No More Civilian Death by Drone… But at What Price?

An explosion. A murderous, thundering conflagration, a beautiful calamity of nacarat, ochre, and, upon effect, sanguine. A man-made villa, built of smoothed sandstone and sitting comfortably in a posh Kabul neighborhood, is no more. A modified Hellfire missile, Uncle Sam’s pride and justice-rendering joy, transmogrified into mere mist, an inferno its destructive cantharidin. The great bang silences the one—and only one—voice who was the unfortunate victim of the precision strike. Above the rubble, above the smolder, above the flames, above the gasps of horror from onlookers, one man rises triumphant, casting a tenebrous shadow on the decimation before him: Dark Brandon!

Well, what do you think? Was my dad in the right for not shelling out screenwriting school tuition? Did I capture the brutality wrought by the incendiary munitions of unmanned-combat-aerial-vehicles? Were you moved by the instant vaporization of a man, preceded by the simple push of a button? Did the horrific inhumanity of war not twist your heart and gut into an inner-organ knot?

Were you not, at least, entertained?

I get it was no Saving Private Ryan, with Captain Miller enjoining “earn this, earn it” with his dying breath. But did the ease of life-snuffing disturb you at all?

OK, fine. The target was a terrorist. And he had a hand—how much of a hand is in question—in coordinating the 9/11 attack. Plus, he was Osama’s top abeed. Good riddance.

But don’t rid yourself of concern just yet. Sending Ayman al-Zwahri to his awaiting houris was, in international-relations jargon, peachy keen. The Taliban, which is now acting sexton of the graveyard of empires, accuses the U.S. of violating the Doha agreement, which was supposed to proscribe “the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Afghanistan.” Then again, the selfsame agreement charged the Taliban with not allowing “any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” So the disputation seems moot, noh?

The CIA swashbuckled in, crossed a top name off the bad-guy list, and waltzed right out. Sorry about the mess. We’d flip you an afghani coin, Han Solo-style, but surely the billions in aid we poured into your hoppy haven for over two decades covers cleanup cost, right?

The real cause for concern in al-Zwahri’s killing isn’t some punctured proviso in a loosely worded concord. International law is often made to be broken. What’s disconcerting about the op is the inverse of what made our drone rain parade so disconcerting before: there were officially no civilian deaths in the hit. Even al-Zwahri’s family, whom he was living with in the chic compound, was spared.

So how’d our esteemed butcher bandits at Langley pull it off? Was this the “limited kinetic operation” foretold by Obama Admin. poet laureate Robert Gates? Or did we get lucky, and al-Zwahri’s brood was out buying milk when death from above came down?

The former, by strict definition. The missile used to cleave al-Zwahri from this side of paradise wasn’t actually a missile in the traditional sense—traditional being a fireball-spitting face-melter. (Which also renders my above screenplay scene a work of historic fiction.) The drone used was the new Hellfire R9X, which is less missile than lacerating projectile. Designed by the grisly Geppettos of the Lockheed Martin bomb shop, the R9X doesn’t explode upon contact like your old, run-of-the-mill JDAMs. It’s more artful than sparking flamy flesh-puddling combustion. Ayman al-Zwahri met his fate not in fire, but in fracture.

The R9X wields six rotating blades that, for lack of a more Orwellian euphemism, dispatch a target, with less collateral casualties. So… hooray? “Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him,” and not others.

For at least a decade, U.S. warfare has been haunted by a seemingly ineradicable aspect of war: spending trillions in far-flung backwater, sending thousands of homegrown soldiers off to get traumatized on the battlefield and hooked on psychotropics back home, or even killed in combat, all to prop up a corrupt regime little different from the violent one it displaced.

Oh, wait. That’s just a choice, and a dumb one made from Bush until Biden. The actual unavoidable aspect of war is civilian deaths.

In typical technocratic fashion, President Obama expanded the use of drone strikes to keep up the War on Terror fight abroad without having his legacy shadowed by climbing troop casualties. During his two terms, his bomb-by-joystick campaign killed over 300 civilians on paper. Other estimates totted up around 600 to 1,000 civilian casualties. President Trump nixed the civilian-death disclosure, like he was shielding personal debt from lenders, but his body count is estimated to be higher.

President Biden was reportedly disturbed by an errant drone hit in Kabul last August that resulted in ten dead civilians, including seven children. Drone operations were put on pause since the fatal flub. But now the Administration has finally perfected a means to scratch a threat from the earth without collateral casualties. America can finally, at long last, kill the freedom-hating evil-doer without nary a blotch on its conscience. You know the cheer: *Pumps fist.* USA! USA! USA!

To which I counter with my contrarian chant: And yet! And yet! And yet! Limiting the death of innocents in war—if the WOT is still considered a war, or is now an endemic risk like COVID—is welcome. As the adage goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s vengeance. But there’s something still troubling about our technological prowess being used so efficiently for ruthless coffin filling. The U.S. government can now pinpoint pick off dangerous terrorists who threaten the homeland. That’s somewhat of a comfort. It just depends on the definition of “dangerous” and “threaten” and, of course, “terrorist.” Given the U.S. security establishment’s loose use of language (think “enhanced interrogation techniques”) and its assiduous ability to ruin lives, predicting power abuse isn’t a bad bet.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when a war-happy government has a precision-fired salad chopper, anyone can look like lettuce. The R9X’s economic incentive will increase its usage. Any reticence of spilling innocent blood is now relaxed. The fewer consequences, the more proclivity to deploy. And if a wrongly identified target is on the other side of the shredding? Just like the botched August strike? Well, at least only one innocent person was snuffed, not dozens.

The R9X is the military-industrial complex’s latest stop along the path of what Matthew Crawford calls “techno-inevitability.” From splitting the atom, to satellite-enabled GPS, to ARPANET, to XKeyscore, to Pegasus, technological progress has made the martial security state more deadly, more intrusive, and more omnipotent. The trend isn’t limited to the U.S., either. The CCP uses the social media Panopticon to track down and silence critics. The British government urges citizens to report hate speech spewed on Facebook so the maligners can be charged. “Malicious actors, authoritarian regimes chief among them, are sophisticated adopters and promoters of the information revolution,” writes Jon Askonas, pointing to Russia troll farms that sow discord online.

Four years ago, Alphabet employees came to their senses and pushed management into ditching an AI proposal for the Defense Department. A year ago, the algorithmic mammoth re-pitched the Pentagon. Like a dog to his vomit, Big Tech can’t help returning to its biggest beneficiary. If the military brass doesn’t take Alphabet up on its Skynet program, other Silicon Valley conglomerates will eagerly fill the gap.

How far are we from the dystopian imaginings of fiction writers? Complete AI-piloted drones, pre-crime arrests via Google footprint, biometric passports stored on smartphones… wait. Forget that last thought experiment. We already have them.

There are many ironies in war. One of the darkest is that in the humane desire to mitigate civilian casualties, we increase our exterminating efficiency. And the guilty won’t be the only ones who suffer from our deftness for the deadly.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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