Drone warfare — the use of remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft to carry out air strikes against supposed terrorists — is on the rise and has been over the last few years. According to the New York Times, "the Obama administration has decisively embraced the drone." Where the Pentagon had 50 such devices 10 years ago, it now has 7000; the United States has conducted more than 300 drone strikes since 2004 (including 118 in 2010 alone), killing an estimated 1500 to 2300 suspected militants.
But despite the seductiveness of low(er) cost weaponry and fewer American fatalities, some say that the use of drones is not the "legal, ethical, and wise" strategy that the Obama administration claims.
In her new book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (OR Books), anti-war activist Medea Benjamin calls drones "a growing menace."
American military and intelligence officials are developing "a PlayStation mentality toward war," says Benjamin, who helped found both CodePink and Global Exchange, two advocacy organizations that support international peace and human rights. "They're killing people on the other side of the world, whose language they don't know, whose culture they don't understand . . . It's surreal."
Benjamin, who will make several stops in Maine this week, has been following this issue for almost a decade; it wasn't until post-9/11 that American use of drones became increasingly commonplace in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. She often asks people if they have seen a photograph of a drone-strike victim. Usually the answer is no.
"We have been doing this for eight years and killing thousands of people," she says, and yet the public remains largely uninformed about these technologies and their implications. "It makes war more sanitized, it makes it easier, it hides it from the public. The public has no idea how many innocent people have been killed."
In fact, no one knows how to measure the civilian casualty rate. One scholar, from the Washington, DC-based think tank the Brookings Institution, estimated that for every militant killed, 10 civilians are also murdered. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has adopted a standard under which any "military-age male" within a strike zone is considered an enemy combatant, rather than a civilian. These lead to wildly different estimates of collateral damage.
"If we are to end war, we need to take aim at all the weaponry that makes it possible and even inviting — guns, artillery, fighter planes and bombs — and at the industries that manufacture them," author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her forward to Benjamin's book. "Drones have made possible a program of targeted assassinations that are justified by the US 'war on terror,' but otherwise in defiance of both international and US law."
Benjamin is also concerned about domestic use of drones, not just by border patrol and homeland security units, but by local law enforcement officials. She warns that unmanned surveillance and enforcement technology is being pushed on municipalities by manufacturers, who "drool at the thought of [police departments] having their own fleets of drones." In the final chapters of her book, she encourages readers to contact their local officials and promote a "drone-free zone" in their communities.
Medea Benjamin talk + book-signing | Wednesday, July 11 @ 6:30 pm | University of Southern Maine bookstore, Woodbury Campus Center | 860.575.5692 | other events in Brunswick, Camden, Damariscotta, and Belfast, through July 14; visit codepink4peace.org for details.