photo above: Credit… Janis Laizans/Reuters
WN: Of course the use of drones–as any aerial bombing–invariably murders civilians–often vast numbers. Two classic studies of aerial warfare by Tami Davis Biddle are: (2019) Air Power and Warfare: A Century of Theory and History, and (2004) Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945.
With reference to drone warfare, the author in the first mentioned book cites Professor Rosa Brooks:
Professor Rosa Brooks explained, “to go after an ever-lengthening list of bad actors, many of whom appear to have only tenuous links to al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, and many of whom arguably pose no imminent threat to the United States.”1 This warning came in Brooks’ testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the spring of 2013.
Ms. Biddle writes further:
The work is carried out quietly and off the front pages of newspapers. This means that it has little immediate political cost. Thus, the strikes can have the appeal of a silver bullet — a low-cost, almost magical way to dispatch enemies. However, dangers lurk in this seductive appeal. One first-order question is simply about due process of law. The target of an RPA strike has no opportunity to face the charges against them or argue a case before a court. Who ought to have the authority to be judge, jury, and executioner (all three) in these cases? Using RPAs for the targeted killing of enemies concentrates vast power in a few hands — and this sets up a situation that can be quite readily abused if it is not overseen and monitored for compliance with domestic and international law. There is also a concern about mission creep. How high on the enemy leadership chain need one be to qualify for an RPA strike? What evidence must that person reveal of intent to do harm? How imminent and clear must that threat be?
Many critics of RPAs during the Obama years saw their use as evidence of American high-handedness and arrogance — evidence that Americans do not feel themselves to be bound by any rules or constraints in their international behavior. They perceived an American President using RPAs rather like a self-proclaimed Zeus, hurling thunderbolts from the sky. (Institute, Strategic Studies; War College Press, U.S. Army. Air Power and Warfare: A Century of Theory and History (pp. 58-59). Kindle Edition; emphasis added.)
The reality is, “Good Guys” snipers trained in Canada, the U.S. and other Western nations, hurl their smaller, equally deadly, thunderbolts across vast distances through use of a scope, thereby raising the identical question: Who ought to have the authority to be judge, jury, and executioner (all three) in these cases? Combine these murderous atrocities with treacherous (or just plain faulty) intelligence, and no telling how many rival warlords, warlord enemies, and hated persons at the local level are murdered through Western “intelligence” gathering. Whole wedding parties, etc., have been slaughtered through this callous calculus.
Who is to know who and how many fell victim to wanton slaughter in Afghanistan, Syria etc., –by the “Good Guys”? For instance (from my Front Page):
The Vietnam War is classic instance of what it means for America to be “leader of the free world”. It was prosecuted under five Presidents: from Eisenhower to Nixon, 1955 to 1975. The New York Times ran an article in 2003 about a series published by The Toledo Blade, based upon accounts of several Vietnam War veterans, entitled “Report on Brutal Vietnam Campaign Stirs Memories.” The article reads in part:
The report, published in October  and titled ‘Rogue G.I.’s Unleashed Wave of Terror in Central Highlands,’ said that in 1967, an elite unit, a reconnaissance platoon in the 101st Airborne Division, went on a rampage that the newspaper described as ‘the longest series of atrocities in the Vietnam War.2
For a highly disturbing/tragic read of what happens to such perpetrators upon re-entering society, see: Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War. Of the book we read:
Armies know all about killing. It is what they do, and ours does it more effectively than most. We are painfully coming to realize, however, that we are also especially good at killing our own “from the inside out,” silently, invisibly. In every major war since Korea, more of our veterans have taken their lives than have lost them in combat. The latest research, rooted in veteran testimony, reveals that the most severe and intractable PTSD–fraught with shame, despair, and suicide–stems from “moral injury.”3
And of course with the advent of aerial warfare, Pandora’s Box was opened, and in the ancient Greek myth, only Hope (ἐλπῐ́ς • elpís) remained inside. But such Hope was not invariably positive as in today’s English usage. It was more an expectation that rendered the future to be of uncertain outcome, even foreboding. Saint Paul however specifically writes by contrast in Romans 5:
ἐλπὶς οὐ καταισχύνει—Hope does not make ashamed . . .
So we are left indeed with “. . . a self-proclaimed Zeus, hurling thunderbolts from the sky.” But this is ever the case in aerial warfare, any kind of warfare. Combine that with nuclear warfare, and even more beyond the pale “Star Wars” warfare, as in my post: The Pentagon’s New Wonder Weapons for World Dominion, and we are into literal stratospheric moral wrong! An excerpt:
Back in the 21st Century
Now imagine us back in the 21st century. It’s 2030 and an American “triple canopy” of pervasive surveillance systems and armed drones already fills the heavens from the lower stratosphere to the exo-atmosphere. It can deliver its weaponry anywhere on the planet with staggering speed, knock out enemy satellite communications at a moment’s notice, or follow individuals biometrically for great distances. It’s a wonder of the modern age. Along with the country’s advanced cyberwar capacity, it’s also the most sophisticated military information system ever created and an insurance policy for global dominion deep into the twenty-first century.
That is, in fact, the future as the Pentagon imagines it and it’s actually under development, even though most Americans know little or nothing about it.
Though later we read:
The Future of Wonder Weapons
By the mid-2020s, if the military’s dreams are realized, the Pentagon’s triple-canopy shield should be able to atomize a single “terrorist” with a missile strike or, with equal ease, blind an entire army by knocking out all of its ground communications, avionics, and naval navigation. It’s a system that, were it to work as imagined, just might allow the United States a diplomatic veto of global lethality, an equalizer for any further loss of international influence.
But as in Vietnam, where aerospace wonders could not prevent a searing defeat, history offers some harsh lessons when it comes to technology trumping insurgencies, no less the fusion of forces (diplomatic, economic, and military) whose sum is geopolitical power. After all, the Third Reich failed to win World War II even though it had amazingly advanced “wonder weapons,” including the devastating V-2 missile, the unstoppable Me-262 jet fighter, and the ship-killing Hs-293 guided missile.
Washington’s dogged reliance on and faith in military technology to maintain its hegemony will certainly guarantee endless combat operations with uncertain outcomes in the forever war against terrorists along the ragged edge of Asia and Africa and incessant future low-level aggression in space and cyberspace. Someday, it may even lead to armed conflict with rivals China and Russia.
“Because we can” is devastatingly amoral and immoral.
In The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John W. Dower (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017. See also my post on this here.), we read:
In retrospect, he [early Cold War nuclear warrior General (George) Lee Butler] decried the “wantonness,” “savagery,” “reckless proliferation,” “treacherous axioms,” and voracious “appetite” of deterrence — for which he himself had helped create many systems and technologies, including “war plans with over 12,000 targets.”… Elegant theories of deterrence,” he exclaimed in one speech, “wilt in the crucible of impending nuclear war.” In later recollection of the folly of deterrence, Butler pointed out that at its peak the United States “had 36,000 weapons in our active inventory,” including nuclear landmines and sea mines and “warheads on artillery shells that could be launched from jeeps.” He concluded that mankind escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of diplomatic skill, blind luck and divine intervention, probably the latter in greatest proportion. (ibid, pp. 36 & 37).
Thank God there is indeed a better Elpís! And unlike King of Rock Elvis, this Hope never leaves (the building) nor forsakes! (Hebrews 13:5)
Finally: to take a panoramic step back, one wonders about “moral injury” in the context of the entire sweep of Western civilization. Whether former Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land‘s defence of “Just War” and of capital punishment4, or theologians I personally know who all too glibly reject pacifism (minds too nimble–or–moral compass faulty?) and defend such state violence, J’accuse is legitimate generic indictment of vast Western populations past and present in light of endless atrocities committed by Western “Civilization.” Vast in scale and number: atrocities.
“Mission creep” is generic reality in all things military. “Moral corruption creep” is peculiar to all civilizations: no less to Western . . . President Roosevelt wrote this in response to German bombing that led to World War II:
Appeal of President Roosevelt to Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Poland
September 1, 1939.
“THE ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centres of population during the course of the hostilities which have raged in various quarters of the earth in the past few years, which have resulted in the maiming and death of thousands of defenseless women and children, has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.
“If resort is had to this sort of inhuman barbarism during the period of tragic conflagration with which the world is now confronted, hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings, who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities which have broken out, now will lose their lives.
“I am therefore addressing this urgent appeal to every Government, which may be engaged in hostilities, publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event and under no circumstances undertake bombardment from the air of civilian populations or unfortified cities, upon the understanding that the same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all their opponents.
“I request an immediate reply.” (emphasis added)
The “inhuman barbarism” of the Nazis at the beginning of the War was far outpaced in sheer volume of carpet bombing savagery in Germany and Japan by War’s end–by the Allies!, of which two atomic bombs dropped were the “inhuman barbarism” capstone. Unalloyed, gargantuan savagery had come home to roost. That despite this:
Carpet bombing of cities, towns, villages, or other areas containing a concentration of civilians is considered a war crime as of Article 51 of the 1977 Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions.—Wikipedia
Moral corruption creep became the West’s unique signature ever since . . .
Where do we go then in the West for authentic moral absolution? Dare we seek it? What is our collective penance?
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has disclosed a set of rules secretly issued by President Donald J. Trump in 2017 for counterterrorism “direct action” operations — like drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional war zones — which the White House has suspended as it weighs whether and how to tighten the guidelines.
While the Biden administration censored some passages, the visible portions show that in the Trump era, commanders in the field were given latitude to make decisions about attacks so long as they fit within broad sets of “operating principles,” including that there should be “near certainty” that civilians “will not be injured or killed in the course of operations.”At the same time, however, the Trump-era rules were flexible about permitting exceptions to that and other standards, saying that “variations” could be made “where necessary” so long as certain bureaucratic procedures were followed in approving them.
Read the document:Partly declassified Trump-era rules for drone strikes
In October, Judge Edgardo Ramos of the Southern District of New York had ordered the government turn over the 11-page document in response to Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by The New York Times and by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Biden administration inherited that case and sought a delay but has now complied, providing a copy to both plaintiffs late on Friday.
The Biden administration suspended the Trump-era rules on its first day in office and imposed an interim policy of requiring White House approval for proposed strikes outside of the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. At the same time, the Biden team began a review of how both Obama- and Trump-era policies had worked — both on paper and in practice — with an eye toward developing its own policy.
The review, officials said, discovered that Trump-era principles to govern strikes in certain countries often made an exception to the requirement of “near certainty” that there would be no civilian casualties. While it kept that rule for women and children, it permitted a lower standard of merely “reasonable certainty” when it came to civilian adult men.5
Drone strikes began under the administration of George W. Bush and soared during Barack Obama’s first term — along with political and legal battles over reports of civilian casualties and, in 2011, the government’s deliberate killing of an American citizen suspected of terrorism, Anwar al-Awlaki, without a trial.
Please click: Trump’s Secret Rules for Drone Strikes
- Rosa Brooks, “The Law of Armed Conflict, the Use of Military Force, and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force,” Statement for the Record Submitted to the Senate Committee on Armed Services, May 16, 2013, p. 2, available from https://www. armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Brooks_05-16-13.pdf; Rosa Brooks, “The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing,” Testimony Before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, April 23, 2013, available from https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/ download/testimony-of-brooks-pdf.
Institute, Strategic Studies; War College Press, U.S. Army. Air Power and Warfare: A Century of Theory and History (p. 84). Kindle Edition.
- It continued:
‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them – in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians.
‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed – their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.” The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed. It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing.
“Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops…
‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’
Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.
Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities.
”I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,” Mr. Turse said by telephone. ”I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn’t stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That’s the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.”
Yet there were few prosecutions.
Please consult further two of many websites: Major US Vietnam War Atrocities Case Exposed by Ohio Newspaper; and The Mad Men Premiere’s Dark Vietnam Subtext.
- “Moral injury” has most commonly come to mean the transgression, the violation, of what is right, what one has long held to be sacred—a core belief or moral code—and thus wounding or, in the extreme, mortally wounding the psyche, soul, or one’s humanity. As with so many concepts for which definitions fall short, moral injury is most clearly seen and understood in stories. –Meagher, Robert Emmet. Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War (p. 4). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
- please see my account of interaction with him: Why I Oppose the Death Penalty: “The Talking Place: Discussing the Death Penalty” Forum on the Death Penalty, Fairbanks Alaska, March 22, 1997; also here.
- A rose by any other name . . . Murder is murder, no matter the victim!