We Kill Because We Can; From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age by Laurie Calhoun. Zed Books, 2016, paper.


In 2009 a Bedouin encampment was mistaken for an Al-Qaeda training base. It was hit by an American predator drone armed with a Hellfire missile. The attack had been approved by the Central Intelligence Agency which supervises our drone warfare. Fifty-eight people were killed. In 2013 fifteen civilians in route to a wedding were mistaken for an Al-Qaeda convoy. A sixty-eight year-old grandmother picking okra was “taken out” by a drone. Laurie Calhoun describes these and other drone attacks, suggesting that the practice of assassinating “terrorists” by drone warfare is prone to deadly mistakes, “collateral damage” as we call it.


The nature of our war against Islamic terrorism is, the author claims, a factor in the growth of anti-American sentiments throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. We tend to look upon these drone attacks from the perspective of our safety. But they often kill family members and disrupt whole communities. The victims are denied the need to find solace in their burial rituals because the bodies are literally blown to pieces.


Calhoun corrects the term “terrorists” used to describe the victims. They are “terrorist suspects.”  She makes the point more than once that the CIA-sponsored drone warfare lacks the safeguards that normally attend American justice. Since we are engaged in executions, there needs to be some kind of judicial procedure, either civil or military, prior to their execution. But all that seems to be happening is the creation of a kill list and a nod from the Executive Branch to proceed.


There is a preference for killing rather than capturing. Osama Bin Laden’s murder is a case in point. He could just as easily been captured once his compound was stormed. His whereabouts in Pakistan had been revealed by a tip off from a paid informant, who would also have revealed that a capture was possible. Instead Bin Laden was killed in a burst of gunfire from a squad of Navy Seals. No doubt the CIA and the American military did not want another Guantanamo Bay prisoner and face the difficulty of devising a later trial in the U.S.  


Bin Laden was considered a radical Islamist and one of the planners of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001, hence finding his name on a kill list isn’t surprising. The list is long even though names are being crossed off as the result of our active drone program. How does one get on the list? The author explains that if you have brown skin, it is easier. If you are to be found in a “war zone” you are eligible. All males between the age of 16 and 50 who are residing in a country that has given the CIA permission to assassinate our enemies (presumably their enemies as well) in their territory can make the list.


Why would a country sign up under those conditions? Military aid, lots of it, is forthcoming as part of the deal. Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, and Syria have agreed.  


Calhoun points out several changes in the nature of military tactics that have accompanied the growing use of drones and murder. We have turned much more of the burden of armed warfare over to private companies. Most of the teams that send out guided missiles via drones are civilians under contract. After sending off a deadly drone assault, they step out of their office for a cup of coffee or a smoke.


We are making every effort to keep ‘the boots off the ground.’ By using mercenaries we avoid placing our volunteer army in dangerous situations. Victims become “splashes,” “bug splats” without risk to the folks doing the killing. They know their victims since they have been following them around for some time, either with drones or local paid informants. Money is a bigger inducement for the local spy network than revenge. But Calhoun believes the latter often enters into the calculation.


The author contends that this and other changes in the nature of warfare since 1945 have made post-traumatic stress disorder a more common feature of military life. The significant amount of “collateral damage” in the new drone warfare may be making those involved more susceptible. The military’s solution is often drugs; Calhoun is critical of the medication of both troops and veterans.


She doesn’t mention the possibility of drone warfare being taken up by other countries or even private individuals. It wouldn’t be too hard to put together some kind of explosive device and the drone technology, which is readily available to the American consumer. Let us assume that no person or country would be given permission to assassinate a rival who is residing in the U.S. But what if it were an unauthorized attack?


Back during the Cold War military governments around the world secured economic and logistical support from the U.S. by claiming that their political opponents were communists. In the twenty-first century political opponents are now terrorists.


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