Monday, April 6, 2009

The PEI Practices: Send in the Drones

[In which the political-ethical idiot (PEI) sets out to write a short comment on Bob Woodward and winds up producing an epic-length post on peace. Photo credits below.]

On March 17, The New York Times ran a front-page article featuring Predator drones. These are small, unmanned military aircraft that can linger over an area for hours, streaming video to command centers, zeroing in on targets, and then launching their missiles.

Predators and other drones, the paper reports, have become the weapons of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Air Force runs the fleet; and in Pakistan, where the CIA is in charge.

Reporter Christopher Drew was apparently permitted to witness the scene at a base outside Tucson, Arizona, where Air Force crews and the National Guard members who’ve been called in to fill personnel gaps work inside “dimly lit trailers” at “1990s-style computer banks.” Although they are more than 7,000 miles away from the plane, they are nevertheless considered to be “flying the mission.”

As the Times tells it, a pilot and a sensor operator sit side by side and monitor the Predator’s "gray-toned video." Sometimes they’re on radio with the troops on the ground and they can hear the soldiers breathing.

Officers in Iraq make the final decisions about what and when to attack. It takes the people in the Nevada desert “up to17 steps—including entering data into pull-down windows—to fire a missile.”

“Air Force officials said a few crew members have had a difficult time watching the strikes. And some pilots said it can be hard to transition from being a computer-screen warrior to dinner at home or their children’s soccer games.”


Last fall, the Washington Post’s famed Bob Woodward announced that the U.S. had a powerful new weapon that was perhaps more responsible than the troop surge for reducing the levels of violence in Iraq.

On the 60 Minutes that aired on September 7, 2008, Woodward said the “secret operational capabilities” were part of the “hidden story” of the war, but he refused to discuss the details.

The next night on Larry King Live, Woodward said that the story of the “top secret operations” would one day be described, “to the people’s amazement.”

"I would somewhat compare it to the Manhattan Project in World War II, which led to the atomic bomb,” he said. "It is a wonderful example of American ingenuity solving a problem in war, as we often have.”

I couldn’t believe it. Was he really talking about something on the order of nuclear weapons? What was this thing?

I asked my friends. Had anyone else heard Woodward say this? Did anyone know what the weapon was?

No one did. We were in the middle of the election in which the war in Iraq was supposed to be a central issue, but I never noticed that the subject of what Woodward called a “game-changer” came up again.

On 60 Minutes, which airs on CBS, which owns Simon & Schuster, which published The War Within, which is the insider’s look at the Bush administration that Woodward was promoting, interviewer Scott Pelley politely asked Woodward to say more about the new weapon.

“I’d love to discuss the details, but I’m not going to,” Woodward replied. This, the voiceover said, because such disclosure would “compromise the program.”

This is the kind of thing that has always irritated me. It’s like something out of the schoolyard, this “I know a secret but I’m not going to tell.”

It’s doubly annoying when the statement comes from a big-time journalist—who’s decided he’s not going to tell because it’s going to compromise the war effort of an administration he’s supposedly reporting objectively about.

This is the guy who broke Watergate?

My feeling after 60 Minutes was, if you know something but you’re not going to tell, don’t say anything.

Of, if you know a secret but you’ve made a heart-wrenching decision to abrogate your professional duty by not discussing it, talk about that.

Instead, Woodward sounded excited.

“From what I know about it, it's one of those things that go back to any war, World War I, World War II, the role of the tank, and the airplane. And it is the stuff of which military novels are written.”

“If you were an al Qaeda leader or part of the insurgency in Iraq or one of these renegade militias, and you knew about what they were able to do, you'd get your ass outta town."


It now appears to me that the “secret operational capabilities” were probably a number of coordinated surveillance technologies linked to the Predators and other drones. It also appears that the “secret” to which Woodward referred was actually a fairly open one.

Although in September 2008 it didn’t occur to me to scour the Internet for news about anything besides the election, several blogs—among them Truthout and mathoda—swiftly made the connection between Woodward’s secret weapon and the drones.

And indeed, on September 12, 2008, less than a week after Woodward’s 60 Minutes appearance, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on the drones and their surrounding operational capability that goes further and is more frightening than what the New York Times published in March 2009.

Given its timing, the L.A. Times article may have been intended as an amplification of Woodward’s claims, but since the article never mentions him, I wouldn’t have known.

Snippets from the L.A.Times piece by Greg Miller and Julian E. Barnes:

Officials said the previously unacknowledged devices have become a powerful part of the American arsenal, allowing the tracking of human targets even when they are inside buildings or otherwise hidden from Predator surveillance cameras….

A military official familiar with the systems said they had a profound effect, both militarily and psychologically, on the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq.

"It is like they are living with a red dot on their head," said a former U.S. military official familiar with the technology who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because it has been secret. "With the quietness of the Predator, you never knew when a Hellfire [missile] would come through your window."

Like Woodward, Miller and Barnes reported that the souped-up hardware played a critical role in the improving the situation in Iraq:

“Officials said introduction of the devices coincided with the 2007 U.S. troop buildup in Iraq, and was an important, but hitherto unknown, factor in the subsequent drop in violence in that country.”

I don’t recall Republican John McCain, who built much of his campaign around his support for the troops and the surge, saying anything about the Predators. He did accuse Democrat Barack Obama of threatening to bomb Pakistan—when what Obama was undoubtedly saying was that he would take full advantage of the undiscussable Predator capabilities, just as he has already done. Everyone but people like me, I guess, was aware that there was a “hidden story” here.


I read both of Barack Obama’s books before I jumped on his bandwagon—or rather I listened to them. They were the first books on CD I couldn’t put down. I’d find myself running one more errand or sitting in the car for one second longer just to get to the end of a chapter.

Obama is thoughtful, engaging, and extremely gifted at telling specific stories and drawing the emotional lessons from them. It was this aspect of this book that felt so shockingly intimate to me—I hadn’t read other presidential memoirs, but I couldn’t imagine others giving you such a strong sense of what the man might have been thinking and feeling.

Moreover, it was possible to imagine that in similar circumstances I might have been thinking and feeling along much the same lines, or at least processing the information in much the same way.

I don’t know the President, but playing the six degrees of separation game, I could probably hopscotch my way from the people I’ve met to the people they’ve met to connect my dot to Obama’s in half a dozen ways. I think is true for many of the people I know.

It is perhaps for this reason that I found myself musing, as I never have before, about what would happen to him when he took office. And the first thing I thought of was this: he is going to order that people be killed.

I could think of hardly any other job, except maybe a state’s executioner, in which that was guaranteed to be the case. Sasha and Malia’s Daddy was about to become, in effect, a murderer. (In fairness, almost all of us play some role in the deaths of other beings, in one way or another.)

Obama being Obama, I was fairly sure this would have occurred to him, too.

It took all of three days. On January 23, the world press reported that Obama had given military commanders the go-ahead to launch two missile attacks in Pakistan.

The New York Times cited senior American officials who “said the attacks had dispelled for the moment any notion that Mr. Obama would rein in the Predator attacks.”

Not that it seems reasonable to expect the president of the United States to be a pacifist, but I felt terribly sad about it.

Per Britain’s Guardian, “The first attack yesterday was on the village of Zharki, in Waziristan; three missiles destroyed two houses and killed 10 people. One villager told Reuters of phone that of nine bodies pulled from the rubble of one house, six were its owner and his relatives; Reuters added that intelligence officials said some foreign militants were also killed. “

In the second attack, according to the New York Times, “missiles struck a house near the village of Wana in South Waziristan, killing seven people, according to local accounts and Pakistani news reports. The reports said three of the dead were children.”


A few weeks later, these missile strikes were already beginning to seem routine, and I felt myself fading into a familiar sense of disconnect with the human losses that might result. Had it not been for my sense of identification with Obama, I might never have paused to consider the killing capacities of the presidency at all.

On February 20, again looking at the New York Times, I found myself staring at a photograph showing members of Pakistani tribes at a funeral.

There was a long line of men lined up in front of a coffin, praying. Some were barefoot, some in socks. Most of them wore loose white pants and were wrapped in shawls.

According to Reuters, they were mourning the victims of a Valentine’s Day Predator attack on a training camp. It had killed 25 “al-Qaeda linked militants,” most of them fighters from Uzbekistan.

The men appeared to be a tight clan, but as a group they also looked alone in a vast desert. The Predator attacks function almost on the terrorist model, in sense that they are isolated assaults intended to produce maximum impact. Unlike the terrorists, the government has some interest in minimizing the publicity.

A few weeks later, I was reading in the New York Times about how IBM was laying off workers a few at a time, and the strategy sounded remarkably similar:

“Big companies also routinely carry out scattered layoffs that are small enough to stay under the radar, contributing to an unemployment rate that keeps climbing, as Friday’s monthly jobs report is likely to show.”

I wondered if the mourners in the picture, even if they were bound together in waging a violent holy war, ever felt lonely. My friends who have been laid off, at least during the current hard times, feel a great deal of comfort in knowing that they are part of a wave of other people who are suffering as well.

What does it feel like when a missile lands on your block, but nobody else’s?

I tried to imagine caring about these tribesmen. The truth is, these people didn’t look like my friends. The information I get tells me they’re the sorts of people who at the very least would like to see me wrapped up behind a veil, but at worst would prefer to see me dead.

At the same time, I remembered the photo of Obama wrapped in a white turban and tribal robes during a 2006 visit to Kenya, where many of his relatives live. The picture wasn’t a fake, but distributing it, as the Clinton campaign did, was a “smear.”

That picture scared me. It made me realize that when I voted for Obama, I would have to kiss my lingering, insulating assumptions that some people are “other” goodbye. I could see that the world was changing in ways that might mean that I could be “other” in some significant new ways myself.

We’re all links in a chain. That seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget that everyone joins the chain at a different link, and that one person’s retaliation is another person’s first strike.

Our sense of purpose as a nation seems to have shifted from vengeance to prevention. We may still dream of direct retribution for the attacks Osama bin Laden ordered against us on September 11, 2001, but after eight years the costs of our effort may be too great for any real savoring of revenge when it comes.

Increasingly we conceive of our attacks as preemptive, as a form of self-defense. To others, they are merely attacks.

I remember Obama’s comments during a visit to Israel in July 2008, months before that nation’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza at the close of last year.

"If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that," the candidate said.

It seems inevitable that the families of dead children and dead militants alike, no matter where they live, will feel the same way.

War or peace? Once the missile hits, there is no way to know where their thoughts and feelings or resources will take them next.


In the Cold War, as I understand it, we imagined dangerous but essentially rational superpowers facing off in a contest of Goliath versus Goliath. We can’t use the big weapons on the little guys. In this age of the democratization of both war and technology, we’re trying desperately to pick off all the Davids before they point a warhead our way.

According to that March 17 New York Times article, the number of Predators being flown by the air force is currently 195. The total number of military drones—including handheld models—has jumped from 167 in 2001 to 5,500 now.

Armed drones are an ideal weapon for a cash-strapped military, the Times points out—much cheaper than a $143 million fighter jet. Predators are “27 feet long, powered by a high-performance snowmobile engine, and cost $4.5 million apiece.”

Amazing. I began to wonder just how easy it might be to launch your own Predator.

It’s only about twice as long as kayak.

In the age of trillion-dollar bailouts, $4.5 million begins to seem like lunch money.

If all you need is a high-powered snowmobile engine, maybe Todd Palin could build it.

According to the Times, a third of the Predators have crashed—at least 70 of the ones that belong to the air force. I have visions of militants running around and picking them up. Then they’ll fix them up and shoot them back at us.

You don’t need to be a pilot to fly a Predator by remote. If I read correctly, anyone who could handle a video game can do it.

Of course, when I think about the added information in the Los Angeles Times article, I think perhaps it wouldn’t be so simple. There’s that whole Manhattan Project aspect. There’s whatever it takes to see through walls.

The technology allows suspects to be identified quickly. "All I have to do is point the sensor at him," said a military officer familiar with the system, "and a missile can be off the rail in seconds."

There’s that red dot again—a targeted individual in a constant state of anxiety and fear. In her book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, Jane Mayer makes the case that Vice President Dick Cheney might have been just such a person.

Way back in the 1980s, when he was still a member of Congress, Mayer writes, Cheney was part of a security program in which he was periodically hustled off to remote locations, where he was fed lousy food and asked to play the role of chief of staff to a president in hiding just after a nuclear holocaust.

Not long after September 11, anthrax came to Congress, and shortly after that the White House sensors went off, falsely signaling that the vice president might have been exposed to radioactive, chemical, or biological weapons.

Ten days after that, Cheney relocated to one of the bunkers built deep underground during the Cold War.

“The poor guy became paranoid,” the chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell told Mayer.

Cheney became convinced that we would have to go to the “dark side” to survive—and this was the mindset that transformed the United States, after 225 years of existence, into a nation whose official policies condoned brutal acts of torture.


Once you start to think this way, the parallels between the supposedly good and the supposedly evil begin to seem endless. Here I was, experiencing weird spurts of sympathy for not only Dick Cheney but also the mujahideen. All these thoughts and feelings left me feeling vaguely wretched.

I was mushy-headed, spineless, and fatally empathetic. No doubt I’d have been trying to see things from Hitler’s point of view when the Nazis ran wild. And I will probably be bitterly sorry I ever thought about any of this when the next assault comes.

Of course we should bomb the terrorists. Of course we should try to do so in as targeted a fashion as possible. Of course there will be collateral damage along the way.

Yuck. I didn’t like that, either.

Since all lines of inquiry inspired by the Predators made me uncomfortable, and since I’m very fond of Buddhists, I poked around on the Internet to find out what Dalai Lama thought.

His views are not as straightforward as I had supposed. To my surprise, the exiled Tibetan leader is rather a centrist—or perhaps you could say he takes the Middle Way—as a peacenik.

War is violence and violence is unpredictable,” he has said, as well as: "Although your motivations may be sincere, violence ... easily can be out of control."

“Therefore, it is better to avoid [war] if possible, and never to presume that we know beforehand whether the outcome of a particular war will be beneficial or not.”

However: “Although I am deeply opposed to war, I am not advocating appeasement. It is often necessary to take a strong stand to counter unjust aggression.”

Nevertheless: “We can only judge whether or not a conflict was vindicated on moral grounds with hindsight.”

The Dalai Lama frequently cites a statement from Gandhi that goes something like this: “Peace is not the absence of violence. Peace is the manifestation of human compassion.”

The more I think about this, I realize that the dichotomies that concern the Dalai Lama may not be the ones I had imagined. For example: I no longer assume that the words “peace” and “nonviolence” are an opposing pair.

In fact, peace and violence can go together. I remembered those Buddhists monks of the Viet Nam War, the ones who made such a shocking statement by setting themselves on fire. I saw those pictures when I was a kid, and I never forgot them.

Self-immolation was a brutal and public form of suicide, but it didn’t come with bombing. It was a violent act that brought the horrors of war vividly to life without harming anyone, and that made it an act of peace.

The Dalai Lama believes World War II and the Korean War were justified, and he sees “a certain value” in the Cold War strategy of mutual nuclear deterrence (although the black market in all that old nuclear material is part of the reason why, in Obama's words, "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up"). If I read the Dalai Lama correctly, he might express a qualified support for the Predators, too.

"It is difficult to deal with terrorism through non-violence," he said, in a January speech in Delhi, India. This is largely because the terrorists have closed their minds.

As the India Press Trust reported it, “he termed terrorism as the worst kind of violence which is not carried by a few mad people but by those who are very brilliant and educated.”

Once again, I felt the disturbing tug of a parallel universe. The Dalai Lama’s terrorists are not insane thugs. In the sense of having smarts gone wrong, they may bear some resemblance to high-ranking Nazis, or even to the “best and brightest,” the American academics and intellectuals who brought us the Viet Nam War.

These were people so caught up in their ideologies and technological abilities that they dissociated from the heartbreak on the ground.

I don’t think the Dalai Lama has any innate distrust of intellectuals; he has embraced scholars of all sorts. I think he is concerned with endless struggle between heart—which I suppose operates along a continuum from passion to compassion—and mind.

In the same January speech in which he decried terrorists, the Dalai Lama shocked his audience by proclaiming, “I love George W. Bush.” They were known to disagree on policy, so I wondered why. Perhaps it is because, as damaging and dangerous and unreasoning as I often believed him to be, Bush speaks from the heart.


I’ve been thinking these issues almost nonstop since I made the decision to make a short comment about secrets of the Predator.

Can you have an active military and still practice peace? Do intentions matter? Obama seems to be firing even more missiles than his reviled predecessor did. Is there any possibility that he can use the same tactics as the Bush administration, but to a better end?

If we’re going to deploy the Predators, not to mention our soldiers, is there some way to mitigate the harm both to them and our enemies (violence) with assistance (compassion), in the ways that I believe Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has talked about?

I’m back, again, to the questions of heart and mind.

According to the scholar Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi—one of history’s most powerful practitioners of nonviolence—believed that when “when the heart is hard and rigid, reason doesn’t work,” and “you must find ways of activating somebody’s heart, conscience, his moral universe, so that he is prepared to recognize you as a human being and then a rational discourse can begin to proceed.”

To a large extent, this business of activating our hearts, our consciences, and moral universes (so that reason can work) may be what Obama’s rhetoric is all about. He draws on the diversity of his own background to argue that we cannot dismiss or disown anyone.

In his remarkable speech on race, Obama demanded that we recognize the humanity of people all along the racial spectrum, whether we agree with them or not. I was deeply moved. Later, when he asked that I, as a gay person, listen respectfully to an inaugural invocation by the evangelical pastor Rick Warren, I didn’t like it at all.

I wish we could be challenged in this way about war.

Rather than trying to win others’ hearts and minds, perhaps we should think about what it would mean to engage our own, individually and as a society.

It might be useful to have at least one serious talk about the weaponry—what it is, how works, what it does to the enemy, or what risks it may pose to us.

Except we won’t talk about military actions, even more than we won’t talk about race, because what’s actually involved in the war is top secret.

The minds are on the inside, and the hearts are left out.

It may be too much to expect any given individual to balance heart and mind in the midst of waging a war. There’s so much pain involved, and the brain desperately wants to shut that out.

There must be enormous psychological pressures for those Predator pilots who shoot missiles that kill kids by day, and go home to their own children at night. How do you think about the target’s humanity and continue to pull the trigger?

And maybe keeping an open heart might be too much to ask of someone like Dick Cheney or the head of the CIA. Opening one’s heart, either to one’s own fears or to anyone else’s, might cripple one’s capacity to strategize and execute.

But this seems to be the benefit, in theory, of a democratic society. We are a diverse people with diverse perspectives and influences and experiences. We've got peaceful warriors and warlike peacemakers. We can invite the people outside to influence what goes on within.

There are those who’ve lived in the bunkers and drawn the scenarios and foreseen the worst, and then there are those who’ve been lucky enough to sing songs, smoke organic ganja, and dream of peace.

I imagine there’s some truth in all of it, both at the extremes and in the middle, and I’d hope there’d be some creative tension in hashing it all out. If we allowed the hearts and minds of our society to be each other’s checks and balances, perhaps we’d have some chance of finding the Dalai Lama’s middle way.

In the end, I changed my mind about Woodward. I reread his Larry King interview. “As a reporter, all my instincts say let's tell the story,” he said. But when he took what he knew about the secret weapons to the upper echelons of the military, “They said—it wasn't a matter of request—they said you can't write about this. This will get people killed.”

So Woodward tried to find a compromise. He wasn’t Daniel Ellsberg: he kept the military’s secrets, accepting its analysis that disclosure would put lives at risk.

At the same time, however, he attempted frame a larger context, one that might open the door for discussions that were far more difficult and truthful than the ones going on in the campaign. Was the surge really working? Would warfare really change? What would that mean?

That’s the kind of conversation we need.

Photos: Predator drone aircraft: Chad Slattery /
Funeral in Pakistan: Reuters
Obama in Somali elder robes: AP

1 comment:

Joan said...

Impressive. Just when I started to become overwhelmed and think, in my kneejerk editor way, "Good god, this really should be 2 posts. Or three..." you brought it back around, with authority. Well done.

Though I'd be far less kind to Woodward, myself. He's always been a bit too enthralled by the power draft he gets off his sources -- and off the silly pseudo-confidentiality game he triangulates between them and whoever he's trying to impress with his connections to them.