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