The Danger of Drones:
An Anthropological Assessment of UAV Warfare
Through substituting a tactic for a strategy, the deaths of innocent civilians have resulted in the growth of the militant organisations that are supposed to be fought. Unfortunately, however, there is no doubt that the use of drones and similar developments will become even more common in the years to come, and will be changing the rules of modern warfare.
Ever since George W. Bush declared a war on terror, unmanned aerial vehicles, popularly known as drones, have been at the centre of this unconventional war effort. In February 2002, three alleged militants were killed in the first targeted killing mission carried out by a drone. Shortly after, the virtual war effort expanded as drones took their first tolls in Yemen in 2002 and Pakistan in 2004. While the US possessed some 167 Predator drones in 2002, there are currently more than 7000 of them in its arsenal, with the use of these drones still increasing rapidly every year. Whereas exponents of drone warfare have designated them as “the only good thing to come out of the war on terrorism”, opponents have argued that the use of drones in the war zone has been immoral, illegal and counter-effective in the fight against counterinsurgency. Currently, anthropological literature on the consequences of UAV warfare is still limited. Therefore, this paper sets out to explore the implications of drone warfare from an anthropological perspective, taking into special consideration the bureaucratisation of killing, moral disengagement through ‘clinical’ warfare, and the impact on the tribal zones, with the hope of making a clear anthropological assessment of the use of drones in modern warfare. Through looking at the historical background of drones and their alleged advantages, the social and psychological implications they have on the population in targeted areas, the bureaucratisation of their killing, and the mechanisms of moral disengagement involved in virtual warfare, it will become clear how the drone warfare works and what the implications of it are.
UAVs and the war on terror
The definition of a UAV, according to the US Department of Defense, is an “aircraft or balloon that does not carry a human operator and is capable of flight under remote control or autonomous programming”. Following earlier surveillance drones, armed drones were first used in combat in Afghanistan in 2001. With one push on a button, a trained drone operator could now take out enemies in the Middle East while being halfway across the globe in the comfort and safety of a military base somewhere in the Nevada desert. The two UAV models currently in use, the MQ-1B Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, are about 8 to 11 meters long, where the former can remain in the air for as long as twenty-four hours. Ever since they were deployed, the drones have allegedly been “knocking off the bad guys right and left”, and have been celebrated by politicians and the media as ‘wonder weapons’. According to Daniel Byman in his article ‘why drones work’, “drones have devastated al Qaeda and associated anti-American militant groups … at little financial cost, at no risk to U.S. forces, and with fewer civilian casualties than many alternative methods would have caused”. By virtue of these benefits, the usage of these UAV’s has escalated from almost fifty drone strikes under George W. Bush to more than 400 of them under Obama in the last four years, “making the program the centrepiece of U.S. counterterrorism strategy”. It is estimated that the drones have killed some 3,300 militants since 2008, including 50 top figures from al Qaeda and the Taliban. Moreover, the constant presence of drones have made it difficult for militant groups to recruit, gather and communicate, as they “try to avoid using electronic devices or gathering in large numbers”. Given the benefits, many have supported the use of UAVs in the tribal warzones of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen as the best alternative to having boots on the ground or doing nothing at all. However, the opponents of the deployment of drones emphasize that the war effort has come with a high cost.
According to Audrey Cronin, the United States is losing the “war of perception”, something she labels as “a key part of any counterterrorism campaign”. In her paper ‘why drones fail’, she argues that, while drones strikes have indeed “cut the number of core al Qaeda members in the tribal areas [in Pakistan] by about 75 percent”, al Qaeda is a “resilient organisation … [that] has proved adept at replacing dead operatives” and that has benefited from drone strike ‘mistakes’ through propaganda, framing Americans as “immoral bullies”. Looking at the numbers, it becomes clear that the targeting of alleged militants comes with a high collateral damage. According to Jeffrey Sluka, drones “have already caused well over a thousand civilian casualties [and] have had a particular affinity for hitting weddings and funerals”, illustrating his point with an example of an attack in which 70 people were killed when attending a funeral following the targeted killing of thirteen men by drones the day before. In part, these ‘mistakes’ are the result of recent US usage of so-called ‘signature strikes’, targeting large groups “engaged in suspicious activities”. Another highly criticized tactic has been the use of so-called double-taps, in which drones wait for reinforcements on the ground come in after a successful hit, and then strike again. Through this method, which has been deployed frequently, locals and first responders who rush to the scene to rescue survivors of an earlier drone attack are themselves targeted. While the success rates of drone strikes have been low overall, they have been lowest in Pakistan, with only 10 out of 60 drone strikes between January 2006 and April 2009 hitting their targets, killing 687 civilians. The reported collateral damage is significantly higher if we are to go by the numbers of the Pakistan Body Count and David Kilcullen, who claim a 3 percent and 2 percent success ratio of drone strikes in Pakistan respectively. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, deemed the most reliable source on death counts by the human rights clinic, has proposed lower, yet ever-shocking, estimates of 482 to 849 civilian deaths in Pakistan since 2004. Although defendants of the drones rightfully point out that the statistics on victims differ widely depending on the source, none of them being truly reliable, there is no doubt that there is indeed a substantial number of innocent civilians being killed by mistake: something only denied by the US government itself.
Bureaucratisation of killing
Drone operators have a unique job: while enjoying the safety of a military base in their home country, they have the power to make life and death decisions concerning people on the other side of the world, knowing little more than how they look from above. Some resemblance with other military professions might be found with snipers and army units equipped with night-vision goggles, both seeing their targets through a lens. Yet, these units remain territorially bound to the war zone and the dangers it brings with it. The distance from the battlefield and lack of direct threat to the individual allows for a rational and efficiency-conscious method of killing. According to Peter Asaro, killing people as a drone operator is a “form of killing that has an elaborate and intentional bureaucratized structure as well as a psychological dimension” and should therefore be approached as such. Even though drones are referred to as being ‘unmanned’, which they of course are in the literal sense, a single predator drone “requires 80 service personnel to keep it operational”. Of this group of personnel, a small team makes up the actual “operators” of the drone. These teams are usually made up of three people who each have different tasks: (1) The pilot is an army officer who controls the aircraft and is in command of the crew. (2) A sensor operator, usually an enlisted service member, is in charge of both the visual aspects of the aircraft, such as cameras, radars and sensors, and the military aspects, such as targeting and guiding missiles. (3) Lastly, a mission intelligence communicator communicates with intelligence analysts, verifies information and interprets intelligence gathered by the UAV. According to Asaro, the team members “ultimately share the responsibility for any mistakes made” and are usually only allowed to use lethal force upon permission from a higher superior. Despite the feeling of shared responsibility, the bureaucratisation of warfare through drones is very much reminiscent of Zygmunt Bauman’s theory on modernity and the holocaust, in which he states that the holocaust was a rational and efficient “organizational achievement of a [necessary] bureaucratic society”. Because of a strict separation of roles, each with its own tasks and responsibilities, there is a bureaucracy built around the UAV killings which may limit the responsibilities of the individual while making the whole a more efficient killing machine. Moreover, the authority to kill from a superior can cause one to surrender his moral conscience to bureaucracy, as he is merely doing as he is told. It is this “bureaucratic pursuit of efficiency” that Bauman calls “ethically blind”. One man provides the intelligence, another decides on the target, and, upon authorization, the third pushes the lethal button. Albert Bandura identifies a similar danger, pointing towards possible replacement and diffusion of responsibility due to the division of labour and the “minimising [of] the agentive role in the harm one causes”. Moreover, the conviction regarding the precision and effectiveness of the drones to remove the militants is strongly reminiscent of Bauman’s concept of the gardening state, in which the society it rules is seen as “an object of design, cultivating and weed poisoning”. The danger of a similar gardening state is put into words by Michael Ignatieff, who states that “we see war as a surgical scalpel and not a blood-stained sword, [and] in so doing so mis-describe ourselves as we mis-describe the instruments of death”. In addition, he warns that the nature of the “virtual war dehumanizes victims, desensitizes the perpetrators of violence, and lowers the moral and psychological barriers to killing”. Even though this bureaucracy does attempt to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible because of moral convictions, the systemized and bureaucratized killing that the drone warfare represents seems to have a disastrous potential that could be realised in situations where moral disengagement mechanisms are strongly in place.
Drone warfare and moral disengagement
The use of UAVs in the war effort, and the consequential bureaucratization of killing, shows prospects of an alarming sanitization of war. In this sanitizing of war, language has played a critical role. According to Bandura, “people behave much more cruelly when assaultive actions are given a sanitized label than when they are called aggression”. In the case of UAV warfare, this sanitizing language appears omnipresent. In the mainstream media, all those killed by drone strikes are either referred to as (1) civilians, or (2) militants. Both of these terms are problematic. As the term militant is never really defined, it may mean many things. First of all, it does not distinguish between a high level al-Qaeda official or an alleged low-level militant who does not pose any direct threat to the US. The US government itself “assumes that all military-age males in the blast area of a drone strike are combatants” unless proven afterwards that they were not. On the other hand, innocent civilians who die in drone attacks are euphemistically referred to as collateral damage. In a circular process, the language that sanitizes and justifies the behaviour becomes the guiding language for new behaviour, leading to a possible desensitization of the drone operators toward their victims. The language concerning the process of the killing itself is also sanitized: drone operators do not murder people, rather, they eliminate targets. The euphemizing through language also plays a role in the dehumanization of the other. According to Bandura, “the strength of moral self-censure depends on how the perpetrators regard the people they mistreat”. Although dehumanizing terms in media reports on drone attacks are not very common, they are extremely common in the grand narrative of the overarching war on terror and should therefore not be discounted as having no influence on the mindset of the drone operators. As Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills illustrate in their paper on ‘dehumanizing the enemy in post 9/11 media representations’, the enemies in the war effort after 9/11 have been described as savages, monsters, evil beings, spreading diseases such as cancer, and vermin that need to be exterminated. Moreover, Ignatieff observes that “Americans are disconnected from these wars”, resulting in “no understanding and little empathy or consciousness”. This dehumanization and lack of connection can lead to what Bandura calls the “disregard or distortion of consequences”, resulting in an attempt, whether conscious or subconscious, to ignore the harm that is being done in their name.
Ironically, the drone operators themselves are not able to disregard or the distort the consequences of their actions, as they witness people dying on their screens in live-time. As they cannot use this mechanism, they are in need of self-censure in the form of moral justification. According to Bandura, “pernicious conduct is made personally and socially acceptable by portraying it as serving socially worthy or moral purposes”. In the case of the drone operators, they possess a sincere conviction that they are fighting the good cause by targeting militants that are a threat to the US, thereby keeping their country safe. The euphemisms and dehumanization might contribute to this conviction and make the moral justification process easier for the drone operators. Concerning collateral damage, the people behind the drones often fall back on a mechanism which Bandura calls “advantageous comparisons”, through which “reprehensible acts can be made righteous”. This mechanism has also been used frequently by the US government in defending its drone policy. As recent as May 2013, Barack Obama told the public to “remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes”. That belief holds as long as it is assumed that the drone strikes do actually reduce the amount of insurgents and terror in the tribal zones where they are use. However, there is a strong case to be made that the combination of fear and tragedy spread by the drones in the tribal area is not working in the US’s favour at all.
Death from Above
Even without the objections posed to the moral implications of drone warfare as described above, some scholars have argued that the tactics of virtual counterinsurgency have been largely ineffective and even counter-effective. According to Jeffrey Sluka, drones “are now almost single-handedly losing” the war on terror, claiming that their use is actually “seriously fuelling the insurgency”. Regarding ‘war in the tribal zone’, he argues that counterinsurgency theory offers a two-fold strategy of coercion and seduction. For indigenous people in the tribal zone, there are three possible replies to this strategy: resistance, cooperation and/or flight. Critics of drone warfare argue that, in the Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the use of drones has pushed tribes to respond through resistance. Both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Predators and Reapers are flying over the tribal areas 24/7, causing an atmosphere of constant threat for the people on the ground. This ever-present threat from above has had heavy psychological consequences for people in the tribal zones. All inhabitants, including young children, are extremely aware of the presence of the drones and are very much limited by that awareness in their daily lives. It is the not-knowing when and where the next strike will take place that intensifies makes the psychological burden. Some have argued that aerial attacks are so psychologically stressful that they are labelled as being a form of ‘state terror’. As Sluka notes, “many Afghans now say they would rather have the Taliban back in power than nervously eye the skies every day”. The high number of collateral damage is only contributing to this feeling of constant threat. While the US might consider the drones as effective and safe weapons in the war against terror, the people in Afghanistan and Pakistan see them as nothing less than “fearsome and indiscriminate assassins”. The persistent threat and high number of ‘mistakes’ have generated a “siege mentality”, triggering a feeling of victimisation and defensiveness among the Pakistani people, and leading to increased support for the militants. By virtue of this mentality, drones have been creating huge pools of potential and willing recruits rather than obstructing the recruiting process. In 2007, a UN report stated that US airstrikes were one of the main reasons for suicide attackers in Afghanistan. As Kilcullen states, “every one of these dead non-combatants [creates] an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased”. Those who have not joined, have in general at least grown more supportive and favourable towards the terrorist organisations. Traditional tribal feuds are being forgotten as the tribes come together to fight their common enemy. As Ann Jones strikingly notes, “what unifies all these people is us”. While the US is effectively killing off organisations like al Qaeda, it is perpetuating if not worsening the cycle of violence in the tribal zones, trading long-term goals and strategy for short-sighted tactics. As long as no long term strategy of pacification is brought into the tribal zones, the conflict will only be perpetuated.
Ever since armed UAVs were first deployed in the war on terrorism in 2001, they have been at the centre of a controversial debate. The US government and proponents of the drones have claimed that the unmanned aircrafts have been extremely effective and precise in fighting militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. On the other side, opponents of the drones have claimed that drone warfare is immoral and has done more damage than good to the tribal war zones. Although the drones have indeed succeeded in killing many members of terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban, they have also left a major trail of collateral damage. A very important factor of the usage of drones in war has been the bureaucratisation of killing , which, when analysing it with Bauman’s theory of modernity and bureaucracy, seems to have a very dangerous potential to develop into an a-moral killing system under the right circumstances of moral disengagement. Thereby, the drone strategy exemplifies an important towards the sanitization of war. Moreover, the virtuality of the warfare, the terminology used, and the disregard and distortion of consequences following from the distance of the war both physically and in the media has made the system more prone to the mechanisms of moral disengagement as identified by Bandura. By virtue of this increased disposition to moral disengagement, the use of drones as the main weapon in the future once again seems to have a powerful and possibly harmful potential. Besides these prospective dangers, there has been a final objection to the use drones in the warzone: they are counter-effective. By generating a continuous atmosphere of fear and making many mistakes, the local tribes develop a siege mentality which makes them defensive and moves them to unification in order to oppose the common enemy. By substituting a tactic for a strategy, the deaths of innocent civilians have resulted in the growth of the militant organisations that are supposed to be fought. Unfortunately, there is no doubt that the use of drones and similar virtual warfare developments will become even more common in the years to come, and will be changing the rules of modern warfare.
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Written for the course Violence, Trauma and Memory at University College Utrecht. 2013–2014.
Originally published at thecoldroom.eu.