Did we just kill a kid?” asked Brandon Bryant, a drone operator sitting inside a small container in New Mexico. The pilot next to him, viewing the same screen of an exploding Afghanistan hut 6,250 miles away, replied: “Yeah, I guess that was a kid.” A regretful Bryant recently retold this story to the German newspaper der Spiegel.
Bryant’s story is, unfortunately, all too common. Its only difference with other cases is that he has come forward as a former operator to reveal the callous disregard for human life exhibited within the inside of the U.S. war machine.
Among the most brazen crimes committed by U.S. imperialism is a tactic known colloquially in military circles as the “double tap”— attacking a target twice in quick succession in order to kill the people who immediately respond, usually medical and other emergency personnel. This practice, which high-ranking United Nations official Christof Heyns declared to be a war crime, is carried out by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, more commonly known as drones.
What once existed only in the most fringe corners of the military-industrial complex is now an increasingly significant component of the Pentagon’s brutal strategy for global control. Drones are essentially remote-controlled warplanes, heavily armed but operated by a “pilot” safely located thousands of miles away, usually in Nevada.
Employed primarily by the CIA for a time, drones—including those for surveillance have spread to a wide range of institutions of repression, from the Army to the New York Police Department. Other imperialist powers have quickly adopted this technology, as has the Israeli colonial state.
Drone warfare is most closely associated with aggression against the people of Pakistan, especially in the northwestern part of the country. There, where Afghan fighters often cross the border, between 1,600 and 3,100 Pakistanis have been killed by drone strikes.
Strikes, civilian deaths rise dramatically
A recent joint study by New York University and Stanford University concluded that 98 percent of those murdered by drones in Pakistan are women and children.
Such drone attacks have provoked a growing mass movement in Pakistan.
Tens of thousands have joined demonstrations against the U.S. government and against the Pakistani government for its collaboration with the imperialists and failure to defend their national sovereignty against these attacks.
Although exact data is difficult to ascertain, it is clear that the Obama administration has rapidly escalated the use of drone bombings. There have been over 300 drone attacks on Pakistan since 2004, but more strikes were launched in 2009 alone than during the entirety of the Bush years. Numerous strikes in 2012 have so far claimed at least 330 lives.
Recent revelations about secret “kill lists” have damaged the well-cultivated public perception of President Obama as an anti-war figure. A New York Times investigation published in May revealed that, in regular meetings with military and intelligence officials, the President personally selects and orders who will be killed by drones.
Yemen and the Horn of Africa
A sustained campaign of U.S. drone bombings has also targeted wide areas of Yemen. According to Wikileaks documents in 2009 then-Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh invited U.S. diplomats to continue striking out at their targets while assuring them: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”
Mass demonstrations take place in Yemen on a near weekly basis to express popular outrage over the drone bombings. On Dec. 14, thousands marched in cities across the country calling for the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador.
Last year, a U.S. drone strike in Yemen targeted and killed Anwar Awlaki, a well-known religious leader who was a U.S. citizen. This assassination was justified on the basis that Awlaki’s messages and sermons to his followers in and of themselves constituted an “imminent” terrorist threat. Two weeks later, another U.S. drone killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son—born in Denver, Colorado—in a case of “collateral damage.”
The White House and Pentagon have used the same “war on terror” justifications that the Bush administration invented to waive all international legal protocols for waging undeclared wars and carrying out assassinations. They have simply bestowed upon themselves the right to be the world’s judge, jury and executioner.
Drone warfare is now commonly applied in Africa, particularly in Somalia. Operating out of bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, the Seychelles Islands and other client states in the region, U.S. drones have killed at least 112 so-called “militants” and 57 civilians in Somalia.
Drones have also played a key support and reconnaissance role, assisting the Ethiopian and Kenyan - led ground invasion of Somalia from 2006 to 2009. The high number of reported drone crashes and malfunctions exposed to the press suggest that the presence of drones over East Africa has significantly increased in recent years.
Why the U.S. ruling class loves drones
Drones are highly sophisticated killing machines, but their value to U.S. imperialism is primarily political not technological. No U.S. service members are put in harm’s way during drone operations, and therefore they produce no U.S. casualties.
This form of warfare allows for unprecedented secrecy. Despite the occasional media interest in drones, there is scandalously limited coverage when one considers that the issue involves no less than sustained bombings in at least three sovereign countries.
It also presents new challenges for the anti-war movement. The high potential of U.S. service members to be maimed or killed in battle have in the past created an enormous impetus for anti-war sentiment, as people asked what the Vietnam and Iraq wars were really for. These conflicts generated gruesome images and personal experiences that proliferated among the U.S. public and highlighted the brutal nature of the war machine.
Drone warfare is thus a much more media-friendly form of mass murder. It has, so far, carried fewer political risks for the U.S. policymakers, as all its victims are in faraway countries, safely removed from public view.
The job of the anti-war movement is to change this equation. Now more than ever opponents of the U.S. war machine must look towards building an internationalist spirit of solidarity and principled support for oppressed peoples’ right to self-determination. We will spread the images and stories of the victims of U.S. drone warfare and show that we have more in common with our Pakistani, Yemeni and Somali sisters and brothers than we do with imperialist politicians, generals and their drones.