“Exactitude is not the truth.”
— Henri Matisse
It’s very tempting to divide life into forces of good and forces of evil. It’s easier to make sense of a world if there are just two fundamental human types: good people and bad. My little girl is 5, and will often ask me when we are watching a film, “Is he a goody, dad? Or a baddy?”
In this fairytale world, the forces of good and bad are wrestling it out through eternity, in a never-ending cycle of precarious victories for the side of the angels. Our need for simple stories to explain the human chaos in the world has even begun to alter how we look at our history; re-examining World War II, and all it’s associated horrors, as a shining example of a narrative that at least made sense. Or, as John Pilger recently put it,
“As Barack Obama ignites his seventh war against the Muslim world since he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the orchestrated hysteria and lies make one almost nostalgic for Kissinger’s murderous honesty.”
Western leaders have in recent decades responded to the people’s demand for the truth by inventing simple stories of good and evil to justify their own malefic actions. By doing this, these tales become moral fictions of righteousness prevailing over wickedness; but today, the ramified reality behind this simplified pretence is beginning to tear through the thin fabric of lies, exposing, to anyone who cares to look, the mad, brutal and inhuman truth of modern global politics.
I wonder which simple story best articulates an American president, representing the most powerful, rich and armed democratic nation on earth, settling down each Tuesday morning in his presidential chair, sipping coffee and signing off the weekly ‘kill list‘?
This list of names is the combined US and UK intelligence of the geographical whereabouts of various Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. Commonly these locations are in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) of North Pakistan, the stateless Somalia, Yemen and, never to be missed out, Iraq and Afghanistan. These countries are not officially at war with the US, but that equates to very little when placed over today’s reinterpreted and extended definitions of international conflict. These militants, who may or may not have committed a crime, will usually become the targets of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, otherwise known as drones. Flown by remote control from air bases hundreds or thousands of miles away, these lethal toys have become tools for the West to extend the parameters of what’s acceptable in warfare.
And the simple narrative to justify this ‘execution’ by another name? A well used warmonger’s contradiction: defence.
Self-defence, actually. By tracking down and killing men the Obama administration think are senior members of Taliban or al Qaeda groups, and who might, now or in the future, be possibly thinking about plotting a terrorist act on US citizens or soil (and who might not), then you are acting in self-defence, by making a terrorist attack on the US less likely. Nuking the rest of the planet would have a very similar effect.
Here’s a map of Pakistan:
In 2003, US and UK intelligence led NATO into already war-torn Afghanistan, and the increased fighting forced thousands of people, including Taliban members, to spill out into the north-westerly corner of Pakistan, called Waziristan. Afghanistan has been a battleground for long periods of its recent history: British India used it to absorb any “radical” ideology emanating from Russia throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Then in the 1970s, a series of coups drew out the Soviet Union, who invaded in 1979 and stayed there for almost a decade, fighting a brutal proxy-war with the US, who was pouring money and weapons into any organisation that claimed to be Afghan rebels resisting the Soviets. This includes funding an early al-Qaeda.
Pakistan is now home to some 2.7 million Afghan refugees, some registered, but most are illegal. The militarisation of North Waziristan has led to the displacement of 350,000 people, desperately trying to escape the violence of both the Taliban and the US attacks.
This is an excellent interactive archive, which really helps illustrate the increase in drone strikes since 2004, please have a quick look:
Barack Obama has courageously defended US soil (I refuse to use the term ‘homeland’) by authorising over 460 drone strikes, more than any other world leader or former US president. The US military and CIA have on occasion even neglected to communicate with allied nations before launching attacks. It seems to me that the people being targeted can’t reasonably be considered “consistently in the role of conflict”, contravening the international laws set down in the Geneva Convention.
The intelligence that ‘justifies’ a drone strike has often been appallingly inaccurate. This has lead to the sickening murder of hundreds of innocent civilians, like the convoy of cars that was hit as they made their way to a wedding or a grandmother playing with her two grandchildren on their farmland, and countless other silent tragedies.
There is something about the nature of this windowless, metallic vehicle that leaves you cold. They fly slowly, are rigged with camera’s and listening devices, and of course, carry air-to-ground Hellcat missiles. They are quiet and can hover over their targets for hours if necessary before firing, sending back footage to bases in Afghanistan and Las Vegas, Nevada. These bases are also where the pilot remotely flies the drone, and it is this long-distance and risk-free advantage that has compounded the immorality of the program.
According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), strikes in Pakistan alone between 2004 — 2015 number 413 (362 authorised by Obama), and have killed up to 3,492 people. Of these killings, the TBIJ estimated 1,167 were civilians, including 207 children. The CIA and the US military have an insider term for this innocent loss of lives, they call it bug-splat.
Political language may well be a stranger to the truth, but it does tell us a lot about national perspectives. The majority of civilian deaths are denied by the US military and the CIA, despite evidence from witnesses and journalists on the ground, and do not stop Obama’s administration from using terms like ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘precision targeting’ to blind-side the US public.
“Nearly for the past year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death, because of the exceptional proficiency, [and] precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop,” said John Brennan, the CIA agent overseeing its covert drone operations. He was giving a public lecture on counter-terrorism at Johns Hopkins University, in June 2011 and his statement, to say the least, was contentious. Between June 10th, 2010 and June 8th, 2011, TBIJ reported drone strikes in Waziristan numbering over 120. Their investigations reported up to 196 civilian killings for this time period, including the murders of 16 children.
Seemingly everything comes back to language. Tall stories, misinformation and the necessary ability to transform your wicked deeds – through pseudo-technological sound bites, into bright, shining paradigms of progression – are modern political essentials.
“Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted lethal action would be the use of conventional military options. As I’ve already said, even small special operations carry enormous risks. Conventional air-power or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage. And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies, unleash a torrent of unintended consequences, are difficult to contain, result in large numbers of civilian casualties and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict.”
Obama in his ‘Terrorism speech‘ of May 2013, comes at us from a skewed perspective; not as the leader of a country participating in the war of terrorism, but as the body defining its very rules. Technology is advancing faster than international law can be adapted, and in the dangerous space this creates, new archetypes can be set. Stuff you would’ve expected to happen in covert CIA programs, are now played out in broad daylight and are hailed as breakthrough policies that will ‘save’ lives.
“…and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict.” This is clearly aimed at IS (or ISIS), but it could be equally true of another group that augmented and strengthened under US military interventions. The ragged followers of Saloth Sar numbered about 4,000 when the US began their bombing campaign of Cambodia. Three years later, when the Generals were satisfied that the whole country was levelled beyond recognition, that number had swollen to an army of 200,000. Both leader and army renamed themselves Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
In the UK we don’t bother too much with the fairytale stuff. Here instead, is the continuation of a more traditional method of public misinformation — lies, cover-ups and secretion. The MoD’s role in the drone program is rarely discussed as far as mainstream media are concerned, however, it’s pretty obvious that they are up to their necks in complicity.
Of the 500+ drones now held by the MoD, only around 10 Reapers are armed. British drones have been used predominantly to collect data surveillance intelligence, or at least that is the official line; but in such a secretive and distant campaign, who really knows how much action the Reapers have seen. But even if we stick with the ‘intelligence gathering’ story, by handing that intelligence to the CIA or US military, then the UK government becomes 100% complicit in the ongoing murders/executions/killings, as it is quite obvious what the intelligence is going to be used for.
According to Drone Wars UK, in the five years from 2007 to 2012, Britain spent over £2billion on the purchase and maintenance of its drones. In the meantime, the cuts to UK essential services continue to be torn out of the country in the name of ‘debt recovery’. I guess when you spend that kind of money, you really don’t want to see your new play things gathering dust in a hanger somewhere, like a fleet of classic cars. No, you’d need to use them to justify the price-tag, but at the same time you don’t want too many people knowing that you are using them. Here’s a question to parliament regarding the current usage of RAF drones. Please note the geographical location given for the whereabouts of the UK drones as, “in the Middle East”. That narrows that down, then.
Of course, big corporations couldn’t help but get in on the action. British Telecom (a national treasure in the UK!), agreed a 5 year, £23million contract with the US government to make and sell advanced fibre-optic cable (about 30x faster than their Infinity broadband cables) to the US military, specifically for use in the drone program. BT responded by saying the cable is for general purpose, and see no issue with their deal. But Reprieve, the human rights organisation, has accused BT of “wilful ignorance”, and has demanded that they end their contract with the US Government.
Despite the rather obvious benefit of being absent from the strike site, it seems that drone pilots do not escape the most commonly overlooked of war injuries: mental trauma. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcoholism and drug addiction are the most prevalent syndromes returning soldiers in the US and UK suffer from. Initial indicators from the psychological testing of drone pilots seems to show a strikingly similar pattern.
This problem was compounded by a lack of suitable or enthusiastic pilots, forcing the US military to make changes in its career pathways. Pilots who have found themselves on the drone program have also suffered from a burgeoning stigma within the Air force of being “not real pilots”, or that they are simply “jumped up video gamers’. The number of flights pilots are ordered to make intensified to its peak at the end of last year, pushing the pilots to work 16+ hours shifts, sometimes 6 days a week.
Here’s a rather odd music video I found on the TBIJ website and offers us a tiny glance into the world of a drone pilot. It’s written by the pilots ‘singing’, and you can definitely tell. The dynamic is one of men that have been too long in the company of other men. It’s sort of a protest song, with the pilots explaining through the medium of ‘rap’ how they much preferred to kill by firing missiles at people from a jet, the old fashioned way, rather than this boring drone flying. I think we are supposed to feel sorry for them. Perhaps you do, and maybe for different reasons.
Would you believe, some people living under the persistent threat of a drone strike might even agree with Top Gun 1 & 2, feat. Top Gun 3, there. That is to say, some civilians have actually been reported to say that they would prefer their village to face an air strike from an F16 jet, because at least “the attack ends”.
How must it feel, and what must it do to your psychology, to be under the persistent threat of these glinting, metallic hunters high above? The answer is thankfully beyond me, as it is beyond everyone who lives in the US and in the UK. Our leaders would tell us that the reason we cannot fully sympathise with this kind of fear, is precisely because of their successes in the War on Terror.
Another simple story. It might even be one you believe? Why not? We have to believe in some things. I assume you are comfortable with the price other less fortunate, but no less important, people are forced to pay for our freedom?