On May 23, President Obama gave a major address from the National Defense University, “On the Future of Our Fight against Terrorism,” in which he acknowledged for the first time the US government’s still officially secret program of assassination by remotely controlled drones. I was able to watch this televised speech from the privileged vantage of a federal prison on the last day of a sentence resulting from my protest of drones lethally operated from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri over various countries around the world.
Over the previous six months in the Federal Prison Camp at Yankton, South Dakota, I had watched from afar as the discussion on drone warfare emerged from the fringe and into the mainstream. Fellow prisoners brought me clippings on the subject from their local newspapers and kept me apprised of what they heard on the evening news. The American people seemed to be just awakening to the reality and consequences of wars being fought and assassinations carried out by unmanned but heavily armed planes controlled by combatants sitting at computer screens at stateside bases far from the conflict.
My own anti-drone activism began with protests at Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert in April, 2009. Even some otherwise well informed people were skeptical, back then, that such things were even possible, much less happening daily. Many who were aware accepted the simple and happy narrative of drone warfare as a precise new high-tech system in which soldiers from a safe distance of thousands of miles can pin point those who mean us imminent harm with little or no collateral damage.
Even some among our friends in the peace movement questioned the wisdom of focusing attention on drones. Must we protest every new advance in weaponry? Can’t we allow for methods that are at least improvements on indiscriminate carnage? Is not a precisely aimed and delivered drone attack preferable to carpet bombing? Is it not preferable to invasion? Does it make a difference to the victims, in any case, whether there is a pilot in the plane that bombs them or not?
The fact that four years later on the day before my release from prison, the president of the United States was defending the use of drones before the country and the world is truly remarkable. This is not a discussion that he or anyone else in the government, politics or the military encouraged or one that the media was anxious to take on. The fact that the issue is up for discussion at all is due to considerable efforts of the few here in the US and the UK in solidarity with many in the streets in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan protesting this foul weaponry. Communities of protest and resistance in Nevada, New York, California, Missouri, Wisconsin, England and Iowa thrust the issue into local forums, courts and media through creative actions and legal stratagems, effectively demanding that grievance over drone killing be heard. The president’s own speech was itself only rescued from being the cleverly constructed but empty litany of alibi, half-truth and obfuscation that it was intended to be by the interruption by our friend, Medea Benjamin.
In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., noted that often a society like ours “bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue,” requires “nonviolent gadflies” in order to “create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal.”
As with the issue of segregation 50 years ago, so today the parameters of discussion allowed by politeness and good manners or sanctioned by the police and courts simply cannot abide the objective appraisal of drone warfare that the times require. Such as it is, the discussion is made possible only by some who dare speak out of turn, as Medea, or who use their bodies to intrude on the orderly commission of criminalities in our midst. Before the president’s lecture drone warfare’s approval rating was at the top of the polls but a month later drone pilot Col. Bryan Davis of the Ohio Air National Guard noted a turn of the tide. “We are not popular among the American public, every other base has been protested,” he lamented to a local paper. “It doesn’t make you feel warm inside.”
The narrative of humanitarian war via drone had begun to unravel in the public eye in the months leading up to the president’s speech and has since fallen further into disrepute. Months before the president made the assertion in his May 23 speech that “by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life,” his administration had already revised earlier claims that the drone programs in Yemen and Pakistan had yielded zero known noncombatant deaths to one death to finally admitting to a death toll in “single digits.” By almost any accounting the noncombatant tolls in those countries have been at least in the hundreds.
Just weeks after the president spoke at the National Defense University, a journal published by that institution published a study that debunked his assurance that “conventional airpower and missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage.” Drone strikes in Afghanistan, the study found, were “an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement.”
Another assurance given in this speech, that “America cannot take strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty,” was discredited on June 8 when the US ambassador to Pakistan was summoned by the prime minister of that country angry over a US drone attack that killed nine people. “It was conveyed to the US chargé ď affaires that the government of Pakistan strongly condemns the drone strikes, which are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs. “The importance of bringing an immediate end to drone strikes was emphasized.”
“We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” Formerly the word “imminent” referred to something about to happen at any moment and using the generally accepted definition of the word one might construe in the president’s words a guarantee that drone strikes are used only to stop “terrorists” engaged in acts that would cause immediate harm to Americans. John Brennan, now director of the CIA, suggested in September 2011 that “a more flexible understanding of ‘imminence’ may be appropriate when dealing with terrorist groups.” This more flexible understanding of imminence justifies the assassination not only of those caught in the act, but also of targets who are suspected of having written something or said something to make someone think that they might have something to do with an attack on the US someday. A person who is caught on the drone’s video feed from 7,000 miles away as acting in a manner consistent with someone who might harm one day may now be eliminated as an imminent threat.
Referring to the killing of Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen in Yemen, the president assured us that “for the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any US citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process.” The general usage of the words “due process” would cause the misapprehension that the right of a citizen to have trial by jury before being executed is being reaffirmed here. “This is simply not accurate,” says Attorney General Eric Holder. “‘Due process’ and ‘judicial process’ are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.” The burden of “due process” can now be met when the president decides based on secret evidence that a citizen should die.
Drone technology is changing our language beyond redefining terms like “imminence” and “due process.” We have progressed, too, beyond Orwellian euphemisms such as naming an intercontinental nuclear missile “Peacekeeper.” These new “hunter-killer platforms” bear names like “Predators” and “Reapers” and may soon be supplanted by “Avengers” and “Stalkers.” The ordinance they deliver is a missile named “Hellfire.”
In Iowa where I live, the Air National Guard unit based in Des Moines has replaced its F-16 fighter planes with a Reaper drone control center. This transformation was marked by changing the unit’s name from the “132nd Fighter Wing” to the “132nd Attack Wing.” This change is more than symbolic- a “fight” by definition has two sides and the word implies some kind of parity. There is such a thing as a fair fight (of course the 132nd’s F-16s were used only on all but disarmed populations in places like Iraq and Panama) and a fight usually has some kind of resolution. An “attack” however, is just that. An attack is one-sided, something that a perpetrator inflicts on a victim. A fighter might sometimes be justified, an attacker, never. There is no “just attack” theory. The parsing out of innocent and guilty drone victims is in a sense a waste of time. All alike are victims.
George Kennan, might have seen this coming in a policy paper he wrote for the State Department in 1948. In order to preserve the global disparity of wealth post World War II (“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population”) he suggested that “we should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.” While the speech at the National Defense University was an embarrassment of idealistic slogans, it also used chilling pragmatism to deal with straight power concepts.
“For me,” the president said on May 23, “and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.” Those words had a truer ring a few days later spoken on NBC News by Brandon Bryant, an Air Force drone operator who confessed to being haunted by 1,600 deaths he took part in. Bryant admitted that his actions made him feel like a “heartless sociopath,” and he described one of his first kills, sitting in a chair at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada when his team fired on three men walking down a road in Afghanistan. It was night in Afghanistan, and he remembers watching the thermal image of one victim on his computer screen: “I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.” Bryant watched the man die and his image disappear as his body attained the ambient temperature of the ground. “I can see every little pixel, if I just close my eyes.” The remoteness of the drone warrior is no protection from the moral damage of war, and these people are victims as well, and it is on their behalf as well that we protest.
We cannot know the hearts of President Obama and those in his inner circle, but it is not hard to wonder whether they are truly haunted by the deaths of those killed by drones at their commands. If they may not be haunted by their own consciences, perhaps the responsibility of haunting them falls to us.