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Why the Boosters of US Empire Swoon Over Killer Drones

When we send our armadas of drones out to kill, don’t be surprised if the rest of the world doesn’t see us as the good guys or the heroes.

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A new base, it seems, is being constructed  in Ethiopia, another somewhere in the vicinity of Yemen (possibly in  Saudi Arabia), and a third reopened on the  Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean -- all clearly intended for the escalating drone wars in Yemen and Somalia, and perhaps drone wars to come elsewhere in eastern or northern Africa.

These preparations are meant to deal not just with Washington’s present preoccupations, but with its future fears and phantasms.  In this way, they fit well with the now decade-old war on terror’s campaign against  will-o-the-wisps.  Julian Barnes of the  Wall Street Journal, for example, quotes an unnamed “senior U.S. official” as saying: "We do not know enough about the leaders of the al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa.  Is there a guy out there saying, 'I am the future of al-Qaeda'? Who is the next Osama bin Laden?”  We don’t yet know, but wherever he is, our drones will be ready for him.

All of this, in turn, fits well with the Pentagon’s “legal” position, mentioned by the  Times’Savage, of “trying to maintain maximum theoretical flexibility.”  It’s a kind of  Field-of-Dreamsargument: if you build them, they will come.

It’s simple enough.  The machines (and their creators and supporters in the military-industrial complex) are decades ahead of the government officials who theoretically direct and oversee them.  “ A Future for Drones: Automated Killing,” an enthusiastic article that appeared in the Post the very same week as that paper’s base-expansion piece, caught the spirit of the moment.  In it, Peter Finn reported on the way three pilotless drones over Fort Benning, Georgia, worked together to identify a target without human guidance. It may, he wrote, “presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify, and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans. Imagine aerial ‘Terminators,’ minus beefcake and time travel.”

In a  New York Review of Books piece with a similarly admiring edge (and who wouldn’t admire such staggering technological advances), Christian Caryl  writes:

“Researchers are now testing UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] that mimic hummingbirds or seagulls; one model under development can fit on a pencil eraser. There is much speculation about linking small drones or robots together into ‘swarms’ -- clouds or crowds of machines that would share their intelligence, like a hive mind, and have the capability to converge instantly on identified targets. This might seem like science fiction, but it is probably not that far away.”


Admittedly, drones still can’t have sex.  Not yet anyway.  And they can’t choose which humans they are sent to kill.  Not so far.  But sex and the single drone aside, all of this and more may, in the coming decades, become -- if you don’t mind my using the word -- imminent.  It may be the reality in the skies over all our heads.

It’s true that the machines of war the Obama administration is now rushing headlong to deploy cannot yet operate themselves, but they are already -- in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words -- “in the saddle, and ride mankind.”  Their “desire” to be deployed and used is driving policy in Washington -- and increasingly  elsewhere as well.  Think of this as the Drone Imperative.

If you want to fight over definitions, there’s only one worth fighting over: not the phrase “the Global War on Terror,” which the Obama administration tossed aside to no effect whatsoever, but the concept behind it.  Once the idea took hold that the United States was, and had no choice but to be, in a state of permanent global war, the game was afoot.  From then on, the planet was -- conceptually speaking -- a free-fire zone, and even before robotic weaponry developed to its present level, it was already a drone-eat-drone world to the horizon.

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