Unmanned and Undiscerning


First of its kind, the book really delves deep into who actually operate the drone machines and how

Not too long ago, many people criticized violent video games that allowed a player to gun down civilians at will, while others retaliated stating that people are not being killed for real after all. How ironic such an argument seems today. Medea Benjamin in her bestselling book ‘Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control’ leaves no stone unturned as she exposes the reality behind the so-called targeted killings. As the US forces prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, Benjamin warns that the human soldiers may be leaving but the robotic soldiers will continue to thrive in Afghanistan. She calls drone strikes extra-judicial killings that defy international law. Forget the moral bankruptcy infiltrated through this drone warfare, these drone strikes are not legal even according to the US constitution which says that self-defense is only justified if its necessity is instant and leaves no other choice.

Drone strikes perhaps then are the biggest violation of law, since most of the times they are based on meager suspicion of terrorist activity. Benjamin talks about the two types of drone strikes; the ‘personality strikes’ and the ‘signature strikes’. While the former target a person who’s on the ‘kill list’ for being a threat to the US, the latter target a person based on the discretion of the drone operation who pulls the trigger if the person’s lifestyle fits that of a militant. It is perhaps an excruciating reminder of the times we are living in.

With the development of robotic warfare, accountability has virtually gone extinct. A person sitting thousands of miles away in Nevada can decide which person has to die in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan or Pakistan. For them going to war does not mean fearing the possibility of not returning home; they simply have to press a button and make war as they sit back on their chairs. Benjamin complains how the usual training hours of an Air Force pilot was 200 hours, but that of a Drone pilot has been reduced to only 44 hours. She also explains how these drone machines are not operated by the US government but by private military contractors who pay their allegiance to the companies they work for and not to the code of ethical warfare. Moreover, the Department of Defense’s inventory of unmanned aircrafts increased more than forty times during the years 2003 to 2010. Even when the US faced the financial crisis in 2007; government spending for public welfare was cut but the drone budget kept on spiraling upwards.


‘The Obama administration does not even discern much between a civilian and a militant; every military-age man in the strike zone is defined as a combatant. No wonder, the exact number of civilian casualties is underreported when even most of the civilians are labeled as militants.’


First of its kind, the book really delves deep into who actually operate the drone machines and how. Many of the operators of these killing machines suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after they learn that they have accidently incinerated civilians including mothers and children. With the traditional fighter jets dropping off bombs on dwellings, the pilot could not see the damage he just caused. But with the high-resolution cameras on the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, the operator can see exactly what happens after he pulls the trigger. However, not even this trauma is comparable to the horror of civilians on the ground. Many complain of not being able to go to the markets or family gatherings without fearing that the drone constantly hovering over their head might just drop a bomb. Drones are known to attack civilian weddings and funerals just because there was a public gathering and the drone operators thought it was a Taliban hangout. The Obama administration does not even discern much between a civilian and a militant; every military-age man in the strike zone is defined as a combatant. No wonder, the exact number of civilian casualties is underreported when even most of the civilians are labeled as militants.

But nothing perhaps seems to be more ghastly than the double-tap policy followed by the drone operators. As people rush to help the civilians wounded after a drone strike, another drone strike follows and the helpers get incinerated too. This has discouraged people from helping out the victims. One humanitarian organization has a policy of waiting for six hours before going to the site of the drone attack and helping the wounded. Benjamin alleges that this phenomenon of secondary strikes is clearly a deliberate attempt to attack the civilians.

In Waziristan, the civilians don’t only have to fear the drones in the sky but also the avengers on the ground. After every drone strike, the Taliban and Al Qaeda thugs crash into the site of the drone attack and brutally kill anyone they suspect of giving information about their hideouts. Benjamin laments how the informants are mostly poor who are only given $100 to give reports about the safe houses of militants, and in turn they end up losing their lives. She also exposes that US is not the only country to use drone strikes; Israel has been using them against the Palestinians for years. Furthermore, such drone attacks are not kept a secret anymore. Indeed, the US Defense Department has uploaded a lot of combat footage on YouTube which are easily downloadable and become a source of entertainment for the soldiers. As if the world has lost all humanity, these videos have received well over 10 million views.

Benjamin has excelled in capturing the grim realities of the subject in a reasonably cogent fashion, backing all her claims with thorough research. With first-hand accounts of the drone victims coupled with extensive evidence by the authorities on the subject, her book does have the needed versatility to turn into a gripping narrative. Benjamin does repeat herself several times by reiterating the same arguments in different chapters, but it is perhaps this repetition that is necessary to stress a point upon the reader’s memory. It is a must-read for every Pakistani who thinks that drone attacks are not as big an issue as the war on terrorism. For according to Benjamin, drone strikes are one of the leading causes of terrorism. Unless the drone strikes are stopped, the war on terrorism will never end. While it is fun for someone to toast people by virtually operating a machine, for others it is a nightmare that calls for revenge.

Book Excerpts

Excerpt 1:

‘The military hopes the cool, killer technology will attract a steady stream of scientists interested in careers fashioning deadly gadgets out of a James Bond movie.’

Excerpt 2:

‘Billions to billions of dollars have been spent from America to Asia on machinery, software and workers whose only purpose is building a better flying death robot. The best research centers and universities are dependent n military contracts.’

Excerpt 3:

‘The attacks in Pakistan, carried out via the CIA’s covert program, began in June 2004 with a strike against Pakistani Taliban commander Nek Muhammad that killed six to eight people, including two children – a fact rarely reported.’

Excerpt 4:

‘It seems clear that the US had, on numerous occasions, targeted a site multiple times in quick succession, a practice known as ‘double tap’. A February 2012 report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that from January 2009 until January 2012, at least fifty civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims.’

Excerpt 5:

‘Pashtun tribal culture considers face-to-face combat honorable. Firing a missile at faceless people from a bunker thousands of miles away? Not so much. And someone in tribal society who has lost his family members in a drone strike is bound by the Pashtun honor code – Pashtunwali – to retaliate and opt for badal (revenge or justice).’

Excerpt 6:

‘There are death squads associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban – called Khorasan Mujahedin – that show up after drone attacks to hunt down informants they suspect of helping the Americans identify targets…Seeking revenge, forty to sixty heavily armed and hooded men descend on a village, kidnapping their victims. Most of those kidnapped are beaten, tortured and killed, with videotapes of their executions passed around as warning to others.’

Excerpt 7:

‘Today, rather than exposing the public to the horrors of war, drones make war look fun – at least for those firing the missiles. YouTube has hundreds of video clips of combat footage from Iraq and Afghanistan, much of it captured by drones, which are themselves flown using a controller modeled after the Playstation.’

Excerpt 8:

‘Outside of an active war zone, no one has the right under international law to launch a drone strike. Within a war zone, however, uniformed military personnel – and only uniformed military personnel – are legally entitled to employ lethal force, a fact the US government has itself cited in order to declare its Taliban opponents in Afghanistan ‘unlawful combatants’.’

Excerpt 9:

‘Human Rights Watch also thinks the drone program should be taken out of the hands of the CIA. Since the US government is unwilling to demonstrate that the agency is abiding by international legal requirements for accountability and redress, the group feels the use of lethal drones should be exclusively within the command responsibility of the US government.’

Book Cover - Mehreen Omer

Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control

Author: Medea Benjamin

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India

Pages: 241; Price: Rs695/-

The writer is a status quo critic by habit and a marketing scientist by profession. She tweets @mehreen_omer