To Drone or Not to Drone? That is the question (but not the answer)
On Monday, the Writer’s Guild East partnered up with MOST Resource, or ‘Muslims in Film and Television’, to host a panel on Drone warfare with writers and policy makers to take a stab at whether or not these machines, being utilized faster than they are being discussed, have skipped over essential democratic policy making.
MOST program director, Camille Alick, a woman so attractive she could sell a sewing machine to a sewing machine salesman, has the enviable job of overseeing and mediating access for research projects between writers and all things Muslim (embassies, research subjects, countries), and is the liaison between domestic and foreign Entertainment Industry. Alick spoke about the need to curate public opinion of Muslim culture in the wake of what I call 9/11’s myopic, PTSD, fear-based thinking. Who better to curate and inform the public than writers? MOST has taken the initiative to educate and give access to writers so that more informed work can be available to the greater public. Curating intelligent well informed thought is never a bad thing.
The panel, moderated by Steve Inskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition, included Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative and senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institute, who also authored Wired for War, Children at War and Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, Catherine Crier, award winning journalist and anchor, host of The Crier Report, Fox Files, and Catherine Crier Live, and Jere Van Dyk, a journalist whose extensive experience also included being kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008, leading to his book, Captive (2010). (Sebastian Junger, Sundance winning filmmaker of the documentary, Restrepo, and The Perfect Storm was also supposed to be on the panel, but had to cancel last minute due to family illness).
Michael Wolfe, MOST’s director started the night off with the question ‘how do we weigh factors of drone usefulness?’ Usefulness is an interesting term to pick, because the drone isn’t a question, like is it right or wrong? It’s already here, already useful and already being used. Did we know we had a choice in the matter and did we ever care? And why don’t we care?
A ‘Drone’ aircraft is a small, unmanned aircraft that can be maneuvered from the ground long distance, equipped with highly developed surveillance fiber optics, long distance telecommunications capabilities, and often missile launchers. In extremely dangerous areas, these come in handy. But here’s where it gets hairy. Imagine a soldier sitting in a Nevada outpost operating a drone in Pakistan. He bombs the enemy remotely by day, then goes home to eat dinner with the wife and kids by night. This accurate picture of what is actually happening changes not only the practical and ‘useful’ aspects of warfare, because, yes, it is useful, but what else is it? The entire face of war as we know it is altered and more than a little disorienting.
MOST brings up the point that there has been no discussion about the complexities of drone use in the decade and a half they’ve been developed and deployed, and the question MOST asks is when military laws are assumed, no public involvement to take policy makers to task, what are we doing here? Being a pessimist, I would say it’s an idealistic approach to think that any nation that created Homeland Security or the Patriot Act would have any wiggle room left for something so lofty as Democracy. But, nobody likes a pessimist.
Catherine Crier made the point that ‘the decision was never made that we were at war with Pakistan,’ yet there we are bombing with drones. If there were to have been discussion, ‘effable, non-lethal alternatives’ could have been on the table. Peter Singer made exceptionally salient points throughout the night: that while this technology is changing faster than we can quantify, ‘our reactions to it are glacial.’
But MOST is keeping the conversation alive, and appears to be interested that we, as writers, keep it alive, too.
There is no need to wonder why drones get so much approval. Singer says that ‘Drone Warfare is absolutely seductive.’ It certainly hits home in terms of Western culture’s romance with war in the movies/media. Americans (even Democrats) are pioneers at heart and tend to fall in line with the inevitability of technological advancement in all areas. No one questions this and the assumption has been ‘we’ll get there first,’ like in the race to the moon. In this hero-ization of pioneering technology, rooted in long standing Hollywood imagery, the military gets a free pass.
We’ve been primed for this advancement, as a culture, raised on a diet of Sci-Fi musings. My own particular favorites, Starship Troopers, Blade Runner, Terminator, Total Recall, Eternal Sunshine, have shaped my personal expectations of technology, and this brand of entertainment has rooted itself deeply in popular culture’s subconscious, from the ’60s on up.
In Blade Runner, photo enhancement technology was displayed in 3D, so ‘Decker’ could turn corners in the photograph. Now, Lytro Light Field has come out with a camera that captures endless focal planes and can change focus in an image after the fact. It won’t be much longer until we can do a 95 degree turn within an image. In Total Recall and Eternal Sunshine, we see play in identity through memory manipulation, which can create elaborate new narratives within each characters trajectory. In the article, Movies in the Cortical Theater, one can now magnetically scan brain waves with MRIs for a close to reliable image taken from test subject’s memory of the movie they were watching. How much longer until we can scan and manipulate the entire memory?
Today we’re absolutely sold on technology, and see it more often than not, as heroic. In Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, who didn’t love Jeremy Renner in that Michelin Man get-up, going to disarm bombs with his Bomb-Bot, then almost cry when the Bomb-Bot’s little cart lost its wheel? And who isn’t curious about what kind of renegade rogue hero Bigelow will be portraying in her much awaited next Bin Laden movie, anticipating the war gadgetry? It isn’t Sci-Fi anymore.
Another drone selling point is safety. What parent of a soldier wouldn’t rejoice at the idea of their sons or daughters being posted to drone duty, far out of harm’s way? But what used to be the horror of American parents- their kids staring zombie-like at the television for endless hours playing mindless video games, is now the new horror, that this mindless practice has sculpted today’s killing force. It’s the new American Gothic: easy joystick killing, removed from face to face combat, and the real issue is that it’s doing something very strange to us as a people and our notion of war, almost like we’re creating fiction by blowing someone up through a television monitor.
Catherine Crier calls it ‘Antiseptic Violence,’ one which we have allowed no time to consider the impact of. She used the word ‘pause’ liberally, but as a culture, do we pause for anything? Strangely, her position seems behind the times, like to pause means to miss something, or more astutely, be run over by something that’s already coming, like a fast locomotive with a lot of momentum. I’m not saying she’s wrong, but we can’t even guess at the kinds of technology to come in just the months ahead, ‘so why fight it?’- appears to be our culture’s attitude. We are fascinated.
Mark Bowden can see no downside to drone use. To him, it’s highly efficient warfare that reduces costs (less missiles/less lives lost), eliminates guesswork by guaranteeing the legitimacy of each military hit (surveillance can last as long as you want, twenty four hours or twenty four days), minimizes collateral damage (targeting precision instruments), with a bonus of zero American casualties (no pilots). And unless we decide to abolish war as an institution, he says, drones aren’t going anywhere.
Bowden’s stance of ‘whatever keeps our boys safe’ is exemplified in Ridley Scott’s movie adaptation of his book, Black Hawk Down, where we follow a special ops aviation unit as it tries to capture the leader of the 2001 Mogadishu genocide, then watch as the unit gets brutally beaten to a pulp. We watch as real men, really feeling terror, who really get limbs blown off, while their best friends die senselessly before their eyes, get sent from one futile situation to another. Gruesome details of how many lives could have been saved if these were drone operated missions, not man-piloted Black Hawks.
In the outmoded form of hand-to-hand combat, senseless death is felt particularly by those who know that war hasn’t even been declared war. One BHD character states- ‘policy goes out the window once that first bullet flies past your face.’ Indeed, policy loses impact next to technology’s effectiveness. Bowden says insurgency may have ‘contempt for Americans in body armor, but give me the body armor.’ ‘It’s about the men beside you,’ Eric Bana’s character states as his idealist cohort struggles in the aftermath of the Mogadishu fiasco, ‘and that’s all it is.’
Peter Singer showed us fascinating, if not queasy video footage taken from a drone aircraft as it tracked two insurgents from two miles up, as they try to fire a mortar at unknowing Shiites near Baghdad. Singer joked about their modern mortar techniques, as one of the insurgents smacked the jammed mortar launcher. We laughed, but not for long. Following the drone’s camera’s jaggedy motions, we realized we were about to witness their unwitting deaths, which I must report felt very strange, and for lack of a better word, wrong.
But, the point of this video, Singer stated, was to show that context is everything.
We watch as the two insurgents get back in their car and drive off, pull up alongside another passing white car, roll down the window to talk, then drive off again. Mr. Singer said to us, ‘See that flashing cross-hair in the center of the screen? That means a missile has just been launched at the target.’ Just then, a passenger van cruises by filled with civilians much to everyone’s horror. With a sigh of relief, the van passes and seconds later the insurgents are blown to bits with the first hit. Now, in the American telling of the story, there was no collateral damage, and this was a righteous well researched hit on proven insurgents. And ‘what used to take multiple bombs, like in World War II, which would wipe out entire villages or cities, could now be achieved with one missile.’
But, what happens next in the video is the re-contextualization of a whole new narrative.
The second white car doubles back and picks the mortar launcher out of the burning car and tosses it into the shallow paddy off the side of the road. The passenger van doubles back and starts to haul buckets of water to put out the car fire, and a new narrative is tailored, which says- see? The Americans bombed another unarmed civilian vehicle, not insurgents at all.
Context is easily curated, malleable, and manipulated.
And, although there is still human error in drone usage, the numbers are down, exceedingly minimal compared to hand to hand combat. So why is there still such a question mark beside it? Crier says drones are fallible,’ but especially when there are added complexities of culpability: if the toll isn’t great for killing, what becomes the price of a life, in war or otherwise? In what she calls the ‘Play Station aspect,’ she asks- if war becomes that easy, with little impact on American lives, will it still be war? If it doesn’t have a toll on us, does war and killing become something else?
Steve Inskeep made the point that civilians are actually most impacted in that they are forced to be involved, that ‘villagers suffer by virtue of being there.’ Peter Singer says ‘everyone is thinking about and taking advantage of the laws of war.’ Our side says ‘we can fight from miles away with Apache helicopters- is that fair or warfare?’ While theirs ‘hides out among the human populace- fair or warfare?’
These two points are illustrated in a clip from Sebastian Junger’s documentary, Restrepo, which “chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.” We watch as the Sergeant in charge, a compassionate hero-type with an excruciatingly difficult job, leads his men into the aftermath of a drone deployed air-strike. All they find are turbaned old men holding dying babies, asking ‘where are your insurgents? We’re not insurgents.’ We then see a talking head of the Sergeant, who looks directly into the camera and says, ‘Damn!’ vivid pain in his eyes, ‘How can I make a more effective hit (knowing these civilians) are in some way involved?’
Peter Singer says that this technology ‘isn’t good or bad, it just is.’ And the astounding fact is that people think that in the hand-to-hand combat, WWII, heroic model of war ‘it’s a righteous hit if you hit the wrong man,’ but we question any hit when using a drone. It’s a fuzzy gray area where no one quite knows where the line should be drawn.
Jere Van Dyk talked about hearing the ‘lawnmower like engine’ of a drone outside the place where he was held captive. The insurgents asked ‘if it had a camera that could see through walls?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ Day and night he wondered if they were not bombing because they knew he was inside or if they were going to bomb any minute. When he got out, he asked those questions, and the answer was, ‘all options were on the table.’ It’s like having moral vertigo, we know we are really high up and could fall, but don’t dare look.
Peter Singer said ‘we need to be sure not to conflate tactic with technology,’ and that what no one is really saying or thinking is that robotics will cause all sorts of privacy issues.’ Catherine Crier said the NSA is already building the world’s largest surveillance spy center right now in Utah. When ‘the next great market that is thought of as a military product is going to be in the populace-what sort of spying will be allowed in the populace?’ One can already buy a drone app for an iPhone. So, it’s not necessarily drones we should be worried about, the really major technological advancements are in long distance telecommunications and surveillance. Crier also talked about ‘how the quality of enforceability of the Freedom of Information Act is in quick decline- without an element of citizen activism to inspire change in the political realm, and that grassroots organizations are the only way to pierce the increasingly opaque veil’ (hear that Occupiers? Put on a suit and step it up).
In the Q & A period after the panel was wrapped, Democracy Now’s social media fellow, Christian Stork asked what the panel thought about the unprecedented drone killing leak of American citizens, Anwar Al-Alwaki and Samir Khan in Yemen five months ago, and the government’s subsequent statement that because they were linked to terrorist organizations, it was legal?
Peter Singer said that there’s a ‘gray-out between political and military lines’ where it’s unclear what is the status of military activity,’ and that (Attorney General Eric) Holder’s testimony was ‘inadequate (and said the strikes) weren’t happening when there was a very public Google Plus conversation where Obama talked openly about them.’
Bowden says ‘you can go online and see (Al-Alwaki’s) testimonial that he was a terrorist, (but) why not strip him of his citizenship (first)? Why target him?’ Steve Inskeep says ‘there was some due process,’ and that the president asked for a memo, giving him legal grounds for doing what he wants to do.’ But, unless there was some secret panel somewhere, Holder’s statement was non-sense,’ and there were no alternatives on the table. Indeed, anyone can see Al-Alwaki inspired a series of bombing attempts by several Muslims. But here’s to the gray area, everyone in the Taliban is the son of someone who has been blown up by an American bomb, so round and round we go.
And when it comes down to it, industry seems to be winning. And drones are a big industry. How they are used is the struggle of the moment, and who gets permission to do what, with the ever present question of does it make killing too easy, but it’s the bigger trajectory that is at issue. Peter Singer mentioned that ‘Bill Gates would have gone into robotics if he could do it over, that it’s going to be the next great thing like the computer was for him. And in terms of human impact, also noted that ‘in the Air Force, they hate the term drones, that they call them remotely piloted aircrafts, because there is a human behind it, and the assumption the word drone gives off, is that there is no emotion behind it. The stress and burnout rate is higher than physically deployed soldiers, Singer says. And that ‘the Warren Buffet effect of- somewhere it’s war-o’clock, and some factory wonk’ (is blowing up people in the Middle East)- isn’t lost on the actual wonk who is deploying the bomb. It’s good we’re talking about it, but the train is on the track and it’s full throttle ahead.