Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control

Death Technology 101

Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control
By Medea Benjamin
Foreword by Barbara ehrenreich
OR Books, 2012; 241 pages, paperback, $16

Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control is an easy-to-read introduction to the issue of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA, a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles/systems—UAV/UAS, or, more popularly, drones), focusing on their use for warfare, surveillance, and assassination. It provides a snapshot of the current state of weaponized drones and also the organizing efforts against their proliferation, giving a reader a solid baseline of understanding from which to engage the issue.

Drone Warfare focuses on these new weapon systems, yet, as noted author and feminist Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her foreword, “In many ways, drones present the same moral
issues as any other action-at-a-distance weapon: They allow warriors to kill at a minimal risk to themselves, thus lowering the human cost of aggression.” People who organize against the rising tide of armed remote killing machines, like Drone Warfare author Medea Benjamin, aren’t single-issue activists.

Benjamin is very outspoken and articulate whenever she takes on an issue. If she has been strident and uncompromising at times, the tenor of her recent writing and political actions shows more consideration for the views of the undecided and of people who have opposing views. In Drone Warfare, this shift increases her ability to touch more people. As with any nonviolent campaign, activists opposed to drones need to hear and understand the other side to better challenge it. Here, Benjamin acknowledges the obvious reasons why UAVs and other robots have appeal for situations that are too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for humans, not all of which involve warfare or killing.

Especially useful in this regard are elusive comments from drone operators, commanders, and other members of the Defense Department. The military and current administration have been increasingly secretive about the identities of drone operators, although criticism of the intense shadow that hides these operations is leading to more government comment in defense of drone strikes. Personal testimonies from RPA crews are important for drone opponents to hear and reflect on, so we don’t mock or minimize the view from a sensor operator’s screen.

Pacifists have to construct arguments that resonate with people who aren’t as anti-militarist as themselves. A vital question for activists to grapple with is whether to differentiate between different types of missions. “Pilots operating drones that are supporting U.S. troops in war zones like Afghanistan have an easier time because they have a sense of accomplishment from protecting troops on the ground, “ says Benjamin in response to several comments of drone personnel about what makes their job difficult or not.

The book also contains an excellent rundown of investments in governmental and corporate UAVs, although it is necessarily incomplete because of the huge and growing number of players in the robotics field. Any book on this subject would benefit from including online addenda or other ways for new material to be added and shared. There’s no index, but the endnotes are good and the resources section helpful; by perusing the references and endnotes, one can find resources that are updated (one of the best being “Drone Wars UK”). If this is available and maintained online, it will be even more useful as time goes on. Without overdoing technological details, Benjamin’s book discusses projects being considered, researched and developed, making it a useful read down the road.

Drone Warfare includes a good chapter on legal concerns about RPAs. Drones represent a frontline assault on the rules of engagement that have actually reduced the wanton deadliness of warfare. Ethical and legal issues (aside from the problem of warfare in general) that need to be raised for all emerging technologies aren’t receiving the necessary (and legally mandated) scrutiny by the Pentagon, Congress, or the public.

The development of the “Laws of Armed Combat” has a fascinating history that this reviewer has learned more about since working against drone proliferation. Treaties and international conventions may be cynically viewed, but they have actually decreased lethal force and civilian casualties in many conflict situations. Rejection of negotiations and diplomacy because of mistrust ignores the positive role they have played, despite obvious breaches. Questions emerge: How do existing treaties relate to drones? What needs to happen for drone-specific agreements to be developed, or should enforcement of existing ones be emphasized more? Where should the line in the sand be drawn: Eliminate armed or all UAVs? Restrict situations in which they can be legally used? Stop development of more autonomous, armed systems?

Noting that unarmed systems are being designed today with an eye to being armed at a future date, this book includes domestic systems as well as those developed and deployed by the military itself. In order to create a broad movement against drone use, we may have to exploit personal fears of being spied upon or even attacked. Benjamin’s Drone Warfare contains many passages useful as talking points. As someone who is already trying to keep up on drone issues because of my proximity to, and activism at, Creech Air Force Base in Nevada (the headquarters of the USAF’s Predator and Reaper squadrons), I learned a lot from this book and recommend it highly.

Jim Haber

Jim Haber has been a member of War Resisters League for many years, and served for over a decade on WRL's National Committee.  He is an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace, and is a long-standing member of the Catholic Worker movement. He recently completed a five year stint as coordinator of Nevada Desert Experience, which organizes interfaith resistance to nuclear weapons and war. He lives in San Francisco, California.