How Not to Think About Drones


The latest defense of remote control killing by the U.S. appears in the September issue of The Atlantic, “The Killing Machines” in which author Mark Bowden tells us “how to think about drones.” Known for his bestselling book, Black Hawk Down and for his curiously twisted justification of torture in the same magazine in October 2003 (“The Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter. Candor and consistency are not always public virtues. Torture is a crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be banned but also quietly practiced.”) Bowden continues in this latest article to collect the facts that ought to lead to unequivocal condemnation of certain U.S. policies but cleverly presenting them in the end as ringing endorsements.

“The Killing Machines” opens by asking us to “consider David,” and so Bowden initiates his attack on history by misrepresenting its earliest written records. “The shepherd lad steps up to face in single combat the Philistine giant Goliath. Armed with only a slender staff and a slingshot, he confronts a fearsome warrior clad in a brass helmet and chain mail, wielding a spear with a head as heavy as a sledge and a staff ‘like a weaver’s beam.’ Goliath scorns the approaching youth: ‘Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves?’ (1 Samuel 17)

“Technology has been tilting the balance of battles since Goliath fell,” asserts Bowden, supporting this theory by misremembering that “David then famously slays the boastful giant with a single smooth stone from his slingshot.”

“What you have is a parable about technology,” says Bowden who describes David’s slingshot as “a small, lightweight weapon that employs simple physics to launch a missile with lethal force from a distance, was an innovation that rendered all the giant’s advantages moot.”

The story of David and Goliath is a “parable about technology,” but the problems with Bowden’s telling of it begin with the fact that there is no slingshot in 1 Samuel 17 nor, actually, was a slingshot to be found anywhere on the planet in David’s day. To place one in David’s hands when he met Goliath 10 centuries before the Common Era is a wild anachronism at best. The “small, lightweight weapon that employs simple physics to launch a missile with lethal force from a distance” cited as a biblical game changer did not exist before the invention of vulcanized rubber by Charles Goodyear, patented in 1884. The slingshot is an innovation of the 19th century and Bowden might just as well have had David slay Goliath with a Hellfire missile or with Luke Skywalker’s light-saber as give him a slingshot.

David’s weapon in 1 Samuel 17 was not a slingshot but a sling. Hardly an innovation, the sling had already been around for a long time and is thought to have been invented in the Upper Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, about the same time as the bow and arrow. David’s sling was a primitive device for flinging stones. It was widely used by shepherds to ward off predators, a weapon of low prestige that justified Goliath’s disdain.

It was Goliath, not David, who with his bronze armor and iron tipped spear brought the latest technological innovations to his last and fatal conflict. David himself is recorded in 1 Samuel 17 as saying “All those who are gathered here shall see that the Lord saves neither by sword or spear,” and the message of this story is the reverse of the lesson Bowden offers.

The story of David’s victory over Goliath is one of many in the pre and early monarchial biblical history wherein the latest military innovations are defeated by simple men, women and children improvising crude household and agricultural implements for use as weapons. Judges 4 tells of Jael, a Hebrew woman who killed Sisera, commander of “nine hundred chariots of iron” with a tent peg and wooden mallet. Sampson slaughtered a thousand armed Philistine soldiers with the jaw bone of a donkey (Judges 15). “When war broke out (between the Hebrews and the Philistines) none of the followers of Saul and Jonathan had either sword or spear,” we read in 1 Samuel 13, yet these insurgents armed with hoes, axes and shovels routed the most technically advanced army of the day.

As drones are today, iron was literally the cutting-edge of weapons technology in David’s and Goliath’s time, an incalculable leap from the arms of wood, stone and bronze that preceded it and a decisive advantage to the first armies to attain it. The Philistines, as vassals of the Egyptian empire, had access to the latest Iron Age armaments, much as the U.S. and its allies today have the edge on drones. “No blacksmith was to be found in the whole of Israel, for the Philistines were determined to prevent the Hebrews from making swords and spears.” (1 Samuel 13)

From Genesis to Revelation there can be found calls to war that are horrifying in their violence, but there is also a resilient strain of antipathy toward armaments technology in the Bible. Long before Saul or David, the Hebrew people were liberated when the celebrated wheels of iron on the chariots of the Egyptian army were mired in the mud of the Red Sea. (Exodus 14) Tragically, after Israel’s victory over the Philistines and in the pride that comes before the fall, Solomon not only imported the hated chariots of iron from Egypt for his own army but also “obtained them for export” (1 Kings 10) and so contributed to the ruin of his kingdom.

Bowden’s presumption in “The Killing Machines” that technology is forever “tilting the balance of battles” in favor of the combatants who wield the newest lethal gadgets is disproved by the very Bible tale at the heart of his argument. It is also disproven by the succession of history from the death of Goliath to this very day.

The Catholic Agitator, published by the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, does not have the influence of The Atlantic, but its editor Jeff Dietrich is an astute student of scripture, history and current events whose analysis is better informed than Mark Bowden’s. Writing about a decade and more of U.S. war in Afghanistan, Dietrich says that “in the process we have learned that great wealth, military might and technological sophistication can be humiliated by impoverished men who live in caves, wear rags, fight with World War II assault rifles and improvised explosive devices fabricated out of stolen and surplus munitions, and who fund their operations with the national cash crop, opium, which is purchased largely by impoverished, unemployed U.S. citizens.”

The lessons for contemporary peoples in the clash of David and Goliath and that of Afghanistan and the United States are the same: that the side with the most fire-power and state-of-the-art weaponry will not always win. Any nation that depends on such killing machines or that holds them in awe, whether these weapons are drones or spearheads of iron, is courting its own destruction. All empires have their end and the perception that a nation can forestall its demise by keeping a technological edge or by shear violence merits the scorn of both God and of history. The theological word for this is idolatry. The secular term is stupidity.

The premise of “The Killing Machine” is a distortion of one of the foundational stories of our culture, one found in the Koran as well as in the Bible. What Bowden does with David and Goliath, he does also with the stories from present-day Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The “tacit” approval of U.S. drone strikes by Pakistan’s government that Bowden cites is as chimerical as David’s slingshot. His article twists concepts of international and constitutional law just as it perverts the lessons of Goliath’s demise. Bowden does violence to ancient and contemporary narratives that people urgently need to hear, stories with truths that might serve to redeem our humanity and even give us a shot at survival. Bowden’s counterfeit versions of these stories are devoid of morals. They are base superstitions and instead of counseling wisdom, these lying stories incite torture, murder and all of the foulest crimes.

“Drones distill war to its essence,” says Mark Bowden. “War itself is terrorism,” said Howard Zinn. “War is organized crime,” said General Smedley Butler. Bowden’s skillfully crafted propaganda justifying drone warfare is no other than an attempt to give moral validation to the essence of terrorism and crime.

Brian Terrell farms with crude implements in Iowa and a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. On May 24 he finished a six month sentence at the Federal Prison Camp in Yankton, South Dakota, for protesting the killing machines operated from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Contact brian@vcnv.org.

Brian Terrell is a co-coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence. He can be reached at: brian@vcnv.org.

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