America Is Detached From the War
This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Admittedly, before George W. Bush had his fever dream, the United States had already put its first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drone surveillance planes in the skies over Kosovo in the late 1990s. By November 2001, it had armed them with missiles and was flying them over Afghanistan.
In November 2002, a Predator drone would loose a Hellfire missile on a car in Yemen, a country with which we weren't at war. Six suspected Al Qaeda members, including a suspect in the bombing of the destroyer the USS Cole would be turned into twisted metal and ash—the first "targeted killings" of the American robotic era.
Just two months earlier, in September 2002, as the Bush administration was "introducing" its campaign to sell an invasion of Iraq to Congress and the American people, CIA Director George Tenet and Vice President Dick Cheney "trooped up to Capitol Hill" to brief four top Senate and House leaders on a hair-raising threat to the country. A "smoking gun" had been uncovered.
According to "new intelligence," Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had in his possession unmanned aerial vehicles advanced enough to be armed with biological and chemical weaponry. Worse yet, these were capable—so the CIA director and vice president claimed—of spraying those weapons of mass destruction over cities on the East Coast of the United States. It was just the sort of evil plan you might have expected from a man regularly compared to Adolf Hitler in our media, and the news evidently made an impression in Congress.
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, said that he voted for the administration's resolution authorizing force in Iraq because "I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard."
In a speech in October 2002, President Bush then offered a version of this apocalyptic nightmare to the American public. Of course, like Saddam's supposed ability to produce "mushroom clouds" over American cities, the Iraqi autocrat's advanced UAVs (along with the ships needed to position them off the US coast) were a feverish fantasy of the Bush era and would soon enough be forgotten. Instead, in the years to come, it would be American pilotless drones that would repeatedly attack Iraqi urban areas with Hellfire missiles and bombs.
In those years, our drones would also strike repeatedly in Afghanistan, and especially in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan, where in an escalating "secret" or "covert" war, which has been no secret to anyone, multiple drone attacks often occur weekly. They are now considered so much the norm that, with humdrum headlines slapped on ("US missile strike kills 12 in NW Pakistan"), they barely make it out of summary articles about war developments in the American press.
And yet those robotic planes, with their young "pilots" (as well as the camera operators and intelligence analysts who make up a drone "crew") sitting in front of consoles 7,000 miles away from where their missiles and bombs are landing, have become another kind of American fever dream. The drone is our latest wonder weapon and a bragging point in a set of wars where there has been little enough to brag about.
CIA director Leon Panetta has, for instance, called the Agency's drones flying over Pakistan "the only game in town" when it comes to destroying Al Qaeda; a typically anonymous US official in a Washington Post report claims of drone missile attacks, "We're talking about precision unsurpassed in the history of warfare"; or as Gordon Johnson of the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command told author Peter Singer, speaking of the glories of drones: "They don't get hungry. They are not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."
Seven thousand of them, the vast majority surveillance varieties, are reportedly already being operated by the military, and that's before swarms of "mini-drones" come on line. Our American world is being redefined accordingly.
In February, Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post caught something of this process when he spent time with Colonel Eric Mathewson, perhaps the most experienced Air Force officer in drone operations and on the verge of retirement. Mathewson, reported Jaffe, was trying to come up with an appropriately new definition of battlefield "valor"—a necessity for most combat award citations—to fit our latest corps of pilots at their video consoles. "Valor to me is not risking your life," the colonel told the reporter. "Valor is doing what is right. Valor is about your motivations and the ends that you seek. It is doing what is right for the right reasons. That to me is valor."
These days, CIA and administration officials troop up to Capitol Hill to offer briefings to Congress on the miraculous value of pilotless drones: in disrupting Al Qaeda, destroying its leadership or driving it "deeper into hiding" and taking out key figures in the Taliban. Indeed, what started as a 24/7 assassination campaign against Al Qaeda's top leadership has already widened considerably. The "target set" has by now reportedly expanded to take in ever lower-level militants in the tribal borderlands. In other words, a drone assassination campaign is morphing into the first full-scale drone war (and, as in all wars from the air, civilians are dying in unknown numbers).
If the temperature is again rising in Washington when it comes to these weapons, this time it's a fever of enthusiasm for the spectacular future of drones (which the Air Force has plotted out to the year 2047), of a time when single pilots should be able to handle multiple drones in operations in the skies over some embattled land, and of a far more distant moment when those drones should be able to handle themselves, flying, fighting and making key decisions about just who to take out without a human being having to intervene.
When we possess such weaponry, it turns out, there's nothing unnerving or disturbing, apocalyptic or dystopian about it. Today, in the American homeland, not a single smoking drone is in sight.
Now it's the United States whose UAVs are ever more powerfully weaponized. It's the United States that is developing a twenty-two-ton tail-less drone twenty times larger than a Predator that can fly at Mach 7 and (theoretically) land on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier. It's the Pentagon that is planning to increase the funding of drone development by 700 percent over the next decade.
Admittedly, there is a modest counter-narrative to all this enthusiasm for our robotic prowess, "precision" and "valor." It involves legal types like Philip Alston, the United Nations special representative on extrajudicial executions. He recently issued a twenty-nine-page report criticizing Washington's "ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe." Unless limits are put on such claims, and especially on the CIA's drone war over Pakistan, he suggests, soon enough a plethora of states will follow in America's footprints, attacking people in other lands "labeled as terrorists by one group or another."
Such mechanized, long-distance warfare, he also suggests, will breach what respect remains for the laws of war. "Because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield," he wrote, "and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a 'PlayStation' mentality to killing."
Similarly, the ACLU has filed a freedom of information lawsuit against the US government, demanding that it "disclose the legal basis for its use of unmanned drones to conduct targeted killings overseas, as well as the ground rules regarding when, where, and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and the number of civilian casualties they have caused."
But pay no mind to all this. The arguments may be legally compelling, but not in Washington, which has mounted a half-hearted claim of legitimate "self-defense," but senses that it's already well past the point where legalities matter. The die is cast, the money committed. The momentum for drone war and yet more drone war is overwhelming.
It's a done deal. Drone war is, and will be, us.