Hugh Gusterson recommends the best books on Drone Warfare

I think what makes drones attractive to President Obama and other national security policy makers is that they don’t involve Americans coming back from the Middle East in body bags. It is a way of waging warfare invisibly. So although some people do have agreement about drones, I don’t know that they excite the kind of opposition that other forms of military intervention do, precisely because they seem to have such a minimal cost for the American people. A crashed drone isn’t 4,000 Americans coming back from Iraq in body bags.

.. It’s worth noting that the protests against using drones have been very small. If you go to air force bases [in the US], where drones are being protested, only a couple of dozen protesters show up. Compare that to protests on the eve of the Iraq war which had hundreds of thousands of people at one point. So there’s been difficulty drumming up a real protest movement against them.

.. That said, why do drones upset the people they upset so much? I think part of it is that they’re perceived as cowardly. Interestingly, I found that it’s often people in the military who feel most strongly about it. Someone recently sent me a favourable review of my book that’s about to come out in Military Review by a US army officer. I think many people in the army have an honourable sense of what warfare involves: the reciprocal vulnerability of combatants facing each other, wagering their bodies for a cause.

.. Chamayou asks some of the questions about whether warfare, when it is fought by drones, can even be called warfare. The lack of reciprocal vulnerability between the drone operator and the victim makes him think of drone warfare as being more like hunting.

.. Well, as well as blurring the distinction between warfare and police work, I think it is blurring the distinction between war and peace. In a place like Yemen or Somalia there could be long periods where there is no drone strike, and then suddenly there is a drone strike. There might be two or three in a week, and then several weeks with no strikes, and so on. So it is not clear if there is a state of peace or a state of war. Warfare is becoming indefinite.

.. Interestingly, he felt more at peace when he was deployed to Iraq than when he was working out of Nevada as a drone operator, because he didn’t have to deal with the daily back and forth between being in combat of a kind and then the same night being back at home with his wife.

.. I think there is something about the drone operator’s remoteness that adds to the trauma. If you imagine being a pilot in a war zone, as soon as you drop a bomb on the ground you disappear very quickly. You don’t get much of a chance to see what you did. But it is part of the protocol of a drone operator that they are supposed to circle for a long time, even for hours, after a drone strike – doing meticulous assessment of the damage and trying to count the bodies, which can be difficult if the bodies are in more than one piece. Although you are physically thousands of miles away, it feels as if you’re just a few inches away on the screen, and you have to look very carefully at what you just did.

..  In my book I quote a deputy administrator of the CIA saying “the gloves come off” after 9/11. That’s when the decision was made to weaponise drones.

.. It is children and civilians who are also being killed by drone strikes, and Chris Woods has been at the forefront of uncovering that.

.. Obama has a strong penchant for secrecy, and in a way drones have brought out the worst in Obama’s personality

.. Leon Panetta, the former head of the CIA, when writing his memoir, was not allowed to talk about the existence of drone strikes. The military censors took it out of his memoir, which is bizarre and ridiculous, as the media were constantly reporting drone strikes but he wasn’t allowed to confirm that they existed.

.. they claim to give a fairly definitive accounting of the number of civilians killed by accident by American drones. But I noticed that all the media that I read couldn’t report on it with a straight face. The statistics were condemned as inaccurate almost as soon as they were released.

.. Fair, balanced and objective are not his strong suits, but making a very strong polemical case is.

.. In this book he describes drone strikes as part of a particular military predilection for identifying enemy forces as networks, trying to find nodal people in these networks and knocking them out. According to him, this is a military strategy that goes back to WW2 where people in the Allies said if only we could get to senior Nazi officers – by, for example, killing Hitler – then everything would collapse.

.. When you identify someone in a senior position and you kill them, they get replaced pretty quickly, and often by someone even nastier.

.. So he sees drones as the latest instantiation of a particular strategy that has always been bankrupt.

.. One of the things that Scahill demonstrates is that the more people drones kill, the longer the kill list becomes – which is a very striking paradox.

.. One of the things that drone technology enables is distributed command, so the footage from a drone can be piped simultaneously into lots of different command centres. You can have people in Doha looking at it while someone in Washington D.C. is looking at it. That often produces collective decisions where people are frantically talking to people in command centres hundreds of thousands of miles away. And often by the time they make a decision, the chance to take a shot is gone.

.. We saw in the case of the Iraq war that the American people were largely happy to invade Iraq until the war went really wrong – until Americans started coming back in body bags – and then they turned against it and said that George Bush had been an idiot to invade. The same with Blair. We wouldn’t have the Chilcott report, and the turning of American opinion against the war in Iraq, if it hadn’t been for those 4,000 Americans who died there. They are the hostages of the democratic war-making process, in a sense. But drones have broken that link in the chain. They make possible perpetual war without costs.

.. But I think that it should be absolutely clear that you cannot attack people in countries with which you are not at war.

.. If American operatives went to Yemen, placed a car bomb in the capital and blew something up, everyone would recognise that as an act of international terrorism because the US is not at war with Yemen. I think we should see drones in exactly the same way. Instead of planting a car bomb they are attacking someone with a bomb from the sky, but it is basically the same thing.