I went to hear a panel on drone warfare last Saturday (6/12/2010) at the Berkeley Public Library, organized by a group called Grannies Against War (which I revere simply for their existence). The chair of the meeting expressed the hope, in her opening remarks, that the information to be discussed would arouse anger, and bring people into activism. Drone warfare is a form of mechanized killing, in which a technician in a war room, perhaps in Colorado or Iowa, or on shipboard in the Indian Ocean, flies a pilotless plane remotely, and can target people from the air, unleashing lethal force against them. It has been used in Afghanistan, Gaza, and Pakistan. Its use by the US has increased dramatically over the last two years. Its kill rate is high, and its ratio of civilians to actual "combatant targets" is around 50 – 1.
There were three speakers on the panel. The first speaker spoke about a debate now in progress concerning whether drone warfare is legal or not (I'm leaving the names of the speakers out because I wish only to focus on the concepts at issue). The ACLU says it isn't, while various policy makers say it is, or that the issue is cloudy. Those who think it legal, however, insist on the use of careful euphemistic language, to avoid any connection to international human rights law that seeks to limit the impunity of war. Thus, they refer to "targetted killing" rather than assassination, "armed conflict" rather than war. Drone warfare is seen by policy makers as a legitimate mode of targetted killing, which is in turn legitimized by the context of armed conflict. And armed conflict is legitimized by the fact that 9-11 was a non-state attack on the US, requiring armed response to terrorists and terrorism. It is the idea that 9-11 was an attack on the US that forms both the basis and the necessity for this euphemization.
The second speaker described the technology of drone warfare, its similarity to video games, the logistic economy of the tactic, and the advantage to the war-maker of not exposing personnel to face-to-face danger with those it seeks to kill. She provided an evaluation of drone warfare as having succeeded as a tactic, yet failed as a strategy, because the very idea of such mechanized killing, and the degree to which civilians have been the real victims of this tactic, has turned many people in the world against the US.
The third speaker asked the question, why is the impunity of this tactic acceptable to people in the US? He focused both on 9-11 as the immediate source, and the age-old feeling among people in the US that they would be willing to die for freedom. He pointed out, however, that drone warfare does not bring freedom, democracy, equality, or justice with it. It simply kills. And this, he points out, was an ethos already contained in the immediate response to 9-11. If there were perpetrators of that act, it should have been seen as a criminal act, and dealt with judicially, rather than with a declaration of war – against an amorphous enemy (terrorism) which could only be fought terroristically by mechanized invasion, B-52 bombings, and ultimately drones.
In short, the use of drone warfare represents a new form of military horror. Despite disclaimers, it targets civilian areas and non-military people, principally because military units would more often have the ability to shoot down the drone. Thus, it is a dehumanized (literally and figuratively) form of industrialized killing. If the official definition of terrorism is the use of arbitrary violence to change or control a political situation, then the use of drones is a form of terrorism. Conversely, when people are willing to fight using hands and minds against huge powerful war-machines, then they have to be understood as fighting for something they are willing to die for. Drone warfare then represents the US response to such people.
Does this inversion of morality explain the acceptance of impunity? Let me summarize the logic of drone warfare. It is one mode among others of "targetted killings" (aka assassinations). Targetted killings are justified by the non-governmental nature of the enemy, requiring "armed conflict" (aka war). "Armed conflict" is legitimized as the proper response to the 9-11 attack by a non-governmental enemy.
9-11 is at the center of the issue (which each panelist explicitly recognized). It is the government account of 9-11 that mediates between the horrendousness of killing by video game and the approximately 2 million people killed by US "armed conflicts" since 2001. If drone warfare (aka mass murder) is horrendous and should be stopped (and I think it should), then the process of rationalizing it must be unravelled, which means going to its logical source. It is as the logical source for industrialized mass murder that 9-11 takes on mythic qualities.
Three things can be said about this.
A- If it is true that the planning and logistics for the original assault on Afghanistan were begun in July, 2001, two months before 9-11 (as Stan Goff, a retired green beret instructor, was able to confirm), then Osama bin Laden was not the target. Ironically, he remains the target despite the idea that he was killed in 2002, as suggested by Benazir Bhutto shortly before she was assassinated. If the US was planning an assault on Afghanistan in July, 2001, then it was indeed illegal, a crime against humanity, and all that follows in its wake would be similarly illegal, the continuation of that crime. If there is judicial controversy over this, it is supported only by the myth that 9-11 was an attack on the US.
B- 9-11 is mythic not because it never happened, but because what did happen remains unknown. Whatever investigation into the event was possible ceased to be feasible as soon as the government sequestered and destroyed as much of the evidence as it could. What evidence we have, however, clearly indicates that the twin towers and building #7 were brought down by controlled demolition (we saw that the massive central steel columns in the twin towers, 94 in number, were all cut off at ground level, as well as cut into pieces, and we now know what kind of explosive was used to do that, thanks to Steven Jones). This implies, despite the derogation and character assassination of those who ask the relevant questions, that the planes did not bring the buildings down. If the destruction of the buildings was planned by those who planted the explosives, then the planes, whose existence was subordinated to the planned destruction of those buildings, did not constitute an attack on the US. Those who put the explosives in place did not just "let something happen." But without the idea that 9-11 was an attack on the US, all the rationalizations for armed conflict and massive assassinations disappear.
C- What is not questioned about "armed conflict," because 9-11 is not questioned, is the notion of "conflict." Conflict means there are two sides. When the US invades a sovereign nation with B-52s dropping bombs from 30,000 feet on a people whose warmaking technology is limited to rifles and pick-up trucks, there is no conflict. It is entirely one-sided. Armed conflict, then, is not a euphemism for war, but a euphemism for mass murder. And under such circumstances, the notion of "terrorist" becomes a euphemism for Afghani or Iraqi "self-defense." What the myth (of 9-11) does is hide the fact of that one-sided assault, and enable acceptance of both the notion of armed conflict and the impunity needed to carry it out.
What follows from 9-11 then stands exposed as a complex of crimes against humanity, first against the sovereign nation of Afghanistan, then against Iraq, and finally, against us. If we address what drone warfare means (and we should), and do not question the mythology upon which it is based, we forfeit our call to justice for the victims of those crimes.