I am watching the reaction to the unintended drone killing of civilian hostages American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto and sensing a sea change. The kind that rocks Washington in inscrutable ways, the kind that puts an end to the he said/she said back and forth, the kind that unites both sides—all sides—in asking the tough questions that go beyond what went wrong and focus on what we are doing.
“As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counter-terrorism operations,” President Obama told the American people yesterday. “I profoundly regret what happened.”
I could go off on a diatribe about how Obama relinquished any sort of leadership on this six years ago, taking over from George W. Bush and putting his finger on the same button. I could lament that Obama accepted the premise of legality and even wisdom through his constant pressing of that button. I could go into how corrosive it is that these big brains think that they are following the right strategy—or any strategy at all—just because all of the intelligence and the paperwork lines up properly. I could say the issue has never been civilian casualties: It has always been that these acts of assassination masquerading as warfare have not only lowered the threshold for killing by the state but also incensed and provoked a world of haters. But I’ve said all of that and more in my upcoming book Unmanned: Drone, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare, coming out in July.
The passage below, adapted from the book, is particularly relevant to the debate that yesterday’s news has sparked.
Everyone wants to believe that the Obama team decided to pursue some new tack against al Qaeda. Critics from the left and right, even insiders, speak of “Obama’s drone war” almost in an attempt to personalize this wholly automated and detached effort driven by the Data Machine. Obama is labeled “assassin in chief,” making personal life-and-death calls from the White House, micromanaging the military and intelligence community in a style reminiscent of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Dick Cheney can both express his affection for drones and criticize the Obama administration for being so weak that it has given up on trying to capture and interrogate the bad guys and instead just kills them. It is true that drone activity over Pakistan accelerated in the year that overlapped the Bush-to-Obama transition, but in a historical sweep, it is the continuation of a policy predicated on a capability.
Obama didn’t accelerate anything. He just assumed “command” of greater capabilities to hit targets. That means also that the pretense of fewer troops can be sold as de-escalation of conflict or even success. The impression can be left behind that the American president himself sits at the joystick and the rest of the country has nothing to do with it. But that in itself is the triumph of the Machine. The technicians—unlaborers, you could call them—and the system are invisible, and so the Machine becomes platform agnostic, and political-platform agnostic as well.
When [the intelligence information provided by secret intercept systems like] Gilgamesh seamlessly meshes and everything is revealed, when digital markers can be calculated and timed and fused with change-detection histories and “pattern of life” databases, it is relentless exactitude from the heavens. The end result is labeled High Value Target (HVT) assured pursuit, “assured pursuit” being an official buzzphrase used to describe a very specific and very secret achievement: the finding and killing of the enemies of the state. In this top secret world, “Assured Pursuit Certified (APC)” is even something one can actually put on one’s résumé; it is a kind of marksmanship badge meaning that one has mastered the use of all the modern-day black boxes and is privy to the secrets of the gods: how to conduct the meticulous work of human archeology that has come to be at the center of perpetual war.
We have way too much of a tendency, in our struggle to grasp modern warfare, to reduce the world of drones to those Cessna-sized Predators that we imagine are guided by some joystick-wielding adolescent. But the truth is that except for the few who actually hike and hide and sweat, the few who actually have to go outside the wire and beyond the barricades to the edge of the world in the quest, the vast majority of humans are a removed network of technicians who outnumber old- fashioned fighters tens of thousands to one. Two parts machine, one part man: The fight is truly unmanned.
“We should join together and do one thing, a deed such as has never [before] been done,” Gilgamesh says to Enkidu in Tablet IV of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It could be the motto for this extraordinary search party. It never has been done before, not on this scale, not with this ambition, a global network that seeks the most elusive morsel in an infinite information universe, searching deeper and deeper into every buried recess, processing all for the singular purpose of locating an enemy—the unanticipated and diabolical that forever eludes.
The cold truth is that the endeavor is irreducible from the Machine and its network. Feeding the Machine, and the enormity of the mere task of integrating it all, overwhelms. The culmination is not some final battle per se, it is the distillation of the military’s efforts into some 3D model or PowerPoint briefing or even video simulation to evoke a decision to kill, a process that has “crisp efficiency” and an inexorable quality, as one veteran of targeted killing decision-making said, that “left him feeling more like an observer than a participant.” It’s therefore hard not to see the Machine as kin to some kind of divine execution, hard not to label it all godlike, hard not to decry a robot takeover or some sanitized video game, warfare stripped of all the humanity.
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[Images from AP.]