As we all ponder the meaning and impact of the massive release of 70,000 or 90,000 secret documents on Wikileaks this week, I can’t help but focus on just a few elements: First, the activity of drone aircraft in seeking out and killing “targets”; and second, the mistakes inevitable in relying on massive airstrikes to simply kill whatever moves in an area selected by troops on the ground. Both of these expedients—the certain result of the impeccable military logic that annoints high-tech equipment as a god capable of removing casualties from war and making its soldiers invulnerable—combine to justify massive killing to prevent any threat to Americans, even American forces armed to the teeth and invading another country.
Before looking at a few samples of the wikileak trove, it’s important to recall a June 2, 2010 report by Agence France Presse conveying a UN special rapporteur’s report on the CIA’s use of drones. Philip Alston, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said that the CIA’s droning amounted to “a license to kill without accountability.” Alston worried that the U.S.’s claimed license of targeting individuals anywhere in the world runs the risk of “doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.” He especially complained about the fact that the criteria used by the CIA to justify its targeting of individuals was shrouded in official secrecy. In other words, not only were U.S. operatives assassinating individuals with impunity, but by offering no justification for their selections, they were judge, jury and executioner all in one: “In a situation in which there is no disclosure of who has been killed, for what reason, and whether innocent civilians have died, the legal principle of international accountability is, by definition, comprehensively violated.” To add that the human agents in the drone killings were youthful pilots sitting in dark rooms in faraway Nevada and tracking shadows on a computer screen only makes the executions more macabre.
These drones, though, are the latest and apparently the most beloved of the military’s death toys. No human need enter a danger zone. The drones fly above battlefields or villages or wherever they choose, operated from afar, carrying lethal weapons that are precisely fired. They never complain, do not get tired (drones can stay aloft for 24 hours without a break), or bored, or distracted. They are the ultimate killing machine. Except, that is, when they get lost. This is what happened to one of the Air Force’s prized drones, a Reaper (don’t you just love the names the military comes up with? surely not to evoke thoughts of McCormick’s wheat reaper, but rather the euphemism for death as “the grim reaper”—though cutting down humans as the reaper cuts wheat is no doubt what animated the metaphor in the first place). As the NY Times explained the Wikileaks report:
“Equipped with advanced radar and sophisticated cameras, as well as Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs, the Reaper had lost its satellite link to its pilot [the one in Nevada]. No matter how he tried, the pilot couldn’t regain control [of his toy, only with a 66-foot wingspan], so his superiors ordered an F-15E fighter jet to shoot down the $13 million aircraft before it soared unguided into neighboring Tajikistan.” (NY Times, 7.25.10)
This grim comedy continued when the jet struck the drone with a Sidewinder missile, destroying the drone’s engine, just as the remote pilot regained satellite control. But it was too late. The comedy ended when the pilot steered it “into a remote mountainside for a final fiery landing.”
Imagine. Millions in equipment crashed into a mountain—because far worse than losing a measly $13 million would have been a landing that resulted in the Taliban recovering our secrets, our technology, our technological advantage.
Imagine, too, the terror of being on the ground pursued by one of these things. Death from the sky. No protestation of innocence. No begging for mercy. No warning even. Innocent or guilty, the Reaper seeks only to complete the death sentence ordered from half a world away. By some 20-something dweeb in a bunker in Nevada.
Or by some dweebs on the ground, those Special Forces killers until recently commanded by their killer-in-chief, General McChrystal. Another Wikileaks document, from June 17, 2007, details one of their missions gone awry. Of course, they were trying, via five rockets, to dispatch Abu Laith al-Libi, reportedly a top commander for Al Quaeda, said to be hiding in the targeted compound in Paktika province. But when helicopters dropped commandos from Task Force 373 to finish the job, they found no al-Libi. Instead, they found a “group of men suspected of being militants and their children. Seven of the children had been killed by the rocket attack.” When the men tried to flee, six of them were also killed by encircling helicopters. The rest were taken prisoner. But the good Americans did try to save a child still alive in the rubble, and performed CPR.
Unaccountably, news of the attack resulted in “a wave of anger over the region.” But not to worry, with a list of “talking points” drawn up by the Americans, the local governor explained the mistake: the Americans had been after an Al Quaeda leader and no one told them women and children would be in the compound. Indeed, the attack was really their own fault, caused by the “presence of hoodlums,” he said, and “could have been prevented had the people exposed the presence of insurgents in the area.”
Finally, a Sept. 3, 2009 report, from Kunduz province, described yet another mistaken airstrike, this time attributable to a slight mishap on the part of JATC, the Joint Terminal Attack Controller team responsible for ground communications and guidance for pilots and airstrikes. Responding to a police report saying that “2X FUEL TRUCKS WERE STOLEN BY UNK [unknown] NUMBER OF INS [insurgents]” who planned to cross the Kunduz River with their booty, the JTAC claimed to have seen not only the trucks, but “UP TO 70 INS” at “THE FORD ON THE RIVER.” [As to how JTAC “saw” this, the Times account speculates that the JTAC may have received live feed to their computer from infrared video cameras in some aircraft]. Then a German commander got involved, assured everyone that “NO CIVILIANS WERE IN THE VICINITY” and “AUTHORIZED AN AIRSTIKE.” An F-15 fighter plane then dropped two 500-pound guided bombs. Naturally, those killed were “56x INS KIA [insurgents killed in action],” 14 more fled northeast, and the two trucks were also destroyed. A good night’s work.
Only that the initial report was wrong. In fact, the trucks, apparently abandoned, were surrounded by civilians trying to remove fuel. This was learned only when the military reported that “International Media reported that US airstrikes had killed 60 civiians in Kunduz.” Those dastardly Taliban, having stolen the truck, had invited civilians in the area to help themselves with fuel. Seen from above, civilians were clearly INS [insurgents].
You get the picture. War is not lovely. In the best of conditions, it is messy, gruesome, murderous to those who have the misfortune of being in its vicinity. In this case, it is Afghan villagers who most often feed the grisly appetite of the war machine. And in Afghanistan, increasingly, the machines are in control. Trouble is, machines have no sense. They are inhuman by definition. When that inhumanity, as it inevitably must, reaches back and infects the humans ostensibly in control, they too become mechanical. That is what, overall, one discerns from reading the Wikileaks material. The United States, in attempting to maintain its tottering global empire, has become a killing machine. Far from protecting us as its champions claim, that transformation imperils us all.
NB: For those of you too young to recall, the title of this piece comes from a 1963 musical composed by Joan Littlewood; it premiered on Broadway in 1964, and though it’s ostensibly about WWI, it applies to other wars rather nicely.