The Hubris of the Drones

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Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamat-i-Islami listen to their leaders during a rally to condemn U.S. drone attacks, April 24, 2009. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)

Last week, The New York Times published a chilling account of how indiscriminate killing in war remains bad policy even today. This time, it’s done not by young GIs in the field but by anonymous puppeteers guiding drones that hover and attack by remote control against targets thousands of miles away, often killing the innocent and driving their enraged and grieving families and friends straight into the arms of the very terrorists we’re trying to eradicate.

The Times told of a Muslim cleric in Yemen named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, standing in a village mosque denouncing al Qaeda. It was a brave thing to do — a respected tribal figure, arguing against terrorism. But two days later, when he and a police officer cousin agreed to meet with three al Qaeda members to continue the argument, all five men — friend and foe — were incinerated by an American drone attack. The killings infuriated the village and prompted rumors of an upwelling of support in the town for al Qaeda, because, the Times reported, “such a move is seen as the only way to retaliate against the United States.”

Our blind faith in technology combined with a false sense of infallible righteousness continues unabated. Reuters correspondent David Rohde recently wrote:

“The Obama administration’s covert drone program is on the wrong side of history. With each strike, Washington presents itself as an opponent of the rule of law, not a supporter. Not surprisingly, a foreign power killing people with no public discussion, or review of who died and why, promotes anger among Pakistanis, Yemenis and many others.”

Rohde has firsthand knowledge of what a drone strike can do. He was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008 and held for seven months. During his captivity, a drone struck nearby. “It was so close that shrapnel and mud showered down into the courtyard,” he told the BBC last year. “Just the force and size of the explosion amazed me. It comes with no warning and tremendous force… There’s sense that your sovereignty is being violated… It’s a serious military action. It is not this light precise pinprick that many Americans believe.”

“It’s a serious military action… not this light precise pinprick that many Americans believe.”

A special report from the Council on Foreign Relations last month, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies,” quotes “a former senior military official” saying, “Drone strikes are just a signal of arrogance that will boomerang against America.” The report notes that, “The current trajectory of U.S. drone strike policies is unsustainable… without any meaningful checks — imposed by domestic or international political pressure — or sustained oversight from other branches of government, U.S. drone strikes create a moral hazard because of the negligible risks from such strikes and the unprecedented disconnect between American officials and personnel and the actual effects on the ground.”

Negligible? Such hubris brought us to grief in Vietnam and Iraq and may do so again with President Obama’s cold-blooded use of drones and his indifference to so-called “collateral damage,” grossly referred to by some in the military as “bug splat,” and otherwise known as innocent bystanders.

Yet the ease with which drones are employed and the lower risk to our own forces makes the unmanned aircraft increasingly appealing to the military and the CIA. We’re using drones more and more; some 350 strikes since President Obama took office, seven times the number that were authorized by George W. Bush. And there’s a whole new generation of the weapons on the way — deadlier and with greater endurance.

According to the CFR report, “Of the estimated three thousand people killed by drones… the vast majority were neither al-Qaeda nor Taliban leaders. Instead, most were low-level, anonymous suspected militants who were predominantly engaged in insurgent or terrorist operations against their governments, rather than in active international terrorist plots.”

By the standards of slaughter in Vietnam, the deaths caused by drones are hardly a bleep on the consciousness of official Washington. But we have to wonder if each innocent killed — a young boy gathering wood at dawn, unsuspecting of his imminent annihilation; a student who picked up the wrong hitchhikers; that tribal elder arguing against fanatics — doesn’t give rise to second thoughts by those judges who prematurely handed our president the Nobel Prize for Peace. Better they had kept it on the shelf in hopeful waiting, untarnished.

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  • Saba

    Dr. Strangelove sits in a shadowy corner of the White House; he is chuckling. Now, can Slim Pickens ride a drone?

  • Liz Andersen

    The 14th amendment says that U.S. citizens are “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” For all you who don’t get it that means that your masters in the government can kill you if they want. I wish all you low intelligence government slaves would just shut up and do what ever your masters tell you.

  • Nancy A Murphy

    Governments that arrogantly and illegally use drone type weaponry are a threat to their own people. It is only a matter of time before drones are used against individuals within the U.S., just as they are now being used outside our borders.

  • Randy Lockdall

    As an American one must question the integrity and intentions of policies that intentionally disregard the :”Laws of War”. In this Democracy these policies that intentionally disregard the understood “Laws of War” and are allowed to become common place are the responsibility of the constituency to hold such leaders accountable.. less of course the Democracy ceases to exist.

  • Richie

    And now the anonymous puppeteers are going to be rewarded with newly named medals. I mean that is what you get when you advance to the next level of a video game. That is now what you will receive when you push a button from an air conditioned remote location thousands of miles away. The lines are becoming increasingly blurred between virtual reality and the taking of real life.

  • MBrecker

    Under current laws, Obama does have the power to kill “terrorists” within the US w/drone strikes. Imagine for a moment that he does, and then holds a press conference to tell the world. Who’s going to oppose him? I’ve kept you safe all this time. So what are you complaining about?

  • Ron Rapallo

    Dear Bill,
    I love watching your program weekly. I watch very little TV, but wouldn’t think of missing your program airing every Sunday in Los Angeles. I usually watch the program over and over again because you have such interesting guests from all segments of life and I need to watch and listen carefully to understand the terminology and significance of the discussion. You do a fine job of bringing out the best from your guests and not getting in the way of the messages they have to share with us, the public. Moyers 101 is my Continuing Education course in Political Science.
    As you profess to be, I too am an unabashed Democrat although I could vote for anyone I think has the interests of the common people in mind regardless of the party they are affiliated with.
    In regard to last night’s program I am responding to your request to tell what I feel about the use of more troops in the Near East or the use of drones to destroy or enemies.
    I think we should make more of a diplomatic attempt to settle differences with people who would destroy us and what we stand for, namely liberty and justice for all, although our highest national ideals have been badly compromised by rampant greed in high and wealthy places.
    Much of the antipathy we face is a result of political dishonesty and diplomatic ineptitude as well as the exploitation of nations and their resources by US businesses operating abroad.
    I sincerely believe we should negotiate with those who would destroy us, talk over our differences and come to a compromise that all the militants, including us, can agree upon. Why not conclude that we can make a different world that solves problems through rational conversation rather than murderous, indiscriminate slaughtering of people through troops, drones, or terrorism that convulses our little planet.
    Thank you, Bill, for your valiant effort and dedicated hard work to bring the truth to us in a weary world fraught with deception. Affectionately, admiringly, and gratefully yours,
    Ron Rapallo