Why Focus on Lethal Drones?

Darren Mullen recently asked me this and other questions. My answers are given below. (First published on February 5, 2016, at Desert Austrian and Libertarian Wing Media)


Your most recent work has concerned the lethal use of drones.  What inspired you to tackle this important, but little acknowledged problem?

Laurie Calhoun: I have been writing essays on war since the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo. In 2013, I published War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, which is a comprehensive critique of the “just war” paradigm. After about a decade of research and thinking about the morality of war, I came to the conclusion that just war theory is no more and no less than a powerful rhetorical tool of propaganda used by leaders to galvanize support for their wars. The early just war theorists came up with a framework which expanded the domain of permissible homicide. Leaders needed some kind of theoretical apparatus to rationalize going to war but without violating the most fundamental commandment of Christianity: Thou Shalt Not Kill. The banner of “just war” has been carried into battle by troops at the behest of their leaders ever since.

Modern just war theorists write as though their paradigm restrained war makers, but any group could establish a nation and appoint as its “legitimate authority” any of its members. Because “legitimate authorities” themselves possess the prerogative to interpret all of the other requirements of just war theory (jus ad bellum and jus in bello), this framework, far from limiting war, provides leaders with a template to use in persuading the populace to support the use of military force through fallacious appeals to tradition and authority.

The word ‘war’ is used today to denote a practice which the fathers of just war theory (Augustine, Aquinas, et al.) would not recognize. Among other glaring differences, there were no means of aerial transport before the twentieth century, much less weapons of mass destruction (WMD). We also affirm human rights, which were unheard of in ancient and medieval times. Understandably, given its origins, just war theory ignores the moral personhood of everyone involved in war except the leaders. During wartime, soldiers and civilians under bombing are treated as mere subjects, with no control over their destiny.

The recent development of lethal drone technology makes it possible for soldiers to kill without risking death, which is a major paradigm shift in the history of warfare. President Obama and his “drone czar” advisor John Brennan characterize their remote-control killing campaigns in “just war” speak—calling it “proportional”, a “last resort”, etc. The fact that assassination using lethal drones has been facilely labeled “just war” and accepted as legitimate with nearly no public debate corroborates my view about the value of the just war paradigm.

After completing War and Delusion, I was working on another volume focusing specifically on the lethal-centrism of modern Western approaches to foreign policy. I decided to narrow the focus to drones when I recognized that no one had published a comprehensive moral critique of remote-control killing, which strikes me as a deeply disturbing development in the history of warfare. The use of lethal drones to assassinate suspects abroad in “battlefields” stipulated as such by the killers also represents an abandonment of many democratic triumphs, not only human rights, but transparency and due process, which took centuries for human beings to develop and codify formally in institutions.

Anti-drone activists have resolutely denounced drone killing as murder from the very beginning. The populace, however, has been for the most part persuaded to agree with political leaders that the use of lethal drones to dispatch targets is a form of “smart war”, which spares soldiers’ lives while eliminating “evil enemies”. Before I began work on We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (2015), there were some books offering a journalistic approach to targeted killing. I wanted to conduct a thorough moral and philosophical analysis which would take seriously the perspectives of both sides, the advocates and the opponents of remote-control killing. I wanted to explain in detail what seems obvious to staunch critics of targeted killing but not at all obvious to champions of the practice.

My impression is that many citizens have not given the topic very much, if any, thought, having come to accept without questioning the government’s official stories. In my critique, I compare drone killing with black-op assassination and contract killing by hitmen to illuminate how the practice contradicts principles which we claim to uphold in civil society. I also consider how drone killing is symptomatic of what has become a “lethal obsession” among modern Western foreign policymakers. Political leaders assume that homicide is the solution to conflict, when in fact any sober look at the Middle East reveals that it is not.

Some media attention has been given to military drone use in the Middle East, especially about the assassination of US citizens, but what is being left out of reports about lethal drones in the mass media?

Laurie Calhoun: Everything is being left out by the mass media beyond soundbites such as “six suspected militants reportedly slain”, which convey to the populace the impression that they are being kept safe. The US government has done a great job of persuading US citizens to believe that they are being protected, but an abysmal job of making the world a safer place. In We Kill Because We Can, I cite testimony of jihadists and innocent victims who make it clear that, in addition to terrorizing entire communities of persons who never harmed or threatened any American, the drone campaigns degrade everyone’s security. Drone killing has obviously destabilized the lands where it is carried out—Yemen and Libya are two good examples. But the drone assassination of brown-skinned suspects also undermines the security conditions of people far from the Middle East, by fomenting acts of terrorism, as occurred in Paris and San Bernardino in 2015.

International legal scholars, military veterans, and activists alike have expressed concern about the blowback bound to ensue from the drone campaigns. People’s lives are being taken away from them (and their loved ones) on the basis of bribed hearsay and circumstantial evidence. The identity of many of these people is not even known, so they have arguably been victims of racial profiling, in addition to summary execution without trial. If these people were truly “soldiers”, then they would need to be provided with the opportunity to surrender in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. US government officials and other drone program supporters invariably retort to such charges that “mistakes are made” in warfare, and the targeted suspects are “unlawful combatants”, who are therefore not protected by military protocols and international law.

However, drone assassination is not just “war business” as usual. There is something insidious at play here: the very psyche of Western people is being transformed by the new remote-control killing technology. People are becoming more and more inured, even numb, to the reality of state-inflicted homicide and what it means to exterminate their fellow human beings, tellingly referred to by the killers as “bug splat”. The barrier to homicide was lowered significantly by President Obama through his signature policy, “kill don’t capture.” You may have noticed that Obama does not imprison foreign suspects anymore. He just kills them all. This is a ghastly development in US history.

Most people have not recognized the long-range implications of drone warfare because Obama destroys human beings abroad without sacrificing any US personnel. The effect has been to minimize domestic dissent to what is, in my view, an outrageous policy in violation of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the US Constitution. If the leader of any other nation in the world executed thousands of people abroad on mere suspicion of their possible association with extremist groups, you can be sure that he would be indicted for war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Even in “personality strikes”, when targets are named individuals believed to be associated with extremist groups, the missiles which aim to kill them often kill others in their stead. The US government has decreed that the unnamed male victims of military age are “Enemy Killed in Action”, unless proven otherwise. This is an appalling perversion of justice, particularly given that 86% of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba were determined to have been innocent. They were turned over to the US government by paid bounty hunters. But bribed intelligence has been a major source of the US government’s kill lists as well, which implies that many of the men deliberately targeted may have been innocent, on top of all of the clear cases of collateral damage and the military-age men defined as guilty until proven innocent.

It is beyond dispute that there will be blowback from all of this wanton homicide abroad, but I also feel that we are causing at the same time a much greater harm to humanity writ large by destroying some of the bravest and the brightest of the young people of Muslim communities. Consider Junaid Hussain, a twenty-one-year old British national who was taken out in Syria by a US drone in August 2015.

As in many other cases—and this has been well documented by Reprieve, a human rights group in the UK—Junaid Hussain was killed in a strike after a previous missile had hit other, untargeted, people. The toll of collateral damage in these communities—the people either killed or left bereft and traumatized—is itself a grave wrong. But there are broader implications for humanity as well. Junaid Hussain was a young man suspected of being a hacker for ISIS. People may say that he was collaborating with an evil enemy, but I think that we need to pause the killing machine, step back and ask: Why was he collaborating with ISIS?

The answer is clear: he was a mere child when the US government invaded Iraq in 2003, as a result of which the group of fundamentalists now known as ISIS joined forces with Al Qaeda in efforts to repel the occupiers. In the short lifetime of many of the young people now being targeted for elimination, massive amounts of carnage and chaos were caused directly by Western governments, especially the United States. If Junaid Hussain became sympathetic with anti-Western terrorists, that is because he was inspired to do so by the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent, brown-skinned, Muslim people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and beyond.

Recall that Osama bin Laden explicitly stated that he perpetrated the attacks of September 11, 2001, in retaliation to the 1991 Gulf War and the establishment of US military bases in Muslim lands. What did the US government do in response? They attacked Iraq again, killing even more innocent people than they had already destroyed. Preposterously, they also went on to establish even more military bases abroad than before. Does any rational person find it surprising that new extremists continue to arise out of the ashes of Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria? How is this story supposed to end?

Based on your research, what trends do you see for lethal drone use domestically, in the United States or elsewhere?

Laurie Calhoun: During the twentieth century, people who repeatedly and premeditatedly stalked and hunted down human beings with the intention of ending their lives were known as sociopathic or psychopathic serial killers. In the Drone Age, uniformed soldiers are being asked to do the very same thing, even while knowing that their own lives are not in any danger when they annihilate their targets after having spied on them and their families in the manner of voyeuristic peeping Toms.

Drone operators push buttons from thousands of miles away to incinerate human beings about whom they know nearly nothing. Some of the men being killed may be militants, but what is supposed to be wrong with opposing one’s government, if one lives under tyrannical rule? It’s all very disturbing, viewed from the perspective of anyone who believes in human liberty and the sanctity of human life. How did we reach the point where the president of the United States serves a Godfather-like function in authorizing the summary execution of brown-skinned poor people located in the tribal regions of other lands?

Rather than protesting US policy, the leaders of other nations are being corrupted as summary execution without trial spreads to infect them as well. The practice was once exclusive to the United States and Israel, but in 2015 Britain executed some of its citizens using Predator drones. UK Prime Minister David Cameron would surely be held accountable if he ordered hitmen to take out British nationals using pistols, poisons, or strangulation wires. Is the morality and legality of the assassination of citizens transformed merely by using an alternative implement of homicide, a weapon of war such as a Hellfire missile?

Many other Western states have acquired or are about to acquire the same capacity to kill by remote control. At some point, when all of these other leaders get in on the drone killing game, then no one will be able to complain without indicting their own nation. The long-term, global precedent set by Obama is in some ways worse than what George W. Bush did. Smaller countries could never get away with invading sovereign nations during peacetime. What will the US government be able to say when the leaders of other nations begin whacking their political enemies under a pretext of counter-terrorism and on the basis of secretive criteria and evidence to which only the killers are privy? Nothing.

It was Obama, not Bush, who took targeted killing to an entirely new level by intentionally snuffing out US citizens, rather than indicting and trying them for crimes. Summary execution without trial is a violation of the most fundamental values which gave rise to the United States of America. The president’s executive authority derives from the very Constitution which he tyrannically violates by denying citizens their rights.

Along these lines, US administrators have been pressing for censorship of the words of lethal drone critics and terrorist suspects alike. At the same time, nonviolent activists have been criminalized. This “totalitarian turn” in US history was especially evident in the use of neologism and the redefinition of terms à la George Orwell’s 1984 to “legitimate” (speciously) the government’s drone killing of suspects. In the US Department of Justice White Paper, “imminent threat” is redefined so that it no longer implies the presence of an immediate danger.

Linguistic innovation and legal contortionism opened the door to homicide carried out on mere suspicion and based on secretive criteria, which is nothing new in history, but unexpected from an ostensibly democratic state founded on principles of republicanism. The US government, and now Britain as well, has stepped onto a very slippery slope. Once leaders have already decided to kill citizens without trial, why should it matter whether they are located at home or abroad? Are suspects not in fact more potentially dangerous the closer they are to the homeland?

I read a few years ago that ESPN was helping the military to analyze drone videos.  What were the details of this program, and is it still ongoing?

Laurie Calhoun: In two chapters of We Kill Because We Can, “Death and Politics” and “Death and Taxes”, I examine the political and economic driving forces behind the lethal drone industry boom. Before being elected, Obama claimed to be an opponent of preemptive war. As president, he has exhibited unexpected enthusiasm for the preemptive assassination of terrorist suspects located far away from the homeland, even in places where there are no US nationals on the ground to protect. By now it is common knowledge that the US government has enlisted the aid of private companies in its drone program, but I do not know the details of ESPN’s involvement, [and] these arrangements tend to be shrouded in secrecy, under a pretext of State Secrets Privilege.

Some of the companies have certainly been assisting in analysis of intelligence. This is rather unsettling because the employees of these firms have financial incentives for providing more and more names for kill lists. Their criteria for what implicates the suspects are bound to grow flimsier and flimsier, as would seem to be demonstrated by the very fact that “military age men” in territories deemed “hostile” are considered fair game for execution according to drone program ROE (rules of engagement). The persons being killed are assumed guilty until proven innocent, which none of them can do since they are not apprised of the fact that they are about to be killed. Nor are they provided with the opportunity to surrender—not that most of them are carrying any weapons when they are “lit up” by Hellfire missiles.

I remember you making a statement on a recent Tom Woods podcast about the government setting a bad example by using violence as a solution for problems.  This resonated with me because I’ve noticed how all the people we are supposed to worship commit violence to solve problems, such as military and police. Would you like to elaborate more?

Laurie Calhoun: The most fundamental problem with just war theory is the concept of “legitimate authority” to wage war, which every commander in chief is said in the modern world to possess. When Kosovo and South Sudan recently established independent nations, this created two new “legitimate authorities”, according to the just war paradigm. But because nations and groups are conventionally delimited, one could imagine a group being whittled down through the removal of persons until at last only an individual remained. That individual could then claim to be the “legitimate authority” of his own private group, implying his possession of the right to wage war when he pleased, so long as he believed that the other tenets of just war theory were satisfied.

I suspect that precisely this sort of thinking governs the actions of not only factional terrorists, but also the many “lone wolf” killers in the United States who take it upon themselves to slaughter groups of people under some confused idea about what “justice” demands. I firmly believe that the huge upsurge in mass killings in the United States can be attributed in part to the fact that citizens are following the lead of the government, which offers itself as an example of how to resolve conflict each time people are killed in what is referred to as “war”. The lethal centrism of the US government’s foreign policy also helps to explain why so many people are killed by police officers in the homeland. One might think that a police officer could easily incapacitate a suspect by shooting him in the leg. Instead, they seem in many cases to be shooting to kill, military style.

I am quite concerned about the effects of drone killing on Western civilization more generally. In We Kill Because We Can, I examine the corruption involved in luring young persons to become professional assassins even while knowing that their own lives are not at stake, which is a dramatic departure from the concept of legitimate self-defense which we uphold in civil society. The new practice of remote-control killing represents a major rupture in Western people’s thinking about when homicide is supposed to be justified.

The threshold to state execution has been lowered by Barack Obama, but the technology has predictable applications for other realms as well. I believe that it is only a matter of time before the smaller-sized lethal drones will be used domestically by organized crime. It probably is already happening. It would be the easiest and surest way to protect the killers from detection. No more problems of fingerprints or other evidence linking a killer to his victims. If drones are used in lieu of hitmen, then crime bosses will be doubly protected since there will be no way for their minions to trip up and implicate them in the murders.

At some point, prospective US Air Force drone operator recruits are going to awaken to the reality that they will be able to earn much larger salaries if they agree to work for organized crime in the private sector rather than for the government. If they already have no compunction against killing their fellow human beings at the behest of commanding officers who may or may not care all that much about morality, then why not work for the highest bidder?

There is currently a drone operator recruitment crisis, which is why the US government no longer restricts the role of drone operator to commissioned officers. The shortage of lethal drone operators may also be one of the reasons why combat positions were recently opened up to women. To retain operators planning to abandon the profession once their contracts expire, the US military is offering “generous” bonuses, which are however pretty paltry compared to the income typically earned by professional hitmen. I see paid killing proliferating in the homeland as a result of the spread of the new technology, but especially because of the normalization by the US government of assassination.

Please provide a list of your works, whether in the past or ongoing.

Laurie Calhoun: Both of my two recent books, We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (2015) and War and Delusion: A Critical Examination (2013), will be reissued in paperback editions in the fall of 2016. At my blog, The Drone Age, I have been writing commentary and essays on the latest developments in the use of lethal drones. I also have links to my interviews and publications on war.

I hope that my critiques of modern war will be read and discussed more and more as people begin to recognize the disturbing implications of what is being done by their government and in their name. If citizens pay federal taxes, then they are collaborating with their government’s drone killing program. They need to find out the facts and moral implications of what they unwittingly condone. Collaborators need to consider carefully whether they can in good conscience support what is going on. What may look on the surface to be a rational and morally upright counter-terrorism tactic is nothing of the sort, for the summary execution of suspects violates the most basic principles of Western democratic societies.

Tariq Aziz. If that name does not ring a bell, you need to watch this film.

Robert Greenwald’s 2013 film Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars is as relevant today as when it was released. Among its many virtues, Unmanned offers a complete account of the horrific story of Tariq Aziz, and a concrete example of how the HUMINT used in selecting targets for assassination by lethal drone under the authority of Barack Obama is no better than it was when innocent brown-skinned men were rounded up, detained without charges, and tortured under George W. Bush.

The production values of the film are excellent, and it manages to cover a wide range of important issues in only an hour. No need for Netflix or cable television, Unmanned can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube:

Michael Hayden’s Pro-Drone Propaganda Piece in the Sunday New York Times



I have long been disturbed by the New York Times’ coverage of the drone campaigns. Particularly appalling was the President-as-Godfather feature published on May 29, 2012. Many conservative pundits have complained that the so-called “liberal” newspaper serves as a mouthpiece for the current administration, which is shameful in and of itself. But how and why did the New York Times become an organ of state-funded propaganda? Whatever happened to fact-based, interest-free, objective journalism?

 “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will”

That was the title of the ghastly 2012 feature extolling the virtues of “Terror Tuesdays”, with Obama and his fellow “kill committee” members deciding the fate of human beings located on the other side of the planet. I found the title especially egregious in view of the fact that many readers only scan headlines, automatically digesting them as “news”.

To depict as honorable Obama’s handwringing over whether to order strikes against suspects (better known in nongovernmental organized crime as “hits”) in violation of the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even the US Constitution, struck me as a very sorry reflection of the state of the mainstream media in the United States.

In yesterday’s Sunday edition, the New York Times published yet another pro-lethal drone piece, this time an op-ed by former CIA director and seasoned killer Michael Hayden. Bear in mind that, while serving as the head of the CIA, Hayden authorized 48 drone strikes resulting in 532 deaths, at least 144 known to be civilians. Those abysmal statistics, like all mass media reports of what transpires in the drone campaigns, ignore altogether the nonlethal harm to the survivors, both the psychological trauma and the physical maiming. The title of the op-ed?

 “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare”

Many Americans may be inclined to sympathize with US administrators who have killed so many people, including obviously innocent civilians, while attempting to keep the homeland safe. Officials such as Michael Hayden certainly have psychological and emotional reasons to convince themselves that what they have done is right—if only in order to be able to sleep at night. But before automatically according interpretive charity to cheerleader-for-assassination Hayden, it is essential for any reader of his propaganda piece to know that he now profits from the drone killing campaigns as a principal or board member of a few different drone program-affiliated companies.

Hayden boldly asserts that we should all support drone killing because it keeps us safe, but he offers absolutely no evidence to substantiate that claim. He briefly alludes to, but then chooses to forget, some of the criticisms aired by book authors, human rights organizations, the United Nations special rapporteurs on extrajudicial execution, former drone operators, and the government’s own commissioned Stimson Center report. Don’t drone strikes create more terrorists than they destroy? What will the world be like when China, Russia, and every other country on the planet begin dispatching their avowed enemies through the use of lethal drones wherever and whenever they please?

Hayden waves aside all of the many very real concerns about the inefficacy of drone warfare in quelling terrorism, insisting instead (and without documentation of any kind) that the strikes are “proportional” and “discriminate”. He chooses those words carefully, talking, as warriors always do, the “just war” talk about their own missions of mass killing. But assassination, the hunting down and killing of specific human beings, did not suddenly become warfare because of the development of unmanned aerial systems. Why should the implement of homicide matter, when the intent is clearly the same? Hayden writes:

 “Targeted killing using drones has become part of the American way of war. To do it legally and effectively requires detailed and accurate intelligence. It also requires some excruciatingly difficult decisions.”

Hayden here simply assumes what the title of the op-ed suggests that the author will set out to prove. In logic, the fallacy is known as “begging the question”, assuming as a premise the conclusion at which one wishes to arrive.

Since he brought up the topic of legality, it’s worth pointing out what Hayden omits, that the experts on extrajudicial execution at the United Nations have repeatedly expressed concern that the US drone campaigns violate international law. But this is not a mere case of “he said, she said.” There are laws, they are written in words, and words have meanings. To redefine “imminent threat” as no longer requiring “immediacy”, as was done in the US Department of Justice White Paper, is to indulge in Orwellian newspeak, no more and no less.

Like many other advocates of drone warfare, Hayden assumes that collateral damage is exhausted by body count. He naturally expresses the requisite regret at the civilians killed but proceeds to conclude his pro-drone manifesto by reiterating, rather than defending, his personal opinion, that drone warfare is effective:

 “Civilians have died, but in my firm opinion, the death toll from terrorist attacks would have been much higher than if we had not taken action.”

Again, no evidence, just personal opinion, from a man who profits financially from the drone program. At the opening of his manifesto, Hayden offers personal “insight” into the kill chain, using a fictional dialogue constructed so as to assuage NYT readers’ fears:

 “We’ve got good Humint. We‘ve been tracking with streaming video. Sigint’s checking in now and confirming it’s them. They’re there.”

Those techno acronyms, HUMINT and SIGINT, may impress the untutored masses, but what do they mean in the vernacular? Bribed hearsay and circumstantial evidence. These forms of intelligence are being used exhaustively and exclusively as the basis for strikes which end human beings’ lives. Oh well, what’s wrong with a little bribery and circumstantial evidence among friends? Especially when the targets in question are suspected of terrorism!

Every educated person alive should know by now that, throughout history, desperate and/or amoral, mercenary people offered generous bribes to surrender “bad guys” have been ready and willing to rat on their personal enemies or even hand over randomly selected and entirely innocent people. In the Drone Age, it suffices for those “suspects” to be located in a “hostile” territory, that is, somewhere which can plausibly be interpreted as a terrorist safe haven.


Recall that 86% of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison were found, years after having been locked away without indictment, to be entirely innocent. They were turned over to US officials by mercenary bounty hunters, aka bribed informants. Under Obama’s bloody “kill don’t capture” watch, innocent men just like Shaker Aamer, who was finally released after years of deprivation and torture, are instead summarily executed. All of the military-age men killed under Obama’s authority have been defined as guilty until proven innocent, as though we had not already learned from Guantánamo Bay prison how preposterous and deeply unjust such an assumption can be. Is this mere stupidity? Or is it time to admit that the killing machine is intrinsically evil?

In reply to complaints that unnamed men of military age are indiscriminately targeted, Hayden incomprehensibly replies:

“They were not. Intelligence for signature strikes always had multiple threads and deep history. The data was near encyclopedic.”

What does that even mean? If the people being killed are of unknown identity, then how in the world can knowledge of them be “encyclopedic”?

Pretending to acknowledge, while never truly answering, such criticisms is all part of the marketing blurb not only for Hayden’s forthcoming book, but also for the tools and analysis used in drone killing. We are supposed to conclude on the basis of this “reasoned” defense, that more and more drones and missiles should be produced, and more and more operators trained to fire them. Which means that more and more analysis will be needed to locate suitable targets.

Enter The Cherthoff Group, of which Hayden is a principal. According to Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations, Hayden also serves on the board of directors at Alion Science and Technology, Motorola Solutions, and Mike Baker International, all of which appear to enjoy Pentagon contracts relating to drone warfare. Zenko rightly points out the deception involved in penning an op-ed using the credential of having served as the director of the CIA, without also acknowledging the financial interests the author has in promoting drone killing.

What Hayden has written is sophistry, pure and simple. Even worse, it is to promote a policy which has never been publicly debated by the people paying for the practice. Any serious consideration of the situation in the Middle East by persons who do not stand to profit from drone killing can only conclude that the range of covert operations instigated under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have failed miserably, not only morally but also politically.

Americans and other Westerners are not being kept safe by policies which lead to the endless sporing of terrorist groups over ever-greater expanses of land. Who cares if the CIA eliminated most of what they claim to have been the “high value” targets of the Al Qaeda brand of extremist jihadism? Now we have ISIS.


Obedience to Authority: The Relevance of the Milgram Experiments in the Drone Age


I recently watched Experimenter (2015), a film directed by Michael Almereyda, which relays the story of social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his quest to understand how human beings could be brought to do things which they would never have thought to do, left to their own devices. Being Jewish, Milgram was keen to comprehend what happened in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. What was it that made possible the establishment of concentration camps under the Third Reich, and the slaughter of millions of human beings?

The rationalization that “I did as I was told” was given all along the chain of command, or what would be called the “kill chain” in the Drone Age. Even high-level Nazi officials such as Adolf Eichmann claimed that they were doing their duty in facilitating the extermination of millions of people. Ordinary Germans from all walks of life helped to build the camps, and also staffed them, participating directly in the mass murder of unarmed persons.

The Milgram experiments, conducted in 1961 on the East Coast of the United States, involved subjects lured into participating in studies ostensibly about furthering scientific knowledge of learning theory. The subjects were paired with one of the study staff persons, who was said to be the “learner”, to whom the “teacher”, the person actually being studied, would apply electric shocks when the “learner” gave wrong answers in a quiz about paired words.


The “teacher” had no idea that he was the true object of the study and that the “learner” was not being shocked at all. The two people were separated by a wall, and the “teacher” sat before a switchboard with levers to flip each time he heard a wrong answer given by the “learner”. After each wrong answer, the level of shock was to be increased a notch, by moving up to the next lever.

As the “learner” began to express discomfort or even pain at the shocks, the “teacher” sometimes questioned what he (or she) was doing, but in most cases continued on, having been told by the man in the lab coat that the experiment needed to be completed. The “teacher” was instructed by the authority figure that, if the “learner” did not respond, then that should be regarded as an incorrect answer, necessitating the application of the next level of shock.


Milgram was quite troubled to discover that his subjects, the “teachers”, were for the most part willing to administer painful electric shocks to the “learner” even when the latter begged them to stop, and even when the “learner” went silent, suggesting that he may have fallen unconscious or had a heart attack, or perhaps even died. This was not the outcome which Milgram had hoped for, but it did shed a great deal of light on what happened under the Third Reich.

Some critics protested that Milgram was a hypocrite for exacting a form of psychological torture on his subjects, many of whom expressed regret and shame at what they had done. The experiments conducted by Milgram were considered controversial because he was placing ordinary people in the position of doing what they would not ordinarily do: they were asked and agreed to harm a fellow human being.

The subjects were told by the man in the lab coat that the shocks would not cause tissue damage, but during the experiment, the “learner” would beg the “teacher” to stop, claiming that he was in unbearable pain—and strongly suggesting that he was in fact being harmed. The question became: why did the “teacher” believe the man in the lab coat, rather than the “learner”, who was protesting the application of shock?


While watching this reenactment of what people will do in their endeavor to comply with the orders of a person designated an authority, it occurred to me that the current US drone program is a real-life variation of the Milgram “obedience to authority” experiment. Young operators are being asked not to harm human beings through applying electric shocks to them, but to annihilate them. What is the basis for their willingness to kill people whom they never met, and who certainly never threatened them with death?

The operators have been told that they must protect the United States by executing these people. They are told that they have no choice, that they must act to prevent another 9/11. In the process of annihilating named targets, the operators also eliminate unnamed targets, who are then written into history as “Enemy Killed in Action” or EKIA. The understanding is that men of military age in territories deemed “hostile” are guilty until proven innocent.

What grounds does an operator have for believing that unnamed targets deserved to die because of their proximity to an intended target? Again, it’s the voice of authority decreeing that the intelligence is good and that anyone who consorts with the named target is obviously up to no good. While killing named targets and unnamed “associates”, drone operators also kill civilians: women and children and infants and old men who are not in cahoots with any terrorist group. Some of the victims may be family members of suspects, but they themselves are not deemed dangerous. Operators are told that this is the “collateral damage” of war.

Let us imagine that the drone program is but an elaborate experiment. We could interview a drone operator who just dispatched someone by remote control, asking a few questions and considering his answers:


Question 1: Why did you fire the missile?

Answer: Because I was ordered to.


Question 2: Why did you feel the need to follow the order?

Answer: Because I made a solemn oath to defend the United States of America.


Question 3: Did the person you killed pose a threat to the United States?

Answer: Yes, of course.


Question 4: How do you know that the person you killed posed a threat to the United States?

Answer: Because my commanding officer said that he did.


Question 5: Would you kill anyone your commanding officer told you to kill? In any country?

Answer: Yes.


Question 6: Why is your commanding officer telling you to kill these people?

Answer: Because the intelligence has determined that they are dangerous.


Question 7: Have you seen the intelligence?

Answer: No, but that’s not my job. My job is to fire when ordered to fire.





Zooming in on the Drone Warfare Ground Game: Drone (2014), directed by Tonje Hessen Schei



Many people believe that lethal drones are good because they have been used to “take the battle to the enemy” while sparing the lives of US soldiers. CIA directors have long touted targeted killing using UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) as an essential tool in the Global War on Terror. What more needs to be said?

Drone (2014), a documentary directed by Norwegian Tonje Hessen Schei, aims to dispel the impression that lethal drones are obviously a force for good. Like Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013), directed by American activist filmmaker Robert Greenwald, Drone (2014) presents a kaleidoscopic collage of images of remote-control killing, juxtaposing close-range snapshots of the ecosystems of many of the various parties involved at different points along the “kill chain”.


Perpetrators at the political, the business and the operator level offer their perspectives on what is being done. Victims at both the sending and the receiving end of Hellfire missiles provide moral insight into the homicides being committed abroad, and the fear caused to nonnationals in the name of the people of the United States. The overall effect of the film is to illuminate connections which may not be salient at all to the many people, including most politicians, who support the use of lethal drones in the seemingly endless quagmire in the Middle East, which by now has spilled into Africa as well.

InsituFounderThe impact of the drone industry boom on some smaller businesses and subcontractors is illustrated through footage of a man at the head of INSITU, a company which produces medium-sized surveillance drones. As a start-up in the 1990s, INSITU originally built drones to help tuna fishermen. Today they produce thousands of UAVs for use by the US government. Andy von Flotow, the company’s founder, observes that, although they have not weaponized their drones yet, he would have no qualms against doing so. His logic is that not giving soldiers what they need is like refusing to provide them with “underpants”. Like most of the populace, he accepts that drone killing is always and everywhere warfare, just as the US government has maintained since the dawning of the Drone Age.

Nuances such as the difference between contexts where force protection is at issue, and those where there are no “boots on the ground” to protect, tend to be ignored by supporters of targeted killing. Generally speaking, advocates of remote-control killing are inclined to accept that “battlefields” are the places where “warriors” have seen fit to deploy deadly weapons. The governing assumption is that the Global War, waged in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, covers every corner of the planet, so there’s no need to declare a new war every time a Hellfire missile is launched over another country.

Drone includes scenes of an arms fair where unmanned aerial systems are everywhere on display, with company reps standing by to extol their virtues. Alongside smaller companies such as INSITU, behemoths such as Boeing and Raytheon are said to be working hard to make sure that their drone production is as profitable as the bigger-ticket items which they and their shareholders grew accustomed to providing for the US government throughout the Cold War. The implication is that in the Drone Age, more applications for the use of drones must be found in order to justify the need to produce even more UCAVs, since individually they cost quite a bit less than the manned platforms of the past. Public companies have a duty to their shareholders to maximize profit. In the Drone Age, that will translate into more and more surveillance, and more and more targeted killing.

DroneSurviorsWhen civilians are destroyed at the targeting sites, they are perfunctorily written off as “collateral damage”, if acknowledged at all. Drone killing czar John Brennan exulted to an audience in 2011 that there had not been a single civilian casualty during the previous year’s drone campaign because of the “surgical precision” of the new technology. Drone makes graphically clear that there have been many victims in the drone campaigns, with survivors left bereft of their loved ones. Excursions are undertaken to tribal areas where missiles “splash” suspects, with plenty of footage of the grieving and traumatized family and community members.

BrandonMichaelTwo apostate operators, Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas, who now find appalling what they were persuaded to do under a pretext of national security, open a window onto a top-secret world about which most people know next to nothing. Bryant and Haas share intimate glimpses into what it is like to be at the launching end of a missile while having no way of knowing whether the intelligence being acted on is sound.

A number of other critics of targeted killing—lawyers and locals, journalists and retired military personnel, human rights advocates and scholars—express heartfelt concern and even alarm at what they take to be the brazen illegality of the US drone program. Alarm is indeed the appropriate moral response to a practice which undermines centuries of work to establish international law and defend human rights. Equally troubling is the abject inefficacy of this counterterrorism tactic viewed over time. The crimes being committed are leading to more crimes as people incensed with what has been done decide to join forces with extremist terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and beyond.

The flagrant evidence of the quagmire in the Middle East notwithstanding, the drone campaigns have been sold as a superlative success story by the mainstream media. Each time the US government relays that suspected militants have been slain somewhere by a lethal drone, the press dutifully parrots the text and rarely bothers to emend the report when it turns out that the victims were not the intended targets after all.




The action of Drone takes place everywhere: in the tribal regions of Pakistan, at the UN General Assembly in New York City, in the desert in Nevada, in a gigantic gaming facility where hordes of adolescents are sitting at video consoles pressing buttons, their eyes glued to the screen in front of them. In one short segment, Air Force pilot mentors appear to be luring acne-faced youngsters into the world of drone killing, sharing their expertise on how best to home in on targets. Presumably this is all a part of persuading future recruits to opt for the profession of drone operator. Like retired officers Bryant and Haas, the young people who enlist will be called upon by their commanders to dispatch suspects by remote-control. All of this is happening alongside the widespread development of video games and apps such as Mobile Strike, which are being advertised all over the place (including on tv) and disseminated cost-free over platforms such as the Amazon Kindle.


Drone illustrates how all of these subcultures are intimately connected to one another through a single new technology, the lethal drone, whether the people funding targeted killing are aware of this fact or not. The moral cost of remote-control killing is no news to the people on the ground, nor to the journalists and activists who have been traveling to the tribal regions where lethal drones have lurked above in the sky throughout most of the twenty-first century.

The human costs are invisible to most Westerners, but they are infinitely steep, in moral terms. The most plausible explanation for the widespread ignorance among US citizens about the use of lethal drones by their government is that, in unoccupied territories, the program has been run by the CIA. The shots, however, have been taken everywhere by Air Force personnel, a little recognized point which is shared during one of the interviews with Brandon Bryant.


As various critics lucidly suggest in Drone, it looks as though the CIA cover was adopted precisely in order to be able to evade any and all accountability. Because the drone campaigns have been protected by State Secrets Privilege, as a CIA-run program under the authority of the executive branch of the government, the perpetrators have not been required by domestic law to report on the outcomes of the strikes, nor to share details of the individual missions.

This secrecy has served not to keep US citizens safe but to shield those in charge of the drone program from allegations of wrongful killing, not only collateral damage, but also in cases where innocent targets have been effectively convicted by state execution and written into history as EKIA or “enemy killed in action”. Drone makes it abundantly clear that the US government’s refusal to discuss both the evidence thought to implicate targets and the strike outcomes does not imply that there have not been any people wrongfully killed.

MuteSurvivorsSurvivors of drone attacks, especially in Waziristan, Pakistan, are allowed to speak freely for a few minutes. Unfortunately, and this is my only criticism of the film, there are no subtitles or dubbed translations provided for some of these people’s words. The effect may be to make them look as alien as they could possibly seem to average American suburbanites, the very people who need to be awakened to the truth about remote-control killing. From the likely perspective of the average white American moviegoer, the victims depicted in Drone have dark skin and wear funny clothes and hats. They hail from a foreign and backwards culture and speak an incomprehensible language.

I do not know whether the lack of subtitles to translate the very human emotions which these victims are attempting to express was a mistake or an oversight or an intentional omission. Whatever the reason, I consider it to be a flaw of the film, for without having any inkling of what some of the victims are saying, many monolingual Anglophones will not find them persuasive in the least. How can these people be sympathized with when they remain as incomprehensible as the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001?

There certainly are plenty of pictures of dead victims, which together with the words of lawyers and journalists help to tell these people’s horrific stories. But the reflexive soundbite “We are at war” and the cultural inurement to “collateral damage” ensure that champions of targeted killing are unlikely to switch sides upon exposure to images of victims. Drone program supporters already believe that remote-control killing is war, and “everyone knows” that with war comes the inevitable and regrettable “collateral damage”.

With no translation of their words, some of these people may be viewed not as full-fledged human beings with the same rights as American citizens, but as backwards tribesmen who might join up with Al Qaeda tomorrow, if given the chance.  Along these lines, the footage of protests, and specifically of a group of angry Pakistanis burning an effigy of a drone, waving anti-American banners, and yelling out in rage, may be interpreted by some as evidence that they are potential terrorist recruits.


At this point in history, with the US government having already assassinated thousands of suspects, what needs to be subjected to intense scrutiny, before other nations step up their drone-killing games, is the very premise that these homicides are a part of warfare. In Drone, concern is expressed that the technology is moving faster than human beings’ capacity to philosophize about drone killing. In fact, that is false, as some among the interviewees articulate very well and quite clearly how this feat of technological progress has led to a regression in terms of international law. The fault lies not with the moral blindness of human beings in general, but of the drone warriors themselves, who have been allowed to write the last word on what they have done.

The experts on extrajudicial execution at the United Nations have repeatedly weighed in on the illegality of what is being done, but the US government has stubbornly refused to do anything more than issue empty reassurances. Examples are included in Drone, such as Barack Obama’s insistence that there hasn’t been “a huge number of civilian casualties,” and that the United States must be a “standard bearer” in the proper conduct of war. John Brennan, now the director of the CIA, is shown animatedly comparing Al Qaeda terrorists to a cancerous tumor which must be excised, and can be done, he insists, thanks to lethal drones, without harming the surrounding tissue.

Clearly Brennan and Obama need to watch Drone. It seems highly unlikely that either of them ever will, however, for they have already killed so many thousands of people that they could never face up to the enormity of their mistake. In this vein, the courage of former operators Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas should not be underestimated, for they have wrenched themselves out of the drone dream in which they were laboring for several years and are now attempting through speaking out to dissuade others from making the mistake which they now deeply regret.


US drone program supporters will no doubt ignore this film, for they have already accepted “the official story” ceaselessly pumped out by the US government, according to which “We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could, if we did not stop them first,” as Barack Obama claims in one of the speech excerpts. What remains is for more and more of the people of other lands, such as director Tonje Hesse Frei, whose governments have not yet been lured into the culture of lethal drones, to stand up, and denounce the slaughter of brown-skinned suspects on the basis of opaque criteria at the culmination of secretive proceedings to which only the killers themselves are privy.

There is also still hope for young people in the United States. Drone should be watched by anyone considering remote-control killing as a career path. They need to be warned that all is not nearly so noble and honorable as the recruiters would have them believe. If no one would agree to serve as a paid assassin for the US government, then the drone program would come to a lurching halt.

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Even people who do not care so much about the condition of the souls of human beings need to be made aware that the longer this madness continues on, the more brown-skinned young people will flock to the likes of ISIS in an effort to put a stop to the victimization of their communities by drone warriors. In addition to the mess in the Middle East, the recent killing sprees in San Bernardino and Paris should serve as a cautionary warning to those who have been blithely assuming that lethal drones are the answer to the problem of terrorism.



Drones and Death in the 8th Republican Presidential Debate, February 6, 2016

Lethal drones have come to symbolize “smart power” to Democrats. In the first Democratic presidential debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to characterize the “no boots on the ground” 2011 intervention in Libya as “smart power at its best”. Judging by their campaign trail rhetoric, Republican candidates tend to believe the opposite: drones are not a symbol of smartness and savvy, but of weakness. Usually drones are not mentioned at all, but at last night’s Republican debate in New Hampshire, they were positively “dissed”.

TedCruzSenator Ted Cruz has enthusiastically proclaimed that he will “carpet bomb” ISIS strongholds and make the sand “glow”, suggesting his readiness even to use nuclear weapons against the latest bearers of the Al Qaeda torch. When asked whether he knows that ISIS is embedded among civilian populations, Cruz did not back down from his hawkish plans, essentially replying to the question that it doesn’t matter where the members of ISIS live. He will crush them, wherever they may be, and whomever they may be with. Cruz’s answer had a familiar ring because whenever Republican candidates are asked about rules of engagement (ROE), they afford themselves of the opportunity to complain that President Barack Obama has diminished the military, not only through budget cuts, but also by “tying their hands”. The explanation for the chaos in the Middle East, according to Republicans, is that Obama has not permitted the US military to do what needs to be done.

The general Republican disdain for military “half-measures” came out explicitly in last night’s exchange among the seven remaining contenders of what once was a slate of seventeen. The word ‘drone’ was uttered during a discussion about the prospect of bringing back waterboarding, which moderator Martha Raddatz creepily enough seemed to be promoting, goading the candidates on to proclaim that they, like George W. Bush, would “do what needs to be done”. None of the waterboarding advocates appears to have any recollection of the case of Ibn al Shiekh al-Libbi, who confessed under torture that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, thus providing a pretext for the war on Iraq.

JebBushFormer Florida Governor Jeb Bush (and brother of W, “The Decider” who embroiled the United States in what has become never-ending war in the Middle East) criticized drones as not being sufficient to win the war against ISIS, and in fact not a “smart” strategy at all. Jeb suggested that suspects should be captured and made to give up information. Other candidates then chimed in, including Senator Marco Rubio, who recited his familiar refrain that he would not only keep Guantánamo Bay open, but send more terrorists there! Granted, the fact that 86% of the men detained at the prison were cleared of any terrorist connections whatsoever is not the greatest talking point for wooing voters. Marco Rubio, however, appears to believe, like W, that all terrorist suspects are by definition terrorists.

MarcoRubioIt is abundantly clear that if one of the more bellicose candidates is elected, he or she will not hesitate to unleash massive air power on the Middle East, the effect of which will be to make Barack Obama look like the Peace President many voters in 2008 were hoping for. This would be highly ironic, for Obama’s secret drone campaigns and JSOC assassination missions, his removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power, and his provision of hundreds of tons of weapons to the rebels in Syria, all undeniably contributed to the massive increase in the strength and reach of ISIS. Obama’s “smart warrior” façade, his refusal to put “boots on the ground” while running non-stop covert ops, has served only to provoke more murder and mayhem in the Middle East and to galvanize support for violent radical Islamist groups.

Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, who campaigns on a socialist platform of domestic political and economic revolution, has repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would follow Obama’s foreign policy example by continuing drone assassination as the primary means of military intervention abroad. Unbeknownst to Sanders, the revolution that is really needed is a commitment to halt US military intervention and greatly reduce military spending, beginning with a full line-item audit of the profligate Pentagon. If only Bernie understood that all of his big-ticket items—universal health care, free college, rebuilt infrastructure, and energy independence leading to massive job production—could be paid for with a tiny fraction of the military budget. What needs to be done to save what remains of the US republic is drastically to slash the bloated military budget, rein in executive power, and resolve never again to serve as the world’s biggest bully. Sanders opposes capital punishment, but his focus on an ambitious domestic program has clouded his judgment about Obama’s use of deadly force abroad.

What is most striking about the way in which the 2016 candidates for the presidency all talk about foreign policy is that they ignore the true causes of the mess in the Middle East: US intervention. It’s as though the candidates have all conspired in a secret pact to pretend that the facts are not the facts. The 9/11 attacks were retaliation for the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath. To his credit, Bernie Sanders opposed the First Gulf War, but even he does not see fit to connect the dots for prospective voters. Instead, he politely acquiesces to the mainstream media’s preposterous insistence on painting Hillary Clinton as an accomplished foreign policymaker with the experience needed to serve as commander in chief.

As sad as it may be to admit, Obama’s foreign policy appears always to have been focused on securing his legacy. Despite the fact that his ghastly “kill don’t capture” policy has normalized assassination all over the globe, Obama will end up looking pacific next to anyone who comes after him, including Hillary Clinton, who remarkably vaunts endorsements from Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger. Most, if not all, of the Republican candidates have gone on record to say that they will immediately shred the negotiated deal with Iran to limit that country’s nuclear capacity.

What will remain of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, once he has left the White House? Renewed and emboldened intervention in the Middle East, along with the image of the 44th president as a peace maker etched into history. Surely he will look better than his successor in body count tallies, and few people will view Obama as the proximate cause of what he in fact wrought.