Why killing "criminals" with drones is a war crime.

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 31 2010 1:33 PM

Ban Drone-Porn War Crimes

Death by joystick is immoral and illegal.

Drone. Click image to expand.
U.S. Predator drone

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.

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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.

It's hard not to feel less than triumphant knowing that these men, whoever they were, were being cremated before our eyes by men and women who work in air-conditioned bases in Las Vegas (for the Air Force drones) and Virginia (for the CIA's). They put in eight-hour shifts sitting at video-gamelike consoles in front of screens displaying drone porn, which they attempt to synch up with the often inaccurate intelligence that we're fed from a variety of notoriously unreliable sources—the CIA, private contractors, and bribed tribal locals with a grudge. And then these men and women use their joysticks to target and annihilate suspected Bad Guys. The problem is that while they often succeed in killing alleged Bad Guys (if you believe the often inaccurate after-action reports that are always claiming they got the "No. 3 Taliban commander in the province" or some such unverifiable boast), they kill a lot of innocent civilians as well.

Even the military has been forced to admit that we have been killing innocents by mistake. You've read the stories of the Afghan wedding parties massacred by misguided drone-porn attacks and may have thought it was mainly Taliban propaganda. You may have missed this item in the New York Times from May 29: "The American military on Saturday released a scathing report on the deaths of 23 Afghan civilians, saying that 'inaccurate and unprofessional' reporting by Predator drone operators helped lead to an airstrike in February on a group of innocent men, women and children."

What does it look like when "inaccurate and unprofessional reporting by Predator drone operators" happens? Nat Hentoff reprinted this account citing "Drone and Democracy" by Kathy Kelly and Josh Brollier:

The social worker, who did not want his name used, described a drone hit in that area a year ago that killed three people: "Their bodies, carbonized, were fully burned. They could only be identified by their legs and hands. One body was still on fire when he reached there. Then he learned that the charred and mutilated corpses were relatives of his who lived in his village, two men and a boy aged seven or eight. They couldn't pick up the charred parts in one piece."

Of course, there's a lot of controversy over the percentage of noncombatants killed in the drone strikes. One study, not very convincingly, puts civilian casualties at slightly above 3 percent. Another says 10 percent, another a full one-third, Brookings far more. Do these different numbers yield different moral conclusions? Are the drone strikes defensible at 4 percent murdered innocents but indefensible at 33 percent? There's no algorithm that synchs up the degree of target importance, the certainty of intelligence that's based on, and potential civilian casualties from the attack. It's a question that's impossible to answer with precision. Which suggests that when murdering civilians is involved, you don't do it at all.

I found myself drawn into thinking about these questions in the course of writing a (forthcoming) book about the future of nuclear war, some of the reporting for which has appeared in Slate, which addresses the moral questions at the heart of our doctrine of nuclear deterrence. A doctrine that essentially uses the threat of genocide to prevent genocide. There are those who argue that even the threat of a nuclear strike is a war crime, and they have the backing of a little-noticed advisory opinion of the World Court issued in 1996.

Although drone strikes are obviously not the same as a nuclear strike, the principles that govern what defines a war crime in the body of international laws, conventions, and treaties (several of which, like the Rome Treaty Against Genocide, we have not signed), the principles by which one judges whether a weapon can be used in a "just war" way, are fundamentally the same when it comes to protection of noncombatant "collateral damage."

These are the principles that have caused human rights organizations, U.N. officials, and the ACLU here to object to various aspects of the drone program. These so-called "just war" principles have not been given much weight by the Obama Justice Department, which has glossed over or ignored them in giving its sanction to stepped-up drone warfare.

The two key "just war" principles are "distinction" and "proportionality." Distinction means that an act of war is illegitimate if it does not at least attempt to make a distinction between military and noncombatant civilian casualties. Nukes obviously don't, can't—despite all the rhetoric of the "warfighting" faction of nuclear strategists who believe nukes should be used the same as other battlefield weapons.

But can drones make these distinctions? I've read arguments that drones offer more precision than other battlefield weapons, because drone porn gives the Predator joystick operators more time to examine the targets intimately and cross-reference intelligence. But what they really offer is more precise views of less precise targets.

The "foes" in Afghanistan do not wear uniforms. I'm not saying all Taliban look alike, but the pious believers don't look very different from the "provincial commanders." Some have called the whole drone program "targeted assassination" that violates even U.S. prohibitions, especially when carried out by the CIA, which was supposed to be prohibited from carrying out assassinations. (The ACLU just filed suit over planned "targeted killings" of American citizens, such as radical Islamist Anwar al-Awlaki, who is now in Yemen and likely to be targeted by drones.)

There are other war-crime objections to the drone-porn killings, among them the prohibition on engaging in combat on the territory of a government with which we're not at war (Pakistan) and do not have the permission to wage war (Pakistan). (Turning a blind eye is not the same as giving permission.)

But "proportionality" is also an issue. If you look at the drone-porn YouTube clips, you don't always see the bearded guys engaged in attacking U.S. forces. Maybe they're planning to, but proportionality requires that the use of lethal force be justified by the imminence and danger of the threat, for which there is no evidence in the clips and likely only useless CIA intel to back it up.

But the Obama Justice Department issued an opinion on drones this April, saying everything was cool. No war crimes here, move along.

To which not enough people in the political and media world have replied "Bullshit," as they would have if George Bush had been carrying out indiscriminate—at the very least, carelessly executed—assassinations of a religious sect's members.

And there was something I noticed this time when I was rewatching the Pentagon's drone porn on YouTube: a minor but significant point in the case that drone-porn killings are war crimes. It's in the way that the videos are labeled by "dvids," a semi-official conduit of Pentagon videos. Check out the two of them you can see on Alternet: The first is titled "UAV Kills 6 Heavily Armed Criminals," and the second is titled "US Forces Kill Three Criminals and Destroy Rocket Rail."

Criminals? Did someone say criminals? The use of such a curious locution by an intermediary of the Pentagon, which supplied the drone-porn clips, was clearly not an accident. It suggests that "criminal" is the official euphemism we're using now for those we are at war with in Afghanistan. But since when are we spending a trillion dollars and sacrificing thousands of soldiers' lives to kill another nation's "criminals"?

This may be a throwback to the John Kerry "criminal justice" rationale for going after what were commonly known as terrorists. Criminals: it sounds like one of those Soviet-era euphemisms for anti-party dissidents. And it's self-subverting.

Criminals are by definition not enemy soldiers but people who have been arrested, charged with a crime, indicted, and convicted. If we call them "criminals" in the drone porn we distribute, in effect we are saying that we are not fighting a war but killing suspects convicted without a trial. What is their crime: driving while bearded? Loitering while being Muslim? Are they violating the strict gun-control laws of Afghanistan?

It raises serious questions about the war itself: Are we in Afghanistan to fight a religious sect because 10 years ago, when it was in power, it sheltered al-Qaida and might again in the future? Are, therefore, all members of the sect legitimate military targets? Are there no civilian Taliban, who, repellant as some of their practices are, nonetheless deserve protection from drone strikes?

Putative war crimes, repellant videos, porn mentality, the counterproductive creation of generations of terrorists: On grounds both moral and practical, the drone attacks must cease. Stop them now.

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