drones

Sojo Stories: Dirty Wars

Image still from 'Dirty Wars' documentary

Image still from 'Dirty Wars' documentary

Days before President Barack Obama's high-profile speech on drones and U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Sojourners sat down with investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill to take an inside look at U.S.-led covert wars and the drones that have become an integral part of our global “war on terror.”

His thesis?

"After years of traveling in these countries, I really believe that we’re creating more enemies than we’re killing.”

In some respects, drones are simply a new tool of old empire. Scahill, author of Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield and producer of the documentary of the same name, now in theaters, calls this an "unending war ... being legitimized under a popular Democratic president, who is a constitutional lawyer by trade.”

Indeed, within five years, the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq for terrorist attacks the country did not commit has transformed under the Obama administration into pre-emptive assassinations halfway around the world, for crimes citizens have not yet committed. The result, Scahill suggested, is our collective complicity to “unending war.”

Barack Obama and the Drone Wars: The Logic of Violence

Military drone, F.Schmidt / Shutterstock.com

Military drone, F.Schmidt / Shutterstock.com

A fundamental principle [of ancient Greek tragedy], often overlooked, is that the double and the monster are one and the same being.

  - René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (p. 160)

The debate about the use of drone strikes in the so-called “War on Terror ” has shed light on an inevitable calculus of war: how many civilian casualties can be tolerated in pursuit of our goals? President Barack Obama, in his speech on May 23 at National Defense University, referred to the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, admitting, “It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all war.” But of course, our wars and our use of drones were conceived as a legitimate response to the civilian deaths on 9/11 and a defensive maneuver to prevent future attacks.

Obama Defends Drone Attacks

In his speech, Obama further justified the use of drones by stating it reduces the number of civilian casualties compared to boots-on-the-ground wars. Though the numbers are hard to determine, it has been reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that civilian casualties caused by our invasion of Iraq number somewhere between 55,000 and 60,000. In Afghanistan, from the time reporting began in 2007, the Guardian reports that the total number of civilians who have lost their lives in the armed conflict to be 14,728. For drone strikes, the highest estimates put total civilian deaths at around 950, indisputably a better number.

The Illogical Logic of Violence

Reducing the number of deaths caused by our use of violence is a worthy goal, and Obama does seem genuinely engaged in drawing the number down. So for the sake of argument, I will take him at his word. But (you knew there was a but coming!), he is trapped, as so many of us are, within the logic of violence.

Traffic Cameras, Domestic Drones, and Mandatory Sentencing

Rendering of a small police drone, Glenn Price / Shutterstock.com

Rendering of a small police drone, Glenn Price / Shutterstock.com

At first I had no problem with domestic drones joining the plethora of surveillance cameras to “keep us safe.”

Big Brother — keeping his eye on me from above in stores, in traffic and everywhere else — would find my personal reality show boring. As a pastor, I’m used to living in a fishbowl. Besides, as John Calvin said, if you fear the eye of a human more than the eye of God, you have spiritual issues to address.

But then, there may be another problem with increased surveillance and flooding our nation’s skies with drones. Let’s take traffic cameras as an example.

DRONE WATCH: Pizza Delivery Drone

The pace of U.S. drone strikes is dramatically slowing. During the month of May, there was one strike in Pakistan and one in Yemen. The new restrictions announced by President Obama in his May 23 speech may be having an effect.

So on a Friday afternoon, here’s some good news on the drone front. In the U.K., Domino’s Pizza released a video of an experimental "DomiCopter" remote-controlled drone delivering two pizzas. Huffington Post reports:

We're crossing our fingers that Domino's new "DomiCopter" -- a drone that delivers pizzas -- is real. In a recent test video, the contraption traveled about four miles in 10 minutes on a two-pizza delivery in the U.K.

Domino's hired creative agency T + Biscuits to develop and test out the contraption. Founder Tom Hatton told NBC that so far, the DomiCopter has been a success. "If anything it went quicker than a pizza boy," he said, pointing out that the DomiCopter doesn't need to stop at red lights. "We were amazed at how easy it was going to be."

Star Trek: Into Darkness: A Call to Change Course

Star Trek: Into Darkness movie still. StarTrekMovie.com

Star Trek: Into Darkness movie still. StarTrekMovie.com

Star Trek: Into Darkness is a fascinating and complicated story that is well worth watching. Instead of providing a summary, I want to explore three related aspects of the movie: sacrifice, blood, and hope for a more peaceful future.

Live Long and Prosper – The Sacrificial Formula

In a reference to my favorite Star Trek movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the current movie’s Spock (Zachary Quinto) restates the sacrificial formula: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” This formula has generally been used throughout human history to justify sacrificing someone else. As René Girard points out, from ancient human groups to modern societies, whenever conflicts arise the natural way to find reconciliation is to unite against a common enemy.

Of course, there’s a lot of this going on throughout the Star Trek franchise. One conversation in Into Darkness explicitly points this out when Kirk (Chris Pine) unites with his enemy Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), and explains it to Spock:

Kirk: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Spock: An Arabic proverb attributed to a prince who was betrayed and decapitated by his own subjects.

Kirk: Well, it’s still a hell of a quote.

Death by the Numbers

The Predator and Reaper drones in most common use by the CIA and U.S. military carry 500-pound GPS-guided bombs or Hellfire missiles. The bombs can destroy whole neighborhoods, while Hellfire missiles are designed to explode afterhitting their target, spewing shrapnel and “incendiary pellets” to “ensure target destruction.”

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