“The people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” – Hermann Göring.
Glenn Greenwald has an interesting article that references a particularly odious piece of video propaganda, the purpose of which is to argue the merits of drone warfare while challenging the toughness of anyone who doesn’t. It is chilling in its resonance to Göring’s maxim, and while it doesn’t outright question the patriotism of drone critics, it’s merely a degree of subtlety and not a principled or thematic shift from the words of the former Luftwaffe commander.
There is so much concentrated what the fuck in this short commercial that it almost rolls the counter on offensive, but let me try and break down this modern poster child for the banality of evil as best I can:
:00 – It opens with a fun little story about the CIA accidentally killing the wrong man entirely (oh, and a few people with him, it casually drops in as color commentary) and of course, Barak Obama was really mad. The questions this brings up are numerous, if you don’t just accept this story at face value and actually try to apply some critical thinking. For example, it says this happened three days after he assumed office; three days into the new job, and he’s already calling meetings about the daily operations of drone strikes gone bad. That’s pretty impressive, considering three days into a new job most of us haven’t even figured out where the best place to have lunch is or finished arranging the shit on our desks. How did killing this tribal elder hit the new President’s radar? The cynic in me suspects it must have hit the news–at least in the foreign press–or some foreign diplomat complained, which would be an embarrassing thing to have to put up with on the third day, and totally piss most anybody off. So I guess that makes sense.
:32 – Klaidman dismissively mentions that drone strikes are referred to as “extrajudicial killings” by “civil libertarians. What he neglects to mention is that they are also referred to as “extrajudicial killings” by pretty much anyone who speaks English and is moderately to well informed on these drone strikes in the first place. If Klaidman is aware of some judiciary proceedings going down prior to each drone strike, right about the 35 second mark would have been the place to point that out. Side note to whoever was doing the über-hip cartoon graphics (good to see shaky pencil-sketch hasn’t gone out of style since they cancelled Dr Katz), that was a really bad place to insert the 5th amendment. Klaidman’s on screen dismissing those who argue these are “extrajudicial killings” while the graphics are saying “you know, like the Constitution”. Who did this video, Scott Bateman? In any case, the government-ordered killing of people off the battlefield without any due process is the actual definition of “extrajudicial killing”.
:41 – Klaidman goes into full out logical fallacy here, specifically begging the question, when he points out that the tribal areas of northern Pakistan are “off limits to American troops”. That part was true, but then he states “no responsible American president. . . would allow al Qaeda to plot attacks against the homeland unmolested.” Actually, he’s begging a lot of questions there–you might even say he’s invented a whole new logical fallacy. Call it “begging a pop quiz”. He assumes there are al Qaeda militants there, that they are plotting attacks against the homeland,and that the only responsible choice is therefore drone strikes.
:55 – He then goes on to point out the misleading and virtually meaningless statistic that civilian casualties from these strikes are only 17%. I am not sure what that number represents, and it’s not clear Klaidman does either, but it is clear that he didn’t really apply any critical thinking when he decided to throw that little number in, as later in the video he all but admits it’s complete bullshit. Presumably it means 17% of the dead from drone strikes are civilian casualties, which is one of the most macabre statistics I’ve ever seen anyone gush over. I’m not sure what the point is of boasting about Obama’s sixfold increase in drone strikes over George Bush, either. What does that even mean? That Bush is a monster for relying on traditional means of killing, like bombers and soldiers? That Obama (new and improved, with the secret ingredient Terrorox™!!!) kills bad guys six times deader than Bush did? What was the point of even throwing that in? Seriously, I’m confused.
1:15 – At this point, Klaidman puts on his legal robes and deigns to “dispatch the notion that drone strikes are illegal”, citing the 2001 AUMF as his prima facie argument, and completely avoiding literally every single actual legal argument being made against the use of drones–none of which are covered by the AUMF. In fact, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force is only an American law, not an international edict, though many Americans can perhaps be forgiven for not realizing they aren’t the same thing. Among these are the lack of judicial proceedings, the inability of the attacking party to identify all of the casualties, that follow up strikes target rescuers and not clearly identified combatants, that the legal approval by the country isn’t always present, and the complete lack of transparency–just to name a few. Not one of these is addressed or authorized by the AUMF, and all are grounded in established codes of international law. I don’t claim to be a legal expert, and I am not qualified to argue the validity or lack therein of any of these legal challenges, but the AUMF is domestic law, not international.
1:30 – Klaidman introduces yet another logical fallacy when he props up a classic straw man argument, stating–without any support–“for some critics of drones it’s the almost supernatural effectiveness that seems to disturb them the most”. Really? What critics? Name one. I have been a critic of drones for a long time, I’ve read a lot of arguments by a lot of other critics of drones (Glenn Greenwald and TomDispatch have been particularly vehement in their criticism) and I have never once heard anybody argue “you know, the thing I don’t like is they’re just so gosh darn effective. It’s almost. . . supernatural!” I call bullshit. Nobody made that argument. Names or it didn’t happen.
1:40 – Things get really creepy at this point, where Klaidman tells a heartwarming story about a drone operator letting a “suspected militant” finish playing with his kids before vaporizing him with a Hellfire missile. If that’s what passes for decency and empathy in America these days, we are truly a nation of lost souls. Are we all supposed to swell with pride that the drone operator didn’t kill the kids? That he just orphaned them? But it’s OK, because we “suspected” him of being a “militant”. For some reason the graphic artist didn’t pop up the text of the 5th Amendment again. Go figure. Klaidman makes an argument that this precision actually makes these weapons “more humanitarian”. We’ve made wonderful strides in the humanitarian disposal of human life since the days of napalm and mutagenic chemicals. Again, he’s begging the question of the notion that killing strangers from hundreds or thousands of miles away can be described as humanitarian at all.
2:09 – in another bizarre turn, Klaidman justifies the secrecy surrounding this program as “political coverage” for the Pakistani government because it’s is so unpopular within Pakistan–but don’t get too caught up in either argument, because he shoots both down within seconds. First, set aside the fact that announcing that the program is kept secret to “political coverage” for the Pakistani government lets that cat right out of the bag, because he goes on to point out that it’s already out of the bag. In the span of just a few sentences, Klaidman goes from admitting that the secrecy issue “can’t be shrugged off” to explaining the reason for it, to explaining that the reason is actually moot.
2:30 – He praises the disclosure of the program, and notes that it would be good to have at least what criteria the CIA is using to put people on the “kill list”, but then lets the matter drop. He spent more time on the heartwarming story about the possibly bad guy we vaporized as soon as his kids cleared the blast radius.
2:38 – To his credit, Klaidman addresses an issue I don’t think gets nearly enough discussion or attention, the morality of drone strikes. Acknowledging the “visceral concern” some of us have (I went into some depth about it a couple of weeks ago), he asks if launching hot, flaming death onto strangers from air conditioned rooms hundreds of miles away might “dull our moral sensibilities. Klaidman’s carefully considered answer? “Possibly.” Seriously, his entire answer is one word. It’s hard to imagine moral sensibilities any duller than that, so perhaps the whole question is a moot point in the first place. Why should we worry about dulling our moral sensibilities? It’s not like we’re using them for anything, anyway. Klaidman goes on to suggest that if the CIA were to acknowledge the instances where things went “awry” (killing civilians is like that I Love Lucy episode with the pies and the conveyor belt), the American people would begin to “appreciate not just the program’s value, but also its human cost.” Again, I’m not even sure what the hell this is supposed to mean. Is he saying if the American people were aware of just how many dead civilians our government is piling up in our names, we’d be even happier with the program than we already are? As he speaks, that 17% statistic from earlier reappears, as if to tauntingly point out that he was bullshitting us with it earlier–if the CIA isn’t reporting how often things go “awry”, we don’t really know what percentage of civilian casualties there are now, do we? The only mystery here is whose ass that 17% figure was pulled from. That, and how long the graphic artists discussed whether to follow the 17% in the pie chart with the question marks they went with, or to use middle fingers instead.
2:58 – It’s Heartwarming Story Time With Dan Klaidman again, only this time we get to hear about the other side. In this story, a guy whose brother was killed in the botched raid from the opening of the video (nice callback, Dan!) explains to a reporter how happy he was that it was Americans killing the hell out of his family with RC planes, and not his own country’s army. Let’s pause for a moment to ruminate on just how pissed we get when there’s a line at Starbucks, and then take another moment to ponder an existence in which you’re actually grateful that the people blowing the shit out of your home and family are at least somewhat restrained about it. Bet you feel like kind of an asshole for getting snippy with the barista that one time, don’t you? In any case, one testimonial from a Waziri tribesman with one of the worst cases of Stockholm Syndrome ever is, at best, the basis for a Kodak Moment, not a foundation for foreign policy. Of course, the obvious counter to the one guy who’s fine with living under our random missile strikes would the hundreds of people who are somewhat less sanguine about the whole thing. Worthy of note: unlike those mystery people critical of how supernaturally effective drones are, the reporter actually has a name (though not, apparently, the guy he got that quote from–reporters are bad about writing down names). I’d like to double down on my bullshit call from 1:30.
3:28 – Klaidman offers us platitudes about civilian casualties being necessary, again glossing right over the question of whether or not the war itself is. It’s always repugnant to me to see how casually intellectual an exercise it is for Americans, offhandedly writing off the deaths of non-combatants thousands of miles away. Good thing these aren’t real people, or it might be a tragedy.
3:45 – Klaidman says it’s “hard to imagine any president”, offered the chance to kill foreigners half a planet away without any loss of American life wouldn’t use it. Maybe presidents aren’t expected to have any sense of history, but it’s either disingenuous or poorly thought out to neglect to mention “during his term”, as in “no risk to American lives during his term.” The future terrorist threat, whose hatred and desire for vengeance are being born virtually every day from these remote strikes, won’t manifest itself for a generation. The Americans who go about their daily lives without giving the efficacy, morality, or long term consequences of these attacks a second thought will have forgotten them by the time some future president stands in another smouldering ruin and declares that they “hate us for our freedoms.”
4:00 – Klaidman chides bad liberals (like me) who rail against drones for silly reasons like that it’s not supposed to be legal–even in America–to just kill someone because they are a suspect. He says we should be more like the good liberals, who are just pushing for “more transparency”–presumably because he is of the mistaken impression that transparency has been this administrations strong suit.
4:07 – And finally, ripping his parting shot straight from the Hermann Göring playbook, Klaidman denounces the opponents of the drone program for our lack of patriotism, and for putting the country in danger. “Survival depends on making tough choices,” he says, apparently under the impression that a couple hundred scattered tribesman in the mountains of northern Pakistan are an existential threat to the United States. “When it comes to the drone program, liberals should too.” Note to Dan Klaidman: choices of conscience and principle are always tough choices; it’s deciding to shoot first and sort it out later that’s easy. Cowardly, but easy. Klaidman isn’t making any tough choices in this video, it’s pretty clear he’s totally on board with the program, and not at all concerned about the potential for blowback or the actual necessity of the program in the first place. Being tough, like love, means never having to say you’re sorry.
When you hear people offering up that they “hate us for our freedoms”, just remember it’s not the freedom to download porn and vote they’re so pissed off about. It’s the freedom we allow ourselves to rain death and destruction down on their villages, to sit back from a safe, untouchable distance and kill them with equal parts impunity and casual disregard. As I said in my last post on drones, there will be a price paid for all of this. There will be a bill come due, eventually. I think what annoys me the most about this video in particular and the argument it represents in general is that, when it does, the Dan Klaidman’s of the world aren’t going to remember–or likely, even care–that it was they who racked up the tab.