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New flight plan on drones


By some strange fate, I read these books on drones at the airport. Seven hours stuck at O’Hare, to be exact, under vast prairie clouds the color of soot, with rain smacking the tall windowpanes, a domino of flights delayed then canceled, and passengers in full tantrum. I felt pretty Zen, though. A grounded, commercial, missile-free flight seemed harmless. That’s what learning about drones does to you: You’re grateful you can actually see your plane, and that it’ll have a pilot onboard, not thousands of miles away watching you on screen, weighing your mortality.

In 2000, the United States had about 50 drones. There are some 7,500 today, armed and unarmed. Meanwhile, our Air Force has reached a tipping point: More than half of their pilot-training graduates are now assigned to fly drones remotely, instead of manned aircraft. This new world has come on so fast, and so strong, that many writers are rushing to make sense of it, because the moral implications of new technology always trail its use. Perhaps the most moderate in my stack was “Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda” (Potomac, 2013). It’s by Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic history at UMass-Dartmouth and the author of a study that tries to pull verifiable statistics from vying propaganda.


Most people think the deal breaker isn’t that drones kill terrorists. It’s that they errantly kill civilians. The United States downplays these casualties, while the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Pakistani press inflates them. (Our drones mostly fly over the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderland known as the FATA, or Federally Administered Tribal agencies.) Williams concedes collateral damage, but says drones are “not clumsily killing mass numbers of civilians.” In fact, the technology is getting smarter and smarter: The non-military fatality rate “has plummeted’’ since 2004 to the point where it’s now close to zero, and he even quotes FATA locals grateful that drones take out militants so surgically. In other words, you can’t really oppose drones on the basis of imprecision.

Likewise, they’re arguably “the safest, most humane way to kill terrorists,” and their intimidation factor keeps on giving. Because of drones, the Taliban and Al Qaeda can’t communicate by cellphone; they can’t meet in large groups; they no longer run training camps. A dreadful irony here: Most drones pursue terrorists in the Muslim world, but they were first used, in the ’90s, against Serbian forces, on behalf of Muslims.


“Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control” (Verso, 2013) is flat out condemnatory, however (it’s got a blistering foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich). Author Medea Benjamin is a cofounder of the peace group CODEPINK, and if she wants to alarm, she succeeds. She reveals blunders: In 2009, a third of the Predator drones crashed, while in 2011, a computer virus infected Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base, the main venue for “Death TV,” to use drone operator slang. And she follows the money: In 2006, General Atomics, the San Diego-based drone manufacturer, funded more trips abroad for lawmakers than any other US company.

But big money and big blunders are true for any military technology. What’s different with drones, says Benjamin, is their versatility, their illegality, and their asymmetry. Let’s take versatility first: They range from hummingbird-sized devices to “Gorgon Stare,” which views an entire city. And they don’t just soar over terrorist zones. They also survey places like the Mexican border, and you can now buy a drone off Amazon.


As for illegality, that story gets more rope in “Killing Machine: The American Presidency in the Age of Drone Warfare” (New Press, 2013). Author Lloyd C. Gardner says that drones are an almost addictive form of covert policy. They seem so clean. You no longer need a Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, for instance. Drone strikes drain such civil liberties quagmires since you can’t “interrogate a dead man.” With weaponry this irresistible, though, you invariably get mission creep. At first, drones singled out leaders associated with terrorist groups; now we’ve moved on to “associates of associates,” as Gardner says. It gets stickier: Some associates are American citizens. And micro-gains can mean macro-setbacks: For every terrorist killed, a dozen replace them in revenge.

A few days after being stuck at O’Hare, I flew from Toledo, Ohio, back home to New England. Out the window spread endless plats of Midwestern cropland, all tawny, green, sunstruck. We were high enough up that I couldn’t spy trucks or tractors, much less people. It spooked me, this privilege of distance, especially because on my tray table sat “Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands” (Harvard University, 2012). Edited by Shahzad Bashir and Robert D. Crews, it features 13 scholarly essays that try to illuminate a culture “opaque” to drone cameras. The trite premise of a sophisticated West vs. savage Afghanistan-Pakistan is “simplistic, inaccurate, and alarmingly dehumanizing,” they write. My consciousness gained altitude: I had no idea the Pashtuns had their own Gandhian-style nonviolence movement, or that Pakistani trucks are painted with gloriously intricate designs (what pleasure to get lost in the photos).


As my plane lifted above Toledo, the Ohio Air National Guard Base fanned out below, and it reminded me that the obvious plus for drones — they allow us to remove our soldiers from danger — turns out to be a minus in other, deeper respects. This paradox infuses “Killing Without Heart: Limits on Robotic Warfare in an Age of Persistent Conflict” (Potomac, 2013). The author is Air Force Colonel M. Shane Riza, and he offers the troubled warrior perspective. Like Benjamin, Riza feels that one powerful ethical drawback to drones is their very asymmetry. Because it keeps our military out of harm’s way while keeping our enemy decidedly in it, there’s no counterweight to our new normal of perpetual assassinations. The president essentially conducts a nano-war, one strike at a time, without real congressional oversight or significant blowback from the public. No body bags, no protests. So here’s the question we must ask, says Riza: “[I]s there a point when our technology robs us of what it means to go to war?”

But “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century” (Penguin, 2009) cautions that our blithe days of impunity, much less our monopoly on the technology, are numbered. Other countries are getting drones and who’s to say terrorists won’t, one day, send one over Los Angeles? In the meantime, we have to grapple with the psychological disconnect of our stateside drone operators who kill enemy combatants in the morning, and go home to their kids that night. Plus, there’s never a Game Over. As author P. W. Singer writes, “It’s war o’clock somewhere.”


The most thoughtful of all my books was a joint effort by two professors, a political scientist (Sarah Kreps, Cornell) and a philosopher (John Kaag, UMass Lowell). “Drone Warfare” (Polity, 2014) holds that there are no meaningful restraints on this new militarism. Citing everyone from Kant to Hillary Clinton to Isaac Asimov, the authors believe “[t]he rhetoric and moral thinking about war has become sloppier as our weaponry has become more precise.” Just as the international community woke up and set limits on nuclear and biological warfare, so must it now tackle drone warfare. And the United States should initiate this self-restraint, before we’re boomeranged by unchecked drone combat from others.

As I shut my last book, somewhere over the jade folds of the Berkshires, I thought that you can read all you want about technology and philosophy, but drones do kill bystanders still, and this hard fact cannot be softened by abstraction. One of the worst incidents took place in Yemen, in 2013, when our drones targeted terrorists in a convoy. It now appears some of the victims probably weren’t militants at all. They were traveling for a wedding. Just like me.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@ comcast.net.