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

 

Drone2014

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

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

DroneComplexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NewRecruits

 

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

MobileStrike

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

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

BrandonBryant

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

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

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

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

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

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

AngryProtest

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

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

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

Apostates

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

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

download (1)

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

 

DroneJusttheBeginning

Inside the Drone Warfare “Theater”: Drones (2013), directed by Rick Rosenthal

 

HistrionicsDrone

I was intrigued by the movie Drones (2013) immediately upon seeing the trailer a couple of years ago—before they had found a distributor. This past week, I learned that the film was indeed distributed and is now available on Netflix, so I watched it. Twice. I decided to watch the movie twice because I was trying to figure out why the viewer ratings were so low, both at Netflix and at IMDB.com.

Having spent nearly two years on We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, which focuses specifically on the morality of drone killing, it is perhaps unsurprising that I of all people should find the plot of Drones to be gripping and suspenseful and highly thought-provoking. I suspect that it was the latter, the intellectual quality of Drones, which made the production so unpopular among viewers at Netflix, who have saddled it with a composite 1.2 star rating out of 5. No doubt many action flick buffs flocked to see it—before it was panned.

In truth, prospective viewers were completely misled by the cover used to market the film and which is now displayed wherever it is available—including Netflix. The image has absolutely nothing to do with the substance of the film and might even constitute an instance of false advertising:

DronesCover2013

Seeing that image, one would naturally surmise that the movie fits into the familiar action-adventure genre, which sets up certain expectations. Lots of testosterone and homicide and large metal structures exploding all over the place, to name a few. Judging from the cover image alone, one would with good reason be expecting something more akin to the Terminator movie series than a play à la Eugene Ionesco, which is what Drones really is. It’s a piece of absurdist theater. The irrelevant marketing image does this creation a double disservice, by luring in viewers looking for something else, while deterring amateurs of dramatic art who might well find value in it.

Drones does not depict the kind of action which the action-adventure crowd is after, but the dramatic tension and moral suspense of the story are palpable. The primary setting, where nearly all of the drama plays out, is the inside of a trailer where two drone operators work. They step outside into the desert only briefly at a couple of points, where the characters are illuminated, first, by the blazing sun and, later, by the headlights of military vehicles, which drive them back inside. (In both cases, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave comes to mind.)

DronesOperators

The story could easily be acted out on the stage of a theater, and would no doubt have a much better reception there. The two main protagonists are a seasoned airman, Jack Bowles, and a lieutenant on her first day of drone warfare duty, Sue Lawson. An accomplished female boxer, Lawson holds a college degree and outranks the airman, in addition to being the daughter of a general. Added to that, she lost both her mother and brother in the September 11, 2001, attacks. It’s not clear exactly how that happened, but the implication is that they died in the World Trade Center.

All of these various features complicate the female protagonist’s role in the story, providing the opportunity to consider a range of issues which arise in the modern military more generally with the admission of female troops and transformations brought about by unmanned aerial systems. The film focuses on the many questions of not only ethics but also basic epistemology which arise each time a new recruit agrees to “light up” people designated as “evil terrorists” and fair game for annihilation according to persons higher up in the “kill chain”.

The production has its flaws, some of which are bound to annoy even thoughtful viewers. A couple of examples are the overdone facial expressions of the female sensor operator, who expresses shock and dismay at the prospect of labeling people who are obviously civilians as “possible enemy combatants”. She also is unfamiliar with the term squirter, which any person who had gone through a full training program surely would know. Of course, the point is to define the term for viewers, many of whom will know nothing about the use of lethal drones beyond what they have seen reported in mainstream media outlets, which uncritically parrot the government’s anodyne version of what transpires when operators “drop iron”, as they put it in Drones.

FemaleDroneOperatorDrones

In reality, most new female drone operators are probably a lot closer to the uncritical “Sparkle” than to the female protagonist depicted in Drones. But how could the director have made so many points about morality using characters devoid of any capacity to engage critically with what they are doing? Most current drone operators probably do not raise questions about their vocation as professional killers who eliminate their fellow human beings on the basis of intelligence to which they are not privy. The ones who do raise questions end up standing down, sooner or later…

Despite the occasional elements of implausibility and exaggeration, Drones does a superlative job of illuminating how nearly every link of the “kill chain” leaves open the possibility of error. Director Rosenthal underscores that the consequences of those errors are tragic not only for the victims, but also for the people who kill them. The topic of drone operator PTSD is explicitly treated, as the airman relays the story of one of his former comrades who one night after work went out for their customary drinking binge but then proceeded to drive his truck off a cliff.

How do drone operators reconcile the inevitability of collateral damage when they launch their weapons, knowing that their own lives are not in any immediate danger? Is it true that nailing an allegedly high value target (HVT) is worth the sacrifice of his entire family, even when they may know nothing about his association with terrorist networks?

The primary argument presented to the skeptical operator in Drones is that the HVTs will bring about another 9/11 if they are not stopped. When this is how the issue is framed, then it may seem difficult or even impossible to resist orders to kill. That superior officers are often career-driven, aspirational human beings concerned to please politicians is a point repeatedly (and a bit heavy-handedly…) made throughout this film. Should a young soldier trust such people in deciding whether or not to commit homicide when his own life is not on the line?

It would have been difficult to raise so many questions in a film spanning only 1 hour and 19 minutes without a bit of histrionic hyperbole. On the other hand, making the film any longer would have pushed some viewers’ patience to its limit and may have led them to turn off the movie before it had played out. Theater audiences appreciate cerebral plays much more than the sorts of people who went to see Drones based on the cover image, as opposed to the trailer.

DronesCover2

One can only wonder why such a highly unrepresentative image was selected to market this film. Could it have been because the makers of Drones wished to attract the sorts of young people who were considering careers as drone operators and hoped to warn them of the psychological and moral dangers of doing so? If so, their plan may have backfired, given the exceptionally low ratings, which are likely to drive many, if not most, viewers away.

I do hope that this play will have a run in some theater districts somewhere, for these issues need desperately to be discussed and thought about. Drones raises questions which every person involved in drone killing—whether as participant or taxpayer—needs to entertain. For that reason, I’ll refrain from revealing the plot or the dénouement. Instead, I recommend that you sit down and watch the film.

 

Sitdownandwatch

 

“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

 

cropped-img_20150814_065628.jpg

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.

cropped-img_20150814_065628.jpg

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.

 

Fadi Malkosh of Network Radio and Laurie Calhoun Talk Lethal Drones

In this feature-length interview, conducted by Fadi Malkosh at the Network Radio studio in Laguna Beach, California, the use of lethal drones is examined in terms of morality, legality, politics, cultural effects, and strategic efficacy (1hr 43min).

Presentation1

 

On YouTube:

 

 

Israel’s Compact Kamikaze Drones: Strategic Ineptitude or Simple Insanity?

 

 

HeroDrone

Israel has developed and is selling the new Hero-30 drone, which weighs in at a mere 7lbs and can be used to kill a target with less collateral damage than the more prevalent Predator and Reaper drones. The larger drones deliver Hellfire missiles to destroy entire groups of people in “crowd killing” and “signature strikes”—or a specific named target along with whoever happens to be around. The Hero-30’s manufacturer, uVision, has boasted that their creation is in great demand. I wonder why?

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used to talk with vim and verve about making the military leaner and meaner. Earlier strategists had come up with the bizarre idea of “suitcase nukes”, which always struck me as odd and self-sabotaging to the citizens of the nation supposedly being protected. Who in his right mind would propose the development of weaponry ideal for use by enemies against the very people who paid for its research, development and production?

Nuclear weapons small enough to carry around in a suitcase could easily be passed from one individual to another—that’s the whole point. But the twentieth-century history of Africa amply illustrates that the persons involved in the weapons trade are on the whole a fairly disreputable lot—perfectly willing to arm both sides of a conflict and watch the corpses pile up. The transfer of a suitcase nuke to a questionable customer, far from being preposterous, would be only one unscrupulous businessman away—provided only that he was confident that his customer would be deploying the weapon far, far away…

Small-scale nukes could be used by small groups of committed warriors against nuclear powers in acts of retaliation logically akin to the attacks of September 11, 2001, insofar as the tools of the hegemon would be deployed against the hegemon itself. Such innovative attacks, too, would be claimed to be intended to make the citizens funding the homicides of their government—and therefore complicit as “associates”—finally come to understand what others had suffered in wars painted as “just” and “necessary” by politicians.

In the Drone Age, similarly suitcase-sized UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or drones) are now being produced and sold by the government of Israel to undisclosed clients as it sees fit. It is puzzling, to say the least, how any strategist could regard such weapons as useful to a government without recognizing that they might be even more so to their declared enemies, in Israel’s case, the Palestinians regarded as terrorists.

If we have learned anything from the history of the weapons industry, it is that the latest and greatest means to death developed by advanced states do not stay only in the hands of those who develop them. Every implement of homicide developed by a First World power ends up ultimately in the hands of the leaders of Third World client states, but also in the hands of the militants who are their enemies.

Saddam Hussein would never have been able to use chemical weapons against the Kurds without the development and provision to him of such means by the governments of nations considerably more technologically and industrially advanced than Iraq. Similarly, small factions are devoid of the capacity to produce sophisticated weapons and would not use them unless they were provided with pre-fabricated versions small enough to be transferred from one person to the next.

What could be better for a terrorist than the possibility of launching attacks without risking his personal demise? Fanatical jihadists are of course ready and willing to die for what they take to be a cause transcending their self. But if one act of “jihad” is good, then would not two be even better? Why not carry out multiple acts of retaliatory revenge before departing from the terrestrial world to unite finally with God? If one mass bombing is conceived by its perpetrator as a heroic act, then would it not be even better commit many attacks before making the final sacrifice?

Drones make it all possible: to kill multiple times without risking death. Small drones are the perfect weapon for factions and individual operators, both politically affiliated and those who dispatch persons at the behest of their boss, the person who pays them to kill. True, that description fits drone operators just as surely as it does hitmen.

As the Drone Age marches on (or should I say “spirals downward”), it seems reasonable to predict that more and more hitmen will be technicians who send out the poison or the bomb, or whatever specific means to death is deemed best under the circumstances, with next to no risk of detection. Should the death look like a heart attack? No problem: small drones are up to the task and can surely be rigged to deliver the needed means.

What could be worse than a weaponized small drone falling into the hands of “technicians” who work in organized crime? How about a small drone whose payload happens to be a small nuke—or the chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein?

HeroDrone
HeroDrone
HeroDrone

 

 

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 7: The Operators; and Chapter 10: Death and Taxes