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Drone warfare, as global activist Medea Benjamin persuasively explains in her new book on the subject, is a quantum leap in military affairs. It has reshaped the day-to-day waging of war in ways more profound even than the last great technological leap in warfighting, nuclear weapons. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles has transformed not only the techniques of war but also the ethical, political, and psychological context of war. And it has done so largely by stealth. Drones have snuck up on us, and we’ve barely had a chance to discuss their implications. Benjamin, who is the cofounder of both Code Pink and Global Exchange, has done us a great service by writing a book that focuses this discussion.
Consider, for instance, the strategy of the Obama administration. It has moved away from the conventional war started by its predecessor in Iraq and is drawing down the conflict in Afghanistan. But drones enable this reduction of boots on the ground. Our soldiers leave, but we leave our eyes behind.
At the same time, the president has authorized a dramatic increase in the use of drones in places where the United States has not declared war, the “overseas contingency operations” that have substituted for the Bush administration’s “global war on terrorism.” In Pakistan, as Benjamin points out, the number of drone attacks has increased more than four-fold over the last administration. Moreover, the president has increased drone attacks in other countries such as Yemen and Somalia.
Indeed, the drone threatens to replace the air force altogether for the Pentagon reckons them to be cheaper, more maneuverable and safer (for American soldiers at least) than manned jet fighters. Drone Warfare itemizes the new arsenal of drones from the long-endurance, high-altitude Reaper and its Hellfire missiles at $68,000 a shot to the little Hummingbird that weighs no more than two AA batteries.
The Pentagon pitches drones as the perfect surgical strike weapon that takes out the “bad guys” and little else. But Benjamin gives the lie to this assertion by surveying the various estimates of civilian casualties and giving heart-wrenching sketches of the victims of these strikes.
But even if drones were as surgical as billed, their use would still be highly problematic. The Obama administration, after all, is engaging in assassination when the president or the CIA serves as the judge, jury, and executioner. The administration has also largely dispensed with extraordinary rendition – moving terrorist suspects to a third country for interrogation and torture – in favor of targeted assassinations by drone. As Benjamin argues, this move dispenses with many of the legal problems of rendition. But it has raised a host of ethical questions about U.S. conduct overseas, particularly when the victims of drone attacks are U.S. citizens as was the case with Anwar al-Awlaki, the cleric killed by drone in Yemen, not to mention his 16-year-old son killed in a subsequent drone attack.
The administration argues that it abides by international law because it is fighting a war and targeting combatants. But Benjamin quotes Mary Ellen O’Connell, professor at Notre Dame Law School: “Drones are not lawful for use outside combat zones. Outside such zones, police are the proper law enforcement agents and police are generally required to warn before using lethal force.” Moreover, as Benjamin points out, the CIA agents and contractors operating the drones qualify as unlawful combatants.
For the moment, unmanned drones still need human operators. Benjamin points out that it takes 168 people to keep a Predator aloft, compared to fewer than 100 for the F-16. Then there are all the people who have to view the surveillance footage. As the use of drones multiplies, so does the number of people needed for the program. These drone personnel have a fundamentally different relationship to war. “While the pilots who dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, they did not see the effects firsthand,” Benjamin writes. “By contrast, those who pilot Predator and Reaper drones see almost everything when they fire a missile.” The psychological impact of fighting a drone war is not yet fully understood.
These humans are, of course, fallible. Benjamin recounts a terrifying conversation that takes place during a drone surveillance as the pilot, the screeners, and the cameraman all try to interpret what they see. By the time they make their decision to launch a missile, they’ve managed to see weapons that don’t exist and not see children who do. Surgical strike this certainly wasn’t.
Ultimately, however, the Pentagon envisions automating the process. However fallible, humans at least bring a certain amount of compassion to war, Benjamin notes. To deputize robots to conduct war on our behalf opens an entirely different Pandora’s Box of potential evils.
For the moment, drones are by and large operating in distant lands. But as Drone Warfare details, U.S. law enforcement is just now beginning to adapt drones to domestic missions. Moreover, the United States has established a dangerous precedent by defying sovereign borders and assassinating alleged terrorists at will. Any country could make the same argument in going after alleged terrorists on U.S. soil. As with nuclear weapons, the United States is creating a new world of warfare that ultimately will make everyone unsafe everywhere.