War on Terror? War on Truth.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, US President George W. Bush proclaimed that “We are at war,” and we have been at war ever since. The world’s most powerful military was not apt to the task of bringing the perpetrators to justice, as evidenced by the fact that it took nearly a decade to apprehend the man believed to be behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of persons were slaughtered, most of whom were innocent. Thousands of others were detained without charges and mistreated in a variety of appalling ways. Millions were driven to leave their native lands, and the refugees of war-torn countries continue to flow out in a steady stream, as peace-loving people quite rationally attempt to defend themselves from the arbitrary termination of their lives by warriors of all stripes.

How could all of this murder and mayhem have been avoided? It’s sad to say, but if the US war makers had only listened to Osama bin Laden when he complained about the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of whom were children, then they would have recognized that the worst possible response to 9/11 was to attack Iraq all over again. Stating the facts decried by Osama bin Laden is in no way to condone his response to them. It is to acknowledge the source of his “shock and awe” retaliation campaign, perpetrated by jihadists outraged by US military policies abroad.

Undeterred by the dictates of rationality, George W. Bush waged an outright war of aggression on the already suffering people of Iraq. The Iraqis had been living under a dictator empowered by the US government during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, but their conditions were rendered considerably more miserable by the bombing of water treatment facilities by the US military in 1991.

The subsequently imposed international sanctions prevented access to materials needed to purify the drinking water, and also medications needed to address the diseases caused by the lack of clean water. Remarkably, when Barack Obama became president, he awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor to George H.W. Bush, whose 1991 Gulf War led directly to the blowback attack of 9/11.


During the occupation of Iraq, the poor policies of US government officials, including the dismissal of the Iraqi army and the blacklisting of Ba’ath party members, produced thousands of angry insurgents, who vowed to expel the invaders. Rather than admit that the strategies were not working, the occupiers doubled down with surges, more JSOC raids, more missile strikes, and more privately contracted “security forces”, some of whom behaved quite scandalously.

Another grievance aired by Bin Laden was the establishment of military bases in Muslim lands such as Saudi Arabia. Obama has dramatically increased the number of drone stations from which deadly sorties are launched, and continues to deliver Hellfire missiles to an ever-lengthening list of countries in a zealous effort to eliminate an ever-lengthening list of targets in his “war without borders”.

Under President Obama, who had campaigned on an anti-preemptive war platform, drone killing in lands where war was never formally waged came to be viewed as a standard operating procedure for dealing with suspected terrorists, wherever they may be said by a bribed informant to hide.


US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, once a moderate Islamist cleric, was radicalized in the years after 9/11, coming to advocate jihad in response to what he regarded as war crimes committed against his brethren. Again, Al-Awlaki was right that the US government slaughtered many Muslims who never threatened any US national in the least. Al-Awlaki was himself harassed by the US government, and he was thrown into jail for more than a year in Yemen, without charges, at the request of the US government. After that, he was released, hunted down and summarily executed.

In addition to slaughtering Muslims, “We tortured some folks,” as President Obama put it. Unfortunately, the ever-charitable Obama opted not to prosecute the torturers, seemingly on the grounds that their misguided tactics were intended to keep the US homeland safe. They meant to do the right thing! They were just confused about the best way of going about doing that.

In fact, the means used by the warriors post-9/11 had exactly the opposite of the intended effect, causing a massive mobilization of jihadists in response—including the creation of new groups such as ISIS and AQAP, and a renewal and expansion of interest in radical Islam in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, where its presence had been minor—before US intervention.

The torturers and invaders and orchestrators of covert ops of many kinds undeniably endangered the citizens who funded the many initiatives, as should have been obvious from the global response to the crimes at Abu Ghraib prison. As a matter of fact, the Pentagon has taken great pains to withhold thousands of the ghastly photos taken of abused prisoners, on the grounds that they may endanger American lives. QED.

These gross mistakes have obviously made Westerners vulnerable to retaliation and revenge attacks, yet the failures were not viewed as grounds for dismissing those responsible, many of whom were retained by Obama in his not-so-new administration. Most notably, John Brennan, who condoned torture during the Bush administration, became Obama’s closest counterterrorism advisor.


In 2013, Brennan was amazingly promoted to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). One wonders what Mr. Brennan would have to do to get fired by Obama. No matter how many times Brennan changes his stories, Obama continues to trust him as one of his closest confidantes. When concern was expressed that the CIA had violated US law by penetrating the computers of US Senators in the period preceding the release of the torture report, Brennan indignantly reproached his accusers:

“Nothing could be further from the truth… that’s just beyond the scope of reason… some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts.”

Two months later, Brennan was issuing a public apology for the CIA’s having done precisely what it had been accused of doing. So which is it: is Brennan a pathological liar, or is he flagrantly incompetent?

According to Gregory Johnsen, the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia (2013), it was none other than John Brennan’s “theory” that Anwar Al-Awlaki was the operational leader of AQAP. We have never been provided with any of the alleged evidence of his guilt in actually perpetrating violent acts—as opposed to inspiring or inciting them.

It was recently made public that the very administration which redacted the evidence in its response to a court order to release the memos leading up to Al-Awlaki’s summary execution without trial is calling for all of the cleric’s sermons—whatever they may contain—to be taken down from the internet. Here is the opening line of the New York Times “report” on the call for the blanket censorship of everything ever said by Al-Awlaki, including his early sermons:

“In case after terrorism case, from the Fort Hood, Tex., shootings to the Boston Marathon bombing and now to the slaughter in San Bernardino, Calif., the inflammatory videos and bomb-making instructions of Anwar al-Awlaki, easily accessible on the Internet, have turned up as a powerful influence.”

Talk about specious reasoning. Indeed, precisely the sort one would expect to issue from the mouths of torture advocates and graduates of the fact-challenged George W. Bush School of Strategy. The New York Times serves here, as so often, as a megaphone for officials of the US government. This call for censorship is a frightening development, and surprising even for a government which redefined terms in truly Orwellian ways in order to legalize “targeted killing” against “imminent threats” which are said not to imply immediacy.

The undeniable truth is that some of what Anwar Al-Awlaki said was true. Let’s consider a couple of examples. In an interview with National Geographic News on September 28, 2001, he said:

“My worry is that because of this conflict, the views of Osama bin Laden will become appealing to some of the population of the Muslim world. Never in the past were there any demonstrations raising the picture of Osama bin Laden–it has just happened now. So Osama bin Laden, who was considered to be an extremist, radical in his views, could end up becoming mainstream. That’s a very frightening thing, so the US needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam.”

 In an interview on October 31, 2001, by Ray Suarez for PBS, Anwar al-Awlaki clarified his criticism of the US government and reiterated his opposition (at that time) to violent retaliation:

“Our position needs to be reiterated, and needs to be very clear. The fact that the US has administered the death and homicide of over 1 million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the US is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians, does not justify the killing of one US civilian in New York City or Washington, DC.”

How would preventing people from knowing what Al-Awlaki said protect the people of the United States? Obviously it would not. Censorship serves the purpose, instead, of shielding people from the truth, in this case, that there may indeed be a substantive answer, grounded in historical fact, to the question: Why do they hate us?

If words spoken by people about crimes inspired young people to undertake jihad, then would that not imply that Shaker Aamer, who has been talking openly about the abuse which he endured while imprisoned for years without charges at Guantánamo Bay, should be silenced as well?  Jeremy Scahill, the author of Dirty Wars (2013), has also chronicled US war crimes and examines the case of Anwar al-Awlaki quite closely. Should Scahill be censored?

What about the brave drone operators who have stepped forward to denounce what they were persuaded to do and now deeply regret? Will such persons, who dare to share the grisly news about what the US government has been up to, be next in line for censorship? As a matter of fact, former drone sensor Brandon Bryant has revealed in social media that some of his interviews have already been removed from the internet.

There are plenty of recipes around for making bombs, and no one needs the words of Anwar Al-Awlaki to be incited to jihad. What radicalizes young men and women are not calls for homicide in the name of justice—for that they have the clear and ever-present example of the US government’s various killing campaigns. If both Osama bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaki were radicalized by US war crimes, then the only way to prevent the radicalization of other people just like them will be for the offending actions to stop.

Without halting the bombing which drives young people to seek retaliation, the tide of angry jihadists will never come to end. The persons being slaughtered are becoming younger and younger, as “high value” targets are destroyed and replaced in some cases by persons who have known nothing but war for most or all of their lives. The perverse insistence upon annihilating brown-skinned persons for their future potential to commit future possible crimes is no more and no less than a recipe for genocide. Regardless of whether Americans remain in a blithe state of ignorance about what is being done in their name, the people at the receiving end of missiles know very well what is being done, and some of them, like the perpetrators of the crimes of 9/11, vow to seek revenge.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, Muslims in lands far away, beginning with Iraq, have been treated as though they had no rights whatsoever. They have been systematically slaughtered at the caprice of US warmakers. Under Obama, suspects are denied even the opportunity to surrender. Nothing should be more obvious than that we cannot continue to do the same things over and over again, and then expect men such as Osama bin Laden not to emerge from the ashes left behind by US missiles and bombs.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Strike First, Suppress Questions Later; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do

The Failure of Just War Theory: Tom Woods Show Episode 553

In this 30-minute interview, conducted on December 9, 2015, Tom Woods and Laurie Calhoun discuss her book-length critique of the “just war” paradigm, War and Delusion: A Critical Examination (Palgrave Macmillan 2013).

The emptiness of the jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria parroted for centuries by political leaders in rhetorical efforts to engage their groups in war is underscored by the fact that US President Barack Obama has repeatedly invoked the paradigm in support of his drone wars, claiming that they are for a “just cause”, “proportional”, and the “last resort”. Obama also used his Nobel Peace Prize speech as an opportunity to promote US military intervention abroad, again, making repeated reference to the just war tradition.

In lethal drone campaigns carried out in places where war was never formally waged, and there are no US troops on the ground to protect, the US government’s refusal to grant tracked suspects the opportunity to surrender before they are dispatched is rationalized by defining the targets as “unlawful combatants” and, therefore, protected by neither the laws of civil society nor international protocols such as the Geneva Conventions, which arose out of the very just war tradition so often adduced by Obama.

The Appendix of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, “Drone Killing and Just War Theory,” offers a detailed critique of two of the most fundamental–and slippery–planks of just war theory: “legitimate authority” and “the doctrine of double of effect”.


Interview transcript (courtesy of The Tom Woods Show):

WOODS: I decided when I — I knew you had a book called War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, so I thought in the back of my mind that you were a good candidate to be a repeat guest on the show, and then I started reading the book, and that’s when I remembered where I first heard of you, and I guess I had filed your name away in the back of my mind, and I hadn’t made the connection the last time you were on. You wrote an article for The Independent Review, which I guess that time was probably being edited by Bob Higgs, in which you challenged the idea that the just war theory really does anybody any good whatsoever. To the contrary, just war theory is basically used to justify war. And I remember at the time — I didn’t study the article carefully, but I remember being really upset that anyone would say that, because I had made good use of just war theory, and I couldn’t believe that somebody would say something like that. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I think, oh doggone it, Laurie Calhoun was right. So that was you writing that article.

CALHOUN: That’s correct (laughing).

WOODS: Well, how about that? So tell us about the connection between the thesis in that article and your book, War and Delusion. Now, what year did this book come out?

CALHOUN: 2013.

WOODS: Oh okay, so it’s still fairly recent.

CALHOUN: It’s fairly recent. It’s the culmination of about 10 years of my investigation into what I consider to be a puzzle, which is why it should be the case that a man in civilian dress who kills another man commits a crime but a man in a uniform who kills, say, the same man but has been ordered to do so by another human being does not commit a crime. So that was a real puzzle to me from the very beginning, and I decided I really needed to dive into just war theory and find out what exactly the justification was supposed to be. And so I read everything. I began with Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, which is considered sort of the bible of just war theory, and I read just about everything I could find.

And what I determined through my investigation was that the emperor’s theory really has no content. So it sounds really nice, and it’s really appealing, and it’s very handy for leaders. They can put their little just war requirements on a 3 x 5 card, but what I discovered is that, in fact, on examination the theory is vacuous. It sounds extreme to say such a thing, but in fact, if you examine it, rather than just reading off all the bullet points of the theory of the jus ad bellum conditions on waging war and the jus in bello conditions on executing a war, you find that in fact they tend to be platitudinous, and they’re used rhetorically by leaders to support their calls for war.

So for example, one of the conditions is just cause. A just war must be waged for a just cause. Well, that’s a platitude. It doesn’t mean anything. It has no content. It just means that the leader has decided that he wants to wage war, and he thinks he has a good reason for it.

WOODS: I think the aspect of your thesis — I mean, I must have at least skimmed that article, because the aspect of your thesis that really stuck with me and that I couldn’t quite shake was that basically it’s impossible to think of a case in which somebody was supporting a war and then became acquainted with just war principles and then abandoned support for the war. That to the contrary, what people do with these principles is what they do with all kinds of principles that stand in the way of something they want. They twist them to yield whatever outcome they need them to yield.

CALHOUN: That’s exactly right, and the best example of this is last resort. The last resort “requirement” on just wars really doesn’t preclude anyone from doing anything. And in fact, just war theorists themselves have interpreted last resort metaphorically so that it doesn’t really mean last resort anymore. It means we think war is a good idea, or it means we think war is feasible, or it means we can’t think of any other better way to adjudicate this conflict. It doesn’t mean it’s a last resort. There’s always something else that can be done. So it’s really a metaphor.

But it’s very powerful when leaders come forth and say this is a last resort. Barack Obama’s someone who really likes just war theory. George H. W. Bush also really liked just war theory. Even Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, called the invasion of Iraq in 2003 a last resort. So these little principles and concepts, they tend to be persuasive to people because they figure, oh, there’s this whole tradition and these really smart people since the Middle Ages have been talking about this, and so of course we have to defer to these experts. So when George H. W. Bush invoked the authority of Augustine in defending, for example, defending the 1991 Gulf War, this all sounded really impressive. And in fact, Princeton University gave him an honorary PhD right after the Gulf War, to my horror, since I was a graduate student in philosophy there at the time (laughing).

WOODS: That is shocking. I wasn’t aware that happened. Even in the Ivy League everybody was on — well, let’s just say certain people in the Ivy League were on board for that war. That’s amazing.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: And in terms of intelligence, I get that George H. W. Bush is smarter than his sons. Okay. That’s a pretty low bar. And you don’t get an honorary PhD just for being smart, anyway. All right, let’s talk about — and by the way, you’re right. Obviously that last resort requirement. Obviously how could there be an objective way to determine whether something’s a last resort? Of course there’s no way. For a neocon, just waving and saying hello is a last resort. Like, everything is a last resort. When they say, “We’ve tried everything,” it means, “We’ve barked some orders at them and they haven’t complied.” So what else do you expect us to do? Of course we have to go to war. So that is obviously a requirement that’s extremely slippery.

Let’s go to, in your first chapter of the book, you’re sort of clearing the decks so that you can go into the just war analysis, and in doing so, you want to answer the claim that war is or at least can be a form of self-defense and that this is why people are inclined to think that the wars waged by their own countries are just, because they comply with this basic moral intuition we have that it’s all right to defend yourself.

CALHOUN: That’s right. Many people conflate self-defense and defense more generally, so this is why you see the populace supporting every single initiative that is claimed to be a form of defense, because the appeal of legitimate self-defense is intuitive. It means that you can defend yourself against harm by an aggressor who is wrongly attempting to take your life away from you.

The problem is that when groups start doing this, then depending on the circumstances it may or may not constitute an instance of legitimate self-defense. And groups and nations and states are not moral persons. They are groups of moral persons, but the fact that an individual moral person has the right to defend himself from an aggressor does not imply that a group has that same right, because that would be to commit what is called the fallacy of composition, to ascribe to the conglomerate the properties of the individual thing making up the conglomerate. So states and nations and groups are not sentient beings. They’re not rational beings. They’re not conscious beings. They are artifacts. So to ascribe the properties of the individual, who has a right to defend him or herself, to the group is to commit a fallacy, actually.

I do believe that some war — if your neighborhood is invaded or if your home is invaded, you have the right to defend yourself, but what has happened is war is now being waged abroad, and if it’s analogous to self-defense, it would be like the individual who creeps into his neighbor’s house in the middle of the night and kills him because he may try to harm him later on. So that’s what it really is analogous to, which of course is a crime in civil society.

WOODS: Well, that’s one of the themes of the whole show, is that a lot of things that would be crimes in civil society are perpetrated by the state, but it always has some cute-little-sounding reason why it’s okay for them, or they use language — the way they abuse language is just beyond belief, and especially and in nowhere is there a better example than how language is abused in war to cover over things that, as you say, we would rightly describe as crimes.

In this chapter — again, the book is War and Delusion; we’ll be linking to it at TomWoods.com/553; that’s today’s show notes page — what you’re trying to do is show the difference between what we think of as legitimate self-defense by an individual and what is sometimes thoughtlessly or carelessly described as self-defense by this collective. And you’re showing, first of all, a collective is not a moral agent anyway.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: But secondly, one of the ways in which the two situations are different is that if I’m making a determination that I’m in danger — there’s an imminent threat, there’s a gun to my head or whatever — that’s my judgment based on my assessment of the circumstances. But that’s almost never the case in the military. We don’t have soldiers who say — I mean, there’s basically almost nobody in the U.S. who on September 11th, 2001 said, “We are under a terrible threat from Saddam Hussein.” Nobody — only a lunatic would have thought that on September 11th, 2001. And yet somehow, a lot of people were persuaded that that is an imminent threat and you have to go and fight against that. So that was not a case of people rendering their own independent judgments. They’re listening to whatever fairytale their ruler is spinning.

CALHOUN: That’s exactly right, and it all is grounded in just war theory, in the just war paradigm. I realize that just war theorists think that their theory limits war and imposes restraints on leaders. I have a very contrarian view on this. I believe exactly the opposite. I believe that just war theory is the bellicose leader’s most dangerous weapon. Hitler used it. Saddam Hussein used it. Basically go down the list of every war, and you find that every leader talked in these terms. Osama bin Laden talked in this sort of rhetoric. They all do. And so then the question is how do you determine whether to believe these people or not when they’re all using it, and why should you go kill someone on their order when you have this entire history of people who have ordered their soldiers to commit atrocities. And they have done so, why? Because they all clung to the just war paradigm, according to which a soldier’s role is to follow unflinchingly the orders of their leader, who is a legitimate authority.

WOODS: And that legitimate authority idea, it’s only just this minute sitting here with you that I realize how that obviously plays into the hands of the warmongers, because the legitimate authority so-called will tell you to go and do something crazy, like invade Iraq, which is not something that anyone would have spontaneously thought of, but however, it is the decree of the legitimate authority.

CALHOUN: That’s right. And the problem with just war theory is that the entire framework arose in a completely different milieu. Okay, so Augustine and Aquinas, these were religious scholars and scholars of religion who believed that everything on earth was in its place by virtue of God’s grace, including leaders. Okay, so leaders were divinely enlightened, and basically accepted advice, I suppose you could say — I mean, George W. Bush thought this too, apparently — but in medieval times people really thought there was a connection between political leaders and God. Well, since then we’ve had the Protestant Reformation; now we know that our leaders are fallible human beings who are elected by a bunch of other fallible human beings. They are not divinely enlightened any more than is the man walking down the street.

And so this is the basis of the entire framework, and it has been overturned. I mean, we don’t believe that God appoints our leaders anymore, right? We all know that we elect them, or if they’re tyrants, they appoint themselves. But the point is that the whole concept of a legitimate authority falls apart once you remove the religious metaphysics that was held by the fathers of just war theory. But strangely, we continue to see people parroting this view and trotting it out every time there’s an opportunity for war because it’s so persuasive.

WOODS: What about the aspect of just war that has to do with targeting civilians? It seems like that ought to be one that really restrains them, because you can’t deliberately target civilians. Now, is it that they play with the word “deliberately”? Is that it?

CALHOUN: Well, they certainly do that, but the other thing that has emerged in modern times is the concept of collateral damage, which did not exist in medieval times. Augustine never talked about collateral damage. Collateral damage was coined by war makers to basically produce an anodyne way of talking about civilian casualties. So, there will be civilian casualties; we’ll call them collateral damage. And this arises also from a very powerful tenet of just war theory, which is called the doctrine of double effect. Are you familiar with that?

WOODS: Oh sure, that you can do — well basically, if something bad happens in the course of your doing something good and you had a pure intention in doing the good thing and you didn’t intend to bring about the bad, then it’s morally okay. Is it something like that?

CALHOUN: That’s right. That’s the doctrine of double effect. And so people trot out the doctrine of double effect to say, okay, so when we kill civilians we’re not really committing a crime, because we intended only to kill the bad guys. But when they kill civilians, then they have committed a moral atrocity, of course. The problem with the doctrine of double effect is that it doesn’t really distinguish the cases. What does distinguish the cases is a prior premise, which is that we are good and they are evil. So they have intrinsically evil intentions, and we have intrinsically good intentions, and that’s why everything we do is not a crime.

So Vietnam, for example, we killed millions of people, but we didn’t intend to kill civilians, even though we did. In contrast, the intention of, say, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks was to kill civilians, according to the received view. So the problem with this doctrine of double effect also ends up being a rhetorical weapon, because it’s not the doctrine itself which tells you — you don’t have access actually to anyone’s intentions, so what you do is you say the intentions are good if they’re our allies and people of whom we approve, and the intentions are bad or evil if they are adversaries. So it doesn’t actually distinguish anything.

I mean, scholars love to talk about the doctrine of double effect, and they devise all these trolley problems and things, but the prior assumption is always that they have evil intentions. You don’t look into the possibility that, oh, maybe they had some other kind of intention and they did this to realize a different sort of aim. No, the assumption is they attacked us; therefore, their intentions are evil.

WOODS: All right, I want to ask you a really good devil’s advocate question. What do you say to people — and there are many of them, and they’re not just neocons — who would say that war, you’re lucky you even have the just war theory; you’re lucky you have even that, because in war, sometimes the very existence of a people is at stake, and it’s important for us to do what we need to do to preserve ourselves, and if we are fighting against a people that is absolutely ruthless, whereas our society is sitting here engaged in all this moral introspection, it’s not difficult to see who’s going to win?

CALHOUN: Okay, so you’re saying this is an argument for abandoning the —

WOODS: Yeah, even the pretense of just war theory. I mean, your view is that it’s not doing any good, and it may actually be doing harm. I’m talking about the neocon who feels constrained even by just war theory, as lame as it may be, saying that the very fact that we’re sitting here trying to render moral judgments on soldiers and states is just crazy. When war happens, you have to just fight and fight and fight, and the philosophers are going to get us all killed.

CALHOUN: Okay, well, that’s the statement of realism, according to which there is no real justice in war. So war is — all is fair in war, as they say. The interesting aspect of that argument is that the people who make up the war — the leaders, the soldiers, the people who do the killing — those people are all moral persons. So the question arises, how can it be that their individual actions cannot be judged. That’s another kind of fallacy, where you say the state is not a moral person, and so when the state acts you can’t judge its activities at all. It’s not a subject of morality. Granted. But the people who actually drop the bombs and order soldiers into war, those are moral persons, and their individual decisions can be judged. So that’s also a type of fallacy when you say that, because a state isn’t a moral person, therefore during wartime none of these people are subject to judgment.

WOODS: But I think that they’re talking about the practicality of engaging in moral judgment about war. If the very existence of your people is at stake, which is the way they think of practically all wars — I mean, we were told that a mushroom cloud would be how we would find out about Saddam’s secret weapons program.


WOODS: They always portray it this way, and if we’re sitting here thinking about different ways we can tie our own hands and feel good about ourselves because of our great moral virtue when we’re dealing with savage barbarians on the other side who can’t even conceive of the very idea of moral evaluation, then we’re going to lose, and maybe that’ll make you philosophers satisfied. Do you see what I’m saying?

CALHOUN: Well, sure, it’s related to the ubiquitous question, “What about Hitler?” So everyone says, “What about Hitler?” That’s supposed to be some sort of slam-dunk argument for every intervention that ever arose. But the problem is that Hitler used the very same apparatus to achieve power and to commit mass atrocities. So my answer to the question, “What about Hitler?”, is “What about Hitler?” I mean, it doesn’t really have any implication for anything. It’s not an argument for going into Iraq. It’s not an argument for lobbing missiles on Libya. It’s not an argument for doing anything. It’s basically just a rhetorical trope and a way of frightening people into thinking they should support war.

In reality when you look at the various scenarios in which the “What about Hitler?” question is asked, they involve people who generally bear very little resemblance to Hitler. So Osama bin Laden didn’t have a state; he didn’t have a formal army. Saddam Hussein, when he invaded Kuwait, disputed Kuwait’s what he called siphoning off of oil from Iraq, so that was a factual dispute, which could have been investigated. And it certainly didn’t imply the permissibility of killing hundreds of thousands of children and burying conscripted soldiers alive in their trenches. Nothing follows from the question, “What about Hitler?” So my answer is you have to look at the cases individually, and if you believe every person who tells you you need to go to war, then you are committing the same mistake that the Germans did under Hitler.

WOODS: Let’s talk about some of the other requirements of just war theory, and of course not all of these were present in Augustine. We get more of them under Aquinas; we get still more of them in the 16th century and beyond, and still more of them in the modern period or in the 20th century. But today we’ve come to associate certain principles with it, and one of them is — well, proportionality. We’ve got proportionality. We’ve got the cause has to be just. Well, it’s pretty to see how they get around that one. They just declare it to be just. And there has to be some prospect of victory. You can’t launch a campaign that’s totally hopeless. Well again, I don’t know of any leader who’s said, all right everybody, this campaign is totally hopeless, so let’s go ahead and fight it. That’s not generally how it’s done. So when you look at some of these other ideas, what’s your evaluation? How are they being used also as a way in fact to bolster, rather than retard the case for war?

CALHOUN: Well, they’re being used because the leaders trot them out. So for example, Obama in defending his drone campaigns, he one time said, oh, this is a just war waged in last resort; it’s proportional. And so supposedly drone killing of people in Yemen and Pakistan and Somalia and wherever else is just because he has satisfied — he has gone through the little list of bullet pointed requirements and said, check, check, check, this war — what I’m calling a war — is also just. So they’re all used that way. You’re right that no leader calls his troops to war if he believes that they’re going to fail. It’s almost embedded in the very notion that he has decided to go to war. He’s already decided it’s a good idea, and everything is already contained within it. He’s already decided that whatever costs will be paid will be proportional to the outcome.

So one example would be, again, 1991 Gulf War, which was considered by many Americans and still is considered to have been a great success story. In reality, the means used to defeat Saddam Hussein in 1991 were rather extreme. Among other things, they bombed the water treatment facilities of Iraq, so in the aftermath of the war, many children suffered and died as a result of the sanctions that were then applied and made it impossible to purify the water. So something like — the estimates vary, but something like 500,000 children died as a result of the 1991 Gulf War. And when Madeleine Albright was asked about this, she said, oh, we think that it was worth it. So this just illustrates that proportionality is just someone’s opinion, someone’s opinion that my aim is more important than the lives of all of those people. So it is always vacuously satisfied by every war waged according to the legitimate authority himself, whose prerogative it is to interpret all of the other requirements.

WOODS: By the way, that answer just blows me away, that it’s always vacuously interpreted. Even proportionality, where you would think maybe there’s a hint of mathematical analysis here, that surely we can pin them down with proportionality. If some offense is committed against us, then the response has to be proportional to that offense. But if the response can include atrocities of the kind that you just mentioned that are vastly, by any normal person’s moral calculus, out of proportion to the original offense, then again, this principle means and accomplishes nothing.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: So what are the other ones — what have we missed? Which ones have I missed?

CALHOUN: Well, there’s public declaration. You’re supposed to provide the enemy with the ability to resolve the dispute in some peaceful manner.

WOODS: Oh, that sounds like exactly what the U.S. government is always looking to do.

CALHOUN: (laughing) That’s right, except for Obama now has decided that he doesn’t have to declare any of these wars. He does them all covertly, and then after the fact we discover them from people like Snowden or Manning and find out he’s been doing all these things. So public declaration has kind of fallen by the wayside. And what’s another one? Oh, another one is prisoners — or soldiers are to be respected as human beings. Okay, so that also seems to have fallen apart under Obama, although the logic that they use is that the people they’re killing with drones are unlawful combatants, so they’re not protected by the laws of war, which is another sneaky way of just getting to do whatever you want to do basically.

WOODS: So what — in light of all this, in light of the failure of the just war theory to accomplish what we all think it is intended to accomplish, where does that leave us?

CALHOUN: Well, that leaves us with getting back to the moral basis of the use of violence, and I think that if people are genuinely defending themselves from an aggressor, they have the right to defend themselves. One of the reasons why I wrote the first chapter of this book, “Self-Defense and War,” was because I wanted to dispel this really negative caricature of war opponents as somehow irrational hippies or something. So a lot of people think, oh, if you’re against war, you’re somehow irrational. I think exactly the opposite. I think that there’s no necessary connection between an affirmation of the right to self-defense and an opposition to war when war means sending people thousands of miles away to kill other people who do, in fact, have a right to defend themselves.

WOODS: Well, the book is War and Delusion: A Critical Examination. I’m going to link to it at TomWoods.com/553. And as last time, I’ll link to various ways to reach you: your Twitter — do you have a website or a blog?

CALHOUN: I do. It’s called The Drone Age.

WOODS: And how can people reach it?

CALHOUN: It’s at WordPress — TheDroneAge.wordpress.com. So that’s really a blog that’s dedicated to the drone book and the latest developments in the drone wars.

WOODS: Okay, so I’ll link also to our previous episode when we talked about that book, so that’s also TomWoods.com/553. So if you’re interested in what we talked about, that’s the page to visit. Laurie, thanks for your time today.


a comprehensive critique of the "just war" paradigm which has dominated normative discourse about War for centuries.
First published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. Paperback edition with a new foreword to be published in the fall of 2016.

Cameroon Has a New Drone Base and 300 US Troops, and I Have Some Questions for Barack Obama


The number of nations in possession of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) is increasing rapidly. In the beginning, it was only the United States and Israel, but now just about every day fresh inductees into the Drone Age Push-Button Killing Club are being announced. Over this past week, both China and Turkey were reported to be revving up the engines of their lethal drones.

Some of the recently equipped drone nations have already joined the trendsetters in using this technology against their own countrymen: Britain, Pakistan, Nigeria, the list will continue to grow as the capacity to kill by remote-control sweeps around the globe. Soon the question will be not Who has UCAVs? but Who has been left out? Which forlorn government leaders don’t have their fingers on the buttons of a killing machine?

Thanks to the unexpected use of this technology in 2011 by President Barack Obama to summarily execute US nationals without trial, all international norms on extrajudicial killing have fallen by the wayside. Lethal drones have become the savvy political leader’s symbol of success—no less than the “with it” modern citizen’s i-phone. The possession of UCAVs in a leader’s arsenal is proof positive that he or she is up-to-the-minute on the technology front, and ready and willing to get his hands—or rather fingertips—dirty.

Drone-armed leaders appear more than a little eager to participate in the new free-for-all missile strikes now referred to as “war” wherever they occur, with or without the permission of the people of the countries being bombed. As for the UN Security Council? It’s basically a relic of the past. How many governments currently bombing Syria asked anyone’s permission to do so?

Anyone who thinks that George W. Bush’s legacy is over are sorely confused. Preemptive war has not only been championed but proliferated by Barack Obama, despite his outspoken criticisms of Bush’s preemptive invasion of Iraq. Obama may prefer Hellfire missiles to “boots on the ground”, but his penetrations of other sovereign nations have been no less preemptive than were those of W.

In the new, ever-more-lethal Drone Age, everyone is getting in on the remote-control killing game, including a number of African nations entirely devoid of the means to develop and produce the technology to do so themselves. Fortunately for the leaders of third world nations, no one needs to have sophisticated industrial means to join the drone killing craze, because the US government, Israel, and China are ready and willing, between them, to provide every leader with the new twenty-first-century “tools” for globalized war. But it’s not just the drones: the bases from which drones are launched have also been furnished to leaders willing to collaborate with the US government.

The number of US surveillance bases on the African continent continues to rise, and includes at least these: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Seychelles, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and, the latest addition: Cameroon. The US government denies the existence of most of the bases, just as they denied the existence of the drone program itself for nearly a decade. But Cameroon has been singled out for acknowledgement, and we have been assured that the drones are being used for surveillance purposes only. In fact, it’s a short step from surveillance to slaughter, since all that needs to be done is to snap a couple of Hellfire missiles onto a Predator drone, and the killers are “good to go”.

The US government has vaunted its collaboration with the government of Cameroon as an important part of dealing with Boko Haram—the group which abducted 200 school girls back in 2014. No one seems to know where the girls are—although a few reports maintain that they have been transformed into child soldiers—but now Cameroon is going to help Nigeria to find out. At least that’s the official story of the sudden bestowal of US military largesse on a country about which most US citizens know nothing. Where is Cameroon, anyway?

That was a rhetorical question, of course. For it does not matter where US taxpayers’ hard-earned cash is being redistributed around the globe, so long as the enemy is being hunted down and destroyed before they have the chance to reach US shores. Does Boko Haram have international aspirations? Unclear, but again, no one seems to care. If they aren’t setting off bombs in the United States, well, that just shows that the US government is keeping us safe—no matter what they do, and no matter what our enemies say! Why do they hate us? Because of our freedom! Notwithstanding the testimony of jihadists from Osama bin Laden on, this remains the ever-popular refrain of US warriors and their supporters.

Now that Cameroon has a drone base and 300 US special forces to do with as they deem fit, courtesy of the US government, I have a few questions, on the topic of freedom, for President Barack Obama:

  1.  Are you aware that President Paul Biya has been the leader of Cameroon for 33 years?
  2. Do you know how it is that African leaders become “presidents for life”?
  3. Would you be surprised to learn that President Biya has been reelected over and over again amidst allegations of malfeasance? As a matter of fact, the president of Cameroon is renowned among scholars for “creative innovation” in electoral fraud. Quite an accomplishment.
  4. Are you aware that Biya has been consistently and repeatedly ranked among the world’s worst dictators? Any ideas why that might be?
  5. Do you believe that petty despots provided with the means to track and eliminate political enemies will refrain from doing so?
  6. Have you read the report on Cameroon issued by Amnesty International in 2009? Not to worry, that was a rhetorical question, as I realize that you were busy learning the remote-control killing ropes from John Brennan at that time. Here’s the summary blurb:


“In February the security forces killed as many as 100 people during protests against price rises and against a constitutional amendment that would extend the President’s term of office. As part of a strategy to stifle opposition, the authorities perpetrated or condoned human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions and restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Human rights defenders and journalists were harassed and threatened. Men and women were detained because of their sexual orientation.”


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do



“Chew ‘em up and Spit ‘em out”: The Drone Operator Edition


Any sober look at the recent history of veterans in the United States can only lead one to wonder why men and women continue to enlist in the armed forces in the twenty-first century. There was Agent Orange in Vietnam, the effects of which were denied for decades by military administrators, despite an abundance of scientific evidence that many veterans’ illnesses were linked to exposure to the poison. Then there was the Gulf War Syndrome, a horrifying range of problems, many neurological, which arose among veterans subsequent to the 1991 Gulf War. Soldiers in that mission were told to bomb chemical factories, after which everyone on the ground was assured that when toxin alarms went off, they were malfunctioning.

During the protracted occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, many troops were redeployed against their will and in spite of the fact that they had already been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of them took their own lives. National Guardsmen, who had enlisted to defend the homeland in the homeland, were sent abroad as well, and record percentages of them also committed suicide.

The problems suffered by veterans engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan persist. The PTSD victims continue to be plied with in some cases deadly cocktails of drugs officially intended to alleviate their psychological troubles but which have not in fact stemmed the tide of suicides. It is plainly written in black and white on the labels of many of the antidepressants and SSRIs being prescribed by the VA that such drugs lower the threshold to violence, yet possible connections between the drugs and the epidemic of veteran suicides are doggedly ignored.


The latest episode in this scandalous chronology involves the young persons enlisted to work as assassins at a distance, lured in by generous salaries to kill people who never threatened them with death, under cover of what is dubiously claimed to be “just war”. There is currently a recruitment crisis in the drone program. Why? Because the US government cannot find enough people ready and willing to kill on command by pushing buttons on computer consoles on the other side of the planet from the so-called battlefields where the allegedly evil targets—suspected of possibly plotting a future possible terrorist attack—are said by anonymous analysts to hide.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: in Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, 86% of the detainees were eventually exonerated of any connection whatsoever to violent extremist groups. How many of the suspects dispatched under authorization by President Barack Obama, whose policy it is to “kill don’t capture”, have also been innocent? They are fingered by the same forms of intelligence: HUMINT and SIGINT. Bribed hearsay and circumstantial evidence. You do the math.

The government makes it sound as though the sole reason for the shortage of drone operators is that the job itself is taxing: the “long hours” and “fast pace” of the job are supposed to be the explanation for why remote-control killers are not re-enlisting once their initial contract term has expired. Needless to say, the government ignores claims to the effect that the true reason for some of these operators’ refusal to reenlist is that they have painfully learned what the job really entails and want nothing further to do with it. Some now claim that they wish they had never enlisted. If only they could travel back in time…

Thanks to the testimony of brave men such as Michael Haas, Stephen Lewis, Cian Westmoreland, and Brandon Bryant, future prospective drone operators have been warned in no uncertain terms: you, too, may later conclude that you made an irrevocable mistake in doing what you were persuaded to do by commanding officers under cover of “just war”. (Remember the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority?) Nothing is free, and if not now, perhaps later, the next generation of drone operators may, too, pay a heavy toll for acting against their conscience and suppressing the questions which arose in their minds before killing people who did not deserve to be summarily executed without trial.

Given all of this, each and every young person who is considering the career of professional killer in the service of the US government needs to view the below video before signing a contract which they may come later deeply to regret. Friends don’t let friends sign contracts which may burden their conscience for the rest of their lives:





For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 7: The Operators; Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion; and Chapter 11: The Death of Military Virtue

The Drone Operator Recruitment Crisis and the Status of Women in the US Military

The Pentagon recently announced that all combat positions in the US military will henceforth be open to women. It took quite some time for “the fairer sex” to be granted this arguably dubious achievement. As offensive as some may find this suggestion, it appears that the admission of women into the ranks of military killers has come about in the Drone Age only because superior physical strength is no longer a requirement for active “combat” duty.


Women are now pushing buttons to erase from the face of earth men who they have been told harbor evil intentions to destroy the people of the United States. If one accepts the definition of drone operators and sensors as “soldiers”—even though they work in trailers located thousands of miles away from the so-called battlefields where they kill—then these female drone operators are already combatant troops and have been for quite some time.

The fact that the Pentagon made a public announcement to this effect, letting young women everywhere know that they, too, are welcome to enlist as professional killers—and earn handsome salaries and benefits packages for doing so—reflects the administration’s recognition that, in the future, lethal drones will be used more and more, and ground troops less and less, in conflict zones. Why? Because in the Drone Age, politicians can paint themselves as strong on defense without having to write condolence letters to families, and without having to pay hospital visits to maimed survivors of the US government’s various military misadventures abroad.

Now that lethal drones have made it possible for women to kill just as many “unlawful combatants” as do men in uniform, I dare to ask the politically incorrect question: Is serving as a remote-control killer something which young women should aspire to do? In even articulating this question, I will no doubt be met with the ire of feminists who believe that women should be free to do anything which men are free to do. And there is a certain logic to that argument.

If women are truly equal to men, then should they not be able to do everything which men do? Should not women, too, be allowed to commit horrific mistakes such as slaughtering their fellow human beings under order when the commander-in-chief declares that “We are at war”? Don’t women have every bit as much of a “right” as do men to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? As a matter of fact, PTSD is now found as frequently among drone operators as among ground troops from wars past. Shouldn’t women be entitled to their “fair” share of the ills of war?

I am not going to try to argue that women should be protected from themselves, but I will venture boldly to propose (once again) that perhaps young women and men alike should be protected from recruiters who lure them into a profession—that of paid assassin—which some of them are sure to regret later on down the line. Because of the testimony of a few brave drone operators and sensors, we know that the vocation of remote-control killing weighs heavily on the conscience of at least some of those involved in the drone program, who now wish that they had never followed orders to kill, given that their own lives were not on the line when they pushed buttons to annihilate targets on hit lists compiled by anonymous analysts.

That heavy drinking has been widespread among drone killing squadrons, having become necessary for them to be able to carry on with their jobs for as long as they do, is another clue that something is morally awry. If employees must drown their sorrows every night after work, then is this not an unequivocal sign that they know, deep down inside, that what they are doing is not right?

It requires no more physical strength to work as a push-button killer than it does to play a video game—or to send email or shop online. And yet, the drone program has had difficulty holding onto its recruits, many of whom opt not to reenlist once their initial contract has expired. One solution hit upon has been to offer operators more and more lucrative bonuses, also known as “bribes”.

Faced with the drone operator recruitment crisis, the question arises: why has the Pentagon not tapped into an obvious source of employable persons: senior citizens? Why not enlist retirees who are still of sound mind? They may be too frail to fight in hand-to-hand combat, but the average sixty-year-old—or even seventy-year-old—is certainly sturdy enough to push a few buttons and manipulate a joystick while sitting in an air conditioned trailer within driving distance of Las Vegas.

The most obvious reason for not recruiting—or even attempting to recruit—older persons as remote-control killers is that they cannot be hoodwinked into committing moral atrocities in the name of the state. Senior citizens and recent retirees remember from the twentieth century, before the Drone Age, lofty concepts such as the Geneva Conventions and the post-World War II reasons which drove the leaders of states to craft documents such as the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In contrast, young people fresh out of high school and looking for a job are highly vulnerable to the marketing campaigns of military recruiters, and they may know absolutely nothing about international law. Shouldn’t they be able to trust a commander-in-chief who holds a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard University?


It isn’t often that I am reminded of Lyndie England, the ignominious young woman whose eternal claim to fame is to have participated in the inhumane treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The proof that she believed that there was nothing wrong with what she and her comrades were doing was captured for posterity on film: Lyndie England exultantly posed for photographs while holding a prisoner on a leash and standing next to a body pyramid of naked detainees. The general revulsion to the images disseminated swiftly around the globe served to intensify anti-American sentiment among those who had opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it also caused even staunch military supporters to pause.

Now that the Drone Age is well underway, young women not unlike Lyndie England are being asked, not to torture, but to incinerate suspects, and some of them appear to be doing so, too, in good conscience, at least judging by a recent feature on “Sparkle”, a female drone sensor operator who works out of Creech Air Force Base. Here’s what Sparkle says about the “bejeweled” headset she wears while dispatching targets:

“I use it to emasculate the enemy in the afterlife. Many radical jihadists believe that being killed by a woman means they will not enter heaven.”

She then adds a bit of a feminist twist:

“Considering how they treat their women, I’m OK with rubbing salt in the wound.”

One can only wonder how many radical jihadists Sparkle has ever conversed with, given that she works in a trailer located in Nevada.

Comparing the case of Lyndie England to that of drone operators killing in lands where there are no soldiers on the ground (rightly or wrongly) to protect, one must ask: is it really worse to torture people than to strip them of their lives, and at the same time all of their rights? This is puzzling, to say the least, and yet that is precisely what is transpiring in the Drone Age.

Very few prisoners have been captured abroad under President Barack Obama, and anyone who is not being detained is obviously not being tortured. Instead, suspects are summarily executed, as though they were all guilty, and in spite of the documented fact that 86% of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba had no connections whatsoever to terrorist organizations.

The modes of intelligence used to round up suspects (HUMINT derived from bribed informants, and SIGINT from electronic sources such as cell phones) are the same as those used in hunting down targets and ending their lives. Nonetheless, the drone operators such as Sparkle who carry on do not appear to bat an eye at the fact that they have no access to the intelligence used to add names to the list of people whom they are ordered to dispatch. Here is how she describes how she must steel herself for her role in the drone program:

“When you hit a truck full of people, there are limbs and legs everywhere. I watched a guy crawl away from the wreckage after one shot with no lower body. He slowly died. You have to watch that. You don’t get to turn away. You can’t be that soft girly traditional feminine and do the job. Those are the people who are going to have the nightmares.”

I submit that Sparkle is morally equivalent to Lyndie England. Both of them were persuaded by agents of their government to believe that what they did and are doing is perfectly just. One hopes that, in the fullness of time, Sparkle and all of the drone sensors and operators like her—men and women alike—will be forced to find alternative employment, when US taxpayers finally wake up to the moral atrocity of what is being done in their name.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 7: The Operators; Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion; and Chapter 9: Death and Politics


Spain Wants in on the Drone Killing Game: Has Franco Been Forgotten?


It was recently reported that the government of Spain will be acquiring four MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) along with one ground control station (GCS) from the US firm General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. The US company won out over the competitor, Israel Aerospace Industries, which was ready to furnish its Hero TP to the Spanish government as well. Maybe they’ll secure a contract from Spain later on down the line. Never say never: there’s always room for another shiny new implement of homicide in a political leader’s arsenal, particularly when one of its crowning virtues can be said to be to make it possible to spare soldiers’ lives. That Spanish soldiers would never have been deployed to the drone zones anyway is a nicety best brushed aside.

The Reapers will eventually be weaponized, but for now the Spanish Air Force will simply play around with them, familiarize themselves with the advanced technology, and prepare for the day when they, too, will be able to dispatch human beings by remote control, just as the US and the UK governments have been doing for some time, and Italy is preparing to do as well.

The Spanish Air Force may be thrilled about what will be their enhanced capacity to execute suspects without trial, but one can only wonder what Pablo Q Pueblo, the average citizen in Spain, thinks about this development. Perhaps the Spanish public would rather forget their twentieth-century history, but was not Spain ruled by a brutal dictator, Generalísimo Francisco Franco, from 1936 until his death in 1975? His longevity was assured by the US government’s support, rationalized by the tried and true maxim of US foreign policy, that “the enemy of our enemy is our friend.” That’s right: the only thing Franco hated more than republicanism was communism.  

To the dismay and peril of liberty-loving Spaniards, Franco became a dreaded “president for life” through brute force and the elimination, by hook or by crook, of an estimated 200,000-400,000 Spanish citizens. Let us be perfectly frank: weaponized drones would have been right up Franco’s alley: the capacity to vaporize political enemies with no due process and no provision for appeal. All those pesky dissidents could be perfunctorily written off as enemies of the state.

I think that it is fair to say that congratulations are in order once again to US President Barack Obama for having ushered in a new era of secrecy and opacity along with the capacity to draw up hit lists through the use of advanced surveillance techniques (such as the mining of cellphone data) against any- and everyone one who might be potentially dangerous in the future. These Obama-era practices have gained wide acceptance among politicians and will surely lead to summary executions by governments the world over, including now Spain, both at home and abroad.

Who needs republicanism when every government’s leader will soon be able to squelch dissent and eliminate “annoying” adversaries with the push of a button while watching the targets “splashed” on high-definition television screens? Of course, the technology alone was not enough to herald in the full-fledged, robust Drone Age. The practice of summary execution without trial needed also to be normalized by the leader of the greatest nation on the earth, which President Barack Obama in fact did. In a self-serving effort to convey an image of strength, remote-control killing became drone warrior Obama’s claim to fame and will be his lasting legacy, to the detriment of liberty-loving people the world over.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

The Bipartisan Mainstreaming of Drone Warfare: Tom Woods Show Episode 538

Interview by Tom Woods of Laurie Calhoun about We Kill Because We Can

(conducted on November 10, 2015)


Complete Interview Transcript (courtesy of The Tom Woods Show):

WOODS: Quite a provocative and in-your-face title. I love in-your-face titles. Just get to the point. We Kill Because We Can is the main title, and the subtitle is From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age. This thing is provocative from page one, so I almost don’t — there’s so much that I would like to ask you, and I want to make sure we do justice to the book. Of course we’re going to link to it on the show notes page, which today is TomWoods.com/538, but let’s start off with just talking about the phenomenon of the use of drones, and how they have gone from a peculiar oddball thing that was a curiosity in 2002 to being a very, very common instrument of U.S. foreign policy today.

CALHOUN: Yes, it’s a little bit shocking in my view, what has happened. Essentially the lethal drones were used initially in covert operations, and what happened is they were used over and over and over again over about a 10-year period when the government did not acknowledge the use of lethal drones or targeted killing publicly. And by the time that 10-year period had elapsed, it had really become a standard operating procedure, so everyone in the administration thinks it’s just a tool you reach for, and this is how you deal with terrorism. You probably heard the Leon Panetta quote, “It’s the only game in town,” when he came into the directorship of the CIA.

WOODS: Yeah.

CALHOUN: But the fact is we never debated any of this. We never had the debate, because they were covert for so long, and by the time Obama finally said in January of 2012, yeah, we’re doing this; we’re killing people using lethal drones, everyone had already kind of accepted it and shrugged and just went on with whatever they were doing — with a few notable exceptions; for example, Rand Paul. But in terms of like a public debate among politicians, we never had it.

WOODS: Yeah, and now, as you say, people don’t even really — it’s hardly even mentioned by anybody. And that’s a bipartisan thing. I don’t hear Democrats talking about drones.

CALHOUN: No, you don’t and people have just accepted something like the New York Times headlines’ version of the story, which always says “Four suspected militants killed,” and people are so used to reading that kind of headline, I think they actually elide the word “suspect” from their reading, and they just assume, oh good, we got some more terrorists. But the reality is all of these people being killed are suspects, and so it’s actually a very disturbing development in the history of warfare and in the history of, I would say, criminal justice as well. It’s really an amalgamated attempt to deal with terrorism and to, on the one hand, say these people are suspects, and on the other hand, they’re soldiers, but we’re just going to kill them without any due process, without warning them, without providing them with opportunity to surrender. We’re just going to kill them. Why? Because we can.

WOODS: Well, let me say what, of course, you know is the standard response to that, which is that we’re dealing today with an especially wily, non-state enemy. There is no headquarters that we can bomb and then the regime will surrender and hostilities will end. We’re dealing with individuals, very shady, every-changing organizations, and so unfortunately it’s going to be a little bit messy, and we have to do this. And if we weren’t doing this, we would be doing something that you would find even more objectionable than drones, so shut up and accept it.

CALHOUN: Yeah, that is the standard line, well articulated. And my response is, first of all, the choices aren’t a) lethal drones or b) Tomahawk missiles. That’s how it’s always set up. We either have to have a full scale invasion, take over Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, take over all of them with our Army, or we have to go in with drones. This is a false dichotomy, first of all. It’s not the case that we would be going into any of these places beyond Iraq and Afghanistan with troops on the ground, because the people are not posing a huge threat to the United States. They’re small factions in tribal regions, and basically they’re suspected of complicity in terrorism, but it’s — I’m glad you raised the word “shady,” because the evidence for these people’s supposed guilt of plotting to destroy the United States is based on information provided by bribed locals.

And we know from Guantanamo Bay when we used bribery to pull in all these men and incarcerate them without charges for many years that it turned out that 86% of those men were innocent. They had no actual connection to terrorist networks; they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What’s happening with the lethal drones is that, because we “kill don’t capture” and take no prisoners, people want to assume that all these people are guilty. The reality is very different, I believe, based on the stats at Guantanamo Bay and the fact that the very same types of intelligence are used for drone strikes as was used for rounding up suspects for detention.

WOODS: All right, so we have to extrapolate from a case like Guantanamo — is that because we really don’t have any way — once people have been basically obliterated by a drone strike, there’s no way to go in and assess who’s who and what really happened, so we can’t really form accurate percentages in terms of are we really getting terrorists? Are we able to assess those numbers?

CALHOUN: Well, that’s an excellent question. And what has happened is the administration in one way acknowledges the difficulty of getting the truth, but their solution is not to be skeptical or agnostic about the identity of some of these people killed; instead, what they have done is to define all men of military age who are killed in drone strikes as unlawful combatants and fair game for targeting. In other words, if you are an able-bodied male in one of these tribal regions over which lethal drones hover and you are killed, whether or not your name is known, whether or not you have any known association with al Qaeda, they write you into history as an enemy combatant killed in action.

And they offer this kind of bizarre explanation that, well, we assume that they are combatants unless we’re given some reason not to believe that they’re combatants, but of course that never happens, and it couldn’t happen, because the people are killed on the basis of suspicious activities — namely, being where they are among other people who have already been killed or are related in some way to al Qaeda or some other group — so there’s no way for these people to be exonerated posthumously. They can’t exonerate themselves pre-posthumously, because they don’t know that they’re being hunted down to be killed, and many of them are not even on target lists, but they end up getting killed, because they’re looking for someone else. They want to kill someone, and they end up killing a cluster of other people, and then if the people actually killed happen to be men of military age, they’re written off as unlawful combatants.

WOODS: The very first one of these strikes apparently was in Yemen back in 2002, and I hadn’t known the details of that until I read them in your book, about the complicity of the president of Yemen, who no doubt like a lot of rulers around the world doesn’t want to be on the bad side of the U.S. and is willing to go to extremes in some cases to keep the U.S. happy. And he apparently gave his consent to the strike on the condition that some kind of cover story would be devised to account for what happened to the people, and then Wolfowitz went and blew the whole cover. Flesh that out for us.

CALHOUN: That’s exactly what happened. Saleh collaborated with the United States throughout his presidency in Yemen and basically gave them free rein to kill whoever they wanted to on Yemen sovereign soil. At the time of the November 3rd, 2002 strike, the agreement was this is a covert operation; there’s going to be some sort of cover story; it’s going to be accidental. But then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz decided to vaunt the strike as a sort of victory in the War on Terror. And it was a huge political success. I mean, everyone thought, oh, this is so wonderful; we can get rid of these evil terrorists without harming our soldiers, without sacrificing our soldiers, and everyone thought it was a great idea.

Saleh was, I believe, perturbed about the revelation, because of course it was not favored by his constituents. I mean, he basically was acting as a monarch and allowing the United States to kill anyone they wanted to on Yemen soil. And so yeah, it was a little bit tricky. But Saleh actually continued to collaborate with the United States and lots of drone strikes were carried out in Yemen up until the recent coup, which I believe was precipitated by the drone campaign, because there was just so much unrest and so much anger over the central authorities’ provision to the United States of the permission to kill all these people.

But yeah, exactly. It was covert. So in Chapter Two I talk about “From Black Ops to Standard Operating Procedure,” no one talked about these drone strikes between that strike, November 3rd, 2002, which was discussed openly by Paul Wolfowitz, and then everyone else talked about it, but then up until January 2012, no one talked about them. If you asked the administration, they all said, oh, we can’t talk about it; you know, state secret’s privilege; we won’t talk about it; we can’t talk about it; we can neither deny nor confirm that these people have been killed — you know, when people brought forth data about collateral damage, etc., they just consistently denied it.

And it was ironically President Obama himself in a Google talk chat in January 2012 in advance of the presidential election that he started talking about it. And so they said, oh, I guess — people were like, oh wow, I guess it’s not really covert anymore; I guess it’s overt. But of course he used this to paint himself as strong on defense: look what I’m doing to keep you safe. And since then, people have just accepted it. Everyone in the administration accepts it. Certainly anyone who remained in the administration has been a lethal drone advocate from 2002 on. A lot of people left the CIA, but the people who have come in are all enthusiasts, and so now it’s just considered standard operating procedure.

WOODS: Naturally somebody’s going to ask you what do you recommend instead. We’ve got a lot of bad guys out there; it’s not always easy to apprehend them, and some of them do wish us ill, and it’s quite clear in what they say that they wish us ill, so we have to do something.

CALHOUN: Yeah, I’m not so sure that most of these people are so close to Osama bin Laden. The problem is we’re conflating all of these groups. There are militants; there are dissidents; there are terrorists; there are all these different types of people who are angry out there. A lot of the people being killed are actually militants whose aspirations are very local, and the central government authority in a case such as Yemen is using his collaboration with the United States to eliminate political enemies. These are people who would never make it to U.S. shores, most of them. Even if they hate the United States, as some of them may very well, because of our ongoing interventions, they don’t have the means to harm the United States. They’re not, as the politicians always want to say, an existential threat. It’s just preposterous to claim that they are. These people are not Osama bin Laden, but unfortunately they’ve all been conflated into a single group of evil terrorists.

And look at the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq. A lot of those people perceived themselves to be defending themselves against the occupiers — and they were. Now, they ended up joining ranks with al Qaeda terrorists, some of them, but in fact a lot of the men killed really perceived themselves to be defending their own homeland. And what has happened since then is that everyone is just sort of thrown into the same barrel. They’re all evil terrorists akin to Osama bin Laden. I reject that premise. I think it’s false. I think it’s politically palatable, because politicians can say, oh, look at all these people we’ve killed; we’re keeping you safe. When in fact, the blowback is going to come later down the line, and we, the taxpaying citizens, are the ones who are going to suffer as a result of these programs.

WOODS: Now, you point out here what a number of people have said, which is that we have examples of people who have taken up arms in one way or another as a result of a drone strike and the loss of a relative or some close person, and they cite that expressly. And these are people who hadn’t been involved in anything before.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: So there is the concern that are you in fact — you kill one person, and you radicalize two.

CALHOUN: There’s a huge amount of data for this. I mean, lots of NGO groups and human rights groups have gone into these territories and interviewed people. A very recent study by Alkarama based in Switzerland found in Yemen the fall of 2014 that among the people living under lethal drones, there were forms of collateral damage which are really not acknowledged by the administration. The administration likes to say that collateral damage is body count, and if you consider that collateral damage is exhausted by civilian body count, it looks like drones are a great idea, because the body count is very low relative to full-scale wars. It’s somewhere between several hundred and several thousand. People differ on the stats, and it also depends on whether you exclude the possibility of a military-aged male as a civilian. But even the worst stats, even if lots of these people have been civilians, the body count is in the thousands. It’s not hundreds of thousands, and so people say, what are you talking about? Of course drones are the answer.

But they’re completely ignoring these other facets of collateral damage, which I refer to as second-order collateral damage or even third-order collateral damage. And second-order collateral damage is the harm done to people who are not killed in the strikes, but they’re left bereft of their loved ones, their community members, their homes, their vehicles, etc., those people have been harmed by the drones but they survive, and they’re in many cases traumatized; they are afraid for the future. What Alkarama found in their very insightful study is that both bereft survivors and people who have not lost anyone are equally afflicted by psychological ailments, such as fear, anxiety, paranoia, and above all anger. And what they found is that among these people in the communities where lethal drones hover, young boys in particular, whether they have lost a family member or not, tend to become very angry about this, and they are prime candidates for signing up to join forces to undertake jihad in collaboration with some of these terrorist factions.

So absolutely, there’s the question are we creating more terrorists than we’re eliminating, and we have an abundance of evidence for this. And it actually seems just to be a matter of common sense. If you think about how you would feel if your own neighborhood were being, I don’t know, hit by missiles periodically, every now and then some house just disappears, and you’re living there, well, what Alkarama found and other organizations have corroborated this is that the people have difficulty planning for the future, because they’re not sure that they’ll be here tomorrow. They have difficulty experiencing former sources of joy. They basically live in a sort of paranoid state, because they never know if they’re going to be next in line.

And as a result of this, some of the people are just traumatized; they’re just psychological wrecks. Others become very angry and take up arms and vow to retaliate against this. Lots of the people, lots of the jihadists from the Bush era have said explicitly, as you noted, that they are retaliating to the drone strikes and that they will not stop until the drone strikes stop.

WOODS: All right, I’m going to play devil’s advocate. What I’ve heard in response to this from time to time is for people who are worried about the so-called blowback effects of U.S. intervention around the world, the answer is we didn’t worry about that when we were fighting the Nazi regime in Germany. We didn’t say, well, if we bomb them they’re going to get even angrier at us. We just leveled them, and you don’t hear anymore Nazis anymore. That would be what they would say.

CALHOUN: Well, if you want to undertake full on genocide and kill all brown-skinned people in these areas, yeah, you will eliminate the problem of jihadist terrorists. But we have to step back and ask what exactly we are doing, because in addition to killing the worst of the worst, the people who would if they could grow up to be Osama bin Laden, we’re also eliminating simultaneously the best of the best, because we’re eliminating people who are standing up against their central government authority, often which are very tyrannical and oppressive. So we’re actually eliminating the possibility of democracy arising in these places where we collaborate with central government authorities who allow us to kill whomever we like, and they are using it for their part to cement their position of power. So it actually, the story is very different when you look at it from a longer-range perspective.

Let’s take a case such as Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the South African government when he was thrown in prison, where he stayed for 27 years. When he emerged, he was one of the greatest forces for peace in all of human history. Now, if lethal drones had existed when Nelson Mandela was pegged as a terrorist by the South African government, he would have been destroyed, and what I believe is happening now is we’re destroying people who actually want to change their societies for the better, because we’re lumping them all together in the same category as Osama bin Laden-like terrorists.

In fact, there have been lots of terrorists throughout history who have had positive programs. I mean, if you want to talk about World War II, who were the Partisans in France if not a group of civilian-clothed dissidents, right? And you have to look at each particular case. It’s not the case that anyone who opposes the central government of their land is automatically wrong and automatically evil. That’s just a false premise.

WOODS: But it is a premise that we’re taught to absorb, because we are taught from American history that of course anybody who has ever stood up to the U.S. government for any reason has obviously always been crazy and always deserved what they got, is the narrative that everybody gets in school, and we stand up and salute and we pledge and so on and on. Now, what I like about this book is that it’s not just — although it would be great to have a book that is just specifically about drones and the moral questions connected to it — but you take some very radical positions in here in your discussions of the military itself as an institution, the culture of the military, the suicide and drug problems that we see with the servicemen, the difficulty of because of the nature of the military having an opposing view and just following orders and so on. Can you tell us something about what you’re driving at in that discussion in your book?

CALHOUN: Yeah, when I talk about the drug use and the suicides I am expressing concern that in part the rampant prescription of drugs to both soldiers and veterans is having the effect of suppressing dissent among the troops themselves. So when you have someone like Brandon Bryant, who’s an apostate drone operator, going around the world and saying, look, this is a mistake, we shouldn’t be doing this, we’re killing people, we don’t know who they are, we’re killing women and children, he’s standing alone. Like, there are no other drone operators, as far as I know, who are doing this. And most of the people who are troubled by what they’re doing in the military, whether they’re drone operators or whether they’re regular soldiers, what happens when they’re diagnosed with PTSD now in the 21st century is that they’re doled out a whole bunch of drugs. And tons of these soldiers have tragically taken their own lives. No one’s really looking into the interactive effects or the contributions made by the drugs to the soldiers’ decisions to take their own lives.

But what I want to say is that this new use of drugs has the effect of not only making it easier for soldiers to kill but also suppressing the pangs of conscience which may emerge in them, as a result of which some veterans always become opposed to war.

WOODS: Yeah, now that’s — gosh, there’s so much left to talk about, and I feel like I’m trespassing on your time here. I was really, really blown away by that video excerpt that we all saw several years ago that became known as — it was called “Collateral Murder” —


WOODS: And this was Private Manning, helped to get that to us. And you know, anytime you see something like that, where the people who are engaged in the killing are just moral monsters — there’s no way to excuse their behavior, their speech, their obvious desire to kill these people, it’s astonishing. But anytime you point out a case like this, you get told, well, there are always going to be a few bad apples. It’s a shame that we have a few bad apples like this.

CALHOUN: They say that, but in the case you cite, “Collateral Murder,” the event was investigated by the powers that be, and they concluded that the soldiers had acted in conformity with their ROE, with their rules of engagement. So it’s not a case of bad apples. They don’t think that those people were bad apples, as appalling —

WOODS: I’m sorry, I didn’t even realize that. Somehow I forgot about that.

CALHOUN: Oh no, that’s what’s even more appalling, that the people —

WOODS: So they’re not even considered bad apples. They’re perfectly good apples.

CALHOUN: Exactly. Those are the good apples. So if those are good apples, what in the world are the bad apples?

WOODS: Well, can you describe — in case people have forgotten this, can you describe exactly what these good apples did?

CALHOUN: Sure. Yeah, it’s shocking; I have to say the first time I saw it, I really felt sick to my stomach. What happened was there were some Reuters journalists and civilians walking in, I believe, it was the New Baghdad neighborhood of Baghdad. And some soldiers above in an Apache helicopter, they interpreted the camera equipment which these guys were carrying as guns. They were AK-47s, they were RPGs; they were sure these were insurgents, terrorists, whatever you want to call them. So they decided to take them out. They got the go ahead, and they shot these people.

And some of them were only wounded in the first round, and so one of them was reaching — was crawling, obviously severely injured, dragging himself along the ground, and one of the soldiers in the helicopter was cheering him on saying, “Come on buddy, all you’ve got to do is touch a weapon.” So he was waiting for him to reach for his camera tripod thinking that it was a rifle so that he could finish him off in conformity with his rules of engagement. So if you’re reaching for a weapon, that means that you’re still an active combatant, and you can just, you know, whack the guy.

So it was so disturbing, because the guy exhibited this thirst to kill an already wounded man, and I take this as indicative of a whole culture of killing, which I label lethal centrism, the focus on killing more and more people as quickly and efficiently as possible and also the use of body count as your sole measure of success. And so the collateral damage just illustrates all of these facets in the drone age. That wasn’t a drone killing, but it exhibits the same sort of quest to kill that you find among “well adjusted” drone operators. That’s what they do. That’s their profession. Their profession is to hunt down and kill people. They even say that they’re hunting. So it’s no longer a case that the military is trying to defend themselves, because these drone operators are not in any physical danger. They’re thousands of miles away working behind screens and pushing buttons on joysticks to kill people who do not threaten them personally with any physical harm.

WOODS: It radically changes things that the person who’s involved in this has no risk to himself whatsoever. It changes the whole balance of the way war has been conducted in the past.

CALHOUN: I absolutely agree with you. It’s a paradigm shift, without question. These “soldiers,” the drone operators, cannot in any reasonable sense construe what they do as acts of literal self-defense. Now, of course people who support the drone program say, well, yes, they are defending themselves and they are defending you, because they’re taking out these people who would kill us if they could. Okay, that’s the Obama line and the line of all the administrators. But the reality is that if you want to redefine self-defense that broadly, then what you’re saying is that basically anyone can kill anyone by simply saying, oh, I’m afraid he might harm me in the future. I mean, this is a sort of rationalization which could be used by just paranoid people who take out their local enemies because they look at them suspiciously, right?

WOODS: So it’s like preemptive war, but on an individual level.

CALHOUN: It’s absolutely preemptive war, which makes it all the more shocking because Obama so harshly denounced Bush’s preemptive war on Iraq. In reality, Obama has carried out preemptive war missile by missile with his drone program, killing people in at least six — probably more — countries, without waging war, without declaring war, without consulting with Congress, and killing these people one missile at a time. It’s a strange situation, where on the one hand they’re saying it’s war, on the other hand they’re saying it’s not war. So the reason he doesn’t have to go to Congress, for example, in Libya he said was because we’re not endangering any troops, so therefore it’s not really war. But it is war. And they say that it’s war when it comes to collateral damage. So you kill innocent people, and the answer’s supposed to be, oh, fog of war, collateral damage is inevitable. But it’s only war because they’re using missiles instead of pistols or strangulation wires or poisons to kill these people. So it’s a very strange case of sleight of hand, sleight of linguistic hand, you might say, where you talk about it as war when that’s convenient, and then it’s not really war when it’s inconvenient.

WOODS: Yeah. Well, this is how the regime operates in so many areas. Whatever it needs, whether it was in the ’30s, whatever program we need to pass, we’ll call it this as long as that gets it through the Supreme Court, and once it does, then we’ll call it the opposite. You can’t trust anything they say on anything. I want to do two more things before I let you go. First is I want to read the very last paragraph before your postface part, the very last paragraph of your book because it’s so arresting:

“Supporters of the Predator drone program effectively affirm that war is the conjunction of thousands of summary executions carried out by the decree of the commander in chief. War makers choose to wield deadly force while claiming that it is a last resort. When all of the measures under consideration are lethal, drones may be selected as the seemingly lesser of a variety of evils. But drone operators themselves earn handsome salaries for suppressing their own conscience and dispatching human beings whom they have never met, and who never threatened them with death. Remote control killers situated far from the battlefield know deep down inside that no one would have died on that day at that place had they declined to fire on what became their victims. The brutal and merciless extermination of unwitting suspects denied the right to surrender or appeal because they are assumed to be vermin destroys the bodies of the victims while corroding the souls of their killers.”

Whoa. That’s a paragraph. That right there is a paragraph. I would like — well, I think in a way our whole conversation has been a reflection on that paragraph, but I want to close with this, what may be a difficult question for you. You point out — and forgive me; I have an addled middle-aged brain, but I feel like at some point in this I read that you sent some writing of yours to, at that time, Senator Obama, because he seemed to be on board with a more peaceful foreign policy. And then you’re horrified to discover that he turns around and engages in this sort of drone program. I want to ask you point blank: were you an Obama supporter, and what kind of evolution has taken place in your mind since his election?

CALHOUN: Well, yes, you’re right; you did correctly recall, I wrote in the preface that I had sent Obama an essay called “The Strange Case of Summary Execution by Predator Drone,” which I wrote right after the November 3rd, 2002 annihilation of six men driving down a road in Yemen by the CIA. I sent it to the newly placed president; I sent it at the very beginning of January 2009.

WOODS: Okay.

CALHOUN: Obviously it never made it to his desk (laughing). And I did vote for him. At that point, the reason why I sent it to him is because I had been seduced by this whole slogan of “Hope and Change,” and I was like, great, we’re going to turn the corner on this Bush nightmare. And then as the years went on and went on, it became clear that Obama in fact was continuing much of the Bush program, although not quite as brazenly. He wasn’t as open about it; he was more secretive about the things that he did.

So yes, I did vote for Obama, and I was really appalled when I learned that he was a part of the “Kill Committee” that met on Terror Tuesdays to consider “flashcards” about nominees to the kill list. That was really shocking. That was as sickening to me as the “Collateral Murder” video, and I really felt that I didn’t understand what had happened. You know, it was just incomprehensible to me that he had transformed in this way. But I think what happened, in retrospect, is that he retained a lot of the Bush administration officials, and so when he asked him for advice, they told him, oh, you should do these things, which were of course the things they had already been doing, including drone killing.

So my answer is that he’s not the man I thought he was when I voted for him. There’s no disputing the fact that he’s a completely different creature. I thought that he was going to be a strong leader who would stand on principle. I now believe that he really doesn’t have a kind of inner critic, and that he’s easily swayed by stronger willed advisors, and that’s how we have ended up with a president who in some ways seems to be contradicting himself left and right.

WOODS: Yeah.

CALHOUN: He’ll say he’s opposed to this —

WOODS: I think he’s conflicted. I think in his own mind he’s conflicted.

CALHOUN: Well, he’s accepted the advice of people whom he should have never listened to, beginning with John Brennan, who was the drone killing czar, whom he gave apparently an office in the White House. And then later, you know that Brennan advocated torture under Bush, so Brennan not only was not prosecuted for his part in the torture, but he was promoted to the head of the CIA. So of course since he was the drone killing czar, then drone killing became literally the only game in town. That’s what these guys do now. And so I feel like Obama’s huge mistake was to accept those sorts of figures as his top advisors, because of course they have a range of ideas about what is feasible and what’s doable and what’s good to do, and of course they want to promote what they have already been doing. I talk about this in the book as institutional homogenization, which results because in part there’s a psychological need for these people to convince themselves that what they’re doing is right, and so they do it more and more. And then after a while, what happens, as did happen in the case of drone killing, is it becomes standard operating procedure. Now that’s what we do, even though we’ve never really examined it.

WOODS: I don’t know if you’re familiar with a writer named Diana Johnstone. She writes for CounterPunch quite a bit, and she has a book out called Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton, and she’s attacking Hillary Clinton, not because she wants to raise taxes or something, but she’s criticizing her for being an interventionist on foreign policy, for being a hawk on foreign policy.  And I had her on and we talked about Obama, and she agreed with me; she felt like if you compared him to Bush, he does seem less inclined to go to war, and he does seem like he wants to negotiate and so on and so forth, but she said that she did feel like he’s easily swayed, and he gets, as you say, swept away by people who are stronger willed than he is.

And I said to her — and it almost sounded like she was trying to excuse it, and I said I can think of people who would have had a strong enough will, who no matter what the establishment is telling them or whoever’s pulling the strings or whatever, they would have gone in there and said I’m not bombing or I’m not doing this. I think Dennis Kucinich would not have done it. I think Ron Paul would not have done it.

And she agreed and she said, but people who have that level of fortitude wouldn’t have been allowed to get the nomination in the first place. And that just left my jaw on the floor. I thought, well, you know, I don’t really know how people get nominations around here, but it always winds up being Bill Clinton or Bob Dole, and that’s just what you’re stuck with. It doesn’t matter. It’s going to be Bill Clinton; it’s going to be Mitt Romney, and you’re going to sit there and like it. And I don’t know why it comes out that way, but it seems like it always does.

CALHOUN: Well, that is true, and I agree with your other speaker about Hillary Clinton. I mean, Hillary’s a hawk. That’s been established. You know, she was threatening Iran way back in 2008, but even in — I don’t know if you watched the first Democratic presidential debate. She actually characterized the intervention in Libya as “smart power at its best.”

WOODS: Unbelievable.

CALHOUN: Unbelievable! Because it’s true, no soldiers were killed, but four State Department employees were killed. And then she went on to, in a way, blame the victims. She said, oh well, when you have these jobs they’re dangerous. (laughing) I couldn’t believe it.

WOODS: Oh, not only that, but look at what happened to Libya in the wake of it all. Like nobody even cares about that. I don’t know what — see, that’s to me, that was Bernie Sanders, one of his 8,000 opportunities to basically decapitate Hillary right there and then. And for whatever reason, he just won’t do it.

CALHOUN: I know. But Bernie also, you know, although we may have hoped that he would be a different candidate, he’s come out openly and said that he thinks Obama’s doing a good job on foreign policy and basically would follow the Obama approach. And in fact, he used the expression “drone assassination.” He didn’t say targeted killing. So you mentioned this earlier, how we redefine a term and then things just kind of slide together. So you don’t even have to call it targeted killing. He said I’m going to continue the drone assassination program. Bernie Sanders said this. He’s the so-called progressive candidate. And the reason, I believe, is he gets his knowledge of what is going on from the New York Times headlines, so he sees “suspected militants killed”; he doesn’t know any of what’s going on on the ground, probably hasn’t looked into Libya recently, as you said. Libya’s like a nightmare. Talk about terrorist training camp waiting to explode.

WOODS: Yeah, exactly. And these are supposed to be in theory the best and brightest we have.


WOODS: And I remember in 2008 John McCain was asked about the fact that he had, by his own admission, really not much knowledge of the economy, and said, well, you know, I have Alan Greenspan’s book. And like that was his answer. That was supposed to make us feel good. That was the best guy they could come up with? And anyway, it just frustrates me to no end thinking back on those years, that somehow because of ineptitude or what, it’s not very well known, but John McCain in New Hampshire beat Ron Paul among anti-war people.

CALHOUN: Oh my gosh.

WOODS: Now, that is a message problem on McCain’s part and on the Ron Paul team’s part. Listen, I want to urge people to check out this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was recommended to me by Robert Higgs, who’s been a guest on this show a couple of times and who is very much admired by my listeners. The book is We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age. We’re going to link to it at TomWoods.com/538. Well, Laurie, I really, really appreciate your time. I kept you a little longer than I said I would, but I couldn’t help myself. It was a great conversation.

CALHOUN: Thank you, Tom. I really appreciate it.