Drone warfare and the heady cocktail of might and right

Although inefficient and unethical, drone warfare is a key element of US military power. Its negative impact also affects the psychology of American citizens and leaders.

Ellie Violet Bramley
19 July 2012

It is not a complicated equation that links drone warfare to upsurges in the numbers of extremist recruits in the areas targeted - tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia - and beyond.  Much has been made of the negative mental and emotional impact of President Obama’s unmanned drones in these areas.  Fewer column inches have been given to the impact that such technologically advanced, computer game-like warfare might be having on those ordering it, and those carrying it out.

After early promises of engagement with the Muslim world, Obama has served up such an abundant platter of drone attacks, that his initial statements look like gazpacho next to the roasting he is now giving some regions of the Muslim world.  As the lid is being lifted higher and higher on this open secret, the level of public concern is escalating, and figures such as Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, have spoken publicly about the way such attacks encourage other states to flout long-established human rights standards.

It is in no small part his “kill list”, and the massively upped-anti of his drone campaign, that led Foreign Policy magazine to call Obama “George W. Bush on steroids” and Pankaj Mishra, writing in the Guardian, to call Obama’s, “the cruellest political hoax of our times,” when referring to his blind-siding many, with his liberal, multi-cultural credentials, into thinking the hawkishness of the previous government’s foreign policy would be a thing of the past.  A report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism states that 2,300 people, including hundreds of civilians, many of them children, were killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 until August 2011.  Where the Bush administration deployed some 43 drones between 2004 and January 2009, 171 drones were deployed under Obama in the period between January 2009 and December 2010.

I feel confident that many would join me in saying they don’t think Obama is an inherently immoral man, a vengeful killer. So what is going on? In a recent article in The New Statesman, Martha Gill looks to neuroscience for an explanation of the change in Obama: “according to neuroscientists, the main psychological effect of giving someone a load of power is that it makes them less empathetic. The further they climb, the smaller and fuzzier everyone looks below.”  Gill continues:

“A recent experiment illustrates the point. A Northwestern University psychologist called Adam Galinsky asked a group of participants to recall past experiences where they had felt powerful, and a second group to remember feeling powerless. Primed with these feelings, they were asked to draw the letter E on their foreheads. The “powerful” group drew the letter from their own perspective – backwards when seen by someone else. The “less powerful” group tended to draw the letter from the point of view of an observer.”

Galinksy’s research went on to compare the effect that power has on the brain to the de-inhibiting influence of alcohol.  Whilst the phrase ‘power-drunk’ was found to be not entirely accurate, to some extent we do have a drunk at the wheel.

Whilst this conclusion is compelling and logical, let us not be tempted to give Obama a ‘get out of escalating drone warfare scot free card’ by seeing it as a neuro-scientific inevitability.  Though it should perhaps dampen any surprise we might feel that this “man of intellectual passion and well-articulated self-doubt” now hosts “Terror Tuesdays” in the Oval Office, choosing which al-Qaida suspect to pick off next and what merits an acceptable level of collateral civilian damage, it shouldn’t affect bids to hold him to account, or bids to prevent the continuing escalation of the campaign.

The problem runs deeper than the walls of the Oval Office, however.   The military personnel operating these killing machines are nowhere near the Yemeni, Pakistani, Somali or other stomping grounds of their Al Qaida suspect targets. Far from being able to see the whites of their victim’s eyes, they are some 8,000 miles from the people they are killing.  The mechanisms of drone warfare exacerbate the existing sense of detachment; drones are making warfare into a computer game and its victims into the game’s pixilated characters.  As George Monbiot puts it, “these power-damaged people have been granted the chance to fulfil one of humankind's abiding fantasies: to vaporise their enemies, as if with a curse or a prayer, effortlessly and from a safe distance.”  Two specific victims were 16-year-old, Tariq Aziz and his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan.  Ironically, three days before his death in a drone attack, Tariq Aziz had met human rights lawyer, and director of Reprieve, Clive Stafford-Smith at a jirga, a traditional forum for discussing and resolving disputes, convened to find ways of bringing the truth about drones to the west.

Whilst it would be naïve to think that proximity to horror would have a moralizing effect on all military personnel – thinking here of the face to face atrocities committed at places such as Abu Ghraib and Bagram – it is sensible to think that without the at-the-time-of-attack invincibility that drone technology lends, there would be more second-thoughts before triggers were pulled. George Monbiot uses an ironic source, “a remarkably candid assessment published by the UK's Ministry of Defence” to outline this point. The report: “citing the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz… warns that the brutality of war seldom escalates to its absolute form, partly because of the risk faced by one's own forces.” Lack of risk entails minimal restraint and contributes to equating power with corruption.

The US, albeit waning on the international stage, is still uniquely powerful. Its power, and arguably especially its military power has, in many respects, corrupted it.  Add to this the fear of losing this power, with the emergence of rapidly developing rivals, and the cocktail becomes all the more toxic.  What we see happening in the person of Obama (himself affected by the insecurity of it being an election year), on an individual level, we can use to try to understand – but in no way condone - the psyche of the US military that is responsible for carrying out the campaign, albeit under orders.

George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian earlier this year, stated scathingly, “those now dispensing judgment from on high are not gods, though they must feel like it. The people striking mortals down with drones are doubtless as capable as anyone else of self-deception, denial and cognitive illusions. More so, perhaps, as the eminent fictions of the Bush years and the growing delusions of the current president suggest.”

The war for hearts and minds is being lost on all sides of this conflict. There is no shortage of insightful commentary on the way in which the ‘war on terror’ has created, rather than staunched, fresh threats for the US, its people, and its interests.  On American soil, hearts and minds - many of which have already been affected by years of corrupting and inaccurate propaganda -  are also being lost to the heady and dangerous cocktail that has power divorced from reciprocity as its key-note, and a fear of its loss as its seasoning.

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