Medea Benjamin Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control New York: OR Books, 2012.
A recent article in the New York Times, entitled “A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a Word Away” chronicles some of the psychological disturbances facing drone pilots, as they routinely confront an “enemy” across the world from the safety of a computer screen. While critics may argue that drones turn war into a video game reality, the piece seems to contend, the high-resolution cameras bring intimate footage of the people these pilots are attacking. An excerpt from the piece suggests that:
Among the toughest psychological tasks is the close surveillance for aerial sniper missions, reminiscent of the East German Stasi officer absorbed by the people he spies on in the movie “The Lives of Others.” A drone pilot and his partner, a sensor operator who manipulates the aircraft’s camera, observe the habits of a militant as he plays with his children, talks to his wife and visits his neighbours. They then try to time their strike when, for example, his family is out at the market. (Elizabeth Bumiller, “A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away.” New York Times, July 29, 2012)
There is, certainly, a great deal of truth to Bumiller’s presentation of the changing psychology warfare. What she presents, however, gives a far too sanitized picture of what is really going on. The extensive use of military and surveillance drones is not simply a minor adjustment in how soldiers carry out their “day jobs.” It entails a fundamental shift in how war is carried out and how it is perceived by both soldiers and civilians. And the idea that the only psychological trauma experienced by the drone pilots is the reality of having killed “bad guys, is absolutely false.
In Drone Warfare, a haunting piece of investigative journalism, Medea Benjamin puts to rest any illusions of drones being a more humane and precise way of engaging in war and points to the reality of human suffering, of villages being destroyed because of alleged connections to “militant” groups. People are reduced to demographics and mercilessly slaughtered by someone behind a computer a world away. And this happens, in the main, without even the formalities of war. It is instead an assassination program, of highly dubious legality, whose collateral damage or unintended consequences are the many destroyed villages, the wounded and the dying.
Benjamin goes into some detail describing the clandestine assassination program and its participants, the ever-notorious CIA, the mercenary group Blackwater (now Academi) and a secretive wing of the military known as the Joint Special Operations Command. These agencies execute their directives without Congressional oversight, a fact which Medea outlines as part of a broader erosion of democracy in America. Even American citizenship is no deterrent for the President ordering up an execution, as in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, who were assassinated by one of the CIA’s Predator Drones in Yemen in 2011. Benjamin writes:
Ironically, the CIA is forbidden under US law from spying on Americans – that’s left to the FBI. It seems that the agency can, however, murder Americans overseas at the behest of the president without so much as a whimper of “impeachment.” (Benjamin, 66)
President Obama emerges from Benjamin’s book as perhaps the most ironic winner of the Nobel Peace Prize the world has yet seen. If Obama learned anything from the Bush administration, Benjamin suggests, it was that you don’t take prisoners. Benjamin goes on to highlight the numerous ways that drone attacks are in clear violation of international law as well as the American Constitution. This was particularly evident in the assassination of al-Awlaki, where the “Law of 9/11” trumped all Constitutional rights and vestiges of legal process.
Behind it all is the insidious face of corporate greed. The drone market is a growth market, and is set to become even bigger. In the meantime, in the theoretical world of robotics, a brave new future is being envisioned when drones may be equipped with technology that can “hunt, identify, and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans. (Benjamin, 159)
Confronting the horrifying reality, and disturbing visions of the future, Benjamin raises a call to action. Governments must not be allowed to murder with impunity, noxious technologies should not be unquestionably accepted under the all-encompassing rubric of “security.” The barbarism of sitting in an air-conditioned room destroying the livelihoods of others thousands of miles away is perverse and will come back to haunt America. We must not allow killing to be made easy. Benjamin warns:
Drones aren’t a unique evil – but that’s just the point. Drones don’t revolutionize surveillance; they are a progressive evolution in making spying, at home and abroad, more pervasive. Drones don’t revolutionize warfare; they are, rather, a progressive evolution in making murder clean and easy. That’s why the increased reliance on drones for killing and spying is not to be praised, but refuted. And challenged. (Benjamin, 215.)
Drone Warfare is a clearly written analysis of the dismal reality underlying the banal rhetoric of the “war on terror.” It is a wake-up call to the ongoing, excessive, and racist violence perpetrated by the military-industrial complex under the (increasingly thinning) auspices of democratic government. It is a call to create a more human world.
Joshua Paetkau is a father of two and is currently living and working at the A’Rocha Pembina Valley Field Station, Manitoba. He holds a bachelor of arts in theology and social science, and is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.