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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Why whistleblowers are essential to democratic societies (book excerpt).

Excerpt from Chapter 5: ¨Strike First, Suppress Questions Later,¨ We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (paperback edition, 2016), pp. 124-128. (Notes and references are available in this free audiobook supplement)

 

Whistleblowers such as Private Bradley Edward Manning (whose name was legally changed to Chelsea Elizabeth Manning in 2013) and former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden who step forward to reveal crimes committed by the US government to the citizens paying for them are branded by officials as traitors, and thereby arrayed in the same category as Anwar al-Awlaki. But to reinterpret non-violent dissidence as a form of treachery is to step onto a continuum at the end of which only totalitarianism lies. Under fascist regimes, those who sympathize with dissenters come to be branded as traitors by extension. The concept of associate, crucial to the White Paper, is notoriously vague, and does not bode well for the future of an open society. It is precisely through this sort of bureaucratic neologism that governments initially supported by the populace can devolve into dictatorships, as happened throughout postcolonial Africa and Latin America during the Cold War.

Those who would suppress dissent from all US policies, even when they are demonstrably criminal, fail to recognize that the laws of democratic societies have progressed morally only as a result of the willingness of some people to stand up for what they believe to be right and to protest against what they believe to be wrong. Is it even conceptually possible, in a genuine democracy, to decry as ‘enemies of the state’ persons who oppose US military practice, when it is the right of every citizen to have opinions and to express them? Dissidents such as Manning and Snowden – and soldiers such as Camilo Mejía who refuse to redeploy to what they have come to believe are criminal wars – are cast as traitors not for their potential or intention to kill US nationals but because they supposedly ‘inspire’ others to do so, just as Anwar al-Awlaki did.

When the soldiers of formal military institutions demur from the campaigns in which they have been deployed, as did Private Manning, who disseminated hundreds of thousands of classified cables and video footage documenting war crimes, they are castigated as criminals by those who perpetrated the very crimes illuminated. Manning was not executed but sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for attempting to reveal to US taxpayers what their money was being used to fund. The fact that the revelations painted the US government in a negative, even evil, light was perversely blamed upon the whistleblower, when in fact the fault lies only with those complicit in the scandals exposed.

With millions of persons holding high-level security clearances in the private-contracting age of the military, there is no way to guarantee that state secrets will be kept, as was demonstrated unforgettably by the disclosures of Edward Snowden in June 2013.133 Surely another dissident will pop up again in the not-too-distant future out of the many people potentially capable of accessing and sharing classified documents. Aggressive covert foreign policy initiatives are shortsighted and misguided in that they commence from the assumption that no one will ever find out – or if they do, they won’t care. But the people on the ground, the victims, find out immediately, and the bereft survivors do care, and some among them decide to retaliate violently against what they take to be crimes.

Assuming that these mass exposures of the dark side of US foreign policy will continue on the current schedule (every two years or so), the US government would do better to change its ways than to lock up the whistleblowers and throw away the key. Such dissidents are easily replaced – as readily as insurgents and fledgling terrorists – whenever the galvanizing war crimes persist. The sentencing of Private Manning to thirty-five years in prison will not deter dissenters from taking action in the future. Instead, they may follow the lead of Edward Snowden and seek political asylum in other lands rather than face discreditation and indictment by the perpetrators whose much worse crimes have been brought to light. Ultimately, all ‘state secrets’ in a democracy will be declassified, after which the ugly truth of what was done will become a matter of common knowledge.

Invoking ‘State Secrets Privilege’ protects the wrongdoers from the disgrace of what they have done only in the short term. If one of the ‘kill committee’ members suffers a crisis of conscience (as did former US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara many years after the Vietnam war134), then perhaps among the revelations of the future will be the guidelines used and the evidential bases for adding names to the US government’s hit lists. The blame in all cases where war crimes are finally exposed falls squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators: had they done nothing wrong, there would be nothing to air. The only way to contain fallout over the secrets revealed is to avoid committing what are widely regarded as crimes. The claim so often made by patriots in defending mass surveillance – that no law-abiding citizen should worry that they are being watched and their communications sifted through – applies equally well to the governments whose activities are made public by whistleblowers. Plato observed more than two thousand years ago that the best way to achieve the reputation of a moral person is to act as a moral person would. The same sage advice is no less applicable to government administrators.

Drone strikes are one example; cyberattacks are another. Cyberterrorists, too, can look to the United States for normative guidance, just as nations clamoring for nuclear weapons have always done. It is impossible to take seriously the denunciation by US spokespersons of hackers such as Snowden when behind the scenes, in covert operations, the US government has undertaken not only spying but pernicious attacks against other regimes, as when a computer worm was introduced to destroy centrifuges in Iran with the intention of preventing that government’s production of a nuclear bomb.135 The hypocrisy in that case is multidimensional, given that it is the United States’ own possession – and use in 1945 – of nuclear warheads which motivates other states to acquire such weapons in order to have some chance of repelling a preemptive attack (as in Iraq in 2003) through deterrence.

If crimes are not committed, then they cannot be exposed. Whether or not whistleblowers unveil the crimes to the populace on the other side of the world who pay for them, the local people directly affected are all too aware of what happens on the ground. The opinions of the residents of communities under siege are shaped by what actually transpires, by what they witness with their own eyes, not the official story of administrators already confirmed as liars. Americans may have believed Obama’s targeted killing program director John Brennan when he claimed in 2011 that no civilians were killed by US drones in Pakistan during the previous year. However, the people living there who have witnessed the cratering of homes in their neighborhoods know the truth, and some among them join forces with violent terrorist groups in response to what they take to be the evil US regime.

The profoundest irony of all in allegations that Private Manning and Edward Snowden ‘aid and abet the enemy’ is that the true inspiration for not only their acts of dissidence but also the vast majority of recent terrorist attacks are the homicides committed by the US government. In reality, the US government would seem to be the most significant ‘spiritual supporter’ of its very own enemies, if this reasoning is followed to its logical limit. Manning and Snowden have done no more than reveal to Americans what precisely they are paying for when they file their federal taxes each year. The drone killing program remained an official secret for years, but as ignorant as Americans may have been about the crimes committed in their name and paid for by them, the ‘top secret’ missions were all too familiar to the victims abroad and their bereft survivors, in addition to the international journalists and NGOs who investigate allegations of war crimes.

Withholding the facts from the US citizens who pay for drone attacks serves no purpose beyond short-term political expediency: to protect those in office so that they can retain their current positions. Far worse, such secrecy positively endangers Americans, who may have no idea why they should be in peril if they embark on journeys abroad to places where US policies have angered locals. Private Manning was charged with, but not convicted of, ‘aiding and abetting’ the enemy. The high-level policymakers such as George W. Bush, Barack Obama and their delegates, whose authorizations led to the killing of innocent people located in so-called hostile territories, are surely the principal parties guilty of aiding and abetting the enemy, for they, more than anyone else, have inspired people to join forces with terrorist groups in retaliatory quests for revenge.

Case in point: Anwar al-Awlaki vociferously opposed the policies of the US government, including its violent incursions in lands abroad. He eventually became radicalized to the point where he applauded terrorist actions and enjoined those outraged by US policies to take up the jihadist cause. The case of this US citizen, whose guilt appears to inhere primarily in his having served as a source of inspiration to a variety of terrorists who did commit violent crimes, raises the far more troubling question whether, by extension, antiwar critics might also become fair game for summary execution. Yemeni journalist Abdalilah Shaya investigated US drone strikes, including the massacre at Majala on 17 December 2009 in which innocent civilians were claimed by their killers to have been militants.136 The journalist was branded an Al-Qaeda media front and thrown in prison. Just as he was about to be set free, President Obama called President Saleh to express concern over the journalist’s imminent release.137

Watch Collateral Murder:

The Meaning of Collateral Murder (book excerpt)

Excerpt from Chapter 8: ¨From Conscience to Oblivion,¨ We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (paperback edition, 2016), pp. 181-185. (Notes and references are available in this free audiobook supplement)

Given the military focus on lethality, taken up also by the CIA in the twenty-first century, it is not terribly surprising that some of the soldiers and private contractors on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq became target shooters looking to ‘get some’, sniping people whom they claimed to be justified in killing even when the pretext of self-defense stretched credulity. In Iraq, the number of ‘dead hadjis’ became a measure of success and to some soldiers a source of pride.192 A similar dynamic was witnessed in Vietnam, when draftees attempted to rack up as many dead Vietcong as they could, having been encouraged to do so by their commanding officers.193

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that assassination, once carried out by stable governments only through black ops, would eventually become an official and publicly acknowledged policy. What began as an amalgamated law enforcement–military effort to track down and bring to justice the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 led to the generation of ever-lengthier lists of targets, including unnamed persons whose activities on the ground were said to match behavior patterns regarded as ‘typical’ of terrorists. There are obviously exceptions to every tendency, and the observation of shadowy figures on a computer monitor does not and cannot reveal the beliefs and intentions of the persons ‘employed on’ by drone operators.

As a graphic illustration of lethal centrism reflected in the outlook and comportment of troops, consider the widely disseminated YouTube video of a massacre in the suburb of New Baghdad, Iraq, on 12 July 2007. On that day, several civilians were ‘neutralized’, including Reuters employees carrying cameras misidentified as AK47s and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) by trigger-ready shooters hovering ominously above in a helicopter, and ready and willing to fire the moment they could claim that the person was armed. The videotape made of the mission from the Apache helicopter was furnished to WikiLeaks by Private Manning and published online under the provocative title ‘Collateral Murder’. The stomach-wrenching footage of the ‘Collateral Murder’ incident shows a wounded journalist attempting to drag himself away from the scene after the initial spray of artillery. One of the shooters cheers him on: ‘Come on, buddy. All you gotta do is pick up a weapon.’ The speaker is anxiously awaiting the moment when the already-wounded and obviously incapacitated man will reach for anything interpretable as a weapon, thereby granting the shooter the right to finish him off and be able to claim that he killed in accordance with military protocol.

When a van drives up to save one of the injured survivors of the initial salvo, it, too, is blown away. The two children inside the vehicle are deemed collateral damage, and their presence is blamed upon the allegedly evil terrorists (in reality, camera-toting journalists) who made the mistake, the soldiers assure one another, of bringing children into a firefight. The audio of the soldiers who carried out the series of killings documented in ‘Collateral Murder’ reveals what must be their own interpretations of what they have done, if they are to sleep at night. Upon insistence by Reuters, two of whose employees were shown executed in the film, the US military investigated the incident but concluded that the soldiers had acted in accordance with standard operating procedure and correctly followed their ROE.

What the short film unforgettably displays is that even regular soldiers who risk nothing, no personal harm whatsoever, shooting as they are from a distance, may literally seek out opportunities to kill. This tendency has obviously been enhanced in the drone age by the enlistment of young adults to train essentially as assassins, whose primary vocation is to hunt down and destroy suspects from thousands of miles away. What do you do for a living? The answer of a UCAV operator is clear: I kill people. There is no other way of glossing the reality. Bureaucratic euphemisms aside, weaponized drone operators are professional killers. The measure of their vocational competence becomes the number of successful hits which they carry out or facilitate. Accordingly, they are galvanized to seize opportunities to kill in order to advance professionally. Just as writers ‘score’ book deals, killers ‘score’ hits. Drone operator Matthew Martin, who was promoted for his service in Afghanistan and Iraq, devised ways by which to shorten the ‘kill chain’, with more authority accorded to the operators themselves to ‘engage targets’ and ‘do kinetic’ as opportunities arise.

Scenarios such as ‘Collateral Murder’ reveal that some regular soldiers have reached the point where they literally seek out targets to kill. Upon completion of their enlistment term, recent veterans were prime candidates to accept civilian positions working for PMCs, not only because they would command generous salaries relative to what they earned as uniformed soldiers, but also because they did not have to demonstrate to anyone that they observed, even nominally, proper protocol (ROE) before discharging their weapons. As civilians operating in a foreign land, they were permitted to kill in self-defense and granted maximum discretion in interpreting what that meant. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17 explicitly provided civilian contractees with legal immunity in their use of lethal force, what author Tony Geraghty describes as a ‘licence to kill’.194 The trigger-ready tendencies of regular soldiers and Special Forces in chaotic urban warfare settings certainly cannot be said to have been tempered by their collaboration with private military contractees operating in what in Iraq was literally a law-free zone.

Collateral Murder’ also provides a broader illustration of why administrators who have already participated in targeted killing must, for their own state of equanimity, convince others that the practice is sound. Just as the killers of the Reuters employees in New Baghdad consoled themselves that the ‘evil terrorists’ were to blame for bringing children into a firefight, bureaucrats will argue vigorously and enthusiastically for the continuation of a program through which they themselves have already authorized homicide. When the incumbent Predator drone program administrators persuaded newly elected President Barack Obama to embrace the practice, they succeeded in perpetuating and even expanding the program. At the same time, they confirmed in all of the killers’ minds that what they had already done was, in fact, legally and morally sound. Personnel who strongly demur from the prevailing ‘conventional wisdom’ handed down by their superiors cannot rise in the ranks, and some eventually renounce their positions, leaving only enthusiasts behind.

Watch Collateral Murder: 

Do the Math: How Self-Styled Drone Warrior US President Barack Obama Normalized War Crimes (Part 1)

Trump ended Obama´s ¨requirement¨ to report on drone casualties outside areas of active hostilities. Time to re-read Obama´s ¨report¨:

We Kill Because We Can

ProtestApril2009

 It’s hard to know where to start in addressing the US government’s “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities,” released on Friday, July 1, 2016, before the long holiday weekend, in the apparent hope that no one would read it.

Some of us did. The report claims, preposterously, that in 473 drone strikes “against terrorist targets outside of active hostilities,” a total of from 2,372 to 2,581 combatants were killed, along with from 64 to 116 noncombatants. These numbers are shockingly low, given the many detailed reports on drone killing issued by NGOs and human rights groups since 2009.

ProtestResponsibleEven Senator Lindsey Graham claimed back in 2013 that drone strikes had, by then, already taken out some 4,700 “terrorists”. That’s about twice the number the administration is claiming were killed during a period of time even two years longer, from January 20, 2009…

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We Kill Because We Can audiobook now available at Audiobooks.com

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