Time and time again, casualties are the fascination of killing establishments. Militaries find hope that the more they kill, the more effective they are. Laws tend to lag, limping behind in battered form till they find a place in a court of law. General Douglas MacArthur’s dictum holds: there is no substitute for victory. The problems are compounded by the use of modern technologies touted as all-saving devices. Privileging technology over human principle, it is a form of what the Japanese author Yukio Mishima would have called decadent warfare. Moral flabbiness is bound to be the outcome.
A transformation has taken place in the US military complex. Secrecy is now the name of the asymmetrical warfare game. The era of open, declared wars has ended. Figures of deaths, rather than being lauded, are not released. When they are, they are modified, severely curtailed in the name of public relations. The authorities are particularly tight-lipped over civilian deaths. This has propelled human rights agencies to take the accounts of local activists, political figures and families affected by the drone strikes.
The latest chapter in the drone annals and its conflict with human rights was piqued by an interim report from UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who found that the US had created “an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency.” In penetrating the veil, he found that some 33 remotely piloted aircraft strikes had “resulted in civilian casualties”.
Emmerson was scathing of the reticence being shown by the military regarding casualty lists. “The Special Rapporteur does not accept that considerations of national security justify withholding statistical and basic methodological data of this kind.” Emmerson chose to rely on Pakistani figures on drone casualties – “at least 400 civilians killed as a result of remotely piloted aircraft strikes” with “a further 200 individuals” killed who probably fell into a non-combatant category.
Such figures have been deemed equivocal, as with so much in the field of asymmetrical warfare. Human calculations are less relevant here than bureaucratic bookkeeping. One person’s civilian is bound to be another’s combatant. Al Qaeda operatives taking refuge in a house are fair game for a drone strike, but so is the owner, if one follows US operational practice. Pakistani approaches are different and tend to see such an owner as a non-combatant undeserving of death.
Amnesty International has not retreated from this legal purgatory, claiming that some drone strikes are bound to amount to war crimes. It has given the US, claims spokeswoman Polly Truscott, “a license to kill beyond the reach of the courts and international standards.” Truscott points out the case of 68-year-old Mamana Bibi who was picking vegetables in the north Waziristan tribal region when she was slaughtered.
Others, such as those good folks at the Heritage Foundation, simply argue that, in the world of asymmetrical warfare, such calculations are meaningless. People might have been killed, but we are at war and ground reports as to whether one law or another has been violated have no value. Steven Groves of the Foundation questions the figures altogether, arguing that what is supplied to human rights groups can’t be trusted. The suggestion here is none too subtle: that Amnesty International’s first port of call is an al Qaeda spokesman rather than local villagers and families who have suffered. Such groups “have no interest in reporting factually about what happens on the battlefield”. That makes al Qaeda and the US drone forces two of a kind.
Lisa Curtis, a Senior Research fellow at the Foundation, has gone further by legitimising the program on the basis of Pakistani naughtiness, for “until Islamabad cracks down more aggressively on groups attacking US interests in the region and beyond, drones will remain an essential tool for fighting global terrorism.” There are no genuine laws in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan, where al Qaeda roams; no codes of legal operation worthy of consideration. The laws lie, rather, at the end of the executing Hell Fire missile. And, as Curtis emphasises, the Pakistanis should be grateful. “It is no secret,” she draws from the fiction manual, “that the drone strikes often benefit the Pakistani state.”
The point Obama has been making are the old theological principles of just war, much of it outlined in his May address on the subject. The basis of self-defence is present; the attacks with drones are proportionate. Harm has been minimised. In June 2011, then White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan delivered his idyllic vision of balanced killing fields, when the bloodletting was kept to a minimum. Accordingly, “for nearly the past year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency [and] precision” of the strikes. The numbers did eventually come, and the CIA squeezed about a few to the Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Diane Feinstein, who disclosed in a statement in February this year that the numbers were in “single digits”.
The technological and human realities are different. The drone wars are creating more armed militants. The false assumptions that underlie the conflict are that such strikes cripple rather than enhance insurgency groups or “terror” organisations. It is precisely the obscurity of such killings, and the lack of availability of figures, that makes the claims of the Obama administration questionable. Perversely, in a war when gentleman’s agreements are obsolete, the administration is expecting recipients of its goodwill to take what it does on trust.
What this shows is the remarkable and disturbing faith being placed in the latest killing machines. Technology displaces the ethical imperative. The latest tendency in this direction is affirmed by efforts to translate “super heroes” in comic form to the battlefield, another product of seeing war as video game, celluloid projection, and trigger happy adolescence. Research is being conducted on creating an “iron” man suit, an advanced garment involving MIT researchers. This involves developing liquid body armour which can transform from “liquid to solid in milliseconds when a magnetic field or electrical current is applied.” This is not legal constraint in operation but legal desensitising. The target at the end of the trigger is emptied of any human reference, other than that of a code, a categorisation, a “target”.
The focus, as it is with all these technologies, is minimising the losses incurred by the military. Sparing civilians is a by-product. The TALOS project, as it is termed, has prompted US Special Operations Command Chief Adm. William McRaven to make a striking point. “I’d like that last operator that we lost to be the last operator we lose in the fight or the fight of the future, and I think we can get there.” Pity the civilians.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. He ran for the Australian Senate with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party. Email: email@example.com
 Noted by Michael Isikoff, “US has killed far more civilians with drones than it admits, says UN,” NBC News Investigations, Oct 17, 2013.
 Jason Om, “Amnesty International delivers scathing report into US drone strikes in Pakistan,” ABC News, Oct 23, 2013.
 Lisa Curtis, “Pakistan Made Drones Necessary,” The Heritage Foundation, Jul 16, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/commentary/2013/7/pakistan-makes-drones-necessary
 Voice of Russia, “Time for Super-humans: US Army Developing ‘Iron Man’ Suit for Soldiers,” Oct 22, 2013, http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2013_10_22/US-Army-developing-Iron-Man-suit-for-soldiers-8503/