This article at RT.com is based in part on an interview with Laurie Calhoun.
This article at RT.com is based in part on an interview with Laurie Calhoun.
Good Kill (US release 2015), directed by Andrew Niccol, offers a somewhat surprising view of what has come to be known as “modern warfare”, focusing on the plight of drone operators who spend their work days at Creech Air Force Base “taking pot shots half a world away in an air conditioned cubicle”. Heavily and obviously based on the testimony of former drone operators, the film has been criticized by some for lacking in entertainment value. Given the gravity of this disturbing development in military history, such a criticism seems somehow misplaced, but it is also understandable. Even those of us who appreciate its filmic virtues can scarcely deny that Good Kill is considerably more didactic than most action films. However, it is more professorial than preachy, offering a competent introduction to the moral issues raised by drone warfare for those who never thought about the topic before.
That said, I hasten to add that the film is not solely an anti-drone warfare propaganda piece or a straightforward docudrama. For one thing, the cinematography is excellent, with lots of visual analogies drawn between the suburbs of Las Vegas and the “battlefields” of clay houses where targets are struck by Hellfire missiles. The similarity between the places where human beings live in civil society on opposite sides of the planet is repeatedly stressed by offering a drone’s eye view of the West and the Middle East. There are families—fathers and mothers and children—in both places, but the fathers depicted in domestic settings in Las Vegas suburbs are remote-control killers, while the fathers in Pakistan and Yemen are said to be evil terrorists warranting “warheads on foreheads”.
Another brilliant use of cinematography involves the recurrent theme of the surreal setting of the city of Las Vegas itself, with its pseudo-Eiffel tower, bright lights, big hotels and bling. The drone operator’s role in executing persons designated for death by an eerie voice known only as “Langley”, coming over a speaker phone, is perfectly reflected by Las Vegas: it is hyperreal and ersatz at the same time. “Why do we wear a flight suit, sir?” asks the tormented protagonist Thomas Egan, played convincingly by Ethan Hawke. Drone operators fill only half of the job description of a traditional soldier: they kill but never die in the line of duty.
The dissonance of Thomas Egan’s life is highlighted in many ways, but one of the most striking is the juxtaposition of shots of hot orange barbecue coals with the visually similar sites of destruction caused directly by him. He prepares burgers on the grill for his own children while knowing that he incinerated children 7,000 miles away when he fired a missile at someone said to be a bad guy for reasons which he is not entitled to know. “Orders are orders.”
The most fundamental difference between Good Kill and many other Hollywood war movies (including American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood) is that it does not begin from the assumption that our troops are automatically good and the enemy is by definition evil. The central protagonist is a tortured soul, who wants to do good, but finds himself perpetrating what he himself takes to be evil. The dissonance of what he is doing drives him to drink heavily and ultimately wrecks his marriage.
Throughout Good Kill many horrific, and frankly unbelievable, facts about remote-control killing as conducted by the US government are presented for the untutored masses to mull over:
These and many other Drone Warfare 101 points made in the film need to be understood in order for a person to arrive at an informed opinion on the wisdom of the practice of remote-control killing. Unfortunately, much of the populace appears to have been seduced by the facile characterization of the stalking and hunting of human beings–and the slaughter, maiming and terrorizing of others in their vicinity–as laudable “smart war”.
Under cover of State Secrets Privilege, the US government declined for many years to share any data on their drone strikes, and when they finally did (under court order), the most important facts were redacted. As a result of this persistent opacity, a robust debate about remote-control killing was successfully evaded. The practice was fully normalized during the eight-year presidency of Barack Obama, whose preferred successor to the US throne (Hillary Clinton) has already vowed to continue his approach to foreign policy, the centerpiece of which is extrajudicial assassination.
With the lethal drone industry boom well underway, and the ongoing tendency of politicians to support targeted killing, only persons who do not stand to profit (whether electorally or financially–or both) from the practice are left to ask the tough questions. Andrew Niccol has done a public service by offering this didactic but necessary film. Good Kill aims to fill a gaping chasm in people’s knowledge about drone warfare, and it does so in a compact way by displaying many of the moral problems which have been ignored by US citizens in their patriotic fervor to accept whatever their political leaders say when it comes to foreign policy.
Good Kill should be required viewing for any young person contemplating the possibility of becoming a drone operator.
The US Air Force has been busy doling out US taxpayer cash, not only for the production of 30 more MQ-9 Reaper (read: death) drones by General Atomics, but also in the hopes of retaining drone operators willing to fly and fire missiles from them. The latest “incentive” being offered to RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) operators is $35,000 each year for the next five years. That’s about $100 a day, on top of their current salary. All that they have to do is not quit their job once their first contract term has expired. Sounds like a good deal, right?
Not so good to the drone and sensor operators who have abandoned the profession as a result of their profound regret (in some cases they suffer from PTSD) for having ever agreed to serve as government assassins in the first place. Brandon Bryant was offered more than $100K to continue on, and he declined. Rather than attempt to understand the moral basis for drone operator discontent, the USAF has decided that really what the operators preparing to bolt need is more money. Who could resist?
If $100 a day as a retainer fee seems like enough of a bonus to continue serving as an on-call government assassin, then perhaps some of these people will stay on. But it is extremely important for them to be fully aware of what they are agreeing to do for the next five years of their lives. President Barack Obama, the current commander in chief, will be leaving office soon. In all likelihood either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will assume the presidency and carry on the Obama tradition of dispatching terrorist suspects by drone. It’s much easier, politically, than conventional warfare (no flag-wrapped coffins, no condolence letters to write), and Obama has effectively normalized assassination by rebranding it as “targeted killing”.
In truth, “targeted killing” using Predator or Reaper drones differs from assassination in only two ways. First, missiles are being used to kill targets, rather than other implements of homicide (pistols, poisons, strangulation wires…). Second, unlike most black op assassinations carried out by hit squads in the twentieth century, drone strikes produce collateral damage alongside the obliterated target. Remarkably, many people have not recognized that those are the only two ways in which the stalking, hunting down and execution of human beings by governments has changed in the Drone Age.
“This is war,” allegedly, because “weapons of war” are used to effect the deaths, and unintended deaths of civilians are caused at the same time. Never mind that, in contrast to regular combat situations, the soldier who pushes the button to launch a missile is not in any direct danger of physical harm, least of all at the hands of his target, who is usually located thousands of miles away and has no idea that he is about to die. Drone operators and sensors might develop carpal tunnel syndrome, but their lives are never on the line when they follow orders to kill.
Given the reality of what they are doing, the drone and sensor operators who accept the latest bribe are in effect agreeing to execute anyone designated by either President Clinton or President Trump as worthy of death. The new US president won’t have to say why, because Barack Obama never did. The drone program has always been secretive and opaque, under cover of national security. The release of the “playbook” (Presidential Policy Guidance or PPG) did nothing to assuage the concerns of critics who have for years been demanding transparency.
All that we know with certainty now is that President Obama was wrong when he told a group of listeners during a GoogleTalk chat in January 2012 that “it’s not a bunch of folks in a room just making decisions.” That is, indeed, precisely what Barack Obama’s version of “due process” is. A massive, secretive, bureaucratic institution of killing, with no checks and balances and zero provision for revisiting death sentences handed down by anonymous officials (“folks in a room”) from behind closed doors, primarily on the basis of analysis (by “folks in a room”) of signals intelligence (SIGINT): metadata from cellphones and SIM cards, and drone video footage. Looks like a terrorist. Walks like a terrorist. Talks like a terrorist. Guilty as charged: send out the drones.
In some cases, bribed intelligence from informants on the ground (human intelligence or HUMINT) is used to supplement the electronic sources of “evidence” that the people being slaughtered truly deserve to die, along with anyone at their side at the time—the dreaded “associates”: taxi drivers, family members and friends, funeral or wedding attendees, first responders, the list goes on and on…
The problems with bribed intelligence from human sources are just as bad as the racial profiling inherent to SIGINT-based “signature strikes” or “crowd killing” of brown-skinned Muslims wearing turbans and carrying guns—or not. Hundreds of strikes have been carried out “outside areas of active hostilities” under Obama’s authorization. Today we know what happened when HUMINT was used to round up suspects for detention at Guantánamo Bay prison: most of the men incarcerated (86%) were innocent. “The worst of the worst” they were called at the time.
It is therefore very important for any drone operators and sensors considering the possibility of continuing on in their role as a professional assassin to recognize that they are agreeing to kill people who in many cases will be innocent of any wrongdoing—certainly any capital offense. Even worse, they are agreeing to serve as the henchman of a future president whom they may or may not believe to be either moral or good.
Many Americans have expressed concern that the Republican and Democratic parties have nominated candidates for the presidency who are wholly ill-suited for the task. In Trump’s case, we really have no idea what he will do. He’s the classic case of a “known unknown”. Some days he sounds like an isolationist ready and willing to put an end to US meddling in the Middle East; other days he sounds like Dr. Strangelove.
In Clinton’s case, we know precisely what she will do: send out the drones and expand and multiply the wars already raging in the Middle East. Amazingly, Hillary Clinton appears to believe that “third time’s a charm,” as she is calling for a repetition in Syria of the regime-change policy which failed so miserably in both Iraq and Libya.
On the drone front, Clinton surrogates have suggested that even nonviolent dissidents such as Wikileaks’ Julian Assange should be added to the US government’s hit list. Perhaps Clinton will try to outdo Obama (who executed US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki without trial), and Edward Snowden’s name will be added to the list as well. Not so far-fetched, given her evident antipathy toward technologically savvy whistleblowers…
Trump or Clinton? Who will the next US president be? Once having signed on the dotted line, drone operators and sensors will be expected to follow the orders of the commander in chief, whoever it may be. Maybe $100 a day as a retainer fee to serve as an on-call assassin isn’t such a good deal after all.
Drone warriors have been redefining words from the very beginning, and they have sadly persuaded a fair portion of the populace to accept that the formerly taboo practice of assassination is now legal, provided only that it be labeled “targeted killing”. It’s supposed to be perfectly permissible for the US president (Obama) or UK prime minister (Cameron) to annihilate some of their compatriots without indictment or trial, much less conviction of capital crimes, so long as the hired guns use missiles rather than bullets to dispatch targets on the government’s hit list. Everyone knows that missiles are weapons of war. Ergo, drone strikes are acts of war. As sophomoric as that little piece of reasoning may be, far too many people have fallen for it, including political elites.
In the United States, 9/11 appears to have induced an effect on citizens’ capacity for criticism akin to the concussion caused by a blunt blow to the cranium. That was fifteen years ago, Osama bin Laden was slain five years ago, and yet the damage to US citizens’ critical faculties appears in some cases to have been permanent. Most politicians continue to line up to support any- and everything labeled “national defense”, even when it obviously degrades the security of the people paying for it. Arming ISIS? Deposing more dictators to create power vacuums perfect for the flourishing of terrorists? Really?
The thousands of targets taken out by drone strikes have been denied all rights under international law. The governing assumption among US administrators has been that suspects are always and everywhere evil terrorists à la Osama bin Laden. Guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around, as Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires. As difficult to believe as it may be, the drone warriors have succeeded in rolling back “justice” to pre-Magna Carta times. But the false analogies, faulty reasoning and linguistic léger-de-main certainly do not stop there.
Article 51 of the UN Charter has been interpreted by the drone warriors to mean that they (anyone?) may fire missiles anywhere in the world they want. All that is needed is to define “hostile” areas as “battlefields” and claim that killing this particular tribesman, whose identity is unknown, who does not even possess a passport, and who inhabits a hut in a remote region of a Third World country, is an imminent threat to the existence of the United States. I have to wonder what historians will say about all of this in a hundred years or so…
Take the battle to the enemy! the drone warfare enthusiasts cheer each time they read another headline regurgitating the Pentagon’s latest report of having attempted to take out another suspected militant. It does not even appear to matter to the cheerleaders for lethal drones that the vast majority of strikes have been undertaken against persons of unknown identity. What matters is that the pile of ashes formerly known as a human being and identified as potentially (not immediately!) threatening by savvy analysts at the CIA (or their private military company (PMC) affiliates) will never make it to US shores.
So what if the Middle East is a morass of murder and mayhem? So what if radical Islamic jihadist franchises continue to proliferate and spread to new territories? So what if the lives of millions of human beings have been destroyed or severely degraded? So what if no one on the planet but the self-deluded warriors themselves believes that they have been selected to do God’s will?
Safe and smug in their belief that none of this could harm them, and might even be keeping them safe, Americans have gone about their shopping as usual, as though they had nothing to worry about, their blithe state of complacency punctuated only by the occasional lunatic mass killing in the homeland. But those nutcases have nothing whatsoever to do with the US government’s ever-more lethal policy. Do as we say, not as we do! The current Democratic party leadership insists that we need to implement strict background checks before selling guns to people on the terrorist watch list in the homeland. Meanwhile, they continue to condone President Obama’s record levels of weapons exports to the rest of the world. It’s the American way.
A recent development, the vote by the US senate to require women in the United States to register for the Selective Service and be prepared to step forward to defend the nation, should the need be said by politicians to arise, represents another instance of the fallacious reasoning and linguistic sleight of hand so deftly deployed by the drone warriors up to now. How did it come about? As usual, the first steps were highly surreptitious and sneaky. Under Obama, light footprints abound, invariably leaving deep pools of blood on the ground.
About the time that the drone operator recruitment crisis began to worsen, with enlisted persons abandoning the profession in droves once their initial contract term had elapsed, the Pentagon suddenly announced that all combat positions would henceforth be open to women. Feminists naturally rejoiced. Hurrah! What a victory! Shouldn’t women who are ready and willing to fight alongside men be permitted to do so, if they choose? The key word was of course ‘choose’. Women in the military were thrilled that they could now ascend to the heights of the top brass, able to break that pesky glass ceiling at last. So far, so good.
The next step was to transform the “choice” of some women to become combat troops, probably a very small minority even of those already enlisted, into a “responsibility” to defend the nation. If the government is willing to grant women the privilege of being able to fight alongside men, then shouldn’t women correlatively shoulder the responsibility of defending the nation, when called upon to do so?
If you are scratching your head about now, that’s because you have knocked into a serious non sequitur. From ‘may’ no ‘must’ follows. (David Hume would be appalled.) Stated simply for any non-philosophers who may be reading this post:
Permission does not imply obligation.
The fact that the small number of women who would in fact choose to serve as combat soldiers may now do so in no way implies that all of the rest of the “military age” women in the United States must present themselves on the battlefield when called up to serve.
This instance of fallacious reasoning fits right in with the rest of the drone warriors’ Orwellian approach to foreign policy, pseudo-morality and so-called justice. Let us be as clear and unequivocal as possible:
No one has a duty to serve as a government assassin.
No one. Neither men nor women can be compelled to act in ways which flagrantly violate the Geneva Conventions, even setting aside for a moment all of the other protocols being ignored or creatively reinterpreted. The targets of drone strikes are usually unarmed and not directly threatening any other person with harm, least of all the operator who incinerates them.
The suspects (I repeat, suspects) are not warned that they are about to be killed, and they are denied the opportunity to surrender or to explain how their phone number ended up in the contact list of another suspected terrorist’s cell phone. These homicides are, therefore, violations of international law, and no US citizen is obliged to follow illegal orders. As the many brave veterans who have spoken out against “targeted killing” continue to protest, it is a violation of the “laws of war” to follow unlawful orders.
All drone operators firing on targets residing in countries not at war (except in the minds of the drone warriors), should immediately cease and desist from following these unlawful orders. Mark my words: the drone assassination of thousands of suspects and their “associates” will eventually go down in history along with the Nuremberg trials. I regret that it is taking so long for the rest of the international community to awaken to the acrid scent of the charred flesh of so many innocent persons presumed guilty until proven innocent before being hunted down and killed with impunity by the drone warriors.
Young women and men alike: do not be fooled. You have no obligation to serve as a hired assassin for your government. Save your soul: just say “no”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I recently watched Experimenter (2015), a film directed by Michael Almereyda, which relays the story of social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his quest to understand how human beings could be brought to do things which they would never have thought to do, left to their own devices. Being Jewish, Milgram was keen to comprehend what happened in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. What was it that made possible the establishment of concentration camps under the Third Reich, and the slaughter of millions of human beings?
The rationalization that “I did as I was told” was given all along the chain of command, or what would be called the “kill chain” in the Drone Age. Even high-level Nazi officials such as Adolf Eichmann claimed that they were doing their duty in facilitating the extermination of millions of people. Ordinary Germans from all walks of life helped to build the camps, and also staffed them, participating directly in the mass murder of unarmed persons.
The Milgram experiments, conducted in 1961 on the East Coast of the United States, involved subjects lured into participating in studies ostensibly about furthering scientific knowledge of learning theory. The subjects were paired with one of the study staff persons, who was said to be the “learner”, to whom the “teacher”, the person actually being studied, would apply electric shocks when the “learner” gave wrong answers in a quiz about paired words.
The “teacher” had no idea that he was the true object of the study and that the “learner” was not being shocked at all. The two people were separated by a wall, and the “teacher” sat before a switchboard with levers to flip each time he heard a wrong answer given by the “learner”. After each wrong answer, the level of shock was to be increased a notch, by moving up to the next lever.
As the “learner” began to express discomfort or even pain at the shocks, the “teacher” sometimes questioned what he (or she) was doing, but in most cases continued on, having been told by the man in the lab coat that the experiment needed to be completed. The “teacher” was instructed by the authority figure that, if the “learner” did not respond, then that should be regarded as an incorrect answer, necessitating the application of the next level of shock.
Milgram was quite troubled to discover that his subjects, the “teachers”, were for the most part willing to administer painful electric shocks to the “learner” even when the latter begged them to stop, and even when the “learner” went silent, suggesting that he may have fallen unconscious or had a heart attack, or perhaps even died. This was not the outcome which Milgram had hoped for, but it did shed a great deal of light on what happened under the Third Reich.
Some critics protested that Milgram was a hypocrite for exacting a form of psychological torture on his subjects, many of whom expressed regret and shame at what they had done. The experiments conducted by Milgram were considered controversial because he was placing ordinary people in the position of doing what they would not ordinarily do: they were asked and agreed to harm a fellow human being.
The subjects were told by the man in the lab coat that the shocks would not cause tissue damage, but during the experiment, the “learner” would beg the “teacher” to stop, claiming that he was in unbearable pain—and strongly suggesting that he was in fact being harmed. The question became: why did the “teacher” believe the man in the lab coat, rather than the “learner”, who was protesting the application of shock?
While watching this reenactment of what people will do in their endeavor to comply with the orders of a person designated an authority, it occurred to me that the current US drone program is a real-life variation of the Milgram “obedience to authority” experiment. Young operators are being asked not to harm human beings through applying electric shocks to them, but to annihilate them. What is the basis for their willingness to kill people whom they never met, and who certainly never threatened them with death?
The operators have been told that they must protect the United States by executing these people. They are told that they have no choice, that they must act to prevent another 9/11. In the process of annihilating named targets, the operators also eliminate unnamed targets, who are then written into history as “Enemy Killed in Action” or EKIA. The understanding is that men of military age in territories deemed “hostile” are guilty until proven innocent.
What grounds does an operator have for believing that unnamed targets deserved to die because of their proximity to an intended target? Again, it’s the voice of authority decreeing that the intelligence is good and that anyone who consorts with the named target is obviously up to no good. While killing named targets and unnamed “associates”, drone operators also kill civilians: women and children and infants and old men who are not in cahoots with any terrorist group. Some of the victims may be family members of suspects, but they themselves are not deemed dangerous. Operators are told that this is the “collateral damage” of war.
Let us imagine that the drone program is but an elaborate experiment. We could interview a drone operator who just dispatched someone by remote control, asking a few questions and considering his answers:
Question 1: Why did you fire the missile?
Answer: Because I was ordered to.
Question 2: Why did you feel the need to follow the order?
Answer: Because I made a solemn oath to defend the United States of America.
Question 3: Did the person you killed pose a threat to the United States?
Answer: Yes, of course.
Question 4: How do you know that the person you killed posed a threat to the United States?
Answer: Because my commanding officer said that he did.
Question 5: Would you kill anyone your commanding officer told you to kill? In any country?
Question 6: Why is your commanding officer telling you to kill these people?
Answer: Because the intelligence has determined that they are dangerous.
Question 7: Have you seen the intelligence?
Answer: No, but that’s not my job. My job is to fire when ordered to fire.