Book review: Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control

Medea Benjamin, a well-known anti-war activist and founder of CODEPINK, delivers an excellent overview of the complex themes of drone warfare in her book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, from tales of horror in Pakistan’s tribal areas, to stories of hope and activism in the book’s closing chapters.

The book excels at bringing to light some of the contradictions that define drone warfare: take, for example, the little discussed fact that unmanned planes need far more human input that manned planes—a 168 people keep a Predator in the air for 24 hours. Such is the appetite for drone operators that by 2011 the U.S. Air Force had converted seven Air National Guard squadrons into intelligence units, and was training an additional 2,000 analysts. In total, by the end of 2011 there were about 1,100 drone pilots and 750 sensor operators in the Air Force.

In a stand-out chapter on the military-industrial complex, Benjamin marshals her research to illustrate the cronyism that figures in Washington’s beltway. Just two months before the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel denounced the country’s targeted ‘assassinations’ against Palestinians. Yet this stance was not to last, as an assemblage of for-profit companies forced that word out of the lexicon of the popular imaginary. By way of an example, she charts the rise of the relatively small defense contractor, General Atomics. In the 1990s, General Atomics purchased the UAV company originally started by Abraham Karem. The Israeli engineer had been encouraged to develop a new type of spy plane by CIA director James Woolsey, who was unhappy with the intelligence from satellites over Bosnia. In 1994 the Gnat 750 was born; a predecessor to the modern Predator. By 2010 General Atomics had sold more than $2.4 billion worth of equipment to the Pentagon, most of that income coming from the 430 Predator and Reaper drones sold to the military. Yet the company, which employees 5,000 people at its Poway California site, didn’t gain political capital overnight. Since 1998, General Atomics has spent £21 million lobbying members of Congress according the Center for Responsive Politics. Lockheed Martin, creator of the aptly-named Hellfire missile (which costs $68,000), spent $142 million influencing the U.S. legislature between 1998 and 2011.

In ‘Pilots Without a Cockpit’, Medea presents snapshots of the lives and opinions of drone pilots, who very often work mundane 12-hour shifts. One operator was quoted as saying: ‘I kept hoping somebody would pull out a rocket launcher’; ‘At Least it would mean I was making good use of the Predator’s time and resources. Beside, blowing up things was much more interesting than watching men sit around in the dark smoking cigarettes, dancing and holding hands’. Flipping her attention to the other side of ‘Death TV’, Benjamin explores the lives of those people bombarded by Hellfires in Pakistan. These stories present the human cost of the ‘collateral damage’ that is virtually invisible in most accounts of drone warfare. Consider also a report quoted from Amnesty International, which estimates over a million, mainly Pashtun tribesman, have been displaced from the tribal areas due to the U.S.’ covert program of targeted assassinations—inflaming ethnic violence in Karachi. Indeed, Madea constantly highlights the ‘blowback’ that trails drone warfare like a bloody shadow. The legal ramifications, in particular, are a source of worry for the author. Not only is drone warfare illegal according to international norms, it sets a troubling precedent. In the fallout of U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki’s assassination in Yemen in 2011, many legal scholars cried Constitutional foul. Yet Obama’s top legal adviser, Attorney General Eric Holder, answered his critics in March 2012 by replying that due process does not guarantee judicial process.  Benjamin finds in Stephen Colbert, the satirical figure from Comedy Central, the most humorous and depressing take on this post-legal America: ‘Due process just means there is a process that you do’ (p.143).

The book finishes on an encouraging note. Despite the ease of which the Obama administration now wages drone war—circumventing, for example, the War Powers Resolution (which mandates congressional approval for war) in its attacks against the Libyan government in 2011—there is national and international resistance to drone warfare. In ‘The Activists Strike Back’ and ‘Opposition to Drones Goes Global’, Benjamin presents the various tactics used by activists to resist and delegitimize drone warfare: from ‘die-ins’ outside of military contractors, to the arrest of 14 activists belonging to ‘Creech 14’, whose trial brought national and international attention—not to mention sympathy from the proceeding judge. The anti-drone movement, despite being in its embryonic stage, displays a remarkable imagination in its quest for peace. Madea, herself active in the various efforts she describes, should be commended for a thoughtful and well-researched book; one that presents the very dark side of Droneworld, but is unflinching in its commitment to diplomatic and demilitarized solutions to the very problems that drone warfare continues to generate and exacerbate.

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One Response to Book review: Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control

  1. Pingback: CODEPINK 2013 Drone Summit | Understanding Empire

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