Are the masters of "drone porn" committing war crimes by remote control? It's a bit shocking that more people aren't asking this question. I have a feeling that many of us, particularly liberal Obama supporters (like myself, for instance), haven't wanted to look too closely at what is being done in his name, in our name, when these remote-controlled and often tragically inaccurate weapons of small-group slaughter incinerate innocents from the sky, in what are essentially video-game massacres in which real people die.
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Predator and the Reaper, are small, lightweight, pilotless aircraft equipped to hover over hostile territory and survey it for controllers half the world away who watch the relayed raw video footage—the "drone porn." Cruising the skies over Afghanistan (and Pakistan, and Yemen, and Somalia, and who knows where else), looking for Bad Guys and firing missiles to vaporize them, drones have become the pre-eminent weapon in what was once the war on terror. They have been hailed for their cost effectiveness in killing terrorists or militants or whatever the preferred euphemism is now. (And, in fact, as I hope to demonstrate, the relevance of the euphemism choice has been overlooked.)
Drones mean you don't need to win hearts and minds if you're allowed to blow away the bodies of "the enemy" without risking U.S. lives. But at what cost? Few of us have wanted to scrutinize too carefully a program that holds out the tempting promise of "victory" and thus the withdrawal of large numbers of troops from Afghanistan sooner rather than later. Or to look at the downside: that drone slaughter—whether or not it's a war crime—is counterproductive, creating generations of potential terrorists from the families of the innocent victims of careless carnage. A 2009 Brookings Institution study estimated that for every "militant" killed, there were 10 civilian casualties. And critics have pointed out that each of them will have 10 grieving relatives who will become "militants" or supporters in all likelihood.
This may be the moment to face up to the drone problem. Indeed drones have been getting some renewed attention recently, although not the profoundly serious kind.
There was the clownish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acting with the puffed up grandiosity of the tiny barber in Chaplin's Great Dictator, swelling with pride as he introduced Iran's own drone, or a plaster-of-Paris-looking model of one, that he said would be known as the "Ambassador of Death" (serving under the secretary of hate, of course).
Back in the USA, we learned at the end of August that a Navy test of a new model drone had gone awry earlier in the month because of a "software issue." The Navy's own special "Fire Scout" test drone had gotten out of control of the drone-porn jockeys who were remote-piloting it in the vicinity of Patuxent, Md. The drone started wandering erratically toward—and then through—protected Washington, D.C., airspace. It looked like we might be attacked by our own drone! Control was regained before the drone could do any damage. But the episode at least suggested a better name than the straight-arrow "Fire Scout," such a wimpy name compared to "Ambassador of Death." How about "Ambassador of DUI"?
Seriously though, it was almost as if we needed a dramatic reminder of the drone problem: as if the Ambassador of DUI had been summoned by the guilt of the collective unconscious to remind us, "Hey, Washington, time to start giving some thought to the whole war-crime thing with the drones."
There has been some valuable reporting on the subject, notably by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker and by the legendary Nat Hentoff; Wired's Nathan Hodge and Noah Schactman have covered the war crimes issue; Tara McKelvey has kept track of drone developments and previously adumbrated the split in the military boy's club between COIN, the cult of counterinsurgency (the cult of Petraeus and McChrystal actually), which believes in "nation building" and "population protection"—long-war tactics will wear down insurgencies—and the rival cult of counterterrorism that says forget population protection; drone killing is quicker and cheaper.
In fact, if you ask me, neither will work, since we lack the time and will for nation building, even if it were doable, while the "counterterrorist" drones may well create more terrorists than they kill. Americans have a penchant for believing there is a solution to every big problem—"solutionism" it's been called. But here all the options are infeasible or bad. And so naturally we avert our eyes and hope the whole thing will go away.
True, many of us were forced to pay closer attention last January when the Pentagon (proudly!) released its first drone-porn clips on YouTube, no less. They were the drone-porn equivalent of snuff films. We hover from the drone's point of view over groups of men with beards and turbans and watch them as they suddenly and apprehensively notice that they are being watched from the sky by a hovering drone just moments before the "money shot" when the screen goes white with the blinding explosion that blows them to bits.
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