Do Real Men Fly Drones?

One man’s hammer of the gods is another man’s fire of the Great Satan.

The two fingers raised by a supporter of Pakistani religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami signify something other than 'peace.' (Photo: Athar Hussain/Reuters)

Jan 10, 2012
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Drones are the perfect way to fight a war, so long as you are not a child of some prehistoric tribe scuttling for a hiding place on a lunar-pocked piece of scorched earth as Hellfire missiles rain down from a flying death tube thousands of feet above. Even if you are a sworn militant, fighting America with the latest AK-47 or rocket-launcher technology, the unmanned aircraft spewing preemptive strikes upon you, and upon your neighbor’s wedding party, is only a proxy for your enemy. If by some unlikely trick shot, the attacking aerial vehicle is brought to ground, no foreign combatant dies. The drone’s pilot, enjoying air-conditioned comfort while seated in an ergonomic chair, might miss a bite in the pastrami sandwich that conceivably distracted him while his Predator or Reaper or Sky Warrior drone plummeted. The pilot will suffer nothing beyond a lackluster peer review.

If the typical U.S. drone strike were a scene out of Star Wars, there would be no question about which side of the conflict represented the villainous overlords.

Not to be counter-patriotic, but it seems counter-intuitive to celebrate a military device that allows freedom’s defenders to cruise above hostile terrain half a globe distant, and kill people all along the way, while entailing no more personal risk than a teenage girl takes on while playing Avatar: The Last Airbender. If the typical U.S. drone strike were a scene out of Star Wars, there would be no question about which side of the conflict represented the villainous overlords. In reality, at the very least, America’s ideals of fair play and good sportsmanship appear to be compromised.

John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, claimed back in June 2011 that the CIA drone program inherited from President Bush hadn’t caused “a single collateral death” in the past year “because of the exceptional proficiency that we’ve been able to develop.”

Unquestionably, the 230-plus airstrikes conducted inside Pakistan since President Obama took office have incinerated more than a dozen senior militant leaders, including key al Qaeda members. As ABC news points out, thousands of other people have been killed too. U.S. officials dismiss Pakistani human rights groups, and their reports of civilians killed by drone-fired Hellfire missiles, as propaganda “sponsored by Pakistani intelligence.”

Even best case estimates by the New America Foundation—80 percent of people killed by U.S. drones are militants—mock Brennan’s claim of no collateral deaths. Worse, Washington, D.C.’s Brookings Institution, in 2009, estimated that for every militant vaporized by a drone, 10 civilians were inadvertently killed.

Credibility is about more than numbers. The official U.S. self-congratulation on zero collateral deaths only amplifies an on-the-ground chorus of mourning in Pakistan for the death-by-drone of innocent legions, including 16-year-old Tariq Khan. Khan was killed by a missile fired by an unmanned aircraft three days after he’d traveled eight hours from his village to Islamabad to help activists document thousands of Pakistanis killed by the CIA drone campaign. Whose word carries more weight? Poor rural people incinerated on their back roads and in their front yards by remote-controlled aerial predators? Or faceless virtual warriors who launch high-tech marvels of risk-free combat?

The drone program is the CIA’s largest covert operation in three decades. Human Rights Watch has questioned the legality of its “targeted killings,” deliberate lethal attacks aimed at specific individuals. Suspects are killed under clandestine protocols, with no demonstrated accountability to international law. Human Rights Watch is lobbying to rescind the CIA’s drone command. HRW reasons that the Army’s video gamers should be flying the drones, because the Army has established procedures for investigating possible (probable?) wrongdoing. How investigative procedures will help 16-year-old Tariq Khan, and any children younger than him who have been taken out by surgically precise error and hubris, is not addressed.

China, India, Iran, Russia and Turkey are among countries that have or are developing attack drones. By what stretch of infantile imagination rationale can America presume the high moral ground and criticize any nation for misuse of robotic murder machines?

In December 2011, State Department officials revealed that the CIA had suspended drone attacks in Pakistan. That undeclared moratorium was touted as an effort to mend frayed relations with Pakistan’s government, which began acting unreasonable after a November 27, 2011, NATO drone strike, called in by American troops, killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

The drone shutdown could have just as much to do with the inability of America’s armchair pilots to endure the conditions of combat. Ergonomic seating, air-conditioned comfort and lack of all physical danger aside, a U.S. Air Force study found that one-third of active drone pilots complained of burnout symptoms and 17 percent exhibited “clinical distress.”

Comparable “clinical distress” figures are unavailable for villagers in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Yemen or any other distant land where lethal CIA drones hunt under cover of plausible deniability.

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