As is periodically the case, President Obama’s global drone war rose to the surface of the mainstream media spotlight this week. On Monday, American drones and a few manned aircraft launched an attack on what the Pentagon claims was a training camp for the terrorist group Al Shabaab. Thirsty for a tale of victory in tactically impossible War on Terror, a more obvious failure with each passing week, mainstream media centers published the story almost immediately after it was announced by the Pentagon. But, as is the custom with Obama’s assaults, no Western reporter has even attempted to verify the administration’s claim that the attack killed 150 people, and that all 150 were militants who posed an imminent threat to American and African Union forces in Somalia. Without performing the investigative function that is theoretically its gift to “free society,” Western journalism has proven yet again that its true purpose is to act as a cheerleader for state violence that promotes its economic interests.
If our media was more than a machine for totalitarian propaganda, the New York Times might have pointed out the fact that the United States has never declared a war in Somalia, and Congress never gave the President authority to use military force against Al Shabaab, a group that clearly lacks the resources to launch an attack on American civilians. CNN might have reminded us that preemptive attacks have been legally considered an international war crime since World War II, when Adolf Hitler claimed his invasion of Poland was an act of self-defense. NBC might have tried to find out whether those killed in the attack were actually militants, or, like the overwhelming of majority drone casualties, they were collateral deaths. Some national publication might have at least mentioned the fact that Al Shabaab wouldn’t even exist if not for the popular resentment towards the decades long US and Kenyan led intervention in Somalia, a sentiment that will only grow as American drones and African Union soldiers slaughter more Somalis. But, as the Intercept noted in the title of their brilliant and lonely critique of the attack, “Nobody Knows the Identity of the 150 People Killed by US in Somalia, but Most Are Certain They Deserved It.”
The illegal attack and the mass media misdirection are the trademarks of President Obama’s military policy. Obama was elected largely because of public outrage at Iraq War, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in the first few months of his presidency (a decision the Nobel committee vocally regrets). And the Democrats who voted him in on these terms seem largely satisfied; despite a massive (and racist) conservative backlash, Obama’s average approval ratings among Democrats are as high as or higher than any president since John F. Kennedy. But because the President of a destructive global empire can not maintain global hegemony without massive violence, he has fanatically pursued militancy (albeit with more subtlety than the blundering bloodlust of his predecessor) to secure complete control of the people, and more importantly the markets, of the world. Obama’s hawkish foreign policy includes support for the world’s most brutal dictators in every continent, the historically unprecedented sale of American weapons to our puppet regimes, the unpoliced bombardment of Iraq and Syria in a new Cold War masquerading as the campaign against ISIS, the for-profit expansion of the President Bush’s illegal and ineffective invasion of Afghanistan which prepares to enter its fifteenth year and promises to drag on indefinitely, and the largest expansion of the suicidally unsafe nuclear weapons program since the Cold War. But his legacy will undoubtedly be defined by his drone war.
The administration, still clinging desperately to the image of pacifism that anchored their progressive support, has tried to justify its growing arsenal of armed unmanned aerial vehicles by claiming they are more ethical than using conventional warfare. Apologists on both the left and the right claim that drone technologies offer more precision and lower risk to give the world what the Atlantic (about as far to the left as any nationally published magazine can be) called “Actually the Most Humane Form of Warfare Ever.” This claim is absurd. The drone war is not precise, clean, or in any universe humane; it is a systemic terrorist campaign of mass murder that dodges oversight with a shield of blatant misinformation and gives the President the power to kill whoever he wants, wherever he wants, regardless of even the most basic international laws. Inspired by Harper’s investigative reporter Andrew Cockburn and his recent book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, here are five reasons you should oppose the drone war being fought with your tax dollars, and five reminders that there is no such thing as a humane form of warfare.
DRONES ARE NOT PRECISE
First and foremost, let’s get rid the fundamental lie that the robots President Obama’s CIA use to shoot missiles at human beings from the sky are precise assassins perfect for killing one High Priority Target with the least possible collateral damage. As Cockburn describes, drone operators experience a significant lag, since the control signals must travel from the CIA base in Nevada through fiberoptic cables across the continental United States, the Atlantic Ocean, and Western Europe to an American army base in Germany, where they are beamed 22,000 miles into space and reflected by a satellite to the vehicle flying over Africa or the Middle East. Because of this lag, a drone is useless against a moving target unless it uses deliberately imprecise weapons that explode over a large area. Furthermore, drones do not have powerful enough cameras to reliably spot identifying characteristics, meaning that the only way to know whether a person is their intended target is that person’s location. So drone pilots assume that anybody standing where they expect their target is their target, and they use weapons that kill not only that target but anybody standing near them. Drones are actually laughably impractical weapons to assassinate a single target. The Guardian reported that in attempts to eliminate 41 High Priority Targets in Pakistan, 1,147 people were killed; by definition, 1,106 of them, 96% of those murdered, were killed accidentally.
DRONES ARE NOT HONEST
In June of 2011, President Obama’s chief terrorism advisor, waterboarding enthusiast John Brennan, had the audacity to claim in a press conference that in the past year “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.” Skeptical, the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism launched the first major investigation into the drone war in Pakistan, and found that Brennan was categorically lying. In the time period he mentioned, they found ten drone attacks that killed more than 45 civilians with no ties whatsoever to terrorist organizations. While they were unable to find reliable investigations of most drone attacks, their report indicated that at least 15 more attacks were likely to have caused similar civilian death tolls. (Incidentally, after such an absurdly false statement, President Obama nominated Brennan to become the Director of the CIA, a position he currently occupies).
Accurate data is so difficult to find in the drone war because in the rural regions where the attacks take place, the only people counting the bodies are the drone pilots themselves. Hospitals that release actual casualty figures have not infrequently found themselves victims of “accidental” attacks by American forces. Mainstream media is not interested in investigative reporting, so we are for the large part forced to rely on the administration’s data, which has never proved remotely accurate. The President claims that the drone war has killed, around the world, between 4,857 and 7,361 people, of whom between 3,722 and 6,812 were counted as militants (between a 50% and a 92% accuracy rate). But even if these claims represented the actual death tolls (which it is exceedingly unlikely that they do), the ratios of militants to civilians they suggest are meaningless: the administration officially redefined the term militant to mean “all military-age males in a strike zone” in 2013, which means the only civilian casualties (and even the Pentagon acknowledges up to 3,600 of these) are women and children.
DRONES ARE TERRORISTS
Even the atrocious civilian casualty rate is less alarming than the conscious terrorism in the tactics of drone warfare. Perhaps the 8,000 mile distance between a drone pilot and a drone victim makes it easier for pilots to stomach atrocities they commit (the so-called PlayStation mentality), although if the War on Terror has one lesson it is the ease with which American anti-terrorism forces commit disgusting human rights violations. Whether or not drone pilots are more likely than other soldiers to be comfortable with their crimes, it is indisputable that the drone program relies heavily on tactics that deliberately target innocent civilians to spread panic and rob the people in targeted regions of basic human dignity.
Cockburn and others describe the administration’s policy of “Double Tapping,” in which drones move out of sight after a killing but hover in wait for rescuers or mourners to rush to the destruction, either to assist or grieve the victims, and open fire a second time. The majority of these victims are innocent civilians, and even if they were not, attacks on medical personnel during wartime have been legally considered war crimes since the First Geneva Convention in 1864. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism confirmed in 12 instances of Double Tapping in 2012 alone, and suspects at least 6 more. The CIA also launches drone attacks on mosques holding prayers for the victims of drone attacks, and regularly bombards the outdoor funerals of attack victims. The goal of these attacks is to terrorize the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan into abandoning their compatriots who are accused (wrongly or not) of resisting American invaders. While there is no evidence that is has done so, we do know that civilians, especially in northern Pakistan, have stopped holding weddings, funerals, or public prayers out of fear of drone attacks, and with good reason. Cockburn describes a chilling scene in which drone pilots decided to attack a group of people they could barely see based on the fact that they were praying and therefore more likely to be terrorist sympathizers. This assault, not only on the people but on the staples of their culture, has profoundly impacted the psychology of those in targeted areas; Yemeni women apparently now tell their misbehaving children “Go to sleep or I will call the plane.”
We now know that the militant groups targeted by the drone strikes are using these very strikes to gather more recruits in the regions under attack, and it is easy to see why. Imagine if Al Qaida patrolled our skies with missile-bearing robots that we could constantly hear, but never see. Imagine reports of random attacks from these robots were commonplace, and these attacks left hundreds if not thousands of innocent women and children dead. Imagine your husband or father was a paramedic who went to assist people lying in the rubble of a bombing when he was hit by a missile, and nobody came to rescue him because they were too afraid of being the next victims. Imagine you then had to cancel his funeral for fear of further attack. Your government not only allows these attacks, it offers them tactical support, while blocking you from any democratic participation. At this point, your options are surrendering in despair, or joining the growing militant movement resisting the drones. It seems like a straightforward choice.
DRONES ARE EVERYWHERE
This might come as a surprise to those of us who grew up in the US after 9/11, but there is actually a legal procedure for waging war. If a country is found to be in violation of international law in a way that threatens another country, the threatened country may, AFTER getting the approval of the United Nations, and AFTER a public declaration of war, attack the country threatening it. Although the US has never in practice acknowledged these laws (except to apply them to our enemies), they are not arbitrary. The American government actually wrote them in the wake of World War II to create a legal basis for punishing Nazi Germany, and to prevent another self-justifying mass-murdering rampage from dragging the world into conflict.
This process has been entirely ignored by the War on Terror as a whole. The closest the US government ever came to a declaration of war was George Bush’s ridiculous announcement after the 9/11 attacks that we are at war with terrorism (as if a government could go to war with a concept). Since then, President Bush invaded Iraq despite explicit opposition from the UN, and President Obama used his drones (more subtle than Bush’s massive invading armies, if only slightly) to expand the War on Terror into a global atrocity. Because American soldiers are not at risk in a drone war, there is no motivation for corporate media to investigate it, so most Americans are not even aware that President Obama has acknowledged drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Mali, and Somalia. Cockburn suggests that at least surveillance drones may be active in many other countries. The President has never received Congressional or UN approval for this global war, he has never even sought it. So the drone army is a global terrorist police force with no independent oversight that kills whoever the President (or, is it too radical to suggest, the masters of capital in his office?) wants to kill, in any third world country too weak to resist.
DRONES ARE UNNECESSARY
In the end of the day, criticism of the drone program is irrelevant to supporters of the war. If we operate with the assumption that there is any legitimacy whatsoever in a war against the radical religious anti-imperialist groups which continue to rise to power in the Islamic world, if we accept the establishment’s premise that our own survival is in any way threatened by the rise in Islamist militancy, then a campaign of robotic assassination, no matter how inhumane, is justified by the universally accepted principle of self-defense. But the War on Terror is not legitimate or necessary for self-defense, and in fact it is perhaps the least effective conceivable deterrent to the movement we have labeled terrorism.
War, especially in the massive imperial model of the American military industrial complex, attacks structural threats. It is easy to use bombers to neutralize a threatening government with our historically unprecedented fleet of bombers. It is easy (although significantly less easy) to assassinate the heads of underground insurgencies, especially if we disregard collateral deaths. It is even easy (relatively speaking) to observe international terrorist organizations and limit their ability to launch attacks on our country. But terrorism is not a structural threat, it is an ideological threat. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks (which the Bush administration had all necessary information to predict and prevent, but chose not to), international terrorist organizations have failed to launch a single attack on American soil. Every attack on America since then has come from individuals or small groups acting independently of the groups we are bombing in the Middle East, and for all of our Patriot Act chest-thumping, there is no practical way to prevent a few such attacks with a massive and unwieldy militant police apparatus (especially while Muslim-Americans face horrifying Islamophobia perpetuated by the establishment every single day).
Most American victims of so-called terrorist groups have been US troops stationed in their countries. The government uses the threat to American troops to justify their attacks on groups like Al Qaida or Al Shabaab, but that logic is circular. If there were not enormous invading armies occupying Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Somalia, then those armies would not be at risk of terrorist attack. We have been fed a militarist agenda so completely that the idea of pacifism seems absurd, but there is no question that the War on Terror an unwinnable, self-perpetuating, atrocious waste of human life and resources. And there is also no question that it’s architects, the false progressive Obama administration, are smart and informed enough to understand that completely.
If we believe that terrorism is an atrocity, if we believe that human beings have the right to live without fear of being murdered by forces beyond their control, if we believe that human life, from Pakistan to San Bernardino, has any value whatsoever, then we must fight against the drone war and the War on Terror with everything we have. We, the left, must vocalize our horror at the brutal and criminal policies of the Obama administration the same way we vocalized our horror at the brutal and criminal policies of the Bush administration. We must demand an immediate and unconditional halt to our imperialist war, and we must not accept any government (or ANY president) that would continue the crimes against humanity we are currently complicit in. Anything less is an endorsement of terrorism and mass murder.