Droning On

After years of teaching high school English in upstate New York, working in aerospace here in Los Angeles, starting in the early eighties, was eye-opening, even if the work was in Training and Organizational Development, then in general Human Resources, then in Human Resources Systems. There was lots of interesting stuff going on at Hughes Aircraft at the time, mainly since Hughes hadn’t built an aircraft of any kind since that Spruce Goose thing that flew once, in 1947, sort of. In the early eighties, there at the Space and Communications Group, the guys were building satellites – the communication satellites that carried most of the data and voice and television traffic in the world. Hughes had the market cornered at the time, and they were building the payloads for weather satellites, and the unmanned moon landers that are still up there, and various interplanetary probes – one was headed to Venus at the time. We could talk about that. We couldn’t talk about the military satellites. Those provided the first worldwide real-time military command and control communications we’d ever had. TRW, down the street, founded a decade earlier by two Hughes engineers who had just about enough of the increasingly nuts Howard Hughes, made the spy satellites. All of it was very cool.

Next door, at Hughes Radar Systems, they developed and manufactured fire-control radar systems for fighters and bombers, so we always hit the right thing, and to the south there was a group that developed missile guidance systems – the big contract was for the Polaris missiles in the submarines. Those missiles would deliver the right nuclear warhead to the right spot, flawlessly, if it ever came to that. Out in Pomona, the Missile Systems Group developed deadly air-to-air missiles that would never miss – but those were assembled out in Tucson. The propellants and warheads were a bit dangerous. Accidents do happen. There’s a lot of empty space on the far side of Tucson.

The early eighties were a heady time. After the mess and slog of Vietnam, the military was being transformed. Brute force was out. Precision was in, even if a generation of older generals scoffed at it all. But Nixon’s carpet-bombing of Cambodia and North Vietnam didn’t exactly win that war for us, and at one point we had more than half-a-million troops fighting there, village by village, and that brute force didn’t win that war for us. As for the older Air Force guys, who remembered dogfights high in the sky, guns blazing, the idea of firing a single Sidewinder or Falcon or Sparrow or Phoenix missile, and then banking and getting the hell out of there before the other guy even sees you, might seem cowardly or unmanly or something, but the other guy is toast. Manliness isn’t the issue. Clearing the sky is the issue. There would be no more dogfights. Now the job was weapons delivery. Pilots became deliverymen.

This transformation had to happen, however. It had to wait for the technology to make it possible, but war had become absurd. In February, 1945, we sent 722 heavy bombers of the British Royal Air Force and 527 of the United States Army Air Forces to drop more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden – the initial firestorm killed 25,000 people, mostly civilians, and the city was pretty much gone. Even the long-suffering British public was appalled – the place seemed to be of no military value at all. What was the point? There was nothing there, so there was Winston Churchill’s internal memo:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy.

The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.

Churchill withdrew that memo under pressure from his generals – they didn’t want to be seen as moral monsters – but it was too late for that. In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut gave us Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death – the firebombing of Dresden is a central event that propels his most famous novel, about the bitter absurdity of war. Vonnegut was there, as a German prisoner of war, surviving the firestorm in the basement of a slaughterhouse with four of his buddies. There are things one doesn’t forget.

Americans do forget – or dismiss – the fact that we’re the only nation that has ever dropped on atomic bomb on a civilian target, twice, destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe those two cities were of marginal military value, but mostly civilians died. Maybe that ended the war sooner, so fewer of our guys had to die a few more years of war, but mostly civilians died. Still, some folks face up to things. There was General Curtis LeMay – he commanded the B-29 Superfortress combat operations against Japan, which came down to massive incendiary attacks on sixty-seven Japanese cities. That included the firebombing of Tokyo, the single most destructive bombing raid of the war. All told, a half a million died – almost all civilians. Whole cities were wiped out. LeMay told a reporter for the New York Times that if the war was shortened by a single day, the attacks would have served their purpose, and if we lost the war, he fully expected to be tried for war crimes. Precision wasn’t possible back then. The military had to do what it had to do.

Precision is possible now. We have smart-bombs that we can put through the fifth window from the left of any building we choose. We have drones – controlled from six thousand miles away, or from Nevada – that can fire a small missile and take out a single car in traffic or a particular mud hut among many. The command and control military communications satellite network that Hughes had developed in the early eighties, MilStar, is nothing compared to what we have now. We can be precise, anywhere, at any time, but there will still be issues:

President Barack Obama said he took “full responsibility” on Thursday for the accidental killing of an American and Italian hostage during an apparent drone strike on an Al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan.

Lifting the lid on a classified operation, a solemn Obama expressed his “deepest apologies” to the families of 73-year-old economic advisor Warren Weinstein and 39-year-old aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto.

Obama gave few details of the botched action, which officials suggested was a drone strike that took place on an Al-Qaeda lair in January after hundreds of hours of surveillance.

The strike also killed Ahmed Faruq, an American described as a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.

It was also revealed that Al-Qaeda’s English-language spokesman, a California rocker-turned jihadist, Adam Gadahn, died in a separate strike.

The White House said neither Al-Qaeda member was specifically targeted, raising further questions about the credibility of US intelligence.

“As president and as commander-in-chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni,” Obama said.

“I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”

This isn’t Dresden, but the American and Italian hostages died, along with two additional bad guys we hadn’t realized were there, so the issue is just what we were really doing:

This is just the latest controversy around Obama’s counterterrorism operations, which – while killing Osama bin Laden in a commando raid – have more often relied heavily on secret drone strikes.

Obama was quick to stress that “we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of Al-Qaeda.”

“Since 9/11, our counterterrorism efforts have prevented terrorist attacks and saved innocent lives both here in America, and around the world,” Obama said.

That’s it? Some aren’t satisfied:

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein demanded an “annual report on the number of deaths, both combatant and civilian, from US strikes.”

Republican Senator John McCain said there must be a review of the incident, but indicated the drone program should continue.

“These new disclosures raise troubling questions about the reliability of the intelligence that the government is relying on to justify drone strikes,” said American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer. “In each of the operations acknowledged today, the US quite literally didn’t know who it was killing.”

Let’s say it was old-fashioned, or something else:

The Obama administration announced yesterday that it had accidentally killed an American doctor and an Italian aid worker, both held prisoner by al Qaeda, during a drone strike. But though the administration apologized profusely, Judge Andrew Napolitano interpreted their actions as wholly unconstitutional.

“I condemn, in words as strong as anyone can muster, the idea that the president of the United States can be judge, jury and executioner for any American,” he said during an appearance yesterday on Special Report with Bret Baier. “The Constitution expressly prohibits it, and we fought every single war against tyrants so that that type of unilateral power in the hands of one person, who now apparently delegates it to others, would ever come here.”

Napolitano declared: “The president cannot summarily kill Americans. That’s a war crime!”

That’s the word on Fox News, but this seems to be a matter of imprecision, not intent. No one intended to kill any Americans. The idea was to take out bad guys. That’s what the crew at Fox News wants any president to arrange.

Scott Shane in the New York Times is a bit more nuanced about this:

The drone’s vaunted capability for pinpoint killing appealed to a president intrigued by a new technology and determined to try to keep the United States out of new quagmires. Aides said Mr. Obama liked the idea of picking off dangerous terrorists a few at a time, without endangering American lives or risking the years-long bloodshed of conventional war.

“Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us,” he often told aides.

Cool, except for this:

Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.

The president’s announcement on Thursday that a January strike on Al Qaeda in Pakistan had killed two Western hostages, and that it took many weeks to confirm their deaths, bolstered the assessments of the program’s harshest outside critics. The dark picture was compounded by the additional disclosure that two American members of Al Qaeda were killed in strikes that same month, but neither had been identified in advance and deliberately targeted.

In all, it was a devastating acknowledgment for Mr. Obama, who had hoped to pioneer a new, more discriminating kind of warfare. Whether the episode might bring a long-delayed public reckoning about targeted killings, long hidden by classification rules, remained uncertain.

Even some former Obama administration security officials have expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of the program, given the ire it has ignited overseas and the terrorists who have said they plotted attacks because of drones. And outside experts have long called for a candid accounting of the results of strikes.

All we got was this:

In a speech in 2013 about drones, Mr. Obama declared that no strike was taken without “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” He added that “nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties” and said “those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.”

And maybe no one cares:

Despite the bad reviews overseas, drone strikes remain persistently popular with the American public, with about two-thirds expressing approval in polls. And despite the protests of a few liberal Democrats or libertarian Republicans, they have enjoyed unusual bipartisan support in Congress, where they are viewed as reducing the threat of terrorist attack and keeping American operators out of harm’s way.

Maybe they shouldn’t care, as Slate’s William Saletan explains here:

The outrage is understandable. But these two deaths, tragic as they are, don’t change the fundamental truth: For civilians, drones are the safest form of war in modern history. As I’ve documented before, they’re more discriminating and more accurate. If you want to minimize civilian casualties, getting rid of drones – and steering warfare back to bombing and shelling – is the worst thing you could do.

Look at the record in Pakistan. The harshest tally of drone strikes, maintained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, says drones have killed 2,449 to 3,949 people there, including 423 to 962 civilians. If you work with the low-end figures, that’s a civilian casualty rate of 17 percent. If you use the high-end figures, it’s 24 percent. In Yemen, the bureau counts 436 to 646 deaths by drone, of whom 65 to 96 were civilians. That’s a rate of 15 percent. If you factor in other incidents classified as possible but unconfirmed drone strikes, the rate in Yemen drops to somewhere between 8 percent and 14 percent.

The New America Foundation keeps a different tally. Its figures imply a civilian casualty rate of 8 percent to 12 percent in Pakistan and 8 percent to 9 percent in Yemen. A third count, maintained by the Long War Journal, indicates a 5 percent civilian casualty rate in Pakistan (once Weinstein and Lo Porto are added to the tally) and 16 percent in Yemen.

What was the civilian casualty rate at Dresden, or at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, on in Tokyo after LeMay firebombed the place? Saletan suggest looking at recent events.

Start with an apples-to-apples comparison: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s analysis of “other covert operations” in Yemen. According to BIJ’s methodology, this category consists of non-drone attacks by U.S. forces, “including airstrikes, missile attacks and ground operations.” BIJ counts 68 to 99 civilian deaths in these operations, among 156 to 365 total casualties. That’s a civilian casualty rate of 27 percent to 44 percent: three times worse than drone strikes in the same country. Or look at the bureau’s data from Somalia. For drones, the BIJ counts 23 to 105 casualties, of whom zero to five were civilian. For other covert operations, the BIJ counts 40 to 141 casualties, of whom seven to 47 were civilian. If you go with the low-end numbers, drones have a perfect record in Somalia. If you go with the high-end numbers, drones are seven times safer than the alternatives.

It’s the old-fashioned stuff that’s the problem:

In the past month, hundreds of civilians have died in Yemen. But the culprit isn’t drones. It’s old-fashioned airstrikes and artillery fire, courtesy of Saudi Arabia and its Arab partners. The campaign got off to a roaring start, with attacks on schools, hospitals, houses, mosques, a market, a dairy factory, and a refugee camp. As of April 14, the U.N. reported at least 364 civilian deaths. During this time, the BIJ counted four drone strikes in Yemen, resulting in 13 to 22 fatalities. None of them were civilian.

One can go back further:

Before the emergence of drones and other precise weapons, war was far more dangerous for ordinary people. In World War II, an estimated 40 percent to 67 percent of the dead were civilians. In Korea, the estimate was 70 percent. In Vietnam, it was about one civilian for every two enemy combatants. In the Persian Gulf War, it may have been no better. In Kosovo, it seems to have been worse. In Afghanistan, civilian deaths have been estimated at 60 to 150 percent of Taliban deaths. In Iraq, civilians account for more than 80 percent of the casualties. To be fair, these were full-blown wars. You can argue that the better alternative to drone strikes is diplomacy, not invasion. But you ought to credit drones, conversely, for providing a military alternative to all-out war.

And consider this:

Last summer, Israel took extraordinary measures to avoid killing innocent people in Gaza. But the results were still horrific. According to a postwar investigation by the Associated Press, Israel’s 247 airstrikes on residential buildings killed 844 people. Of these, 508 were women, children, or men aged 60 or older, “all presumed to be civilians.” If, in exchange for that presumption, you posit that every dead man between the ages of 16 and 59 was an enemy combatant, that’s still a 60 percent civilian casualty rate. A broader U.N. tally, counting 1,483 Palestinian civilians among 2,205 total casualties of the war, puts the rate at 66 percent.

Here’s the alternative:

If you look at long-term data from Pakistan, you’ll see a clear trend. Since 2012, drone strikes have declined. But civilian fatalities, at a far more acute rate, have virtually disappeared. A year ago, BIJ reported, “In the past 18 months, reports of civilian casualties in attacks on any targets have almost completely vanished … despite a rise in the proportion of strikes that hit houses.” By contrast, BIJ noted that in the previous six months, “the Pakistan military has carried out several large-scale bombings on suspected militant targets, including in urban areas. Scores of civilians have reportedly been killed.”

Drones aren’t more dangerous to hostages, either. Two men held by al-Qaida, including American Luke Somers, died last December during a commando raid in Yemen. Another American hostage, Kayla Mueller, was confirmed dead in February after a Jordanian airstrike on an ISIS facility. Officials involved in the strike insisted “they had conducted detailed surveillance to make sure that no hostages were seen going in or out” of the building, according to the Times. But one official “acknowledged that they had not been able to survey the building around the clock.”

There’s an answer to that:

With drones, you can watch the target around the clock. You might miss something, as in the Weinstein case. But you’re far more likely to make that mistake in a conventional airstrike or a ground assault. In the air campaign against ISIS, we’re dropping bombs 25 minutes after our allies on the ground call in targets. Would you rather be a civilian there or in Pakistan?

It comes down to this:

I’m sorry Weinstein and Lo Porto are dead. I’m even sorrier that our own government killed them. But they didn’t die because the weapon we sent to watch that building was a drone. They died despite it.

It’s all about precision, not brute force. We should have learned that lesson in Vietnam, but of course we didn’t have what might be called the technology of precision back then. We did, however, slowly develop it, and it was cool to be out here, sort of on the inside, watching it being developed, down by the beach with its surfers and those babes in their tiny bikinis. Now we have to learn to use that technology without screwing up now and then, but there’s no going back. There’s only the future, if we can handle it. Hey, it’s a California thing.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Droning On

  1. Rick says:

    I know I should, by this time, have come up with an opinion on our use of drones, but I haven’t. Feeling he’s trustworthy, I want to trust Obama on this, but maybe I shouldn’t.

    I guess one thing drones have in their favor is having a better record than the alternatives of not killing innocents, but I think the idea “that the better alternative to drone strikes is diplomacy, not invasion”, is a non-starter, largely because of the nature of our enemy. After all, does anyone seriously believe that Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers would have been open to a negotiated settlement?

    I do wonder, however, how much we can trust the statistics, given that the very reason we are sending drones over there in the first place is because, for some reason, we don’t want to put “boots on the ground”, but if we don’t have anyone on the ground to spot-check the results, how do we really know who is getting killed? Being old enough to remember that reports of so many “Vietcong” being killed later turned out to have included little babies, I am inclined not to trust the accuracy of casualty reports, mostly because I don’t trust the motives of those making them public.

    And as for that theory that, with drones, “you can watch the target around the clock”, can we even trust that these guys in Nevada really know what they’re looking at? I’ve seen those pictures, and I know that I don’t.

    Still, I have to admit that I’m tempted to lean in favor of having all these unmanned things flying around over there, keeping an eye on our enemies for us, but then I remember all those science fiction movies in which robot spy devices fly around, looking at people and reporting back — or in “War of the Worlds”, that big snake-like eye, weaving through the basement of that house, looking for humans.

    Is that what we do?

    Whenever someone over there on the other side of the world sees a drone, spying on them “around the clock”, does he get that same creepy feeling Tom Cruise and his young daughter got while hiding under that house — that they’re being watched by some unseen, super-intelligent alien race with superior technology, and whose intentions can’t be good?

    Welcome to that scary new millennium we’ve always feared was in our future, but it may turn out that, in this one, we are the ones to be scared of.


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