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Can We Stop the Military from Killing by Remote Control?

Drone Warfare: Jus Ad Bellum?

Photo Credit: Verso Books/


This review originally appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and is reprinted here with their permission.

Last May, during his address to Congress on national security, President Obama was interrupted by a woman’s voice from the floor. As captured on camera, the words of this disruptive questioner were at first barely audible but gradually gained in strength and commanded the room. “Can you tell the Muslims that their lives are as precious as our lives?” she asked as several men in dark suits, holding her by the arms, escorted her out. “Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activity? Will you compensate the families of innocent victims you have killed?” Finally, as she was pressed through the chamber’s exit, “I love my country. I love the rule of law. The drones are making us less safe.”

President Obama, at first somewhat ruffled by these outbursts, appeared to allow the questioning to continue for a time. When silence returned to the chamber, he paused to reflect, extemporaneously. “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” he said. “Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me and much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.”

The president’s interrogator was Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CODEPINK, a prominent women’s antiwar organization, and recently the author of "Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control." The event was captured on camera, of course, and can be viewed at any of a number of websites (including here).

Her book, "Drone Warfare," is a fierce polemic against the use of drone technology in warfare. Benjamin has next to nothing good to say about drones. Without relent, she hammers on the bad and the ugly of this technology. (The good, if any, she grudgingly acknowledges near the end of her book, perhaps for fighting fires or locating lost children.) Her rendition of the bad and the ugly is impressive: it is a cancerous multibillion-dollar growth industry for the military-industrial complex, she writes, a blind, thoughtless form of murder practiced by desensitized young men and women toying with the lethal equivalents of joysticks. It is fundamentally immoral, slaying innocent bystanders along with calculated targets (“collateral damage” in the parlance of the military). It makes enemies of America’s friends — not only because of the carnage of innocents but also for the unauthorized invasion of other nations’ sovereign territories.

At the moment, the United States has a considerable lead on drone technology. What will happen, Benjamin asks, when the rest of the world catches up (as it inevitably will)? How will the United States react when China or Russia asserts a similar right to lob drone-launched missiles into foreign territory as an act of “self-defense?” Will the United States be comfortable with the legal positions it has staked out at time when only it commanded this technology?

Published in the spring of this year, Benjamin’s "Drone Warfare" has proven prophetic in its insistence that the American policy of drone strikes may undermine relations with other nations. In his recent visit to Washington, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urged President Obama to end drone strikes on Pakistani soil (this, despite evidence that previous Pakistani regimes had authorized or at least condoned such strikes). A similar complaint was voiced by Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, who, in late November this year, threatened to hold up that country’s security agreement with the United States because of civilian deaths caused by NATO drone strikes. The CIA’s drone warfare program is classified, so the number of innocent bystanders slain is unknown, but Benjamin cites an estimate of between 3,600 and 3,400 Pakistanis killed between 2004 and 2012. If these numbers are correct, the carnage in Pakistan would be as great as or greater than America suffered in 9/11.