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"What does the drone’s camera capture, and what does it occlude?"
October 19, 2013 7:41 PM   Subscribe

The Sound of Terror: Phenomenology of a Drone Strike
Opponents of drone strikes say they violate international law and have caused unacknowledged civilian deaths. Proponents insist they actually save the lives of both U.S. soldiers, who would otherwise be deployed in dangerous ground operations, and of civilians, because of the drone’s capacity to survey and strike more precisely than combat. If the alternative is a prolonged and messy ground operation, the advantage of drone strikes in terms of casualties is indisputable, and it is not my intention to dispute it here. But the terms of this debate give a one-sided view of both the larger financial and political costs of drones, as well as the less than lethal but nonetheless chronic and intense harm continuous strikes wage on communities.

DVIDS is "a state-of-the-art, 24/7 operation that provides a timely, accurate and reliable connection between the media around the world and the military serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain."

US has killed far more civilians with drones than it admits, says UN

July 2013 Update: US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia
August 2013 Update: US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia
September 2013 Update: US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia

CIA Refuses to Acknowledge Drone Targeted Killings
Documents reveal NSA’s extensive involvement in targeted killing program
posted by the man of twists and turns (79 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
previously.
posted by anewnadir at 7:45 PM on October 19, 2013


UN rapporteur Christof Heyns condemns use of drone strikes: Law professor's study says strikes for 'policing' harm global security and spur proliferation among states and terrorists
posted by homunculus at 7:48 PM on October 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Malala Yousafzai tells Obama drones are 'fueling terrorism'
posted by homunculus at 7:49 PM on October 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


(FWIW, a Pakistani friend shared this earlier on Facebook but) There are those in in the tribal areas (FATA) who prefer drones to constant artillery bombardment by the Pakistani military.

I'm not posting this in support of drones by any means - I have grave problems with it myself - but just to broaden the debate on the nature of warfare: what really struck me is that people out there seem to presume that the only choice they have is between shelling and drones.
posted by the cydonian at 7:52 PM on October 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Drones, Ethics and the Armchair Soldier
Warfare, unlike philosophy, could never be conducted from an armchair. Until now. For the first time in history, some soldiers have this in common with philosophers: they can do their jobs sitting down. They now have what I’ve always enjoyed, namely “leisure,” in the Hobbesian sense of the word, meaning they are not constantly afraid of being killed.
The Drone Philosopher
Yet these difficulties are but a prelude to philosophy. Peter [sic] glimpses a future in which our American warriors, physically remote from the theater of engagement, will be able, to a degree unusual in the history of warfare, to deliberate on the propriety of killing, and will become philosophers in their own right, debating the reasons behind their actions, just as Peter might have once simulated a debate on the propriety of torturing a suspect or dropping a bomb.

Don’t blame me if this sounds ludicrous. I’m not making this part up.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:29 PM on October 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Proponents insist they actually save the lives of [...] U.S. soldiers, who would otherwise be deployed in dangerous ground operations

Couldn't they just, you know, not deploy soldiers either?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:49 PM on October 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I remember reading someone who argued that drones should be banned because they're unfair. They allow our side to kill the other side's soldiers but don't give the other side a chance to kill ours.

That struck me as a very strange point of view. Hawks are sometimes accused of viewing the whole thing as if it was some sort of game, but this guy really was thinking in those terms.

War isn't fair. There's no rule that says each side should have an equal chance to win. And the body count isn't a score. I want our men to be as safe as they can be, while still winning. If drone strikes make it possible for us to win without exposing our men to enemy fire, I'm all for 'em.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:55 PM on October 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Predator Empire: The Geopolitics of U.S. Drone Warfare
This paper critically assesses the CIA’s drone program and proposes that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles isdriving an increasingly "dronified" U.S. national security strategy. The paper suggests that large-scale groundwars are being eclipsed by fleets of weaponized drones capable of targeted killings across the planet. Evidencefor this shift is found in key security documents that mobilize an amorphous conflict against vaguely defined al-Qa’ida “affiliates."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:59 PM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


War isn't fair. There's no rule that says each side should have an equal chance to win. And the body count isn't a score. I want our men to be as safe as they can be, while still winning. If drone strikes make it possible for us to win without exposing our men to enemy fire, I'm all for 'em.

I believe the word is cowardly.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:07 PM on October 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've never seen anyone make the "unfair" argument. What I usually see is someone arguing that the advantages they bring make war more likely by lowering the human toll on one side so disproportionately.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:17 PM on October 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I believe the word is cowardly.

This is bullshit.

Throughout history, courage in battle has been defined and delineated according to the technology. To the phalanx, courage was closing with the enemy until the spearpoints cracked against shields, holding with your lines, and pushing, driving with all your might. To Wellington's "scum of the earth," courage was standing in ranks and squares advancing while cannons roared and comrades fell all around. For modern soldiers, courage can be advancing in leaps and bounds, laying out covering fire, and occupying strongpoints. For a young man in Waziristan, courage might be strapping a bomb vest on.

When old concepts of war are outpaced by technology, we get things like WWI's Western Front.

States engage in violence, and we can critique that violence, or argue against state-enacted conflict. But to argue that a state should willfully engage in conduct that will use up more of its troop's lives? Bullshit.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:26 PM on October 19, 2013 [15 favorites]


But to argue that a state should willfully engage in conduct that will use up more of its troop's lives? Bullshit.

Huh, I didn't read "Couldn't they just, you know, not deploy soldiers either?" as arguing for that.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:35 PM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


But to argue that a state should willfully engage in conduct that will use up more of its troop's lives? Bullshit.

Yeah, that's not what I was arguing in the slightest.

It's cowardly because the US have essentially no stakes in the war they're fighting, which raises the question of why they're fighting it at all. They have all the power in the world, and choose to use it to fight people with next to none. Why? Are they so afraid of the imaginary boogeyman of the month that they're willing to kill every man, woman, and child to vanquish him?

Just give the mass murder a fucking rest already.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:47 PM on October 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


Do we even know who we are fighting and who we are killing? Do we even know how many wars we are currently fighting?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 10:08 PM on October 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Interesting point that the USA who is fighting a war against terror is actually terrorizing the civilians in the region via the constant sound of the drones. I never thought of that until I read the article.

How the hell do you hear something flying at 30k feet? That's between 5 and 6 miles up, right? Those suckers must be loud.

And, I know I'm being pedantic, but the drones don't "hover." They "loiter." Still gotta be terrifying for the innocent people on the ground.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:16 PM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


To the phalanx, courage was closing with the enemy until the spearpoints cracked against shields, holding with your lines, and pushing, driving with all your might.

Greek city states went to war a lot. An awful lot. They could do so because the death rate wasn't that high - you could always chuck your armour and run for it and phalanxes were about a lot of shoving at the front - many people in the back rows would never have to fight at all. There was also a social leap that happened with the phalanx: people fought together as equals, creating the conditions where democracy and shifts from oligarchic rule could flourish. It's worth thinking about the social effects on both sides when you talk about the technology of war. What is happening to Western states by doing this? Are we creating a society where we no longer have to face consequences of waging war, thus making war something we embrace too easily? Are we investing in technology to the degree that we lose the idea of war as something that bonds (yes, war is evil, but it does sometimes create social bonds that have some value)? Are we just writing off our enemies as an endless pile of evil people that need to be bombed and not thinking about alternatives to blowing them up?

Maybe drones are worth it, but that discussion needs to happen, because what you do with your army does have consequences beyond warfare - and not just for those you are attacking, but for your own society. No, I don't want to see anyone die unnecessarily but all choices have consequences and I think exploring those consequences is important.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:31 PM on October 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


But to argue that a state should willfully engage in conduct that will use up more of its troop's lives? Bullshit.

Huh, I didn't read "Couldn't they just, you know, not deploy soldiers either?" as arguing for that.

Just give the mass murder a fucking rest already.


You both happened to have left this out from odysseus' comment:

States engage in violence, and we can critique that violence, or argue against state-enacted conflict.

I could be wrong, but I think the suggestion being made here is that most states simply do these things (which is, to be fair, an empirical question). The fact that different states exhibit this tendency suggests that there is something about being a state that makes this likely to happen: that likelihood is not obviously determined by the moral character of the state's population or their moral sentiments, and states/militaries are autonomous of their citizens to varying degrees anyway. I think that's pretty empirically accurate, though by its basic nature I simultaneously regard war as patently immoral.
posted by clockzero at 10:32 PM on October 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


It was left out because it was a suggestion to discuss what Sys Rq was already discussing before his comments were misread.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:48 PM on October 19, 2013


A notorious arms dealer speaks out on the subject.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:05 PM on October 19, 2013


I thought it did discuss that, perhaps obliquely. States wage wars, and that entails the use of force. Given that states wage wars, shouldn't they try to minimize their own casualties?

The exchange before that flowed from Sys Req's comment that perhaps states could simply not wage wars, so (I thought) the response was entirely germane, though it was from an empirical rather than normative perspective, if I read it as it was meant. The idea is that our cultural constructions of things like cowardice in war are related to the technology at our disposal, so the act of labeling drone strikes cowardly is not merely an independent moral idea, but the expression of a particular ideology of war. Is that what you think was misread? Do you mean that it's a normative idea which has no important relationship with how differently categories like bravery and cowardice are constructed in different contexts?
posted by clockzero at 11:11 PM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


War is a crime against everybody.

The problem with conventional warfare is that those who planned it so rarely suffer consequences.

With drone warfare, even those who knowingly aided, abetted and carried it out do so without any repercussions.

It's the pinnacle of cowardice.
posted by anemone of the state at 11:17 PM on October 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Our World Supremacy Apparatus sometimes reminds me of a crazy IT department run amok, constantly looking for trouble and spying on people rather than attending to major problems that would help morale and productivity across the board, causing more trouble and interference than they ultimately help, and relying too much on remote access tools rather than getting off their ass and meeting you face to face.

I say this as a guy with an extensive IT background who remembers his first job with total remote access (within the building or elsewhere) to every machine, and the massive shift in productivity that I enjoyed by seizing the helm of end users' computers rather than talking them through their problems. At this point the analogy is breaking down completely but my basic point is that it's intoxicating having more and more power with less and less effort and you better be sure you're optimizing for the right things rather than going back to the 1980's Blowback Playbook except playing the roles of USA and USSR simultaneously and creating a new generation of radicals with cultural / oral traditions of flying death machines instead of Hind Helicopers and tanks.
posted by lordaych at 11:27 PM on October 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I thought it did discuss that, perhaps obliquely. States wage wars, and that entails the use of force. Given that states wage wars, shouldn't they try to minimize their own casualties?

Sys Rq has argued that nations should not wage war. He has emphatically rejected the idea that his argument is that, "a state should willfully engage in conduct that will use up more of its troop's lives". I'm not sure where you picked up the suggestion that he thought bravely fought wars might be a different matter. It doesn't seem like an assumption that naturally follows. There are all kinds of brave people who have committed war crimes.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:36 PM on October 19, 2013


Wasn't there a Star Trek episode where some planet had so divorced themselves from the reality of war that they engaged in unnecessary fighting to everyone's detriment? And Kirk like talked a computer into destroying itself? Or something?

Maybe we need a Kirk to talk the drones into self-destructing.
posted by Justinian at 12:14 AM on October 20, 2013


Clockzero wrote: States wage wars, and that entails the use of force.

The fact that a state is killing people doesn't make it a "war". Wars are made against other states or state-like entities because at the heart of every war is the idea that peace must come, either with a negotiated end to hostilities or with the enemy's defeat. If an enemy is physically defeated, significantly, the parties go through a ritualised process by which the loser surrenders to the victor. That act is vital; without it there can be no peace, because the remaining scraps of the enemy's forces will each consider themselves justified in continuing hostilities.

The USA claims to be making war against Al-Qaeda and its associates. Very well, I will stipulate that it was justified in retaliating. But how can this be a war? It can't end! There is no Supreme Commander of Al-Qaeda who can surrender; there is no Land of Al-Qaeda whose leader will acquiesce to USAn demands. The same goes for its "associates", but how much more so - they are a vast and amorphous mess of people. I don't even believe the USA could define them with any precision. This isn't a war; it's a series of international executions. There is no war and there will be no peace.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:27 AM on October 20, 2013 [13 favorites]


Of course there will. We'll make a desert and we'll call it peace.
posted by Justinian at 12:39 AM on October 20, 2013


There is no war and there will be no peace.

That's the convenient thing about non-state actors, they are the ultimate key to sustainable, infinite profit and growth for the "defense" industry. At this point, it's hard to imagine this situation ever changing now. It's just too damn comfortable and the raw materials (rage-filled violent people easily manipulated by religion) are in nearly infinite supply on all sides, at near-zero cost.
posted by trackofalljades at 12:55 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would like to propose a Hegelian tactic, creating a synthesis of the two opposing views put forward in this thread - ie, "drones save lives" vs "drones kill people".

Obviously drones are much safer for American soldiers. But they are only half the solution; if our enemies also had drones, they too would benefit from their life-saving properties. As Stanislaw Lem imagined, a wholly robotic war taking place a safe distance away - say, on the moon - would strip war of it dangerous aspects forever, and we could all concentrate on other things for a change.

Some say to me: "quidnunc, you are disgusting. First you deny robots the right to marry one another, now you think they should fight for our amusement??? God I hate you, beep beep boop".

But who is making those complaints anyway? ROBOTS!!! So vote #1 quidnunc bot. I mean quidnunc kid. Totally not a robot, guys - trust me. Beep.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 1:20 AM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sigh, I've missed you Man of twists and turns, for precisely this kind of well put together FPP (and I'm sure you're great company and all. But I'm really here for the FPP).
posted by smoke at 1:39 AM on October 20, 2013


I remember reading someone who argued that drones should be banned because they're unfair. They allow our side to kill the other side's soldiers but don't give the other side a chance to kill ours.

That struck me as a very strange point of view. Hawks are sometimes accused of viewing the whole thing as if it was some sort of game, but this guy really was thinking in those terms.

War isn't fair. There's no rule that says each side should have an equal chance to win. And the body count isn't a score. I want our men to be as safe as they can be, while still winning. If drone strikes make it possible for us to win without exposing our men to enemy fire, I'm all for 'em.


It will be interesting to see how long this type of opinion is sustained after the first round of enemy drone attacks on US soil.
posted by fairmettle at 2:33 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Unusual piece — a screen studies analysis, really. Stark and overly dichotomous, but perhaps this is the logic of hard power.

I wrote a PhD of which rather a lot was an extended reading of Chion, so I guess I am exactly the sort of person who is going to find this analysis reductive, although the audio vs. video situation of the participants is well observed and a definite hook. However, this situation does not arise from an artistic choice, but a pragmatic one. There isn't any pressing operational need for a soundtrack to drone videos, and the fact that the engine noise travels is, well, just that.

/usual ambivalence

As rhetoric, as speech that aims at persuasion, there are vastly more convincing forms for presenting the same argument that don't exclude the casual or non-specialist reader.
posted by Wolof at 2:49 AM on October 20, 2013


To the phalanx, courage was closing with the enemy until the spearpoints cracked against shields, holding with your lines, and pushing, driving with all your might.
One of the Saiôn in Thrace now delights in the shield I discarded
Unwillingly near a bush, for it was perfectly good,
But at least I got myself safely out. Why should I care for that shield?
Let it go. Some other time I'll find another no worse.

Archilochus
posted by ersatz at 3:42 AM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Soon the terrorists are going to have cheap and effective unmanned warplanes and the American leaders are going to spend their entire lives in underground bunkers for fear of being taken out. It will be sort of like Assassination Politics, except without the nerds.
posted by bukvich at 5:33 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The fact that a state is killing people doesn't make it a "war".

Which makes no difference at all to the people killed, whether they are "insurgents" or "members of the wedding party."


The trouble with the idea of robot-on-robot war is that when one side sees it is going to lose, it will immediately return to warring on its opponent's people.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:40 AM on October 20, 2013


War isn't fair. There's no rule that says each side should have an equal chance to win. And the body count isn't a score. I want our men to be as safe as they can be, while still winning. If drone strikes make it possible for us to win without exposing our men to enemy fire, I'm all for 'em.

Yes, there is every incentive to keep casualties to a minimum. The problem is that using drones does it in a very one-sided way.

More importantly, it is just the most recent step in reducing political resistance to war. When the only people who suffer and die are non-Americans, and as such have no voice in the debate, then voter apathy towards the use of military force will leave the racketeers completely unchecked.

Silently, the casualties mount.
posted by swr at 6:49 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Describing drones as something against which enemies can't fight back is almost comically wrong. Drones are defenseless -- as the article points out, so unstealthy that civilians can tell they're around with the unaided ear, lacking in any meaningful ability to evade or counter air-to-air to surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles or artillery, etc.

They are useful now for a very unusual purpose, which is to keep in as degenerated a state as possible the already low capabilities of terrorists who have found refuge in more degenerated countries. There is no need for US drones in states with an even slightly capable counter-terror infrastructure.
posted by MattD at 8:54 AM on October 20, 2013


It will be interesting to see how long this type of opinion is sustained after the first round of enemy drone attacks on US soil.

I bet the first domestic drone deaths will be from law enforcement, actually. "Safety" is already a commodity for the upper-middle class, and it will be even more lucrative when being in the "wrong demographic" means death from above.

The law-and-order crowd will justify this with bogeymen in the tradition of communist subversives, gang members, immigrants, etc. The new centrally located gentrified playgrounds will make it easier to divorce the carnage from those with the political power to end it. If this sounds like hyperbolic dystopia, I'd argue in a world of Pelican Bay co-existing with gated communities, we're already there sans robot wars.
posted by gorbweaver at 8:58 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Soon the terrorists are going to have cheap and effective unmanned warplanes and the American leaders are going to spend their entire lives in underground bunkers for fear of being taken out.

At least one of those leaders is apparently concerned that they don't even need unmanned warplanes.
posted by flabdablet at 9:12 AM on October 20, 2013


At least one of those leaders is apparently concerned that they don't even need unmanned warplanes.

It's a bit off-topic for this thread, but a security researcher who was just about to give a presentation about vulnerabilities in such devices died in somewhat mysterious circumstances earlier this year.
posted by anemone of the state at 9:39 AM on October 20, 2013


Joe in Australia >

The fact that a state is killing people doesn't make it a "war". Wars are made against other states or state-like entities because at the heart of every war is the idea that peace must come, either with a negotiated end to hostilities or with the enemy's defeat.

What does make something a war, then? What's the rule that applies equally across time and place to the process of organized belligerence itself?

I think you're articulating historically and contextually contingent conceptions of what war is as though they're factual, and that distorts analysis to the point of merely reproducing received wisdom about the recent past. For instance, surely you'd agree that the military struggles between, just to pick one example, the Romans and the Goths in the 4th century constituted a war despite the fact that at least the latter side was not a state in the modern sense? States are merely one form of social and political organization. They're not an eternal category.

If an enemy is physically defeated, significantly, the parties go through a ritualised process by which the loser surrenders to the victor. That act is vital; without it there can be no peace, because the remaining scraps of the enemy's forces will each consider themselves justified in continuing hostilities.

That is not historically accurate, though. Again, you're talking about war as though it was invented and defined by Western military processes of the 19-20th centuries. This analysis is categorically excluding the majority of war events in human history in the process of defining war.

The USA claims to be making war against Al-Qaeda and its associates. Very well, I will stipulate that it was justified in retaliating. But how can this be a war? It can't end!

Many, many wars in history were very long and had ambiguous outcomes. What makes a conflict a war is how it is enacted, I would argue, not whether or not the conclusion is clear in advance.

There is no Supreme Commander of Al-Qaeda who can surrender; there is no Land of Al-Qaeda whose leader will acquiesce to USAn demands. The same goes for its "associates", but how much more so - they are a vast and amorphous mess of people. I don't even believe the USA could define them with any precision. This isn't a war; it's a series of international executions. There is no war and there will be no peace.

It is a sort of war, but not one that appears to resolvable anytime soon, owing to the unique characteristics of modern technology. That's the whole point here. Technology determines how wars can be fought, and from that set of possibilities flow understandings about what war itself is.

Just to be clear, by the way, I am not a war apologist, nor do I necessarily think that the drone campaign is wise, morally defensible, or likely to succeed in achieving some set of aims. I do think it's worthwhile to have a lucid apprehension of historical contingency and how that influences and determines our ideas about what is, what must be, or what should be.
posted by clockzero at 10:34 AM on October 20, 2013


They always delete the film of the target jumping up and down with his passport screaming, "I'm an American Citizen, I have rights!"
posted by Renoroc at 11:07 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


If fairness matters at all, it is interesting to me to consider the comparative balance of risk and intrusion. If an Al-Qaeda operation were to blow up a group of drone pilots, maybe, say, while they were at a wedding party or tailgating at a football game, would we call this warfare? Crime? Mental Illness?

What if they targeted drone pilots in good faith, but got some other random crowd instead?
posted by idiopath at 12:01 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


If an Al-Qaeda operation were to blow up a group of drone pilots, maybe, say, while they were at a wedding party or tailgating at a football game, would we call this warfare? Crime? Mental Illness?

We'd call it terrorism.

We're soldiers, you're guerillas, they're terrorists. That's how it works.
posted by Justinian at 2:05 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Clockzero wrote: surely you'd agree that the military struggles between, just to pick one example, the Romans and the Goths in the 4th century constituted a war despite the fact that at least the latter side was not a state in the modern sense?

They were tribal entities controlling territory; that's what I called a "statelike entity". The thing that signified an end to the Roman/Gaulish wars was the Roman occupation and governance of Gaul. I suppose that's a special case of peacemaking, when your enemy no longer exists as a national entity. The problem with the War Against Terror is that Al Qaeda never was a national entity, and the USA has neither the capacity nor the desire to occupy every place from which it derives its support.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:49 PM on October 20, 2013


"US has killed far more civilians with drones than it admits, says UN"

Upon reading the UN's recent report on drone strikes, and all I can say is that it is hardly a damning indictment.

Indeed, "far more civilians than it admits" is an obvious statement, when you consider that all the CIA counter-terrorism strikes are neither confirmed or denied, according to the report. This status quo is changing, however, as the President has recently ordered the CIA strikes to be transferred to DoD control, with greater transparency and oversight.

1> It seems to agree that the drones are used in legally defensible ways:
"The fact that civilians have been killed and injured does not necessarily point to a violation of international humanitarian law."

2> It has only "identified 33 (drone) strikes that appear to have resulted in civilian casualties", spanning a period of several years.

3> It generally champions the use of drones, as "they can reduce the risk of civilian casualties by significantly improving overall situational awareness. The ability of drones to loiter and gather intelligence for long periods. . . coupled with precision-guided munitions, is therefore a positive advantage from a humanitarian law perspective. As the International Committee for the Red Cross has noted, "any weapon that makes it possible to carry out more precise attacks, and helps avoid or minimize incidental loss of life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects, should be given preference over weapons that do not."

4> They point out that civilian deaths from drones are already decreasing sharply, mentioning a "marked drop" during 2012 in Pakistan, "a trend that continued during the first half of 2013." They also cite the US tactic of striking vehicles moving on largely empty roads between cities in Yemen "in an apparent effort to minimize civilian loss of life", and that in general "the United States appears to have succeeded in avoiding the infliction of large-scale loss of civilian life in Yemen." In Libya, NATO "succeeded in conducting a highly precise campaign with demonstrable determination to avoid civilian casaualties", while in Somalia "there have been no reported. . . drone strikes since February 2012."

5> The biggest UN issue regarding US transparency and cooperation with their drone investigations is the CIA, because, "just as all secret services, it operates on the basis of neither confirming nor denying its operations." In May 2013, President Obama "signalled that the Administration intended to transfer control of lethal counter-terrorism operations . . . from CIA to the Department of Defense. This was said to be partly for the purpose of increasing transparency and accountability". The President "also indicated that considerations would be given to new judicial or executive mechanisms to increase independent oversight."

6> On issues of consent for drone strikes, the report cites that "The Government of Yemen has informed the Special Rapporteur that the United states routinely seeks prior consent, on a case-by-case basis", while in Pakistan, "there is strong evidence to suggest" that drone strikes "were conducted with the active consent and approval of senior members of the Pakistani military and intelligence service." New consent guidelines were adopted by the Pakistani parliament in April 2012. It also mentions a recent statement by Sec.State John Kerry that "there is now a clearly defined timeline for ending remotely piloted aircraft strikes in Pakistan."

6> While the report generally approves of the use of drones, it does lay out several recommendations to further reduce the potential for civilian deaths. "In particular, the Special rapporteur urges the United States to further clarify its position. . . to declassify, to the maximum extent possible, information relevant to its lethal extraterritorial counter-terrorism operations; and to release its own data on the level of civilian casualties . . . together with information on the evaluation methodology used." The DoD apparently already does much of this, so one could hope that the transition from CIA to DoD control for anti-terrorist use of drones would bring about a significant amount of changes here.

It's a good read, if only because it makes it clear that the drone war seems to be both fading out, and to be conducted with an increasing level of care, oversight, and transparency.

Lots of people hate the drone war, and tend to lump how the US conducts itself today in with how it conducted itself in the past, but in point of fact, there have been some big changes made, with resultant sharp reductions in civilian deaths, while the conflict itself is on the way out.
posted by markkraft at 7:04 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Indeed, "far more civilians than it admits" is an obvious statement, when you consider that all the CIA counter-terrorism strikes are neither confirmed or denied, according to the report.

And of course there's catch 22: everybody targeted by a drone is automatically counted as a combatant by virtue of having been targeted. Because surely it's completely obvious to any impartial observer that blurry, indistinct, maximally-zoomed video is a completely adequate standard of proof on which to base imposition of a lethal penalty.
posted by flabdablet at 8:04 PM on October 20, 2013


"everybody targeted by a drone is automatically counted as a combatant by virtue of having been targeted."

Actually, no. There is, in fact, a methodology for how they estimate civilian deaths.

In fact, there are some who have mentioned that many of the drone strikes are simulated ahead of time using special 3D software that helps fine-tune the targeting so as to minimize the risk to civilians. It's even been mentioned in the press that the POTUS might be required to give personal approval for some strikes that don't meet a certain level of estimated safety.
posted by markkraft at 8:43 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Basically, when they say that drone strikes can be like a video game, they aren't kidding. They can fairly easily be simulated, with map data used to create a virtual environment where you can plan strike missions ahead of time, complete with a blast radius, expected damage, and estimated casualties.

Keep in mind that the pilot for a drone in Yemen might be based back in the US somewhere. Believe it or not, they *really* don't want unavoidable civilian casualties, because that could damage their larger mission.
posted by markkraft at 9:07 PM on October 20, 2013


You do have to wonder how much data the US military has accumulated over the years, though, in order to accurately assess whether a given rocket blast will kill civilians, and if so, how many, statistically.

I would assume / hope they do it the Mythbusters way, by using dummies with sensors and blowing sh*t up, but then again, they've blown up so much stuff -- and so many people -- that they could be using past experience, for all I know.
posted by markkraft at 9:11 PM on October 20, 2013


They've been doing it with real, breathing people. They just don't care. And yet liberals buy the crocodile tears Obama sheds over the tough decisions made on Kill List Tuesdays.

Inspired by these devotional words from his spiritual advisor, of course.
posted by anemone of the state at 10:14 PM on October 20, 2013


The truth is, killing someone(s) with a drone strike has become a very procedural, bureaucratic thing during the Obama adminstration, which probably explains why civilian casualties have fallen pretty sharply, according to the UN.

They recently announced releasing "a document that institutionalizes the Administration's exacting standards and processes for reviewing and approving operations to capture or use lethal force" that basically goes in detail as to who, when, and how people can be killed with drones, that presumably has limitations or conditions on authorizing strikes that pose a significant risk to civilians.

So basically, killing a terrorist with a drone isn't a simple thing at all, outside of a basic warzone combat scenario. You have complex procedures and simulations that require solid identification, planning, simulations, collateral damage estimates, etc. and then it faces the approval process based on the Obama Administration's new standards, which may, in some circumstances, require *very* high-level approval, possibly from the POTUS.

... but still, people die. Oftentimes, people who weren't intentionally targeted. Sometimes, they're civilians or family members of the target. Which is very unfortunate, of course.

That said, a detailed statistical study of drone use in Afghanistan and Pakistan concluded the following:
"We find that drone strikes are associated with decreases in the
incidence and lethality of terrorist attacks, as well as decreases in particularly intimidating and deadly terrorist tactics, including suicide and improvised explosive devices (IED) attacks. These results lend credence to the argument that drone strikes, while unpopular, have bolstered U.S. counterterrorism eff orts in Pakistan and cast doubt on claims that drone strikes are militarily ine ffective."


It's very easy and understandable to get upset about the US killing a couple hundred civilians in Pakistan -- many of them family of from drones, but you have to weigh that against a country where about 35,000 people have died in the last decade due to terrorist attacks. (Here's another such bombing from just three days ago. In fact, as the article says, "more than 100 people were killed in three attacks in the space of a week late last month.")

We're not talking about "do no evil" here. We're talking about "what choice leads to the least evil?"... and I would be the first to admit that it's a tragic choice to have to make. But it's also one that I am glad that the President and the military are making, as responsibly and diligently as they reasonably can be, trying to protect civilians.

(Can't say that about the terrorist bombers, unfortunately.)
posted by markkraft at 10:18 PM on October 20, 2013


a detailed statistical study of drone use

Could you please link to the study itself instead of a bio page.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 10:36 PM on October 20, 2013


They recently announced releasing "a document that institutionalizes the Administration's exacting standards and processes for reviewing and approving operations to capture or use lethal force" that basically goes in detail as to who, when, and how people can be killed with drones, that presumably has limitations or conditions on authorizing strikes that pose a significant risk to civilians.

Well, presumably that takes care of all my presumable concerns, presumably, aside from some specific concerns that, presumably, remain classified.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:38 PM on October 20, 2013


Friends once more: The U.S. Is Ready to Start Providing Military Aid to Pakistan Again
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:46 PM on October 20, 2013


"a detailed statistical study of drone use"

Sorry, linked by mistake to the author at Stanford, who is well-known for his statistical research on civil wars as well.

Here's the study:
The Impact of US Drones on Terrorism on Pakistan and Afghanistan
posted by markkraft at 10:50 PM on October 20, 2013


Sure, of course, maybe if we give their military another billion or three in aid they will be able to detect if our greatest enemy is hiding within a mile of their military academy next time.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:10 PM on October 20, 2013


Here's the study

Thank you. Interesting study to be sure, but from the conclusion:

We are also not in a position to make strong causal claims about the impact of drone strikes on militant violence. There is evidence of a strong negative contemporaneous correlation between drone strikes and various measures of militant violence. This may indicate that that drone strikes have important counterterrorism dividends, but caution should be exercised in inferring causality due to the selection bias inherent in the data despite the econometric techniques used to mitigate selection bias in our regression estimates.

posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:22 AM on October 21, 2013


Yes, right before they say:
Still, our ndings appear consistent with the hypothesis that new technologies - speci cally, remote means of surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting - are able, at least in certain key areas of northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, to disrupt and degrade militants in ways that compensate for an incumbent governments lack of physical presence in and control over these areas, and can consequently limit both the frequency and the lethality of militant attacks.
posted by markkraft at 9:22 AM on October 21, 2013


Joe in Australia wrote:

They were tribal entities controlling territory; that's what I called a "statelike entity". The thing that signified an end to the Roman/Gaulish wars was the Roman occupation and governance of Gaul. I suppose that's a special case of peacemaking, when your enemy no longer exists as a national entity.

Maybe this wasn't the best example, so let's think instead of Gaul as it was when Caesar first made war on them. Caeser killed many, many hundreds of thousands, enslaved a significant portion of those, and conquered those he did not kill. The point I meant to make was that in either case, the waging of war was not predicated upon Gaul being a nation-state, it was about getting slaves and territory. War was just an instrument of advancing certain interests, as it has always been.

War is merely force organized on a mass scale. If people can fight back, the war goes on until one side loses the will or ability to fight; if they cannot fight back sufficiently, they are slaughtered, and we though now call that genocide it happened not-infrequently before the 20th century gave opportunities to rationalize the process, thereby somewhat de-militarizing it. But until then, it was simply war. This is not meant as a defense of war or a revisionist take on genocide.

The problem with the War Against Terror is that Al Qaeda never was a national entity, and the USA has neither the capacity nor the desire to occupy every place from which it derives its support.

That is a problem in the sense that the US may be unable to win, but it doesn't mean that what's happening is not war. It's just not a kind of war that resembles WWII or WWI, nor any of Europe's or the West's big modern wars.
posted by clockzero at 11:23 AM on October 21, 2013


Wars are not crimes. That's to say that not all wars are crimes, because criminality involves legal transgression. Also, not all killings in war are murders. I refer to the contrast, and tension, between jus in bello and jus ad bellum. A drone is not technically any different than a rifle platoon or an artillery piece.

Maybe the more useful discussion would be about whether we ought to be wading in the swamp before we move on to determining the best way to whack alligators. Somehow gunboat diplomacy seems to have been legitimized.

I'm pretty sure the drone operators are aware of what they are doing. I don't think of them as cowards. Personal valor comes in many flavors. There's another interesting dilemma, the soldier who believes in his cause: the (un)willing being led by the incompetent to do the unnecessary.

We haven't had a "...good German..." argument for a long time.
posted by mule98J at 12:28 PM on October 21, 2013


I'm pretty sure the drone operators are aware of what they are doing.

Previously.
posted by homunculus at 12:44 PM on October 21, 2013


There is, in fact, a methodology for how they estimate civilian deaths.

I'm sure there is. And I'm equally sure that a neat Powerpoint presentation full of sanitized military euphemisms for killing people means absolutely squat to the people on the ground with drones buzzing overhead.

Foreign policy, it seems to me, serves two purposes:

1. Protection of the interests of the domestic ruling elite in foreign countries.

2. Promotion of an appearance of Doing The Right Thing for domestic propaganda purposes.

I am presently unaware that Pakistan has a huge amount to offer toward purpose (1); it seems to me therefore that present drone policy is mainly aimed at purpose (2) - terrorism is a Bad Thing about which we must be seen to be doing something; this is something; therefore we must do this.

It's all tied in to the standard propaganda line about the motivation for terrorism, which is that They Hate Us For Our Freedom. This is of course complete fucking nonsense. They hate your country because your country keeps shitting on their countries per purpose (1).

You don't win hearts and minds, and therefore minimize the likelihood that some of those hearts will turn black enough to turn some of those minds to terrorism, by terrorizing relatively powerless populations with flying robot death. This ought to be patently obvious to anybody not locked into a rigid view of America as automatically Good and Right, which is basically anybody who has read any history (if you haven't, start with South America in the 1980s and work on outward).

So until you can convince me that the people on the ground under the drones are by and large in favour of living that way, I will continue to argue that dropping bombs on other people's countries is every bit as disgusting an act as the misuse of passenger aircraft to destroy iconic buildings in your own. And if I, an educated Westerner living in an affluent democracy not currently under attack from your country, feels that way: I'll leave you to imagine how much toxic hatred your drone program is inspiring right now in the children whose mothers and fathers your country has convinced itself it has an imperial right to kill.
posted by flabdablet at 3:44 PM on October 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have a horrible feeling that not only is Flabdablet right about the drones' purpose being largely for domestic propaganda purposes, but that it's like the TSA: everybody knows it's stupid, useless, and wasteful, but nobody will kill the program because they don't want to be The Guy That Let Osama Two Get Away.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:04 PM on October 21, 2013


Odd how nobody seems particularly worried about being The Guy That Got Osama Two Motivated.
posted by flabdablet at 4:14 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


FATA: Behind Pakistan's Iron Curtain
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:20 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's all tied in to the standard propaganda line about the motivation for terrorism, which is that They Hate Us For Our Freedom. This is of course complete fucking nonsense. They hate your country because your country keeps shitting on their countries per purpose (1).

Jeremy Scahill recently said that there were other issues that were even worse than drones, such as the US's systemic support of brutal regimes.

Other news: Even Voice of America is now reporting on Amnesty International's assessment of drone strikes as human rights violations.
posted by anemone of the state at 10:57 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, right before they say:

Correlation does not equal causation. They are dealing with incomplete data sets and their methodology is based on several assumptions which may or may not be true. For example they assume a constant linear relationship between drone attacks and a decline in terrorist lethality. They admit as much and then say:

The predicted decline is probably an overstatement of the impact drones could realistically have, simply because even at the peak of the drone campaign in 2010, when the number of drone strikes was two and a half times larger than the previous year (119 in 2010, versus 53 in 2009), the number of drones per campaign-week in 2010 was 0.33, while it was 0.14 in 2009.


Their analysis also doesn't deal with the problem of identification. How do we know that the people being killed are terrorists? How do we know that HVI are in fact high value? They simply take the government's word for it. Given their track record of lying about drone strikes I don't see why any non biased observer would do so.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:48 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Other news: Even Voice of America is now reporting on Amnesty International's assessment of drone strikes as human rights violations.

Here's the report: "Will I be Next?" US Drone Strikes in Pakistan
posted by homunculus at 12:37 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


So until you can convince me that the people on the ground under the drones are by and large in favour of living that way

Previously.
posted by homunculus at 12:39 PM on October 22, 2013


DroneU - Reading List
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:52 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Democracy Now: "How Do You Justify Killing a Grandmother?" Amnesty Says U.S. Drone Strikes May Be War Crimes
posted by homunculus at 1:35 PM on October 23, 2013


The USA said that bombing rescuers after bombings ('double-tap') was a terrorist tactic, until they did it:


Drone Victims Recount Horror of Follow-Up Strikes Launched Against People Rescuing Wounded

posted by anemone of the state at 6:02 PM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Now they know that we know that they know that we know: Secret memos reveal explicit nature of U.S., Pakistan agreement on drones
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:10 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Regarding the questions of morality and/or legality:

Neither Legal nor Justiciable: Targeted Killings and De Facto Immunity within the War on Terror

Drones and the Dilemma of Modern Warfare

Legality of the US Drone Strikes in Pakistan and the Question of Pakistan’s Sovereignty and Accountability towards Terrorist Groups

The costs and consequences of drone warfare

The United States’ Use of Drones in the War on Terror: The (Il)legality of Targeted Killings Under International Law

Drones and Cognitive Dissonance

The Drone Wars: Uncovering the Dynamics and Scope of United States Drone Strikes

America’s Drone Wars

The Killing of Osama Bin Laden & Anwar Al-Aulaqi: Uncharted Legal Territory

America’s Targeted Killing Policy: Is it Right? Is it Working?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:25 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


If anyone likes shit sandwiches watch this U.S. State Department Daily Press Briefing
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:29 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda": The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:35 AM on October 24, 2013


Pakistan denies UN report that they consented to drone attacks.
posted by idiopath at 12:11 AM on October 27, 2013


recent Omnivore, many links: Say What You Want About Drones
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:53 PM on October 29, 2013


America’s Drone Wars: A new film looks at the deadly impact of America’s use of drones abroad. Should Obama change course?
posted by homunculus at 4:15 PM on November 3, 2013


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