Is It the Drones or the Killings We Oppose?


US drone strikes make news every day, fostering worldwide outrage and public scrutiny. The drone has become an icon of US lethality and dominance, and it has understandably become a principal focus of our antiwar effort.

But recent controversial revelations about presidential-approved “kill lists,” used to identify targets for drone assassinations, suggest a broader scope for our opposition. US assassination and targeted killing, with presidential approval, has been going on covertly for at least half a century, and continues to this day, both with and without drones. Drone strikes may be merely the most visible portion of a wider, global program of US targeted killing, “a covert side to the Global War on Terrorism that is not visible and not currently knowable.”[1] Perhaps a limited focus on remote-controlled murder by drone technology blinds us to a broader US enterprise of targeted assassination around the globe. Shouldn’t we, then, turn more of our attention to this wider canvas of US killing, repositioning our drone protest within a larger context, rather than limiting ourselves by our focused opposition to drone technology?

In a recent article, “Assassination Nation,”[2] I trace the history of US targeted assassination to the US Phoenix Program in Vietnam, in which the CIA and Special Forces targeted and assassinated over 20,000 “suspect” civilians in a reign of terror from 1967 and 1972. Phoenix was the direct source of US counterterrorist kill lists and civilian assassinations in Latin American countries throughout the 1980s and, more recently, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, from 2003, a large-scale Special Forces covert war targeting Ba’athist insurgents for capture or assassination was called “preëmptive manhunting,” with all the earmarks of the Phoenix Program. [3] In Afghanistan, starting in 2009, a campaign of targeted night “kill/capture raids” against insurgents, up to 40 raids a night, were carried out by Joint Special Operations Command commandos killing 2,000Afghans in 2010 alone, mostly innocent civilians. One officer called the campaign an “industrial strength counterterrorism killing machine.”[4]

Meanwhile, top military advisors such as David Kilcullen have recommended “a global Phoenix program” for “a new strategic approach to the Global War on Terrorism.” [5] The Obama administration uses a six-point program for such “light-footprint warfare,” relying on raids by special forces, drone strikes, and proxy fighters, and also spies, cyber warfare, and civilian partnerships. [6] Worldwide, there is now a US special antiterrorism force of about 60,000 operating in as many as 120 countries, according to former US intelligence officials. [7] The Pentagon also develops “proxy” clandestine militias called “Counterterror Pursuit Teams” in many countries,  for “remote killing” of a different sort, run by the CIA and U.S. Special Forces. [8] And the Pentagon now conducts joint military and counterterrorist exercises with countries in Africa, Central and South America, and the Asia-Pacific region. According to Andrew Bacevich, US Special Forces assets today go to more places and undertake more missions … than ever before.” [9]

There are, of course, very good reasons for the antiwar movement to focus its opposition on drones. There is a heightened media awareness of drone technology, with daily articles about their use in war and surveillance, and about the lives of their remote pilots, scattered on military bases  throughout the country, fast replacing airborne pilots. Policymakers are currently on the defensive, forced to reveal hitherto top secret activities and policies behind the use of drones. The growing use of drones for domestic surveillance, by police departments  and border control agencies, offers a powerful opportunity to raise public opposition to drones. Also, US protest against drones offers solidarity with the multitude of civilian victims of drone strikes throughout the world, and it capitalizes on this peculiarly menacing icon, reviled by the rest of the world.

There are, however, equally good reasons not to focus our opposition on drones. The wizardry of drone technology has great popular appeal in the US. According to Pew Research’s latest polling, 62% of the US public enthusiastically approve of drone use for remote-controlled killing in the war on terror. The New York State Fair now has a popular exhibit providing children the simulated thrill of piloting a drone mission. The burgeoning drone manufacturing industry appears unstoppable, with nearly 50 companies developing some 150 different systems, ranging from miniature models to those with wingspans comparable to airliners. Law enforcement and security agencies will have $6 billion in U.S. sales by 2016, for domestic surveillance. Altogether, the drone industry’s lobbying group, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, claims 507 corporate members in 55 countries. There is virtually no Congressional opposition to the drone fever that has gripped the military, which is spending $4.2 billion on drones this year alone; one large bipartisan congressional committee is solely committed to promoting drone technology.

Furthermore, as the technology develops, drones will have many positive uses beyond war and surveillance, diluting potential opposition to the technology itself. So  a continued focus on drones carries the danger of distracting our attention from the horrific, illegal and immoral, targeted killing of civilians, including women and children, which is the original motivation for our years of opposition and protest.

Instead, then, we should perhaps return our attention to the killing itself. This would move us beyond the public fascination with technology and would expose the criminality of targeted assassination of civilians as not merely “collateral” but instead as an intentional counterterrorist strategy aimed at preemptive elimination of suspected enemies. It could also offer an unprecedented opportunity to expose the long sordid history of US counterinsurgency policy that set the stage for Obama’s current use of kill lists against suspected militants in al Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups. It could also open up a broader investigation of the covert killing now allegedly being conducted by CIA and Special Forces, or their indigenous proxies, throughout many countries in the world.

There are problems with this shift of focus, though. Attention to past or alleged crimes could distract from today’s atrocities, committed by almost daily by drone strikes, defusing the very real momentum of the growing drone opposition. It would also lose the benefit of the drone as a highly visible, menacing icon. Also, opening up the history of the US killing machine, and the prospect that it covertly continues unabated into the present day, might prove too overwhelming for the public or the mainstream media to contemplate. Worse still,  it could even offer new rationale  for current policy, since, if it’s what we’ve always done, what’s the big deal now?

Finally, the popular appeal of special forces and commando raids is almost as pervasive as the appeal of drone technology. Witness the glut of current books by former SEALs about the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, and the new network show Stars into Stripes, where celebrities and their special forces coaches compete against each other, a militarized Dancing with the Stars. So this shift in focus to covert commando killing might very well stimulate vicarious thrills and public pride rather than horror and outrage.

So, then, there are plausible arguments on all sides. I urge that those of us in the antiwar movement explore further the pros and cons of our drone opposition. My hope is that this might stimulate discussion and possibly strengthen our impact.



1 Maria Ryan, “’War in Countries We Are Not at War With’” International Politics, v.48 (2011)


3 Seymour Hersh, “Moving Targets: Will the counter-insurgency plan in Iraq repeat the mistakes of Vietnam?” The New Yorker Dec. 15, 2003

truth-out.org/how-mcchrystal-and-petraeus built…/1317052524

5 David Kilcullen, “Countering Global Insurgency” Journal of Strategic Studies, 2004

6 Nick Turse, http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175580/

7 Richard Sale, “General Petraeus and the Drone War,” August 12, 2012 Truthout

8 Nick Turse http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175580/

9 Richard Sale, “General Petraeus and the Drone War,” August 12, 2012 Truthout


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