No resistance: an anti-drone protest in Pakistan.
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Eyes in the sky: the legal and philosophical implications of drone warfare

Regardless of its critics, drone warfare is here to stay.

Drone Theory
Grégoire Chamayou. Translated by Janet Lloyd
Penguin, 292pp, £6.99

Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues
Edited by Marjorie Cohn
Olive Branch Press, 296pp, £15.99

The US army defines a drone as “a land, sea or air vehicle that is remotely or automatically controlled”. Missing from that jarringly prophylactic description is the use of drones as tools of death. The French writer Grégoire Chamayou, in what might be termed a philosophical investigation into drones and their implications, defines them more pithily – and accurately. “Their history,” he writes, “is that of an eye turned into a weapon.”

This weapon is now at the centre of American military doctrine. The US, Chamayou tells us, trains more drone operators than “all the pilots of fighter planes and bombers put together”. This is, perhaps, unsurprising, given that the number of US armed drone “patrols” increased by 1,200 per cent between 2004 and 2012. And these patrols are deadly. During the same period, drones killed between 2,640 and 3,474 people in Pakistan alone.

In conflicts from the Vietnam war to those in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has always had to contend with its soldiers returning home in body bags. Dead Arabs are an acceptable consequence of war; dead Americans, not so much. This is the problem faced by super­powers since their concept first existed: exerting influence requires sending in troops. The beauty of drones is that they nullify this. In the euphemistic words of the air force officer David Deptula, “The real advantage of unmanned aerial systems is that they allow you to project power without projecting vulnerability.” Chamayou is, as ever, more blunt. Drones, he explains, allow war to go from being possibly asymmetrical to “absolutely unilateral”. They radicalise existing processes of remote warfare and extend them to their logical conclusion: doing away with combat altogether.

Yet this is true only for one side. To the many Pakistanis and Yemenis on the receiving end, these all-seeing eyes – Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon given wings – make combat not only deadly but perennial. The result is that the drones often torture before they kill. Buzzing overhead, sometimes for days before striking, they reduce subject populations to nervous wrecks, all of this achieved from the comfort of a Nevada control room in which drone operators eat M&M’s and hope they “get to shoot the truck with all the dudes in it”.

Chamayou’s moral outrage seeps on to almost every page, even if the language never loses its precision (a rarity in philosophical works). The book opens with a transcript of a conversation between members of a drone unit, in which it becomes clear that confusion (“Did they blow that up? They did, right?” “They did, yeah.” “No, they didn’t”) combined with boredom (“months of monotony and milliseconds of mayhem” is how their job is described in the introduction) are the dominating impulses of 21st-century warfare. Fear is almost entirely absent, as it would be when you’re thousands of miles from your target and he or she has no chance to strike back against you.

If the “just war” theory holds that certain criteria must be met for a conflict to be considered morally justifiable, the book makes it clear that drone warfare fails. Supporters may laud the precision of drones (especially when compared to, say, aircraft bombing) but it doesn’t matter how precise your weapon is if the humans manning it cannot discern exactly who the target is – or, indeed, if targets are decided on almost whimsically, as this 2010 conversation regarding a situation in Afghanistan shows:

Mission intelligence co-ordinator: Adolescent near the rear of the SUV.
Sensor operator: Well, teenagers can fight.
Mission intelligence co-ordinator: Pick up a weapon and you’re a combatant, it’s how that works.

Similar themes are covered in Drones and Targeted Killing, a series of essays that stress the immorality and illegality of drone warfare. The book’s tone is made clear in its foreword, written by the anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who damns “Obama’s drones” that “have been killing thousands of people with no due process at all”. Tutu is particularly enraged by the way in which Americans called for special courts to rule in cases when their government found it necessary to kill US citizens (on US soil, no less) – but non-Americans would be afforded no such consideration. “Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours?” he asks.

Such are the moral contradictions on which drone warfare is built. We learn, for example, the absurdly vague (and terrifying) way in which the Obama administration has counted drone casualties. The criterion is simple: “All military-age men killed in a drone strike zone are considered to be combatants ‘unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent’.” One suspects again that this approach would fail the “just war” test.

Even when the administration attempts to be more specific, differentiating between “personality strikes” (on “named, high-value terrorists”) and “signature strikes” (on “training camps” and “suspicious compounds”), the effect is often to strike large crowds of people, giving the lie to the supposed precision of drone killings. These lax standards have become an unpleasant joke among state department officials. When the CIA “‘sees three guys doing jumping jacks’, the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp”, one said. But sceptics argue: “Men loading a truck with fertiliser could be bomb makers – but they might also be farmers.”

Regardless of its critics, drone warfare is here to stay. It’s too easy, too cheap (in terms of American casualties) and too established in US security and political apparatuses to be discarded now. These books remind us that, contrary to some received wisdom, using drones is not necessarily a more ethical form of warfare. And, although they may fly overhead, they do not provide governments with what they always crave in war: the moral high ground.

David Patrikarakos is the author of “Nuclear Iran: the Birth of an Atomic State” (I B Tauris) and a Poynter fellow at Yale University

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser