Droning On

I hate to keep kicking a dead horse, since the subject of drone attacks targeting innocent civilians is obviously not one that concerns most people. But a recent story carried by a British (not an American) newspaper caught my eye. It’s about a retired Air Force enlisted man whose job while in the military was operating unmanned aircraft in their attacks on targets in the Middle East. He was sitting comfortably — or not so comfortably, as it turns out — in Nevada watching the whole thing on a TV screen. Just like a game, which is what the recruiters promised him: just like guys in the James Bond movies. Except that it is no longer a game for this man who is suffering from post-traumatic stress and can’t seem to get the images out of his mind. The story carried in the London Daily Mail reads, in part:

A former drone operator who helped kill 1,626 targets says he’s haunted by the carnage he witnessed from behind his computer screen.
Brandon Bryant, 27, served as a drone operator from 2006 to 2011 at bases in Nevada, New Mexico and Iraq. It was a desk job of sorts, but unlike any other, it involved ordering unmanned aircraft to kill faraway targets while he watched.
In an interview with NBC News’ foreign correspondent Richard Engel, Bryant recalled one operation where his team fired two missiles from a drone at three men in Afghanistan.
The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,’ he said, recalling what he saw of the scene through the thermal images on his screen. ‘And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.’
He recalled watching the mens’ bodies grow cold, as slowly the red color detecting the heat of their bodies grew smaller.
‘I can see every little pixel if I just close my eyes,’ he said.

There are so many things wrong here it is difficult to know where to start. I have spoken about the moral crisis these acts of violence signal, though so many Americans seem unaware of it, or simply don’t give a shit. Not only is it a violation of the Geneva Conventions, to which this country was a signatory once upon a time. But from any moral perspective you can imagine it is simply wrong to engage in military activities that invariably take innocent lives — excuse me, cause “collateral damage.” If they were doing this to us, we would see immediately how wrong this is. But since it is us doing it to them  — and they are thousands of miles away and wear different clothing and look different from most of us — we see no harm. This is one of the things that bothers Bryant: the fact that people over here don’t seem to care, even though we have fits when three people are killed by a couple of stupid kids during the running of the Boston Marathon. We really have become callous, and perhaps a bit blind.  As long as we are safe in our little boxes made of ticky-tacky, watching TV programmed for us by Madison Avenue to sell us products we don’t need, we are perfectly content to have innocent men, women and children killed somewhere else. Just don’t tell us about it. No harm (to me or mine) no foul. And our government is making sure we know as little about these activities as possible. There aren’t many folks like Bryant who have the courage to speak out — assuming that other drone operators are also bothered about what it is they are doing.

Just imagine sitting in a chair in Nevada or New Mexico, or wherever, and watching human targets, many of them only alleged enemies of your country, as they are struck by the missiles your drone releases at them. Bryant can’t get the images out of his head. Neither can I — and I haven’t even seen them except in my wildest imagination. It’s getting harder and harder to make excuses for this president and this Congress whom many people abroad identify with this country. I don’t, but what I think really doesn’t count.

Targeting Terrorists

A very unsettling news item recently surfaced about the drones this country has been routinely employing in such places as Pakistan to target terrorist leaders. The very fact that this country would resort to terror to fight terror is disturbing, especially when innocent civilians are killed in the drone strikes. But the rationale for these strikes is even more bothersome, since it puts me in mind of a blog I wrote some time ago about how nation-states set ethics aside when they engage in horrible acts they regard as in “the national interest.” This country was supposed to be above such acts. In this case we are told in a recent HuffPost news item the determination of when and where to use these drones “in the national interest” has become a political issue:

The report, by Michael Isikoff of NBC News, reveals that the Obama administration believes that high-level administration officials — not just the president — may order the killing of “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or an associated force even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” states the Justice Department white paper quoted by Isikoff.

The paper states that the U.S. would be able to kill a U.S. citizen overseas when “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” determines the target is an imminent threat, when capture would be infeasible and when the operation is “conducted consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

One concern that is receiving a good deal of attention is the possibility of illicit extension of executive power — a constitutional issue that will bear careful scrutiny by constitutional lawyers and political pundits. I am more interested in the moral issue, as we all should be. After all, ours is a democracy that was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions placing “humane” restraints on modern warfare. Those restraints have been found wanting recently by our incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo. But this policy takes us even further away from the ideals.

The issue here is not so much that this policy allows for the killing of American citizens — which has already been accomplished — but that it condones the killing of suspected terrorists in crowded areas where, regardless of nationality, innocent people will also die. The notion that we — that is to say, this country — routinely order drones into crowded urban areas with the intention to “take out” an alleged leader of al-Qaeda “even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.” on the grounds that this is “consistent with applicable law of war principles” is morally reprehensible. What, precisely, are those principles? And how do we determine which ones are “applicable”?

If the drones were used against presumed terrorists in the streets of Los Angles or New York by our enemies we would assuredly not recognize this as “lawful killing.” What we would not allow to have done to our own citizens in this country — or anywhere else — we should not regard as morally acceptable when done by our own leaders to suspected terrorists, no matter how “high” the level of the “official of the United States” happens to be who makes this dreadful decision.

As a student of rationalization — the attempt to find reasons for doing what we are going to do anyway — I am struck by the claim that “a lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination.” To begin with, how are those killings in any way “lawful”? What laws apply in this case? — certainly not moral laws. And certainly not moral principles as we can see from the fact that a neutral observer reading about such a “lawful killing” would never agree that it is not an assassination. Imagine what people in other countries must think of this nation when our leaders reason this way. Would we ourselves agree that it is not an assassination if “a lawful killing” targeted, say, the Secretary of Defense, or one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and killed several innocent bystanders in the process? We would be appalled, and we should be.

I Liked Ike

When I was a senior in college I shook hands with President Eisenhower. Honest! He came to my college to dedicate an auditorium named after Francis Scott Key and the seniors and faculty got to shake hands with that very popular President. I recall later in his presidency Eisenhower warning us to beware the miitary-industrial complex. Indeed, the man was not only president, he was prescient. The military now gets nearly $900 billion each year to spend on “defense,” and apparently is policing the world, as a recent Yahoo story suggests. It says, in part,

The U.S. military is expanding its intelligence-gathering operations across Africa, the Washington Post reports, mainly using small, unarmed planes “equipped with hidden sensors that can record full-motion video, track infrared heat patterns, and vacuum up radio and cellphone signals”—part of a “shadow war” against al-Qaida and other militants.

I didn’t know we were conducting yet another war, albeit a “shadow-war.” Does this bother anyone else? Or am I the only one that thinks our nation is in the grip of crazies? The military is convinced it can do anything it wants, even to the point of killing innocent civilians in the name of the “war on terror.” I am certainly not pro-terrorism, by any means, but I ponder the Geneva Conventions to which we signed our name and I worry that the people who run my country no longer have a conscience. Eisenhower was assuredly right, the combined power of the military and the multinationals (the “industrial” element in Ike’s comment) is seemingly unfettered. The rest of us must simply stand by and watch and wonder where it will take us.

I recall bomber pilots after the Second World War telling about their nightmares following  dropping bombs in Japan — especially the two Atom bombs. They never saw the faces of their enemies; they simply pushed a button and flew away knowing that they had left behind widespread death and destruction. And that was a war of retaliation against the bombing of Pearl Harbor — which may or may not justify the firebombing and subsequent dropping of the Atom bombs on heavily populated areas of Japan. But we no longer hear of pilots unable to sleep at night; we hear about pilot-less “drones” that are flown remotely and kill indiscriminately.

Is it possible that the military simply wants to exercise its power, employ the latest technical war-toy against real people in the name of “keeping the world safe for democracy”? I shudder to think so. Lord Acton told us long ago that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As the power of the military grows, so does its love of power. And the mechanism for restraint of military power in this country is frail and imperfect. Eisenhower was right: beware!