Drones kill civilians, but far fewer civilians than other forms of kinetic warfare, and anyway, war is about killing. The drones’ ability to kill from a distance is no more unsavory than aerial bombing, and in any case drones “enable us to kill enemies without exposing our own personnel.” That drones are like video games is neither here nor there, as they are no different than “having cameras in the noses of cruise missiles.” And “assuming [the law of war] does apply — which is surely true in Afghanistan, at least – it’s hard to see the problem with targeted killing. Should we prefer untargeted killing?” These statements are offered by Rosa Brooks, a professor of international law and former Department of Defense official, by way of defending drones in an irate article criticizing the “wildly overblown case against remote-controlled war.”

There are kernels of truth in some of these statements: Indeed, killer drones are as deadly as aerial bombing and deploy similar video game technologies, just as Brooks claims — though drones are also just as indiscriminate as aerial bombing despite her protestations to the contrary. And she is right that within the political and legal parameters decided upon by the US and NATO in Afghanistan, killing by drones is like any other form of killing.

What makes Brooks’ little article so obtuse, however, are the unstated assumption and unspoken assertions that underwrite every one of her arguments. When she attacks “killing from a distance” arguments, her only point of reference is “our” casualties, not theirs. When she complains that drones are as video game-like as any other form of surveilled assassination, she misses the argument that this particular quality is criticized because of the ways in which it pretends that war is a clean and sanitary affair. Yes, the pilots dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not see the devastation they caused beneath the mushroom cloud, and certainly had no visual image of the faces of the victims, but the ability to “look at their faces” is actually a feature of life-like video games. What does the ability of the remote operator to press the button even as he “see[s] these guys playing with their kids and wives” say about the ways in which we view “these guys” as stick figures in a distant puppet show, as dehumanized simulacra?

Brooks’ argument about the legality of drones in Afghanistan is dishonest, both in its intentional elisions and in its unspoken assumptions: Drones are now the weapon of choice for killing not just in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, and they had become a regular part of the US military’s killing machine in Iraq both before and after the “surge.” But the unspoken assumption in Brooks’ final bullet point is what I find most revealing and ultimately what is the most troubling aspect of the liberal defense of drones. Brooks — like the good international lawyer she is — essentially defines US wars overseas as “good” as long as they fit within the limits of international legal apparatuses. But the very formulation of these international laws, from the very beginning, has been riddled with power plays and political maneuvers by imperial powers engaged in asymmetric contests to pacify intransigent colonial populations. The laws of war left a great deal of room for reprisals and collective punishments, and intentionally left “internal pacifications” — for example, the French pacification of Algeria — outside their remit, since they could be classified as “police actions.”

After the wave of decolonization in the 1960s, when post-colonial states managed to insert minimal recognition of the right of colonial peoples to resist — as in the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, the great powers simply refused to sign or ratify these protocols. The vaunted Geneva Conventions were simply sidestepped by the US, because the US could do so, and no other world power has had the capacity to punish Washington for its contravention of these laws. Today, the more power a state wields in the international arena, the easier it is for it to evade international legal “obligations,” or circumvent even the mildest of legal challenges against it. After all, in a vastly unequal system of international power, war crimes are only committed by African and Asian warlords, not by US generals. Universal jurisdiction is meant to apply to black and brown people, not to Israeli, European or US military personnel and policymakers.

The debate around drones in some ways crystallizes the problem with liberal challenges to and defense of the drones. Drones are disturbing not because they are any more vicious or indiscriminate or distant than aerial bombing, but because the act of marketing them as “clean,” “discriminate,” “precise” and “legal” diverts attention from why they are being used in the first place. They embody the sophistry of liberal warfare, focusing the debate on the mechanisms and machinery of warfighting, and effacing the militarist imperial wilfulness of the United States, which will use any expedient method of warfare, and cloak it in platitudes about protection, legality and noble intentions.

How to cite this article:

Laleh Khalili "Liberal Sophistry About Drones," Middle East Report Online, September 07, 2012.

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