Drones and America’s State of Perpetual War

Written By: Michael Baharaeen

A young boy, named Azzedine, and his family were sleeping outside a mosque in an area known to be controlled by al-Qaeda when the first missile came crashing down. It struck the car sitting outside. Instantly, there was mass panic and chaos; Azzedine ran in one direction, his father and brother in another.

Then came the second strike. Debris flew all around him, and he found cover under one of the car’s now disconnected tires. He was eventually able to make his way over to his family, where their body parts lay scattered in pieces. A 15-year-old boy – an innocent bystander, marred by a larger conflict in which he had no role.

This scene is the result of a war being waged in the Middle East. No, it wasn’t Afghanistan. It wasn’t Iraq, either. This took place in Yemen (http://www.npr.org/2012/07/06/156367047/yemen-airstrikes-punish-militants-and-civilians) just last year, and the destruction was caused by one of America’s drones that fly over that region of the world 24 hours a day. The growing use of drone technology has consequences often overlooked by the American public, and it is but a symptom of a larger problem. We are now living in a perpetual “war on terror.” The victims of this war are innumerable, the tactics increasingly unnerving. Perhaps most importantly, it is institutionalizing something that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of in his farewell address from office: the military-industrial complex. (In short, this term refers to the relationship between the elected officials, our armed services and for-profit defense industry.)

In conventional wars, citizens of a country are usually asked to make sacrifices. In World War II, the nation was at nearly full employment, as many jobs were added to help support our war efforts. For most of the 20th century ordinary citizens were asked (or, more aptly, ordered) to serve in the armed forces through conscription. However, since American troops entered the Middle East en masse in 2001 – and, arguably, even before that – there has been a gradual distancing of the American public from military matters. The majority of Americans are no longer asked to be inconvenienced to help their country: conscription is long gone, taxes are not raised to pay for wars, and many of the military’s operations have been outsourced to contractors.

The shift to heavy reliance on contractors lies at the core of the military-industrial complex. Numerous tasks, from developing tanks and aircraft carriers to doing basic chores, such as laundry, are no longer performed by the military but are instead given to defense companies in the form of lucrative contracts. In Rachel Maddow’s Drift, a fascinating tome on U.S. defense policy, she bemoans the rise of this relationship between the defense industry and our federal government. It’s no secret that contractors charge exorbitant fees to the government to handle the military’s tasks.

But this is only the beginning of the problem. The greater concern is fairly straightforward: defense contractors profit from the United States being at war; hence, the benefit of declaring war on a concept, making it difficult to discern when we have truly finished fighting. At first glance this might sound incredibly cynical, but it is not a hard connection to make. These companies remain profitable largely through government contracts; who else is going to purchase the latest F-35 from Lockheed Martin?

And this brings us back to the issue of drones.

Created under President Bush and accelerated under President Obama, drones carry out many of the military’s missions in the Middle East and, specifically, against al-Qaeda. They were developed to act as a substitute for soldiers, thus sparing many members of our armed forces from being deployed into dangerous situations. This tradeoff is certainly an argument that proponents of the drone strike program can point out: why sacrifice our friends, family and neighbors if an unmanned aerial vehicle can get the same job done.

I don’t care to digress into a discussion on the accuracy of such weapon systems, the moral problems of collateral damage that accompany their use, or the transparency (or lack thereof) involved when our government utilizes this technology. That is a separate, but no less important conversation to be had. It is imperative, however, to note what this expanding method of conducting war has done to our country.

Our increased use of unmanned vehicles to wage war is yet another mechanism of distancing the American public from the brutal reality of war. In his inaugural speech last month, President Obama said that in two years, with the completion of the war in Afghanistan, we won’t be in a war for the first time in over 10 years, and to most casual observers of politics that seems pretty accurate. In the meantime, though, his nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, stated that the CIA should “always maintain a paramilitary capability,” which presumably includes the drone program.

Let’s pause. Always maintain a paramilitary capability? Is this mentality not exactly what leads us to a state of unending war? Of course we want the United States to have a top-of-the-line defense system; no one is questioning that. But we currently spend more money on “defense” than the next thirteen countries combined, including Russia and China. We are more than prepared for attacks coming our way. By continuing to invest in technology which only perpetuates (and, in my view, exacerbates) the military-industrial complex, we are not only gratuitously spending money we don’t have, but we are also creating a wider chasm between the American populace and the battlefield.

This view may lead some to ask, would I prefer sending our brave men and women into combat and risk their deaths? There is no easy answer or preferred modus operandi in this debate. I will acknowledge that when we have required sacrifice from large segments of the public in previous wars, these conflicts were not allowed to continue on for years without an end in sight. When it looked as if the Vietnam War was heading in that direction, a sleeping beast awoke in the recesses of our national psyche, and elected officials who insisted on continuing to escalate the war paid a political price. However, we see relatively few ordinary citizens objecting to our drone campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan, and this in large part is due to the fact that most of us have had to sacrifice little to support these efforts. Our pocketbooks haven’t even felt the effects of war, which is usually the first factor that leads people to action.

A perpetual war on terror – with the drone program at its core – detaches us from the serious harm occurring across the world, in our name, by the will of our own elected officials. We can continue to bomb villages in North Waziristan. We can hope that by inflicting harm upon unsuspecting and innocent bystanders of these areas, such as young Azzedine’s family, we are not creating a new generation of terrorists who are fighting us for no other reason than to avenge the death of their loved ones. We can assume that since we, as ordinary civilians, are not feeling the effects of this war, it’s not really a war. We can allow the military-industrial complex that has a stranglehold on our foreign policy to swell, unhindered.

Or we can choose to pay attention and make our voices heard.

These acts of aggression were abhorred by Democrats under the Bush presidency, but there has been little, if any objection raised by them under Obama. I like the president. I think he has done a lot of good, especially considering the myriad problems he was handed upon entering office. But I have serious disagreements and concerns with this aspect of his foreign policy.

I’m more than willing to speak up on this issue. A handful of notable political and media figures have also jumped on this train. But these few discussions should only be the start of a larger conversation among all of us, and we can’t wait much longer to have it.