Article 25

Killing by Remote Control

In Uncategorized on 07/29/2013 at 9:53 pm


In June, activists outside CIA headquarters protest drone warfare. Photo by Judith Kelly.

Drones don’t discriminate

By Janice Sevre-Duszynska

 Imagine you’re grocery shopping with your children. You go through the checkout, get into your car and as you’re pulling out of the parking lot, you hear a terrifying whir followed by a frightening explosion. A drone operator at a U.S. Air Force base thousands of miles away has pressed the button on a drone “joystick.” At that moment, a Predator or Reaper drone in the sky unleashes a Hellfire missile on a car filled with people.

In your rear-view mirror, you see body parts flying through the air. Little of the car remains, and even less of those who had been inside. On a nearby telephone pole, you catch sight of pieces of human flesh.

 If you are a Muslim in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, despite your instinct to survive, you might run to the site of the detonation to see if there were any survivors whom you might be able to help. Such a move might cost your life. The “double tap” tactic has been in use by the Obama administration. First responders to a drone attack are killed by a second attack. Targets include people going to funerals for the victims of an earlier drone attack.

The wrong gang

Medea Benjamin, author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, spoke in Washington, D.C., last month after a visit to Yemen. The founder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange went to Yemen to support an end to drone strikes and to draw attention to President Obama’s promise to release the remaining Yemeni prisoners in Guantanamo. In May the U.S. government announced that four Americans were killed by U.S. drone strikes in Yemen.

To the people of Yemen, drones have become the signature of the United States and the Obama administration, according to Benjamin. She talked about a Yemeni man who lost his brother in a drone strike as he was driving along a road in tribal areas. Today he is caring for his dead brother’s three children.

 “Normally, I’d be here to kill an American,” he said. “You’ve killed my brother. I am getting no justice. I know I’ll never get justice through my government, but I’ve heard stories about America and its rule of law and its pinnacle of justice. I am looking for you Americans to bring justice to my dead brother.”

 Benjamin said some Yemeni women invited her into a room; once inside the room filled only with women, they lifted their veils and wept. The women said Yemeni families have a love-hate relationship with the United States. Teenagers sometimes get into the wrong gang, one woman told Benjamin.

“Here, it is Al-Qaeda,” the woman told Benjamin. “Their lives are destroyed and their families lives are destroyed by the Yemeni government, the U.S. and Al-Qaeda.”

The woman said any connection to Al-Qaeda – even something as simple as driving a truck to make much-needed money – would mark a person and his family for the rest of their lives.

“Even if they didn’t do anything, they were targeted,” she said. “Once you have the label of Al-Qaeda on you, you can’t get it off you. Once you come out of prison even, you can be targeted. There is so much gratuitous killing.”

She gave an example of a car full of teenagers going to a funeral for people killed by drones. Then a drone struck them.

“What happens is, if you want someone killed, in the tribal rule you could make up a story,” the woman said. “The Yemeni government lies and has us settle its revenges.”

 “We can communicate with Al-Qaeda,” another woman told Benjamin. “There’s no way we can communicate with drones.”

The psychological battering from living under drones is intense. Parents keep their children from attending school, and adults are afraid to participate in gatherings for weddings, funerals, neighborhood parties, social or business gatherings.

Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan, published in 2012, is the result of a nine-month study by legal experts from Stanford and New York universities. The report quoted Firoz Ali Khan, a shopkeeper in the town of Miranshah, Pakistan.

“I have been seeing drones since the first one appeared about four to five years ago. … (We see drones) hovering. We don’t know when they will strike. … People are afraid of dying. … Children, women, they are all psychologically affected. They look at the sky to see if there are drones. … (They) make such a noise that everyone is scared,” Khan said.

The 146-page report includes 130 interviews. The authors rejected the notion that drone strikes make the United States safer, saying such thinking is “ambiguous at best.” The study dismissed the U.S. military’s contention that there is little “collateral damage,” concluding that barely 2 percent of the victims are militants. The study called upon the U.S. government to re-evaluate its drone program, saying it is setting precedents for extra-judicial killings outside U.S. and international law.

‘Pursue new campaigns’

 “Today drones are used for both lethal and non-lethal purposes” Benjamin’s book says. “Outside the military, unmanned aircraft are being drafted for everything from tracking drug smugglers and monitoring the U.S.-Mexico border to engaging in search operations after earthquakes and spraying pesticides on crops. But the military is the driving force behind drones.”

Last August I was part of a group who participated in the August Desert Witness, sponsored by the peace group Nevada Desert Experience. We gathered in Las Vegas to commemorate the 67th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to remember the victims of U.S. drone strikes. Our witnessing including die-ins, protesting outside Creech Air Force Base and attending the 39th Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) Drone Convention.

With a media pass from the National Catholic Reporter, I was the only one of our group to get into the convention. Benjamin’s request for a room to discuss her book about drones had been turned down by the AUVSI. She and Franciscan Fr. Louis Vitale, 81, were escorted out by police when they tried to pick up their registrations. About 8,000 people from 40 different countries participated, and I was one of fewer than a dozen women. The convention included workshops and keynotes by members of the military, government and representatives from academia and business as well as 500 exhibitors. The majority of exhibits consisted of drones and related products, including surveillance equipment manufactured for use by the U.S. military and the military in other countries.

“Where does the military stand in terms of coming technology?” asked Lt. Col. Anthony S. Cruz, who works with Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the U.S. Army’s “Ground Team” experimentation division.

Cruz led the workshop, “Experimentation Support to Robotics Concepts and Capabilities, Developments: Building the Manned/Unmanned Air-Ground Team.” He immediately referred us to the Armed Forces Journal and a recent article, “The Robot General.”

“Guys,” he said, looking directly at me, the only woman in the room, “We’re all working on something the army doesn’t have now: the autonomy.”

Cruz continued:

* “Technology is moving faster than concepts, polices and requirements.

* “Autonomy is essential in realizing full potential for robots.

* “We are working with academia, companies, research, etc.

“Through experimentation we are trying to gain knowledge to reduce risk to soldiers and investments. … This concept is the starting point for the Army Capabilities Integration Center.”

Cruz then showed a map of U.S. Battle Labs. Among the many sites was Fort Benning, which houses the notorious School of the Americas.

“The ability to test systems in actual battle combat, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, won’t be there always,” he said. “(We need to) experiment with soldiers such as Fort Benning as soon as possible. Army needs to pursue new campaigns for manned and unmanned war fighters.

“What do we want robots to do? A robot needs to understand its context of its mission. We want to support robots to do more without direct human direction.”

Like a video game

In 2010 the International Committee for Robotic Arms Control met in Berlin. As Benjamin points out in her book, “The experts expressed serious concerns about the inability of automated robotic systems to discriminate between combatants and civilians, and that these new technologies could make it difficult to determine the moral and legal responsibility for any atrocities committed in war.”

Cruz then posed the questions, “Where will the next conflict take place? Where will unmanned systems be used for future conflicts?”

The screen displayed photos of the Pacific Ocean, jungle terrain and cities.

During the demonstrations I walked from table to table viewing some of the videos. The main subjects were military strategies, reconnaissance and the speed and accuracy of hitting targets.

I looked around the audience. Any of them could become the agents who purchase drones for their country’s military to attack and kill the very people sitting next to them. It was surreal.

Most of the vendor and manufacturer exhibitors were either entirely military-based or partnered with the military and police. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps had exhibits. So did weapons manufacturers such as General Atomics (maker of the Reaper and Predator drones), Northrop Grumman (maker of the Gray Eagle, known for its ‘lethal persistence’) and Boeing (maker of the Phantom Eye).

Other exhibitors were military bases such as Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona and Edwards Air Force Base in California, which are trying to rent space to private companies to test and develop drones; and universities such as the University of North Dakota, touting training programs for drone operators. The keynote addresses focused on the non-military, civilian uses of drones.

During the evening I spoke at length about drones with my friend Fr. Louis, a former pilot in the U.S. Air Force and longtime peace activist.

In Southeast Asia in 2007, the drones themselves would be stationed in areas near combat, Louis said. They were remotely piloted from Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas. The operation of drones has spread to many locations, yet Creech remains the command center. The size of the base has grown enormously in the past five years.

The drones are operated by a crew of two: The first is a skilled Air Force pilot. The second, called the sensor operator, is a junior airman “who has probably developed a lot of remote skills in video games featuring air combat,” Louis said.

“The advantage of the drone operation, in the eyes of the Air Force, the government and some of the public, is that none of the lives of the crew were at risk from combat,” Louis said. “Also, the claim by the Air Force was that the missions were far more accurate with all of the high-tech control and avoided ‘collateral damage’ (the deaths of innocent people). This has turned out not to be true. There have been a great number of civilian casualties.”

Many of the crews have been affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Louis.

“We are greatly disturbed by the impact that it’s having on our own crew members, especially the young ones, the sensor operators,” he said.

The famed psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton has dubbed this experience “psychological numbness,” Louis said. The crew is unable to internalize the massive destruction to human life and the environment.

“This also is true of those who command these missions and of the American public,” Louis said. “We find it hard to imagine. We are therefore unable to make adequate moral decisions and thus are in severe danger of being involved in war crimes. As it is with our continual expansion of nuclear weapons, we must find ways to exercise our morality and bring an end to this horrible devastation to human lives and the world we live in.”

How long before the whirring sound makes our heads turn?

Janice Sevre-Duszynska is a peace activist and an ordained Roman Catholic Woman Priest.



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