Drones are the most awful weapons ever invented, except for all the others.
by Penney Kome
Drones! The very term conjures up images of the Terminator and Robocop, or at least Robosoldier. Peaceniks have been (justifiably) skeptical about this new technology. I’d like to play devil’s advocate, and suggest that drones may represent a turning point, from wholesale slaughters to much smaller-scale conflicts.
Recently, author Robert Koehler cited figures that “the number of Pakistanis killed in drone strikes from June 2004 to mid-September 2012 was between 2,562 and 3,325, …[including] 474 to 881 of them as civilians.” Let’s stipulate for the moment that all the fatalities were civilians. Those would be 3325 crimes against persons, against individuals. Over a period of eight years, that works out to about 400 homicides a year — a lower rate than most large US cities.
To evaluate the ethics of drones, one way to measure would be to contrast Henry Kissinger’s approach fifty or sixty years ago — a crime against humanity — to the drones’ crimes against persons.
This precise body count contrasts sharply with an analogous situation, that of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, when their foes in Vietnam retreated to hideouts in Cambodia. Operating secretly, Kissinger carpet-bombed Cambodia from 1964 to 1973. They didn’t even try to keep a body count.
“During 1973 Freedom Deal,” says Wikipedia, “aircraft dropped 250,000 tons of bombs (primarily high explosive), topping the 180,000 tons dropped on Japan during the Second World War.” For this campaign, and for the secrecy, Kissinger has been called a war criminal, although he has never been tried.
That is to say, to evaluate the ethics of drones, one way to measure would be to contrast Henry Kissinger’s approach fifty or sixty years ago — a crime against humanity — to the drones’ crimes against persons.
Or, to take a more recent example, US President George W Bush whipped up a small coalition of nations to invade Iraq in 2003 on the flimisiest of excuses. Wikipedia cites the 2006 Lancet study that estimated the number of Iraqi deaths “at 654,965, in a range of 392,979 to 942,636.” Again, although perhaps for different reasons, this was a crime against humanity, and a whole different order of magnitude from the 3325 deaths in Pakistan.
In fact, according to Marketplace.org, drones indicate a new leaner and meaner approach to war. Kai Ryssdal’s introduction said, “Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explained how he's going to cut half a trillion dollars out of the Pentagon's budget over the next 10 years — fewer soldiers, fewer big weapons systems and more technology. Robots, drones, and cyber-defense.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explained how he’s going to cut half a trillion dollars out of the Pentagon’s budget over the next 10 years — fewer soldiers, fewer big weapons systems and more technology. Robots, drones, and cyber-defense.”
Reporter John Dinsdale followed up: “The army and marines will lose 90,000 troops over the next five years, but still be larger than they were before 9/11. The Navy and Air Force will gain significant new investments in technologies. Sophisticated surveillance and attack drones will make up more of the military arsenal. That's a big change for makers of traditional military aircraft.”
In short, under President Obama, the US is changing the way it does war. Out go the overpriced jets and awkward equipment designed by committee and paid for through most-favoured contracts, a la the hugely inappropriately-designed Bradley personnel carrier described in the HBO movie, The Pentagon Wars. They’re being replaced by co-ordinated intelligence services, cyber attacks, and drones.
Also, the Obama administration is encouraging competitive bidding for contracts. Only a few major companies can bid on building jets, aircraft carriers and tanks. But smaller companies can bid on building lighter, smarter, swifter drones. One company offers a folding drone that can fit in a backpack, for $120,000. Compare that to the costs for the one-seater, yet-to-be-built F-35 stealth fighter jet, estimated at $40 – 80 million apiece.
Drones also offer new tools for the dilemma of the guerilla war, allowing the bigger power to find self-declared combatants without door-to-door searches of the population, or (worse) bombing or shelling whole cities and regions. Guerilla fighters seek to provoke their perceived oppressor to take heavy-handed tactics against the entire local population, in order to mobilize that population in protest. Drones make retribution personal – to soldiers as well as their targets.
Drones also offer new tools for the dilemma of the guerilla war, making retribution personal – to soldiers as well as their targets.
“I remember cuing up a US Predator strike,” wrote British drone pilot James Jeffrey, “before deciding the computer screen wasn't depicting a Taliban insurgent burying an improvised explosive device in the road; rather, a child playing in the dirt.” He subsequently left the armed forces, because of his close call.
In his essay for The Guardian, Jeffrey urges the public to be wary of drones because, he says, “It's very easy to kill if you don't view the target as a person.” But surely, the whole point of his story is that he, as a lone soldier, did recognize that the target was a person – a tiny, innocent person – and he had the authority to choose not to act.
Soldiers in combat rarely have time to reflect. Compare Jeffrey’s account to what happened in Fallujah, Iraq, when US and NATO soldiers surrounded the city and conducted house to house searches – destroying 60 percent of the buildings in the process and destroying or scattering 40 to 70 percent of the population. Did the soldiers rushing door to door have time to halt their fire when children appeared? Did the artillery shells? From such circumstances spring atrocities.
And while we’re speaking of soldiers, let’s remember that boots on the ground lead to wounded soldiers in the casualty ward. Dan Froomkin cites the (appalling) official figures on casualties – 4,487 dead, and 32,226 wounded, from 2004 to 2011. Then he dismisses those numbers.
“The true number of military personnel injured over the course of our nine-year-long fiasco in Iraq is in the hundreds of thousands,” he wrote, “maybe even more than half a million — if you take into account all the men and women who returned from their deployments with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, depression, hearing loss, breathing disorders, diseases, and other long-term health problems.” The Disabled American Veterans organization boasts (if that’s the right word) 1.2 million members.
An estimated 20 percent of soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered TBI, Traumatic Brain Injuries, from being shaken up by explosives. Coincidentally, about 20 percent of homeless men on US streets are veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq war. Between TBI and PTSD, their minds have been damaged. Veterans with these conditions are disoriented, often socially awkward, and constantly scared. And they know how to use heavy weapons. Through no fault of their own, they may represent a danger to the public at large. If a drone gets damaged, it can be repaired or trashed.
Drones are also less environmentally destructive than other forms of warfare. The Pentagon is the world’s single largest consumer of fuel oil.
Armed conflict has other environmental costs too. Saddam Hussein’s response to Operation Desert Storm was to set fire to Kuwait’s oil fields. Civil wars in Rwanda and Congo have led to massive deforestation, as government troops destroy guerilla fighters’ cover in the jungle. Ending mass combat is an essential first step to curbing toxic waste and global warming.
So far, drones seem to be carrying the most basic kinds of ordinance. Past US war strategies have included wholesale use of defoliant Agent Orange and depleted uranium shells, both of which cause horrendous mutations in all life forms (including human embryos), for several generations. Ending mass combat is an essential first step to curbing toxic waste and global warming.
Ending mass combat is an essential first step to curbing toxic waste and global warming.
Think of drones as a nicotine patch — a way to kick the US addiction to war. Sure, the nicotine is no good for us, but the patch is less harmful than a three-pack-a-day habit — and the goal is to eliminate nicotine altogether. In twenty or thirty years, the public may view drones as barbaric. And that will truly be the end of war.© Copyright 2013 Penney Kome, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca