Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Drone Warfare

On all things drone:
Here follows my opinion on the current drone war.[1]
“And so it goes.”

A few days ago, I clicked on an article about an Australian and New Zealander killed by a drone strike (and even more recently a strike has killed more). The reactions in the comment section were predictable. Most were crass; though to be fair, few of the dressed up comments from public officials  were any better (invariably most lean towards the serious look and the statement that such things must be done).

All I’ve seen on the news and the Internet's main sites and their comments sections is the yelling of two tribes. What two tribes? For the most part they fall into the for and against categories. I mentioned the comments section. Though full of vitriol, these people tend to echo what’s being argued in the public sphere.

A public official will say: X was killed today. X was a known member of the Y organization. Y= a horrendous terrorist outfit. Y approaching 0 = increased safety of Americans. If only the world were this simple. Meanwhile people in this tribe will say: good, a terrorist is dead & what else do you expect when they want to harm us and Muslims in their area? [2] The way this argument is framed, anyone against drone strikes is against killing terrorists. And easy slogans are created around this—such as we bomb them there rather than here—none of which are backed up with any facts. [3]

Now for the other side. The main line of argument here seems to ask for some level of legal transparency, as well as the claim that in the long term these strikes won't do any good since they will cause more terrorists to arise and destabilize the countries in which they're being carried out. The former view takes a strict legalese route and seems to be making some headway. While the latter view bases much of what it claims on history and facts. I'll concede that these two views of the against side are harder to explain, and don't make for easy bumper stickers, making them a harder sell to the busy American people. They are also easier to demonize since all someone has to say is: "you're defending terrorists" or "you want every terrorist to have a trial, something these terrorists would never allow you."

Collateral damage is also an important part of this discussion. Some say that this is war [4] and that one only has to compare the miniscule collateral damage in the drone wars to the wars of the past. Take the bombing conducted by the Allies before the they liberated France where thousands more civilians died. War is war, these people say, and this one’s ending up better than most because of an efficient weapon. [5] Right...

I will say that drones are indeed a very efficient weapon with regards to collateral damage. That it’s the way of the future is hard to argue against. Nevertheless, when I think of drones, and their effects, I am immediately reminded of the 1990s and the tomahawk missiles that were launched with some regularity (taking about 2 hours to hit a target, thus increasing collateral damage). Before that it was a bomb from a plane, or ship. Indeed, when viewed from a military standpoint, a drone is an amazing improvement. Now drones can hover (in cycles) over an area of known terrorist activity and, with minimal delay, hit a target. This will inevitably mean better use of intelligence (in theory, and given some numbers, in fact as well [5]) and thus less collateral damage than before.

But that doesn’t refute the main point: that conducting this war (without oversight, mind you) in various areas only creates more enemies, and doesn't exactly solve the problem. There are few people in these areas of drones attacks who are on our side. And I’m not talking about Al Qaeda (AQ) members, though this will make it easier for them to recruit.

We are also destabilizing the nations where we conduct this. In someplace like Somalia this doesn’t appear a strong argument. In Yemen it should be considered important. And what of Pakistan and its nukes? Is destabilizing Pakistan wise?

For each country, it appears as if some agreement, secret or otherwise, has been reached between the US and either the government or the military or the intelligence agency in that country. If it is the latter two and not the first, we should ask if we are doing more harm than good. [6] Such things, when the people are obviously against it, don’t end well. As they shouldn’t. We would only be usurping democracy (or the hope for it) for short term goals. [7]

Again, history and most experts on the matter (not monetarily tied to the need for more drone strikes) claim that we are only making the situation worse. The people we are targeting do not like what’s happening in their tribal areas. Indeed, our strikes are only exacerbating the situation, giving the militants the upper hand, morally. The tribal systems are falling apart (elders being attacked by a lack of moral power resulting from the drone strikes, as well as from the militants themselves). [8] So far, it seems that the only thing that matters for politicians is the added benefit of seeming to kill our enemies. Again, the easy political solution.

That brings me to another point: obfuscation. The issue of collateral damage (civilian deaths) itself is too fraught with lies and obfuscation to make a definitive statement (and who's hand does that play into?), but it does go to show the level to which the US government is willing to lie to its people to cover up what it’s doing in these drone attacks. This should raise red flags for all but the most hawkish of citizens. Why is it so necessary to white wash the results of the drone war? Shouldn't they speak for themselves? [9]

When it comes to the legal question, there are several takes. No time should be spared for those who would claim that people worried about the legalities of these attacks are hoping for a trial for every terrorist in the world. These people are popping smoke (this tactic, of labeling those of us who do care for the nation and want to prevent future attacks defenders or aiders of AQ, is simply nonsense). Either laws matter or they don’t. To claim some moral superiority for dismissing laws, then telling other nations to abide by these laws will only cause the US to lose even more moral standing in the eyes of the world. [10]

Imminent danger to the US, as the President sees fit... That’s the only thing that’s stopping an out of control executive from expanding its assassination program. How most people cannot see that this is a horrendous time to dismiss the checks and balances that have made our nation so great, is beyond me. But people are working (mainly by asking for justice for the Americans killed) to bring this all into light. Not since Magna Carta has such open killing been allowed. [11]

This brings me to a question: what then is the endgame for this drone warfare? I mentioned before the comparisons to previous wars. Yet for the successful ones, they had a specific purpose. The drone war doesn’t appear to have an end to it. Not when the process itself creates many more people willing to take up such a label as terrorist. [12]

This in the end, highlights my stance. I know what happens when the government starts to lie about things like national security. Let us not mince words, more likely than not, these drone attacks are terrorism. We need to make sure that we are indeed safe. Don’t fall for the false dichotomy of bomb here or there. The politicians and the industries that benefit from this care not for that. Otherwise they would listen to the experts on the matter. [13]

In the end, like most issues, this is not an easy one to ‘solve’. But being a citizen of a republic with a great history of democratic discourse, I think that a discussion should be opened up on the matter. Some aspects of the drone war are cloaked behind the excuse of national security [14]. Nevertheless, that there is no oversight to a system to see if the process is in line with our own and international laws is inexplicable. Right now we conduct most of the drone warfare that goes on out there. But what about in the future, when multiple countries have this capability? Surely our leaders are not short-sighted enough to allow this to become another free for all?

But they are, and we must hold them accountable. Every time they cry out national security, and tell us we can’t be told, understand that this is a lie. Chomsky has mentioned in-depth studies conducted on what governments have withheld from their people in the past. It ends up being that the information is withheld because the government wants to protect itself [15] from its people. The claim of national security (not the act, but the need to hide things from the public, or even judicial oversight) is usually a bogus claim. Be wary wherever it is raised.

The Far Future:
And the final question of what we do when drones become something more than a remote controlled toy? Already it’s a way to do war with which Congress doesn’t seem too concerned about. After all, it’s merely a toy that’s lost if something goes wrong (or innocents not of our nation that die if the intel is wrong). It doesn’t seem to be an issue for most lawmakers, or citizens, to be fair. But when the capabilities to run a full on war (to include robotic on land capabilities, that means we’ll be able to hold ground without risking troops) without risking lives becomes a reality, the political costs of wrong wars (short term, at least for now, such paradigms can and will change) will become close to nil. What then? Another time and place for that question.

Update: (29Apr2014) There has been some noise about the Senate removing a provision that would have provided more oversight for the drone war. This article takes a good look at it.
Update: (21May2014) And another article showing that drone strikes don't work. Again, the American people need to ask if these drone strikes are following some political ploy (always nice to say terrorist leader killed) or if they're simply setting up the environment where killing people for political gains is all right (guess what that's called?).
Update: (09Sep2014) And so it goes. News out of Yemen shows more stabilization. Shocking. Same with Pakistan. Who will take responsibility for this? Perhaps the problem is how we form our polities (the ones for national security) and what they are expected to do, and what they are rewarded for.
Update: (15Sep2014) and even more: President Obama now claims that his strategy against ISIS will be like the one against AQ in Yemen. This is close to being as comical as I've seen our President. Who exactly advises him?
Update: And it has happened. I'm not sure why anyone expected anything else. But here we are with a destabilized nation. Again. I have an idea, why don't we drone them to death again? Oh, wait, it won't work. Note: that I am aware that the nation is being pushed over by the Shiites (not, from what I know, targeted by the drones, and with Iran's hand most likely here), but there is something to be said about reactions to something within one's nation.

Update Mar2015: I have one more point to make on the drone situation. I must say that most human rights groups (some merely focused on the victims, which I imagine is the only true route available to them, or the only route that will even allow them a hearing amongst the American/Western people or the mainstream press) have spoken extremely meek words against the drone program. One of the major ones that comes to memory was the mere statement that the drone campaign (a terror campaign if ever there was one) was working, that Al Qaeda was decimated and thus it was time to stop it.

There is much talk of terrorist apologists. That word is bandied around without much evidence. But in the case mentioned  I will blame those on the left who used the above excuse as the only real reason to stop the terror attacks on innocents. What docile sheep would use this meek language (of actually claiming that terror works)? I'm not sure, but I imagine that this being the strongest language allowed, makes it apparent how weak the opposition (to war) is in this country. [1]

The main fact of the matter is that it's wrong. That if killing people in a cafe is wrong, then it's wrong no matter the delivery method. Anyone who fails to see this is either sadly informed or inherently jingoistic to the point of being evil.

[1] I'm not saying that this is something that I'm above (I'm speaking now of the need to look at the efficacy of any given action instead of the morality... note that this isn't necessarily something we ever apply to our own skins... bombs hit us and few speak of the exact cost of the retribution; why? Why this poverty of imagination when trying to understand the world? We will surely not understand much without trying to include morality and justice into the equation). Most of my explanations do indeed have justice and morality applied to them, but only with regard to applying them to the same function of efficacy.

Is this poverty of imagination something that I, as an atheist, destined to do? It certainly plays into the hands of those in power. Hard to see it as otherwise. For they can always present false evidence/shills that/who will at the very least muddy the waters. Better to stick to one's guns of morality in times like these. Note that this is a a self-criticism more than it is one of the wider world.

Update 21Apr2015: So John Oliver discussed drones on Last Week Tonight, and I feel that he completely missed an opportunity to talk about other matters of the drone wars (besides the morality of terrorizing entire populations, the enemies that creates and the instability that further creates). Mainly, all one has to do is think what they would do if they were being attacked by drones (by, let's say any current enemy de jour) and that they were not only helpless to stop the attacks, but their government won't help them either, or it will may very well be in agreement with those who are doing the bombing. What would you do? If you don't react, what would your community do (let's assume there's some amorphous militant people there)? Certainly not nothing. I'm not sure many people would.

No, there would have to be a reaction as the moderates are sidelined (for not having done anything to stop the bombs) and though there is a chance that some people will react to the far away power lobbing bombs (As General McCrystal says, it cannot be unexpected), the most likely first reaction to a peoples without expeditionary forces at their disposal is to attack those nearby. Militants will look for spies in the local population, and as that further fragments the people, some of them will join whatever extremist groups (or create their own, they will be brutalized and few humans brutalized tend towards peace) which will provide revenge and stability. The local and national government, will then be targets. Hence the instability in the nation/region. I think this is a strong point which people must consider for something like drones.

Update 26May2015: So Yemen has fallen. What did we expect? I blame drones for this and expect those in the government and their shills to deny it. But mark one more up for a failed experiment that we'll keep doing because someone is getting rich off it.

To note: drones are here to stay (especially non-weaponized ones), and there will be many uses for them, to include good purposes. If drones patrolled our highways and reduced fatalities, would we be against it?Of course. But this is not the use that most people care about (though I imagine since they're over our skies, they will be monitored more closely than those terrorizing brown/black people)

[1] (Also, I should note that the media is indeed complicit in allowing 'officials' to obfuscate. Read this article for a breakdown)

[2] Note that these sentiments mimic those of our well-spoken President (especially during his Nobel speech).

[3] In other words, this is a politically easy choice.

[4] These people won’t be bothered with the definition thereof, or the worrying prospect that a government allowed to carry out assassinations at all times, in all places, without oversight, could ever become an issue.

[5] I’m skeptical of such  comparisons. Most people who carry out these comparisons only do it to justify actions carried out on other humans’ skins. Of course there are less killed in the drone wars than in WWII. What does that help? Do I hear these people saying that the Boston bombing was nothing because we didn’t lose the same amount of people as in 9-11? Or perhaps they should have compared 9-11 to some other massacre? I’m not saying that comparing things to gauge the importance of some events isn’t needed, but it does no good as much is gained by looking at the context.

Update Mar2016: And what a surprise, the amount of civilians killed appears to be higher than claimed. I'm sure this will be brushed over by all parties. Another good source on the matter.

[6] For the civilian government and people in Pakistan howl in protest about the strikes. And yet nothing is changed. The military doesn’t seem to say much; they probably are fine with a few drones hurting those who have targeted them so much. It could be that the civilian government has a secret agreement with ours.

[7] But it appears that the desire to subvert democracy for military ends runs strong in the world and even in our country. Funny how that works: that most of those who call themselves patriots are only defending self-interests of a specific group in a country, not the country itself.

[8] If history is any indication, we know how to break these places down, but we don’t know how to build them back up. And knowing the political situation, we will not have the will to rebuild another tribal area. It is the short-sightedness of politicians that allows this game to continue.

[9] Apparently military aged males are all free game at these drone sites. Why isn't this called out more often? The numbers that the US government has given out on civilian casualties has been so low as to be laughable.

Update Mar2016: And, oh look, I was right. They lied again. What a shock that is. Numbers killed weren't minuscule, but upwards of 90% were innocents.

[10] And even eliminate the chance for a more stable world and a more stable world order. Furthermore some say that the current administration is straddling the world of warfare and the world of the right to defend itself. Obama does indeed have permission from Congress to carry this drone war out. So as far as American lawmakers are concerned there is minimal friction. There has been an issue with killing American citizens. Hawks seem to howl at this with the same obfuscation of trials as so on. Of course certain people can’t be brought to trial, but we should have some oversight on how they are being chosen for assassination. As it stands we know nothing about the methods for choosing anyone for this death from above.

[11] Remember, these are laws that made us great. Are we really to believe that some judicial oversight (if need be, it could be after the fact, especially if time were an issue when it comes to an attack needing to be stopped) is too much of a hindrance? Luckily, some progress has been made on this front.

[12] Will whole populations simply be all right with having drones flying overhead for decades? Striking at a moments notice? Would you? Doubtful, isn’t it? Is the plan then, to hope that these people being attacked will cower, or be shell shocked for life? Or is the plan to eliminate them all over a period of time? Again, think of your own reaction to something like drone warfare in your area. Empathy is another strong motivator for movements. If not the specific reaction of people in the area of drone attacks, what of other people around the world who will see this for the great injustice that it is? Will they not make easier recruits? Will it not help the spread of AQ when conditions change? AQ’s current doctrine is a violent reaction, and one that won’t sustain itself. But it will one day change. It will adapt. And what then when we have racked up injustices and people have a legitimate problem with us? Not something easy to grasp. Easier to grab hold of short-sighted slogans, isn't it? But we must grapple with these issues.

[13] Cynics would say that the apparatus we have for combating terrorists must create more to explain its exorbitant budget, though I wouldn't go that far.

[14] Another topic for another time, as it seems to be the cloak to hide actions of all sorts of doings of a government, adding a level of darkness that was once a realm of precursors to our system of government.

[15] And by this it means someone is getting rich. People should be aware that whenever someone rich wraps themselves in the flag, they are getting ready to privatize profits and socialize any losses. 

Note: I should note that my book, Ministry of Bombs is also an attempt to look at the drone wars as well as other matters in this discussion. Check it out.
As always, I see this as a discussion, and will add or change any parts as more information comes in...

Thanks for reading. As always, you can contact me at if you have any questions or wish to discuss something or just to say hi. Look forward to hearing from you. 

Some other articles that you might be interested in reading:
# An article on the Rushdie affair and one of the arguments for something like Drone Warfare.
# Another book I've written that at least shows an insurgency as it really is. The Struggle Trilogy
# A list of the 5 best scifi books out there.
# An article on how to read the news. Important for something like Drone Warfare
# An article on a man in Nazi Germany, slowly faced with a government that was not acting to his standards.

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  1. It's here to stay, drones are. Funny that people seem to accept this with such finality. My question is what happens when drones are truly autonomous? Will they then be watched? Or will we not care because they are better than what came before?
    It's a legitimate viewpoint, this improvement. That one can kill less innocents should Always be the choice. Sorry, but it's what sane people choose.

    1. Or, one could ask what is it about a machine that chooses to see enemies everywhere, and also chooses to have the same solution, though that solution never works? Or perhaps that one isn't willing to look for a humane solution doesn't have that desire?

  2. What is freedom? It's the sound of a flag whistling in the breeze. Drones help maintain this. Never lose sight of that. When there's someone out there who wants to end that freedom (whatever the reasons) then you have a choice: freedom or something like it. Cover your eyes however you may, but mine are wide open. I choose the hard choice and side with the right side.

    1. Came to say that this definition of freedom is spot on.

    2. Like the poetic definition of freedom! I see that there are hard choices (it's always that, isn't it?), but that doesn't mean we're allowed (or should allow those with power) to do what we want. And trust me, my eyes are wide open indeed

  3. This isn't hard: Drones are the new missiles. Sure it's being done remotely, but what does this matter or how does it differ from a jet flying over? I really think that those who hate this new weapons system are on the other side (or fools used for the other side), even though I respect what you have to say on the matter. Maybe you have a point, but maybe you need to rethink certain aspects of this entire takedown (or even analysis) of a system in place

    1. If only it were so simple. What about the other factors that matter here, such as the main one being that international law is being infringed upon. If you're so simple as to not think beyond knowing what is right for America and what is right for everyone else, then think on the matter of other nations with drones. Do I have your attention?
      America post WWII was, to some level, interested in keeping the peace and to furthermore manage some sort of international law so as to maintain that peace. It cannot coudl not will not be kept via good intentions or each nation acting in its own interest. With nukes, this all became tha tmuch more important.
      And it still is. Nothing has changed since the last WW but the fact that tech is better. We let dialogue out of hand and things will indeed become worse for all of us. Drones is one such example.
      Great post, keep at it.

    2. So I agree that it is a wholly different weapons system and doesn't do much more than launch a missile efficiently, but it's that ease with which they can be deployed (and in our name) that makes them so dangerous: we are destabilizing nations for limited gains. Not seeing this makes one blind. You really have to see all the variables (or more than the Stalin ideology of :no man no problem). All right? Let me know if you have more questions.

  4. FTFY. why do liberals get bent out of shape when you spout truths? It is a matter of bomb them there (into submission, if needed, I say drones all day everyday, hitting everyone of them, if need be) or be bombed here. Got that part right. The rest is a buncha twaddling on ifs and whats. FTFYx2 We need to up the ante. Look at Germany, look at Japan. Bombed them into submission, didn't we? Nothing nice, nothing for bleeding hearts like you to absorb, but it fucking works.

    1. All right, I'll see your FTFYx2 and raise it. There are some who believe that this (absolute might to a specific) end, damn the morality, is the only way forward. I doubt it. But at least you can remain intellectually honest by doing so.

      If we are to move towards something like a world order of international laws and so forth, then we need to end this kind of thinking right away.

      That you need to resort to swearing is telling. Not a bleeding heart either. Read more of this blog and my books to get a grasp instead of clutching at straws. Nevertheless, I will further tackle your statement in the future (basically the might makes right doctrine). My initial point is that in any nation that chooses this route (instead of the one of laws) does not end up very well. And that those who say that the world is not a nation, think on the many nations that have chosen a set of rules to govern them and how diverse they were?

      Create laws (I think they're actually created) and stick to them. Anything else is tripe. I suppose the argument here is that nations with laws first achieved some level of equality and economic strength before creating those laws. That might be up for more discussing.

    2. Create laws that those in power will not heed anyways? Ha! Me thinks not. You're only point worth visiting, is that the future will soon be here and the points made here will be moot. Can you imagine that our politicians (let's hope it's them, because when it's corporations, we'll surely be fucked one more time) will be able to wage war wherever they want, whenever they want with automated drones for the land sea and air. So far the only impediment to them (when the pressures arise from the American people) is when people complain about their sons and daughters dying.

      So what will happen when robots are being destroyed (if that's possible)? What happens when a war crime happens and a senator just shrugs and says "it was a glitch, a bug, we're working on an update, sorry Yemen"

      What then? We will need an amendment, but being that it's an amendment against all the powers that be, what are the chances it will be passed? 0

      well, sweet dreams


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