“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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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts on the FM site about America’s military:

  1. Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
  2. One telling similarity between the the Wehrmacht and the US Military, 10 March 2008
  3. “America’s Greatest Weapon”, 25 May 2008 — About our people in uniform.
  4. One of the best geopolitical posts of the year, IMO, 12 August 2008 — “War is the great auditor of institutions”
  5. Stratfor: “The U.S. Air Force and the Next War”, 13 June 2008
  6. America’s Defense Meltdown, now avilable for free download, 20 November 2008
  7. “What’s wrong with the US military?”, an interview with Winslow Wheeler, 10 December 2008
  8. The economic Death Spiral of the Pentagon, 7 February 2009
  9. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009

6 thoughts on ““Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt

  1. TomDispatches do a great job of holding up a mirror to America. By imposing a civilizational view on things, he forces Americans to consider the significance of our actions, not simply the actions themselves.

    Few people today would dispute the benefits of predator drones, just like very few people disputed the benefits of our late Wall Street economy. The best kind of killing is the type you don’t have to risk your own life for, just like the best kind of money is, of course, the kind you don’t have to produce anything to make.

    Perhaps it makes no difference whether you’re a Wall Street alchemist sitting at a magic loom and spin gold from straw, or an Air Force pilot sitting at a computer screen extinguishing life like gods.

    Of course, when all this blows up in our faces (they call it blowback?), we knee-jerkedly demonize all which we had praised and wonder why we never saw it coming in the first place.

    Perhaps we didn’t see it coming because we avoided looking into the likes of Tom Englehardt’s or Nouriel Roubini’s mirrors.

  2. Drones can also greatly blur theater of operations lines. Assume a predator drone operator works out of some location (e.g. Langley, Virginia). Is that operator a legitimate target of war? Does it make the building he works out of also a legitimate target? Now, assume that the operator finishes his shift and drives home.
    Is he still a legitimate target in his house? What happens if he telecommutes? What if he attends a PTA meeting (or goes to church on Sunday)?
    Fabius Maximus replies: IMO these are exactly the sort of questions we should be considering. I suspect we will be shown the answers during the next few decades.

  3. I have an ignorant civilian q re drones. Why cant they be radio jammed , or shot down ? If the operators can ‘ see the expressions ‘ of their prey , they must descend relitivly low , to strike ? A couple of years ago some ( alleged ) prankster set up a website , claiming one could shoot game on his Texas game farm , sitting at home at one’s PC and firing the gun with a mouse click . This was officially laughed out of court because of the ‘ electronic delay ‘ . If there is electronic delay , it would mean the drone flies fairly slowly at the strike .
    The drones I’ve seen in pictures look tin can-y, not armoured .
    Er , dont the prey yet have any anti-aircraft guns , even left overs from WW2 ? Explode-in-air rockets ? Catapaults ?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Drones’ communications can be jammed, if one has sufficiently high-tech equipment. Insurgents in neither Afghanistan nor Iraq have either high-tech jamming or any subtantial anti-air capability. If they did obtain such aid, these wars would drastically change course.

  4. Well what we’re dealing with here is part of the paradox of asymmetric warfare.

    1. The powerful side is expected to suffer low or even no casualties against a weak adversary.
    2. When the powerful side has enough of an advantage, war turns into slaughter.
    3. In asymmetric warfare success can be failure and failure success.

    This is further aggravated by fear of new technology. In an attempt to limit casualties to US forces drones are used as standoff weapons. The very standoffish nature of these weapons is turning a war into slaughter.
    Thus the success of US forces in limiting their casualties turns into a media failure.

    Much the same thing happened during Israel’s recent operation in Gaza, where Israeli success in limiting its own casualties became a media disaster, fueling claims of slaughter if not genocide.

    Thus we come to the fear of new technology. Many laymen already believe that the drones are robots, and don’t know about the man in the loop. I too fear the point when life and death decisions will be made by a machine. As we well know, computers made very fast and very accurate mistakes. However, when a man makes one of these life and death decisions he is working according to knowledge gathered by sensors and a decision making process that must be regulated in order to be legal.

    Can’t the parameters used by a man to make his decision be programmed into a computer? It’s easier with structures and vehicles because databases of their signatures are available and even today a fighter’s computer will help the pilot priorities air targets on his radar according to their type and level of threat.

    Computers are already capable of recognizing individuals in pictures, but I’m not sure that drones supply that kind of resolution. It will be some time before a computer can make life and death decisions in the confusing and cluttered environment of asymmetric warfare.

  5. If these terrorists are so uninventive they cant buy ( they have mobile phones )some yacht radar , elephant guns , load some fireworks with smoke/ink etc ( drones have ‘eyes’? ), how did they have the nous to organise 9/11 ?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Look at the operating specifications. If you think your combo of toys are an effective anti-air against US UAV’s, you are kidding yourself — MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper.

  6. Anna,

    These Drones are no RC toys. They are military aircraft originally designed to go where it is too dangerous to send a manned aircraft. They generally operate at altitudes above the range of AAA (Anti Aircraft Artillery) or man portable SAMs (Surface to air Missiles).

    Irregular forces such as the Taliban are unlikely to obtain a full size vehicle mounted or stationary SAM battery. If they did make this mistake, such SAMs emit Radar signals that give away their position and nature, and the USAF has squadrons dedicated solely to their detection and destruction.

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