Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?

Charlotte Keyes popularized this phrase, when she borrowed it for the  title of a 1966 article for McCall’s magazine in which she told the poignant story of an American draft-dodger who refused to accept induction into the United States Armed Forces, but also refused to run.  His evasion of military service wasn’t about cowardice or the inconvenience of the draft for some of the college graduates of those days who just wanted to get on with their careers (albeit in Canada). It was, clearly, a moral and ethical stand, and he knew full well the consequences. “Jail,” he told his exasperated parents, “is my destiny.”

And indeed it was. The young man that the article—told from the point of view of his mother—referred to only as “Gene” was sentenced four times to prison for his rebellion against not just the war of his era (Vietnam), but against every law that made possible the obligatory drafting of young civilians for any and all wars. At the last of his trials in which he was sentenced to three years in a Federal penitentiary for flatly refusing military conscription, he was quoted as saying: “There is no moral validity to any part of any law whose purpose is to train people to kill one another.”

Keyes borrowed the phrase in a roundabout way from iconic American poet Carl Sandburg. She was reminded of it when, in a 1961 letter to the Washington Post, James R. Newman of the Scientific American misquoted Sandburg in asking that captious question. In the original Sandburg version, it was a statement included in his epic, book-length poem entitled The People, Yes, in a passage of which he describes how a little girl watching her first military parade says, “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” But it was Keyes’ (Newman’s) version that stuck and became a rallying cry, bumper sticker and even a movie title during the rebellious anti-war protest days of the Vietnam era.

A Whole New Meaning. Half a century later, however, that once rhetorical question is taking on an entirely new meaning, one with sinister consequences regarding the rules of warfare and the onerous and inescapable moral responsibilities of those who order and conduct it. I’m referring here to the ever more advanced technology of war, which, within a relatively short period, promises to make the need for any type of boots–on-the-ground action obsolete for those who possess it, which are—and will be—only the most powerful governments on earth, and, in particular, the United States.  

In spite of President Barack Obama’s clearly liberal politics, his unquestionably humanitarian policies at home, and his efforts to rebuild the reputation of the United States as a fair and ethically responsible world power, the pressures for him to act as his predecessor might have in certain cases as commander-in-chief of the armed forces have been palpable throughout his first term in the White House. Nowhere has this been clearer than in his ever-increasing authorization of the use of “drone” unmanned aircraft in prosecuting military action. The exponential growth of drone use has sparked increasing concern among both peace and human rights activists, ever since drones started to be employed during the administration of George W. Bush. And far from being assuaged after the election of President Obama, such worries have only been heightened.

The fact is that although the use and production of drones has increased non-stop under both the Bush and Obama administrations, it has been under the current president that they have become a key part of the government’s military strategy and mushroomed beyond all reasonable limits. In the last decade, the number of drones in the US arsenal has skyrocketed from 50 to a reported 7000-plus. And in 2012, the Obama administration asked Congress for 5 billion dollars to build additional drones.

What’s a Drone? Drones are, basically, unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft. They are used for both reconnaissance and weapons-carrying missions. They range in size from the so-called “hummingbird”—a spy-craft so tiny that it can land like a bird on a windowsill to snap images and record conversations, and is capable of flying at speeds as low as eleven miles an hour, while carrying out detailed surveillance runs—to the large Predator drones used for bombing runs and targeted kill strikes.

US officials have referred to drones as their most effective weapon in the country’s war on Al Qaeda Islamic terrorists, and have reportedly used these unmanned aircraft extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to transmit live video of suspected Al Qaeda movements to American troops, as well as to carry out air strikes against the guerrillas. To what extent they are being used as an actual combat tool was made clear in a 2011 New York Times special report that quoted a specialized blog called The Long War Journal (which tracks US action in the Middle East) as saying that drones had hunted and killed 1,900 insurgent terrorists in Pakistan alone, without having to risk ground troops in the process. A drone is also reported to have been used to spy on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in that country, before a Navy SEAL special ops team was sent in to kill the Islamic terrorist leader. In April of 2011, Obama authorized drone strikes on armed supporters of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi and a month later, the use of drones was taken to a whole new level, when the CIA used a drone to kill US-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, an event that marked the first time the US government had approved the drone assassination of one of its own citizens.

The Downside. There can be little doubt that drones save lives on the side of the user force, but they are drawing increasing fire from human rights activists because of the detachment that they permit their (often CIA-directed) “pilots” and the increased possibility of civilian casualties that they engender.

Arguments against the use of drones are numerous. But the strongest one has to do with the clear fact that unmanned aircraft will tend to escalate war and violence worldwide, by removing many of the human risks involved for those who possess this kind weaponry. According to the same New York Times report, “Military ethicists concede that drones can turn war into a video game and, with no Americans directly at risk, more easily draw the United States into conflicts.”

The United States government has sought to portray drones as “surgically effective” in disrupting and destroying terrorist forces without causing any civilian casualties. However, not only human rights activists, but supporters of drone technology as well, tend to believe that this is more wishful thinking than fact. For instance, on August 12, 2011, New York Times newsman Scott Shane reported discrepancies between the CIA report of a May drone attack and information on the same incident as reported by both British and Pakistani journalists. While the CIA said that the attack had taken place in a remote area of Pakistan and cleanly taken out a vehicle and killed nine terrorists who were transporting bomb construction materials, the British and Pakistani journalists reported that the same drone rocket barrage had hit a religious school, a restaurant and a house, killing eighteen people. Twelve of these casualties were, indeed, Al-Qaeda militants. But also killed were six civilians who had nothing to do with the terrorists. That would make the “collateral damage” rate for this single drone attack one civilian for every three combatants killed.

Observations such as these by seasoned reporters have caused the CIA and Obama administration’s claims of the “surgical proficiency” of drones to be hotly disputed. Even drone supporters, like The Long War Journal’s editor, Bill Roggio don’t buy such claims. Quoth Roggio: “The Taliban don’t go to a military base to build bombs or do training. There are families and neighbors around. I believe the people conducting the strikes work hard to reduce civilian casualties. They could be twenty percent. They could be five percent. But I think the CIA’s claim of zero civilian casualties in a year is absurd.”

Blurring Legal and Moral Boundaries. Such has been the concern of the United Nations regarding Washington’s  burgeoning use of remote robotic warfare—and the obvious implications of the use of such tactics to all major nations—as to prompt a special report. The May 2010 UN report by international law scholar and human rights practioner Philip Alston, states in its summary: “In recent years, a few States have adopted policies that permit the use of targeted killings, including in the territories of other States. Such policies are often justified as a necessary and legitimate response to ‘terrorism’ and ‘asymmetric warfare’, but have had the very problematic effect of blurring and expanding the boundaries of the applicable legal frameworks.” More specifically, Alston’s report expressed concern about the use, particularly by the United States, of drone technology, pointing out that “…because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield” [according to reliable reports, frequently at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia] “and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio feed, there is a risk of developing a ‘Playstation’ mentality to killing…”  

Alston’s report opines that “…States must ensure that training programs for drone operators who have never been subjected to the risks and rigors of battle instill respect for IHL [International Humanitarian Law] and adequate safeguards for compliance with it.”

Sarah Holenwinski, executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a Washington-based NGO that gathers statistics on civilian deaths in war zones, says, “It’s urgent to answer this question [about drone accuracy and effectiveness in preventing civilian deaths], because this technology is so attractive to the US and other governments that it’s going to proliferate very rapidly.” And clearly, this is true considering the more than hundredfold increase in drones at the disposal of the US military in the past decade.

The independent UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism is highly skeptical of Washington’s assertions that no civilian deaths are occurring in supposedly “surgical” bombing and rocket attacks carried out using drones. It began an investigation after interviewing people in the Pakistani tribal region where many of the US drone attacks have been carried out and found out that at least 45 civilians had died in just ten of the drone airstrikes carried out in 2010. The Bureau has been able to establish with reasonable certainty that CIA-supervised drone strikes in Pakistan up to then had numbered at least 291 (236 of which—or one every four days—had been carried out under the Obama administration). It said that that between 2,292 and 2,863 people had died in those attacks (most of them low-ranking militants), that 126 named militants had been killed, and that 1,114 people had been injured. In regard to this last information, the Bureau claimed to have compiled a list of the wounded for the first time. The organization reported that it had gathered credible information regarding the deaths of anywhere between 385 and 775 civilians in the US attacks—or in other words, anywhere from 16 percent to 27 percent of all drone-related kills. The Bureau also reported being in possession of credible information regarding the drone-related deaths of 164 children.

Getting Back to Basic Ground Rules. Alston’s UN report reached numerous conclusions and made a variety of recommendations regarding so-called “targeted killings”, for any UN member state that seeks to justify carrying them out. Some of the most salient points of these conclusions include the following:

·        States should be required to publicly identify the rules of international law that they consider to provide a legal basis for any targeted killings they undertake and should specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture the enemy in question.

·        States should be required to make public the number of civilians collaterally killed in a targeted killing operation, and should have to describe the measures in place to prevent such casualties. Along these same lines, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should meet with member states including major military powers, with ranking representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and with experts in international humanitarian law and human rights, to work out a broadly accepted definition of “direct participation in hostilities.” (The goal here is, obviously, to provide clear criteria for differentiating between hostile forces and the civilian population).    

·        The report reminds members of the UN that all specific requirements under human rights law, applicable in and outside armed conflict, must be strictly respected and borne in mind. UN member states should also, the report indicates, disclose “measures in place to provide prompt, thorough, effective, independent and public investigations of alleged violations of law.” Alston says that while the legal framework should take into account the possibility of a threat’s being so imminent that any warning or graduated force might prove too risky or futile to consider (i.e., a suspect is about to discharge a weapon or make good on a suicide bombing attempt), “it must [also] put in place safeguards to ensure that the evidence of imminence is reliable...and “does not circumvent the requirements of necessity and proportionality.”

·        The report calls on states to provide their forces with a “command and control system that collects, analyzes and disseminates sufficient information for their armed forces or operators to make legal and accurate targeting decisions,” adding that targeted killings “should never be based solely on ‘suspicious’ conduct or unverified—or unverifiable—information…”

·        Finally, the Alston Report’s conclusions make it clear—since this was a frequent excuse for civilian deaths cited, for instance, by the administration of former US President George W. Bush—that “although the use of civilians as ‘shields’ is prohibited, one side’s unlawful use of civilian shields does not affect the other side’s obligation to ensure that attacks do not kill civilians,” even when doing so might serve the military advantage of killing the targeted fighter.

The naked truth is, however, that the United States only honors international law (much less the UN) when doing so suits its purposes. In questions of national security, even a relatively respectful and respectable administration like President Obama’s makes up its own rules when it deems this to be expedient. The question is whether a nation can still consider itself moral, law-abiding and exemplary when it supports and applies policies that justify as “collateral damage” the murders of innocent men, women and children. The burgeoning use of robotic warfare makes finding a coherent response to this question an urgent priority.        

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