Correction: A previous version of this article misstated when president obama ramped up the use of “killer drones.” It was in 2009, after he took office, not in 2008. This version has been corrected.
Karen J. Greenberg is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and the author of “The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days.”
By Andrew Cockburn
Holt. 309 pp. $28
New centuries tend to announce themselves with transformative leaps. The 20th century arrived brandishing the new pace and power of air travel and telecommunications. The 21st century rode in on the explosion of the Internet and all that it unleashed: instant connectivity across the globe, invasive surveillance powers and newly powerful missile systems. After the trauma of 9/11 seized Americans, the ensuing war on terror became the justification for untethered use of these new powers almost at the same moment that they appeared on the scene. Supercharged surveillance systems and long-distance missile delivery systems came to serve the most basic human drive — the survival instinct — in its most modern, aggressive and unaccountable form. Nowhere has this been truer than with the use of drones as weapons of destruction in this never-ending war.
In 2009, President Obama ramped up the use of “killer drones” as a mainstay of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Since 9/11 and primarily under Obama, more than 500 drone strikes have killed nearly 4,000 individuals both in hot war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and in countries containing terrorist havens — including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
For years, critics have railed against the injustice and capriciousness of killer drones, citing the lack of due process in selecting targets, the collateral civilian casualties that invariably accompany the strikes, and the backlash from the growing numbers of families and communities that have been radicalized by experiencing the strikes. But beyond these tangible consequences, the combination of technology and the policy of targeted killing has challenged some of the more basic ways in which human beings and political powers exist in relationship to one another. Now two new books suggest that the costs of killing by drone are much higher than we might have thought.
Both begin with transcripts from drone operators working in remote locations continents away from their targets and trying to decipher what they are seeing. In both, the “stick monkeys” have trouble distinguishing women and children from the high-value targets they are seeking. The limbs of the innocent explode alongside the suspected, while the drones ravenously target as enemies “the squirters,” those fleeing the original hit. But the human toll is just one aspect of the destructive impact loosed on the world by the use of drones.
According to Andrew Cockburn’s “Kill Chain,” the problems with drone warfare only begin with the pitiful ratio of terrorists killed to civilian casualties. Cockburn pulls back the camera to provide a wider historical perspective, setting the policy of targeted killing via drones within the larger context of the American military-industrial complex. From the repeated failures of the stealth bombing campaigns in the Kosovo and Vietnam wars, to the way in which the drug wars stepped in to perpetuate the security bureaucracy of the Cold War, Cockburn sees America’s killer drone policy as the culmination of a historical pattern of lies, deception and greed in the deployment of lethal military force around the world. Failing miserably to achieve the country’s stated goal of enhanced security, according to Cockburn, the policy simultaneously undermined the democratic process.
For Cockburn, the post-9/11 policy of targeted killing, far from being a departure, was but a continuation of previous U.S. assassination policy, observable, for example, in Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, where “the appearance of precision and progress” was “misleading.” Despite large numbers of killings, the targets often escaped, while innocents were killed in their stead. It was, to Cockburn, “an embarrassment, if not a war crime.” In every one of these engagements, he sees the military-industrial complex as living up to President Dwight Eisenhower’s ominous prediction of dire consequences for democracy from handing unaccountable power to the CIA and other agencies, and to government contractors that can benefit from plunging the country into conflicts where the connection to U.S. national interests is often tenuous.
Cockburn argues that, starting in 2006, the CIA’s “principal occupation had become assassination” as counterterrorism and extrajudicial execution became allies. To sugarcoat assassination, which is patently illegal, the CIA renamed the policy “targeting,” making it a mainstay of the agency’s counterintelligence mission. Three days into his first term, Obama weighed in heavily in support of the targeted-killings program, authorizing two separate drone strikes in Pakistan. Both missed their intended high-value marks, but the arm’s-length style of warfare that has characterized his presidency was thereby launched.
For Cockburn, the policy of killing by drone not only ignored lessons from the past, it also deceptively failed to own up to current mistakes. One of his many examples is Gorgon Stare, the “hit of the year” in 2011, a “revolutionary airborne surveillance system” that could be mounted on a killer drone and could scan an entire village through multiple cameras at the same time. The problem was that, according to Air Force tests and the Senate Armed Services Committee, this wonder-weapon simply didn’t work. It was nevertheless fully funded, and over the next few years, several billion dollars in contracts went to the well-connected aerospace company Sierra Nevada, which had devised the system with the expectation of being granted the lucrative contract.
Similarly disastrous has been the persistent pattern of bogus intelligence and the improvised coverups that inevitably follow. When killer drones miss their marks, as they often do, the instinctive response has been to lie to the public and to insist, until proved otherwise (which is next to impossible in some geographically remote areas), that the intended targets were actually struck. The pursuit of the Taliban leader Mohammed Amin, also a suspected leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, led to the killing instead of Zabet Amanullah, a man helping his nephew campaign in the elections of 2010. His death was particularly poignant because he had spent much of his life being tortured by various groups in Afghanistan in prior wars and was now participating in a democratic election. Amanullah was misidentified through a faulty intelligence analysis of personal information stored on a cellphone. Despite clear evidence of the wrongful killing, top U.S. officials continued to insist that Amin, who was actually killed months later, had indeed been killed in that earlier strike.
These policies, Cockburn says, have not reduced hostilities but have led to a seemingly unstoppable strengthening of radical insurgencies worldwide, a premise that the French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou shares in “A Theory of the Drone.”
For Chamayou, the killer drone is “a dream of a weapon” resulting in confrontation without combat, no prisoners and no sure expectation of victory. It ultimately exposes the trend toward the “material and political automatization of the bodies of armed men,” toward a new — and inhumane — form of warfare.
Chamayou begins by trying to imagine the larger impact of drone warfare on the human condition. He concludes that this kind of assault has radically changed the fundamental principles of war in a way that is harmful not only for those under attack but also for the attackers. Drone warfare takes away the traditions of battle, which by nature is limited and allows for reciprocity — the result being that killing is not a crime but an act of war. In drone warfare, the whole world is a “hunting ground,” the target is unable to retaliate, no quarter can be given in case of last-minute surrender, and only one side risks being killed.
Ultimately, drones are the opposite of warfare as we have long understood it: a warrior culture in which readiness to kill has been inseparable from willingness to die. With drones, the ethics of warrior cultures have been superseded, and the warriors have turned into invulnerable, cold-hearted executioners. In addition, the rules and values of counterterrorism have replaced those of counterinsurgency, blithely exchanging the so-called battle for hearts and minds with a staccato delivery of death from above. With drone warfare, there is no victory, just perpetual elimination, a “periodic reaping” that Special Forces operatives, Cockburn tells us, cynically call “mowing the grass.”
Chamayou tries to predict the long-term consequences of this policy on the human species and sees nothing but darkness. The use of drones to conduct warfare has destabilized the rules of war and weakened the moral fiber of warriors. Chamayou is troubled by drone warfare’s impact on the basic concept of reciprocity that underlies the laws of armed conflict, as well as further considerations such as distinction and proportionality. Ultimately, he reasons, the right to assassinate from the air is a “forceful distortion of the law of warfare.” By eroding the all-important principle of distinction, mixing up “combatants and noncombatants,” and defanging accountability for assassination, drone warfare has caused “a profound crisis in the legal theory of war.” The revolution is astonishing to behold, he says, for we are now living in an unprecedented age of “one-way-only armed violence,” that is, “war without combat.” Applying “norms designed for a conflict to slaughtering practices” makes for “categorical errors” and “ratifies a fatal confusion of genres,” Chamayou concludes.
Though vastly different in their approaches — Cockburn, the righteous political leftist carrying the torch of the antiwar crusade into current debates, and Chamayou, the moral philosopher looking ahead to the costs for a human society that has delegated its decision-making powers, and potentially its battlefield judgments, to killer robots — both writers see the same worst-case scenario unfolding. As military insiders have warned, tactics have swallowed strategy. Assassination by robot is bound to inspire rather than curtail extremism. In Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the war on terror generally, the lesson has been this: “Once you knock them off, a day later you have a new guy who’s smarter, younger, more aggressive and is out for revenge.”
All told, drone warfare is a crucial force in “generating chaos,” Cockburn writes, “a hard habit to break.” One could almost have predicted the emergence of the Islamic State from this chaos — hopeless, fearless and violent. Having helped to generate the crisis, America and its allies find themselves sadly — but not surprisingly — lacking a novel and effective response.