Updated: July 22, 2013 21:15 IST

War from playstations

  • Swaran Singh
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Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control: Medea Benjamin; HarperCollins Publishers, A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301. Rs. 350.
Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control: Medea Benjamin; HarperCollins Publishers, A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301. Rs. 350.

Drone warfare gives American cubicle pilots a feeling of safety, but increases the proclivity for greater violence

ll new technologies remain vulnerable to misuse. Their inherent fatal flaws will have to be constantly rectified to maximise acceptance. Disjunctions between society and technology get especially complicated when First World technologies are administered to diagnose and deal with Third World problems. This ‘jump start’ is supported by the Third World elites trained in or inspired by the so-called First World methodologies. But the actions are disconnected from their subject populations and their traditional ways of life. Indeed, both generation and dissemination of knowledge have recently moved away from terra firma towards cyberspace and outer space, and existential focus has shifted from nuclear Armageddon to climate change — both equally fictional for the people being asked to pay high premiums to be secured against these doomsday prognoses.

This book by well-known civil rights activist, Medea Benjamin, examines emerging trends, likely outcomes, and long-term implications of the new boom in the production and distribution of one such emerging ‘new’ technology namely, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). She shows how UAVs have emerged as the signature weapon of President Obama’s global war on terrorism and how they are producing a strong backlash of anti-UAV movements. She especially reveals the role of the military-industrial-complex that completely manipulates perceptions of threats and their solutions. While only a dozen Americans have been killed by terrorists since 9/11, thousands die in road accidents each year. But trends in budget allocations to these two sectors show the power of ‘constructing’ discourses that determine national interests, initiatives and allocation of resources.

First prototype

The first prototype for today’s killer drone, the Predator, was built by Israeli aviation engineer Abraham Karem in his garage in southern California in the 1980s. It became popular for tracking refugee flows in the Balkan wars of the early 1990s and by the end of the decade NATO had begun to equip itself with these missiles. This ‘eye in the sky’ has since taken on a whole range of lethal and non-lethal roles from delivering surgical strikes to chasing smugglers, assessing earthquake or environmental damages. But it is their increasing acceptance as a favoured weapon for assassinating the so-called terrorists that carry earth-shaking possibilities, especially if rogue states and terrorists were to gain access to them.

The Predator’s infrared camera can identify heat signature of the human body from 10,000 feet in the air. From 8,000 miles away in Navada Air Base its pilot can be sipping coffee while monitoring an Afghan on screen without him ever suspecting it. With no crew and solar power to recharge it, drones can be airborne forever. They can fly to remote areas, can share data instantaneously and perform high-speed aerobatics. Compared to conventional fighters such as F-22 ($150 million) and F-35 ($90 million), a $5 million Predator is extremely cheap. As a result, even during the financial crisis, the U.S. has kept pouring money into drones. Indeed, when the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, it kept over 11,000 State Department employees and a 5,000-strong mercenary force to protect them as also a large fleet of drones making it a ‘new’ model of war-fighting by the intelligence agencies. Withdrawal from Afghanistan next year may see a repeat of the same exercise.

Hundreds of people were rounded up after 9/11 as ‘enemy combatants’ and detained for indefinite periods without charge or trial. Medea Benjamin believes that when Abu Garib and Guantanamo Bay exposed U.S. double standards, the Obama administration opted for a ‘Kill-don’t-capture’ doctrine. This was superior as it ensured ‘clean’ death of identified terrorists without tedious detentions or trials. It did not matter if it violated national sovereignty or basic human rights for justice and privacy. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force 2001, that was passed by the U.S. Congress barely a week after 9/11, empowers the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force to pursue those responsible for the terrorist attacks.” This was reaffirmed by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 thus transforming an ad hoc emergency measure developed after 9/11 into a permanent war.

The Obama administration apparently defines every military-age male in the strike zone as a combatant. It does not provide compensation to civilian victims called ‘collateral’ damage. Under criticism, it did offer for some in Afghanistan and some national governments also make such offers. But these are inadequate and often rejected by the victim’s families. Journalists never find access to the victims. Locals are reluctant to speak. Reporting on women and children is impossible. Male survivors who speak have no idea of their dead neighbours. Even high profile cases are manipulated. On August 7, 2009, a drone attack in the village of Zanghara in South Waziristan killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the alleged mastermind of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The reports never mentioned that when a missile from the Predator killed Mehsud, he was receiving an intravenous treatment for diabetes at his father-in-law’s house; or that it also killed his wife, her father and eight other civilians. There was no recall of this being the 16th attempt with earlier unsuccessful strikes having already killed over 320 people.

Future challenges

The Obama administration does not deem it fit to provide any formal explanation for its expanding drone strikes. It was only in March last year that his Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking at the Northwestern University School of Law provided a one-liner on why drone attacks had no geographic limits, saying that “we are at war with a stateless enemy, prone to shifting operations from country to country.” This was as a result of the groundswell of support for the anti-UAV movements. Activist groups like Creech 14, Hancock 38 and Ground the Drone Campaign in the U.S. are now inspiring others in Europe. Protesters use innovative strategies of entering Air Bases, demonstrating the impact of fake drone strikes in urban centres, and educating civilians and soldiers. They especially use courtroom trials to popularise their concerns. Then there are religious and peace movements and others that use the Freedom of Information Act to collate and expose vital information that follows lawsuits.

No doubt, not all uses of UAVs are bad. Earlier this month, drones were used in India to search for stranded pilgrims in the Uttarakhand flash floods. But it is this growing tendency of the U.S. to legitimise killer drones for state-sponsored assassinations leading to the internally growing demand of Homeland Security to equip their drones with non-lethal weapons to ‘immobilise’ domestic ‘targets’ that the book seeks to highlight. While drones may give the feeling of American ‘cubical pilots’ being safe and closer to homes, this war from ‘playstations’ increases boredom and proclivity for greater violence. It has also increased stress leading to family break-ups. In war theatres it has only reinforced the determination of ‘enemies’ to retaliate with their traditional methods and greatly facilitated recruitment of fresh terrorists, especially suicide bombers. It of course also undermines old methodologies of disarmament and diplomacy. And worse, it has triggered equally assertive civil society movements increasing the state-society divide and politicians like Imran Khan in Pakistan are asking why the state does not authorise hitting back at these drones even when they hit state forces.

(Swaran Singh is Professor for Diplomacy & Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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