If war becomes unreal to the citizens of modern democracies, will they care enough to restrain and control the violence exercised in their name? Will they do so, if they and their sons and daughters are spared the hazards of combat?
— Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War (2000)
The drones are coming. Readers of the Syracuse Post-Standard know that the drones (a.k.a. “Reapers”) are arriving at our local New York Air National Guard Base at Hancock Airport.
These Reapers are a new level of aerial warfare. They are high-flying, sharp-shooting, 36-foot long robots. They are crewless – remote-controlled – aircraft. Although they are unmanned, drones do have “pilots.” Those pilots operate in front of computer screens in ground control rooms far from any target.
Last year our former Congressperson, James Walsh (R-NY), hailed the arrival of the Reaper. Not only will it provide a few jobs, but this killer allows, Jim said, pilots to be “literally fighting a war in Iraq and at the end of their shift be playing with their kids in Camillus” (P-S, 25 June 2008, page A1 ).
Drones surveil the US/Mexico and US/Canada borders. In Gaza, the Israeli Air Force uses them to assassinate Palestinians. In its various overseas wars, the US military has come to depend on drones to assassinate humans while bombing vehicles and buildings. Drones preying on Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan are piloted from Creech Air Base in Nevada. Beginning this November, Reapers will also be piloted from here in Central New York.
Because drones seem in the short term and within narrow contexts to reduce US casualties, some cheer them on. However – and this is essential – drones make war easier to initiate… and perpetuate. The folks back home wouldn’t even need to hear about the drones’ brave deeds. No thought-provoking body bags – at least not here at home.
Like many other high-tech weapons, drones are indiscriminate: they can kill offensively or defensively, invaders or resisters. They kill combatants and non-combatants, adults and children. Because most victims are civilian, drones are terrorist.
Terror isn’t just something “they” do. Perpetrators of terrorism can have dark skin or light, be “Islamic” or “Christian.” Terrorists can be states or non-state actors. Terrorist budgets can be scanty or vast. Terrorist weapons can be low-tech or high-tech. They can be launched from land, sea or air.
Like other forms of aerial warfare, drones may well spawn reactive terrorism. Because they kill and maim mostly civilians, drones incite hatred. Such hatred could lead to retaliatory strikes either today or when the victims’ survivors come of age. Those strikes could target any of the hundreds of US military bases bestriding the globe.
They could also target any of the domestic bases from which the drones are piloted. Like it or not, without our consent, Central New York is becoming part of the battleground. (Note: I have no desire to feed into the “fear-of-terrorism” industry, but Central New Yorkers ought to be aware that hosting drones may have blowback.)
Besides being indiscriminate and terrorist, aerial warfare is cowardly. Think about the various devices of aerial maiming and massacre (napalm, white phosphorus, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, cruise missiles…). For decades aerial warfare has been the weapon of rich, powerful, high-tech nations bullying poor, weak, low-tech nations. Apart from a steely will to resist, these latter nations have few defenses. So corrupted now is any notion of military honor that our war-besotted culture no longer even thinks about a “level playing field.” Seldom are warplanes used to defend a nation from attack or from threats to its sovereignty. Generally warplanes – robotic or not – are the aggressor, the violator of others’ sovereignty.
Drones raise cowardice to new heights. Unlike World War II bombardiers or pilots of other pre-robotic aircraft, drone pilots take no risk. Anti-aircraft artillery will never reach them. They shoot goldfish in a goldfish bowl. The various branches of the service use aerial weapons imagery – invariably phallic – to recruit gutsy, often idealistic, kids. In time many of them learn the hard way that enlisting has little to do with defending their country, defending “freedom,” or spreading “democracy.”
Many fail to come home intact. Few find glory, few find honor. Some then realize that only corporations – the organizational mirror image of drones – profit from war.
Drive out the Drone
Work with your local peace group to end the wars where drones are being used. At the Syracue Peace Council we seek to demystify the macho militarism that permeates our culture. We seek to expose the emperor’s nakedness. The Peace Council staunchly opposes “our” overseas wars. Only in macho fantasy can more war make this a better world. Like cancer, war spreads.
Write letters to your Congress people opposing the Reaper. Even better: write letters to the editor. A published letter will be read, not only by the influential editors, but also by tens of thousands of readers. (And by Congressional staffers.) Since the Reaper will be piloted from Central New York, write to the Syracuse Post-Standard. Our local daily has publicized the Reaper’s arrival in more or less neutral terms; urge the editors to speak out against it.
And do your homework. You might ask your local library to order P.W. Singer’s, Wired for War: the Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2009). Be sure to read chapter 9, “The Refuseniks: The Roboticists Who Just Say No.”