Posted 11:20am, June 24, 2010.
Bush’s Pilotless Dream, Smoking Drones, and
Other Strange Tales from the Crypt
Admittedly, before George W. Bush had his fever dream, the U.S. had
already put its first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drone
surveillance planes in the skies over Kosovo
in the late 1990s. By November 2001, it had armed them with missiles
and was flying them over Afghanistan.
In November 2002, a Predator drone would loose
a Hellfire missile on a car in Yemen, a country with which we
weren’t at war. Six suspected al-Qaeda members, including a suspect in
the bombing of the destroyer the USS
Cole would be turned into twisted metal and ash -- the
first “targeted killings” of the American robotic era.
Just two months earlier, in September 2002, as the Bush
administration was “introducing”
its campaign to sell an invasion of Iraq to Congress and the American
people, CIA Director George Tenet and Vice President Dick Cheney “trooped
up to Capitol Hill” to brief four top Senate and House leaders on a
hair-raising threat to the country. A “smoking gun” had been
According to “new intelligence,” Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had in
his possession unmanned aerial vehicles advanced enough to be armed
with biological and chemical weaponry. Worse yet, these were capable --
so the CIA director and vice president claimed -- of spraying those
weapons of mass destruction over cities on the east coast of the United
States. It was just the sort of evil plan you might have expected from a
man regularly compared to Adolf Hitler in our media, and the news
evidently made an impression in Congress.
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, said that he
voted for the administration's resolution authorizing force in Iraq
because "I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass
destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned
aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those
UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America,
specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard."
In a speech in October 2002, President Bush then offered a version of
this apocalyptic nightmare to the American public. Of course, like
Saddam’s supposed ability to produce “mushroom
clouds” over American cities, the Iraqi autocrat’s advanced UAVs
(along with the ships needed to position them off the U.S. coast) were a
feverish fantasy of the Bush era and would soon enough be forgotten.
Instead, in the years to come, it would be American pilotless drones
that would repeatedly
attack Iraqi urban areas with Hellfire missiles and bombs.
In those years, our drones would also strike repeatedly in
Afghanistan, and especially in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan, where
in an escalating “secret”
or “covert” war, which has been no secret to anyone, multiple drone
attacks often occur weekly. They are now considered so much the norm
that, with humdrum
headlines slapped on (“U.S. missile strike kills 12 in NW
Pakistan”), they barely make it out of summary articles about war
developments in the American press.
And yet those robotic planes, with their young “pilots” (as
well as the camera operators and intelligence analysts who make
up a drone “crew”) sitting in front of consoles 7,000 miles away
from where their missiles and bombs are landing, have become another
kind of American fever dream. The drone is our latest wonder
weapon and a bragging point in a set of wars where there has been
little enough to brag about.
CIA director Leon Panetta has,
for instance, called the Agency’s drones flying over Pakistan “the
only game in town” when it comes to destroying
al-Qaeda; a typically anonymous U.S. official in a Washington Post
report claimstold of drone missile attacks, “We’re talking about precision unsurpassed in
the history of warfare”; or as Gordon Johnson of the Pentagon's Joint
author Peter Singer, speaking of the glories of drones: “They don't get
hungry. They are not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't
care if the guy next to them has been shot. Will they do a better job
than humans? Yes.”
Seven thousand of them, the vast majority surveillance varieties, are
reportedly already being operated by the military, and that’s before
swarms of “mini-drones”
come on line. Our American world is being redefined accordingly.
In February, Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post caught
something of this process when he spent
time with Colonel Eric Mathewson, perhaps the most experienced Air
Force officer in drone operations and on the verge of retirement.
Mathewson, reported Jaffe, was trying to come up with an appropriately
new definition of battlefield “valor” -- a necessity for most combat
award citations -- to fit our latest corps of pilots at their video
consoles. “Valor to me is not risking your life," the colonel told the
reporter. "Valor is doing what is right. Valor is about your motivations
and the ends that you seek. It is doing what is right for the right
reasons. That to me is valor."
These days, CIA and administration officials troop up to Capitol Hill
to offer briefings to Congress on the miraculous value of pilotless
drones: in disrupting
al-Qaeda, destroying its leadership or driving it “deeper into hiding,”
and taking out key figures in the Taliban. Indeed, what started as a
24/7 assassination campaign against al-Qaeda’s top leadership has
already widened considerably. The “target
set” has by now reportedly expanded to take in ever lower-level
militants in the tribal borderlands. In other words, a drone
assassination campaign is morphing into the first full-scale drone war
(and, as in all wars from the air, civilians are dying in unknown
If the temperature is again rising in Washington when it comes to
these weapons, this time it’s a fever of enthusiasm for the spectacular
future of drones (which the Air Force has plotted out to the
year 2047), of a time when single pilots should be able to handle
multiple drones in operations in the skies over some embattled
land, and of a far more distant moment when those drones should be able
themselves, flying, fighting, and making key decisions about just
who to take out without a human being having to intervene.
When we possess such weaponry, it turns out, there’s nothing
unnerving or disturbing, apocalyptic or dystopian about it. Today, in
the American homeland, not a single smoking drone is in sight.
Now it's the United States whose UAVs are ever more powerfully
weaponized. It's the U.S. which is developing a
22-ton tail-less drone 20 times larger than a Predator that can fly at
Mach 7 and (theoretically)
land on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier. It's the Pentagon
which is planning to increase the funding of drone development by 700% over the
Admittedly, there is a modest counter-narrative to all this
enthusiasm for our robotic prowess, “precision,” and “valor.” It
involves legal types like Philip Alston, the United Nations special
representative on extrajudicial executions. He recently issued a
29-page report criticizing Washington’s “ever-expanding entitlement for
itself to target individuals across the globe.” Unless limits are put
on such claims, and especially on the CIA’s drone war over Pakistan, he
suggests, soon enough a plethora of states will follow in America’s
footprints, attacking people in other lands “labeled as terrorists by
one group or another.”
Such mechanized, long-distance warfare, he also suggests, will breach
what respect remains for the laws of war. “Because operators are based
thousands of miles away from the battlefield,” he wrote, “and undertake
operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed,
there is a risk of developing a 'PlayStation' mentality to killing.”
Similarly, the ACLU has filed
a freedom of information lawsuit against the U.S. government, demanding
that it “disclose the legal basis for its use of unmanned drones to
conduct targeted killings overseas, as well as the ground rules
regarding when, where, and against whom drone strikes can be authorized,
and the number of civilian casualties they have caused.”
But pay no mind to all this. The arguments may be legally
compelling, but not in Washington, which has mounted a half-hearted claim
of legitimate “self-defense,”
but senses that it’s already well past the point where legalities
matter. The die is cast, the money committed. The momentum for drone
war and yet more drone war is overwhelming.
It’s a done deal. Drone war is, and will be, us.
A Pilotless Military
If there are zeitgeist moments for products, movie stars,
and even politicians, then such moments can exist for weaponry as well.
The robotic drone is the Lady Gaga of this Pentagon moment.
It’s a moment that could, of course, be
presented as an apocalyptic nightmare in the style of the Terminator
movies (with the U.S. as the soul-crushing Skynet), or as a
remarkable tale of how “networking technology is expanding a homefront
that is increasingly relevant to day-to-day warfare” (as Christopher
put it in the New York Times). It could be described as
the arrival of a dystopian fantasy world of one-way slaughter verging on
entertainment, or as the coming of a generation of homegrown
video warriors who work “in camouflage uniforms, complete with combat
boots, on open floors, with four computer monitors on each desk... and
coffee and Red Bull help[ing] them get through the 12-hour shifts.” It
could be presented as the ultimate in cowardice -- the killing of people
in a world you know nothing about from thousands of miles away -- or
(as Col. Mathewson would prefer) a new form of valor.
The drones -- their use expanding exponentially, with ever newer
generations on the drawing boards, and the planes even heading
for “the homeland” -- could certainly be considered a demon spawn
of modern warfare, or (as is generally the case in the U.S.) a
remarkable example of American technological ingenuity, a problem-solver
of the first order at a time when few American problems
seem capable of solution. Thanks to our technological prowess, it’s
claimed that we can now kill them, wherever they may
be lurking, at absolutely no cost to ourselves, other than the odd malfunctioning
drone. Not that even all CIA
operatives involved in the drone wars agree with that one. Some of
them understand perfectly well that there’s a price to be paid.
As it happens, the enthusiasm for drones is as much a fever dream as
the one President Bush and his associates offered back in 2002, but it’s
also distinctly us. In fact, drone warfare fits the America of 2010
tighter than a glove. With its consoles, chat
rooms, and “single shooter” death machines, it certainly fits the
skills of a generation raised on the computer, Facebook, and video
games. That our valorous warriors, their day of battle done, can
increasingly leave war behind and head home to
the barbecue (or, given American life, the foreclosure) also fits
an American mood of the moment.
The Air Force “detachments”
that “manage” the drone war from places like Creech Air Force Base in
Nevada are “detached” from war in a way that even an artillery unit
significantly behind the battle lines or an American pilot in an F-16
over Afghanistan (who could, at least, experience engine failure)
isn’t. If the drone presents the most extreme version thus far of the
detachment of human beings from the battlefield (on only one side, of
course) and so launches a basic redefinition of what war is all about,
it also catches something important about the American way of war.
After all, while this country garrisons the world, invests its wealth
in its military, and fights unending,
unwinnable frontier wars and skirmishes, most Americans are
remarkably detached from all this. If anything, since Vietnam when an
increasingly rebellious citizens’ army proved disastrous for
Washington’s global aims, such detachment has been the goal of American
As a start, with no draft and so no citizen’s army, war and the toll
it takes is now the professional business of a tiny percentage of
Americans (and their families). It occurs thousands of miles away and,
in the Bush years, also became a heavily privatized, for-profit
activity. As Pratap Chatterjee reported
recently, “[E]very US soldier deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq is
matched by at least one civilian working for a private company. All
told, about 239,451 contractors work for the Pentagon in battle zones
around the world.” And a majority of those contractors aren’t even U.S.
If drones have entered our world as media celebrities, they have done
so largely without debate among that detached populace. In a sense,
our wars abroad could be thought of as the equivalent of so many
drones. We send our troops off and then go home for dinner and put them
out of mind. The question is: Have we redefined our detachment as a
new version of citizenly valor (and covered it over by a constant
drumbeat of “support for our troops”)?
Under these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that a “pilotless”
force should, in turn, develop the sort of contempt for civilians that can
be seen in the recent
flap over the derogatory comments of Afghan war commander General
Stanley McChrystal and his aides about Obama administration officials.
The Globalization of Death
Maybe what we need is the return of George W. Bush’s fever dream from
the American oblivion in which it’s now interred. He was beyond wrong,
of course, when it came to Saddam Hussein and Iraqi drones, but he
wasn’t completely wrong about the dystopian Drone World to come. There
are now reportedly more than 40
countries developing versions of those pilot-less planes. Earlier
this year, the Iranians announced that
they were starting up production lines for both armed and unarmed
drones. Hezbollah used them
against Israel in the 2006 summer war, years after Israel began pioneering
their use in targeted
killings of Palestinians.
Right now, in what still remains largely a post-Cold War arms race of
one, the U.S. is racing to produce ever more advanced drones to fight
our wars, with few competitors in sight. In the process, we’re also
obliterating classic ideas of national sovereignty, and of who can be
killed by whom under what circumstances. In the process, we may not
just be obliterating enemies, but creating them wherever our drones buzz
overhead and our missiles strike.
We are also creating the (il)legal framework for future war on a
frontier where we won’t long be flying solo. And when the first
Iranian, or Russian, or Chinese missile-armed drones start knocking off
their chosen sets of "terrorists," we won’t like it one bit. When the
first “suicide drones” appear, we’ll like it even less. And if drones
with the ability to spray chemical or biological weapons finally do make
the scene, we’ll be truly unnerved.
In the 1990s, we were said to be in an era of “globalization” which
was widely hailed as good news. Now, the U.S. and its detached populace
are pioneering a new era of killing that respects no boundaries, relies
on the self-definitions of whoever owns the nearest drone, and
establishes planetary free-fire zones. It’s a nasty combination, this
globalization of death.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American
Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com.
His latest book, just published, is The
American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket
Books). Watch a Timothy MacBain TomCast video of him discussing the
American way of war by clicking here.
Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt