Drone warfare's deadly civilian toll: a very personal view

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Fri Sep 21 04:53:41 PDT 2012


Drone warfare's deadly civilian toll: a very personal view

I was minutes from ordering a drone strike on a Taliban insurgent b until I
realised I was watching an Afghan child at play

James Jeffrey	guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 19 September 2012 21.36 BST	

Predator drone in Afghanistan

A US Predator drone in Afghanistan. The strike in Somalia means armed drones
are operating in six countries. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

I find myself caught between the need to follow the drone debate and the need
to avoid unpleasant memories it stirs. I used drones b unmanned aerial
vehicles b during the nadir of my military career that was an operational
tour in Afghanistan. I remember cuing up a US Predator strike before deciding
the computer screen wasn't depicting a Taliban insurgent burying an
improvised explosive device in the road; rather, a child playing in the dirt.

After returning from Afghanistan at the end of 2009, I left the British army
in 2010. I wanted to put as much distance as I could between myself and the
UK, leaving to study in America (where I still reside). By doing so, I
inadvertently placed myself in the country that is spearheading development
in drone technology and use, highlighted by each report of a drone strike and
the usual attendant civilian casualties.

Political theorist Hannah Arendt described the history of warfare in the 20th
century as the growing incapacity of the army to fulfil its basic function:
defending the civilian population. My experiences in Afghanistan brought this
issue to a head, leaving me unable to avoid the realization that my role as a
soldier had changed, in Arendt's words, from "that of protector into that of
a belated and essentially futile avenger". Our collective actions in Iraq and
Afghanistan after 9/11 were, and remain, futile vengeance b with drones the
latest technological advance to empower that flawed strategy.

Drones are becoming the preferred instruments of vengeance, and their core
purpose is analogous to the changing relationship between civil society and
warfare, in which the latter is conducted remotely and at a safe distance so
that implementing death and murder becomes increasingly palatable.  James
Jeffrey serving in Iraq, 2004 The author (at far left) as a lieutenant
Challenger 2 troop leader in al-Amarah, Iraq, 2004. Photograph: James Jeffrey

Hyperbole? But I was there. I sat in my camouflaged combats and I took the
rules of engagement and ethical warfare classes. And frankly, I don't buy
much, if any, of it now b especially concerning drones. Their effectiveness
is without question, but there's terrible fallout from their rampant use.

Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the west
as a result of President Obama's increased reliance on drones. When surveying
the poisoned legacy left to the Iraqi people, and what will be left to the
Afghan people, it's beyond depressing to hear of the hawks circling around
other theatres like Pakistan and Yemen, stoking the flames of

I fear the folly in which I took part will never end, and society will be
irreversibly enmeshed in what George Orwell's 1984 warned of: constant wars
against the Other, in order to forge false unity and fealty to the state.

It's very easy to kill if you don't view the target as a person. When I went
to Iraq as a tank commander in 2004, the fire orders I gave the gunner
acknowledged some legitimacy of personhood: "Coax man, 100 meters front."
Five years later in Afghanistan, the linguistic corruption that always
attends war meant we'd refer to "hot spots", "multiple pax on the ground" and
"prosecuting a target", or "maximising the kill chain".

The Pentagon operates about 7,000 drones and asked Congress for nearly $5bn
for drones in the 2012 budget. Before retiring as air force chief of staff,
General Norton Schwartz was reported as saying it "was 'conceivable' drone
pilots in the air force would outnumber those in cockpits in the foreseeable
future". That's not a brave new world, far from it.

The encroachment of drones into the civilian realm is also gaining momentum.
President Obama signed a federal law on 14 February 2012, allowing drones for
a variety of commercial uses and for police law enforcement. The skies above
may never be the same. As with most of America's darker elements, such as its
gun culture, there's profit to be made b the market for drones is already
valued at $5.9bn and is expected to double in 10 years.

During my time in Afghanistan, drones were primarily supplied by the US as
our drone capability was miniscule in comparison. The British military still
relies on US support, only owning about five armed drones. They have been
busy, though: as of May 2012, the Ministry of Defence confirmed these had
flown a total of 34,750 hours, and fired 281 missiles and laser-guided bombs.

With continued cuts to the British army's personnel levels, it isn't hard to
envisage drones increasingly replacing boots on the ground. And since the UK
already has the world's highest number of CCTV cameras, the intrusion of
drones into surveillance Britain doesn't require much imagination.

Technological advancements in warfare don't have a good track record in terms
of unintended consequences. As Chris Hedges reveals in his book War is a
Force That Gives Us Meaning, an estimated 62 million civilians perished in
the 20th century's wars b "nearly 20 million more than the 43 million
military personnel killed".

Will the 21st century repeat such foolish tragedy? Many years still remain.
I'd argue we should err on the side of caution and remain immensely wary of

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