One former British soldier talks about drone warfare

I got a trackback link today from UK Guardian reporter James Jeffrey from his article Drone warfare’s deadly civilian toll: a very personal view. Jeffrey, a British journalist based in the United States, left the British army as a captain in April 2010. He had served over nine years in the Queen’s Royal Lancers, including operational tours in Kosovo (2002), Iraq (2004, 2006) and Afghanistan (2009). No panty waste liberal he.

Jeffrey observed firsthand the unique dangers of the drone warfare President Obama has come to command with varying degrees of ineffectiveness.

I used drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – during the nadir of my military career that was an operational tour in Afghanistan. I remember cuing up a US Predator strike before deciding the computer screen wasn’t depicting a Taliban insurgent burying an improvised explosive device in the road; rather, a child playing in the dirt.

Ostensibly safer than the laser guided missiles that enthralled so many Americans during the Gulf War, drones are not without collateral damage. (In a curious turn of logic the U.S. government is currently the subject of a lawsuit for not honoring a Freedom of Information Act request for a program it has repeatedly admits exists.)

One of Jeffrey’s concerns is how drone warfare creates a more detached feeling between war and the deaths arising from it. Reminding readers of the brilliant historian Hannah Arendt he writes:

Arendt described the history of warfare in the 20th century as the growing incapacity of the army to fulfil its basic function: defending the civilian population. My experiences in Afghanistan brought this issue to a head, leaving me unable to avoid the realization that my role as a soldier had changed, in Arendt’s words, from “that of protector into that of a belated and essentially futile avenger”. Our collective actions in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 were, and remain, futile vengeance – with drones the latest technological advance to empower that flawed strategy.

a service man works with a drone

An armed drone [Image credit via USAF]


Drones are becoming the preferred instruments of vengeance, and their core purpose is analogous to the changing relationship between civil society and warfare, in which the latter is conducted remotely and at a safe distance so that implementing death and murder becomes increasingly palatable.

Hyperbole? But I was there. I sat in my camouflaged combats and I took the rules of engagement and ethical warfare classes. And frankly, I don’t buy much, if any, of it now – especially concerning drones. Their effectiveness is without question, but there’s terrible fallout from their rampant use.

Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the west as a result of President Obama’s increased reliance on drones. When surveying the poisoned legacy left to the Iraqi people, and what will be left to the Afghan people, it’s beyond depressing to hear of the hawks circling around other theatres like Pakistan and Yemen, stoking the flames of interventionism.

I fear the folly in which I took part will never end, and society will be irreversibly enmeshed in what George Orwell’s 1984 warned of: constant wars against the Other, in order to forge false unity and fealty to the state.

It’s very easy to kill if you don’t view the target as a person. When I went to Iraq as a tank commander in 2004, the fire orders I gave the gunner acknowledged some legitimacy of personhood: “Coax man, 100 meters front.” Five years later in Afghanistan, the linguistic corruption that always attends war meant we’d refer to “hot spots”, “multiple pax on the ground” and “prosecuting a target”, or “maximising the kill chain”.

No doubt this change of view also makes it easier to justify the use of drones against bombing, even if those numbers are under-reported or even hidden.

I have previously written here and here about drones on U.S. soil. That implementation is a direct result of military use in war, and it is only a matter of time before we see similar results.

Further muddying the waters resultant from drone operators traipsing down the center of the creek is the ethical dilemma of the kind of war drones create. Consider this:

[T]he real question posed by unrestricted drone warfare is how drones change and re write the rulebook and ethics of modern warfare itself. Brookings Institution policy wonk PW Singer makes a chilling observation:

IF armed unmanned drones are used against legitimate military targets in, say, Pakistan
AND these drones are piloted out of the suburbs of Las Vegas, Nevada
THEN is a Pakistani ‘radical’ car bomb in the Walmart parking lot outside that Air Force base in Las Vegas an act of terrorism… or a legitimate act of military retaliation?

That right there my friends is one of the most interesting military questions of our time.

Is the ‘War on Terror’ justifiable if you can remotely deal death from the skies on the other side of the planet and call it ‘military action’? By that very logic, a Pakistani or Yemeni national chucking a grenade into an American Mall food court during the Christmas shopping season is a military strike and not terrorism. The new paradigm of 21st century US drone warfare makes all civilians targets and covert operations ‘outside theater’ on US soil by Middle East nationals legitimate acts of war.

It appears “terrorism” may be reduced to who is committing what where against whom and who reports it. And, we do well to remember, the winners write the history for the generations following to believe. It will be to our lasting detriment if we who are followers of Christ bequeath to them unbiblical injustice garbed in hawkish rhetoric.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • John Lunt

    Scott. I define right in that the dropping of the atomic bombs ended the war with an estimated death toll of the two events of 200000-250000 dead whereas most estimates at the time were that an invasion of Japan would have cost at least 1000000 lives. That (based on information that was available and which has not be reasonably challenged) was the right decision.

    Marty, if you feel that the way a war is prosecuted is a legitimate area of debate, fine, but what I would ask you is what alternatives would you propose. It’s easy to challenge the current system, but if you do, then be prepared with alternatives. What are the alternatives. As I see it, we could try to send in special ops troops each time which will put more of our troops at risk, and in addition, will probably stir up even more resentment than our drones. We could go to a hot war where we don’t worry what anyone thinks. We try to work with the government to get access to these guys – this was tried and proved to be a failure do to sympathizers within the government. Or we can just decide to let these nations like Pakistan be safe havens for the terrorist which means we can expect more 9-11 type attacks.

    So in your ethics consideration what do you consider acceptable?

    • Marty Duren

      John-
      Sorry for the delay in responding.

      Though I’m not promoting this view, if we used insertion teams (as with Bin Laden) we would be much more careful since our people’s lives were on the line in very hostile territory. As it is, who cares if we wipe out a family or two? It’s just a rocket on our end. Referring to the Washington Post chart linked in my post it is clear drone attacks are successful less than 10% of the time. I should clarify “successful” at killing the desired target. They are probably 100% successful at killing someone.

      What I favor is cutting off of all foreign aid to any country that aids and abets actual terrorists who are threats against us. Then, post 09.11.12, cutting off diplomatic ties to any country who does not pursue, arrest and present the leaders of those who attacked our embassies. I’m not in favor of “Kill’em all and let God sort them out.”

      Ultimately we have a problematic foreign policy in the Middle East. Bush wanted to force democracy, while Obama wants to sing Kum Ba Yah with everyone. Neither approach has worked. Perhaps some of it is the world in which we live, but, until we stop meddling in the affairs of other we will never know.

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