Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control by Medea Benjamin, OR Books, 2013, 241 pp.
Benjamin's clean, clear and austere prose demystifies drones, removing them from the abstract and contextualizing them in humane terms. She speaks to victims, and relatives and friends of victims; she takes the reader to sites of drone attacks and their often bloodied-of-the-innocent aftermath; she talks to those who pilot the drones from thousands of miles away and visits with activist individuals and groups who are working to end drones; she recounts histories of strikes on a terrorist or terrorists, and often a series of strikes, which succeed militarily in that they eliminate their target, who Benjamin often recognizes as no saints, but in the process pile up countless other innocent bodies.
We go with Benjamin to the very place of some of these massacres and witness bereaved relatives literally picking up scattered, broken pieces of flesh and remains for proper burial and the profound and bewildering effect on remote and tight-knit tribal villagers, the wailing of survivors, often mothers, wives and orphans. We see many instances of drone strikes gone bad, as for example the egregious massacre of some two dozen civilians in February 2010 who were mistakenly identified by surveillance crews as Taliban fighters, the November 2011 slaughter of twenty-four Pakistani soldiers, as well as mistaken raids on wedding parties and funeral processions, and their repercussions.
“Inside Afghanistan,” writes Benjamin, “I saw lives destroyed by US bombs. Some bombs hit the right target but caused horrific collateral damage. Some bombs hit the wrong target because of human error, machine malfunction or faulty information. In one village, the Americans thought a wedding party was a Taliban gathering. One minute, forty-three relatives were joyously celebrating; the next minute, their appendages were hanging off the limbs of trees.” If the gross injustices of these all too common events aren't bad enough, they also inflame resentment and hatred of the United States, and exponentially more enemies than the one(s) eliminated.
Benjamin notes the shirking of morality in a soldier sitting at a computer monitor thousand of miles away. She delves into the psychology of the severe stress drone warfare can put on a soldier, to witness and do what he does during his day job – which sometimes entails following family members much like his own family for weeks, only to see be slaughtered in a drone strike – from the comfortable safety of a computer monitor, and then go home to a placid family life.
Many countries already have drones or the technology to manufacture them, including France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and Iran; and like the United States have or seek to weaponize them.
Benjamin charts the history of drone use and notes that manned fighter aircraft are soon to go the way of the the pay phone. Counter-intuitively, notes Benjamin, drones require more personnel to operate than conventional aircraft because among other things they generate a surfeit of surveillance intelligence that takes large teams to decipher and act upon. Again counter-intuitively, drone warfare is every bit as expensive financially, sometimes more so, as conventional aircraft and air fighting. No matter says Benjamin, drones are politically expedient for those in power such as Barack Obama. Targets and victims that become the debris and detritus of a drone strike don't linger around to become ongoing political and public relations nightmares like prisoners and detainees.
Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk drone is what the military describes as a “high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system.” It was first produced as part of a $12 billion contract, but experienced huge cost overrun. Each plane costs a bloated $218 million. The factory that produces them, writes Benjamin, “employs just fifty people, suggesting that investments in militarism are not the best way to create jobs during a global economic downturn.”
Benjamin notes that much of the drone program operates outside the purview of normal military command, free from its checks and balances, and also outside the authority of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Indeed, at various times the drone strikes and surveillance programs are run by the ultra-secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the equally secret CIA, the military itself, and even private contractors like Blackwater now known by what Benjamin refers to as the professorial moniker, Academi. It's impossible to do a close financial accounting of the drone system because many of their costs are hidden in the black bag of the CIA and other organizations.
And Benjamin writes, the US military's and other agencies' use of drones extends to places where the US is not officially at war like the Philippines, Somalia, and Yemen. She explores the precedent being set by US use of drones. For example she wonders aloud whether it wouldn't be okay for a Venezuelan drone to take aim at an apartment building in Miami to target the self-admitted terrorist Luis Posada Carilles, who was convicted of the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner killing all 73 people aboard. Posada is considered a hero in the Miami Cuban expatriate community, where he has lived with impunity since 2005.