Is the Downing of a Drone a legitimate Casus Belli? (book excerpt)

Excerpt from Chapter 6: ¨The New Banality of Killing,¨ We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (paperback edition, 2016), pp. 150–154. (Notes and references are available in this free audiobook supplement)

 

¨During World War II, US soldiers did in fact kill some innocent French citizens while attempting to dislodge the occupying German forces from France. Those collateral damage casualties seem closer to accidental killings or, if analogous to domestic cases, then the blame for the deaths would fall on the Germans, who were prosecuting a criminal war without which US troops would not have been in the position of wielding deadly weapons in France. According to the felony murder rule applied in domestic contexts, a criminal is responsible for the deaths that occur during his commission of a crime, even if he does not kill other people and had no intention of doing such a thing, and even if his heartfelt desire was only to feed his family.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had been based on faulty and fabricated intelligence, the occupying soldiers had no more right to be in that land than did the Germans in France.155 All of this implies that the drone strikes intended to protect soldiers on the ground in Iraq were really no different in moral essence from drone strikes used to kill suspected terrorists in countries with which the United States is not even at war. The closer one examines the situation in Iraq, the more the cases start to seem alike, and this may help to explain why many supporters of the use of drones do not distinguish between the two ostensibly distinct deployments, within countries with which the United States is or is not officially at war. However, rather than it being the case that both uses are legitimate, it seems more plausible that neither is.

‘The world is a battlefield,’ US military supporters retort, enthusiastically endorsing the Bush administration’s claim – and the Obama administration’s continuation of the same – to be at war with terrorists all over the globe and willing to hunt down and kill suspected enemies wherever they may hide. By their account, every act of killing committed by the US government and its agents (including the CIA) is now an act of self-defense. But does this make any sense? In Yemen, the permission to use drones to kill people was granted by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the storied tradition of the petty despots of many a Third World nation throughout the Cold War and since, Saleh accepted large amounts of military aid as payment for effectively ceding his country’s sovereignty to the United States. The question, then, is this: Do such leaders have the right to trade away the lives of their compatriots in order to shore up their own power?

In the deployment of weaponized drones against the inhabitants of other lands, what is starkly absent is the urgency involved in the use of lethal means by killers whose lives are directly at risk – and who  have the right to be where they are at the time. If acts of war are to be legitimated by the standard line – according to which killing is a last resort, and all other avenues have been blocked and all other options exhausted – then it is difficult to see how any of these missile strikes might be regarded as legitimate. In contrast, the attempt to shoot down drones threatening death from above seems to be a perfectly rational and morally acceptable practice. The story, then, was inverted in Iraq. The persons attempting to defend themselves from menacing planes and drones above, or from the troops on the ground who conducted violent raids – often killing innocent people or spiriting them away – were exercising their right to legitimate self-defense. When someone invades our home or neighborhood, we have the right to defend ourselves from them, do we not? If so, do not the people of other lands have the same right?

What began as yet another Bush administration excess – the summary execution of unarmed suspects by Predator drone – has come to be a preferred ‘tool’ in the seemingly interminable ‘Global War on Terror’. To the surprise and consternation of the antiwar activists who labored diligently to elect Barack Obama in 2008, the new president’s solution to the Bush administration policies of extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques, censured by human rights advocates the world over, was to step up the drone killing program, essentially eliminating the problem of human rights abuses by defining the executed suspects as guilty. These people have been ‘convicted’ and executed by the US government on the basis of bribed hearsay, in most cases for possible future terrorist acts.

By now, targeted killing, through sheer repetition, has become normalized to such an extent that most Americans are inured to the practice and appear not even to have entertained the possibility that there might be something morally awry with the execution of suspects without trial, even though the practice blatantly violates every principle for which the United States presumably stands. Due process and transparency, and the necessity of establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before punishing (much less executing) a suspect have all been abandoned. Americans ask only that they be protected from harm on US soil, and if that requires executing scores of persons abroad who might possibly one day consider traveling to the United States to attempt to undertake jihad, then so be it, they say.

The stated policy goal for a time was to decimate Al-Qaeda, to win the war by attrition of the enemy’s forces, and to bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice. When Osama bin Laden was finally located, Obama ‘made the call’, ordering the summary execution of the Al-Qaeda leader, which was carried out by a Special Forces team under his command. Bin Laden was not assassinated by drone, but in cold blood by a group of Navy SEALs acting on information gleaned through the use of a drone. By killing rather than capturing Bin Laden, did the United States defeat the person said to be most directly responsible for the crimes of 11 September 2001? Or did the infamous international terrorist ironically succeed in creating his sworn enemy in his image?

After the Al-Qaeda mastermind’s execution, the drone strikes in Pakistan and beyond continued with frightening regularity, despite claims by administration figures, including both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, that the program would be curtailed. The official implementation of a ‘Kill don’t capture’ policy has ultimately revealed not only that collateral damage was a rhetorical trope all along, but that the notion of last resort no longer has any relevance in what is claimed to be modern warfare, notwithstanding the just war rhetoric parroted from centuries past. Those who view Predator drone targeted killing as a form of warfare perhaps recognize, on some level, that war, like black ops, has always promoted the tyrannical agenda embraced by terrorist factions. Political killers are united in their belief that a small number of human beings possess the right to decide who must die and what would be an acceptable price to pay in other people’s lives in the quest for a sought-after goal.

The grandest irony of all is that twenty-first-century war as conducted by a First World nation has become asymmetrical and irregular, in seeming emulation of the architects of 9/11. Rather than pursue and prosecute the criminals within the bounds of the law, the Bush administration essentially adopted the modus operandi of post-Munich Mossad, while attempting simultaneously to sail along on its post-World War II laurels, as though no one would notice how in occupied Iraq the US soldiers looked much more like the Germans than the Allied troops. Prisoners were ‘rendered’ and tortured, and suspects identified as such on the basis of bribes were sniped – along with anyone else unfortunate enough to be by their side. Under Obama, the World War II parallels remain in place, and in some ways have grown even worse. Killing campaigns have ramified throughout several countries beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, degrading the security of people throughout the Middle East and Africa as well. In the drone strikes authorized by Obama on ‘no boots battlefields’ in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Syria, human beings have been denied the right to surrender and executed point-blank and in cold blood, not for threatening US soldiers on the ground (there are none), but for being members of a group defined by the killers themselves as intrinsically evil.¨

 

Excerpt from Chapter 6, ¨The New Banality of Killing,” in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, by Laurie Calhoun, pp. 150-154. Endnotes can be accessed online here.

 

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