The Drone Dilemma

A critique of American drone warfare contains vigorous and damning information about its abuses but also contains a huge blind spot.

The Drone Dilemma

Hellfire from Paradise Ranch by Joseba Zulaika. University of California Press. 296 pages.

“[T]HIS TECHNOLOGY REALLY BEGAN to take off right at the beginning of my presidency,” Barack Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates for a 2016 piece in The Atlantic, hoping to explain the expansion of lethal American drone strikes under his command. Obama said he “initiated this big process to try to get it in a box, and checks and balances, and much higher standards” about how and when a drone could be used to kill.

You can feel the defensiveness, the need to explain, in what was otherwise a friendly interview. Obama understood that the US drone program would be a mixed and burdensome legacy, not just a flashpoint for criticism from the left but also a flourishing new form of warfare, packaged up in legal procedures by his White House and handed to his (then unknown) successor.

Right now the Pentagon patrols four different countries with missile-armed drones, based on tacit agreements with the relevant governments, which allow American kids in air-conditioned trailers to fire missiles at suspected terrorists in places where those governments have little control.

Tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan are still friendly to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, for example; Yemen hosts branches of al-Qaeda and ISIS; and large parts of Somalia belong to al-Shabaab. (In the recent past the Pentagon has also run drone missions over Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the Philippines.) “[T]he truth is that,” Obama told Coates,

in trying to get at terrorists who are in countries that either are unwilling or unable to capture those terrorists or disable them themselves, there are a lot of situations where the use of a drone is going to result in much fewer civilian casualties and much less collateral damage than if I send in a battalion of marines.

So much for the rationale. But Obama uses the word truth, and one problem with US drone policy is that so little can be verified. His own program expanded after a late 2009 suicide attack on Camp Chapman near Khost, in western Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border. A jihadi seeking revenge for drone attacks earlier the same year in Pakistan set off a bomb vest and killed 10 people, including seven Americans who were contractors or worked for the CIA. Their bosses swore vengeance — it was the second-largest death toll in a single day for the Agency in history — and drones, with Obama’s blessing, became a favored secret weapon, a quick and dirty way for intelligence agencies to mount classified attacks on sub-state groups like al-Shabaab or the Haqqani Network without troubling Congress or the president to declare war. The project proceeded about as well as any act of revenge. The year 2010 set a record for drone strikes in Pakistan — almost one every three days — and by 2014 the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that American drones had killed 2,379 people there. Only 295 of them were identified as “militants.”

The new book Hellfire from Paradise Ranch attempts a serious ethnographic study of this unbalanced warfare, “a study from a position of objectivity,” according to its press release, but it’s clear from the first page that Joseba Zulaika has written an activist book. He makes a sustained argument against drone strikes, not a scientific critique. He does present a lot of damning footnotes — Zulaika doesn’t flinch from the horrifying proliferation, or the spit-in-the-wind blowback, of counterterrorism-by-drone.

“Should anyone be surprised,” he writes,

about the latest data stating, in a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that after almost two decades of a war on terror whose costs are measured in trillions and in hundreds of thousands of lives, the number of Salafi-jihadists combatants increased 270 percent from 2001 to 2018?

The most persuasive part of his book is his argument that drone strikes are not surgical, contrary to public opinion — or even very efficient. They’re sloppy and counterproductive. They kill civilians, who tend to view the modern miracle of Hellfires raining from a clear blue sky as murder, not warfare — and they create more terrorists than they kill, according to some of Obama’s own counterterrorism experts. Zulaika writes:

[David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert who advised General Petraeus] told Congress in April 2009, “Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior Al-Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same period, we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area. The drone strikes are highly unpopular. They are deeply aggravating to the population. And they’ve given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism […]” The ratio of fifty civilians killed for each militant was, for Kilcullen, “immoral,” and led to a self-generating process of further violence, a view reiterated in other internal CIA documents.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as of this writing, puts the total number of American drone strikes at 14,040 — over 18 years of war — and the death toll at somewhere between 8,858 and 16,901. The number of verifiable civilians killed lies somewhere between 910 and 2,200, but this total may be much higher. Cian Westmoreland, a former drone operator who’s turned to activism because of what he saw and did at Creech Air Force Base, in Nevada, takes responsibility for killing 359 civilians in 2009 alone. Zulaika watched Westmoreland give an unnerving speech in Las Vegas a few years ago, and it motivated the writing of Hellfire:

[Westmoreland] said it again, 359, raised his eyes, looked at us, added: “I’m here for those kids I helped kill.” Then he lowered his head and became silent. The audience was startled, unable to find his inaccessible eyes. His confession was an act of utter defiance, a radically political act — the choice that saved him from insanity.

Zulaika talks to a handful of other drone operators who wound up traumatized, as well as politicized — most of them from Creech, a major nerve center of the drone war. Operators get to know their targets through high-resolution cameras, over long hours of surveillance, from air-conditioned trailers. When an order goes up the “kill chain” to fire a missile, they watch the warhead fall, and the people die, in more prolonged and gruesome detail than most traditional Air Force pilots ever have to observe. So the notion that a drone operator might suffer from PTSD is reasonable, even if it’s different from the strain suffered by soldiers in a firefight, not quite the same trauma as traditional “combat stress.”

But Zulaika only talks to whistleblowers, which points to a problem with the book. Very few nonactivist drone operators have gone public. The Air Force also refused to give Zulaika access to anyone working in the trailers. “The US Air Force didn’t allow me to talk to drone pilots; a witness is the last thing a killer permits,” he concludes. So he’s written a jeremiad.

For me the statistical evidence he gathers in the early part of the book is simple and damning enough, but he’s bulked up his argument with a discussion of terms like hunter and bare life and homo sacer (“cursed man,” a person unprotected from murder in Roman law) to emphasize the depersonalized brutality at work in drone assassination — as if the average reader might not be sensitive to death without some philosophy about it, or as if a terrorist were not prepared to inflict the same depersonalized nastiness on average pedestrians on Broadway or Santa Monica Boulevard. It never seems to cross Zulaika’s mind that violent jihadis believe non-Muslims are homo sacer, beyond any natural protection from killing — not because they might be potential armed enemies, or co-conspirators of their own infidel governments, but precisely because they’re not Muslim. In some corners of American academia and literature, it’s bad manners to say so, but the acknowledgment belongs in Zulaika’s book.

He also spends many pages on the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American who left the United States in 2002 and started to preach jihad, in English, from Britain and then from a al-Qaeda-linked university in Yemen. Zulaika shows remarkable compassion for Awlaki; he describes how the imam tried to cooperate with the feds at first after 9/11, how he must have felt betrayed by the FBI, and how Awlaki tried to split hairs in his recorded sermons to avoid preaching violent jihad. Somehow, of course, he went on to become a YouTube superstar for young terrorist hopefuls, and in the meantime no single Islamist preacher has moved so many English-speaking Muslims to violent jihad in the United States (his disciples include the Boston Marathon bombers, the Fort Hood gunman, and the San Bernardino shooters).

Zulaika never entertains the notion that Awlaki may have known precisely what he was doing. He never tries to imagine himself into the president’s decision-making shoes, or admits that Awlaki posed a unique problem. Instead he dwells on the fact that Awlaki (and his 16-year-old son, killed two weeks later in the same part of Yemen) were both robbed of the sacred right to a proper burial, as well as a stateside trial. Then he paints a blithe and colorful portrait of Awlaki and Obama as “brothers,” entwined in a tragic mutual fate — nemeses on a Homeric scale, with reference to the Iliad and Kierkegaard and Don Quixote and Bob Dylan — which fades into academic fantasyland.

Zulaika is a professor emeritus of Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, and he’s written on terrorism and counterterrorism before, in works like Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament and Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. He tries very hard not to take certain words (like “terrorist”) at face value. Fine. One great value of his book is that it forces American readers to see the violence done in their name, thousands of miles away, without proper oversight. But his clear eye for violence blurs when he stares at an insurgent.

I spent two and a half years as a hostage of pirates in Somalia, and before traveling there to report, I found it simple enough to be anti-drone — dead set against them in general, disgusted by drone killings in particular. But while I languished in a series of baking prison houses, I heard surveillance drones overhead. On certain days nothing else could raise my spirits. It put me in an awkward position. Even Cian Westmoreland has praised drones used for “protective overwatch” on the battlefield, and of course now I’m grateful to the pilots who went looking for me. So at the very least I’m open to rude, full-throated bickering on the topic of drones, deep and self-challenging debate. That’s not what you find in Hellfire from Paradise Ranch.

What you do find is sustained and passionate opposition, which for all its ferocity may not bother Obama one bit. He was a large president; he contained multitudes. He thought activism was useful to keep powerful people in the drone war “on their toes.” But the most devastating aspect of his drone legacy may still lie in the future — not the volume of blood spilled so far, but the power it grants to spill more. Assassination is the operative word: before 2001 a “targeted killing” by the Pentagon required a judicial warrant. But “[a]fter 9/11, the government could kill suspects, including American citizens, without having to justify its action in court,” Zulaika writes.

Obama built on this executive power by giving the CIA a lot of latitude to hunt outside war zones, from the air, based on obscure “kill lists.” As Zulaika argues: “The corollary and centerpiece of Obama’s assassination program was that ‘he, and he alone, has the power to target people, including American citizens, anywhere they are found in the world and order them executed on his unilateral command.’” A power that now resides with Trump.


Michael Scott Moore is the author of a bestselling memoir, The Desert and the Sea, as well as Too Much of Nothing, a comic novel set in Los Angeles. He’s at work on a novel about drones.

LARB Contributor

Michael Scott Moore’s most recent book is The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast (2018). He is a contributor to The New Yorker and New Lines Magazine.


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