Turn Off, Don’t Automate, the Killing Machine

by | May 30, 2023

Turn Off, Don’t Automate, the Killing Machine

by | May 30, 2023

reaper drone

The quest to develop and refine technologically advanced means to commit mass homicide continues on, with Pentagon tacticians ever eager to make the military leaner and more lethal. Drone swarms already exist, and as insect-facsimile drones are marketed and produced, we can expect bug drone swarms to appear soon in the skies above places where suspected “bad guys” are said to reside—along with their families and neighbors. Following the usual trajectory, it is only a matter of time before surveillance bug drones are “upgraded” for combat, making it easier than ever to kill human beings by whoever wishes to do so, whether military personnel, factional terrorists, or apolitical criminals. The development of increasingly lethal and “creative” means to commit homicide forges ahead not because anyone needs it but because it is generously funded by the U.S. Congress under the assumption that anything labeled a tool of “national defense” is, by definition, good.

To some there may seem to be merits to the argument from necessity for drones, given the ongoing military recruitment crisis. There are many good reasons why people wish not to enlist in the military anymore, but rather than review the missteps taken and counterproductive measures implemented in the name of defense throughout the twenty-first century, administrators ignore the most obvious answer to the question why young people are less enthusiastic than ever before to sign their lives away. Why did the Global War on Terror spread from Afghanistan and Iraq to engulf other countries as well? Critics have offered persuasive answers to this question, above all, that killing, torturing, maiming, and terrorizing innocent people led to an outpouring of sympathy for groups willing to resist the invaders of their lands. As a direct consequence of U.S. military intervention, Al Qaeda franchises such as ISIS emerged, proliferated, and spread. Yet the military plows ahead undeterred in its professed mission to eliminate “the bad guys,” with the killers either oblivious or somehow unaware that they are the primary creators of “the bad guys.”

Meanwhile, the logic of automation has been openly and enthusiastically embraced as the way of the future for the military, as in so many other realms. Who needs soldiers anyway, given that they can and will be replaced by machines? Just as grocery stores today often have more self-checkout stations than human cashiers, the military has been replacing combat pilots with drone operators for years. Taking human beings altogether out of the killing loop is the inevitable next step, because war architects focus on lethality, as though it were the only measure of military success. Removing “the human factor” from warfare will increase lethality and may decrease, if not eliminate, problems such as PTSD. But at what price?

Never a very self-reflective lot, war architects have even less inclination than ever before to consider whether their interventions have done more harm than good because of the glaring case of Afghanistan. After twenty years of attempting to eradicate the Taliban, the U.S. military finally retreated in 2021, leaving the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (as they now refer to themselves) in power, just as they were in 2001. By focusing on how slick and “neat” the latest and greatest implements of techno-homicide are, those who craft U.S. military policy can divert attention from their abject incompetence at actually winning a war or protecting, rather than annihilating, innocent people.

For decades now, military officers have expressed outright disdain toward those who dare to broach the topic of civilian casualties. When asked about the Iraqi death toll after the 1991 Gulf War, General Colin Powell infamously muttered, “That’s not really a number I’m terribly interested in.” General Tommy Franks, when asked a version of the same question after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, similarly quipped, “You know, we don’t do body counts.”

Once a war has been waged, “rules of engagement” are specified by military officers themselves, which is one of the reasons why the killing of civilians seen throughout the “War on Terror” has occurred wherever and whenever wars have been fought. In the twenty-first century, however, the problem of designating who is “fair game” for slaughter is far more serious, for the assassination of suspects has been rebranded as targeted killing and claimed by the highest authorities of the U.S. government, including the Department of Justice, to be perfectly permissible, even in “areas outside active hostilities,” i.e., beyond war zones. That the Barack Obama administration somehow persuaded nearly the entire nation to believe that it was not only acceptable but in fact laudable to execute U.S. citizen suspects located outside a war zone without so much as an indictment, much less a court trial, was a remarkable accomplishment, and in some ways unbelievable.

Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden followed the precedent set by Obama in radically expanding the use of lethal drones to target suspects on hit lists drawn up by their own administrations. The normalization of assassination achieved by the Obama administration was well illustrated by Trump’s authorization of the intentional and premeditated execution of an Iranian general located in Baghdad, General Qasem Soleimani (on January 3, 2020), as though this were a matter of business as usual. Indeed, Trump gleefully bragged about having executed a high-profile public figure using a lethal drone, effectively asserting the right to target named foreign officials at the pleasure of the U.S. president. By openly assassinating General Soleimani, Trump essentially put any leader who dares to demur from U.S. policy on notice that they, too, can be eliminated through the push of a button at the caprice of the U.S. executive.

Most of the thousands of victims of drone strikes have been unnamed persons (of unknown identity at the time of their demise) located in areas where “unlawful enemy combatants” were said to hide. After having claimed that they had killed yet another “senior Al Qaeda leader” in northwest Syria on May 3, 2023, officials at the Pentagon emended their report, acknowledging that the victim, identified by locals and his family as Lotfi Hassan Misto, a 56-year-old shepherd, may not have been the “bad guy” they had been pursuing after all. To soften the blow, a Pentagon spokesperson suggested that Misto was nonetheless somehow “associated” with Al Qaeda, a vague assertion backed by no evidence and in fact denied by area residents and effectively refuted by terrorist experts who noted the highly significant absence of jihadist group chatter in the aftermath of the event.

It is most plausible that on May 3, 2023, the “savvy” techno-killers destroyed yet another family like that of Zemari Ahmadi, who, along with nine other people, including seven children, was annihilated by the U.S. military in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 29, 2021, in a drone strike initially touted by the public relations team at the Pentagon as the successful neutralization of a terrorist attack. Ahmadi, an aid worker, had the misfortune of driving a white Toyota Corolla, which someone in the “intelligence” community had determined was being used by a “bad guy” to plan and perpetrate an attack on the airport. The usual confirmation bias kicked in as Ahmadi was followed around all day by surveillance drones while he performed actions interpreted as “suspicious” by those looking to “get some.”

After the fact of their demise, the victims of U.S. military interventions are essentially fictionalized in the minds of those who ended their lives. This tendency is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than by Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s response to a question (posed by Errol Morris in his 2003 documentary film, The Fog of War) about “mistakes made” by any commander during the prosecution of a war:

“He has made mistakes in the application of military power. He has killed people, unnecessarily, his own troops or other troops, through mistakes, through errors of judgment.”

Note McNamara’s stunning omission of civilians among the possible victims of commanders’ mistakes.

The fictionalization of civilian victims of drone strikes is especially troubling in cases where the U.S. government offers no explanation of what transpired when named persons such as Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and Mamana Bibi are erased from existence. Abdulrahman was the 16-year-old son of suspected Al Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki, and Mamana Bibi was a 68-year-old grandmother “taken out” by a U.S. drone while picking okra all alone in her family’s fields. In many cases there has not even been a report of any U.S. missiles having been fired when incinerated corpses are discovered by locals on the ground.

The capacity for high-level decision makers in the military to deny any and all responsibility for what have been decried by the public as war crimes has been amply illustrated in case after case. For example, the torture at Abu Ghraib prison was blamed on a handful of “bad apple” low-level grunts, when in fact they were acting in accordance with their interpretations of what they were asked to do. The problem in such cases is two-fold. First, low-level soldiers are required to obey the orders of their superior officers. Second, when officers or bureaucrats redefine key terminology, such as the use of the neologistic “enhanced interrogation techniques” in place of “torture,” which most everyone seems to agree is wrong, then no one should be surprised when atrocity ensues. Similarly, “rules of engagement” said to permit the targeting of any person present (as in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004) will naturally generate civilian deaths. Again, when Reuters journalists were killed in 2007 by soldiers in an Apache helicopter hovering above New Baghdad, film footage of the event made public by Wikileaks (Collateral Murder) was met with the horror and outrage of people all around the globe. The Pentagon concluded its investigation of the killings with the expected announcement that no crimes were committed on that day.

The CIA ran drone operations outside areas of active hostilities for years (most likely to avoid congressional oversight), and it appears that they continue to do so in places such as Somalia, where seven civilians, including three children were killed by a “suspected” U.S. drone strike on January 30, 2023, not claimed by the Pentagon. This is a case where irrefutable evidence of homicide, dead people destroyed by a missile and discovered by bereft family members and friends, has not prompted U.S. administrators to accept any responsibility whatsoever for their actions, no doubt under the “get out of jail free” (a.k.a. “state secrets privilege”) pretext according to which the publication of facts somehow undermines national security.

What facts undermine are spurious claims by warmakers to be accomplishing anything worthwhile for anyone but death industry profiteers in running this nonstop killing machine. Originally the marketing line for unmanned rather than manned combat planes was that the new technology would save troops’ lives. But by using lethal drones, and expanding their use to places where there were no U.S. military personnel on the ground to protect, the presumption against killing civilians was weakened to the point where, today, in many cases, only civilians’ lives are being risked by missiles launched from drones. The victims of drone strikes are labeled “collateral damage,” just as they have been for decades in combat theaters, but according to the lethality maximizers, so long as the killers “intend” to kill bad guys, they never do anything wrong. They may have curtailed the lives of innocent men, women, and children who never posed a threat to anyone, but it was all part of a good faith effort to defend the nation.

This normalization of assassination as a standard operating procedure of warfare not only endangers civilians in order to protect combat soldiers but also flouts widely accepted conventions regarding the proper conduct of war. According to longstanding international agreements such as the Geneva Conventions, soldiers are to be provided with the opportunity to surrender before they are killed. In drone strikes, the targets (usually unarmed) are summarily executed without warning under the assumption that they are guilty until proven innocent, which is of course impossible for them to do ex post facto.

What the military knows how to do is perpetrate mass homicide, and this they will continue to do, if they are not somehow reined in. The revolving door between government administrators and military industry makes it difficult to see how this might be accomplished. The problem is not only one of corruption, although that is a part of the problem. Even more intractable is that the persons who rise in the ranks of the military are precisely those who wholeheartedly agree that conflicts are to be resolved through homicide. (It turns out, felicitously for many of them, that the death industry is also highly lucrative.) It matters little whether military leaders such as current secretary of defense and former Raytheon board member Lloyd Austin are profoundly self-deceived or willfully ignore the carnage and misery which their policies have sown for people far from U.S. shores. They occupy positions of power and advise the president on matters of foreign policy.

Not everyone who joins the military rises in the ranks to become an administrator, having bought into the company line. Certainly drone operators are not always happy to learn that they have been transformed into contract killers, required to execute strangers at the request of “the customer,” and expected to deal with their reservations and guilt for what they have done through dosing themselves with psychiatric medications. Happily for war entrepreneurs, however, machines will solve all of the problems of hesitation to kill and critical thinking about what exactly the guiding strategic objective is supposed to be in “whack-a-mole and all of their family” missions conducted by soldiers at no risk of death when they terminate the lives of fellow human beings.

When computer algorithms have replaced human judgment in decisions about when and where to launch missiles from drones, it will become even more difficult to hold anyone responsible than it already is. When an automated program determines that a swarm of drones should be sent out to kill suspected “bad guys” located in an area inhabited by many civilians, no one will be held accountable when some of those civilians are stripped of their lives. Those who wrote the algorithms will continue to shirk personal responsibility by muttering the usual shibboleths: “Mistakes were made.” “Stuff happens.” Note the absence of an active subject in these sorts of reflexive responses to the military’s commission of war crimes. The move from evading responsibility through the use of passive verbs to the outright denial that any agent of the U.S. government has ever done anything wrong will be seamless once lethal drone missions are computer programmed, for there will be no identifiable moral agent behind any specific decision at all.

It is a single-minded obsession with maximizing lethality which has created the perpetual motion drone killing machine, and the problem will only grow worse with automation. The “drone warriors” have amply displayed their insouciance toward the thousands of innocent victims whom they have already killed, so it falls on people who do not serve as cogs in the machine to pose legal and moral objections to what has been going on now for more than twenty years. This is easier said than done, for citizens have become inured to the atrocities funded by them as a result of the military’s effective management of the mainstream media. With the U.S. government engaged in the suppression and outright censorship of counternarratives, the problem of profligate killing has become even more challenging to address, for citizens and politicians alike are largely ignorant of the crimes committed in their name.

Indeed, the Pentagon exerts such control over the narrative transmitted to the populace today that whistleblowers and others who expose war crimes, such as Julian Assange, are ruthlessly criminalized and persecuted as a direct result of highly effective discreditation campaigns. When the government labels even nonviolent dissidents in the homeland as extremists, then the next logical step will be to “neutralize” them, too, by all means necessary. With artificial intelligence already being used to identify so-called extremists, and the looming specter of automated lethal drones ready to deploy, it has never been more dangerous to defy the government. Nonetheless, we must find a way to turn off this killing machine while it is still possible to do.

About Laurie Calhoun

Laurie Calhoun is the Senior Fellow for The Libertarian Institute. She is the author of Questioning the COVID Company Line: Critical Thinking in Hysterical Times,We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, Theodicy: A Metaphilosophical Investigation, You Can Leave, Laminated Souls, and Philosophy Unmasked: A Skeptic's Critique. In 2015, she began traveling around the world while writing. In 2020, she returned to the United States, where she remained until 2023 as a result of the COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed by governments nearly everywhere.

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