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Killer Drones Are All the Rage in Warfare

A neverending war on terror? Washington's war robots make it possible.

| Mon Oct. 3, 2011 1:47 PM EDT

Put another way, in the last decade, there was only one definition that truly mattered. From it everything else followed: the almost instantaneous post-9/11 insistence that we were "at war," and not even in a specific war or set of wars, but in an all-encompassing one that, within two weeks of the collapse of the World Trade Center, President Bush was already calling "the war on terror." That single demonic definition of our state of existence rose to mind so quickly that no lawyers were needed and no one had to reach for a dictionary.

Addressing a joint session of Congress, the president typically said: "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there." And that open-endedness was soon codified in an official name that told all: "the Global War on Terror," or GWOT. (For all we know, the phrase itself was the invention of a speechwriter mainlining into the zeitgeist.) Suddenly, "sovereignty" had next to no meaning (if you weren't a superpower); the US was ready to take out after terrorists in up to 80 countries; and the planet, by definition, had become a global free-fire zone.

By the end of September 2001, as the invasion of Afghanistan was being prepared, it was already a carte-blanche world and, as it happened, pilotless surveillance drones were there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for a moment like this, yearning (you might say) to be weaponized.

If GWOT preceded much thought of drones, it paved the way for their crash weaponization, development, and deployment. It was no mistake that, a bare two weeks after 9/11, a prescient Noah Shachtman (who would go on to found the Danger Room website at Wired) led off a piece for that magazine this way: "Unmanned, almost disposable spy planes are being groomed for a major role in the coming conflict against terrorism, defense analysts say."

Talk about "imminence" or "constraints" all you want, but as long as we are "at war," not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but on a world scale with something known as "terror," there will never be any limits, other than self-imposed ones.

And it remains so today, even though the Obama administration has long avoided the term "Global War on Terror." As Brennan made utterly clear in his speech, President Obama considers us "at war" anywhere that al-Qaeda, its minions, wannabes, or simply groups of irregulars we don't much care for may be located. Given this mentality, there is little reason to believe that, on September 11, 2021, we won't still be "at war."

So pay no attention to the legalisms. Put away those dictionaries. Ignore the "debates" between the White House and Congress, or State and Defense. Otherwise you'll miss the predatory magic.

 

Beyond Words

Within days after the news about the "debate" over the limits on global war was leaked to the Times, unnamed government officials were leaking away to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal on an allied subject of interest. Both papers broke the news that, as Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller of the Post put it, the US military and the CIA were creating "a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen."

A new base, it seems, is being constructed in Ethiopia, another somewhere in the vicinity of Yemen (possibly in Saudi Arabia), and a third reopened on the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean—all clearly intended for the escalating drone wars in Yemen and Somalia, and perhaps drone wars to come elsewhere in eastern or northern Africa.

These preparations are meant to deal not just with Washington's present preoccupations, but with its future fears and phantasms. In this way, they fit well with the now decade-old war on terror's campaign against will-o-the-wisps. Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal, for example, quotes an unnamed "senior US official" as saying: "We do not know enough about the leaders of the al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa. Is there a guy out there saying, 'I am the future of al-Qaeda'? Who is the next Osama bin Laden?" We don't yet know, but wherever he is, our drones will be ready for him.

All of this, in turn, fits well with the Pentagon's "legal" position, mentioned by the Times' Savage, of "trying to maintain maximum theoretical flexibility." It's a kind of Field-of-Dreams argument: if you build them, they will come.

It's simple enough. The machines (and their creators and supporters in the military-industrial complex) are decades ahead of the government officials who theoretically direct and oversee them. "A Future for Drones: Automated Killing," an enthusiastic article that appeared in the Post the very same week as that paper's base-expansion piece, caught the spirit of the moment. In it, Peter Finn reported on the way three pilotless drones over Fort Benning, Georgia, worked together to identify a target without human guidance. It may, he wrote, "presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify, and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans. Imagine aerial ‘Terminators,' minus beefcake and time travel."

In a New York Review of Books piece with a similarly admiring edge (and who wouldn't admire such staggering technological advances), Christian Caryl writes:

"Researchers are now testing UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] that mimic hummingbirds or seagulls; one model under development can fit on a pencil eraser. There is much speculation about linking small drones or robots together into ‘swarms'—clouds or crowds of machines that would share their intelligence, like a hive mind, and have the capability to converge instantly on identified targets. This might seem like science fiction, but it is probably not that far away."

Admittedly, drones still can't have sex. Not yet anyway. And they can't choose which humans they are sent to kill. Not so far. But sex and the single drone aside, all of this and more may, in the coming decades, become—if you don't mind my using the word—imminent. It may be the reality in the skies over all our heads.

It's true that the machines of war the Obama administration is now rushing headlong to deploy cannot yet operate themselves, but they are already—in Ralph Waldo Emerson's words—"in the saddle, and ride mankind." Their "desire" to be deployed and used is driving policy in Washington—and increasingly elsewhere as well. Think of this as the Drone Imperative.

If you want to fight over definitions, there's only one worth fighting over: not the phrase "the Global War on Terror," which the Obama administration tossed aside to no effect whatsoever, but the concept behind it. Once the idea took hold that the United States was, and had no choice but to be, in a state of permanent global war, the game was afoot. From then on, the planet was—conceptually speaking—a free-fire zone, and even before robotic weaponry developed to its present level, it was already a drone-eat-drone world to the horizon.

As long as global war remains the essence of "foreign policy," the drones—and the military-industrial companies and lobbying groups behind them, as well as the military and CIA careers being built on them—will prove expansive. They will go where, and as far as, the technology takes them.

In reality, it's not the drones, but our leaders who are remarkably constrained. Out of permanent war and terrorism, they have built a house with no doors and no exits. It's easy enough to imagine them as beleaguered masters of the universe atop the globe's military superpower, but in terms of what they can actually do, it would be more practical to think of them as so many drones, piloted by others. In truth, our present leaders, or rather managers, are small people operating on autopilot in a big-machine world.

As they definitionally twitch and turn, we can just begin to glimpse—like an old-fashioned photo developing in a tray of chemicals—the outlines of a new form of American imperial war emerging before our eyes. It involves guarding the empire on the cheap, as well as on the sly, via the CIA, which has, in recent years, developed into a full-scale, drone-heavy paramilitary outfit, via a growing secret army of special operations forces that has been incubating inside the military these last years, and of course via those missile- and bomb-armed robotic assassins of the sky.

The appeal is obvious: the cost (in US lives) is low; in the case of the drones, nonexistent. There is no need for large counterinsurgency armies of occupation of the sort that have bogged down on the mainland of the Greater Middle East these last years.

In an increasingly cash-strapped and anxious Washington, it must look like a literal godsend. How could it go wrong?

Of course, that's a thought you can only hang onto as long as you're looking down on a planet filled with potential targets scurrying below you. The minute you look up, the minute you leave your joystick and screen behind and begin to imagine yourself on the ground, it's obvious how things could go so very, very wrong—how, in fact, in Pakistan, to take but one example, they are going so very, very wrong.

Just think about the last time you went to a Terminator film: Who did you identify with? John and Sarah Connor, or the implacable Terminators chasing them? And you don't need artificial intelligence to grasp why in a nanosecond.

In a country now struggling simply to guarantee help to its own citizens struck by natural disasters, Washington is preparing distinctly unnatural disasters in the imperium. In this way, both at home and abroad, the American dream is turning into the American scream.

So when we build those bases on that global field of screams, when we send our armadas of drones out to kill, don't be surprised if the rest of the world doesn't see us as the good guys or the heroes, but as terminators. It's not the best way to make friends and influence people, but once your mindset is permanent war, that's no longer a priority. It's a scream, and there's nothing funny about it.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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