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Unmanned War Crimes

The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.

Two new reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch describe the American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen that have boldly taken on the terrorists who hate America. One such terrorist is “68-year-old Mamana Bibi,” who was killed while “gathering vegetables in the family fields.”

A little more than a hundred years ago, while fighting in the Philippines, lieutenant colonel Arthur Wagner described the American military as a “blind giant,” casually destroying what it couldn’t see. It still is. The great recurring theme in our use of force is the chasm between knowing and doing, between the task of gathering information and the task of acting on it. At this late date, the evidence is clear: the chasm is inherent and ineradicable. We are the chasm, and it cannot be fixed.

To some extent, this tendency of force to be loosely directed is just the nature of war, and an ordinary part of mass killing. Rather than freeing us from shame, this ordinary reality shames us more deeply. The argument for short, sharp wars is that force by its very nature spills over its boundaries and kills everything around its use. So, the nation that joined the war to defeat the Axis powers in four years or so now wages endless war on a loosely defined concept, “terror,” as if the state of endless war could be anything but a miserable clusterfuck. We are forever at war, permanently in residence in the abattoir, but forever pretending that we’re just doing it a little bit.

Witness president Barack Obama’s speech delivered in May outlining his “guidelines” for the use of armed drones overseas. As the president explained at the time, “From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the detention that we are making now will define the type of nation—and world—we leave to our children.”

CNN summarized the president’s speech this way: “He said drones would be deployed only when there is an imminent threat, no hope of capturing the targeted terrorist, ‘near certainty’ that civilians wouldn’t be harmed and ‘no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.'” This tidy set of rules is a lie, full stop.

Still, particularly shameful is the use of follow-up strikes on people rushing to help the wounded. From the Amnesty International report:

On 6 July 2012, 18 male laborers, including at least one boy, were killed in a series of US drone strikes in the remote village of Zowi Sidgi. Missiles first struck a tent in which some men had gathered for an evening meal after a hard day’s work, and then struck those who came to help the injured from the first strike. Witnesses described a macabre scene of body parts and blood, panic and terror, as US drones continued to hover overhead.

This is terrorism.