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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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In the world of weaponry, they are the sexiest things around.  Others countries are  desperate to have them.  Almost anyone who writes about them becomes a groupie.  Reporters exploring their onrushing future  swoon at their potentially wondrous techno-talents.  They are, of course, the pilotless drones, our grimly named  Predators and Reapers.


As CIA Director, Leon Panetta  called them “the only game in town.”  As Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates  pushed hard to up their numbers and increase their funding drastically.  The U.S. Air Force is  already training more personnel to become drone “pilots” than to pilot actual planes.  You don’t need it in skywriting to know that, as icons of American-style war, they are clearly in our future -- and they’re even  heading for the homeland as police departments  clamor for them.  

They are relatively cheap.  When they “hunt,” no one dies (at least on our side).  They are capable of roaming the world.  Someday, they will land on the decks of aircraft carriers or, tiny as hummingbirds, drop onto a windowsill, maybe even yours, or in their hundreds, the size of bees, swarm to targets and, if all goes well, coordinate their actions using the artificial intelligence version of “hive minds.”

“The drone,”  writes Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, “has increasingly become the [Obama] administration's 'weapon of choice' in its efforts to subdue al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”   Inhundreds of attacks over the last years in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, they have killed thousands, including al-Qaeda figures, Taliban militants, and civilians.  They have played a significant and growing role in the skies over Afghanistan.  They are now loosing their missiles ever more often over Yemen, sometimes  over Libya, and  less often over Somalia.  Their bases are spreading.  No one in Congress will be able to resist them.  They are defining the new world of war for the twenty-first century -- and many of the humans who theoretically command and control them can hardly keep up.

Reach for Your Dictionaries

On September 15th, the  New York Times front-paged a piece by the estimable Charlie Savage, based on leaks from inside the administration.  It was headlined “ At White House, Weighing Limits of Terror Fight,” and started this way:

“The Obama administration’s legal team is split over how much latitude the United States has to kill Islamist militants in Yemen and Somalia, a question that could define the limits of the war against al-Qaeda and its allies, according to administration and Congressional officials.”


Lawyers for the Pentagon and the State Department, Savage reported, were debating whether, outside of hot-war zones, the Obama administration could call in the drones (as well as special operations forces) not just to go after top al-Qaeda figures planning attacks on the United States, but al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers (and vaguely allied groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al-Shabab in Somalia).   

That those lawyers are arguing fiercely over such a matter is certainly a curiosity.  As presented, the issue behind their disagreement is how to square modern realities with outmoded rules of war written for another age (which also, by the way, had its terrorists).  And yet such debates, front-paged or not, fierce or not, will one day undoubtedly be seen as analogous to supposed ancient clerical arguments over just how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.  In fact, their import lies mainly in the fascinating pattern they reveal about the way forces that could care less about questions of legality are driving developments in American-style war.

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