“Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt
Forging an effective grand strategy requires not just that we know ourselves (difficult) but that we see ourselves — and our actions — as others do. This is a commonplace in history, as national leaders often fail to understand how aggressive or threatening their defensive actions appear to other nations. The nuclear arms race during the Cold War was a potentially cataclysmic example of this.
How do the people of other nations see our airborne fleets of drone assassins? Tom Engelhardt discusses this in his TomDispatch “Filling the skies with Assassins“, 7 April 2009. An excerpt appears below; I recommend reading it in full. To have TomDispatches delivered to you via email go to there and complete the “Sign Me Up Today” box.
In 1984, Skynet, the supercomputer that rules a future Earth, sent a cyborg assassin, a “terminator,” back to our time. His job was to liquidate the woman who would give birth to John Connor, the leader of the underground human resistance of Skynet’s time. You with me so far? That, of course, was the plot of the first Terminatormovie and for the multi-millions who saw it, the images of future machine war — of hunter-killer drones flying above a wasted landscape — are unforgettable.
… Meanwhile, hunter-killer drones haven’t waited for Hollywood. As you sit in that movie theater in May, actual unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), pilotless surveillance and assassination drones armed with Hellfire missiles, will be patrolling our expanding global battlefields, hunting down human beings. And in the Pentagon and the labs of defense contractors, UAV supporters are already talking about and working on next-generation machines. Post-2020, according to these dreamers, drones will be able to fly and fight, discern enemies and incinerate them without human decision-making. They’re even wondering about just how to program human ethics, maybe even American ethics, into them.
Okay, it may never happen, but it should still make you blink that out there in America are people eager to bring the fifth iteration of Terminator not to local multiplexes, but to the skies of our perfectly real world — and that the Pentagon is already funding them to do so.
Assassination by Air
… According to Christopher Drew of the New York Times, who visited Davis-Monthan where Air National Guard members handle the controls, the pilots sit unglamorously “at 1990s-style computer banks filled with screens, inside dimly lit trailers.” Depending on the needs of the moment, they can find themselves “over” either Afghanistan or Iraq, or even both on the same work shift. All of this is remarkably mundane — pilot complaints generally run to problems “transitioning” back to wife and children after a day at the joystick over battle zones — and at the same time, right out of Ali Baba’s One Thousand and One Nights.
In those dimly lit trailers, the UAV teams have taken on an almost godlike power. Their job is to survey a place thousands of miles distant (and completely alien to their lives and experiences), assess what they see, and spot “targets” to eliminate — even if on their somewhat antiquated computer systems it “takes up to 17 steps — including entering data into pull-down windows — to fire a missile” and incinerate those below. They only face danger, other than carpal tunnel syndrome, when they leave the job. A sign at Creech warns a pilotto “drive carefully”; “this, it says, is ‘the most dangerous part of your day.’” Those involved claim that the fear and thrill of battle do not completely escape them, but the descriptions we now have of their world sound discomfortingly like a cross between the far frontiers of sci-fi and a call center in India.
The most intense of our various drone wars, the one on the other side of the Afghan border in Pakistan, is also the most mysterious. We know that some or all of the drones engaged in it take off from Pakistani airfields; that this “covert war” (which regularly makes front-page news) is run by the CIA out of its headquarters in Langley, Virginia; that its pilots are also located somewhere in the U.S.; and that at least some of them are hired private contractors.
William Saletan of Slate has described our drones as engaged in “a bloodless, all-seeing airborne hunting party.” Of course, what was once an elite activity performed in person has been transformed into a 24/7 industrial activity fit for human drones.
Our drone wars also represent a new chapter in the history of assassination. Once upon a time, to be an assassin for a government was a furtive, shameful thing. In those days, of course, an assassin, if successful, took down a single person, not the targeted individual and anyone in the vicinity (or simply, if targeting intelligence proves wrong, anyone in the vicinity). No more poison-dart-tipped umbrellas, as in past KGB operations, or toxic cigars as in CIA ones — not now that assassination has taken to the skies as an every day, all-year-round activity.
Today, we increasingly display our assassination wares with pride. To us, at least, it seems perfectly normal for assassination aerial operations to be a part of an open discussion in Washington and in the media. Consider this a new definition of “progress” in our world.
Proliferation and Sovereignty
… Of course, when you openly control squads of assassination drones patrolling airspace over other countries, you’ve already made a mockery of whatever national sovereignty might once have meant. (When a “target” is found and agreed upon — in Pakistan, the permission of Pakistani officials to fire is no longer considered necessary.) It’s a precedent that may someday even make us distinctly uncomfortable. But not right now.
If you doubt this, check out the stream of self-congratulatory comments being leaked by Washington officials about our drone assassins. These often lead offnews pieces about America’s “covert war” over Pakistan (“An intense, six-month campaign of Predator strikes in Pakistan has taken such a toll on Al Qaeda that militants have begun turning violently on one another out of confusion and distrust, U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials say…”); but be sure to read to the end of such pieces. Somewhere in them, after the successes have been touted and toted up, you get the bad news: “In fact, the stepped-up strikes have coincided with a deterioration in the security situation in Pakistan.”
In Pakistan, a war of machine assassins is visibly provoking terror (and terrorism), as well as anger and hatred among people who are by no means fundamentalists. It is part of a larger destabilization of the country.
To those who know their air power history, that shouldn’t be so surprising. Air power has had a remarkably stellar record when it comes to causing death and destruction, but a remarkably poor one when it comes to breaking the will of nations, peoples, or even modest-sized organizations. Our drone wars are destructive, but they are unlikely to achieve Washington’s goals.
The Future Awaits Us
… By 2020, so claim UAV enthusiasts, drones could be engaging in aerial battle and choosing their victims themselves. As Robert S. Boyd of McClatchy reported recently, “The Defense Department is financing studies of autonomous, or self-governing, armed robots that could find and destroy targets on their own. On-board computer programs, not flesh-and-blood people, would decide whether to fire their weapons.”
It’s a particular sadness of our world that, in Washington, only the military can dream about the future in this way, and then fund the “arms race” of 2018 or 2035. Rest assured that no one with a governmental red cent is researching the health care system of 2018 or 2035, or the public education system of those years.
In the meantime, the skies of our world are filling with round-the-clock assassins. They will only evolve and proliferate. Of course, when we check ourselves out in the movies, we like to identify with John Connor, the human resister, the good guy of this planet, against the evil machines. Elsewhere, however, as we fight our drone wars ever more openly, as we field mechanical techno-terminators with all-seeing eyes and loose our missiles from thousands of miles away (“Hasta la Vista, Baby!”), we undoubtedly look like something other than a nation of John Connors to those living under the Predators. It may not matter if the joysticks and consoles on those advanced machines are somewhat antiquated; to others, we are now the terminators of the planet, implacable machine assassins.
For more information
I particularly recommend the Christopher Drew New York Times piece cited above, “Drones Are Weapons of Choice in Fighting Qaeda,”which gives a vivid picture of our drone wars at home. In addition, let me offer a small bow to Nick Turse, who, back in 2004, began writing at this site about the way our government has restrictedblue-skies dreaming to the military. To keep up on drones and drone warfare, there is no better place to start than Noah Shachtman’s Danger Room blog at Wired.com. It’s a must. To keep track of drone strikes as they occur in our world, keep an eye on Antiwar.com.
About the author
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. To catch an audio interview in which he discusses our airborne assassins, click here.
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Posts on the FM site about America’s military:
- Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
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- “America’s Greatest Weapon”, 25 May 2008 — About our people in uniform.
- One of the best geopolitical posts of the year, IMO, 12 August 2008 — “War is the great auditor of institutions”
- Stratfor: “The U.S. Air Force and the Next War”, 13 June 2008
- America’s Defense Meltdown, now avilable for free download, 20 November 2008
- “What’s wrong with the US military?”, an interview with Winslow Wheeler, 10 December 2008
- The economic Death Spiral of the Pentagon, 7 February 2009
- The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009