Female Drone Operators Are Not a Feminist Victory

The Daily Beast recently featured an article about a female drone operator nicknamed Sparkle, who, with the use of a bedazzled headset, kills Afghans from 7,850 miles away. The article, which was written by journalist Kevin Maurer, describes in great detail how Sparkle targets men in Afghanistan, watches them crawl with parts of their bodies missing, die, and be buried. Sparkle speaks about how, after these strikes, she takes her dog for a walk in the park, congratulating herself for “protect[ing] a world where we can spend lavish amounts of money on recreation places for our animals.”

The article, together with the ensuing celebration of Sparkle’s “badassery,” is yet another example of the impunity and nonchalance with which murders are perpetrated in the Global War on Terror. As a part of this war, drone strikes have become one of the most devastating devices in the U.S. arsenal. While touted for their precision, they have infamously caused the deaths of countless civilians. Though it is impossible to know exactly how many strikes have been carried out or precisely how many people have been killed, in Afghanistan, civilians are ten times more likely to be killed by a drone than by a manned aircraft.

Afghan women have borne a not insignificant portion of this violence — an ironic reality given that the War on Terror has been justified, in part, as a tool for liberating these women. Even more importantly, however, Maurer’s story of an American women routinely killing Afghan men reminds us of an important reality — that victimhood in war often has more to do with political and military power than gender.

The Act of Killing

Sparkle and her colleagues kill without regard for the principles on which a supposedly enlightened Western civilization is based, like due process of law, habeas corpus, and the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The “success” rate for their strikes is about 10%, which means nine innocent civilians are killed for every “intended target.” Targets themselves, are identified through opaque processes, about which the American public has little to no insight.

Far removed from notions of democracy, accountability, and rule of law, America’s drone strike program has ironically been justified in part by a moral mandate, namely protecting and saving “oppressed” women. Indeed, the war in Afghanistan was similarly justified as a crusade to liberate Afghan women from Afghan men. In Maurer’s article, Sparkle claims she kills her targets, all of whom are men, because of how they treat “their women.”

Of course, these excuses are undermined by the actual consequences of the Global War on Terror. Living in a patriarchal society is undeniably oppressive, but it is no less devastating than losing loved ones to violence — or being killed oneself. While it is impossible to know the exact number of female victims of drone warfare, women have undoubtedly been casualties of these crimes — stories about weddings turned into massacres by drone strikes make this clear. If Afghan men are oppressive because they inflict violence against Afghan women, then so too are American women who do the same.

The Global War on Terror’s imperialism has also created its own set of far-reaching and oppressive dynamics, stripping women, as well as the rest of the population, of their self-determination and sense of safety. Far from being “surgically precise,” the effects of drone strikes reach far beyond the people they — intentionally or unintentionally, justifiably or unjustifiably — kill; the psychological terror they cause affects entire populations, women included. One study conducted by Stanford University’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic found that populations in places like Waziristan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan have experienced significant PTSD and “anticipatory anxiety,” in response to and in anticipation of drone strikes.

If living under a patriarchal gaze is oppressive, so to is living under constant surveillance, under circumstances where your location or who you happen to be with is enough to end your life.

Women, War, and Drones

There has been a considerable amount of research exploring how feminist rhetoric has been appropriated and co-opted to justify the Global War on Terror — often by people who do not care about feminist causes at home but want to liberate women abroad. One widely-cited example of this was then-first lady Laura Bush’s address to the U.S. public on November 17, 2001, in which she spoke about the atrocities Afghan women faced at the hands of the Taliban. Of course, there was no mention of the role the United States played in the Taliban’s rise to power, nor any mention of her husband’s war on women at home in the United States.

The Feminist Majority, a leading U.S. feminist organization, was also a big proponent of the war in Afghanistan. In their paper, Feminism, the Taliban, and the Politics of Counter-Insurgency, Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmoud documented the Feminist Majority’s enthusiasm for the war: “by the time the war started, feminists like [Feminist Majority founder] Eleanor Smeal could be found cozily chatting with the generals about their shared enthusiasm for Operation Enduring Freedom and the possibility of women pilots commandeering F-16s.”

Against this backdrop, Maurer’s article reveals how stereotypes about female victimhood have, in fact, been flipped on their head by the War on Terror. In the United States, women have the power to inflict the kind of pain and suffering that has typically been reserved for men. Female drone operators, female prison guards in Abu Ghraib, and female officials at the highest ranks of the kill chain play a key role in American efforts to target perceived enemies. In short, American women can perpetuate political and military violence just as easily as their male counterparts can and do.

With women assuming these deadly roles, another unsettling shift must be acknowledged, namely that men, so often the makers and leaders of war, can themselves be the victims of violence.

Men As Victims

Questions about male victimhood have been circulating for some time now. During Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2014, Maya Mikdashi, a scholar of anthropology and gender studies, published an essay, Can Palestinian Men Be Victims, in which she argued that focusing on women and children as victims of war in general, and in particular during the Israeli assault on Gaza, is based on an assumption about male guilt — namely that men are — or can become — “enemy combatants.”

As Mikdashi wrote, “the killing of women and girls and pre-teen and underage boys is to be marked, but boys and men are presumed guilty of what they might do if allowed to live their lives.” This logic applies to drone warfare. As one former drone operator recounted to the Intercept, “drone operators refer to [male] children often as ‘fun-size terrorists’ and liken killing them to ‘cutting the grass before it grows too long.’”

Too often, in the cases of Palestinian, Afghan, and Pakistani men and boys, merely being over the age of eighteen is enough to trigger a death sentence, or at the very least serves as a justification for their murder. By virtue of existing, these boys and men are a strike away from becoming either a “jackpot” (if they were the person the drone intended to kill), or an “enemy killed in action,” if the drone missed its target. In other words, even if a drone killed a random, unknown individual who had nothing to do with the intended target, that person is labeled as an “enemy killed in action,” by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time

Perpetuating the Cycle of Violence

While Sparkle’s bedazzled headset and the opening up of combat roles to female soldiers may be celebrated as feminist victories, there is no empowerment or cause for celebration in perpetuating a culture of impunity. These circumstances psychologically terrorize and further subjugate entire populations.

The lack of accountability that characterizes drone warfare puts my father, uncles, and cousins at risk of being killed for no reason other than existing as Afghan, Muslim men. In light of these realities, I could care less whether it is a woman or a man who is contributing to this cycle of violence.

Originally published in Muftah.