US President Barack Obama gave the State of the Union address in January 2014, where he outlined how the United States is performing economically, the achievements of his administration, and the plans for the future. His speech contained the usual nationalistic clichés, militaristic sloganeering, vacuous rhetoric regarding economic inequality and posturing as the champion of the poor while advocating policies friendly to large corporations.
There is one area of policy that Obama has continued from the Bush-Cheney era. The one policy sphere that Obama has expanded upon during his administration only rated one mention in the entirety of his speech. This is the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, (UAV), popularly known as drones, to carry out wars of aggression overseas, targeting alleged political opponents and spread US imperial power throughout the world.
Drone warfare is the undisputed weapon of choice of the Obama administration. While Bush-Cheney-Rice clique began the process, Obama has expanded the operation and use of drones throughout various countries and continents. In fact, just three days after he was inaugurated in 2009, Obama authorised his first drone strike, in Pakistan, supposedly targeting a Taliban safe house. Actually, the main victims were a Pakistani tribal leader allied to the Pakistani government, and his family.
As Eric Ruder, writer for the Socialist Worker online magazine explained in January 2013, Obama’s drone wars involve black-ops, high-level secrecy, and death and destruction delivered by computer-assisted remote control. To quote Ruder, the United States “can dispatch lethal force half a world away by means that would look familiar to any teenage gamer: the joystick and the video screen.”
Back when drone warfare began in 2001, the United States held a virtual monopoly on the technology of drones and their usage. Well, just as the capitalist economic crisis has gone global, so too has drone warfare. Conn Hallinan, foreign policy expert and writer for the blog Foreign Policy in Focus, wrote an article published in Common Dreams online magazine, in which he explains that now 70 countries have acquired and built, or are in the process of building, their own version of the lethal weapon. As Hallinan explains;
For a sure-fire killer you want a Made-in-the-USA-by-General-Atomics Predator or Reaper, but there are other dangerous drones out there and they are expanding at a geometric pace.
While the rest of us, the 99 percent, struggle with the cost of living and cope with rising levels of inequality, drone warfare is not only expanding in reach and scope, but it is a growing business. Hallinan elaborates that:
Drones have become a multi-billion dollar industry, and countries across the planet are building and buying them. Many are used for surveillance, but the U.S., Britain, Sweden, Iran, Russia, China, Lebanon, Taiwan, Italy, Israel, France, Germany, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all own the more lethal varieties. The world’s biggest drone maker is Israel.
The Russian weapons manufacturer, Sukhoi, is developing its own version of predator drone, a 20-tonne attack vehicle that may be used to strike at stationary and moving targets on land and at sea. Israel has been an active participant in the drone warfare drama, producing its own drones and selling the military technology to various customers, mainly the United States. The activist group Drone War UK published an extensive report on the production, proliferation and usage of drones by the Israeli state.
The market for drones is rapidly expanding, and aviation experts contend that sales of UAVs will compose the largest market share of all aircraft sales, and it is businesses in Israel that will reap the rewards. Drone manufacture and proliferation is booming. Confirmation that Israel is using drones itself has arrived in a rather unexpected way; earlier in January 2014, an Israeli drone crashed in the southern Gaza Strip, a Palestinian enclave currently blockaded by Israeli forces.
In November 2013, the Islamic Republic of Iran launched its Fotros drone, capable of flying for 30 hours, according to its manufacturers. Brazil is the leading commercial drone power in Latin America, having purchased the Hermes 450 drone from the Israeli arms manufacturer, Elbit Systems. Brazil has the highest number of drones in the Latin American region, both by purchasing them internationally and manufacturing them domestically.
The European Union’s first armed assault drone, the nEUROn, was unveiled in January 2012, produced by a consortium of European nations. While media attention has focused, quite rightly, on the drone strikes by the United States in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other countries, the military forces of European states are quietly and confidently building their own fleet of drones.
The United Kingdom, a long-term (satellite) ally of the United States, has built and used drones itself, and in mainland Europe, growing pressure from military lobbies and armaments manufacturers is having the intended effect of pushing more countries to buy and manufacture drones. Chris Cole, the director of Drone Wars UK, quoted the French Defence Minister, Thomas de Maiziere justifying the creation and use of drones by saying that “We cannot keep the stagecoach while others are developing the railway”. Interesting choice of words in 2014 – the development of the stagecoach was surpassed by the railway prior to 1914, exactly one hundred years ago when a little something called World War One exploded on the scene, the result of many factors including an arms race between the European imperialist states.
The main targets of all these drones are not each other, but the people living beneath them. The armaments manufacturers never admit that the principal victims of drone strikes are the civilians in targeted areas. Militarily, they are vulnerable to anti-aircraft systems, demonstrated by the downing of a US drone by the Iranians in late 2011. However, drones are deployed to surveil conflict zones, and strike targets in those areas with impunity, avoiding the deployment of American troops into the war zones. With the failure of the US to win ‘hearts and minds’ in the battle areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and so on, the turn to drones by the US ruling class is an attempt to avoid domestic criticism that foreign troop deployments – and casualties – that are the inevitable result. Removing US casualties as a factor in overseas wars, the US ruling elite was hoping to make foreign wars more palatable to the domestic population. Warfare by remote-control seems like a victimless, ‘smart’ kind of war.
The victims of the drone strikes are speaking up about the atrocities they have witnessed. In an article for AlterNet online magazine called ‘The Constant Presence of US drones in the Sky Traumatize and Ruin Lives on the Ground’, the journalist H. H. Bhojani summarised the experiences of Pakistani children that have gone through the horrific experience of a drone strike. The families that live in North West Pakistan, a constant target of US drone strikes, have experienced firsthand the slaughter, mayhem and bloodshed of these computer-guided weapons systems. Bhojani looks at the story of Nabila, one of many children in the village of Tapi, in the Pakistani northwest. In October 2012, she witnessed her grandmother being blasted to smithereens by a drone strike. She, her brothers and sisters were injured, and while the physical wounds may have healed, the psychological scars still remain. As the article in AlterNet elaborates:
Nabila’s drawings are like any other nine-year-old’s. A house rests besides a winding path, a winding path on which wander two stick figures. Tall trees, rising against the back drop of majestic hills. Clouds sprinkled over a clear sky.
Nabila’s drawings are like any other nine-year-old’s. With one disturbing exception.
Hovering over the house, amidst the clouds, above the people, are two drone aircraft.
Perhaps this is the scene she saw moments before the drone strike, a mental photograph captured with crayons.
The capricious nature of drone warfare makes it all the more frightening for its intended victims. The AlterNet article elaborates further that;
Like terrorism, drones generate disproportionate fear because they can happen anytime. “I’m afraid to go outside. I don’t even see my friends anymore,” Nabila says.
There is increasing attention given to the psychological trauma caused by drone strikes. Psychiatrist Peter Schaapveld spoke of a ‘psychological emergency’ in towns that are the routine targets of drones. He described the children living in drone-stricken areas as being ‘traumatized and re-traumatized’ by the lethal weapons constantly hovering overhead. And what is ironic is that the more that people on the ground are intimidated by drone warfare, the more that resentful and angry young men are being driven into the arms of extremist and fundamentalist anti-American groups, such as al Qaeda. As Schaapveld explained:
[I]nstead of keeping us safe, they breed animosity and tear apart the fabric of some of the poorest and disenfranchised communities in the world,” said Schaapveld. “A hellfire missile costs over $60,000, which could be spent building schools and wells. Yemen needs aid and our support, not drones.”
The full article is available on Truth Out online magazine here.
There are encouraging signs that the horrors of drone warfare are spurring people into action. In November 2013, there was an anti-drone summit in Washington DC, organised by various activist and human rights groups. Gathering people from around the world, the summit heard the stories and shared experiences of people whose lives have been impacted by drones. The political leaders in the imperialist states must be held to account for the criminal actions of drone warfare.
It is only fitting to conclude with the words that the current author used in an earlier article about this subject; that drone warfare is just the latest technological incarnation of strategic aerial bombing, a campaign of raining terror from the skies that has bedevilled the twentieth century:
The Obama administration’s policy of drone strikes is only the latest technological application of the old, discredited, nightmarish and criminal practice of strategic aerial bombing. Its enthusiasts have proposed its supposed ‘surgical’ feature, ignoring the mass civilian deaths and casualties that accompany such bombing. This doctrine is an essential tool of the imperialist states in their quest to build and expand economic empires, and has nothing to do with minimising the loss of lives or damage to property.
What kind of political and economic system is it, which fails to acknowledge the people that have died as a result of all the aerial bombing campaigns, and then applies the central doctrine of their killers?