When it comes to unmanned warfare it's nothing personal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 5:03pm


Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control

by Medea Benjamin


Steven Rose

Throughout history, some forms of war and weaponry are viewed with greater horror than others. Even ancient civilisations tried to codify the rules of war - jus in bello.

Homer's Greeks disapproved of archery; real men fought hand-to-hand. Shakespeare's Henry V roared with anger when, at Agincourt, the French cavalry killed his camp followers. At the beginning of the last century, dum-dum bullets, a British invention, were outlawed following an appeal by Germany. Revulsion against the widespread use of gas in the first world war led in the 1920s to an international convention prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons. A landmine convention was agreed in 1997, though not signed by the US, China or Russia. Today, China, India, and North Korea are among nuclear-armed states that have pledged no first use, though Nato, Israel and the US have not.

Other, equally horrific weapons go unchallenged. Napalm (invented at Harvard University in 1943), incendiaries, "daisy cutters", depleted uranium, defoliants etc.

The nature of war has changed. Hi-tech states fight not each other, but shadowy insurgents, terrorists and freedom fighters. Where once the ratio of soldier to civilian war deaths was 9:1, now it has reversed. Today's warfighters are less at risk than the civilians in whose territories they fight. The lives of each of these warfighters is precious. To minimise such deaths, and to exploit developing computer and information technologies, the Vietnam war ushered in something called "the automated battlefield".

Enter the drones. As Medea Benjamin's well-researched book points out, speculation about the potential of autonomous flying vehicles long predates their actual construction. But in the modern era we have to thank above all Abraham Karem, chief designer for the Israeli airforce, who migrated to California and by the 1980s was building drones in his garage with the enthusiastic support of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency and, later, the CIA. From then on, with huge advances in information and computer technology, drones have become irresistibly attractive to military and police forces across the industrialised world, providing a financial bonanza for the - mainly US and Israeli - companies that build them.

Today, drones range from tiny hummingbird-sized surveillance devices to the plane-sized Predators and Reapers carrying Hellfire missiles. "Gorgon Stare" equipped drones can spy on a small city. Miniaturisation promises solar-powered insect-sized drones that can stay aloft indefinitely or fly into buildings to spy or kill. Drones are now also used commercially in various ways, from delivering packages to spraying pesticides.

But it is their military use that is the focus of Benjamin's book. Initially, they were used primarily for surveillance; by 2003, US drones were logging 1,500 hours a month in Iraq; and by 2010, 20 Predator flights were providing about 500 hours of video surveillance per day in Afghanistan. They were limited in use during the Bush era, but Barack Obama approved their use for "targeted killing", in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an escalation pioneered by the Israelis in Gaza.

The drones track and kill identified militants - or individuals whose behaviour, as observed from the drone, fits a pattern typifying militancy. Despite numerous direct reports of civilian deaths, the Obama administration insists that so-called collateral damage is slight. However, as it also persists with the view that any prime-age male killed by a drone is by definition a militant, this lacks credibility. Even the anger over the deliberate targeting by the CIA of a US citizen in Yemen in 2011, or the accidental killing of 20 Pakistani soldiers in Waziristan has not limited their use. A recent British poll found 54 per cent of respondents were in favour of such targeted killing.

That such extra-judicial killing is illegal is not in doubt - as recently reconfirmed by UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson. Obama's justification is similar to Bush's - those killed are actively threatening the security of the US. But the issue is an ethical one: the pilot of a drone tracking a Waziri villager and making a life-or-death decision to fire a missile may be sitting in a control room in the Nevada desert. That's when many will agree with Benjamin, a founder of the women's anti-war movement Code Pink, that a moral line has been crossed.

Is firing a missile from a drone morally worse than dropping a 250kg bomb from 3,000 metres? Or pressing the button that launches a cruise missile? Perhaps what is repugnant is the deliberate firing at a specific individual, combined with distance and the knowledge that you yourself are invulnerable to retaliation.

Despite some loose editing and repetition, Drone Warfare is both a justifiably angry source book and a call to action for the growing opposition to drones.

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