Drone warfare has become one of the key weapons in the United States government’s global “war on terror.” But drones especially present a moral challenge for all Americans in this manufactured war. They are the glaring tip of American imperialism, and must be camouflaged to ensure a supportive citizenry. Thus The Distinguished Warfare Medal has been created, ostensibly to award “the extraordinary achievements” of “pilots” of unmanned Predator and Reaper drones, explains outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Located in remote trailers, often in the United States, they nonetheless “make a true difference in combat operations,” Panetta continues, adding, “They remove the enemy from the field of battle.” (“A New Medal Honors Drone Pilots and Computer Experts,” By Thom Shanker, The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2013) This award is not just about drone pilots. It is more about inducing Americans into equating the medal, and thus illegal drone warfare, with morality. Such a ”distinguished” medal is especially needed to sanitize the war crime of extinguishing the lives of innocent human beings.
“They remove the enemy from the field of battle.” The enemy?” The Obama administration “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously (italics added) proving them innocent,” reported The New York Times. (“Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” By Jo Becker and Scott Shane, May 29, 2012) This blatant immoral policy has resulted in thousands of innocent civilians being killed and injured by drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. So-called “terrorists” are denied due process and killed, including Americans, for daring to resist the United States’ invasion and occupation of their countries, propping up oppressive governments, and controlling and exploiting their nations’ resources with its worldwide military presence and economic power. Ironically, this criminal drone warfare does not make the U.S. safer, but rather creates countless enemies, guaranteeing a permanent “war on terror,” and of course, with endless profit and power for America’s political/military/industrial/religious complex.
“The field of battle?” It is often a wedding ceremony, a funeral, a public place, a house, a village, a car, a farmer’s field—and always the sky, with drones hovering overhead 24 hours a day, turning the heavens into a terror-filled hell. Pentagon- and C.I.A.-created, illegal “field[s] of battle,” oblivious to America’s violations of other countries’ national sovereignty.
The Distinguished Medal of Warfare itself symbolizes not heroic “extraordinary achievements,” but lawless American global hegemony. An almost 2-inches tall brass pendant, in the form of a globe encircled by a wreath, in the center an eagle, framed in the background by a diamond shape which “symbolizes the four corners of the globe, representing the operational reach of our armed forces in the defense of liberty and justice.” (“DoD mints new medal for drone pilots and cyber warriors,” By Sean Gallagher, arstechnica.com, Feb. 13, 2023) Why does America need some 900 military bases in 130 countries “in defense of liberty and justice?” (See “Ron Paul says U.S. has military personnel in 130 nations and 900 overseas bases,” Tampa Bay Times, Politifact.com, Sept. 12, 2011) It is obviously not about defending “liberty and justice” in all these countries, but about making sure the world is, and remains, a fertile ground for American privilege and power. Thus, the American eagle, long symbolizing the spiritual power of prayer by indigenous peoples, has become a bird of prey.
Greatly needed is the indigenous people’s belief that “the eagle was the chosen master of the skies by the Creator . . . because eagles generally fly at a higher altitude than most other birds,” which “gives them a unique perspective (italics added) that is unmatched by any other bird . . . a messenger for the Creator . . . carrying the prayers of human beings from the earth;” and they are also “the symbol of honor, bravery, love, friendship and mystical powers for the Indian Nations.” (“Native American Eagle Symbols, www.kwintessential.co.uk, Mar. 29, 2010; “What are some things eagles represent?, answers.yahoo.com)
Such a “unique perspective” would enable many citizens to transcend egocentric American exceptionalism, and experience the vision of what it would be like to have foreign military bases in, and surrounding, America, controlling them and their resources, with drones hovering overhead, killing and maiming protesting, and non-protesting, loved ones and other citizens—transforming heaven from a boundless source for prayer and reflection into a confining nightmare of terror reigning down.
Why are many in America, with its professions of Christian and democratic values, oblivious to our government’s glaring criminal foreign policy? Philosopher Noam Chomsky provides an answer. “We own the world,” he said. As an example, he gave the repeated threats of the U.S. and Israel to bomb Iran, saying, “There happens to be something called the UN Charter which says that—in Article 2—the threat or use of force in international affairs is a crime. . . . Does anyone care?” He continued, “No, because we’re an outlaw state by definition, or to be more precise our threats and use of force are not foreign, they’re indigenous because we own the world.” (“We Own The World,” Adapted from a Z Media Institute talk June 2007, Z Magazine, Jan. 2008)
Another example of American hegemony cited by Professor Chomsky was former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice saying that “the solution to the problem in Iraq . . . is quite obvious, ‘Withdraw all foreign forces and withdraw all foreign arms’ . . . she was not referring to U.S. forces, she was referring to Iranian forces and Iranian arms. And that makes sense, too,” Chomsky explained, “on the assumption that we own the world because, since we own the world U.S. forces cannot be foreign forces anywhere.” He concluded, “It’s all too easy to continue with this indefinitely. Just pick your topic. It’s a good exercise to try. This simple principle, ‘we own the world,’ is sufficient to explain a lot of the discussion about foreign affairs.” (Ibid)
The attempt to dress drones in morality, to fend off critics, is seen in the Obama administration now being receptive to a “judicial review” of selected strikes, i.e. the oversight of an independent drone court. Such a drone court would give special consideration before approving the denial of due process to and targeting of Americans. (“Debating a Court to Vet Drone Strikes,” By Scott Shane, The New York Times, Feb. 8, 2013)
The proposed drone court is an attempt to cover the immorality of drones with black robes; but these extrajudicial killings still represent a lawless foreign policy of Murder, Incorporated. Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu laid bare the hypocrisy of a proposed drone court:
Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it.
I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims. Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity.
(“Drones, Kill Lists and Machiavelli,” To the Editor, The New York Times, Feb. 12, 2013)
The immoral use of drones certainly threatens to “undermine [the] moral standards” and “humanity” of drone pilots themselves. In years to come, they may realize how they have been used to kill and destroy to protect privilege. Their own honesty will haunt them with the truth of the criminality in which they had participated.
This moral struggle was seen in the Vietnam War, with young Americans, including pilots, psyched into bombing and killing, and burning with napalm, innocent Vietnamese children and families. In many cases, years later, their own lives were afflicted with guilt and grief, realizing the evil in which they had unknowingly, yet willingly, participated. They, also, became victims– of their own aggression– mourning the undermining of their own moral standards and humanity.
Drone pilots are reported to be facing similar moral conflicts. A recent study revealed that “pilots of drone aircraft experience mental health problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.” While not directly on the battlefield, drone pilots are “witnessing combat violence on live video feeds . . . They witness the carnage,” [and] “manned aircraft pilots don’t do that.” According to the study, “witnessing . . . the carnage [of their] combat violence” and “working in isolation” create “mental health issues.” (“Drone Pilots Are Found to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do,” By James Dao, The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2013)
Thus, as reported, “The Pentagon has begun taking steps to keep pace with the rapid expansion of drone operations,” by “recently creat[ing] a new medal to honor troops involved in both drone warfare and cyber warfare.” And,” the story continues, “the Air Force has expanded access to chaplains and therapists for drone operators.” (Ibid)
The mental health problems of drone pilots are believed to be more likely the result of the violation of their moral health. Their anxiety and depression are signs of health, not illness—and a commentary on the immorality of America’s foreign policy. The last thing they need are chaplains and therapists to make them feel better and adjust to the criminal killing and injuring of other human beings. Here, more chaplains and their organizations must become prophets and speak the truth of The Golden Rule and justice to America’s imperialistic power, rather than accommodating carnage and conquest as chaplains of the status quo.
It is time for chaplains and other clergy especially to respond to the voices of the oppressed, not those of the oppressor. Like the voice in the Bible that reminds us, “When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted—does not the Lord see it?” (Lamentations 3: 34-36) And time to hear and follow another timeless voice that declares, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5: 9)
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, is available on Amazon.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.