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Brave New War

Drones have already transformed military history.
110516-N-XR557-191 GULF OF THAILAND (May 16, 2011) Sailors assigned to Commander, Fleet Activities Okinawa Targets Detachment prepare drones on the deck of USS Tortuga (LSD 46) before an air defense gunnery exercise for U.S. and Royal Thai Navy ships, part of Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Thailand 2011. CARAT is a series of bilateral exercises held annually in Southeast Asia to strengthen relationships and enhance force readiness. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Katerine Noll/Released)

Since the end of World War II, American leaders bent on making war have faced two major obstacles: nuclear weapons and a reluctant public.

Since 1945, “there have been no wars among the major states of the world,” notes Kenneth N. Waltz, a renowned international-relations theorist. “Nuclear weapons are the only peacekeeping weapons that the world has ever known.”

Another constraint on bellicosity has been the public’s aversion to long, intractable conflicts. This so-called Vietnam Syndrome strongly influenced U.S. foreign policy until September 2001, and it has seemingly returned after the quagmires of the last decade. According to the Human Security Brief 2010, high-intensity wars have declined by 78 percent since 1988.

But a new method of waging war—using special operations forces and drones—offers a way around the public-opinion impediment.

“The appeal is obvious,” writes Tom Engelhardt in Terminator Planet, a collection of essays he co-authored with historian Nick Turse. “The cost (in U.S. lives) is low; in the case of the drones, nonexistent. There is no need for large counterinsurgency armies of occupation of the sort that have bogged down on the mainland of the Greater Middle East these last years.” Drones provide “new ways to cross borders and new technology for doing it without permission.”

Terminator Planet uncovers the largely secret history and charts the likely future of the U.S. government’s remote-controlled wars. As the book makes clear, today’s drones may be less spectacular than the Terminator cyborg of James Cameron’s hair-raising 1984 blockbuster, but they are no less dangerous.

Drones are “killing civilians in disputed but significant numbers in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, creating enemies and animosity wherever they strike, and turning us into a nation of 24/7 assassins beyond the law or accountability of any sort,” Engelhardt warns. “Thought of another way, the drones put wings on the original Bush-era Guantanamo principle—that Americans have the inalienable right to act as global judge, jury, and executioner, and when doing so are beyond the reach of any court of law.”

The Obama administration is indeed placing itself above the law with its drone offensive in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere (Turse discovers at least 60 U.S. bases from which drones conduct surveillance or bombing missions). Recent reporting confirms that the administration has an internal process for authorizing “signature strikes,” which target individuals who cannot even be identified. The secret, unregulated nature of this process contradicts the very idea of the rule of law.

Christof Heyns, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, addresses this lawlessness in a recent report to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“Current targeting practices weaken the rule of law,” Heyns argues. “Killings may be lawful in an armed conflict [such as Afghanistan], but many targeted killings take place far from areas where it’s recognized as being an armed conflict.”

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay concurs. “I see the indiscriminate killings and injuries of civilians in any circumstances as human rights violations,” she says, adding, “Because these attacks are indiscriminate, it is very, very difficult to track the numbers of people who have been killed.”

Eyewitness accounts, corroborated by new research, indicate that the drone strikes have indeed killed significant numbers of civilians. The administration has suggested that drones rarely kill innocents, “embrac[ing] a disputed method for counting civilian casualties,” reported The New York Times in May, that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

As Terminator Planet repeatedly reminds us, this is not only immoral, but also counterproductive. “In Pakistan,” writes Engelhardt, “a war of machine assassins is visibly provoking terror (and terrorism), as well as anger and hatred among people who are by no means fundamentalists.” Indeed, as Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert at Towson University, told the Los Angeles Times, “The more the U.S. applies its current policy, the stronger al-Qaeda seems to get.”

The Pentagon has a history of exaggerating the efficacy of new weapons. In World War II, the U.S. rejected the British practice of nighttime carpet bombings of civilian areas. New technology, American officials said, enabled “precision bombing.” The Norden bombsight, which could calculate a bomb’s trajectory, was said to be capable of hitting a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet.

“In reality,” writes Yuki Tanaka in Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History, “‘precision bombing’ was a euphemism, as the bombs regularly fell at least a quarter mile from the target.” The report of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, issued in September 1945, concluded, “in the over-all, only about 20% of the bombs aimed at precision targets fell within this target area.”

“In the Gulf War,” Engelhardt recalls, “smart bombs” were supposed to “give war the kind of precision that would lower civilian casualties to the vanishing point.” Unfortunately, the smart bombs “turned out to be remarkably dumb.”

But genuinely smarter weapons raise new concerns. Terminator Planet examines the cutting edge of drone capabilities to see what tomorrow (and hefty sums of taxpayer money) will bring. Drones will soon be “small enough to fly through windows or down ventilation shafts,” Turse reveals, “and carry out lethal attacks, undertake computer-disabling cyber-attacks, and swarm, as would a group of angry bees, of their own volition,” that is, without human oversight.

And it won’t end there. The Pentagon “is planning to increase the funding of drone development by 700% over the next decade.”

Polls show that Americans largely approve of the president’s use of drones. “When we possess such weaponry, it turns out there is nothing unnerving or disturbing, apocalyptic or dystopian about it,” Engelhardt observes. But these technologies will not be exclusively American for long. As many as 40 countries are now developing versions of their own pilotless planes. “And when the first Iranian or Russian or Chinese missile-armed drones start knocking off their chosen sets of ‘terrorists,’ we won’t like it one bit,” Terminator Planet hauntingly warns. “Then let’s see what we think about the right of any nation to summarily execute its enemies—and anyone else in the vicinity—by drone.”

John Glaser is assistant editor of Antiwar.com.



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