On the battlefield, there’s a brief delay between when a drone captures an image and when that image arrives on its operator’s screen. It’s called “latency.” Video has to be beamed to a U.S. base from Pakistan or Yemen or Syria or Iraq or Somalia or Afghanistan or—it’s a lot of ground to cover, and it takes quite a while, so by the time it’s delivered, the file that the operator analyzes has become an artifact, a snapshot from the past.
A lot may have changed on the ground while the image was in transit. (Think of a postcard as opposed to an email.) The drone may have crashed, crumpled in a flaming heap, before the operator is any the wiser. Or maybe a child wandered into the blast radius of the cruise missile. The situation isn’t always clear before the operator pulls the trigger, but he still pulls it. He always does. He’s trained to as a part of the “kill chain.”
If you look for a clear picture of casualty counts in America’s drone wars, the image will likewise be slow to materialize— if it does at all. The United States has avoided enmeshing itself in what General Norman Schwarzkopf once called “the body-count business.” “It’s ridiculous to do that,” he jeered, dismissing offhand the idea that his military should keep track of the dead—which happens to be a requirement of the Geneva Conventions. That was 1991, and the United States had just dropped its first bomb on Iraq.
The road to America’s despoliation of the Middle East begins not in the 1990s, however, but in the early 20th century with high-flying sorties, explosive ordnance, and a high tolerance for bloodshed. While imperial powers have long attempted to bomb their unruly subjects into submission, it was Italy, in 1911, that first explored the potential of aerial bombardment to enforce obedience. Spain, France, and Britain quickly followed suit, fearful of ceding an upper hand to their rival. Aerial bombardments would become routine within the decade.
European powers originally developed strategic bombing as a shortcut to war making, to crush insurgencies with minimal effort and expenditure. Their justification was straightforward and clinical. Ground wars risked soldiers dying and civilians protesting mounting casualty counts. Air wars bypassed that risk. And although Europeans soured on the technique during World War II—it revealed what the regionʼs colonial powers had known all along, that indiscriminate bombing is terrorism—the architects of modern warfare show no signs of abandoning aerial bombardment.
On January 23, 2009, three days into his Presidency, Barack Obama authorized his first drone strikes (Pakistan was the target), accelerating his predecessor’s program of extrajudicial assassination. (In October of that same year, he would accept the Nobel Peace Prize to thunderous applause in Oslo City Hall.) The former professor of constitutional law had, incredibly, no time for the constitutional guarantee of a “speedy and public” trial before meting out capital punishment on what were deemed “high-value” targets. Instead, he and a cadre of unnamed ghosts in the U.S. government would play judge, jury, and executioner.
Today’s military planners love drones not for what they are but for what they are not: a ground invasion. But what becomes of the human targets?
For those subjected to America’s drone wars, the threat of violence pervades everyday life. Catastrophe clings to them like a shadow, and nothing is too sacred or too mundane to escape it. In 20111, a 16-year-old U.S. citizen was struck by a CIA drone while at a barbecue with his friends in Yemen. In 2013, a wedding procession just outside of Rad’a, Yemen turned into a mass funeral after an American drone rained four Hellfire missiles on the revelers. Then there are the survivors who eke out a life amid the smoldering rubble—either too poor or too stubborn to leave. Hundreds of thousands of survivors have lost limbs due to drones—along with their hope for the future. In Syria alone, experts believe 30,000 people become disabled (from any cause) every month as the countryʼs civil war drags on.
To honor the dead is to rescue them from oblivion, count them, and ward off body snatchers. Scholars at Brown University’s Costs of War Project, a multi-disciplinary enterprise that calculates the human fallout U.S. post-9/11 war zones, estimate that around 900,000 people have been killed. More than 350,000 were civilians, nearly 40 percent. And that’s to say nothing of the estimated 38 million people the wars have displaced. Pakistan counts nearly 67,000 dead. Of these, about 24,000 are civilians.
Do those subjected to Americaʼs drone wars ever look up at the sky and daydream?
“I no longer love blue skies,” 13-year-old Zubair ur Rehman told Congress in 2013. A U.S. drone strike on Pakistan had killed his grandmother the previous year. She was “the string that held our family together. … Not a militant but my mother,” Zubair’s father, Rafiq, testified. Zubair watched as she was blown to pieces. “The drone had appeared out of a bright blue sky, the colour of sky most beloved by his grandmother” and Zubair. Now she’s gone, buried somewhere underground. For Zubair and his family, she no doubt lives on, but only in memory. Her spirit reverberates in the empty space she left behind, never cast fully into oblivion.
But the cosmic rhythms of the universe continue on. The sun keeps shining, the Earth keeps turning, and drones keep bombing from blue skies above. “In fact,” Zubair continued, “I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.”
Note: In the print edition, this article stated that this death took place in 2016, but it actually happened in 2011. ↩