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.
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”.
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.