Drones are in the news thanks to a leaked Department of Justice memo outlining the legal reasoning behind the killing of American citizen and al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar Al-Awlaki.
For those of us extremely unsettled by the Bush-Obama policy of extra-judicial assassination by unmanned aircraft, it’s nice to at least see some major news organizations dusting off their mostly useless conventional wisdom-spewing megaphones to update the country on the government’s ongoing secret assassination program via robot. The secret not being that it’s happening but that no one’s allowed to know who’s being killed or for what reasons, other than those that the Pentagon or White House allow us to know.
With no chance for judicial review before the drone is in the air and on its way to blow up a target, the Obama administration has essentially cemented a permanent policy that theoretically allows for the killing of just about anyone. In northwest Pakistan we are likely creating excellent recruiting material for the next generation of disaffected young males—or at least those who were lucky enough not to be in homes that have been incinerated from the sky. When President Obama appeared in front of a group of children to sign his 23 executive orders and call for tougher gun legislation, it was hard not to think of the missions he’s personally approved that have killed and maimed children all over the Middle East, including al-Awlaki’s teenage son, who was murdered in a drone strike separate from that of his father.
For understandable reasons, there are not a whole lot of good numbers on this, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (that still exists?!) estimates that since 2004 in Pakistan alone there have been 2,400 people killed by drones, including 475 civilians and 176 children. If you want to follow a grim Twitter handle, try @dronestream, which is tweeting reportage of every American drone strike since 2002.
However, that does not mean the public debate—mostly happening on the left—has necessarily done justice to the conundrum faced by the political class.
Part of the objection to our drone war seems to be that the method sounds so sci-fi, so newfangled and precise, what with the President personally approving targets. Our sensibilities recoil from the thought of Obama, with his jealousy-inducing beautiful family, keeping a kill list in his desk drawer; that the president has said goodnight to his daughters on the same night a home with a girl Sasha or Malia’s age disintegrated into fire and rubble via American-made drone.
However, this is only because drones are visible, documentable, and dramatic. The fog of war is not. We would do well to remember that there is no sanitized version of war, only history making opaque all the atrocities involved in winning (or losing) one. With the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we heard of the revolting events in Haditha or Blackwater’s Baghdad massacre, but we rarely tuned into the more mundane murders of civilians, whether it was a family that failed to slow down at a checkpoint or white phosphorous incendiary devices burning innocent bystanders or any of the thousands of other underreported tragedies. Innocent people die in war because war is about murdering more people than the opposing team, and those two military misadventures saw no shortage of those killed or scarred in similar or worse ways than the—by comparison—highly limited drone war. The only difference is in the optics and the intimate nature of targeted assassination. In one we see a clear through-line from the dead in Pakistan to Washington decision makers. In the other we see a scared 23-year-old reservist tragically opening fire on a car with a similarly scared Iraqi family, but we do not immediately connect the thread to our political leaders in the same way.
The popular misconception of war has a long and florid history. I’ll never get over picking arguments with people who see the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki as the ultimate example of an unaccounted war crime. As if our fire-bombing of Tokyo where we were just melting people in the streets would have been any better, or how the Allies basically won the war in Germany by leveling that country’s targets both military and civilian. The war we so romanticize as our “good war” was partially won by engaging in the equivalent of aerial war crimes from Dresden to Tokushima.
But this is undeniably true of every major military conflict, from the psychotic carpet-bombing of Vietnam to the muddled inconsistencies of COIN in Afghanistan. Every American president, almost by definition, has left office with an awful lot of blood on his hands.