Sackville professors warn about permanent drone warfare that murders civilians

Written by Bruce Wark on February 22, 2018

Erin Steuter and Geoff Martin are the co-authors of Drone Nation: The Political Economy of America’s New Way of War. They launched their book on Feb. 21, 2018 in Sackville. Photo by Bruce Wark.

Geoff Martin and Erin Steuter told a lunchtime audience in Sackville on Feb. 21 that in the last 17 years, US drone strikes have killed and injured more than 10,000 people in poor, faraway countries and most of the victims were innocent civilians.

The Mount Allison University professors are the authors of Drone Nation: The Political Economy of America’s New Way of War published in 2017 by Lexington Books.

“Leaked classified documents reveal that as many as 90 per cent of those killed in drone strikes were not the intended targets,” Erin Steuter told about 25 people who listened in stunned silence as the authors documented years of lethal, remote-controlled warfare.

Steuter and Martin’s new book opens by putting drone warfare in context.

“There is an accepted wisdom that democratic, developed countries in the Western world conduct themselves at a higher moral level than others,” the book’s first sentence reads. “But the US government over the last fifteen years, has done things to others, such as kidnapping, torture, and assassination, that only the ‘bad guys’ used to do. Their newest and most alarming tactic is drone warfare.”

Drones are unmanned aircraft, and range in size from an insect to a jetliner, noted Steuter, a professor of sociology. She added that they are used for surveillance, but also for carrying out targeted assassinations using Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs fired by pilots watching video screens up to 11,000 kilometres away.

“There are two types of lethal drones, the Predator and the Reaper,” said Martin, who teaches political science. “They are known as Hunter-Killer drones,” he added.

Drone casualties

Martin and Steuter told their Sackville audience that although the US military claims that drones are weapons of pinpoint precision, innocent civilians are routinely killed and injured in strikes.

“Since 2001, the US and its coalition partners have launched thousands of drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Niger,” said Steuter.

Martin pointed out that it used to be official policy not to kill civilians in war, but now civilian deaths are considered inevitable reversing decades of achievements in international law such as outlawing biological weapons, setting rules for the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war, banning anti-personnel landmines and prosecuting war criminals.

“We are now rewriting international law and reverting back to an earlier time, in which the strong could act as they like without agreed rules to restrain them,” Martin said.

Steuter referred to a 2014 “Drone Memo” claiming President Obama had broad legal powers to carry out the targeted killing of terrorism suspects far from conventional battlefields, in effect imposing the death penalty with no judicial oversight.

She said that drones hovering daily in Third World countries, striking homes, cars and public spaces without warning, terrorize whole populations.

“Evidence suggests that the trauma of living under drones causes anti-American resentment and aids in the recruitment for violent extremism,” Steuter said.

“According to a former State Department official, for every drone strike, the US generates roughly 40 to 60 new enemies,” Martin added.

Permanent war

Steuter and Martin argued that drones have now ushered in an era of permanent wars fought on the cheap with few military casualties and little public scrutiny.

Drone strikes carried out by the US Central Intelligence Agency, for example, are classified as covert actions, Steuter said, adding that such attacks and any civilian casualties that result from them do not have to be disclosed.

“Drone strikes allow us to become emotionally disconnected from the horrors of war,” she said. “Without this deterrent, it becomes easier to start new battles and indefinitely extend existing conflicts.”

Moreover, robotic drones are being developed, such as an Israeli Harpy drone that makes its own decision on whether to attack.

“This is what its manufacturers call a ‘fire and forget’ autonomous weapon,” Steuter said with Martin adding that under international law, only human beings can decide when to kill because “a robot cannot be tried for war crimes.”

He added that three-year-old Pentagon documents confirm that the Americans are working on automating war in which civilians will continue to be the main casualties.

“US military planners are already developing technologies designed to enable swarms of ‘self-aware’ interconnected robots to design and execute kill operations against robot-selected targets,” Martin said.

Martin and Steuter warn that by 2024, all countries will have acquired armed drones and that the proliferation of drone technology among states and terrorist groups poses a new international threat.

Steuter said that Canada already operates Boeing’s Blackjack drone system, based at CFB Gagetown, primarily for reconnaissance, but the federal government hopes to have new attack drones within three years with a fully operational fleet by 2023.

“Canada is apparently seeking to purchase Predators from the US,” Martin said.

Audience shock

“Drone warfare, to sum things up, is and enables assassination,” Martin said. “It causes civilian casualties, there are no boundaries, it creates new enemies, it arms everyone, it can be automated, it reverses the gains of international laws of war and it leads to permanent war.”

“You don’t know where to begin when you hear this,” Marilyn Lerch, Sackville’s poet laureate said, adding that it’s as though we’re living in science fiction.

“We have to begin to realize that things are broken, our institutions are broken,” she added, “and we have to look at it very darkly.”

“I agree with you that a lot of the institutions are broken,” Martin replied before suggesting that Canadians concerned about drone warfare could focus on preventing Canada from acquiring them.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the concept of Canada as a peacekeeping country is wildly popular,” he said. “This new technology is not for that purpose, this new technology is to be a junior partner in whatever the operation is, to participate with the Big Boys,” he added.

“The debate is still very much an open one in this country. What will Canada’s role be?”

Bruce Wark is the editor of  Wark Times.

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