After reading Madison, does anyone dedicated to democracy really want to be “at war” for, well, generations? Forever?
Of course, there’s another aspect to General Thomas’s critique that must be mentioned, and that’s his audacity in criticizing the government (and, by extension, his commander-in-chief) for not having its act together in “the war.” Generals are supposed to fight wars, not critique in public the government they serve.
War rhetoric doesn’t just inspire terrorists and empower autocrats while weakening democracy: It also emboldens generals. They begin to think that, if the nation is at war, they should have a powerful role in making sure it runs well, until the state becomes an apparatus of the military (as it did in Germany during World War I, when Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff ran Germany from 1916 to its collapse in November 1918). The Trump administration has already put (long-serving and recently retired) generals at the helm of defense, homeland security, and the National Security Council. Remember the days when civilians filled these positions?
One more point: If the U.S. is now “a nation at war,” when, do tell, will we return to being a nation at peace? If the answer is, “When the last terrorist is eliminated,” say goodbye right now to what’s left of American democracy.