Notes From the Margins…

Drones: What Are they Good For?

  • October 30, 2013
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Documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald and US Congressman Alan Grayson are to be congratulated for bringing civilian victims of drone attacks in North Waziristan to   Washington yesterday.     For the first time, Americans had the opportunity to put human faces on a region that tends to feature in the consciousness of the West as nothing more than a target, inhabited by anonymous Taliban, al-Qaeda and assorted terrorists and ‘militants.’

Not many Americans are likely to be aware of these testimonies, given the scant coverage of the hearings in the US media.     Only five Congressmen showed up yesterday to hear the son and grandchildren of 67-year-old Momina Bobi describe how she was blasted to pieces in a drone strike while picking okra in her garden on October 12 last year.

Her son Rafiq Rehman told the panel:

‘Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day.   Only one person was killed that day. A mom, grandma, a midwife. The string that holds the pearls together. That is what my mother was.     Since her death, the string has been broken and life has not been the same. We feel alone and we feel lost.’

Rehman’s 12-year-old son Zubair described how

‘I no longer like blue skies. In fact, I prefer gray skies. When sky brightens, drones return and we live in fear.   We used to love to play outside. But now people are afraid to leave their houses so we don”t play very often.’

These are not voices that get much of a hearing either in America or anywhere else.   For the last few years North Waziristan has been the primary target for the remote-controlled push button strikes that confirm the zoologist Desmond Morris’ description of the history of war, as the history of establishing greater and greater distance between those who kill and those who are killed.

In the brave new 21st century world of Predators, Reapers and the forthcoming Gorgon Stare, pilots are able to ‘go to war’ by sitting in a cabin sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup and unleashing Hellfire missiles on pixelated images 7, 000 miles away, whose names and identities they don’t know.

Most Americans don’t know much about them either, since the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) won’t reveal details about drone strikes, except when a high profile ‘al Qaeda leader’ or Taliban commander is hit, or someone planning an ‘imminent’ attack on America or American soldiers.

Obama loves drones too, and approves targets on a weekly basis, often on the basis of so-called ‘signature strikes’ that declare ‘military-aged males’ to be legitimate targets simply on the basis of their presence in a certain geographical area.   It’s easy to see the attraction.

In an age of permanent ‘war’ against a transnational ‘stateless’ enemy, drones are the perfect weapon.   They make it possible for the US government to wage war where it likes, without any scrutiny or accountability.     They allow the US to kill its enemies – whether real or imagined – without ever having to capture them and go through all that messy awkward stuff like charges and trials and due process.

In Guantanamo Bay, the Bush administration arrested hundreds of ‘al Qaeda’ suspects, the majority of whom were nothing of the kind, and generated a PR disaster that his successor is still stuck with.   Drones make it possible to avoid having to arrest people who haven’t done anything, by simply killing them first, without ever having to explain who you killed and why you did it.

And all this without risking a single American soldier.   You have to admit it really is a no-brainer.

Well the Obama administration thinks so, and so does the Washington Post, which describes drone strikes as ‘ an effective and yes – humane way to conduct one of the age-old tactics for combating an irregular enemy: identifying and eliminating its leaders.’

This argument leaves out various inconvenient facts.   Firstly, there is nothing ‘humane’ about blowing human bodies to pieces, even ‘guilty’ bodies.   And as last week’s powerful Amnesty report and other similar reports have shown, drone strikes have targeted mosques, weddings, and public gatherings which do not necessarily include ‘leaders’ and may not even include ‘terrorists’.

A number of strikes have also targeted ambulances and rescuers in secondary follow-up strikes, a violation of international law not to mention the laws of ordinary humanity.

The Post insists ‘ That drones do not put the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk and cause fewer collateral deaths are virtues, not evils.’   Fewer collateral deaths in comparison to what?     Hundreds of civilians have been killed in Waziristan, and many of the targets described as ‘militants’ by the Obama administration were identified on the basis of flaky intelligence information, some of which is provided by informants who may have a vested financial interest in picking up a reward.

As for ‘effectiveness’,   there is certainly evidence to suggest that drone strikes have succeeded in terrorising America’s enemies, whether it’s the ‘Afghan Taliban’ or the ‘Pakistani Taliban’.     But they have also terrorised the entire population of North Waziristan, and effectively paralysed its society.

Amnesty describes a situation in which children don’t dare to go to school or play, in which adults don’t dare attend funerals or weddings, and leave wounded survivors of drone attacks lying for hours before intervening in case they are killed.

Anyone who thinks that it this is ‘effective’ has a peculiar concept of what military effectiveness is.     Because no matter how many ‘leaders’ the US succeeds in ‘eliminating’, there is no evidence so far that drone strikes have brought it any closer to winning the global ‘war’ that George Bush began in 2001, and which Obama has continued in another form.

On the contrary, drones have   added one more dimension of high-tech cruelty and obscenity to a confrontation that is already cruel and obscene enough, and they are only likely to perpetuate it.

Presented as ‘humane’ weapons in a ‘war against terror’, yesterday’s hearings are further confirmation that they are in fact weapons of terror, instruments of unaccountable power that provide a fantasy of security and ‘surgical’ killing and destruction in a murky war without limits and without end.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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