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  • Published in Book Reviews

Laurie Calhoun’s We Kill Because We Can argues that drone warfare is illegal under international law, and only increases terrorism, finds Lindy Syson

Laurie Calhoun, We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (Zed Books 2015), xviii, 392pp.

As we face the prospect of a protracted war in Syria, Laurie Calhoun’s book, whichbrings a moral and ethical perspective to drone warfare, makes for vital and compelling reading. Focusing on the development and use of drone technology, Calhoun shows how this particular practice of modern warfare has moved out of the arena of undercover ‘black ops’ and into mainstream US foreign policy. She dates this move to the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, 2001, which the Bush administration characterised not as a crime but an act of war, and used as a pretext to declare a global ‘war on terror’. What followed, argues Calhoun, was the US administration’s move to a more aggressive foreign policy and also to an unprecedented restriction of civil liberties at home.

Calhoun explains in detail how the US global ‘war on terror’ continues to flout all international rules of engagement in warfare. For example, international legal frameworks such as the Geneva Convention and the Charter of the United Nations (1945), do not allow the killing of non-combatants in war. The US administrations of Bush and Obama simply bypassed this by re-defining victims of drone bombs as ‘unlawful combatants’ This category applies to all military aged men (16-50) in areas defined by the US as ‘hostile’ and which are thousands of miles beyond US borders.

Similarly, the concept of ‘immanent threat’ in war which would justify ‘first strike’ and self-defence responses has been redefined by US administrations to refer to some unspecified threat in the future. In the context of drone war, if all suspects are seen as potential terrorists at some indeterminate time in the future, this justifies the use of killing as a first rather than a last resort (again, contrary to international rules of engagement).

By these linguistic sleights of hand, as well as changes in the legal framework since 9/11, remote controlled killing is carried out against unarmed persons; not aware that they are under surveillance; in a country with which the US is not formally at war; by drone operators whose lives are not in any danger and therefore subject to self-defence arguments.Calhoun uses this reality to expose the hypocrisy of US arguments about the attacks of 9/11. The outrage sparked by those appalling attacks rested on the fact that US civilians (not soldiers) were targeted and that they had no chance to defend themselves. Yet, argues Calhoun, this is precisely the same tactic used by the US in their drone warfare - the deaths of unarmed combatants by those from another country (the US) without warning. She asserts, therefore, that: ‘The US war on terrorism is carried out using terrorist tactics’ (p.xv).

Far from defeating terrorism, the use of drones has served to radicalise more people who are then more inclined to look to political forces that are fighting against the US, for example, ISIS, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. She quotes former US-State officials who have admitted that terrorist groups have grown after US attacks, as such attacks were seen by many as acts of murder, not war. In addition, the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan as responses to 9/11 led to many more deaths: ‘That many more civilians have been victimised in these various efforts than were killed on 11 September 2001 has been generally ignored’ (p.xiv).

Calhoun refutes the argument that drone technology is so advanced that it can focus in on ‘terrorists’ using ‘surgical strikes’ and avoid ‘collateral damage’. First, most intelligence gathered to direct drone strikes is obtained by either bribery or torture; both unreliable sources of information. Second, drone technology has shown to be unable to distinguish between the bombing of convoys or wedding parties. A drone strike in October 2015 of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan killed over forty hospital staff and patients. A US-military investigation into the attack finally conceded that it was a mistake which was put down to human error and systems failure. However, no announcements were made about what measures would be taken as a result, including disciplinary action. Calhoun would argue that drone attacks mark a significant change in modern warfare. Decisions on who, when and where to strike are shrouded in secrecy and ‘kill don’t capture’ becomes the underlying rationale. She describes one of the earliest drone strikes in Yemen in 2002 in this way:

‘The [drone] killers appointed themselves at once the police, the judge, the jurors and the executioners in a radical refashioning of procedural “justice” paid for by the citizens of an ostensibly democratic nation, the most fundamental principles of which are transparency and due process, the rule of law’ (p.10).

She exposes and challenges the way in which the US, while espousing the principles of civil rights and legal freedoms as a democratic society, does not uphold these values in practice. Despite presumptions of the innocence of suspects under the legal system,Calhoun describes the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in 2011 by drone strike in Yemen as an: ‘… intentional and premeditated execution without trial of US citizens…’ (p.11). She draws parallels between such killings and thekilling in 2012 of black US teenager Trayvon Martin. Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, argued that he fired his gun at the unarmed teenager because he felt threatened. This, together with the fact that no other witnesses were present, was enough for a Florida court to acquit Zimmerman, in line with a ‘Stand Your Ground’ policy. Calhoun argues this reflects amilitary turn in US domestic law justifying the use of deadly force, and sees Martin’s death as being a metaphor for both pre-emptive war and targeted killing. Although Calhoun notes Obama’s public disquiet over the Trayvon Martin killing she questions his silence over the similar killing of another unarmed teenager Abdulraman al-Awlaki killed by a predator drone in Yemen in 2011, both equally tragic in her view.

Warfare and drone weaponry are discussed in the wider context of the privatisation of the military as part of a wider neo-liberal agenda. Ironically, it was the large numbers of non-military personnel that began working at the Pentagon as intelligence operators that led to Edward Snowden working for the CIA, accessing and leaking information about targeted killings and the complete lack of democratic accountability behind US foreign policy.

The Bush administration oversaw, under Dick Cheney, the move to the establishment and proliferation of private military companies (PMCs) and private security firms involving complex networks of subcontractors. Highly paid mercenaries and privately hired bodyguards added to a dangerously chaotic situation in Iraq where:

‘… no one knew how many mercenary operators were on the ground during the occupation. According to reliable estimates, the number of private contractees exceeded the number of military personnel in Iraq’ (p.233).

Not only were these operatives highly paid, they were legally protected from prosecution. Some completely disregarded the rights of the local population such that:

‘Scandals involving Blackwater, Aegis and other PMCs naturally confirmed suspicions that the entire war was a matter of imperial conquest and insatiable thirst for oil, notwithstanding the rhetoric spouted by US officials about freedom and democracy’ (p.232).

Another aspect of warfare has been that billions of dollars of ‘aid’ and weapons ended up in the hands of the insurgents in Afghanistan and Syria. Calhoun also notes that billions of taxpayers’ money is used to research and create more lethal weapons that are sold to regimes abroad which are either themselves repressive regimes (Israel; Somalia; Yemen) or when arms are sold to allies that are later defined as enemies, as was the case with Saddam Hussain. In this way, US taxpayers are supporting: ‘… both sides of everyone’s wars, allies and enemies alike’ (p.242). Calhoun explains just how much of US taxpayers’ money funds the arms industry:

‘As of 2013, the drone contracts to major weapons manufacturers were already at these figures: Boeing $1.8 billion; Northrop Grumman $10.9 billion; General Atomics $6.6 billion; and Raytheon $648 million’ (p.235).

The startling, but not surprising, examples of the hypocrisy of the western powers are a powerful aspect of the book, though Calhoun’s argument is limited by her assumption that the US is a liberal democracy where the development of drone technology and the militarisation of state departments, such as the CIA, are somehow aberrations in the system. Drone technology appears to have taken on a life of its own, directing policy rather than the other way round, but the reasons for this and the influence of the military on state departments remains unexplored. She appears exasperated by Obama’s move from anti-war candidate to war monger and explains this as a problem of finding himself trapped in a conservative administration with an already entrenched policy on drone killing.

In addition, she rarely refers to those forces, such as the huge anti-war movements, which have the power to resist the drive to war. For example, she credits the British parliament of putting the brakes on the bombing of Syria in 2013, rather than the pressure of the anti-war movement outside parliament that shaped the vote. She downplays, therefore, the very forces that are currently mobilising to resist the escalation of war.

These criticisms aside, this is a powerful book which subjects drone warfare to moral scrutiny and cannot but expose the lies and hypocrisy of the US. Her work vividly confirms the argument that bombing leads to greater political instability; a less safe world order and increased risks of radicalisation. The UK government’s decision to bomb Syria will do nothing to strengthen security or defeat ISIS. As the demonstration in London last weekend shows, there is growing anger against the bombing of Syria. It is a decision that will lead to the deaths of innocent civilians; exacerbate the refugee crisis; fuel Islamophobia. At a time of savage public-sector cuts, billions of pounds will be spent on weapons and warfare. We have to keep up the pressure against the government in as many ways as we can in the coming months.

Lindy Syson

Lindy Syson

Lindy is an ex-teacher who now works in higher education. She is also studying part-time for a PhD. Her research topic is critical pedagogy and academic activism. Lindy is a member of Counterfire.

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