Death from Above: Drones and Virtual Warfare in the Af-Pak Theater
“The U.S. Air Force has been increasingly relying on unmanned aerial vehicles (uavs) or drones, particularly the mq-1 Predator (figure 8.1) and larger mq-9 Reaper (figure 8.2). The first uavs were used in Yugoslavia, where in 1998 the Kosovo war became history’s first virtual or postmodern war. The seventy-eight- day campaign achieved its objectives without a single nato combat fatality (Ignatieff 2000). Drones were used again during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and since 2004 in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan. During this time they have also been used to assassinate people and bomb vehicles and buildings in several other countries (e.g., Yemen in November 2002). Now, they are “preying” on people and “reaping” death and destruction in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The drones are in use “24/7” over Afghanistan and the Pakistan tribal borderlands. These ghost planes are launched from Afghanistan, but mainly flown by joystick pilots located halfway around the world at air force bases in the United States. As Washington and the military see it, the ideal use of Predator and Reaper drones is to pick off terrorist leaders. Most of the drones are armed with Hellfire missiles or smart bombs, which the pilots can fire with the push of a button once they have spotted targets on their video screens. Killing is just a matter of entering a computer command; to the drone pilot, it is like pushing Ctrl-Alt-Del and the target dies. Ctrl-Alt-Del, also known as the “three-finger salute,” is computer jargon for “dump” or “do away with,” as in the Weird Al Yankovic song “It’s All About the Pentiums”: “Play me online? Well you know that I’ll beat you / If I ever meet you, I’ll Control-Alt-Delete you.” The uav pilots “have an almost godlike power. Their job is to survey a place thousands of miles distant (and completely alien to their lives and experiences), assess what they see, and spot ‘targets’ to eliminate—even if on their somewhat antiquated computer systems it ‘takes up to 17 steps—including entering data into a pull-down window—to fire a missile’ and incinerate those below” (Engelhardt 2009d)….
The hype and hubris surrounding this technology is immense. The mainstream media has been full of glowing reports on the drones, some of which imply that their use could win the war on terror all by itself, such as a report from April 2009 that the drones were killing Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders and “the rest have begun fighting among themselves out of panic and suspicion. ‘If you were to continue on this pace,’ counterterrorism consultant Juan Zarate told the LA Times, ‘al Qaida is dead’” (The Week, April 3, 2009, p. 7). In an uncritical 60 Minutes television report on U.S. Air Force drone operations in May 2009, the officer in charge was asked if mistakes were ever made in the drone attacks: “What if you get it wrong?” His response was: “We don’t” (cbs Interactive Staff 2009).”
8.1 MQ -1
Predator, armed with Hellfire missile. Public domain photo. Source: http://www.af.mil/photos/media_search.asp?q=predator. Provided as a public service by the U.S. Air Force.
8.2 MQ -9
Reaper landing after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, 2007. Public domain photo by Sgt. Brian Ferguson. Source: http://www.af.mil/photos/media_search.asp?q=predator. Provided as a public service by the U.S. Air Force.
(pp 178-181) This excerpt by Jeffrey A. Sluka
From Virtual War and Magical Death, edited by Neil L. Whitehead and Sverker Finnström (Duke University Press, 2013)