Hunting Human Beings is not The Good Life: Brett Velicovich’s Drone Warrior

 

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I saw reported somewhere that 50% of books purchased are never actually read—at least not to the end. I have also noticed in my own reading of contemporary books that many of them start out strong but eventually fall off a cliff. My best guess is that the authors of such works managed to secure generous advances for agreeing to deliver a finished manuscript according to a strict deadline. With a looming due date, authors hoping to obtain future contracts may be more concerned with retaining good relationships with their agent and publisher than with taking the time necessary to produce a satisfying finish to a book filled with promise, at least judging by the query letter and opening chapter used to woo acquisitions editors. Many writers also know, however, deep down inside, that the best books, the ones which stand the test of time, rather than achieving momentary popularity as a result of dizzying marketing blitz campaigns, are not constrained by deadlines. They are finished when they are finished and not one moment before.

Why, you may be wondering, is any of this relevant to Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies, by Brett Velicovich? Primarily because the glowing endorsements of this book by military professionals and administrators of the drone program such as Michael Hayden (who serves on the boards of multiple kill-for-profit companies) suggest that they may never have finished reading the book. Skimming through the opening chapters may well give the impression that Drone Warrior offers a defense of remote-control killing. The epilogue, however, tells a quite different story.

I wanted to read Drone Warrior, despite its endorsement by targeted killing profiteers, because I think that it is important to attempt to understand how anyone (sane) could possibly believe that hunting human beings is a worthy profession, and how, in particular, well-adjusted drone operators, sensors and analysts, those who do not suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), regard what they do. In many interviews over the past several years, we have heard the heart-wrenching testimony of drone program whistleblowers, and we know from a variety of sources that many operators and sensors do not renew their contracts, even when offered enticing bonuses to continue on. But this is not only (as the US military would have us believe) because the job involves long, eye-glazing hours of staring at a screen in a dark room.

Films such as Good Kill (2014) and National Bird (2016) have offered some excellent anti-recruitment advice to would-be enlistees. Eye in the Sky (2015), in contrast, attempts to defend the practice of hunting down and killing even nationals abroad by the British government (though capital punishment is prohibited under UK and EU law), and that film may have succeeded in persuading some young people to believe that contract killing can be a noble profession—or at least that it is not obviously murder.

PredatorsWilliamsCoverA number of books, mostly by authors troubled by US foreign policy more generally, have offered scathing critiques of the rebranding of assassination as “targeted killing” and “just war” in places “outside areas of active hostilities” simultaneously (and illogically) deemed by the powers that be “battlefields” because of the perceived threat posed by some (usually a tiny fraction) of the residents. A few books have attempted unsuccessfully to defend the practice of remote-control killing (Brian Glyn Williams’ Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda [2013] leaps to mind), but books written by drone operators, sensors, and analysts themselves have been few in number, no doubt in part because the works must be vetted by military bureaucrats before publication.

PredatorCoverMartinMatthew J. Martin’s Predator: The Remote-control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan (2010), offers eye-opening but extraordinarily disturbing insights into how the people who spend the best hours of the best years of their lives hunting down and incinerating human beings by remote control manage to sleep at night. I discuss Martin’s memoir in some detail in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, especially in chapter 7, “The Operators,” and Chapter 8, “From Conscience to Oblivion.” Martin killed men in Iraq whom he repeatedly ridicules and refers to in his memoir as rodents:

“Insurgents were like having a house infested with rats; the more of them you killed, it seemed, the more they bred.” (Predator, p. 252)

Martin cultivated a palpable disdain for his targets, even while acknowledging that many of them were “angry poor people” incensed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US military in 2003. At the same time, in diaphanous attempts to rationalize what he was doing, Martin compares himself to the US troops who traveled to France to save its people from the German occupation in the 1940s. In fact, a more nuanced consideration of the two cases (beyond “USA! USA!”) reveals the role of the US invaders of Iraq to be much closer to that of the Germans than to the US troops during World War II.

Drone Warrior opens provocatively, with the author, a drone program analyst, explaining that this memoir has been approved by the US military, which censored some parts prior to publication. To my mind, the most surprising omission is the section where Velicovich briefly describes his encounter with “Mr. White” (not his real name), a recruiter who persuades him to go behind “a black door”. Velicovich proceeds, with an air of mystery, to explain that he is not permitted by those vetting his work to reveal how it was that he was converted to the hunter/killer life. His inability to explain what happened to him cannot help but evoke memories of Jason Bourne’s induction into the class of assassins who kill on command—no questions asked.

Whatever may have happened (if it wasn’t illegal, why in the world should it be classified?), Velicovich accepted the invitation, and from there set off for life in “The Box,” where, fueled by a steady diet of Rip It® energy drinks and Frosted Flakes, he spent long days spying on potential terrorist suspects from afar. He developed “pattern of life” folders on the men he surveilled and, ultimately, gave “his” Delta operators the green light when “a bad guy” had been confirmed as such (found and fixed) by him and his drones. That 90% of his targets were, as he claims, captured rather than killed stretches credulity, to put it mildly, given the near absence of detainees taken prisoner under President Barack Obama during the later years when Velicovich plied this trade.

While working for President George W. Bush, Velicovich, like Matthew J. Martin, never seemed fully to grasp that the ever-intensifying insurgency in Iraq was a direct result of none other than the US troops’ presence, and especially their increasingly brutal raids, interrogations, and executions of persons, some of whom proved to be undeniably innocent—not even being identifiable as military-age males. Perhaps it was a combination of sleep deprivation and excessive consumption of energy drinks and sugar-coated cereal which induced in Velicovich an inability to grasp that many of the able-bodied Iraqi males deemed “fair game” by the US invaders wanted nothing more than for them to leave their land.

Disturbingly, as the occupation of Iraq was winding down, Velicovich and his buddies received an order from on high to eliminate as many people on their hit lists as swiftly as they could—a murderous form of “scorched earth”. This “green light” from (dare I say?) Corporate headquarters inspired something of a killing spree as the hunter-warriors attempted to wipe out “the enemy” while they still had the chance. Even while acknowledging that the military-age men being killed were community members—sons, husbands, fathers and brothers—Velicovich leapt at the chance to eliminate them, having convinced himself that they were “bad guys”.

What I find most interesting about this memoir is that Velicovich openly acknowledges the effect that living as a hunter of human beings had upon his mind, his body, his relationships and, ultimately, his life. He became obsessed with his targets, and when he returned to the United States after a prolonged period in “The Box” abroad, working grueling hours, suffering bouts of insomnia and sleep deprivation, and losing 40 lbs as a result, his girlfriend frankly informed him that he had changed:

“Your eyes, they don’t look the same,” she said. … “They’re like stones. They just sit there.” (Drone Warrior, p. 151)

Velicovich freely owns that as a result of his profession he stopped experiencing emotions at the news of anyone’s death, and his relationship with his girlfriend ultimately fell apart. While working an office job stateside, the analyst wanted to feel the same rush he got from hunting his targets, and he attempted to mimic it through online gambling, but with no success. Velicovich returned to “the battlefield,” this time in Somalia, having found life as a civilian too humdrum. One is certainly reminded here of Staff Sergeant William James, the lead protagonist (played by Jeremy Renner) of Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film, The Hurt Locker.

In Somalia, Velicovich shared his “expertise” with locals in a very different context and one in which he himself faced significant danger, given the reigning instability in that land and what he perhaps rightly portrays as an environment ripe for a “Black Hawk Down” redux. His new girlfriend is distressed that he should prefer the hunter-killer life over their relationship, and eventually he renounces his position, though he insists in this memoir that, if given the choice, he would do it all over again.

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The epilogue of Drone Warrior is not at all the paean to remote-control killing which one might have expected from a book lauded as “the definitive account of our nation’s capacity and capability for war in the modern age.” In fact, it reads more like a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) infomercial. Velicovich, who became obsessed with his targets and returned to “the life” after having abandoned it once, finally decided to take a very different path. Inspired by animal rights activists in Kenya, he left the military and embarked on an entirely new career, establishing a company in which his prowess as a drone analyst can be used to stop poachers from destroying endangered species such as elephants and rhinos. Through this new venture, Velicovich appears to have achieved a kind of redemption, but in his own eyes, he is and always was one of the “good guys.” It surely takes some mental gymnastics to believe that elephants and rhinos have more significant rights to life than do human beings in a land under illegal occupation. (What did go on behind that black door?)

To be honest, I am somewhat surprised that this memoir was published, for the undeniable conclusion of the work—to anyone who makes it through the all-important epilogue—is that serving as a hunter-killer of human beings is not a tenable path to The Good Life. While deployed, and throughout his memoir, Velicovich takes great pains to to convince himself (as did Matthew J. Martin in Predator) that he is a worthy warrior doing what must be done. The bereft survivors of the raids and drone strikes carried out in Iraq on the basis of his analyses would no doubt beg to differ—particularly in cases where the “bad guy” in question was attempting only to defend his territory from the invaders.

At one point, Velicovich details his benevolent use of drones to help a doctor whose wife had been kidnapped by ISI (the Islamic State in Iraq—before it expanded into Syria). But he declines to offer details on any of the cases where “mistakes were made” and never consciously faces up to the cold, hard, and grisly truth: that had he and his comrades not been in Iraq, then ISI would never have morphed into what became its murderous and virulent form. Following the call of Al Qaeda, Muslim men did indeed flock to Iraq for the opportunity to kill the heathen invaders, but all that the US soldiers needed to do to prevent most of the locals from attempting to kill them was to leave.

The fact that Velicovich needed to find a new profession in order to rehydrate his human capacity to feel emotion strikes me as just as important as the testimony of apostate drone program personnel suffering from PTSD that this frenzy to maximize lethality and to make body counts the be-all and end-all of US foreign policy was a horrendous mistake from the very beginning. As drone killing spreads around the globe, with petty despots following the lead of the self-styled “beacon on the hill,” defining their political enemies as “evil” before summarily executing them with drone-delivered missiles, the normalization of assassination by the sole military superpower must be recognized for what it is: a tragedy for humankind and a hideous assault on not only democracy and the rule of law but also simple decency.

 

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Lessons from Tina, RAF Reaper Drone Operator Who Likens ISIS to the Nazis

I have been meaning to discuss an article from the 4 May 2016 edition of The Sun for almost a month, but I have put it off in part because the whole issue is so utterly depressing. There have been a few different short pieces in mainstream media outlets featuring the perspectives of drone operators, some of whom are females. Yes, for the first time in history, women can hope to achieve full equality in the military realm, because physical strength is no longer a requirement for active combat duty. Pushing buttons and manipulating joysticks to annihilate human beings is an equal opportunity vocation.

In the article in The Sun, a female Royal Air Force Reaper drone operator shares her view of what she is doing as she facilitates the execution of persons located thousands of miles away. When asked to elaborate upon their role, drone operators generally fall into one of two camps: either they have abandoned the profession and now regret what they did, or they are still “lighting up” targets in good conscience and believe themselves to be saving the world from evil. Both Canadians and Americans have expressed reservations about what they were asked to do while serving as drone operators. Unsurprisingly, given the normalization of drone warfare under US President Obama, there are also quite a few targeted killing enthusiasts.

Tina, a British drone operator, certainly falls into the category of enthusiast. For those who fail to grasp the importance of what she is doing in using drones to annihilate suspected members of ISIS, she offers the following explanation:

“I compare these guys to the Nazis, the way they came along and treated people and tried to enforce their beliefs on people. They’ve got to be stopped. If we weren’t doing what we are doing now this could spread across the whole world. We’re here to maintain the freedom of the people and protect the people.”

Well, Tina, I’ve got a nice parcel for you down by Alligator Alley. ISIS is nothing like the Nazis, first and foremost because they have no nation state. As a nonstate organization, ISIS is entirely devoid of a military industry and has depended on weapons supplies from the very countries which claim to be their adversaries. That’s right, Tina: from 2012 to 2013, 600 tons of weapons were provided covertly by the CIA to “appropriately vetted moderate rebels”.  The result of that provision? A massive takeover by ISIS of large swaths of land in both Syria and Iraq.

Now the radical Islamist group has made inroads into Libya as well. How could that be? Because NATO deposed the central government authority of that nation in 2011, leaving a power vacuum behind, just as Western powers had done in Iraq back in 2003. While we’re on the topic, the coalescence of ISIS into an identifiable enemy came about only because of the invasion of Iraq. A short history of ISIS can be found here (for those who missed the most visited page at this blog).

Earlier this year, President Obama identified the poor planning of the Libya intervention—what to do post-Gaddafi—as his biggest foreign policy mistake. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in contrast, has characterized the Libya intervention as a shining example of “smart power at its best”. But I digress.

The point, dear Tina, is that whatever military power ISIS has managed to use to oppress and kill the people whom you take yourself to be defending was provided to them by the US, UK and other governments. No doubt it may make it easier for you to sleep at night in the belief that your hitman-like role is for the good of humanity, but I regret to inform you that Nazi soldiers believed the very same thing, mutatis mutandis. They, too, were told that they were fighting to save people from The Evil Enemy.

Ironically, if any analogy between Nazi Germany and the drone program holds it is that a bureaucratic institution of homicide is being run by the likes of Adolf Eichmann all over again precisely and only because of the willingness of people like you, Tina, to follow their orders to kill unarmed persons who could not possibly harm you, even in principle, because they have no idea who or where you are.

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What’s worse than the Department of PreCrime? The US Drone Program

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I have seen Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report mentioned in the writings of a few different people, so when the opportunity presented itself to me recently, I decided to find out why it is still being talked about 14 years after its release. Not being much for science fiction, it’s not surprising that I did not see the film back when it first came out. Added to that, some fairly dramatic events took place in 2002. Most obviously, a concerted propaganda campaign was launched by the US government in the run-up to its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Remarkably, some people, in a post-9/11 cognitive fog, were persuaded to believe that Saddam Hussein not only possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but was poised to transfer them to Osama bin Laden and his buddies in Al Qaeda.

Around that same time, on November 3, 2002, the Drone Age effectively began with the CIA’s extrajudicial execution of six men driving down a road in Yemen using a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator drone. The act went virtually unquestioned and was praised by nearly everyone who heard about it, having been told that the US government was working hard to keep all of us safe.

Since 2002, the line between science fiction and reality has become thinner and thinner with the rapid proliferation and refinement of automated systems in an inexorable quest to produce more and more lethal weapons ever faster—and to export them all over the world. The fact that lethality has not worked to stop terrorism is matter-of-factly accepted by most lawmakers as evidence that we need to kill even more. Meanwhile, the morass of moral questions raised by the remote-control assassination of persons suspected of possibly conspiring to carry out future terrorist attacks continues to be ignored. Now homicide is being committed in apparently good conscience all over the Middle East and in Africa, too, by many different parties, under bogus pretexts of national defense, and in spite of the fact that the world has grown more, not less, dangerous since the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began.

The story of Minority Report is set in 2054 and involves a police officer who works in the PreCrime Department, the mission of which is to determine who is going to commit a murder in the near future, so that they can be arrested and incarcerated before they do. The primary philosophical question raised by the film is free will versus determinism. Do human beings choose to do what they do? Can they alter their choices, by sheer act of will, so as to follow a different trajectory than what might have seemed to be the path dictated by fate?

In Minority Report, the persons who are being arrested and locked up on suspicion for future crimes are said to be known to be future murderers. If the police did not intervene, then the suspects would indeed commit murder–or so the program executors claim. People believe the administrators—touted as heroes—because the pilot PreCrime program has proven to be a resounding success. In six years, murder in the Washington, DC, area has come to a lurching halt.

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The details of how the murders will be carried out—if nothing is done to stop the would-be perpetrators—are derived from mental images conjured by PreCogs, which are akin to humanoid psychics of sorts, with the notable distinction that they are said to be infallible. If the three PreCogs identify a person as a future murderer, then he is. The PreCogs do not make mistakes. They have never been wrong!  is the PreCrime company line. Given the undeniable success of the pilot program, a new campaign is underway to expand the initiative so that murder can be eradicated from all cities everywhere.

Whatever may be one’s feelings on the question of free will versus determinism, which philosophers have been arguing about for millennia, there are a number of complicating epistemological factors to the story—as there always are in reality. Once Police Chief John Anderton (the Tom Cruise character) appears to be framed for a future murder, he begins to investigate the “scientific” basis of the program and discovers that the simple success story fed to the public is a pleasing fiction used to garner support for the PreCrime initiative.

Anderton, who is a true believer and enthusiastic program advocate up until his own liberty is jeopardized, discovers that the program administrators have carefully hidden a key feature of the process by which the PreCog unanimity is achieved: whenever one of the three PreCogs (the most “gifted” of the three, Agatha), disagrees with the interpretation of the images shared by the other two PreCogs, her “Minority Report” is destroyed. The PreCogs appear to agree on the final verdict of the future criminal’s guilt because the dissenting opinion has been erased!

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Given how the apparent “unanimity” is in fact achieved, there is a very real chance that some of the people who have been arrested and incarcerated for future murders were not really going to commit the murder after all. It seemed as though they were going to, but a closer look, a different perspective on the visual data, would reveal that in fact they would never have committed the murder, had they been permitted to carry on with their lives uninterrupted by the police. As a result, some of the people locked up are in fact innocent. The program administrators who know the truth may be of a utilitarian bent, believing that the sacrifice of a few souls is perfectly acceptable in the quest to defend everybody else. Or perhaps they are simply amoral agents who seek success in society as their highest goal and will do any- and everything to protect their own reputation.

I do not want to go into too much more detail about Minority Report, because the film is long and labyrinthine, with many characters and subplots, and I am not prepared to recommend that anyone watch it for any reason other than the philosophical questions which it raises. What I would like to do instead is to consider how the US Drone Program, which exists in reality, differs from the Department of PreCrime, a science fiction creation based on a short story by Philip K. Dick.

  1. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the PreCrime Program, the persons thought by analysts to be planning to commit possible future terrorist acts are not arrested and incarcerated but incinerated.
  2. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the Department of PreCrime, the evidence is not subject to review by anyone but the people who decide whom to kill.
  3. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the Department of PreCrime, the persons targeted for elimination do not usually have known identities. In many cases, they have no names associated with them.
  4. In the Drone Program, as opposed to PreCrime Program, targets are identified by behaviors said to match a “disposition matrix” of known terrorist behaviors. It is not that they have been witnessed perpetrating a crime, but that they “walk the terrorist walk”. They turn out nearly always to be brown-skinned Muslims.
  5. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the PreCrime Program, hearsay and circumstantial evidence are used exhaustively as the basis for ending not only suspects’ lives, but also the lives of people associated with them, including family and community members.
  6. In the Drone Program, the evidence used to “convict” the suspects is both generated and assessed by the same analysts. In the PreCrime Program, the PreCogs provide an independent source of evidence, which, while fallible, is not subject to mercenary corruption. In stark contrast, HUMINT or human intelligence is derived from paid informants, and the analysts who compile kill lists are rewarded financially for finding people to kill. “Successful strikes” are confirmed on the ground by the very locals who provided the HUMINT leading up to the strikes.
  7. In the Drone Program, when missiles are fired from drones, all of the inhabitants of the area under fire are simultaneously terrorized because they do not know who or why individuals have been singled out for death. In the PreCrime Program, when suspects are apprehended, it is a standard police operation. The persons sought are not being executed on the spot, which means that persons who happen to be located nearby are not inadvertently threatened with death at the same time.
  8. The PreCrime Program has eliminated the problem of murder at the price of the wrongful incarceration of some of the suspects. The Drone Program, in stark contrast, has only caused the problem of terrorism to expand over ever vaster expanses of land. ISIS, once a minor force in Iraq, has spread to Syria and Libya. Drones were fired on Yemen for many years, culminating in civil war, and now the US government has sent combat soldiers to that land as well, proof positive that lethal drones made the problem worse rather than better.
  9. In May 2013, President Barack Obama announced that missiles were fired on targets only when there was “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed. In early 2016, the Pentagon announced that the magnitude of acceptable “collateral damage” had been increased for strikes aiming at ISIS members. Innocent people are being knowingly sacrificed in the process of targeting persons believed to be guilty but who in some cases are militants with no international aspirations whatsoever.
  10. In the PreCrime Program, the persons apprehended falsely, being alive, retain the possibility of exoneration once the truth about the fallibility of the PreCogs is revealed. No such possibility exists for the victims of the US Drone Program.

Technology has come to dictate policy like never before in history thanks to the effusive enthusiasm of leaders such as President Barack Obama, the first self-styled “Drone Warrior”. Unfortunately, the blind worship of technology has led to the mass homicide of thousands of human beings who would not have been killed in centuries past. But rather than being “smart war”, the Drone Program has proven to be quite dumb. It has failed to stabilize any of the countries in which it has been deployed: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Syria all lie in shambles. “No Boots” Obama has now forsaken even his promise not to send combat troops into many of these places. But rather than draw the logical conclusion, that the Drone Program is an abject failure, the killing machine has cranked into high gear, slaughtering dozens of persons at a time, using both manned and unmanned bombers.

There is no available moral defense of the Drone Program, for it violates human rights across the board. It furthermore represents a flagrant assault on the foundations of Western democratic societies, including due process and transparency. The Drone warriors have instituted a program which rolls formerly republican governments back to pre-Magna Carta times, transforming the president into a monarch with the authority to decree “off with their heads!” with impunity. It is not only “suspicious-looking characters” (some of whom are innocent) who are being harmed. Just as surely terrorized by the Drone Program are entirely innocent children, some of whom vow to seek revenge on the craven remote-control killers, as did Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, among many other, mostly nameless, young Muslim people.

The only possible practical defense of the ongoing slaughter of lists of human beings generated by paid analysts would have to be utilitarian in nature: that despite the occasional “blunder”, lethal drones have made the world a safer place. But anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills must recognize that it has not, given the quagmire throughout the Middle East, and the attacks on Paris and San Bernardino in 2015, and Brussels in 2016.

The Drone Program is both morally outrageous and criminally inept, leading as it does to the reckless endangerment of those who pay for it, along with the obviously innocent people destroyed, traumatized, and /or maimed. Many young people are being corrupted along the way, persuaded either to become professional assassins or to seek revenge by linking up with radical Islamist extremist groups.

 

Morality & Misery: The Meaning of Drone Operator PTSD

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Artwork created by Rose, a former Canadian drone operator. Photo credit: Buzzfeed.

For years, drone killing has been successfully marketed as “smart war”: the ability to defeat enemies without risking harm to allied soldiers. Given the chaos throughout the Middle East, however, it seems safe to say that rather than keeping terrorists in check, drones have inspired more and more young people to undertake jihad in response. The ever-augmenting ranks of ISIS—their spread from Iraq to Syria to Libya—and the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels should cause thinkers everywhere to question the talking points of the drone warriors, who preposterously persist in pretending that terrorists have been sporing spontaneously throughout the Global War on Terror.

Further evidence that something is seriously awry includes the discovery that drone operators suffer from PTSD just as much as their combat soldier analogues do, despite the fact that they do not risk their own lives. Far from the bloody fray, operators hunt down and kill targets designated as worthy of death by committees comprising military officers, privately contracted analysts, and civilian administrators. What is the problem? Why in the world have drone operators found themselves so troubled by what they have done?

A recent report revealed that it’s not just US drone operators who have been suffering from PTSD. Canadian drone operators, too, have had a tough time dealing with their post-targeting lives. In fact, a significantly higher proportion of Canadian drone operators have been found to suffer from PTSD. While regular uniformed soldiers in Canada suffer from PTSD at a rate of about 10%, conservative estimates of the incidence among former drone operators begin at 30%. The number may be considerably higher because many operators never seek out and receive institutional help with their psychological troubles.

Along with the obvious inefficacy of drone warfare as a means of contending with terrorism, the incidence of PTSD among drone operators themselves should be considered in assessments of the wisdom of remote-control killing. And yet it never is. Politicians and pundits occasionally argue over whether the collateral damage of the drone campaigns has been “acceptably low” or not, but nearly no one ever asks whether the tearing away at the moral and psychological fabric of the persons who carry out targeted killing is a reason to reconsider the practice.

Needless to say, the refusal to take seriously the concerns articulated by apostate drone operators fits right in with the dismissal and discreditation of disgruntled soldiers more generally. Rather than asking how and why suicide has become an epidemic among veterans, with shocking reports of 22 former or current US soldiers opting to end their lives each day, the VA clings to its insane policy of plying these young men and women with drugs. Or is the policy insane? Perhaps the goal all along has been to muffle the voices of military critics. Drugged soldiers are discredited, and dead soldiers tell no tales.

The drone operators are not in any danger of physical harm, so the reason why they are suffering can only be that they find it psychologically distressing to be asked to play the role of the Grim Reaper or God Almighty. Based on their testimony, a few different kinds of scenarios have plagued operators. One is having to “make the call” in the moment using only sketchy evidence that a target deserves to die. For Canadian operators surveilling occupied territories in Afghanistan, the problem was whether to kill possibly dangerous locals or to risk finding out later that Canadian soldiers on the ground died as a result of the operators’ hesitation to kill.

A far more common scenario, and the cause of many drone operators’ compunction and strife, is to have carried out an execution on the basis of someone else’s call, with which the soldier has disagreed. Did he or she just wipe out the head of a family for no good reason? The person who pushed the button, not the analysts who made the call, has to live with what he has done. Former operators have revealed that during the period of their service, they often indulged in drinking binges after work, as a way of making what they were doing more bearable.

After their service, some of them have been diagnosed with PTSD and doled out psychotropic drugs. But given the source of drone operators’ PTSD, the long-term solution to their agony can hardly be to mask over the reality using pharmaceutical means. Why not? Because eventually they will find themselves unmedicated, in a compete state of lucidity, and forced once again to reckon with what they have done.

In view of the staggering suicide toll, the twenty-first-century practice (coincident with the dawning of the Drone Age) of drugging veterans with multi-med cocktails has failed to render them less bothered by what they have done in the name of the state. A much better solution would be to not ask them to do it in the first place. Young people should never be lured into a profession which may weigh heavily on their conscience for the rest of lives. They should not be placed in the position of needing to kill more people as a way of demonstrating that they deserve to be paid. They should not be placed in the position of being ridiculed for expressing skepticism about the wisdom of annihilating unarmed human beings who pose no direct threat to anyone at the time when they are killed.

 

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To see how heinous this arrangement truly is, it may be useful to consider the plight of many child soldiers in post-colonial Africa. How were so many young boys and girls transformed into assassins by ruthless war lords? In many cases, they have been jacked up on drugs and then tricked into killing people. But having once committed their first homicide, it becomes easier and easier for them to do it again. If necessary, child soldiers can be repeatedly drugged, making it easier and easier for them to kill.

At some point, child soldiers become full-fledged assassins. They may no longer regard what they do as regrettable, because they have done it so many times. Most child soldiers die young, killed in combat. Some among the survivors go on to become warlords and use the very same strategies of corruption on new recruits as their mentors did.

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The transformation of the psyche of young people into career assassins is necessary for the continuation of the drone program. The recent drone operator recruitment crisis led the Pentagon to renounce the requirement that enlistees be commissioned officers. As less astute young men and women are wheeled into the drone program, being less reflective, they will no doubt experience less compunction about what they are doing. A makeshift filtering process is already in place, since readily available YouTube videos allow prospective recruits to consider the reality of what they will be doing, should they enlist. Anyone with moral scruples against the summary execution without trial of brown-skinned persons located in remote tribal regions and pegged for death by analysts who have financial incentives for creating kill lists will seek an alternative career path.

Looking into the future, the question which thinking people everywhere need to ponder is whether this is what they want the moral fabric of the military leaders of the future to be: paid assassins who lure more and more people into targeted killing because they have already done it and deem it perfectly acceptable. At this decisive moment in history for Canada and the many other nations moving toward the acquisition and eventual use of lethal drones, the testimony of former drone operators who have abandoned their profession could not be more important. Their concerns have a firm legal and moral basis, whether current military administrators care to acknowledge them or not.

GenevaConventions

There have never been any international norms governing the use of lethal drones, beyond the protocols covering assassination and already enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions. These documents have been reinterpreted creatively by the US government so as to rationalize the practice of targeted killing even in lands where there are no US soldiers on the ground to protect.

The legality of targeted killing of unarmed suspects in unoccupied lands who are not actively engaged in combat has been scrupulously examined and called into question by a number of scholars, including two successive UN Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial Execution, Philip Alston and Christof Heyns. Among other problems, if the persons being killed were truly “soldiers”, then they would need to be provided with the opportunity to surrender in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. If, on the other hand, they are truly suspects, then they are protected by Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the “innocent until proven guilty” clause.

US government officials and other drone program supporters maintain that the targeted suspects are unlawful combatants, who are therefore not protected by military protocols and international law. In 2010, the US government issued a White Paper asserting that the targeted killing even of US citizens was permitted under some circumstances by both domestic and international law. The argument rests on a contentious redefinition of “imminent threat” as not requiring immediacy. It also trades on the drone warriors’ flexible and contestable concept of “infeasibility of capture”.

A sober look at the data makes clear that the capture of drone strike targets has essentially been defined as “infeasible”. “Infeasibility of capture” does not denote the physical inability of a team of Navy SEALS to descend from the sky and encircle a suspect. Rather, “infeasibility of capture” connotes an unwillingness to expend resources and risk US lives. The political difficulty of housing a suspect, should he in fact be captured rather than killed, has also figured into the drone warriors’ calculus.

Lethal drone killing is new in history, but it is worth remembering that even the most atrocious of practices have always been legal until they were made illegal through the concerted effort of legislators. The first drone operators were tricked into participating in a morally objectionable practice, the premeditated and intentional execution without trial of human beings on the basis of hearsay and circumstantial evidence. Military and civilian authorities have told new enlistees that what they are doing is right and is saving American lives, just as in the case of Jason Bourne. These soldiers, too, have been duped, and some of them have awakened to the truth. Continuing to coopt more and more young enlistees will not alter the wrongness of what they are being asked to do.

 

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

CianWestmoreland

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

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

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

StephenLewis

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

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

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

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

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

MichaelHaas

http://player.theplatform.com/p/2E2eJC/nbcNewsOffsite?guid=a_orig_dronepilots_151207

 

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

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

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

FemaleDroneOperator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LyndieEngland

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

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

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

She then adds a bit of a feminist twist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Letter from Four Former Drone Operators with Echoes from the Stimson Center Report

 

Former drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant has given interviews all over the world about his involvement in the US government’s drone program or “killing machine”, as it has been aptly labeled by some. He has not always met with sympathy from interviewers and commentators. I was especially struck by the antagonistic stance of one BBC reporter, Stephen Sackur, whose questions often hinged on questionable facts which he had accepted as the gospel truth. Here’s a YouTube video of the interview:

Where, for example, did the notion that Anwar al-Awlaki gave advice to the 9/11 attackers come from, if not from a myth fabricated for the public to rationalize the US citizen’s summary execution without trial in Yemen? For those who missed it, including Stephen Sackur, here’s what Anwar al-Awlaki said in an interview with National Geographic News on September 28, 2001:

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

 In an interview on October 31, 2001, by Ray Suarez for PBS, Anwar al-Awlaki said:

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

It is possible, of course, that this was all a part of a grand and sneaky scheme on the part of Al-Awlaki to pretend to condemn the attacks which he “in fact” helped to orchestrate. It is also logically possible, I suppose, that the 9/11 hijackers attacked the United States because “they hate us for our freedom.” Far more probable—and logically tenable—is that 9/11 was blowback for the 1991 Gulf War and related US interventions, especially in Muslim lands, abroad.

Likewise, more probable than the conspiracy theory according to which Al-Awlaki was only pretending to denounce the attacks of 9/11 is the version of the story ably relayed by Jeremy Scahill in Dirty Wars: that the Muslim cleric was radicalized by the actions of the US government itself, which in aftermath of 9/11 did precisely what Al-Awlaki counseled against, by waging what could be reasonably interpreted as a war on Islam.

By executing Al-Awlaki, rather than indicting him and allowing him to stand trial, the US government effectively etched its own version of what transpired onto the tablets of history. Reporters such as Stephen Sackur simply assume that the US government version of the story is true, without doing so much as a cursory Google search to find out what Al-Awlaki was doing and saying back in 2001.

It is more than a little disturbing that so many journalists and reporters have uncritically parroted, replicated and disseminated whatever the US drone warriors say, even as they regularly contradict themselves and completely re-write the story of what they have done as circumstances dictate. Was Osama bin Laden armed when he was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan? The initial official story was that he was killed by Navy SEALS in legitimate self-defense, armed as the mastermind was with an AK-47. Later versions—some from the US government—have offered very different accounts of what transpired.

The obdurate refusal on the part of mainstream journalists to go beyond the official stories shared (and often “leaked”) by the government reveals that the Fourth Estate has effectively forsaken its democratic raison d’être–just as surely as US congresspersons did when in October 2002 they renounced their right and responsibility to check the power of the executive to wage war at his caprice. The result? The 2003 invasion of Iraq, and everything to ensue, up to and including the ongoing ISIS-driven quagmire in Syria.

When brave men such as Brandon Bryant step forward to share the ghastly reality of what is being done in the drone program, they are naturally met with skepticism and sometimes ire. Why? Because if what they are saying is true—and there is no compelling reason for thinking that they lie—then the US government has gone morally awry in its politically driven effort to convince citizens that they are being kept safe through a concerted and wide-ranging program of “targeted killing” (formerly known as “assassination”) abroad.

In assessing the credibility of this witness, it is important to bear in mind that Brandon Bryant was not fired from his position. He quit his job and declined even to accept a generous bonus (aka “bribe”) for staying on. Why? Because he could no longer continue in good conscience to do what he had come to believe was wrong.

Here is a recent letter sent to the powers that be by Bryant and three kindred spirits, Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis, and Michael Haas:

    
 
 (source: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2515596-final-drone-letter.html — Contributed by: Ed Pilkington, The Guardian)

 

It is worth pointing out that in the first paragraph of the letter these admirable souls have clearly articulated some of the very concerns aired by the Stimson Center task force in its US government-commissioned report of 2014. One rarely hears mention of it these days, but the administration agreed to subject the drone program to scrutiny by an independent group of academics, industry experts, and former military officers. Unfortunately, no one in power appears to have read the report, which, in addition to advising that lethal drones be taken out of the hands of the CIA, also clearly warns in its Executive Summary:

Blowback: Civilian casualties, even if relatively few, can anger whole communities, increase anti-US sentiment and become a potent recruiting tool for terrorist organizations. Even strikes that kill only terrorist operatives can cause great resentment, particularly in contexts in which terrorist recruiting efforts rely on tribal loyalties or on an economically desperate population. UAV strikes by the United States have also generated a backlash in states not directly affected by the strikes, in part due to the perception that such strikes cause excessive civilian deaths, and in part due to concerns about sovereignty, transparency, accountability and other human rights and rule of law issues.”

Sound familiar? Military and drone program supporters may dismiss out of hand the testimony of former drone operators—writing them off as PTSD victims, disgruntled employees, or simply “bad apples”. But can any of those terms be applied to the Stimson center committee, the members of which were appointed by the US government?

Perhaps Obama, Brennan & Co. (literally) were hoping for a report which would conclude by patting the drone warriors on the back and exhorting them to continue on in their quest to kill brown-skinned suspects wherever they may be said to hide, working from “evidence” furnished by privately contracted analysts with strong reasons of financial self-interest to generate longer and longer kill lists–as long as they can.