Remote control war – a look at the daily grind of Predator pilots

October 22, 2009 | By | 11 Replies More

What’s it like to kill human beings by dropping bombs with the push of buttons on your computer keyboard 7,000 miles away? Imaging doing this every work day, then driving home to hug your wife and kids every night. This video from FrontLine will give you a good idea of what it’s like. Whatever your emotional reaction to this form of “warfare,” you will find someone agreeing with you (and disagreeing with you) in the comments following the video.

Image: Public Domain

Image: Public Domain

If our enemies were using robotic planes to drop bombs on American soil, I suspect that we’d be outraged, much more than by conventional warfare. This is certainly a sterile way of war, no matter how much the supervisors remind the pilots that they are killing human beings.

If I understood why we are at “war” in Afghanistan and Iraq, maybe then I could understand whether these drones are furthering our “war objectives.”


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Category: Good and Evil, Military, The Middle East

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Jay Fraz says:

    Possibly inappropriate due to making fun.

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    The more I read about these drone operations, the more disturbed I am by the philosophy behind them. Quoting Marc W. Herold, Department of Economics, University of New Hampshire (warning, graphic images of Afghanistani casualties; emphasis included in original):

    …the reduction of U.S aerial strikes ordered by General McChrystal has led to a precipitous drop in the ratio of civilians killed per occupation soldier – from 3.7 for the first half of 2009 to about 0.8 during July-August 2009. In effect, in order to maintain a fracturing NATO coalition in Afghanistan, McChrystal was forced to field more U.S ground forces and absorb far higher levels of occupation soldier casualties. <span style="font-weight: bold;">This point is enormously important as it confirms what I have long been arguing: U.S aerial strikes were a chosen way of minimizing U.S casualties at the expense of Afghan civilian deaths and injured. In other words, a conscious self-serving U.S decision was made to impose undue harm upon Afghan civilians. That is a war crime. Moreover, as I have long argued and documented, some 60-70 percent of Afghan civilians killed by U.S and NATO forces have been women and children. That is another war crime!</span>

    And now from John Pilger, one of the UK's top reporters:

    The US and its allies are dropping record numbers of bombs on Afghanistan. This is not news. In the first half of this year, 1,853 bombs were dropped: more than all the bombs of 2006 and most of 2007. "The most frequently used bombs," the Air Force Times reports, "are the 500lb and 2,000lb satellite-guided . . ." Without this one-sided onslaught, the resurgence of the Taliban, it is clear, might not have happened. Even Hamid Karzai, America's and Britain's puppet, has said so. The presence and the aggression of foreigners have all but united a resistance that now includes former warlords once on the CIA's payroll.The scandal of this would be headline news, were it not for what George W Bush's former spokesman Scott McClellan has called "complicit enablers" – journalists who serve as little more than official amplifiers. Having declared Afghanistan a "good war", the complicit enablers are now anointing Barack Obama as he tours the bloodfests in Afghanistan and Iraq. What they never say is that Obama is a bomber….Eleven years and five wars later, at least a million people lie dead. Barack Obama is the American Blair. That he is a smooth operator and a black man is irrelevant. He is of an enduring, rampant system whose drum majors and cheer squads never see, or want to see, the consequences of 500lb bombs dropped unerringly on mud, stone and straw houses.

    This sanitization of the war is the only thing that allows it to continue, as I know you've argued before. I agree, but we should also oppose it on the basis that it's strengthening the "insurgency" (resistance) rather than weakening it. "Death from the skies" is no way to win hearts and minds.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Brynn: I agree entirely with you. We are not winning hearts and minds by dropping bombs from the sky. Equally important, It's not clear what it means to "win" this war. Does it mean to establish a country with rigged elections like ours? Will they be fully "free" once their political campaigns involve massive influx of money from businesses to politicians who will then be beholden to those businesses? And where the mainstream media declares TWO YEARS before the election who is a "serious" candidate based on his or her money-raising potential? If so, Afghanistan's political corruption is already on par with our own.

      Yes, some people in Afghanistan have customs that repulse many of us, such as their refusal to allow women to participate in many aspects of politics and society. I agree that these are terribly serious issues, but we need to ask ourselves over and over whether dropping bombs from the sky will solve those kinds of problems, or whether bombing (and patrolling the streets with hand-held weapons) simply makes more and more Afghan people hate us.

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Also, note the doublethink of the soldier they interview- "We are saving people's lives by employing weapons."

    What I think he's saying is we are saving American lives (which are worth more). This fits in neatly with Marc Herod's point above- that it's the result of a conscious decision to put civilians in harms way in order to protect the lives of US military.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: Marc Herold's article is excellent and disturbing. Thank you for posting the link. As Herold notes, the Afghanistan "war" is a classic case of "sunk costs."… I am embarrassed for our country that U.S. public employees would write the sorts of things that they write on long-range bombs.

    I also was disturbed (though not surprised) to see the section comparing the two versions of the Oct 15, 2001 bombing mission. There is the "successful mission" American version, of course. Then there are the sobering reports from alternative news sources:

    The U.S. missile and bombing attacks on October 15th hit empty training camps, killed goats in Pakistan, struck a World Food Program warehouse in northern Kabul, killed Haziza's mother and father in Kabul, hit a hospital in Kandahar, missed a camp near Agam but set two small mountain villages ablaze, and impaired the Naghlu hydro power station which supplies Kabul.

    On this Monday, U.S. planes launched their heaviest daytime strikes on Kabul since the raids began eight days ago. (44) Explosions rocked the city at 6:30 AM, again at 9:20 AM, two more times at 10:00 AM and 11:30 AM, and another two bombs hit the already battered airport at 12:30. A large cloud of dust was seen north of the city, indicating some mud-brick houses had been struck. The Taliban's 16th Army Division garrison located in Khair Khana, a northern outskirt of Kabul, on the road to Bagram was bombed, killing 3 Taliban militiamen. A stray U.S. bomb hit 12-year old Haziza's house in a poor neighborhood near the Kabul airport. It killed her mother and 13 year-old brother. After burying his family members, her father decided to leave Kabul for Peshawar to save his remaining children. (45)

    The Naghlu power station was hit late Monday, disabling power supply to Kabul for 48 hours.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    There is so much thoughtful information in the Herold article. The following quote brought to mind George Lakoff's many writings about the importance of framing (e.g., see here:… ) The following was written by Herold:

    [W]ords matter and we thus need to struggle which meaning dominates. Let me give you two examples: the U.S/NATO presence in Afghanistan is not about peace-keeping but rather about a foreign occupation; and those fighting such occupation are neither terrorists nor insurgents but rather the resistance (though maybe not our preferred type of resistance). Not Obama’s fluffy rhetoric about “war of necessity”, but rather a war of choice.

  6. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Jane Mayer (journalist with The New Yorker) was interviewed on NPR this week about the covert CIA drone program.

    Mayer writes that unlike the military's publicly acknowledged drone program in Afghanistan and Iraq — both official war zones — the CIA's campaign doesn't operate in support of U.S. troops on the ground. Instead it's a secret program, run partly by private contractors, that amounts to "targeted international killings by the state," in the words of one human-rights lawyer. Because of its covert status, there's "no visible system of accountability in place," Mayer writes, and a sharp increase in the number of reported drone strikes has raised questions about whether the moral costs and the political consequences have been adequately considered.

  7. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Oh, and also this article today from Jacob Hornberger:

    Over the last seven years, we’ve of course seen the calculus engaged in by pro-interventionists when it comes to the Afghani and Iraqi people. No number of dead Afghanis and dead Iraqis has ever been considered too high in terms of the benefits the U.S. Empire is bringing the survivors in these two countries.

    Tens of thousands of dead? Hundreds of thousands of dead? No matter. The empire doesn’t even keep count. It just doesn’t matter. In the mind of the empire people, it’s all worth it.

    We’re now witnessing this cavalier attitude in Pakistan with the CIA drone attacks. Some computer operator at CIA headquarters in Virginia fires a missile into a home in Pakistan in which a suspected terrorist is residing. The missile kills the suspect plus his wife and children and neighbors and relatives who happen to be visiting.

    In the mind of the U.S. imperialist, all those deaths are “worth it” because they got the suspected terrorist.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    David Sirota at Salon writes the following regarding what we in American callously refer to as the "drone war":

    Though we don't like to call it mass murder, the U.S. government's undeclared drone war in Pakistan is devolving into just that. As noted by a former counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. David Petraeus and a former Army officer in Afghanistan, the operation has become a haphazard massacre.

    "Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders," David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum wrote in 2009. "But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed."

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Philip Alston, a New York University law professor who also serves as the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, urged Washington to scale back its drone campaign in places outside of traditional war zones and urged the establishment of new international guidelines on the use of targeted killings. Forty countries currently have drones, though few field an armed variant. Acknowledging the way in which technology has changed war, the report also warns that because drone pilots are based thousands of miles from the battlefield, they could develop a "PlayStation mentality to killing."

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